They don't meet for three years after they come back to Earth.
At first it's too painful; then it's too awkward; then it just feels pointless, rehashing old memories, clinging to connections that no longer exist.
Then John gets called to Colorado to sort out some problem with his pension. He bumps into Carson and Cadman and they give him Rodney's number.
For a week, John carries it in his jeans pocket and pulls it out to stare at every ninety minutes. Then he nearly shoves it into the wash with his pants and after that it gets tacked to his refrigerator.
By the time he dials the number, he knows it by heart, but he still checks and rechecks as he punches it in, the crumpled slip of paper blurring between his shaking fingers.
"What?" That's Rodney voice, barking into his phone. John finds his mouth shaping a smile.
"Rodney?" His voice is scratchy and he barely recognises it.
Rodney sounds distracted. "Yes? What?"
John clears his throat. "It's me." He finds himself praying Rodney will know who it is; if John has to tell him, it'll mean there's no hope.
There's a pause. He hears Rodney's breathing turn shocked and fast. "Colonel?"
A tiny spark of hope.
It turns out Rodney's coming to California next month for a conference at Caltech and they arrange to meet.
They meet by the beach. It's early evening and it's still hot, Rodney arrives flushed and dishevelled and says he walked from campus. He's already bitching about the fact there's no taxis before he gets into hearing range, and John has to smile at him for a full minute before Rodney breaks off, blushes and stammers out a hello.
Rodney looks tired and he's lost a little more hair, gained a little more weight. The front of his shirt is crumpled and he's unconsciously pulling at his tie. John wants to reach over and smooth him out, but he's not sure he still has touching rights. And he's even less sure he deserves to.
Instead, he tries on a smirk, finds it still fits and says, "So McKay, got any plans?"
"I," Rodney is looking at him like he's half afraid he's an illusion. It makes John want to say something stupid, like I'm sorry, I'm real, I'm here but he can't. He hasn't felt real since Atlantis. After a beat, Rodney's chin goes up. "I made reservations."
"Reservations" means they somehow have the best table in a swanky restaurant on Santa Monica that John's never been to despite living here for thirty months and only having cooked in his kitchen twice.
Rodney looks stiff and uncomfortable in his shirt jacket and tie and his hands stray to pull out John's chair when they go to sit down, his cheeks turn pink when he realises what he's doing, but he doesn't take his hands away.
John thinks about protesting, but he feels suddenly dizzy and sits down abruptly instead. It's not as if John didn't realise this was a date, but now he's here he feels suddenly over-hot and breathless.
Their conversation is stilted and they sound like strangers to John's ears. He finds himself drinking more and more wine, hoping it'll loosen him up. It's a habit he's gotten into since Atlantis, since he started having to spend time with people he can't share the most important parts of his life with; he files it away to worry about one day.
"Colonel," Rodney says, while they're waiting for dessert. He lays his hand over the top of John's glass. "John."
John looks up and raises his eyebrows slowly, he's not drunk, but if he were he thinks he might kiss Rodney right about now. Partly so they won't have to have the conversation he can see brewing up behind Rodney's eyes, but partly because he's really, really missed Rodney and now he's right here.
"Is this ever not going to be awkward?"
John doesn't know, but he wants it to be. "Yes," he says and makes himself smile. Rodney smiles back and after that their conversation still isn't great, but it is better, and John is thankful for that.
They linger over coffee while Rodney tells him about his work, about the month he spent in Prague with Zelenka, about Carson and Cadman's wedding. He manages to sound vaguely condescending and disconnected from it all, but John can see the smile lurking behind his dismissal. John wonders what he'd have to say about the doctorate that John went back and finished. But he doesn't ask; he's saving that for when he really needs it.
John tells him about surfing, how riding the ocean with the sun breaking through the clouds first thing in the morning is almost as good as flying. But Rodney frowns and keeps trying to prod him toward some other conversation, either the past or the future, John isn't sure, but he isn't ready for either.
Eventually, they have to leave. Outside the restaurant, it's still warm and John shivers, suddenly realising he was chilly in the restaurant's artificial, air-conditioned atmosphere. Rodney pulls his jacket closer around his body, obviously realising the same thing, and John resists the desire to lean into him.
"Well," he says instead, swinging his arms. He wants to invite Rodney back to his apartment. He wants that so much he's beginning to ache a little inside, but he can't. Not yet. "I'll see you before you go back, yeah?"
"John," Rodney catches his arm, his wrist, as he turns to leave. There's something dark in his eyes, "Can I call you sometime?"
Something, possibly everything, melts in John's chest as relief washes through him. Yes, that works.
"Yeah," he says, hoping he sounds even halfway cool, "That'd be fine. Good. It'd be good."
John's apartment block is in the same direction as Rodney's hotel, and it makes sense for them to share a taxi. But even though Rodney's knee presses tight against John's thigh for the journey, John still doesn't invite him up.
His apartment feels almost obscenely silent after an evening of Rodney McKay's running patter, and rather than go to bed, John flips on the stereo and slumps down on the sofa.
Tonight was awkward and uncomfortable and terrifying and really, really great. He's been doing his best not to miss Rodney, he's been too busy missing Atlantis and not letting himself think about it, but now he's remembering a hundred nights of hard-won camaraderie and prickly support, and manly-not-crying on each other's shoulders, and one night of a lot more that he really hasn't let himself think about since it happened.
Cash has given way to Springsteen and it's getting close to 3am when there's a knock on the door. John's neighbours are nice enough and he always nods politely when they meet in the corridor, but he doesn't think any of them would be visiting at this time of night. And no one else he's met in the city knows where he lives.
There's another knock as he's unbolting the door, but the annoyance fades away when he gets it open and sees who's on the other side.
"I don't have your number," he says, blurts.
John just blinks at him stupidly.
"I said I'd call you, but I don't have your number and I didn't want you to think I didn't mean it." There's desperation behind Rodney's voice and John hears more than what he says, hears, I don't want to wait another three years, I don't want to lose you again.
Guilt feels like a punch in the gut.
It wasn't John and Rodney who lost touch. It was John. They were ripped away from Atlantis before they were ready and any reminder was too much. So John cut the ties because John was in pain and he was too stupid or too selfish or too blind to notice he wasn't the only one.
"I have your number," he says, though that isn't what he means. Or maybe it is because Rodney smiles and his eyes light up. They're blue like the ocean around Atlantis and for the first time in a long time, John lets himself see that, lets himself make the connection.
"God," he whispers, and "Rodney."
Then Rodney's pushing his way into John's apartment, and closing the door. His arms go around John's body, trapping them together, mouthing at John's lips, not quite kissing and not quite not.
"John," Rodney says, his voice not steady, "You better mean it this time, or so help me..."
Last time was stupid, they were both in so much pain, both too brittle to be able to come together without shattering, but they tried. And failed. And wound up in more pieces than they'd started. But this time, he does mean it this time.
"Sorry," John says to Rodney's lips, to his cheeks, to his eyelashes, "I'm sorry."
"Shut up," Rodney says, "Please God, John, just shut up." And if there's a break in Rodney's voice, John ignores it, hoping in turn Rodney will ignore the tremor in his hands when he wraps his fists in Rodney's shirt and pulls him into the bedroom.
Summary: They don't meet for three years after they come back to Earth.