"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.
Emails from home came in an hour before Sheppard's team was scheduled to go off-world. Rodney read Jeannie's eight-page letter with one eye as he laced up his boots. Apparently his near-death experience had resulted in Jeannie re-examining her own life. In excruciating detail. Rodney was seriously considering closing the email to read when he got back, when a line in the text jumped out at him.
He yelped, grabbing at the tablet before he fell over.
A knock pounded on the locker room door. "McKay, you decent?" Sheppard called.
The other occupant of the locker room, a British Lieutenant, hastily pulled his shirt on over his head and ducked into the hallway just as Joan pushed into the room. Rodney glanced up from his computer. "Sam never came into the men's locker room."
"Colonel Carter didn't have to deal with your recalcitrant ass." Sheppard practically bounced on the toes of her combat boots. "You get email from home?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "My crazy sister thinks that coming so close to death means that I should do something," and he made finger quotes around the word, "About my obvious crush on you."
"Feeling me up on movie night isn't enough?"
"For Christ's sake, that was an accident!"
Joan waved his objection away. "You can write Jeannie back later. Guess what?"
"What?" Rodney went back to lacing his boots.
"I got an email too." The smile on her face could have rivaled the sun for brilliance. "From my sister."
Joan shot Rodney a glare. "Do I have any other sisters?"
"Maybe, I didn't know about this one until a week ago."
Joan straddled the bench as Rodney turned his attention to his other boot. "I haven't heard from her in ages, McKay, don't harsh on my buzz."
Rodney blew out a breath. "Fine. How is your sister?"
"She's great. She's doing development work on a new defense contract."
"She's what?" Rodney paused to look at Sheppard.
It took him a moment to realize that the woman was giddy with excitement, in a way John Sheppard had only ever been when flying.
"Rosemary is a senior software engineer," Joan told him. "Her company is doing some high-end computer defense software thing for the Pentagon. And Joseph's doing some field work in Hong Kong for his PhD, and Sam's going into the second grade but he's already doing fourth-grade math. Why are you staring at me like that?"
"Who are you talking about?"
Joan's enthusiasm faltered. "My sister's kids."
"Those kids in that picture you had?" The teenager hadn't been old enough to shave, let alone doing PhD work. And the other had been a toddler. "How old was your sister when that older one was born?"
"Seventeen," Joan said. "And don't start with me about teenage pregnancy."
"What? I wasn't going to."
"All right!" Joan shifted a strap on her vest. "Anyway, Joe is twenty-four and Sam's seven."
"But that picture--"
"Was taken before I left for Pegasus," Joan interrupted. "The children have since aged. Come on, we've got a Gate to catch."
Rodney tightened a strap on his vest as he followed Sheppard out of the locker room, walking into a pack of mud-caked marines about to enter. They all jumped to attention as Joan strolled past, not one of them batting an eye at seeing their female CO exiting the guys' change room.
"As you were," Joan said automatically, and the Marines carried on. "Major Lorne's training exercises seem to be getting more sadistic every day," she said as she and Rodney climbed the steps into the Gateroom.
"What are you talking about? You like running around in the mud." Rodney joined Teyla and Ronon in front of the Gate. The wormhole whooshed opened as Woolsey leaned over the rail to give them the go-ahead.
"All right," Joan said, hefting her P-90 with cool efficiency. "Let's go."
Rodney was halfway to the Gate when it came to him. "Wait, your sister named her kid Sam Sheppard?"
"She claims she was--" and the Gate swallowed them both, spinning them across the galaxy and spitting them out into a too-bright day. "A little high when she filled out the birth certificate. Something about Demerol." Sheppard put on her sunglasses before motioning to the team. "Onwards and upwards, guys."
Rodney woke with a start, then really wished he hadn't. The blinding pain in his head coalesced into nausea churning in his stomach. He barely had time to roll to his stomach before he was sick.
Throwing up with a concussion wasn't the worst thing Rodney had ever experienced, but it was pretty high up on his list. He tried to gather his hands underneath him to climb to his knees, but his left hand wouldn't obey his mind's command.
That pulled him back to consciousness in a hurry. He opened his eyes to peer at his surroundings, and most importantly, to figure out what was wrong with his hand.
A crude metal handcuff held his wrist shackled to the grimy stone wall. The room was dim and cool, smelling of dank water and vomit. Rodney blinked a few times to push back the worst of the pain.
The shadows across the cell moved. "Good to have you back with us, McKay," Sheppard said, slurring her words. She too was chained to the wall, stripped to her t-shirt and trousers, but where only Rodney's one hand was chained, Joan's arms were stretched out and manacled, forcing her to kneel with her back to the wall. In the dim light, Rodney could see bruises developing on the side of her face. The dark mark on her temple could only be blood.
"What happened?" Rodney asked as he tugged experimentally on his shackle.
Joan let out a sigh. "We were attacked. You took a club to the head." She stopped and concentrated on breathing for a moment. "I got a few of them before one of them got behind me."
"What about Ronon and Teyla?"
"Don't know." Joan blinked muzzily. "Since you got thrown in here, that probably means they got away." The thought seemed to cheer Joan slightly. "Lorne's been dying to try the new C4 we got from Earth."
So Joan was anticipating a rescue. Good. "Do we know who grabbed us?"
"Not a clue. They looked like anyone else."
Rodney felt the hinge on his shackle. The workmanship felt shoddy. "So not Wraith, or we'd be dinner. Who else have we pissed off recently?"
Joan let out a soft laugh, which turned into an equally quiet moan of pain. "I don't think that's going to narrow it down, McKay."
Rodney jiggled the pin in the hinge, wondering if it had come loose or if the concussion was making him imagine things. "How badly are you hurt?"
" 'm fine."
"No, you are lying." The edge of the pin sliced into his finger. "Damn it, I'm going to get tetanus!" He shook his hand. "If I have to sling your injured hundred and eighty pound ass over my shoulders and carry you out of here, I'd like to know how badly hurt you are, all right?"
There was dead silence for a long moment. Just as Rodney had worked himself up into a panic that Joan had suddenly passed out or died, an annoyed voice said, "I do not weigh one-eighty."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I'll apologize for damaging your tender vanity once we get back to Atlantis," he snapped. "What are you, one-seventy?"
A wet cough sounded. "Not that it's any of your business, but I'm one-fifty-four."
"You're six feet tall and made of muscles. You have to weigh more than that."
"The hair alone has to weigh at least ten pounds. It has its own area code."
"Fuck you, McKay." Joan tried to stand, but the pull on her arms kept her in place. She breathed shallowly for a minute.
"Your ribs?" Rodney asked when the worst of the pain had cleared from her face.
She nodded. "The one I stabbed kicked me a few times. Or maybe it was the one I kneed in the throat."
"It's a good sign, though."
"In what way?"
"That they wanted us alive."
Joan let out a snort that must have been painful. "Keeping us alive for what?"
Rodney didn't want to think that far ahead. "Whatever it is, we just need to stall them until Teyla and Ronon can save us."
Noise sounded down the corridor, behind the thick wooden door. Rodney worked faster, but the pin was stuck and his own blood had made the metal too slippery to handle.
Voices floated through the wooden door. Rodney thought they sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite place them. As soon as she heard the voices, Sheppard's eyes flew open. She jerked hard against her chains, the metal manacles slicing through the skin of her wrists. Before Rodney could ask her what she was doing, she pushed to her feet and tried again to free herself, almost dislocating her shoulders.
"What are you doing?" Rodney hissed. "Stop it!"
Joan stumbled back to her knees, blood streaming down her bare arms. "McKay, you need to listen to me," she said, her voice as close to panic as Rodney had ever heard in either Joan or John Sheppard. "Don't do anything stupid."
"Whatever happens, it'll all go back to the way it was before, just don't do anything stupid!"
What was she talking about? "Sheppard--"
"It'll all switch back, it always does, just--" The door opened, cutting off her protest, and a corpse stepped through.
"Kolya," Sheppard bit out, not moving a muscle as she stared defiantly up at the man who was supposed to be dead.
The former Genii commander held up a lantern, the bobbing light illuminating a face Rodney had hoped never again to see outside of hell. This was impossible! How could everything else about Joan's life be the same as John, but Kolya be alive? John had shot the man in the chest in full sight of everyone. How was this different?
The Genii commander looked at Sheppard for a long moment, then he smiled. Rodney's skin crawled at the malicious expression. "How very kind of you to join us, Colonel Sheppard." Kolya's voice caressed Joan's name. She never flinched, never looked away.
Realization hit Rodney. This wasn't like all the other times Rodney and John had been held hostage, because then they were two guys and that was okay, but Joan was certainly not a man, and she was chained to a wall on her knees, and Kolya was looking at Joan like he owned her.
Before Rodney could even open his mouth to protest, Kolya spoke over his shoulder. "If Dr. McKay moves, kill him." Then the man walked across the room to stand in front of Joan, too close. She had to crane her head back to look at him, and that was probably the point. "Colonel Sheppard, you left our last encounter without saying goodbye. That was very rude."
Joan whipped her head forward, trying to head-butt Kolya in the crotch. He moved out of the way just in time. Joan, on the other hand, had nowhere to go as Kolya's clenched fist caught her in the side of the mouth.
Rodney started to move, but a gun suddenly jammed against his forehead made him freeze. Cold adrenaline streamed through his body as the weapon's safety clicked off.
Joan spat a mouthful of blood on Kolya's boots. "As I recall, you started this whole thing by invading Atlantis. That was pretty rude too."
Kolya smiled at the memory. "I hear that Atlantis has a new commander," he said, kneeling so he was on a level with Joan. "How does he negotiate for his people?"
Joan smiled then too, her bloody lips too red against the pale white of her face. "What do you want, Kolya?"
Kolya was quiet for so long that Rodney thought he wasn't going to answer. Finally, he reached out and ran his fingers over the bruised side of Joan's face. Rodney had to swallow hard on the rising bile in his throat. "I have a few questions for you," Kolya said. "And for every question you do not answer, I will cut off one of Dr. McKay's fingers."
The world went hazy for a moment as panic engulfed Rodney. Kolya would do it, too, because the man had to be insane. What was worse, Joan's reaction told Rodney that she believed it too.
Joan licked her lips, vibrating with anger. She jerked away from Kolya's hand. "Leave him out of this, Kolya."
"With anyone else, I'd ask if you were certain that I was serious."
"I know perfectly well that you're serious."
Kolya's hand travelled over Joan's neck, down to her ribs. Rodney's breath caught in his throat, a mix of pure rage and anger choking him as Kolya ran his thumb over Joan's breast.
Then Kolya squeezed hard, and Joan screamed.
"Broken ribs are such a useful interrogation tool," Kolya said over the dying echo of the scream, as casually as if he'd been discussing the weather. "I do believe this sets the tone for the conversation, don't you?"
Joan pulled herself back up, panting through the pain. "Always best to have that sort of thing stated up front," she said as sarcastically as she could.
Rodney would have cheered her on, but whatever brain function he had left after the concussion was useless with a gun barrel pressed against his head.
Kolya pushed himself to his feet, pacing around the confines of the stone cell. "Who was with you today?"
Joan glanced quickly at Rodney. "Dr. McKay, Teyla Emmagen and Ronon Dex."
She was probably right to tell him, Rodney thought. Someone had obviously informed the Genii rebels that Sheppard's team was on this planet, so Kolya probably already knew about Teyla and Ronon.
Rodney just hoped that they'd gotten back to Atlantis in time to mount a rescue operation. Any time now, he thought bitterly.
"Why were you here?"
Joan coughed, blood spilling over her lips and down her chin. "Exploring potential trading relationships," she got out before the coughing fit took her. Kolya waited until her spasms finally stopped. Then he strode over and kicked her hard in the ribs.
"Stop it!" Rodney shouted, forgetting the gun at his head, his whole world narrowed down to Joan Sheppard hanging limp from the chains. "What the hell is the matter with you? She can't answer your questions if she can't talk!"
Kolya went to one knee beside Joan, grabbing a handful of her hair and jerking her head back. "You can answer my questions, can't you, Colonel Sheppard?" Kolya asked. He let go of Joan's hair. "Where is Atlantis?"
Joan's head rolled back against the wall, all of her weight hanging on her chained wrists. Fresh blood streamed down her arms. "You... want that in... galactic coordin... ordinates, or Gate address?"
Kolya punched her in the face. Then he turned to the men by Rodney and said, "Begin cutting off Dr. McKay's fingers."
Gun be damned. Rodney turned and kicked and punched, anything to delay the inevitable, as Joan shouted, "Kolya, don't do this! I'm the one who didn't answer, not Rodney! Kolya!"
One of the goons clapped his hand over Rodney's mouth and nose, suffocating. Rodney fought, but the grey overcame him and he loosened his fists.
The other goon grabbed Rodney's right hand and pushed it flat against the wall, while the first one pulled a long knife from his belt. He raised the knife over Rodney's fingers. After a pause that took forever and only an instant, the knife swung down.
Joan's scream exploded into the air, taking all sound with it. Then the air exploded again, followed by the pop-pop of automatic weapons fire, taking the two goons down in a twitching heap.
Rodney didn't have any time to realize that he still had all his fingers when the stone wall beside Sheppard shattered in a hail of gunfire, breaking one of her chains. Kolya tried to duck away, but Joan kicked him in the knee and he went down. Before anyone could do anything useful, Joan straddled the man's back, grabbing the knife from his belt. In one quick downwards arc, she slammed the knife through Kolya's neck.
Kolya stopped moving.
Over the shouts of "Clear!" in the hall, Rodney slumped, adrenaline knocking his knees out from under him. Joan fell sideways off Kolya, one arm still shackled to the stone wall. She lay where she fell.
The next thing, the room was full of Lorne and a few Marines and Ronon and Teyla. Everyone was covered in dust and blood and no one had ever looked quite so good to Rodney.
"Sheppard needs a doctor," Rodney told anyone who would listen, in this case the burly Marine Sergeant closest to him.
"We'll get the Colonel back to Atlantis," the Sergeant said. He set to work on pounding at the rusty nails holding Rodney's manacle to the wall.
Rodney sputtered. "What kind of rescue operation is this?" he demanded. "You didn't bring a doctor? Who the hell is in charge?"
"Not now, McKay," Lorne said from the doorway. "We need to move!"
Teyla and the other Marine had succeeded in removing the chain from Joan's wrist. The moment she was free, Ronon scooped the woman up into his arms. It should have been ridiculous, Joan's long limbs flapping everywhere, but all Rodney could feel was fear and the remnants of fury at Kolya, dead on the floor.
"Be careful, she's got broken ribs," Rodney told Ronon, moving quickly to join the group as they ducked out the door.
"I've got her, McKay," Ronon said. That effectively shut Rodney up.
The trip to the Jumper was quick and brutal. Lorne took out a guard at a corner, then they were running out of the building. Rodney concentrated on following Ronon, and he barely noticed that they were running out into the open until the empty courtyard became the cloaked Jumper, and the Jumper ramp was closing as Lorne collapsed into the pilot seat. "Hang on!" Lorne shouted, and the Jumper took off
Ronon laid Sheppard down as gently as he could. The woman seemed to rouse somewhat as the Jumper swung wildly through the air. "Who the hell... flying this thing?" she breathed, curling protectively around her broken ribs.
"It is Major Lorne," Teyla explained. She knelt beside Joan, pillowing the woman's head on her leg. "We are only sorry it took us so long to get you."
"S'ok," Joan whispered. She closed her eyes as Teyla brushed the hair back from her forehead. "Knew you guys'd... come."
Ronon patted Sheppard's knee, then turned a steely glare on McKay. Before Rodney could think about what Ronon wanted, the bigger man pulled off his jacket and draped it over McKay's shoulders. "Don't pass out," Ronon ordered.
The Marine Sergeant, who'd been watching this exchange while hanging on to an upper bin, was looking at Sheppard with something akin to awe on his face. "She took out five of them at the attack site," he said. "And one more on the way with her bare hands."
Rodney curled his hands into fists, every one of his fingers pressing against his palms. He couldn't forget the way Kolya had looked at Joan, had put his hands all over her. Rodney didn't understand how everything else could be exactly the same, and this one thing so very different.
But Joan must have known. What else would explain it?
The medical team was waiting in the Gateroom. Ronon lifted Joan onto a stretcher and the Colonel was swept off to the infirmary. Teyla grabbed hold of Rodney's arm and marched him along, pushing and shoving at him until he was on a stretcher in the infirmary and the other doctor, the new one whose name Rodney couldn't remember, was looking in his eyes and ears and asking him all kinds of stupid questions until Rodney snapped and shouted at the man to go away and someone bring him a computer!
The man didn't go away, and someone did bring Rodney a computer. Ignoring the medical team as best he could, Rodney hacked into old mission reports, searching for everything to do with the Genii: the assault on the city, the time Kolya kidnapped Sheppard for Wraith feeding-time, the time that Sheppard was supposed to have killed Kolya but apparently had only winged him.
Nothing in the reports explained what the hell had happened between Joan Sheppard and Kolya.
Gradually, Rodney became he wasn't alone. Teyla sat on the bed across from him, watching him quietly. The medical team was gone.
He thought about trying to explain, but he was so tired he didn't care. "I don't get it," he admitted, tossing the computer onto the bed. While he had been out of it, someone had bandaged his wrist and finger.
"What do you not understand?" Teyla asked.
"Kolya. And Sheppard."
Teyla let out a breath. "Sometimes, the path to attempting to understand an enemy can lead to obsession," she said slowly.
Rodney let his head fall into his hands. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Kolya wasn't supposed to be obsessed with Sheppard. The man had certainly never looked at John Sheppard like that.
But this was Joan Sheppard, and not John. Being defeated by a woman might twist and break in a man like Kolya.
Teyla moved to his side, laying a hand on his back. "Joan will be all right," Teyla said. "Jennifer does not think they will need to operate. There are no broken ribs and no internal bleeding."
Rodney swallowed hard. "That's good. Right?"
"Can I see her?"
"Not yet. Mr. Woolsey wishes to speak with us regarding what happened."
Rodney rounded on her. "What happened? We were surrounded, beaten up, interrogated by a sadistic madman and nearly killed by friendly fire. How's that?"
"It's a good start," came Woolsey's voice from across the room.
Rodney closed his eyes. This day would never end, would it?
Jennifer threatened him with overnight observation, but Rodney begged and whined until she finally let him go back to his quarters. He couldn't stand facing anyone else right now, not after the mind-fuck of a day he'd had.
Once he was safely in his room, Rodney curled into a ball to read Jeannie's email. It didn't really say anything of importance, but it was Jeannie and that was all that mattered to Rodney. Even if she did insist on calling him 'Meredith' in text.
He was pulled back from family emails by a knock at his door. Standing was no easy task, so he was feeling less than charitable by the time he opened the door.
Irritation switched instantly to worry when the door rolled back to reveal Joan Sheppard leaning against the wall. "Hey," she said weakly, holding up a thermos. "Up for a drink?"
Rodney couldn't find the words for a moment. "Are you out of your mind? You should be in the infirmary!"
"You have brain damage! You were beaten within an inch of your life this morning. What the hell is Jennifer thinking, letting you go?"
The corner of Joan's mouth twitched.
"Did you make a break for it?" Rodney demanded. "What did you do, tunnel through the walls with an IV clip?"
"Come on," Joan said, pushing off the wall. Her wobbly shuffle was painful for Rodney to watch, but at least she was moving under her own power. "If you say another word about me going back to the infirmary, I'm not going to let you have anything to drink."
Rodney ducked back into his room to grab his jacket and a blanket for the injured woman who thought it was a good idea to wander Atlantis' cold halls in a t-shirt and bare feet. He caught up with Joan in no time at all. "Where are we going?"
"Outside." At the end of the corridor, Joan turned her shuffle towards the balcony. "If I don't see the sky I'm going to lose my mind."
Rodney bit back a few choice retorts, somewhere between too late for that and stop right now I'm calling Jennifer.
In the meantime, Joan lowered herself to the ground without falling over. Feet dangling off the edge of the balcony, she looked out across the ocean at the rising moons and sighed.
Rodney sat beside her as the wind picked up, moaning through the city's spires. He hugged his jacket closer around him. "Aren't you cold?"
"Nope." Joan closed her eyes as the wind ruffled her hair. The bruising on her face wasn't as bad as Rodney had thought in the dark of the stone cell, but her jaw and the corner of her mouth were swollen and red where Kolya had punched her. Dark circles lay under her eyes that had nothing to do with her injuries.
Rodney looked down at his hands, at the fingers and thumbs all where they should be, the worst damage being a shallow gash on his finger that hadn't even needed stitches. Without Jeannie's letter to push the memories away, Rodney couldn't get rid of the image of the knife swinging down towards his outstretched fingers.
Even though they were outside, surrounded by open air and sky, it was suddenly to hard to breathe. Rodney clenched his fists, ignoring the pain in his finger. "Is that alcoholic?" he demanded.
Joan opened her eyes on Rodney, looking straight through him for a moment. "I think so," she said after a very long pause. "I told Lorne I needed something to dull the pain. I don't think he'd give me rubbing alcohol." With exaggeratedly careful movements, she untwisted the thermos top and poured some liquid into the little cup. "If we go blind, we'll know what happened." She lifted the cup. "To this day being over."
The liquid went down her throat without causing her to double over. "What?" Rodney asked as Joan winced. "Is it rubbing alcohol?"
"No," Joan wheezed. "The inside of my mouth is pretty raw." She shoved the cup in his direction. "Your turn."
Rodney eyed the liquid dubiously. He doubted that Lorne would try to poison his CO, but who knew what kind of paint-stripper the military ingested on their off hours? Still, he was Canadian and could hold his liquor better than the Yanks. He lifted the cup as Joan had done. "To... Ronon and Teyla. For a melodramatic rescue."
"For saving our sorry asses in the nick of time," Joan echoed.
The hooch went down without killing Rodney, although it wouldn't help his concussion. Eyes watering, Rodney glared at the cup. "I've tasted sandpaper that goes down smoother than this! Where the hell does Lorne get this?"
"I think the botanists brew it in a bucket out on south pier," Joan said. She shifted closer to Rodney. "Who cares? It's strong."
"Stronger than that sugar water you Americans call beer." The warmth from the alcohol was sliding through Rodney's limbs, taking the edge off his anxiety for just a moment.
"American beer isn't that bad."
"Please. In Canada, we reserve American beer for children and the elderly." Rodney put the cup firmly on the balcony. "What the hell is Lorne thinking, giving a wounded woman alcohol?"
Joan let her gaze drift back to the moons. "He was following direct orders."
"That's a stupid reason."
Joan twitched one shoulder in a shrug. "I told him if he didn't give me his stash, I was going to quit and he'd have to be CO."
Joan refused to look at him. "It doesn't matter. Hell, I can always still resign in the morning." She picked up the thermos and took a healthy swig. "Maybe."
"Are you insane? You can't quit!" Rodney drained the rest of the liquid in the cup. He touched Joan's knee. "Is this because of Kolya? That's over, he's dead."
"That bastard should have been dead a long time ago," Joan muttered. She put the thermos aside with a thump. "I'm forty-two years old, Rodney. Maybe I'm just tired of keeping it all straight."
Rodney could only stare. Sheppard had always fought so hard to stay on Atlantis, in whatever gender. Sheppard was Atlantis, as far as most of the Marines were concerned. "We'll tell Lorne to ignore everything you said, that you didn't know what you were thinking," Rodney said. "He can just forget you said anything about quitting--"
"Fuck, McKay, will you shut up?" Joan exclaimed. "For once in your life, just stop talking!"
Rodney swallowed all the protests in his throat. Something was wrong with Joan, something beyond the injuries and the exhaustion. It was the same dark doubt Rodney had sometimes seen in John Sheppard, the doubt that sent him on missions with no chance of survival. Like flying a nuclear bomb into a Hive ship.
"What's up with Kolya?" Rodney asked after a few minutes of silence. "I read the reports and Teyla thinks he was obsessed with you, but that doesn't explain what happened in the cell."
Joan unwrapped the bandages from her wrists and stared at the angry red welts and cuts on her pale skin. Black stitches, ugly and harsh, encircled her skin in an echo of the shackles in the cell. "Do you remember what happened when Kolya had that Wraith feed on me?"
"The two of you escaped and the Wraith made you young again," Rodney said. The report he'd read of Joan Sheppard's experiences had exactly echoed those of John Sheppard. But then, Rodney knew how easy it was to fix a mission report to say what you wanted. "Right?"
With Joan sitting so close, it was hard to see her expression, but Rodney had been reading John Sheppard for years now and some things weren't all that different.
Joan smiled slightly. "Something like that."
"So what did you leave out?"
The smile faded from Joan's face. "Something Kolya said to me before the Wraith fed on me." She ran her fingers over a line of stitches on her wrist. "He said, 'if I can't have you, no one's going to,' or something like that." She looked out at the ocean, the wind whipping her hair around her face in a dark halo.
The weight of the words hit Rodney like another blow to the head.
Joan took a slow, deep breath. "Although," she said with deliberate false cheer, "I'll go on record as saying that having the life sucked out of me by a Wraith was infinitely preferable than being molested by Kolya."
"And it's not like I haven't killed that man already, is it?" Joan shoved her hair back from her face angrily. "I shoot him, I stab him, and he just won't stay dead, will he?"
Rodney stared at Joan. Had she just said what he thought she said? True, she'd shot Kolya once in the shoulder to save Elizabeth, but only John Sheppard had shot Kolya in the heart, killing him. Rodney had never told Joan what John had done to the Genii commander.
Joan poured herself another shot of the gut-rot hooch and drank it in silence, staring out at the sea. She didn't seem to notice when Rodney wrapped the blanket around her, or when Rodney pulled the thermos from her fingers and put it out of reach. The moons climbed higher in the sky, and Joan just sat there, silent in her own thoughts.
Rodney found his mind drifting. Why was everything the same between Joan and John except for these two people? Rosemary and Kolya, the opposite ends of the spectrum in Joan's life. One a beloved sister, the other an obsessed enemy. The more he thought about it, the less sense it made. Except for those two people, everything was exactly the same, and that was impossible. Actions had consequences, rippling through the universe. Rosemary Sheppard might not have saved the planet, but if she was a software engineer, then how was it possible that her not existing in John Sheppard's world hadn't made tiny changes, rippling out to large waves across the stars?
Because if Rosemary wasn't around to write software, that meant someone else had to do it exactly the same and that was impossible.
Unless something was controlling it.
"What does Joseph do?" Rodney asked. Joan dragged her eyes off the horizon to look at him questioningly. "Your sister's kid. What's his PhD in?"
"Linguistics," Joan said, the alcohol slurring her words. "He's going to go into anti-terrorism work after he finishes his thesis. Nancy said she can get him a job at Homeland Security if he wants." The pride in her words was unmistakable.
Ripples within ripples. If Joseph Sheppard wasn't there to work on anti-terrorism work, what would happen? Who would step into his place?
Joan shifted to pull a battered photograph from her pocket. This wasn't the happy family photograph Rodney had seen on that first day. This was an old polaroid of two children, hardly more than toddlers. They had the same green eyes, but the taller little girl had messy brown curls streaming over her shoulders, while the other little girl had red hair pulled into two pigtails.
Both girls were grinning like they were on top of the world.
"Once upon a time," Joan began, and the bitter anger in her voice was more startling than the fanciful words. "Eleven months after I was born, my little sister Rosemary came into the world."
"Eleven months?" Rodney couldn't help but interject.
"Yeah, I know. Anyway, my mother was happy because she finally got the girl she'd always wanted."
Rodney opened his mouth to ask Joan what she was talking about, because if they'd already had Joan, then what? But Joan went on.
"Me and Rosemary pretty much ran wild, once we could escape the nanny. We climbed trees, got into the stables to play with the horses, got stuck in the attic, you name it. My mother was at her wits end by the time we were ready for school, and she decided that we needed a little discipline. So we got shoved into private schools." Joan made a diverging gesture with her hands. "Girls here, boys there."
Any rational thought left Rodney's head as the full meaning of Joan's words hit him.
"And because we were in different schools, I wasn't on the nature walk to the river with Rosemary's class when she decided she wanted to play in the water by herself." Joan stared at the photograph of the happy children. "They found her body tangled up in some reeds further downstream. They think she slipped and fell into the river."
"Oh god," Rodney said quietly. Joan didn't seem to hear him.
"We came back from the funeral and my parents weren't talking to me. Mom took a bunch of sleeping pills and passed out in the living room, and dad was getting drunk or something. I went into my room and cried for a while. Eventually, I realized there was someone there."
"Who was it?"
"I don't know. He was there, but he wasn't there, either." Joan pulled the blanket tighter around her chest. "He asked me--" Her voice cracked. "He asked me what I wanted. So I told him that I wanted to be a girl, because if I was a girl then I'd have been with Rosemary on that field trip and I'd have pulled her out the river because I was supposed to protect her."
"He vanished, if he was ever there to begin with. I cried myself to sleep." Joan ran her tongue over her bruised lip. "And when I woke up the next morning, I was a girl and Rosemary was alive."
"What, just like that?" Rodney exclaimed.
"Yes." Joan licked her lip again, wincing as her tongue hit a split in her skin. "She had pneumonia from almost drowning, but that was okay because she was alive. So I kissed her and pulled on the little private school dress in my cupboard and let the nanny braid my hair and off to the girls' school I went."
"You were a... girl," Rodney said, trying to wrap his head around this.
"And before you'd been..."
"John Sheppard, first-born son."
"That's what 'son' means."
"You were a boy, you made a wish, and then you were a girl."
Joan gestured in the general direction of her breasts. "Yes."
"That's not how it happens!" Rodney exclaimed. "People don't just get to make wishes and re-write the fabric of reality!"
Joan shrugged. "You know what they say."
"That people with head injuries shouldn't drink?"
She shook her head. "Something about wishes and horses. And when I was growing up, we had horses a-plenty" The woman let out a long breath, slumping against Rodney's shoulder.
Rodney just stared at the top of Joan's head. It was a credit to his own head injury that he hadn't run off screaming into the distance. Or called Jennifer to take the crazy Colonel away.
"So how the hell do I remember five years of John Sheppard?" he finally asked.
Joan didn't answer for so long that he thought she hadn't heard him. Eventually, she said, "About six months after I made my wish, I woke up and I was a boy again." She let out a shaky breath. "And Rosemary was long dead."
A particularly vicious gust of wind buffeted the balcony, stealing Rodney's breath away. He slid closer to Joan, mostly because she had the only spot of cover from the wind. And if he put his arm over her shoulders to steady himself, well, she looked cold and pneumonia with bruised ribs wasn't any fun at all.
"And so it goes back and forth," Joan said quietly, almost to herself. "From Joan to John. When I'm Joan, Rosemary and her kids are alive. When I'm John, Rosemary's been dead since I was five and her kids never existed. I'm the only one who remembers."
"What about us?" Rodney asked, his voice muffled against Joan's hair. He'd never have sat this way with John Sheppard, even though he'd just been told that Joan was John Sheppard. His concussion was making it hard to parse anything resembling logic in this situation. "We just don't notice anything strange?"
"You never have before."
"Maybe it was the brain parasite?" Rodney suggested, unable to stop seeking answers.
"How the hell should I know?"
"Did you ever... you know, tell anyone?"
Joan made a sound in her throat, halfway between a cough and a laugh. "That would have looked great on my psych eval, McKay. 'I'm an Air Force pilot and sometimes I'm a woman.' Yeah, that'd have gone over perfect."
She was probably right. Rodney's brain was still trying to figure everything out, which was probably an impossibility but he was Dr. Rodney McKay, the smartest man in two galaxies. If anyone would figure it out, Rodney could.
"You're awfully talkative," Rodney said after a few minutes of fruitless thinking. "I mean, John never talks this much."
"That's because John's a man," came the muffled voice. Although Rodney wouldn't have thought it possible, given the current laws of physics, Joan had somehow squeezed even closer to him. Probably trying to shelter herself from the wind. "God forbid men ever talk about feelings."
Rodney squinted up at the moons, trying very hard to quiet his completely inappropriate thoughts at having a woman pressed against him. Especially an injured woman who was sometimes a man who was also his best friend.
His head hurt.
"I'd have thought you'd be more 'we're all the same' or something," Rodney said. "With that whole gender divide."
A blanketed fist drove itself ineffectively into Rodney's ribs. "Anyone who thinks men and women have no differences needs a wake-up call," Joan said. By this time, her cheek was resting against Rodney's shoulder. "I'm still me. Just a little different biologically."
"And more violent," Rodney said, rubbing his chest where Joan had hit him. "John was never this touchy-feely."
"Yes I am."
"You didn't hit me so often."
"I've hit you three times in three weeks, and one of those was because you felt me up in public." Joan pulled herself up, shifting around to face Rodney. Her sudden absence at his side let the cold night air hit him once again. "You sound like you believe me."
Rodney squirmed under her intense scrutiny. "Believe what?"
"About..." She blinked, her gaze wavering for a moment. Rodney was reminded that Joan wasn't completely sober. "About me."
"I wouldn't say I believe you," Rodney blurted out before thinking. "I mean, that you're pulling some kind of wish-based gender-swap is preferable to thinking that both you and I have gone crazy in imagining John Sheppard, but it's completely impossible.
A faint hopeful light in Joan's eyes died and she curled back in on herself. Rodney's heart sank, realizing that he had just hurt her. But could she really want him to lie to her?
"I understand, McKay," Joan said, her voice gone cold. Even only a few inches of air separated them, that distance was as impenetrable as a mile. "I should get back to the infirmary before Keller calls out a search party on me."
The woman tried to stand, but her foot got caught in the edge of the blanket and she fell hard against the balcony railing. She fought her way free of the blanket before Rodney could stand to help her.
When Rodney touched her arm, Joan stepped back. She stood very much alone on the balcony, barefoot, in thin pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, vulnerable and injured and oh, so very angry. At Rodney.
"What?" Rodney asked, because it was better than flinching away from the emotion in Joan's eyes.
"You are such a bastard," she spat out.
"Me? What did I do?"
"You're the only person I've ever told about this and you don't believe me--"
"How can I believe this?"
"--In spite of all the evidence in front of your face!"
"It doesn't make any sense!" Rodney shouted. "It's not possible!"
Joan gripped the railing to steady herself as a blast of wind whipped past the balcony. "You think I don't know that?" she shouted back. "Hey, how about this? Why don't you just think about how it'd feel to wake up one day and for Jeannie to have been dead for years, and not have anyone else even know she's supposed to be alive!"
"And Madison never even existed, not here or anywhere, and there is nothing you can do to get them back." Joan took a step closer to Rodney, and her fury was more painful than a slap would have been. "So you grieve and no one knows why and you can't even talk about it because they'd lock you up for being crazy." The anger drained out of Joan as Rodney watched, unable to say a word. "Then one day you wake up and they're alive again like they've always been, but you can't ever forget that for half of your life, the people you love are dead." Her voice cracked on the last word.
For the longest time, Rodney could only stare. He had never seen John Sheppard this open, this... exposed. Because that was what had just happened. Joan had just opened up completely to Rodney, laying her emotions out in front of him.
And he hadn't believed her.
He still couldn't believe the situation, not in the least, but the one constant in the last five years of Rodney McKay's life had been trusting John Sheppard. And now, that meant Joan too.
"Hasn't anyone else ever seen you as John and Joan?" Rodney asked. "I mean, seen you as Joan while remembering you as John?"
Joan shivered. "No," she said under her breath, the word snatched away by the wind, leaving her so alone.
Rodney unzipped his jacket and slid it off his shoulders. "Put this on," he said, holding the jacket out to Joan. She just stared at him. "Come on, you're going to freeze to death and Jennifer will kill me."
When the woman still didn't move, Rodney draped the jacket over her shoulders. This necessitated stepping closer to Joan, close enough to smell the floral scent of her shampoo and the lingering copper tang of blood and injury on her skin.
Once the jacket was settled firmly on Joan's shoulders, Rodney should have stepped away. Instead, he just stood there, caught up in emotions in Joan's eyes. He didn't understand, not anything about her. How could she function when she didn't know if she'd wake up a man or a woman, if her sister would be alive or dead?
While Rodney stood there, trying to understand the mystery that was Joan Sheppard, she put one hand on his cheek and closed the distance between them.
Then she kissed him.
Maybe it was shock that kept Rodney immobile. Maybe it was the alcohol. Or possibly it was Joan's hands, one on his waist and one on his chest, holding him still as she pressed herself against him. Her lips parted under his and instinct took over. He kissed her back, tongue running over her lower lip. Her mouth tasted like alcohol and desperation and the faintest hint of blood, overwhelming Rodney's senses.
This had to stop. Rodney knew he had to stop this immediately. Joan was injured and drunk and he shouldn't be letting her do this, shouldn't be running his hand over her hip, shouldn't be listening to way Joan moaned into his mouth.
But he had almost lost her that day, and that was the only reason he sought comfort in the soft warmth of her lips.
He had no idea how long the kiss lasted before someone coughed. Rodney opened his eyes, more than a little dizzy, as Joan twisted around. Teyla and Ronon stood in the doorway. Ronon had his arms crossed over his chest, looking terrifyingly large. Teyla had raised one eyebrow at them. "Dr. Keller has sent us to find you, Joan," Teyla said after a moment. "She requires that you return to the infirmary."
Joan sighed, her whole body shivering with the effort, and Rodney realized that they were still pressed together. Quickly, Rodney moved back to give Joan her space.
But instead of going with Teyla, Joan just looked at him with those emotion-filled eyes until Teyla came forward and put her arm around Joan's waist to guide the taller woman back into the city and down the hall, out of sight.
This left Ronon and Rodney out on the balcony. Feeling somewhat awkward, Rodney made a vague motion with his hand. "That was just... you know. Stress."
"Stress," Ronon repeated.
Ronon shook his head.
"You're an idiot, McKay." With that, Ronon turned and went back into the city, leaving Rodney alone on the balcony.
Rodney figured he'd stay out in the open air and try to think things over, but quickly realized that Joan had taken his jacket so he went back inside, drifting down to the labs where a few people were still hard at work. Rodney sat at his usual chair and stared at a blank monitor until he stopped shivering. Then he turned on the monitor and stared unseeing at his email.
Joan was John, and Joan had kissed Rodney, and none of it made any sense.
Taking a deep breath, Rodney dove into his work. If anything could take his mind off Joan Sheppard, it was Ancient computer code.
Hours later, the hairs on the back of Rodney's neck stood up. He sat upright, looking around the lab. The room was empty and dark, all the good little scientists off asleep in their beds. He should have been alone, but every instinct Rodney had screamed that someone was there. It was the same sensation he sometimes got deep in the corridors of Atlantis, of something watching from the dark. There was never anybody there, but the sensation remained.
Only today, it was stronger than anything Rodney had ever felt.
There. In the corner, when Rodney looked hard enough, he could make out someone in the dark. But at the same time, there wasn't anyone there.
What had Joan said? "He was there, but he wasn't there," of someone lurking in little Johnny Sheppard's bedroom on the day he'd buried his sister, someone who asked him what he wanted, and someone who may very well have made John Sheppard's wishes come true.
And now, someone was there and not there in Rodney's lab, and after the life Rodney had led, he didn't believe in coincidences.
"Who are you?" Rodney asked, his hand going out to grab a spare life signs detector sitting on the edge of his desk. The device told him he was alone, but that didn't explain the outline of a person in the shadows.
Rodney didn't believe in ghosts, but he believed in beings who existed outside the laws of reality, who could change those laws with a thought.
"Did you do this?" Rodney asked, putting the pieces together around the insanity of the day. "You know, if you're Ascended or something, you're not allowed to mess with reality."
The shape in the shadow gave off an air of bemusement. At Rodney's effrontery for telling an Ascended being what he could or could not do.
The thoughts weren't Rodney's own. "Stay out of my head!" he exclaimed, springing off his chair and backing up as fast as he could.
The shape moved forward, sliding through the shadows. Why shouldn't Rodney's thoughts be manipulated? It was so easy.
"You can't mess with everyone like this!" Rodney said, backing into a desk. "You're not allowed to interfere with us."
What did Rodney really know about the Ascended?
"You can't interfere!" Rodney said again. "And you're messing with our minds, with the whole universe, to shift between John Sheppard and Joan Sheppard!"
But what about the sister?
"What you're doing is bringing someone back to life and then wiping them out of existence, over and over, isn't it? You have to keep messing with a wider circle of reality to eradicate Rosemary Sheppard's influence when you kill her off!"
Is that not what John Sheppard wanted?
Rodney's fear turned to anger. "He was a little boy who'd just lost his sister! He wanted her back, he didn't want to be jerked back and forth through some kind of purgatory!"
And have you asked him if he thinks it is worth it, to have such a sister, alive?
"You can't keep doing this!" Rodney said again. "The Ancients are going to notice and make you stop!"
That last word hung in the air. Too late, Rodney realized what he had just said. Before he could do anything, the shadows around him grew thick and choking.
"You are right," someone whispered.
The entire world moved a fraction of an inch all around him. In the distance, Rodney thought he heard someone scream.
Then the lights came on and there was nobody there.
"No, no no!" Rodney exclaimed, casting around for what had just happened. "That wasn't what I meant, I didn't mean it!"
The air was still and nothing was quite the same.
What had Rodney done?
Lorne came to get him the next morning. By that time, Rodney had almost talked himself into thinking the whole thing with the shadows in the lab had been some sort of trauma-induced hallucination. He'd been on the balcony with Joan and her crazy talk, which, combined with the alcohol he'd consumed, made him hallucinate. Everything was going to be fine.
The brief delusion of optimism lasted until Rodney entered the briefing room. The rescue team from the previous day sat on one side of the table, Rodney's team on the other. All that was visible of Sheppard from behind Ronon were two half-laced boots and one hand holding a cup of coffee.
But these were combat boots with 'eleven wide' stamped on the bottom. Joan Sheppard wore size eight narrow.
The hand was too broad, fingers too wide, to be a woman's hand.
Then Ronon moved, and Rodney was left staring at John Sheppard.
The man looked horrible. The bruising on his face had darkened to angry purples, and the circles under his eyes were almost as dark. The exhaustion was beyond simple tiredness, extending into a deeply buried emotional pain.
As if yesterday he'd had a sister and two nephews, and today they were long dead.
"Let us begin," Woolsey said, waiting until Lorne pushed a shell-shocked Rodney into an open chair. "I'd like to go over what happened yesterday, starting with Colonel Sheppard's team going through the Stargate."
Yesterday, Rodney had gone through the Gate with Joan Sheppard, and Kolya had been there, and Joan almost died and then she kissed Rodney on the balcony. Then Rodney told a late-night hallucination that such a thing as Joan Sheppard could not possibly be.
Now Joan was gone.
"I went over most of this in my report," Sheppard said. Hearing the man's low voice shook Rodney even more than seeing him in Joan's place. "My team split up and went to explore the surroundings."
Yesterday, Rodney had made some crack about boy-girl, boy-girl, and Joan had rolled her eyes and told him to get moving. Teyla had smiled at them both before following Ronon into the woods. Joan made Rodney go first up the hill and that was what saved their lives, as she'd been back far enough to hear the first tell-tale scuffle of boots on the rocks.
"McKay and I were attacked and taken to a secure location for 'questioning'." John's fingers curved into quotation marks around the word, making it into a joke when it was anything but.
Yesterday, Kolya would have killed Rodney and kept torturing Joan until she was lying dead and broken on a cold stone floor on an anonymous planet on the Pegasus galaxy, and Rosemary Sheppard would never know what her sister would endure for her.
"And then Teyla and Ronon came through with a rescue attempt with Lorne's team," John finished. "Here we are."
Woolsey blinked at the succinct story. "I'm going to need a little more detail than that," he said, turning to Rodney. "Dr. McKay?"
Rodney stared at the bandage on his finger. His injury was the same, and it shouldn't have been, because Kolya had made the order, and Kolya had been dead for years.
Rodney could tell the truth. He could explain how John turned into a girl, how a resurrected Kolya had ordered the attack, how Joan's baby sister hadn't been pulled down to die in the cold river depths as a small child, younger than Rodney's niece Madison was now.
He could tell John that he'd told a shadow of the impossibility of wishes being brought to life, and things had gone back to the way they were before, with John alive and his sister dead.
"I don't remember."
"Dr. McKay?" Woolsey said in surprise. "Dr. Keller pronounced you healthy--"
"Delayed trauma," Rodney snapped. He meant to look at Woolsey, to give credibility to his lie, but he made the mistake of glancing in John's direction. John's eyes were blank, expression opaque, and the utter lack of emotion hit Rodney harder than any accusation could.
"I don't remember anything from yesterday after we went through the Gate," Rodney finished lamely. He wouldn't have even believed himself.
"Maybe McKay should go see Keller," John said, leaning back in his chair. Did he know what Rodney had done to his sister?
"That might be a good idea--" Woolsey started, but Rodney was on his feet and out the door before the sentence had a chance to end.
He wasn't able to bring himself to look back and see John sitting where Joan should have been.
Keller was concerned and solicitous. She tested Rodney's memory and compared her scans to his 'dumbed-down' period, but had to let him leave the infirmary after a few hours when everything came back inconclusive.
"There is no physiological reason why you don't remember," had been her parting remark. "Let me know if you forget anything else."
Rodney restrained himself from asking exactly how he'd remember what he forgot. On autopilot, his feet took him back to his quarters where there wouldn't be any reminders of Joan Sheppard at all and he might be able to get some sleep.
Except, of course, that John Sheppard was taking up three-quarters of his couch.
"How did you even get in here?" Rodney demanded. He wanted to forget all about Joan Sheppard. About how vulnerable she had been on that balcony, how defiant she'd been of Kolya in the stone cell, how warm her mouth had been when she kissed Rodney.
For all Rodney knew, Joan didn't exist, and the last three weeks had been a hallucination brought on by the brain-shrinking parasite and some severely repressed psychological issues on Rodney's part.
"Atlantis let me in," John said.
"I can't see why." Rodney stood in the middle of the room, his arms crossed over his chest. "Get out."
John didn't move. "What did Keller say?"
"That I'm fine."
"You don't remember most of yesterday and you're fine?" John's eyebrows went up and oh god, it was that same expression Joan had and Rodney didn't know if he could do this again.
"Head trauma," Rodney suggested frantically. "I should get some sleep."
After a long silence, John slowly got to his feet. "If you're sure you're okay..." He let the words trail off.
"Are you still here?"
John hunched his shoulders as he glanced around the room. When he looked back at Rodney, his face was blank. "You take care of yourself, McKay" he said, shuffling towards the door.
And because Rodney couldn't let it go, he had to ask, "Why did you come here?"
John hesitated before saying, "To bring back your jacket."
Sure enough, Rodney's jacket lay draped on the foot of his bed, the same jacket that Rodney had wrapped around Joan Sheppard about seven seconds before she kissed him.
Rodney dragged his eyes off the jacket. There was something in Sheppard's gaze that Rodney didn't understand. "Any more questions?" John asked.
Rodney blinked. Without thinking, he asked, "How did it feel to stab Kolya?"
The unbruised part of John's face went sickly pale. "I shot Kolya, remember?" he said, then paused to run his tongue over his lower lip. He moved closer to Rodney and lowered his voice, even though it was only the two of them and the door was closed. "But if I'd had the opportunity to jam a knife through that son of a bitch's neck, it would have felt really, really good."
Rodney's breath froze in his lungs. He struggled to speak, to do anything, but John stalked out the door without another word.
Rodney sat on the edge of his bed, trying to wrap his mind around what had just happened. Had John just admitted to stabbing Kolya? But that would mean... John and Joan...
Head whirling, Rodney laid down. Something crinkled in his jacket as he pushed it out of the way. Automatically, Rodney reached into the pocket and pulled out a time-worn photograph of two very familiar children.
The polaroid mocked him with the faded image of four-year-old Rosemary Sheppard with her red pigtails, holding tight to a little boy with tousled dark hair and a missing front tooth, grinning madly at the camera while he hugged his sister like if he'd never let her go.
Five months later, Rosemary Sheppard had drowned in a cold river, leaving John alone.
Rodney stared at the photograph until his vision blurred. He closed his eyes to grieve for a child he had never met and for a woman he would never see again.
As was usual with Rodney's luck, things went from bad to horrible.
Rodney couldn't forget Joan and Rosemary. John was more standoffish than ever. Every time Rodney tried to say something to John, a remembered whisper of the world changing under his feet stopped the words in his throat.
Oddly, Teyla was the first to crack. She accosted Rodney in the hallway, two weeks after ambush on the planet, to ask him what was wrong.
Teyla shook her head. "I do not believe you."
After a long moment, she placed her hand comfortingly on his shoulder. "If you ever wish it, I am here for you."
"Thanks," Rodney said, confused. "Why?"
Teyla pursed her lips. "If you fear you are losing portions of your memory--"
"Huh? It's not that. Where did you get that from? But thanks." Rodney didn't really want to know what had set Teyla off, but he knew that look on her face. It meant she wanted to talk. "Look, I have to go," he said, and almost ran down the hall.
Did they think he was worried about losing his memory? The idea was almost laughable. That would have been pleasant, compared to the chaos in his head.
Two days later, Rodney was alone at the breakfast table when Ronon slumped into the chair opposite. Rodney tried to ignore Ronon, really he did, but his curiosity got the better of him after a few minutes of silent glaring. "All right, what?"
"You should talk to Sheppard."
"There's nothing wrong with Colonel Sheppard," Rodney said. He couldn't bring himself to say the man's first name, not since he'd accidentally asked something of "Joan" in that first week and John had almost punched him. "Go away, I'm eating."
Ronon shrugged and stood. "You know he's not all right, McKay," he said as he walked away.
Rodney managed to hold out for one more day, before Zelenka said tentatively, "Rodney, Colonel Sheppard is--"
"All right!" Rodney exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air and almost decapitating a passing astrophysicist. "I give up! I'm going!"
He found John lounging in the pilot seat of Jumper Six, a cup of coffee in one hand and technical read-outs on the display. Rodney stopped on the ramp, uncertain as to his welcome.
"What do you want, McKay?" John asked without turning around.
"Um, mind if I come in?"
"Nope." John brought his cup to his lips, cutting off any further conversation.
Rodney eased himself into the passenger seat and watched John work for several minutes. Normally, Rodney would be right in there with comments and criticism and the inevitable move over and let me do that, but today all he could do was watch.
He desperately wanted to say something to make it better, but what could he possibly say? Do you remember being Joan? What happened with you, and what happened with Joan?
John shifted in his chair, grimacing as his side brushed against the arm support.
"How are your ribs?" Rodney asked. John gave him a sideways glance. "From being kicked."
"Better," John said curtly. "How's the head?"
"Fine." Rodney couldn't think of anything to continue the conversation. An awkward stillness filled the jumper cabin, broken only by John hitting the control panel with more force than necessary. "Did you kiss me?"
John spit coffee all over the control panel.
Rodney jumped up, instinctively reaching for something to wipe the liquid off the crystals. "This is why we're not supposed to drink while doing repairs!"
"What did you just ask me?" John demanded as he wiped coffee off his face.
"Joan kissed me!" Rodney sputtered, turning red. "How the hell was I supposed to know if you did the same thing at the same time in this whole John-reality?"
John just stared, mouth open. In that moment, Rodney heartily wished that he was anywhere else. Like in the path of a Wraith dart.
After a long pause, John turned his attention back to the control panel. "I didn't kiss you, McKay," he said in a tight voice. "Get that rag from the back, would you?"
Rodney grabbed a strip of cloth hanging from the overhead bin to help with the clean-up. "It's a legitimate question," he said, even though the more rational part of his mind was telling to run away and hide because Jesus Christ, this was John, who always got the girl, which Rodney was not "Teyla's acting weird and even Ronon told me to talk to you--"
Rodney stopped talking when John threw the rag at the control panel. "Teyla and Ronon are worried about you, McKay, not me," he said.
"Oh. Because I thought maybe..." Rodney closed his mouth and contemplated the likelihood of Atlantis being destroyed in the next five seconds to put him out of his misery. The universe had no such plans for him, however. He was going to be stuck here with John glaring at him until the end of time.
Well, as long as John thought Rodney was crazy, may as well go all in.
Rodney cleared his throat and started again. "I thought because, well, Joan kissed me, that..."
He couldn't finish. John was still staring. The more Rodney thought about it, the more it sounded like Rodney had just hit on his best friend.
His male best friend.
His straight male best friend who was in the military.
And speaking of which, wasn't Rodney straight too?
This day couldn't possibly get any worse.
After a very long time, John finally shook his head and sat back in the pilot seat. He continued wiping up the spilled coffee. "McKay--"
"Look, never mind, okay?" Rodney said in a rush. "Just forget I said anything. It's got to be brain damage. I'll get a diagnosis from Keller. There's got to be treatment--"
"McKay, would you stop for a minute?" John demanded. Rodney stuttered to a halt. "Just... sit down, will you?"
At least it wasn't a punch to the face. Rodney sat on the edge of the seat, ready for a quick escape.
John took another half-heated wipe at the console. "Joan," he said very deliberately, "Could kiss men all she liked, as long as they weren't in her chain of command." He dropped the damp cloth to the ground. "That sort of behavior wouldn't have affected her military career."
There were so many unspoken implications in that statement that it took Rodney a few minutes to unravel the meanings. John had spoken of Joan, out loud, so Rodney wasn't crazy. The other thing was that John hadn't seemed repulsed that Joan had kissed Rodney.
"Welcome to my life," John muttered. He ran his hand over his face, callused palm rasping over a day's stubble. "I need to go meet with Lorne."
John heaved himself to his feet, moving with that exhaustion that never really left him.
Rodney shook himself out of the haze. "John, I'm... I'm sorry about Rosemary and the kids."
John went still. For the briefest of moments, something akin to grief passed over his features. He clapped a hand on Rodney's shoulder and managed a small smile. "Thanks," he said quietly. "I appreciate that."
Then he was gone.
Rodney slumped back in his seat. That hadn't been what he meant at all, but it was too late to take it back. He had a horrible suspicion that John would never be Joan again, would never see Rosemary again, and it was all Rodney's stupid fault.
Things resumed a more normal structure. John was talking to Rodney again and that was nice, even if Teyla watched them with narrowed eyes and Ronon... well, who knew what Ronon thought?
Another week passed before Atlantis dialed Earth for emergency medial supplies and the mail. Rodney spent most of the afternoon putting out fires, two literally, before staggering back to the labs for a quick email check before dinner. John was at Rodney's computer, playing a shoot-em-up game that Rodney had told Zelenka five times to uninstall. "Hey," John said, never taking his eyes off the exploding aliens. "Movie night after dinner."
"What did we get in the dial-up?" Rodney asked, pushing a minion off the adjacent computer to check his inbox.
"The collected works of Bruce Lee," John said, the tip of his tongue poking out of his mouth as he concentrated. Rodney had to look away because it was almost as distracting as watching Joan stretch her arms over her head. "I promised Teyla and Ronon some violence."
"Our whole lives are violent," Rodney pointed out. Over a hundred emails began to flood his inbox. "Why does it never seem to end?"
John let out a whoop. "Ha! One more level down." He closed the program and turned to Rodney expectantly. "Dinner?"
Rodney waved a hand in John's direction. "Let me go through these emails to see if any are actually important."
"Suit yourself." John opened the email program on his borrowed computer to check his own email. "I wonder if Mitchell got back to me with those new Apache specs--"
His words cut off so suddenly that Rodney looked up in surprise. John was staring at the computer screen, completely ashen.
"John, what--" Rodney started to say, but John shot to his feet so fast the chair fell over, startling the entire lab to silence.
John rounded on Rodney. "What did you do?" he demanded, completely furious.
"You're the only one who knows!" John shouted.
Rodney still had no idea what as going on. He held up a placating hand because John had that same cold expression in his eyes before he blew up Wraith Hive ships. "What are you talking about?" Rodney asked as he looked at the computer screen. The pixels came into focus, and Rodney saw what had set John off.
At the top of John's inbox was an email from Rosemary Sheppard.
For a moment, Rodney forgot the minions, the wrathful Colonel, everything in the universe except for the message John had received from his dead sister.
Zelenka said something, but Rodney paid no attention. "Everybody out!" Rodney said, waving everyone towards the door.
"Dr. McKay--" Someone tried.
"Now!" Reluctantly, the scientists left, with Zelenka being the last to linger in the doorway before exiting.
John retreated to a nearby table, holding himself upright by sheer strength of will. Rodney really didn't blame him, because if Rodney had received an email from his long-dead mother, he doubted he'd be handling it well either.
"Maybe you should read it," Rodney suggested.
John couldn't seem to make his eyes focus. "You didn't do this," he finally said.
It wasn't a question, but Rodney answered anyway. "I wouldn't do that to you."
"Yeah." It took everything John had left in him to push off the table and walk back to the computer. Holding himself as if he expected a blow, he clicked on the email. The email held an embedded video. John didn't move, so it was up to Rodney to press play. There were a few seconds of black, then someone moved to sit before the camera.
It was Rosemary Sheppard.
John swayed, giving Rodney just enough time to shove him into a chair. The man's eyes never left the screen.
"Hi," Rosemary said. Rodney took his eyes off the monitor to glance at John. A faint spark of hope shone in John's eyes, something Rodney had only ever seen in Joan.
And then Rosemary smiled.
"Well," she said after a pause. Her voice was more soprano than Joan's, but then Rosemary didn't spend her days yelling at Marines. "Sorry, I really hate making these things. I even wrote out what I wanted to say and everything." She shrugged, a twitch of the shoulder reminiscent of John. "I'm better at email, but I needed to... I needed you to see me, John."
John gripped the edge of the table so hard his knuckles turned white.
"We're all doing well," Rosemary continued. "Joe's home next week from Hong Kong." Something crashed off-screen. Rosemary looked at the ceiling in annoyance. "And Sam's seven going on thirty-nine. He's worse than Dave ever was when we were kids."
Another crash, then a young boy ran into the shot, careening into the woman's chair. The boy had light brown hair and freckles and paid no attention to the camera. "Mom, where's my swim trunks?" he demanded.
Rosemary put an arm around the boy's waist. "In your bag by the door, where you put them this morning." She pointed at the camera. "Say hi to your Uncle John."
The boy frowned at the camera contemplatively. "Hi, Uncle John," he said. "Hey, when you come home next time, can you take me up in a plane?" he asked, leaning against his mother's shoulder. "Joe said you took him up in a plane when he was nine and that was pretty cool and since you're a Colonel now you can do stuff like that, right?"
"Sam," Rosemary admonished, smiling over the boy's shoulder at the camera. "You know Joan's always busy when she-- he comes home."
Rodney's throat closed. Had Rosemary just called John Joan?
On the video, Sam rolled his eyes. "Uncle John always does cool stuff with us!" He jumped as a car honk sounded. "Gotta go! Mark's mom's here!" The boy dashed off-camera. A moment later, a door slammed.
Rosemary stared after her son for a moment before turning her head back to the camera. Her green eyes were so much like John's, like Joan's, that Rodney's stomach flopped over. There was so much pain in her eyes.
Rosemary took a deep breath. "We'd like it if you could come to visit the next time you're on leave," she said. "It's always good to have my brother come by." Another pause, then Rosemary seemed to come to a decision. "Okay, I know some things have changed. I don't know what happened, or if it's going to go back the way it was before, but I'm glad things are the way they are."
John made a soft noise of pain in the back of his throat.
"So come home next time you're around," Rosemary ordered shakily. "I'd like to have a chance to see my brother again."
The video ended.
Rodney let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. "Was that her?" he asked, a most unnecessary question, but when one was dealing with dead people suddenly being alive, it was best to be thorough.
Instead of answering, John stood and wandered out of the lab. Rodney trailed after him, down the emptying halls all the way to John's quarters. John never said a word.
The door slid open to let John into the room, where the man headed to the low dresser. He opened the bottom drawer and pulled a small photograph from underneath a pile of clothes. Whatever he saw in the photograph kept him on his knees, shoulders hunched and head down.
Rodney couldn't stand seeing John on his knees like that. He took John's elbow and hoisted the unresisting Colonel to his feet. John slumped on the end of his bed, elbows on his knees, holding the photograph with shaking hands. Rodney had to lean against John's shoulder to get a good look at the picture. It was the same shot Rodney had first seen weeks before, with an adult Rosemary and her children, only now Joan was John, standing with his family.
"Wow," Rodney breathed. "That's strange."
John let out a bark of laughter. "Strange?" he demanded. He wouldn't look at Rodney. "My sister's been dead for thirty-seven years, today I get a video from her, and you call that strange?"
John's voice cracked. He closed his mouth, covering his eyes with his hand. Rodney came very close to panicking, because while it was perfectly acceptable for Joan Sheppard to have emotions after nearly being beaten to death by Kolya, this was John, who vacillated between manic and moody, but never anywhere near the point where he would actually cry.
Knowing it was the biggest double standard ever, especially to be applying to the same person, Rodney did what he'd have done for Joan: He put his hand on John's back. "You didn't see the photograph change?"
John cleared his throat. "Um, no." The words were thick, but at least John was back in control. "When I'm... when Joan wakes up, I check the photograph and put it back so I don't have to see it change back."
"Why? What did the picture show when you're John?" This was officially the strangest conversation Rodney had ever had in the Pegasus Galaxy.
"Me." John traced the air over the photograph, not touching the glossy surface. "It's just me."
Then he put his hand over his eyes and his breathing got rough again and Rodney sat there, and neither could say a word.
Over five years, Rodney had gotten used to John Sheppard. There were seven main moods: Manic, panic, moody, annoyed, satisfied, anger and exhaustion. John's limited emotional palate made it easy for Rodney to classify what direction the Colonel might take in the course of a day, sort of an emotional weathervane.
Two days after John received Rosemary's email, Rodney realized he'd have to add an eighth mood to the wheel.
John Sheppard was happy.
The realization came to him over dinner one night as John babysat Torren while Teyla and Kannan had some alone time. Ronon had long-since abandoned them for the company of the Marines. "And this," John was saying to Torren, "Is yumba root." He held up the little spoon for Torren's approval. "It looks like slime and tastes like glue. Want some?"
Torren stared at the spoon, mouth firmly closed.
"Come on, it's not that bad," John cajoled. He moved the spoon in circles, making airplane noises until Torren laughed. John slipped the spoon into Torren's mouth. "Atta boy. You won't die of malnutrition tonight."
Rodney grimaced. "How can anyone eat that stuff?"
"It tastes like rice porridge, Rodney." John scooped up another spoonful. "Want to try some?" he offered, holding the spoon in Rodney's direction.
Rodney scooted back an inch. "Get that thing away from me."
The corners of John's eyes crinkled as he smiled. "You ate stuff like this when you were his age, we all did." John managed to get the next spoonful into Torren's mouth. He then gave the spoon to the boy, who commenced banging it against the tabletop, looking quite satisfied with himself.
Rodney watched as Torren progressed to hammering in six-eight time. "You're pretty good at taking care of him," Rodney said grudgingly. "I think some of the scientists' ovaries are going to explode if you keep it up."
John glanced around to see a number of female eyes on the table. Winking at Rodney, he wiped most of the goop off Torren's hands and face before gathering the boy up into his arms. "How'm I doing now?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. Seriously, some of the women looked like they might melt. He chose to take the high ground and ignore them. "Where did you learn how to take care of kids?"
John busied himself with spooning of mashed banana into Torren's mouth. "I used to help Rosemary take care of Joseph when I was home on break from college," he said. There wasn't a hint of bitterness in John's voice at remembering his family, only happy reminiscence. "Same with Sam when I was over. Every kid likes the spoon airplane."
"Huh." Rodney watched John for another minute, his attention focusing on John's hands for longer than was strictly appropriate. Not that he'd ever admit it to anyone, but watching John being happy was something he never thought he'd see.
It was nice.
"So where were we?" John asked, taking advantage of Torren's preoccupation with the banana to reach for a sandwich.
Rodney cast his mind back to the previous topic of conversation, before he'd caught sight of John's adoring fan club. Ah, yes. "What about the time you sat in the chair for the first time on Earth?"
John reflected. "Yes."
Rodney deflated. He'd been wrong again. He'd expected John to say "No," which was their agreed-upon public shorthand to mean "When it happened, I was John." Sheppard's answer meant that on that first day, deep in the Antarctic ice, it had been Joan Sheppard who sat in the Ancient Control Chair and totally ruined Rodney's day.
"But like I said before, I remember how it went both ways," John added, in what he probably thought was a helpful manner. "Very confusing when trying to remember how something happened, after the fact. Thank god for paperwork."
"Yes, so very sad for you," Rodney snapped. "What about when you met Teyla?"
"Answer's still yes. It's yes for the first few months here."
Joan had gone into the belly of that Wraith ship, and shot Colonel Sumner, and set up base on Atlantis, and...
"Hey!" Rodney exclaimed. "You shot me!"
John smiled fondly. "Yes, I did."
"Why did you do something like that?" Rodney demanded, remembering John's grin at pushing him off the balcony in the Gateroom.
John shrugged. "You asked me to."
John held up a warning finger. "Watch that double standard," he said.
Rodney huffed. John was right, damn it, but women didn't shoot Rodney every day. Although there had been a few times during Sam Carter's tenure when Rodney had wondered if she was about to pop him one. "Fine, what about..." Rodney thought hard. "When Ellia bit you and you turned into a bug?"
"No." John tossed a cloth over his shirt, then transferred Torren to his shoulder to gently pat the boy's back.
"When we were kicked off Atlantis by the returning Ancients for a few months?"
"Yes and no."
Which meant there was a story there and Rodney wouldn't get anything else out of John until they were alone.
Torren was beginning to fade. Already his dark eyes were at half-mast, head nodding against John's neck. "You should put him to bed before he falls asleep completely," Rodney said.
John quirked an eyebrow. "What an excellent idea," he agreed. Standing, he rounded the table to gently lever the drowsy baby into Rodney's arms.
Rodney made a face as one of Torren's hands, still covered in yumba root, gripped blindly at Rodney's collar. "He's all sticky," Rodney complained quietly.
"It's just food," John said innocently, reaching for Rodney's tray. "Besides, I'm clearing your mess up."
Rodney glared, but held back his annoyance. Torren was making little baby smacking noises as he rested heavily on Rodney's arm. "You're only doing this so you won't get slime on your uniform," he said as he stood to follow John out of the mess hall. "Teyla told you to watch him."
"I am watching him," John said as he turned toward the labs. "Just by proxy."
Torren squirmed, distracting Rodney into rubbing his back until he settled. "How about when Torren was born?"
"Nope." Then John had rescued them all from Michael.
"Okay, how about on that Ascension world in the time dilation loop?"
"No," John said, wincing as he always did when anyone worked that place into a conversation.
Sourly, Rodney remembered the woman there, yet another proof of the man's inherit Kirkness. "What about that Ancient Chaya?"
"Are you going to go over all the woman I've met in this galaxy?" John asked, opening the door to the quiet lab.
"If I have to," Rodney retorted. "What about it?"
"If you must know, the answer is no." John reached for the makeshift cradle, a long box filled with blankets Rodney had constructed months ago for babysitting nights such as this one.
"Great," Rodney muttered as he placed Torren in the cradle. He paused to frown at the set-up. "He's too big."
"Because babies grow." John was halfway to the computer with the good movies on it as he spoke.
"But what he rolls out in his sleep and hits the floor?"
"He won't roll out."
"Maybe he will." Rodney concentrated on the sleeping child. "Should I go get the lid from the back?"
John straightened up. "You want to put Teyla's baby in a box and close the lid?" he asked.
"No. Well, yes." Rodney glanced at John. "Do you think Teyla will mind?"
"Yes, Rodney, I think Teyla will mind." John shouldered Rodney out the way and hefted the box, sleeping baby and all, over to the floor by the couch. "Sit down."
Rodney gave up, more out of weary acceptance than any inclination to follow orders. After four years, he'd given up all hope at having any chance in picking the movie. Not that he planned to watch; he had too much work to do, but it would have been nice if John had at least pretended to ask his input.
Turning his attention back to the previous conversation, Rodney mentally sorted through the times that John had been around women. There had been that lady from the Ascension planet, and Chaya, and Teyla and any assorted number of other women over the years. Perversely, Rodney's memory plucked out one time when the lady in question had been a little closer to home. "How about when Thalen and Phoebus possessed you and Elisabeth?"
He completely expected John to say no, that the old alien who possessed Elisabeth had kissed a similarly possessed John, and then they had tried to kill each other. Really, one expected that sort of thing from John.
Rodney's hand stilled on his tablet. "What?"
John settled next to Rodney on the couch, leaning against his shoulder just a shade too close for strict heterosexual propriety. "I said yes."
And because Rodney wasn't dead, his mind went there, to the mental image of Elizabeth kissing Joan with that open-mouthed enthusiasm. Just before they tried to kill each other and everyone in the city.
John was still staring, almost daring Rodney to say something. Rodney cleared his throat. That image was going to be in his head for days. "Was it, um..."
John smiled. "Once you get past the whole 'being possessed by an evil alien intent upon destruction' thing, it was really pretty hot."
John edged closer, his chest warm against Rodney's shoulder. "In fact, it was really hot," he said in Rodney's ear, voice low. Then the bastard pulled back and settled against the couch cushions to watch the movie as if nothing happened.
Rodney stared at John Wayne swagger onto the screen, unable to pull his mind into coherency.
"Stick fighting with Teyla was pretty awesome too."
John chuckled as he unwrapped something that looked an awful lot like chocolate. "I know."
Rodney took the offered chocolate, something Sheppard must have had smuggled in because it actually tasted good. He tried to think what it must have been like for John to be Joan, training with Teyla. Joan probably wouldn't have worn that skirt thing Teyla wore, he mused, then quickly thought about anything else before that train of thought reached its inevitable conclusion.
It took until the movie's first gun battle had ended for Rodney to work up the courage to ask, "Will you miss it?"
John cocked an eyebrow at the screen. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you've got Rosemary now and things are back to the way they should be, right?"
John picked at the hem of his shirt, fingers moving restlessly over the fabric. "You don't know things won't flip over again," he said.
"Yes, McKay, all right?" John interrupted. "I'd miss it."
"Why?" John glared at him for a minute. "Because it wouldn't feel right."
"Can we stop talking about this now?"
"But you've got everything back the way it was--"
"McKay, damn it!" John's outburst roused Torren. It took nearly twenty minutes for John to rock the baby back to sleep. Finally, John settled on the other end of the couch and pretended to watch the movie.
Rodney suspected that John wasn't going to answer his question, so he went back to work, glance up every now and then to make sure John hadn't vanished, and that Torren was sleeping soundly.
"It's half my life," John said after a very long time. He rubbed at an old scar on the back of his hand. "You try about losing half your life."
"But it wasn't supposed to be that way at all. Joan, I mean." Rodney said.
John he slouched down even further. "It felt like it was," he said, and Rodney couldn't think of a way to disagree.
The movie's love interest swept on screen, but Rodney paid her no attention. He'd lost most of his tolerance for helpless females years ago. "Have you ever wondered what did it?" Rodney asked, giving voice to the thought that had consumed him for the last several days.
"I made a wish."
"Yes, well, what good is that?" Rodney demanded. "Wishes don't come true. If they did, I've have been a hell of a lot more popular with girls in high school."
A ghost of a smile passed over John's face. "High school? What about the scientists here?"
"You're evading my point," Rodney said. "Wishes don't come true, and yet your sister came back from the dead. What do you call that?"
Now John was just being sarcastic. "When have we ever encountered anything resembling a miracle that wasn't the result of some Ascended Ancient?"
John looked at Rodney out of the corner of his eye. "You think an Ancient did this."
"It's a possibility, isn't it?"
"I was five, there was no Stargate program or anything."
"Come on, at least admit that I'm right! That it's possible?"
"I don't want to talk about this."
Not the answer Rodney had expected. He had expected an outright 'No', or the usual query if Rodney had lost his mind. But not this.
John dropped his head into his hands, running his fingers through his hair until his hair was standing on-end.
"What else could bring a little girl back from the dead?" Rodney asked. "Shift an entire reality every time you, um, changed?"
"I'm supposed to be happy with the idea that something Ascended decided to fuck with my life?" John demanded.
"I didn't mean..."
John sighed. "I know," he said. He rubbed at his eyes. "The thought had actually occurred to me."
"What? When we got to Pegasus?"
John shrugged. "Sort of. With everything happening, it just kind of came to me one day."
"Oh." Rodney looked around. "What are you going to do about it?"
"I'm not going to do anything." John was deliberately not looking at Rodney now.
"Why you?" Rodney asked. "Of all the people in the world, why would any Ancient pay attention to a five-year-old you?"
John hesitated. He seemed to come to some sort of a decision, for he held out his hand for Rodney's computer. It only took him a few minutes to log into his files and open something on the screen, which he then handed to Rodney.
It was a very old photograph, sepia in lights and darks. The clothes in the scene were from some time in the 19th century, expressions set and grim for the long exposure. "Do you see anyone familiar?" John asked.
Rodney squinted at the picture. "How is it that you suddenly have all this personal stuff?" he asked. "You came to Atlantis with a book as your personal item."
"I put the pictures in the book, idiot." John jabbed the tablet with his finger. "Look closely."
What could he be looking for? Rodney let his eyes move from figure to figure, wondering it this was some sort of optical illusion. Just before he was about to admit temporary defeat, his memory snagged as his gaze moved over the image of one person, a tall upright man with a handlebar moustache and a penetrating stare. "This one," Rodney said. "Have I seen this guy before?"
"He was an old friend of the family," John said, his voice tight. "There's this big family legend about how he saved one of the Sheppards in one of the wars. He hung around the house a lot for about a decade, then he just up and vanished."
Rodney shook his head. "So your family has ghosts, why does that make any difference of if I recognize--" He stopped suddenly, putting together the surroundings where he had first seen that man. It had been on Atlantis... but how?
"That photo used to be on the mantle at home, but my parents took it down after Rosemary almost drowned. Dave sent me a scan last year."
"Why did your parents take it down?" Rodney asked, his mouth dry.
John lowered his voice, not that there was anyone to hear them in the empty lab. "Rosemary went into hysterics whenever she saw the picture. She said the man who dragged her into the river used to watch her from the windows. Every time, she pointed at him." John's finger touched the screen over Handlebar-Mustache.
A chill ran down Rodney's spine that had nothing to do with the temperature in the room.
John stared at Torren, sleeping soundly as the movie played in the background. "No one ever believed Rosemary," John said. "No one but me. And then I came here and realized why."
Rodney remembered now. It had been during that first year in Atlantis, in the demonstration room, where Rodney and Elizabeth and John had been looking at the Ancients who had been the last to leave for Earth, ten thousand years before.
And the man in the photograph, the one with staring eyes who terrified a young Rosemary Sheppard into hysterics, had been among them.
"So what am I supposed to think?" John asked. "That an Ancient kills my sister and then gives her back to me? Why?"
Rodney looked at the photograph, and had no answers for John.
It didn't make any sense.
Time moved on. Things settled again, and while he might not have any answers about the twisted morality of Ancients, Sheppard was doing okay and that was just fine with Rodney.
However, in spite of John Sheppard having family again, Rodney had to admit to himself that he wished he'd had a little more time with Joan. A few weeks wasn't nearly enough.
And the woman had been really hot, once one got past the fact that she could probably have killed him with one hand tied behind her back. Although that might have been part of the charm.
The resupply ship came and went, leaving new personnel in its wake. Teyla made it her personal mission to greet every new person, trying to figure them all out. A week into her new campaign, Rodney found himself at the breakfast table with Ronon, Teyla and the baby, talking with the new psychologist. Well, Teyla talked. Ronon carved up an apple and Rodney worked on power schematics. Torren drooled.
"...such a nice young man," the shrink said, gently shaking the baby's fist. "I've been told he was named after your father?"
"Yes," Teyla responded with a smile. "My father was a strong warrior in the fight against the Wraith." She bowed her head for a moment of remembrance. "But my son is part of the new generation, born in defiance of the Wraith. He is also named for Colonel Sheppard."
"His middle name, isn't it? John?"
"Indeed. Colonel Sheppard tells me that 'John' is the masculine version of her name."
Rodney dropped his computer.
Before he could do anything, speak or think or breathe, someone slapped his shoulder. "Hey everyone," came a low female voice. Somebody slid into the chair next to Rodney, all long limbs and spiky hair and a smile that could light up the city.
"Joan," Teyla said in greeting, nodding her head. Ronon grunted.
"Dr. Dowd," Joan said, reaching for the baby. "How's my favorite guy this morning?"
"He is well," Teyla said. "Healthy and happy and growing strong."
"That's my boy," Joan said, bouncing Torren on her knee. The baby burbled in delight. Only then did Joan look back at Rodney, and the expression on her face took his breath away. "How are things this morning, McKay?" she asked.
"Uh-- what?" Rodney said, trying desperately to work his way through this unforeseen development. He'd thought that John had gone back to his default setting, only with Rosemary and family as a value-added bonus. But this? And there was no way Joan would be so happy if Rosemary had ceased to exist.
Joan's smile turned mischievous. "If you don't start making sense, Rodney, we might have to take you on today's surprise twenty-mile hike on the mainland." Her voice rose to reach around the cafeteria. Three tables down, the Marines visibly wilted. "And you wouldn't want that, would you?"
"No, I'm fine with the... not-hike." Rodney knew he was staring, but he couldn't help it. This was Joan. She fairly glowed with the same happiness John Sheppard had been exuding for days. "When are you leaving?"
"That's part of the surprise, isn't it?" Joan hefted Torren into the crook of her arm, giving the boy a big kiss on the cheek as she stood. "I need to get some food. Anyone need anything?"
At the negative replies, Joan strode off to the food table, Torren in hand. After a moment, Rodney bolted after them.
"Hey Rodney," Joan said when he caught up to her. She was loading a tray one-handed, balancing Torren on her other arm. "Coming up for round two?"
"What? Oh, no." Rodney had no idea what he wanted to say, but he couldn't just go back to the table now, could he?
As usual, Sheppard saved him. "Here, hold this," she said, hoisting Torren in his direction.
"Right," Rodney said, all his energy focused on maintaining a hold on the squirming baby. "So, um, is everything okay with you?" Joan gave him a questioning glance. "I mean... you know. With everything."
Joan placed a cup of coffee on her laden tray. "Sure is." She gave Rodney a small, private smile, and his heart flopped over in his chest. "I had to finish my reply to Rosemary's email before I came in this morning. To ask her how much she knows. You know. About stuff."
"Right. Stuff." Rodney considered this development as Torren gummed at his shoulder. "So everyone's... good?"
"Good as can be." Joan considered her tray, then added another slice of toast.
"What's with the carb loading?" Rodney asked, momentarily distracted.
"One of the benefits of being the CO is knowing exactly how long today's hike will be," Joan said. Two nearby soldiers surreptitiously returned to the food table.
Rodney wondered for a moment how anyone with that narrow waist could eat so much, but disregarded the thought for a much more important matter. "But... this?"
He didn't point directly at her chest, because he suspected the Marines would take umbrage, but Joan knew what he meant. "Like I said, McKay, it's half my life. It's just a thing that happens."
"Really?" Rodney would have thought that in spite of what she'd said, Sheppard would have liked to stay John after all these years.
"Yeah. Maybe this is how it's supposed to be. With some kind of balance." She shrugged. "I mean, Rosemary is good, so are my nephews, we haven't blown anything up in weeks. What else could anyone want?"
Part of Rodney's rational mind couldn't believe that they were discussing Joan's fluid gender issues in the middle of the mess hall. "It sounds like you've got everything you want."
The corner of Joan's mouth twitched into another smile. "Almost everything," she corrected. She was looking at him in such a way that Rodney knew he was missing something. Torren broke his concentration by twisting and trying to escape, but his baby flailing was no match for Rodney's superior intellect. Transferring the boy up on his other shoulder, Rodney took a deep breath and threw caution to the wind.
"When you get back, would you..." Joan was staring at him and it was like the entire city was packed into the mess hall to listen to Rodney make an abject fool of himself. But it was far too late now to escape. "Would you like to have dinner?"
The surprise on Joan's face made Rodney want to sink into the ground. "We have dinner every night," she pointed out.
"I know, but I thought, maybe, you and I could have dinner. Together." For heaven's sake, he was over forty years old and the smartest man in at least two galaxies. He shouldn't be petrified of having just asked his friend to join him for dinner.
But Joan wasn't just any friend. She was his female friend who was also his team leader and best friend. Who was sometimes a guy.
That headache was starting to come back between his eyes.
But Joan beamed at him like he'd given her the whole world with six little words. "Yeah, McKay, I'd like that," she said. "But in the interests of full disclosure, I'm not sure when things might, you know. Change."
She laid the stress on the last word. Rodney's mind made what he hoped was the right connection, Joan to John. "That's okay," he stammered.
Joan's grip tightened on the tray. It took her a moment to say, "Really?"
"Yes, really." Because if Joan came back from the mainland as John, they could still have dinner and if Sheppard wouldn't call it a date because of his military career, it would still be them hanging out.
Some things wouldn't change, no matter what.
"Then I'll see you tonight," Joan said softly. Not that it mattered, as the entire mess hall had gone quiet as everyone strained to eavesdrop.
"Right," Rodney said, his heart lifting as if he'd just found a new ZPM. "All right. See you then." He started out of the mess hall, hoping he could escape before Joan changed her mind.
Rodney whirled. "What?"
Joan pointed at his left shoulder. Rodney followed her finger, to where Torren sat perched on his arm, the boy's lower lip jutting out in irritation.
Rodney doubled back to dump Torren on Joan's free arm. "Thanks."
"You're welcome, McKay," Joan said, rolling her eyes at him.
This time, Rodney really did manage to leave the mess hall in one piece.
He made it all the way back to his labs before his manic burst of energy left him. He had a date with Joan Sheppard. Anything at all could happen that day. He wouldn't mind because he had a date with Joan Sheppard.
Of course, when he opened his email, he wanted to kick himself for issuing the universe such an ultimatum. At the very top of his email, which for some reason he hadn't checked since the mail came in from Earth, was a message to Rodney from Rosemary Sheppard.
There were so many ways this could go epically wrong.
Hesitating, Rodney made himself open the email. It was short and to the point.
Joan told me that you've always been there for her. Thank you for being such a good friend to her.
Rodney slumped in relief. Rosemary Sheppard was alive, Joan was fine with whatever the hell was up with her gender, and whoever was messing with this insane universe seemed fine with letting things be, for now.
There were worse ways to start a day.
Rodney stared at Rosemary's message for a long time, then he closed it. He'd reply later. Right now, he had work to do.
This was a brand new day in Atlantis and some things were okay, after all.
Something like a happy ending