Rodney McKay was self-aware enough to realize that in many ways he was an open book. He was a man of shifting and varied layers--intelligence, inventiveness, and a surprising amount of courage were all contained in his inner makeup. Mystery, however, was a quality in which he was sorely lacking. Complete strangers could usually tell exactly what he was thinking by a cursory examination of his mobile features, and if it was someone who knew Rodney--well, the game was over before it began.
Which was why it was completely unfair that after nearly four years of living in each other's hip pockets, John Sheppard could still surprise him.
"The what?" Rodney asked, trying to count the boxes currently eating up valuable science space in Lab Three.
"The small building on the South Pier. The one we just cleared? The one you said you were thinking about using as an auxiliary lab?"
"What about it?"
Rodney wasn't actually listening to Sheppard. The Daedalus had docked that morning on its bimonthly supply run and equipment crates were choking the already limited room in his favorite lab. It was about time the SGC started listening to him about keeping the labs stocked--a Zelenka denied his post-it notes was not something Rodney cared to ever experience again--and he had requested three Aeron desk chairs (two for him, one for Radek), but somebody had obviously screwed up. No way all the boxes were for him. Caldwell's grunts had probably gotten lost on the way to the armory and he had Sheppard's P90s or night-goggles or something.
"Are you going to use it?" Sheppard was using the Tone of Extreme Patience. That usually came right before the eye tick.
"Use what?" And there went the eye.
For such a laid-back guy, Sheppard could be wound awfully tight sometimes. Rodney tilted his head nearly upside down trying to read the label on the largest box.
"Rodney," Sheppard said slowly. "Is the science department planning on using the small building we cleared last week for a lab or not?"
"Hmm?" Rodney couldn't quite make out the name on the slip. "No. It's too far away."
"Do you mind if I take it?"
Rodney could probably read the name if he got down on his knees. Question: was it worth the inevitable joint pain caused by Atlantis' hard floors, or should he just have Sheppard do it?
"What do you want it for? You already have three perfectly good rooms for shooting at paper people."
Sheppard muttered something that sounded like "personal reasons."
"Little industrial for a swinging bachelor pad, don't you think?"
Sheppard was strangely quiet. He was embarrassed, Rodney could tell. He was twitching on the inside.
Rodney considered. Science mostly ran the South Pier, which put Sheppard's building under his purview. He'd had some vague notion about banishing his most annoying scientists there, but who knew what they'd get up to so far removed from his watchful eye. He didn't have the foggiest idea what Sheppard could want it for, but he could be benevolent.
"Knock yourself out," he said finally. "Now get down here and read the name on this box for me."
"Oh." Sheppard grinned. "Those are for me." He waved a hand in the direction of the most enormous crates. "Since it's not military stuff, I guess the Marines thought they should deliver them here."
Not military? What could Sheppard possibly be having shipped that took up so much space? Was he really furnishing that bachelor pad?
Rodney was so lost in visions of shag carpeting and actual adult-sized beds that he almost didn't notice when Sheppard patted him on the arm and pivoted away, tossing a cheery "Thanks, buddy. I'll get this stuff out of your way later," over his shoulder. By the time he could reply that Sheppard would damn well get it out of his way now, he was gone.
Huh. That was odd, even for Sheppard. Well, he could wonder at the vagaries of wild-haired colonels later. Right now he needed a few of his strongest minions to move Sheppard's boxes into his quarters. They would probably fit. Maybe. Sheppard might not be able to use his bathroom or sleep in his bed, but Rodney was pretty okay with that.
Sheppard had been surprising him from the beginning.
"Shoot me," Rodney had said not long after they'd met, expecting Sheppard to squawk and maybe turn a little pink in that way he'd noticed he sometimes did.
Instead he'd coolly looked Rodney up and down, eyes flicking briefly to the glowing green medallion attached to his chest, and pulled his side-arm without a word. He'd had a shot off before Rodney was able to fully form the thought that this might not be such a hot idea after all. The report was much louder than Rodney expected, which was the only reason he let out a dignified, manly shout of surprise.
"You shot me."
Sheppard had the nerve to look puzzled. "Isn't that what you wanted?"
He had a point. Still: "You shot me."
"In the leg."
"Which is full of major arteries. What kind of person just shoots somebody with no questions asked?"
"McKay." Sheppard was grinning. It made him look ridiculously young. "I trust you. Any time you want to be shot, I'm happy to oblige."
Sheppard briefly inspected his weapon before re-holstering it. He walked up close to Rodney, and hello--personal space. He'd had that almost-onion thing for lunch.
"And," he said, "I didn't miss."
Rodney could feel his face stretching into a grin that mirrored the major's. "No, you didn't."
Sheppard took a step back. Rodney realized he'd been feeling his warmth through the shield and suddenly missed it. They both smiled goofily for a moment until Sheppard broke the silence. "So. Rodney. Tell me about your little green friend here."
Sheppard had somehow gotten his crates to the South Pier--no doubt via the unauthorized usage of military personnel--and was apparently using it as some sort of workshop. The scientists had been traipsing in and out of the labs for the last few days, muttering mysteriously about aluminum skin, and stubby clecos. If one more scientist reported to work with that vaguely manic gleam in his eye, and the phrase "workbench jig" under his breath, Rodney was going to have to ban visits to Sheppard's little playground.
How did Sheppard have time for hobbies, anyway? Last Rodney had checked, he was still military commander of Atlantis. It was true that the Replicator threat had been mostly neutralized; the Wraith had left only busily-rebuilding pockets of resistance. And the Wraith themselves were reeling from the Replicator Wars. Still--hobbies? Rodney's own very important job didn't leave him any time for cross-stitch or badminton. Work was a perfectly good leisure activity.
He still didn't know what Sheppard was building over there. He was curious, but Simpson had come to him with a star ten light-years away that was exhibiting anomalous behavior, and Carter had found a list of possible ZPM addresses in the Ancient database. Radek had submitted yet another in his long line of harebrained proposals to study quantum entanglement of all things, so Rodney had a lot on his plate and Sheppard's latest weirdness would have to wait. What would a man like him want to build, anyway? He was probably trying to reverse-engineer a DeLorean.
Or a light saber. That would be cool.
Who knew Sheppard was so do-it-yourself, anyway? If he was the kind of man that required his own workshop, he should have been in the trenches getting his hands dirty during any one of the thousand times their plumbing had failed. If Rodney did go to see Sheppard's project, and discovered he knew his way around a distributor wrench, he was not getting out of Tuesday Night Puddlejumper Maintenance.
Sheppard should have been happy. He had his workshop, he had his mysterious project, and he had a mostly-over war when he felt like shooting things. So there was no reason for him to give Rodney the puppy-dog eyes over breakfast one morning and whine about how it had been three weeks and Rodney still hadn't been to his workshop. Rodney had rolled his eyes and taken the path of least resistance, and, after a long trek to the end of the pier which was not near any transporters (and during which walk Rodney had restrained himself from making any comments about how it was a shame the pier wasn't shorter, so that Sheppard could take a long walk off of it), here they were.
The building was an oddity for Atlantis: a one story stout square box, not beautiful in any way. The anthropologists had made some attempts to explain what the Ancients had used it for, but really who cared? It had been checked out and declared free of any surprises, nasty or helpful.
It had two huge doors, and was slightly bigger than a three-car garage on the inside, with a skylight and not much else. Except not any more. Now Sheppard had set up a workbench on one side of the room, which was covered in small tools. Rodney recognized fluting pliers, a vixen file, and a rivet gun amongst them.
"That's not good organization," he heard himself saying. All his attention was sucked elsewhere in the room, but his mouth seemed to go on autopilot. "You need a pegboard. With outlines."
He still couldn't quite catch his mouth up to his brain, and even his brain seemed frozen in place, unable to compute. Because Sheppard had set up some kind of rigging fixture, shoulder high and about thirty feet long with jigs mounted to each end. A long metal spar was braced between the jigs, and on the floor in front of that were other metal spars, and what were clearly ribs, with big round cutouts. Metal sheets lay ready on the other side of the room.
Rodney was not an expert, but he was an engineer, and it was so incredible he could barely get the words out. His voice cracked with the effort. "You're--building an airplane."
Sheppard's grin was so wide Rodney couldn't believe it still fit on his face. "Yup."
"But--" He had to sit. There. Sheppard had a chair over there. "But--" Deep breaths, try again. "But you have spaceships."
Sheppard surprised him yet again by managing to make his grin even wider. The corners of his mouth would meet in the back soon. "Yup."
He didn't seem to be getting it. "Why would you want an airplane when you have spaceships?"
Sheppard shrugged, still with that giddy look on his face. "Not the same thing."
Okay. He could understand that. Sort of. Okay, not at all, but he could see how Sheppard, the freak, could think that way. But--"Why build one? I understand they come ready-made."
Sheppard actually laughed. "I had enough trouble getting the cargo allotment for the kit pieces. This is just the wing. Besides." He was suddenly looming over Rodney and leaning in in conspiratorially which was ridiculous because they were the only two people there. "I always wanted to build a plane. Wanna help?"
For a moment it was tempting--the engineering!--but then sanity prevailed. "No. I'm much too busy with actual work--work that may save our lives--to play toy airplanes with you."
Sheppard's face fell, but the grin snuck back almost immediately. Rodney had the distinct feeling Sheppard had not taken his refusal seriously.
"Suit yourself. My door's always open if you change your mind." He turned to his rigging and began fiddling cheerfully with something Rodney couldn't see.
In fact the doors to Sheppard's workshop were made out of an Ancient alloy and were far too heavy to actually remain standing open, but Rodney took his point.
The people of MXG-641 had an alien princess they wanted Sheppard to marry before they would cement a trade agreement with the Lanteans. It was nothing they hadn't been through a dozen times before--strictly ceremonial with no strings attached. Hold hands with the pretty girl in the town square, get a garland of flowers and a shiny new ally, and congratulate yourselves on a job well done. Few cultures in the Pegasus galaxy took these ceremonial marriages seriously, and Teyla assured them that the Frolians were not among them. Plus there was usually some kind of feast to be had at the end of these things, and Rodney had been smelling a scent that was remarkably like freshly-baked chocolate-chip muffins all throughout the negotiations.
So he was naturally taken aback when Sheppard refused to marry the girl. The Frolians got very tight around their mouths, and Teyla pulled the team back for a private consultation in the corner.
"I do not understand--" she began.
"What's wrong with her?" Rodney was not hissing; you couldn't hiss words without an s. "Never mind. Nothing's wrong with her. And even if there was, you never have to see her after today. Did you smell the chocolate?"
"The Frolians have agreed to a very generous arrangement, John. We will be glad of the Tsika grain come winter."
And, oh god, Sheppard had on his stubborn face. "I just think we should start thinking about these things more. Maybe we shouldn't take marriage so lightly."
He looked at Rodney with a peculiarly intense expression on his face like there was something he wanted Rodney to understand. But--chocolate. And why had Sheppard picked today to be weirder than usual? He had two ceremonial wives that Rodney knew of and one ceremonial husband, and he'd never balked before. And--oh, god.
"You're involved with someone on Atlantis, aren't you? Who?" And why didn't you tell me? "I'm sure the lithe young marine biologist of the moment won't mind. We don't even have to tell her."
"I'm not seeing anyone, Rodney." Sheppard's whole body went stiff. In their corner, the Frolians we're making increasingly loud unhappy noises.
"You are." Rodney peered closely at Sheppard's face. "Oh my god, you're in love." He couldn't believe Sheppard hadn't told him. He wasn't entirely emotionally backwards; he could be happy for him.
"Rodney." Wow. Sheppard could say a lot with one word. "Shut up." Okay, that was three words.
"I just--" he started anyway, but stopped at the sight of Sheppard violently scrubbing his hands through his hair.
In the end Sheppard agreed to marry the princess, but the Frolians decided that as representative of the fallen planet of Sateda, Ronon would do just as well. So Ronon got a flower wreath around his head, and a demure kiss from a pretty girl, and the largest piece of (chocolate) cake. Sheppard got his dignity, and what was that worth when weighed against chocolate cake?
Rodney got cake too, and another piece of the puzzle that was Sheppard, and damned if he had any idea where it fit.
Sheppard's love affair with the marine biologist (Anthropologist? Doctor? Keller?) must have ended quickly, because Rodney didn't hear any more about it. The wings were proceeding; the main spar had gotten crosswise ribs attached that diminished in size as they approached the tips. The shape of the thing was clear now, and damned if Sheppard wasn't putting together an airplane.
And--in what was just another oddity in the parade of surprises that made up Sheppard--he was doing it alone. Rodney knew for a fact that he'd had no shortage of offers of help; the engineers were salivating at the idea of building a kit plane, as were some of the more mechanically-inclined Marines, and surprisingly, a few of the botanists. Sheppard would just smile in that little-boy way he had, thank the person for wanting to help, and explain that he wanted to do it on his own for now--that there was something kind of special going on between him and the plane that he didn't want to disturb. Instead of laughing in his face, the engineer, or Marine, or botanist would go away feeling charmed, and somehow special. Rodney would never understand how Sheppard did that.
It turned out Rodney did need a hobby after all, because he had discovered the most relaxing--yet oddly compelling--pastime ever was bringing a laptop to Sheppard's workshop after missions and during free moments. He'd watch him work and add commentary when he felt it necessary.
Like now. "You're not going to attach the top forward skins without doing a leak test of the auxiliary fuel tanks, are you?"
Sheppard, who so was, made a little snort of disbelief. "Of course not."
"You'll need an access hole at the bottom of each wet bay. You don't need to make them nearly as large as these blueprints say."
"Huh." Sheppard joined him at the workbench. He leaned in close to look over the plans. His head was nearly touching Rodney's; Rodney was really going to have to have that talk with him about personal space. "I think you're right."
"Of course I'm right. I do have a doctorate in mechanical engineering."
"And yet you won't get your ass out of the peanut gallery to help."
Which was another thing that surprised Rodney. Apparently he wouldn't disturb whatever this "thing" was that Sheppard had going with the plane; the colonel seemed glad of his company and eager for his help. Of course Rodney was a damned fine engineer, but Doctor Esposito had offered her services, and she wasn't half bad, and hot besides. But these nights when they could get away to the workshop were mostly just him and Sheppard. Rodney felt weirdly touched, and half-inclined to make a clubhouse sign.
The junior member of the club was Ronon, of all people. He'd wandered in one day and fallen hard for the Taylor 5X rivet gun. Now he showed up occasionally, seeming to have a sixth sense for when there was riveting afoot. When Rodney had asked why he was allowed to play and the scientists were turned away, Sheppard had shrugged and asked if Rodney wanted to tell Ronon he wasn't allowed to work on the plane. Besides he was a monster with a rivet gun. Rodney took to calling him Rosie, which didn't bother him at all, even when he discovered the reference. "They were cool," he informed Rodney, who had to agree that yes, they were.
When Sheppard's plane grew up it was going to be an eighty-percent scale model of a World War Two P-51 Mustang, with a wingspan of twenty-seven feet and a cruising speed of around three-hundred miles an hour. It would carry one-hundred-forty gallons of ninety-two octane gas fully loaded, and be twenty-two-and-a-half feet long. It would take years to build.
"You know, I could hack the SGC system to get you a bigger cargo allotment on the Daedalus. We could get you a Cessna, or a Cub. No assembly required."
"Thanks, Rodney." And there was the grin of Sheppard's that never came out in public. The one that was completely genuine, without the slightest effort to charm. "I'm good. So, you feel like working yet? I've got a hand seamer with your name on it."
Rodney didn't feel that deserved an answer.
When Rodney was working on his second doctorate (astrophysics--he'd decided to do mechanical engineering first, for practice), he had never considered that his chosen career path would lead to him spending quite so much time in prison. As jails went, PF8-472's wasn't too bad--they'd been provided with a dark brown bread and enough water--and their captors were strictly after a ransom, so no unpleasant torture, always a plus.
The dirt floor left something to be desired, however, and there was no furniture at all, which left them sprawling on the cell floor while they waited for Atlantis to negotiate their release. Ronon had assessed the threat--minimal--then scraped up a little dirt nest for himself and promptly fallen asleep, snoring a little. Sheppard, Teyla and Rodney were left to come up with their own entertainment.
After a vigorous round of twenty-questions (and Fermat Numbers were not animal, thank you very much, Sheppard) and the Tournament of Staring (Teyla--one, Sheppard--three, Rodney--six, ha!), they'd settled into one of their comfortable discussions about Star Wars. It was a thing he and Sheppard had when they were tired or bored or imprisoned, and so familiar Rodney barely had to pay attention. In the last four years they'd hashed out the origins of Sand People (genetic manipulation gone wrong), the deep symbolism of colored light sabers (Rodney maintained that in the real world they would all be white) and Leia's best outfit aside from the gold bikini (the little snow-bunny number from Hoth), amongst other things. Rodney knew Sheppard's thoughts on the trilogy from the opening crawl to the ending bonfire, so he did not just hear Sheppard say what he thought he had.
"No." Rodney said, utterly calm with conviction. "You like Han Solo best."
"Luke." Sheppard's mouth had taken a firm, not entirely friendly, cast.
"No." Rodney couldn't believe what he was hearing. "No. Pi is three-point-one-four-one-five-nine and so on, a body in motion tends to stay in motion, there's never enough grape juice, but always far too much orange, and John Sheppard likes Han Solo better than Luke Skywalker."
"Rodney. Is this really the time?"
"You're disintegrating my world-view. When's a good time for that? Han Solo was a pilot. He had rakish hair. He was cool."
"Luke was a pilot, too. And he could bullseye womp-rats from a speeder. That's pretty cool."
"He wanted to get out, but he knew his aunt and uncle needed him on the farm." Sheppard's voice got quieter. "Luke was the kind of guy who would sacrifice his own dreams to do right by his people. I admire that."
Oh. Oh. Rodney felt a little like he'd been punched in the gut. They stared in silence a moment until Teyla suddenly spoke up.
"I like Princess Leia," she said.
"Princess Leia is for girls," they replied in automatic unison.
Teyla got very still, and seemed to grow taller, though she remained seated. Her voice was icy. "I hope that when my daughter is born you will keep your gender-based Earth stereotypes to yourselves."
Okay, and huh? Rodney stared at her. It seemed Sheppard wasn't the only person who could surprise him. He knew his jaw had dropped open, and that was the only thing that was keeping him from saying something he would regret for the rest of his life.
And oh god, Sheppard's voice was still working. "You're pregnant? I thought you were just getting fat."
And really, physical shock was the only thing that could make Sheppard say something like that, and maybe Teyla would forgive him after she'd beaten him up a few dozen times. Then again, maybe she wouldn't.
Just then their (wonderful, fantastic) captors appeared with the news that the ransom of anti-biotics and MREs had arrived and they were free to go.
Rodney had always hated going along with the crowd, but it seemed he was as powerless to resist John Sheppard as everyone else. He'd fallen into a regular habit of working on Sheppard's plane with him before he'd really even noticed, and okay, it was actually kind of fun. It was good to feel Earth tools in his hands again--the Ancient ones were all far too elegant, and tapered in weird places. He found he enjoyed finishing up a long day at the lab, and coming by the workshop to trim sheet metal, or drill burr holes.
They were just finishing up the landing gear, and could then declare the wings done. Rodney had spent the better part of two evenings mounting the wheels and brakes to the strut assembly, and there was no way around it; he was going to have to trim the inboard ends of the axles so that the brake disks would fit into the calipers. That would eat up another night.
When he complained to Sheppard about it, all he got was a sideways grin, followed by a sage nod. "Atlantis wasn't built in a day, Rodney," he said in a knowing tone of voice. Rodney was tempted to take his hack-saw and go home.
The truth was, Rodney didn't quite trust Sheppard to put the plane together on his own. The man had proved himself surprisingly capable of it, but Rodney wasn't completely convinced that Sheppard remembered that he was going to be flying this thing too.
"Yes, Mom." Sheppard would say every time Rodney broached the subject. But a moment later he would always look into Rodney's worried eyes and say, "I'll be safe, Rodney, really. I'm building it completely to spec."
He wasn't cutting corners. He was building the machine responsibly and with care. It would be as safe as any small plane, which was to say, not nearly safe enough for Rodney's taste. He felt a little better being there to keep an eye on things--a little more sure that this bucket of riveted sheet metal would keep Sheppard from harm. It wasn't just superstition; Rodney had made several safety modifications to the blueprints--he needed to remember to send those to the manufacturer in the next data burst. Every time he would tell Sheppard about one of his changes, Sheppard would get a strange look on his face. His eyes would go all funny and he would stare at Rodney with one side of his mouth curling up. "What?" Rodney would ask irritably. "I'm just trying to keep you from killing yourself."
At this Sheppard would invariably laugh and squeeze Rodney's shoulder. "Wouldn't want that," he would say in a fond tone of voice. Once he even ruffled Rodney's hair. There had been a time Rodney had thought he might someday understand Sheppard, but it looked like he might as well give up on that and concentrate on something easier like M-theory.
Only Rodney had never been able to let go of a puzzle. Almost every night he would ask some variation of why an airplane, when Sheppard had a whole fleet of perfectly good spaceships that could, you know, go through space. Tonight as he was clearing the welds on the torque plate, he said, "The jumpers are going to be jealous. They'll think you're cheating on them."
Sheppard heard the real question, like he always did. He seemed to never tire of answering it, though the answers always varied. "In a little plane you can feel every bump in the wind." He leaned across Rodney for a number three cleco, and then took his time choosing the one he wanted. Rodney could feel his solid weight pushing into his side. Sheppard was always warm.
"And that's a good thing?" He tried to make his voice skeptical, but he felt a sudden need to swallow.
"Mmm." Sheppard seemed to think that was an answer. He finally picked out a handful of clecos and straightened. "It's amazing. When you're taking off, you feel the wind pushing under the wings, lifting you up. These small planes--they just want to fly. You can barely keep them on the ground."
There was something about Sheppard when he talked about planes--something in his eyes and voice that wasn't there even when he talked about the jumpers or Atlantis, and Rodney liked listening to him for some reason he couldn't define. "Without a headset, all you can hear is the engine. And you can feel it rumbling all through the plane, and all through you. You can feel everything."
Rodney let Sheppard talk on--about how inertial dampeners were the best thing since toast, but they made flying the jumpers feel like flying a simulator; about how the canopy was nothing like a viewscreen; about how when you were up in a small plane, you really knew you were up in the sky. He listened to stories about how Sheppard learned to fly by getting an after-school job at a small air field; about the crashes Sheppard had been in--three, but only one where he was the pilot; about instrument flying, which was both utterly amazing and an enormous pain in the ass. He let Sheppard talk until he was talked out, which didn't happen for almost two hours.
When Sheppard finished, he sort of shook himself and looked around. Rodney expected him to make some kind of comment about how this must be the longest time Rodney had ever gone without speaking. But instead Sheppard turned a brilliant smile on him, touched his shoulder, and they walked the long walk back to the living quarters in silence.
Teyla's special friend Kannan was surprised to find he had a five-month-old daughter when the Athosians finally returned from the parallel universe they'd accidentally gotten themselves stuck in.
The Athosians hadn't even realized anything was wrong until Jinto--who was apparently the Athosian Columbo--noticed that Teyla had suddenly become left-handed. He put two and two-point-five together, came up with parallel universe and managed to contact that universe's Rodney McKay. (Thus proving himself sharper than approximately sixty-three percent of Atlantis' scientists--Rodney would have to speak to Sam about getting Jinto taken on as a lab assistant.) Rodney and Alternate-Rodney did some cross-dimensional physics and everyone was back where they belonged.
No one was happier to have the Athosians back than Sheppard, who figured that with little Jara's daddy back, his baby-sitting duties would be over. Alas, it was not to be, as Teyla and Kannan needed a lot of alone time to "reconnect." They spent at least one night a week on the mainland, where the Athosians had relocated while they scouted a good planet for New New Athos--New Athos having turned out to be riddled with dimensional rifts that could lead to one finding one's unsuspecting self sucked into a parallel universe.
Rodney had never thought about it, but if he had, he would have assumed that Sheppard would be great with babies. The beings--humans, aliens, Ancients--who were not immediately charmed upon meeting him were preciously few and far between, so why would small people be any different?
The colonel, however, turned out to be terrified of babies. (They're so small, he would whisper to Rodney. And they have tiny fingernails. And soft places on their heads.) Teyla--who could hold a grudge much longer than Rodney would have given her credit for--had made Sheppard Jara's ryhela, which turned out to be less godfather than Official Babysitter. After his first twenty-minutes with the baby, Sheppard had barged through Rodney's door with a wild look in his eyes begging Rodney not to make him do this alone.
Jara turned out to be a much easier baby than Jeannie ever was, so Rodney didn't mind helping out when he could. It was a kick to see those big brown eyes stare solemnly up at him, and to feel her little hand grip his finger. He assumed that Sheppard would overcome his fear given enough exposure, but it didn't happen. Seeing an Air Force colonel reduced to hysterics by a ten-pound ball of fluff never got old.
On a typical night of minding the baby, Rodney would finish feeding Jara and hand her over to Sheppard, who--no matter how many times they did this--would stiffen and cradle her like she was a hand grenade with the pin out. Jara, for her part, would remain calm for a differing amount of time each night--if Rodney didn't know better, he would swear she had some kind of built-in random number generator--before erupting in blood-curdling wails. Sheppard always looked miserable, but he only dropped her the first few times, and never on her head.
Sometimes Jara would let Sheppard hold her for five whole minutes before screaming, or spitting up (or once, memorably, peeing in his face which Rodney wouldn't have thought was possible for a girl). Sheppard would start to relax a little bit, and shoot Rodney a look of burgeoning hope and confidence, and Jara would let him have it right on cue. Sheppard would blanch, convinced he'd broken her, and shove her into Rodney's arms where she would promptly stop crying or spitting and settle down with a contented gurgle. Privately, Rodney was convinced Jara was messing with Sheppard. He was secretly proud; only a few months old and already an expert in the art of Sheppard-baiting--Jara's future looked bright. He wondered how Teyla would feel about sending her to Earth for college.
The best part of these evenings, though, was always after Jara had gone to sleep in the little painted Athosian crib Sheppard, as ryhela, kept in his room. In the beginning, Rodney had tried to leave after Jara settled down, sure that even Sheppard couldn't be scared of a sleeping baby. But the first night they baby-sat together, Sheppard pulled out a copy of the director's cut of Bladerunner once Jara went to sleep, the next time The Wrath of Khan, and the time after that, his chess board. Eventually Rodney got the hint, and stopped trying to go. Now when Jara started making her little baby-sleeping noises, they'd settle in to watch a movie, or play chess, or talk about the work the plane needed--quietly so as not to wake her--until Teyla arrived to take her home.
Building the Mustang's fuselage was exponentially more difficult than the wings for several reasons. For one thing most of the plane's systems went through there, and also it was far less straightforward in terms of trimming and fitting--especially the cowling and cockpit. Rodney decided they should work fore to aft on the top portion of the fuselage above the scoop, then turn it upside-down and fit in the tail-wheel hydraulics. Sheppard looked amused at Rodney's decree, but clearly Rodney was right, so there was no argument.
It didn't take long to build the proper jig to hold the fuselage level. Putting the skeleton together was relatively easy, and the forward fuselage skins took another couple of weeks after that. Sheppard got a little pissy when Rodney rejected the first pair of cockpit seats and made him send away to Earth for two more. He graciously admitted he had been wrong when the new seats arrived, and Rodney magnanimously accepted his apology. They spent an evening just lounging in them and watching a DVD on Rodney's laptop.
All in all Rodney couldn't believe how much fun he was having with Sheppard's plane--and with Sheppard, for that matter. They usually worked well together in the field, but working on a project in their spare time was different somehow. He'd never been on a team as a kid; he supposed this was something like that, though he couldn't tell which one of them was the captain. Probably Sheppard, since it was his plane after all.
Captain or not, Sheppard was still the weirdest man in two galaxies. They'd installed the rudder cables, and the aileron controls, and had worked their way up to the engine mount, and the whole time Sheppard kept touching him. At first Rodney hadn't really noticed; Sheppard had always seemed to touch him a lot--a guiding hand to the back on a mission, a tug on his tac vest when he wanted him somewhere quickly, a smack on the back of the head when he got annoyed. (Seriously, what grown man does that?) So at first when Sheppard would lean across him to grab a metal snipper, or balance himself with a hand on Rodney's shoulder to adjust a screw high on the fuselage, Rodney wrote it off as general Sheppard-ness and didn't think any more about it.
But he kept doing it--greeting his arrival with a shoulder squeeze, punching him on the arm as a good-bye; it got to the point where Rodney felt the phantom press of Sheppard's fingertips long after he'd returned to his quarters. He was always surprised there weren't any bruises.
One night after Rodney wrenched his side removing a stubborn bolt, Sheppard actually started massaging his shoulders. Rodney almost wrenched his other side in his haste to jump away. Sheppard looked puzzled, and there would never be a better time than now for that personal space talk Rodney had been meaning to have for months, maybe years. He opened his mouth to speak and unexpectedly found himself utterly without words.
"Rodney?" asked Sheppard.
He'd meant to say something like stop touching me so much, or do you have some kind of tactile compulsion I should know about, or even why don't you touch anyone else as much as you touch me? Instead he just shrugged a little, then winced as it tugged at his ribs. "Hurts," he said, and wasn't that eloquent?
Sheppard smiled softly and began massaging his shoulders again, and Rodney couldn't really find any reason for him not to.
In the relatively short time Rodney had known him, John Sheppard had been a bug and an old man. He'd been possessed by a homicidal alien, and had lived six months while the rest of Atlantis had only lost an hour. He'd haunted his friends' nightmares, and he'd lost his memories to the Pegasus version of Chicken Pox.
So Rodney supposed he shouldn't be surprised that Sheppard was taking this all in stride. For Sheppard this was probably a blip on the radar that was life in the Pegasus Galaxy--hell, compared to the other things that regularly happened to him, this was probably a vacation. But did he have to be so relaxed about the whole thing? Couldn't he freak out like a normal person? Shouldn't he be hiding in his quarters instead of out there in the corridor for everyone to see? And for god's sake--
"Can't you stop walking like that?" Rodney thought he sounded remarkably calm under the circumstances.
"Like what?" Sheppard asked, and the ridiculous thing was that he wasn't faking that tone of innocence.
"Like that. With the hips, and the sashaying."
"This is how I always walk, Rodney."
It was the infuriating truth. Sheppard had loose limbs and slinky hips, and nothing had changed now, just because he was a girl.
Sheppard shot him a crooked smile. It looked ludicrously appealing on his softer features. Curse all Ancient tech. And curse all Ancients with their dangerous lack of concern for labeling things. Rodney was going to move back to Earth and design roller coasters or something.
It had been an Ascension machine, of course, different from the one that had tried to eat Rodney. (And what was with the Ancients and all the rampant cheating? Do the work yourself or stay corporeal.) The entry in the database--and for once Rodney would like to find one of those entries before the tragic accident--said that the device Sheppard had accidentally activated let the wannabe-Ascender walk a mile in someone else's shoes (the actual idiom was something like swim in another's bathing dress, which--ew). The apparent "logic" behind this was the idea that experiencing the hurdles of others would put you in a more enlightened frame of mind.
The database entry also said that the effects would only last two weeks, so no one was panicking. Especially not Sheppard--which Rodney did not get at all. If it had been him, he would have been crawling the walls or maybe hurling bricks at all the pretty stained glass. At the very least he would have had every scientist on the base searching for some way to reverse the process.
All Sheppard had done was have a little pow-wow with Sam and Keller--wherein they decided to take a wait-and-see attitude for the two weeks--and gone about his business. It was patently idiotic--when the Ancients said two weeks they were perfectly capable of meaning metaphorical weeks which could last months or years. Rodney would have been spending all his time in the lab trying to come up with a solution himself if he hadn't felt it necessary to stay within arm's distance of Sheppard to keep people from looking at him with their grubby little eyes.
"I'm fine, Rodney," Sheppard had said (in a higher voice). "The only person treating me differently is you."
Which may only have been Sheppard's naive perception, but also--Rodney hated to admit it--may have been the truth. Sheppard had adapted surprisingly well to being a woman and the rest of Atlantis had followed suit. It probably helped that he didn't look much different--he was still long and lean, with a pointed face and unruly hair. The device had made him (a little) less hairy, and given him slightly rounder features and pert little breasts (which was something Rodney had never ever wanted to associate with John Sheppard and now he had to go bleach his brain). With Sheppard dressed in his standard black BDUs, you almost didn't notice the change.
When Rodney asked--as he did approximately once an hour--why Sheppard wasn't terrified, or angry, or an incoherent puddle of goo like a rational person would be, Sheppard just shrugged and said it was kind of interesting seeing things from the other side. Rodney knew what that meant. That meant nights in the dark in his quarters exploring his new female perspective--and female parts--and oh, god bleach was not going to be enough.
At least some things hadn't changed. Sheppard as a woman was just as terrible with Jara as he had been as a man. That meant something; Rodney didn't know what, but it was strangely comforting. During the days, Sheppard stuck to his routine; he trained with the Marines and sparred with Teyla and did whatever else he did--which, judging by Rodney's close observation of the last week, was Spider Solitaire, hanging out in Rodney's lab, and working on the Mustang. And he invited Rodney to his quarters for dinner, which was new.
"What?" Rodney had said intelligently.
Sheppard had rolled his eyes. "You're spending all your time breathing down my neck, anyway. Thought this would make it easier."
So now they were in Sheppard's quarters. Seated at Sheppard's really, really small table. Sheppard had brought two trays of the chicken-thing they were serving in the mess and had found a bottle of wine somewhere and oh god, he smelled kind of good.
"You okay, buddy?" Sheppard placed a hand on his arm. He hadn't stopped all the touching even though he was now a female (with female parts, Rodney's brain supplied helpfully). Sheppard didn't mean anything by it; he was just acting the way he always had.
His hand was a bit smaller, though still gun-calloused, and so warm. Rodney stared at it like it might detach itself any minute and leap for his throat. He tried to will himself to see Sheppard the way he had looked a week ago. He wasn't all that different. Still the same colonel, just a slightly different package. Or no package. Rodney giggled, possibly a bit hysterically.
Sheppard was looking at him with genuine concern now. "Rodney?"
"I'm fine," Rodney managed to choke out. Sheppard's face relaxed slightly. That was better. He was so pretty. But then he'd always been pretty. Wait--what?
Sheppard's hand was still on his arm, making him have very wrong thoughts about his (only temporarily female) best friend. But maybe Sheppard would want to try out his (temporarily female) new body? The thought slammed him in the gut--maybe Sheppard had already tried it out.
Rodney jumped up, barely managing not to upset the table. "Go," he said. "That is--me. I need to--go. Simulation. Very important." He had to get out of there now. Had to be somewhere--anywhere--far away from Sheppard's feminine side.
"Okay," said Sheppard, looking disappointed.
"Right," said Rodney. "Simulation. I'll just be."
"You do that." Sheppard nodded.
"Right," said Rodney.
"Okay," said Sheppard.
Rodney fled, not stopping until he was back in his room. He was not freaking out. Sheppard had not asked him on a date; he was not behaving any differently than he usually did. It was Rodney's treacherous brain that had put that spin on his perfectly innocent actions. He and Sheppard didn't think that way about it each other. And even if Rodney had ever had any (fleeting, insignificant, not even really there) thoughts in that direction, Sheppard certainly hadn't. Sheppard was just being Sheppard.
Rodney could do this. Sheppard would be a man again soon, and then everything would go back to normal. In the meantime he could control his wayward brain. He'd not-thought about Sheppard in the past, he could continue not-thinking about him in the future. He sat down on the bed where he took deep breaths and spent some time not thinking about girl-Sheppard (twice) and original-Sheppard (once). These thoughts absolutely did not occur with his hand on his dick.
Everything was in place to start assembling the Mustang's engine. Since Rodney wanted to add in a supercharger, they'd decided to go for a lighter weight aluminum block, rather than the heavier iron one, along with forged pistons and a roller cam. They were going to use a Bendix style fuel system and a dry sump, and drive the accessories from a belt, rather than pads. Rodney had been looking forward to putting it together for months.
"Got some free time tonight, buddy?" Sheppard waggled his (completely male) eyebrows at him.
"Uh." Rodney nearly choked on the Athosian equivalent of Cheerios. They were little rocks; he was sure of it. "Actually, I've got something important going at the lab tonight. You know." He forced himself to swallow the last pebble. "Saving lives and whatnot."
"Okay." Sheppard looked puzzled. "Tomorrow?"
"Um. Sure." He made himself smile. "If I can. The experiment might have to run all week."
"Oh." Sheppard looked like he wanted to say more.
"But don't let that stop you," Rodney added quickly.
"Okay," Sheppard said, still with that strange look. "I won't."
Sheppard asked him three more times before he started building the engine by himself. Rodney knew when he began because Ronon--who was finishing the last of the riveting on the plane's body--seemed to feel the need to keep Rodney up to date.
Ronon had been disappointed to learn that the engine needed no rivets, but he was philosophical; the wings still needed to be attached to the body, and Sheppard had promised him he could keep the gun once the plane was built--Rodney had visions of Wraith skulls riveted to the walls of Atlantis. Ronon never mentioned the fact that Rodney had stopped coming to the workshop, only looked at him quizzically every once in a while as he related Sheppard's struggles with the coolant system in a surprisingly knowledgeable manner.
Sheppard treated him the same as always, which Rodney hadn't expected. He didn't seem angry with him, or disappointed. They went on missions and ate together in the mess when Rodney didn't see him coming first. He never talked about the Mustang except when someone--Sam, usually, sometimes Keller--asked him specifically, and then he always said it was coming along fine.
Rodney knew exactly how it was coming along because once a week or so he ventured down to the workshop after he was sure Sheppard was asleep in his quarters. He needed to check Ronon's riveting and assure himself that Sheppard was putting together an engine that wouldn't burst into flames when he tried to take it in the air. Rodney didn't expect to make any changes, and he didn't; Sheppard's work was always good. He was glad of that; he didn't know what he would say if Sheppard discovered his late-night visits.
Sheppard probably thought he was still freaking out over the whole female-thing. Rodney let him because the truth was so much worse. The fact was Sheppard's adventures in gender fluidity hadn't changed anything in Rodney's thinking. He'd always thought about Sheppard, he realized now--with a kind of intensity that he never directed at anyone else. Sheppard was the person Rodney wanted to share a discovery with, the person he wanted in the infirmary if he got hurt. It was all too much, and how had it happened? Sheppard, somehow, had fit himself into parts of Rodney that Rodney hadn't even known were empty. He was in danger of letting Sheppard become everything. Did he want that? Well, it hardly mattered what Rodney wanted, because he was sure Sheppard didn't, sure he'd be horrified by Rodney's messy attachment.
He almost didn't notice it, because he'd been spending so much of his non-mission time avoiding Sheppard (and since he had been successful at it, he knew that Sheppard had been avoiding him back). If he hadn't been so hypersensitive to Sheppard's every move lately, it would have been an easy thing to miss--Sheppard had stopped touching him. The hand on his back, the pats to his shoulder--these were all gone. Well, that made it easier then, and gave Rodney his answer, even though he'd already known. He guessed he wouldn't have to have that talk with Sheppard about personal space after all.
One thing that had never surprised Rodney about Sheppard was how many people wanted him. Alien priestesses and shy anthropologists, sure, but beyond that, Genii warlords and High Chiefs who had discovered he could wake their Ancient ruins. Dying civilizations that needed his genes for re-population, and angry villagers who'd heard the rumor that he was the man who had woken the Wraith.
So when Sheppard was captured on MH7-9G2, and spirited away to god-knew-where, Rodney could honestly say that one thing he did not feel was surprise.
It had been three months--ninety-three days--since he'd been taken, and nearly that long since Rodney had slept. Fall had changed to a mild winter, Jara had three teeth with a fourth on the way, and Lorne had proven himself as military commander in more than one skirmish. Sam had already scaled back the search once. She wanted to do it again, Rodney could tell--he could see it her eyes at every staff meeting--but she couldn't say it to Rodney's face.
Rodney was sure he could somehow convince Sheppard's malfunctioning subcutaneous transmitter to come back on-line, knew he could boost the signal enough so that they could receive it if he could just keep working, if he could just try harder. Keller wouldn't give him any more stimulants, but that was all right. He didn't need them to stay functional. The goal was enough.
On the ninety-seventh day Atlantis' gate activated with no IDC. Forty seconds later Sheppard limped through under his own power, collapsed, and didn't wake up for two weeks.
He'd been beaten, badly and repeatedly. Purple bruises scattered across yellowish healing ones on his face and arms, and most of his torso. His lower lip was split, and raw, and three teeth were missing. Shallow red tracks were spaced evenly along his thighs where his legs had been cut systematically with something sharp. He had five cracked ribs and a complex concussion and his fingers had all been broken more than once--save the left pinkie for some reason--several had healed badly. His left ankle had been fractured, then badly set, and was beginning to turn black with gangrene. He was covered with blood--drenched in it--and none of it was his.
Rodney turned straight around after they'd gotten Sheppard safely to the infirmary. Teyla found him fifty minutes later in the armory, gathering enough C-4 to take out a hiveship, and spoke to him quietly until he could breathe again.
Fourteen days later Sheppard was awake and coherent for almost three minutes. When Lorne--who had been waiting--asked for a direction in which to point the Marines, Sheppard spoke for the first time.
"There's no one left, Major," he said.
After that, Sheppard was in and out of consciousness for a week. He could usually be counted on to wake around noon, when he was given new meds, and Rodney tried to make sure he was there during those times.
He could tell Keller thought it was odd that he left the infirmary at all. On other occasions when Sheppard had been hurt, Rodney had set up a workspace the next bed over, but this time there was somewhere else he had to be.
He felt a little bad the next week, when Sheppard had woken up enough to wonder at Rodney's absences. But Sheppard was still so loopy on pain medication that Rodney thought it probably really didn't bother him that much.
The week after that, Sheppard was bored, and hurting, and kind of lonely even though Teyla and Jara were nearly always at his bedside. Jara was even being friendly to him, though Rodney saw Sheppard flinch away from her baby fists during the times he was able to visit.
"Are you mad at me?" Sheppard asked, his voice still raw.
"'Cause you were acting kind of mad at me. You know, before."
Sheppard reached out a hand. It was shaking slightly. Rodney could feel something unclench in his stomach as he took it. Sheppard was even warmer than usual--fever, Rodney thought vaguely, worriedly--but his grip was strong and Rodney held on tight.
Sheppard started physical therapy the week after that so at least he wasn't bored anymore. He slept a lot, tired out from the exercises. He seemed to understand when Rodney said that he wanted to be there more, but he was working on something really important.
"Same old Rodney," he'd say sometimes, with a sad little grin, and then Rodney had to blow everything off for that day and sit there with Sheppard and play cards, or talk about superheroes, or just watch him sleep.
Five weeks later, Sheppard was well enough to be released from the infirmary, though not well enough for full duty. He spent most of the time asleep in his room, but he seemed to like it when Rodney was there. Rodney started working nights.
When Sheppard could walk by himself for fifteen minutes without breathing heavily or wincing in pain, Rodney took him out to the South Pier. They walked along the left side, which they usually didn't. If Sheppard thought it was odd he didn't say anything.
Eventually they reached the workshop. This was it, then. "I just want to say," Rodney began. No, that was wrong. Sheppard looked at him quizzically.
"Rodney?" he asked, when he remained silent.
"Look," Rodney said finally. "I didn't know if I should do this, but I couldn't think of anything else I could do. For you. If you hate it we can take it apart. I wasn't sure if it was all about the building for you, I mean the 'process,' but I thought you would appreciate this, that it would make you--happy. I had to make a lot of decisions myself, of course, but I wanted it to be... a surprise."
"Rodney?" Sheppard asked again, a small grin beginning to play over his features.
"Oh, hell," said Rodney and waved a hand over the control panel that operated the two huge sliding doors. "I finished your plane."
And there it was, the beautiful Mustang, glinting silver in the New Lantean sun. Sheppard staggered a little, and grabbed for something nearby to steady himself, which happened to be Rodney's arm and they entered the workshop--well, hangar, now, Rodney supposed.
"Mating the wings was really a two person job, Ronon helped with that, and the Marines wanted to pitch in, so they made you a runway with that tar from PXN-777. The South Pier was really a good place for your plane, there's so much empty space on this side; did you think about that before?"
Rodney said some other things, about the propeller, and the flap relays, but he could tell he'd lost his audience. Sheppard was walking slowly around the plane, looking at it from all angles with an expression of wonder on his face.
"Rodney," he said slowly. "You did this?"
"You hate it. I swear I'll take it apart. I'll start right now. You can finish building it however you want."
"Rodney," Sheppard said, and now the grin on his face was unmistakable. "I don't hate it."
Rodney felt his heart pound in his chest. There was such a look of joy on Sheppard's face he almost couldn't stand it. Sheppard was here, and he was alive, and that was everything. If nothing ever happened between them more than what they had right now, that was enough. He knew he was grinning back.
Then Sheppard was suddenly across the room, right next to him, wrapping his arms around Rodney. And they were kissing, and Sheppard's tongue was in his mouth, and Rodney's hands were in Sheppard's hair, and some part of Rodney was thinking thank god, thank god, but most of him was just holding on tight.
John--with startling originality--named the plane The Spirit of Atlantis, but informally he called it Bessie for some weird Sheppardian reason. Rodney got one of the labs busy making gasoline, and John took the plane up almost every Saturday, more often when he could. Sometimes he even got Rodney to agree to come along.
The years off Rodney's life were a fair trade for seeing John so happy up there in the blue sky. John was relaxed and free up there in a way Colonel Sheppard never was. He would perform stalls, and barrel rolls, and threaten to teach Rodney how to fly the airplane, laughing when Rodney went suddenly pale.
More than flying with John, though, Rodney loved staying on the ground and watching him up above. John would soar, and show off, speeding in circles around the city. He did aerobatics that made Rodney's heart leap into his throat, but they made him happy, and Rodney would never, ever ask him to stop.
Rodney was proud of little Bessie, but he still preferred the puddlejumpers by a factor of ten. So he was greatly aggrieved the time all the jumpers went down with a nanite virus, and John had to use the plane to evacuate Jinto and a team of anthropologists back to Atlantis from the mainland after the ruins they were studying collapsed and Doctors Rhys and Connelly respectively broke a leg and punctured a lung.
John only said "I told you so," once, but Rodney caught him fondling Bessie's nose later, when it was all over, and patting her on the wing.