Emails from home came in an hour before Sheppard's team was scheduled to go off-world. Rodney read Jeannie's eight-page letter with one eye as he laced up his boots. Apparently his near-death experience had resulted in Jeannie re-examining her own life. In excruciating detail. Rodney was seriously considering closing the email to read when he got back, when a line in the text jumped out at him.
He yelped, grabbing at the tablet before he fell over.
A knock pounded on the locker room door. "McKay, you decent?" Sheppard called.
The other occupant of the locker room, a British Lieutenant, hastily pulled his shirt on over his head and ducked into the hallway just as Joan pushed into the room. Rodney glanced up from his computer. "Sam never came into the men's locker room."
"Colonel Carter didn't have to deal with your recalcitrant ass." Sheppard practically bounced on the toes of her combat boots. "You get email from home?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "My crazy sister thinks that coming so close to death means that I should do something," and he made finger quotes around the word, "About my obvious crush on you."
"Feeling me up on movie night isn't enough?"
"For Christ's sake, that was an accident!"
Joan waved his objection away. "You can write Jeannie back later. Guess what?"
"What?" Rodney went back to lacing his boots.
"I got an email too." The smile on her face could have rivaled the sun for brilliance. "From my sister."
Joan shot Rodney a glare. "Do I have any other sisters?"
"Maybe, I didn't know about this one until a week ago."
Joan straddled the bench as Rodney turned his attention to his other boot. "I haven't heard from her in ages, McKay, don't harsh on my buzz."
Rodney blew out a breath. "Fine. How is your sister?"
"She's great. She's doing development work on a new defense contract."
"She's what?" Rodney paused to look at Sheppard.
It took him a moment to realize that the woman was giddy with excitement, in a way John Sheppard had only ever been when flying.
"Rosemary is a senior software engineer," Joan told him. "Her company is doing some high-end computer defense software thing for the Pentagon. And Joseph's doing some field work in Hong Kong for his PhD, and Sam's going into the second grade but he's already doing fourth-grade math. Why are you staring at me like that?"
"Who are you talking about?"
Joan's enthusiasm faltered. "My sister's kids."
"Those kids in that picture you had?" The teenager hadn't been old enough to shave, let alone doing PhD work. And the other had been a toddler. "How old was your sister when that older one was born?"
"Seventeen," Joan said. "And don't start with me about teenage pregnancy."
"What? I wasn't going to."
"All right!" Joan shifted a strap on her vest. "Anyway, Joe is twenty-four and Sam's seven."
"But that picture--"
"Was taken before I left for Pegasus," Joan interrupted. "The children have since aged
. Come on, we've got a Gate to catch."
Rodney tightened a strap on his vest as he followed Sheppard out of the locker room, walking into a pack of mud-caked marines about to enter. They all jumped to attention as Joan strolled past, not one of them batting an eye at seeing their female CO exiting the guys' change room.
"As you were," Joan said automatically, and the Marines carried on. "Major Lorne's training exercises seem to be getting more sadistic every day," she said as she and Rodney climbed the steps into the Gateroom.
"What are you talking about? You like running around in the mud." Rodney joined Teyla and Ronon in front of the Gate. The wormhole whooshed opened as Woolsey leaned over the rail to give them the go-ahead.
"All right," Joan said, hefting her P-90 with cool efficiency. "Let's go."
Rodney was halfway to the Gate when it came to him. "Wait, your sister named her kid Sam Sheppard?"
"She claims she was--" and the Gate swallowed them both, spinning them across the galaxy and spitting them out into a too-bright day. "A little high when she filled out the birth certificate. Something about Demerol." Sheppard put on her sunglasses before motioning to the team. "Onwards and upwards, guys."~~
Rodney woke with a start, then really wished he hadn't. The blinding pain in his head coalesced into nausea churning in his stomach. He barely had time to roll to his stomach before he was sick.
Throwing up with a concussion wasn't the worst thing Rodney had ever experienced, but it was pretty high up on his list. He tried to gather his hands underneath him to climb to his knees, but his left hand wouldn't obey his mind's command.
That pulled him back to consciousness in a hurry. He opened his eyes to peer at his surroundings, and most importantly, to figure out what was wrong with his hand.
A crude metal handcuff held his wrist shackled to the grimy stone wall. The room was dim and cool, smelling of dank water and vomit. Rodney blinked a few times to push back the worst of the pain.
The shadows across the cell moved. "Good to have you back with us, McKay," Sheppard said, slurring her words. She too was chained to the wall, stripped to her t-shirt and trousers, but where only Rodney's one hand was chained, Joan's arms were stretched out and manacled, forcing her to kneel with her back to the wall. In the dim light, Rodney could see bruises developing on the side of her face. The dark mark on her temple could only be blood.
"What happened?" Rodney asked as he tugged experimentally on his shackle.
Joan let out a sigh. "We were attacked. You took a club to the head." She stopped and concentrated on breathing for a moment. "I got a few of them before one of them got behind me."
"What about Ronon and Teyla?"
"Don't know." Joan blinked muzzily. "Since you got thrown in here, that probably means they got away." The thought seemed to cheer Joan slightly. "Lorne's been dying to try the new C4 we got from Earth."
So Joan was anticipating a rescue. Good. "Do we know who grabbed us?"
"Not a clue. They looked like anyone else."
Rodney felt the hinge on his shackle. The workmanship felt shoddy. "So not Wraith, or we'd be dinner. Who else have we pissed off recently?"
Joan let out a soft laugh, which turned into an equally quiet moan of pain. "I don't think that's going to narrow it down, McKay."
Rodney jiggled the pin in the hinge, wondering if it had come loose or if the concussion was making him imagine things. "How badly are you hurt?"
" 'm fine."
"No, you are lying." The edge of the pin sliced into his finger. "Damn it, I'm going to get tetanus!" He shook his hand. "If I have to sling your injured hundred and eighty pound ass over my shoulders and carry you out of here, I'd like to know how badly hurt you are, all right?"
There was dead silence for a long moment. Just as Rodney had worked himself up into a panic that Joan had suddenly passed out or died, an annoyed voice said, "I do not weigh one-eighty."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I'll apologize for damaging your tender vanity once we get back to Atlantis," he snapped. "What are you, one-seventy?"
A wet cough sounded. "Not that it's any of your business, but I'm one-fifty-four."
"You're six feet tall and made of muscles. You have to weigh more than that."
"The hair alone has to weigh at least ten pounds. It has its own area code."
"Fuck you, McKay." Joan tried to stand, but the pull on her arms kept her in place. She breathed shallowly for a minute.
"Your ribs?" Rodney asked when the worst of the pain had cleared from her face.
She nodded. "The one I stabbed kicked me a few times. Or maybe it was the one I kneed in the throat."
"It's a good sign, though."
"In what way?"
"That they wanted us alive."
Joan let out a snort that must have been painful. "Keeping us alive for what?"
Rodney didn't want to think that far ahead. "Whatever it is, we just need to stall them until Teyla and Ronon can save us."
Noise sounded down the corridor, behind the thick wooden door. Rodney worked faster, but the pin was stuck and his own blood had made the metal too slippery to handle.
Voices floated through the wooden door. Rodney thought they sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite place them. As soon as she heard the voices, Sheppard's eyes flew open. She jerked hard against her chains, the metal manacles slicing through the skin of her wrists. Before Rodney could ask her what she was doing, she pushed to her feet and tried again to free herself, almost dislocating her shoulders.
"What are you doing?" Rodney hissed. "Stop it!"
Joan stumbled back to her knees, blood streaming down her bare arms. "McKay, you need to listen to me," she said, her voice as close to panic as Rodney had ever heard in either Joan or John Sheppard. "Don't do anything stupid
"Whatever happens, it'll all go back to the way it was before, just don't do anything stupid!"
What was she talking about? "Sheppard--"
"It'll all switch back, it always does, just--" The door opened, cutting off her protest, and a corpse stepped through.
"Kolya," Sheppard bit out, not moving a muscle as she stared defiantly up at the man who was supposed to be dead.
The former Genii commander held up a lantern, the bobbing light illuminating a face Rodney had hoped never again to see outside of hell. This was impossible! How could everything else about Joan's life be the same as John, but Kolya be alive? John had shot the man in the chest in full sight of everyone. How was this different?
The Genii commander looked at Sheppard for a long moment, then he smiled. Rodney's skin crawled at the malicious expression. "How very kind of you to join us, Colonel Sheppard." Kolya's voice caressed Joan's name. She never flinched, never looked away.
Realization hit Rodney. This wasn't like all the other times Rodney and John had been held hostage, because then they were two guys and that was okay, but Joan was certainly not a man, and she was chained to a wall on her knees, and Kolya was looking at Joan like he owned her.
Before Rodney could even open his mouth to protest, Kolya spoke over his shoulder. "If Dr. McKay moves, kill him." Then the man walked across the room to stand in front of Joan, too close. She had to crane her head back to look at him, and that was probably the point. "Colonel Sheppard, you left our last encounter without saying goodbye. That was very rude."
Joan whipped her head forward, trying to head-butt Kolya in the crotch. He moved out of the way just in time. Joan, on the other hand, had nowhere to go as Kolya's clenched fist caught her in the side of the mouth.
Rodney started to move, but a gun suddenly jammed against his forehead made him freeze. Cold adrenaline streamed through his body as the weapon's safety clicked off.
Joan spat a mouthful of blood on Kolya's boots. "As I recall, you started this whole thing by invading Atlantis. That was pretty rude too."
Kolya smiled at the memory. "I hear that Atlantis has a new commander," he said, kneeling so he was on a level with Joan. "How does he negotiate for his people?"
Joan smiled then too, her bloody lips too red against the pale white of her face. "What do you want, Kolya?"
Kolya was quiet for so long that Rodney thought he wasn't going to answer. Finally, he reached out and ran his fingers over the bruised side of Joan's face. Rodney had to swallow hard on the rising bile in his throat. "I have a few questions for you," Kolya said. "And for every question you do not answer, I will cut off one of Dr. McKay's fingers."
The world went hazy for a moment as panic engulfed Rodney. Kolya would do it, too, because the man had to be insane. What was worse, Joan's reaction told Rodney that she believed it too.
Joan licked her lips, vibrating with anger. She jerked away from Kolya's hand. "Leave him out of this, Kolya."
"With anyone else, I'd ask if you were certain that I was serious."
"I know perfectly well that you're serious."
Kolya's hand travelled over Joan's neck, down to her ribs. Rodney's breath caught in his throat, a mix of pure rage and anger choking him as Kolya ran his thumb over Joan's breast.
Then Kolya squeezed hard, and Joan screamed.
"Broken ribs are such a useful interrogation tool," Kolya said over the dying echo of the scream, as casually as if he'd been discussing the weather. "I do believe this sets the tone for the conversation, don't you?"
Joan pulled herself back up, panting through the pain. "Always best to have that sort of thing stated up front," she said as sarcastically as she could.
Rodney would have cheered her on, but whatever brain function he had left after the concussion was useless with a gun barrel pressed against his head.
Kolya pushed himself to his feet, pacing around the confines of the stone cell. "Who was with you today?"
Joan glanced quickly at Rodney. "Dr. McKay, Teyla Emmagen and Ronon Dex."
She was probably right to tell him, Rodney thought. Someone had obviously informed the Genii rebels that Sheppard's team was on this planet, so Kolya probably already knew about Teyla and Ronon.
Rodney just hoped that they'd gotten back to Atlantis in time to mount a rescue operation. Any time now
, he thought bitterly.
"Why were you here?"
Joan coughed, blood spilling over her lips and down her chin. "Exploring potential trading relationships," she got out before the coughing fit took her. Kolya waited until her spasms finally stopped. Then he strode over and kicked her hard in the ribs.
"Stop it!" Rodney shouted, forgetting the gun at his head, his whole world narrowed down to Joan Sheppard hanging limp from the chains. "What the hell is the matter with you? She can't answer your questions if she can't talk!"
Kolya went to one knee beside Joan, grabbing a handful of her hair and jerking her head back. "You can answer my questions, can't you, Colonel Sheppard?" Kolya asked. He let go of Joan's hair. "Where is Atlantis?"
Joan's head rolled back against the wall, all of her weight hanging on her chained wrists. Fresh blood streamed down her arms. "You... want that in... galactic coordin... ordinates, or Gate address?"
Kolya punched her in the face. Then he turned to the men by Rodney and said, "Begin cutting off Dr. McKay's fingers."
Gun be damned. Rodney turned and kicked and punched, anything to delay the inevitable, as Joan shouted, "Kolya, don't do this! I'm the one who didn't answer, not Rodney! Kolya!"
One of the goons clapped his hand over Rodney's mouth and nose, suffocating. Rodney fought, but the grey overcame him and he loosened his fists.
The other goon grabbed Rodney's right hand and pushed it flat against the wall, while the first one pulled a long knife from his belt. He raised the knife over Rodney's fingers. After a pause that took forever and only an instant, the knife swung down.
Joan's scream exploded into the air, taking all sound with it. Then the air exploded again, followed by the pop-pop of automatic weapons fire, taking the two goons down in a twitching heap.
Rodney didn't have any time to realize that he still had all his fingers when the stone wall beside Sheppard shattered in a hail of gunfire, breaking one of her chains. Kolya tried to duck away, but Joan kicked him in the knee and he went down. Before anyone could do anything useful, Joan straddled the man's back, grabbing the knife from his belt. In one quick downwards arc, she slammed the knife through Kolya's neck.
Kolya stopped moving.
Over the shouts of "Clear!" in the hall, Rodney slumped, adrenaline knocking his knees out from under him. Joan fell sideways off Kolya, one arm still shackled to the stone wall. She lay where she fell.
The next thing, the room was full of Lorne and a few Marines and Ronon and Teyla. Everyone was covered in dust and blood and no one had ever looked quite so good to Rodney.
"Sheppard needs a doctor," Rodney told anyone who would listen, in this case the burly Marine sSergeant closest to him.
"We'll get the Colonel back to Atlantis," the Sergeant said. He set to work on pounding at the rusty nails holding Rodney's manacle to the wall.
Rodney sputtered. "What kind of rescue operation is this?" he demanded. "You didn't bring a doctor? Who the hell is in charge?"
"Not now, McKay," Lorne said from the doorway. "We need to move!"
Teyla and the other Marine had succeeded in removing the chain from Joan's wrist. The moment she was free, Ronon scooped the woman up into his arms. It should have been ridiculous, Joan's long limbs flapping everywhere, but all Rodney could feel was fear and the remnants of fury at Kolya, dead on the floor.
"Be careful, she's got broken ribs," Rodney told Ronon, moving quickly to join the group as they ducked out the door.
"I've got her, McKay," Ronon said. That effectively shut Rodney up.
The trip to the Jumper was quick and brutal. Lorne took out a guard at a corner, then they were running out of the building. Rodney concentrated on following Ronon, and he barely noticed that they were running out into the open until the empty courtyard became the cloaked Jumper, and the Jumper ramp was closing as Lorne collapsed into the pilot seat. "Hang on!" Lorne shouted, and the Jumper took off
Ronon laid Sheppard down as gently as he could. The woman seemed to rouse somewhat as the Jumper swung wildly through the air. "Who the hell... flying this thing?" she breathed, curling protectively around her broken ribs.
"It is Major Lorne," Teyla explained. She knelt beside Joan, pillowing the woman's head on her leg. "We are only sorry it took us so long to get you."
"S'ok," Joan whispered. She closed her eyes as Teyla brushed the hair back from her forehead. "Knew you guys'd... come."
Ronon patted Sheppard's knee, then turned a steely glare on McKay. Before Rodney could think about what Ronon wanted, the bigger man pulled off his jacket and draped it over McKay's shoulders. "Don't pass out," Ronon ordered.
The Marine Sergeant, who'd been watching this exchange while hanging on to an upper bin, was looking at Sheppard with something akin to awe on his face. "She took out five of them at the attack site," he said. "And one more on the way with her bare hands."
Rodney curled his hands into fists, every one of his fingers pressing against his palms. He couldn't forget the way Kolya had looked at Joan, had put his hands all over her. Rodney didn't understand how everything else could be exactly the same, and this one thing so very different.
But Joan must have known. What else would explain it?~~~
The medical team was waiting in the Gateroom. Ronon lifted Joan onto a stretcher and the Colonel was swept off to the infirmary. Teyla grabbed hold of Rodney's arm and marched him along, pushing and shoving at him until he was on a stretcher in the infirmary and the other doctor, the new one whose name Rodney couldn't remember, was looking in his eyes and ears and asking him all kinds of stupid questions until Rodney snapped and shouted at the man to go away and someone bring him a computer!
The man didn't go away, and someone did bring Rodney a computer. Ignoring the medical team as best he could, Rodney hacked into old mission reports, searching for everything to do with the Genii: the assault on the city, the time Kolya kidnapped Sheppard for Wraith feeding-time, the time that Sheppard was supposed to have killed Kolya but apparently had only winged him.
Nothing in the reports explained what the hell had happened between Joan Sheppard and Kolya.
Gradually, Rodney became he wasn't alone. Teyla sat on the bed across from him, watching him quietly. The medical team was gone.
He thought about trying to explain, but he was so tired he didn't care. "I don't get it," he admitted, tossing the computer onto the bed. While he had been out of it, someone had bandaged his wrist and finger.
"What do you not understand?" Teyla asked.
"Kolya. And Sheppard."
Teyla let out a breath. "Sometimes, the path to attempting to understand an enemy can lead to obsession," she said slowly.
Rodney let his head fall into his hands. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Kolya wasn't supposed to be obsessed with Sheppard. The man had certainly never looked at John Sheppard like that.
But this was Joan Sheppard, and not John. Being defeated by a woman might twist and break in a man like Kolya.
Teyla moved to his side, laying a hand on his back. "Joan will be all right," Teyla said. "Jennifer does not think they will need to operate. There are no broken ribs and no internal bleeding."
Rodney swallowed hard. "That's good. Right?"
"Can I see her?"
"Not yet. Mr. Woolsey wishes to speak with us regarding what happened."
Rodney rounded on her. "What happened
? We were surrounded, beaten up, interrogated by a sadistic madman and nearly killed by friendly fire. How's that?"
"It's a good start," came Woolsey's voice from across the room.
Rodney closed his eyes. This day would never end, would it?~~~
Jennifer threatened him with overnight observation, but Rodney begged and whined until she finally let him go back to his quarters. He couldn't stand facing anyone else right now, not after the mind-fuck of a day he'd had.
Once he was safely in his room, Rodney curled into a ball to read Jeannie's email. It didn't really say anything of importance, but it was Jeannie
and that was all that mattered to Rodney. Even if she did insist on calling him 'Meredith' in text.
He was pulled back from family emails by a knock at his door. Standing was no easy task, so he was feeling less than charitable by the time he opened the door.
Irritation switched instantly to worry when the door rolled back to reveal Joan Sheppard leaning against the wall. "Hey," she said weakly, holding up a thermos. "Up for a drink?"
Rodney couldn't find the words for a moment. "Are you out of your mind? You should be in the infirmary!"
"You have brain damage! You were beaten within an inch of your life this morning. What the hell is Jennifer thinking, letting you go?"
The corner of Joan's mouth twitched.
"Did you make a break for it?" Rodney demanded. "What did you do, tunnel through the walls with an IV clip?"
"Come on," Joan said, pushing off the wall. Her wobbly shuffle was painful for Rodney to watch, but at least she was moving under her own power. "If you say another word about me going back to the infirmary, I'm not going to let you have anything to drink."
Rodney ducked back into his room to grab his jacket and a blanket for the injured woman who thought it was a good idea to wander Atlantis' cold halls in a t-shirt and bare feet. He caught up with Joan in no time at all. "Where are we going?"
"Outside." At the end of the corridor, Joan turned her shuffle towards the balcony. "If I don't see the sky I'm going to lose my mind."
Rodney bit back a few choice retorts, somewhere between too late for that
and stop right now I'm calling Jennifer
In the meantime, Joan lowered herself to the ground without falling over. Feet dangling off the edge of the balcony, she looked out across the ocean at the rising moons and sighed.
Rodney sat beside her as the wind picked up, moaning through the city's spires. He hugged his jacket closer around him. "Aren't you cold?"
"Nope." Joan closed her eyes as the wind ruffled her hair. The bruising on her face wasn't as bad as Rodney had thought in the dark of the stone cell, but her jaw and the corner of her mouth were swollen and red where Kolya had punched her. Dark circles lay under her eyes that had nothing to do with her injuries.
Rodney looked down at his hands, at the fingers and thumbs all where they should be, the worst damage being a shallow gash on his finger that hadn't even needed stitches. Without Jeannie's letter to push the memories away, Rodney couldn't get rid of the image of the knife swinging down towards his outstretched fingers.
Even though they were outside, surrounded by open air and sky, it was suddenly to hard to breathe. Rodney clenched his fists, ignoring the pain in his finger. "Is that alcoholic?" he demanded.
Joan opened her eyes on Rodney, looking straight through him for a moment. "I think so," she said after a very long pause. "I told Lorne I needed something to dull the pain. I don't think he'd give me rubbing alcohol." With exaggeratedly careful movements, she untwisted the thermos top and poured some liquid into the little cup. "If we go blind, we'll know what happened." She lifted the cup. "To this day being over."
The liquid went down her throat without causing her to double over. "What?" Rodney asked as Joan winced. "Is it rubbing alcohol?"
"No," Joan wheezed. "The inside of my mouth is pretty raw." She shoved the cup in his direction. "Your turn."
Rodney eyed the liquid dubiously. He doubted that Lorne would try to poison his CO, but who knew what kind of paint-stripper the military ingested on their off hours? Still, he was Canadian and could hold his liquor better than the Yanks. He lifted the cup as Joan had done. "To... Ronon and Teyla. For a melodramatic rescue."
"For saving our sorry asses in the nick of time," Joan echoed.
The hooch went down without killing Rodney, although it wouldn't help his concussion. Eyes watering, Rodney glared at the cup. "I've tasted sandpaper that goes down smoother than this! Where the hell does Lorne get this?"
"I think the botanists brew it in a bucket out on south pier," Joan said. She shifted closer to Rodney. "Who cares? It's strong."
"Stronger than that sugar water you Americans call beer." The warmth from the alcohol was sliding through Rodney's limbs, taking the edge off his anxiety for just a moment.
"American beer isn't that bad."
"Please. In Canada, we reserve American beer for children and the elderly." Rodney put the cup firmly on the balcony. "What the hell is Lorne thinking, giving a wounded woman alcohol?"
Joan let her gaze drift back to the moons. "He was following direct orders."
"That's a stupid reason."
Joan twitched one shoulder in a shrug. "I told him if he didn't give me his stash, I was going to quit and he'd have to be CO."
Joan refused to look at him. "It doesn't matter. Hell, I can always still resign in the morning." She picked up the thermos and took a healthy swig. "Maybe."
"Are you insane? You can't quit!" Rodney drained the rest of the liquid in the cup. He touched Joan's knee. "Is this because of Kolya? That's over, he's dead."
"That bastard should have been dead a long time ago," Joan muttered. She put the thermos aside with a thump. "I'm forty-two years old, Rodney. Maybe I'm just tired of keeping it all straight."
Rodney could only stare. Sheppard had always fought so hard to stay on Atlantis, in whatever gender. Sheppard was
Atlantis, as far as most of the Marines were concerned. "We'll tell Lorne to ignore everything you said, that you didn't know what you were thinking," Rodney said. "He can just forget you said anything about quitting--"
"Fuck, McKay, will you shut up?" Joan exclaimed. "For once in your life, just stop talking!"
Rodney swallowed all the protests in his throat. Something was wrong with Joan, something beyond the injuries and the exhaustion. It was the same dark doubt Rodney had sometimes seen in John Sheppard, the doubt that sent him on missions with no chance of survival. Like flying a nuclear bomb into a Hive ship.
"What's up with Kolya?" Rodney asked after a few minutes of silence. "I read the reports and Teyla thinks he was obsessed with you, but that doesn't explain what happened in the cell."
Joan unwrapped the bandages from her wrists and stared at the angry red welts and cuts on her pale skin. Black stitches, ugly and harsh, encircled her skin in an echo of the shackles in the cell. "Do you remember what happened when Kolya had that Wraith feed on me?"
"The two of you escaped and the Wraith made you young again," Rodney said. The report he'd read of Joan Sheppard's experiences had exactly echoed those of John Sheppard. But then, Rodney knew how easy it was to fix a mission report to say what you wanted. "Right?"
With Joan sitting so close, it was hard to see her expression, but Rodney had been reading John Sheppard for years now and some things weren't all that different.
Joan smiled slightly. "Something like that."
"So what did you leave out?"
The smile faded from Joan's face. "Something Kolya said to me before the Wraith fed on me." She ran her fingers over a line of stitches on her wrist. "He said, 'if I can't have you, no one's going to,' or something like that." She looked out at the ocean, the wind whipping her hair around her face in a dark halo.
The weight of the words hit Rodney like another blow to the head.
Joan took a slow, deep breath. "Although," she said with deliberate false cheer, "I'll go on record as saying that having the life sucked out of me by a Wraith was infinitely preferable than being molested by Kolya."
"And it's not like I haven't killed that man already, is it?" Joan shoved her hair back from her face angrily. "I shoot him, I stab him, and he just won't stay dead, will he?"
Rodney stared at Joan. Had she just said what he thought she said? True, she'd shot Kolya once in the shoulder to save Elizabeth, but only John Sheppard had shot Kolya in the heart, killing him. Rodney had never told Joan what John had done to the Genii commander.
Joan poured herself another shot of the gut-rot hooch and drank it in silence, staring out at the sea. She didn't seem to notice when Rodney wrapped the blanket around her, or when Rodney pulled the thermos from her fingers and put it out of reach. The moons climbed higher in the sky, and Joan just sat there, silent in her own thoughts.
Rodney found his mind drifting. Why was everything the same between Joan and John except for these two people? Rosemary and Kolya, the opposite ends of the spectrum in Joan's life. One a beloved sister, the other an obsessed enemy. The more he thought about it, the less sense it made. Except for those two people, everything was exactly the same, and that was impossible. Actions had consequences, rippling through the universe. Rosemary Sheppard might not have saved the planet, but if she was a software engineer, then how was it possible that her not existing in John Sheppard's world hadn't made tiny changes, rippling out to large waves across the stars?
Because if Rosemary wasn't around to write software, that meant someone else had to do it exactly the same
and that was impossible.
Unless something was controlling it.
"What does Joseph do?" Rodney asked. Joan dragged her eyes off the horizon to look at him questioningly. "Your sister's kid. What's his PhD in?"
"Linguistics," Joan said, the alcohol slurring her words. "He's going to go into anti-terrorism work after he finishes his thesis. Nancy said she can get him a job at Homeland Security if he wants." The pride in her words was unmistakable.
Ripples within ripples. If Joseph Sheppard wasn't there to work on anti-terrorism work, what would happen? Who would step into his place?
Joan shifted to pull a battered photograph from her pocket. This wasn't the happy family photograph Rodney had seen on that first day. This was an old polaroid of two children, hardly more than toddlers. They had the same green eyes, but the taller little girl had messy brown curls streaming over her shoulders, while the other little girl had red hair pulled into two pigtails.
Both girls were grinning like they were on top of the world.
"Once upon a time," Joan began, and the bitter anger in her voice was more startling than the fanciful words. "Eleven months after I was born, my little sister Rosemary came into the world."
?" Rodney couldn't help but interject.
"Yeah, I know. Anyway, my mother was happy because she finally got the girl she'd always wanted."
Rodney opened his mouth to ask Joan what she was talking about, because if they'd already had Joan, then what? But Joan went on.
"Me and Rosemary pretty much ran wild, once we could escape the nanny. We climbed trees, got into the stables to play with the horses, got stuck in the attic, you name it. My mother was at her wits end by the time we were ready for school, and she decided that we needed a little discipline. So we got shoved into private schools." Joan made a diverging gesture with her hands. "Girls here, boys there."
Any rational thought left Rodney's head as the full meaning of Joan's words hit him.
"And because we were in different schools, I wasn't on the nature walk to the river with Rosemary's class when she decided she wanted to play in the water by herself." Joan stared at the photograph of the happy children. "They found her body tangled up in some reeds further downstream. They think she slipped and fell into the river."
"Oh god," Rodney said quietly. Joan didn't seem to hear him.
"We came back from the funeral and my parents weren't talking to me. Mom took a bunch of sleeping pills and passed out in the living room, and dad was getting drunk or something. I went into my room and cried for a while. Eventually, I realized there was someone there."
"Who was it?"
"I don't know. He was there, but he wasn't there, either." Joan pulled the blanket tighter around her chest. "He asked me--" Her voice cracked. "He asked me what I wanted. So I told him that I wanted to be a girl, because if I was a girl then I'd have been with Rosemary on that field trip and I'd have pulled her out the river because I was supposed to protect her."
"He vanished, if he was ever there to begin with. I cried myself to sleep." Joan ran her tongue over her bruised lip. "And when I woke up the next morning, I was a girl and Rosemary was alive."
"What, just like that?" Rodney exclaimed.
"Yes." Joan licked her lip, wincing as her tongue hit a split in her skin. "She had pneumonia from almost drowning, but that was okay because she was alive. So I kissed her and pulled on the little private school dress in my cupboard and let the nanny braid my hair and off to the girls' school I went."
"You were a... girl," Rodney said, trying to wrap his head around this.
"And before you'd been..."
"John Sheppard, first-born son."
"That's what 'son' means."
"You were a boy, you made a wish, and then you were a girl."
Joan gestured in the general direction of her breasts. "Yes."
"That's not how it happens!" Rodney exclaimed. "People don't just get to make wishes and re-write the fabric of reality!"
Joan shrugged. "You know what they say."
"That people with head injuries shouldn't drink?"
She shook her head. "Something about wishes and horses. And when I was growing up, we had horses a-plenty" The woman let out a long breath, slumping against Rodney's shoulder.
Rodney just stared at the top of Joan's head. It was a credit to his own head injury that he hadn't run off screaming into the distance. Or called Jennifer to take the crazy Colonel away.
"So how the hell do I remember five years of John Sheppard?" he finally asked.
Joan didn't answer for so long that he thought she hadn't heard him. Eventually, she said, "About six months after I made my wish, I woke up and I was a boy again." She let out a shaky breath. "And Rosemary was long dead."
A particularly vicious gust of wind buffeted the balcony, stealing Rodney's breath away. He slid closer to Joan, mostly because she had the only spot of cover from the wind. And if he put his arm over her shoulders to steady himself, well, she looked cold and pneumonia with bruised ribs wasn't any fun at all.
"And so it goes back and forth," Joan said quietly, almost to herself. "From Joan to John. When I'm Joan, Rosemary and her kids are alive. When I'm John, Rosemary's been dead since I was five and her kids never existed. I'm the only one who remembers."
"What about us?" Rodney asked, his voice muffled against Joan's hair. He'd never have sat this way with John Sheppard, even though he'd just been told that Joan was
John Sheppard. His concussion was making it hard to parse anything resembling logic in this situation. "We just don't notice anything strange?"
"You never have before."
"Maybe it was the brain parasite?" Rodney suggested, unable to stop seeking answers.
"How the hell should I know?"
"Did you ever... you know, tell anyone?"
Joan made a sound in her throat, halfway between a cough and a laugh. "That would have looked great on my psych eval, McKay. 'I'm an Air Force pilot and sometimes I'm a woman.' Yeah, that'd have gone over perfect."
She was probably right. Rodney's brain was still trying to figure everything out, which was probably an impossibility but he was Dr. Rodney McKay, the smartest man in two galaxies. If anyone would figure it out, Rodney could.
"You're awfully talkative," Rodney said after a few minutes of fruitless thinking. "I mean, John never talks this much."
"That's because John's a man," came the muffled voice. Although Rodney wouldn't have thought it possible, given the current laws of physics, Joan had somehow squeezed even closer to him. Probably trying to shelter herself from the wind. "God forbid men ever talk about feelings."
Rodney squinted up at the moons, trying very hard to quiet his completely inappropriate thoughts at having a woman pressed against him. Especially an injured woman who was sometimes a man who was also his best friend.
His head hurt.
"I'd have thought you'd be more 'we're all the same' or something," Rodney said. "With that whole gender divide."
A blanketed fist drove itself ineffectively into Rodney's ribs. "Anyone who thinks men and women have no differences needs a wake-up call," Joan said. By this time, her cheek was resting against Rodney's shoulder. "I'm still me
. Just a little different biologically."
"And more violent," Rodney said, rubbing his chest where Joan had hit him. "John was never this touchy-feely."
"Yes I am."
"You didn't hit me so often."
"I've hit you three times in three weeks, and one of those was because you felt me up in public." Joan pulled herself up, shifting around to face Rodney. Her sudden absence at his side let the cold night air hit him once again. "You sound like you believe me."
Rodney squirmed under her intense scrutiny. "Believe what?"
"About..." She blinked, her gaze wavering for a moment. Rodney was reminded that Joan wasn't completely sober. "About me."
"I wouldn't say I believe you," Rodney blurted out before thinking. "I mean, that you're pulling some kind of wish-based gender-swap is preferable to thinking that both you and I have gone crazy in imagining John Sheppard, but it's completely impossible.
A faint hopeful light in Joan's eyes died and she curled back in on herself. Rodney's heart sank, realizing that he had just hurt her. But could she really want him to lie to her?
"I understand, McKay," Joan said, her voice gone cold. Even only a few inches of air separated them, that distance was as impenetrable as a mile. "I should get back to the infirmary before Keller calls out a search party on me."
The woman tried to stand, but her foot got caught in the edge of the blanket and she fell hard against the balcony railing. She fought her way free of the blanket before Rodney could stand to help her.
When Rodney touched her arm, Joan stepped back. She stood very much alone on the balcony, barefoot, in thin pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, vulnerable and injured and oh, so very angry. At Rodney.
"What?" Rodney asked, because it was better than flinching away from the emotion in Joan's eyes.
"You are such a bastard," she spat out.
? What did I do?"
"You're the only person I've ever told about this and you don't believe me--"
"How can I believe this?"
"--In spite of all the evidence in front of your face!"
"It doesn't make any sense!" Rodney shouted. "It's not possible
Joan gripped the railing to steady herself as a blast of wind whipped past the balcony. "You think I don't know that?" she shouted back. "Hey, how about this? Why don't you just think about how it'd feel to wake up one day and for Jeannie to have been dead for years, and not have anyone else even know she's supposed to be alive!"
"And Madison never even existed
, not here or anywhere, and there is nothing you can do to get them back." Joan took a step closer to Rodney, and her fury was more painful than a slap would have been. "So you grieve and no one knows why and you can't even talk about it because they'd lock you up for being crazy." The anger drained out of Joan as Rodney watched, unable to say a word. "Then one day you wake up and they're alive again like they've always been, but you can't ever forget that for half of your life, the people you love are dead." Her voice cracked on the last word.
For the longest time, Rodney could only stare. He had never seen John Sheppard this open, this... exposed. Because that was what had just happened. Joan had just opened up completely to Rodney, laying her emotions out in front of him.
And he hadn't believed her.
He still couldn't believe the situation, not in the least, but the one constant in the last five years of Rodney McKay's life had been trusting John Sheppard. And now, that meant Joan too.
"Hasn't anyone else ever seen you as John and Joan?" Rodney asked. "I mean, seen you as Joan while remembering you as John?"
Joan shivered. "No," she said under her breath, the word snatched away by the wind, leaving her so alone.
Rodney unzipped his jacket and slid it off his shoulders. "Put this on," he said, holding the jacket out to Joan. She just stared at him. "Come on, you're going to freeze to death and Jennifer will kill me."
When the woman still didn't move, Rodney draped the jacket over her shoulders. This necessitated stepping closer to Joan, close enough to smell the floral scent of her shampoo and the lingering copper tang of blood and injury on her skin.
Once the jacket was settled firmly on Joan's shoulders, Rodney should have stepped away. Instead, he just stood there, caught up in emotions in Joan's eyes. He didn't understand, not anything about her. How could she function when she didn't know if she'd wake up a man or a woman, if her sister would be alive or dead?
While Rodney stood there, trying to understand the mystery that was Joan Sheppard, she put one hand on his cheek and closed the distance between them.
Then she kissed him.
Maybe it was shock that kept Rodney immobile. Maybe it was the alcohol. Or possibly it was Joan's hands, one on his waist and one on his chest, holding him still as she pressed herself against him. Her lips parted under his and instinct took over. He kissed her back, tongue running over her lower lip. Her mouth tasted like alcohol and desperation and the faintest hint of blood, overwhelming Rodney's senses.
This had to stop. Rodney knew he had to stop this immediately. Joan was injured and drunk and he shouldn't be letting her do this, shouldn't be running his hand over her hip, shouldn't be listening to way Joan moaned into his mouth.
But he had almost lost her that day, and that was the only reason he sought comfort in the soft warmth of her lips.
He had no idea how long the kiss lasted before someone coughed. Rodney opened his eyes, more than a little dizzy, as Joan twisted around. Teyla and Ronon stood in the doorway. Ronon had his arms crossed over his chest, looking terrifyingly large. Teyla had raised one eyebrow at them. "Dr. Keller has sent us to find you, Joan," Teyla said after a moment. "She requires that you return to the infirmary."
Joan sighed, her whole body shivering with the effort, and Rodney realized that they were still pressed together. Quickly, Rodney moved back to give Joan her space.
But instead of going with Teyla, Joan just looked
at him with those emotion-filled eyes until Teyla came forward and put her arm around Joan's waist to guide the taller woman back into the city and down the hall, out of sight.
This left Ronon and Rodney out on the balcony. Feeling somewhat awkward, Rodney made a vague motion with his hand. "That was just... you know. Stress."
"Stress," Ronon repeated.
Ronon shook his head.
"You're an idiot, McKay." With that, Ronon turned and went back into the city, leaving Rodney alone on the balcony.
Rodney figured he'd stay out in the open air and try to think things over, but quickly realized that Joan had taken his jacket so he went back inside, drifting down to the labs where a few people were still hard at work. Rodney sat at his usual chair and stared at a blank monitor until he stopped shivering. Then he turned on the monitor and stared unseeing at his email.
Joan was John, and Joan had kissed Rodney, and none of it made any sense.
Taking a deep breath, Rodney dove into his work. If anything could take his mind off Joan Sheppard, it was Ancient computer code.
Hours later, the hairs on the back of Rodney's neck stood up. He sat upright, looking around the lab. The room was empty and dark, all the good little scientists off asleep in their beds. He should have been alone, but every instinct Rodney had screamed that someone was there. It was the same sensation he sometimes got deep in the corridors of Atlantis, of something watching from the dark
. There was never anybody there, but the sensation remained.
Only today, it was stronger than anything Rodney had ever felt.
There. In the corner, when Rodney looked hard enough, he could make out someone in the dark. But at the same time, there wasn't anyone there.
What had Joan said? "He was there, but he wasn't there
," of someone lurking in little Johnny Sheppard's bedroom on the day he'd buried his sister, someone who asked him what he wanted, and someone who may very well have made John Sheppard's wishes come true.
And now, someone was there and not there
in Rodney's lab, and after the life Rodney had led, he didn't believe in coincidences.
"Who are you?" Rodney asked, his hand going out to grab a spare life signs detector sitting on the edge of his desk. The device told him he was alone, but that didn't explain the outline of a person in the shadows.
Rodney didn't believe in ghosts, but he believed in beings who existed outside the laws of reality, who could change those laws with a thought.
"Did you do this?" Rodney asked, putting the pieces together around the insanity of the day. "You know, if you're Ascended or something, you're not allowed to mess with reality."
The shape in the shadow gave off an air of bemusement. At Rodney's effrontery for telling an Ascended being what he could or could not do.
The thoughts weren't Rodney's own. "Stay out of my head!" he exclaimed, springing off his chair and backing up as fast as he could.
The shape moved forward, sliding through the shadows. Why shouldn't Rodney's thoughts be manipulated? It was so easy.
"You can't mess with everyone like this!" Rodney said, backing into a desk. "You're not allowed to interfere with us."
What did Rodney really know about the Ascended?
"You can't interfere!" Rodney said again. "And you're messing with our minds, with the whole universe, to shift between John Sheppard and Joan Sheppard!"
But what about the sister?
"What you're doing is bringing someone back to life and then wiping them out of existence, over and over, isn't it? You have to keep messing with a wider circle of reality to eradicate Rosemary Sheppard's influence when you kill her off!"
Is that not what John Sheppard wanted?
Rodney's fear turned to anger. "He was a little boy who'd just lost his sister! He wanted her back, he didn't want to be jerked back and forth through some kind of purgatory!"
And have you asked him if he thinks it is worth it, to have such a sister, alive?
"You can't keep doing this!" Rodney said again. "The Ancients are going to notice and make you stop!"
That last word hung in the air. Too late, Rodney realized what he had just said. Before he could do anything, the shadows around him grew thick and choking."You are right,"
The entire world moved a fraction of an inch all around him. In the distance, Rodney thought he heard someone scream.
Then the lights came on and there was nobody there.
"No, no no!" Rodney exclaimed, casting around for what had just happened. "That wasn't what I meant, I didn't mean it!"
The air was still and nothing was quite the same.
What had Rodney done?