Author: Chandri MacLeod
Category: Angst, Hurt/Comfort
Spoilers: Through Spoils of War
Summary: After Rodney is held hostage on a trading mission, he starts to slowly fall apart. When he won't admit anything's wrong, he's sent back to Earth to recover, and it's up to John to pick up the pieces.
A/N: This chapter took a long time, but OMG guys I finished it. Excuse me while I pass out for a while over there in the corner.
ETA - Direct links on LJ:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3a | Part 3b | Part 4a | Part 4b | Part 5a | Part 5b
Or: read in one piece on my website
John didn’t sleep much that night, either, though nothing much happened except that now Rodney was pulled flush against him in the bed instead of curled up on the far edge of the mattress. Rodney leaned his face into John’s chest and talked about Ava.
He talked for almost two hours, in fits and starts, mostly in a monotone except where he was swallowing back sobs, or when he wasn’t swallowing them back at all. Eventually he was talked out, shaking, and he fell into an exhausted sleep with John’s arms wound tight around him. John stayed awake for a while, just feeling Rodney breathe, trying to think through the haze of his own bone-deep fatigue and the brimming-over feeling of… joy? Gratitude? Whatever it was, it was hot and bright and purely selfish and made his ears roar, occupying his whole conscious mind until it finally edged him over into sleep, himself.
When Rodney stirred, just as the sun was coming up, he lifted his head from John’s shoulder and looked down into John’s face, frowning. John just lay there, still sleepy and calm, not quite able to kindle worry to mirror that which he saw in Rodney’s eyes. But he did look worried, a little line of it forming between his eyebrows. He touched John’s face, still frowning, watching his fingers as they traced over John’s temple, along his cheek, under his stubbled jaw. Finally Rodney’s fingertips rested on John’s lips, and still he stared, eyes wide like he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.
“What’s the matter?” John asked, softly, and Rodney jumped a little, but John kept him where he was with a hand on his back.
“I thought I’d dreamed it,” Rodney said, and dropped his eyes.
“Nope,” John told him, grinning, because now that he was awake he kind of couldn’t believe it, either, but he sure as hell wasn’t complaining, because he felt lucky, of all things. But Rodney still wasn’t looking at him. In fact, he was holding very still, except for his fingertips, which were moving, gently, back and forth across the skin just under John’s ear.
“What is it?”
Rodney frowned his odd, lopsided frown and looked like he was bracing himself. “What you said…” he murmured, “I mean… what I said… I meant it. And if you didn’t…”
“Rodney,” John tried to interrupt, because Rodney sounded like he was working himself into a panic attack.
“…because I’d understand if you didn’t… I mean I know I’m not… and we’re… it’s complicated and obviously there could be consequences if we…”
Rodney stopped, his mouth snapping shut, and stared at him, blinking owlishly. “What?”
John slid his hand up to the back of Rodney’s neck, pulled him gently down, and kissed Rodney with all the sincerity he possessed. When Rodney pulled back, his mouth was red, just like his face.
“I meant it. Okay?” And it was a good thing they were lying down, because John’s head was still spinning over the fact that he’d just done that, that Rodney had let him.
Rodney grinned, looking pleased and almost giddy. “Okay.”
He laid back down, sliding an arm over John’s waist, and they just laid there for a while, comfortable and sleepy in the coolness of early morning – overnight the temperature had finally, finally gone down – as dawn crept slowly into the room.
After a while – John wasn’t sure how long – Rodney mumbled into his chest: “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
John took some time to answer, trying to come up with an answer that wasn’t just an excuse. “You never did either,” he pointed out, and not for the first time he guessed Rodney was rolling his eyes without even seeing his face.
“I didn’t know I was that subtle,” Rodney said, sounding amused.
John laughed. “Yeah, okay, fair point,” he conceded. After a moment, he added, more seriously: “Like you said. It’s complicated.”
“Complicated like getting thrown out of the Air Force?” Rodney’s voice had turned serious, too, and John guessed he’d been thinking about that for a while.
John didn’t bother to remind him that there were over three hundred thousand people on active duty in the Air Force and that probably plenty of them got away with the same thing on a regular basis. Instead, he made himself say: “Complicated like we’re friends and like I’ve… never felt this way about anybody before.”
“Oh,” said Rodney, his voice small.
“Yeah.” John spread his fingers out on Rodney’s back, warm through his shirt, asked again what he’d asked the day before, needing the answer even more, now.
“Look, you’re… you’re coming back, aren’t you?” he asked, hating how his own voice sounded, halting and hopeful, hated it more when Rodney didn’t answer right away.
But at length, Rodney just sighed, long and deep, turning his face into John’s neck. “Of course I am.” John echoed the sigh with one of his own, endlessly relieved, as Rodney continued, airily: “I quiver to think of what would happen to the city without me there.”
“Fire and chaos, obviously,” John agreed, smiling. “I’ll be amazed if the place is still standing when we get home.”
He felt Rodney’s lips curve into a smile against his neck. “Well, there’s that, too,” he said, quietly.
Rodney’s arm tightened around his waist, and he whispered: “home.”
Something bloomed, brightened, in John’s chest, and he wasn’t sure what it was because there was just so much of it. All he could do was hold Rodney a little tighter, press a kiss to his temple, and let his eyes fall closed.
“Yeah,” he agreed, and that was when the door burst open.
“Hi! Good morning!” Madison greeted them, bouncing onto the bed and tumbling over their legs. “I got a puzzle from Grandma and it’s got a thousand pieces and I’m making waffles!”
She was wearing a bright yellow bathrobe and slippers with stuffed monkeys on them. For a second both John and Rodney were too surprised to react, and by the time John’s brain had caught up with his eyes and ears he had registered Jeannie standing in the doorway in her own fuzzy blue bathrobe, staring at them in open shock.
There passed a second where Jeannie seemed frozen between one second and the next, one hand half raised at her right hip, her mouth open – Rodney had gone stiff in his arms, and John himself felt a little like if he didn’t breathe soon he was going to start turning blue – but then, she smiled.
In fact, she beamed. Her whole face transformed, looking delighted – and slightly evil – and… triumphant? Rodney groaned, a second later, and buried his face in John’s shirt. All this time, Madison had been babbling cheerfully about breakfast and John hadn’t listened to a word, but when Jeannie spoke, it was in a bright, wobbly voice, and her eyes were shining. “Kaleb’s mum gave her a puzzle yesterday, and she wanted your help doing it, Mer,” she told them, and Rodney lifted his face just enough to glare at his sister. “Breakfast in a few.”
She disappeared down the hallway, and Madison followed, after extracting a promise of help from her uncle. After she shut the door behind her, Rodney dropped his head back to John’s shoulder and muttered: “God, things never, ever change.”
“Huh?” asked John, finally looking away from the closed door, swallowing back the bubble of hysterical laughter rising in his throat.
“The only time I ever brought a girl home, she walked in on us demanding I read her Green Eggs and Ham for the nine hundredth time. Or maybe it was Horton Hears a Who. I don’t remember.”
“Killed the mood, huh?”
Rodney snorted. “I wish. It was already pretty much dead when I got verbal diarrhoea on the subject of oral hygiene. Jeannie just buried the corpse by having a tantrum when I told her to leave.” He shrugged. “She was five.”
“Like mother, like daughter,” John snickered.
“Hm,” Rodney said, vaguely. “She was just doing it to be a pain. She always wanted me to read to her even though she was perfectly capable of doing it herself.” He paused and blinked, looking thoughtful, and then John couldn’t hold it in anymore – he laughed until tears were streaming down his face, and Rodney glared at him, but it was a fond glare.
“Come on,” he grumbled, getting out of bed and dragging John after him, still giggling. “Apparently there are waffles.”
Like most meals in the Miller house, breakfast was a noisy, boisterous affair. As usual Madison monopolized the conversation, dictating what everyone should have on their waffles and dishing out each one as it came hot off of the iron. Rodney ate five, ignoring Jeannie’s highly significant enormous smiles and Madison’s worshipful expression when he accepted a sixth. Then he ate the blueberries from John’s plate, one by one. John did nothing to stop him, just looked at him like he couldn’t decide between an annoyed scowl and a fond smile, which of course made Jeannie grin even wider.
After breakfast they were ordered into the living room to conquer one thousand tiny fragments of cardboard, while Jeannie and Kaleb did the dishes. Instead of sinking into the armchair, this time John sat next to Rodney on the couch, still pretending to read his book, pressed into Rodney’s side from knee to shoulder.
Rodney kept catching himself smiling for no reason as he and Madison sorted through the box for edge pieces. Twice he went to hand Madison the wrong piece, until finally his niece disgustedly took the box out of his hands and demoted him to the duty of putting in place the pieces she handed him. When Kaleb paused to kiss Madison goodbye on his way out the door, he looked up at the pair of them and offered up a quiet smile and a nod, which made Rodney stutter and drop the piece he was holding and made John smile behind his book, leaning into Rodney as the door clicked shut.
“I think they know,” John said in a stage-whisper as Rodney scrabbled under the couch for the puzzle piece, and Rodney let out a choked laugh and said:
The puzzle had four whole sides and a good portion of the top right corner filled in when Jeannie reappeared. Even Rodney didn’t notice her right away, but after a second or two he noticed that John had sunk down in the couch, book hiding his face, and turned his head to see his sister leaning in the kitchen doorway, hair pulled back and polka-dotted orange garden gloves on her hands.
The look on her face startled him, no longer beaming and delighted but worried, even guilty. The sun was fully up outside, streaming through the kitchen windows, lighting her from behind. Her hair glowed and her face was shadowed, but he could tell she looked worried. It worried him, too, confused him, because he’d been half-expecting to get chewed out since breakfast, for potentially scarring Madison forever or something, but Jeannie had seemed disturbingly cheerful on that count.
Eventually she straightened, apparently with purpose. “Mer, can I get a hand in the garden for a minute?”
“Oh, but,” he said, feeling unaccountably panicked, “we’re doing a… a thing.”
“Uncle John can help me,” Madison said, waving a hand dismissively. “You’re just messing it up anyway.”
“Traitor,” Rodney hissed at her, as John set aside his book and leaned forward to take the puzzle box out of Rodney’s hands, pointedly avoiding Jeannie’s gaze. Which left Rodney no choice but to get to his feet and follow Jeannie out into the back yard.
It was warm out, but much cooler than the past week had been. Instead of being a force of death and discomfort, sunlight was falling on the grass in yellow patches and dapples, and a cool breeze rustled the leaves. Jeannie left him on the porch with a “wait a minute, I just want to finish this,” and picked up the weed-whacker lying on its side next to the flowerbed. Then the quiet was split by the angry buzz of the motor, and Jeannie moved down the edge of the lawn, trimming down the border of the garden.
It took a second for the noise to penetrate, and Rodney was aware of it this time, the dizziness that left him groping for the railing, forcing himself to breathe, reminding himself it wasn’t the same, even as the motor stopped abruptly.
Then Jeannie was there, hands on his arms, easing him down to the step, sounding tearful and frantic as she said: “Mer, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I forgot—”
“It’s – It’s okay,” he told her, faintly. “It’s not – ”
She stripped off her gloves; he heard them hit the porch steps. “I’ll get you some water,” she said, and before he could protest she was gone, and back again, pushing a cold glass beading with moisture into his hands. “Here,” she said, “drink this.”
He drank half and then handed it back to her; Jeannie held it for a second, then set it down and pressed cool hands to the sides of his neck, which was odd, but helped.
“You were hurt, weren’t you?” she asked, her voice a shaky whisper banded about with iron.
He shook his head, because he hadn’t. “Not me.” At least not badly. “Other… my people.” And that had been so much worse, because there had been nothing he could do.
Jeannie’s fingers never stopped moving, circling gently at his temples, watching her own hands instead of his face. “You were trapped somewhere.” It wasn’t a question, and his eyes flickered curiously up to her face.
“How –” he started to ask, but she just shrugged, as if to say, I have my ways, and: I need to know.
He let out a shallow breath. “I don’t know. A day. A really long day.” Small words, close together, because it was easier to talk about than it had been yesterday, but it still wasn’t easy. Jeannie was patient, though, determined but patient, as if she’d been working herself up to asking for days… which, he realised now, she probably had. Her eyes slid slowly down to meet his, blinking fast.
“Are you okay? I mean…”
And again, he was surprised to find himself nodding, if hesitantly. “I think… yeah. Or, or, getting there.”
A minute later he was breathing normally again, eyes closing as Jeannie dipped her fingers in the glass and then drew her fingers across his forehead, then his eyelids, blowing gently into his face, which was, again, oddly nice. The sort of thing he’d imagined other people’s mothers doing, something his own mother had never done, meant to communicate safe and loved and mine.
Sometimes he couldn’t believe she’d ever forgiven him. He’d done little enough to deserve it.
“Thanks,” he whispered, and opened his eyes halfway to take her in – she still looked flushed and guilty. “Where’d you learn that?”
She picked up the glass and offered it to him again. “It’s what I do when Maddy’s got a fever,” she told him. “And it used to help Kaleb after he had his accident; he used to have panic attacks like that.”
He was answering indignantly before thinking: “It wasn’t a—” And then he stopped. “His what?”
“Kaleb was in a car accident before Maddy was born,” Jeannie told him patiently, as he gulped down the rest of the glass of water.
“He was?” Rodney asked, blinking at her, and then, “why didn’t I know that?”
Jeannie raised her eyebrows at him. “Because you’ve been keeping such close track on me for the last few years,” she said sarcastically. Apparently she was over feeling guilty.
Rodney flushed. “I’m sorry about that, you know,” he said, and meant it. She sighed.
“No, I’m sorry,” she told him. “You’ve already apologised. You don’t have to do it again. I’m not really mad at you anymore.”
“You’re not?” Rodney asked doubtfully. Somehow once, even twice, didn’t seem like enough, and he’d rather expected to be paying for it forever. That was what usually happened.
“Not really,” she repeated, and added: “Neither is Kaleb.”
Now he didn’t regret the cynical tone he took. “Oh, yeah?”
She smiled tightly. “He told me you two talked yesterday morning.”
“Is that what he said?”
“Please don’t be mad at him.” Jeannie’s mouth twisted. “Mer, when I lost track of you, I was scared. He had to be there for that.” She looked down. “I keep meaning to get rid of that decal. But every time I go to do it it’s like… I don’t know, tempting fate.”
His fingers tightened nervously around the glass. “I really am sorry.” He winced, realising it was the second time he’d said it in as many minutes.
“Mer.” She just rolled her eyes. “You’ve said. And I’ve said I forgive you.”
He smiled thinly. “Yeah. Just usually I don’t get second chances. Usually I get sent to Siberia and that’s that.”
He looked at her, looked away. “Figuratively speaking.”
She was quiet for almost a minute, long enough for Rodney to make out the hum of insects in the bushes, the distant shrieks of children playing the day away. When she did speak again, it was slowly, and with caution. “Is that how you saw it when you went away to school? Like they were getting rid of you?”
He started, answered before he could stop himself, because of all the things he might have expected her to say, that was probably near the bottom of the list: “They were getting rid of me. Dad said so. More than once.”
“He was joking, Mer,” she said gently. “Just like he was joking about renting your room out to a drifter.”
Unexpectedly, he felt angry, and he shook off her hand. “You were seven, Jeannie. How would you know?”
“I was seven, Mer. Not an idiot.”
“You were still seven. And they liked you better.” It was childish, he knew. But he didn’t care.
“Oh, for – ” she sounded exasperated. “Mer, they did not like me better.”
“Yes!” he burst out, rising from the steps with something twisting deep in his chest. “They did.” And the anger was gone as quickly as it had come, to be replaced by a flood of something bleak and weary and puzzling. He hadn’t thought about their parents in years, barring one brief flare of challenging bitterness while they’d been Wallace’s prisoners. He didn’t think about them because it was counterproductive, and because he never wanted to. Because it wouldn’t change anything. Because he never knew what to do with how it made him feel. He turned away from her.
“They did,” he said again, and meant it when he said: “You were the one they wanted. I can’t really… it wasn’t your fault, or theirs even, I don’t blame anybody but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t like that.” He was distantly amazed to hear his voice the way it sounded right now, faraway and tired and small, but at the same time he couldn’t summon enough energy to change it.
“You didn’t exactly make it easy for them,” Jeannie said after a minute, softly.
“Jeannie, it was always like that,” he told her wearily. “You were too little. You don’t know. But it was always like that. They were never with me the way they were… with you. They were always… disappointed. You know, before you were born, they fought all the time. They’d scream and throw things and… and you changed them. But they were always the same with me. Like I reminded them of something they didn’t want to remember.” Like I ruined their lives.
He could have said more, told her how their father had used to greet every academic award with the faintly sarcastic mutter that at least he wasn’t working an inferior job for nothing. That their mother had always expressed disappointment in how quiet he was as a child, how shy, how “incapable of affection” – her exact words, repeated often enough, softly enough, until he almost believed it. He didn’t tell Jeannie, though, because he knew it would only hurt her, and what they’d said wasn’t Jeannie’s fault.
He was horrified to realise how thick his voice felt, like there were tears in his eyes, which, all right, there were. He shut his eyes, took a deep breath, defying the impulse because his parents had been dead for eight years, and they hadn’t made him cry since he was fourteen, and he wasn’t going to let them do it now. He took another breath, let it out slowly. “You don’t know,” he said again.
He looked at her; she was fidgeting with the hem of her shirt, looking thoughtful and agonised. “Mum had to leave school when she got pregnant with you,” Jeannie said. “Is that why you got so angry when I dropped out?”
Yes, he thought, but he said: “No!”
“You thought I’d resent Maddy like Mum and Dad…” she said, quietly horrified, and raised her eyes to his. “Mer, I would never—”
“I know you wouldn’t,” he said quickly, wanting nothing more in that moment than to wipe the horror off her face. “I know you wouldn’t. I didn’t say you would.”
“You thought it, though,” she murmured, quietly, no longer horrified but deeply, deeply sad.
“I don’t think it,” he tried to say, but Jeannie was already standing up and wrapping her arms around him, and all he could do was stand there.
“I love you, you know that, right, Mer? Do you understand? I love you.” she said, muffled.
“Yeah,” he said, because he did, she said it often enough these days.
She stepped back, hands still on his shoulders, and looked at him. “This was what I wanted to talk to you about.”
He furrowed his brow. “You wanted to talk about Mum and Dad?” he asked, because she might not have the same reasons to avoid it, but it still wasn’t something they did. She never believed him, anyway, and it wasn’t like he ever went out of his way to start the conversation.
“No,” she said softly, “I wanted to talk about John.”
“What about him?” he asked, bewildered by the sudden change in topic, but she just rolled her eyes.
“I thought about Mum and Dad because John asked me about them. And you.”
“Uh huh.” And then she repeated, slowly: “And I wanted to talk to you about John.”
It took a second. Then his face flooded with heat and she nodded, decisively.
“You – oh.”
“Well, I guess that answers my question,” she said with a smirk. “No wonder you got so twitchy when I asked you about Katie.”
“Oh, my god,” Rodney muttered, covering his face with his hands.
“Meredith,” said Jeannie chidingly, but she was gentle when she pried his hands away from his face. She cupped his face in her hands, and now he could smell the soil on her clothes, the cut grass, and the brightness of her smile made him warm all over, strange because it was still so unfamiliar, at least it had been for a long time. “Meredith. This is the real thing. Isn’t it?”
He blinked. “I…” he stammered, “…yes. Yes, I think… I think so.” And he wasn’t surprised, exactly, but he sort of was. He was smiling before he could control his face – not that he’d ever been very good at that.
Jeannie threw her arms around him again, hugged him so tightly that she drove all the breath out of his lungs. “I’m really happy for you,” she said into his shoulder. It was all he could do to pat her on the back, but it was sort of nice, anyway.
“Thanks,” he wheezed, as she released him just short of hypoxia.
“Come on,” she said, picking up her garden gloves. “You can help me with the vegetable garden.”
Rodney was totally thrown off. “I thought that was just a ploy to get me outside!” he said accusingly.
She just smiled sweetly at him. “That doesn’t mean it can’t also be convenient.”
After a moment of hesitation, he followed her to the garden shed, muttering mutinously.
John’s been asleep for maybe two hours when he’s awoken by a sharp crackle in his ear. His eyes are open in an instant and he’s trying to place it, stagger back into the waking world, when he realises he’s gone to sleep with his radio on.
“Sheppard? Come on, I know you’re there. You sleep like a fish. Obviously you can hear me.”
John fumbles for the earpiece, taps it, and asks, groggily: “Rodney?”
On the other end of the radio, Rodney lets out an irritated sigh. “Yes. Are you conscious?” He sounds tense and tired, but not panicky, so John doesn’t let his heart rate get up as he rubs the sleep from his eyes.
“I’m conscious. More or less.”
“Can…” Rodney hesitates, and then: “Can you come to my quarters? I need to… can you come?”
John glances at his watch. It’s a quarter past six, maybe half an hour until dawn, and he’d planned on sleeping late this morning but… whatever. He still hasn’t figured out how to break it to Rodney that he’s going, that he’s not going alone. Maybe inspiration will strike in the next two and a half minutes.
“Yeah. Be right there.”
Rodney’s quarters aren’t far away, at the other end of a long corridor that takes a sharp corner around the main residential sector, and he’s standing in front of Rodney’s door in exactly one hundred and twenty-six seconds. He knows this because as he was wracking his brain for a good opener, he was counting the steps like a bomb timer.
He waves his hand over the door sensor and it opens for him, obligingly.
Rodney is sitting cross-legged on his bed with his laptop open. This alone is enough to be unusual. Rodney hates working in bed because it says it makes him too inclined to nap – this is patently untrue most of the time, given Rodney’s penchant for getting involved in a project and forgetting sleep entirely, but it’s never seemed an important enough illusion for John to disabuse him of it. Now, though…
“Aren’t you supposed to be resting?” John asks pointedly, as the door whooshes shut behind him.
Rodney looks up, irritably, and says without preamble: “I’m going back to Earth.”
John wasn’t expecting that, not so bluntly, so it’s easy for him to look surprised. “You – what?”
Rodney huffs at him, goes back to typing furiously, and says: “It’s been brought to my attention that I – it’s just for a few weeks.”
“Oh.” John’s staring, he knows it and can’t stop, because it’s just dawned on him that Rodney hasn’t slept at all, which makes it at least sixty hours since he’s really tried, possibly more. “Okay.” He’s struggling to dredge up anything, looking for the appropriate place in the conversation to drop in the suggestion… but Rodney’s making that hard with all his cutting, impatient monosyllabics.
And then Rodney glances up, wariness mixed with uncertainty in his eyes, and says: “So I was wondering, when was the last time you took any leave, anyway?”
“What?” John’s still grasping for the trailing thread of this conversation when Rodney adds:
“I know it has to have been pretty much forever. And we haven’t got any crises looming just now, right?”
“No,” agrees John, carefully, because he’s finally caught on. Rodney’s making it easy on him, whether he knows it or not. John forces a grin to match Rodney’s awful, stilted attempt at casualness. “What’d you have in mind?”
Rodney shrugs, averting his eyes. “I don’t know. I’m visiting my sister, apparently. I wasn’t given much… I mean, it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere, so Vancouver will be… surfing and rock-climbing and all that stuff you like. Really good beer – we have real beer in Canada. Mostly I just don’t want to be trapped in a house with Jeannie force-feeding me tofu and an unending litany of my faults as an older sibling.” He breaks off with a slightly breathless look, swallows, hitches on the smirk again. “I mean, it’s not like you’ve got anywhere else to go on Earth is it?”
John blinks at him. He’s too used to Rodney to take that as anything but a jibe, or for what it really is, which is close to desperation he’s showing plain on his face. But John knows he’s got to keep up appearances. “Not… as such,” he admits, reluctantly.
“Great!” Rodney claps his hands and begins typing again. “We leave tomorrow afternoon.”
John frowns, taking in once more the pallor of Rodney’s skin, the dark smudges under his eyes, and crosses his arms. They’re not fooling each other anyway, he knows, and if Rodney doesn’t, he’ll work it out soon enough. “Hang on, McKay,” he says, and Rodney looks up again, blue eyes wide, clearly surprised that John is still in the room.
“One condition,” says John. “You sleep. And now.”
“I—” Rodney glares at him, and John smiles. “Fine. In a minute.” He flaps a hand impatiently in John’s direction while still typing with the other. The gesture means be gone, but John’s not having it. He crosses the room in a couple of strides, and reaches out to close Rodney’s laptop. Rodney pulls his hand away with a hiss.
“Hey! I was—”
“Rodney,” John says, patiently, “was there some part of ‘now’ that you didn’t understand?”
“I just have to finish—”
John shakes his head, holding Rodney’s eyes, and finally Rodney relents. “Fine,” he says, a little weakly, as John takes the laptop and places it on Rodney’s desk at the other side of the room, then turns around and crosses his arms again, expectantly. Rodney’s staring at his hands like he doesn’t recognise them.
Rodney jumps, looks up again. “I… look, this is going to sound weird, but can I ask you a favour?”
“What’s one more?” John shrugs.
Rodney licks his lips, nervously. “I can’t… I’ve been trying to sleep, you know, but I can’t seem to… and Keller gave me some…” he waves a hand vaguely towards the bathroom. “I hate sedatives,” he says dourly, as it if explains everything.
But it does, sort of. John’s not all that fond of being drugged into a stupor himself, but for Rodney it must be like being dead, brain shut down, and maybe that’s what’s scaring him. Sleep is too close to death, to helplessness, and he’s probably had enough of that recently to last him for a good long while. But he has to sleep.
“You want me to stay?” John asks, quietly.
Rodney sags with relief. “If that’s… yes? If that’s not too weird. I mean I’d understand if you… but right now I really hate the idea of being totally… and having nothing to…”
Nothing to protect me, his face says, though his voice doesn’t. John nods, because it’s not even a question.
“No problem,” he says easily. He goes into the bathroom and comes back with the bottle of pills, hands it to Rodney, who struggles with the cap a minute before downing two capsules with a gulp of water. He pulls off his boots, and throws them on the floor as John settles in the desk chair, slouching down until he’s relatively comfortable.
Whatever it is works pretty fast, and by the time Rodney’s curled up on his side, his eyelids are already drooping. “Thanks,” he says, voice a little slurred. “You don’t have to do this and you… you don’t have to do this.”
John sighs, eyes fixed on Rodney’s face as it slackens into sleep for what must be the first time in days. “Don’t be an idiot,” he murmurs. “Of course I do.”
But Rodney doesn’t hear him.
They’d put together half the thousand-piece puzzle before John realised that Jeannie had kept Rodney outside for nearly an hour. John noted it, and after another ten minutes had passed, got up to check on them. A glance into the back yard found Rodney huffily pushing a wheelbarrow across the yard as Jeannie trailed after him with a small bag of grass seed. He couldn’t hear what either of them was saying, but he could tell it involved a lot of mockery and swearing. John stood at the kitchen window for a while just watching, until Madison came and tugged on his arm.
“I want ice cream,” she said decisively, and John glanced at his watch.
“Are you supposed to have ice cream at two-thirty in the afternoon?” he asked, tilting his head down at her.
Madison opened her mouth to answer indignantly, as if offended at the implication she would do something illegal, but then she shut her mouth again and looked up at him through her eyelashes, with a sly smile.
“I’m not supposed to get snacks without asking. That’s what Mummy says.”
“I’ll bet that’s exactly what Mummy says,” he laughed, and glanced out the window again. It looked like Jeannie and Rodney would be out there for another half-hour, at least, and he’d always believed that the immorality of most illegal things was directly proportionate to the likelihood of getting caught.
“Okay,” he said, and then hushed her when she let out a whoop of delight. “But quiet, okay? This is secret ice cream. Your mother yells.”
“Oh, I know,” Madison said, seriously. “She’s louder than anybody else’s mother.” She sounded proud.
So he and Madison put together two truly decadent bowls of ice cream, complete with chocolate syrup, strawberry syrup, banana syrup, chocolate sprinkles, chocolate chips, whipped cream, maraschino cherries, and in Madison’s bowl, a handful of Froot Loops. John topped it off with a spray of whipped cream and wondered vaguely why health nuts like Jeannie and Kaleb would keep all this junk food lying around. This led to John imagining secret midnight ice cream conspiracies he decided not to share with Madison because she might get it into her head to start investigating, and that was one game he didn’t want to end up explaining to Jeannie.
It felt a little strange, sitting here eating illicit ice cream with a five-year-old in Rodney’s sister’s kitchen, but strange in a way that three weeks of repetition had made seem almost routine. Strange in a way he was finding he could easily get used to, if given half the chance. Strange like from the second he’d walked in the door with Rodney, Jeannie and Kaleb and Madison had just accepted him as belonging there.
As he watched Madison carefully separate her ice cream into single topping zones, something caught in his chest, constricted, for just a second, until Madison looked up at him with a funny look on her face. “What’s the matter, Uncle John?”
“Nothing, Mad,” he said, shaking his head. And that was it, he’d realised. He now knew what they’d assumed - what Jeannie had assumed, at least - but what it came down to was that if he was with Rodney, he belonged, because Rodney belonged here, at least sometimes. He couldn’t believe it had taken him three weeks to realise they’d been treating him like family.
John had never gone looking for family. His own blood relatives had never afforded him any real sense of belonging, at least not after his mother died, after he left home; just a sense of obligation, which wasn’t the same thing.
And Rodney, though he clearly had painful memories of his own family, still felt connected to them. Tied to them, maybe, against his will, maybe, but still, connected. Like it was something irrefutable, enough that rejection had hurt in a completely different way than John’s father rejecting him had hurt. He’d never recognised that kind of connection by intention, never nodded his head and said oh, that’s what that’s like. But he realised now that he’d had it, anyway, with Ronon and Teyla, in progressive fits and starts… and with Rodney, from the first week of their acquaintance. Like some part of him had recognised in Rodney something that fit them together, something he couldn’t control or direct. Something that was just supposed to be.
Well, that’s sappy, he thought, and realised that he was wearing a huge, stupid grin only when Madison looked up and smiled back, sticky-faced. She cocked her head at him. “You’re smiling, Uncle John. Are you happy?”
John looked down, feeling almost like he’d been caught at something, but still smiling. “Yeah, Mad,” he said. “I’m happy.”
“I thought so,” she said, sagely, and he glanced up to see her resting her chin in one hand and observing him with the penetrating, unblemished wisdom of the very young.
“Loving people makes you happy,” she told him, like it was just that simple.