It’s Wednesday and it’s 4 a.m., the labs are deserted except for Rodney, who is bent over a laptop, and John considers it for a minute, momentarily bewildered.
Atlantis is on stand-down, and Rodney’s been told to sleep–by six separate people–and here he is, breaking line again, and it makes a smile creep over the corners of John’s mouth for the barest second before he schools his expression and walks over, footsteps loud in the quiet room.
And when he puts one hand down next to Rodney’s on the lab table, it’s close enough so that he can feel the heat of proximity, not enough to stroke over the skin on the back of Rodney’s long fingers.
He leans in, curves along Rodney’s back so that Rodney can feel the press of John’s body through layers of clothing and murmurs, into the oxygen by Rodney’s ear, “I was under the impression you were going to sleep.”
Rodney shivers, shakes, and John watches Rodney’s fingers twitch before he forces them still.
There are rules.
“I’m not tired yet,” Rodney says, more docile than John imagines his staff has ever heard.
John likes it when Rodney pushes back–just enough so that there’s a sense of satisfaction when John shoves him onto his back again, watches Rodney go glazed and flushed and submitting, so he smiles, puts his free hand on the small of Rodney’s back, where the jacket of his uniform brushes the waist and where John can feel a bump of Rodney’s spine through the cotton cloth.
It makes Rodney catch his breath, go still and silent and John presses his thumb in circles there, a touch that’s almost innocent and completely invasive and does this until he feels Rodney’s tremor turn into a shake, before he says, in a much firmer voice:
“Go to sleep, Rodney.”
Elizabeth likes to comment, with an approving smile, how Rodney looks so much more healthy these days since he’s getting rest. And Teyla likes that John is taking a more active role as team leader, watching out for his subordinates.
John likes the way that he can feel Rodney’s shoulders go lose under his command, how Rodney melts into it, let’s go of whatever he’s clutching so tight in his chest and says, “Okay.”
And Rodney pushes himself away from the lab table, hands stiller now, confident, because he knows what he’s supposed to do, and John lets his eyes stroke down the line of Rodney’s soft body to see Rodney stiff in his pants and looser in his shoulders, eyes cast aside, starting to move away from the lab table.
Very good, John thinks indulgently, and as a very small reward, he smiles against Rodney’s ear, and says, “Good.”
The first time it happened, it was an accident. John was tired and Rodney was belligerent and somehow, in between Rodney shouting at John to go lay down before he passed out from massive blood loss again and John telling Rodney to get some fucking rest before he went crazy, John had simply lost his mind, put his hand on the back of Rodney’s neck, looked him in the eye, claustrophobic and close and said in very low tones, “Go to sleep, Rodney.”
John had been expecting Rodney to come up with a litany of abuses including but not limited to complaining about John grabbing him, John being a mother hen, John annoying him, John taking inappropriate liberties, John forgetting that Rodney wasn’t military, that they weren’t in the field so that none of their chain of command applied–
Rodney had stared at him, eyes huge and shiny and said, “Okay. Yes.”
Now that John’s known the weight of command he knows exactly why he should kept his damn mouth shut and toed the line. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, he’s scared all the time, more for his people than for himself, and mostly he quotes shit he remembers his superiors yelled at him. The worst part is that people seem to think that he’s got it figured out, that he knows what he’s doing and that he’ll save the day. John died twenty-eight consecutive times on the first level the first time he played Mario Brothers on Super Nintendo–he just can’t get over the fact that people think he’s capable of keeping them alive.
So this thing with Rodney–it’s good. It feels good.
He knows what Rodney needs and how to make Rodney do what he needs to do for himself. John can say, “Rodney, go sleep,” or “Rodney, take a break,” or “Rodney, only one cup of coffee today, because Dr. Beckett says he’s seeing irregular patterns in your heartbeat.” John knows how to protect Rodney from himself, and that’s a start.
It’s easy, defined, simple, one-dimensional.
He’s not going to think about the questionable touching.
Rodney looks good the next day, well-rested and cheery–or at least his own version of it.
It lasts all of ten minutes until there’re some screeching noises from a lab three floors down and everybody rushes down to help, and all the flames and drama finally end when John takes one for the team and presses his hands to the already-scalding metal on the side of a large piece of flaming ancient machinery. They’re lucky that the residual ATA engineering in the piece of crap responds, but even if the fire’s out John’s hands are now burning and Rodney’s screaming louder than ever.
On the way to the infirmary, Rodney huffing hard trying to run by the gurney and shout at John and Beckett and barking death threats into his radio back at his terrified scientists, John says, incredibly doped up for the pain:
“Gosh, Rodney, you’re just terrible at this.”
Rodney’s eyes go huge and pissed and yells back, “Well if you set yourself on fire and died we wouldn’t be able to play anymore, would we, you moron!”
John figures he’s right, and meekly passes out by the time they cross the threshold to the infirmary.
He’s going to have scarring on his hands, though not much, since several months ago Carson very delightedly started playing with all of Atlantis’ enviable and astounding medical technology. Rodney was still bitter over that, whining that if Carson felt comfortable enough researching voodoo, then he should have been down at the labs.
In what Carson claimed was a completely unrelated event, Rodney ended up being forced to get a tetanus booster that week, and his arm hurt for three whole days, during which time everybody in the whole world heard about it.
After the first time, when Rodney’s eyes had gone all dark like a drowning sea, John had walked around for hours in a daze, baffled and tense, with a tingle in his fingertips. It made him wonder what else Rodney would do if John told him to do it, how many times Rodney would say, “Yes,” and fold beneath John’s hands.
So while John had been doing weapons inventory, been walking the perimeter of the occupied city, running his hands against warm and rounded walls, he’d thought about Rodney’s neck, how it had been hot and curved beneath his palm and how Rodney’s mouth had fallen open, just a little bit, in surprise or maybe something else when John had stared him in the eyes. Rodney was, despite his very best efforts to provide too much information about every aspect of his life to everybody in Atlantis base, still a mystery to John. Rodney complained about everything and thought he was smarter than everybody and seemed have trouble being with people. He yelled and he whined and he ingratiated himself, made himself necessary, if not liked.
There seemed to be something wrong with that, John had thought then, his palm flat on a softly pulsing red circle in an empty room near a large and sprawling exterior terrace. Rodney might not like to be liked, but he should be happy, or less unhappy, and when he had thought it the circle had beamed beneath his touch, flowed red and shining like an open heart.
John made Rodney poke at it for hours the next day, frantic he’d done something irreparable to Atlantis. At the end of the fourth hour, Rodney threw up his hands and said, “Oh for the–look, Colonel!” and pointed at the far corner of what had always been a brown and dour room to find the beginning of a curling green vine.
The botanists spent the rest of the day touching red circles on walls and haranguing John to do the same until John begged Rodney to make up some excuse for him to hide in the labs. John didn’t exactly order Rodney to do it or anything, but there was a distinct softness beneath Rodney’s smirk when he’d said, “I’m making a note of this, Colonel.”
It’s been four months now, and the solarium is in full blossom of the Atlantean spring, lush and dense and intoxicating, with bursting golden and white flowers, delicate trellises of blue blossoms and frail, pink ladyslippers dotting the pathway, which had melted into green after the botanists had started heaping compost from the mess onto it. They’ve discovered all new life forms, and even Rodney is charmed by the fingerlike, green vines, the unfurling leaves, like the quiet, feathered wings of birds.
John finds him there at a little past seven. His hands are comfortably sore and recovering. He’s been released on his own recognizance, and Rodney is sitting in a pool of golden, Atlantean sun, staring up at a wall of flowers, with jagged leaves and violently yellow blooms.
His eyes are wide and his mouth is slightly open, and he looks all worn down, and John frowns at himself; he knows the last few days have not been good for Rodney. And with nobody there to remind him to sleep, to tell him what to do, then Rodney will do whatever he likes–which, historically, is the very worst thing for him.
John walks over, the soles of his shoes making a very soft, rubbery sound against the lawn of grass, the earthy-damp soil, and when Rodney turns to look at him, it’s only with a distracted nod, an exhausted slump.
“Are you supposed to be out of the hospital yet?” he asks.
John smiles. “Carson released me–on pain of death that I change my bandages, keep out of trouble–”
“Resist the urge to press body parts to flaming metal,” Rodney supplies.
“Etcetera etcetera,” John finishes lightly. “You’re up early.”
“I’m up late,” Rodney says casually, but there’s an edginess in his voice that gives him away.
John’s heard rumors. The nurses say things like, “I hear Dr. McKay’s been terrorizing his scientists nonstop,” and “I hear he hasn’t slept more than ten hours since,” and “He’s always in here–but only when Colonel Sheppard is asleep.”
It makes John suddenly furious with himself, for having been so careless, so half in apology and half in command, he takes a few steps closer and reaches out, palms the top of Rodney’s head in a way that isn’t allowed unless they’re doing this. Rodney sighs a little, leans into the touch, and John cards his fingers through Rodney’s thin, soft hair, touches the warm skin of Rodney’s scalp. And he’s trying to say, “I’m sorry,” and “I shouldn’t have done that,” and “I wish you wouldn’t worry so much,” by not saying anything at all.
Rodney finally says, and his voice is very quiet, “Anyway. We’re on stand-down for the moment. Everybody gets a day off.”
Nobody’s dead and the city’s intact, so a day off is something Rodney must have earned by haranguing his entire team into premature nervous breakdowns, and the way John tightens his fingers in Rodney’s hair is slightly reproachful but more protective. Rodney shouldn’t have to worry about him–that’s not the way the game is played.
So he strokes the back of his hand over the soft, sweet curve of Rodney’s cheek–and John wishes he could actually feel Rodney’s skin through the soft loops of gauze, but he can imagine it, and in John’s mind, Rodney’s face feels as flushed as it looks–and says, “Go back to sleep, okay.”
Rodney’s eyes are already closed. He says, “Yeah.”
When Rodney gets up its with his knees creaking and a hiss, a hand on his back, so John puts his hand there, against the inward curve of it, at the base of Rodney’s spine. He knows it’s negligible warmth but every little bit helps, and he leaves his hand there as he and Rodney wind back toward the personal quarters, through Atlantis’ labyrinthine hallways.
John walks Rodney all the way back to his door, though he knows that there’s no reason to doubt Rodney won’t listen to directions when they’re like this, and when Rodney presses a palm to the blue crystals outside his rooms he turns to look John in the eyes.