Not long after they'd come to Atlantis, John had developed a theory that liking Rodney McKay was very similar to how Douglas Adams had described flying: the trick was to throw yourself at him and miss.
Nearly four years on, he still remembered the exact moment the revelation had come to him. It had been on their third off-world mission, which had been uneventful compared to the one right before it (John getting an alien bug stuck on his neck; the jumper getting stuck halfway through the 'gate on the way back) and the one after (the planet with all the kids). They'd been heading back to the 'gate after stopping to watch a glorious double sunset—which had impressed the hell out of John because, hey: two suns—and it would've been just about perfect if McKay hadn't started pontificating, as he had a lot in the first couple of months, about the wonders of the universe and the privilege of exploration. "It'd almost be enough to make me feel small and insignificant," he'd mused, "if the evidence of my importance to the advancement of humanity weren't so overwhelmingly convincing."
"I wonder if the Ancients ever got around to inventing a total perspective vortex," John had said. "If they did and we find it, I'm making you try it first."
McKay had stopped dead in his tracks—Teyla had almost bumped into him—and had spun around to face John, who'd been bringing up the rear of the group. He raised a finger and pointed it at John, making weird stabbing gestures in the air. "Hitchhiker's Guide. Have you read it?" he asked, his tone a mixture of hopefulness and incredulity.
"Nope," John said, and tried hard not to smirk when McKay's expression fell about a yard. Winding the guy up was way, way too much fun. He waited until McKay looked really disappointed and then he added, casually, "I've got all the original radio shows on my iPod, though."
McKay's entire face changed again—how did he do that?—and he said, with what John thought at the time was uncharacteristic hesitancy, "You, uh, you do? Hey, you wouldn't maybe think about putting them on the server? So other people who may have somehow omitted to bring sufficient recreational materials with them could benefit."
John had shrugged. "Sure."
McKay had smiled a broad, startled smile, like he was genuinely surprised that John might do something nice for him just because. "Well, um, thanks." Then, just as they'd started to walk on again, he'd added, "I never would've guessed a cookie-cutter career military type like you would've had any kind of imagination at all. Well done there, Major."
It was right then that John had had his great moment of McKay-related insight. Douglas Adams had written that flying was easy: all you had to do was throw yourself at the ground and miss. McKay's personality was like the ground—a vast expanse of condescension, smugness, arrogance, pettiness and about a hundred other less than pleasant character traits as well. Yet if you threw yourself at him head on and somehow managed to miss all that, something strange happened: you ended up floating in a weird, gravity-free place where the normal rules didn't apply and Rodney McKay was actually an okay guy. A likeable guy, even.
If there was a knack to liking McKay, then it was a knack John possessed, along with his knacks for flying things and making Ancient doohickeys light up when he touched them. Just as with those skills, he couldn't have explained how he managed to like McKay; he only knew he did. Then, as time went on and John started to amass a list of real and concrete reasons to like McKay—the movies they both enjoyed, the dumb computer games they both got overly competitive playing, their habit of reciprocal life-saving—missing the ground of McKay's personality got easier and easier. By the time, three years later, they finally gave in to the inevitable and got around to sleeping together, John had almost forgotten that he'd ever not known how to like Rodney.
For several days after a visit by the Daedalus, Atlantis always descended into a state of near-chaos. Previously empty hallways suddenly filled with stacked crates of freshly delivered supplies, new faces appeared in the mess at mealtimes and familiar faces re-appeared as people who'd been temporarily rotated back to Earth returned. John always enjoyed the buzz the Daedalus's arrival created, although he was less keen on the avalanche of administration it brought with it. He reached his own personal limit some time around the end of the second day, by which point he was hoarse from repeating his Welcome to Atlantis speech for the newbies, and his hand was starting to ache from all the forms he had to sign before they'd let him have any of the really cool stuff, like the C4.
When even Lorne started saying things like, "Really, sir, we've got everything under control here," John knew it was time to make himself scarce and let people who were actually good at this kind of thing get on with it. He did what he often did when he needed time out: he went down to the labs to find Rodney.
"Every time," Rodney said, waving a hand at a stack of new laptops which came up to his shoulder, "every time I tell them exactly what to send, and every time, without fail, they get it wrong. Some of these only have 2 gigs of RAM, can you believe that? I think I'm going to use them as doorstops. That's all they're good for."
John looked at the laptop mountain. "Maybe if you didn't break them so fast..."
"It's hardly my fault if 'damaged by blast from Wraith energy weapon' isn't covered by a standard sales warranty," Rodney said. "Neither is 'hard drive wiped by malicious Replicator virus' or 'device dissolved when dropped into green gunk on alien planet by a certain butterfingered Colonel'."
"That was two months ago, Rodney," John said, holding up his hands. "I said sorry already."
"Sorry isn't going to bring back the irreproducible experimental data I lost, or a week's worth of journal entries—" Rodney broke off abruptly, but it was too late. John allowed a grin to spread slowly across his face.
"McKay," he said, "you keep a diary?"
"I keep a journal," Rodney corrected him. His cheeks had gone bright pink. "Many great men do, you know. Some day I could be considered the Samuel Pepys of the Pegasus Galaxy."
"Is it decorated with hearts and flowers, with a padlock and a note stuck to the front that says, My Most Privatest Thoughts?"
Rodney scowled. "It's an electronic file protected by multiple layers of encryption that only I know how to unlock and which no one else could even start trying to break."
"Am I in it?" John asked. "I must be in it. Hey, can I—"
"No," Rodney said. The pinkness had spread to his nose and his ears. "You can't read it. It's... personal."
John folded his arms across his chest. "Well, fine, if you're gonna be like that about it."
"Okay, this? Is exactly why I never mentioned it before," Rodney said, sounding annoyed. "Look, if you must know, I never kept a journal before Atlantis. Then when I came here I figured some day the expedition might get declassified, and I wanted something to use as a basis for the best-selling autobiography that's going to fund my retirement. And then it kind of became a habit, and writing things down turns out to be strangely therapeutic. So now it's just... something I do for me, all right?"
By the time he finished speaking, his tone had shifted from standard-issue irritated through defensive before finishing up in an oddly vulnerable place. John didn't get it at all; he found writing up mission reports a chore, and the idea of voluntarily repeating the exercise and adding in how he felt about things as well sounded like a highly refined form of torture.
"Fine," John said, "sure," and then, because he felt weirdly guilty for teasing McKay about the diary thing—he must really have touched a nerve, there: usually baiting McKay was one of John's principle sources of entertainment—he added, "What are you gonna put in today's entry?"
Rodney gestured at the stack of laptops. "A lengthy essay on the inadequacies of the military supply chain, with examples."
"Huh," John said. "That sounds kinda boring. How about we spice it up a little?"
He leaned forward and kissed Rodney. Kissing another guy didn't feel strange; in fact, if John was being completely honest with himself, it had never felt weird, not even the very first time they'd done it. That in itself had come as something of a surprise to John, who'd spent his adult life ticking the box for 'orientation: heterosexual' purely on the assumption that as a divorced USAF officer, there was nothing else he could be. And then Rodney had walked into his life, his manner as brash and loud as the appalling orange fleece he'd been wearing the day John had met him in Antarctica, and had proceeded to break down all John's assumptions about himself with the same kind of confident ease he'd disassembled all his other assumptions. Of course you could travel to other planets and other galaxies. Of course aliens were real. Of course John Sheppard liked guys.
Specifically, John liked Rodney, who tasted of fresh, good coffee—that was one of the biggest advantages of a recent Daedalus supply run, in John's opinion—and whose tongue never stopped working, even when his voice was temporarily silenced by John's mouth on his.
When they broke off, Rodney grinned at him lopsidedly and said, "Oh, hey, I have to show you something."
He dashed off to the boxes and crates stacked up on the far side of the lab. As John watched him hunt through them, scattering bubble-wrap over the lab floor, it struck him that this was pretty much why getting together with Rodney had been the best idea ever. John knew how friendship worked; it was something he was good at. Every girlfriend he'd ever had had said more or less the same thing: You're such a good friend, John. But, before Atlantis, every time sex had entered the equation, the rules had changed in ways John had never been able to grasp; time after time, he'd found himself adrift in a sea of changed expectations he didn't even understand, let alone know how to fulfill, and that was when things inevitably started to go to hell. His marriage had been the most extreme example of the pattern: he remembered sitting opposite Nancy in an anonymous office while his lawyer and her lawyer worked out the details of the divorce, wondering how it'd come to this when he still liked her.
But Rodney—Rodney McKay, of all people—had broken the established pattern. John didn't know whether that was because Rodney was a guy or because he was Rodney, but either way, he didn't care. When they'd started sleeping together, there'd been no changed expectations, no pressure, no strange and subtle shift into territory John had no idea how to navigate. He and Rodney worked together and hung out together and had really good sex together, and the only question remaining in John's mind was why everyone didn't have a similar arrangement with their best friend, because if there were any disadvantages, so far he'd failed to spot them.
He didn't get a chance to pursue the line of thought any further, because Rodney had found what he'd been looking for. He was coming back across the lab, carrying a large square box labeled with his name. "Someone at the SGC sending you care packages?" John asked.
"Change 'SGC' to 'Area 51' and 'care packages' to 'Ancient tech' and you're there," Rodney said. He opened the top of the box and, sure enough, the dull metallic sphere nestling in Styrofoam balls inside it was clearly Ancient in design.
John looked quizzically at Rodney. "Maybe I'm missing something, but I thought mysterious Ancient devices were the one thing we weren't short of around here."
"And you'd be right," Rodney said, holding up a finger, "but this has sentimental value. You're looking at a little piece of history: this is the first piece of Ancient technology I ever studied up close."
John tried to configure his expression into something suitably impressed. "What is it?"
"I have no idea," Rodney said cheerfully. "One of the SGC 'gate teams found it and brought it back to Earth for study. I'd just arrived at Area 51—this was back in 2000—and it ended up on my project list because someone thought it was a component from a disassembled DHD, which just goes to show you how little anyone knew about Ancient technology back then. Needless to say, I swiftly determined that it wasn't anything 'gate-related, and, anyway, we couldn't figure out what it was, so it got boxed and forgotten about."
"Until you asked them to send it to you here," John said, filling in the rest of the story for himself, "because you think that with everything we've learned since we've been here, you might be able to work out what it does."
Rodney nodded. "Right. It always bothered me that I never figured it out and—well, I wanted something I could work on in my spare time. You know, to relax."
John felt that Rodney's ideas about what constituted relaxation were probably out of sync with most other people's. "Let me get this straight: you decided to take up a hobby, and chose something that's exactly the same as your job?"
"I happen to enjoy my work," Rodney said. "And don't try to tell me that those so-called test flights you take the jumpers out for on your days off are really essential."
John couldn't argue with that, so he didn't. "Well, let me know when you figure out what it is," he said, gesturing at the metal sphere in the box.
Rodney made an absent mmmm sound, his attention already mostly focused on the sphere. He was carefully removing its packaging, stripping away the molded plastic which had stopped it moving around during transit. "Hey, you want to stick around while I run a few preliminary tests?"
"Nah, I'm good," John said. "I probably need to go and find Lorne and sign things for a while, anyway. But if you want to drop by my quarters later, you can tell me all about it."
"Or we could have sex," Rodney said, not even looking up from unpacking the box.
John sighed. "I was being subtle."
"You should know by now that subtlety isn't one of my many fine qualities," Rodney said. He looked up for a moment and said, hopefully, "So, sex later, right?"
"Right," John said. He turned to go and then, because he couldn't resist, he added without looking around, "If you're not too busy writing your diary."
"Journal," he heard Rodney's voice correct him.
"Whatever you say, McKay," John said, raising a hand without looking back. "Have fun playing with your new toy. Knock yourself out."
And then there was a gasp and a thud and when John spun around he swore out loud because he hadn't meant Rodney to take that last part literally.
Rodney was lying on the lab floor, his hands pressed to his face, making a low groaning sound. The metal sphere had rolled part of the way of the lab bench before its progress had been interrupted by a laptop. The box it had come in was tipped over on its side.
Two steps, three, four, and then John was on his knees at Rodney's side. "McKay!" he said, and when Rodney didn't respond, John tugged Rodney's hands away from his face. Rodney's eyes were wide and confused, and he stared at John with a lack of recognition which made something in John's stomach lurch unpleasantly. Letting go of Rodney's wrist, he tapped his radio on and said, "Medical team to the main lab right now," and then, because there was nothing else he could do until Keller arrived with her people, he put his hand on Rodney's shoulder and said, "It's okay. You're gonna be okay. I'm here."
"That's nice," Rodney said, his voice very faint. "Just one small question: Who are you?"
Then he passed out.
The first rule of Ancient tech, of course, was that just because something looked no more dangerous than a toaster didn't mean it wasn't. That was a major theme in John's Welcome to Atlantis newbie speech; now he was furious at himself for not taking his own advice to heart.
The sphere was currently sitting by itself in the middle of an empty table in the infirmary; Keller had folded over a sheet of paper to make a sign which said DON'T TOUCH! DANGEROUS! John wasn't allowed to go within six feet of it, just in case.
"The good news is, there doesn't appear to be anything physically wrong with him, and the EEG looks normal, too," Keller said, coming to stand next to John at the side of the bed where Rodney had been lying, insensible, since they'd brought him in. "Except for maybe a headache, he should be fine when he wakes up."
"He didn't know who I was," John said.
Keller glanced at him sympathetically. "The tests I've run all indicate he experienced something similar to a powerful electric shock, Colonel. It's not surprising he was disoriented."
But John couldn't stop thinking about the look on Rodney's face just before he'd passed out. He'd looked at John like he was a stranger, like he'd never seen him before. It had been somehow more disturbing than almost anything else that John had experienced since coming to Atlantis, and that was saying a hell of a lot.
Rodney's eyes fluttered open, shut again, then opened and stayed open. He gazed woozily at John and Keller. "Hey..." he said.
John smiled. "Hey, buddy. Good to have you back."
"Hey," Rodney repeated, a little more clearly. The next, "Hey?" sounded puzzled. When he said it again, this time in a tone of outright panic—"Hey!"—John started to worry that the device had scrambled the speech centers of Rodney's brain so that 'hey' was all he could say. That, at least, was disproved by his next utterance, although it didn't do much else to put John's mind at ease: "Where am I? Who are you people? What's going on here?"
Rodney pushed himself up into a sitting position in the bed and stared wildly at John and Keller. John held out his hands, palms down, in an instinctive calming gesture, and said, "Take it easy, okay? You're a little confused right now—"
"Oh my God, I've been kidnapped," Rodney said, which John felt more than proved his point. But before he could say as much, Rodney was jabbing an accusing finger at both of them. "Who do you work for? Is it the Russians? I know we're supposed to be all friendly these days, but I read the international sections of the papers, I know what the deal really is. Or, oh, wait, I know: you're agents of some kind of secret shadow government organization, and you're going to torture me to extract information. I don't know anything! Or, or, rather, I know lots of stuff! About astrophysics, mostly, and you wouldn't understand any of it anyway and, oh God, is it because you think I'm American? Because I'm not, I'm Canadian. I can prove it—listen: about, house, zed. See? No one hates Canadians! We gave the world maple syrup! Please don't torture me, I'll tell you everything," he finished, in a near whimper.
John opened his mouth, then closed it again. He didn't even know where to start with that.
Fortunately, Keller did. "Rodney," she said, and Rodney looked surprised that she knew his name, "Rodney, we're your friends. We didn't kidnap you, and believe me when I say no one is going to torture you."
Rodney looked like he didn't believe a word of that. "Oh, you say that now, but in five minutes' time it'll be matchsticks under my fingernails and electrodes attached to my—What are you doing?"
While he'd been talking—actually, ranting was more like it—Keller had gone to one of the wall cabinets and returned holding a syringe filled with a clear fluid. "It's just a sedative," she said. "It'll make you feel calmer."
"You're going to drug me!" Rodney yelped, shuffling up the bed in terror.
John was starting to lose patience. "Yes, she's going to drug you before you push your blood pressure so high you give yourself a stroke."
Rodney's head jerked around, and he stared at John as if seeing him properly for the first time. "You—" he said. "I remember you."
John felt a sudden wash of relief. "Yeah, that's right. You know me."
Rodney nodded. "I was... I was in a lab... and you were there." His eyes narrowed. "You were the one who abducted me!"
The relief dissipated as quickly as it had started to form. "For the last time, Rodney, you haven't been kidnapped. Now, you can take deep breaths and calm down, or we'll give you something to make you calm down. Which is it gonna be?"
Rodney stared at John some more, and then his shoulders fell fractionally and his white-knuckled grip on the sheets of his bed eased a little. He nodded slowly. "Okay. Being calm now. Much calmer." He took another breath. "You know what would help a lot, here? Introductions."
Keller nodded and smiled reassuringly at Rodney. "My name's Jennifer Keller. I'm a doctor."
Even the idea of having to introduce himself to Rodney felt weird to John, as if Rodney had never heard his name before, as if Rodney didn't say his name fifty times a day with inflections ranging from exuberance to annoyance and every nuance in between.
But Rodney was looking at him expectantly, so he said, "John Sheppard. Lieutenant Colonel. Air Force."
If John had hoped Rodney would react in some way to hearing his name, he was disappointed. In fact, it was the last two words which got more of a response.
"You're Air Force?" Rodney said, looking relieved. "I work for the Air Force. I'm an astrophysicist. Well, astrophysicist and engineer, actually—I have doctorates in both. I'm assigned to a project to develop mathematical models of, uh, certain things. I can't say any more; it's highly classified, probably way above your clearance."
A heavy weight settled into the pit of John's stomach. "You think you're still at Area 51."
"Huh. Maybe not so far above your clearance," Rodney said. "And what do you mean, I think I'm still there?"
"You haven't worked at Area 51 for a while," John told him. "A long while."
Keller looked at John, then Rodney. "Can you tell me what today's date is?"
"July 10, 2000," Rodney said. Then his face collapsed into a familiar expression of dread. "Oh. Oh. Except it's not, is it?"
John shook his head. "Add seven years and a couple of months and you're close."
"Seven years?" Rodney squawked. "It's 2007?"
"Rodney, I think you have amnesia," Keller said.
Rodney glared at her. "Oh, thank you for that blindingly obvious diagnosis, Doctor Perky. I've forgotten the last seven years of my life and you think I have amnesia. Tell me, if I came to you without my head, how long would it take you to tell me I'd been decapitated?"
Keller blinked, and John remembered that, as a relatively recent arrival to Atlantis, she hadn't had as long as most people to get used to the more abrasive aspects of Rodney's personality. Although that had been unnecessarily obnoxious, even for him. Sharply, John said, "Hey, your doctor is trying to help you here, McKay. Let her."
Rodney waved a hand dismissively. "Hello, civilian here. I'm not in your chain of command, so less with the orders, please, Lieutenant."
"Lieutenant Colonel," John said.
"Yes, yes, I'm sure the number of little stripes you have on your sleeve is very important to you," Rodney said, "but some of us have just sustained brain damage."
"You haven't suffered brain damage, Rodney," Keller said. "I ran a number of tests before you regained consciousness. There's no evidence that your faculties are impaired, and apart from the memory loss you're thinking clearly and reacting normally." If even more grouchily than usual, John thought, but he didn't say anything. "I know this must be very distressing for you, but as far as I can tell, you're basically fine. The memory loss is most likely just temporary; with a little luck, one good night's sleep and you'll remember everything. In fact, there's no real reason to keep him here," she added, turning to John with a look of appeal which he had no problem translating as, For the love of God please take him away.
"In that case, I want to go home," Rodney said, flopping back down on to the bed and putting his forearm over his eyes. "Somebody call me a cab."
"Sorry," John said, "no can do."
"Don't tell me military spending's been cut back so much in seven years that a taxi is beyond the budget."
"The cab ride you're talking about would be beyond anyone's budget," John told him.
"Rodney," Keller said gently, "do you have any idea where you are?"
"I'm on a military base somewhere," Rodney said, sounding faintly bored by the question. "A military base, just the same as every other military base on the planet."
"Military base, yes," John said. "The same as anywhere else? Not so much."
Rodney lowered his arm and slowly opened his eyes. He looked at John.
"Let's take a walk," John said.
The balcony just off the hallway where the infirmary was located enjoyed one of the best views in the city. From here, you could see everything from the central tower which housed the control room and the 'gate, all the way out to the farthest point of the south pier and the open ocean beyond. It was an even more arresting sight at night, when the lights of the city stood out like a thousand beacons against the ink-black sea, and the planet's two moons—one large and silvery, one small with a blueish tinge and a tiny satellite of its own—glided smoothly between the unfamiliar constellations, crisp and clear in a sky which lacked any atmospheric pollution at all.
Right now, Rodney wasn't looking at any of it. He was staring down at his feet and gripping the railing at the balcony's edge so tightly his knuckles were white. He'd only said two things since they'd stepped outside; the first had been, "Jesus Christ," and he had followed it a minute later with, "Oh, fuck."
"Keep breathing," John advised him.
"Trying to," Rodney said, his voice high-pitched and sing-song. He hadn't raised his head. "Has it gone away?"
"Has what gone away?"
"Any of it."
"Come on, Rodney, look up," John said. And then, to encourage him, he put a hand on Rodney's shoulder. Rodney flinched away from him, which was—okay, yeah, that was a kick in the gut. It seemed almost reflexive, though, and John wasn't even sure Rodney knew he'd done it. John turned the movement into an awkward kind of pat and dropped his hand again.
After a second, Rodney said, "I study stargates. Big, round, alien things. Make wormholes that connect to other stargates."
"Yeah," John said. "We've got one of those. It's pretty cool."
"No, right, yes, here's the thing," Rodney said, "I study stargates. I don't go through them. Stargate Command has dozens of people—certifiably insane people—to do that. I've read the reports; it's dangerous. People get killed. So why, why—" He did look up, now, and jabbed a finger into the air, indicating the city, the two moons, the alien firmament above: "Why am I here? Why would I sign up for this?"
John looked at him, suddenly aware that he didn't have an answer to that. Back when they'd first come to Atlantis, he'd wondered what had made Rodney, with all his fears and anxieties, agree to come on what was possibly the riskiest exploratory expedition ever mounted. But once it had become clear that, contrary to appearances, Rodney actually seemed to thrive under extreme stress, John had stopped wondering and had just been grateful that Rodney was able to cope. He'd never asked the question, because he'd always assumed Rodney had an answer to it. But apparently he didn't. Or he didn't yet.
"I guess you came because... you wanted to," John said at last, aware even as the words came out just how unconvincing they sounded.
Rodney gave a snort of derision. "Well, you obviously don't know me very well, Lieutenant Colonel."
Just better than anyone else here, John thought. Out loud, he said, "Look, Keller said this amnesia thing's probably only temporary. I'm going to take you to your quarters now and you're going to get a good night's sleep, and tomorrow morning you're gonna wake up and everything will be fine."
"Everything will not be fine," Rodney snapped. "I'll still be on some dangerous alien planet millions of light years away from home. The only difference will be that I'll remember why I agreed to come here, which frankly doesn't strike me as a massive improvement on the situation."
"Someone's getting tired and grouchy," John said. "Bedtime for you, Rodney."
He half-smiled as he said it; John had found that he could generally nudge Rodney out of even his foulest moods with a little gentle kidding. This time, though, it didn't have the effect he expected: Rodney's scowl deepened, and his expression shifted from annoyed to something that looked close to actual anger.
"I might be having temporary memory impairment issues, but you can stop talking to me like a slow and dull-witted child right now, Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard. In fact, I'd really like it if you addressed me with a little more courtesy."
Feeling riled in spite of himself, John said frostily, "Like this, Dr. McKay?"
"Exactly like that," Rodney said, and walked back inside.
Neither of them spoke again until they arrived outside Rodney's quarters. John palmed the door open and waited for Rodney to go inside. When he didn't, John looked around to see what the problem was.
Rodney was standing in front of one of the water-pillars which decorated the corridor, staring at his reflection in its glass casing. When John went over to get him, he said, "Look at me. I'm middle-aged."
For a second, John forgot his earlier annoyance and felt renewed sympathy for Rodney; it couldn't be any fun realizing you were the best part of a decade older than your brain was telling you. "Come on, it's not that bad," he said. "You're younger than I am."
Rodney turned his gaze away from the water-pillar and looked John up and down, appraising but strangely distant. "Oh, that is so not fair," Rodney said after a second. Then he walked past John and through the still-open door into his quarters.
"Bathroom's the door on the left," John said. "The shower's a little weird. You have to—"
"I'm sure I'll figure it out," Rodney said, not looking around at John. "Don't let me hold you back from your plans for the evening."
"It's okay, my plans got—"
The door slid shut; the last thing John saw before it closed completely was the back of Rodney's head. Then he was standing outside in the corridor by himself.
"—cancelled," John finished. Quietly, he added, "Sleep well, Rodney."
He needed an early night anyway.
When John walked into the control room the next morning and saw Rodney, Keller and Zelenka in Carter's office, for a few short, relieved seconds he thought that Rodney had woken up with his memory restored and they'd simply started Senior Staff five minutes early. That lasted the length of time it took him to walk across the control room and up the stairs to Carter's office.
"I demand that you send me back to, to Earth," Rodney was saying. He sounded like he couldn't quite believe he'd just said that sentence out loud and for real.
"I'm afraid it's not that easy," Carter said as John came into the room and took up a position leaning against the wall behind Zelenka. Since Carter didn't look completely bemused by Rodney's behavior, John figured someone—probably Keller—had let her know that Rodney had managed to rewind himself seven years.
"What, I can't go home?" Rodney sounded horrified. "Are we cut off or something?"
"We're not cut off," John said. Rodney turned and looked at him with vague surprise, like he hadn't noticed John was there until now. "Well, not anymore. But we're a long way from Kansas, here. There's a ship that makes supply runs, but it left yesterday and it won't be back for a couple of months. And opening a 'gate back to Earth for long enough to send a person through takes a lot of power, so we only do it in emergencies."
"This is an emergency!"
Carter rubbed her fingertips in a tight circle between her eyes, like she was getting a headache. "It really isn't."
In a more conciliatory tone than Carter's, Keller said, "You've been living and working here for four years, Rodney. It might not feel like it, but these are familiar surroundings. You're more likely to start remembering things if you stay in an environment which contains lots of potential triggers."
Rodney jabbed a finger at her. "What do you know? You said all I needed was a good night's sleep."
"That was before I'd had an opportunity to consult with Dr. Zelenka," Keller said. For John's benefit, she added, "I asked him to examine the device Rodney was handling when he collapsed."
"What device?" Rodney asked, frowning.
"Looked like an alien soccer ball," John said. He gestured with his hands. "About this big."
"Well, that's an extremely unhelpful description," Rodney snapped. Then his expression changed. "Actually, wait, that does sound familiar."
John said, "It should. You studied it when you were assigned to Area 51, but you couldn't figure out what it did."
"I know exactly what it did," Rodney said. "It gave me an electric shock the first time I picked it up."
Zelenka took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes tiredly. As he replaced them he said, "That confirms my theory. I know what the device is designed to do."
Rodney gave him a disparaging look. "If I couldn't work out what it was, I very much doubt you could after poking it for twenty minutes."
Now it was Zelenka's turn to look annoyed. "I have been working with Ancient technology for almost as long as you. In fact, there are certain areas in which my knowledge is more comprehensive than yours."
"Oh, I very much doubt that," Rodney said snidely. "I'll have you know I'm one of the world's foremost experts in xenotechnology—"
Xenotechnology? John thought. Thank God that hadn't caught on. Trying to head off the confrontation that was swiftly building, he interrupted to ask Zelenka, "What's the device supposed to do?"
Zelenka shot a final annoyed look in Rodney's direction, but he answered John. "You are familiar with the concept of a restore point, yes?"
"Like on a computer," John said. He had a horrible feeling he knew where this was going.
"Exactly, Colonel. The device stores a static impression of a person's mind at a point in time. A backup, if you like."
"So the sphere made a backup of Rodney's brain when he first handled it seven years ago," Carter said, "without him even realizing it."
"And then when he touched it again, here, it restored the backup, either suppressing or erasing his more recent memories in the process," Keller concluded. She frowned. "Rodney didn't have the Ancient gene seven years ago, but he has it now—an artificial version of it, anyway. Maybe the fact that he doesn't have a natural expression of the gene confused the device's programming."
"It is a possibility," Zelenka said. "The device may have scanned him and found an alteration in his genetic make-up since it had last made a backup. The detection of such a change may have been what activated it."
"You're saying my memory could've been erased?" Rodney demanded. "I'm not going to remember anything because it's all just gone? Overwritten?"
"That's not what we're saying," Carter said, although it sounded to John like that was exactly what they were saying.
But Zelenka, to John's relief, was nodding his agreement with Carter. "From my preliminary work, I believe the device may be designed to make a complete backup of the user's mind before enacting any changes."
"So it should have saved McKay's brain the way it was right before it overwrote what was there with the earlier version," John said, getting it.
"Right," Carter said. "If we could access that data, then we could restore his mind exactly as it was last night."
Keller added, "Just before he crashed."
"I did not crash. I'm a person, not Windows 95." Scowling, Rodney added, "All right, if that's the plan, I suggest you get a move on and do it."
Something about the tone in which he said it got under John's skin. "Everyone here is trying to help. A little gratitude wouldn't kill you."
"If you'd all been doing your jobs properly, this wouldn't have happened in the first place," Rodney said.
"How do you figure that?" John asked.
Rodney spread his hands to indicate everyone gathered in Carter's office other than himself. "Well, if I was handling hazardous xenotechnology without protection, then your lab procedures are evidently completely inadequate. Who's in charge of your research division? Because they're an incompetent moron."
John couldn't help feeling a twinge of satisfaction as he said, "The incompetent moron in charge would be you, Dr. McKay."
It was actually pretty impressive, the way Rodney didn't miss a beat before replying, "Which proves my point, because I am obviously much too valuable to this operation of yours to be allowed to place myself in danger like that." He paused and then, as if it was just sinking in, he said, "I'm in charge? Really?"
"You're head of the science division," Carter said. She sounded a little like right then she wished somebody else was.
"Oh," Rodney said. "Cool." He was quiet for a second, and then he asked, "What's my budget?"
"That's not really how things work here," Carter said.
"But I have a big department, right?"
"Ninety three people," Zelenka told him. "Actually, it is ninety four, but you refuse to have anything to do with the evolutionary psychologist. You told him to go away and come back when he had achieved a qualification in a real subject."
"We have an evolutionary psychologist?" Carter asked with a frown.
Zelenka nodded. "He is writing a book about the Ancients. He seems content."
Rodney's eyes had glazed over. "I'm in charge of ninety three people and an evolutionary psychologist."
"Sorry, but right now you're not in charge of anyone," John said. "Right now, you're relieved from duty for medical reasons." He glanced at Keller. "He's relieved from duty, right?"
Keller nodded, but Rodney was already turning to her to protest. "That's not fair! You said there was nothing wrong with me."
John felt compelled to point out the obvious: "Nothing apart from the massive memory loss."
"I can still think," Rodney argued. "If anything, my mind should be sharper now that it's not cluttered up with seven extra years of junk."
"It's not junk," John said curtly. "It's your life."
"Most of what you know about the Ancients and the their technology, you've learned in the last seven years," Carter said. "I'm sorry, Rodney, but you can't do your job in your current condition." When Rodney started to protest again, she held up her hand, cutting him off. "I mean it. The science division reports to you, but you report to me. You can shadow Dr. Zelenka while he's working on restoring your memory, but that's all."
"Shadow him?" Rodney repeated, aghast. "Like some kind of intern?"
"More like an observer," Keller said helpfully.
Rodney didn't look any happier. "But—"
Firmly, Carter said, "But nothing, Rodney. The discussion is now closed."
Rodney looked like he still might argue, but Keller and Zelenka were already leaving, and Carter lifted her tablet PC, probably less due to an urgent desire to check her email and more to send clear signals that she wasn't interested in hearing anything further on the subject. Eventually Rodney seemed to get the message, and when he left Carter's office, John followed him.
On the lower level of the control room, Sergeant Baillie and his team were getting ready to head off-world. As John came down the control room stairs, Baillie gave him an easy salute, then turned to say something to Dr. Lebus. The team lined up behind the safety strip that marked the farthest reach of the wormhole's backwash, and John suddenly had a thought: if Rodney had worked on theoretical models of stargates at Area 51, he probably hadn't seen the real thing until much later.
"Hey, McKay," he said.
Rodney turned around. "What do you want now, Lieutenant Colonel? Was my humiliation back there insufficiently abject for you?"
"We're about to activate the 'gate," John said.
Rodney glanced disinterestedly in the direction of the stargate. "Yes, and, so?"
"Don't you want to stay and watch?"
Rodney exhaled. "I don't need to see it. I have a perfect understanding of wormhole physics. Your stargate's not going to do anything I can't already derive from first principles."
"But it looks cool," John said.
The look Rodney gave him was as close to contempt as John had ever seen on his face. It made him look ugly. "You'll struggle to comprehend this, but I experience the phenomenon on a higher level than big blue thing go whoosh." He shook his head. "My God, how can you stand being so intellectually limited? Now, if you'll excuse me, the science department has a new intern. I have to go and find out how the ninety three people who work for me take their coffee."
He turned to go, stalking away from John across the control room floor.
"Well, I'm pretty busy, too," John called after his retreating back. "Being in charge of a hundred and twenty people keeps me occupied."
It was a childish thing to say, John knew that. Right then, though, he didn't care.
"So," Rodney said, setting his tray of food down at the other side of the table where John was eating lunch, "who am I having sex with?"
John nearly choked on his soup. "What?"
"I know I'm sleeping with somebody," Rodney said. "There's a half-used box of condoms in my bathroom, and I found a black tee-shirt underneath the bed which isn't my size."
John glanced down at the black tee shirt he was wearing. Rodney took a large bite of his sandwich, oblivious. "Why are you asking me this?"
Rodney shrugged. "I asked a couple of other people first, but I didn't get an answer. Keller went red and muttered about doctor/patient confidentiality and the little Czech guy just acted like he hadn't heard me. So I figured you're pretty high up around here, you might hear some of the gossip."
"If you're seeing someone and they want you to know about it, they'll tell you themselves," John said.
"Is it Carter?" Rodney asked, not put off at all. "Because, let me say this, she is smoking. And definitely into me. Did you see the looks she kept giving me this morning? She wants me. And I have to admit, there's something strangely erotic about a woman in a position of authority."
Privately, John thought that the looks Carter had been aiming in Rodney's direction had been closer to barely disguised contempt than barely suppressed desire. That had surprised him; from several offhand comments Rodney had made, John knew Carter and McKay had gotten off to a bad start when they'd first met, but John hadn't detected any real antagonism between them since Carter had come to Atlantis, and he'd figured they'd both moved on. But now Rodney had rewound himself to right where he'd been when Carter had first known him, and apparently she was having trouble not slipping back into old attitudes. And, listening to Rodney talking about her like she was a pair of breasts in a uniform, John could see why.
"I'm pretty sure you're not sleeping with Carter," John said stiffly, wishing Rodney would just drop the subject.
No such luck. "What about the alien warrior princess babe?"
It took John several seconds to figure out that Rodney was talking about—"Teyla?"
Rodney nodded. "Yeah, her. With the leather and the bare stomach and the—" He mimed generously proportioned breasts with his cupped hands.
John put down his spoon and gave up any pretense of trying to eat lunch. "Okay, in the first place, she's not an alien, she's a human being. A person. In the second place, she is your colleague and the leader of her people."
"Fine, I hear you, not an alien, just a normal, regular warrior princess babe."
"If she finds out you called her that, she will break you like a twig," John said.
Rodney looked doubtful. "She doesn't look that strong."
John tapped his radio. "Teyla."
"Dr. McKay says—"
On the other side of the table, Rodney was making frantic no-no-no gestures.
"It's nothing. Sorry to bother you. Sheppard out." John breathed out heavily. He should just get up and walk away from the table. He shouldn't let himself be sucked any deeper into this god-awful discussion than he already was. Then, as if someone else had stepped into his body and was using his voice—somewhat depressingly, he had actual first-hand experience of that to benchmark against—he heard himself say, "Anyway, what makes you think you're sleeping with a woman?"
Rodney didn't even break stride. He polished off the last of his sandwich and said, "Good point. Hey, I guess that means I'm out as bi here? Well, now, that makes things even more interesting. I wondered why that cutie in the control room was giving me doe-eyed looks earlier."
John stared at him. "Are you talking about Chuck? Chuck? Jesus, McKay, he's dated every woman here. If we had an Atlantis's Straightest competition, he'd win it." Something in the back of John's head—something which had been stretched very, very taut without him even being aware of it—suddenly snapped. He leaned forward across the table and said in a low voice, "It's me, okay? We're sleeping together. You and me."
For several long seconds, Rodney didn't react at all. Then he burst out laughing. "Oh, that's—that's very good. Very, very good. Yes. Most amusing."
"Why is that so hard to believe?" John demanded. At that exact moment, Lorne walked past carrying a lunch tray and it occurred to John that this was probably neither the time nor the place to have this argument. Yet somehow, now he'd started, he couldn't stop. He tugged at his sleeve and said, "Black tee-shirt."
"You and at least half the people in here," Rodney said, still chuckling to himself. Which was true, but that wasn't the point. John wasn't sure anymore what the point was. Rodney stopped laughing and wiped his mouth on his napkin. "It's a good joke, well done, but you're not going to fool me. I know everything I need to about you."
Coldly, John said, "And what do you know?"
"You're career military," Rodney said. "I mean, maybe you are queer—you certainly could be, with that hair—but you're not going to risk your job for a little inconsequential fun. Oh, unless there's been a considerable relaxation in the US military's attitudes toward homosexuality in the last seven years?"
"There hasn't been," John said, keeping his voice devoid of any inflection whatsoever.
"There you go," Rodney said, shrugging easily. "Also, you're not my type."
"Not your—" John started, then stopped. "Really."
"No offense," Rodney said, "but you're, well, on the scrawny side. The guys I go for tend to be a lot more built than you."
John stood up, leaving his soup half-eaten and his sandwich untouched. "Thank you for joining me for lunch, Dr. McKay," he said. "Feel free not to do it again."
"Oh, come on, there's no need to get all annoyed about it," Rodney said. "I'm sure someone finds you attractive. Hey, if you're not eating that sandwich, can I have it?"
"Help yourself," John said, and tried very hard not to hope Rodney choked on it.
"What'd you think of McKay the first time you met him?" John asked Ronon, slowing down from a running to a walking pace, and then stopping completely.
They had reached the end of the east pier, and the spot where they usually took a five minute break before starting back. Ronon drew up to a halt beside John. "I thought he wasn't a threat."
"I meant, what did you think of him?" John persisted. "His personality."
"He was hanging upside down in a tree. Hard to tell a lot about someone's personality that way." Ronon leaned down so that his palms were flat against the pier and stretched the back of one leg, then the other. "Still hasn't got his memory back, huh."
For the next several minutes they alternated between stretching and running in place without talking. Then Ronon said, thoughtfully, "On Sateda, we would've said McKay was a kavashk."
"It's an animal. A kavashk's roar sounds so ferocious that everything that hears it runs, but they're timid. If one saw you, it'd dig a hole and hide until you went away. We had a saying: Fierce like a kavashk."
John laughed. "Yeah, that's McKay. Our very own kavashk."
He didn't really expect Ronon to say anything else, but apparently there was more. "People kept kavashks as pets, sometimes. They were a lot of work: fussy, temperamental. Loyal, though."
"Do you like him?" John asked, breaking off from stretching.
"He fixes things," Ronon said after a second. "He healed my scars. He's brave, mostly. He talks too much."
"That was a yes, right?"
Ronon grinned. "Most days. And on the other days, it's okay."
John looked questioningly at him.
Ronon shrugged and straightened up, readying himself for the run back into the city. "You like him enough for everyone."
"You want me to go where and do what?" Rodney said. "No. No! Did you hear me when I said no? Because, no."
"It's really not that big a deal," John said tiredly.
Rodney stared at him. "I'm sorry, I must have misunderstood, because I thought you said you want me to go to an alien planet."
"You're already on an alien planet," Carter pointed out.
"And I'm less than happy about that as the situation stands."
"Maybe we didn't explain clearly enough why this is important," Carter said.
"No, I think I picked up the gist of it," Rodney said. "There's some kind of monitoring station located on an extremely dangerous alien planet. You want the data it's collected, but for some unaccountable reason I have to be the one who goes and gets it, so you're trying to strong-arm me into doing it." He folded his arms across his chest in the manner of a recalcitrant child. "It's not going to work."
"It's not a dangerous alien planet," John told him. "It's a dull, boring, extremely safe alien planet. That's probably why the Ancients put an outpost there in the first place, because they knew nothing would happen to it."
"If it's so safe, send someone else."
"The outpost's security protocols can only be deactivated by a genetic key based on your DNA, Rodney," Carter said.
"Basically, the only way to get the door open is for you to spit on it," John elaborated. "It's just as gross as it sounds."
"But," Rodney said, looking utterly nonplussed, "why?"
"Because when we first found it, we accidentally set off the automated defense system," John told him. "It launched a couple of drones that started shooting at us—"
"Shooting?" Rodney repeated, his voice shifting up an octave.
John winced internally, and wished he'd thought to edit that part out. "You neutralized them. You figured out a way to override the automated defenses by replacing the original genetic command key with one based on your own DNA."
"Huh," Rodney said. "I did?"
It had been, John remembered, an impressive piece of problem solving under duress. John, Ronon and Teyla had found what cover they could and had attempted to hold off the attacking drones while Rodney had stood completely exposed in the outpost's doorway, working frantically to deactivate the defenses before they all got shot to hell. It was strange, but for a guy who could work himself into a near-panic over an insect bite, Rodney was actually exceptionally good at coming up with solutions under intense pressure. It was an aspect of his personality John had often had reason to be very grateful for, and one which he realized now he had probably taken too much for granted.
"Yeah," John said. "You did."
Rodney didn't say anything for a moment. Then he seemed to gather himself again. "Well. Yes. Something like that would be easy as one-two-three for someone of my abilities."
"The point is," Carter said, "the outpost's defense system is still tied to your DNA, so you have to be on the team that goes to retrieve the latest set of data."
"You can't just take a swab or something and bring that?" Rodney asked. "Seriously, I could pee in a jar if it's that vital."
"I'm not taking your piss to another planet," John told him. "Anyhow, there's a retina scan, too. You have to be there. In person."
"And this data is so critical why?"
"It tracks the movements of—" John broke off, and looked to Carter for help. Since they'd discovered it, the listening post's data had become one of their principle ways of following the movements of Wraith hive ships. That wasn't information John wanted to give to this version of Rodney, though; somehow, he couldn't see Rodney circa 2000 reacting well to the idea of sharing a galaxy with life-sucking space vampires.
Carter must have been thinking the same thing, because she gave John a tiny nod and said smoothly, "We use the data to track cosmological phenomena. It's groundbreaking work. You get very excited when you talk about it."
"I do?" Rodney asked.
In fact, when Rodney talked about the Ancient listening post, it was generally to complain vociferously about the inconvenience of having to traipse back to it regularly like—as he put it—a glorified doorman. But that didn't strike John as the best way to sell the mission to him.
"You use the word 'Nobel' a lot," John said. Then he looked innocently at Carter and added, "Isn't that some kind of prize?" because, fuck it, if Rodney thought he was a dumb grunt, he could at least have fun with it.
Carter's lips quirked, like she was trying not to smile. "So they tell me, Colonel."
"All right," Rodney said, standing up and rubbing his hands together, "when do we leave?"
Rodney's enthusiasm started to wane when John took him to the locker room and showed him his field gear.
He held up the tac vest dubiously. "If it's so safe, why do I have to put on body armor?"
"It's got lots of pockets," John told him, not quite answering the question. "It's useful."
"Yes, useful for stopping bullets," Rodney groused.
John smiled, because that was the most like himself Rodney had sounded since he'd woken up minus the last seven years. Rodney lifted the vest and started to put it on, and John watched him struggle with it for a couple of minutes, putting his arms through the wrong holes and fumbling with the buckles. John waited until it became obvious that Rodney was prepared to spend the rest of the day wrestling with the vest rather than ask for help, and then he said, "Here, let me."
He crossed the locker room and stood in front of Rodney, facing him. "Lift your arms," he said, and pulled the twisted tac vest off Rodney, over his head. Then he started to help Rodney put it on again, the right way this time, zipping and buckling and pressing Velcro strips together until Rodney was wearing the vest, as opposed to being throttled by it.
John was close enough to Rodney to feel his breath on his cheek, and more than once his fingers brushed the bare skin on Rodney's forearms. John wondered why it felt strange to do that, until he remembered that, apart from the awkward incident on the balcony, he hadn't touched Rodney, hadn't breached his personal space, for nearly three days. Not since Rodney had forgotten his life, forgotten Atlantis, forgotten John.
He realized, suddenly, that he'd tightened the last buckle but hadn't let go of the tac vest. Rodney's stance had become stiff and awkward; the moment had extended beyond what was necessary or socially acceptable. John stepped back several brisk paces. "All done."
"What about that?" Rodney asked.
He was nodding at the last item of his field kit, which was still sitting on the locker room bench. It was his thigh holster.
John lifted the holster and put it back in Rodney's locker. "You don't need that. You won't be carrying a gun."
"I won't? You know, maybe I should," Rodney said. "I mean, just in case, wouldn't it be a good idea if—"
"You've forgotten all your firearms training," John told him, "so, no, it wouldn't be a good idea, it'd be a really bad idea. Here's how this is going to work. Once we're on the other side of that 'gate, if I tell you do something, you do it. No argument, no hesitation, no debate. Understood?"
"But—" Rodney started.
John held up a hand. "And no sentences starting with the word 'but' either." He reached into a pocket and handed Rodney a small piece of paper with a sequence of hastily scribbled symbols on it. "This is the 'gate address for Atlantis. Will you be able to remember it?"
Rodney looked irritated. "Of course I can remember it. Current circumstances excepted, I have an excellent memory for—"
"Then memorize it and then destroy the paper," John said. "If we get separated or I tell you to, you'll go back to the 'gate and dial Atlantis." He clipped a black electronic tag to one of the straps of Rodney's tac vest. "Remember to turn on your transmitter before you go through the wormhole so they know to lower the shield for you."
"What happens if I forget?"
"Ever see a bug hit the windshield of a car?"
Rodney blinked and swallowed and fiddled with the tag. "Does this thing need batteries? I mean, what if the batteries run out and they don't know it's me? Or, or, what if it sends the wrong signal?"
He really did look nervous, and John wondered if he'd laid it on a little too thick. "Look, you've done this before and it's been fine," he said reassuringly. "This is just worst case scenario stuff; you won't need any of it. I'll be there."
His voice heavy with sarcasm, Rodney said, "That makes me feel so much better."
"It should," John replied, ignoring his tone. "Keeping you safe is what I do."
Rodney looked at him, and for a second his expression changed, becoming less arrogant, more uncertain, more vulnerable. He looked, just for a second, so much like himself that John's breath caught in his throat. He hadn't realized how much he missed Rodney—his Rodney—until right then.
Then Rodney's face shifted again, and the mask of arrogance was back. "And quite right, too. I'm sure my value to your expedition is incalculable."
That was actually pretty much true, but this version of McKay didn't need his ego puffed up any more than it already was, so John just said, "Come on, we're meeting Ronon and Teyla in the control room."
Rodney looked pleased. "Xena's coming with us? Cool." Then he frowned. "Who's Ronon?"
"You'll like him," John said, lifting his gear. "He's way more built than me."
The 'gate on M3Z-772 was on the planet's surface and only a short walk from the Ancient monitoring outpost, so there was no need to take a Jumper. John was a little disappointed by that, because he'd wanted to see the look on Rodney's face when he found out he was going to go somewhere in an actual spaceship. Getting to see the look on Rodney's face as the 'gate opened in front of them was almost as satisfying, though: as the forming wormhole started to surge outward he gave a yelp and hopped back several feet, even though he was standing well behind the safety strip, beyond reach of the event horizon's backwash.
When the wormhole had stabilized, Rodney gestured vaguely with his hands and said, unconvincingly, "This is a better vantage point to observe the more, uh, subtle manifestations of the phenomenon."
"I wouldn't know about that," John said with a shrug. "It's a just a big blue thing that goes whoosh to me."
Rodney looked as if he was about to say something back to that, but before he could, Ronon stepped up on to the 'gate platform and disappeared through the shimmering wormhole. Rodney swallowed nervously, and John couldn't help but feel a measure of gratification. "After you, Dr. McKay," he said pleasantly, and waved Rodney on.
But if being confronted with an actual, real-life stargate dented Rodney's attitude, the effect didn't last long. By the time they were making their way slowly across M3Z-772's rocky landscape, he'd regained his composure and, unfortunately, his verbosity.
"So, I guess this is kind of unusual for me," he said as they clambered over the boulder-strewn terrain.
Teyla, who was half-way up the steep incline, paused for a moment and looked over her shoulder. "Unusual?"
"Me going off-world like this," Rodney said, emphasizing the last part in a way that only people fresh off the Daedalus ever did. It grated on John a little, even though he'd been there himself only a few years earlier. "I mean, alien listening posts keyed to my DNA notwithstanding, most of my time must be taken up by conducting cutting edge research and the demands of running my department."
John reached the top of the embankment and looked back down the way he'd come. The slope wasn't that steep, but Rodney was struggling with it. His technique was all wrong: he was bulldozing his way up the incline instead of trying to find the best places to put his feet. For all that Rodney complained about off-world hiking trips, he'd learned more about how to handle them in the last four years than John had realized. John held out a hand to Rodney to help him, but Rodney waved him off, frowning in an annoyed I'm-doing-just-fine kind of way, even though he patently wasn't.
"On the contrary," Teyla said, "you often participate in missions to other worlds."
"Huh," Rodney said. "I do?" He put his foot on a loose patch of shale and wobbled backward. John took a couple of steps back down the slope and grabbed him by the front of his tac vest before he lost his balance. Rodney glared at him and, instead of saying thank you, went on in a dismissive tone, "I would've thought you'd leave that kind of thing to the red-shirts."
John let go of Rodney's vest. It wasn't even a conscious decision; he just did it, and then watched as Rodney slowly toppled slowly backward, his arms windmilling wildly as he attempted, unsuccessfully, to keep his balance. He fell, the expression on his face one of comical outrage.
He landed with a thump and actually rolled a little way down the slope before coming to a halt. "What the hell?" he demanded, flailing around as he pulled himself into a sitting position, "Are you deficient?" and it wasn't normal Rodney-bluster: he was really angry.
John heard a bass rumble which he recognized as the unmistakable sound of Ronon chuckling. Teyla was less amused; when John turned around he saw she was aiming a coolly disapproving look in his direction, which made John wish he'd told her about the alien-warrior-princess-babe remark after all. "My hand slipped," he said. "It did," he added. Then, ignoring the two looks of skepticism that earned him—one amused, one stern—he made himself go back down the slope to help Rodney up. As he grasped Rodney's hand and pulled him roughly to his feet, John said, "No one is expendable. Got that? No one. We don't have fucking red-shirts."
Surprise flickered into Rodney's angry expression for an instant, and it hit John that Rodney hadn't expected him to pick up the Star Trek reference. Suddenly he realized that the amnesia thing cut both ways: John didn't know this person Rodney used to be, but equally Rodney didn't know him. It was a strange and acutely painful thought, because until Rodney had managed to restore himself to an out of date back up, Rodney had known John better than anyone on Atlantis—maybe anyone ever. Now all of that was gone: the late night Star Trek marathons after difficult missions and drinking beer on the east pier and the Ancient version of Sim City which had turned out to be real and sharing each other's fucking dreams, even—all wiped clean away, leaving two strangers staring at each other in mutual incomprehension.
John turned away from Rodney. "Come on," he said shortly. "Let's keep moving."
The Ancient listening post wasn't much to look at; from the outside, it was a door, pitted and scarred by millennia of exposure to the elements, set at the base of a cliff. Rodney looked disappointed. "That's it? Not very impressive, is it?"
"The automated defenses are pretty impressive," Ronon said. He gestured at the boulders near the entrance, which bore the scorch marks from their first visit.
"Ah, yes, that," Rodney said. He looked at the door and nervously licked his lips. "Saliva, you say?"
John looked at him, trying not to enjoy his obvious discomfort. He wasn't normally this petty, but something about this version of Rodney was pushing every button he had, and a few he hadn't even known about. "Mouth a little dry, Dr. McKay?"
In spite of Rodney's poorly-disguised nerves, his moistened fingertip was enough to make the outpost doors grind open, and the retina scan that followed was just a formality. John felt himself relax, and was surprised at just how tense he'd been until he realized that he'd been waiting for the Ancient security program to reject Rodney. As if he wasn't Rodney at all.
They followed the routine established on previous visits, to a point: Ronon and Teyla stayed up top to keep watch at the entrance, while John led Rodney down the short passageway that ended with the listening post's control room. Usually, that was where John let Rodney take over running the show; he was in his element in the middle of all that Ancient tech, and John was content to be demoted to the role of chief fetcher-and-carrier while Rodney worked. This time, however, he was going to have to be a little more fully engaged.
"What are you doing?" Rodney asked. Other than the brief exchange outside the door, he hadn't said much to John since the falling incident, which was unsurprising, because Rodney could sulk with the best of them. His curiosity, though, appeared to have finally gotten the better of him.
"Setting up a link so we can download the data," John said. In fact, all he really had to do was connect the laptop they'd brought with them to the listening post's main control console and boot it up. The software already installed on it would do the rest.
"You people figured out how to do that?" Rodney asked. "That's—my God, that's huge. That's what's been holding us back from really starting to understand—Let me see." He leaned past John and studied the laptop's screen, although there wasn't much to see there, just a slowly filling bar to measure the progress of the interface. Then, before John could stop him, Rodney started tapping at the keyboard.
John moved to bat his hands away, but it was too late: the display flickered once and the progress bar disappeared, replaced by dense lines of raw code.
Rodney's gaze tracked down the screen, his eyes growing wider and his face more animated by the second as he started talking rapidly under his breath: "So that's how—right, yes, yes, but where...? Oh, there it is—" He turned to John, his eyes alight. "I wrote this, didn't I? No, wait, you don't even have to tell me, I must have done it, I recognize my coding style." Rodney closed his eyes for a second, a blissful smile on his face. "My God, I—I did it. I'm going to do it."
"As much as I'd love to take a few minutes out to appreciate your brilliance," John said, "we kind of have stuff to do here, so do you mind?"
"What?" Rodney said, opening his eyes. He glanced down at the laptop screen. "Oh, yes, all right." He entered a series of commands, and the code disappeared and the progress bar flashed back.
And promptly changed from a healthy green to a bright warning red.
The machine beeped a warning and a message box appeared: INTERFACE ERROR.
"Crap," John said. He looked at Rodney. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything!" Rodney protested. "I looked at the code and closed out without changing it."
"Well, you must have done something, because this has worked every other time we've used it," John told him. He stared at the laptop, willing it to start working again. He knew how to set up and run Rodney's interface program, but there was no way he was going to be able to troubleshoot it. They'd have to abort the mission, head back to the 'gate and bring Zelenka with them next time. And as much as John hated admitting it to himself, the part he liked least was that it meant another offworld trip with Rodney. So far, all this trip had done was confirm the unpleasant suspicion which had been forming in John's head over the last couple of days—namely, that the only way to preserve his friendship with Rodney was to spend as little time as possible with him until he got his memory back.
"A bad workman always blames his tools," Rodney said, in a vaguely sing-song voice that made John want to hit him or, at the very least, stamp on his toes. He gritted his teeth and resisted the urge.
"I'm going to reboot it and try again." John reached out to turn the laptop off.
At that moment, the lights in the outpost's control room went off. Suddenly they were standing in a deep gloom, broken only by the faint glow of the laptop's backlit screen.
"Was that supposed to happen?" Rodney asked.
"I'm thinking no," John said. "Let's get out of here."
He didn't have to tell Rodney twice. They ran out of the control room door and back up the corridor to the entrance. But when they reached the open door, the relief John felt at seeing the bright rectangle of daylight swiftly evaporated when he saw Teyla and Ronon framed in it, running back down the tunnel toward them.
"Wrong way! Wrong way!" Rodney said, frantically waving his hands in the direction of the door. "We're leaving!"
"Not by that exit," Ronon said.
"The defense system just activated," Teyla elaborated.
Over her shoulder, John could see and hear the explosions as the listening post's external guns blasted holes in the landscape in a hundred yard radius of the doorway. There was little or no cover out there; the second they left the safety of the entrance tunnel, they'd be cut down.
"So, what, we have to stay in here until it stops?" Rodney asked.
"That could take a while," John said grimly.
"How long is a while? Hours, days?"
"This place has been here for ten thousand years and it's still got power," John told him. "That kind of while."
"So we're trapped in here?" Rodney demanded, the pitch of his voice moving up in panic. "We can't get out?"
Ronon nodded in Rodney's direction. "Can't we just get him to spit on something again?"
"I don't think that's gonna work this time," John said. "He broke the control system."
Rodney's panic gave way, briefly, to indignation. "I did not!"
"Well, it was working before you started screwing around with it—"
"Listen, you retarded military monkey, for the last time, I did not make any changes to the code!"
"You sure as hell did something," John said.
"This is not helpful," Teyla said, and although she didn't raise her voice at all, somehow her tone cut through the argument like a sharpened blade. John bit back whatever he'd been going to say next, and realized he was standing toe-to-toe with Rodney, getting in his space, his hands clenched into fists. Deliberately, slowly, he made himself take deep breaths and relax. What the hell was wrong with him? No matter how annoyed he got with Rodney—and he did get annoyed with him, frequently—he never lost it like this. He was the commanding officer here. Allowing himself to get sucked in to a confrontation with someone whose safety was his responsibility was more than negligent; it was fucking unforgivable.
"So, um, what do you normally do in these kinds of situations?" Rodney asked.
"Normally," John said, "I tell you to fix whatever's wrong, and you do."
Rodney stared at him, and there was fear—real fear, not just the usual coping-mechanism anxiety that usually carried him through a crisis—in his eyes. He stuttered for a moment, and then said, "I, I can't. I don't know how..."
"Yeah," John said coldly. "I know."
"Got another plan?" Ronon asked, shooting John a glance.
"Actually, yeah," John said. "How much C4 are you carrying?"
Ronon grinned. "Lots."
As plans went, it wasn't the most sophisticated John had ever come up with.
"You're going to blow this place up and run like hell?" Rodney repeated incredulously. "That's the plan? Didn't anyone ever tell you that the phrase 'out of the frying pan, into the fire' isn't meant to be interpreted literally?"
John ignored him and continued setting the final charge.
"My God, and you people call yourselves professionals," Rodney went on in a tone of disbelief. "Am I the only one who can see the teensy-tiny flaw in that? Namely, if you set off a huge explosion in here, it won't knock out those phasers or whatever the hell they are until the damage levels are critical. Which means there's going to be a period of at least several minutes during which conditions are going to be lethal in here and out there."
"He is right," Teyla said, looking at John.
John glared at her, because with Rodney acting like an asshole, he really needed the rest of his team backing him up. "We'll just have to time our run carefully."
"We're safe while we stay inside," Rodney persisted. "Surely you have contingency plans for this kind of thing. When we don't arrive back, someone will realize something's gone wrong and they'll send people after us, right?"
"Yes, that's exactly what'll happen," John said, fiddling with the last charge. "And the people who come looking for us will walk straight into the automated defenses. So we're not gonna wait for that."
"What kind of commanding officer are you?" Rodney demanded. "You're reckless, incompetent and a complete idiot. I wouldn't put you in charge of a high school marching band, never mind an expedition to another galaxy!"
In a carefully diplomatic tone, Teyla said to Rodney, "You have followed the Colonel's orders in the past, and you are still here." That was more like it. John nodded at her, but she thinned her lips and didn't acknowledge it. Clearly she thought his plan sucked steaming monkey balls but, unlike Rodney, she knew how to follow a command structure.
Ronon hadn't ventured an opinion either way, but since the plan involved blowing things up, John figured his enthusiastic participation was guaranteed.
"From what I've seen so far, I can't believe that my continued survival is due to anything except blind luck," Rodney said nastily.
"Believe what you like," John said sharply. "We're getting out of here. Let's go."
Teyla and Ronon left the control room, and after a second Rodney followed them, reluctantly. John made a final check of C4 charges, pausing as he passed the laptop which was still sitting on the console flashing its unchanging error message. Yet another set of circumstances not covered by the sales warranty, he thought, and felt a sharp pang at not being able to share the joke with Rodney. Then he shook his head to clear it and set the timer on the explosives.
He ran to join the others where they'd hunched down against the wall almost exactly half-way up the tunnel. John crouched next to Teyla. "It's gonna be loud. Cover your ears."
"This is not how I wanted to die," Rodney said.
"You're not gonna die," John told him. Then the C4 went off behind them, and for a second he thought there was a chance they really might.
There was a crunch and a wall of noise and pressure and heat thundered up the tunnel, rushing toward them. John's ears were ringing, and when he stood up he nearly lost his balance. "Now!"
They ran. They had to; the explosion had consumed the control room and the resulting conflagration was quickly moving up the tunnel behind them. But the way out wasn't safe yet. As they neared the open the doorway, John saw flashes of light and heat as the listening post's drones continued to circle, their Ancient—in every sense—operating systems instructing them to fire indiscriminately on the entire area.
Rodney drew up short. "We can't go out there."
John glanced back and saw a wall of fire advancing behind them. "No choice," he said, and ran on, pulling Rodney with him. There was no cover within fifty yards of the tunnel mouth, but he'd worry about that when they were outside.
The doors at the top of the tunnel started to close.
Ronon yelled, "Sheppard!"
"I see it," John shouted back. Too late, he realized that if the Ancients had seen fit to equip their unmanned listening post with an automated defense system, they wouldn't have missed the chance to fit it with an automated fire suppression system, too. The doors were closing to choke off the supply of oxygen to the blaze; if his team didn't get outside before the listening post sealed itself, they'd either suffocate or burn. John wasn't enthusiastic about either possibility. "A little faster, people!"
Ronon reached the closing doors first. He jammed himself against one side and braced his arms against the other door, grunting with the effort of pushing against it. The door creaked but kept closing; he was only slowing it down, not stopping it.
John shoved Rodney forward. "Go."
"There are things shooting out there!"
"And there are things burning in here!" John pushed Rodney under the arch of Ronon's arms as the gap continued to narrow. "Teyla—"
She shook her head. "I am smaller. You must go first."
She was right, John realized: the gap would still be just wide enough for her to get through after him, but not the other way round. He squeezed through the gap, his tac vest nearly getting him stuck half way. He twisted free and half-fell through the door on to the rocky ground outside. Picking himself up immediately, he turned around just in time to see Ronon grimace in pain and jerk out from between the closing doors, about a half-second before they crushed him. The gap was barely a sliver now, a thin strip of space between the heavy outer doors. It wasn't wide enough for a person to get through.
And Teyla was still on the other side.
John could see her face on the other side of the doors, illuminated by the bright flames rushing up the tunnel behind her. She was trying to jam her gun into the tiny gap that remained, but it was too narrow. She looked up at him, the expression on her face calm, almost serene, and inclined her head in a small nod before stepping back from the doors. She was saying goodbye, John realized, his gut twisting. Fuck it, he should have made her go before him, he should have waited, he should have—
The doors closed.
Ronon was already trying to get them open from the outside; he'd pulled out a knife and was working the blade into the seal, trying to pry the doors apart. John went to help him, scrabbling with his fingertips to gain enough of a hold on the doors to separate them. He thought about Teyla, on the other side, probably starting to choke already, and he was not going to lose someone like this, not after everything else they'd been through together and beaten, not for some stupid reason like Rodney somehow fucking up his own damn software.
That last thought made John realize that Rodney wasn't helping him and Ronon to get the door open. He looked around, and saw Rodney standing a short distance away. He was breathing fast, his face clammy and pale and his hands fluttering at his sides. "Come here and help!" John yelled at him.
There was a buzz and a screech and John looked up to see one of the listening post's defense drones change direction and start to zero in on them. He could see at least two others circling overhead and, as he watched, they both started to swoop in to attack.
"Keep working on the door," John told Ronon. "I'll cover you." It was an ambitious promise—there was no way he was going to bring down even one of the drones with his P90. His best plan would be to distract them long enough for the fire inside the listening post to destroy whatever was sending them instructions. Of course, if they didn't get the doors open by the time that happened, Teyla would probably be dead.
Rodney still hadn't moved; he was standing frozen in place, his pale face tilted upward, staring in terror at the approaching drones. "McKay!" John shouted. "Dammit, get over here and help Ronon get the door open!"
Rodney looked at John, his eyes wide with fear. "Those things are going to kill us! We have to get out of here!"
John shouted, "Teyla's still in there!"
"Then leave her!" Rodney yelled back.
Then Rodney blinked, like even he couldn't quite believe he'd just said that. John stared at him, his fury so total and all-encompassing that for a moment he forgot everything else: the drones screeching in to attack, Ronon grunting as he tried to lever the doors open to get Teyla out. The entire universe collapsed down until it was a super-dense point that consisted solely of John's hatred of, his loathing for, his total revulsion at Dr. Meredith Rodney McKay.
The drone closest to them dived in for its attack, pulling John back to his senses. He raised his gun and started shooting at it, pumping bullets into the air with controlled ferocity because, unlike Rodney, the drone was something he could shoot and feel okay about after. He heard Ronon yelling his name, and when John glanced behind him he saw that he'd managed to get the door open partway, and he was pulling a slim hand—Teyla's hand—through the gap.
The second drone swooped down toward them; John doubted he had enough ammo left to put so much as a dent in it.
The drone stuttered in mid-air, and fell from the sky. It landed at John's feet, dead and completely unresponsive. There were two more thuds as its companions followed.
John nudged the deactivated drone with the toe of his boot. It had worked: the fire had knocked out the listening post's defenses just in time.
John turned around just in time to see Ronon pulling Teyla out of the cloud of black, acrid smoke that was billowing from the half-open doors of the listening post. She was limp and the left sleeve of her jacket had been scorched away completely. The skin underneath was black in some places, slick with blood in others. For an instant John thought they were too late, but then she coughed weakly, and it sounded awful—nails on blackboard awful—but he relaxed fractionally, because if she was breathing she would make it.
"Where's McKay?" Ronon asked, scooping Teyla up into his arms as if she weighed nothing at all.
John looked around. Rodney was nowhere to be seen. He'd taken his own advice, John realized, and abandoned them.
"I don't know," John said, "and I really don't fucking care. Let's go."
Teyla was just conscious enough to gasp in pain every time unexpected movement jarred her injuries, and the rocky, uneven terrain ensured that their progress back to the 'gate was slow. They were half-way there when they met Lorne and Keller and a mixed team of marines and medics coming the other way. A brief conversation with Lorne established that Rodney had made it back to Atlantis by himself, and had either told Carter or let her assume that he'd been following John's orders. John didn't see any point in contradicting that version of events; he was pretty sure that in all the noise and confusion, he was the only one who'd heard what Rodney had said, and that was probably for the best. John had a pretty good idea what Ronon would do if he ever found out about it, and the way John was feeling right now, he wasn't sure he'd do a hell of a lot to stand in Ronon's way. He might even offer to sharpen his knives.
It was fortunate, then, that John didn't see Rodney for almost two days after they got back from M3Z-772. He didn't even have to go to the trouble of avoiding Rodney, as Rodney seemed to be taking care of that at his end. On the first day, John spent an uncomfortable couple of hours explaining to Carter how a milk-run mission to recover data had ended with the destruction of one of their most valuable sources of intel and one member of his team being hospitalized with severe burns, and then he spent another couple of guilty hours sitting at Teyla's bedside in the infirmary, even though she was heavily drugged and didn't know he was there. In the end, Ronon and Keller ganged up on him and made him leave, on the grounds that Teyla was going to be alright and they had the silent vigil thing covered between them anyway.
The next day was Sunday, which was technically John's day off, although it rarely worked out that way. Today, he decided, he was damn well going to take it. He slept late, read a chapter of his book for the first time in six months, then went for a long run, keeping to the parts of the city he knew would be empty. He even went as far as taking off his radio and leaving it in his quarters. If there was a crisis, Carter would call him over the citywide address system; otherwise, he didn't want to talk to anyone.
When he got back to his quarters, there was a small envelope sitting propped up against the door. John picked it up as he walked inside. The envelope was addressed, in Rodney's blocky and weirdly childlike handwriting, to LT. COL. J. SHEPPARD. John threw it in the trash without opening it.
He spent the afternoon catching up on paperwork, and for dinner he invoked one of the small privileges of rank that he rarely used, and got the mess to send something to his quarters. After he'd eaten, he opened his laptop and checked his email. He deleted the usual dozen or so messages he'd been copied in on for no good reason and replied to the three or four which actually required a response, including the note Keller had sent him to let him know Teyla was making a good recovery. There was also a single email from Rodney, its subject header leaping out in block capitals: PLEASE READ THIS.
John stabbed the delete key and the message disappeared.
He closed out of his email and was about to shut down his laptop when he changed his mind. He'd bought a DVD of classic college football games on his last trip back to Earth and had meant to watch it long before now. He hadn't gotten around to it, mostly because he usually watched TV or movies with Rodney, who had zero interest in competitive sports, and John had long ago decided it was easier to watch things they both liked rather than listen to Rodney expound on his theory that all sports were merely a crude substitute for physical combat which humanity would surely evolve beyond the need for in a few millennia.
He'd indulged Rodney, John realized, and felt suddenly annoyed at himself, because now he thought about it, he saw it wasn't an isolated example. Over time, and without even consciously realizing what he was doing, he'd reshaped his life in dozens of small ways to accommodate Rodney. The third time they'd kissed, Rodney had spent half an hour wheezing because of the orange juice John had drunk at breakfast, and after that John had started to avoid citrus almost as assiduously as Rodney did. When they spent the night together, it was always in Rodney's quarters, because Rodney claimed sleeping on any mattress other than his own threw his back out. Most damning of all, John realized he'd gotten into the habit of looking after Rodney, bringing him food when he was so engrossed in a project he forgot to eat, constantly reminding him to get more sleep, to drink less coffee, to get more exercise.
When John had thought about what he was doing—insofar as he'd thought about it at all, which was not much—he'd justified it by telling himself that Rodney was on his team, and it was John's responsibility to make sure he could function in the field. But the truth was that Rodney hadn't needed that kind of nurse-maiding for a long time, which made it even harder for John to explain his behavior to himself. He hated that he was even thinking about this, because what he liked about his relationship with Rodney was that it wasn't a relationship, wasn't complicated or messy or any of the other things that every real relationship John had ever been in had ended up becoming. He hung out with Rodney because he liked him—or he had liked him, until very recently—and they slept together because everyone needed a little physical release from time to time and it was something they could get from each other without the hideous complexities and potential for ugly fallout when it inevitably went sour that a real relationship would entail.
With a jolt, John realized he'd been staring blankly at the DVD case he was holding for maybe ten minutes. Feeling annoyed, he took out the disc and slotted it into his laptop. The whole point of today had been to take a time-out, and give himself space to calm down. He wasn't going to achieve that if his train of thought kept leading him back, inexorably, to Rodney McKay. He settled into a comfortable slouch on his bed and determinedly began to watch Nebraska play Oklahoma in the 1971 Thanksgiving game.
He'd only watched the first ten minutes when the door beeped. For a couple of seconds, John considered pretending he wasn't there, then realized that the noise from his laptop speakers was probably just audible in the hallway. He got up from the bed, went to the door and opened it.
Rodney was standing outside.
"Why aren't you answering your radio?" he demanded. "I've just had a very stressful day, and you're not even—"
He hadn't finished the sentence when John, who until that moment had not realized just how very angry he still was, punched Rodney in the face.
Strangely enough, it didn't make him feel any better.
So Rodney was in the infirmary again, except this time John had put him there.
Once John pieced together what had happened, he saw that it had played out with the moronic inevitability of a bad sit-com plot. Zelenka had figured out how to retrieve Rodney's memories from the backup the device had made just before it had wiped his brain, and he had restored Rodney's mind exactly as it had been right before he'd overwritten himself. From Rodney's perspective, the last week hadn't happened, and Zelenka, who'd been locked away in a lab working out how to undo Rodney's amnesia for most of it, had only been able to provide him with the barest details. With his memory newly restored, Rodney had gone to find John. Who had hit him.
"You know," Carter said to John, almost conversationally, "he'd be completely within his rights to bring assault charges against you. How does being court-martialed for striking a civilian sound right now?"
John flinched, because that was—God, that was possible. "He wouldn't."
"No, Rodney wouldn't," Carter agreed. "At least, not the Rodney who's currently holding an icepack to his face. He's better than that." She let out a breath. "And, believe me, that's not a phrase I ever thought I'd hear myself use about Rodney McKay back when I first met him."
"He was a fucking asshole," John said.
She nodded. "Yes. Yes, he was. Do you know, he sat in the SGC commissary and told me Teal'c was probably dead and then he gave me his opinion of the quality of the food and informed me I was hot in the same breath. I nearly punched him in the mouth." She got up and walked around her desk so that she was standing closer to John, facing him. "He was a jerk, John. He's not the same guy anymore. And I know Rodney can still be pretty annoying at the best of times—"
"That's the thing," John interrupted. "I never thought he was."
Carter didn't reply, and after a couple of seconds John realized he'd left himself no option but to explain.
"He never annoyed me," he said. "I mean, sure, I got why other people didn't like him: hell, I used to keep a file on my laptop called 'ten good reasons not to shoot McKay', and the first six months we were here I sent it to at least three people every week. But, the thing is, Rodney never got under my skin, not even when he was trying to. I liked him. I always liked him." He stopped. "And now it feels as if... as if I've forgotten how."
It came down to one simple and unavoidable truth: he didn't like Rodney anymore. Whatever mystical alignment had given him the ability to put up with Rodney's spiky, awkward personality day in, day out for almost four years had ended, and there was no way of recreating it. The more he thought about it, the more John wondered if he'd ever really liked Rodney. For that first year, while they'd been cut off from Earth, being able to get along with Rodney had been a matter of necessity rather than preference; maybe, John thought, he'd just convinced himself he liked Rodney because it was the easiest solution. He was good at finding easy solutions.
Even if they had been friends—well, friendships could end. It was unfortunate, but sometimes it just happened. John's best friend in high school had been Gary Osborne. For five years, all the way from middle school to the day they left for colleges on opposite coasts, they'd been inseparable. Then Gary had started getting serious about his college girlfriend, and John had started getting serious about wanting to be a pilot, and the last time they'd seen each other face to face had been at Gary's wedding, when John stood stiffly in his brand new Air Force uniform and said congratulations and Gary had smiled politely and John had seen, with sudden and irreversible clarity, just how little they had in common any more.
But John knew that wasn't it. He and Rodney hadn't been drifting apart; in fact, the exact opposite was true—over time, and without either of them consciously willing it, they'd become incrementally closer, making the steady progression from strangers to team-mates to friends to whatever it was they'd been right before Rodney had zapped his memory. And yes, okay, John knew that the technically correct term for what they'd been was lovers, but he was damned if he was going to use it, even in the privacy of his own head. If he and Rodney had been lovers, then that meant that what they were doing now was breaking up, and he knew that wasn't what was happening, because he'd been through enough breakups to recognize that this felt nothing like any of them.
It felt a hell of a lot worse.
"Can you still work with him?" Carter asked, breaking into his thoughts.
"Honestly," John said, "I'm not even sure I can be in the same room as him."
Carter was quiet for a few seconds. Then she said, "I've been with the Stargate program for ten years and the Air Force longer. I know what it's like to wake up one morning and realize the people you work with aren't just the people you work with anymore. I know what it's like when those relationships are tested, and what it feels like when they go wrong." She paused. "And I know it's possible to come back from that and make something stronger than it was before."
John wanted to say something flip like, Yeah, I've read the SG-1 mission reports, a little amnesia must've seemed like no big deal to you guys after the first couple of years, but then his brain registered the look Carter was giving him—concerned, sincere, empathetic—and he couldn't get the words out. Instead he heard himself say, "I don't know how."
"Well, this is just a wild, crazy, out-there idea," Carter said, "but have you considered talking to him?"
Before John could go and find Rodney, though, Rodney came and found him. He was waiting outside John's quarters when John got back from his meeting with Carter; there was a livid purple bruise on his left cheek and his expression was belligerent. John felt his mood shift almost instantly from tired and confused to tense and angry. He wondered suddenly if he was always going to feel this way around Rodney from now on.
He reached his door and, for a couple of seconds, he stood facing Rodney in silence. Then Rodney said, accusingly, "You hit me." His face was still swollen on one side, and it came out sounding more like, You hid be.
"Yeah," John said. "Sorry about that," he added, although he really wasn't.
His lack of sincerity must have been evident in his tone, because Rodney scowled at him. "You hit me," Rodney repeated, as if stating it once wasn't a sufficient expression of his outrage. "Not only that, but I've just found out you managed to blow up the listening post which was, I need hardly remind you, our best source of data about Wraith and Replicator activity. This is what happens when I go away for a week? My God, I know I keep saying I don't know what you'd do without me, but I didn't expect to be proved right that fast."
"You weren't gone," John said. "You were here."
"An out of date amnesiac version of me doesn't count," Rodney said. "Anyway, I don't remember any of it," he added.
There was something about the tone in which he said it—the lofty indifference, the patent conviction that what wasn't important to Rodney McKay couldn't possibly be important to anyone else—that made John feel like every single nerve in his body was pulled so tightly they might all snap at the same time. The good intentions he'd been fostering back in Carter's office evaporated and he said, "How nice for you. Guess what? I do."
"Oh, for God's sake," Rodney said. "Has it occurred to you that this might be just a little bit unfair on me? I don't even know what the hell I'm supposed to have done to piss you off this much!"
In a low, angry voice, John said, "You wanted to leave Teyla behind."
"I—" Rodney stopped. "I what?"
"You wanted to leave Teyla behind," John said very slowly, sounding out every syllable. "After we blew the outpost, she got trapped inside. And you wanted to leave her."
Rodney stared at him for several long seconds, and John waited for his outraged denial. He was almost looking forward to it, because it would give him a really good reason to hit Rodney again. And for a moment he was sure that was how this was going to play out, because Rodney looked furious.
Then, all at once, Rodney's whole face changed, crumpling from the inside out, like a hollow structure with the supports suddenly taken away. "Oh," he said. His gaze shifted down to the floor, like he didn't want to look at John, like he didn't want to look at anything. "Oh."
It should have been satisfying to watch, but somehow it wasn't.
At last Rodney said, "Does anyone else...?"
"No one," John said. "Just me."
Rodney, still looking down at the floor, gave a small nod. "Well. At least now I know. Excuse me, I have to go and..." He trailed off. "I have to go."
He turned and walked rapidly away, head down, shoulders slumped. Watching him go, John realized he didn't feel vindicated by Rodney's reaction—in fact, if anything, he was feeling guilty. Which was crazy, because John wasn't the one who'd wanted to leave a member of his team to die. Now Rodney knew the truth, a little emotional anguish might even be good for him, John told himself; as much as he didn't want to admit it, part of what had been making him so damn angry at Rodney was knowing that having his memory restored from the Ancient device's backup meant that he didn't have to deal with the consequences of his actions. That felt fundamentally unjust to John.
No, he decided, he hadn't done anything wrong telling Rodney the truth. And he was certain Rodney wouldn't tell anyone else.
But Rodney did tell someone else. He told Teyla.
John knew that was what Rodney was doing when he walked into the mess at two o'clock the next morning and saw Rodney and Teyla sitting together at a table, deep in conversation. The inevitability of it was suddenly clear to him: of course Rodney couldn't keep his big damn mouth shut, not even when it was to his immense advantage to do so.
John was in the mess in the middle of the night because the cold had been keeping him awake and he'd decided to warm himself up with a hot drink. The city's environmental controls hadn't yet adjusted to the New Lantea's cooler climate, and John was finding that not even several extra blankets were enough to fend off the chill. John told himself that it had nothing to do with the fact that he'd gotten used to falling asleep in Rodney's bed, chest and thighs pressing against the solid warmth of Rodney's broad back, and his own bed felt narrow and cold in comparison.
He walked into the mess and stopped when he heard the quiet hum of voices. He almost turned around and left right then, because conversations held in low voices in empty rooms in the middle of the night were invariably private conversations, and John had been living in small, artificial communities for long enough to know when to respect other people's privacy. Then he recognized Teyla's melodic, measured tones and Rodney's nervous, tumbling speech, and somehow he couldn't make himself leave. Instead he went a little further into the room, until he saw them, sitting together at a table out on the terrace. He wasn't doing anything wrong, he told himself: it wasn't eavesdropping, because he wasn't close enough to hear what they were saying, and it wasn't spying, because he was standing right where either of them would see him if they looked up or turned around.
Rodney was sitting across the table from Teyla, so that John couldn't see his face, only his back, which was rigid with tension, and his hands, which he was waving about in the flailing, anxious motions that John associated with Rodney announcing they were all going to die, again. Teyla, opposite him, was wearing an expedition jacket draped over her shoulders—it was the only way she could wear it, with her left arm bandaged and in a sling. She was listening to Rodney, her expression grave. Any second now, John thought, silently cursing Rodney's compulsive confessional tendencies. Any second now, Teyla was going to get up and walk away, or tell him exactly what she thought of him; Christ, she was reaching out across the table—what was John going to do if she hit Rodney?
She didn't. Instead, she took hold of one of Rodney's wrists with her uninjured right hand, stilling the flailing gestures. He fell silent almost at once, and John wished he'd thought to try that tactic on some of the occasions he'd really, really wanted Rodney to stop talking, because it seemed to be highly effective.
Teyla said something, and although John couldn't make out what she was saying, there was no accusation or recrimination in her voice; she was speaking gently. Rodney was still for a few seconds and then let his hands drop on to the table-top between them. Teyla laid her small, dark hand over his broad, pale one, and John saw her stroking her thumb over Rodney's knuckles in a small gesture that was both soothing and intimate. John felt a weird stab of jealousy, which was stupid, because it wasn't that kind of touching, he knew that, and even if it had been, it still wouldn't have been any of John's business.
Then Teyla's gaze flicked up and John realized she'd seen him. She didn't react at all, just gazed levelly at him for several seconds before turning her attention back to Rodney. John left then, before Rodney had a chance to start wondering what she'd been looking at.
John was hoping that he'd be able to get away with pretending that the whole not-eavesdropping thing hadn't happened, and was prepared to go as far as steering clear of Teyla for a couple of days in case she wanted to tackle him about it. That should have been easy, as her injuries meant that their sparring sessions were on temporary hold, although it put John in the awkward position of avoiding two of his teammates. If things went on like this, pretty soon he'd be avoiding everyone in Atlantis.
The fatal flaw in his plan was that while he could stay away from Teyla, now that she'd been released from the infirmary, he couldn't make Teyla stay away from him. He realized his error the next morning, when Teyla showed up at his office at the time they usually met to train together. She came in and sat down without making her usual polite enquiry as to whether he was busy, which meant there was no way he was going to get out of talking to her short of vaulting over his desk and making a break for the door, and he hadn't quite reached that level of desperation. Yet.
"How's the arm?" he asked, watching her adjust her sling carefully.
"Much better, thank you," she said, although the accompanying wince gave lie to her words. Rodney's fault, a small and mean voice in John's head insisted. Then, apropos of nothing, she said, "It has been almost a month since my people were taken."
John blinked and felt a sudden wash of guilty relief that maybe she was going to let last night pass after all. The missing Athosians were something he knew how to deal with. He leaned across the desk and said, "I know, and we're doing everything we can to find them. Teyla, I promise you, we won't stop looking, I won't stop looking, until—" But Teyla was shaking her head, and John wasn't sure what that meant, so he broke off, confused.
"I know how much you are doing, and I am grateful," she said. "These last weeks, I have felt more alone than I thought was possible. It is not a condition I would wish on others."
"You've got us," John said. "Me and Ronon and..." He trailed off, caught between adding Rodney's name to the list and leaving it off, unable to commit himself to what either choice would mean.
Teyla chose for him. "And Rodney," she said firmly. "I would tell you what we talked about last night, but I think you already know."
"Then you know why I'm having..." John hunted for the right word, and eventually settled on, "...issues with him at the minute."
"You may have issues with him, but I do not," Teyla said, and actually lifted her good hand to make little air-quotes on the word issues. The gesture was so incongruous that John nearly laughed, until he realized who she must have picked it up from. "He has made his apology."
"Rodney said sorry for something?" John said, trying and failing to keep the note of biting sarcasm out of his voice. "I hope you recorded it for posterity."
"He was sincere and he was ashamed," Teyla said. "I told him he had no need to be. I do not hold him responsible for the actions of someone he no longer is. Neither should you."
John pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, feeling suddenly tired. "Teyla, look, I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but this—this is between me and Rodney."
At that, Teyla half-smiled, the way she did when they were sparring and John made a move he thought was smart but actually left him wide open, undefended. "Yes, it is. That is why I will not permit you to make me the excuse for your anger. He is my friend and I have forgiven him. I have lost too many people I care about of late to cut myself off deliberately from those who are left." She paused and then added, "And for the same reason I have forgiven you."
John stared at her, taken aback by that. "Me? What did I need forgiving for?"
Teyla stood up, her movements stiff and awkward as she tried to keep her arm still in its sling. "Is it not obvious?" she asked as she turned to go. "Blowing up the outpost was not Rodney's idea."
John stared at the empty doorway for a long time after she left, thinking that it figured that even without her sticks, Teyla could still get the better of him.
The hell of it was, the more he thought about it, the more he realized Teyla was right. Blowing the outpost had been a stupid, badly thought out plan, and if it was anyone's fault that Teyla had nearly died—that all of them had nearly died—it was John's. Rodney had been the fucking voice of reason, and John hadn't listened to him because by that stage he didn't want to hear anything Rodney had to say; he'd just wanted to get out of there and get back to Atlantis, where he wouldn't have to deal with Rodney, wouldn't have to look at him or listen to him or be anywhere near him. He'd known all along whose fault the whole goddamned clusterfuck had really been, just as he'd known that whatever had gone wrong with the Ancient software interface hadn't been due to anything Rodney had done; John had been standing right beside him, and he'd seen Rodney look at the code without changing it. A lot of his anger at Rodney had really been thinly disguised anger at himself and now, thanks to Teyla, he couldn't pretend otherwise.
And the only conclusion John could draw from that was that he was well and truly fucked, because if just being around Rodney was going to compromise his judgment that badly, then not only was there no way they were ever going to be able to operate together in the field again, but they probably weren't going to be able to work together as respective heads of Atlantis's military and science divisions.
They couldn't continue like this; either they found a solution, or the next time the city's survival depended on the two of them coming up with a plan, everyone would be dead in short order. The problem was, the only way out John could see was for either him or Rodney to leave, and while John was pretty sure the SGC had people who could replace him—they wouldn't even have to transfer anyone from Earth: Lorne was competent, had the gene and was more diligent about his paperwork than John—he didn't think anyone could replace Rodney. And, anyway, Rodney wasn't the one who was suddenly acting like a whole different person anymore.
"Colonel Sheppard," Carter said, possibly for the second or maybe even the third time.
John jerked his head up from the notepad he'd been doodling on. "I, uh, yeah?"
"We're at item eight on the agenda," Carter said. "A.O.B."
"Uh, right," John said. Senior Staff had only started half an hour ago: how had they reached Any Other Business already? Apparently, he and Rodney wasted a hell of a lot more time in meetings bickering and joking and discussing tangential but interesting subjects than John had ever realized. Now that they were sitting at opposite ends of the conference table, studiously ignoring each other, Senior Staff had suddenly become a lot more efficient. And, not coincidentally, also a lot less fun. "Recon 1 is grounded until Teyla's fit again," he said. "Lorne's team will cover us for the next couple of weeks, starting with tomorrow's mission."
Rodney didn't look up from his tablet as he said, "Geology are planning a field trip to the mainland tomorrow. Major Lorne was supposed to fly them there."
"I'll do it," John said, addressing himself to the water jug in the middle of the table.
"Fine," Rodney said tonelessly. He looked up the table, his gaze carefully centered on Carter. "Are we done here? I am, as ever, somewhat busy." There was no bite in it, though; he sounded distant and uninterested, and that was all kinds of strange, because a Rodney McKay who couldn't summon up the energy to be sarcastic wasn't a version of Rodney McKay John recognized.
"We're done," Carter said, and stood up, giving John a look he suspected meant she was perfectly aware of the icy atmosphere in the room and was going to want to have another cozy chat with him in the very near future. Great. Just great.
The meeting dispersed, but Rodney, in spite of what he'd said, didn't rush to leave. He hung back until only he and John were left in the conference room, which was, dammit, exactly what John had been trying to avoid, and when had Rodney gotten so good at tactical maneuvers, anyway?
John tried to walk out past Rodney with only a cool nod of acknowledgement, but it didn't work; Rodney stepped in front of him, blocking his way. He turned his tablet over in his hands a couple of times, and when John glanced down at it, he could see the damp smears Rodney's sweating palms had left behind.
"I sent you an email," Rodney said.
"You've sent me about fifty emails," John said. He and Rodney rarely emailed each other—they spent so much time together they'd never needed to. John had received more emails from Rodney in the last three days than he had in the last three years. "I don't read that fast."
"No, not any of those. I meant, the one I sent before I got my memory back. I found it in my archive folder," Rodney said, speaking even faster than he normally did, like he thought John wouldn't give him a chance to finish. "Did you read it?"
PLEASE READ THIS, John remembered.
"Can't say I did," he drawled.
Rodney's brow furrowed and his mouth slanted into an unhappy line. The expression was a familiar one, but somehow it still made something tighten in John's stomach, because while he'd seen Rodney look miserable on any number of occasions, it was something different again to see it and know he was the cause.
He turned and made another attempt to leave.
"So that's it, we're done?" Rodney's voice said behind him. He sounded hollow and cracked, an echo of himself. "That's all she wrote?"
John stopped at the conference room doors.
"Okay, look, just shut up and listen for a second," Rodney said, although John hadn't actually been speaking. "I just—I want you to know—" He stopped and raised his head, chin jutting defiantly. "If anything had happened—if Teyla—or Ronon or, or you—I wouldn't even have waited for the Daedalus to come and get me, I would have made Sam dial Earth then and there, screw the power use." He looked at John, eyes wide and filled with something that looked to John like entreaty. "I wouldn't stay if I—" He broke off and John saw his throat working, like he had more to say but the words were stuck. John watched, weirdly fascinated, because he'd never known Rodney to be inarticulate before. Rodney shook his head once, as if to clear it, and then finished, "I'd go. I couldn't stay, I wouldn't deserve to stay—"
Exile, John thought. Rodney was right, of course: if it had been the other way round, John would have inflicted the same punishment on himself. He felt a coldness at his core when he thought how it would feel to lose Atlantis because he'd been unworthy of it.
There was a loud clatter, and a second later John realized that Rodney had been fidgeting with his tablet so much that he'd dropped it. Rodney bent down to pick it up, and for an instant he was kneeling on the conference room floor, head bowed and one hand reaching for the tablet, his body hunched over, a guilty man stooped down in penance.
Almost without thinking, John walked back across the conference room and leaned down to pick up the tablet for him. They both reached for it at the same time, and John's fingers somehow met Rodney's wrist. Rodney looked up, and John froze, because it was impossible not to freeze under that gaze, which was bleak and sorrowful and overflowing with more guilt and shame than John would have believed was possible for one person to feel. But one person did feel it—Rodney felt it—and suddenly all John wanted to do was use his grip on Rodney's wrist to pull him close and take back the share of remorse that was rightfully his.
The force of it—the sheer unexpected deluge of emotion washing over and through him—left John almost literally reeling. He pushed the tablet into Rodney's hands and stood up so rapidly that he felt dizzy.
Well, he thought as he left the conference room as fast as he could, he'd been right about one thing: someone had committed an almighty fuck-up.
It was just that he was suddenly less sure that it had been Rodney.
The next day, John felt a guilty kind of relief as Atlantis receded behind the jumper and eventually disappeared over the ocean's horizon. He was glad to get away from the city; maybe a day spent mostly flying through clear skies would help him find some kind of way out of the emotional car-crash his life had become.
It didn't work out that way. The flight to New Lantea's single continent passed without incident, and the journey back was equally uneventful. In between, there was little for John to do except listen to the geologists have excited discussions about the provenance of the small pieces of rock they'd collected, and John couldn't work up the enthusiasm to join in. As he flew the jumper back to the city, half-listening to the geologists still chattering happily in the rear compartment about strata and sediments, he realized morosely that a day spent mostly alone with his thoughts had left him more, not less, confused.
Introspection wasn't John's thing; he worked on instinct and gut feelings and he'd never seen the point of trying to analyze his own thought processes. In any given situation, you made a call, and you dealt with the consequences, good or bad.
But for once his instincts were failing him. John could only think of one other occasion when he hadn't had any kind of gut feel for what he should do, and that had been when Elizabeth Weir had asked him to join her expedition to another galaxy. The idea of it had been so far beyond anything he'd experienced or even conceived of in his life to that point that he'd simply been unable to process it, even subconsciously. In the end he'd had to resort to flipping a coin.
It hit him suddenly that this thing with Rodney was weirdly similar—it was as if he had no frame of reference for it, as if it was too huge to take in, as if the parts of it he was thinking about were just the tiny peak of an iceberg jutting above the waves, giving no clue to the immense mass beneath.
That was the part he couldn't get his head around: how he felt about Rodney shouldn't have been that big a deal. John knew how it was supposed to work. His relationships lasted for as long as he liked someone and they liked him, and they ended with a mutual acknowledgement not that the spark was gone but that the spark had never been there in the first place. And, yeah, maybe that did mean he was emotionally shallow or immature or whatever you wanted to call it, but John wasn't going to beat himself up about it. It was just the way he was, and he wasn't going to change now.
What was left behind when you stopped liking someone? John had always thought he knew the answer to that: nothing, just empty space, an absence of anything. But now that he didn't like Rodney any more, what he was feeling wasn't comfortable indifference toward him: the conversation they'd had the previous day had proved that much. John couldn't stop thinking about the look on Rodney's face when they'd spoken in the conference room, the guilt and hurt written in painfully obvious lines around his eyes and mouth, the awful knowledge that John had put that look there. He didn't like Rodney; he didn't care how Rodney felt about anything anymore. He shouldn't care.
He did care.
Fuck, John thought wearily, even his divorce hadn't been anywhere near as bad as this. He remembered feeling disappointed and vaguely bummed out by the split, but even that hadn't lasted long: two days after the final decree came through, he'd shipped out to his next posting and he'd thought about Nancy maybe a dozen times in all the years since. But that hadn't been the same, because he'd liked Nancy but he hadn't been in love with her; in fact, John was pretty sure he'd never been in love with anyone, not if love meant feeling the way he did about flying or Atlantis or Rodney—
The jumper lurched and started to drop out of the sky like a stone.
For the next ten or fifteen seconds John wasn't thinking about anything except bringing the jumper back under control. When it was steady again, he realized, belatedly, that the buzz of conversation coming from the rear compartment had changed to a chorus of anxious cries and yelps. "Sorry, folks, just a little unexpected turbulence," John called over his shoulder, even though the inertial dampeners meant that turbulence didn't affect jumpers. The geologists wouldn't know that. "Nothing to get worked up about."
New rule: no epiphanies while interfacing with partially mind-controlled alien technology.
His hands didn't shake as he touched the jumper's controls, because he was a pilot, and his hands never shook. Something was shaking, though. It felt a little like he was still and the universe was shaking around him.
How had he missed it? How had he missed something that fucking huge?
"Nothing to get worked up about," he said again, to himself.
But at least his instincts were online again, because he knew what he was going to do as soon as he got back.
John parted company from the geologists as soon as the jumper's doors opened on to the landing bay, and made sure he didn't hang around for long enough to get press-ganged into helping them carry the samples they'd collected back to their lab. Instead, he went straight to his quarters and upended his trash can on to the floor. The envelope was right at the bottom, wrinkled and stained where the discarded core of a piece of fruit had settled against it. John tore it open and tipped out what was inside. Then he walked out, leaving the contents of his trash scattered across the floor of his room, and went directly to Rodney's quarters.
When Rodney opened the door, John held up the memory stick which had been the only item in the envelope. Before Rodney could speak, he said, "You gave me this. Before you got your memory back."
Rodney stared at him for a second. "What's on it?"
"I don't know," John said. "Let's find out."
Rodney nodded and took the flash drive. John followed him into his quarters, and watched Rodney slot the memory stick into the side of the laptop on the desk. "It's a video file," Rodney said after a second. He twisted the laptop around, angling the screen so they could both see it. He reached for the mouse, then hesitated. "Before we watch this, I feel I should point out that I don't remember making this at all. Seriously, there could be anything on here. This could be twenty minutes of me singing songs from West Side Story. Which is unlikely, I'll grant, but in an infinite universe all possibilities, no matter how improbable, will eventually occur—"
"Rodney," John cut him off: "Just play it."
Rodney clicked on the file, and a second later the laptop screen went dark. Then Rodney's head and shoulders appeared, too close and blurry as he leaned forward to turn on the camera. He moved back and slowly came into focus.
"This is a message for Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard," Rodney in the recording said. He kept glancing down at something out of shot, and John realized he was reading a prepared script. "Having had time to reflect on recent events, I have concluded that it would be appropriate for me to give an account of my actions..."
Next to John, Rodney had gone very still. He looked equal parts horrified and embarrassed. John looked at him, and then at the version of Rodney in the recording, and then back at the real Rodney. They looked the same, but weren't; they had the same features, but animated by different emotions. Rodney in the recording exuded arrogant defensiveness which entirely undid even the small measure of apology in his words, while the real Rodney, watching in silence, was effectively projecting utter dismay in every line of his face. As his gaze shifted between the picture and the real person next to him, John felt the two Rodneys start to slide apart in his mind, becoming distinct and different.
On the screen, the image of Rodney continued to read: "...Specifically, an explanation of what might, at first, have appeared to be inappropriate behavior, but which I intend to demonstrate was entirely justifiable..."
"Oh, God," Rodney said quietly, next to John. "Oh God. Shut up, you moron."
As if he'd somehow heard, the image of Rodney on the laptop screen suddenly looked up from what he was reading and stared directly into the camera. "Okay, you know what, this isn't working, so, no, let's try something else." The microphone picked up a crumpling noise, which John guessed was the sound of Rodney junking his script. "If you've gotten this far, please, just—hear me out, Lieutenant Colonel." He hesitated. "You know, I'm not even sure what I should call you. Colonel? Sheppard? John? I didn't even ask, I just assumed..." He stopped again, and when he spoke again, his tone was almost conversational. "Did you know that I keep a journal? Because apparently I do. I found the file on my laptop. It was encrypted, but it wasn't hard to break."
"He hacked my journal!" Rodney said, sounding scandalized. "And what does he mean, not hard to break? I use a program I wrote myself: no one could—" He stopped abruptly. "Okay, yes, well, except me, I suppose."
His outburst had drowned out the first part of what Rodney in the recording had been saying, so the next thing John heard was: "—which surprised me, because it doesn't seem like the kind of thing I'd do. But agreeing to relocate to another galaxy doesn't seem much like the kind of thing I'd do either, so go figure. I just spent a couple of hours reading it."
Rodney paled. He glanced over at John. John didn't look back; he kept his eyes front and forward, watching the recording.
Rodney in the video looked just as uncomfortable as his real-life counterpart. He looked down briefly and then up again and said, "So, it looks like I should have taken you seriously when you said we were, you know. Together."
Next to John, Rodney briefly covered his eyes with his hands. When he lowered them, he shot a sideways glance at John. "You told me... And I didn't...?"
"Apparently I'm not your type."
Rodney let out a long, low groan. "I hate myself," he said. "I literally hate myself."
The recording was still playing. "The thing is, the more I think about it, the more I realize... I thought I had everything I wanted, but I don't. I want that, I want what he has, and that must be the most pathetic thing I've ever admitted out loud, because it means I'm actually jealous of myself, and I think—I think I might just have screwed everything up for him. For me. For him. For, for us."
Abruptly, Rodney paused the recording. His own face froze on the screen, mouth half-open, about to speak. Rodney half-turned, so he was looking in neither John's direction nor at the laptop, and said, "All right. All right, enough. Clearly you've only just gotten started with punishing me, so what say we call this another point to you and move on to whatever you have lined up next?"
"I'm not—" John stopped. "I'm not trying to punish you."
At that, Rodney looked around. "Oh, really? Forgive me for misinterpreting your intentions. I suppose you're going to tell me that the last few days have been you being sensitive and caring?"
John winced. "No. The last few days have been me being really fucking stupid." He paused. "What happened on the mission was my screw-up, not yours. Keeping the team safe in the field is my responsibility, and it was my crappy plan that nearly got us all killed."
"Yes, well," Rodney said, "if I'd been there I would have told you it was a crappy plan."
John let out a breath. "You did. I didn't listen."
"But I was the one who wanted to leave Teyla behind." Rodney sounded weary as he said it, as if it had been the only thought going round in his head for days. He looked exhausted, too: there were dark circles under his eyes and his complexion was even paler than normal. Given that Rodney could get by for weeks at a time on four or five hours a night, John guessed he mustn't have been sleeping at all. Rodney waved a weary hand at the frozen image of himself on the laptop screen and exclaimed, "And he didn't even say sorry for it! I mean, Christ, did you ever hear such self-serving claptrap? He would've let Teyla die, and all he could talk about was himself! He didn't understand, it was right in front of him and he still didn't get it—" He broke off. "Not him. Me. I was that guy."
Not anymore, John wanted to say, but Rodney was in full flow now, and there was no stopping him.
"You know why Sam doesn't like me much? I mean the real reason, not just my romantic overtures, which I concede, with the benefit of hindsight, may not have been entirely welcome. Sam doesn't like me because the first time we met I told her she had to leave someone behind. It didn't mean anything to me; it was just theory. Like someone's life was just, just another variable to solve for. God, I was stupid. I thought I knew everything, but I didn't. I didn't even know what I didn't know. I was ignorant," he said, mouth twisting in distaste on the word; it was probably, John thought suddenly, the worst thing Rodney could think of to call himself.
"Rodney," John said, but Rodney wasn't listening to him. John said his name again and then, when he still got no response, he decided to try the same tactic Teyla had. He reached out and caught one of Rodney's flailing hands by the wrist. The effect was startling: Rodney broke off in mid-word and looked down at John's hand, wrapped around his forearm.
"Why did you come to Atlantis?" he asked.
"What?" Rodney stared at him. "Why did—? What does that have to do with it?"
"You asked me, when you didn't have your memory, why you came here. You asked again on that stupid recording. I want to know. So I'm asking."
"Exploration and the quest for knowledge and the advancement of science," Rodney snapped. Then his expression changed, the defiance seeping out of it, to be replaced with something much more subdued. "At least, that was what I was going to tell anyone who asked. I came because..." He trailed off. "Well, since this seems to be the evening for uncomfortable disclosures: the truth is, I came because, no matter how terrified I was, I couldn't stand the thought of anyone else getting here first."
John said, "I flipped a coin."
For several long seconds, Rodney said nothing. The series of expressions that crossed his features—disbelief, incredulity, outrage—was actually pretty impressive. Then he exploded.
"Oh, you are—I do not believe you. You flipped a coin? You were offered a place—no, Elizabeth begged you to come—on the most exciting exploratory mission in the history of mankind, and you had to flip a coin? What kind of idiot are you?"
"The kind of idiot who doesn't know when he's in love with someone."
Rodney broke off, mid-rant. For several long seconds he didn't say anything. Then, in a genuinely perplexed tone, he asked, "How could you not know? I've known for years."
Just like that, the weird feeling that had started in the jumper—the feeling of flying through a thunderstorm, the air vibrating with unrealised energy, the world above and below shuddering and uncertain—disappeared. It was like flying out of a cloudbank into still, blue skies, the horizon suddenly open and clear.
Slowly, John said, "I liked you too much to notice. And then I stopped liking you and... there it was."
"I swear," Rodney said, shaking his head slowly, "I will never understand how your mind works."
John tried to explain: "It was easy when I didn't think about it, so I didn't let myself. I guess I thought if I let myself think too much about it, I'd forget how to do it. Like flying."
"In what conceivable way," Rodney asked, "is any of this like flying?"
"Because," John said, trying to explain and feeling frustrated because he knew he was doing it badly, "because—I kept throwing myself at you and missing."
Rodney stared at him for a moment. Then his expression cleared. "Is that a Hitchhiker's reference? It is, isn't it? Have you been using comedy science fiction as your field guide to interpersonal relationships? My God, you have." He paused, then said, "Actually, a lot of things about you make much more sense in light of that."
"Jackass," John said, but he was grinning in relief and something that was close to elation, because Rodney got it. Of course Rodney got it. That was just one of the reasons they were friends. And they were friends; they weren't going to stop being friends. John hadn't realized until right now how much that mattered to him.
Then, because introspection really wasn't John's thing and acting on gut instinct was, he shut up and used his hold on Rodney's wrist to pull them together, and kissed him.
He wondered if it would feel different, kissing someone he loved, instead of someone he just liked a lot. But kissing Rodney felt pretty much the same way it always had—right and inevitable, as if they were designed to fit together just so, all the differences between them somehow disappearing in a seamless join. That wasn't disappointing at all, because if this was love, John thought it might be something he could do. It might even be something he'd already been doing for a while without knowing it.
When they finally broke apart, Rodney's skin was flushed and his lips were pink. "So, uh, do you want to stay here? Or, we could, we could go to yours, if you wanted, for a change..."
"Right here works for me," John said. Not indulgence, he thought: compromise. They weren't the same thing at all. "But it's your bed, so you have to change the sheets."
"Deal," Rodney said, smiling widely. "So, I guess this means you like me?"
John leaned in for another kiss. "Actually," he said just before their mouths met, "I'm pretty sure I'm never going to just like you ever again."