Summary: Everyone knows John Sheppard has a hero complex - except John Sheppard. During a Wraith attack on Christmas, his grumpy guardian angel Rodney stops by to show him how much he's sacrificed for others, and what life would be like if he'd never been born, the idiot.
A/N: Loosely based on It's a Wonderful Life. And by loosely I mean very. I was trying to get this done in time for Christmas, but had a difficult time on the ending. At least it's done in time for the new year. A special thanks to my beta, littlebuttercup.
Rodney stood in the corner, arms folded, invisible to everyone but the man in the bed, while the family said their goodbyes. A part of him was actually relieved; he'd shadowed Lewis White for eighty-seven years, and playing guardian angel to a born daredevil was not an easy gig. Before him it had been the missionary, and the career criminal before her. Rodney always seemed to get the roughest cases, the ones who needed the most help. It was probably because he knew how to get results.
And it wasn't by playing by the rules.
This one had lasted a surprisingly long time, only to die of old age. Lewis was fading, and soon Rodney would be assigned to a new kid just being born. Hopefully this kid would be less trouble. Maybe Rodney could finally catch a break.
"Rodney?" croaked Lewis, and his family leaned in to catch his last words. "Rodney, are you there?"
But Rodney had already gone, without so much as a goodbye. Rodney didn't do goodbyes anymore; he was the one who had to live with it.
"All right," he said with forced joviality, "who have you got? I hope it's an Amish kid this time. Though I'm not sure I could live without television. Figuratively speaking, of course."
Gabriel peered over his bifocals, an affectation that had always annoyed Rodney. Gabriel was an angel, for crying out loud, his eyesight was perfect. Somewhere along the millennia, he decided it made him look distinguished and intimidating, while Rodney thought it made him look like an old school teacher.
"Your new assignment..." croaked Gabriel, checking the lists as if he didn't already know the answer, "ah, yes. John Matthew Sheppard. Born to Colonel Lucas Sheppard and Elaine Sheppard, Chicago, Illinois."
"Oh, not a military brat," groaned Rodney. He was glad they were alone; the others liked to give him a hard time for complaining about The Duty. "They move so much I can't keep track of them."
"Maybe you'll get lucky," Gabriel replied, deadpan. "Maybe the father will get court-martialed."
"Ha, ha," said Rodney sourly, looking over the scrap of paper Gabriel handed him with his new 'client's name on it. They still liked to do things the old-fashioned way.
"This kid is pretty much destined for greatness."
"My favorite," grumbled Rodney. "They're the ones that give me migraines. Here's to another round of glorified babysitting. So, what, I've got to keep him alive long enough to save the world?"
"A couple of times, at least, according to his charts."
Rodney stared at the scrap of paper. He knew, with sinking certainty, that John Sheppard was going to become a pain in his ass.
"By the way," Gabriel said as Rodney headed for the Windy City, "I thought you might like to know you won with White."
"He made it Upstairs, if you catch my drift."
"Great," muttered Rodney, fading from view. "Another gold star for me."
"Oh, and before I forget," Gabriel called out. "You're up for performance review. If you handle this right, there could be promotion!"
"So no pressure then?"
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
John jumped and turned to see McKay storming down the hall, waving his arms about wildly.
"Rodney," he began, putting his hands up in defense. He was trained in several forms of combat, but for some reason no one had ever taught him how to defend himself against an irate scientist. "Don't. I know what you're going to say, and, just, don't."
"You have no idea what I'm going to say because I have no idea what I'm going to say! Good Lord, Sheppard, I know you have a hero complex, but this is suicide! Actual suicide, there is no coming back from this one. No Daedelus, no Deus ex Machina!"
"It's the only way to save the city," John replied through gritted teeth. He was so hoping to be gone by the time McKay found out.
"What, and you thought you could just slip off to your doom without me noticing?"
John hesitated. "Yes?"
"Oh-" McKay struggled with his words, and eventually settled for dragging John away by his tac vest. The remnants of the holiday decorations that Elizabeth and Radek had put up, from popcorn garlands to tinsel and lights, were all a blur, and the once proud Christmas tree nothing but charcoal. A Wraith attack on Christmas; didn't they have any sense of decency?
"Rodney," John squeaked as he was pulled along, "I don't know if you've noticed, but we're under attack and the city is collapsing around us."
"And if you'd come to any one of us we could have helped you work out a solution that didn't involve killing yourself – like we always do!"
McKay's tones were clipped and held a level of anger John had never heard before.
"McKay! We're kind of on a deadline!"
"Yes, yes, I know." McKay paused long enough to snap his fingers in the air.
And the world stopped.
John didn't know how he knew, since they were the only two in the hall and McKay was still muttering under his breath, but someone had definitely pushed pause on the universe – and that someone was Rodney.
"McKay, what the hell-?"
McKay finally stopped outside the rec room, swiped his hand over the crystals, and shoved John through the door. John tumbled onto the couch before the large T.V. screen.
"You have thirty seconds to explain to me why you don't think you deserve to live," McKay said, crossing his arms and looking so formidable that John, perplexed, and exhausted, and covered in blood that wasn't his, felt all the fight go out of him.
"I'm just tired of fighting," John mumbled, wondering why the hell Wraith weren't mowing them down as they just sat around chatting. "I want to end this, now. I can't keep this up; I can't just keep being brave for other people. Sooner or later, they're all going to realize that I'm making this up as I go along. I'm exhausted. I've been waging war my whole life, Rodney. I'm just...tired," he finished lamely.
McKay stared at him as if seeing him for the first time. Then he said:
"That is the worst excuse I've ever heard – and trust me, I've heard plenty. Now, you sit there, and we're going to play a little game called, 'John Matthew Sheppard: This is Your Life'. Merry Christmas."
"When did I tell you my middle name?" John murmured, thinking that there was really something he needed to do right now, but he just couldn't put his finger on it. The lights began to dim.
"Shush, the movie's about to start."
"Er, ho, ho, ho," said the mall's Santa Claus as John approached, glancing over his shoulder at his nanny who urged him forward with a nod and a bland smile. Santa looked almost as nervous and ran a white gloved hand across his forehead. "Well, uh, Merry Christmas, John Sheppard."
John's eyes went wide as saucers, then narrowed suspiciously. This was a setup. "How'd you know my name?"
Santa rolled his eyes. "I'm Santa Claus. I know everything."
"Really? How old am I?"
"Four. You like trucks and model airplanes. You sleep with a night-light. Sheesh, haven't you heard the song? I know when you're sleeping, and I know when you're awake."
"Really?" said John again. He considered this. "That's creepy."
Santa paused. "Yes. Yes, it is. Look, John, the reason I'm here is that I have something very important to tell you."
"I'm 'upposed to tell you what I want for Christmas. That's what Claire said."
"Yes, well." Santa hesitated, his bright blue eyes so sad that John wanted to promise to be good forever. "I know that something terrible has just happened, and I know it hurts a lot. No matter what happens, you'll be all right. I promise. Santa's honor. I need you to be brave for your dad. Your mom loves you very much, and misses you as much as you miss her."
John shrank into himself, but then felt the strangest sensation. Santa was hugging him, and those blue eyes were full of compassion. John didn't understand right away, but he did know he felt a hundred times better.
"Can you bring her back?" whispered John, just in case anyone else heard.
"No," Santa whispered back. "I wish I could. Believe me, I wish I could."
John nodded, somehow comforted, and ran back to his nanny, gripping her hand so tightly that she pretended to wince.
"Did you tell Santa your Christmas wish, sweetie?" she asked, and John nodded, his thumb sneaking into his mouth though he'd stopped doing that a year ago. He glanced over his shoulder, and was somehow unsurprised to see that Santa was gone.
He was magic after all.
For Christmas, John got a G.I. Joe, a set of Legos, and, for some reason, a math book. They were all very nice, but not what he wanted.
Remembering what Santa said, John convinced himself that things were going to be okay.
But they weren't, not for a long time.
He fell out of the tree when he was six.
It was one of those slow motion deals, where it seemed to take ages for him to fall, and there was a strange peace about the whole thing.
A peace that was interrupted with a loud, "Shit!" from somewhere below him.
Suddenly this man appeared out of nowhere and dived beneath the tree to break his fall.
"I knew it," the man muttered, his face pressed into the earth, "I just knew it. You're going to be trouble, aren't you? You're going to make my afterlife Hell. You could have broken your neck. I don't need this, I'm not Mary Poppins!"
John thought the man must be insane, though he didn't get a lot of crazy people wandering into his backyard.
"Who're you?" he asked, still sitting on the man's spine.
"I'm your guardian angel, now get off of me!" The so-called angel stood and brushed off his pants. He didn't look particularly angelic in a Hawaiian print shirt and khaki pants with dirt all over his face, but then John had never really believed in the harps and halos thing.
The angel had really blue eyes and a dark scowl that didn't bother John one bit. He was younger than John's dad, but probably not by much.
"How come I've got a guardian angel?" asked John, not questioning the whole 'angel' part because, really, why shouldn't there be angels?
"Because, clearly, someone's got to spend their time keeping you from killing yourself, and lucky me, I got the job."
"Does everyone got one?" asked John, in his quiet, pensive little way.
"Does everyone have one, and yes. Except that most people don't ever see theirs because most people aren't constantly throwing themselves into danger."
The angel was trembling, and looked terribly upset. John wasn't used to people being upset on his behalf, so he mistook it for anger aimed at him. That he understood.
"I didn't throw myself," said John, narrowing his eyes. He didn't like being blamed for things that weren't his fault, though he was always willing, often proudly, to accept responsibility for the things that were. "I fell."
"You shouldn't have climbed up there in the first place," said the angel. "It's much too high for you."
The angel rubbed his temples, as if John was giving him a headache.
"I'm not arguing with you about this. Just try not to kill yourself before the age of forty, okay?"
And John, with typical childish determination, said, "Why?"
"Because you've got to save the world," the angel snapped.
Having a guardian angel was not at all what John expected. To start with, he rarely saw the angel, though he was aware of his presence all the time. Whenever the angel did appear, it was usually because something was wrong.
The angel himself was not what John expected. He was paranoid, sarcastic, and surly to the point of mean. He said he was allergic to citrus, which John found extremely amusing because how could an angel be allergic to anything? He liked cats, and said it was something he and Death had in common. All this angels and Death with a capital D and 'yes, your mother died and no, there was nothing I could do about it' really threw him for a loop.
Still, John enjoyed the rare times the angel appeared, not because of what he represented (aka a shit time for John) but because he was oddly good company. He actually seemed to care, and sometimes John thought maybe, just maybe, he understood.
John's father didn't understand him, but he was a teenager, so no one really did.
As he got older and his father dragged him around the country, John really started to hate the military. Hated their rules, hated their dress, hated the way emotion was a four-letter word. By age thirteen he'd shut down and buried all that hate deep inside so that one day he'd be able to use it and nothing could stand in its way.
He was sitting on the edge of the dock, dangling bare feet in the water and staring across the lake. Most of the time he didn't like Michigan, but he couldn't deny that it did great things with water. Almost worth the mosquitoes.
He didn't hear the angel approach, but heard his very noisy sigh.
"We've talked about this, John," said the angel, standing behind him.
"He said no," John replied without turning. He picked up a stone and skipped it across the water, watching it sink like his dreams. John was really good at teenage angst.
"I'm sure he has his reasons."
The angel's voice was so smug, so sanctimonious that John jumped to his feet and turned with fists raised.
"I don't care what his reasons are," shouted John. "How can I save the world if he won't even let me live my own life!"
"Oh, geez." The angel put a hand to his head, and John made a face. "What did I do to deserve you? I never should have told you about the saving the world thing."
"Yeah, well, it's too late for that."
"Actually, it's not," said the angel, stepping towards John with a worried little frown. "I could make you forget."
John ducked his outstretched hand. "You wouldn't dare!"
The angel sighed, wringing his hands. "There are a lot of things I'd dare, John, but I guess there's no harm in letting you remember a little longer. I'm an idiot. I shouldn't be coddling you like this."
John ignored him, kicking a bucket that sat on the edge of the dock, watching it tumble over the side into the water with a plop. "Look, have you got a name?"
He took the angel by surprise. "What?"
"You've been visiting me since I was six, and I don't even know what to call you. I should have something to call the guy who keeps saving my ass."
"Watch your language," the angel replied automatically. He seemed to flush slightly, though it was hard to tell because John had noticed that he burned easily. "Oh, well, I suppose you can call me Rodney."
"Rodney?" John snickered. "Not particularly angelic, is it?"
"Oh, shut up, and tell me why you're moping out here."
John opened his mouth to point out that he couldn't shut up and talk at the same time, but one look from Rodney chastised him.
"Dad won't let me go to the National Math Championships. Everyone's counting on me, I can't let them down. I told him it's a chance to win prizes and stuff, but he doesn't think I should waste my time with that 'pansy-assed shit'."
Rodney bristled and wore a scowl to rival John's own. "Oh, does he. Well, maybe I'll just have to have a word with him."
"Can you do that?" John looked up from under his wild brown hair. "Can you convince him to let me go? He wants me to go to some stupid military school. I don't want to join the military like him."
But Rodney's righteous anger had already dissipated.
"I can't," he admitted. "He won't be able to see me."
John turned away slightly, disappointed.
"I want to help people," he said, smacking a fist against a wood post. "Maybe I'll be a doctor and cure cancer or something."
"Oh, don't you dare. I refuse to let you become some – some voodoo practitioner!"
John scrunched up his face, trying to hold back a tantrum; what was he, six? "Well, if you're not going to help me, then what good are you?"
Rodney grabbed his shoulder, and John jumped because being touched by an angel was weird. It tingled and made him feel so incredibly unworthy that he wanted to strip down to his boxers and dive in the lake. Fortunately, Rodney's very un-angelic exasperation snapped him out of it.
"I'm not your babysitter, John. I'm supposed to make sure you keep living life the best you can, no matter what happens."
"What's so great about life?" John muttered, tears of rage in his eyes. He wiped them away with his hands still clenched in fists because if there was anything more embarrassing than crying at thirteen, it was crying in front of an angel.
"I hate puberty," Rodney muttered. "Teenagers think everything's the end of the world. Try witnessing the end of the world, and then come crying to me."
He looked at John, all red face and blotchy skin.
"Would you look at yourself? You're crying over math. Most boys your age wouldn't touch math with a ten foot pole. Not that I'm not grateful, mind you. My last charge used physics to calculate how fast he could throw himself from an airplane without spilling his brains out all over the ground."
"It's not about the math," John spat, struggling with the effort of standing upright. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Everyone's relying on me. Mom would have let me. She would have encouraged me."
Rodney pulled back with an indrawn breath. "Oh, boy. Of course that's what this is about. We've talked about death, John. It's part of the circle of life. You've seen The Lion King."
John sniffled. "What does an angel know about death, you can't die. How old are you, anyway?"
Rodney replied with an arched eyebrow at the sudden subject change. "That is none of your business. I'm older than you, and therefore smarter than you. Listen to me, John. If you don't want to be sent away to military school, it would be a good idea to stop acting out."
"I do not act out," John started hotly, but Rodney fixed him with a stare again, and he shut his mouth.
"Hey," said Rodney softly, leaning forward to ruffle John's hair, his touch lingering just a second too long, "I'm here for you, John. I'm always here."
Rodney left then, the same way he always did, and John stared back out at the water.
He didn't listen to the angel's advice, and the day after New Year's his things were packed and he was shipped out.
John Sheppard didn't do anything by halves.
The week before Christmas all his gifts were wrapped and stamped, ready to be shipped off. The school didn't encourage gift-giving between the cadets, but the unofficial rule was everyone did it; they were just careful not to get caught. However presents were one thing; blatant displays of religious beliefs and/or artifacts were forbidden.
His roommate Alan was the closest thing John had to a best friend, and he was Jewish, so John snuck out of school one night to get some candles for his contraband menorah.
Alan thanked him without enthusiasm, and later John heard that Sue King, from the girls' school, had been telling everyone he wouldn't kiss her after the formal, so there was clearly something wrong with him. Though John went cold inside and crossed Sue off his Christmas list, he was determined not to let anyone keep him from celebrating.
By Christmas Eve there was only one gift left to give.
The military school bordered a lake, as swimming was a mandatory part of their schooling, so after lights out, John climbed out his bedroom window, walked down to the lakefront, and jumped in.
He had heard that it was possible to hold your breath for three minutes before your body needed oxygen, but since safety was not the point, he exhaled as soon as his head went under.
Seconds later, as colored lights burst in front of his eyes and his head felt like it was going to split open, John was dragged bodily from the lake and thrown unceremoniously on the ground.
"What is wrong with you?" asked an irritable, and now sopping wet, Rodney. "It's December in Connecticut!"
John grinned. "Merry Christmas to you too, Rodney."
Rodney hauled him to his feet and let him just stand there, shivering, but beaming proudly.
"I didn't know how to get you to come," John added through chattering teeth. "But I remembered you said you'd always be there if I was in trouble, so..."
"So you almost killed yourself," Rodney said flatly. "Just to see me. Gee, don't I feel special."
John could sense that behind the annoyance, the angel was actually flattered and pleased. John wondered if any of his other charges had ever gone to this much trouble just for a visit. Rodney didn't like to talk about his other charges, and after several years and a couple months of the silent treatment, John stopped asking.
It was Christmas, and John didn't really care about the kids who'd come before him.
"I missed you," he said, as casually as he could considering he was freezing to death. He tried to make it sound like it was no big deal, but a tremble from the cold altered his tone. "I hate it here."
"Oh, don't say that," said Rodney, looking hurt, taking John's innocent words as a personal attack. "You're doing well here. Your grades are up, and the teachers love you. You're not even getting detentions anymore, which is good because those aren't detentions, those are torture sessions. I wish I could have a word with that school board; morons, the lot of them."
John wasn't trying to blame anyone. He struggled for a way to put words to his feelings; something he'd never been very good at.
"I just wish you'd come by more. No one likes me much. They've been spreading rumors about," here John flushed, "just about me."
"Don't be ridiculous," Rodney said, putting an arm around John, who'd started to shake so hard he could have burrowed a hole in the ground, pulling him close. "Who could not like you? You're John Sheppard. You have...great hair, for one thing."
"They don't like math here, and it's not cool to be smart, and I like football but I'm not big enough to play it, and sometimes I just wish there was someone around to talk to who didn't think I was an idiot, or was capable of intelligent conversation."
"So what you're saying," Rodney said slowly, taking John by the shoulders and forcing him to meet his gaze, "is that you actually like it when I visit? Even though it usually means something bad happens?"
Rodney's jaw was slack, and John shifted his weight.
Rodney sighed. "That's really screwed up."
"I know." John paused because he could hear the amusement in Rodney's tone, and decided it was worth pushing ahead. "I got you something, to thank you for saving me all the time. I don't know what an angel needs or wants, but I thought you might like this."
He reached into the pocket of his pants and pulled out a damp plastic baggie. Inside was a small silver picture frame and a picture of John. He handed it to Rodney, and stared at his feet.
Rodney stared, first at the frame, then at John.
"I just thought," mumbled John, "I mean, I'm sure you don't have a desk or anything, but, you know, something to remember me by."
Rodney looked at the frame again. "I couldn't possibly not remember you," he said quietly, and John's heart leapt. "But, John, I can't accept this. It's not right. I'm not...I'm not human."
John didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything, he just wrapped his arms around Rodney, ignoring the strange tingling that spread over him, then quickly let go and stepped back, embarrassed.
"Merry Christmas," he muttered, and walked back to his bedroom, resisting the impulse to look over his shoulder. He thought, as he climbed through the window, damp and miserable, that he heard the angel sigh.
Seventeen years old, John lay with his cheek pressed against the cold tile floor, listening to the uneven thump of his heartbeat and the tip tap of the drip from the sink, wondering in a vague fog why his limbs felt so frozen, and why everything tasted like pennies.
"Oh, John. What have you done?"
John sensed, rather than saw, Rodney above him and managed to lift his head slightly and grin through broken teeth.
"I saved him, Rodney," wheezed John. "Perkins had him up against the wall, was going - was going to violate him, and I saved him. He was only twelve, Rodney. They got me surrounded, there were too many to take on at once."
Rodney knelt, cradled his head in his lap, and brushed some of the matted, bloodstained hair from John's eyes.
"I'm sorry," whispered Rodney. "I should have been here sooner. This shouldn't have happened."
It had never once occurred to John to doubt that his guardian angel would show; Rodney had always come when John needed him most. From the time when he was falsely accused of cheating and nearly expelled, to the night after the dance with the all-girls school, and everything in between. Rodney was always there, caustic and tactless as ever.
"I knew you'd come," said John, his soft laugh turning into a pained sigh. "You always come, don't you? You know what, Rodney? They're going to teach me to fly. I'm gonna get to fly planes. That's pretty cool, isn't it? Oh, God, Rodney, it hurts. Why does everything hurt?"
He could feel Rodney's warm breath on his scalp and the angel's fingers in his hair. This time, he didn't mind the touch.
"John, close your eyes. Don't argue, just do it."
John wasn't in much of a position to argue anyway, so he closed his eyes and his breathing became less shallow. Some of the pain slipped away, and after a minute Rodney was helping him sit up.
"What did you do?" asked John, one hand clutching his still throbbing head.
"I healed you," Rodney said, looking very uncomfortable. "You were going to die of those wounds, and that can't happen yet."
"Yeah," said John, feeling ridiculously happy for reasons he couldn't pinpoint, though being alive probably had something to do with it. "I haven't saved the world yet."
"This isn't a joke," said Rodney sharply. "This isn't how it was supposed to go. I messed up, I should have gotten to you before the fight started. I'm supposed to guard you."
"But I'm fine now," John said, staring at the blood he left behind on the bathroom floor.
"It doesn't work like that John." Rodney looked so heartbroken, and John struggled to understand the situation. He wasn't dead; wasn't that a good thing? He'd even saved another boy from a sexual attack. They should be talking about medals or something.
"Damn it," Rodney burst out, startling John. "It isn't fair! I don't know what it is - normally I have no problem. I'm kind of famous up there for getting results, you know. Then you come along and suddenly - "
He cut himself off, and cradled John's face in his surprisingly callused hands. John half-expected him to say, "Eureka!"
"I've really screwed you up," said Rodney, understanding spreading across his face, and John's eyes widened; he started to struggle. "Why was this so much easier with the bank robber?"
And he disappeared, leaving John curled up with his blood still staining the floor.
John didn't see him again for ten years.
It was cold, the way only a desert at night could be, and it was dusty, and John couldn't breathe.
He didn't know how this worked; he had never tried before. Always, always, Rodney found him. Of course, there was that one Christmas...but John didn't think that would work again. He suspected the angel would just let him die out of spite if he tried another stunt like that.
"Rodney?" he said out loud, his whisper carrying across half of Afghanistan. "Rodney, if you're there, I – I could really use your help."
So this was what utter helplessness felt like.
John hated it.
"I know you're there," he said, half-threateningly. "You're always there. I need to talk to you. Come on."
Then, desperately, fingers tightening around his belt loops, he added, "Please?"
"Oh, for Heaven's sake, you know I can't resist that puppy-dog look."
John jumped and turned. There, in the middle of his tent, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khaki pants, was Rodney, looking exactly the same as he had ten years ago. His light brown hair was rumpled, his arms were folded across his chest, and he seemed to be fighting back a sneeze. Exactly the same.
"You left me," John accused, not caring if he sounded petulant. They were finally of a like age, finally John could see eye to eye with his strange angel, and still John felt like a child.
"No," Rodney corrected. "You stopped needing me. There's definitely a difference. I'm sure of it. I needed to give you space."
"I didn't want any."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "It's not about what you wanted, idiot, it's about what you needed. I'm here now."
And suddenly, John was afraid. More afraid than he could ever remember being in his entire life. More than when his mother died, or when he fell out of that tree, or when his father sent him to that hellhole of a school.
"There are still men out there," John said quietly. "I'm under orders to return to the base. They said we'd all be home in time for Christmas."
"Uh huh," said Rodney, clearly impatient and clearly not getting it. John started to wonder if maybe he had put too much faith in Rodney for too many years.
"What am I supposed to do?"
Rodney's jaw dropped. "You're asking me? Mr. Military's asking the Pacifist-By-Demand for his opinion on war?"
"No," said John, now quite irritable because this was just about the closest thing he had to a worst nightmare and all he wanted was to be six years old again and comforted by the fact that a complete stranger was watching over him. "John is asking Rodney to help him."
"Oh," said Rodney, rubbing his red nose. "When you put it that way..."
Then something happened, and John was never sure what (though many years later he spent some time trying to figure it out), but Rodney closed the distance between them and pulled John into a tight hug.
"This is it," he whispered in John's ear. "I can't believe it, this is basically the moment. I didn't think – I mean, I didn't realize – well, never mind. The point is: I have to go. You have to make this choice by yourself, and all the others that'll come after it. I kept you alive this long, now you've got to finish the job. I'll always watch out for you, John."
For the second time that night, John felt like he couldn't breathe.
"You have no idea how much I – " Rodney cut himself off and pulled back, still gripping John's shoulders. John was vaguely aware of how ridiculous this scene would look to any passerby. "I'm so, so sorry, John."
"Rodney?" John could feel the panic in his throat like he'd swallowed a mouthful of desert. Rodney raised one hand, half-anger, half-anguish on his face, and John knew exactly what he was going to do.
"No," said John, scrambling backwards. "No, you can't. You wouldn't dare."
"I'm sorry," Rodney repeated. "I wasn't supposed to love you."
He passed his hand over John's eyes, and caught him as he sank to the ground.
When John woke up, he grabbed his gear and set off into the desert to rescue his comrades. Everything was different; he just didn't know it.
The lights came up and John very slowly turned his head to look at McKay.
No, not McKay. Rodney. His guardian angel.
"I remember," said John, swallowing, marveling at the fact that Rodney still hadn't aged a day. "You left me. Again."
Rodney took a deep, long breath and said: "Here's the thing. Remember all those years ago when I told you you were supposed to save the world?"
"Yeah." John was still having quite a lot of trouble with the fact that his best friend Rodney, Rodney the astrophysicist with a predilection for blonde women and powerbars, was actually Rodney the angel, the one who'd held him in the bathroom the night he was beaten for being a hero – the one who abandoned him in Afghanistan when he was needed most.
"Afghanistan was a...turning point, if you will. It got you here, to Atlantis. But I couldn't guide those steps. Those you had to take on your own, you wouldn't be the person you are now if you thought I'd always be there to bail you out if you were in trouble. That’s why you had to forget."
John didn't speak. He didn't have the words. Space vampires, sure, he could handle that. Replicators, turning into a bug, time dilation fields, possession, sure pile more of that on. But this, this he couldn't handle.
"Then you got here, and I knew what you were up against and how close you were to fulfilling your destiny, and I decided to keep a closer eye on you." Rodney's smile was sheepish. "I may have gotten a little too involved; I'd almost forgotten how much I like science."
"What the hell," John said, struggling to keep his tone even, though he sensed Rodney tremble next to him, "is the point of all of this?"
Rodney rolled his eyes, and something ached inside of John.
"I know you, and you're a born martyr – it's very annoying for someone in my line of work, I'll have you know, to have to watch over a kid who constantly wants to sacrifice himself for others. Anyway, I can't let you do it. You want to, you're trying to, I can see it. Others might mistake it for genuine goodness, but I know better. I know you, John Sheppard. You're trying to get out of jail free."
"That's ridiculous," John replied, though he knew without looking in a mirror that his face was bright red.
"I thought I'd show you a few memories out of your past," Rodney continued, starting to hit his stride. John wanted to hit him, angel or no angel. "Show you why life's worth living, only I think I kind of messed it up because that was actually fairly depressing, wasn't it?"
"Just a little, yeah," said John who was actually choking back tears because, damn it, he hated Rodney right now for leaving and making him forget, but he also just wanted to touch him and beg him not to ever leave again. "So is that it? A few home movies and I'm cured?"
"Don't be stupid," said Rodney, standing and pulling John to his feet. The touch was electric, and John felt charged. "That was only part one, This is Your Life."
"So what's part two?" John asked.
"This is Your Life – Without You In It."