Johnny Sheppard was born when he was ten years old. Or, one hundred and fifty seven years old, depending on how you wanted to count it. Rodney isn’t sure which way he prefers it – ten seems too young for all that John has seen and done, but one hundred and fifty seven just reminded Rodney that John used to be dead and that… wasn’t pleasant.
John has been in a corporeal body for ten minutes when he eats his first slice of leftover Meat Lovers pizza, has his first diet soda, burps a spectacular ten out of ten, and is made to brush his teeth for the first time by Carson, who worries that loading all that junk into him right away might have adverse affects on a body that has been created pristine and perfect.
Rodney supposes it was a legitimate concern; it’s not like John’s new clone body has picked up any defects from a birth mother, but it probably hasn’t picked up any antibodies or the kind of stuff, the good stuff, that mom’s pass on to babies either.
They’re standing in the hallway outside of Rodney’s bathroom. John is inside, figuring out his own body’s plumbing for the first time, washing his hands carefully with soap, just like Rodney showed him how to do, in order to make sure all the germs were killed.
Rodney waits until the door shuts before he mentions it to Carson, a quick, “Um, his immune system… colds… is he going to die from…?” and Carson gives him a dirty look.
“Duh, Rodney,” he says, the teenager-ish sentiment sounding funny in his accent. “Where do you think I got my medical degree, off the back of a cereal box?”
Rodney flinches, because those are the exact words he’s fired at Carson like weapons an hour ago when John Sheppard’s ghost had sunk into the clone flesh and not moved, not breathed for five minutes straight.
“Carson, I--” he starts, but apologizing is irritating, and worse, it’s hard, but he means it, he really does, so he’s relieved that he doesn’t have to say it; Carson reads it in his eyes and sighs.
“It’s okay, Rodney; I wouldna be your friend if I couldna tell when you’re yelling just to relieve stress. You didnae mean it.”
Rodney sighs and slumps, leaning one broad shoulder against the wall. “Thanks, Carson. I was just… I mean, I can’t imagine how he’s going to react when he gets his first flu. He died from a cold, and I just… I don’t know how I’m going to handle it when he gets another one, he’s going to flip out...”
“Rodney, John was constructed with Asguard technology. I doubt that he’ll ever get another cold ever again.” Carson licks his lips once and adds, “I made sure of it.”
And Rodney knows what that means, knows that Carson thought of it way before Rodney did, and made sure that it wasn’t a trauma John would ever have to go through again.
Still, Rodney’s wound up. John has somehow wormed his way under Rodney’s skin and into his heart, has complete and utter faith in Rodney, relies on Rodney, is vulnerable and needs Rodney’s protection and trusts Rodney to do it right. That scares the ever loving shit out of Rodney, because he’s never been any good about taking care of anyone but himself, and as his bulging little pudge belly and hypertension betray, he’s not even all that good at that. But taking care of John somehow makes him a better human being, makes Rodney want to try harder, to be the person that John thinks he is, to not let the trust and reliance be betrayed.
It almost makes Rodney want to call his sister. Surely the brat she dropped out of school for has to have been born by now, right? How old would it be? Six months? A year? Rodney didn’t know. They’d fought fiercely right before he’d been shipped to Siberia, his anger at the SGC’s betrayal and the obvious preference for stupid wrong Sam Carter (and that wasn’t right, that he should see hate flashing in her pretty blue eyes, when she was supposed to recognize him for his genius, love him for his quirky smiles and charming insults, what had gone wrong?) transferred onto his sister.
Just another dumb blonde wasting her talent with stupid decisions.
They hadn’t spoken since, but now that Rodney had John, he thought he maybe understood, how it could be okay to give up something that made you content but perhaps not happy, for something that you love a lot.
And apparently Rodney McKay loves John Sheppard. Yeah, well, like that was a huge surprise. He’s already sunk money and months into developing technology just to give John the agency of speech back. He’s helped his best friend grow an icky, squishy clone so the kid could give back the life John had been denied by one stupid case of the sniffles and an ATA gene so strong that it had forcefully half Acended him like a sort of defunct ejector seat.
Rodney looks back up at Carson, who is chewing worriedly on his bottom lip, mistaking Rodney’s contemplative silence for concern.
“Rodney, I worked on Dolly,” Carson blurts, “I’ve cloned mice and stem cells and I’ve been working on developing Asguard cloning techniques in order to duplicate the ATA gene for non-carriers. I know enough to make sure John’s immune system would be ready to fend off anything this world – or any other – could throw at him.”
This world – or any other.
Rodney feels his stomach drop, his heart go cold in his chest.
“No,” Rodney says. “You’re not taking my son off-world.” The declaration startles both men, but Rodney crosses his arms over his chest and lifts his chin and tries to make it look like he totally meant to say what he just did.
Carson’s eyes go wide first, and his lips white, and then a slow red blush flags across his nose. “I think, Rodney, that you’ll find that John is my son, according to the birth certificate that I had the SGC fake up.”
Rodney swallows hard. He hadn’t thought about that stuff: birth certificates and legal documentation, years of false immunization records and passports and school reports. Rodney suddenly wonders if they made John a straight As student, or the class clown, or an athletic marvel who flunks his math tests. It’s galling. The idea that the SGC gets to say who John is, instead of letting John – amazing, incredible, smart, honest, trusting John – show them. Instead of letting John define himself for himself.
He hates the SGC suddenly. He hates them more than he did when they told him to go fix the problem with the StarGate and then shipped him to Sibera for knowing exactly what had to be done, labeled him callous and useless, defined him forever with his colleagues as acerbic and not worth keeping on any team, tore him away from his chance to prove himself for himself, to make up for his mistakes. He hates that he had to go back to them to give John the life he deserved, away from a half-ascended limbo, hates that he owes them for the boy.
Hates that the SGC technically owns John.
“The SGC can’t have him,” Rodney says. “You can’t have him.”
Carson, apparently, has been following his train of thought, because he doesn’t even blink when he says, “That’s not your choice, Rodney. He was cloned using SGC resources. And you quit.”
Rodney’s hands tighten into fists, and he can’t believe they’re even having this argument. “He’s been cooped up in this goddamned house for centuries! You can’t just lock him up under that fucking mountain!”
“John deserves… he deserves a normal life, okay? He deserves mud pies and scraped knees and fighting on the playground!” And God, since when was Rodney McKay so fucking idealistic?
“Rodney, you have to understand, we were only granted permission to go forward with this because of the strength of John’s ATA gene--”
And no. Just no. That’s it. That’s enough.
Rodney pulls himself up to his full height, hands stiff and shoulders tight, vibrating, absolutely vibrating with fury. “John Sheppard will not be your fucking Atlantis lightswitch.”
Carson matches him glare for glare. “You dunnae have a say.”
The door creaks back and a dark, messy head pokes out between the crack. “Rodney?” John says softly, and his hazel eyes are wide and his skin is white. He doesn’t understand why they’re angry at each other, just that they are, and that it’s about him, and Rodney feels like an asshole.
“C’mon, John,” he says, “Let’s get you into your new PJs and into bed.” He holds out his hand and John takes it, that same innocent trust in his eyes and Rodney feels guilt for what he’s about to do, swift and painful, boot him in the gut.
Carson is supposed to be his best friend.
* * *
Rodney leaves John to get himself into his own pajamas. He tucks John into bed, ignoring John’s protests that he doesn’t like sleeping any more, and starts telling him some bedtime stories that closely resemble Star Trek episodes.
Rodney keeps talking until he hears Carson go into his own room, then starts tossing all the carefully folded little boy clothing with the price tags still attached into a battered old backpack. He tiptoes over to his own room, packs a hasty similar bag, whipping through his lab dead silent to transfer all his data and blueprints onto an external hard drive and set a worm loose on the machines he leaves behind.
When Rodney goes back upstairs, he can hear Carson talking on the phone with someone, using lots of medical jargon.
Rodney knows he has no time to loose.
Rodney bundles John up into a brand new pair of boots and a coat, and carries the boy on his hip, clutching both the bags in his other hand, avoiding the squeaky stairs that John points out.
John’s eyes are wide and bright, and he whispers into Rodney’s ear as they tiptoe down the hall, “Are we playing a trick on Carson?”
“Yes,” Rodney says, and he feels like utter scum. “Yes, we are.”
* * *
They drive north.
Rodney’s pretty certain that they’ll make the Detroit/Windsor border by dawn, it should only take a few hours, but once they’re in Canada, he has no idea where to go. They swing through a drive through at about midnight for chicken fingers and burgers, and Rodney tells John to curl up under the blankets in the wheel well and pretend really hard to be another backpack.
Rodney pays in cash, with a hat pulled low on his head, John starts giggling just as they pull out of the drive-thru, almost giving the game away. Rodney feels paranoid, but there could be an APB out on them already, and he’s not taking any more chances than he has to.
They stop on the side of the road just outside of Detroit so both the boys can relieve the pressure on their bladders, and when they climb back into the clunky car, John asks, “Rodney? Where are we going?”
“To visit… to visit my sister,” Rodney says. Yes, Toronto is a big enough city to hide in for a while. Jeannie lives in Greek Town off of Danforth Ave, right near all the subway lines and the big tourist areas. Easy to get lost in.
“Okay,” John says, completely accepting. “What about Carson?”
“Carson had work to do,” Rodney lies.
“Okay,” John says again. Rodney puts on his seatbelt and John leans down out of the car and picks a handful of grass. He crushes it in his fist and holds it up to his face.
“What are you doing?” Rodney asks as he starts the ignition.
“This is the first time I’ve touched grass since I died,” John says, and it’s just so matter-of-fact that it breaks Rodney’s heart. John’s first day alive shouldn’t be spent on the run trapped in a car. John isn’t complaining, but Rodney still feels horrible.
Rodney puts the car into gear and the pull back onto the lonely stretch of early morning highway, pointing towards Canada.
They hit the border within the half hour, and Rodney can feel his pulse skyrocket, his knuckles white on the steering wheel. Surely they must have stopped up the border, surely there’s SGC personnel waiting for them, their faces on bulletins, Marines with guns and dogs searching every car.
Instead a sleepy guard asks Rodney’s name, his place of birth, his business in the USA. Rodney says, “Meredith Miller, Vancouver, taking my son to see a Red Wings game.”
The guard is supposed to ask for papers, a passport, a birth certificate for everyone in the car, but he is half awake and doesn’t care. He waves them through with just a cursory glance at John.
“Looks like his Mom?” the guard asks, noting the dark hair and hazel eyes, comparing them against Rodney’s sandy blonde and bright blue.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Rodney says, and wishes the guard a good night, and drives away with his heart hammering on the back of his tongue.
John is quiet for a little while, and then he says, “Rodney. You lied to him.”
“Yes,” Rodney says.
“Because… because if they… if they knew who you were, John, if they knew that you used to be a… a ghost… then they would, um,” and he trails off, because he doesn’t know how much to admit.
“They’d be scared,” John supplies with an understanding nod. “I’d be scared of ghosts, too,” he admits, “if I hadn’t been one.”
“Yeah,” Rodney says. “Me too.”
* * *
John nods off into a fitful sleep around dawn, and Rodney is thankful that the kid is finally conked out. They’re well out of Windsor and a good way up the 401 highway before John jerks awake, screaming.
Rodney is startled so badly that he veers into the lane beside theirs, nearly side swiping a little green Honda. The Honda slows abruptly and lays on the horn and Rodney doesn’t even have the energy to wave the guy the finger because John’s still screaming at the top of his lungs.
Rodney signals and checks the mirror carefully and pulls off the highway into a carpool parking lot. He slams the car into park, whips off his seatbelt, and reaches across the stick shift to wrap John in his arms, to rock him slowly, to whisper, “It’s okay, John, it’s just a bad dream, it’s just a dream.”
John wakes up sobbing. His tears are hot against Rodney’s neck and his heart is beating far too fast against Rodney’s ribcage and he curls his fingers in Rodney’s shirt and whines his name over and over and over.
“I’m here, it’s okay,” Rodney says, wishing that it all really was okay.
“Rodney,” John whimpers.
“My Mother and Father are dead.”
Rodney’s heart clenches. “Yeah they are,” he says. “Mine, too.”
“I used to be dead,” John says.
“Not really,” Rodney says, just to be contrary, but it feels pathetic even in his own ears. “Just a little bit.”
John sniffles loudly. “I don’t like sleeping.”
“It’ll get better,” Rodney promises. “It will. When you get more practice.”
“If I go to sleep again… will I die?”
Rodney pulls back, grabs John’s shoulder with one hand and his chin with the other and looks him directly in the eye. “No,” he says. “You will wake up alive every single time, I promise.”
John sniffles again and nods and wipes his nose on his sleeve.
“Rodney?” he asks.
“Me too,” Rodney says. “Want an Egg McMuffin?”
John nods and slumps back in his seat, exhausted and pale and lips trembling, the perfect portrait of childish misery. He doesn’t even know what an Egg McMuffin is. Rodney does up his own seatbelt and switches back into drive and carefully merges back onto the highway, eyes open for a rest stop sign.
“Rodney?” John says after a quiet moment.
“We forgot my toboggan.”
Rodney closes his eyes, for just a second, and wishes that this was easy.
* * *
By noon they’ve had their McMuffins and Rodney’s starting to think about some Tim Hortons coffee and sandwiches when John rolls down the window and sticks his head out of it.
“John!” Rodney yelps, but the kid still has his seatbelt on, so Rodney doesn’t reach out and tug him back.
“What’s that?” John asks, pointing up out of the car window at a black shadow cutting across the sky. His grin is wide, like a puppy whose muzzle has been blown back by the wind that the motion of the car makes, and his silly cowlicks are flattened for once, defeated by the breeze.
Rodney cranes his head over the steering wheel to look. “It’s a plane, John, you’ve seen them on TV before.”
“Not that shape,” John says. He pulls his head back inside the car and holds up his little fingers to mimic the shape of a triangle. “It’s like this.”
“Then it’s a jet plane,” Rodney says. He tries not to think about the Air Force, or the nearby Camp Borden, or military police. “They go really fast.”
John looks back at the plane, hazel eyes sparkling with joy. “I’m going to fly planes one day, Rodney,” he says. “Maybe I’ll join the Air Force, like Carson’s friends at the SGC, or like Sam Carter.”
Not if I can help it , Rodney thinks, but doesn’t say.