"I can bake a better pie than this," Rodney declared. It didn't stop him from eating another piece of the mess hall's latest effort. "Which isn't surprising, since cooking is simple chemistry, really."
"Really?" Sheppard drawled skeptically.
Rodney peered across the table at him. He could never be sure when Major Sheppard was genuinely confused or just messing with him. Sheppard's teasing was too friendly; it lacked the element of malice Rodney had learned to recognize and ignore over the years. Maybe once he got to know him better... Oh. That was why Elizabeth wanted him to 'interact' with the team. He'd thought she was just trying to annoy him with that order.
Sheppard smiled at him and ate some more of his pie. The smile went away while he chewed. And chewed. And chewed a while longer.
"So why'd you learn to bake, Doc?" Ford asked. He stabbed with blatant disgust at the tough brown crust of his slice of — so-called — Chocolate Silk Pie with his fork tines. When the fork bounced off the crust, he gave up and set it down. "What I wouldn't give for a piece of my Grandma's pumpkin pie."
"Oh, pumpkin," Rodney said.
Sheppard looked interested. "You like pumpkin pie?" He cocked his head. "You don't seem like a pumpkin kind of guy, McKay. Then again, you don't seem like a pastry chef, either."
"Wrong, wrong, wrong," Rodney told him. He stabbed his fork at Sheppard, sending pits of brown crust and lumpy chocolate pudding filling flying. "The two are in fact related."
"Do enlighten us, then," Sheppard said.
Rodney contemplated him and Ford suspiciously, but Elizabeth had urged him to 'share' with his team. Pie seemed to be an innocuous place to start, one that even a grunt like Ford could grasp.
"I'm deadly allergic to citrus, of course," Rodney began, only to be interrupted as Teyla approached the table and seated herself gracefully at Rodney's side. She too had a slice of the cook's pathetic pie. "Oh, hello, Teyla," he said.
"Hello, Dr. McKay," Teyla greeted him, then, "Major Sheppard, Lt. Ford."
"It's John," Sheppard said.
He'd never said that to Rodney. It was enough to miff him. Teyla's serene smile and, "Major," eased the sting though.
"You should call me Rodney," he told Teyla. "Since everyone else feels free to anyway." He aimed a glare at Sheppard and Ford. He ate another piece of the awful pie. It was chocolate after all, even if the damned Americans had made it too sweet. Well, he needed to keep his blood sugar up anyway.
Sheppard rolled his eyes and said, drawing it out into extra syllables, "McKay."
Rodney watched in fascination as Teyla used a knife and fork to saw — saw was really the only word for what was required by that crust — a piece free. Unlike anyone Rodney had ever seen, Teyla started at the outside edge of the slice rather than the point. Funny the things that made her seem alien, when most of the time he could forget it entirely.
After her third bite, Teyla said, "This is similar to a dish my people make, though we fold the pastry over the top of the dessert as well."
"Yeah, some pies have a top too," Ford said. "My grandma always cuts out shapes, leaves and pumpkins and berries and decorates the tops of her pies with them."
Teyla smiled at him, obviously charmed. Why didn't anyone ever find Rodney's stories charming?
"What are the other differences?" Sheppard asked.
"The pastry... " Teyla tapped a broken bit of crust on her plate with her fork, " ...Is normally tender. At least when Charin or Naori make it. I've never been as successful."
Rodney snorted. "The pastry's supposed to be tender and flaky on these too, but the idiots in the mess hall are making the crust with oil, so there are no layers."
Sheppard looked interested. "You mean you really do know how to make pie?"
Affronted, Rodney drew himself up. "I said so, didn't I?"
"Yeah, but you always say you know everything about everything, Doc," Ford piped up.
Rodney made a note to turn off the water to Ford's quarters.
"You know how to cook, Dr. McKay?" Teyla asked. She turned that lovely smile on him and Rodney melted a little inside. He'd never met a woman as beautiful as Teyla who didn't either make him hideously nervous and awkward or threaten to have a restraining order taken out against him. He wasn't sure that she actually liked him, but she tolerated him with a grace that left him grateful. She added, "I confess, it is not among my own talents."
"Well, as I began to explain to the Major and Lt. Ford," Rodney said, "I'm allergic to citrus. I found out thanks to a slice of pie when I was only five. Lemon Chiffon." Rodney paused and remembered the glossy, blue-green plate his aunt handed him. The pie on it had been smooth and glossy as yellow sunshine and clouds. He'd thought it was like a piece of summer. As perfectly as he could remember how the pie had looked, and even the plate, Rodney couldn't remember the taste at all. He had been half way through it when his throat had closed up so that he couldn't breathe. The only other thing he remembered was his aunt screaming.
"McKay?" Sheppard prompted.
Rodney sighed. "Well, you would be amazed by how many pie recipes, especially any sort of fruit pie, include lemon juice or lemon zest. It's quite simple. If I ever wanted to eat pies again, the only way I could be sure that I wouldn't be poisoning myself would be to bake them myself."
"What does that have to do with my grandma's pumpkin pie?" Ford asked.
"Pumpkin pie is one of the few pies that seldom include lemon." Rodney smiled dreamily. "I've enjoyed some really fantastic pumpkin pies. The key is the cinnamon."
"That's what my grandma always says," Ford agreed with a wide smile. "When we get back to Earth, Doc, I'll get her to bake you one of her pies. You'll thank me."
"Hey, what about me?" Sheppard demanded in mock outrage.
"Oh, like you'd even finish a single piece," Rodney dismissed him. "Good pie would be wasted on you." He snagged Sheppard's half-eaten slice. "Even bad pie is wasted on you."
"What?" Rodney demanded through a mouth full of chocolate pudding. He swallowed before speaking again since Sheppard had winced in his direction. Some people were so fussy about table manners. "You weren't eating it."
"It's awful," Sheppard admitted in a low voice. Apparently he didn't want to hurt the cooks' feelings. Personally, Rodney wanted to hurt more than their feelings. They had done truly awful things to this pie.
Pie crust, all right, pie crust could be fussy. It took patience and understanding to achieve a delicately flaky, golden, crisp, melt-in-your-mouth pie crust and they were laboring under the handicap of limited supplies here in Atlantis. But how did you louse up chocolate pudding? He could taste uncooked cornstarch in it, damn it.
"It's still chocolate," Rodney declared, "and very soon I suspect it will be worth more than porn."
"Porn?" Teyla asked. She looked at each of them inquiringly.
Sheppard got all shifty-eyed. "Oh, look, I need to write that report. The one about the thing. You know, Lieutenant, the thing... "
"Right, sir. The thing," Ford blurted. "The thing Sgt. Bates was asking about. I should help you."
"Exactly," Sheppard said. He got to his feet. "Go ahead and finish my pie, Rodney," he added. "Then you can tell Teyla about porn."
Rodney watched both of the big, tough military men retreat like two terrified little kids. "Cowards," he said.
Next to him, Teyla laughed softly.
"You know what porn is, don't you?" Rodney asked.
"Corporal Mendez left a very," Teyla paused to pick out the perfect word, impish humor shining in her eyes, "educational magazine in the gear room a few weeks ago. Airman Jones was kind enough to explain about Penthouse and show me her copy of Playgirl." She laughed softly. "Some of the 'articles' were very impressive."
"That's why you like chocolate and butterscotch so much, isn't it?" Sheppard declared out of nowhere as far as Rodney could discern.
They were stuck in the jumper with a disabled DHD, waiting for someone to notice they hadn't checked in and dial this world's orbital stargate again. Rodney had rigged a sensor to alert them when it activated; they'd radio an SOS and wait for Lorne or whoever was on shift as back-up pilot to bring another jumper through to dial Atlantis from this side, then follow it through the wormhole. Zelenka could fix the console once they were back. It all bore a startling resemblance to having a dead battery and waiting for AAA and a jump start. They'd debated waiting in orbit, but Rodney was paranoid something else might go wrong, since there had been no obvious reason for the dialing crystals to burn out, so it seemed safer to just stay on the planet.
Sheppard had been watching the purple and red sunset through an obstacle course of stunning mesas and standing stones while Rodney fine-tuned a program to minimize the transporters' draw on the city's only ZPM to kill time.
Since they weren't in any particular danger, Rodney had opened a peanut butter and chocolate chip Powerbar and begun eating while he worked. The crackle of the wrapper had drawn Sheppard's attention and he'd switched from staring out to watching Rodney.
"The lemon pie."
"What lemon pie?" Rodney looked around in a panic. Lemon? What psychotic moron had brought anything lemon on board the jumper? He groped at the pocket on his tac vest for his epipen. He could die of a reaction before the check-in! Sheppard always had another pen, but what if something happened on Atlantis and the check-in was late?
"The one you had as a kid," Sheppard said. "Remember? You told Ford and me that time?"
"That was a year ago. Why are you thinking about that now?"
Sheppard shrugged. "Dunno. Just thinking. When I went back and talked to his cousin... She insisted on making tea and giving me a piece of pie. Her grandmother's recipe. I remembered Ford telling you he'd get his grandmother to make you one."
Rodney closed his laptop. Sheppard hadn't said anything about what happened to Ford since he came back from Earth. Rodney was most comfortable pretending nothing had happened too, even after Ford had tried to kill him. He'd complained about the caveman Sheppard had acquired instead.
"So was the pie good?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"A perfectly relevant one since you brought it up," Rodney replied. "After all, I don't even know if I should regret missing out on this pie or not."
"It was pretty good," Sheppard said eventually. "I'm sorry you missed it."
"I am too," Rodney admitted. "But it wasn't your fault."
Sheppard angled him a look that said he knew Rodney knew neither of them were talking about pie any longer. Before things could become any more awkward and embarrassing, the alarm went off and Sheppard opened the comm, telling Atlantis their position and predicament.
"Honestly," Rodney muttered to Sheppard. Trying to talk softly enough that Ronon wouldn't hear was a lost cause, but he might avoid Teyla giving him one of her Looks. "It's a good thing the cooks have improved."
Rodney suspected that if the cooks had ruined the gredelberries (the way they'd wrecked a lot of native food during the first year in Atlantis) Ronon would have shot them. Without changing the setting on his nifty blaster to stun.
He wondered how many pies it would take to bribe Ronon into letting him take the blaster apart and reverse engineer one for everyone else in the team. Sheppard would authorize the gredelberry picking expeditions, Rodney was positive.
Sheppard's shoulder bumped his as he agreed, "Kcuzinki went back to Earth. Parsons is from South Carolina. He threw Delany out of the kitchens when he saw what Delany was calling a pie crust."
"I told you it was an affront to pie."
Rodney picked at his own meal then asked, "Who's Parsons?"
"He came back on the Daedalus with us," Sheppard reminded him.
"Would you two shut up?" Ronon growled. The purple-blue stain on his lips and tongue just made him look more imposing, rather than ridiculous, which Rodney considered patently unfair.
"What, are we interfering with you swallowing?" Rodney demanded. "It can't be with you chewing, since you aren't bothering with that."
"Rodney," Sheppard drawled, though Rodney felt the little twitch that meant he'd suppressed laughter.
"It's a whole pie, Major!" Rodney exclaimed. "What about the rest of us?"
"That's Lieutenant Colonel to you, McKay," Sheppard pointed out. He rubbed the new, silver oak leaves on his collar and added, pointing to Rodney's tray, "And we have our own dinners."
"Which are excellent," Teyla mentioned.
Rodney scowled. Sure, the meatloaf, gravy and real Earth mashed potatoes — made with real Earth butter too — were good. So were the tingi beans with fried derrup and smoked mahpi back-fat, but he'd helped pick those damned gredelberries. His fingers were still blue and the thorn punctures still stung. "Gredelberry thorns have a neurotoxin, you know." He deserved pie for a spending a day picking berries. "I have a sunburn on the back of my neck!"
"It's a little pink," Sheppard said soothingly. "Guess you forgot your sunscreen there."
"You're despicable," Rodney complained. "I still say we should get some of that pie for picking the berries." He pointed at Ronon. "He ate everything he picked."
"What ever you say, Daffy."
"Don't think that you're Bugs in this scenario. I just don't see why why you criticize my manners, but let him — "
"Drop it, Rodney. Ronon needs some time to start fitting in."
Ronon shoved another handful of pie into his pie-hole and glared at Rodney. Teyla sighed and murmured, "John, Rodney, I believe you are interfering with Ronon's enjoyment."
Sheppard's eyes went wide. Rodney snapped his mouth shut.
"Sorry, buddy," Sheppard told Ronon and gave Rodney's ankle a completely unnecessary kick from the side.
Ronon actually paused, possibly to breathe, and said, "My mother made gredelberry otoppi every season."
"Since you're singlehandedly consuming that pie, I'm going to assume her oh-whatsit was good."
"Better than this," Ronon agreed and began eating again.
"Rodney," Teyla hissed.
"You could slow down a little, you know," Sheppard told Ronon. "No one's going to take it away from you."
"We like our fingers attached," Rodney added.
Sheppard kicked him again.
"What? He's grinning."
Or baring his teeth, his blue-purple stained teeth, anyway. Rodney shuddered a little.
"Always eat the best stuff first," Ronon said.
Silence fell as everyone but Ronon applied themselves to the rest of the meal, until Rodney was done and watching the second to last slice of the pie disappear into the bottomless Satedan pit. Apparently Ronon wasn't a fan of delayed gratification.
Even Teyla appeared faintly taken aback. She must have thought Ronon would leave enough for the rest of them. More fool she. Rodney had recognized Ronon's intentions the moment Ronon got that light in his eyes. After all, Rodney had eyed more than one pie himself over the years. A few pastries as well.
"Ronon, you are being greedy," Teyla said.
"Been seven years," Ronon mumbled.
He supposed that after seven years, Ronon had a right to want an entire pie to himself.
"I'll go get something else for the rest of us," Sheppard said.
"I want — "
"I know what you like, Rodney. Teyla?"
"I very much enjoyed cherry the last time the cooks made it, John," Teyla said.
Four marines appeared from thin air — or the other side of the mess — as soon as Sheppard strolled away. They watched Ronon start on the final section of pie and egged him on as he applied himself to the rest of his meal. There were several discreet exchanges of money, which Teyla and Rodney ignored, though why they thought they had to hide it was anyone's guess. Sheppard wouldn't give a damn. Unless they lost to him; he always made his debtors pay up. He'd made Rodney hand over his last Snickers Bar when they were still out of touch with the Milky Way.
Ronon ignored them. He even deigned to use the tableware he hadn't bothered with for the pie.
The marines faded away again as Sheppard returned juggling three plates, one with cherry pie and two chocolate.
Rodney snagged his slice — there was whipped cream on top, real cream, the Daedalus having just unloaded the day before — and began eating as fast as he could.
Sheppard watched him and said, "Breathe, Rodney."
Rodney curled a protective arm around the plate. The first bite melted on his tongue and he moaned, licked his lips, and declared, "Parsons is a treasure."
Sheppard glanced away. In profile, his Adam's apple bobbed noticeably as he swallowed. "Yeah."
Rodney scowled, but then another fork full of Parsons' perfect Chocolate Custard distracted him. Whatever had crawled up Sheppard's butt would just have to crawl out on its own.
"John, are we still meeting for movie night tomorrow?" Teyla asked.
"My quarters, my pick," Sheppard agreed with a sly grin.
"I shudder to think what you'll subject us all to then," Rodney commented. He finished his slice and helped himself to Sheppard's.
"Why, yes, Rodney, I was done with that, of course, I don't mind if you finish it for me," Sheppard remarked.
"You weren't eating it."
"Unlike you and Ronon, I don't talk with my mouth full."
Rodney made a hand talking gesture rather than open his mouth to refute Sheppard; mostly because doing so would have proved the man's point.
"So what have you picked?" Teyla asked.
"I could watch Alien again," Ronon added.
"Yeah, no," Rodney said. "You can do that without me."
"Nope," Sheppard said innocently enough to alert Rodney. He was up to something. He knew that shit-eating grin spreading across Sheppard's features.
"You'll just have to wait and see," Sheppard said. He piled Rodney's empty plates onto his tray and bussed them both. He began whistling as he passed back by on his way out. Rodney's soul shriveled and died as he identified the song.
Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.
"I hate that man," he stated.
"Don't," Ronon said.
"Yes, I do. I'd hate anyone who made me watch that movie. You will too. No one should ever do that to a pie."
"What pie?" Ronon asked, suddenly interested.
Teyla at least realized Sheppard was torturing him. "What movie, Rodney?"
"American Pie," Rodney told them both gloomily.
"Don't know why they'd make a movie all about pie," Ronon remarked. "It's good, but there are no explosions."
He hadn't been in a kitchen when Teyla tried to cook, obviously.
Rodney opened and closed his mouth three times before just shaking his head. "It's not about pie."
"Gredelberries," Rodney said as he crawled into their lean-to with a t-shirt filled with his find. He was shivering thanks to the cold wind off the mountains and his still wet clothes. His boot hit one of the support branches and the whole thing shook, but it held. Considering Rodney had been the one to build it from what he could find, he thought it wasn't bad. Okay, it sucked, but he hadn't started the day intending to play Man Friday to Sheppard's concussed Robinson Crusoe.
Sheppard lifted his head, winced, and let it settle back.
"Are you sure you weren't a Boy Scout?" he asked Rodney.
"As sure as I am that you weren't either," Rodney told him. He didn't like the way Sheppard held himself so still. He couldn't be sure how hurt Sheppard was, but that last whack to the head couldn't have been good.
It would be just Rodney's luck if Sheppard outran a freak flash flood that filled the valley, pulled Rodney along with him, and then keeled over after they'd made it to safety. Well, as safe as they were on their little island, which had been a hill earlier in the day, since they weren't the only ones to have hightailed it for high ground. The sun had been shining when they arrived on this misbegotten planet and Rodney had been digging his sunscreen out when the ground under their boots began to shake. A dull roar of approaching water had heralded the biblical inundation that followed; Sheppard had grabbed his arm and started running up the hill.
Rodney had slipped more than once and swore Sheppard had nearly dislocated his arm when the water reached their hips and threatened to pull Rodney's feet out from under him. That had been when the heroic idiot had taken a hit from some floating debris and gone under and lost his tac vest. Rodney had managed to wrap his arm around a stout tree, grabbed Sheppard's belt somehow and held on for dear life.
He'd pulled Sheppard to him with the help of the current, and Sheppard had been conscious enough to work his way up and get his head out of the water. They'd clung to each other and the tree for hours, until the the flood crested and they could clamber the rest of the way to the top of the hill.
Rodney had his vest, but Sheppard had lost his, and both of their radios refused to function. They'd pushed and pulled each other to the top of the hill where it was still dry and discovered they were marooned in the midst of a moving lake of brown water. Somewhere upstream and underwater lay the stargate.
"You're doing pretty good at this whole survivor thing," Sheppard said.
"I'm not completely helpless, just because I'm not Ronon or Teyla," Rodney snapped and was immediately sorry. Sheppard's expression tightened from pain to worry.
"No sign of them?" he asked.
"No, but they were on the far side of the stargate from us," Rodney said. "They might have had time to dial out." He laid out his booty where Sheppard could reach it. "Besides, it's Ronon and Teyla. If we survived, you know they did. We're the ones who always get caught or kidnapped or shot or whatever."
"Right," Sheppard agreed with a weak grin.
"Now, eat some of these. I worked my fingers to the bone and had to contend with a really mean bird to get them."
"Vicious. You should have seen its beak. I'm sure it tried to bite my fingers off."
"You should eat," Sheppard said.
"Well, of course," Rodney said and picked up a berry. "See?" He popped it into his mouth and pretended it wasn't as tart as his Aunt Beatrice's sense of humor. Gredelberries had been spread far and wide in the Pegasus Galaxy, but only ripened with each planet's summer. It tasted like this world was just experiencing spring.
Which sadly might explain the flood.
"Now you," he insisted to Sheppard.
Sheppard ate a few berries, then quit even trying. The light outside was going as the sun set, but Rodney didn't miss that despite closing his eyes, Sheppard was still frowning.
"Head hurt?" he asked.
"Like a mother— "
"Yes, yes," Rodney interrupted, "I'm sorry but the water managed to tear open all the pockets on my vest, so I don't even have any aspirin. Carson would probably have a fit if I did give you some anyway."
"Not really caring about what Carson says right now," Sheppard admitted. He shivered, reminding Rodney that they were both still muddy and damp and he hadn't been able to find any way to start a fire.
He finished a few more berries, then set the rest aside for the morning. He knee walked and wriggled until he was next to Sheppard, then pulled him close.
Predictably, Sheppard's every muscle went rigid, the same way he did any time they shared a tent and Rodney accidentally touched him.
Dealing with Sheppard took patience.
Despite what his minions might claim, however, Rodney had great reserves of patience for anything he deemed important. Sheppard was oddly important, oddly in that Rodney hadn't ever considered any one person important before. It had always been science, the next discovery, his career. Sheppard had changed that without even trying, and it wasn't even because he regularly saved Rodney's life. It was the other stuff, the Ancient game they played once or twice a week, the video golf and movie nights, and the teasing. Sheppard hung out with Rodney by choice. Sheppard, by all evidence, liked him. That was almost as rare as finding a charged ZPM.
"It's just me," Rodney told him quietly and waited until the idiot relaxed, then pulled him closer. "We need to stay warm."
"Huh," Sheppard muttered, but didn't protest.
Once Sheppard recognized Rodney's touch, he'd be all right for the night, though he'd snap back to touch-me-not the next day and neither of them would mention it. Rodney considered himself part of a rather elite group; Teyla and Ronon were the only other ones Sheppard would relax with while in physical contact.
Sheppard was so damn skittish Rodney had to wonder about his past, but he knew better than to ask. Social maladroit he might be, but even he knew you didn't just blurt out, Who touched you the wrong way? If Sheppard didn't try to swim to the drowned stargate just to get away, he might answer with the truth. Then Rodney would have to arrange leave for Earth and the utter destruction of whoever it had been, whatever they'd done, whenever it had happened, because there had to be something and because he knew Sheppard never would do anything about it himself.
"Go to sleep," he urged Sheppard.
Sheppard clumsily patted at Rodney's chest, settled closer and used him for pillow. "Warm," he mumbled as he slowly stopped shivering, before sinking into boneless sleep.
Rodney considered waking him periodically, but took pity. Sleep would help Sheppard's concussion if there weren't any complications, and if there were, there was nothing Rodney could do anyway. It wasn't like just anyone could get Sheppard to sleep like that. Teyla, Ronon probably, but he knew for a fact Sheppard never really rested in the infirmary, for instance, because there were too many people around.
The nurses were rather handsy, too. Rodney had mentioned this to Carson more than once, but Carson just insisted they were doing their jobs.
Three days later the water went down enough they could reach the stargate, lurching through sucking mud and cursing — in Rodney's case — the Ancients, the planet, and the mud equally. Sheppard stayed grimly silent until they came into sight of the stargate. Three days of gredelberries and those turnip-like tubers Ronon had pointed out as edible when they arrived through the stargate had left both of them with an indelible dislike of this particular planet. Ronon hadn't mentioned the tubers tasted like dirt either, the rat bastard, and that only a starving man facing hypoglycemic shock would eat one.
Teyla and Ronon were at the stargate.
Rodney felt Sheppard relax through his tight grip on him — the two of them were barely keeping their feet, the mud was still that slick — and immediately added a new subject to his list of complaints: Ronon and Teyla were dry and clean and obviously hadn't spent the last three days living in a stick shack while eating unripe gredelberries and dealing with the inevitable intestinal results.
Rodney sincerely hoped he never tasted another gredelberry in his life.
"Thought we'd have to come find you," Ronon said as they reached the DHD and propped themselves against it.
"Even someone as directionally impaired as Sheppard can figure out how to walk upstream," Rodney sniped.
Teyla touched them both, serious and happy at the same time, drawing first Sheppard and then Rodney down to do the Athosian forehead thing. She smelled of leather and flowers, Rodney noticed, while he smelled like a swamp and worse.
"I am glad to see you both," she said. "Are either of you hurt?"
"My back will never recover, there's some kind of fungus growing between my toes, and I tore my thumbnail back to the quick," Rodney said immediately.
"We're okay," Sheppard reassured Teyla.
"So he says, but then he got hit on the head by a stick and almost drowned," Rodney pointed out.
"Your shirt's purple," Ronon said and sniffed like a hungry hound.
"Yes, it's gredelberries," Rodney replied. "Please, feel free to stay and find some for yourself. You can have my share from now to the end of time." He felt an unpleasant gurgle in his gut at just the mention of them.
"Mine too," Sheppard added.
"Where were they?" Ronon demanded.
"Top of the hills," Rodney said.
"You mind?" Ronon asked Sheppard.
"Have at it," Sheppard told him. Ronon loped away and Sheppard twisted to face Rodney over the DHD. "You want to dial?"
Rodney already had his hand on the first symbol.
"Shower," he said. "Food. Bed. Toilet paper."
Sheppard, dirty, bearded, and still wincing from a persisting headache, grinned at Rodney and whispered, "Think we should tell him those berries aren't ripe?"
Rodney slapped the next symbol.
"You're kidding, right?" It wasn't like Ronon wouldn't figure it out fast enough when he tasted one. It served him right to let him run up and down those hills, though, for not suffering through the last three days with them.
Sheppard grinned wider, before raising his voice. "Teyla, get ready to transmit your IDC. We'd both like to go home."
"Is that — ? Are you trying to kill me?"
The diner said Oma's on the window, but there was nothing outside and just a lot of Ascended ignoring each other on the inside. Rodney was more than a little startled by his surroundings; only a minute ago, he'd been saying good-bye to Elizabeth, Carson, and his team. So this was Ascension? He'd thought there would be more... universal omniscience.
He hadn't thought Sheppard would be sitting at a booth, waving him over, and indicating he should take a seat and eat the second serving of pie that had been set out, it seemed, just for him.
"It is." Sheppard dug his fork into his Lemon Slice Pie — so that a slice of lemon slid out — and added, "And I don't think I can. I mean, it's probably too late."
Rodney seated himself and risked a bite of the dessert on the plate before him. No taste. He shouldn't have been surprised. No one ever came to this diner for the food, not according to Daniel Jackson, anyway. Frustrating, which was no surprise either. Nothing to do with the Ancients and their mind games was ever anything but.
Rodney narrowed his eyes and drummed his fingers on the table top.
"That sounds like — " He was dead. Really dead. Ascended, anyway. Hey! He'd made it. He'd bet half the Ancients that used that stupid machine hadn't succeeded in ascending, otherwise they all would have. There was the dead part, though, that was a real draw back. He'd never make things right with Jeannie now. Or, or, he'd never get his Nobel! Someone would take his beautiful new mathematics and take all the credit. Probably Zelenka. This was awful.
"I've wanted to?" John theatrically scooped up another forkful of pie. He waved it, pastry, thick yellow filling, and clouds of meringue, in Rodney's direction. Rodney recoiled back against the Naugahyde-upholstered booth. Just because he was no longer corporeal didn't mean he'd shed all his neuroses and reflexes. "Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with you has thought about killing you, McKay. You're just that lovable."
Rodney folded his arms over his chest and sulked. "I can't imagine why I came here." He couldn't figure out why he wasn't more upset, either. Maybe it was the whole, all-knowing wisdom of being Ascended thing? Maybe it was hard to really accept you were dead on your original plane of existence while sitting at a diner eating pie with Sheppard.
Sheppard nodded at the newspaper at his elbow, folded to display the headline Surprise Ascension!
"I don't see what was so surprising," Rodney commented, feeling miffed. All that meditating and giving up his burdens had been really hard, but he'd done it.
Sheppard shrugged and said, "You were supposed to figure out how to save yourself at the last second."
"Oh, of course." Wasn't that just typical. "Wait a minute! How are you here?" Rodney peered at Sheppard, wondering if this really was Sheppard after all.
Sheppard rolled his eyes.
"The same way you are," he said. "I ascended."
Sheppard pushed his plate of half-eaten pie away. "Well, it certainly wasn't for the pie. Actually, I've just been waiting for you."
"Well, here I am, and I still don't understand how you could be here first when you were fine when I," he waved his hands, "went glowy."
"That's because I was," Sheppard snapped at him. "Time's different here. When I ascended, you were still alive and annoying. Now you're even more annoying because you've messed everything up." The mulish pout to his lower lip would have done justice to a six-year-old. The crossed arms and glare were more the province of a pissy teenager. Both should have looked ridiculous on a forty-some-odd man, who was probably older than that, and just looked like this because that's how Rodney expected him to look, since they were both really a pair of glowy energy squids now. Just like always, even though it irritated him, it made Rodney wanted fix things for Sheppard, too.
"So what happened?" he asked.
"I told you, you messed everything up. I'm stuck in here, by the way, since now I die before I ascend. God, I hate time travel and paradoxes."
Rodney said weakly, "What?"
Sheppard flipped the paper over, showing the sub headline.
Rodney grabbed it and scanned the article detailing how the Asurans attacked Atlantis again and destroyed it as a consequence of his absence. Confirmation of how important he was would have been sweeter if it hadn't gone hand and hand with the death of nearly everything and everyone he cared about.
"Well, how do I fix things?" Rodney demanded. He could feel all the power and knowledge of the universe at his fingertips, but the Others wouldn't let him interfere. He could feel that too.
"You've got to go back."
"Like Chaya?" Rodney frowned at the other diners scattered around the booths. None of them were paying them any attention. Or so it seemed. "I thought they frowned on that."
"No, I mean you have to descend."
"Oh, no, I'm not doing the naked amnesiac bit," Rodney said. He crossed his own arms over his chest and tried to project his utter rejection of that idea. "Lot of good I'd do Atlantis digging roots for some backward tribe somewhere."
"You won't," Sheppard told him. "I'll help you. You'll go back to just before you ascended and you can tell Carson how to save you. I can't believe you didn't think of it yourself."
"I was a little distracted by the agony in my head," Rodney snapped, "and everyone telling me I had to ascend, if you'll remember."
"Besides, it's your fault."
"How in hell is it my fault?"
"You were too good at showing me how to ascend," Rodney told him in his best smug fashion.
"Fine, now I'm going to show you how to descend."
"Are you sure the Others will let us — "
"Yeah," Sheppard said. He pointed to the banner stretched out above the writing painted on the diner's front window. The banner faced into the diner, since there was no out there, out there. It read: Under New Management. "A lot of the Others have moved on since the Angqa mess."
"So who's the new manager?" Rodney demanded. He thought, Angqa mess? The Wraith, the Asurans, and the Ori weren't bad enough, he still had to look forward to some other homicidal species in the future when he went back? That sounded just perfect.
Sheppard wiggled his eyebrows. "Says so right there, Rodney."
Rodney glanced back at the front window. "Oh, I should have known."
The window now read: Teer's Diner.
Sheppard grinned at him. "She comps all my meals too."
"Send me back," Rodney begged. He wasn't going to watch Teer crawl all over Sheppard or whatever Ascended did. "Send me back right now."
Sheppard had two plates with slices of Parsons' chocolate pie on them, forks sticking out of his shirt pocket, and Rodney's clothes tucked under one arm. No boots. Not his or Rodney's. He slithered into the infirmary, sticking to the shadows and whispered, "Ready to bust out?"
"I was ready five hours ago," Rodney snapped. "Carson is an old, wet hen. I may have been dying, but I was approximately one hundred times smarter than him and the plan I came up with left me in perfect health." He made grabby motions at the pie. He really missed the telekinesis already. Snagging donuts from Carson had been fun; stealing pie from Ronon would have been sublime. Well, he would have left Ronon gredelberries; even a year later, Rodney was still off of them.
Sheppard held the plates out of reach. "Not until we get out of here."
Rodney dressed fast. Sheppard turned his back while he pulled on his boxers and BDUs. Sheppard's prudishness never failed to amuse Rodney. Who would have expected it in the hardened military man, after all? It wasn't like Sheppard had anything to be ashamed with that body, after all, even if he was a little hairy. Hairy was masculine, at least by the limited lights of the average brain-deficient grunt. He supposed the prudishness went with the mile-wide personal space and freakish don't-touch issues.
He grabbed for the pie again, but Sheppard danced out ahead of him, silent on his socked feet, so Rodney assumed that explained the lack of boots. His genius proved itself again when he spotted his boots sitting next to Sheppard's in the corridor.
"How do you do that and not trip and break your neck?" he asked when Sheppard just shoved his feet in the boots without bothering the lace them up.
Sheppard's shoulders went up and down in a graceful ripple. "Dunno."
Two transporter rides and they were walking out onto the pier. Sheppard always took them out to the very tip, where you could look out and see nothing but the dark glitter of the ocean, the rise and fall of the waves, phosphorescent green foam laced over the water where fish moved beneath surface. The wind came off it, damp, breathing the salt and iodine scent of a living world into their lungs. If you turned around, you could see the entire city rising, spearing toward the stars as if Atlantis was wishing to leap into the sky again; its towers and spires, angles and curves, black silhouettes and diamond sparkles outlined against a galaxy's worth of stars.
It was beautiful, Rodney sometimes forgot how beautiful, and he wondered if Sheppard didn't too, if that wasn't why they came out here again and again since they had bought the city back from the Asurans with sheer gall. That's what the Ancients didn't have, or if they had it once, they'd forgotten it.
Sheppard was looking out at the water, probably plotting how to get a parasail shipped out with the next Daedalus run. Rodney used his abstraction to finally snag the pie.
He ate his and Sheppard silently handed him the second plate.
"You know, you couldn't have pie if you'd gone all glowy," Sheppard said after a while.
Rodney sniffed loudly. "Chaya certainly had no problem eating at your romantic little picnic." He was still peeved that Sheppard had snagged all those delicacies that were running out for the expedition to feed that woman. Ascended. Whatever. Thinking of joining that club had certainly been motivation to find a way to save himself. He had the funniest feeling he should have remembered something else too, like he owed Sheppard for something, even if he had saved himself with his own sheer brilliance this time.
"Are you still sulking over her?" Sheppard asked, unable to keep the sly half-smirk off his face. Rodney didn't know why that would make Sheppard happy, but he got the same expression any time Chaya came up. That glowy 'sharing' must have been something, but Rodney wasn't exactly impressed; the least Sheppard could have done was get Chaya to 'share' something useful: like, say, the plans to a ZPM.
"I don't sulk — "
Sheppard's laughter echoed over the water. "Rodney," he said, "you are a champion sulker."
Rodney drew himself up and folded his arms over his chest. "I don't have to put up with insults."
"You don't have to be jealous of Chaya, either," Sheppard said lightly.
"What is it with you and the ascended women?" Rodney asked. "Really. It's weird."
"Yeah, I guess it is," Sheppard said. He angled Rodney a look, then went back to staring at the water. His Adam's apple bobbed. Rodney watched as Sheppard lifted a hand to rub the back of his neck. Something had him nervous.
"What is it?" he demanded. "What's wrong? Am I dying — Carson had you bring me out here to tell me, the coward — "
"Okay, then what has you in a dither — "
"Fine!" Sheppard interrupted, his voice annoyed and edging on angry. "I was trying to tell you something, because you almost died, and it feels wrong you don't — "
"So tell me!"
"I'm gay," Sheppard blurted. His eyes widened the instant the words were out, and his shoulders hunched, but he repeated it defiantly. "I'm gay, since you've never guessed."
Sheppard grabbed the plates and forks from Rodney's slack hands and stalked back to the transporter. Rodney blinked after him and only managed a quiet, "Oh," after he was long gone.
Wasn't that just like Sheppard? Drop a personal bomb on someone and then run away before they could even get their thoughts straight? Sheppard had always taken the tack of 'abandon first' to protect himself, as long as Rodney had known him. Though maybe now Rodney had a better idea of why. Rodney started feeling put-upon and maltreated anyway. Weren't they friends? Sheppard didn't have to run off. What did he think Rodney would do, call him a pansy and say they weren't friends any more? Bash him? Rodney McKay wasn't some nose-picking, gun-toting homophobe! He was Canadian, damn it, and not stupid, and objected to violence on principle anyway. Running away was just insulting. So he was angry; it wasn't because Sheppard was gay. It was for not telling him before.
Sheppard better not have trusted anyone else with this first or Rodney was going to make sure the Daedalus never brought him another shipment of golf balls.
He marched to the transporter and took it to the residential quarters, where he barged straight into Sheppard's room.
"You are an asshole," he declared.
Sheppard, lying supine on the bed, jerked up on his elbows and gaped at Rodney. "I — "
"Did you think I would go and tell everyone? Because you just can't have thought I would care — "
"I knew you didn't care," Sheppard said.
Rodney stopped because that sounded like Sheppard meant something else, but he couldn't figure out what. It didn't matter. He had a point to make. Sheppard would just have get over himself and listen.
"I have higher clearances than anyone — anyone — on Atlantis. I can keep a secret."
"It just never came up," Sheppard said.
"I could read minds, remember," Rodney said. "I didn't read yours, of course." He'd figured Sheppard would never forgive him and even if he had been dying, he hadn't wanted Sheppard mad at him. Who knew what Sheppard would say in Rodney's eulogy if he was still pissed off at him? Also, he was afraid of what he'd see, since it didn't take a telepath to know Sheppard was pretty messed up in addition to being unfairly pretty.
"Of course," Sheppard agreed. He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He'd kicked his boots off again and his socks. His long feet looked vulnerable. He had bony ankles; Rodney glimpsed them for an instant and thought he could wrap his hand right around one. Weird.
"I could have," Rodney insisted. He narrowed his eyes. Sheppard's mind was probably a knot of authority and abandonment issues Rodney didn't want to untangle. Right, that was why he hadn't tried to see into Sheppard's head. "But I didn't."
Sheppard smiled, but his eyes didn't crinkle at the corners, so Rodney knew it was a fake.
"So, we're okay?" Rodney said.
The maddening shrug that followed told him nothing.
"That's up to you."
"Well. Fine then. We're fine."
"Whatever you say, Rodney."
"Oh, God, I just realized. It isn't just the ascended women, it's all of them. They're all hot for you."
"Riiiight." Sheppard rolled his eyes.
Rodney figured they were all right. He was just going to have to be doubly on the look-out that no greedy Ascended got their mitts on Sheppard. They were probably plotting how to make him ascend and join the immaterial club all the time. Before he'd just had to worry about the Ascended women, alien princesses, priestesses, and chieftain's daughters. Now it was the men too. It was just like Sheppard to make his already difficult life — he was going to figure out the new math he'd invented while he was supersmart if it killed him — even harder. He was up to the job, though, now that he knew about Sheppard.
It wasn't so easy to defeat Rodney McKay.
Rodney was hiding from Elizabeth in Sheppard's office. He was actually doing the work she wanted, but she'd never believe it. Yearly personnel evaluations just went easier when he could discuss them with Sheppard. Yes, that did mean mocking the morons among the newest intake, but neither of them wrote the really good insults down. He felt pretty sure Elizabeth considered the evaluations some sort of punishment, because she objected to any attempts to alleviate the deadly dullness of doing them.
So he didn't tell her where he was.
Sheppard and Radek were both smart enough to figure out how Rodney had spoofed the Atlantis life sign sensors to hide where he was, but Elizabeth had to rely on the control room crew. Campbell wouldn't offer Rodney up; he still owed him for the TimTams.
He wasn't surprised that Ronon found them.
Rodney had occupied Sheppard's couch and hurriedly swept his laptop, tablet, and package of Doritos out of the way before Ronon could crush or eat them.
"The Athosians," Ronon announced, "are building a Meeting House for the village."
"That's cool," Sheppard said. He'd raised his gaze from his own paperwork when Ronon arrived, but returned to it. Sheppard loathed paperwork and let Lorne and the sergeants do most of it when he could. When he couldn't, he kamikaze-attacked it, engaging in a to-the-death campaign, ignoring food or sleep, in which only bathroom breaks were allowed or the occasional life-or-death the-city-is-under-attack suicide mission.
"They're holding a Gathering."
"Whatever," Rodney dismissed the whole thing. He typed that Willison performed to the standard Rodney expected of him. Never mind that most of the time that standard was putting the right shoe on the right foot and getting down the labs before noon while wearing pants. Board shorts didn't belong in an experimental laboratory. Rodney had shouted that often enough he thought it was starting to sink in.
"Teyla's going to fix food for the trade bidding," Ronon said.
Rodney closed the windows on his laptop. Sheppard looked up and swallowed hard.
"She's cooking?" Sheppard asked.
Maybe they could get a message out to Todd. Trying to blow up a hive ship abruptly sounded more attractive than it had any right to. Rodney loved Teyla; he loved her generosity, her kindness, her competence at virtually everything, the way she listened to him. Everyone had some flaw, though, and Teyla's was the ability to transform anything edible into something horrible. She could not cook.
Most of the time, Teyla knew this and didn't try. Every so often, though, something, usually some Athosian tradition, would prompt her to try once more. When she did, it was the responsibility of the rest of the team to make sure no one else suffered.
Sheppard tapped his radio.
"Major Lorne, we're going to need the pink emergency kits."
Rodney shook his head. Pepto-Bismol wasn't going to cut it. Carson had understood, but he'd had experience. They'd need to alert Keller and get her to stand ready to take heroic measures if they were going to eat an entire meal cooked by Teyla. He felt vaguely ill at just the prospect.
"Why?" he asked. "Why now? Isn't there any way we can snap her back to reality?"
Ronon shook his head. "You know Athosians who are interested in someone cook a meal or make something for a Gathering and if someone's interested, they try to outbid the rest of her family for it."
"So, let whoever Teyla has her eye on win," Rodney said.
Sheppard was shaking his head. "We can't do that."
"What if he doesn't bid? We're Teyla's family... sort of... team's the same thing," Sheppard blurted semi-coherently. "Besides, what if he did win her food?"
Rodney blanched, seeing Sheppard's point. Eating Teyla's cooking could put a damper on any potential romantic engagement.
"If we don't bid, he won't know that we're watching out for her," Ronon added. "On Sateda, we would beat him up."
Rodney blinked at him. "Because Teyla's interested in him? Shouldn't we, you know, wait until he acts interested?"
"No. Beat him up first. If he comes back he's serious."
The really horrible part was that Rodney could almost grasp the logic of that, which meant he'd suffered one too many concussions and obviously lost too many critical brain cells.
"Makes sense to me," Sheppard said.
Definitely too many brain cells.
"Well, if it's that or eat Teyla's cooking," Rodney added.
"No, we have to bid too," Ronon stated.
Rodney whined under his breath. This was so unfair. "What do we have to bid?"
"Work on the Meeting House."
But, but, they'd end up doing that anyway, right? Because the Athosians were their friends and it would make Teyla happy? Rodney was confused. Why did they have to suffer and work?
"This is going to suck," Sheppard said and Rodney had to agree. Still, it was for Teyla. They needed to see this guy and possibly let Ronon threaten to maim him at least.
Lorne knocked and came in carrying the pink emergency kits: an entire assortment of over-the-counter remedies that had proved useful dealing with the after-effects of alien food stuffs. The pink was for the inevitable bottles of Pepto that everyone on a gate team resorted to sooner or later. A couple of native Pegasus treatments had been added to the kits too, along with activated charcoal and emetics. Some smart ass had even added breath mints, air freshener and Bean-o. Tava beans could be deadly an hour later in a closed jumper.
"So what is it?" Lorne asked with a smirk. "Alien banquet? Sacred water ritual? Unripe gredelberries?"
"We'll be bidding for Teyla's cooking at the Athosian gathering," Sheppard answered. "You should come along, Major. Maybe make a bid or two."
Lorne's face went green. He handed each of them one of the packs. "I'll take care of the mission reports, sir. I can even sign for you if it's necessary. Disciplining the marines. The personnel evaluations. Inventory! Besides, shouldn't I stay here on Atlantis if you're going off-world? I really think I should — "
"Get out of here, Lorne," Sheppard told him.
Lorne got while the getting was good.
Once he'd left again, Rodney murmured in despair, "He thinks we're going to die."
"He thinks we're going to wish we would, anyway," Sheppard agreed.
"Is this supposed to be pie?" Rodney whispered to Sheppard. Speculating on the rest of the meal would have been masochism. They'd finally discovered something even Ronon had trouble gagging down.
Never in his life before had Rodney wanted to go back to hard labor in preference to sitting down and eating. He was willing to finish the Meeting House all by himself, though, if it meant skipping lunch just this one time.
"Maybe?" Sheppard said. He prodded the brown, leathery stuff oozing a thin red syrup.
Teyla glared at them all. Her chin came up and she said, "You were determined to keep Kanaan from winning my offering," she said. "You must be very hungry."
They'd all bid for her food spiritedly. Much as they would have if someone had been holding a gun to their heads. Each of them had fortified himself for the ordeal in their own way. Sheppard had forgone breakfast entirely, operating under his theory that hunger made anything taste better. Rodney had avoided anything with grease, sticking to toast and fruit for the first time in years. Ronon had gorged on everything on offer, but that was nothing new.
If you don't eat it all I will make you all regret it, she glared at them. So much for Ronon's 'I had a big breakfast' excuse.
"Just don't want to get too full," Sheppard said. "Like Ronon says, a full stomach slows you down."
"When the hell did he ever say that?" Rodney hissed once Teyla had left.
"Do you think we could bury the rest of it?" Sheppard hissed back.
"You know she's watching us," Rodney whispered back.
"Land squids might dig it up," Ronon said.
"Land squids!?" Rodney squeaked. "What kind of hellhole planet did the Ancients pick for these people?" He jumped up from the log he was sitting on and turned in a circle, staring at the moist, leaf and mold covered ground for signs of cephalopods about to attack.
"Calm down, Rodney," Sheppard said. Eying Ronon, he said, "You're joking, right?"
"Good eating," Ronon said.
Rodney looked down at his plate and reflected that land squid, even raw, was probably better eating than Teyla's travesty of a pie. He sat back down next to Sheppard again. His stomach grumbled and his taste buds revolted, but he forced down another bite. Manfully. In that manful way, like Sydney Carton going to the guillotine.
Maybe that wasn't a particularly uplifting metaphor under the circumstances.
With a sly look around for Teyla, Sheppard slipped him a pink bottle. Rodney alternated sips with the rest of the meal. It killed the taste at least. Sheppard had a bottle of something pale green that he had to have sweet talked one of the nurses into getting for him.
Ronon just ate with the same grim fortitude he would have used to hack up a wraith.
Their competition for Teyla's baked goods strolled over. Rodney didn't like his looks. Sure he was tall, dark, and Athosian — which he figured Teyla liked — but he was smirking at them.
"I am Kanaan Lefillan," he introduced himself.
"Nice to meet you," Sheppard lied. Rodney knew he lied, because Sheppard kept his face friendly and blank and also because they'd had to eat Teyla's food because of this guy. There was nothing nice about that.
Rodney gave him a little finger wave. Ronon grunted. Unless that was a moan of intestinal distress.
Kanaan kept looking at the three of them with that faintly superior and pleased expression Rodney associated with natives about the pull the rug out from under the team. He resisted the urge to look behind him and concentrated on why he already didn't like Kanaan. Well, first of all, he wasn't good enough for Teyla. (Rodney hadn't actually encountered anyone awesome enough for Teyla, but it was a large universe. Someone certainly might exist for her that he would consider acceptable. Maybe.) Secondly, he had one of those ridiculous jaw fringe beards. Rodney despised those. They took as much effort to keep up as simply shaving every day.
Third, he was still smirking at them.
"You are good men, all of you," Kanaan said.
Sheppard's eyes went narrow and his expression flinty. Nothing like a compliment to get his suspicions up. Rodney gave in and checked that someone wasn't creeping up behind them. Still no sign of Genii or land squid ambush.
Kanaan gestured to the remains — the word had never fitted more aptly — of Teyla's food. "Everyone who knows Teyla knows... " Kanaan paused and finished euphemistically, "her talents don't include cooking."
Ronon grunted again.
"Don't know what you're talking about," Sheppard said.
"I just wanted to thank you," Kanaan went on.
"Nothing to thank us for."
"You don't like Teyla's cooking?" Rodney blurted. Maybe Ronon was right. They should beat this guy up.
Kanaan took a step back.
"I would have eaten it," Kanaan said. "Because she made it."
Rodney scowled at him.
"Maybe you don't know as much as you think you do," Sheppard said. "Did you ever think of that?"
Ronon ruined it by pressing his fist to his gut and groaning. Kanaan gave them all a knowing smile.
"He just ate too fast," Sheppard covered up. "He does that."
"Yes, you've got to stop bolting your food like that," Rodney told Ronon.
Ronon glared back at him, which Rodney accepted as his due, since Ronon had taken the brunt of the insult to taste buds everywhere and eaten more than Rodney and Sheppard put together.
"Maybe it's a bug he's picked up," Rodney suggested to Sheppard. "We should get him back to Atlantis before any of the kids here get it, don't you think?"
Maybe Keller would be kind and pump Ronon's stomach.
Sheppard nodded. "When you're right, you're right, Rodney. Kanaan, you can tell Teyla and everyone we're sorry to eat and run, but Ronon needs to get home."
"Of course," Kanaan agreed.
"Feel free to help yourself to the rest of Teyla's food," Rodney added as he and Sheppard levered Ronon to his feet and headed for the stargate.
Of course, Keller fussed over Ronon, giving the big guy fluttery, doe-eyed looks that actually turned Rodney's stomach worse than Teyla's pie. Which wasn't to blame, after all. It turned out the sausages that the mess hall had served for breakfast had been bad. Everyone who had eaten any of them was suffering and Ronon, of course, had eaten more than anyone else. For the first time ever, Ronon played it up, too, and didn't try to lurch out of the infirmary while half-dead.
Rodney hadn't been aware that anyone — even Ronon — could attract a woman while puking.
About the time Keller waved the nurse away and held Ronon's dreadlocks out of the way, he had enough. He was a sympathetic puker anyway. He thought it would nice if someone did that for him, though, sometime. Keller really was attractive.
Sheppard was lurking outside the infirmary. He looked a little green himself.
"I've got Moon Pies in my quarters," he said.
"Maybe later," Rodney replied, with a last regretful look over his shoulder. No one ever soothed his fevered brow when he was sick. Except Sheppard, who didn't so much soothe as annoy Rodney into distraction.
Vaguely, he wondered what he'd have to do to get Keller to look at him the way she had at Ronon.
He'd probably have about as much luck with that as trying to impress Sam with his bravery.
Maybe if he saved her life. Personally. That tended to impress women. He gave it four months before he really did have to risk his life to save her with the way things went in Atlantis. He'd ask her out afterward.
The view of the Golden Gate was definitely not worth the misery of keeping the city cloaked twenty-four/seven. Rodney slumped down in his seat and glared at the bridge and the glass-sided buildings reflecting the heavy gold of the late setting sun. If he squinted, he could almost make out the glitter of lights that would appear after dark, all intent on luring in stupid colonels to enjoy its decadent nightlife and destroy their careers.
"Well, I hope that foul expression isn't for me," Jennifer said as she took a seat across from him.
"What? No. Not you."
"That's good," she said with a smile that faded a little when she took in what Rodney had on his tray. "I thought you were going to have a salad and the fish."
"The fish had lemon garnish."
"A nice plate of salad then — "
"I forgot! I was hungry, I got the meatloaf. Take me out and shoot me," Rodney snapped.
Jennifer looked like he'd just kicked her.
"I'm sorry," he said contritely. "They were out of everything but the apple pie too, and you know I can't have it since Parsons left. Everyone else puts lemon in it."
He glanced around the mess hall and scowled again. Teyla and Kanaan were at one table with Torren. Ronon and Amelia were making googoo eyes at each other. Only one lanky person was missing, because he'd taken off after the mess with the sailboat and the idiots earlier in the day. Rodney could only imagine what Sheppard would get up to; knowing him he'd probably get picked up in a vice raid and need to be bailed out before morning, even if he didn't manage to utterly torpedo his career. It was really unfair that no one else understood how much danger Sheppard was in with that den of iniquity glittering just a jumper ride away. Rodney understood, the man had needs, but he was starting to think Sheppard was trying to make up for five years of being hard up, the way he disappeared every night since Atlantis splashed down.
It was just concern for a friend. Teyla and Ronon didn't get it and Rodney didn't think anyone else even knew about Sheppard, unless Lorne did, and Lorne wasn't exactly in a position to do anything to rein Sheppard in.
" ... would you like that?" Jennifer finished something Rodney had completely missed, smiling brightly at him.
"Of course," he agreed, hoping he hadn't just sentenced himself to six weeks vacation in Wisconsin. He already felt guilty enough at mostly abandoning Sheppard since he got serious with Jennifer, but he'd been determined not to make the same mistakes he had with Katie.
Jennifer patted his hand.
"I don't see Colonel Sheppard," she said.
"No, he went clubbing or whatever it is that forty-year-old men who should know better do," Rodney said sourly.
"If I didn't know better," Jennifer commented in a teasing tone, "I'd think you were jealous."
Rodney didn't know why he'd be jealous of Sheppard. He was the one with the gorgeous girlfriend, after all. Sheppard could do whatever he wanted with whoever he wanted. It was none of Rodney's business. He didn't care. Not at all. Not one bit. Except in the way a friend worried about another friend. That was all.
He glowered at San Francisco again anyway.
"I honestly got more done between Wraith attacks than I can now!" Rodney raved at Radek. Radek just nodded wearily, letting him go on and on. "I got more done during Wraith attacks!"
"The IOA restrictions are impossible, yes," Radek agreed.
"Every day, they have a new rule and three new forms!"
"They are interfering — "
"They're morons, jealous, pantswetting kindergarten failures, and their whole reason for existing is to thwart any scientific progress. They should all have been drowned before they were born!"
Radek just nodded and went back to Form B1324(r).
Rodney growled and went back to his desk only to find a piece of pie there. He glared at the perfect meringue peaks, the golden brown crust, the shreds of fresh coconut decorating the center. He sniffed it. It smelled good. If there had been a mug of steaming coffee next to it, he'd have thought Sheppard had brought it for him.
Sheppard would never forget his coffee, however.
Someone else had to be responsible. Rodney contemplated asking Radek if he'd seen who had left it, but dismissed the idea. Asking would reveal he hadn't noticed and Radek would mock him.
Still scowling, he sat down and picked up the fork — from the mess hall, he noticed — wishing it had been Sheppard who brought the pie. He never saw Sheppard any more, except in staff meetings with Woolsey, informing them of each new IOA or SGC directive and its associated forms. The manicured monkeys were trying to put deadlines on research and development projects! This from people Rodney was convinced couldn't successfully replace a toilet paper roll.
Guilt just made Rodney angrier at everyone, because he knew Jennifer was going to ask him to stay on Earth when Woolsey and Sheppard and Teyla did manage to tear Atlantis loose from the IOA's sticky, clutching fingers and get it back to Pegasus. He knew it would happen too. They didn't have enough power to run the cloak constantly and there was simply no place or way to hide something as large as Atlantis on Earth without it. Even with the cloak running, they had eco activists, fishermen and journalists trying to sail into the no-go zone the US Navy had established off the coast of San Francisco. Once the facts finished seeping through the IOA's thick skulls and found their lonely, solitary working brain cells, Rodney knew they'd be sending Atlantis back to Pegasus.
As much as the IOA might worry about the Wraith, they had to worry more about some Goa'uld or Lucian Alliance warlord finding the city if it was established anywhere in the Milky Way besides Earth. No, Atlantis would be going back to Pegasus.
The only question was if Sheppard would still be in command.
Rodney stabbed the fork into the pie. Coconut. He'd never liked coconut very much. It looked pretty, it even smelled nice, but it always disappointed. He associated it with Asian foods too, which he avoided as a rule.
He hated himself for half hoping Sheppard would be relieved of his command. It would mean Sheppard would be on Earth. Of course, he'd be as miserable as they'd been when the Tria's crew tossed them out of Atlantis, but Rodney would still have his friend.
The pie tasted like cardboard to him. Cardboard and shaving cream and, he rolled the filling around in his mouth to get the full effect of the taste, rubber bands. Had Teyla tried another pie recipe? Someone would have warned him, surely? No, Teyla was preoccupied with Kanaan and Torren these days; if she was poisoning anyone, it would be them. He didn't think she even took time to spar with Sheppard any more.
God, he was a bastard. He didn't even have time to hang out with Sheppard now, between his work and dating Jennifer, and it would be worse if they weren't living in the same city, going to the same meetings every morning. He still wanted Sheppard to stay on Earth, though. He didn't want to give Sheppard up, unfair as that was.
Maybe if Sheppard lost Atlantis, he'd resign from the Air Force. Rodney automatically ate another piece of the pie. It even had coconut in the crust, he realized, tonguing a shred from between two molars. If Sheppard didn't have to worry about the US military's shitty sexual policies, he might find someone and have a real relationship instead of what Rodney could only imagine had been a lifetime of one-night-stands. A sour taste filled his mouth at the thought and he threw down his fork, though it was his own thoughts leaving a bad taste in his mouth, not the pie.
Blaming the pie was much easier, however.
"God, that's the worst piece of pie I have eaten in my life," he complained. It had to be the pie that tasted so bad, not the idea of Sheppard with someone else, because Rodney was with Jennifer, and he wasn't really selfish enough to want his friend to lose out on everything. He wasn't.
Radek shook his head at Rodney urgently, but Rodney couldn't stop. "Horrible, nasty, disgusting. It's practical joke, isn't it? Clemens or Mbobeke are behind this, aren't they?"
Radek's gaze was on someone behind Rodney and he looked so horrified, Rodney had to slowly turn around.
Jennifer stood in the doorway to his lab, holding a pie plate filled with the rest of the pie.
"That's my mother's prize-winning Coconut-Coconut-Coconut Pie. It's my dad's favorite," she said in a tight voice.
Mouth on automatic, Rodney replied, "What, did he have a tragic taste bud accident that left him unable to tell the difference between good and bad food?"
"You know, Rodney, I made it for you." She walked over to a trash pail and dropped the pie, plate and all, into it.
Rodney watched her leave the lab with his mouth still hanging open.
"You will have to apologize many, many times," Radek said.
Angry, Rodney grabbed up the plate with the partial slice on it and threw it in the trash with the rest before chasing after Jennifer. Radek was right, but Rodney found himself thinking that he might as well get used to it. Marrying Jennifer would mean spending the rest of his life apologizing everytime he didn't make her happy. He wanted to make her happy, of course he did, but he wasn't sure he could change enough to succeed for very long.
The life sign detector told him Sheppard had returned. Rodney hesitated in the hallway, though, and nervously checked his watch. Yes, it was late. That had never stopped him before, but his relationship with Jennifer had left him with doubts. Maybe it was too late. Maybe Sheppard was asleep and wouldn't want anyone, even Rodney, barging into his room at all hours.
Maybe he'd met someone and the disappearances every evening weren't one night stands at all and Rodney was about to humiliate himself because once again he was the one who couldn't maintain a lasting relationship with anyone. He hated to admit it even to himself, but he'd taken a small, shameful satisfaction in having a girlfriend while Sheppard was still all by his lonesome. It wasn't nice and he knew it, but it had been true just the same.
The door slid open before Rodney could touch the chime or knock though, reminding him he'd reprogrammed it to give him access unless Sheppard specifically locked it against him. Rodney had justified it that in a medical emergency, he had Sheppard's proxy. Sheppard had just given him that exasperated look and grinned, saying, "Aw, you care."
The lights were off in the room, so that at first Rodney thought Sheppard was asleep. He stopped before he stepped into the room.
Sheppard rolled his head toward the door and his open eyes glistened with reflected light.
"C'mon in, Rodney," he said softly.
Rodney still hesitated.
Sheppard pushed himself up and even in the dark Rodney could make out the frown of confused concern that went with his words, "Hey, what's wrong?"
That seemed to release Rodney's muscles and he came inside, letting the door close behind him, leaving them both in the half-dark. None of the rooms in the towers were really dark. The city lights reflected off the water and the other towers. Sheppard didn't even have his curtains drawn and dim light rippled blue over the walls and ceiling and his thin, beard-scruffed face.
Rodney picked his way over to the couch they'd finally brought in when Sheppard took over his larger quarters, after they took Atlantis back from the Asurans, so that movie night didn't involve sitting on the floor any longer. It was Ancient, so white of course, but even mud and blood-encrusted BDUs or dropped pizza slices couldn't stain whatever they'd used to upholster their furniture.
Sheppard sat up on the edge of his bed. As usual, he was dressed in loose track pants and a t-shirt. Rodney supposed it made sense when you could be called out for an emergency in the middle of the night any time. Rodney had made more than one emergency repair in his boxers and blue bathrobe. Sheppard was too private for that sort of exposure.
Sheppard had his arms resting loose on his knees while he angled his head up to watch Rodney.
"So what is it?" he asked. He nodded at the radio earpiece setting on the tiny table next to his bed, next to the reading lamp, a copy of The Gulag Archipelago and that picture of him with Evil Knievel from when he was a kid. Rodney knew that his holstered Beretta was tucked in the drawer underneath, just like his unlaced boots were waiting to be slipped on at the foot of that ridiculously puritan bed. "If it involved the city, you'd have radioed me."
His thoughts strayed to wondering if Sheppard had kept that bed to forestall any rumors. No one would ever believe he was sleeping with anyone in it. Okay, if someone were really, really limber... but sex in that cot would still inevitably result in an embarrassing floor-related injury sooner or later.
"Well, uh," Rodney mumbled. He wiped his palms on his pants. "I think I — It's about the pie. Not really, but it started with the pie."
"Pie," Sheppard repeated, cockeyed and quizzical, amusement a thread in his raspy voice.
"Pie. No, not pie. Jennifer's pie. I mean, this is about Jennifer."
Sheppard sighed. "Okay. Jennifer."
"I — I think I — " Rodney stopped.
Looking wearier than he had only a moment before, Sheppard rose and opened the minifridge where he usually kept a six-pack for pier evenings. He rummaged in it before fishing out two bottles of much better than usual beer.
"So, congratulations, buddy," Sheppard said, passing over one bottle. "Jennifer's... everything you want."
Rodney rolled the cool glass bottle between his palms nervously.
"Actually, I think we just broke up. You see, she baked me this pie and I told her it was awful and her father had no taste and things just snowballed from there." Logarithmically. Which made sense, because by the end of their argument, Rodney suspected it had been registering on the Richter scale, the California coast being well supplied with seismographs.
Sheppard froze with one hand holding his bottle and the other about to twist off the cap. He stood at an angle to Rodney, with his head turned away, and all Rodney could see was the tense line of his shoulders. Without turning, Sheppard finished opening his beer. "Sorry to hear that," he said. He tipped his head back as he took a long swallow, followed by a second, faster than he usually drank.
Rodney didn't have to see Sheppard's face to hear the lie.
"She's leaving for Wisconsin in the morning. I don't think she's coming back."
"Are you okay?"
Truth this time and Rodney finally realized what had been bothering him since he began dating Jennifer.
Sheppard didn't like her.
He just hadn't seen it, because Sheppard was always that weird mixture of polite and sarcastic with everyone who wasn't on his team. He'd even kept Elizabeth at that one essential remove. So he hadn't been treating Jennifer any differently and since Sheppard actually got along with women without any problems, from the officers and enlisted in his command to the scientists to answering to Sam or Elizabeth, there hadn't been anything that jumped out and gave away Sheppard's real feelings.
Now that he thought about it, Jennifer didn't really like 'the Colonel' much either.
Rodney opened his bottle and took a swallow. Sheppard had already powered through most of his bottle. Either he really liked this beer or he had no idea what to say to Rodney.
"I don't really know," he admitted. He felt like he'd been gutted, like he'd lost another person who mattered to him, and it was all his fault. Jennifer had made that very clear when he caught up with her and started apologizing. At the same time, part of him felt free for the first time in months and was gleefully pointing out that he wouldn't have to choose between being on Sheppard's team, going through the stargate, and continuing on as CSO of Atlantis or being with Jennifer.
"Well," Sheppard said. He came over and sat down next to Rodney and tentatively patted his back. "Her loss."
Rodney forced himself to nod. Wow, he must look and sound bad if Sheppard was initiating actual physical contact that wasn't a mock blow.
He gulped down half the beer in his bottle.
"You want to talk about — "
"God, no," Rodney exclaimed. He just wanted to sit with someone who wouldn't tell him to go crawling to Jennifer and beg her to take him back even though he was an asshole. Rodney knew he was a jerk a lot of the time. It didn't seem to bother Sheppard, possibly because Sheppard could be a real prick too, and Rodney had maybe started to take that for granted. He'd expected Jennifer would accept that even though he was trying to be nicer, sometimes he wouldn't be. Teyla did, Ronon did, Radek and Sam, even most of the people who worked for him on Atlantis got it; some of them even liked him anyway. He didn't want to talk about how he had believed she loved him, but that it turned out to be contingent on his continuing good behavior. That just sucked and made him feel like a bigger loser than he already was.
"So, how was your evening?" he asked, because Jennifer had hammered into his head that if he cared he had to pay attention to people. He'd already blown it with her, but Sheppard didn't get bent out of shape over little things, so maybe he could at least hold onto their friendship. "Did you let some hot guy pick you up?"
Sheppard chuckled hoarsely. "I don't kiss and tell, Rodney."
Rodney snorted in reply. "That's right. You take laconic to the limits. Never mind not telling your right hand what your left is doing, you don't let your thumb know what your fingers are up to."
Sheppard choked on his beer, spitting it through his nose and then coughing hard enough Rodney worried he'd have to radio Jennifer — no, whoever had the infirmary nightshift, Jennifer was probably packing — for medical help.
Sheppard finally recovered and caught his breath.
"What'd I say?" Rodney asked.
Sheppard shook his head, grinning, and Rodney made an ewww face at him. "I don't want the details of your depraved sex life, Sheppard."
Sheppard raised his bottle of beer to his mouth again, saying, "That's good, because you aren't getting any," before he drank.
"Yes, yes, you see, that's going to be my problem," Rodney said, gloomily reflecting that he'd never have another bout of spectacular, athletic sex with Jennifer and her really gorgeous breasts. He'd really liked her breasts and spending a lot of time with them, which Jennifer had seemed to approve of too. "No more perky tits."
Sheppard coughed again. "My heart bleeds for you, buddy," he said heartlessly. "Another beer?"
"Why not?" Rodney said. "Enjoy it while we can, right? We'll be back to drinking Manarian swill once Atlantis heads home."
Sheppard stopped with his hand in the minifridge, then pulled out two more bottles.
"Right," he said. He twisted off the cap on one, handed it over, and then opened his second bottle. "Here's to good beer."
"Here, here," Rodney echoed. He didn't see why Sheppard was grinning so hard, but what the hell. It was pretty good beer.
The chirp in his ear came from the radio channel Rodney had encrypted for just the team.
"McKay, meet me at the jumper bay."
He tapped his mike on and demanded, "Why?"
Sheppard's sigh sounded through the earpiece.
"Because I said so?"
"Not good enough, I have a dozen repair teams out, two projects, and six proposals to read through before dinner."
"McKay...," Sheppard whined.
"Fine, but I'm bringing the damned proposals."
"You won't be sorry," Sheppard told him. Chirpily. The man had been the picture of cheery happiness since they'd brought Atlantis home to Pegasus. The team hadn't gone out on a mission yet, of course. Rodney firmly believed that facing off with some pissed off native society — they were all pissed off about something, usually with understandable reasons — would take the shine off Colonel Good Mood's attitude.
He turned to Radek.
"Radek, the Colonel wants my presence in the jumper bay. I have no idea how long it will take. You're in charge of the children. Don't let them blow up anything bigger than a breadbox."
"I will watch them like the annoying vermin they are," Radek assured him, glaring at the chattering group of newbies filling their lab with happy cooties. They didn't know what Atlantis and Pegasus were really like. Not the way Radek and he did. Rodney surveyed them with a last, jaundiced glare, before closing his laptop and heading for his rendezvous with Sheppard.
Meeting. It was a meeting. Not a rendezvous. That made it sound like something that it was... not.
Rodney's stomach growled and he wished he'd taken the time to detour to the mess hall and grab a sandwich.
Sheppard was waiting at the hatch of Jumper One. His expression flickered from gleeful to apprehensive and Rodney wondered what prank was about to be sprung on him. He supposed he should be grateful no one else appeared to be present to witness whatever Sheppard had planned and that Sheppard thought Rodney was out of his post-relationship funk far enough to tolerate a joke at his expense.
"C'mon," Sheppard said, gesturing Rodney into the jumper.
He walked in slowly, looking for a clue to whatever was waiting. All he saw was a picnic basket, complete with red-and-white checkered cloth on one of the passenger benches in the cargo area. His nostrils flared. Was that fried chicken?
Sheppard closed the hatch and slithered around Rodney where he stood in the central walkway, still staring suspiciously at the basket. He dropped into the pilot's seat and started the pre-flight checklist, HUDs flaring to life and fading faster than Rodney could take them in. So, it looked like they really were going somewhere.
"Take a seat, Rodney."
After checking the co-pilot's chair for a whoopie cushion — Sheppard and Ronon's senses of humor were both grade school at best — Rodney sat down. He caught Sheppard raising an eyebrow at him.
"Looking for something?"
"Can we just get to whatever it is you have planned?"
"Okay," Sheppard said with an agreeable nod.
He touched the control that opened the roof of the jumper bay and opened the comm. "Flight, this is Jumper One, Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay aboard. Clear for take off?"
"You're clear, Colonel. Survey flight plan is on file," Chuck's voice responded.
Rodney was glad Chuck and most of the control room techs were back. While Atlantis had been on Earth, the stargate had been shut down to keep it from overriding the one at Cheyenne Mountain. The control room had been eerily empty.
Plenty of people had been surprised by how eager the Atlantis veterans had been to sign on for another tour in Pegasus. Rodney had to admit, wanting to go back to what was in essence a galaxy-wide war zone did smack of insanity, but Earth had been no picnic. Either you worked at the SGC, where everyone treated you like a second class citizen, or you didn't, and you had to pretend you didn't know all the real threats and wonders of the universe beyond Earth's orbit. It was very dissatisfying.
Either that or they'd all become feral adrenaline junkies. He wasn't dismissing that possibility.
Sheppard took the jumper up out of the atmosphere of Atlantis' latest planet in smooth long arc that let them see its indigo oceans and the deep green forests cloaking its low, old mountains, then the vast plains that ran across the continent to beaches with pale green sand. They were so high by then the beaches were just a fine line and then indistinguishable entirely. The sky darkened from azure to royal blue and the stars revealed themselves against the purple darkness, while below clouds swirled over the face of the planet. Once they were in orbit, Sheppard turned the jumper on end, so the windshield looked straight down at the planet.
Rodney couldn't resist running several sensor scans, logging them for download when they returned to the city.
"So?" he asked. He was almost ready to relax and accept that Sheppard wasn't setting him up for a practical joke.
"So," Sheppard mumbled. "Huh. I, um."
Rodney turned to look at him. "Are you feverish?" he asked.
"What?" Sheppard asked. "No."
"You look kind of warm... wait, are you blushing?" Rodney demanded gleefully. Why would Sheppard be embarrassed? Oh, this should be good or at least entertaining because Sheppard was just plain strange sometimes.
"You are, you are. All right. What did you break and why didn't you just ask me to fix it?"
"I haven't broken anything."
"Oh, come on, that picnic basket, that's a bribe, isn't it?"
Sheppard shook his head. "No. I just, I thought we could eat up here. Take some time." His hands fidgeted over the jumper's controls before he finally locked in the autopilot.
Rodney couldn't help it, he had to double check they were in a stable orbit. He looked up and Sheppard was smiling at him.
"I've got fried chicken."
"God, I haven't had fried chicken in forever," Rodney said. "Jennifer kept insisting it was bad for my cholesterol."
Sheppard nodded in agreement or understanding. He got up and Rodney followed him back into the cargo area, watching with growing pleasure as Sheppard began unpacking the picnic basket. Yes, there was the fried chicken, cole slaw and Rodney's favorite macaroni salad, cheese and grapes and a basket of gredelberries. Rodney made a face at the gredelberries. Bottles of root beer and apple cider with condensation still on the glass next, and out of the bottom when Rodney thought the basket had to be empty, a pie.
He shuffled closer and sniffed. It smelled like peanuts, chocolate and caramel.
"What's that?" he asked.
"What's it look like?" Sheppard replied. He sounded almost nervous.
"It looks like a pie," Rodney replied, "which I assume it is. I meant what kind of pie. Also, who baked it?" They'd lost Parsons, which on reflection, Rodney thought was a greater tragedy for Atlantis than Jennifer staying in Wisconsin. Carson's clone had assumed his original's duties; Laura Cole and Alice Biro had both come back with them too: Medical was in good hands. Rodney wasn't so certain about the kitchens. He hadn't been paying too much attention, but he thought some of the meals of late had been disappointing.
The fried chicken looked golden and perfect however. He would withhold judgment.
"It's a Snickers Bar Pie," Sheppard said.
"And who made it? One of the cooks?" Rodney reached past Sheppard and scooped a bit out with his finger. Sheppard hit him lightly, but Rodney already had the finger in his mouth. "Oooh. Good. That's really good." Cool, smooth and rich, with peanut butter and cream cheese and whipped cream, no, maybe that was Cool Whip, and pieces of one of Rodney's favorite candy bars. He blinked at Sheppard, finger still in his mouth. "Oh."
They were really close, so close Rodney heard a click as Sheppard gulped.
"Did you...?" he asked. "You made it?"
Sheppard ducked his head and made a production of arranging the food on the plates. "Yeah."
Sheppard smiled shyly. "It's pretty easy."
Rodney pointed at him with his damp finger. Sheppard's eyes almost crossed looking at it. "You never said you could cook."
"I can't. The cooks did the rest."
Rodney looked at the pie and smiled to himself. "You did this?"
Sheppard shrugged inarticulately.
The only other person who had ever specifically made a pie for Rodney had been Jennifer. Well, at least this wouldn't be as epically disastrous as that had been. Was this...? No, no, he and Sheppard weren't dating, no matter what this looked like, though Sheppard's pie was really very good. Rodney refused to think this was a date of any sort, not with his disastrous relationship history. Dating was a bad, bad thing for him. Dating Sheppard would inevitably lead to breaking up with him.
"Think of it as a 'glad you came back to Pegasus' thing," Sheppard said. "So, you want to eat this or interrogate me some more?" He looked at Rodney expectantly, but Rodney wasn't having it. They were buddies and they were going to stay that way.
Rodney snagged tableware for himself and the plate with the more generous portions. Sheppard shrugged and didn't push the issue. They ate in the cockpit, mostly keeping any crumbs off the consoles, and watched the clouds below them. They ate almost everything — except the gredelberries, though Sheppard teased him with them, promising these were ripe — and finished with the pie, eating almost half of it.
He could have had a normal, staid life (albeit filled with acclaim for his undeniable genius) with Jennifer on Earth, he reflected. Instead, he had a life of danger and derring-do, lived in a flying city along with his team, sometimes saved the galaxy, and had a completely insane friend who had put together a picnic in orbit just to cheer him up. If he'd stayed on Earth, he'd have missed Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon like lost parts of his own body, not to mention worrying himself into a ulcer within six months. Someone had to look out for Sheppard. It was a big job. Teyla and Ronon needed Rodney to balance it out. Rodney was positive he'd made the right choice.
"We need to get the radio cars out," he said.
"Ready to have me hand you your ass again?" Sheppard teased.
"Hah. You're a cheat and you deliberately tried to run my car into Teyla's foot last time. I'll beat you this time."
"Whatever you say, Rodney," Sheppard told him.
He'd missed hanging out with Sheppard, listening to his donkey laugh and watching him twist his face into a thousand expressions while he slouched like some new sort of invertebrate. He'd missed the sly smiles and insulting digs. He hadn't realized exactly how much he'd given up to be with Jennifer or maybe it was how much of him she'd taken up. There hadn't been much left for any of his friendships.
He glanced at Sheppard. From the side, the light glinted on a thread of white in his sideburns and picked out the deepening lines at the corners of his eyes. It turned his hazel eyes gold and green. He watched Sheppard lick a stray graham cracker crumb from the corner of his mouth, pink tongue tip sliding over his curvy, soft looking lips. He wondered how Sheppard kissed, if it was all about control or if he was playful or maybe both in turn.
Rodney blinked and looked away. This was in no way a date, so that wasn't something he should be thinking about his friend. He got to his feet and took his plate back. So, okay, he was avoiding the elephant in the jumper, but so what? He was down with avoidance. It worked for Sheppard. It could work for him. He was no doubt imagining it all anyway.
"We should head back. I still haven't read those proposals," he said.
Sheppard twisted in his seat and watched Rodney replace everything in the basket. "You sure? I thought it was nice up here. Quiet. You're definitely better company than any of my new officers." He sounded disappointed.
"Thank you for that extremely faint praise," Rodney replied, "and, yes, I'm sure. We can't goof off just because it's fun. Did I just say that?"
"Yeah, you did." Sheppard took the jumper off auto-pilot and entered a course that would take them around the night side of the planet and back to Atlantis the long way round. "I hate to admit it, but you're right, too."
"I'm always right," Rodney said as he reseated himself. He started the sensors up and let them take in more readings.
As they glimpsed Atlantis shining ahead of them, Sheppard startled Rodney by reaching over and patting his arm lightly, without looking aside.
"I missed you, buddy," he mumbled, before opening communications with Atlantis Flight Control, keeping Rodney from saying anything in return.
Not that Rodney knew what to say.
He'd missed Sheppard too, but looking back, everyone else had been preoccupied with some relationship except Sheppard. Whatever he'd got up to in San Francisco, it couldn't have been very satisfying except on a physical level. Rodney could see it as if his break up with Jennifer had removed a set of blinders from his eyes: Sheppard had been lonely and increasingly sad while they were on Earth. He'd been fighting for his command, fighting for his career, and making both of those fights even harder by fighting for Pegasus, doing everything he could to get Atlantis back to where it belonged, where the city and the expedition could fight the Wraith.
Teyla had done her part and so had Ronon, but Sheppard had taken the brunt of that burden. Rodney had been the one who hadn't done as much as he should have. They'd got back anyway, but guilt stung him in retrospect.
He vowed to do better.
He wouldn't let his next relationship overshadow his friendships and responsibilities. Anyone who couldn't leave him room for his team wasn't right for him. In the meantime, everyone he dated didn't have to be 'the one'. He needed to relax his standards. Maybe even just have sex with someone without worrying about marriage or kids. Most women seemed less than thrilled when he brought up the honor it would be to help pass his genes on to the next generation anyway.
Maybe he should take a page out of Sheppard's book. Nothing wrong with a friendly one night stand, after all.
That would leave him time to hang out with Sheppard and have some fun.
"Race cars," he said. "Next week."
"It's a date," Sheppard agreed as he settled the jumper through the bay's open roof, grinning widely, his transparent happiness making Rodney smile helplessly back at him.
Rodney added a plate with a slice of banana pie to his lunch tray and headed for the table where Sheppard and Ronon were already sitting.
"Oh, Rodney, join me?"
He stopped and peered at Dr. Delia Hogan, who was smiling up at him and waving to the empty space across from her at her table. She was one of the new electrical engineers and mostly worked with Radek, but he'd had several pleasant conversations with her in the lab. She kept her blond-brown hair cut short and wore no jewelry, but her nails were manicured and painted a soft pink despite being short too. According to Radek, she outshone all the other new scientists.
She was just the sort of woman he'd decided he needed to start dating.
Across the room, Ronon said something and Sheppard laughed, easy and unselfconscious.
"I'd be delighted," Rodney said. He waved to Sheppard, who gave him a thumbs up after frowning for an instant, put down his tray and slid into the chair on offer. "I've been going through proposals and I think yours is one we'll schedule for next month."
Delia smiled at him happily and started talking about the aim of the proposal and what she hoped it would prove. "But, even if I'm wrong, the information is an addition to the general knowledge base. I can rework my theories and do better the next time," she finished. "Fail better, my friends say."
Rodney personally thought succeeding was preferable, but Delia had a flexible mind, one of the things anyone needed to survive in Atlantis. Rigid thinkers couldn't hack it when their ideas were shattered, as happened regularly. Rodney had rewritten his proto-paper on unified field theory eight times and still didn't mean to publish it.
He looked down at his tray and realized in surprise that he'd been so intent on Delia's theory — which had a sound underpinning he thought showed genuine promise — that he'd forgotten to eat.
"What about you?" she asked. "Is it as exciting as everyone says to go off world?"
Sheppard was watching them, so Rodney ducked his head and reminded himself to be nice, since he didn't want to crash and burn right in front of half of his team. Sheppard was frowning, too. What was that about? It wasn't like Sheppard was interested in Delia, he was gay. Hmph. He'd make Sheppard tell him later.
"You are off world, you know," Rodney told Delia. "This isn't Earth."
"I should say off Atlantis?" She laughed without a hint of embarrassment. "It sounds so exciting, going on gate missions. Am I romanticizing it?"
"Oh, it's exciting," Rodney said. "Walking, walking, and walking some more. And talking. Unless, of course, we're running for our lives."
Ronon loomed over him from behind and rumbled, "He runs pretty fast," while snatching Rodney's slice of pie. "All that complaining keeps his lungs exercised."
"Hey!" Rodney protested and twisted to grab futilely after his lost pie. "Give that back!" He moved faster than usual and Ronon had to dodge back to preserve custody. The opening between them meant Rodney glimpsed Sheppard still at the other table, watching.
Rodney despised coincidence. To discover something he didn't know and should have, all due to a happenstance, would have grated on him in other circumstances. As it was, he could barely pretend he hadn't seen and go on actingly normally. Oh, God, he'd — Sheppard's expression for just that one nanosecond before it smoothed away into the professional blank he reserved for his so-called superiors, IOA representatives and lunatic natives had been wretched. Betrayed. Rodney felt like a shit just for seeing, never mind putting, that desolate, wounded expression on Sheppard's face before Sheppard stood up and left the mess hall.
Ronon jammed pie into his mouth and declared through it, "Mine now."
Rodney tried to remember how to breathe. Sheppard had gone. He left and Rodney felt sick, because what if that was it? What if Sheppard had finally had enough and decided it was time to cut his losses?
This wasn't new. This wasn't new to him. It was always there, the way Sheppard was always there.
How had he blinded himself to Sheppard for six years? Rodney had to wonder what else he didn't let himself think about knowing. What else had he lost without knowing he even had it?
Revelation was terrifying.
Rodney stared blankly at his tray. Delia was talking, but he couldn't understand anything she said. The soft afternoon light through the mess hall windows on the orange melamine made everything look bad. Why had anyone thought orange trays were a good idea? Why had he thought he wanted to eat any of this?
He looked up, looked back to Sheppard's empty table.
Jennifer was right; he was a horrible person who didn't see anyone else. Sheppard had told him he was gay, he'd shared his desserts, his blankets, his free time, all of it only with Rodney, taught him to fly a jumper, but every time Rodney had denied what it meant, because he didn't want to deal with it.
"See you later." Ronon dropped the empty plate on the table, slapped Rodney's shoulder, rocking him, and strolled away. Rodney hardly noticed.
Rodney pushed his tray away, his appetite completely gone.
"Rodney, are you all right?" Delia asked. "Is something wrong?"
Had he known? On some level? Sheppard felt more than friendship for him and had since...? Rodney ignored Delia and got up. "I have to go," he blurted. He ducked away from catching anyone's gaze and got out of the mess hall as fast as he could, almost sprinting down the hallway.
Rodney wasn't gay. He was, if he was honest about it, scared of being gay. He'd been mocked enough in his life without adding a faggot to that fire. Not gay. No. He wouldn't let himself be. He liked his cock and balls just fine, but wasn't interested in any others. He never had been — he'd say if anyone had asked — never thought about men when he fantasized — didn't let himself — and he hadn't wanted to know that Sheppard wanted him. He didn't know what to do about that. Sheppard would want him to touch him...
He had to stop and lean against the wall because he was hyperventilating. He was panicking and he didn't know if it was the idea of gay sex or that he'd once and for all broken the thing between him and Sheppard.
What if Sheppard gave up?
He'd been so stupid. The pie thing. It was so obvious now and only Sheppard would do something like that, leaving it so Rodney could ignore it if he wanted, but Rodney hadn't — he just hadn't got it. All those unspoken cues people navigated by were invisible to him. Just because Jennifer had been his girlfriend and made him a pie, didn't mean it meant anything when Sheppard made him pie. It was just pie; Sheppard knew he liked pie. He'd told himself it didn't mean anything more.
Except it had and he'd ignored it.
He started back to the labs, then changed his course and returned to his quarters instead. He needed privacy to think this through. He had to do something now he knew, didn't he?
But did he? Rodney wondered once he was behind his privacy-locked doors, his framed awards and PhDs on the walls, his prescription mattress bed before him, his stacks of DVDs and physics journals lying on every flat surface, including the floor. He liked his life the way it was now, the way he liked his quarters messily lived-in and solely his, post-Jennifer, post-Katie. He wasn't seriously interested in Delia Hogan, he wasn't going to change anything in his life for her.
Did he have to change anything?
It seemed wrong not to, but Rodney knew that as long as he said and did nothing, Sheppard would let them go on as they were. He'd still have his best friend — and, yes, Sheppard was his best friend, closer than Rodney had ever been to Carson — his team, Atlantis, everything that really mattered to him. Sheppard wouldn't go away if Rodney started dating again. He'd still be there if Rodney did get married. He'd play god-father or uncle to any kids Rodney had, the same way he did Torren, and with just as much love.
He'd go on loving Rodney, too.
Rodney slumped down on the foot of his bed, face in his hands, trying to make sense of it. What did he do now? He couldn't unknow it. Pandora's box and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, it was all the same, wasn't it? The introduction of a catalyst changed both elements into something different. He couldn't treat Sheppard the way he had been. That would be wrong, but acknowledging Sheppard's feelings would be worse, for both of them, if Rodney didn't return them. Everything would turn awkward, regret and guilt and humiliation would eat away at them, until they couldn't stand to even be in the same room any more.
Sure, he loved Sheppard. In the way a friend loves a friend... He laughed unhappily, remembering the way Sheppard choked out those words when they thought Rodney would either ascend or die, and wanted to find Sheppard and yell at him. Liar. Sheppard hadn't been willing to burden Rodney with his feelings even then, but he'd told Rodney he was gay afterward. Oh shit. Rodney squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his fingertips to the lids until he saw phantom blotches of color against the darkness. Who could he even talk to about this, when Sheppard was the one he always confided in? Carson? He almost snorted, because no. Carson would bleat and then tell Rodney to let Sheppard down gently, as if there were no possibility of Rodney returning his feelings... when, of course, he loved Sheppard.
It was wanting him that would be the problem. Lust. Sex.
Sheppard wanted him. A thousand things he had done, that Rodney had seen and dismissed, told the story in block letters now that he knew. A breath that came too quick, a hard swallow, a quick look away, a hand up from the ground, the touch lingering one beat longer, the lip lick, the signs were there. A half a hundred things that only gave Sheppard away if you knew him the way Rodney did.
Did Teyla and Ronon know? Had they seen when Rodney hadn't?
No, he thought they hadn't, more so because they weren't looking for it either, than that they were as willfully blind as he'd been. They both cared enough about Sheppard to have said something if they knew. Sheppard hadn't told them; Sheppard embraced the ideal of don't ask, don't tell as a lifestyle beyond sexual orientation. Name, rank, and sarcastic quip.
Rodney dropped his hands from his face and let them dangle between his knees, staring down at the floor.
Sex with Sheppard would be... He didn't know. It was Sheppard. That seemed like it might be enough, in and of itself, to make it work for Rodney. So Sheppard was a guy, so what? The thought didn't frighten or repulse him. He wasn't a frightened kid anymore, trying his best to be normal in at least one area, and Sheppard was Sheppard, too familiar, too trusted, to ever threaten Rodney's sense of self. He tried to imagine it, the differences, and found himself thinking how much would be the same. Sheppard's mouth was made for kissing. He'd probably shudder when Rodney touched him skin to skin and then relax into it, the way he did when they shared a bed off world...
Hands were hands, and Sheppard's were calloused and strong, but Rodney knew how gentle they could be as well, with a bandage or a flight stick. Rodney's cock stirred in his boxers. He'd never let himself think of Sheppard or any man this way — or if he had, he'd repressed it too deep to unearth — but it wasn't difficult, after all. Sheppard was probably very, very good with his hands. A laugh snuck out, lonely in his otherwise quiet room. He wasn't going to be able to watch Sheppard fly now without thinking of his hand on a different sort of stick.
He looked at the bulge at his crotch and muttered sardonically, "Point taken."
It wouldn't be hard at all to want Sheppard back.
Was that enough, though?
They held the promotion party — such as it was — in the infirmary, because Carson still had an IV in Sheppard's arm, and no one could keep a secret like this for long. Sheppard wasn't hurt, just dehydrated after fasting for a day while sitting on top of a sacred standing stone, and before anyone's post-mission exams were finished, a blabbermouth nurse had to say congratulations, so there was no point to a fancy surprise ceremony. The databurst had arrived while Atlantis' number one team was on a mission and the news had disseminated through the city before they even stepped back through the stargate from Gelsellus.
The toasts were made with bottles of water, since Carson nixed coffee and alcohol.
Sheppard sat on the edge of a bed, with the rest of the team gathered around, Kanaan holding Torren and smiling (he wasn't that bad, Rodney had decided, now that he didn't smirk at the team), and Woolsey handed over a printed out flimsy announcing his promotion to full colonel with a small, pleased smile. Lorne appeared a minute later with a set of eagles still in its sealed, plastic pack.
"Here you go, sir. Congratulations."
Sheppard turned the package with the eagles in it between his fingers, then squinted at Lorne. "You just had these sitting around?" Torren reached out, trying to snag it. Kanaan lifted him out of reach.
Lorne nodded smugly. "You never know what might be needed, Colonel."
"I wonder about you sometimes, Major."
"A small celebration is in order, but from the way Dr. Beckett is scowling at me, perhaps we should postpone it for a day," Woolsey said.
"I don't see why I shouldn't at least get to go to the mess hall," Sheppard complained. "I'm not hurt."
"I want to keep an eye on you for a few hours, Colonel," Beckett stressed. "Finish this IV and I'll think about letting you go back to your quarters. To rest. If I let you out of here, one of your marines will have a beer in your hands the minute I'm out of sight."
Sheppard ducked his head, obviously pleased, still clutching the insignia.
"This is richly deserved, John," Teyla told him.
"Agreed," Woolsey added.
Ronon thumped Sheppard's back hard enough to nearly knock him off the bed, which prompted Beckett to squawk and demand they all get out. Only Teyla and Lorne paid any attention to him; Teyla because she wanted to take Torren and Kanaan back to their quarters for some quality time, Lorne because he was on duty.
Rodney hovered at the foot of the bed, not sure what to say, watching Sheppard interact with everyone else and wanting... something. Some shared look between them, some sign to tell him what to do. He couldn't exactly say anything, not in front of everyone, and, considering Sheppard's general inarticulateness and his own tendency to insert his foot in his mouth far enough to swallow himself whole, maybe not at all.
So a sign would be good or a symbol, like the eagles Lorne had produced, that told Sheppard without words that Lorne supported him. A sign, a symbol, a gesture...
Rodney snapped his fingers and found everyone looking at him.
"Something you wanted to say, Rodney?" Sheppard asked, still smiling, and the warmth was there, along with a tiny bit of expectation.
Rodney coughed and flailed for some way to cover without blurting out the idea he'd just had. "It's about time? Really, they might as well give you the rank, no one else is insane enough to take the job. I mean, can you imagine Caldwell sitting on top of a pillar with no food or water for twenty-four hours? Naked?"
Even Woolsey chuckled at that picture.
"Hey!" Sheppard complained, "I thought we weren't going to mention the no clothes thing?"
"Too late," Ronon said, grinning widely.
Rodney kept his own thoughts to himself. The rest of the team hadn't been required to fast, but the Gelsellans had been pleased when they insisted on one of them staying in the temple plaza the entire time. Even Teyla hadn't had a problem with letting them think it was respect for their religion. He didn't know what Teyla or Ronon had done during their shifts. He'd taken the chance to look at Sheppard, his bony knees and ankles, the surprising breadth of his shoulders, the beauty of his muscled back, the vulnerable nape of his neck and the soles of his feet. In front there were small nipples and less hair than he'd expected, even if it was more than he'd ever thought would be attractive. Rodney itched to test it with his fingers now. Sheppard hadn't been allowed to speak, so Rodney had stayed silent too, rather than babble on and make him slip. He didn't know what revelations Sheppard had found kneeling silently all that time, but his had been decidedly physical. By the time he'd let himself look at Sheppard's cock resting slack against one thigh, long and not too thick, his balls just a shadow behind it, Rodney had been exquisitely hard. Looking at Sheppard's lips or his hands resting loose and relaxed on his thighs hadn't helped the situation either.
A switch in his head had tripped and by the end of the day, Rodney couldn't look at any part of Sheppard without it turning him on.
Even just thinking about all that bare skin made his pants feel too tight.
"I think you can leave that out of your report, Colonel," Woolsey said.
"Thanks," Sheppard replied.
Rodney waved at the door. "I've got some things I have to check on and my preliminary report to write," he said.
"I think it can wait until morning," Woolsey offered.
"You're going to the mess hall," Sheppard accused.
"It's Shepherd's Pie tonight," Rodney volleyed back, because he was going to the mess hall (and a nice plate of beef, gravy and mashed potatoes did sound good), but it was the kitchens he really needed to visit.
Ronon made a sound of approval. Shepherd's Pie was one of his favorites. Explaining that Shepherd Pie had nothing to do with Sheppard was still hilarious in retrospect. That had been the conversation when Sheppard admitted to loving pecan pie more than any other, a suddenly critical bit of information too.
If a gesture was what was needed, Rodney knew exactly the one to make. It was good enough for Sheppard, so it was good enough for him, and, with any luck, Sheppard would get it without Rodney having to stumble over the words.
"Sounds good to me," Ronon said. He raised his eyebrows at Sheppard. "You want me to bring you back some?"
"Hell, yes," Sheppard said.
"Not too much," Carson cautioned.
"One day," Sheppard argued. Possibly, he whined a little. Rodney sympathized. "I'm hungry."
Carson finally caved to the pout.
"Don't forget to bring some salad," he instructed Ronon.
"See you later," Rodney told Sheppard.
Sheppard's brows went up, but he nodded.
"You have something planned?" Ronon asked Rodney once they were on the way to the nearest transporter.
"What? Of course I have a plan. It doesn't involve you, is all," Rodney replied. "You'll have to think of something to give him yourself." While Ronon might be useful to intimidate the cooks into letting Rodney use the kitchens and their supplies, his presence would be detrimental to actually having a finished product to present to Sheppard.
He should probably start thinking of him as John.
Or maybe he should wait, until he knew this was going to work. Otherwise, he might jinx himself.
"Like what?" Ronon asked.
"I don't know!" Sheppard wasn't exactly easy to get gifts for, since he didn't really want much, other than things that weren't really possible to give, like kicking the Wraith's asses or saving all his people every time. When it came to possessions, except for that Cash poster, Sheppard was Teflon; nothing stuck for long.
"I'll ask Teyla."
"You do that."
He commed Sheppard hours later, with his masterpiece just cool enough to eat, ready to present and share. Like so much more, he hoped.
"Sheppard. Meet me at the pier."
"Rodney," John whined through his earpiece a second later, "I just got to my quarters."
Rodney knew, because he'd been monitoring John's life sign and commed the nurse on night-duty a minute before opening the team channel.
He considered for an instant, because he'd thought John would say yes automatically. "Okay, I'll come there."
John's reply came slowly. "Okay."
Rodney put together two plates, tableware, balanced the pie on top, and headed out. John's door conveniently opened for him without a touch.
John was at his desk, poking at his laptop, very likely writing up his own mission report despite the late hour. He turned and stared Rodney and his offering.
"Pie," Rodney announced.
A quizzical expression crossed John's face. Rodney started toward the desk to put the plates and pie down, John started to stand up, reaching to take them, and the wheeled chair rolled back hard enough to rebound from the desk. It hit the back of John's knees, sending him lurching forward, his normally quick reflexes slowed by exhaustion. He tripped into Rodney and Rodney did the only thing he could. He dropped everything and caught Sheppard.
The plates and silverware hit the floor — and one fork just missed his toe — but somehow they both managed to catch the pie before it could follow. Rodney's fingers were sunk into the filling and John had his thumb in it. Rodney still had his other hand locked on John's upper arm. He could smell John's soap and see that he'd finally had a shower, even if he hadn't shaved. The muscle beneath his hand tensed and flexed in response to his grip, skin warm through the washed soft fabric of one of John's old t-shirts.
"Whoops?" John murmured, still looking down at the pecan pie in shock. His free hand rested lightly against Rodney's waist until he lifted it away.
"Whoops?" Rodney repeated. "That's all you can say? I just spent four hours and promised unspeakable favors to the cooks to make this for you."
John licked his upper lip and peered at Rodney through his eyelashes.
"It looked really good?" Sheppard stepped back and Rodney let go of him, but not the pie. With a wary look at the attack chair, they mutually set the pie down on the desk — on one of John's precious golfing magazines, in fact — and Rodney watched helplessly as John brought his thumb to his mouth and licked it cautiously. His expression lit with pleasure and he proceeded to suck every trace of the pie filling off his thumb.
Rodney wondered if zippers could do permanent damage to a penis that wasn't actually caught in one (he'd done that once — he'd swear there was a scar, though his doctor had insisted it was fine).
"You did that on purpose," Rodney said. He was a genius after all and Sheppard might be a dork, but he was a graceful dork.
John said quietly, "You made me pie. For the promotion? 'Cause I'm hoping... "
"Uhm," Rodney said because his frontal lobes were off-line. "No. I mean yes. I mean — " Damn it, he was making hash of this.
John stepped close enough to take Rodney's hand, the one sticky with pie too. His fingers closed lightly around Rodney's, a tentative hold ready to let go if Rodney pulled away.
"You made me pie," Rodney said hoarsely as he tangled his fingers with John's. So what if they were all sticky. He hoped to get very sticky with John in the future. Begin as you mean to go on, Aunt Beatrice used to say. "In the jumper. In the sky."
"I did," John admitted. He studied Rodney solemnly. "It didn't have to mean anything you didn't want, Rodney."
There wasn't anything John wouldn't give up, starting with his life and ending with his happiness, for someone he loved. It was hard to live up to that. Rodney meant to try, though.
"I want it to be about this," he said. "Okay?"
"Okay," John whispered, looking unlike the cynical military commander, instead shy and amazed as a kid with a pony under the Christmas tree, unable to believe that for once he'd got exactly what he wanted. He smiled giddily, a John Sheppard smile Rodney hadn't seen before, maybe the best one ever.
"Can I?" Rodney moved closer without thinking it out and lifted his other hand to John's stubble-dark jaw. He hesitated before completing the touch. John stood so very still, Rodney didn't think he was even breathing. "It's me," Rodney said, the way he said it any time he was about to touch John. John closed his eyes and moved his face until Rodney was touching it.
Rodney stroked the pads of his fingers over John's cheek, up to his temple and then down again, along his jaw and his neck. John sighed and leaned into the touch, melted into it when Rodney pulled him closer, his lips parting as Rodney touched his mouth to them.
Tender, he thought, why hadn't he realized kissing a man could be so tender? He didn't know what he'd been worried about. John let Rodney lead the kiss, traced Rodney's lips with the tip of his tongue, let Rodney into his mouth, was almost maddeningly careful. Rodney took full advantage and kissed John like he'd never kissed anyone before, because he'd never loved anyone like he did John.
John's kisses were sweeter than Rodney could have imagined and not just from the traces of sugar still on his lips. They kissed until they were breathless and pressed together, swaying where they stood, breathing in each other's breath even after they reluctantly parted. Rodney's mouth felt hot and swollen; John's lips were pink and shining. His eyes were dark and filled with promises, tender and lusty, sexy promises that Rodney meant to collect on very soon. The shoulder of John's t-shirt was smeared with pecan filling on one side where Rodney was clutching it. He stroked his palm down across John's collar bone and hooked a finger under his t-shirt collar, so that he could press forward and kiss the hollow at the base of John's throat. John made a hoarse sound and arched his neck to give Rodney better access. He could feel John's erection pressing against him and when he rocked back against John, he knew John couldn't miss his.
There had to be more kissing and there was, eventually segueing into John resting his forehead to Rodney's and murmuring, "Pie or bed?"
Rodney considered it.
"Bed, then pie," he decided. He wanted John bare and stretched out on his bed, naked as he'd been on Gelsellus, so that Rodney could show him how good it was to be touched, how much Rodney wanted to touch him, how very much he was loved.
John laughed. "Priorities."
They ate the pie in bed, with their fingers, much, much later.