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Summary: John is being a clueless mofo, as usual.

Categories: Ship Pairings > Keller/McKay, Slash Pairings > McKay/Sheppard
Characters: Jennifer Keller, John Sheppard, Original Character, Rodney McKay
Genres: Angst
Warnings: Adult themes
Chapters: 1 [Table of Contents]
Series: None

Word count: 8830; Completed: Yes
Updated: 31 Jan 2013; Published: 30 Jan 2013

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Author's Chapter Notes:
Thanks to sgamadison for the wonderful beta.


"Can you believe it? Not like we haven't risked our lives, for years and years and years, and now we're being subjected to endless interrogations, like we're enemy combatants or something, and if this isn't the most outrageous—"

"Not an interrogation, just a psych eval. Chill."

Rodney stops stomping and does his "my eyes cannot possibly convey the outrage that I am experiencing at this very moment because it's not humanly possible, and if it were, my eyes would be hanging out of their sockets" glare. John ramps up lazy smirk number three, which is absolutely guaranteed to push Rodney into epic outrage.

"Don't think for one moment that smirk is going to rile me up." Which, of course, is belied by Rodney's voice rising about 1600 decibels as he continues to rail against Cheyenne's insistence that all Pegasus personnel undergo routine psychiatric evaluations. "I for one, resent, resent being treated by pseudo-intellectual charlatans with bogus PhDs after their names, as if they were—"

"They're not fakes."

"I called them charlatans and not 'fakes,' but that's not the point. Not fakes, I beg to differ!"

And Rodney is off again, stomping down the halls, indulging in his most favorite rant: how the very definition of the word "science" means that you have predictable, repeatable results and how psychiatry is not predictable and, therefore, is nothing more than a bunch of people who can't add, and who compensate for their woeful analytical skills by developing a host of nonsensical ideas and call it a science so that they can add PhDs after their names. Which is a complete insult to those who can add two and two and deserve and have earned their degrees. Like him. Both degrees, from the top program in the world... At which point they reach the mess.

"I can predict you're going to try to steal my jello today. Does that mean I can start calling myself Dr. Sheppard?"

The tension leeches out of Rodney's shoulders, and he gives John a small smile. "Dr. Bedhead is more like it. I..." Rodney closes his eyes for a moment, sighs, and then opens them again, with his mouth relaxed into its usual benign frown. "I just think this is a waste of my time."

John also thinks this is a colossal waste of everyone's time, but he'd been expecting this since they'd returned from Pegasus. Standard procedure.

"Yeah, I hear you." John gets up on his tippy toes to scan the cafeteria line. "Think you're out of luck. Only lime."

"No cherry?" whines Rodney.

"I'll see what I can do. Mary's got a sweet spot for me," he confesses and comes down on his heels to grab a couple of trays.

"Her and all the other women on this base," grumbles Rodney.

"It's my hair," smirks John.

"It is not your hair..." and Rodney is off again.

Some days it's too easy.

******************************

Psych evals he has endured. The man sitting across from him is wearing a polka-dot green bowtie, which ups the asshole factor by three because in his forty-two years John has yet to meet anyone wearing a bowtie who isn't a total dick, plus this guy's chin is sporting one of those super-manicured goatees with just the right amount of salt and pepper to proclaim that he is older but not old, which adds another two asshole points, and to top it off, lame-ass half-specs are perched on the end of his nose. The ear pieces have little dangling chains on them so the glasses can rest on his shirt when he doesn't need them. Ten asshole bonus points.

"Colonel Sheppard. I'm Ray Vickers. Nice to meet you." The psychiatrist holds out a hand. John gives him a half-assed saluted instead. Vickers responds with a small smirk that John, in theory, should approve of, because smirking is something he can usually get behind. Of course it's always preferable to be the smirker and not the smirkee. So this annoys the shit out of him.

"Doc."

Vickers splays a hand in the direction of a black leather couch that has a tear in one corner that has been repaired with duck tape. John eases his butt onto the edge, which he hopes signals his lack of enthusiasm.

"You have quite an impressive resume, Colonel." Again Vickers makes with the hand, indicating a stack of files on the desk next to him. Extravagant physical gestures and butt ugly ties usually mask what is, no doubt, a real gift for the mediocre. The bowtie is a dead giveaway.

"Doing my job. You do yours so that I can get cleared. Ink blots on parade today?"

"Oh, I think we can dispense with that this go around, shall we?" John gets another smirk, and John goes from annoyed to semi-ticked. "A bit old-fashioned."

"You're in charge," John says with an even smirkier smirk. If this comes down to a bunch of smirk wars, John has it covered.

"Do you think there's a pecking order here?" Vickers asks with a little tilt to his head.

Christ, one of those. Who speaks in questions in an attempt to elicit some sort of answer, any answer. John decides to play tit for tat.

"What do you think?"

Vickers tilts his head in the other direction.

"Based on those evaluations," Vickers' eyes flicker briefly in the direction of the stack of folders, "what you think that this is just another bit of tedious regulation hoop jumping."

"And it isn't?" John tries to make this sound a wee bit cynical, but with enough amusement so that Vickers doesn't know whether to take him seriously or not. Plus, they are equal on the question war.

Vickers doesn't answer but picks ups a file from the top of the stack and shakes it open. Had it contained anything all, the paper inside would have fallen to the floor.

"Dr. Heightmeyer's notes on you."

John takes this as a not-so-subtle rebuke. Of him or Heightmeyer, he's not sure, but he'd like Heightmeyer a lot—she was old-school Pegasus—and he wasn't going to let this bow-tied weenie diss her.

"She was pretty stand up. Maybe she didn't have anything to say."

The tension in the room goes from yellow alert to orange alert. John isn't that good at normal subtext—which he supposes is due to his mother and father and his shitty childhood and the defense mechanisms kids develop in response—but he is really good at reading the enemy—which he supposes is due his mother and father and his shitty childhood and the defense mechanisms blahblahblah. Without a doubt the safety on Vickers' emotional Glock has just been released. If John has any questions that this exchange is about to get slightly hostile and will be hostile for the foreseeable future, Vickers tosses the file in John's direction. It lands on his lap.

"She had something to say all right. She wrote it on the inside of the file, 'To be or not to be, that is the question.' I think that sums you up fairly well, don't you?"

John opens the file to see in Heightmeyer's Catholic school cursive that she had indeed ascribed Shakespeare most famous line to him—or rather to his psyche.

John shrugs. What in the hell does he know about psychiatry?

"I suspect it has to do with the constant battle between indulging your suicidal tendencies versus your need to stay alive to save people. What do you think?"

What has started out as a general dislike immediately flips in a spectacular series of mental somersaults into a very personal animus.

"I think we're done."

"I'll see you at the same time tomorrow."

John smirks. Vickers smirks back.

***************************************

Within two weeks, everyone on base—which includes all of the staff, from the scientists to Chuck manning the Gate Room to the mess personnel—has been cleared except for John and Rodney. Not that people rub their noses in it. Much. John assumes that at some point Vickers will get bored with the pissing match they are currently having and clear him.

John institutes his standard list of responses to all questions. Given that most military docs are generally only interested in checking off the boxes, John's managed to get through approximately twenty evals by responding to all questions using only the following ten answers: yep, nope, could be, maybe, didn't think about it, thought about it, never occurred to me, not so much, possibly, and never. Because he's really beginning to dislike Vickers, he adds another secret one that he mentally utters whenever his hour is up. Which is, "fiddledee," always accompanied by a salute that is more of an insult than a gesture of respect.

Vickers isn't stupid. He catches on fairly quickly to John's list of glib responses and waylays him one day.

"How many of these do you have?"

"Have?"

This is another standard tactic of his. Repeating words based on the questions, He can usually eke a good five minutes out of the session by just asking questions.

"I think we're past the 'coy' part of the program, don't you?" Vickers lowers his specs so that John can get a good look at the expression on Vickers face. Who is not amused.

"Ten." John offers this up for free, because why not?

At which point, Vickers gets up and unearths a traveling chess set from a briefcase and sets it up.

"I assume you play?"

"Sorta." He debates for one second whether or not he should take up the challenge because you can learn a lot from a person by playing chess with them. Which is both a plus and a minus. But then John thinks what Vickers might learn about him is probably worth sacrificing because John will learn an equally valuable amount about Vickers. Sometimes it doesn't really matter how much your opponent knows about you. What is more valuable is what you know about him or her. John thinks this might be one of those times. "Black or white?"

******************************

Why John is still under Vickers' thumb is obvious, but why Rodney is still jumping through psychological hoops remains something of a mystery.

Rodney being Rodney, he takes it as a personal affront that the entire base has been cleared except for him and John. Even Jacobs in botany has been cleared. This sends Rodney into a frothing rage, because Jacobs talks to his plants, as in, he talks in a low voice and he replies for them in a series of high squeaky voices that are designated in various pitches based on genus. Everyone thinks he's bat-shit insane, even the plants, apparently. They've been "overheard" to say to him (or say to himself, or say to whomever—it's unclear how to classify this exchange): "Gee, Scott, you're a few peas short of a pod." He's the botanist version of the three faces of Eve or more to the point: the three faces of the jolly green giant. If Jacobs getting cleared sends Rodney into a conniption fit, it is nothing to hearing that Vickers thinks that Ronon is the sanest man he'd ever met.

This knocks Rodney for such a loop that he actually stops eating his lunch.

"He did not say that."

Ronon doesn't say anything but just smiles. There is no doubt that Vickers had said exactly that.

"You're like a walking cutlery store!" Rodney shouts. It says something about Atlantis culture that no one in the mess pays any attention to Rodney's screeching. People are eating their lunch and the chatter level remains the same. "All those knives. That's not normal!"

"Does make sense. You know. In case, we're attacked or something." John feels compelled to stand up for Ronon because, wow, those knives really do come in handy every now and then. Plus, well, Rodney is really the last person to comment on what is normal and what isn't normal. The whale thing alone...

Rodney might be outraged that Ronon has been cleared by Vickers but not even in the throes of extreme umbrage can he deny that those knives secreted all over Ronon's person have saved their lives on numerous occasions. So he ignores John and turns his outrage on Teyla.

"I supposed he said the same thing to you."

"Not exactly," she says with a demure smile.

"The sanest woman?" John murmurs.

The smile turns into a grin.

Rodney throws up his hands and opens his mouth in a silent scream.

"Oh, Rodney, honey." Jennifer chuckles at Rodney's over-the-top reaction and puts a loving hand on his bicep.

If this had been John and his girlfriend had done and said that, he would have shaken off that hand, which seems far too proprietary, and would have resented the tone of her voice, which to his ears sounds patronizing, like Rodney is six years old.

But Rodney basks in her good-humored indulgence and his mood shifts accordingly. Although Rodney is generally abysmal at adhering to social norms, this is a military base. He doesn't kiss her like John can tell he wants to by Rodney's body language—his mouth is leaning towards hers and the little smile she gives him tells John exactly what she wants the same thing. Instead, Rodney covers her hand with his and squeezes.

Fortunately at this point Major Lorne walks up.

"Sir, there's a problem—"

He doesn't even let Lorne finish his sentence before he's out of his chair with a, "Let's go."

******************************

John's reaction to most people is indifference. Pretty much ninety-eight percent of the people he meets he could care less about. He might endanger his own life to save theirs, but he doesn't really care about them personally. It's more the principal of the thing. Like Sumner. He didn't like Sumner. In fact, he disliked the guy like whoa. But when you're C.O. gets killed by a Wraith, or an IED, or whatever, you care. John caring in the abstract, regardless, is what often keeps him sane in a job that is largely about killing people in reality.

So there are the ninety-eight percent he could care less about, and there are the one percent he hates, and that leaves him with the one percent he likes. And once he likes someone, it's about going the distance every single time. Not that he doesn't do that for everyone. He does. But it's different. It's about sacrifice and duty, as opposed to duty and sacrifice. Which is really, really different. And while McKay might have pissed him off in the beginning, because of Pegasus and the Wraith and Elizabeth and a whole lot of others things that include Ronon and Teyla, McKay very quickly had become one of those rare good one percenters.

You always knew where you stood with McKay. His genius had obliterated the majority of the filtering process that most people develop over the years, and if McKay thinks you're a moron, he tells you so. He is, John has to admit, a lot less generous with the praise if you aren't a moron, but for someone like John, who has built so many emotional bunkers that his psyche is essentially a mental Fort Knox, being around McKay is just so fucking easy. It's out there in all of its outrageous glory, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Insanely, it's the most effective way of partially neutralizing John's walls. Because Rodney doesn't try to figure him out or tiptoe around him or do any of the psychological maneuvering that most people do. He just lays it out there. And John might shrug when Rodney shrieks, "You stupid, stupid man. What in the hell were you thinking, throwing yourself into that pit? Are you insane?", but the shrug he gives is an honest shrug. As opposed to the shrugs he gives most people, which are, in a way, a "fuck you."

Rodney might be the most insensitive bastard on the face of this Earth. And that might be what John appreciates most about him.

Which is why the longer this relationship with Keller goes on, the harder and harder it is to deal with. Because Rodney is trying to woo her by being as un-Rodney-like as possible, and watching Rodney trying to be someone he's not bugs the ever-loving shit out of John.

They've been back on Earth roughly four months, and the nascent relationship between Rodney and Jennifer Keller has progressed to the point where John is sure that Rodney is contemplating marriage. Again. John only did it once and he can't imagine getting married again. Even the thought makes him want to break into a run. As in run away. Fast as possible. But Rodney is heading in that direction and John can only shake his head in private. Because of, well, the stuff factor.

Jennifer Keller is a lot like Nancy. She's really, really smart, articulate, pretty, and destined to go places in her career. All pluses. Unfortunately, she is also like Nancy in that she's fairly traditional and, he's guessing, wants all that traditional bullshit stuff that most couples want. The 2.2 kids. The three thousand square foot home on a third of an acre. Filled with stuff.

Yeah, Nancy was pretty smart. The more stuff they accumulated and the more money they dumped at Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma and the weekly trips to Target, the more John volunteered for increasingly dicey missions. He didn't see the direct correlation but Nancy did. After a two-month stint where his C.O. was so surprised to see him still alive that he put John in for a promotion, Nancy greeted him at the door with divorce papers.

"Here," she said in a deadpan voice. "Now you don't have to commit suicide to get out of our marriage."

Guilt is a completely inadequate word to describe how he felt, but even as he fought down the dry heaves, because way to be a total asshole, Sheppard, it was eclipsed by the elation he felt walking out the door of that house—a wedding present from his father—with nothing more than his golf clubs slung over one arm and his gym duffle over the other. It felt like flying.

So yeah. It wasn't Nancy's fault that John couldn't do traditional. He knew how to do it, he just couldn't. Rodney, on the other hand... John's upper-class childhood had been little more than a series of rigid rules and regulations. It didn't take a genius to realize that he had repudiated one set of rules and regulations on how to dress, act, and speak for another, but at least it was his choice. Rodney? Fucking clueless. While John can see a zillion forks on a table and instinctively know which is the dessert fork and which one is the fish fork, and even, should the occasion warrant it, which one is the correct fork for eating dinosaur, Rodney often eschews using forks entirely.

And this is why Rodney's relationship with Jennifer Keller drives him crazy. Because Rodney is someone who is literally too smart to adhere to normal, and that's what Keller is pushing, even if they neither of them realize it. She isn't going to be too happy to see Cheeto crumbs in her sofa or computer parts strewn all over her carpet, or clothes in trails as Rodney dumps them wherever when he is so exhausted that he's almost sleep walking.

John can see all this coming, like the proverbial slow motion train wreck. Jennifer Keller looks like a woman who likes stuff. Nice stuff. And John just can't see Rodney surrounded by stuff and being okay with it.

Even so, the conversation about weddings rings can't be far off.

*************************************

And it's not. Rodney waylays him in the hallway one afternoon just after John's just finished a particularly grueling bout with Teyla and her evil sticks. If Teyla hadn't actually considered such machinations beneath her, he would have assumed she was in on this. John is so physically spent he couldn't even have fought off a kitten—should there be attack kittens lurking in the hallways of Atlantis. When Rodney says, "Will you help me pick out a ring? For, you know, um, Jennifer? I want it to be perfect and I, well... You have good taste," John finds it a lot easier to hiss out a pathetic yes as opposed to mustering up the energy to say no and manufacturing a bunch of excuses.

Which is why on the following Saturday he finds himself in Shreve's on Post, the same place and same town where he bought Nancy's engagement ring. He's not really dressed for shopping in Shreve's, in his standard BDUs and black tee-shirt, but Rodney's money is good and it's not like John really cares. Because an engagement ring is the ultimate precursor to the stuff thing, and John's trying not to act pissy even though he feels pissy.

"Colonel, stop eyeing the watches. I could use a little assistance here!"

Rodney's voice is bullying and preemptory, and John gives him the "Lighten up, jerk," smile. Rodney swallows because he knows he's gone too far. John's been hanging out in the watch section, because Rodney is being his usual insufferable scientific nerd self and is quizzing the saleswoman on whether these diamonds were from the late Archean generation of eclogitic diamonds or from the subsequent Proterozoic tectonic and magmatic events. If there had been a rope handy, John imagines this woman would have hung herself by now.

"Do you think any of these are what she'd might like?" Rodney says in a voice that is slightly meeker, although not by much. The saleswoman's face is neutral with that mask of extreme forbearance that all salespeople adopt when waiting on Rodney. If Shreve's decides this isn't worth the effort and throws them out of the store—always a fifty-fifty proposition when shopping with Rodney—they can always head over to Tiffany's.

John moseys over to the counter. All of these rings cost roughly the same as a pricy Japanese import. John sees the exact same ring that he put on Nancy's finger twelve years earlier; a single cut diamond that's simultaneously extremely tasteful but gaudy. That shouldn't be possible, but then with really expensive jewelry, John suspects that's the point.

"That one." He points to Nancy's ring. "She'll love that one."

"Are you sure?" Rodney's insecurity is both heart-breaking and irritating. The man who designs wormholes is worried that a $40,000 engagement ring isn't adequate.

"Yeah."

Nancy had had tears in her eyes when she had opened the box. She also had had tears in her eyes when she had thrown her rings at him in a fit of rage. Of course that had been sixteen suicide missions and twelve rooms full of furniture later.

As Rodney fumbles with a checkbook (probably the first check he's written in six years), John returns to the watch counter and admires a really nice $56,000 Patek Philippe, which is identical to the one his father had given him for his sixteenth birthday. He had lost it in a poker game in his sophomore year at Stanford.

"Can I help you, sir?"

John looks up to see a man, probably on the good side of forty compared to his bad side of forty. The suit he's wearing is expensive, more or less camouflaging the fact that this guy is something of a gym rat. He eyes John's biceps with a stealthy admiration, and, if John isn't mistaken, subtle lust.

"Nice watch." John points at the Phillippe.

"Would you like to try it on?" he says in a low voice, and billowing waves of testosterone free fall across the glass counter.

"Nah," John says in a casual voice to let the guy know that his come-on isn't offensive or anything, but John's just not interested. John hikes a thumb in Rodney's direction.

The salesman raises an eyebrow, because Rodney is at the counter for women's wedding rings and not at the counter for men's wedding rings.

"It's complicated," John says in a stage whisper.

Rodney turns around and opens his mouth. John is not exactly sure what Rodney sees, but he snaps his mouth closed and then stomps to the entrance of the store. Folding his arms in an unmistakable gesture of extreme irritation, he begins tapping his foot, like Rodney's been standing there for twenty minutes while John was admiring the watches, and not the three seconds it takes for John to walk the length of the store.

A plaintive, "Good day, sir," follows John out the door.

"Let's get something to eat," John suggests. "You're acting weird."

After he'd bought Nancy's ring, John had ended up at the Persian Zam-Zam out in the Haight, and had shortened his lifespan by about ten years by guzzling far too many of those killer martinis that Bruno used to serve up. John wouldn't turn down a martini right about now, but Rodney needs food and really isn't much of a drinker anyway. Always concerned that the alcohol is killing precious I.Q. points.

John steers them into the first café he sees and orders for them because for some reason, Rodney's in a major pout. A pouting Rodney is a pain-in-the-ass Rodney, and the day has been shitty enough without Rodney being a jerk.

"If you don't like the ring, go back and order another one."

Rodney finally unclasps his arms and points an energetic finger in the direction of Shreve's.

"He, he, he was coming on to you." Rodney is unbelievably outraged, the mouth at orange alert, the voice at a yellow alert, and the eyes pretty much at red alert. John has never pegged Rodney for being homophobic, so John doesn't know where in the hell any of this is coming from.

"It happens." John throws up his hands, because what the fuck? "You know."

The arms refold into a tight clasp across Rodney's chest.

"No, I do not know. I haven't ever seen that—"

"Jesus, Rodney. Military? We work on a base? Up in space for five years," he adds in a much lower voice. "Does that ring a bell?"

"But. You. Him. And you." Rodney's sputtering out these words like they are separated by periods, and his cheeks are now bright red.

"Jesus, Rodney. Would you calm down? You're working yourself up into a stroke. Just happens. Every now and then. It's no big deal. I wasn't offended. The guy can ask, and I can say no dice. Which is what I said. Okay? Here's some bread. Would you please start eating right away, because the lack of blood sugar is making you psychotic."

For some weird reason, the expression on Rodney's face transforms from being outraged to looking hurt, like John had slapped him or had called him stupid. His shoulders curve in a little and he ducks his chin just slightly. Even weirder, he's ignoring the bread basket, usually something he lunges for the minute they sit down.

"Would you eat?" John demands and shoves the bread basket in his direction. "You're starting to scare me."

With a terse nod, Rodney begins to lather his sourdough with butter, but with none of his usual gusto. Their food arrives, and John notices with a little lurch in his psyche that Rodney is using his spoon to eat his entrée. This cancels out all the "pissy" that been sitting in the tight spot between his shoulder blades all day.

"It's a really nice ring," he says. He waits for Rodney to smile or be happy or whatever people are when they want to marry someone.

Rodney ignores him and snaps his fingers at a server to demand a dessert menu.

************************************

The chess games continue. Vickers is one of those careful, deliberate players who occasionally does something unbelievably bold. This makes him fun to play because every now and then he surprises John. Given that Vickers has probably memorized every single bit of psychobabble that's been written about him in the last twenty years, John doesn't think that anything John does surprises him.

John keeps waiting for the big announcement, for Rodney's blush and Jennifer's coy display of finger weighted down by that gigantic rock. And it doesn't happen and doesn't happen and John doesn't know why. In fact, if he didn't know better, he'd say that things weren't going very smoothly in Keller/McKay land. It's little things, and it seems to be Rodney more than her. Her smiles are slightly anxious and her laugh a little strained. The PDA is just as hot and heavy, more on his part, oddly enough—he's pawing her constantly—but Rodney doesn't look happy. He's frowning constantly and has stopped barking orders. At anyone. It's like someone pushed the McKay remote to mute. John ignores it until he realizes that Rodney has started to act really weird around him.

First, Rodney's not sitting next to him at meals. They've pretty much bagged movie night and the odd mano e mano with the cars ever since Rodney and Jennifer became glued to each other, but this feels different. This feels deliberate, as opposed to having a new girlfriend and your free time is largely monopolized by all that new sex. Second, Rodney is refusing to make eye contact with him. Even weirder, Jennifer Keller, who had started to call him "John" has now reverted back to addressing him as "Colonel". If he didn't know better, John would swear that she says "Colonel" in a way that is code for asshole. Which is really, really unfair. John has no problem owning up to being a dick now and then, but he resents like hell when he hasn't done anything and yet is being blamed for something that he has no control over. Because he has no idea what he's done. Because he hasn't done anything.

This goes on for a couple of weeks before Woolsey makes eye contact with at the end of a senior staff meeting, clearly meaning for John to stay. With his "my bureaucratic ass is not pleased" frown creasing his forehead, Woolsey lays down the law.

"Colonel, you are currently the only person on this base who has not been cleared by Dr. Vickers. This is starting to become something of," Woolsey lowers his glasses to give John a stern visual reprimand, "an issue with the powers that be. Do I make myself clear?"

In other words, stop this bullshit and get cleared because John's five-times-a-week, hour-long "fuck you and the couch you rode in on" stand-off with Vickers was now reflecting on Woolsey.

John has a split second when he almost challenges Woolsey, but by the look on Woolsey's face, that stern dad is pissed look—and it did bear some consideration that the most successful of Atlantis' command staff had something of a maternal/paternal gig going on—told him that nothing he said would mollify Woolsey short of Vickers being on a helicopter within the next five days. John saluted and then left the room and then realized, wait. Rodney's been cleared? But from something that Teyla said the other day, Rodney was still seeing Vickers.

None of this made any sense, because Rodney hadn't crowed that he'd finally been cleared and John hadn't. Like major crowing should have ensued. Gloating. Teasing. So, WTF?

*********************************

"Have you been leaning on McKay to get to me?"

John doesn't sit down and doesn't acknowledge the chess set.

Vickers takes off his glasses, cleans the lenses with one of those soft chamois cloths that optometrists always hand out but no one ever uses. He then places his glasses back on his face with a careful deliberation. What a fucking weenie. The guy doesn't even clean his glasses with the end of his tie. Like a normal person. John clenches his hands because he wants nothing more than to rip those goddamn things off his face.

"No. I refuse to discuss Dr. McKay with you."

As John walks out he hears, "Same time tomorrow, Colonel."

**********************************

With a tacit understanding that now even the chess game has gone by the wayside, John attends his mandated therapy sessions and works Sudoku puzzles for fifty minutes. Vickers waits with his hands interlaced and says not a word. Woolsey keeps raising a questioning eyebrow at John and John stares back, challenging that eyebrow.

Jennifer Keller resigns a week later. Within another week she is gone and another twenty-two-year-old medical wunderkind has replaced her. In some ways she's a clone of Keller, blond, tiny, and brilliant, and John can't help but think, fuck, here we go again. But Rodney doesn't even register that she exists. At staff meetings he always calls her "you."

******************************

Rodney institutes a three-way trajectory between his quarters, his lab, and the conference room. He avoids the mess entirely. As CMO and CSO, John and Rodney have to interact, but if John thought Rodney had been mute before, he really had no concept what a mute Rodney was, because this Rodney post-Jennifer is downright scary. It's like something inside of Rodney is gone, just scorched out of him.

After sticks one afternoon, John casually says to Teyla, "Wow, Rodney's taking this thing with Jennifer real hard."

Teyla's body gets that stillness that it usually has when she's about to break your arm.

"Yes, it's hard to accept when the person that you love, doesn't love you back."

John hasn't ever experienced that. Well, maybe with his father, except that never felt like love. More like ownership. Well, more like it was a lease that had expired and his father didn't want to buy out the lease because he didn't want a son with that many miles on him and crappy handling. John had always been the person in the relationship who was loved more. Although not a single one of his relationships has survived and a lot of that failure he places firmly on his shoulders, he instinctively knows that probably one person loves more than the other but that it balances out in other ways. Maybe his problem isn't that he doesn't love enough, but that it hadn't been balanced. By other things. But this doesn't make sense when applied to Rodney and Jennifer.

"But she seemed so into him," John replies, honestly confused.

Teyla sighs. "Oh, John," she says in a sad voice and then taps the side of his head with her stick. It's both a caress and a rebuke.

"What?"

"In my culture..."

And Teyla goes on for five minutes about trees and water and how some plants thrive and some don't and sunlight and that one tree and that other tree, and, well, your general all-purpose parable that features things like acorns and leaves and what he supposes are squirrel-like creatures and none of it makes any sense.

When she's done, he says, "Okay," by way of being polite.

She places a hand on his shoulder. "John, talk to Dr. Vickers."

************************************

Ronon is also acting really weird. He and Rodney have always had a somewhat strange relationship. The ultimate brawn and the ultimate brain. With Ronon's supernatural ability to reduce people down to their essential parts, fairly early on he intuited that Rodney's bombast was most definitely real, as were his fears, and his all too vocal outrage at the general stupidity of fill-in-the-blank. Ronon also got that Rodney might be the most terrified man on the face of the Earth (or planet), but that he would come through. His hands might be shaking and he might be sobbing as he did it, but he was still team. He didn't leave people behind. Given that Ronon now had no one to leave behind because the Wraith had culled every single one, that simple tenet met Ronon's bar and then some.

Ronon and John are still running every day, having meals together most days, generally doing all the shit that they generally do together, but something's now off. Ronon is really good at silence, even better than John. But as John knows, just like there are a zillion words for snow, there are a zillion ways to be silent, and Ronon is not pissed exactly, but is in a constant state of stare. Like he's willing John to do something.

One night he sees Ronon and Rodney sitting out by the pier; John and Rodney's pier. The moon is almost full and the silhouettes of their bodies and the distinctive cut of their shoulders are solid against the fullness of the moonlight. They aren't saying anything because if they had, the sounds of their voices would have carried in the wind. Shocked by the sudden violence of an anger that scours his insides, he turns away and runs silently back inside. Five hundred feet down the corridor he kicks a wall so hard that he breaks his big toe, even though he's wearing his combat boots. Atlantis gives him a blast of disapproval and he flattens his body against the wall, his arms held out. He mentally murmurs an apology. She is not mollified and for a brief moment turns out the lights on him. For which he is grateful, because if anyone had come along it would have been damn difficult to explain why he was hugging a wall. Or crucifying himself against her steel.

************************************

A collective sense of a horrible calm, very reminiscent of that first time the Wraith attacked the base, hangs over the emotional corridors of the base. Because Rodney has announced at a senior staff meeting that he's resigning. He hadn't looked at John when he said it. In a calm and very un-Rodney-like voice he had just said it. John had gone numb, tingling with the same stark shock he's felt the numerous times he's been shot. Not the so-so wound that he can power right through. This had been like taking one to the chest. No one had said anything for a minute or so, and then Rodney had looked at him, that laser blue on full beam. John had looked away. And then in that same deadpan voice Rodney had said, "I hate stupid people," and had gotten up and walked out of the room.

************************************

John doesn't knock. He's so focused that he doesn't even need to ask Atlantis to open Vickers' door; she just does it. A young Marine is sitting on the couch. John notices that the guy has nicks all over his neck. What in the fuck is wrong with this world that some twenty year old can handle a gun better than he can a disposable razor?

The marine stands up and gives John a salute. "Sir."

Vickers looks at John with no surprise or shock or even outrage that John is violating this marine's privacy. "Private Marks, would you please come back tomorrow? Same time?"

The marine nods and looks to John to formally dismiss him.

John's hands are shaking so badly he can barely return the salute.

Kicking the coffee table out of the way, John begins pacing in front of the couch. Fifteen steps forward and then fifteen steps back, he begins to talk. Not about his mother's alcoholism, or his father's cruelty, or the obscene privilege of his upbringing, or the staff that raised him because his mother was too drunk and his father too uninterested. Not about how money buys a lot of things but it doesn't buy sobriety or love. Nor about how he had hid his intelligence because he wanted to fly more than anything, and he had learned early that those kind of smarts are too vital to keep you in a plane. He doesn't talk about Iraq or Afghanistan or all the other soldiers that he's watched being blown to bits or how many times he's used his belt as a tourniquet to stop someone bleeding out after an IED ripped off their leg or legs. He doesn't talk about Nancy and how absolutely rotten he feels about her, about someone who loved him very much and how he couldn't love her back as much, not nearly as much, and he didn't know why.

What he does talk about is how much he loves and hates the military. That he knows that it's a yearning to achieve approval from authority figures, who are a stand-in for his father, and also explains his compulsion to tell them to fuck off. About how they are trained to view people as assets and collateral and targets. About how the military expects them to almost kill their own souls so that they become inhuman enough to annihilate others but keep a few slivers alive so that they don't wipe out their bunkmates because they've lost a hand in poker. And how that line between embracing the emptiness and fighting it off is very thin. And how hard it is to walk. And how some days he's contemplated how much easier it would be cede what was left of him because keeping his humanity and dignity while doing unspeakable things is exhausting and some days he is so fucking tired. And how John could feel himself tipping over that line, but couldn't stop it. Until he came to Atlantis. Which slowly pulled him back. And how Elizabeth, Ford, Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney, most of all Rodney, kept tugging on him to stay on that line. And how angry he was while they were shopping for that stupid engagement ring and how much he didn't understand why Rodney would be in love with Jennifer Keller because she would never understand him. And how he doesn't believe in God because he's seen and done too much to believe in God but he believes in fate because he's here and it's home and it's not home without Rodney. And how Rodney saved his life here and blew things up there and came back in time to save him and how he couldn't Ascend and how Rodney couldn't Ascend either and what did that mean? And why is this always coming down to Rodney?

These are the first questions he's asked in two hours and his voice is so ragged and stripped that he's not even sure he's audible.

John doesn't remember sitting down but he must of at some point. Christ, he's so tired. He leans back and his head hits the wall with a thump. He closes his eyes and brings a hand up to run along the length of his throat, which is pointless because it hurts like a motherfucker on the inside, but maybe there will be a placebo effect. He's so confused about pretty much fucking everything, but the one thing he knows is that something happened in that stupid jewelry store. That Rodney saw something between him and that sales clerk that John didn't or couldn't see and it blew things wide open. That John will lose whatever shreds of humanity that he has left if Rodney leaves Atlantis. That he will, in effect, die. That Rodney is leaving him behind.

The chill of a bottle grazes his hands. It's bottled water. This must be from Vickers' private stash because all they have on Atlantis is water in plastic bottles. John doesn't know why, but water tastes better out of glass. His throat is so raw that it protests at the first gulp. He downs the whole thing but keeps clutching the bottle because he has to do something with his hands.

"Thanks," he says to Vickers. Christ. What a clusterfuck. He opens his eyes. Vickers hasn't moved in over two hours. The man must have a bladder made out of rocks. "I don't know if I can go there!" he says and realizes he's shouting. He tries to dial it down a few million decibels. "With Rodney, I mean."

Vickers nods. "Maybe not. But things have changed. You don't have to choose between flying and," he pauses, "fucking."

"I haven't let myself go there. Ever," he admits. "I didn't think... I don't think... Rodney, well... What does it mean? That I wouldn't Ascend? That Rodney wouldn't Ascend. "

Maybe Vickers is much, much smarter than John has ever given him credit for. Vickers yanks on his bowtie and it unravels. A little smile of relief passes over his face, and John realizes that Vickers is much older than he realized. John's general disdain for all things psychological had blinded him to the fact that Vickers holds himself like a military man. Even sitting in a chair his back has that posture of the trained.

"You're ex-military. You've seen combat." It's not a question.

"Yes," Vickers admits. "Mogadishu. Bravo Company." He takes his glasses off so that there is nothing between their gaze, not even glass. "Talk about clusterfucks. I do understand, Colonel. All of it. All of it," he repeats and puts his glasses back on. "I would say," Vickers says slowly, picking his words with care, "that you need to ask him. Ask yourself."

"I've survived by not asking questions," John says with his usual dose of sarcasm.

"Fair enough. But at some point, if you stop asking, then you've lost the war," Vickers responds in an identical snotty tone.

John smirks. "Fair enough."

Vickers smirks back. "One of the ten?"

"Nope."

John stands up and so does Vickers. "Thanks, doc. I think," he says with no small amount of irony and tops it off with a crisp salute of goodbye. "This was never about Rodney, was it?"

Vickers salutes back. "Not so much. Good luck, Colonel."

******************************

John finds Rodney in the lab. The general chatter of the room immediately stops, and Rodney looks up. Rodney's never met an emotion that he didn't broadcast, and Rodney's face is an emotional kaleidoscope, cycling through anger, hurt, outrage, and resentment. If Rodney had come up to him and punched him in the jaw, John wouldn't have been surprised.

"You want to take a break? I told the mess to put on a fresh pot of coffee for you."

Always an excellent barometer for the state-of-McKay, Rodney's mouth is sloped in a really, really pronounced slant, meaning that John is about to get ripped to verbal shreds. Then something shifts in their vibe. Rodney crunches his eyebrows together and then says in a snarl, "What in the hell is wrong with your voice? And why are you limping?"

John shrugs and before Rodney can rip into him, he says, "I need help with an equation. We can talk about it over coffee."

"What equation?" Rodney snaps, although he also sounds a little intrigued. A good soldier always scopes out the enemy's weaknesses, and Rodney's weakness is the scientist in him. John hopes it will give him the three seconds he needs.

"The Dice Equation," John rasps out in as casual voice as he can manage.

Sometimes watching Rodney brain work is a little like watching those old IBM main frames clattering away as they'd search through thousands and thousands of code for the answer. Rodney is silent but the nanoseconds of cataloguing mental code is similar. And probably faster. Come on, Rodney, John silently begs. This is the opposite of no dice. It's dice time, buddy. I'm saying dice. Or rolling the dice. I'm being super de doper obscure here, but you're the smartest man in ten galaxies. Come on. The frown softens into Rodney's relatively normal "you-are-so-full-of-shit-and-I-am-going-to-spend-the-next-ten-minutes-telling-you-why" slant of frustration.

Rodney leans back in his chair and snorts his disgust. "There is no dice—"

"I'm not sure it will converge but I think, I don't know. Maybe?"

"Sheppard, I really don't know what you're talking about. Furthermore, some of us actually work for a living and—"

Rodney stops talking, well, semi-shouting really, because it finally clicks. Rodney goes very still, looks down at his feet, and then looks up, his face blank. "That's a difficult one, I admit," he says in a small voice.

If that whole scene in the jewelry store had been the beginning of Rodney's epiphany about the two of them, it's chump change compared to the one John is having right now. Maybe this is the one time in his life when John loves someone more, so much more that he is willing to start asking the questions he has refused to ask for a huge hunk of his life. No one else had been worth it.

"Just not sure, but I could use your help." That is about as honest as John can be, and he hopes that it's enough for Rodney. "It's time to do the math."

John counts twenty beats before Rodney responds.

"You're not sure it will converge."

John shakes his head. Honest, he has to be honest. "We need to work the numbers."

John counts another fifteen beats.

"I'm very good with numbers." Rodney says in an all-too-familiar belligerence.

John can't help it because it's so Rodney. He smiles. A real grin that stretches his face. "Yeah, I know."

Rodney smiles back even as his faces crumples a little with some emotion. Then he pushes himself up out of his chair.

"Radek, will you hold down the fort? Apparently, the Colonel needs some remedial tutoring."

Rodney waits until they are well away from the lab before saying in a quiet voice, "You are an idiot."

"Yeah, I know, but, hey, emotional cripple here."

"Tell me something I don't know," murmurs Rodney.

"Don't..." John has to swallow and take a deep breath before finishing this sentence because, wow, this hurts so much. "Don't leave." He doesn't say it, but what he really means is, "Don't leave me behind."

John doesn't know what Rodney hears in his voice but he stops walking for a second to scan John's face.

Maybe he did say it, or maybe Rodney just knows him that well. "I'm not, John. You left me behind."

"Didn't mean to." John can't articulate this any better. He didn't know. "Sorry."

"Do I have Vickers to thank for all...this?" A hand flails back and forth between them. John nods. "Did you know that he's an actual M.D. as well? Not that I think that medical doctors are that much better than, well, botanists. I mean, Katie was only of middling intelligence, but for a botanist she was brilliant. That tells you something." John starts walking and Rodney follows suit. "Of course, at least there's some sort of science there, albeit Mickey Mouse. Not like those psychologists, who I swear obtain their degrees as a Happy Meal prize. Where those people get off is beyond me..."

John fights back the overwhelming impulse to touch Rodney in some major way, because all this complaining and kevetching and grousing is so silly and petty and totally Rodney. It's as endearing as all hell. John interrupts and says, "Lime or lemon jello today?" And then waits for the screech of outrage, because one plus one equals emotional cripple plus megalomaniac scientist for the win.

Fin