God, it felt good to be back in the Pegasus galaxy. Earth wasn’t home anymore, and the rest of the Milky Way galaxy never had been in the first place. Pegasus was where Atlantis belonged, and where John Sheppard belonged with it. And now, after months of political wrangling and bureaucratic delays, they’d finally been allowed to come home.
The supplies they’d brought back from Earth were still holding out – he was fairly sure that the turkey in his sandwich came from an actual turkey and that the bread was made from wheat – but somehow he found himself looking forward to tuttleroot and tormack, to guess-the-animal meatloaf, to the not-bananas from PX5-291 that tasted like cherries and mint.
“Mind if I join you, Colonel?”
John tried and failed to come with a reason to say yes, realized he was taking too long to answer and said what the situation required: “Not at all, Doctor.”
Keller smiled at him as she seated herself gracefully. “You can call me Jennifer, you know.”
John smiled right back and then took another bite of his sandwich. He knew he was supposed to respond by inviting her to call him John. He didn’t want her calling him John. He was going to have to be the groom’s best man at her wedding some day, and he’d do that and survive it, but he damn well wasn’t going to give her any extras.
“Glad to be home?”
John shrugged. “Earth’s not bad. Showing Teyla and Ronon around San Francisco was a blast.” For the first few weeks, anyway.
“Did you get any time with your family?”
“A bit.” Which was true. He’d had dinner with Dave. Once.
Keller smiled again, poked at her salad. She seemed to be waiting for something. Probably for him to say the expected thing and ask about her – and McKay’s – visit to see her family.
“You know that Rodney and I spent a few weeks with my family.”
Okay, maybe she wasn’t going to wait.
“It was, uh...” She paused and looked at him invitingly. Maybe if he started picking up on her cues they could get this conversation over with faster.
“So how was the visit, Doc?” John drawled.
“It’s interesting to meet someone and get to know them in one environment and then see how they operate in a completely different environment.”
“Most of his abrasiveness is a defense mechanism, you know.”
“I dunno, Doc. Some of it’s because everyone else really is a moron compared to him.”
“And on Atlantis, where Rodney’s brain saves our lives at least once a week, people are willing to cut him some slack because of that. There are even people who actually like him. So he’s a bit less defensive, which in turn makes him a bit less abrasive. Seeing him on Earth with my family...”
John could imagine. Bringing McKay home to meet your family on Earth would be like taking him on a mission without Teyla for diplomatic back-up. Except that most of the people they met on missions didn’t expect strangers to understand their rules without explanation. People on Earth just assumed that everyone agreed with their idea of “normal.”
“Life on Atlantis is a lot of things, Colonel, but it’s not what I’d call ‘normal.’”
Yeah, Keller was still an Earth-girl at heart.
“When I think of normal, I think of my family. And when you put Rodney in with normal people, he – he doesn’t quite fit.”
“He’s McKay.” Being “normal” would be a downgrade, but if Keller couldn’t figure that out on her own, he wasn’t about to tell her. And why the hell were they having this conversation anyway? It sounded almost as if she was telling him she was having second thoughts. What was he supposed to do, pass the information on? Talk her out of it?
“Yes, he certainly is.” Keller’s smile was fond and sweet. Maybe she wasn’t having second thoughts after all. And maybe he shouldn’t be feeling disappointed about that. Maybe it was time to get out of here.
“Nice chatting with you, Doc, but, you know, inventory. Paperwork.” John gave her a nod, grabbed his tray and escaped.
Ah, back home in the Pegasus galaxy! Earth had too many people, and too many of them were idiots. He’d forgotten that. Sure, Pegasus had Wraith, but at least no one expected him to be nice to Wraith.
Although he was trying to get better at the niceness thing. That was important if he and Jennifer were going to stay together, and that’s what he wanted to do, right? After all, he’d gone with her to visit her family, and he wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t love her. If he’d just been looking for fun, he’d’ve hung out with Sheppard. And Teyla, and Ronon, but mostly Sheppard.
But no, he’d gone to visit Jen’s family, which proved he loved Jen and wanted to stay together with her. And he hadn’t done too badly at being nice to her family. At least, he didn’t think so. He hadn’t been asked to leave or anything. The shouting match with her Uncle Herbert was not his fault – it was Herbert (or Hubert?) who’d laid down the gauntlet by proclaiming that Canadians were all communists because they had government health insurance. And the incident in which he’d blown up at one of Jen’s nieces after the kid had swapped the sugar cookie on his plate for a lemon one while he wasn’t looking because she apparently thought it would be funny to watch him bite into it and die? Also not his fault.
Okay, honestly? It had been a horrible visit. But he had been trying, and that counted for something, right?
Anyway, they were back in Pegasus now, and he was supposed to be meeting Jennifer for dinner in... Oh, shit. In negative ten minutes.
“Jennifer! I’m sorry, I got caught up in something, I...”
“Rodney, take a breath, it’s fine.” She was laughing, it couldn’t be too bad. “Here, sit down. This is pretty good – we’re still eating Earth food.”
“I don’t know, I kind of miss tormack.”
Jen made a face. “We’ll be back to tormack sooner or later.”
Huh, that almost sounded as if Jen actually disliked tormack. He hadn’t known that was possible. He was about to ask when Jen said casually, “I had lunch with Colonel Sheppard.”
“Well, you said you were busy...”
“...and I just happened to run into the Colonel. Is he extremely formal about using titles or just a bit shy about first names?”
Sheppard? Formal? Shy? This was maybe some alternate-universe Sheppard Jen had met?
“Anyway, we were talking about what we’d gotten up to on Earth. He’s not close to his family, is he?”
That was one way of putting it. “His family’s not worth getting close to.”
“I wonder if that’s why he’s so lonely.”
“Sheppard’s lonely? Are we talking about the same person? He’s got plenty of friends. Me, Teyla, Ronon... Okay, he’s got three close friends. And lots and lots of people who really like him.”
“But have you ever known him to have anyone special in his life?”
“Special? What does that mean? Oh, as in romantically special? Right, you weren’t here for the whole Chaya episode.”
“I’ve heard about that. But wasn’t that rather brief?”
“It was brief because she turned out to be lying. But while it was going on, it was pretty romantic.” And glowy. And hot. “Anyway, she’s not the only one. There was Larrin, Teer – look, the only reason you think he’s lonely is because you don’t usually go offworld with us. The guy can hardly put foot on a planet without some priestess or princess making a move on him. There’s a reason I call him Kirk.”
“Other than to annoy him?” Jen grinned a moment. Damn, she was beautiful. “Okay, he’s got all these women chasing him, but he’s never brought any of them home to Atlantis. He’s never tried to, you know, pick one and settle down.”
“Maybe that’s not what he wants, Jen. He was married once and it didn’t last. Maybe he figured out that marriage just isn’t his thing. It’s not for everyone, you know.”
“And maybe he’s scared to try again. Which is a shame. He’s reasonably attractive...”
“By which you mean, insanely hot.”
“Much more so than he lets on.”
“Suicidal. Anyone who wants a relationship with John Sheppard is going to have to be stubborn and strong-willed enough to convince him that they want him to live for them, not die for them.” God knows I’ve tried, thought Rodney. At which point it occurred to him that this was a really strange conversation to be having with his girlfriend about another man. “Uh, Jen, are we having this conversation because you know someone who’s interested in Sheppard?”
“I might,” teased Jen. “But enough about the Colonel. How was your day?”
By the time Rodney got done giving Jen all the details, he’d forgotten the Sheppard conversation.
Alas, he was only allowed to forget temporarily. It wasn’t just that he and Jennifer seemed to be seeing less of each other. The months of downtime on Earth had somehow resulted in an even larger backlog of work to be done in the labs now that they were back in Pegasus. Rodney supposed that the situation was the same in the infirmary.
No, what really caught his attention was that almost every time he spotted Jen unexpectedly, she was with Sheppard. He’d walk into the mess and see them eating together, but when he started walking over towards them, Jen would smile at Sheppard and leave. One time he’d tried asking Sheppard what they’d been talking about, only to get a shrug for an answer.
Another time he’d dropped by the infirmary to talk with Jen about getting together later that evening and had run into Sheppard coming out of her office. From the other man’s constipated expression, he gathered that Sheppard was both surprised and unhappy to see him there.
Rodney couldn’t help feeling as if Sheppard’s discomfort around him infected their interactions even when Jen wasn’t involved. He wondered if their other teammates had noticed and tried asking Ronon.
“Has Sheppard seemed weird to you recently?”
“Sheppard’s always weird. It would be weird if he weren’t weird.”
So much for Ronon. He tried asking Teyla.
“Rodney, it seems to me that the time we spent on Earth and our return to the Pegasus galaxy has caused many people to rethink certain aspects of their lives. Perhaps John is going through this process?”
What was that supposed to mean?
Whatever was going on with Keller was getting weird, too weird for John’s tastes. She seemed to keep popping up, wanting to talk. She’d show up in the mess, sit herself down and start talking – but make some excuse to leave if McKay showed up.
One time she’d asked John to come down to the infirmary, only to ask him a bunch of questions about his medical records. He was still trying to figure out what the whole thing had been about when he ran into McKay on the way out. The other man’s sharp glance had made him feel awkward and uncomfortable even though he had no reason to be.
The thing was, John was no stranger to having other guys’ girlfriends hit on him. It had happened a few times before. Hell, it had even happened once – no, wait, twice – that female friends’ boyfriends had hit on him. Why these people thought that displays of blatant personal disloyalty would be attractive to him, he’d never understood.
But this didn’t feel like that. For one thing, what Keller wanted to talk about was Rodney. John kept trying to explain to her that while he and Rodney were best friends, they were guys. If she wanted John to spill the kind of secrets that women presumably shared with their best friends, sorry, he just didn’t have ‘em to spill.
This latest conversation was one of the worst. Once again, Keller had ended up sitting across from him in the mess. Maybe he should start eating in his office.
“Colonel, you remember Dr. Brown, don’t you?”
Yeah, definitely one of the worst.
“If you don’t mind my asking, what did you think of her?”
“I didn’t know her all that well, Doc.”
“What did you think of her based on what you knew?”
John took a bite of sandwich to give himself time to think, chewed, swallowed. “Pretty. Sweet.”
Keller grinned. “Too sweet to stand up to Rodney? Hey, don’t look like that – you didn’t say it, I did. It’s just... finding the right person seems to be important to Rodney, and he has, ah, a closely-defined idea as to what he’s looking for.”
“McKay’s pretty stubborn.”
“Stubborn enough that he could keep bouncing from wrong person to wrong person without ever rethinking his criteria for ‘right person.’ He’s too sure he knows what the right person will look like.”
Shit, what was this about? “Look, Dr. Keller, McKay’s my friend. I don’t want him hurt.”
“Are you suggesting that I do, Colonel? I care about Rodney. I – oh! I didn’t realize the time. I’ve got an appointment waiting.”
And she was gone, as if... Yeah, sure enough. McKay was just coming off the food line. And from the look on his face, he’d seen Keller leave and knew she’d been sitting with John. The scientist glanced at John briefly before finding a seat with Zelenka and Miko.
The final straw came after MG5-184. The mission itself was pretty much a cake walk. They certainly hadn’t radio’ed ahead for medical help. So when Rodney spotted Jennifer waiting in the gateroom as they came through, he naturally assumed she was there to meet him. Smiling, he began to move towards her – only to watch as she darted forward and began talking quietly with Sheppard. Sheppard glanced his way – yeah, there was that constipated look again – before nodding and following Jen out of the gateroom.
Okay, that was it. This was so blatant as to be insulting. And hurtful, to a surprising degree. But mostly (Rodney assured himself) insulting. This? Was war.
By the time Rodney left the gateroom, he’d already thought of a way to modify the door to Sheppard’s quarters so that the locking mechanism would appear to engage without actually doing so.
21:00 found Rodney in his lab and one life sign in Sheppard’s quarters. It had been there awhile. Alone. Other people had passed by in the corridor but no one had yet... Aha! Life sign approaching Sheppard’s quarters – stopping at the door – entering Sheppard’s quarters. Ten minutes later it was still there. Time to move.
The first thing that Rodney noticed when he marched into Sheppard’s quarters – “McKay! Ever hear of knocking?” – was that both Sheppard and Jennifer still had all their clothes on. Damn, he should have given them more time. Also, they were standing four feet apart. Which meant... They couldn’t have known he was coming, could they? Or could they? Sure, Sheppard was no genius, but he did have covert ops experience.
“McKay, what the hell is this about?”
“Shouldn’t that be my line, Colonel? I know I’m not good with people, but I’m not blind. I’m certainly not blind to what’s been going on since we returned to Pegasus.”
“And just what exactly is that, McKay?” Sheppard gritted out.
“Rodney, I came by Colonel Sheppard’s quarters to borrow some DVDs!” And sure enough, Jen was holding up DVD cases. Sheppard had another in his hands. There were DVD cases spread out along the table between them.
“Nice cover story,” Rodney sneered bitterly. “How do you account for all the conversations that stop when I show up? And the fact that you’ve probably seen more of Jen this past week than I have, Sheppard? And you’re acting weird. Even Ronon says so. And Teyla says you’re rethinking ‘certain aspects’ of your life, like I’m not supposed to understand what that means.”
“If you understand what it means, I wish you’d fill me in, McKay.” Sheppard had taken refuge in mock relaxation, leaning his hips back against the table while crossing his arms. The hard glitter of his eyes contradicted the half-smile – half-smirk, really – on his face. To Rodney, he looked as relaxed as a taut rope about to snap.
“You know, this isn’t the first time. I’m pretty much used to it on missions. Any time any reasonably attractive woman shows any interest in me at all, there you are, with the slink and the smile and the hair, cutting me out.”
“McKay, I don’t...”
“Yes, you do, and don’t interrupt! You don’t get to interrupt! Not after all the time I’ve spent letting you get away with it, not calling you on it, reminding myself that missions are missions but at the end of the day we’re going home to Atlantis together and that’s what’s really important. Being able to work together. Being friends. Being... around for each other when the shit hits the fan. But this time it’s your shit, Sheppard. This time it’s no alien hottie, it’s someone I thought might be able to spend the rest of my life with. Or don’t I get to do that in The World According to Sheppard? Does it make you laugh, watching me screw this up again and again?”
“No! It doesn’t make me laugh!”
“Damn it, Sheppard, I thought you were better than this!”
“What about me, Rodney? What did you think of me?”
Rodney blinked. To be honest, he’d almost forgotten that Jen was there. Somehow, they’d moved so that he and Sheppard were facing off while Jen was standing to one side, looking amazingly calm.
“I, uh, thought better of you, too.”
“Thank you. And what did you think of my family?”
Huh? “Well, your uncle – Albert? Harold? – is a jerk. And you should start a trust fund for that niece, the one with the red pigtails, because she’s obviously a psychopath who’s going to need plenty of money for therapists, lawyers and bail.”
When Jen opened her mouth and shut it again, it occurred to Rodney that this might not have been the right thing to say. But before he could try to fix it, Jen was already speaking.
“Rodney, you’re a good man. You deserve to be with the right person. But Atlantis is home for you. For me, it’s a cool place to work at this point in my life. Someday, I’d like to return to Earth. To spend more time with... Earth people. People like my family. And if you came with me, you’d be miserable.”
“You’re breaking up with me, aren’t you? No, don’t say anything, that’s fine. People have broken up with me before. But you’re breaking up with me for John Frigging Sheppard because you think I’d be miserable back on Earth? You think Atlantis is home for me? It’s an Ancient city, Colonel Supergene’s practically got family roots here! His team, his job – our whole lives are here!” Rodney heard his voice building towards a shriek but damn it, he didn’t care.
“Jen, don’t you dare put Sheppard in a position where he has to choose between you and Atlantis, because he’s going to end up getting hurt either way and if you do that, I’ll...” He broke off, not quite sure what threats to apply. Could he find a way to cut off her hot water even if she went back to Earth? Of course he could – he was a genius! Rodney took a breath and went on.
“You want him, of course you want him, I get that. He’s hot, he’s smart, he’s charming – at least when he’s not being a complete bastard...”
Sheppard was actually standing up straight now. Rodney had heard Sheppard yell like that before, but outside of life-or-death situations he hadn’t heard it too damn often. He realized his mouth was hanging open and shut it.
“Colonel, I don’t think that yelling...”
“You, too, Keller – stow it!” That apparently took Jen by surprise as well.
“Okay, both of you, it’s my turn to talk! First, McKay? Nice to know that you think I’m the kind of guy who’d steal his best friend’s girlfriend. Thanks a lot, buddy. NO! I didn’t get to interrupt you, you don’t get to interrupt me!”
Rodney shut his mouth again.
“You, Dr. Keller? The next time you’re going to dump someone, tell him. Don’t spend a week telling me like you think I’m going to pass the news on.”
Jennifer had done what? Rodney stared at her, appalled. She didn’t seem particularly fazed.
“And let me tell you something about Rodney McKay, Doctor, because I’ve been listening to you talk about him for a week and I’m pretty damn tired of it. I know him better than you do. I know he’s braver than anyone else because he’s scared all the time and he never lets it keep him from getting the job done. I know he’s every bit as smart as he thinks he is and a hell of a lot stronger than he thinks he is. I know he’s almost strong enough to carry as much responsibility as he tries to take on – and that nobody could be completely strong enough because it’s an impossible load. I know he’s hard on idiots because he can’t stand the thought of anyone getting hurt because of someone else’s stupidity.”
God, what was this, Sheppard’s entire ration of words for the year?
“He’s funny and fun to hang out with and, when once in a while he has a chance to take a break from all the shit that life throws at him and actually relax, he’s, uh, kind of, well, relaxed.”
Was Sheppard blushing?
“And you know something else, Doc?” The anger in Sheppard’s voice took on an ugly shade of taunting. “I bet he’s really good in bed.”
“Sheppard! What the...” But Sheppard was on a roll.
“Because I’ve seen the passion and the focus and the patience and the care he brings to his work, and if I... If anyone were lucky enough to find themselves on the receiving end of that kind of attention from Rodney, they’d be damn fools to give it up for anything. And ‘anything’ includes your family, Doc.”
Okay, Sheppard was definitely red-faced now. Rodney’s own face felt hot, so he probably wasn’t much better off. Jen looked as if she was fighting not to burst into laughter, but her voice was gentle.
“Colonel Sheppard, thank you for your advice, but I have to make my own decisions. Rodney? Be well, okay?”
And she walked out. Leaving behind the DVDs, Rodney noticed, so that had been a cover story, but he was beginning to wonder just whose story it was and what it had been covering.
They both stopped. Sheppard turned away, started sorting through the DVD cases on the table. He probably wished Rodney would just walk out too, but the hell with that. If Rodney let Sheppard go to ground now, it would take the rest of their lives to dig him out again.
After several moments spent listening to Sheppard shuffle DVD cases, Rodney made another attempt. “I’m sorry I implied that you would, uh, you know, with my girlfriend.” Then, reviewing his words: “Ex-girlfriend.”
“You lash out when you’re hurt.” Sheppard shrugged. “And I’m sorry about the ex part. Guess I screwed things up even worse.” Rodney found it interesting that the other man didn’t actually sound all that sorry.
“I don’t know. I think you just screwed them up faster than they were going to screw up on their own. Sort of, got it over with for me. Thank you?”
Sheppard snorted. “I’m not going to say ‘any time,’ because I really don’t ever want to go through anything like that again.” By now he appeared to have gotten down to alphabetizing the damn DHD cases.
“Yes, well, I can’t say I blame you.” How to say this? How to even begin to say this? “The likelihood of you having to go through anything like that again would be considerably decreased if I could, uh, find the right person?”
Sheppard looked up, fast, his gaze direct.
“I don’t even want to think about what ‘kind of relaxed’ means in Sheppardese, because it’s probably something horribly embarrassing like ‘cute’ or ‘cuddly’ or ‘sweet.’ But – ‘good in bed’? Really?” Rodney could only hope he was coming across as intellectually curious rather than pathetically eager.
“Hot? Charming? With the slink, McKay?” John was slouching again, but now instead of looking taut and dangerous, he looked, well, slinky. And still dangerous, but in a very different way.
“Oh, please, you know you’re...”
“I know a lot of other people think so. I just didn’t think you thought... Look, I know I’m not your type.”
“But you’re you. And John, compared to you – blond? Would be a downgrade.”
“Jennifer? I have brought Torren for his check-up.”
“Come on in, Teyla, I’m ready for you. Hiya, big boy! You’re growing so fast!”
“Yes, and getting very heavy.” Teyla’s smile belied her words. “Both John and Rodney were looking, hmmm, extremely content at breakfast this morning. Tired, but content.”
“Yes, I put the final stage of Operation Break-Up-And-Fix-Up into motion last evening.”
“Well, I couldn’t have done it without, ah, ‘inside information.’ So thank you.”
“You are welcome, Jennifer. As John would say, ‘any time.’”