The whole thing happens in a blur. One day, John's there, all sardonic lankiness and familiarity and that horrendous laugh, and then they get a call, and he's up before the brass back on Earth, and the dread word comes: reassignment. Less than 24 hours later, he's gone.
Before that, they throw a going away party, of course. Ronon and Teyla try to be bracing, full of assurance that they'd see each other again soon. Rodney gets drunk.
The whole thing is awful. Marines trying to buck John up by telling him that hey, Afghanistan was nothing compared to vampires from outer space, right? John nods and laughs and claps his soldiers on the back, but Rodney can't miss the lost expression in his eyes.
He has no idea what to say to John. He runs a dozen variants through his head but they all sound pretty weak. The thing is, Rodney is terrible at maintaining relationships in anything like a mature fashion, and on Atlantis people have begun to understand that. John certainly does, anyway, and is enough of a weirdo himself that they get along just fine. Rodney knows he has to step it up now, but the words don't come.
In the end, he bails. It makes him a total ass, he knows, but that isn't anything new.
"Let's get out of here," he says to Jennifer.
She looks about to protest, but after a moment's silence she just nods and takes his hand.
The next morning, when he wakes up with Jennifer still asleep beside him, he knows in his bones that John's gone.
For a while, the whole city is subtly off-kilter. Then again, maybe it's just Rodney that feels that way. Lorne joins their expedition team, and he's a great guy and everything but he's no John Sheppard. Lorne has little time for Rodney's idiosyncrasies and spends most of their interminable treks through alien forests talking to Teyla. Rodney finds himself talking at Ronon a lot, and Ronon for his part looks a combination of amused and annoyed.
That is until one mission, when Rodney starts cracking math jokes and Ronon nigh on guffaws with laughter.
He arches a brow at Rodney's surprised look. "We had math on Sateda, McKay."
Rodney grins, delighted, and figures maybe he won't actually explode from all the jokes that John's not there to appreciate.
Their first Sunday after John leaves, the three of them take a jumper to the mainland. They sit by the beach, drink beer, watch the sunset. It's the happiest Rodney's felt in weeks, but he can't shake the lingering, bittersweet ache.
When Teyla says, "It is not the same without John here," it's the understatement of the year.
"How are things without Colonel Sheppard?" Jennifer asks one evening.
"Oh, you know," Rodney says. "Carter's doing a great job."
Jennifer rolls her eyes. "That's not what I meant. You are allowed to have emotional attachments to other people besides me."
He laughs a little. "Honestly? It blows, it absolutely blows."
She lays her hand over his. "I know it does. I just hope he's okay back on Earth."
He can't think about that without a sick, twisting feeling in his gut. Afghanistan is a fucking disaster, and John's got no alien tech to protect him, no floating city to have his back. The only small, cold comfort that Rodney has is that they'd know if he was dead.
He writes to John - they all do, emails full of snippets of the life he no longer shares with them. Rodney makes up for all the things he doesn't know how to say by relating stories of science experiments gone terribly wrong and the awkward but hilarious occasion when Carter accidentally got herself married to the matriarch of some visiting traders.
John never writes back.
Months pass, a year passes, and Rodney never stops missing John, but life rearranges itself to fill the gap where he used to be. And the thing is, he's busy, they're all busy and so it's horribly easy for months to pass without Rodney even thinking to drop John a line. He doesn't expect John to respond - war zones aren't known for their wifi signal - but he's sure John reads them all eventually.
But the time between messages draws longer and longer, until Rodney suddenly realises it's been six months, and he doesn't know how to break the silence after that.
He proposes to Jennifer moments before they're about to die. That's not why he does it, he hastens to explain as Lorne and Ronon swoop in to their rescue, but it had rather forced the question. Jennifer laughs at him for a good minute for that, but then she starts nodding and kisses him, to applause from the squad of marines in the back of the jumper.
Rodney's so startled that he asks her if she's sure about half a dozen times before she whacks him on the arm to shut him up.
In many ways, Rodney isn't surprised when it all falls apart. What he is surprised by is that it isn't because Jennifer's grown to hate him.
"I don't think this is going to work," she says quietly, twisting her fingers in her lap. "I know we've talked about it, but -- kids, I know I'm not ready. I don't know if I ever will be. And it's not just that," she said over Rodney's protests, "it's all kinds of things. I think you feel it too. I love you, but --"
"But you could do much better."
"No, Rodney. No. But we don't fit together, not the way we should."
Rodney lets out a slow, sinking breath, and Jennifer rests her head on his shoulder.
"McKay." Carter jogs up to him in the corridor. "How are you holding up?"
"I feel like a laughing stock," Rodney says, "the whole city's talking about it."
"Yes, because believe it or not, people actually care about you here," Carter says. "You don't have to be on the defensive all the time."
"Can we not talk about this?" he asks, a little pleading.
"Sure, sorry," she says easily. "Listen, I just got some news from Earth."
The first thought that enters Rodney's head is that someone's dead. Jeannie. John. He braces for impact.
"It's about Colonel Sheppard," she continues, then hastily adds, "no, it's okay, he's fine. But he's resigned his commission."
"He did what?"
She nods. "Just heard from SGC. He packed it in after he finished his latest tour."
"So. He's never coming back, is he?"
"No. I'm sorry."
After that, all of them expect to hear word from him - an explanation, or even a hello, but there's still nothing.
Four years after John left Atlantis, and a year after he left the military, Carter calls them all in for a meeting.
"We're going public," she says, getting straight to the point. "After our last and hopefully final encounter with the Wraith, the SGC reckons we have neutralised all major threats in the Pegasus Galaxy - for now, at least. They want to declassify the program."
There are half a dozen people in the room - it's just Rodney, Teyla, Ronon, Jennifer, Lorne and Woolsey, who's presumably gated in for just this purpose - but from the barrage of sound and questions and exclamations, it might as well be twenty.
"Woah, woah," Carter says, talking a half-step back. "Calm down. Mr. Woolsey's going to brief you now, and I'm sure he'll answer all your questions."
"Holy shit," Rodney says, looking at Jennifer.
She nods back, eyes wide. "My dad is going to freak out," she says with delight.
Rodney barely gets a moment to breathe, let alone make plans, after that. They're on a whirlwind tour that seems set to take in most of the planet in a few short weeks, and in some ways Rodney's never been further away from John. He knows John can't have missed the news - it's everywhere, which is no surprise, because most of humanity is pretty occupied with freaking out about oh my god aliens and oh my god intergalactic travel and so on.
Rodney gets a vast number of emails and telephone calls, a lot of them from old physicist colleagues who appear to have stopped hating his guts just long enough to get in on the action.
None of the team hear anything from John.
When their itinerary swings them around to Seattle, Rodney realises a few things at once. First, this is where John's living now. Second, if he doesn't take the opportunity to find John again now, he probably never will. Third, the prospect is inexplicably terrifying.
He's not sure what he wants from John; he just knows that he wants, badly. He misses his friend, but it's more than that. He's still filled with regrets over things undone, things unsaid. For all their friendship, times spent watching each other's backs and sharing all kinds of ridiculous adventures together, Rodney can't shake the feeling that there's something deeper that has been unexpressed until now.
Oh, he thinks.
Teyla's sat beside him on the plane, leafing through the shopping magazine with a quizzical expression.
"How long have I been in love with John?" Rodney asks her.
Teyla's head whips round, as do a couple of journalists sat two rows in front. Rodney casually flips them off.
"I --" Teyla pauses, startled, and just looks at him.
"I didn't know," he says quietly. "I really didn't."
Her expression grows soft and on the edge of pitying. "Such realisations come slowly, sometimes. I did suspect for a while, years ago, but, then there was Jennifer, and it all seemed forgotten."
"Well. What do I do now?"
"Go to him," she says simply. "Bring him home to us."
In the end, Rodney bumps into John in a coffee shop, of all the mundane things.
He's just finished having a minor dispute with the barista when he spots John's unmistakeable outline. He hesitates, because he hasn't prepared for this, but in the end he figures that the time for caution has long since passed, and he goes and sits himself down at John's table.
John doesn't look as surprised as he might be, and Rodney figures he'd probably just alerted the entire shop to his presence. Well, never mind.
"What brings you to Seattle?" John asks, looking stiff and tremendously uncomfortable, which doesn't do anything to ease Rodney's own anxiety.
"Um," says Rodney. "Conference at the university - me, Teyla, Zelenka. Most of the old gang's here. It's good to get some Earth time, you know?"
John looks like he's about to speak, and Rodney's afraid of hearing it so he ploughs on. "Hey listen, we're having dinner this evening, you should come." John's face remains stony, which makes Rodney waver as he adds, "Everyone would love to see you."
"I don't think that's such a good idea," John says.
"What? Are you crazy? Look, maybe you're happy to finally be well shot of me, fine, whatever, but Jesus, John. Are you telling me you don't want to see Ronon? Teyla? She brought Torren with her, you know, it's his first trip to Earth."
John's mouth twists. "Unfair," he mutters.
"So you'll come? Brilliant, okay, I'll pick you up at eight."
"Fine," John says, sounding defeated. "Let me give you my address."
"Oh, it's okay, I already have it."
"Of course you do."
"Okay. Great. I'll -- I'll see you, then."
Rodney makes a speedy exit, heart hammering.
When Rodney gets back to his hotel room, he leans against the door, his breathing ragged. Seeing John again like that, unexpected, unprepared, had hit him hard, a whole rush of feelings that he had no idea what to do with.
He gives himself a stern look in the mirror.
"Pull yourself together, McKay," he tells his reflection. "You are far too old for this shit."
When Rodney comes by John's house later, he's pleasantly surprised to see that John's taken the trouble to change. He takes a moment to appreciate the white shirt, two buttons open, and tries not to think about how it would feel to kiss John there at the hollow of his throat.
They drive mostly in silence - it's not far, John is uncommunicative, and Rodney manages to keep quiet rather than letting loose the rambling thoughts running through his mind.
He pulls into a parking space on a quiet side street, and moves his hand to put the handbrake on just as John moves to unbuckles his seatbelt. Their hands almost touch. Rodney's reminded of years gone by and casual shoulder bumps, John's hand clapping his shoulder, the occasional handshake. He's still for too long for John not to notice, but John says nothing, just takes a breath and gets out of the car.
Rodney hastens after him, muttering to himself. He catches up to John and leads them to the restaurant - French, a little pretentious for Rodney's taste, but it was Jennifer's recommendation.
John frowns, his whole body twisting away from the door but he seems to steel himself and walks inside. Rodney had forgotten how he'd come to learn to read John like a book
John's barely made it inside before he's greeted by a chorus, and Rodney starts laughing as John is practically bowled over by Ronon.
"Easy there, buddy," John wheezes as Ronon attempts to knock the stuffing out of him.
Ronon takes a step back, beaming fit to burst. "Good to see you," he says, gripping John's arm.
Rodney watches as Jennifer hugs John too, much to John's bemusement, and then Teyla steps in, smiling brightly as she brings John's forehead to hers. Something passes over John's face then, something fragile that makes Rodney's heart twist.
"We have missed you so much, John," Teyla says. "I am so sorry that we have not been able to meet sooner."
Then Torren peeps out from behind his mother, his eyes wide with wonder, and Rodney realises suddenly, joyously, that everything's going to be all right.
They barely stop talking long enough to eat, all four of them telling John stories about Atlantis. Rodney watches John relax, stretch out, allow himself to smile and laugh and be with them, and he wonders how long John had spent convincing himself that everyone who loves him will leave him in the end.
Jennifer and Ronon are howling with laughter as Teyla relates the tale of Lorne's encounter with an Ancient device that made him speak in rhyming couplets.
"He still had to give orders to the Marines," Ronon says, grinning.
No one can deny that time has passed and things have changed - Torren's living proof, because Rodney's pretty sure he's growing by the hour. But maybe not all change is bad.
John's arm is hanging loose at his side, next to Rodney. Rodney reaches out, lets his palm brush the back of John's hand. John jerks a little in surprise, but he doesn't move away. Rodney, daring, slips his hand into John's, thumb slipping beneath his wristband to the soft skin underneath. A small, private smile skits across John's face, and Rodney meets Teyla's eye across the table. They've brought John home.