"I can't believe this!" Rodney says.
"Hang in there, buddy," John says, prompting a snigger from Ronon. John shoots him a quelling look. "We'll get you down as soon as Teyla gets back with the game warden."
Rodney flails angrily, sending himself spinning in a wobbly circle. "Just cut me down, Sheppard. We can say the rope broke!"
"Can't," Ronon says. "The Amua have a pact with the forest. These are the only ropes they can use to trap. Plus you're funny upside down. Your face is all red."
As if getting caught in a snare in front of Ronon once wasn't enough humiliation for one lifetime, now he's dangling from his ankle in front of Ronon and John. Even Teyla couldn't hide a smile after all the excitement was over and he grudgingly admitted nothing was broken from his sudden ascent into the canopy. He scowls down at them. At least Ford isn't trying to kill him this time.
"Aw, he's smiling," Ronon says.
Rodney growls and kicks out, trying to reach Ronon so he can strangle him. Ronon sidesteps him easily and gives him a push. Rodney spins around and misses the days when Ronon could go weeks without saying anything. Dating Jennifer is doing terrible things to the man's social skills.
John reaches out and stops Rodney's sickening death spiral.
"Ronon, why don't you take a look around?" John says. "Maybe find some of those tree snails you were talking about."
Ronon runs a hand through his wavy hair. "Don't need 'em anymore. Hair's too short for beads."
"Maybe you can make a bracelet for your girlfriend," Rodney snarls.
Ronon's eyes light up. "She'd look good in the blue ones."
He lopes off and Rodney wiggles like an angry fish. "Dammit."
John squeezes his arm. "You know he doesn't mean anything by it. He's just happy to be home."
"Yes, the Pegasus Galaxy, where everything's just one big joke on Rodney McKay. I get it. I'm hilarious. I'm old and balding and hanging upside down from a tree, and I'm going to die like this, ridiculous and alone because I couldn't keep up with my hot young 'let's go windsurfing!' girlfriend!" He uncrosses his arms and slumps, or he would if he weren't hanging upside down; instead gravity takes over and he hits himself in the face with his hand. "Fucking ouch!"
"Hey," John says, touching Rodney's face now, gently inspecting what'll probably turn into a fat lip. "You may be old and ridiculous, but you're not alone."
Rodney can't help himself. He laughs. John's fingers brush over his mouth, and at first Rodney thinks it's an accident, that his laugh caused the rope to sway, but John's watching him and Rodney realizes there's something else going on. He blinks at John, tries to read his funny, upside-down face. His hair actually makes sense from this angle, but his eyes seem too close together and his forehead almost as big as Rodney's, his familiar features suddenly alien, all except his mouth and the fond smile there.
"Are you staring at my mouth?" Rodney finally asks, too upside down for subtleties.
"Yeah," John says, like it's no big deal.
For some reason this prompts a heavy sigh. "Jesus, Rodney. Why do you think?"
Rodney looks at John's mouth, the soft curve of it, the tension hidden in the corners. While Rodney watches, John's tongue, pink and wet, slides out to lick his lips.
"Oh," Rodney says, licking his own lips. Desire sizzles through him, sharp and unexpected. John. "Do you, are you --"
"Am I what, Rodney?"
As usual, John's voice unerringly cuts through Rodney's mental fog and delivers him at a solution. "Kiss me, you asshole."
"Okay," John says, steadying Rodney, holding him with both hands on his face.
Rodney closes his eyes. There is nothing sexy about this particular view of John's chin. "And hurry, before the limb snaps, or the tree is hit by lightning, or I fall and break my neck."
"You're not going to die," John says, and kisses him. It feels strange, sweet and completely new, like he's never been kissed before. John's lips are soft and careful and Rodney wants more, but for once he's helpless in the face of physics. His chin bumps into John's nose. Rodney reaches down to grab John's shoulders and John holds him tighter, captures Rodney's lower lip between his own, kisses him again and again, hard and demanding, the best and most frustrating kisses of his life. He wants to be on solid ground, wants to kiss John back, wants to be out of this goddamned tree.
"Mrph!" Rodney says.
John pulls back. Rodney opens his eyes.
"Problem?" John says.
"This isn't working."
"Oh." John's face sort of crumples up, like everything's being sucked toward his nose.
"No, no!" Rodney says, waving his hands. "I am upside down. The upside-down kissing isn't working! The kissing is good. I would like to do more of the kissing, but rightside up." He twirls his fingers. John seems to relax.
"It did look easier in Spider-Man," John says.
"You're such a girl," Rodney says, pointing at him and nearly hitting him in the face. "Hah! You're Mary Jane!"
John runs his thumbs over Rodney's mouth. "Mary Jane's cool. She's smart and appreciates the value of a good science geek."
Rodney sniffs. "As well she should."
They grin at each other and soon Rodney's reaching out for another kiss, despite the awkward angle. They're interrupted by Teyla reporting in over the radio: "John, I have located a representative of the forest authority and she has gathered several Amuan trappers. We will be there shortly. Ronon is with us. He says that Rodney should...hang tight?"
"Son of a bitch!" Rodney says, wiggling indignantly.
John thanks her and keys off the radio. "You'll laugh about this one day," he says to Rodney. "Probably because something way more embarrassing has happened to you and you'll desperately want to change the subject to the time you got caught in a gnarglk trap, but that's nearly the same thing."
"Ha, ha," Rodney says.
"See," says John, "you're laughing already."
Teyla shows up with the sacred rope crew. They send a girl up the tree to release the knot and the woman from the forest authority oversees the process, consulting what looks like a scroll on a clipboard.
"Hold these," Ronon says to John.
John finds himself with a handful of snails ("Ewwww, Ronon!"), and Ronon steps forward to catch Rodney when the rope goes slack. The crew unties the rope from Rodney's ankle, Ronon holding him up while the blood rushes back into his legs.
"Ow, ow, ow," Rodney says, trying really hard not to cry. Ronon picks him up in a bear hug and shakes him gently back and forth. Rodney doesn't know if that's supposed to help or what, but he buries his face in Ronon's shoulder until the pain passes and he can feel his feet again.
"Okay?" Ronon says.
Rodney nods. "Okay."
Ronon sets him back on his feet, but stays close with one arm wrapped around his shoulders. They might have been sniping at each other lately, but they're still team and Rodney trusts Ronon with his life, even if Rodney does occasionally want to punch him in the face.
They watch as the crew rolls up the rope to be taken back to the authority and reblessed. Teyla gathers up the things that fell from Rodney's pockets while he was dangling upside down like a prize trout and he tucks them back into his vest.
"Um, guys," John says, doing a weird little dance, hands as far out in front of him as they'll go. Four snails creep along his fingers, pale antlers waving to test the air.
Teyla cups her hands under his. "They are beautiful, John. These are the creatures you spoke of, Ronon?"
"Yeah, you suck the slug out," John and Rodney both wince, "and then you carve the shell into a bead. We used to have them on Sateda, but the forests are gone. Cleared for land."
"Take 'em, take 'em," John chants.
Ronon laughs. "Trade ya."
Rodney gets passed to John and Ronon picks the snails off John's fingers. They're each a different color, blue and green and brown and red. Ronon offers the red one to Teyla. "Want it?"
She takes the snail. Ronon slurps down the blue snail and she copies him. John and Rodney shudder against each other. "Gross!" John hisses. Rodney might have moaned, just a little.
"They are sweet," Teyla says, sounding surprised.
"You guys want yours?" Ronon shoves the green and brown snails at John and Rodney.
"No, thanks," Rodney says. Apparently he spoke for both of them because Ronon shrugs and downs the final two snails. He holds his hand out to Teyla, who places the glossy red shell in his palm.
Rodney shifts uncomfortably. "So you are, um, making a bracelet for Jennifer?"
John gives him a look that, now that they're both rightside up, Rodney can clearly identify as irritated. In fact, once he thinks about it, it's a look John's had a lot lately.
"Do you think she'll like it?" Ronon asks, holding out the blue snail shell.
It's a clear powdery blue, the color of a robin's egg, or the cloudless sky over Atlantis. It's the kind of thing Rodney wouldn't have thought to give her.
"Yeah," he says.
John claps him on the shoulder. "Back to work. We don't want to be late for orientation. We'll get stuck with underwater basket weaving."
Then they're off, back on the trail to the Forestry Interpretive Center, John attempting to explain college registration, credit hours, and underwater basket weaving to Ronon and Teyla. Rodney stares at the back of John's head and wonders when John's nasally voice became so appealing.
Five hours later, they've passed the Sustainable Forestry Practices Exam (open book, team effort), filed their paperwork with the Office of Intergate Trade (for a bunch of tree huggers, the Amua certainly love their paperwork), and returned home (Woolsey took the copies of their Certification for Trade with a kind of joy known only to bureaucrats). It's just like every other boring trade mission, except Rodney's got rope burn on one ankle, and John follows him to his room after the debriefing.
Rodney thinks of that trip as the day he landed John Sheppard, the great white whale of relationships. It's impossible and terrifying, but somehow he's got John -- weird, reckless, too-brave-for-his-own-good John -- and Rodney plans on keeping him. It helps that Rodney's had six years to get used to John's particular brand of bullshit. He's immune.
Life's good. Things are pretty much the same, except now there's kissing and slow, inexpert blowjobs, and sometimes John will eat off his plate and Rodney won't stab him with a fork. It's not like it was with Anna or Katie or Jennifer where he felt like he had to give them what they wanted so they wouldn't stop liking him. Rodney already knows John likes him. If the past six years haven't changed that, it's unlikely anything will.
On their one week anniversary -- not that Rodney's counting -- he looks up from his lab bench to find John standing at his elbow.
"Oh my god," Rodney pants, clutching at his chest. "How many times do I have to tell you not to sneak up on me when I'm working!"
"You're not working. You're playing solitaire."
"I'm thinking! Unlike most people I can do more than one thing at a time." And if he happens to beat Zelenka's FreeCell score while he's at it, then it's time well spent.
"Don't let me distract you," John says. He slides a cup of coffee onto the table.
Rodney grabs the mug with both hands and pushes his face into the steam. It's dark and bitter, just the way he likes it. He sighs happily.
"Okay," John says, a goofy look on his face. He squeezes Rodney's elbow. "Team movie night starts in an hour."
Rodney groans. "It's Teyla's turn to pick."
"I've got popcorn."
"I suppose I can fit it into my busy schedule," Rodney says.
John grins at him, gives his elbow one last squeeze, and heads for the door. Rodney watches him go. The lab's nearly empty, but Simpson pops up out of nowhere and asks John a question. She's smiling and John says something that makes her laugh.
"Hey," Rodney says, shouting across the lab. "Stop flirting with my staff! I'm sure Simpson's got some very unimportant work she could be doing, and if not, I'll find her some."
Simpson glares at him and stalks off. John rolls his eyes and lets the door close behind him.
"Please," Zelenka says, coming up behind Rodney. "You two are clearly stupid for each other, and the Colonel has stuck with you this long despite your dubious appeal. You worry for no reason." He points at Rodney's laptop. "Also, you should not have moved that four up."
Rodney sputters. Zelenka has no idea what he's talking about. A week is hardly any time at all. But he's right about that four.
Rodney plays a few more games, finishes his coffee, solves the lighting problem in tower three, and makes it to the lounge early. John's already there, sitting in the weird Ancient loveseat that's been known to hum to itself. Rodney looks around, not sure where he should sit. Teyla's got the couch, Torren asleep in her lap and Kanaan next to her. There's a row of folding chairs along the back wall that Rodney wouldn't be caught dead in, and a large cushion on the floor, ditto.
"Rodney," John says, "get over here."
Embarrassed for not knowing the rules (don't ask, don't tell, don't sit next to each other?), Rodney waves at Teyla and joins John on the loveseat. John's in a t-shirt and track pants, his feet up on the coffee table. He looks good.
"This is okay?" Rodney asks, weirdly nervous.
"Sure," John shrugs, easy. "Why wouldn't it be?"
Rodney toes off his shoes and puts his socked feet up next to John's. "I've got Smarties." Food is always a safe subject. "Real Smarties. Madison sent them along in Jeannie's latest care package." He shows John the side of the tube where TO: UNCLE MER, FROM: MADISON MILLER is written in surprisingly sturdy letters. "The kid's got the handwriting of an architect. I hope Jeannie's got her in some engineering classes."
John laughs. "She's seven."
"So? It's never too late to teach her a new skill."
John's laugh turns from his polite chuckle into the honking monstrosity that means he's lost control of himself and Rodney misses Ronon walking in with Jennifer.
Team night hasn't been exclusively team for a while, especially now that they're back in Pegasus. Teyla often brings Kanaan and Torren with her, and Ronon invited Amelia once or twice. Back when they were dating, Jennifer came with Rodney whenever she was free. It's weird to see her with Ronon, but it only hurts a little, an old regret, easily ignored when Rodney has John next to him.
Jennifer claims the floor cushion and Ronon leans over the back of the couch and whispers something in Teyla's ear. Teyla puts down the tablet she's using to navigate the shared file server and turns to listen.
"Hey!" Rodney says. "No bribing Teyla. I'm not sitting through another Die Hard marathon. It is not one long movie!"
Ronon flashes him a feral smile and turns back to Teyla, tying something around her wrist. She gasps and touches his cheek. They speak quietly for a moment, and then he comes over to John and Rodney.
"Made these for you," Ronon says. "Gimmie your arm."
Too scared to refuse, Rodney sticks his left arm out. If things go badly, at least he'll still have his right. Ronon ties a brown leather thong strung with three beads around his wrist. Rodney frowns. The beads are a bright grassy green, dense and strong, their surface carved with spirals.
"Green for knowledge," Ronon says, and for the first time Rodney can ever remember, looks shy.
"The snails!" Rodney says. "I thought they were for --" he glances over at Jennifer and feels guilty for ever being angry with Ronon. It wasn't fair to blame him, just convenient. It wasn't Ronon's fault that Rodney and Jennifer weren't right for each other. "Thank you."
John offers his right arm, the one with the wristband, and Ronon wraps the leather around three times and ties a knot in it.
"Amber for faith."
"Cool," John says.
They bump fists (and seriously, this is who Rodney's sleeping with? a fist bumper?) and Ronon flops down next to Jennifer on their big floor pillow. Rodney remembers being able to sit on the floor without having to worry about whether he'd be able to get back up again later. Ronon takes out Jennifer's bracelet and she giggles and kisses him and Rodney remembers that, too, but doesn't miss it.
John's bracelet has three brown beads the color of good whiskey. They're carved with zig zags and feel interesting under Rodney's fingers. He rubs his thumb over them. Teyla dims the lights and puts on a video one of his squishy scientists took at the annual heritage festival in Amua. The camera wobbles, then stabilizes, focusing on a darkened stage. A single light flashes on, illuminating two male figures held up on sticks. Off camera, a woman begins speaking in a native Amuan language. Two drums and an instrument that sounds like a badly out of tune piano accompany her.
John squirms, already bored. "What is this, shadow puppet theatre?"
"Yes, actually. It's an ancient form of storytelling. Indonesia, China, Thailand, Malaysia -- all have similar traditions. A puppeteer uses articulated forms made from paper or leather, in this case gnarglk hide, to cast shadows on an illuminated backdrop, creating the illusion of moving images. This is the story of two brothers who kill each other over a woman and her magic teapot."
John gives him an incredulous look.
"What?" Rodney says. "I might have accidentally read a report out of anthropology, that doesn't mean I've changed my mind about them. They're still a huge resource drain, and let me be completely clear on this, their so-called 'research' should in no way be confused with actual science. Can it be reproduced in a lab? No."
"Then why --"
"It's relaxing, all right? The thought that I don't have to fix anything." He sighs. "Though it's clearly taken up valuable space in my brain that I may never get back."
"Shut it, McKay," Ronon says. Rodney throws a Smartie at his head. Ronon twists to catch it in his mouth and he and John throw up their arms and call, "Two points!"
"I am trying to watch this," Teyla says, dangerously.
They settle down, John picking out all the orange Smarties to give to Torren later. Supposedly there's no orange flavoring in the Smarties manufactured in Canada, but Rodney's not taking any chances. While John's saving him from uncertain death, Rodney finishes off their share of the popcorn and drops the bowl over the arm of the sofa. It hits the ground with a ringing clatter.
"Rodney!" Jennifer scolds.
"Well, aren't you going to throw candy at me?" She grins at him in the flickering light and he tosses a few Smarties at her. Orange ones, of course. He and Jennifer might be on good terms, but that's no reason to waste perfectly good chocolate.
John finishes separating the Smarties and Rodney crunches a handful, confident he won't be accidentally poisoned.
"Should I be jealous?" John says in his ear, voice low and hot.
"Um, what?" Rodney says, instantly distracted by John's lips brushing against his neck.
"You're throwing food."
"You want me to throw food at you?"
"No," John says, closing in.
Rodney's pulse speeds up. "What, you're going to -- here?"
"Is that a problem?" John kisses the hinge of Rodney's jaw.
"Everyone's here. I thought it was supposed to be a secret."
John laughs softly. "They already know, Rodney. They've known for years."
"How could they?" Rodney says. "This is new. I didn't even know until you kissed me last week. I caught on quickly, of course, but I had no idea that you, that I -- I didn't -- I didn't know. How could I not know?"
John smiles, his eyes dark and warm, and Rodney thinks maybe he got it wrong, maybe he didn't catch John after all. Maybe John caught him.