And Not to Recognize the Sky - taliahale (2024)

Rodney: John, I’ve never been so scared. I’m slipping away and I don’t know how to stop myself.

John: Look, you’re still here, alright? You’re still here.

Rodney: I am.

John: And, uh, I’m not going anywhere.

-excerpt from ‘The Shrine’

--

John is drinking one of Dave’s sh*tty microbrews on the back porch, listening to the wind rustling through the sharp-toothed leaves of the blue elders. This far into the suburbs you can pay for a scrap of hillside with a glimpse of inky black sky and air just clean enough for a fistful of stars. He wonders when he started forgetting the names of Earth’s constellations. He wonders which of them Rodney remembers.

They used to know all of them.

--

Memory gaps are a funny thing.

Not funny ha-ha, of course--because he’s been called a lot of things and no one’s ever accused Rodney of having that morbid a sense of humor--but funny all the same.

He can remember formulae and research data and current developments in his fields without any meaningful context. He can remember every piece of music he’s ever played, though he knows for a fact--maybe, but surely Jeannie would’ve mentioned if--he hasn’t laid hands on a keyboard in decades. He knows how old he is and he’s not surprised when he looks in the mirror to see his receding hairline. He’s a little surprised by the shape he’s in, but shrugs off the weight loss as a result of his extended hospital stay.

He doesn’t remember where he’s worked or what he’s worked on or who he’s worked with since just after the nice men in blue suits came knocking on his door in Cambridge. He’d suspect someone swiped the memories, but even with the gaps in his knowledge of recent popular science--and pop culture--he’s relatively certain that’s something the Americans wouldn’t manage to keep hidden.

He has trouble sleeping until Jeannie drags him on a weekend trip to Sauble Beach. He’s skeptical about a place that advises its guests to ‘live life slow,’ but the water is unusually calm and warm for Lake Huron. Before he realizes precisely what’s transpiring he finds himself teaching Madison the fundamentals of sand castle engineering and enjoying himself despite the blinding flashes of Kaleb’s camera. That first night, the susurration of the waves lull him and he’s out before his head hits the pillow. In the morning he asks Jeannie how long he lived by the water and she gets that sad, shifty smile that means ‘classified’ and he wishes she was anyone else--what he wouldn’t give for a minion graduate student with intel--so he could rail and bluster and storm until he has the answers he wants needs longs for.

At night he dreams of soaring over choppy water that extends as far as the eye can see in every direction. There is no trace of land, just waves buffeted by gale force winds. He’s not sure what body of water would be that oddly navy color, but it’s beautiful. Every night he dreams there’s a comforting presence on his left, guiding his flight path with gentle nudges. Whenever he tries to look, his co-pilot is just out of sight, a mere smear of a figure. Nothing to be seen aside from a blurred patch of dark uniform and hints of pale flesh.

He’s a naturally inquisitive guy--and that, there, may be a winner for understatement of the century--so the computer security systems of the American Armed Forces will only intimidate him for so long before his fingers start to get a bit itchy. Whenever the urge grows strong, he’ll catch a fading glimpse of a haunted look on Jeannie’s face, the one she gets when she think’s he not paying attention. Seeing flashes of that worry out of the corner of his eye, he’s not so sure he wants to know what really happened. He’s not sure he wants to know what was so terrifying that Jeannie’s even speaking to him, but he’s so very glad to see her. She’s still beautiful and fearlessly happy and perfectly, brilliantly maddening. Maddeningly, brilliantly perfect. He’ll willfully choose ignorance over losing her squabbling camaraderie. For once, the knowledge doesn’t seem worth the price he might pay.

If someone would just explain exactly when and where Rodney could’ve possibly lost his familiarity with doorknobs and light switches, that would be great.

--

“There’s no medical explanation for why he hasn’t come out of it, yet.” Dr. Keller’s slim fingers are trembling around the edges of her tablet.

It’s not the first time, but John is struck by how incredibly, unbearably young Keller is. A life spent relying on Airmen fresh out of BMT sans the ability to grow decent facial hair can make a guy forget most people that age are kids, still. He stares at his steady hands and resolutely does not think of Ford.

“Aye, love,” Beckett gently pries the tablet from her shaking hands. “Sometimes there’s not. But our Rodney’s a stubborn fellow. He survived brain surgery in a radioactive cave on a Wraith outpost planet. Don’t give up on him just yet, Jennifer.”

“You’re right,” she nods, scrubbing a hand over her face. “Of course, you’re right.”

“Why don’t you catch a few hours sleep?” John suggests from his seat next to the hospital bed.

Keller jumps, like she’s forgotten he’s sitting in the room. Which would be strange because John has been sitting here since they returned from the Shrine of Talus. He sat through scan after scan and the blood draws and the entire medical staff--many of whom used to spend their free time mocking McKay's usual array of not-so-serious ailments and injuries--tutting over Rodney’s charts and monitors. John very cordially refrains from strangling anyone out of sheer bloody frustration. Teyla and Ronon periodically come to sit alongside him. They shove food and water at him. He eats and tastes nothing. At one point Teyla deposits Torren in his arms and leaves him there for an hour. John’s pretty sure that actually lowers his blood pressure and maybe they should try that on--when he wakes up. They'll try when he wakes up. Anyway, nobody tries to make John leave. Everyone on Atlantis knows better than that.

“Yeah, that’s...that’s probably a good idea,” Keller nods at John, pale lips stretched in a tremulous smile. “You’ll call me if anything happens?” she asks Carson, wide eyes beseeching.

“Of course. Try and get a bit of rest,” Beckett gently nudges her toward the door. Once she’s gone Carson turns to John. “If you don’t get a bit of shuteye, I’m going to have one of the jarheads hold you down so I can sedate you.” John stares back, unblinking. “In Keller’s absence, I’m CMO. I can order you to temporarily step down, if need be.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” John says, eyes roving over Rodney’s lax features as he remembers the last time he uttered those words. “I’ll bring a cot in here if you insist, but I’m not leaving.” The unnatural stillness of Rodney’s limbs beneath the blankets has panic clawing at the insides of John’s rib cage.

“John--” Beckett reaches out a kind hand and John flinches away. He can’t, he couldn’t bear it if anyone--

“It’s my job to take care of him, Carson. When it comes right down to it, anything bad that happens to our people is my fault, but this was all on me.” John looks up at Beckett’s hangdog expression, all gigantic sad eyes and wilting smile. “It was my policy not to send MALPs through on every mission. I didn’t notice the changes in his behavior until it was too late. I never shoulda taken us to that damned shrine and I really shouldn’t have let Keller drill a hole in Rodney’s skull.”

“There’s nothing you could’ve done for him,” Carson's voice is firm. In another life he would’ve made a brilliant drill sergeant. “I should’ve been here. I would hope that if I was, I would've recognized the personality changes in Rodney. And the health of the expedition will always be the doctors' responsibility.”

“It was my decision, John,” Jeannie says from the doorway. Her voice is raw from several days of ranting at an unconscious Rodney, followed by ten hours of exhausted, uninterrupted rest in the next room. “I begged him not to be mad at me.” John stares at her and sees the familiar slant of a sharp-tongued mouth, the painfully bright blue of her watery eyes. He feels a pang of sharp regret that she came all this way just for-- Anyway. He never could handle a crying McKay.

“Jeannie, you can’t blame yourself.” John slumps further in his chair.

“Then neither can you,” Jeannie reprimands, pulling a chair up to the other side of Rodney’s bed.

“Jeannie--”

“Dr. Beckett,” Jeannie ignores John with all the practice of a woman with a toddler at home, “is there anything you’re doing here that couldn’t be done on Earth?”

And for a moment John can’t even breathe. “You can’t--”

“John. I really can,” Jeannie says, her mouth a thin, angry line. “Dr. Beckett?”

“Anything we can do here that can’t be done on Earth is too risky to attempt when he may wake up of his own accord,” Carson shakes his head. John’s glaring abilities must’ve diminished through repeat exposure to earnest, pain in the ass scientists, because Beckett doesn’t so much as acknowledge John’s existence.

“We’ll give it a few days and then I have to take it to Mr. Woolsey,” Jeannie says. “I can’t leave him here, John,” she sighs. Her grim expression is crumbling tearfully beneath his gaze and maybe he hasn’t completely lost his ability to cow McKaysian DNA. “I can’t just abandon the rest of my family while I’m in another galaxy. And I know for a fact that you all need to get back to work. It may feel like the world’s ended--”

“It has.” John’s voice cracks and he thinks that he never appreciated Dr. Heightmeyer the way he should’ve. “Doc, I’m gonna need a cot. And I’ll take you up on that sedative minus the Marines.”

--

The first time Nancy leaves, John is young and angry and tired. The cooling grit of sand and dirt from somebody else’s desert is still scraping him raw, is still embedded deep beneath his fingernails. Virginia in November is the kind of cold that bites, quick and sharp as a camel spider, instead of seeping into his bones like creeping fingers in the night. John’s hair is too long and Nancy’s bedroom looks like it has been ransacked by a troupe of highly incompetent burglars. In the living room she left the big old fashioned tube TV, the one that took four guys to angle through the front door, colorfully swearing as Nancy laughed with a red kerchief tying up the gentle fall of her dark hair. She took their collection of the complete works of Louis L’Amour--a rainbow of mismatched paperbacks and battered, garage sale imitation leather--and left him his old friends: Le Guin, Keegan, Clarke, Shelley, Haldeman, Willis, and Asimov. She took everything from the bathroom except a half-empty can of shaving cream and the cheap coconut shampoo she buys for him even when he's deployed. John takes a shower with the water just shy of scalding and he scrubs until his fingernails are clean and his skin is shiny pink and brand new from head to toe. He shrugs his way into his grandfather’s weather-beaten leather jacket and a ludicrously tight pair of Wranglers, starts up the old pickup and drives three towns over. There’s a college football game on the fuzzy television sets behind the bar and John tries to settle into his stateside skin. Civilian John. Civilized John. It’s usually Nancy who pulls it into place, tucks it into shape and makes sure the bits that don’t fit don’t show around the protective cover of her affection. His nerves are buzzing with leftover adrenaline and exhaustion. After slowly sipping his way through half a lukewarm beer and downing a shot of truly horrendous whisky, John meets the eyes of the stocky blond who’s been studiously avoiding his gaze all night. John saunters into the men’s room and he’s back on the road in less than fifteen minutes, blowing through stop signs on the empty stretches of back country road. He turns the truck’s heater blasting as high as the old girl can handle and hand cranks the driver’s side window down. The wind nips at his cheeks and his eyes water fiercely enough to send streams running down his face. Drops land on his grandfather’s jacket and seep into the cracks in the leather like they want to make a home inside the makeshift wrapping he’s donned in Nancy’s absence.

His skin doesn’t feel quite so new, anymore.

--

Rodney has only the vaguest of ideas where the money came from. Judging from what little documentation he’s been given on his previous work, he could’ve been rolling in grant money, but that cash goes to the schools and facilities and whatever body is governing the project. It would never wind up in his pockets.

“Back pay. Overtime. Consulting fees. Hazard pay,” Jeannie shrugs, trying not to look bug eyed at the number of zeroes on the screen of Rodney’s shiny new laptop. “And you didn’t have to pay any of your living expenses at your last job.” She squints for a moment, head tilted toward the ceiling like she’s always done when she’s trying to remember something. “Your last three jobs.”

“H-hazard pay?” Rodney sputters, whirling his desk chair to face her. He has to pinwheel his arms to keep from spinning wildly into the kitchen. “You let me take a job that might kill me?”

“We weren’t speaking for the first decade you worked for the Air Force, Rodney,” Jeannie punches him on the shoulder. “I would’ve tried to talk you out of it.” She tilts her head down and brushes gentle hands over the slope of his shoulders. “I don’t think I would have managed, anyway.”

He looks up at his little sister, the slow, sweet curve of her smile. There aren’t any pictures and he has the faultiest of memories, but he thinks in that moment she looks like their mother. At the least she looks nothing like their father, which is good enough for Rodney.

“I liked the job that much?”

“It wasn’t just a job, Rodney. It was," she bites her lip for a moment. "It was the first time you actually had a life.” Jeannie shakes her head, hands moving up to cup his face. She doesn’t balk at the rasp of his two days’ stubble on the soft palms of her hands. He can’t remember the last person who showered him with such tender, casual affection. He’s not sure there’s ever been anyone else. “You may not remember it, but it changed you. Mostly for the better.”

“Mostly?” Rodney raises indignant brows.

“You’ve let your French go completely to sh*t,” Jeannie grins. Rodney rolls his eyes, because they both know Rodney’s French was always for sh*t, anyway. He picked up just enough technical vocabulary to argue. “And for some reason you think you can cook now, which is still as untrue as it was that time you tried to bake me a cake for my sixth birthday.”

“I maintain that the ratios of that recipe were suspect at best,” Rodney laughs.

“You worry too much, now,” Jeannie’s hands drops to her sides, fists clenching and unclenching nervously.

“I always worried a lot.”

“Yeah, but there was such a limited window of things you cared about that it limited your worrying. Now you worry about people and it made you so...so tired, sometimes.”

Rodney frowns. “That sounds entirely unlike me.”

“It’s not,” Jeannie sighs.

Rodney’s frown deepens. “None of those things sound so terrible.”

“They’re not,” Jeannie agrees. “You’re a crack shot,” she adds, ducking down to press a kiss to his furrowed brow before taking the half dozen steps to the kitchen. She snags her apron off the counter and starts pulling ingredients for some sort of vegetarian monstrosity out of the refrigerator. Her voice is muffled because she still has her head stuck inside the fridge when she says, “I could’ve lived a thousand years and been happy to never see that.”

Later that week Rodney manages to slip away--there’s a parent-teacher conference or a school pageant or something else related to Madison and to which Jeannie assured him his presence was most definitely not required or requested--for an afternoon. He borrows Kaleb’s sensible hybrid with the booster seat strapped in the back and drives to the nearest gun range. He checks, loads, and fires the weapon on pure muscle memory. The paper target that slides forward as he removes his earmuffs has a tight cluster of holes in the center.

Rodney returns to Jeannie’s, replacing Kaleb's keys on their hook by the door with trembling hands. He removes the target from where he’d folded it and folded it into a tiny square in his pocket and tosses it on the logs burning merrily in the stone fireplace. The edges curl and blacken and he wonders what sort of scientist would need to know how to kill someone.

He wonders what sort of person took the long hours to train him out of flinching from the recoil, to perfect his stance, taught him to slowly release his breath as his finger pulls the trigger again and again and again until there’s nothing left. He wonders where they are now.

Maybe that person is the reason he sometimes catches Jeannie looking at him like he’s missing a limb.

--

John has enough leave saved up to last through the winter holidays. Woolsey makes vague noises about letting the IOA know as soon as John's plans solidify. Lorne--the finest goddamn 2IC John has ever had the pleasure of serving with--salutes with his back ramrod straight and wishes Rodney a speedy recovery and a safe return. It's pretty generous considering John knows for a fact that Rodney couldn't tell you Lorne's first name.

“Mr. Woolsey apologized, but they will not allow Torren to remain in SGC quarters.” Teyla’s face has that irritated grimace that means something between ‘your men are unworthy of my time’ and ‘your power structures are ridiculous.’

“Yeah, it’s not a real great place for kids,” John admits. Back when they were preparing for the original expedition to Pegasus, John spent a lot of time reading mission reports. It’s a legitimate miracle the people of Earth haven't been wiped out a few dozen times over. “They’ve had a lot of...infestations.”

“And they’re the one’s in charge?” Ronon raises one eyebrow.

“Technically the IOA’s in charge,” John rubs a weary hand over his face. “Look, where he gets treated is up to Jeannie. It's a hell of a lot easier for her to get beamed back and forth from Canada to Colorado than it is for her to gate from another galaxy to here. Rodney’s her brother, but she’s got a family and it’s her decision.”

“Don’t let ‘em shove him in some corner,” Ronon crosses his arms over his chest.

“I am sure Rodney will be receiving the best possible care.” Teyla continues pacing in what little free floor space remains in John’s quarters. He never claimed to be a tidy packer and if a military career hasn’t trained it out of him by now, well. “Jeannie and John will make sure of that.”

“Course,” John nods, shoving his running shoes into his duffel before zipping the bag shut.

Ronon mumbles something in Satedan that sounds incredibly uncomplimentary, but he slings John’s bag over one shoulder and refrains from making any understandable comments about the state of Tau’ri medical practices and the relative safety of a military base that’s infiltrated on a semi-regular basis. John thinks he must’ve been a truly terrifying commanding officer.

“Look, I gotta head over to the Tower.” John runs a hand through his hair, uncaring that he no doubt looks like an electrocuted hedgehog. “They’ll be dialing Earth in a couple of minutes.”

“John.” Teyla’s small hand pulls John forward until their foreheads meet. “You and Rodney continued to search for me when there was no hope. You rescued me and you can rescue him. You must bring Dr. McKay back to us,” she instructs, voice low and quiet.

John closes his eyes, unwilling to think about the long nights in the lab with Rodney, poring over entries in the Ancient database for potential sites where Michael might have stashed Teyla. He squeezes her hand as he backs away. “You two keep an eye on things for me, will ya?”

Ronon nods, mouth twisting. “Bring him back.”

John nods in return and leads the way to the Tower, to the gate, to Earth.

--

They actually met before the Control Chair. Rodney has never once mentioned it, so John’s almost positive Rodney wiped it from his memory the same way John would delete an old file taking up too much space on his hard drive. Rodney’s version of their first meeting makes for a nice enough story: flyboy so incompetent he can’t follow an order as simple as ‘don’t touch anything’ accidentally activates a powerful piece of alien technology and guides it under the watchful eye of the fledgling expedition’s soon to be Head of Science. In reality, John is piloting the helicopter that first brought Rodney from McMurdo to the Ancient base. John’s fresh off a demotion and transfer and hell if he doesn’t mind the breather offered by the relative safety and silence of hundreds of miles of ice. The scientists he transports usually huddle in the back of the chopper looking like they haven’t seen the outside of a lab in a decade or two. Or at least like they’ve never been in a vehicle that goes faster than a golf cart, too sick with fear to talk much, which suits John just fine. McKay? He’s talking a mile a minute from the moment his ass hits the copilot’s chair until he’s tumbling out upon arrival. McKay’s the kind of asshole John can appreciate; he's geek to the core, brilliant and obsessive and positive he’s so much smarter than everyone else because he actually is. His rambling is a glorious, one man chorus of bitching about Russian food and the weather and someone named Sam Carter--a name John’s pretty sure he heard because she broke a bunch of records and kicked an instructor at the Academy in the nuts--and the incompetence of the American military industrial not so complex and the breathtaking beauty of mathematics and physics so pure and lovely that John almost flies off course while Rodney rhapsodizes about the perfection of Lorentzian wormholes. So when a fluffy-haired physicist in a hideously orange fleece glares down at him with the bluest eyes John’s ever seen and orders him to think about where he is in the universe that’s it. He’s done for. Somewhere right then his ex-wife has the urge to slap him upside the head because you’re only supposed to fall moronically in love at first sight once. Once can be excusable. Twice just makes you a sucker. It doesn’t matter anyway. He’s a goner. It’s all John can manage not to project the lovely asymmetry of Rodney’s mouth and the miraculous structure of his circulatory system and the delicate bones of his expressive hands and the sound waves of his voice and instead to send a swirling latticework of cosmic beauty that almost rivals the gibbering asshole at his side.

Rodney’s story’s pretty cool, too.

--

Rodney takes the guest lecturer position over Jeannie’s strident protests.

She has a long list of--if Rodney is being entirely honest, which is rare in and of itself--very good reasons why he shouldn’t move to California, even if it is temporary.

-He’s already gotten a cushy job with an aerospace engineering firm which would easily support the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed under Jeannie’s generous care.

-Everything in California is ridiculously overpriced. (Rodney doesn’t argue, but he does point out that whatever Daredevil Rodney was up to left him seriously loaded so it’s not exactly an issue.)

-California is not Canada.

-California not being Canada means it isn’t where Jeannie and Madison and Kaleb are. (His joke about one out of three gets him a sharp smack with the spatula she’s using to press the marshmallowy Rice Krispies into the buttered pan.)

-He hates being too hot.

-He hates swimming in the ocean.

-California is basically a series of natural disasters one on top of the other.

-Rodney’s a scientist so he should appreciate that the whole state is overdue for ‘the big one’ and will likely drop off into the ocean at a moment’s notice. (Both Rodney and Jeannie pretend this isn’t terrible science because the mental image of California floating off to hang out with Hawaii is too amusing to pass up.)

-Madison would miss her best Lego/Lincoln Log/sand castle building buddy. (He does feel a pang of regret at that one. Tiny humans are surprisingly endearing when applied in appropriate dosages.)

-He hates teaching/students. (This one’s not true, but he doesn’t disabuse her of the notion. It wouldn’t do for her to realize he always grows gruffly and unbearably fond of his more promising minions students.)

-California is full of Americans. (This isn’t a negative to Jeannie, herself, but she’s right that it could be a compelling argument in favor of sticking closer to home.)

Rodney takes the position anyway. He finds an exorbitantly priced bungalow to rent not far from the campus. If he undergoes a complete personality transplant it’s close enough that he can walk to his lectures. There are decent Thai, pizza, and Indian restaurants within delivery and take out distance. The school is willing to give him a handful of graduate students to handle the paperwork end of things without actually having to supervise them and he’s going to get a truly grotesque amount of both lab space and time. His engineering job is willing to work around his lecture schedule and vice versa.

He never mentions it to Jeannie, but he really takes the job because of the bungalow. There’s something in the way the early morning light filters through the stained glass picture window in the kitchen that puts him at ease. The L-shaped porch comes with a bench swing painted in a soft gray blue that matches the paint on the gable walls. It’s also got one of those cutesy signs on the picket fence with the name of the house’s owners or maybe just a name that they picked out, like something out of a trite romantic comedy. Maybe he’ll paint it over later, when he’s done moving everything into the place.

For now, his house will continue to bear the name ‘The Shepherd’s Place.’

--

Rodney pulls nervously on the knot of his tie. Despite the cool breeze he feels a damp patch forming at the small of his back. “That man is staring at me.”

“I’m sure there are plenty of people staring at you,” Jeannie blithely replies. She’s wiping traces of violently blue cotton candy from Madison’s face with a damp napkin and doesn’t even bother to look at Rodney. “You’re wearing a suit.”

“I came straight from my lecture!” Rodney crosses his arms, scowling indignantly at his sister. “I promised I’d be here, didn’t I?”

Jeannie’s eyes flutter shut for a moment while she takes a deep breath. She turns to look at him, rising from her crouch on the pier. “You did. And I appreciate you making the effort, I do, Mer, but--”

“No buts!”

“Butts!” Madison chirps, helpfully.

“Oh, thanks a lot, Meredith,” Jeannie scoops her daughter up to settle on one hip. “Uncle Mer didn’t mean it that way, Mads.”

Madison narrows her eyes skeptically, but settles drowsily against Jeannie’s side with a mumbled, “‘Kay.”

“Now, which man was staring at you?” Jeannie asks, hint of a smirk about her mouth as she looks at the crowd. She strokes a hand through Madison’s hair in a hypnotic rhythm that has Rodney’s eyes drooping in sympathy.

“Uh, over by the chair swing. Ridiculous hair, jeans and a hoodie, sort of unfairly attractive?” Rodney not so subtly nods in the man’s direction. “I think I’ve seen him before. Maybe he’s stalking me!”

Jeannie’s eyes scan the crowd for the floppy haired hottie. Rodney can tell exactly when she spots him because her eyes go wide and her jaw actually drops and it’s a bit like Christmas and his Nobel Prize came early.

“Oh,” she says, voice sounding oddly strangled in her throat. “No, I’m sure he wasn’t stalking you, Rodney.”

“Why not?” Rodney demands. So maybe his hairline is moving ever higher and he’s a bit heavier than his college days--but he would like to know who isn’t heavier than they were at fifteen?--but the cut of the suit is flawless and he’s almost positive you can’t tell he’s gone just a bit soft around the middle.

“Because he’s an...an old friend of mine,” Jeannie replies, eyes trained on the stranger.

“Wait, did you have me come all the way out here in California traffic at rush hour to babysit while you enjoyed a bit of hanky panky with your piece on the side?” He’s not sure whether to be proud or horrified. Rodney isn’t exactly Kaleb’s biggest fan--the ceaseless boredom that is trying to maintain a conversation with a literature major, honestly--but he has a newfound appreciation for the man’s patience and near-worshipful adoration of Jeannie. Kaleb is a man of taste, at least, which can’t be said for this, this scruffy seaside trollop. “That’s, why that’s just--”

Meredith!” Jeannie whacks him with her free arm as hard as she can without jostling Madison. Against all odds, Madison has fallen asleep, there in the middle of Santa Monica Pier, with the screaming and the lights all around her. Rodney feels a surge of familial pride, sure she has a bright future ahead of her as a graduate student.

“Hope I’m not interrupting anything, Mrs. Miller,” a gruff voice interrupts the siblings’ glaring contest.

Rodney and Jeannie turn as one to the ‘old friend.’ Up close he’s even more handsome, which seems patently unfair. The man is all half-lidded eyes, long legs, and aggressively casual posture. And Rodney’s not great with American accents, but he’s sure that was definitely some sort of ‘charming’ drawl.

“John, for the hundredth time: it’s Jeannie,” Jeannie says, tone insistent, and--is she tearing up? Who the hell is this dastardly, wife stealing hooligan?

“Of course,” the man’s smile is tentative, like he’s surprised Jeannie’s happy to see him. Maybe he’s not his sister’s mistress. Master? John ducks his head, hands still shoved deep in the pockets of his jeans. “Good to see you, Jeannie.”

“I had no idea you were even on Ea-er, um, in the area.” Jeannie shifts Madison to her opposite hip so she can shake John’s hand. John’s eyes flick to Rodney before he shoves his fingers back into his pockets.

“Had a bit of vacation time saved up,” John shrugs, the picture of effortlessly cool. Rodney hates him just a little bit for his composure in the face of an obviously emotional Jeannie. The first sign of a heart to heart usually sends Rodney running for the hills, and he’s pretty fast these days.

“So California?” Jeannie raises inquisitive brows.

“Thought I’d put a bit of the old savings account to good use. Do a little surfing,” oh and of course he’s a surfer, “maybe see Dave and the kids, check out the world’s first solar-powered Ferris wheel.” John nods in the direction of the Pacific Park Wheel, LEDs glowing in the smoggy night sky.

Rodney clears his throat loudly. Hazel eyes are fixed on him and Rodney’s heart stutter stops before speeding up to match the outbreak of nervous sweat at his temples. “Jeannie, are you going to introduce me to your friend?”

John’s expression goes a bit pinched, the corners of his wide mouth sloping downwards for a moment before broadening into a crooked grin. It’s the sort of expression that could charm and disarm with ease, but it still settles a hair unnaturally on the man’s even features. “John Sheppard.” His hands remain firmly in the pockets of his jeans. There will be no warm clasp of broad palm and long, calloused fingers for Rodney.

“Dr. Rodney McKay,” Rodney says with as much dignity as he can muster while sweating through his ridiculously expensive suit on a boardwalk crowded with shrieking tourists. “I’m Jeannie’s older brother.” He’d like to think the ‘hands off my baby sister, there, Kirk’ is strongly implied.

John’s grin warms, eyes crinkling at the edges. “Yeah, I know. Would’ve recognized you anywhere.”

Jeannie’s breath hitches a little and John’s eyes widen. Rodney is starting to think maybe he should be getting Jeannie and Madison back to his rental car and away from this guy. “She, uh,” John’s eyes flicker to Jeannie and back, “she talks about you all the time. And I was on the Christmas list last year, so I got the, um, pictures.”

“You put pictures of me in with your Christmas cards?” Rodney turns to Jeannie, aghast.

“They were those nice pictures Kaleb and I took of you and Madison at the beach,” Jeannie rolls her eyes and rubs a hand over her daughter’s back. “And I didn’t put them in all of the cards!” Jeannie insists. She shifts Madison so she’s cradled along the front of Jeannie’s torso, blonde head tucked against her mother’s shoulder. Judging by the gentle snuffling--Rodney would say that it borders on snoring, but Jeannie insists the women in their family don’t snore, so--she’s completely down for the count.

“Oh, just in the cards of strange men I’ve never met!” Rodney snaps. There’s no point keeping quiet for Madison’s sake if she could sleep through all this nonsense. “And how exactly is it that you know my sister?” he whirls back to John.

John stares for a long moment and Rodney has the peculiar sensation that he’s looking for some sign of recognition--no, but surely Jeannie would’ve said something if he’d been-- “She saved my life once,” John finally says, tone flat. “Saved the whole base, actually. I just thought I’d offer my thanks when I saw her.”

“John--” Jeannie reaches a hand towards him.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have--” John shakes his head, stubbled face reflecting red, then blue in the flashing lights of the nearby rollercoaster. I’ll e-mail you, Jeannie. I just wanted--I didn’t mean to--I’m sorry.” And then John is backing away, already starting to get lost in the crowd.

“John, please, wait a minute!” Jeannie shouts after him, but he’s already gone.

“You saved his life once?” Rodney gestures after John. “What does, how does, what was he even talking about?”

“Oh, Rodney,” Jeannie sighs, looking tired and actually her age, for once. “Can you bring the car around to take us back to the house?”

--

Rodney was John’s first run-in with unrequited love. He’s surprised to find it’s just as painful as everyone says. But John learned how to compartmentalize his feelings back when Patrick Sheppard began his first campaign to forcefully tear his children’s affection for their mother from their chests. John is almost positive he got the ATA gene from his mother’s side of the family, though there’s no one left to test that theory on. He knows now what he should’ve known then, that his mother was a sweet, troubled woman with a substance abuse problem and no emotional support. She was Patrick's second, much younger, wife, lovely in a painfully fragile way. John remembers her loveliness only as comforting sweetness and cool, soothing hands on his forehead when he was sick and not as a weakness he now knows was exploited by his own father. She dies on a sunny morning in May while John is on the far side of the country at the boarding school his father insisted upon when he thought John was growing ‘too soft’ under his mother’s affection. By the time John arrives in California for the funeral, his father has sold his mother’s sailboat--The Little Dipper--and her prized horses are all missing from the stable. The service at the church is well attended, all of his father’s business partners are there. John is careful to hold Davey’s hand tight so he doesn’t cry until they’re alone in the bathroom. If possible, the graveside service is worse. The spring sun is shining and its unseasonably warm even for this part of the country and the flowers he tosses onto his mother’s coffin are wilted almost beyond recognition by the midday heat. Years later he reads the death certificate on which the coroner has listed the official cause of death as ‘accidental drowning,’ though John’s mother taught him to swim like a fish almost before he’d managed the transition from crawling to walking. ‘Accidental drowning’ was probably Sheppardian for ‘took a fistful of sleeping pills and got in the bath while home by herself.’ The next time John sets foot on California soil is for his father’s third wedding. Davey smiles and assures him that Miss Amanda is a very nice lady who promises to love them very much. So John learned a long time ago to compartmentalize and working side by side with the man he loves is a terrible, wonderful gift. It’s only when he’s sitting at Rodney’s bedside beneath Cheyenne Mountain that John comes to the sudden, horrible realization that he’s completely forgotten how not to love Rodney all the time. It must be plain as the nose on his face. A discharge under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell won’t be the worst thing that ever happens to him. It won’t even be the worst thing that happens this year.

--

Rodney’s romantic history is spotty, at best. He can admit in quiet moments alone that a lot has to do with his personality, but when you spend the first decade and a half of your life being the smartest person in any room your view of the world and the people in it will be invariably skewed. He's not sure he's ever been in love. (He knows he's never been in love.)

--

Jeannie joins Rodney in the living room of the bungalow after putting Madison to bed in the half finished garret bedroom upstairs. He sets down his mug to shrug out of his suit jacket, leaving an opening for Jeannie to snag his coffee. Rodney watches in awe as she downs the last, steaming half in one long gulp.

“You didn’t have to be so terrible to him,” Jeannie admonishes, though there’s so little heat to it she might well have been commenting on the weather or the state of the Leafs’ draft prospects. “John’s had a very bad…” she thinks about it for a moment, pulling a fistful of tiny bottles of airline booze out of her purse, “life. He’s had a terrible life, really, Mer, and there was no reason to be rude.”

“In case you’re just meeting me, rude is my default setting. And he was obviously upsetting you,” Rodney argues. He watches Jeannie pour four bottles into a dusty juice glass with a picture of Nimoy’s Spock raising his hand in the classic Vulcan salute with the words ‘live long and prosper’ etched across the rim. “He’s driven you to drink!”

“I’m a big girl and I’m on vacation. I can drink if I want to,” Jeannie collapses next to him on the couch. “And he wasn’t upsetting me. I was upset for him. It’s not the same thing.”

“And what has your dear friend pretty boy John to be so very sad about?” Rodney snorts. “So many women, so little time?”

“He’s Colonel John Sheppard of the United State Air Force,” Jeannie snaps, “and he’s a decorated war hero who lost his best friend last year.”

Rodney turns, stunned by his sister’s flushed cheeks and watery eyes. “Oh, I. I didn’t know, Jeannie. I didn’t--how would I know that?”

“Oh, you couldn’t, I’m sorry, Mer, I--I can’t blame you for things that aren’t your fault,” Jeannie slumps sideways, letting Rodney wrap an arm around her shoulders to stabilize her. “He’s just a good man and I hate to see him like this.”

“Like what, exactly?” Rodney tucks Jeannie up against his side as she sips at her drink and sniffles back tears. “Because he seemed...I mean, he seemed pretty okay.”

“He is incredibly not okay,” Jeannie shakes her head, curls tickling Rodney’s nose. “Like...not under any of the definitions of okay. Like not even in the same galaxy as okay.” She seems to have stunned herself silent for a moment before breaking into hysterical, hiccuping laughter.

“I’ll take your word for it.” Rodney rescues his Spock glass from an untimely death, helping himself to a sip of--ugh, gin--the foul smelling alcohol inside. “I’m exhausted. What say we illegally download a terrible action movie and eat nonperishable, prepackaged snacks until we pass out?”

“I knew there was a reason you’re my favorite brother,” Jeannie leans forward to grab the remote.

“I’m your only brother!” Rodney elbows her in the side. “Right?”

“Yeah, Rodney, you’re my only brother. At least in this universe,” Jeannie rolls her eyes. “Now shush, I haven’t made you watch the terrible Superman reboot, yet.”

“A ringing endorsem*nt,” Rodney snorts and settles against the overstuffed cushions of the couch.

--

John isn’t a daredevil. Time was Rodney would’ve sworn up and down that John’s a psychotic flyboy with a death wish, but John really does just love anything fast. Surfboards, cars, choppers, jets. He’ll take any and all of them and let’s see how fast she can go, shall we? When General O’Neill tried to talk John into joining the Stargate Program--and hell if that doesn’t feel like a few dozen lifetimes ago--he asked why John became a pilot. It’s a question Dave used to ask back when he was still Davey: John, but John why do you want to be in a plane all day? He tells the general that people who don’t want to fly are crazy. He tells Davey that when you’re flying it’s like being born all over again. It’s beautiful and terrifying and it makes his blood sing and he’ll do it every chance he gets, until his bones go brittle and his eyes dim and they take the sky away. John isn’t a daredevil. He just knows what lengths he’s willing to go to to find what he loves and he’ll hold on with both hands until it’s ripped away from him that last time.

--

Rodney builds his first bomb at eleven.

You can extrapolate how well that went over by the presence of the CIA at the school science fair’s awards ceremony.

--

Rodney has a sugar hangover and Jeannie has a hangover-hangover. Luckily enough Madison is quietly entertaining herself upstairs with a coloring book while the adults unpack the last of Rodney’s boxes and sip delicately at their coffee with the shades pulled low.

“How do you even know a colonel in the American Air Force?” Rodney asks, peering at his sister over the rim of his ‘physicists do it with a big bang’ mug. “I thought I was the military consultant?”

“You were,” Jeannie allows after a long swallow of overpriced Kona. She uses a utility knife to slice open an unlabeled box. “You...well, I was brought in to help you on a project.”

“We got to work together?” Rodney’s not sure why the idea seems so pleasant. He and Jeannie fight like cats and dogs in any context, but bouncing ideas off her brilliant McKaysian mind warms something in his chest not entirely unlike a heart. “You never mentioned that.”

“Well, we did. It--it was pretty amazing,” she says, peering into the box on the kitchen table. “This looks like more nerd shirts.”

“I get the feeling there are about a million things you’re not telling me,” Rodney sets down his mug and carries the box down the hall to his bedroom. He sloppily folds a few shirts before he starts stuffing them in his dresser drawers at random. At the very bottom of the box, he finds it.

“You don’t have clearance to know about any of it, now,” Jeannie sighs when he rejoins her at the kitchen table.

“And you can’t tell me out of the sisterly love in your heart?” he asks, clutching a faded gray shirt in his hand. “I wake up in a hospital gown to see the sister I haven’t spoken to since her wedding and suddenly we’re best buds who can’t talk about anything?”

“You honestly think,” Jeannie stands and circles the kitchen table to face him, “that I wouldn’t tell you everything if I could? You’re a massive security risk. Jesus, Mer,” Jeannie runs a hand through her sleep-tangled curls, “it’s a miracle they released enough of your work that you could have a career. The contract you signed out of college explicitly stated they could classify any and all of your government-funded research as they saw fit. Most of it was supposed to be under lock and key for...for decades probably.”

“You--what the hell kind of project was I working on?” Rodney demands.

“I can’t, Rodney, you know--”

“Well then what good are you?” Rodney abruptly rises from his chair, hands clenched into fists at his side.

And the look on Jeannie’s face is so painfully familiar, but he hasn’t seen it in years.

“Oh, Jeannie, no,” Rodney immediately retreats, hands raised, palms out. “I didn’t mean--Jeannie, did I turn into him? Is that why we…”

“No,” Jeannie shakes her head, but she has a hand over her mouth and looks like she’s moments from bursting into tears. “No, even at your worst you were never like him. I promise.”

“sh*t,” Rodney’s legs are suddenly Jell-O and he drops back into the rickety chair. “I’m sorry, but this--I don’t know how I’m supposed to live like this, Jeannie. I still know all these things I couldn’t possibly know, but I have no idea how or where I learned them. I lost...years. And nobody’s come to visit me, so I must’ve been a terrible person--”

“Rodney, no, your friends would die for you,” Jeannie rejoins him, sitting in another chair and clasping his hands in her smaller grip. “But they’re stationed at your old base and it’s location is classified. I’ve been petitioning the governing body of your program to allow communications through, but they’re saying they’d have to censor everything.”

“Would...have these people been trying to see me?” Rodney studiously ignores the trembling of his hands when he looks down at the shirt still clutched in his left fist. “Whose is this?” he asks, passing the shirt to Jeannie.

She uncrumples the gray fabric, smoothing the shirt across the scarred surface of the table. It’s plain enough, with black print reading ‘MY OTHER RIDE IS A BLACK HAWK’ across the chest.

“Oh, Rodney, I always wondered about you two,” Jeannie sighs. “But there was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and you’d both shown interest in women and you were so sure he was hitting on me--”

“It’s Sheppard, isn’t it?” Rodney stares at the shirt. “When I saw him at the pier I thought maybe I’d seen him before, but I couldn’t have unless--”

“Are you--Rodney, are you starting to remember?”

“I don’t know, I--was that Air Force hospital underground?”

--

John spends a month in Landstuhl after his helo goes down in Afghanistan. Between the grafts and the blood draws and the physical therapy he still has too much free time on his hands. Whoever had the room before him wasn’t a puzzle guy--John can keep entertained for days if you throw a handful of numbers at him to mess with--but he had left behind a book of poems about flying. Ms. Earhart tells him that ‘courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace’ which sounds like a lot of hot air, but not even a middling attempt at literary greatness can sway John’s childhood devotion to Amelia. There’s this passage by an artilleryman named Amiel that John’s never quite shaken. ‘And your life is a question of velocity and altitude, with allowances for wind and the quick, relentless pull of gravity.’

At night he dreams of falling.

--

Rodney doesn’t remember falling asleep, but he knows with burning clarity that he’s dreaming.

He’s somewhere cold and the place is filled with the humming of generators. The place is crawling with white coats and military alike, though it’s sometimes hard to tell beneath the parkas. There’s so much data, if only the Scottish fellow would sit down and shut up maybe Rodney would be able to finally get a decent read on what exactly the chair is meant to do in the first place and--

He’s dressed in some sort of uniform, a patch with the Canadian flag affixed to his arm, and surrounded by others in similar dress. Half a story up is a glass-walled control booth of some kind, stony faced men in dress uniforms watching the milling crowd Rodney’s a part of. There’s an otherworldly glow behind him, but when he turns--

It’s Sheppard, laughing and shaking his head, refusing whatever request Rodney’s made, but Rodney shakes his head and insists. It’ll be fine, it’ll be great, just try it-- and then a flare of green light and then they’re screaming with laughter and running down wide corridors to another control room, this one without the harsh artificial light and then Rodney is up and over the balcony railing--

There’s a monster on Sheppard, oh God, oh God, they’re stuck they’re all going to die and--he can’t take the power source the stupid kids will be sitting ducks out here for--secret Amish underground bunker, he didn’t see that coming--Kolya--and then his gun is up and he’s firing a full clip into that monster’s chest and the Wraith, how in the holy hell did Rodney forget about the Wraith--and they’re all going to die, but maybe more convincingly than they do every other week so he sucks it up and records a message to Jeannie, because he really does love her--they’re all going to die before Daedalus makes it to what is it called where is he where are they--not Ford, he’s just a kid, anyone but the kid--a wild Ronon appears and Rodney can’t imagine that in a matter of months he’ll trust this guy with his life--Cadman, oh God this is so weird, why are my legs so tired, wow Carson must go through a ton of lip balm--two thirds of a solar system and no, nobody’s ever been this arrogant and John will never trust him again--Rodney hates Iratus bugs--gotta save John, can’t leave him like this, need him need John we need him--virtual reality’s the worst, virtual reality prison is awful wow she’s hot, oh no she’s really not--oh Ford, no, no, no, no, wow I feel really great, wow I feel like I’m on fire, time for the good drugs what do you mean I can’t have the--should’ve been paying closer attention now John’s running out of time why is it always him why can’t it be some redshirt for once they need John--bomb--and because he hasn’t been proven fallible often enough, lately, Rodney gets to spend a few hours hallucinating the only person he knows for sure is smarter than him and he can’t believe he’s admitted that even if it’s just--wow, Elizabeth and John look really amazing together and the way that John, oh, oh, no--Genii, why does it always have to be the damn Genii--Carson what were we thinking why did we think we could change them we couldn’t make him Michael just by hoping hard enough--supervolcano? SUPERVOLCANO John, yes, this is our Kobayashi Maru, John, a little help over here--don’t trust them they’re Wraith what are we thinking don’t--we’ll never learn, leave the virus alone--two words: Lucius Lavin--Ronon, no, not, his whole planet, how can he--goddamn Asurans--Kolya and oh god John not John anyone but John pick me please don’t--Jeannie it’s good to see you now help me fix this damn thing, already--John shot me what is going on why is--the opportunity to learn from actual Ancients what the hell do you mean YOUR city?--ascending was never the plan, never, no, can’t leave everyone can’t say goodbye John no I can’t--wait, but this was just a game--Carson, bagpipes, Mrs. Beckett weeping in my shoulder, John looking uncomfortable in his crisply starched dress blues--stuck, stuck in the middle of nowhere with no help nowhere to go--Elizabeth you can’t, we won’t, don’t ask me to leave you, now after Beckett--huh, it’s nice to see Sam and he barely even wants to check out, well, no, those are still great, but there’s this other Air Force Colonel--whales and clowns and John, no, John, no, Kate--why do all the hot chicks kidnap Sheppard, they should know better by now than to think of taking his, well, our John, he’s ours you can’t have him--and no, not Jeannie, he has to find her don’t touch her it’ll be okay, John will save us, John can’t save you, I’ll save you, oh John you, no, John, thank you, I--Elizabeth, no, John please, please, please--Katie you deserve someone who can be happy and this really is the it’s me not you speech--quit smirking, John, the annoying princess likes me better, anyway--John’s father died, John has a brother? an ex-wife? who is John Sheppard, who is this guy, I mean--there are worse things that could happen than being stuck in a mine with two hot blondes, like getting through fifteen rounds before realizing you’ve just outed yourself as bisexual to two hot blondes--Carson? not Carson, Clone Carson?--of course I’m a genius, John, but where the hell have you, what do you mean I sent you back and fixed the timeline, what’s--oh no, Teyla, not now, I don’t know what I’m doing I don’t want anything to go wrong, oh that’s gross, oh wow, oh wow--growing a ship, that’s new--Wraith worshipers are the worst, Tyre is the worst, Wraith enzyme is the worst, did nobody learn there lesson when we lost Ford, we can’t--this is an ingenious means of transportation and oh no we’re dead, oh we’re dead, sure let’s try Sheppard’s plan because his idea of computer repair is the power button and hey actually this might work--Elizabeth? not Elizabeth--and he’s in such a great mood, which is weird ‘cause he just spent hours and hours all wet and cold and everyone’s got such lovely smiles and he loves his time and no, no, he’s slipping away, slipping away, forgetting everything except the team and Atlantis and John, John, where is John, John, John, JOHN--

--

“He just sort of fainted and was mumbling and then he started screaming your name and passed out again.” Jeannie’s convinced Madison to go back upstairs and put on her big headphones.

“Right that’s, well, not good, obviously,” John’s got one hand taking Rodney’s pulse while he dials the number Carter told him to call in case of emergency with the other. “Yeah, this is Lieutenant Colonel John--oh, hey, Sam, I didn’t realize this was your direct number. Yeah. No, well, Jeannie thinks Rodney may be getting his memory back and we could use a ride back to base. Great. Thanks.”

“I can’t just leave Madison here--”

“Then I’d grab her fast,” John advises, glancing at the time on his phone. When he looks up he’s kneeling on the floor of the infirmary at the SGC. “That was slightly faster than anticipated.”

“We aim to please,” Dr. Lam says, approaching with a nurse who’s built like a Mack truck. Or Teal’c. “Can you help me get him on a bed?”

“Jeannie?” John looks around as he and the nurse wrangle Rodney onto the bed.

“Colonel Carter beamed down to the house, Jeannie should be here any minute,” Dr. Lam smiles at John in as reassuring a fashion as she can muster when people are being beamed into her infirmary.

"Well, how's our boy?" he asks, looking at Lam because he can't look at Rodney in one of these damned beds for one more second--

“That always gives me a migraine,” Jeannie appears in a glow of golden light, rubbing at her forehead.

“Now the files I have from Dr. Keller all suggested that the parasite rendered the cells dormant, but we had no means of, for lack of a better phrase, ‘turning them back on,’” Dr. Lam’s flipping through Rodney’s charts with a frown. “We’d hoped that he might recover the lost memories on his own, but--”

“But time passed and you all gave up,” Jeannie crosses her arms over her chest.

“Of course not,” Dr. Lam looks up from the charts, a horrified expression on your face. “But with the limited information and no live specimen to examine--”

“Would you please stop your incessant yammering,” Rodney mutters, eyes fluttering open. “I have a headache and you’re not helping.”

“Dr. McKay, I’m Dr. Lam--” Carolyn pulls a penlight from the pocket of her lab coat, approaching the bed with her hand raised.

“Chief of Medicine at Stargate Command, daughter of General Landry, yes, yes, yes,” Rodney struggles to sit upright. Jeannie and the nurse each grab an arm while Carolyn adjusts the back of the bed.

“Rodney” John is staring wide-eyed from the foot of the bed, hands shoved deep in his pockets like if he frees them they'll do something foolish like touch Rodney, pull him close and never ever let him leave again. “Rodney, what do you remember?”

Rodney smiles crookedly at John and replies, “I remember you not wanting to say goodbye, then. Can I get a hello?”

"Hiya, Rodney," John breathes. "I've got a whole hell of a lot of people who're gonna be happy to see you."

--

R: I shouldn’t’ve banged on your door like that. I feel ridiculous.

J: Don’t.

R: Been trying to remember the name of my sister’s kid.

J: Um, Betty.

R: Betty. Pretty sure that’s not it.

J: It’s Madison. See, at least you remember what it wasn’t.

R: It’s an underrated skill.

J: Just saying, you may not be as far gone as you think.

R: I’m hiding it. Believe me, I’ve already forgotten more than most people will ever know. And I know that sounds...arrogant, is that right?

J: Yeah, that works.

R: This morning I was trying to help Zelenka finish a device that was apparently my idea. I was...useless. Jennifer says it’s gonna get worse almost by the hour. In a week or so I won’t remember my name. Howsabout...how ‘bout we say goodbye now.

J: No.

R: What do you mean, no?

J: I mean I’m not saying goodbye!

R: I’m saying it anyway.

J: Well, I’m not listening

R: Yeah, but a few days from now I’m not gonna even know you who are?

J: Then I’ll remind you.

R: I don’t want you to see me like that. I want you to remember me as your genius friend--

J: Not happening.

R: Please.

J: You’re stuck with me, Rodney, just accept it. No! That’s final.

R: Okay.

J: ‘Kay.

R: You’re a good friend, Arthur.

And Not to Recognize the Sky - taliahale (2024)

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