RE Last Man Reshuffle

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

Author's Notes: All mistakes are mine because I have the best betas in the world and yet I cannot stop tinkering and so do not blame them: shaenie, who has overwhelmed me with her fic for the past four years and, OMG, now she's writing SGA; rinsbane wrapped her clever little mind around it; and perverse_idyll, who deserves special thanks for saving me from my usual fatal missteps. Thanks!

The pain in John's shoulder was so bad that even half asleep he knew this was a see-Keller-and-whatever's-in-that-hypo-bring-it-on-stat injury.

"Motherfucker," he groaned and curled himself into a human pretzel in a futile effort to stop the shooting pains having a hell of a party in pretty much every nerve ending in his shoulder.

"If you fell off that damn skateboard again and haven't told me, and made that shoulder even worse than it was before, I hope to hell that you've really hurt yourself, and that it turns into gangrene and both your arms fall off because I, for one, will laugh all the way to the artificial limb store," groused a familiar voice raspy with sleep. "And you'll have to drive there with your toes, because I am not driving you."

So familiar that while part of his brain said, "McKay's dead," the other half said, "Classic Rodney."

John froze and took a quick couple of seconds to recon. He closed his hand around bed sheets and a light blanket, suggesting, okay, a mission, but they weren't in a tent. They were… Jesus, was that Rodney's arm flung over his waist and his knees threaded between his own? He stifled the, "Hey, buddy, how about some boundaries?" because the arm was nothing compared to the naked knees. Naked knees squared. As in his naked knees, meet Rodney's naked knees. Which meant that Rodney's face was probably three inches from his own, and maybe opening his eyes at this very moment was a bad idea, because John knew he was bare-ass naked, and based on the knee thing, the odds of Rodney being naked too were high.

"Let me get you an ice pack and some codeine. Hang on."

As Rodney rolled out of bed, his grumbling reverted to a semi-contained monologue—only because he was half asleep; had Rodney been fully awake he'd have made sure that John was getting the full brunt of his screed—about how if the Nobel committee awarded prizes for moronic, aging flyboys who refused to believe that skateboards were nothing more than surgery magnets, John would have a lock on it and at his age what in the hell was he thinking…

John opened one eye to catch a glimpse of Rodney lumbering out of the room, naked—jeez, how had he worked with that man for years and not noticed that ass?—the rant dying down to only irritated-sounding noise (not that it stopped) as he walked down the hallway.

Only years of combat training stopped the scream.

This was a bedroom. A bedroom John had never seen before. It looked…like the sort of bedroom John and Rodney might have if they were living together in the same house, sharing the same bed. Which was also scream-inducing, so John stopped that train of thought pronto. It had once been two rooms—there were faint traces of a dividing wall, yeah, right there along the ceiling near the light fixture—that had been opened up into one large, well, no other word to describe it, suite. The bed sat dead center on one wall, facing a gigantic, truly humongous flat-screen TV. Christ, it nearly covered the entire wall. Another wall was nothing more than a long shelf covered with a battery of computer equipment. John counted five hard drives, three screens, four laptops, and six printers. On this evidence alone he could have jumped to the erroneous conclusion that he'd tied one on, had a mother of a blackout, and Rodney had dumped him in his bed so he could sleep it off. Plausible.

If he ignored the shoulder, ow, and his Johnny Cash poster on the wall, and the four surfboards propped up in the corner, and, wow, the latest really super de dooper Playstation on his bedside table. Oh yeah, and the part where Rodney was supposed to be dead.

John's mind raced through the possibilities: alternate reality, virtual reality, Rodney's virtual reality, a dream? (John could still hear Rodney grousing in the kitchen, something about how in medieval times they would have lashed John to a rack to heal that shoulder, so make that nightmare), allergic reaction, drug-induced psychosis, or just your plain, old-fashioned, garden-variety psychosis. As his mind reeled, it didn't reel in the right direction, because if it had he would have anticipated that if Rodney went into the kitchen naked, chances were he'd return from the kitchen naked. Oh yeah, right on time, with a glass of water in one hand and a pill container roughly the size of his hand in the other.

John had been military, career military. For most of his adult life he'd been showering with other men, so nudity did not faze him. As a rule. Usually. Most of the time. But Rodney's dick was now pretty much at eye level and it was half-hard, and, Jesus, his pubic hair was gray. As shocking as that was in and of itself, when John raised his head, mostly to get away from the dick in his face, Rodney was totally bald on top and, like, maybe twenty years older than he was the last time John had seen him. Oh, and alive.

"Here." Rodney thrust out the glass. When John didn't take it right away, he snapped, "The water isn't going to leap out of the glass and down your— John?"

John realized he was staring. He clenched his eyes shut, trying not to freak out. He decided to just run with this for now because (a) those looked like really nice boards and if he was going to be insane, why not have it last long enough that he could try them out; and (b) even if this was some hallucination brought on by a high-grade fever or insanity, Rodney wasn't dead, and putting up with lots of crazy was worth having Rodney alive for as long as the crazy let him.

"'M okay," he grunted and sat up, unable to contain the hiss of agony as he moved in a way that his shoulder really hated. He grabbed the glass and held out his hand. Several pills tickled his palm; he threw them into the back of his mouth and took a huge gulp of water. "'M in pain."

"News flash. Of course you're in pain. You tore the hell out of that rotator cuff, Mr. Skateboards-are-Satan's-handmaidens-except-for-those-idiots-whose-name-starts-with-J-oh-wait!-fooled-you, and while we know how I feel about medicine in general, MRIs are engineering, not quackery. So, yes, it hurts. Surprise. Can we call it a day on the Martyrs-R-Us convention you're currently attending? Please do not put off this surgery again. It's a six-week minimum recovery, yes, even for you, plus physical therapy, and we need to— John, what's the matter?"

John shook his head. He didn't know how to respond to this. Because John was pretty sure he tore his rotator cuff in a bar brawl. Yeah, someone made a crack about the American government, John told them to shut the fuck up, a beer bottle was thrown at him, which he ducked, and he raised a bar stool, because the loudmouth couldn't throw worth shit, but he was holding that knife in a way that said he knew how to hold a knife, and something tore, shit, really tore, and then…he woke up. Here. And if Rodney was old?

"Scoot down a bit. My back is killing me; I need the headboard for some support."

John obeyed because it seemed like he should. Plus it sounded normal, because Rodney's bitching about his back was a constant John could relate to in any universe, any timeline. Rodney threaded his way behind John, opened his legs and butted right up against him, bare chest to John's bare back, groin to ass. The protest died on his lips when Rodney pressed a cold pack into the spot where a million nerves were doing the agony tango. Despite far too much naked (male!) body against his, John slumped back against Rodney and let the ice kill the throbbing.

Rodney's other hand snuck under his armpit, and before John could say anything, he started rubbing his belly in a slow circle, soothing, not sexual at all, forestalling John's panicked, "Uh, not this morning." Because whatever the crazy was handing out, John was pretty sure that guy sex was part of the "E" ride. Rodney began humming in his ear and kept up the slow massage of his stomach, and bit by bit John's muscles loosened until only his shoulder ached. A few more minutes and the drugs kicked in, and he let out a deep breath that it felt like he'd been holding for about thirty minutes.


John nodded.

"You'll call the doctor? This morning?"

John nodded again, marveling at the low and gentle murmur of Rodney's voice, no screeches or demands, just concern and, Jesus, honest-to-God deep affection.

"Okay. Now, I'd love to stay home all day and recite the ever-growing laundry list of hare-brained things you insist on doing that were only marginally crazy at forty but have now become completely bat-shit insane at sixty, but duty calls. And don't remind me that I'd rue the day I agreed to this stupid seminar series—"

"Told you."

That got him a pinch.

"Ow! Injured here!"

"I'd be much more sympathetic if you hadn't torn your rotator cuff showing those horrible Wilson twins, who I swear are half Wraith, how to do ollies. And don't bother lying; I have spies everywhere. Do I need to tell you how sad it is that I can toss off skateboard terms like there's no tomorrow? Can I possibly sink any lower?"

"Jeez, Rodney, you're just handing them to me."

"Do not drawl at me like some Texas sharecropper." Rodney placed a gentle hand on his good shoulder, pushed him forward, and crawled out of bed. "We both know you went to some hellishly uptight prep school in Connecticut, a state that has no reason to exist but for its prep schools, where you were supposed to be thoroughly brain-washed to become a stockbroker—look how successful that was—and speak with some sort of half-assed Boston Brahmin accent…"

John lay back down and closed his eyes, tight. Because the crazy hadn't changed a thing between them, Rodney happily segueing into his typical John-squawk-you're-ridiculous-squawk-why-do-I-put-up-with you-squawk. It was so wonderful and also completely horrible—because he hadn't experienced that for eons—that he was only able to eke out a semi-normal sounding, "Rant away, but you'll be late," with something of a Herculean effort.

"Oh my God, look at the time…" and Rodney rushed into the bathroom.

Minutes later, John did a credible job of fooling Rodney into believing he'd fallen back asleep, because fresh from his shower Rodney entered the room and barked out a "John," but then shut up. He kissed John's forehead and muttered, "Idiot," in that same affectionate tone he'd used earlier and then left. And again, John nearly lost it, because McKay didn't make a sound as he left the room, foregoing the usual stompstompstomp that characterized his walk—that had characterized his walk—so that he wouldn't wake John. Jesus.

John had weathered enough injuries over the course of one military career to know how to ease up into a standing position even as damaged as he was. Ten minutes later, covered in sweat by the effort it took to not injure something else while he isolated his shoulder, he was upright.

A quick walk-through was first on the agenda. Okay, this wasn't a rental. Even if you discounted all the computers, it was too homey. Bookshelves were stocked with DVDs containing John's favorites, plus a bunch of Rodney's favorites, although their taste in movies tended to overlap. Copies of The Journal of Astrophysics lay in haphazard piles all over the living room. The mantle and one wall were devoted to mounted photographs. At least a dozen pictures of him and Rodney, just the two of them, were interspersed with quite a few with him and Rodney bracketed by Jeannie, Caleb, and Maddie, and even a couple of him with Dave's family. There were several pictures of Ronon standing next to a woman who was as tall as he was and even more menacing. In fact, she looked like she could beat the shit out of Ronon with one hand tied behind her back—and wasn't that a scary thought? Several with Teyla and her kid. First, there was the standard newborn picture of Rodney holding the baby, clearly terrified, as if it were a gigantic orange, with John's arm wrapped around Rodney's shoulders, John obviously ecstatic, marveling at the baby, a big shit-eating grin on his face. Then pictures of the same kid riding a tricycle, riding a bike, holding a football, all the classic symbols of American boyhood, exactly the sort of toys he'd have bought for a godson. The kid had Teyla's eyes.

The kid who had never been born.

These pictures spanned time. About twenty years, based on the photos of Teyla's kid and Maddie's college graduation picture.

A quick trip to the kitchen revealed a fresh pot of coffee waiting for him, with a note propped up against a coffee mug, written on an index card in Rodney's crabbed scrawl: "You get this when you've called the doctor. I have it rigged to explode if you drink it before you phone her."

Where in the hell was he? They. Whatever.

An old-fashioned roll-top desk that must have been John's sat in one corner of the living room. It was freakishly neat, in contrast to the sprawl of paper, pens, and miscellany on every other surface in the room. You can take the boy out of the military, but not the military out of the boy.

If John had thought about it—although there had been no reason to think about it given the sort of life they'd lived in Atlantis—he'd have pegged Rodney as the type who sets up automatic bill payments because he was so bad at paying bills. Shooting to hell other physicist's theories, one of Rodney's favorite pastimes, was certainly more fascinating than taking the time to write a check, seal the envelope, and find a stamp.

One day at lunch, Rodney went off on a twenty-minute rant dismissing Einstein's EPR paradox. John was betting that he wasn't the only one thinking that, gee, who knew that dying from sheer boredom wasn't just a catch phrase? When Rodney eventually had to take a breath, John took the opportunity to call him on his arrogance. Rodney snorted and said, "Hey, everyone has a bad day now and then. Even Einstein." And when John smirked and drawled, "What about you, McKay? Ever have an off day?" he regretted it immediately because Rodney snarled back, "Forgot about that little solar system I practically obliterated, Major?"

John was a lieutenant colonel by then, so the demotion meant that Rodney was pretty pissed. He stomped off and didn't speak to John for three weeks.

So it stood to reason that any paperwork that was going to get done would find its way to John's desk. John wasn't that much better at doing mundane paperwork than Rodney, but he was a lot better at hiding his dislike for it. The drawers were filled with letters and bills, addressed to the both of them. Shit. Whatever reincarnation of him existed in this world, he hadn't paid The New York Times bill, and it was due three days ago. In the top drawer he found a roll of stamps and a checkbook, which was a joint account. Man, they had a lot of money. He filled out the bill and stamped it. Weaving his way between two leather chairs to get to the front door, he had no trouble spotting which chair was Rodney's. Surrounded by piles of journals, the seat cushions had remnants of crushed Cheetos in the seams. John's chair was flanked by a stack of comic books, another stack of what looked like graphic novels, and a third stack of books filled with Sudoku puzzles. The chairs looked sat in, the leather cracked and worn, stamped from the weight of their bodies.

Stepping outside to the curb, he put the letter in the mailbox for pick-up. He could smell the sea, so they lived pretty close to the beach. The neighborhood had a funky beach town feel to it, with nicely painted houses next to weathered shacks. They must pay for a gardener, because even though all the vegetation was low maintenance and drought tolerant, the property was fairly manicured looking—in a funky beach-town sort of way.

In one corner of the porch sat a large wicker basket filled with shells and a bunch of decorative orbs John would have sworn were Ancient, but he thought long and hard about whether or not to walk over there. Rodney had mentioned the Wraith, so he knew there was an Atlantis in this universe. Whether John had the ATA gene was another matter. He edged slowly over to the basket and ran a shaking hand over the top of the orbs. Thank Christ. They twinkled in the early morning light the millisecond he touched them. Which nearly brought him to his knees with gratitude.

Based on the mail, their house was in Santa Cruz. Further snooping revealed that they'd bought it twelve years ago; both their names were on the deed. A quick recon of the electricity and phone bills showed they didn't live there most of the time, but visited about twice a year. Usage spiked once about every six months, in the summer and at Christmas, although based on the latest crops of bills, they'd been here for about four months.

It wasn't until the last drawer, way in the back behind a bunch of old telephone bills, that he found his stars. In whatever life this was, he was a brigadier general. The letter was boilerplate, telling him nothing beyond the fact that he'd been promoted three grades for exemplary service to his government. Cradling the stars in his hand, he tried to imagine, with the number of enemies that he'd cheerfully cultivated over the course of his career, how in the hell he'd been promoted to such an exalted rank.

"He earned those stars. If you put them down like the nice little impostor you are, I won't shoot you. Maybe."

John spent the next hour and forty-seven minutes with a Beretta aimed at his heart, while Rodney grilled him. "Where did you get that scar?"

"Bugs are us, Rodney. Will you put down the goddamn gun?"

John tried to rein it in, tried to keep it together and light and funny and easy, but around the one hour and fifty-one minute mark he lost it. The old John Sheppard would have teased and poked at Rodney enough that eventually Rodney would have thrown up his hands in defeat and laid the gun on the table. This John Sheppard wasn't wired that way anymore, and with an internal Fuck it, he up-ended the table, managing to crack Rodney square on the jaw. The Beretta went flying as Rodney's chair fell backwards. Despite the bum shoulder, John managed to get to the Beretta before Rodney.

He looked up. Rodney was sitting up, supporting himself on his hands, glassy-eyed with fear. John swallowed back a mouthful of bile.

"It's me, Rodney. Swear on a stack of USAF regs."

Rodney didn't move.

"Swear, buddy. I swear. Remember how the sun would rise over the ice fields at McMurdo and it was like Earth being born anew every fucking day and how I loved that one puddlejumper and the moons over…"

And John found himself on his knees crawling across the floor, mumbling, "It's me. Swear, it's me. Goddamn you. You. You." Because it was Rodney and he was alive and the last twenty years hadn't happened. He grabbed Rodney with his good arm and hauled him close, trying not to wince as one hundred and eighty pounds of McKay slammed into him.

John wasn't sure how long he held Rodney against him. Long enough to sob out that Ronon had been crushed to death by debris from the explosion and how Rodney had ignored Sam's order and insisted on finding them. And how Michael had caught them all and killed them one by one, leaving John for last, making sure, with a sort of sadism that surprised even John, that he be a witness to their deaths. And how Caldwell had beamed him out at the last minute and then destroyed the Cruiser. Killing Teyla. The unborn baby. And how fucking unfair it was that they'd all died and left him. Alone.

John knew with one part of his mind that he was hysterical, possibly on the verge of a psychotic break, but he'd never actually articulated what had happened, death by death, like that. Not even to Landry. Someone needed to know how he'd never envisioned that it would be him doing the grieving and the mourning. He carried every single one of their deaths on his shoulders, every single goddamn day. It wasn't meant to happen like this.

At some point he realized that he'd stopped ranting and that one of Rodney's large hands was circling his back.

"John, my knees are killing me. Can we get up?"

John nodded against Rodney's shoulder but held him tighter, one-armed, determinedly ignoring the ache in his own knees. "You believe me now?"

Rodney hugged him back. "Yes. Doubly confirmed when you insisted that it was you who should have died. Typical. Hold on, I'm going to try to get both of us up."

Somehow he managed to drag them upright. He pulled back a little, moved to cup John's cheek, and then thought better of it.

"If you let me go, I can contact Radek. Try to find out what in the hell those morons are doing with the Stargate. The next time I suggest a sabbatical, please shoot me."

When the joke fell flat, Rodney narrowed his eyes and this time the palm went to John's cheek without hesitation.

"You wouldn't even have cared if I'd shot you, would you?"

"Not so much," he admitted.

"It's been bad, hasn't it?"

Another time, another decade, John would have had a smart-ass reply handy. Now, with the kitchen furniture all thrown around, one cabinet door half off its hinges where a chair had caught it just right, Rodney's chin bruised and swollen from the impact of the table edge, and a Beretta dangling from his left hand, John just nodded and eased into Rodney's touch.

They stood there for a few minutes, Rodney running a thumb along John's jaw, letting the tension leach out of John so that he no longer felt like throwing up. At his gruff, "I'm okay," Rodney said, "Of course you are," and pulled his hand away.

At John's move to pick up a chair, Rodney stopped him by leveling a fairly vicious—even for him—glare.

"You are not to touch a single chair or the table. You so much as blink an eye in the direction of the furniture, I will clonk you with that cast-iron frying pan that you insisted on buying that, yes, makes perfect pancakes, but also weighs eighteen pounds, so you will be lucky if you only get a concussion and not permanent brain damage. You are to stand there like a good little military drone, and when I've returned this kitchen to its normal state, as opposed to the set from some cheesy soap opera where the furniture is trashed just on principal, you will sit down. I will then get you more codeine, hand them to you, and you will swallow them. Then, I will contact Radek and ream him another asshole. Maybe two. It will not be pretty. I haven't done this for a number of years, because, well, even I have mellowed with time."

John might have been pretty shattered, but that didn't stop him from raising an eyebrow in disbelief.

"I have," Rodney protested and plonked a chair down in front of John, followed by an angry finger pointing to the chair, with the very clear admonition for John to sit. John sat.

"Sure, Rodney. People threaten to kill me with frying pans every day."

Rodney pushed the table in front of him and righted all the other chairs.

"Given how generally maddening you are, color me not shocked. The gun, if you please. We keep it in that container on the counter marked 'gun.' People always think we're kidding. The Purloined Letter approach to self-defense. Your idea, I might point out. I have no intention of killing you, only maiming you. You've got that green tinge around the outside of your mouth that you get when you're in excruciating pain and denying it every step of the way. I consider it extremely perverse that your masochism doesn't run to whips and chains. My loss. Codeine's coming right up."

While John waited for the drugs to kick in, Rodney fetched a laptop from the bedroom and began a series of frantic emails to Zelenka, who confirmed that, yes, they'd been making minuscule modifications to the Stargate to adjust the power usage, nothing major, more or less the equivalent of a lube job on a car. "Minor adjustments, Rodney. A few exponentials," Zelenka assured him.

Some things hadn't changed. Rodney was the only person John knew who could scream through a keyboard. The tapping was fast and furious, and John didn't need the stereo of Rodney screaming and typing, "Not so goddamn minor, Radek!"

They sat at the kitchen table, Rodney doing that scary schizo thing he did, talking to John in complete, coherent sentences, while typing away in caps locks in response to Zelenka's questions.

"If that Czech bastard wants to live another day, he will figure out what in the hell—"

"How did you know?"


"How did you know I wasn't…" Jeez, how did he put this? "Your John?"

Rodney flapped a hand. "Wrong shoulder. I made it all the way to San Jose before I knew what had been bugging me for fifty miles."

"Where are you teaching and…" He was almost afraid to say it. "Atlantis?"

"Still there and so are we. I took a leave and am teaching a semester at Berkeley. They invited me to give the Stephen Hawking Memorial Lecture Series. Apparently I'm the first person in the history of astrophysics to actually challenge his theories. Naturally, I have a slightly different take on matters, as I've actually been out in space. You wouldn't believe how vicious his groupies are. The death threats? Just noise as far as I am concerned. Once you've faced the Wraith, the ire of a few rabid Ph.D. candidates is nothing. The chairman of the physics department actually had the gall to—"

At the look on John's face, Rodney stopped ranting.

"And me?"

"You spend all your time teaching the Wilson twins how to skateboard. No, I am not joking. You three even swap comic books."

"Come on," John protested.

"All right. On the two days a week that the Wilson twins have swim team practice, you drive up the coast to Monterey and perhaps teach flying. Don't give me that look. God, what I wouldn't do for a cup of pure unadulterated caffeine."

John pointed at the still full pot of coffee.


John couldn't help but stare.

"Heart attack. You threatened to leave me if I didn't cut out caffeine. I wasn't sure if you were serious, but I wasn't willing to take the chance. Bastard. It took a solid year. We reduced my caffeine intake by ten percent every month. And I fought you every step of the way."

"You had a heart attack? And of course you fought me. Asshole."

Rodney shrugged. "Ten years ago. A wake-up call. And if you'd been a little more thorough in your snooping, you'd have noticed a gym in the back bedroom. You still run on pavement, you idiot, and when you're looking at two knee replacements, who is going to gloat? I'm in better shape than I've ever been in my entire life. I have the heart rate of a twenty-five year old. Anyway, three days a week I punish myself with weights, and on the other four I walk my five miles a day on that torture device more commonly known as a treadmill, while my 'coach,' please note the sarcasm, reads comic books. Still. At your age."

"How old?"

"Sixty. How old are you in that other universe?" Rodney said with something of a sneer. Not that John didn't agree with him; it majorly sucked to be him.

"Same. It's May 2028."

"Nice way to parallel the universes with your colossal mistake, Radek. It's May 2028 here as well."

"Do I…do I look like, you know, me?"

John was genuinely curious. Because he hadn't felt like himself in years or at least he hadn't wanted to feel like this. Bitter and basically inconsolable, with a nice helping of rage on top.

Rodney studied him for a minute, his eyes moving relentlessly over John's face.

"The same, but different. Harder. And not that you'll ask, as you're ridiculously modest and yet one of the most gorgeous men I've ever met, but you've got that Cary Grant, elder hottie thing going on. It's so unfair. I'm bald, and although I can bench press one hundred and fifty pounds, people call me 'gramps.' You? Women still flirt with you outrageously, despite the fact that your hair has gone completely white. I…" Rodney stopped and bit his lip, as if finally he'd learned how to be tactful.


"If I'd seen you in a proper light, I'd have known it wasn't you. Well, of course, it's you, but a different you, a you that's had an unhappy— I mean, a different life. Than the one we've had."

John shrugged, because, yeah, unhappy didn't begin to describe it.

"God, I need some fresh air. Radek's got about seven hours of diagnostics to run, so we have lots of time. Drugs kicked in yet? Great. Let's go for a drive. Maybe get some lunch. At Gayle's." Rodney looked down for a second and then gave John a brittle smile. "One of our favorites. You can't drive because you're tanked to the eyeballs on prescription pain killers, so you'll have to put up with my driving for once."

"Holy shit!"

John stared and didn't know who to curse first, that asshole in the bar or those Wilson twins, because there was a vintage Lambourghini Diablo in their garage. With a fucked-up shoulder, and this close to seeing elephants on parade from the narcotics, there was no way Rodney was going to let him drive. He almost started crying.

"You've got a look on your face like you're the lion and the car is a zebra. Sorry, Mr. If-It's-Fast-and-Furious-and-Courts-Death-at-Every-Turn-I-Need-to-Drive-It. Thank God you're more or less incapacitated with that shoulder, or you'd have had the keys out of my hands like three seconds ago, codeine or no codeine. Can you get in without wrenching your shoulder?"

Rodney buckled John in. He had to bite back a moan when Rodney inserted the key, turned it, and the engine purred to life. If anything sounded like pure power, it was the thrum of that engine.

"How? Why?"

"Fiftieth birthday present. From me to you. That truck in front is ours, too. I don't think your shoulder can handle the suspension in the truck, so you'll have to suffer me grinding through the gears. The truck's convenient for hauling your deathtraps around, but it's a lot less comfortable a ride."


Rodney sniffed. "Some people call them surfboards."

They drove down the coast in silence. With the top off, the wind streaking fast across their cheeks, talking was hopeless. John hadn't driven this stretch of coast in over thirty-five years. Stanford wasn't that far from Santa Cruz, and he'd spent many a Friday afternoon tearing down Highway 1 once classes were done, his surfboard tied to the top of that Carmen Ghia he'd gotten for his eighteenth birthday. Man, he'd loved that car. In his senior year, he'd lost it in a poker game to that poseur Chuck Hobart, who John found out later was infamous for cheating at, hey, poker. Probably went to law school. Probably in the running for the Supreme Court.

Boxy, no doubt overpriced, condos stood on what had once been pristine beach front, but there was still plenty of coastline that hadn't been butchered, and John found himself thinking about those boards in the corner of their bedroom.

Which made him think of "their" bedroom. In this timeline, he and Rodney were a couple. Huh.

Just the word couple made him wince.

When he'd been married to Nancy, being a couple meant invitations were addressed to Major and Mrs. John Sheppard. Being a couple meant receiving a two-story colonial on an acre as a wedding present from his father. Saturday mornings were spent mowing that acre, his butt welded to the seat of a goddamn lawn mower the size of a Humvee (a wedding present from his brother). Being a couple meant Saturday afternoons at the mall buying shit for the colonial or playing golf with Nancy's Homeland Security office mates, who didn't like him, and whom he suspected of encouraging her to dump his military ass ASAP. He was flying Chinooks over the hills of Afghanistan then; it made casual dinnertime chat about terrorism a little surreal. And just plain pointless.

When the bone-deep hurt of their divorce had finally healed to manageable guilt (on his part), and resignation and relief (on Nancy's), they'd had a drink together to wrap up some final details. In the afterglow of several margaritas, she reminded him of the night they'd gone to dinner at a colleague's house right after John had come off a rotation in Quandahar. Nancy was pretty high up in Homeland Security, and during the course of his marriage John had suffered through seemingly a million of those dinners, drinking far more than was smart in an effort to ignore puffed-up desk jockeys who couldn't even pronounce Quandahar properly but saw fit to lecture John on the situation in Afghanistan.

He'd hated those dinners.

Always four couples, in houses that were clones of his, the smell of Pledge so overwhelming it caused his sinuses to seize up, John normally smirked his way through those evenings, able to keep his cool as long as his glass was refilled on a fairly constant basis. That night he'd snapped. On this last tour he'd been down to one meal a day, because he was handing out his MRE allotment to kids whose eyelids were inflamed due to malnutrition.

That blowhard, Mike Stanyon, whose kids had never missed a meal in their goddamn life, was going on about the hajis and the habibs and the ragheads and how a lot more bombs would clean up that little problem in Afghanistan. John held it in until Stanyon, getting off on everyone else's approving grins, added that the U.S. should napalm the Pakistani border while they were at it.

"We cut off their escape route and show that little motherfucker Musharraf that we're sick of this pissing match. He wants to hide those bastards during the winter months, we should light up that border like a Christmas tree."

John turned away from Nancy so that he wouldn't see her glare. "You want to kick the terrorists out of Afghanistan? Give the people tractors, seed, miles of irrigation hoses, and stop strafing their land, and they'll do it for you."

It was only out of respect for Nancy that everyone just ignored him. Otherwise, the men probably would have hauled him into the backyard and beaten him to a pulp.

Nancy had finished their post-divorce drink with something between a grimace and a grin. "Knew right then and there I was either going to get a divorce or get fired."

His bedroom with Nancy hadn't had a Playstation on the bedside table, nor did it have surfboards stacked in the corner. They'd had pillows. Lots of pillows. Something like seven pillows apiece, but he wasn't allowed to use any of them for sleeping because they were decorator pillows or, even worse, shams. Apparently human heads weren't designed for decorator pillows or shams. Early on in furniture-buying hell, Nancy had informed him that they needed to buy a love seat for the bedroom. For the pillows. "We're buying a bed for the pillows?" John had asked and had received the Die, heathen, die a horrible death glare in response. When things began to go really sour, John had been half-tempted to actually use one of the shams to prove that machete-wielding pillow police weren't going to magically appear in the middle of the night and cut off John's head because he had the temerity to use a pillow as, well, a pillow. But even John knew that getting into a fight about pillow shams was the first step toward programming a divorce lawyer on your speed dial.

His old living room had had the current issues of Architectural Digest and Southern Living fanned out on cherry tabletops that never saw dust. Completely unlike the haphazard piles of two-year-old, dog-eared physics journals with "Assholes," "Morons," and "Idiots" written across the front in black Sharpie.

His old garage had contained a Lexus, the lawn mower, and a bunch of rakes. And a 1966 BMW R69S motorcycle, until Nancy had insisted he sell it. He'd pointed out that he was flying Chinooks in Afghanistan, which made the motorcycle more or less like a bike with training wheels. In comparison. She had turned her head in that way she did when she was squashing down the impulse to just rip into him. When she finally turned back around and faced him, she said in a voice that was a hair's-breadth away from a full-blown screech, "When you're away and the phone rings, I always think it's that call. Every time you get on that bike and start it up, I think I'm going to get that call. At least give me a breather when you're home. Please."

So he'd sold it, using the money to buy a Mustang convertible. A 1967 Shelby GT500, with a 428 Cobra jet engine. She must have heard him drive up, because he saw her pull back the living room curtain, stare at the car for a couple of seconds, and then draw the curtains shut. She waited until he was inside before slapping him across the face.

That was a Saturday. By Friday, he'd been served with divorce papers.

It took a few years for John to suss out what had gone wrong, and that he'd set them both up for failure. The guilt wasn't overwhelming anymore, but he still cringed when he gave it any serious thought. Because while he'd loved Nancy, he never should have married her.

John had developed this litmus test for women. He'd bring up golf and time how quickly their eyes glazed over. The average was three minutes. Nancy had not only sat up and began gushing about this new iron she'd just bought, but then she'd invited him to play eighteen holes that Saturday at the country club she belonged to. It turned out that she'd won PGA's Sony Open when she was seventeen. She was going to turn pro when she tore her ACL. Running. John thought he'd died and gone to heaven. A runner and a golfer.

Basically, he'd married his sports buddy. Which wasn't the worst thing in the world. Five golf games and sixty miles later, he had introduced her to his father, and all of a sudden John wasn't the disappointment, the failure, the "bad" son. God help him, he proposed six weeks later. Which was pretty close to being the worst thing in the world, because the real reason he'd married her wasn't that she could shoot a five under par; it was that she was his ticket back home. She was his last hope in building a relationship with his father that wasn't characterized by scorn.

It had worked. A perfect example of that more-tears-shed-by-answered-prayers shit. They got invited to Connecticut at least once a month. Dave and his wife liked her. His mother was dead by then, but his father adored her. The fatal flaw in this plan was, of course, John.

Given what everyone else they knew did Monday through Friday and what they had parked in their garages and how they actually liked to spend their Saturday mornings mowing their lawns and their Saturday afternoons dropping thousands of dollars at Restoration Hardware, he didn't blame her. Not in the least. If he'd been Nancy, he'd have filed for divorce too.

He tried. He really tried, and it wasn't her fault that she wanted the three-car garage and that acre of grass and the 2.1 kids and enough pillows to kit up a small army. Because while he hadn't pretended that he wanted those things too, he'd pretended that it was okay that she wanted them. And it wasn't. It took five years and the bottom of a few bottles of Jack to come to the conclusion that he hadn't done it on purpose. He hoped like hell that she never realized how he'd used her to win Patrick Sheppard's approval. John had done some pretty rotten things in his life, but that was the lowest of the low. The only thing that saved him from abject self-disgust was that he had loved her. But not enough.

He had to admit that while he'd been freaked out by the fact that he and Rodney were lovers, the house didn't bug him at all. If you accepted the basic premise, it was precisely the sort of house he and Rodney would have and, well, cool.

He couldn't imagine Rodney spending any time whatsoever at a mall, as Rodney pretty much hated humanity en masse. Plus he believed that anything that couldn't be ordered online wasn't worth having. That meant shopping would have been limited to food and beer. And the only reason why Rodney might balk at surfboards in the bedroom would be if they interfered with the wireless. Rodney might call his boards "deathtraps," but they'd probably had spent hours, if not days, obsessing about the physics and math of the boards versus the force of the water. Hell, Rodney probably designed those boards just to prove how wrong all surfboard designers were. Their house here smelled of the sea, everywhere he turned. The house in Virginia had smelled of freshly mowed grass, privilege, and propriety.

Thinking about his failed marriage always depressed the hell out of him, and he sighed with relief when they pulled into a parking lot.

It was still on the early side, so the diner wasn't full. A young-ish waitress, who had biker chick written all over her from the six ear piercings to the tattoo on her bicep, yelled across the diner when she saw them walk in: "Hey, my favorite customers. It's Rodney and John, everyone. Move over," she barked, thumping the shoulder of a kid sitting at the far end of the counter. "You're in John's seat."

He didn't say a word but moved over a few stools.

"We sure have cred here," John murmured.

"Cadman's niece," Rodney muttered back and began walking to their seats. "Who is married to Carson, by the way. Cadman, I mean."

"She married a clone?"

"A strange woman. I ought to know. They make us look normal. Anyway, the apple doesn't fall far from that tree. As in, she could kill you with her right hand while her left pours you a cup of coffee. She's getting a degree in physics at U.C. Santa Cruz. I tried to convince her to go somewhere with a modicum of credibility, but she likes it here."

Before they'd even sat down, a couple of coffee mugs with "John" and "Rodney" painted on them were on the counter and filled to the top.

"What you doing here today, Doc? Thought you taught at Beserkley on Fri—" She stopped. "John? What's wrong?"

Jeez, how times had changed, because twenty years ago Rodney couldn't lie to save his life, and now he said without missing a beat, "Death in the family, Karen. Actually, you mind if we take a booth? John needs some space."

Without waiting for an answer, Rodney picked up their mugs and moved them to a booth way in the back.

John followed. He must look pretty bad in comparison to the other John if Rodney felt compelled to hustle him to a table less than two feet from the bussing station. Rodney hadn't changed much physically. His hair was mostly gone, and what was left was heavily streaked with gray. Power still lurked underneath the width of his shoulders, and strong thighs still strained against the fabric of his pants when he walked. The slight paunch was gone; the treadmill had taken care of that. The hand flailing hadn't changed at all, either in intensity or frequency, which made John want to laugh. And the blue of Rodney's eyes, oh, the same, the same.

"We… We come here. You and I. Have lunch a couple of times a week."

John looked around. "Seems like a nice place."

Rodney didn't respond, didn't affirm. His mouth pursed into a deep frown. Grooves appeared on either side of his mouth, making him look jowly and old. "So, how bad has it been? Since." Rodney pushed the cup of coffee toward him.

John grabbed a napkin from the dispenser and began making a paper airplane.

"Court martial?"

John nodded.

They used cheap napkins in this place; he'd never be able to get it to fly much farther than Rodney's ear. Which became moot when Rodney snatched the napkin away from him.

"I am not playing twenty million questions with you. What happened?"

"What do you think happened? With the wormhole." John changed the subject in an attempt to stall.

"My theory? They created simultaneous dimensions. Even with your surprising mathematical abilities, it's a level of quantum mechanics understandable by one person and one person only. Hint, it is not Radek Zelenka. Or he wouldn't have been so cavalier about mucking about with those exponentials. He's lucky he's several galaxies away, or I'd beat him senseless with this napkin dispenser."

"Is the other John, your John, is he, you know, in my world." If John had tumbled into this world, what had happened to that other John Sheppard? Was he now kneeling on the floor of that skanky bar, his kneecaps grinding peanut shells to dust, trying to stave off that knife-wielding drunk one-handed? "Are there two of me? Um, the other… Was your Sheppard bounced into my life, and I was bounced into his?"

"No," Rodney was still frowning, but the tension in John's shoulders eased up a fraction. "This is not Back to the Present Meets the Two Faces of Eve. Mention the flux capacitor and I will start shrieking."

"Flux capacitor," John whispered. At Rodney's glare, he grinned and cupped a hand to an ear. "Don't hear any shrieking."

"I'm shrieking on the inside," he hissed.

"I can't believe that still gets you going. You're a pushover, McKay." John couldn't believe how gratifying it was to see Rodney's mouth frown into a slanted grimace. Nobody in five galaxies had a mouth as expressive as McKay's. He waited for the explosion.

"I am not a pushover! I just can't stand to see basic physics reduced to the two a.m. ramblings of some L.A. scriptwriter who never inhaled without a getting a lungful of Columbia's finest. And I'm not talking coffee. Of course if one's brain is subjected to…"

"McKay. Two Sheppards or one?"

"One. I'm certain. The diagnostics will confirm it, but no doubt it's an interesting extension of the relativity of simultaneity using Lorentz transformations. At some point, when I've stopped having my little silent stroke over this business, I'll write it up."

John clamped down on the flutter in his gut. Because if Rodney knew what had happened, then there was a possibility that this was reversible.

"I admit I'm a little rusty on my math, but if we're talking about Lorentz transforms, then you're saying that I lived both these lives simultaneously because of a shift in the wormhole coordinates."

Kind of a bitch that in both universes he was facing surgery for this stupid shoulder (although it wasn't the same shoulder), but interesting that at least on that score there seemed to be absolutes. Why couldn't one of the absolutes have been Rodney, Teyla, and Ronon surviving?

"Yes and no. Radek added an exponent, which created this different state of motion, where two events—at different points in space—occurred at precisely the same time. My reality, with the John Sheppard who has finally admitted that the flux capacitor is a bunch of hooey…"

When John didn't say anything, Rodney's forehead scrunched up in bewilderment.

"John, you're supposed to interrupt me. Call me on my ridiculous lie."

"Sorry, didn't hear my cue. Liar," John drawled, in what he hoped was a reasonable facsimile.

There it was again, just for a second, that deep frown.

"Okay, perhaps he is just as evil and immature as you appear to be and taunts me with it several times a week. Anyway, our reality happened, me and that skateboarding idiot exist in our window of time and space, and then when Radek made the modifications, it affected only you because those two seconds when you walked through the wormhole were the precise two seconds affected. It's really quite fascinating…"

And he was off, rattling away about time and relativity and space and non-deterministic, chaotic matrix equations over time and using a fixed background space-time to define states on space-like surfaces and the unitary evolution between them and…

Any other time, even as broken-down and beaten-up as John was after twenty years of downhill sliding, he probably would have found this interesting. Not that he would have understood more than ten percent of it, but still. One minute into Rodney's spiel, anyone with an I.Q. below 140 would have been lost. John's I.Q. used to be 150, but he'd probably killed a few points over the years, given the amount of alcohol he'd consumed and the crap he'd smoked. At about the ninety-second mark, John didn't bother to listen to the actual words or attempt to follow the math. He focused on the timbre of Rodney's voice, the words tumbling over each other, the passion and joy and…

At some point, Karen came by to refill their coffee mugs. Rodney didn't even see her, he was so wrapped up in the physics of it all, covering napkin after napkin in equations. How, even though this was terrible and horrible, just imagine, one man, two lifetimes, it was so amazing. It had been years and years since he'd heard McKay ramble on and on, cooing over theories and equations that met with the McKay seal of approval, scorn and derision for those theorists and physicists who fell short. John sat there relishing being in Rodney's presence once again, noting all the old familiar gestures, how little had changed.

Maybe, maybe one thing had changed. Rodney had always radiated this nebula of energy, whether complaining about the heat or the distance to the puddlejumper or the food or the stupidity of the fill-in-the-blank. Everything Rodney did had several exponentials attached to it. Fortunately for them, that also applied to his genius. And while there were now countless napkins strewn all over the table, there was a calm in his voice, somewhere in the center. The edge was missing, the desperation, the petulance that had characterized Rodney for so many years.


"I stopped talking about Lorentz transforms five minutes ago. What happened after the court martial? The details of which you can leave out, because I've been through one military tribunal, and the one thing that I can say about it is that it gave me a bucket load of pointers on how to effectively humiliate someone to the point of suicide."

Pretty damn accurate description, but then again, Rodney had always been a genius.

"Kicked around."

Rodney threw a napkin in his face and based on the expression on his face might have clocked John, if Karen hadn't come up to take their order.

"I'm sorry for your loss, John."

Rodney nudged him under the table and he mumbled out a thanks.

"Same ole?"

He nodded and hoped it was turkey. He hadn't had a good turkey sandwich in ages, and given Rodney's near-psychotic relationship with what he put in his mouth, this place probably served pretty good food.


"Turkey, but on rye. Double the mustard and kill the mayo. Cholesterol's up again."

John waited until Karen had left. "Since when do you eat turkey?"

"Since the heart attack. Since when are you chickenshit? "

John didn't dignify that with a reply. It wasn't true, but he really didn't see the point in cataloguing his spectacular crash and burn from flying puddlejumpers in another galaxy to piloting helicopters for traffic DJs.

"Why are people staring at us? We normally the floor show?"

All of the staff stood huddled in a corner of the restaurant, watching them.

"They're concerned, you jackass. Because you look like your best friend died, that's why," Rodney hissed. "One thing about flinging around that sleaze-ball charm of yours. Hello? It charms people. It floors me that you never got this. You, the you I know, still doesn't get it, either. Which is ridiculously endearing. In a rather dopey sort of way. You charm people and then you wonder why they like you. If you were an asshole, which we both know you can be given the right circumstances, people would hate you and then ignore you. Like you want."

That easy "hey, buddy" thing John had had going for so many years had disappeared the day Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla died. His asshole skills, however, were doing a-okay.

He slumped back in his seat and closed his eyes. "He did die. My best friend did die."

When he opened his eyes, Karen stood there with their orders balanced on her arm. Rodney said in a tight voice, "We'll take those to go. Include a six pack of Fat Tire."

"The waves look pretty good today."

"I sit here and watch you surf. My blood pressure 310 over 200 the entire time."

They sat on a bluff overlooking the ocean, eating their sandwiches, sipping their beers, watching the wipe outs.

"You ever get your Nobel?"

That got a chuckle.


"Yes, but not for my real achievements. After nearly dying, yet again, on some God-forsaken planet where every single inch of arable land was planted with citrus crops—imagine how intellectually stunted you have to be to worship a lemon—I said enough was enough. I took a six-month leave, worked with some top geneticists, and bio-engineered a cure. I figured if Carson could do it, how hard could it be? Not that I don't, didn't—God, I'm still not sure about this clone business—love the man, because I do, did, but he isn't, or wasn't, a genius by anyone's standards, just fairly intelligent. Plus it's just engineering, but with cells," Rodney tossed off. As if it were nothing. Developing a bio-genetic cure for fatal allergic reactions. But stacked up against Rodney's other achievements, John agreed it was small potatoes.

"I'd be in the running for sure once this paper I'm going to write on John Sheppard, Time Cheater, appears. But they won't give me two. Bastards. To think I shot my wad for the luxury of having a glass of orange juice with my morning coffee."

Only Rodney McKay would complain about getting a Nobel Prize.

All those missions, with a stash of epi-pens in his tac vest.

"I wish I could have been there. To see you get that Nobel."

The miracles Rodney had pulled off. He had deserved it a million times over.

A pinkie touched his as it lay on the grass.

"You were."

"No, I wasn't." John covered Rodney's hand with his own.

"For my fiftieth birthday, you took me to Valencia in Spain, and we stood in an orchard when it was in full bloom." Rodney flipped over his hand and squeezed.

There wasn't anything to say after that. They stayed for another hour, in silence, holding hands, watching the surfers, until the top of Rodney's head began to fry, and then headed home.

The first thing John did when they got back to the house was to open all the living room windows, letting the sea breeze flow through, cleaning out the stuffiness brought on by the afternoon sun.

When he'd opened the last one, he turned around to find Rodney staring at him.


"You… You do that. The first thing. Because…" Rodney stopped and closed his eyes. "Because you say it smells like home." He didn't wait for John to reply but turned around and headed straight for the kitchen.

"It's too early for this, but goddammit…" Rodney was muttering as he unearthed a bottle of Jack from one of the cupboards. "This is more your coma of choice, but I'm going to have a nervous breakdown if I don't numb myself a bit. Want a snort?"

John nodded and eased himself into a seat at the table.

Rodney got a couple of highball glasses down from the cupboard and filled them nearly to the top.

"That's a snort? And classy." John held up the glass, which had a picture of William Shatner as Kirk emblazoned on the front.

"Given current events, you're lucky I'm not chugging directly from the bottle. We bought a set of twenty-four at a Star Trek convention we went to a few years ago. Only proving, once and for all, that collectively we have an emotional age of about twenty-two."

Rodney took a big swig.

"Drink up. Because you need to tell me what in the hell happened over the last twenty years so that I have some idea of what we're looking at. I doubt it will give me any insight into what went wrong with the wormhole, but at this point we're grasping at straws. I need to know, John!"

It wasn't a pretty story. For six months after the court martial, he'd been sober one day in ten. Then he cut down on the boozing and spent a number of years flying for the majors. He got fired. A lot.

"For insubordination?"

John nodded. Word got around, no one would hire him. He'd made a lot of money in those years. As his needs had been minimal, he spent four years in

Hawaii living in a coffee shack. He surfed every day. Then the money ran out, and he started flying private jets. He got fired. A lot.

"For insubordination?"

"You think?"

Flying corporate execs around the country dredged up ugly childhood crap. Most CEOs were clones of his father: the clipped walk, the impatience with everything and everyone. Time was their bitch. No matter how well and fast he flew, it was never fast enough. It was like being thirteen again and wearing the "My Brother is the Good Kid. I'm the Fucked-Up One" tee-shirt. Except he was flying a Gulfstream G500. So, no big surprise, he acted like he was thirteen. Surly and sarcastic, he didn't last long on that circuit, but he made good bucks until they fired him.

He spent the next three years in Thailand, living in a lean-to off the beach in Phuket. Flirted with an opium habit. His money ran out, and it was either sell opium or come home. He flipped a coin. He came home. The only job he could get was flying a helicopter for a news station in San Francisco. It sucked, but the traffic DJ he worked with was nice, so it wasn't total torture. Only mild torture. He was flying the morning shift, six to ten. By noon, most days, after he'd wound up his shift, he had his choice of bars along hotel row near the airport. On a good day he wouldn't drink his lunch. On a really good week, he'd hook up with someone for the afternoon. Quantas housed their airline staff at the Westin, and on Fridays the bar would be filled with a bunch of Kiwis and Aussies looking for a good time.

"Tell me. What happened? In this world. With that John." He pointed at a picture of himself on the wall, his face split by a wide, goofy grin, holding a barbecue fork in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other, wearing a chef's apron emblazoned with the words, "How do you like your Wraith? Dead or Well-Dead?"

"Like the apron? Ronon humor. Who didn't die when the wall collapsed. You got hurt, of course, but…"

And it was what should have come down. All of it. The last twenty years of feeling that it wasn't real, that what had happened hadn't really happened, turned out to be true. He'd put it down to wishful thinking, something to hold on to so that he didn't drink himself to death, and it was gratifying on some level that at least somewhere in time, he'd been right. It hadn't happened.

"We're still on Atlantis?"

Rodney finished off his drink.

"It's still home, John. This is our vacation home." Rodney flailed a hand. "We rent the place next door, too. We're probably… We were thinking of buying it. Besides Ronon and Teyla, most people can't stand to be in close proximity to us for any length of time. It's universally acknowledged that as a couple we are the most irritating fucks on the face of this Earth, so when family comes to visit at Christmas, they stay there."

"We retired?" John knew full well how inflexible USAF was, and he couldn't envision having the sort of time off that Rodney was describing.

"You're not officially retired, but you've got some special appointment. O'Neill made some snide remark once about having to pass an act of Congress just so you could get out of doing paperwork and golf and surf whenever you wanted and still get paid, but I'm sure he was joking. You're not civilian exactly, but flexible enough so that we can take time off. Destroying the Wraith racked up a lot of brownie points. Lorne's the official military commander of Atlantis, but you're still the top guy. Which means he does the paperwork. And Radek's officially the science chief, but I'm still the top guy. Which means he does the paperwork."

Wow. Rodney plowed on.

"It's a ridiculously cushy situation, but, goddammit, we've earned it." Rodney poured them another glass. "We come here for two weeks in the late spring, so you can surf, indulging your inner fourteen year old, while I indulge in near heart failure by watching you. Then we have a month at Christmas. It's ho-ho-ho central here. Jeannie and Caleb usually come down. Mads flew back when she was at school. She works with Radek now. Finished her Ph.D. at MIT by twenty-four."

"Imagine that. Did I send her thesis adviser condolence cards?"

Rodney gave him his evil scientist smile. "No, you did not, because I was her thesis adviser. You sent her condolence cards. She did phenomenal, ground-breaking work on Asgard technology that I'll tell you about later. Even your brother, Dave, and his wife, whose name I can never remember, and I really don't blame her for hating me as a result, stopped by for a visit last year."

"Teyla and Ronon?"

"Every couple of years I call in a bunch of favors and they come down with their families. Ronon's got six boys, but his wife's planet has some crazy prohibition against taking pictures of children until they reach maturity, so we don't have pictures of them. But given her, you can imagine the size of these kids. They make Ronon look like a midget. Oh, Christ, I'm not supposed to say that. Okay, they make Ronon look tiny."

"It only took sixty years for you to develop some tact. And they said he couldn't be taught."

God, that sounded just like the old him.

Rodney opened his mouth to deliver some, no doubt, massively sarcastic response when his laptop pinged. Rodney grabbed it and muttered, "Radek, your Czech ass is mine unless…" His fingers started flying.

John took that as an opportunity to check out the backyard. The sliding glass doors opened on to a small deck with two deck chairs, with stairs down to pavers. Nice. Big California oak stood in one corner. Barbecue pit in the other corner. Not much in the way of anything green, but given that they weren't here most of the year, a lawn didn't make sense. Two long redwood picnic tables had been laid end to end. Several umbrellas were dotted over the entire yard to shield Rodney from the sun. John plopped down into one of the deck chairs and tilted his head up, soaking up the sun. He hadn't been there very long when Rodney came out, cradling the laptop in one hand, his other fist clenched tight.

"Meds," was all he said, dropped two pills in John's lap, and then went back into the kitchen. John swallowed them down with a slug of Jack and then promptly fell asleep.

When he woke up it was dark. Rodney had thrown a blanket over him as a buffer against the in-coming fog and was sitting next to him, his laptop casting a surreal glow on his face. He looked like an extra from "Night of the Living Dead."

He squeezed Rodney's arm. "Any luck?"

"Jesus," Rodney squawked, jumping about six inches. "That you can still do that to me is so pathetic. Radek's still working on it."

"No way to get me back, huh?"

Although Rodney could now lie, he still couldn't lie to John. The tongue running over his bottom lip was a dead giveaway.


"No," he insisted, not looking at John, but keeping his eyes on the screen. "No, no, no."


He slammed the laptop shut.

"No one but me and Radek knows about this. It entails manipulating the coordinates on the Stargate. We decided that it was too powerful. And, in a strange way, it's pointless. We're pretty sure that if it was successful, and people could time travel, they wouldn't carry the knowledge necessary to change specific events. Plus, it's all theoretical, hasn't been tested. You could… You could physically fracture, and I mean blow-up in a million pieces if… I'm not using you as the first guinea pig. Radek and I. We agreed that we'd never. No."

Without so much as a glance in John's direction, he got up and marched into the house.

John would give him five minutes.

Even if John took the gay out of this equation (not insignificant by any means but when in Rome), he couldn't help but wonder what it was about him and Rodney that worked. Because even though he'd certainly uttered the words "until death do us part," John hadn't thought about him and Nancy getting old together. That was grayed out, a frigging blank. Not that he'd anticipated getting divorced either, because he might be an asshole, but he wasn't that kind of asshole. He'd thought he loved Nancy, and he knew that she loved him, but the future? A "When I'm Sixty-Four" sort of future? Just nothing.

Did Rodney ignore John's inability to say anything remotely meaningful that wasn't belied by a smirk? Did he just fill in the blanks?

Nancy had tried to do that. In the beginning, John's fervent caresses and languid kisses had been enough. But then they weren't. Then she'd tried to court John's father to win John's approval. Which was what John had wanted, but it only pissed him off. And then after they'd been married for a while and things began looking shaky, his father made veiled comments one night about his mother's alcoholism, and how any deficiencies in John's abilities as a husband should be attributed to that.

Which had enraged John so much that he got up from the dinner table and hitch-hiked home. Because, yeah, he might have commitment and intimacy issues, but they had nothing to do with his mother and everything to do with his father.

So although his past was pretty textbook in terms of relationship failures, this house said different. This house said that whatever mojo he and Rodney had going, it trumped his train wreck of a relationship with his father, his futile love for his mother, and his fucked-up marriage to Nancy.

McKay, the guy who never said the right thing, had, apparently, said all the right things.

Rodney was in their bedroom, his head in his hands. John leaned his good shoulder against the door jamb and counted to ten. He needed more intel before pushing the issue.

"I weather a bit of sand in my shorts, save the day, you deliver Teyla's baby—what I would have given to be a fly on that wall—"

At that Rodney looked up, giving John the how-stupid-can-you-be glare number fourteen.

"The most terrifying experience of my life, thank you very much. Given the encyclopedia of terrifying events I've experienced in the Pegasus galaxy, that's saying something."

"You did good," John said quietly.

That got the two-handed flap. "What in the hell was I supposed to do? Call Dr. Kildare?"

John laughed.

"How did we get from there to…" John paused. "Here…and, um…you and me. Because I'm not…and we seem…"

"Yes, we are. We're happy."

Rodney had the same expression he got on his face when someone said it was impossible that c=g. That combination of arrogance and defensiveness and frustration. Given that Rodney's brain moved sixteen times faster and a hundred steps ahead of most people, his entire life had been spent defending his ideas, and feeling an unholy amount of exasperation because it wasn't his fault he was a billion times smarter than everyone around him.

"Goddamnit!" he shouted. "We are happy. We live together and take drives up and down the coast and you nag me about that goddamn treadmill and I nag you about going to the doctor and we watch the moons rise over Atlantis and we fuck like rabbits and people envy us because we're so happy and it's wonderful and you're standing there with that fucking slouch and—"

"Rodney, calm—"

"Do not tell me to calm down. Don't you dare. This…" Rodney swept his hand across his chest to indicate their bedroom. "I never thought I'd be this happy. I was more than willing to settle for sort of content." The specter of Katie Brown hung in the air. "We are so lucky. This, the computers and the surfboards and the Playstation and the beach house, all of it, this is what happiness looks like. And it doesn't matter that the two people who sleep in this bed have dicks."

"I just don't understand, okay!" John shouted back and then took a couple of deep breaths, trying to dial it down. "I'm not saying we're not happy. I'm just saying… I'm, fuck it, I'm straight. Even at Choate, in the dorms… Or…elsewhere. Nothing. Never."

Rodney's outburst seemed to have deflated him. His shoulders were hunched forward, as if bracing for a blow.

"Yes, well, I know. But you're not with me." Rodney flung a hand in the direction of the living room. "You couldn't have missed those pictures on the wall. You're smiling in every single one of them. Not smirking. Smiling. So do not pull any sort of homophobic crap on me, because I'm this close to having a nervous breakdown as it is, and you getting all Jerry Falwell on me—"

"Hold on, McKay, I'm not getting all… Me. How does this work for me?"

"I don't know."

John cocked his head.

"Do not look at me like that, John. It's not like you volunteer anything personal. Ever."

"Come on, I'm not that—"

"Yes, you are. In fact, I'd say even neurotic about it. Although right now I'm so upset I'd vote for psychotic. I didn't even know you'd been married, and we'd been friends for four goddamn years, John. Then Ronon comes back from your father's funeral and tells me how nice your ex-wife is. So, do not give me any shit about how forthcoming you are or are not. I think we've established that not is the order of the day. We…never talked about it. Us. Ever," he repeated.

"But here's this house and…" John thought of all those photographs, and the bills, the letters, the birthday cards, all pointing to something real and long-lasting. "You let me get away with that?" John knew he could be an asshole on occasion, especially in terms of relationships, but this seemed pretty crappy, even for him.

Rodney's answer was to fall back on the bed and speak to the ceiling.

"Yes, because you don't say things, but you do things. You're always there when I wake up in the infirmary. You made me give up caffeine because it was sending me into atrial fib. You know what I mean when I make oblique Dr. Who references. You punched out the doctor who said that since we weren't married, you couldn't visit me in CCU after the heart attack." He raised himself up. His eyes, that startling blue, pinned him in place. "I say things like, 'Let's buy a house in Santa Cruz. It's near the beach. We can spend Christmases there and you can surf in the spring.' And you say, 'Yep, sounds like a plan,' or I get the eyebrow of doom, and I drop the subject. On the house thing, I got a yep."

What was truly frightening was that John could see this happening. Except…

"Rodney, I don't say 'yep.' "

"You do now. You picked that up during our ride 'em cowboy phase. I will spare you the details. Anyway, I don't know why this works for you. For me? You… Besides making my heart go pitty-pat, still? You make me the best person I can possibly be, given that I am, at heart, a selfish and insensitive jerk. So, yes, I let you get away with it. It wasn't…it's not important. In the grand scheme of things. We," Rodney turned his face away for a second, "are good together. Not just the sex. That's fantastic. Even now. But in general. Good. Maybe even perfect. Given that we are two of the most fucked-up people in six galaxies."

If John forgot about the part with the gay sex, it made total sense.

In the beginning, he'd had nightly debates with himself about whether Rodney's tendency to fuck-up outweighed what his brilliance brought to the team dynamic. Some missions it was definitely a wash. Listening to Rodney's endless complaints and whining about his allergies and his back and how stupid everyone else was had made him think that at some point Rodney would force his hand, because clearly he was constitutionally incapable of not doing or saying something monumentally stupid. And gradually it dawned on John that while Rodney certainly caused a fair share of the fuck-ups, this was Pegasus and missions tended to be a clusterfuck regardless, forcing John to push Rodney to his limits. Damn if Rodney hadn't pushed back. So maybe not so surprising, this mojo.

Sure, complaining was pretty synonymous with breathing in McKay land, and he shot off his mouth, but when there was ass-saving to be done, McKay was there with his scanner and his computer and his laptop and his citrus allergy and his hypoglycemia and his bone-rattling terror, while doing the bravest shit ever. He was at least honest about how totally frightened he was, which endeared him to John in a strange way, because he'd honed his brass balls in the service, where you never let your fear show. Rodney's fear was all over the place, but it never stopped him. Which was so frigging stand-up that John couldn't help but admire him. And the number of people John really, truly admired could be counted on one hand.

Then one day he and Elizabeth had been arguing about John's insistence that all personnel, scientists included, take hand-to-hand combat training and spend one hour a week minimum at the firing range. Getting Rodney on board was critical, and he had been willing to fight dirty to get his way (as in bogarting all his popcorn rations). Before they entered the lab, they'd heard Rodney talking to someone. John had been on the verge of turning around and shelving the argument for another day when he heard what Rodney was saying.

"Oh, you beautiful thing, you. I don't know what you do, but I'm going to find out."

Elizabeth and John had traded conspiratorial smiles and poked their heads around the doorway. Rodney had been holding some Ancient tech in his hands, and was turning it over and over, staring at it in total adoration and awe, like a pilgrim who'd just witnessed a miracle at Lourdes. And as frustrating as the Ancients were (and Rodney railed and complained about them at least twenty times a day), Rodney had much more in common with them in terms of his intelligence than he had with ninety-nine percent of the people around him, even his hand-picked scientists. John often wondered if Rodney ever felt angry at being born ten thousand years too late. Like, why couldn't you have waited for me?

Elizabeth had pulled on his arm, and he'd followed her down the hall.

"He's like a kid in a candy store, isn't he?" she murmured, not hiding the affection in her voice.

John had known then that he'd resign rather than let anyone take McKay off his team. Rodney shared his love of Atlantis, and that whatever shit came down, it was worth it.

Rodney's blanket refusal to respect John's walls had nothing to do with one-up-manship (like most people, especially the USAF brass) or an attempt to elicit love (like his wife and other women he'd gone out with). Rodney was just clueless. So while everyone else pissed him off, because why couldn't they give a guy some breathing room, Rodney had no concept that he was running roughshod over John's personal space, and John just didn't have a defense against that. If John was matter, Rodney was anti-matter, a comparison that would have had him sputtering in outrage, but it was true. It took someone as brash, arrogant, clueless, and oddly innocent as Rodney McKay to get under John's skin, precisely because he was incapable of heeding all the patented Sheppard warning signs. He just didn't see them, or he didn't give a shit. John didn't know which. In the end it didn't matter. Rodney went where no one had gone before, destroying John's defenses without so much as a backward glance.

Even that might not have made a difference, except that Rodney shared John's rigid sense of "yes" and "no." As in, yes, I can fly that jumper into a nuclear blast and kill the Hive ship and escape, or get the shields up using the leftover milk in my cereal bowl and a couple of toothpicks. But even more importantly, they said the same "no." As in, no, I'm not leaving anyone behind. No, it's not acceptable to lose anyone. And as much as the four of them were a team, he and Rodney were the team within the team. The primo gene/fly guy worked with the half-assed gene/genius guy, and together they did the impossible.

The last time John had been jealous of another human being had been the Christmas he was ten and Dave got a horse and he got a pair of skates. He hadn't even become jealous when he was passed over for promotion because of his attitude or when lesser pilots were given commendations and he wasn't. Because he knew his worth in the air.

Now he found himself jealous of himself. Because this other self had continued to fight the fight with Rodney, do the impossible, emerging victorious and whole and sane and happy. Did his other self knew how precious this was? Did he take it for granted? Did he know how bad it could actually get? How you could have the metaphorical shit kicked out of you until there was nothing left but a shell of who you once were.

He came over to the bed and sat down next to Rodney, their thighs just touching. The crack about Falwell stung. John had never been homophobic; he'd been people phobic. Which Rodney knew, and John knew he knew, but still.

"Was all that trash talk about women—especially Sam Carter—real or just blowing smoke? And what about Katie Brown?"

That got the McKay Definitive Snort of Scorn.

"Anyone, male or female, who doesn't find Sam Carter freaking gorgeous is blind, and, no, Katie wasn't some pathetic attempt at normalcy. It wasn't blowing smoke, as you so eloquently put it. I happen to like fucking women, and if I have something of a breast fetish, hello, so do most men I know. It turns out that I also have something of a dick fetish. But even I, with the social skills of Attila the Hun, know that commenting on how that Marine is sure hung like a horse and wouldn't I love to wrap my mouth around that piece would be a very painful form of suicide, considering that Atlantis is a military installation. Give me a fucking break, John."


"I'm an equal opportunity slut, sort of by default."


"Yes, default. Even with hormones so raging that I typed my first Ph.D. thesis with one hand while I jerked off with the other, I am not attracted to anyone with an I.Q. below 130; I don't care what they look like. That cuts down on the pool of potential hook-ups like you wouldn't believe. Then, while getting my second Ph.D., Brian Choiu was on simulation number five thousand and forty-three and I was sitting at the next computer and on simulation number six thousand and four, and we both realized that if we didn't get laid, or some deviation thereof, we'd kill someone. Being that he was only four feet away, and neither of us wanted to die, it seemed, well, prudent to jerk each other off."

Based on the intense flush of Rodney's cheeks, John betted that even his toes were blushing.


"Yes, prudent," Rodney protested and jutted his chin up in a defiant gesture. Sure. As if it wasn't merely a case of being horny to the point of insanity. John raised an eyebrow. "Put that eyebrow back where it belongs, John Sheppard. I didn't want to die at twenty-five, and Brian had beautiful hands. At that point, only an idiot wouldn't have realized that if you included men as potential partners, it automatically doubled the pool. And considering that sixty percent of the people that I met in a given day had Ph.D.s, there was at least a possibility, remotely, given my personality, that I could get laid. Once in a while. Like every six months. If I was lucky."

John spread his hands. "Well, when you put it like that, why not add dolphins? They're in the pool already."

Rodney had been staring down at the floor, not meeting John's eyes while explaining the McKay Theory of Sexual Relativity, but at this he jerked up and got off the bed, stumbling a little as he made his way to the door.


In a voice so tight it sounded like someone was strangling him, he turned around and ground out, "Can you please forestall the stupid, cocky humor for once in your fucking life, John? I'd appreciate at least the appearance of sincerity. I'm trying to explain what I don't understand, at all—and you can imagine how well that goes over with me—but we work. We work so well that I have this overwhelming urge to ram my fist against your jaw. Because if it's the all-sarcasm, all-the-time channel… I'm facing the very real possibility that this is gone, forever, and you're treating this, this relationship as if it's nothing more than a twenty-year-long movie night. Pass the goddamn popcorn."

All this came out of the side of Rodney's mouth, anger, frustration, grief, and several other emotions John couldn't name, although he'd bet the other John could.

Way to be a total asshole, Sheppard.

"Sorry, I'll rein it in."

Although he'd made his voice as neutral as possible, Rodney narrowed his eyes and studied him for the smallest smirk or trace of snide. Whatever Rodney saw, it passed muster, because he said in a quiet voice, "I'll…make us something to eat. I need something other than booze in me. I'm six seconds away from nose-diving into a hellacious crying jag."

And just like nearly every day on Atlantis, John heard himself say, "When did you last eat, McKay?"

Rodney's face crumpled again. "Let me… Let me…"

And he was across the bedroom, hauling John off the bed into an embrace. One-armed, John hugged him back with equal fervor, because he didn't understand this, but losing Rodney had been like losing a limb. Losing Teyla and Ronon was tough, but if it had just been the two of them, he'd have weathered it, because he would have had McKay. Losing Rodney, too? Way to take a flamethrower to his soul.

Rodney smelled of coffee and lavender. John had gotten endless mileage out of the goat's milk soap that Rodney had ordered by the caseload every Daedalus run. Specially made in Canada, with Canadian goats, scented with Canadian lavender. Probably lathered up in proper little Canadian soap suds. Packed by Canadian hands into precious wooden boxes made from Canadian fir. Perfect for his sensitive skin. The only soap in the entire universe—something that Rodney could say without too much hyperbole—that didn't give him hives. Oh yeah, endless mileage. John would bet that not even twenty feet away in the bathroom down the hall, a bar of that stupid lavender-scented soap sat right next to his bar of Irish Spring, and somehow the thought of those two bars of soap, side by side, made him hug Rodney even harder.

Ten seconds turned into twenty, then thirty, then Rodney pulled away and gestured to the kitchen. "Why don't you make us some coffee? With the amount of codeine and booze in your bloodstream, I don't think you should handle anything sharp. I'll make us some quick and dirty spaghetti. Filters are in the cupboard above the coffee pot. Coffee's in the fridge."

Making the coffee took no time, and he watched Rodney throw together some pasta and sauce out of a jar with his usual manic efficiency.

They ate in silence, letting the carbs soak up what was left of the booze. After his third cup of coffee, John got up the nerve to ask, "Us?"

"Like I said, we didn't talk about it, but Torren, Teyla's baby, changed everything. Think, John. We'd been surrounded by death for years. Ford, Carson, Elizabeth, Heightmeyer, and then all of a sudden there was this baby. This life. And you know how I feel about children. Unless a person can speak in complete sentences and has a working knowledge of calculus, I don't consider them human. Although I have to admit, Kavanagh speaks in full sentences and can do basic math, but he's a Neanderthal in scientist clothing. Regrettably, there are always anomalies. Anyway, it affected all of us on the most profound level. Even me. People began pairing up and not just as a fuck buddies thing. We began to think of Atlantis as a city, not a military base with lots of cool tech." Rodney leaned over to finish John's leftover pasta. "I wish Elizabeth could see it. As it is now. It's the city she deserved."

Some deaths he'd never get over. Mourning them wasn't a process. There was no closure, no acceptance. Just plain loss. Day in. Day out.

"And we…"

"No, not right away, but I think Torren was part of it. It was after the Wraith attack, the sequel to the sequel to the sequel to the sequel; the usual. Not enough power to cloak the city. Radek and I did something that saved the day. You did your suicide mission thing. And it all worked out. I'm too tired to go into the details. Suffice it to say, it wasn't any different than the previous five million and seven Wraith attacks, and we all played our parts to perfection. Once the dust had settled, I assumed that it was business as usual. Apparently not. A couple of nights later, reeking of booze, you stumbled into my room, and without so much as a 'Hey, Rodney,' you kissed me."

What the hell? Jeopardizing his career for starters. Manhandling Rodney. Not his usual style. Manhandling Rodney in a totally gay way. Jesus. Getting tanked to do it. Not that John was the most introspective of people, but that said to him that he had really wanted to do it, but wasn't sure about the reception, and was using the booze as a hetero escape hatch. As in, if McKay rebuffed him, he could pass it off as some alcohol-induced insanity. Like maybe it was someone else's room and it was dark and he was drunk.

"And you were cool with that?"

Rodney's cheeks, still flushed from the alcohol, deepened to the most intense crimson.

"I had never… I hadn't let myself…because it was obvious that you… But when it… In a word, hell, yes. I wish I could say that I had tremendous moral fiber and rejected your advances on the grounds that you were shitfaced and didn't know what you were doing. But the fact is I was a total whorebag and had your clothes off before you could say 'Oh, Canada.' "

"And this didn't get my gay ass bounced?"

Rodney sniffed at him in warning, and John held his hands up in surrender.

"No, you dunce! The last thing I wanted to do was jeopardize your authority and status on Atlantis. We were as discreet as hell. We're still discreet. We share a suite, but that happened even before we, um, anyway, when I got that bad case of pneumonia and I refused to stay in the infirmary."

Rodney's mouth twisted into that asymmetrical grin.


"You'll love this. I was lying on my bed, my lungs hurting like you wouldn't believe, giving serious consideration to downing a glass of orange juice, because if my lungs were collapsing anyway, I might as well enjoy myself while dying. You appeared with a wad of C4 in your hand, maneuvered me into the hallway, and blew up the wall separating my room from the one next to me. You'd already moved your stuff in there. Apparently, you couldn't sleep at night because you had your com miked to me and all that fighting for breath was keeping you awake. It was very, very sweet. Plus, I think you just wanted to blow something up that day and I was a good excuse."

John nodded. "Some days are like that. Pneumonia?"

"Excuse me. The only person who did not come back from that mission ill was you. It was the planet of endless monsoons, and I'd been soaking wet for three solid days. Funny, they wanted to trade potable water for military issue boots and rain slickers. Even Ronon caught a cold."

All this history that had been his, and yet it wasn't his at all. But it sounded just like him. Hearing Rodney on the com, gasping for breath, thinking, fuck it. Telling Woolsey he wanted to move next to McKay, getting the okay, because everyone was really worried about him. Requisitioning some C4 and putting down rat abatement as the ostensible reason—although there were no rats on Atlantis—and then blowing up the wall between their two rooms. It was so him, and to not have any recall of this at all was freaking him out. It was like he'd been in a coma, had just woken up, and Rodney was telling him about the last season of their favorite television show. He knew the cast, but he didn't know the scripts.

"So we're super discreet, but how could people not know?"

"I assume they know now, but we were never out to make any political statements. We don't abuse the privilege and that makes the brass happy. Plus, once you defeated the Wraith, you were asbestos. Nothing changed between us, John, except that we tore the sheets up at night. Everything else was the same. Same banter, same respect, same fights, same dynamic. It was as if we'd been partners all along and the only thing missing was the sex."

John rubbed his face, knowing that wouldn't bring any sort of enlightenment, but he pretended that it helped when he was completely confused.

"Was I…the next day?"

"Want that topped? No pun intended. You know, no matter what they say, decaffeinated coffee just doesn't taste the same. I'm never forgiving you—"

"For extending your life by twenty years?"

"Something like that. You were…" Rodney put the coffee pot back and stood there for several seconds not moving, again, with his back to John. When he turned around, his voice was steady. "You were…magnificent. To be honest, I lay awake all night, listening to you breathe. I was absolutely convinced that when you woke up and saw me next to you in bed, you'd have a mother of a fit, put it down to the booze, race back to your quarters to wash off the queer, and never look me in the eye again."

Sort of like how this morning would have come down in other circumstances.

Rodney ran a hand along the top of his head, his fingers splayed, as if he still had hair.

"You woke up. I saw the confusion on your face, then the memory of where you were and what we'd done kicked in, and I braced myself."

"I wasn't a jerk, not even a little?"

Because, well, it's been known to happen.

"No. Oh, I got a rare Sheppard blush, and you wouldn't look me in the eyes for about ten minutes, but you hugged me, and all you said was, 'Give me time. We take this slow. I don't know what in the hell I'm doing.' That was that."

Pegasus had thrown John some pretty nasty curve balls—he brought a finger up to his bug scar and gave it a scratch—but this was something he never would have envisioned. It wasn't nasty, no, but definitely scary and strange. John had never had that anti-gay thing going that a lot of military guys did. He had never tolerated any sort of gay bashing on his watch, but he understood it was a sort of self-defense in a way. Stupid self-defense, but self-defense nevertheless, because you were living, eating, and showering with a bunch of men, and it's not like you take anti-libido pills when you enlist. So whatever yahs-yahs weren't exercised out of you hung in the air.

There were times when he'd been in bunkhouses where the testosterone was so high, the walls were shaking from it. A bunch of sweaty guys, who are handling weapons (nobody wants to admit it, but guns are hot), add flying jets to that, and the blowing things up part, and it's pretty amazing that there weren't nightly orgies. Lots of guys looked to their bunkmates for a friendly hand. Mike and Charlie would find a deserted shower, beat each other off, then both of them would write long love letters to their wives that night. Sure, guys had been attracted to him, but he'd always let them down with an easy, "Hey, no worries, but I don't bat for that team, sorry." That wasn't a "don't bat for the team because I want to keep my wings." It was a firm, "don't walk that way." He hadn't ever considered it, but apparently Pegasus + Wraith + kids + Rodney was the magic combination.

"That was that?"

The sideways smile appeared again. "After I jerked both of us off, yes."

John couldn't help but laugh.

"It was, in my mind, your finest hour. I know what that took, John. To cross that Rubicon. You were never braver, even if you had to drink half a quart of whiskey to help you out. If it's any consolation, I don't think you're gay or even bi-sexual. Perhaps Rodney-sexual. Which is," and here Rodney blushed again, "possibly, the hottest thing in this universe."

Not what you fuck, but who you fuck. Whoa.

"The couch folds out. You should get some rest. Blue toothbrush is yours, and, um, the bottom three drawers of the bureau are yours if you want to shower and get into some clean clothes and…"

The tile was old-fashioned, had that 1940s feel to it, but someone had re-plumbed the bathroom with one of those fancy shower heads you get in five-star hotels. That was the sort of thing Rodney would have done. Not bother replacing the old tile, but insist on a top-of-the-line nozzle. John stood there until the water ran cold. He dried off as best he could one-handed and slipped into a pair of sweat pants hanging on the back of the door. Based on the fit, they were probably his. He shaved by rote, not bothering to wipe down the steam clouding the mirror. After spending an entire day surrounded by pictures of him actually looking happy, he really didn't feel like staring back at twenty years' worth of anger and loss etched into every wrinkle.

Rodney was pretending to be asleep when he shuffled out of the bathroom. Huh. He found his way into the living room. Rodney had made up the hide-a-bed while he was in the shower, and put glass of water and a couple of codeine next to the lamp. John rolled his shoulder. It didn't feel that bad. The heat from the shower had loosened it up a bit. After the nap that afternoon, he wasn't that sleepy, so he decided to snoop some more before downing the codeine, because that would knock him out for sure. He kept coming back again and again to the pictures on the mantle and the wall. Damn, he looked happy.

One picture kept grabbing his attention. Nothing in the background was familiar, no landmarks, no Ancient architecture. Based on the amount of hair Rodney still had, the picture had been taken, what, ten years ago, outside, gigantic pillars in the background. D.C.? In most of the pictures, Rodney would have a proprietary arm around John's shoulders, while John had his arms folded in front, one over the other, mugging for the camera. This one was different. Not only did he have an arm slung over Rodney's shoulder, his other arm circled in front, catching Rodney in an embrace. Rodney had brought both arms up. One hand clutched John's wrist, the other hand entwined with John's. They looked beyond happy.

He took the picture off the wall and pried off the back of the frame, trying to find a date and maybe a clue as to where and why they had these shit-eating grins on their faces.

The marriage certificate was shoved in between the back of the frame and the picture.

What the fuck! They'd been married nearly ten years. Had gotten married in California, in, okay, San Francisco. John would have been—

"Oh, I wasn't going to tell you."

Rodney stood leaning against the door jamb wearing a pair of boxers with Homer Simpson on them and a faded black tee-shirt with the words, "The Flyboy Belongs To Me," across the front. What hair he still had left stuck out in horizontal tufts from his head like Bozo the Clown.

"Not going to tell me?"

John tried to it keep cool, but his voice gave him away.

Rodney put a foot forward and then moved back, as if maybe some physical distance between the two of them was suddenly a very good idea. One hand gripped the door frame so hard his knuckles gleamed white.

"I was going to, and then I thought, what was the frigging point?" While John expected a whine, Rodney just sounded tired and sad. "You're on the verge of some sort of stroke as it is. Forgive me if I thought that this little bit of information might tip you over into permanent catatonia. Being all legally gay and everything."

John ignored the tone. "Was this like the house thing? You said, 'Hey, let's get married,' and I said, 'Yep.' "

Rodney shook his head. "You asked me." John could feel his jaw drop a little. "Yes, surprised the hell out of me, too. Right after the heart attack. No one knows, not even Teyla and Ronon. It's our little secret. In case one of us needs to, you know, if… There's legal muscle. Just in case."

John knew Rodney, but he also knew himself. There was more to this than having options in the event of legal hoop jumping. "How bad was the heart attack, Rodney?"

He ducked his head. "Um, bad."

"How bad?" John ground out.

"Quadruple bypass bad?"

John dropped the marriage certificate like it was on fire. Not because he wanted to repudiate it, but because he was afraid he'd crumple it.

Jesus, this was big.

Because he'd been married and vowed never to marry again, refused to subject another person to his crazy need to fly and fatal attraction to speed and that little self-destruction thing he did. He never wanted to see that expression on anyone else's face ever again, the look that Nancy used to give him at the end. When love had changed to frustration to incomprehension to distrust. John's failures were permanent ghosts that followed him throughout the universe: Sumner, Ford, Mitch, Nancy. He was like Marley's ghost, dragging his chains. The chain he had forged on Nancy's behalf was pretty heavy, a constant reminder that he needed to keep things solo and simple.

And yet there was his signature on the license, his smile in the photo. His arms around Rodney.

Rodney, who knew that this beach house, despite its computers and Captain Kirk glasses and surfboards and Italian sports car, wasn't home. Who sat on a hill and watched him surf with kids four decades younger than him. Who bought him a car designed to purr at ninety miles per hour and not a yard before. Who knew exactly what sort of sacrifices John was willing to make and understood, because they dovetailed with his own insane sense of sacrifice and what was right. John had spent three decades hiding who he was under a slouch and a smirk, and Rodney saw the slouch and the smirk for exactly what they were and called bullshit on him.

Most people thought that the whole speed/flying thing was nothing more than John's big "Fuck you," to the universe. They didn't get, not even Nancy got, how flying answered something so intrinsic, so fundamental to the genetic make-up of John Sheppard that it wasn't about stroking his ego but feeding his soul. Maybe it was the ATA gene; he'd probably never know. But one thing he did know? Flying was about being one with the universe, not giving it the finger.

Whatever Rodney's faults, he got that about John.

"I asked you," he demanded in a tight voice, because he needed to be sure.

"Yes," Rodney snarled. "I might steal your jello on the odd occasion, but I do draw the line at fabricating marriage proposals. I suppose you think that my ego—"

"You said you and Zelenka had a way to fix the timeline—"

"It's not a timeline—"

"The simultaneous interface. Whatever. Send me back. Walking out of the sandstorm is probably a good time."

As it turned out, home wasn't McMurdo or the parched dry hills of Afghanistan, either. Not until he'd arrived in Atlantis and it had bathed him in a proprietary glow that said, yes, John, oh, yes, you are one of us, had he realized that he'd come home. Finally.

He wanted this.

God help him, he wanted the funky beach house and his own mug at the diner and the surfing in the spring and the Christmases with a real tree and the piles of astrophysics journals and the highball glasses with pictures of Kirk on them. He wanted his other ten months of the year on Atlantis, playing soccer with Ronon's sons and touching foreheads in a sign of respect and love and watching the moons rise over Atlantis, holding someone's hand.

And he wanted it with Rodney.

He didn't know how he'd kicked his straight to the curb, but he had. Somehow. Rodney was right. He was happy in those pictures. Happy. Year after year after year. And happy in a way he'd never been happy in his entire fucking life. Yeah. He wanted it all.

"I told you no," Rodney said in a flat voice and retreated to the bedroom.

"Why not?" John said to his back.

Rodney whipped around. "Are you completely deaf? It's theoretical. It hasn't been tried. We didn't dare try it—"

"I can't believe that. Dr. Genius. You would have been dying—"

"Believe it. You want proof how serious I am about this? Radek wanted to bring back Elizabeth. I didn't even think about it for a single second. I said no. For one thing, I'm damn certain that history would just repeat itself, but even if it didn't, who knows what would happen to the timeline? Woolsey made some smart decisions that eventually led to the defeat of the Wraith. He was much more ruthless than Elizabeth. We can't fuck with fate, John. Who knows what will happen if one slight thing is changed. Two seconds can mean the difference between life and death. I know you're going to find this hard to believe, but I have no intention of playing God. We can," he lifted a hand but didn't even have the energy to flap it, "make this work. You don't have to sleep with me. We—"

"Rodney, goddammit, this is not about making things work. I don't belong here. I am not—"

He grabbed Rodney's wrist and dragged him back into the living room to the photo wall.

"Don't you get it? I am not this guy." A newsreel of his horrible, shitty little life since he'd been kicked out of Atlantis ran through his head at light speed. He released Rodney's hand, grabbed him by the front of his tee-shirt and hauled him close, their faces not a hand's width apart. "I am the sort of guy who starts fights in bars. Who picks up women in Starbucks and calls them 'honey' because I can't be bothered to remember their names. Who can't hold down a job for more than a year," he yelled, so angry and frustrated that he sprayed Rodney's face with spit.

John didn't know what Rodney saw in his eyes, but John had been in enough life-threatening situations with Rodney to know he was terrified: his pupils blown, perspiration edging his hairline, the sudden smell of sweat rising up between them. John let go, and Rodney stumbled back against the wall, as if trying to flee. From John. Glass shattered as pictures crashed to the floor.

"Sorry. Sorry," he murmured and brought a hand up to Rodney's face. Rodney flinched.

John turned his head, so he didn't have to see his betrayal of everything that this house, this life represented. He ran two fingers down Rodney's cheek as he whispered, "I want the memories, Rodney. I don't want you to tell me what happened in our life. I want to have lived that life, to own those memories. I've finally become the guy that the military wanted all those years. Half dead inside. I stay, and I guarantee that you'll throw me out in six months. We can't have this because this takes him." He jerked his head toward the few remaining pictures still on the wall. He lowered his hand and put his forehead to Rodney's. "And I'm not him. I wish I was. But I'm not. Not anymore."

John didn't move; he relished the warmth of Rodney's body, the smell of lavender. They hadn't closed the windows in the living room and he could hear the muffled shush of the surf as it hit the shore.

"I don't want to lose you, John. We can—" Rodney's voice, scratchy and worn, was as desperate as his own, his breath hot against John's cheek.

"No, we can't. You've lost me. Sending me back is the only chance you have of getting us back. Please."

Something he could never admit to Rodney was that as bad as it was that he'd finally become the man the military had wanted, what was even worse was that he'd become the man his father thought he was. The smirk had become real.

John counted to twenty-three, was about to beg again, when Rodney whispered, "Okay."

Now for the hard part.

He led Rodney into the bedroom and lay down on their bed. Rodney hesitated, then followed, making sure to leave at least eight inches between himself and John.

"Rodney, I'm not going to hit you. Tell me. What do we do?"

"We… What in the hell do you think we do? We were a lot more experimental in the beginning—my fascination with bondage only lasted six months—but now it's pretty much your all-purpose sex with hand jobs, blow jobs, and anal sex. Although I have to admit we've slowed down a bit in the last five years."

Okay. That happened. Even before things went sour with Nancy, their sex life had tapered down to a couple of times a month. And that was when he was in town.

"Slowed down? Ballpark it."

"Five times a week. On average."

"Jesus. Still?"

"Yes, well, we have years of deprivation to make up for. Contrary to my impression that you were screwing anything with tits, it turns out that flirting is yet another John Sheppard patented maneuver to keep people at arm's length, and you were getting even less than me. Which, given the abysmal amount of sex I was getting, is beyond sad. Plus, well, we're absolute stud muffins here. As in total sex gods."

Oh, he had missed McKay so much. Stud muffins. Sex gods. Yeah, buddy, you called it.

John reached out and touched Rodney's shoulder. Rodney stiffened.

"Last night, McKay. For a long time."

"No, you're not…it's a horrible idea…you'll probably punch me and I really don't need a broken nose right now—"

"Shut up, Rodney. I can't guarantee I'll do anything back, but come on."

Rodney started out very slow. In fact, it was nothing more than a massage for the first ten minutes. Then the touches weren't sexual, except when they were, caressing over hot spots that he didn't know he had. Whoa. The inside of his elbow? Then Rodney's fingers became much more intimate. They touched him everywhere. The tips of his ears, his eyelids, the curve of his mouth. By the time Rodney's fingers were skating over his nipples and a mouth sucked on his collarbone, he was groaning and arching into Rodney's touch. This…this was so different. Miles different from the infrequent and skanky hook-ups of the last twenty years. Closer to those early days with Nancy.

Damn, Rodney had been telling the truth about that stud muffin stuff.

A part of him knew that Rodney was being a first-class bastard. Yeah, he was taking it slow because he was afraid of freaking out John's straight, but he was also stringing it out, tweaking it so that John was teetering on the edge for what seemed like hours, using every single bit of ammunition in his arsenal of sexual expertise to convince John to stay. See? We can do this. Even as John groaned out his approval when a hot, dry hand touched his dick and a wet mouth worried his nipple, this only convinced him more that he had to go back. If it was this good as bitter, straight John, what in the hell would it be like as happy, queer-and-loving-it John?

Rodney obviously had determined that John would freak out if things went beyond a simple hand job, and while, yeah, wise—given John's insistence that he was still straight—John wondered, even as he grabbed Rodney by the neck and pulled him down on top of him and began kissing him, whether their initial sexual encounter back on Atlantis hadn't been just like this. John so goddamn starving that it didn't matter whether Rodney had a dick. It was Rodney and he got John. Didn't judge him and, in fact, loved him for those very traits that drove everyone else crazy.

He let Rodney set the pace as they shoved against each other. Hard, hot dicks moving in unison, using nothing but their sweat and pre-come to ease the friction. It had been so long for him that he assumed he'd come first, but then Rodney went still and his shoulders went up and his hips ground into John and he gave it up with a soft, "Ah," which was shockingly hot, and that pulled him over. Rodney eased up onto his elbows, and John thought he was trying to spare John's shoulder. Then he felt Rodney's tears on his chest, and he realized that Rodney was trying to hide that he was crying. He ran a thumb over one cheek, and then the other.

"I'll be back. The real John. I'm with genius, remember?"

Rodney woke him up at six. They went through the ritual with the ice pack to the shoulder and the tummy rub in silence, but no codeine this morning.

John hadn't asked, but Rodney said before heading into the shower, "You need to fly us to Cheyenne. You can't be tanked up on painkillers."


"You have a Cessna 400 berthed at Monterey. It was going to be a birthday present. Your sixtieth."

Fuck his shoulder. He rolled off the bed and dragged Rodney into a hug. Their dicks woke up, began to get hard, but this wasn't about that right now. Rodney's arms wrapped around him.

"It's not the toys, Rodney, you know that. It's… We've got it good, don't we?" John whispered. Rodney and Radek had to be right. He wanted this world so much.

Rodney nodded into the dip of his shoulder and began running his fingers through John's hair.

"We need to move," John reminded him.

"Yes, General," muttered Rodney and pulled away. "I say that when I'm being sarcastic, by the way."

"Never would have guessed, McKay."

"You do have a lot in common with my John."

He'd be lying if he denied that he wasn't tempted. But no, he couldn't go there. Although he'd lost a great deal of his humanity over the last twenty years, he hadn't yet cashed in on his honesty.

"Not enough. For either of us."

They ate their cereal in silence, Rodney scooping up Cheerios with one hand and typing with the other.

John was making a second pot of coffee when Rodney snapped the laptop shut and said in a tight voice, "We are cooking with gas. Radek's manufactured some horrific problem that requires my expertise. He's contacted Cheyenne. We need to go through the Stargate at precisely 6:45 PMT."

"We, buddy?"

"Yes, we! We can do this together. Just relive everything. Repeat the entire—"


Rodney threw his spoon at him.

"No," he repeated, even more emphatically.

"You…you!" Rodney began to sputter, not a good sign. "You are just going to skip through that Gate, be the little martyr that you play so well, and leave me— Even if it works, you won't know that it worked. What's the fucking point?"

John reached out and grabbed Rodney's hand, weaving his slender fingers through Rodney's large broad ones.

"I'll know. On some level—this is the Ancients we're talking about—I'll know. I trust you. I trust Radek. You belong here. We're not fucking with the timeline, Rodney. Okay, simultaneous whatever. You're right about that. We can't play God. We're just fixing it. Just my timeline. No one else's."

Rodney was squeezing John's hand hard enough to bruise.

"What if it doesn't work? What if you don't blow up into atoms and scatter throughout space, but the timing is off. It will only take a misplaced exponent for this to fail, John. What if it's me who's the last man standing? If you, Teyla, and Ronon are killed, and I'm the one left behind. I'll go crazy. Become one of those homeless people who stand on street corners, shouting out my theories on how to create fusion by rubbing two Cheerios together."

John didn't think his expression had changed or that he'd reacted, but Rodney sighed and then said in a quiet voice, "It's been like that for you, hasn't it? The John Sheppard equivalent of believing in Cheerio fusion."

"Yeah." John squeezed back.

"What if it doesn't work?" Rodney repeated.

"It will. Hang on." He gently untangled his hand, got a piece of paper from a printer tray, grabbed a pen, got an envelope and a stamp from his desk, and returned to the kitchen.

"Here. Just to prove it, write a letter to yourself. I can't write it because I'm not supposed to be in this timeline. We'll stop at the post office on our way to the airport. When it works, because, hey, genius, we'll scratch our heads wondering what in the hell this is all about."

Rodney narrowed his eyes and John braced himself for the screed on how this wouldn't work. Instead, Rodney clamped his lips shut, grabbed the pen from John's hand, and wrote I LOVE YOU, JOHN SHEPPARD in large block letters, so it would be impossible for John not to see. He folded the paper into three, slipped it in the envelope, addressed it to John, stood up, and slipped the envelope into the back pocket of his pants. "Let's go. If it works, you'll get it in the mail." When he reached the doorway, he said over his shoulder, "I've never told you that."

They played Prime Not Prime the entire flight.

Cheyenne hadn't changed much. Looked a little techier, but that was about it. They dragged their feet and made small talk with various staff members, spinning it out so that John could walk through at precisely the right time. At 6:44, John turned and put his forehead against Rodney's.

"It's going to work," he insisted.

Rodney groped for John's hand. John gave it a squeeze and brought Rodney's wrist to his nose. Lavender. He kissed the underside.

"Love you," John mumbled and pulled away, his nails scraping Rodney's palm.

He looked down at his watch. Six seconds. Rodney's face was wet with tears, that marvelous mouth twisted in grief.

Giving Rodney a casual salute, he said, "I've got mail, McKay."

He walked through.