Based off The Stranger's Always You and set two weeks after Lessons.
Years of acting as a living buffer between the SGC and John had honed both Rodney's patience and his diplomacy. John hadn't been easy at the best of times--Rodney never thinks of their first interview with the SGC without flinching--but the military put him in a special kind of snit. Despite both the salary and the work--and God, did John love his work--neither stopped him from being a complete asshole given any opportunity.
Or creating it himself, and there are reasons on reasons Rodney had friendly Marines on retainer to watch for any time John went within ten feet of General Hammond, Colonel Sumner, or Sam Carter.
He'd dealt with John's employers--the less interaction they had with John, the more they liked him--his students--who worshipped the ground he walked on and made Rodney despair for civilization--but the SGC was a special sort of hell in that they couldn't get *away*.
Which is why dealing with the extremely touchy, vaguely paranoid, and not a little vicious people of PX2-411 is pretty much a cakewalk, because compared to John in a tantrum, they were practically *friendly*.
There's also the way the team looks at him afterward. Placidly, Rodney picks up his fork and finishes off the beans and quasi-cornbread while happy natives talk of the wonders of antibiotics and toilet paper behind them.
Teyla's expression almost makes the entire five hour negotiation worth it.
"I had no idea you were so--gifted in diplomacy," Teyla says with a curve of lips that suggests shock. Ronon grunts something, but Rodney's aware that Ronon's carefully staring at him when he's not looking.
The other McKay indeed.
Sheppard, though, is the one he watches, because he suspects that the Colonel guesses where Rodney picked up his ability to get along with anyone if he had to.
Later, Rodney sits on the sleeping bag in their shared tent while Sheppard does his arcane military rituals--an uncomplicated fascination for Rodney, who still feels the dissonance of any John Sheppard walking around carrying a gun--before he turns around.
"You're good with the natives." Sheppard flickers him a glance before resting the P-90 against the side of the tent. It could mean anything. "When did you learn diplomacy?"
Rodney lays back on his sleeping bag. "Practice."
"Huh." Dropping on his sleeping bag, John stares at the wall of the tent.
Rodney rolls onto his side. Sheppard hadn't asked often, or ever, other than guarded queries that were more a test of his own resolve than any actual curiosity--but other than their marriage, he hasn't skirted close to their relationship or himself.
Rodney thinks briefly of the computer he hacked to get Sheppard's record early on; at the time, his defense was to solidify the differences between them, try to make the separation as complete as possible. The education he hadn't expected, though he'd guess no one else on Atlantis had any idea how distressingly overqualified Sheppard was for his job as head grunt, but the military record he had.
Seeing John in Sheppard had been unnerving, more than any single moment since he'd come here, and he'd regretted reading right up until he watched Sheppard with his Marines--and they were his, reminding Rodney of the students who followed John slavishly across campus--and the familiarity somehow eased him.
Still does, even if he can't explain why. Resting his head on his arm, he watches Sheppard take off his boots, setting them aside, his guns, his knives, a careful ritual that's nothing like John at all.
"He didn't like the military," Rodney offers carefully as Sheppard slowly stretches out, pulling the edge of the sleeping bag over his legs. There's the briefest pause, almost unnoticeable, before Sheppard's staring up the ceiling of the tent. "So I had to--intercede." Rodney feels himself grin at the memory of John slamming out of a shell-shocked Hammond's office for the third time in one week, murmuring Ancient profanity that he had to have learned from Daniel Jackson for the specific purposes of pissing off SGC brass.
"Is it that you think I don't want to know or that you don't want to talk about it?" Sheppard asks evenly, and Rodney stops himself from the instinctive flinch.
Sheppard nods, a few feet away, but at least he's not making a break for the tent flap. For a first mission, Rodney reflects, this hasn't gone badly at all. He remembers how the women had watched Sheppard--the men, too, come to think--and Rodney wonders at the fact that Sheppard never seems to notice. It'd been enough that Rodney noticed, hands clenched beneath the wooden negotiation table, fighting the expected and unexpected urge of thwarted jealousy. A different world doesn't necessarily change the instinct, and Rodney's dealt with John's admirers for half his life. "I--" Sheppard stops, then rolls onto his side, arm tucked beneath his head, looking painfully young in a way that Rodney doesn't want to recognize. "I'm not sure." But the hazel eyes don't look unsure. "Hated the military?"
Rodney relaxes. "Well. Let's put it this way. Our contracts with the SGC were handled while you were out of the country. It seemed--" He remembers John and Carter yelling at each other across a room, shouting matches that ended bloodless only because they were both restricted from carrying weapons into the labs and Rodney never made the mistake of leaving them alone. The cheapest entertainment in the world. "Safer."
Sheppard's mouth quirks. "Before I joined, I was kind of--"
"Excitable?" He watches Sheppard's expression, but there's no flinch, just amused recognition. "Stubborn."
Sheppard nods, and Rodney breathes out carefully, keeping his voice light. "He drove Hammond crazy. Carter, too."
Sheppard's mouth tilts, but Rodney catches the smugness.
There's silence for a minute, vaguely comfortable and vaguely not, and Rodney lets it linger, letting Sheppard find his own space in this. And it's strange, to lie here and think how much he likes this man, above and beyond being another John Sheppard, a kind of unsettling that he doesn't want to examine too closely, because the things he likes about Sheppard have nothing to do with memories of John at all.
Sheppard's quiet is soothing, and Rodney finds himself climbing into his own sleeping bag, curling into the warmth, almost forgetting the ache of not having John close enough to breathe, almost forgetting that he's still not used to being alone.
When he opens his eyes, it's hours later and Sheppard's asleep, wrapped in on himself, unlike John's easy sprawl, tense and wary even in sleep. Rodney finds himself sitting up, looking at the boots, the gun, remembering the Marines and the way Sheppard stood, hand on his P-90, smiling and professionally wary all at once, the years of discipline that John had never had showing in the easy slouch that hid how frighteningly good he was at his job.
Sheppard shivers in his sleep, and Rodney finds himself crawling the space between them, pulling the sleeping bag higher, over tense shoulders, fingers brushing dark hair by accident, then by design.
John never wore his hair this short, never wore a weapon like he wore a shirt, never let anyone dictate his actions, even Rodney. He'd never been this fragile, either, never had a duty that he took into sleep.
He wants to tell Sheppard, he realizes. Tell Sheppard about John, demarcate the differences more than just in his head. Christ, he visits Heightmeyer just so there's a single place that it's safe, talk about the military commander's other self that shared his bed and his work and his life.
Pushing up, Rodney goes outside, emerging in low orange light, Teyla by the fire, cup in hand, watching the darkness with calm, wary eyes. Her head turns, watching him as he circles around, picking up the pot and pouring a cup. The coffee is so strong he can feel it hit like a speedball to the blood, sharp and almost painful.
He's awake anyway. He might as well be functional. "I'll take next watch," he says at her raised eyebrows. They hadn't assigned him one, but two hour shifts are better than three. "I'm perfectly capable of yelling if something attacks us. Sheppard drilled me in procedure." Sheppard's idea of team boot camp had been eclectic, to say the least, up to and including the fact the thigh holster hasn't left his leg for other than bed or shower in two weeks. To get used to it, Sheppard had said with so much innocence that Rodney hadn't believed a word he said. Try sleeping in it, too. You might need to one day.
Teyla nods, head turning away as she sets aside her cup, wrapping her coat closer. But she doesn't get up, watching the fire with an intent expression.
"We are glad you decided to join the team," she says, the neutral tone of a negotiator flattening her words. As if she's talking to oversensitive natives with impulse control problems. Rodney stares at his cup, trying not to resent her. McKay was her friend, too, and he knows she grieves still, they all do.
That doesn't actually make it easier. "So am I," he says honestly. Her eyes skip away from him, back to the fire, and Rodney remembers that she slipped twice today, forgot the man who carries her friend's face is a different one than the one she knew, sharing memories he does not.
"I would be happy to continue our combat lessons," she says, and Rodney smirks at the memory of being on his back for the third time in as many minutes. And McKay did this *willingly*, he'd thought, when Sheppard offered him a hand up and Ronon grinned from the bench. The three of them easy, bright, almost happy; they'd missed their fourth, he'd known, but he hadn't realized how personal this was, not until Sheppard went through the exercise with Teyla so he could see how it was done.
Easy, easy in the way Sheppard hadn't been, wasn't anywhere else, loose limbs and bright energy. They ate dinner together after, surrounded by chattering people, and for the first time since coming here, Rodney hadn't felt alone.
He's starting to understand why McKay stayed on this team.
"I'd like that," he says, and his bruises twitch in memory, but if McKay could do it, he can do it.
Smiling, Teyla stands up, nodding before turning to the tent she shares with Ronon, and Rodney turns his attention to the perimeter, remembering Sheppard's lessons, feeling the gun hard against his leg for the first time in hours when he shifts.
He's getting used to it, he realizes, reaching down to touch the holster, another way he's adapted to this place, another way that he's moving on. He wonders if it's supposed to hurt this much.