"Kim?" Rodney said. "Kim who?"
"Kim Lin," John clarified. "Our FBI liaison."
"Fine, whatever, the invitation says 'and guest', right?" Rodney muttered. He picked up his sandwich took a bite, froze, then swallowed mightily. John feared he might have to apply the Heimlich, but Rodney's Adam's apple finally bobbed up and down as the food went down. He set the rest of the sandwich down on his tray and leaned over the table toward John. "He's a guy."
"I know," John said with amusement.
Rodney spluttered. "But – but, you're Kirk!"
John shrugged, smirked, and slouched back into his seat, relieved to have the revelation over.
Processing new information and integrating it never took Rodney long – maybe a little longer when it was personal or emotional – and he picked up his sandwich again, appetite unvanquished. "So, if you're, uh, 'coming out', are you and this guy... "
"Don't know yet," John said to save Rodney flailing around for a description.
"Oh." Tentatively, Rodney added, "He seemed okay. The FBI guy. I remember him from the briefing everyone got. He asked some questions that weren't completely moronic."
"I'll tell him you said so," John promised, smiling and really relaxing. He picked up his own muffin and began eating it enthusiastically. If there was an upside to the relocation of Atlantis to the Milky Way, then it was fresh Earth foods.
Of course, meeting Kim ranked at the top for John, with the final, official change to acceptance of homosexuals in the military that had come down two months after Atlantis touched down outside San Francisco Bay. He wasn't going to pine in loneliness because Rodney had met and fallen in love with someone else while John hadn't been able to say anything about his own feelings. John wasn't sure he would ever be used to not needing to hide, but he'd was going to take advantage now that he didn't have to any longer. Rodney was happy and John thought that he could be too.
He'd been right about the wedding. Everyone there who knew John was agog and even the friends and family from Jennifer's side who weren't read into the Program whispered furiously and stared when they realized the best man was with another man. John exacerbated the reaction by wearing his dress uniform and medals.
Luckily, Kim had a sense of humor about the whole thing, shrugging off Jennifer's uneasy greeting of 'Oh, I thought, Kim – that you were – ,' with a tiny smile and a deadpan, 'Caucasian?' John had to duck his head to hide his laughter, but, to her credit, Jennifer did rally and reply, 'Taller.'
Kim was about three inches shorter than John. He was broader in the shoulder, could lay John out in the dojo in about four moves, and liked to point out that he had more room in a cockpit than taller pilots.
A mutual love for helicopters had been the interest that drew them together. Kim had been Lt. Commander Lin of the US Navy, flying helicopters hunting subs and search & rescue, before leaving to join the FBI. He hadn't said, but John got the impression he'd left the Navy because of DADT and someone with a grudge.
At the reception, he brought John a bottle of beer and stood with his shoulder just touching John's as Rodney led Jennifer out onto the dance floor. John took a swallow from the bottle gratefully; he wanted to wash away the taste of the champagne he'd used to toast the newlyweds.
Rodney looked good on the dance floor, happy and secure for once and able to relax and move with grace and ease as he waltzed Jennifer around.
Kim's expression didn't give much away, but his dark eyes were amused. "Someone told me you're a passive-aggressive bastard with cast-iron balls."
"Uhm," John said.
"Not everyone would come out by bringing his boyfriend to the wedding of the man he'd wanted," Kim commented quietly.
John turned and raised his eyebrows at Kim.
"What?" he asked.
"McKay was the one," Kim said. "Right?"
John hid behind the beer bottle long enough to get his face under control. He'd been upfront with Kim the first time they hooked up, explaining he'd been hung up on someone but stayed quiet because of the regs. He hadn't told Kim who, but supposed it shouldn't surprise him that he'd been figured out. Kim was a trained investigator.
"Thanks for coming with me," John said after a while. He toasted Kim with his bottle.
"De nada," Kim replied.
Eventually, John danced with Kim, then several women, and Jennifer.
"Thank you," she said as they moved across the floor with the care of two people who weren't really physically comfortable with each other.
"For what?" John asked. He knew Rodney had plane reservations to take Jennifer to Hawaii. They'd want to leave the reception soon so they could change and leave for the airport. He wouldn't have to socialize much longer; the evening would come to a close once they were gone, to John's relief. Kim had made it bearable, but he hadn't enjoyed it, wouldn't have even if it hadn't been Rodney's wedding. He endured formal social occasions on autopilot and hadn't been paying attention to what he and Jennifer were talking about.
Jennifer tipped her face up to look at him steadily.
"Not telling him."
"Telling him what?" John asked. His throat felt tight. Jesus, was there something about Jennifer he should have warned Rodney about? He'd been so careful not to bad mouth her...
Rodney was on the other side of the dance floor, tapping the face of his watch when he caught John's eye. He made face and started toward them.
She looked tired for a second before her smile brightened again.
"That you were an option," she said. Jennifer raised her hand and cupped John's cheek for a second as the music came to an end and they stopped. John froze at Jennifer's touch and then flinched.
Jennifer met his gaze for another breath and finished, "I will take care of him."
"She's taken," Rodney said snippishly as he reached them.
"Not my type," John said. He inclined his head toward where Kim was talking with Lorne and Simpson by the bar.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Whatever." He turned to Jennifer. "We need to get to the airport. The crap that the idiotic TSA puts people through to fly takes forever." He lowered his voice. "I still think Woolsey should have let us take a jumper. I may not be in the Air Force, but I've never crashed one."
John patted his chest theatrically. "I'm wounded."
Jennifer was still watching him.
"You're right, though," he went on, "you two kids need to get out of here. Go, have fun. Don't get sand in any uncomfortable places."
Rodney gave him a horrified look.
John took care of his last few best man duties after they were gone, made sure any drunks were in cabs home, and let Kim take him back to their hotel, feeling weary and sad. If he'd understood her right, he might have had a chance with Rodney, only he'd never been willing to take the risk. Considering his reputation for taking on reckless, suicidal missions, it felt ironic.
Late that night, unable to sleep and watching the reflections of headlights on the road wash over the ceiling of the hotel room, Kim shifted next to John and said, "I was sleeping with the Milo's navigator. Andy. We hooked up before our assignments to the Milo."
John pulled Kim closer.
"We stopped," Kim went on. "Didn't even see each when we were ashore. Most people wouldn't have guessed we were even friends."
"But – ?"
"I pissed off my co-pilot and he told the XO I was gay." Kim rested his hand on John's chest. His fingers curled into a fist, while his voice stayed soft and even.
"Jesus, your co-pilot?" John whispered.
Kim gave out a dismissive grunt. The co-pilot wasn't the point of his story, obviously, though John thought he might like to find the guy and kick his ass into low orbit. He rested his hand over Kim's fist, finger pads over sharp knuckles, and waited for the rest of the story instead. This was the price he paid for asking Kim to the wedding; trust and punishment in one package.
"Andy heard about it," Kim finished. "He asked me to resign so there wouldn't be an investigation."
"You weren't still involved," John protested. He wanted to put Andy in orbit with Kim's co-pilot.
"He was afraid. He wanted a ship command someday."
Kim opened up his hand. John twined his fingers between Kim's.
"So I resigned."
A car passed on the road outside, too far for the engine noise to carry, and its headlights lit the hotel room enough that John could turn his head and see Kim watching him, mouth curled into an sardonic half smile.
"I didn't care about being in the Navy as much as you do about Atlantis," Kim said. "It wasn't as important either." He patted John's chest. "I'm happy now anyway."
John thought of Rodney, who was probably in the honeymoon suite of his swanky hotel in Oahu by now, possibly making love to Jennifer, if they weren't both asleep. He thought of the last six years and having Atlantis. He'd made the right choice for all of them, looking back, under the circumstances. Atlantis had been more important.
"Yeah, me too," he said.
John dropped his pack and the bag with the donuts and coffee on the only stretch of clear space on the jumper bench – next to a red-and-white Coleman cooler, Rodney's old mission pack, and a stack of packages that had to be presents for Teyla and Torren – and surveyed the equipment filling the front third of the jumper's cargo space skeptically. Rodney was on his knees, buried headfirst in its guts, his back and ass flexing as he twisted to reach something. It was supposed to be ready for the test flight.
The temptation to swat Rodney or even nudge his ass with a boot just to hear Rodney squawk made John chuckle.
"Does this thing have enough power?" he asked Rodney instead. He'd seen enough of Rodney in the last few weeks, since coming aboard the project, to have fallen back into the old give and take, but it wouldn't be smart to take things too far.
Rodney wiggled out of the access hatch, paused for a couple of breaths to recover, then twisted to scowl at John. He looked good; Jennifer kept him on a diet and made him exercise, so the dissolution of the gate team two years back hadn't resulted in the middle age spread most people would have predicted for Rodney. If he had a little padding around his waist, well, John wasn't as svelte as he'd been at twenty either.
Blue eyes as sharp and snapping with temper as ever, Rodney glared at John until he held up his hands and took a step back.
"It's only taken me two years to refine the design to a point where it could be installed on a ship without a ZedPM," Rodney said in a tone redolent of aggravation and his utter contempt for anyone who didn't bow to his genius. "Then the SGC refused to let me equip any of the new ships with the drive because it's 'theoretical'. How do they think it'll ever be more if no one will build an experimental version? Not to mention that the wormhole drive is not theoretical; Earth would have been a Wraith buffet if Radek hadn't used it to bring Atlantis here." His mouth twisted into a sour shape. "Not that anyone ever thanks any of us for saving them."
John shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "It was our job." It still felt odd to wear civilian gear and not a uniform. He liked being a consultant, though. It let him spend more time with Kim between stints on Atlantis and the occasional off-planet mission that needed someone with a strong ATA gene.
Rodney grumbled under his breath.
"Anyway, you've got the jumper and it's not like those grow on trees," John pointed out.
"I only had to practically sacrifice one of my kidneys and a first born to get it," Rodney said. "And you."
"Yeah, I was kind of surprised to be tapped as a test pilot," John admitted. He wandered into the cockpit and seated himself in the pilot's chair. A HUD obligingly appeared for him when he patted one armrest affectionately. "There are a lot of young bucks out there with faster reflexes, you know."
Rodney snorted and came into the cockpit himself. He scooped a tablet off the co-pilot's seat and sat down. "Like you've slowed down. I saw your last evals. Besides, no one knows how to fly a jumper better than you do." He tapped in a couple of instructions and added, "You think I want to trust my life to some wet-behind-the-ears brat who's never had to run for his life?"
John grinned and asked, "How'd you get Jennifer to say yes to you coming on the test flight?"
That got him an incredulous look. "Did you ask Kim if you could go? Honestly, Sheppard, it's no wonder you're divorced. Jennifer's my wife, not my superior officer. Besides, it's not like this is dangerous."
"So, out to the edge of the solar system, then a quick jaunt to Pegasus and back?" John asked. He'd already laid in the course that would take them out past the heliopause, where the solar winds stilled and there were fewer chances of Sol's gravity interfering with the wormhole drive operating efficiently.
"I thought we could have lunch with Teyla," Rodney said with a smug smile.
John checked the course he'd already calculated and checked five times in the last week and shook his head. "More like dinner. If you're ready to go...?" It was too bad they couldn't clear Ronon to accompany them on the test flight, but this modified jumper didn't have room for a third person anyway.
"I am completely ready to go," Rodney replied.
"Then we should cross the heliopause in twenty-one hours." John shut down the HUD and glanced at Rodney slyly. "I brought a lunch."
Up went Rodney's chin. "Jennifer sent a cooler with lunch and dinners for both of us. And the jumper is stocked with a month's worth of emergency rations and survival gear."
"I guess you've thought of everything."
"I even have the latest Tiger Woods Challenge game on one of the laptops," Rodney said, "so you won't get bored."
"Thank you, Rodney, that was really thoughtful." He put a little sarcastic spin on the words, because that was the way they'd always related, and too much sincerity gave him indigestion and made Rodney paranoid. John had an iPod, his own tablet loaded with dozens of books and work reports he could work on, but he looked forward to the long trip out from Earth. Rodney would talk and John would listen, inserting a friendly dig here and there. It would be like the old days, when things were quiet enough to actually have a scientific mission that didn't need Teyla or Ronon or anyone else along.
John settled a little more comfortably in his seat. "Ready?"
Rodney checked something on the tablet, nodded, and answered without glancing up. "Yes. Let's go. Sometime before the heat death of the universe would be good."
The jumper checklist John had put together himself came up green across the board, the HUD flickering too fast for the eye as he ran it through the mental interface. He radioed Dreamland flight ops, relayed their course and destination and accepted the amused, "Good luck, Colonel," the flight controller offered even though John was no longer in the Air Force.
"Cloak engaged," he said.
Flight relayed radar and sat coverage showing John a variety of flight paths that would stay clear of air traffic. He ignored them and calculated a different path that current Earth aircraft couldn't take advantage of, but the jumper could.
Rodney shrieked like a little girl when John stood the jumper on its tail and rocketed out of the atmosphere for the sheer fun of it.
"Sheppard – !"
"Just like old times."
Out past the edge of the solar system, the sun was dot-sized and Earth was impossible to pick out without something more than human senses.
Once they were out of Earth's atmosphere, John had dropped the cloak and engaged shields instead, letting SGC protocols handle keeping any satellite or telescopic data picked up on the jumper under wraps. Hiding Earth's growing fleet of interstellar ships was getting harder and harder. John fully expected some bright researcher outside the university or military systems to break the story on the internet any day. That wasn't his problem, however, and if anyone had asked him, he'd have said it was time to come clean with the rest of the world and out the Stargate Program.
Rodney ran a last check test on the wormhole drive.
"Good to go?" John asked.
He still loved that waspish tone, because it was paired with the same bright eagerness that had drawn John to Rodney from the beginning. Rodney was still a bundle of contradictions and complications, his arrogance, neuroses and paranoia camouflaging decency, gentleness and bravery. Jennifer hadn't changed him the way John had worried she would; he supposed he'd underestimated Rodney on that count. The only changes in Rodney were the ones he'd wanted to make.
"Pegasus, here we come," John said and engaged the wormhole drive.
It looked like a stargate opening in empty space, the edges unbounded and uneven, energy belching forth and then sucking back in, drawing the jumper with it before John could direct them through it. Everything in the cockpit and the cargo space lurched sickeningly and the HUD told John that without the inertial dampeners, he and Rodney would already be shrapnel-riddled jam. He redirected extra power to them and the shields automatically as the fluttering, freaky-wrong, green-tinted plane of the event horizon reached out for them.
He started to ask, "Is it supposed to – ?"
Whether it was vertigo or the jumper really tumbled end for end while rolling as they passed through the wormhole, John didn't know. They were in and then out, he had frost on his eyelashes, and they were in the heart of a blinding explosion, as the jumper exited the wormhole in a rush of plasma and radiation. The proximity alarm shrieked without let up along with the radiation siren. The pilot's console was black, no power.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Rodney yelled. He began typing into the tablet with one hand, the other racing over the co-pilot's controls. The power returned to the pilot's console and John wrestled the jumper back under his control.
He checked where they were.
What the fuck – they were on the edge of a sun's corona!
The jumper's view screen had polarized instantly, but afterimages still half-blinded John. He blacked out the screen entirely, relying on the internal lighting of the jumper instead. He brought the sensors up and tried to make sense of the readings through the radiation, then set course for what looked like a human habitable planet. At least it would take them away from the heat that was already overwhelming the jumper's environmental controls and threatened to melt the hull if the shields failed.
"What happened?" John blurted as soon as they were no longer in immediate danger.
"I don't know – ," Rodney snapped. "I hope we didn't create a blackhole that close to Sol." He sucked in a deep breath, still working madly on his tablet. "The wormhole closed. Okay. Everything's probably okay back there. We're still screwed of course. Crap. Check the stellar charts, would you? Find out where we are if you can."
John started trying. They sure as hell weren't where they'd intended to go... His shoulders tensed as the jumper provided him with the Ancient equivalent of a shrug and an apology. It didn't know where they were. None of the information in its data banks on the Milky Way or Pegasus matched what its sensors were mapping, no matter how it twisted or parsed the readings. It didn't match the limited data they had on either the Ori or Ida galaxies either.
They were lost.
"...fuck," John whispered.
"John?" Rodney questioned.
John didn't answer. Instead, he told the jumper to scan whether there was a stargate anywhere in the system. He ignored Rodney as Rodney tapped into the data on their coordinates. He knew when Rodney got it by the way Rodney looked up and stared out the view screen John had returned to transparency. The stars out there were stars no human had ever seen. No Ancient had either, which would have been a thrill under different circumstances. The devastation on Rodney's face matched the agony he'd shown when Wallace's nanites had been killing Jeannie. John already knew why. The wormhole drive was dead, burnt-out, and without it, they couldn't return to tell the tale.
Or go home to Kim and Jennifer.
"Damn it," John muttered, not aiming his anger at Rodney, just at fate. He should have... He should have remembered that as brilliant as Rodney was, the universe was ruled by only one God when it came to the two of them: Murphy.
"I'll figure it out," Rodney blurted. "I'll fix it. I'll get us home. I swear, John."
A deep breath settled the sick feeling in John's stomach to a familiar, ulcer-precursor burn and he forced out the words he needed to say.
"I know you will, buddy."
The jumper's sensors were sensitive enough to determine that the atmosphere on the planet wouldn't do them any immediate harm. The oxygen level was a little low if they had to exert themselves. The flora visible through the view screen exhibited more carotenoid and tetraterpenoid coloration than terra-formed worlds did; everything red or yellow-tinted.
Rodney slumped down in his seat and poked at his tablet. John tipped his head back and let the seat support it. His muscles felt weak and shuddery. He wanted to go to sleep.
"I don't remember feeling quite this awful after escaping death or disaster before," Rodney observed eventually. His voice sounded hoarse and the words came slowly.
John turned his head and looked at him. After twenty some hours in the jumper before they'd tried the wormhole drive, Rodney needed a shave as badly as John did. His cheeks were sagging and his face had gone gray. His hands were shaking enough that the tablet he held jiggled.
John suspected he didn't look any better.
"I know they say the brain forgets pain," Rodney went on, "but this is ridiculous. I've been shot and not felt this awful. I'd remember."
"We're out of practice," John rasped. He still felt stunned by how fast it had gone to shit, how close they'd shaved it this time. If they'd come out any closer to the star, no shield ever invented could have saved them.
"Fuck," Rodney disagreed. "We're old."
An adrenaline crash had never hit him this hard before, so John had to admit to himself that Rodney might have a point.
"We're experienced," he offered in hopes of keeping Rodney calm.
Rodney shut down the tablet and set it on the jumper console. "Sure."
"Let's just sit here for a few minutes," John said. "Then we can figure out whatever we do next."
A few minutes segued into twenty before John blinked his eyes open and watched something green and leathery flap its way to a tree-like growth. It had four wings like a dragonfly, but otherwise looked more like a bat. Or maybe a shaved squirrel, if squirrels had eight legs. John shut his eyes again. Pegasus hadn't had many worlds that were really, distinctly, different from Earth biomes. Looking at something so obviously alien was disturbing.
Besides him, Rodney said, "The gravity here is within three percentage points of Earth's, so if it has a skeletal structure, it's either hollow or made up of something lighter than calcium-based bone."
"Kinda interesting," John commented.
"I just hope we aren't going to be stuck here long enough to have to make a closer acquaintance with it and any of its friends," Rodney muttered. Moving stiffly, he levered himself to his feet from his chair. "Ahhhh." He scooped up the tablet and headed back to the wormhole drive which sat dull and powerless in the cargo space.
John glanced at the flying thing again and wondered if the color meant its metabolism used chlorophyll or was camouflage. Probably not camouflage, he realized, since the plants were purple or majenta colored.
He squeezed by Rodney and opened the cooler, fishing through the ice packs for another turkey sandwich. Jennifer may have made them, but Rodney had to have asked her to add John's favorites. He sat down and watched Rodney mumble and hum as he worked on the wormhole drive. He had to admit, Jennifer made a fantastic sandwich.
"Is Kim going to worry?" Rodney asked quietly.
John stretched his legs out and thought before he answered. "No."
"Jennifer will worry."
"He's used to me taking the newbie classes through the gate. Sometimes I keep them out for a week or more, if I don't think they're getting it," John explained. He liked the life he'd carved out for himself since retiring from the Air Force. He still worked for the SGC as a consultant, spent time on Atlantis when someone with a strong gene and experience was needed, taught the new kids a few tricks to keep them from getting killed on their first mission, and had plenty of time to spend with Kim at the house they'd bought together the previous year. He'd even consulted for the FBI a few times, when the cases tied into the Stargate Program. After the last one, John had joked, half-seriously, that he was safer going off world than on Earth and he needed to worry about Kim, not vice versa.
Kim would worry, of course. The same way John did when a case kept him away without a chance to call. They weren't married, but they'd quietly gone through with the only option available to them in California and registered a domestic partnership. The SGC would honor that and let him know that John and Rodney hadn't made it back on schedule. So Kim would know something had gone wrong.
Rodney abruptly huffed out, "Oh, I don't believe this..." He glared at the equipment as if it had personally insulted him.
"Figure it out yet?" John asked.
Rodney set the tablet aside, came over and got himself a sandwich and a cup of coffee from the giant orange workman's water cooler he used for a thermos. He sat down opposite John, sipped and ate.
John watched him impatiently. "And?" he finally drawled.
Rodney found his sandwich fascinating and didn't look up. "You want the good news or the bad news?"
"Why is there always bad news?"
Rodney shrugged uncomfortably.
John kicked his boot against Rodney's.
"Go on. Hit me."
"Just promise not to hit me," Rodney mumbled.
"Fine," Rodney snapped as he looked up from his mangled and only half-eaten sandwich. "I fucked up the numbers." He twisted a crust off and rolled it between his finger and thumb. "Damn it. We built the prototype drive at the SGC and transported it to Area 51 to fit into the jumper and I never thought that all the jumper systems run on base eight, not ten. The navigation system input our destination and – "
"It got scrambled translating to the drive," John finished. He shoved his hand through his hair, then cupped it on the back of his neck. The muscles were so tense there, it felt like he could flick his thumb against his neck and hear it twang. "Shouldn't somebody else have caught that?"
"It was Norberg's job," Rodney replied, "but ultimately, it's all my responsibility. I said the drive was ready when you asked me."
"But you can fix it, right?" John asked. "It's a programming problem, not something wrong with the equipment." Because he didn't see a lab and a planet's worth of manufacturing infrastructure around them.
"Yes, I can write a translation program," Rodney said. He looked sour. "I could even rewrite the math for the drive to base eight."
"Sounds like that might take a while."
"We'll have it."
John nudged Rodney's foot again. "That would be part of the bad news?" he asked.
"We drained the auxiliary power core the drive uses," Rodney confirmed.
Crap. Why was it always about power, one way or another? Five years of chasing ZPMs in Pegasus had exhausted any optimism John had on the subject. He glanced at the drive with a frown. "That thing doesn't use a ZPM, does it?"
Rodney's 'hah' held little amusement.
"So, is there a way to recharge whatever it does use?" Maybe it would be like a low car battery and the jumper could give it a... jump? Rodney's morose attitude wasn't encouraging John to get his hopes up. Though Rodney wasn't declaring that they were walking dead men yet, either, so he must see some solution.
"As a matter of fact, there is," Rodney snapped. He stuffed the mangled pieces of sandwich in his mouth and chewed loudly before swallowing.
"So, that's good, right?"
"Oh, it's wonderful. There's an emergency solar collector in here somewhere. It'll only take four years, if – " Rodney held up a finger, " – if, this world doesn't suffer from significant periods of overcast weather."
John scrubbed his face with his hands to hide the way his expression fell. Four years? Maybe more? They were screwed.
"There's no chance the SGC will send a ship out to find us?"
Rodney laughed derisively.
"We've got supplies for a month and we're safe in the jumper," John said as he began thinking about the logistics they were facing. "But we need to find out if we can live off the planet if we're going to be here for that long."
He wondered if the four-winged green thing was edible.
Despite Rodney's dour predictions that nothing on the planet would contain the proteins and vitamins they'd need to survive, they found enough things they could eat with some careful preparation. The four-wings tasted a little like faux crab and the grumblers – which could be compared most closely to table-backed, eight-legged, hairless capybaras – were edible as well. As far as they could tell, all the animals on the planet utilized solar energy as well as chemical to get by. By watching them root in the ground, John and Rodney had identified a variety of tubers that made satisfactory eating. Although, anything magenta or red-tinged had to be soaked for at least an hour and everything green had to be roasted to the edge of charring.
Anything that smelled good had to be avoided at all costs.
The pinwheel bushes flowered in the season they'd dubbed spring after five months of nearly non-stop rain – "This means another year here," Rodney predicted gloomily – ended. Everything around them put out new foliage, bloomed, or hatched young. After months of roasted tubers, anything that didn't taste of dirt and charcoal looked appetizing.
"Next year, we're taking the jumper south for the winter," John decided. Rodney didn't argue. The planet's axle tilt meant switching hemispheres would gain them longer days to store solar energy and the inside of the jumper might not smell like wet socks. There was some kind of fungus that wanted to colonize between their toes when they didn't keep their feet dry.
Spring on the planet – they argued regularly over what to call it without ever agreeing – was weirdly pretty.
The trumpet-shaped flowers were the size of John's hand with his fingers spread, mauve-shaded with reddish veins, and would purse closed over anything small enough to fit inside them.
"That's just nasty," Rodney observed when one of the flowers did the same thing to the head of a four-wing. The four-wing tore the flower apart getting loose. Apparently that was what the planted needed, because a week later there were beautiful, glossy purple balls of fruit ripening at the base of each torn up flower, while the ones that had succeeded in catching any prey sealed up into lumps that later sprouted new branches.
John didn't mind being the resident food taster. The pinwheel fruit looked and smelled fantastic. He plucked one and cut it open. It still smelled alright. There were tiny seeds all through the pulp. The four-wings and the grumblers were eating them enthusiastically, seeds and all.
"I'm going to try one," John told Rodney.
He popped it into his mouth and chewed slowly, trying to give his taste buds enough time to tell him whether swallowing would be a good idea or not. The fruit didn't taste as nice as it smelled, but it wasn't bad, and the seeds were no worse than the ones in a tomato.
"Well?" Rodney demanded.
"I'm not dead yet."
"Don't joke. How's it taste?"
"Sort of... uh, green. Sour and bland."
"How can something be sour and bland?"
John shrugged. He was feeling a little queasy and had begun to sweat.
"I think maybe – "
He doubled over and vomited. The spasms didn't ease until only strings of yellowish bile came up and his gut hurt.
John's voice was hoarse as he concluded, "They don't agree with me."
Rodney held onto his arm as he staggered to his feet and began guiding him toward the jumper. "No kidding – "
An alarming cramp and gurgle in his guts warned John the berry wasn't through with him. He jerked his arm free and ran for their latrine, while fumbling open his belt and pants as fast as he could. He shoved his boxers down in time to squat before everything in his lower gut exploded out of him. Rodney arrived at the lean-to they'd put up when the rains came and exclaimed over the stench, worry and panic threaded through the bitchy commentary, but by then John was dry heaving and unable to answer him.
The cramps and endless diarrhea combined with bouts of throwing up the water Rodney forced him to drink to stave off dehydration. A fever set in shortly after the obvious symptoms and blurred the experience into endless misery. By the second day John found himself too weak to get out of bed and the humiliation made embarrassing tears leak down his temples when Rodney cleaned him up.
"G'way," he slurred when Rodney propped him up and forced spoonfuls of watery gruel down him. "Awful. Hate you."
"Fine, hate me but drink this, because you aren't allowed to die here from eating a stupid, goddamned – " Rodney's bitchy voice broke, "berry."
"S'ry, s'ry," John mumbled as his stomach rebelled and everything Rodney had just patiently fed him came up. The stupid tears followed in response to his utter helplessness to stop and the ache from his abused diaphragm. Every muscle in his body hurt as he trembled through the third night. Rodney dialed up the heat in the jumper and held John in his arms. Somewhere during that long night, John deliriously begged Rodney to let him die, that he'd had enough.
"I can't, John, I can't," Rodney whispered over and over. "I can't let you go, I can't go on without you, you've got to hold on. You're always the strong one, you've got be strong just a little longer. You have to get through this for me. Please, please."
The second year went by slower than the first had. John hunted and gathered, Rodney cooked, and they carefully serviced the solar collector to keep it operating at maximum efficiency. They were both thin and John suspected they weren't getting some necessary vitamins from their local foods, but there was nothing to be done for it.
When the first rain clouds massed on the horizon and the grumblers headed south, they carefully broke down the solar collector, loaded it and the rest of their Touchdown Camp into the jumper and flew south to Camp Snowbird.
Camp Snowbird had pinwheel bushes, four-wings, and slightly bluer-tinged grumblers. There were also larger varieties of the amphibious creatures that filled the niche fish did on terrestrial planets. The phibs weren't edible or aggressive, but would nibble toes dangled in the water until they discovered human skin didn't taste good to them either.
At night, John sometimes laid on his back and stared at the stars that were once again strange from the southern hemisphere after he'd grown used to those seen from Touchdown Camp in the north.
Sometimes Rodney stretched out at a right angle from John and rested his head against John's middle. They were casual in their touches, their bodies no longer private domains now that those were the only contacts they had.
Days, after the camp routines were finished, they reprogrammed the interface between the jumper and the wormhole drive. They took the work slowly, since it gave their days purpose, and the auxiliary power core wouldn't be ready for years.
When night fell, they ate dinner, cleaned up, and went to bed together as had become their habit after John's bout with pinwheel berry poisoning. In the weeks after that, John had been slow to recover his strength and nightmares had haunted his sleep. It had helped when Rodney slept beside him and there was no good reason to stop even after the nightmares eased off.
"I miss Jennifer," Rodney confided softly one night.
"I bet she misses you too, buddy," John said. He sifted his fingers through Rodney's hair tenderly. He missed Kim, himself, but he missed Teyla and Kanaan and Torren and Ronon and Radek as much. He missed the ability to call his brother and try to patch things up even if he knew he was never going to do it. He missed not living in fear of a broken limb or an infection that couldn't be treated. He missed food that tasted good, hot showers,and sun that wasn't the wrong color and just dim enough he had a headache at the end of every day. But none of those things would have been any comfort at all if he'd been on Earth and Rodney had been lost somewhere without him.
He would have marooned himself alone if it would have gotten Rodney home, though.
"God, I miss sex too," Rodney went on. "I mean real, two people, not my right hand sex."
John grunted and didn't say they were two people. Even if Rodney wasn't still committed to returning to Jennifer, even if he suspected Kim wouldn't mind, one thing John didn't do was mess with anyone married.
"We're going to get home," he said. "You two can break the bed once we're back."
"Break the bed? Sheppard, that's – that's – " Apparently there were no words to describe John's level of crudity, which made John start laughing, and then Rodney too, his head bouncing along with John's belly.
"I'm not going to lose my leg, am I?"
John tightened his belt around Rodney's leg another notch, grabbed up his Beretta and shot another blue grumbler. He shot the second one that stopped to cannibalize its friend too. They'd always been placid, slow moving, and non-aggressive before. They'd started turning blue and nasty when the rains slacked off and began trying to root through the camp in the last week, since they'd come back to Touchdown Camp.
"No," John snapped.
Rodney had spotted the grumbler digging under the leg supporting the solar collector just after sunrise and run outside before John could grab his gun.
John had on occasion walked up to a green grumbler and thunked its head with a large rock when they needed meat. Rodney had expected to grab the thing by its tail and pull it away, then shoo it out of the camp.
Instead it had swung around with alarming speed and sunk it teeth into Rodney's thigh and worried at the flesh. Rodney had screamed in pain and shock as John raced barefoot out of the jumper, clutching the Beretta from the emergency kit.
The fucking thing's jaws had locked closed even after John put three nine millimeter bullets through its brain. He'd got a tourniquet in place and started prying its teeth out of Rodney's leg when two more of grumblers had strutted into the camp, snuffling and zeroing in on the dead one.
"Fuck, fuck, it hurts," Rodney moaned. He shoved ineffectually at the grumbler's snout and whined when he made it worse. Blood soaked the fabric of his pants from the knee down. It was soaking into the dirt, turning it to mud. "Do you think it's poisonous? I probably already have a lethal infection. There could be millions of alien bacteria invading my system right now..."
John couldn't get enough leverage with his fingers. Grumbler spit and blood made reaching into its mouth useless; it was too slick. He had nothing to use as a lever except the Beretta.
"Shit," he cursed, then looked into Rodney's eyes. "I'm going to shoot it loose, so you have to hold still now. I know it hurts, but I've got to do this."
Rodney's eyes were already glassy, but he nodded. John calculated the best angle to prevent a freak ricochet off of bone and shoved the muzzle of the Beretta against the hinge of the grumbler's jaw. Rodney choked off another scream as John pulled the trigger.
The grumbler's lower jaw flopped loose. John put the safety on the Beretta automatically, then shoved it under the waistband of pants at the small of his back, before working his fingers between the grumbler's upper teeth and Rodney's torn flesh. He tried to lift it out as gently as he could, but finally had to jerk and wiggle it brutally to get it off.
Rodney's face had gone gray and sweating before John finished. He was gritting his teeth and steadily whimpering, but he held utterly still.
Another grumbler entered the camp and headed for the two dead ones. John eyed it cautiously, but didn't stop his work.
Rodney followed his gaze and flinched at the sight, then said, "We have to bring in the solar collector. We can't afford to let one of them wreck it."
"Right now I've got my hands full," John told him. He grimaced at the bleeding mess the grumbler had made of Rodney's thigh.
"Just don't forget," Rodney said, "because I think I'm going to pass out as soon as you try to move me."
"I won't – "
"I don't want to die on this stupid planet."
"You're not going to die," John snapped. He kicked the grumbler carcass further away from the collector's support leg.
"Everyone dies someday and I'd like to do it in my own bed, back on Earth, with Jennifer and a kid or two weeping inconsolably as I drift away on a cloud of the really best drugs," Rodney said. "So you better save that – aaaaaaaah!"
John roughly slung Rodney over his shoulder in a fireman's carry and started for the jumper.
John spent the summer of their fourth year on the planet building grumbler-proof fences around both Touchdown and Snowbird camps. He felt every year of his age at the end of each day.
"Ow," he mumbled. Another cramp knotted the muscles in his leg.
Rodney had no sympathy. "It serves you right for doing too much." His hands swept down from massaging John's aching back to the site of the latest charley horse. "Here?"
"God, yes," John moaned.
Those big hands were good at loosening John up. He let himself sink into a relaxed half doze. It was only fair. He'd spent plenty of time working on Rodney's leg, where the gnarled scar tissue left the rest of the muscle weak and over-stressed. Rodney walked with a limp and a cane and John considered them both insanely lucky. Rodney might have died from any number of complications John couldn't have treated.
They'd figured out the blue grumblers were protein hungry because they were filled with rapidly maturing young that were dependent on them. They didn't have sexes and were born pregnant; the cycle from birth to when the new generation ate their way free of their parents took years. That summer the boot-sized little grumblers were everywhere. Within a few weeks, they'd fattened up and gone from pale and fast to stupid and slow again.
Rodney had escaped an infection, more because the native microfauna were just too different to take advantage of his exposure than John's ruthless wound cleaning. The pain had been agonizing and his limp remained as a constant reminder. John never felt guilty over cracking a grumbler over the head for dinner again.
"How's the latest cane coming?" John asked in the morning. He stretched to get the kinks out of his back and grinned when Rodney flinched at the series of pops that followed.
"I think I've got an optimum design for the grip this time."
"That's good. I'm heading out to the north side. I'll see you around lunch?"
"Don't half cripple yourself today."
John patted Rodney's shoulder in silent agreement.
"Sure, buddy. I can read you a story."
Rodney looked up, a frown deepening the wrinkles that crossed his forehead. Even with the text dialed up to maximum he had to squint at the screen and complained of headaches. John knew his own vision had deteriorated, but not to the extent Rodney's had. They'd read the books he'd had on his computer so many times both of them could recite them from memory anyway. It was just a way to kill time when they weren't tired enough to sleep yet.
"Fine, but it better have a happy ending," Rodney yelled after him as John strolled out.
They slept together inside the jumper that was as much a home as anywhere John had ever known. On the rare occasion libido stirred either of them, no comment was made when they took care of it for themselves.
John didn't believe Kim was waiting for him back on Earth – he genuinely hoped Kim wasn't, that he'd found someone else and was living a happy and content life – but Rodney still held onto the stubborn belief that when they got back, he'd pick up his life with Jennifer where they'd left off. Maybe Rodney knew it couldn't be that easy on some level; he was too smart not to doubt, but the dream gave him strength. John wasn't about to mess with anything that helped his friend cope. So he didn't say anything when Rodney talked about Jennifer or about Kim.
He certainly never said – or admitted to himself, except late at night, when Rodney breathed against his throat, arms wrapped around him – that he wasn't looking forward to when they went went their separate ways.
John scooped up the shovel made from an entrenching tool and a handmade long handle and headed for the fence that would serve no purpose when they left the planet.
John layered boiled and sliced spudsnips into the crude metal pan they'd made – with difficulty and cursing on Rodney's part – the first year, then poured a gravy made from stewed four-wing over them. A breeze was rising, turning the pinwheel leaves so that the light undersides flashed pink in the sunset light.
He didn't pay much attention to what he was doing. According to John's calculations, they'd had the same meal five hundred eight six times, based on the number of days in the local year, how often he cooked dinner, and how long it had taken them to figure how to cook the four-wings and the spudsnips. There were really only so many things they could do with the few items they could eat safely and he'd never been an inventive cook. They'd eat the left overs for breakfast and Rodney would pit-roast a chunk of grumbler meat with turn-icks for the next evening meal. After that, they'd have leftover loaf, made from ground up four-wing and grumbler, along with mashed turn-ick and spudsnips, flavored with the lichen from the rocks along the stream. They gave everything a kind of licorice flavor. It wasn't good, but it was different.
When John thought about food, he wasn't sure he really remembered how anything had tasted, just that once eating had been something other than an unpleasant chore.
He set the pan on the grill propped over their cooking fire to cook a little longer.
The sun was almost down. John lit a couple of torches and the fire under the pot they used to heat their wash water.
The stars were coming out, high above them. There were seven that were always visible first; brighter or nearer stars always visible in the northern hemisphere. John and Rodney had named the asterism the outline the Hand.
"McKay," John yelled when the food began to bubble. "Dinner's ready!"
Rodney limped out of the jumper and down the ramp slowly. He'd slipped on a wet rock gathering the stupid lichen they used for a spice the week before and needed the cane more than ever. John watched him out of the corner of his eye, hoping to see some sign of improvement. Neither of them healed as fast as they should; Rodney was lucky he hadn't broken a bone.
"I've been checking the power core," he announced when he'd sat down at their little outdoor table.
John nearly plopped a serving of food into the fire instead of a plate. "And?" he asked carefully. He didn't know if he could handle it if Rodney told him something was wrong. They'd endured as long as they had because they had something keep going toward, but he knew just how narrow the margin of their survival was. He didn't think they had another five years. Even on a more hospitable planet, survival with just the two of them would have been hard, but John could see it in his own body and Rodney's: this planet was slowly killing them.
"Next week," Rodney said.
John set the plate in his hand on the ground and sat down next to it. He blinked and wondered what had happened. Rodney was leaning over him, one hand on John's shoulder to keep his balance, looking worried and talking. All he heard was buzzing that spiked up and down in tune with Rodney's mouth. Rodney's frown deepened and he shook John's shoulder.
"What?" John asked.
"Are you back with me?" Rodney demanded.
"I – yes?" Rodney's cane was lying on the ground next to him. John handed it back to him, then got to his own feet. "Did you say next week?" He was surprised by how calm he sounded. It didn't feel at all real. "Did I lose six months or something?"
Rodney shook his head. "No. I redid my calculations. There's enough power to set a course for a Pegasus world right now. I'd want – I'd like to have a safety margin, so," he paused and swallowed, "next week? If you don't want to wait until we can go straight back to the Milky Way."
"Why can't – ?" John made a helpless waving gesture.
"Oh," Rodney said. "I've analyzed the numbers from our initial transit. This galaxy is much closer to Pegasus than to the Milky Way. Enough to make a difference in the power requirement."
John grabbed Rodney's shoulders and hugged him. Rodney wrapped his free arm around John's neck in return or maybe just to hang on and take the weight off his bad leg. John held on and held him up and only realized he'd been shaking when it stopped.
"We're going home," Rodney said against John unshaven cheek, the soft brush of his lips abruptly, unbearably tempting.
Without thinking, John turned his head and kissed him.
Rodney kissed him back, a slow and tender movement of his lips and then his tongue against John's, that was in every way conscious: deliberate, caring, and carnal. John's body summoned the energy to respond and he felt Rodney's erection grow against him as they leaned together. He'd never kissed Rodney before, had never let himself fantasize that he would be heated and careful at once; that one kiss could draw everything John had buried inside himself out, like a golden, unbreakable thread braided from everything he'd ever felt for Rodney that tied them together. Rodney's kiss told him he was treasured, until it ended gently, with Rodney's hand in John's hair and John's hands cupping Rodney's face as they finally parted and rested their foreheads against each others.
He wanted, oh, he wanted so much, what he couldn't have, even knowing it was right there.
They were going back; they were going home, and this wasn't, had never been, where they were supposed to be.
There was a line and they'd never crossed it. Whatever his body wanted, John still wasn't willing.
John licked his lips and kept his eyes down. Rodney stroked his hand down John's back before pulling away. His cane skipped over the ground and John automatically steadied him.
"We aren't doing this," Rodney said softly, kindly, and John took some comfort in the regret he heard mixed in with that rejection.
"I know," he answered. Now was not the time to break their unspoken, unwritten rules. If they did, it would be worse than if they'd decided Rodney's vows and John's partner didn't matter before. They would be facing Jennifer and Kim soon. John might have been willing to shoulder the guilt of infidelity to Kim and even wrong Jennifer, but he wasn't willing to ask Rodney to betray his oaths. That was a weight John knew he couldn't handle, not for anything temporary.
"Five days," he repeated. "Wow." He looked around the camp, expecting to feel some nostalgia, but all that he experienced was a rising, euphoric sense of relief.
"Once we reach Pegasus, we can use take the jumper through a stargate to New Athos," Rodney said. "I can rig a naquadah generator to recharge the core there to make the transit back to Earth."
"I always knew you'd get us back."
He had or that line in the sand would have been erased long ago.
No one had cleared any more trees around the New Athos stargate, which mean John had to stop the jumper in about the same space as the gate room in Atlantis. The old path through the trees to the settlement, though, looked more like a road now, he noticed a second later. There are double ruts from cart wheels and no grass growing between. A flicker of movement in the brush betrayed that someone had been watching the gate.
"What do you think?" he asked. "Take the jumper up and hop over to the settlement or set down and wait for whoever that sentry I just saw run off to get comes back?"
"Screw waiting," Rodney said.
John nodded because they'd still need to fly to the settlement unless someone brought a cart back. Rodney's leg just couldn't take that long a hike.
He took the jumper higher than they needed to go, because the sky was a blue that soothed the eyes and the trees were a good green, and the light coming through the view screen was right for the first time in too long.
"It's almost beautiful," Rodney said softly as John brought them back down to the Athosian settlement. There were permanent wood and thatch buildings along with the traditional white great tents. John contemplated the clearing at the center of the settlement, then decided the empty space just outside would be a more diplomatic place to land.
A pack of children, followed by two adults, greeted them as soon as John put the jumper ramp down. The children looked disappointed when John and Rodney limped out; they'd obviously expected someone else.
"Who are you?" demanded one dark-eyed boy of maybe nine or ten years age. "How'd you get a Lantean jumper?"
"That's how you greet a visitor?" Rodney asked back. "I'd bet your mother and father would expect better manners from you?"
The girl next to the boy slapped his arm. "See, Torren? I told you!"
John ambled down ramp slowly so that Rodney could keep pace with him.
"Torren, huh?" he said. He could see Teyla in the boy's coppery hair and even features; his dark eyes could have come from her or Kanaan.
Torren drew himself up and replied, "I am Torren Emmagan, son of Teyla."
Rodney sucked in a quick breath and murmured, "Oh. Wow. Way to make me feel old."
"Well, Torren," John said, "I'm John Sheppard and this is Rodney McKay."
"No, you're not," Torren spat. "Everyone knows they went away and never came back." The girl just stared at them with wide eyes.
"Until now," Rodney agreed.
The two adults, one woman and one man, pushed their way through the pack of children. John didn't know the woman, but the man with the black braids was as tall as his father. "Hey, Jinto," John greeted him. "Is Teyla around?"
Jinto looked at them and John felt his heart falter. Weren't they welcome? Five years couldn't have changed them past all recognition... could it? He knew they were thin as ghosts and he had white in his hair and beard, but he thought Jinto would remember him.
Happiness and shock lit Jinto's face abruptly. "Colonel John! Dr. McKay! It is you!" He turned to his companion. "Leini, run get my father and Teyla. Tell them to come quickly."
Leini gaped at Jinto, then them, before sprinting back into the settlement.
"It's about time," Rodney grumbled.
Jinto wrapped John into a hug that froze him in discomfort. He'd always kept his distance with people and five years with just Rodney made Jinto's touch infinitely strange and discomforting. Jinto let go after only the lightest contact, though. "You are both too thin."
"Let's put it this way," John said with a smile. "I'm looking forward to Teyla's tuttleroot soup."
Jinto's laughter merged with Rodney's chuckles and John finally relaxed.
"You're really Colonel Sheppard?" Torren asked softly.
John smiled down at him.
"And you're Torren John." He nodded at Rodney, who scowled as he guessed what John was about to say. "You're lucky your mom didn't you name for him. He's the one who helped on the Wraith cruiser when you were born. I guess she just didn't want to inflict Meredith on her baby."
Rodney poked at John with his cane. "I just want it known that even helping someone have a baby was vastly harder than slapping some C4 and a detonator on the drive controls and blowing the ship up."
Torren had already lost interest. Maybe he'd heard other versions of the story from Teyla or Kanaan. He peered past them into the jumper. His little friend was actually on the ramp and ready to dart inside.
"Did you bring me something?" Torren asked. "Colonel Lorne and the marines always bring something when they come."
"Sorry, kiddo, but there was nothing where we were that you'd want. Maybe next time," John told him and looked a question at Jinto.
Jinto answered with a smile, "Atlantis is back in Pegasus. Colonel Lorne visits often, along with Ronon Dex. They consult with Teyla and Halling often."
"Good news," John said. Atlantis hadn't been home on Earth; the city belonged in and to Pegasus. He was glad to hear about Lorne and know Ronon was okay as well. He'd worried about Ronon more than anyone else. He should have known Lorne would step up to the plate and look out for him.
Beyond Jinto's shoulder, John finally saw the most welcome sight in five years: Teyla was running to them. The long bronze banner of her hair flew behind her. He watched her come and couldn't suppress – nor wanted to – his smile. He saw Halling and several others following her at a more sedate pace.
"John," she said as she arrived. "Rodney." Her smile was brilliant and she wasn't even breathing hard, which John slightly resented. He thought he'd probably fold over and collapse if he ran that hard these days. Her face crumpled into concern as she took them in, which John took to mean they did look as bad as Jinto thought, but she ignored their stinking, ragged clothes – grumbler skin did not tan well – and touched her forehead to John's and then Rodney's. "We must send word to Atlantis."
"And Earth," Rodney said.
"And Earth," Teyla agreed quietly and John wondered what she knew that turned her expression sad for a flickering second. "But first, you must come to my tent. We will find you clothes and food and when you are rested, you will tell us where you have been."
Lorne wanted them to come back to Atlantis, but John and Rodney stubbornly insisted that once the power core was fully charged they could use the wormhole drive to get them back to Earth faster, without wasting ZPM power to open the stargate between galaxies or waiting around for the next ship from Earth. He did insist on a doctor from Atlantis examining them. The doctor declared they were suffering from severe malnutrition – big surprise – and a whole slew of problems as a result of the stress of their systems.
The Athosians threw a celebratory feast that lasted four days. The first night, Rodney tried to eat everything and ended up puking, while John got drunk on a mug of beer. He vaguely remembered falling asleep against Teyla's shoulder and Ronon carrying him back to the tent he and Rodney had been given. The big guy had cut his dreadlocks and wore an SGC jacket with a team patch on the shoulder. It all made John ache when he let himself think about it.
He snapped awake at dawn the third day the same way he had the last two mornings, unused to hearing other people stirring around. He felt cold and worried when he groped around and Rodney wasn't there, until the steady sound of Rodney's snores registered. Once John's eyes adjusted to the gray gloom in the tent, he made out Rodney's form, lying on the pallet next to his, wrapped in Athosian quilts and a thick fur throw.
It was only the third time they hadn't shared a bed in over four years. It wouldn't be the last. He just had to get used to it.
John got up and dressed in the clothes the Athosians had provided, enjoying the feel of clean homespun and butter-soft leather, and walked out of the tent. He wouldn't let himself think about anything but the moment, he decided.
Ronon was outside, waiting as if he'd known John would come out any moment. Either that or he'd been guarding them.
They walked silently through the settlement to Teyla's tent. She and Kanaan were both up, though Torren, his little sister and the new baby were still sleeping. Kanaan poured John and Ronon mugs of stout tea and they wandered on to the green at the center of the settlement, joining the other Athosians to greet the dawn. Steam swirled up from the tea and John sipped it cautiously; he'd thought it bitter and awful once, but knowing now it wouldn't make him deathly sick, it seemed wonderful. He finally understood the way, when he'd first come to Atlantis, Ronon had eaten anything offered to him without caring about the taste.
"It's good," Ronon said, possibly meaning his life, or the tea, or the dawn, or having John and Rodney back.
"Yeah," John replied before finishing his tea, meaning all of it.
The sun crept over the tree tops and the morning mist retreated into the forest, leaving dew on every surface to glitter in the new morning light. Halling recited a prayer to the Ancestors, thanking them for the day and the return of those who were lost no longer. John flushed at the way everyone looked at him.
"You want me to come to Earth with you guys?" Ronon asked when they walked back.
"No," John answered after considering it. "It's kind of... better to do it on our own."
"You know things didn't just stop," Ronon said when they stopped outside Teyla's tent. "Because McKay said a couple of things last night... "
John settled for shrugging. Some time in the years apart he and Ronon had switched roles; John was the one who didn't see the point of talking and Ronon was the one trying to gentle him like a feral cat.
"Rodney talks a lot," he offered when Ronon looked like he expected more of an answer.
Rodney had babbled happily since the first good meal, so pleased to talk with anyone that he'd only been half as sarcastic as normal. The beer had helped too.
Ronon squeezed John's shoulder. "You know Lorne made an announcement to the whole city when we got the news? I think Zelenka cried."
John smirked at the image.
"Just remember, everyone wanted you to come home," Ronon added. "Still do."
John ducked his head in embarrassed and hurried inside the tent.
Teyla had the baby at her breast when they stopped and John watched without embarrassment. It had been so long since he'd seen anyone but Rodney that he found himself staring at everyone, amazed by the different faces, the mystery of what their expressions meant or hid, mesmerized by so many voices, bewildered by the sudden return to society, gentle and unassuming as the Athosian version was.
"Would you like to hold him?" Teyla asked after the baby finished and she'd expertly burped him.
"You will not drop him," she said.
"Just for a minute," John acceded. He sat down next to her and accepted the blanket wrapped bundle, looking down into Mirnin's brown eyes and soft features, affection blooming in his chest. "Hey there," he whispered. "I'm glad to meet you. I'd have hated to miss it."
Kanaan ushered Torren and a sleepy-eyed Tagan, her hair in pigtails, out. "We're going to Ancha's," he said. "I'll be back after breakfast. These two will go to their lessons."
Torren opened his mouth to protest, but Kanaan shook his head. "Lessons in the morning, unless you want to stay in the tent tonight when everyone else is celebrating." He scooped Tagan up to ride against his hip and patted Torren on the head, giving him a little push to get him moving. "John, I will see you later."
"I'll go get McKay," Ronon said.
That left John with Teyla. He got the feeling it had been deliberate.
He made a silly face at Mirnin and waited for the other shoe to drop. Teyla brushed on too-long sheaf of hair out of his eyes then looked embarrassed. It felt nice. His mother had done the same thing.
"I'm too used to doing that to Torren," she said.
Teyla placed her hands in her lap and looked down at them.
"Whatever it is, just go ahead," John told her.
"I care for you both so much," Teyla said softly. "So I must ask a question I know is one you would not – "
He never seen Teyla have so much difficulty asking or telling anyone anything and it made him take pity on her. "Just ask."
"Are you and Rodney together now?"
John rocked back and tightened his hold on Mirnin. He coughed, swallowed, and made himself answer finally. "No. Rodney's married. I wouldn't – and he, he's going back to her. He loves her. That's what held him together."
Teyla's face crumpled before the smooth serenity returned.
"I did not ask to hurt you," she said.
"There are things I must tell you and tell Rodney. You both seem so fragile, I had hoped you were – that you had comforted each other and that it might soften the news."
"Jennifer's not dead, is she?" John asked. That would be... that would be more than Rodney could take. Maybe more than he could too.
"No," Teyla assured him.
"Then...," John let the word trail off. "She divorced him?"
Teyla dipped her head. "No, but she is pregnant."
John handed Mirnin back over to her and got to his feet. He couldn't sit and listen any longer; he had to move. "You know what? You need to tell this to Rodney, not me. I'm going – I'm going to hit the bathhouse. I'll just – you can tell Rodney where I went, okay?"
Teyla didn't try to stop him or say she was sorry, for which John was grateful. He needed to get away from everyone and think for a while. Rodney was going to be a mess, but that was no guarantee he'd want John to hear about this. They were both private in a lot of ways, though they'd had to live out of each other's pockets for so long.
He knew he should have let Teyla tell him the rest, because she hadn't sounded angry with Jennifer, so there was probably a good reason to accept what she'd done, but he couldn't deal with it at the moment.
"You will come back to us when you have finished on Earth?" Teyla asked.
"If things work out," John answered cautiously. They really didn't know what the SGC or the IOA would do once they'd returned with the wormhole drive proven. They'd both been contract consultants at the time the test flight went wrong.
"Atlantis could use you both back," Lorne said to John. "It's a real pain constantly re-initializing equipment that goes dead. The city might start cooperating again if you were back." He addressed the next words to Rodney. "And someone needs to put Zelenka back in his place."
"Yes, no doubt, but he's managed for the last four years, I think he'll go on without me," Rodney replied tiredly. He stumped up the ramp with his shoulders bowed further than John had ever seen them, putting all of his weight on the cane instead of just using it for balance. He hadn't said anything after John came back from the bathhouse, but the brightness of his personality had dimmed to less than it had been on their most depressed days back on Planet Nowhere.
It had put a damper on the last day of celebrations and it ripped something loose inside John that he couldn't do anything to help except hang around and hope Rodney could tell him what he needed from John.
Lorne made a helpless sort of noise at Rodney's back and John patted his shoulder. "It's not your fault."
"It still sucks, if you'll excuse me saying so," Lorne said. "The offer still stands. Zelenka would probably sacrifice several of the new scientists in front of the stargate to get McKay back on board and we do need you back. But you'd have a spot even if we didn't."
"Thanks," John choked out.
Lorne shook his hand and let Ronon take his place. Ronon didn't settle for a hand shake. He wrapped his arms around John and lifted him off the ground. "Don't make this so easy," he growled into John's ear as he hefted him higher. "Eat. Come home. Or I'm coming and getting you and McKay."
He set John down in front of Teyla.
"This is not good-bye," Teyla whispered fiercely.
John blinked repeatedly and dipped his head to meet Teyla's. Her hands clutched at his shoulders, strong fingers digging in as though she might not let him go. He belonged here, he realized, in Pegasus, with these people, even if he didn't go back to Atlantis.
"I'll come back," he promised.
"Yes, you will," she declared before letting him go.
John stood on the ramp for another moment as Teyla and Ronon stepped back and joined Lorne. Ronon nodded at him and he turned inside to join Rodney, as if he'd been released.
The hatch closed behind him and he found himself facing Rodney.
It felt strange to be back in the jumper but without all the crap they'd had inside when it was their Planet Nowhere bedroom slash office slash safe haven. Teyla had left a basket next to the faded red-and-white cooler. Whimsically, John reflected that that was one recommendation the camping gear maker would never dream of receiving. Pack a six-pack of cold ones along with you the next time you get marooned on an alien planet, our coolers are tough enough for three galaxies.
Rodney was watching him like he expected John finally flip out.
Or maybe he was just braced for John to say something.
John held out his hand instead and waited until Rodney took it. The words were between them, but they were never going to be said. They'd always known better than to acknowledge it or let the words out. The thing between them would never go away, but it would look smaller from a distance. Rodney's hand was rough with calluses, like John's, so that their palms caught against each other. John held on, looking down, memorizing the dry warmth and the strength of that grip.
"Time to head back, I guess."
He hesitated a moment, then brought his other hand up to cover Rodney's from both sides. He managed an awkward squeeze and double pat before letting go.
Teyla, Ronon and Lorne were still standing off to the side of the clearing when John lifted to jumper into hover and turned it to look back at the settlement one more time. He lifted his hand and waved through the view screen before taking the jumper up out of the atmosphere.
They spent two weeks at the Mountain, stuck in the infirmary and then guest quarters between debriefings, before getting out.
Someone managed to contact Kim in New York and John talked to him on the phone. It was a long, awkward, sad conversation. Two years after John disappeared, the Bureau offered Kim a promotion and a new post in New York. He'd accepted it and had their partnership dissolved. The house in Marin, owned in both their names, had been closed up. John's things were still there, boxed and in storage.
"I'll send you the keys," Kim said.
"Just so I can get my stuff," John replied. "We'll put it on the market. Even if the real estate market is still tanked, it's Marin, right?"
"You should stay there. We can sell it later."
"I could come to New York." He knew what the answer would be before he heard it, but John had always been stubborn. He had to make the offer. He owed it to Kim, even knowing they were over. He wanted Kim to get that he'd mattered to John.
"Don't, okay? I – "
"Oh," John sighed. "I understand. It's been a while."
He heard Kim let out a sound of frustration.
"It isn't just how long, John. It's that you went out there because it was him asking. It isn't even not knowing if you were dead. Some other colonel from the Program came by and they told me that missing didn't mean dead, that people had even come back from that..."
John squirmed in his seat. He knew it was a black sort of joke around the SGC, but it hadn't been funny on Atlantis. Carson had stopped his heart that one time, before restarting it, but that really didn't qualify. In Pegasus, when people came back, they were never the ones they'd lost. Not really. Clones and replicator copies, ghosts in the machine, wraith worshipers, all of them were real, but they weren't the unique originals.
"No, the thing is, I knew that if you were alive, you were with McKay, and I know – I knew – " Kim stopped and John waited for the rest.
"I knew after the first year that if you were alive you'd fall back in love with him," Kim finished, "because you always were, and I thought it would be better if you came back, when, if I'd already stepped out of the picture. You wouldn't feel guilty if I'd moved on, you know?"
John tried to laugh but it didn't come out right, so he covered it with a hard cough.
"You didn't," Kim said. "Shit."
"It's okay," John told him. "You've got someone now?"
"Yeah. I – "
"I didn't expect you to be waiting," John said.
He hadn't, but somehow it was still a kick in the belly to know.
Kim finally coughed and asked, "Where should I send the keys?"
"Are the locks different?"
"You've still got your keys?"
Kim began laughing and John joined him; there was no better way to deal with any of it.
"You didn't have to come," Rodney said as he walked up the path to the pretty white clapboard house with the dark green trim. The lawn on either side of the flagstones was green and clipped; pots of flowers decorated the steps up to the porch. Rodney navigated it all without resorting to the cane he still carried; Vala Mal Doran had shown up in the SGC infirmary with a Goa'uld healing device their second week, after Carolyn Lam's special diet had them gaining weight and energy, and repaired the worst of the damage to Rodney's leg after the scar tissue was excised. It put Rodney flat on his back for three extra days, but he was walking without pain as a result.
"You asked me to come."
"Well, you didn't have to."
"Nothing better to do." Which was the sad truth, even if he would have dropped anything when Rodney asked him to come to Wisconsin with him anyway.
Of course, someone at the SGC had contacted Jennifer when they returned. Even if she'd severed professional contact with the Program, she was still married to Rodney. Probably it had been the same person who found her new address for Rodney and arranged the plane tickets for both of them.
She opened the door when they reached the porch, before Rodney could ring the bell or knock.
Her eyes and nose were both red, John noticed first. He started to credit the new roundness to her face to puffiness from crying, until she stepped back and opened the door, revealing the obvious swell of her pregnancy. He snapped his gaze to Rodney, but either Teyla had warned him or Rodney had already talked to Jennifer on the phone; he didn't appear surprised.
"I always knew you'd come back some day," Jennifer said. Her voice wobbled along with her chin, but she managed to smile instead of crying and gestured for them both to come in.
She led them straight back to the kitchen; a cheerful, south-facing room with yellow trim and apple-green checked curtains. A counter separated the main kitchen from a dining nook. Three bar stools lined the far side. Jennifer took one and sat, her hand going to her back as she grimaced apologetically. "Sorry, these are easier for me to get up and down from," she explained.
Rodney waved the tip of his cane and said, "I understand."
The doctor part of Jennifer came to the fore as she studied Rodney and then John. "You both look terrible, but if the SGC let you out, I can only assume you're much improved. How bad was it?"
When Rodney didn't answer, John took up the thread.
"Unpleasant mostly. There were no Wraith or Replicators trying to kill us. The food wasn't really right for humans and we found out the hard way some of the local animals could turn mean."
Jennifer rested her hand on the curve of her middle. "I guess you want to know about this?"
"It's obviously not mine," Rodney said.
"You knew I wanted children," Jennifer replied.
"We were going to have them together."
John took a couple steps back and leaned against the butcher block island the filled the center of the kitchen. It took him out of the direct line of sight between Jennifer and Rodney.
"I knew you'd come back some day, Rodney," Jennifer stated, "but I didn't know when and I didn't – " she glanced at John, " – know if you'd still want me. I didn't want to wait until any pregnancy was high risk or find out too late that something I'd been exposed to in Atlantis made it impossible when I was too old to adopt."
"I see," Rodney said. He still sounded unhappy. "So you... went to a sperm bank?"
Jennifer shook her head.
"But we're still married!"
"Rodney," she said softly, "According to your consulting contract with the IOA, if I'd divorced you, one of their representatives would have been left in charge of all your work, all your patents and assets until you were declared dead. I knew you wouldn't want that. I planned to turn it all over to Jeannie in trust for Madison if they ever admitted you weren't just missing."
"I didn't – I'd forgotten that," Rodney whispered.
Jennifer smiled at him.
"I knew you wouldn't want the IOA to have any of it."
"No, no, I wouldn't. If they'd got their greedy mitts on my accounts, there wouldn't be anything left, not that they'd ever declare me dead," Rodney blurted, "not as long as leaving me 'alive' meant they had control of my estate. It would have been a disaster." He reached over and patted Jennifer's arm. "Thank you."
Jennifer rubbed her hand in a circle over her stomach. Rodney's gaze dropped down and he stiffened again, pulling away from her.
"So whose is it?"
"Tom Kovic. He teaches fourth grade. The only guns he ever sees are water pistols," Jennifer said. "He's at school right now. He offered to stay today, but I thought it would be better if it was just us."
John winced. Jennifer saw it and shook her head.
"No, I knew you'd come with him today. I meant just those of us who know about the stargate. Tom doesn't know about any of that. I've explained as much as I can, but the rest of it, he just accepts when I say I can't tell him."
"I don't know if that's saintly or a sign he's too stupid to remember to breathe if it wasn't an autonomic function," Rodney observed.
"Rodney," John drawled. It sounded like the guy was pretty damned understanding to him.
"I know, I know," Rodney said waspishly. "Excuse me if I'm a little pissed at this guy who has been sleeping with my wife." He huffed out a loud breath and slumped on his bar stool "For however much longer we're married. I suppose you want a divorce? Maybe if we find a really understanding judge we could get it done before you, uh, pop."
John suppressed a smile at the way Jennifer scowled over Rodney's choice of words. Pop? Really?
"I'm so glad you're both all right," Jennifer said. She waved at John to come over and pulled him close enough to kiss his cheek. The scent of shampoo and laundry detergent and lilac teased him as she kissed his cheek, along with a hint of waxy lipstick. When she let him go, she added quietly, "I knew you'd take care of him, Colonel."
"All he wanted was to come back to you."
"Only as long as you came back with him too," Jennifer whispered too softly for Rodney to hear. "I always knew that. I always knew I had to share him."
"I never – "
She laid her fingers over his lips. "The sad part is that I believe you," she said.
"Honestly, Sheppard, she's pregnant," Rodney remarked in a snide tone. "Have you ever met a woman that didn't want to jump you?"
"Rodney," Jennifer protested.
John smiled slowly. "Nope." He straightened up and touched Jennifer's shoulder lightly. He understood why Rodney loved her. He hoped she would get everything she wanted with Tom Kovic after this, because he couldn't blame her for going on with her life or loving someone after Rodney. Rodney had made the choice to go along on the test flight for the wormhole drive. No one had made him do it. "I'm going to go out on the porch. Get a little air."
"Sheppard – !"
"I'll be right outside."
He knew Rodney didn't want him to leave him alone with Jennifer, but it had to be done. They had to talk without John there, if only this once. He'd needed to take a moment to pull himself together too.
"So, I guess... this is over, isn't it?" he heard Rodney say as he walked out of the kitchen.
He sat down on the steps and watched the grass grow. The shadows were longer and the air turning crisp when Rodney joined him and said, "You want to go home?"
Startled out of his own thoughts, John looked up. Rodney regarded him with a sardonic smile.
"Jennifer said to tell you: you aren't situational."
John felt his face flush and thought that Tom Kovic was a lucky guy. Not as lucky as John, but close. He took the hand Rodney held out to him and levered himself to his feet, keeping hold as they walked away together.
Rodney brushed his fingers over the back of John's neck fondly as he passed the table where John was working on his way to the their small kitchen area. Neither of them had turned into cooks, but they were both obsessive about having food on hand for those times when none of the mess halls in Atlantis were serving anything they'd eat.
"How'd it go with Lam?" John asked. He straightened his back despite protests from his spine and tipped his head back to watch Rodney putter around in front of the prep counter. He had a string bag filled with packages from the good mess hall – there were three in the city now, catering to the larger population and different shifts operating – and began unpacking them.
"She told me no more alcohol," Rodney said.
John nodded to himself, unsurprised, because Lam had already cut him off. They were both still paying for the damage to their systems years after leaving Planet Nowhere behind. His liver function had never returned to normal, possibly thanks to the pinwheel poisoning. Rodney was better off, but they both had bone density problems and bizarre food sensitivities.
It meant no off-world missions, but John found he didn't miss adventure half so much as fifty approached as he'd thought he would at forty. He went through the stargate to New Athos regularly and that was enough.
"Ronon will drink whatever wine Evan brings by for dinner," John commented.
"I saw Teyla and Kanaan in the infirmary while I was there. They're coming over too."
"She's pregnant again and wanted Lam to confirm it," Rodney answered in a high pitch. "Can you believe it?"
"Maybe this time she'll name the kid for you," John said.
Rodney tucked one last package into the cooling unit and another in the stasis box – which really kept things warm without drying them out, a wonder that was selling like hotcakes back on Earth and making both John and Rodney very rich men – and came back to the table. He glanced at the project window open on the laptop screen. "Nice. Is this the one you came up with the second year?"
"No, I scrapped that one. This one uses a trinium alloy for the hull." He'd spent months designing starships that weren't as butt-ugly as the SGC's back on Planet Nowhere, while Rodney invented dozens of technologies that could have made their lives easier if they'd been able to manufacture them. Since accepting the consulting jobs on Atlantis, they'd been turning out prototypes and patenting them back on Earth. The starships, though, were going to go into production for the SGC and eventually replace the B306s.
"Looks a lot like an Aurora-class."
"What can I say," John replied, "I like the Ancient design aesthetic."
"That or you don't have any imagination," Rodney agreed and dodged before John could thwap him.
John caught his wrist before Rodney could get away entirely and tugged him back. "You forgot something."
"Oh, right, that."
Rodney bent and John stretched up enough to brush their lips together. If it wasn't the life either of them had once imagined for themselves, it was still – as Ronon had said – good. He loved who he was with and knew Rodney did too.