Originally published in the zine "Surfacing" by Duet Press.
And our hands
keep building, like a stonemason sleeping: his
buildings he has never been in want his hands
again. It is you I want again, left open.
-- Ed Kleinschmidt
When John sleeps, he dreams of cool midnight air wafting the first breath of relief over sweat-damp skin, of the soft hiss of ocean striking sand, of the grit and tang of salt and sweat ground in deeply. He dreams of a thousand shades of blue, robin's-egg sky and sapphire water and quick, cool eyes. He has never been able to taste in dreams before, but now he wakes every morning with salt and sunwarmed sand and the bite of ripened fruit on the back of his tongue. Sometimes he must stop and rest his palms on the skin of Atlantis, feel her hum and her quiver and remind himself he has returned.
Rodney -- no, John corrects himself, McKay; the first step to re-drawing boundaries is to force yourself to use the proper nomenclature -- spends early mornings down on south pier, bundled in an extra coat despite the spring breeze, hands shuffling a mug of coffee round and back again and only sipping from it once it must be long cold. John watches him from the sheltered overhang and wonders: what does McKay dream of?
"You both report that you built an excellent working relationship." Heightmeyer studies him like he has been laid out in another language, hieroglyphics and Linear A.
John realizes his fingers are deforming a paperclip, nudging and twisting and turning it over, and forces himself to stillness. "We were stranded," he says. "Shipwrecked. Jumper-wrecked, I suppose. We had an excellent working relationship to begin with; getting stuck together just made it more critical."
He watches her hands shaping notes, pen sliding over paper in an indecipherable, girlish scrawl. Some afternoons, he thinks about rising and standing over her shoulder, breathing against her neck and sliding his hands over her muscles, murmurring for her to relax and let go while he soothes away the tension he sees there, all just to catch a glimpse of the shape of himself on her notepad; he's learned the weapon of touch. He remembers Rodney's hands, blunt and scratched and red from the sun, and the way they carded through his hair and soothed away all the knots and snarls.
Three weeks before Rodney first touched him, quick and rough and desperate, hands just grasping wrists, hard enough to bruise, frantic for some proof they weren't simply dreaming. John had fought against the instinctive recoil and held as still as they had learned to keep during the blistering mid-day sun. "Sorry," Rodney had chanted, "sorry, sorry, I can't, I just --" but he hadn't let go and John hadn't forced him; he knew what the desert could do to a man and just because theirs had ocean and river didn't make it any less dry.
"You must have felt very isolated," Heightmeyer says. "Abandoned, perhaps?"
"No," John says. "We both have experience in knowing that someone would come for us. We just didn't know how long it would take."
McKay is sitting precisely where John knew he'd be: third lab down, in the midst of barely-controlled entropy, his fingertips still on the keyboard and his face distant as he stares at the wall over the edge of the monitor. Zelenka looks up when John lets himself in, then lets his eyes drop and does John the courtesy of remaining silent.
"You're late," John says. McKay's shoulders jerk and he spins around, coming into sharp focus.
The first thing McKay did was eat something someone else had prepared. The second thing he'd done was cut his hair and shave his beard. John can still see the lines of where it was, spreading pale and luminous over Rodney's mouth and jaw, like a secret made of flesh and bone. John wishes he'd been there to see its unveiling.
McKay does not meet his eyes, and John thinks he might comprehend the reason why. "Sorry," he says, quick and frantic. "I set myself a reminder, but --" He cuts himself off. "But you don't care. How did -- how did it go?"
John is aware of every pair of ears pretending not to listen. "Relatively painlessly. We're just gonna have appointments from now until the end of time."
His hand hovers at his side, inches away from slipping and stuttering against the curve of Rodney's shoulder. He can feel it under his fingers even now, broad and solid and fading from red to brown. He knows McKay can feel the imagined touch when he sways into it, the subtlest and supplest of curves like the bending of the dragon tree during afternoon storms.
"Welcome home," McKay says. "Here's your party; here's your diagnosis papers."
John laughs softly and ignores the looks it earns him. He can't tell if it's because the sound of his laughter is too normal, or not normal enough. "Come on," he says, and holds out the hand to help McKay out of his chair. It's a little thing he can give himself, small enough, and Rodney's skin is cooler than he remembers it being, but still fits just as well.
When John sleeps, he dreams of stars in foreign configurations, of purple-tinted sunrises, of the way sand feels between his toes when he digs his feet into it and lets it slide over his skin. He dreams of bodies cradled by a scooped-out hollow of beach, of the rough scrape of the emergency blanket beneath his cheek, of sun-worn bare skin exposed and new and raw. He dreams a comforting weight against his side, softening and opening and lifting him free, and of brown feet and wide hands and knowing eyes peeking out from behind pale strands of hair bleached bone by exposure, day after day, to the sun.
When John sleeps, he dreams for the first time not of dying but of being alive.
"How are you handling re-integrating yourself into your daily routine?" Heightmeyer asks. She is tapping her pen against her legal pad, thunk thunk click, in an annoying scattershot fashion.
John wants to reach forward and snatch it away, throw it out the windows he's never seen her open. He folds one hand over the other, interlaces his fingers, and flashes her his very best everything's-fine smile. "It's hard, but I think I'm good. Everyone's being really understanding. It's taking me some time to remember how everything works, but Carson's cleared me for light duty and I'm trying to think of a way to make Lorne do all my paperwork from now on, because my office has never been in better shape."
She laughs, as she is supposed to. "He was very concerned about you. We all were."
John holds the smile for a second, lets it fade as naturally as possible. "I know. I feel awful about what we put everyone through, but I'm really just happy we're alive. When the jumper went down, I didn't think we were going to make it."
She leans forward, the pen thankfully forgotten. "I've read the reports. The jumper's shields failed just as you were going through the gate to escape the Wraith attack, yes?"
John nods. More complicated than that, of course, but things always are. "The drive pod overloaded while we were still in the wormhole, and some kind of overload failsafe kicked in and tossed us out somewhere else entirely. I got us down on the planet the gate was orbiting. I don't understand what really happened, except what I managed to pick up from McKay when he was trying to put the wreckage back together again."
If Heightmeyer were a cat, her ears would have pricked up. "You call him McKay," she says. "Even after spending so long shipwrecked together?"
John spreads his hands and does his best impression of harmless. "Habits are hard to break," he says. She purses her lips and scribbles another cryptic line, and he wonders again whether the secrets he's allowing her to see will suffice.
John walks the halls when he can't sleep, ghosting half-dressed through the corridors on bare and silent feet. Atlantis is still as beautiful as she has always been, but it's harder to see with eyes that are trained to looking at the edges where ocean meets sand and sky meets ocean. There is water here, yes, but water penned and bound and tamed, held back by metal and technology, and even when his eyes are drawn to the horizon he can't forget they are masters of this ocean rather than being mastered by it.
His quiet footsteps bring him to Atlantis's baths, because in some small way they remind him of days of labor, muscles straining to haul rocks and fell trees with what few tools they could adapt or create, patiently damming the mountain-spring river right at the point before it took on the brackish taste of ocean. One pool to wash in, one in which to soak; the one scant concession to civilization and one of the only refuges from the heat of high noon. The baths of Atlantis are far less primitive. John used to wonder why they existed when the Ancients had showers in every set of quarters, but now he thinks he's beginning to understand.
He has already slipped off his sweatpants, the best compromise between half-remembered modesty and the memory of so long in nothing but rags and skin, when he realizes he is not alone. Blue eyes look back at him from the steam from the center pool, and he'd swear a week ago they'd been lighter, like they'd stored the rays of the sun and were reflecting them back. Without that luminescence, they've gone back to their original shade. "I'm sorry," McKay blurts abruptly, though John was the one to interrupt. "I can go --"
John shakes his head. "No," he says. "It's all right. Stay." The water's too hot when he slides into it, but John has faint memories of liking it that way, once upon a time. He settles back against the bench, across from McKay, and their toes brush under the faintest pressure of current. McKay jerks back, like he's been burned, then hesitates and settles again.
"It still feels like this isn't real," McKay finally says, after the silence has had time to grow comfortable. "Like we're dreaming."
John nods. "Or like the rest of it was a dream."
"Yes." McKay runs one water-slick hand over damp hair. A rivulet creeps down his neckline, right where John's lips know the taste of the curve. Knew. It would taste different now, of industry and technology and all the things they'd almost given up the hope of knowing again. "No. I don't know. It wasn't a dream, but -- it wasn't quite real, either."
"McKay." John's voice makes McKay's eyes, naked and wide and vulnerable, jerk up to meet his. John always knew Rodney would find regret again once he'd regained McKay's skin, but he can do his part to ease the way. "It's all right. We're back now. We can go back to the way things used to be."
McKay drops his eyes, skims his hand over the surface of the water and watches the concentric circles spreading ever outward. The tiny waves lap at John's chest. "I suppose," he says, dull and listless, then looks up again. "You're a good person to get shipwrecked with. Colonel."
"Funny," John says. "You didn't say that when you were threatening to kill me five times a day."
"Only when you were being stupid," McKay says automatically. Then stops. "Is it wrong to wish we were back there?"
John closes his eyes and leans his head back against the rim of the pool. "Two weeks ago you were complaining that your brain was atrophying and if you didn't get back to Atlantis soon you were going to turn into a drooling vegetable."
McKay snorts, a tiny sound that's not amusement. "That's me," he says, sour like lemons. "I only want what I can't have."
It's not an insight John would have expected from McKay, but Rodney's been surprising him since the minute they finally agreed there was nothing they could do except make themselves comfortable and try to survive until their call for help was picked up by someone. John's starting to hate getting stranded in the Pegasus galaxy; it leads to uncomfortable realizations.
"I should go," McKay says, suddenly. "I bet you want to be alone."
Three weeks ago, John had put on the last remaining rags of his uniform, picked up his P90 with its carefully conserved ammo, and walked up the river for three days straight, craving solitude so desperately he thought he might be willing to kill for it. When he'd returned, briar-scratched and limping, Rodney had thrown himself against John's chest. A litany of chittering insults, of paranoia, of recrimination and remonstration, all wrapped up as cover for Rodney's fear he'd been abandoned. It had been punctuated by Rodney's hands, moving over John's skin, his shoulders, his hips, holding and pulling tight and close as though Rodney hadn't even been aware of their actions.
"It's okay," John says. He doesn't let his toes creep across the bottom of the pool, doesn't reach for Rodney's hand. "I spent so long with you, I can put up with you for half an hour now."
When John sleeps, he dreams of sunrise peeking over the fathomless depths of crystalline waters, of the crash and hiss of breakers licking at the shore, of spending countless patient hours building sand-replicas of his city and then watching the tide crumble them away. He has always dreamed of home, but home is a multifaceted variable that sidles away when he tries to confront it head-on. He dreams now of plaiting sun-covers from the fronds of trees, of the swift and sure motions he'd learned through long trial, of the abrasions on the backs of his knuckles where he'd reached for the wrong branch of the breadfruit tree and scratched himself on the skin of an unripe fruit.
He dreams of fingertips skimming down his spine, idly tracing vertebrae as though they were a map to the stars, as though they were recalcitrant control crystals needing to be finessed into behaving. He dreams of the curve of muscle beneath his palm, of mapping every inch, perusing every centimeter. He dreams of learning the purpose of touch, the decathecting of his carefully-constructed rituals of space, of learning the process and the taste of desire.
When John sleeps, he dreams of being free. And then he wakes, and Atlantis sings in his ears, and he puts on his best impression of himself and tries to fit himself back into the shape he'd left behind him.
The staves catch the afternoon sunlight spilling across the salle's floor. Ten months bled away the skill John had built over three years; Teyla raps him on the backs of the thighs when he fumbles the final parry, leaving himself open for a back-strike and a kill.
"You are clumsy today," she says, bringing her staves together into the position of rest and studying him with that knowing gaze.
He turns his face away, walks through the motions of the form he failed to complete: half speed, the slowest of strikes, trying to remember when it had felt -- no, not easy, but suffused with more ease, instead of this molasses crawl. "Out of practice," he says. She should remember him well enough to know the finality in his tone.
"Yes," she says. She crosses the room to the window-seat, picking up her bottle of water and draining half of it in a single draught. "But you are also disquieted by something. You should know that I am willing to listen to whatever you are unable to tell Dr. Heightmeyer, if you are in need of a friend."
John swings the staff in one hand, testing the length and weight of it, describing half-arcs in mid-air. "Thanks," he says. She means well, she really does; she always has. "You know I'm bad at..."
"Talking," she finishes for him. "Particularly about your emotions. But no one can undergo an experience such as yours and find themselves unchanged on the other side. Perhaps it is time to learn new methods of communication."
He turns, searching her face for some clue that her words have greater depth than visible on the surface, but Teyla's still waters have always carried an undercurrent, and he's forgotten how to read those enigmatic eyes. "Maybe," he says. It's all he'll allow.
"If you cannot talk to me, perhaps you would consider speaking with Dr. McKay." Teyla taps one staff against her ankle, the only sign she gives of her impatience with John's slow re-learning of all the motions she's known since before she even reached her rite of adulthood. "He is equally disturbed, and equally in need of companionship."
"I'll think about it," John says. It's a brushoff, and he knows she knows it. "Come on. Let's try that again."
For a minute, it appears as though she is about to say something. Instead she simply nods and crosses the room on quiet feet. Her face says she will be patient, but her patience has a limit, and if John does not address his failings to her satisfaction, she reserves the right to begin the conversation again.
He's startled to find he can still read it. He would have expected them all to evolve into strangers; maybe he's the only one who can barely remember his name.
When John sleeps, he dreams of the agony of falling in love, the terror born of waking to find your world has been redefined, your boundaries redrawn, while your gaze was fixed on the horizon far away.
Sometimes he opens his eyes to find he has spread his hand over the pillow, reaching for something he could not hope to hold. On those mornings, he remembers the faded metal of the sky coming on noon, the weight of the air, rich and redolent, in the back of his throat. Then he rises and offers his body up to the fall of lukewarm water, dresses himself in the uniform that defines him. Sooner or later it'll get easier to pretend.
"Tell me what you miss the most about your planet," Heightmeyer says.
John is looking out the window, where a not-quite-albatross is lazily surfing the currents, winging around the pier as though something interesting might present itself if it only waits long enough.
"Not having to worry about anything more complicated than whether we'd be able to find something other than fruit for dinner," he says. It's a comfortable enough lie.
"Tell me what you missed the most about Atlantis, when you were there."
Being John Sheppard, he thinks, but he knows if he says it, he'll lose his last hopes of getting out of here without being pinned to a board and dissected. "The sky," he says instead, because she's read all his files and knows he's a pilot down to his bones.
She folds her hands over her legal pad and studies him. "And yet you haven't gone flying since you've come home."
There's a lot of things he hasn't done since he's returned. "I'm saving it for when we really need it," he says. "Jumpers aren't toys."
He doesn't think she's buying it, but it's always worth a try.
On day twenty-seven, McKay bulls into John's quarters and slams a hand down on his desk. "I've had enough of this shit," he says, strident and discordant and oh-so-familiar.
John looks up. McKay is starting to lose his tan; it's fading ever paler, edging back to the pallor of a man who never sees the sun, and John's surprised to find how odd it looks on him now.
"What shit?" he asks.
"Your pretending-nothing-ever-happened shit. You haven't even been able to look at me in weeks. It happened. Get over it."
Anger flares in the back of his throat, but he tamps it down, packs it away. He's spent twenty-seven days trying to remember the rules of behavior for civilized people, and he's pretty sure one of them involves not having screaming matches with no provocation. "Just like that," John says, neat and clipped.
McKay fumbles for a second, like he's trying to find the words to declaim all the ways John makes him crazy. "All I am saying," he says -- sharp, precise -- "is that you are making it very difficult to rebuild some semblance of a normal pattern of behavior. And my coping skills are not advanced enough to do the coping for both of us. It would help if you had the balls to look me in the eye."
John's heart catches in his throat. "I'm sorry," he says. For once, he actually means it. "I didn't realize I was --"
"You are," McKay says.
"I'll stop," John says. "It's just hard to --"
He's grown used to Rodney filling in the ends of his sentences when he trails off like that, either verbally or just in the depths of that tremendous, intuitive brain, but this time he's met with nothing other than expectant silence and cool blue eyes.
"I've been dreaming," he says instead. "Of being back there again."
"I don't remember my dreams," McKay says, and turns on his heel to go.
When John sleeps, he dreams of Rodney.
Broad hands, quiet and capable, grip his hips and pull him close. They are unclothed -- bare, bared, baked by sun and sand, burned down to nothing but essence. Rodney has never been beautiful before, but here, now, open and wet and wanting, John can see him right down to bone and spine. Rodney breathes like his breath builds the world, like each exhale draws its boundaries, each inhale shores its foundations. He rolls over on their woven mat, squints against the sunlight straining through their shelter, and waits like he will wait forever.
There are words straining against John's lips, words of denial, of negation, and perhaps Rodney can see them, because he runs the tips of his fingers over John's mouth, watching, and John's breath catches at the impulse to catch those fingers between his lips, nip at them with his teeth and suckle the salt and sand away. Rodney's face is close, too close, and his eyes are naked and free, and suddenly John knows that all his choices, all his renunciations, are of another world. They can't shelter him here: not from this landscape of magnificent desolation, not from the terror of being stripped wide and wanting.
He rests his mouth against Rodney's collarbone and Rodney tips his head back, without taking his eyes from John's face. Inviting. John cannot remember a time when Rodney did not look at him like this, closely, so closely, reaching out of desperation and desire, but he has forgotten what it means to be free. He breathes against Rodney's skin and reaches for all the things he never thought he could have.
Afterwards they lie side-by-side, not touching, sticky with sweat and the stifling oppression of the mid-day air. This time, now, while John is sleeping, he dreams of the quenching of a mist of rain, of a shaft of sunlight falling through the clouds to bless their wilderness, of all the words he should have spoken and never did. He dreams of Rodney's arms, stretching out for him, welcoming him and turning him in, gathering him: mindfully, intently, with a patient consideration and a quiet thrumming joy, and when he wakes he knows that he cannot count a moment since their return when Rodney's name has not slumbered on his lips, carving itself a home.
Rodney is sitting on the south pier, wrapped in a Kevlar blanket and clutching a cup of coffee. John toes off his shoes and sits next to him, dangling his feet in the ocean, concentrating on how the morning mist tangles and swirls around his ankles.
They sit like that for a long minute. Here, before the day begins, they can drink in the presence of each other, drop the shoulds and mustn'ts and simply be. Rodney is the first to break the silence they are building between them. "I'm always so cold these days," he says, and fumbles at the center of his chest to catch the edges of the blanket in his fingers, drawing it close.
"I've forgotten how to wear clothes," John says. "I always feel like I'm choking."
It costs him to admit it. High collars, long sleeves; these have always been his refuge, his armor and defense. He makes of his words an offering, knowing Rodney will hear it, knowing Rodney will understand what it stands for.
They fall silent again. Rodney finally turns; he fits his hand against John's face, thumb crossing cheekbone, fingers cupping jaw, and lets it come to rest.
For a heartbeat, John starts to pull away, and then stops himself. Maybe it's all right. Maybe now, finally, it's all right.
"We don't have to come all the way home," Rodney says. "I don't think we even can."
"Maybe," John says, and what he is really saying is Rodney. He skims his toes over the top of the sea, so familiar and so alien all at once, and drops his head against Rodney's shoulder.
Rodney's hand falls away from his face, hovering uncertainly in mid-air, and finally comes to rest on the curve of John's thigh. John breathes in the salt and the sunrise and the steel of reality, and his skin flowers beneath Rodney's touch.