Lorne came to get him the next morning. By that time, Rodney had almost talked himself into thinking the whole thing with the shadows in the lab had been some sort of trauma-induced hallucination. He'd been on the balcony with Joan and her crazy talk, which, combined with the alcohol he'd consumed, made him hallucinate. Everything was going to be fine.
The brief delusion of optimism lasted until Rodney entered the briefing room. The rescue team from the previous day sat on one side of the table, Rodney's team on the other. All that was visible of Sheppard from behind Ronon were two half-laced boots and one hand holding a cup of coffee.
But these were combat boots with 'eleven wide' stamped on the bottom. Joan Sheppard wore size eight narrow.
The hand was too broad, fingers too wide, to be a woman's hand.
Then Ronon moved, and Rodney was left staring at John Sheppard.
The man looked horrible. The bruising on his face had darkened to angry purples, and the circles under his eyes were almost as dark. The exhaustion was beyond simple tiredness, extending into a deeply buried emotional pain.
As if yesterday he'd had a sister and two nephews, and today they were long dead.
"Let us begin," Woolsey said, waiting until Lorne pushed a shell-shocked Rodney into an open chair. "I'd like to go over what happened yesterday, starting with Colonel Sheppard's team going through the Stargate."
Yesterday, Rodney had gone through the Gate with Joan Sheppard, and Kolya had been there, and Joan almost died and then she kissed Rodney on the balcony. Then Rodney told a late-night hallucination that such a thing as Joan Sheppard could not possibly be.
Now Joan was gone.
"I went over most of this in my report," Sheppard said. Hearing the man's low voice shook Rodney even more than seeing him in Joan's place. "My team split up and went to explore the surroundings."
Yesterday, Rodney had made some crack about boy-girl, boy-girl, and Joan had rolled her eyes and told him to get moving. Teyla had smiled at them both before following Ronon into the woods. Joan made Rodney go first up the hill and that was what saved their lives, as she'd been back far enough to hear the first tell-tale scuffle of boots on the rocks.
"McKay and I were attacked and taken to a secure location for 'questioning'." John's fingers curved into quotation marks around the word, making it into a joke when it was anything but.
Yesterday, Kolya would have killed Rodney and kept torturing Joan until she was lying dead and broken on a cold stone floor on an anonymous planet on the Pegasus galaxy, and Rosemary Sheppard would never know what her sister would endure for her.
"And then Teyla and Ronon came through with a rescue attempt with Lorne's team," John finished. "Here we are."
Woolsey blinked at the succinct story. "I'm going to need a little more detail than that," he said, turning to Rodney. "Dr. McKay?"
Rodney stared at the bandage on his finger. His injury was the same, and it shouldn't have been, because Kolya had made the order, and Kolya had been dead for years.
Rodney could tell the truth. He could explain how John turned into a girl, how a resurrected Kolya had ordered the attack, how Joan's baby sister hadn't been pulled down to die in the cold river depths as a small child, younger than Rodney's niece Madison was now.
He could tell John that he'd told a shadow of the impossibility of wishes being brought to life, and things had gone back to the way they were before, with John alive and his sister dead.
"I don't remember."
"Dr. McKay?" Woolsey said in surprise. "Dr. Keller pronounced you healthy--"
"Delayed trauma," Rodney snapped. He meant to look at Woolsey, to give credibility to his lie, but he made the mistake of glancing in John's direction. John's eyes were blank, expression opaque, and the utter lack of emotion hit Rodney harder than any accusation could.
"I don't remember anything from yesterday after we went through the Gate," Rodney finished lamely. He wouldn't have even believed himself.
"Maybe McKay should go see Keller," John said, leaning back in his chair. Did he know what Rodney had done to his sister?
"That might be a good idea--" Woolsey started, but Rodney was on his feet and out the door before the sentence had a chance to end.
He wasn't able to bring himself to look back and see John sitting where Joan should have been.~~
Keller was concerned and solicitous. She tested Rodney's memory and compared her scans to his 'dumbed-down' period, but had to let him leave the infirmary after a few hours when everything came back inconclusive.
"There is no physiological reason why you don't remember," had been her parting remark. "Let me know if you forget anything else."
Rodney restrained himself from asking exactly how he'd remember what he forgot. On autopilot, his feet took him back to his quarters where there wouldn't be any reminders of Joan Sheppard at all and he might be able to get some sleep.
Except, of course, that John Sheppard was taking up three-quarters of his couch.
"How did you even get in here?" Rodney demanded. He wanted to forget all about Joan Sheppard. About how vulnerable she had been on that balcony, how defiant she'd been of Kolya in the stone cell, how warm her mouth had been when she kissed Rodney.
For all Rodney knew, Joan didn't exist, and the last three weeks had been a hallucination brought on by the brain-shrinking parasite and some severely repressed psychological issues on Rodney's part.
"Atlantis let me in," John said.
"I can't see why." Rodney stood in the middle of the room, his arms crossed over his chest. "Get out."
John didn't move. "What did Keller say?"
"That I'm fine."
"You don't remember most of yesterday and you're fine?" John's eyebrows went up and oh god, it was that same expression Joan had and Rodney didn't know if he could do this again.
"Head trauma," Rodney suggested frantically. "I should get some sleep."
After a long silence, John slowly got to his feet. "If you're sure you're okay..." He let the words trail off.
"Are you still here?"
John hunched his shoulders as he glanced around the room. When he looked back at Rodney, his face was blank. "You take care of yourself, McKay" he said, shuffling towards the door.
And because Rodney couldn't let it go
, he had to ask, "Why did you come here?"
John hesitated before saying, "To bring back your jacket."
Sure enough, Rodney's jacket lay draped on the foot of his bed, the same jacket that Rodney had wrapped around Joan Sheppard about seven seconds before she kissed him.
Rodney dragged his eyes off the jacket. There was something in Sheppard's gaze that Rodney didn't understand. "Any more questions?" John asked.
Rodney blinked. Without thinking, he asked, "How did it feel to stab Kolya?"
The unbruised part of John's face went sickly pale. "I shot Kolya, remember?" he said, then paused to run his tongue over his lower lip. He moved closer to Rodney and lowered his voice, even though it was only the two of them and the door was closed. "But if I'd had the opportunity to jam a knife through that son of a bitch's neck, it would have felt really, really good."
Rodney's breath froze in his lungs. He struggled to speak, to do anything, but John stalked out the door without another word.
Rodney sat on the edge of his bed, trying to wrap his mind around what had just happened. Had John just admitted to stabbing Kolya? But that would mean... John and Joan...
Head whirling, Rodney laid down. Something crinkled in his jacket as he pushed it out of the way. Automatically, Rodney reached into the pocket and pulled out a time-worn photograph of two very familiar children.
The polaroid mocked him with the faded image of four-year-old Rosemary Sheppard with her red pigtails, holding tight to a little boy with tousled dark hair and a missing front tooth, grinning madly at the camera while he hugged his sister like if he'd never let her go.
Five months later, Rosemary Sheppard had drowned in a cold river, leaving John alone.
Rodney stared at the photograph until his vision blurred. He closed his eyes to grieve for a child he had never met and for a woman he would never see again.~~
As was usual with Rodney's luck, things went from bad to horrible.
Rodney couldn't forget Joan and Rosemary. John was more standoffish than ever. Every time Rodney tried to say something to John, a remembered whisper of the world changing under his feet stopped the words in his throat.
Oddly, Teyla was the first to crack. She accosted Rodney in the hallway, two weeks after ambush on the planet, to ask him what was wrong.
Teyla shook her head. "I do not believe you."
After a long moment, she placed her hand comfortingly on his shoulder. "If you ever wish it, I am here for you."
"Thanks," Rodney said, confused. "Why?"
Teyla pursed her lips. "If you fear you are losing portions of your memory--"
"Huh? It's not that. Where did you get that from? But thanks." Rodney didn't really want to know what had set Teyla off, but he knew that look on her face. It meant she wanted to talk
. "Look, I have to go," he said, and almost ran down the hall.
Did they think he was worried about losing his memory? The idea was almost laughable. That would have been pleasant
, compared to the chaos in his head.
Two days later, Rodney was alone at the breakfast table when Ronon slumped into the chair opposite. Rodney tried to ignore Ronon, really he did, but his curiosity got the better of him after a few minutes of silent glaring. "All right, what?"
"You should talk to Sheppard."
"There's nothing wrong with Colonel Sheppard," Rodney said. He couldn't bring himself to say the man's first name, not since he'd accidentally asked something of "Joan" in that first week and John had almost punched him. "Go away, I'm eating."
Ronon shrugged and stood. "You know he's not all right, McKay," he said as he walked away.
Rodney managed to hold out for one more day, before Zelenka said tentatively, "Rodney, Colonel Sheppard is--"
"All right!" Rodney exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air and almost decapitating a passing astrophysicist. "I give up! I'm going!"
He found John lounging in the pilot seat of Jumper Six, a cup of coffee in one hand and technical read-outs on the display. Rodney stopped on the ramp, uncertain as to his welcome.
"What do you want, McKay?" John asked without turning around.
"Um, mind if I come in?"
"Nope." John brought his cup to his lips, cutting off any further conversation.
Rodney eased himself into the passenger seat and watched John work for several minutes. Normally, Rodney would be right in there with comments and criticism and the inevitable move over and let me do that
, but today all he could do was watch.
He desperately wanted to say something to make it better, but what could he possibly say? Do you remember being Joan? What happened with you, and what happened with Joan?
John shifted in his chair, grimacing as his side brushed against the arm support.
"How are your ribs?" Rodney asked. John gave him a sideways glance. "From being kicked."
"Better," John said curtly. "How's the head?"
"Fine." Rodney couldn't think of anything to continue the conversation. An awkward stillness filled the jumper cabin, broken only by John hitting the control panel with more force than necessary. "Did you kiss me?"
John spit coffee all over the control panel.
Rodney jumped up, instinctively reaching for something to wipe the liquid off the crystals. "This is why we're not supposed to drink while doing repairs!"
"What did you just ask me?" John demanded as he wiped coffee off his face.
"Joan kissed me!" Rodney sputtered, turning red. "How the hell was I supposed to know if you did the same thing at the same time in this whole John-reality?"
John just stared, mouth open. In that moment, Rodney heartily wished that he was anywhere else. Like in the path of a Wraith dart.
After a long pause, John turned his attention back to the control panel. "I didn't kiss you, McKay," he said in a tight voice. "Get that rag from the back, would you?"
Rodney grabbed a strip of cloth hanging from the overhead bin to help with the clean-up. "It's a legitimate question," he said, even though the more rational part of his mind was telling to run away and hide because Jesus Christ, this was John, who always got the girl, which Rodney was not
"Teyla's acting weird and even Ronon told me to talk to you--"
Rodney stopped talking when John threw the rag at the control panel. "Teyla and Ronon are worried about you
, McKay, not me," he said.
"Oh. Because I thought maybe..." Rodney closed his mouth and contemplated the likelihood of Atlantis being destroyed in the next five seconds to put him out of his misery. The universe had no such plans for him, however. He was going to be stuck here with John glaring at him until the end of time.
Well, as long as John thought Rodney was crazy, may as well go all in.
Rodney cleared his throat and started again. "I thought because, well, Joan kissed me, that..."
He couldn't finish. John was still staring. The more Rodney thought about it, the more it sounded like Rodney had just hit on his best friend.
His male best friend.
His straight male best friend who was in the military.
And speaking of which, wasn't Rodney straight too?
This day couldn't possibly get any worse.
After a very long time, John finally shook his head and sat back in the pilot seat. He continued wiping up the spilled coffee. "McKay--"
"Look, never mind, okay?" Rodney said in a rush. "Just forget I said anything. It's got to be brain damage. I'll get a diagnosis from Keller. There's got to be treatment--"
"McKay, would you stop for a minute?" John demanded. Rodney stuttered to a halt. "Just... sit down, will you?"
At least it wasn't a punch to the face. Rodney sat on the edge of the seat, ready for a quick escape.
John took another half-heated wipe at the console. "Joan," he said very deliberately, "Could kiss men all she liked, as long as they weren't in her chain of command." He dropped the damp cloth to the ground. "That sort of behavior wouldn't have affected her military career."
There were so many unspoken implications in that statement that it took Rodney a few minutes to unravel the meanings. John had spoken of Joan, out loud, so Rodney wasn't crazy. The other thing was that John hadn't seemed repulsed that Joan had kissed Rodney.
"Welcome to my life," John muttered. He ran his hand over his face, callused palm rasping over a day's stubble. "I need to go meet with Lorne."
John heaved himself to his feet, moving with that exhaustion that never really left him.
Rodney shook himself out of the haze. "John, I'm... I'm sorry about Rosemary and the kids."
John went still. For the briefest of moments, something akin to grief passed over his features. He clapped a hand on Rodney's shoulder and managed a small smile. "Thanks," he said quietly. "I appreciate that."
Then he was gone.
Rodney slumped back in his seat. That hadn't been what he meant at all, but it was too late to take it back. He had a horrible suspicion that John would never be Joan again, would never see Rosemary again, and it was all Rodney's stupid fault.~~~
Things resumed a more normal structure. John was talking to Rodney again and that was nice, even if Teyla watched them with narrowed eyes and Ronon... well, who knew what Ronon thought?
Another week passed before Atlantis dialed Earth for emergency medial supplies and the mail. Rodney spent most of the afternoon putting out fires, two literally, before staggering back to the labs for a quick email check before dinner. John was at Rodney's computer, playing a shoot-em-up game that Rodney had told Zelenka five times to uninstall. "Hey," John said, never taking his eyes off the exploding aliens. "Movie night after dinner."
"What did we get in the dial-up?" Rodney asked, pushing a minion off the adjacent computer to check his inbox.
"The collected works of Bruce Lee," John said, the tip of his tongue poking out of his mouth as he concentrated. Rodney had to look away because it was almost as distracting as watching Joan stretch her arms over her head. "I promised Teyla and Ronon some violence."
"Our whole lives are violent," Rodney pointed out. Over a hundred emails began to flood his inbox. "Why does it never seem to end?"
John let out a whoop. "Ha! One more level down." He closed the program and turned to Rodney expectantly. "Dinner?"
Rodney waved a hand in John's direction. "Let me go through these emails to see if any are actually important."
"Suit yourself." John opened the email program on his borrowed computer to check his own email. "I wonder if Mitchell got back to me with those new Apache specs--"
His words cut off so suddenly that Rodney looked up in surprise. John was staring at the computer screen, completely ashen.
"John, what--" Rodney started to say, but John shot to his feet so fast the chair fell over, startling the entire lab to silence.
John rounded on Rodney. "What did you do?" he demanded, completely furious.
"You're the only one who knows!" John shouted.
Rodney still had no idea what as going on. He held up a placating hand because John had that same cold expression in his eyes before he blew up Wraith Hive ships. "What are you talking about?" Rodney asked as he looked at the computer screen. The pixels came into focus, and Rodney saw what had set John off.
At the top of John's inbox was an email from Rosemary Sheppard.
For a moment, Rodney forgot the minions, the wrathful Colonel, everything in the universe except for the message John had received from his dead sister.
Zelenka said something, but Rodney paid no attention. "Everybody out!" Rodney said, waving everyone towards the door.
"Dr. McKay--" Someone tried.
"Now!" Reluctantly, the scientists left, with Zelenka being the last to linger in the doorway before exiting.
John retreated to a nearby table, holding himself upright by sheer strength of will. Rodney really didn't blame him, because if Rodney had received an email from his long-dead mother, he doubted he'd be handling it well either.
"Maybe you should read it," Rodney suggested.
John couldn't seem to make his eyes focus. "You didn't do this," he finally said.
It wasn't a question, but Rodney answered anyway. "I wouldn't do that to you."
"Yeah." It took everything John had left in him to push off the table and walk back to the computer. Holding himself as if he expected a blow, he clicked on the email. The email held an embedded video. John didn't move, so it was up to Rodney to press play. There were a few seconds of black, then someone moved to sit before the camera.
It was Rosemary Sheppard.
John swayed, giving Rodney just enough time to shove him into a chair. The man's eyes never left the screen.
"Hi," Rosemary said. Rodney took his eyes off the monitor to glance at John. A faint spark of hope shone in John's eyes, something Rodney had only ever seen in Joan.
And then Rosemary smiled.
"Well," she said after a pause. Her voice was more soprano than Joan's, but then Rosemary didn't spend her days yelling at Marines. "Sorry, I really hate making these things. I even wrote out what I wanted to say and everything." She shrugged, a twitch of the shoulder reminiscent of John. "I'm better at email, but I needed to... I needed you to see me, John."
John gripped the edge of the table so hard his knuckles turned white.
"We're all doing well," Rosemary continued. "Joe's home next week from Hong Kong." Something crashed off-screen. Rosemary looked at the ceiling in annoyance. "And Sam's seven going on thirty-nine. He's worse than Dave ever was when we were kids."
Another crash, then a young boy ran into the shot, careening into the woman's chair. The boy had light brown hair and freckles and paid no attention to the camera. "Mom, where's my swim trunks?" he demanded.
Rosemary put an arm around the boy's waist. "In your bag by the door, where you put them this morning." She pointed at the camera. "Say hi to your Uncle John."
The boy frowned at the camera contemplatively. "Hi, Uncle John," he said. "Hey, when you come home next time, can you take me up in a plane?" he asked, leaning against his mother's shoulder. "Joe said you took him up in a plane when he was nine and that was pretty cool and since you're a Colonel now you can do stuff like that, right?"
"Sam," Rosemary admonished, smiling over the boy's shoulder at the camera. "You know Joan's always busy when she-- he comes home."
Rodney's throat closed. Had Rosemary just called John Joan?
On the video, Sam rolled his eyes. "Uncle John always
does cool stuff with us!" He jumped as a car honk sounded. "Gotta go! Mark's mom's here!" The boy dashed off-camera. A moment later, a door slammed.
Rosemary stared after her son for a moment before turning her head back to the camera. Her green eyes were so much like John's, like Joan's, that Rodney's stomach flopped over. There was so much pain in her eyes.
Rosemary took a deep breath. "We'd like it if you could come to visit the next time you're on leave," she said. "It's always good to have my brother come by." Another pause, then Rosemary seemed to come to a decision. "Okay, I know some things have changed. I don't know what happened, or if it's going to go back the way it was before, but I'm glad things are the way they are."
John made a soft noise of pain in the back of his throat.
"So come home next time you're around," Rosemary ordered shakily. "I'd like to have a chance to see my brother again."
The video ended.
Rodney let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. "Was that her?" he asked, a most unnecessary question, but when one was dealing with dead people suddenly being alive, it was best to be thorough.
Instead of answering, John stood and wandered out of the lab. Rodney trailed after him, down the emptying halls all the way to John's quarters. John never said a word.
The door slid open to let John into the room, where the man headed to the low dresser. He opened the bottom drawer and pulled a small photograph from underneath a pile of clothes. Whatever he saw in the photograph kept him on his knees, shoulders hunched and head down.
Rodney couldn't stand seeing John on his knees like that. He took John's elbow and hoisted the unresisting Colonel to his feet. John slumped on the end of his bed, elbows on his knees, holding the photograph with shaking hands. Rodney had to lean against John's shoulder to get a good look at the picture. It was the same shot Rodney had first seen weeks before, with an adult Rosemary and her children, only now Joan was John
, standing with his family.
"Wow," Rodney breathed. "That's strange."
John let out a bark of laughter. "Strange?" he demanded. He wouldn't look at Rodney. "My sister's been dead for thirty-seven years, today I get a video from her, and you call that strange
John's voice cracked. He closed his mouth, covering his eyes with his hand. Rodney came very close to panicking, because while it was perfectly acceptable for Joan Sheppard to have emotions after nearly being beaten to death by Kolya, this was John
, who vacillated between manic and moody, but never anywhere near the point where he would actually cry
Knowing it was the biggest double standard ever, especially to be applying to the same person, Rodney did what he'd have done for Joan: He put his hand on John's back. "You didn't see the photograph change?"
John cleared his throat. "Um, no." The words were thick, but at least John was back in control. "When I'm... when Joan wakes up, I check the photograph and put it back so I don't have to see it change back."
"Why? What did the picture show when you're John?" This was officially the strangest conversation Rodney had ever had in the Pegasus Galaxy.
"Me." John traced the air over the photograph, not touching the glossy surface. "It's just me."
Then he put his hand over his eyes and his breathing got rough again and Rodney sat there, and neither could say a word.~~~
Over five years, Rodney had gotten used to John Sheppard. There were seven main moods: Manic, panic, moody, annoyed, satisfied, anger and exhaustion. John's limited emotional palate made it easy for Rodney to classify what direction the Colonel might take in the course of a day, sort of an emotional weathervane.
Two days after John received Rosemary's email, Rodney realized he'd have to add an eighth mood to the wheel.
John Sheppard was happy
The realization came to him over dinner one night as John babysat Torren while Teyla and Kannan had some alone time. Ronon had long-since abandoned them for the company of the Marines. "And this," John was saying to Torren, "Is yumba root." He held up the little spoon for Torren's approval. "It looks like slime and tastes like glue. Want some?"
Torren stared at the spoon, mouth firmly closed.
"Come on, it's not that bad," John cajoled. He moved the spoon in circles, making airplane noises until Torren laughed. John slipped the spoon into Torren's mouth. "Atta boy. You won't die of malnutrition tonight."
Rodney grimaced. "How can anyone eat that stuff?"
"It tastes like rice porridge, Rodney." John scooped up another spoonful. "Want to try some?" he offered, holding the spoon in Rodney's direction.
Rodney scooted back an inch. "Get that thing away from me."
The corners of John's eyes crinkled as he smiled. "You ate stuff like this when you were his age, we all did." John managed to get the next spoonful into Torren's mouth. He then gave the spoon to the boy, who commenced banging it against the tabletop, looking quite satisfied with himself.
Rodney watched as Torren progressed to hammering in six-eight time. "You're pretty good at taking care of him," Rodney said grudgingly. "I think some of the scientists' ovaries are going to explode if you keep it up."
John glanced around to see a number of female eyes on the table. Winking at Rodney, he wiped most of the goop off Torren's hands and face before gathering the boy up into his arms. "How'm I doing now?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. Seriously, some of the women looked like they might melt
. He chose to take the high ground and ignore them. "Where did you learn how to take care of kids?"
John busied himself with spooning of mashed banana into Torren's mouth. "I used to help Rosemary take care of Joseph when I was home on break from college," he said. There wasn't a hint of bitterness in John's voice at remembering his family, only happy reminiscence. "Same with Sam when I was over. Every kid likes the spoon airplane."
"Huh." Rodney watched John for another minute, his attention focusing on John's hands for longer than was strictly appropriate. Not that he'd ever admit it to anyone, but watching John being happy
was something he never thought he'd see.
It was nice.
"So where were we?" John asked, taking advantage of Torren's preoccupation with the banana to reach for a sandwich.
Rodney cast his mind back to the previous topic of conversation, before he'd caught sight of John's adoring fan club. Ah, yes. "What about the time you sat in the chair for the first time on Earth?"
John reflected. "Yes."
Rodney deflated. He'd been wrong again. He'd expected John to say "No," which was their agreed-upon public shorthand to mean "When it happened, I was John."
Sheppard's answer meant that on that first day, deep in the Antarctic ice, it had been Joan Sheppard who sat in the Ancient Control Chair and totally ruined Rodney's day.
"But like I said before, I remember how it went both ways," John added, in what he probably thought was a helpful manner. "Very confusing when trying to remember how something happened, after the fact. Thank god for paperwork."
"Yes, so very sad for you," Rodney snapped. "What about when you met Teyla?"
"Answer's still yes. It's yes for the first few months here."
Joan had gone into the belly of that Wraith ship, and shot Colonel Sumner, and set up base on Atlantis, and...
"Hey!" Rodney exclaimed. "You shot me!"
John smiled fondly. "Yes, I did."
"Why did you do something like that?" Rodney demanded, remembering John's grin at pushing him off the balcony in the Gateroom.
John shrugged. "You asked me to."
John held up a warning finger. "Watch that double standard," he said.
Rodney huffed. John was right, damn it, but women didn't shoot Rodney every day. Although there had been a few times during Sam Carter's tenure when Rodney had wondered if she was about to pop him one. "Fine, what about..." Rodney thought hard. "When Ellia bit you and you turned into a bug?"
"No." John tossed a cloth over his shirt, then transferred Torren to his shoulder to gently pat the boy's back.
"When we were kicked off Atlantis by the returning Ancients for a few months?"
"Yes and no."
Which meant there was a story there and Rodney wouldn't get anything else out of John until they were alone.
Torren was beginning to fade. Already his dark eyes were at half-mast, head nodding against John's neck. "You should put him to bed before he falls asleep completely," Rodney said.
John quirked an eyebrow. "What an excellent idea," he agreed. Standing, he rounded the table to gently lever the drowsy baby into Rodney's arms.
Rodney made a face as one of Torren's hands, still covered in yumba root, gripped blindly at Rodney's collar. "He's all sticky," Rodney complained quietly.
"It's just food," John said innocently, reaching for Rodney's tray. "Besides, I'm clearing your mess up."
Rodney glared, but held back his annoyance. Torren was making little baby smacking noises as he rested heavily on Rodney's arm. "You're only doing this so you won't get slime on your uniform," he said as he stood to follow John out of the mess hall. "Teyla told you to watch him."
"I am watching him," John said as he turned toward the labs. "Just by proxy."
Torren squirmed, distracting Rodney into rubbing his back until he settled. "How about when Torren was born?"
"Nope." Then John had rescued them all from Michael.
"Okay, how about on that Ascension world in the time dilation loop?"
"No," John said, wincing as he always did when anyone worked that place into a conversation.
Sourly, Rodney remembered the woman there, yet another proof of the man's inherit Kirkness. "What about that Ancient Chaya?"
"Are you going to go over all the woman I've met in this galaxy?" John asked, opening the door to the quiet lab.
"If I have to," Rodney retorted. "What about it?"
"If you must know, the answer is no." John reached for the makeshift cradle, a long box filled with blankets Rodney had constructed months ago for babysitting nights such as this one.
"Great," Rodney muttered as he placed Torren in the cradle. He paused to frown at the set-up. "He's too big."
"Because babies grow." John was halfway to the computer with the good movies on it as he spoke.
"But what he rolls out in his sleep and hits the floor?"
"He won't roll out."
"Maybe he will." Rodney concentrated on the sleeping child. "Should I go get the lid from the back?"
John straightened up. "You want to put Teyla's baby in a box and close the lid?" he asked.
"No. Well, yes." Rodney glanced at John. "Do you think Teyla will mind?"
"Yes, Rodney, I think Teyla will mind." John shouldered Rodney out the way and hefted the box, sleeping baby and all, over to the floor by the couch. "Sit down."
Rodney gave up, more out of weary acceptance than any inclination to follow orders. After four years, he'd given up all hope at having any chance in picking the movie. Not that he planned to watch; he had too much work to do, but it would have been nice if John had at least pretended to ask his input.
Turning his attention back to the previous conversation, Rodney mentally sorted through the times that John had been around women. There had been that lady from the Ascension planet, and Chaya, and Teyla and any assorted number of other women over the years. Perversely, Rodney's memory plucked out one time when the lady in question had been a little closer to home. "How about when Thalen and Phoebus possessed you and Elisabeth?"
He completely expected John to say no, that the old alien who possessed Elisabeth had kissed a similarly possessed John, and then they had tried to kill each other. Really, one expected that sort of thing from John.
Rodney's hand stilled on his tablet. "What?"
John settled next to Rodney on the couch, leaning against his shoulder just a shade too close for strict heterosexual propriety. "I said yes."
And because Rodney wasn't dead, his mind went there
, to the mental image of Elizabeth kissing Joan
with that open-mouthed enthusiasm. Just before they tried to kill each other and everyone in the city.
John was still staring, almost daring Rodney to say something. Rodney cleared his throat. That image was going to be in his head for days. "Was it, um..."
John smiled. "Once you get past the whole 'being possessed by an evil alien intent upon destruction' thing, it was really pretty hot."
John edged closer, his chest warm against Rodney's shoulder. "In fact, it was really hot," he said in Rodney's ear, voice low. Then the bastard pulled back and settled against the couch cushions to watch the movie as if nothing happened.
Rodney stared at John Wayne swagger onto the screen, unable to pull his mind into coherency.
"Stick fighting with Teyla was pretty awesome too."
John chuckled as he unwrapped something that looked an awful lot like chocolate. "I know."
Rodney took the offered chocolate, something Sheppard must have had smuggled in because it actually tasted good. He tried to think what it must have been like for John to be Joan, training with Teyla. Joan probably wouldn't have worn that skirt thing Teyla wore, he mused, then quickly thought about anything else before that train of thought reached its inevitable conclusion.
It took until the movie's first gun battle had ended for Rodney to work up the courage to ask, "Will you miss it?"
John cocked an eyebrow at the screen. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you've got Rosemary now and things are back to the way they should be, right?"
John picked at the hem of his shirt, fingers moving restlessly over the fabric. "You don't know things won't flip over again," he said.
"Yes, McKay, all right?" John interrupted. "I'd miss it."
"Why?" John glared at him for a minute. "Because it wouldn't feel right."
"Can we stop talking about this now?"
"But you've got everything back the way it was--"
"McKay, damn it!" John's outburst roused Torren. It took nearly twenty minutes for John to rock the baby back to sleep. Finally, John settled on the other end of the couch and pretended to watch the movie.
Rodney suspected that John wasn't going to answer his question, so he went back to work, glance up every now and then to make sure John hadn't vanished, and that Torren was sleeping soundly.
"It's half my life," John said after a very long time. He rubbed at an old scar on the back of his hand. "You try about losing half your life."
"But it wasn't supposed to be that way at all. Joan, I mean." Rodney said.
John he slouched down even further. "It felt like it was," he said, and Rodney couldn't think of a way to disagree.
The movie's love interest swept on screen, but Rodney paid her no attention. He'd lost most of his tolerance for helpless females years ago. "Have you ever wondered what did it?" Rodney asked, giving voice to the thought that had consumed him for the last several days.
"I made a wish."
"Yes, well, what good is that?" Rodney demanded. "Wishes don't come true. If they did, I've have been a hell of a lot more popular with girls in high school."
A ghost of a smile passed over John's face. "High school? What about the scientists here?"
"You're evading my point," Rodney said. "Wishes don't come true, and yet your sister came back from the dead. What do you call that?"
Now John was just being sarcastic. "When have we ever encountered anything resembling a miracle that wasn't the result of some Ascended Ancient?"
John looked at Rodney out of the corner of his eye. "You think an Ancient did this."
"It's a possibility, isn't it?"
"I was five
, there was no Stargate program or anything."
"Come on, at least admit that I'm right! That it's possible?"
"I don't want to talk about this."
Not the answer Rodney had expected. He had expected an outright 'No', or the usual query if Rodney had lost his mind. But not this.
John dropped his head into his hands, running his fingers through his hair until his hair was standing on-end.
"What else could bring a little girl back from the dead?" Rodney asked. "Shift an entire reality every time you, um, changed?"
"I'm supposed to be happy with the idea that something Ascended decided to fuck with my life?" John demanded.
"I didn't mean..."
John sighed. "I know," he said. He rubbed at his eyes. "The thought had actually occurred to me."
"What? When we got to Pegasus?"
John shrugged. "Sort of. With everything happening, it just kind of came to me one day."
"Oh." Rodney looked around. "What are you going to do about it?"
"I'm not going to do anything." John was deliberately not looking at Rodney now.
"Why you?" Rodney asked. "Of all the people in the world, why would any Ancient pay attention to a five-year-old you?"
John hesitated. He seemed to come to some sort of a decision, for he held out his hand for Rodney's computer. It only took him a few minutes to log into his files and open something on the screen, which he then handed to Rodney.
It was a very old photograph, sepia in lights and darks. The clothes in the scene were from some time in the 19th century, expressions set and grim for the long exposure. "Do you see anyone familiar?" John asked.
Rodney squinted at the picture. "How is it that you suddenly have all this personal stuff?" he asked. "You came to Atlantis with a book as your personal item."
"I put the pictures in the book, idiot." John jabbed the tablet with his finger. "Look closely."
What could he be looking for? Rodney let his eyes move from figure to figure, wondering it this was some sort of optical illusion. Just before he was about to admit temporary defeat, his memory snagged as his gaze moved over the image of one person, a tall upright man with a handlebar moustache and a penetrating stare. "This one," Rodney said. "Have I seen this guy before?"
"He was an old friend of the family," John said, his voice tight. "There's this big family legend about how he saved one of the Sheppards in one of the wars. He hung around the house a lot for about a decade, then he just up and vanished."
Rodney shook his head. "So your family has ghosts, why does that make any difference of if I recognize--" He stopped suddenly, putting together the surroundings where he had first seen that man. It had been on Atlantis... but how
"That photo used to be on the mantle at home, but my parents took it down after Rosemary almost drowned. Dave sent me a scan last year."
"Why did your parents take it down?" Rodney asked, his mouth dry.
John lowered his voice, not that there was anyone to hear them in the empty lab. "Rosemary went into hysterics whenever she saw the picture. She said the man who dragged her into the river used to watch her from the windows. Every time, she pointed at him." John's finger touched the screen over Handlebar-Mustache.
A chill ran down Rodney's spine that had nothing to do with the temperature in the room.
John stared at Torren, sleeping soundly as the movie played in the background. "No one ever believed Rosemary," John said. "No one but me. And then I came here and realized why."
Rodney remembered now. It had been during that first year in Atlantis, in the demonstration room, where Rodney and Elizabeth and John had been looking at the Ancients who had been the last to leave for Earth, ten thousand years before.
And the man in the photograph, the one with staring eyes who terrified a young Rosemary Sheppard into hysterics, had been among them.
"So what am I supposed to think?" John asked. "That an Ancient kills my sister and then gives her back to me? Why?"
Rodney looked at the photograph, and had no answers for John.
It didn't make any sense.~~~
Time moved on. Things settled again, and while he might not have any answers about the twisted morality of Ancients, Sheppard was doing okay and that was just fine with Rodney.
However, in spite of John Sheppard having family again, Rodney had to admit to himself that he wished he'd had a little more time with Joan. A few weeks wasn't nearly enough.
And the woman had been really hot, once one got past the fact that she could probably have killed him with one hand tied behind her back. Although that might have been part of the charm.
The resupply ship came and went, leaving new personnel in its wake. Teyla made it her personal mission to greet every new person, trying to figure them all out. A week into her new campaign, Rodney found himself at the breakfast table with Ronon, Teyla and the baby, talking with the new psychologist. Well, Teyla talked. Ronon carved up an apple and Rodney worked on power schematics. Torren drooled.
"...such a nice young man," the shrink said, gently shaking the baby's fist. "I've been told he was named after your father?"
"Yes," Teyla responded with a smile. "My father was a strong warrior in the fight against the Wraith." She bowed her head for a moment of remembrance. "But my son is part of the new generation, born in defiance of the Wraith. He is also named for Colonel Sheppard."
"His middle name, isn't it? John?"
"Indeed. Colonel Sheppard tells me that 'John' is the masculine version of her name."
Rodney dropped his computer.
Before he could do anything, speak or think or breathe
, someone slapped his shoulder. "Hey everyone," came a low female voice. Somebody slid into the chair next to Rodney, all long limbs and spiky hair and a smile that could light up the city.
"Joan," Teyla said in greeting, nodding her head. Ronon grunted.
"Dr. Dowd," Joan said, reaching for the baby. "How's my favorite guy this morning?"
"He is well," Teyla said. "Healthy and happy and growing strong."
"That's my boy," Joan said, bouncing Torren on her knee. The baby burbled in delight. Only then did Joan look back at Rodney, and the expression on her face took his breath away. "How are things this morning, McKay?" she asked.
"Uh-- what?" Rodney said, trying desperately to work his way through this unforeseen development. He'd thought that John had gone back to his default setting, only with Rosemary and family as a value-added bonus. But this? And there was no way Joan would be so happy if Rosemary had ceased to exist.
Joan's smile turned mischievous. "If you don't start making sense, Rodney, we might have to take you on today's surprise twenty-mile hike on the mainland." Her voice rose to reach around the cafeteria. Three tables down, the Marines visibly wilted. "And you wouldn't want that, would you?"
"No, I'm fine with the... not-hike." Rodney knew he was staring, but he couldn't help it. This was Joan
. She fairly glowed with the same happiness John Sheppard had been exuding for days. "When are you leaving?"
"That's part of the surprise, isn't it?" Joan hefted Torren into the crook of her arm, giving the boy a big kiss on the cheek as she stood. "I need to get some food. Anyone need anything?"
At the negative replies, Joan strode off to the food table, Torren in hand. After a moment, Rodney bolted after them.
"Hey Rodney," Joan said when he caught up to her. She was loading a tray one-handed, balancing Torren on her other arm. "Coming up for round two?"
"What? Oh, no." Rodney had no idea what he wanted to say, but he couldn't just go back to the table now, could he?
As usual, Sheppard saved him. "Here, hold this," she said, hoisting Torren in his direction.
"Right," Rodney said, all his energy focused on maintaining a hold on the squirming baby. "So, um, is everything okay with you?" Joan gave him a questioning glance. "I mean... you know. With everything."
Joan placed a cup of coffee on her laden tray. "Sure is." She gave Rodney a small, private smile, and his heart flopped over in his chest. "I had to finish my reply to Rosemary's email before I came in this morning. To ask her how much she knows. You know. About stuff."
"Right. Stuff." Rodney considered this development as Torren gummed at his shoulder. "So everyone's... good?"
"Good as can be." Joan considered her tray, then added another slice of toast.
"What's with the carb loading?" Rodney asked, momentarily distracted.
"One of the benefits of being the CO is knowing exactly how long today's hike will be," Joan said. Two nearby soldiers surreptitiously returned to the food table.
Rodney wondered for a moment how anyone with that narrow waist could eat so much, but disregarded the thought for a much more important matter. "But... this?"
He didn't point directly at her chest, because he suspected the Marines would take umbrage, but Joan knew what he meant. "Like I said, McKay, it's half my life. It's just a thing that happens."
"Really?" Rodney would have thought that in spite of what she'd said, Sheppard would have liked to stay John after all these years.
"Yeah. Maybe this is how it's supposed to be. With some kind of balance." She shrugged. "I mean, Rosemary is good, so are my nephews, we haven't blown anything up in weeks. What else could anyone want?"
Part of Rodney's rational mind couldn't believe that they were discussing Joan's fluid gender issues in the middle of the mess hall
. "It sounds like you've got everything you want."
The corner of Joan's mouth twitched into another smile. "Almost everything," she corrected. She was looking at him in such a way that Rodney knew he was missing something. Torren broke his concentration by twisting and trying to escape, but his baby flailing was no match for Rodney's superior intellect. Transferring the boy up on his other shoulder, Rodney took a deep breath and threw caution to the wind.
"When you get back, would you..." Joan was staring at him and it was like the entire city was packed into the mess hall to listen to Rodney make an abject fool of himself. But it was far too late now to escape. "Would you like to have dinner?"
The surprise on Joan's face made Rodney want to sink into the ground. "We have dinner every night," she pointed out.
"I know, but I thought, maybe, you and I could have dinner. Together." For heaven's sake, he was over forty years old and the smartest man in at least two galaxies. He shouldn't be petrified of having just asked his friend to join him for dinner.
But Joan wasn't just any friend. She was his female friend who was also his team leader and best friend. Who was sometimes a guy.
That headache was starting to come back between his eyes.
But Joan beamed at him like he'd given her the whole world with six little words. "Yeah, McKay, I'd like that," she said. "But in the interests of full disclosure, I'm not sure when things might, you know. Change."
She laid the stress on the last word. Rodney's mind made what he hoped was the right connection, Joan to John. "That's okay," he stammered.
Joan's grip tightened on the tray. It took her a moment to say, "Really?"
"Yes, really." Because if Joan came back from the mainland as John, they could still have dinner and if Sheppard wouldn't call it a date
because of his military career, it would still be them hanging out.
Some things wouldn't change, no matter what.
"Then I'll see you tonight," Joan said softly. Not that it mattered, as the entire mess hall had gone quiet as everyone strained to eavesdrop.
"Right," Rodney said, his heart lifting as if he'd just found a new ZPM. "All right. See you then." He started out of the mess hall, hoping he could escape before Joan changed her mind.
Rodney whirled. "What?"
Joan pointed at his left shoulder. Rodney followed her finger, to where Torren sat perched on his arm, the boy's lower lip jutting out in irritation.
Rodney doubled back to dump Torren on Joan's free arm. "Thanks."
"You're welcome, McKay," Joan said, rolling her eyes at him.
This time, Rodney really did manage to leave the mess hall in one piece.
He made it all the way back to his labs before his manic burst of energy left him. He had a date with Joan Sheppard. Anything at all could happen that day. He wouldn't mind because he had a date with Joan Sheppard.
Of course, when he opened his email, he wanted to kick himself for issuing the universe such an ultimatum. At the very top of his email, which for some reason he hadn't checked since the mail came in from Earth, was a message to Rodney from Rosemary Sheppard.
There were so many ways this could go epically wrong.
Hesitating, Rodney made himself open the email. It was short and to the point.Joan told me that you've always been there for her. Thank you for being such a good friend to her.
Rodney slumped in relief. Rosemary Sheppard was alive, Joan was fine with whatever the hell was up with her gender, and whoever was messing with this insane universe seemed fine with letting things be, for now.
There were worse ways to start a day.
Rodney stared at Rosemary's message for a long time, then he closed it. He'd reply later. Right now, he had work to do.
This was a brand new day in Atlantis and some things were okay, after all.Something like a happy ending