He was so tired.
He could scarcely remember the last time he’d been this exhausted. Perhaps it had been those weeks on Atlantis when they’d realized a Wraith strike force was on its way, and he’d worked round the clock trying to come up with a way to save the city? Or maybe when Teyla had been kidnapped by Michael, and SGA-1 had battled for weeks on end to locate her? More likely it was when the SGC had given Sam the Phoenix, and he’d worked side-by-side with her for months to make the ship battle-worthy. He thought about the Phoenix, and Sam’s last stand with her, and felt the familiar ache of old loss, like a bone broken and healed, yet still painful when it rained. He’d lost so many people he’d cared about. Too many.
It was sleeting when he’d left the airport. Lovely. It had been a long time since he was considered important enough to rank a personal driver or a staff car, even if he had saved the world many times over. The world tended to forget that sort of thing when you walked away from a super-classified organization and took a low-paying, low-visibility job as a physics teacher. It would have been nice, though, if just for once, he could have pulled the Dr. Rodney McKay card one more time. The smart thing to have done would have been to take a hotel room near the airport and wait until the driving conditions were better, but instead he’d determinedly driven his gas-efficient hybrid along the icy roads back to his cheap apartment in Vancouver. He’d used up most of his current savings on the software and special items he’d needed to install in Atlantis. Besides, what difference did it make now if he met his death on some ice-slick highway? His job was done. He was too old to start over.
Well, okay, he didn’t really want to die a terrible, lonely, frigid death by having a car accident. But he’d sort of counted on the supposition that once he’d set things up on Atlantis, his part in the equation would be done. Nothing else could go wrong. The plan would be in place, and his timeline would simply cease to exist. There were still a lot of things that could go wrong, he knew, but they weren’t likely to be the sort of things he’d have control over. He’d made every possible contingency plan he could think of for the things he could control, but there was bound to be something he’d missed. Maybe he should fly back to Colorado Springs and persuade Lorne to let him go to Atlantis again to check his program one more time…
The little car slid sideways on the exit ramp as he left the highway, and he cursed as he fought the wheel and tried to turn into the skid. Words spoken in a memorable drawl cautioned him about over-correcting, and though the lesson then had been about flying puddle jumpers, it served here just as well. The car gained traction once more and crept down the road toward his apartment building.
Best to leave it alone. If I contact Lorne again, he might change his mind altogether. He still wasn’t sure how he’d convinced Lorne to let him install the advanced hologram program in the first place. At least he’d set it up so that only John’s IDC could activate it. If John never came back to Atlantis, well, Rodney had done his best.
The streets of Vancouver were surprisingly still, for which Rodney was grateful, even if it was a little puzzling at first. The weather wasn’t that bad, just bad enough that old farts like him shouldn’t be out driving in it. Oh, right. Christmas Eve. That meant that everything had closed early in anticipation of the holiday. The fact that he’d been forced to fly on one of the busiest travel days of the year had been a major hassle, one he’d regretted many times over during the course of the day. He should have stayed in Colorado Springs. Another couple of days wouldn’t have killed him.
Hell, he could have even taken Lorne up on his invitation to join him for Christmas. Not that he would have gone. It had been nice to be invited, though. That would have meant changing his flight at the last minute, though, and there was precious little money for that or he would have considered going to Toronto to spend the holidays with Jeannie and her family. Madison had to be finishing up her grad school degree by now, and she was sure to come home for Christmas, regardless. On second thought, it was probably just as well he hadn’t made any plans beyond getting his program installed in Atlantis. Madison wouldn’t want her ‘crazy old Uncle Rodney’ crashing the family gathering, now would she? Besides, Christmas had only been just another day to him for decades now. Why let this year be any different from the ones in the past?
The thought of a different Christmas teased his memory. It had been their third, or maybe their fourth year in Pegasus. No, Elizabeth had been gone by then, and Sam had been in charge, so that had to make it the fourth year. Kind of sad when he dated events in his life by whether someone he cared about was alive or not, like one of those people who tracked things by which dog they had at the time. Pathetic, that’s what he was.
John had decided that Atlantis needed the biggest tree they could find, and somehow Rodney had ended up going on an expedition with his team to look for the perfect tree. You’d have thought that with as many planets in Pegasus populated by firs, this wouldn’t have taken very long, but somehow nothing suited John. This one was too spindly, that one was crooked. Too tall, too short, it had a bald spot on one side, some branches were broken. They’d spent hours tramping around in the woods while light snow fell, until Rodney had finally had enough. He’d been cold, hungry, damp, and tired, and Sheppard was never going to pick a damn tree, at least not one they could get back to Atlantis without the Daedalus. So he’d insisted on heading back as the light faded, much to John’s irritation. The two of them had sniped at each other the whole way back to the Gate, with John calling him McScrooge, and the McKay Who Stole Christmas. In return, Rodney had ranted about how Christmas was just a gross pretender in the series of mid-winter festivals that most pagan cultures held (tossing out a quick, “No offense, Teyla” as he did so), and it just happened to be more ruthless about killing off the competition by absorbing the other rituals altogether.
And then they’d reached the Gate, sans tree, only to find the DHD not working. While Rodney had attempted to repair the DHD, John and Teyla had set up a makeshift shelter, and Ronon had gone out in search of dinner. They’d spent the night huddled together around the campfire that Ronon had expertly made (with John pretending he could have done just as well with wet wood and no lighter, only he’d been too busy setting up camp), drinking the deliciously spicy tea that Teyla had made from roots she’d dug up on the spot, and picking the meat off the bones of the small, rabbit-like creature Ronon had roasted to perfection. Even better, Ronon had packed several tormacks in the pockets of his greatcoat, and they’d cooked those, too. God. Rodney hadn’t had tormack in decades, but just the thought of it made his mouth water. The purple tubers had been perfect that evening, too. Crispy on the edges and hot in the middle. Rodney couldn’t recall the last time he’d eaten anything that had tasted half as good as that impromptu meal on that snowy hillside.
As the snow spit and hissed on the campfire, John had gotten Ronon and Teyla talking about their own mid-winter celebrations, in that way he always managed to do without revealing anything about his own personal life. Later, in the shelter, they’d piled together for warmth, using cut fir branches to cover them. Rodney could still recall the tiny crystalline sound of the snow trickling through the boughs above them. He smiled at the memory of John’s yelp when Rodney’s cold nose had inadvertently touched the back of John’s neck.
And the stars. The snow had stopped somewhere around midnight, and the temperatures dropped as the skies had cleared. The night sky had been heartbreakingly beautiful in a way that had filled him with wonder. He’d been lying in a makeshift lean-to on an alien planet, looking up at an alien sky. How many people did he know who could ever say that? The depth of that starfield still filled him with awe to this day, with hundreds of thousands of stars lighting the heavens, as though someone had taken fistfuls of precious gems and scattered them playfully across the sky. Between the stars, and the frigid air, and Sheppard curled into his side (John had always hated the cold), it had taken his breath away.
The next morning, they’d awoken to a snow-covered winter wonderland. Rodney had always assumed snow was white and devoid of any other color, but when the morning light hit the snow-laden trees around them, he couldn’t help but notice the shades of rose and lavender present as well, even as he’d groaned and complained his back would never be the same. He’d stretched and stamped his feet, blowing into his hands, ready to start carping about the cold and the lack of any coffee when he’d turned and seen it. There in the center of the clearing stood the quintessential tree: five feet tall, perfectly balanced and symmetrical, artistically draped with snow. Not the biggest, but simply perfect, just the same.
“That one.” Rodney had pointed to the tree, and John, looking in the direction of Rodney’s outstretched hand, had broken into a smile. He’d put on his aviators against the brilliance of the sun on the snow, and glanced back at Rodney with a nod of approval. That moment seemed fixed in Rodney’s memory like a photograph. John, with his morning stubble and dark sunglasses, smiling at him as the vapor of his breath formed a cloud around his head.
A little sleight-of-hand and some repair magic with re-wiring the DHD (which was much easier to do when he could actually see what he was doing, thank you, very much), they’d been able to dial home, bringing the tree with them, where they’d been greeted like long-lost heroes. It was one of the last happy Christmas memories Rodney could recall. Teyla must have been pregnant then, but not showing yet. Perhaps she hadn’t even known herself at that point. Eight months later, and she’d vanished, kidnapped by Michael for the baby that she carried. It was during the search for her that Sheppard had been lost as well, disappearing in a Gate mishap and presumed dead. Only Sheppard hadn’t been dead. Rodney had figured out where he’d ended up: forty-eight thousand years into the future. Which, as the SGC not-so-kindly pointed out, was essentially the same thing. So they’d given Sheppard a nice funeral and buried an empty casket. And from that point on, everything had gone to hell.
Rodney carefully turned onto the road where his apartment was located. Another car passed him in the opposite direction, driving far too fast for the weather, in Rodney’s opinion. “Having four-wheel drive won’t help you on ice!” he shouted at the car as it zipped by, sending a spray of freezing water sheeting up over his car. He slowed even further until the wipers had a chance to catch up, and he could see the road again. The water froze on his windshield, and he turned up the defroster to full, hoping he wouldn’t have to get out and scrape the glass. He just wanted to get home. Only now, there was really no longer any point, was there?
After Jennifer’s death, it had been too painful to stay on in the house they’d bought together, not to mention, he couldn’t afford the mortgage when he’d quit his high-paying job with the aerospace engineering firm. It had only made sense to go back home to Canada, where at least he didn’t have to worry about paying health insurance out of his meager salary, or dying prematurely from his blood pressure going through the roof after being forced to watch FOX News at every restaurant and bank. Once he’d left the SGC, and with Jennifer gone, it hadn’t mattered where he lived, as long as he could work on The Problem.
But now for the first time in twenty-five years, he had nothing to work on. The weight of his past pressed down upon him as he leaned into the steering wheel and peered out through the windshield. The wipers were on the highest setting, and the steady clip-clop of sound was getting on his nerves. Part of him recognized that he was being incredibly stupid driving in this kind of weather, but he ignored that little paranoid voice of reason and drove with gritted teeth on into the spitting precipitation. He was almost home. Just a little further to go.
The emptiness of his future frightened him, but he consoled himself with the fact that if he was successful, his timeline—and he himself—would just disappear. Much like Sheppard had done all those years ago.
Or maybe not. That was the worst part about this whole deal. Given that Sheppard had been booted by a solar flare forty-eight thousand years into the future, there was the possibility that Rodney would have to live out the rest of his dreary life, never knowing whether or not his mad gamble had been successful. Though he’d gotten to visit his beloved Atlantis one more time to install his specialized programs, the time course involved was such that he had no way of knowing if he would wink out of existence at any moment—or live the rest of his allotted time without ever knowing if he’d saved John Sheppard or not. In theory, because he’d successfully installed his program, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility to expect the timeline to automatically correct itself. However, the fact still remained that it would be another 47,975 years or so before Sheppard actually came through the Gate in Atlantis, which meant it was more likely Rodney would die without ever knowing the outcome of his crazy plan.
Given that he was currently inching his way home from the airport, he guessed he would never know.
The bleakness of his potential future existence wrapped itself around his heart and squeezed. After so many decades of single-minded devotion to solving the problem of bringing John back to the right point in time, it felt weird to have nothing to work on. No project to keep him occupied. No reason for living. He wasn’t an old man by today’s standards: today’s seventies was the new forties, right? But he remembered what he’d been like in the prime of his forties and he knew this wasn’t it. His eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, and he had to be careful with his knees. A part of him knew that it was a very good thing that the final solution had come to him when it did, because his brain wasn’t quite as sharp as it had been, either. He’d been rapidly running out of time to solve The Problem, and he knew it. He should feel relieved, accomplished, and celebratory, but instead, he only felt drained and empty.
He could only hope it had been enough. Otherwise, he’d lived a third of his life in vain.
It had been worth it, though. He pounded the steering wheel fiercely with one gloved fist. If there had even been the slightest chance of bringing John back, then it had all been worth it. All the years of frustration: teaching physics to kids who only wanted to pass by the skin of their teeth, walking away from Atlantis, from any sort of prestigious position in his field. A long time ago he’d fixated on the loss of John Sheppard as being why everything had gone wrong in his world. He was lucky he was such an egomaniac that he thought changing the timeline within his capabilities. Otherwise, he’d have given up years ago.
Like Jeannie had. He couldn’t deny that he’d probably been impossible to deal with in his obsession with fixing the timeline. No doubt a bit scary, too. He couldn’t help but wonder if that wasn’t part of the reason Caleb had taken that job in Toronto, moving Jeannie and Madison to the other coast. Had he wanted to get Jeannie away from Rodney’s insanity? Rodney felt a bit like a man who’d wakened from a coma, only to find that he’d lost his job and the bank had foreclosed on his house. If he were to call up Jeannie and invite himself to Christmas dinner, would she turn him down? He rubbed his cold nose with the back of his glove. He’d be damned if he was going to try to get a flight on Christmas day to the other side of the continent. The thought hounded him just the same. Maybe it was time to make amends.
The wheels spun as he made the turn into the parking lot of his apartment building. Management hadn’t salted the lot, which didn’t surprise him. There weren’t a lot of perks with his current living arrangement, but it had the benefit of being cheap and close to the high school. It dawned on him now that he was retired and no longer had The Problem to work on, he could live anywhere he wanted. Do anything he wanted.
He just didn’t know what that would be.
He got out of the car carefully, and made his way slowly toward the entrance to his building. The last thing he wanted to do was break a hip. The warm air inside the foyer felt wonderful after the sleet-driven mess outside, and he walked more briskly down the corridor to his apartment. Food and a hot bath would do wonders, he was sure.
As he entered the apartment and turned on the overhead light, he was struck by how similar the room looked to the set of a one-act play. The light poured down from the ceiling above, spilling in a little glow around the circle of white boards and work stations. This was the place where all the action had taken place in the play that had been Rodney’s life for the last few decades. How unsatisfactory a drama it must have been for his imaginary audience. Little interaction with the outside world, hours of him standing at his boards and writing down equations, only to erase them the next moment. And no, no resolution, either.
There was little in the apartment that was not devoted to The Problem. Instead of furniture grouped around a plasma-screen television, everything was centered around a smart board, where he’d completed the complex math needed to calculate how best to use a solar flare to do his bidding. He’d been in such a hurry to leave that partially full coffee cups and cartons of Chinese takeout had been left unattended, which probably accounted for the nose-wrinkling odor. All the books on the shelves were technical, with only a scattering of sci-fi stories for a little light reading. He noticed with fresh eyes that most of his movies had a similar theme as well; dealing with time travel or alternative realities.
“Wow,” he said to the silent room, “when I do obsession, I do it right.”
After he hung up his coat, he brought the trash can into the living room, delicately picking up the smelly cartons and discarding them, returning to collect the coffee cups. Stomach growling, he headed back to the kitchen to see what he could heat for dinner, only to discover that the fridge held two bottles of water, a nearly empty jar of mayo, part of an onion, and a rotting tomato. The loaf in the bread box was trying to grow its own penicillin.
It wasn’t much better in the cabinets. He had a can of tuna fish and an open package of saltine crackers, which proved to be more than a little stale. With a sigh, he pulled out his cell, which he’d forgotten to switch back on after getting off the plane. While the phone powered up, he pondered what he’d order by way of takeout. This called for a celebration. Maybe he’d order something different from the Pagoda Dragon. Something with a little kick to it, like General Tso’s chicken.
He was both stunned and disappointed when he got the recorded message saying that the Dragon was closed for the holidays and would re-open after the New Year. What kind of Chinese restaurant was closed for Christmas? Wasn’t that some kind of tradition or something, Chinese food for the holiday? He called a couple of other places from the menus posted on the fridge, but none of them answered the phone. Great. Just great. There was a good chance pretty much everything would be closed tomorrow, and possibly Boxing Day as well.
“Guess it's tuna and crackers, then.” Maybe he could scrape enough mayo out of the jar to make a sort of paste with the tuna.
No sooner had he started the can opener, however, than he heard a scratching sound at the kitchen window. He pushed the sash up, and a somewhat battered-looking yellow tom leapt lightly into the room.
“Where have you been?” Rodney scolded, shutting the window and looking down at the cat. He was only slightly damp, so he had to have had some sort of shelter nearby. The tom had the big wide face of a cat neutered late in life, and the torn ear-tips and facial scars that bespoke of life on the streets. “I was planning to take you to the kennel, so you’d be warm and have food while I was gone.”
The cat, which had been in the process of drying its whiskers, gave Rodney a baleful glare and stood up, tail flicking as it walked over to the counter and looked pointedly up at the can of tuna.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Rodney stalked back to defend his meal. “That’s the last can.”
The cat responded by rubbing its face against Rodney’s leg.
“I was worried about you, you know.” He resisted reaching down to pet the cat. “I know you’re a street cat and all that, but I was gone for nearly a week. I take it you found the food Mrs. Harris left out for you?”
Tilting his head up at Rodney, the cat let out a hoarse meow and placed one paw on his shoe and patted his knee with the other, claws carefully sheathed.
“Oh, all right. I guess you need this more than I do.” He dumped the tuna out on a plate and set it on the floor. “I’d like to know what I’m going to have for dinner, though.” An MRE would come in handy right about now. That made him wonder if he had any frozen dinners, and he was poking around inside the freezer when his doorbell buzzed.
“Who the hell could that be?” He asked the cat, who’d lifted his head briefly at the sound, and then had gone back to eating with a loud purr. Irritated, Rodney headed for the door as the buzzer sounded again.
“If you’re Jacob Marley, you’ve got the wrong apartment.” Rodney raised his voice so the visitor in the hall could hear him. In response, the person in the hall leaned on the buzzer for an extended period. The sound was somehow slightly derisive.
“This better be good, that’s all I’m saying,” Rodney muttered to himself, placing one eye to the peephole to squint through it.
It couldn’t be. It had to be the distortion of the glass in the peephole. It had to be a hallucination, brought on by exhaustion and hypoglycemia. Because it looked as though John Sheppard was standing in the hallway, dressed in the heavy black cotton uniform he preferred for field ops—identical to the one he was wearing when he’d gone missing.
“Come on, McKay.” The familiar drawl felt like a punch in the gut, sucking all of Rodney’s air out of him. “I know you’re in there. Open up.” The man in the hall had one fist planted on a hip that was cocked to one side in typical Sheppard-fashion when he was impatiently waiting for something.
Rodney fumbled to remove the chain off the door and open it.
“Hey, Rodney,” Sheppard said, with that sly little grin.
“John.” Unaccountably, tears came to his eyes. “John,” he repeated, as his face crumpled in on itself. He blinked several times rapidly, and reached out to take John by the arm, to feel if he was real.
“Hey.” Sheppard’s voice was soft, even as a small frown puckered between his eyes. “Hey, it’s okay, Rodney. It’s okay.”
Oh, my god, those eyes. He’d forgotten what John Sheppard’s eyes were like, an odd combination of green and gold. They could be muddy brown in color, or like now, catching the light from the living room, they could glow like sunlight on a streambed.
“John,” Rodney said again, in a voice that was thick with emotion. The depth of feeling startled him. It was shocking really, to feel so much after all this time. Like cutting into a limb you thought was dead and discovering it could still bleed.
“Funny, but your hologram didn’t know what to say to me either.” The side of his mouth lifted in his trademark half-smile, and Rodney stared at him. He’d forgotten how beautiful John Sheppard had been, and he knew it wasn’t cool to use the that term when describing someone as tough, as lethal, as bona-fide hero-material as Sheppard, but he had been breathtakingly beautiful all the same, and it hit Rodney anew. Just as it had that first moment he’d laid eyes on John sitting in the Control Chair, looking up at the display that he’d called to mind at Rodney’s command. Rodney could recall clearly the envy that he’d felt at John not only having the ATA gene, and the fact that he was a natural at using it, but also at how drop-dead gorgeous John was, too. He hadn’t felt just envy, either. There had been a little bit of hopelessness at knowing that he’d never have any of the things that John represented, either.
His hologram hadn’t known what to say to John on ‘meeting’ him after centuries of being lost in time because Rodney had eliminated that subroutine from the program. The hologram might have told John Rodney hadn’t thought about what he’d say on finally seeing John again at last, but that was a lie. Rodney had thought about it almost every day since he’d begun the mad quest to bring John home. Pictured it in a thousand different ways. Sometimes he told John exactly how he’d felt. How lost he’d been when John had disappeared. How nothing had been right from that point on, how losing John had taken something irreplaceable out of Rodney’s life, and he hadn’t known what it was until it was too late. Sometimes, when Rodney lay awake at night, unable to sleep for the mathematical equations floating in his head, he’d imagine telling John how much he loved him. He’d picture the two of them kissing, clutching at each other with the passion they’d felt in those early years, when they couldn’t get enough of each other, and the rush of endorphins post-sex had kept him sane. As time passed, the imaginings mellowed. He’d seen himself and John making dinner in the kitchen together, hanging out watching television, sleeping side by side. He wanted nothing more than to lay his hand against John’s cheek and stare into those marvelous eyes one more time. In the end, he’d deleted the subroutine because he didn’t want anything to distract John from following the plan, and returning back to the right time. Not to mention, by the time he’d gotten around to designing the hologram portion of the program, he’d become an old man, and he hadn’t wanted to creep John out with declarations from a dead guy.
John was looking at him with a little furrow between his eyes, the closest he ever came to looking worried, as though perhaps this had been a Bad Idea, when the words he’d spoken finally caught up with Rodney’s brain. Hologram. John had mentioned the hologram.
Rodney’s self-defense mechanisms kicked in. “You! You, you, you—” he sputtered, snapping his fingers several times rapidly before pointing at John. “Don’t you stand there in my doorway, giving me that look, that look that says, ‘Oh, poor Rodney, he’s totally lost it.’ I know what you’re thinking, mister! What the hell are you doing here?” He snarled as he dragged John into his apartment and slammed the door.
John allowed himself to be manhandled by him, fumbling the first step until he got his balance again. “Nice to see you, too, McKay.” Oh, my god, John smirked at him. Downright honest-to-god, smirked.
“What are you doing here?” Rodney demanded, his voice rising in a wail. “You aren’t supposed to be here! Oh my god, nothing has changed! My whole fucking life spent on this project and I didn’t change a single damned thing!” He tugged at his hair until it stood out in tufts over his ears.
John caught him by the arm when he would have started pacing in circles. “No, wait, Rodney. Aw, hell, I should have said something—no, seriously—it’s okay. It worked. You got me back to Atlantis in time.”
He looked sincerely apologetic, and Rodney shook John’s grip off his arm to stagger into the center of the room and clutch his chest.
“What. The. Fuck. Are. You. Doing. Here.” Rodney ground out each word with a little wheezy pant, glaring at John the whole time.
Now John looked alarmed. His eyebrows shot up into his hairline and he took an involuntary step forward. “Christ, Rodney. Are you all right? Do you need some medication or something?”
“Why… here?” Rodney gasped.
“Your plan worked. The timeline was restored, see? But I thought it kind of sucked that you, well, you spent your whole life working out the problem without ever knowing if you’d made a difference or not, and we had this jumper with an alternative reality drive installed, so—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, what? An alternative reality drive?” Rodney let go of his sweater and straightened. “You have a jumper with an alternative reality drive? When the hell did you get an alternative reality drive, and how did it come to be in a jumper?”
“Long story.” John’s eyes narrowed. “Are you done faking a heart attack now?”
“I wasn’t faking. I was truly shocked by your appearance. Not to mention I’ve been travelling all day, and have had nothing to eat. I’m utterly wiped out and borderline hypoglycemic, I’ll have you know.”
“And magically cured by the mention of science.” John’s voice was martini-dry.
Rodney folded his arms across his chest with a little huff. “Tell me, did you really think screwing with this timeline, when I’ve worked so hard to restore it, was a good idea?”
John shrugged, the corners of his mouth pulling down at the sides. He looked like a delinquent teenager, caught taking Daddy’s car out for a spin around the neighborhood. “It’ll be cool. I promise.” He made the Scout’s Honor symbol, and Rodney felt his mouth twitch in an effort not to smile.
A soft sound behind Rodney made him look over his shoulder. It was just the cat, who was sitting at the entranceway to the kitchen. He licked a paw and ran it over his face a few times, and then stared at John.
“Jeez, Rodney, couldn’t you afford a new cat?” John asked. "That one looks a bit worn out."
The cat yawned, showing the sharp points of its teeth, and went back into the kitchen.
Rodney’s hackles went up. “I’m pretty sure you didn’t come all this way across the space-time continuum, breaking most of the laws of science, by the way, just to insult my cat. So, tell me, exactly why is it that you’re here?”
The buzzer sounded. Again? Rodney hardly ever had any callers. He started forward with a sigh, but John stopped him. “Ah, let me get that for you, buddy.”
Staring at him with one eyebrow raised, Rodney waited while John opened the door.
“I thought we agreed, you guys were waiting in the jumper.” John sounded stern as he spoke to whoever was in the hall. He stepped back as the door opened fully and Ronon pushed into the room, followed closely by Teyla.
“Got tired of waiting. Besides, if you got to see McKay, thought we should, too.” Ronon’s grin was clearly unrepentant.
“Teyla,” John said in a kind of disapproving drawl.
“I happen to agree with Ronon on this one.” She turned her beaming smile on Rodney. “I wanted to thank you in person, Rodney.”
“Teyla!” Athosian customs be damned, he rushed forward to wrap his arms around her, tears spilling out of his eyes in earnest now. “Teyla, you’re alive!” He looked down into her obvious delight, surprised to see tears in her eyes, too. “The baby?” He was almost afraid to ask.
“Torren is nearly two now. In fact, you helped deliver him under the most heroic of circumstances.”
“Me!” Rodney was shocked, and yet pleased at the same time.
“C’mere, you.” Ronon tugged him out of his embrace with Teyla, wrapping him in a crushing bear hug.
“Careful!” Rodney muttered, his nose pressed against Ronon’s chest. “Thin bones, and all that.”
Ronon released him with a laugh. “Knew you’d say something like that.”
“Hey!” A distinctly aggrieved voice penetrated from the hallway. Standing in Rodney’s doorway was himself, only younger. “You said I didn’t have any hair!”
“I thought you said meeting yourself in this timeline was a bad idea, McKay.” Another person might have described John as sounded aggravated, but Rodney recognized the tone as more exasperated than anything else, and exasperation, well, that implied a certain amount of tolerance and fondness.
“You lied to me. You told me I was bald in the future!” Rodney the Younger shot a dirty look at his future self. “What you didn’t tell me was that I dressed like Mr. Rogers. Besides,” he focused his ire back on John, “having come this far with screwing with this reality, I didn’t see the point in waiting in the jumper alone.”
“Bald?” Rodney glared at John as well. “That was just mean.”
John had the grace to look embarrassed. “It was a joke. It got out of hand.”
“Wow.” Rodney stared at his younger counterpart. “I’d forgotten how good-looking I used to be.”
Rodney the Younger preened a little at that. “I know, right? Well, I must say, I’ve held up better than I thought I would, or rather, you have.”
“Of course,” Rodney began slowly, “now I finally understand what Jeannie meant all those years ago when she told me I was ‘no John Sheppard.’”
Rodney the Younger made that little grimace where he pulled the corners of his mouth up into a fake smile, his lips pursed as though he’d inadvertently sucked a lemon. “Ha-ha. Don’t quit your day job. Oh wait, you already have.”
Rodney jerked his chin up, incensed. “What the hell are you doing playing around with an alternative reality drive, anyway? Have you learned nothing in all your time in Pegasus? I guess not. You’re still the same selfish, arrogant man you’ve always been.”
“Oh, fine talk coming from the man who decided he could change the entire timeline! No arrogance there, perfectly reasonable action to have taken.”
“Either come in or get out, but stop standing in the doorway. You’re letting all the heat out.” Fury boiled inside of him, though he wasn’t entirely sure why. He just knew he’d like to wipe the self-important smirk right off his alternate timeline self.
“Would you listen to yourself? Next you’ll be yelling at kids to get off your lawn!”
“Dr. Kettle, Dr. Pot, call a truce, would you? Only you could get into a pissing match with yourself, McKay.” It wasn’t clear which Rodney John had aimed this comment. “You heard the man, come in and close the door.”
A sound from the kitchen put the team on alert.
“Something’s in the other room.” Ronon whipped out his magnum from under his coat.
“Don’t shoot the cat!” Both Rodneys yelled in unison, as the cat reappeared in the entranceway to the kitchen.
“Ronon, what did we say about shooting things here on Earth? Remember, some people keep animals as pets.” John sounded as though he’d had this conversation many times before.
“That doesn’t look like a pet.” Ronon pointed at the yellow tom, who bared his teeth in a silent hiss. The cat didn’t budge from his position at the door, as though he was an Egyptian god guarding a portal.
“He’s an alley cat.” Rodney growled and moved over to pet the cat, who bristled initially, and then relaxed marginally enough to head butt his hand. He straightened to glare at Ronon. “He’s had to live by his wits, scavenging food when he can, staying one step ahead of the neighborhood dogs, and out of the street so he doesn’t get hit by a car.” Rodney didn’t add that the cat was the one constant in his life these days, the only thing he allowed himself to care about.
“He is a very impressive animal,” Teyla said smoothly.
“You’re doing the diplomatic thing on me, aren’t you, Teyla? ‘Handling McKay’ for the team. I get it.” He broke into a wide smile. “I never thought I’d hear you do that again.” Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes once more, and he brushed them away irritably. He walked over to the small table that functioned as both a work station and a place to eat, and sat down heavily in one of the chairs beside it. “I don’t know why my eyes keep watering. It must be because I’m so tired and hungry.”
“Shall I make something for you to eat?” Teyla came to his side and rested a hand on his shoulder.
The gentle touch nearly broke him. He shook his head. “There’s nothing here. I gave the last of the tuna to the cat, and all the stores are closed because of the holiday.”
“It’s a holiday?” John asked.
Rodney the Younger, who had been poking around the apartment, let out a whistle as he surveyed the smart board. “Yes, holiday,” he sounded distracted, still staring at the calculations as he spoke. “Didn’t you notice the Christmas decorations in the street?”
“I guess I had other things on my mind.”
Something in John’s voice registered with Rodney the Younger because he looked up abruptly to give John a shy smile.
I didn’t imagine that. That connection between them. That was real. It made him inhale sharply. Teyla gave him a little supportive squeeze.
“Does your pet have a name?”
Rodney looked up at Ronon towering over him. “Runner,” Rodney said with a crooked smile from old.
Something flickered over Ronon’s face, a tightening around the eyes, and then he, too, placed a hand on Rodney’s shoulder and squeezed. It was all Rodney could do not to yelp and make an agonized face of pain.
“Well, that’s all very touching but what do you propose to eat for the next few days?” Rodney the Younger stood with his fists planted on his hips, looking very annoyed. Rodney had the oddest feeling that this younger version of himself was his super-ego, come to life.
“You guys are really here, right?” He asked in a voice that wavered slightly. The room felt like it might start spinning, as though he was on a carousel that was just starting to move.
John was already handing over a power bar before Rodney had finished his question.
Rodney smiled at him, tearing open the wrapper. “A power bar. I can’t remember the last time I ate one of these.”
“Well, just don’t break a tooth,” Rodney the Younger sniped. “You’re not likely to get a dentist to see you until after the New Year.”
Rodney flipped his younger self the bird, an action that caused Ronon and John to snicker. Rodney the Younger looked highly affronted, but cleared his throat and spoke again. “Well, what are we going to do about this? We can’t just leave him here with no food.”
Rodney chewed carefully on the power bar. He’d never admit it to his younger self, but he did have to be cautious with the thick bar. His teeth weren’t as strong as they used to be. “Got any MREs?”
“We are not letting him eat MREs, John.” Teyla forestalled any possibility of John offering to go to the jumper and snag enough for the next few days. Rodney recognized that disapproving tone. If Teyla said no, it wasn’t happening. Which was a shame. The MREs would have served nicely.
“Well,” the familiar drawl tugged at Rodney’s heart. It was like hearing the opening bars to a favorite song that hadn’t played since he was a teenager. “Why don’t you go stay with Jeannie for a few days?”
Rodney sighed. “She lives in Toronto, now. I’m sort of out of money, and besides, I wasn’t invited.”
“Out of money?” Rodney the Younger frowned.
“Not invited?” John raised an eyebrow.
Rodney shrugged. He answered the younger Rodney’s question first. “It took all my resources to work here on solving The Problem.” He couldn’t help but capitalize the words in his mind. Tackling John’s question, he continued. “She thought I was nuts. I mean, I guess I was, when you put it in terms of single-minded obsession. She tried to help for a while, really, don’t tell her but when it comes to creating a whole new math, well, she’s intuitively better at that sort of thing than I am. Eventually I ran her off, though. She gave up.”
“But you didn’t.” The smile John gave him warmed him from the inside out. It was funny, but he hadn’t realized that he’d been freezing his entire life until just now. “She might have a knack for this kind of thing,” he waved at the papers and boards about the room, “but you had the stick-to-itness to get the job done.”
“The stick-to-itness?” Rodney the Younger’s voice was arch. “Making up new words again, Colonel?”
“He knew what I meant.” John caught Rodney’s gaze and held it.
Rodney felt compelled to share the credit. “It would have all been for nothing if I hadn’t been able to persuade Lorne to let me go back to Atlantis and set the hologram up. He took a big risk doing that, especially since he didn’t tell anyone what the actual goal was.” He smiled, shaking his head gently. “I really have no idea what I said to change his mind. He said no at first.”
“Er, ah, what exactly happened to David Parrish in your timeline?” Rodney the Younger was suddenly pink-cheeked.
“Parrish?” It took him a moment to place the name, which was another indication that he wasn’t as young as he used to be. Then again, the question had come at him out of left field. “Let’s see, right, he was on Lorne’s team, wasn’t he? A botanist.” His face fell when he remembered. “They were off-world when Michael’s hybrids hit them in a surprise attack. Parrish was killed, along with a good many others.”
“Uh-huh.” Rodney the Younger stroked his lips rather conspicuously. With his left hand. Which was sporting a band of gold on the ring finger. “Hmmm. Well, you know, DADT was repealed in our timeline a few months ago.”
Rodney blinked at his counterpart. “It was? Hah, it took them until about ten years ago to repeal it here. Wait, are you telling me Lorne and Parrish?”
“I can see why a man might be willing to risk changing the course of history under the right circumstances.” John crossed his arms over his chest, his left hand coming to rest on his elbow. He, too, was wearing a wedding ring.
The idea of John married to anyone boggled the mind. Who? Who did he marry? Teyla? Rodney shot Teyla a quick glance, but she only smiled enigmatically at him, as though she knew what he was thinking. She rested her chin on her left hand, as if to show off its ringless state.
“Think about it, McKay.” Ronon shook his head slightly with a small smile, as though Rodney was being incredibly dense.
He glanced at each of his teammates in turn, noting Ronon’s suppressed glee, and the look he shared with Teyla. Rodney the Younger lifted his chin a bit defiantly when their gazes locked, but it was the sheepish expression on John’s face, along with the faint blush, that made the connection for him. That, and the shift of Rodney the Younger to stand closer to John, almost possessively so.
Rodney felt as though he’d been hit upside the head with a two by four. A sense of elation spread over him slowly, and he was grinning as he wondered what everyone would do if he fist pumped the air and danced a little jig.
“What do you say, McKay? We could have you at Jeannie’s in a matter of minutes.” John’s smile was infectious, inviting. “Then we really should be on our way back to our own reality.”
Rodney the Younger snapped his fingers. “You could tell her that you were right! That you told her so.”
“I wouldn’t be able to prove that. Not unless…” He looked hopefully at John.
“Okay, we can keep the jumper cloaked and she can come out and see us, but only Jeannie, and for like two seconds, got it?” John didn’t quite sigh as he gave in.
“Hah!” Rodney crowed. “Not only will I get to say I told you so, but I’ll be decades younger than her, too! Ow!” He rubbed the back of his head, where John had cuffed him.
“There’s still a problem, though.”
“Don’t tell me Jeannie’s still serving tofurkey. I don’t know how many times I’ve told her, no one is a vegetarian at Christmas,” Rodney the Younger groused. “Oh, I know, it’s the return flight back. Hah.” He picked up a tablet off the table and, bracing one edge against his chest, began stabbing at the touchscreen with his index finger.
“What are you doing?” Rodney asked curiously.
Rodney the Younger didn’t look up, but the smile that crossed his face was positively impish. “Let’s just say that I’m making a deposit into your account. Oh look, that security breach in our timeline was never fixed in this one. Oh, well. I doubt Dick Cheney will miss it, seeing as he’s long dead by now in this timeline. Provided he is dead, mind you. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover he was a Goa’uld.”
“Nah,” John said. “He’d have done more damage if he was.”
“Wait, what did you do? Am I going to have the Secret Service coming after me because you stole money from a former VP?” Rodney reached for the tablet in his counterpart’s hands.
“Not from the VP himself, because we’ve established that he’s probably dead. From the company formerly known as Halliburton. From a fund they say doesn’t exist. Hard to report a theft when you’re not supposed to have the money in the first place. There.” He lifted his hand from the keyboard like a concert pianist finishing a solo concerto. “Problem solved. Don’t thank me now, but you won’t have to worry about finances for a long time to come. Certainly not until decide what you want to do with the rest of your life.”
Rodney gaped at him, and then grinned like a fiend, until he remembered his dilemma. “No, it’s not the terrible food at Jeannie’s or the money, either. Well, not now, anyway. No, it’s the cat. I’ve been gone for almost a week, and the weather is terrible out there. I… I don’t want to leave him again.”
Everyone looked at the cat, who stood up and stretched, pushing his back legs out behind him one at a time and spreading his toes until his claws showed. Satisfied that all eyes were on him, he curled around and began washing his butt.
Ronon crossed to the door. “Cat,” he said, his hand on the doorknob. “There’s food where we’re going.”
The cat trotted over to the door and looked up at him as if to say, ‘well, what are you waiting for?’
Ronon opened the door and let the cat out, glancing over his shoulder at the others as he stepped into the corridor.
“Rodney, perhaps we should go assist Ronon in prepping the jumper. John can escort Dr. McKay when he is packed and ready.”
“What?” Rodney looked confused. “He should already be packed if he just came back from the SGC. Besides, what prepping is necessary? John does the pre-flight stuff.”
“Not this time.” Teyla took him firmly by the arm and guided him out the door. “We will meet you downstairs, John.”
“Her smile is as beautiful as ever,” Rodney remarked, when he and John were alone. “But my, er, other self has a point, you know. I’m still packed. I didn’t even bring the suitcase out of the car.”
“I know.” He shifted slightly. “Lock up and we’ll pick up your bag on the way to the jumper.”
Rodney nodded. “It will just take me a second.” He moved into the kitchen, where he picked up the plate from the floor and rinsed it, leaving in the sink to wash on his return. When he turned, John was leaning in the doorframe, arms folded over his chest, legs crossed at the ankle. It was a pose Rodney had seen many times before, both on Atlantis and in his dreams.
“I never said thank you,” John said, a half-smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. “To your hologram, I mean. Or to you here, for everything you did. For everything you gave up.”
Rodney picked at a loose button on his sweater. He was going to have to fix that before it came off. “I didn’t really give up all that much. I’d already lost everything that mattered to me.”
“You could have given up. You could have chosen to have some kind of life of your own.” John peeled himself off the doorjamb to stand up straight.
Rodney shook his head. “I’m no hero. I thought about quitting more than once. But after Pegasus, you know, everything else pales in comparison. I knew what was out there. What was coming. How much we’d lost and how much we were going to lose, too. I couldn’t pretend it was okay to sit this one out, not when I had a chance to make it right.” He wagged a finger at John. “You shouldn’t have risked coming to this reality to let me know. I appreciate it though.”
“Yeah, well, what are friends for?” John nodded a few times, catching his lower lip briefly in his teeth.
Rodney knew that look. John had something more to say.
“So, ah, when we first got here, you accused Rodney, that is, my Rodney, uh, McKay, oh hell, you know who I mean. Anyway, you accused him of still being arrogant and selfish. Of not having learned anything.” John looked him straight in the eye, now, no more waffling. “The thing is, when I briefed him on this timeline, I told him that he had a chance to be with Keller, that is, Jennifer.”
Rodney smiled when John reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. So predictable.
“Anyway, he dismissed that as something that would have never happened if he and K-Jennifer hadn’t been thrown together like they were. Kind of last choice for both of them, was the way he put it. What I’m trying to say is he didn’t even hesitate. He didn’t try and grab a bit of happiness for himself. He went with doing the right thing.”
“Oh he did, did he?” This time it was Rodney’s turn to smile wickedly. “Completely altruistic, right? No personal motivation there whatsoever, eh? Well, I have it on good authority that sometimes a man might be willing to change the course of history under the right circumstances.”
That got him. Even the tips of his ears turned bright red. “Yeah, well,” he mumbled, before clearing his throat. “You about done here?”
It wasn’t until they were making their way slowly across the parking lot that it hit him. The rear hatch of the jumper was open, illuminating the night in a bright square of light. It looked for all the world like the front door to a family home, opened up to let guests in, everything warm, and cheerful, and bright. Home for the holidays. John had his suitcase in one hand, and was steadying his arm with the other, having observed that Rodney the Younger would be pissed if John let him fall and break a hip on Christmas Eve. When he skidded on a patch of ice, and John was the anchor that kept him on his feet.
Rodney began to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” John asked, as they inched their way toward the jumper. Ronon was coming partway down the ramp to assist Rodney in climbing on board.
“I thought this was a revision of A Christmas Carol, but I was all wrong.” Rodney snorted, even as John gripped his arm tighter. “It’s not Dickens at all. It’s A Wonderful Life!”
“I’m glad you feel that way.”
“No, you dolt!” It delighted Rodney to no end he could insult John again after all these years. “The movie, George Bailey, Bedford Falls, It’s a Wonderful Life. What, have you been living under a rock?”
“Okay, no offense, but that was a bit out of context. Besides, I’m more of a Bruce Willis guy than a James Stewart one.”
“Merry Christmas!” Rodney yodeled to the sky. Ronon took hold of his arm opposite John and helped him climb onboard. “Merry Christmas, Ronon! Merry Christmas, Teyla!”
“Has he been into that drink you were telling me about? The eggnog?” Ronon asked, as he closed the ramp behind them.
Rodney stood blinking in the brightly lit jumper. Teyla was smiling, but John and Ronon were eyeing him as though he’d just escaped from the looney bin.
Rodney the Younger got it though. “‘Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful big hole, doesn’t he?’”
“That is very profound, Rodney,” Teyla said, taking her seat.
“It’s a quote from a movie.”
“I would like to see that movie.”
“Ronon would never sit through it. Not enough explosions.”
“The next time it is my turn to pick the movie, I am picking that one.”
“McKay!” Ronon’s voice rumbled through the jumper.
“Hey, don’t blame me! I tried to defer her. Watch out, you’ll scare the cat.”
The cat, however, leapt into Ronon’s lap when he sat down, tucking his paws underneath his chest, eyes half-closed in purring contentment.
“Thank you for this,” Rodney said, catching John by the arm as he would have gone forward to seat himself at the controls.
“No.” John placed his hand over Rodney’s where it rested on his sleeve. “Thank you. Merry Christmas, Rodney.”
John sputtered and then laughed, that glorious, honking, dying donkey noise that Rodney hadn’t heard in what seemed like a lifetime.
“Best. Christmas. Ever.” Rodney clapped John on the shoulder and took his place in one of the empty seats.
“That it is,” John said, following him to the forward compartment and seating himself at the controls. “Next stop, Jeannie’s house.”
From his vantage point in the back, Rodney could clearly see the look John shared with Rodney the Younger, who’d taken the co-pilot’s seat, as usual. The connection between them was as concrete as if they were holding hands.
Yeah, giving up a third of his life in order to be able to witness this moment? So worth it.
It didn’t hurt, either, that he was going to be able to tell Jeannie ‘I told you so.’