In the end, Rodney dated Keller for fourteen months, eleven days, and seven hours, give or take, not that John was counting.
When they'd first gotten together, John had thought--no, he'd known--that it was going to be Katie all over again. Rodney was going to be weirdly shy, and stammer, and bump into stuff, maybe. He'd want to impress her, which in his mind would mean fawning in a way that was more than a little creepy and generally behaving as un-Rodney-like as he could manage. He'd be afraid to show her the real him--which somewhere along the way he'd become convinced was riddled with deal-breaking personality flaws (thanks a lot, Jeannie)--lest Jennifer hurl herself into the arms of a better prospect.
John hadn't been looking forward to seeing Rodney like that. He liked him just the way he was, and any woman who didn't wasn't worth Rodney's time or effort--wasn't worth Rodney. And Keller--well, she was young and naive, John knew, one of those wholesome Midwestern-types. She was in love with who she thought Rodney was--or maybe who she thought she could make him into someday. John only hoped Rodney and Jennifer would crash and burn quicker than Rodney and Katie had. He was getting tired of waiting for his own chance.
So when he walked into Rodney's lab the Thursday after Rodney had started dating Keller and heard him telling her, "You're wrong, you're so wrong, sonnets could be written on just how very wrong you are," John couldn't help but feel a warm glow. He almost felt sorry for Keller, she was so out of her depth.
But Keller had put down the Ancient device she was studying and said, "No shit, McKay, why don't you pretend for a minute I'm not an astrophysicist and explain it to me," and Rodney had smiled at her, and she'd smiled back, and John had realized that, dear God, this might actually work.
And then Keller had turned out to be kind of awesome, no matter how much John wished she wasn't. She loved Rodney sort of a lot, and liked him more. She gave as good as she got, and no matter how closely John watched her watch Rodney, he never once saw her face fail to light up when he came into a room. Sometimes Keller would tag along on team night. Sometimes she wouldn't. John could never figure out the logic, but there was no denying it worked.
John was a selfish jealous bastard, but he'd still liked seeing Rodney happy. He'd even gotten a kick out of seeing how goofily thrilled Rodney was that he made someone else happy. And John's own relationship with Rodney hadn't changed--they still goofed off and drank beer and played dumb games.
John hated it.
There was no one he could blame but himself. He'd had his chance after Katie, but he hadn't taken it. The time had never seemed exactly right, and there was no hurry, and then all of a sudden Rodney was making gooey eyes at someone and incredibly, she was making them back.
After fourteen months, eleven days, and seven hours, the only reason Rodney and Jennifer broke up was that they'd come to the painful yet mutual realization that Keller wanted someday to move back to Earth permanently, and Rodney did not. It wouldn't be fair to Jennifer, Rodney explained to John, to ask her to stay for his sake. She might do it, and even if she never resented him for it, Rodney wouldn't be able to live with that. When the hell had McKay gotten so mature, John wondered.
Two-and-a-half weeks after the breakup, the SGC opened a medical facility in a secret wing of the Mayo Clinic and asked Keller to head it up. The offer wasn't an egregious insult to her talents (according to Rodney), and it was near her dad, who was getting older. The next thing John knew, Atlantis had a new Chief Medical Officer, and Keller was aboard the Apollo, speeding to Earth.
Under normal circumstances, John wouldn't have approached anything resembling feelings without a hazmat suit, but it was time for him to man up and be a best friend. Rodney was going to need a shoulder to cry on, and John wanted to be there for him--before someone else was. He felt surprisingly good about his plan to offer Rodney his emotional support, even humming a little as he set out to get the supplies he needed. No one heard so it totally didn't count.
First, beer. You couldn't serve Bud to a guy who'd just had his heart broken, so John made a few casual inquiries and learned that Zelenka had gotten a case of some frou-frou European beer from the Apollo's recent run. Radek drove a notoriously hard bargain, but this would be worth it, especially since John happened to know it had twice the alcohol content of the American stuff. He'd start out by offering Radek a box of Twinkies for half the case. He was fully prepared to go up to his unopened carton of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey if he had to.
Next to pick the perfect movie. Aliens had Sigourney Weaver kicking ass, of course, or maybe Rodney could use the laughs something from the oeuvre of Monty Python would provide. In the end John settled on The Empire Strikes Back. Rodney had a thing for Princess Leia, John knew, and it couldn't hurt to remind him that pilots were rakish and sexy. Besides, that kiss on the Millennium Falcon was totally hot. A few candles from John's private stash to set that certain mood, and Operation Comfort Rodney was a go.
That evening Rodney rang John's door chime six minutes before the agreed upon time, which was totally a sign Rodney was as eager to receive comfort as John was to give it to him. When he swiped the door open Rodney barreled in, nearly stepping on John's toes. He stood in the center of the room a moment, looking around uncertainly, like they didn't always sit on John's small couch for movies, in the corner of his quarters he'd designated as a living area with a coffee table and throw pillows from Earth.
He seemed to be having a hard time meeting John's eyes. Maybe it was the lack of overhead lighting, because after John had gotten him settled in with a bowl of popcorn he raised an eyebrow in the direction of the softly glowing candles.
"No," John said. "I just thought it might make it easier. To watch the movie," he added quickly.
"Ah." Rodney took a beer and nodded knowingly at John, a trick he'd picked up from Keller.
John felt unaccountably put out suddenly. He stabbed a key to start the movie.
They watched the beginning in silence. John was careful to be a good host and make sure Rodney always had a bottle of beer. Rodney polished off two by the time the snow monster attacked and was starting on his third when Leia ordered the base doors closed behind Han and Luke out on the ice.
The whole time John stealthily observed Rodney out of one corner of his eye. There had to be a way to let him know that John was there for him without having to actually say anything. When Luke crashed into the Dagobah swamp, John took the opportunity to inch a little closer to Rodney, even letting their shoulders touch a little, but he just drank his beer with single-minded purpose and kept his eyes glued to the laptop screen. John wasn't sure what he was expecting--broken-voiced confessions about how much he missed Jennifer, maybe, or an angry diatribe on the non-existence of romantic love. He'd have even settled for a few tears held manfully back in glittering eyes, but Rodney gave him nothing. How was John expected to comfort the guy if Rodney wouldn't do his part?
It wasn't until Han was telling Leia how she needed a scoundrel in her life that Rodney finally spoke.
"Okay," he said.
John yanked away the hand that was starting to creep across the back of the sofa toward Rodney. "What?" he asked, trying to sound casual.
"Yes." Rodney turned to him. "Let's do this."
"Come now, Sheppard. The candles? The beer? The Empire Strikes Back?" He paused a moment to watch Han kiss the princess, then waved an arm to encompass the room. "You've gone to a lot of trouble to set up this little seduction scenario. I'm just indicating my willingness to participate."
"Whoa. Rodney, you've got the wrong--Really?" He felt a ball of heat slowly forming somewhere near his stomach.
"Why not?" Rodney pushed up his sleeves and clasped his hands together, flexing his arms in preparation.
"Rodney," John said because he had to be sure.
"Sheppard." Rodney actually sounded irritated. "You got me down here. You've been trying--fairly successfully--to get me drunk. You want to 'comfort' me, am I right?" He didn't actually make the air quotes, but John could hear them just the same. "My girlfriend's just run away to another galaxy. I think I deserve a moral vacation. Comfort away."
He leaned back in unmistakable invitation, opening his arms and spreading his legs. John swallowed hard and sucked in a quick breath. They could totally do this. John wanted to, badly, and Rodney was willing--he'd said so. John's heart pounded, and he felt suddenly buoyant. He hadn't dared hope Operation Comfort Rodney would go this well, but it had turned out to be the best plan ever. John grinned at Rodney, showing all his teeth. He was going to rock Rodney's world.
Taking hold of one of Rodney's hands, he rubbed his thumb in circles across the palm, desperately aware of how Rodney's warm skin felt against his. He let his hand trail up Rodney's arm, skating past a firm bicep, until he could squeeze Rodney's broad shoulder. Rodney took another long swallow of beer, coughed, and made a gesture that meant get on with it already. John leaned forward until his forehead rested in the spot where Rodney's neck met his shoulder. He nuzzled and licked and it was so good; Rodney tasted fantastic, like sweat and coffee and the labs. John couldn't get enough.
He could barely form a coherent thought, but somehow Rodney was still talking. "You know there was a time--not that long ago, actually--when I might have hoped that you felt the way--well, it doesn't seem as important now as it used to. You're exceedingly hot, and we're... buddies, and I--I really miss Jennifer."
John shoved his mouth against Rodney's, driving his tongue in hard, but Rodney never stopped talking. He slipped a hand up Rodney's shirt, thumbing a nipple, and tried not to listen.
"It's... flattering, actually, that you would go to so much trouble. You can't have thought I'd say no. I know you've seen what a wreck I've been without Jennifer." John bit Rodney's earlobe, and he took a moment to moan before continuing. "I forgot to factor in the zero-point contribution to the shield energy equations the other day. And yesterday I could only remember pi to the thirty-eighth digit. Why shouldn't I get some amazing sex out of the deal? I don't even mind that it doesn't mean anything to you. It's not like my heart could break any more."
John froze with his tongue in Rodney's ear. Shit. Rodney couldn't think--John pulled back.
"Why did you stop?" Rodney blinked, and how could John have missed the look that was in his eyes, the loss, and the loneliness and the hurt.
He felt a little sick, and a lot disgusted at himself, because he hadn't missed it, of course. That look was why John had wanted to be there for him in the first place--if by being there he meant sticking his tongue down Rodney's throat and his hand down his pants. And he might as well be honest with himself, that had been the plan all along. When had he become that guy--the one who waited until his potential partners were sad and vulnerable and swooped in for the kill? He breathed through a wave of self-loathing. Maybe the Pegasus Galaxy had a singles bar he could cruise next.
But Rodney--he didn't want Rodney to think--he had to make sure Rodney knew.
"It would mean something, Rodney." John ducked his head a moment before forcing himself to meet Rodney's gaze. "It would mean everything."
He couldn't remember if he'd ever seen that look of confusion on Rodney's face before. It made his heart clench. "Then--why now? So soon after Jennifer--" He waved an arm, seemingly at a loss for words.
"I have shit timing, Rodney. But don't think that doesn't mean--" He had a hard time speaking through the lump in his throat. He tried to let everything show on his face, willing Rodney to get it.
"Oh," Rodney said.
"John." Rodney sucked in a breath. "I can't. It's not that I--I'm just not ready yet for--"
"I know," John said, not sounding much like Han Solo. He leaned forward and kissed Rodney hard on the mouth. Rodney stared at him quizzically a moment like John was an equation that wouldn't make sense, then stood and walked out of the room.
John expected Rodney to avoid him after that, or at least refuse to speak to him, but it was like Rodney didn't even remember it happened. He never missed their regular team breakfast, and he let John wipe the floor with him at video golf every Tuesday. John had a bad moment when he suddenly didn't see Rodney for three days, but it turned out he was rebuilding the engine of his Nitro TC3 RC electric car. John was so relieved he let Rodney win their next three races.
Then one day almost six months later Rodney called him on the radio and awkwardly invited him to watch a movie in his quarters.
It didn't mean anything, John told himself. They hadn't had a movie night since that last disaster. Rodney probably just wanted to get past the weirdness. John was glad. It meant that he and Rodney were finally back where they had been, back where they should be. He spent the rest of the day alternating between sinking disappointment and excited butterflies, and was completely useless for anything resembling work or human interaction.
He made sure to be exactly on time, and when Rodney opened his door the butterflies finally won out. Rodney wasn't meeting his eyes, which was a sign of... something, and he'd changed into a civilian button-down shirt. Blue like his eyes. He had to have done that on purpose, right?
"I don't have any beer," he said as John sat down. "But I have um... Yoo-Hoo? And I was able to trade for some Cheetos."
John grinned and tore open the bag Rodney tossed him. His grin only grew wider when Rodney started the movie.
"I know it's the weakest one," Rodney said. "If you don't count the prequels anyway, but I thought it might be um... nice?"
"Return of the Jedi, Rodney?" John raised an eyebrow.
Rodney actually blushed. John felt giddy. He grabbed a handful of Cheetos to keep from laughing in relief.
"It's not so bad," Rodney said, digging into the bag. "The Ewok village is a tremendous feat of engineering for a race with paws."
"Really?" John smiled slowly and put extra drawl into the word.
"Yes." Rodney nodded. "There's a suspension bridge halfway through you should take a good look at."
John grinned and promised he would watch for it, but they were trading powdery orange kisses by the time the aggressively cute Ewoks captured Han and the others. They missed the ending of the movie entirely, but it didn't matter. Feeling Rodney shudder and hearing him say, "John," with everything in his voice beat victory over the Empire any day.
And knowing that it was just him and Rodney, in this together, with no ghosts between them and the future ahead--well, that beat everything.