Disclaimer: Not mine
Word Count: ~3,500
Author's Note: solvent90 requested McShep. Merry Christmas, and I hope this meets your expectations.
Summary: Sheppard is having trouble adjusting to life without Atlantis; Rodney's having trouble adjusting to life without Sheppard.
Rodney stared at the tiny, dilapidated bungalow sitting at the waters edge with something approaching road-rage. When he'd tracked his quarry to Santa Monica, CA Rodney had envisioned palm trees and pretty women. Sunshine and white sand. It had seemed like a perfect place for Sheppard, and Rodney had relaxed. Of course it couldn't be that simple. This was Sheppard. The Sheppard that had evaded the best efforts of a half dozen of his friends and colleagues to find his bolt-hole and assure themselves that he hadn't succumbed to anorexia...or Barry Manilow. The Sheppard that walked through the event horizon and disappeared, not just from Atlantis, but from everywhere else as well.
The hovel sitting forlornly at waters edge was as far from Rodney's vision as it was possible to be. There were no palms, only a few scrubby bushes trying to survive the choking sand. No pretty women in their right minds would set foot on the rotting front porch. Even the walls seemed to list towards the sea as though exhausted from the effort to resist the tidal pull.
"Mold," Rodney moaned. "Those walls look damp. Probably full of toxic mold just waiting to eat my brain." Really, the house was no more than a shack, practically leaning into the wind blowing off the ocean. "And mice," Rodney was self-aware enough to know he was feeding his own neurosis but couldn't seem to stop himself. "And Rodents of Unusual Size."
No way was he staying here for Christmas. Sheppard would have to pack something and come to Canada with Rodney. Plenty of tofurky to go around. With a sigh that expressed how very put-upon he truly was, Rodney started towards Sheppard's front door, cursing when his shoes started filling with sand.
Sitting alone in the mess, at the table where his team had always sat, Rodney tried to come to grips with the feelings of loss that wouldn't let him go. The recent past was on it's own feed-back loop; replaying over and over again all that had once been dear to Rodney but now was gone.
Rodney remembered John's teenaged, emo reaction to the announcement that General O'Neill was retiring. ("It's the apocalypse Rodney. Trust me on this.") Rodney had brushed such uncharacteristic melodrama away as simply a sign of exhaustion on Sheppard's part...that he'd feel better in the morning, telling him just that. John's assurance that this really was the beginning of the end fell on deaf ears. Not that Sheppard had ever been prone to hyperbole, so in hindsight Rodney should have known better. He added that to the laundry list of things he regretted. Because of course John had been right. The bastard always had to be right. Nothing had ever been the same after that moment.
Soon after the official announcement of O'Neill's decision to go fishing on a long-term basis, Colonel Carter handed her resignation in as well. Not exactly a surprise, considering the rumors about the two of them that had flowed through the halls of the SGC over the years. Still it was another loss. When the loss of Carter was added to Ronon's decision to spend the majority of his time with the fledgling Satedan settlement and Teyla's time spent with her children and husband, the sense of abandonment was sharp. There weren't many of the original personnel left. Radek was back in Prague. Miko was teaching in Japan. Lorne had been reassigned to the mountain. So few left.
Gradually, all the old nemeses' had changed faces. Woolsey had retired the year before. ("He's really not the Spawn of Satan, Rodney. He's just trying to do his job.") Neither John nor Rodney had even met any of the current IOA members. The fact that they were unknowns to the Powers That Be should have been a red flag to Rodney that Sheppard was right. They were expendable. Everyone still on Atlantis was. ("I miss Todd. Nobody comes out to play anymore, Rodney. I'm bored. Aren't you bored?") It was inevitable that someone was going to get sent home.
Still when the axe landed it was a shock that the victim it took out was Sheppard. Somehow Rodney had believed that Atlantis and Sheppard were inseparable. The IOA clearly did not. They controlled Atlantis, so to all intents they controlled the U.S. military presence there. They decided who stayed and who didn't. They sent out their directions and the military obeyed them. They decided that a new, younger, more controllable military head was needed, and that's what the military was going to provide. (Actually, most of the military presence would be rotated Earth-side, with all new personnel coming in to replace them. That fact didn't make Rodney any happier.)
And that was how John Sheppard's career as military head of Atlantis came to a close. Not with a Wraith sucking his life away leaving him a withered husk, but by the military doing it. The only real difference being that this way the corpse lived on. John declined the desk job at the SGC (oh, what a huge surprise!). He had his twenty years in and he was going to retire.
Rodney wiped his palms on his thighs pretending they weren't shaking from nervous fear. He was just hungry. No problem. He glared at the faded, peeling paint on the door in front of him as though it was the cause of his momentary distress. After searching for nearly three weeks for Sheppard he was strangely reluctant to actually knock on the door and finally (finally!) see that man he'd tracked all over the United States to find. Squaring his shoulders, Rodney lifted his hand to knock.
It turned out that within sixteen weeks of O'Neill's departure from the SGC Rodney found that he was the sole remaining member of Gateteam-1 on Atlantis. By week seventeen, there were none. Rodney had tendered his resignation and packed his bags. It was early December on Earth and Rodney was going home. He'd already told his sister and she was expecting him for Christmas.
He was going to have to get used to the idea that home was now a province in Canada and not a stained-glass city across the known skies. The fact that he'd have to face Jeannie, Caleb and tofurky was enough to make Rodney decide to detour by Sheppard's place first. Just to see how he was settling in. No hurry after all. Canada would still be there. Maybe where Sheppard was would be warmer. Warmer would be good.
Several hours later Rodney had discovered that quite a few of the others had made that same detour, just checking in. They'd all reported that John had only been available by phone and that he'd claimed to be "fine, just fine." That he wasn't really ready for company. Still adjusting. But fine. No one had actually been able to discover where he'd gone off to pout and swoon into womanly decline, but Rodney couldn't help but grill each one for details. Each resulting (all negative) report had made Rodney's blood pressure rise. Sheppard was always fine. Especially when he wasn't. ("I can't exactly tell them the truth, Rodney. They get all...fussy. I hate fussy.") Rodney would have expected these morons to figure that out by now.
No. It was up to him. He'd find Sheppard and make sure he really was fine. He'd make him fine if it killed him. He had good reason to be worried about him. Sheppard had been calm, almost detached when making his announcement to retire. Only later, when it was just the two of them having coffee in the mess, would Sheppard turn to Rodney, his face suddenly as serious as the confessional, and dissolve into an emotional wreck again. ("I don't know what to do, Rodney. I've never been a civilian before!") It was several strangled moments before Rodney could speak around the lump in his throat. Ultimately he'd managed to insult Sheppard's intelligence, his hair and ability to father children with enough venom to give Sheppard time to compose himself. Rodney was gratified to see that his rant had given Sheppard opportunity to regain his emotional balance, because the one thing in two galaxies Rodney was not able to handle was an emotional Sheppard.
Rodney wasn't the sort of man that enjoyed the holidays. They involved messy family visits, and his lab assistants always expected at least a few days off. At best the whole Christmas season would make him a little...peevish, but the thought of Sheppard being alone, on a foreign planet ("It's EARTH, Rodney. We used to live there.) made a small part of Rodney's soul shrivel inside his chest. Not that he knew precisely how he'd convince John that he just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought they should spend Christmas together, but he was a genius. He'd think of something. There had to be a paper trail. It was the military; there was always a paper trail. Just because the others were too lily-livered to get their hands dirty didn't mean Rodney was. He pulled his second-favorite laptop closer and got back to work.
Finding Sheppard was proving to be harder than Rodney had thought it would be. Again, he'd underestimated the sheer frustration Sheppard could cause him. Because the man was smart, far too smart for the military. Smart enough to make Rodney search for nearly two weeks and come up empty. (Not that the search hadn't had its entertainments. Sheppard had planted clues and tantalizing bits of misinformation that had sent Rodney all over the East coast before he'd realized what the bastard was doing. Rodney really hadn't thought Sheppard had it in him. No matter. It was war now...and Rodney was going to win.)
The trip hadn't been a total wash. He'd found Dave; the brother that Sheppard never, ever spoke about. The brother that he'd introduced to Ronon but not him. The brother that obviously was just as curious about Rodney as Rodney was about him. It had been an awkward meeting, but Dave had been able to tell Rodney some of the places John used to go to be alone for a while. Places Rodney never would have looked otherwise. He'd had to promise to tell Dave when he found John, but Rodney was sure the information was worth it.
It was going to take a little longer, but Rodney had Sheppard in his sights now. It was only a matter of time. Without Atlantis filling all his waking moments Rodney had nothing but time now.
After blowing through the most promising of Dave Sheppard's list of haunts that might shelter John with no luck Rodney was getting discouraged. He'd resigned himself to allowing just a few more days searching before he'd have to make the trip to Jeannie's in time for Christmas. He hated, hated the idea of leaving without Sheppard. Logically he knew he'd resume the search after the holidays, but that meant Sheppard would be alone during the time that Rodney himself always felt the most vulnerable. Everyone was busy and disgustingly happy at Christmas. Rodney felt he was missing something...something important. He strongly suspected that that something was Sheppard related.
But Sheppard wasn't Rodney. Sheppard was cool. Resilient. He'd probably be fine. Even as that thought formed, Rodney remembered John's face in the mess back on Atlantis. He'd been vulnerable then. In the light of Rodney's memory it seemed that the Colonel had looked almost afraid. No. That was not something Rodney could bear to consider a moment longer. He would keep searching as long as possible. Sheppard shouldn't be alone. No one should be alone at Christmas, and that included Rodney. Rodney was pretty sure he needed to be with Sheppard for the holidays. Maybe a few days longer. He would have to make sure that Sheppard saw that need as well. Just as soon as he found him.
Rodney pulled the now dog-eared list out of his pocket. Santa Monica. A beach city. Probably a surfer haven. (There had been a time when Sheppard had tried to convince Rodney to take up the sport. "You'll love surfing, Rodney. Trust me. It's better than sex.") He'd Google it. See if it seemed likely enough to make the trip across country one more time. He'd only have time for one more trek. He'd have to make it count.
Rodney rapped sharply on Sheppard's door. And then again. He'd begun planning the most time-and-labor efficient method of removing the hinges and just letting himself in when Sheppard finally, finally opened the door. Rodney's breath caught...was that going to be the new default to seeing Sheppard? Was he really that far gone? Apparently so.
Sheppard...John...just stood, equally struck dumb by the man standing on his porch. "Rodney? What are you doing here?" Not the friendly welcome Rodney had been hoping for.
"Would you believe I was in the neighborhood?" Rodney's helpless flail did nothing to melt the frost emanating from Sheppard's eyes. "Seriously Sheppard. Is this the best you can do? Did your mother raise you along with wolves? No 'hello Rodney', it's so nice to see you Rodney', how can I help you Rodney'. Do you have any concept of what I went through to find you?"
More silence. More staring with narrowed eyes. "Sorry McKay. What can I do for you?" Sheppard's tone was sharp enough to chip ice. Rodney desperately tried to find something...anything...to salvage the moment.
"You could start by fixing that hazard you call a front porch, Sheppard," Rodney managed with sufficient venom to sound almost normal. "You're lucky I didn't trip and fall getting to the door of this castle you've decided to call home. Any resultant brain damage would have been a tragedy for all of mankind and entirely your fault."
Sheppard shut the door in Rodney's face, cutting Rodney's wholly legitimate pique short.
"This isn't over Sheppard!" he shouted at the door. "I'm not eating tofurky without you!" That might sound a little desperate, time to back-pedal. "You may as well open this door and take it like a man!" Rodney winced. That wasn't making it better, and Sheppard's neighbors where leaning out to see what the noise was about. Embarrassing. "Plus? You've got ROUS's in your moldy, moldy walls! Admit it!" Damn him.
Rodney sat down on the top step. He sent a brief text to Dave with the address of his frustrating brother and another to Jeannie letting her know not to meet him at the airport, still another to his travel agent. This was still war, and Rodney was still going to win.
"There has to be a store still open in this God-awful place." Rodney began the sandy trek back to his rental. He had shopping to do and not much time to get it done. He turned back to look once more at the dark windows and shook his fist at the man he knew was watching from the shadows. Time to get serious.
Several hours later Rodney made the sandy trek back to Sheppard's hazard of a porch, loaded down with bags from Ace Hardware and the donut shop, the only two businesses still open on Christmas Eve. It would have to do. Setting everything down, Rodney pulled off his coat, ready to get to work. From the hardware bags he pulled twinkly lights. Lots of twinkly lights. The idea of the horrible, horrible façade of Sheppard's hovel liberally covered in sparkling, blinking Christmas cheer gave Rodney his first smile in days. He pulled out the hammer and clips he'd purchased along with the lights and got to work.
"What the hell are you doing, McKay?" Rodney may have jumped a little at the unexpected arrival of Sheppard behind him. He often lost track of his surroundings while working. He was pretty sure Sheppard hadn't noticed.
"I'm ensuring that you have a merry Christmas, Sheppard. Moron. It should be obvious. Exposure to toxic mold fumes has already begun to eat away at an otherwise fine mind. Don't say I didn't warn you." Rodney turned back to the window he was hanging the last of the lights around. It really was going to be a fine display once plugged in. "Where is your outdoor electrical outlet? I need to make sure these lights are functioning properly. Then we can eat."
Now that Rodney had a good look at Sheppard he was even more concerned. Pale, and very thin, John looked like he hadn't slept well since returning to Earth. That pinch in Rodney's chest was back. Sheppard was as bad for Rodney's digestion as Earth seemed to be for Sheppard's.
"I don't recall inviting you, McKay. I'm pretty sure I'd remember." Sheppard was trying to bite back his anger, but Rodney could see it was an effort. This could still end badly. Rodney only had one shot at this; he prayed briefly to a God he didn't believe in to find the right words.
"You didn't invite me, but you knew I had to come." Sheppard's startled look was encouraging, as was the anger leeching out of his friends' tired frame. "You told me once...not that long ago...that you didn't know how to be a civilian. Remember?" Rodney rushed on, watching to play of emotion wash over John's face. "It's fortuitous for you that I am your friend. I have always been a civilian and am in the ideal position to offer guidance until such time as you feel ready to take on the role for yourself." There. It was out there. Sheppard would know that Rodney had no intention of leaving until he was convinced that Sheppard was going to be all right. Really all right. He waved the extension cords plug at Sheppard. "Outlet, Sheppard. It's getting dark. Chop, chop."
Sheppard reached for the cord. "You can't just bully people into doing what you want, Rodney. It's rude." The retort was just for show, Rodney could tell. There was even the beginning of a smile on Sheppard's lips. He turned aside to plug in the lights. The resulting flash nearly burned out Rodney's retinas but was never the less very satisfying. It would no doubt blind all of Sheppard's nosy neighbors and *bonus* had Sheppard staring in awe at the display. This was still war after all. And Rodney had just scored a crucial hit at Sheppard's defenses. He was god among men. He could now afford to be magnanimous in victory.
"Come on, Sheppard." Rodney gently steered the still-staring Sheppard back towards his front door. "We have time to grab a snack before getting you packed and off to the airport."
"Say what now?" Sheppard pulled up short of the door, tugging his arm out of Rodney's grasp. "Airport?"
"Try to keep up, Sheppard." Rodney carefully reached over to grab hold of John's arm again. It wouldn't do to startle him into violence. "Tofurky? Remember that part? I shouted, you sulked?" Rodney nudged the door open with his shoulder. "Jeannie is expecting us."
"Expecting us?" Rodney huffed in annoyance. "You were never this dim before, Sheppard. Here. Eat this, your blood sugar must be low." Rodney stuffed a bag containing a single donut and a wad of napkins.
"Tofurky?" Sheppard blinked at Rodney and Rodney tried to pretend it wasn't endearing.
"Yes, Sheppard. Tofurky. It won't kill you." He gestured towards the donut. "Eat up. We don't have much time." Rodney looked out the now brightly lit window. "Too bad we can't leave the lights burning while we're gone. Your neighbors have been glaring at me for hours; it would serve them right!' He looked around the tiny kitchen. "Plus, they might drive away any vermin living in your moldy walls."
"Rodney. My walls aren't moldy." Sheppard was openly smiling now. It made Rodney want to laugh; want to pull Sheppard close and kiss that smiling mouth. He wanted that very badly. "And ROUS's, Rodney?"
"Don't be a moron, Sheppard, they don't really exist." Rodney couldn't seem to stop his hands from reaching out to touch that smile. "But you must admit it will be a perfect story to tell our grandchildren someday." "Okay." John's gentle acceptance was all the invitation Rodney needed to lean in and take that kiss. Finally, ohthankyougod, finally their lips touched, their lives changed forever.
Home used to be a stained glass city on the other side of the known skies. Now home was here, with this man, in this horrible shack with it's moldy, moldy walls. Rodney couldn't have been happier.