Acceptable Risk (the Slow Build Remix)
It was April when they kissed the first time.
Rodney excused himself in record time from the infirmary, the skin on his arms still angry and red from the radiation of P3X-799's overactive sun, and as usual, John wasn't far behind. He could hear irritation in the echo of Sheppard's footsteps, but Rodney was determined not to walk faster, not today. He'd barely managed to cross the threshold of the transporter when the other man was there at his back, his silence insistent. Rodney swallowed his sigh.
"I could point out that I requested a minimum number of two radiation suits for every—"
"Shut up, McKay." John's voice held none of the usual humor that usually accompanied their arguments, and it shocked Rodney into silence for a few brief seconds.
"Colonel, I—" Rodney broke off of his own accord, his throat closing up as Sheppard stepped toward him, herding him into a corner of the small room. It occurred to him that neither of them had chosen a destination, that all of John's movements had been designed to keep him away from the console.
"What the hell were you thinking?" John's eyes were dark with what had to be fury, his fists clenched beside him as he stood less than a foot away from Rodney. A spark of answering resentment touched up in Rodney's chest—his arms hurt like hell, even with the salve Carson had applied, and was this really John Sheppard, suicidal hero, questioning someone else's right to save his life?
"Truthfully, Sheppard?" Rodney asked, pulling his body up straight to look the other man in the eye. "I was thinking that a little radiation was worth, oh, keeping you alive?" he snarled. "A couple of days of peeling skin against pulling you to safety? Acceptable risk," Rodney bit out, emphasizing each word with as much vehemence as he could manage.
"Damnit, Rodney," John said with an altogether strange note in his voice—not fury, now; something more desperate. He wasn't given much time to evaluate it before Sheppard reached out and hauled him close by the front of his shirt, simultaneously sliding forward so Rodney was neatly pinned between John and the wall. Rodney could feel his body start to react, staved off only slightly by the unpredictability of the situation. John's expression was completely unreadable, even with his face inches away from Rodney's.
"What…" Rodney started to say, his face coloring at the rough sound of his voice—but John stopped him again, dipping his head down to press his interruption to Rodney's lips, as angry and dominant as all his other actions thus far. Suddenly it was easy to forget how much his arms hurt, how scared he'd been when John had started to slip outside the safety of the cave, how he'd worried he couldn't reach Sheppard in time. He just gave back as good as he got, reveling in the hot press of John's tongue, in the strips of warmth his fingers left at Rodney's neck, in the strong feeling of muscles moving under his hands.
It was May when Rodney finally realized they were in a relationship.
"Is this yours?" John asked, his voice muted around his toothbrush as he held up Rodney's. Rodney absolutely did not think about how easily he could translate the mushy wet words into something that made sense.
"Yes," Rodney admitted, draping the towel he'd been drying his hair with around his neck. "I'd like to point out that I haven't said anything about the two black shirts and ridiculously purple—purple boxers you left in my room."
"They were a gift," John said—at least, that's what it sounded like—and went to rinse his mouth. "Your point?" he said next, leaning indecently against the wall outside the bathroom.
"Well," Rodney temporized, getting up and walking toward John as slowly as he could manage. "I figure, if you can leave a change of clothes at my place, then I should be able to have minty-fresh—oh, my god." Rodney froze in place as his brain started making the various connections.
"Hmm?" John murmured, pushing off from the wall.
"We're in a—this is a—" Rodney's hands traced patterns of incredulity between the two of them.
"Is that a problem?" John asked softly with—god, no trace of irony in his voice at all.
"You're asking me this?" Rodney's voice was flirting with his upper register in a way he knew was completely unflattering. The best way he could think of to squelch it was to step forward and bury his head in the crease between John's shoulder and his neck. He smelled like the shower they'd just taken, strong, familiar soap and spicy Athosian shampoo, a perfect mixture of the two worlds they inhabited. Both of which John could lose, if… Rodney stepped back and gestured at the room, the window, himself, his voice shaking as much as his hands.
"John, I can't be the reason—they could take this all away from you."
John's response was also familiar; he reached up with both hands and tugged Rodney to him with the ends of the towel, not even letting go when their bodies were flush with each other, sweet and warm.
"Acceptable risk," John said firmly, and Rodney could feel the strength of his grip through the towel, his lips, and his words.
It was June when John tried to break up with him.
"Ronon almost died," John said for the third time, as if repeating himself would make the words any less stupid.
"Right, and whose fault was that? Not yours!" Rodney snapped, turning on his side to glare at him, John's borrowed dog tags sliding smoothly across his chest. Their movement (and the whole nakedness thing—really unfair to start an argument like this when naked and then expect Rodney to be able to think properly) distracted him, reminding him of the way John had slipped them, heat warmed, over Rodney's head. John had proceeded to pull Rodney close with the chain, never letting him move more than a few inches from John's mouth, the unfamiliar slide and catch of the metal marking his neck, claiming him as John's.
Except, now John seemed to think the whole thing was some sort of erotic goodbye, in the same idiotic, self-sacrificing way that had prevented them from starting all of this any earlier in the first place.
"I wasn't paying attention to his position—"
"Which had nothing to do with the three Wraith shooting at you," Rodney interjected sarcastically, but John stared resolutely at the ceiling and continued as if he hadn't said anything.
"—and I can't afford to have a split focus, Rodney. The team can't afford it."
"Are you listening to me at all? Are you listening to yourself?" Rodney demanded, hitching himself up onto an elbow to look down at John. "Did you rehearse this in front of your mirror, ready to pull it out of your ass the first time something went sideways? Weren't you paying attention to the first two years we spent here?" John made a small, unhappy sound and tried to turn over, but Rodney pressed his free hand flat across his chest, where his dog tags would have been if Rodney hadn't been wearing them.
"Do you really think it would be any easier for either of us, knowing we had this and gave it up, only for something completely random to happen anyway?" Rodney asked quietly, his thumb stroking softly against John's skin. John shut his eyes and went still for a long moment before coming fluidly to life, hands and lips brushing his apology across Rodney's shoulders, his neck, his face. Rodney waited until John reached his lips before pulling a move he'd had Teyla teach him.
"Okay, wasn't expecting that," John said in a low, pleased voice as Rodney hovered above him, broad hands pinning John's arms to the mattress. "Not that I'm complaining, but when did you—"
"I wanted to be able to defend myself," Rodney mumbled, nuzzling into John's neck. He could feel John's body tense up and thought it was laughter at first; he expected the other man to joke about how often Rodney expected to pin Wraith to the ground like that—but John surprised him.
"I wish you didn't have to," he said, pulling one arm free of Rodney's grip and sliding it up into his hair, tangled in the links of his dog tags.
"It's worth it," Rodney breathed against his lover's ear before turning his head to fit their mouths together. John kissed like he lived, all abandonment and protectiveness and passion, and as Rodney leaned in to press his body as close as he could, the last coherent thought on his mind was acceptable risk.
Rodney spent most of July feeling inadequate.
"I don't know what you like!" he fretted, trying to put his watch on for the third time in ten minutes and frowning when it fell onto the floor again.
"I like you," John said unhelpfully, lounging on top of the covers in his BDU pants and no shirt in a way that was destined to make Rodney very uncomfortable in any situation where that occurred in places outside their quarters. He suspected that John knew this, too.
"And turkey sandwiches—which are rare and hardly ever last long off the Daedalus runs; and Ferris wheels—which I am absolutely not building you, so you can quit smirking; and—"
"—eggs for breakfast, and chocolate, you know I like chocolate," John added, running his hand through his ridiculously sexy hair and grinning. "Mmmm, and sourdough, homemade sourdough bread. I like lots of things, Rodney."
"It's just that I feel like I'm supposed to know this stuff, and it's been pointed out to me that my conversations tend to be one-sided and mostly about me—"
"Technically, this conversation is still about you," John pointed out with infuriating logic. He sat up, reached for Rodney's wrist, and started to put his watch on. It took John just about as long as it had taken Rodney, thanks to all the extra touching… not that Rodney was about to complain, or anything.
"Rodney, last time we started a meeting without you, you were in snit for the rest of the day," Radek's voice blared over the radio. "Was most unpleasant to work around."
"You know, you could just say 'Rodney, you're late' and leave out the whining," Rodney retorted swiftly, tapping off his radio as he finished lacing up his shoes. "Don't look at me like that, Mr. Day Off," he told John on his way out the door.
"At least you have a strong sense of irony," John said, stretching his arms out lazily and folding them behind his head. Rodney didn't deign to respond.
It wasn't until the third time he'd caught himself rubbing at his neck in the lab that he realized what was wrong—he was still wearing John's dog tags. The thought turned him on so quickly that he had to look for a good reason to do his next few calculations sitting down. They ended up taking a half hour longer than they normally would have, but he barely noticed, his blood humming in his veins as he imagined the look on John's face when he realized—
Rodney stopped. John was far too methodical to have forgotten, even if he was taking an enforced day off after twisting his ankle on their last mission. That meant John must have viewed Rodney wearing his tags as a risk he was willing to take—because there would be no easy explanation for such behavior, should it be discovered. The rest of the day moved agonizingly slowly for Rodney, who was suddenly acutely aware of the weight of John's tags on his chest, the way they caught against his shirt when he leaned over. He was embarrassingly short with Zelenka, who gave up being civil after lunch and went off to work on simulations from the chair room console, leaving Rodney alone in the lab. It felt to Rodney as if twenty hours had gone past (though in reality, it was almost suppertime) by the time John showed up unexpectedly.
Rodney took one look at him and stalked over, barely taking a moment to glance around to ensure their privacy before he snagged two fingers in a belt loop and fairly dragged John into his disused office, slamming the door.
"For the record," John said with interest, "I liked that. A lot."
"Shut up," Rodney said, hauling John's dog tags out of his shirt and off his head, looping them over John's hair and tugging him close once they settled around his neck.
That night, after John had fallen asleep, Rodney slid out of bed quietly and settled on the couch with his laptop filling out consignment forms, calculating arrival dates, and speculating on product freshness. In the end, he had to hack into the database to establish priority, though he drew the line (barely) at marking the shipments as important enough to prevent the Daedalus from being diverted for any reason.
John's birthday was in September.
Intellectually, Rodney was well aware that he lacked subtlety. He never really had occasion to care, as anyone who was offended by his personality was generally not worth wasting time over, and anyone who wasn't knew how valuable he was. John, master of tact that he was, had made sure to mention to Rodney that there was a great deal of overlap between the two. The problem came when Rodney was anxious to present John Sheppard with one of the very few genuine, pleasant surprises that he'd ever experienced in the Pegasus galaxy. His personality turned out to be quite a liability in this regard, as he discovered when he'd made a pointed visit to the kitchen staff shortly after the Daedalus arrived on time with the products he'd made sure would be aboard.
He'd had to enlist Teyla's help in smoothing the multitude of ruffled feathers, and Ronon's help by way of being a taste tester for as long as he continued to be on the receiving end of angry glares from the ones serving food. He'd toyed with the idea of cutting off all possible citrus deliveries by again hacking into the delivery requisitions for the mess hall, but realized that would backfire, since it would be obvious to anyone that he'd been the one to do it.
As luck would have it, Rodney was called away early in the morning with a minor emergency on John's birthday, and as such, he'd missed out on the man's reaction to being offered his favorite foods for breakfast. Rodney took a chance and dropped by John's quarters before heading down to get his own share of fresh eggs and toast, and he wasn't there for much longer than ten minutes before John showed up, looking wild-eyed and winded. His hands fumbled with a couple of chocolate bars as if he were trying to point at Rodney and couldn't figure out how, and finally he just gave up and said something. Shouted it, rather.
"What is it?" John said, sounding a little desperate. "WHY IS EVERYONE SO HAPPY? Did we defeat someone? Did we blow up all of the Wraith while I was asleep? There were eggs for breakfast, Rodney, real eggs and I think one of the biologists winked at me and, wait, am I dying? Is that it? Did Beckett discover some deadly disease that will kill me by dinner so everyone's being super nice to me? Because if so, I'd really rather get the bad news over with and—"
"Happy birthday," Rodney said before John turned purple or had some sort of an aneurysm. This managed to derail John enough to get him some much needed air, but now the man seemed to have lost all momentum.
"What?" John blinked, clearly confused. It was so endearing that Rodney couldn't prevent his self-satisfied smirk, explaining that yes, it really was John's birthday, and no, he wasn't the one to blame for letting that information slip. Rodney didn't expect John would ever actually bother Elizabeth about spilling the beans anyway, so that little white lie wasn't going to hurt anyone. John's slow smile was worth all the hassle of exporting real chicken eggs (which were apparently high on the list of 'never to be allowed across galaxy lines' for whatever stupid reason) and persuading the kitchen crew that hating him didn't mean they should punish John.
John pulled him close, and it wasn't until after Rodney had shown him that he knew a lot more things John liked other than breakfast food that he remembered the other present he'd gotten sent from Earth. He ignored John's protests as he pulled away and snagged the package from the floor, remembering the last thing John had said before they'd moved from words to deeds.
"It's not breakable," Rodney assured him, handing it over and watching with abject nervousness as he opened the small box.
"Dog tags?" John said, his voice genuinely confused but (thank god) not disappointed.
"They're uh… for me," Rodney said, looking down shyly. "You seemed to really—"
John interrupted him with a hot growl of a kiss that banished all of Rodney's concern over the selfishness of his present in milliseconds.
"You were right," John said, his eyes dark with emotion as he lifted the tags, nearly identical to his own, from their box, cradling them in his hand to read the words stamped on the metal. One was nearly standard issue, listing Rodney's name, identification number, and blood type—but instead of a religion, he'd chosen to list his allergies. John's silent, shaking laughter let him know that he'd gotten the joke. The second tag was strung on the same chain as the first, and it was blank. John looked up to quirk an eyebrow at him, and Rodney lifted his chin slightly.
"Don't ask, don't tell," he said. "Look under the partition," he directed, pointing at the raised black cardboard that had cradled his gift. Underneath was a third tag, identical to the ones John wore. "They came separately," Rodney hastened to add, watching the intense look on John's face as he fingered the non-regulation clasp Rodney had gotten for it, the one that would release instantly if pressed a certain way. He clipped it onto the chain next to the one bearing Rodney's name, and lifted the whole thing to place it around Rodney's neck.
"Acceptable risk," he said, his hand sliding up to pull him close just as Rodney reached for John's own chain, their fingers tangling with each other and the warming metal as they fell back against the sheets. Breakfast could wait.