John is just coming through the blast doors when the wormhole engages, klaxons sounding all around him. He winces at the noise. He hasn't spent that much time at the SGC over the past two years, and he hasn't managed to demote the sound of the alarms to background noise like much of the base personnel seem to have managed.
He's distracted quickly, though, when their guests step through, and then he feels a broad grin stretching his face - involuntary; unaccustomed, after all this time.
It's only been a few months since their last visit, but he's just so happy to see them.
"John!" Teyla exclaims, reaching out and pulling him into a breath-stealing hug before drawing back to press their foreheads together. She's close and warm and smells like dried tea and leather, and as always her presence calms him.
Less calming is the weight that slams suddenly into his legs, making him stumble for a second. He looks down at Torren, who is now nearly up to his waist and grinning up at him.
"Uncle John! Uncle John! I learned a new game! Want to see?"
One of Torren's favourite pastimes is inventing new card and number games - something he shared with Rodney, when Rodney first taught him Crazy Eights, years ago. John tries not to think about that too much, and Teyla clearly sees his momentary grimace, because she reaches out and gently draws Torren back.
"Perhaps later, Torren.” Torren pouts and scuffs his feet.
John doesn't have too long to feel bad about it, though, because Ronon grabs John into a hug that is less breath-stealing than rib-cracking.
"You look like shit," he observes with a smirk, after he's set John back on his feet.
"Thanks, Buddy," John answers, rubbing at his ribs.
Teyla is looking over John's shoulder, and John glances back before tilting his head at her. "Waiting for somebody?" he asks, and her eyes dart back to his face before she shakes her head.
"No - I was simply wondering who else might already have arrived."
Teyla's a good liar - always was the best of the four of them - but nobody’s perfect.
"You're the only ones coming by Gate," he tells her. He wants to question her further, but Cadman chooses that moment to beckon them from the foot of the ramp.
"Chopper's ready, Sir," she says. "We can go whenever you want."
John takes a deep breath, lets it out; wishes he felt less like he was overflowing with something unnameable. But he nods, and follows Ronon and Teyla and Torren right behind him. Right now, he's never wanted anything so much in his life.
It's only been a couple of months since he last saw Ronon and Teyla, since their last visit to Earth for diplomatic/strategic reasons, but it's been most of a year since the three of them were together in Atlantis. They left not too long after Atlantis landed outside San Francisco, Teyla to go back to Torren and Kanaan and Ronon for a brief visit his friends among the Athosians. Ronon is on Earth more often than Teyla, in constant transit back and forth between the Milky Way and Pegasus; he and Amelia are still going strong. John's happy for them both, for having something to go home to; can't pretend he's not jealous, but he is happy.
The trip cross-country is quick, aided by the Daedelus and a transport beam, but the flight from Travis AFB seems longer than it's ever been. John's only ever on the mainland when he can't help it, and going back always seems to take longer than leaving. The relief he feels when Atlantis appears on their specially-equipped radar, a graceful silver snowflake floating on the Pacific, is profound in the extreme. When they pass through the shield and the city becomes visible to the naked eye, Torren exclaims aloud; he hasn't been back since he was probably too young to remember very well.
"Oh," says Teyla, her voice subdued - she presses a hand to her mouth. John looks at her, but she just shakes her head. "It is only - when I am away, I forget how beautiful it is."
John looks straight ahead and doesn't say anything, because he never forgets.
He's had the base command for a year and ten months - almost since the moment the IOA handed down the news that Atlantis Base was on "indefinite hold." He's been a full Colonel for just as long. His promotion was hasty and under-the-radar, and he remembers O'Neill shaking his hand with a sad smile. "I know this isn't the way you wanted it, Sheppard," he said, "but it's something, right?"
"Yes, Sir," John agreed, only half meaning it. He could see genuine regret in O'Neill’s face.
"But at least you get to stay with her, right?" O'Neill looked up, into the graceful curving arches of the ceiling, hands in his pockets. John had noticed, over the years, that it was mostly only the ATA carriers that called the city "she" and "her."
"Yes, Sir," John agreed, meaning it that time.
They gave him a skeleton crew - Yee, as medic; Radek, as CSO; Banks, Cadman and a handful of rotating researchers. Lorne was still his 2IC, and was the one who always travelled to the mainland when they needed a physical rep for something. John never left the city if he didn't have to, and he knew what a lot of people said about him. That he'd gone native. That there was something not quite right.
He stopped giving a damn when they grounded the city, though. This planet had stopped being his home a long time ago, and if the closest he could get to home was a spaceship floating in the Pacific, he'd take it. At least in Atlantis, he had the city herself for company.
He always feels the same sense of welcome when they come in for a landing on the East Pier - which hasn't been the "East" pier for years, points out a familiar voice in his head, as it now points southwest. But it's been the East Pier for nearly a decade now, and the name has stuck with all the old hands, and passed on to the new ones.
“Guess we’ll never get around to installing that new helipad,” Cadman says as she pulls off her headset.
“Good riddance,” John mutters, under his breath.
The city is quiet and mostly empty, and John and Teyla and Ronon make their way to the central core on foot, eschewing the transporters, Torren running ahead and lagging back and then catching up, touching things and asking questions. But the three adults are mostly quiet, thoughtful. Sad, thinks John, though he might be projecting.
"Think she knows?" asks Ronon, as they're crossing a bridge between the low outer buildings and the first taller ones they long ago worked out were once residences, though it's been years since they used anything outside the core.
It takes John a second to work out what Ronon's asking, and then he nods, his breath frozen a little in his chest. "Yeah," he answers. She's not happy, he doesn't say, because he couldn't explain why he thinks it's true. He does, though. It's just a feeling, not even as concrete as a "feeling," but she hasn't been happy since they've been here. Ever since the news came, it's been different - a sharper, more acute sort of unhappiness, familiar enough to John that he's been in the habit of thinking it's just him, projecting. But the lines between his own moods and those of the city have always been blurry; more, in the past two years with him one of only a few ATA carriers in the city. As though Atlantis had no one else to talk to, and heaped all her misery on John alone. He doesn't remember it being like this in Pegasus.
Of course, you're her favourite, says that voice again, and he shakes his head sharply, as if he can shake the thought away.
It doesn't help. It never does.
“Goin’ home,” he says instead, and lets himself smile at the open joy on Ronon’s face, the quiet smile on Teyla’s.
They have a subdued evening meal, out on one of the mess hall balconies - not much competition for tables these days. Radek only stays to eat his meal, and then claims he is too busy to stay; too much to do, readying the city for departure. Amelia leaves them after an hour to go on duty in the Gate room. Torren starts to flag around nine o’clock, and Teyla takes him to bed, in one of the new sets of quarters they’ve recently cleared out in the central tower. Ronon stays, sitting backwards in a chair, looking out at the ocean.
“Busy day tomorrow?” he asks, in that Tell Me, Don’t Tell Me, I Don’t Really Care voice he uses when he knows something John doesn’t. It makes John immediately suspicious.
“Bulk of the new personnel is coming in,” he says, eyes narrowed, but Ronon doesn’t look away from the horizon. “Why?”
Ronon shrugs. “Figured you’d got used to the quiet. They talk about you like you’re a hermit, back at the SGC.”
John shrugs, uncomfortable. “I’ve heard.”
Now Ronon does look at him, and it’s warm and close, like Teyla’s embrace earlier. Ronon knows him, and fuck, how he’s missed that - missed these people, who of all the people in the Universe, actually do know him and don’t scare the shit out of him with the knowledge.
“You ready for this?” Ronon asks, and John, relieved and surprised, huffs out a laugh.
“Yeah,” he says, fervently. “Fuck, yes. Been ready for two years.”
Ronon regards him, brow furrowed, for a few beats. “You know, you could have come with us.”
And he could have; they asked him, and the Athosians would have welcomed him. The SGC probably wouldn’t even have minded; it would have been good, to have someone on that end who wasn’t just a diplomat, like Woolsey, who’s been the official delegate to the peoples of the Pegasus Galaxy for two years. And John knows, after all this time, that there aren’t a lot of places left for him in the traditional command structure; not even at the SGC. It was one of the reasons he was so relieved when they offered him the city. Sometimes he wonders what kinds of strings O’Neill pulled, what kind of favours he traded in, to pull that off.
And anything else would have meant leaving the city, to who knew what fate.
“Nah, I couldn’t,” he says, the same thing he said when they asked him.
Ronon stares at him a few seconds longer, and then nods. “Yeah, okay,” he says, and goes back to watching the horizon.
There are choppers coming in and out all morning, and beam-ins throughout the afternoon of people and equipment. John has to jog down to the West Pier to take delivery of more prepackaged food and personal supplies than he’s seen in Atlantis in over a year; enough for the two hundred and eighty-six confirmed personnel he’s already received, and the twenty-three he’s still waiting on, some with identities still unconfirmed. Atlantis will be shipping out with three hundred and ten military, scientific, and other civilian personnel, including himself.
He makes it back to the Gate room in time hear Campbell confirming, via radio, that Atlantis has permission to bring their gate online for sixteen minutes to receive off-world personnel, and John makes his way up to the gallery to wait. They’ve got three incoming parties of varying sizes, and while they could have come in through the Cheyenne gate, some of them have equipment and supplies that are large enough that temporarily switching gates was the more expedient option.
Their new CMO, Dr. Lucianne Chavez, comes in with the first group, and orders her people through with a small mountain of crates before hanging back to do sign-in with the marines stationed at the gate. John’s only met her once, but she’s no-bullshit and he likes her. “Colonel,” she greets him from below.
“Doc,” he says, “travelling light?”
“Oh, believe me, Colonel,” she says with arched eyebrows, “it could have been worse.”
The second group is mostly scientists and crates full of experiments, as well as a few agri-botanists xeno-medics (the term the SGC long ago started using for doctors who specialized in what Dr. Lam calls Really Weird Shit Medicine).
John checks his list: they’re only short two, and the third group is mainly personnel; little equipment. He doesn’t have time to wonder what’s so special about this batch, because the wormhole finally engages for the last time, whooshing out into the room and splashing back into impossible tranquility. John is pleased to see Miko Kusanagi step through, followed by--
--the light and sound of the wormhole are cut off abruptly as the gate closes, and John looks again.
But no, it’s not a hallucination. Standing in front of the Stargate, looking as cranky and disheveled as ever, is Rodney Fucking McKay.
John was already moving down the stairs to greet Miko, and by the time he wants to stop, it’s too late to check his stride without being obvious about it. Suddenly he’s face-to-face with Miko, a small stack of crates, a dozen bags that probably comprise their luggage, and Rodney, who doesn’t seem to notice him right away.
Rodney, actually, has grabbed the nearest marine and said marine’s tablet to call up the manifest, run the tablet’s sensor near each crate and make sure every single item has come through okay.
“These need to be installed tomorrow,” he says, and Miko nods, reading over his shoulder.
“Of course. We should have time.”
For close to a minute, John just stands there, watching him, frozen to the spot at the edge of the backsplash safe zone, while Rodney mutters to himself and taps at the screen and it’s all so familiar John almost can’t bear it.
John finally manages to get himself unstuck, strides forward to shake hands with Miko, to dredge up a welcoming smile for her - because he is glad to see her. Radek’s been complaining about her absence all three months she was off-world, on loan to SG-3’s mining operation on P9H-323. Then she’s drawn away by the need to check her equipment, and John is left staring at the top of Rodney’s head, still bent over the tablet.
“So you’re the new CSO?”
John doesn’t recognize his own voice - and it was working perfectly well not three seconds ago. He clears his throat, as Rodney’s head snaps up, eyes wide.
“Oh,” says Rodney, clutching the tablet. “I-- John.” He looks rigid with surprise and apprehension, which John finds himself enjoying just a little too much. Good, he thinks meanly. Don’t feel welcome.
“McKay,” John says, deliberately using Rodney’s last name, and Rodney starts, eyebrows drawing together. He looks more closely at John, and when he’s done, he draws back a little, obvious hurt written all over his face, like it always is, because Rodney never could hide a damn thing.
Except in this case, it just pisses John off, because Rodney has a lot of nerve to act like the injured party.
Rodney rallies, though, drawing himself up and handing the tablet back to the waiting marine. “Yes,” he says, “that is, yes, I’m the CSO. I’ve been the pick for a couple of months, obviously, but it was all contingent on when I could get back from off-planet, which is obviously subject to a number of...”
John lets him run on, babbling like he always does when he’s nervous. Always did. John thought maybe Jennifer might have trained that out of him by now, but apparently not.
“We have a briefing at 0600 tomorrow,” John interrupts. Rodney stops, mouth open, and blinks at him. “Radek’s been running pre-launch diagnostics for two days already; you’ll want to catch up with him before morning. And you’ll need to get all this stuff out of here ASAP.” He waves an arm to indicate the crates; Rodney’s luggage. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Miko looking back and forth between them, and then edging towards the exit.
Rodney just stares at him. His eyes are huge with surprise, but John can’t tell if he’s upset or teetering on the edge of outrage. With Rodney, he remembers, the two things are not mutually exclusive.
Finally Rodney shuts his mouth, crosses his arms over his chest. “Of course, Colonel,” he snaps, emphasizing John’s rank. “I’ll have it all out of your way in no time.”
“Great,” John snaps back, turning on his heel and heading for the stairs.
“Nice to see you too!” Rodney yells after him, but John doesn’t stop.
Back in his office that evening, John goes through the final set of dispatches from the SGC and among them finds a note from O’Neill informing him that yes, Dr. M. Rodney McKay has indeed been returned to his post as Chief Science Officer for the return trip to the Pegasus Galaxy. John glares at his laptop screen, willing the letters to change, but like everything else lately, they refuse to oblige him. After ten minutes of this and spider solitaire, John throws himself back in his chair, making it roll back and thud into the wall behind his desk. What’s he going to do, anyway? Rodney is the best qualified. He’s the foremost expert in Ancient technology, and spent the last year on various alien worlds helping civilizations formerly enslaved by the Goa’uld to rebuild their technological infrastructure. He always was the best qualified person for this job. He was there at the beginning of the expedition. He was there at the end.
And then he left.
John’s feelings, though, really aren’t relevant to this situation. Not that they ever were.
John buries himself in paperwork (he seriously cannot wait to be back in Pegasus where he can foist paperwork off on Lorne again) for a couple more hours. Around six his stomach growls, informing him he’s been sulking long enough, and he pushes away from his desk, heading for the door. He can be the bigger man here - he’s good at that. He’ll have dinner with Ronon and Teyla, and they’ll not talk about Rodney, and he’ll figure out how to work around this, and it’ll be fine.
What he totally failed to take into account, of course, standing in doorway to the mess hall, is the obvious. Because of course Rodney is sitting at what two years ago was the team table with Ronon and Teyla, Torren tugging at his arm with a huge four-year-old smile on his face. And of course they’re all smiling and laughing, just like old times.
John turns around and leaves without even setting foot inside, because apparently he’s a fucking coward.
Apparently he’s also an idiot, because naturally, Teyla is standing outside his door when he gets there. He doesn’t see her right away, because he’s looking back over his shoulder, and when he turns back, he almost walks right into her.
“Jesus!” he exclaims, throwing up his arms and jumping back. “How do you do that?”
“John,” she greets him pleasantly. “We were hoping you would join us for dinner.” As if she didn’t just see him turn tail and run in the mess hall and then maybe teleport here ahead of him to stare him down judgmentally. Just like old times.
And just like old times, when it’s Teyla, he can’t quite hold back the first thing that crosses his mind. “Oh, we were, were we?”
He can hear the sneer in his tone, and instantly regrets it when her eyes harden. “Sorry,” he says, a second later, and she sighs.
“I know you are angry with him,” she begins, and he says:
“No, you really don’t--”
She holds up a hand to cut him off, and by virtue of long training, he shuts up.
“I realize that you are angry. But surely you don’t intend to fight this?”
She stares at him until he drops his eyes to the floor. “No,” he admits. “I don’t.”
“So things are to return - at least somewhat - to the way they were.” It’s not a question.
John grits his teeth. “Technically.”
She doesn’t say anything else, right away, and he looks up again, to see her looking at him with something like sadness, something a lot more like frustration.
“I do not pretend to understand everything that went on between you, before Rodney left, and after. But he is still the same man he was. He is still our friend. Ronon and I have, in fact, seen a great deal more of him than you, these past two years.”
John starts, not just from the gentle chiding in her tone, but because he didn’t know. He feels a little guilty - because she’s right, he’s been alone by choice more and more - and a little betrayed - because he’d thought he wasn’t alone in feeling the way he did... like Rodney left all of them.
Turns out it was just John he left.
He glares at the wall behind her head, and she touches his cheek to make him look her in the eyes again. “You were friends for a long time, John. Perhaps a good deal more than that,” she reminds him softly, as if he might have forgotten.
“He made a choice,” John says, voice low with remembering the gut-punch of it - watching them all leave, one by one; watching Rodney leave.
“Yes,” Teyla leans in, touches their foreheads together, her fingers strong on John’s shoulders. “And now he has made another one.”
John bites his tongue - hard - because what he wants to say is that it’s too little, too late.
“You will have to speak with him eventually,” Teyla points out, leaning back.
“Not today,” John tells her, and she actually rolls her eyes, which almost startles John into laughter until he remembers she probably started doing that because of Rodney.
She touches his face again, then steps away. “Do not wait too long,” she says softly, turning to go. “Too late can come far too soon.” And then she’s gone.
John goes into his room and rips open a box of powerbars. He really should make it an early night anyway.
John is up and moving at 0400 when Ronon bangs on his door. It’s the first run they’ve taken together in nine months, and John actually forgot how much harder he has to work when he’s running with Ronon. The exertion is good, though. Even the pain is good. It’s easier to forget his conversation with Teyla, focus on the day’s work, on Pegasus, looming large in John’s mind.
He takes morning reports from Lorne and Cadman and then spends an hour pestering every duty station in the city, going from point to point and checking up on things himself. Maybe it’s just that there have been so few people here for so long, but he still feels responsible for making sure everything’s working right, everything’s on schedule. And there are all these new people, who don’t know the city’s quirks and moods, don’t know all the thousand and one strange-but-true things about life in Atlantis that the old hands knew in the first year.
Finally, Radek shoos him out of the labs, and John’s halfway back to his office when he gets a call on the radio, and its stops him in his tracks, because it’s Rodney.
“Colonel,” says Rodney, “you’d better get down to the chair room. We’ve got a problem.” And John’s off and running before he has a chance to think about it.
He’s most of the way there before he realizes he’s acting on reflex, and makes himself slow down so he can arrive at a saunter rather than a run. By the time he gets there, though, he wishes he hadn’t dawdled, because Rodney and Miko and three techs John’s never seen are crouched over the open circuit panels in the chair dais. Rodney is doing his shouty-monologue-train-of-thought-problem-solving thing, which Miko is following with interest but which the newbies all seem to find somewhat worrying.
Rodney spots John in the door, though, and breaks off, snapping his fingers to silence the others. “Nice of you to join us, Colonel. We’ve got a problem.”
“You mentioned,” John says, letting himself slip into a drawl. It’s easy, to slide back into old habits, early habits from back when his favourite pastime was aggravating Dr. Rodney McKay. Rodney just glares at him and starts explaining, and it’s nearly twenty seconds later that what he’s saying penetrates and John waves a hand to stem the flow.
“What do you mean ‘it’s not working?’” he demands.
Rodney crosses his arms. “I’m sorry, should I use smaller words? Or just enunciate: It’s. Not. Working. It won’t respond to any of our diagnostic pings. It’s dead. Dark. Non-functional. Fundamentally--”
“You mean we’re grounded?” John really wishes that didn’t come out as high-pitched as it did.
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“But it was working fine yesterday!” John protests, because it was. Radek’s been doing little else since they got the news; the chair and the engines were the first things they checked. They were functional not twelve hours ago.
Rodney shrugs. “Well, all I know is they’re not working now. And before you tell me to ‘just fix it,’” he continues, and John scowls because that was, in fact, pretty much what he was about to say, “first I have to figure out what’s wrong with it, and at the moment I can’t get it to draw any power. It’s like it’s refusing, which makes absolutely no sense.”
“McKay...” John says, warningly.
“I’m working on it!” Rodney says, glowering. “Okay?”
“Fine!” John says, and leaves.
He doesn’t get far. He reports the situation to Lorne and Cadman, but he finds himself circling back to the chair room twice before hovering in the door, watching the team work. Rodney is in full swing, shouting instructions and waving his arms, and after ten minutes of watching John is suddenly, momentarily overwhelmed with memory, namely the awfulness of the days right after Rodney left; standing on the pier watching his boat skim away across the water and remembering that Rodney had said they’d write, they’d talk on the phone, but thinking they wouldn’t, knowing they wouldn’t.
They did. But not for long. Rodney had Jennifer, after all. He had a whole other life, something after Atlantis, because Atlantis was over, at least for the moment. John didn’t begrudge him the choice, not at the time. But things changed.
It’s lunch time before Rodney calls a break, chasing away Miko and the techs, who file past John as though seizing a reprieve, and John stays where he is, watches Rodney slump down on the edge of the dais and dig in his toolbag for a powerbar.
“You know,” he says, ripping open the wrapper, “I missed you. I cut my time on Landros short for you, and this is the thanks I get?”
At first, John thinks Rodney’s talking to him, and starts to move forward into the room, but a second later he realizes Rodney’s not talking to anyone. Or rather, he’s not talking to a person. He’s talking to the open air, or maybe the room. To the city.
Rodney is still talking, mouth half-full of powerbar. “And don’t try and pull this shit with me, I looked at your diagnostic logs. Radek’s right, you’re in perfect working order, or you were eleven hours ago. No mechanical faults. So what’s your problem? You mad at me?” Rodney laughs at himself. “Well. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
He pauses to pat the open panel to his right, gently, like you pet a cat, and then sighs.
“Or are you just mad at me because you’re on his side? Is that it?”
John thinks maybe he should leave - starts to back out of the room, but something he does must give him away, because Rodney looks up, blue eyes intent.
“Oh,” he says, dismissively, when he recognizes John. “It’s you.”
John sticks his hands in his pockets and slouches in the doorframe.
“Maybe she doesn’t recognize you,” he suggests. “Or maybe you’ve just forgotten how everything works.”
Poking holes in Rodney’s ego has always been the surest way of getting a rise out of him, and sure enough, Rodney stiffens. “I still happen to be the foremost expert in practical applications of ancient technology, Colonel. I haven’t exactly been twiddling my thumbs for two years, as you well know.”
He looks away, letting out a frustrated sigh. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t be working. There’s nothing mechanically wrong, no software hiccups, no power problem. It’s just... it’s like she’s refusing to power the chair.”
John thinks of all the times Rodney made fun of him for anthropomorphizing the city, but before he can come up with a suitable dig, Rodney’s shoulders slump.
“I was hoping for a smooth ride home. I guess that was asking too much.” He rubs a hand over his face. “No reason this shouldn’t be as unnecessarily difficult as everything else on this fucking planet, not to mention every other benighted world in the Milky Way. This city spoiled us all.” And uncomfortably enough, John knows what he means. He did try living outside, in the couple of months before they gave him the base; remembers what a trial it was. Not just homesickness, but some kind of socio-cultural overload. Earth is too loud, too crowded, and everything on Earth feels too manual, too backwards, too difficult. Even trips off-world during O’Neill’s failed experiment with giving John his own gate team. Before John can say anything, Rodney shoots him a dirty look. “Not that you’d know, I guess, living here like a hermit for two years.”
Despite himself, John smirks. “They do make me report back on the mainland occasionally,” he says, and shrugs.
Rodney eyes him. “And I bet you load up on junk food and get back here as fast as you can, right?” Rodney rolls his shoulders, rubs his face again. “Not that I can blame you.”
“Don’t tell me they don’t provide you with a candy stash off-world? Lorne said that used to be SOP.”
Rodney rolls his eyes. “Well, it wasn’t with the group I was with. The most humourless bunch of--”
Whatever Rodney was about to say about his off-world escort, John will never know, because at that moment, the outer door to the chair room makes an angry hissing noise and slams suddenly shut. The sound reverberates through the room for three or four seconds, during which John and Rodney just stare.
Rodney unfreezes first, running to the door and banging on it, poking at the keystrip, glaring at it. “Open!” he tells the door. “Come on, open!”
John goes over and does most of the same things, ending with a long, intense stare at the door thinking open, open, come on, open damn you, but nothing happens.
He tries his radio next; nothing but static. He looks over and sees Rodney doing the same thing, then dropping his hand and shaking his head.
John makes a fist and bangs on the door again. Come on, he thinks. I’m not ready for this. Let me out.
The door remains stubbornly closed.
Rodney pulls open a panel and switches some crystals, prods at things with various tools, but nothing has any effect. John keeps thinking angry commands at the door, but it’s apparently ignoring him.
“Well, it’s not like we’re going to starve to death,” Rodney says at length, holding up the second half of his powerbar. He walks back over towards the chair, rummages through the toolbag and pulls out another one. “Hungry?”
It takes John a minute to realize that the weird thing about this situation is that Rodney isn’t freaking out.
He frowns at Rodney. “Why aren’t you...”
Rodney raises his eyebrows. “What, freaking out? Please, Colonel. Compared to some of the places we’ve been locked in, this is a luxury hotel. We’re in Atlantis - albeit the wrong galaxy - but the city isn’t sinking, and no one is trying to shoot us, chop us into pieces, or kill us with smoke inhalation. We’re not in any immediate danger. And oh, hey, I have the added bonus of the pleasure of your company,” he adds, with withering sarcasm, before tossing the powerbar in John’s direction and sitting back down next to the open panel.
John stares at him. Of all the things he didn’t expect today, this one he expected the least. He keeps waiting for Rodney to leap up and start pacing, waving his hands around, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, Rodney plucks a crystal out of the exposed array and holds it up to a little pen light he pulls out of his pocket, studying its facets closely.
John prowls the perimeter of the room - secure. He calculates how long it will be before anybody misses them - at least a couple of hours, the way scientists treat lunch. He keeps glancing over at Rodney, who is calmly working, to all outward appearances ignoring John completely.
“Could you please stop pacing, Colonel? It’s very distracting,” Rodney says, as John completes his fifth circuit of the room. So not completely ignoring him, after all.
He stops, puts his hands on his hips. “What do you want me to do, do a dance? We’re trapped in here!”
Rodney tilts his head to one side. “If you like. That would be a lot more entertaining. But really I think I’d prefer it if you would sit down and stop doing laps of the room like Madison on a sugar high. Would you -- be still for five seconds, would you?”
John tries not to look as petulant as he feels - he’s tempted to do another circuit, just to see what kind of reaction it gets out of Rodney - but instead he just parks himself next to the door, arms crossed. Rodney slots the crystal he’s holding back into the array; pulls another one and inspects it with the light. Another quiet five minutes pass, Rodney performing a selection of the “hmm” and “huh” and “oh” noises he makes when he’s working out a problem. It’s familiar again, uncomfortable enough that John finds himself drifting into motion again, and he’s probably done another three circuits by the time Rodney looks up, annoyed.
“What is wrong with you?” he demands.
“What the hell do you think?” John says angrily, and then stops, horrified, when he sees Rodney’s shocked expression and realizes Rodney heard exactly what he meant; what he didn’t mean to say.
The silence behind him forces him to look, though, and see Rodney, mouth open, eyes wide, pen light dangling from his fingers. He carefully sets both crystal and light down, and then asks:
“Um, did you mean...?”
John shakes his head, considers saying nothing, just letting this settle back to level. But he hears himself saying, instead: “Why did you even come back? It was easier--” But he cuts himself off before he can continue: --easier when you were somewhere else, easier to forget you’d left.
Rodney blinks at him, surprised and hurt, and looks away. “It’s where I wanted to be,” he says, with the frank, unembellished honesty that Rodney only ever uses when pressed. “Or rather, I wanted to be on Atlantis in Pegasus, but that wasn’t possible until now.”
John swallows, hard; doesn’t ask the question he’s been wanting to ask for two years. Instead, he says, “you’ve got a funny way of showing it.”
“It was too hard, being here, and not having what I--” Rodney shuts his mouth and looks away again. “It’s why Jennifer left me. She said I was never really there. She was right, of course. I was always... I always wanted to be here.”
John stares, dumbstruck, until Rodney looks at him, eyes rolling scornfully. “What, you didn’t know?”
“No, Rodney,” John says, when he gets his breath back, because how could he not have known? Why didn’t anybody tell him? He immediately answers his own question: because you didn’t want to hear it; didn’t want to hear anything about McKay. “I didn’t know.”
Surprisingly, Rodney waves it away. “Why do you think I’ve spent the last year planet-hopping as the Milky Way’s neighbourhood fix-it man? It took me months to realize that the reason I felt restless and crazy on Earth is that... we’re aliens, do you realize that? It’s all wrong, here. So I took the first off-world posting the SGC could offer me. And then when the IOA approved the city’s return to Pegasus, I jumped at it. I don’t...” He shakes his head, and continues, more quietly, “I don’t belong here anymore.”
John comes over and sits down next to him, just out of touching distance. “So why didn’t you come back sooner?”
Rodney looks at him like he’s sprouted a second head which is just as stupid as his first one. “Uh, because you obviously didn’t want me here?” It’s spoken with the slow, deliberate, you-are-an-idiot-so-let-me-explain-this-with-small-words tone Rodney used to use with his most incompetent, contemptible underlings, but there’s a raw, sharp sort of anger there, too, of accusation, enough that John has to steel himself against flinching back.
“You left,” says John, barely a whisper, the full brunt of it slamming into him again like a fist to the ribs.
Rodney draws in a shaky breath, lets it out again, looks at John. He looks angry, and he looks sad. “We didn’t leave you. I...” he swallows, “I didn’t leave you. It wasn’t about you.” He pauses. “Okay,” he admits, “maybe a little. But you were the one who stopped writing, stopped answering emails and phone calls... I mean, what the fuck was I supposed to do?”
A silence follows; John lets it draw out, trying to work out the shape of it, the nature of it; whether it’s merely an awkward silence, or a portentious one; a final one.
“I missed you,” he says at last, so quiet he can barely hear his own voice, but he hears Rodney’s sharp, sudden intake of breath.
Rodney doesn’t answer right away. He breathes, slow and steady, and then he gets up, moves closer, sits down again. John can feel his body heat, always a little warmer than normal, up and down his left side.
“You always knew me better than she did,” Rodney says, in a confidential tone; almost embarrassed. “I think it made her a little jealous.”
John chokes on a laugh. “She was jealous?”
“Yeah,” Rodney admits, and then, wry: “By the way, you were really subtle about that.”
John lets his head drop, his hands hanging between his knees, caught between humiliation and the chasmic relief of a weight lifting off of his chest.
“I never wanted to be anywhere but here,” Rodney tells him, voice still uncertain, a little guilty; sad. “But it seemed like here didn’t want me, and then there was nowhere to go.”
“So you picked nowhere,” John guesses.
Another silence, and this one is a little less weighted, less frightening.
“Sorry,” John says, at last, and he looks up to see Rodney arching one eyebrow expectantly, and then, after fifteen seconds pass and neither of them speaks, Rodney just sighs.
“Well, I guess it’s as good as I’m going to get,” he says, wistfully.
“Ha ha,” John says, and gives him a little shove that makes Rodney beam at him and shove back. There ensues a shoving match that almost pitches both of them to the floor along with Rodney’s tools, but John yanks them both upright at the last second.
“And now we’re resorting to physical violence rather than talking about our feelings,” Rodney exclaims, laughing, “I was right all along, you really are emotionally re--”
Whatever Rodney was about to say, John will never know, because John kisses him mid-sentence.
Rodney goes rigid at first, makes a high-pitched noise that might be surprise, but then he’s kissing back, grabby, greedy hands clutching at John’s face, his arms, everything he can reach. And they’ve never done this before, but somehow Rodney’s mouth on his, wet and clumsy, is familiar - it’s the most familiar thing in the world - and it’s messy and the angle is terrible but it’s perfect.
When they surface for air, Rodney’s a mess, pink-cheeked and rumpled with his hands in John’s hair. John has his hands up the back of Rodney’s shirt, smooth warm skin under his palms. Rodney snickers, drops his head to John’s shoulder.
“You realize this just proves my point,” Rodney says, lips buzzing against John’s throat, and John throws his head back and laughs, curling a hand around Rodney’s nape.
That, of course, is when the door makes a click-click-clunk noise and slides open, and in the next instant, the dais blazes to life underneath them.
“Motherfucker!” Rodney says, sitting bolt upright, wide-eyed and righteously pissed. “She locked us in!”
It takes John a second to catch up, and then he’s staring, because it was a joke, really, all those times they talked about the city doing things to spite them. But Rodney is standing up now, shaking his fist at the high domed ceiling.
“I was right, all these years!” he yells up at the ceiling. “You -- you meddling harpy! What the hell kind of priorities are these?”
John can’t help but laugh at the image, Rodney mad as hell and waving his arms, and somehow, weirdly, it’s this that makes him feel, finally, as if this is real; as if they’re really going back; that he’s finally going home.