Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction, written purely for fun.

Author's Notes: This is an AU featuring Rodney McKay as a U.C. Berkeley physics professor who absolutely cannot stand the new faculty hire, John Sheppard. Although not intentional, this ended up being very "You've Got Mail"-ish. Thanks to kimboosan for pointing out the holes and made it better and to skaredykat for fixing my inevitable grammar mistakes. Thanks, my dears! As always, I continue tweaking after the beta process so any errors are mine

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"No, absolutely not. Nyet. Non. Never. Negative. No, no, and did I say no?"

"Did I say you have a choice? It's your turn. In fact," she gave him a blatant visual dressing down, "I've let you weasel—"

"I don't weasel!" Rodney protested.

"Weasel your way out of it for past five years. If I give you a pass this year, I'm going to have a faculty mutiny on my hands. Not to mention getting hell from the alumni."

Since its inception, Rodney had successfully bullied, cajoled, filibustered, whined, complained, and refused to participate in the Interdisciplinary Faculty Feud contest. As faculty, students, and alumni cheered and bet on the department of their choice, faculty members submitted to some sort of bastardized version of those stupid television shows Family Feud and Jeopardy, but with the questions geared toward egotistical Ph.D.s. The sciences always cleaned up. Rodney didn't even know why departments like English and History even bothered. The Physics Department had won four out of the five years this stupid fund-raiser had been running, and the one year they lost was the year Kavanagh had been captain. Had Rodney actually thought he had a brain, he would have suspected Kavanagh of purposefully losing just so he wouldn't be asked again, except that ego-wise, he and Rodney were neck and neck. For two seconds one day Rodney considered leading the team, purely for the satisfaction of sending Kavanagh into a frothing rage as Rodney celebrated his victory over and over and over again.

"I should be exempt! I bring in the most overhead dollars, the most research grants, attract the best graduate students, and I mean the best, and yet I have to do this idiotic fund-raiser—"

"Yes, you do. And FYI? This qualifies as weaseling in my book."

"Elizabeth, I'm not—"

"If you refuse to be on this year's team, I will be forced to take drastic measures."

Rodney starred at her in horror. That could only mean one thing.

"You'd abuse your status as department chair?" he sputtered.

"You'd better believe it. Yes, I will eliminate the donut budget."

"You are beyond vile," he hissed. Rodney could feel his blood sugar plummeting at the thought. "I can't believe that we're friends. What are you going to do when the rest of the faculty complains? Hmmmm, Dr. Donut Hater."

"You eat ninety percent of the donuts anyway," she gave his stomach a pointed look, "so I imagine no one will care."

"I'll buy my own," Rodney sniffed.

"Go ahead," Elizabeth Weir said in a smug tone. Which was completely justified, because Rodney could buy his own but to what purpose? They just didn't taste the same. He knew the agony of defeat, especially when it tasted like a chocolate old-fashioned.

"They taste better when you buy them," he conceded. There was only one place that made donuts that passed muster with Rodney, and, unfortunately, the owner absolutely hated him. "I'm convinced that the staff spits on the donuts when I place the order."

"You think?" she said with mock surprise. "Deal?"

"I hate you."

"I know. That's why we've been friends for ten years. Bring Jennifer to dinner on Saturday night. She's the first woman you've dated that I actually like. We're feting the new hire."




"Your wife is a total bitch and I can't fathom why you married her." Rodney didn't bother to wait for an answer, because Radek's adoration of his wife was never a question.

"Her—"

Rodney glared at Radek and then made the slashing motion across his throat.

"If you are going to silence my completely justifiable criticisms of her by boasting about her sexual expertise, consider me effectively hushed up. I'm still scarred from the last time you launched into a blow-by-blow account of that weekend in Mendocino, no pun intended."

Radek smiled his evil "I have a sex life you can only envy, you sad little man" smile. "If you want money for GSIs, then you participate."

"I hate the Governor!" Rodney shouted. Instead of eliciting frowns and possible calls to 911, the rest of the patrons in the coffee shop merely nodded sympathetically. It was day ninety-five and still no budget. Which meant the state was issuing IOUs for the fourth year in a row, which meant that Rodney was making personal loans to his graduate students so they could pay their rent. Worst of all, he was grading his own homework assignments.

"This year and that's it!" Rodney insisted. "I can't believe how low your wife is stooping to ensure my participation."

"So," Radek said with a smirk. "She had to resort to cutting off your donut supply. Working under the Soviets taught me to have no mercy. I knew that would work."

"Traitor!"

Radek shrugged and said sotto voce, "Kdyz kocour není doma, mysi mají pré."

"Don't try to excuse your perfidy with one of your bizarre non-sequitur-ish Czech proverbs. I refuse to learn Czech just to find out if you're insulting me or not. Fluent in six languages and a reading comprehension in ten should be enough for one man. What did you say?" Rodney demanded.

"I said, 'When the cat is not home, the mice have a party.' Your trip to Washington D.C. to petition that General Landry for more research funds allowed the rest of the faculty to come up with a strategy that would be foolproof."

"You weenie!"

"Weenies plural. I can't accept all the credit," Radek modestly insisted.

Rodney glowered in outrage—he was quite a good glower-er—except browbeating Radek into submission was hopeless. Radek had trained under the Soviets, and on more than one occasion he'd referred to Rodney as a pussy cat. Which considering that Rodney had a minimum of ten undergraduates a week sobbing from fear, said volumes about the Russian over-lordship of Czechoslovakia. Rodney learned to save his ire for the people he could actually terrify, as in the entire faculty of geophysicists. Weaklings.

"If that isn't bad enough, she browbeat me into having dinner at your house under the guise of—"

Radek cut him off, because Elizabeth's beauty, brilliance, and sex appeal were only second to her cooking skills. "Rodney, you do not fool anyone. As if you would turn down Elizabeth's beef bourguignon. Perhaps if you were dead, but even then, I'd have faith you'd postpone your funeral for one last bite."

"Of course I would. Do you think I'm a fool? Anyway, I'm coming, but not to welcome that new assistant disaster. Over my objections, I might add, the rest of you voted to hire that—"

"So you will eat my wife's cooking and swill back my wine, but not be cordial to my guest?" Rodney hated it when Radek got all appropriate with him. "A candidate who has two Ph.D.s, one in applied mathematics from Stanford and the other in—"

"Slouching."

"In applied physics from M.I.T. We were lucky to get him. Stanford wooed him like crazy."

"He's too old."

"He was a pilot in the air force. We could use some breadth."

This was a not-so-subtle dig at Rodney, who had gone from Ph.D. to Ph.D. to academic appointment without so much as a summer off.

"They probably cashiered him out because his hair wouldn't fit in those regulation helmets."

"Rodney," Radek admonished. "What do you have against this John Sheppard?"

"First of all, he's a Stanford grad and, hello, we teach at Berkeley. Second, Caldwell was his thesis advisor and you know that woman despises me. And yes, I forever destroyed any hope she has of getting a Nobel, but it's not my fault that I proved her theory on closed time-like curves was a bunch of hokum. Any three-year old watching Sesame Street could have done the same. It's just that no one had done the math. So forgive me if I don't have super high hopes—"

"He won the Norbert Wiener Prize."

Rodney waved a dismissive hand, although privately Rodney was impressed. How could he not be?

"And the Barenholz Prize," Radek said with manufactured innocence, because plaques for those very prizes were the first thing that you noticed when you entered Rodney's office.

"His hair," Rodney said weakly.

"We look forward to seeing you. Jennifer is coming, yes? He's agreed to be on your team, by the way."

"WHAT!"




"Rodney, we need to go," Jennifer said in plaintive voice that wasn't yet insistent. He had another five minutes. Possibly.

"Just a minute!"

Damn Elizabeth's culinary expertise! A bunch of his scientists were dying, and, more importantly, he was going to die within the next ten minutes, and he could hear Major Flanigan on the mike, but they were down on the fourth level, below sea level and—

"Rodney!"

That voice meant he'd have to sign off within the next five seconds or she would come over to his monitor to check out what was so critical that he was passing up Elizabeth's homemade hummus. That would never do. Because as much as he was convinced he was falling in love with Jennifer Keller, he didn't want her involved in this at all.

Three months ago the scorn Rodney would have heaped on someone gushing about Internet role-playing games would have on overload: a twenty-minute minimum screed. And then that physics chat forum that he occasionally visited when feeling particularly irritated because he didn't have anyone to boss around (as in his graduate students had all gone home for the day) shouted-out for players for a new Internet role-playing game. One of the lead characters still hadn't been cast because they needed a player with a Ph.D.-level knowledge of astrophysics. No worries on that score. Further queries revealed that this was about a space expedition to revive the ancient city of Atlantis. Space and expedition used together were two words that always caught Rodney's attention, and all of a sudden he found himself in one of the lead roles as Dr. David Hewlett, Chief Science Officer for the city of Atlantis.

Addicting didn't even begin to describe it. There were twenty hard-core people playing. The person with the handle the "Ancient" had devised the game and determined the majority of the plot trajectories. Based on the sophistication of the astrophysics underpinning most of the plots, the Ancient had to be a Ph.D. student at a bare minimum. In fact, if it hadn't been for recent biases that were shout-outs to the astrophysics program at M.I.T., he thought it might actually be Cadman, his smartest graduate student, except she had a social life and this person was essentially a human mole. He or she played the game night and day.

Fortunately the Ancient had enough imagination for ten people and wasn't megalomaniac about the directing the game. The main players had plenty of freedom to maneuver within the plot structure. Rodney wasn't sure whether they were following the original game plan or whether the Ancient was only three steps ahead of them. One thing became obvious. Although they all started out fairly equal, by this point in the game the players with the greater world-building and storytelling strengths had established "beachheads." He was a major character by now and so was Joseph Flanigan, the U.S. Air Force Major who was the military C.O., as was Tori Higgins, the civilian leader of the expedition, and Paul McGillian, the base doctor.

The Canadian thing and the citrus allergy thing for Hewlett got old after a while, but he went with it. That was part of the fun, working with what was thrown at you. Rodney loved this game. Invigorated by the wormhole concept—an idea that he had toyed with five years ago but had abandoned—only confirmed that the Ancient had some serious physics cred. He resurrected a bunch of his old notes and put Cadman on the concept immediately. Right about the time he began wondering if he should drop out before it got really boring—Rodney had got to where he could predict that this and then this, and, yawn, this would happen—the Ancient would yank the plot in a fascinating and utterly wicked direction, like this nano-virus thing. The game answered every geek impulse he'd ever had, in addition to having some sort of positive effect on his general outlook. One of his graduate students asked him if he had started taking Prozac because he was so much nicer these days.

This was a terrible time to log off but he really had no choice. Stupid dinner. Stupid Sheppard. He'd console himself by eating a bunch of dolmas. Elizabeth's homemade dolmas were grape leaves filled with heaven as far as he was concerned.




"What's happening in the wild and wooly world of Atlantis?"

Jennifer knew about the game, mostly because she was trying to drag him away from it all the time, but he'd kept the details secret. She assumed that he was only following it, not actually one of the players, and Rodney hadn't bothered to disabuse her of that notion.

"Oh, all sorts of fun stuff. A nano-virus is killing off the scientists. That taciturn, sarcastic military commander, Major Flanigan, is trying to save the scientists who are left."

They pulled up to Elizabeth and Radek's place on Grizzly Peak, a Frank Lloyd Wright clone that cantilevered over the cliff. Their view was to die for—a panoramic vista of San Francisco and the Golden Gate—but as Rodney pointed out every time he visited, they would die when the Hayward fault went; their house was smack dab in the middle of a landslide zone. It didn't seem to bother either one of them, sort of a be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die attitude. It did bother Rodney, who couldn't ignore Bayesian statistics. That fault had a 69% chance of rupturing in his lifetime. You live in California you have to put up with earthquakes, but you don't have to play chicken with tectonics. Rodney lived in the flats. He might be without water and electricity for six months when the Hayward fault finally ripped, but he'd be alive to suffer from chronic dehydration and food shortages.

"How can the major be both taciturn and sarcastic?" Jennifer asked.

"I don't know, but he is: mute in his sarcasm or sarcastic in his mutism. It's strange. Come on, let's go before Kavanagh eats all the dolmas."




One of the reasons why Elizabeth and Radek's parties were always so much fun was that they didn't invite many academics, and the academics they did invite were from various departments, not just physics. Unfortunately, since this was a party to welcome Sheppard to the department, all the guests were from the physics faculty. Rodney and Jennifer were the last to arrive; everyone was out on the deck, soaking up the last of the sun.

There was Kavanagh, his plate heaped high with dolmas. Rodney couldn't stand him. It was with not a little guilt that he knew that far too much of Elizabeth's time was spent keeping the two of them separated.

Kolya: God, Rodney hated him too. They'd gotten into a number of clashes over graduate students, and was it Rodney's fault that he had more money and his projects were more interesting?

Hoff: No one trusted him. Rodney always kept his office door locked and had put special encryption software on his department account because there was something about that guy that wasn't quite right.

Bates: Ugh, a humorless no one who was hired because Sumner had the audacity to have a heart attack, which left them with an open faculty position, and damn it to hell if there weren't any suitable candidates on the market. Terrified of losing the FTE, they hired him.

Miko and Simpson were huddled in a corner endlessly discussing whatever they discussed endlessly. Rodney had always assumed it was work-related—they often collaborated on their research proposals as co-P.I.s—but no, Elizabeth told him that they were knitting fanatics and were always looking for techniques on how to turn the perfect heel. Miko had a tendency to erupt into giggles whenever he entered a room. They were decent scientists, but they shouldn't go out and buy Swedish for Dummies; the Nobel committee wasn't making a phone call to them in the future. Oh, there was Ford and Lorne with his partner, some associate prof from Botany. Both were okay, certainly a step up from either Bates or Kavanagh, but again not even remotely Nobel-ish. Rodney didn't scorn them so much as ignore them.

The only outsider besides Jennifer was Carson Beckett, a Scots geneticist who taught ethics over at U.C.S.F. He and Elizabeth went back twenty years, meeting in England when Elizabeth was a Rhodes Scholar. He and Rodney had become friends as well, although between Jennifer and the game, he hadn't seen much of him in the last few months.

Teyla was there, who nodded at him in that serene, extremely threatening way of hers. Like if she hurt you, your broken leg would be the Zen of compound fractures. More than just the senior admin, she was Elizabeth's right hand. Everyone respected her and not even Rodney could bully her. Which would be foolish because she was a martial arts expert, as in she could kill someone by twisting their pinkie the wrong way. And where you found Teyla you found Ronon, who managed the physics labs. Housemates and friends, Ronon was also some sort of martial-arts guru. At one point there was talk of him hosting a reality-based show but that fizzled out. The concept was inherently ridiculous, because those shows thrived on interpersonal drama, and Ronon's response to interpersonal drama was to either walk out of the room or crush someone's jaw with his foot. Rodney was convinced his and Teyla's friendship was largely based on being glorified sparring partners, because finding people with a similar level of martial arts expertise where they could beat the shit out of each other but not kill each other was probably next to impossible.

There was that Sheppard, talking to Teyla and nursing what looked like a Corona. Typical. Rodney had met this man three times and every time the one thing that stood out was that he didn't seem to have a spine; he slouched constantly. Maybe it was the weight of that hair. Even worse, tonight he was slouched against the rail of the deck that should it break would plummet him something like a hundred feet down the hillside. Rodney never went to that end of the deck, ever.

Rodney smelled Chanel No. 5 and there was Elizabeth with a plate of dolmas in her hand.

"I saved some for you." She gave him an air kiss and handed him the plate. Then she hugged Jennifer and whisked her away to talk about some deck project they were contemplating. God, didn't this house have enough decks?

Radek appeared before him, a bottle of wine in each hand.

"Rodney, welcome. You're late. Red or white?"

"I was working on something, sorry, and foolish question. Red, of course. Another deck? Isn't that overkill? Oh, Chateau St. Michelle. Nice."

"I know better than to serve you rot-gut, Rodney. I listen to enough of your whining regarding room assignments. Now, come. Everyone's out on the deck—"

"I hate that deck."

"I know, but you can stand just inside the door."

Rodney knew it was foolish, that the deck was way over-engineered (he'd designed it), and it was perfectly safe, but the whole point about neuroses was that they were a neurotic response. They weren't rational. Rodney took a big gulp of his wine and stepped over the threshold. Three feet in was his absolute limit.

"Rodney." Kolya didn't bother to hide his hostility, while Kavanagh just glared at him.

"John," Radek said in a loud voice, "Rodney's finally arrived. He can give you excellent pointers about getting funding."

Sheppard turned toward the sound of Radek's voice and tipped his beer in Rodney's direction. God, the man was nothing more than a surfer with a brain. So intent on Sheppard's proximity to the edge of the deck, Rodney hadn't initially noticed his attire: shorts that were threadbare (Rodney could see the plaid of Sheppard's boxers through a rip in the thigh); flip-flops on his feet; and the ugliest Hawaiian shirt Rodney had ever seen. So much for impressing people. What was Elizabeth thinking in hiring this man?

"Do decent research and the funding and graduate students will come to you," Rodney replied, mostly for Kolya's benefit.

"Maybe we can hash out some ideas. You free any time next week?" Sheppard asked in a surfer-esque drawl.

That was another thing. Not only did this man not have any posture to speak of, he was clearly one of those people whose life was nothing more than a series of maybes. Rodney hated people like that. Physics was the antithesis of "maybe." It was about the definite.

"Thursday after my office hours. Ignore the crying students."

Sheppard raised an eyebrow.

"Rodney's known for making the undergrads cry," Ford piped up.

"Rodney is also known for whipping those cry babies into shape," he snapped. "More of my undergrads go on for graduate degrees compared to any other member of this faculty."

Sheppard gave him a lazy smile. "Nice to know you're the man to beat. I got some ideas on wormholes that I'd—"

"Wormholes!" Rodney squawked. "First of all, it's 'I have.' There's a class called 'Bonehead English' that we can arrange for you to audit. Second, you can't work on wormholes."

Not that Rodney saw him move, but somehow Sheppard stood up straighter.

"How come?"

"Because!" Rodney shrieked. It wasn't like he could announce that he was working on this most theoretical of ideas because he'd been inspired by an Internet game. "It's... It's a ridiculous concept. Completely and utterly fantastic. And if this is the kind of nonsense—"

"Dinner is served," Elizabeth announced with smile, following by a stern "you will be nice to the new hire" glare at Rodney.




The rest of the party was a blur of eating too much and definitely drinking too much. Everyone more or less abided by the vibe that the usual internecine warfare would not be tolerated. They were to put their best foot forward so that this Sheppard would believe that they were a functioning unit. Which they were—more or less—all due to Elizabeth's management and diplomacy skills. Before she became chair, the Berkeley physics department was renowned for its dysfunctional faculty dynamic, as in nationally infamous. When it began to affect grants and extramural funding, the Chancellor stepped in and appointed Elizabeth as chair, mostly because she was the only person that everyone was neutral on. Or they didn't hate her as much as they hated the other candidates. It helped that she was an outside hire.

Behind all that politesse was a core of steel. Within a year she'd hired Teyla and Ronon. Within two years the department was operating better than it had in decades. It was a toss-up who was more terrifying: Teyla or Ronon. You did your paperwork because no one wanted a personal visit from Teyla Emmagan on why your textbook req was three weeks late. And the epic nasty fights that had characterized the use of lab space evaporated when Ronon took over managing the lab from that truly worthless Hallings. The first thing Ronon did when he was hired was to put out an email asking for people's priorities and schedules on the fifteenth of every month. Then he would put up the schedule for the following month a week after that. If there were any problems people were welcome to come to his office and discuss it with him, but he forewarned that anyone who indulged in useless whining would earn themselves a ruptured kidney. No one thought he was joking except Elizabeth and Radek.

Sure, there was some chatter about whether she should remain chair (mostly Kolya-generated) when she and Radek got married, but the bottom line was that the shenanigans that had characterized the department when Rodney first arrived as a twenty-two-year-old wunderkind were now only the stuff of legend. Still, it was a bit like herding cats. Elizabeth had her work cut out for her.

Not that Rodney thought that this slacker would pick up on any negative vibe. The man seemed so laid back that Rodney thought they should periodically check for a pulse. On the drive home—it was Jennifer's turn to be the designated driver—Rodney decided to just ignore him. There were points early in his career where he would have made this Sheppard's life hell just on principle, but fortunately he was past that. He effectively ignored Lorne and Ford, even though they were decent scientists. But Rodney was so far beyond "decent" that being competent didn't cut the mustard with him. Really, only Elizabeth and Radek were in his orbit intellectually, but it wasn't like they were his equal. They just weren't as low as everyone else.

Although he welcomed the maturity that came with age, on other levels getting old sucked. Five years ago the amount of wine he'd consumed that evening would have had him not only "ready and able" as they say, but up for at least a couple of rounds. Now, drinking meant certain impotence, followed by the usual embarrassment and humiliation that such lack of "able" entailed. Fortunately, Jennifer was extremely sensible about these things and put it down to the alcohol, which it was. Plus, there's nothing like an oral sex marathon to take your partner's mind off a lack of dick.

As if booze-induced impotence wasn't bad enough, there was the booze-induced insomnia. Again, when he was younger, such copious amounts of wine would have meant the second he closed his eyes he'd have passed out until at least noon. Now, it was pass out until a sugar high kicked in around three a.m., propelling him out of bed. Lemonade out of lemons. He could now join the game.

Hmmm, there hadn't been any change. No one had added to the thread since he'd cut out. The major was still in his haz mat suit, scientists were still flailing at unseen attackers and then dying, and his character, Hewlett, was still panicking about dying. Okay, he wasn't going to die, that was absolutely ridiculous. He was Chief Science Officer. He had to have been infected like everyone else and was there anything that separated him out from the other... Oh my God, it was so simple. He had the engineered ATA gene.

Rodney began typing like fury. It was a brilliant solution if he did say so himself.

When he added the final period, he sat back to admire his storytelling. Ten minutes later, he got a ping on his IM.

Nice job, Hewlett. Major F.




"So tell me again. Why can't I do research on wormholes?"

Rodney's prayers that Sheppard had forgotten their meeting were dashed when Rodney's office hours ended at 3:00 and Sheppard knocked on his door at 3:01. Perching himself on one corner of Rodney's desk, he didn't even bother to pull up a chair, as if he knew this wasn't going to be a long meeting.

"Because," Rodney snapped, "it's a branch of theoretical physics that's nothing but intellectual diarrhea."

Sheppard flicked an imaginary speck of something off of his shirt, which was yet another visual eyesore. (Hibiscus do not grow in that color.) "That's why you've got Laura working on it?"

"Laura? Oh Cadman. She's, well, she's got that kind of mind."

"The kind that takes intellectual diarrhea and makes it viable?"

"No." Rodney knew that didn't make any sense so he didn't bother to defend it. "It's just extremely theoretical, and I don't think that this is the direction you should go as a new hire." Rodney always loved it when he could manipulate his many years in academia to bolster his arguments. "You need to write proposals with concrete deliverables. Funding agencies like that for the first few years."

Sheppard nodded. "Maybe. But I like stuff that's not run of the mill."

There was that maybe business again accompanied by the word "stuff." For some reason this made him angrier.

"Like Margaret Caldwell's closed time-like curves solution!"

Rodney hadn't meant to bring this up unless forced to, but somehow this Sheppard pushed all his buttons without seemingly pushing his buttons. And yet the reverse wasn't true. What should have had Sheppard at least somewhat upset—attacking one's thesis advisor is perhaps one of the greatest no-noes in academia—merely got a smirk.

"You have to admit, it was an interesting idea."

Rodney dismissed that thought with a flick of his hand. "Interesting does not make it right."

That sounded pompous beyond belief, but "pompous" had always worked for Rodney in the past, and why it wasn't working now was something of a mystery.

"Yeah, it wasn't right," Sheppard agreed. "The math was wrong. I tried to tell her, but she blew me off. I wasn't one of her favorite students by a long shot. She underestimated me. Seems to happen a lot."

With that Sheppard stood up and gave Rodney a little wave good-bye that Rodney swore was sarcastic, although he didn't actually think fingers could, technically, be sarcastic.




"How was your day? Your shoulders are hunched in that way that tells me your back is one gigantic stress knot."

Without waiting for him to reply, she relieved him of his satchel and began massaging his lower back.

What had he done to deserve this woman? Not that he respected architects all that much, okay, not at all, but she wasn't one of those esoteric architects who believed people should live in engineered huts to simulate wombs or thought that sod was a legitimate roofing material. No, she had an extremely successful practice where you got what you paid for. Bonus, she'd amassed a team of contractors who Rodney was convinced were the only competent contractors in the entire state.

He had wanted to upgrade his wiring so that he could run massive simulations without shorting out his entire kitchen, which entailed submitting plans to the Berkeley Planning Commission, a bureaucracy staffed by people so surly that they deserved to be publicly whipped. Jennifer had been Elizabeth and Radek's architect when they remodeled their kitchen, and they recommended her to Rodney as someone who could run interference between himself and the Planning Commission. Before he knew it, his wiring had been upgraded to the point that he could run at least six servers without so much as a blink in power consumption. To offset the cost of running all those servers, solar panels appeared on his new roof. His kitchen was stripped of its old, energy-guzzling appliances, the pock-marked Formica countertops were replaced with granite, those horrible aluminum casement windows ripped out and double-paned energy-saving windows installed, and, best of all, a linen closet was gratefully sacrificed so that he could enlarge the bathroom and put in a Jacuzzi for his back.

Rodney—who had learned his lesson the hard way, he still had that scar on his leg—didn't believe in mixing business and pleasure. Once her final check had been cashed, he called her and asked her out. Rodney had given up on finding his intellectual soul mate; it wasn't going to happen. On that horrific sabbatical in Russia where it was a miracle that he didn't come back a serious alcoholic, he met a couple of women who were certainly intellectually up there; unfortunately that Russian fatalism proved too overwhelming to deal with on a daily basis. Rodney was cynical and negative enough for two people; he didn't need someone who made him look like a Pollyanna by comparison.

Although Jennifer wasn't brilliant, she had one trait that Rodney prized nearly as much as brains: she was competent; that remodel had gone off like clockwork. And the way she handled those idiots at the Planning Commission was so admirable. Of course not even Rodney could deny that those very traits that made her impervious to whatever incompetence or attitude those planning-commission trolls could dish out were probably exactly why this relationship worked. She didn't seem too bothered by his raging social myopia. They weren't exactly living with each other, but they'd exchanged deadbolt keys and had dinner together more often than not. The day Rodney hired a cleaning crew to come in once a week in deference to her standards of cleanliness—which weren't extreme, but certainly beyond Rodney's previous habit of throwing some cleanser in the toilet bowl when the mold was pronounced enough to get his notice—was the day he realized that this relationship might become permanent.

"Oh, there. Yeah, right there. Horrible, in answer to your question. That Sheppard came by and basically told me to fuck off, that he didn't want my advice on writing research proposals. I don't know why he bothered."

"That was foolish. You're as tight as a drum. How about a long soak before dinner?"

He nodded. Thirty minutes in the Jacuzzi would banish all thoughts of that Sheppard.




The usual response to someone ignoring you is to ignore them back. Trust Sheppard to either not get it or not care that Rodney had instituted a policy of mutual avoidance.

Four weeks into the semester, Sheppard hadn't missed a single one of his classes. He sat in the back, never said anything, didn't take any notes, and rarely commented except to correct Rodney's math every now and then. It was always a sign issue, a minus when he needed a plus or a plus when he needed a minus. Even when correcting him it was done in a terse email with no signature, just the part of the equation that Rodney had screwed up.

But for that their contact was limited to brief nods in the hall and unavoidable, awkward meet-ups in the faculty lounge. Finally Rodney decided enough was enough. Tit for tat. He'd attend Sheppard's classes, point out his mistakes, and, in general, be a total pest. No more than ten minutes into Physics 1A answered Rodney's question why Elizabeth had hired him: Sheppard basically had an ATA gene for teaching. None of it wasn't material that Rodney couldn't have recited in his sleep, but it was presented in such a clear, direct style that Rodney found himself sitting on the edge of his seat, as interested as if he were hearing it for the first time, instead of the fourteen thousandth. Because although Sheppard might act like a sun-addled beach bum ninety percent of the time, barely able to string a sentence together, put him in front of a bunch of students and he was another person. Rodney found himself staying for the entire lecture, rapt at how beautiful Sheppard made physics sound. Its beauty had always been apparent to Rodney, but he'd always assumed that it was his genius that had given him this special insight, and he never could have articulated its intrinsic majesty to a bunch of eighteen-year olds. At Sheppard's "Any questions?" Rodney skulked out the nearest side exit.

The next time they ran into each other in the lounge, Rodney said, "Okay, I'm done."

Sheppard studied him for a moment, as if trying to parse out what Rodney was implying.

"Don't act like you don't know exactly what this is about. We both know you're smarter than that. Or perhaps not. Let me spell it out for you. I'm done cock-blocking you."

"Cool," Sheppard drawled.

Sheppard didn't come to any more of his classes.




Insecurity or doubt weren't part of Rodney's lexicon, but this was different. He downloaded Sheppard's theses, both of them, and pored through them, something he should have done before Sheppard's interview. Unfortunately, right around the time he should have been reviewing Sheppard's background there was a deliverable on that project for O'Neill combined with a hellacious case of the flu. So he lied and told Elizabeth that he'd skimmed through Sheppard's work. Then he actually met Sheppard, concluded the man was a nightmare, and was grateful he hadn't wasted his time reviewing Sheppard's research. Besides, he was too old and there was that former air force pilot thing. Rodney hated anything military, his loathing a direct response to the fact that the American military was the only entity funding Rodney's branch of theoretical physics. No wonder he was going bald. The battles he'd waged with various generals for the last twenty years always centered around one issue: that not everything had to be a weapon or a bomb.

Rodney's biases aside, when pressed by Radek he grudgingly admitted that Sheppard's interview went okay, or at least he appeared technically acceptable. Still Rodney voted against hiring him, and until this point had no reason to believe that he was wrong in his initial assessment: that Sheppard was a surfer with a brain. While all the undergraduates who had Mr. Robinson-type fantasies would be thrilled to have such a hottie lecturing them three times a week, Rodney was convinced that he would turn out to be like Bates, nothing more than an ultimately disappointing hire whose sole role was to maintain the department's FTE levels.

Then Sheppard had to go and blast Rodney's well-entrenched scorn out of the water. Although Rodney couldn't deny his genius in the classroom, a detailed review of Sheppard's theses relieved some of the unease that lecture had elicited. Sheppard's work was certainly worthy of being on the faculty of U.C. Berkeley, one of the top five physics departments in the world, but it wasn't Nobel material. It was merely extremely competent, smart research that stopped just short of that thin line between brilliant with a capital "B" and merely brilliant. And no one, not even Kolya, could deny that Rodney's brilliance was spelled with a capital "B."




Thanksgiving was late that year, which meant that the semester finished with a rush: assignments, tests, and projects flooded his mailbox. Rodney couldn't wait for three weeks of peace. And once a few irritating bureaucratic necessities were out of the way—the posting of grades the most onerous—he'd be free to play the game for the majority of his vacation.

In response to Jennifer's gentle admonitions that he was spending an inordinate amount on the Internet, he instituted a one-hour-per-day maximum Monday through Friday. On the weekend he allowed himself three hours a day. Even though it was a huge hunk of time out of his week, it wasn't nearly enough. God, this was so interesting. Sometimes he thought the game was testing him, because it was so obvious that that Chaya creature wasn't who she seemed, and yet all the other characters bought into her dance of the seven lies business, even Major Flanigan. Especially Major Flanigan.

Rodney could only surmise that in his real life (or her real life, one never really knew the gender of the players) Flanigan wasn't getting any because he was so willing to throw himself (at least on the page) at this cyber woman's feet. As if that wasn't bad enough, because anyone with a brain would have predicted where this was going, he tried to hide having a sexual hard on for an imaginary character by cloaking it in some Ancient mumbo jumbo. It was a form of mind meld. Bullshit. Flanigan's pheromones were practically leaping off the screen. Not that Rodney was in competition for a Nobel in literature, but he didn't even think the person writing Chaya was all that good a writer, but it seemed to seduce Flanigan's real self with no problem.

The sudden disappearance of Rainbow and the equally sudden appearance of the Runner, Jason, freaked him out big time. Because if Rainbow was written out just like that, a character universally loved by the other players, what hope was there for someone like him, a character who was universally despised? Who made these decisions anyway? He didn't want to think about it too closely because he suspected that his days were numbered. His brilliance would only take them so far, and then he'd have an allergy attack that compromised the mission, or whine too much, or insult just the wrong alien (which seemed to happen a lot), and the other characters would get sick of being stuck in cold, dirty cells with no lights—because, really, you write that once and you're done—and they'd take a secret vote and he'd be booted off the game. Which would really suck.

Still, he might as well play while the playing was good. The allergy thing initially really bugged him, but now he was stuck with it; so he made the most out of it by ranting and raving about it at every possible opportunity. The weird thing was that it was becoming something of an endearing trait with the other characters, especially Major Flanigan, who'd started writing epi-pens into his off-world kit.




Rodney fairly ran down the corridor to the faculty lounge. He was experiencing a crushing mid-afternoon energy slump, and if he didn't get his grades in by five, Teyla was going to do something drastic. Like invite him to join her at her 5:00 a.m. yoga class so they could stretch together. She'd threatened this before, and it was a given that "invitations" from Teyla Emmagan were nothing more than polite commands. His protests that his body was genetically incapable of stretching were met with a steely smile and the comment, "Rodney, I am confident that you can stretch."

Rodney was confident that he would end up in traction for six weeks. If he loaded up on massive amounts of caffeine and buckled down, he should be able to finish the last of his grading by the deadline.

Ugh, there was Sheppard.

"Just made a new pot," Sheppard drawled.

Could the man actually speak without sounding like some Arkansas soybean farmer?

Rodney grunted a thank you and emptied the pot into his thermos masquerading as a coffee cup.

Sheppard gave him a look.

Rodney gave Sheppard a "look" back and snapped, "What? I have to upload my grades by five. If I don't, Teyla will kill me."

Sheppard rolled his eyes and then began making make more coffee.

"You hanging around for the holidays, McKay?"

This was the first verbal exchange they'd had since Rodney had blinked and agreed to lighten up. What to do? He could be nice. It wouldn't kill him, his protests to Radek and Elizabeth to the contrary.

"Yes, my sister lives up in Vancouver. She's an actor, mostly walk-ons in cheesy sci-fi shows. We don't get along. She's one of those 'if you eat meat we can't have a meaningful conversation' types. When she condemns my meat-eating ass I point out that the waste of resources in producing one of those silly shows far outweighs what is lost environmentally in the eating of an occasional hamburger. Then we stop speaking to each other for another six months. Besides, I always celebrate Christmas with Elizabeth and Radek. I spend the rest of the holiday recharging for next semester where I will, once again, start that treadmill of answering stupid questions posed by stupid students. The latest crop..." Rodney realized a second too late that he was babbling, if the amused look on Sheppard's face was any indication. Then he noticed the skateboard propped up against the wall.

"Is that yours? Are you out of your mind? How old are you, ten?"

That got a shrug and a laconic, "Last time I looked, forty-one."

"You're insane. Nothing yells stupidity like skateboarding."

"It's fun."

"Fun? FUN?" Rodney shrieked. "Glad to see that my initial—" then he saw the smirk on Sheppard's face and realized he was being played.

He didn't say another word. Turning on his heel, he walked out of the room. His general irritation was quickly turning into dislike.




When Jennifer had asked him to drive her to the airport he'd just been thrown up against a wall with a knife cutting into his throat—well, not his, but his game persona's throat—so he nodded and flailed a hand. When she pressed again, he said, "Sure."

It was so not sure. Who in their right mind flies to Wisconsin on Christmas day? And, hello, Wisconsin? There were several very good reasons why Rodney lived in California, not the least of which was that it wasn't anything like the Midwest. For weeks he'd ignored all of her hints that now might be a nice time to meet her father, the subtext being that they were at a point in their relationship where they should spend Christmas together. In Wisconsin, apparently. It wasn't that he didn't agree with her that, yes, they'd reached that stage—because he did—however, there was no way in hell he was giving up Elizabeth's traditional Christmas dinner of standing rib roast with all the trimmings. Not even for the woman he was falling in love with.

Rodney cut her off at the pass. Before she could actually ask him flat out, he suggested that they fly her father out at the end of March to give him a break from the winter weather. Rodney's treat. That got a kiss with a disgusting amount of tongue, just the way Rodney liked it.




Because of airport traffic and that slight matter of a speeding ticket, he was late getting to Elizabeth and Radek's. Not bothering to ring the bell—he knew this house nearly as well as his own—he let himself in, grousing in a loud voice, "I cannot believe that they are trying to solve the state's budget woes on the backs of California drivers. I was going two miles over the speed—"

There was Carson, Elizabeth, Radek, Teyla, Ronon. And Sheppard.




"Stop sulking," Elizabeth said in a low murmur as she passed him the creamed spinach.

It was the same as it had been for ten years. They decorated the tree and then stood back to admire their handiwork while polishing off a couple of magnums of excellent champagne and several plates of yummy hors d'oeuvres. Once seated for dinner, they pulled open their Christmas crackers and, like always, Rodney got the pink paper crown. Like always, he protested vehemently that he wasn't going to wear that stupid pink crown. Like always, Elizabeth traded crowns with him so she'd wear the pink one and he'd get the manly blue one. They showed off their prizes (Rodney always got the cheesy top that didn't spin) and groaned at the stupid jokes. The food was superb, the wine wonderful, and it was all perfect except for one thing.

Sheppard.

There was an ease there between Elizabeth, Radek, and Sheppard that told Rodney that Sheppard had come to dinner often. At Elizabeth's request that they needed more logs for the fire, Sheppard knew exactly which side of the house they were stacked on. At Radek's comment that they needed more champagne, Sheppard offered to open another one, handily heading in the direction of the wine cellar. What was even worse, Carson was asking him the sort of questions that you ask when you have more than just a passing acquaintance with someone, questions with knowledge behind them.

He wasn't sulking; he was hurt. The four of them had been getting together without him. Yes, Elizabeth had made all his favorites—he was a fool for old-fashioned plum pudding with hard sauce—but he only took a couple of bites in a gesture of courtesy before putting down his fork. This was ridiculous. He was forty years old and acting like a wallflower. Even worse he felt like a wallflower. Before he knew it he'd had far too much to drink. About to hand over his car keys to Elizabeth and lie down in front of their fireplace, he heard Sheppard say, "I'll drive McKay home."

He tried to protest, but they thought he was refusing because he was on the combative side of being drunk. Which he wasn't, he just didn't want Sheppard driving him.

Finally, he just gave up and dropped his keys on the floor and headed out to his car.

Fuck 'em.




Later Rodney would give Sheppard some bonus points. He pulled over when Rodney started gagging so that he didn't hurl onto his lap. He walked Rodney up the front door and opened his door for him, pressing Rodney's keys in his hand before gently pushing him inside and pulling the door shut. It was a couple of weeks later before he realized that he had no idea how Sheppard got home that night.

Rodney was hammered but he wasn't quite at the point of passing out. Managing to swallow a few aspirin and a couple of glasses of water in a somewhat pointless attempt to avoid a hangover, he actually wished he could pass out. Except he had somehow moved into the insomnia part of his usual drunk without doing the usual sleeping part first. Sometimes cognac did that to him. He sat down at his screen, staring at the latest installment of the game. No one had added anything in a couple of days. He should go to bed. The screen pinged and Flanigan's handle came up on IM.

Flanigan: You there, Hewlett?

Rodney doubted he could have typed his own name without typos at this point, but then decided what the hell.

Hewlett: Here but not

Flanigan: You okay?

Hewlett: No. Sad. Drunl

Flanigan: Christmas does that to people. I'm going to assume you mean drunk.

Hewlett: Someti,rs. Ronight. Sad. Teally sad

Flanigan: Take some aspirin and a couple of glasses of water or you'll be fucked in the morning. Maybe going to bed, like right now, would be a good idea.

Hewlett: Did. Warer sucks. Tired. Sad.

Flanigan: Yeah. Sleep tight.

Flanigan signed off.

Rodney's childhood memories of Christmas were mostly of his parents pounding back Brandy Alexanders all day, which only served to fuel their mutual antipathy toward each other. Dead drunk by mid-afternoon, they nursed that drunk into the night so they could keep fighting until the wee hours of the morning. His Christmases with Elizabeth, Radek, and Carson were like a memory erasure, slowly replacing all those horrible memories with good ones. Christmas with them was his. He didn't want to share. Somehow the addition of Teyla and Ronon hadn't bugged him. He didn't consider them family but more like cousins. They were potential family. Sheppard? Was it coming down to a choice of him or Sheppard?

He didn't make it to the bedroom. Slumped atop his keyboard, he might have started crying a little before he finally conked out. Cognac did that to him sometimes.




The hangover lasted two days. When his eyes started tracking again without a corresponding pounding, he went online, ignoring the little voice that said he was being a total shit-heel. He leaned on a number of people who owed him favors, and within three hours he had a complete dossier on Major John Sheppard. Which left him thoroughly disgusted with himself; Sheppard's bravery was only matched by his I.Q. scores. His personnel files, which screamed Black Ops, were a mass of contradictions; his C.O.s had either wanted to promote him or discharge him. If Sheppard wasn't deliberately disobeying orders—always in the name of saving people—he was volunteering for missions that were nothing more than a form of suicide. All in all, the sort of soldier you'd think the USAF would hold on to with both hands: the guy would fly anything and pretty much do anything if it meant saving a fellow soldier.

Right after he'd been promoted to major, some asshole, in what was no doubt an act of revenge or jealousy, outed Sheppard. As fast as you can say, don't ask, don't tell, all of Sheppard's stupendous acts of bravery and valor were weighed against a one-night stand in a bar when he was on leave. And found inadequate. Having worked with the military all of his professional life, Rodney knew their stripes. They probably thought they were doing Sheppard a favor by discharging him with his rank. Rodney's initial reaction was a rage so incandescent that his headache came back. When he'd finally calmed down, he found himself in a no man's land with this man. Because obviously Sheppard was much more than he seemed, and Rodney seemed to be only one who didn't get that.

As it was, he didn't have the energy to spend too much time on the paradox that was John Sheppard because, well, the game had taken an ominous turn. Thank God Jennifer was spending a couple of weeks with her father because Rodney found himself glued to his monitor nearly the entire break.

Flanigan was missing. He'd been sucked into a portal gouged into the wall of a cave. There was some mumbo jumbo about Ascending, whatever in the hell that meant—Rodney still didn't get that part of the game—and the Major hadn't come back. He hadn't IM'd Rodney in days. If this was the Game's way of getting rid of Flanigan, Rodney was done; he would just kill himself off.

By this point they were the major characters, feeding seventy percent of the plot arcs. To have Flanigan relegated to a Rainbow-esque character limbo was not acceptable. Every night Rodney would write himself into a position where he needed someone else to move the story forward and FIND THE MAJOR, but no one was consistently online except for the minor characters, who were writing volumes on weird and, frankly, strange Ancient sex practices. When Rachel and Jason did appear it would only be for like twenty minutes, and then still nothing would happen. He was going nuts.

Rodney set up an automatic IM so that every ten minutes he'd ping Flanigan but to no avail; there was no answering ping.

Finally, on New Year's Eve, just as he was about to head out to Elizabeth and Radek's to ring in the New Year, Flanigan answered.




Flanigan: Hey.

Hewlett: Where in the hell have you been? I was worried sick.

Flanigan: Stuff happened.

Hewlett: What do you mean by "stuff"? For heaven's sake, you've been gone days!

Flanigan: Only five.

Hewlett: Which is more than one, which equals plural, which equals days. I thought they wrote you out. That you were joining Rainbow in some RPG heaven.

Flanigan: Chill, Hewlett. I'm back. Had some stuff to take care of.

Hewlett: There's that word again. I didn't like it the first time. If they write you out, I'm quitting.

There wasn't a response to that, and Rodney wondered if he'd just made some cardinal sin among seasoned RPGers.

Hewlett: You there? Did I say something wrong? Did I fuck up?

Flanigan: Nah, you're cool. I gotta go, but I'll be on later tomorrow night.

Then Flanigan signed off.




In direct contrast to the intimacy of their Christmas day dinner, Elizabeth and Radek's New Year's Eve party was wall-to-wall people. Some years Rodney gave it a miss because lots of people and Rodney always equaled fail—the more people, the more the certainty he would insult someone—but this year he was determined to go because he felt the need to reassert his claim on them. He'd never given it much thought before, but Elizabeth, Radek, and Carson had become his family. He and Jeannie seemed incapable of having a rational conversation these days, and while he couldn't deny that he and Jennifer had a future, he would be bringing her into this world, not reinventing his world with her.

A quick scan of the room revealed that Sheppard wasn't there. Thank God for small mercies. Rodney still wasn't sure how he felt about Sheppard and now wasn't the time to resolve this. Rodney assumed he was using the remainder of his vacation skiing or snowboarding or surfing somewhere exotic. He struck Rodney as that type. You don't have a body like that without some serious dedication to sports. No doubt Sheppard was one of those exercise fanatics who staved off depression by a constant endorphin rush. Rodney got a similar rush eating donuts; it was a hell of a lot easier and a lot less sweaty.

Drinking sparkling water all night—he needed to pick up Jennifer from the airport the next morning—he spent most of the party talking to Carson, debating ethics and sheep dog trials. Carson owned something like five border collies, which seemed like overkill, even for someone who loved dogs.

At some point he smelled limes and there was Sheppard standing behind him. Rodney gave him a terse nod of acknowledgment and continued talking. A few minutes later the smell was gone, and he spied Sheppard talking to Teyla and Ronon. Although he wasn't looking at Rodney, he got the feeling Sheppard was watching him, which was confirmed when he stepped outside the front door for some fresh air and Sheppard followed him out.

"You okay, McKay?"

Rodney might as well start repairing their relationship now. Perhaps they could get to a point where they could like each other. All of a sudden he had a horrible thought. What if he got to the point where he liked Sheppard, but Sheppard didn't like him?

"I'm fine. This is sparkling water. I'll be good to drive home. You won't have to repeat your good Samaritan act of Christmas. Thank you, by the way." That sounded much grouchier than he felt. But he had been thinking about driving to the airport tomorrow to pick up Jennifer, and there was that last speeding ticket, which he still hadn't paid, and...

"No problem. Uh, you don't look so hot. Seriously. You feeling okay?"

Sheppard sounded genuinely concerned. Had he read been misreading Sheppard's signals all along?

"I haven't been sleeping well. A..." How do you say an imaginary character in the RPG game I'm addicted to has disappeared, and I've been so worried that I haven't slept a wink in a week? without sounding like some geeky nutball who seriously believed that WOW was an actual religion. "A friend's been going through some stuff. Christmas does that to some people."

If Rodney hadn't known better, he'd have sworn that Sheppard's sudden coughing fit was an attempt to hide his laughing.

At Rodney's pointed look, Sheppard finally got it under control.

"Are you okay?" Rodney said, laying on the irony with a trowel.

"Yeah, I'm good. Better than good. Midnight in five minutes. Happy New Year, McKay."

With that he returned to the party, leaving Rodney to savor the cool winter night. The cheering from inside signaled the passing of the old year into the new. Squashing down the urge to just get in his car and drive home, Rodney turned around and went inside to wish Elizabeth, Radek, and Carson a Happy New Year.




He tried to not let it get to him. It was only a game. Pretend. Make-believe. But still. The magnitude of his arrogance had never been so front and center. He blew up a solar system. Just like that. So sure, so confident, so determined that this would work, he ignored all Flanigan's urgent questions and just went ahead. Clearly it had been some sort of trap, where the game played into his arrogance to see which way he would fall, and you do not stroke Rodney McKay's arrogance and not get Yahtzee every single time.

Now Flanigan hated him. The IMs stopped. Their private little jokes stopped. He couldn't shake the sense that he'd lost a close friend. Which was insane! And it wasn't like he couldn't even articulate to anyone why he was snappish and downright surly to everyone around him. Even Jennifer. My pretend friend doesn't like me anymore. Like that was going to get sympathy points from anyone.

And yet, Flanigan was his friend. Rodney had come to realize what many of those who scorn the Internet never understand. That they might be playing roles, they might not know each other, but they knew each other. Rodney was slowly beginning to realize that Flanigan might actually be brilliant, hiding his smarts under a barrage of dopey slang. He had a great sense of humor, but Rodney sensed that he wasn't a happy person. There was a sadness about him, similar to Elizabeth's sadness, a grief that would never end. He never brought up his childhood, which Rodney surmised was horrific because whenever Rodney made a passing reference to his parents' marriage being nothing more than one long drunken fight, Flanigan deftly changed the subject. He learned more about Flanigan from what he didn't say than what he did.

Six weeks in had found him and Flanigan interacting just as much in IMs (which probably should have been a warning sign that he was getting in too deep) as they were in the game. Entirely through IMs and something like five thousand taglines, they debated which Star Wars movie was the crappiest. Flanigan clearly had a technology kink because the movies with the most gadgets always got more points from him. He had ranked that crappy fourth movie better than the crappy third movie with those furry things just because of the flying sequences. For Rodney the annoying kid factor automatically negated the annoying furry factor. That debate went on for two weeks! The IMs regarding the possible mechanics of the Tardis went on for three. In fact, although they disagreed and fought about pretty much everything, Flanigan got him in a way no one ever had. He accepted that Rodney would be a frequent jerk, but he didn't ignore his jerkiness (like Jennifer) and wasn't intimated by him (like most everyone else except Radek, Elizabeth, Carson, Teyla, and Ronon). People generally didn't like Rodney, so when someone did, it stood out. Flanigan had liked him and now he didn't.

In a fit of guilt one night he asked Jennifer whether she had given any thought to how fascinating it was to travel through time, like they did in Dr. Who. She looked at him and said, "It's just pretend, Rodney. I haven't given it much thought." He really couldn't recall debating Jennifer over anything other than granite versus marble for his kitchen countertops and which toothpaste was better: Colgate or Crest?

Realistically, he knew that Flanigan was probably some brilliant, nerdy fifteen-year old whose parents drank themselves to sleep every night, which is why he was online at three in the morning. But Flanigan didn't sound like a teenager and his general frame of reference was older. Rodney honestly didn't know if Flanigan was a woman or a man, but he suspected he was a man. (Women often called him an asshole—something Flanigan did on a frequent basis—but they never called him a dickhead—which is what Flanigan called him when he wasn't calling him an asshole.) Rodney would seriously peg him as around Rodney's age.

This "connect" with Flanigan jump-started some serious questioning regarding Jennifer. Was this perpetual state of falling in love with Jennifer and yet never actually being in love with her all there was? Had they reached a point of stasis? Or maybe he had. He'd never invested as much angst and doubt in his relationship with Jennifer as he did with Flanigan. Who wasn't even real!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It struck him that what he valued in his relationship with Jennifer was that it was so easy and nice. They had great sex because you only had to watch Rodney eat a chocolate old-fashioned to know that he had oral issues. Usually people who had oral issues gratified those oral issues between the sheets. And at breakfast. But that didn't mean he was passionate about Jennifer so much as he was passionate and then there was Jennifer and she cared for him and possibly loved him and it was so, well, easy.

One day when everything had gone wrong—the schedule for Faculty Feud appeared in his mailbox and he was listed as captain; the donut shop he loved was closed for the next three weeks (how dare the owners go on vacation), Flanigan hadn't IM'd him in thirty-four days and counting, and Kavanagh announced he'd won some third-rate prize—Jennifer mentioned that when they moved in together they could get rid of his ratty coffee table.

Emotional klaxons went off.

Because Rodney liked that coffee table. He'd written his first Ph.D. thesis on that table, perched on the edge of an equally beat-up couch, typing away on a Compaq computer whose "esse" key sticked. Of course that was only the first bombshell. While he was processing the visual of his coffee table being hauled off by a Goodwill truck, she said, "I assume we're moving into my place. This house is so small."




"I ran out of there saying something stupid like my simulations weren't working and I needed to go to campus. I came here in lieu of jumping off the bridge."

Carson filled up his coffee cup again.

"Rodney, if you're not ready, you must be honest and tell her—"

"That's the thing. She's not being pushy or grabby, something I can relate to as I've been called that by many women. It makes total sense for us to move in together. We are practically living together. Even with all the upgrades, my house is a 1940s stucco box in the flats, and she lives in a gorgeous, wood-shingled Julia Morgan in Elmwood. She has every right to make that assumption, and why I feel like I'm about to segue into a full-blown panic attack complete with vomiting I don't know."

Carson waited. When Rodney didn't say anything, Carson added, "And?"

There weren't tortures devised that would make him admit that he might care more about his relationship in the game with Flanigan than he did about Jennifer. So what Rodney said was:

"And I don't want to. I don't want to change anything. I'm happy with what we have, and it's not fair to her that I'm willing to settle with this near relationship. What's worse is that I don't know why. She's beautiful, smart, and doesn't mind me, which you know is always an issue."

Carson smiled.

"Don't smile. I know I'm impossible. I'm better than I was, you have to admit."

"Aye."

"And before you say it, I know that the only way to go was up. I get all that. You know, I think I do love her; what's not to love? But that's the issue. Why wouldn't I love her? I'm now wondering if I sort of love her because I'm comfortable with her. Do you know how hard it is to find someone who just rolls with my rants? Who doesn't see it as a personal slur when I say all architects are morons?"

"Or ethicists," Carson pointed out.

"Or ethicists with an obsession for border collies." Rodney gave him a stern look because he had one dog sleeping on one foot and another sleeping on the other.

For some reason, even though he loved cats, cats didn't love him back. Even worse, he was 'meh' about dogs, but dogs adored him. Every time Rodney visited Carson he was besieged by the dogs the second he walked in the door. Even the bathroom wasn't sacrosanct. Rodney tried outrunning them so he could pee in peace, but they were always way ahead of him. Rodney didn't mind people watching him pee, but it was creepy having five dogs with their eyes trained on him when he let go. He couldn't help but feel they were judging him. Like he should lift his leg or something.

When Rodney grumbled too loudly about the dogs, Carson would point out that they were people barometers. If the dogs didn't like someone, Carson didn't like them. Which seemed a very stupid way to run one's life—given that dogs didn't have opposable thumbs, how could you legitimately use them as a barometer for anything?—except that Carson was the happiest person he knew. Plus the dogs loved Rodney unequivocally and therefore Carson loved him unequivocally, so he went with the flow; although the bathroom thing was very annoying.

"Rodney, you need to talk with her."

Although he couldn't say this to Carson, what he needed to do was meet Flanigan and destroy this stupid crush so he could move on with his life. The lack of IMs had thrown his interactions with Flanigan into very sharp relief. As in, Please, dear God, I do not need this. I'm attracted to someone who could be a ninety-year old woman with warts all over her hands. Or a thirteen-year-old boy whose voice hasn't broken yet. Or even worse, a cop on the vice squad pretending to be a thirteen-year-old boy whose voice hasn't broken yet, who is trying to entrap me in some sort of predator sting.

Assuming Flanigan was male and this wasn't a sting, could this situation possibly be any more pathetic? At various points in his life he'd been attracted to the odd guy—not that he'd ever acted on this attraction—that he put it down to a few outliers on his Kinsey rating. Discovering that at the age of forty that he might be bisexual didn't exactly inspire much happy. He had enough problems dealing with women; he didn't need to add men to the mix.

Plus, he didn't even know if this was sexual; he just knew it was a longing of some sort. In his fantasies he and Flanigan would be lying in bed with the lights out, talking about their days, nothing more than that. A hand would be desultorily playing with his bald spot while they talked about whatever. His fantasies never involved sex because Flanigan was nothing more than a gentle hand attached to a visual blob. Nevertheless, there was an intimacy and trust between them that belonged in the bedroom.

WHICH WAS CRAZY!

Hopefully, if he met this person and they destroyed all his fantasies, then he could move on with his relationship with Jennifer. Because talking to Carson had only confirmed what he suspected. The reason why he didn't want to move in with Jennifer was because of Flanigan. He'd meet this person, it would end this thing, and then he'd kill himself off in the game.




Hewlett: Look I know you're mad at me over Doranda. I get that. I'm mad at me too. I feel terrible. I'm an arrogant person, and I let that get in the way of my judgment. It doesn't happen too often but when it does, well, boom. And, hello, this is a game! Can we meet? Because I need to talk with you about the game. I'm thinking of pulling out. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Short of you living in Greenland, I have enough frequent flyer miles to get me pretty much wherever I want to go.

Three hours later there was a response.

Flanigan: I'm in your neck of the woods this weekend. Let's meet at Café Trieste down at San Pablo and Dwight. Saturday @ 2:00 pm. I'll be sitting at the table just inside the door on your left.




Rodney knew he was in trouble when he lied to Jennifer, telling he was meeting Cadman on campus on Saturday afternoon. To assuage the guilt, he booked a ticket for Jennifer's father to fly out and then called the Goodwill to pick up his coffee table.




It was a total miracle that Rodney even made it to the cafi alive. So worked up that he went through three red lights, it was only by the skin of his teeth that he convinced the traffic cop not to give him a ticket. He played the "I am a genius on the verge of creating gas out of Styrofoam peanuts" card, which usually worked in Berkeley. Even given that he spent fifteen precious minutes arguing with that cop, he was still ten minutes early.

All of Rodney's confusion over whether he liked Sheppard or didn't like Sheppard died the minute Sheppard walked into the cafi where he was supposed to meet Flanigan. Wearing the same thing he'd wore when Rodney had first met him—threadbare shorts, that truly ugly Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops.

Rodney now hated Sheppard. He slumped down into his seat and began to make a paper airplane out of a napkin, praying that Sheppard wouldn't see him.

"Hey, Rodney. Oh. That's never going to fly."

Rodney looked up.

"It's a napkin, you moron. It doesn't need to fly. Take your coffee elsewhere and leave me alone. It's bad enough I have to put up with you five days a week. My weekends are officially a Sheppard-free zone. There are some very nice tables over there. Use one." Rodney pointed an angry finger at the opposite end of the café.

The grin on Sheppard's face faded and then he cast a lazy eye at empty tables to the left and then the right of Rodney. "You're near the window. Why would I sit at the back near that cold case that rumbles? From experience I can tell you it makes a hell of a lot of noise."

"Do I look like I care? I'm meeting someone, and I'd like to have a modicum of privacy while doing so."

Sheppard's face hardened. "Seems kinda dumb. If you wanted privacy, you shouldn't have picked a public place in which to meet." With that Sheppard fished a book of Sudoku puzzles out of his back pocket and sat down. At the table right next to Rodney.

"For crying out loud. Will you move? Or even better, leave?"

Sheppard looked at him, smiled, and said, "No." Then he pulled a pencil from behind his ear and began working on a puzzle.

Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to keep his temper under control.

"Look, I might have sounded really rude just now—"

"You think?"

"But I'm supposed to meet someone here, and, well, this is important to me."

Sheppard studied him, and then said in a jovial voice, "I'll move as soon as she arrives."

"No you don't get it—" then Rodney shut-up. Because he might not know Sheppard that well, but he knew him well enough that short of pointing a gun at Sheppard's head, nothing was going to move him to a table far away from him.

"So, you waiting for Jennifer?"

"No, I'm not waiting for Jennifer."

Rodney had been a little early, so there were still lots of time for this person to show up. He kept his eye on the door. A couple came in with a baby, definitely not them, and then a woman with six piercings who didn't even glance Rodney's way.

"Oh."

The tone of that 'oh' make him turn around.

"It's not like that," he snapped. Although come to think of it, maybe it was.

"What's it like then?"

Rodney was in a bind here. He didn't want Sheppard thinking he was cheating on Jennifer, when he sort of was, but he also didn't want Sheppard to know that he was an Internet junkie who had a thing for meeting online strangers.

"It's a friend."

"If it's a friend, then they would know you and then this table wouldn't be an issue."

Rodney wanted to rip that book of puzzles out of Sheppard's hands and beat him with it. Come to think of it, the chair would be more effective.

"It's someone I met online, but it's not romantic," he sniffed while grabbing a precious couple of seconds to come up with a plausible reason why he was meeting a total stranger and why this wasn't a date. Although had the tables been turned, he wouldn't have believed Sheppard either. "I'm sure it's no surprise, but I'm something of a Dr. Who fan, and it's someone whom I met online. We thought we'd meet to talk about, well, Dr. Who."

Sheppard grinned. "Golly, Rodney, I'm a Dr. Who fan too. We can have a three-way. I mean, you know, a discussion. With three people. Not—"

"I knew what you meant, and we are absolutely not doing that. Look. Please. This is someone who already thinks I'm a jerk, and if you keep sitting there and they see us talking, they are going to think I'm even more of a jerk because here I am picking up hunky men when I'm supposed to—"

"You think I'm hunky?"

"And people say I'm egotistical. No, you are not hunky. You are annoying. Will you please move!"

"Sure, Rodney. You're a little worked up. I'd order a decaf if I were you. No problem. I get it. Privacy. You want privacy."

"Thank you. I really... hate you." Rodney finished up as Sheppard scooted his chair back four inches.

"I aim to please. Let's chat while you're waiting for this mystery person who likes Dr. Who."

"I don't chat."

"How about we rant then while you're waiting for your mystery person? You're real good at that. Wow, you're also real good at glaring. You like sailing?"

Rodney was now at the point where he began praying that Flanigan never turned up because Sheppard would be merciless.

"No, I hate water."

"Why? Can't swim?"

Rodney turned away because this conversation was going no further.

"Lots of people can't, but there's things call life vests that—"

Rodney turned back.

"You are like the verbal plague. I know what a life vest is, and, no. I mean, yes, I can swim but not well. Plus, there was that episode with a whale that I'm not going to go into, ever."

Rodney turned away again. Several more people came in, completely ignoring him, although he noticed a bunch of people checking out Sheppard, but it was in more of a "gosh, he's hot" than in a wary "are you my game player" look. Five minutes ticked by, then ten...

"Your person hasn't shown up."

Rodney ignored him.

"Sailing is a great stress buster. Seems to me you could use some stress busting."

"Which is why I have a Jacuzzi."

"Not as good as sailing."

This was getting ridiculous. Rodney looked at his watch. Two-twenty. Flanigan was standing him up. And at this point Rodney could only thank God.

"I wouldn't know, but I suppose you are an expert."

"Helps. I live on a boat."

This man was not to be believed, although it did explain the perpetual tan.

"You live on a boat? Are you insane?"

"I like it. With moving, classes, and all that crap, I haven't had a chance to look for a place. I thought I'd wait until the end of the semester when the city empties out and I have a better selection."

Which was completely and utterly sensible, and only fueled Rodney's rage.

"You are the most annoying man ever born. I don't really care if you live on a boat, in your car, or in some tent in People's Park. You're right. My friend isn't going to show. Here I was poised to try to prove to him that I'm not a jerk, that I'm not an asshole. As seems the case whenever you're around, I'm exactly that: a jerk and an asshole. Congratulations. And since we've established that I'm incapable of taking the high road, I will satisfy all your pre-conceived notions.

"Elizabeth, Radek, and Carson are my family. My parents are dead—I don't mourn them, they were horrible people—and my sister and I have so much residual rage over our childhood that we end up tearing into each other in every conversation we've had in the last twenty years. In the vulgar parlance of the Internet, they are my peeps. Fuck up my friendships with them and I swear, Sheppard, I will ruin you. You might be the most gifted teacher that I've ever encountered, but you fuck me over regarding them and I will see that you don't get a single dollar from any federal or state agency. Not one. Which means you won't be able to publish, which means you will perish. Do we understand each other?"

Sheppard went pale under his tan and that lush mouth of his thinned to a line. Then he growled out a gruff, "Yeah."

Rodney squashed down the urge to rail against Sheppard's infantile vocabulary. He got up and walked out. By the time he'd reached home, he'd made some decisions.




Flanigan was waiting for him when he booted up his laptop.

Flanigan: Hey, sorry I couldn't make it. I would if I could. I know you're probably really upset with me, and I wish I could change that, but I can't.

Hewlett: Yes, well I was there and you weren't, and I ran into someone I work with who pushes my buttons and always brings out the worst in me. When you didn't show, I lit into him and was a total bastard, which only confirmed his initial assessment of me. I can't do this anymore. This is going to sound Internet-stalker-creepy but there is something between us that I don't understand. I'm willing to concede it might be one sided but that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. It does. When you got mad at me over Doranda, I... You know, I'm not going to explain how that made me feel, but let's just say that my fantasy life is beginning to trump my real life. Like I said, I can't do this anymore.

He signed off. Then he signed onto the game and Ascended himself. Then he called Jennifer, told her they needed to talk.




The not-so-nice, selfish part of him kept internally berating him for being so stupid. Because Jennifer was sitting in front of him in some gauzy caftan thing that was so sheer he could see the dark of her nipples through the fabric. And whatever you could say about Jennifer Keller, her tits were fantastic. In anticipation of him coming over, she'd thrown some cookies into the oven and wasn't that thoughtful. The cookies sat there on a plate, the aroma of them taunting him the whole time, whispering, You fool.

Except that he might be an asshole, but he was an ethical asshole. Sometimes he truly hated himself.

"Yes, we have a good time together, and we don't fight, and you put up with my rants, and that's the problem right there."

The more he thought about it, the most he was convinced this was the right thing. Because she should get angry at him. Throw a fit. Chastise him. He was an irritating man, and it stood to reason that she should get irritated with him every now and then. Even Carson got irritated with him, and Rodney thought the man was a living saint.

Ironically, for once she was irritated with him.

"For heaven's sake, Rodney. You are being ridiculous," she snapped. "Are you saying that if I were a total bitch, we'd be happier?"

The tone of her voice suggested that if he agreed with her, she would crack that plate of cookies over his head.

"No, of course not. But, Jennifer." He took her hand and squeezed it and searched for something else to say that wasn't as brutal. "The thing is, it's, I mean, I want to bring you into my world, but I'm not too interested—as in not at all—in yours."

Which, based on the look on her face, was much more hurtful than being her friend and using that as an excuse to fuck her.




After that she threw him out of her house—which he understood and even applauded on some level—so he went over to Carson's and let the dogs slobber all over him, and then the two of them went to Elizabeth and Radek's for an impromptu dinner where they ordered take-out Thai and watched Dr. Who for four hours. Then he went home and tried not to cry himself to sleep. Sunday was spent sending off emails to his graduate students that were so condescending and sarcastic that the email system automatically put warnings on them. He expected progress reports by next Friday, with detailed explanations as to their lack of progress over the last two month, followed by strategies on how to recoup the loss of productivity; no excuses were acceptable short of permanent brain damage. He was back on the hamster wheel.




Although so emotionally fragile he found himself crying during beer commercials, with every passing day he became more and more convinced that he'd done the right thing. He didn't miss Jennifer so much as he missed someone in his life and his bed. His friends stepped up to the plate. He suspected that Teyla had devised a gigantic spreadsheet where every hour outside of his teaching and office hours was more or less accounted for. Ronon came into his office and announced, "I need help in the lab. You weld?" On the weekends, he and Teyla overhauled his garden, putting in a bunch of raised beds and then planted enough tomatoes and zucchini to feed half of Berkeley.

All the energy he'd been putting into the game he threw back into his research. He pulled all his students off of whatever projects they were on and put them under Cadman to work on wormhole theory. Riding them to the point of out-and-out mutiny, Ronon pulled him aside one day, and growled, "I hear things. You're going to find the brakes on your car sabotaged if you don't lighten up." Rodney hadn't worked this hard in years.




He and Sheppard developed their own tacit set of rules. Coffee runs to the faculty lounge were orchestrated so they never came face to face with each other. The lounge was Sheppard's from seven to eight in the morning; Rodney could have it any time after that. All dinner invitations were turned down if Sheppard was going to be present, which prompted Radek to scream obscenities at Rodney in Czech for five minutes, the only time in fifteen years that Rodney had ever seen Radek lose his temper. This went on for four weeks.

Then Sheppard knocked on his door.




"Rodney, it's me." Even though muffled because of the wood, he had no problem discerning that it was Sheppard on the other side of that knock.

Rodney threw his coffee cup against the door in response. His assessment of whomever Peet's hired to manufacture their coffee cups went into the stratosphere as the cup merely bounced off the door to the rug without breaking.

"I need to talk to you."

"La la la la la la, I can't hear you!" Rodney screamed in response.

Sheppard opened his door and slid in. With one hand waving a section of paper towel he locked the door.

Rodney rolled his eyes.

"Okay, asshole. You have five minutes."

Sheppard put a finger to his lips and skirted around Rodney's desk to shut his window.

"You spent far too many years in the military. Don't bother sitting down." Sheppard picked up Rodney's coffee cup off the rug and then perched himself on the end of the desk. "You don't follow orders very well, do you? I find it shocking that you ever made it out of potato peeling detail. Seriously, the thought of you flying jets keeps me awake at night. How you managed to—"

"No I don't and it's Elizabeth."

Rodney shut up.




"So you know my office is right next to Kolya's?"

"All new hires get that office. No one wants to be next to him."

"Yeah and I know why. The way this guy talks to his grad students is nothing short of verbal assault. Anyway, he's got his window open this morning and it just so happens I've got my window open. The first thing that tips me that something is off is that I see that Michael Todd go into Kolya's office for their weekly meeting. I'm thinking it might be time for my run because every single week Kolya rips that kid a new one. This week it's nothing but murmurs. Which, hey, interesting. Really interesting. So I climb out onto the ledge—"

"Are you insane? You could have killed yourself!"

"Aw, Rodney, you really care."

"No, I do not."

"Has anyone told you that you're a terrible liar? Anyway, it turns out that Michael is the person behind that rash of laptops being stolen. Kolya's got it on tape that I think he hacked from the security cameras. If Michael doesn't accuse Elizabeth of sexual harassment, then Kolya will bust his ass to the U.C. police. I thought, no one's going to believe this guy over Elizabeth, but then I thought there might be something I don't know."

That was the last time Rodney ever underestimated John Sheppard.




"Yes, there's something, and it was also proven false. Elizabeth got her Ph.D. at Caltech. She stayed there for a couple of years afterwards teaching as an adjunct. Some snotty-nosed kid in one of her classes resented the failing grade she gave him and trumped up harassment charges against her. The guy was some sort of sociopath and even passed a lie detector test. And the only thing that saved her was the fact that her laptop computer showed her writing emails the entire time she was supposed to be servicing this guy. Elizabeth is a formidable woman, but I doubt even she can write letters and give someone a blow job at the same time."

"So Michael makes a stink and—"

"There's history. At best she'll lose the chairmanship."

"And Kolya puts himself forward as chair."

"Which he has wanted for years."

Sheppard nodded a few times and then said, "What do we do?"

"First of all, we hack into Kolya's hard drive to eliminate those tapes of Michael stealing laptops."

Which was a bust.

As was hacking into University's servers.

Over a pizza at Rodney's place they reviewed their next plan of attack.

"Either we find something equally awful to blackmail Kolya with or we find that external hard drive. He must have it somewhere safe. Maybe it's on his home computer? Is he that stupid? If it's in a safety deposit box, we're screwed."

"It's time," Sheppard said and then took a swig of beer.

"Time?"

"To shake down Michael. We need Teyla."

"Ronon might be a good idea, too. He basically invented intimidating."

Sheppard leaned back and gave Rodney a look that Rodney couldn't decipher.

"What?" he snapped.

Sheppard shook his head. "Nothing. We need to do this tomorrow before Kolya goes public. Email Michael. It will make him more nervous if it comes from you. We need to make this bastard sweat all night. I've got class at ten. Let's make it nice and early: 7:30 am?"

"Remind me to never cross you. I'll call Teyla. You call Ronon. My office tomorrow morning."




"Professor McKay. Professor Sheppard." He ignored Teyla and Ronon.

Rodney hated this kid. Sure, he hated most of the grad students just because they weren't nearly as smart as their transcripts said they were, but this kid had always rubbed him the wrong way. He reminded Rodney of a vampire. It wasn't anything he could put his finger on, but the kid creeped him out.

"Michael, it has come to our attention that you have been involved in activities that are illegal and potentially career-ending should they come to light."

This kid's body language—shoulders back, head cocked to the side, all attitude and bluff—told Rodney that he was going to try to bullshit his way through this.

"Don't know what you're talking about, Ms. Emmagan."

Ronon growled a hostile, "Todd—" and moved forward. Teyla put a restraining hand on Ronon's bicep (which was about the size of a small steer). Rodney really couldn't blame him, because security was part of Ronon's responsibility and the theft of these laptops had made his life pretty miserable.

"The laptops, asshole."

"Professor Sheppard," murmured Teyla.

"Yeah, the laptops," echoed Ronon.

This kid had brass balls. He didn't even blink and Ronon was definitely blink inducing. Most people would be peeing in their pants by now. Time to unleash the McKay factor.

Rodney went up to him, not backing off until he'd plastered Michael against a bookshelf.

"Listen, you little twerp. We know that Professor Kolya is blackmailing you to target Professor Weir. You work with us, we will protect you. Keep acting like you're God's gift to stupidity and I assure you that no one in this university besides Kolya will sign your thesis. And if you think that transferring to another program will solve your problem, think again. You will never get a Ph.D. from any university in this entire goddamn universe. People do not want to piss me off, because if they do, I destroy them. Note the use of the word 'destroy.' I'm not hyperbolizing. I wrote the book on payback, fuckwit, and if you want a career working as a barista in Starbucks, keep this up. Do we understand each other? Make mine a double shot, no whip, grande caramel macchiato. The name is Dr. Rodney M. McKay."

No one said a word for a couple of minutes and then Michael broke.

"Okay," he whispered.

"Invest in some Tic Tacs." Rodney stepped back. "We know he has copies of the tapes, but they aren't on his hard drive and they aren't on the University's servers, so where are they? On his home computer?"

Michael nodded.

"Come on, Sheppard. Teyla, Ronon, come up with some appropriate punishment for this weenie. Daily yoga classes come to mind as does cleaning the physics lab with his tongue. Find out where he's selling the computers, Craig's List, no doubt, and see if we can retrieve any of them. And by the way, you are now under me. Believe me, you will wish you were never born."




"We should turn him in," Rodney muttered as he began to hack into Kolya's home computer.

"I think you intellectually torturing him for the next three years is a better idea. Plus we gave him our word."

Keeping the I.P. addresses of everyone he ever corresponded with had proved very valuable over the years. Fortunately, Kolya worked from home most of the time. Therefore, the numerous emails he'd sent Rodney threatening him with various degrees of bodily harm came from Kolya's home computer. Sometimes the smart aren't very smart.

"You're a frightening guy," Sheppard noted as Rodney used a port scanner to infiltrate Kolya's home computer.

"So people tell me. Bingo. Here they are. Should I delete them or corrupt them?"

"Delete them but leave a message letting him know that we know. Because he might have copies."

Rodney switched out the files and typed a short but sweet note. Try something like this again and Sheppard will kill you. MRM. PS. I'm not joking. "How's that?"

"That works. What's the 'M' stand for?"

"None of your beeswax," Rodney snapped.

"Beeswax?"

"Yes, I'm twelve. Which puts me on par with you. Want to get some breakfast? You've got time before your class. Vanquishing dirtbags always makes me hungry. Plus, I'll need some fuel while I devise a new firewall for our security system. Not what I wanted to do this morning. I hate Kolya. Feel like going to Rick and Ann's? They're healthy but not obnoxious about it. You probably eat granola or something like that."

"Nah, I'm a bacon and eggs kind of guy."




A week before the Faculty Feud face off he marched into Sheppard's office and ordered the students clustered around Sheppard's desk to move it.

"Out! All of you."

At Sheppard's irritated, "Professor McKay—"

"I said out. You are here because Professor Stud Muffin is turning your crank. All of you are upper division students and are auditing his Physics 1B class for purely prurient reasons. Now stop wasting his time and go commiserate over Jamba Juices with an extra shot of hormone killer."

Ducking their heads to hide their blushes, they filed out.

"Rodney—"

Rodney threw the proposal on Sheppard's desk.

"Read it. I want you as co-P.I. We are going to make this place Wormhole U."

Thirty minutes later Sheppard looked up. "Cool. I'm on board."




Appearing at his door one Saturday morning at the ungodly hour of 7:00 am, Sheppard said, "Put on some long pants, a jacket, and a hat. We're going sailing." Rodney opened his mouth to protest when Sheppard cut him off. "I've got a dozen chocolate old-fashioned from Johnny's and a thermos of Peet's coffee."

Even though he was exhausted and, even worse, weary, Rodney realized it would be easier just to acquiesce. If he refused, Sheppard would probably call Teyla. Still, it was so goddamn early.

"Come on, Rodney," Sheppard cajoled.

Oh. Sheppard's eyes were green. Why hadn't he noticed that before?

"You have green eyes."

"All day. Probably tomorrow too."

"Smart ass. Give me five."

Rodney's experience with boats was limited to gigantic cruise ships (where he had a very unfortunate and scarring experience with that whale), so he wasn't anticipating being an active participant, especially since someone had to watch for whales. Which Rodney pointed out when Sheppard asked him to man the tiller.

"Rodney, the whales aren't migrating right now. Sharks we need to worry about, not whales."

"W-w-w-what?" Rodney stuttered in panic while simultaneously sucking in his gut. A shark would have a field day with him.

"Calm down. I'm just yanking your chain."

"Like a shark would want you," Rodney snorted. "You're skin and bones. Me on the other hand..."

"Yeah, you're pretty much shark caviar. Would you stop hyperventilating? Since I don't plan on capsizing us, sharks won't be an issue. Think of this boat as an object through time and space with wind shear thrown in for shit and giggles. I'll ask you move to the tiller ten degrees here, forty degrees there; can you handle that? I'm manning the sails. Between the two of us, we've got this thing covered."

Once Rodney's little panic attack was over, it turned out they did have it covered. Sheppard's boat was pretty big, something like forty-eight feet, and even with Rodney's non-existent sailing skills, he had a hard time imagining one person sailing it. Sheppard had been right. It was a stress buster. The Jacuzzi might work on his muscles, but it didn't do shit for the pinball machine of ideas that characterized Rodney's brain. The combination of maneuvering the boat and concentrating on capitalizing on the maximum wind shear to sails to the given drag of the boat didn't leave much room for any other thoughts.

They didn't talk much. Docking at Angel Island, they had lunch—nice thick deli sandwiches on sourdough rolls washed down with a couple of Anchor Steams. Then they napped for a bit on the deck and headed home just as the sun was setting. Once the sails were put away (or whatever you did with sails, seemed more like nautical origami than anything else), they headed up to Spengers and had dinner. Digging into hefty bowls of clam chowder and lathering butter on more sourdough bread, they chit-chatted about the department. What it was like before Elizabeth came on board. How many death threats Rodney received in a given year. How Radek had sought political asylum at some physics conference in London and how they'd tried to kill him using the umbrella trick.

"No wonder the Soviet Union collapsed. They kept recycling ways to assassinate people," Rodney pointed out. "Don't let him fool you with that Czech cutie-pie thing he has going on. He's ruthless. Did you know that he was the one who devised that diabolical plot to cut-off my donut rations if I didn't participate in this stupid Faculty Feud debacle?"

Sheppard was lolling against the banquet, an amused smirk on his face.

"What?"

"Nothing. Let's go. My treat." Sheppard threw a bunch of bills on the table "Next Saturday you pay."

It had been such a nice day that Rodney only managed a stealth protest in the form of a grumble that had nothing to do with being co-opted as Sheppard's sailing buddy.

"You know what they say about men who drive Porsches?" Rodney sneered as he checked his seat belt for the fourth time.

Sheppard peeled out of the parking lot, the torque throwing Rodney forward and then backward.

"You are not funny," Rodney squeaked out once his heart and lungs had moved back into their proper configuration. As back in his chest as opposed to trying to lodge themselves in his throat.

"Yeah, well. We men with small dicks have to compensate somehow."

"You know how it works. If you admit to having a small dick, you don't have a small dick."

Ten minutes later, Sheppard pulled up in front of Rodney's place.

"Home sweet home. FYI. I don't have issues with my dick; I just like to drive fast cars. See you Monday."

Since he couldn't see Sheppard's face, he doubted that Sheppard could see his, but he wasn't taking any chances. Rodney ducked his head to give himself a moment. It had been a great day. After that ugly encounter in the café Sheppard really didn't have to do this sailing thing. And the sandwiches thing. And the dinner thing. Or for that matter the Elizabeth thing. In fact, all of it. Why? Maybe it didn't matter. Rodney looked up.

"Elizabeth invited me over for dinner tomorrow night. You want to pick me up?"

Sheppard shifting his body a little so that his back was more toward the door. "You sure?"

"I'm sure."

"Really sure?"

"Yes of course!" Rodney did some judicious hand flapping to prove his point. "Do I seem like a person who waffles?"

"Maybe someone who eats a ton of them. Cool. We can discuss strategies with Radek. Faculty Feud is just around the corner."




Standing on the stage of Zellerbach Hall with the Chancellor moderating, the reigning champions, the Physics Department, were battling it out with the English Department to retain their title.

The confident sneers on their face should have been a tip-off.

When the electronic board went up with the questions, the hall erupted into chaos, with the science and physics students screaming foul and the humanities majors yelling at them to suck it up. Because the questions were completely devoid of anything remotely scientific. Rodney shot Elizabeth a worried look and then glanced over at Kavanagh, whose grin was so broad the man was in danger of dislocating his jaw.

"You are dead meat," Rodney mouthed at him and then turned back to the board.

Okay, they had one subject covered. Unbeknownst to anyone, because Rodney hated to admit failure on any level, he had been a musical child prodigy. Well, that wasn't quite true. He was a prodigy-light, falling just short of that additional magic that separates the very gifted from the genius. Fortunately, he realized that he was merely very gifted and decided to quit before humiliating himself on the piano concert circuit. His mother never forgave him.

Rodney couldn't help but grin when he saw "Piano Concertos" as one of the categories.

When the buzzer rang he was ready. "Piano concertos for one thousand."




"Did you see Kavanagh's face when you drawled out, 'Who is Anna Karenina?'"

Sheppard toasted Rodney with his beer. "That was pretty damn sweet, I have to admit. Yeah, that minor in Russian lit came in mighty handy."

With Radek being something of a history nut, combined with Rodney's voluminous knowledge of music and Sheppard's admittedly astonishing expertise in Russian authors of the nineteenth and twentieth century, they won. It wasn't a complete rout, but it was an amazing score considering the questions.

"If you don't do something horrible to him, I will," Rodney warned.

Rodney had never seen Elizabeth so angry. As the game progressed and it became obvious that they weren't going to go down in flames, the pout on Kavanagh's face wasn't to be believed. Except that Elizabeth was being Elizabeth-ish, determined to be fair.

"We have no evidence that Peter colluded with the English department."

Rodney and Sheppard rolled their eyes, whereas Radek muttered something in Czech that earned him a glare from Elizabeth.

Sheppard coughed and with a sheepish look on his face said, "Uh, I was in the bathroom last week and, uh, heard him say to Kolya that you, Radek, and, um, Rodney were daisy-chaining it."

She raised one eyebrow, the Elizabeth Weir equivalent of a mushroom cloud. He almost felt sorry for Kavanagh.

"Oh. Really? As I said, there's not a shred of evidence that Peter rigged the game. Therefore, we must not hold him accountable. In fact," Elizabeth said in a light-hearted voice that in no way reflected the evil grin on her face, "as a reflection of the enormous team spirit he displayed tonight, I believe that Professor Kavanagh should be in charge of the alumni society."

Rodney, Elizabeth, and Radek gave each other high fives. Because Berkeley alumni were the ultimate pains in the ass. They wanted free tickets to the Big Game. They wanted someone to fix their campus parking tickets. Basically, they wanted someone to wait on them hand and foot. Rodney would rather be on Faculty Feud until he croaked than deal with the alumni.

That's was how awful they were.

"For the next five years," she added.




A week later Rodney ran into Kavanagh in the faculty lounge, where Kavanagh blamed Rodney for his academic prison sentence being named alumni liaison. At which point Rodney told him to stop whining, that if it were up to him, he would have had him mopping floors for the next ten years. Kavanagh reared his arm back to deck him, whereby Sheppard caught Kavanagh's fist and said, "Punch McKay and I'll maim you." Sheppard then let go and Kavanagh scuttled out of the lounge. Rodney was really touched. Nobody had offered to maim anyone on his behalf before.




The Saturday sails became a regular thing. As did the occasional movie. As did dinners three times a week at a hole-in-the wall Thai place down on San Pablo Ave. And then it was time for finals and the usual scramble to get grades in on time. On sabbatical for the upcoming year, Rodney had planned on spending most of it in Colorado—O'Neill had been breathing down his neck for months—but maybe he could get away with a few trips here and there.

The Saturday after grades had been posted Sheppard roared into Rodney's driveway for their now-weekly early morning sail. Rodney never gave it too much thought how weird it was that Sheppard picked him up only to circle back to the Berkeley marina where Sheppard's boat was moored, but after that first morning the pattern seemed set. Besides, Rodney didn't like to drive—there was the inevitable ticket factor—plus anything that required piloting floated Sheppard's boat, so to speak.

Once Rodney was buckled in he said, "We're not sailing today. Oakland Airport if you please; and the cops will be out on 80, so watch your speed." Sheppard raised his eyebrows in question, but passed the exit for the boat marina without a comment.

Cashing in some favors, Rodney had ascertained that, yes, Sheppard's flying license was up to date, so he rented a Cessna 152 two-seater on Sheppard's behalf without any problem, but had a hell of a time getting the weenie at the airport to accept a flight plan that consisted of Rodney saying, "We're flying south." This required more phone calls, and now Rodney owed people favors, but it was all worth it to see Sheppard's face as they were taxiing down the runway.




Landing in Santa Barbara around noon, they had lunch, rented Sheppard a surfboard, bought swim trunks, beach mats, an umbrella large enough for ten people, and three tubes of sunscreen. Sheppard insisted on buying Rodney a gigantic straw hat that had "The Big Kahuna" stitched on it, which Sheppard claimed was Hawaiian for asshole. While Sheppard surfed, Rodney watched from the shore, having little mini-heart attacks every time Sheppard wiped out.

His instincts regarding Jennifer had proved to be correct. That he would have been perpetually falling in love with her for the next forty years, always on the brink, never tipping over. Whereas this? This was nothing like tipping over. It was like a gigantic splat over the side. He was over before he knew it.

The wipe-outs were becoming more and more spectacular, and it was obvious that Sheppard was getting tired. Maybe it was time to call it a day; they still had to fly back. Yes, Sheppard really lost it that time, the wave overwhelming him before he even got upright on the board.

Then he didn't come up.

And didn't come up.

AND DIDN'T COME UP.

Rodney got up and started screaming, "John! John!" while frantically wading deeper and deeper into the water, flailing with his arms.

Then something grabbed his ankles and pulled him under.

He. Was. Going. To. Kill. Him.

After Rodney splashed to the surface, there was Sheppard standing there smirking at him, shiny with salt and sea water, his shoulders and torso dark as hell from the afternoon's sun.

"You asshole!" Rodney yelled. "I was terrified you'd drowned. Don't do that. Ever again."

"Saw you watching me from the beach. Every time I wipe out your shoulders tense up. Even from way out here I could see you panicking. Chill. I'm a fantastic swimmer."

At which point Rodney swept out with his leg and knocked Sheppard's legs out from under him.




They lay on their stomachs trying to dry off a little before catching a taxi back to the airport.

Rodney thought that Sheppard was napping until a low voice said, "I got kicked out of the Air Force for being gay."

Before he could self-censor, Rodney replied, "I know."

A minute later Sheppard said, "You hacked into my file didn't you?"

"No."

Sheppard opened one eye.

"I got someone to do it for me."

"Disregard my privacy like that again and I'll tell Kavanagh about the whale thing."

"I told you that in the strictest of confidence!" Rodney squeaked.

Sheppard opened both eyes and stared at him.

"Sorry. I won't do it again."

"Good." He closed his eyes. "This was... Rodney, this was the nicest day I've had in years. Thanks."

"You're welcome."




By the time Sheppard's Porsche pulled into Rodney's driveway, the sexual vibes between the two of them were so intense that the defroster was working overtime as the steam from their breath fogged up the windows. Not even bothering to turn off the engine, Sheppard leaned toward him. Rodney tilted up his mouth. Despite the sexual energy thrumming through both of them, the kiss was gentle and brief. Sheppard's lips were a little dry, like he'd been worrying them.

Sheppard pulled away with a small groan and asked in a gruff voice, "You cool with that?"

Rodney balled his hands into fists, otherwise he would have grabbed Sheppard with both hands and begun mauling him. Cool didn't even begin to describe it. Not only was his head on board—because this was the whole package; someone who got mad at him, called him on his shit, teased him unmercifully, and, yet, ordered him sandwiches with extra mayo, made sure the sunscreen was packed, kept an eye out for whales, and bought him a stupid hat to protect his bald spot from the sun—but his position on the Kinsey scale just skewed about twenty points in the gay direction as his dick began screaming, "MOAR!"

"You have no idea. First of all, you need to know that I've never, with a guy, done, well, anything, but that doesn't mean that I don't want to. I've just never."

"It's not rocket science, Rodney. Friction is equal to the forces acting upon an object."

"I'll suck your dick if you suck mine?"

"Go to the head of the class."

"Like that's a surprise. Second, I really want to invite you inside, like my dick hates me right now, as in serious loathing, but I can't. I need to wrap up a few things before we take this any farther."

Sheppard pulled all the way back and leaned against his door.

"I thought you and Jennifer were—"

Rodney flailed a hand. "God, yes, we're done. No, with someone else. It's not serious, well, it won't change anything; it's just some unfinished business. Give me a couple of days?"

The vibe in the car went from wow, it's really hot in here to a wind chill factor of minus ten degrees.

"John."

"Yeah?"

"I'm in love with you, moron."

"Um, good, cause, well, you know."

"Two days, Professor Articulate."

"Okay."




Rodney pinged Flanigan for the next hour, sending message after message. He should have just accepted that this was done, that he'd moved on and whatever strange connection he had with this person was a manifestation of his unconscious desire to end his relationship with Jennifer, except he couldn't. It was more than that. At the very least, he needed to say, You were important to me and in another time and place...

Then Flanigan pinged him back.




Flanigan: Yo. Long time no hear.

Hewlett: I hope you live in the Bay Area. I need to see you. Tomorrow night at the latest.

Flanigan: Uh, what's the fire drill? Is this about the game?

Hewlett: No, it's about us. Please.

Flanigan: There's an "us"?

Hewlett: I don't know. I think there was an us. I need to close that door.

Flanigan: Do you know where Spengers restaurant is? Down at the bottom of University in Berkeley?

Hewlett: Yes, meet me there tomorrow night at five in the room to the right. The one with the big bar. How will I know you?

Flanigan: I'll be wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap.




Rodney was surprised and not surprised. He'd known and he hadn't known. There was Flanigan, a.k.a. John Sheppard, his tan bordering on swarthy from the previous day's sun, sipping an Anchor Steam and wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. On backwards.

"You are a dickhead," Rodney chastised as he walked up to him.

"I noticed you reserved our usual table. I'm not that big a dickhead," John protested. "You knew."

Rodney shook his head and for some stupid reason had to wipe tears from his eyes. "I did and I didn't."

John cupped Rodney's chin with his free hand. "Hey buddy, it's okay."

He could only nod.




After they had sat down and ordered their usual, Rodney said, "This is a little extreme—"

"You? Extreme? Nah."

"Excuse me. Move in with me. Like yesterday. We haven't, you know, done anything. But that doesn't matter to me. We've wasted all this time—"

"It wasn't wasted. There was that hating me thing—"

"I liked you online!"

"And the fact you had a girlfriend—"

"I don't now!"

"And by all accounts were straight so—"

"There have been other men! I mean, not that I did anything, but I wanted to!"

"No harm in taking things slow. My track record with relationships is probably as bad as yours. I even got married to prove to my father I wasn't gay. So why—"

"You've been married?"

"Rodney, any louder and you'll shatter everyone's wine glass. Yeah, I got married. It was dumb and really selfish and I'll feel guilty about it for the rest of my life. How about we see if you really are cool with sucking cock, and if we both feel this way in month, I'll move in."

Rodney could live with that. He was feeling all lovey and somewhat dovey until he remembered that afternoon in the café.

He threw the empty bread basket at John's chest. Which wasn't nearly as satisfying as it should be because John caught it.

"What was that for? Jeez."

"In the café. Why didn't you tell me you were Flanigan? Do you know how upset I was?"

"Why were you such as asshole?"

"I wasn't. Okay, I was, but here I was thinking I was going to meet this guy, and, yes, I suspected you were a guy, and my whole sexual orientation was suddenly an issue—"

"I thought you told me you'd been attracted to guys before?"

Rodney rolled his eyes. "There's attracted and then wanting to put your hands down someone's pants that you hadn't even met. Assuming you were a guy and not a ninety-year old woman with warts all over her hands. The whole thing was traumatizing in the extreme, so cut me some slack."

"You're weird. Warts? No slack. You were so goddamn obnoxious. Thirty seconds into that conversation I didn't want you to know who I was. But I didn't expect you to cut out from the game just like that. When you did that, I thought it was best I didn't tell you who I was. I mean as Sheppard."

"I couldn't..." Rodney flailed a hand. Which was caught by John. And their fingers intertwined, which was then followed by the simple pleasure of holding hands with someone you really wanted to hold hands with. Rodney began talking to the table, unable to meet John's eyes. "Why did you stop talking to me after Doranda?"

"Because Doranda was the Rodney McKay that I worked with. I thought I was really wrong about you. So I just opted out for a while. Then you emailed me about meeting, and, well—"

"Whereby I proved to you unilaterally that I was a jerk both off and online. It had gotten too serious for me. Serious enough that I had to break up with Jennifer right after I left the cafi. When you stood me up, I thought you thought I was some sort of Internet whack job."

At John's grin, Rodney did a head desk. Rodney could count on two fingers the number of times he'd felt stupid in his life. This was number three.

"You're the Ancient, aren't you?"

The grin got bigger.

"You directed the game and were Flanigan. God, I hate you."

John began to pull his hand away; Rodney held fast.

"Don't be stupid. Why didn't you say anything? What a minute; you knew it was me. All along."

"Yeah. Not right away, but like three hours after I met you. The wormhole thing got me thinking and then, well, not many people use the word moron in every other sentence."

"My God! I can't believe you. You let me—"

"Rodney, the guy online wasn't the guy who mentally lasered me to dust with his eyes every day in the faculty lounge. And while I knew you were the same person, things were happening between us online—"

"That's why you introduced Chaya. To put some distance between us."

He nodded. "Didn't work. Obviously."

"Not at all. Maybe because you really suck at writing women?"

"No argument on that score. So, uh, cut me some slack. How about I cut you some slack for being a total dickbrain for nine months—and, yeah, I know you didn't vote for me, Kavanagh told me—and you cut me some slack for being—"

"A lying sack of shit?"

"Yeah." John shifted his hand and began using his thumb to circle the pad of Rodney's palm. Rodney indulged his outrage for a second and then gave it up. Because John Sheppard was the Nobel of relationships. As if Rodney needed any more convincing, his dick chimed in with a hearty "yay" at the slow round and round of John's thumb against his skin.

"We're both idiots. I declare asshole amnesty. What happened after I left?"

"Flanigan Ascended. There wasn't any point in staying when you bailed. I've sort of abandoned the game. The guys manning the tech room are turning it into some slashy soldiers-in-space, sex-with-tech thing. I log on every now and then to make sure that COPPA isn't being violated, but I'm not playing anymore. I've been busy lately. I met this grouchy astrophysicist online. We have a thing going on."

"I'm only grouchy because I'm sex-deprived. Before you logged off, did we have Ascended sex?"

"Ask me again in three hours."




Fin