"There's rosemary; that's for remembrance.
Pray, love, remember."
Even on Atlantis, there are still some things that could surprise a person.
Like the time when John Sheppard turned into a girl and no one thought it was strange but Rodney McKay.
The day started like any other. Jeannie had just gone back to Earth and Rodney was smart again but oh dear lord, the work load. Rodney stumbled into the cafeteria on three hours' sleep to get something caffeinated into his bloodstream. Coffee achieved, he spotted Ronon's head at a table and decided that what the hell he could take five minutes to eat with his team before going back to face the chaos.
So he stumbled over, coffee in hand, blearily taking in Ronon and Teyla on one side of the table and spiky black hair and a military shirt on the other, and he didn't need to see the face to put Colonel to that level of follicular insubordination. Into the empty chair Rodney went. He may even have mumbled some sort of greeting as he dove face-first into his breakfast.
Ronon grunted back. Teyla's sigh was audible over Rodney's inordinate preoccupation with his breakfast. "Good morning, Rodney," she said.
"Nice of you to join us," came a drawl at his side, and it took Rodney almost two full seconds to realize that something was off. The words had John Sheppard's sloppy syntax, but the voice was higher in pitch and husky, the kind of voice that spoke of throaty laughter and too many cigarettes, the sultry voice of a movie star like Lauren Bacall or Kathleen Turner. The sort of voice that belonged to a woman who'd never waste her time on Rodney McKay.
A voice that certainly did not belong to the Lieutenant Colonel whom Rodney had thought he was seated beside.
Fork frozen midway to his mouth, Rodney turned to look at the person seated to his right.
The wide green eyes were exactly the same, but everything else was just different enough to stop the words in Rodney's throat. The fine dark hair lay in spiky folds around a face sharper and softer at the same time, pale cheeks that had never seen five-o'clock shadow, a delicate chin, and a narrow nose that looked like it had been broken at least once in the distant past.
Then the woman with John Sheppard's eyes lifted her eyebrow and Rodney choked on the air.
Rodney dropped his fork at the same time he pushed his chair back from the table, resulting in scrambled eggs smearing across his lap. But since John Sheppard was apparently a girl today, it mattered not at all.
"Who the hell are you?" Rodney demanded.
Girl-Sheppard's expression froze into ice, all emotion shutting down. A second later, the woman's face shifted into tired concern, but it was too late. Rodney had seen it.
On the other side of the table, Teyla rose. "Rodney, are you having a relapse?" she asked.
"A relapse?" Rodney repeated. "I'm not having a relapse! Who is this?" His accusatory finger went right in the direction of girl-Sheppard's chest.
"This is Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard," Teyla told Rodney, rounding the table a little too fast.
Rodney looked at Teyla, then at girl-Sheppard, then back to Teyla. When he did speak, it was with a level of calm he found surprising. "This is not Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard."
"For starters, I may have had my brain turned to Swiss cheese by that parasite, but the last time I checked, John Sheppard was not a girl!"
His voice was rising in volume, but could he really be blamed? Mutters rose around the cafeteria and even Ronon had the beginnings of a frown on his impassive face.
Girl-Sheppard, however, relaxed into her chair, her arms crossing under her breasts and oh god, Rodney had just used the words 'breasts' and 'Sheppard' in a combination he never thought possible. "McKay," the strange-familiar woman said, using the same weary patience John used when Rodney was being an ass, "I'm the same person I was when I saw you last night."
Rodney shot to his feet, head whirling. "Last night you watched that stupid football game again while you babysat Torren in the labs!"
"I know I did," girl-Sheppard replied. She stood up, unfolding long limbs as she did so, and the way she moved was just enough like Sheppard to mess with Rodney's already spinning mind. "I was there."
"Ha!" Rodney exclaimed, jabbing a finger at girl-Sheppard to stop the woman's approach. "No you didn't, because the John Sheppard I saw last night hadn't shaved in two days!" Horrified reasoning caught up with Rodney's thought processes. "You're a Replicator gone wrong!"
"I'm not a Replicator!" girl-Sheppard snapped, worry dropping to annoyance. Not a typical Replicator reaction to discovery.
"Then you touched another Ancient machine!" Rodney suggested frantically. "Oh god, what did you touch? Was it that IQ machine and it went all wrong? Did you go into the labs down on the east pier? Are you stupid?"
"I didn't touch anything," girl-Sheppard said, as Teyla and Ronon closed in on Rodney. "Why don't we go see Doc Keller?"
"I don't want to see Jennifer, I want to see security personnel taking you into custody!" Rodney tried to struggle, but he never stood a chance against the Pegasus Galaxy's answer to He-Man and She-Ra. "Hey, you! Marines!"
The marines in question rose to their feet, their eyes on girl-Sheppard, but not in that "Ah! A fake!" sort of way Rodney hoped for. "Ma'am?" the taller jarhead asked.
"I think a security escort for Doctor McKay would be a good idea," girl-Sheppard said in a low voice. "Just in case he tries to hurt himself."
"Rodney," Teyla said in Rodney's ear. "Please, let us take you to see Jennifer."
"I'm fine," Rodney insisted, never taking his eyes off the woman with John's green eyes. "Where the hell is John Sheppard?"
"I do not know anyone with the name of John Sheppard," Teyla said, steering Rodney towards the hallway. "And neither do you."
"So who is that?" Rodney demanded, jerking his head back at the woman trailing behind them and almost giving himself whiplash in the process.
Teyla did not hesitate as she said, "That is Lieutenant Colonel Joan Sheppard, the military leader of the Atlantis expedition."
Great. Joan. Rodney turned his head back to the girl-Sheppard and said, "That's real original!"
The irritation in Joan Sheppard's eyes was pure John. "Keep walking, McKay," she grumbled.
And this day had started off so well, too.
Of course, everything thought something was wrong with Rodney.
Jennifer was convinced that it had something to do with the parasite, Woolsey spoke gravely about taking precautions, Joan glared at Rodney with concern and growing befuddlement, and a few minutes later Rodney heard the nurses talking about how "poor Doctor McKay finally snapped."
"For heaven's sake!" Rodney shouted into the mess, as Jennifer scanned his brain for the third time. "It's not the parasite! I remember things fine! He's changed!"
"Stop saying that!" girl-Sheppard shouted back at him. "I'm the same person I've always been, and if I hear this bullshit from you one more time--"
"You'll what? Take over the city? Eat my brain?"
Joan pushed off the wall and took three long steps to stand directly in front of Rodney, hands loose at her sides and hair in complete disarray and mouth set in a tight line. Rodney could read anger and hurt in the tightness of Joan's expression, almost exactly the same as John.
Then the emotions were gone and only anger remained. "I have been taking macho crap my entire Air Force career, McKay," she ground out in a voice too low for anyone else to hear. "If you're sick, fine. If you're insane, fine. But if not, then cut it fuck the out. I've spent twenty goddamn years dealing with this on all sides and I am not going to be forced to swallow it from you."
With that, not-John-but-Joan Sheppard spun around and stalked out of the infirmary. Rodney watched her go, mouth hanging open. Jennifer looked vaguely smug yet comforting, while Teyla glared at Rodney with disapproval. The other men just looked confused.
Honestly, Rodney hated this galaxy sometimes.
Twelve hours later, Rodney McKay stood outside Sheppard's quarters. His brains scans were fine, his reactions were fine, and the base shrink had given him temporary approval for a sanity diagnosis.
The base computers showed a curt "F" for female on all of Lieutenant Colonel Joan Sheppard's personnel files. Everyone said "she" instead of "he", Joan instead of John. Even Rodney's own copious journals and mission reports unfailingly referred to Sheppard as a woman.
If this was a hoax or a trick, it was a damned good one to have happened in the three hours Rodney had been asleep.
Not really sure what he was doing here anyway, Rodney lifted his hand and knocked.
After a minute, the door slid open. Unlike John Sheppard, who would appear at any moment of the day tousled like he just fell out of bed, Joan Sheppard was all attention.
Until she saw Rodney.
The fight went out of the woman's stance. "What the hell do you want?" she asked, leaning one shoulder against the door frame, effectively blocking Rodney from entering the room.
"I don't know," Rodney replied without thinking. Apparently honesty was to be his policy for the day. "It's not medical and it's not sanity related."
"So this whole 'you ought to be a guy' thing is just you being an asshole?"
"No!" Rodney exclaimed, stung. "I look at my reports and I talk to everyone and every single fact and detail points to the fact that you are a girl and always have been, but every memory I have is of a John Sheppard."
After a long and awkward pause, Joan Sheppard let out a sigh and took one step back."If this is a trick, I'm dumping you out of the Puddlejumper mid-flight on our next mission," she muttered.
Rodney stepped into a room identical to John Sheppard's. The candles on the dresser, the golf magazine tossed in the corner, the Johnny Cash poster on the wall. More creeped out than assured by the similarity, Rodney made his way to his usual spot on the couch and flopped down.
"This is all very strange," he said to the room in general.
Joan sat on the edge of her bed. "You can say that again," she said in her husky Lauren Bacall voice.
"This is all very--"
"I didn't mean it!" Rodney sputtered. "Every time I think about this, it's all crystal clear in my head."
"That I'm supposed to be a guy." A dangerous light came into Joan's eyes.
"Not like that!" Rodney tried to get worked up into a moral outrage, but the exhaustion exuding from Joan Sheppard was contagious. He slumped back onto the couch cushions. "Not that a military officer should be a man, because hello, Sam, but just that I remember you as a man."
Joan buried her face in her hands. "This is just stupid enough to be happening," she complained.
"I know," Rodney commiserated. "It's not your brain that was turned to porridge by a parasite last month."
Joan looked up at him, the corners of her eyes crinkling as she smiled at Rodney. The smile knocked the air out of Rodney's stomach, all honesty and friendship on Joan's face. John used to smile in exactly the same way.
And it wasn't as if Rodney could even feel as if he'd lost his best friend, because he was sitting right here, just with a slight change in the costuming.
"So, McKay," Joan said, resting her elbows on her knees in a way that wasn't at all ladylike yet was all woman. "How many needles did Keller poke into you today?"
The retelling of Rodney's adventures in medical hell took the better part of an hour, which set Joan to laughing in places Rodney hadn't intended but that was okay anyway.
The next morning, Sheppard was still a woman, and the day after that, and the day after that. Rodney somehow convinced everyone that he wasn't a danger to himself or others. Life went on.
Rodney kept alert, or as alert as he could, in case this was some kind of trick and they (whoever they might be in the Pegasus Galaxy) were going to try to use a female Sheppard to pry information out of Rodney. It faintly occurred to Rodney that they might be going to try something sexual, on a hot afternoon in the mess hall when Joan stretched her arms over her head while laughing at something Teyla said and Rodney blanked out for a minute because, well, breasts, but Joan was still Sheppard and how strange would that have been?
It took Rodney a few days to understand what was bugging him, but finally a piece of the puzzle came to him during a briefing while Woolsey talked and Joan ignored.
Joan fit into Atlantis the same was as John did, with a slight air of 'what the hell' mixed with a dash of 'I'll do what I want'. It must have infuriated John's superiors over the years, and Rodney really didn't see how a pretty woman like Joan could have risen to a position of Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force with that air of bemused complacency.
She fit, and Rodney couldn't help but think that she shouldn't have.
The meeting ended without Rodney saying something stupid. Joan stood first, shoving her pen into a pocket on her cargos as she tried to exit the room. Something in her pocket caught on her watch and fell to the ground as she rounded the table. She noticed the object as soon as it began to fall, but Rodney was there first.
It was a photograph, nothing out of the ordinary on first glance. Joan stood beside a shorter red-headed woman, holding a toddler of about two years old. On the woman's other side stood a young man, hardly more than a boy, all adolescent angles and spiky black hair and very familiar cheekbones.
Before Rodney could form any coherent thoughts, Joan grabbed the picture from Rodney's slack fingers and stalked out of the room.
Teyla spoke at Rodney's shoulder, nearly sending him out of his skin in surprise. "Joan is worried that Rosemary has not replied to her last two letters."
"Right," Rodney said as his heart rate reigned back from Teyla sneaking up on him. Then, "Wait, who?"
Teyla's mouth twisted in worry. "Lieutenant Colonel Joan Sheppard--"
Rodney interrupted her with a wave of his hand. "I've caught up on that one," he said. "Who's Rosemary? Who were those kids in the picture?" He wanted to ask why Joan carried a picture around with her, because Rodney couldn't think of a single person of whom John Sheppard would keep a photograph in his pocket.
Teyla cut Rodney's knees out from under him by saying, "Rosemary is Joan's sister."
Rodney blinked. And again. When he finally found his voice, he pointed out, "John-- I mean Joan, doesn't have a sister."
"Sheppard has a brother. One of them. Dave. Ronon met him at Joan's father's funeral," Rodney went on, trying to think. Everything else had been exactly the same between a world of John and a world of Joan, even down to the haircuts.
But a sister that John Sheppard had never had?
"I met Rosemary at the funeral too," Ronon said from behind Rodney. "Cute kid. The little one, anyway."
And Ronon would know, because Ronon had gone to Sheppard's father's funeral. Rodney narrowed his eyes. "You met Nancy there too, right?"
"Sheppard's friend from when she was a kid?" Ronon asked. "Yeah."
Rodney gave up. Without another word, he turned on his heel and walked out of the room in search of Joan.
One thing he knew as certainly as he breathed: John Sheppard didn't have a sister, and so Joan Sheppard shouldn't have one either.
Joan wasn't in her office, or the mess hall, or any of a dozen places Rodney looked. He ran across Lorne once in his search, but the Major only shrugged and told Rodney to get the hell out of his office before he was shanghaied for a run around the south pier with the marines.
Getting a little desperate, Rodney sequestered himself in the lab, hacking into the city's internal sensors in a way that was probably illegal and most certainly a violation of privacy. One single life sign blinked on one of the distant sky bridges, far away from any other life signs. It was probably Joan, because John Sheppard had also had a propensity to vanish for hours at a time.
It was armed with that knowledge that Rodney made his way to Joan Sheppard's metaphorical mountaintop.
His boots made loud clangy noises on the metal floor as he climbed onto the sky bridge, effectively ruining his stealthy approach. Not that it would have worked anyway; the glassed-in walkway was open and airy and gave Joan a clear view of anyone approaching. Which might have been the point.
The woman lay sprawled on her stomach on the floor, tablet computer in front of her, as the sunlight from a beautiful day streamed in through the Ancient glass. She barely glanced up at Rodney stopped a few feet away. "Something I can do for you, McKay?"
Rodney slumped to the floor to rest. The trip had been a bit of a hike. "I've been thinking," he said without preamble. "About this whole..." He waved his hand about. "Debacle."
Joan's glare could have stripped paint off a Jumper.
"I mean, if you put aside the idea that I'm having a mental breakdown," Rodney went on, choosing to ignore Joan's muttered if, "The similarities are too pronounced for this to be an alternate universe. If it were, then all the little changes in your early childhood would have caused your life path to diverge quite substantially from the John Sheppard I know. It's not like we're in an evil-twin goatee-wearing universe here--"
Joan sat up, resting her elbows on her knees. "McKay, focus," she snapped.
"Right." Rodney paused to pull himself back on track. "Your life is too parallel to John Sheppard's for this to be possible. Both you and him had that thing in Afghanistan, you both were flying General O'Neill around the Antarctic when you sat in the Ancient control chair, you both woke the Wraith when we first got here--"
"I thought you said you didn't remember any of this," Joan interrupted again.
"I don't. I read the mission reports," Rodney rushed on. Joan was beginning to look as if she wanted to cause him pain. "It's not all the same; Teyla said you and Elizabeth had a hell of a time with the Marines after Sumner died, and then when we all went back to Earth at the end of the first year. And there's the Nancy thing."
Joan sighed. "What does Nancy have to do with this?"
"She was John Sheppard's ex-wife. Although from what he says, they were pretty much platonic near the end anyway."
Joan rubbed her eyes, her shoulders slumped in exhaustion. "Are you just here to torment me, McKay, or do you actually have a point?"
"My point," Rodney said, "Is that even when things between John and Joan-- I mean you, are different, they're the same." He paused for a moment, wondering if he should move further away to avoid being kicked. "Except John Sheppard doesn't have a sister. And you do."
Joan went completely still for a long, heart-stopping moment. Then she raised her head, and Rodney unconsciously shifted back on the floor as he took in the emotional pain in the woman's eyes.
He waited for Joan to say something, to yell at him, or haul him off to the infirmary, anything.
But Joan Sheppard just picked up her computer and walked away from Rodney without a backwards glance.
This, Rodney decided that night at dinner, staring glumly at the orange-glazed chicken, the lemon potatoes and the key lime pie at the mess hall counter, was hell, and he was the chief tormented soul.
Abandoning the idea of food, Rodney went back to the labs, where he proceeded to yell at three-quarters of his staff for the better part of an hour, dig up an ancient MRE to tide him over until the next morning, and hack into a particularly cranky piece of Ancient coding that had been driving Zelenka mad for weeks.
He didn't notice falling asleep, but then someone was shaking his shoulder and calling his name. The voice sounded so much like John's that Rodney sat bolt upright, wrenching his back and almost falling off his chair.
It wasn't John, not really. Joan stood by his desk. "You okay?" she asked. "You never pass out in the lab."
"I'm fine," Rodney said quickly. "What happened to you? You look like crap."
"I don't mean that. You just look old."
"This is the reason girls never talk to you when we're off-world," Joan told him, resting her hip against the desk as she watched Rodney blink himself awake. "Here. Teyla made the kitchen staff make you a sandwich."
Rodney stared at the plate Joan held out. "Someone took a bite out of that."
"So it's a used sandwich! How am I supposed to know whose germs are all over that?"
"Calm down," Joan told him, dropping the plate on the desk in front of him. "You've never had any problems with my germs before. I've been carrying that thing around for hours looking for you and I got hungry."
Rodney picked up the sandwich, weighing the infinitesimal possibility of Joan having some undetected alien disease against how hungry he was. After a moment, he shrugged and took a bite.
Looking marginally pleased, Joan gestured at the computer. "Whatcha working on?"
"Something very important," Rodney said thought a mouthful of food. "And I've almost fixed it."
"More nouns, McKay."
Rodney swallowed his mouthful. "The ability to reroute power automatically to meet the varying needs in different parts of the city, instead of someone having to modulate ZPM power flow by hand. It's all very technical and scientific and a brilliant piece of work."
"Of course it is."
"It is." Rodney shoved the sandwich crust into his mouth and took a moment to chew. "Don't suppose there's any coffee?"
"Don't push your luck. You done here?"
Rodney considered the code before him. There really wasn't much else he could do until the Ancient computer had finished processing the simulation, which would probably take the better part of four hours. "Probably. Why?"
Sheppard tilted her head in the direction of the door. "Dr. Arran got a bunch of DVDs in the last shipment and he's setting up the big screen in the atrium down on level eighteen. I thought you might want to join us."
There were better ways to spend his time than a spontaneous movie night, but Rodney was on his feet in a moment. "What's on?" he asked, loping along at Sheppard's side just like always.
Joan pretended to think. "What's worse than a B-movie?"
Rodney groaned. He wasn't certain he could survive another round of Pegasus Science Theatre 3000. At least they didn't have any actual robots. "Why can't we ever get anything worth watching?"
"The Marines stopped offering their movies after Major Lorne used their copy of Top Gun for target practice." Joan made a left towards the stairs, Rodney slingshoting along after her. And if he hung back for just a moment to look at her butt, that was purely an accident.
"So homoerotic Air Force movies are out," he said, not really noticing what he was saying until Joan stopped and whirled on him. He didn't have time to stop and plowed right into her, his hands going up to steady himself. When he grabbed something soft and curvy and round, right at chest level, Rodney yanked his hands back as if he'd been burned.
For her part, Joan shoved Rodney away from her. Neither spoke for a long moment.
Joan broke the silence. "Did you just feel me up?"
"It was an accident!" Rodney exclaimed. "You stopped too quickly!"
"So you reached for my breasts to steady yourself?"
Rodney opened his mouth to spin off a witty retort, but Jesus Christ, he'd just grabbed a Lieutenant Colonel's breasts. He was going to be fired for sexual harassment. Screw that, someone would kill him.
Like Ronon. Or Teyla. Maybe Teyla would be the one to kill him.
Joan reached out, but instead of the slap Rodney half-expected, she whacked his shoulder. "You are such a social misfit," she informed him, grabbing his sleeve and hauling him along on their original trajectory. "How did you ever survive high school?"
"Usually girls didn't let me get in grabbing distance," Rodney said, his surprise at not being killed loosening his tongue. "And I was about four years younger than everyone else."
"That would do it." Joan let go of Rodney's sleeve, but didn't push him away. They walked, arms brushing occasionally, just like Rodney had done with John. It should have been different, because he'd just touched Joan's breasts, but it wasn't, and Rodney didn't really understand. "Also, it was a homoerotic Navy movie."
"What are you talking about?"
"Top Gun was a homoerotic Navy movie. The Air Force doesn't do homoerotic."
Rodney snorted. "You sit in long penis-shaped planes that explode into flight and shoot off missiles at the climax of the flight. How is that not homoerotic?"
"That's phallic." Joan paused at the top of the stairs to give Rodney a quick smile. "The difference is all in how you handle it."
Rodney almost tripped down the stairs. Hearing John Sheppard's dry innuendo coming out in that sultry voice twisted low in Rodney's stomach.
It was at that very moment that Rodney first realized that maybe he was in over his head on this one.