It goes something like this: John Sheppard doesn't need anyone. He never really has, either. It's a thing.
That's why it's pretty weird, the whole Atlantis deal. It's not like he's ever been much good at following orders, but when he gets right down to it, he isn't much good at giving them, either, not to begin with. He's grateful that Elizabeth's usually a pretty rational person when it comes to command decisions, and he's even more grateful that Elizabeth usually listens to him when military strategy is called for. So when John discovers that maybe he's decent at giving orders after all, it comes as a bit of a surprise. Not too much of one; most life-shattering things don't happen all at once.
The only life-shattering thing that's ever happened to John Sheppard, all at once, was sitting down in the control chair in Antarctica, and even that was a stuttered-out chain of careless stupid coincidences. He came to Atlantis because he flipped a damn coin.
So when the rest of it goes like that too, it's just life. Dialing Athos is life, meeting Teyla a coincidence. Ford being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- that's life, too, the kind Sheppard is used to (although, okay, the bit where it's life-sucking aliens who screwed over his buddy was a fairly new one, at the time). Finding Ronon while looking for Ford is probably somewhere in the realm of the kind of irony John's eleventh-grade English teacher would have loved, but irony is just coincidence with a sense of humor. The way John's team breaks itself and recoalesces, it's all the random stuff that happens. That doesn't mean John doesn't appreciate it, of course; he likes his team, and Elizabeth, and a lot of the scientists and doctors and military personnel on the mission. But that isn't the same thing as needing them.
Even all the crazy things he does for his team doesn't mean he needs them. Especially then; it's become a sort of stupid habit, to test the crazy randomness of the universe, just one more time, like he's a kid who's been eating ice cream all day and his parents haven't told him to stop, so he'll just keep on with the ice cream until he gets sick. That's John: a kid with ice cream. Only ice cream is Wraith and Replicators and Genii, bugs and explosions and normal people armed with fear and big guns. Screw it, John's never been good at metaphors anyway. The point is, he keeps on not dying and not dying and not dying, but he's reckless as hell and seriously, dying might not be too bad if he's helping Atlantis in the process, so John Sheppard makes sure not to need anyone. Not in a seriously conscious way, but he makes sure all the same.
But it goes like this: life-shattering things never happen all at once.
John wouldn't ever call him life-shattering out loud. His ego's already big enough to blow up whole solar systems; no need to encourage it. But he is, all the same. Life-shattering. This annoying Canadian guy who never shuts up, who was horribly out-of-shape three years ago, who still doesn't look really comfortable with a gun in his hand, who gets more happily excited the longer John doesn't get his own ass kicked at Prime Not Prime, who might actually be a genius under all the other stuff, who always, always says it's impossible, that this time they really are screwed, and even so, whenever John can't come up with a plan to save their asses, he does. And he's got a great name to say, too, whatever shade of annoyance John wants to deliver it in. Rodney McKay. Yeah.
Maybe it starts like that, too, on some early mission when the Wraith were the only really freaky things they'd met; John wanted him to get down or hurry up or stop babbling or something, and he'd growled "McKay," and it was great, like he could take all his anger and frustration and impatience and stuff it tight into the one word.
Or maybe it starts with Chaya. That's the first time John really refuses to pick up on it; Rodney blocking his way in the corridor, his face tight with something not quite anger, expressing the least rational dislike he'd ever shown. Of course Rodney dislikes everyone on principle, as far as John can tell, but he's friends with Carson and Zelenka and even Elizabeth, by now, and there are very few people Rodney really actively dislikes. Chaya was one of them, and at the time John just refused to hear him out. It was stupid, and Rodney was right about not trusting her for exactly the wrong reasons, and anyway it was a one-time thing. John understood he'd never see Chaya again. (It's probably better that way. Chaya's sharing is one of the coolest things John's ever done, and he's pretty damn sure he never wants to do it again. It was like flying a Jumper, almost, but instead of the controls and the display panel comfortably against his mind, it was a hot girl. That scared the hell out of John. He still doesn't know if Chaya could tell.)
The first time John realizes it, can't not pick up on the damn thing, is sometime between Rodney's weird few days being possessed by Lieutenant Cadman and the sort of awful few days that culminated in Rodney blowing up a solar system. Cadman kissing Carson with Rodney's body was a bit uncomfortable on principle, anyway; it isn't even a gay thing, although that weirds John out a bit too -- it was that someone was using Rodney. So he gets pretty bothered when Rodney uses him. Rodney doesn't even have to get inside his skin to use him, just says trust me, and as much as Rodney screws up sometimes, he always, always fixes his own mistakes, so John says yes.
Maybe what he's really angry about is the fact that Rodney managed to pick the one time he fucked up really seriously to use that line on Sheppard. The one time. It's that irony thing again, and John knows it's sort of unfair, so when Rodney tries to apologize, John gives him a tight smile and shuts the transporter door in his face and doesn't think about it. Nothing happens all at once, even if Rodney McKay expects everything to happen for him at the push of a button. Sheppard is not a machine.
Why girls have a thing for him, he'll never really understand. He's always had the impression that girls probably like guys who get it sometime in the first five overt attempts they make to get the guy's attention. Maybe it's his hair. He does have pretty great hair. But he doesn't have much else going for him, which he figures might explain girls like Teer, who just had a slightly creepy and pretty flattering prophetic dream about him, and Mara, who sort of needed a guy with a convenient Ancient gene for political reasons. It doesn't bother him as much as it should, and that bothers him too; like it's okay if it's women using him. Like it's okay for everyone to use him but McKay, like he seriously believes that McKay is any different from anyone else.
Maybe he is. John doesn't have nightmares, but he sometimes has uncomfortable dreams in shallow sleep; before Atlantis, the dreams were mostly about Afghanistan, and after a few months in Pegasus the dreams were mostly about the Wraith, but more and more the dreams are quiet and simple, just someone holding a gun to Rodney's head. John hates it.
He hates the way Rodney sometimes acts around him, too, like he's not a genius at all, like he's just stupid. When Jeannie Miller comes to Atlantis, Rodney fends John off, like he has to protect Jeannie's maidenly honor from John's evil ways. John doesn't ask Rodney what the hell that was about; he just calls Rodney Meredith under his breath. That's payback enough; more than enough, when they've sent the other guy, Rod, back to his own dimension, and a look of open wonder crosses their Rodney's face at the very idea they'd prefer him to his doppelganger. John can't decide whether Rodney's stupid about Jeannie or about John or about himself or about everything, but maybe it doesn't matter.
When they return to Earth, John really wishes Rodney wouldn't call. He tells Rodney he doesn't miss him at all, hangs the phone up on Rodney whenever he wants, avoids him entirely until the dinner-date they'd arranged with Elizabeth and Carson. And then they're off saving Atlantis like it's all normal, just a day in the life, and they never talk about it. Some dumb blip in the radar, different from any of the other things they don't talk about only because this time the bit where they almost died was the normal part. It is the normal part, really.
Stupid things start to bother John. It bothers him that Rodney names one of the alien whales Sam, like Colonel Carter, in another galaxy with her own set of problems, is even competition. It bothers John that he's started to think like that, about anyone holding Rodney's affections as competition, as though he cares.
He really hates it when Rodney nearly ascends. The Pegasus Galaxy is always throwing new and exciting ways to die at them, but the ascension machine pretty much tops it. Usually, when Rodney's almost certainly about to die, John's doing every damn thing in his power to rescue Rodney, and more often Rodney's doing everything in his power to rescue himself. That's the way the universe runs; if it runs on coincidences, it also runs on predictabilities. It shouldn't work out with Rodney lying on John's floor, with John sitting awkwardly on the bed, trying to save Rodney with words. He fumbles, and says really stupid things about his time among Teer's people, and once he even has to grab a damn sports magazine to keep hold of his composure. It's stupid, and he believes in Rodney, even though he's never really believed anything in his life, because if Rodney doesn't believe in himself, someone has to. John really, really hates that his last words to Rodney very nearly are in the way a friend loves another friend, because that's got to be one of the stupidest things he's ever done, lying to qualify Elizabeth's truth, like he needs to make sure -- for himself, if Rodney dies, or for Rodney, if Rodney lives -- that it is well understood that they are friends, and that's all it will ever be, because why would it be anything else.
A few weeks later he rides out the crashing of a space shuttle, and of course it's to save Teyla, but it's also to save himself. He's a kid with ice cream and he's starting to feel really sick because no one's told him to stop eating, and Rodney can't, because Rodney's a kid with ice cream too. So the metaphor still doesn't make sense. Big deal. The point is that he keeps on wanting his last words to Rodney to be entirely inconsequential, and not mean a damn thing, so that when Rodney thinks back he can say stupid things about Sheppard's stupid last words. That's the real reason John hasn't done it. He's kind of scared.
He tries to talk about it with Ronon, but Ronon's not a very subtle sort of guy, and straight enough to be the U.S. military poster child. Ronon just gives him a look, and John doesn't say anything else, because then he'd have to say it, and there's no it to say.
But it happens like this: the same day John tries to tell Ronon, Carson Beckett dies.
It tears Rodney apart, in a horrible, quiet way. He throws himself into his work, for about a day, and then he comes to John's room, like it's Jeannie all over again, like it's some inconsequential thing niggling Rodney's conscience or ego. But he doesn't pace the room, and John doesn't clean his gear or pretend to read a magazine. They just sit side-by-side on John's bed, a few painfully yawning inches of space between them, and Rodney talks quietly. He talks about having a best friend, and about fishing trips, and about lunch with Katie Brown, and about the way he knows Carson doesn't blame him, and how that doesn't make it any better. John could protest that he's Rodney's best friend -- they spend plenty of time together even off-mission -- or he could pursue the Katie Brown thing and find out how serious Rodney is about her, or he could ask why Rodney's crazy enough to think a dream about Carson really means anything more the random firing of synapses in Rodney's guilty brain, but in the three years they've been in Atlantis, Rodney McKay and John Sheppard have both done some growing up.
He carefully reaches over and takes Rodney's hand. It's like a first kiss; their fingers tangle and their palms bump awkwardly and they can't quite get the angle right, but after a moment Rodney's hanging onto Sheppard hard enough that it really hurts, and John's hanging on probably just as hard. They don't say anything. John thinks to himself that he doesn't need anyone, that he never has, that it's just a thing, that this will go away, that Rodney's just having a moment because Carson's dead and he feels terrible and Teyla feels terrible and everyone feels terrible except for John, who doesn't feel a damn thing, that some day Rodney will end up with one of the Katie Browns or even Sam Carters of the world, that Ronon will move past Sateda and find himself someone great, that even Teyla and Elizabeth and, hell, everyone he knows, will end up happily with someone who will understand them and compliment them and whatever else it is that couples are supposed to do for each other, and John will still not need anyone.
All of that is total bullshit.
"Rodney --" John says, because if he doesn't say it now he never will, except that he has no it to say, and everything that comes to mind is equally stupid. When Rodney turns to him he feels even stupider, because the guy's grieving his best friend and probably hasn't even really noticed that John's holding his hand. He has a look on his face like he doesn't know quite what to do, but his jaw is set in stubborn lines, and for a second John forgets how stupid Rodney can be, for a genius, and really seriously believes Rodney can do anything.
It's still a surprise when Rodney leans in without preamble and kisses him.
He's never given much thought to what a first kiss with Rodney McKay would be like, because he's usually too busy saving everyone's ass to have fantasies and, when he does, they're usually fantasies about having real good American food instead of MREs, so the kiss doesn't really have any expectations to live up to. Even so, if John had given it any thought, he would probably have said that they would look at each other, simultaneously get one of those crazy brilliant ideas, and then kiss like fireworks on the fourth of July. (Or something. John isn't much good at similes, either.)
It's not like that at all. John's caught totally unawares, and Rodney sort of catches his lips but it takes John a beat too long to respond, so he turns a bit and their cheeks drag raspingly against each other because neither of them have shaved since Carson's funeral. It hurts a bit and Rodney huffs out a breath that's either annoyance or nervousness or both, and then they get it right, mouths falling into alignment. John expected Rodney to kiss like he talks, open-mouthed and pushy and demanding, but it's just this slide of lips, almost more gentle than John can bear. After a few seconds they part in some unspoken accord.
"I don't want to talk about it," John says, before Rodney can open his mouth.
"Ah," says Rodney. "Right."
Their hands are still all tangled together. Both of their hands, now, and John has seriously no idea when that happened, and this was a really, really dumb thing to do. He lifts his head to tell Rodney that, and Rodney starts kissing him again, and this would all be a hell of a lot simpler if John wasn't kissing him back. That's plausible deniability out the window. God, he still never sees this stuff coming, but this is worse than any girl, because the thing about girls is that they don't stick around. They don't come on missions or get themselves into horrible danger all the time as part of the daily grind or steal all the blue jell-o or bitch about what an implausible movie Back to the Future is or have the stupid idea that hockey's actually a better sport than football or argue about old Batman movies --
Oh, he's so screwed.
When they break apart he says it again, "Rodney," but it isn't supposed to come out like it does. It's supposed to be like any other Rodney he's ever said, drawling and annoyed, but instead he just sounds scared.
"Shut up," Rodney says, a little frantically, "shut up, I know you don't want to talk about this and I'm guessing it's an American military thing and you're probably going to tell me that it's unprofessional or that you prefer women or something similarly stupid, but obviously we're attracted to each other so I don't see why we shouldn't --"
"Rodney," John says, and this time he gets it right, all the drawling annoyance pitched just so. Rodney stops up short. "This isn't about Carson, is it?" he adds, which he hadn't really meant to say, because he doesn't want to talk about it.
Rodney gapes at him. "Of all the idiotic things to say. No, Colonel, I am not making a move on you because -- What are you talking about? You started it."
"I did not!" John says indignantly. "You came to my room."
"Oh please," Rodney snorts, "I come to your room all the time."
That's true, of course, and John doesn't have anything to say. Today is only different because today it's not about one or the other of them not dying; it's about what happens when a friend actually does die, so here they are clinging together like -- like --
Not like similes. Not like boys with ice cream or anything else. It goes like this: one thing crashing into the next in John's brain, synapses or dominos or a firing squad, it doesn't matter. Rodney's here and Rodney's his best friend, whatever Rodney might say about Carson, and they're clinging together like two men in another galaxy, who have never really known what home was before Atlantis, who are entirely alone because they once chose to be and it's a habit now, who never know what to say no matter how many damn words they use. Nothing life-shattering happens overnight, but three years of constant exposure to Rodney McKay can change a guy.
"Yeah," John says, and for once he doesn't try to slide out of it with the plastered-on smile. "Rodney," he says. "It still hasn't hit me. You know, about Carson."
Rodney tilts his chin up a bit, and swallows, and says, "I promise you, Colonel, it's not an enjoyable experience."
"I know," John says, and he really wants to let his eyes slide off Rodney's face; go stand up, hook his thumbs in the belt-loops of his pants, quirk a grin and say something stupid and pretend like he's being sensitive, running on automatic. "I'm bad at this sort of thing," he says instead.
"Which thing?" Rodney asks. Really softly, like he isn't sure what to make of this John Sheppard. Girls get this Sheppard, sometimes, but not because he ever means it. He says he isn't any good at it so they'll think he's a caring sort of guy, but possibly not with a really great vocabulary on hand. He sort of does mean it this time, and he's not sure what to make of it himself. He doesn't know what to make of Rodney right now either, because sure, he's seen Rodney McKay do the vulnerable thing. Rodney does it all the damn time, because his panic mode and his defense system don't ever work at the same time, but the panic doesn't seem to have kicked in yet. Sheppard would feel almost better if it had.
"What do you mean, which thing?" he mutters. Their hands are still tangled together. He tries to pry them loose, and their knuckles pop, and it's stupid and awkward and seriously, this is the real reason John Sheppard's always been a straight guy, screw whatever the U.S. military has to say about it -- girls do all the work for him, as far as the talking thing goes. They give him his cues, and he goes with it, and it all pretty much works out up until the point that it doesn't. Rodney's not giving him cues. Rodney probably doesn't even know how to pick up cues. That's pretty obvious, actually, because Rodney's not letting John's hands go.
"Sheppard," he says, and okay, here it is, the panicked look settling in and making itself at home in Rodney's round stubborn face, and John's all ready for another frantically babbling tirade, so it's a serious shock when Rodney just says, "I'm absolutely terrible at this sort of thing too."
"Which thing?" John asks without meaning to.
"Hah!" Rodney says, grinning triumphantly.
John finds himself grinning back, a reluctant, sideways sort of thing. Points for Rodney. Maybe he's not so dumb after all. It occurs to him, slowly, that maybe if he tries to do the taking-cues-from-McKay thing in this situation, instead of the taking-girl-cues thing that's usually supposed to happen, things won't turn out as stupid and messy and awkward as they almost always do with girls. The moment he thinks it, it seems painfully obvious; the moment after he thinks it, he knows it's stupid, because there's no cues to take and nothing to talk about and even if they do end up doing something really dumb like sleeping together -- and that the idea of sex with Rodney McKay doesn't sound immediately seriously weird is sort of a big flashing warning sign all by itself -- there's no things that are supposed to turn out okay. They're good buddies, and John really wishes he'd thought this through before because it's just such a bad idea on so many levels.
"Rodney," he says, "this is a really bad idea."
"I thought you didn't want to talk about it," Rodney says archly.
"Well, now I do," John says, "and I think it would be a good idea if I took a leaf out of Elizabeth's book and --"
"Plenty of people here are involved," Rodney overrides him. "Radek seems to have a new date every week. It's disgusting. Anyway, I didn't see you breaking out that excuse on Chaya—"
"Chaya's not the issue here, Rodney."
"Oh?" Rodney says, raising his chin again and giving John one of the looks that's so superior he must be scared. "What is it, then? Is it a don't ask, don't tell sort of thing? I admit to being a bit surprised, actually; I thought you were more interested in women, but then I usually am too, and --"
Rodney shuts up.
John drags in a breath. He has to actually explain this, really explain it, so Rodney will understand, and since he's never even articulated a damn syllable of it to himself, he doesn't know if he can do it. "I'm not good at ... people," he says. "Every time I try having a thing with a girl, it doesn't work out." He ignores Rodney's soft, derisive snort. "And I like all of you, an awful lot ..."
"In the way a friend likes a friend," Rodney says, soft and mocking.
John's head jerks up. Rodney's giving him this horrible polite sort of look. "No," he says. "Yes. Look, Rodney, all I'm trying to say is that this is a bad idea, and I'm gonna screw it up, so we should just leave it right here."
For a moment he almost thinks Rodney believes him, and then Rodney's grabbing at the front of his shirt and kissing him exactly the way John never bothered to imagine he would, pushy and involved and with lots of tongue and -- oh crap -- it's really hot. John does a lot of things by instinct, and sometimes his hindbrain just sort of takes over. Right now it's doing that, because without any conscious thought his hands have come up to hold Rodney's face possessively. Rodney's hands stutter across John's shirt and he makes a little broken noise, and somehow they've slid up with their thighs pressed together and if neither of them are shaking, it's only because three years on Atlantis have burned them out and this is hardly something to react to with real shock.
"Rodney," John gasps, not actually to say anything at all but because the familiar syllables ground him, and, crazily, what Rodney says echoing back is "Sheppard," like three years of friendship and teamwork and now them making out on John's bed isn't enough to give Rodney permission to call him John, the way even Ronon does now. But John doesn't say it, because it's what he always says, to every girl, with a laid-back smile, call me John. He's even said it to Teyla. "Rodney," he says again, even though he can't think of anything to say.
Rodney shudders a little and mashes his face into John's collar and, okay, that's sort of terrifying too, in its own way, but he wraps his arms really cautiously around Rodney's shoulders, and it's not really like any girls at all. Rodney is just Rodney, and after a moment he's composed himself, put up his little Rodney walls, and looks up at John again. John opens his mouth to say something stupid and empty and pointless, and Rodney says, "But I want to try, and I think you do too."
"Yeah," John says. "Yeah."
They kiss a bit more, and even get to the bit where they're sprawled out on John's bed and rubbing against each other a bit, but John's not that gay so before he can freak out he sits up and says something dumb about dinner. Rodney beams at him and pulls a couple of (fairly squished) PowerBars from a pocket. Then John remembers that he maybe sort of has a couple loaves of Athosian bread stashed in a box under his bed. They eat, and Rodney talks about Carson a bit more, without any telltale hitch in his voice, and when they're done eating John casually flips through a golfing magazine while Rodney sorts through John's DVD collection. They watch a bit of old school Star Trek, lying elbow-to-elbow on John's narrow bed, and when Kirk meets some alien priestess Rodney's hand flashes out and shuts the laptop and he's kissing John again like the alien priestess has offended him personally.
It's actually not that different from any other evening with Rodney, except for the whole thing where they're making out. John's not sure if it's comforting or just freaks him out even more.
He doesn't want to talk about it enough that -- at about the point when bits of John's anatomy get with the program and he has to stop kissing Rodney again before he does something stupid -- he actually opens the laptop and turns the DVD back on, and if Rodney's arm is slung heavily over his back while they watch a whole season of Star Trek, it's not so bad. Sometime in the middle of it all, John falls asleep.
It goes like this: John Sheppard wakes up with his face mashed into a laptop keyboard, with Rodney McKay breathing loudly into his shirt, his nose pressed up against John's collarbone. John's whole right side is numb, and he's wearing yesterday's clothes. Carson is dead and the remembering of it hurts with a sudden sharp ache in John's chest, and Rodney's right, it's not enjoyable at all, but all the same it's really good to be feeling.
He looks sideways at Rodney, and thinks about getting up quietly and leaving Rodney there, and never saying a word about it again, and making sure to always leave at least six inches of space between them the way he does with everyone else. He thinks about all the reasons this is a bad idea, his career and the team dynamic and what he'll do if Rodney dies and how stuff like this never works out for him. He thinks about maybe just flipping a damn coin.
Instead he nudges Rodney and says, "Hey, Rodney, wake up. Let's go to breakfast."
It's the first thing in his life he's really, seriously done for himself. No coins or coincidences or not seeing it coming.
Rodney stares at him like he expected John to take any of the other options. Then he gets to his feet and straightens his rumpled clothes and makes give-me-coffee noises, and John knows, weirdly, that he's done the right thing.
They go to breakfast together.