For twenty-four hours after John Sheppard disappeared, Rodney refused to leave M7C-14H. Of course, he'd only arrived after Sheppard had disappeared – given the choice between advancing the boundaries of scientific knowledge (all right, tinkering with the power grid again in the hope of more efficiently using power from the Mark IIs) and a painful first contact mission to a world Teyla said had "very nutritious wheat" to trade, Rodney had unsurprisingly chosen tinkering.
"Rodney. I need to see you in my office."
"Elizabeth, is this really important? Because I'm in the middle of some very–"
"Yes. Please come up here now."
When Elizabeth used her I'm-quiet-and-calm-so-you-know-I'm-in-charge voice, Rodney generally chose to comply. She asked him repeatedly to sit down before finally telling him what was going on. "Colonel Sheppard is missing. The people of M7C-14H held a harvest festival this evening, and at some point during the celebration he disappeared. Major Lorne has taken a team to the planet, of course, but since it's night there now there's only so much they can do immediately."
Rodney compressed his mouth to a tight, unhappy line. "Ronon and Teyla?"
"Are on the planet, interviewing anyone who might have seen something."
"Right." With a tight nod, Rodney turned to the door. "I'll be ready to go in fifteen minutes."
Rodney didn't wait to find out whether she was going to console him or stop him, and true to his word he presented himself in front of the Stargate in fifteen minutes. "Chuck. Dial M7C-14H please."
Elizabeth's steady gaze from the upper balcony might not have been meant as a benediction, but Rodney took it as one anyway.
Lorne's Marines hadn't said a word when Rodney crossed the event horizon near midnight local time, only obediently told him what they knew and offered a thermos of hot coffee. In a night's work of piecing together reports from his team and the natives, Rodney had gathered the following:
1. This harvest festival was just like all the others: ceremony, feast, drinking, dancing.
2. Teyla had been occupied making-nice with the local leaders and angling subtly for grain most of the evening.
3. Ronon and Sheppard had been together for most of the evening, until the point at which Ronon stepped on to the dance floor.
3a. Ronon was apparently very smooth on the dance floor, something the women of this planet valued highly.
4. Pursuant to 3a, Ronon had been otherwise occupied when Sheppard had, according to a young man who'd been near the door, stepped out for some fresh air. Presumably by "fresh air" he'd meant "lack of flirtatious women and requests to dance," but Rodney admitted that this was conjecture.
5. Sheppard had never returned from his fresh air venture.
The leader of the village was a man named Carthern, who took the arrival of a sleepless and wired Rodney McKay at his breakfast table with surprising equanimity. From him Rodney gathered:
6. Mysterious disappearances, while not common, were not uncommon on this planet.
7. The disappearing party was always a man, and the disappearances occurred at irregular intervals.
8. Disappeared people were sometimes glimpsed in the woods outside the settlement, but the reports of this were unreliable at best.
9. Something strange lived in the woods, so the reported glimpses were rarely followed up on.
Rodney knew strange, and more importantly Rodney knew Marines. Lorne woke those who had slept some the night before, briefed them, and sent them out to search. Rodney whipped out a scanner and started his own search, flanked by Teyla (pale, worried, quiet) and Ronon (grim, vaguely menacing, huge).
It took Carson's intervention to remove Rodney from the planet.
"Rodney. You've been at this for twenty-four hours now, it's midnight here–"
"Working, leave me alone please!"
"–and you havenae slept–"
"I'll sleep later."
"–and as your doctor I feel I must tell you that the levels of coffee consumption you've attained are worrisome."
"Busy now, can't talk. Have to find Colonel Sheppard." When that seemed to have worked, Rodney turned back to his contemplation of his (pointless) scan readings from his day in the woods. They'd turned up nothing, by electronic or Marine means, but that didn't mean that they'd learned nothing. Surely there was something of note he'd recorded today.
But Carson hadn't left, and when Rodney looked up he saw Carson's sympathetic face, looking worried in a way that was more friendly than professional. "Rodney." And damn it, that was the same voice Carson used for "I'm very sorry, but we weren't able to save your leg," and "It may be some time before your sight returns," not that Rodney had ever been on the receiving end of either of those statements, but he'd heard them delivered to his scientists and he knew what was coming.
"Don't. Please." He held up a hand to forestall Carson, fixed his eyes on his boots, and recited dully, "There's not much I can do here, it's very late, I can hardly be of help if I wear myself down, Atlantis needs me." He looked up to catch Carson's nod.
"Ronon and Teyla will stay, if that eases your mind a bit."
A glance showed Teyla curled up on a sleeping pad in a corner of the room, Ronon glowering tiredly in to the fire. They hadn't slept either, Rodney realized, and felt the nearly physical weight of caring for these people, his team, so much.
Ronon called in to Rodney when, seven days after Sheppard's disappearance, they had a possible lead.
Her name was Jeynat, and she was just the sort of shapely blonde he would ordinarily have found attractive. She'd been walking in the woods and had come upon an artifact that looked Ancient. She'd picked it up, of course, thinking it would make a lovely pendant, and when she'd looked up a man stood before her. Ronon murmured, "Sheppard," when the girl described the man as having messy dark hair and a dangerous look to him. Jeynat showed him the Ancient artifact at his request – it was a crystalline structure, rather pretty, almost rose-shaped from some angles – but although it glowed softly at his touch Rodney couldn't determine what it did.
The man had been angry, Jeynat said, immediately telling her that she shouldn't be in the woods. He'd told her to leave immediately, that it wasn't safe there and that, though he wouldn't harm her to save himself, others might. Vintage Sheppard. It was obviously him. He hadn't followed her out, despite her request, and hadn't stopped her from taking the artifact.
It seemed fairly painfully obvious to Rodney that the thing to do was to enter the woods and search again for Sheppard, find him, if necessary free him from whatever kept him there, and get them all home in time for dinner. Jeynat (who, as it turned out, was chief Carthern's daughter) was willing to lead them in.
"Why shouldn't I walk in these woods? My father's rule gives me the right to pass where I please. I will lead you to where I saw him, and deeper if you like."
The woods rose up darkly as they stepped beyond the settlement wall, trees silhouetted against a sunset sky. Rodney stifled a sneeze at the musty close smell of old tree leaves as they entered the forest.
Rodney couldn't help but be reminded of an excruciating family vacation, taken just before he went to college and Jeannie entered adolescence. The McKays were Scots-Canadian and his parents had been determined that he and Jeannie should have some exposure to their mother country, which included a day spent hiking through the forest. The forest hike fell short of fairy tale status only by virtue of the several packs of Oreos hidden on his person – he'd been sure they were going to get hopelessly lost and die by some ridiculous means, like being eaten by a wolf or a witch with a house of gingerbread. At least he'd die with saturated fats in his mouth.
It might just have been on his mind because he'd been recounting the whole thing for Carson's amusement the day before Sheppard disappeared, but Rodney didn't think that was it. It was more the irritating thickness of the trees, the way the fading light vanished more quickly under the canopy, the shifting winds that almost sounded like voices. The way flashlights fell short and footsteps were muffled until Rodney turned, paranoid that he was somehow alone.
By the time they returned to the settlement, empty-handed and achingly disappointed, it was the middle of the night and Rodney had added one item to his list of known facts:
10. Hate the woods on this planet.
Teyla offered to take first watch and Ronon second; no mention was made by anyone of Rodney taking a watch. Rodney didn't comment on this; he didn't muster the energy to question the condition of the sleeping pad presented to him or worry about what it was likely to do to his back. He just lay down, turned to face the wall, and tried to draw some comfort from the sound of Ronon settling down between Rodney and the world, close enough to touch.
Jeynat suggested that she go in to the woods again with only Teyla this time, as the sightings of past disappeared men had only been reported by women. Rodney sat on his hands and nodded. When Elizabeth dialed in and summoned him back to Atlantis, Ronon clapped him on the shoulder and rumbled, "We'll find him, McKay."
Rodney nodded again, paused to reflect on the strange muteness this planet seemed to be imposing on him, and gathered his things. Something about the planet, the woods, the girl – something was nagging at the back of his mind. The only thing for it was to get to work on an appropriate project, consuming yet relatively trivial, and trust his brain to work it out.
"I won't harm you to save myself." That was what Jeynat had said Sheppard told her. Something, something about that – the rose-like artifact, the anger she'd said Sheppard displayed, Sheppard's refusal to harm an innocent to save himself. Something wasn't quite right there, but it was all so close.
Rodney was reviewing research proposals (No, No, No, Hell no, What on
Earth Atlantis?, Only if Zelenka Supervises, Maybe, No, No) when his thoughts finally clicked together. "Carson. Are you busy?"
"No, Rodney. Did you need something?"
"Yes, of course I need something, do you think I call you for my health? Don't answer that. Can you come down here?"
"On my way."
"Look, even the names fit. Carthern? Jeynat? Clearly Carter and Janet. The woods look like Scotland – you know they do! – and the Ancient artifact looks like a rose. I don't know what fickle hand of fate decreed that my childhood hours of forcibly humoring my Scottish grandmother would pay off in this way, but you must see it!"
"Rodney, you cannae really believe that the Queen of Faery has John. When was the last time you slept?"
"Yes, yes I can, and last night. Carson, it's Tam Lin for real, and before you say that it's impossible may I remind you what else this galaxy has yielded up? Space vampires who suck years off your life. Tiny robots that build whole people, Atlantises, and ZPMs. People who turn to energy at will! May I remind you of N4P-511, also known as the planet of Santa Claus? Gods and demons are real here, Carson."
"Let's say you're right, Rodney. What are you going to do about it? The legend says that Tam Lin was saved by a young woman who was pregnant with his child. You and I both know that John won't father a child to save his own life, especially not with a girl he doesnae know. And you can't think he'd be receptive to Teyla or Elizabeth offering."
"Yes, but remember the rest of it. Janet calls Tam her true love which, yes, of course in those days manifested as bearing his child, presumably marrying him once she'd saved him, perpetuation of the species through heterosexual bonds, et cetera, et cetera. A modern interpretation – mine – suggests that the pregnancy is the culturally-indicated signifier of Janet's claim on Tam, that which grants her the power to save him. So what we really need is not someone who's pregnant, but someone with a claim on Sheppard."
"And that would be you?"
"Someone with a claim on him. A claim of love, sounds like."
"Carson, you're not making any sense."
"Let's just see about that, shall we? Elizabeth, I'd like to call a senior staff meeting as soon as possible. Rodney and I have a possible lead."
Known Facts in the Disappearance of John Sheppard, Part II:
11. Tam Lin is not a commonly known legend.
12. Elizabeth can be persuaded to try almost anything as a retrieval option that doesn't involve direct confrontation with confirmed real people.
13. Many of my colleagues believe that Sheppard is gay and in love with me.
13a. Many of my colleagues believe I am likewise in love with Sheppard. Further investigation required.
14. Unknown if this fulfills the requirement that Sheppard's rescuer have a claim on him.
"Since this all could hardly be more absurd–"
"Rodney, this all was your idea!"
"–and as I am, by general acknowledgement, the most likely to succeed for reasons that do not require further exploration at this juncture, I conclude that the best course of action now is for me to return to M7C-14H and wait for something appropriately supernatural to occur. And then take action as, ah, discussed."
"Sounds good." Ronon stood. "Teyla and I will go back with you."
Teyla inclined her head gracefully. "We shall."
Rodney had always appreciated Elizabeth's skill at picking her battles. She turned to Zelenka and Lorne and smiled. "Gentlemen, you're in charge of your respective departments until this is resolved."
"Yes ma'am. Doctor McKay, would you like a team of Marines to accompany you?"
Rodney shook his head, then added, "Major, any, ah, developments resulting from this won't pose a problem, will they?"
"Mum's the word, McKay, no matter how this goes down. You know how it is in an isolated posting – gossip everywhere, and no grounds or time to follow up on it." Lorne smiled and departed.
Zelenka, in turn, approached Rodney and awkwardly grasped his shoulders.
"Rodney. I. He is a good man. I wish you well." He bowed his head, and Rodney recognized the Athosian gesture.
"Oh." Zelenka smelled of the peppermint tea he drank when under stress (so, all the time) and WD-40. Rodney brought his forehead down to touch Zelenka's, exhaling heavily through his nose. "Thank you."
When they straightened, Rodney turned to address Ronon, Teyla and Carson. "Let's do this thing. Gear up."
Waiting in a ditch near the forest road was only interesting for the first ... never, really. The other three took it in turns to watch, but Rodney had to be there every night, all night. He stayed keyed up without coffee the first night, reviewing the old song with Carson, trying to prepare himself for what might be coming next.
The second night seemed longer and more full of opportunities for uncomfortable contemplation, especially because he shared it with Ronon. Rodney tried the time honored method of talking out his thoughts, only to be met with Ronon's steady gaze. "McKay. Are you Earth people weird about this?"
"About homosexual relationships? About middle-age revelations about the self? About fairy tales come to life? You'll have to be more specific here."
"About two men together."
"Well, Sheppard's people are weirder about it than my people. In Canada, couples can marry regardless of gender, whereas in Sheppard's backwards nation only a few states have seen the light."
"Not what I mean. Are you weird about this?"
"I–" Rodney paused. It wasn't that he lacked experience with men, sexually – please, with a PhD in Astrophysics he was practically required to study the art of occasional desperate hand jobs – it was that he lacked experience emotionally. "It's not that I'm ... 'weird' about the physical act. It's more that I kind of suck at relationships with women, which at least are modeled everywhere in Earth's heteronormative societies, and I have no way to know whether I suck more or less at relationships with men. And this isn't about just any man, is it? It's Sheppard. He's team. He's one of the best friends I've ever had, in a way that's right up there with the rest of the senior staff, really, but it's different too."
Ronon grunted in a way that probably meant he understood. A cloud slid over the moon, darkening their ditch, and in the deeper silence Ronon said, "I felt that way once."
"Yeah. About my best friend. I almost married her."
"Almost? What happened?"
"Wraith." Ronon's shrug should have been silent and all but invisible, but Rodney knew it was there. "You've got a chance for that. Be scared, sure, but don't let that stop you. It's like that guy said."
"'Courage is not the absence of fear but the judgment that something else is more important than fear.' Ambrose Redmoon."
Rodney will never stop being astonished at the things Ronon picks up. "Ah. Where do you get this stuff?"
Ronon's shrug this time was eloquent. "Have courage, McKay."
The third night was also the night of the full moon, which gave Rodney irrational hope that it would be the night. It wasn't. Teyla offered her counsel or her silence, whichever would be of greater comfort to Rodney. Rodney chose neither and instead got her to teach him the Athosian logic game he'd seen played. It was all about the movement of tokens in certain ways, not unlike chess, but the queen was the key piece. There was no king and pawns regularly turned in to knights. Despite the uncomfortable symbolism, by false dawn Rodney was winning their third game.
The fourth night, as Rodney and Carson crouch together in the ditch again, they hear hoof beats. It's not long before midnight. Nothing's come in to sight yet, so Carson murmurs, "Remember, Rodney, 'First let pass the black / And then let pass the brown.'"
"Yes, yes, 'milk-white steed / Pull his rider down.' I'm on it, Carson." And Rodney is, tensing his muscles and hoping that he's ready for the totally unexpected task of pulling John Sheppard off a horse.
The black horses move toward them, their riders possessed of a terrible and solemn beauty. Rodney draws back more firmly in to the shadows as the woman at the head of the column approaches. She (the Queen) has an impassive face that not even Rodney would like to defy, one that is more forbidding than a Wraith's for its true otherworldliness. And who would ever have predicted that a Wraith queen would come to be a normal point of comparison?
The Queen's court rides on behind her, an endless procession of pale skin and glowing jewels. Eventually the black horses end (really, it's probably been five minutes, but you'd never know it's been that little from the ache in Rodney's back as he keeps himself poised to spring) and the brown begin. The brown riders look like regular men, bedecked like the creepy beautiful people but with faces that are comforting and horrifying in their normalness. These must be the disappeared men of this planet, and maybe other visitors. Rodney wonders if they might be rescued also one day, if they also have claims on them.
Then there's no more time to wonder, because the white horse is emerging from the woods and on its back is John Sheppard. He's dressed like the rest of them in fine fabrics and jewels, his hair tamed (now Rodney knows it's definitely magic) and his face shuttered. He looks like a man riding to his death.
Rodney shifts his feet minutely, then lunges forward before he can think about what he's doing. He's got Sheppard by the thigh just above the knee and he's pulling, quietly hissing, "Come on, you idiot, work with me. Off the horse!"
Sheppard looks gobsmacked at the sight of him but gets with the program pretty quickly, rolling off his horse toward Rodney and getting both of them out of range of the horse's hooves. He manages to whisper, "Rodney. Do you know what–" before Rodney cuts him off.
"Yes, yes, I know what to expect. Scots-Canadian, not that you could have guessed that from, oh, I don't know, my name?"
And Sheppard - John - grins full in his face before his expression contorts and Rodney suddenly has an armful of lion.
"I thought the lion came in the middle!" Rodney grouses as he wraps himself around John-the-lion, hopefully avoiding both claws and teeth. He must be successful, because the next change comes and John's a snake. Whether he's poisonous or not must remain a philosophical question, because Rodney's not taking the time to find out. He grasps John's slick scales, trying to be firm but not crushing, and almost loses him once.
That John becomes a dove next almost breaks both Rodney's heart and John's wings – he's totally unprepared for this change, muttering "I know there's no dove in my grandmother's version," and he resents that this should be the time, under these circumstances when no one can enjoy it, that John Sheppard should be given a form with wings. Thank whatever powers for good there might be that Zelenka loves to talk about his pigeons, though, because once Rodney gets himself under control he knows just how to hold John without hurting him.
These subsequent changes seem to be coming slower than the first two, but it's not clear how long Rodney's been holding John-the-dove when the switch occurs. This, if things match the song Rodney's hearing in his head (thick Scottish accent, thicker than Carson's, promising "And last they'll turn me in your arms / Into the burning gleed") is the last transformation. It almost seems too easy, to have had so little required of him – only three animals and a gleed? – when Rodney remembers that a gleed is a live ember, burning hotly, and that he cannot drop it. There's no stream or well nearby, damn it all, because they hadn't thought to scout for that, so Rodney hugs the gleed to his chest with one hand and fumbles for his canteen which is (thank you, thank you) still clipped to Rodney's belt.
Rodney upends the canteen over himself and the gleed, hoping that Atlantis water is as good as a cool stream or a Scottish well, wishing for more water to stop the burning in his chest. His muscles are starting to protest the unusual use and constant tension, and if everyone is right and John and Rodney are meant to become lovers after this Rodney is so demanding the greatest massage of all time.
It's over as suddenly as it began. Rodney's grandmother's tale is as promised, and having held on through the changes and clutched a burning coal Rodney is now rewarded by the heavy weight of John Sheppard, limp and smelling strongly of horse, naked as the day he was born. It's not a green mantle he covers John with but instead a silver thermal blanket that crackles as Rodney wraps John up and turns to glare at the Queen of Faery.
Her voice is otherworldly, reminding Rodney mostly of the part in the Lord of the Rings movies when Galadriel is tempted by the Ring. "Oh had I known / What I this night did see / I had looked him in the eye / And turned him to a tree."
John shivers under his foil blanket but won't look away from the Queen. She goes on, "Oh had I known at early morn / He would from me gone / I would have ta'en his heart of flesh / Put in a heart of stone."
Whatever caution Rodney should have absorbed as a child about taunting mythological figures clearly didn't take, because he bites back, "Well, you didn't. And it's too late now; you won't get another chance at him."
The Queen blinks slowly at him, perhaps taken aback at such sass from a mortal and then turns. Rodney can't tell when the last of the riders disappears because he's staring at John, placing a wondering hand in that wild hair (restored now to its natural glory – whatever hair product the faery realm uses apparently doesn't hold up to magical transformation and a canteen full of water) to rest on the crown of John's head. "John. How did we not know?" It seems as plain as day to Rodney now, that he loves this man, would do anything, any stupid, improbable thing for him.
John's eyes are crinkling at the corners. "Rodney. I knew. I just didn't know you'd save me. Scots-Canadian, for real?"
"You pick now to talk about my heritage? Carson, get over here and help this man. God only knows what kind of shape he's in, aside from hypothermia."
Carson will let John out of the infirmary after not-even a day; Rodney will be in the mess hall when John finds him. It will have been a night of broken sleep and strange dreams that he's now drowning in coffee, Teyla poised and Ronon slouched comfortably and wordlessly nearby. Rodney will have spent his day in the lab and worked straight through until dinner, catching up on four days missed and a week before that spent abstracted. Ronon will have brought him lunch and a reassuring thump on the back.
There will be a general celebratory air about – even if most Atlanteans won't know how it was accomplished, word that John is found and back will have gotten around – and Rodney will be about to try the almost-chocolate sort-of-cake when he feels John walking up behind him.
"Almost done?" John will ask.
Teyla will smile warmly at them both and Ronon, like some weird interpretation of La Boheme, will drop a hand to Rodney's shoulder and whisper, "Courage," before striding away.
Rodney won't be able to decide if he wants the cake or not, compared to whatever John's about to suggest (and when exactly did he become John and not Sheppard? Some time around Rodney's revelatory moment sequence, probably), so he will simply let his dilemma and need for information show on his face.
"Wanna take a walk? You can bring the cake."
"All right." Rodney will take his little cake plate with him and dump the rest. He and John will walk in silence to the end of one of the long piers. There, looking out over the ocean, Rodney will discover that he has not brought a fork with him.
John will speak softly. "You had a claim on me, huh? I didn't ... get you with child some how, did I?"
"Don't be ridiculous. That's biologically impossible."
"Never say never in this galaxy, McKay. I did just get turned in to a number of different animals."
"Yes, and a hot coal, which fortunately didn't actually burn me, just magically cause immense flaming pain, and wow is that a strange thing to say."
John will snort in response.
"Anyway, no. My claim on you is the same, it seems, as your claim on me. Assuming that's what you meant when you said 'I knew' after you finished impersonating a menagerie. And how could you not know I'd save you? It's what we do." It will be the truth in more ways than one; they have been and will be two people who save each other from life and death, like something Rodney read once.
"I knew how I ... you know. About you. And I knew you'd try to save me, but I didn't see how you'd figure it out in time. I didn't know about your whole ... Scots-Canadian ... thing."
Rodney will smile, fond and a little reckless, will wonder if he's prepared to hold John through transformations harder than this. He will breathe in deeply and on the exhale sigh, "You idiot. I 'you know. About you' too."
There in the fading light they will kiss. And they will live happily ever after. Mostly. The rest will be a tale for another time.