Unlike some of the McMurdo pilots, John didn't mind playing air taxi for tourists and researchers. It certainly beat the hell out of the monotony of Operation Deep Freeze, the ongoing summer-long supply run from New Zealand to McMurdo. He got to see more of the continent and meet interesting people -- such as an obnoxious guy in a ridiculously oversized parka that made him look like a blue traffic cone. John would swear that Obnoxious Guy did not stop talking for the entire flight. Luckily, between his headset and the noise of the chopper, he couldn't actually hear most of it, but every time he looked back to check on his passenger, Obnoxious Guy's lips were moving nonstop.
John decided to entertain himself by hitting every air pocket between McMurdo and the Air Force research station. By the time they got there, Obnoxious Guy was a few shades paler and quite a lot greener, but, unfortunately, still talking.
"Where did you get your license, from a box of Cracker Jacks?" he demanded, staggering slightly as he stepped out into the snow. "Oh my God, I think I twisted an ankle."
"Watch your step," John said cheerfully, letting his sunglasses hide his amusement, as usual. "Here, give you a hand with that box."
"I think I'm going to throw up. Who's your commanding officer? He's so getting a letter of complaint about you. Is it freezing out here or is it just me? And where's my sunscreen? You stole it, didn't you? All of you jock types are the same, getting your kicks picking on people who are smarter than you. Stop smirking at me!"
The one good thing that could be said for Obnoxious Guy was that he didn't work anywhere near McMurdo and could thus be safely forgotten about. McMurdo was such a closed system that you couldn't avoid anybody for long, and even when you tried, people were constantly doing invasive things like trying to drag perfectly innocent pilots to social functions. John had gotten in some practice on the golf course, which was really more of a series of flags stuck in holes in the ice, but beyond that, he hadn't made much effort to get to know anybody. No point really. They'd all scatter to the ends of the Earth and he'd never see most of them again. He kinda liked it that way, actually.
The next time John saw the research station, a week or so later, Obnoxious Guy was now wearing some sort of orange fleece monstrosity, so that he was not only loud and annoying, but visually loud, as well. This time, though, John had a few problems of his own -- like funny-looking dentists' chairs that lit up when he touched them, and finding out that his family tree had the odd extraterrestrial branch. Obnoxious Guy turned out to have a name, Dr. McKay -- John heard a few other people using it. Luckily, he wasn't a medical doctor, and those were the ones that were interested in John.
So he might be kinda, sorta, thinking about signing up for a tour of duty in another galaxy. In a way it was too bad Obnoxious Guy would be staying here, John thought as he cleared out his quarters at McMurdo. The guy would probably get on your nerves if you had to deal with him for more than five minutes at a time, but after a few days of exposure, John had begun to find him weirdly amusing to watch -- what with all the hand gestures and ranting and the occasional panic attack. At the very least, he'd liven the place up. If McMurdo was anything to go by, John expected that life in another research station, even if it wasn't in the same galaxy, would be pretty damn boring.
To his surprise, he ran into Obnoxious Gu -- that is, McKay in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. Just like McMurdo and most of the bases where he'd been stationed, the SGC was a small enough community that you saw everybody sooner or later. As usual, John didn't really go out of his way to get to know people; he ate by himself in the cafeteria most days, reading a book. Still, he liked chatting with people, and he was a little surprised to see McKay here. He'd figured that McKay and his hideous orange fleece would be stuck in Antarctica taking apart alien technology until the end of time.
"Hey, I thought you were in Antarctica," he said as they brushed past each other, John leaving the cafeteria and McKay entering.
"What? No, I -- who are you again?"
"Sheppard. I'm the --"
"Oh, right, the one with the ATA gene that Beckett's been going on about. Very busy, can't talk now, see you later. Oh, and speaking of Beckett, I think he's looking for you."
Probably to draw more blood. John shuddered.
He didn't find out until a little later that McKay was also taking the one-way trip to another galaxy. Well, it couldn't be that bad. He'd worked with annoying people before. Since he was military and McKay was on the civilian side, he doubted if they'd see much of each other, anyway.
Two days after stepping through the Stargate, he'd made friends with an alien warrior princess (very cool), killed his commanding officer (not at all cool), thrown McKay off a balcony (also pretty cool) and almost gotten killed by a cloud of black energy. All in all, not exactly what he was expecting ... not that he'd really had a clue what to expect from a one-way trip to another planet.
He was thoughtfully writing up a report on the whole energy cloud thing -- because even though they were in another galaxy and might never get back to Earth, Weir still wanted reports -- when a message popped up on his laptop from EWEIR1.
We need to begin trading with other worlds ASAP, the message read. Any progress on putting together your team?
Dammit. Right. He didn't have the slightest clue what sort of mission skills he was going to need (brand new galaxy, hello!) so he opened up a new text window and started typing quickly. Brainstorming, really. He figured he'd probably end up shuffling team members around to find who fit the best with whom. For now, he typed in Teyla Emmagan's name -- gotta have Teyla on some team or other, definitely, and he was the only person on Atlantis who really knew her yet. He was gonna want somebody military -- he typed "Ford" because he couldn't remember anyone else's name off the top of his head -- and there should probably be a scientist. McKay was, again, the only one whose name he could remember yet, so he added McKay's name to the list and sent it off to Weir.
He'd never have dreamed of suggesting McKay for an offworld team prior to today. But, well ... the guy was brave. Loud, mouthy, no common sense to speak of -- but brave. And the whole thing with the personal shield had been fun. Well, up until it got serious. But it was fun in the beginning. How often did you get to shoot somebody in the leg and have them laugh at you?
In a couple of weeks, once he got to know his people a little better, he'd probably end up shuffling them around. Ford might do well in charge of his own team, and McKay would undoubtedly want to stay on Atlantis as a permanent assignment. But this ought to do for now.
"You've got a couple of cracked ribs from the CPR and I wouldn't move your head too quickly for a while, but you're going to be just fine, Major."
He was tired, a little loopy from the meds, and hungry. "What I could really use is some food, Doc."
Beckett laughed and patted him on the shoulder. Like Teyla's rare head-touches, the gesture startled him. "I'll see what I can do. Looks like the wound is clean, so I'll let Terry finish taping it up. Oh, and there are three people who've been waiting for news. I'll go let them know you're all right."
"Uh?" John said, but Beckett was gone. John leaned forward to follow him, catching himself off guard as the movement jerked at his neck. "Ow!"
"Sit still please, Major," the nurse said, a bit shyly. John leaned back and tried to relax through the little tugs of tape and gauze.
"Finally!" The strident voice could be heard all over the infirmary; no need to wonder who that was. John heard the sound of Beckett sternly telling McKay to keep his voice down, and then a murmur of voices that he couldn't quite understand. He could recognize them, though: Teyla soothing, Ford questioning, McKay snapping.
They worried for me. They came to see how I was doing. He wasn't quite sure how to cope with that thought. Wasn't even sure if he liked it. The idea warmed him even as it left him empty, shaky, scared. I always screw this up. Something will happen and they'll die, just like --
But then the door opened and McKay marched through, with Ford and Teyla in tow. "Aha, there you are! Do you know that you missed the first real meal we've had since we've been here? Teyla's people fed us. They had these birdlike things. Actually, a sort of a snake or something. With wings. Ford thought it tasted like chicken."
"It did," Ford protested.
"Well, the least you could have done was bring me some of it, McKay." And John relaxed back into his pillows. Maybe the shaky feeling was just hunger, after all.
"Yeah, right, because the first thing you think about when someone gets an alien bug stuck on their neck and then almost dies is that they need food," McKay retorted. But he was smiling -- and somewhere, under all the usual smugness, there was something hesitant and worried and just a little bit shy. It made him look younger, and a lot less irritating, and John smiled back.
The clay jar of wine under Elizabeth's desk was sweet and sharp, with a tangy aftertaste. John didn't normally like sweet liquor, but in this case, the burning warmth in his belly more than made up for it.
They sat in silence and sipped from half-filled metal mugs. Outside Elizabeth's office, the last group of returning Atlanteans were just getting settled, as dusk gathered behind the stained glass windows. John's whole body hummed with nervous energy and fatigue; he didn't think he'd slept since the Genii invasion, and this might be the first time he'd sat down.
"It's been a rough couple of days," Elizabeth said at last. John glanced over at her, at the shadows of exhaustion under her eyes.
He wanted to say something flippant, like "We're all still alive", except they weren't -- two good men, dead, when the Genii came through the gate. And he'd had to do things he'd once thought to put behind him forever. His body ached with weariness, and his soul felt bruised, tender.
"Yeah," he said finally, and took another gulp of wine. His cup was almost empty. He curled his fingers around it and stubbornly did not ask for a refill.
Elizabeth stared into her own cup, not looking at him. "I've noticed that you and Rodney haven't said much to each other since the ... incursion."
"Just busy, that's all." John didn't really have much to say about it, to her or to McKay. The scientist had done all right, for a civilian. He'd handled himself ... adequately. He'd also turned belly-up for the enemy, told them the plan and nearly gotten John and Elizabeth killed as well as costing them Atlantis. It wasn't his fault; he hadn't been trained for this. But it had been ... disappointing.
John hadn't spent this much time in close proximity to civilians in his entire adult life; even on McMurdo, where the population was mostly civilian, he'd just been trying to keep his head down and get by. In the last couple of days, for the first time, he'd really had to stop and make himself understand that they were different. They didn't think the same way. He'd let his guard down, and ended up, unconsciously, trying to lean on the civilians around him as he would have his comrades-in-arms. And they weren't; the soldiers were here to protect the scientists, not to go into battle with scientists covering their backs. He had to maintain his awareness of that, and not expect things of civilians that they couldn't deliver. That sort of thinking will get you and everyone else killed, John.
Elizabeth rolled her cup between her hands. "Did I tell you ..." She hesitated, and after a moment John looked over at her. The only light in the office came from her desk lamp and the muted twilight of the sunset behind the gateroom windows. Her face was a study in shadow.
"Tell me ...?" he prompted after a moment. Curiosity killed the cat, and all of that.
"About what happened during the storm. Why I'm still alive. Well, not to belittle your contribution, of course; you shooting Kolya over my shoulder still amazes and terrifies me, for the record."
John gave a slight shrug and a grin.
She drained her cup, shuddered and set it down. "Getting straight to the point, Rodney stepped in front of a gun for me. Kolya was going to kill me -- I guess you heard, over the radio."
"I heard." And the pit of his stomach went cold, remembering.
"Rodney talked him out of it. Talked Kolya into keeping me alive with a gun pointed at his chest, and me, the career diplomat, standing speechless behind him." Her voice was distant, remembering.
John turned it over in his head, as night slowly leeched the colors out of the stained glass window. He tried to picture it, tried to hear the words in his head. "That ... doesn't really sound like McKay." He knew that McKay wasn't a total coward, had seen him walk into a black energy cloud to save the rest of them -- but only under the protection of the personal shield. That ... it was admirable, but also something he could certainly believe that a slightly out-of-shape civilian might reasonably do. This was an entirely different realm of bravery.
Elizabeth's laugh was a short, mirthless bark. "I know, it doesn't really, does it? And you haven't even known him as long as I have. The Rodney McKay I first met at Area 51, years ago, was self-centered, arrogant and very memorably irritating. He's one of the finest minds at the SGC, which is, of course, why he was granted this post. It certainly wasn't for his people skills, his courage or any other admirable human qualities."
Tired to the point of near collapse, with the alcohol dulling his edge still further, John couldn't help laughing. "I bet you don't get many people asking you for letters of recommendation, Elizabeth, do you?"
The corner of her mouth quirked up. "It hardly does any good to pretend Rodney's a saint, does it? We both know him already." The smile slowly fell away, and John realized that she wasn't telling him this because she thought he ought to know. The words he was hearing were those of a tired and lonely woman, who didn't have anyone else to share her secrets, and he suddenly felt the walls closing in around him. He didn't want to be anyone's confidante. He'd gone to Antarctica to get away from those sorts of entanglements.
And yet, there was no graceful way to detach himself, and he remained, sitting on the edge of her desk as her low voice went on. "Since I came here, I've seen hardened military men cry, and I've seen a five-foot-two-inch botanist learn to shoot a gun. I now owe my life to a man I once thought wouldn't pour a bucket of water on his grandmother if she caught on fire. I spent a lot of time thinking that this galaxy was changing us, and fearing what it might change me into. But it's not really doing that, is it? All it's doing is bringing out what was there already." Her eyes reflected the lamp's soft light. "As long as we know ourselves, we have nothing to fear."
John liked who he was just fine, and the only person who had permission to psychoanalyze John Sheppard ... was John Sheppard himself. If she turned that amateur-psychologist stare on him, he was gone. John quietly slid his hip off her desk.
Elizabeth sucked in a breath, and turned her head to look at him more directly. "I'm sorry. Maybe the alcohol wasn't a good idea after all; it makes me maudlin sometimes."
"I think we both needed it." John set his cup beside hers, hoping to convey without open rudeness his need to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
"I know I did. And we also need sleep, all of us." Elizabeth waved a hand. "I don't expect to see you for a good twelve hours, John, unless the city catches on fire."
His grin was easy, practiced -- much easier and more comfortable than unwanted intimacy. "Same to you."
"Oh, absolutely. And, John? If you happen to see Rodney, make sure he gets that arm of his looked at, would you? It was ... deep."
John hadn't even really speculated on what McKay might have done to himself (flying glass? winged by a bullet?) but something in her tone made him say, slowly, "Sure."
He turned to go. From behind him, her voice was so low that he could barely hear it. "We're all in this together, you know, John. Military. Civilian. It might have mattered once, but this galaxy doesn't understand those distinctions."
John paused in the doorway and granted a slight nod, acknowledgment that he'd heard her, without looking back. Behind him, he could hear the soft sloshing as she poured more wine into her cup.
Three weeks later, Rodney shot a Wraith and saved his life on a barren planet at the edge of Lantea's solar system. From then on, John never doubted, never looked back. This was his life now, their life now -- this strange, crazy, beautiful, upside-down galaxy where he'd slowly, grudgingly, learned to trust a soft-edged and untrained civilian at his back over a dozen Marines.
While he'd never spent that much time thinking about it, John had just assumed that if any of them ever managed to get back to Earth, they'd all probably go their separate ways. In the weird days following the arrival of the Daedalus, he wasn't even sure if his superiors would let him go back, so there was no real point in staying in touch with the people he'd gotten to know.
But the SGC had put them all up in a hotel in Colorado Springs, and Rodney, Elizabeth and Carson were all just a few doors away, not too different from Atlantis. It was just habit, he rationalized, that made them all end up in Elizabeth's room, night after night, ordering out for pizza and room service, buying expensive beer because hey, what could you do with a year's worth of pay in another galaxy?
After being in emergency mode for months, and running on adrenaline for three days straight, he and Rodney both crashed hard for a few days, and then could hardly sleep at all. After Elizabeth, Carson and the rest of the rotating room party (Zelenka, Kusanagi, etc.) wandered off to bed, he and Rodney would usually end up playing video games or watching lousy sci-fi movies until the sun came up.
At the end of one of those marathon sessions, crashed on the floor in John's room at eight in the morning, half drunk and half asleep, Rodney said blearily, "You know, I always thought -- if we ever got back to Earth, I thought ..."
He trailed off. With his face pillowed on his arm, video game controller resting loosely in his limp fingers, he wasn't looking at John.
"Yeah," John said. "Me too." Then he took advantage of Rodney's moment of distraction to sneak up behind him in the game and shoot him in the back.
Being back on Atlantis was a little different when it was voluntary. John supposed that technically, they'd all been volunteers the first time around, too; but that first year, if you changed your mind or realized you'd gotten in over your head, there was no way out.
Now, though, you could leave, and people did. But the important ones came back, and stayed, and that mattered, John realized. It mattered a lot.
He surfaced from weird, half-remembered dreams to an odd, repetitive, vaguely familiar clicking sound.
John blinked. The lights were much too bright, and he squinted against them, only then realizing that it was actually almost dark -- the trouble was with his eyes.
The clicking stopped. A moment later, Rodney's voice -- hesitant, hushed, but still too loud -- said, "Colonel?"
"Yeah?" His throat felt weird. He had to concentrate to get his lips to form words. When he ran his tongue over them, they felt dry and scaly.
Something yanked him back as he tried to lurch out of the bed, almost jerking his arms out of their sockets. "Whoa!" Rodney said, and warm solid hands planted themselves in the middle of his chest, pushing him back down. The world spun around him.
"I -- what -- I, did I --" John couldn't get the words past his uncooperative mouth. Oh God, it's real, all of it. I couldn't have -- I didn't --
"Calm down! What's wrong? Should I call Carson?" Rodney's face was pale, and his hair stuck up in ragged tufts; he looked worn out and scared.
"How long?" John rasped, still reflexively tugging against his restraints. I'm restrained. I'm a threat.
Rodney sat back, running a hand through his hair. "Um, you've been out of it for about four days. Well, in and out of it. Carson said you ought to be lucid when you woke up, but you haven't been awake for more than a few minutes at a time. Uh ... do you know who you are?"
John swallowed convulsively a few times before mustering enough saliva to say, "I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, for Pete's sake, Rodney."
"Okay. That's ... good, I guess. Do you know what year it is?"
"Shut up, Rodney; I don't have a head injury." John gave the restraints another light tug. As the adrenaline ebbed out of his system, it left him shaky and exhausted. Everything recent was a disjointed blur, with sharp-edged bits of memory that made him squirm in embarrassment. Through it all, the presence of Rodney, Teyla and Ronon -- together, separately, in various combinations -- was an unexpected constant.
"Feeling well enough to snap at the scientist who is only trying to be helpful -- check. You, um ... you want me to get Carson?"
John shook his head. "I just want ..." He wasn't sure what he wanted. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to get out of the infirmary. He wanted to know what he looked like. He wanted to be human and normal. Mostly, he wanted to sleep and not have to deal with this right now. "I'm thirsty," he whispered.
Rodney awkwardly held a cup of water for him, getting as much of it down his neck as in his mouth. "I'm sorry! I'm really bad at this! There's a reason why I didn't go into medicine, you know. Let me get a nurse --"
John shook his head fiercely, setting off a new wave of vertigo. "Don't." He didn't think he could deal with more people right now. It was bad enough having Rodney there. "I just want to sleep." And let this all be a dream when I wake up.
"Um ... okay." Rodney picked up his laptop. "So you -- you just tell me if you need anything, okay?"
John shut his eyes. It made the vertigo a little less, but he still felt terrible: hot and achy, weary to the bone, his skin too dry and too small. "I hate to break it to you, McKay, but you're no Florence Nightingale."
"Fine, see if I waste my time mopping your fevered brow," Rodney snapped. The clicking sound started up again, and this time he recognized it: fingers tapping on a keyboard.
"I hadn't noticed a whole lot of brow-mopping going on to begin with," John murmured. "Unless you count cleaning up the water you spilled on me."
"Go to sleep; I'm trying to work. Teyla's relieving me in half an hour, anyway. She's much better at the whole bedside thing."
John wanted to ask what they were doing there in the first place, but he fell asleep before he could.
It was John's turn next, visiting Rodney in the infirmary after fishing him out of a sunken puddlejumper.
"He's asleep," Carson said quietly.
"Yeah, I thought so, I just ..." John made an awkward gesture that might have meant anything; even he wasn't exactly sure.
"Back there. Behind the curtain on the left."
Rodney looked alarmingly vulnerable when he was asleep, bereft of his usual defensive wall of hostility and sarcasm. There had been a time when John had thought that the defensive barricade was all there was to the man. Live and learn, he thought, and settled in with his book, propping his feet up on the edge of Rodney's bed.
A nurse came by after a couple of hours, wrote down a few numbers from the monitors. Voice pitched low to avoid disturbing Rodney, she said, "Colonel, he's going to be fine. We're only keeping him overnight to make sure he didn't pick up anything in the lungs; we'll be releasing him in the morning. You should get some sleep."
John shrugged. "I'd just be reading in bed anyway. I can read here."
The nurse smiled and set a plastic travel mug on the bedside stand; ice cubes clinked inside. "Well, this is for him if he wakes up. I'll be on duty until six a.m. if either of you need anything."
With a parting smile, she vanished and he went back to the Cold War and Jack Ryan.
It was another fifty pages or so before Rodney made a soft snorting sound and came awake with a violent flinch, banging his elbow on the metal bed rail.
John dog-eared a page of the book to mark his place. "Ouch. That sounded painful."
Squinting, blinking and rubbing his elbow, Rodney made a sound vaguely like "ourglfug."
"Good morning to you, too. Want a drink of water, or ... something?" While he tried to regularly come and visit his injured men in the infirmary, John was pretty sure he still sucked at the whole bedside thing.
"Is it morning?" Rodney ran a hand over his face and winced when his fingers encountered the bandage on his forehead. Being awake hadn't done much to remove the vulnerable look, especially since he was obviously still a little bit out of it.
"Not really. More like, I'm not sure, midnight or so." Looking for something useful to do, John picked up the cup of ice water and offered it.
"Yeah ... more water is what I need." It was only a faint ghost of his usual sarcasm, and his hands trembled slightly as he took the cup, but even a mildly sarcastic Rodney was easier for John to deal with than a weak, subdued Rodney.
"You know, Colonel," he added, toying with the cup without drinking from it, "I never -- I -- you know what I'm trying to say. Thanks for -- stuff, and all."
"We take turns saving each other's lives, remember? It was my turn."
Rodney looked up at him sharply. "You heard that? You couldn't have! You were supposed to be in the virtual environment."
"Teyla put it in her report."
Rodney eyed him. "Since when does Teyla do reports?"
"Teyla always does reports, Rodney; she's a lot more conscientious about it than you are."
A shiver worked its way along Rodney's arms. "Do I have to do a report on this?" The forced flippant tone was belied by a small catch in his voice.
"No," John said gently. "No, you don't." The look on Rodney's face was one that shouldn't ever be there, so John reached into his pocket. "You plan on going back to sleep anytime soon, you think?"
"Not really." Rodney grimaced and put the cup of water back.
"Chessboard didn't fit under my jacket, but I've got this." He held up a deck of cards and a small bag of M&Ms.
"I hesitate to ask what the M&Ms are for, since you didn't really bring enough for two people."
"Poker chips, of course."
"Just for the record, I think you're certifiably insane," Rodney said with a hint of his usual snap, smoothing out a flat area of blanket for a card table.
On M3Y-2R4, John fell down a ravine headfirst and got a nasty concussion. Hey, it was wet and muddy, could've happened to anyone. Rodney and Teyla spent two hours standing in cold knee-deep mud keeping John warm and elevated while Ronon ran back to the gate to get Lorne, a jumper and a rope. John's hazy and disjointed recollections mostly consisted of Rodney talking, nonstop, for two hours, especially after John threw up on him -- punctuated, towards the end, by Teyla periodically telling Rodney that if he didn't shut up, she would start hitting him as soon as she had a hand free.
John sort of appreciated the talking, though -- it gave him something to focus on, to keep himself awake and aware until the med team got there.
On MK3-475, Ronon was betrayed to the Wraith, and Rodney got shot in the ass with an arrow. After escaping from crazy villagers and sweeping the culled village with a team of Marines, John returned to Atlantis filthy, furious and terrified. A terse debriefing with Elizabeth left him wound up tighter than a coiled spring. He took a quick shower and headed down to the infirmary to find Rodney drugged into a loopy, goofy state that was too much fun not to take advantage of.
Carson caught him giggling helplessly while encouraging Rodney to repeat tongue twisters, and threatened to ban him from the infirmary if he didn't stop teasing the patients. By that time, John's knotted stomach had mostly returned to normal and he felt as if he could plan a rescue without wanting to punch everyone who disagreed with him.
On M7C-R37, John took a bullet meant for a certain slow-moving physicist. When he swam blearily up from anesthesia, it was to find Rodney fast asleep on the foot of his bed, drooling on his leg. Teyla and Ronon were sprawled on the next bed over. All of them looked more like a pile of tired puppies than a bunch of intergalactic explorers.
As John squirmed into a more comfortable position and sank back down again, he realized that he'd expected them to be there. In fact, he would have been more surprised if they hadn't been.
On M1B-129, John accidentally shot Rodney in the belief he was a Taliban soldier. This resulted in a lot of complaining on Rodney's part, and a week or so of John turning up early at the start of every meal shift to snag a couple of the good desserts, which he then handed over to Rodney. It probably looked like reconciliation to everybody else, but John knew full well that Rodney's bitching had nothing to do with being mad, and he was pretty sure Rodney knew that the extra desserts had nothing to do with getting back into his good graces.
There were other near-misses, too many to count, but a few memories John never revisited, except in his nightmares -- Rodney's pale face as the Ancient Ascension machine slowly killed him; Rodney's body convulsing as Keller shocked it with defibrillator paddles, and her two simple words, "He's dead." And he suspected Rodney had more than one unthinkable memory of his own: John, with the Wraith feeding on him in front of the monitors; John's voice saying "So long, Rodney" as he ran for the jumper bay, because Rodney had been too slow to make the chair do what they wanted it to do.
A persistent habit, this saving each other's lives. More persistent, in fact, than some of John's other habits: letting go, never getting close, moving on.
The smaller moon of their new world hung near the horizon, while the larger rode high in the sky, gracing the last vestiges of a blazing sunset. Even the water here had a different quality than the ocean back on the planet they were already calling Old Lantea -- the tides were lower (something to do with the gravitational effects of the moons canceling each other out, as John understood it) and sometimes, as now, it made John think of a ruffled sheet of glass stretching to infinity.
Lingering over dinner while his teammates' friendly bickering washed over him, John stared out across the water. Glass wasn't really what it made him think of, he decided, that lightly ruffled surface with the moonlight skating over it -- not glass, but Antarctic snow, combed by the wind's fingers into frozen wavelets. It had been a long time since he'd thought of Antarctica, its harsh beauty, its still and perfect silences.
Teyla nudged him. "A penny for your thoughts," she said, repeating the Earth phrase carefully.
Startled into honesty, surprising even himself, he said, "Just thinking about Antarctica."
Rodney snorted. "Don't get me started on Antarctica."
"Like we could stop you," Ronon remarked.
"No heat, lousy food, electricity kept cutting out because American taxpayers were too cheap to spring for decent generators -- lowest taxes in the industrialized world," he added loudly, glaring at John as if it was personally his fault.
"We consider that a good thing, Rodney."
Teyla cleared her throat, distracting them from one of many long-standing arguments. "Antarctica?" she said.
"What's to say?" Rodney retorted. "Colder than hell, dry, unpleasant. Oh, and the first time I flew out there, some asshole pilot deliberately tried to make me airsick. Hopefully he's crashed on a lonely mountain peak and frozen to death by now, and good riddance."
John's first reaction was to jibe right back at him, until he realized that Rodney wasn't joking -- he really didn't remember. "That was me, Rodney."
Rodney blinked. "What? No -- no, it wasn't. He was -- he was, uh. Taller."
"It was me."
Another blink. Rodney was red all the way to the tips of his ears. "Oh. Uh ... oh. Well, all you guys look alike, with the -- and also with the -- You tried to make me puke on purpose, you jerk!"
"But you didn't." John felt vaguely guilty, and thought that pointing out he'd only done it to get Rodney to shut up might not be the best course of action.
"I almost did! I had to suffer through my initial briefing with Elizabeth and Dr. Jackson while scouting for handy trash cans."
"Yeah ... sorry about that." He really was, too. Looking back across the vantage of years, it seemed impossibly childish and passive-aggressive. Rodney wasn't the only annoying passenger he'd done that to, either. At the time, it was just another way to amuse himself; he hadn't realized he was taking out his unhap --
-- unhappiness --
"John?" Teyla prompted. He'd frozen with his fork halfway to his mouth. Rodney was still sulking. Slowly, John completed the bite he'd been taking, stunned.
He'd been miserable in Antarctica. And he'd never realized it. Never realized it until this moment, surrounded by everything he hadn't had there. He'd always thought of Antarctica, when he thought about it at all, as a vaguely peaceful place -- peaceful, still, quiet. And lonely. So desperately alone.
And I was miserable there.
"You gonna eat that?" Ronon didn't wait for an answer before nicking the chocolate muffin off the edge of Rodney's plate.
"Hey! Just because a little talk of airsickness might have temporarily affected my appetite ... give that back!"
"John?" Teyla turned from the Rodney and Ronon show, her attention drawn by John rising from his seat.
"Long day. Gonna call it a night. See you guys in the morning."
But he didn't go back to his quarters. Instead, he wandered onto the balcony that exited off the corridor outside the cafeteria. The last traces of color in the sky were just fading. A breeze ruffled his hair.
"So ... Sheppard ..." Rodney's voice from behind him was quiet and a bit hesitant. "You, uh ... you okay?"
"I'm fine." He laced his fingers lightly together on top of the railing, and waited until Rodney joined him, settling in next to him.
"So," John said after a moment.
"So," Rodney agreed, and then, in a peevish tone, "What's with the disappearing act? You're in a snit because I didn't remember saying two sentences to you four years ago? Ego, much? You're hardly that memorable, you know."
"Get over yourself, Rodney. I just needed some air. Besides ..." He grinned wickedly, and lied through his teeth: "I hardly even remember you at all."
"Oh, fine, mock the brilliant physicist," Rodney grumbled. "It just figures that you'd turn out to be the most annoying person in Antarctica, or so I thought of you at the time. Granted, I'd only been there for two hours, but they were very long hours. An hour spent trying not to throw up is about a week of subjective time, you know."
"Don't try your insincere apologies on me, Sheppard. I have your marker now, and the next time I want to go after a promising energy reading while you want to go home, I plan to call it in."
"You have my marker?"
"What? That's appropriate gangster parlance, isn't it?"
"In 1935, maybe." Resting his chin on his hand, John said after a moment, "I used to refer to you as Obnoxious Guy in my head. Before I knew your name, that is ... and for a little while after."
Rodney snorted. "You mean you don't anymore? What, am I losing my edge?"
"I used to think of you as 'that asshole pilot'. You know, since we're sharing and all." John could hear the smile in Rodney's voice, which faded as he said, "I, uh, that thing about hoping you froze to death, I didn't really hope --"
"Oh, c'mon, Rodney, you're a terrible liar. Yes you did."
"Well, him, of course," Rodney said quickly. "Not you."
"I hate to break it to you, but he was me."
Rodney just said, "Hmmm," in a noncommittal sort of way.
They leaned on the balcony as the second moon sank and the stars came out. The breeze off the ocean was warm, and John realized that he couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this contented. This peaceful.
I almost didn't come here, he thought. It hung on the flip of a coin.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glanced at Rodney, whose head had dipped down to rest on his folded arms. The moonlight silvered his eyelashes.
I almost spent my entire life thinking of Rodney McKay as that obnoxious jerk in the orange polar fleece.
The sense of opportunity-almost-missed rose up in his throat, nearly choking him. He punched Rodney lightly in the arm.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"Just seeing if you were still awake, Sleeping Beauty." John pushed off from the balcony. "Want to go find the chessboard?"
"Yes, yes; it's not as if any of us have work in the morning."
John gave a happy little hop as he headed for the transporter. "Ah, but I have Mars bars. And Cheetos."
"What? You've got Earth snack foods and you haven't been sharing?"
"I'm sharing now."
"I take back every nice thing I ever said about you, Sheppard," Rodney grumbled as he punched the level of their quarters on the destination map.
"You never say anything nice about me, Rodney."
"Yes, well ... I take back everything I might say in the future. Hey! Quit smirking at me!"
The transporter doors closed on John's laugh.