An Aesthetic Solitary Thing
He is outside of everything, and alien everywhere. He is an aesthetic solitary. His beautiful, light imagination is the wing that on the autumn evening just brushes the dusky window. - Henry James
"I don't understand."
One part of John's mind idly wondered how many times Elizabeth had made that statement since coming to Atlantis, and in that same stunned tone. The other nine-tenths were busy trying to process Beckett's words. Xenogenic material.
Elizabeth sat down at her desk, almost but not quite missing the chair. "How did it get there?"
"And what the hell is it?" John said, cutting to the important point. "Wraith?" He felt queasy even suggesting it, but it was the first thing that sprang to mind.
Before Beckett could respond, Elizabeth said, "Rodney was tested for exposure to the virus like everyone else after you were bitten by the Iratus bug."
Beckett finally got a word in. "The sample doesn't match anything we've seen so far in the Pegasus galaxy. It's not Wraith."
Elizabeth and John exchanged a glance, each wondering if the other had a better grasp of what the implications might be. "What does that mean?" Elizabeth asked.
After a hesitation, Beckett said, "Well, I haven't ruled out the possibility of hereditary transmission." He looked as if he couldn't quite believe his own words and his eyes were wider than normal.
Elizabeth's chair creaked as she sat back abruptly. Her lips were parted in expressive astonishment. "You think this is a preexisting condition?"
"I'm not sure of anything yet." Beckett sounded overwrought.
"Candidates for the Atlantis expedition were given thorough physical exams and genetic screenings. How could something like this have been overlooked?"
"Wait." John sat up straighter in his chair. "Are you saying now that it's Goa'uld?"
Beckett looked at him in obvious exasperation. "I'm saying nothing of the kind, Colonel." He refocused on Elizabeth, took a steadying breath, and softened his voice. "In fact, I've already checked the material against EDNA--that's our extraterrestrial DNA catalog--and found no match there either."
"So how--" Elizabeth paused, gaze lowering as she thought that over.
"I don't know." Beckett gave an apologetic shrug. "As for why it wasn't caught--we screen only for known elements. Not to mention, if these genes were present at the time, they might well have been inactive. Something's triggered them though--they're fusing with other, human genes and changing radically. Frankly, I have no idea what they're doing."
John glanced at them both, and then his expression turned determined and a bit grim. "I think maybe it's time to talk with someone who does."
"I hope this is important," Rodney said, sweeping into the room. He had a capped coffee travel mug in one hand and a slim graphics tablet with clip-on stylus in the other. "I have three back-to-back project reviews, a new segment of the Ancient database to analyze, and a running simulation for minimizing power consumption in the shield routers, and please don't ask me about--" He took note of their expressions and his mouth snapped shut as he sat down, the movement slower than his speech had been. "I'm not going to like this, am I?"
Elizabeth looked at Beckett, then back to Rodney. She leaned forward, folding her arms on the table, hands clasped. "Doctor Beckett has been testing your blood for effects from your recent radiation exposure--"
"Yes, I still have the bruise from the unnecessarily large needle." Rodney gave Beckett one of his milder dirty looks.
"He's discovered an abnormality in your DNA," she said. "We were wondering if you might be able to explain it."
"Abnormality? What kind of abnormality?" Rodney looked alarmed. "Oh god, I've got radiation poisoning. Fatigue, bruising--I think I felt some nausea earlier--and this kind of thing is cumulative. I knew it would catch up with me eventually."
"It's not an effect of radiation," Beckett said. "If it were, we'd be seeing a reduction in your white and red cell counts, ionization--probably some changes in cell configuration. What you have are anomalous genes of a kind I've never seen before." He paused, then said with care, "These aren't human genes, Rodney."
"What? That doesn't make sense." Rodney laughed, rather nervously as it sounded to John. "I mean, it can't be Wraith. I haven't been bitten, or scratched." He looked at John, brow knitting in apparent confusion. "I'd know if I had been."
The mask his face had become made itself felt in the muscles of John's cheeks. "Beckett thinks you might have carried this genetic material before you came to Atlantis."
It was hard to tell in the room's light, but Rodney's face seemed to be draining of color. "That's ridiculous," he said, his voice higher in pitch. "I never went offworld until I came here. I've been on thirty-seven missions. Clearly I must have been exposed to something on one of them--some, some alien virus or something. Probably quite harmless." His tone was brisk, tight, and dismissive.
"Harmless," Elizabeth repeated, cocking her head. "How do you reach that conclusion?"
Rodney swallowed visibly. "Well, I haven't noticed any effects."
"Fatigue, bruising, nausea," John said.
Waving his hand in a vague way, Rodney said. "We all know I exaggerate."
"You know what this is." John made the statement flatly, forcing a confrontation.
Rodney's gaze was downcast and he was silent, mouth set in an unhappy slash. He was rubbing both hands across the table top, an unconscious, distressed motion.
"Rodney," Elizabeth said more gently, "We just want to understand this." John could never tell at times like this how much of her projected concern was real and how much was the skill of professional diplomacy. He wondered if she did herself--maybe not. He wasn't even sure what he was feeling.
"This wasn't supposed to happen."
"What is happening?"
"You're going to freak out." Rodney never said things like "freak out." This was going to be weird and bad. For what seemed like a long time, but was probably only about fifteen seconds--a long time for Rodney--he didn't speak, then finally broke out with, "You need to understand. We don't talk about it. How does it go--the first rule of Fight Club is don't talk about Fight Club. That's what it's like. It's so ingrained."
John exchanged a glance with Elizabeth. We? he wondered, but didn't dare interrupt the flow of speech.
"My people--" He paused again, shoulders tense, hands curled into white-knuckled fists. He was looking around at them, obviously waiting for the freak-out to come. John's pulse picked up and he was aware of the gun on his hip, but he held himself still. Rodney went on. "We can 'seed'," he made air quotes, "other races. We can pass for human."
Beckett blew out a little breath and his expression communicated his wordless, regretful belief that Rodney had gone around the bend. John could see him mentally preparing the next steps--security, straitjacket, padded room.
"Believe me, I know how it sounds," Rodney said impatiently. "But how is it stranger than anything else you've seen? But we're not like the Goa'uld. The initial reproductive act has to be a bit...creative. There's only one primogenitor when a new race is seeded." He twitched a bit, looking uncomfortable. "I mean, we're different in pure form. That's probably no surprise. But the offspring looks completely human. And all other hybrids stem from that single line. Unlike humans, we can sustain genetic diversity with a very small gene pool. Actually, after the first few generations, we usually stop interbreeding. Not entirely, but...."
He dwindled into silence, and the rest of them didn't immediately speak.
"That's...quite a story," John said finally.
"You think I'm making this up?" Rodney stared at him. "You asked. I told you."
"You're like cuckoos," Beckett said. John could see him groping as he tried to process Rodney's revelation.
Rodney gave him a disgusted look. "Yes, thank you, reduce a complex intelligent species to the level of a lower animal. And your analogy is flawed: cuckoos lay eggs in the nests of other birds. We raise our own young."
"You're saying your ancestors impregnated a human woman with one of their--kind," Elizabeth said. "Was this woman a willing partner?"
"I don't know the details. That was generations ago." Despite this claim, he looked shifty-eyed and fidgety at the question.
"What do you look like when you're--" John made an up-and-down gesture at Rodney.
"When I'm what? Irritated? Insulted? Like this. I don't transfigure. I can't. Except--" His gaze flickered down and to one side, mouth tightening for a moment, then he looked at Beckett. "I've been feeling strange lately. Restless, moody. I've been having dreams. I can't remember them when I wake up but they're disturbing. Also my skin itches between my shoulder blades and I'm getting freckles in new and unusual places."
"These genes we've found--they're activating and fusing with human DNA." Beckett gave Rodney concerned attention, apparently having decided to believe him. "Do you have any idea why?"
Rodney's fingers knit and unknit, betraying frayed nerves. "Okay. What I said just now--I may have implied that hybrids can't change form, but that isn't entirely accurate. A partial metamorphosis takes place during our mating cycle. But personally, I--I'm different."
John gave him a dry, level look. "In any species, apparently."
Anger, and then a flicker of embarrassment, even misery, crossed Rodney's face. "I was told I'm infertile. Sometimes we're just born that way."
"Like a mule," John said.
Rodney roused himself to a glare again. "If you want to be offensive, sure."
"You have a mating cycle," Elizabeth said, obviously wishing in a heartfelt way that he didn't. John was right there with her.
"I just said that I don't. Except...maybe." He seemed caught by the thought for the first time, interested. "Huh. That might explain the symptoms I've been having."
You've got to be kidding, John thought, fighting dismay. Beckett seemed to be thinking the same thing.
Elizabeth pressed him. "And what exactly does a mating cycle entail?"
He blinked at her. "I need to explain procreation?"
"In this instance? Yes."
"It happens in the usual way. The basic mechanics don't change. The physiological differences just help it along. Hormones get churned up." He frowned vaguely. "I'm not a biologist. I don't know all the details. Physically, some unusual characteristics develop. Relatively speaking." The subject seemed as discomforting for him as for the rest of them.
"Such as?" John asked in a sharp voice.
"Some pigmentary changes--the freckles I mentioned will probably spread. Some changes to my hair, possibly scent." His dropped his gaze, not looking anyone in the eye. "Wings," he said, quickly adding: "Claws, other minor and miscellaneous--"
"Wings?" John sat up straighter. "Wings."
Rodney's jaw lifted and he squirmed. "Small ones," he said in a faltering voice. "They sort of waft the pheromones around. From what I understand."
"Oh my," Beckett said, looking stunned, as if someone had just lobbed a fly ball at his head. "This is a lot to take in, Rodney." It was an understatement worthy of an Army PR officer reporting body counts.
"Did you always know that you were--different?" Elizabeth asked. "Even when you were a child?"
"Yes, of course."
There was no of course about it, John wanted to tell him, but the words didn't come. Some part of him felt locked up, like a stuck gear. He didn't know how to deal with this information. If it had been anyone else, he'd have had a measure of distance; he'd have been able to consider it objectively. But it was Rodney--a guy he'd worked with for two years. A friend, who'd kept a monumental secret from him. From everyone.
"You're an alien," John said in summary. His palms were resting flat on the table in an instinctive need to ground him against its surface.
"'Alien' is only meaningful as a relative term. I'm half human and half...not."
"How many of your people are there on Earth?" Elizabeth asked in a sudden swerve of focus.
"A little over five hundred."
She lifted her brows slightly. "That doesn't seem like very many if you've been there for generations."
"We're not there to colonize," Rodney snapped. "We don't mean any harm. I realize that aliens in the movies always say that right before they eat you, but in our case it's true. We're just on Earth to observe, and occasionally to help--though to be honest I've taken that practice further than most. Actually I'm considered to be rather eccentric among my kind."
"No kidding," John commented in a bland mimicry of surprise.
Rodney drummed the fingers of one hand on the table. "Yes. You're funny, Colonel. But you can't deny that I've been of immense value to this expedition. Not to mention that the work I do could someday benefit humanity at large."
Crossing his arms, John inclined his head in faint acknowledgment. "True. But how can we be sure that helping us is your only motive?"
A hurt look flashed across Rodney's face before his expression flattened. "How can you be sure of Elizabeth or Zelenka? Look at Caldwell. Any of us could be a spy, a saboteur."
John leaned forward, gaze intent on him. "Are there others on the expedition?"
Rodney's lips tightened. "No."
"In government? The military? The SGC?" His tone was sharpening, full of insinuation; he couldn't seem to stop himself. Rodney didn't answer, just regarded him with a set jaw and fierce, aggrieved eyes. He wasn't flustered by the questions though, John noticed. He'd probably been expecting them. Anyone in his position would.
"John." Elizabeth warned him off with a look.
"What are you going to do to me?" Rodney asked her abruptly. "Lock me up?" His mouth twisted bitterly to one side. "Turn me over to the NID? Maybe you'll get a complimentary copy of the autopsy footage."
"We're not turning you over to the NID, Rodney," Elizabeth said, tone instructing him to relax.
Rodney flicked a look at John and Beckett, then back at her.
"This is, however, something we need to discuss." She gazed steadily at him.
"Without me, you mean." He gave a jerky nod. "Of course. I take it I'm at liberty to move about the city, then?" His tone bordered on mocking, but betrayed a strain of uncertainty.
Elizabeth lowered her head enough to suggest compunction and looked briefly to John, then nodded when he offered no protest.
Rodney stood and gathered his things, hesitated, then squared his shoulders and left without another word. As the door slid shut behind him, John released a pent-up breath.
"Well," said Elizabeth into the shellshocked air. "That was...unexpected."
John found Rodney sitting on a stool at his favorite lab counter, staring into his monitor in a glum and sightless way. He looked up immediately at John's entry. John saw a small shudder run through his body, and caught a darting glance at his gun hand. Did Rodney really think he might have come to shoot him? John's shock at the idea sent a cold wave through his flesh, ending in his gut, and he suddenly felt the barrier he'd put up between them collapse. This was Rodney.
"Hey," John said.
Rodney nodded in greeting.
John went over to the counter and leaned one hip against it, staring at Rodney with a prickle of hyperconscious interest--he couldn't help himself. If he was changing form, John couldn't see any evidence of it yet. He had the same blue eyes that could pin a man at fifty paces, the same receding hairline and crooked lips, the same oddly sloped nose.
"Now I know what it feels like to be an animal in a zoo," Rodney said. His attempt to keep his tone light hit John as poignant, and there was a vulnerability to the cast of his face that almost moved John to close the gap between them and squeeze his arm.
"Sorry." John kept his tone frank. "You have to expect us to be curious."
"I suppose. Yes." Rodney fiddled with a silver pen, then drew himself upright on the stool and turned to face John as if bracing himself for unwelcome news. "So what's the verdict?"
"Beckett wants to give you a full physical examination."
"Mm, well, that's not exactly a surprise," Rodney said dryly.
"Elizabeth would like you to document your background--the background of your people, I mean. History, culture, language--religion."
Rodney grimaced. "Swell." His lashes dipped as he grew lost in thought for several beats.
"How much do you know? And what are you called, anyway?"
"Esnun," Rodney said automatically, then gave him a sharp, pained look. "I'm not used to talking about this." He shifted his feet against the stool.
"I figured that."
"You probably have a lot of questions."
"That's safe to say. Mostly right now I'm wondering about this whole 'mating' thing."
"Ah. Right." Rodney cleared his throat and jittered in place, eyes skating away from meeting John's gaze. "The, ah, mating thing. The truth is..." His face was oddly blank as he came to terms with the matter for what might have been the first time in his life. "The truth is I don't know very much about it. My parents had synchronized cycles once--that's when Jeannie was conceived. But there are only a few hundred of us, scattered widely around the globe. I haven't had much chance to observe courtship firsthand. There's a certain level of race memory and instinct, but that's about it."
The casual mention of race memory raised fascinating questions, but John managed not to let it divert him. "So there was no birds-and-the-bees talk, I take it."
"Oh, we had that. But I never expected to personally experience this."
"So you said." He paused a beat then said quietly, "What's going to happen, Rodney? What should we expect?"
Rodney's shoulders hunched a little. "It'll develop over a week or so, and last a few more weeks. After it's over, the physical changes should revert. Since this has never happened before, I can't predict whether it will happen again."
They were both quiet for a minute, drawn into their own thoughts. The stretch of silence didn't seem too uncomfortable, but John wasn't sure what Rodney was feeling. "Can you get through this if you were to stay in your quarters?"
"I don't know. It's a biological imperative."
"There aren't any other Esnun around," John pointed out.
"Yes, I'm quite aware of that," Rodney said with a small flare of temper. "And don't worry, I'm not going to die. I'm not going into pon farr. It's bearable. I just don't know how distracting it will be."
"Can you--I mean, can a human--" It was John's turn to squirm at the awkward subject.
"Oh." John wasn't sure what to do with this knowledge now that he had it. His mind leapfrogged sideways to another thought. "This thing you had for Major Carter--" He let that hang, the question implied.
Rodney's expression turned wistful and rather sad. "I always thought that if anyone could understand and appreciate me, it would be her."
"Seems like a reasonable assumption," John said, the equivalent of a verbal shrug.
Looking up in surprise, Rodney said, "Really?" He smiled.
"The SGC's probably the best place to look for a relationship, under the circumstances." John twitched a semi-smile back at Rodney.
"I thought about telling her," he admitted. His eyes were direct. "I thought about telling you. But honestly, most of the time it's not in my thoughts at all. How often do you stop to think about being human? In my whole life, it's never mattered to anything I've done. If this hadn't come up," he waved fingers at himself, "we could have worked together for years and you'd never have suspected a thing."
That was something to think about. "I don't know," John said, pretending to consider Rodney. "It certainly explains a lot of things."
"Oh, ha ha." Rodney rolled his eyes. Then a knot of concern appeared in his brow. "Do you really think it's noticeable?" His voice had gone reedy and anxious and the imploring look he gave John was strangely innocent.
"Well, you're...different. But not in a bad way." John straightened. "Come on, Starman. Let's get dinner."
Rodney smiled again, a sweet, almost shy smile, and let John shepherd him to the mess hall.
They ended up talking for hours, in the mess, on the north overlook, and later in John's quarters. It was the longest conversation they'd ever had, and with every detail Rodney shared, the more John's picture of him filled out. Many of the oddball quirks that John had put down to genius and neurosis now had a context.
"Even though the physical differences are minimal for hybrids, I'm always afraid I'll have some anomalous reaction--I'll be poisoned by some new food that's harmless to everyone else, or freakishly injured, or I'll start mutating, and then they'll run tests and I'll get found out."
"I thought you hardly ever thought about it."
Rodney rested his head against the back of his Ancient armchair and gazed out the open doors of John's balcony, through which a night sea breeze blew. "It's more an instinctive fear. Caution becomes second nature. We're taught young to avoid risks."
John's arms were folded along the top of his own chair, a straight-lined, simpler item that he'd turned backwards to sit on. "But you haven't. You're here, you're out in the field--that's pretty amazing." Rodney was a hell of a lot braver than he'd ever imagined, in his own unique, high-strung way. John had heard it said that courage could only exist where there was fear to overcome, while fearlessness was lack of imagination--stupidity, even. He'd made a practice of reminding himself of this whenever Rodney's worrying threatened to drive him nuts, but the truth was driven home now.
"Are all your people as smart as you?"
"Are you kidding?" A touch of familiar arrogance added a lilt to Rodney's voice, and he gave John an amused look. "Please."
"What would you look like," John asked a little while later in the conversation. "If you were fully--Esnun?"
Rodney appeared to be at a loss, and maybe a bit uneasy. His gaze started flickering around, with him always a sign of distraction or apprehension. "I'm not sure that's, that you," he began in a hesitant voice.
"Rodney, it's okay. I'm not going to wig out or anything."
"Right. Okay. Um. Taller--or, longer, depending on your perspective. More arms, commonly four to six, though they're not arms per se. More like tentacles. Much more hair, all over. I suppose you could call it fur. Legs, two, but there's also a broad fanlike appendage, like a tail. Facially--" He broke off, catching John's unguarded expression. "That enough?"
"Sorry," John said. "I guess I expected you'd look more..."
"Human. I know." He sighed. "At least we're not giant flatworms. I know it may not sound like it, but our parent species is actually quite aesthetically pleasing."
There wasn't a whole lot John could say to that, but he adopted what he hoped was an agreeable expression. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
"You have all the profundity of a fortune cookie," Rodney said, shaking his head with something between irritation and affection.
"I do my best," John said modestly.
After examining Rodney, Beckett reported his findings to Elizabeth and John. "I ran all the tests myself without bringing in any of our microbiologists, and gave him a physical exam. Even since yesterday, his morphology's undergone significant alteration. Skin tone is changing rapidly and the, er, wings are starting to surface." Beckett looked like a man who needed a stiff drink and only a small nudge to give in. "There's also unusual growth in his arms, branching off the triceps along the humerus bones. He says they're--well, he says they're extra appendages."
"Tentacles," John said with a straight face.
Beckett sighed in a jaded way and looked resigned to the bizarrity, but Elizabeth repeated "Tentacles?" in a faint voice.
"Well, not tentacles per se," John said.
"Do we know what effects the mating cycle will have on him?" she asked Beckett.
"According to Rodney, he can probably expect euphoria, heightened sensitivity, and a reduced ability to concentrate--not to mention an overactive libido that could probably power Atlantis."
John raised his brows at the less than professional phrasing.
Elizabeth just looked concerned. "Is he going to be okay if he confines himself to his quarters for the duration?"
"Aye. He should get through it all right. But he's going to be fighting some devilish strong urges before it's over."
"Strong enough that he might decide to go walking in the moonlight?" she asked, her tone deceptively light, but with an underlying edge.
She looked at John, hands clasped in front of her with the firmness of a judge's gavel. "We can't put a guard on his quarters without giving them some explanation."
He narrowed his eyes, disliking the idea on Rodney's behalf. "Assigning security would be taking things a bit far."
"And if he starts wandering the city and someone sees his wings? How would we explain that?"
John shrugged. "Alien virus?"
They decided on a more or less similar reason for their cover story--a mild but contagious bug that would keep Rodney in informal quarantine until it ran its course, while allowing him to maintain a light workload by computer. If anyone asked, John was supposed to be immune to the disease.
He visited Rodney regularly the first few days, bringing him meals and news and lending a sympathetic ear to his grumbles. ("Elizabeth keeps sending back my reports covered in questions--what does it matter what the name of our planet's capital is? What possible use could she have for that information?") Then a mission came up requiring John's presence; he was gone two days. As soon as he returned through the gate, Beckett collared him and dragged him into the privacy of his office.
"What's wrong?" John asked sharply. "Is Rodney all right?"
Beckett exhaled a ragged breath and shook his head. "He's climbing the walls, poor lad, and he's all but stopped eating."
"I know," Beckett said, looking as amazed as John felt. "I think you should see him as soon as you can. He's been asking after you. Not to put too fine a point on it, he's been at Elizabeth and me nonstop. I don't think he even realizes how often. He's a bit unfocused."
"I'll go see him now." He turned to leave, but Beckett put a hand on his arm.
"Colonel, I should warn you--he's changed a great deal in the time you've been away."
"Well, no more than we expected, but--it takes some getting used to."
Steeling himself with Beckett's vaguely cautionary words, John headed to Rodney's rooms and buzzed for entry. When he got no answer, he let himself in. The scent hit him first; a heavy muskiness that reminded him of walking into Indian stores where incense was burning, except the scent wasn't from some impersonal substance, but warm and half-familiar.
Standing inside, the door closing behind him, he looked around. The lights had been lowered and the room was messier than when he'd left, with clothes and towels and other personal items lying scattered on the floor and furniture.
A clattering sound came from the bathroom and Rodney appeared in the doorway, a brighter light spilling over his shoulders from behind. "Oh thank god," he said in a rough, cracking voice.
John's gaze ran slowly over his features and down his form. The other man was still recognizably human, but Beckett hadn't exaggerated. John approached on autopilot, the room lights responding to his wishes and rising enough to let him see clearly. Rodney remained framed in the doorway, letting him look.
He was naked, but it hardly registered as such. His skin had taken on elaborate tawny patterns, irregular whorls that suggested the designs on butterfly wings or inkblots; where these didn't appear, silky, lighter-colored hair feathered up in layers and rippled with faint movement. Similarly embellished hair stood out around his head like a corona, and wings rattled agitatedly behind him, light washing through where the membranes thinned so that they looked like stained glass in shades of dark to light amber.
Rodney shivered and John's gaze was caught by heavy ridges running along the insides of each arm, ending in knots of raw-looking flesh around the wrists. That must be where the tentacles pushed out, John thought. He wondered if it hurt.
"Hey," he said after he found his voice, trying for a casual tone.
"John." Rodney's own voice was small and lost, and John made himself meet his eyes. They were nearly solid black as if the pupils had bled out, and wet with tears. He broke suddenly and pushed into John's arms, startling him.
"Okay," John said, unnerved. "Take it easy."
"Oh Jesus, please," Rodney whispered, and John felt the blunt nudge of his erection. "I'm so sorry--" He almost sobbed the words. His hips had started rubbing with helpless urgent thrusts against John's.
"Rodney--I--" Frozen by shock, John had no idea what to do or say. One hand had wound by instinct into Rodney's hair, which was astonishingly soft and brushed John's palm with a crackle of electricity; the other rested in the small of Rodney's back, under the tickle of jumpy wings.
"I didn't know it would be so--" Rodney was breathing in harsh gasps, barely getting the words out. "I need you--John, I need--"
"Take what you need," John said quietly.
Rodney whimpered and jerked hard, and John felt a hot intimation of something against his pants leg. He stroked Rodney's hair and lower back until the worst trembling eased.
"I'm sorry," Rodney repeated, sounding miserable. He pulled away, eyes averted.
"It's okay." It was a lame, reflexive response, but John was surprised to realize he meant it. Maybe he was getting intergalactically jaded, like Beckett; or maybe it was just that Rodney was Rodney. This wasn't some alien abduction or unwanted probing. They were friends.
"Look." Absently, John rubbed one of Rodney's shoulders, his fingers pushing rivulets through the fur. It was a compelling distraction. "I'm not upset. Seriously. You don't have to apologize."
"You should go." Rodney wouldn't look at him.
"Actually, I think I should stay."
The desperate edge was back in Rodney's voice. "You know what I want to do."
"So do it. Do anything you want. Except get me pregnant," John amended. "You, ah, can't, can you?"
"Oh for god's sake," Rodney muttered, sounding more like himself. "No."
"Good. Because I'd hate to have to explain that to Beckett. He's having a hard enough time."
John stripped off his jacket and shirt. By the time he got to his belt, Rodney was watching avidly, fingers clenching and unclenching as if he were hungry to touch. Claws curled out from where fingernails had been, glossy, black, and sharply pointed. John hoped Rodney had enough self-control to keep them sheathed during the good parts.
"You're so amazing," Rodney said, words full of wonder. He reached out to stroke a hand down John's bare chest. The pads of his fingers felt smooth and hot, and his claw tips did rake John's skin, but gently. John took Rodney's hand and examined it.
"You're pretty amazing yourself," he said. He looked into Rodney's eyes and found him there, a deep familiar presence. "So, this may be an awkward question, but when you say you've never mated before--what does that mean exactly?"
"I've had sex," Rodney said quickly, as if stung to masculine pride. "Lots of sex. Times. Just not like this."
John smiled. "Just checking."
"It's so intense." Rodney resumed stroking John's chest, dark eyes following the trail of his fingers. "I can sense more, feel--so much more." He dipped his head and licked up the curve of John's throat on one side.
Whoa, John thought hazily, knees buckling a fraction. The brush of Rodney's hair swept a wave of scent to John that he breathed in. The effect was dense as smoke, like taking a hit of premium hash and getting a rush right to his head. His spine curved back, shaping him to the press of Rodney's body until he was almost off balance.
"I should have known it would be you," Rodney murmured against John's skin.
"Oh, it's me all right," he said, his own voice just as low.
They swayed together, Rodney's hungry kisses and touches working him over until the rest of John's clothes were sloughed off. "I should take a shower," John said. "I just got in--I'm pretty ripe."
"No." Rodney dropped to his knees and rubbed his face across John's hip. "I like it." He was all fur and feathers and wings against John's skin; mouth and claws and muscle. The effect was like nothing he'd ever felt, a physical music of sensations he wasn't expecting that kept drawing sharp spasms of pleasure from everywhere on his body.
Rodney drew John's dick inside like a mouthful of fruit and curled his tongue under the head. John clenched all over and came. Rodney's mouth kept warm and busy on him until the friction turned to hot, almost painful sparks, and then John had to nudge him off.
"Wow," he said, in his usual stoned, post-sex kind of way, which had made one or two old girlfriends press him for more articulate details. Rodney, though, just fluffed up his wings and looked satisfied. There was also a glittering greed for more, more, more in his face that John couldn't miss. He rubbed the heel of his hand across Rodney's cheek, and Rodney stood up with a tiny lurch as he got his footing. His lips were swollen, and his eyelids heavy. John leaned forward without overthinking it and kissed him.
When they broke apart the first time, Rodney said, "Is it weird? Am I--weird? Looking?" There was a note of insecurity in the question, and his dark eyes swallowed John up.
"You look..." He let his gaze travel over Rodney again. Like a mythical creature, he could have said. Like a ceremonial doll made by Indians. Like a Mardi Gras costume. He was beautiful. "Cool," John said. "Very cool."
Rodney smiled, and really his face was almost unchanged; there was nothing strange there. They kissed again. A few minutes later, pressed on by Rodney, they made it to the bed. John climbed in and offered himself across the rumpled sheets. They held a strong, male smell, like a nest of sleeplessness and intense dreams. It turned him on. Not much wasn't turning him on at the moment. Every time Rodney fanned his wings, a billow of heat washed across John. The air in the room felt heavy, a pressure against his muscles forcing them to relax and yield.
He let Rodney cover him with his body and let him lead. He didn't have to do anything more complicated than lie there and respond in gasping, arching want to Rodney's bites and the sketch of his hands, the flicker of his tongue and claws. John's pulse accelerated again until he was throbbing, and then Rodney turned him and did the same thing to his back, from nape to feet.
It felt incredible to be tasted and learned by something--someone--so familiar but so alien. John wondered if there was some kind of alien mojo at work, transfixing him so that he didn't want to move. He just wanted to let Rodney do whatever he liked.
What Rodney liked was to fuck him, and he did that, scrabbling a bottle of lotion from the bedside table and slicking them both up in a clumsy hurry and then thrusting in with a gasp. John released a muffled groan against the pillow, gripped the sheets, and pushed back. He couldn't have spoken if his life depended on it. His eyes were rolling up under closing lids, his mouth falling open. Rodney jerked him back with two strong hands on John's hips, bringing him to his knees, and kept fucking him in a wild, buffeting rhythm that built to such intensity that John ended up coming from that alone, giving a sharp cry that made Rodney cry out too, though it was a few more minutes before he finished.
The rest of the night was like a blurry series of slides: their bodies folding around each other in the shower; his mouth on Rodney's dick; Rodney's mouth on John's dick; Rodney between his legs, pushing into him again--and again from behind--and again from the side. John grew sore, but he figured it was worth it. How often did a mating cycle occur, anyway? It was a special occasion.
As dawn started edging its way into the room they wound down, energy spent. Rodney flung an arm across John, holding him in place, close to the sleepy muzzy warmth of his body. "You sure you're up to two more weeks of this?" he asked.
John's eyes opened and he turned his head to look at Rodney. "I think I can manage to endure a few weeks of hot sex for the sake of..." He paused to think, having no idea what he'd been leading toward.
"Orgasms?" Rodney murmured.
"Friendship," John said.
Rodney smiled at him from the next pillow. "I always wanted a friend like you."
"I never really imagined you," John admitted, but covered Rodney's hand with his own, fingers tightening to reassure him the surprise wasn't unwelcome.
"I'm inconceivable." Rodney sounded self-satisfied. His eyes were starting to close again, down to sleepy slits.
"Actually I think your parents did a pretty good job there."
"Maybe I'll let you tell them that someday."
"Hmm," John said. And thought: wouldn't that be interesting.