Author's Notes: nightfreyja wanted a fic where John is Santa and Rodney's a reindeer. Well, seems like we've finally found something I can't write, despite smuffster's helpful suggestions. Um. Merry Christmas, have some penguin!fic instead?
And yes, I watched "The March of the Penguins". ;) Didn't like it much, though.
Rodney's world had always been white. Sometimes, the sky had been dancing with light, or the sunrise would paint the ice golden, softening the edges of everything around. But by and large, since the day he'd hatched, Rodney's world had been white.
Lately, though, his world wasn't just white anymore. It had become black, too, and yellow around neck and the underside of a beak that was sharper than it looked. It had rakish feathers that stood up a little on a slim head, a thick scar where a longwing had once struck, and the laziest wobbling walk Rodney had ever seen.
His world's name was John. It was an Emperor penguin, just like him.
They had been born together, two years ago, back in the sanctuary. But they'd never had much contact, never shot each other more than a fleeting glance, and it was pure coincidence they'd ended up in the same small colony.
It made no sense that Rodney should want that particular penguin. John slid where Rodney preferred to walk, burning his energy like he might be missing something. John didn't squawk, he drawled, and he'd never shown any interest in the stars Rodney studied every night.
Which was why Rodney almost fell over with surprise when John amiably bumped his shoulder and pressed their foreheads together.
They'd arrived at the sanctuary two days earlier, and the females had begun to fight over John the instant they'd seen him. It had been funny, in a slightly bitter way, to see the ever-graceful Chaya clash with the equally better-than-you-are Teer, to watch them flapping and hitting and pushing each other while John just stood there, waiting for them to tire each other out. They'd been beaten and exhausted, barely able to squawk in protest when he'd walked away.
Still, Rodney never would have thought that John might walk away from them to go to him, gently rubbing his beak against Rodney's. He wouldn't doubt this, though, instead pressing their bodies together, getting lost in the gentle ruffling of feathers, in the feeling of John's sharp beak against his throat, in the silent pleasure of drinking in each other's presence as they moved in time with the age-old song of blood and ice. He wouldn't doubt it, but he had to know.
"You came for me," John said simply, tucking his head under Rodney's.
And, well, of course he had. John had never been good at reading Earth's magnetic field, or following the turn of the stars, and he'd veered left where he should have gone straight ahead. Rodney had noticed, though, going out of his way as well to bring him back to their caravan.
It was too easy to get lost on the ice. He'd never let that happen to John.
So they kept together, while around them the others danced and mated and lay their eggs. And it was nice, very nice... until the day a young couple lost its egg, blinking as it rolled across the ice and bumped against Rodney's feet.
It was a reflex to pick it up and tuck it under his feathers. He'd just meant to keep it warm until its parents took it back, but instead, he watched as they wobbled away, his beak hanging open in shock.
"Tell me we didn't just adopt an egg," John's voice came from behind. It shouldn't have been possible, but John sounded intrigued and irritated at the same time.
"But I don't even like chicks," Rodney protested stupidly, even as he shifted to keep the egg safely on his feet.
John just threw him a dirty look. Half a day later, he declared it was his turn.
And it was John who went to find the fishing grounds, leaving Rodney behind to wait. As the days passed and the first winter storms arrived, his overactive mind would play scenario after scenario, making him wonder if John was even still alive. Or if he'd gotten lost again, without Rodney to nudge him back on track. Or if he'd died in a snow storm. Or if he'd starved only minutes from a water hole, fish swimming underneath his body as it slowly froze above the ice. Or if he'd been eaten by one of the large predators that roamed the ocean.
It was enough to drive a penguin crazy, and he was cold, so cold, even as he huddled together with the other fathers to escape the harsh breath of winter. More days went by, and then night fell, and stayed, and Rodney was tired. Bone tired, and hungry, desperate to catch some sleep. Around him, he could hear the soft thump of bodies falling to the icy ground, the fading breaths of those who gave in, and he was exhausted enough that joining them almost seemed appealing.
Almost. Not quite.
Eventually, though, the sun came up again, bringing light if not warmth, and the egg on Rodney's feet started to twitch, and its shell cracked.
The chick hatched.
Rodney marvelled at the little wonder on his feet, even as it chirped loudly, announcing its hunger to the world at large. He had to blink a few times, but only because he felt dizzy with fatigue. Another few days went by, and he knew he would have to make a decision, and soon. If he stayed, they'd both die. If he went to still his hunger, it would mean the death of the tiny penguin snuggled up against his short legs. But then movement came into the mass of males huddled up against each other. Heads turned, the first shouts were given.
And returned. The others were back, and with them, John. Rodney could hear his call, always a bit crazier, a little throatier than the others.
"You're alive," they both breathed at the same time, beaks sliding together as they pressed against each other in relief, trying to feel the other's heartbeat through the thick feathers. The chick on Rodney's feet twittered in protest, and John drew back to stare in amazement at the fluffy little creature with its grey fuzz and black little beak.
"He's so small."
"She," Rodney corrected. "I named her Teyla."
He would have loved to stay with his little family, but the hunger was too great. He had to leave, now, while he still could. John leaned his forehead against Rodney's for one last time as Teyla climbed onto his feet, then they had to part again.
Sometimes, Rodney wished they could be something else but penguins. Some kind of animal that mated for life, not just for a season, or at least one that got to stay together as long as the love lasted.
For a long walk across the open ice, those weren't the best thoughts. It was no use getting depressed when you were wobbling along with your last strength, when each slide could be the one that proved to be too hard to stand up after. Around Rodney, others fell and didn't rise again, and only his stubbornness prevented him from doing the same.
He didn't even notice they had arrived at the water hole until he almost fell in. But then it registered, the fresh smell of salt water, and his body summoned up energy he hadn't known he still had. With an elated squawk, he dove into the ocean.
As ungraceful as Rodney was above the ice, clumsy even for a penguin, as elegantly could he move in the water beneath. There were whole schools of fish, and he darted between them, loped and curved, eating and eating until, for the first time in months, he felt full to the point of bursting, his hunger stilled at last. He and the others stayed for a few more days, though, filling their bellies with enough fish to last them and their offspring for the time to come, before they started the journey back to the sanctuary.
When Rodney got back, Teyla greeted him happily, immediately asking for food. John was gone, and Rodney's felt strangely sick. There had been more storms; more opportunities to freeze or get lost, and he feared-
He feared nothing, he told himself. John had simply left to get more fish. All Rodney would have to do was wait.
He kept waiting when spring started to melt the ice around him, and when the sun rose for its long, long day. All over the sanctuary, parents took turns at feeding their chicks and going back to fish, while Rodney slowly grew hungry again.
It was all right. He'd saved up a lot, and it wouldn't be the first time he'd fast a little. The most important thing was making sure that Teyla grew up strong and healthy, which she did at an almost alarming rate. John would be proud of her when came back.
Rodney stubbornly ignored the niggling thought that it had been too long already, even when it became a cold certainty.
He watched Teyla grow into a beautiful young empress, helping her shed the grey fluff when the ice around them began to break apart, rivulets of melting water running into the ocean. All too soon it was time to leave, to say goodbye, although they would meet again the following year, gathering with all the other penguins at the sanctuary.
"May the Ancestors protect you," he said gently, watching as Teyla dove into the ocean. Then it was time for himself to leave.
The water was cold, but not as cold as the air, and he revelled in the way his body felt infinitely lighter than it did on the ice. He beat several other penguins to a few fish, and then fell back to the end of his little caravan as they made their way back to their own grounds.
He was good at navigating, under water and above. He'd find his way.
But the one he was looking for didn't appear, and eventually, Rodney let go of his last drop of hope.
Penguins didn't mate for life, anyway.
Home was as lively as ever, swarming with fish and jellyfish and penguins and the occasional whale. Rodney told himself to simply enjoy the company; to eat, swim and be merry. After a few days of forcing himself to participate in the life around him, he fell into a routine. It was nice; it was familiar, and it was safe. No need for brooding, or withdrawing.
No need for his heart to skip a beat when he thought he saw a familiar black-and-white figure dart through the water like he were a longwing in the sky. No need at all for him to stare at the late arrival, at the long, ragged scar across one black wing.
Penguins didn't mate for life.
"Hey, Rodney," John drawled, playfully bumping against him.
And Rodney decided he didn't care what other penguins did.
If he wanted to keep this crazy bird, he damn well would.
Summary: It made no sense that Rodney should want that particular penguin. John slid where Rodney preferred to walk, burning his energy like he might be missing something. John didn't squawk, he drawled, and he'd never shown any interest in the stars Rodney studied every night.