General & Dr Sheppard: 10. First Date?
Rodney McKay spent a sleepless night tossing and turning. Sheppard had told him to figure out what was bothering him, but he thought he had that pretty much figured out already. It was the solution to it that was eluding him. The truth was that having Rodney Sheppard around had bothered him from the very beginning because he was jealous of him; jealous of his happiness, of his ease around people when Rodney felt so awkward, and, most of all, jealous of his relationship with the general.
Rodney had been in denial about it for a long time, but the previous day’s events now forced him to confront the truth—and that truth was that he wanted what Rodney Sheppard had—and he didn’t like the idea that he wanted it. More than anything else, he was stunned that he wanted it. This wasn’t something he would ever have imagined he desired, in a million years, but he did, and now he had to get used to the idea because it didn’t look as if it was going away. What the hell should he do about it, though? Rodney had no idea, and it didn’t matter how much he tossed and turned, he couldn’t come up with an answer.
Finally he got up, took a shower and got dressed. He looked like shit. There were dark shadows under his eyes and his mouth area was too sore for him to shave, so he left his chin stubbled. Hunger drove him to the mess hall and he entered it, shoulders hunched, mouth set in a crooked line, daring anyone to talk to him. He wanted to eat alone, but his gaze fell on a lone figure pushing his food around his plate and he hesitated, then squared his shoulders and walked over. He wasn’t sure what his reception would be, but he knew he had an apology to make.
Rodney Sheppard didn’t look so good, either. He was half sitting, half kneeling on the chair, balancing on his leg which was bent underneath him, so that his ass wasn’t actually touching the surface of the chair, and his face was pale. He didn’t look tired, but he did look washed out, and his eyes were ever so slightly red-rimmed. He actually looked rather young—and kind of vulnerable. Rodney was brought up short by that analysis. He’d never viewed himself in that light before, had never seen himself as others might see him, and he’d never realized that there might be times when he also looked like this. He felt an odd surge of affection for his counterpart and wondered if other people sometimes felt that for him. He would never have thought so before today.
“Hey,” he said quietly, coming to stand in front of the other man. “I’ll understand if you tell me where to go, but I just wanted to apologize.”
The other Rodney glanced up, and, much to Rodney’s surprise, gave him a wan smile. “That’s okay. Sit down,” he said, gesturing with his spoon.
Rodney was even more surprised by that and he took his place opposite his counterpart. “I really am sorry,” he said humbly. “I never meant to get you into trouble, and I shouldn’t have said those things to you.”
“Thank you,” his counterpart said softly. “That means a lot. I’m sorry, too.”
Rodney glanced up, eyebrows raised.
The other Rodney nodded his head at Rodney’s lip. “Looks like I actually managed to land a decent punch for once,” he said with a wry smile.
Rodney grinned, then wished he hadn’t as his lip split a little more and he tasted the salty tang of fresh blood. “I thought you were pretty good, actually,” he said. “Considering you’re, you know, me, and, generally speaking, fisticuffs aren’t my thing.”
“Guess we just both know the right buttons to push to get a reaction,” Rodney sighed. “Question is why we want to keep pushing them the whole time.”
“I think, in your case, that you just don’t like yourself very much,” his counterpart said slowly, without any hint of aggression.
“John…Colonel Sheppard said that once, too,” Rodney replied. “Which is strange because I always feel I like myself plenty.”
The other Rodney snorted. “Yeah. Me too, except…we both have two different sides to our personalities, don’t we? And one of them is a lot less self-assured than the other. I’m guessing it was that side that was so freaked out by having me around.”
Rodney stared at him blankly. He’d never really thought of himself in such an analytical way before. He generally found other people’s emotions and motivations a mystery, and his own were often no clearer to him.
The other Rodney smiled. “Sometimes, after I’ve been punished, I have these moments of clarity when I can figure everything out and it all makes sense to me,” he explained. “John pretty much insists on me spending some quiet time after a severe punishment. It’s the only time when my brain slows down enough to see some of the really obvious stuff that’s been staring me in the face the whole time.”
“What did he do to you?” Rodney asked, biting on his lip and tasting blood again. “Last night, after….” He trailed off.
“He used a switch. Definitely something to be avoided if at all possible,” his counterpart told him with a grimace.
“Oh, shit. I’m so sorry,” Rodney said again.
“You can stop apologizing, Rodney. I didn’t like it, but it did help me figure out a few things in my head. I’m sorry I allowed you to get to me. I should have realized why I was always rising to your bait. John told me ages ago that the problem was that you remind me of myself, and he’s right. I should have recognized that and accepted it. Instead it just kept niggling at me.”
“I remind you of yourself?” Rodney wrinkled his forehead, trying desperately not to make that question sound confrontational, but really not seeing it. Their lives and outlook seemed so different.
“Before John. I was a lot like you. I didn’t understand myself…I was lonely and angry about a lot of things that I couldn’t even put into focus. Being with you just brought it all back, all the negative stuff, and I didn’t like it.”
“You think I’m lonely and angry?” Rodney gazed at his counterpart in surprise.
“Yes. I do.” The other man nodded. “Let’s face it, McKay, if your childhood was anything like mine, then it was really fucked up.”
Rodney was brought up short by that. Generally speaking, he preferred not to think about his childhood a great deal. It hadn’t been terrible—nobody had hit him and there had always been food on the table, but, all the same, he didn’t have any particularly good memories of it.
“Parents at each other’s throats all the time, being picked on at high school. Being a genius worked great as a way of distracting our parents from tearing each other apart, but it just made the being picked on thing worse,” his counterpart muttered.
Rodney felt his muscles tighten. “I don’t think about it very often. I’m sure other people have it much worse,” he replied.
“Yeah, but it was a lonely childhood and nobody ever helped you out, or took your side, and the anger over the unfairness of it all didn’t go anywhere except the pit of your stomach,” his counterpart said softly.
There was no point in denying it because the other Rodney knew him as well as he knew himself. Rodney gazed at him with eyes that felt suddenly prickly.
“It’s just that nobody was ever that nice to you, so you never got into the habit of being nice back,” the other man continued.
“Did we have the same parents?” Rodney asked. “I mean, wouldn’t yours have been in a….” He flushed, too embarrassed to even think about it.
“They were both switches,” his counterpart said with a nod. “Always fighting over who was in charge and neither would give an inch. Hopelessly mis-matched. I ran off to college the minute I was old enough and fell into some bad relationships. I never expected anyone to love me and that was a good thing because nobody really did until John came along.”
“Relationships?” Rodney asked, curious about his counterpart’s history.
“Yeah. Some with women, some with men. I even topped. I wasn’t bad at it, but sometimes I wasn’t so great at it, either,” he sighed. “And when I got it wrong, I really got it wrong, and that’s a lot of responsibility when you’re taking care of another human being. Then there was a whole string of one-night stands,” he grimaced. “They really should have been more fun than they were, but I was too fucked up by that point.”
“Man, sounds like you’ve had a whole lot of sex,” Rodney commented, feeling vaguely envious.
“Sure.” His counterpart shrugged, and then gazed at him questioningly.
“Me, not so much,” Rodney said quietly.
“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, people don’t like me much and it’s hard to get from ‘I hate you, you’re a pig’ to ‘okay, but will you sleep with me?’ in one easy step. Although that’s not to say I didn’t try.” Rodney forked some food into his mouth and started to munch.
“Right.” The other Rodney frowned. “I think you’re wrong about people not liking you, though. I think they do, but you never see it. You’re so busy keeping people at bay with that sharp tongue of yours that you just assume they all dislike you. They don’t. Even I can see that. Carson and Radek have both leapt to your defense when I bad mouthed you to them, and Elizabeth, Teyla and Miko all have a soft spot for you.”
“Really?” Rodney was sure he looked as surprised as he felt.
“Really. And that’s not even taking the colonel into account,” the other Rodney added. “He likes you, too—a lot. I can see how in your universe the whole sex thing must be harder, though. We’re a lot more open about sex where I come from. Still, even despite your savagely anti-social tendencies, I’m surprised you’ve missed out.”
“Why?” Rodney frowned.
“Well, you must have noticed how hot we are,” his counterpart grinned.
Rodney choked on his food. “What?”
“Hot. We’re hot, Rodney. You do know this, right?”
Rodney glanced around the room, worried that they’d been overheard. “Really?” he whispered. “I mean, I kind of always thought so, but when the rest of the world keeps on knocking you back, you have to wonder.”
“Oh, no. We’re hot,” his counterpart told him confidently. “The other night when I was dressed in that outfit John got for me, I could have had half the room, if I’d wanted.”
“I did notice you got looked at,” Rodney mused.
“You’re kind of hot, too—only you don’t look comfortable in your own skin and that comes across. You’re sort of awkward. Also, the clothes could do with some work.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my….” Rodney stopped himself and sighed. “Sorry. I don’t want to start arguing again.”
“Look, while we’re not arguing, there are some other things I should apologize for, as well. I knew I was doing some stuff that was winding you up and I kept on doing it. Take Radek, for example.” His counterpart made a little face. “I know how you feel about him because I felt the same. He’s your right hand man, your little partner in crime—and he’s the only person around here who can really keep up with you. I knew you were feeling left out by my friendship with him, but I just kept on doing it. It wasn’t just to annoy you, either. I miss him, Rodney.”
Rodney glanced up at the note of sincerity in the other man’s voice.
“I really miss him,” his counterpart said, his blue eyes glittering slightly. “I didn’t even realize how much I liked him until he was dead and then…. The lab’s never been the same since. The others are fine, but Miko’s no substitute and Peter’s a good, solid technician, but he’s no Radek Zelenka.”
“I had no idea.” Rodney shook his head. “To be honest, I also had no idea I even liked Radek that much until you started cozying up to him.”
“There are a lot of things you have no idea about, McKay,” his counterpart said quietly. “That’s another thing that’s been winding me up, to be honest. Watching you and the colonel….” He shook his head. “I know it’s none of my business and I know it shouldn’t affect me, but just the thought of me not being with John makes me anxious…so watching you two dance around each other has made me permanently edgy. That’s another reason why I’ve been reacting so badly to you.”
“There is nothing going on between me and the colonel,” Rodney replied stiffly. “There isn’t even the remotest possibility of anything happening between me and the colonel. Whatever you think you see is entirely in your imagination.”
His counterpart gazed at him with clear blue eyes and Rodney felt himself wilting under the steady stare. “Rodney—this is me you’re talking to, remember?” The other man snorted. “I know you better than anyone else here. Lying to me is like lying to yourself. Oh! That’s what you’ve been doing, isn’t it?”
Rodney shook his head, numbly, and gazed blindly at his food.
“Rodney?” his counterpart said softly.
“What I can’t figure out…” Rodney said finally, his voice breaking, “is whether I’ve always felt like this and just been ignoring it, or whether I only started feeling this way after you two arrived.”
“Does it matter?”
“Well, yes, obviously, because when you go, I might go back to—”
“Rodney, it’s never going to go away,” his counterpart interrupted him. “And my guess is that we didn’t cause it. You’ve just been suppressing it for a long time and we brought it right out into the open. I mean, I’ve watched you, and you two flirt like crazy. I don’t believe that only started when we arrived.”
“Flirt?” Rodney frowned, puzzled.
His counterpart rolled his eyes. “Like crazy,” he confirmed. “When you first sucked us in here, I just assumed you were together because of the vibe you had going on.”
“I really don’t see that, but, anyway, it doesn’t matter. Nothing is going to happen between the colonel and myself. Apart from anything else, you should see the number of women who throw themselves at him, and he hasn’t by any means turned all of them down.”
“Well, you can’t blame the guy! He’s not getting any from you, so why shouldn’t he take it when it’s offered elsewhere?” the other Rodney snorted.
“You’re missing my point! It’s women he’s attracted to, not men, and most definitely not me,” Rodney told him firmly.
“How do you know he’s not bisexual?”
“Just because everyone in your universe is bisexual doesn’t mean everyone in ours is!” Rodney protested.
“Or maybe, because of this weird gay taboo thing you’ve got going, people just hide it,” his counterpart said with a shrug.
“Trust me, the colonel isn’t bisexual,” Rodney said. “And even if he was, a man like him sure as hell wouldn’t be interested in me.”
“Why not?” the other Rodney asked curiously.
“I just doubt I’m his type,” Rodney shrugged. “I think he’d go for someone more obvious.”
“Some brainless, muscle-bound hunk? I don’t think you know the colonel that well if you think that,” the other Rodney said, frowning.
“I don’t understand why you think he’s interested in me,” Rodney said, frowning back. “He hasn’t done anything, or said anything…he hasn’t made a move…. I just don’t get what it is that you think you’re seeing.”
The other Rodney sighed. “I’m trying to be patient because I know how incredibly dense you can be about these things. Okay, let me try to enlighten you. Has the colonel been spending more time with you lately?”
Rodney screwed up his face. “Well, yes, but I figured that was because of this unusual situation—you know, with you two guys being around.”
“Okay. Has he been unusually interested in you? Does he look at you differently, and touch you more? Is he more protective? Does he seek you out and escort you back to your quarters after work?” the other Rodney asked.
Rodney hesitated. “Well, yes, but I just thought….”
“He’s courting you,” the other Rodney said, in a ‘told you so’ kind of voice, as if the matter had been resolved.
“Courting… That’s an incredibly old fashioned kind of word!” Rodney protested.
“I know. He’s an old fashioned kind of guy. You’ll figure that one out soon enough. My John did the same, kept hanging around until I thought he was stalking me. Eventually I figured that these were his advances and only when I was comfortable with that and relaxed a bit around him did he make his move. Your John will be the same. He won’t do anything until you’re ready.”
“Ready?” Rodney felt his voice quavering slightly.
“Ready to have a relationship with him. He won’t be interested in a one-night stand or a fuck buddy. If he wants you, then he’ll want all of you, and he won’t settle for less. Took me a while to see that and it was painful for a bit, too, until I had it figured out.”
“I’ve never slept with a man before,” Rodney muttered, feeling himself flushing. “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.”
“It’s great,” the other Rodney grinned. “I love it. You will, too, if you give it a chance.”
Rodney gazed at him doubtfully. “But even if he is…. Even if, by some miracle, the colonel is interested in me, I really can’t see it going anywhere. I mean…it’s absurd,” he sighed.
“Works for me and John,” the other Rodney said.
“Well, that’s another thing. If you two are the role model for a relationship between me and the colonel, then quite frankly that makes it even more absurd…and disturbing.”
Rodney took a deep breath. “Look, I don’t want to cause any more offense after yesterday, but you and he…it’s not exactly a relationship of equals, is it?”
“Yes, it is,” his counterpart said earnestly. “You don’t see it because you can’t get beyond the collar, and the idea of two guys being married, and the concept of submission as anything other than somehow demeaning, but we are equal. We both know our role and responsi-bility within our marriage—and I’m hardly brow-beaten, am I? I don’t cringe and quiver around him. Of course we’re equals.”
“Then why do you wear the collar? Why are you the one with the mark on your arm—what’s that, like a branding? Like you’re cattle or something? It’s unlike any tattoo I’ve ever seen,” Rodney said, pointing at the elegant etching on his counterpart’s upper arm.
“The collar is like a wedding ring—it’s kind of old fashioned, but I like wearing it and John likes to see me in it. The tattoo is a technique called latiquing. You use a special liquid that turns silver when it’s applied to the skin via a needle. It hurts like hell so it helps to be in the right headspace when you do it. None of this stuff matters, though. You could take it all away and it wouldn’t make any difference, because at the end of the day, it’s all about trust—and you don’t trust anyone, Rodney, not even yourself. Until you do, you’ll be trapped inside a misery entirely of your own making and nobody will be able to help you.”
“You don’t understand. You’re asking me to change everything I believed myself to be,” Rodney told him helplessly.
“And does everything you believe yourself to be make you happy?” his counterpart asked softly. “Because if not—maybe it needs changing, hmm?”
Rodney had no reply to that, but he didn’t need one because at that moment the general strode up to the table. Rodney felt himself flushing as he remembered the events of the previous evening, but the general seemed to be in a good mood and he nodded at him and wished him good morning.
“You two boys okay?” he asked, casting an anxious look at his husband.
“We’re fine. Just…burying a few hatchets,” the other Rodney said with a smile.
“I’m pleased to hear it,” the general beamed. “So, are you ready, Rodney?” he asked his husband.
Rodney Sheppard grinned, and got up, stifling a grimace as he slid his leg off the chair and eased himself cautiously to his feet. “Definitely ready,” he said. “Oh, I should have told you—I won’t be working in the lab today, McKay. John’s taking me to the mainland for some R&R.”
“Yeah, that’s where I’ve been, requisitioning a jumper from the colonel. I’m taking Rodney to this great beach we found a week or two back,” the general said, putting an arm around his husband and kissing him on the cheek. The other Rodney gave that little giggle of his and somehow Rodney didn’t find it so irritating anymore. In fact, there was something endearing about it—and about how sincerely and unashamedly in love these two men were. Usually, Rodney found that kind of stuff unbearably sappy and embarrassing, but maybe he was getting used to it, or maybe they’d just worn him down from being around so long.
“It’s a nice day,” the other Rodney said. “You should get out more, have more fun, McKay.”
“Yeah. Right,” Rodney sighed. He had to admit that the idea of a day away from all his problems did sound appealing and he envied them.
“He’s been working too hard. I should have done this before now,” the general said, squeezing his husband’s arm. “Took yesterday’s fiasco to make me realize I haven’t been spoiling him enough.”
“Oh, one thing before we go,” the other Rodney said. “Show Dr. McKay your arm, John.”
“My arm?” The general looked confused. The other Rodney tapped his left bicep.
“Dr. McKay is struggling to understand our relationship. He seems to think we’re not equal. I thought maybe if you showed him….”
“Oh. Right. Yeah.” The general grinned and undid his shirt, then peeled the fabric down his shoulder to reveal the top of his left arm. There, etched on his flesh in silver piping, was the same elegant entwined J and R tattoo that Rodney had seen on his counterpart’s upper arm, although on his right arm, not his left.
“I did his first, as a matter of fact,” Rodney said. “The night we lifebonded. The design was mine, too, and he was nervous in case he got it wrong, so I went first. Then afterwards, he did mine.” He glanced down at his own arm. “Opposite arms—it’s traditional and they touch when we walk side by side.”
“Yeah. I’m crap at design and stuff like that,” the general grinned. “Rodney’s got a good eye for detail and a steady hand. Luckily, we were deep in the lifebonded headspace when we latiqued each other or I’d have screwed it up and ended up making a mess of it. As it was…hell, I felt like I could do anything that night. That’s when we first felt the Kaeira and it blew me away. As for being equal—of course we are.” He shrugged, as if that was self-evident. “I mean, Rodney’s pretty much the smartest guy on Atlantis, as he keeps reminding us every five minutes.” The general grinned at his husband. “And I doubt you could even lifebond with someone if you felt they were beneath you. The ritual wouldn’t work.”
Rodney gazed at them both, spellbound by this glimpse into their society. He wasn’t entirely sure he understood it, but there was something exotic and beautiful about it all the same.
“We gotta go if we’re going to make a day of it,” the general said, fastening his leash to the other Rodney’s collar and wrapping the end of it around his fist. “See you later, Doc. Have a good day.”
Rodney watched them go. He wasn’t sure he was ever going to entirely wrap his head around their relationship, but he envied them their easy closeness. Despite what had happened the previous day, today they were as besotted with each other as he’d ever seen them.
Rodney made his way back to the lab, feeling strangely depressed. Not by his conversation with the other Rodney, but by his counterpart’s relationship with the general and his own sense of loneliness. He wasn’t sure what that was about—he never usually felt this way. He thought he had pretty much gotten used to being a loner, but now he had all these emotions coursing around inside him that had nowhere to go.
His staff gazed at him warily as he entered the lab and he grimaced, feeling their eyes flicker over his stubbled chin and bruised mouth. He refused to enlighten them, though, and just glared at them, daring them to say anything. Needless to say, nobody did, although Radek did give him a sympathetic look and hand him a cup of coffee before scurrying away, clearly worried that some kind of tongue-lashing would be incurred by anyone who lingered too long in Rodney’s vicinity.
Rodney had done about half an hour’s work under the casing when he realized that the atmosphere in the lab had changed, and everyone had gone rather quiet. He poked his head out and his heart sank as he saw Colonel Sheppard standing in the doorway.
“Dr. McKay. Could I have a word with you, please?” the colonel asked.
Rodney nodded curtly and got to his feet, uncertain where they stood after the previous evening and whether the colonel was still angry with him. He went over to stand in front of the colonel and the other man gazed at him searchingly for a moment, his gaze lingering for a long time on his split lip, an unreadable expression in those hazel eyes.
“How are you doing?” he asked eventually.
“Fine,” Rodney replied sharply.
“Good. I want you to finish up here and come with me, then,” Sheppard said.
“Why?” Rodney demanded warily.
“Because I want to give you a flying lesson,” Sheppard said.
“What?!” Rodney gazed at him, completely floored. Of all the things Sheppard could have said right then, that would have been last on his list.
“Do you want a flying lesson or not?” Sheppard asked.
Rodney thought about it for a moment. He loved the flying lessons Sheppard had given him in the past, but this was so weirdly out of the blue.
“Well…. Now?” he queried. “Why now?”
“Why not now?” Sheppard countered.
“Because…I’m working?” Rodney suggested, waving his hand around the lab. He was suddenly aware that everyone was being studiously quiet as they strained to overhear his conversation with the colonel. He hoped they didn’t think Sheppard was offering to take him out on a date or something…and then it occurred to him that might be exactly what the colonel was intending and he flushed bright red.
“You work all the time. You do double the hours your staff do and you need a break. I checked the logs—you haven’t taken one day off in four weeks,” Sheppard told him. “And you work regular seventeen-hour days.” He took hold of Rodney’s arm and led him to one side so they wouldn’t be overheard. “I told you this would happen. I said you’d be a wreck if you worked at this pace and you are. Just look at you,” he whispered.
“I said I’m fine,” Rodney hissed.
“Well, you don’t look it and you aren’t acting it,” Sheppard said. “I’m worried about you. I want you to take a break before you end up getting into more fights, or blowing up the city or something.”
Rodney gazed at him helplessly. He couldn’t honestly remember the last time anyone had cared what hours he worked, or how he looked. Even Carson was happy to hand out the stimulants when Rodney bullied him into it, just so he could keep working. He remembered what the other Rodney had said about Sheppard courting him. Was that what this was? Or was the colonel really just worried about the safety of the city when its Head of Science was so close to breaking point? And if it was the former and not the latter, how did he feel about it?
“Okay,” he said suddenly, surprising himself by the obvious answer to his question about how he felt about going on a date with the colonel.
Sheppard blinked. “Really?” He looked surprised, too, as if he thought it would have been harder to convince Rodney.
“Sure. Why not? You’re right. These guys should pull their weight more, anyway,” Rodney said in a slightly louder voice so they could all hear. “Okay, boys and girls, listen up!” he said. “I’m out of here. Radek—you’re in charge.”
And with that, he turned on his heel and left, still flushing wildly at the thought that every-one on his staff had just heard Sheppard asking him out on what might, or might not, be a date. As they walked out of the door, Sheppard’s hand came to rest on his shoulder, the way it always seemed to when they walked anywhere these days. Rodney tried to relax. If this was a date, then maybe it would give him a chance to figure out whether there was any way in hell that he and Colonel Sheppard could ever have any kind of a relationship.
“So…flying in a straight line,” Sheppard said with a grin as they entered the puddle jumper.
Rodney made a face. “I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it one day,” he said.
“We’ll work on it,” Sheppard told him, pushing him towards the flight console and taking up the position next to him.
Rodney buckled himself in and ran his hands over the controls. He actually loved flying, and now that he looked back, he wondered whether that wasn’t partly because his flying lessons had given him a chance to spend some one-on-one time with the colonel.
Rodney took them up, in an entirely crooked line, into the air, and then Sheppard took them through some simple maneuvers which Rodney performed with his usual enthusiasm and lack of flair. His inability to fly in a straight line was actually embarrassing him, and the whole date-not-date thing was making him even more flustered to the point where he wasn’t sure what he was doing.
“It’s okay, calm down,” the colonel said after yet another spectacular failure, unbuckling from his seat and coming to stand behind Rodney. “Your problem is that you overthink it. In fact, that’s pretty much your problem with everything,” he said with a grin.
Rodney opened his mouth to protest at that character slur when Sheppard’s hands suddenly descended on his own from behind.
“You need to feel it. Get a feel for her. Just be quiet for a moment, Rodney. Don’t talk, don’t think…just feel,” Sheppard said, his lips so close to Rodney’s ear that his breath ticked the side of Rodney’s face when he spoke.
Rodney did as instructed, sitting back in his chair and trying to relax, relishing the feel of Sheppard’s long, agile fingers on top of his own, and Sheppard’s face against his cheek.
“That’s it…now…I want you to fly between these two points…but don’t look at the screen …just gently ease her…that’s right,” Sheppard said encouragingly into his ear.
Rodney gave himself up to the dual pleasures of flying and having Sheppard so close to him. He guided the ship gently along, barely breathing, and was surprised when they reached their destination and Sheppard brought up the star map to show they’d kept to an almost entirely straight line.
“See, I knew you could do it,” the colonel said, finally relinquishing his hold on Rodney’s hands and going back to his seat.
Rodney sat back with a satisfied smile. Date or not, this whole day was turning out really well!
They flew for a while longer, then Sheppard took the controls again.
“Hungry?” he said, with a grin in Rodney’s direction. “Oh, what am I saying? Stupid question. This is Rodney McKay I’m talking to, after all. You’re always hungry.”
“You brought lunch?” Rodney asked, surprised. He hadn’t imagined this would be an all day thing.
“Of course I brought lunch. What kind of a cheap date do you think I am?” Sheppard asked, and Rodney flushed wildly again and examined his fingernails intently. So maybe this was a date? Or was Sheppard just using a figure of speech? Damn it, why was he always so useless at interpreting these complicated social situations?
“Hold on,” Sheppard said, and next thing Rodney knew they were flying down—fast, too fast, so fast he was sure they would hit the water…and then they did hit the water.
“John! What the hell do you think—?!” Rodney began, but Sheppard just grinned at him.
“It’s okay, Rodney. I thought we’d have lunch with a view that’s all,” he said, as the jumper started powering down under the surface of the ocean.
“Last time I did this, I nearly died,” Rodney reminded him.
“And this time it’ll be fine,” Sheppard said calmly. “We’ve tested it, remember? The jumper works just as well as a submersible as it does in the air. And this area is shallow; I’ve checked it out. Now, just watch….”
He had a sly grin on his face as he drove the jumper down through the sunlit depths. He was right, the ocean bed wasn’t very deep here and they soon settled on the bottom, right in front of a magnificent coral reef, teeming with large, brightly-colored fish in all shapes and sizes, which were magnificently lit by the jumper’s lights.
“Oh, my God,” Rodney breathed. “This is like…our own personal aquarium or something.”
“Isn’t it?” Sheppard grinned, unbuckling his belt and going to the back of the jumper. He returned with a basket which he placed on the console between them. “Help yourself,” he gestured to Rodney.
Rodney reached into the basket and found an array of some of his favorite foods. He glanced at Sheppard suspiciously. Maybe the other Rodney was right—maybe he was being courted. It was so hard to tell. And if he was—how did he feel about that? This was all so incredibly weird. Sheppard was giving nothing away. He just smiled back innocently at Rodney and Rodney was reminded again of what his counterpart had said about him not making a move until Rodney was ready. That relaxed him a little. He wasn’t ready—not yet, and he had no idea whether he ever would be, but in the meantime, he had to admit that it was pretty nice to have someone take some kind of a romantic interest in him. Usually, it was always him doing the chasing, and mostly being knocked back—and he kind of liked the idea of being courted, if that was what was going on here.
The view was fantastic, and Rodney watched, mesmerized, as they ate. Sheppard made conversation, and Rodney found himself responding in kind, and enjoying himself, and the time went all too quickly. Dating—if that’s what this was—had never been so easy as far as Rodney was concerned. Usually his dates were disasters of epic proportions, during which he said or did something so hopelessly inept or socially awkward that he scared off his potential partner forever. This was different, though—he wasn’t sure why. Maybe because he wasn’t sure whether it was a date or not, or maybe because he was with John. Rodney didn’t know. He just knew that it was good, and that got him to thinking that maybe being gay wasn’t such a big deal, after all. Okay, so it was surprising, but he thought maybe he could get over the shock if it meant that life was this good and he felt this…he wasn’t sure what the word was…special? Liked? Happy?
By the time they returned to the city, later that afternoon, Rodney actually found himself humming. He’d even had a nap in the jumper while John had flown them around after lunch, and he was feeling better than he had in days—rested and content, and less edgy and bad-tempered. John walked him back to his quarters and they stood there for a moment. Rodney wondered whether this was where something was supposed to happen and he fidgeted nervously, but John just grinned at him and squeezed his shoulder.
“I hope you enjoyed today,” he said.
“Yes…I did…very much,” Rodney babbled. “Thank you for…you know…lunch…and…all those fish…and…whatnot.” He flushed and gazed at his feet to avoid the colonel’s amused gaze. Oh, God! Date or not, he was crap at it, whatever it was.
“It was cool. We must do it again sometime,” John told him.
“Really?” Rodney glanced up, his stomach doing a nervous flip. So, there was a chance of a second date, then? He hadn’t just blown it with his amazingly useless attempt at thanking the other man? He never usually got as far as a second date with anyone so he had no idea how to respond.
“Sure,” John said easily.
Rodney stared at him for a moment, and John stared back at him, his eyes fixed on Rodney’s bruised lip. Rodney wondered if he was going to kiss him, and he had absolutely no idea how he felt about that happening, but instead John reached out a finger and touched the cut.
“You should get Carson to look at that,” he murmured.
“It’s fine,” Rodney said softly, leaning into John ever so slightly.
They stood there for a moment, and then John let out a sigh, and regretfully drew back.
“Okay. Well, then. See you, Rodney,” he said.
“Yes. Fine. And, um…thanks again, John,” Rodney replied. It was only when he was back in his room that he realized he’d not only started calling the other man ‘John,’ but he’d started thinking of him that way, too. Somehow, slowly but surely, and he wasn’t even sure when it had happened, John had crept past his defenses and wormed his way past all the prickly barriers he put up. Rodney knew it was dangerous, and he felt incredibly vulnerable, but at the same time he couldn’t help himself—he had started to trust John, and he had never trusted anyone in his life before.
The next few days in the lab were a total joy for Rodney McKay. He didn’t know why he’d ever had such a problem with his counterpart. At last, finally, he had someone in the lab who worked at the same speed as he did, who understood everything he was trying to do, and who could follow him into even the most complicated areas of scientific discovery—and it was fantastic! They talked non-stop, covering every topic under the sun, each of them filling in tiny gaps in the other’s knowledge, sharing ideas and plans and comparing notes on various projects while they worked on the QDD. It was the most intellectual stimulation Rodney had had in a long time, and he no longer noticed or cared about any of the things about Rodney Sheppard that had previously annoyed him so much.
Within two days, they had the crystals working, and ready for a test run the following day.
Rodney Sheppard was running madly around the lab fixing up some cabling, while Radek and Rodney McKay worked on trying to focus the imaging beam so that they could locate the correct universe. Rodney had sent everyone else away because, quite simply, none of them were bright enough to follow what they were doing and he didn’t want anyone getting in the way.
“Please don’t send us to the wrong place,” the other Rodney was saying, donut in one hand, cabling in the other, a manic grin on his face. “You know, no offense, but it’s taken us weeks to get used to you guys. I don’t want to have to start all over again in another freaky universe.”
“No, no, no,” Rodney replied with an answering grin as he tapped out some algorithms. “We’ll make sure it’s the right one. Now, we have some power going here. All we have to do is retrieve the memory core so we’ll be able to trace the exact coordinates of your universe.” He punched in some numbers happily, and a second later, something flashed in the faded taped off area on the floor in front of them.
“What was that?” Radek asked excitably.
“Some kind of window…not sure…” Rodney said, trying the code again. “Dammit…it looks like the only way of doing a memory trace is to actually open up windows to various other universes and see if the coordinates match. Hmm, that’s a lot more laborious than I thought it would be.”
Rodney Sheppard came and looked over his shoulder, donut still in mouth. “Mmm,” he said. “Shunn boky if voiweeno.”
“In English, please, Rodney,” Rodney said briskly.
The other Rodney removed his donut with an apologetic giggle. “Sorry. I said, should be okay, although we might like to avoid going near the windows when they’re open, just to be on the safe side.” He pointed to the taped off area. “You’re not activating the beam so you won’t bring anyone through, just opening up various windows to different universes. When you get to the right one, these logarithms should line up,” he pointed at the display on Rodney’s laptop, “and then…then, my friends, me and my husband will be practically home.” He put a hand on Rodney’s shoulder and one on Radek’s shoulder and beamed at them both enthusiastically.
“But there are hundreds of windows in this section of the QDD! It could take days!” Rodney protested.
“Ah, well. We’ve been here weeks already. Who cares about a few more days?” The other Rodney shrugged. “Besides, much as we want to go home, we’ve kind of become fond of you guys, so we’re not in any rush.” He gave them both another wide grin.
Rodney grinned back at him, wondering why he’d ever found him so annoying. He was, as John had said, a really nice guy.
They worked solidly for the next couple of hours until Rodney was cross-eyed from checking out the various different windows. Each time he opened one up, there was a shimmer of light in the taped-off area of the floor, and they had the eerie sensation of looking into a void. Sometimes Rodney swore he could see shadows moving in the window, just out of his line of vision, and occasionally they all heard noises—just little things; the sound of laughter, the crash of something smashing on the floor that made them all jump, the strained tones of an argument—they couldn’t make out what was being said, but they could hear raised, angry voices. It was actually rather sinister, and the whole thing was starting to creep Rodney out. He took a break, handing the controls over to Radek, and went to pour himself some coffee, examining some earlier calculations on his laptop while he sipped.
The other Rodney was still laying out the cabling, trying to work on an interface with the housing that would be strong enough to carry the huge amount of power required to send them home. Rodney vaguely overheard his counterpart say something to Radek about testing the cabling by setting up an experimental beam, just for a couple of seconds, and then Rodney saw a flicker of light and the other Rodney said something in an excited voice and got up and ran across the room…and then there was a sudden flash of light from the QDD, accompanied by a loud wailing sound, followed by a startled gasp from Radek’s direction. Rodney looked up sharply—and met Radek’s shocked eyes staring back at him. There was no sign of Rodney Sheppard, though—he seemed to have disappeared completely.
“Radek?” Rodney pushed his chair back, his heart pounding in his chest.
“He just…. There was a power surge and he just…” Radek said, trembling slightly as he pointed at the open window in front of them.
“Radek!” Rodney said in a disbelieving tone. “You’re not telling me…? But there was no beam!” he shouted. “Even with a window open, it’s not possible to go anywhere without the beam!”
“I’m sorry. He told me to set up a test beam. It was only open for a second. I had it contained, but there was the power surge and it broke out of the containment field and he just fell right into it and disappeared,” Radek whispered.
“Can we get him back?” Rodney asked, rushing over.
“I…I don’t know. I could try activating the beam again and see if it will hold. He said he’d almost finished with the cabling,” Radek said desperately.
Rodney ran over to the QDD, shoved Radek out of the way, punched in the activation code and turned on the beam. There was a loud noise and a burst of light, but nobody materialized.
“He isn’t in the target area anymore!” Rodney yelled at Radek. “Why doesn’t he get back in there?”
“I do not know,” Radek said ominously. “Maybe he has been injured?”
Rodney had only a split second to make his decision. “I’m going through,” he said grimly.
“What?” Radek was aghast. “Rodney, the beam itself might have injured him. If you go through, then the same thing might happen to you! Rodney, we do not even know if he’s still alive!”
“I’m going through,” Rodney said again, in a determined voice. “Radek, we mustn’t overload the crystals. It took us weeks to get them working. Once I’m through, I want you to turn off the beam and give them time to recharge. Thirty minutes should do it. Then turn on the beam again. I’ll try and be in position with Dr. Sheppard at that exact same time.”
“And if that doesn’t work?” Radek asked, his eyes wide with worry.
“Then get the colonel and general down here,” Rodney said grimly. “Brief them on the situation and let them decide what to do next.”
“Rodney, I still think it would be better if we shut it down and you waited—” Radek
“No. I’m not leaving him there,” Rodney said flatly. “I already screwed up his life once. I’m not doing it again. Just make sure you keep the window between these two universes open, whatever you do. If you close it, then you might never find this one again and we’ll be lost there forever. Activate the beam every thirty minutes, but don’t keep it on for more than two minutes at a time.”
With that, he ran towards the taped-off area, took a deep breath and threw himself into the path of the beam.
Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard was in the practice room, sparring with his counterpart. He’d learned some good moves from the other man and they each enjoyed sparring with someone whose ability so closely matched his own. John flicked his sticks and grinned, advancing on the general. The other man grinned back, his teeth flashing, and he did a perfect little flick of his sticks in response. John feinted forwards, and the general lunged sideways. John raised his sticks, seeing a slight gap in the other man’s defenses and he moved in to take advantage of it…when suddenly the general sank to his knees and let out a blood-curdling howl, clutching at his chest.
“General?” John threw his sticks down and ran over to him.
The other man’s face was a picture of agony. His head was flung back and he was gazing sightlessly at the ceiling, veins bulging in his neck, his mouth open in a silent roar.
“General?” John gripped the other man’s shoulders urgently.
“Rodney,” the general whispered, in a hoarse, anguished tone. “Oh, God…oh, no…. Rodney!” He sank back onto the floor, writhing in pain.
John tapped his radio urgently. “Medical emergency! Carson, I need you in the practice room—now!” he called, and then he turned his attention back to the general. “General, what is it? Are you injured?” John ripped open the other man’s shirt, but there was no sign of any injury. He was still clutching his chest, though, and rolling around on the practice mat.
Carson arrived a few seconds later, and ran straight over to them. He pushed John out of the way and knelt down beside the general.
“What is it? Is it his heart?” John asked anxiously. “He was fine one minute and then he just went down. It was like he’d been shot.”
“It’s not his heart,” Carson said, looking up grimly. “That sounds fine—a bit fast, but then he’s in a lot of pain.”
“Then what is it?” John demanded, gazing at the helplessly contorted face that looked so much like his own.
“To be honest, I have no idea,” Carson told him. “We’ll get him back to the infirmary and run some tests.”
“No!” the general said, trying to roll over and stagger to his feet.
John knelt down beside him and pushed him back. “You’re in no shape to go anywhere,” he told his counterpart.
“No…don’t understand…” the general hissed, his face red, his eyes bulging from pain. He grabbed hold of John’s wrist urgently. “It’s Rodney…he’s been badly hurt…. Can feel it through the lifebond….”
“Wait a minute,” Carson said, shaking his head. “You’re saying that you’re experiencing Rodney’s injury—that this is his pain?”
“Yes,” the general whispered hoarsely. “Help him, John. Oh, God.” He banged his head back on the floor. “Oh, shit…he’s dying. Help him!” He curled into a ball and gave a low, animalistic moan that sent shivers up John’s spine.
“Do what you can for him,” he told Carson, and then he sprinted out of the door and ran down the hallways to the lab. He burst through the door, to find Radek standing by the QDD, trembling, completely alone.
“Radek?” he demanded, coming to a skidding halt by the QDD. “Where are they? Where did they go?”
“There was an accident,” Radek whispered. “Rodney Sheppard…he fell into the beam from the QDD when we were testing it. He went through the window into another universe….” He nodded towards the taped-off area of the room and John saw an eerie gap in the fabric of their reality, full of shadows, and just the hint of sound. “Our Rodney went after him. He told me…he told me to turn off the beam to conserve energy, but to keep the window open so we don’t lose contact with the universe they are in. I am to bring the beam on again every thirty minutes and he will try and get himself and the other Rodney into position to be brought back.”
“Rodney Sheppard is badly hurt. He’s in urgent need of medical treatment,” John told him. “We have to open that beam up again now.”
“I cannot!” Radek protested. “The crystals will burn out. They need thirty minutes to recharge.”
“Thirty minutes might be too late!” John yelled.
“Rodney gave me very specific instructions. If we burn out the crystals, we might not be able to get either of them back,” Radek told him in a frightened voice. John stared at him.
“Damn it!” he roared at last, thumping his fist down on the lab table. Radek shrank back against the QDD. “Okay…all right. Keep that damn window open whatever you do. I’m going to get a team together and if they don’t come straight back through when you can activate that beam again, then I’m going in to get them,” John growled.
He raced back to the infirmary, to find Carson hooking his counterpart up to a monitor.
“Have you been able to help him?” he asked.
Carson shook his head and spread his arms helplessly. “There’s nothing wrong with him, Colonel. I’ve given him some pain meds, but they aren’t helping at all. All I can think of is to give him a sedative and knock him out completely.”
“No!” the general rasped, reaching out and clutching at John’s arm. “If you do that, I won’t be able to help Rodney. I’m all that’s keeping him alive right now.”
“How d’you work that out?” Carson said, coming to stand beside the general, a worried frown creasing his forehead.
“He’s been badly injured. I’m giving him my own strength. If you sedate me, I won’t be able to help him and he’ll die,” the general hissed, still clutching his chest. “John…where is he?” he asked, gazing at John in despair. “Why didn’t you bring him here for Carson to treat? He’s in so much pain right now.”
“He’s not here, General,” John told him. “There was an accident with the QDD. Our own Rodney went in after him, so he’s got someone there with him, looking after him. I’m going to assemble a team and we’ll go in and get them.”
“Go,” the general rasped. “Bring them home, John. Bring them both back for us.”
“I will,” John said softly. “I promise.”
End of Part Ten
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