McShep. There's this library Rodney can't get into.
It happens quickly and painlessly, like a surgeon's knife slipping in and out: adrenaline from another impossible escape, the two of them alone in front of the puddlejumper, Sheppard turning to grin and his lips right there. Rodney leaning in without thinking.
Sheppard doesn't pull away. It's sweet and surprising before the approaching footsteps come within earshot, and Rodney darts back while Sheppard returns to the controls in a blink. They're as proper as proper can be when Teyla and Ronon arrive, disheveled, flecks of white salt on their uniforms, still panting from the run through unrelenting desert that shimmers in summer heat.
Rodney feels like panting, too, and a little bit like tossing the two of them through the Stargate to spend some quality time on a safe, bucolic world to watch grass grow. Mostly, though, he feels like popping a cork in celebration, because he just kissed John Sheppard, and John Sheppard just kissed him back.
Like surgery under anesthesia, the sting doesn't manifest until later.
On the jumper, Sheppard and Ronon go through their Legolas-and-Gimli routine.
"Sticking a knife in something after Teyla's knocked it unconscious on the ground? Ronon, you cheater."
Ronon shrugs. "Dead is dead."
Teyla smiles with the indulgence of a fond mother, while Rodney leaves them to their manly posturing and tries not to jiggle with nervousness and anticipation.
He keeps his relationships organized by formula:
1) Sure, I'd love to see your lab + Slinky Smirk = Making Out;
2) (Times Spent Making Out)*(Smile Wattage)/(Time Spent Talking) = Chances of Putting Out;
3) Cold Shoulder + Broken Beakers = Danger, Will Robinson;
4) I'll leave you to get cozy with your ego since I'm obviously no competition + Pretty Much Anything = Breakup.
Except for the last, they don't always pan out, but he figures that that's only to be expected -- the more data he collects to hypothesize with, the more accurate the eventual calculations.
According to his system, a kiss like that when not followed by a punch in the face (or a slap, if subject = female) or a frantic did your lips just fall into my face? is a pretty good indication of sex in-the-offing.
So after everyone files away he's keyed up to drag Sheppard to his quarters or follow Sheppard to his or maybe make proper use of the surveillance camera blind spot in the jumper bay when it registers that Sheppard's not going along with it, that Sheppard's not balking but /refusing/.
And it sucks, yeah, and he's put-out and a little embarrassed, which is probably why he snaps, "Oh, I see, so tongue is your way of exhibiting a homophobic freak-out," but it's also not an entirely new experience to be betrayed by McKay's Laws of Smart Dating, so he isn't flipping out until Sheppard says, placating, "No, it's not that, don't worry."
Now, that's just ten different kinds of insulting.
"I see. That's fine, that's really great," he says, trying not to sound as stiff and awful as he feels, which turns out to be so successful that it impels Sheppard to bring out his friendly let's-not-scare-the-natives expression.
"Wait -- god, Rodney, no," he says, scratching at his hair. "I'm just tired, okay? Can we talk later?"
"Sure, why not?" though what he really means is, Yes, we can talk about how much you suck.
Then Sheppard says, "I really like you," quietly, the way he'd told Teyla, told Ronon that he trusted them, told Elizabeth he would and could keep Atlantis standing, and Rodney's flush of shame deepens slightly into the flush of yay, Intense Gaze + Love Confession (temporary rejection negligible) = Score.
He spends the afternoon in a nervous flutter of anticipation, since it had been a long time on Earth, even longer here on Atlantis, and now it's Sheppard, whom he rather likes and is mmmhot of the type that makes half his staff swoon. To let him down doesn't bear thinking of.
"I'm not looking for anything serious," Sheppard is saying at the appointed later, while Rodney makes impatient hurry-it-up gestures.
They both pause when there's nothing else forthcoming.
"Good, great," Rodney says after it's clear that Sheppard is waiting for an answer, "that's fine with me, now can we get on with the fun part of the evening?" and Sheppard rolls his eyes.
They do, and it is fun even while being slightly off at the same time, but then, /First time/, Rodney thinks with unexpected fondness. It's nice to know that Sheppard isn't perfect in everything he does, though he can't quite pinpoint the exact problem -- it certainly has nothing to do with technique.
Maybe it's just that Rodney isn't very used to having first-time sex with anyone who wasn't previously sloshed out of their minds; Sheppard hadn't been drunk at all, he'd been focused, intent, keeping his eyes open and on Rodney's face as Rodney hollowed his cheeks and went down, as he brought Rodney off with his steady, calloused soldier's hands, and wiped him down carefully afterwards.
It was really very flattering. And, well, sex: that's always fun, flattering or not.
He hadn't always known that he was smart. That he was really fucking smart and the world would bend itself over backwards for him if he honestly needed it to. (Later, he'd realize the mistake.)
It was around the fiftieth time his mother was saying, "Shut up, /shut up/, Rodney, just play with your toys," that he discovered the chasm running between them and thought, /Huh/.
Years after he'd ditched his family to pursue the fascinating ball of yarn that was quantum physics, he heard the Psych majors discussing the disillusionment of childhood, how the realization that parents were human and fallible was wont to scar tender juvenile psyches as they broke out of their cocoon into full-grown cynical butterflies.
By that time he only felt lucky that he'd learned the truth early, as always.
The inhabitants of Jielwakr have the brightest, shiniest toys in their corner of Pegasus, which makes it horribly selfish of them to hog all the fun, as Rodney tries to explain to the harassed-looking guy in the dunce cap marking him as a person of high status. He wonders if they'd let him in their great white mushroom of a library if he came back hidden under an even taller, stupider hat, but the look on the man's face says that he's just waiting for Rodney to leave to pass out the Wanted posters.
"Leave the nice man alone," Sheppard says once he and Teyla return from their chitchat with the mayor, whose cap looks on the verge of collapsing under its own weight. "He's just doing his job."
"Oh yes, and I'm trundling around in a city that has free health care but no public transportation for /leisure/, naturally." The Marines make fun of his lack of barbarian stamina, but he's the fittest he's been since his metabolism took a nosedive after college, with more muscle mass by now than half the faculty at Northwestern, and what do they expect, honestly? "Learn from the Chinese! You're setting yourselves up for ruin with this isolationist policy!" he shouts at the man under the cap, who bows politely and looks like he wouldn't mind adopting an isolationist policy just for himself.
Sheppard pulls him away before he can teach the man to repent of suicidal stupidity, one hand firm on his arm. "For all he knows, the Chinese could be a puppet troupe," he murmurs, letting go once they're safely out of earshot. "You need to communicate with people in terms they understand, McKay. Or so I've been told."
Rodney shoots him a sour glare. "Don't worry, nobody wants to compete with your monopoly on confusing the natives. So I take it that your part of the mission was a rip-roaring success?" He remembers Teyla's expression as they'd emerged from City Hall -- bland, pleasant, as gracious as a storefront mannequin. You don't planet-hop with someone for over a year without getting a good grasp of their poker faces.
As in all cases, Sheppard is the exception. He grins, just one side of his mouth sliding up, so unexpectedly sweet for a guy who averages a kill a day that it isn't completely unreasonable when alien bimbos of all sizes and makes toss their hearts at his feet, and if he'd come out alone, Rodney wouldn't have been able to tell if he'd just traded Atlantis for a horse-like creature or negotiated a ZPM.
"Matter of fact, we just barely managed to get them to rescind the restraining order Mr. Librarian there filed on you," Sheppard says, as laid back as though they're discussing hockey scores over beer. "Seems like you make deep impressions wherever you go."
Rodney harrumphs and pines after the barred gates of knowledge, nearly trips over the five-foot laser harpoon Ronon had managed to pick up from the shopping plaza, and spends the rest of the way back trying to haggle an extra dessert out of huge Satedan paws to make up for the emotional distress.
The door slides open sixty-seven seconds after Rodney knocks. Sheppard is standing in the doorway, eyeing him blearily, bedhead fit to house birds, still in his BDUs, and Rodney knows he must have hit the bed immediately after Elizabeth released them.
He doesn't care. He pushes Sheppard inside and Sheppard goes with it, giving way; the door shuts behind him while the lights remain off, and in the true darkness that follows -- no streetlamps here, no cityglare -- something seems to escape.
It's not the first time, or the third, or the sixth. By now they're beginning to know each other in the secret way of lovers, and he doesn't open his mouth, doesn't need to clap a hand over Sheppard's to keep him from asking. When he reaches out his fingers brush across the angle of Sheppard's cheekbone, and he slides them downwards, past stubble and the soft skin of neck, resting his forefinger on the pulse that signifies a beating heart.
The clothes come off in degrees; suddenly they're stumbling up against the narrow cot that the Atlanteans had called a bed, and he pushes Sheppard down on it, dropping between his knees at the edge.
Sheppard's nuzzling at his collarbone, and then he's licking long lines up the canvas of Sheppard's thighs, taking note of the way they clench and clench, lifting a hand up back towards Sheppard's throat to feel the taut, tensed muscles there. Sheppard's on edge, crazy with it, but he still doesn't make a sound; Rodney's set the rules, and when it's important, Sheppard plays by the rules.
When his hand wanders down he tweaks a nipple in encouragement and maps the length of Sheppard's body-long shudder into memory. Sheppard's cock is warm and damp, and he lowers his head to attend to it with all the thoroughness he applies to his work.
In the end Sheppard climaxes in silence, though Rodney knows that his mouth is open; he knows because he has a thumb there, sliding in and out from the softness of Sheppard's lips in controlled, brutal rhythm.
He brings himself off afterwards, unable to hold back the noises, but it's okay now because Sheppard's asleep, zoned out until the arrival of morning or danger, whichever comes first. The stickiness ends up partly on the sheets, mostly on Sheppard, and he doesn't seem to register that, either.
Lying there blind, listening to the sound of Sheppard's breathing (too quiet to be believed), Rodney's distracted from the sense of something askew by a shameful warmth in his chest, a tiny flickering tongue of desire that has nothing to do with what they just did, more to do with things he never believed in.
But this is Pegasus, where one of the foremost requirements for recruitment is to believe three impossible things before breakfast, and while Sheppard sleeps the sound sleep of the righteous, Rodney thinks, /Huh/.
He and Jeannie used to get into pissing matches like Sheppard's and Ronon's all the time, every time, except theirs ran along the lines of:
"Five minutes thirty-seven seconds."
"Five minutes thirty-six! Ha!"
"Margin of human error is way over one second, that totally doesn't count."
"A second is a second, doofus."
Of course there wasn't any point in comparing the actual scores, although sometimes they'd get sloppy, granting the other gloating rights for a week. After this went on long enough, the McKay siblings came to be known as the most meticulous gifted kids in the program -- not to mention simply the most gifted -- drawing envy and deplorable negativity wherever they went.
When he asked her in high school whether it was their innate intellectual superiority that made it so hard to find someone to like, someone with whom it was possible to actually connect on a more than superficial wow, thanks for the new insights on stupidity level, she'd stared at him like he'd just flubbed a pop quiz and said, "Look, you're not a total moron, and I still don't like you."
"That, hmm, you may actually have a point there," fourteen-year-old Rodney McKay had said, because it was true and sensible and, yeah, he didn't like her, either.
The al'Thedronokreskalopa, or Head Librarian, as Rodney thinks of him, does an impressive, almost military about-turn the moment he catches sight of Rodney.
A part of him muses that they, only they would have traveled a galaxy over to be caught stalking a short man with a tall hat and multi-layered robes through a marketplace out of Gibson.
"Hey, you! You with the hat! Do you think that's any way to treat visitors who've traveled millions of light-years to, to pay their respects to your very interesting planet?"
Maybe the appeal to multiculturalism works -- he's never met any social sciences dilettante who didn't froth at the mouth at accusations of intolerance -- in any case the hat slows, stops and turns, albeit with obvious reluctance.
"One's name is Salas, Foreigner," he says once they're face to face, the picture of strained civility, with a pitiful excuse of a bow. "Fortune favor this meeting."
"That's great, nice to meet you. Again. I'm Rodney McKay, Dr. Rodney McKay, as I already told you last time, and now, if you'd just allow me to -- "
"Who is your companion?" Salas breaks in hastily, cutting his eyes towards Ronon, who's been content to amble behind Rodney after a sumptuous and unidentifiable lunch in one of the city's well-stocked eateries.
"Him? That's just Ronon; he's the muscle," at which Ronon raises an eyebrow, but goes along with it by doing -- something -- in the light that causes his biceps to ripple more impressively than ever. Threat was all about presentation, he'd told Rodney once over a pint of Athosian cider, all seriousness, before Rodney bent over to be sick on his shoes.
Salas certainly looks threatened, though Rodney's pretty sure he can take at least equal credit for that. He's too well-bred to glance around nervously, but he does lick his lips before extending an invitation for them to rest their legs in the lounge of the Great Library, which is further than he'd allowed them to peek last time. Rodney counts that as progress.
The lounge of the Great Library turns out to be an immense chamber constructed of whitish marble-like material, furnished with a few isolated tables and chairs, numerous sprigs of blown-glass flowers, aesthetically and carefully designed so that it doesn't provide a single glimpse of the stacks within. There are a few loiterers seated in ones and twos, but Salas leads them into an isolated corner.
"Doctor McKay," he says before Rodney can continue his campaign to get /in in in! Where all the fun things are!/, "allow one to apologize for any inconvenience; we harbor great reverence for any who travel from the city of the Ancestors."
In Rodney's experience, people who start off with that particular conversational gambit are either Athosians, on the verge of opening fire, or selling bridges. "Yes, well, call me a skeptic, but something's telling me there's a 'but' tucked into all that reverence."
"Ahaha, yes, most unfortunate -- " The explanation takes hours. Ronon slips a knife from his hair and starts spinning it like a pen. By the time Sheppard strolls in to retrieve them, both the planet's moons have slotted into the sky, and Rodney's amassed a mountain of curses to cast on this world that can be blase about guns and whale-impaling devices, but guards its store of knowledge with a near-insane paranoia that would do the Lone Gunmen proud.
"It is off-limits, you understand now," Salas says, and Rodney supposes he really is a scientist of sorts, because he actually sounds sympathetic.
Something changes the day Sheppard dozes off halfway through Resident Evil, fingers still clutching the remote, and he finds himself looking for a blanket to cover the guy with.
He doesn't, of course. He stares blankly at Sheppard -- who, for the record, looks as stupid as anybody else with mouth open and drool pooling in one corner -- and then Sheppard's peering back with slitted eyes, managing "Rodney?" around a yawn.
"Yes," he says, fighting awkwardness, wondering if the unfamiliar mushy feelings assaulting him now are indications of what other people call tenderness and he calls hogwash. "Yes, enjoy your little beauty nap?"
"I could do with a few more minutes," Sheppard says with a fuzzy smile that he can't help returning, because Sheppard with 85% of his shields down is, improbably, even more charming than his usual rubber-faced self.
For a moment he considers leaning down to lick those lips till they glisten, except suddenly the defenses go up full force and Sheppard looks wide awake, staring at Rodney as if Rodney'd just grown Wraith cosmetics.
"What?" he says, bemused, more so when Sheppard groans and puts a hand over his own eyes. When he removes it, he looks the way he does when talking armed, hallucinating flight risks down from shooting them into millions of itty-bitty pieces -- very wary, very kind.
"Rodney, don't," he says, not the usual slow drawl but quieter, and Rodney feels a chill even as his constant simmer of irritation spikes. Don't? Don't what?
"Don't what? Disturb you from your dreams of all the hot alien daisy chains?"
"What -- forget it, I don't want to know." Just like that, Sheppard's fading back into everyday, ordinary Sheppard, which means that Rodney has a better chance of taking down the Wraith with a toothpick and napkin than of getting anything more out of him.
He gives it a good shot, though, hands on hips, chin lifting like he's ready to bore through a mountain with it. He is. He doesn't like not knowing everything about anything.
"Seriously, the cryptic non sequitur-spouting thing? Not a good look on you. I mean, obviously it isn't a good look on anyone, although you seem capable of flouting an amazing number of otherwise incontrovertible laws, but I assure you that this one you are sadly just as subject to as the next man. Which would be me, and even I don't do it anymore after my college roommate threw a three-thousand-page textbook on path integral formation at -- well, as I was saying, even I don't do it anymore."
Sheppard stands and stretches, flashing a smooth strip of stomach, while Milla Jovovich does things in her little red dress involving blood and gore that shouldn't look as hot as they do. Rodney follows both views appreciatively.
Then Sheppard says, "Don't ever change," with his signature Air Force hotshot smirk, and Rodney feels his heart go thump.
His longest romantic relationship was with a chemist, which probably explained the past tense right there -- chemists, right, who could trust them to make themselves useful?
But he managed to chug along with Erica for more than two years because she never seemed any more eager to see him than he was to see her, months going by before they settled on an agreeable date for a visit, by which time they were both so horny personality problems took a back seat to /oh, yeah, just like that/.
He didn't know her favorite color or flower. She probably didn't know his birthday.
She had messy blond hair and thick plastic-rimmed glasses, gave head with the finicky fastidiousness of a cat and thought astrophysics was for lazy sods who didn't like to get their hands dirty, liked Spock better than Kirk, Holy Grail better than the Life of Brian, which was all he needed to know.
They finally broke up when she moved to Morocco and even the quarter-year meetings seemed unlikely, but if she hadn't -- and if, ha, he hadn't moved to Atlantis afterwards -- they could probably have continued on like that indefinitely, cool and rational and extraneous to the other.
It's their fifth trip to Jielwakr.
Team One doesn't usually re-visit planets under less than extraordinary circumstances, but this particular planet obviously has a good thing going for them, considering the absurdly high level of technology, the lack of cullings experienced, and, oh yes, the insane, clannish secrecy which just means they must have something of unthinkable value hidden away.
He tells all this to Elizabeth, who hmms, and then Sheppard repeats it in his own inimitable dumb flyboy manner, and finally Teyla chimes in with a serious "I agree with Doctor McKay; our relations have been improving steadily, and they appear to have much to offer," which seals the deal.
Privately, Rodney suspects that Elizabeth let something slip during an indiscreet moment on Girls' Night Out and is now paying the price.
Ronon flatly refused to sit in on another session of Wear Down the Librarian after his first experience; Sheppard joined in the last two times, sprawling in the curved eggshell seats in a way that actually broke Rodney's train of thought a couple of times, but today he announces that he'll be showing Ronon around the seedier side of town.
"So you can get drunk, break heads and have the favor returned?" Rodney snorts, but Sheppard just grins and winks, a superweapon against which the galaxy hasn't yet developed suitable immunity.
In the beginning he'd wondered how someone like Sheppard had ever made it to Major in America's armed forces -- with that pose and attitude, he fit better into Rodney's profile of those high school football stars who'd never had to learn discipline.
After the incident with the nanovirus, Rodney's brush with swift and painful death and Sheppard's ultimate clash of authority with Elizabeth, he realized: Sheppard's got the military in his blood, his bones, biting into every inch and essence of him.
The hair and dopey faces are just window dressing -- genuine parts of Sheppard, maybe, but not the essential ones. He finds his own way of interpreting orders, follows spirit instead of letter, but that he follows with steely stubbornness; in some ways, he's more inflexible than Sumner.
Rodney's thinking about this when he and Teyla greet Salas over sweet-smelling Jielwakr tea, because Salas is polite and ostensibly humble and, after four visits, seems to be honestly warming to them -- he gave Rodney his very own party hat to take back, last time -- but he's as adamant in his refusal to admit them entrance to the Library proper as he was the first time around, when he looked as though Rodney was something the guards had tracked in in the rain.
How do you get past the defenses of someone like that, he wonders, while Salas describes the wonderful properties of the tea, which is supposed to soothe the beast of the soul and calm tempers. If the idea was to keep Rodney placid and quiet, it's proving a miserable failure.
How the hell had he gotten past Sheppard's?
"One has greatly enjoyed your company," Salas tells them after Rodney spends another three hours alternating rants, rational debate and shameless begging. "One would be pleased to be graced again by your presence."
"You're just saying that because we give you an excuse to come out and slack all afternoon," Rodney grumbles, but his heart's not in it. At least Salas isn't boring. "Don't think I won't take you up on it."
"Doctor McKay means, of course, to express his gratification over your goodwill." Teyla follows up on it sweetly, all butter-wouldn't-melt, and they leave, with much exchange of compliments on both sides -- Rodney's too annoyed to add to the conversation.
He's also a little bit worried, since it's always been Sheppard checking in to say "What, really? the man hasn't caved yet under such a highly concentrated dose of the McKay charisma?" and this is the first time he's exited the Library undisturbed by his transmitter.
"McKay here, reporting yet another glorious day of failure," he turns on the comm and speaks into the mouthpiece.
A few seconds of silence pass, during which he really starts getting antsy, and then there's Sheppard's voice in his ear, as relaxed as ever, still that sense that he's listening to a private joke: "We'll meet you at that crazy statue in the city center."
The city center is even further from the puddlejumper than the library is. He thinks of complaining (/"What, the two of you are so wiped out from your big shopping spree that you don't have the legs left to walk three blocks? Is Ronon bringing back their entire arsenal this time, or just the really heavy bits?"/) but Sheppard's been acting odd lately, and the usual banter's been -- not off, but normal in an unsettling way, as if it shouldn't be.
When they reach the statue, which really does look like someone tried to crossbreed a giraffe with a weather vane, the first thing he sees is Sheppard slouching beside a beautiful woman gazing soulfully into his eyes.
He's caught Sheppard in more compromising situations with less fully-clothed specimens, and he stumps over angrily as usual (because he'd been working hard and talking his throat hoarse for the good of Atlantis, while Sheppard didn't even have the courtesy to guard him from who knew what those library louts could dish out like a good little soldier, Sheppard was having fun while he'd been slaving away), but he's not particularly upset until Sheppard catches his eye, and looks away deliberately. Leans down closer to the harlot's curves and smile and full head of very shiny hair. She looks like she's about to purr.
That. That was uncalled for and /vicious/, especially vicious since they aren't even fighting, and he ends up watching with tight lips as Sheppard casts come-hither looks at the woman while bidding regretful goodbyes.
On the way back to the puddlejumper, Ronon looks a little confused. Teyla looks like Teyla, but he likes to think that she walks a tiny bit closer to him than she does to Sheppard. Sheppard looks fine, unperturbed, nothing out of the ordinary as he makes idle observations on the friendliness of the culture.
It reminds him, with a small, uneven lurch of his stomach, that he'd never actually gotten past Sheppard's defenses, either.
"Look, I'm tired, you just spent fifteen minutes explaining to Elizabeth how your vocal cords will never recover, so why don't we leave the incidentals till tomorrow?"
He follows Sheppard back to his rooms that night even after Sheppard tries to fend him off with the exhaustion card again. Like that'll work.
"I'm sorry, was flirting with the pretty girl for an entire afternoon too much for you? Why don't we trade places next time, and then you can unleash your devilish space captain charm while Teyla sneaks in and does the heavy work?"
That brings out the significant grimace. "Sounds like someone didn't have enough tea back there."
It makes Rodney wonder if Sheppard's /high/. There's teasing, and then there's irritating the Chief Science Officer into seeing red while under the roof of a city where pretty much everything is mechanically controlled. Not even Sheppard's usual levels of inanity can explain this.
"I think I'm going to do us both a favor and pretend that was the 'exhaustion' speaking," making the air quotes, and he's not imagining the brief flicker of -- whatever -- that passes across Sheppard's face.
Sheppard gives him the raised eyebrow of no-you-may-not when he tries to follow inside, but he simply waves it away, steamrollering all opposition, a trick he'd learned early.
The thing is, he doesn't know everything but he knows enough, and Sheppard's a lot of things, but he's not cruel without reason.
With the lights on, Sheppard's quarters aren't a suggestive setting; they're too empty, too unlived in, something. Granted, Sheppard doesn't have much time to spend in them, but Rodney's managed to get around that. You'd expect the guy who takes artistic hairstyling to new heights to be able to do the same.
"So, tell me what's wrong." He settles himself on the corner of Sheppard's bed, watches Sheppard lean against the wall with a huff. "I mean, right now I'm supposed to be figuring out a bribe that won't have the people with the superior technology and medicine laughing in our faces, there's still that hiccup with the transporters Zelenka's been nattering on about, and I'm sure you wouldn't want me to waste my valuable problem-solving capabilities on purely personal matters. So. The sooner you spill the sooner we can get back to saving Atlantis from the big bad vampires."
Sheppard does the little face-twist that means -- well, Rodney's not sure what it means, except it's what Sheppard does to soften people up for whatever's going to be dumped on them. Or maybe for being dumped. Is that it? Because if that's it --
"Look, Rodney, we never specified exclusivity, all right? I don't do serious, you don't do serious, I'm not seeing how there's a problem here."
-- Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard's going to find himself in very, very deep -- oh. Ohh. Huh. Wow, that hurt.
It all makes sense in hindsight, he supposes. Sheppard's not the type to break it off with people; he'll just leave them to do it on their own.
"Of course not. I don't, I don't see why you'd think there would be," and he's aware that he's going to embarrass himself, following this vein, but he can't seem to stop. "No problem at all; I've never believed in monogamy, you know, goes against human nature. Not conducive to the propagation of the species. Then again, you could say the same about the kind of sex we've been having, but there's nothing wrong with...perks to smooth the many and varied cruelties of life. Yes."
He snaps his mouth shut before he digs himself further in; he's familiar with how this goes, wanting more from a relationship than was given, though up until now it was never ardor he'd demanded -- sometimes distance, sometimes respect, but he's never been a glutton when it comes to sentiment.
But this is Sheppard, who's been so close and never too close, who's more likely to be part of his work than interrupting it, and. He's never been here before.
So he says, cautiously, "Then again, we do get along fairly well, and I don't think it's too much to say that it's been a mutually beneficial relationship so far, so maybe -- "
Sheppard's expression, which had been lightening into relief when he finished his first glut of words, closes down again so fast that there's a second where his eyebrows look in danger of getting entangled.
"Rodney, don't," he says, just like the last time, except this time it comes out a low, helpless exhalation, the kind of request that Rodney can't even think of refusing. One of the perils of being this close, he notes absently.
"Fine," he says, "/fine/," and Sheppard says "So we're okay?", so hopeful that for a second Rodney almost hurts for him instead of over him, and that's not fair at all.
Snapshot of his first breakup:
The girl with straight brown hair, angry, hands on hips, eyes flashing dangerously. Him, red-faced, still thin, mouth grooving into what would become its perpetual downward curve. Dressed in, oh god, whatever passed for geek chic in those days, and he's sure his mind hides it from him out of compassion.
They'd hooked up in the first place because she was one of those elusive whiz kid groupies, never so happy as when he was tearing the self-esteem of his so-called peers into tatters, except she wanted him to think on command, be brilliant from nine-to-five and have time left over to carry her shopping bags for her.
"Don't think I'm just your pretty lapdog to show off to the boys, Rodney McKay," she shouted, furious and beautiful, and god, he wanted to kiss her, but he wanted even more to kick her out of his house so that he could finish his thesis in peace.
"Yap the roof down, sure, that'll prove your point," he snapped back, trying to remember where he'd left the aspirin.
"You like quiet so much? Stuff your face with it, asshole," and that was that, sayonara, as she slammed the door shut after her long, swaying hair.
He threw a paper puncher at the door, taking a vicious satisfaction from the gouge it made in the wood, and then he went back to his Apple II and started to type.
Salas seems pleased to see Sheppard again, bowing so deep his cap almost pokes them in the throat, which figures. Everyone's always pleased to see Sheppard again, except for his own people back on Earth.
They've had a few quick and dirty grope sessions since that last conversation, and Sheppard hasn't seen fit to rub Rodney's face in the tenuousness of their whatever-it-is again, so there's not much he can complain about. Life as usual in the Pegasus Galaxy, fuckbuddy included free of charge.
He'd had hints, before, that Sheppard was messed-up in the head; funnily enough, it had been a plus rather than a minus on the chart. Rodney had never liked clingy lovers, either.
Yeah, the irony kills him now.
"Please, have some tea," Salas says, smiling pleasantly, balancing a teapot with blue-tipped fingernails. At least he won't let Sheppard pat him on the back and call him buddy; the people of Jielwakr, as far as Rodney can tell, view physical touching as the ultimate expression of sin. Sheppard's proffered hand had drawn him a few horrified looks before he more than canceled them out by being all smooth and charismatic and Sheppard-y.
Rodney launches into what he feels is a very clever discourse on community, and it taking a galaxy, but even as half his mind is focused on beating Salas into submission with logic, the other parts whirr busily away. The day he can't multitask is the day he doesn't deserve his Nobel.
Problem: He's been multitasking near Sheppard for over two years now, but he still can't tell what makes Sheppard tick. People are much less easy to read than equations, and he sees only results, not the guiding principles. Uses observation and memorization instead of deduction and extrapolation, which is enough to teach him that it must be terrible for the majority of mankind, viewing the world through these narrow frames all the time.
This would be easy, so much easier if he just knew for sure that Sheppard thinks it's all a game: snark snark sex sex whoo! in a handy package. But it's Sheppard, who he does keep an eye on for purposes other than survival and research, really, and who he sorta kinda thought genuinely liked him back. He's not the quickest puddlejumper out of the bay when it comes to interpersonal dynamics, but after all the sleeping together for months on top of the mutual life-saving it's hard not to get a sense of that.
"Look," he says, cutting off Salas' usual stream of apologies that sometimes he recites back just for the hell of it, "look. You're afraid of losing knowledge? I'll give you knowledge. There are instruments on Atlantis that even you'd slaver over, and we're not -- you know we're not generous with our technology, either. I don't know how much our leader would agree to make available, but I'm telling you, I'm willing to do equal exchange."
"Rodney," Sheppard says, shifting into the steely-eyed Lieutenant Colonel in the time it takes to draw a breath, but Rodney ignores him to pin down Salas with a glare.
There's a split second of yearning, he thinks. Just a flash, but promising enough.
Salas is young under all those robes, and he shares some of the fundamental passions; he wants to /know/. He'd asked once, wistfully, for an explanation of the puddlejumper's workings, but Rodney had held out for deeper entrance to the building, and he'd never brought it up again.
One flash of yearning. Then his lids droop down, and his mouth twists a bit, unhappily, but he says: "What you offer is precious beyond jewels, Doctor McKay. One is deeply moved by the proposition."
Just that, and Rodney knows. Salas continues: "One had hoped that you would choose to tarry here on occasion for other attractions than the lure of knowledge, for as has been already covered in our conversations, laws come unbound by exception. The Library holds the core of our world."
The words recall the construction of the city: layers and layers of walls and wildly varied districts, closing in on the Library, the massive pearl in the center of the clamshell.
"To breach it would be inconceivable," and Rodney sees that he means this, that the yearning he'd glimpsed before is a single speck of sand beside the huge ocean of claim this building exerts upon him. "One esteems you most highly, but this world takes precedence, and the Library gates do not open to foreigners. Such is as it must be."
It must have taken a while to cultivate in the populace -- blind, instinctual protectiveness, like a mother huddling over her baby. Keeping it from all threats, all friends.
Rodney shrugs, sportsmanlike. God, but this is getting old. "Worth a shot," he says, and over the tea, his eyes meet Sheppard's.
He sees the clamshell.
The days pass, an abacus flickering continuously, and they have other missions, other big failures, other miniscule successes. Teyla gets half her hair burned off and cuts it to the nape of her neck, Sheppard acquires a new set of scars down his thigh, and the Wraith are still around. Atlantis still stands.
He plans, at first, to hash it out. Rodney does vexation, bluster, panic, he doesn't do romance. The truth-dealing capacity is what he's used to.
But for a while they're too busy for truth, and he takes it for the respite it is, hiding inside Sheppard's covert lies. When there's time, he thinks, when there's time, and it's not his fault that there's never any, is it?
Christmas comes and goes. "It's a holiday celebrating the power of cash," he tells Ronon, again over the mugs of Athosian cider, like a rewound tape. "People gather together in the houses of God called Malls, and worship like there's no tomorrow."
Sheppard breezes by, flushed and sweaty from the impromptu touch-football match the Marines set up in the gym. "Stop corrupting the minds of the young and -- " he pauses to grin at Ronon, "young and armed, McKay. No telling what kind of damage it'll cause to the property, and she's been good to us."
Sometimes he looks at Sheppard and wants to cut him into pieces, solve the puzzle properly. He could, he thinks. He could hack into Sheppard's files, plant bugs in Heightmeyer's office, find pretexts for Elizabeth to send him there. He could set surveillance cameras to follow Sheppard's moves every minute of every hour of every day, and sooner or later, accumulated over time, observation will lead to answers; extrapolation isn't always necessary.
It was never the puzzle-solving part of human relations that stumped him, but puzzle-solving while keeping the puzzle itself intact. The moment he loses his concern for Sheppard's privacy, he'll lose his interest in breaching it. Catch-22.
He buries himself with Zelenka in the day, fixing this, testing that, until Zelenka's ordering him out of the labs on pain of having porn server privileges revoked, and then he lurks around some more. In the day, Sheppard's still the guy everyone wants, the one who snares the bees with honey and then seems surprised when they get stuck, so paradoxically laid-back yet assertive that he fits the type of everyone who has a type.
In the nights, some of them, there's him and there's Sheppard, smirking, flashing glimpses of intelligence like lacy panties, running a gentle, steady hand down his spine after missions gone wrong, saying Rodney, Rodney, yes, and he always tells himself, tomorrow. Tomorrow he'll ask. Tomorrow they'll end it, or start anew.
Of course tomorrow's just a concept, and one of the inconveniences of real life is that gap between concept and reality. Later, Rodney realizes the mistake.
Rodney had a thing with his team leader once, the guy who watched his back and saved his ass and kept him in line on off-world missions, which was less kinky than it sounded.
One night near the end, Sheppard had come to him for the first time. Before, that role had been Rodney's, always; he'd sensed the trend but ignored it even in the beginning. God knew he had his own share of hang-ups, and Sheppard was so obviously agreeable to the undertakings Rodney initiated that it was ridiculous to question the nature of his consent.
Sheppard brought fruit and chocolate and wine, and he watched as Rodney ate, eyes crinkled, grinning. When Rodney looked up long enough to say "What? What?" he just shook his head and took Rodney's hand and licked the stickiness of mango and persimmon from his fingers, and Rodney didn't continue questioning after that.
They kissed in a mess of blankets, sloppily and unprofessionally, such affection in Sheppard's touch that Rodney felt warmed by it, shivered and clung and heard his thoughts scattering incoherently from his lips, uncontained, unfiltered, like ropy strings of DNA, writing himself into each.
He'd think, afterwards, that Sheppard had been trying, too, as hard as he knew how. I really like you/, Sheppard had said, and Rodney believed it with a startling, bone-deep certainty. That he was still trying meant there was hope for him, after all; it just wasn't enough, or Rodney wasn't enough, or something. Not a surprise: Rodney survived on MREs and brain food, had never been a glutton when it came to sentiment, never been generous in the giving of it. The two of them together looking for something else was a joke, /a pilot and an astrophysicist walk into a bar....
But he would have gone so far, further than he'd ever been before, for Sheppard, and Sheppard had stretched out across the distance. Sheppard had tried, he'd realize, for him.
At one point, their fingers might have touched.
Without putting it to words, he knows he's making his last trip to Jielwakr.
Elizabeth might grant more if he heckled her hard enough, lobbied with intent, but it's not going to happen -- he's tired, it's taken up too much of their time, and though Rodney's spent most of his years in Pegasus pulling Hail Marys out of his ass, he also knows when to give in to the push of the inevitable. Knows it better these days than ever.
It's why he walks alien lands where it's necessary to carry a gun in his holster, after all; he doesn't like it, but he'll do it. Some things don't bend to either intelligence or will.
"I can do this alone," he tells the rest of them, "I'd like to," and Sheppard approves it after a long, searching look, intimate in the way of teammates. Still too clinical.
"Try not to make it necessary for us to break you out of a prison before we leave," he says finally, and "Be kind to the bookkeeper," Teyla says, and "Behave yourself," Ronon says before slipping him an extra knife, like that would be any help against the /laser harpoons/.
He takes his time, paying attention to his surroundings the way he hadn't during the last four trips. Scenery doesn't usually make the list of crucial, life-and-death-related issues, and Rodney's beginning to lose sight of anything else.
It sneaks in, though. There's an image of Antarctica burned into his mind -- the mountains, the /whiteness/, that sense of being alone, alone, alone, swallowed by gravity, the only man in the world.
He'd known Sheppard in Antarctica, but Sheppard doesn't appear in the picture. Just the sky and the snow; just the things that always remain, unchanging. That's the proper way to remember things, as Sheppard wouldn't say, but Sheppard's always found more subtle ways to communicate than speech.
The streets here are paved in smooth stone, the buildings cut into conical dunce-cap shapes, and it's not pristine enough to feel sterile, just clean enough to give off a sense of comfortable sparkle. Old, too -- the history of the city breathes out from every pore of its structures, the massive trunks of the shade trees, the proud carriage of its people.
Blossoms unknown on Earth blow into his hair, and he doesn't bother to brush them off. It's a proud city underneath the softness of civility, unbowed beneath the weight of the Wraith; Atlantis is home, but Rodney craves the secrets here with greed and desperation that aren't funny at all.
Jielwakr City is a beautiful place. Rodney wants to remember it like Antarctica, as the only man in the world.
The roads stretch out straight and efficient, true grid-pattern, and the Great Library looms up too soon, but Salas' face is welcoming. "One had a feeling you would come today," he says, emerging from the shelter of the institution with a bow. "One has prepared a number of our delicacies of which we may partake while you petition."
"While you stuff your face with food and ignore all my artfully constructed and impeccable arguments -- yes, yes, very thoughtful of you," but they're simply motions, gone through only because it's expected. It's dangerous to throw unpredictable variables into an established and comfortable relationship.
Still, he ends up silent while Salas explains the ingredients and preparation of each dish, using terms Rodney's unfamiliar with and doesn't bother to ask about.
"What is wrong?" Salas says finally, after his enthusing over a dish of what looks like lotus seeds fried with mistletoe berries is met with an absent "That's nice. No citrus, wonderful."
He rolls his neck, looks around at the lobby around them that's grown almost comfortably familiar. He's come to like it here, he thinks, this peaceful setting with none of the bustle that makes his life recognizable. Something different, treasured.
He says, "I suppose you wouldn't -- ?"
Salas places his palm over Rodney's hand on the table. It's the first time he's seen anyone on Jielwakr touch another person. Perhaps he should wonder if he's getting hit on, but the soft, cool parchment of skin just feels comforting, a grounding influence. "Friend, no," Salas says, and there's a wealth of compassion, of regret and implacability contained in those two syllables.
"Thought not," he says, "I understand," and he spoons down the lotus seeds.
Rodney never visits Jielwakr again, even after it's voted by the members of the off-world teams as their #1 vacation spot in the Pegasus galaxy.
Salas passes gifts of food and drink to him through other teams and he sends back the occasional Earth doodad cocooned in spiteful diatribe as wrapping paper. The Marines joke about Dr. McKay's alien loverboy, and Rodney insults their intelligence and qualifications for being set loose outside a playpen, much less a new galaxy, until they flee, rolling their eyes.
He has his team, Sheppard and Teyla and Ronon, and they go through many dangerous adventures and many narrow escapes and many embarrassing rescues. He and Sheppard still mock each other mercilessly in times of peace and work together with uncanny efficiency in times of war. Sometimes they even still sleep together, when the circumstances are right.
And evidently there's something in Sheppard's way of dealing, because in a few weeks it doesn't hurt anymore, and a few months after that, as he's sitting on his bed, going through his laptop and cleaning out some old notes, he can't even remember why he wanted to set himself up for pain in the first place. It's such a stupid thing to do.
Title is, of course, a reference to Tennyson's The Lotos Eaters.