Walking--well, moving at all really--hurt, which sucked, and his neck was pretty much one big bruise, but considering he'd been dead less than 72 hours ago, Major John Sheppard thought he was doing darn well, thank you very much. Even if getting from his quarters to the nearest balcony kind of felt like running a marathon on his knees. Uphill. With weights tied to his arms.
He had to lean against the wall for a little bit, sucking huge lungfulls of the filtered Atlantis air, just in front of the thick metal door that was still tantalizingly shut. His throat hurt and he could feel the sweat on his face, but he was almost outside; he could practically smell the ocean.
John blotted his upper lip on his shirtsleeve, then took one last deep breath and pushed himself away from the wall. He didn't sway, and grinned in triumph as he shuffled forward. "Well, all right," he murmured as the door slid open. A gust of salty wind hit him, and he shivered. But after two days in the Infirmary and another 24 hours stuck in his quarters, it smelled like freedom. He lurched through the doorway, aiming at the chest-high railing.
It was the dinner hour, so John was surprised to see that someone was already out there, one of the civilian scientists if the color of his jacket was any indication. He was leaning on the railing with his head bent, eyes apparently locked on the water so far below.
John hesitated, only a foot or so beyond the closing door. He didn't really want anyone to see him, especially not anyone who could be a member of the Life Sciences/Medical team, who might be a tad curious as to why he wasn't still in bed. He half-turned, wincing when it made his neck hurt. He figured he'd just make a quick exit before whomever it was turned around. It wasn't all that far to the next balcony...
But the other guy had obviously heard the door open and close again. "So sorry," he snapped, still facing the water. "This balcony's taken. Goodbye."
John smiled, turning to continue across the metal deck. "Hi, Rodney," he said.
Doctor Rodney McKay whirled like a squad of Wraiths had just come through the door.
"Major?" Rodney was actually gaping. It wasn't a very good look for him. "What are you doing out here?"
"Well, good evening to you, too," John drawled. He forced his legs to walk him the last few feet to the railing, then dropped his arms onto it with a happy sigh. He tilted his chin up, ignoring the spasm the movement caused in his neck. He closed his eyes against the breeze blowing in over the water. It had just gone twilight, and the wind was getting cool. "I'm fine, by the way. Thank you for asking."
"I can see how you're doing," Rodney said immediately. "You look half-dead. You shouldn't be out of your room."
John grinned again, still with his eyes closed, feeling the wind against his face and teeth. It'd be unpleasantly cold out here soon. He probably should have worn his jacket, but getting into it seemed too much work after the whole pants and shirt thing. "Doctor Beckett said it was okay," he said. That wasn't strictly true, but then Carson hadn't said John couldn't leave his quarters, either--Mostly because John hadn't asked him. "Nice of you to be concerned, though."
"Yes, well," Rodney said stiffly. "Much as I sleep better at night knowing the good Doctor Beckett is seeing to our health and welfare, the next one in line to lead the exploration team is Lieutenant Ford--and I'd really rather not have to follow orders from someone barely out of high school. So maybe you should get back to bed."
"It's pronounced loo-tenant, not left-tenant," John said. He hadn't opened his eyes yet, still enjoying the breeze on his closed lids. But he could easily imagine the look of annoyance that had to be crossing Rodney's face. He'd never get tired of baiting the Canuck. "And I think he's been out of high school for at least a couple years. But it's nice to know you care."
Rodney's response was totally unexpected. "Of course I care!" he exploded. "Do you think it was fun for me? Watching that cicada from hell leaching the life out of you? Do you think I enjoyed knowing that you...That everyone on the Jumper would have died if I couldn't get the engine pods to retract? And how about when Ford actually killed you, eh? I suppose you think that was just a laugh-a-minute?"
John blinked his eyes open, startled by Rodney's sudden, unaccountable fury. It was like he'd opened a cage, let out something dark and raging. John moved his head to look at him, hissing when it hurt his neck again. He really had to stop doing that.
Rodney was looking out to sea, facing away so John could barely catch his profile. His expression was just his usual scarcely-leashed irritation, but John noticed Rodney had started wringing his hands.
"Wasn't much fun for me, either," John said slowly, his eyes still fixed on Rodney's hands and their repeating, anxious motion. He resisted the urge to physically reach out and grab them, and suddenly wondered if Rodney's fingers would be cold. "But that's history. I'm fine." Well, okay, he wasn't dead. "You did good up there," John added, because Rodney still wouldn't look at him and his hands wouldn't stop. "Hell, you did great."
"Don't patronize me," Rodney spat. "I know what I did up there. I freaked out. I froze. I could have cost us our lives." He rubbed his palm over his face, a quick, angry movement. His voice dropped, so that John had to strain to hear him. "That's twice."
The wind was picking up, sending tiny slivers of cold up John's sleeves, down his collar. He crossed his arms over his chest, careful not to rub his burns. He turned his body so his side was leaning against the railing. John didn't get this at all. This was nothing like the cocky, 'all-bow-before-me' attitude Rodney had been oozing when he, Weir and the others had visited John in the Infirmary. John had no idea what this was, where this had come from. "What's twice?"
Rodney moved his head slightly, so that John could see the side of his face again. But he was still looking resolutely down at the water, as if purposely avoiding John's eyes. "You've obviously got brain damage, Major," he said, "if you can't manage to remember the entity that nearly destroyed our Stargate. Maybe you should go find Carson." Somehow, despite the familiar sarcasm, he just sounded tired, like he was saying the words because he felt he had to, rather than meaning any of it.
"Maybe I should," John said. His legs felt a little rubbery and he shifted against the railing, making it take more of his weight. He'd probably have to go back inside soon. "Since I still have no idea what this 'twice' thing is you're talking about."
Rodney squeezed his eyes shut, as if he were fighting off an abrupt pain. When he opened them again they were like the darkening ocean. "What I'm talking about," he said with exaggerated precision, "is that two times now I've had to grow a spine, and two times I've failed, okay?" He shook his head, his expression ugly with self-disgust. His voice grew strident. "Once with that creature--oh, and let's not forget the Ancient shield device, shall we?--and once on the Jumper. So in retrospect, I've been forced to come to the conclusion that I'm a coward. I'm sure you can imagine how happy that's been for me."
John felt his eyes widen. "Let me get this straight," he said. "You've been brooding out here because you think you're a coward?"
"Your incisiveness is absolutely awe-inspiring, Major," Rodney snarled. "It's a wonder you haven't made general already. Yes, that's exactly why I've been out here, thank you very much. But I'm not brooding. I'm thinking."
"Well, you've been 'thinking' wrong," John said. He shook his head, instantly regretting it. He was going to need painkillers to sleep at this rate. "You walked right into that...that energy-sucking thing, with nothing between you and getting char broiled but that damn shield. You saved our asses by doing that! 'Hail Mary,' remember?"
Rodney's head snapped around. "I let you be the bait for that entity, with nothing to protect you, remember?" He shot back, glaring at John. "I lied to you about how the shield worked, because I was ashamed to admit I was scared! And what about what happened on the Jumper? Remember 'don't tell me about being screwed?' Remember that?"
"No," John said, his voice rising, "I don't remember that!" He did, actually: every excruciating second of being in the Jumper before Aiden slapped the paddles on him, but that wasn't important. "I remember waking up in the Infirmary because you retracted the pods!"
"You woke up in the Infirmary because of Zelenka and Ford, not me!" Rodney yelled.
"They didn't retract the pods!" John yelled back, and then was very glad he was leaning on something solid when the world spun.
Luckily Rodney didn't notice. He was about as wound up as John had ever seen him. "That's not the point!"
John took a deep breath, making himself calm down. His heart was hammering, and it wasn't entirely from the shouting match. His back was damp with sweat, sending ice up his spine whenever the wind touched it. He was shivering, and clasped his arms more tightly over his chest. "That is the point," he said evenly. "That's the only point. Yeah, you freaked out a couple times, so what? You came through when we needed you the most. That's what matters. Who gives a shit that you were afraid?"
Rodney opened his mouth, then closed it, looking away again. His hands gripped the top of the railing like that was the only thing keeping him from tumbling into the sea. The wind was harsh now, feathering the hair over his forehead.
"You weren't," Rodney said, so quietly that John had trouble hearing him.
John ran his sleeve across his forehead. He'd started sweating again. He'd go back inside in just a minute, get warm, probably go lie down. "I wasn't what?"
"Afraid," Rodney grit out, like the word hurt him. "You weren't afraid."
John burst out laughing.
It was a mistake. A bad one, he realized a second later, when he was gasping for air and clutching the freezing railing so he wouldn't keel over. But he couldn't help it; it was just so damned funny.
Rodney whirled on John, finally facing him. "You--!" He stopped. "You look terrible."
"Thanks," John wheezed. Then "Uh-oh," as his legs gave out.
Rodney lunged for him, catching John under the arms as he toppled. All the anger had bleached from Rodney's face, leaving only white anxiety. He managed to prop John up against the railing long enough to get John's arm across his shoulders, gripping his wrist with his left hand. Rodney's hand was cold, John noted, which seemed somehow sad. Rodney's other arm went around John's waist, helping him to stay upright. At least Rodney's body was wonderfully warm.
"You're an idiot, you know that?" Rodney asked him. It was apparently a rhetorical question since he didn't wait for an answer. "I can't believe you did this to yourself. How the hell did you survive this long?"
"Clean living," John mumbled. He stumbled along, trying to make his feet work, which was strangely difficult. Was Atlantis sinking again? It kind of felt like they were sinking. Dimly, he heard the large balcony door open and shut. The sudden shock of the warm air inside the city nearly sent him reeling.
"Rodney." John swallowed, forcing himself to focus. He wasn't going to be conscious much longer--he could feel darkness creeping up on him, pricking behind his eyes. "Rodney."
Rodney was calling to someone, probably to get Carson. Boy, was the doctor going to be pissed. He turned his head, so that his lips were practically grazing John's ear. "What?"
"You're not a coward, Rodney," John said. "You gotta know that." It was hard to talk with his head lolling. He hoped Rodney could hear him.
"You're delirious," Rodney said. His voice buzzed against John's eardrum. He started shouting down the corridor again, the sound echoing like gunfire. "Hey! Doesn't anyone work around here? I need a medical team! Get me a medic!"
Yup, Rodney cared all right. John smiled to himself, just before the dark rose up and swallowed him like water. He passed out with Rodney's voice ringing in his ears.
Beckett didn't allow him to leave his quarters for two whole days.
Weir visited and brought him some books. Aiden lent him his Game Boy and told him about going out in Jumper Three with Markham in excruciating detail. Teyla made him a lot of tea.
Rodney came by and hovered in the doorway.
"You can come in," John said. "It's not catching."
Rodney actually flicked a smile at him at that, and walked the rest of the way into the room. He looked around, at the bare walls and the low ceiling. "Looks a lot like mine."
"Sit down," John said. He nodded at the chair next to the bed, pleased that it didn't make his neck hurt. "You're making me nervous."
"What?" Rodney looked startled. "Oh." He sat, surprisingly dutifully. He crossed his arms, seemingly incredibly interested in an empty part of the far wall.
John watched him for a while. Rodney didn't move, but it was as if there was something twitching inside every part of him, like any second he might go off like a bomb. "Something on your mind?"
"Why did you laugh?"
John's eyebrows lowered. "I'm not laughing."
"I'm fully aware of that," Rodney said, as snarky as ever, but his eyes were still locked on the wall. His hands dropped to his thighs, one set of fingers starting up a silent tattoo. "I meant before, on the balcony. I told you that you weren't afraid, and apparently that was a source of great hilarity. I want to know why, if it's not too much trouble."
"No, it's not too much trouble." John smiled sweetly when Rodney turned his head to glower at him. No, the baiting would never get old. He scooted backwards, so he could push himself upright until he was seated against the wall. Rodney watched him the whole time.
"Let me ask you something," John said. "When Doctor Weir called you up, asked you to be part of this expedition--what did you say?"
Rodney's face pursed, showing his confusion. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Work with me," John said. "You said yes, didn't you?"
"Of course I said yes." Rodney looked like that should have been obvious. "What else would I have said?"
John nodded. "See, that's the thing. I said no."
Now Rodney looked absolutely dumbfounded. "You said 'no'? How could you have said no?"
"Because I didn't want to go." John sighed, settling himself against the wall. He drew his knees up, making a tent of the blanket, and wrapped his arms loosely around them. He shrugged. "I'd never heard of the Stargate, or the Ancients, or any of this stuff. First thing I know about it, I'm shuttling General O'Neill out from McMurdo to some hole-in-the-ice research lab and something shoots out of nowhere and tries to kill me. And then all of a sudden this diplomat's asking me to go to a whole other galaxy because I'm some kind of genetic prodigy that can make chairs turn blue and show pretty pictures of the solar system." He spread his hands. "It wasn't a great sell."
Rodney just looked at him like he couldn't believe any of this. "So, why are you here, then?"
John smiled ruefully. "Because General O'Neill basically said that I wasn't worth shit if I didn't. The point is," he added quickly when Rodney opened his mouth--he was pretty certain he didn't want to hear whatever the scientist had to say--"I didn't want to go because I was afraid."
Rodney's mouth dropped open. He really didn't look very good like that.
"I thought..." he said after a moment, "I thought you wanted to come here. I thought everybody did. This is an unparalleled opportunity."
John shrugged again. "Well, there you go."
"But..." Rodney was almost whispering. "But you're not afraid. You're never afraid. You're always going on rescue missions, or--or using yourself as bait, or telling us to leave you behind." He moved his head, so their eyes were suddenly locked. "You're always so calm, so in control of everything. How can you say you're afraid when you can do things like that?"
John almost laughed again. Only the earnestness of Rodney's expression stopped him; Rodney really believed what he was saying. "Rodney," John said incredulously, "that's called being brave. It's not that you're not scared, it's that you're scared shitless and still do what you have to do anyway." Now he did laugh, but it was humorless. "You think I wasn't scared on the Jumper? I was freaked out of my fucking mind. I told Aiden to use the paddles on me because at least dying that way was quick."
"Oh," Rodney said, very quietly. He looked away, down at the floor. "I--I didn't know that."
"Being scared doesn't make you a coward, Rodney," John said gently. He smiled. "Hell, you're one of the bravest guys I know."
Rodney's head snapped up at that. "Really?" He blinked, then his face broke into a tentative smile. "You think I'm brave?"
"Absolutely," John said, nodding.
"You think I'm brave," Rodney said. He made a happy little humming noise. "Brave. How about that?"
"Don't get too excited," John said, still smiling, "doesn't mean I like you, or anything."
Rodney's smile froze.
For a second John thought he looked almost stricken, like John had just hit him instead of making a joke, but it was gone so fast he wasn't sure he'd seen it at all.
"Well, of course," Rodney said quickly. "The feeling's mutual, naturally. I just..." He trailed off; standing so fast the chair nearly went over. He steadied it awkwardly, looking anywhere but at John. "I have work to do. In the lab. I should be going."
John sighed, ran his hand over his face. "Rodney..."
"Goodbye, Major," Rodney said. He strode the few steps to the door. "Thank you for the conversation."
Rodney paused in the doorway. "Thank you, for what you told me." He glanced at John so briefly his eyes didn't even settle.
"It was a joke, Rodney," John said to his disappearing back. "I was joking." But the door slid shut before he could tell if Rodney had even heard him.
"Well, shit." John let his head tip back against the wall. He slid down in the bed until he was lying on his back again, his arm thrown over his eyes. "Damn."
"Of course I like you, Rodney. You idiot." John made his free hand into a fist, hitting it against the mattress in frustration. "It was a damn joke." How could someone so smart be so stupid?
John uncovered his eyes, letting his arm fall to the bed. He sighed up at the ceiling. "I like you a hell of a lot," he said softly. "Probably more than I should."
One day, John might even tell him that: risk the caustic put-down in reply, the derisive sneer. One day, when he was feeling brave enough, when he was certain he'd be able to laugh at whatever Rodney said in return.
"And you were so sure I never felt afraid," John said to the empty room.
If only Rodney knew.
Summary: John and Rodney in the first year of the expedition. Sometimes love is a journey, sometimes it's a gantlet, and sometimes it's a baptism by fire.