By Gillian Middleton
"So, how was the first mission with the new and improved Rodney McKay?" Elizabeth asked with a smile.
"Whatever you do, don't call him that to his face," Sheppard advised, grimacing. "Seriously."
"I'll bear it in mind. So, how was it?"
Sheppard knew she wasn't asking for details of their mission. She'd already been briefed about that. It was Rodney she was concerned about. The new and improved Rodney.
"It was fine," Sheppard told her honestly. "It helps that it was all pretty much by-the-book. Nothing interesting, no hostiles. A lot of mosquitoes, which kept McKay complaining pretty much the whole time."
"That must have been fun. So, you think he's going to be okay for future away missions?"
"I don't see why not. He seems pretty comfortable in his new body these days, and Teyla tells me he's doing okay in their training sessions. He stepped right back into the team like he never left."
"Well, that's good news," Elizabeth said, nodding. "And what about the rest of the team? How are they reacting?"
Sheppard shrugged. "Well Teyla you know about. She's gone all big sister on McKay, which I have to admit is a relief. I don't mind helping the guy through this, but there are just some places I don't want to go, you know?"
Elizabeth shuddered. "Absolutely. How about Ronon?"
"Yeah well, you know Ronon. He doesn't say that much." And neither would Sheppard, about Ronon. There was something going on with the big guy, but as far as he was concerned it was a team thing. He would deal with it within the team.
"And you, Colonel?' Elizabeth asked perceptively. "How are you handling it?"
"It's not a problem," he said easily.
"Hey, Sheppard?" Rodney said as the jumper skimmed a few feet above the waves.
"You'd tell me if I... looked funny. Wouldn't you?"
Rodney had his head down and he was tapping his fingers nervously as Sheppard shot him a look across the console.
"What are you talking about?"
"It's just... I figure I can trust you to be honest. I mean, you're really the only one who doesn't treat me any differently, you know?"
"Come on," Sheppard said gruffly. "Lots of people are still treating you the same way."
"Lots of people?" Rodney repeated. "When do you ever see me with lots of people? Lots of people go out of their way to avoid me - which is not to say they didn't do that before, because, hey, I don't get on that well with lots of people." He held up a hand. "Which is my choice, by the way, and is not something I really give a damn about."
"Then why are we talking about it?" Sheppard asked exasperatedly. A man needed a map to negotiate his way around McKay's conversations.
"Because you brought up lots of people," Rodney said waspishly. "And I was pointing out that there are only a handful of people on Atlantis whose names I even remember, let alone associate with. Well," he added in a smaller voice. "A handful of people whose opinions I actually care about, is what I'm saying."
Which Sheppard totally got, because although he did remember people's names, and cared deeply about the lives of everyone in his city, there were only a handful of people who he considered as family.
"And they all treat me differently now except for you. Which means I'm not sure I trust them to tell me the truth when I ask them. So I'm asking you. Do I look... weird now?"
"You're not still keeping your eyes closed when you look in the mirror, are you?"
"That was in the shower," Rodney corrected. "And no, I'm not. Look, I remember Lilya from the planet, okay? I mean I didn't pay much attention once I realised she was just a kid and therefore not someone I was going to actually score with."
Sheppard rolled his eyes.
"But I remember what she looked like. And I do see myself in the mirror every day. But looking at yourself in such a static way doesn't really tell you much, does it? And I've noticed that in the middle of conversations people start staring at me, and not in the 'oh my god he's a woman' way. Most people are over that anyway. I just wondered if me being in someone else's body - maybe I'm pulling weird faces or something without even realising it. You know?"
Sheppard steered the jumper to a higher altitude and set the autopilot, letting the small craft cut through the empty sky ahead of him. He dropped his hands to his lap and swiveled a little in his seat. Rodney was facing him, fingers still nervously jiggling, soft brown curls curving around his face and slipping out of the pony tail he wore it in these days.
"You don't look weird," Sheppard told him directly.
"Then what's with the looks I'm getting?' Rodney probed. "Because honestly? It's giving me a complex."
"Rodney," Sheppard began slowly, trying to figure out how to put this. "You used to... I mean, your other face... It was pretty expressive, okay? No one having a conversation with you could be in any doubt about what you were thinking. Pretty much all the time."
"And that's a bad thing?" Rodney said defensively.
"No. It was a you thing. And now you have a new face, but you're still you. And I know speaking for myself, I just start getting used to the new you and then you'll say something and your expression will change and suddenly you're the old you again. It's kind of... unsettling. Not bad," Sheppard hastened to explain as Rodney frowned. "Just... well, maybe a little creepy."
"Well, that makes me feel better," Rodney said blankly.
"Sorry," Sheppard muttered.
"Hm?" Rodney said, looking absorbed. "No, I mean it. It does make me feel better. Sometimes I kind of feel like the old Rodney's getting lost in this new body, you know?"
"Not really," Sheppard replied, not sure he wanted to.
"People like to think the mind is in charge of the body. Like your brain is the driver and you're just steering the body around. But that is so not true," Rodney said fervently. "Most of the time the body is in charge. You're hungry, you're thirsty, you're tired, you're scared. This body has its own set of drives, its own needs." Rodney shook his head. "Boy, does it have needs." He broke off, his cheeks reddening, and Sheppard, who still thought they were talking about food or something, quickly caught Rodney's drift and swung back around to face the console, his mind taking control of the ship as it raced away from the topic of conversation like a streaker in a ballpark.
"Uh, yeah," McKay said, clearing his voice and swinging back around to face the wide window. "You know what I mean."
"Yeah," Sheppard agreed shortly, because that was so not a conversation he and Rodney were ever going to have.
"So," Rodney said brightly. "We nearly home yet?"
Sheppard increased the speed. "Nearly."
The Daedalus arrived the next morning and Sheppard greeted his new military personnel with his usual speech. The service people spent the long trip between galaxies being briefed on all things Atlantis, so it was basically just a meet and greet, to let the newbies get a glimpse of the flyboy who thought he could command marines, and to let his fellow pilots see he hadn't gone totally this-man's-army on them.
Last of all he usually laid down a few ground rules that might not have been set out in the standard manuals, mainly about fraternization. Sheppard was a pretty easy-going commander in most things, but when you had a hundred young men and women at the peak of their physical condition living in such close quarters, trouble was inevitable.
"And finally," he said, wrapping up his brief speech. "Some of you may or may not have heard about our head of the Science Department. He was the victim of a kidnapping attempt by some rather single-minded enemies of ours, the Genii. They used a piece of Ancient technology on him, and well, since pictures speak louder than words..."
He touched the console in front of him and a schematic of Atlantis on the big screen flickered to a picture of Rodney.
"This was Dr McKay a month or so ago."
Sheppard concentrated and the picture flickered to one Elizabeth had taken before their latest mission, of the new Rodney in full gear.
"This is Dr McKay now."
There were a few chuckles from his small audience, which died away after a moment or two as he gazed at them.
"I'm not kidding," he said firmly, and watched as the young men and women grimaced and glanced uneasily at each other.
"This is not a lecture about the dangers of Ancient technology. I know you have all been well briefed on that subject. This is more in response to a few incidents I've had to nip in the bud in the last week. So let me make this quite clear. Dr McKay." Sheppard nodded at the picture of the fresh faced young woman on the screen. "Is off-limits. You don't go near him, you don't speak to him unless he speaks to you first, in which case I expect only a crisp, clear, 'yes, sir' or 'no, sir' from you in response. And you do not make bets as to who will be the first to score with him."
Sheppard ran his gaze over the surprised faces in front of him. "As we speak there are three ex-members of Atlantis's military team who are confined to their quarters waiting to be shipped back to Earth on the Daedalus, because they broke at least one of these rules."
There was a sound of awkwardly cleared throats and shuffling feet.
"If I hear anybody breaking any of those rules I will personally pick them up by the scruff of their necks and throw them through the wormhole next time we dial Earth. And in case anybody thinks that's an easy way to get home, let me tell you right now, you won't like where you land, or how hard you bounce. Now." Sheppard smiled at them genially. "Any questions?"
"Nice speech," Ronon rumbled as the dazed personnel left the room.
"Thanks, I've been practicing it all week."
"You didn't mention that you had marines confined to quarters," Ronon continued, swinging into place by his side as Sheppard headed down the hall.
"I've kept it pretty quiet. Didn't want to give anybody else any ideas. Besides I don't want it to get back to McKay."
"He doesn't know?"
"No, and that's the way I want to keep it."
"So," Ronon asked quietly. "Who exactly was it?"
"Oh no." Sheppard shook his head. "Those guys are getting bounced back to Earth, that's their punishment. I want them to get back with all their limbs intact."
"Come on, Sheppard. I'll just bruise them a little bit, I won't break anything. They have it coming."
Sheppard stopped in the hallway and stared at him. "What's with the big protective act?" he asked curiously. "Why do you care if some idiots were having fun at McKay's expense? We've had a few jokes ourselves, if you remember."
"That's different," Ronon growled. "He's on our team. Besides... that was before."
Sheppard surveyed him consideringly. "Yeah, it was," he agreed. "And I still don't get where this is coming from. I mean, you didn't visit him in hospital, you barely grunted at him on our first mission back together. So why the concern?"
Ronon set his jaw, eyes meeting Sheppard's unflinchingly. "It's my fault," he finally rumbled.
"If I hadn't dropped his body on the planet... Maybe he would have had a chance of fixing this."
Sheppard gaped at him. "You're kidding," he said incredulously. "You're blaming yourself?"
"Because it's my fault."
"Ronon, he was dead," Sheppard said reasonably. "And you were looking out for the living. No one blames you for that."
"You sure about that?" Ronon said shortly.
"Wait, you think Rodney blames you?"
Ronon clenched his jaw again and Sheppard shook his head in amazement. "He doesn't blame you," he said firmly. "Hell, I was leading the team, and he doesn't blame me. Elizabeth gave the order to go, and he doesn't blame her either."
"How do you know?" Ronon challenged. "Have you asked him?"
"I know because he's Rodney McKay!" Sheppard said in exasperation. "The man doesn't have a censor button. Believe me, if he blamed anybody for this, we'd have heard about it. Boy, would we have heard about it."
Ronon looked unconvinced.
"Look, buddy," Sheppard said firmly. "I get where you're coming from on this, I do. But Rodney needs his friends around him now, and god knows he doesn't have that many of us he can rely on. You seriously need to get your head out of your ass and get over it!"
Ronon narrowed his eyes and without even moving did that whole looming thing that he pulled on people who pissed him off. Sheppard was suddenly aware of just how tall the guy was, how big his muscles were, and how easily he could break someone in half.
"Uh, and I say that as your friend of nearly two years," he said nervously. "Whose legs and arms I'm sure you would never rip off."
Ronon relaxed. "You're right."
"About the legs and arms?"
"Oh. Of course I'm right. You should go see him."
"And say what?"
"It'll come to you," Sheppard advised.
Ronon grimaced and walked away, head down and feet shuffling like a man on the way to his own execution. If Sheppard hadn't been so relieved not to be a bruised and bloody pulp, he'd have thought it hilarious.
"Did you talk to Ronon?"
"I have talked to Ronon," Sheppard said amiably. "He's my friend. That's what friends do."
Rodney rolled his eyes and plopped himself onto the seat opposite with a sigh. "You know what I mean. Did you talk to him about me?"
"He might have confided a few things in me," Sheppard said casually.
"Huh," Rodney said. "Well, thanks. He came to see me and we had a talk. Or at least, I talked, and he kind of nodded. Did you know he blamed himself for losing my body?"
"You never blamed him?" Sheppard asked curiously.
"Not once he said the Wraith attacked. Would have been pretty stupid, getting yourself culled trying to save a corpse. Besides..." Rodney fiddled with his laptop handle. "It was dead. Even with access to the Ancient device, even if we'd understood it... There was probably no going back."
"But if my body had been around, in stasis... I don't think I could have let the old me go, you know? Moved on."
"And have you? Moved on?"
Rodney shrugged. "I'm getting there." He quirked a smile, dimple flashing. "No one can say life in the Pegasus galaxy is boring."
"Anyway, Ronon seemed sort of relieved when I told him that." Rodney frowned. "At least I think he looked relieved. Maybe he just looked hungry, it's kind of hard to tell."
"He was relieved," Sheppard stated.
"Yeah." Rodney wrinkled his nose and smacked his lips absently. "You wanna grab dinner?"
"I could eat."
"So," Rodney said idly as they headed for the mess hall. "I've been hearing a story about some marines. Something about a bet?"
"Did Ronon tell you?" Sheppard said irritably.
Rodney's smile was smug. "No, you just did. I'd actually only heard a vague rumor and put two and two together."
"Weren't you trained in resisting interrogation? That was too easy."
"Shut up," Sheppard muttered.
"So, tell me about these marines. What was the bet?"
"You don't want to know."
"Huh," Rodney said. "That would explain the one that made a pass at me. I thought it seemed a bit suspicious."
Sheppard stopped in his tracks. "One of my marines made a pass at you? Dammit, they told me it didn't get that far!"
"Maybe it was a different marine," Rodney said reasonably.
Sheppard surveyed McKay's unconcerned face with narrowed eyes. "So what did you do?"
"I laughed in his face and told him to go home and play with his gun. It's not like he was the first marine here to make a clumsy pass. He's just the first since the whole girl thing."
"Really?" Sheppard said curiously, following him down the hall. "A marine made a pass back when you were a guy? You kept that quiet."
"I can be discreet," Rodney said defensively.
"No you can't."
"Well obviously I can," Rodney said condescendingly. "Anyway, I wouldn't want someone's career ruined over an honest mistake. It's your military with the archaic 'don't ask, don't tell' policy."
Sheppard stopped dead again, the implications setting in. "Huh. It was a guy? Seriously?"
"Like I said, an honest mistake." Rodney shot him a curious look. "You know half your guys are freaking out with each other, don't you?"
Sheppard sought words. "Of course I do," he said defensively.
McKay chuckled. "Well, it'd be hard to miss."
Sheppard grimaced behind Rodney's back. "Yeah, no halfway decent military commander could miss something like that."
"Exactly. Anyway, you can hardly blame them. The ratio of women to men here isn't exactly even."
"Yeah," Sheppard agreed, still reeling. Half his guys? Was McKay serious?
On the other hand - don't ask, don't tell, while a totally dickwad policy, did mean that he could justifiably deny ever having had this conversation or knowing anything about this. Suddenly the three marines confined to their quarters seemed a lot more like stupid kids who were far from home, than irresponsible idiots who deserved to have their careers shot down.
"Uh, I might skip dinner, if that's okay," Sheppard said. "I have a few guys to lecture and let off the hook." He stopped and glanced at McKay. "I won't let them off too easily."
"Just make it clear I'm not open to any offers, real or contrived," Rodney said blandly, proving once again that while he could at times be totally oblivious to the world around him, at other times he could be frighteningly observant.
Sheppard quirked him a grateful smile. This was the right thing to do and he probably wouldn't have seen it until it was way too late without McKay's seemingly casual remarks. "Thanks Rodney."
"Yeah yeah." That elusive dimple flashed in and out and Rodney swung on his heel and walked away. Sheppard eyes automatically tracked the sway of that sweet little rear until his brain kicked in and he flinched.
"Jesus, John," he muttered to himself. He rubbed at his eyes to scrub the image from his brain, and shrugged back into his mantle of military commander.
Somehow though, that cute little dimple stayed with him.