Spoilers: 4x16 – Outcast.
Plot: What can you do when there's no hope, no distraction, and no way out?
Authors: busaikko, aesc, darsynia and propinquitine
Artists: beet, unamaga, sandalstrap and midvacent
John Sheppard has four things that he never wanted to share with Rodney McKay. Not for malicious reasons, although he doubts Rodney would see it that way. He just feels that he has the right to keep parts of his essential core to himself.
For example... Rodney already heard second-hand how John's best friend in Afghanistan died, thanks to the psychotropic drugs and bizarre confessional religion of M7C-401. John has no reason to show Rodney his picture, the one taped inside John's American passport, in the bag in the box under John's bed. It's not exactly secrecy. It's privacy, John thinks. His job owns his every waking hour and many of his sleeping hours; it's literally in his blood. His team is closer than his family ever was, so why should he bare his soul? No need. He's already died for them. He will die for them again, if he has to. Everyone knows that. That is who he is.
John thinks the thing he'd be most embarrassed to have Rodney find out is that John has half a dissertation on the flash drive labeled Tax Law for Military Officers. John opens the files and plays with them sometimes. He had to abandon the degree when he shipped out after 9/11; he's fairly sure his place was held for him as long as possible, but he never even tried to go back. He isn't the doctor type, anyway.
Sometimes he re-reads the words and the formulae that he wrote, and he has to work to make them fly. Someday he thinks he won't understand any of it any more. He tells himself that it doesn't matter. He chose a different path. But Rodney, he thinks, would be merciless. John doesn't want to be on the receiving end of Rodney's insecure and vicious competitive streak. That's Radek's job, Jeannie's role. John would far rather be a competent military officer in Rodney's eyes than a not-very-good academic who can barely understand his own ideas anymore.
It's vanity, he knows, but he thinks he'd be allowed some of that, in an ideal world.
In the real world, of course, John thinks that he thinks too much. He wishes that he had normal, healthy, physical outlets for his restlessness, like golf or running or the firing range. Instead, he's stuck in this cell, four paces long on all sides. Not that Rodney lets him pace any more. John paced nonstop for the first four days, and then Rodney knocked him down and sat on him and pressed his arm down on John's throat and told him to knock it off.
Since they were captured, Rodney mostly just sits, with his arms folded, and glares, but John has come to realize that Rodney shutting down like this does not mean he isn't feeling as frantic as John is. They just have different ways of expressing themselves in the face of this disaster.
The fear isn't the worst part of being here; the worst thing is the enervating boredom. The light is always on, dim but steady. The walls are windowless and gray. The door has a sliding panel that opens twice a day to pass in their meals, which are always flat round bread cakes, a thin green stew, and water in lidded flasks. Once a day they pass out the bucket that serves as a toilet. The mattresses -- one each -- are lumpy fabric-covered foam; they lie on the floor.
They were allowed to keep their trousers and shirts, but not vests or belts or boots. The stone floor is very cold. The walls, John thinks, must be thick, because they can't hear many sounds from outside. Just the occasional screaming for the guards, the boot-tread of the workers who bring them their food.
The silence feeds the boredom, and it's making John feel reckless. He's been re-reading his dissertation in his head, working the proofs out on a mental whiteboard, and he's so close to asking Rodney what he thinks.
He wants to give Rodney something. A brilliant escape plan would be best; he doesn't have one. All he has are the secrets he keeps.
He opens his mouth to say My mom's still alive, but I have no idea where she is, but the words tangle up around his tongue, refusing to come out, sliding back down his throat to rejoin the anxiety curling in his stomach. All he manages is My, and it's this alien croaking sound that makes Rodney look up from his preoccupation with a parallel Rodney-universe.
"They're not going to bring us more water for another, oh, eon," Rodney says. His head rolls along the wall, as though his neck is tired of supporting it. "I have some left."
John blinks at Rodney's tone; it's the martyred, Christ-on-the-cross, go-on-without-me tone that makes John hover between getting angry and getting worried. While he decides between the two, Rodney looks back up at the ceiling, which is flat and featureless like the rest of their prison.
"Maybe MacGyver could rig an explosive from a cotton-lycra blend T-shirt and a pair of shoelaces," Rodney says, still looking at the ceiling, "but I can't." He slides a brief look at John's feet. "Although I'm sure whatever you've been cultivating in your socks is volatile enough."
"Not enough space anyway," John tells him, ignoring the remark about his socks. "Anything we tried to detonate in here would end up killing us, too." Rodney grunts something about how John should know; all Rodney had said to him, after pinning him to the floor, and been You are reminding me exactly how small this cell is, and my claustrophobia does not appreciate it.
"You want my water or not?" Rodney pushes the leather bottle at him.
"Yeah," John says, because he is thirsty and Rodney's glare says he's traded in humble suffering for impatience. He winces a bit as he swallows, the water warm and tasting of animal hide and the resin the Makai have used to waterproof the bottle.
"Now," Rodney says once John's finished, "what were you going to say?"
"I wasn't going to say anything." His lips are dry and tacky, heading for chapped; licking at them only makes it worse, but John can't help it. Rodney's watching him, eyes sharp and overwhelming. It's just the two of them, him and the weight of Rodney's attention.
"Come on." With any other person, John would say Rodney's wheedling, but this is Rodney, who never coaxes or persuades so much as tramples over other people's objections. "I gave you my water, the least you can do is distract me from the dire, hopeless reality of our situation."
"It's not hopeless." The words are, by this point more or less automatic. But Teyla and Ronon are still free, he thinks, he's pretty sure--the Makai would have made a point of gloating, if Teyla and Ronon had been captured--and if they're still out there that means rescue is, too.
"I notice you haven't said 'It's not dire.'"
"It's... cause for concern." John prefers to save adjectives like 'dire' for being on his knees at gunpoint with a hungry Wraith not a foot away.
"I hate this." Rodney looks away resignedly, draws in on himself, knees tucked up almost to his chest with fists rested atop them. Without his jacket, in the faint light, his biceps are a pale, strong line, pulled tight with a tension that stirs up adrenaline. John tenses, waiting for Rodney to start shaking, start freaking out about how the walls are closing in just like the trash compactor in Star Wars, but all Rodney does is sit there, frowning up at the ceiling, his entire body drawn tight. "I hate fucking waiting."
"My mom's still alive." The words, for all their earlier reluctance, escape effortlessly.
"Huh?" Rodney pulls himself back to the here-and-now. "Your mom?"
Rodney blinks slowly. "Why are you telling me this?"
John shrugs. Because somehow talking about his family is easier than talking about math, because Rodney loves numbers and is passionate about them not being mistreated and John isn't ready to have his dissertation mocked. Because even his family, messed up and complicated as it is even with his father gone, is a lot easier than that.
He doesn't say this, only shrugs and stares at a worn patch of fabric on his knee. Probably he needs a new pair of pants; Woolsey obsesses over spit-and-polish more than any ten drill sergeants John's ever met.
"You're not telling me this because you're planning on sacrificing yourself in some hideously graphic, and yet pointless, manner, and want me to break the news to your family, are you?" When John doesn't answer, Rodney's voice ratchets up an octave. "Are you?"
"I don't know where she is." The last time he'd seen her is so long ago, the memory's gone soft and faded, an old photograph of her pale, serious face looking down at him. Be good. He can't hear her voice anymore, but he remembers that's what she'd said when the attorney had come to pick him up. She'd handed him his stuffed dog and his jacket and pushed him out the door, and the last thing he'd seen had been their small kitchen table, the leftovers of his sandwich on a plate. "She's sent cards every year for my birthday."
Dave had told him that when he'd gone home after the Replicator mess, a small bandage to patch over only one of far too many wounds. Dad never told you... He thought quick and clean was best, only being taken away from his mother had never scarred over, not quite.
"My mom... wasn't my dad's wife." John watches Rodney carefully, to see what he thinks about that. Rodney's face goes smooth with surprise, eyes brilliant and blue with it. "He found out about me... after, and got custody." Permanent custody, no visitation, Dave had said, He and Mom thought they were never going to get pregnant, and he... yeah. Trust Dave not to say their dad had tried to prove it wasn't his fault, or had decided to cheat, or that maybe those had been the days before surrogates and John's mother had been poor, desperate first for money and then desperate to keep her son.
John knows what it's like, to dig in with fingernails and teeth, to hold on. He's done it with Teyla, with Ronon, with Rodney; he can't let them go anywhere. But the words to say that, those are beyond him.
"That would explain a lot." Rodney peers at him speculatively, the same expression he gives Ancient tech, Kavanagh when his stupidity has managed to exceed even Rodney's generous estimates.
John shifts uneasily. "Explains what?"
"The surviving against all odds, the stupid plans that somehow manage to work despite the laws of probability."
"Oh, yeah?" At least it's not Explains your fucked-up attachment issues.
"God looks out for bastards, you know," Rodney says suddenly. The smile on his face is quick and rueful. "Or so they tell me."
For once, John doesn't tense up when he hears that word used in the correct context, the word he had only once heard his father speak, and not to him. He supposes that if there was ever a man whose world-view was completely opposite to his father's, it would have to be Rodney. John feels his lips grudgingly nudge up into a smile and he turns to offer it to Rodney, but when he sees the rigid way the other man's shoulders are set, he lifts his eyebrows in a silent question.
"We're a pair, aren't we?" Rodney says, breaking eye contact to stare at the featureless wall. "Your parents weren't even together and there was a fight for custody, and my parents... Well." Rodney's voice turns brisk and he gets up to lean against the wall opposite John, though he doesn't look at him. "There are plenty of people who know I'm indispensable now; no need to dwell on the past, eh?"
You're not unwanted, John really wants to say. The words rise up in his throat, spurred on by whatever reckless urge is driving his need to over-share, but panic makes him clamp down. His mostly dormant sense of self-preservation doesn't trust Rodney not to get the right idea, either from his face or from his silence, and John finds himself blurting out the next worst thing.
"I wasn't going to ask you to be on my team."
The words hover between them, and not for the first time in his life John wishes for a cloaking device after the fact. He settles for damage control.
"I mean, I did anyway, right? Sometimes people learn from their mistakes," he offers, wincing.
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Rodney says, finally looking over with an expression so full of accusatory sarcasm that John doesn't know whether to drum up some indignance of his own or suggest that Rodney drink the last of the water as a peace offering. What he doesn't expect is for Rodney to burst out laughing.
"You should see your face!" Rodney gasps out between actual, honest-to-God giggles. "I swear, Sheppard, it's like you're permanently set to 'crash and burn.'"
John is torn between accepting his reprieve without conditions and pointing out that he legitimately hadn't meant to say it like that. He reaches a hand out automatically, feeling the need to put on his jacket before remembering that, oh right, he doesn't have it, because they're prisoners. Apparently, Rodney's reaction (and the mental pacing that's replaced John's physical back and forth) has thrown John's concentration even more than his own thoughtless remark had thrown Rodney's.
"Rodney..." John starts to say, weighing the name with as much apology as he can muster.
"Sheppard, did you think I didn't know that? I may not be the most self-aware man in either galaxy but I'd much rather be chosen for merit than job description--which, I might add, was already more than enough of an excuse for you to have passed me by." As he speaks, Rodney pushes off from the wall and walks toward John. His tiredness is evident in every subdued gesture, but so is the light Rodney always got in his eyes when he was explaining something really important. He points at the ratty mattress John is sitting on.
"Scoot over; I may not have been as wounded by your confession as you initially expected, but I still think you owe me, and this mattress is inexplicably softer than the one I've been sleeping on. Which figures," Rodney says with a sniff that John suspects is affected. Nevertheless, he scoots.
"We could always just sleep with each other," he says as Rodney settles next to him with a soft oof. It's a mark of how exhausted he is that the comment even makes it past his lips, and that he doesn't think to school the Oh, crap expression off of his face until Rodney's looked up and seen it.
"What?" Rodney turns his shoulders toward him. "You're... kidding around, right?" He twists his mouth into an uncertain half-smile; it looks like a grimace. "Sheppard?"
John nods, or shakes his head -- he can't really tell which. He should agree, he knows, laugh it off, to rely on acting skills he doesn't think he has to give an insincere leer, and let them both chalk it up to despondent gallows humor or something. Use their captivity to explain why he broke their unspoken agreement to never joke about that kind of thing. Not between the two of them.
He's going to say it, use some combination of the elements of plausible deniability that his brain is offering up, but all he can get out is, "Rodney, I --" before he's breaking off and licking at his lips again.
Rodney's still watching him with that analytical light in his eyes. John's not sure what Rodney's getting from his expression; he sure as hell doesn't know what he wants to express (needwantfearhopefaithlovetrust).
"Oh," Rodney says quietly. "Um."
"Yeah." Whatever Rodney's thinking, he probably doesn't have the whole picture, but John's sure whatever he's got is bad enough. "Sorry."
"What? No, I, uh... That is to say -- can I have a minute?" He looks faintly bewildered, not an expression John's used to seeing from him.
"Got nothing but minutes in here, Rodney."
Rodney hums distractedly, already staring off into the middle distance between himself and the floor. If he had a laptop, John thinks, he'd be looking right at it, in full problem-solving mode. He wonders what kind of readings Rodney's seeing right now.
Time passes. There's no measuring it; heart beat won't work, as John's has been thudding all out of time since he'd first gotten the urge to start distracting Rodney with secret bits of himself, and the minor dehydration would throw off his usual resting rate, anyway. He briefly considers turning his bootlace into a pendulum, plotting out the equations in his head (2 pi * square root (length of his shoe lace/planet's gravitational force) = how many seconds it's been since he screwed everything up) before realizing that they took his boots, laces and all. Besides, that would require moving, and he's achieved an almost perfect stillness, on the off chance that Rodney will somehow develop the visual acuity of a T-Rex and forget he's sitting next to him.
Rodney's almost as still as he is, though every so often he taps his fingers where they're grasping his shins, as though he's typing on a keyboard. John wonders what combination of taps would be the equivalent of the Undo command, but decides Rodney would take it the wrong (right) way if John started tracing his fingers up and down Rodney's legs. So far, Rodney's made no move to shift away.
John's taking that as a good sign (ignoring the complete lack of anywhere else in their cell for Rodney to go), and won't do anything to jeopardize that.
Eventually, Rodney clears his throat. "So," he says. Out of the corner of his eye, John can see Rodney turning back to look at him. "You, ah, you care about me."
John rubs the back of his neck and stares at his feet. "Do we have to talk about it?"
"Yes. Yes, I have to say, I think this merits discussion."
"Wouldn't you rather talk about math?" he asks weakly. And if their captors have been trying all along to break him, well, he thinks they might have actually succeeded. "I wrote a dissertation, once."
"Hmm?" Rodney's distracted, at least for the moment. "Oh, you mean that half-a-dissertation on, what was it, geometric modeling of convection currents around air foils?"
"What?" John's chest feels hollow all of a sudden, raw and empty and so very, very vulnerable. There's a loud rushing sound in his ears, like the roar of the tide or the wind at high speeds. "How -- ?"
"How did I find it?" Rodney asks. "Please. You named the file 'Tax Law for Military Officers'. No one would have something that depressing on file for pleasure reading. Even Tolstoy's not that bad. And it's not like there's any need for you or any of your grunts to worry about taxes. That's one of the perks of working on top-secret government projects -- they take care of falsifying your returns for you." Rodney shakes his head. "It's clearly half-finished, and the field's moved in different directions since, when, about 2001?" John nods mutely, still bracing himself. This is not happening. "It's fairly high-level stuff, so I'm guessing you'd have to do a lot of catch-up work to even begin to think of continuing with it, or working on the revisions that the section on supercritical foils clearly need, and, well..."
John looks up, finally. "Well?" he croaks.
"Well, you're usually a bit busy risking your life saving everyone else's, or at the very least, yelling at me until I do. I imagine it would be difficult to find the time, though if you'd ever consider forgoing some of your quality getting-beaten-up-by-Teyla-and-Ronon time, Dr. Singh's decent enough at basic mathematical theory to get you caught up, though of course once you got to any level of real complexity, I would take over." Rodney pauses, brow creasing. "Uh, that is, if you wouldn't mind working together?"
John stares at him. The roaring in his hears has been dying down, fading away until he feels clear-headed again, and he's not facing his greatest fear: it's just Rodney sitting on a lumpy mattress in a crappy cell on an alien planet, looking back at him almost apprehensively. "You'd work with me?" he asks.
Rodney rolls his eyes. "Oh, come on, I'm not that bad. I do actually explain things to people from time to time. And successfully, I might add. My minions are just overly sensitive." John raises an eyebrow at him. "You're not a moron, John, and I wouldn't mind encouraging you to explore that non-moronic side of yourself." Rodney tilts his head to the side, gaze wandering out over the room again. "Huh."
"What?" Rodney's gazing curiously toward the same must mattress he's been sleeping on for the past four days, and John wonders if this is finally the epiphany they need to work out an escape plan.
"No, I just thought to myself, 'And it'd be a good excuse to spend more time with him.'" Rodney huffs a laugh, a little bemused, and smiles at John.
"You don't need an excuse to spend time with me, Rodney." John can feel his own smile starting, just a bit at the edges, like the hole in his chest is patched up, filled in, and still there's more that's filling him up, and up, and taking the corners of his mouth with it.
Rodney nods, looking incredibly earnest, and John's glad for the millionth time that he managed to pick up on more than just the 'intelligence' portion of Rodney's merit back in the beginning. "I know, but apparently I want one anyway. Just in case."
"That worst-case-scenario stuff again? " John nudges Rodney in the side; they're so close together that it pretty much amounts to leaning on him, and maybe they haven't actually discussed redefining the boundaries between the two of them, but he's feeling lucky, almost lighter than air in their dank gray cell, like maybe he can just float the two of them free. "You're such a pessimist, Rodney."
Rodney sniffs. "I prefer to think of myself as a pragmatist, thank you." He leans back into John, and it's so warm between the two of them, John swears the room gets brighter, somehow. Where else could all of that energy go?
He chuckles at that. "Don't ever change, Rodney."
"No?" Rodney asks, and John shakes his head. "Huh. That would be different." When John looks questioningly at him, he explains, "To not try to change, for someone," and ducks his head a bit.
John looks down at his bent head, the receding hairline and hair that, after four days' captivity, is definitely tending toward "lank". He smiles, and thinks that he's got to have gone insane, but at least it's the good kind of crazy. Exactly the kind you need to survive in this galaxy. "Yeah, I kinda like you the way you are."
"Well." Rodney's blushing now; it's faint, but it's definitely there, and this is the most fun John's had in a while. "That just proves my point: you're definitely not a moron."
"I'm touched." Also relieved, and pleasantly surprised, too -- things never work out like this for him, and he's going to put off the second-guessing himself for as long as possible (at least long enough for Rodney to get so invested that he'll keep John from doing anything stupid). "And hey, don't worry. Ronon and Teyla are still out there, they'll be coming for us any day now."
"Mmmm, they'd better." Rodney leans back against the wall and tugs on John's shirt sleeve until he does the same. John lets his outstretched leg fall open slightly, bringing his toes to rest against Rodney's, as Rodney chafes his hands against the chill. "And when we get out of here," Rodney continues, "and, you know, shower and eat some real food and, oh god, brush our teeth, we can talk about..." Rodney makes some kind of complicated motion with his hands.
John arches an eyebrow at him. "Redesigning air foils?"
"Yes. Exactly," Rodney says, pointing his finger. "But, um, starting with the remedial work, since it's been a while, and we're verging into unfamiliar territory, here, and, uh, we don't want to make any mistakes."
"I think we'll be able to figure something out," John assures him.
"Right, of course. Genius, after all." Rodney's quiet for a minute, burrowing himself into John's shoulder and thinking. John's happy to let him -- every student works at his own pace, after all.
Eventually, Rodney breaks the silence with. "So, I remember reading a paper in 2004, maybe 2005, about meshless vortex methods for flow computations with high Reynolds numbers," and then he's off, sketching out equations in the air and citing dozens of papers that John will need to read. John can keep up with some of it, asks a few questions about the application of some of the more basic ideas, and he can feel an itch in the part of his brain that used to sing in this language. But for now, he's content to sit in their cell on M7C-401 and watch as Rodney outlines the theoretical foundation for everything they'll work on in the future.
All things considered, this isn't so bad.
Click on thumb
- Round 1 - busaikko : "John Sheppard has four things [...] All he has are the secrets he keeps."
- Round 2 - aesc : "He opens his mouth to say [...] Or so they tell me.'"
- Round 3 - darsynia : "For once, John doesn't tense up [...] Nevertheless, he scoots."
- Round 4 - propinquitine : "'We could always just sleep [...] this isn't so bad."
Beta: Thank you to anchiseswrites!