Parking his butt on the metal bench, Rodney glared at the teenager next to him--who was texting herself into carpal tunnel surgery--his eyes speaking volumes. As in: "Your presence is not appreciated. I doubt your presence will ever be appreciated. By anyone. Ever. Leave." Finally she did leave, but not without an accompanying rude hand gesture, which he returned with equal vigor. Then he spread one arm along the length to discourage anyone else from sitting down and sucked up a mouthful of cold Coke. Although the temperature was in the high 90s, there was a slight breeze, and when the wind hit a certain point, a brief hint of cooling water from the misters across the way tickled his face.
He must have been insane agreeing to this. He really, really hated Jeannie and sort of hated Jennifer. The only thing stopping him from hailing a cab and getting the first flight out was a feeling that if he returned early, he might as well kiss his relationship with Jennifer good-bye. Plus, he really didn't want to deal with the inevitable emotional harangue from Jeannie. How he'd missed so much of Madison's childhood already, couldn't he just deal? Have fun. Sure it was hot, but the pools at the hotel were incredible. Chill off in the water. No, thank you. Based on the legions of children in the water and the overwhelming smell of chlorine, those little pee monsters were probably letting loose the second they got in. Despite rumors to the contrary, he'd been a kid and even geniuses go pee in pools.
And no amount of nagging or verbal poking would convince him to go on that horrendous pseudo-inner tube/tire ride that mimicked barreling down whitewater rapids, where the chances of getting soaked to the skin were about 94.35%. Rodney stood at the exit for five minutes, calculated the area of wet clothing to dry clothing, and then told Jeannie that they were doing the Grizzly Run by their lonesome. The first brain-dead teenager that walked in front of him got his Fast Pass. He was going to get a gigantic Coke--which would cost him a whopping $5.00--and then he'd wait for them at the bench directly across from Soaring Over California. It was so hot that in the time it would take them to walk to where he was sitting their clothes would be nearly dry. After redeeming their Fast Passes for Soaring Over California, he was done for the day. They could do whatever Disney-inspired hell they liked after that; he was retreating to the bar in the hotel. There was a secret little corner away from the screeching kids (weren't there laws against bringing children into bars?) where he could down his drink in peace and work on solving Baryon's asymmetry on a stack of cocktail napkins. If by some miracle he didn't get a migraine, he'd join them for dinner.
Rodney didn't know what had possessed him to agree to this. Well, yes, he did. Jennifer told him point blank, "You need a vacation." Which he answered with a flap of his hand. Then Jeannie called, insisting they have some uncle/niece bonding time. They could meet in Disneyland. Of course, this might result in Mads hating him, which was always a possibility. He was the sort of person to which the old adage "absence makes the heart grow fonder" was more apt than not.
When Radek had began swearing at him under his breath in Czech slang, Rodney knew he was skating close to the edge. Despite Jeannie's incessant nagging and Radek's increasingly childish insults, Rodney had ignored them both. Then he and Jennifer had had dinner in their quarters, something they hadn't done in a while and that used to signal rare steaks, a delicious French burgundy, and a negligee splayed out on the bed. This time it was hamburgers from the mess, a so-so Merlot, and the visual of a packed suitcase sitting just inside the door. After they toasted each other, she'd had handed him a ticket with the words, "Rodney, I've bought you a plane ticket and reserved a suite at the Grand Californian. Say hello to Jeannie, Mads, Caleb, and Mickey Mouse for me."
He had sputtered, "Have you been colluding behind my back?"
To which she had responded, "Yes. All my gentle hints have fallen on deaf ears. Please, Rodney. You need a break."
So here he was, definitely not happy, but dealing, albeit not very graciously. It was moments like this that he missed John the most. Because no one would have gotten more of a kick out of Rodney McKay at Disneyland than John Sheppard. He would have been texting him non-stop: "Did you tinker's bell?" "Yo ho, yo ho, an asshole's life for me." "Are you walking down Lame Street?" "How many roller coasters have you been on?" The only thing more torturous than spending a summer vacation at Disneyland with his sister's family would have been to spend it with John. Rodney could just envision it. They'd be up at dawn and not leave until closing. They'd have to go on every damn ride, at least once, no exceptions. John would make him go on the teacups, but then hold his barf bag for him. John would even force Rodney go on It's a Small World. Then hum that song constantly for months on end. Naturally the roller coasters would be at the top of the list. Along with the Ferris wheel. It would be the worst four days of his life.
And the best. Nothing would be better than Rodney suffering through four days of sheer amusement park ride hell with John Sheppard, because it would mean that he'd have John Sheppard alongside to inflict amusement park hell.
It had been a long time since Rodney had had a meltdown. A year? No, nine months. He'd been working on the stabilizers in John's favorite jumper and on dropping a screwdriver had found a half-finished Sudoku puzzle book stashed underneath the seat. The sight of John's efficient almost without serif handwriting--with the exception of his eights, which were almost elegant--Rodney had started crying yet again. That had been the last time, and he wasn't going to lose it here in Disneyland of all places.
Crushing his cup in an effort not to cry, the sticky ice flooding his fingers stopped the tears. Jesus, would it ever stop hurting? Would he ever stop thinking that every lanky brunet he saw off in a distance was John? Like that guy herding the crowds into Soaring Over California. He could be John's twin. The moronic semi-cowboy-ish hat was perched half off of his head, definitely not regulation. Even that stupid salute he was giving to the guy relieving him was just like John used to do. Sort of lazy and half-assed and...
Rodney stood up and starting running. Right before a door shut behind him, the guy pulled out a bandanna to rub the sweat off of his neck. Rodney was close enough to see a scar. He made to shout and the door closed.
Rodney was definitely lodging a complaint. The bruises from all that excessive manhandling were already coming up.
After he had tried to tug the door open, one of the other employees had told him that it was restricted, for employees only, to which he had replied in scathing McKay-ese, "I can read, you idiot." At which point security guards had been called, and he was "escorted" out of the park. Fortunately, this was all before Jeannie and company had arrived, sparing them the sight of him being strong-armed to the nearest exit.
He texted them that he'd returned to the hotel and would meet them in a couple of hours. He marched straight into the business center. Although he was paying over $600/night, his room didn't have WiFi, and the paltry excuse that there wasn't WiFi on purpose because they wanted him to enjoy the park was outrageous.
"Unplug, Dr. McKay," insisted the Concierge.
Ignoring the manufactured politesse of the flunky guarding the business center, he took a machine that had the most privacy. Sliding in his credit card, Rodney immediately began to hack into the computer system for the park. It was a little disconcerting that hacking into the Pentagon was actually easier; an anonymous email to Landry was in order. It took him at least ten minutes to get in, which was something like six hundred in hacker's years. Maybe he was getting old.
It seemed too simple, surely he wouldn't be there under his own name but Rodney had to start somewhere... There he was. Johnny Sheppard, picture and everything. Wow, had John been that gray when he disappeared? Rodney put a self-conscious hand up to his ever-increasing bald spot. John had been working at the park two years. Three days out from when he disappeared. He'd started picking up trash, then was so exemplary with a broom that they had moved him into the rides, first having him steer the boats in Storybook Land, and then graduating him to piloting the rafts that went back and forth between New Orleans Square and Tom Sawyer's Island. Currently, he staffed the Ferris wheel two days a week and Soaring three days a week. He was back-up for the canoes, because apparently anyone with a half a brain can operate a Ferris wheel but steering a canoe actually took some skill, and if someone called in sick... He was retired military, didn't talk much, was always on time, did his job well, the kids really liked him, and he was seriously being considered for a promotion.
Johnny Sheppard. Johnny Goddamn It Sheppard.
Rodney's migraine hit right on time. The humiliation of being escorted from the park by goons dressed up as Toy Story extras was certainly "food" enough and then the stress from seeing John... This was the only excuse that would have silenced Jeannie and her insistence that he join them for dinner at the Blue Bayou. He did love Madison; he just hated all this canned fun. Next year they'd do something intelligent, like visit the Smithsonian. Jeannie took one look at his face and asked him if he'd taken his Imitrex. At his brief nod, she left without a word. Once in la-la land from the Imitrex, he lay on his bed obsessing on his plans for the next day. Normally the Imitrex knocked him out, but his brain was racing, looping, and running in six different directions.
They had one more day in the park. At some point he would play the cranky-pants astrophysicist card, which really shouldn't be hard because Mads was in a roller coast phase--she was fascinated by the physics not the speed--and no amount of glaring on Jeannie's part was going to make him ride on a roller coaster. John could have humiliated him into it, but Jeannie was a McKay; therefore Rodney was immune to whatever strong-arm tactics she had up her sleeve.
Sure enough, she tried to browbeat him into riding Space Mountain with them. At her stern, "It's our last day, Meredith," he replied, "Do I need to point out to you how completely ridiculous that whole concept is to me? Space Mountain? Please. I've hurtled through time and space toward my death enough for one lifetime, thank you."
Jeannie knew when she was beaten. As soon as the three of them walked out of sight, Rodney raced through Tomorrow Land, barreled down Main Street, and was trying not to run by the time he'd entered California Adventure. Rodney did a quick reconnaissance of the Ferris wheel. No John. Then he found himself running through the park to the entrance of Soaring. The line was already several scores of people deep, the majority of them eating popcorn and cotton candy. At ten o'clock in the morning. Rodney had already been on this ride once already, and the thought of the whooshing through a facsimile of California's landscape with a belly full of popcorn topped by a spun sugar chaser was nearly enough to make him lose his breakfast.
Finally, he made it up to the front door of the mock airplane hangar. John wasn't manning the door like he'd done the day before, and Rodney could only cross his fingers that he was inside.
Which he was. At the bottom of the ramp. Based on how he was waving his arms and pretending to be an airplane, accompanied by one of his standard goofball faces, John was explaining the physics of flight to a bunch of kids. Rodney put a hand out to steady himself against the wall, because, god, it was John. John Sheppard. Grayer, so much grayer, and, if possible, thinner, but nevertheless it was John.
"You okay, mister?" asked the older guy manning the entrance. They must pack this ride with nothing but retired military because this guy had ex-Marine written all over him.
"The heat," Rodney managed to rasp out.
"Yeah, it gets hot out there. It will be cooler once you get inside the ride, and it wouldn't hurt to stand out under the mister for a few minutes when you're done." It wasn't said like it a suggestion but more like an order. He'd probably been a sergeant.
The line surged forward in measured pulses, as fifty to sixty people at a time filed into the ride. Finally, he had reached the section of the hangar where John was standing telling people to go left or right. Sometimes Rodney had no choice but to believe there actually was a God, because he was so gutted by emotion that in his zeal to grab John and hold him, he tripped over his own feet and went splat on the concrete floor.
"Hey, buddy, you okay? Heat get to you?"
Rodney looked up. John's face was all crunched up like he did when he was concerned, but it was a blank concern, the sort of concern you'd have if you were a nice guy and some klutz just face-planted in front of you. Not the sort of concern that said, "Oh my god. Rodney." Or even, "I know it's you, and you know it's me, but play it cool."
Rodney whispered, "John?"
"Yep, that's me. Although it's Johnny. Today, tomorrow, and the day after that. I like to be Poindexter on Tuesdays but they won't let me. Think you can stand up?"
Rodney let John hoist him up and prop him up against the wall, all the while Rodney was cataloguing what made Johnny Sheppard still John. The stupid hair. The green eyes. The casual grace. Before he knew it, a Disneyland medical team was shuffling him off in a wheelchair to some sick bay to feed him ice cubes for an hour. He was too destroyed to even so much as protest.
Back in his room--they actually wheeled him back up to his suite and insisted that he rest--Rodney began pacing the length of the room. He needed to think. Why couldn't it be simple? Like an equation:
John Sheppard/Rodney McKay X by x + a = the square root of explosion X by concussion squared X by migraine X by Disneyland = Rodney McKay/John Sheppard = Atlantis.
where he could cancel out terms, and the solution was that they hadn't been blown up, and John didn't become crushed by guilt into having some sort of mental breakdown that seemed to be manifesting itself in a persistent state of amnesia.
Shortly after they'd landed in San Francisco--after they'd moved the city so that it wasn't sitting smack dab in the middle of one of the major shipping channels in the United States--they'd been on a standard, routine exploration of the west tower. They'd entered some ordinary room with the usual Ancient furniture, beautiful but uncomfortable, decorated with a bunch of orbs. Atlantis was full of orbs, most of them decorative and inert, but, hello, not these babies. John had touched one, no doubt expecting it to glow and preen all sorts of pretty colors for him, as the objects in Atlantis tended to do. It blew up, starting a chain reaction whereby all of the orbs began to blow up until John screamed, "Stop!" Rodney had been temporarily blinded from a concussion that was nearly fatal, Teyla lost her leg below the knee, and Ronon's back still looked like pizza two years later. One of the more "charming" anti-Wraith devices, later they figured that it was somehow related to John's pure ATA gene, where he wasn't hurt but everyone else around him was killed or maimed. John literally didn't have a scratch on him.
That was the part that Rodney knew was unacceptable to John. If John had been maimed, blinded, and/or disabled, he probably would have been fine. But all he could do was to put a tourniquet on what was left of Teyla's leg while screaming for medics over his comlink.
Frankly, the masochist in John was so profound that Rodney was convinced that John would insist that he be court-martialed for his actions, but apparently not. Once John knew that they would all live, albeit Teyla maimed and Rodney blind, he just disappeared. In an act Rodney thought so ironic they should invent a new word for it, John had filled out his paperwork for retirement and left it on his desk. John had put in his twenty, and while technically he should have done some more serious hoop jumping due to the confidential nature of his tours, it was textbook perfect. Hacking into the mainframe with an ability that infuriated Rodney (because it showed exactly how much John had been hiding about his level of computer expertise), he'd permanently disabling his tracking device and had a hapless Marine drop him off at the closest pier. He hadn't been seen since. His bank accounts hadn't been touched. He left and disappeared.
For a solid year after the explosion Rodney was blind-sided by daily migraines at 5:04 pm on the dot. Which was exactly to the minute when they'd been blown up. Having tapered off in year two--he only got them twenty days out of thirty--it was likely that over time they would recede completely. Jennifer had hinted that it was largely psychological, a PTS reaction. To which Rodney had responded, "No shit, Jennifer?" This was the first in a series of cracks in what had once been a perfect relationship.
He didn't know where they were anymore. Rodney had never been in a long-term relationship--he really didn't count Katie Brown--so he had no benchmarks, no sense of where relationships were supposed to go. Even though his ignorance on these matters was total, a growing sense of panic told him that they'd reached a crisis point, even though he couldn't exactly point to anything that had precipitated it. It was more like he went to bed one night and woke up the next day and there they were. On the brink of breaking up. And if he didn't do something, they would break up. But he didn't know what to do! He was hopeless at this sort of thing. He'd always had been.
On their first day in the park, while Caleb and Mads went off to search for churros--"I want three!" shouted Rodney--he and Jeannie had been sitting in a shaded area across from the Matterhorn, and in a rare moment of brother/sister candor he'd asked her a question that had been haunting him for weeks.
"Jeannie, do you ever have a tiny, little voice in your head that says, 'Go'?"
She had turned away from glaring at a teenage mother who was ignoring her screaming infant in lieu of gossiping with her friends to give him her full attention.
As much as he publicly and privately bitched about Jeannie and what a shrew she could be, in real clutch moments she got him like no one else. She didn't screech, "Go? From the park? Now? You want to go back to the hotel?" like he thought she would.
No. She looked at him, pursed her mouth for a few seconds, and then had said in a calm voice, "No. We've had our hard times, like any marriage, but I never want to go. If you've got a voice telling you to go, you need to listen to it."
She didn't give him any additional advice, for which he was grateful, and they sat there in silence until Mads and Caleb returned clutching a bunch of warm, sugary churros in their hands like they were bouquets of flowers.
As he wolfed down his churros--there is nothing worse than a cold churro--there was a side of Rodney that resented this like hell. He hadn't had to be anything else but who he was for months and months and months, passing his B.A. in Relationship with flying colors. But now he was on the verge of taking his Relationship Qualifying and without a doubt he was going to fail. They still had days when he couldn't believe this beautiful, gentle, and brilliant woman was sleeping next to him; who ran her hands over the planes of his chest and sighed with pleasure. But the smug euphoria that had characterized his feelings about Jennifer in the beginning of their relationship was now increasingly rare. No matter how much she tried to hide it, her exasperation with him lurked in the background of their daily interaction. For his part, he couldn't help the defensive, sometimes combative tone that was now nearly habitual. Rodney's brain and Rodney's mouth were one. He had never had filters. Seriously, if he couldn't zip his big mouth around hostile megalomaniac aliens with weapons pointed at his head, how could he possibly begin to do so with her?
Sometimes he thought that it was getting blown up that had ruined them. Because no matter how many MRIs and CAT scans and tests that she had done, he still got migraines everyday at 5:04 pm. First he'd get the tingling in his hands, then the increasing sensitivity to light, next the nausea, then the narrowing of his vision, and finally the pain so intense that once it actually brought him to his knees. At 5:00 pm on the dot every day Rodney got up from his chair, said good night to his science crew, and made it to his quarters by 5:03. At the millisecond the tingling in his fingers began, he reached for the bottle of Imitrex and snorted up two big nostrils full. After a couple of hours the fog would lift enough that he could have dinner. By the time he'd finished eating, he was more or less himself and could go back to the lab.
Although the migraines had begun to taper off, that hadn't mollified Jennifer, who seemed to take his migraines personally. He found them switching roles on this. She kept insisting on more and more tests whereas, ironically, he had learned to accept them as part of the hell that was this "post-explosion" ride. To discuss his migraines was to court a rip-roaring fight, especially when he refused to take any more tests. To which she said frostily, "Oh really, Rodney. Are we competing for the Colonel John Sheppard Memorial Martyr Award?" At which point, he shouted, "What in the hell does John Sheppard have to do with this?" To which she said with a degree of venom that he didn't think she was capable of, "Oh, I think everything. And not just because he touched that globe."
He didn't talk to her for a week.
Now it seemed like taking a vacation was a sure fire way to save his relationship, therefore, he was going to take a vacation. Which led him straight to Johnny Sheppard, Disney's Employee of the Month for March.
With the bones of his plan now laid, Rodney texted Jeannie that he would meet them in an hour at Gibson's on Main Street for ice cream cones. Although John was the constant, there were far too many variables here. How much would it take to bribe the hotel into extending his reservation? How would Jeannie react? How much should he tell Jennifer? Rodney marched across the lobby to the front desk. Although most of the details of the next two weeks were vague, the one thing he knew? A little voice was telling to him, "Stay."
Rodney knew that his hopes of persuading the front desk to extend his reservation were zero to none--by dinnertime of the first day, Rodney had already had three nasty confrontations with that sarcastic redhead manning the Concierge's desk over the monsters masquerading as children and the price of drinks in the bar--but he had a few aces up his sleeve. He decided to go straight to the General Manager, because that was where he was going to end up anyway.
It took some muscle, as in, "If you do not get the General Manager here pronto, I'm reporting you to the Alcohol and Beverage Commission. I just saw a ten-year-old girl guzzling down her mother's Long Island Iced Tea."
Over the years, Rodney had had many confrontations with the General Managers of many hotels. He wouldn't have been surprised if his name and a photo of him weren't on some secret list that hotel intelligentsia passed among each other as the customers of doom. Whatever. Either this would work or it wouldn't. Surely there were other high-end hotels with availability, even at the height of the summer season. He wasn't above slipping someone a couple of hundred dollars to seal the deal.
"Dr. McKay," said a tall, still amazingly buff older man with that precise gait that signaled ex-military. Christ, was Anaheim and Disneyland in particular like the elephant grave yard of the military where retired ex-Marines came to augment their pensions? Well, Rodney had reduced five-star generals to tears. This man would be a piece of cake.
Although he held out his hand for Rodney to shake, the practiced smile had a menacing edge to it and his eyes were flat.
"Shall we go to your office? I doubt you want me to say this out here." Rodney peered at his name tag: Bradley Smith. "Bradley."
The smile disappeared and for a second Rodney was afraid he'd blown it, because all of a sudden this guy didn't give off whiffs of ex-grunt. He now emanated waves of ex-Ranger or Navy SEAL. Rodney might have to dial it back a bit. Not something he was especially good at. They wove their way through a series of non-descript corridors--in direct contrast to the elaborate Arts and Crafts motif dominating the rest of the hotel--until they reached a door with General Manager stenciled on the front. No sooner had they sat down than Rodney smiled to dispel the tension between them, which was so thick that Rodney could have weaved Mickey-silhouetted place mats from it. The man's face hardened that much more. Okay, no smiling.
"I'm in the Grumpy Suite--"
"The entire staff is quite aware of where you are staying, Dr. McKay. How may I help you?"
"I'd like to stay another two weeks."
Bradley's body language relaxed.
"I'm so sorry, sir, but that suite is fully booked--"
"I don't care if President Obama has booked it for the next year to be the White House West. I need--" Rodney paused to calm down because even to his ears he sounded belligerent. He could relocate to another hotel but he really didn't want to. The back end of this hotel was especially close to Soaring Over California. "I wouldn't mind moving rooms because I don't really need that great a room, although the Jacuzzi and my back are currently in love. But I would like to stay. Another two weeks."
"Bradley" didn't say anything but tugged on the cuffs of his suit, and Rodney bet that if they'd been in the field that very gesture would have translated into making sure the safety was off on his Glock.
"Naturally, I'm willing to pay double the going rate. Because I realize that this will be tremendously inconvenient, I'm offering my services for free. Based on the noise being generated by your pool pumps, if you're maintaining the pumps with internal staff they need to be fired. If you're contracting this out, they need to be fired. In my opinion, those pumps haven't been serviced properly in at least a year, and I'd say you have another two weeks before they burn out." Rodney paused for effect. "In the height of summer." He paused again. "With 700 hundred rooms and approximately 3.21 children per room. That's over fifteen hundred children rampaging through the halls with nothing to do."
Bradley got that wary but hopeful look John got when he thought the alien thug was offering something too good to be true, which was often the case, but every now and then...
"I'm the real deal, Bradley. Get on your computer." Rodney clenched his hands together because this was the part of the conversation where he usually began snapping his fingers. "Call one of your ex-military flunkies. Know anyone at Cheyenne? Generals Landry and O'Neill will vouch for me. The asshole part but also the genius part. If I say the pumps in your pools are going to fail in thirteen days, five hours, and four minutes, they are going to fail in thirteen days, five hours, and four minutes. Give or take a few seconds."
Once again the atmosphere shifted, perhaps a tad less threatening, but just as wary.
"Shall I wait in the lobby while you check my credentials? Also elevator number three needs minor maintenance."
Bradley's brought his hands together so that his fingertips were touching his chin. "Cheyenne?" he said in a low voice.
The one thing that Rodney had learned from those pissants, the Hoffs, was that you didn't gloat over your victories until you were sure the deal was good, because it might turn on you in a spectacularly bad way. Rodney merely nodded.
"Please have a seat in the bar, Dr. McKay. Drinks are on the house."
Rodney never drank during the day, because it used to make him sleepy and now it brought on a migraine, but a Coke with extra maraschino cherries was an acceptable substitute. He was sucking the juice out of a cherry when Bradley found him in the window seat at the back, the only place in the bar where he could sit and not have toddlers crawling all over him.
"I'm so glad you're staying with us another two weeks, Dr. McKay. By coincidence, the party that had booked the Grumpy Suite for the next two weeks fortuitously cancelled. If you're free sometime soon, perhaps you might take a look at the filtration system for the pools?"
Rodney swallowed and smiled, trying not to gloat. "Water filtration systems are a specialty of mine."
"So I understand. Sir." Then Bradley stepped further into the alcove to be out of the view of most of the bar patrons, looked around him, and in a fast but unmistakable motion, gave Rodney a perfect salute.
Now that the hotel was taken care of for the moment--god, a fleeting glance at the filtration system had confirmed that it needed a complete redesign; it was a miracle it was even functioning--he had to tell Jeannie why he wasn't going to the airport with them. In fact, not only was he not flying back to San Francisco, he was staying another two weeks at a hotel that he'd been complaining about non-stop for four days.
While Caleb and Madison staked out a table, the two of them stood in line to order cones. It wasn't until they'd reached the counter that Rodney got up the courage to tell her that he wasn't flying home with them. He was staying another two weeks.
"You're what? Single scoop mint chip in a waffle cone, a single scoop coffee in a waffle cone, and a single scoop vanilla with a chocolate dip in a waffle cone."
"I'll take a double scoop of coffee with a chocolate dip in a waffle cone. I'm staying. For another couple of weeks. I need some more downtime."
Jeannie handed the clerk two twenties and gave Rodney a look.
"My god, the prices here... Am I not allowed downtime?"
"Take Madison's cone. Don't lie to me, Mer. Why are you staying?"
He was forestalled from answering by Mads running up and saying that Daddy was trying to defend their seats but people with English accents were about to wrestle the chairs away from him. Two McKays glaring visual daggers could have intimidated Genghis Khan. The couple--who instinctively knew they could bully Caleb for those empty seats, also instinctively knew that no way in hell were Jeannie and Rodney standing up to eat their ice cream cones--scurried around the corner looking for seats elsewhere, crying kids in tow.
Rodney knew he hadn't gotten off--he'd just delayed the inevitable interrogation--but he'd thought she'd at least wait until they'd returned to the hotel. Fat chance. They were navigating their way through the post-parade crowds toward the Monorail station, Madison sitting on Caleb's shoulders singing snippets of Disney songs at the top of her lungs, with Jeannie and Rodney following behind. If Rodney hadn't been trying to combat a raging sense of claustrophobia--as all these bodies were seemingly moving in every direction but the direction he was moving in--it might have been something of a Hallmark card moment.
Without warning Jeannie elbowed him in the ribs. Hard.
It was pointless to lie to her: (a) he was a terrible liar; and (b) he needed to tell someone else because he didn't want to be the only person who knew that John Sheppard was alive because you never knew when you might meet a lemon.
"John. He's here. Working in Disneyland."
She stopped walking. He grabbed her by the arm and moved her forward so that they stayed reasonably close to the other two.
"Where? Did he recognize you? Why didn't you say anything? Have you called Landry? Oh my god, after all this time!" Her voice kept getting louder and louder as the magnitude of what Rodney had been telling her hit home. "I can't--"
"Sshhh!" Rodney admonished, pointing both of his index fingers at Caleb and Mads ahead of them. "Keep your voice down," he demanded. "He didn't recognize me. He's working Soaring Over California. I face-planted in front of him, and it was like I was just another moron on vacation. I swear to you, Jeannie. He didn't know me."
Although she kept moving, she was most definitely dragging her feet a bit, spinning this out, because once they caught up with Caleb and Madison even she sensed they couldn't talk about this anymore. "Rodney, this is serious. If he's--"
"Keep up or we won't catch the same Monorail. He looks okay. Grayer. Um, really gray, but good, really good for someone in year two of a psychotic break."
"Are you sure it's him?" Rodney's eyes nearly burst out of their sockets in outrage. "Sorry. Of course you're sure. What--"
"First I need to find out what's going on. And then when I know, I'll contact, well, whomever."
Actually Rodney hadn't quite thought that far. Or more to the point, he didn't know what he was going to do short of spending his days on an endless loop of the ride trying to gauge just how crazy John was. Three months to the day after they walked through the wormhole, Rodney had hacked into John's file and read John's psych evaluations. John should receive the Nobel for "Successfully Pulling the Wool Over Psychiatrists' Eyes." The only person whom John hadn't monumentally snowed was Heightmeyer, who knew from the very beginning that John was walking wounded with capital "W's." Teyla and Ronon also knew right away, but then they'd also experienced unfathomable loss. Initially Rodney didn't give a rat's ass what sort of mental scars John had just as long as John continued to kill Wraith, fly jumpers, and haul Rodney's verbally-inappropriate ashes out of the fire. Then, it shifted. Maybe it was all those really close calls, or too many instances where John jumped in front of Rodney to protect him; which in and of itself was pretty amazing because he was the sort of person whom people generally wanted to throw under the bus. John thought he was worth saving.
Rodney hadn't ever experienced unfathomable loss until he'd stepped through that wormhole. His parents had squandered any love or even basic loyalty with a marriage so toxic that Rodney only felt more angry when they had died. Then Pegasus started picking off people he didn't even know he'd loved--Elizabeth. Carson. John (in a way)--people he cared about--Kate Heightmeyer. Ford--and finally people he didn't even like but found himself mourning--Gaul.
Clearly the first thing Rodney needed to do was make sure that John was okay. The hotel end of things was the first gigantic hurdle, and then getting Jeannie to sign off on this crazy plan was the second, and then... Well, that was as far as he had planned because at that point the equation just blew up. Nothing converged, nothing cancelled out as it veered into mostly psychological stuff, and integrity stuff, and maybe John shouldn't be found because he didn't want to be found stuff.
Jeannie surprised him by not saying anything else. She kept her eyes on him the entire ride back to the hotel, giving Madison uncharacteristically short and distracted answers to her usual barrage of questions. Finally Rodney couldn't stand her scrutiny anymore and leaned over to whisper in her ear, "Don't tell anyone. Please. It's John."
She reached for his hand and squeezed it. "Shall we call it an early night? We have a plane to catch. You'll have breakfast with us. 7:00 am," she said in her major domo voice that brooked no arguments. As he let himself into his room he heard Madison ask, "Isn't Uncle Rodney coming with us to the airport?"
After the explosion you'd have thought that his relationship with Jennifer would have deepened and matured, even if only in his blind need for comfort. And yet it had done the opposite. In fact, Jennifer often said to him as he brought the Imitrex up to his nose, "Grieving hour?" As much as that always irked him, he couldn't deny that the headaches might well be a grief response or, more to the point, a guilt response. Where he could really just let go and let his body punish him for not stopping John. For not turning around in time to stay John's hand. For not yelling at him, "Don't touch that!" like he'd done a million times before. Not that that had ever stopped John, but maybe that one time he would have obeyed. Okay, maybe not. But as emotionally limited as Rodney was, he couldn't help but wonder that if he saved John this time--as opposed to last--he could save his relationship with Jennifer. And become migraine free.
This was all so complicated.
Despite having dodged that day's 5:04 pm headache, another one began threatening, which only happened when he was really stressed. He thought filtration systems, he thought pool pumps, he thought water, he thought Atlantis, he thought piers and radio-controlled cars and chess and flux capacitors and Batman versus Superman and the headache receded. Just before he fell asleep his favorite memory of Atlantis came to the fore: when John "shot" him in the leg and they faced Elizabeth's stern "mommy" face, both of them grinning like a couple of ten-year-old kids.
Halfway through breakfast, Rodney realized that he hadn't called Jennifer, who was going to pick him up at SFO in four hours. His daily check-ins with her had basically been twenty-minute monologues on how much he hated Disneyland and how he really hated the hotel. Now, he was going to have to back pedal, explaining why he was staying an extra two weeks in a hotel he despised. In a city he loathed. Next to a theme park he thought should be paved over. Which meant lying. Never had Rodney's hyperbole bit him on the ass so thoroughly.
"I thought you hated the hotel."
"Well, yes, I do. All these awful children. But the water filtration system here is a total nightmare, and I sort of promised the General Manager that I'd, um, help him, um, fix it."
"Didn't you just say not one minute ago that you needed more downtime? And now you tell me that you're working on the hotel's water filtration system?"
"It's not really work. Filtration systems are basically like crossword puzzles for geniuses."
"Still sounds like work. Not downtime."
This was not going well.
"No, really, just intellectual giggles. And the Jacuzzi in this room? I think I'm going to spend the rest of my two weeks in it. You won't even recognize me when you see me. I'll be a total prune. Grow webbed feet. Just me and my Jacuzzi." Rodney stopped talking at that point because he knew he sounded not only manic but also like he was lying.
The silence stretched between them, eventually reaching Grand Canyon proportions, until he couldn't stand it any longer.
"So, um, I'll call you tomorrow?"
"Fine," she snapped and hung up. Obviously it was not fine, but at least he'd gotten off the phone without spilling the beans about John.
A brief phone call to the pencil pusher who had replaced Woolsey was to the point. Then he punched in Radek's number, who was overjoyed he wasn't coming back right away because now he could do that simulation on the defense shields that Rodney had refused to consider because it was a waste of time. They argued about it for thirty minutes , Radek screaming in Czech, Rodney screaming in English. When Rodney finally hung up--but not before Radek said that his name should be changed to the Chief Science Dictator--he felt so much better. Few things were as satisfying as petty spats with Radek over inconsequential scientific issues.
His meeting with the hotel's chief engineer went as expected. It was like being a heart surgeon and trying to teach a three-year old how to do open heart surgery with blunt-edged scissors. Finally, he was reduced to pointing at a bunch of schematics and saying, "Do this, then that, then rip this out and replace it with that. In Russia they would have shot the mechanical engineer who'd designed this system, and I for one would have tied his blindfold for him. Or her. Stupidity is gender neutral. However, that does not excuse your ignorance. You have one day to write a memo detailing all the deficiencies, which I will check over tomorrow morning."
Rodney turned to Bradley who about three minutes in had started to develop a minute tick in his right eye.
"Call your lawyers. The warranty is, I'm sure, defunct by this point, but I'd be amazed if you couldn't sue for design deficiencies. Not only is the system working that much harder, requiring constant maintenance, it's also bleeding you dry in terms of energy costs. Based on my estimate, it's costing you twenty-five percent more than it should." Rodney looked his watch. Oh, the park had opened. "I need to go. Here's my cell number if you have any questions."
Yes, despite the children factor, staying at this hotel was definitely a good idea. Five minutes later he was standing in line for the ride. Rodney couldn't perform his reconnaissance with any sort of stealth once John was working the Ferris wheel, however, there were tons of people who loved Soaring, so he felt confident that he could ride it a few times for the next two days without anyone the wiser.
Of course, John might not remember being a first-class soldier, but that didn't mean that he wasn't one. Rodney was on his fifth round through when another flunky stepped in front of John to take his place at the door to the hangar. With a finesse that was classic Colonel Sheppard, John pulled Rodney aside and through an almost invisible door into an anteroom so quickly Rodney didn't even have time to squawk. In a voice most definitely threatening, John said, "Hey, buddy, you really like this ride, huh? Like all the kids?"
Rodney blinked a few times.
"Kids? I loathe children. Well, my niece is okay, but that's because she has a phenomenal I.Q. Most children are horrible little beasts with grubby hands and they shriek for no reason. Plus, they tend to kick me in the shins. Why would you think..." Then it became clear. "Oh. My. God. You think I'm stalking the children? How can you think that? I suppose it happens here a lot, not here specifically, of course, but in the park as a whole, because if you were a pedophile this would be like a grocery store of sorts..." John's shoulders tightened and somehow the cant of his hands on his hips became more menacing. "Forget I said that. No, I'm not. Really. It's the--" What possible excuse could he give for riding this ride non-stop for the last four hours? "The hydraulics. I rode this yesterday with my niece, and I thought I heard a noise that I didn't like."
John wasn't buying it and began to reach for his comlink. Some things hadn't changed. Even though Rodney hadn't heard any ominous sounds whatsoever when he'd ridden it with Madison because he was concentrating completely on the somersaults his stomach was doing, after the half-assed engineering job on the hotel pools, he had full confidence that the engineering here wouldn't be any better.
"I'll have you know that I have two PhDs. One in astrophysics and the other in mechanical engineering. I've been trying to determine the problem."
John's stance eased up the tiniest bit, although his hand was still on his radio. "Having a PhD--"
"Two." Rodney held up two fingers.
"Two," John rolled his eyes twice, "doesn't mean you're not a pervert. Lots of perverts have PhDs. You could be an educated pedophile with some sort of flying kink."
Rodney bit back a smile because of the two of them, Rodney wasn't the one with the flying kink.
"I am not a pedophile. Plus, if I was, which I'm not, then I wouldn't be so stupid as to keep riding one ride over and over, thereby alerting the staff."
"If you had the flying kink you would," John pointed out.
"Do I look like a fool to you? I would not. I'd switch it out. Do this, then Space Tours, then Peter Pan, and then finish up with Dumbo," Rodney said in triumph.
John's hand fell to his side. "Dumbo, huh? That's a pretty lame ride, mister."
"Tell me about it."
John began smiling, his special brand of half smirk, half smile. Rodney had just been given the Sheppard Seal of Approval, demoted from potential pedophile to mutual Dumbo hater. This was his chance to ingratiate himself even further. "Besides, if you're going to go on that type of ride, it's hard to beat a Ferris wheel."
It was too easy. The smirk now morphed into a real smile. That upward grin with no teeth but plenty of crinkles around the eyes.
"Best ride in the whole park, although this one is pretty cool. You here with your family?"
"My sister and her family. They left this morning." Without thinking, he said, "Actually, I'm looking for a job. Do you know if there are any openings?" With a sweep of his hand he indicated the park. He had no idea what had prompted him to say that. His leave was for two weeks and only two weeks.
John's initial suspicion returned. "Why would a guy with two PhDs want to work at Soaring Over California?"
John's eyes turned that hardened flinty green, the green you never want to see because it meant you were toast. Even though Rodney was about six seconds from getting thrown out of the park forever if he were lucky and jail if he wasn't, Rodney met his gaze and blurted out, "I've been getting stress migraines. I need something easier for a while. I... I'm not doing very well right now. Had... Had some...things happen and I'm holding on by my nails."
The green softened and for a brief second, Rodney thought John knew him. About to grab John's arm, Rodney stopped just in time. The green didn't deepen and John's face didn't change. It wasn't recognition so much as acknowledgment, a silent, "I hear you, buddy." Yes, they had been buddies, friends, and he had missed John so much. Blinking away tears, he began silently pleading with John: You know me, you no good flyboy bastard. Come on, John. I need you. I really need you. It's been so horrible. You have no idea. I had no idea.
Genius had defined him for over three decades, and until Pegasus it had been more than enough. Then the Wraith, the Hoff, the Genii, and a host of other alien pricks had proved to him that the genius without the man wasn't enough. That to survive he had to find his humanity. He found it in others: John, always first and foremost, then Elizabeth, then Teyla and Ronon, then Radek and Miko and Simpson and Heightmeyer and Lorne. Even though there were times when he wished he could return to that point where his soul could pretty much be quantified on a white board, once he'd crossed that line, there was no returning to Planet GeniusAsshole (although he certainly had life-long visiting privileges).
While he might be lying about needing a job, he wasn't lying about anything else. Dear god, until he had said it out loud he hadn't even known it was true. All of it. He wasn't doing well. He did need something easier. Horrible things had happened. His friends had been maimed and his best friend had disappeared and it was a total miracle he could even get out of bed in the morning. He was hanging on by his nails.
Rodney might be a terrible liar but he was awfully good at telling the truth. Maintaining eye contact, the green in John's eyes gentled into general, all-purpose pity. Clapping Rodney on the back with that jockish bonhomie that was the closest John ever got to physical intimacy, he said, "Yeah. Chet's off for a knee replacement. We could use an extra hand. It's only temporary, though." And there it was, that sense of team between them even though they were currently strangers, that camaraderie Rodney had never experienced with anyone but John, Teyla, and Ronon.
"I only need temporary," Rodney insisted, but even as he said it, he wondered if that were entirely true.
Three days later Rodney found himself wearing a Stetson and manning the Fast Pass lane. That didn't last. Checking the clock against the time on the pass was boring, but not as bad as he had feared. His first day went by surprisingly quickly. It went okay until Rodney overheard some idiot with caramel corn for brains tell his kid--who looked about six--that the reason why planes flew was because they had squirrels running really fast. Rodney clamped down on his lips, determined not to say anything, until the kid asked what happened when the squirrels got tired. Then this poor excuse for a parent said that they whipped them so that the planes didn't fall out of the sky. Unsurprisingly, the kid burst into tears.
At that all bets were off. Rodney's genius demanded that he defend the basic physics of flight as an antidote to animal abuse. Plus, the guy was an asshole and the sooner the kid knew that, the better.
"You are a moron. When this child goes into full-blown hysterics as you are trying to board the airplane home, you will only have yourself to blame. Look, little boy, genetics are a powerful factor, however, the fact that you found your father's explanation horrific, which was nothing more than a smoke screen to mask his woeful ignorance,"--Rodney paused to glare at the father--"says something in your favor. Now the reason why a plane--"
"Hey, planes are cool. What's up?"
Rodney looked up to see John standing next to him and a crowd around them, half of them waiting to redeem their Fast Passes, the rest waiting to see what the father, whose fist was poised to let Rodney have it, would do next.
"John, this man," Rodney jerked his index finger back and forth in the direction of the father to emphasize his irritation, "tried to tell his son that they whipped squirrels to run fast and that was how planes fly. There was no mention of aerodynamics--I doubt this cretin could even spell aerodynamics --therefore, it was inexcusably wrong on several levels."
Only Rodney saw it: that anger under the surface, not at him but at the doofus in front of him wearing a Homer Simpson tee-shirt and a stovepipe Goofy Hat with the swinging ears. But for a military man John was unusual. Work the charm, then the arms. If that failed, well, there was always a P-90 and a handful of C-4.
John knelt down and used his bandana to wipe the tears away from the kid's cheeks.
"Nah, we burn cotton candy."
Rodney couldn't believe his ears.
"We do not! We--"
"Blue cotton candy burns best. What doesn't burn we eat."
"Oh. My. God. I can't believe you!" At this point Rodney did a hop of frustration he was so mad. "First of all, we do not use animals in any sort of barbaric fashion, nor do we burn cotton candy for fuel. When a plane's up in the air, the weight of the plane makes the plane want to stay on the ground. Which is--"
"Good old American gravity." John insisted, mugging for the crowd.
Rodney crossed his arms and stamped his foot. "Gravity does not have allegiance to any country."
"American gravity is better," John insisted in a dopey "I'm clearly the stupid sidekick" manner to the crowd. "Right, everyone?" People began stamping their feet and shouting, "USA! USA!"
By this point it was much larger than an uneducated man trying to explain aerodynamics to his young son.
When the hooting and hollering had subsided, Rodney adopted his "being a genius is so underrated" tone of forbearance. "Ignore American Gravity Man, people. When the plane moves forward, the shape of the wings reduces the air pressure pushing down on the wings." John put his arms out and moved forward while making put-putting noises, acting as if he were a plane. "I swear you have a mental age of twelve. If there's less air pressure pushing down on the wings than pushing up on the wings, it causes lift. If the gravity is less than the lift--"
"I know, I know!" shouted John. "The plane stays in the air. Do I get a gold star? I think I should get two! Huh, huh, Doc? What do you think, everyone? Should I get a star?" The crowd began clapping and whooping it up. John took a bow. "Okay, folks, show's over. Now you know how all those planes, whose pictures are on the walls, stay up in the air. That's right. Mosey on through the doorway. If you think this was fun, wait until you get on the ride."
John made a special effort to steer the idiot and his now-smiling son through the door and down the ramp a ways, which was a good thing because seeing a pilot of John's caliber, an Air Force Colonel, acting like some stooge who'd never even laid eyes on a plane made Rodney want to cry. By the time Rodney had waved through the crowd of Fast Passes, John had returned.
"Asshole," John muttered in Rodney's ear, hiking his eyes in the direction of where the father and son were going. "You did good. You want to man the bottom of the ramp? Let me take the Fast Pass lane for a while."
Rodney nodded, still not trusting himself to speak. John clapped him on the back and began whistling, "I Walk the Line," as he began checking people's Fast Passes.
The barrage of requests to see the new floor show at the Soaring Over California hangar was unbelievable. Repeatedly deflecting all of Rodney's protests by pointing out that the two of them were saving the squirrels of the world, they were outfitted in costumes and told to wing it. It was just like being forced to attend all those banquets on planets where the food resembled road kill. Be nice to the stupid aliens with a technology threshold that stopped at scythes; they might have a ZPM. The only point he won was that they perform in the hangar where it was moderately cool. If he was going to make a fool out of himself, he was going to do it with air-conditioning.
Rodney was handed a scratchy white coat with the soporific "Dr. Aerodynamics" embroidered on the front, and John clamped one of those old-fashioned leather pilot caps on his head. How he got it over his hair Rodney would never know. Six times a day Rodney and John would replay this shtick for the crowds. Completely unscripted, it always ended with Rodney explaining the aerodynamics of flight.
John would always start the show with his, "Gee, Dr. A. How do planes fly?" And before Rodney could respond, John would jump in with something utterly absurd, like, "I bet it's brain waves. We think up real hard." To which Rodney couldn't help but sputter in outrage. "Are you insane? If we could think up, then we could fly." "Wow, that's so cool. Okay everyone, think up." John would close his eyes, twist every muscle in his face, and think real hard. When no one began to rise, he'd turn to Rodney with the saddest face. "I guess I was wrong." To which Rodney snorted and replied. "Of course you were wrong..." And then he'd go on his spiel about the physics of flight. John had a seemingly endless supply of openers, always able to push Rodney's buttons at the appropriate moment because he knew Rodney. On some level it was still all there, and they were clicking and teasing and tweaking each other just like they always did.
Rodney's days were jam-packed. An early morning awkward phone call to Jennifer was first thing. With each phone call he could feel the relationship slipping further away, like a slow moving ebb tide. Next was a breakfast meeting at Geppetto's where Rodney, the hotel's engineer, and several lawyers hammered out an airtight lawsuit based on numerous design deficiencies of the pool system. Rodney couldn't imagine starting the day any better: consuming gallons of coffee, eating mountains of perfectly scrambled eggs, and stuffing his face with tons of bacon, all the while pointing out other people's mistakes. Then it was off to work at Soaring. During breaks between "shows," Rodney roamed around the mechanical room of the ride, compiling his list of design deficiencies there. With no end in sight, he'd already filled two notebooks with design flaws and the changes he would make. Returning to the hotel around seven, he'd order room service, use the business center to chat with Radek--where they'd fight about various things for a couple of hours--and then he'd fall into bed around eleven. No migraines.
He thought that the absence of migraines would actually prove to Jennifer that his lie about needing time off was appropriate, if, um, lying about it, and that whatever was causing his headaches was no longer an issue.
"Isn't that great?" he crowed, as he hadn't had a migraine for seven days.
There was silence on the other end of the line. More silence and then a bitten-off "Sure," as if Jennifer were crying and trying not to let on she was crying.
"I have to go. Have a patient," she said in a tight voice and then hung up. At that point he knew it was over.
When Rodney just didn't have the same bite and outrage that day, John waited until they'd done their final "show" of the day he handed Rodney bottle of water and asked if he were okay.
Rodney reached for the water and guzzled it down in one go. Because if he hadn't shoved something in his mouth right there and then he would have shouted, "You psychotic goofball! My girlfriend, my beautiful, brilliant blonde with the fabulous knockers, is dumping me, and I don't blame her one bit. Can you please just snap out of this so we can go back to life as normal before I completely sabotage my career? My relationship may be toast, but maybe I can salvage my job!"
But he didn't; he lied. "I'm sort of fine. The cheap-shit motel I'm staying at is kicking me out so I need to find an apartment pronto. Any neighborhoods I should stay clear of?"
John blushed and then, in his special brand of awkward mumble, said, "Uh, I could use a roommate if you, like...don't mind...you don't mind sleeping on an air mattress. Things are kinda...uh, basic. Real basic." Then the blush vanished. John narrowed his eyes. "Do you snore? You look like a snorer."
Which, of course, John knew full well. Earplugs in everyone's tac vest was a given.
"I don't snore," Rodney fibbed. "Do you have a coffee pot?"
On Rodney's first day off, he took a plane to SFO and caught a cab to where a launch picked him up. The sea was dotted with whitecaps as far as the eye could see. By the time he put his feet on the west pier, he was three seconds from losing his breakfast. Slowly making his way along Atlantis' corridors, he ran a possessive hand over the steel. He'd never had John's organic telepathy with the city, but the engineered gene gave him a vague sense of her. Miserable since John's departure--the loss of the one man whose soul truly resonated with hers--had left her pining. Not that Rodney would ever voice this to anyone, because it was so far out of the realm of science as to be laughable. Seven years ago the idea that a city could mourn would have elicited scoffs and jeers from him previously only reserved for the likes of tarot card readers and psychiatrists. Now, as his fingers played over the Ancient architecture, he mentally found himself saying, He's all right. I've found him. He's alive. I'll bring him back. Although privately convinced that the city heard him and responded with gratitude, even a gun pointed at his forehead wouldn't have had him verbalize what he perceived of as her hum of tentative joy.
Rodney's first task was to ask for another leave, six months this time. It wasn't as easy the second time around, and if they'd returned Sam Carter to Atlantis like they should have, he probably wouldn't have gotten away with it. Within a week of her arrival on Atlantis, Rodney had pegged Woolsey's replacement as nothing more than a bean counter. Nothing she'd done in the ensuing two years had proven him wrong. She was so inconsequential that he could never remember her name, despite the fact that he saw her on a daily basis. Fortunately, Rodney was civilian. Regardless, it should have received Landry's okay as well, but Rodney was in ruthless mode and played to her weakness, emphasizing that this leave this would be without pay, of course. Her frown instantly turned into a mercenary smirk. Done.
Next he went to the lab. Everyone was happy to see him, which was oddly touching. He announced that his leave had been extended, trusted that Radek would be able to handle anything that came his way, and that he expected weekly progress reports to be sent to his standard email address. Radek was the only person who did not marvel at how rested he looked.
At Rodney's hearty, "See you all in six months," Radek walked him to the door, and murmured, "You would never hand over the reins of the lab to me willingly. You are far too egotistical. What is going on, Rodney?"
He should tell Radek about John, since he was going semi-underground and they might need to contact him in the event of some emergency. But now things weren't as clear cut. He'd just spent two weeks with Johnny Sheppard and damn it if the guy wasn't happy, as in happy go lucky. Cheerful even. In fact, spending two weeks with "SortofJohn" made Rodney realize how his John was, essentially, a lonely, grim man who was hanging on by his nails. The easy-going charm that John was renowned for on Atlantis now seemed nothing more than a coping mechanism. For Johnny Sheppard the glass was always half full. For John Sheppard the glass was always half empty and the rest half FUBAR.
What had initially had seemed like a small moral dilemma--a question of when to alert the brass--had now become if he should alert the brass.
When Rodney wasn't chatting with Radek on the hotel's computers, he had been searching the Internet and hacking into the mainframes of prestigious universities with robust medical schools to research psychogenic amnesia. There really wasn't enough brain bleach to scrub away the horror of the words "research" and "psychiatry" sharing the same space in his brain. Although he hadn't relinquished his scorn for all things medical and all things psychiatric were scorn squared with an extra helping of hooey on top, it was that very that hooey was exacting a tremendous toll on John's state of mind. Being the special little snowflake that John was, it wasn't clear to Rodney if John was suffering from global amnesia--which manifests itself as a temporary fugue state brought on by trauma, with a sudden loss in one's personal identity that usually lasted only a few days to a week--or situational amnesia--which occurs as a result of a severely stressful event, such as military combat. Rodney suspected John was a victim of both. The trauma of knowing that his stupidity had blinded Rodney and maimed Teyla, combined with yet another military mission gone FUBAR, might have pushed John's psyche to its limit.
Initially Rodney was convinced that all he needed to do was gain John's trust and tell him what was going on, assuming that would break the log jam of PTSD negating John's memory. Or at the very least, it would propel him to the couch of some top-notch psychiatrists who would do the job for him. Now, Rodney was wondering if the best thing for John was to let him finish out his days working at Disneyland, free of all that mourning and overwhelming sense of personal failure.
Maybe John shouldn't come back to Atlantis.
"I'll keep in contact, but I'm going to scramble my ISP address, okay?"
"Please," he said in a quiet voice and then didn't wait for an answer.
Stopping by his quarters to pick up his laptop, he noticed his bed was covered in cardboard boxes filled with his belongings that had gradually migrated to Jennifer's quarters over two years; he really only crashed here when he had his migraines. Although so familiar that he could have navigated the room blindfolded, it also felt like he didn't belong here anymore. He'd only been gone three weeks, and yet it was exactly how he felt when he'd returned home after his first semester at college; as much as his younger self was overjoyed at the familiar, his newer self was irritated with it.
Rodney had assumed that the Atlantis' gossip network would have already relayed his arrival, but apparently it had not. Seeing him standing in the doorway to her office, Jennifer stopped reading her datapad, her eyes wide with surprise, as if she'd been zapped with a Wraith stunner gun.
"I've just come back to say good-bye. I'm taking another six months."
Just as beautiful as she'd been three weeks ago, her hair was pulled back in a tight chignon, which made her chin appear a little pointier, or maybe she'd lost weight. Like his quarters, she was achingly and even lovingly familiar, and yet it felt like if he tried to reach for her, his hand would pass right through her body.
She didn't say anything, just nodded.
"I'm sorry. I know this is trite and stupid and soap-opera worthy, but I still love you. It's..." He stopped right there because to say "it's not you, it's me," is just a nice way of saying, "it's not you and it won't ever be you." At that he decided to keep it short, because the more you try to justify why you're being an asshole, you end up only being a bigger asshole. "Thanks for packing up my stuff. I appreciate it."
"I packed up your stuff after you called me and told me you were staying another two weeks. Do you know why?"
Rodney shook his head.
"Because you sounded happy, Rodney. For the first time in two years, you actually sounded happy."
Rodney flapped a hand. "Please. I was complaining non-stop about the lack of WiFi, the cost of the room, the--
"Yes, you were ranting at full strength." Her smile was a little wan, but there was no doubt she was quietly amused. "But you actually cared about not having WiFi and the cost of the room. You haven't cared about anything for a couple of years."
"That's not true, and it's not fair!" Rodney protested.
Rubbing her forehead as if to massage away a headache, she said in a dull voice, "Maybe it's not fair, but it's most certainly true." Then she balled her hand into a fist and thumped her chest. "Here, Rodney. It was like half your heart was cut out. Tell me, what if it had been me who'd disappeared? Me who'd made a terrible medical mistake, maybe even blinded you permanently. Would you have mourned me half as much?"
"Yes!" he insisted, even as a tiny voice inside said "No."
"Really?" she insisted.
"I'm sorry," he repeated and left in response to her frantic hand gestures ordering him out of the room so he wouldn't see her cry.
While waiting to board his plane, he fired up his laptop and permanently scrambled his tracking device. It was more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. Rodney had no intention of giving up his laptop. If they put someone as smart as Sam Carter on it, then no matter how devious he was, they would eventually track down the general location of where he was from whatever ISP he pirated. And then they'd take it from there. They were awfully good at that sort of thing. He debated junking his cellphone, but decided to just turn it off for now.
Upon landing at John Wayne, he caught a taxi to the Grand Californian, picked up his bags, and said goodbye to Bradley, with a promise that if they needed him as an expert witness he was available; by the way, his fee was five hundred an hour. Then he took a cab to John's apartment.
Freakishly neat and probably an exact replica of John's dorm room when he'd been a college freshman, John's apartment was jock heaven. A gigantic sixty-inch television screen dominated one wall, two surfboards, several skateboards, and a bicycle the other. X-box controls rested on milk crates. Seating was limited to a couple of bean bag chairs and two bar stools. John had thoughtfully bought Rodney his own bean bag chair, an air mattress, a cheap sleeping bag, and a pillow. The receipt was on the bar, next to a pizza box. The aroma of pepperoni filled the apartment. They ate dinner off of paper plates. Napkins were courtesy of the nearby Subway. The only thing missing was a computer.
"No Internet?" Rodney mumbled around a bunch of pepperoni.
"Don't need it."
From the man who flew puddlejumpers! Who cherished the interface between man and machine.
"You got a problem with it?" growled John, staring at his plate.
"Uh, no. You mind if I use my laptop?"
"If you can pirate a signal, go to town."
It was like one long mission but without guns pointed at their heads. They slept, ate, and worked together twenty-four seven, just like they had on Atlantis. They had the same days off--Monday and Tuesday--and despite his recent conversion to Luddite slacker--X-box and big-screen television notwithstanding--John did believe in cars, but only because Rodney suspected that it was impossible to transport a surf board without one. Rodney doubted the car was registered, but he didn't ask because he really didn't want to know.
John's 1966 VW van had over three hundred thousand miles on it and a roof so rusty that Rodney was convinced it would leak like a sieve in the winter, but it still turned over, the transmission was good, clutch tight, and the brakes new. Rodney wouldn't get into it, however, until he'd completely rebuilt the engine, which meant he took cabs to work for a couple of weeks while John bicycled in. Once the engine passed muster, John would spend his days off surfing while Rodney found a Starbucks, got online, hacked into a random university's mainframe, received new batches of staff reports and sent back the previous week's with his comments (scathing) and orders (preemptory). They ate breakfast and lunch at the park, but rotated dinner between pizza, Chinese, and Subway. Every day John bullied Rodney into a morning run by letting the air out of his air mattress. Their evenings had a domestic sameness to them. When they weren't battling it out on Halo, Rodney redesigned the various mechanical systems in the park while John watched ESPN. Rodney took a chance and brought home a portable chess set one night. John's eyes lit up. "Cool beans. Black or white?" John's mental collapse hadn't affected his brains one I.Q. point. He still beat Rodney more than half the time, and the games he lost were usually because he was watching Sports Center and playing chess simultaneously.
Rodney went from thinking that John was psychotic to thinking that maybe he wasn't that psychotic. It was a simple life but strangely satisfying, especially after Rodney had presented his report to the park's Chief Mechanical Engineer, detailing how he could save them a cool half-million a year in operating costs with the following changes in the design to Soaring. Rodney still had to do the show on Saturdays and Sundays, but the rest of the week he was assigned to the engineering division. It wasn't calculating the statistical probability of the existence of wormholes, but, again, nothing rang Rodney's bell like proving other people wrong. He couldn't wait to start dissecting and cataloguing the slipshod, poorly executed mechanical systems of the other rides.
What John's psyche allowed in and what it kept hostage wasn't logical or rational. John seemed to know without being told that Rodney was fatally allergic to citrus. Rodney's completely rational fear of whales got play about three times a week, which didn't explain at all why John pooh-poohed the rampaging hypoglycemia. Until one day Rodney proved once and for all that, yes, he did have blood sugar issues by fainting into a pool of water while inspecting the hydraulics of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. If John hadn't been standing right there, he probably would have drowned. At which point John never left the house without a few powerbars stashed in his pocket. In essence little had changed.
What was really unsettling, in fact, made Rodney question John's mental health on Atlantis never mind here at Disneyland, was John's current pointblank refusal to make any references to his past (because, um, he didn't have any?) versus his previous pointblank refusal to make any references to his past (because, um, he didn't want to?). Ronon's revelation that John had been married had shocked Rodney so much that he still didn't quite believe it. Now that Rodney was hypersensitive to John's past, he realized that John's standard operating procedure was to erase his past. John had done it on Atlantis and was, basically, doing it here as well, although pretty much going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Now John's abdication to say goodbye to those on Earth during that first initial siege from the Wraith in the context of his current amnesia seemed monumental, although damned if he knew why. God, he'd give away ten I.Q. points if he could pick Kate Heightmeyer's brains for just twenty minutes. Maybe this was the only way John had survived for so long. Deny, deny, deny. The complete and actual denial of his past even to himself was the next logical step.
On Atlantis, John had only revealed what was germane to saving their lives: his expertise with weapons and how a Glock is more accurate and reliable than a Sig Sauer, and his balls-to-the-walls confidence to fly anything; or the silly and inconsequential like his love of football, superheroes, and flux capacitors. All other personal stats that define most people--where you grew up, why you hated your parents, why you hated your siblings, the name of your ex-wife--did not define John, not even his intelligence. Rodney had been nearly apoplectic when he realized that behind that smarmy surfer speak was a man with a formidable brain--of course, at the time Rodney was awfully grateful because the Genii were about to kill them.
Johnny Sheppard was no different. That "Aw, shucks" routine worked with most people, and yet on his breaks he creamed Rodney at chess, read Rodney's notes on various mechanical systems, asked all the right questions, added his two cents, and even on occasion corrected Rodney's math. Just like John Sheppard used to do. At times it was difficult for Rodney to keep Johnny and John straight in his head.
Then there was the whole Sheppard sex god thing. Which had been old on Atlantis and was doubly irritating on Earth.
Rodney had continually bitched at what an alien-babe magnet John was, but in truth it was nothing compared to Johnny not even working it. It was like his ATA gene, deprived of its daily wooing of Atlantis, decided to exert itself in a physical magnetism that was truly scary. Inevitably, the show would end, followed by a surge of people engulfing them, wanting to get into John's pants. The gray hair and laugh lines only seemed to add to the allure. Young mothers with kids would try to out flirt the cougars who would try to cock block the actors who worked the parades and who always happened to just be in the "neighborhood." After a month, Rodney had had enough of witnessing John trying to politely fend off these over-sexed harpies and randy co-workers. It was time to unleash the McKay factor. With the married ones, he'd shame them by hissing in their ears, "You are married. Get a grip!" With the cougars, he'd whisper in their ears, "He's with me." With the cast members, Rodney wouldn't even bother to be polite. He'd say out loud, hoping they were out of ear shot of the kids, "He's with me. So back off." John would hike up his shoulders as if it were a done deal, and with a sheepish grin confirm, "I'm with him."
One day, when it seemed like every single park patron over the age of eighteen and half the employees wanted to ride John, Rodney suggested they have a drink at the closest bar, some overpriced chi-chi place on Downtown Disney that had a patio and free appetizers. As the sun went down and the chill of the desert night began to deepen and settle, they compared notes about various employees, schedules, the damping system for the ride, and the sexual harpy quotient for that day.
"Doesn't it bother you? Because it bothers me, and they aren't even trying to attack me."
John shrugged. "Some days are worse than others. Today was pretty bad. Usually I can get away with just being nice. Appreciate you defending my honor." This was said with a trademark Sheppard smirk.
"Someone needs to. Of course, why should the Milky Way galaxy be--I mean, of course, you've--you're gorgeous, so I can't deny that a little appreciation is in order. But god. These, well, mobs! It's the married ones that I can't believe."
"Me either," John admitted, ducking his head and fiddling with his beer glass. In the increasing dusk Rodney couldn't really tell, but was John blushing? "You think I'm gorgeous?"
Okay, this was different. John Sheppard would have cuffed him on the shoulder, hard enough to let Rodney know that his constant grousing about John's manifest charms was not appreciated, really old hat, and super boring, so cut it out. Johnny Sheppard was blushing and playing with anything that was within reach: his glass, a cocktail napkin, the candle holder.
"Please. Don't pull that 'Gosh, me?' routine. Any more attractive and you'd spontaneously combust. Anyway, enough is enough. I'm going to start carrying a squirt gun and letting these sex-crazed trolls have one in the face."
At that John looked up and smiled; a simple easy smile that was so rare. Usually John had bestowed it in response to something Carson or Elizabeth would say, never Rodney. He always got the sardonic grin or the smirk.
"Dr. Aerodynamics, covering my six."
Fortunately, Rodney had already finished his beer, because if he had been holding a glass he would have dropped it. There it was again; that unconscious crossover between worlds and something else. John's voice had plummeted to nothing more than a rasp, and despite the cool bite of the desert night, the back of Rodney's neck began sweating.
"You covering my six, McKay?" Rodney leaned forward because he could barely hear, John's voice now a little more than a whisper, quiet and deep, and, dear god, shy. Then there was a bump of Rodney's knee. By John's knee. And another bump but this time the bump didn't unbump. Their knees were touching, touching, touching... What the... Oh. My. God. Rodney's entire body broke out in one gigantic sweat. Before he could say or do anything, John mumbled, "I guess not. Hey, no worries. I can sleep in the living room. And if you want to move out, I'm cool with that. It just seemed... Never mind," and he made to get up.
Rodney grabbed his wrist and yanked him back down.
"Wait one minute! Are you hitting on me?"
John looked everywhere but at Rodney.
Rodney kicked John's shin.
"You are too hitting on me."
"That wasn't a maybe knee. That was a definite yes knee."
John held up his hands as if in surrender. "No harm, no foul. Just thought... You know, I thought we were clicking. Like we kinda... I don't, you know, with other people. So, you know. Really. Forget it. Let's go home."
Rodney didn't say a word all the way back to the apartment. Was John gay? Had he been gay in Atlantis? Had he been denying it in Atlantis? As in, I can't fly if I suck dick so I'm not going to suck dick? Was that, that thing with Miss Ancient Slut just one ATA gene humping another because sex on that mental plane wasn't about parts. Maybe it wasn't even that conscious. Just part of that emotional fortress of John's brain where disconnect was the default. It doesn't feel right with a woman, but then I'm a total fuck up so why would it feel right. On warp speed, Rodney replayed their interaction during their Atlantis years, and all he could come up with was that John respected him and most certainly loved him, although John would never voice it.
John didn't speak when they entered the apartment, just began hauling his air mattress and sleeping bag into the living room.
"Stop." Rodney held up his hand. "Sit." He pointed at John's beanbag chair. "I need to think."
No one could shut down like John Sheppard, so the room was silent.
Rodney had to face some unpleasant and possibly pleasant truths.
1. Would he have mourned Jennifer as much as he had mourned John? No. He missed her, god, he missed her. It would hit him at the oddest times. He'd be washing his hands in the washroom at work, and the pungent odor of cheap soap would cause him to remember the sultry smell of her shampoo. He'd be feeling horny and surprisingly it wasn't her tits that he fantasized about--although they were awesome--it was the memory of the sexy curve of her calf that got him hot and bothered. And speaking of, she had the sweetest giggle following by a hot-as-hell blush after she suggested they do something lewd. Finally, he missed her solid brilliance. He didn't think that she had the intuitive brains that Carson brought to medicine, but then Rodney thought that maybe she had more smarts about it. He found himself saying to himself absentmindedly, "Oh, Jennifer would love this." Or, "I must remember to tell Jennifer..." and there was no Jennifer to tell. So, yes, he missed her like crazy. But he wasn't mourning her. He didn't wake up and say to himself: This is Day 14 since we broke up. Because he did that every day after John left. Once he regained his sight, the first thing he would do when he fired up his laptop was to bring up a calendar and mark another day that John was gone. Sure, he missed Jennifer at random moments, but he didn't catalogue her absence with a frankly obsessive diligence.
2. Had there been anything in the entire five years they'd worked together that had indicated that John was sexually attracted to men? No. Women? Aside from that lying, manipulative, galactic superslut, Chaya, there was that scientist from linguistics, Natalie, who had a pathological aversion to bras. Actually, if Rodney really thought about it, she was the one who came on to John first. But what about that alien man eater Sylvana--how apt that term turned out to be--but again, she was the aggressor. John never seemed to act, he reacted.
3. Had John had any physical or emotional relationships on Atlantis with the exception of Chaya? No, he hadn't. Although a terrible flirt, the flirting never advanced beyond a certain level. John was the master at taking it to Point C, with suggestive language and lots of sexy eyebrow wriggling, but if Rodney thought really hard about it, John went never beyond Point C. Rodney, who couldn't flirt to save his life and was abysmal at relationships of any kind, had had two relationships, not to mention a bunch of one-offs. Occasional desperate hook-ups the norm, that whole fraternization nonsense was soundly ignored. Basically, a "we must fuck because tomorrow we might be culled" sensibility dominated. John didn't though. With anyone.
4. Could Rodney go there? With John? Was this what Jennifer was hinting at all those months? That aside from the obvious emotional affection that Rodney had for John, did he have a physical attraction as well? Was Rodney as clueless about his sexuality as John?
"Are you gay, or bored and horny?" Rodney demanded.
John rolled his eyes. "Gay."
Thank you psychogenic amnesia for adding yet another log on the anti-memory fire, because maybe the freedom to finally be gay was also part of this whole insane ball of mental wax.
Okay, time for Rodney to be a brave and honest little toaster.
"Do you mind if I turn off the lights?" Not waiting for an answer, Rodney got up to flip the switch. The muted light of the outside security lights through the blinds gave him just enough light to find his beanbag without tripping over John's feet.
"I told you when you accused me of being a pedophile--I still haven't forgiven you for that, just so you know--anyway, that I was hanging on by my nails. I'd worked at a...a job where it was fairly...remote, and the people who worked with me became very special to me. There was this guy. He and I worked side by side for five years. There was an accident and..." God, how should Rodney put this? "He died. I was in a relationship with a wonderful woman at the time. She's amazing and I was so lucky. Seriously, woke up every day and thanked my lucky stars. When my friend got killed, that was it. Our relationship died. And I can't help but think that maybe there was something between me and this guy that we never acknowledged. Hanging on to our hetero because that was the status quo. I don't know. I... I've never been with a guy, but maybe that doesn't matter. Maybe we had something bigger and my previous orientation was just that. My previous orientation. So, I'm not saying no. I'm saying maybe I am covering your six. Or maybe coveting your six is more like it."
John didn't answer for the longest time. Rodney could hear the couple in the apartment to the right of them fighting, the old lady who lived on the left of them was watching Jeopardy, and an ambulance was tearing down Katella, its sirens blaring.
"I remind you of your dead guy?"
Rodney wanted to shout, "YOU ARE MY DEAD GUY, YOU MORON!" But he didn't; he lied by omission this time.
"The something is the same. Maybe you're my second chance at something. I'm willing to try if you are."
Rodney waited. Jeopardy finished up. The fighting couple began having make-up sex, and the accident on 5 must be a whopper because now another ambulance was following on the heels of the first.
The brittle sound of shifting beans was followed by a warm hand searching for his.
Rodney had always hated his mouth. When he was younger he had told himself that it made him look wry and knowing, an antidote to always being the youngest genius in the room. Now the slant was so prominent it made his face look slightly Picasso-ish. And not good Picasso, but Picasso on a six-day bender. But the way John's thumb was rubbing back and forth along his lower lip made him reconsider its unattractiveness.
The length of John's body against his was hard and unforgiving, and, of course, there was the presence of erections, and he was used to have only one erection in this equation, which was his. The calluses on John's hands from holding and operating guns hadn't worn away yet and were rough against Rodney's skin. Not bad rough but different. Hair, there was, jesus christ, hair, lots of it, but it was soft and attached to a firm chest and a flat belly. And wasn't that strange, because women as a rule were soft--except for that former Russian Olympic long jumper turned astrophysicist--and he loved that about them. How his hand would touch and squeeze and there was a give, and you'd think the absence of that would be a huge disappointment, but it wasn't. Rodney ran his hands along the outer edges of John's thighs, which were lean and taut and bloody marvelous.
The play of a wet, hot mouth against his, with John's luscious bottom lip tugging on his top lip, and teeth nipping at his jaw, accompanied by a deep panting and the smell of arousal--both tart and earthy--that was essence of John...
John. Effortlessly, within about three seconds of suspecting Rodney was a pedophile and about to crush his windpipe with a karate chop to the Adam's apple, John had refilled the emotional and even intellectual vacuum that he'd left, a hole that seemingly couldn't be filled by anyone else. Even a brilliant, beautiful, sweet, loving blonde female. It didn't matter. If John decided to stay in this mental oasis, then Rodney had to stay, using his two PhDs to produce the best possible amusement park rides. All because this taciturn, stupidly heroic, irritating, sarcastic, noble, and fantastically alive man, who was shoving his hands down Rodney's pants and clasping his butt with warm, sweaty hands, was completely irreplaceable in Rodney's life. The fact he had a dick was moot. Rodney stopped, just stopped moving and thinking and trying not to feel, because the grief, the love, the irritation, the frustration, the love (again), and, yes, the anger he'd been harboring, hiding, and shoving into the corners of his own psyche for months and months were now hammering away at his fragile mental equilibrium. This was John.
Pulling away and turning his head in the middle of an awesome kiss that normally would have had him creaming his pants was the only way he could keep it together and not start bawling his eyes out.
"Okay," John pulled away. "I guess you're just not into this, so--"
"No!" Rodney yanked him back. "It's weird and not weird and you do not... Does this--" Rodney searched around until he found one of John's hands and pressed it to his erection--"feel like I'm not into this?"
John huffed a little laugh of relief and pressed. At which point Rodney went berserk. Of course, some of it was yowzah, because pressure plus erections is pretty much the countdown to lift off, but some of it was fueled by the anger that John had left them, no, had left him, and that it was obvious that John had completely denied his desire for Rodney all those years. Even worse was that John was oblivious to his own desire. Which only ratcheted up Rodney's anger because WTF, Sheppard?
Employing a sneaky wrestling move that Ronon had taught him, Rodney flipped John on his back and tried to climb on top of him. Normally, John could out wrestle Rodney any day, even with Ronon's coaching, because John's extra two inches in height gave John the torque that would best Rodney's superior strength, but with all that emotion crashing through Rodney's body his adrenaline was on overdrive. He flipped John again, and it became wrestling with erections, the two of them tumbling over, wiping out the bar stools, knocking over the stacks of games and books, until John had Rodney pinned against a wall with nowhere else to tumble. Then it became exactly the sort of sex Rodney thought they'd have if he'd thought about it. Aggressive--because John was a natural athlete and as competitive as all hell--overlain with an innate gentleness--because even if he'd knock you on your ass in sticks, he'd always give you a hand to help you up off the floor or hand you an ice pack if he gave you a black eye. They rubbed against each other, the back and forth too charged to be anything but fast and dirty. Rodney came first, feeling emotionally bruised like they'd just had make-up sex, where it's more an act of healing than physical or sexual release. Something about John's aggressive rutting suggested a desperation, and the hand that cupped Rodney's cheek in an unmistakably fond gesture said that on some level he knew it was Rodney. Or at least Rodney thought so.
Punch drunk from the sex and all those emotions battering him from all directions, Rodney's defenses crumbled. As the two of them lay side by side with John's leg thrown over his, Rodney brought his hand up to cover John's, still caressing his cheek. "Why didn't you tell me? All those years. Did you know?"
John wrenched away sharply, turned on the lights, and immediately ran into the far corner of the kitchen, which given the size of their apartment was only about fifteen feet away. Based on the hatehatehate on John's face, had he been carrying a P-90 it would have now been aimed at Rodney's head.
Rodney sat up, but didn't get up. John had segued into battle mode. His body taut, his hands poised to do something, and his eyes flat, every centimeter of his physical stance screamed barely controlled rage. He looked like a caged tiger ready to spring. The fact that he was naked and his stomach covered in Rodney's semen didn't matter.
Rodney thought, John is going to kill me.
Scooting backwards until he hit a wall, Rodney grabbed John's jeans and flung them in the direction of the kitchen. Then he grabbed his own pants. Rodney waited for John to make the first move. Slowly John retrieved his pants and put them on, never once taking his eyes off Rodney. When he was finished, Rodney stood up to put on his own pants, his hands shaking so badly that it took several times to manage the zipper. Then he sat down again.
"You know me. From before."
"I'm not going back. Do you hear?" Although John's lips were barely moving and Rodney had to strain to hear him above the muted sounds of the "Wheel of Fortune" from next door, it was as emotionally charged as if he were shouting.
"Have you been spying on me?"
"No, I swear. No, no, no," Rodney insisted. Instead of defusing the tension, his quadruple denial only wound John up further. He pushed forward slightly and was now on the balls of his feet.
"I mean it, Rodney. You tell anyone I'm here, and I will..."
Although unstated, the threat was ominous enough. Before Rodney could reassure him yet again, John's mouth dropped open and he fell back on his heels.
"I'm that guy. The dead guy."
Rodney nodded, and although John was four seconds away from breaking his neck he couldn't help it. He closed his eyes and began quietly sobbing. It wasn't fear; it was for Carson and Elizabeth, Kate and Ford, maybe even for him and Jennifer. How for the rest of his life he couldn't help but look up in the night sky and search for Wraith darts first and the stars second.
Finally he groped for his tee-shirt to wipe his face and blow his nose. Rodney looked up and John was still standing in the kitchen.
"Yes, you're the dead guy. Although not really dead, of course, but essentially, for all intents and purposes. Yes, you were. Are." At that, John's body language reverted back to its normal slacker slouch. "I'm not taking you back or trying to make you remember, but why don't you want to go back?"
John wrapped his arms around himself, as if to ward off blows. He began mumbling, so low that Rodney couldn't hear him.
"I dream. I dream of killing people. I see their faces, and it's so easy to kill them. I see the realization in their eyes that they are dying and all I can feel is satisfaction." Rodney doubted that John even knew that as he was saying this he was clutching his dog tags. "Did I kill people?"
Rodney had never needed Ronon more than he needed him now, because it would have been a simple, "You do what you have to do, man," and John would have accepted that; of course, maybe not Johnny.
"You saved people, too. You saved me! A million times!"
John kicked one of the cabinet doors and it fell off. There went the cleaning deposit.
"Did I save more than I killed? Because I don't dream about saving people. I dream about shooting people, and strangling them, and plunging knives into them and making sure that I shove in and up so that I cut major arteries."
How do you say to someone who can't remember the Wraith and their terrible power that, yeah, you killed a bunch of people but you also saved Earth.
"Yes, in theory, no in actual numbers."
"Sounds like a bullshit answer, McKay."
Before he could answer, his fingers went numb and all of a sudden John began fading out.
"It's all I got. I have to get up, so if you plan on killing me because I know your little secret, do it now. Then I won't get the migraine that's about to blow my head off."
By the time Rodney got to the bathroom he couldn't even see the bottle of Imitrex and began flailing in the medicine cabinet, desperate to find it before the pounding started. John shoved the bottle in his hand and Rodney inhaled all that chemical goodness.
Using his hands to guide him along the walls to their bedroom, Rodney eased himself down onto his air mattress and scooted down to the bottom of his sleeping bag until it was pitch dark. He'd forgotten how much he hated this. As he became woozy and nearly asleep he heard a voice say, "You never call me 'Johnny' like everyone else. Just John."
When he woke up he could see the night sky outside their bedroom window. The night had a midnight feel about it. Not super late but late enough. Remnants of migraine were still lodged behind his left eye. When they were really bad this happened sometimes; the headache lingered, compromising his sight until the next day's onslaught.
"No, I feel like shit."
"Can you take more stuff? You want me to get it for you?"
"No, I shouldn't. One of its pleasant side effects is the propensity for heart attacks. I will take four Motrin though. Save my heart but kill my liver. Seems like a sensible compromise."
John's air mattress wheezed as he got up and went into the bathroom. Rodney managed to his eyes with his hands before the meager light tortured his eyes. At John's, "Here," he gingerly poked his head out, but the room was dark. Fumbling for Rodney's hand, John tipped the Motrin into his palm and then brought a glass of water up to his mouth.
Fifteen minutes later the Motrin began to work, reducing the sharp ache of the migraine to a dull continuous thud. He'd probably conk out again in ten minutes, but before he did, he needed to get some things straight.
"You want me to move out?"
"Were we, uh, you know, like together?"
Anything other time Rodney would have gone on a ten-minute screed about John's PhD in ValleyGirl speak.
"No. Like I said. Friends. Best friends."
There was silence and just as Rodney was dropping off for the second time, John said in a small voice. "You military?"
"No. Civilian. Do you want me to move out?"
Rodney was too physically battered to push it, but he had to make one thing clear.
"I'm not going to make you go back, and I'm not going to make you remember. I want this. I want to live with you, work with you, play chess with you, and eat pizza three times a week with you. I think I want to fuck you, although I'm not sure about you fucking me. But I'm pretty much a pushover for anything sexual, so we should stock up on lube and condoms. I imagine by the end of the week I'll be begging you to ram into me. Just tell me so that I don't presume anything. Can you remember anything? Like how you got here?"
In the shadow of the light from a streetlamp, Rodney could see John getting up on his elbow to study Rodney, weighing the pros and cons. What do I tell him? Can I trust him? Who in the hell is this guy?
"Nothing. I woke up on the beach down in Santa Monica with two thousand dollars in my wallet, my dog tags around my neck, the clothes on my back, and sand in my shorts. I knew my name and that I was retired military. I knew on some level that I could probably get a job at the park--"
"That was a no-brainer. Half the people we work with are ex-Marines."
"Doesn't it hurt to talk? Anyway, yeah, the guy who interviewed me had been in Iraq. When he found out I'd been in Iraq and Afghanistan it was a done deal. I was hired that day. Bought the VW and lived in it until I could get this place."
"And an Olympic-grade trash picker-upper was born." Rodney tried to sit up and immediately regretted it. The Motrin only blunted the spear tips currently poking his brain, it didn't remove them.
"That hurt. Did you remember you'd been in the Middle East?"
"No, I just knew I had. I see things in my dreams, Rodney. Horrible creatures with teeth and claws. They are as terrifying as all fuck. Are they real?"
Some questions you just can't answer.
"Can we get a real bed? I hate this air mattress."
"Can I go to sleep now? My head's still killing me, and I know from experience that the only thing that will work at this point is a good night's sleep, although I'll still probably have residual crap in the morning, and do you think you could manage without me tomorrow because, oh... That feels good."
John began applying pressure points to the side of Rodney's head and remnants of spear tips began to recede.
"I saved you? Like your life?"
"So many times I've lost count."
"Did we pinky swear and talk to each other in pig Latin?"
"Hasshole-a," Rodney managed to mumble before falling asleep.
John's homosexuality had obviously been limited to cerebral lusting after people because there wasn't any muscle memory there at all; he was as naive about guy sex as Rodney was. Given the firm understanding that the past was the past, Rodney couldn't actually say, "I'm assuming you didn't do gay things before you lost your memory, because I'm convinced that you wouldn't let yourself be gay. But have you done any gay things recently, like when the gay light bulb went on? Because you seem just as clueless as I am about this business." Bashful and hesitant, if Rodney had left it up to John, they'd have been doing that schoolboy humping for the next ten years. In some ways it was good because Rodney hated to be clueless on principle, so their learning curve was identical. Within a month, Rodney was a flipping god at blow jobs and John fucked with a grace that was worthy of a Nobel in sex. Clearly, they were playing to their strengths.
Once they had the mechanics down, John preferred sex with the lights dimmed or nearly off. He couldn't bear the sight of Rodney's scars, the bullet to the shoulder courtesy of the whack-jobs on PQ-2046; the knife in the gut he took on MX-5446, and what he privately referred to as his great failure, Koyla's handiwork on his arm.
"You're pretty banged up for a civilian," John remarked one night, tracing Rodney's scars with a gentle forefinger.
"Pot. Kettle." John's body was a study in opposites. Physical perfection marred by more than a dozen scars, some courtesy of Atlantis, the majority not.
"Did you save me?"
"Every now and then. You were much more heroic than I was."
"Sounds like it was my job."
"It was all our jobs. You were just better at it than anyone else."
John began a slow hand job--one designed to both delight and torture--while mouthing the scars on Rodney's arm. They both ignored Rodney's tears.
The weeks whizzed by in a frenzy of engineering schematics for roller coasters and languorous sex in the sweltering heat--the last gasp of L.A.'s Indian summer. Then the nights got cold, reminding them that, yes, L.A. was a desert, but more importantly, reminding Rodney that he had only two months left before he had to make a final decision: Atlantis or Disneyland. Not a choice that he would ever in his wildest nightmares thought he'd have to make.
Of course now that Atlantis was moored stateside, the science division was back to practicing actual science. No more coaxing the desalination filters to work so they didn't die of thirst, or cannibalizing some of the transporters for the hydraulics so that they could actually flush the toilets. Now, most of the time, it was pure science, intellectual nirvana. Rodney missed it. The intellectual badminton with Radek. Miko's giggle. Simpson's, well, whatever Simpson did he missed it.
As happy as he was living with "JohnLight," he wasn't John Sheppard. He was Johnny Sheppard. Not that Rodney didn't appreciate Johnny, because there was such hunger in his kisses; like he'd been waiting for Rodney all his life. But more than he would like to admit, he found himself resenting John taking the easy way out. Wiping the slate clean, just like that. Rodney knew this wasn't fair--not to mention petty beyond belief--but some days he really missed John. JohnLight didn't cut it. This was one of those days. That night, after Rodney had been barking at John all day, basically criticizing him for breathing, John dumped an entire can of Coke over Rodney's head with the warning, "Lighten up, asshole."
As Rodney was scrubbing Coke out of his hair, he became momentarily paralyzed with this fear that he would never be able to have a relationship with someone, anyone, who hadn't been part of Atlantis. Who hadn't faced the threat of Wraith. Who didn't know that Teyla and Ronon were from different planets. Who didn't agree that the Pegasus Galaxy was so beautiful that it made the Milky Way look like a galaxy wannabe. Who didn't know that when you went through the Gate your stomach went ahead of you. Who knew how Ford was so young or Elizabeth so wise or Carson so weird with his mother fixation. With anyone else, there was too much personal reference missing.
Johnny Sheppard didn't know any of those things or maybe he did, but it was firmly limited to his dreams. Life with Johnny left Rodney feeling both sated and yet not. Like really good foreplay but without orgasms as a chaser. Could Rodney sacrifice his previous life for this man who didn't know how he got his scars, but treated every single one with a reverence that left Rodney in tears? Some nights he'd lie awake, waiting for John to fall asleep just so he could mentally whisper to Atlantis, "I'm bringing him home, I swear," even if Rodney didn't believe it himself.
The week before Christmas was only surpassed as the most crowded time in the park by the week after Christmas. The fire marshal had closed the park by eleven several days in a row, and the moods of the patrons could only be called surly. To add to the misery loves company vibe, they were going through a freak heat wave--thank you, global warming--that hiked up by several exponentials the general crankiness of the crowds.
Christmas on Atlantis had been all about garlands of popcorn and weird chartreuse-colored fruit draped around a tree that looked like a pine but smelled like rotting eggplant. Given the level of ho-ho-ho that engulfed the park--wreaths, candy canes, and fake Yuletide glee--by December 15th John turned to Rodney and said, "If you get a Christmas tree, I'm going to kill you." To which Rodney replied, "If you buy me a present, I will strangle you with my bare hands."
It shouldn't have been a surprise. Because violence had begun this, and it made sense that violence would end it.
Rodney had five more minutes on his shift. Forced to operate the Ferris wheel due to staffing issues, those five minutes couldn't come fast enough. Tomorrow was their day off, and the minute they punched out they'd be running for the employee parking lot. The lines for everything were so tremendous that Rodney had personally called the park police no fewer than six times in the last three days as short-tempered parents began belting their kids, yelling at them to shut-up as the blows only got harder. Unfortunately, they only had one day off this week because they were working an extra shift as Dr. Aerodynamics and Stooge. If Rodney had any say in the matter, they were going to spend tomorrow in total silence, except for the occasional moan and groan of delight.
Three more minutes. Maybe they should splurge and eat out tonight, but the thought of facing more people... Then he heard it, a loud, angry voice yelling, "Look, bitch, you are mine, and don't you think any different."
His eyes frantically scanned the crowd. Rodney had been in enough violent situations to know that this was a voice attached to someone about to do something really bad.
There they were, arguing in front of one of the arcades facing the Ferris wheel. A tiny Latina teenager, heavily pregnant, was trying to get away from a young Latino male wearing a wife beater with the name of some gang tattooed on across the back of his neck. He tried to grab her but she was too fast for him, which only enraged him even further. He lunged forward, his adrenaline giving him speed, and he grabbed her hair, twisted it in his hand, and wrenched back, hard, forcing her to her knees. Then he began kicking her stomach.
That was it. Rodney raced toward them, screaming for back-up on his radio. The girl wrapped her arms around her belly, trying to protect her stomach as he relentlessly pounded her hands and arms with his foot. Rodney shoved him out of the way, yelling, "Stand down! Stand down!"
Apparently in "gang" this meant whip out your knife and try to stab in the heart the park employee trying to protect your unborn child.
Then it was Rodney's turn to be shoved out of the way. Even as he fell he could hear the crack of someone's elbow being shattered and the accompanying wail of agony. As Rodney looked up, John was wrenching back the broken arm of his knife-wielding attacker, while offering his free hand to the girl on the ground.
"McKay? You okay?"
It was John. Back to himself. The growl gave it away. Rodney hadn't heard that level of total grim in John's voice for over two and a half years. Now that Rodney heard it--he should have been doing handsprings of joy; Atlantis, here we come--utter dread made it almost impossible to speak.
"Colonel?" he managed to croak out.
Rodney's fingers began to tingle.
Military transports Rodney had known. They were all the same; dreary and cold, with nothing to eat. Rodney sat on a bunch of wooden crates probably filled with uranium-grade plutonium, while John lay crashed out on a stack of smelly blankets in the back of the plane pretending to be asleep, as far away from Rodney as humanly possible.
Technically, John was now a civilian, but realistically his phenomenal ATA gene meant that short of going underground and disappearing--what a thought!--he was too important an asset to lose, regardless of his status or his mental health. John would always be active, as far as they were concerned. Given the twins levels of respect and shit that were being leveled John's way, he was in serious trouble, but the ATA gene would save his bacon again. Just like John's ability to fly anything had saved him repeatedly from being dishonorably discharged for insubordination--Rodney wouldn't put it past him to even be able to fly a turtle if he had to--John's ATA gene had meant that his retirement papers had somehow disappeared, and his two years AWOL? What two years AWOL?
Similarly, Rodney's genius was his ace in the hole. Radek was good, but he wasn't as good as Rodney. They all knew that. Rodney expected the two of them to be subjected to a solid week of being dressed down, after which they'd be put on another crappy transport plane back to San Francisco and Atlantis. John's status was problematic on one level because Lorne had been acting military commander of Atlantis since John's impromptu resignation, and John would rather slit his throat than displace Lorne. No doubt they'd promote John to full bird, giving him jurisdiction over Lorne. Lorne would continue to do the paperwork, while John would pick up where he left off with his unique brand of command. No bark, not a whole lot of bite, but somehow the best prepared military installation in the entire universe.
Of course, just because John wasn't speaking to Rodney, didn't mean that Rodney wasn't speaking to John.
"FYI, we ran some diagnostics on that device that nearly killed us, but left you completely unscathed. We think it was like a dirty bomb in a way. The person who activated it had to be someone with a pure gene, as opposed to the crappy engineered gene that I have. Insurance of sorts. If someone had the diabolical idea to isolate and gene splice the ATA gene into a bunch of bastards--say, oh, I don't know, how about the Genii--you could walk into a room and with a single touch wipe out anyone who didn't have true Ancient cred. Not that you knew that. And not that I think that will make you feel any less guilty, but I have no problem blaming the Ancients for that one."
"What happened after you left? Thanks for asking. Obviously, I did get my sight back. It was a little touch and go there for a while. As a bonus suck, I began to get migraines every day at 5:04. Clearly, some sort of PTSD reaction. You know all about those. Ronon was amazingly philosophical about it. When he woke up, his back one gigantic mass of shrapnel, he reached down, cupped his crotch, and said, 'Still got my dick. I'm good.' Teyla, as you know, lost her leg. I engineered her a prosthetic leg that's so powerful she can kick through steel doors. You think she was badass before? Now she's truly terrifying. They aren't on Atlantis. They went back to New Lantea. Teyla's pregnant again, with twins, and she wanted her children to be born at home. Ronon went with her. There's some Athosian he's wooing. Apparently Sadetans have this courting ritual that goes on for years. He's on year three. At year five they get to hold hands or something equally innocuous. He's totally on board with this, something about good things come to those who wait."
Not even that got a response.
Rodney wanted to kill him.
Rodney supposed that if he could possibly distance himself from the situation, there was something rather touching and gratifying in John choosing Rodney over his Johnny persona; that Rodney was more important than John's own mental well being. The euphoria from being number one in John's eyes lasted about forty-five minutes. The gangbanger--who apparently was AWOL on a parole beef--was taken to the county hospital to get his elbow set before they threw his violent ass in jail, the pregnant girlfriend railed and screamed at John for hurting her boyfriend, until she was hauled off to Disneyland jail for a few hours to cool down, and John was patted on the back by their fellow employees for the really fine way he took out that guy. After ascertaining that Rodney wasn't hurt, the second thing he said to him was to ask Rodney if he could borrow his phone. John walked away from the noise of the crowd, came back five minutes later, and told Rodney that they were taking a cab to L.A.X.
"Where are we going?"
"Cheyenne. Landry wants to talk to you. And me," John added with a grimace. At which point he stopped talking to Rodney completely.
It went as expected. For a solid week, Rodney was reamed several assholes for not immediately alerting Landry to John's whereabouts. When Rodney pointed out that John was legitimately retired by that point, Landry barked at him, "Don't pull that shit on me, McKay." It was almost worth the seven days of constant haranguing just to see the shock on Sam Carter's face when he revealed that he was in the running for Employee of the Month and a shoo-in for this year's coveted Goofy Award, bestowed on those who showed exemplary service in the name of cost savings. He was due for a raise and a promotion to Disney Mechanical Engineer, Grade Two. Plus, if she ever wanted a deal at the Grand Californian, let him know. He and the General Manager were like that.
Rodney had expected that they would keep them apart to make sure that their stories jived, so although he didn't see John the entire time he was being debriefed, he assumed it was on Landry's orders.
On day seven, after insisting yet again that, yes, his entire leave had been spent designing mechanical systems for amusement park rides, Landry gave up, finally realizing that Rodney really didn't have a whole lot to say other than the food in Disneyland proper was better than the food in California Adventure, and some roller coasters were safer than others. Plus as a bonus, the pool in the Grand Californian now had a state-of-the-art pump and filtration system.
"Let's get down to brass tacks. Do I still have a job?" Rodney demanded, because, really, he was done with getting yelled at. Landry didn't answer him; he left the room, swearing underneath his breath. Rodney took that as a yes.
He wasn't even sure where John was being billeted, but the Rodney had always found the military stupidly predictable. Sure enough, after bullying a private into revealing the whereabouts of John's quarters, which were the same as the last time they were here being debriefed, he knocked and then knocked again. No answer. Hmmmm, maybe they were still grilling him or maybe John was in the mess. Rodney was hungry, so no worries. Spying Sam sitting in the corner clutching a cup of coffee and staring off into space, he piled his plate high with day-old muffins and filled two cups to the brim with coffee.
"Mind if I join you?"
She made a brief gesture of hello with her hand, indicating the seat across the table from her.
He tore into the muffins, eating three in quick succession. Sparring with Landry always made him hungry.
"What was it like, Rodney? I thought you'd have hated it, but you didn't sound like you hated it."
"Boring as all fuck, but pleasantly boring, if such a thing were possible. It was nice to work on something as simple as maximizing the energy efficiency of a bunch of roller coasters, and not worry that if I didn't get the timing calibrated to with a billionth of a second, the entire population of Earth was going to be sucked dry by Wraith. The words 'no pressure' come to mind."
"Maybe I should take a leave." She didn't sound like she was joking.
"I could put in a good word for you," he offered. "Although you're too gorgeous to be stashed away in some crappy office with a five-year-old desktop. They'd have you working the parades twice a day, sitting on a float waving at little kids, dressed up as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty."
It was a measure of how much he'd changed over the years. Five years ago that would have been a lame come-on. Now she took it in the vein he meant it: nothing more than a sincere compliment.
"Thanks," she said in a relaxed, practiced tone. "I might take you up on it. You look rested. Happy even. You got scary there for a while." Which didn't surprise him, because he was scared. That he wouldn't get his sight back. That he'd never see John again. That he'd have headaches at 5:04 pm every day for the rest of his life. She drained her coffee cup and made to get up from the table. "When are you going back to Atlantis?"
He noted with satisfaction that she said 'when' not 'if,' so his assumption that he still had his job was confirmed. "When they finish with the Colonel, I guess."
That was a very tiny 'oh.'
She sat down next to him and put her hand over his. "He left yesterday."
It was then that Rodney realized that not once had anyone asked him why he had done it.
He didn't check in with what's her name. He didn't even go by the labs. It was late, so fortunately the halls were virtually empty except for the occasional Marine on standard patrol. He marched to John's quarters, with every footfall telling himself to calm down, get it under control, chill a little. Rodney thought that John would initially have some sort of weird-ass reaction, because it was an awful lot to handle. All that gay. All that psycho. Rodney was willing to put up with awkward for the next few weeks, even months. He was not prepared to be completely shut out.
So worked up by the time he reached John's door, he stood there for five minutes willing his blood pressure to drop a few points. When he knocked it wasn't hostile or forceful, but it was certainly audible. John was the lightest sleeper he knew. He knocked again. No answer. He knocked again, this time with enough force that he bruised his knuckles slightly.
"I will make the most unholy scene if you do not open this door, Shep--"
The door whooshed open and he marched in.
It was eerily reminiscent of their confrontation in the apartment, except this time they both had their clothes on. John stood at the far end of his quarters, his body language in battle mode.
"That was a shitty thing to do."
"So is this where you tell me that we can just forget the last five months. That Dr. McGay and his ass-loving sidekick are history?"
That got a minute nod.
This time the migraine exploded into all its glory. Hands went numb, sight dimmed, and the pain slammed into his head at mach speed. Holding his head in a fruitless attempt to staunch the pain, Rodney hoped he could say what he needed to say before he passed out from the agony.
"Fuck you, John. Oh wait, been there, done that. I'm going to let you in on a little secret. You think that you can ignore me and go back to your constipated, fucked-up little existence. That McKay will come around in a few months and get with the program. That over time we'll re-establish some half-assed functional, professional relationship, and those five months together in Los Angeles will be like they never happened. You know what? Dream on, Colonel Homophobe. You think you're home? It wasn't home without you, and I don't think it's going to be home without me."
John closed his eyes and for a brief second Rodney thought he'd gotten through, that they were going to be okay. Well, as okay as an emotional fuck-up like John and an arrogant jerk like Rodney could be. When John opened his eyes, Rodney saw that he was wrong. If anything, John's affect was even flatter.
"Are you threatening me?"
"Fuck. Off." As he left the room, Rodney felt a hitch in Atlantis' equilibrium.
I brought him back, didn't I?
He felt a sentient frown and pushed it away.
After a round of Imitrex and six Motrin, he was in good enough shape that he could type out his resignation. When hitting 'send' he thought he would feel grief, but he only felt rage. At first light he ordered a launch. By the time the sun was fully up, he was on standby for a flight to John Wayne. At some point he'd call to say good-bye to Radek, Miko, and Simpson--Rodney owed them that--but he was so emotionally wrecked that he could barely stand. Even ordering the launch without sobbing out his request was a struggle.
The VW was still in the employee parking lot. He hotwired it, drove to their apartment, and crashed for a few hours. Despite the assurance that all their stuff would be immediately boxed up and transported to Atlantis, the slacker in charge was obviously made of fail. For once Rodney was grateful for the general incompetence of what he'd come to expect from lower-level military types. Hopefully he could switch out John's name on the lease without a problem. He got his old job back, had a migraine at 5:04 pm, woke-up around eight, hotwired the van and hit the drive-through at McDonalds for dinner. Then it was off to Verizon to buy a cellphone and the closest Best Buy to purchase a temporary laptop so that he could order a "real" laptop with all the bells and whistles he needed.
Working seven days a week from seven in the morning to four in the afternoon, he was now on the engineering staff fulltime. He'd come home, have his migraine, wake-up, eat something, chat with Radek, and then stream movies until he was so exhausted he couldn't see straight. Working his way through Battlestar Galactica, Rodney couldn't help but sneer at how wrong they were about a lot of things, but it was also amazing how right they were. Although he knew it was stupid to watch anything that was even remotely related to outer space--clearly nothing more than blatant masochism--he couldn't help it. He didn't regret for one second his decision to leave, but that didn't mean he wasn't tremendously sad about it.
He and Radek chatted most nights. Radek still treated him like he was Chief Science Officer. Maybe it was one of those lifelong things. Rodney would always be Atlantis' Chief Science Officer. On a technical level, there wasn't anyone who knew Atlantis better than he did. Just like John would always be her Chief Military Officer, regardless of who was in that job.
Every now and then he and Jennifer would chat. It was a measure of how stand-up she was that she never mentioned how shabbily Rodney had treated her. Tactfully she let him know that she was dating again, some Italian linguist who spoke twenty-five languages and yet his English was abysmal. She'd send him links on migraine research, suggesting that maybe it was time to review his use of Imitrex. Probably, but not now. Once he was settled they could look into it. By tacit agreement Rodney didn't ask about John and she didn't volunteer any information, although the return of the daily migraines was evidence enough that things had gone bad. She was a nice woman, genuinely concerned about him. Too bad he had a permanent jones for asshole Air Force pilots named John.
Mrs. Basu, his landlord, spoke virtually no English, which made changing the lease potentially a challenge. He found a copy of John's lease in a kitchen drawer, crossed John's name out, signed his own and then showed it to her. She moved her eyes to Rodney's left and raised an eyebrow in question, as if to say, where is your friend? Rodney began to tear up. She patted him on the tummy. He held up the lease with his name on it. The only word that she seemed to understand was okay.
She patted his stomach again, said something in Urdu to her lout of a son who did nothing but play X-box morning, noon, and night, and began shuffling down the hallway. Beckoning him with her finger, she led the way to the empty apartment next door to Rodney and pointed at the cat sleeping on the doorway. She jabbed an angry finger at the empty apartment, then looked at the cat. Then looked at Rodney. Then pointed at Rodney's apartment. The couple next door, whose relationship was nothing more than a series of fights followed by make-up sex, had moved out last week, apparently abandoning their cat. A Russian blue, he was a total bruiser; something like twenty-five pounds and the size of a Cocker Spaniel. Like all Russian blues, he was perennially cranky; one of those cats who let you pet him for three strokes and then sunk his teeth into you.
Rodney began shaking his head. No, no, and no. he couldn't--"
The finger moved back and forth between the cat and Rodney's front door. Then she looked at the lease in Rodney's hand.
Rodney named him Killer.
He was surprised and not surprised. On a wet day in early March, Rodney came home to find John sitting on the top step of the landing leading to their floor. Rodney ignored him, let himself into the apartment, waited for his fingers to go numb, and reached for the Imitrex. When he woke up, he ordered some Chinese, and when the doorbell rang and he opened the door, John was still there. Rodney over tipped the delivery driver, waited until the guy was out of sight, and then threw the bag of take-out at John's back.
"Get in here before I club you with a bar stool. And don't forget the food."
Rodney was determined not to say anything because he'd pretty much said everything there was to say. The ball was now in John's court.
Neither of them was hungry, based on John picking through the chow mein, only eating slivers of celery, and Rodney, who normally could eat an entire carton of Mongolian beef by himself, throwing down his chopsticks after three bites.
Moving to his bean bag, he sat there waiting.
"I thought that cat lived next door."
"They dumped him. Mrs. Basu held the lease hostage until I took him in. Pet him and he'll bite you. Are you here to talk about my cat, because--"
John leaned down to give the cat a chin scratch and sure enough he reared around and sunk his teeth into John's hand.
"Christ, you weren't kidding." John whipped his hand back to see if the skin was broken.
With an admittedly petty degree of satisfaction, Rodney noticed the puncture wounds were now bleeding a little. He was still angry, as angry as he'd been when he'd marched out of John's room two months ago. Coming back to this apartment was in some ways a mistake because seeing John's things kept his anger on boil, but conversely, it was an excellent idea because he needed to stay angry or he'd consider going back. And he wasn't going back.
"John, I swear to god, I am ready--"
Holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender, John turned his head away, breaking eye contact.
After ten minutes John still hadn't said anything so Rodney grabbed his laptop and began playing chess with himself.
"You getting headaches?"
"My headaches are none of your fucking business." Rodney threw the laptop on the floor. "Why are you here?" Rodney's took a ten-second breather from his anger to actually look at John. He hadn't shaved that morning and looked a little seedy. The eyes were guarded but not hostile. John had always been slender, but now he was downright skinny. "You look like shit."
Rodney rolled his hand.
"Uh. You were right. It's not the same."
"I don't know."
"That's what you came here to say. You don't know?"
"Look, I can't be that guy." This time it was John's turn to roll his hand, indicating the apartment, their previous life as Disneyland flunkies. "You want that, I can't give it to you."
John Sheppard was possibly the only person in the entire universe who could make Rodney the emotionally mature one in a relationship.
"Do you know how fucked up you are? Do you? Do you think I was lusting after you for years, and then I saw my chance to tap your newly gay ass?" Silence. "I'll take that non-response--how novel--as a yes. FYI, I was surprised as you were by my alacrity to abandon my hetero at the thought of your homo. And I might have been fucking Johnny Sheppard, but you better believe that I thought of John Sheppard when we were doing it. Every single time. I took what I could get. That sounds craven, but you, well, he, was close enough, but he wasn't exactly a cigar. Don't smile at that because I am so mad at you that it's all I can do not to cross the room and break your jaw. It wasn't you. He didn't know about Ford or Elizabeth, or what bastards the Hoff were, or why the Genii carved their names into my arm. He wasn't there when Gaul blew his brains out. And he wasn't there when a certain Air Force Major shot me in the leg and then pushed me off a balcony. Do you think I don't know what it's like to be you? Scratch that. I don't know. But I do know that Johnny Sheppard was happy and that John Sheppard scrapes it together every day. I meant what I said. I had no intention of turning you in or making you see a psychiatrist. Which probably makes me a total amoral shitbag, but the reality of returning you to your normal state of 'endure'... Well, I wasn't willing to accept the responsibility for that. Even so, he wasn't you. I know your baggage. We share a lot of it. HE WASN'T YOU!" Rodney tried to dial it back. How could someone so smart be so stupid? "Don't you get it? I want someone who will smile knowingly when I say, 'Remember when...' I didn't have that with him. Um, I do want the sex. I'm not going to deny that. It was pretty great. Even if you don't have breasts."
It was like talking to the wall. John was going all stoic on him, his face getting grimmer and grimmer. Rodney had reached his limit.
"I'm going to bed. Don't slam the door on the way out."
Rodney crawled into bed, his hand on a bottle of Imitrex, waiting for the inevitable migraine. Normally, he didn't double dose, but there were limits to his stoicism. In terms of frustration and stress, this exchange had ranked up there.
The lights in the living room went out. He heard a loud, "Ow!" as Killer bit John for a second time.
John came into the room, his silhouette in the doorway. Lean, too lean, and even in shadow the very shape of him so beautiful.
"Maybe... Maybe we could keep this place. Come down here a couple of weekends a month. You know. Surf."
"You mean be gay?"
"No," John protested so vehemently that it was a "yes."
"I'm not going to be your weekend fuck, John. You are a moron. Don't you realize that ninety-five percent of our relationship hasn't changed? It's that five percent behind closed doors that has. That's all. This isn't about DADT, is it? It's bigger than that."
Rodney sat up. "Are you ashamed you're gay?"
"No. I just didn't know, and it's kinda freaking me out."
Well, that was honest enough. Given that John had the emotional awareness of a toothpick, Rodney really couldn't blame him for being confused. Of course it didn't have to manifest itself in being a total asshole and dumping Rodney.
"I don't know if I can go back to only being your friend, John. I don't want to. But if you demanded it of me, I don't think I could say no."
John made a noise like he'd been holding his breath and then took a gigantic gulp of air. He sat down on the bed, close enough that it was comforting but far enough away so that they weren't touching.
Rodney fell back against the mattress. What in the hell did that mean?
"So we go back to the Colonel and Dr. McKay or we go back to Johnny and Dr. Aerodynamics?"
John put his hand on Rodney's ankle and grabbed. Even through the blankets, Rodney could feel John holding on for dear life. Clutching Rodney with all he had.
"Something between the two?"
Maybe that was good enough. After all this was John. Emotional Fucktards R Us.
"I know you get a hard on every time you get into an airplane, whether you're piloting it or not, but I don't relish flying into L.A. twice a month. How about we get a place in Santa Cruz? Go there on the weekends so you can surf. We can ease into this. See where your boundaries are." John nodded and the hand eased up, but didn't let go. "Do you want to stay?"
"I don't have a choice. That attack cat of yours is guarding the door."
Sure enough Rodney could make out the silhouette of a cat standing in the middle of the doorway.
"I'm not leaving him. We're taking him with us."
"Hmmm, what a coincidence. I've just written a memo about the rat problem on Atlantis, and as soon as I get back, I'll send it out."
John was going to lie and break all the rules to get Rodney's cat on base. And this was why, against all common sense, Rodney was going back.
"Get in. I'm so tired I can barely talk in complete sentences."
John stripped down to his shorts and tee-shirt and slowly climbed in. Rodney bumped John's knee and then didn't unbump it. John pressed back.
"You know, I could completely destroy your rep as a smooth operator by divulging that lame-ass move to Atlantis gossip central."
"Hey, you called me gorgeous."
"She misses you. And she's mad at me."
"Sentient beings for the win." Rodney yawned. "Wait a minute. I resigned. Do you think they will take me back?"
"What resignation? According to Dr. Keller you are on medical leave for your migraines."
He so owed Jennifer.