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Fiercely dreamed › Unidentified
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Unidentified

Summary: Fourteen years, eight months, and seven days after John and Rodney meet, the clock starts all over again. Inspired by the documentary Unknown White Male. [SGA AU, McKay/Sheppard.]

1.

[2007. May.]

John’s on his way to work when his cell phone rings. He doesn’t recognize the number, which is generally a good indication that he doesn’t want to speak to whoever’s on the other end. One of these days he’s going to kill Weir for giving his number out to PAs, but he’s just not up for the battle today, so he hits the loudspeaker button and says, “This is Sheppard.”

“Um,” says the voice at the other end. It’s Rodney. John could kick himself for not just chucking the damn phone out the window. “I don’t … really know what I’m doing, but–”

“No kidding,” John snaps, shifting gears as he merges the Jetta left across the 405, phone clamped between his left hand and the steering wheel. “I’ve got a job, McKay, so I really don’t have time for–”

There’s a weird noise from over the speaker. “McKay?” Rodney says. “Is that … I’m — McKay?”

He sounds strange, sort of … lost, and John holds up the phone to stare at it for a moment. “Are you drunk?” he asks suspiciously. “If you’re calling me to play some solipsistic game of twenty questions–”

Rodney blurts out, “I’m in a hospital in Santa Barbara,” and John wrenches his car across three lanes of traffic and leaves half the tread of his tires on the shoulder as he hits the brakes. “… Hello? Are you there? I heard–”

“I’m here,” John says, heart pounding loudly as the traffic streaks by, horns blaring. “I’m here, just tell me what happened.”

“I don’t know,” Rodney says, “I don’t know, I’ve been here for days and I can’t remember anything and this is the first number I–” He makes that choked sound again, and John suddenly realizes that Rodney’s crying. “Can you … can you tell me who I am?”

“You’re Rodney,” John says, “You’re Rodney McKay, oh Jesus–”

“Can you come get me?” Rodney says, desperate and kind of broken, and John says, “Of course, of course I can,” and “I’m John — tell them John Sheppard is coming to get you,” and he makes Rodney give the phone to a doctor, tells him Rodney’s name and his own. He gets the address and plugs it into the GPS one-handed, and then Rodney’s back on the phone and John has to promise him two more times before he’ll hang up.

He’s already northbound on 101 before he calls Weir (“But it’s the Jolie-Pitts,” she protests, and John snaps, “I don’t care, family emergency, tell them to fly their own damn plane–”). He doesn’t drop below 90 mph for the next hour, changing lanes like a maniac, and he makes it from L.A. to Santa Barbara in 67 minutes flat, 70 if you count the time it takes him to park his car and sprint across the lot.

“I’m here for Rodney McKay,” John says as he strides up to the nurse’s station. The woman behind the counter stares blankly, and then she breaks into a smile.

“Oh! Our John Doe!” she says brightly, and John wants to punch her. “He’s down that hall in 406; he’ll be so glad to–” but John’s already running in the direction she pointed.

Rodney’s standing by the only window in the room, and when he turns at the sound of the door opening it’s like someone’s kicked John in the chest. The whole drive up, he kept telling himself it had to be a mistake, something temporary, a concussion maybe, that their phone conversation must have sparked something and everything would be fine by the time he got here. But the moment John sees Rodney’s face, he knows it isn’t a mistake or a hoax or even an exaggeration like the stupid hypoglycemia — Rodney doesn’t recognize him. It’s all wrong; he’s standing too still, he should be talking, bitching, something–

“Are you … John?” Rodney asks, like he doesn’t know quite how the shape of it will feel in his mouth.

“Rodney.” John’s voice crackles out on the vowels like static. Rodney slumps back against the wall and raises a shaking hand to his forehead.

“Sorry; I’m sorry.” He squeezes his eyes shut and then blinks hard at the far side of the room. “I just — I didn’t know how long it would take you, and I was scared that when you got here you wouldn’t — that you’d've been wrong–”

John jerks a step forward and then stops, because Rodney barely touches anyone under normal circumstances, and especially not. Not strangers. The door swings shut on his heels. He clears his throat. “What happened?” he asks, and then wants to bite his own tongue at the stupidity of it, how it leaves him wide-open for the inevitable caustic reply.

There isn’t one; Rodney scrubs his hand quickly across his mouth and pushes off the wall to face John square on, hands shoved in his pockets.

“I was on a bench, on a beach, and a police officer was shaking me,” he says, the words clear and methodical like he’s had to recite this before. “She started asking me questions, and I couldn’t answer them, and I couldn’t remember anything. I didn’t have anything with me, so she took me to the station for a few hours, and then they brought me here. That was Tuesday.”

John stares at him; it’s Saturday today. Jesus. “My number — you called me?”

Rodney smiles crookedly, and the expression is so familiar that John’s hit with a sense of dislocation, like touching down after a night flight on government-issue amphetamines and feeling the earth shudder back into place. “They were going to check me into the psychiatric unit,” Rodney says, ducking his head a little, and the desire to hit someone is back and burning furiously in John’s blood. “They said I had to sign myself in, and when they handed me the paper I just — signed it.” His eyes flicker up toward the ceiling in amazement, but the bitter line of his mouth stays tight. “Of course it was totally illegible, but I thought: if part of me remembers how to do that, maybe it’s not the only thing, so I got them to let me use the phone and I just punched in a number without thinking and …” He waves a hand towards John.

They look at each other across the linoleum as the clock slices off the seconds, tick tick tick; what kind of a sadistic fuck would you have to be, John wonders, to hang that thing in a hospital.

“Wanna get out of here?” he says, and feels that same gravitational shift again as every muscle in Rodney’s face goes slack with relief.

He spends forty minutes arguing with the doctor, an arrogant dick who unironically insists that they can’t find anything medically wrong with Rodney and it’s not safe for him to leave.

John stares at him, incredulous. “Let me get this straight. He wasn’t drugged, there’s no head injury, nothing’s shown up on the MRI, and he hasn’t had any kind of cardiac event.”

“That’s correct,” the doctor says. He looks like he’s barely out of college, let alone med school, and seems to be compensating for this by being as condescending as humanly possible.

“So I can’t check him out because he’s at risk of being totally healthy?”

“Sir–”

In the end, it takes him invoking the name of Dr. Carson Beckett, PhD., recipient of the McKnight, Dow, and Javits awards in neuroscience and their former roommate. “Hey, I’ve got a legitimate neurological mystery and incriminating college photographs involving underwear, cocktail sausages, and the locked lab facilities at Caltech,” John says, and Rodney and the doctor both turn to stare at him. “Trust me when I say he’s gonna take my call.”

He fills out all the forms and releases and accepts a fat handful of aftercare printouts, all describing the warning signs of conditions they’ve essentially ruled out. Then John and Rodney are outside, the California heat wrapping around them like sheets from the dryer, and John gratefully sucks the smog down. He fucking hates hospitals.

Rodney follows him out to the car and stands awkwardly by the passenger door as John unlocks it. As they pull out of the parking garage, Rodney’s eyes flicker to every building and sign they pass, like he might need to know them later — or maybe, John realizes, like he’s hoping to recognize something. John navigates the streets in silence, at a total loss for what to say: don’t worry, you’ve never been here before? This is the part where you mock my car for three minutes? I wouldn’t want to remember SoCal either?

Jesus Christ, what the hell happened to you?

They speed onto the 101, and Rodney exhales loudly and rubs a hand over his face. “You okay there, buddy?” John asks as he slides them over toward the diamond lane.

“… I think so?” Rodney says tentatively, leaving the door open for John to correct him. John glances over; they lock eyes for a moment, and then Rodney laughs, low and genuine, and his shoulders unwind a little against the seat. “Still, how about we don’t go back there for a while … or ever.”

It’s so plaintive, so Rodney, and John feels himself crack a tired, unpremeditated smile. “I think we can manage that,” he says.

Rodney dips his chin, and his fingers drum a little on his knees, the way they do when he’s thinking himself up to something. “So,” he says. “Um. We’re … friends?”

John’s hands tighten down on the steering wheel, smile going rigid at the corners. Of course he wants to know that, no shit, Sherlock, but it still takes a second for John to swallow and say, “Yeah. Yeah, we’re friends.”

It’s hard to think what to follow it with, so John just drives, and Rodney fidgets for a bit before replying, “That’s … um, good.” His wince is obvious even in John’s periphery, and when he checks the sideview, he sees Rodney’s hands worriedly washing themselves in his lap.

Nice going, Sheppard; way to come through in a pinch. “We met fifteen years ago, at Caltech — the California Institute of Technology, that’s a university not far from here,” John adds, before Rodney’ll have to ask. “We were roommates, us and Carson Beckett.”

It’s not much, but Rodney perks up a little; his shoulders drop their protective hunch (the one John knows, they all know, well enough to draw from memory) and he shifts a little in his seat so he can look at John more easily. “Okay,” he says; his fingers are drumming again.

Afternoon traffic congeals around them. It takes two and a half hours to get back to LA, and John spends all of it trying to summarize Rodney’s life, his own, their history, in some kind of coherent fashion. Aeronautics, but you were doing your doctorate work in math and astrophysics. Research at CERN for a while — uh, a big particle physics laboratory — a few government contracts, a couple years at the Calphysics Institute. You’re headed back to Caltech, actually — what? No, research and teaching. This fall. A condo in West L.A.; not that far from where I live.

Me? I fly planes.

He talks, and Rodney nods more and asks more questions, studying John and the highway and the open air in the middle distance. He does this when he’s working on a novel problem: seeks out as much information as possible, because if he can ask enough, learn enough, sooner or later it’ll all click into place. The whole thing is so familiar, except that it’s John’s sketched-out version of their lives he’s committing to memory. John tries to answer everything as best he can, because it’s Rodney, but there are these moments, like when he says, I was in the Air Force after college, but after three years I came back to L.A. Rodney just nods and takes it at face value, and they’re strangers.

About an hour and a half into the drive, they hit a quiet patch. In the middle of it, Rodney pinches the bridge of his nose and says, “Thank you. I mean, for coming to get me. I really don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t.”

And there’s nothing John can say to that, except, “No problem. Anytime.”

They find a parking place out behind Rodney’s building and John fishes the spare keys for it out of his glovebox. “The door code is 7-4-8-8,” he says as the cool air of the lobby wafts over them, and tries not to notice that Rodney spends the elevator ride mouthing the numbers to himself. You recited the first two hundred digits of Pi backwards on a bet in college, he wants to say, you’re not going to forget this. But of course that’s one thing he can’t actually promise.

They get off at the eighth floor and walk down the north hallway to Rodney’s condo. John unlocks the deadbolt and knob, then pauses, caught by the thought that maybe Rodney should do this himself, maybe if he walks in there first, then … As soon as he thinks it, he feels like an asshole, some fucked up real estate agent ushering Rodney into his own life and calculating how to market it for the best response. Still, he takes a step back and gestures at the door. “This is you.”

“Right,” Rodney says, and reaches for the bright brass knob. His fingers curve around it and squeeze down without turning, like he’s using the feel of it to gauge what might be on the other side. “Okay. Right.” He bites his lower lip and steps inside.

They both stop a couple feet across the threshold, Rodney turning his head slowly from one end of the main room to the other, eyes sharp and wide. John finds himself doing the same, trying to figure out what it must be like to see this for the first time: the long open room pulling back from the cityscape, walls stained late afternoon blue and mostly bare. The furniture non-matching, functional, laid out on a utilitarian grid. Notes stuck to the fridge, the counter, a spiral notebook open on the coffee table. Journals stacked and dog-eared next to the couch. The stereo with its huge, sleek speakers, and the big TV shoved in a corner like an afterthought. Dozens and dozens of CDs. What would this place say, if you didn’t know how to read it?

Rodney walks toward the opposite wall, its three doors open at angles of varying acuity, and peers carefully into his bedroom, his study. When he gets to the bathroom, he turns back toward John and jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “I, uh,” he says, and reddens, caught in some weird limbo between host and guest etiquette.

“Long drive,” John supplies, and Rodney gives him a grateful look before ducking inside.

While he’s in there, John checks the fridge and the counters, looking for some indication of how long Rodney’s been gone, what he went out to do. How he ended up on a beach in Santa Barbara, John thinks, the image suddenly vivid in his mind: the bench’s peeling wood, gray dawn creeping out towards the ocean, graffiti and streetlights and the people who must have passed him, must have, and not known or cared that something might be wrong. Nothing’s changed in the three weeks since John’s been here, or all the usual things have: different junk mail, different week-old boxes of takeout, different notebook full of scribbled shapes and crossed-out proofs. Nothing that can tell him what happened, let alone how to put it back.

“Oh, wow,” Rodney says behind him, and John glances up at him and then twists to follow Rodney’s gaze to the wall behind the couch. Or, as it’s known among their friends, The Wall.

Rodney crosses to it and John falls into step behind him. They circle around behind the couch and when Rodney settles his ass and the heels of his hands against the back of it, something in John’s chest jerks hard. It’s the standard Wall-watching position.

He holds out for a few seconds, watching wonder drift over Rodney’s face, and then he can’t help it. “Do you recognize anything?”

It was John who started The Wall, more or less accidentally. His own apartment isn’t a model of personality, but it’s a semi-crappy seventies rental he picked for the location and the single-unit garage. Rodney bought this place and then ignored it completely, like it was just a box for his life to happen in. A placeholder.

After two years of drinking beer here with the blank walls staring at him, John finally tacked up a Polaroid, deliberately off-center in the middle of the longest stretch: Rodney, perched on a log at a bonfire Ronon had thrown that February, looking drunk and exasperated. It’s a pretty awful shot, meant as a kind of a fuck you, buy a damn poster already, but when he dropped by a couple days later, it was still there, and the next time after that. Then Teyla brought another one, and John a couple more after that, until somehow it became this thing they all did. It’s been years and there are hundreds of them, shifting slightly in the breeze.

“No,” Rodney says, but he sounds more amazed than anything. “No. Who are they?”

Some of the photos are phenomenal failures, so bad it’s hard to believe whoever took them didn’t screw them up on purpose. These were added as a continuation of the original joke. There are good pictures too: Laura and Carson’s engagement photo, or Teyla and Ronon at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, wind-chapped and happy. Most of the pictures are sloppy and unremarkable, pinned up as the iceberg tip of much bigger stories. That dipstick Kavanaugh flailing across the quad with his ponytail on fire, after Rodney and John sprayed it down with a low-ignition, cold-burning fuel they invented because the guy kept pissing them off. Laura shoving wedding cake down Carson’s pants, with his family gaping off to the side and John in the background digging out his wallet to pay up. There’s a sharpie-and-copy-paper sign Laura made the winter Rodney was horribly depressed, after his biannual attempts at dating bypassed the usual fizzle to end in a total crash and burn. There is life outside your apartment!, Laura wrote, and when Rodney didn’t get the reference, John pulled some strings and Teyla emptied out her van and they dragged his ass up to San Francisco to see Avenue Q. John pretended that he didn’t get kind of misty during “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” and “Schaudenfreude” made Rodney laugh so hard he almost peed.

They’ve pinned up each other’s stolen baby pictures, expired licenses, mid-ride photos bought at amusement parks just because they were so astonishingly unflattering. Half their lives hang here, and each new piece is as likely to fill in someone’s distant past as it is to record something recent. John can barely remember a time when he couldn’t tell every story up here by heart.

“They’re friends,” John says. He lays his palm on an empty spot near the edge and wonders how he could ever explain any of this, let alone all of it, to someone who didn’t already know. “Hey, maybe we should get some dinner.”

“Yeah.” Rodney blinks and sets one hand on his stomach. “Yeah, food could be good.”

John leans his hip against the wall. “What do you want?”

“I–” Rodney starts, and comes up short, mouth open and working like a fish’s. “I have no idea. What do I like?”

The question hangs there — three seconds, ten — and the overwhelming awfulness of the whole thing breaks over John like a sound barrier. Rodney is thirty-three and brilliant, bitter as hell and with enough idiosyncrasies for a grad-level psychology course, a person of irrational likes and unshakeable prejudices. Jesus; how easily everything is gone, just gone.

They’re looking at each other, realization looming over them both, when Rodney presses a hand to his mouth and starts laughing. His eyes are bright with consternation and mirth, and he slants his eyebrows apologetically as John stares at him. It’s not funny, John thinks, feeling stunned and shattered. But Rodney can’t quit snickering, his free hand waving helplessly, and John pushes his fingertips against his eyelids and lets out the ghost of a chuckle, because it’s awful and should be the farthest thing from funny, but oh fuck, it kind of is.

John finds the takeout menu for Kung Pao Fu and they turn the couch so it faces The Wall. They eat slowly, Rodney moaning over Szechuan chicken and going bug-eyed with amazement over honey shrimp. Afterward, they finish the six-pack of Tsing Tao while Rodney asks about this photograph or that one, and John tells him the story behind it and points out its siblings, describing the linkages between them like he’s mapping out constellations. It reminds him of being in college and memorizing the equations that govern wind turbulence, trying to believe it could ever be a substitute for the sweet high climb of an F-16. He can’t do any of it justice; there’s no comparison between the blueprints and the real thing.

Still, he has to try, and Rodney soaks the stories in for hours, until they’re both glassy-eyed and stupid. John twists to get a look at the clock: 12:47 am. “Jeez, it’s gotten late.”

“Is it?” Rodney says, or tries, but he’s cut off in the middle by an enormous yawn. He scrubs his hand over the top of his head and looks around, blinking. “Right. I guess I should …”

“Yeah,” John agrees, standing. Rodney looks exhausted, the skin around his eyes translucent and etched with fine lines. He’s spent the last four days in a hospital, being grilled by doctors and not having the faintest idea what’s going on. This is John’s cue to head home, go to bed, give the guy a little privacy, only what he hears himself say is, “There’s a futon in the study — if you want, I could …”

Rodney frowns, rubbing at his forehead. “No, it’s fine, I’m sure you’d rather …” The polite refusal fails him halfway through; he’s staring at the condo the way a kid in bed stares at the closet, not quite convinced it’ll be the same place when he’s alone and the lights are off. Mouth tilting sideways, he peers up at John from under his fingers. “This is totally pathetic, but. You wouldn’t mind?”

It makes John feel guilty and relieved, and not sure of the reasons for either, so he smiles and says, “Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time.”

The study is dark and quiet with the door shut; the hum of the air conditioning mingles with the traffic, and the city lights slice shadows along the walls. John lies on his back in his T-shirt and boxers, one arm tucked under his head, listening to the sounds of Rodney moving around the condo. Clinking and faucet noises from the bathroom, soft footsteps, drawers opening and shutting as he hunts for his pajamas. All of the noises are hesitant, exploratory, someone puzzling out a strange new place. There are several minutes of silence before he hears the click of the lamp being turned off, the mattress shifting. Everything is still in the other room for a long time, maybe half an hour; John stares out the ceiling and isn’t conscious of listening for anything, until he hears Rodney roll abruptly over and one of the pillows hit the ground. John’s known that sequence since college, heard it through this wall every time he’s crashed here instead of making the late drive home. It’s what Rodney does every night, right as he drifts off.

John rolls over, the guest sheets cool and familiar under his skin, and looks out at the glow reflected down from L.A.’s perpetual haze. Watching the city’s muffled starless sky, he tries to figure out what he’s supposed to do in the morning, the next day, the day after that. It’s a long time before he sleeps.

[1992. August.]

The afternoon sun is pounding Pasadena into submission, and the air conditioning in the Residence Life office is losing both the battle and the war. John runs a hand over the back of his neck and smiles at the girl behind the counter. He really wishes the kid to his left would quit yelling.

“So I guess I should’ve sent in that housing form, huh,” John says.

“Mmm. That probably would’ve been wise.” The girl flips to the next page in the stack of papers and keeps typing. “You didn’t get the reminder notices, I take it?”

“No,” John says, squinting. He’d spent most of the summer lifeguarding at the Y, getting drunk with the other guys on the football team, and logging flight hours toward his pilot’s license. Everything except the flying is fuzzy and hard to remember. “No, I think I probably did.”

“Oh come on, that policy is completely moronic, which I distinctly remember explaining to you people when I received the denial of my housing request,” snaps the kid. He’s leaning halfway across the counter, one hand planted for balance while he jabs the index finger of the other at the desk blotter. The woman sitting across from him looks like she’s about ready to wrap the phone cord around his neck and start pulling.

“Really?” John asks. “No dorm rooms?”

“Nope,” the girl says, and hits the space bar for emphasis. “Record admission this year — they’ve been turning doubles into triples and everything.” She points to the double doors behind John. There’s a kid about John’s age sitting in one of the chairs, surrounded by bags covered in customs stickers and staring at the floor like he’s waiting for a pit to open at his feet and swallow him whole. “Be glad you’re not that guy. He missed a connecting flight and it took him thirty-three hours to get here from Scotland. Then he finds out his housing form got lost in the mail.”

“Listen, I realize that my superior intelligence must be very confusing for you, but I swear to god, I am eighteen.” The guy to John’s left digs a passport out of his pocket and brandishes it in the woman’s face. “I am here to work on my dissertations, not to take some kind of predatory sexual advantage of undergrads who are, wait for it, my own age or older. Now would you please stop wasting my time and find me a godforsaken dorm room?”

The woman gives him a look of deep hatred. “I’m going to have to check with a supervisor. This could take a while.” She heads into the back at the deliberate pace of someone who intends to be gone for as long as possible. The kid throws his hands up in disgust and stomps over to the nearest chair, slumping down into it and rubbing at his forehead.

He’s probably a dick, but John kind of feels for him. He spent the last night at the Motel 8, and while it wasn’t that bad, he’s not relishing the idea of going back there. He wonders where he can find a local paper, and whether anyone’ll take him without a rental history. If not, maybe he can talk his boss at the Y into lying for him. He really doesn’t want to have to call his parents. “Got any suggestions?”

The girl frowns off into space, her hand going still on the keyboard. She snaps her gum decisively. “Listen,” she says. “I’ll make you a deal. My step-dad owns a house on the edge of campus, and the guys who were living there just got booted for making crystal meth in the chem labs. I’ll give you his number and tell him to knock a couple hundred bucks off the deposit, but only–” she points toward the sulking kid– “if you take that guy with you.”

Freshman year is not starting off like he pictured it. “Really? Him?”

“He’s been here forty-five minutes already, and I know Andrea’s going to make me deal with him if he doesn’t leave soon.” She grabs a pile of papers and taps them against the desk, then bends to slide them into a drawer. “It’ll be cheaper than living on campus and you can still walk to your eight AMs — also, you won’t be homeless. Take it or leave it.” She starts clacking away at the keyboard again, clearly communicating that the offer’s on the table and she couldn’t care less what he wants to do about it. John thinks that if the girls back home had been like her, he would’ve gotten his ass kicked a lot more often at strip poker.

“I’ll take it,” he says, and she grins and hits the enter key twice before swiveling her chair to reach for a pad of paper.

“Great,” she says, “I’ll write down the details while you go introduce yourself to your new roommate.” John dips his head, acknowledging via smirk that he’s been outmaneuvered. She waits until he’s turning away to add, “Oh, and take the Scottish guy, too. He seems nice, plus I think he’s going to cry if someone doesn’t find him somewhere to sleep soon.”

Rolling his eyes, John shoulders his duffel and studies the other guys for a few seconds before heading for the one by the door. “Hi,” he says, and the kid jerks his head up, startled. “I’m John Sheppard.”

He holds a hand out, and the guy clambers to his feet to shake it. “Carson — Carson Beckett. Pleasure to meet you, John.” He’s got a farmer’s build and deep, worried circles under his eyes, and he delivers the pleasantry with the earnestness of someone who’s too frayed to do more that hope he’s telling the truth. “Are you out of luck on bed and board, too?”

“Well, I was,” John says, and Carson’s eyebrows jump to attention. There’s something about him John likes immediately, an air of doggish constancy. He’s got a solid handshake, which counts for a lot, and the rumble of his accent is strange but appealing. Yeah, John thinks, I could live with this guy. “But I think I might’ve found a place. You mind living off campus?”

“Not as long as I’m living somewhere,” Carson replies hopefully. “But you don’t know me from Adam, are you sure–?”

“Yeah, no problem,” he says. Carson breaks into a smile and falls back into the chair, looking relieved and totally exhausted. John clears his throat. “Only catch is, we’re also supposed to bring that guy.”

He jerks a thumb over his shoulder. Carson leans out to peer around John, eyebrows raised. He frowns, considering, and then shrugs. “Honestly? If I’ve got a roof over my head and it’s not attached to an airport, I don’t think I’ll really care who’s sharing it with me.”

John grins. “All right then. One down, one to go.”

He drops his bag next to Carson’s pile and takes a fortifying breath, then ambles across the room. The kid looks up warily when John drops into the chair next to him. “So,” John says, after a moderately awkward pause, “sounds like you’re having some housing trouble.”

“Words cannot express,” the guy groans, and then immediately continues, “but oh my god, I am maybe eight minutes from just beating my head against the wall so that they’ll have to find me a room or risk a liability suit. First they turn me down for a spot in graduate housing — which is especially ridiculous when you consider how much money the aid office ponied up so I’d go here instead of MIT — and now they’re telling me because I’m a grad student, I can’t stay in the undergrad dorms. Well, that and something about there not being any rooms left, but I’m pretty sure that they’re just holding out on me because really, Caltech’s supposed to be one of the premier schools in the world for higher math — do they honestly expect me to believe their administrators can’t project a damn acceptance-to-admittance attrition curve?”

John, who’s been transfixed by the continuousness of the guy’s delivery, blinks and says, “You know, you’ve got a point there. That really is just Algebra 2 and a graphing calculator.”

The kid slices one hand through the air. “Thank you,” he says, quite sincerely, “I mean it, you have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for someone to acknowledge the basic stupidity of the situation. Of course,” he slumps way down in the chair and lets his head roll back against the wall, “I’m expecting this moment of gratification to be relatively short-lived, followed by a) an extended period of waiting, then by that harpy either b) handing me a mattress and shoving me in a closet or c) bringing back a supervisor and/or actual physical proof that all the rooms are taken, so,” and he draws a humongous breath and hisses most of it back out in frustration, “I’m pretty much screwed either way.”

Listening to him is like being on a really well-designed rollercoaster: high climb, fast plunge, a series of twists and turns and just when you think it’s pretty much run out of momentum, a blind three-sixty that spits you out, slack-jawed, back at the start. John’s fascinated, even as he thinks he’s never met anyone whose social abilities could have benefited as much from a bottle of cough syrup. “What’s your name?”

The guy raises the hand draped over his eyes and peers up at him. “Uh, Rodney. McKay.”

“I’m John Sheppard.” He twists in his chair and sticks his hand out. Rodney blinks at it, like he’s not used to other people offering him this, then he reaches out slowly and shakes John’s hand. His palm is smooth and clammy, and he fumbles a little when he pulls away.

“If you’re looking for a place to live, my friend Carson and I are going to check out a house later,” John says, nodding to where Carson’s sitting. “We could use a third person.”

Rodney draws himself up, frowning. “What are you talking about, I just saw you introducing yourself to him all of two minutes ago.”

John shrugs, amused. “What can I say, I’ve got a good feeling about him.”

Rodney’s eyes flicker over John’s face, fast as a shutter clicking in a camera, then he snorts, low and surprisingly bitter. Hunching forward, he steeples his fingers on top of his knees. “You seem like a surprisingly decent human being,” he says, staring at the floor, “but the thing is, John, for some reason most people tend to hate me on sight, and the few who don’t will usually acquire the taste for it after prolonged exposure.”

A minute ago, John would’ve bet ten bucks that you couldn’t actually shut this guy up, but he’s closed down like a storm cellar. The lines of Rodney’s face have rewritten themselves, mobile mouth pressed tight, eyebrows slanting down.

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, actually,” John says.

Rodney sneers. “What, you’ve got a ‘good feeling’ about me, too?” But he glances back a second later, like the first look was for show and he’s trying to sneak this one in under the wire.

Rodney’s thin and sharp-faced, the kind of pale you get from staying away from the windows year round, with bony wrists and messy hair curling over his forehead. Something about him, the long brows and the arch of his cheekbones, reminds John of the old paintings the teacher showed them in history class: this is what one of those guys would look like if you pulled him out of the Sistine Chapel and sent him to school to get shoved into lockers and have jocks dump piss in his chemistry experiments.

He thinks back to the guys he went to high school with, their broad grins and their broad hands wrapped around the necks of their beer bottles, their cheerleading girlfriends, hair-sprayed and interchangeable. He’d told a couple of his teammates about Caltech, and they gave him these loose-hinged smiles, like they were waiting for the punchline; when there wasn’t one, they stared at him like he was a stranger. He stopped telling people after that.

Here he is now, in Pasadena, where no one cares if he was first- or second-string quarterback, no one gives a shit which girl he didn’t take to the prom. He’s got one duffel, the stub from a one-way Greyhound ticket, and only a vague idea of what the hell he’s doing. But he’s learned the names of two people so far: Carson Beckett, who knows how to shake hands, and Rodney McKay, who’s guarded and belligerent and watching John out of blue eyes that are like one-way mirrors set the wrong way round, facing in instead of out.

“Yeah,” John says, and he smiles, slow and easy. “Yeah, you know, I think I kind of do.”

2.

The first thing John does the next morning is call Carson, and by 1:30 he and Rodney are walking into Cedars-Sinai Division of Neurology. “We’re friends of Dr. Beckett, he’s expecting us,” he tells the receptionist with a smile, “second floor, third hall on the right?” and walks off before she can make them sign in. The elevator is spacious and quiet and takes its own sweet time doing anything. John glances over at Rodney, who’s pale and tense.

“It’s okay,” John says. “It’s Carson; he’s not going to make you stay here.” Rodney nods, jaw set, and John resolves to get him out of here within three hours whether or not Carson agrees. John doesn’t usually take advantage of people, but Carson is their friend as well as a major name in the medical world. Today, he has no problems trading on both those roles at once.

They head down the wide, light-filled corridor, past glass doors embossed with names and credentials. Carson’s going over a file at his desk, and he rises as John walks inside. “John,” he says, clapping him on the shoulder, then turns a fond smile on Rodney, who’s stopped halfway over the threshold.

“Rodney.” He tugs Rodney into a firm hug, and Rodney’s hands hover in mid-air for a moment before tentatively settling onto Carson’s shoulders. He gives John a bewildered look; John smirks and shoves his own hands into his pockets, angry at himself. Twenty-four hours since he got Rodney’s call, and he hasn’t given him so much as a pat on the arm. Some fucking friend. “It’s good to see you,” Carson says as he pulls back. He waves them toward a couple of chairs and seats himself in the third, ignoring the armchair on the far side of his desk.

They talk for a while. Carson asks questions that walk the line between professional interest and friendly concern, keeping the conversation comfortable; John’s always thought of Carson as being a little neurotic, but he’s good at this. Rodney answers as best he can, gradually settling down as Carson shows no sign of wanting to admit him.

Eventually, Carson reaches over and snags a folder off his desk. “Let me tell you where things are at,” he says, scanning through the pages. “Cottage Hospital was kind enough to fax me your chart. The good news is that there’s no indication that you’re in any physical danger. The bad news is–”

“–they don’t know why I can’t remember anything before Tuesday.” Rodney’s mouth pulls up at the corner as he tips his head toward John. “I got that song and dance before we left.”

Carson sighs and flips the chart shut. “We’ve got some equipment here they don’t have, but until we’ve had a chance to run you through it, I won’t have a better idea of what’s going on. I can tell you that with the most common causes of memory loss off the table, it’s likely that real answers are going to take a while.”

“So what’s he supposed to do until then?” John cuts in, annoyed. It’s unfair of him and he knows it, but he’d been secretly hoping that they’d come in and Carson would have the solution ready and waiting.

“Well, I’d like him to come in for some tests in the next couple of days,” Carson says, “but there’s absolutely no reason for him to stay here. My best medical advice? Pretend you’re on vacation. Go see the sights.”

“Excuse me?” Rodney says. It’s confused instead of antagonistic, one more discrepancy to set John’s teeth on edge.

Carson smiles ruefully and spreads his hand. “The truth is, brains are tricky things. Hard to predict, both fragile and resilient, and above all, highly adaptable. We’re still trying to figure out how memory works, but what we do know is that what we call memory loss is often a question of access. If the path the brain uses to retrieve a group of memories is somehow damaged, given time it can often find a new way to get to them. Stimulation, especially from familiar places, could speed up that process.”

“All right, then,” John says, and gives them both a determined grin. “I guess we’re playing tourist.”

They spend the rest of the day roaming around Rodney’s neighborhood on Wilshire, sticking their heads into corner stores and restaurants. It’s not the most targeted way to start, particularly since Rodney usually has everything delivered to the condo, but it gives them something to do while John tries to remember every place in L.A. that Rodney’s ever been. By the next morning he’s got a pretty comprehensive list together, and during Rodney’s EEG he kills time in the lobby re-sorting places by importance, familiarity, geographical region, like vs. dislike.

“Where to?” John asks as they get into the car afterward.

The look Rodney shoots him is amused and mildly skeptical. “You’re really not much of a tour guide, are you?”

You have no idea, John thinks, and then clamps his jaw down just in time to stop himself from saying it.

Unfortunately, Rodney’s not wrong. The next couple days aren’t all bad; they have some good meals, visit some places that John genuinely likes and always forgets about: the California Science Center, the Griffith Observatory. They settle into each other’s company. John gets used to the way his stomach twists when Rodney asks certain questions, or misses the in-jokes John keeps forgetting not to make, or passes up a chance to skewer the curator of the SKETCH Gallery for grossly oversimplifying relativity. Rodney starts getting used to the city, used to John, and John tries to get used to watching that happen.

But he’s caught in the middle of a catch-22: if he doesn’t want the constant sucker-punch of Rodney not remembering, he has to try and think of him as a stranger; if he wants Rodney to get his memory back (and he does, Jesus Christ), he has to call up every shared experience he can think of to try and trigger something. It’s a tug-of-war that’s got him working at cross-purposes, trying to tack in two directions at once, and what makes the whole thing harder is this: John hates L.A., and so does Rodney. It’s smog-filled and sprawling, shrine to a million things neither of them give a shit about. How can he show him around, try to make this place familiar, without saying, “Oh, and by the way, you can’t stand southern California or 98% of the people in it, you just live here because you needed a home base that was a known quantity and it took too much effort to leave”?

The more places they visit without the slightest glimmer of recognition from Rodney, the more the whole thing seems like an exercise in futility. By Wednesday they’re mostly just driving around, John pointing out landmarks and giving lame explanations of their relevance. It’s a relief to get a six-pack and a pizza and head back to the condo. They channel-surf and bond over being totally perplexed as to why anyone would ever watch this shit, and John tries not to think about why he’s been sleeping on the futon since Saturday, borrowing towels and swinging home for clothes while Rodney’s at Cedars-Sinai.

The SPECT scan on Thursday morning takes forever. When Rodney finally emerges from the back hallways, he looks shaky, worn down around the edges. “Look, the last few days have been really, uh, helpful,” he says as he fumbles with the seatbelt, “I’m glad I’ve gotten to know the city a little, but I just spent an hour strapped down with a camera orbiting my head and something that’s apparently radioactive running through my veins, and …”

“Yeah, no problem.” John turns the key in the ignition, his face weirdly cold. He doubts he could be worse at this if he tried. “I’ll drop you off back at the condo.”

“Oh,” Rodney says, and tugs at the hem of his shirt. “Right, of course — I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff you need to be doing–”

Backing the car out of the parking space, John opens his mouth to agree and then catches the tone under Rodney’s statement. “Not really,” he says, carefully. “I’ve got a PS2 at my place, we could hook it up to your TV …”

Relief flashes across Rodney’s face, and he ducks his head a little too late to hide it. “Am I always this inconvenient?”

John smiles as he makes the right onto San Vicente. “Hard to say; I’m kind of used to it.”

“Ah.” Rodney laughs and rolls down the window, settling his arm along the edge. He lets his head tip backwards, eyes half-lidded against the sun. “I know things’ll get better soon — Carson’ll figure something out, or I’ll start remembering, or whatever, but this whole thing is still kind of overwhelming, and … I don’t know.” His voice gets softer. “You’re just a really comforting person to have around.”

They drive in silence for a few blocks, and then Rodney turns his head. “What’s a PS2?”

They spend the afternoon and most of the evening in front of Rodney’s gigantic TV, laughing and swearing, controllers in hand. It’s weird not to have Rodney mock his selection of games — Pro Skater 4, for example, not to mention Final Fantasy — and weirder still watching him play Vice City without using any of the cheat codes. His trash-talking, on the other hand, turns out to be innate, and his reflexes are as good as ever once he figures out the controller. It’s the best day John has had all month.

They take a break around seven to rest their hands and order Thai food. Cracking his neck loudly, Rodney wanders around the room, idly scanning the shelves. “What are these?” he asks, pointing to a row of books and magazines set up in isolation, the shelves above and below it left deliberately empty.

John looks up from the takeout menu. “That’s you — stuff you’ve published.” He walks over and grabs the February issue of the Journal of Mathematical Physics, flipping to the middle. “This is the newest.”

Rodney scans the abstract, eyebrows drawing up as he does. He turns a page, then another, face fixed in a look of intense focus, and John’s pulse speeds up, because of course, fuck, why have they been wasting time circumnavigating L.A.? This is Rodney’s work, Rodney’s life, if anything can help him remember then–

“I don’t understand this,” Rodney says.

It’s like running head-first into a wall. “What?”

Rodney points at the journal. “This. It doesn’t make any sense to me — I mean, my name’s at the top of the page, but I don’t have the faintest idea what this is even about. All of these symbols, it’s just — gibberish.” He looks up at John, brow furrowed.

John tries to smile, but the muscles of his face are stiff and uncooperative. “No big deal,” he says, “it’ll come back. Hey, I’m going to call for dinner, okay?”

As soon as he’s on the balcony he fumbles his cell out of his pocket and calls Carson. “We have to get him into the hospital,” he hisses as soon as the line picks up. “Now. Tonight.”

“Slow down,” Carson says, calm and very focused. “Tell me exactly what happened.”

“He doesn’t understand it!” John snaps. “His work — I showed him the article he just published on computational flaws in Gordon’s additions to gauge theory, and he said it was gibberish!”

There’s the briefest pause. “It’s all right. Don’t worry about it.”

John stares at the phone in disbelief. “What the hell are you talking about! It’s his own work, and he doesn’t fucking understand it–”

“John. There’s no reason to think he would.” John cuts off mid-sentence, and Carson sighs. “Look, there are different kinds of memory. Episodic memories are our record of things that happened to us; we’ve also got procedural memory, our memories of how to do things. We knew that whatever happened to Rodney affected his episodic memory but left his procedural memory intact, which is why he could do things like dial your number.”

“Get to the point, Beckett,” John says.

“There’s a third kind of memory, semantic memory, that’s linked to episodic — it’s our memory for facts. For people like you and Rodney, working on a proof may feel procedural — like a thing you do — but it’s semantic memories that tell you how to do it. The psychiatrist at Cottage Hospital noted that Rodney’s semantic memory had been compromised as well.”

John rubs a hand over his eyes. “Great. Thanks for telling me.”

“I’m worried about him, too,” Carson says, gently, “but–”

“It’s Rodney,” John says. “It’s the one thing — if he can’t do this anymore–” His free hand fists itself at his side.

“He will, John,” Carson interrupts. “We don’t know what caused the amnesia, but all the scans we’ve done so far suggest his brain is currently working fine. I’m hoping that his memory will return, but even if it doesn’t, he’s building new memories, and he’s still as smart as he’s ever been. He’ll be able to learn everything again if he has to.”

John swallows. “Okay.”

After he hangs up with Carson, he leans his arms on the rail and lets his head drop forward, just breathing. Then he calls the restaurant.

Thursday morning, John’s in the bathroom when Rodney exclaims, “Oh, shit, I knew I was forgetting — shit.”

“Wers hrung?” John calls, garbled around the toothbrush. He spits and strides out in the main room, wiping his mouth on his hand. “What’s wrong? What is it?”

Rodney turns, eyes wide with consternation. “Where the hell is my wallet?”

He searches the apartment while John calls every police station between here and Santa Barbara; when neither attempt turns up anything, they dig through Rodney’s filing cabinet and start phoning around to cancel cards and order new ones. John pretends to be Rodney for the first call, in case the service rep asks for information that’s not listed on the account statements or Rodney’s passport. When that one’s done, Rodney motions for John to pass him the phone.

“You sure?” John asks, handing it over.

“It’s been a week and a half,” Rodney replies as he shuffles through the papers, “and while I suspect that I’m a terrible actor, it’s about time I get used to playing the role of myself.”

Before John can think of anything to say to that, his cell rings. He raises his eyebrows at Rodney, who jerks his chin in dismissal and starts dialing American Express. John ducks into the study. “Hello?”

“Hi, John — I hope this isn’t a bad time?” Weir says. She’s got an unfailingly polite phone manner, which her employees know to fear rather than appreciate.

“What can I do for you, Elizabeth?”

“I’m truly sorry to bother you. As I didn’t hear from you after Saturday, I assume you’re still dealing with your family crisis,” she says with sympathy and a slight hint of accusation. “But we’ve got a three-day booking with Bryan Singer tomorrow and Lorne’s come down a bad case of food poisoning. I really need you back on for the weekend.”

Shit. John pinches the skin between his eyebrows. Another of the things everyone at Copernicus Charters has learned is to pay very close attention to Weir’s phrasing; if she doesn’t state something in the form of a request, then it’s not. She’s unlikely to fire him for saying no, but the one and only time he’s stumbled out of her good graces, she stuck him on a three-week press junket with Jessica Simpson. “Yeah, I can do it.”

“Wonderful; I’m emailing you the itinerary,” she says, keyboard clicking faintly in the background. “I really appreciate you being so flexible about this.”

He grimaces. “No problem.” Out in the main room, he can hear Rodney carefully reciting his address.

Leaning over the desk, he flips open Rodney’s laptop and checks the itinerary. Five cities in three days, which means he won’t have too much time on the ground to kill, but … John paces around the room, running a hand through his hair, then takes a deep breath and walks out into the main room.

Rodney’s on the couch with a bowl of cereal. John gestures toward the phone wedged between his ear and his shoulder. “You in the middle of something?”

“Depends,” Rodney says through a mouthful of Count Chocula. “How long do you think the DMV’s going to leave me on hold for?”

The side of John’s mouth tugs upward. “Have you hit the half-hour mark yet?”

Rolling his eyes, Rodney thumbs the handset off and tosses it onto the couch cushion. “What’s going on?”

John leans back against the bookcase. “My boss just called; I’m going to have to go in this weekend.”

“Oh.” Rodney swallows. He chases bits of cereal around the milk. “Okay.”

“I’ll be back Monday,” John says, “but if you want, I could probably–”

Rodney shakes his head. “No, it’s fine.” He jiggles the spoon against the side of the bowl, staring out the sliding glass door as he thinks. “It’s good, actually. It’ll give me a chance to go through the rest of my stuff, you know, get my bearings.” He points to the phone and smirks in a parody of enthusiasm. “That’s if it doesn’t take all seventy-two hours to get my driver’s license replaced.” Lifting a spoonful of cereal to his mouth, Rodney gets up and wanders over to the counter, where he scribbles a couple of notes on the to-do list they’d made and reaches for another stack of papers.

“Well. That’s good, then,” John says, blinking at the couch. “Good.”

He leaves Rodney with a list of phone numbers and goes back to his apartment. All the dishes and laundry are exactly where he left them.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, he’s in the air.

John’s been piloting for Copernicus for seven years now, since a month and a half after he got back from Germany. He got the job because Weir booked a spot on one of Lost World’s Joshua Tree meditation trips and spent the drive back in the passenger seat talking to Teyla. Teyla and John hadn’t met yet, but she co-taught a free women’s self-defense course with Laura and happened to mention the encounter to her while they were cleaning up after class. Laura told Carson, who told Rodney, who told John, who told Rodney to go fuck himself, which Rodney interpreted as, “Yes, please, hack my computer, rewrite my resume and while you’re at it, why don’t you just forge my signature and fraudulently submit an application without telling me.” The next morning, Weir called him, and before he’d woken up enough to hang up on her she said, “I’d love to have you come down for a test flight — the 36A should be free today, how does two o’clock look for you?”

Twenty-four hours later, he had the job.

All things considered, he got lucky. Some of the clients are obnoxious, but it’s not like John never had to deal with over-inflated assholes in the military. He knows how to take orders with a smile. In the last few years, Copernicus has gotten a name for itself, enough that when PAs call, they’ve been told which pilot to ask for. Ford gets the starlets and the party tours. Lorne gets the older women and the Christians. The clients who request John fall into one or both of two categories: the power players, and the men who value complete discretion.

It seems he has a reputation, though he doesn’t really know how he acquired it. He wouldn’t put it past Weir to trade on his history.

It doesn’t matter. He gets to fly.

In late spring, L.A. to Chicago is a high bright daydream. Eight and a half miles of air lie between the wings of John’s Learjet and the rumpled fabric of the continent below him, its crude patchwork of golds and greens. An apple dropped out the window would take four and a half minutes to reach the ground. In the stratosphere, numbers sing in John’s head like a symphony: the soaring strings of the gracious tailwind, the solid gold horns of air parting around the wings, the thick timpani boom of turbulence. With his hands on the controls and the sun streaming through the windshield, John understands Newton, Einstein. He thinks he understands Icarus, climbing recklessly upward: joyful, burning, calling hallelujah as the wax melted away. Chasing last every second of it, even that final fall.

He loses something when the wheels touch down.

Late that night, he calls Rodney from a hotel room high above New York City. “Hey. How’s it going?”

“You!” Rodney yells. “How could you not tell me we’re at war?”

“Uh,” John says.

“We are occupying a foreign country! And apparently doing an incredibly mediocre job of it, though the U.S. is really head of the class on how to antagonize the entire Muslim world, aren’t they?”

John winces and moves the phone a little farther from his ear. “How much coffee have you had, McKay?”

“I don’t know, keeping track sort of paled in importance next to, oh, let’s see, global climate change — what the hell have we been doing for the last fifty years?” There’s a pause, then Rodney says, suspiciously, “How did you know I’d been drinking coffee, anyway?”

John rubs his eyes. “Lucky guess.”

He spends the next hour listening to Rodney indignantly recap the last ten years, until he finally has to hang up and get some sleep. The next morning, he calls Teyla after Singer deplanes in Montreal. Ronon picks up.

“Sheppard.”

“Hey, Dex. I need a favor.”

“Uh huh.”

“I need you to get McKay out of his condo.”

“… Uh huh.” He fits a world of skepticism in the sound.

John makes a few more notes in the log book as he runs through the post-flight. “I’m serious, Ronon, I think he’s spent the last forty-eight hours going through the entire web archive of the New York Times. If he finds Wikipedia, his head’s going to explode.”

“What exactly am I supposed to do with him?”

“He’s seen L.A., maybe take him out of the city for a few hours?”

Ronon grunts; John interprets the tone of it as moderate reluctance. “He doesn’t know who I am, Sheppard. Don’t you think that’ll be kind of weird for him?”

“He’s seen pictures, it’ll be fine. I’ll owe you one,” John offers, already envisioning the bruises he’s going to get when Ronon hands him his ass in the boxing ring. “Can I tell him you’ll be calling?”

“Sure,” Ronon says, and hangs up. John grins; he’s always appreciated the utilitarianism of a phone call with Dex. They’ve known each other for about six years now. They met when some high school kids decided to go cliff-jumping at La Jolla, high as helium balloons, and the third one hit the water head-first and didn’t come up for air. John had been one of the closest people out on the waves, and he got there first, but it was Ronon who’d dragged the kid up from the bottom and onto shore. “Nice,” John had said afterwards, as the paramedics were driving away. Ronon had shrugged and said, “People are stupid,” at which point John had felt compelled to buy him a drink.

Rodney’s phone rings through to the machine, which John had more or less expected. Once he sinks his teeth into something — in this case, the entirety of modern history — he generally runs off caffeine and sheer mental momentum for upwards of thirty-six hours, then falls over and sleeps like the dead. “Hey, Rodney,” John says, “I just talked to Ronon; he’s gonna give you a call later. Uh, hopefully you’ll be awake by then. Anyway, you guys should meet up or something.” How are you, he thinks, are you doing okay, but those are questions reserved for ex-girlfriends and mothers. Instead, he settles for, “I promise the internet’ll still be there when you get home.”

He spends most of the day in a park, watching French Canadian teenagers ollie and kickflip off the fountain at the center; next time through here, he really has to bring his skateboard. His cell rings sometime in the afternoon. “This is Sheppard.”

“Hi.” It’s Rodney, slow and a little sleepy. “What time is it where you are?”

John squints overhead. “Five-thirty, probably. I’m off until eight. Ronon call you?”

Rodney yawns. “Either that or someone put out the world’s weirdest hit on me.”

“What the hell?”

“No, I’m serious, you have to hear it to believe it.” There’s the whir and clatter of the answering machine being cued up, and then Ronon’s deep voice says, “McKay. Dex. I’ll pick you up tomorrow at eleven. Wear shorts.” Click.

John bursts out laughing. “No, that’s Ronon. He’s always like that on the phone.” He considers it for a moment. “In person, too, actually.”

In the background, he hears Rodney slide the balcony door open, then wind and traffic noises. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Rodney asks. “I know we’re supposed to be friends and everything, but in the photos he looks kind of, um — I just don’t know what we’d have in common–”

“Hey.” John hunkers forward on the bench, letting his voice drop a little. Jesus, the day Ronon Dex beats him out at emotional perceptiveness … “Hey. You liked Carson, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but–”

One of the skaters grinds the whole length of the handrail, a trick he’s been blowing all afternoon. As soon as he lands it, his friends flock to him, slapping him on the back and crowing in triumph. “You like me, right?”

A few seconds pass. “Yes,” Rodney says, very quietly.

John’s throat feels dry. “Then trust me,” he murmurs, watching the skaters laughing and gesturing in the afternoon sun. “It’s going to be fine.”

There’s a slow exhale from the other end of the phone. “Okay,” says Rodney.

There’s a storm rolling east across the continent that night, which gives John an excuse to climb another few thousand feet higher for their late flight to Vancouver. At night, he imagines that his nerves run all the way to the Learjet’s metal skin, that he can feel the cold fingers of light tracing her edges: the crisp shine of the moon and the Milky Way above, the faint splash of the lightning raging down in the troposphere. The cabin is quiet, and Bates, his second for this trip, has fallen asleep in the crew chair. John doesn’t mind. He navigates the small hours of the night like a fish riding the broad black currents of the deep

He’s back on the tarmac at eight the next morning with an on-site mechanic, checking out the source of a quarter-pitch rise he heard from the left turbojet during the descent. “Ah, a 60 — that’s got TFE731s, right?” the guy says, at which point John speed-dials Zelenka and spends the next six hours relaying messages between him and the so-called mechanic who can’t tell a Pratt & Whitney from a Honeywell. Breakfast and lunch come out of a vending machine, but at least by the time Singer gets back, John’s reasonably sure that no vital parts are going to come tumbling off at 40,000 feet.

In Seattle he orders from room service, turns the volume down on ESPN2, and calls Rodney.

“They’re great,” Rodney tells him, sounding amazed. “Teyla and Ronon — you didn’t tell me how great they were.”

“Good day, huh?” John takes another bite of his burger.

“Oh, yeah. They took me rock climbing–”

And just like that, chewing turns to choking. It takes him a few seconds to get his breath back. “They what?”

“Well, Teyla asked what I wanted to do, and since my repertoire is still kind of, ah, limited, I asked what they usually did on their days off. So they took me to Malibu State Park and Ronon hooked a rope up — by the way, and I’m assuming you know this, but I have seen spiders less comfortable on vertical surfaces then that guy is — and they taught me how to climb. I pretty much sucked at it,” he adds ruefully, “but, wow.”

The one and only time John’s seen Rodney anywhere near a climb was when the six of them took a day trip to Echo Cliffs back in 2002, to celebrate Teyla saving up enough capital to book Lost World’s first international trip. Rodney wore a really stupid-looking hat and a thick layer of zinc oxide; he bitched about heat exhaustion and sun stroke right up until Teyla started lead-climbing the route, at which point he turned a really disturbing shade of greenish-white and didn’t say anything for three hours beyond, “Oh my god, you people are insane.” They never got him within fifteen feet of the wall itself.

“The heights didn’t bother you?” John asks.

“Oh no, it was terrifying,” Rodney says, “it took them twenty minutes to get me to take both feet off the ground, but it turns out that as long as you only look up, it gets marginally less frightening.”

“Yeah.” John still can’t wrap his head around the image of Rodney on a rock-face, at least not without tacking an X-Files-style unmasking of the doppelganger at the end of it. “So I’ve heard.”

Rodney describes the rest of his day in enthusiastic detail, and John sifts the tediousness of the morning for its better anecdotes, like the mechanic’s failure to grasp the principle of righty-tighty-lefty-loosey. He’s not really a phone person, but, like a lot of his rules, it doesn’t apply to Rodney. John used to call him from the phone banks on base and say maybe five words in every two hundred; it didn’t faze either of them. They’ve dialed each other’s numbers in eleven countries and most of the lower forty-eight; somewhere along the way, he picked up the hang of talking back.

There’s something about sprawling barefoot on a hotel bed, with the television flickering blue and yellow on the far wall and Rodney’s voice close and constant, washing over him like a brook. He’s probably spent as many nights in the last ten years like this as doing as anything else, which could be why it feels like home.

John gets back in L.A. late Monday afternoon and swings by his apartment for a shower and a change of clothes before heading over to Rodney’s. He really does need to spend a few hours cleaning his place up — or call Carson to let him know that the Cedars-Sinai pharmacists can raid his fridge if they’re running low on penicillin.

Walking up the hall to Rodney’s condo, he can hear the music from nearly twenty feet away; he grins as he unlocks the door, trying to imagine what the LAPD would do with a noise complaint about someone blasting classical. Inside, it stops just short of being painful and only avoids crossing the line because Rodney sank several thousand dollars into his system for exactly this reason: so that every note of the piano would be clear as a stone thrown in a lake and still hit like a bullet to the chest.

“Hey, Rodney, you in the study?” John calls, coming around the kitchen island, and the last word dies in his throat at the sight of Rodney’s legs lying on the carpet on the far side of the couch. Hurling his bag down onto the counter, he races to close the last couple yards, skidding to a stop when Rodney raises a hand in the air.

“Wait — just wait a minute,” Rodney whispers, voice dry as sand. He’s stretched out on his back with his eyes closed, one hand palm-down on the center of his chest. “This part’s one of my favorites.”

John stares at him, dumbfounded. Then he recognizes the music. It’s the Goldberg Variations. He’s seen Rodney pull over onto the side of a road because these were playing and just sit there, engine off, utterly still behind the wheel until the DJ started talking.

A couple minutes pass, then the music transitions and Rodney takes a shuddering breath. “Oh god,” he says, blinking his eyes open. They’re wet, and blue as John’s ever seen them.

He lowers himself quietly to the ground. “Been here long?”

“Most of the day.” Dragging one hand over his mouth, Rodney shakes his head. “I can’t even … the thought of someone being able to make something like this …”

“You used to play,” John says, leaning back on his hands and stretching his legs out toward the balcony. “When you were a kid.”

Rodney rolls onto his side and props himself up on his elbow, face rapt. “I did? God. Why the hell did I stop?”

Some dickweed music teacher told you your playing was clinical, John thinks, and you quit because you couldn’t stand to do something you loved and not be good enough for it. “I don’t know.” He shrugs and looks past Rodney, out the window. “I guess you got busy with school or something.”

Rodney tips himself onto his back again, gazing up at the ceiling. “It’s amazing,” he says. “This piece, it keeps changing, but underneath that I can hear all these patterns and rhythms — I can almost see them, you know? Like there’s a whole universe on the other side of the music and each variation is just a, a fraction of the surface. Just the part that catches the light.”

His hands move as he talks, describing arcs and expanding shapes in the air: the same vocabulary of gesture they use when he’s explaining Riemann surfaces or Calabi-Yau spaces. The confluence of word and motion has John mesmerized, and when Rodney finishes they just sit there for a while, the pristine tones of the piano rolling over them both.

When CD whirs to a stop, John turns his head look at Rodney. “You haven’t been to the ocean yet, have you?”

Tuesday morning, John ties his surfboard to the roof of his car, grabs a couple of sack lunches from a nearby deli, and drives Rodney out to Point Dume.

It’s incredible.

Around nine o’clock, they stumble back into the condo; John throws the balcony door open and wanders out to watch the twilight steeping into true dark. There’s a cool breeze whispering over the city, siphoning away the heat baked into the concrete, and the traffic grumbles and murmurs like some large animal shifting as it sinks towards sleep. Days like this, John doesn’t really hate L.A. that much. His limbs feel loose and slow from the hours in the sun, like someone’s filled his veins with molasses; he stretches one foot behind the other just to feel the tightness of the ocean salt dusting his skin, the sweet grind of the sand still clinging to his legs and feet. Rodney’s bare feet pad softly up behind him; he settles his elbows on the railing and hands John a Red Stripe, water beading down its sides. They drink in silence, shoulders pressed companionably together, and watch the lights of the city wink into greater prominence, the highways transforming into slow ribbons of motion, weaving off into the night.

“Now, that was a good day,” John says.

Rodney hums in agreement as he tilts the last of his beer back. His voice is low and warm, pitched up close in John’s ear the way it gets over the phone. “It really was.”

John smiles and turns to say something, and then Rodney looks at John over his shoulder and John loses the thread of it entirely. Rodney’s eyes are half-hidden by the sleepy curve of his lashes, irises lit by the glow of the street below them. By that faint ambient light, John can make out the sunburn stain on his nose and cheeks, the chapped bow of his lips. Their faces are eight inches apart at the most and John’s breath snags; he forgets whatever trivial thing he was going to say at the way Rodney’s watching him, serious and wide open.

“Whoa — Rodney.” John wheels around to the far end of the railing, bracing the heels of his hands on it as he tries to catch his breath. “Hey.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Rodney straighten, alarmed. “What’s — did I–” he stammers, taking half a step across the balcony.

John holds up one hand to stop him, his fingers still collared around the neck of the bottle. “No, it’s okay,” he says, not trusting himself to look up yet. “Just, that’s not — that’s not how this works, you know? That’s not …”

“Shit,” Rodney hisses, and yanks his reaching hand back like it could burn John. He backs up to the opposite corner of the balcony and hunches into it. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I thought … I don’t know.” He rubs a hand over his face and laughs shakily. “Fuck.”

John’s stomach twists. “Hey,” he says, trying to keep his voice gentle, but he doesn’t quite look in Rodney’s direction, “it’s okay, just — we’re friends. I don’t want you to get the wrong …”

Rodney nods once and takes a deep breath, the light from inside spilling over his face. “No, that’s all right, I’ve got it.” He brandishes the beer bottle. “Alcohol on an empty stomach, right? Let’s just forget–” he smiles tightly and shakes his head “–just forget it ever happened.”

“Yeah. Okay.” John should be relieved that Rodney’s letting him off this easy; instead, he’s just nauseous. He studies the concrete under his feet, the side of the buildings, the fingerprints on the glass door, until he can’t take it and says, “Listen, I should probably get back to my place, it’s turning into more of a pit than your room during college–” fuck, fuck, can’t take that back so he just runs on past it, “–you’ve gotta be tired anyway, that sunburn–”

He clamps his mouth shut, sick of the sound of his own bullshit. Rodney leans against the railing, head tilting back as he stares up at the sky. After a few seconds, he swallows, his pale throat shifting with it. “Okay, yeah,” he says. “Let’s do that. There are about a hundred CDs I still haven’t touched, and I should get some sleep sometime.”

John nods. When neither of them comes up with anything else, he scrubs a hand through his hair and heads inside. As he retrieves his bag from the counter, Rodney moves into the frame of the open door, turning the bottle around in his hands as he studies the label.

“John?” He looks up at his name, and Rodney meets his eyes from across the room. The resignation laid over his face is fifteen years of familiar, but he wears it like it’s brand new. “Thanks for today.”

“Sure,” John says, and wishes it sounded more like what he meant, which is thanks, and you’re welcome, and we’re good, don’t worry about it. He’s never been sure if Rodney knows how transparent he is, how his eyes can always give his very best poker face away. John’s felt for him in the past, for the way every disappointment or desire is hung out to dry, but now he finds himself imagining what his own life would be like if the truth weren’t something he had to tell, or not tell: if it was just written on him, for anyone to see. How differently things might have gone.

He slings the bag over his shoulder and smiles as best he’s able, as though this is an ordinary moment for walking out the door. “Have a good night, Rodney,” he says, and he leaves without looking back.

He doesn’t see Rodney the next day, which he spends watching Firefly and rereading back issues of the Aeronautical Journal in the laundry room, or the day after, when he’s booked for a San Francisco run and winds up cooling his heels in the hanger for seven motherfucking hours before the client bothers calling the cancellation in to HQ.

On Friday his phone rings at 8:43 in the morning, and he picks up because Teyla’s the only one who calls that early. “Come for a hike with me,” she says, and he knows he’s busted.

They load up on water and do Telegraph Peak, sweating freely in the sun as they work their way from Thunder Mountain into the Cucamonga Wilderness. Clouds of pale dust rise up under their boots as the trail steepens, winding its way through the land’s ragged vertebrae, its stunted stubborn forests where to thrive means to endure. At the top, they sit in silence for a long time looking out at the Mojave, soaking in the stoicism of the landscape, its simple indifference to questions of human comfort. For Teyla, walking the land like this is a spiritual experience; it’s why she started Lost World. It’s not the same for John, but it’s still good to feel his muscles burning, his body waking up to the task; it’s good to come out to these places that want nothing from him. By the time they get back to the car, his legs are worn out and he’s grateful that this is Teyla, who knows him well enough to take the keys and drive back, let him sit in the passenger seat and cradle that last bit of silence that unravels with the highway miles, like a spool of thread with one end still tethered to the spot where he found it, spinning thinner the farther they go.

Back at the one-room cottage she rents from an artist in Topanga Canyon, they make dinner and wash the dishes, head out into her garden to watch the sun set fire to the hills before it smolders out. She hands him a tall glass, ice water with mint in it, and sits down on the bench next to him, tucking her feet up under her. “He called me yesterday,” she says, and takes a slow drink. When John doesn’t say anything, she continues, “He thinks he did something wrong.”

John sighs and hooks an arm over the bench’s back, letting his head tip forward. “He didn’t.”

She’s got both hands circled around her glass, something she does when she’s thinking; it’s one of those everyday gestures that remind him how small she is. “Have you told him yet?”

“Told him what?” John says, but his heart’s not in it.

She answers him anyway. “About what happened.”

He traces his thumb across the glass, drawing patterns in the condensation. “What would be the point?”

“You don’t think he has a right to know?” She shifts in the seat, one foot swinging down to dangle over the stony ground. “John,” she says, her voice changing. “Why haven’t you told him?”

“Why didn’t you and Ronon tell him he’s afraid of heights?” John shoots back. A little crease knits itself between her eyebrows and he presses his lips together, ducking his head. “The guy’s got two and a half weeks of memories,” he says, “there were more important …” A bullshit excuse; he drops it. He can lie to her, and he has, but she knows every time and he hates doing it. If he just stops talking now, she won’t press him. That’s how they are.

“He’s my friend, I can’t …” He holds up a hand, helpless and empty. “I can’t just sit down and tell him everything in his life that’s ever gone wrong. Jesus, can you imagine what …” He looks up at her, to find out if she gets it, and regrets it when he sees how concern has wiped her beautiful face smooth. She gets it, all right, better than he meant her to. He shakes his head. “He can’t do anything, about any of it.”

When she speaks, it takes him by surprise. “If you don’t want to tell him, then you have to accept that he may make different choices this time.”

“What are you talking about?” John can’t tell what she’s getting at, but he’s already pretty sure he doesn’t want to follow her there. “He’s the same person. Not being able to remember doesn’t change who he is.”

“Exactly,” she says, as though it’s obvious. He frowns at her, and she fixes her dark eyes on him like they can hold him in place until he gets the picture. “He can’t remember anything, but when it comes to you, he still …”

She bites her lip, weighing her words, and suddenly John sees where this is going. “No. You’re wrong.”

“This isn’t new,” she insists, propping the hand holding the glass against the back of the bench as she gestures with the other. “What happened last month — have you stopped to think that it might have been a mistake? John, I don’t think he meant to–”

“No,” John snaps, louder than he intended. He locks his jaw down and stares off past the garden wall, past the contrived luxury of the neighborhood streets: wasted water in an arid climate, suburban pastoral. Give him the desert any day. “No, he had to have a reason for it. It’s Rodney,” he says, and can’t keep back a ragged puff of laughter, like fish bones in his throat. “He always has a reason, even if I–”

He swallows. “Teyla, if he …” It’s like someone’s propped a stone against the inside of his breastbone; he can breathe, his heart keeps beating, but the pressure doesn’t go away. Squinting at the sunset, he mutters, “When he gets his memory back, I don’t want to give him a reason to hate me.” He closes his eyes and lets the red glow seep in through his lids.

“I’ll call him tomorrow, so he knows we’re okay,” he says, as though the sentence before hadn’t happened. She makes a small noise low in her throat and tucks herself against his side, tipping her head against his shoulder. He rests his head on hers and threads his fingers through the ends of her hair, grateful for the warmth of her next to him. Neither of them says anything else; they’re both right, and they both know that. There’s nothing to do but sit under the weight of that knowledge and watch the sun tilt slowly away from them, leaving them to the night.

[2000. February.]

The building is nicer than John expected, with a big elevator in the middle of the lobby. He takes the stairs two at a time, counting off the landings as he goes, six, six-and-a-half, seven, seven-and-a-half, and onto the eighth floor. It takes him a moment to figure out which way the door numbers are going, then he hangs a left down the long blue hall to #804.

Rodney answers on the third knock, his hands full of shirts and the phone pinned between his shoulder and his ear. “Listen, if you’re here to proselytize,” he snaps as he fumbles the door open, trying not to drop anything, “I’m sure you’ll find lots of under-tended souls in the holding tank when I call the police to arrest you for tres–” He glances up and his face goes slack with surprise. One of the shirts falls out of his hands; John stoops to grab it before it can hit the floor.

“I’m going to have to call you back,” he says, eyes riveted on John’s face, and thumbs the phone off without waiting for a response from the other end.

“Hey, Rodney.” John tucks the shirt back onto the pile Rodney’s clutching and smiles, big and broad. Rodney’s hair is both shorter and scruffier that the last time he saw it, like he hasn’t bothered to cut it in a while. He’s got two days of stubble smudged over his jaw and, if anything, he’s even paler than usual. John nods his head toward the half-open door. “Mind if I come in?”

As soon as Rodney steps blankly back from the doorway, John bounces inside and starts exploring. It’s open and sparsely furnished, with a couple half-empty boxes shoved into the corners and nothing whatsoever in the way of decoration. He likes it, though, the high ceilings, the space. “You know, this isn’t half-bad,” he says, sliding the balcony door open and leaning out to check out the view.

Rodney pivots to follow John’s trajectory as he wanders back inside to inspect the kitchen. “Wait,” he says, the phone and the clothes still pressed against his chest. “Aren’t you supposed to be in Kosovo?”

“Germany,” John corrects, flipping the knob on the range. A blue flame jumps eagerly up; gas cooking, nice. He flips it off again and starts sliding drawers open: silverware, takeout menus, spare notebook, random crap. “And no, I’m pretty sure I’m not.”

Rodney frowns. “They let you go on leave already?”

“You could say that.” He swings the fridge shut and saunters over to poke his head into the far door, which turns out to be a study. “Kind of a permanent, involuntary one.” To his right, there’s a bookcase with one shelf half-filled and bracketed by empty spaces. He runs his fingers over the journals, reading the spines. “Is this your stuff? Wow, you must’ve been busy.”

“Oh my god,” Rodney says behind him, the words hollow and shocked. John snags the Journal of Computational Physics and flips through it until he finds Rodney’s article: “Heuristical Sins: A Definitive Refutation of the Application of Atiyah Axioms to Witten-type QFTs and the Proposal of the McKay Theorem.” The abstract looks pretty good; he’ll have to read this one later. “John. John.

John raises his head, and Rodney dumps all the shit he’s holding onto the counter. “They kicked you out?” he demands.

Shrugging, John gives him a bright smile, feeling it pull at the skin of his face. “What could they do, Rodney? They asked; I told.” He slides the journal into place and turns back to Rodney, hooking his thumbs in his pockets and bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. He feels good but kind of wired, like his blood’s been replaced with Kool-Aid and his system’s still trying to process the sugar. It could have been all that sitting: transatlantic to transcontinental, but stuck in the cabin instead of the cockpit. Or maybe it’s just that he hasn’t slept in three days. Either way, all this standing around is starting to make him antsy. “You know what I haven’t had in forever? Thai food. You want to grab dinner?”

Rodney looks weird; his face is white and sort of stiff, and his hands are hovering at his sides. John frowns. “You okay, buddy? You haven’t been overdoing it on the caffeine again, have you?”

“No,” Rodney says. He blinks and his whole posture changes, like he’s a DVD that hit a skip and it took him a moment to catch up to himself. “Yes, Thai food, okay — just give me a minute, I have to make a call–” He grabs the phone off the counter and strides into the bedroom, pulling the door shut behind him.

John kills time flipping through Rodney’s DVDs. There are a bunch he hasn’t heard of — eXistenZ, Fight Club, Princess Mononoke, Muppets from Space, man, maybe he can talk Rodney into a movie marathon in a day or two. He could probably sit still for that. Through the wall he hears Rodney’s half of the conversation rise and fall in pitch, the words coming in an insistent rush, a pause, a short sentence, and the thump of the handset being dropped on the mattress. John wanders back over to the kitchen and jumps up to sit on the counter, drumming his fingers on the Formica.

“All right, that’s done, just let me grab my keys,” Rodney says as he comes out; he pulls the door shut behind him, but not before John sees the half-empty suitcase sitting open on the bed.

“Are you going somewhere?” John asks.

Rodney turns his back to sort through a pile of stuff on the coffee table. “What? Oh — ah, no, I just got back from a trip.” He’s always been a shitty liar, and inside John there’s a weird sense of deceleration, like someone’s tossed gravel in the gears that are driving him.

He slides off the counter and looks down at his hands. “It’s okay if you’ve got stuff to do. I can–” go back to my place, he starts to say, only he doesn’t have one, he ended his lease when he left for Basic Officer Training. He’s moved through the last eighteen hours on autopilot, Germany to LaGuardia, LaGuardia to LAX, LAX to a taxi to the storage unit to get his car and his skateboard and change into jeans and a t-shirt, both of which feel weird, too soft and thin. He left the bag with his uniforms for the homeless guy sleeping outside the fence and then headed for the address Rodney had sent him a few months ago, along with a key and the door code. He doesn’t really remember deciding to come here.

Rubbing his hand along the back of his neck, his mind stalls at the absence of a chain; he can’t remember where he left his dog-tags, only that he got rid of them during the trip. It’s unsettling not to have them there, like he could be anybody and not know it.

“Sheppard.” John’s head snaps up and Rodney’s right there in front of him, frowning, like he’s been trying to get John’s attention. His blue eyes are intent on John’s face, and John can see the ceiling light reflected in them, and he wonders if it’s strange that he can’t see himself. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He arches his eyebrows in some wordless request for confirmation, and after a second John nods jerkily. Rodney presses his lips together and nods back, then heads for the door, saying, “Now, if you’re back on planet Earth, where some of us missed lunch–” and John’s body feels light and insubstantial, maybe with relief, as he follows Rodney out into the hall.

They get their food to go and take it back to Rodney’s place to eat it out of the cardboard boxes. John asks and so Rodney tells him about the research he’s been doing, walking him through the start of two new proofs, and John catches a problem with one of the equations so they argue about it and scribble through several notebook pages until around three in the morning, when Rodney’s eyes get puffy and red and his sentences start deteriorating, even though his math’s still good. He gives John a set of sheets and folds the futon down and stumbles into his bedroom. The weird, rubbery hyperness is finally wearing away, but John’s not tired yet, so he sits quietly until he hears Rodney knock the pillow off the bed and then he slips outside.

He drives around the L.A. streets for hours, picking his turns at random, then by primes, then digits of Pi, trying to get lost enough that he’ll stop thinking like a pilot. It doesn’t work; when the sky goes pink he still knows exactly where he is. He stops by a bakery on the way back to Rodney’s, where he makes coffee and sits cross-legged on the couch, working his way slowly through the shelf of Rodney’s publications. Later in the morning, he talks Rodney into going to the beach, but it’s full of people so they drive back and watch movies until around ten. By then John can’t sit still anymore, his skin is crawling, so he says, “Hey, you should work on the proof, I’m going to go get some air,” and he grabs his skateboard and runs down the stairs. After forty-five minutes he finds a dive bar on Pico where the pool table is open; he gives the bartender his license for the tray of balls and racks them up on the table, breaks full-force to watch them fling apart and ricochet off each other like atoms during combustion, like chaos theory.

He plays round after round of nineball by himself, calculating vectors and velocity, calculating spin, and he ignores everyone who sets a stack of quarters on the rail and everyone who offers to buy him a drink. Three guys start grumbling when he won’t give up the table and act like they might want to start something, but when John strips off the sweatshirt Rodney loaned him and they get a look at his shoulders, they decide they don’t. He’s sending out signals on too many frequencies, torn knees on his jeans and a regulation haircut that hasn’t had time to grow out yet, and finally everyone just leaves him alone until closing. He pays up and gets his ID back and slides into the night.

They’d just gotten back to Ramstein from a night of leave, him and a few of the other pilots from the 86th. Buddies, good guys he’d known since they were all at Maxwell together in 1997; all of them 1st Lts and glad to be there, careful to come back tipsy and not drunk, laughing quietly as they split off towards their bunks. Finally it was just him and Vasquez and the long silent hall branching off to the left, and then Vasquez looked John in the eye and ducked backwards, Cheshire grin fading into a spot between the lights.

It was ten seconds and not the start of anything: they’d signed on knowing how this worked. Just one kiss, Vasquez’s smile tipped down onto John’s lips, the warmth of his palm on the small of John’s back. Furtive, like a secret handshake: hi, and I’m here too, and good luck. Ten seconds.

Four days after that, the court martial started. Section 571 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY1994 prevented prosecutors from asking him about the conduct of other soldiers, so all of their questions focused on him. His choices were to lie or plead guilty. He answered every question they asked. No one threatened or harassed him. Outside of the proceedings, no one really talked to him at all.

Now, it’s twenty-nine days later and he’s been awake for five days straight. At three-thirty in the morning, he’s standing on Rodney’s balcony watching the lights of the planes flying over from VNY and LAX, his mind going crazy from the lack of motion, overflowing with numbers: wind speed, trajectory, optimal angle of ascent. John’s got both hands clamped around the railing because he’s estimating height, thinking 9.8 m/s^2, t = ?(2d/g), factoring how many seconds he’d get for the price of the fall. He stands there in the small lost hours of the winter night until his fingers go numb around the metal, until his feet ache, until Rodney says, “Jesus Christ, John,” and grabs him by the shoulders and pulls him back inside.

Rodney bypasses the study entirely and steers John into his bedroom, which is windowless and astonishingly dark. “You’re such a moron,” he mutters, pushing at John’s shoulders, and John falls obediently onto the bed, sprawling with his face to the far wall. Eyes wide open in the pitch black, he waits for the sound of Rodney retreating to the main room, to spend the night on the couch or the futon. Instead, he feels the mattress sink down next to him.

They lie there in the dark, silent, neither of them moving. John wonders if Rodney’s going to try to have sex with him and he thinks crazily that it might not be that bad: after all, it’s the only thing he’s good at that he’s still allowed to do. Rodney exhales quietly, and the bed shifts; here it comes, John thinks, and a second later Rodney’s hand settles carefully on the back of his neck. He curves his fingers around the base of John’s skull, where his hair’s still shaved down to almost nothing, and then he just stays still.

Minutes pass. Rodney doesn’t move any closer, but he keeps his hand there, light like he doesn’t want to trespass. John tries to ignore it, but his whole body is dull and distant from standing in the cold, and Rodney’s palm is so warm. He can’t shut it out. The heat of it finally tears through the invisible membrane that’s kept him walled off for the last four weeks, just rips right through it and the world floods over him and everything inside comes pouring out, because oh god, oh god, it’s over: he’s grounded, he’s never going to fly again. His hands are fisted in the sheets and he drags down air in great ragged gulps, the knowledge spearing through him. It hurts too much to breathe and he wants to stop but can’t, he’s so hot and he can’t stop shaking, and Rodney lies there with him and never pulls his hand away.

John sleeps through the day into the evening, when he wanders out to use the bathroom and eat a bowl of cereal, then staggers back into the dark and sleeps again. He wakes briefly in the night to the warmth of another person in the bed, the sound of Rodney breathing, and then sleep rolls him back into the undertow and he stays down there until the next morning.

At 10:32 a.m., he stumbles into the main room, blinking new eyes against the daylight. Rodney’s leaning over a newspaper in his robe and pajamas, one hand wrapped securely around a mug of coffee. He looks up at the sound of John’s footsteps.

They stare at each other. Rodney’s hair is sticking up in strange directions and there are pillow creases across one side of his face. John’s spent the last twenty-four hours unconscious. He doesn’t know what he looks like anymore.

Rodney waves the paper towards the counter by the stove. “There’s coffee and bagels,” he says.

John’s legs feel weird, kind of unsteady, and he can feel his hand trembling very faintly where it’s resting against the door. This must be what it’s like to walk after surgery, he thinks. You see the scars and know that nothing can ever work the same again; you’re ready for that. But no one warns you that your heart will break just a little when you take those first steps, because your body is stubborn and stupid and will find a way to keep going, no matter what they take from it, and one day you’re going to get dressed and walk out your door and no one will know you used to be different at all.

“Thanks,” he says; his throat’s dry, and it comes out more like a whisper.

Rodney nods once and raises his mug to his mouth, blowing over the surface before he takes a careful sip. “No problem.”

3.

John spends the first half of Saturday underneath his car: changing the oil and the filters, checking the seals, swapping out the brake pads. He likes the straightforward physicality of the upkeep, the hard concrete under his back, how his hands pay attention. It doesn’t kill his restlessness, though. He’s left his phone upstairs all morning, and his thoughts keep circling back to it, to his conversation with Teyla, sniffing around the edges without taking anything head on.

By the early afternoon he’s run out of patience with himself, so he wipes the grease off his hands and drives over to Rodney’s. He doesn’t call first, and maybe he should but no, fuck that, he never does. They’re friends, that’s the way it’s been for nearly half their lives, and John can keep this simple while Rodney gets his bearings. He owes him more than that.

He does pause to hit the buzzer after he’s already got the front door open, because there’s normal and there’s recognizing that someone recovering from amnesia might not want other people barging in while they’re in the shower. The line clicks open. “Hello?”

“Hey — I’m on my way up,” John says. There’s a pause, and he leans in closer to the speaker, one foot keeping the door propped. “That okay?”

“Yes?” Rodney’s voice is a little hard to read through the static; the sound quality on this thing is perennially shitty. “Yeah, come on up.”

Elevator today, for the twenty seconds of stillness it enforces. Keep things simple, he thinks as he watches his smudged reflection in the brushed steel of the doors. All he needs to do is saunter in there, smile, crack jokes if it’s awkward until it isn’t anymore. Taking a deep breath, he twitches his shoulders loose again, shifts his feet a little wider apart. He’s been doing normal since childhood; he can handle this.

Halfway down the hall, he’s hit with the recollection of Rodney standing next to him on the balcony the other night, the way things had suddenly swung around them, like the moment was a compass losing magnetic north. Fuck, he thinks, but he keeps going, it’s cool, he’s got this. As he walks the last few yards he can hear Rodney’s footsteps on the other side of the wall, out of sync but catching up.

The knob turns under his hand, and when the door pulls away from him, Rodney’s right there on the other side. “Hi,” he says. Face to face, he sounds okay, but he’s gripping the door kind of tightly.

John raises an eyebrow. “Hi; what’s up?” It comes out a bit to the left of the hey, buddy tone he’d intended, veering toward being an actual question.

Scrubbing a hand over his mouth, Rodney paces over to the island. John steps inside and pulls the door shut behind him. “It’s, ah, good to see you,” Rodney says, his fingers tapping over the edges of the counter. “How was your week?”

“Great,” John says, crossing the room after him, “well, not work, but I went on a hike with Teyla yesterday. You?”

“Um. I had dinner with Laura and Carson last night, that was nice,” Rodney answers, which settles it: something is wrong here, because Rodney has never used the word nice before or after amnesia when his brain isn’t completely disconnected from his mouth. “Ronon said he’ll take me to practice driving, which would be good, only I hope he means a car and not his motorcycle …”

Propping a hip against the island, John tries to place the strained look on Rodney’s face, the way his eyes are darting over the kitchen — then he does, and it kicks the legs out from under him, because this is what Rodney looked like when John picked him up from the hospital.

“Rodney,” he says, but Rodney keeps talking (”–to the end of Vice City which, hello, is amazingly dumb, why they think anyone would bother–”), the words pressured like he’s afraid of what’ll happen if he runs out of them. Finally, John reaches out and squeezes his shoulder, and he goes quiet. “Hey. What’s going on?”

For a moment Rodney just stands there with his mouth pulled tight, fingers still drumming arrhythmically, and then he sighs. His muscles loosen, and he spreads his hands in frustration. “I’m sorry, this is totally ridiculous,” he mutters. “I just, I really thought I was starting to get the hang of everything, and then right before you showed up I got this … weird letter, and now that I’m saying this out loud it sounds even more idiotic, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it and that sort of — shook me up.”

“It doesn’t sound idiotic,” John says immediately, because his own head’s going from zero to paranoid: weird how, like a threat? Maybe a hint about what the hell happened– “Can I see it?”

Nodding, Rodney walks over to the coffee table and hands John a folded sheet of white paper. The writing on it is in thick teal ink, like it was done with a marker from a kid’s art set.

Hey asshole,

It’s been over a month since I’ve heard from you — every time I call
your cell, it goes straight to voicemail and you haven’t answered any of
my emails. What the hell? If you miss Madison’s birthday, I’m going to
tell her you went to Siberia again, and then next time you visit you’ll get
to explain why you broke the rule and don’t have a polar bear for her this
time, either.

I swear to God, Mer, if you’re fine and just screening me so you can re-
write modern physics in peace, I will unload a guilt trip on you the likes of
which is culturally inappropriate for our shared Canadianism.

Yes, we’re fine, thanks so much for asking, although now that mosquito
season is starting again Kaleb and I are thinking of investing our whole
retirement fund in futures of OFF!.

-J

P.S. I’m serious. Call me.

“Oh, fuck.” John can’t remember sitting down on the couch, but when he looks up, Rodney’s standing over him. “God, Rodney. I’m so sorry.”

Rodney sinks down onto the edge of the coffee table, his face pale. “What is it?” he asks hoarsely. “Is it bad? Do you–”

“No, no,” John cuts him off, staring at the paper. Jesus, two weeks now and not once did he even think — and no one else did either, but why would they, when John had found out earlier and the first thing any sane, normal, human being would do is call–

“It’s Jeannie,” he says, and feels the press of guilt expanding against the walls of his stomach when Rodney frowns. “It’s from your sister.”

Three days later, Rodney leaves on an afternoon flight to Ontario, the first half of an open-ended ticket. Carson clears him for the trip (provided he sees a neurologist up there for continued testing), Laura gives him a book for the plane ride, Ronon loans a climbing documentary, and Teyla packs him a lunch and a thermos of mint iced tea.

John drives him to the airport.

“You sure you’re up for this?” he asks. They’re in the transitional no-man’s-land between ticketing and security screening, people streaming past them in all directions, juggling luggage and cell phones. Commercial airports always remind John of the industrial farms he’d pass on the way to high school football games, their huge and deliberate mechanisms for shunting living things from one place to another. “If I had my own plane, I’d take you myself.”

“I’m good,” Rodney says, waving the offer off. “Really. I mean–” the corner of his mouth quirks upward “–it’s not like it’s going to take much effort on my part to get there, right? Other than several hours of sitting, which I think I’ve more or less mastered.”

John smirks, but without any bite in it. “I wasn’t talking about the flight, jackass.”

Rodney grins off to the side. “Yeah, I figured. I’ll admit to being mildly terrified — okay, upgrade that to moderately — but …” He shrugs, hands spread. “I need to do this, you know? I need to get used to doing this. So unless you were lying when you said she didn’t secretly hate me …”

His sentence trails off into a last-second uptick. “I think you’re relatively safe from fratricide,” John drawls, and then he adds, more sincerely, “It’ll be fine, okay? You’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” Rodney says. He turns toward the terminal, staring at the junction where the huge space splits off into the different arteries, whittling the crowd down. “So, um.” He points back over his shoulder while his other hand fiddles with the strap of his laptop bag, rocking on his heels a little. John’s seen him do this so many times, he could probably write the mathematical model for it: physicist experiencing multiple vectors, all fidget, no progress in any direction. The familiarity radiates warmly through his chest. Fuck it, he thinks, and tugs Rodney into a hug.

They don’t really do this much, and it’s always kind of weird. John realizes that Rodney doesn’t have any memories of other times to compare this to, but it’s too late so he just goes with it. He figures the better part of valor here is willingness to botch it, one more fuck-up to add to the list. After the first awkward seconds, Rodney thaws out of his impression of a human popsicle stick; his arms unfold around John’s back, and he pulls in a slow breath, body curving into John’s as he exhales. It’s as good as they’ve ever managed, and it takes John by surprise — the two of them standing in this public space, with the sounds of the crowd reverberating around them, and not being completely incompetent at this. “Give me a call sometime, okay?” he says, and it comes out scratchy. “In a few days or something; let me know how it’s going.”

He feels Rodney’s answering nod against his shoulder and cheek. “Okay,” Rodney whispers. His hands fist down into the back of John’s shirt, quickly enough that the hug ends before John fully registers it. Pulling back to a more normal distance, Rodney rubs his hands briefly over each other, then repositions the strap of his bag over his shoulder and pulls out the handle of his suitcase. Eyes on John’s, he takes one backward step, then turns and heads off toward the security line.

John walks out the big glass doors with the phantom heat of Rodney’s hands lingering on his shoulder blades, like the skin under his shirt is still glowing faintly red.

That night, the first email shows up in his inbox.

From: e.i.pi.1.0@gmail.com
To: kittinger.iii@gmail.com
Subject: [none]

Things I have learned so far today:

1) Airplane meals are strangely appetizing.
2) Apparently, Canadian mosquitoes feel similarly about every inch of my exposed skin.
3) My little sister is frighteningly smart, as demonstrated by the fact that it took her fifteen minutes to figure out my email password for me in between wandering down the hall to help Madison with her bath.

It goes on for about a page and a half, stringing together observations and incidents with no real regard for chronological order, like every email Rodney’s ever sent him when one or the other of them was somewhere else. John reads it twice before he notices the short sentence tacked on at the very end like an afterthought: 4) I think I like it here.

What he sends back is:

From: kittinger.iii@gmail.com
To: e.i.pi.1.0@gmail.com
Subject: Re 2.

R- Check the medicine cabinet. Jeannie stockpiles calamine for WWIII. -Sheppard.

And this is how the next week goes.

Rodney’s been gone for close to two weeks when John finally picks up the phone and calls Canada. “Miller residence.”

“Hey, Jeannie,” he says, smiling. She always answers the phone the same way: mildly, and like she’s ready to remove an ear should you be wasting her time. “How are the mosquitoes?”

She snorts. “Carrying West Nile, or so the news claims, but what’s a summer without the thrill of potential encephalitis? How about L.A. — still full of waiter-slash-hookers running on amphetamines and conspicuous consumption?”

“Don’t forget Mystic Tan,” John deadpans as he wanders over the window. He’s been around Jeannie a handful of times over the years and gone with Rodney to visit her once or twice. She’s a lot like her brother, only with basic tact and much more social perceptiveness. He’s always secretly thought that if things had been different, he could have ended up marrying a girl like her. It still would have been a disaster, but potentially an enjoyable one. “Is Rodney around?”

“My daughter hijacked him about forty-five minutes ago for a suburban front-lawn safari. I’m half-expecting her to knock him into the Terwilligers’ pond and come running back to the house like Lassie — which is what happened last month with Kaleb’s nephew,” she sighs. “You want me to stick my head out and see if they’re in shouting distance?”

John grins. “Nah, I wouldn’t want to interrupt the adventure. You can tell Timmy I called after you’ve fished him out of the well.” This is the time to say hey, good talking to you and get off the phone, but somehow that doesn’t happen. He watches as a flock of seagulls dive and squabble in the parking lot of the Ethiopian grocery across the street, his hand pressed against the pane of glass.

“John?” Jeannie says after several long seconds. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” He turns away and leans against the sill. “Yeah, I’m okay. You?”

This time the pause is hers. “I don’t know how to answer that question,” she replies slowly. Over the phone line, he can hear the faint sound of her footsteps, then a quiet rise in traffic and wind, like she’s sat down by a screen door or an open window. “We’ve spent the last few days going through old stuff — boxes he left when he went to university, family photos, some old letters. He asked to. It’s been … intense.”

It’s like prodding a sore tooth, but he can’t stop himself. “Does he–?”

“Remember anything? No.” She lets out a short puff of air, halfway to a laugh at best. “He’s been my older brother my whole life, and the earliest memory he has of me is from a couple Tuesdays ago.”

Tipping his head back against the window, John rubs his eyes. “I know how you feel.”

“Do you?” she asks cryptically. He winces, because way to go, jackass, she’s his goddamn sister. Before he can figure out how to back away from the error, she says, “Do you know what he asked me yesterday?” She waits for a beat. “If I thought he could learn to play piano again.”

He can’t think of anything to say to it, so he doesn’t. The glass behind him is hot in the afternoon sun, and he can hear the gulls laughing as they wheel.

“There are all these really important things, family things, that he doesn’t know anymore,” she says, her voice matter-of-fact. It’s another thing she and Rodney share: a way of describing painful things like they’re the laws of conservation, something only an idiot would deny or try to change. “Like that he made me cry at my first ballet recital because he yelled at me for going too slow, or that he wouldn’t come to my wedding because of the fight we had when I quit school, but he snuck into the reception to threaten Kaleb with chemical castration if he broke my heart. It should kill me that he doesn’t remember, and it’s hard, but I was ready for it. Did I hope that flying over the Great Lakes might make him magically better?” She laughs, but with less derision than John would’ve expected. “Okay, stupidly, yes — but I knew it was going to be like this.”

The outdoor sounds over the phone line get clearer, as though she’s propped her head right up against the window or door. “The thing that gets me is, I always thought Mer was innately cynical, you know? Even when we were kids, I could tell life kept disappointing him. It’s the downside of having that much vision, I guess — the real thing will always let you down.” She makes a humming sound, as though surprised at how the words sound out loud. “But talking to him now … it’s like no one ever gave him the memo that everything except science was going to fall through for him. No one told him he was destined to be unhappy. God,” and there’s anger in her voice now, coming through clearly over other things he can’t untangle, “if he had any idea how much he’s lost — but then I catch myself looking at him, and there’s this tiny part of me that wonders …”

She trails off, and John finds his free hand is gripping the window sill, instinctively braced for the end of her sentence. By some small mercy, she leaves it, instead asking, “You still there?”

He cracks his neck and switches the phone to the other shoulder. “Yeah. I’m here.”

They’re both quiet for a minute. When she speaks again, her tone is different, softer. “You know one of the things that hasn’t changed, John?” she asks. “He still talks about you as much as he always did.”

Before John can respond, a door bangs open on her end and there are loud feet and voices, a small child chattering excitedly and Jeannie calling, “Hey Mer, I’ve got John on the phone!” He hears the thump and fumble as she crosses the room and the phone changes hands, and then Rodney’s on the line, breathless and animated as he says, “I just got an hour long entomology lesson from someone in a princess costume — seriously, there were Latin names and everything. That was either the most amazing or the most surreal experience I’ve had — well, that I can remember, anyway — only I think we should be worried that my niece is going to hit puberty and use cockroaches to take over the world.”

John stays on the line, grinning and offering the occasional dry remark, but his thoughts keep bouncing like a tennis ball between this conversation and the one before it. He’s trying not to picture Rodney at eight, at eleven, and already disappointed; he’s trying to remember the way Rodney sounded when he talked about physics, without remembering how he never sounded that way when he talked about anything else.

June takes a while to end, but the weeks add up surprisingly quickly and it’s July before John really expects it. The last month seems condensed when he looks back on it, like after it passed him it moved up to relativistic speeds. He and Rodney once had a drunken discussion about this phenomenon, how time periods were starting to seem shorter once they were over, and whether this was related to the accelerating expansion of the universe or just a sign of a more personal form of entropy.

Weir sends him on a couple of longer charters — a week shuttling around the Mediterranean, ten days in Brazil where some producer pays him an insane bonus to stay local and then never calls him in. It’s boring but not that bad; he spends a lot of it surfing. Being back in L.A. is actually harder. He either rattles around his apartment or roams the city restlessly, at loose ends either way. There’s nothing to do, or at least no one to do it with. Summer is peak season for Lost World, and Teyla’s running back-to-back trips across three continents. Ronon’s preparing for an MMA tournament in Tokyo. Carson’s overseeing the end of an eighteen-month research trial, and Laura’s whole division is hip-deep in paperwork in the wake of a bomb scare at Cleveland High.

John’s not used to having trouble keeping his own company, but time alone means time to think, and these days his thoughts keep heading places he really doesn’t want to go. If he had the PS2 it might be easier to fill the hours, but it’s still at Rodney’s and he can’t bring himself to go get it. He doesn’t want to see the condo vacant, all of the things it contains unmoved for a month, losing meaning. Lately, if he lets his mind wander, he keeps running up hard against the image of helping Rodney pack the place up, filling trash bags and labeling boxes — or worse, standing there alone watching movers load it all onto a truck bound for Canada.

They’re emailing each other more or less daily, and talking on the phone once a week or so. It’s fine, not awkward in any way, but each interaction leaves John feeling like he’s standing on a beach with the outbound tide stealing the sand from under his feet. Jeannie’s started teaching Rodney physics, working up through the basic building blocks. It’s fascinating, he writes to John, the way the different theories fit together. We’re not really getting into specifics yet, but I think I’m starting to understand why I spent the last twenty years on this. It’s hard to resist the idea that you can build the universe if you get the math right. It should be good to hear him talk about it, and it is, but it’s also unfair as fuck, and every time it drags John back to the longer view.

In the timeline of his memory, Rodney has now spent longer in Ontario than L.A. Jeannie, his closest relative, is there. She also happens to have a better grasp of the bleeding edge of theoretical physics — Rodney’s physics — than three-quarters of the people actively publishing it. Also there are the archived possessions of the first half of his life, including ten years of sheet music and the family piano, which Jeannie says he spends more time at every day. Rodney doesn’t write about the music much, but when he does there’s a sense of awe in the sentences, like the scales and child’s exercises are the first fragmentary translations of a Rosetta Stone.

Compared to that, what does Los Angeles have to offer him? A thousand square feet of things he can’t remember buying. A prestigious job he’s no longer qualified to fill. Five people he barely knows, and nine million he doesn’t.

On the fourth of July, John takes Mulholland Drive up into the hills to watch the fireworks from above. Tiny domed bursts rise and fall across the city, a festive sketch of combat zone — sound without fury, light without smoke, crayon colors instead of ocher and carbon black. Another year gone by, and he sits on the hood of his car and can’t pretend any more that the next one won’t be different. If there’s one thing John’s learned, it’s not to waste time trying to recover something that’s come apart. The moment it slips out of your fingers, it’s already accelerating away.

You can’t stop entropy.

He drives back down sometime after midnight, acceptance heavy in his chest. Two days later, Rodney calls him. “Hey, if you’re around on Sunday, could you pick me up from the airport? I’m coming home.”

Rodney comes off his flight with big dark circles under his eyes, tired and scattered enough that John just drops him back at the condo to order dinner and get some sleep. He’s got an appointment with Carson the next morning — “not more tests, thank God,” Rodney groans from the passenger seat, but to talk.

When John picks him up for it, he looks rested but also nervous, and by the end of the drive to Cedars-Sinai, John is too. In the elevator, he keeps his hands shoved in his pockets while Rodney fidgets. It’s been two months now with no answers, and it’s strange to imagine that in half an hour, they might have them.

As it turns out, that won’t be an issue. “You’re kidding me,” John says.

“They ruled out most of the major physical causes before Rodney left Cottage Hospital,” Carson says, leaning back against his desk. “Since our initial tests didn’t find anything they’d missed — tiny lesions, clots, newly-formed tumors, those sorts of things,” he fills in, wincing apologetically when Rodney’s eyebrows shoot upward, “we decided to track your brain’s electrical activity. Our hope was that by collecting data over time, we might find a pattern that would point us to the cause of your memory loss.”

“And?” Rodney spreads his hands in exasperation.

“We’ve detected subtle changes, but nothing that indicates an initial point of damage,” Carson replies. “It could your brain finding its way back to your memories, or you may simply be building new neural pathways in reaction to new experiences, the way we all do. We can continue regular testing, but there’s no guarantee that we’d learn anything of value to your recovery. In my professional opinion, you need to consider whether the time and the expense is worth it to you.”

“Well, that’s just great,” Rodney snaps, and then grimaces, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Sorry, but — seriously, this is the best medical science has to offer?”

Glancing back and forth between the two of them, Carson sighs. “There’s one possibility we haven’t discussed yet.”

John straightens, not liking the reluctant undertone in Carson’s voice. After a couple seconds pass, Rodney looks up and demands, “Well?”

“Of the different types of memory loss, retrograde amnesia is one of the rarer ones,” Carson says, “and the kind you have — complete retrograde amnesia with no other impairments — is among the rarest. Without a medical explanation, we have to consider that the memory loss may have a psychological basis — dissociative amnesia, for example, or a fugue state.”

Rodney laughs harshly. “So — what, I just spontaneously went crazy? Fantastic.”

“Not crazy,” Carson corrects gently, “and both conditions can be brought on by trauma or extreme stress. I didn’t bring it up earlier because your symptoms aren’t quite right; you’ve lost knowledge about the world, not just personal memories. But you’d need to see a psychiatrist to really look into the possibility — it’s not my field.”

“If that’s what it is,” John asks, “will he get his memory back?”

Carson nods. “He could. People suffering from psychogenic memory loss usually recover at least partially, but the conditions don’t typically last this long. I don’t know what the time factor means here.”

John sets his jaw. “Is talking to a shrink going to help?” he asks, ignoring the disbelieving look Rodney shoots him.

Carson’s hands open and close around the edge of the desk, then he admits, “I honestly don’t know.”

“Jesus.” Rodney scrubs both hands through his hair. “So what am I supposed to do?”

John looks back to Carson, who’s studying Rodney’s face. “At this point?” he says, and there’s an unexpected weight to the words that reminds John that Carson has known Rodney for half their lives, too. “I think that’s up to you.”

They spend the first fifteen minutes of the drive in silence, until Rodney says, with no preamble, “I spent Saturday night in the emergency room.”

John doesn’t run the car onto the shoulder this time, but it’s a near thing. “Jesus Christ,” he hisses, frantically dodging SUVs as he tries to remember what the next off-ramp is, “you bring this up now? We’re going back, you’re going to tell Carson–”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Rodney groans. “It wasn’t that, would you — no, keep driving, I’ll explain, just quit playing Burnout on the freeway already!”

John settles into the middle lane, teeth gritted. “What the fuck, McKay.”

Loosening his grip on the sides of his seat, Rodney lets his breath out with relief. “I’d really prefer to keep it to one near death experience a week or less — yes, yes, explaining. You: eyes on the road,” he orders, flapping at the windshield until John turns his head forward again. “Jeannie and Kaleb took me out to this great restaurant, or so they told me. We didn’t really get past the menu reading portion of the evening because it turns out they serve their water with lime.”

John’s hands clench on the wheel and gearshift before he forces them to ease off. “Oh, god damn it all to hell.”

Rodney snorts. “It was quite the farce — I can’t breathe, Kaleb’s shouting for an ambulance, and Jeannie’s shouting at the waiter who, in his panic, is trying to give me the Heimlich maneuver.” Poking experimentally at his side, he winces. “Moron nearly cracked one of my ribs. The hero of the hour ended up being the eleven-year-old girl who ran across the restaurant to stab me in the thigh with her EpiPen.”

His laughter is low, more disgusted than amused. He leans back and crosses his arms dismissively in front of his chest. “The rest was fairly anticlimactic — ambulance ride followed by some really big needles, then they sent me home. I have to tell you,” he adds, “I don’t know if you’ve ever had epinephrine administered to you, but I’m convinced the experience is only preferable to anaphylaxis because it doesn’t actually end in death.”

John was there when someone knocked a glass of lemonade over on Rodney at Caltech. Seeing it once was enough. He still remembers the shiny red mottling that had sprung up over Rodney’s skin, almost too rapidly to believe, and how his swollen fingers had fumbled with the cap on the EpiPen. They’d walked to the Health Center like the losing team in a three-legged race, John keeping up a steady flow of mockery as he listened to the faint, terrifying wheeze from Rodney’s chest.

And that was just from skin contact. Christ. “I can’t believe — fuck.” He smacks on hand against the dash. “How did that even happen? Didn’t you check?”

“It was water,” Rodney grumbles defensively. “I know you told me to check the ingredients in everything, but when someone puts a glass of water in front of me and all I see in it is ice, I assume that the ingredients are: water, and frozen water. It’s not like I recognized the taste, though believe me, I don’t think I’ll forget it anytime soon.”

“And Jeannie didn’t stop you?” John demands.

Rodney rolls his eyes. “When was the last time she needed to stop me? I can’t imagine that my deadly allergy to citrus really slipped my mind that often.”

John takes a deep breath as he merges back into the diamond lane. “Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?” he asks, trying for a calmer tone.

Rodney shrugs, fingers flexing upward while his thumbs stay tucked in the crook of his armpits. “What were you going to do about it? Besides change lanes like a crazy person.”

“Fine,” John bites off. “Why are you telling me now?”

“Because–!” Rodney snaps, turning towards John. He goes silent for a few seconds, then slumps slowly back against the seat. “Because I can’t keep doing this,” he says, quietly. He props his arm along the door and taps his fingers on the glass of the window. “I can’t keep fumbling around and, and waiting for someone else to explain everything. I mean, you told me about this, but … that wasn’t the same as knowing it.” He breathes out shakily, a remnant of laughter as pale as his face. “Not even remotely.”

From the corner of his eye, John watches Rodney flatten his hand against the window; after half a mile, it curls back in on itself and drops down into his lap. “I can’t keep waiting for things to happen to me. I either need to remember — soon, now — or I need to start over.” Tipping his head sideways against the door frame, he murmurs, “It’s getting too hard not to know.”

They’re quiet for the rest of the drive back to the condo; there just isn’t much to say.

John swings by his apartment to change and grab his overnight bag, then gets to the hangar just in time for his 2 p.m. booking; Clooney, unlike a lot of Copernicus’ clients, is always on time. It’s not until they touch down at LaGuardia (after over an hour of circling — some days, John really detests civilian air traffic control) that he discovers his cell phone is still in L.A., presumably in the pocket of the jeans he’d worn that morning.

Because it’s Copernicus policy for pilots to be constantly reachable during a trip in case of last minute changes in itinerary, this means he’s stuck in the hotel from Monday night until Thursday morning. He alternates between his room, the gym, and the surprisingly adequate lap pool, detouring obediently by the front desk every time he changes locations to let them know where to direct messages. By the time he finally checks out, he’s pretty sure that the staff are as sick of his fixed, friendly grin as he is of giving it to them.

When he gets back to his apartment on Thursday afternoon, there’s a message from Rodney, left late the night before.

“Hey, it’s — oh, fuck, it’s almost three in the morning where you are. Um. Well. That was stupid.” Rodney laughs self-consciously and clears his throat. “Prior to that failure to correctly note the time and add three, I was calling to tell you that I’ve decided what I’m going to do — for now,” he interrupts himself, as John’s heartbeat stutters in his chest, his body suddenly on alert, “at least until the next time my life suddenly upends itself, which at the current pace will be in about a month or so, but, anyway. I called one of the local universities — UCLA? — and they gave me the name of a music professor who takes private piano students. They also said it wasn’t too late to enroll as a post-baccalaureate for the fall, which I hadn’t really thought about before, but it sounded. I don’t know. Appealing.”

John half-sits on the arm of the couch, his legs still supporting most of his weight. “I checked with my financial advisor,” Rodney continues, “to find out how long I can go without working, and she started laughing too hard to answer, so apparently, it’s a while.” He can hear the faint bump of Rodney’s footsteps in the pauses, wandering as he tries to map his way toward what he wants to say. “Tomorrow, I’m going over there to fill out the registration paperwork. I haven’t decided what to take yet, beyond a couple of music theory courses. I know you’re going to ask about physics — Jeannie will too, when I call her, and …” The pause goes on long enough for John to register how tightly his hand is wrapped around the phone, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort of loosening his grip. “I haven’t made up my mind yet.” Rodney says it like it’s an admission of failure, though John can’t tell to whom. “If I eventually get my memory back, then taking classes I used to teach is obviously going to be a colossal waste of time. And if I don’t …”

His footsteps circle and pause, circle and pause, hitting the same squeaky spot on the floor three times before he finally says, “It took me twenty years to get to where I was. It doesn’t make sense to try and redo everything and hope that twenty years from now, I’ll like the results as much the second time around. I have no idea if I’m any good at music, but …” Rodney takes a slow breath, holds it for a moment, and then puffs it back out. “It makes me happy. That seems like as good a place as any to start.” His tone is baffled but warm, like he’s surprised, a little embarrassed, and okay with it. Staring at the carpet, John tries to place it in his memory. He can’t. He’s never heard it before.

In a brisker tone, Rodney says, “In the afternoon, I’m driving to Caltech to tell them that I won’t be teaching there this fall, for reasons of being unexpectedly and profoundly unqualified to do so. It seems like something that might go over slightly better in person–” he delivers this with more than a little irony “–though I could be seriously wrong about that. I don’t know how long it’s going to take — crap, do I have an office? I hope they have a box I can use to take stuff back, or …” He trails off, preoccupied. John hadn’t really followed the last sentence anyway, because Rodney’s going to Caltech — not going, fuck, he’s there right now, and it may be summer but that just means everyone’s packing in the research while they don’t have to teach. Christ, half the department’s probably there — “Anyway,” Rodney cuts back in, “I should be home in the evening. If you want, you could come over,” he offers, oddly hesitant. “Other than that ’super-fun’ medical excursion, we haven’t really …” His footsteps falter as he goes quiet. After a moment, he snorts. “Okay, you know what? This message is getting ludicrously long. I’ll talk to you later.”

There’s the fumble of his hand as he hangs up, then the mechanical voice of John’s mailbox chimes, “To delete this message, press seven; to save it in the archives, press–” He hits a couple of buttons without registering which ones they are, then looks at the phone for a long minute, trying and failing to get his head to produce anything more helpful than … what the fuck.

The phone switches to screensaver, the time blinking across different parts of the screen. 3:14 pm. Figure six o’clock at least to be sure Rodney will get to the condo first. His mind’s pulling out of the initial shock into the more intricate holding pattern of what if, what if, what if; that’s actually worse, so he grabs his bag off the floor and heads into the bedroom to change. Three minutes later he’s out in the crushing heat, water bottle in one hand. He takes off up Fairfax at a little above his usual pace, listening to the soles of his running shoes slap the pavement and trying to drown out the questions in his head.

John runs long enough and hard enough that he’s going to regret it tomorrow, but it doesn’t kick the jittery feeling, that nervous-adrenaline sense of something about to go down. He stretches out and takes a much longer shower than he really wants to stand still for, annoyed at himself for getting this amped up when there’s no indication that anything’s wrong. When I don’t know anything at all, he thinks. As soon as that slips out, he scowls and flips the water to full cold, biting back a yelp.

Hair still damp, he heads over to the kitchen to down a glass of water and a couple of bananas. It’s 6:53 by the time he’s finished; late enough. Taking a deep breath, he dials Rodney, who picks up after the third ring. “Hello?”

“Hey,” John says, laid-back as he can manage. “How’d it go today?”

Rodney’s answering laugh is sharp enough to cut glass. “Let me tell you how much I don’t want to talk about it.” Then he hangs up the phone.

John stares down at his cell. “Mother fuck,” he says. He grabs his keys and strides out the door.

It takes nearly forty fucking minutes to make the fucking fifteen minute drive to Rodney’s. It’s enough to make him wish he didn’t keep the inside of his car so immaculately empty, because then he could at least throw shit at the other vehicles to pass the time. Elevator, he thinks as he punches in the door code and ducks into the lobby, elevator today. He makes it through maybe seven seconds of waiting before turning around and taking the stairs. He walks them, and the hall too, which should count as a major accomplishment since he can hear Rodney’s feet tracking agitated patterns on the other side of the wall.

Rodney’s at the far end of the main room when John opens the door; turning partway, he throws one hand up in a gesture of surrender. “Yeah, I had a feeling that wasn’t going to work.”

No fuck, it wasn’t, John thinks, but he doesn’t take the bait. Rodney’s pacing again, both hands clenched by his sides, so John heads for the island instead. “What happened?” he asks, leaning back against the counter. Rodney scoffs and rolls his eyes everywhere but in John’s direction. “Did something go wrong?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rodney says scornfully, back turned to John as he heads toward the balcony. “I drove down there, I spent an hour talking to the division chair, he introduced me to some of my would-have-been-colleagues, I left.”

“And that’s it,” John says.

Tilting his head back, Rodney holds up both hands in a disgusted, lightning-can-strike-anytime-now gesture. “Well, the drive back took so long that I’d started to wonder if I’d missed the freeway and made a wrong turn into a really poorly-designed parking lot, but otherwise? That’s it.”

John folds his arms across his chest. “Okay. So what’s the part you’re leaving out?” Turning, Rodney lets out a startled bark of laughter and stares at John with disbelief scrawled over his face. “Did someone say something?” John tries, watching Rodney’s eyebrows climb higher. “Something … I don’t know–” he searches for a better word and can’t find one “–mean?”

“What, Sheppard, are we four?” Rodney says with biting slowness, then sighs and rubs a hand across his eyes. “No, no one said anything mean.

“Look, Rodney,” John says, crossing the room toward him, “you made it to the top of a field where they run online gossip clearinghouses to track each other’s promotions. These people aren’t really known for tact and social grace–”

Rodney groans. “They didn’t do anything, all right, now would you drop it?”

“Was it Holst?” he persists, ducking around as Rodney tries to turn away. “It was Benson, wasn’t it — you know, he’s never gotten over that thing back in ‘98 where–”

“Jesus, don’t you get it?” Rodney yells, rounding on him and startling them both. Rodney recovers first, walking a few steps away and bracing one hand on the back of the couch, his head bent toward the floor. “Nobody did anything,” he mutters. “I mean, yes, fine, it was weird to keep explaining to people that I had total amnesia and didn’t know any of them, but once we got past that part, they were fine, okay? They asked about my health, what my plans were, a couple of them told me stories. They all seemed like basically decent people.” He laughs, bitterly, with his jaw set tight. “Nice, even. And then at the end, they’d wish me luck, and they’d all say something like, Gee, McKay, I have to tell you, I think this is the nicest conversation I’ve ever had with you.”

John stands there, stricken, as Rodney turns and levels him with the full weight of his accusatory stare. “Every person, John. I was being civil to strangers and everyone I met seemed shocked — shocked — when I managed that. So what am I supposed to learn from that, hmm? Given the evidence, what’s the only reasonable conclusion to come to?”

“Don’t,” he says, the vowel thin in his dry throat.

Rodney shakes his head and turns to look at far wall, the shelf of publications in isolation there. “I think Tombrello could tell it was starting to get to me, because he kept trying to make excuses in between people — excuses for them, but really, they just kept turning into excuses for me.” He laughs again, like he’s too ground down not to find it funny, and spreads his hands helplessly. John hasn’t heard him sound like this in weeks, and the familiarity of it hits him like a punch to the chest, because he knows this tone, he’s known it for years and he hates it, God, he’s always hated it, how did he never realize–

“What kind of a person was I?” Rodney asks, sounding bewildered, defeated. “What kind of miserable excuse for a human being, what kind of an asshole–” and without thinking, John closes the few steps between them and yanks Rodney around and kisses him hard on the mouth.

It’s over fast; John pulls away, because fuck, he hadn’t meant to do that. He takes his hand off Rodney’s arm. “You weren’t,” he says, dropping back a step. “You’re not.”

Rodney’s staring like John just threw the laws of physics out the window, like there isn’t time to waste on surprise if he’s going to figure out what insane thing is going to happen next. After a moment, he says, “I thought. You said we weren’t …”

“We weren’t.” Taking a deep breath, he knots a hand in his hair, then lets it fall back down to his side. He’s so tired of carrying these things around, these truths he didn’t ask for, these secrets he doesn’t want to keep, and it just keeps happening. “But I wanted to.”

Rodney’s eyes dart back and forth over John’s face, his brows drawing slightly down. “Then why,” he starts, slowly.

John swallows. “You didn’t,” he says, and he walks over to the balcony door. Pressing his palm against the glass, he closes his eyes, because there it is. There’s nothing left to say.

Rodney’s feet pad up behind him until they’re standing side by side. John waits for whatever’s coming — reproach or anger, excuse or, worse, acquittal, it’ll be his own damn fault either way. Long seconds pass, and then Rodney says, “I think you’re wrong.”

His voice is pitched soft and low; when John turns his head, Rodney has an intent expression on his face, like he’s watching the pieces come together. “I think I must have.”

A weird shiver runs through John, and he braces himself against it. He shakes his head. “You don’t know that.”

Rodney’s mouth twists into a smile John hasn’t seen before, and he lifts one shoulder slightly. “No,” he agrees. “I don’t.” Very carefully, he reaches out and slides his hand around John’s wrist, his fingers brushing over the knobs of it. Rodney’s gaze has dropped to follow what he’s doing; the touch is light, but incredibly focused. John twitches again, but he doesn’t pull back, and Rodney shifts his hand higher, thumb dragging over the thin skin of John’s inner arm until it comes to rest in the crook of his elbow.

John can feel his own pulse beating just below the surface as Rodney steps in closer, and he shuts his eyes without meaning to. “What if you’re wrong?” he asks, hearing the desperate edge in his own voice, the way the words come out frayed around the edges.

Rodney laughs softly, his breath hot and gentle over John’s mouth. “I really don’t care,” he murmurs, and his free hand curls over the back of John’s neck as he pulls John’s mouth down onto his.

[2007. The end of April.]

“Montana?” Rodney says, and takes another sip of his beer. “Really?”

John shrugs and leans back a little farther against the balcony railing, hands braced on the cool metal. “Or Wyoming, or maybe even Alaska. Pretty much anywhere with a shortage of major airports and enough tourism that I could pick up charter work without having to live in the city.”

Rodney raises his eyebrows. “You’re seriously contemplating a career shuttling rich hippies around the ass-end of nowhere?”

“Hey, if it’s a living,” John dead-pans. It’s past twilight now, getting cool, with a sliver moon hung off-kilter in the sky and the western horizon draining from orange into the strange, muted color John’s never seen outside of a California sunset, chlorofluorocarbon green. He swallows another mouthful of his lager. “It’s got to be better than L.A.”

“Okay, I think that’s flawed logic to base the rest of your life on,” Rodney says, but he’s rolling the bottle between his hands, frowning thoughtfully. “How long do you think it’ll take you? To save up what you need?”

“Five and a half years.” Rodney looks over at him, and he holds a hand up, ticking things off as he goes. “Chunk of land in the backwoods, cabin, plane, fuel, insurance, and enough savings that I could make it on a charter a month, maybe less in the off-season.”

“You factor in land appreciation?” Rodney asks, and his eyebrows jump a little higher when John opens his mouth to give the long version of the answer. Busted. John chips at the flaking paint on the railing, and Rodney smacks his hand away, griping, “And I’ll thank you to quit driving down my property value.”

John grins and twists around until he’s leaning forward over the edge, forearms propped on the railing. They watch the stoplights down below change colors, cars weaving through the dusk. “How long have you been doing the math?” Rodney asks quietly.

“I’ll be doing it a while longer, McKay,” he drawls, and he can feel Rodney roll his eyes without needing to see it. He shrugs. “A year, maybe.”

Rodney takes another drink of beer. “You told anyone else yet?”

“Just you.”

Rodney makes a noncommittal noise that might be gratification if it were less distracted. He’s frowning at the cityscape, eyes flickering over the empty air as he runs his own numbers. “You have to have enough saved for a plane by now,” he says, “why not just …?”

John shakes his head. “Renting hanger space would set me back another two years at least. Better to wait. Besides, Copernicus isn’t bad, this is just …” He picks at the edge of the label. “Something to look forward to, I guess.”

“So this is your grand ambition,” Rodney pronounces sarcastically, “Walden Pond with a pilot’s license. And what exactly do you plan to do in your month-long weekends, besides get frostbite and pioneer the exciting field of subsistence chartering?”

John scratches his head. “After I write the Great American Novel, you mean? Let’s see; grow a beard, give up deodorant … maybe take up fly fishing.”

“Oh my god, I hate you so much,” Rodney groans, dangling his arms over the edge and flopping forward onto them in disgust. John laughs.

“Really? I don’t know,” he says, and tips back the last of his beer. “But I’m looking forward to the quiet.”

Rodney snorts. “Jesus, and everybody thinks I’m the misanthrope.” John grins, but it fades as their banter lags. The air is laced with urban sounds: the Doppler wail of a distant siren, the bass from the stereos of the passing cars, the rise and fall of sidewalk conversations. Rodney’s fingers drum on the railing; after a minute, he lets out a resigned sigh. “Well, if I’m going to be spending my vacations in some bug-infested cabin out in who the hell knows where, you’d better make room in your budget for wireless.”

John turns to stare at him. “What?” Rodney demands, aggrieved. “I already know that you’re not going to have air conditioning, but you’re clearly delusional if you think I’m going to last more than forty-eight hours without–” which is when John rolls his eyes and snags the beer out of Rodney’s hand. He sets both bottles on the ground and twists back up in one smooth motion that ends with him grabbing a handful of Rodney’s shirt and sliding their mouths together.

He takes his time, makes it easy and a little messy; he’s just buzzed enough to laugh at the way Rodney’s cheek goes slack under his other hand, to take advantage of the unrestricted access to his lower lip when his jaw drops open, the way he’s too stunned to move. It’s good, even better than he’d always thought it would be. He’s grinning when he pulls back, already picturing the shocked look on Rodney’s face, because that’s going to be just icing.

His expression is perfect, cartoon-character surprise, but John’s more caught by the faint flush on his mouth, the shine of moisture smeared across his lips. Oh yeah, this is a good idea, he thinks, watching Rodney’s throat bob as he swallows and says,

“What the fuck was that,”

and disappears inside before John can do more than register how wrong his voice is, before the grin has time to fall all the way off his face.

When he pokes his head around the corner, Rodney’s standing in the kitchen with his hands braced on the island, head down. “Hey,” John says, stepping inside. “You all right?”

Rodney twitches and takes a deep breath, letting it out with a weird shudder, like a dog coming in out of the rain. “Okay, that’s kind of fast to be that drunk, even for you,” he says, heading for the fridge. His voice is strange, too hoarse for sarcasm, too shaky for amusement.

John’s hands have floated out from his sides, spread face-down in a balancing gesture, like his body knows something he doesn’t. “I’m not drunk,” he says. It somehow misses neutral and comes out slightly sardonic.

Rodney’s laugh echoes hollowly out from the inside of the fridge. “That’s unfortunate, because I have this feeling that the next few minutes would be a lot easier if we could just chalk this up to you being a notorious lightweight.”

He comes back up with a beer and starts rummaging through the cupboard for the bottle opener. John takes it out of his pocket and slides it across the counter, holding it down for a second when Rodney reaches for it, just long enough to make him look up and meet John’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” John says, keeping his voice level this time. “I didn’t mean to surprise you.”

Rodney’s eyebrows shoot up. “You didn’t?”

John blinks. “… Uh, maybe a little.” Rodney’s mouth tugs up into a grim smirk as he fumbles with the bottle opener, trying and failing to get purchase on the cap. “But that wasn’t — I thought–”

He trails off, face getting warm; Rodney’s turned halfway around and doesn’t see it. “What,” he says, with distracted bluntness, “that I wanted to sleep with you?” The sentence rings out clear in the room, and both of them go still. A muscle jumps in Rodney’s jaw; he shifts his grip and pops the cap off with a grunt. “Thanks,” he mutters, shoving the bottle opener into a drawer, “but I’ve got a little more self-respect than that.”

John’s skin goes abruptly cold, like someone’s thrown a bucket of ice water over him. Rodney turns enough to see John in his periphery and his mouth twitches, but he doesn’t make any move to take it back.

“Okay,” John says slowly, “what the hell?”

Rodney huffs a fragmentary laugh and raises the bottle as though John had made a toast, then takes a long drink. Wiping the back of his hand over his mouth, he asks, “What was the name of the last guy you slept with?”

His spine stiffens, reflexes kicking in at the non sequitur. “Excuse me?”

Rodney nods, like it was the answer he was expecting. When he drops his head to study the bottle, the light spills down along the edges of his face and finds the sharp bone of his temple, the softening edge of his jaw, but leaves his profile in shadow. “You know that after college, I never met any of them? No one you admitted to, anyway. Without an introduction, it’s not like I’d know.”

“What are you talking about?” They seem to have slipped into some fucked-up Socratic mode, because John doesn’t know where the hell this is coming from but Rodney seems to have a destination in mind. It’s like being cornered, his blood singing fight or flight, fight or flight, and he’s still trying to remember when the last time was, because it’s been a while — the bar in D.C., maybe, last September, Travis, he thinks, no, Trevor? It’s ridiculous, it doesn’t matter, hell, it didn’t matter at the time, but he feels like if he can get it it’ll disprove — something, who the fuck knows what, was it Peter …

“I used to wonder about it,” Rodney says, turning the bottle around in his hands. “What it meant that you didn’t … but I think I can probably guess.” His mouth twists, and he takes another drink.

“Look, it wasn’t the kind of …” John snaps, irritated, because he’s not going to get it and it doesn’t matter anyway. There’s something else going on here and he’s missing it. “I wasn’t trying to …” Fuck, why can’t he finish a god damn sentence? He shoves the heels of his hands against his forehead and takes a deep breath. “It just was never important — I mean, if there’d been someone who mattered–”

Rodney sets the bottle down with a smack on the counter and smiles tightly. “Maybe I should reconsider your offer, then. Since I’d be in such exalted company.” It catches John off-guard, like a sudden slap. When he looks up, Rodney’s eyes are red-rimmed and hot, and he pins John with a glare. “Well, fuck you, John,” he spits, the consonants sharp as nails. “I’m not your Saturday night special.”

John’s whole body flares hot and cold again. “You miserable son of a bitch,” he starts, and clamps his teeth down hard on the rest. He spreads his hands out in front of him. “So that’s it — you’re just going to jump to the worst possible conclusion and stick with it?”

“If that’s what the evidence supports,” Rodney sneers, flicking one hand out.

“Jesus, everyone always told me you were an asshole, but I never–” It just slips out before John can stop it, and it’s not the first time he’s called Rodney that, but it’s the first time he’s wholeheartedly meant it. Both of them can hear the difference, and when Rodney flinches and breaks eye contact, some spiteful little part of John is gratified to see it, because what the fuck, what the fuck. He takes a fast step sideways, bringing himself back into the field of Rodney’s view, and says, “And you’re really comfortable living like that?”

Rodney’s shoulders droop a little, the lines of his face slipping into something less harsh, more defeated. “Well, it’s gotten me this far,” he says, softly, one corner of his mouth tilting upward. He turns away, but as he does there’s something in his expression that makes John want desperately to take it back, all of it, have the last ten minutes somehow stricken from the books, because this isn’t how he thought it would go, not at all.

He comes around the corner, not really sure what he intends to do. Set a hand on Rodney’s shoulder, maybe, but his feet falter at the way Rodney flinches at his approach. “Can you just,” he starts. His voice comes out rough, and his throat is painfully tight. “Can you just trust me on this?”

Rodney’s hands grip the edge of the counter; his head is hanging all the way down. “Fifteen years. And now you do this? I don’t understand, I just–” He pulls in a slow, ragged breath and scrubs both hands over his face. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he whispers behind his palms. He sounds worn thin, so lost that John takes a half-step forward, one hand coming up from his side. He pauses for just a moment, working up the nerve to reach out, and then Rodney turns and walks quickly around to the other side of the island.

“You need to go,” he says, without looking at John.

Still in the kitchen, John stares at him. “What?”

Rodney’s shoulders twitch, hunching down a little farther, his fingers resting on the edge of the island as if for balance or guidance. “I’ve got things to I have to take care of,” he mutters, and the lie barely registers, because all John hears in his voice is please — please let this go, please don’t make me finish this.

John swallows. This whole thing has gotten so far out of hand; he isn’t even sure how it happened, but he can’t leave it there. “Rodney,” he says, and moves to close the gap between them. Rodney’s eyes squeeze shut, and he holds one hand up in a gesture of warding, or maybe it’s surrender, but his palm is turned away from John and blocks his face from view.

“Get out. I can’t do this,” he says, fast and ragged. “Not with you.” He ducks into the study and pulls the door shut behind him.

It knocks the air out of John’s lungs, like he’d dropped two stories and hadn’t even noticed until his feet hit the ground. He stands there as the clack of Rodney’s keyboard starts up in the other room, staring at the closed door and waiting for something, anything else to happen. A minute goes by, and then another. He can feel his heart kicking into higher gear, his hands clenching down on nothing, and when he can’t take it anymore, he turns and walks out the door. Gravity starts to ride him on the way down the stairs, and by the time he gets to the bottom he’s taken the last flight three steps at a time, less a run than a barely controlled fall. He bursts through the lobby door and keeps the pace up all the way to his car, where he jams the key into the ignition and pulls out at the first gap in the traffic.

He drives the hills for hours, nowhere close to thinking, crisscrossing six counties and somehow ending up in the hills above Calabas, where he pulls over onto the shoulder and stares out over the hood of his car, listening to the engine tick like a broken clock winding down. Ten seconds or less, he thinks. That’s the time it always takes him to pull down the scaffolding from around his life, and there’s no way to put it back, afterwards. Take out one screw and the whole thing just crumbles under the force of holding together for that long, all the energy bound up in what could have been. The first and foremost law of the universe: nothing stays the same, and nothing lasts.

By the time he turns the engine back on, his whole body is numb and stiff with cold; his wrists ache as he turns the wheel. He wishes he could drive back with his eyes closed so he didn’t have to see the city. Five and a half years, he thinks, two thousand and eight days.

Something to look forward to.

It’s around five in the morning, and John’s standing on the balcony watching Thursday night lose its foothold on the eastern horizon, its deep blue shadows wearing to old denim gray. This is the heart of L.A. for him, eight stories up and looking north into the peaks and troughs of the densely packed buildings, the thick glow of a hundred million lights, the hills spreading out in the distance like a reminder. No matter what happens, he always seems to end up back here somehow, like these fifteen square feet are the fulcrum the rest of his life balances on, the one point that doesn’t shift. He’s still not sure why he likes this spot so much, but it’s the highest he can get in open air on a daily basis, and that could be enough. Someday he’s going to leave southern California, and he doesn’t know when or where he’ll go, but he thinks that when he does, this will be the one place in the city that he’ll miss. Or, more accurately, the one place that he’ll miss this city from.

The glass door is partway open, and through the gap he hears the soft sounds of Rodney’s footsteps, just audible over the muted noises drifting up from the streets. He doesn’t turn as the door slides farther back in its channel, but he shifts down the railing a little, opening up a space for Rodney to step into.

Padding up next to him, Rodney wraps his unzipped sweatshirt more securely around himself and tucks his hands into his armpits. “Hey,” he says, and yawns. “It’s kind of cold out here.”

Leaning out over the railing, John grins a little. “It’s July in southern California. Enjoy it while you can.”

Rodney hums by way of an answer, the sound skeptical but soft around the edges. His shoulder brushes John’s as he shifts forward to let the railing take his weight, and the contact sets off a light buzz over John’s skin. “Have you been out here long?”

“Maybe half an hour.” John pushes the balls of his feet against the concrete, checking his circulation. It’s not unusual for him to wake up an hour or two before dawn, and he’s learned to appreciate it, since getting up for a while makes it more likely that he’ll be able to fall back asleep. He likes the untethered feeling this time has, the way the air gets cool enough that he can feel the bite through his clothes. He’s in his jeans and a long-sleeved shirt he’d snagged out of an open drawer, which hangs soft and loose over his shoulders. He tugs the cuffs down over his wrists and weaves his fingers together. “It’s a good place to think, you know?”

Rodney nods, and John turns to look at him. His profile is clean and pale in the low light, the curves of his features drawn together in contemplation. There’s a faint reddish mark at the edge of his jaw, and it fills John with a bright, tenuous feeling he can’t really name; he wants to press his fingertips against it and find out if it’s warmer than the rest of his skin.

“You okay?” John asks.

Rodney ducks his head, and the side of his mouth tugs upward into a small, private expression. “Yeah,” he says, but the word sounds like a bridge to somewhere more complicated, and his smile fades as he studies the street below.

John watches him work through whatever’s going on in his head. After a couple of minutes, he slides his foot over and knocks his ankle into Rodney’s. “Hey.”

With a slow inhalation, Rodney lifts his head back up and sets his forearms on the railing; his hands dangle over the edge, long fingers just brushing together. “I wish I could remember,” he says. “For you, I mean. I’m sorry I don’t.”

It takes John by surprise. He twists toward Rodney, frowning a little. “It’s okay.”

“Is it?” Rodney tilts his chin up, scanning the graying sky, and hunches his shoulders a little farther forward. “There are things I should know, and I don’t, and I don’t know if that’s going to change.” He catches his lower lip in between his teeth; it slides free, and he turns his head to look at John. His eyes are serious, the same in-between color as the sky behind him, and the long lines of his eyebrows are set into a downward bend, inscribing a crease in the center of his forehead.

“If you wanted this before, this can’t be how you pictured it.” He delivers the statement with the frankness of basic logic: a=b, b=/=c, therefore a=/=c, but he wraps one hand around the other like he’s protecting something, or containing it. He shrugs. “It doesn’t seem fair.”

Pulling away from the rail, John leans into Rodney’s space, using the weight of his body to turn Rodney around to face him. He sets a palm between Rodney’s shoulder blades, spreading his fingers out to feel the broad planes of Rodney’s back, the firmness of muscle over bone. Tilting his head down, he nudges his mouth up and into Rodney’s, savoring the faint rasp of stubble where their cheeks brush, the way Rodney tips his face up into the kiss, simple and thoughtless. His hands settle onto John’s hips and slide slowly around to the small of his back, where his fingertips press tiny circles of spots of cold into the skin above the edge of his jeans, under the borrowed shirt. The tip of Rodney’s nose is cold too, but his lips are warm, and the taste of his mouth is sweet and unfamiliar. John could wrap himself in the newness of it, in these things he didn’t know.

By the time John pulls back, his whole body feels shivery and bright, like there’s electricity singing just under the surface of his skin. “It’s a lot more than …” he starts, and can’t finish the sentence. This isn’t fair or not fair; he can’t begin to weigh what’s happened on that scale. It isn’t what he pictured, but … it’s what he wants. And he didn’t think he’d ever get to have that.

Leaning in, he kisses Rodney again, just a brief brush of lips. “Really,” John whispers into his mouth, “it’s okay,” and some of what he means must be getting through, because Rodney’s breath hitches. He fists his hands into the hem of John’s shirt, and John wraps his other arm around Rodney’s shoulder and pushes his face into Rodney’s neck. They can do this now, it’s allowed.

“Go back to bed,” he says, “I’ll be in soon.” He unwinds his arms from around Rodney, who nods and slips past him, one hand brushing sleepily across John’s stomach as he heads for the door. The faint ghost of that last touch lingers after Rodney’s footsteps have faded into the condo, after John’s settled his hands on the railing again and turned his face to the east.

The thing is, he’s starting to be okay with the idea that Rodney may not get his memory back. The past isn’t gone just because he can’t remember it. It’s archived in letters and emails and international phone bills, in journals and textbooks, in twenty years of notepads filed in the study, in boxes in Ontario and the thousand photos lining The Wall. It’s still there in Carson’s memory, in Laura’s and Ronon’s and Teyla’s. It’s there in Jeannie’s. It’s there in John’s. They can never replace that firsthand knowledge, but they can reconstruct it for him, lay out the pieces of the past they all keep — for him to choose from, what to take and what to leave, and to shore up the foundations for each other.

Watching the first traces of dawn seep out over the city, what John thinks about are the proofs Rodney didn’t finish, the research he hadn’t published, the Nobel prize he never got to win. He thinks of that great holy grail, the Theory of Everything, and how other people are going to have to tie the pieces together, never knowing how much longer it will take without him, what difference he would have made. He remembers the way Rodney’s hands moved when he lectured, the fierce eloquence of his math. And he thinks about that last fight, the one they never had a chance to find their way back from. What, if anything, they might have salvaged in its wake.

He stands out there until the last of the night has retreated, leaving Los Angeles and all her inhabitants to the unknown providence of this pale morning. Light brims along the hills, the day preparing to spill over, and when the horizon is almost too bright to look at, John draws in one more breath of the crisp early chill and then heads inside, pulling the door shut behind him.

Epilogue.

[2007. October.]

John’s on his way to work when his cell phone rings. It’s Rodney; he slides onto the 405 interchange and thumbs the loudspeaker button. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class right now?”

“Um, I had to miss it. Something kind of came up.” There’s a muffled resonance behind the words, either an echo from the space he’s in or a problem with the line.

Frowning, John shifts his grip on the phone and merges over a lane. “Are you okay?”

“Yes?” It’s difficult to read his tone with the echo. He doesn’t sound bad, exactly, but vagueness from Rodney is generally a sign that something’s out of whack. “It’s kind of hard to tell, actually — can you come meet me?”

He checks the clock: 1:22 p.m. “If I turn around now, I’m not going to make it in on time. What’s going on? If I need to call in–”

“No,” Rodney says, “it’s not — I’m at VNY right now, in hangar, um …” He pauses briefly, like he’s checking a sign or a piece of paper “18-L. Do you know where that is?”

“Yeah, that’s one building over from Copernicus,” John answers distractedly, “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes — what’s this about?”

“I’m sort of hoping you can tell me that when you get here,” Rodney says, with just the slightest touch of irony. “Now get off the damn phone before you kill someone trying to shift and steer one-handed.” The phone beeps as the call cuts off, and John smirks and tosses it onto the passenger seat. He’s keyed-up now, because why the hell is Rodney in the hangars at Van Nuys Airport, but whatever’s going on can’t be that bad if he’s got the presence of mind to rag on John’s driving.

It’s been more than five months since Rodney lost his memory, and nothing has come back to him. Other than a few follow-up screenings at Cedars-Sinai, he hasn’t gone to see anyone else about it. It took the two of them half an hour on Wikipedia to determine that psychiatric medicine didn’t have anything to offer and that all a psychologist could do is try to “help him adjust.” Reporting this over speakerphone to Jeannie, Rodney had rolled his eyes and said, “Wait, was I ever well-adjusted?” There’d been a long enough pause that he and John had stopped fighting for control of the keyboard, and then Jeannie said, “More now than before, actually.” So that had been the end of that idea. It’s the fall quarter at UCLA, and he’s taking piano, music theory, music history and analysis, and (in a fit of paranoia everyone finds generally amusing) a politics course on arms control and international security. Every now and then someone in the physics department crosses paths with him and nearly chokes on their own tongue, but other than that, things are good.

They’re good.

Half of John’s stuff has migrated to Rodney’s condo, his own apartment turning into storage for the things he doesn’t really need. It’s not as strange as he would have thought to share someone else’s space, which he hasn’t done since he left the Air Force, or to spend five nights out of seven in someone else’s bed, which he never really did at all. There are some days where he feels like they’re moving in two directions at once, with the present rolling steadily forward even as the two of them slowly fill in the blanks of the past. John’s told Rodney the gist of the fight they had, if not exactly what was said, and other things, like the court-martial, that they’d never really talked about before. Maybe Teyla’s right and some kinds of knowledge go deeper than memory, because Rodney seems to get that these places are still raw for John, even months or years later. He seems content to wait for John to offer up the details at his own pace.

They’re good, and John’s starting to be okay with that.

He parks his car in the lot at VNY and grabs his duffel out of the back, then jogs over to Hangar 18. It leases to a pretty mixed bag of tenants: smaller recreational craft, a few light jets owned by local businesses, and newer charters doing only short-to-midrange, wooing investors who’ll give them the backing to build a better fleet. It’s possible that Copernicus had started out in here, back before John signed on. Slot L is halfway back on the left, and John slows to a walk and then a dead stop, because parked in the space is a brand new Cessna Turbo Skylane T182T, its gray stripes sleek and gleaming in the fluorescent lights, and standing next to it is Rodney, an envelope in his hand.

“Hi,” he says, and rubs a hand over the back of his head, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “So after you left, I got a call from some very efficient woman who said my order had been delivered, and did I want to notify the recipient myself or would I like her to do it. I didn’t really want to go through the whole hi, amnesia, I have no clue what you’re talking about, so I convinced her that I wanted to look over whatever the hell it was and got the address, which ended up being here. They had someone here to meet me. He gave me the keys and also this.”

He holds out the envelope. The only word written on it is John, in Rodney’s cramped and impatient handwriting, and it’s unopened. John looks sharply up at Rodney, who shrugs. “I figured I should call you first. After all, it’s addressed to you.” One side of his mouth quirks up slightly, but the rest of his face is alert with nervousness and anticipation. Taking the envelope from him, John walks slowly under the wing and tears it open, pulling out the folded note inside.

John,

They tell me it’s going to be about six months before this thing is ready. I don’t
know if you’ll be speaking to me by then. I don’t think I’d really blame
you if you weren’t.

This five and a half years plan of yours is crap. Not the whole backwoods of
Montana thing (though believe me when I say I think you’re completely
insane for voluntarily going to a place where dirt is considered an acceptable
substitute for pavement). It’s just a stupidly long time to stay somewhere you
hate.

You’ve been here seven years now, not counting Caltech. That’s too long
already. Hopefully, this will speed up the process (approximately two years,
if the discrepancies between your calculations and mine aren’t too great).

There are a couple inches of space between the last paragraph and the bottom of the page; for a moment, he thinks that’s all there is, and then he spots the faint spider-web traces of ink bleeding through from the back. When he flips the paper over, the writing gets smaller and more slanted, like Rodney had scribbled the words down in a rush.

You were right. I’m an asshole, and I have no idea how to be happy, and you should find
someone who does because really, you’re pretty awful at it too. But if for some
reason that doesn’t happen, then when you get your cabin, maybe you can save
me a spot on the last flight out.

-R.

P.S. The hangar lease is paid up for a year. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

The only other thing written on the paper is the date scrawled on the front side, in the top right-hand corner: 2007-05-06. May 6th.

John closes his eyes and presses his knuckles against the center of his forehead. There’s a strange sensation deep behind his sternum, like some bone long out of alignment has suddenly knit back into place, and it knocks a sound loose in his throat, quiet and hiccuping. It’s laughter, he realizes, and he doesn’t know where it’s coming from but it doesn’t seem to want to stop. Setting his other hand back on the plane, his plane, he slides down until he’s perched on the edge of the landing gear, and he just lets it go, all of it, lets the laughter run out of him like water, until he’s breathless and lightheaded and free.

Rodney’s hand closes down over his shoulder, his thumb pressing gently into the muscles of his neck, and John tips his head back to look at him, feeling the brightness of the smile that’s taken up residence on his face. A notch has crept in between Rodney’s eyebrows — curious, a little concerned — and his eyes scan intently over John’s face.

John can’t wait to take him flying.

“I don’t know if I can explain this right,” he says, slowly, “but I’ll give it a shot.”

Unidentified, soundtrack notes / Coda, the sequel>>

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