By the time they get back home to Pegasus, Rodney is heartily sick of Earth, Earth politics, Earth people, the SGC, his sister, automobiles, road trips, Jennifer’s family and Domino’s Pizza. (It just doesn’t taste like Rodney remembers and he’s afraid he’s become used to the mozzarella-like cheese from MX9-534, and he’s not sure he’s prepared for a lifetime of pizza that particular shade of blue.)
Because of the winding down from the second successful use of the wormhole drive and settling back down where they are supposed to be, it takes awhile for Rodney to realize that John is kind of missing.
He’s there, okay, he’s present, but he’s not in there, somehow, in a way that even Rodney notices. He’s subdued, preoccupied. His slouching seems forced, which is perhaps one of the stupidest things Rodney thinks he’s ever thought.
One night he realizes that John has hardly spoken or looked up from his plate the entire meal and he blurts, “Are you okay?” before he can really think about what he’s doing. Which is asking John how he feels. (Again, the stupidity.)
John stabs his eerku steak with his fork a couple of times. “I’m fine. Just…you know…lots of new stuff…paperwork…”
Rodney squints at him, thinking and looking at the tense line of John’s shoulders. “You mean the new policy stuff? Nobody’s…” he lowers his voice, “you’re not having any problems with gay bashing or anything since the repeal?”
That finally gets John looking at him, eyes wide. “No!” he says and ducks his head back down to his plate, “No, actually that’s gone pretty well.” He stuffs a huge bite of steak in his mouth and chews it with great difficulty, grimacing.
Rodney recognizes this gambit. “Did you just shove a wad of steak in your mouth so you wouldn’t have to answer any more questions?”
“Whu?” John looks up at him, eyes wide and innocent and so transparent, it feels like it’s the first time he’s really seen Sheppard in days.
“You are so lying.” Rodney points his fork at him. “You are so lying and you took an out that Madison would use.”
John washes down his eerku with a big swig of water and gives Rodney a look.
“Liar, liar,” Rodney stage whispers. “Pants on fire.”
“Rodney,” John rolls his eyes and the corner of his mouth quirks. Rodney is more relieved by this than he cares to admit. He bounces a little in his seat and swipes a bit of John’s steak.
“So nothing funky happened with your family?” he asks leadingly. John shakes his head, smile quirking a little wider and half-heartedly tries to block Rodney’s next steak-swipe.
“And it’s not like I’m going to bend your ear about Jennifer,” he says blithely, “’cause I did alllll that with Jeannie and Teyla while you were stuck at the SGC, and I have to just say….” Suddenly, he realizes John’s face has frozen and his grip is white-knuckle tight on his glass.
“Oh my God, that’s it,” he says. “You thought I was going to bend your ear about my latest tragic failure in the romance department. That I was going to tell you about all my boo-boo feelings of heartbreak and self-recrimination.”
“Your…” John blinks at him, stunned. “Boo-boo?”
“Shut up,” Rodney stabs the air with his fork. “I’m telling you, that elk had it coming.”
“Elk?” John says faintly.
“You didn’t hear about the…about the huge fight at the Keller family lake house where I ended up throwing the creepy disapproving stuffed elk trophy into the lake?”
John grins. “Do I even want to ask?”
“No.” It was Rodney’s turn to poke at the remains of his dinner. “No, you don’t, and I don’t want to go into it, except to say it's disapproval was familiar. To sum up, I have decided that it is perhaps unwise to date people whose initial long exposure to me is when I have things in my brain like extra consciousnesses and parasites.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“All I have to do is find someone who actually likes me, right?” Rodney says lightly, not hiding his bitterness at all. “Who am I kidding? It’s not like – as Jeannie is so fond of pointing out – it’s not like I’m you.”
The expression drains right out of John’s face. “Not as easy as you might think, buddy,” he says, voice bleak, and while Rodney is scrambling to catch up, John gathers his plate and slips away.
And just like that, John is gone again, behind some blank, bland friendly mask that makes Rodney positively itch with frustration. He can’t figure out what it was exactly, that set John off initially, but whatever he said didn’t help matters, so he knows that for now, he can’t take a direct approach. Which is all he really has. Rodney knows he’s not exactly subtle. So, he takes the only option left to him.
“What’s eating Sheppard?” he asks Ronon.
“Ask him yourself,” Ronon says firmly. Rodney squints at him. Is everyone cranky these days?
“I did. He kind of clammed up.”
“Ask him again.”
“Okay, look, if I did something to piss you off, would you just tell me?”
“Yeah, I would.”
“You haven’t. Yet.”
“McKay,” Ronon says patiently. “I’m not the guy to ask.” And then he starts pulling knives out of his hair, so Rodney decides it’s time he go somewhere else.
“I have noticed that John is not himself since we returned home,” Teyla agrees, rolling a ball toward her son. He gasps and bats at it as it rolls past him to Rodney.
“So, he’s said something to you,” Rodney replies as he gently rolls the ball back.
“But you know what it is.”
She inclines her head and passes the ball back to Rodney. Torrin gets a lucky smack in and it wobbles back toward her. Teyla smiles her son and it is, as always, stunning. It strikes Rodney that none of them have smiled much since they’ve been back home and he doesn’t know why.
Well, he knows why he hasn’t been smiling; he broke up with his smart, sexy near-fiancée before one of them could throw the other in the lake with the elk. John is walking around like a pod-person and the rest of the team is acting like they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“You know what it is,” he says again, more certain this time.
“I know what I believe,” she says, all soft steel, “and it is not my place to tell.”
“Rodney, there is nothing I can do.”
“But I can?”
“And you’re not going to tell me what it is?”
“I will tell you this much; tell him why you ended your relationship with Dr. Keller. Tell him why she remained on Earth.”
For two more days he keeps John just on the edge of his periphery, adjusting himself as subtly as he can to John’s orbit. As far as he can tell, John is calm, affable, professional, polite, but for someone who knows him, there is something very much missing in John, like he has bled out or something.
And oddest of all, he seems to draw in on himself around the team, especially Rodney. He looks smaller, older, fragile. It is more than a little terrifying.
After another a too-quiet dinner, Rodney gathers every bit of courage he has and powers into John’s quarters and as John looks up at him tiredly, face mostly shuttered, Rodney thrusts a stack of clothes at him.
“What’s…” John holds up the shirt. “Thermal underwear?” His eyebrows try to connect with his hairline.
“I don’t know what else to do!” Rodney cries, throwing up his hands. “You look cold!”
“I look…cold.” John says slowly.
“Cold, miserable, depressed, I don’t know. I just. I just know something’s wrong and I wanted to do something and you won’t tell me, so,” he thrusts a finger at the long underwear, “there.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s none of my business. But you know what? You know what? You are full of shit.”
John’s face gets thunderous, “McKay…”
“No, no, wrong tack to take, I know, just hear me out, because I swear I have a point.”
John glares at him, but he settles back against his headboard, crosses his arms and stares at the long-johns like they might made a sudden break for freedom.
Rodney takes a deep breath. “It turns out, I thought I wanted something, a wife, a family, the whole two-kid picket fence thing but when I had it in my grasp, when Jennifer said, ‘Let’s stay on Earth and get started on that,’ I was horrified.”
He is watching John very carefully as he says this, and John doesn’t look up at him, but curls his arms against himself even tighter and swallows hard. “Horrified,” he echoes quietly.
“Absolutely. She wanted me to leave Atlantis with her – turns out she wasn’t having so much fun as Chief Medical Officer with the getting body switched or being turned into plants and stuff.”
He is relieved to see a tiny upward curve form around John’s lips, but the next thing out of his mouth has Rodney rolling his eyes. “Well, you’ve got your work here, that’s not fair for her to ask you to…”
“No, it wasn’t, but, that’s not it, you idiot, the first thing I thought of was ‘leave my family?’ I mean, yeah, Jeannie’s on Earth, but she comes to visit, and yeah my work, but it turned out that the people who are most important to me are here. Which I have to tell you was a very unpleasant surprise because I thought this time I might have the whole love thing right and it was quite a jolt to realize that I was thinking of marriage and family on Earth with the same horror I felt when being exiled to Siberia or when we got kicked off Atlantis.”
“I’ve done exile. And I can’t do it again, not even with what or who I thought I wanted, especially when there’s no cell phone service between here and the Milky Way.” That earned him a tiny snort of a laugh and it gave Rodney a little extra boost of courage. “Radek and Carson and Teyla and Ronon, but especially you are here. And evidently where you go, I go.”
John doesn’t say anything, but he’s breathing hard and the tips of his ears are red, so Rodney figures he’s getting through.
“So listen,” Rodney says softly as he sits on the end of John’s bed, “your well-being is relevant to my interests. And you look cold, so take those. If you’re still cold, I’ll fix the environmental controls. If you’re hungry, I’ll go get you something to eat. If you want to play golf or watch a movie or play chess, just say the word. If you want to talk, I will sit here as long as it takes for you to strangle the words out. If you don’t want to talk I’ll sit here and read one of your comic books and keep you company. If you want me to go away, I’ll go away, but you need to know I will keep coming back. Just,’ he pokes John’s knee gently, “whatever it is, John, let me help.”
John, still not looking at him, reaches out, slides over Rodney’s poking finger and upward until his fingers can curl around Rodney’s palm. He nods, and holds on silently.
“Your hand is freezing,” Rodney whispers, desperate not to break the fragile connection, and presses John’s hand between both of his to warm it up. “I was right about the cold!”
“It’s just,” John mutters, a low flush staining his cheeks as he stares at their hands. “Just when I’m nervous.”
“What’s to be nervous about? This is me! Are you sick? Are you going all buggy again? Are you losing your hair?” John rolls his eyes, snickers shakily and lists to the side, but he doesn’t pull away, so Rodney grins, tugs on John’s hand and flat-out enjoys being this close to him.
“‘Cause seriously, I am the guy to talk to about balding. There’s not much I can do to stop it, and not that you don’t have experience with this, but I can teach you about the power of fluffing.”
John, hand tight around Rodney’s wrist, laughs his horrible laugh and shakes Rodney’s arm. “Fluffing?” he gasps, honking. Something tight and miserable in Rodney’s chest finally dissolves and he is nearly lightheaded with relief.
“Hey!” Rodney shakes John’s arm back, “some of us weren’t born with your tonsorial splendor, Mr. I Have A Shiny Pelt.” John tries to disentangle his hand, presumably so he can shove at Rodney with both hands while he laughs, but things get kind of mixed up and he ends up with his forehead resting on the point of Rodney’s shoulder, wheezing.
“God, I missed you,” Rodney says, and squeezes John’s hand. John stills and slowly squeezes back.
“I’m sorry, buddy,” he says quietly. “I…” He stays quiet for a long time, clinging to Rodney’s hand. He slowly starts to pull away, but some strange impulse causes Rodney to hang on tighter.
John looks up at him, startled, and the look on his face makes Rodney’s breath catch in his throat. He gets the horrible shiver of nearly missing something terribly, terribly important.
All sorts of formerly amorphous jumbled-up things and feelings and conversations and years shift and click into place, startling and sharp, and it seems so obvious now, ridiculously obvious, and John sees him put it together and tries to get away but Rodney holds on tight, puts his free hand on John’s shoulder and says, “Wait. I’m about to do something really stupid,” leans forward and kisses him.
John shivers and inhales sharply against his mouth, surprised, and clutches at Rodney’s arm, so it is easy to part his lips and taste him softly, carefully. John’s mouth is so lush and he tastes so good, Rodney can't help but press closer. John groans, low and longing, deep in his throat and whispers Rodney’s name in a voice that makes Rodney’s heart try to do several things at once; beat harder, break and grow three sizes.
He breaks the kiss and presses his forehead to John’s. “Did you miss the part where I said ‘especially you’?”
“No,” John replies his voice raw.
“Just to be clear, that day when we were talking about finding somebody who liked me just the way I was…you were thinking…”
“Yeah.” John pets Rodney’s shoulders apologetically. “Yeah.”
“Okay, so maybe we were both missing a few very large clues, here. And maybe you should ask me out or something instead of, you know, freezing to death from misery right in front of me.”
“I’m…I’m asking,” John says, hand fisted tight in Rodney’s shirt. He presses little kisses across Rodney’s forehead and down his cheek. “Is now good?”
“Yeah,” Rodney whispers, pressing his face into the warm hand John cups around his cheek, “Now…is…”
“Good,” John murmurs just before capturing Rodney’s lips, “good.”