A/N: This fic is based on a dream I had months ago. The only image I remember is of Sheppard huddled under Rodney's legs during a meeting, which I only realized after I finished this did not make it into the story. Oh well. I hope you enjoy it!
When it happens, no one notices until after they skid back through the gate, a hail of bullets pounding uselessly against the gate's shield. Rodney would make a mental note to tease Sheppard about it later, but every ounce of his attention is focused solely on the image of his emotionally stunted team leader sobbing wildly in the 'gate room. It isn't even subtle manly crying, the kind where tears swell in the eye, but never fall before the man in question has a chance to turn and gruffly excuse himself.
No, it is full-out, wheezing, gasping sobs ripped from Sheppard's throat. His chest rises and falls rapidly and his rough hands press hard against his eyes, tears flowing easily past his fingers. For a split second, no one moves or even breathes and then Sheppard sits down hard on the floor, ass hitting the surface with a painful thumping sound. If possible, his sobbing increases, only this time a whining sound accompanies, high and shrill, emanating from the back of his throat. With that, Teyla, Ronon and Elizabeth fall forward, each with a hand out and an identical bewildered expression on their face. For his part, Rodney stands stock still, staring and staring and wondering if this was an alternate world.
"John?" Elizabeth asks, trying to sound soothing over her evident worry. When she reaches out to touch Sheppard's shoulder, he shrugs her off and balls in on himself. She exchanges a glance with Teyla, who kneels down beside Sheppard and cautiously lays a hand on his knee.
"John, what is the matter?" Her tone is gentle, almost motherly. He wipes the back of his hands across his eyes and shakes his head. "It's alright now," Teyla promises him. "We're safe now."
"Scary," Sheppard whispers and Rodney could swear he hears a hint of a lisp. The world continues turning upside down and inside out. "Scary sounds," Sheppard chokes, now rocking back and forth, arms wrapped firmly around his knees. His voice is low and plaintive, full of fear and it's so wrong Rodney flinches. He spins around, hand on his radio to call for Carson again, but there he is, trotting into the gate room followed by his team.
"What's..." He stops abruptly as his eyes fall onto Sheppard. He's silent for three beats, horror and wonder fighting on his face and just as Rodney's about to yell at him to get a move on, he does just that, pushing his way to Sheppard's side.
"Colonel, are you hurt anywhere?" he asks urgently. Rodney wants to roll his eyes, but then he's not entirely sure Sheppard hasn't been injured somehow. Carson runs his hands over Sheppard's head and neck, down over his shoulders and front and still Sheppard hasn't answered. "Colonel?" he asks again, concern building. "Talk to me, lad, are you hurt?"
"Rodney," Sheppard says. Rodney blinks. Not only is Sheppard not himself, but he's getting them mixed up. Carson must be thinking along the same lines because he's peering into Sheppard's eyes and he shakes his head slowly.
"It's me, Colonel, it's Carson." He too exhanges a worried glance with Elizabeth, who looks as thunderstruck as Rodney feels. No one knows what to do with a Sheppard that isn't in control of himself.
"No," Sheppard says between slowly lessening sobs. He hiccups. "Want Rodney."
They all look towards where Rodney is still standing, feet or miles from Sheppard. His heart clenches in his chest and it's a choice. Because Sheppard needs him, but Sheppard is scaring the hell out of him. By the time Rodney works out that there are two options, he's kneeling beside Teyla and reaching a shaky hand to lay over Sheppard's shoulder.
"Hey. Hey, I'm here," he assures and instead of the jerky nod he expected, Sheppard unfolds from his ball and launches himself at Rodney. Rodney's reminded of Madison, throwing herself into his arms, except Sheppard weighs three times as much. Rodney tumbles back, onto his own ass. He swears through the pain, but doesn't hear himself because Sheppard's crying fills his ears. His neck feels wet, he smells salt and without thought, he begins stroking Sheppard's back and whispering whatever nonsense comes into his mind, anything to calm him down.
"Hey, hey, stop that. Now, come on, there's no need, Colonel. I'm here, Teyla's here, we've got you. You're going to make Ronon cry-"
Sheppard sighs loudly. For a brief moment, Rodney thinks he's going to laugh and tell them he's been having them on, but then Sheppard settles in against him, nose pressed into Rodney's neck and sighs again. "I'm sorry," he whispers. He draws an uneven breath. "I didn't mean to get you in trouble, I'm really sorry."
Rodney frowns. It hadn't really been Sheppard's fault. The artifact hadn't been giving off any energy readings. Sheppard couldn't have known it would light up at his touch or that the locals would take such great offence. If anything, it was Rodney's fault for proclaiming the object dead and harmless.
"You didn't. I mean, well, yeah, it was...it's not your fault," he babbles. Carson taps him and gives him a significant look. "Oh right. Hey." Very gently, more gently than he realized was possible for him, he tips Sheppard back until he can see his face. "Are you in pain?"
Sheppard shakes his head quickly, his hair flopping back and forth. A tear falls off his chin and Rodney reaches up to brush at the wet streak it left behind. "Ok." He feels the others' gazes, heavy and curious, but that's not nearly as important as the wide-eyed expression Sheppard's giving him. There's something there Rodney can't recognize, not until Sheppard suddenly smiles, bright and big and it hits him.
Innocence. Pure and simple. The shadows are gone, the barriers. Profound affection lights Sheppard's eyes, breaking Rodney into pieces. A thickly callused hand pats Rodney on the cheek and for a split second, Rodney thinks Sheppard is going to kiss him, but then their foreheads touch.
"Ok," Sheppard repeats him. "Ok now. I love you, Rodney."
Rodney isn't the only one stunned by this, though he might be the only one whose heart leaps into his throat. A collective intake of breath sweeps the group huddled around John and that is the exact moment that Rodney knew for certain something isn't right.
"His mind is at approximately the level of a three year old," Carson says what feels like hours later. Sheppard, who has been thoroughly stripped of his weapons, is sitting on a bed, playing with a tongue depressor. It's the first time since Carson had dragged him back to infirmary that Sheppard hasn't been tightly holding Rodney's hand.
"You're kidding," Elizabeth breathes, even though she's had more than enough evidence that Sheppard's not himself.
"I wish I were," Carson says. His arms are folded across his chest and he's staring at Sheppard. Only Sheppard doesn't notice because he's got two tongue depressors now and he's pretending they are drumsticks and that Rodney's leg is a drum.
"Stop that," Rodney snaps. Sheppard scowls, but he obeys.
"I've given him a number of cognitive reasoning tests and his results are similar to subjects between the ages of two and a half to three years."
It's so ridiculous. Sheppard, bereft of his toys, swings his adult sized legs up and down, banging his heels as hard as he can against the side of the bed and laughing to himself, as if making noise is the funniest thing he's ever known. It grates on Rodney's nerves, each thump sounding Wrong Wrong Wrong in his mind.
"Will you please stop that?" His voice is harsh and Elizabeth frowns, but it's hard to care just then. That is, until Sheppard's eyes widen and stunned hurt flashes across his face. It makes Rodney feel like he's just kicked a puppy. "Just...be quieter, ok?"
Sheppard nods forlornly. With an exasperated sigh and no little bit of guilt, Rodney slides onto the bed beside him and wraps an arm around Sheppard's shoulders. He hears what sounds suspiciously like a squeak of delight and then Sheppard's nose is pressed in his neck again.
"Can you fix it?" Rodney asks because while it's actually kind of nice to hold Sheppard like this, it's still not right and they need him to be normal. Rodney recognizes the dark stormcloud look on Carson's face instantly and he doesn't need to hear the words to know that Carson has no idea what to do.
"We have to go back to MX8-909," he says over top of whatever Carson ends up saying.
"We'll send Lorne's team," Elizabeth says.
"Well, fine, but I need to go to," Rodney reminds her. He's gearing up for an argument, just in case, but the wind leaves his sails when he sees that Elizabeth is looking at Sheppard, not him, and that there is a trace of amusement in her features. "What?"
"I think Colonel Sheppard would rather you stay with him."
That's when Rodney feels the puff of heated air and hears the snores.
It turns out to be a good thing Rodney doesn't go back to the planet because there's a shootout the instant they walk through the 'gate. Lorne's leg is grazed by a bullet and considering that Lorne is faster and stronger than him, Rodney decides he probably would have been killed immediately. But then, he usually thinks that.
There's nothing they can do, Elizabeth decides, until the Daedalus returns to Pegasus in a few days. Then, they can go back to the planet, which has big guns, but thankfully no space ships, and beam someone directly into the sacred hall or whatever it was the natives called the small grubby room that holds their Ancient artifacts. Not a bad plan, except for one part. Dealing with three-year old Sheppard is exhausting.
After he wakes up from his impromptu nap, Sheppard is hungry and cranky. Rodney tries to leave to get him something to eat, but that upsets Sheppard so badly he almost starts crying again, so a nurse goes to get him something instead. The meatloaf and carrots she brings makes Sheppard turn green, cross his arms over his chest and pout. When she asks what he'd rather have, his answer is so predictably childish.
Eating the spaghetti makes Rodney want to laugh and puke at the same time. Sheppard gets tomato sauce absolutely everywhere. All over his shirt, all over Rodney's shirt, in his hair, on the floor. When he realizes that Rodney is trying not to laugh, he gets excited and throws a strand of spaghetti at Rodney's face. Which is impossible for Rodney to ignore and before he knows it, noodles are flying through the air, bits of tomato flicking off them onto everything in the general vicinity. Sheppard's stupid braying laugh sounds ten times worse coming from a three year old. It brings Carson running and when he stops in the doorway, Rodney is reminded forcibly of the time his mother found him coloring on their living room walls.
"What the...Colonel, put that down," Carson orders just as Sheppard prepares to fling a handful of sauce at Rodney. Properly chastized, Sheppard lowers his hands and looks around, grinning and utterly pleased with the horrific mess they've made.
"Yeah!" he cheers.
"Look at this mess," Carson says, wrinkling his nose in disgust. "All over my nice clean floors." Sheppard tilts his head and shrugs and that's when Rodney realizes the bad part of having a three-year old as a best friend because they can't blame Sheppard. Well, Rodney can, but he can't say it out loud.
"Now we'll have to get him cleaned up," Carson continues, stern. He's looking at Rodney expectantly.
"What, me?" Rodney's eyes flick to Sheppard, who is busy licking his fingers. Impossible. There's no way either of them could stand the humiliation of Rodney washing Sheppard up.
Well, anyway Rodney couldn't stand it. Sheppard, no doubt encouraged by Carson's traitorous hand motions, is already tugging his black t-shirt up his stomach and seems to have no qualms about letting Rodney clean him. The mixture of horror and reluctant amusement Rodney's been feeling since he'd realized what happened to Sheppard grows as he watches Sheppard catch his shirt on his chin and begin to flail within the soft cotton prison.
"Hold still. Hey, stop moving around!"
Sheppard stills under Rodney's harsh tone, giving Rodney the chance to untangle Sheppard's arms from his clothes. When his head finally pops out from the shirt, Sheppard is beaming, smile wide and goofy, distracting enough for Rodney to almost miss the movement from the other side of the room. He throws the tomato stained shirt at Carson's back, halting the doctor's escape.
"He's over six feet tall and three years old, Carson," he says, feeling that no other explanation or request is necessary. Carson sighs and walks back towards them, catching Sheppard's hand before he can start unzipping his fly.
"Right, ok." Because as funny as it could be, Carson likes Rodney too much to leave him in his hour of need.
It works for about fifteen minutes. Sheppard stands stock still while Rodney runs a wet washcloth over his face and neck, probably because Carson is holding his shoulders steady and murmuring unintelligible Scottish nonsense into his ear. But then Rodney has to wipe Sheppard's belly because when he took his shirt off, he'd smeared a wide stripe of tomato across his front and the red matted chest hair is too gross for words. The instant Rodney's lays the cloth against Sheppard's side, he twists away, giggling and squealing, and that's when Rodney learns Sheppard is ticklish. Not just squirmy when fingers brush along his stomach. No, full on hysteria, the kind that doesn't subside even when Rodney stops touching him because he's one hundred percent certain Rodney is going to start again at any moment and it cracks him up.
In the end, they pass Sheppard off to Burns and McTavish, two of Carson's male nurses, because Sheppard's hair isn't salvageable without an actual bath and...no. Rodney draws the line and Carson agrees.
Lorne comes into the infirmary with blood soaking a large white bandage pressed to his side while Sheppard is being washed. For a few moments, organized chaos reigns. Rodney hangs back, where Sheppard's been sitting and paces back and forth because somewhere along the line he's come to really care if Lorne is alive or dead. The wait is over soon enough though because the bullet only glances Lorne. When Sheppard appears back into the infirmary, clothes clean and hair damp, he immediately zeroes in on where Lorne is sitting and lopes over to him.
"Hey," he says and pats at Lorne's new bandage. At Lorne's wince, Rodney grabs Sheppard's hand and holds it. Sheppard hardly notices as he continues talking. "What happen?"
Lorne's eyes shift to Rodney, his embarrassment clear and while Rodney understands because he knows they shouldn't get to see the unadulterated worry on Sheppard's face, it irritates him. No matter his mental capacity, he's still Sheppard, still deserves their respect. A raised eyebrow and pursed lips gets his message across. Lorne turns back to Sheppard and smiles hesitantly.
"I, uh...well, sir, I got hurt."
Sheppard scratches his chin. "Like you fell down?"
"Kind of." This time, Rodney agrees with Lorne. Not a good idea to explain being shot by hostile aliens to Sheppard just then. "But I'll be ok."
"Ok." Sheppard puts his free hand on Lorne's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he says before leaning down to give Lorne a brief, clumsy hug. Lorne's face is bright red when Sheppard pulls away and for some reason, Rodney is weirdly jealous. "Rodney hugged me and then-" Right in the middle of his sentence, Sheppard rips his hand out of Rodney's and begins turning in circles so that Lorne and Rodney only hear every other word. "Me...better...he....hug you....ok?"
"That's ok," Lorne says quickly. It takes Rodney a moment to work out that Sheppard has suggested Rodney hug Lorne. He frowns at his speedy refusal.
"You should be so lucky," he informs Lorne. Before either of them can speak again, Sheppard reaches his circling limit and falls on his ass, laughing the whole way down, even when he cracks his head on the floor with an almighty crunch.
"No, don't!" Panic bites at Rodney. He falls on his knees, hands fluttering over Sheppard's body, checking for broken bones, blood or both. "Are you ok?"
"Ow," he says conversationally before rolling over onto his stomach and crawling onto his hands and knees.
"Hold on," Rodney snaps, still afraid that Sheppard's given himself a concussion. Sheppard ignores him, continues to climb to his feet first, ass in the air and then lift his upper body to join the rest of him in standing up. He starts to walk back to Lorne's bed, but Rodney grabs his upper arm, halting his progress.
"I said hold on." Confusion fills Sheppard's eyes. It's plain to see that he doesn't understand why Rodney is so upset, but then, Rodney isn't entirely sure himself. Just that Sheppard's so big and clumsy and dangerous. It doesn't hit Rodney how dangerous until he's running his fingers through the hair at the back of Sheppard's head, as he checks for bumps and he remembers. Sheppard's ancient gene.
Sheppard snorts with laughter.
"You said a bad word!"
After Rodney determines that Sheppard isn't permanently injured, he drags him back to Elizabeth's office for a full report of the trip back to MX8-909. For reasons Rodney really doesn't want to investigate, Sheppard hangs back in the door of her office and when Rodney tugs him inside, he hides behind Rodney's back as best he can, face pressed to the curve of Rodney shoulders.
"I'm sorry, Rodney," she says. "Even if the natives stop guarding the 'gate, they won't stop guarding the hall. We're going to have to wait for the Daedalus."
Rodney feels the blood drain away from his face. "The Daedalus isn't coming for three days," he tells her, in case she forgot. Sheppard's hair tickles his neck.
"Yes, I know that." Her words are for Rodney, but her eyes are on Sheppard or what little she can see of him and she's frowning. "I'm not happy about it, but I won't risk more lives like that and I know that if Colonel Sheppard were able, he'd agree with me."
When Sheppard hears his name, he tenses and peeks over Rodney's shoulder. Warmth floods Elizabeth's face when their eyes finally meet.
"Hello, John," she says in her best non-threatening voice. "How are you feeling?" Not a hint of her worry, a true diplomat's face. Rodney feels Sheppard hide his face against his neck again, but doesn't hear anything. With an impatient sigh, he reaches around and hooks Sheppard's elbow, pulling him to his side.
"Tell her how you're feeling, Colonel," he orders, then realizes how stupid it sounds to call Sheppard 'Colonel' anymore. "Sheppard." 'John' sits on the tip of his tongue, but it won't come.
Rodney's order makes Sheppard's face turn red. A tense shrug and he's hiding against Rodney again, only this time his nose is buried in Rodney's collar and he snakes an arm around Rodney's waist. "M'ok," he mumbles, blowing a puff of hot air across Rodney's neck. Elizabeth doesn't look impressed by Sheppard's assurance. She leans in, but without actually stepping forward.
"What's the matter, John?" If possible, her voice is even more gentle, so low that Rodney is tempted to ask her to speak up.
"Hum..." Sheppard lifts his head enough that he isn't speaking directly down Rodney's shirt. "Are we in trouble?"
Surprise spikes in Rodney's chest and flickers across Elizabeth's face. Rodney shoulders Sheppard away from him so that he can look him in the eye. Fear and faith is what he sees. "What are you talking about? Why would we be in trouble? We haven't done anything."
"Lorne f-fell down," he stutters, his eyebrows drawn together and his lower lip trembling just like stupid little kids in movies that always make Rodney roll his eyes.
But he falls for it anyway.
"Hey, that's not your fault," Rodney comforts, heedless of Elizabeth's presence as he gathers Sheppard up again and rubs his back. "You had absolutely nothing to do with that, ok? No one's mad at you." He's surprised by Sheppard's ability to see past Lorne's white lie to the truth of his own involvement in Lorne's injury. Jeannie's always telling him he underestimates children. "Elizabeth isn't mad at you, alright?" Pulling back, he gives Sheppard a smile. "No reason to be worried."
Apparently, it's the right thing to say because in the next moment, Sheppard's flinging himself into Elizabeth's arms and babbling about something neither of them can really understand. Elizabeth handles it better than anyone has yet and after a half hour or so of playing, she sends Sheppard off with a piece of chocolate she had in her desk and another four or five hugs. Rodney tries to ask her why he's expected to take care of Sheppard, but before he can, Sheppard's tugging his hand and leading him towards the little balcony where they play golf.
They almost make it before Sheppard's face pinches and he sticks a hand between his now crossed legs.
"Rodney..." His already nasal voice whines in Rodney's ear. "I gotta potty."
They're back in the infirmary before Rodney can even think.
"I'm sorry, this is another limit, thank you," he says as he hands Sheppard over to Burns and McTavish. Burns assures Rodney they already helped him once and he can bring Sheppard back anytime he needs to. Rodney has a feeling Sheppard won't ever look either of the nurses in the eye again once he gets back to normal.
The rest of the day passes without incident. Rodney keeps Sheppard away from the main population as much as he can, to save him embarrassment. Because Sheppard's determined to play golf, Rodney leads him the long way round to their balcony where they whack at the golf balls with crazy swings that sweep Sheppard off his feet. Rodney lectures him to be more careful and it never once penetrates Sheppard's mind, so Rodney's forced to get used to it and keep an even closer eye on him.
After Sheppard tires of golf, Rodney takes him back to his own quarters because he decides Sheppard would be more comfortable there. The first thing he does is jump on the bed for ten minutes until Rodney makes him stop, but only because he nearly hits his head on the wall on the way down. But then Sheppard whines (loudly) that he's bored. Not he'd ever tell her that, but Rodney blesses Jeannie for having kids when he remembers how much Madison likes to the draw. Sheppard spends the last hour before bedtime drawing a picture of what looks like a mailbox with three figures inside of it.
"S'a puddlejumper," Sheppard slurs tiredly, grinning like a loon. "And that's me and that's you and that's Lorne," he says, pointing. "Can we give it to him?"
And since they have to visit the infirmary one last time anyway, they take the picture to Lorne, who stares at it for a long time without saying anything. Rodney isn't sure if he's touched or scared when he finally thanks Sheppard and gets another enthusiastic hug before they leave.
The nurses give Rodney a set of pajamas, but he isn't sure he wants to struggle Sheppard's strong uncoordinated limbs anymore, so he just jerks his shoes off and tucks him in. He half expects Sheppard to ask for a 'bedtime story', but instead, Sheppard pulls him onto the bed.
"Don't go," he pleads. For a split second, he looks like himself, like the grown man Rodney's closer to than anyone he's ever known. His stomach flips, but then Sheppard's silly childish grin appears again and he's tugging Rodney down to lay beside him. "I love you, Rodney."
A question, a word, strains at Rodney's lips, so close, but instead, he lets Sheppard curl around his body and whispers something else against his hair.
When Rodney wakes up in the morning, blinking away the fuzziness in his mind instead of bolting into instant awareness as he usually does, it takes him a good forty-five seconds to work out what's wrong. It finally hits him when he realizes he can't feel Sheppard breathing against him because it's been hours since Sheppard hasn't been plastered against Rodney's body. He launches himself out of the bed, scrambling for his radio headset.
"This is Dr. McKay," he pants on the citywide frequency. "Has anyone seen Colonel Sheppard?"
He almost expects to hear Elizabeth's panicked voice on the line, but instead it's Teyla that answers and she sounds exasperated.
"He is with me, Rodney," she says. "We are in my quarters."
"I'll be right there," Rodney assures her, tugging at his pants with one hand and nearly falling over in process. He throws the radio away in his frustration and yanks at his pants with both hands. No doubt Teyla believes him to be a bad...something. Bad babysitter. Bad friend. Bad father.
He wrinkles his nose at the last word, mentally erases it. Surely he can't be faulted for losing track of Sheppard when it's still very early in the morning. A quick look out the window beside his dresser tells him how early. The sun is only just peeking overtop the watery horizon and the only time Rodney's ever awake this early is when he hadn't gone to bed the previous evening.
Three minutes later, Rodney is swiping his hand over Teyla's door buzzer and getting a calm 'come in' for his efforts. He hears a soft familiar giggle just before thinking the door open. Teyla looks up from the small blocky Athosian toy she's holding, her mouth twisted disapprovingly. Across from her, Sheppard sits crosslegged, surrounded by dozens of the blocks. He's biting his bottom lip in concentration and is using the blocks to build what might be a spaceship.
"Hi," Rodney says faintly, unsure of what to do. At his voice, Sheppard looks up. His concentration falls away in favor of excitement and smiles. He jumps up from the floor, knocking his blocks asunder with clumsy feet and stumbles to Rodney's side.
"Rodney!" Sheppard falls into his hug, forehead smacking against Rodney's collar. He squeezes hard enough to make Rodney wheeze and push against him. "I been playin' with Teya's stuff she said she got from ever ago and we ate cereal." The only thing Rodney really hears is how Sheppard mispronounces Teyla's name.
"Teyla," he says automatically.
"Yeah, Teya," Sheppard agrees and takes his hand, pulling him toward where Teyla sits. "I was making a D-d-da-ah-lus," he explains before plopping down beside his ruined ship. Rodney watches as he begins to build the ship again and wonders why Sheppard isn't annoyed about having to start over. There is silence for a few moments, then Rodney hears Teyla clear her throat. Her raised eyebrow asks the question.
"What?" Rodney asks defensively, pretending ignorance.
"Rodney," she says, sounding tired. "You cannot allow him out of your sight for even a moment. If you grow weary of watching him, you have to call someone else to do so."
It stings Rodney. "I didn't let him wander off on purpose," he snaps. "He got away while I was asleep." For the first time, Rodney wonders how that happened. He's always been terrible at sleeping with another person. "He must have been moving around quietly."
Sheppard chooses that exact moment to knock the new left wing of the Daedalus over. Rodney winces at the explosion of clattering noise, the bellow of throaty laughter.
"Yes, he must have," Teyla says with no inflection. Which means she's totally making fun of him. He frowns.
"Look, ok, I'm sorry, blah blah. It won't happen again." Yesterday's indignation swells without warning. "Besides which, who says it's my job to watch him anyway?" he snaps, folding his arms across his chest. "Just because he follows me around. It's not like he ordered me and even if he did, I don't have to do what he says in Atlantis and even I did, he's three years old!"
Teyla doesn't quite roll her eyes, but Rodney gets the point anyway. "He has chosen to stay with you, Rodney, but if you wish to pass his primary care along to another, I am certain someone would volunteer."
"No," Rodney says immediately. Teyla's mouth twitches. "I mean, no one else would want to anyway. Have you seen how people are treating him? Like he's a freak. As if nothing weird happens around here. Turning into a bug, they can handle, but oh no, he becomes a toddler and people are afraid to go within five feet of him."
He's watching Sheppard as he talks, but he feels Teyla nod. "I believe you are right. It is difficult to see him this way." Rodney glances to her, sees her dark concerned eyes settled on Sheppard, who is contemplating one of the blocks. A second later, the block is in his mouth. Both Teyla and Rodney reach out to tug his hand away from his mouth.
"The blocks are not for eating," Teyla says firmly. Sheppard responds by kicking the ship over again, a slightly pouty look on his face.
"Quit being a brat," Rodney adds, catching his arm before Sheppard can go wandering further into Teyla's room. "You don't know where that block's been." The words make Rodney wince because they're his mother's and they always drove him crazy. "I mean..." Sheppard doesn't really care. He settles against Rodney's leg and starts the ship yet again. For a brief moment, there is no sound other than the dull click of wood against wood and quiet unintelligable babble that occasionally issues from Sheppard's mouth, eeking past the tongue pressing his lower lip down into his bottom teeth. Then Rodney catches Teyla smiling her secret smile, not at him or at Sheppard, but at them both, at Rodney's hands he can't stop from sifting through Sheppard's hair.
"I hesitate to admit to this," she begins, her smile growing, "but the two of you are sweet like this."
Rodney stares. "Are you insane? This is ridiculous, not sweet. It's not even in the same dimension as sweet!" he exclaims. Sheppard hands him a block, giggles, then leans over to give him a hug. Teyla looks away, biting her lip and Rodney scowls at her. "It's not," he insists.
She looks back and her smile is thankfully gone, though Rodney thinks he detects an annoying sparkle in her eyes. "Perhaps not, but it must be gratifying to know that John trusts you so much."
It's a mental leap that Rodney doesn't understand. "What are you talking about?"
"Rodney?" Sheppard interrupts. He throws a block aside and lays down beside Rodney, settling his head in Rodney's lap. "Will ya rub my back?" An encouraging wiggle accompanies the question. Rodney feels another flash of indignation; after all, it's not like Sheppard's going to return the favor. But his hand falls onto Sheppard's back anyway and he drags it up and down. Sheppard sighs happily, twists into a more comfortable position and wraps his hand around Rodney's leg.
"This is what I mean," Teyla says, pulling Rodney back to their conversation. "Little children need security and John obviously feels safe around you."
It's backwards. Rodney has never underestimated his ability to save Sheppard or the city when the emergency requires brilliant science, but it's Sheppard that makes Rodney feel safe. Sheppard is the one who keeps his eye on surroundings, who pushes Rodney away from danger. Sheppard is the one who keeps Rodney safe.
"Well, I'm smart enough to keep his fingers out of sockets, as it were," Rodney reasons, giving Teyla a questioning look. She shakes her head. Frustration runs through him. Obviously he's not getting this.
"I don't mean that kind of safe, though I feel certain that he does trust you to keep him alive." She pauses, then her smile turns teasing. "Even if you allow him to wander the city," she says playfully. Rodney frowns, maybe even pouts, but he can see Teyla isn't upset with him anymore.
Her knee knocks against his leg and it makes Rodney feel warmer than he would have thought. "There are different kinds of safety, Rodney. Children can tell who genuinely cares for them and who does not. They can sense things about people that we adults have forgotten how to pick up." Rodney thinks it's possible that Teyla never entirely lost that skill. "Dark things. Pure innocence can sense ill will that remains hidden to adults. They need emotional stability, freedom from using those terrible skills. John feels emotionally safe around you," she finally clarifys.
Rodney's mind leaps to hundreds of interactions, memories of acerbic jabs traded and insults flung. He knows Sheppard would never purposefully hurt him, but they've never really given a lot of thought to each other's emotions. Have they? Rodney thinks to himself that he isn't even sure he knows how to hurt Sheppard, but the answers follow immediately. Lie to him. Betray him.
Allow yourself to get hurt.
Now that he's forced to think on it, Rodney realizes he's never seen Sheppard in more pain than when one of his friends is hurt or upset. He wonders if that's why Sheppard likes being around him. Because Rodney's always taking care of number one, always cautious to keep himself as far from danger as possible. It isn't a pleasant thought.
"Oh my god, it's because I'm a selfish bastard, isn't it?" Rodney squeaks. Teyla startles and stares at him, nonplussed. He shakes his head. "No, that's it. He likes being around me because I won't risk myself!"
Rodney sees Teyla work this statement out in her head and suddenly, inexplicably, she's angry, the quiet powerful anger that Rodney's never known how deal with. "That is untrue, Rodney. You underestimate yourself and you underestimate John. I have seen you risk your life numerous times for others and I have seen you end up in the infirmary for your efforts," she says, low and firm, impossible to deny. "He chose you to care for him because he knows you would do anything for him."
For some reason, it feels like a slap in the face or a punch in the gut or both. It should be a nice feeling. It's nice in movies and books, but in real life, it makes Rodney vulnerable. In real life, it's terrifying.
"But so would you," Rodney argues, forcing down the panic he feels. "So would Ronon and Elizabeth."
Teyla smiles and her anger is completely gone, as if it had never been. "Yes, we would. And I have no doubt in my mind that he loves us as we all love him, though I suspect I will never hear the words. Not when he is himself." There's a flash of regret on her face. "But I think, Rodney, that you will."
He doesn't understand, can't understand. "Why?"
With cautious hands, Teyla reaches out to brush Sheppard's hair away from his forehead. It makes Sheppard shift, mumbling and only then does Rodney realize Sheppard's fallen asleep. "You will have to ask him that."
Rodney ponders what Teyla said for the entire day. He feels the urge to ask Sheppard outright, but given his current state, Rodney is sure he can't trust anything Sheppard says. And yet, when he gets back to normal, Rodney is also certain that Sheppard will never want to talk about this incident ever again, much less have a discussion about why he loves Rodney or feels safe around him.
So he keeps it inside, barricaded in the back of his mind where it sits like a caged tiger, hungry for answers and desperate to escape. It's hard to concentrate on anything else, but luckily for Rodney, some others in the city chose that day to recover from being creeped out around Sheppard. Going by a few grumblings Rodney hears, he strongly suspects that Elizabeth and Teyla have made a few visits that might have knocked some sense into some of his colleagues.
Whatever the reason, Rodney is able to relax because he certainly can't ask his questions with others around. He's even able to get some work done while a small parade of marines and scientists visit Sheppard in his quarters. Most people don't really know how to deal with him, though they try. Some bring candy, others anything they think qualifys as toys. Sheppard always takes what's offered, but Rodney can easily tell which people he likes and which he doesn't. He's not surprised when Sheppard shrinks away from babbling Dr. Biro or when he listens raptly to Ronon's stories of Sateda, but he doesn't expect Sheppard to cry when Dr. Parrish leaves. The botanist brings Sheppard a small cup of dirt and a seed to plant and for some reason Sheppard squeals with delight. They spend an hour playing in the soil and against his will, Rodney remembers a lot about how plants grow from Parrish's very simple explanations. When he finally tells them he has to get back to the greenhouses, Sheppard's bottom lip trembles and after Rodney helps extract his arms from Parrish's waist, Sheppard bursts into tears.
It's lucky that Radek shows up fifteen minutes later with a pile of magic tricks and enough silly faces and jokes to make your average clown proud.
They sleep together again that night. Rodney sets a very early alarm.
Elizabeth finds them early the next day to give Rodney the good news that the Daedalus will arrive at MX8-909 the following morning and be back in Atlantis by noon. It's the best news Rodney's heard all day, though he is too tired to do more than smile. He's spent the last few hours trying to keep Sheppard away from the puddlejumpers. Elizabeth offers to take Sheppard off his hands for a few hours, but Rodney is strangely protective. He feels like a birdwatcher that's had a sparrow choose to land on his shoulder. He's not moving as long as his sparrow wants him.
It's at lunch that day that Rodney's question, his caged up tiger, escapes.
Sheppard wants to eat in Rodney's room and Rodney knows well enough by now not to ask why. He suspects children don't even know why they want some things one way and others another way, so he just packs up sandwiches and apple juice from the cafeteria. Sheppard grabs his hand and swings it all the way back to Rodney's quarters, keeping up a constant monologue as they walk. It's endlessly interesting to Rodney the little gems he can pick out of the otherwise inane chattering.
"I seen a big fish out in the water when you wasn't looking and it jumped way up in the air and then it turned around and it fell back down," he informs Rodney, who doesn't really believe him, but nods anyway. "I think Lizbeth's got a funny haircut, but it's ok 'cause her smile is pretty. No one sees it a lot though. Hey did you know I can count all the way to a really high number? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7." He swings their hands back and forth on each count. "8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14. Also, can we see Dr. Parrish? I wanna show him my sprout." Rodney manages not to laugh and Sheppard doesn't wait for his answer. "15, 16, 17. Lorne thinks he's cute only I'm not 'llowed to tell cause he might get in trouble. 18." Rodney doesn't say anything because even he knew that. "I want to be a botanist too, when I get big."
That stops Rodney in his tracks. Partly because it amazes him that Sheppard can't see that he already is big, but also because of how untrue it is. "No you don't. You want to be a pilot."
Sheppard shrugs. "I'll be both. And a cop and maybe a doctor. You know who is funny? Dr. Beckett. He told me a joke about a frog, but I forgot it. It was really funny. What do you want to be?"
"I already am," Rodney says, tugging them along again. "And I always wanted to be a physicist." But that's a lie. He always liked physics, but he'd wanted to be a pianist too. And at one point, he entertained thoughts of being a chemist. Rodney forgot children changed their minds a lot.
By the time they make it to Rodney's quarters, Rodney has learned that Sheppard thinks Teyla is really short for someone so scary, that he wants a beagle, that he thinks the Atlantis uniforms are ugly and that he thinks Rodney gives good hugs. That last statement is what brings Rodney's questions back to the front of his mind. He thinks about it as he unpacks their sandwiches and pours Sheppard a small cup of juice. When he cuts Sheppard's turkey sandwich with a diagonal slash and hands him half, Sheppard grins and hugs him again.
"Thanks, Rodney." He takes a huge bite and squirms happily in his chair. "Hmmm, this ish good," he mumbles through his bite. Rodney ignores the disgusting sight of half chewed turkey and sits across from him.
"Yeah, I know."
Sheppard swallows. "I love you, Rodney."
Rodney's sandwich stops halfway to his mouth. He can feel his heart pounding in his chest and then he can stand it no longer. The word bursts forth, frightening him in its intensity, and it sounds desperate, stupid. Vulnerable.
"Why?" His stomach turns over and over and he can feel each pulse point in his body as he waits for Sheppard's answer. Sheppard takes another bite, chews slowly, swallows. Then he shrugs.
"Cause you need me to, I guess."
Warmth bursts into Rodney's chest, flowing down his limbs, making him lightheaded. It makes no sense at all and yet, it's the most perfect answer Rodney's ever heard, better than solving a complicated equation or creating the perfect proof.
Rodney needs Sheppard and Sheppard needs Rodney to need him.
"Out of the mouthes of babes," Rodney murmurs. Sheppard cocks his head.
Rodney smiles. "Never mind. And close your mouth when you chew."
Rodney's never been so relieved to see Colonel Caldwell as he is when the man beams directly into the control room along with two officers holding the device on a stretcher between them. Before Caldwell can greet them, Sheppard bounces forward.
"Hi!" he exclaims and then to Rodney's horror, gives the Colonel one of his now famous hugs. Caldwell freezes in place, his arms stiff at his sides, eyes round. "Lizbeth said you were gonna visit," Sheppard adds happily. While Rodney can't deny the absolute humor of seeing the uptight Colonel Caldwell being given so much love from his supposed rival, he doesn't want Sheppard to bear any more humiliation than he's already got coming, so he grips Sheppard's arm and pulls him back.
"Uh..." Caldwell shakes himself, manages to recover enough to loosen his posture somewhat. "It's nice to see you too, Colonel Sheppard," he says slowly. A moment of staring, eyes flicking up and down Sheppard and then his attention is on Elizabeth. "I suspect you're probably desperate for this," he says, tilting his head at the device. Rodney frowns. Kid Sheppard isn't all that bad.
Elizabeth just nods and glosses over the comment. "Thank you for bringing it. You didn't have any trouble with it, did you?"
"None at all. I'm sure the people of MX8-909 aren't happy now, but they'll get over it when we beam it back in a few hours. No harm, no foul."
All eyes then turn to Rodney. He looks at Sheppard. "Come on. I need you to do me a favor." They walk to the device, which the officers have set on the ground. It looks so innocent, just a blocky tower perhaps three feet tall and two feet wide. For the first time, Rodney notices a small inscription on it, carved deep along the side, the words in Ancient. He beckons Elizabeth forward, since his Ancient isn't as perfect as hers and she reads aloud.
"'Life dulls the mind and blurs perceptions. None are so wise as little children.'"
It makes Rodney want to kick something. "Dulls the mind, my ass," he mutters. Sheppard laughs. Rodney ignores him.
"Ok, Sheppard, listen carefully." For good measure, he cups Sheppard's chin to make sure Sheppard is listening closely. All of his childish focus centers intently on Rodney. "I want you to touch this block here and I want you to think the word 'Off', ok?"
"Off?" he asks fearfully. "What's gonna happen?"
There are too many people around. This should be done privately, for Sheppard's sake. "Elizabeth," Rodney says quietly. "Get these people out of here." He hears her ordering people out of the control room, away from sight, but his attention is on Sheppard's round scared eyes. "Look, it's alright, ok? I promise. It's not going to hurt you, not even a little. Do you trust me?"
Sheppard nods immediately and Rodney knows he'll probably regret this later, but it doesn't stop him from leaning in, gathering Sheppard into a full-bodied hug. "I need you back," he whispers. "I can't take care of you like you take care of me," he says. His heart twists with the truth of it, with the depth of his reliance on Sheppard. "Just be a good boy and touch the block and think 'off', alright?"
He feels Sheppard nodding against his neck and then he's pulling away. One of his large hands settles on Rodney's cheek. "Don't be sad, Rodney." He's whispering too. "I love you."
Rodney barely has time to wonder if it's the last time he'll ever hear Sheppard say it before Sheppard's turning around and placing his hands on the block. His face closes in concentration. He's biting his bottom lip and Rodney hears one soft, small word.
There's a flash of light, just like the first time and along with it, relief and regret flash through Rodney. Sheppard stumbles backwards, into Rodney's arms and he slumps down onto the floor, shaking his head. Rodney lets go quickly, dashing around to see Sheppard's face. "Sheppard? Are you ok?"
Sheppard doesn't say anything for a moment, only holds his head in both hands, still shaking it now and again. Rodney's breath halts in his lungs, the world stops for a moment and then Sheppard looks up. What Rodney sees makes him sit back on his heels, stunned. Sheppard's bright eyes are dark, heavy with his past and with knowledge and pains a child shouldn't know.
"Oh my god," he grunts. Rodney can actually see memories of the past few days cycling through Sheppard's mind, can tell by the shame and horror overtaking his features. "Oh my god, what the fuck?"
"Sheppard? Are you...?" What, Rodney doesn't know. He doesn't get a chance to come up with something though because Sheppard suddenly bolts to his feet.
"Holy shit," he says and then he's gone.
Rodney goes directly to the lab without even bothering to contemplate finding Sheppard. Pride and anger keep him away as well as a healthy dose of fear Rodney chooses to pretend doesn't exist. It's nice to finally get back to work, he tells himself, even though he doesn't do much more than stare at his computer screen, numbers and equations floating before him, just out of reach. He hears Carson summon Sheppard to the infirmary over the radio and sometime later, later than is usual, Sheppard answers the summons. Another hour or two goes by and Elizabeth comms to tell him that the Daedalus successfully returned the device. Good riddance, he thinks.
He tries not to think of going to bed that night, in an empty lonely bed.
Rodney's scientists steer clear of his lab and it's well after dinner before Rodney hears footsteps outside his door. When he looks up, he forces himself to cover the surprise he feels at seeing Sheppard standing there, a plate of sandwiches in his hand.
"They said you hadn't eaten," he says quietly. His shuffling feet and openly guilty expression remind Rodney strongly of Sheppard's child self, so strongly that he has to forcibly stop himself from bracing for a hug.
"They who?" Rodney asks briskly, as if nothing had ever happened between them. Sheppard shrugs and sets the food beside Rodney's computer.
"I don't know. Just 'they'." He tries to smile, but neither of them are buying it. It's hard to look at him and see all the responsibility in his eyes, all the things that might keep them apart. "Look, I just wanted to, you know...thank you." A pause, then he clarifys, as if Rodney didn't know what he meant. "For putting up with me."
Rodney's feeling hurt and mean, so he snorts and ignores the sandwich in favor of typing something, anything on his screen. "You ought to thank me. It wasn't exactly easy dealing with you." And while that's true, it almost makes him feel bad to see the flash of hurt on Sheppard's face out of the corner of his eye. Almost.
"Yeah, I guess it wouldn't be."
They say nothing for a while. Rodney types nonsense on his screen and Sheppard stands in front of his desk, shifting from foot to foot. The constrast to how they'd been, the awkwardness that pervades this relationship as opposed to the warmth and loving affection of their other fills Rodney with exhausting hurt. He doesn't want to be the first to give in, but it's too hard to hold out. With a sigh, he reaches out to take a half of the sandwich, which is cut exactly how Rodney had cut Sheppard's. "Thanks," Rodney states in a tone that brooks no acknowledgement. He is relieved when Sheppard slides into a nearby chair.
"I've been apologizing to people all day," he says, folding his arms across his chest. "No one wants to hear it. They don't seem to realize I acted like an idiot."
"Yes, but it's not like you did it on purpose," Rodney answers. He is unable to be completely comforting. Not yet.
"Still. I don't think I'll ever be able to go back to the infirmary without wanting to kill myself."
Just as Rodney suspected. "I don't blame you." Sheppard's pained expression eases Rodney's indignation a touch. "I mean, that was the worst part. Nothing else you did was all that bad."
"Sure, yeah," Sheppard pretends to agree. "Like the part where I was afraid to speak to Elizabeth or how I threw spaghetti all over the infirmary. I don't want to even get into how I'm going to explain why I'm so attached to Parrish, who I still don't even know that well."
Rodney notices that Sheppard doesn't mention hugging Caldwell and wonders if he's already buried the memory completely. He shrugs. "You're just a closet botany fan, I guess."
Sheppard does not seem mollified, so Rodney turns his full attention on him. "Look, you weren't exactly yourself. Whatever you did was just how your kid mind reacted to things, not a representation of how you really feel." As he says the words, Rodney feels his heart sink. Of course that is true. Sheppard wasn't really afraid of Elizabeth or love Parrish that much. He saw her as an authority figure and that scared him. Parrish was nice, patient and managed to make plants fun, so Sheppard got attached. It doesn't mean anything. Just like his declarations to Rodney don't mean anything. "None of it was real."
"It felt real," Sheppard says. He looks at Rodney, eyes filled with something Rodney doesn't recognize. "I was still me, Rodney."
Rodney doesn't know how to answer that, so he just stares at Sheppard, mind racing for something, anything to say to make the moment less heavy, less significant. It is Sheppard who finally speaks, but what he says does nothing to break the tension. "I spoke to Teyla earlier."
"Yeah?" Rodney's heart is stuttering in his chest, just like at lunch the previous day, only worse because whatever Sheppard says now is permanent, deliberate.
"I only vaguely remember what you two talked about, but I got the gist," he says. He makes Rodney twice as nervous by unfolding his arms and leaning on the table, closer to Rodney. "I'm sorry I ran away earlier. I just...I didn't know how to...just then, I couldn't." Rodney fills in the blanks in Sheppard's sentences, like always. "She told me what you asked and...the thing is...it's not something I've ever..." Rodney's heart can't take this halted speech, so he scowls and shakes his head.
"Just spit it out, Sheppard."
"You don't make me be something I'm not, ok?" Sheppard snaps. "Geez, Rodney. You're a pain in the ass, you know that?"
He knows he should protest, should call Sheppard something in return, but his mind is stuck on the other half of the puzzle falling perfectly into place. Sheppard loves him because Rodney needs him and Sheppard feels safe with him because Rodney doesn't expect him to change. There's probably more to their relationship than that, but Rodney doesn't care about that right now. All he needs are those two truths. They are enough to make the vulnerability and the fear worthwhile.
"Do you love me?" he asks before the question really even has a chance to form in his mind. Sheppard shifts in his chair, clearly uncomfortable, but he doesn't take long to answer.
"Yeah. I guess there's no point in hiding it now," he answers. Inside Rodney is dancing and wiggling as much as kid Sheppard had, but outside he remains calm.
"No, I guess not."
A short silence, then Sheppard's fingers brush Rodney's hand almost shyly. "Do you love me?"
It's a stupid question and Rodney's glad he asked it. "Yes."
Sheppard's fingers play across the top of Rodney's wrist and then he curls them around his hand. "Why?"
The answer is clear and obvious in Rodney's mind because the last few days have been awkward and tiring and Rodney never once gave Sheppard away. He squeezes Sheppard's hand and answers.
"Because I want to."