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Guardian by Dianann [PG-13]
[ - ]

Summary: Rodney deals with survivors guilt. Tag for Grace Under Pressure.

Categories: Slash Pairings > McKay/Sheppard
Characters: John Sheppard, Radek Zelenka, Rodney McKay
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, Episode Related, Hurt Comfort, Pre-relationship, Pre-slash
Warnings: Character death
Chapters: 1 [Table of Contents]
Series: None

Word count: 4890; Completed: Yes
Updated: 21 Jan 2006; Published: 21 Jan 2006

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Rodney's life wasn't always ruled by physics.

Once, a long time ago, almost longer than he could remember, he'd been a little boy who loved little boy things. Granted, even then he was a weirdo science freak and several grades in front of his age group, but he'd been normal. Sort of. 'Normal' for him just meant building the entire Periodic Table out of Legos (and color coding them by family) and writing thesis papers on Improbability Drives during his rabid Douglas Adams phase.

He was alone a lot. Other seven year olds were busy playing GI Joe or bike riding to be much interest to him, and that fine winter day hadn't been much different. Cold nibbled his ears and bit at the tip of his nose, slipping down into his jacket, no matter how heavily he bundled up.

He'd woken up to his mother and father screaming about Jeannie again (her lack of prospects post high school only made her hate Rodney more), and as much fun as that was, Rodney could think of better things to do. Like rip out his toenails.

He wriggled his foot in his boot and shuddered.

"This ranks an eleven on the 'stupid things to do' scale, Reginald," he whispered.

Reginald didn't blink, simply looking up at him out of green button eyes, the stiching of his mouth quirked just a little bit as if he knew exactly what he was talking about. His little ribosomes freckles and mountain of wild, furry cell membrane hair, wet with snow, made him look very much the part of a slick, smooth spaceman.

Rodney rubbed his fingers brusquely together, shivering down to his cold toes. His mittens and scarf were exactly where he'd left them - on the floor of his bedroom, next to his homemade calculator, leapt over Rodney-Be-Nimble style on his way to get out of the house as fast as possible.

"It was frost bite, Reginald, or going back, and I'm sorry, but I'd rather go to school in my underwear than risk it."

Reginald didn't move from his snowy cockpit, and Rodney nodded firmly at him, picking up the last two sticks he needed. "Good man."

The model of Mariner 10, complete with flags and communication relays, hadn't sculpted quite right with snow and the added astronaut cockpit, but Rodney congratulated himself on his eye for detail, anyway. It was quite good, for being a snow creation, and for being designed from the scrap of newspaper he'd found from the launch day in his fathers clipping pile.

A shadow fell over his work and he peered up from under his hat.

Later, Rodney wondered if maybe he'd wet himself, just a little, when Marty Green looked down at him thoughtfully with all his pals behind him. It wasn't that they were mean, per se, it was that they were huge when compared with Rodney, who was very aware of how skinny and shrimpy he was in comparison, he of the wet noodles for arms.

Marty Green was like a Semi passing a Honda on the highway.

"Hey. You're that geek, that kid geek. You're in grade six, right?"

Rodney stood slowly, praying to any heavenly figure who might be watching that Marty and his friends hadn't seen Rodney talking to Reginald, because the last thing he needed was to get teased in school for talking to anything stuffed, even if the stuffed individual in question was otherwise very much loved.

Then again, the people Rodney dealt with on a daily basis didn't have a brain between them, but that didn't necessarily make them blind, and when one's masculinity was on the line, it was always good form to make sure.

Rodney's mouth tightened. "I'm not a geek."

The one in the back cracked his knuckles and Rodney squeaked. They were big enough to squash him and leave him to die of exposure in the snow, and Rodney needed his extremities to be brilliant. If he had no fingers and no toes because they'd snapped off from frostbite, he'd be the fingerless, toeless wonder of the world, and yes, that was all fine and good, but Rodney liked to eat and write and scratch his nose.

He took an involuntary step back.

Marty shrugged. "Whatever. Look, your sister paid me to beat you up."

"Oh."

Reginald, still seated aboard the Mariner, seemed to quirk his stitched mouth as if to say, 'Like that's a surprise.'

Rodney frowned, instead, because Marty sure didn't look like he wanted to beat Rodney up. He looked like he wanted to play hockey, if the sticks and skates and all were anything to say. Buy some time, Rodney, before they maim you for life. "Nice stick."

Marty twitched the hockey stick laying against his shoulder. "M'dad's getting me a Kevlar for Hanukkah. Mid-round curve, low lie angle. 85 flex," he said, sniffing and thumbing his nose proudly just like in the movies. Rodney couldn't help but think that was pretty neat.

"Isn't Hanukkah three weeks away?"

"Yeah, so?"

"So, I heard you're going up against Victor Steeble next weekend. Right? The big goon in grade nine, the one with the neanderthal face?"

"Yeah... so?"

Rodney huffed and rolled his eyes. "What are you, three? I'm a genius! Put two and two together!"

The four of them traded identical looks of confusion. Rodney congratulated himself heartily on proving his 'brainless idiot' theory, and mentally patted himself on the back.

He rubbed his face in a way he'd seen his father do countless times, rolled his eyes heavenward, and said. "Your hockey stick." 'You halfwit' went without saying. "I can make it aerodynamic. I'm a geek, right? Well, my geekyness comes in handy. Faster speed, harder hit, easier to use. It's simple physics."

Marty stared at him. The two guys behind him blinked in surprise. "What about the money your sister paid me?"

"Give it to me, for fixing your stick," Rodney said, crossing his arms. "Besides, she's going out with Steeble."

The four of them guffawed out loud, and Marty slung an arm around Rodney's small shoulders. "I like you, kid. What's your name?"

"Rodney."

"Rodney, eh? Hey, Rodney?"

Rodney looked up. "Yeah?"

"Rodney. Stay with me here, buddy."

He frowned tightly, because so far as he could tell he was staying right where he was supposed to, if Marty's chattering in his ear was anything to go by.

It was then that he noticed the cold. Canadian's generally had thicker skin than most, but this was ridiculous. He'd forgotten his mittens, not...

...not plunged face first into freezing cold water.

The cold felt so sharp, so bitter, that Rodney swore it bit into the tips of his ears and nose. Cold wind seemed to seep in through his many layers of clothes, finding every sliver of skin it could and skating along it till Rodney was sure, positive in fact, that it had a mind of his own.

The best kind of cold, the get-out-of-school cold, get-pneumonia cold, possibility-die-of-hypothermia cold, was forever tainted in Rodney's eyes. This was the cold that death crawled through, wearing Griffin's face and looking out of Marty's soft gray eyes.

The laces felt rough under his fingers as he tightened them one last time. Beside him, grinning that lopsided grin of his from under his messy fringe that only eighteen year olds could manage, Marty said, "We are so going to cream them today."

"We'd better. I'm screwed when I get home," Rodney said, tucking his pants over the boots of his skates.

Before him, spread out over nearly half a mile, Image Creek glistened. The only creek in Rodney's home town that froze over so spectacularly, it had become the hotspot of hockey elite, where the cool kids went to hang out, where the best games were played, and where you went if you wanted to look like you were part of the in crowd. Unless, of course, you already were, then you got to laugh at the posers.

Marty grinned, happily palming his old Kevlar hockey stick back and forth between his gloved hands. "We're going to whip um," he said, butting his chin to the opposite side of the creek where Chuck and his friend were glaring at them. Beyond them, off in the sidelines, a lot more girls than Rodney was used to seeing outside of school were watching, cheering Raul on and wearing clothes that were not conductive to staying alive in this kind of weather.

Chicks were so weird.

"Oh, they're going to get their asses handed back to them," Rodney said smugly, and tucked his scarf closer around his throat. He pulled his hat down over his ears, picked up his stick, and started across the ice. He did a twist or two, his signature move across the ice, just to hear the girls squeal. And if he tilted his chin up smugly and waved cheerfully at them, well.

To his credit, Rodney, even a thirteen year old Rodney, had been pretty sure the ice was solid all the way through. It was January, it'd been cold forever, and this wasn't the first time he'd skated on Image Creek this winter. He had no way of knowing the four grizzlies that had crossed the lake that morning had weakened the ice, couldn't have predicted that all it would take was a hundred more pounds to break through.

He never heard the cracking sound, or the shouts of fear. All he felt was the water, so cold it took his breath away, so cold it sucked the life right out of him. So cold, in fact, that he never had a chance to save himself. His heart stopped before he ever made it to the bottom of the lake.

"Rodney?

He opened his eyes.

Rodney didn't like the dark, even this kind, where the internal lights were all dimmed. The cold seemed to penetrate the walls, fogging his air in front of him in sharp, panting little clouds of white. Looking down at him in worry, his soft eyes pinched with worry, Marty said, "Hang in there, buddy," but his voice was different. Deeper, and the face was all wrong, and if Marty had ever worn his hair like that Rodney would have teased him until he was blue in the face. Only certain stuffed individuals of a checkered yarn past could pull it off with any success. How could Marty be here, anyway, when he'd died out there on Image Creek saving Rodney's life?

"Rodney," Marty said again, tucking something that crinkled loudly closer to Rodney's ear. "Feeling any warmer?"

Rodney wanted to laugh, and something dusty and tinny came out instead. It sounded remarkably like a sob. "You're dead."

"Not the last time I looked. Granted, this being the Pegasus Galaxy, I'm sure that'll change at least three times," Marty said, smiling weakly down at him.

He said something over Rodney's head, and suddenly, before Rodney had a chance to prepare himself, a face framed by the wildest hair he'd ever seen peered down at him. He looked like Einstein, only with darker hair. "We strip you now. I promise I will say nothing if your testicles have crawled into your gut. If women ask me, and they will, I will say, 'very impressive'," the wild hair assured him.

Rodney closed his eyes. "Your mother thinks so, too."

Marty laughed out loud, relief in his voice, and Wild Hair rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath in Czech. Rodney missed it sometimes, the lilt of words, that musical lift and fall that English didn't seem to manage. Even anger sounded better in Czech. Then again, anger always sounded better in a foreign language.

When Rodney was thirty two years old, he felt up his first Russian woman. She'd sounded just like Wild Hair, not the language of course, but that same accent, only breathier. Her wide, expressive face used to crease with pleasure and anger and frustration, the words that had tumbled from her sounded like raw sex.

They were right, about Russian women. Never shaved. Then again, Rodney figured, any woman who shaved in a place like Russia was either completely insane or immeasurably stupid. Hell, he'd even grown a beard for the occasion, which just so happened to rasp across perky nipples. The squeal from above used to make him laugh out loud, which just infuriated her and pleased Rodney all the more.

Ugliest woman he'd ever had sex with. It helped, though, that she had a heart of gold and a mind like a steel trap, and that they were in a Siberian bunker without power and risking hypothermia. No one around to see him go all soft and mushy, especially when she snuggled up for warmth, her ample bosom pressed up against his face. Oh yes, Russian women.

"Sex to stave off the cold, huh?" Marty said, doing something further down Rodney's body that included a lot of shifting around that Rodney didn't like too much. "Now there's a thought. Why don't we have such open minded women on Atlantis?"

"Situation not so bad, yet. Wait till the next storm, or till Wraith show up again, then there will be sex everywhere. Sex in corridors!" Wild Hair said, tugging sharply at Rodney's leg. "That is a nice thought."

Rodney choked on words that never managed to make it out of his mouth. He was so cold now that he was numb, so cold it hurt to shiver. It licked across what he supposed was his now very naked skin, before Marty wrapped him almost violently in a crinkly blanket that sounded too loud in his ears. "Fuck."

"Yeah, just..." Marty tapped the comm on his ear. "Reading you loud and clear, Doc." He paused, then disappeared from Rodney's field of vision.

A familiar Scottish voice rang through the comm link. "Rodney, can you hear me, lad?"

He remembered Scotland as long, rolling hills capped in white, steaming up in little wispy puffs here and there, and the big yellow sun shining dimly over it all. Snow covered trees stretched as far as the eye could see, the sea laying just beyond, gleaming almost white against the freezing winter sun. The village down the hill was warm and cozy, and inside, Rodney knew his grandma was making cocoa and homemade ice cream, waiting for him after his fun.

Rodney's grandfather, the biggest man he'd ever known, peered over his shoulder, one huge hand clasping Rodney's shoulder. He'd always smelled like scotch and gingerbread cookies, until the day he died out in the fields doing what he loved best - smoking cigars and watching his land grow around him, thumb caught in one suspender, his enormous body lifting and lowering with every bounce of his heels.

But now, now he was smiling, his beard crinkly against Rodney's cheek, and his free hand on Rodney's, showing him how to grip the controls of his sled. "Listen up good, now. On my mark...."

"Off you go down the hill, little one, fast as lightning," Rodney said to Wild Hair, watching his eyebrows raise and lower.

There was a pause over the comm. "How long has he been like this, Colonel?"

"About fifteen minutes. He keeps calling me "Marty"," Marty said, which was an odd thing to say, Rodney thought, frowning up at him.

"And he was lucid when you brought him aboard, correct?"

"As much as Rodney ever is."

"You said he's badly concussed?"

"I'd say level two, possibly even a level three."

"Shine a light in his eyes and tell me what you see."

Rodney lay on the bed of the lake looking up at the ice capped water and thinking, thinking, God, I'm going to die here in the wet and the dark. There was no roar of water, so screaming, nothing but the still, eerie silence. It was as if Rodney had never broken through at all; the lake had simply swallowed him up and knit itself over, healing her wounds and sealing him inside.

Above, through the thick sheet of ice, angels walked over him as if silhouetted through the clouds.

And suddenly the light, light shining in his eyes and Marty looking right at him, wild eyed with fear. He hauled Rodney up through the ice when all Rodney deserved, all he deserved was to die because he was too much of a coward to save Griffin's life, to sacrifice himself to save another human being.

His jacket was grabbed from above, he was pulled from the water, and Marty, Marty, Marty please God!

"Rodney," Marty said softly, like an apparition, a dream. The face was all wrong, the body, the eyes, but maybe this was what Marty would have looked like if he'd lived, if he'd had a chance to be something more than a stupid kid out on a stupid lake, saving a stupid boy's life.

"I'm sorry," Rodney said, his voice breaking so badly his voice gave out all together midway through. "I'm so sorry."

"Shhh," Marty said, squeezed his arm, and brushed the wet hair from his face.. "It's okay, Rodney. I know. Just rest."

Rodney closed his eyes, and drifted.

- = - = -

The human mind's capability for emotion was vast, from seemingly effortless joy to emotions that were frankly exhausting. Rodney's problem was, he didn't know how to read his own emotions. He was never quite sure what he was feeling unless it was righteous anger, and anything else left him confused and a little nauseous.

The celestial nebula that neighbored the Pegasus galaxy glowed fiercely in the dark sky, a smattering of planets and stars in the most beautiful pattern Rodney had ever seen in his life. It glowed off the kilometers of ocean, reflecting bright white, the palest of yellow, and he imagined he could even see the barest hints of orange and crimson from a far away nova. The stars kissed the ocean, brilliant and pale and somehow, not as alien as it once was not so long ago.

"Hey, Rodney," John said, the low drawl of his voice warm in the evening light. "Do you always play Mozart in your sleep?"

It was so inane, so absolutely ridiculous, that Rodney simply turned his head and stared at him.

"Mozart," John said again, wriggling his fingers in the air as he plunked into the bedside chair. "Rondo Alla Turca."

"How do you know Mozart?"

"My mom played piano. She taught classes in the afternoons, after school, when we lived in Texas. Used to drive me batshit," he added.

Rodney closed his eyes, turned his face back to the window. He could almost see the nebula, the imperfect pattern of the celestial sphere through his eyelids. Salty ocean air brushed the hair from his face.

Long, thin fingers smoothed the blankets by his hand carefully. "So, you didn't answer my question."

Rodney looked at him again. "Mozart was a jackass."

"Please tell me you aren't forming your opinion off of Amadeus, Rodney."

"Of course not, what kind of plebe do you think I am?" He sniffed. "Besides, I love that movie. Tom Hulce was my hero in high school."

"So surprised," John said, and gave him that soft and easy smile of his that always made the tension in Rodney's chest ease. "Wanna watch it?"

"You brought Amadeus to the Pegasus Galaxy, Colonel? I thought your guitar was your--"

"It is," John said, smiling at him. "But I happen to know that the anthro ladies sewed an entire movie library into their unmentionables. Don't ask me what life sciences is doing with Amadeus, though. What with all the historical inaccuracies you'd think they'd have popped a blood vessel," John said, sprawling back in his chair. "They've also got a bunch of Jane Austen chick flicks, and Pirates of the Carribean. I'm sensing a Harelquin fetish, especially with the 'sewn into their underwear' bit, but hey, to each their own."

"Do I even want to know how you found out about it?"

"It's best for both of us if you don't ask," he answered, grinning and tapping his fingers along the ankle crossed over his knee into the awkward silence that followed.

"You could just ask, you know."

"There is such a thing as 'tact', Rodney."

Rodney snorted, then winced when that twinged something along the side of his head. John's eyebrows pulled together in sympathy. "Don't talk to me about tact, Colonel. Beckett drilled holes in my head. My head. My impressive, IQ of a genius head, in the middle of a jumper, where I'd been stripped butt naked! My dick and my brains, out there jiggling for everyone to see. Where was the tact in that, I ask you?"

"It was that or have your brains explode out of your ears, Rodney, and I'm sorry, but I wasn't scrubbing gray matter out of the grilling."

"Aren't you sweet."

"I try," John said. He peered at the white bandaging along the side of Rodney's head. "Do they hurt?"

Rodney glared at him.

"Oh, what? It was just a question!"

"A very tactless question."

"Well, it's not everyday I get to see Beckett go all 'mad scientist', either. He looked just a little too confident, there, with that power drill in his hand. To be honest, I had to leave when he started putting the holes in."

"They're called 'burr holes', Colonel, and for your information, I was unconscious for it."

"I know, I was there when you fainted," John answered, chin in hand. He smiled, smugly.

"Funny. Hah hah."

"I thought so." John peered over the blankets thoughtfully. "So, who's Marty?"

Rodney sighed. "If I was anyone other than myself, that 180 would have given me whiplash."

"You did mention something about tact."

Rodney glared at him. "He was my closest friend growing up. My sister tried to get him to beat me up, I offered to juice up his hockey stick instead."

John smiled that smile, the 'you pesky Canadians' smile he had for whenever Rodney mentioned his unyielding, undying love for all things hockey. "Beat you up, huh."

"I was a geek, back then."

John smirked at him with one eyebrow raised, a sort of gentle expression that wore on Rodney's nerves. "Stop that. You look like a demented lemur."

"Have you ever seen a demented lemur, Rodney?"

"No, but I bet it would look exactly like you. And stop trying to psychoanalyze me, Heightmeyer will be doing enough of that next week."

John leaned forward against the bed. "What happened to the kid?"

Rodney did a 180 himself, from normal and uppity to more depressed than he'd been in a long, long time. His stomach turned, and he couldn't help but close his eyes against it. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because you're my friend, and you've done it for me," John shot right back. "My turning into a big bug ring a bell?"

"You did break down pretty spectacularly."

"Thanks, Rodney." John leaned in a little closer. "Who was he?"

It was obvious, to Rodney and John both, that John wasn't leaving without getting an answer. In that moment, Rodney was too tired to fight it anymore, and he closed his eyes. "I hate you."

"I know."

"Marty was six years older than me, and he was my friend because he never held it against me that I was smarter than him. We were on the hockey team together - he convinced the coach to let me on, because you had to be fifteen to join first year. It didn't help my case that I was thirteen and in my last year, but I had what other people didn't."

"Smarts?"

"Talent," Rodney said, a little smile curving his face. "I grew up on skates. Short, skinny, fast."

"It's hard to imagine it," John said, but he was smiling.

Rodney opened his eyes to glare. "So says you. How you ever played football weighing a hundred and fifty pounds, I'll never know."

"I was one eighty three, thank you."

"In your dreams." His fingers twitched at the blankets. "After practice, we'd go out on Image Creek, all of us, and play like our lives depended on it. If you didn't go home bloody, you hadn't really played. My parents hated it."

"Half the appeal?"

"Three fourths. It just so happened that they were right. My luck ran out, and I fell through some thin ice. The Mounties said later that they suspected a couple of bears had passed through towards the hills for late hibernation, and they may have weakened the ice. Whatever the case, I fell through."

"And he saved you."

Rodney closed his eyes. "I was on the bottom of the lake for ten minutes before he came down. The Mounties were at a station nearby, but someone had to go get them. I mean, I was long dead by that point, but I swore I could see them up there, through the ice." He shuddered and turned his face away, pulling the blankets up closer. "Why are you making me talk about this?"

"I already told you why," John answered. "What happened?"

"Marty got me halfway to the top before he let go. His hands stopped working.... the cold, you know? The Mounties got me out, dived right in to get me, but Marty... they looked, and looked, they told me, even when there was no chance he could be resuscitated, they kept looking. Hours." Rodney croaked. "Fuck, I hate you."

"I know," John said quietly, and didn't say anything else for a long time. He followed Rodney's eyes out to the night sky, more brilliant and beautiful than anything from Earth. More real. More alive. The very stars themselves seemed to move.

"You know, Rodney, Griffin did the right thing," John said softly.

"Spare me."

John leaned in, bracing his elbows on the bed. "Our job here is to protect and serve. Griffin did what any one of us would have done. What I would have done."

Rodney's throat felt too tight. It hurt to swallow. "Shut up."

"I'm not shutting up, because we both know its true."

"He was so annoying," Rodney exploded, his eyes suspiciously burning. "He kept going on about my science being debunked, and asking if I was Spanish, and he... he had a picture of his kids taped to the Jumper controls, and, and, and he would not stop and let me work. Tomatoes, John! Fucking... tomatoes. God, how any man like that could honestly be allowed to travel through space is a mystery, because... he had kids, three of them. Teenagers, you know? It shouldn't have been this way. My life isn't worth more than anyone else's."

John took Rodney's knotted fingers in both his hands and pressed his mouth to them, and it was all Rodney could do not to cry like he hadn't since he was a kid. "I hate you," Rodney choked, staring at the ceiling.

"I know," John said, kissed the palm of Rodney's hand, and ducked his head a little to catch Rodney's wet eyes. "You also hate my head full of dark, wavy locks and my tendency to flirt with alien women."

"Really hate that," Rodney agreed, voice thick. "And your tendency to quote Spaceballs."

John got that amused look on his face that Rodney always enjoyed seeing so much, that twitch of his mouth that made the sadness in his eyes soften. "'I'm a mawg: half man, half dog. I'm my own best friend!'"

It seemed wrong to laugh, but Rodney thought that maybe others had given their lives so Rodney could do just that. He was a touch hysterical, but that was okay, because John wrapped his arms tight around him and pressed his warm mouth to the back of Rodney's ear, and held on, held on, held on, as tight as he could.

Before he let himself finally close his eyes, Rodney whispered, "When you go for Amadeus, ask the anthro ladies if they have any documentaries about Christopher Columbus."