The lab they give Rodney is roughly the size of the entire desalinization system in Atlantis, buried in the heart of the city, three stories underwater with fish glaring suspiciously through the large windows, partially grown-over with barnacle-like creatures and mossy sea plants.
Of course, the lab that Rodney has now is in an enormous, ugly, plate-metal bunker that looks like it belongs in a throwback to the old tobacco era, and at the end of a long day he has a low-grade headache from the constant grinding sound of turbine generators.
The labs are all squirreled away in a far, soundproofed corner, but Rodney's so horrified by the monstrously green and painfully worshipful assistants he inflicted upon himself that he's constantly on the floor, checking gages and hiding in the rafters. Partly out of self-abuse, he finds himself looking down from a great height into the unending gray of the space and missing his cramped, sienna—“That,” Rodney had said to Sheppard, “is the gayest word I have ever heard used to describe anything,” before he'd known that the color name would stick—and sea blue lab in Atlantis.
After he hacks Sheppard's computer and sets him up with the most appropriate chat handle ever, Rodney manages to hold out for almost an entire day before he calls the SGC, and spends an hour being bounced around a phone tree made by Satan himself before he hears fumbling and Sheppard's lazy if wary voice saying, “Hello?”
“Oh thank God,” Rodney says. “I thought I was going to die on this line waiting for somebody who wasn't a recording to answer.”
“It's part of the Air Force's tactical defense,” Sheppard tell him lazily, the wariness disappearing from his tone, and in its absence Rodney hears weariness.
“Well, it's ingeniously cruel,” Rodney says with grudging respect. “In case you're wondering about the constant droning in the background, it's the sound of my very own turbine, generating my very own electricity for my very own very important experiments.”
Sheppard laughs on the other end of the line and Rodney hears the rustle of cloth, the sound of the Colonel's breath close to the mouthpiece and shifting plastic in the background.
Rodney remembers—vaguely—John's mostly-ignored office back in Atlantis, back home, and thinks that maybe John is laying out his pens and pencils and freak sports memorabilia, the Precious Moments angel holding a football they had found in a marketplace on PX5-098 and that Rodney had bought for him as a Happy The Pegasus Galaxy Is A Motherfucking Freak Show! Gift. “This is the best thing anybody has ever given me,” Sheppard had said, laconic but totally serious, eyes glued to the hideous ceramic trinket, and Rodney had tried not to flush all over with pride.
There's a long moment of silence before Sheppard said, “So you're settling in okay?”
“Of course I am,” Rodney snaps, because if he can convince Sheppard he can totally convince himself. “All of my lab assistants like me, you know.”
“It'll pass,” Sheppard promises, and makes a hissing noise. “Shit.”
“What, what?” Rodney asks, because at this point he's riding the knife edge of panic.
He's so used to seeing John and Teyla and Ronon and Elizabeth and Carson and Radek and everybody almost every moment of every day that the sheer distance involved here is starting to make his skin hurt from absence. He can't even think about Atlantis, with all her jeweled windows and her rolling ocean, the way light used to fall into the gateroom and how she had warmed when he had—Rodney admits, copied Sheppard and—touched the walls, stroked them affectionately.
“Nothing. It's fine,” Sheppard says, but his voice is tight, and Rodney knows that exact knot in Sheppard's throat from paperwork and reprimands to Marines, from the occasional, uncomfortable reminders that he was Lt. Colonel John Sheppard who had obligations beyond poking at weird Ancient shit they found dumpster diving in the fourth arm of Atlantis.
“Um,” Rodney says awkwardly, settling into his lab chair and listening to it creak. “Have they assigned you a team yet?”
“You'll love this,” Sheppard tells him with genuine amusement. “I've got a botanist.”
“Oh, my God,” Rodney says, disgusted. “Who? Parrish? He's also a member of NORML, you know.”
“He also has a degree in chemical engineering and has kicked your ass during science relay events two years running,” Sheppard says serenely, using all the wrong tenses and tones, like he's completely forgotten that he never gets to bully and cajole and harass the entire city into joining in his insanity and taking a precious day to run re-enact adolescent field days on the west pier. Rodney's lingering bitterness has nothing at all to do with a bitterly disputed call made by Major Lorne about whose team had crossed the finish line first during the third event of the first year. “And no, it's not Parrish.”
Rodney hears “Just some guy,” at the end of that sentence even though it's unspoken and wishes furiously and desperately for a minute that it was Parrish. Parrish at least knows not to be a pain in the ass, has been out there before, has survived and passed Major Lorne's cruel and unusual boot camp for Pegasus civilians.
“Oh,” Rodney says. “Do you think he'll—?”
“Hey, Rodney?” John interrupts tiredly. “Sorry, I don't mean to be a jerk here but I've got a lot to do before they let me out of the mountain tonight and I'm sure you've got people to yell at—” only Rodney doesn't, because nothing here is really pressing and nobody is depending on him, nobody's even annoyed and buzzing him every two minutes, asking when he's going to show up and his dinner is getting cold and you always do this, McKay! “—so I'll talk to you tomorrow, right?”
“Right, right,” Rodney says, and they hang up.
He's barely a day back and the list attached to his mostly-empty refrigerator in his mostly-empty apartment now reads:
THINGS TO DO
(1) fetch cat
(2) buy coffee
(3) look up Sheppard's new team
You know, it's really nice to finally be recognized as the gift to society that I am; after years of browbeating and disrespect and insubordination I'm finally surrounded by a handpicked cadre of less-than-hopeless assistants who rightfully worship the ground I walk on.
Rodney's work in the Pegasus Galaxy leapfrogs the work in Turbine City by about a thousandfold, and he gives himself the day off while his new set of subordinates spend a lot of time gazing inappropriately at his notes from the other side of the known universe. He makes up some excuse about taking time to visualize his next fit of genius—yeah, right, like he has to visualize constancy—and shuffles off to the high rafters again, where he kicks sits at the edges and kicks his legs under the railing and over the sides, letting them dangle in thin air and ignoring the fact that he could technically fall to his death at any time. Working with Sheppard made him reckless like that.
On Atlantis, in her 23 hour days that were more sunshine and fog than storm and stinging rain, Rodney would be in morning staff right now, in the minor lull between the science and security briefings and budget briefings, where men and women have lived and died by the distribution of resources like power and wood glue and one time, tacks.
And since both of their parts were done but they weren't allowed to leave, Elizabeth used to call it, “McKay and Sheppard check out hour,” which was only true most of the time. There were a lot of passed notes and during one particularly memorable and sullen occasion when Kavanagh—who had picked the short straw and got stuck with budget that week—was fighting an epic battle with medical over their place in the power curve, tabletop football.
In Area 51, in Nevada, Rodney spends the hour of 10 a.m. through 11 a.m.—they don't run on military time here, and Sheppard doesn't say, “That's 4 o'clock to you, McKay,” with a smile here, either—running simulations of normal Pegasus gravitational activity despite a total lack of scientific merit since it's already been borne out, since he's already lived with the slightly lighter tug of Atlantis beneath his feet. But it's the first time in his life he hasn't felt stupid about missing something this much, and that's something to be commemorated, and he's happy to waste the Air Force's money.
By the end of the second week, Rodney has mostly given up trying to find his ex-hot neighbor and his now-ex-cat—he hopes, bitterly, that they’re very happy together, or that Mendeleev is at least clawing the crap out of her. The list on Rodney's refrigerator has grown, spread over the breadth of three, then four, then prodigiously and overnight into eight little Post-It notes framed by magnets from the local pizza places and Thai restaurants. They're busy notes and reminders to himself that he doesn't bother to check off once he's done them, which probably explains why there's so much and seemingly so little to do. When he comes home in the evenings—he watches the sun set as he's driving back from work, and how fucked up is that? to be baffled by ordinary working hours?—and orders pad thai and watches the Food Network and tries not to think that if being away from Atlantis is killing Rodney, Sheppard must be gasping for oxygen like a fish on dry land.
Sheppard tries to be cool about it, but everybody in the city knows that Atlantis is his girlfriend.
Rodney's never seen anybody cave faster to the, “But it'll really help the city if you...” whine, and after a while the scientists all started feeling so guilty about Sheppard's worried face at the doorway of the labs, inquiring with deep concern after the latest issue appearing in the power distribution grid that they'd made an unspoken pact never again to exploit Sheppard and Atlantis' relationship unless absolutely necessary.
It's stupid but Rodney wonders if Atlantis misses them the way that they are missing her. Of course, he tells himself immediately, she now has an entire lost ship full of Ancients to distract and delight her, but Rodney hopes meanly that she feels at least a little of what they feel—at sea.
Subject: Re: [none]
you have to realize that you're kind of a crazy person.
and also i cannot wait to hear more about these rock stars that you have working for you; anybody who doesn't fight back when you get your bitch on is bound to be about as interesting as watching paint dry.
first mission coming up. i can barely contain the excitement.
The day of Sheppard's first offworld mission since coming back Earthside Rodney holes up in his actual office with the door that locks and monitors the SGC systems while pretending to work on data analysis with the other. He's just proven that turbines = awesome but that awesome < zpm (duh) by the time they do their first check in four hours after stepping through the puddle. It's kind of killing him that he can't hear the exchange, and he recognizes this as a sign that he has suffered a sudden cycle in the wayback machine and has emerged from the other side as a 13-year-old Justin Timberlake fan, so he forces himself to do some work instead.
That tides him over until nearly six hours have past and he realizes that two hours ago there should have been a second check in that never came. The panic and recrimination and elaborate death threats he manages to construct before he finishes hacking the SGC monitoring systems to find Sheppard's team unharmed but in the somewhat precarious position of having accidentally come across some potentially-useful intel about the Orii.
“You just can't lay off the evil aliens, can you?” Rodney says by way of greeting two days later.
“I missed you, too, McKay,” Sheppard tells him.
“Colonel, you'd think that once you were out of the targets of the vampire catfish from Pegasus, you'd learn to steer clear of other alien civilizations suffering a serious psychotic break.”
“Hey, they found us,” Sheppard says mildly, exhaling lightly. “They matched our somewhat bland descriptions with those of some rumors apparently floating around those parts of Taur'i interested in finding information about the Orii and bought us a round and offered to trade secrets.”
“Oh, and what did they want for them?” Rodney demands. “A pound of flesh?”
“Actually, they wanted the botanist,” Sheppard laughs.
“You're kidding,” Rodney says after a long pause. Apparently, the alien races of Milky Way were much more randy than those of the Pegasus Galaxy.
“Apparently, he is considered a great beauty on that planet and would have sold for a high price in any of the many flourishing slave markets to a family that would treat him well and adorn him only with the finest sterling jewelry and piercings,” Sheppard recites, laughter rumbling under his words. “I've never seen anybody duck behind me that quick before.”
Rodney is disappointed. “Not even me?”
“You're not as big a coward as you like to think, McKay.”
There's the sound of a door being opened and closed in the background and Rodney wonders what Sheppard's apartment is like, if he still has his stupid golf clubs leaning in a corner, his stupid guitar that he can't play and his stupid skateboard. He wishes he could see it.
“Yes, well,” Rodney says, and interrupts himself asking, “Hey, where are you living now?”
Rodney hears the sound of crinkling plastic and the metal clatter of keys and closes his eyes.
“Apartment out in Colorado Springs—there's an evangelical church in my backyard,” Sheppard sighs.
“What? No,” Rodney disagrees. Nobody should have an evangelical church in their backyard, not even Sheppard. Especially not Sheppard, who will get holy water tossed on him any day now, Rodney is nearly sure of it.
“What yes,” Sheppard counters, and Rodney can hear the sound of unpacking in the background. He thinks about Lt. Col. John Sheppard and how he always liked to ask Elizabeth if Atlantis needed milk, eggs, baking soda—Rodney wonders if Sheppard bought any of those things, if he is settling into his life as a provider of one instead of the baffled guardian of a city. “The worst part is the singing. It wakes me up every weekend.”
“You've been there two weekends,” Rodney argues.
“It stands to reason that those inspired by Jesus to celebrate the Sabbath day with song will continue to celebrate the Sabbath day with really loud song,” Sheppard answers.
“What do they sing?” Rodney asks. “Low country spirituals?”
“Don't jinx it, Rodney, it's mostly been hymns but now they're going to start,” Sheppard says, the smallest curl of a smile in his voice.
Rodney knows it's stupid but he gives himself a small high five for the minor victory; he used to have a tally back on Atlantis of times when he'd seen Sheppard smiling and meant it. He'd abandoned it sometime after their first year on the city, when Sheppard's smiles and smirks and indulgent chuckles had been so frequent he was having a difficult time keeping accurate records, which was almost as good as not needing to keep accurate records at all.
Rodney reaches out and grabs another Post-It note from the small pile of remaindered ones he's scavenged from his office, writes, LTC S SMILES and puts a tick mark underneath before attaching it to the uppermost left hand corner of the refrigerator. It makes him mad all over again, grieved and frustrated to know he has a new list now, after he'd thought he didn't need to make them anymore.
“Do you even have furniture?” Rodney asks suddenly, angry.
Sheppard had furniture on Atlantis; he even had things from the Athosian mainland: an wall hanging one of the six billion teenaged girls who lusted after him desperately wove him; a stool Jinto had put together himself; a bookcase made by Halling. Rodney had furniture, too. In Nevada, he has a window box and a cactus and a futon.
Teyla would have laughed at them, put her hand over her mouth to hide her gleaming teeth and say, “Oh, John, Rodney—the men of your world are mysteries to me.” Then Ronon would say, “Why? They've got beds, right?” and Sheppard would say, “See!” and Rodney would cover his face and moan because they were just all so stupid.
“I have a chair,” Sheppard admits uncomfortably. “I have to go buy a couch tomorrow.”
“You don't have a couch?” Rodney says. Even Rodney has a couch. It's green and in the other room, away from his futon and window box and cactus, away from the corner where Rodney is sitting and watching the traffic go by outside his window. “What have you been sitting on?” he demands.
“Well, I've been doing a lot of standing,” Sheppard says. “And I said I had a chair.”
“God, prison chic,” Rodney grinds out.
“Well,” the Colonel says and it sounds mean, “if the shoe fits.” There's a half a beat before Sheppard adds, “I've got to go. I think I forgot to buy milk at the grocery store,” and hangs up.
It's a total lie, of course. Sheppard never forgets to buy milk. He's going to be the best dad ever someday. He always remembers to bring Rodney's epi pens and painkillers and activated charcoal, a tiny pack of calamine lotion and aloe for bug bites and sunburns. Sheppard always asks if anybody wants anything before he hits planets where he knows there will be markets, and he always brings gifts for the worshipful kids on the mainland, who like his visits more than his trinkets anyway.
Atlantis made John so thoughtful and responsible, always doing inventory and holding caucus with his Lorne; on Earth John doesn't even have a couch.
Rodney puts down his cell phone and creeps into bed. It's barely half past nine and he can't seem to keep his eyes open—Earth is so much more tiring than he thought it should be.
Subject: Re: [none]
On Atlantis I sent no fewer than six separate memos detailing why your refusal to use capital letters leads me ever closer to a fit of reasonless violence and ultimately madness – I'd hate to have to send another series of them care of the Area 51 employees that I rend limb from limb in my frustration and inability to find you and beat you senseless with a rock. From the desert. Outside of my house.
I looked up your teammates and before you go around accusing my minions of being “rock stars” you should take a look at your own. That “botanist” of yours is a member of the ASPCA and has a blog where he talks about his cats. I'm not even joking. It's very detailed; he has photographs up on a Sony ImageStation account username jplantslove001.
The really depressing thing is that your two wind-up G.I. Joes are actually even greater lost causes; you didn't have to teach them how to use guns, did you? Because honestly I think you suffered enough that first time you had to supervise the entire lab offworld and Simpson nearly castrated you when she thought you were a passing alien life form as you coming out of the forest. Also, one of them is named Milton.
And shut up complaining about your missions being boring.
PS, have you called Elizabeth?
Rodney has left Elizabeth exactly 23 separate voice mails and knows he sounds increasingly constipated and wronged in each one. He's been told by an entire slew of potential ex-girlfriends and actual ex-boyfriends that he doesn't “do” phone, but it's not like writing her letters would be any more effective; besides, mail is even easier to ignore than the telephone.
His work is progressing nicely if meaninglessly, and he's already fired six of his minions, which instead of making all of his subordinates feral and defensive and at least interesting, just makes them even more wide-eyed and fatuous. It's starting to seriously freak him out.
“Don't any of you have your own opinions?” he shouted at them the other day, waving his arms hugely. “You must have gotten through high school somehow!”
“I do,” one of them said, and Rodney experienced a brief glimmer of hope before he'd added, “But I want to make sure I have enough empirical evidence to back it up before I present it to the board.”
“The Pegasus Galaxy could have eaten all of you alive,” Rodney hisses.
Later, he finds himself sulking in his office, waiting for his data to compile and haranguing Sheppard.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : They're all whores.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : that's not very nice, rodney.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : Well, it's true!
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : maybe you should do some teambuilding activities.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : They won't even fight with me. They think I'm badass.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : ok this is serious.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : I hate you so much I don't even have words.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : i figured that one out from the messenger handle you made me.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : i'm going offworld for the next two weeks, just a heads up.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : ok, heading out. don't forget: teambuilding.
-- princess.sheppardina went offline.
He goes ahead and fires two more minions in the afternoon, and by four o'clock he's down to three, one of whom is starting to get a really dangerous-looking twitch in her eye and the other two who are near curled up underneath their lab stations. Coffee is flowing and tension is thick and Rodney can't remember being this frustrated with anybody ever in Atlantis, not even when they were all ruining his life and driving him insane and making him shout that they were fired even though he didn't mean it. He tends to fire people when he's feeling peaky; he's fired Sheppard at least twice.
He leaves work early—weird, too too weird, Rodney thinks—and makes an incredibly elaborate chicken pot pie for dinner, which he eats out of the pyrex casserole dish as he watches a NOVA rerun and realizes that despite the many years that have passed since he and Brian Greene had co-TAed a 400 person intro physics course, he still hates the man enough to spit on him.
Rodney and Sheppard once had what passed for a really emotional moment for them over how science and the military were both a whole bunch of hurry up and wait. He spends the first hour of his morning sweating bullets, setting up an incredibly delicate experiment and then the next six bored out of his skull waiting for it to finish running. He takes the opportunity to open a del.icio.us account and starts bookmarking recipes like a housewife on crack. Rodney finds cooking soothing and not just because he gets to eat it when it's done.
The experiment goes horribly wrong, so Rodney has to do it again, four times, in fact, before he gets any usable data, and by the time he has a set of datum that doesn't make him want to rip his hair out almost an entire week of Sheppard's absence has passed. Elizabeth hasn't returned his calls and Rodney's too proud to start calling Beckett at night while he's whipping potatoes to talk about how he misses his friends and wishes Teyla was still there to rub his hands for him.
Bureaucracy jams up any ability to take the next logical experimental step. Rodney forgot, on Atlantis, that on Earth and within the SGC there is a complex process for vetting higher level sciences, a three-ring circus of suck that had slipped his mind in the three years he'd lived in a beautiful city floating on a perfect blue ocean. He spends a whole day writing up his proposal hating Earth so much he feels nauseated and then the second day making 30 copies of it and having it couriered to the appropriate section heads.
The third, fourth, and fifth days are all a loss, and Rodney spends most of his evenings roasting chickens, baking herb popovers, sullenly throwing things into his newly-purchased $300 artisan stand mixer until he can bake them into chocolate chip cookies. Saturday night, he makes ice cream with a bucket, a bag of crushed ice cubes from the 7-11 down the street, a handful of Morton's Kosher salt, and a dowel. It's too sweet and kind of syrupy but he eats it right out of the bowl in front of a marathon of Feasting on Asphalt and misses Atlantis so much his skin hurts.
On the seventh day, Rodney waits, and tries not to think about the religious irony of it or the way that hymns must be rising up in the air behind Sheppard's couch-less apartment. But by the time it's blue and purple and orange outside his living room window and there's been no call, no reply to his intentionally provocative email—Sheppard's always good about checking in, he's never failed to do it unless there's a reason, he's very careful like that—Rodney starts to sweat.
The SGC won't tell him where Sheppard is when he calls and Beckett, in the medlabs, doesn't know anything either, though he promises to start working the grapevine and get back to Rodney immediately if he finds anything out. There's a recognizable sense of protectiveness and panic in Beckett's tone that Rodney is grateful for, that somebody else knows what it feels like to have all the people who are important to you suddenly redistricted, gerrymandered into somebody else's orbit.
“I'll keep a keen eye out, Rodney,” Becket says. “They usually trickle intelligence into the medlabs first, but I hope I don't hear anything, Rodney.”
“Well, neither do I!” Rodney snaps. “Did you update his chart? Did you tell them about the drug allergies?”
“Rodney,” Beckett says patiently, “I hardly think that a single kind of Tumerian root found only on PX4-576 and used in an apocryphal treatment for the common cold really counts as a legitimate drug allergy.”
Rodney yells, “Of course you don't you sheep-humping witch doctor!” but he doesn't think that Beckett can hear him over the sudden klaxons in the background, the ringing, harsh noises of panic that sound nothing at all like Atlantis' protective alarms—shrill, yes, but concerned and rounded.
“Bugger,” Carson says, and adds, “Rodney, I've got to go. They're bringing in the Colonel.”
“Wait—is he?” Rodney starts.
“Rodney, I've got to go,” Beckett says again and hangs up.
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Subject: Mind boggling stupidity and utter incompetence
Bambus and failures et all:
Reliable sources within the SGC tell me that it was due entirely to your insufferable inability to follow basic orders that Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard found his way yet again to the infirmary, requiring five stitches, a wrist brace, and to be on oxygen for nearly an hour to make sure he didn't suffer any permanent damage from the chemical smoke he inhaled in the process of saving your pitiful asses.
Perusal of your service jackets and internet search history (Japanese fetish porn, neither surprising nor creative, Bambus) tells me that this is your first offworld gate team for all three of you, so take a few words from a veteran gate traveler and keep these close to your hearts:
One, do not fuck with the military commander of Atlantis.
Two, do not fuck with the military commander of Atlantis.
Three, as a natural extension of that, when he tells you not to fuck with something, you do not fuck with whatever it is he feels you should not fuck with, it's hard at first, but I promise it will become second nature for you with my continued encouragement and threats.
Four, stop being morons or I will have you all killed.
Dr. Rodney McKay, PhD
United States Air Force Research
Nellis Air Force Base
Groom Lake, Nevada
PS, I'm not fucking kidding. I will send somebody to cut you.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : thanks a lot, mckay. now they think you're my girlfriend.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : Of course they would, those small-minded homophobic idiots!
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : hey now. that's my team you're talking about there
rodney.mckay (gmail) : ...They got you trapped in a burning building filled with toxic chemicals. Don't even bother to try and lie about it! I made Beckett scan your chart!
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : man. i get no privacy.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : Should you even be typing right now? Or upright? Or awake?
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : perhaps carson was not clear when you were trading what was supposed to be private medical information: i am fine. i'm sitting in my office eating twizzlers.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : You're eating TWIZZLERS?
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : sam carter brought them to me. she said she was sorry my girlfriend was such a barker.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : SHE SAID NO SUCH THING.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : I'd say I hope you die but I worry your team will take it to heart.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : eh
-- princess.sheppardina went offline.
Rodney spends an embarrassingly long time trying to determine if “eh” has any particular meaning or if Sheppard is mocking Canada and decides finally he's veering dangerously toward completely insane.
Several increasingly harassing phones calls to Beckett confirms Sheppard's claim that he's fine and an annoyed email to Carter corroborates Sheppard's statement about eating Twizzlers in his office, even though Sam Carter doesn't use the words “barker,” “girlfriend,” or “sorry.” She does however say “stalking” and “Colonel Sheppard” and “stop making his scientist cry!” What a pussy, Rodney spares a moment to think, and goes back to his very important work.
On his commute home, he calls Elizabeth absentmindedly, not even expecting her to answer anymore before leaving a bland missive about Sheppard'a latest brush with death and how stupid his new team is revealing itself to be. He hangs up and gets out of his car and goes inside his apartment where he ends up making himself eggplant Parmesan for dinner.
He ends up eating it while watching the Spice Network and then surfing around until he finds the gay porn, and then the gay porn with dark haired twinks.
God bless satellite TV, he thinks idly, setting aside his plate and unzipping his pants, tucking his hand in next to his cock. There's a better than likely chance he won't even bother—getting ripped out of your city, away from your surrogate family, being told your best friend nearly died due to incompetence really takes it out of your sex drive—but he likes to pretend he's game.
Rodney wakes up on his couch, hand still tucked into his underpants, with a crick in his neck and the TV still showing two men enthusiastically balling a third, who looks only philosophically interested in the entire venture despite the noises he's making.
He suffers a sudden pang of longing for the trove of erotica that had flourished on the Atlantis intranet: ranging from laughably bad to astonishingly hot, written by men and women, respectively. Male approaches toward writing smut seem to be similar to male approaches to renting smut, which is basically a single-minded focus on a repetitive penetration shot, whereas otherwise meek-seeming women on the Atlantis expedition churned out stories that made Rodney's toes curl just reading them.
It hadn't been visual, but at least it had been good, and on Atlantis, the expedition made its own fun.
It's Saturday so Rodney ends up puttering around the house, cleaning up last night's mess and running a load of laundry, doing some dusting and paying some bills—it threw him completely the first time those had come in the mail after he got back from Pegasus, could only stare helplessly at them—giving Jeannie a call.
“How's Madison?” Rodney asks, cradling the handset between his ear and shoulder as he signs a check. He's getting online billpay as soon as he can remember how to use a bank website. “Caleb?”
“They're fine,” Jeannie says evenly. “Madison's work is going to be displayed at the mall in a few weeks, some kind of kindergarten art fair. She's really excited. Do you want me to send you pictures from when we go?”
“Of course,” Rodney tells her and wonders what he'll do with them.
“How are you adjusting to Earth again?” Jeannie asks.
Rodney rolls his eyes. “Well, I can't figure out my bank's website.”
“Nobody can figure out their bank's website,” Jeannie says kindly and asks, “How's everybody else? How's John?”
Rodney feels his fingers tighten on his pen. “He doesn't have a couch,” Rodney tells her.
“John doesn't have a couch?” she asks, curious.
“He's got an Evangelical Christian church in his back yard and he doesn't have a couch. Oh, and his new gate team is composed entirely of mentally retarded chipmunks who don't deserve to live,” Rodney sulks. “And Sam Carter gave him Twizzlers.”
“Oh, Rodney,” Jeannie laughs. “This mancrush—it's so Say Anything.”
“I do not have a man—you know what, I'm better than this,” Rodney forces himself to say. “My point was that his new team is made up of idiots. It was his second mission with the SGC and he managed to get himself in the infirmary—”
“OhmiGod, is he all right?” Jeannie asks. Rodney can hear the mothering instincts in her readying to bake some truly deplorable brownies already.
“He's fine,” Rodney says. “Didn't you hear me say Sam Carter brought him Twizzlers? The point is that he wouldn't have been in the infirmary at all if his sub-standard team members could take simple orders like, don't touch that, don't piss off the natives, do not pee on that ceremonial statue of their highest and most holy deity.”
“Uh,” Jeannie says.
“And anyway, I don't see why Sheppard should get stuck with some green behind the ears botanist when I know exactly how to work with him in the field. I couldn't fight the Orii or anything but I could certainly make sure that none of the other harebrained Marines they stick him with don't—”
“Oh, Rodney,” Jeannie says again, but this time, it's with sympathy. “I'm sure he'll be fine. John seems like the kind of guy who knows how to take care of himself.”
Rodney doesn't argue, but he had me watching his back! but it's very hard.
sometimes, i don't know how they got into the sgc.
Rodney prints the photograph out and hangs it on the wall over his computer. It's really pretty tragically embarrassing: Bambus in tears, hanging upside-down from a tree, Wallace and Milton collapsed in laughter, covered head to toe in mud. There's just enough of John's hopeless expression in the photograph to really make it money.
On Atlantis, there'd been a Mission Gone Horribly Wrong You Are Not Alone board where there were pictures of Cadman wearing a neck frill, that one time Lorne had been put in a geisha costume, the image captured right as he was fighting against two tiny women attempting to fix his wig. Then there was the picture that had started it all: Rodney and John staring helplessly a man showing them an astonishingly huge array of sex toys.
Rodney dials Sheppard's number by memory, and when the voice mail kicks in, he says, “Sometimes, I'm convinced there's some sort of lottery, and all the losers and free thinkers get shafted into this sunless basement hell.” He pauses, and adds, “Anyway—don't forget to take your supplements.”
It's barely a minute later when Rodney's messenger client pops up.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : RODNEY. GENERAL LANDRY WAS IN THE OFFICE.
Crap, Rodney thinks, bites his lip, and cracks his knuckles before he types:
rodney.mckay (gmail) : Sorry! Jesus, how was I supposed to know that?
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : it doesn't matter if you know that or not! you shouldn't be leaving messages like that! do i send your scientists memos about your eating habits?
rodney.mckay (gmail) : Maybe if you did I wouldn't have these migraines all the time! And anyway, it's not even my fault! You are supposed to take those pills! Your immune system is still in recovery from the episode with the bug!
Rodney hits the return key, face burning. He feels overexposed, embarrassed, like Landry had seen—heard—something that was never meant for him. And in some ways, Rodney imagines that this is the secret languages of codependency, the way that Rodney can feel his heart rate level out if John is on the phone.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : oh jesus. landry's face.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : Was it bad?
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : well, given that supplements sound like something your grandmother takes when she's constipated and YOU always sound like my disgruntled wife, yes.
rodney.mckay (gmail) : Well, I hardly see how any woman married to you could be anything other than disgruntled.
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : rodney
rodney.mckay (gmail) : What?
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : rodney
rodney.mckay (gmail) : WHAT?
princess.sheppardina (gmail) : you just called yourself a woman
-- rodney.mckay is away: Dear LTC Sheppard: go fuck yourself, kisses, the missus.
The really depressing thing is that John is probably right about the disgruntled wife crack. The gate teams on Atlantis had developed the same kind of codependence the SGC was famous for—amplified and adjusted for desperation given distance from Earth and fast food and ready sources of booze.
Rodney and John and Teyla and Ford and Ronon were responsible for one another's lives. It's stupid to be embarrassed about it: to be embarrassed that Rodney is responsible for John taking his medication and John is responsible for making Rodney sleep. To be embarrassed that Teyla needs John or Rodney to sit with her at night sometimes, to be embarrassed that Ford was a Wraith drug addict. It was enormously stupid for Ronon to be embarrassed about wanting Sheppard to go with him everywhere those first weeks in Atlantis.
But Rodney keeps forgetting that now John has memos and a brand new context, General Landry in his office and Sam Carter down the hall, who can buy him Twizzlers anytime. It's not a big deal anymore if Rodney walks down to John's favorite balcony to talk to him or blackmails his subordinates into giving him watermelon Jolly Ranchers to leave in John's footlocker.
It's not a big deal anymore, Rodney thinks. It's not a big deal anymore. I'm not a big—
rodney? i haven't heard from you in a while buddy.
everything okay? did you have to use that toothbrush shank thing ronon taught you to make?
Subject: hey, jackass
sam carter says you're plenty alive and terrorizing your minions at area 51 like never before so i know you're not dead in a corner. that only leaves the question why you're not answering your emails.
Subject: HEY DOUCHEBAG.
Rodney: If this was some sort of bizarre experiment to see who could hold out in the War of Capital Letters the longest we can consider this your win. What the hell are you doing and why are you specifically ignoring me? I used Carter's email to send you a note about jet propulsion and you called me a feeble-minded idiot just as expected—if you've got a problem with me, Rodney, just say it to my face. I promise I can handle it; can't be any worse than that time we all got trapped playing cosmic truth or dare on that planet.
Subject: that's it you shit
i'm coming over there
“What?” Rodney actually says out loud. “Oh, shit, what?”
He sounds reedy and distressed and he checks the time stamp on the email—two days ago, he's been filtering John out of his regular inbox in a dim attempt not to be pathetic or yearning—and then he swallows hard. John doesn't make idle threats unless they involve getting back at Zelenka for something or another.
“i'm coming over there,” can't be interpreted too many ways, and Rodney spends the rest of the day jumping at every little noise. Every thud of boots he's convinced that John is going to roar up the hallway, grab him by the scruff of the neck, and drag him to the training room. Rodney's not exactly sure what John would do there—they've never really been in this sort of situation before—but Rodney's the most miserable in the gym and it just seems appropriate. Of course, all this intensive consideration of corporal punishment only makes Rodney remember the way John casually cuffs him upside the head, which inspires the sort of reaction more suited for soft core pornography from the geniuses at Bel Ami and not his awesome awesome huge lab.
By six, all of his employees are giving him a wide berth, which is just as well. By seven, he gives up attempting to work around his intermittent panic attacks and goes home—where of course John is waiting for him, legs kicked up on the coffee table, drinking Rodney's imported beer.
Rodney shrieks, “Oh holy Jesus!” and sends an armful of papers flying when he realizes this.
And John just raises the beer in salute, saying lazily, “Hi, honey. How was your day?”
“How the hell did you get in here?” Rodney demands, shaky hands reaching down for all the files, scattered and disorganized beyond hope now. He misses Atlantis, her paperless economy of science.
John laughs and sets down the beer—on a coaster, Rodney notes, he didn't even know he owned coasters—and comes to help Rodney pick up his files. “Come on, Rodney, doors love me,” he jokes quietly, and adds intensely, “You okay?”
Rodney freezes, head still down, and wonders what he should say to that. He's okay, of course, everything is going fine—better than it has in almost a decade. They are on Earth and Atlantis has her people; the day to day near-death of it all is no longer his concern. John isn't out there getting shot every day, making Rodney nauseated with wory. Teyla's people have found another agrarian planet to populate, to make blossom. Ronon might actually have a shot at convincing Teyla to go out with him at this rate, without the constant interruptions to his romantic grunting.
“Yes,” Rodney says, because it's the right answer, and when he looks up to catch John's green, green eyes, he says, “No, no, not at all,” because it's the answer that's true.
John's whole face softens. He reaches over and pulls the papers out of Rodney's hands, sets them back on the floor and tugs Rodney closer until Rodney's standing mutely on a pile of highly classified US Air Force documents hugging his best friend, feeling astonishingly alone for how close John has pulled him. Rodney can't help but curl his hands into the back of John's shirt.
“Hey, it's okay, buddy,” John says, and Rodney closes his eyes tight on the last word.
He's never been a part of something like he was in Atlantis. Maybe it's a betrayal, but more than he misses the city, he misses her people—his people—his team. He misses waking up to the ocean in the morning and collapsing into his appointed seat next to John at breakfast, the way Ronon would sometimes receive impromptu written English lessons from John with Alpha Bits cereal, how Teyla looked, sleepy-soft before she was completely awake.
“I fucking hate Nevada,” Rodney says into John's neck.
“It's okay,” John lies. “At least you don't have a church in your backyard.”
Rodney laughs, and it's an awkward, desperate sound. “That's true,” he agrees, and when John pulls away, it's too soon, but the look of fond concern on his face is almost enough to ameliorate that pain.
“What happened?” John asks, eyes searching Rodney's face. “Something set you off. Something always does.”
Rodney shakes his head, no, and pulls out of Sheppard's arms—that's wrong, too, here, where there are rules you have to follow—to head toward the refrigerator, saying quickly, “Did you want something to drink? Another beer? That one might be warm already and I've got—”
“If it's General Landry you're worried about,” John says, “don't.”
“Me? Worry about you?” Rodney can't help but sneer. “Why would I do that? We're not anything—”
It's that nasty habit of his, letting truths out the gate unintentionally, Rodney thinks with a sense of sinking humiliation. But John's always been a better man than Rodney has given him credit for, and that's probably why John says, “Rodney—don't be stupid. Of course we're still a team,” and adds, “If this is what you've been freaking out about, my God, you really are a woman,” and laughs, “I take it back; Teyla would never pull this shit—you're just like a little girl, Mckay.”
And Rodney's so lightheaded from the relief that he barely hears the rest of it. He wakes up the next morning with an enormous crick in his neck from falling asleep on the couch, and looks to his left—painfully—to see Sheppard still asleep, Rodney's Northeastern sweatshirt draped over him like a blanket, eyes closed peacefully and breathing deeply in and out.
It's the kind of sleep Sheppard doesn't get off world, on stranger planets and far from home, and Rodney can't help but feel a curl of flushing warmth in his stomach to realize that John thinks Rodney is home, at least a little bit. The thought carries him back, slowly and sweetly, to another long, lazy hour of dreaming, and when he wakes the second time, it's to the sound of eggs frying and his coffeepot, Sheppard’s off-key humming in the kitchen as yellow bars of light creep across his living room floor.
The jokes about Dr. and Mrs. Sheppard had been making the rounds on Atlantis for ages, a sort of absentminded jocular kidding that had snuck up on them all so slowly that Rodney had stopped—abruptly and surprised at himself—in the middle of a joke about John always having a headache before he’d realized it had happened. Even then, nobody really talked about it all that much; if gate team one was in any sort of marital relationship, it was one of the really Mormon ones.
Still, Rodney knows he and Sheppard are the Odd Couple are the Honeymooners, and so when John starts making nagging, wifey noises when they pull off of the local roads and onto the highway, all he can think is, He wasn’t anywhere this bitchy when we first got together.
“Who taught you how to drive?” Sheppard asks, obviously pained, all but peering at the Nevada traffic from between his fingers. “Actually, did anybody ever teach you how to drive?”
Rodney rolls his eyes and cuts across three lanes. “Ha ha very funny, Colonel. I’m a perfectly good driver.”
“Oh my God,” Sheppard says, his voice actually coming out like a high-pitched squeak, a noise Rodney has never heard in three years of aerial dogfights and life-sucking alien catfish so he has to sigh, slow down, and admit that John’s not faking it to be a jerk.
Twenty minutes later, they’re pulling into the lot at the Groom Lake complex and he gives Sheppard a deep and hateful glare when he all but throws himself out of the car, muttering something about how this totally, totally made sense in light of Rodney’s still-deplorable skills with a puddlejumper.
“Why am I coming with you again? Remind me,” Sheppard prompts as somebody waves a metal detector wand over him—it’s actually Azgard technology, but Rodney doesn’t really feel like explaining that Sheppard’s getting an anal probe by sonar every time the stick passes gently, six inches away from his backside. “I told you I could entertain myself.”
Rodney snorts and tries not to think about his own sonar rectal exam as the security guard starts in on him in the doorway. “And by entertain yourself, you meant steal all my quarters and drive to Vegas. No way, Colonel. I am not fielding phone calls from casino security once they realize that you can count cards and have gained the loyalty of all their female dealers.”
Sheppard makes a face at him and says sullenly, “I don’t hit on the dealers.”
“But you do count cards,” Rodney says with deep satisfaction, and ushers John through the first set of heavy metal doors when they open with a hydraulic rush and a high-pitched tone. Sheppard does, but he doesn’t play to win, and it’s a contradiction that Rodney has never entirely been able to wrap his mind around—the size of his mind regardless.
“And you haven’t answered my question,” Sheppard shoots back, saying to the slightly starry-eyed airman walking them through their secondary security procedures, “How much longer does this take?”
“Just a few more minutes, sir, Colonel Sheppard” Lieutenant Yopp recites dutifully.
Sheppard raises an eyebrow at Yopp, first, and then Rodney. “Oh, I get it,” he says after a beat. “Computers.”
“Yes,” Yopp agrees dreamily. “And Dr. McKay talks about you.”
“Oh does he,” John says, giving Rodney a meaningful look that makes Rodney think, okay, so this is probably why a lot of alien cultures think he’s my wife. “I think I’ll spare myself and resist the urge to ask.”
“It wasn’t bad stuff!” Rodney argues, irritated and then flustered when John’s face breaks into the kind of warm grin that always gets their trade agreements topped off with offers of willing virgins and extra hogs—which are incidentally the kind of stories he’s been known to tell about his team, anyway. “Oh for—you know what? It was all bad stuff. I said terrible things about you: suspicious rashes, delusion, hitting children. And you—” he points at Yopp, who swallows hard “—no more talking! Ever.”
“I only hit babies a little,” John tells Yopp in a confidential tone of voice. “And only if they’re the ones giving me rashes.”
Rodney knows Yopp is gone when jokes about child abuse and molestation only make him dreamier-looking.
They still have to look forward to retinal scans and fingerprint matching and a mildly disturbing 3D rendering body mass recognition device at the door that necessitated all Area 51 high security employees to keep a weight log with base security—probably the most highly-encrypted document in the entire complex.
They reach, eventually, the inner labyrinth of subterranean hallways that preface Rodney’s cavernous labs and Rodney sends Yopp away—who gives Sheppard one long and longing, hero-worshipping stare before he leaves reluctantly.
“Oh, geez,” Sheppard says, embarrassed.
“Oh, don’t pretend you’re not used to this by now,” Rodney tells him, but there’s no venom in his voice. And it’s at the double doors inside that Rodney is struck by a sudden sense of shyness, hands stilling on his keycard and turning slightly to peer at Sheppard’s distracted expression. It’s ridiculous to feel shy about this, too, but he realizes abruptly that he doesn’t necessarily want Sheppard to see his sycophantic employees, his enormous turbines, his theories and work that don’t power a city, that don’t breathe life into the air around them. Rodney’s been spoiled, he knows, to have seen science in motion.
“Rodney?” John asks, raising his brows.
“Right, yes,” Rodney says, tearing his gaze away and swiping his keycard, telling himself to stop being so stupid, that Sheppard will understand—he’s been getting cruel jokes about Rodney’s employees for weeks now. Why not see McKay’s rock stars in person? “Before we go in, you have to swear first on jumper three that you’ll keep your snotty flyboy comments to a minimum.”
John rolls his eyes. “Rodney—you’ve heard about my ‘team,’ what am I possibly going to say?”
“I’m warning you,” Rodney tells him, and sighs before he opens the door.
It takes a little less than 35 seconds for a small army of researchers to swarm them, bearing mugs of steaming coffee, pastries, egg McMuffins, a circle of beaming faces and babbling voices that rise up in well-wishes for Rodney’s previous night and curious questions about who his friend is only to be cut off by some of the really creepy ones who monitor the security feeds who say, “It’s so wonderful to finally get to meet you, Colonel Sheppard. We’ve heard such amazing things about you—Dr. McKay says you can do math.”
“Holy shit,” Sheppard says, looking at Rodney helplessly—and Rodney manages to fight the urge to tell his cretin employees to beat it for a solid 15 seconds before he starts waving his arms and shouting, “Oh God, you’re all so embarrassing! Go away! Do something productive.”
“These are really good egg McMuffins,” Sheppard tells him later, once Rodney has banished his entire staff to more useful pursuits and has dragged John up the metal staircases to the secluded catwalk on the second level.
Rodney kicks his legs sullenly where they hang from the side of the catwalk. “They’re cold,” he mutters sullenly, gnawing hatefully at the strawberry and cheese Danish his minions had left like an offering to an angry volcano god.
“My team doesn’t even bring me things,” Sheppard tries again. “They just fall down a lot.”
“God, this is just embarrassing,” Rodney moans, rests his arms across one of the rungs of the railing and resting his face against the crook of his elbow. “They won’t even send me the puddlejumper.”
Sheppard puts his hand on Rodney’s shoulder—which makes Rodney feel weirdly runny inside for a whole host of really embarrassing reasons similar to but not exactly like those that make Rodney find John hitting him upside the head hot. “I visit,” Sheppard murmurs, too sincerely dorky to be telling anything but the unvarnished truth here. “I could say hi for you next time.”
Rodney tries not to let that make him feel better. “They don’t even like me.”
“They like you fine,” Sheppard tells him, and when Rodney looks up, John is smiling at him and the enormous, echoing space around them seems to contract to a smaller, safer space.
“We’re such women,” Rodney says finally, a long moment later.
“Don’t tell, Rodney,” John whispers conspiratorially.
“Oh, for—” Rodney starts, but whatever rant he was about to start falls apart when Sheppard crinkles his eyes, just so, in a way that is totally a smile but never makes it to his mouth, and Rodney can’t help but follow along.
“I can’t believe I used my vacation days for this,” John teases, later, and Rodney hits him in the shoulder and says, “Oh, shut up.”
Rodney decides to put John to use and forces him to monitor the readings from the experiment he’s running, and runs it two extra, unnecessary times just to see Sheppard’s expression of concentration as he pecks his way across a keyboard—better since Rodney’s mandatory typing classes, but still deplorable—recording data and only complaining bitterly about being forced into doing work twice before Rodney decides to free them both and cuts out of work early.
“Okay, so now can we go to Vegas?” John asks from the driver’s seat after a brief scuffle that had concluded with John threatening to throw himself into freeway traffic if Rodney drove on the way back.
“No,” Rodney says.
They end up eating cheese fries in a bar called Pussy’s half an hour from Rodney’s apartment, watching terrifying Japanese game shows on SpikeTV and trying to maintain a silent, manly camaraderie that dissolves into gossip.
“I don’t think I’m adjusting,” Rodney finally admits.
John shrugs, lipping the rim of his bottle of beer. “Takes time.”
“Oh, so you’ve adjusted to coming back from an alien city before,” Rodney retorts.
John grins and it’s low and bitter and reminds Rodney of the pilot who’d dropped him off at the Ancient outpost from McMurdo: disinterested and a little defeated—not the John Sheppard Rodney knows now at all. “Let’s just say I’m used to being sent away.”
Rodney doesn’t even know what to say to that, just stuffs the last of the cheese fries into his mouth and turns back to the TV, watches tiny Japanese salarymen struggling against an enormous wind machine, reaching blinding out toward a prize dangling on the end of a string—just out of their reach.
Friday, Rodney blows off work and he and John go wander around the mall, where he looses Sheppard for an hour only to find him near orgasmic at the Hammacher Schlemmer store, out $5,000 of combat pay and dizzy with consumerism. Rodney tries to be angry but then he gets distracted by the Sharper Image a few steps down and by the time they stagger into the Apple store after two trips to the car to drop off purchases, the entire mall has heard about them.
“We’re like gay Hilton sisters,” Rodney says, mortified.
“Speak for yourself,” John says, playing with one of the new Macbooks. Rodney’s been offworld too long—Mac and PC miscegenation was still unspeakable when he left. “I’ve only been getting really heterosexual things.”
“The robotic shark is totally gay,” Rodney snaps.
“The robotic shark is awesome,” John corrects, and says, pointing at the Macbooks, “Lets get some of these, they’re lots lighter than the ones you pass out like candy.”
Which sends Rodney spiraling off onto a tangent about how he’s going to be bitter forever that he’s still Atlantis’ default sysadmin while John smiles blithely at the hipster counter biscuit at the Apple store, saying, “He has a really stressful job.”
They eat dinner in the foot court and argue about whether or not John really needs a see-through kayak or a miniature hover scooter (Rodney: no on both counts; John: yes on both and desperately). Rodney moans over the bad, fake Chinese, the bad, fake gyros, the bad, fake sushi, the bad, fake chicken in the Chik’fil’A sandwiches. It’s all so much preservatives and soy sauce and sodium and MSG: ambrosial on his tongue.
On Atlantis, after the initial months of compacted carbohydrates and MREs, they’d gone native: purple root vegetables with the consistency of yams, the subtle, creamy-soft taste of Yukon Gold potatos; shiny green leek things that tasted like chard; fish with rainbow-colored scales, and white flesh that melted away like butter on Rodney’s tongue. And whenever Sheppard could be persuaded or Ronon could be tricked into doing it—Atlantica’s continental sort-of-deer, space venison that betrayed no hint of gaminess. It’d actually been kind of tragic when they’d reestablished contact with the Daedelus, since Sheppard could hardly be convinced to go hunting to stave off starvation when there was a small mountain of frozen tri-color pasta salad in the cafeteria.
As good as everything was, Rodney had missed French fries, missed roast turkey with Stouffer’s stuffing and canned gravy, green bean casserole. He had missed Italian food and Chinese food and bad food and good food, sometimes—missed the prix fixe dinners he’d had at French Laundry and Babbo’s, the one time he’d gone slightly insane in Indiana and eaten at 16 chili restaurants in a row. He’s been eating take out, but that’s from restaurants, from reputable dealers: this is pure fast food, edible China White—and the electrical pulses to his pleasure centers are lit up like Vegas on fight night.
“How many of those have you had?” Sheppard asked.
Rodney stuffed another steak fry into his mouth. “This is only the third one,” he argued.
“You can’t say ‘only’ when your unit of measure is a cone filled with fries, Rodney,” John sighs.
“If no stress-induced heart attack has killed me yet,” Rodney tells him snottily, “then neither is splurging once in a while on my caloric intake.”
He was wrong about the caloric intake, but by the time he remembers that he’s actually 38-years-old and that his gastrointestinal system is no longer familiar with processing six metric tons of lard in only three hours, he’s already doubled over in the bathroom. By the time he staggers out again, swearing never again to touch Earth processed food, vengeance on Burger King, Sheppard’s situated himself on the living room couch, playing Katamari Damacy.
“This is seriously a game about rolling things onto a giant ball?” John asks, eyes still glued to the television screen—adding a sofa, a cow, three lamps onto his heap.
“To recreate the stars and the moon,” Rodney explains, “after the King of All Cosmos wrecked everything while going on a bender.”
John gives him a sideways look, a smile at the corner of his mouth. “Power trip much?”
“I’m reconstructing,” Rodney argues.
“We all know you refer to yourself in the royal plural when you think nobody’s watching,” John says tartly, and rolls up a ferris wheel.
Katamari Damacy is hypnotic in the worst way, and Rodney spends the rest of the night toying with his purchases from the mall but mostly watching John play, and when it’s suddenly 11 p.m. and somebody shows up with a meat lovers pizza, that’s the exact moment when Rodney feels a sense of loss so huge and swallowing it knocks the breath out of him. John will go back to Colorado and Rodney will stay in Nevada, crisping under the sun and cracking like the skin of the desert.
“You okay?” John asks when Rodney sits down again, sliding the pizza onto the coffee table.
“I’m fine,” Rodney tells him, eyes glued to the TV. “Of course I’m fine.”
The thing is—and this is something Rodney has always known, one way or another—is that Atlantis and all she holds, all she held for Rodney, was always a dream. And even when the city was crumbling to its foundations or being ripped by storm surge, even when the Pegasus Galaxy was doing its damndest to kill them, it was still a wonder just to witness, to remember they were in an alien city, further than humans could have ever imagined—and that she was beautiful and beyond their understanding. Rodney had always known they were never meant to see Atlantis bright in all her splendor. That had only made him want her more—and Rodney knows that’s why he knows he’ll miss John with the same burn he misses the city: not because he was ever Rodney’s to keep, but because Rodney had wanted him so badly.
John leaves on Sunday morning, and he forces Rodney to listen to that God awful Car Talk show on NPR and their evil braying laugh all the way to the airport. But then John’ s gone—disappeared into the maze of airport security—and Rodney leaves the radio on, listens to the Tappert brothers talk about mufflers and spark plugs and fill the renewed quiet in all the corners of his car as he winds his way back home—the desert melting into a blur outside the window.
He doesn’t hear from John on Monday or Tuesday, and on Wednesday it’s only an all-caps text message that reads: HEADED OFFWORLD WILL TRY NOT TO SELL BOTANIST AGAIN.
Rodney finds Zelenka’s email at his new haunt in Prague and they start a furious flame war over the meaning of Rodney’s latest set of theoretical calculations. It ends—like it always had on Atlantis—in Rodney calling Zelenka at some ungodly hour of morning so they could shout at each other in a third English, a third Czech, and a third math. At the forty minute mark, they both get tired and hoarse and wonder if they’ve lost their spark—until Rodney remembers with a sudden shock of bitterness that long before they’d gone into the second quarter hour on Atlantis, John would have wandered by to tell them to shut the fuck up.
“You will be fine, Rodney,” Zelenka says, after a long awkward silence.
“Really?” Rodney asks, bitter. “Because I feel fine.”
Zelenka sighs on the phone line, and Rodney knows exactly what face he’s making. “He will be fine, too,” Zelenka tells him, voice soft, and hangs up.
Rodney spends a lot of time on Friday and Saturday and Sunday feeling sorry for himself. He stress eats three buckets from KFC before he finishes catching up on some health-related articles and makes a hideous, snorting, shrieking noise over the shocking abundance of trans fats he just ate. For an embarrassingly long time, Rodney is torn between sticking a finger down his throat and dealing with the sore throat and implications of eating disorders—Cadman’s second favorite neuroses to accuse Rodney of having—or keeping a future heart attack in his stomach. In the end, he gets distracted by the DHS guy at his door and decides to forget about it.
It’s a padded envelope—and inside is a leather-bound journal with a music note on the front cover. It’s 200 pages of staff paper, and in the front cover Jeannie has written:
For you. Because for all you talk, you were always shitty with words.
On the first page, across the middle of the page, letters slouching across the lines, Rodney writes:
That’s not true—there’s just nothing to say.
Only that’s not true, either, Rodney knows, staring at his ceiling long into the night and listening to the sound of cars stretch long and lingering down the highway, through his opened window. There’s so much to say, and a lot to do, and Rodney’s too old and he’s far too smart to keep living like this is just another summer spent in a research facility, like his apartment is a dorm room and that this is all temporary, as if their lives haven’t been upended all over again—because there’s no return shuttle, it’s not just a stopover.
This is Earth; this is where Rodney lives now, and if the gravity is thicker and the skies are grayer and the oceans hundreds of miles too far away, that’s just how things will have to be. This is Rodney’s life all over again: the apartment, the car, the Nevada desert, and the empty spaces left by people who were never his to have.
He throws an arm over his face and goes to sleep, and hopes that tomorrow when he wakes up, he’ll mean it.
You should buy a couch, you know. I’m getting a piano.