A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey's gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind. — John Cheever
Just a very few years ago, John Sheppard was, if not happy, as close to it as he expected to come – an enclosed unit, with the chopping of his helicopter blades dissolving into the vast silence of Antarctica. He was as sure as his fatalistic turn of mind allowed that life had run out of things to take away from him.
Sitting under a mountain, with seven hundred and fifty miles dividing him from the sea, tons of rock dividing him from the sky, and a long wormhole ride dividing him from Pegasus and home, he feels a little stupid not to have considered that he could lose an entire galaxy.
Stupidity holds a very prominent place in John's personal list of reasons to beat the crap out of himself.
Stupid not to have considered acts of the Pegasus galaxy’s gods, in all their unearned complacency and entitlement. Being extinct for thousands of years hadn’t stopped them from crippling the lives of everyone else in their galaxy. He has to be Jiminy fucking Cricket to have failed to consider the possibility that they would come back to life to screw with him personally.
On the other side of the scale, there's Rodney. Difficult, diamond-bright brilliant, bulldog-loyal Rodney McKay, who never fails to save the day – to save John, and incidentally everyone else – always to an soundtrack of ego and bluster and frightened whining.
Double-Doctor McKay, who has the best and the brightest of the Earth as his terrorized also-rans, and who takes shit from John Sheppard like it's his job.
John probably has more than he wants to think about in common with the people he's pretty sure fucked with Rodney back in high school. He rarely resists the urge to mess with the man himself. He likes to think of it as a public service to keep the McKay ego under control. Besides, Rodney gets it. It's just their thing.
All the same, Rodney – privately, because it’s not the sort of thing you want to admit in front of marines – had become something like his personal lodestar, something he can use as a beacon and still pretend to be winging it home.
It never seemed to occur to Rodney that bypassing an expedition full of shiny doctorates to hang out with his former taxi driver was an odd thing to do.
From the very first Ancient toys McKay found for him to play with (even if he was lame enough to call them gateships) to the one that sealed the deal (McKay, with a big slanty grin, demanding “Shoot me!” like Donald Duck), the best fun John's had in decades is going to the geek side with supergenius Doctor Doctor McKay.
So blah blah blah and let’s revisit all the ways that John Sheppard’s life sucks, because, seriously, under a mountain, and the best and the brightest are all somewhere else, and ten thousand year old Aryan yuppies in Ancient track suits are probably sleeping in his room.
He leads a gate team of three baby ducks, and it's a successful mission if he returns them through the gate more or less unbroken. One of them’s a botanist (and he so doesn’t need to hear what McKay will have to say about that).
Never thought I’d miss Rodney McKay being a member of my team.
Instead of being Major Taxi Driver, he’s Lieutenant Colonel Babysitter, and it makes him a little bit nostalgic for Antarctica and disgrace.
Okay, a lot nostalgic.
Rodney calls from Area 51, which is too close and not close enough, as far as John's concerned.
You know, the truth is I...
I don't want to use the term lonely, but there are certain people who I miss..
You, not so much. You, I'm on my cell phone with. You, I'm having dinner with tomorrow night.
And John hangs up on him, like an asshole, because he wants – suddenly he wants terribly, and doesn’t know how to admit it, and certainly won't ever admit it to Rodney – to be someone Rodney says he misses.
Their dinner with Elizabeth and Carson doesn’t go as planned, and John gets another chance to put his life and his career on the line in pursuit of a lost cause, this time with his team (and Elizabeth and Carson, and, really? John’s got to agree with General O’Neill about how brilliant an idea that isn’t, although he’ll never say so).
All the same, team badass plus the debate team defeats the replicators, and they get the city back, and the replicators take out the dickwad Ancients before the team takes out the replicators. Saving the day at its best, John figures. Lieutenant Colonel Fuck the Man, at your service unless I work for you.
Best of all: he and Rodney fall seamlessly back into their thing. Rodney comes up with a seemingly endless series of brilliant plans until one of them works, and John talks trash to Rodney to keep him on point. It works for them.
General O’Neill didn’t buy it but I think Woolsey did.
Well, I did win a Sears Drama Festival award when I was a kid. Could have made it a career if I wanted to.
Wish you would’ve.
Thanks to General O’Neill (who’s an elder of the asshole tribe), John dodges a General Landry-sized bullet, and they’re all back on Atlantis. John’s large and in charge and everything’s back to where it was, smack in the middle of his bizarre other-galaxy comfort zone. Okay, with replicators, yeah, and Michael, right, and the Wraith of course, but he’s got his slot in all the crazy and he fits neatly into it.
Only, Rodney’s not stepping up like he’s supposed to.
Okay, Rodney still finds some genius plan to save their asses at the last minute every time, and he finds an inspired stop-gap solution to pretty much everything he can’t fix right away.
But then Rodney gets zapped by an ascension machine and sort of dies.
He doesn't stay dead, but still, Rodney sort of died, and on his way to being ascended he did cool shit for everyone else, but all he did for John was to try not to die, which he totally failed at. Not permanently, but shit, seriously? You don’t leave a man behind, and Rodney fucking ascended and left John behind.
Um. His team. Left his team behind.
A crystal nightmare thing follows them home, and Rodney almost dies again.
Kate Heightmeyer actually did die, and John has no idea how he feels about that. She'd tried more than once to get him to talk about his feelings, which, no. Feel free not to ask. But the thing that killed her wore his face, and he can't entirely shake the feeling that he's responsible, somehow.
Which is not going to happen again, thanks, so John has to go into Rodney’s head to fix the dying thing. It turns out Rodney’s worst nightmare is about working his ass off to save them while John Sheppard sits back and taunts him about failing.
John’s not entirely sure what that’s about.
Rodney saves him back. Then he looks for hot girls in John’s head.
Someone snatches Jeannie. Rodney tries to die again. John feeds the guy who snatched Jeannie to a Wraith.
John doesn’t want to talk about it, pretty much ever. They hit beast-thing loaf night at the mess instead.
Say, you and I are about even when it comes to looks, right?
Who's been lying to you?
No, I'm serious.
I am too. Who's been lying to you?
And then Rodney wants to marry Katie Brown. Dr. Katie Brown the botanist, who named a dick-shaped alien cactus-thing with massive droopy thorns after Rodney as a gift. Katie Brown, who’s sweet enough to melt away in a heavy mist, but who’s a good enough scientist to go to another galaxy as a department head.
Katie Brown cures cancer in her spare time. Rodney thinks she’s not a real scientist. She thinks Rodney’s sweet. She thinks all the people who think he’s a massive jerk just don’t understand him.
They'd have to know Rodney's password. Fortunately, I do.
He told you his password?!
Well, he didn't think I'd remember it. One six four three one eight seven nine one nine six eight four two. See? Doesn't take a genius.
1643 is the year Isaac Newton was born; 1879, Einstein; and 1968 ...
The year Rodney was born.
Never underestimate the size of that man's ego.
It’s not like John has a dog in this race – he told Rodney to get the girl, didn't he? – but how does Rodney and Katie Brown work?
It doesn’t work at all.
The next time Rodney dies, John's thousands of years too late to do anything about it. He steps through the gate, and ends up in a deserted Atlantis with a Rodney who spent the rest of his long-ago life working to get John home.
He was married to that peep-mouse Keller for a while, dead Rodney says, back when he was alive. John figures that's enough data points to indicate that Rodney has a definite type.
Rodney didn’t go looking for another sweet young scientist after the Pegasus galaxy took Keller away from him. He decided getting John back was what mattered, and he died doing it.
John won't leave a man behind, but all of this was for nothing if he doesn't. The last trace of a Rodney McKay who died for him stays behind in a dead city, on a dead world, under a dying sun, while John takes the wormhole home to save the galaxy one more time.
Look, um, I know you've already been debriefed about the future events – all the things we were hoping to avoid – but there's just one more thing I need to know.
Did I still have hair?
Keller’s creepy enthusiasm for rummaging through John’s innards is apparently only exceeded by her creepy enthusiasm for rummaging through Rodney’s life. She thinks he’s charming when he’s nicer and not quite so smart. She likes him so much better when he's nothing like Rodney, John thinks, a little meanly, that she’s willing to let him die to keep him that way. Luckily for Rodney, Jeannie disagrees. A picnic and a little power tool surgery later, the Rodney John knows and loves – like a friend loves a friend, naturally – is back with them.
Keller’s not discouraged. She’s going to recreate kinder, gentler Rodney. It's her new project. So between rescues (and she needs to be rescued all the damn time), and sometimes even during rescues, she’s constantly poking at at Rodney about his behavior. Be nice, Rodney. Stop complaining, Rodney. Think about others more. Don’t antagonize people.
John maybe hates her a little.
They save the world, John and Rodney and their team. The world and all its people. Pretty much the entire galaxy, really.
Naturally, John goes looking for Rodney so they can do their usual beer with a waterfront view victory lap.
Rodney’s lap is busy. Now that the world-saving and danger are past, Keller’s batting cleanup.
And McKay? Appears to be okay with that.
I'm alive. And I've got you. What else would I need?
John maybe hates Keller a lot.
Cam Mitchell’s okay. He’s kind of – earnest? – but he’s a square-jawed pilot with a black mark, and a Lieutenant Colonel with daddy issues, so John has to cut him some slack.
Besides, Mitchell’s gate team has two geeks on it, and one’s an archaeologist. John feels like the least he can do is drink with the guy.
Which is how he finds out Jennifer’s leaving.
“I hear you’re taking Dr. Lam away from us. Shame. I thought for a while there could have been something there.”
John’s sheer dread of hearing about Keller’s plans – and who else might be involved with them – wars briefly with his need to know the worst and loses.
“Nah. Nobody said. What’d you hear?”
“Just that Keller’s decided to stay on Earth, and Lam took her job. Lam’s good people. You’ll be glad to have her.”
Well, that’s a kick in the ass, isn’t it? Because John would be only too happy to have Dr. Keller gone and someone less tooth-aching sugary and high maintenance in her job. Unfortunately, McKay thinks the sun shines out of her cheerleader asshole, so if she’s staying on Earth, chances are he’s going to have an awkward meeting with McKay soon.
Teyla, generously, spars with him until he's exhausted without injuring him badly enough to force him to seek medical attention.
The awkward meeting, when it comes, isn’t with McKay. It’s with Keller.
She’s scheduled the meeting. John hasn’t heard anything through official channels, so he figures this is her own victory lap, and he mans up and goes.
She’s got that smile on her face that doesn’t go above her mouth.
“Colonel Sheppard. Thank you for showing up.”
The Sheppard charm feels winter coming and decides to hibernate. He grunts something. He’s not sure what.
She goes on talking. Apparently this is a conversation which doesn’t require his participation.
“I imagine you’ve heard that I’m not returning to Pegasus with you.”
There’s not enough of a pause to suggest that she expects him to answer.
“What you’re no doubt wondering is whether Rodney is staying on Earth with me.”
Yes, I am, but please don't tell me, I don't want to hear this from you.
“And the answer is no, Colonel. Rodney has decided to stay on Atlantis.”
All his blood rushes somewhere that leaves him weak and dizzy and so fucking relieved that he can’t track what she’s saying, because – really? – she’s still talking.
“What you don’t get, Colonel, is that I have more in common with Rodney than I do with anyone else here.”
Um. No? Because trying to fit the pieces of the Pegasus galaxy’s most prominent behavior nanny with the pieces of Rodney, who doesn’t actually notice that he’s made someone cry unless you smack him upside the head, is the kind of topography problem they’d give million dollar prizes for solving if anyone but John cared. It‘s hurting his brain a little just considering it.
And, she’s still talking. So, okay. Maybe she and Rodney do have something in common.
“I was never good with people, Colonel. I didn’t have time to learn – I was too busy being the smartest kid in the room to have friends. Think it was tough for you? Try being a girl, Colonel. Try being a girl without a mom, with a dad she can’t go when she’s frightened because it would hurt him too badly to think he hasn’t kept her safe and happy. Try having to be twice as good so people will forgive you for being not just a woman but half their age.”
“You know, Colonel, you’re very good at not communicating. I’d like you to draw on that skill and shut up.”
If Teyla had that look on her face, John would be trying to figure out how to protect his crotch without getting his knuckles broken. He shuts up.
“I never had that many friends, Colonel, and the ones I did have I had to be sweet to so they wouldn’t resent me for working harder than they did and being smarter than they were. So it was nice for me, going out with Rodney. I didn’t have to worry about Rodney being threatened by me, because he’s smarter than I am, Colonel, and he works harder, and god only knows he’s not even a little bit insecure about his brain. It was nice, to have someone want to be with me when I wasn’t pretending to be less than who I am.”
It’s probably just as well he’s not supposed to respond to any of this, because he has no idea how to respond to any of this. It’s like someone’s pet bunny rising up on its hind legs and reciting selections from The Rights of Man. Does not compute.
And yeah, still talking.
“The problem is, Colonel, that my strategy for getting along with people has always been to be really, really nice. Rodney isn’t good with nice. Rodney runs over nice like a steamroller. I didn’t get it, really, until I saw him with his sister. Rodney doesn’t feel right about himself until someone who treats him like shit approves of him. Rodney likes assholes, Colonel. Rodney likes you. And you, Colonel, approve of Rodney when he’s behaving like a child.”
John opens his mouth. Keller glares. He closes it again.
“So now I’m back to pretending to be someone I'm not, and trying to bully my boyfriend into not being someone the cool kids screw over for fun, and it’s all wasted effort, Colonel, because the smartest man in two galaxies doesn’t want a normal life. He wants to spend his second childhood with you.”
There’s a much longer painful pause now, and he’s pretty sure this is where he's supposed to talk.
“I don’t know what to say about any of that, Dr. Keller.”
There’s the lips-only smile again.
“Well, that’s convenient, Colonel, because I don’t give a shit what you have to say about it. Here’s what I do care about: if Rodney had come with me, I would have taken care of him and made sure he wasn’t alone. He’s never had that, and he deserves it. He wants this life instead, Colonel, and I’m pretty sure he wants it because you’re part of it, so from here on in you’re going to be taking care of him. And Colonel? You’re going to tell him he deserves it, because if you make him feel as if you’re doing him a favor, there’s a deep, cold hell you belong in, and I will make it my personal goal to make sure you end up there. I’m really good with goals, Colonel.”
If this were any other conversation about feelings John would have gnawed his paw off by now to escape it, but this is an opportunity to hop on a bomb and take a ride, and that, John Sheppard knows how to do.
“'l can do that.”
Keller’s smile makes it up to where the whiskers would be on a cat, and she nods, and turns to leave.
And turns back.
“You know, Colonel, ordinarily, neither of us would ever say what we’re actually thinking to each other. You’re too cool, I think, and I’m not cool enough. So let me take my last opportunity and tell you that I genuinely dislike you.”
She turns back to the door.
Her body stiffens.
“I don’t like you either.”
She turns, then, and smiles the first genuine smile he’s ever seen on her face.
“Fuck you, Colonel. Call me Doctor Keller.”
And he can’t help but grin back, and salute, as she walks out.
All of which is why, after lurking hopefully in the mess for a while, he ends up at Rodney’s door.
Rodney is doing that thing he does where he pretends he’s too important to science to care about being hurt. It’s kind of painful to watch.
“Are you here to bring me a beer, Colonel? I believe that’s our established tradition when my rare opportunity not to be alone crashes and burns.”
“Yeah, I heard. Keller came by.”
“Great. Just great. Presumably you two bonded over how inadequate I am at maintaining a relationship. I’m just tickled to have provided the opportunity.”
“McKay, listen. That wasn’t it.”
“Yes, yes, lie to me, Colonel. Try to make it sound better. I’m just pathetic enough to appreciate it.”
“Shit. Rodney, no. Look, Keller gave me a massive ass-chewing about taking care of you, since the light from where we're going won’t hit Wisconsin until long after her grandchildren are dead. I told her I was planning to.”
Rodney’s eyes widen, his own hurt apparently, for the moment, forgotten
“Colonel, I don’t think this is enough of an extinction-level crisis that you have to pretend everyone in this situation's looking out for me. Do I seem that pathetic to you?”
John shudders a little. He was hoping he could avoid this conversation.
“I really don’t pity you, McKay.”
“Okay, follow my finger with your eyes, Colonel. Are you tracking? Do I need to call whoever our doctor is these days?”
John huffs a shaky laugh.
“You know what else Keller said, Rodney? She said I act like an asshole to you, and you think you have to take it if you want me to be your friend. I never meant to, well, I’m pretty sure you know how I… you know, right?” He takes a deep breath and tries again. “I got scared when I thought you were going to stay on Earth with her. I don’t like to think about having to do this without you.”
Rodney stares, and then he gets that look on his face, the one he wears when the wonders of the universe break on the shoals of his mind. He walks over, puts his hands on John’s shoulders, looks intently into his face, and then lowers his head until their foreheads meet.
“You know,” John mumbles, because you might as well be hung for a sheep as for a needy twelve year old, “I act like an asshole because I don’t want people to know that I care about. You know. Stuff.”
Rodney’s got that smile on his face. The one he usually saves for Torren's simple triumphs.
“Yeah. I know that.”
And Rodney turns his head and gives John’s cheek a gentle kiss.
John’s body’s too tired and relieved to freeze, but in his head, he freezes.
Shit, what? he thinks. Jesus, McKay. Career Air Force. Historically heterosexual, mostly. And seriously, at least buy me dinner.
But then he thinks, Alone. And I can’t keep losing people. And I can’t stop them from posting needy geek females to Atlantis, so this is going to keep happening. And Maybe neither of us has to be alone. And It's Rodney.
And he tilts his face for a kiss.
It's a really nice kiss.
Then he reaches up to hit Rodney upside the head, because that's their thing, but he’s feeling a little drained just now, so it might have looked like he was stroking Rodney’s cheek (and happily, no one saw, so he doesn’t have to shoot anybody).
Rodney makes a rumbly happy noise.
John’s too limp with relief and joy to parse this for himself, but he still wants to know.
“So. This is new.”
Rodney’s got the crooked smile on his face.
John frowns, as much as he can manage while he’s a puddle.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“I didn’t think you’d be interested. You’re career Air Force, you used to be married to a woman, and you’ve committed serial acts of heterosexuality since we’ve been here, Kirk.”
Okay, maybe John has some frown left in him.
“Excuse me, Doctor Casanova. Allina? Norina? Katie Brown? Jennifer Keller? How do you get to call me Kirk?”
And Rodney wraps his big arms around John so he doesn’t have to stand by himself any more.
“Well,” Rodney says, confidingly, “I’m sort of an asshole.”