Running Tally

By Chandri MacLeod

Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Rating: G
Pairing: John/Rodney, Rodney/Jennifer
Categories: slash, team, friendship, romance, on-Earth
Warnings: none
Summary: Atlantis is stuck on Earth, waiting for the IOA's decision. Rodney just broke up with his girlfriend. But John Sheppard is in a weirdly good mood, and Rodney wants to know why.
Disclaimer: They're not mine, alas. I'm just using them for fun.
Author's Note: Written for the 2010 mcshep_match on LiveJournal, for the prompt close to the mark. Betaed by artemisiabrisol.

Atlantis is on Earth for a total of three months and twenty-four days, but it feels like much longer.

The longer they're made to wait on a decision, the more bad-tempered everyone gets.

Rodney doesn't have nearly as much free time as the rest of his team to work himself into a good froth about being held hostage by the IOA. Instead, like every other time he's returned to this benighted planet in the past five years, he's immediately consumed by inhuman amounts of work. The work is almost uniformly pointless, being the sort of nonsense he tends to escape by virtue of none of it being important enough to bother him with from another galaxy. Since he's stuck on Earth for four goddamned months, though, he's got fewer excuses than usual for letting it slide.

This means, of course, that his procrastination kicks into overdrive. He starts challenging himself to see how many games of Solitaire he can win in fifteen-minute periods between briefings or how many of John's e-mailed Sudoku puzzles he can complete during his hasty half-hour lunch break. John starts getting shirty about the pace after about two weeks and starts making up puzzles himself in order to stump him. This works for about three days until Rodney spots John's tendency to group twos and sixes together.

Rodney spends a lot of time on airplanes and underground at Cheyenne Mountain locked in inane meetings with the administrative assistants of what feels like the entire American military-industrial complex. He spent the greater part of his early adult life dealing with this bullshit and manages it better than most, which means that he yells a lot, but by the end of the second month even he starts to feel his will to live being sapped away and just signs things and reads things and nods his head a lot. He still surfaces occasionally to argue with Sam and berate Bill Lee and get useful things done, like filling empty positions on his own staff, but mostly he lurches from place to place with very little awareness of time passing. In the entire time the city is on Earth, he's in Atlantis for less than three weeks of it.

It's not until the end of the fifth week planet-side that he starts to feel it. He's been gate-lagged pretty much continuously since they got here - it's damned difficult going from a twenty-six hour day to a twenty-four and it's even more difficult when you can't complain to baristas about it. But when it hits, it's not about fatigue. He goes to the window of his Colorado Springs hotel room one morning and opens the blinds and doesn't recognise the skyline, and for five terrifying seconds he thinks he's been kidnapped and carried off to an alien planet, or back inside the alien hallucination-mist from their first year. It's not until the coffee timer beeps that he remembers he's on Earth of his own free will (more or less) and that he's not dreaming any of this.

For five seconds after that, he misses his small, cramped room in Atlantis so fiercely that it hurts to breathe.

But there's work to do.

Any time on land not devoted to mindless paperwork, and ridiculous meetings and remotely troubleshooting the horrific messes his underlings are making of the city in his absence is spent with Jennifer, who is nearly as busy as he is. She's spent most of her time Earth-side under the Mountain, bartering for thermometers or something.

The thing is that while his relationship with Jennifer has always made him feel slightly panicky, it's different now. Usually it's an absent sort of worrying, something he does in the back of his mind while he's doing more important work with the rest of his brain. He worries about how to keep her happy, about whether he should do anything special for her that day, about when she's going to realise that this whole thing is a terrible mistake. But since they've been on Earth it's been different, sharper - less like he's padding with one oar and more like he's trying to bail out a sinking leaky boat with only his cupped hands.

At first he doesn't think much of it, since this is basically the range of emotional responses he expects from interpersonal relationships. But the same evening, he and Jennifer are sitting in a restaurant not far from his hotel and she gives him a strange look that kindles a panic he's used to associating with being threatened by large groups of spear-carrying Bronze-age Pegasus natives because he burped at the wrong moment or met the wrong person's eyes.

He immediately casts back in his short-term memory for anything he might have said or done in the last few minutes that was wrong, but he's pretty sure he's just been nodding while she talked.

"What's the matter?" he asks finally, caving and sure this is probably the wrong thing to say.

Sure enough, it fails to erase the weird look. God, he's terrible at this. She looks uncomfortable. Maybe worried. Her face is sort of pinched-looking and she's fidgeting with her napkin. At the advice of Dr. Thiessen, Heightmeyer's replacement, he's been trying very hard to learn how to read people's faces and body language better, but it's slow going.

"I wanted to ask you a question," she says eventually, letting go of her napkin to reach across the table and put her hand on top of his.

"A question? Sure," Rodney says, relieved because hey, questions he can answer. He's good at questions.

"What would you think about transferring back to Earth?"

He blinks at her. "About who transferring back to Earth?"

She blinks back. Really, she's not all that much better at this communicating thing than he is. It's one of the things they have in common. Still, she likes to make him pay when he gets something really wrong, usually with a lot of sex, so he figures it sort of balances out.

"Uh, well." She looks around the restaurant, chewing her bottom lip. "Well. Me, actually."

For a long moment, he just stares at her, and she takes the opening she's given.

"Well, apparently, Dr. Lam wants to take a year off to scrub some of her research - she wants to publish, but there's a lot of stuff that needs to be excised, obviously, so it'll take some time. And they've asked me to take over medical at the SGC in the interim!"

Rodney just gapes at her. Then his mouth does what it always does and gets way, way ahead of him.

"Are you kidding?"

Unfortunately, she reads his incredulity wrong and beams. "I know, isn't it amazing? I mean, I'd only been working with the SGC for a few months when Carson asked me to join the mission, and I haven't even been in the program that long, but they still want me! It's an incredible opportunity."

He stares at her for a full three seconds further before she seems to realise that he's not quite as delighted as she might have hoped. "Rodney?"

"You're going to leave Atlantis?" He can't help himself - it comes out appalled. Probably because he's appalled.

She frowns at him. "Well, yes. That's what I've been explaining."

"But -"

She's starting to look unhappy; there's a little line between her eyebrows and her lips have gone thin. "Rodney, we've talked about this. I mean, one day it was going to happen, right? I can't think of a better time to transition in replacements than now, when the city's still on Earth and—"

Wait, hang on. Back up. "Replacements? Plural?"

Now she pulls her hand away and puts it in her lap. She's definitely unhappy now. "I was hoping you'd be staying on Earth with me."

"What in the world gave you that idea?" His tone is still incredulous, and he manages to stop himself only when it's too late, and her mouth tightens in a way he definitely recognises as angry. Trying to salvage the situation, he holds out both his hands, palm-up. "I mean... Jennifer... look. I'm sorry. I just... we talked about it, yes, but that was a while ago and it was..."

He trails off, watching her face for clues, and sees her doing the same to him. Her eyes narrow a little, and then she sighs, and suddenly she doesn't look angry anymore.

"You thought it was a theoretical conversation," she finishes for him.

Rodney blows out a breath. "Yes."

She nods, looking down at her hands. "I guess that's fair," she says. "I mean when we talked about it... it was pretty unlikely. Given how things were."

"Yes. Exactly," Rodney agrees, nodding.

Except then she's quiet for a long time, and he starts to worry again. He's about to risk saying something when she finally meets his eyes. She looks sad. "You're not going to stay, are you?"

Rodney feels the sudden gut-punch of realisation that this is what he's been worrying about for weeks without knowing it. "Oh," he says, after a long moment. "You mean... you are."

She smiles at him, but it's not a happy smile. "Yeah, Rodney," she says. "I am."

They're both quiet for a long time. Jennifer eats a bite of her pasta. Rodney finishes his water and tries to signal the server for a refill, but she's nowhere to be seen.

"I guess that's that, then," Jennifer says eventually.

"I guess," Rodney agrees. It's strange. He's pretty sure he should feel differently than he does. He's not heartbroken - a little sad, maybe, but mostly regretful that he's not going to be getting regular sex for the foreseeable future, and that he won't get to talk to Jennifer every night anymore. He liked that - she's nice to talk to. "It's not that I wouldn't like to stay, it's just..."

"It's just that you need to be on Atlantis," Jennifer guesses, still looking at her plate.

"Exactly!" Rodney nods, pointing at her, suddenly desperate to justify himself. "I mean, there's no more advanced research in the world - not this world, anyway. My staff would probably blow up the city if I left, and Torren's education would suffer..."

"Right," Jennifer agrees, as the server finally reappears to refill their water glasses. She sets down her fork, looking defeated and a little sad, but not angry. She reaches across the table and takes his hand again, squeezing it a little. "I know you'd miss them. It's okay, Rodney."

"Right," Rodney says, still nodding. "And let's not even get into the number of ways Sheppard would probably manage to get himself killed if I wasn't around." Which he has to admit is the first concern that sprang to mind, even before the city sinking. It's a legitimate concern.

"Hmm," says Jennifer, her mouth twisting up strangely on one side for a moment before flattening out again. "We wouldn't want that."

There's another long silence, and finally Jennifer pulls her hand back for the last time to pick at her dinner roll.

"I'm really sorry," Rodney says again, more quietly this time.

"I know you are," Jennifer answers him, and he believes that she does. But she shakes her head. "I'm just not sure you know what you're sorry for."

Rodney thinks about that strange statement for a few hours after dinner is over, but he forgets about it by the time he falls asleep.

In retrospect, Rodney figures he probably should have suspected something up much earlier than he actually does. After all, John Sheppard's emotional spectrum is pretty uncomplicated. John has, in general, three reactions to any given situation. They are:

  1. Wry amusement, when he's pleased (e.g. When he manages - through trickery - to beat Rodney's RC car in a race.).

  2. Twitchy discomfort, when people around him are displaying strong emotions or attempting to elicit the same from him (e.g. When you try to hand him a baby.).

  3. Blank-faced withdrawal, when things aren't going the way he wants (e.g. When the IOA and the SGC took four months to approve the city's return to Pegasus and every day looked a little more like the day they were going to announce that they'd changed their minds and Atlantis was staying after all. Rodney was a little worried about that, towards the end, because the longer they waited the more he realised that he had no idea what Sheppard would do if that happened. Worse, he was no longer sure what he himself would do.)

This last one is always the most frustrating, because Rodney often feels like John does it just to spite him personally, knowing how much he hates having to rely on subtle social cues and how terrible he is at reading them. His ability to predict John Sheppard is mainly a result of careful observation and statistical analysis. If Cause then Effect, if Situation A then Facial Expression B. The scientific method really is applicable to almost any situation.

The face he's wearing when Rodney returns to the city (in one of the miniscule and thoroughly unsafe craft they've been using to ferry people between San Francisco and Atlantis - apparently Rodney doesn't rate a helicopter) is somewhere in between Facial Expressions 1 and 3. He doesn't look happy, exactly, but he doesn't look angry either. He's got his hands curled into fists at his sides the way he does when he's avoiding something he really doesn't want to do. He meets Rodney's (stupid, tiny, dangerous) boat at the end of the pier with the wind clutching at his clothes and tossing his hair attractively. Really, if Rodney didn't know that Sheppard is generally oblivious to his own attractiveness, it would be really easy to hate him.

He gives Rodney a hand up out of the (rickety, poorly-designed) boat, which Rodney appreciates for a second before Sheppard turns and offers a hand up to the pretty geologist who shared the ride over with him. But then he turns back to Rodney with a brief, genuine grin and slaps him on the shoulder. "Hey, buddy. Welcome back."

Rodney surveys him, unimpressed. "You've been bored out of your mind, haven't you?"

John sags a little, putting his hands in his pockets. "A little. Walk you to your quarters?"

They gather up Rodney's bags and make their way up the pier towards the city. When they're inside and no longer have to shout to be heard over the wind, Rodney learns that after the initial four-week torture session of making him prepare paper copies of every Pegasus mission report to be archived alongside the digital copies being redundantly filed on the IOA's secure server in Zurich, John hasn't really had much of anything to do, especially since he foisted off as much of the work as he could manage, as usual, on Lorne. Rodney can only imagine the havoc this must be wreaking on the city's finely-tuned socio-ecological balance. A bored John Sheppard is a menace to everyone around him.

"I spent a lot of time sparring with Ronon and Teyla - I actually managed to knock Teyla down a couple of times after the first three weeks. But then Teyla had to leave to go debrief at the SGC and... after that, I had to stop."

"And I suppose you stopped entirely of your own free will," Rodney says, sarcastically.

"Uh," John says, looking shifty. "Yee sort of lost her shit after I came in with my nose bleeding for the second time."

Rodney snickers. "The way I heard it, you and Ronon were forbidden from sparring without adult supervision. Meaning Teyla."

John's mouth falls open, and he looks utterly betrayed. "How'd you hear?" he demands.

"Ah-ah-ah, I cannot betray my sources," Rodney tells him, grinning.

"You mean you can't rat out your girlfriend," John sulks, as they come up to Rodney's door and Rodney waves them in. He's still smiling, but the mention of Jennifer prods places that are a still a little tender, and John must notice. "Rodney? What's the matter?"

"Ah, yes." Rodney shrugs, avoiding the conversation by dumping out his dirty laundry on the floor in the corner. He sits down at the foot of his bed, feeling tired like he hasn't since they landed in the Bay. "About that."

When he doesn't say anything again for almost a minute, he feels the mattress dip as John sits down next to him. "About what?"

It's weird. John's okay getting other people to talk about feelings (to a certain degree, anyway), but ask him his favourite flavour of ice cream and he squirms like somebody's pulling out his fingernails with a pair of needle-nose pliers.

"We sort of broke up," Rodney tells him, and for no reason he can discern, braces himself.

All he gets back is a long silence, and when he looks up, John is staring fixedly at the wall over Rodney's right shoulder, his eyes wide. When he sees Rodney looking, his face immediately forms a convincing arrangement for "concern."

"Uh," John says. "Are you..."

Rodney waits expectantly, and when nothing else is forthcoming glares at him, unaccountably irritated. "Okay? Am I okay? Is that what you're trying to ask?"

John shrugs. "Yeah. I guess."

"Oh, for Christ's sake," Rodney sighs, and lets himself flop back onto his mattress. Above him, John is sitting awkwardly stiff, still facing the closet. "You can unclench. If I wanted to talk about my feelings on the matter you would be the last person I'd call."

Hilariously (or at least, it would be hilarious if Rodney weren't jetlagged, gatelagged, girlfriend-less, residually irritated from weeks of dealing with bureaucratic peons and generally exhausted), John immediately relaxes, though he still doesn't look at Rodney.

"Are you okay?" he ventures after a while, quietly and not at all like he actually wants to hear the answer. Still, from John it's a big effort and Rodney's weirdly touched.

"I'm fine," he says, "I think. I've never had an amiable breakup before, or a mutual one. It's kind of weird."

"So what happened?" John's facing him now at least, Rodney can see when he lifts his head.

"She got offered a job at the SGC. She wants to stay and I don't. End of story."

John nods, as though this makes perfect sense. Then he stops, and looks at Rodney sideways. "As long as you're, y'know, sure."

"Sure?" Rodney repeats blankly.

John shrugs, obviously uncomfortable. "You know. That you're not going to regret it later."

Rodney sits up, filled with indignation. "Why would I regret it later?"

John rolls his eyes pointedly. "Some people might."

Rodney huffs an impatient sigh. "Look. I'm not saying that I'm not going to miss her, or the sex, or the delusion that I'm actually capable of carrying on an adult relationship but..."

"Aw, come on, that's not what I meant—"

"Are you feverish? Have you hit your head?" Rodney reaches out to lay his palm on John's forehead, but John, of course, ducks out of the way, scowling.

"It's Atlantis," Rodney says, smacking the bed with his palm instead. "I mean yeah, I'll miss her, but this is... this is the best thing I could be doing. And anyway, there's... well. You know."

John gives Rodney a suspicious look when he lets both hands drop to his lap and his shoulders droop. "What?"

Rodney sighs, annoyed at feeling his face flush. "There's you guys. And there's more of you than her. So."

When he looks up, John's grinning and reaching out to ruffle Rodney's hair. Rodney, lacking John's reflexes, doesn't manage to duck out of the way in time. "Aw, Rodney," John says, still grinning. "Didn't know you cared."

He's still grinning when Rodney throws him out of his room.

If Rodney thinks anything about John's behaviour is strange, it doesn't really register with him until the next morning when he lumbers into the mess and finds Ronon and John already there. Sheppard is in a disgustingly good mood, and Rodney spends nearly twenty seconds just glaring at him before even touching his breakfast even though there's real bacon. This is a pretty good indicator of the revolting cheerfulness of John's demeanour, that Rodney is willing to delay bacon in order to correct his behaviour.

Spend five years on a team with somebody, watching each other's backs and getting into harrowing/embarrassing situations with them and you learn a few things. One thing Rodney has worked out over the years is that John Sheppard is not really a morning person. In fact John's morning-person-ness is an elaborate ruse that Rodney believes Sheppard has fabricated just to torment Rodney personally. Rodney has seen John newly-awoken, off-world and during midnight emergencies and when they've dozed off watching movies. If morning-Rodney resembles a grouchy bear (a comparison made by more than one of his underlings and also Radek), morning-Sheppard is more like some mythical subterranean carnivore driven from its cave into the bright daylight, all wild eyes and crazy hair. When Ronon came to Atlantis, Rodney briefly entertained the suspicion that John was just pretending to like morning jogging because it made him look cool. Unfortunately they've taken him running with him more than a few times, and he knows this not to be true. Sheppard runs too gracefully, too fast, too efficiently for it to be something unaccustomed. It annoys Rodney a great deal. Nobody should look that good unshaven and covered in sweat. It isn't natural.

John's in such a good mood this morning that Rodney is immediately suspicious. Often Sheppard's good moods end in Rodney having to run or climb or otherwise perspire in ways he prefers to avoid when he isn't actively running for his life. He knows he's gotten out of shape the last several months, going on fewer missions even before they left Pegasus with the IOA pressuring them for results, but he doesn't see why he should be punished for it.

The likelihood of John's plans being athletic decreases somewhat when Ronon gets up from the table. "Going for seconds," he says. "Anybody else want some?"

John shakes his head. Rodney nods, his mouth too full to respond verbally. Ronon just grunts an affirmative and departs in search of more bacon. Rodney really likes that about Ronon: he has his priorities in order.

"So, what are your plans for the day?" Sheppard asks, popping the last corner of his toast into his mouth and leaning back in his seat.

"About a hundred more reams of unnecessary paperwork and dealing with my new morons," Rodney says warily. "Why?"

"No reason, Rodney," John tells him, quirking a smile and glancing at his watch. "Crap, I'm late for Lorne. You think you've got troubles with the new arrivals? I've got to integrate sixty new recruits and I'm not sure all of them even speak English." He stands up, picking up his tray and tilting his head to one side while he reaches out to give Rodney a brief little shoulder-squeeze. "See you later!" And then he's gone in a flurry of abandoned napkins and sunny disposition.

Rodney stares after him, because okay, that's weird. John Sheppard smiling that much in a five-minute span - and by the way, casual touching? John doesn't usually touch people unless he's sparring or somebody is bleeding.

Ronon chooses then to return with a plate of bacon, weaving his way through tables occupied by scientists and military bent over breakfast and about a dozen chess and checker-boards. Apparently the terminal boredom has infected the rest of the city, because according to Radek's e-mails most of the expedition has been engaged in competitive time-wasting for the past two weeks. Apparently somebody set up a bowling alley somewhere down in the lower levels and somewhere else, a mini-golf course is being constructed, hole by hole. God, but Rodney will be glad when they can get back to Pegasus and back to work (though he'd admit to being intrigued by the possibility of the mini-golf course).

Ronon must be sweet-talking the kitchen staff, because there are six whole pieces on the plate. Rodney is momentarily distracted by the three pieces Ronon slides over onto his plate.

Once he's down to a piece of toast and his second cup of coffee, Rodney asks: "Have you noticed anything weird about Sheppard?"

Ronon regards him thoughtfully, chewing slowly. He reaches for his water glass and takes a drink. "He's happy. That's weird." And trust Ronon to get right to the point.

"Thank you!" Rodney exclaims.

"You're not, though," Ronon remarks, crunching down another piece of bacon.

"I'm not?" Rodney is confused before he remembers. "Oh. Um. Jennifer and I broke up."

Ronon's eyebrows shoot up for a moment. "Huh," he says. His eyes go a little distant, staring over Rodney's shoulder to the doorway on the far side of the room before returning to Rodney's face. "Sorry."

Rodney stares at him, trying to figure out if that was weird, or just Ronon being Ronon. Ronon doesn't go to the extraordinary lengths John does to avoid talking about his feelings, but for a while there things were kind of tense between them when it came to Jennifer. Looks like he's over it, though. Apparently his new kickboxing military girlfriend is providing ample distraction.

"Thanks," he says, meaning it. "I mean... I'm fine. But thanks."

"Uh huh," Ronon says, polishing off the last piece of bacon. "You told Sheppard?"

Rodney's abruptly confused again. "Uh yes? Yesterday."

"Huh," Ronon says again, only now he's smiling a little.

Rodney frowns at him. "What? What does that mean?"

"Nothing," says Ronon, pushing himself to his feet. "I've got stuff to do."

And then he's gone as quickly as John, and Rodney really has no idea what's going on.

He finishes his coffee feeling vaguely annoyed, but he really doesn't have the brainpower to spare that day on worrying much. He's got a dozen new idiots to teach how not to sink the city and kill them all. These days Rodney thinks someone should probably have written that into his job description.

When Teyla finally returns to the city six days later, Rodney's never been so grateful to see her. Sheppard's been acting even weirder and Rodney needs a translator.

It's not that Rodney doesn't enjoy John's company. He enjoys John's company more than pretty much anyone he's ever met, including, he has to admit, a little sheepishly, Jennifer's. He and John get each other in a way Rodney's never experienced with another person. But there's a line between "enough hanging out" and "too much hanging out" and Rodney thinks that if they were normal people John would be pretty close to crossing the line over into stalking territory.

He's used to John interrupting his work occasionally for video games or to bring him food or to drag him off to team bonding exercises, but it's been ages since he's had to contend with a bored John while he himself is trying to work. He feels kind of guilty about sending John away the first few times, even though all three times he's legitimately involved in something that required his personal attention, but seriously, can't he find something better to do than bother Rodney? He feels worse the third time, when he says this out loud and John slinks away like a scolded puppy. But he's back half an hour later with a cup of coffee, practically bouncing on his toes, and this time Radek shoos them both away with extreme prejudice, claiming that they are upsetting his revolution and that it is much easier to plot against Rodney's leadership when he's not in the room.

John drags him (literally, the last few steps) to Teyla's room, where Teyla actually hugs them both, and then sits them down and makes them drink tea. Ronon's already there, long legs folded underneath him and one of Teyla's delicate porcelain cups cradled between his hands like doll china. He grins at them both when they come in, brief and startling. Rodney's still not used to the way Ronon smiles so much these days, even though Ronon died recently and they've been stranded in an alien galaxy for a million years and even Rodney's starting to get tetchy over the delay. He doesn't mind, though. He's glad Ronon's got something to smile about. God knows that for a long time, he didn't.

And huh, he thinks, pausing to roll that thought over in his head. That's not the first time he's thought of the Milky Way as an alien galaxy. It's not as surprising as he might have expected.

They lounge on Teyla's fat, brightly coloured cushions and eat Oreo cookies and Rodney feels himself properly relaxing for the first time in weeks. Ronon tells Rodney to hold up his hands. Rodney does it without thinking and then squawks in protest when Ronon produces a skein of vivid orange yarn from somewhere and loops it around Rodney's fingers. "I have fibre allergies, I could get a rash," he complains half-heartedly. Ronon just shakes his head and smiles, and the yarn is soft, not scratchy, so Rodney just sighs and sits there as Ronon winds it into a ball. Ronon learned knitting from a couple of the Marines a few months ago and his creations have been getting more and more ambitious. The orange stuff is going to be a sweater for Amelia.

"I learned cabling yesterday," Ronon tells them, his attention on the yarn. "Did you know you can buy yarn on the Internet? And they just bring it to you?" Rodney wants to make fun, but Ronon's so enthused about the magic of mail-order online shopping that he just can't bring himself to do it. To be fair, Rodney remembers when online shopping was new and yeah, it's still pretty damned cool.

They talk about nothing for a while. Then they talk about how much Teyla misses Torren and Kanaan, still back in Pegasus (they can sympathise - they all miss Torren). Then it comes around to what went on during their various debriefings with the SGC. John's was shortest, since he's been sending them weekly reports all this time and mainly what they wanted was details. Teyla's was the longest, since they get actually relevant new information from her and Teyla will talk longer and more willingly than Ronon, whose briefing was second-shortest. Rodney they've mostly been torturing with bureaucratic scut-work.

It's a while before the conversation comes around to Jennifer, which it inevitably does because Teyla has some kind of awkward-conversation-topic-radar and it seems particularly sensitive to Rodney's emanations. "I was very sorry to hear about you and Jennifer, Rodney."

Rodney focuses on not dropping the tiny, breakable cup he's holding. "How did you—"

Teyla folds her hands in her lap. "A friend from the SGC infirmary mentioned it over lunch last week," she tells him, and when has Teyla had time to make friends on Earth? Rodney sure as hell hasn't got any.

"I am very sorry," she says again, placing a conciliatory hand on his arm.

"Yeah, well, me too," is what he says back, even though after almost a week it's already starting to fade into the background of his immediate emotional priorities. "But, you know. It wasn't that much of a choice to make."

Teyla beams at him like a proud mother presented with her child's first macaroni artwork. Rodney is confused but goes along with it when she presses their foreheads together.

To his left, John is smiling dopily down into his tea and Rodney wonders if Teyla drugged it or something because that would explain a lot of things about this conversation.

Not about the past week, though, so he doesn't mention it.

He forgets about it a few minutes later when Ronon starts telling funny stories about training with the new military personnel. Apparently some of them are really new, like outside-of-the-program new, and were therefore not warned about training with the civilian contractors (read: bad-ass aliens). John laughs his real, embarrassing donkey-laugh and slouches comfortably against Rodney's side, and Rodney wonders if John knows he's touching him more than he used to. But he doesn't mention it, because then John might stop.

Rodney is surprised by this thought and very resolutely does not think very hard about what it means.

He does ask Teyla about John the next day, because she insists they start training again ("I hope you were not planning on abstaining from future field missions when return to New Lantea, Rodney," she said when she showed up at his doorway moments after he'd returned from breakfast. She had Bantos rods slung over one shoulder and was wearing her ass-kicking skirt. This should have been a warning to his hindbrain, but apparently it's developed a blind spot where his teammates and the possibility of dire physical harm are concerned.) and when he misses a block and ends up needing stitches above his eyebrow she insists on accompanying him to the infirmary. He thinks this is nice of her even if she is the one who may have permanently scarred him.

She sits swinging her feet next to him on the infirmary bed while they wait for the nurse to come back with the suture kit. Eventually she says: "The infirmary will be very different with Doctor Cruz in charge."

For a minute Rodney has no idea what she's talking about, and then his gaze goes unerringly to Jennifer's closed office door. What was Jennifer's office door.

"Huh, yeah. I guess it will." Cruz is brisk and efficient and confident and twice Jennifer's age. Rodney likes her, even if he is a little scared of her. Strangely, the reminder fails to elicit much of a response from the part of his chest he's used to associating with unpleasant reminders. Apparently he doesn't feel all that sad about it anymore. Weird.

"I do not think that Doctor Cruz will be as tolerant of John and Ronon's tendency to injure themselves in their leisure hours."

That surprises a laugh out of Rodney, because no, she probably won't. Carson used to shake his head and cluck at them, and Jennifer usually just sighed, but Cruz has said before that she doesn't like wasting supplies outside of emergencies and that members of the senior staff should know better than to stress their resources unnecessarily.

Then he remembers what he wanted to ask Teyla yesterday. "Does John seem weird to you?"

Teyla tilts her head a little, considering. "If by 'weird' you mean..."

"I mean, like a pod-person." He makes a descriptive little loop in the air with his index finger, then spreads his fingers wide. "Like, high on reltan nectar," he explains, referring to a violently purple fruit that the people of M79-336 ferment into something sweet and potent and delicious. It also makes you giggle like you've been dosed with nitrous oxide.

"He does seem... happier, lately," she says diplomatically.

"But why?" Rodney wonders. It's very frustrating. With all the data he's amassed on John Sheppard over the years, this should not be so difficult to analyse. "I mean, the IOA's basically holding us prisoner, he's going out of his mind with boredom, and he's walking around like he just won the lottery or something. I thought maybe he'd hit his head sparring with Ronon or something but Ronon says not."

Actually, Ronon had said that Sheppard had "taken mostly torso hits," in sparring lately, which wasn't exactly reassuring, but did rule out a concussion.

"Also he totally fell down on the job, best-friend-wise, when I told him about Jennifer," Rodney suddenly remembers. John owes him a beer. Several beers, according to the Sheppard-established code of conduct.

It's been a full forty seconds before he realises Teyla's staring at him with a soft little smile on her face. It's almost the same smile Ronon gave him at breakfast last week, except a little less amused and at Rodney's expense.

"What?" he asks, and then again, when the smile widens and Teyla starts to laugh. "What?"

"It's not important," she says, shaking her head. But a moment later Teyla gives him a strange look, the one that in his head he thinks of as pitying. Sometimes, in a few very specific ways, he thinks Teyla thinks he's not really all that bright.

John spends almost the entire next day pestering Rodney in the lab, which Rodney decides not to mention just in case this happiness-dementia is fatal and he'll regret it later when he finds out John is dying of subdural haematoma.

Around lunchtime the lab's cleared out and Rodney's finally run out of pointless busywork. He's debating handing over the remainder of idiot-training to Radek and taking a year-long nap. He's starting to miss Kavanaugh, who at least was capable of performing mundane tasks without setting off safety alarms or setting things on fire by accident. Most of the time.

Once it's just him and John, Rodney puts his head down on the desk. "Where are they getting these idiots?" he asks, his voice muffled into his arms. "Are they trying to kill us all?"

John performs a perfunctory one-two-three back-pat, though on the last pat his hand lingers longer than it usually does. "Well, look at it this way, buddy - the Pegasus galaxy's sink or swim. Either they get smarter or..."

"...or they get swallowed by a carnivorous tree or accidentally fall into the ocean or lock themselves in their own closets and go screaming back to Earth." The worst part is that all of these things are actual examples of things that have happened this week. Didn't the Stargate Program used to consist of the best of the best? Rodney's sure he remembers seeing that on letterhead somewhere. "I know that. It's just that in the interim I'm still the one who has to deal with them."

"Would a jumper flight make you feel any better?" John asks, and Rodney lifts his head just to glare at John that one because it's clearly a thinly-veiled excuse to go joyriding.

"No," Rodney says flatly. "That's you. Jumper flights make you feel better."

John, of course, whines about it. "Come on," he says coaxingly. "I'll let you take the stick. It'll be great. We'll put on the cloak and take her around the bay. It'll be fun."

Rodney considers the likelihood that John's going to leave him alone in his misery versus the likelihood that John's going to keep pestering him until his head explodes and/or he gives in anyway. He decides to give in early and save himself the headache.

"Fine," he says, "but I need lunch first. Not killing any of my new staff members used up a lot of energy."

John reaches down behind the bench he's been leaning on and procures a woven Athosian basket from the mess. "Already taken care of," he says, and Rodney sighs, because of course it is.

"Do you ever even entertain the possibility anymore that you won't be able to convince me to do something?"

John pretends to consider this. "Not really," he admits. "I figure there are better things I could be doing with my time."

After a few minutes in the air, Rodney has to admit that John was right. This is kind of relaxing, in a way that it rarely is back in Pegasus. The sky is blue and cloudless and the ground below is full of unsuspecting people who have no idea how cool the universe really is. Rodney still finds himself grinning like an idiot sometimes, when he finds himself on a street on Earth and looks around and remembers just how awesome his job really is. If you don't count the monsters and the running for your life and everything.

He doesn't even mind John's freakily good mood, because the puddlejumpers always make John smile this way, giddy and pleased. They don't talk much right away, John taking them on a long arc around San Francisco Bay, Rodney looking down at the specks of boats on the water far, far below them. He feels at once peaceful and homesick; seeing the Earth at a distance, the details tiny and unreal, makes him realise all over again just how much about this world is alien to him now.

"So, you okay?" John asks, not taking his eyes off the view. Rodney turns his head to look at him, ready with some barb about how he's great except how everybody keeps bringing it up, but then... stops. Amazed.

It's probably a pretty stupid realization to have about somebody you've known for half a decade, but Rodney is now coming to understand that he's never seen John like this before. He's never seen him happy, and that's why John's behaviour of the last little while has seemed so strange. It's because it's unfamiliar, a new data point for his graph of Sheppardian behavioural math, an outlier.

Rodney doesn't want to do anything to ruin the moment, so he doesn't say anything at all, just makes a "hmm" noise and settles back into his seat, watching the sky deepen to midnight blue as Sheppard takes them higher and higher into the atmosphere.

There's data missing still, but Rodney knows that good scientists are supposed to be patient. Rodney's not patient, which probably makes him a bad scientist, but if there's one thing he's learned in the Pegasus galaxy it's how to work around time constraints in both directions.

A week later they get the good news that Atlantis is clear to return to Pegasus. The admittedly complicated proposition of redirecting the attention of every radar-capable apparatus in San Francisco bay has been handled, and they're to start preparing for early-morning liftoff in twenty-four hours. It's late morning when Woolsey makes the announcement, and nearly half an hour before the cheering dies down. The team is having lunch when the news comes, and Ronon actually jumps out of his seat and hugs them all, one after the other, Rodney so hard that his feet come off the ground.

Rodney doesn't cheer, but he has to make himself stop smiling because his face is starting to hurt and because it's undignified for the head of science to be grinning like a maniac while he's trying to strike fear into the hearts of new subordinates.

Predictably, John appears as it's getting dark to drag him off to dinner. Or at least, Rodney assumes it's going to be dinner until John follows him into the transporter and presses a completely different destination on the screen. They rematerialize at the west pier, one with a view of nothing but ocean and the orange-coloured sky and no reminders that they're not where they're supposed to be.


Ronon and Teyla are already there, along with a good number of first wave people, a few folding tables covered with food and a few buckets full of ice and beer. There are no chairs, but there are blankets spread across the decking and pillows scrounged from all over the city. Off to the side Lorne and Zelenka are barbecuing something that smells delicious.

"Oh my god, it's a tailgate party," Rodney says. John bursts out laughing, hand falling between Rodney's shoulder blades and staying there until he catches his breath. Then he elbows Rodney companionably in the side and tilts his head to indicate a direction.


Rodney follows him through the crowd down to the end of the pier where a windbreak (which they discovered in their second year somehow acts as a wind-energy converter) conceals a set of stairs that lead down to the water. Weighed down with four plates and bottles of beer (some of them stuffed into Rodney's pockets) they join Ronon and Teyla at the top of the steps. It's warm and the ocean is calm, the breeze almost absent.

Even with no view of San Francisco's lights to ruin the illusion, Rodney still can't quite forget that this isn't New Lantea. It should be enough, with Atlantis beneath him and his team beside him, but he's come to realise over the last several weeks that his environment has become several orders of magnitude more complicated than that. It's never been just the city, or the people, or the place, but a combination of all three that's made him feel like leaving was an absurd proposition. He still carries a vivid memory of the utter negation he felt when Jennifer asked him to stay. It was just never going to happen - no matter how much he might have wanted it to, or how much he loved her. And he did love her. Does. Just... maybe not as much as he thought.

He looks at his team: Teyla laughing at some terrible joke Ronon learned from his knitting buddies, John warm against his side. Behind them, the city. And tomorrow they're taking her home. It's strange, he thinks. He used to think he needed so much more.

From behind them, the sound of bad eighties rock suddenly fills the air. He saw Chuck and Miko fiddling with a set of iPod speakers earlier, so he supposes he has them to thank for that. Ronon stands up, brushing off his pants and stretches his arms over his head. "Okay, here I go," he says.

"Here you go where?" Rodney asks, baffled, as Ronon steps over their legs towards the opening in the windbreak.

"Told Amelia I'd dance with her. You guys coming?"

Rodney looks at Teyla and John. Teyla's eyes are wide and she's grinning, actually grinning. "I think I must see this," she says, getting up to follow.

Ronon nods, then looks at his remaining two team-members, but John waves a hand. "Maybe later, big guy," he says, leaning back on his hands. "I wanna enjoy the view some more."

There ensues a strange exchange of looks between Ronon and John that Rodney can't decipher, but eventually Ronon shrugs and disappears around the windbreak.

"So," John says after a while. "Looking forward to leaving tomorrow?"

"God yes," Rodney answers without thinking. "I really want to get another look at the wormhole drive while it's online, and as an added bonus, it means the worst of the new morons get shipped back to the SGC. Or whoever else will actually take them." Rodney's actually looking forward to that, though it probably makes him a bad person or something.

John chuckles, bumping their shoulders together. "Aw, Rodney, you're such a great boss."

Rodney wants to respond with wounded dignity - he is, in fact, an excellent boss - but for some reason he's feeling that same reluctance to ruin the moment that he felt in the puddlejumper. On top of that he's having a lot of trouble keeping himself from asking the question that's been percolating at the back of his head for two solid days now, since he finally assembled all of his data and reached a conclusion.

John takes a long swallow of his beer, head tilted back, eyes closed. Rodney catches himself staring, thinking about the way the light softens the line between John's brows and throws the stark dark shadows of his eyelashes across his cheeks, and doesn't quite manage to stop himself before John sees him.

John doesn't say anything right away, just wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and regards Rodney steadily with a carefully blank expression. "You okay, buddy?" he asks, in a tone of voice that is similarly expressionless.

Rodney's face and neck grow hot, and he's glad that the spectrum of light hides it. Probably. "Fine," he says quickly, and takes a sip of his own beer, then lowers the bottle and stares at it, turning it between his hands. Fidgeting with convenient objects at hand is something he does when he's nervous, and if he's nervous that probably means he's about to do something potentially embarrassing. He's not sure what it's going to be, but he never is until he's already done it and it's too late to take it back.

"You sure?" John asks. "You're kind of..." John makes some bizarre, twisty-fingered gesture that somehow encompasses Rodney's entire body, "...twitchy."

"I'm not... okay, I guess, I am," Rodney admits, and laces his fingers together around the now-empty bottle. Sometimes he finds that making his body slow the hell down helps him to organise his thoughts. "You owe me another one of these, by the way," he tells John, tilting the bottle in his direction. "Maybe two."

"Yeah?" John sounds amused, which is a lot better than the weird blank Sheppard Stare thing.

"Yeah," Rodney confirms. "For Jennifer. If you stop doing it, you know, it stops being a tradition, and I was getting kind of fond of this one."

There's a long moment of silence, and then John shifts, reaching behind him for another bottle. He gently unlaces Rodney's clenched fingers and swaps it for the empty. The new bottle is cold and beaded with condensation. John's fingers, by comparison, are shockingly warm when they brush against his for a moment. "I'll keep that in mind," John says, leaning back on his hands again.

Rodney takes a pull from his bottle. "You were... you were happy, when I told you, weren't you?"

Pressed together like they are, Rodney actually feels John start. "What?"

Rodney rolls his eyes. "You heard me. All that 'are you okay' stuff instead of just offering to get me drunk."

"I was trying to be nice." John sounds peevish now, which is still a far sight better than stoic.

"You were not. Come on," Rodney says, looking at John for a second before turning back to the water. "You were happy."

Rodney takes John's sulky silence as an affirmative. A moment later, he asks:

"Was it just that you missed hanging out with me? Or that you were still pissed at her for trying to stop you running back out into the field with a piece of rebar sticking out from between your ribs?" Rodney doesn't try to gauge reaction this time - he just wants to know.


Here's where, if things were normal, Rodney would tell Sheppard that whining is not an attractive quality and that he needs to put on his grown-up pants, but somehow it doesn't seem appropriate given the situation. Instead, he takes a deep breath, lets it out again, and says: "John?" very quietly.

And just as quietly, John answers: "No, it wasn't just that."


Next to him, John sags a little. Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney sees him scrub a hand through his hair, doubtless making it stand up even more. "I didn't do it on purpose," John says, and that makes Rodney roll his eyes again.

"You've been flirting with me by accident? Oh, that is just typical. And explains a great deal about the off-world encounters where we've had to leave a settlement in great haste due to some 'misunderstanding' between you and somebody's daughter."

When he looks at John again, he's not wearing the #3 blank face, but rather the #2 uncomfortable one. And still, still, Rodney can see him poised to deny it.

"Oh, shut up. I freely admit to being oblivious about these things, but even I'm not dense enough to miss... this." He waves both his hands in John's direction, nearly spilling his beer. He lowers it quickly, taking a sip, swallowing, and looking at John again. John is looking up at the stars, which are faded from light pollution, but foreign and startlingly familiar at the same time.

"So," Rodney asks after a while, "um, if I can ask... why now?"

John shrugs. "I didn't really... I didn't plan it or anything, Rodney. It just seemed like... I'd been thinking about it. For a while."

"How long a while, exactly?" Rodney can't keep himself from asking, and he almost regrets it when John squeezes his eyes shut for a long moment and shakes his head.

"And you were never going to say anything?" Rodney's incredulous. "You were just going to, what, hide in your room and play Johnny Cash and suffer for the next... oh, what am I saying? Look who I'm talking to. Of course you were."

John rubs the back of his neck in a way Rodney's pretty sure is unconscious. It means John's uncomfortable and unsure of what to do. Sometimes it means he's embarrassed. "Jesus, Rodney, you seemed happy, okay? I didn't want to..." He drops his hand into his lap. "And until a few weeks ago that was kind of a big risk to take, considering."

Which means "the stupid anti-gay regs being repealed," which Rodney knew because he'd been at the SGC when the news hit, and the parties had gone kind of late. He'd known about it, it just hadn't occurred to him until now that it might have anything to do with him personally.

"Okay, but what about the last week?" Rodney asks, setting down his half-empty bottle on the deck behind them.

John looks at him like he's an idiot. "Uh, you just broke up with your girlfriend, and oh, right, you're straight?"

Rodney stares back, hopefully conveying a similar sentiment. "What's that got to do with anything?" he demands.

And hey, he's done it. He's finally managed to shock John Sheppard.

At least for a second, and then he recovers himself, more or less.

"That's kind of a big deal for some people," John says, sounding mildly annoyed, like Rodney's the one who's crazy.

"Since when is anyone on this expedition like other people?" Rodney asks. It's a fairly elementary proposition, and he doesn't get why John's being so weird about it. Sure, Rodney never really thought about another guy seriously until yesterday, but his libido doesn't seem to be having any trouble with the concept and his sense of personal identity is putting up remarkably little argument over the idea. He did a very thorough personal inventory both last night and this morning, just to make sure.

John stares at him. He looks thoughtful, even if there's a hint of "you're completely nuts" in his expression. But slowly, a smile forms, real and huge, and he shakes his head. "You're kind of insane," he says fondly.

Rodney frowns. "I don't know what that means. Is that a yes or a no?"

John takes a deep breath and leans in a little closer, setting down his bottle beside Rodney's. Ridiculously, Rodney's pulse kicks up a notch, thudding against his breastbone.

"Apparently, crazy really works for me," John tells him conspiratorially. His hand hovers in the air between them, like he's asking permission to touch.

Rodney huffs out a laugh. "Like that could possibly come as a surprise to—"

"Rodney," John interrupts him, smiling.

Rodney shuts his mouth, and then opens it again. "Yes?"

John touches his face, just the tips of his fingers skimming up Rodney's jaw. Rodney can smell the beer on his breath and the warm spicy scent of the Athosian soap everybody started using in the first year when they ran out of the boxed stuff. John leans in close to whisper into Rodney's ear. "Shut up for a minute, will you? I'm trying to have a moment here." John's stubble prickles against Rodney's lips and the words buzz across his skin and Rodney shivers.

"Are you always this romantic?" Rodney asks, unable to hold in the laugh, and John curls his fingers around the back of Rodney's neck. Rodney responds in kind by letting his fingers do what they've been wanting to do and slide up John's ribs, warm under his t-shirt.

"Nah," John tells him. "Only when I really work at it."

Rodney's never tried kissing and laughing at the same time.

It turns out he likes it.