By Chandri MacLeod
Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis/Murder, She Wrote
Categories: slash, angst, hurt/comfort, humour, crackiness, friendship, romance
Summary: In Rodney's opinion, anybody who thinks that Jessica Fletcher is sweet clearly just isn't paying very close attention.
Disclaimer: They're not mine, alas. I'm just using them for fun.
Author's Note: This is all Artemisia's fault. No, really. Because if she hadn't bought me season five of Murder, She Wrote, I might never have been watching it at two in the morning and suffered the first, world-warping moment of realisation that Jessica and Rodney were obviously related, or as I think I put it, some weeks later, when it happened again in Artemisia's presence, "Oh, god. I think Rodney's mother's maiden name was McGill."
And it all went downhill from there.
This follows Knitted Goods, which is very short and very fluffy, just like Rodney's comfort sweater.
This particular story is also fluffy, but in no way short, and notable in that it actually contains actual sex. (HA.)
Blame Thanks for this go to mik100, who dared me, Artemisia, who did the full-body beta, and to the brave porn betas who dared the first glance at the first sex scene I have written outside of a novel in nine years: siriaeve, hestia_lacey, dogeared and sheafrotherdon , without whom the sex would have been slightly less silly, and what fun would that have been? :)
The last summer he was in Maine Meredith was ten years old and Jeannie was sick - three and just beginning to show symptoms of epilepsy. It had manifested as stomach-aches and cramps that sent their parents to the emergency room in the middle of the night, frantic and barely remembering to wake Rodney and tell him to lock the door, only ten years old and left home alone. But he hadn't cared. He was old enough.
But the next morning his mother had disagreed and his parents had argued, loudly slamming dishes down in the sink and slamming doors and shouting through the walls. Jeannie, exhausted from her medications, had slept through it all. Meredith had stomped into the kitchen and screamed for them to stop, finally driven beyond endurance. His father had dragged him back up the stairs, pushed him firmly back into his room and told him to stay put in a voice that shook with controlling itself. Then he'd gone back downstairs. Meredith hadn't been able to make out the words after that, but after falling asleep to the sound of his parents still arguing he'd woken up in the morning to be told he was going to stay with Aunt Jess in the States.
He'd argued at first, but only briefly. His mother had looked exhausted and his father impatient, so he'd endured the ride to the airport silently and the transfer from his father's custody to the flight attendant — named Marie, maybe — with cold, unresponsive fury. By the time they'd landed in Boston, the anger had drained away, replaced by exhaustion and homesickness and fear. He'd only brought eleven books. He'd already done all his summer homework. Cabot Cove was a nothing town - he'd looked up the population in the encyclopaedia. What would he do? He hadn't seen Aunt Jess since he was four - what if she was awful?
But it was Uncle Frank - tall, broad and wearing a thick knitted cardigan with fish and anchors patterned on it - who met him at the airport, signed for him (like a package, Meredith thought bitterly) before looking him over.
"Well," he sighed, imbuing the word with volumes of meaning that Meredith couldn't quite parse. Uncle Frank ruffled his hair with a huge, gentle hand, and Meredith looked up at him warily, clutching his backpack and battered plastic suitcase. Uncle Frank sighed again, then smiled a little - a real smile, not the usual tolerant one he got from adults who knew him. "I'll tell you, young man, I've never much liked your father, but your mother's got a lot on her plate, so why don't we get home for supper?" He took Meredith's suitcase and started walking, leaving Meredith scrambling to follow.
He fell asleep in the car but woke up when Uncle Frank opened his window, and opened his eyes to the sunset streaming through the windshield and salty ocean air blowing in his face. He saw Cabot Cove in the distance, crouched on the rocks at the outer sweep of a curve of the coastal road, white and brown, the lighthouse blinking into the dusk. Meredith blinked into the wind, squinted over at Uncle Frank, who was nodding his head along to something on the radio, drumming his fingers on the wheel, smiling vaguely to himself. He glanced over at Meredith and smiled, his eyes crinkling. "We're nearly there," he said and turned up the radio.
He gets the e-mail in the window of darkness-almost-day that John calls Ass O'clock. He stares dumbly at the screen, not sure if he's surprised or horrified or confused or glad or... It's something, though. He shouldn't be awake, that's all. This would maybe be easier to translate into coherency if it were daytime.
He shouldn't be surprised, is what he does think, even though the last time he saw her she was still writing with a manual typewriter, careful and particular and virtually error-free like no typing teacher ever born. He remembers the overflowing wastebasket, the muffled, polite curse and the sound of the carriage return pushed too hard. That the sound of a crumpled ball of paper hitting the floor would send Uncle Frank into the kitchen to quietly, quietly make a cup of tea. He'd come back out into the living room and sit with Rodney where he sprawled on the floor in front of the black-and-white television, ruffling his hair and putting a finger to his lips - "Hush, she's on a roll" - while the typing started up again, lighting-fast and thunderous.
Of course, back then it was short stories and those days of quiet and cartoons and the sound of the typewriter were been few and far between. It was just a hobby, she kept claiming, always putting away both pages and typewriter on Sunday night and going back to her students on Monday.
God knows it's different now. He sits back in his chair, fingers buried in his hair, still staring at the words on his laptop screen. Around him his hotel room is quiet, barring the sounds of night-time filtering up from the street below. DC never really goes to sleep, full of people going about important business at all hours of the day. It has a night-life just like any other city and Rodney supposes that at least he's not the only one awake in the middle of the night, even if he probably is the only one working on ways to improve power-transfer efficiency in a zero-point power-generation interface at three-fifty-seven in the morning.
On Earth, anyway. He bets Carter's sleeping like the quitter she is.
But he's stuck, anyway. Checking his e-mail was an attempt at procrastination, at distraction. He was planning on waking John next - bullying him into a game of chess or a movie or something. John's gotten used to being woken at all hours of the night when Rodney can't shut his brain down, hanging out with him until he's back down to normal speed with other people. It was one of the first things Rodney liked about him.
Rodney glances at the hotel room door. And now there's this new... he wonders whether this qualifies as a crisis. But he's not going to be able to sleep now; his fingers are drumming briskly against the desktop without his conscious direction. Irritably he pulls his hands into his lap, folds them together, stares at the screen some more.
Finally he heaves himself to his feet and goes to the door. To hell with it - if he has to suffer, so does John Sheppard.
John's not really sure what he did to deserve this. Okay, so that's something he thinks a lot in relation to one Rodney McKay. Sometimes in a good way. Not right now.
He squints at the clock glowing a baleful red on table next to his bed. "What time is it?" he croaks, even as the numbers resolve themselves to show him that it's almost four in the morning. In the morning.
"Who cares what time it is?" asks Rodney, turning on his heel to pace a third circuit of John's room. "It's desperation time, that's what it is."
John scrubs a hand through his hair and considers himself. Well, at least he's wearing pants. If Rodney had burst into his room in the middle of the night and he'd been naked, he'd more or less have been at Rodney's mercy, because no way would he be getting out of bed in Rodney McKay's presence in just his skin, and Jesus, there's a line of thought better left abandoned. It's not even remotely healthy that a pacing and frantic Rodney is something he finds attractive, nor is it something Rodney's ever going to find out.
He throws off the covers and gets up, easily reaching out to catch Rodney's arm on his next pass and swings him around to face John. "Rodney," he says slowly, "it's four in the morning." And how the hell did Rodney get into his room anyway? It's not like they're on Atlantis, where John's ability to lock his door against Rodney McKay is only as good as the strength of his resolve, which isn't exactly high.
Rodney blinks at him, as always confused at having his line of thought interrupted. It always takes him a second to regroup. He glances over his shoulder at John's alarm clock, then turns back and blinks again. "Yes?" he agrees, warily.
"You woke me up at four in the morning."
Another slow blink. "Yes?"
John rolls his eyes. "Is the building on fire? Is the planet under attack? Are you going into anaphylactic shock?" This is the standard list. The last one's not something he ever wants to repeat, so he includes it even when he's about to wring Rodney's neck for waking him up at four o'clock in the fucking morning.
But Rodney just slumps a little, with exhaustion. "No," he admits.
John stares at him, expectantly. Rodney looks up at the ceiling, and circles a hand vaguely in the air. "I got an e-mail."
Now it's John's turn to blink in confusion. "Did it say 'come wake John so that he can strangle you?'"
Rodney scowls at him. Ah - brain back online, then. But then Rodney pulls free of John's grip and heads for the door. "Never mind," he snaps. "Sorry I woke you."
John knows he should let him go. Rationally, he knows this. But the snap in Rodney's voice is the one he uses when he realises he's exposed and vulnerable and freaking out, and John has no defences against that tone. He crosses the room and catches Rodney's arm again. "Hang on, I'm sorry," he says, as Rodney turns back, glowering. "You wouldn't have woken me if it wasn't important. So what is it?"
Rodney searches his face, expression suspicious, for a few seconds. Then he sighs, and all the defensive tension drains out of him and he slumps against the door. He turns his gaze ceiling-ward once more and asks:
"Remember that great aunt I told you about? The one who made me the..."
John can't help the grin. "The really cool sweater?" God, he's not even being sarcastic.
Rodney spares him another brief, suspicious glare but carries on: "Well, apparently she's in DC, and she somehow found out I'm in DC — with her evil telepathy, I can only assume — and she's going to some kind of banquet and invited me to come."
John regards Rodney curiously. There's a certain weight behind the word "invited" that makes it sound more like "ordered." Rodney is wringing his hands in the way he does when he's trying to hide a rising panic.
John shrugs. "So? I thought you said she was one of the relatives you actually liked."
Rodney rolls his eyes. "'Liked' is a relative term, which you'd know if you'd ever met my parents. Who shipped me off to Maine two summers running because I was too much trouble, if that gives you an idea. She's just..." Another vague circle of Rodney's right hand inscribes a figure of commanding intensity, which doesn't exactly come to John as any surprise. Then the hand drops dejectedly to Rodney's side. "I liked her when I was fourteen, which by the way was the last time I saw her. She was an English teacher and she was brilliant — for an English teacher — and she had this way of saying really nasty, accurate things about stupid people, but in a really polite, roundabout New England way which was something I really admired, and she made amazing food, but she's terrifying and she knows everything about everyone and she's eighty-four years old, so I can't exactly say no to her, can I?"
John watches Rodney thud his head exhaustedly against the door and shut his eyes. He pats Rodney on the shoulder sympathetically. "Having trouble with the ZPM simulations again, huh?"
"Oh, shut up," Rodney mutters, sounding so tired he's all but sliding down the wall.
John has two ideas, both bad ones, both at the same time. The first is put into action before his conscious mind can interfere and has him sliding an arm behind Rodney's back and hauling him upright against John's side. Rodney grunts, but doesn't resist as John leads him towards the bed.
The second bad idea is the part where he opens his mouth.
"I could go with you," he offers. And then he shuts his eyes for a second, thinking fuck, fuck, fuck, you MORON, because he's a moron.
But Rodney half-opens his eyes, still pliant as John sits him down on the bed, where the bedclothes are still rumpled and warm from John's own body, and wow, what the hell was he thinking? Rodney's room was maybe four steps further just across the hall, and their DC briefing's been over for twenty-seven whole glorious hours, he's supposed to be on vacation, damn it.
"Really?" he asks softly, surprised, his eyes widening. Rodney's always so damn surprised when anybody does anything nice for him, it makes John want to kiss him and kill somebody at the same time over the unfairness of it all. He clenches his fists at his sides so he doesn't do either and shrugs.
"Really?" Rodney repeats, rubbing clumsily at his eyes with the heels of his hands. "You'd - really?"
John really needs more sleep to deal with this sort of thing.
"Sure." He glances at the clock again. He gives Rodney a little shove. "You can tell me all about it in the morning, okay?"
Rodney sinks down into the mattress, pulling up his knees and curling an arm around John's pillow, the one he was using before Rodney woke him. Rodney always sleeps curled into a ball like that, even off-world. The pillow-hugging thing he's done in the infirmary - it always makes John's chest hurt a little.
Rodney's already nearly asleep. "Thanks," he mumbles into the pillow, yawning and then letting his eyes close.
John stands over him for a few seconds, fighting his every unwise instinct, then sighs, rubbing his face with both hands. Maybe he'll get lucky in the morning and Rodney will have forgotten this whole conversation.
John sighs as he picks up the blanket he kicked to the floor hours earlier and settles himself on the couch, punching the cushion to make it uncomfortable instead of torturous.
Rodney never forgets anything. That's part of the problem.
Rodney says nothing when he wakes up in John's bed, but he does almost fall on the floor when he tries to get up and finds the wall on the wrong side. He rights himself quickly while John's still blinking into the morning light from the couch.
"Oh," he says to himself, looking at the bed, the room and John on the couch. "Right." He's a little pink in the face from sleep, pillow-creases covering one cheek, but otherwise unmoved by the fact that he's not where he's supposed to be.
He yawns and reaches for the phone. "Breakfast?" he asks, but he's talking to room service before John's pulled his head out from under the couch-cushion he used as a pillow.
It isn't until lunch that John finds out what he's really gotten himself in for.
"Why do you want to know?" he asks suspiciously, in response to the question Rodney's just asked him. Rodney shuffles his feet and looks over John's head.
"Uh, because it's the Air Force Association Dinner? I told you."
"No you didn't," John tells him. "I know you didn't, because it was four in the morning and I remember most things that happen at four in the morning. You said 'some kind of banquet.' Nothing about an Air Force awards dinner," John growls, but is humiliated to find that he is nevertheless turning towards his closet to pull out his dress uniform and throw it violently on the bed. He'll have to send it to the hotel laundry to get pressed, which pisses him off because they always use too much starch in nice hotels. He turns back to find Rodney anxiously wringing his hands.
"You don't have to!" he says quickly. "I mean, it's not like you were ordered to go by anybody. I'm sure you wouldn't be expected to — they probably won't even know you're Air Force!"
Which would be for the best really, John thinks, since he's beginning to suspect he'll be admitted as Rodney's plus-one, which is the last damned thing he needs at a function full of Air Force brass. So no, he'll go in uniform. At least that way he's got the uniform to hide behind if he sees anybody who knows him. He's just Doctor McKay's escort, after all. Can't have that valuable brain wandering around unattended.
"You don't even have to go. It was nice of you to offer, but it's my problem and my insane family, you don't have to—" he trails off, and John curses himself, Rodney, and his crazy aunt in one mental string of profanity. This has gotten very dangerous if all Rodney has to do is look sad for him to fold like a damp kite.
"No, it's fine," John says, trying to keep on sounding angry but just sounding level. "I have to get it pressed, that's all. I wasn't expecting to have to wear it again before we went back to Pegasus."
Predictably, because outside of situations where there's an actual gun to his head Rodney's as observant of behavioural subtleties as your average potted plant, Rodney brightens. "Oh, okay then," he says, his shoulders drooping with relief. "I'll get my suit, we can send them down together. No sense wasting an extra tip, right?"
He disappears across the hall, and John lets himself fall face-down on the bed, groaning. This is ridiculous, he thinks. He's a grown man, an officer in the United States Air Force, the military commander of a base in another galaxy, and one flailing, anxious, brilliant physicist is enough to make him toss all sense and caution out the window. Jesus fucking Christ.
He pulls a pillow over his head and counts to ten, wallowing in despair.
Then he throws the pillow aside and rolls to his feet, picks up the room phone to call the hotel laundry service, because Rodney's going to be back in a minute.
Rodney's gotten used to always being able to hear the ocean. Not because of where he grew up — he was always too absorbed in other things and hated everything about his life — his family, the town where they lived, his so-called "peers" — to pay much attention to scenery. No; he got used to being able to hear the ocean because of two summers in a little white house in Cabot Cove, Maine, where the briny smell of the sea permeated everything. Being packed up with cookies and iced tea and set loose on the cliffs for hours at a time to come back sunburned and tired and pretending he'd hated it. Aunt Jess was of the opinion that children should play outside, at least some of the time, and didn't give him a chance to argue.
(The iced tea was always carefully made with honey but no lemon, because Aunt Jess was always briskly, vocally careful about that kind of thing when he was visiting. Once Rodney met the town sheriff leaving with two lemon pies balanced carefully in one arm as he was coming up the front walk with his suitcase. The sheriff navigated around him without looking and bobbed a friendly nod before driving away in his beaten-up brown and white car, and he found Aunt Jess industriously washing mixing bowls at the kitchen sink. She turned around and held up a soapy hand to keep him from entering. "You stay right there, Meredith, until I'm done with this. I had to use up the last of the lemons, but I didn't want them to go to waste." Not that Amos Tupper wasn't always happy to relieve Jessica of any baking she cared to offer.
But Aunt Jess also didn't mind him spending whole days sprawled on his bedroom floor with books and papers all around him, working his way through secondary school math textbooks and whatever college-level texts he could find in Cabot Cove's tiny library. She didn't mind him playing the piano in their cozy, cluttered living room for hours at a time. In the Fletcher house no one complained that his playing was driving them crazy, that it was keeping Jeannie awake, that it was time to be serious and quiet, Meredith, don't you understand?
Aunt Jess always answered his music with the sound of her typewriter, and if on the day Rodney was seized with some perverse need to play the same two pieces over and over again for hours got on his nerves, Uncle Frank always left to go fishing before he let it show. Sometimes Rodney felt like they pitied him, but he was never sure enough to be bothered by it. The second summer he was shipped off to Maine, he was still angry — he was never his parents' first priority and they all knew it — but he didn't argue. It was better, not being home. It was something he remembered but didn't voice, when he went away to school not long after. And when he got homesick, it was for Jeannie; it wasn't for his parents' house.
Once, when Aunt Jess had gotten off the phone with his mother — "Just checking in, dear," and they hadn't wanted to talk to Rodney even when he'd asked — and he'd gone into his room and slammed the door and told Uncle Frank to leave him alone when he came looking for him, they did. They left him alone until the sky outside started going orange and warm with sunset, and only then did Aunt Jess come quietly inside, lever herself down on the floor next to him and asked him to explain what he was doing with all these numbers. He was never sure how much of it she understood, but she nodded and smiled and acted as though she did, and blew out her breath at the end and told him matter-of-factly that he was bright, that he'd go far, that she expected to be able to tell people her nephew was a Nobel Prize winner one day. "And I don't like being disappointed, Meredith."
He hasn't seen Aunt Jess since he was fourteen years old and skinny and sleep-deprived and the youngest person in his Boston dorm, the one whose prim and proper great-aunt made her way up into the boys' dorms with her big purse and her tweed skirt and a thick-knit cardigan wrapped in brown paper tucked under her arm. But while the embarrassment of that moment stuck with him for months — his dorm-mates, who'd hated him already, had lived off of that material for at least six, the boy genius whose sweet old auntie brought him hand-knitted sweaters — he'd kept the sweater through two doctorates, the CIA, Siberia, Antarctica and a move to another galaxy, a treasured and slightly embarrassing secret until John Sheppard had found him out.
Also, he'd never forget the way the idiots in his dorm had melted away in sheer terror when Aunt Jess had straightened up, turned around, and just looked at them.
In Rodney's opinion, anybody who thinks that Jessica Fletcher is sweet clearly just isn't paying very close attention.
He's gotten used to the sound of the ocean lately for more obvious reasons; in Atlantis, the ocean is an ever-present sound, pushing and pulling at the city every moment of every day. Aunt Jess always left every window in the house open in the summertime, so that all he could hear was the sound of the Atlantic crashing against the cliffs. Even when he was younger and a fear of drowning was a prominent part of his repertoire, he'd found it comforting.
And now he's going to see her again for the first time in more than twenty years.
He wonders if she'll have changed, mellowed with age like some people do. He doubts it; he pegs Aunt Jess as the type to become more focused and crotchety, a distilled essence of herself. Especially given the way he hears she's been spending her time, these past few decades. And he thought bizarre things happened to him.
God, what the hell is he doing?
Rodney's minor panic attack is interrupted when John comes out of his bathroom, carrying the jacket to his dress uniform draped over one forearm and scrubbing ineffectually at his wet hair with the other hand. Rodney stares for a second. "It really does that on its own, doesn't it?" he says, to distract himself from saying anything stupider. John Sheppard in his dress uniform is a sight that would give anybody pause, he tells himself. It's probably just that he looks, the hair notwithstanding, so strangely neat and restrained — unlike John. Everything Rodney knows about him contained. It's unsettling. John glares at him, as though Rodney doesn't make a joke about his hair at least twice a day. Though it occurs to him, belatedly, that he probably shouldn't be criticizing the man who's essentially agreed to act as his human shield, whether he knows it or not.
Before he can open his mouth again, he snatches up his garment bag and goes into the bathroom to shower and change. When he emerges, holding his (stupid, stupid) bowtie in one hand, it's John's turn to stare, hazel eyes widening as his gaze travels up Rodney's body from his shoes to the crown of his head. Rodney scowls at him.
"What?" he demands. "We can't all look like you in formal wear, all right? Also," he holds out the hand containing the crumpled bowtie, "these things were designed by some kind of sadist. Or somebody who's never had to dress themselves."
John blinks, and pushes himself to his feet. He's still in shirtsleeves with the jacket draped over the back of the desk chair, and his hair is dry, a little tamer but still in its usual disorderly state. Rodney wonders if John actually put something in it.
John holds out his hand. Rodney stares stupidly for two heartbeats before John reaches out and plucks the cursed tie out of his hand.
"What are you doing?" Rodney asks as John flips up his collar, having moved into Rodney's space while Rodney wasn't looking. He smells like the hotel shower gel and something sweet and sharp, maybe whatever he's put in his hair.
"When I was a teenager, I had to take classes in this stuff," John tells him, eyes narrowed on his own hands, which are looping the tie around Rodney's neck and then doing something complicated with the ends. "Might as well put it to use."
Rodney tips his head back — he really doesn't like wearing ties, he always feels like he's being slowly strangled, but apparently he's been doing something wrong. John pulls, and twists, and then his collar's being flipped back down and John's patting the bow with a satisfied little smirk. Rodney blinks again, then looks in the mirror as John steps behind him and turns them both to face their reflections.
"Besides," John adds, hands still on Rodney's shoulders, "I think you look good. It's all attitude, you know."
Rodney lets that slide, because John's got a point. He does look good. Really, he ought to, considering what the tux cost him. He originally planned to wear the suit he always wears to government functions, or rent one like he did when he and Jennifer went to Tunney's disaster party — a memory better left alone, he reminds himself, shaking his head. But after one look at the suit John made pinchy, disapproving faces until Rodney consented to be dragged into a pricier store than he'd ever set foot in before. John then proceeded to slouch in a chair and read golf magazines while the store employees made him try on suit after suit. "Jesus, I didn't know this was such a process," he complained, getting only an answering smirk from John. This was probably revenge for making him wear the dress uniform.
But apparently it was worth it. That, and maybe all the time he's spent running for his life off-world have paid off to some degree, because he doesn't look like the slightly pudgy, anxious academic he remembers seeing in the mirror when he tried on his tux before the trip to Arizona. He looks... huh. Put-together. Tailored. Good.
So does John, he notices, grinning over Rodney's shoulder like he's done something praiseworthy. As their eyes meet in the mirror, John looks away as though he's embarrassed. And — are the tips of John's ears pink, or is he imagining it?
But Rodney doesn't have time to contemplate this latest bizarre facet of the puzzle of John Sheppard. At that moment there's a knock on the door, and a voice from the other side telling them their car's arrived.
The Marriott Wardman Park is a nice hotel — John knows this because it's one of the kinds of places his father stayed at when on business trips. Opulent, respectable, with a hotel employee at your elbow before you even think of asking for something. As the car makes its way up the front drive, he can see lights stationed on the hotel roof, sweeping the low cloud cover. A valet opens the back door and holds it while he and Rodney unfold themselves onto the sidewalk, Rodney twitchily brushing down the front of his jacket, casting wide eyes up the walk to the front door, which is milling with people in uniform and expensive formal wear.
It's only at this moment that John realises Rodney is nervous — not uncertain, which he often is, but genuinely nervous, the way he only gets around people whose opinion he actually values. John supposes he's about to meet another person to add to that very brief list — John, Teyla, Ronon, Jeannie, Sam, Keller — though John has no idea how that stands these days, since their very quiet break-up — Crazy Aunt Jess.
Who is formidable enough to terrify Rodney McKay.
John starts to wonder if he shouldn't start being nervous on his own account.
Inside the hotel is crowded and he follows Rodney as he makes his way easily through it — Rodney has a way of making space for himself that translates well to crowd-dodging, where people seem to make way for him without really being aware they're doing it. But as John follows in his wake, he can see from the angle of Rodney's back and shoulders that he's still tense, nervous. There's music filtering into the lobby from the ballroom and as they approach the entrance, a uniformed hotel employee politely stops them and asks their names. This is, of course, enough to make Rodney straighten up, shoulders tilting back, chin coming up.
"Doctor Rodney McKay," he tells the man, and apparently as an afterthought, jerks a nod in John's direction. "And guest."
The man's eyes scan down his list, and then widen a little as he gestures a hand apparently at random into the crowd. Moments later a similarly uniformed young man materialises at his side, leans in to let the doorman whisper in his ear, and vanishes again. The doorman looks up. "Mrs. Fletcher asked to be notified upon your arrival, Doctor McKay," he explains smoothly. "You'll find her near the main table, I believe."
Rodney falters. "Uh, thank you," he says.
"Enjoy your evening," the doorman replies, with a nod to John as well, before Rodney makes his way inside.
A few seconds later, John catches up with a Rodney who has apparently once again forgotten he's there. He touches Rodney's elbow. "Fletcher?" he inquires, years of adolescent etiquette training making him ask before thinking. "Your mother's side or your father's?"
"Mother's aunt," Rodney tells him, absently, scanning the crowd. "The McGills. Fletcher is her married name."
John nods, seeing Rodney's eyes light on the knot of people near the cluster of main tables and following his gaze. Uniformed Colonels and Generals, their spouses and several overdressed civilians who are probably Association heads. At the centre of it all is a handsome elderly woman in a tasteful blue evening gown who is deep in conversation with a General with more medals on his chest than fabric. He can tell immediately that this is Aunt Jess — she has Rodney's square face, pointed chin, wide mouth. The expression on her face is one he's seen dozens of times — tolerant, weary, but engaged — though there's a patient warmth he associates more with Jeannie. As they approach, some other recognition tickles at the back of John's mind, willing him to notice it. Where has he seen her before?
And then he stops dead, because he knows exactly where he's seen her before, and the surprise of it is enough to make him catch Rodney's arm and pull him aside, into the lee of a potted plant flanking the stage. Rodney, who was slowing hesitantly at the edge of the crowd surrounding Mrs. Fletcher, shakes him loose with an annoyed frown.
"What?" he demands, shooting glances through the screen of leaves.
"Jessica Fletcher," John says slowly.
"Yes?" Rodney agrees, irritably.
"Your Aunt Jess is Jessica Fletcher? Like, J.B. Fletcher the mystery novelist?"
"Yes?" Rodney repeats, now growing impatient with him. "What's your point?" He pauses, studying John's face. Then he grins, poking a finger into John's chest. "Oh my god, you're a fan, aren't you? Among your bizarre obsession with the Russians and American Literature is an obsession with murder mysteries, isn't there? I totally should have seen this coming!"
John glares at him. "I've told you I like murder mysteries. I've lent them to you. And Ronon. I just didn't happen to bring any Fletcher to another galaxy with me. Which I'm beginning to regret now," he adds, crossing his arms, "since if I'd known you were related to one of the most famous mystery writers in the world— "
"You'd never have let me hear the end of it, is what," Rodney finishes darkly. "It's not a big deal, okay? Everything I said is true. She is absolutely immune to bullshit, which means," he pokes John in the chest again, hard enough that John rubs at the spot with his hand and pouts a little, "that you'd be better off canning the charming flyboy routine. You'll only embarrass yourself."
"Hey," John protests. That's a low blow, even for Rodney. He only charms people he needs to charm, which is usually limited to hostile aliens, superior officers, and traffic cops. He's a little hurt Rodney would even suggest it.
"Well," Rodney says, rubbing his hands together and looking slightly regretful, "I'm sorry, but I wasn't kidding about her knowing everything about everybody. Just, be careful. One of the reasons I haven't seen her in twenty years is that I've been working on classified government projects the entire time and sometimes she just... figures things out. Without meaning to. And—"
The sight of Rodney's eyes widening in incipient horror is almost — okay no, definitely — comical. The way he goes completely straight and turns around to face Jessica Fletcher bearing down on him with her hands outstretched as though facing his execution is even funnier. Jessica Fletcher has abandoned her entourage on the other side of the room and is approaching them with something like grim determination.
But when she reaches Rodney, she stops, studying him, head-to-toe, almost exactly like John's seen Jeannie do — except at the end of this inspection, instead of delivering a smack to the back of Rodney's head, Jessica Fletcher pulls him into a thoroughly no-nonsense hug that Rodney only resists a little.
"Hi, Aunt Jess," Rodney says, his voice muffled by her shoulder. He sounds chagrined, like he's been caught stealing cookies or something. But he pats her gingerly on the back, and then she pulls away enough to look at his face before shaking her head and pulling him close again.
"Oh, Meredith," she says, softly enough that John doesn't think anybody but him can hear — almost sadly. "It's been far too long."
John tries to decide if it's too late to melt into the shrubbery behind him, but by the time he decides it is, she's already spotted him. Her gaze goes sharp, subjecting John to the same brisk visual inspection she gave Rodney — her eyes, John notices, are the same clear, intense blue as Rodney's and Jeannie's — and she tilts her head in Rodney's direction. "And who's your friend?"
Etiquette — thank you, etiquette, which doesn't require him to think about it — takes over at this point, because Rodney's staring, his mouth open, and John holds out his hand. Her handshake is firm, strong, and certain, just like her smile. She doesn't look as old as Rodney said she was. "John Sheppard, ma'am," he says, nodding in Rodney's direction. "Rodney and I work together."
Jessica's eyes snap up to meet his, studying, and then something subtle happens to her face — her eyebrows lifting, her mouth thinning out into an odd little smile. If he hadn't been watching, he wouldn't have seen it at all. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Colonel Sheppard," she tells him, and of course, of course she can read brass. He'd bet she knows the name of every medal on his chest, and the make of his dress shoes, and how long he's had them. He's read those articles and heard those stories about J.B. Fletcher.
"Oh, don't call him by his rank, his ego's big enough as it is," Rodney breaks in, taking refuge in sarcasm. He's looking anxiously between John and his aunt, and John wonders for a moment what he's trying to figure out before he adds, "John's a big fan."
"Well, that's very nice," Jessica Fletcher tells him, patting the back of his hand in a motherly way before letting it go. "Shall we go sit down? The ceremony won't start for another forty-five minutes, and I'm famished. And if I remember your appetite correctly, Meredith—"
Rodney's face does the same twisty, embarrassed thing John saw it do the first time Jeannie called him "Mer" in front of a gate room full of Marines and John can't keep the ridiculous laugh from escaping. He bites his tongue even as Rodney swings a glare around on him, and Jessica keeps talking: "—you should have seen him, Colonel Sheppard — always hungry."
"That hasn't changed much," John agrees, grinning at Rodney's discomfiture. Rodney gives him an accusing look as they make their way to the table, so John pats him on the arm, reassuringly. "Takes a lot of fuel to run that big brain."
Rodney seems slightly mollified and huffs out a sigh as his aunt smiles at him. "It really has been too long, Meredith," she says again, and: "I want to hear all about what you've been doing! Assuming," she turns an amused (is John imagining the challenge there?) look on John, "you're allowed to tell me."
The waiter comes by with the extremely abbreviated menus and John buries himself in his as Jessica starts peppering Rodney with questions — she hears from Jeannie all the time, she says, and never a word from him, and she knows he's very busy, but...
...and every so often, she glances across the table at John. She says nothing, is still in conversation with Rodney, focused on him. It's a thoughtful look, almost calculating, the way Rodney looks at machines whose function he hasn't quite worked out, but he has an idea...
John slouches a little in his seat, staring grimly at the wine selection, noting there's nothing more substantial than an appetizer on the whole menu. Suddenly he's less concerned about accidentally spilling state secrets than he is about one old lady spotting his ridiculous, dangerous, impossible crush on her great-nephew, the consequences of which — Jesus. Don't even bear thinking about. There is no way he's gone six years successfully not making a fool of himself in the company of Rodney McKay only to have it all undone by an eighty-four-year-old mystery novelist. Unfortunately, he thinks, peeking over the top of his menu to see Rodney and his aunt bent together over what looks like Madison's kindergarten class picture, he used to tell himself the same thing about a certain Canadian astrophysicist.
Despite the pomp, Rodney finds the Air Force Association dinner to be more or less the same as other U.S. government functions: over-formal where it ought to be casual and oddly blasé where it should have more gravity. It always leaves him fidgety with impatience and falling asleep at odd intervals, which he's aware does not show the proper respect expected from people invited to these sorts of things.
It's made all the worse by the fact that these are somewhat unique circumstances. Made so first by the presence of John Sheppard, who never fails to inject the ridiculous into every occasion by his mere presence. Not to mention his tendency to make Rodney laugh at the most inappropriate of moments. He's no slouch this evening — figuratively speaking, of course, as John Sheppard's posture is probably only upright in the presence of hostile aliens or a full court-martial, and Rodney wouldn't bet on the second. He's spent the evening thus far either fidgeting with his cutlery or the artistically folded napkins, or looking up just in time to meet Rodney's eyes and make absurd faces that are probably not meant to be weird faces at all; it's hard to tell, with John's face. But it keeps making Rodney grin or chuckle at unexpected moments; like now. This time Aunt Jess intercepts his glance, raising one eyebrow at the two of them just like the English teacher she used to be. Rodney breaks eye contact and looks down at his hands, face growing hot. He looks up once more only to glare at John, who's slouching a little lower in his chair, still smirking. He looks for all the world like a chastised teenager.
And that's the other thing that's making Rodney start to shift uncomfortably in his chair — though he used to be able to sit through these kinds of functions with at least something passable as dignity — the presence of his Aunt Jess, as always stately, intelligent, and frustratingly difficult to read. It's not that she's inscrutable, by any means — it's just that you can always tell that for every word she says, there are another ten crowding behind her teeth. That she never says all that she means used to annoy him as much as it impressed him. It meant she could say whatever she liked, in such a way that no one took offence. He tried in vain to mimic this remarkable talent, until he started graduate school and realised he genuinely didn't care whether people took offence. Generally people deserved it, anyway.
She's been nothing but cordial since they arrived, but then she's always like that, even when she's angry. Aunt Jess believes in manners to a degree most people only pretend. Even when she's tearing someone a new one she's polite about it — as he recalls, it's truly a sight to behold. And he doesn't know if she's angry with him or not, for not writing or calling — not that for a while there he didn't have an excuse! — for what happened with his parents, for what happened with Jeannie. Jeannie certainly hasn't mentioned exchanging e-mails with Aunt Jess, though it's crossed his mind a few times to ask, even if he never did it. And Aunt Jess hasn't said anything — there hasn't been time for anything other than polite dinner conversation. Maybe it's because John's here, maybe because this is so public. But he still gets the unnerving feeling that some kind of lecture is building behind his stately auntie's polite smile. She's facing the stage, hands folded demurely on the table, smile unforced, pleasant, friendly.
If he didn't know for a fact that his aunt finds these kinds of functions "exhausting, really, so much ceremony for awfully little reward," he'd be utterly convinced that she was enjoying herself. But he's more concerned with anticipating what's going to happen after dinner, when she gets him alone to tell him...
...well, he doesn't know what. That's what's making him progressively more anxious as the evening wears on. It's even more shocking that he's this worried, that at forty-two years old he's still this deeply affected by the mere possibility of his Aunt Jessica's disapproval. Not paralysed or anything, but bothered by the idea enough that he suspects it will continue to bother him even once he and John are back in Atlantis, a galaxy away and far beyond her reach.
Not that he truly believes anything is beyond Jessica Fletcher's reach. He shoots another glance at her profile, finds her expression unchanged, but her right hand twisting her wedding band around, and around, and around. Rodney's eyes light for a moment on the little flash of gold as it appears and disappears between Aunt Jess's fingers. He remembers that when Uncle Frank died — that he felt worse about missing that funeral, than he did about either of his parents'. Still does, years later.
Aunt Jess catches him looking, and something on his face must give away his thoughts, because she gives him a little smile and reaches out to pat his hand before looking back at the stage.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees John looking at him, but doesn't return the gaze. There are a lot of things Rodney knows about himself, more since he started risking his life on a regular basis, and one of them is that he has no poker face to speak of. And that John Sheppard, while unfairly keeping himself to himself, is annoyingly good at plucking Rodney's every passing thought out of the air as though it was written above his head.
When the room around him erupts in cheering and clapping, he startles and almost falls out of his chair — and peripherally sees John go to reach and steady him before he catches himself and draws back into his own space on the other side of the table. To Rodney's right, Aunt Jess is rising gracefully to her feet — even taller in heels and a glittery evening gown — and taking the arm of the General who appears to escort her to the stage amid riotous applause. Rodney can only blink as everyone around him is rising from their seats, staring up at Aunt Jess mounting the stage, accepting their praise with aplomb he could never hope to mimic, smiling around at the audience and the Air Force brass on the stage and meaning it, so far as he can tell.
As the applause finally dies down and the speeches begin anew, Rodney slumps back in his seat. Yeah, he thinks, with what can only be the results of five years of peril-enforced humility — whatever Aunt Jess might have to say to him, he probably deserves it.
Rodney is still nervous and fidgeting after the speeches end and people start drifting home, waiting for Jessica Fletcher — John's still not over that — to finish saying her thanks and her goodbyes to the various dignitaries vying for her attention. Not that a fidgety Rodney is out of the ordinary, but it's something else to see it here, out in the real world. Rodney's twisting his cloth napkin into ever more contorted shapes, plucking at the buttons on his shirt-cuffs hard enough that John's worried they'll pop off and land in someone's drink. And he looks rumpled in a way he didn't at the beginning of the evening, which John knows because he got a pretty thorough eyeful before they set out from the hotel, something he knew was dangerous, or would have been with anybody but Rodney (who never notices), a kind of risk he doesn't usually allow himself.
Besides, even rumpled, Rodney in a tuxedo is worth all the potential awkwardness of a formal Air Force dinner, his dress blues and Jessica Fletcher's all-too-knowing stare.
John shoves his hands into his pockets as Rodney finally gets to his feet. He's probably just being paranoid.
Jessica Fletcher — John can't seem to think of her as anything else in his head and is seriously worried he's going to say it out loud the next time he addresses her — returns to the table then, apparently shedding Generals and politicians as she goes. "No, that's quite all right, really, Henry. I've been sitting all evening, I could really use the exercise, and it's only a few blocks—"
"I wish you'd at least let me offer you an escort, Jessica," says a stately older man John belatedly recognises as General Henry Dalton, who the last time he checked was attached to the USAF Public Affairs Office in Washington — he was also a college friend of Patrick Sheppard's, and one of only a few people who might have seen his father drunk or talkative enough to complain about his absent elder son, or let slip one of the biggest reasons John was absent in the first place.
John feels his spine go stiff, pulls his hands out of his pockets almost without meaning to — probably he won't recognise John, probably.
Fortunately, Dalton seems more absorbed in kissing Jessica Fletcher's hand as she gently, but firmly turns him down: "No, thank you, Henry—"
Henry, John thinks, with something like awe.
"—but I have my great-nephew here, and we haven't seen each other in so long..."
"You're sure I can't offer you at least a couple of—"
"And his friend, who as you can see is more than capable of seeing us back safely," Jessica continues smoothly, gesturing to where John is standing awkwardly next to an oddly quiet Rodney. He'd look, but doesn't quite dare, as General Henry Dalton is brought up short by the sight of him. An expression of surprise and then contemplation cross his features as his gaze drifts over first John's collar, then his nametag, then his face, then—
"And to be honest with you, I'm feeling quite tired, so..." Jessica continues, after a brief pause in which she doubtless sees the unease in John's bearing, and okay, so Rodney was only sort of kidding about the telepathy.
Dalton seems to shake himself, and then turns back to Jessica, forgetting about John to clasp her hand and hand over a plaque tucked under his arm, and thank her for coming twice more before Jessica is able to manoeuvre around the table, take John and Rodney each firmly by the arm, and tow them out of the ballroom. John feels oddly as though he's being rescued.
Outside, the night air has cooled down to the point where John can just feel it through his jacket. Rodney rubs his hands together and then crosses his arms almost as soon as they hit the sidewalk. Jessica, who is still holding their arms, just heaves a sigh of relief as soon as they're out of sight of the main doors. "My goodness, that was trying," she says, with a little laugh, shaking her head and letting go of their arms long enough to hold her plaque at arms' length, inspect it and hand it off to Rodney, who blinks down at it before sticking it under his arm. Then she hooks her elbow through Rodney's and carries on: "It's an honour of course, but really, all I did was research."
The award is for "positive portrayal of the United States Air Force," from one of her recent novels, a murder mystery set at Nellis AFB. This was a co-incidence strange enough that John tried to catch Rodney's eye, but Rodney was too busy neurotically tying knots in his napkin. It made John wonder exactly what else she researched in Nevada, because only a blind man would fail to notice the subtle oddities that are routine at the base serving as middle-man to the Area 51 installation, and Jessica Fletcher is anything but unobservant.
John stuffs his hands back into his pockets. He's really got to get a handle on this paranoia of his.
"And that General Dalton," she continues, shaking her head. "What an obsequious little man! I thought we'd never get out of the hotel!"
And John can't help it — he's startled into a laugh, while Rodney beams at them both. "Thank god," he bursts out, the first words he's spoken all evening, "I was half-afraid we'd be stuck with those idiots for hours!"
Jessica shakes him a little by the arm — really shakes him without seeming to exert herself at all, and Rodney just laughs, easy and free, while John stares — but keeps smiling. "Meredith!" she chides, as though she didn't just spend five minutes describing Dalton with words like "obsequious" and "parroting" and "dull." And then she looks slyly over at John. "I was a little worried we'd be trapped when he spotted your friend here," she tells Rodney, and to John says: "I gather you know each other?"
John's caught with his mouth open in surprise before he manages to shut it. Then he admits, avoiding Rodney's eyes: "He was a friend of my father's," gruffly, hands curling into fists in his pockets. Jessica studies him for a moment, and then treats him to the same bracing pat on the arm she gave Rodney earlier. John stumbles a little from the force of it before being startled into another laugh, looking away as she says:
"I don't know about the two of you, but after all those silly canapés, I could do with a good meal."
She drags them into the next restaurant they pass, and the hostess doesn't even comment on their formal-wear. John kind of understands — at this point, he wouldn't really dare, either.
The weirdest thing about the evening so far isn't that Rodney is related to one of the most famous mystery writers on Earth, or that said mystery writer turns out to be utilizing her psychic powers to make John blush and fumble things, or that lacking said (probably fictional) psychic powers she still seems able to look right into his head in a way no one's been able to do (except Teyla) since his mother died. Or that she seems well aware of his every ridiculous, embarrassing thought regarding her nephew and he can't tell what she thinks about it.
No. The weirdest thing about the evening so far is that from the moment she descended on them in the hotel ballroom, Rodney's been quiet. Not just quiet for Rodney, but quiet, like he's waiting for Jessica to speak and doesn't want to interrupt her if she does, while Jessica, by contrast, seems to be watching the two of them as if waiting for something in her own turn.
It's really starting to freak John right the fuck out.
It's freaking him out more than her innocent questions about their work, and her stories about the oddly-stringent security at Nellis AFB, and how much she actually knows about what is and what isn't normal procedure for the USAF since her husband was a pilot in the Korean war, and his growing suspicion that her brain runs on as many simultaneous tracks as Rodney's. It dawns on him that she could very well be trying to eke out truths about him while at the very same time attempting to satisfy some idle curiosity about Nellis, its function as transfer-point to a certain secret, non-existent USAF research facility out in the Nevada desert, and exactly what her great-nephew and John Sheppard have to do with either one.
And if you asked him, John still couldn't prove she was anything other than a nosy, sweet old lady with an unexpectedly sharp tongue.
Across the table, Rodney is making a sour face as Jessica talks about Kaleb Miller. Jessica was an English teacher before she became an author, John remembers Rodney telling him, and he'd bet she likes Kaleb as much as Rodney used to hate his guts. Not to mention, he gets the impression Jessica probably tends to gather a fairly accurate first impression of people, unmuddied by her own bullshit. The possibility that she's got him pegged as well as she probably has is what's been keeping him so quiet all evening, resisting the many lines Rodney's been throwing him that would lead naturally into their usual back-and-forth. He's a little worried about what she might pick up from that that he doesn't mean to show. But as always, in the end he can't help himself.
"Hey, I thought you said you'd changed your mind about him," John says, smiling a little when Rodney glares at him.
"I said I was considering changing my mind about him, and that was only because he proved he can buy good coffee."
It was the snappiest reply he's heard out of Rodney all night, and it makes him smile despite himself.
"Yeah, and Jeannie likes him, and you're scared of Jeannie."
"I am not scared of Jeannie," Rodney returns with withering scorn. "I just find it best to—" He stops all of a sudden, turning to Jessica with wide eyes and open mouth.
But Jessica Fletcher only laughs. "Don't start apologizing now, Meredith. I've been wondering all evening what happened to your tongue!" And when Rodney only stares at her, looking anxious and unsure and - sad, John thinks — she touches his face, pats his cheek until he looks down at the place where she's covered his hand with her own. John abruptly feels like he's intruding, like he's seeing something Rodney would rather he didn't see, even though he's seen Rodney at far more awkward, vulnerable moments than this one.
Then Jessica turns to John and asks him about his family, and John's suddenly too busy sitting up straight and trying to negotiate the inner minefield of his conscious mind in congruence with his blood relatives to make funny faces at Rodney anymore.
Rodney orders a huge hamburger and then gets into an argument with the waitress over the ingredients in the secret sauce. The girl, who since bringing them their ice water has been flirting recklessly with an increasingly uncomfortable John, gives him a look that tells him she's annoyed with the interruption. "The ingredients are secret," she tells him with a thinning version of her earlier cheerfulness. "That's why it's called a secret sauce."
"Yes, well, I happen to have a severe citrus allergy," he snaps, crossing his arms. "So you're just going to have to break your holy vow so that I don't go into anaphylactic shock and die."
Aunt Jess defuses the impending shouting match by leaning forward and asking the girl if it's her first day, politely implying that if she doesn't do as she's asked, it will be her last day as well.
She takes the rest of their order and scurries off.
Meanwhile, Aunt Jess manages, with two carefully-phrased questions, to get John to tell her more about himself than Rodney's ever heard him say in one sitting. Within ten minutes Rodney knows that John has two nieces (Clara — five — and Lillian — nine — Dave's kids), that his sister-in-law's name is Lisa and that he never got along with his father — something Rodney has already guessed. Nothing is said about John's mother, but the way John shifts uncomfortably in his chair whenever the conversation veers too closely to the subject suggests there's a story there, too. One that Rodney's going to have to remind himself not to ask about the moment they get home, because that sort of thing usually has John clamming up and avoiding him for days.
It annoys him more than he can say that John's answering the same kinds of questions from Aunt Jess without even trying to bolt, though maybe he just hasn't yet figured out how. He doesn't even look all that uncomfortable now that the overly-forward waitress has gone, just fidgeting with the cutlery again and swirling around the ice in his water glass, his eyes on the table.
Rodney's grateful when the food comes, is more grateful that it means Aunt Jess stops asking questions for a while — though of course she doesn't ask all that many. People just find themselves wanting to tell her things. It's not until he's pushing his plate away and reaching for his water that Aunt Jess asks him: "So are you seeing anyone these days, Meredith?"
Rodney chokes on his water, barely managing to set the glass down before John's up and pounding him on the back. "Um," he says hoarsely once he can speak again, wiping tears from his eyes, and looks wildly across the table at John, just collapsing back into his chair. "I'm— no, I'm not." He can feel how red his face is, just hopes he can blame it on almost choking to death.
To his astonishment, John's eyes go wide and he blushes, before looking away.
What the hell? Rodney wonders, then turns back to Aunt Jess. "I — I was, but it. Um." Again he looks across the table at John, but no help there. John's staring fixedly at the tablecloth. "We broke up. Last year."
"Oh, I am sorry," says Aunt Jess sincerely, for some reason glancing at John, which confuses Rodney but he continues:
"Yes, well, my work's very important to me, and she..." he flaps a hand in the air, "...she didn't really... understand that."
Aunt Jess turns her head to look at him again, searchingly, and then sighs. "I'm not sure how anyone could fail to understand that about you, Meredith," she says, shaking her head. "But sometimes it takes a long while for two people to realise they aren't suited to one another."
Rodney nods, swallowing, because it took him most of a year to come to that same realisation and he still feels vaguely embarrassed about it. It got easier after Jennifer transferred back to Earth, but every so often he remembers how awful it was at first, remembers how she was always chiding him, how he embarrassed her at Tunney's presentation, even though he was right, damn it.
He glances across the table again at John, who is rumpled and slouching in his chair and sipping what Rodney thinks must be at least his third glass of wine with a grim determination that makes Rodney wonder whether he's actually trying to get drunk. He's still dashing and handsome and attractive in his dress blues with his tie loosened around his throat, and probably wouldn't have told Rodney to keep his voice down when Tunney was about to destroy the Earth. Rodney doesn't exactly wish that that whole evening never happened, because it ended with him having an actual girlfriend for almost a year, but he does sometimes wonder how differently things would have gone if he'd had someone with him who knew him well enough to take his word for something like that. He and John have always got each other's backs. That's how it works.
"Yes, well," Rodney says, reaching for his water again, "live and learn."
"That's the spirit," agrees Aunt Jess, flagging down the waitress for coffee.
Aunt Jess pleads exhaustion after dinner, and they stand on the curb outside for fifteen minutes trying to hail down a cab. John finally leaves them by the door to lean out into traffic, trying to spot one on approach, and Aunt Jess pulls Rodney away only halfway into his anxious "are you trying to kill yourself, you drunken lunatic?" rant, hooking her arm through his and drawing him away from the street.
"Calm down, Meredith," Aunt Jess chides, and then asks him, suddenly: "Now, will I see you at Christmas? I'm spending it with your sister."
Rodney blinks at the sudden change of subject. Jeannie is always inviting him for Christmas, but he's only made it once — the last couple of years emergencies have come up at the last minute. "I — yes? I think so?"
Aunt Jess nods, approvingly. "Good. And you should bring John with you." She says it so matter-of-factly that it takes Rodney a moment to answer.
"I've..." he shoots a look at John, who is waving an arm out into the street with increasing agitation after the sixth taxi zooms past without even slowing. "I asked him, once." Jeannie's been including John in the annual invitation since John rescued them from Wallace's lab. It seemed a natural thing to do — three years ago, Rodney didn't even know whether John had any family, and the idea of leaving John alone in Atlantis, probably spending the holidays re-reading golf magazines, made him feel squirmy and miserable. When John turned him down, he didn't insist. Insisting with John Sheppard rarely goes well.
Rodney shrugs, uneasily. "I don't know. He gets weird about stuff like that."
"Hm," Aunt Jess says, thoughtfully, then turns to look at Rodney, considering. Then she tilts her head a little. "I think you should ask him again," she tells him. "And make sure you come this year. All Madison ever talks about is school and her Uncle Mer. I think she'd really enjoy it if you came. I know Jeannie would."
Rodney nods, saying nothing for a while as John gets passed by another cab. Any minute now he's going to throw himself in front of one to stop it, Rodney just knows it. "I'm sorry about not calling you," he blurts at last. "Or answering your letters. Or anything of the kind. I didn't—"
Aunt Jess looks at him, patiently, as he searches for words.
"I wasn't — I just — for a while I stopped... with everybody," he finishes, miserably. "You've probably heard all about that from Jeannie. I didn't..."
Aunt Jess is quiet for a few seconds, and then she frowns. "Meredith," she says slowly, "is that what this is all about? You thought I would be angry with you? For not answering a few letters after..."
"After not showing up at my own mother's funeral, and point-blank refusing to go to Dad's? Yeah," he admits. "Most people would... I had a screaming match with Jeannie over Dad's funeral, and then I... I hung up on you. I thought..."
He remembers every word of that conversation with the same clarity he recalls his falling-out with Jeannie; Aunt Jess sounding weary and patient, reminding him he hadn't been home in years, that it was a little thing, to spend a few days there with family, even though it was difficult...
"Meredith!" Aunt Jess says, putting a hand over his mouth and stopping the flow of words. "Meredith," she repeats more softly, smiling and shaking her head. "I know very well the kind of relationship you had with your parents, especially with your father. And I know that sometimes it seems easier to simply withdraw from the whole mess. And you — you were barely fifteen when your mother died. No one could expect you to..."
"Jeannie did," he says quietly, looking at his feet. "You were always talking about how important family was. I thought..."
"Family is important," Aunt Jess agrees. "But we are family, and Jeannie is your sister, and that doesn't change, no matter what regrettable things you may have said. And she's forgiven you, hasn't she?"
Rodney shrugs. "I think so," he says. "Sometimes it's hard to tell."
"Yes, well," Aunt Jess agrees, rubbing his arm. "Take my word for it, then."
At the curb, John raises his arms in triumph as a cab finally pulls out of traffic. He turns around with his arms still raised, then lowers them and sticks his hands in his pockets when he sees the way they're standing. He turns away and bends down to talk to the driver. Rodney feels himself smiling without really having any control over it.
"And as for your Colonel Sheppard," Aunt Jess continues, as though this has anything to do with the previous line of conversation, "I look forward to seeing the both of you at Christmas, if not sooner." There's an edge to the words, and she narrows her eyes a little to drive the point home. Rodney frowns.
"I think you're overestimating my powers of persuasion," he tells Aunt Jess, but she only shakes her head with a funny little half-smile.
"Oh, I don't know, Meredith," she says, letting him lead her across the sidewalk to the waiting taxi. "I think you'll be surprised how persuasive you can be with the right audience."
With that cryptic remark, she kisses him on the cheek, and then does the same with John after whispering something in his ear that leaves him blushing — Rodney's sure he's not imagining it — as he hands her down into the back seat. "I'll talk to you soon, Meredith!" she says, as the cab pulls away, and then she's gone.
Rodney sways a little on the sidewalk, watches as John straightens, scrubbing a hand through his hair, and doesn't look at him for a few seconds. Rodney's pretty sure he's not really drunk, but there's an unusual looseness about his body language that is either studied or a sign of maybe half a glass too much. "So," he says eventually, "nice lady." His voice is a little faint, and he's still not meeting Rodney's eyes.
"I warned you," Rodney says mulishly, because that's easier than asking what the hell Aunt Jess said to John that's got him acting so weird.
But John just chuckles and turns, looking wry and a little tired. He reaches out and claps Rodney on the shoulder. "Fair enough," he agrees, and then he says: "Come on," and starts walking back up the street in the direction of their hotel. Rodney stares after him for a long moment before scrambling to catch up.
John follows him into his room when they get there, going around the room picking up his things and bundling them under one arm. His dress jacket is folded over one arm again, and his cuffs are unbuttoned, one half rolled-up to expose a skinny, hairy forearm. Sitting down on the end of his bed, Rodney notices John's not wearing his wristband, and his wrist looks naked without it. He's still not looking at Rodney much, even as Rodney struggles to undo his own tie, throwing it across the room to land on the heap of his own discarded clothes under the table.
"I'm sorry about her interrogating you," he says finally, as John stands at the table, folding his jeans and shirt with his usual finicky precision. This, it turns out, is what finally makes John look up.
Rodney gestures vaguely at him. "At dinner," he explains. "I know you don't like talking about... stuff like that. Or at least, I assume you don't, since you never do."
John stares at him a moment, face unreadable, and then looks back down at his neat pile of clothing, shaking his head. There's the ghost of a smile on his face. "It's okay," he says, shrugging. "I sort of... I found myself wanting to tell her things. It was kind of..."
"Yes, exactly!" Rodney exclaims, pointing at him. "You see? That's what I meant. You just find yourself... telling her things." He struggles out of his jacket, suddenly feeling claustrophobic in it. "She's been doing it to me since I was ten years old and I'm still not sure whether she does it on purpose. She just..." He shrugs. "She wants to know things, and she..." he spreads his hands. "You just, you tell her. You..." Rodney stops, letting his hands fall into his lap. "Still, I'm sorry if it made you feel..."
John quirks an eyebrow at him, mouth twitching up in one corner, and Rodney sighs explosively. "Yes, I know, now we're talking about our feelings, but you're always so weird about that stuff. It's just..."
"Rodney..." John says, with a hint of warning, but Rodney's on a roll now.
"It's just that I talk about Jeannie all the time, and I know she told you all those stories about me, and I didn't even know you had nieces. I didn't even know your brother's name until Ronon told me, just that you had one." Rodney crosses his arms, then uncrosses them and undoes the top button on his shirt, because it's starting to feel like it's choking him with John looking at him like he's an enemy hostile or considering an escape through the nearby window just to get away from this conversation.
But abruptly all the weird tension runs out of the room as John sighs and slumps down into one of the chairs at the table. He rubs his face with both hands, and then looks down into the palms. "Yeah," he says, softly. "You're right. I'm sorry."
Rodney gapes at him for a long moment. "I am?"
John lets his head hang for a second before slowly straightening. "Yeah. You are."
Rodney eyes him suspiciously. "You're not just saying that to shut me up, are you?"
John raises his head to glare at him. "Gee, McKay, you're not exactly creating a sharing atmosphere here, you know?"
Rodney feels his face flame, and crosses his arms defensively. "Sorry," he says. "Just, you make it really hard to tell when you're pissed at me, or when you're just being weird and repressed, or when you—"
"Okay!" John says, getting to his feet. "That's enough of that for tonight. Great dinner, Rodney. See you in the morning." He gathers up his clothes and his garment bag and heads for the door. Rodney shoots to his feet and crosses the room in three strides and just catches John's elbow as he's reaching for the door handle.
"Wait!" he says, and when John turns to look at him warily, he says: "It was."
"It was. Dinner. The whole..." Rodney waves his free hand, "...thing. Not that I was actually afraid to see her alone, but having you there made things easier. I think."
For the second time, John raises one eyebrow at him. "Um, thanks?" he says, dubiously.
"Look, you know what I mean," Rodney says impatiently. "I had a good time, all right? I appreciate you sacrificing your evening for me."
At that, John grins, a brief flash of teeth before he looks away. "No problem, Rodney," he murmurs. He looks almost... bashful? "I had a good time too. I liked your aunt. She's very... straightforward." There's amusement in his tone as he adds, "Reminds me of somebody."
Rodney lets go of John's arm. "Oh, well, fine," he says, sourly. "Be like that. I was just trying to say that I—"
John laughs, grabbing Rodney's arm this time as he starts to pull away, "Rodney," he says, still grinning, "I'm serious. I had a good time. A hell of a lot better then I'd have had watching pay-per-view in my hotel room. "
Rodney blinks at him. John's leaning earnestly close, smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. "Oh," he says, softly. "Good. I'm glad." He can smell the alcohol on John's breath; see the stubble already coming up dark on his cheeks, even though he shaved carefully before they left for the banquet, only a few hours ago. He looks unusually relaxed, easy inside Rodney's space.
When John finally meets Rodney's eyes again, Rodney already knows what's coming, and yet he can't make himself move, not even as John leans in, brushing their mouths together.
Rodney's eyes fall shut without any express instruction from him, and he draws a sharp breath in through his nose, swaying a little and grabbing for the front of John's shirt. He makes a sound as John presses closer, something that might be a word and might be a moan, but he doesn't have time to process the possibility of either before John is suddenly gone, stepping back, eyes wide and blank. He holds up his hands in front of him as though trying to ward Rodney off, as though Rodney was the one who just kissed him instead of the other way around, and holy fuck, John just kissed him, holy fuck.
Rodney touches his mouth with puzzled fingers as John shakes his head in negation: "Rodney, I," he stammers, "I don't — shit." And then he's gone, the door swinging shut behind him, and Rodney's left standing in his hotel room alone, fingers still pressed to his lips. He can still taste the wine John had with dinner.
It's another few seconds before Rodney can move, reaching out to turn the deadbolt and lock the door — John surely won't be back tonight. He's probably too busy freaking out in his own room.
Freaking out because he just kissed Rodney.
Rodney changes out of his tuxedo, going around his room and picking up the pieces of the evening and folding them into the garment bag, which he then hangs in the closet. He's mostly moving on automatic, letting his mind run through the problem, and he's shutting the closet door before it occurs to him that now he understands all those funny looks Aunt Jess kept sending John, the hints about him persuading John to come to Vancouver for Christmas.
He collapses down onto the bed, staring at the closed door. Rodney knows he's not the most perceptive man in the world when it comes to this kind of thing, but even a certifiable moron would fail to recognise the significance of various disparate events when all drawn suddenly together by...
...it's not as though Rodney's never wondered about John, in that respect, or reflected that despite all of Rodney's annoyed accusations to the contrary, John rarely takes advantage of the multitude of opportunities constantly flinging themselves in his path. While Rodney and Jennifer were dating, he's dead certain John spent most of his free time alone in his quarters, sulking — and maybe it wasn't because all the time they'd previously spent racing cars and playing chess and watching bad sci-fi was suddenly taken up by Rodney trying, with increasing desperation, to convince Jennifer he was really a good boyfriend after all.
Now that he thinks about it, okay, some of John's behaviour when Rodney ducked out of a game or a movie could be interpreted... differently. And some of Teyla's disappointed looks make a lot more sense, if taken in the context of...
God, I am a moron.
In his defence, it's not as though he's had a lot of experience with people having...
...no, apparently Rodney can't even think the word "crush" without wanting to dissolve into hysterical laughter.
He lets himself fall back on the bed, covering his face with his hands. The question is, what does he do about it now? Obviously John was keeping this to himself for a reason, and their conversation immediately prior notwithstanding, John's usual reaction to having revealed intensely personal things about himself is usually to withdraw as far as he can manage. Rodney will be surprised if he gets up the morning and John hasn't high-tailed it to another continent.
And then — Rodney can see it all stretching out before him with stomach-churning vividness — when they get back to the city, everything will change. John will put as much distance between them as he can, and they'll still have to work together. Rodney will still have to sometimes stay behind while John goes of to kill himself for the good of them all. Rodney will still have to wear himself to a thread worrying, and not be able to sublimate it with awkward bedside conversations in the infirmary or bad sci-fi or chess anymore. Surprisingly — or not so surprising, Rodney thinks — he's pretty sure that that wouldn't change. He'll always be afraid of John getting himself killed, just like he's been doing almost from the moment they met. All because John thinks...
Rodney lets his arms fall to the covers. Because John thinks that Rodney doesn't...
And that's something to think about. Rodney can't honestly say he's ever thought about John like that before — John's hotness has always been a mere fact, not something to consider in relation to himself except when Rodney's busy being bitterly jealous about how every female they come across seems to forget about his existence entirely once they've spotted John Sheppard. But until John panicked and fled, Rodney's pretty sure he was enjoying it. He draws his knees up a little and rubs absently at his belly. Certain parts of him definitely were.
He stares at the ceiling for another long few seconds. Of course, that's only one piece of data, and an abbreviated one at that.
And then, decided, he heaves himself upright, crossing the room and flinging the door open. John's room is just across the hall. The door is shut, and the space under the door is dark, but Rodney is now determined. He knocks on the door, waits five seconds, and then knocks again. When this too is met with silence, he leans close to the door and hisses: "I can make a pretty big commotion out here," before raising his fist again, preparing to pound on the door until either John opens it or—
The door swings open to reveal John Sheppard, dishevelled and angry in a t-shirt and boxers and — okay, Rodney's never realised it before, but apparently part of him finds that really, really hot, enough to leave him tongue-tied for almost five whole seconds while John leans against the doorframe and glares at him. "What?" John demands, crossing his arms across his chest in what Rodney now realises is some kind of protective stance. This is John Sheppard trying desperately to keep from showing anything at all, and now that he knows that, Rodney can suddenly see right through him.
John is absolutely panicking.
"That's all you have to say to me?" Rodney answers. "After..." He flings a hand across the hall, where his door has swung shut behind him, and he belatedly realises that he's pretty sure he left his keycard inside but there are more important things to discuss right now, such as:
"You kissed me!"
John straightens a little, eyes rising to stare over Rodney's shoulder. "Rodney, it's late. I don't—"
"Yeah, I think I worked out that you don't want to talk about it from the way you ran off."
John glances at his watch. "That was an hour ago," he points out.
"Well excuse me if some of us need time to process something like—"
"Like what?" John's voice is cold, and Rodney suddenly realises that this, too, is some kind of ploy. John's trying to drive him off by being a bastard.
Instead of bothering to respond, he shoves John out of his way and barges into the room, which is lit only by the bedside lamp. Rodney looks around. John's garment bag and most of his uniform is draped messily over the back of a chair, and the covers on the bed are turned down, but otherwise undisturbed. John wasn't sleeping. Rodney bets he was pacing.
Any further discoveries he might make about John from the state of his hotel room are interrupted when John grabs him, hard enough to hurt, by the upper arms. "I'm not doing this with you right now," John grates, towing Rodney back towards the door. "You can yell at me in the morning. Or never. That works too."
Rodney shoves hard at John's arm, not managing to make John let go, but managing to turn them so that Rodney's back is against the door and John can't open it to throw him out into the hallway. They grapple briefly, and end with John pinning Rodney against the door, looking very surprised about it. "Rodney," John says angrily, "what the hell do you want from me? It wasn't a big deal! It was just..." That John is panting and red-faced and well into a good serious panic doesn't seem to register with him, but Rodney just thuds his head back against the door and rolls his eyes.
"Not a big deal? That's why you're trying to manhandle me out the door? Because you're so calm and collected about the whole thing?" Rodney demands. "Look at you! You're ten seconds from an anxiety attack, and believe me, I am intimately acquainted with the symptoms!" He reaches out and grabs John's arms like John's holding his, shaking a little until John shuts his eyes, lets his head hang a little.
"What do you want from me?" John asks hoarsely.
Rodney swallows, hard. "Uh," he says, "that's sort of what I was coming to ask you."
John's head snaps up, his eyes wide, and he jerks away from Rodney, taking a few steps backwards before sitting down, hard, on the end of the bed, letting his head fall into his hands. "What I—" he starts, stops, tries again: "I shouldn't have done that."
Rodney clears his throat uneasily, stepping away from the door. "I was kind of surprised," he admits. "Why didn't you ever say anything?"
John laughs — at least, it sounds like a laugh, but painful and awful and nothing like one at all. "Why do you think?"
Rodney takes another couple of steps forward. He's momentarily annoyed on his own account. "What did you think I would do? I thought you knew me better than that."
John shakes his head, still looking at the floor. "That's not why."
Rodney frowns at him. "Then why—"
John looks up with an incredulous expression that makes Rodney flush to the roots of his hair.
"Oh," Rodney says, in a small voice. "Then you..."
John lets his face fall back into his hands. "Yeah," he says, his voice muffled.
Rodney takes the last few steps separating them, and then carefully, like someone trying not to spook a wild animal, sits down on the mattress next to John. He stares down at his own hands, still uncertain. "Was... was I supposed to know that? I only ask because, well, I'm not very good at noticing that kind of thing, and I wasn't sure whether it was something I should have noticed or — or if I wasn't. And I'm sorry if I—"
"Rodney." John's voice is a croak, and he glances up at Rodney through his fingers — Rodney thinks he spies a faint smile, but he isn't quite sure.
Rodney presses his lips together, takes a deep breath. "Yes?"
They sit there in silence for a few minutes more, John resting his forehead on his fists, Rodney with his hands laced together in his lap. Finally he ventures:
"You thought I was going to freak out, so you freaked out first?"
John sighs. "Yeah. Pretty much."
Rodney nods to himself. Figures. John's always trying to out-do him. Their entire relationship up to this point has been a series of competitions.
Rodney turns to look at him. John's let one hand fall into his lap and is looking at Rodney with his head propped up in one hand, elbows on his knees. Rodney blinks at him.
"So why aren't you freaking out?" He sounds bemused, bewildered. Cautious. Rodney shrugs.
"I don't know," he admits. "I mean, if you'd asked me before, I'd have thought I would, too. But. Apparently not." He shrugs. "Apparently some part of me thinks this is a lateral move." He frowns to himself. "Or something like that. I'm not very good with metaphor."
"Rodney," John interrupts him, wearily. Like that wasn't enough of an answer. Rodney huffs out an annoyed breath.
"What, I'm not allowed to grow as a person?"
This time John's laugh sounds like a laugh, not painful and strangled like before.
And like it was a challenge, Rodney reaches out and catches up the hand in John's lap. John goes stone-still, watching, as Rodney pulls the hand towards him, turns it over. John's fingers curl in towards the palm as Rodney cradles it in his hands. John's wristband is still absent, and his wrist is narrower than Rodney's. His hand is narrower, too, the skin dark and golden against Rodney's when, feeling greatly daring, he laces their fingers together and turns the hand over again. There's a long, thin scar on the back of John's wrist, another tiny round one on the first knuckle of his index finger. Rodney wonders if John got that doing something brave and stupid with guns and threats, or if it came from climbing things he shouldn't have and riding his bicycle at unsafe speeds and driving his parents insane. If John ever did things like that.
"You touch me a lot," Rodney says, still staring down at their joined hands. John's still sitting very still, and when Rodney darts a glance at him, he's got his eyes shut, his mouth a thin line. "I guess I wasn't supposed to notice that, either. But after I — when I was sick? I noticed. I remembered it.
"And when Jennifer and I started... you stopped, for a while."
John lets out a breath. "Yeah."
"And then you started again. You've been doing it more, lately."
And John says, even more quietly, "Yeah." Like he's been caught at something. Like he's waiting for the axe to fall, and Rodney kind of can't believe John is this stupid — they're sitting here holding hands and he's still expecting Rodney to... to leave, probably. To say this has to stop. To make some uncomfortable statement about how this can't be.
Rodney pulls on John's hand. "Hey." And when John looks up Rodney pulls him closer, John leaning as Rodney does until he can feel John's shallow breaths on his face. "Okay?" Rodney asks, and when John only stares at him, Rodney kisses him softly on the mouth. It's relatively chaste, much like the first kiss of an hour ago, but scarier in that Rodney's the one leading it, John's eyes fluttering shut, his fingers tightening around Rodney's. Then he pulls back, drawing in a breath, licks his lips, eyes darting over Rodney's face.
"But you're not—" John says, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallows hard. "You're—"
"I'm here, aren't I?" Rodney reminds him gently, something twisting in his chest at the confusion on John's face, the expression like Rodney's holding his heart in between their palms and it hurts him. "I came to you."
Rodney moves closer, lets their foreheads rest together. "I'm not fucking with you, okay?"
"That's not what I—" John starts, but seems to think better of whatever he was going to say, pulling back to touch Rodney's cheek with hesitant fingers, to watch his own left hand as it frames the side of Rodney's face. Rodney shivers — there's something almost frightening about being regarded with this kind of intensity, about being studied as John takes in everything about him and then smiles a faint little smile. Lets out a heavy breath, bending close to brush his mouth to Rodney's temple, to press soft, considering kisses to Rodney's jaw, his cheek, his chin, taking his time. He lingers at Rodney's mouth, hand sliding into Rodney's hair, drawing out another shiver and another surprised noise from the back of Rodney's throat, something like a whimper.
When John draws back he's smiling, real and unqualified, thumbing the point of Rodney's chin, the pads of his fingers rasping against the grain of Rodney's stubble. Rodney's breath is coming a little fast; he feels like John's stolen all the breath out of his lungs and they've only kissed three times. Three data points represent a trend, he thinks.
"You're all pink," John says softly, fingers skimming down Rodney's neck, where the blush is doubtless spreading. He rolls his eyes in exasperation, but John continues, "I like it." Which of course is a guaranteed way to make Rodney's face turn a brighter shade of red, making John's grin grow wide enough to light up the room. Rodney's stomach does something acrobatic and strangely pleasant.
"You're always surprising me," John tells him.
"Yes, well, you should be used to that by now," Rodney tells him, lifting his chin, and John laughs. He hooks fingers in the collar of Rodney's t-shirt and pulls, and Rodney braces himself with a hand on John's thigh, because it's right there, and the shock of skin on skin makes him gasp as John just licks into his mouth, sliding his hand down Rodney's chest. Rodney jerks with surprise as John's nail skates over a nipple and all the blood drains south so fast Rodney reflects it's good he's already sitting down. Well, if there was still any doubt... he kisses back with enthusiasm, shaking a moan out of John. He decides this is a good noise, so he does it again, fascinated by the feel of prickly stubble against his chin, but this time his trajectory is off and he scrapes his teeth accidentally against John's lower lip.
He pulls away just far enough to see John's face, to stutter, "Sorry!" It's like the first time he kissed someone when he was thirteen, his limbs still not under his control, and he elbowed April Bingham in the chest, and then followed up by accidentally biting her tongue. He always thought she gave him mono as some kind of revenge for abysmal kissing.
John is wincing and carefully touching his lip, as Rodney cringes in sympathy and embarrassment. "It's okay," he tells Rodney, and smirks a little. "Though for the record, sometimes biting can be good."
"Oh," Rodney says, distracted momentarily by all sorts of exciting possibilities, "okay." But then something occurs to him and he stops John as he leans in again, a hand in the middle of his chest. "Look, it's not that I'm not — it's just, I've never—"
John nods slowly, "I figured," John tells Rodney, and withdraws slightly, brow furrowed. "We can always wait until—"
"I didn't say I wanted to stop!" Rodney exclaims, his voice just a little shrill, fingers tightening in the fabric of John's shirt. "Just. I thought I should..."
John's slow smile changes his whole face, and for the first time in a long time Rodney imagines John's not thinking about anything but what's going on right now — nothing weighing him down from above. "Okay," he whispers. "Noted."
"Good," Rodney murmurs. "Good," and reels John back in, pulls him down. John's weight settles on top of him with startling ease — it's comfortable, Rodney thinks, lifting his head to meet the next kiss. Comfortable like he should have seen this years ago.
Rodney is shockingly tractable, following John's lead — which when John has thought about it (not infrequently) is not at all the way he has imagined Rodney during sex. Then again, John has only sometimes dared to imagine Rodney and himself, and he's so obviously trusting John, unsure but forging ahead anyway... just like Rodney, actually. The best way to motivate him is to challenge him.
Rodney yields sweetly to John's kisses, hooks an arm around the back of John's neck, hums happily into the place where their mouths move together. It's a noise John's heard him make over a good meal, and you have to hand it to Rodney — he doesn't do things halfway, once he's decided.
Rodney's solid under him, comfortable, his whole body jerking when John slides a hand under his shirt to find a nipple. Rodney breaks away from the kiss, gasping, and John grins down at him. "Like that?"
Rodney manages to glare at him for a moment, a look that says obviously, before John tugs at the hem of his shirt. "Can I...?" And Rodney blinks up at him before nodding, raising his arms obligingly so that John can strip Rodney's threadbare green t-shirt up and over his head. Then John has to pause and breathe, because there are miles of pale skin, light brown hair, very pink nipples, and Rodney's face, pink with exertion and hesitation when John's quiet and still for maybe a moment too long. He brushes a thumb across Rodney's nipple again, gently, but Rodney's mouth still falls open with a tiny gasp, and he reaches up to wrap a hand around John's wrist, the fingers of his other hand clamping down hard around John's thigh.
"If you keep doing that," Rodney tells him breathlessly, "this is going to be over very quickly."
And that's a challenge if John ever heard one, so he drawls, "really?" and ducks his head to lick a broad stripe across the other nipple, feeling very proud of himself when Rodney writhes and lets out a surprised squeak, his fingers tightening around John's wrist, his hips jerking up helplessly, almost knocking John off the bed.
"Cool," John breathes, and grins, and leans forward and does it again.
"John," Rodney whines, and then John relents, because Rodney's yanking at his shirt, trying to get it off him and not having much luck in their current position. So John sits back on Rodney's hips and pulls it off, dropping it over the side of the bed.
Rodney goes satisfyingly wide-eyed and quiet for a long moment, hands coming up to touch, first hesitantly and then with more confidence. He trails fingers through the hair on John's belly, up the centre of his chest, detours a little to brush fingers over a nipple. John's not as sensitive as Rodney seems to be, but it still feels good, enough that he can't help a little roll of his hips, down into Rodney, which makes Rodney squeak again. But Rodney's not done looking yet, ghosting fingers down John's ribs, eyes serious and thoughtful, silent for long enough that John asks, "What's wrong?"
Rodney's eyes flicker up to his, then back down. He shakes his head. "Nothing," he says. He curls a broad, warm palm around the jut of John's left hip. His voice is barely a whisper. "You've got a lot of scars." Careful fingers trace the remnants of a graze from Afghanistan, pause over a nickel-sized scar that was his parting gift from the first time he was tortured as a prisoner of war. Only two days — John's known guys who had a lot worse, and it never went further than threats and bullying. For those guys, a hot poker to the belly was bottom-rung, beginners' stuff, and John wasn't important enough for them to waste the good tricks. But Rodney's mouth is turned down at the corner, and John can almost hear his mind working, imagining worst-case scenarios, all the ways this might end badly. John covers Rodney's hand with his own.
"We can stop," he offers, hating himself for the words but meaning them.
Rodney's hand tightens around his hip, and he levers himself up on his elbows, reaching for a kiss. John meets him halfway, kissing him softly, lingeringly. Rodney's still staring at him when he pulls back. "I don't want to stop," he says. "I just... sometimes I have to stop and think about things."
He sounds embarrassed, so John slides a hand into his hair, cups his hand around the back of Rodney's skull. "Things like scars?"
Rodney hums an affirmative, leaning back into John's hand. "You know you're — you're my best friend, you know that, right? Probably ever." His face is so terribly earnest that John can't help but smile.
"Yeah," he agrees. "I know." Because he does; because Rodney is never any good at hiding how he feels. It's something he's always found weirdly endearing. With Rodney, you always know where you stand. Like right now, John can see that Rodney's scared — that he's thinking about doing something anyway, about being brave.
What he finally says is: "I'm always afraid you're going to die," and then he looks down, his expression miserable. "Okay, that came out wrong."
John swallows back a surge of reflexive fear on his own account. "Rodney—"
"No, shut up, listen," Rodney says impatiently. "I think about it a lot. I've thought about..." He shuts his eyes. "I think about you dying, and me still being alive. And I..."
With something like desperation, John kisses him hard, trying to derail the words, and Rodney goes along, fingers tight around his wrist, digging into John's bare hip. John pulls back, rests his forehead against Rodney's. "I'm not going to die."
Rodney glares at him when he lifts his head. "Aren't you supposed to wait until after the sex to start bullshitting me? Anyway," he continues, "I'm not an idiot. I've done the math, multiple times. I just... I worry about you. I think about it. I always have."
John stares at him, enlightenment dawning. "Always?"
Rodney nods. "Pretty much always, I think, yes. Which should probably have been a clue. Which was what I wanted to tell you."
"That you know you love me because you worry about me more than anyone else?" It's... sweet, in a weird, dysfunctional, Rodney sort of way.
Rodney glares at him, clearly under the impression he's being mocked. "Yes," he says, a shade defiantly. And then, colour flooding his cheeks, "and, yes. Probably."
Oh, John thinks, and he surges forward in to kissing Rodney before he knows what he's doing, hears Rodney's grunt of surprise, feels Rodney's arms come up to circle his neck and shoulders, pulling him down to lie flush against the solid, comfortable body beneath him. Rodney's hand slides up his back, between his shoulder blades, down again to catch in the waistband of John's boxers. John sucks hot, open-mouthed kisses under Rodney's jaw, against his neck, down his chest, and snakes a hand between them to wrap fingers around Rodney's cock through the damp fabric of his cotton pyjama pants. Rodney makes a noise that is probably supposed to be John's name, cut off in the middle, followed by a sound like a sob as John slips his hand under Rodney's waistband and does it again, palm against bare flesh, twisting and squeezing.
"John, I'm," is the last thing Rodney says, high and desperate, and then he's coming, spilling slippery and hot over John's knuckles.
John keeps touching until he comes down, breathing hard and pink from crown to belly. When he can form words again, he levels a glare on John, still hovering over him. "I suppose you're proud of yourself," is what he says, and then he frowns. "I wanted to..." And he looks so disappointed that John can't help but laugh, despite being so hard it almost hurts, despite Rodney's cock softening in his hand. John kisses him quickly, kneels up to strip away Rodney's pants.
"Hey, I'm not stopping you," he says teasingly, and Rodney, still flushed, looks questioningly at John's face before reaching out to hook his thumbs in the waistband of John's boxers, this time deliberately, carefully pulling them down, lifting the elastic as he does, helping John slide them off, and then they're naked together.
John kind of wants to just lie down with Rodney and cling, to press all that skin up against his own. He hasn't gotten a chance to look at all of Rodney yet, to touch — the strong thighs, the broad stretch of his back and shoulders, the curve of his belly. But he figures he's got time. He hopes so, anyway.
Rodney is equally careful as he reaches out and brushes fingers up John's cock, a light, barely-there touch, but it still makes John go rigid with the effort it's taking not to come. "I don't..." and now Rodney's nervous again, something John's trying very hard not to find a turn-on, because it probably says bad things about him. Rodney looks up at him, eyes big and curious. "What do you like?"
Of course. Sex, to Rodney, is something to master, in the same thorough way he approaches every new challenge; something else John tries and utterly fails to not find hugely arousing.
"Anything," he grates, teeth clenched. "It's not going to take much."
Rodney blinks at him, and then his face lights up as he gets it. "Oh," he says, and reaches out with surer hands, curling fingers around the base of John's cock, squeezing gently, experimentally. When John hisses because it feels so good, Rodney does it again, this time slicking a thumb over the head. He leans up again for a kiss, and John goes gladly, moaning into Rodney's mouth as Rodney's other hand slides down his back, cups his ass, fingers spread wide and warm over his skin.
John wasn't kidding — it takes only three strokes, maybe four, before he's shoving into Rodney's hand and coming so hard his breath leaves him in a rush, spots dancing in front of his eyes. Like John did, Rodney gentles him down before letting go, lying back and letting John lie limp on top of him, one knee bent so that John is cradled between his legs. For a long while all John can do is cling to Rodney and breathe, waiting for his brain to come back online.
When it does, one of Rodney's hands is circling on his back, the other curled around the back of John's neck. John raises his head to look down at him; Rodney looks tired, but happy. He yawns when John runs a hand through his hair. "Good?" John asks.
"Hmm," Rodney says agreeably. "Very good. I was good, right?" He's too sleepy to generate real anxiety, John can see, but Rodney thrives on praise and he'll just save it up for tomorrow if it isn't answered now.
"You were great," John tells him sincerely, kissing the corner of his mouth.
Rodney hums again, gracefully accepting the accolade. "I'll be better with practice. Or, no, I'll be awesome," he corrects himself, smiling dopily, his eyes already at half-mast.
"Can't wait," John says, and means it, because practice means next time, and next time means...
He rolls out of the bed, pads into the bathroom for a washcloth, cleans up an unprotesting Rodney, who is pliant and sleepy and warm, and then manoeuvres them both under the covers, where Rodney wakes up just enough to hesitate before burrowing into John's side. "Is this..." he starts to ask, but John answers the question by pressing his face into Rodney's hair.
"Oh," Rodney mumbles, "okay then," and falls asleep.
John lies there for several minutes, staring at the ceiling. A very small part of him that has spent far too long in the Pegasus Galaxy is half-afraid that if he falls asleep, he'll wake up and find all of this was a dream. It's a small part, but the rest of him is enjoying lying folded up warm with Rodney enough that he humours it by trying to stay awake a few more minutes. The chandelier casts weird, broken shadows across the ceiling until John stretches out an arm to turn off the bedside lamp, sparing a moment to miss Atlantis, where he can turn the lights off with literally a thought.
And then the room is lit only by the light from the street, and John lies awake a while longer, thinking about Atlantis, about keeping this a secret, having to hide. But Rodney's been keeping bigger secrets than this for something like half his life, even from the magnificent Jessica Fletcher. He kept it so well that she had to winnow it out of John.
There will be plenty of time to worry things out in the morning, he thinks, finding it easy to set aside with Rodney breathing warm against his neck, his heartbeat thudding slow and steady in time with John's own.
Drifting off, John smiles up into the dark. He's definitely going to have to send the great J.B. Fletcher a fruit basket or something.
Rodney comes awake slowly, when the cool, grey light of the Washington sunrise makes its way into the room through the gap in the curtains. He opens his eyes just as slowly, blinking a few times. The contents of the room are all dark, amorphous shapes; the couch against the far wall, the fallen pillows, discarded items of clothing scattered across the carpet. The light is chilly and dawn-coloured, a glare that washes away all colour and detail.
The bed, though, is anything but chilly, and Rodney's always a little cold. It's the reason he's driven to layering shirts and heaping his bed with multiple blankets.
They've both shifted during the night; Rodney is curled up on his side facing the bathroom door, his arm on top of the covers. He worms it back under where it's warm. John is wrapped around him, one leg tangled with his own, his arm wound about Rodney's waist. He can feel John breathing against the back of his neck, where his face is still pressed into Rodney's hair.
Rodney finds himself smiling into the dark. John Sheppard is apparently a cuddler.
And an accomplished one, at that. Rodney moves a little, experimentally, but he finds John's got him effectively pinned, and he presses his face into the pillow to muffle his faint chuckle before relaxing back into the embrace. It's not like he minds; he's always found himself liking this part more than his few partners, who most often left during the night or hurried away in the early morning. It's sort of... sweet, really, that John not only stayed (well, it's his room, after all), but felt some need to actually secure Rodney to the bed; just, hopefully John surfaces before Rodney needs to use the bathroom, because Rodney doesn't want to wake him.
Following that thought comes another; maybe John expected Rodney to leave. Closing his eyes again, Rodney spares a moment to feel vaguely offended, and then pleased with himself, because he did pretty good with this whole gay sex thing for his first time, if he does say so himself. He may still be a little surprised by how unsurprised he actually was, but he's pretty sure he's over most of the shock. Fantastic orgasms have a way of smoothing most things over.
"Mmph," John says, mouth open against the back of Rodney's shoulder, and he shifts, arm tightening around Rodney's middle.
"Hmm," Rodney replies, yawning and stretching his legs until the joints pop. He tilts his head back slightly. "H'lo."
At the sound of Rodney's voice, John goes momentarily still, and then moves again, pushing up on one elbow and looking down at Rodney from above. "Hey," he says, almost shyly.
"Hmm," Rodney says again, pushing back into John's warmth, and this seems to be adequate reply, because John rolls closer and kisses the side of Rodney's neck. They're both quiet and still for a little while, until Rodney sighs and squirms reluctantly.
"Okay, this is very nice and everything, but I really have to pee."
John just snickers into the back of his neck, and squeezes a little before letting Rodney slide out of bed.
Rodney doesn't take long. The tile floor in the bathroom is freezing. He hurries back across the carpet and gets back under the covers, letting John pull him close again, hand settling on Rodney's belly, scratching gently. Rodney makes a pleased noise and closes his eyes.
They'd probably have fallen asleep again — they've got another two days in DC with nothing official to take up their time — but a few minutes later the telephone rings, the sound jarring and sudden in the quiet of the room. Rodney groans and covers his head with a pillow, but John rolls over in the bed to reach for the receiver, clearing his throat before he says:
There's a moment of silence, while John listens, and then he says: "Oh, yes, good morning to you too. I—"
More silence, but John flails out a hand until Rodney rolls over to look at him, sees John's wide-eyed expression of possibly-horror, sees John mouth: J.B. Fletcher, and Rodney gapes at him, feels himself flush hot at the very notion of Aunt Jess being at the other end of a telephone line from where he is not only naked, but naked in bed with another person.
I may never be able to have sex again, he mouths back, and John just stares at him, still listening.
"Uh, yes," John says eventually, in a strained voice. "He doesn't always. Well. Answer the. Hang on a second." He covers the mouthpiece with his hand and turns an accusing expression on Rodney. "Why'd she call my room?"
"Oh, god," Rodney moans, sinking down into the bed and thinking about pulling the covers over his head. "I don't know. She probably called my room and then had the hotel ring yours when I didn't answer. She's very persistent."
"No kidding," John agrees, and shoves the receiver at him. Rodney takes it like he might accept a poisonous snake, if vipers were painstakingly polite and baked pies and knitted sweaters and called you "Dear."
He waits an appropriately-measured time that could possibly be John getting out of bed, crossing the hall, knocking on his door, dragging him out of bed, and bullying him back across the hall before uncovering the mouthpiece.
"Meredith! Good morning, dear! Did you sleep well?"
And now it's Rodney's turn to hold the receiver away from himself and regard it suspiciously, because his brain simply cannot interpret the possibility that Aunt Jess is actually aware of his having had sex last night, or even the existence of sex...
...but no, Rodney decides, because that's just too traumatising a thought to properly contemplate.
"Well enough," he answers. "You?"
Even though she probably engineered this whole thing, the evil-minded old busybody.
"Oh, very well, thank you dear. I just wanted to ring you and say goodbye — I'm flying back to Cabot Cove this morning and I won't have a chance to see you again before I go."
"Oh," Rodney says, actually regretful. "That's — well, I'll see you at Christmas, right?"
"You certainly will. And you make sure you bring that young man of yours when you come. Have a good trip home, dear."
"Uh, you too," he says, as she hangs up, and does a belated second double-take at the receiver, because did she just call John his young man?
He lets John take the phone from nerveless fingers and set it back in the cradle. It takes him a few seconds to realise that John is laughing at him, mouth twisted with the effort of keeping it quiet. "Oh, shut up," Rodney tells him, throwing himself back into the pillows and crossing his arms. "I think I'm scarred for life. My eighty-four-year-old great aunt was making... god, suggestions. Implications. About..."
John looks contemplatively up at the ceiling, but Rodney thinks his face is a little redder than normal when he says: "Yeah — right before she left last night she told me that 'the McGill men have always had very attractive backsides.'"
Rodney lets out a moan of great suffering and pulls a pillow over his head.
A moment later, he feels John's body hit the mattress with a bounce, and a moment after that, the pillow is pulled away, and John's smiling down at him with a goofy, affectionate sort of expression on his face. "Well," he says thoughtfully, tracing the edge of Rodney's ear absently, "I can't be too mad at her. She sort of..."
"Oh god, do not finish that sentence," Rodney begs him, cutting him off by pulling him down for a kiss that lasts for at least five seconds longer than he means it to. John pulls back grinning, sliding fingers into Rodney's hair. His expression is half-teasing, half serious, all amused affection, and Rodney can't really help laughing, letting his head fall back onto the pillow.
"You'd better be careful," he says warningly, "or she'll be knitting you sweaters next."
John's face lights up with overdone earnestness. "Do you think? Will it be as cool as yours?"
There's no other appropriate answer to that but to hit John in the side of the head with the first pillow that comes to hand.
John goes down, laughing, and Rodney follows him.
A little while later, when the pillow fight dissolves into making out, and they're lying tangled up together again with Rodney seriously thinking about a shower, he turns his head towards John.
"She didn't really say that, did she?"
"Actually, she did," John admits, looking like he wishes she didn't. But a beat later he looks down, dark lashes shadowing his cheeks, almost bashful. "She also said to take care of you. So."
Rodney touches John's face, his mouth. "Oh," he says. "Well. You always do that. And so do I. It's our thing."
John smiles under Rodney's fingers. "Yeah," he agrees, and then he licks Rodney's fingertips, looking mischievously up through his lashes. "Wanna take a shower?"
Rodney kisses him and rolls out the other side of the bed. "I was just thinking that," he says, making his way towards the bathroom, John only a few steps behind.
Jessica makes her flight in plenty of time, smiling at the flight attendant who sees her to her seat and then disappears up the aisle. One advantage to getting old is that looking frail lets her board the plane ahead of the crowd, giving her time to stretch out her legs and settle in before takeoff. Still, she hopes it will be a few more years before she's really full of enough aches to need the extra consideration.
Blanket spread over her legs, glasses perched on her nose, knitting tucked into the pocket on the back of the seat in front of her, Jessica leans back and closes her eyes to review the weekend. It was so good to see Meredith again — she's missed him all these years they've been out of contact and worried about him too. Meredith was never very good with people and worse still at making friends, though Jessica always blamed that at least partly on others not pausing to see that much of Meredith's bluster was protective colouration.
It seems she's worried for nothing, though, and she's glad about that. If John is any indication of Meredith's circle of friends, these days, she's confident that her great-nephew is in capable hands.
And John... well, that's well on its way, at least. She has few worries when it comes to Meredith and John Sheppard. One thing Meredith has always done flawlessly is follow his heart, something else she's sure is in capable hands.
The rest of the passengers begin coming aboard, some of them pausing to point at her and whisper. Jessica's grown used to this, over the years. She keeps her eyes closed, her hands folded in her lap. Eventually they'll go and leave her in peace, and she has plenty to think about. Like the way Meredith and John reacted when she mentioned her research at Nellis and its unusually careful security procedures.
Hmm. She knows that Meredith's work is classified — it has been since he was in his twenties, and it speaks to Meredith's strangely contradictory ability to keep very different kinds of secrets. But she wonders, idly, whether she might be able to inquire into John's background. Purely out of curiosity, of course; after all, he is a good friend of Meredith's.
She knows some Virginia senators from her brief stint filling in for poor Congressman Joyner. Maybe she can meet Miss Simms, who she thinks is still the new Congressman's administrative assistant, for tea when she comes back to Washington next month for the signing tour. She hasn't seen Diana in so long; it will be nice to catch up.
After all, she thinks as she drifts off, she's an old lady and needs something to occupy her time.
When she gets home, there's a fruit basket on her doorstep, covered in cellophane and ribbons and totally devoid of citrus. She smiles and carries it inside and puts the kettle on for tea.
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