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It takes a village. Many people saw this and gave advice and encouragement along the way: Basingstoke, Cesca, Giddy, Julad, Livia, MissPamela, Prufrock, Resonant, and Terri; many many thanks and grateful hugs to them all.
Time in a Bottle
John was conscious of himself for a long time before he could open his eyes, his breathing noisy in his own ears, arms and legs weighted down so heavy he couldn't move them. He wasn't conscious enough to be scared, just a little irritable—why won't my goddamn arms move—and part of him just wanted to keep lying there, drifting.
It was getting brighter outside, he could see color through his eyelids, and he started to feel uneasy for no good reason. At some point without noticing it, he crossed the line into being awake, and he sat up in bed: not his own bed but something acres large, white and luxurious and high off the ground, facing the ocean through an open wall of French doors. Thin white drapes were hovering in the breeze; he smelled salt air, but none of the tang of metal or seaweed or fish, too clean, and the water was the wrong color, a tropical blue-green clear out to the horizon: this wasn't Atlantis.
He stared for a minute, blinking at the sun coming in. Rodney was lying in the bed next to him, flat on his back with his mouth open a little, dead to the world.
"Rodney," John said, and leaned over to shake him. Rodney didn't even mumble or twitch, just kept on lying there. "Come on, Rodney," he said, getting louder, starting to freak out a little, "time to wake up." He got up and went around to haul the covers off the bed, and then he paused, squinting down at Rodney, who was wearing a pair of boxers with little atomic symbols all over them and a t-shirt that had said "RTFM" at some point before it got washed into oblivion and half the paint flaked off it. It was pretty spectacular, in a horrifying kind of way.
John looked down at himself and noticed he was wearing a pair of cutoff sweatpants, worn thin as cotton, and nothing else. They were his favorite pair. He'd slept in them for something like ten years. And then they'd gotten shredded in the base washing machine in Afghanistan and he'd thrown the rags out, about six months before he'd been sent to McMurdo.
"Rodney," John said, and slapped Rodney's face, grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him, hard; then with a sick feeling it occurred to him to put his fingers on Rodney's throat, but Christ, thank God, the pulse was there and steady. Rodney moved just a little under his fingers, finally, and after John shook him a while longer Rodney suddenly said, irritably, "Yes, yes, fine, what?" and sat up scowling.
"Jesus," John said, relieved. "Are you okay?"
"Yes?" Rodney said suspiciously, looking himself over, patting down his chest. "Why wouldn't I be? Did I get hurt?"
"How would I know?" John said. "You wouldn't wake up."
"Huh?" Rodney said, staring at him, and then he noticed the view, his eyes widening. "But this is—" He looked back at John, bewildered. "How did you even get in here? Wait, are you even real?" He leaned over and poked John in the arm.
"Of course I'm real, what are you talking about?" John said, yanking his arm away. "You know this place? Where the hell are we?"
"It's my VE," Rodney said.
"You made a virtual reality," John said, folding his arms. Now that he didn't have to figure out how they'd been dropped onto a deserted island prison by evil aliens, he could relax and get down to the fun and games of kicking Rodney's ass for getting him into this, because clearly, however they'd ended up here was his fault somehow.
"Virtual environment," Rodney said. When John glared, he hurriedly added, "Well, after that one we found on the Aurora, I've been studying the stasis units we've found in the city, and I thought I might try a little custom programming—"
"Did you not see The Matrix or something?" John demanded.
"First of all," Rodney said, "that movie was the most ludicrous mishmosh of bad science and anti-technology paranoia ever conceived, and anyway, this is purely for research purposes!"
John looked down. There was a fluffy white cat curling around his ankles. It miaowed again, and then jumped up on the bed and proceeded to flop onto its back in Rodney's lap, ignoring his attempts to surreptitiously nudge it away, and writhed around purring. John raised his eyebrows at Rodney.
"The stasis units have a built-in library of AI subroutines," Rodney said defensively, picking up the cat and putting it on the other side of the bed. "A cat was a perfectly reasonable programming experiment."
"Right," John said. He went to the bedroom doorway and looked out: not much else to the place, a small kitchen with a giant espresso machine, another big room overlooking the ocean on the other side of that with a—was that a grand piano?—John boggled. "So, where's the hot blonde in the red dress?"
"Oh, that is just typical," Rodney said, getting huffily out of the bed and stalking past him to go to the coffee maker. "Sorry to disappoint you, Colonel, but there is no sex-bot."
"Well in that case, I guess I may just as well be going," John said, and closed his eyes, remembering what it had been like to slip out of the Aurora simulation, feeling around for the catch to the mental trap door—except it was like his fingers were slipping off it, and he couldn't get a grip.
He opened his eyes again. "Okay," he said levelly, "so if this is just another simulation, why can't I get out?"
Rodney was frowning at him. "How did we get in here, anyway? I don't remember getting into a stasis unit—"
"I remember being on the damn lizard-man planet getting fireballs thrown at us," John said with feeling. "What happened after that?"
Rodney's hands stilled on the coffeemaker, and he put down the cup he was holding, even while the foam kept spilling out over the counter. When he turned around, his mouth had that weird turned-down-at-the-corners look it got when he'd just figured out the world was about to end for the tenth time that week. John straightened up away from the wall, already knowing he wasn't going to like this, some fragmented pieces of memory coming together—
"We were hit," Rodney said, swallowing. "That's the only possible—we were hit, and Ronon and Teyla got us back—"
"And Beckett stuck us into stasis," John finished.
"Oh my God," Rodney said, holding up his hands and staring at them, "oh my God, we're dying—"
"Okay, calm down, Rodney," John said sharply. "Look, this isn't a worst-case scenario. We're obviously alive, we're in Atlantis, Beckett's on the job—"
"We are not alive!" Rodney yelled. "We are barbeque! You don't realize—the stasis pods, we barely have a clue how they work, they're completely experimental and Zelenka barely knows anything about them—Carson would never put us in there unless—"
"Unless," John yelled over him, "he needed some more time to figure out how to save our asses. So just relax. And it's not like we can do anything about it from in here, anyway," he added.
"Oh, thank you!" Rodney said. "That's incredibly comforting. Our lives are in the feeble and incompetent hands of modern medicine, we can't do anything about it, and you want me to relax?"
"You know, if you get stressed out in here, it's probably not that good for you outside," John pointed out.
"What kind of an idiot do you think I am!" Rodney said. "There's no biofeedback connection between our bodies out there and our bodies in here. Which is a good thing, since otherwise we would be screaming blackened husks just like our actual bodies are outside!"
John could already tell this was going to be his favorite infirmary stay ever.
Rodney spent the rest of the day giving John detailed instructions for his burial, messages to his family, provisions for the perpetual care of his cat—the real one, not the simulated one, who was apparently a copy of Rodney's first (now dead) cat, "Fermi," Rodney said wistfully, rubbing the cat's ears, "such a good cat"—and then heaps and heaps of scientific information for Zelenka that John didn't have a prayer of remembering for five seconds, much less through an extended hospital stay once they got taken out.
"Rodney!" John finally interrupted him, exasperated, "if you die, what makes you think I'm going to survive?"
"Little as I like to dwell on the subject, Colonel," Rodney said, "considering the fact that I have several serious allergies to medicine and drugs, hypoglycemia, and, shall we say, slightly suboptimal cardiovascular health, the odds in my favor of recovering from a massive medical trauma are not good. You, however—" he waved his hand up and down at John—"well, look at you! God, you look like a twenty-year-old."
John looked down at himself. "Speaking of which, how the hell did you program in these shorts? You've never even seen them."
"Huh? Oh, the clothing's generated dynamically," Rodney said, morosely staring into his empty coffee cup. "It's supposed to give you the most comfortable thing you remember."
"Cool," John said. "Anyway, I was right on your six out there, Rodney, and those things were coming from behind us. Chances are I took a direct hit and you were partly shielded from the blast by my body."
"Oh," Rodney said. "Hm." He looked at John after a minute. "Um, so is there anything—anyone—" he awkwardly began.
John rolled his eyes and stood up. "Forget it," he said. "So how's the water going to be?"
The water was perfect, almost body-warm, and the beach all powdery white sand and beautiful, right up to the piles of obsidian-shiny black rocks at either end, stacked up too high to see over. There was a nice garden too, between the beach and the steps leading up to the villa, shaded with big palm trees. The grass was thick and soft enough he didn't even need a towel and could just throw himself down on it to dry off, and a little cooler tucked down at the base of one of the trees was full of frosty bottles of Coors with little globs of crushed ice still sliding off them.
"Give me a Molson," Rodney said; he hadn't gone swimming, but he'd come down to lie out on the grass. John looked into the cooler again: sure enough, bottles of Molson were stuck in there now too.
"See, this isn't going to be too bad," John said, passing Rodney a bottle. "Beats lying in the infirmary in pain, doesn't it?"
"Until we die of our extreme and hideous injuries and are snuffed out of existence with no warning," Rodney said glumly, but he popped off the top of his beer and settled down a little, and John put his hands behind his head and lay back. This might not turn out too badly after all.
"Heighway's dragon?" John asked. He'd been staring at the cloud patterns for an hour or so.
"Davis-Knuth," Rodney said absently, not even looking up from his notebook. He was lying sprawled on his stomach on the grass, scribbling equations.
"Yeah," John said. A wave sloshed over his ankles and he sighed and sat up. He'd cheerfully have slit someone's throat for three days of downtime. Three days ago. "Hey, can't you—do something with this place?" He waved a hand vaguely.
Rodney lifted his head and looked around blankly. "Like what?"
"I don't know, make the beach bigger," John said. "Put in a motorboat, add a goddamn Ferris wheel, something!"
"Yes, of course," Rodney said sarcastically, "and how could I forget the Disneyland replica, complete with inane costumed characters wandering the streets."
"Hey, I always liked Goofy." John said.
"Consider me completely unsurprised."
"Space Mountain," John said, pointing at Rodney. "Don't even tell me you didn't like Space Mountain."
"I threw up halfway through and my parents were pissed off the whole rest of the day," Rodney said. "I liked the little dioramas on the line, though, the space-rocks of Risa or something—What? I was five years old, I didn't know Heinlein from a hole in the ground."
"Yeah, because that's why I'm staring," John said. "Jesus."
"I'm very sorry for not sharing your preoccupation with things that go vroom, Colonel," Rodney sniffed.
"I'm just saying, a little more variety couldn't hurt," John said, gritted and patient. "What's wrong with a few rides? A pool table, some arcade games, skeeball—"
"What's the point of skeeball without the tickets?"
"—go-karts!" John went on, ignoring him. "Go-karts are the best."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Why don't I just put in a racetrack and some sports cars?"
"Oh, hey—hey!" John's eyes widened. "You can put in planes!" Not that he didn't love and adore the puddlejumpers beyond all reason, he thought apologetically, but he did miss g-force, just a little. "You could put in a Blackbird." He'd never even gotten to sit in one of those.
"Mm, because I was just thinking the other day that what was missing from the atmosphere was the sound of a jet going Mach 3 overhead—"
"Come on, Rodney, seriously—"
"—and I couldn't do it even if I wanted to, anyway!"
"Why the hell not?" John demanded. "You mucked around with the Aurora simulation plenty."
"From outside!" Rodney said. "I can't change anything without access to the code."
"And you didn't build a computer or something in here to let you change things from inside?" John said.
"Yes, that would have been a brilliant plan," Rodney said, "and then I could have mucked around with live code, and then I could have crashed my brain." He paused. "Anyway, um, that's probably why the safeguards wouldn't let me."
"Great," John said. "Look, isn't there some way we could buzz Zelenka from in here, get him to do something? Why the hell hasn't he told us what's going on, anyway? He could skywrite with the clouds or something if they don't have another pod working."
"Hm. Well, he probably doesn't even know we're in here," Rodney said, shrugging. "I was just doing this in my free time—" He stopped mid-sentence.
"What?" John said warily.
"Oh my God," Rodney said, staring at him. "They don't know we're in here. You're right, if they knew, Radek would have—oh God, they don't even know this simulation exists."
John stared back, confused. "So what do they think is going on?"
"They think we're just—sleeping," Rodney said. "Like Elizabeth. The other Elizabeth."
"So?" John said. "It's not like they're just going to leave us in here."
Rodney didn't say anything.
"They're not going to leave us in here," John said again, voice rising.
"Well," Rodney said, with an edge of real panic that John was starting to sympathize with for once, "if Carson thought they might come up with something, find some treatment a few, a few years from now—"
"Years?" John said, and then, "Hang on—hang on a second, if something happened out there and they—lost track of us—just how long could we be talking, here?"
"We're in stasis," Rodney said.
"We're screwed," John said.
Ten thousand years on a deserted island with Rodney McKay. It was enough to make John feel a little sick and desperate.
"On the bright side," Rodney offered, huddled over his coffee-cup, "if we're seriously injured, then even with the time slowdown, that'll eventually kill us, long before old age."
"Great," John said. "So that'll only be one thousand years, then!" He took a deep breath. "Okay, we're not going to panic, here. There's got to be a plan. They wouldn't just shove us in into stasis indefinitely, even if they don't know about the simulation—"
"Um, why not, exactly?" Rodney interrupted.
John stared at him across the kitchen table. "Because they'd know that we wouldn't want to spend ten thousand years lying in a fucking coffin?"
"Speak for yourself!" Rodney said. "It still beats dying. At least there's a chance of getting cured."
"That's the kind of brilliant logic that makes people get their heads chopped off and frozen after they die," John said, sitting back and folding his arms.
"Oh please! Cryogenics doesn't work and stasis works perfectly, the two aren't comparable in the slightest," Rodney said. "Are you telling me you wouldn't want to be kept alive for a couple of years if afterwards you were going to be fine?"
"What are the chances of that?" John said. "If Carson couldn't do anything for us now, what makes you think a year or two is going to change anything?"
"Ten years, then, or twenty!" Rodney said. "What's the difference?"
"I don't want to be frozen for twenty fucking years!" John yelled. "Jesus Christ, Rodney, what the fuck do you think you'd do waking up twenty years in the future?"
"Are you kidding me?" Rodney said. "You'd get to see everything that had changed since then! How would that not be amazing? Just think of how far science might have gone—"
"Yeah, and just think how far behind you'd be," John said.
"I'm confident that a man of my abilities would be able to catch up and make significant contributions regardless of the degree of advancement," Rodney said loftily, and John tried not to want to strangle him and failed.
He shoved away from the table and got up, went back out to the beach and stood staring out at the ocean, running his hands back through his hair. If Rodney wanted that kind of chance, he could fucking have it. John couldn't get how anyone could make that trade, how anyone could choose to lie down and take the risk: ten thousand years of dreams just to wake up and die, like those poor bastards on the Aurora, and when he'd drunk a glass of champagne to their memories he hadn't thought he was going to end up like them.
"They're probably just waiting for supplies from Earth," Rodney said, above him.
John propped himself up on his elbows and squinted up; he'd been sleeping out on the grass. The bed was big enough for both of them, but it was warm enough outside, and he just hadn't wanted to go back in and deal with Rodney again.
"Skin grafts or—or something," Rodney went on. "Something Carson wouldn't have available in the infirmary."
"Right," John said. "Skin grafts."
Rodney dropped down on the grass next to him and started pulling up stalks of grass, building up a nice green heap that didn't seem to have any effect on the actual coverage of the lawn. His shirt had changed: now it said Obey Gravity: it's the Law! John sat up and rubbed his face; his eyes felt tired and gritty, even though he was wide awake.
"What is it for the Daedalus, eighteen days to Earth?" he said.
"Yes," Rodney said.
"Okay, a month, month and a half tops, and we'll be out of here," he said, trying to convince himself.
"Right," Rodney said, nodding. He sounded about as convinced.
They sat together listening to the ocean come in.
"So it has occasionally been mentioned to me," Rodney said, after a while, "that I can be, um, abrasive. And difficult. And even, perhaps, a little unpleasant to be around. For—for longer periods of time."
They agreed that pre-emptive avoidance was the best plan. John took the beach, Rodney took the bedroom, they set up a schedule for the kitchen. That part at least wasn't a struggle—since Rodney hadn't programmed in a stove or any pots or pans, it wasn't even that recreational, once John had gotten over the novelty of being able to eat a mountain of caviar bigger than his head just by opening the fridge door and wanting it to be there. Which he'd gotten over pretty damn quick.
Dividing up access to the one notebook and pen was a bigger issue. First Rodney tried to argue that he was going to be using it for actual work, so he deserved more time. "No one's ever going to see your work," John said, and then felt like an asshole, because Rodney got a sickly, horrified expression on his face.
His faint sensation of guilt lasted until the third time he tried to take his turn and Rodney said, "Wait, wait, I'm right in the middle of a thought here!" and clung.
"Forget it!" John said finally. "From now on, we're switching off every other day," and though Rodney bitched about it a lot, that worked, since Rodney couldn't resist working to the last minute on his days, until he conked out late at night, and then in the morning John could get inside and get the notebook away from Rodney's comatose body before he woke up. He had to reset it every time, since Rodney nearly filled the whole thing each day—tear out the pages and leave them on top of the growing stack in the corner of the bedroom, and then toss the nearly empty cover in the trash chute, so a fresh one would fuzz into view on the kitchen table to replace it, pages clean and empty.
Fermi was left to make his own decisions. Mostly he stuck to whoever was in the kitchen, which had unlimited cans of Fancy Feast in the cabinet, but he came down to the beach occasionally to snooze on the rocks in the sun and chase the butterflies in the garden, which was as close as John got to sports TV.
As for the piano, John said, "Nothing is going to drive you nuts quicker than me trying to pick out Chopsticks, and as for you playing—"
"No, no," Rodney said hurriedly, "it was just a coding experiment, I can't—I'm not actually any good at it. Anyway it's been years since—No, let's just leave it alone."
John let it slide; even if Rodney happened to be Vladimir Horowitz, he didn't think he and Rodney had the same taste in music, and Christ, would that be a nightmare.
Thankfully, Rodney had programmed in some weather patterns, so the scenery wasn't utterly unchanging: the odd day when it rained, John stayed out the whole time getting drenched just in gratitude for the complete change in sensation. After another week of perfect sunny weather, he finally gave in and climbed the rock barrier at the south end of the beach. He'd been saving it; he figured it wasn't going to lead anywhere but a replica of the beach, but even that would have been something a little different. Instead he found himself climbing down off the rocks at the north end, without even noticing when he'd changed places. He tried it a dozen more times, trying to spot some break in the middle, before he got weirded out and gave up—it was spooky, like transporting without even knowing it.
The flowers in the little garden bloomed and closed and bloomed again; he could rip the plants out by the roots, and they'd be back in an eyeblink, even with the picked ones still lying there. He threw those out into the ocean to see what would happen: mostly they got washed up onto the beach again, until he had a water-line dotted with hot-pink flowers; others just disappeared.
"They must have gotten washed out," Rodney said, when John asked him. "The ocean's infinite and the wave patterns are randomized, even though they trend in towards the beach, so some of them could have gone further out."
The territory division was good, it was working; made it a kind of treat to see Rodney each day when they passed in the kitchen. They'd both started to let their kitchen timeslots creep—Rodney would stay a little late, he'd come in a little early, or the other way around, and they'd linger and talk. John knew it was playing with fire; he wasn't actually that social a guy himself, and Rodney was, well, Rodney, with the social skills of a wet cat—or less, judging by Fermi—and if the two of them started to grate on each other, everything would go to hell really fucking fast. But this was starting to feel pretty close to hell anyway.
He'd been on duty stations where you sat around twelve hours a day waiting for a call to come in, where you got so fucking bored you started poking your head into the maintenance, and when the flight crew got pissed off and made you go away you did stupid fucking things like sneak off base or go joyriding or get into prank wars with the Marines. He knew how to handle it; you had to give yourself a routine, you had to break up the day into pieces and get through them one at a time—except in Afghanistan you knew it was going to end.
He'd never really liked working out for the sake of working out, and his body refused to get tired or sore, so he didn't even have the illusion of accomplishing anything. The beach wasn't long enough to run on, there wasn't any sports equipment even if he could have talked Rodney into playing anything, and the ocean stayed the same as far out as he could bear to swim: pristine water, not the flicker of a fish or a plant anywhere. On his notebook days, he noodled with writing the Great American Novel, but he kept coming up with prison-break fantasies that just got him tense and angry, and in the end he ended up drawing instead of writing: fighter planes and helicopters, puddlejumpers, Atlantis.
Even jerking off—first he rationed it to one time a day, and then he rationed it down even more, made himself work for it, assigned himself some pointless task that he had to get done first: make a pile of rocks higher than his head on the beach, or tear it down again; get Fermi to jump over a sand wall built low on the beach before the tide took it out; write a pathetically bad sonnet; make a set of drums (that he couldn't use) out of coconuts from the palm trees.
Because he had to have something to get up for, something to move him along, no matter how stupid and mindless and boring; something that would keep him from thinking about how long this could keep going, and how the hell Elizabeth could have done this to them, how she—how Teyla and Ronon, how they all could've let Carson stick them in a freezer and leave them like this—
He wasn't going to think about that, though; he didn't think about it, didn't count the days: one day for the Daedalus to head out, the eighteen days to get to earth, another day to get the supplies aboard, eighteen to come back, a couple more to prep for surgery—forty days and forty nights, one pebble a day idly tossed into a heap on the shore, but he wasn't counting.
On the forty-first morning he threw all the pebbles into the ocean and then he got up and climbed the stairs to the kitchen, even though it was three hours before his slot. Rodney was sitting at the table doodling aimlessly in the notebook, blank and hollow-eyed, giant chocolate ice-cream sundae at his corner untouched and melting into a puddle, Fermi at his ankles, waiting hopefully as the ice cream dripped off the edge of the table. Rodney looked up almost gratefully when John banged into the room ahead of schedule.
"Okay, that's it," John said. "Bring out the goddamn sex-bot already! Before I go too crazy to actually enjoy it."
Rodney turned red. "I've already told you—"
"Oh, for Christ's sake, don't even try and tell me that you didn't make a sex doll," John said. "You could program anything the hell you wanted into this, you made one, now where is it?"
"For the last time, there is no sex doll!" Rodney said, standing up and folding his arms. "And frankly, Colonel, I find it insulting that you would even—"
"Rodney!" John yelled. "I'm asking you for it. How the fuck is that any less embarrassing than you making it in the first place?"
"Oh, uh," Rodney said, and subsided.
"Right," John said, taking a deep breath. Actually, he was almost sorry the fight had ended; it had been the most energy he'd had going in the last two weeks. "So?"
Rodney shifted his weight back and forth. "It's—yes, okay, I made one," he said, "but it's gone, I deleted it."
"You what?" John said incredulously.
"Trust me, you wouldn't have wanted it," Rodney said. "It was—it was—" He struggled and finally just let his hands drop. "It was creepy."
"This is all creepy!" John said.
"Yes, because we're stuck here," Rodney said. "But the sex-doll, that was a whole different—she was—she was empty, okay?"
"It was really that bad?" John said uneasily; it sounded freakish, and he remembered the weirdness of the moebius beach.
"It was worse," Rodney said. "Even after I deleted her, I almost had to trash the whole environment; I kept imagining I saw her out of the corner of my eye."
He wasn't lying. "Fuck," John said comprehensively, and sat down at the table and put his head in his hands.
Rodney sat down opposite him. They didn't talk for a while. John was fighting against the urge to cry. He hadn't realized how much he'd been—he'd known Rodney was lying about the sex-doll thing, and on some level in the back of his mind he'd been saving it, counting on it as a safety hatch for a moment of desperation, and now—
"Would you—" Rodney said, abruptly. "Would you like piano lessons?"
John lifted his head and said sarcastically, "I thought you hadn't played in years?"
"Fuck you," Rodney said, and John blinked instead of getting pissed off; it was so unexpected to see Rodney get really mad. "Yes, I do realize this sucks for you too, and you didn't ask to get stuck in here, but as this has apparently escaped your attention, some of this is personal, all right?"
He got up and stormed out of the kitchen into the bedroom, and John heard him lie down on the bed. Fermi jumped up onto the table and started lapping at the sundae, blissfully unconcerned, and John stared at the cat licking up the puddle of ice cream. Rodney's idea of heaven: a cat, a blank pad of paper, a piano, a view; even if you added the sex doll into that mix, it still felt so clean, so stripped down, that John hadn't thought of it as personal.
He got up and went to the bedroom doorway and knocked on the wall, since there wasn't an actual door. Rodney sighed and sat up in the bed. "What?" he said, sounding more tired than angry.
"Yeah," John said, "I would. I'd like lessons."
"No, God," Rodney said, when John asked, "I'd kill myself if I had to listen to you play scales. They're only good for muscle training, anyway, waste of time in here."
Rodney's attitude towards teaching was the same as his attitude towards managing: throw you in the deep end and mock your stupid mistakes until you stopped making them. John knew some basics from futzing around with guitar; Rodney showed him how the notes mapped and then started him right in on The Well-Tempered Clavier, playing him little bits from memory and rambling on about fugue construction and counterpoint while John tried to play them back.
It was easier than he'd expected: he didn't get stiff or tired and his fingers always went where he meant them to go, so he only had to worry about remembering the notes; and weirdly, once he started relaxing and actually listening to what Rodney was talking about, it started to make sense and get easier to do that. "Are these two going to fit together?" he asked abruptly, playing two snippets that Rodney had made him learn separately, one with his left hand and the other with his right.
"Obviously," Rodney said and nudged John down the bench so he could play the whole thing through: notes piling on each other, each one perfect, about twice as fast as John had been going. But then on the second time through he slowed it down and made John take one of the lines, and after a few tries they made it to the end together and it actually sounded like music.
"Cool," John said.
"Adequate," Rodney sniffed.
They stopped there without discussing it; the feeling of success was too good to give up just to fill up another couple of hours. John hesitated about going back out to the beach, though; he was so damn sick of looking at the ocean, and Rodney was looking at the bedroom with pretty much the same expression. "Hey," John said, "you know, we've got to be able to get something out of the fridge worth playing with."
"Hm," Rodney said, and frowned at the fridge and then pulled open the door. It was full of bottles of vodka. "Here, help me take these out."
"I tried getting drunk last week," John said. "Didn't work."
"God, don't remind me," Rodney said. "Two lines of code; if I hadn't put them in we could be spending weeks at a time stoned out of our minds."
"Don't tell me things like that," John said reproachfully. He'd made an iron-clad rule not to fantasize any more about the stuff that could have been in the sim. It was a good way to go nuts quicker.
"My suffering is your suffering," Rodney said. "Anyway, I was thinking we could try distilling ethanol. Not that we have an engine to use it in, but—"
"Setting things on fire works for me," John said.
To get piping they got two-liter bottles of soda and tubes full of pixy dust and dumped them all out in the ocean, turning the tide purple for a little while. "Hm," John said, and they interrupted the ethanol project to build a giant sand castle with a green moat and red walls and yellow turrets, frantically digging out a channel around it almost two feet deep so the tide wouldn't get it during the night, collapsing on the grass together. By the time they finished, they were both covered with sand, John was going to be tasting artificial grape for weeks, and he'd actually grinned for the first time in a month.
They threw out the schedule and the boundaries, slept wherever they were when they got worn out; suddenly the days got full. Rodney gave him piano lessons in the morning, they worked on the ethanol still whenever they felt like it, made up math puzzles for each other, drew chessmen and checkers and go pieces on notebook paper. It took a couple of days to make playing cards and a month until they could recognize each other's cards, the divot on the edge of the three of spades, the crease-mark on the queen of diamonds. They made graph paper and played battleship; they spent a day shredding the notebook over and over into a giant heap of paper just to watch Fermi jump around in it wildly.
They got the still working—about a thimbleful of 140-proof a day, pretty pathetic considering they were starting with vodka, but then their only heat source was the poor espresso machine, which Rodney had cannibalized. While they stored up enough to try blowing up a tree, John told Rodney the story of War and Peace so far, and they took turns writing down new endings for it. Rodney liked to put in aliens and time travel. John liked to put in sex.
"Helene's thighs were pale and smooth under Natasha's hands," he read. "Her bosom heaved—"
"Not to destroy your adolescent fantasies of Russian women," Rodney said, "but, um, from my extensive and sad experience, they don't shave."
"Will you shut up?" John said. "I'm getting to the good part."
"Well, sometimes their faces," Rodney added.
"You're seriously killing the mood here," John said.
"The mood? You think you're actually creating a mood?" But afterwards Rodney was quick to make up a feeble excuse for why he really had to go to the bedroom right then, alone, privately, so John could go down to the beach and jerk himself off in the smug glow of artistic success.
Once they had a half-dozen Molotov cocktails stored up, they got to work: the blown-up palm tree was instantly replaced, but now they had a whole tree-trunk to play with. After they saved up some more ethanol they managed to burn and scrape it down to something vaguely flat, and then they made sandpaper with flour-and-water paste applied to the covers of the notebook and even got it vaguely smooth.
"Now what do we do with it?" Rodney said, panting, wiping charcoal off his face.
"Now I teach you how to surf," John said.
"Oh, uh, I'm—I'm really not all that athletic," Rodney said, backing away and looking warily at the ocean.
"Come on," John said, "what's the worst that could happen? You're not going to drown."
"I could get hit on the head with the board!" Rodney said.
"Yes," John said, "yes, you could. Right now." He bonked Rodney on the head with it. "Stop being such a baby."
They started trading off piano lessons with surfing lessons on the days when the wind was strong enough, and when Rodney threw himself flat on the sand and wouldn't go out any more, they lay on the beach and John taught him Arabic and fed him Afghani food out of the cooler. In the afternoons they melted soda bottles down and made lopsided dice. Rodney treated running D&D campaigns like a competitive sport: he'd make up new powers for his monsters and lie about dice rolls if John seemed about to actually get through to the end.
When all else failed, Rodney could talk about his work forever, and John's patience for listening to scientific explanations several miles over his head had gotten a lot longer. Rodney started teaching him more math and physics, real proofs; they'd lie on the bed on rainy days and trade the pen back and forth while they talked it out, petting Fermi as he wandered over their legs and batted the crumpled-up pieces of paper they threw away.
John came up with a new version of tag where you could only move ten steps at a time, so it turned into a strategy game. "Why is this more fun than chess?" Rodney asked dubiously, standing on the steps obediently while John took his turn, edging towards the rocks at the edge of the beach.
"Hey, at least we get to move around a little instead of sitting at the table the whole time," John said, folding his arms. "Your turn."
"I'm just saying," Rodney jumped down the other five steps in a single bound, which was totally cheating and would have to go into the rules next time, "this is a little pointless; given the confined space, unless you deliberately engineer a stalemate situation, the runner is always going to lose—"
"Doesn't mean it can't be fun while it lasts," John said, and in a few more turns when Rodney was only a little way off, he turned and scrambled over the rocks and through the moebius boundary with a few giant leaps, and then grinned at Rodney from the other side of the beach.
"Oh, very cute," Rodney said, rolling his eyes.
"I thought so," John said smugly; he was pretty sure Rodney wasn't going to make it over the rocks in ten steps, which meant he'd get a nice sized lead whether Rodney tried to follow him or went back the other way.
Rodney scowled and picked his way cautiously up the rocks, getting close to the crest, but he'd used up the ten steps and he wasn't across the boundary. Then he turned his head around and yelled, "Tag!" and John screamed like a girl and jumped halfway down the beach in two giant leaps as a hand came down on his shoulder from right behind him.
"What? What!" Rodney yelled, arms windmilling in giant swoops, and then he fell backwards off the rocks into the sand.
"Jesus fucking Christ!" John yelled, hands braced against his knees, "you gave me a heart attack!" His heart wasn't racing, but it should have been.
Rodney sat up spluttering out of the water, bewildered. "What? You know how the beach works?"
"You're still standing all the way over there!" John flopped down into the surf and lay there panting.
Rodney came over still looking baffled and sat down next to him. "What? I don't get it, it's a continuous surface, what did you expect?"
John waved a hand helplessly. "Forget it. Why did you do it that way, anyway? Couldn't you just have made it longer?"
"I already made the ocean infinite," Rodney said, "I wanted to try something different. You know, if those were real rocks I would be dead right now!" He wiped his hand shakily across his forehead, breathing hard. "I can't believe you just panicked over that."
"That was not panic—" John started, propping himself up, but Rodney looked at him with a strange, confused expression on his face, eyebrows drawing together in a frown. "What? Hey, are you—"
John froze, staring at the empty space, and then he very calmly stood up and climbed up the stairs and went back to the bedroom. It was empty, but he didn't panic, just went on a slow, methodical search through every empty space in the house and then went back down the stairs to the beach, in case Rodney had reappeared in the same place he'd vanished from. Then he went back up and started all over again from scratch: under the bed, under the table, behind the piano, down to the beach.
Then again to the bedroom, ripping the sheets off the bed, pushing the mattress onto the floor, heaving up the platform against the wall. The kitchen: he turned the table upside down, he opened the refrigerator and then shoved it over to smash onto the floor. He threw open all the cabinets, ripped the lid off the grand piano, tore down the curtains that could have been hiding places, and then he started smashing things, the glass bottles, the windows, strings and ivory crashing in jangled heaps of noise as he threw a chair into the grand piano, the steam hissing like a kettle as he knocked over the ethanol still onto the floor, Fermi going out the door with a terrified yowl.
John stopped and let the last bottle drop from his hands and go rolling across the floor, making a low dull ringing noise. There were triangles of glass hanging out of the windows, streaks of ethanol and vodka along the floor; ripped long tatters of curtains and sheets draped over broken wood. He just stood there. Then the world flickered a little around the edges, and the piano was back on its legs, the chairs were at the kitchen table, the fridge was upright again, curtains and sheets blowing in a the windows, the espresso machine in place and the still gone, and the puddles of liquor and broken glass quivered and dissolved into thin air and were gone. Like Rodney.
John staggered outside and half-fell down the stairs, went to his knees in the grass and lay down, waiting, waiting to be taken too, his eyes squeezed shut, saying, "Come on, come on—" and trying to force himself out, trying desperately to make everything go away, to get out, except nothing happened, nothing happened.
After a little while, Fermi crept out of the bushes and nosed at his hand, miaowing. John got up and walked away from him, away from the house and out into the water, swimming against the current. He kept at it mindlessly, one stroke after another, his body just going and going until he couldn't see anything around him but the ocean in every direction, unbroken sea and sky and clouds.
He stopped swimming and let himself sink. It was hard; his legs and arms instinctively wanted to push him back up to the surface, his chest strained to hold in his breath, but finally he managed to force himself still. He sank, held rigid, sun glimmering after him ten, twenty, thirty feet down, the ocean going dim, and he opened his mouth and breathed in. Air went bubbling up out of his mouth while the water filled his chest, completely painless and strange, just a heaviness inside him that pulled him down quicker, until he came to rest on the sandy floor.
It was almost like sleeping, in the dark, in the stillness, but his mind kept sliding back towards unbearable thoughts, and finally he had to move again. He couldn't swim back up against the pressure; he had to roll over and crawl, dragging himself over the sand, and even though he didn't get tired, every once in a while he stopped anyway. It got completely dark eventually, the sun setting. He didn't know if he could miss the beach completely; maybe he'd gotten turned around, maybe he'd gone in the wrong direction, maybe the island was just one speck in the middle of the ocean and he'd miss it and just keep going like this forever, crawling along the sand for a thousand years, alone, in the dark.
But eventually the sand started climbing up, and he dragged himself out onto the shore, vomiting up the water, coughing it out of his lungs, and fell face down on the grass for a while, his head buried in his arms. He got up, climbed the stairs and went into the pristine kitchen, got himself a bottle of Wild Turkey and swigged it all down for the nauseating bitterness. He dumped the bottle in the sink and went into the bedroom, and Rodney was lying on the bed, asleep.
He had one wild moment just standing there, and then he flung himself on the bed, scrabbling at Rodney's shoulders, hauling him up against his body to hold him tight tight tight, and Rodney shuddered awake and grabbed him back. John said, "Rodney, Jesus God, don't—don't—" and Rodney gasped, "John, John, John," and clung to him.
"I don't really remember," Rodney said, when they'd gotten their breath back. "I didn't really see anything, there were a lot of bright lights in my face, that's it." He paused. "It hurt. It hurt a lot."
"Yeah," John said, still trembling; he couldn't seem to stop, even though he had his hand clamped tight on Rodney's arm, tight enough to hurt, if they could have felt pain. Rodney tugged on him a little and they got under the covers together, huddling close.
After that, they both knew they were heading for sex, without saying a word about it. They sat close against each other during the piano lessons, thighs and shoulders pressed together. They horsed around in the water—legs bumping, John slinging an arm around Rodney's neck, Rodney's hands briefly resting on John's waist. When John read stories now, Rodney would lay his head back in John's lap, and at night they curled together on their sides facing each other in the dark, talking in low voices, close enough John could taste Rodney's breath.
He'd get up from the piano to go to the kitchen and put his hand on Rodney's shoulder, asking, "Want anything?" and let his fingers slip casually across the back of Rodney's neck as he walked away.
"You have some sand there," Rodney would say, and reach down to run fingers through John's hair, let them come down along the side of his face and trail off along his jaw.
Touching became the center of the day; after a while they started rationing it down, taking turns. John decided early on to stick with one time, evenings right after dinner, because otherwise Rodney was useless the whole day until it happened; and anyway, once he'd made it regular, he got to watch Rodney quivering with anticipation as the time got closer and closer, full of urgency and hunger, and that just never got old, being wanted so much, so openly. He had to watch out, because when Rodney leaned into his hands saying, "Yes, please, oh," it was so incredibly hard to let go, not to just keep going.
It was maybe even better on Rodney's days, waiting for whatever the touch was going to be, whenever it was going to come: Rodney deliberately varied the times, according to what felt like some secret random-number-algorithm running in his head. Once he held off all day while they worked on a mathematical proof at the kitchen table, their hands just missing as the pen went back and forth. The sun went down, and John kept darting glances at him, wondering if Rodney had maybe gotten distracted by the work and forgotten, if maybe a couple of days had blurred together in his head and Rodney thought he'd already spent the touch for the day. John was almost ready to remind him, and then Rodney threw down the pen, yawning, and casually picked up John's hand, thumb sliding over John's knuckles, saying, "Come to bed?"
And John figured it would always be later in the day, in the afternoons, because too early and that would be the whole day just gone and hours and hours until they got to touch again. But then one morning he woke up to the sound of the espresso machine hissing, and wandered out to find Rodney making ridiculously large cappuccinos in sundae glasses, towers of froth almost spilling over the rims.
He sat down and kicked his feet up on the table; Rodney was wearing a little frowning expression while he mixed shot after shot of espresso with hot fudge scraped off the discarded ice cream, and carefully poured it through the middle of the foam. He brought them to the table but kept hold of them when John would have reached for one. "Hang on," Rodney said, and tipped his own glass back, took a couple of swallows.
That was good too, watching Rodney's throat work, his eyes closing while he drank, his mouth on the lip of the glass, and then Rodney put down his glass and gripped the back of John's neck and kissed him, really kissed him, hot and sweet and steaming, the taste of the strong coffee rich and bitter underneath, his tongue licking into the corners of John's mouth, and when he slid his hand away he said, with an attempt at cool, "So, uh, how—how is it?"
"Yeah, that's," John said, dazed and hoarse, and he was humming with it all the rest of the day.
Once in a blue moon the night would get a little chilly, and they woke up snuggled together under the sheets, both of them hard and nudging up against each other. When that happened they let go reluctantly, slowly, paying themselves off with little nibbling kisses, nuzzling at throats and ears and collarbones, fingers and knees tangling a little, whispering promises that this would be the last—just one more—Finally they'd drag themselves apart and fall back gasping on their separate sides of the bed, and Fermi would jump up into the warm hollow they'd left between and curl up purring, their own version of a sword laid down the middle.
John had already gotten the broad-stroke picture of Rodney's work; now he was starting to really understand the mathematics, even to catch up in places. "How the hell can I be keeping up with you on this stuff?" he demanded.
"I'm a theoretical physicist, not a mathematical one!" Rodney said defensively. "I haven't done any formal proofs since grad school. It's not like you need to bother when you can just test a theory by flipping a few crystals in a puddlejumper."
"Hang on a second," John said. "So all those times you came up with some plan that sounded completely nuts, you hadn't actually proved it before you were saying you were positive it was going to work?"
"Proof is such a strong word," Rodney said, which meant John had to use his touch for the day to drag him down to the beach and dunk him in the ocean, ignoring Rodney yelling, "No, that's not what I—No! Look, just because it's not mathematically rigorous—" between splutters.
"So if the mathematical proofs are just a formality, why have we been doing all of the damn things?" John said, when he'd finally let Rodney get out again.
"Hello!" Rodney said, wringing his shirt out with unnecessary vigor and spattering it all over John. "We're in an artificial environment. The laws of physics are only used as a fallback if there isn't specific programming, and probably not even the actual laws of physics either: just whatever approximation the Ancients thought was good enough for a simulation. Even if we could make a supercollider out of palm trees it wouldn't tell us anything useful."
The problem Rodney was working on was almost impossibly abstract, something called Yang-Mills theory that he was trying to make work on a quantum level and in four dimensions; the math for it was full of greek letters and five different kinds of brackets, long squiggly integral symbols and arrows all over the place. John found it painfully hard just keeping the basic ideas in his head long enough to move any part of it ahead a little; none of it made any kind of intuitive or visual sense.
In the downtime between Rodney giving him sub-problems to solve, John started fiddling with ways of turning the particle calculations into diagrams, charts, something; he started to get a handle on it, and then he had a brainstorm and started doing them in three dimensions, folding up sheets of paper like origami with the particle paths squiggling along on the surface.
"Okay, I think—" Rodney, looking up from his own calculations, stopped and squinted at the latest, which looked a little bit like one of the fortune teller things John had used to make in junior high to get girls to go out with him—things like say yes to the next question you are asked or Friday will be a good day under the flaps. "Are those Feynman diagrams on there?"
"Huh?" John said. "I don't know what those are, I was just trying—" but Rodney was already snatching them up.
"Oh my God," Rodney said, "this is—this is brilliant, folding, why hasn't anyone—" He started scribbling on a sheet of paper, refolding the fortune teller as he went.
"Hey!" John said, protectively, reaching for it.
"Shush," Rodney said, "don't you get it, if I can prove the refolding represents a transformation, we can just work with these things and skip half the calculations—" Abruptly he looked up and stared at John. "Oh, hey, wait." He put down the pen and shoved the pad and the half-refolded fortune teller back over to him. "You do this, I'm going to work on—um, the other thing."
Baffled, John took it back and started digging into the math. "But if this comes out and you can skip all of it, why waste the time?" he asked—okay, whined, a little, because he'd come up with the origami things so he wouldn't have to deal with all the impossible equations, and Christ, this stuff was boring. "Come on, this'll go a lot quicker if you at least help me with it."
"No, no," Rodney said evasively, "if we can use the folding to duplicate my results here, that'll be independent confirmation, that's important; just keep going."
It took him five goddamned weeks to finish the proof; every time he thought he was getting close, he'd show it to Rodney, who would promptly and scornfully poke devastating holes in it, throw it back to him, and refuse to give any extra advice. "If there was a couch here, you'd so be sleeping on it tonight," John said, glaring, after one session, and stomped outside with the notebook to keep working.
"Okay, there, and if anything's still wrong with it, I don't want to know," he said finally, throwing the finished proof down on the table.
Rodney spent a few hours reading it without saying anything, and then he went and made another giant coffee and settled in for real, working out every line, until John rolled his eyes and went outside to go windsurfing—they'd managed to turn one of the sheets into a makeshift sail.
It took the better part of another week before Rodney finished fine-tooth-combing it, and then he started arguing with John over it, pretty much grilling him on it and on tangential bits of mathematics and physics, some of them completely unrelated, until after it had been going on a couple of hours John lost his temper and slammed the sheaf of papers down on the table and yelled, "Goddamnit, it's right, you know it's right, Rodney, you know I understand this stuff already!"
"Oh, just stop whining!" Rodney said. "My defense lasted five hours, and there were like thirty people asking me questions. You wouldn't believe how many people came just hoping to see me screw up."
"I really would!" John said, glaring, and then the words sank in and he stopped and straightened up, his arms unfolding, and he stared at Rodney across the table.
Rodney stared back, looking red and abashed; the silence hung between them, and finally he cleared his throat and said, "Anyway, I suppose it's adequate," high and taut.
"No kidding, Jesus, about time," John said, his voice cracking a little, and they pretended everything was normal the rest of the day. Mostly they just stared at blank pages, not getting any work done, but neither one of them suggested doing anything different. It rained that night, wind spattering against the windows, no moonlight, and lying awake in the dark, John whispered, "Rodney—Rodney, do you—you really mean—"
"Yes," Rodney said, soft soft soft, and John fumbled a hand out and touched him, and Rodney's face was wet. "Yes, it's brilliant, it's real—" and John was breathing hard, harsh low sobbing breaths that couldn't make it all the way into crying; because what did it fucking matter, what use was any of it, and then Rodney was kissing him, stroking him, pulling his head in close, and John clutched at him desperately, skin-hungry, and didn't stop, didn't even think about stopping.
He couldn't bear to wait even long enough to get anything, fitting himself into Rodney's body past all resistance; he wanted to drive Rodney into the mattress, tangle up the perfect clean sheets into knots, stain them with sweat and semen and rip them apart. "It does matter," Rodney said, gasping, his hands tight on John's shoulders, talking the whole time, his thighs warm and tight around John's sides, "It matters, I don't care if no one else ever knows, I know, we know—"
"Oh, Christ," John said, voice cracking, "Oh god, Rodney," and he buried his face against Rodney's shoulder, his hips working hard and steadily, his cock moving slickly in and out of Rodney's body, so hot around him, and spilling, he crumpled into Rodney's arms, melting bonelessly over him, and he put his head down on Rodney's chest and just lay there shaking while Rodney's hands rubbed through his hair.
Afterwards they stopped trying to stretch things out; they didn't have to anymore. They were really working together now, and the work fed on itself: the more progress they made, the more they wanted to make. They took breaks and weekends to keep fresh, and they had a list of ideas of things to do on the kitchen counter, from toy-building to sex games, but it got longer and longer, and most of their time off they spent just lazing together on the beach or in the bed, Rodney's head pillowed on John's thigh while they talked idly, John sitting up braced against the curve of Rodney's body doodling in the notebook, or both of them drowsing in companionable silence.
They went to sleep lying face to face and touching each other dreamily, and only sometimes went any further; they'd trained themselves for so long that it still felt a little forbidden the night Rodney abruptly rolled him over onto his stomach and climbed on and fucked him, his warm heavy weight draped over John's back and pressed to him everywhere, arms and thighs, hands entwined, rocking together into the bed, John groaning and shuddering as Rodney opened him up.
Or when John woke Rodney up a little before dawn by sucking him, his leg thrown over Rodney's thighs to pin him down, his head resting comfortably on Rodney's belly, and Rodney incoherently stumbling over broken sentences above him, babbling, "Oh, god, yes, that is so—John, John, oh my god, you have no idea—" until he crested.
"Really I kind of do," John said, yawning, rolling off onto his back and licking the corner of his mouth clean, reaching down to lazily stroke his own dick, not urgent about coming.
"Yes, yes," Rodney said, limply waving a dismissive hand, and fell asleep again.
The days slid into one another, busy and full; once in a while they got into yelling fights that sometimes turned into wrestling matches out on the sand and then into hot, angry sex; they had weeks occasionally where they got so preoccupied with work they only talked in passing; others where they got wildly hot for each other and spent days romping in bed. They didn't deny themselves, followed their impulses or lingered over detours, whatever mood took them. They had the time.
John came awake in the middle of the night, abruptly tense; he was lying with his head on Rodney's shoulder, and something was—he sat up. Rodney's eyes were open, staring, and when John bent over him, he turned his head to look at John and reached up. "No," John said, "no, Rodney," cupping his hand over Rodney's against his cheek, and Rodney was trying to say something, trying to speak, lips moving without a sound; and then John was holding empty air, a little current of air moving against his fingers, nothing more.
"Rodney," he said, into the empty room, and then he closed his eyes and lay down again, curling his hand into the warm hollow space, not moving.
They'd left the windows open; in the silence, the ocean seemed to get louder and louder, surf roaring in his ears, and without the covers he was shivering, cold creeping almost painfully over his body, needle-sharp prickling sensation all over his skin, and then he tried to move and couldn't, tried to say something and heard his own voice like it was coming from the other side of a bad transatlantic phone line, echoing and delayed, slurring.
He strained, desperately trying just to move one arm, just to open his eyes again, fighting the dragging weight of his body that wasn't obeying anymore, and when he got his lids slitted open a terrible orange-white light was pouring in, stabbing, and he tried to block it with one hand, heard an inhuman noise coming out of his own chest, too many voices around him, faces peering down, and for one horrible second he needed air and couldn't remember how to get it, his lungs not working.
"There now, lie easy, Colonel, we've got you," Carson was saying, and John was breathing again, gulping for air. "All right now, you're going to be just fine."
"Rodney," he said, rasping, trying to clutch, but his hands were being held down. "Rodney."
"Yes, Colonel, he made it through also, no worries," Carson said, patting his shoulder, like that was going to be fucking enough, and John started struggling to sit up, fighting against the restraining hands that tried to stop him, because it was easier than trying to speak. "Colonel! You need to relax—"
"Dr. Beckett, Dr. McKay is getting agitated," someone's voice was saying above, and John managed, "No kidding, let me see him—"
There was a lot of noise involved, and more people than John wanted to have anywhere near him, but Carson had gotten the picture, even if he seemed a little confused about it, and finally John was rolled into a little curtained-off space with Rodney in the bed next to him, pale and heavy-eyed, his head covered with prickly stubble and pink new skin just like John's arms and legs, all of it as tender as the bare flesh left under a ripped nail.
"Hey," John said, blinking hard, he still couldn't focus quite right.
"Hey," Rodney whispered, thready and weak, and after the nurses finally left them alone, they each slowly and painfully worked an arm out from under the covers and through the guard-rails on the beds, and just managed to touch.
Elizabeth was there by the side of the bed the next morning, smiling uncertainly when she saw John awake. "How are you feeling?"
He struggled to lift up his head enough to see past her: Rodney was still asleep, vital signs all beeping along steadily, drooling a little on his pillow. John let his head sink back down, relaxing. "Jesus, just how long has it been?" he said, staring at her shoulder-length hair; they'd stopped counting the days a long while back.
She hesitated and said quietly, "This might be a little difficult to adjust to—" and then looked baffled when he started laughing, weakly.
"Some of us are convalescing from serious injuries here," Rodney said peevishly, cracking an eye.
"Hey, Beckett said I got way more burned than you," John said.
"Excuse me, that's still fifty versus seventy-five percent of body surface, which I'm sorry, does not make a major difference, and oh yes, who was it who had power bar wrappers fused with his skin?" Rodney said.
"Maybe you shouldn't have been carrying twenty of them," John said.
"There are no reliable sources of food on alien planets!" Rodney said.
"Maybe I should come back later," Elizabeth said.
"Yes, thank you," Rodney said, already closing his eyes. "Oh, wait, and tell Radek not to turn off the stasis units, I need the state preserved," he added. Then he opened his eyes again. "Wait, wait, why hasn't Radek come to talk to me yet? He isn't dead, is he?" He fumbled for the bed controls. "Oh my God, he is dead! What about Teyla and Ronon? Are they—"
"No!" Elizabeth said. "No, Radek—I mean, Dr. Zelenka—and Ronon and Teyla are all fine, we only thought that before you started having guests, I should explain—"
John drifted off while she and Rodney were still busy cross-explaining to each other, reassured by the annoyed tone of Rodney's voice, drowning out the clatter and hum of the machines, of Elizabeth's voice, turning everything else back into white noise.
He slept for most of the next couple of weeks, skin still healing, waking only long enough to check on Rodney, drink more mineral-tasting water, eat more terrible MRE food. Beckett ran them both under the regeneration device a few more times; it was some kind of modified version of a Goa'uld artifact the SGC had been working on reverse-engineering for the last few years, and he'd been leery of using it at full strength even once the prototype had finally been delivered.
"I am sorry it was so very long before the attempt was made," Teyla said quietly, when she and Ronon came to see them. "We tried to insist you would not wish to be kept lingering in stasis, even if the risk were great."
"Yeah," Ronon said, "and if you ask me, Caldwell kept up that bullshit about having to bring in all those critical security personnel just to delay it some more. Did Weir tell you about what he did with the off-world teams? He tried to put me on one with a lieutenant twenty years old, and told me I had to follow his orders." He snorted.
John kept doing double-takes at him: the dreads had been tamed into cornrows, he was wearing jeans and a t-shirt in his off-hours now, and he'd gotten chatty.
"Good to have you back," he even added as they went out again, leaving John cringing; it was just wrong.
"Apparently he needed some time back in civilization to loosen up; who knew," Rodney said, sprawling on John's bed and eating his Jell-o; officially he'd been released from the infirmary, and after a couple of days of his not leaving, the nurses had pointedly wheeled out the second bed, not that they'd accomplished anything but crowding John a little.
"Yeah, who knew," John said, still freaked out.
Carson released him the next day, probably as much to get rid of Rodney as of him. John's skin still hurt, but it was more comfortable walking around than lying down, at least as far as the physical went; but he was uncertain and off-balance as he moved, tentative about every corner: he kept expecting to find himself at the opposite end of each hallway, looking back at the door he'd just gone through.
By now everyone knew about the VR, that they'd been trapped and conscious the whole time, and even though they kept telling people it had been fine, it had turned out okay, no harm done, nobody seemed to believe them: Elizabeth and Heightmeyer throwing out increasingly forceful lures that John kept eeling away from, Carson and Zelenka crumpled and desperately sorry, even when an exasperated Rodney finally yelled, "Will you please stop? We're out, we're alive, we're not flambéed, you did your job! Thank you."
No one said a word about the shared quarters, about the way they snuck off and radioed each other five times a day, about their sitting too close together in the mess; John was almost getting impatient with it. In the endless catch-up briefings, he glared at Caldwell, silently daring him to bring it up, thinking at him, Say the word and you can keep the fucking job, ready to tell them all to go to hell, ready to grab Rodney and just take off. But Caldwell didn't say anything, and Elizabeth didn't say anything, and even Heightmeyer only said things like, "Colonel, how would next Thursday be?" and sent him pointed reminders in email when he skipped the appointments he smilingly made.
Technically there wasn't even an issue to be made yet: they hadn't had sex since being brought out; everything too raw, not just their skin, and he wasn't going to push Rodney, he wasn't, but then after about a week, Major Lorne said, half-joking, probably meaning it as a friendly warning, probably thinking he was being helpful, "Funny how you're practically joined at the hip with McKay; Jesus, after a year with the guy, you'd think you'd have had enough."
"Is that so?" John said, smiling hard and tight, and maybe there was something in his face, because Lorne said hastily, awkwardly, "I don't mean—I wasn't implying—it's not like what happened in there was real or anything," and in lieu of punching him, John turned away and walked straight to the transporter, to the labs; Rodney's hands landing on his arms right away, Rodney saying, "What—what is it, are you—" and John took Rodney's face in his hands and kissed him, ignoring Zelenka and Simpson and Miko all staring.
Rodney stumbled out of the room with him; they went to John's quarters and had clumsy, terrible sex, poking each other with elbows and knees, not using nearly enough lube, hissing in pain as they caught tender spots; finally they resorted to just jerking off together side by side and curling up afterwards, doing their best to avoid the cold wet stain on the sheets that didn't just magically clean themselves.
"I'm just so goddamned hungry," John said, tucked tight against Rodney's side. "Jesus, I missed being hungry, and now I keep going to the mess, and I can't make myself eat—"
"God, I know," Rodney said. "And—" He stopped, swallowed, and said in a hurried, ashamed voice, "I miss Fermi, I keep looking for him."
John felt a sudden hard painful sense-memory of lying together in the sun-drenched bed after sex, Fermi leaping up to lie snuggled and purring in the hollow of his back, the golden day ahead full of hard but satisfying work, the beauty of the equations. "Was it worth anything?" he demanded, his throat tight; he wasn't sure he wanted to know. If Rodney had been humoring him, if it had all just been make-work—"The goddamn proof, is it even worth finishing?"
"Huh?" Rodney said, pulling back far enough to give him a baffled squint. "Yes, what are you, nuts? I just thought—I thought maybe you'd want to wait a while before we picked it up again."
"Why would I want to wait?" John said, trying not to choke on his relief. "We have no time anymore, we have what, forty years left now?"
Rodney stared at him, his eyes gone wide and appalled. "Oh my God," he said, horrified, "I hadn't even thought of it that way." He sat up and started flinging the sheets every which way, scrabbling around.
"What are you doing?" John asked, propping himself up on his elbows.
"Do you not understand what this means?" Rodney came up with the lube and pushed John down on his back again. "We have less than fifteen thousand days left to have sex in! We have to get this right, we can't just screw around until it works out—"
"Rodney, I don't think I can, oh, um," John said, gasping as Rodney's fingers pushed deep into him, suddenly easier; his body was still relaxed from coming, and this time Rodney had slicked up with what felt like half the bottle. "All right, yeah, okay. And fuck Lorne anyway, let's see him say this isn't fucking real," he added, and lay back and spread his legs wider while Rodney climbed onto him and started pushing slowly and thoroughly inside.
Elizabeth listened to his awkward, fumbling thanks, and then she folded her hands on her desk and raised her eyebrows at him. "Now why don't you tell me what's really on your mind."
He couldn't get comfortable in the chair, so he got up again. "Look," he said, after a moment, "it's not that I don't want my job back, but that's not the job Caldwell's been doing. And the job he has been doing—"
"—isn't one you want?" Elizabeth finished.
"No," John said.
He couldn't help wondering whether he'd changed—if he wasn't the right guy for the job anymore, or if he'd never been. He'd never have signed on for a desk job any more than he was willing to take it on now, but he remembered being so damn sure he didn't have to run Atlantis that way, that he could have the city and the rest of the Pegasus galaxy too, that he could delegate a lot of the paperwork, or more likely just blow it off. Part of it was seeing Caldwell do things right and the way it made things run smooth as clockwork, but it wasn't just that: John couldn't help but understand better now, break down the process in his head and see where the line fell between stupid red tape and necessary evil. And if Caldwell was running maybe a little over the line, he knew he'd been running pretty far short of it, and he could see where it had been going to break down.
Elizabeth floated a few ideas by him over the next few days, but unexpectedly it was Caldwell who came up with the right one. "We don't have real integration between the military and research operations," he said. "There's a lot of tension between military and civilian personnel, and we're getting in each other's way too often. I'm not disclaiming my share of responsibility for that," he added, looking at Elizabeth, "but the fact is I don't have the right understanding of what the research division needs or the time to develop it. A liaison officer, overseeing the offworld research operations—"
After the meeting, John cornered him just short of the transporters. "Colonel, can I have a word?"
He stopped there, not sure how to start. He'd gotten over the urge to torpedo his career and his life, but Rodney was still non-negotiable. If that was going to be a deal breaker for Caldwell, better all around if they figured that out now, instead of six months from now.
"You've had your Master Pilot cert for what is it, four years now, haven't you," Caldwell said, before John said anything else.
John had to take a second and count back. "Yes, sir."
"So you ought to know something about flying under the radar," Caldwell said. "There anything else we need to talk about?"
John stared at him. The guy's face hadn't even twitched. "No, sir," he said, a little faintly. Caldwell nodded and turned back to the transporters. "Actually," John said abruptly, and Caldwell looked at him again, "sorry, it's just, it occurs to me maybe I should say—" He cleared his throat. "It's occasionally been mentioned to me that I can sometimes be, um, a little difficult to work with."
Caldwell snorted. "So I've heard."
"I am going to want to change some things," John said. "You took the Athosians off the teams—"
"Colonel," Caldwell interrupted, "if I didn't want you to do the job, I wouldn't have proposed it. I'm not going to put you on a short leash." He gave John a final crisp nod, and walked into the transporters.
"Yes, very good," Rodney said that night, yawning. "Do you know they've been wasting Ronon and Teyla on combat training? Elizabeth had to put them on as consultants to keep them in the city. I had a two-hour conversation with Ronon about US employment visa policy yesterday, and let me tell you, if you thought the beach was surreal—"
"Listen, about the team," John said, fidgeting at the side of the bed.
"Okay, hang on, if this is about to be the fraternization conversation, don't even think about it," Rodney said, sitting up straight. "If you are going to go around risking your life on alien planets, I am not staying behind—"
"No! Where'd you get that idea?" John demanded. "I was just going to say, I'm going to have to cut down on our mission schedule. I think I'm going to have Teyla and Ronon do double-duty, go out with two separate teams, ours and a training team, let people get their feet wet going to planets we've already checked out."
"Oh," Rodney said, mollified, lying back down. "Yes, all right, fine; we'll need the extra time. Oh, and you need to put in for time off, in, hm, June I think."
John frowned, climbing into the bed. "What happens in June?"
"Well," Rodney said, "we'll need another couple of months to finish up the last stages of the proof, then it'll take another two or three months to have it verified; I'm pretty sure I can talk Witten and Douglas into looking it over. Add in another couple months just to be safe, we're in June territory—"
"And then what?" John said. "You want to present it at a conference or something?"
"Well, it'll be published in Science, of course, but I assume they'll want to do some kind of award ceremony too," Rodney said.
"Award?" John said suspiciously. "You didn't mention anything about an award."
"Yes I did!" Rodney said. "I told you it was one of the Millenium Problems."
"I thought that just meant it was like Riemann's Hypothesis, one of those famous things that hasn't been proven," John said.
"It is like Riemann's, that's another one of the Millenium Problems," Rodney said.
"You know what I mean!" John said. "So what do we get, a trophy or something?"
"No," Rodney said. "We get a million dollars."
"Okay, you did not tell me that," John said, glaring.
"Well, I didn't think we were ever going to get to claim it," Rodney said defensively. "Besides, what difference does it make; it's not like we have anything to spend it on out here."
"Okay, he hit that wave on purpose!" Rodney squawked, clutching John's arm with both hands. "Oh my God, we're going to drown. Oh my God, rocks! Hey! Hey! Those are rocks over there!" he yelled back at the boat captain, who grinned a toothy white smile at them from behind his plexiglass window and gave them the thumbs-up of a man who hadn't heard a word Rodney had been saying for the last twenty minutes.
"Will you relax?" John said, prying Rodney off yet again; he was starting to lose sensation in his fingertips.
"Is this guy certified?" Rodney demanded, one hand relocating to John's thigh. "Are there even lifejackets on this thing?"
"It's a hop around the island, we haven't been more than a hundred yards from shore the whole way!" John said.
"Yes, and while we're on the subject, explain to me again why we have put ourselves into the power of this insane person," Rodney waved a frantic hand at the still cheerfully grinning captain, "to go to some random and probably completely undeveloped beach half an hour away when there is a perfectly nice beach at the hotel, for which, I might add, we are paying a ridiculous amount of money, and where we can get drinks with little umbrellas in them delivered to our beach chairs!"
"Oh, look, we're almost there," John said, devoutly grateful.
The boat pulled in near to the beach and let them off in waist-deep water. John shoved Rodney off the deck before he could make the speech to the captain that would have ended up with them stranded for eternity again, handed the guy a tip, and then jumped in himself more carefully, balancing the picnic basket on his head.
"Do you have any actual reason to believe he's going to come and pick us up again?" Rodney said, slogging through the surf behind him. "You do remember we have to be on a plane to Boston tomorrow morning? If I miss the awards ceremony because I have been abandoned to starve slowly to death on a deserted island—"
"There are fifty thousand people living on this island, Rodney," John said.
"—abandoned to starve," Rodney continued pointedly, "on a seaweed-covered, sand-lice-infested, is that a jellyfish?" He grabbed John's arm and nearly levitated them out of the water and across the last ten yards to the beach, the wake soaking John to mid-chest.
"Hey, hey, easy!" John said, holding the basket up out of the water.
"Forget the food, do you have any idea what jellyfish toxin can do?" Rodney yelled, panicky, dragging him up onto the beach. "Did you get stung anywhere? Are you okay?" John grinned and put down the basket and kissed Rodney until he stopped trying to get the muffled complaints out.
"Yes, all right, fine," Rodney said irritably, helping John spread out the only slightly damp blanket, and threw himself down and grabbed a beer out of the basket. "So we're here, shock me, why is this beach special?"
John cleared his throat. "Well, it's for sale," he said, and Rodney put down the bottle and got up. They walked hand in hand all around the beach, along the line of waist-high grass and palm trees anchoring the dunes, looking up at the tangled brush-covered hillside sloping up and away from the back, big enough to build on; all the way to the massive tumbled grey boulders to either side that stretched out into the water, penning in the sand.
"What, no cat?" Rodney said, trying for sarcastic, but his voice wobbled.
"We'll get one when we retire," John said.
They climbed up onto the rocks and looked over the edge, with the beach that was already theirs behind them, and from the crest they could see all the long green curve of the island spilling away: its small busy harbors full of white-hulled boats and pink and yellow houses, and all the rest of the world lying open beyond.
= End =