Characters: Rodney McKay/John Sheppard
Prompt: #046 Star
Word Count: ~11,000
Summary: Rodney's pretty sure that if his time with John hasn't scarred him for life, then at the very least he's going to grow up with a fish fetish.
In the end, they go alone. The others complain and argue, especially Jeannie who's been itching for a pirate fight, but John insists it'll be easier and safer for Chaya Athar if he just takes Rodney.
Rodney, who doesn't want to do this at all, thinks he's full of it, but follows him down to the makeshift harbor with minimum grumbling.
"I've got a boat," John says proudly, showing off a rickety rowboat with great pride.
"This thing? I doubt it could make it across a puddle," sneers Rodney, poking it with his foot. The wood seems to splinter before his eyes. He wonders where John found such a relic and who it belonged to before.
"I like that. I'll call it the Puddle Jumper. Now, get in."
They take the little boat around the island until they spot a dark cave to dock in. Rodney grumbles about spiders, and eels, and seaweed, and the smell of brine until John tells him to shut up because his voice echoes. They crouch behind some stalagmites and see that Chaya Athar has been tied to a rock out in the water; the tide is washing in.
"If you think I'm going down there," hisses Rodney, feeling very cold and very clammy, wanting to share his misery, "you're crazy. I happen to have a very serious phobia of drowning thanks to you and your harpies back at the grotto. Why doesn't she just Ascend out of there?"
"I don't know," John replies. He's just as wet as Rodney is, but doesn't seem to mind. "So what's the plan?"
"What?" Rodney's eyes widen. "You're the one with the plans, I'm the one who comes up with something at the last minute when we're both about to die. You know I don't work well without the threat of impending doom!"
"So pretend you're doomed," says John, sticking his head out over the edge of the cliff. He signals to Chaya and puts a finger to his lips to keep her from making a sound. She looks just as proud and haughty as Rodney remembers, and, if anything, she frowns at the sight of them.
There's a sound from behind the rocks, and John tackles Rodney to the ground. Great, more proximity. Rodney's breathing grows shallow – no thanks to the dirt collecting in his lungs – and he stares into the those hazel eyes, feeling John's heart beat against his chest. John's lips are shaped just right, he wets them...and he pulls back.
"Shh," he says, like Rodney needs the reminder.
"You are certain he will come?"
It's the Wraith Queen. Rodney remembers her voice, the way it tears the insides of his eardrums, remembers her disturbing, haunting, other-worldly beauty. He remembers how his knees quiver in her presence and how her hands feel crawling across his chest.
John is still pinned on top of him and Rodney realizes he's hyperventilating. John's eerie gentleness is replaced with a smack upside the head, and again Rodney thinks, Some things never change. For once, he's actually relieved. He can't concentrate on princess-rescuing if he's thinking about John's lips, and being touched by John, and feeling John's heart beat...and when did he turn into such a girl?
"You distract the Queen, I'll get the princess," says John, and he's on his feet before Rodney can protest. He hates being the bait.
John flies to the rock where Chaya Athar is chained, and Rodney takes on the pirates.
"Hey," he says, and the Wraith turn to him, "do you know what time it is?"
Their faces are white and feral, teeth pointed, eyes like demons and Rodney's not ashamed to admit that he's about to soil himself. He hopes John gets those ropes loose quickly.
"You are not Shep," says the queen in a low, gravelly voice. "Yet your face looks familiar."
"He is the one they call Shadow," says one of the pirates, her second-in-command. Unlike the others his hair is shorn and he looks vaguely human. He sniffs Rodney, lingering as if he can taste the humanity in him. "He has aged – without our assistance."
"You have been gone from this place some time," the queen says. She takes a step towards Rodney, and he feels like someone has poured concrete in his bones. "Have you come for the girl?"
Rodney gulps. "What girl?"
The queen smiles and Rodney stares into a mouthful of teeth. He knows that's not how the Wraith take lives, but he still can't shake the feeling that he's about to be eaten. She runs a finger down the side of his face, and hisses, pulling back like she's been burned.
"What is this?" she demands. "A trap?"
"What?" Rodney's not one to look a gift horse in the mouth (well, okay, yes he is), but why isn't she feeding off him? He's a tasty treat, damn it!
"You are wrong," she says, shuddering. Rodney's never known a Wraith to feel anything.
"I'm not wrong!" Rodney says, indignant. "I'm never wrong!"
One of the other pirates suddenly hisses. "The girl, she's gone!"
They all turn to look at the empty rock and the queen's face fills with rage.
Mocking laughter pierces the air above their heads; John floats, almost as if he's sitting on a cloud, with Princess Chaya Athar clinging tightly to his waist. For a second, Rodney imagines his face looks just like the Wraith queen's.
"Say goodbye to the nice pirates, Shadow," John crows. "It's time to fly."
A disgruntled Radek lands on Rodney's shoulder and shakes his wild hair. Rodney, consumed with jealousy and frustration, doesn't move an inch. The pirates are advancing towards him, hunger in their eyes despite his wrongness and Rodney feels a flush of fear. Radek tugs on his collar, screeching in his ear.
"Come on, Rodney, get the lead out!"
Rodney concentrates and thinks about winning his first Nobel Prize – rocketing into the air just as he feels the first brush of pirate fingertips.
"Ha!" John shouts triumphantly. "Better luck next time!"
Then he flies off towards the clubhouse and Rodney follows sullenly at a distance. In some small way he wishes he'd stayed behind to be eaten.
John lands in a clearing Rodney assumes is near the disguised clubhouse entrance. Chaya Athar steps down lightly but seems reluctant to let go of John's waist. Rodney waits for the tears of gratitude by tapping his foot on the earth.
Instead, she looks at him like he's something that crawled out from under a rock and says to John, "I don't understand why you needed him."
Rodney sucks in his breath and something explodes inside him. It's white hot and sweeps down to his toes. "That's it."
"Aw, Shadow, she didn't mean –"
"She did mean it! I risk my life to save her sorry behind and this is the thanks I get? I can't take this anymore."
For once John actually seems to get it, maybe because Rodney isn't trying to hide it anymore. He turns to Chaya, standing there with her arms folded. "You can find your way home, can't you?"
She looks at Rodney with eyes of ice, but nods. "Of course."
"Great, see you around. Try not to get kidnapped again."
Furious, Chaya storms into the green forest and with a shrug, as if to say, "Women," John puts his arm around Rodney's shoulders; Rodney shrugs him off.
"Come on, buddy," says John. "Let's get some air."
"We're already outside," Rodney points out, but he starts walking.
There's too much space between them, and Rodney can see that John's trying to build a bridge, but Rodney doesn't feel like meeting halfway. There's crocodiles in the water below, and any second now the world's going to fall out from under him; he'll be lunch.
"So what's eating you?" John asks after they've been walking awhile, just kicking at rocks and jumping across creeks. Radek is still fluttering around, and Rodney tastes that same rage he felt before.
"I'm not saying anything in front of that pest," Rodney snaps. Radek flies at him with one fist raised, but John pushes him back.
"Give us a minute, Radek."
Radek squeals in protest, but John shakes his head. "No, I mean it, go away. I want to talk to Rodney, just him and me."
Rodney feels perverse satisfaction at the fairy's obvious pain. Huffing, and fixing Rodney with the most hateful look he's ever seen, Radek flies off in the opposite direction of the princess. John sort of crumples, but then straightens up and looks expectantly at Rodney.
"You okay? I'm sure Chaya didn't mean to hurt you. You know I need you , Shadow, you're my best friend."
He looks so open, so honest, and so John that Rodney can't help but lean over and press his lips gently to the boy who won't grow up. John practically recoils, eyes wide and confused. Rodney immediately flushes red and hot; he just couldn't resist.
"What'd you go and do that for?"
It's probably better this way, no matter how much it hurts. If John hates him, he won't care when Rodney leaves.
Rodney takes a deep breath and, without looking at John, says, "I can't do this anymore. It's time for me to go home."
Suddenly there's a savagery in John that Rodney doesn't recognize, something animal in his eyes and his entire body tenses.
"What are you talking about? You can't go home!"
"Hey," stammers Rodney, taken aback, "we had a deal. I stayed long enough to help you rescue Princess Stick-Up-Her-Butt, and now I take my sister and go. I can't stay here, John. I'm not a kid anymore."
He's never seen John so angry; his face is turning purple and his fists are clenched. "You're the same age as me!"
"No I'm not," says Rodney, and he can feel himself losing his nerve. He clutches to his righteous anger like a lifeline. Right now he thinks he'll drown in John's silent accusations. "You're going to be fourteen forever – I'm only fourteen temporarily."
"If you leave again," John spits, "you're going to die."
Rodney fights the urge to laugh at John's narrow view of the world. "Yeah – in, like, sixty years! That's an entire lifetime, John. A lifetime of learning, of science, of – of finding someone and having a family!"
John reacts to that word like Rodney punched him in the gut. Furious tears brim in his eyes.
"We should be your family!" he shouts. "Why d'you want to go back to them? They don't want you, you've said so yourself!"
Rodney swallows; his throat feels rough and raw as if he's the one screaming. "I have to think about my sister. She can't grow up here – literally."
"What if she doesn't want to go? It's her choice! She can stay if she wants, we'll look after her, we'll be her family!"
Rodney's always known that John has abandonment issues and built his own family from spare parts, determined that no child should be left behind. For the first time, Rodney understands. He doesn't know what happened to John's parents or if they're even still alive; he doesn't know how long John's been in Atlantis, or why, exactly, with his fan club, he feels so particularly drawn to the boy from Earth, but he does understand. John needs him.
Just not in the way that Rodney needs John.
"Don't fight me on this, John," says Rodney quietly. He can hardly bear to look at John's anguished face. "You're going to lose."
"FINE!" John screams. "Fine, go back to your stupid Earth, and grow up and forget all about us! Just GO AWAY!"
John shoots up and bolts from the clearing, leaving a cloud of dust and a heart-broken Rodney to find his way back to the clubhouse on his own. He's got Thoughts and he hates it.
By the time the sun has set he stumbles across it and the residual fairy dust on his hands is enough to bring the clubhouse into light. Rodney practically falls through the metal ring, into the middle of what looks like Atlantis Game Night.
"Where's my sister?" he asks Teyla, barely able to keep his eyes open. Everything aches, but mostly on the inside. He resists the temptation to ask if John's come back yet.
Jeannie slides down the banister and bounds towards Rodney.
"Mer," she says, giddy, "look what Teyla gave me!"
She's clutching an amulet that glows faintly green in her hand.
"Very nice," says Rodney, distracted. "Now, say goodbye. We're leaving."
"What?" And you would have thought Rodney said the world is coming to an end. "I don't want to leave! I'm not going!"
Rodney stares her down, focusing what remains of his energy on bracing himself against the oncoming storm. "I'm not asking. We're going home, Jeannie, this isn't a debate."
Looking around the room at his attracted audience, Rodney realizes he's staring into a sea of strangers. It sends a chill through him; he's never felt so alien. Jeannie, in all her six-year-old innocence could find a place here, but Rodney's time is long over.
It's like that part in Prince Caspian (one of those books he read to Jeannie at bedtime before he started telling her about his own adventures to stave his own incredible boredom) where Peter and Susan are told they can never come back to Narnia because they're too old. Rodney never really thought about how that felt; sure, he always planned on going home, but a part of him was thrilled when John invited him back. It's like, somehow, he's always assumed he's a part of Atlantis. Now he's come to the horrifying realization that he's not.
That sudden loss hurts so much he gasps and has trouble breathing. How the hell did Peter and Susan deal with it?
Jeannie's face has turned purple, and Rodney sees an echo of John's rage. "I'm not going. You can't make me! I HATE YOU!"
She runs off crying and the others just sort of slink away, certain that Rodney's going to take it out on the next person to speak. They all flee – except Teyla. She guides Rodney into a chair and crouches by his feet.
"Just leave me alone, Teyla," he mutters, rubbing his temples. "I'm not in the mood."
Teyla doesn't say anything for several minutes.
"What's your planet like?" she asks finally, sort of staring off into space.
Rodney, who was expecting a lecture or false sympathy, starts. "What?"
"Earth. What is it like?"
"It's...It's different." Rodney struggles to put it into words. "It's always different because it's always changing. Not like here. We actually have seasons, you know? Snow – well, in most places. All the proper ones anyway. There's places like this, not many but a few, but mostly we have cities. They're fantastic: tall buildings of cement and steel, so many people, any kind of food you could possibly want, and there's just this sort of energy back home. Makes you feel like anything's possible."
Teyla smiles. "Sounds lovely."
"Yeah," says Rodney, sighing. "It is – but it can be pretty lonely."
At some point he dozes off, because the next thing he remembers is waking to the sight of John's fist flying at his face.
Rodney howls and falls off the chair, clutching his gushing nose. He's drowning in blood. "What the hell did you do that for?"
"Where is he?" John demands, pulling back and letting his fist fly again. He lands a punch on Rodney's gut and Rodney doubles over.
There's a stampede down the stairs, but no one rushes in to stop them.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Rodney spits through teeth gritted in pain. He licks his lips and tastes pennies. "Look at this - I'm bleeding. You've gone completely insane!"
John tackles him without a trace of playfulness this time, only brutality and unleashed anger. Tired of getting beaten, Rodney – ignoring the fact that he has no idea what's going on – fights back, slamming John face first into the floor. John retaliates with a well-aimed kick to Rodney's kneecap and Rodney manages to blacken one of John's eyes before they're torn apart.
"You're mad at me so you take it out on Radek?" John snaps, shaking blood off his face. "How mature of you."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Rodney snaps back. "I haven't done anything to your stupid fairy friend."
"Then where is he?"
Rodney suddenly has a bad feeling, and it's not because of the punch to the stomach. "Jeannie. Where's Jeannie?"
Teyla, who has his arm in a surprisingly tight grip, pales. "I thought she was with you."
John and Rodney exchange a look, fight momentarily forgotten. "Pirates."
They crouch behind a rocky outcropping, spying on the S.S. Hive Queen that rocks in the water below. John's gang is spread out behind them, except Ronon who has gone out to scout the area and Lorne who stands watch behind them.
"So what's the plan?" John asks.
"We need to figure out where they're being kept," Rodney whispers. He glances over at John. "John, I –"
"Forget it," John interrupts, and he turns to Rodney with a shaky smile. "We're cool."
"Cool," Rodney echoes, and his heart thumps. "Then let's focus on saving my sister."
"And my friend," says John.
Ronon reports that Jeannie and Radek seem to be locked in a cabin on the lower deck, guarded by two pirates. Radek is caged and Jeannie's chained up, but they seem unharmed.
"How are we going to get on the ship without the fairy?" Rodney asks. "I'm not a natural flier!"
"Sure you are," John says, and his smile is beatific. "Just think Happy Thoughts – trust me."
Famous last words. So Rodney gives it a try.
Home, he thinks. Home and...and John.
Bittersweet, maybe, but it works. Rodney rises into the air, and it's different this time, not so stop-and-start, a smooth transition from being grounded to feeling weightless, as if – because this time there's no magic fairy dust involved, because he's flying on his own power – he just doesn't have to worry about anything anymore.
Then John has to go and ruin the moment by opening his mouth.
"Let's storm 'em," he says.
"Hang on," Rodney says, putting a hand on John's as the others pull out their weaponry. "Let's be smart about this."
"What did you have in mind?"
"Um, hello," says Rodney to the ship full of pirates as he lands. "It's a great day for life-sucking, isn't it?"
They don't make a move, staring as if they've never seen anything quite like him. Then the crowd of unwashed miscreants parts and the queen steps out on deck – but doesn't approach.
"What do you want?" she says – somehow managing to sound majestic, so that Rodney feels like an even bigger idiot than usual – and even though the Wraith don't carry weapons, Rodney gulps.
"I want to join you," he says, hoping his voice doesn't sound as quivery to her as it does to him. "I want to be a pirate."
Wraith also don't have a sense of humor, but if they did, Rodney thinks they'd all be pointing and laughing right about now.
"You cannot join us," says the queen. "You are not one of us. Perhaps you are not one of them, but you are certainly not a Wraith." She waves her hands. "Take him."
"I can give you information on John Shep," Rodney blurts out. Suddenly, he's caught her interest.
"What sort of information?" she asks, coming closer. Rodney does his best not to shiver at her proximity.
"Well," says Rodney, considering as his knees knock together. "Let's talk terms first. You have my sister."
"The tiny human child?" The Wraith Queen attempts a smile, a disturbing mimicry of the human smirk. Rodney vows to never make that face again. "I am sure we can come to some arrangement."
It's times like this that Rodney wishes he was old enough to drink.
"I want to see her." Rodney's voice trembles, and the queen seems amused by his bravado.
"Very well," she says. "Show the shadow to his sister."
Her second-in-command, the vaguely human one, shoves Rodney roughly, down the steps into the creaking, damp bowels of the ship. There's little light as well as the smell of fish and death. Rodney trembles, but keeps his focus on Jeannie.
"She better be okay," he says, but it doesn't sound quite as threatening as he'd hoped.
He can hear her whimpering in the dark, and he recognizes Radek's agitated squeals; Rodney releases his breath and rushes to the brig where they're kept. A foul smell washes over him; Jeannie's pressed into the corner, as far from the rotting corpses as she can get. Fantastic; it'll take years of therapy to help her get over this.
"Mer," Jeannie whispers, dirt streaks on her cheeks from crying. "I'm so, so sorry. I wanna go home. Please, Mer, I just wanna go home."
"I'm going to get you out of here, Jean, don't worry." Rodney turns to the pirate watching their touching reunion. "Let her go."
He doesn't twitch. "Give the queen what she wants, and we'll consider it."
Rodney laughs, and Jeannie flinches. "That's not how this is going to work. Let my sister go. Now."
Radek squeaks and covers his eyes as the pirate advances on Rodney standing his ground. Jeannie shrieks, "Look out!" and Rodney dives out of the way, seconds before the Wraith's hands graze his chest.
"Now would be a good time, John!" he shouts out the porthole. The frustrated Wraith lunges again and again Rodney dives to the side, this time using the move he used on John to pin the pirate down.
There's shouting on deck, and cannon blasts. Radek starts furiously rattling the bars of his cage and Jeannie starts to cry. Rodney slams the pirate's head into the floor until he's certain the thing is unconscious, then he rushes to free the fairy.
"Go, help John," he says, and Radek nods once before zooming up top. Rodney pulls the key ring off the unconscious pirate, then turns to unlock the heavy chains binding Jeannie to the ship, and takes her in his arms.
"See why I didn't want to come?" he says as she quivers, sobbing against his chest. "Maybe next time you'll listen to me."
Jeannie clings to his hand as they ascend the steps, right in the middle of the melee. John is laughing and swinging his sword about while Teyla tears after two pirates with her fighting sticks, and Ronon soundly thrashes anyone who comes within an armslength of him.
It's not all fun and games. Lorne barely intervenes before a pirate begins to feed off Beckett, and Ford is thrown overboard, though he surfaces within seconds, looking dazed but uninjured. Jeannie puts her free hand over her eyes as Rodney fights his way towards John.
"I'd say it's going pretty well, wouldn't you?" John says, fending off the queen's attack.
"Oh, sure," Rodney replies, ducking a sword. "Real well."
"Enough!" roars the queen and the fighting comes to a screeching halt with the lovely symphony of steel on steel. John's grin is firmly entrenched, but he's sweating terribly and his skin looks chalky.
"Let's settle this between us," the queen hisses, her eyes locked with John's.
John glances at the bleeding Beckett, at water-logged Ford, at Jeannie, still clutching Rodney's hand, and he juts out his chin.
"So be it."
Rodney feels it's his duty to interfere. "Hell no."
"Not now, Shadow." John hasn't moved an inch; his sword is at the ready, but he doesn't take his eyes off the queen.
"John, if you think I'm going to let you-"
"Let me?" John doesn't blink, but his entire body tenses. "You don't let me do anything. This is between me and her."
Then John grins and turns to wink at Rodney. "Besides, she's no match for me – and she knows it."
That second's inattention costs him dearly; everything moves in slow motion. Rodney throws out an arm to drag John away, just as John's head swings forward and the Wraith queen's hand thrusts towards John's chest. John's eyes widen, full of fear, the sword slipping from his slack hand. Everyone shouts at once and it all becomes just noise, a wordless roar. Rodney feels like the life is being drained from him.
Something blue flutters in between John and the queen's palm, absorbing the blow, and John falls backwards onto the deck.
"RADEK!" The scream rips from his throat as he cradles the unmoving blue body in his hand. Rodney's head falls, his heart thuds against his ribcage. No one moves, all hold their breaths.
The queen looks ill, staring at her stained hands. "No. No, it is not enough. I need to feed. Bring the girl."
Rodney, shell-shocked and hard of hearing, jolts. "No!"
The pirates have already recovered, and they tear a shrieking Jeannie from Rodney's grasp, shoving her at the desperate, bedraggled queen. John doesn't even flinch, just sits there, frozen.
One of the Wraith holds Rodney back as he struggles to get to his sister, but his efforts are fruitless and the queen lowers her hand.
A green forcefield erupts around Jeannie, stopping contact with the queen. The frustrated Wraith tries again and again, but she can't penetrate.
"What is the meaning of this?" she demands.
Teyla looks across the ship to Rodney; he looks at the necklace around Jeannie's neck and he remembers what she was trying to tell him earlier.
"The amulet," he says, mostly to himself, though he meets Teyla's eyes and mouths, 'Thank you.'
Jeannie is safe for the moment, but there's still John.
Enraged and manic, the queen turns again to John; he is so still, tears running down his cheeks, just holding the lifeless fairy. Something inside Rodney snaps at the sight. John should never look so helpless.
He throws the pirate holding him off as if he weighs nothing, and launches himself at the queen, taking her head in his hands and dashing it against the wooden deck, ignoring splinters, ignoring the searing pain that cuts across his back when he's attacked from behind. Blood drips across his nose, blinding him, but he just keeps smashing until the body pinned underneath him lies still. Even then he wants to inflict as much pain as he can, until a soft voice tells him he can stop.
He crumples, hissing, gasping for breath, and Jeannie rushes to his side. Ronon, Lorne, and Ford hold the rest of the pirates at bay, though without their queen they lose most of their fight. Rodney thinks maybe they stop fighting because their leader was taken down by a fourteen year old, but he doesn't really care so long as they stop.
John still hasn't moved. Rodney crawls to his side, bloodstained and battered.
"Is he–?" Jeannie whispers. Rodney just nods. Radek is little more than a shell now.
There's silence. Then Jeannie cries.
"No, no, he can't be. He can't. I believe in fairies, I do, I do."
Rodney shakes his head, though it hurts so much colors burst in front of his eyes. He pulls Jeannie in close and strokes her hair with his awkward, bloodied, adult hands.
"It doesn't really work like that," he whispers, and while Beckett and Teyla come close to the nearly catatonic John, neither of them touch him. Rodney can't stand it; he knows that John needs to be touched.
He guides Jeannie to Teyla's arms and flings his own around John, drawing John's head to the hollow between his neck and shoulder. He can feel the hot tears pool, and then John is sobbing, beating his fists against Rodney's injured back, smearing his nose against Rodney's ruined polo. Rodney doesn't complain, he just sets his teeth and holds John for as long as necessary – and then a little longer while the sun sets behind them.
Rodney climbs onto the roof of the clubhouse, wincing as his foot slips and his back is wrenched. He finally gets some purchase and pulls himself up next to John whose hair is ruffled by the wind, but otherwise doesn't move, barely even breathes. His eyes are stony, and Rodney knows this isn't going to be pleasant. He almost caves, but the blood on his hands is too fresh.
"Hey," he says softly, for a lack of a better opening. Then he decides to just bite the bullet. "We have to go home."
He's not sure what he expects; another temper tantrum, maybe, or that horrible icy silence, accusations, or a look of betrayal.
John just says, "I know."
Emboldened, Rodney adds, quickly before he can lose his nerve, "You could come with us. I can't promise you'll always be safe, but-"
And he doesn't know how to finish that sentence because he can already see that John's immobile.
"I wish she'd gotten me instead," John says after another minute of silence. It's a new moon, so the sky is dark and Rodney can't quite make out all the features of John's face.
"I don't," Rodney replies. "Radek did what he always did. He protected you. I'm...grateful."
John turns his head and his eyes are huge and full of tears. He rests his head on Rodney's shoulder and Rodney slings an arm around his.
John says, "I don't have anyone to protect me anymore. What's going to happen to me now?"
Rodney doesn't have an answer for that. He wants to say that he'll stay forever, but he knows that's wrong. He wants to say something encouraging, offer some hope, but he doesn't have the words. Finally he says:
"You'll fight, and you'll play, and you'll defend the others. You're John Shep."
And John, for the first time since Radek's death, smiles.
Rodney lets Jeannie say her goodbyes before taking her hand tightly in his. Ronon thumps him on the back, Lorne ruffles his hair, Beckett squeezes the breath from his lungs, and Ford just giggles while trying not to cry. Teyla crouches at Jeannie's side and whispers something in her ear; Rodney can't help wondering what she says, but knows better than to ask.
John steps out in front of them, wearing full Atlantis black regalia and war paint.
"Princess," says John, taking Jeannie's hand, "it was lovely to meet you. You're a brave warrior, and you'll always be welcome in Atlantis."
He kisses her cheek and Jeannie flushes bright red, burying her face against Rodney's chest. John lifts his head and meets Rodney's eyes for what both of them know is the last time.
"Bye, Shadow," he whispers.
"Bye, John," Rodney says, swallowing over the lump in his throat. He wants to add, I love you, but doesn't because they're both teenage boys and that sort of thing just isn't said out loud. He hopes John knows it anyway.
There's no fairy dust this time, and, as far as the mechanics of it go, it's a lot easier to leave Atlantis than it is to get there.
Rodney thinks of home, not as a place where his parents argue and neglect him, but as the place he described to Teyla, a place of beauty, and discovery, and change. He thinks of it as a place to grow, a place where he only has to worry about protecting his sister from boys rather than pirates.
He doesn't know what Jeannie's thinking, but before he knows it, they're back home in her bedroom, and Atlantis feels like a dream.
Their mother is curled on Jeannie's bed, eyes and nose red, hair disheveled. She clutches a teddy bear and Nana is sprawled under her left arm. Rodney perches on the edge of the bed, and strokes her hair with his horribly adult hands; she doesn't wake.
There's an unspoken agreement between the siblings to face the consequences in the morning. For now, Jeannie crawls into bed next to her mother and Rodney switches off the light, trudging down the hall to his own room. He spends a long time just staring at the ceiling, counting the cracks and taking inventory of his inexplicable injuries until he falls asleep.
Several people notice the change in Rodney. He becomes isolated, caustic, occasionally brutal, and severely hydrophobic. At the same time he cares more for his little sister than ever before, and defends her against school bullies and the like, even when it means he draws their ire in the process.
Rodney's parents don't really change; they ground their children for sneaking out of the house and injuring themselves, and though they're a little more attentive for about a week or so, eventually things return to the status quo. They divorce five years later.
After some time, after MIT and a Ph.D, Rodney remembers Atlantis as a silly children's game, a made up bedtime story for his sister. He always feels an odd sort of longing, however, when he thinks of the boy with the unruly hair who was afraid of growing up and growing old.
"What are we getting Mom for her birthday?" Rodney asks as he scribbles on the whiteboard, then erases it and starts again.
"We're not getting her anything," Jeannie replies on the other end of the line. "I got her a sweater. You know, it wouldn't kill you to get out of that lab of yours once in awhile."
"Some sister you are," Rodney replies, switching the phone to the other shoulder. He's run through so many markers he's considering buying them by the gross.
"Can you do me a favor? I need you to pick Maddy up from school today."
"Why can't that lazy husband of yours do it?"
He can almost hear Jeannie roll her eyes. "My 'lazy' husband is lecturing at UBC today. Please, Mer? Be a good uncle for once. Maddy's got an adorable new kindergarten teacher. He's single...if that helps."
Rodney groans. "You're clearly desperate."
"No, Mer," and Rodney just knows she's grinning, "you are."
She has a point. "Fine, I'll do it, but you have to put my name on Mom's card."
"Thank you, big brother."
Rodney pulls up in front of Wagon Wheel Elementary just as a swarm of parents and children flood out of the building. He fights the current and stops someone just outside the door of a classroom.
"Excuse me," he says to the young woman who looks oddly familiar. "Hello, yes, I'm supposed to pick up Madison Miller."
"You want the kindergarten yard," she replies, her voice so calm it almost puts him to sleep. She smiles, her dark eyes warm. "Outside, around the back."
Rodney wanders into a world of primary colors, and sees the swingset and monkey bars deserted. The only two left in the yard are his niece and a man about his age with achingly familiar hair, sitting on faded bleachers, tracing patterns in the dirt.
"Uncle Meredith!" Madison shrieks and runs to him, throwing her arms around his waist. The man stands, dusts off his pants, and walks over. Rodney can see now that he has smiling hazel eyes and streaks of grey at each temple. He's unreasonably good-looking.
"Hi," he says, holding out a hand. "John Sheppard, I'm Maddy's teacher. You must be Mr. McKay."
"Doctor, actually," Rodney replies, and something about the man's name strikes a chord. "How'd you know my name?"
John laughs. "Jeannie called to let us know you'd be picking Maddy up today." Then something flickers across his face. "Have we met before? You look awfully familiar."
"Yeah, you too." Rodney almost forgets about his niece, but she tugs on his pant leg.
"Uncle Meredith," she says, arms spread out like wings, "John flies helicopters."
"You fly?" Rodney says, startled, though he doesn't know why.
"Yeah, on the weekends, as a sort of hobby." John looks equally confused, and he says to Madison, "Hey, Maddy, why don't you go get your lunch box from your cubby?"
After she runs inside, John turns back to Rodney. "I swear I know you from somewhere," he says, almost desperately.
"I can't think where," Rodney replies. His heart is beating erratically, and he wonders if it's just because John is really attractive. "I just moved to Vancouver. I don't know a lot of people. My work doesn't leave a lot of time to make friends and most people find my genius intimidating."
John grins and Rodney almost stumbles. "Hey, you know, I sometimes do these sort of guided tour things, and I had one scheduled for this weekend but the group backed out at the last minute. If you'd like, I could show you the sights."
"I'd like that," Rodney says, as Madison runs out, waving her lunch box, "I really would."
Radek watches, as he always has, ghostly and intangible, from the branch of an old oak tree, shaking his head. Twenty-five years - and some things never change.