A Thousand Dancing Bears

By Chandri MacLeod

Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Rating: PG
Pairing: John/Rodney
Categories: slash, angst, hurt/comfort
Warnings: none
Spoilers: season 4
Summary: What Rodney did yesterday, John's not sure he could have done. But that's not new, not really.
Disclaimer: They're not mine, alas. I'm just using them for fun.
Author's Note: For the mcsmooch community's Emergency Smooching Session of August 18/2008. Betaed by mik100. Written before the premiere, so slight AU from the S4 finale onward.

John's always had a low tolerance for inactivity. His teachers used to write it on his report card when he was a kid, a thousand variations on "needs to pay more attention in class" and "needs more concentration," as though paying closer attention would make memorising the names of Presidents more interesting. He's pretty sure that if he'd been born twenty years later, he'd have been one of those kids the teachers were always anxiously recommending be put on Ritalin.

For all that, his ability to concentrate when he doesn't want to really hasn't improved since he was eleven. Sometimes he can focus on paperwork, when it's the only alternative to remembering the fallout of a recent mission gone bad; Teyla smirked once and called it his version of meditation, of re-centring his anxieties on a point removed from himself. There's some merit in that, he supposes — he hardly ever bothers with paperwork unless he's using it as an excuse to avoid something else.

Today, though, he's really just bored. The city's quiet, and his team's on stand-down while Teyla recovers in Keller's microscopic, hastily-assembled maternity ward, and John has absolutely nothing to do. And his arm hurts. Not a lot — it wasn't that deep a gash to begin with — but enough to be annoying.

Theoretically, his primary duties when actually in the city are a) security, b) training and c) administration. The first is generally handled by Lorne, who actually knows the explored sections of the city as well as John does, and really, security in peacetime is as often mediation as it is security; which is just the kind of petty interpersonal bullshit that makes John cringe. He's off-duty as far as the second is concerned, until his arm heals up (Jennifer said at least a couple more weeks), and the second is a provisional description because technically Sam's in charge of all the administrative crap. John's totally okay with that.

He's slightly less okay with the fact that this really only leaves him with doing paperwork and going slowly out of his mind.

He's down to constructing excessively complicated paper airplanes out of a book he bought when last on Earth and sending them on test-flights across his office when his e-mail makes the little chiming noise it makes when he's got mail. He puts down his fifth paper airplane and turns to his computer; it's a message from Rodney, warning all personnel that "all non-essential power flow will be restricted for the next five hours," while experiments are run on the power grid.

Just as John's grinning, thinking about just what Rodney might determine to be non-essential power flow, and knowing just how specific the system can be in those terms (down to individual devices, if need be), his CD player falters and dies. John turns to look at it critically, the grin fading from his face, and then glares at his laptop, which is still running. Playing music was about the only thing staving off final, fatal boredom, and that's just not cool, Rodney, not cool.

He's half-raised a hand to his earpiece to say so, but then he realises that Rodney's actually presented him with a solution to his ennui. He pushes himself away from his desk and goes to tell Rodney in person.

This turns out to be a slight miscalculation on his part. Rodney greets him cordially enough (At least, cordial for Rodney. What he actually does is jerk his head up with a grouchy: "What?"

When John says "Hey, Rodney," from the doorway, and then blink and amend, with the moment's hesitation John's noticed only lately:

"Oh. Hello. What?") but quickly tires of the conversation. It seems Rodney's annoyed with everyone today, not just John, because after five minutes even Radek slams his laptop shut and stalks out, muttering about retreating to more hospitable climes.

John watches him go, and then turns back to Rodney with a raised eyebrow. There's nobody else left in the lab; they all seem to have fled. "Hey, Rodney," he says, leaning on the lab bench where Rodney's working, "you do know that you've scared off your whole department?"

"And good riddance," Rodney says haughtily, rolling his chair across the room to reach a third laptop, and rolling back with it cradled to his chest. John steps carefully out of his path. "This is the first time in six months I've had a chance to work on anything not connected to preventing our messy imminent deaths, and every person in this city seems to have taken that as an excuse to bring every pointless question on their tiny little minds..."

Rodney trails off, typing with one hand as he connects the third laptop to a cable with the other. He does that, sometimes, gets distracted by his own thought-processes in the middle of a rant, letting the rant die away as though it's run out of steam. But John knows better, knows that Rodney rarely forgets anything, and never forgets a grudge.

"Tiny little minds?" he prompts, and is delighted when Rodney picks up where he left off, as though he never stopped talking.

"An endless parade of stupidity!" he declares, slapping one hand down on the surface of the bench. "Endless. I've been here since seven o'clock this morning and I haven't managed to go five minutes without being interrupted by some idiot wanting my approval for experimenting with cell-division in zero gravity, or, or high-voltage window boxes, or something."

"Window boxes?" John asks.

"The botanists," Rodney explains, darkly, and then waves a dismissive hand. "I have no idea. Some stupid thing about measuring the effects of different solar indexes on bean plants. Why they thought I'd approve the power allocation when Parrish already turned them down, I have no idea."

"I can't imagine," John says honestly, but with a smile.

"I mean it's not like we've got unlimited power!" Rodney continues, really getting into his stride. "And if I never get to map the stupid power grid, we won't have any." And now he pauses, to give John a suspicious look, as though seeing him for the first time. "What did you want, anyway?"

John, who has been waiting for his moment, hitches up one shoulder, and tells him.

Sometimes, Rodney is better entertainment than a thousand dancing bears. For one thing, bears don't communicate their displeasure at having their very important power-flow simulations interrupted by throwing whiteboard markers at your head.


It's not like Rodney doesn't deserve his downtime, though it says something that for Rodney, mapping power expenditure qualifies as leisure. After all, they saved Teyla yesterday, the three of them together, Rodney more than anybody.

He's hardly even boasted about it, though. In fact, for Rodney, he's been downright modest. It's enough to make anybody used to Rodney worry. John hasn't pressed him over it, because sometimes Rodney just gets lost in his head when he gets kicked that hard, but he always comes back out again.

But he remembers the ride back; he couldn't hear what they were talking about in the rear compartment, but he could make out Rodney and Teyla's voices, just barely, low and confidential under the fretful whimpers of the baby. He couldn't distinguish actual words, just inflection. Teyla mostly sounded tired, fuzzy with some strange mix of exhaustion and contentment John could only imagine was due to the little bundle held protectively against her chest.

Sitting at his desk again, feet propped up on the corner, he flashes on the image of Rodney and Teyla with their heads bent close together; Teyla smiling softly down, Rodney looking anxious, one big hand resting tentatively on the baby's back, almost covering him from shoulder to shoulder. They'd wrapped the baby in an emergency blanket, but around that he was snug in Rodney's jacket, like he'd been when John and Ronon found them.

Most clearly John remembers the look on Rodney's face when he saw John looking, eyes wide and almost scared.

It wasn't much, followed by Ronon's gruff "eyes on the road, Sheppard," from the co-pilot seat, and his mutter of "hell of a thing," a second later, as the gate appeared, bright clear blue in the middle distance.

And Christ, what Rodney did yesterday, John's not sure he could have done. But that's not new, not really.


John tells himself it's just that he's bored, not that he wants an excuse to study Rodney. But the truth, if he were to investigate it more closely, is exactly that. Rodney hasn't exactly been acting weird since they brought Teyla home, but John's certainly been noticing things he never noticed before. Like the split-second blankness he sees in Rodney's face every time John comes into a room, almost calculating, but not quite — John knows Rodney's calculating face, and that's not it.

He's watching for it when he comes into the lab for the second time, just after lunch. He assumed Rodney would be taking advantage of everyone else being in the mess hall to get some uninterrupted work done, and he was right. Rodney is still sitting right where John left him late this morning, hunched on the lab stool, one elbow propped on the bench as he frowns at two laptop screens simultaneously. There's a powerbar wrapper next to his hand, probably Rodney's answer to actually getting up and acquiring real food. John shakes his head.

"You know," Rodney says, in what the uninitiated might mistake for conversational tones, "if I never get to map exactly how the city uses ZPM power, we might suffer a fatal power surge one day and sink to the bottom of the ocean, and I am not taking the blame."

John stops just inside the door. "What exactly are the odds on that, do you think?" he asks, genuinely curious, but forgetting about it when Rodney turns halfway on the stool and takes him in. There's that same, unfamiliar uncertainty, there-and-then-gone, and maybe he'd miss it if he wasn't paying attention. He wonders if he's been missing it for a long time, or if it's something new. John thinks he pays pretty close attention to Rodney, closer than most people, most of the time, though he doesn't want to think about the reasons for that too carefully.

"Not inconsiderable," Rodney says, snappish, but it sounds forced. He's seen the tray in John's hands. "Is that... spaghetti?" he asks, hopefully.

John hefts the tray, approaches the bench, and waits for Rodney to clear a laptop out of the way.

"Y'know, Rodney, those things aren't really meant to substitute for meals when there's actual food available," he says, as Rodney digs into his lunch with an appreciative moan. He points to the powerbar wrapper, and Rodney shrugs.

"They have all the nutrients of an actual meal," Rodney says defensively, pointing at John with a piece of garlic bread, and then shrugging. "I was busy."

"Yeah, how's that going?" John asks, snagging a piece of bread off Rodney's tray and ignoring the squawk of dismay as Rodney makes a failed attempt to snatch it back. He goes back to eating with a scowl.

"It would go better if everyone would just let me finish," he complains. "I'm not denying that trivialities are a part of my job, all I'm asking is that everyone put them on hold for this one day so I can get something important done."

"Aw, Rodney, you're always saying everything you do is important. How are we supposed to know when to tell the difference?" John reminds him, reaching across the tray to steal another piece of bread.

"Hey! You could have brought your own tray, you know," Rodney protests, shoving John's arm out of the way.

John pulls his arm back with a wince, and inspects it quickly to make sure there isn't any blood soaking through the bandage wrapped around his upper arm, right above the elbow. He's ripped out the stitches accidentally twice, already, and he's not sure what Jennifer will say if he comes in needing them put back in for a third time. But it's fine; no blood. He looks back up to see Rodney wide-eyed and a little pale.

"Sorry!" he gets out, reaching tentatively for John's arm, and stopping himself just short of actually touching. Rodney knows better than anyone on Atlantis, probably, that John isn't all that fond of being touched, at lest not without warning. "Jesus — is it...?"

"It's fine," John assures him, because it is, and because Rodney's reaction seems a little out of proportion. It's just a cut, an ugly one, gotten from fighting a Wraith, yeah, but just a cut. He had worse injuries crashing his bike when he was twelve.

But Rodney's still staring at his arm, and John reaches out to close fingers around Rodney's forearm. Rodney jumps, a full-body twitch, and John holds on, just because this is so out-of-character. John's not that great with touch, but Rodney usually welcomes it, even if he won't admit it. When he entertains such thoughts, which isn't often, John sometimes thinks Rodney hasn't gotten, doesn't get touched enough, and pretends that's not a weird thought for a guy to be having about his best friend.

"You okay?" he asks, in as close to his do-not-bullshit-your-team-leader voice as he can manage with Rodney staring at him like that.

And just like that, he isn't. "What? Yes. Yes, I'm perfectly fine," Rodney says, brushing him off and turning back to his work. He not-so-incidentally shoves the mess tray almost into John's lap as he pulls the laptop back into place. "Thank you for the food."

It's clearly a brush-off, clipped and polite and not like Rodney at all, so John goes, feeling kind of confused. But he needs to return the tray anyway.


And that's another thing, John thinks, as he carries the tray back to the mess. Rodney always overreacts a little to injuries, whether his own or other people's. But usually it's just general low-grade paranoia, demands for attention, and it's not nearly as pronounced as it used to be. Rodney will say he's just being practical. But his admonitions of "Oh my god, are you trying to get blood poisoning?" yesterday were more in line with Rodney of three years ago, back when he still thought he was the only one looking out for his own well-being.

But as Jennifer came out from behind the curtained partition where Teyla was sleeping, Rodney's agitated finger-snapping in her direction spoke of something like smothered panic. He wasn't actually freaking out, but his mouth was tight in the thin line it became when he was worried about something and thought you'd laugh at him for telling you what. Even Ronon noticed that, looked at John as Rodney hurried out of the infirmary and asked "the hell's up with him?"

And okay, it needed stitches, but Rodney's dire warnings of tetanus and gangrene and a host of other horrible consequences possible only in an alien galaxy... kind of overkill, even for Rodney.

So yeah, John's kind of worried. Rodney was remarkably calm last night, considering he'd just delivered a baby on a Wraith ship with nobody's help but Teyla herself, but he was staring around with wide, shocked eyes and wasn't even complaining. John remembers thinking that it figured Rodney would save up his freak-out for home ground instead of pacing himself like a normal person, but a day later he's not at all sure that's it. You can't just tell Rodney McKay it's no big deal, that everything's fine. He has to see it for himself, and even then he never believes it will keep.

Somehow, whatever this is has a tinge of the unstable about it; John's been pestering him all day, sure, but part of the reason he winds Rodney up is to make sure he responds. By now he does it without thinking, like a Rodney diagnostic. If he blows up at you, calls you an idiot, all is well. If he gets twitchy and quiet, well... suffice it to say those parameters have never been associated with impending birthday parties.

Around six-thirty, a little before their usual time for supper, John gives up on paperwork entirely. He sits glowering at his laptop and trying to beat his Freecell score for almost twenty minutes before he starts feeling restless again. He pushes himself to his feet, instead. Either he's going to get Rodney out of this mood he's in, or this is going to blow up in his face.


"Oh, my god," Rodney complains loudly, when John comes into the lab again, just as sunset is stealing the last of the light from the room. Rodney's lit by the pale bluish glow of computer screens, and John can see a snaking pattern of blue and green lines on the big projection suspended above the lab bench. It looks like Rodney's actually gotten some work done, after all. "Do you not have anything better to do?"

It's the kind of question unconsciously designed to make John smirk, shrug, and tell him "no, not really," but he's come here with purpose. Sitting in his office, he's realised he knows this look, fleeting-and-vanished, that Rodney's been giving him. John knows this look as the one Rodney gets when he's gathering courage, psyching himself up to do something he thinks is stupid, dangerous, but necessary. He has a flicker of hesitation on his own behalf, like maybe he should give a pass on this, turn around and leave again, but he ignores it in favour of getting mad.

"You are not okay," John says accusingly, and Rodney flinches back. Belatedly John realises Rodney's been expecting this — expecting John to be the one to say something.

"I'm fine!" he lies, badly.

John sighs, massaging his temples. Rodney could give anybody a headache, and he knows he's been courting it more than usual, today. He looks at Rodney again, who's got his shoulders hunched up, is looking kind of shifty-eyed, and this, this right here, is why Rodney doesn't play poker.

John opens his mouth, closes it again, holds out his arm instead. The bandage is still there, neat and clean, half-hidden by the sleeve of his t-shirt, shockingly white against John's skin. Rodney stares at it, mouth twisted up in a sort of grimace.

"So am I," he says, as gently as he can manage. He doesn't know exactly what it is that's got Rodney so freaked out, but it's obviously pretty serious, so he's willing to cut the guy a little slack.

"I know," Rodney says, in a small voice. "I just..." he looks up at John then, eyes wide and very blue in the electric glare of his laptops. He's frowning, wearing that strange worried thoughtfulness again, fingers twisted together in his lap. "He was just... so little."

"Who was—" John begins, before he catches up, all in a rush. "Oh. The baby."

Rodney shrugs. "Well, yeah. I mean, I've seen babies before, but I never held one and thought that... he almost fits in my hand. And I thought, I thought, he's so fragile. We all start out so... and then, your arm, and I know you've had worse, hell, I've had worse, and usually I can... but sometimes I really realise we're so..." His hands pause in their frantic gesturing, palms out, fingers spread. Then he drops them back to his lap. "Fragile," he finishes, in a choked voice, and looks away.

John's not really sure what to say. Sometimes Rodney gets it into his head to say something and can't stop until he's said it, and usually it's at such length and speed it leaves people floundering to catch up. John's more used to it than most, but still, he leans against the table, a little light-headed. "Rodney," he begins, wanting to tell him it's okay, he's not all that fragile, that guns and training make up for a lot of human frailties, not to mention the many miraculous powers of Rodney's brain.

"I just don't want anything to happen to you," Rodney explains, and he's looking down at his hands, clenched into fists. "I mean, to any of you, because it could, because it can, and I don't think I say that enough. That it would... I mean, it would, I think I'd want... but you?" he looks up again, brows drawn together and face raw and open, looking like the notion is terrible, completely unbearable. John feels a little like he's been kicked in the chest, because he's thought the same thing, more than once. He knows, maybe better than Rodney, how it feels to lose somebody and know that what you had could have been more. But it's not like he didn't know this about Rodney, Rodney who couldn't hide how he felt if the fate of the city depended on it, because it's just not how he's built. Rodney doesn't do things by half-measures.

And John's opening his mouth to explain how he knows these things, how there are reasons they remain unsaid, but then Rodney's standing up, and John takes an involuntary step backwards before he can think better of it. He collides with the hard edge of the lab bench, though, can't go much further.

Rodney's got that look again, and now he doesn't look like he's psyching up, he looks like he's psyched, like he's all done thinking about it. They're standing so close by now that John can feel Rodney's chest rising and falling, his deep, steadying breaths. One of his hands falls, warm and heavy, on John's shoulder.

"I really want to kiss you," Rodney says, decisively, and waits, breathlessly, for the half-second it takes for John to recklessly discard all his half-formed objections of a moment ago, and then he leans in, and then he does.

John wouldn't say he's never thought about what kissing Rodney might be like. Or even that it could never happen; John's not stupid, he pays attention. They've been almost here about a dozen times before, the way you get close to things better left untouched. But now they're here, there's no almost, and for all that he might have imagined Rodney would be fumbling, sloppy, impatient, he's not.

This is something else; minute tremors in Rodney's hands gentle on John's face, wide soft mouth moving slow, slow and warm over John's. Careful, John realises, he's being careful, so careful it makes something clench, tight and bright, deep down behind his ribs. This is all the caution, all the care Rodney puts into defusing bombs, to pulling apart the Universe piece by piece, bright-eyed and thrumming with the terror that this might not work, but if it does, god, it could be perfect

John's not sure who lets out the soft whine — maybe him, maybe Rodney, but it's him who reaches out, hauls Rodney closer. Rodney makes a sound then, half a smothered sob, and surges forward, mouth parting as John's does and stealing away all of John's breath.

John can feel the hard edge of the lab bench digging into his hip, but all he wants to feel is Rodney's fingers sliding into his hair, clutching hard, the fingers of his other hand ghosting over the bandage on John's arm as he loops it around Rodney's waist. They're pressed together so close there's no air, but John doesn't care, doesn't care about anything except Rodney's mouth and Rodney's heat and the little noises Rodney's making at the back of his throat.

He makes another as they pull apart, a disappointed gasp, but they need to breathe and all they can do for almost a minute, either of them, is pant for air.

"Please don't say anything stupid," Rodney says after a minute, the hand in John's hair sliding down to close, palm hot, on John's nape. John's heart's still pounding like he's run a twelve-minute mile, even though he's sure that realistically they've only been kissing for a minute or two. And kissing, they've been kissing.

"Like what?" he asks, and his voice is rough, and Rodney gives him a thin smile.

"Like 'Rodney, we can't do this,' or 'Rodney, this is a bad idea,' or 'Rodney, I don't do men,' which by the way is both irrational and clearly untrue—"

He shuts his eyes and his mouth abruptly as John shakes his head, rests their foreheads together. "Sorry," Rodney mutters. "Just—"

"I wasn't going to say that," John tells him.

"Yes, you were," Rodney says with a hint of accusation, but it's said quietly. "I saw you — you had that look."

John opens his eyes, leans back a little. Rodney's eyes are wide and kind of bright, and he looks stubborn and terrified. "What look?"

Rodney scowls. He doesn't move away, but his body stiffens, like he's already assuming the worst, like he always does. "The look you get when — when you're about to pretend whatever was about to happen wasn't about to happen," he says, the words tumbling over each other as if Rodney's rushing them out.

John opens his mouth to deny it, but stops himself just in time, because it's true. He knows what Rodney means, remembers changing the subject, turning away, shaking his head instead of facing this.

He just never knew Rodney noticed. Rodney usually doesn't.

"I'm not going to say that," John says instead.

Rodney looks suspicious. "You're not?"

John tightens the arm he has looped around Rodney's neck, closes his eyes again. "No," he says, quietly. "I'm not."

"Then this..." he hears Rodney say, hopeful and not quite sure, and when John nods his head, the hot hand on the back of his neck tightens.

"I'm going to kiss you again," Rodney says, seriously, and John laughs.

"As many times as you want," he murmurs, like a promise.