Rodney McKay stumbled out of the store, groceries weighing his arms down. Tonight, he was making dinner for the Millers. Not that he could actually cook, but he searched every cookbook Jeannie owned to find something he could understand and prepare precisely. After all, he'd built bombs in his sleep; cooking a meal couldn't be that hard.
As soon as he closed the trunk, he noticed it. Or rather, the missing object in his window. Rodney's heart stuttered; the most important thing he owned was missing.
One year, two months, eighteen days, nine hours, and thirty-two minutes ago, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard disappeared without a trace. Not just 'maybe he's in the next room', but 'oh my God, he's just gone!' Faster than the blink of an eye. Gone.
Rodney had difficulty unlocking the door; his hand shook so badly, the keys made an awful racket. He sat heavily, staring at the empty space where the dog tags hung. Sometimes, they would shine happily in the bright sunshine. Sometimes, they were the most irritating thing in the world, swinging back and forth constantly, teasing him as he would reach and miss.
He couldn't bring himself to send them to John's brother. When Woolsey handed them over, Rodney had promised to deliver them personally. Yet, he hung them in the one place he thought would serve as a constant reminder of the best friend he ever had.
Staring blankly out of the window, Rodney scanned the parking lot. It wasn't as if he would find the culprit, but he didn't know what else to do. He wasn't even supposed to have them! Now they're lost and gone forever. Probably some stupid kid who thought they were cool for some reason.
You'd think people would have better things to do than steal a meaningless piece of identification. The value was sentimental, really. So why bother?
Rodney's fist curled involuntarily, his short nails embedding themselves in his palm. Before he could stop himself, he watched his fist hit the steering wheel in rapid succession. Cursing himself for being so stupid many times over, sadness immediately overcame the anger.
Starting the car, he let the cool air wash over him. It wasn't cold, but it wasn't warm either. It was a bright and clear spring day, cool enough to keep the snow from melting completely. Closing his eyes, Rodney leaned forward, placing his forehead on the steering wheel. He could see the tags shining happily, glinting in the sun just before he left the car.
He sat there for an indeterminate amount of time, listening to the faint strains of classical music from the cd he bought last week. The sudden memory of John teaching Jinto and his friends how to play football one afternoon crashed down on him. It was a day similar to this one, only warmer. The original Lantea was such a temperate planet, like it was eternally May. In September, however, it was frigid, and sleet covered the piers.
Listening to himself breathe, Rodney finally opened his eyes, surprised for once the memories of his friend didn't overwhelm him to the point of tears. Rodney never thought of himself as emotional; people weren't his thing. But the members of the first Atlantis expedition had gotten under his skin, behind his mask of indifference and scientific curiosity.
Taking several more breaths, he raised his head, glancing at the dashboard clock. He had been wallowing in this – grief or whatever – for approximately twenty minutes. Rodney felt he could sit there all day, stuck in nostalgia and sadness and pain. Instead, he buckled his seatbelt.
Passing a hand over his face, he chanced a glance in the mirror. His eyes were only a little red this time, and thankfully clear. Briefly, he wondered if that look of loss would ever leave his expressive eyes. Before another memory could hinder him, Rodney put the car into Drive. But he still didn't leave the space, taking another breath to steady himself.
What would he tell Jeannie? Her possible reactions and questions chased around his mind as he carefully pulled out of the space. Straightening the car, he drove toward the exit. The expanse of empty parking spaces held only one being: a painfully thin man limping toward the sidewalk. His hair flopped with every lurch as he made his way across the parking lot.
Rodney smiled to himself as another memory assaulted him. The way John always limped around after those pee-wee football games, or a strenuous dash for their lives on some backwater planet...
The man was staring at him. At some point, Rodney had stopped the car, watching this man cross the asphalt. Pulling his hair out of his face, the man smiled at Rodney, tapping the dog tags around his neck.
The only thing Rodney saw was red.
How dare this stranger touch what wasn't his.
How dare he take the only thing in this sad, stupid world Rodney cared about.
How dare he smile triumphantly at his prize.
How dare he look just like a fallen, missing friend.
Rodney was halfway out of the car before he remembered to place the auto in park. Standing outside of his car, his words dried up immediately. He wanted to yell, scream, cry. Something. For the first time in his life, he would believe in ghosts. He wouldn't doubt people reporting the presence or sight of a dead loved one.
The ghost standing before him now was proof.
Holding out his hand, Rodney wanted to beg the apparition to return his prize. Snatching his hand back, he suddenly came to his senses. In his obvious grief, he was hallucinating.
That was it. A hallucination. John Sheppard was dead.
“No. I'm not.”
“Yes! You are!”
Throwing open the door, Rodney got in, shutting himself inside the car. “I'm arguing with a ghost! What the hell is wrong with me?”
He watched the spectre move to the front of the car, placing his hands on the hood. “Rodney. It's me. I'm not dead.” The not-John person smiled, his hair falling forward, shadowing his face.
“Nonono. You most certainly are not John Sheppard!” Yanking at the steering wheel, Rodney put the car in reverse. Another car was behind him, honking. Hazarding a look in front of his car, Rodney checked for lanky evil spirits.
Putting the car in drive, he fought the urge to lay tracks on the pristine pavement. Instead, Rodney pulled into an empty space and parked, allowing the impatient driver to pass.
“I can't believe after all this time, I'm falling apart,” he whispered. “Why today of all days?”
A tap on his window made him jump. Warily turning his head, Rodney was relieved to find a woman in uniform, a concerned smile on her face.
“Hello, sir. Are you all right?”
Nodding, Rodney tried to find his voice. “Yes, yes, fine. I, uh, just remembered, uh, something.”
“Happens to all of us, sir. Be careful now, there's been some vandalism in the area.” The parking patrolwoman waved, and turned to get back in her tiny car.
“Hey!” Rodney yelled, trying to stop the words from leaving his mouth. “Did you see a really skinny man with a limp, wearing a black jacket?”
“You mean the guy standing on the other side of your car?” She said, driving off.
Snapping his head around, Rodney's eyes widened. This was not happening! And this idiot rent-a-cop was going to let him get murdered by a vagrant wearing John Sheppard's face!
“Careful, buddy. Yer gonna give yourself whiplash,” a voice drawled. The passenger door opened, and the ghost sat himself down, waving at the parking security. “Are you even gonna say hi?”
Once again, Rodney wanted to yell, scream, and cry. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Rodney blinked. “Hi?”
John smiled. “I waited for you to come out of that store forever.” Looking toward the trunk, he tilted his head. “Did you buy me something?”
Leaning, John looked seriously at his friend. “McKay? You know, breathing is a good idea.”
“Okay.” Sure. The ghost was telling him to breathe, and Rodney did so. Why not? If he was losing his mind, it would be nice if he was still alive while they drove him to the psych ward.
“So, where’re you going?”
Rodney’s laugh landed somewhere between hysteria and a sob. “I’m making dinner tonight. For Jeannie and Madison and Karl.”
“Kaleb. Whatever. Look,” Rodney threw up his hands out of exasperation. “Why are you here? The Pegasus Galaxy wasn’t enough? Shouldn’t you be haunting Atlantis or something?”
John shrugged. “I wanted to, but they told me I couldn’t stay there.”
“Why would they tell a ghost to leave?”
“I’m not a ghost, Rodney.”
“You are if I say you are! Because this doesn’t make sense!”
John crossed his arms, eyes widening at Rodney’s outburst. It had been a whole month since he came back. He shouldn’t still be jumpy, right? “I’ll tell you the whole story, but we need to leave.” Looking around the filling parking lot, John put on his seatbelt. “I’ll tell you everything, I promise.”
“Fine. What am I going to tell my sister? You fell from the sky, alive and well, like nothing happened?”
“A lot happened. I got away. But I didn’t know anyone in Atlantis now. There’s so many new people.”
“Yes. I couldn’t stay there. Not without– Not without you.”
John smiled his most charming smile; deep down, Rodney could see its genuineness. “Aw, McKay! So you missed me?”
Rolling his eyes, Rodney turned the car to exit the lot. “Oh yes. I missed your wit and stupid hair.”
“I’m blushing, McKay.”
Pointing to John’s head, and out the window to a barber. “We have time to get you a haircut.”
Frowning, John eyes grew distant. “Maybe later.”
“Are you all right? Did you escape from the infirmary again? We’re not going to have visitors, are we?”
“Nah. The Daedalus dropped me off here, so I’m good. So,” John brightened, tinkering with the radio. “Why do you have my dog tags?”
Smiling, Rodney drove west. “How did you get in my car?”
“What’s for dinner? You know how to cook?”
“I can’t. But it’s just a recipe. What’s the worse that can happen?”