When Rodney thinks about that first ceremony, he doesn’t remember what lead up to it, how it began. What sticks out for him is the silence of the people around him, the chill of the air, and the smooth feel of the biodegradable paper under his fingertips as he slowly wrote Brendan Gaul with a lump in his throat and a gunshot ringing in his ears.
Rodney, who was so bad with names, remembers the name of every person under his command who has been lost. He lets others take the rest, friends and lovers of those who should be standing with them, but aren’t: Dumais, Peterson, Peter Grodin, so many others, too many others, and Rodney sees failure in every paper lantern.
Sheppard’s face is blank as he writes the name he had reserved for himself in surprisingly smooth, legible handwriting. Rodney knows Sheppard hears a single gunshot too, though the one echoing in his ears came from Sheppard’s own gun. They share a moment of silent commiseration over their lanterns.
“Is this the way of your people?” Teyla asks quietly, watching as the last lighter is placed in the box held tightly in the gate tech’s hands. Rodney can’t remember his name, and this bothers him. Here, in a galaxy far from home, these people are all Rodney has. He should know them.
“Where we come from, people of many cultures utilize paper lanterns as a means of celebration or ceremony. As far as I know, none use them as a means to mourn,” Elizabeth explains. She stands at Teyla’s side, arms wrapped around herself. The wind ruffles their hair and makes their cheeks pink. Teyla has donned the ceremonial mourning clothes of her people; she looks stately and beautiful, a formal figure among the collective disheveled appearance of the expedition. Nobody had packed formal wear when they left Earth, not anticipating the need. Next to her, Elizabeth looks pretty but underdressed in her long-sleeved red sweater and black slacks.
Rodney wore his uniform, as does Ford and Sheppard. As do most others.
There is a pause as people light each other’s candle. They had set aside one lighter to be used for this ceremony, since they did not want to use just anything. That lighter was used to light a single candle, and that candle used to light another candle, and so on until every candle was lit. Those who do not have a lantern simply held a candle in small holders provided by the Athosians. The flames flicker in the breeze, some shielding it with their hands.
Rodney’s shoulder brushed against Sheppard’s as they stood together on the edge of the pier. Ford looked more solemn than Rodney had ever seen him. It looked odd on his normally cheerful face, but it certainly matched the atmosphere.
“A new tradition for a new galaxy,” Elizabeth says finally, her voice strong. It does not shake. She lifts her lantern, resting it in the palm of her hands. Peter Grodin, it says, and Rodney closes his eyes tight, shutting it out. After a moment, Sheppard nudges Rodney gently with his shoulder, and Rodney opens his eyes.
Once Elizabeth’s lantern leaves her hands, others follow suit, lifting their own up.
Nobody speaks as they watch them float up and out over the water, where the flame would eventually go out and they would fall to the water below. The flames look warm and inviting against the cold light of the moon. As they drifted away, Rodney prays the number of lanterns always looks small compared to the big sky that looms overhead.
Behind him, one by one, people blow out their candles.
“How’s it work?” Ronon asks the first time he joined them for the ceremony. He has constructed his own lantern with Elizabeth’s help, carefully following her instructions with a gentle intensity Rodney had not thought him capable of. Rodney, who had not yet become comfortable with their newest team member, was made all the more uncomfortable by the sheer number of names scrawled in neat rows of spiky, alien letters. It was a stark reminder of all that Ronon had lost. Rodney knows he isn’t all that empathetic (or was it sympathetic? Honestly, must everything in the soft sciences be so difficult?), but even he aches for the big guy.
Everyone turns to Rodney.
"The flame from the candle heats the air inside the lantern. This lowers its density and causes the lantern to rise into the air.” Words were a comfort to Rodney, and though he understands the reasons behind the mostly silent ceremony, sometimes it causes a pressure to build up in Rodney’s chest. As though the knot already in his chest weren’t enough.
“Oh,” Ronon replies, though Rodney isn’t sure how much of that he understood. It doesn’t matter. When Ronon’s lantern floated out of his hands, Rodney pretends not to see the tears. He focuses instead on Sheppard’s upturned face, the sorrow in his eyes and the name of a missing lieutenant on his lips. Rodney tastes the enzyme on his tongue and wishes for a mint.
That night, Rodney dreams of a sprawling, ruined city, the sky filled with thousands of paper lanterns.
Rodney almost doesn’t attend the ceremony during the third year. Carson’s loss is too much, and Rodney fears a lantern bearing Carson’s name will be too heavy for him to bear. But John is there to take him by the shoulders, to be a source of strength to hold Rodney up. Rodney is pathetically grateful.
Rodney takes comfort in the silence of the now familiar movements of constructing his lantern, of writing Carson’s name. No pointless platitudes, no attempts to make him feel better. They mean well, Rodney knows, but this loss cuts deeper than any before.
Carson meant a great deal to many people. Rodney wants to be selfish and keep Carson’s lantern to himself, but he knows Carson deserves better than that. Rodney constructs the lantern and writes the name, but he steps back to let others come forward. They write short, unsigned messages for him, telling him the things they never had when he’d been living. Why is it easier to say these things after the person is gone, Rodney wonders, but somehow it is, so Rodney adds his own message of thanks.
He hesitates when it’s time to let the lantern go. The others float ahead, filling the sky more than ever, and Rodney knows each name that went on a lantern this year. He wonders which lantern is which.
Teyla’s small, warm hand on his back startles him. He starts to turn, but Ronon’s strong grip on his shoulder prevents him. It isn’t until John cups the back of his neck, touch feather light and full of hesitation, that Rodney understands and relaxes. He lifts his lantern, feels it drift out of his hands, and swears he hears Carson’s laughter on the wind.
Rodney forgets, sometimes, that he isn’t alone. Even with Carson gone.
The Lantean Mourning ceremony happens once a year. Rodney knows that life on Atlantis isn’t constant suffering and mourning of the dead. Often months go by between the death and their lantern being sent out over the ocean, but the ceremony somehow brings those feelings into sharp, painful focus.
Rodney has a folder on his laptop full of pictures the SGC would never let through screening. This does not bother Rodney, since they aren’t for sharing. Pictures of his team, of Elizabeth laughing and Ronon sleeping in odd places and Carson scolding. Half the time Rodney doesn’t remember who took them or how he came by them.
Life is defined by moments, Rodney thinks. Not all of them are bad. He thinks they should try celebrating the good more.
This time it’s Teyla they must hold up. Every person on Atlantis feels Elizabeth’s death, but none more so than Teyla. Best friends seems like an immature label to apply to what they had, but Rodney struggles to grasp better terminology. He’s surprised at how easy it is to touch Teyla, to lay a hand on her shoulder and support her. She’s faced so much loss, everyone from this galaxy has, and Rodney wonders how any of them stay sane or share their lives with others.
He wonders if Teyla even needs help working past the empty hole Elizabeth has left, but she leans into his touch, smiles gratefully at John, and squeezes Ronon’s hand. Off to the side, Sam stands with Ellis, watching. It’s almost an intrusion, those who don’t belong to Atlantis and her people witnessing something private. But they worked to find Atlantis, to save her people, and that has earned them the right.
“We should do more,” Rodney says just before Teyla starts. She has taken Elizabeth’s place as the leader of the mourning ritual. It’s fitting. It almost feels as though Elizabeth’s lantern in Teyla’s hand is the passing of the torch.
“What?” John asks. His eyes are red. Nobody mentions it.
“It’s Elizabeth,” Rodney says, holding out his hands, palms up. “She deserves...more.”
“Rodney,” Teyla says quietly, “She would not want special treatment. She would want the same courtesy as the others, no more and no less.”
“But…” Rodney starts.
Ronon wraps one large arm around Rodney’s neck and pulls him into a gentle headlock, interrupting him. Rodney protests quietly in deference to the solemn air, but more for form’s sake than anything. Ronon isn’t hurting him.
“Gentlemen,” Teyla says sternly, and Ronon abruptly lets Rodney go. Rodney straightens, smoothes out his uniform, and acknowledges that Teyla probably knows Elizabeth’s wishes best.
Rodney follows Elizabeth’s lantern with his eyes until the lights of them all blur together. Before turning away to head back inside, Rodney closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. The air is crisp and smells of ocean and home.
“Thank you,” he murmurs, and doesn’t need to say: for taking a chance on me, for being my friend, for loving me. He means that and more. He hopes that wherever she is, she hears him.
The fourth year on Atlantis is a difficult one. Elizabeth’s death, the disappearance of Teyla’s people, and the shocking news from Earth that Patrick Sheppard has died. John handles it with his usual quiet, restrained emotion, but Rodney knows him well enough to see the pain in the clench of his jaw and the curve of his mouth. Rodney wishes he could go with him, but he can’t back out of a promise to Radek (again), Teyla is pregnant and understandably unwilling to pause her search for her people, and so Ronon must go as the lone support. Rodney worries the entire time they’re gone, more so when he hears about the events that took place concerning a replicator.
John talks about reuniting with his brother and seems happy about it, but doesn’t mention what started the estranged silence. Ronon is the one who tells Rodney about the huge house and ex-wife, with a casualness that Rodney doesn’t understand. Rodney wants to ask so many questions, but Ronon doesn’t know the answers, and John has never been all that forthcoming.
Rodney goes to John’s room with a movie and a plan to ask subtle, probing questions. It drives him a bit mad to know so little about a man who means so much to him, but even Rodney can see John is not ready for questions, subtle or not. With no little amount of disappointment, Rodney swallows back the questions he has, the burning curiosity to know more, and keeps his comments centered on the movie and its badly done science.
Little by little, John relaxes, slowly leaning sideways until he is slumped against Rodney’s side. Rodney hardly dares move, worries he’ll jar John out of whatever this is that has led to him pressing against Rodney, warm and heavy. He grows more and more flustered when the movie ends and the room is filled with their slow, even breathing.
“Jeannie invited you to visit,” Rodney blurts out. “With me, I mean, for Christmas? If you want to? I know it’s some ways away, but she wanted to give us time to put in for leave, no last minute requests, she’s really very insistent about this, if you don’t come she might just hit me until I bruise, not that it would take much -”
“I’ll have you know she hits hard, and I bruise easily,” Rodney says indignantly.
“I know,” John drawls, and looks up at Rodney through the fringes of his hair. “You’ve said so before.”
“Well, it bears repeating,” Rodney says loftily, and doesn’t at all think about how he is lying in John Sheppard’s bed, with John Sheppard in it, who is stupidly attractive and completely out of Rodney’s league.
He leaves without asking John a single question concerning his life before Atlantis. It’s irrelevant, anyway.
Rodney never sees John shed a tear over his father’s death. Rodney knows John feels it, however, and says nothing at all when John writes his father’s name on a paper lantern. You carry some things with you to Atlantis, and those things can be as much the fabric of life here as anything else.
“I never,” John starts, voice choked. “I never told him…”
“Tell him now,” Rodney suggests. “Not out loud, of course, given your shaky relationship with words, made all the worse by adding emotions to the mix -”
“Write it,” Ronon rumbles, gesturing toward John’s lantern with the nod of his head.
“That’s what I meant,” Rodney says, affronted. He quiets only when Teyla squeezes his forearm and gives him a look. While John squats down to add to his lantern, Teyla deftly deals with anyone approaching - including Sam, who carries her own lantern in one hand, the name Janet Fraiser written in permanent ink. Rodney is careful not to read over John’s shoulder, smiles as encouragingly as he can when John meets his eyes as they stand side by side, ready to release their lanterns.
There’s hot stew waiting for them in the cafeteria. Rodney goes inside when his stomach rumbles and his hands feel like ice, but John doesn’t come with them, not right away.
“I need some time,” he says quietly. He rolls his eyes when Rodney frets and shoves his orange fleece into John’s arms. It’s warm from Rodney’s body heat.
“Don’t be stupid,” Rodney blusters, “I know you’re Colonel Cool and everything, but your reputation is nothing compared to frostbite, so take the fleece and wear it.”
“Yes, Rodney,” John says, tone long suffering. Rodney narrows his eyes him, certain he’s being mocked, but Ronon has the back of his shirt and is dragging him off, Teyla covering her smile with one hand and no help at all getting the neanderthal off him.
When John joins them in the cafeteria, he’s wearing the fleece. His cheeks are pink, as are the tips of his point ears, and Rodney doesn’t think all of it is from the cold. Or embarrassment. He finds himself turning red too.
“Thanks, Rodney,” John says softly, and keeps the fleece for a week.
Teyla’s disappearance hits Rodney surprisingly hard. He knows that gate teams often feel an intense connection to one another, forged by shared experiences and long hours spent together. Rodney knows he cares deeply for Teyla, that he respects her and enjoys her company. But with her gone everything feels off-balance, like the ground is swaying under Rodney’s feet. It is only when John and Ronon were around that the ground steadies, two weights to counterbalance the shake beneath Rodney’s feet.
John is determined to find her, to bring her and her child home safe and whole. Ronon’s feral smile backs John up, dares any to stand in their way. Rodney shares none of their confidence, but he would follow them anywhere, help them do anything, and that includes taking on the entire Pegasus Galaxy, if necessary, to make their family complete again.
Still, he’s grateful she disappears after the ceremony had already taken place for that year. He shudders to think of John or Ronon’s reaction had someone suggest her name go on a lantern.
In their search for Teyla, they stumble upon Carson’s clone. It knocks Rodney for a loop, forces the breath from his chest. He thinks about a lantern that felt heavy in his hands, about the paper sides of the lantern filled with the goodbyes of his people. The memory of Carson’s death colors their interactions and Rodney feels guilty for it but can’t stop the hesitation to touch, the pauses between their words. His heart aches.
When Carson is forced into stasis, it’s like losing him all over again. Rodney fights past the lump in his throat to say goodbye, blinks back the sting of tears. He tells himself to feel grateful there will be no need to write Carson’s name again on fragile paper. Rodney can’t bring himself to leave the stasis chamber for long, spending hours in the chamber, combining his efforts to locate Teyla with keeping Carson company. He worries about leaving Carson alone, wonders if some part of Carson can sense the passage of time and feels lonely.
He wonders what Carson dreams of during that indefinite sleep.
When John walks into a wormhole and fails to materialize on the other side, Rodney fights tooth and nail to have him declared missing in action. John has survived much worse, against all odds, and Rodney is certain he’ll show up eventually to lean casually against walls and drive Rodney crazy with his stupid drawl and ridiculous laugh. Rodney refuses to think about the ache in his chest and the sting of loneliness. He pretends the moments when he turns to say something only to realize John’s not there never happen, refuses to talk about him in the past tense, and never, ever admits he misses John’s arbitrary time limits and manly shoulder pats.
Given the spread of the Hoffan virus and Michael’s hybrids, Rodney has little time to devote to the investigation into where John has gone. Rodney stays up late many nights going through the data they collected, checking star charts and forming hypotheses, all of which are thoroughly debunked in the end.
When Rodney figures out what happened to John, he’s momentarily overcome. John is alive, just as Rodney knew he would be, only he’s 48000 years in the future. Rodney feels a moment of despair, of helplessness, but John Sheppard never left a man behind, and Rodney McKay won’t either. Especially not this man in particular.
Rodney knows that, with a lot of work and time, they could figure out a plan to bring John home. Anything else is unacceptable. Rather than getting the support he was hoping for, the military decides to write John off as a lost cause. He sends dozens of emails, calls in favors and makes promises he isn’t sure he can keep, but in the end the military will not budge.
When he gets the news, Rodney trades for the strongest alcohol on Atlantis and spends two days drunk in his quarters. On the third day, he wakes to the image of John alone and so far from people who know and care about him, and raises his middle finger up high.
Rodney continues his research. He doesn’t think about a white gravestone with John’s name carved into it, surrounded by others just like it in a military cemetery back on Earth. A grave with no outward sign of how important John was. It isn’t right.
A bit of poetry Rodney can’t identify (and doesn’t care to) appears unbidden into his thoughts:
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
Yeah, Rodney thinks. That sounds about right.
The lantern ceremony for their fourth year on Atlantis takes place late in the year, just as temperatures begin to drop. Somewhere on their mainland, the leaves are beginning to turn colors. Rodney goes reluctantly, pulled from his work by Radek and Keller. It’s not that he does not want to honor his friends - nobody is more deserving than Teyla and Ronon, in Rodney’s opinion. But they’re the last of his team, and though he has come to care for Radek and Keller and many others during his time here, none have been so important to him as John and Teyla and Ronon.
Their absence leaves an ache in his chest that’s nearly impossible to breathe around. Rodney finds himself on the edge of tears at random moments for no reason at all. He’s embarrassed, but Radek’s sad smiles and Simpson’s no nonsense sympathy help him continue past the moment.
Before their things were packed up and taken away, Rodney had sat in their room, looked at their stuff, and tried to remember the smell of Teyla’s incense and the feel of Ronon’s sweeping, crushing hugs. That he can’t made him break down and cry. Large, breath stealing sobs that left him doubled over, arms curled around himself in search of some sort of comfort. His family is gone, all of them, and what is Rodney going to do without their teasing and affection? How can he eat in the mess and not roll his eyes at Ronon, bump his shoulder against Teyla’s and feel the press of John’s foot against his? Seeing the empty boxes waiting to be filled makes it real in a way nothing else had, and for a moment Rodney wanted to dump the boxes over the balcony, lay claim to their things: a grumpy, balding dragon protecting his valuables.
The moment passed and the tears had slowed. Rodney took a piece of pottery he knew was made by Teyla’s mother, sat it carefully on a bookshelf in his room. Ronon took most of his possessions when he left to bring the fight to the wraith, but Rodney found a small, leatherbound book behind the table in Ronon’s room. Rodney can’t read Satedan, but seeing Ronon’s tiny, neat handwriting is a comfort. He keeps it on the bookshelf next to Teyla’s bowl.
He doesn't help pack their things away. Rodney knows by the time he lantern ceremony is finished, their things will be packed and gone. He doesn’t know whether to feel relieved or angry about that, and in the end decides not to think about it.
Rodney fights to hold the tears back, to breathe through his tight throat. Rodney pushes Radek’s well-meaning hands aside, shoulders his way between his friend and his two lanterns.
“These are mine,” Rodney insists. “I don’t want your help.”
“Rodney,” Radek replies quietly. “You should not have to carry them alone.”
“They’re mine to carry,” Rodney snaps. “They were my - they were mine, okay? Don’t you have your own lantern to focus on? Stop bothering me and do your own work.”
Radek retreats a few feet away and they work in silence. Rodney holds it together through the lantern construction, pays no attention to any words Woolsey cares to speak. It is taking everything in him to keep it together, the only sign of the turmoil inside manifesting itself as the tremble of his fingers as he pulls out his own permanent marker, the one he has used since the second ceremony.
Rodney takes several deep breaths as he puts the marker to the thin paper of the lantern. The tip rests there, the color of it bleeding into the paper. With slow, careful movement, Rodney writes out the blocky, thick lines of Satedan script. Ronon Dex, Rodney writes, careful to copy it down just as the Satedan he had gone to for help had shown him.
“I honor you,” Rodney mutters. “Your brave deeds and strength of spirit will please On’tair.” The ceremonial words felt foreign on his tongue. Though Rodney doesn’t believe in such things, these were the words spoken over fallen Satedan warriors and Rodney...he can’t let Ronon go without giving him this.
Wiping away the tears he hadn’t noticed falling, Rodney crouches beside Teyla’s lantern. He wonders what her son would have been like had she lived to raise him, wonders what his life would be like if things were only different.
“There’s no point in dwelling,” Rodney says to himself. This is the hand he’s been dealt. No matter that it feels as though his heart were being crushed.
Athosian script is all curves and dashes, beautiful and alien. The letters are not as steady and smooth as Rodney would wish - Teyla deserves the best, but writing is difficult when your vision is blurred with tears. He caps the marker and looks at the lanterns, side by side. With a sudden fervor he hates this ceremony, hates what it represents. He wants to scream until the pier is clear of people, until he’s alone and can cry freely like he so desperately wants to.
He’s startled when Radek touches his shoulder, dropping the marker and watching it roll away. Radek holds his hands up, palms out, as if to say, ‘I mean no harm.’
“It is time, Rodney,” Radek says, and picks up his own lantern. Ager, it says. One of Radek’s chess buddies. Rodney feels a little guilty for being so caught up in his own grief that he’d never thought to look at anyone else’s.
“My condolences,” Rodney says stiffly, patting Radek’s shoulder stiffly.
“Thank you,” Radek says, one corner of his mouth lifting in a sad smile. He does not say it back, but there is no need.
Rodney wishes he’d thought to bring tissues as his nose runs and he continues to wipe away tears. The wind blowing in his face makes his eyes water more, and Rodney knows he looks a mess with his unbrushed hair, red eyes, and rumpled clothing. He finds he does not care very much.
He brushes his thumb against Teyla’s name just before releasing it. He’s going to miss her so much more than he thought possible. He could use a little of her serene presence right about now. When Rodney is holding Ronon’s lantern in his hands, he thinks of the last time he saw the big guy; the tight hug he’d given Rodney, the rough, “Take care.”
“Goodbye,” he whispers. He lets it go, watches as it floats up and out. Grief is like a monster just under his skin, eating away at his insides, struggling to get free of the confines of his body. Rodney has never felt this level of grief before, doesn’t know what to do with it, how to survive it. He wishes Ronon were here to give him a hug, to keep these emotions from exploding out.
He thinks about Teyla’s understanding and Ronon’s affection.
Rodney thinks: energy is neither created nor destroyed, but given different form.
He feels less alone.
When Atlantis no longer feels like home, when not even the possibility of research and discovery is enough to keep him there, Rodney makes the decision to go back to Earth. Atlantis is nothing like it used to be, more strangers then friends, and Rodney is so very tired. He is unsurprised when Keller comes to the same decision; the IOA tying her hands regarding treatment of Pegasus Natives afflicted with the Hoffan virus offended her soft science sensibilities. Even Rodney knew it wasn’t right and he had far less compassion than she does .
Before he leaves, Rodney goes to a storage room near the west pier. It has a dusty, abandoned feel to it, but Rodney knows that is because this particular storage room is accessed only once a year.
He pulls out what he needs. The pier is abandoned - there is too much to be done these days, and besides, it’s not even the right time of year. Rodney’s glad. He doesn’t want to share this moment with the rest of the expedition. This is for Rodney alone.
As he builds the lantern, Rodney talks. “I know there has to be something we can do, but with the war against Michael going so badly, the IOA isn’t willing to divert any resources toward bringing one man home.”
Rodney clenches his jaw. “Idiots, all of them.”
He resumes building his lantern. By now, building it is so familiar and well known that Rodney doesn’t have to think about it. He continues to complain about the IOA, about Woolsey, about how Atlantis doesn’t even feel like Atlantis any longer.
“I’m going back to Earth, John,” he whispers, a stirring of guilt in his soul and regret a bitter taste on his tongue. “I can’t stay here. This isn’t goodbye - I’ll find a way to bring you home, I swear it. But I can’t do it here.”
Rodney sits back and looks at his perfectly made lantern. Rodney thinks back years ago, to the Air Force major without a clue. About a scientist who had no idea how important this Major would become to him, about the adventure they were setting out on. He thinks about John testing the personal shield, inviting him onto the team, teaching him to shoot.
He doesn’t remember the sound of John’s laugh anymore, just knows that it was loud and annoying.
“I miss you,” he confesses abruptly. “Every day. Sometimes I still turn to...but you aren’t there. I always thought we’d end our time on Atlantis together, you know. Go out in a blaze of stupid, heroic glory. I didn’t mind much, not as long as you were there.”
Rodney blows his nose into a tissue, swallows against the lump in his throat. With shaky hands, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a picture. He looked at it for awhile, sitting alone on the pier as the sky grew dark around him. Caught up in memories, he did not notice his breathing hitching, did not feel the tears tickling his cheeks as they slid down.
Finally, as the stars began to fill the sky, he tucked the picture inside the lantern. He stood with a groan, one hand rubbing his knee as he picked up the lantern. The wind was rough at the edge of the pier, grabbing at his clothes. This lantern would go far, carried on the wind.
When he lit the flame, his hands did not shake.
When the lantern lifted up and out of his hands, Rodney closed his eyes and tilted his head up. The wind ruffled his hair.
“John,” he said. “I love you.”
Jennifer’s death is the catalyst that leads to the formation of an idea Rodney is certain will work. He attempts to share some of it with her, before her death, thinking perhaps it might be of some comfort: to know that this will not be her end, not in every universe. She tries to convince him not to, but Rodney can’t let this go, can’t let everyone he loves go. He’s certain, on an atomic level, that if he can just save John, everyone else can be saved as well.
It’s going to take years of work. Work Rodney can’t do while consulting for the SGC.
They throw him a going away party. It’s a sad affair: there are so few Rodney is close to left, and most of them are stationed on Atlantis. He doesn’t stay long; he eats some cake and a ton of ice cream, feigns a stomach ache and leaves. Rodney nods at O’Neill and Jackson as he goes. There are no words that will soothe Sam’s loss, Rodney knows from personal experience. It’s best he says nothing.
Home is an alien city floating on an ocean in another galaxy. Rodney buys beachfront property in California, which is the closest he can get. The sound of the waves are calming and the beach is private, so he doesn’t have to worry about tourists. He pays far more for it than he should, but with all his backpay, he can afford it. He doesn’t need much these days. It’s more than just the sound of the waves that necessitate this location: Rodney has a paper lantern to build for Jennifer and he would prefer to release it in private.
Rodney does not cry when Jennifer’s lantern floats out of sight. He has no more tears left.
His job at the community college allows him to focus on his plan. They desperately need John, and Rodney knows that he could work his whole life and not configure a stasis pod that would allow him to survive 48,000 years. Old Elizabeth and the crew of the Aurora barely made it 10,000 years. Rodney has no access to an Ancient stasis pod to modify it, so he would have to start from scratch. No, what Rodney needs to do is figure out a way to bring John back.
It’s almost a year before Rodney notices the passing of the seasons. The year has turned into one big blur of students, assignments, and the advanced math Rodney is trudging his way through. This is uncharted territory, and as such even tiny bits of progress are taking weeks. Rodney breathes through the panic when he takes note of the month. What if he can’t finish before his time is up? Rodney can’t die before this is done.
Rodney misses Atlantis and his team with a pain so sharp it takes his breath away. He hunches over his table, wheezing, and tries not to think about how the little details of his teammates are disappearing from his memory. When his breathing begins to even out, he straightens up, his gaze immediately going to the window. Rodney stands still, watching the waves come in. His mind is blank.
His sudden motion startles the cat, who jumps from the back of the couch and retreats into his bedroom. Rodney slips into his coat, shoves his feet into his worn shoes, and grabs his keys. He’s never been inside the local art supply store - does he look like some air headed artist? But they should have what he needs, and he is willing to brave the no doubt annoying employees to get what he needs.
It is easy to put the lantern together. This is an activity he’ll remember how to do for the rest of his life. Rodney builds three with steady hands and a clear mind. The messages he writes on Teyla and Ronon’s take the most time, the words he writes coming to him haltingly. There is much he never said to them and maybe should have, and he does not want another year to go by with these things kept locked inside him. I am less without you.
John’s is the easiest, surprisingly. More than anyone else, there is much Rodney wishes he had said to him. But he does not hesitate to put thick marker to paper, to scrawl i love you i’m coming to get you in firm strokes.
He sends them out, three paper lanterns with no names. He thinks these are like his version of messages in a bottle and hopes the universe delivers to wherever his team has gone.
Rodney makes sure to send three lanterns out every year, a message written on each. John’s always says the same thing, a solemn promise.
He never uses their names.
Seeing Rodney’s familiar face - without wrinkles and missing that deep sadness that makes John ache - lifts a weight off John’s chest, and suddenly his breaths are coming easier. Even as the tension in his body grows, the urge to move and take action (he knows Teyla’s location, they have to get there in time, now now now), John takes the time to wrap his fingers around Rodney’s wrist and squeeze. Rodney turns to him, startled, but does not pull away. John squeezes again and is rewarded with a quizzical tilt of Rodney’s head, the uncertain curling of his lips into a half smile.
John smiles back. It’s good to be home.
Rodney follows John to the infirmary for his checkup, darting glances at him every few steps. John waits patiently; staying quiet is not a forte of Rodney’s. John counts their steps to the infirmary and reaches seven before Rodney speaks.
“You’re okay, right? I mean, you look okay, no visible injuries, though you look as though you’ve been crawling around in dirt. Are you hungry? I could get some food while Keller checks you out, I’m kind of hungry myself -”
“Rodney,” John drawls, ducking his head to cover his smile. Rodney pauses, but only for a moment.
“You are okay?” Rodney asks, quieter. Softer. John feels his cheeks warm and clears his throat loudly.
“Yeah, I am,” John says and then they’re entering the infirmary and quickly separated.
Fifteen hours later, free from the rubble that had trapped him and Ronon, John feels tired. Rodney is gone - dead, and the pain of that is so sharp and terrible John’s mind shies from the thought - and Teyla is still in Michael’s clutches. John has to keep moving forward, cannot give up on getting Teyla back. But Rodney is gone and John isn’t sure he can keep going, knowing as he does that he has let Rodney down. Rodney gave up his dream job for him, invented new math and lived like a hermit, only to die.
John clenches his jaw, breathing deeply against the pain, against the angry shout that threatens to escape.
“I thought we lost you there,” Keller commented, peering closely at his wound. John hissed as she moved his clothes out of the way for a better look, her fingers brushing against him. He fights the urge to push her away, her touch unwelcome but necessary. He wants, more than anything, to be alone for just one damned minute. He forces himself to relax instead.
“For a second, I thought we lost me too. Gonna be okay though, right?” John asks, voice rough.
She smiles reassuringly at him. “Yeah. You need some serious work but you should live to fight another day and all that.”
They fell silent after that, John watching idly as she grabbed gauze and tape to replace what had been slapped on directly after his rescue. He knows somewhere in the infirmary they are prepping for his surgery. He grimaces.
“So,” John says, seeking distraction. “What’s going on? I guess Michael showed up before the Daedalus, huh?” He figured as much.
“Yeah,” Keller replies wearily. “We had to lower the shields to beam you guys up here.”
“Sorry about that,” John says, giving her a weak smile. He had killed every man he had taken with him to that planet but one; the last thing he wants is to hear about more people he has killed while the shields were down.
“I’m sure McKay and Doctor Carter will be able to fix it,” she says absently, completely oblivious to the hitch in John’s breathing at the news. He turns to look at her, unable to keep the desperate hope out of his voice. John can taste dirt in his mouth, thinks about an echoing, empty Atlantis and the taste of heartbreak in the back of his throat.
“McKay is alive?”
Keller smiles. “Yeah.”
It’s no longer surprising to John that such news energizes him, gives him back the hope and determination to make his team, his family, whole once again. God, Rodney is alive.
“Patch me up. I need to get out there.”
John is going to get his team back and personally make it happen.
There will be no paper lanterns for his team. He’ll make sure of it.
When all is said and done, when Teyla and her child are safe on the Daedalus infirmary - with Ronon standing watch - John does not stick around, though he knows he should. Whatever Keller gave him is beginning to wear off, the pain in his side deepening, but John has something he wants to do first, before they reach Atlantis and he is prepped for surgery.
Instead, he walks with Rodney back to Rodney’s temporary quarters. Rodney mutters about warm showers and a much needed nap, but says nothing about John following him inside. John’s palms itch with the need to touch, to feel the solid line of Rodney’s shoulders, the warmth of his body.
John edges into his personal space. It takes a moment for Rodney to notice. Though aware of John’s intense personal space, Rodney most often ignored it, never noticed when he was invading it, and eventually John had grown used to Rodney’s body close to his own. Now, however, Rodney watches him warily, mouth falling silent, even as he takes a step back, then another, until Rodney’s back is pressed against the cold wall.
“Uh, John,” Rodney begins, eyes wide. “I don’t - what -”
“Shh,” John murmurs, and presses himself against Rodney. He shivers, sighs, as his body soaks up Rodney’s warmth. John thinks about a hologram 48000 years in the future, about his inability to touch the Rodney McKay that sent him home, that had suffered through so much. This Rodney is solid, real, and John is embarrassingly grateful for it. John is just so relieved to be back with his McKay, to have his team whole again.
He buries his face in Rodney’s neck, smells sweat and dust. Rodney’s arms wrap around him tentatively, and John feels Rodney’s chest rumble as he speaks.
“Is this - are you okay? Only this isn’t like you, you aren’t hitting me upside the head, or, or, you know, the arm pat, and this is fine, this is good, but I don’t know - what - with the body and your face and the touching -”
“Rodney,” John repeats hoarsely, and Rodney’s grip tightens on him, pulls him closer, and they stand like that for some time, pressed together, just breathing. John feels the tension run out of him, his body relaxing. It makes the pain in his side more noticeable, but John refuses to move.
Eventually, Rodney gently pushes John away and indicates his bed with one hand. John allows Rodney to move him in that direction. Fatigue is dragging at his limbs, slowing his mind, and he thinks he will be able to sleep well for the first time in months. He settles on the bed, watches as Rodney removes his boots and covers him with the blanket. John makes a noise of protest and reaches out to grab Rodney’s sleeve.
“Stay,” he says drowsily, and Rodney hesitates. John tugs on him until Rodney gives in and settles in next to him. Rodney tries to keep his distance, mumbling about injuries and personal space bubbles, do not cross, until John pulls him over, cups the back of Rodney’s head and presses it against his shoulder. Rodney’s weight presses down on his uninjured side and John smiles. He’s drowsy and warm and Rodney is here.
“Thank you,” he whispers. Rodney’s fingers are straightening the wrinkles in his shirt, but they pause at this.
“For what?” He whispers back, tilting his face to look at John.
“For not giving up on me,” and brushes his wet lips against the bridge of Rodney’s nose.
“Uh, okay. You’re welcome?” Rodney blinks, eyelashes tickling John’s mouth, and John brushes Rodney’s cheek with his fingers. He feels himself slipping into sleep but he can’t let go until he tells Rodney, tells him the truth.
“I lied,” he says, “You still had all your hair.”
He doesn’t hear Rodney’s reply.
When John is released from the infirmary after his surgery, Rodney isn’t certain he should seek him out. Not too long ago they had slept in the same bed, curled together in their dirty mission gear, wrung out with relief and happiness. There had been touching of the kind they were not normally prone to with one another, and Rodney thought… but since then, things have gone back to normal. Rodney had visited John in the infirmary, but John had never indicated that there was a change in their relationship, and Rodney has gone along with it.
“Hey,” John says from the doorway, and Rodney’s focus on the simulation immediately scatters. John looks good, leaning attractively against the doorway. Rodney knows Keller kept John for an extra few days, rightly guessing John will not follow doctor’s advice and take it easy. It’s easy to see how jittery John is, how eager to move after being trapped in a bed for days. Men like John don’t take well to sitting still.
Rodney instinctively smiles back at John.
“Hey,” he greets, and abandons his workstation in favor of his friend. John pushes off from the doorway and jerks his head toward the corridor. Rodney follows him out, doesn’t look back. Radek can handle things.
“I need your help,” John says, fingers wrapping around Rodney’s wrist. Rodneys stares down at John’s long fingers, tan against his pale skin, and nods absently.
“Sure, okay,” he says easily, and lets himself be dragged off. Rodney wonders if this is a team thing, if they’re meeting Ronon and Teyla for something. John was big on the team spending time together and Rodney secretly doesn’t mind being dragged along. It makes him feel part of something, less alone.
Now that the team is back together again, Rodney doesn’t ever want to experience the time period where one of them is missing. When Rodney thinks back, he remembers feeling lonely and cold.
Now, with John dragging him somewhere, with Teyla and Ronon on base, Rodney feels up for anything.
Still, he’s surprised when John leads him into a transporter and hits the section for living quarters. Rodney opens his mouth to ask what’s going on - are they having a movie marathon? - but the doors are open and John is rushing forward, pulling Rodney with him, and Rodney lets himself be swept up.
John takes Rodney to his room, his empty room, and the door locks behind them. Rodney blinks, completely lost, and suddenly John is there, with warm lips and grabby hands, tugging at his shirt, pulling it off him, and Rodney feels the same lightheaded excitement he felt when he first learned about the Stargate.
John hauls Rodney over to the bed, pushes him on it, and Rodney feels a curl of arousal at how strong John is, at how easily he moves Rodney around. Rodney tugs John down on top of him, between his legs, and welcomes the weight of him.
Rodney isn’t sure what is going to happen next, what the future will bring. But Rodney has his team at his back and John at his side, and knows with absolute certainly, knows like he does physics, that there is nothing they can’t overcome together.
This galaxy won’t know what hit it.