Earliers parts: one and two
The first time Althea mentions exercise, Rodney honestly believes that he may never stop laughing.
"Doctor," she says, looking at him patiently from the other side of the doorway while Rodney catches his breath. Since becoming well enough to take care of himself, the healers had picked up the extremely welcome habit of waiting for permission to enter. Something that Rodney's taken ruthless advantage of.
Picking up the jar of ointment, he considers throwing it at her, but even for him, that's an overreaction. And a huge waste of energy. "Let's go with no."
Frowning, Althea gives him a significant look, but hey, if they're going to be polite, that doesn't mean he has to be. "You need fresh air to aid in healing, Doctor," she says, voice as patient as her stance, but Rodney's not falling for that again. "A walk around the village--"
From down the hall, Rodney can hear the low drawl of Sheppard's voice, sharpening on a rising note, and even Althea turns her head. When she looks back, her frown is obvious. "You are both being difficult."
"Because we don't want to be paraded around your village? Wow, we *are* unreasonable."
The dark eyes narrow. "Not paraded. There is nothing that my people have not seen before."
"And I'd prefer they don't see again, thank you." Rodney can hear Sheppard's voice sharpen, drawl lost beneath the cool voice of a commander, which is Sheppard-speak for temper-lost. Or close to it. Rolling off the bed--boredom can wait, Sheppard's frequent shifts of mood are pretty much as close to entertainment as Rodney gets these days--he ambles to the door, pushing by Althea to glance down the empty hall.
"Doctor--" she starts, but Rodney's already half-way there. At the door of Sheppard's room, he pauses, listening to the raised voice of Cespara, the Healer that's apparently decided she's Sheppard's answer to Florence Nightingale. Great.
"If you would, Colonel--"
"Please give me the boots."
Rodney takes a deep breath and knocks sharply once, then pushes the door open.
Sheppard's seated on the edge of the bed, loose-limbed and relaxed, bare feet on the floor. Peasant drag, Rodney thinks, flashing on Robin Hood and marveling at the horrible movies that he's seen in the name of getting laid. It isn't the worst look ever on Sheppard. The throat is unlaced, revealing fever-pale skin and fine dark hair on his chest, which is more than Rodney's ever seen of him outside the infirmary, never a good time for extensive looking. The pants things are slightly too tight--not at all a bad thing in Rodney's opinion--but they emphasize the fact that Sheppard's lost weight he couldn't afford to lose before illness. Everything's just that little bit untidy, like Sheppard himself, the three day growth of beard somehow emphasizing the sharp cheekbones, the straight line of his jaw. Like Rodney, he'd taken up his own personal grooming procedures as quickly as humanly possible. Except for shaving, apparently.
The dark hair is too long, hiding his eyes. Rodney take a deep breath. "Colonel?"
Instantly, Sheppard's head jerks toward the door. "Something you need, McKay?"
Leaning into the doorway, Rodney tries not to smirk at Cespara's frown. "Just seeing what the temper tantrum is about. Something against boots?"
Sheppard smiles pleasantly, fingers wound in the sheet tight enough to tear. "If I tell you to fuck off, will you go away?"
Not when this is the most entertainment he's gotten today, no. "Out," he says with a wave at Cespara. "If the Colonel wants to be a moron, then he can be."
"We are supposed to go for a walk," she says, mouth flattening at the corners. Sheppard's head turns away, but Rodney guesses he's about as enthusiastic about the idea as Rodney is. "He needs exercise."
"That's nice. You can go now." Walking by her, Rodney picks up the discarded boots by the hideously complex laces--what was it with primitive planets and their obsession with complex clothing? Which in retrospect, makes Sheppard's disheveled appearance make a lot of sense. Hmm. "Really," he says, when he realizes Cespara hasn't moved. "Go, out, shoo, go nightingale someone else. And close the door."
Sheppard looks wary, hands tightening on the edge of the bed. "McKay."
When the door closes, Rodney finds a boot and sits on the edge of the bed, almost reaching for Sheppard's foot when he catches himself. Right. "Get your foot on the bed."
The hazel eyes narrow. "McKay--"
"They're a weird lacing. Not like your cross-trainers. I'll show you."
For a few seconds, Sheppard doesn't move, then slowly, he pulls one narrow foot up, setting it carefully on the bed, obviously trying not to knock into Rodney in the process. Catching his heel, Rodney lowers and pulls, close enough that he can work easily.
"You must be bored," Sheppard observes as Rodney slips on the first boot. Do these people not have *socks*?
"I'm going to invent a whole new word for bored very soon now. Give me your hand," Rodney says, watching Sheppard go still again. "Look, I can't actually show you, but it's a fairly easy pattern, you should be able to learn it by touch. Hand." He snaps his fingers. "Now, Colonel."
Slowly, Sheppard lets Rodney take his hand, pulling it to the loops of leather that make the unlikely eyes. "Three laces. Don't ask, it's stupid, but that's what we get when we end up in the Pegasus equivalent of a leper colony. Where fate pretty much demanded we go eventually, with our luck, so really, I can't even say that I'm surprised." Rodney stares at the boot for a minute, then takes Sheppard's fingers, letting him feel his way across the weave of laces. "It's a twist. Braid. The loops about a quarter inch apart." Taking the second lace, Rodney wraps Sheppard's fingers around it. "Just like braiding. If you ever did it with loops."
"Right," Sheppard says lightly, but there's a furrow of concentration running the length of his forehead, and Rodney watches the thin fingers carefully run up the edges of the boots, picking up the pattern. A few clumsy mistakes later, he's lacing it up as easily as Rodney had.
Good pattern recognition, Rodney almost says, then bites his tongue. Handing Sheppard the other boot, he watches him quickly lace it up, fingers barely fumbling. Good spatials, too, and it shouldn't be a surprise, but it is. Sheppard's a pilot. He relies on memory and equipment readings more than his own vision.
Tentatively, Sheppard goes to work on the laces at his throat. Regretfully, Rodney watches the bare skin vanish under pale green cotton.
The long legs swing back to the floor, and Rodney watches Sheppard slowly stand up, stopping himself before he does something stupid like try to jump up and spot him. When he's standing, Sheppard's head comes up, like he can actually see where he's going. "I miss socks."
"That makes two of us." Sheppard takes a thoughtful step, mouth quirking up on one side, then takes a precise step back, sitting easily on the edge of the bed again, dark bangs falling in his face again. His hair's grown, but at least half the problem is the lack of gel to give it that freshly-electrocuted look.
Rodney's controlled the urge to push Sheppard's hair from his eyes for weeks. But he only has so much control. Watching those long fingers test the edges of his beard is too much. "Okay, I've been patient. I have been. But it's got to stop."
Sheppard looks up, wide eyed and innocent as the new fallen snow. "What?"
"That," Rodney says, waving his hand, then remembering that Sheppard can't see it. "You hate a beard. You told me, after that thing, and I quote, ,that next time, you'd shave with rocks if you had to. So explain to me, in short easy words, since I don't want to tax your mental facilities with words of more than one syllable, why in the name of God you still have it."
Sheppard's hand freezes briefly, pulling jerkily from his jaw. "I like it."
"You're lying. My God, you're lying about *facial hair*. Next, tell me you hate Ferris Wheels. We're in that place."
Sheppard frowns, mask of innocence slipping away. "I don't--"
"Is this about that Cespara?" And her *touching*. If it drives Rodney up the wall to watch it, he can't even imagine what it's doing to Sheppard, who looks three paces from homicidal when he hears her footsteps outside the door. "I can ask Althea--"
"No." His hand's back, picking unconsciously, and Rodney reaches out, wrapping his fingers around one fragile wrist. "McKay--"
"Nothing. Seriously. We have *razors*. We have water. We even have that soapy stuff that, hey, you notice they use lye too? Never mind. But we have the supplies, rudimentary thought they may be, so--"
Sheppard's mouth sets. "Cut it out. I'm *fine*--"
"Is this one of your weird independence things?"
The hazel eyes widen. Right, Rodney thinks smugly, feeling a little frisson of triumph. Of course. And yes. "Maybe I'm learning to like it," Sheppard mumbles, so close to sulking it's almost sad.
"And look, reverting to six years old. Please, continue the tantrum, I'll be back." The basin in the bathroom type room is the right size, and there's fresh water in the pitcher. Grabbing the straight razor, he comes back out to see Sheppard's face turned in the general direction of the bathroom, expression fixed in something like growing horror. "Althea is right down the hall," he says, setting the supplies out on the bed, then turning back to the bathroom. Towel. He needs a towel, too.
"I said no."
"I don't care."
"Dammit, McKay, I said *no*."
Towel in hand, McKay freezes at the bathroom door. Sheppard's body language is as easy to read as print, still and straight and angry, not annoyed, not irritated, *angry*. "Colonel?"
"No. No Althea, no Cespara, no anyone. I don't--" Sheppard stops short, drawing in a calming breath, but Rodney doesn't miss the panic. "I don't need--"
He has no idea what to do with this. "Colonel?" Slowly, letting his footsteps telegraph to Sheppard his position, he goes to the door, pushing it shut and turning the lock. Coming back to the bed, he carefully sits on the edge, Sheppard's leg inches away. "What's wrong with Althea?"
Sheppard blows out a breath, leaning back into the headboard. "Drop it."
Rodney watches the thin hands clench, relaxing by degrees until Sheppard's face smoothes out, calm again, amused again. "Not until you tell me what the problem is."
Sheppard rolls his eyes. "I'm not doing this right now. Sorry you're offended by my personal grooming habits. You can leave."
He could, actually. "You know, that shit worked in Atlantis. The avoidance thing. I actually had things to do. Here, not so much." Picking up the towel, Rodney stands up and pulls a chair over, reaching for Sheppard's arm. "Get up. Chair, one foot."
Sheppard's eyebrows jump. "I said--"
"I don't listen. And I have to look at you, so--chair." Another rough pull gets Sheppard moving and shifted to the chair. Hooking an ankle around the leg, he pulls it closer, trying to ignore the long thighs that open for his knees to fit easily. It's wrong on so many levels he just can't go there. "Sit still. . This is a straight razor. I'd hate to cut your throat. At least by accident."
Sheppard stills, heels digging for purchase on the floor to push back, but it's too late for that. Wetting the towel, Rodney leans forward, dampening the beard growth carefully.
"What--" Sheppard says, swallowing sharply enough for Rodney to see his throat work. "McKay--"
"All in the name of my sense of aesthetics and to stop you picking at it. What part of sit still didn't make sense to you? They're all one syllable words."
Sheppard's mouth snaps shut as Rodney finds the weird, slimy soap--does he miss bars more than he ever thought possible--and touches Sheppard's shoulder lightly before he starts to put it on. Sheppard goes deathly still, eyes wide and dark beneath the fringe of dark hair, hands closing over the edge of the chair.
Cespara and her endless, god help them all *touching*, Althea, the healers. He gets that. "Relax," he says, voice softer than he'd thought he could be, tightening his fingers on Sheppard's shoulder. "I'm good at this."
"Shaving other men?" There's something in Sheppard's voice that Rodney can't quite read.
"With a razor." Drawing a breath, Rodney sets his concentration. Not any different from shaving himself in the mirror. Except for the fact Sheppard's sitting between his knees, close enough to feel the warmth of his body, even the too-fast pant of breath.
And thoughts like that don't lead to steady hands.
Sheppard's still, though, eyes closing as Rodney makes sure every stray inch of beard covered skin is covered in lather, then wiping off his hands before hooking the towel around Sheppard's neck and, in consideration, getting a pillow, stripping off the case to spread across his lap. Razor in hand, Rodney takes a deep breath, touching Sheppard's shoulder again. "Okay, starting."
Sheppard nods shortly, and Rodney sets the edge of the razor against Sheppard's skin. Shaving with a straight razor requires good reflexes, a sense of invulnerability, and a lot of confidence in your ability to miss slicing your own jugular open. Being arrogant has its advantages, Rodney considers, as he makes the first pass. Easy, nothing but familiar, smooth skin, pale and strangely vulnerable looking. Drawing another breath and cleaning the razor, Rodney goes back, setting his attention on this like he does any difficult problem. It's all a question of mechanics.
And touching. Moving his hand from Sheppard's shoulder, he gently palms Sheppard's face, giving him warning before he carefully tilts his head.
It's quiet and careful. Rodney's never been so completely focused on something so utterly mundane. Sheppard moves obediently at every touch, almost anticipating Rodney's methodical strokes, eyes still closed, lashes feathered dark over too pale skin. He needs more time in the sun, Rodney thinks distractedly when he's half-done, taking a second to just look under the cover of sharpening the razor. Sheppard's more relaxed, too, hands freed from their death grip on the sides of the chair, all semi-slouched relaxation, like it's his god-given right to be shaved.
Rodney can't stop himself from running his fingers over the smooth, clean skin, under the guise of wiping away nonexistent soap. "Just a bit more," he hears himself say, still softly, and Sheppard nods lazily, head tilted back when Rodney slides a thumb beneath his chin.
Sheppard's never like this with the healers, even Althea, who is the soul of impersonal practicality, never this relaxed, this easy, following the silent direction of Rodney's touch effortlessly. Soft pink lips parted, a glimpse of tongue behind white teeth, Rodney's fantasy life has lived on a lot less than this.
A lot less.
"Turn your head," Rodney says, voice too high, directing with carefully placed fingertips against warm skin. "Almost done."
Sheppard's head obediently turns, and Rodney watches himself slowly scrape the last of it away, pulling the razor back and dropping it in the bowl. He can't quite help the urge to touch, though, rubbing his thumb across smooth, clean skin, memorizing the texture with his fingertips, the exact angle of Sheppard's cheekbones, the curve of his jaw. Suddenly, fiercely glad that the disease hadn't scarred him, all that perfect skin, perfect face that Rodney can look at, touch like this. Under the cover of being a friend, and getting very hard doing it.
Yes, this is appropriate.
Rodney drags his thumb across Sheppard's lower lip (just checking the skin beneath, slipped) and jerks his hand back.
Sheppard's eyes are open, both eyebrows raised. "Done," Rodney says, beginning to pull back, but one hand unerringly finds his wrist, trapping his hand midair.
"I think I'm beginning to forget things," Sheppard says softly, somehow holding eye contact despite the fact he can't see a fucking thing. The hazel is almost entirely green now. "Faces."
"It's impossible. I have a very good memory." One eyebrow raises. "It's unreasonable. I know that. It doesn't change anything."
Rodney nods, then catches himself. "I understand."
"Then you'll understand why I want to do this." Letting go, he slips his hand up, pressing his wrist into Rodney's. "Prove me wrong."
What? Rodney stares as his hand wrapped around Sheppard's wrist, then back to the closed look on Sheppard's face. Then Sheppard pulls, and Rodney realizes what he wants to do just as smooth fingertips brush the edge of his jaw.
"Oh." And it takes everything in him not to flinch, breath catching tight in his throat; for a second, he can't even breathe. "Colonel--"
"Let me." The fingers don't move, though, simply resting, and it would be easy to pull away, jerk Sheppard's hand back, say no, and Christ no, and dear God no, this isn't how I want you to remember me. Forgetting entirely would be better.
But he doesn't, and silence is tacit agreement. Sheppard's fingers begin to touch.
Light and gentle at first, exploring the vastly changed territory, skimming the pits and healing edges, the rough scabs, the almost-healed skin between with concentrated attention, the way he flew a jumper, handled a stick. Rodney closes his eyes, guiding Sheppard's hand from cheek to forehead to nose to hairline, grazing his chin, gentle, stroking fingers sliding down his throat. A firmer touch next, Sheppard spreading out his fingers over all available surface, making Rodney shiver--the new healing is sensitive, and he think he can feel every whorl of Sheppard's fingertips with every touch.
It's unbearably arousing, and scary as shit. Controlling every flinch, letting Sheppard's fingers trace the last two months of history written into his flesh and bone. Finally, Sheppard cups his face, palm gentle against his cheek, and Rodney feels himself leaning into it without meaning to, soaking in the warmth. "Does it still hurt?" he says, voice almost inaudible.
"Just when I think about it."
Sheppard nods, hand remaining for another breathtaking second before drawing away, slouching back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest, smirk in place like defensive armor.
We just had a moment, Rodney thinks uneasily, suddenly needing to talk, fill in the space between them with something meaningless and trivial. But he can still feel Sheppard's fingers on his skin, bright points of contact like spring sunlight, warm and soft and safe.
"I want to see--I want to go to the gate."
Rodney jerks back, peering into the unreadable face turned from his. "It's a two hour trip. There is no way they're letting you go that far for a few more days." Or Rodney, for that matter. Agitation, Althea had said, can only delay progress. Boredom apparently doesn't.
Rodney almost sighs. "We lost some stuff. When we're *better*," Sheppard's mouth quirks at the sarcasm in Rodney's voice, "I assume we'll be allowed to go out and find where we were before we came here."
"Anything important missing?"
Rodney watches Sheppard's fingers tap edgily on the sheet. "Some standard field gear. Our packs are here, but overnight equipment, my laptop--" Rodney trails off. "Teyla and Ronon--I asked, and no, there was no sign of anyone else with us. So it looks like we didn't exactly come here willingly." Sheppard nods along without surprise, so he probably asked already. Fair enough.
"Wherever here is," Sheppard murmurs.
"About one hundred eighty two light-years from Atlantis by puddlejumper," Rodney says, and Sheppard's head jerks up. "I know my Pegasus astronomy. We can't even see Atlantis from here, but I recognized a couple of the systems we visited."
"The last one?"
For the life of him, Rodney can't even remember the designation of their last planet in memory. He desperately needs to pace, but burning out what little energy he has with useless movement seems counterproductive. "Nothing. Village, trade, annoyance, no indoor plumbing." Sheppard's head tilts. "I--you said you remembered the--" He stops.
Sheppard's face doesn't change. "I know they weren't here with us. I remember being glad they weren't here. Which means jack shit, but--" He shrugs, pushing his feet restlessly into the floor. Sheppard's inability to sit still is legendary. Only when he's interfacing with the puddlejumper does he come anywhere *close* to still, quickly moving hands and eyes, body relaxed. "Nothing else. But it's been more than a month."
"How do you know?"
For an answer, Sheppard turns over one arm, jerking up the edge of his sleeve, and Rodney blinks uncomprehendingly at the smear of the scar from his transformation into a bug. Sheppard's hands measure the edges, and--oh. Oh. "Smaller," Sheppard says flatly. "At least two months from my last memory of Carson checking it."
Rodney shuts his eyes. "We lost two months."
"Maybe more. It's not like I can judge healing rate by touch." Sheppard jerks the sleeve down. His mouth is set in a thin line. "They said you came to get them?"
"When you were ill. We were ill." Rodney watches Sheppard's forehead crease thoughtfully. "I can ask Althea--"
"No." The slow drawl could fool anyone who isn't Rodney. "Get our packs. We're taking a walk."
Rodney's not good at stealth.
Sheppard, though, *is*. "I was trained to work in the dark, Rodney," Sheppard says, probably rolling his eyes behind him. "You watch, I'll listen."
Neither of them are up to this. Sheppard's too thin, too pale, but on the other hand, agitation is bad, right? It's not easy, taking the stairs in careful silence, guiding Sheppard with a hand on his arm, listening for the telltale sound of feet. "Do you know how to get out of here?"
"There's a kitchen door," Rodney says, equally soft as they come to the ground floor, peering around the corner. "Thought. How are we going to find--you realize we're about thirty miles from the Gate?" Two hours, about fifteen miles an hour by gopher horse, not that hard to calculate. "There's no way I'm walking thirty miles, I don't care if there are Wraith behind us."
"So we steal a cart," Sheppard says reasonably, other hand on his gun, leaning into the wall. Sweat dots his upper lip and forehead. "Rodney. These are very nice people, I'm sure. That doesn't change the fact that we have no idea what the hell is going on. Second." And when he turns his head, he sees Sheppard's smirk. "There's no way you'd walk thirty miles even if there were Wraith behind us. Certainly not if you were already sick. We were camped close to here."
Point. "Right," Rodney murmurs. The hall's clear. "Okay, moving. Flat floor, turn in ten feet to the kitchen. Um. No rugs?"
"I think I can stay on my feet." The thin fingers tighten reassuringly, and Rodney blows out a breath, feeling like a teenager sneaking out after curfew. Not that Rodney ever did, but a thousand TV sitcoms can't be wrong. A slight pull to warn Sheppard, then Rodney pulls them from the stairwell, trusting Sheppard to listen for footsteps. It's all he can do to keep from falling over his own feet in nervousness, and God, who knew *moving* could be so loud?
"Breathe," Sheppard murmurs into his ear, body warm against his back when they pause at the kitchen door. "No voices."
"Can you hear, oh, *breathing*?" Rodney shoots back, peering inside. Way clear to the kitchen door. "Hey, and what do you know about driving a cart?"
"Nothing," Sheppard whispers as they cross the kitchen. Rodney snags an abandoned loaf of bread from the table. After their bread, powerbars are even more impossibly tasteless. "But you've been in one. Congratulations, you're the resident expert."
Emerging into the dim sunlight of early evening, Rodney turns, bracing Sheppard's wrists so he isn't thrown off by the movement. "No."
"Or we can walk." Sheppard's smirk is so not endearing.
"Colonel--" But there are people coming, and Rodney automatically turns his head away, feeling incredibly stupid while he does it. "Have you lost your mind?"
One hand behind him, Sheppard leans back into the stone doorway. "Not according to the healers. Do you see a cart?"
Rodney gives the immediate area a quick look. The flat dirt of the road, houses, people passing--wait. "Cart, um, thirty feet?" Squinting, Rodney makes out vaguely familiar alien writing. "I think it's the one that belongs to the hospital."
"Then we'll be borrowing, not stealing," Sheppard says, sounding indecently cheerful. "Thirty feet?"
"At your four, and I don't believe I'm doing this. Flat ground, um, road like. Christ, we *are* stuck in the middle ages. I miss plumbing."
"Maybe you can invent it for them before we leave," Sheppard says, giving Rodney's elbow a distinctively commanding tug. "Go. And casual, okay?"
Right. Casual. Straightening, Rodney drops his head instantly at the appearance of more people, going past them as quickly as Sheppard can keep up.
The horse stares at them with its one huge eye, and Rodney remembers belatedly he really doesn't like animals.