John's on his way to work when his cell phone rings. He doesn't recognize the number, which is generally a good indication that he doesn't want to speak to whoever's on the other end. One of these days he's going to kill Weir for giving his number out to PAs, but he's just not up for the battle today, so he hits the loudspeaker button and says, "This is Sheppard."
"Um," says the voice at the other end. It's Rodney. John could kick himself for not just chucking the damn phone out the window. "I don't ... really know what I'm doing, but--"
"No kidding," John snaps, shifting gears as he merges the Jetta left across the 405, phone clamped between his left hand and the steering wheel. "I've got a job, McKay, so I really don't have time for--"
There's a weird noise from over the speaker. "McKay?" Rodney says. "Is that ... I'm -- McKay?"
He sounds strange, sort of ... lost, and John holds up the phone to stare at it for a moment. "Are you drunk?" he asks suspiciously. "If you're calling me to play some solipsistic game of twenty questions--"
Rodney blurts out, "I'm in a hospital in Santa Barbara," and John wrenches his car across three lanes of traffic and leaves half the tread of his tires on the shoulder as he hits the brakes. "... Hello? Are you there? I heard--"
"I'm here," John says, heart pounding loudly as the traffic streaks by, horns blaring. "I'm here, just tell me what happened."
"I don't know," Rodney says, "I don't know, I've been here for days and I can't remember anything and this is the first number I--" He makes that choked sound again, and John suddenly realizes that Rodney's crying. "Can you ... can you tell me who I am?"
"You're Rodney," John says, "You're Rodney McKay, oh Jesus--"
"Can you come get me?" Rodney says, desperate and kind of broken, and John says, "Of course, of course I can," and "I'm John -- tell them John Sheppard is coming to get you," and he makes Rodney give the phone to a doctor, tells him Rodney's name and his own. He gets the address and plugs it into the GPS one-handed, and then Rodney's back on the phone and John has to promise him two more times before he'll hang up.
He's already northbound on 101 before he calls Weir ("But it's the Jolie-Pitts," she protests, and John snaps, "I don't care, family emergency, tell them to fly their own damn plane--"). He doesn't drop below 90 mph for the next hour, changing lanes like a maniac, and he makes it from L.A. to Santa Barbara in 67 minutes flat, 70 if you count the time it takes him to park his car and sprint across the lot.
"I'm here for Rodney McKay," John says as he strides up to the nurse's station. The woman behind the counter stares blankly, and then she breaks into a smile.
"Oh! Our John Doe!" she says brightly, and John wants to punch her. "He's down that hall in 406; he'll be so glad to--" but John's already running in the direction she pointed.
Rodney's standing by the only window in the room, and when he turns at the sound of the door opening it's like someone’s kicked John in the chest. The whole drive up, he kept telling himself it had to be a mistake, something temporary, a concussion maybe, that their phone conversation must have sparked something and everything would be fine by the time he got here. But the moment John sees Rodney's face, he knows it isn't a mistake or a hoax or even an exaggeration like the stupid hypoglycemia -- Rodney doesn't recognize him. It's all wrong; he's standing too still, he should be talking, bitching, something--
"Are you ... John?" Rodney asks, like he doesn't know quite how the shape of it will feel in his mouth.
"Rodney." John's voice crackles out on the vowels like static. Rodney slumps back against the wall and raises a shaking hand to his forehead.
"Sorry; I'm sorry." He squeezes his eyes shut and then blinks hard at the far side of the room. "I just -- I didn't know how long it would take you, and I was scared that when you got here you wouldn't -- that you'd've been wrong--"
John jerks a step forward and then stops, because Rodney barely touches anyone under normal circumstances, and especially not. Not strangers. The door swings shut on his heels. He clears his throat. "What happened?" he asks, and then wants to bite his own tongue at the stupidity of it, how it leaves him wide-open for the inevitable caustic reply.
There isn't one; Rodney scrubs his hand quickly across his mouth and pushes off the wall to face John square on, hands shoved in his pockets.
"I was on a bench, on a beach, and a police officer was shaking me," he says, the words clear and methodical like he's had to recite this before. "She started asking me questions, and I couldn't answer them, and I couldn't remember anything. I didn't have anything with me, so she took me to the station for a few hours, and then they brought me here. That was Tuesday."
John stares at him; it's Saturday today. Jesus. "My number -- you called me?"
Rodney smiles crookedly, and the expression is so familiar that John's hit with a sense of dislocation, like touching down after a night flight on government-issue amphetamines and feeling the earth shudder back into place. "They were going to check me into the psychiatric unit," Rodney says, ducking his head a little, and the desire to hit someone is back and burning furiously in John's blood. "They said I had to sign myself in, and when they handed me the paper I just -- signed it." His eyes flicker up toward the ceiling in amazement, but the bitter line of his mouth stays tight. "Of course it was totally illegible, but I thought: if part of me remembers how to do that, maybe it's not the only thing, so I got them to let me use the phone and I just punched in a number without thinking and ..." He waves a hand towards John.
They look at each other across the linoleum as the clock slices off the seconds, tick tick tick; what kind of a sadistic fuck would you have to be, John wonders, to hang that thing in a hospital.
"Wanna get out of here?" he says, and feels that same gravitational shift again as every muscle in Rodney's face goes slack with relief.
He spends forty minutes arguing with the doctor, an arrogant dick who unironically insists that they can't find anything medically wrong with Rodney and it's not safe for him to leave.
John stares at him, incredulous. "Let me get this straight. He wasn't drugged, there's no head injury, nothing's shown up on the MRI, and he hasn't had any kind of cardiac event."
"That's correct," the doctor says. He looks like he's barely out of college, let alone med school, and seems to be compensating for this by being as condescending as humanly possible.
"So I can't check him out because he's at risk of being totally healthy?"
In the end, it takes him invoking the name of Dr. Carson Beckett, PhD., recipient of the McKnight, Dow, and Javits awards in neuroscience and their former roommate. "Hey, I've got a legitimate neurological mystery and incriminating college photographs involving underwear, cocktail sausages, and the locked lab facilities at Caltech," John says, and Rodney and the doctor both turn to stare at him. "Trust me when I say he's gonna take my call."
He fills out all the forms and releases and accepts a fat handful of aftercare printouts, all describing the warning signs of conditions they've essentially ruled out. Then John and Rodney are outside, the California heat wrapping around them like sheets from the dryer, and John gratefully sucks the smog down. He fucking hates hospitals.
Rodney follows him out to the car and stands awkwardly by the passenger door as John unlocks it. As they pull out of the parking garage, Rodney's eyes flicker to every building and sign they pass, like he might need to know them later -- or maybe, John realizes, like he's hoping to recognize something. John navigates the streets in silence, at a total loss for what to say: don't worry, you've never been here before? This is the part where you mock my car for three minutes? I wouldn't want to remember SoCal either?
Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to you?
They speed onto the 101, and Rodney exhales loudly and rubs a hand over his face. "You okay there, buddy?" John asks as he slides them over toward the diamond lane.
"... I think so?" Rodney says tentatively, leaving the door open for John to correct him. John glances over; they lock eyes for a moment, and then Rodney laughs, low and genuine, and his shoulders unwind a little against the seat. "Still, how about we don't go back there for a while ... or ever."
It's so plaintive, so Rodney, and John feels himself crack a tired, unpremeditated smile. "I think we can manage that," he says.
Rodney dips his chin, and his fingers drum a little on his knees, the way they do when he's thinking himself up to something. "So," he says. "Um. We're ... friends?"
John's hands tighten down on the steering wheel, smile going rigid at the corners. Of course he wants to know that, no shit, Sherlock, but it still takes a second for John to swallow and say, "Yeah. Yeah, we're friends."
It's hard to think what to follow it with, so John just drives, and Rodney fidgets for a bit before replying, "That's ... um, good." His wince is obvious even in John's periphery, and when he checks the sideview, he sees Rodney's hands worriedly washing themselves in his lap.
Nice going, Sheppard; way to come through in a pinch. "We met fifteen years ago, at Caltech -- the California Institute of Technology, that's a university not far from here," John adds, before Rodney'll have to ask. "We were roommates, us and Carson Beckett."
It's not much, but Rodney perks up a little; his shoulders drop their protective hunch (the one John knows, they all know, well enough to draw from memory) and he shifts a little in his seat so he can look at John more easily. "Okay," he says; his fingers are drumming again.
Afternoon traffic congeals around them. It takes two and a half hours to get back to LA, and John spends all of it trying to summarize Rodney's life, his own, their history, in some kind of coherent fashion. Aeronautics, but you were doing your doctorate work in math and astrophysics. Research at CERN for a while -- uh, a big particle physics laboratory -- a few government contracts, a couple years at the Calphysics Institute. You're headed back to Caltech, actually -- what? No, research and teaching. This fall. A condo in West L.A.; not that far from where I live.
Me? I fly planes.
He talks, and Rodney nods more and asks more questions, studying John and the highway and the open air in the middle distance. He does this when he's working on a novel problem: seeks out as much information as possible, because if he can ask enough, learn enough, sooner or later it'll all click into place. The whole thing is so familiar, except that it's John's sketched-out version of their lives he's committing to memory. John tries to answer everything as best he can, because it's Rodney, but there are these moments, like when he says, I was in the Air Force after college, but after three years I came back to L.A. Rodney just nods and takes it at face value, and they're strangers.
About an hour and a half into the drive, they hit a quiet patch. In the middle of it, Rodney pinches the bridge of his nose and says, "Thank you. I mean, for coming to get me. I really don't know what would've happened if you hadn't."
And there's nothing John can say to that, except, "No problem. Anytime."
They find a parking place out behind Rodney's building and John fishes the spare keys for it out of his glovebox. "The door code is 7-4-8-8," he says as the cool air of the lobby wafts over them, and tries not to notice that Rodney spends the elevator ride mouthing the numbers to himself. You recited the first two hundred digits of Pi backwards on a bet in college, he wants to say, you're not going to forget this. But of course that's one thing he can't actually promise.
They get off at the eighth floor and walk down the north hallway to Rodney's condo. John unlocks the deadbolt and knob, then pauses, caught by the thought that maybe Rodney should do this himself, maybe if he walks in there first, then ... As soon as he thinks it, he feels like an asshole, some fucked up real estate agent ushering Rodney into his own life and calculating how to market it for the best response. Still, he takes a step back and gestures at the door. "This is you."
"Right," Rodney says, and reaches for the bright brass knob. His fingers curve around it and squeeze down without turning, like he's using the feel of it to gauge what might be on the other side. "Okay. Right." He bites his lower lip and steps inside.
They both stop a couple feet across the threshold, Rodney turning his head slowly from one end of the main room to the other, eyes sharp and wide. John finds himself doing the same, trying to figure out what it must be like to see this for the first time: the long open room pulling back from the cityscape, walls stained late afternoon blue and mostly bare. The furniture non-matching, functional, laid out on a utilitarian grid. Notes stuck to the fridge, the counter, a spiral notebook open on the coffee table. Journals stacked and dog-eared next to the couch. The stereo with its huge, sleek speakers, and the big TV shoved in a corner like an afterthought. Dozens and dozens of CDs. What would this place say, if you didn't know how to read it?
Rodney walks toward the opposite wall, its three doors open at angles of varying acuity, and peers carefully into his bedroom, his study. When he gets to the bathroom, he turns back toward John and jerks a thumb over his shoulder. "I, uh," he says, and reddens, caught in some weird limbo between host and guest etiquette.
"Long drive," John supplies, and Rodney gives him a grateful look before ducking inside.
While he's in there, John checks the fridge and the counters, looking for some indication of how long Rodney's been gone, what he went out to do. How he ended up on a beach in Santa Barbara, John thinks, the image suddenly vivid in his mind: the bench's peeling wood, gray dawn creeping out towards the ocean, graffiti and streetlights and the people who must have passed him, must have, and not known or cared that something might be wrong. Nothing's changed in the three weeks since John's been here, or all the usual things have: different junk mail, different week-old boxes of takeout, different notebook full of scribbled shapes and crossed-out proofs. Nothing that can tell him what happened, let alone how to put it back.
"Oh, wow," Rodney says behind him, and John glances up at him and then twists to follow Rodney's gaze to the wall behind the couch. Or, as it's known among their friends, The Wall.
Rodney crosses to it and John falls into step behind him. They circle around behind the couch and when Rodney settles his ass and the heels of his hands against the back of it, something in John's chest jerks hard. It's the standard Wall-watching position.
He holds out for a few seconds, watching wonder drift over Rodney's face, and then he can't help it. "Do you recognize anything?"
It was John who started The Wall, more or less accidentally. His own apartment isn't a model of personality, but it's a semi-crappy seventies rental he picked for the location and the single-unit garage. Rodney bought this place and then ignored it completely, like it was just a box for his life to happen in. A placeholder.
After two years of drinking beer here with the blank walls staring at him, John finally tacked up a Polaroid, deliberately off-center in the middle of the longest stretch: Rodney, perched on a log at a bonfire Ronon had thrown that February, looking drunk and exasperated. It's a pretty awful shot, meant as a kind of a fuck you, buy a damn poster already, but when he dropped by a couple days later, it was still there, and the next time after that. Then Teyla brought another one, and John a couple more after that, until somehow it became this thing they all did. It's been years and there are hundreds of them, shifting slightly in the breeze.
"No," Rodney says, but he sounds more amazed than anything. "No. Who are they?"
Some of the photos are phenomenal failures, so bad it's hard to believe whoever took them didn't screw them up on purpose. These were added as a continuation of the original joke. There are good pictures too: Laura and Carson's engagement photo, or Teyla and Ronon at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, wind-chapped and happy. Most of the pictures are sloppy and unremarkable, pinned up as the iceberg tip of much bigger stories. That dipstick Kavanaugh flailing across the quad with his ponytail on fire, after Rodney and John sprayed it down with a low-ignition, cold-burning fuel they invented because the guy kept pissing them off. Laura shoving wedding cake down Carson's pants, with his family gaping off to the side and John in the background digging out his wallet to pay up. There's a sharpie-and-copy-paper sign Laura made the winter Rodney was horribly depressed, after his biannual attempts at dating bypassed the usual fizzle to end in a total crash and burn. There is life outside your apartment!, Laura wrote, and when Rodney didn't get the reference, John pulled some strings and Teyla emptied out her van and they dragged his ass up to San Francisco to see Avenue Q. John pretended that he didn't get kind of misty during "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," and "Schaudenfreude" made Rodney laugh so hard he almost peed.
They’ve pinned up each other’s stolen baby pictures, expired licenses, mid-ride photos bought at amusement parks just because they were so astonishingly unflattering. Half their lives hang here, and each new piece is as likely to fill in someone’s distant past as it is to record something recent. John can barely remember a time when he couldn't tell every story up here by heart.
"They're friends," John says. He lays his palm on an empty spot near the edge and wonders how he could ever explain any of this, let alone all of it, to someone who didn't already know. "Hey, maybe we should get some dinner."
"Yeah." Rodney blinks and sets one hand on his stomach. "Yeah, food could be good."
John leans his hip against the wall. "What do you want?"
"I--" Rodney starts, and comes up short, mouth open and working like a fish's. "I have no idea. What do I like?"
The question hangs there -- three seconds, ten -- and the overwhelming awfulness of the whole thing breaks over John like a sound barrier. Rodney is thirty-three and brilliant, bitter as hell and with enough idiosyncrasies for a grad-level psychology course, a person of irrational likes and unshakeable prejudices. Jesus; how easily everything is gone, just gone.
They're looking at each other, realization looming over them both, when Rodney presses a hand to his mouth and starts laughing. His eyes are bright with consternation and mirth, and he slants his eyebrows apologetically as John stares at him. It's not funny, John thinks, feeling stunned and shattered. But Rodney can't quit snickering, his free hand waving helplessly, and John pushes his fingertips against his eyelids and lets out the ghost of a chuckle, because it's awful and should be the farthest thing from funny, but oh fuck, it kind of is.
John finds the takeout menu for Kung Pao Fu and they turn the couch so it faces The Wall. They eat slowly, Rodney moaning over Szechuan chicken and going bug-eyed with amazement over honey shrimp. Afterward, they finish the six-pack of Tsing Tao while Rodney asks about this photograph or that one, and John tells him the story behind it and points out its siblings, describing the linkages between them like he's mapping out constellations. It reminds him of being in college and memorizing the equations that govern wind turbulence, trying to believe it could ever be a substitute for the sweet high climb of an F-16. He can't do any of it justice; there's no comparison between the blueprints and the real thing.
Still, he has to try, and Rodney soaks the stories in for hours, until they're both glassy-eyed and stupid. John twists to get a look at the clock: 12:47 am. "Jeez, it's gotten late."
"Is it?" Rodney says, or tries, but he's cut off in the middle by an enormous yawn. He scrubs his hand over the top of his head and looks around, blinking. "Right. I guess I should ..."
"Yeah," John agrees, standing. Rodney looks exhausted, the skin around his eyes translucent and etched with fine lines. He's spent the last four days in a hospital, being grilled by doctors and not having the faintest idea what's going on. This is John's cue to head home, go to bed, give the guy a little privacy, only what he hears himself say is, "There's a futon in the study -- if you want, I could ..."
Rodney frowns, rubbing at his forehead. "No, it's fine, I'm sure you'd rather ..." The polite refusal fails him halfway through; he's staring at the condo the way a kid in bed stares at the closet, not quite convinced it'll be the same place when he's alone and the lights are off. Mouth tilting sideways, he peers up at John from under his fingers. "This is totally pathetic, but. You wouldn't mind?"
It makes John feel guilty and relieved, and not sure of the reasons for either, so he smiles and says, "Hey, it wouldn't be the first time."
The study is dark and quiet with the door shut; the hum of the air conditioning mingles with the traffic, and the city lights slice shadows along the walls. John lies on his back in his T-shirt and boxers, one arm tucked under his head, listening to the sounds of Rodney moving around the condo. Clinking and faucet noises from the bathroom, soft footsteps, drawers opening and shutting as he hunts for his pajamas. All of the noises are hesitant, exploratory, someone puzzling out a strange new place. There are several minutes of silence before he hears the click of the lamp being turned off, the mattress shifting. Everything is still in the other room for a long time, maybe half an hour; John stares out the ceiling and isn't conscious of listening for anything, until he hears Rodney roll abruptly over and one of the pillows hit the ground. John's known that sequence since college, heard it through this wall every time he's crashed here instead of making the late drive home. It's what Rodney does every night, right as he drifts off.
John rolls over, the guest sheets cool and familiar under his skin, and looks out at the glow reflected down from L.A.'s perpetual haze. Watching the city's muffled starless sky, he tries to figure out what he's supposed to do in the morning, the next day, the day after that. It's a long time before he sleeps.