The Stranger's Always You
by jenn (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Codes: McKay, Sheppard, Sheppard/McKay implied
Warnings: Please see Warnings cut-tag.
Warnings: past character death.
Rodney watches him on the security cameras, paused at the door of the puddlejumper bay. It doesn't throw him anymore; the lean black lines of his uniform, the too-thin body, bare muscle and bone, the short dark hair, still and quiet in a way Rodney's still adjusting to.
Leaning back into the side of the jumper, Rodney slides the cursor to the top of the screen, watching Sheppard cross the bay with the slow, steady gait of a man being led to his own execution.
The familiarity is what's jarring now, the months of watching and learning this place, sinking into him so subtly that it's only now he realizes he isn't startled when he wakes alone, doesn't look for a body beside him in the lab, doesn't reach automatically to touch. This world, this place, he's learning to live in it.
Rodney shakes away the feeling of betrayal and watches the screen.
At the sound of footsteps just outside, Rodney quickly minimizes the window, pulling up the diagnostics like he's been working on them all along.
There's a long pause. Rodney fights the urge to look.
Rodney turns his head. "Hey." Turning his eyes back to the screen, Rodney watches the readings like he has any fucking clue what he's seeing.
After a few more seconds of silence, he hears Sheppard come up the ramp, settling on the floor across from him, tight and neat. The military in him, Rodney thinks, trying not to watch too closely. Too straight, too tense even to pretend to relax. One arm over his knee, Sheppard watches him, unreadable green eyes flicking between him and the laptop.
Rodney wonders what Sheppard sees when he looks at him.
"Have you thought about--about what Elizabeth said?" Sheppard asks, voice steady.
"Yeah," he answers, looking up, but Sheppard's fixed on the wall, the floor, anywhere but him. "And about your offer."
Sheppard shrugs, but he seems to relax a little. "And?"
"I'm thinking about it," he says, catching the jumper's passive energy spike at Sheppard's restless discomfort. And he waits for it, because Sheppard isn't here to talk about Dr. Weir or team membership and they both know it.
Yeah, that's about right. Rodney pauses, like there's some possibility he won't take this chance. Sheppard offers so few of them, and Rodney gets why no one's close to him. You have to know what to look for. "I thought you were, and I quote, never mentioning that again. Ever." But he puts aside the laptop, drawing his legs up. Leaning his chin on his knee, Rodney studies the carefully blank face.
Sheppard sighs, rubbing the back of his neck as he leans against the wall. "I was an asshole, okay?"
Rodney smirks. "And maybe the way I introduced the subject could have been better." Or pretty much any way would have been better, Rodney thinks a little ruefully, than yelling it across the lab. Empty lab, yes, but this is a different world, and he sometimes forgets. Sheppard shifts, but the tension's leaking away already. "You're an asshole, and I'm insensitive. Color me surprised. What do you want to know?"
Sheppard shifts again. "I don't know."
Fair enough. "Blank is a good look, but it's kind of useless for diagnostic purposes. If you want me to tell you--"
"You didn't before." There's an edge to Sheppard's voice that reminds Rodney that the man before him is military, born and bred and by choice. "Three months, you've been here three months, and now you get around to telling me this?"
Rodney sighs. "I thought it would be--easier." For them. For Atlantis. For Sheppard. And maybe, for himself. In retrospect, he's still not sure which was the mistake--not telling earlier, or telling at all. Sheppard's response so far argues that neither would have worked. John Sheppard doesn't like surprises. He's always known that. "We were married. Yes. You weren't in the military. Obviously."
"And not in the U.S."
Rodney almost smiles. "I'll never forget the look on your face when you realized you had to sing the Canadian National Anthem." Sheppard makes a face. "Yes, that one."
A comfortable silence stretches between them, a complete one-eighty from the man who walked out of his lab two days ago. Either Sheppard's been talking to someone--unlikely, but possible--or he's been overthinking. John used to do that, too.
It's not often that sort of thing works in his favor, but Rodney takes what he can get. "You--the other you?" God, he hates pronouns. "He."
Sheppard's mouth crooks in something that could be mistaken for a smile. "Right. I know what you mean." Sheppard runs absent fingers against the floor, staring into the metal. Rodney waits, letting Sheppard do the work for him, drawing it out.
"When did it start?" Sheppard says slowly. When he looks up, there's nothing but curiosity in his face.
"A long time ago." This is one of those questions he's not sure Sheppard is ready to hear the answer to. "By the way, I debugged the jumper." He waves a hand at the laptop. "Just some routine maintenance. I'm surprised Zelenka didn't fix it himself." Except he's not, really. Forty-five seconds had told him that the difference between the man he knew and the man here aren't all that great. And you have to have the gene to feel the jumpers enough to get it right.
"I thought you said you hadn't worked with the jumpers much. There." John's attempt at sensitivity are always a little amusing and a little heartwrenching. There, that place, that other place that's not here.
Rodney shrugs. "I worked with yours. If I was going to be left a widower--" He's not startled by the sudden shock at the word, breathing through it, "--it wasn't going to be from a basic malfunction." It's not the first time he's thought it, said it, but it's the first time the sharp stab of pain doesn't leave him breathless. A sharp stiletto, grief tasting of copper in his mouth, but the edges are softening.
He's moving on, he thinks in surprise. He can almost see John's approving smirk. *Now live in it, Rodney*.
"Sorry," he hears Sheppard saying, and jerks his gaze up. For the first time--for the first time since he stumbled through that wormhole and into this place, home like the one he lost and not--Sheppard looks at him without looking for the man he lost. There's a painfully naked look in the wide eyes, healing grief like Rodney's own, and the shock that it could heal at all.
They're living, breathing reminders of what they each lost, and Rodney doesn't wonder at all why Sheppard resented him at first. Maybe even now. "It's okay," he says, and Rodney's surprised to realize he means it. Reaching for the laptop, Rodney tries to steady his breathing. Slow, he tells himself. Careful. Sheppard's like walking through an English hedge maze. Wrong turns are the rule, not the exception.
"I--" Sheppard stops, and Rodney keeps his movements slow and easy, nothing to startle Sheppard into running. He's too good at it already without the provocation. "You still see Heightmeyer?"
Rodney feels the laptop slip; he catches with his knee, smoothly shifting it back to the floor. "Yes."
Sheppard nods. "To talk."
And Rodney has no idea where this is going. "Is this really--"
"You can--could talk to me," Sheppard says in a rush, and Rodney stops, not trying to catch the green eyes that look at anything but him. "Rodney--he was my best friend. He could--we talked. I miss that." Miss him, Sheppard doesn't say, but he doesn't need to.
And how many ways could this go pear shaped, Rodney thinks blankly, trying to tamp down the sudden rush. So very fucking many. And God, he doesn't care, let it, let it blow up in their faces later, he wants this *now*. "Considering your reaction--"
"Hey, *marriage*. Not marriage to you in particular--okay." Sheppard's mouth quirks. "That too. But seriously, of all the things--" Sheppard shakes his head. "I just--never saw that for myself."
"I drugged you," Rodney says helpfully, and he gets a smile, the bright, fast one that he fell in love with over half his life ago. Christ. *John*. "Rohypnol in your water."
"I might have."
Sheppard's smile widens, and Rodney watches him fight a losing battle with a laugh, leaning back into the wall of the jumper.
Sheppard's relaxing more by the second. "Who was there?"
Rodney leans his head back against the jumper wall, closing his eyes. "My parents. My sister. Your first college roommate--the one you traumatized, by the way, so we're lucky he didn't come armed. A few of your former students, a couple of colleagues from Omega. Our cat."
"You brought the *cat*?"
"*You* brought the cat." Rodney shakes his head, remembering how John shoved it into Jeannie's arms and locked his arms around Rodney, trapping his wrists against the small of his back. Long fingers on the back of his neck, soft mouth, familiar as his own body.
Remembers a month of sabbatical spent five steps from their bed and that isn't conductive to normal conversation. This is his world now, and those memories have no place here.
Sheppard grins. "I like cats."
Rodney sighs. "Shocking." Sheppard's grin fades, looking thoughtful, and Rodney wonders what he's thinking, wonders the difference that a universe makes; John as easy to read as a pane of glass, and this one, like reading Braille with your toes. You might get the gist, but only if you were lucky.
"When I was younger," Sheppard says slowly, "I never thought--this was it for me. It was everything I wanted out of life. Flying. I--never thought I'd do anything else. I never thought I'd be anything else."
"Was it--did I--" Sheppard stops, flushing, straightening against the wall. Rodney can almost feel the words hovering on the tip of his tongue, the implied question that twenty years have never answered for Rodney, no matter how many time he asked. "Was it for you?" Unconsciously, John's hand touches the empty thigh holster, the edges of his jacket, restless and cataloguing at the same time. Wondering at a place and time that he'd never touched a gun or put on a uniform.
For a second, Rodney can almost see John from the corner of his eye, amused and encouraging both (*this is your world now*), but the image fades like sunset off the west pier (*now live in it*), and he shakes himself, making himself look at the Air Force Colonel across from him, waiting for the sharp ache that no longer has the same force. He thinks of Elizabeth offering him his job this morning, Teyla's hand on his shoulder, the familiar bustle of the lab that's trying to become home. Sheppard's team. A whole universe to explore that he's never seen. Not here.
He thinks of meeting this galaxy with his own eyes, with this man, anticipation rising sweet and bright, and it doesn't hurt. *Now live in it*. "I--he never told me. I never knew why."
From across the jumper, Sheppard's eyes catch his, holding him, and there's something in them that Rodney recognizes, understands, chest tightening. Different, but the same. God, so *much*, and he wonders if Sheppard's Rodney had known this. "It's okay," Sheppard says, voice low. "I think I know."