someone else's shadow (v.2, pt. 1)

In which Rodney finds something in the kitchen and John is wet.


Fell down
through a hole in the road until I hit the ground—
(no matter how I turned around)
nothing there but someone else’s shadow.

Rodney was brushing his teeth when it happened, making faces at himself in the bathroom mirror because it wasn’t like there was anyone there to mock him for doing it—not any more. Apple was winding himself around Rodney’s ankles, purring uncertainly, ears flicking against Rodney’s shins.

The crash startled both of them—although, to be more accurate, it was more of a thud. The soft-edged thud of a body hitting some unyielding surfaced, followed by the thwack of some limb knocking against a cabinet door. Almost more startling was the silence following the noise, the apartment suddenly unsafe and defenseless, awaiting further assault.

Rodney spat out the toothpaste, seized the toilet scrub brush, and stalked out to see what exactly had invaded his home. There had been a time when he would have panicked, dialing 911 or diving out the nearest window. That time was well past, though, and he was not going to run away from what was probably only a collapsed stack of books. Besides, Apple seemed more curious than afraid, following at Rodney’s heels without hesitation.

The apartment was small enough that it was impossible to not hear in every room what was done in every other room, and the only sounds Rodney could hear were those he was making: the rustle of cloth and the squeak of flexing floor boards. There wasn’t any sound to suggest there was someone else in the apartment.

So it was something of a shock when he entered the kitchen and discovered a form on the floor nearly as familiar as his own. Scruffy black hair, tac vest, P-90—

Rodney dropped the scrub brush.


It was definitely John, but there was something . . . off about him. And not just that he was lying loosely curled on his side on Rodney’s floor, or the ring of gray feathers surrounding him. Or the fact that he was supposed to be dead.

Apple was purring again, walking toward John—not-John, because it couldn’t be John—with intent apparent in the set of his tail.

“Rodney?” John’s eyes were only half-open, but they appeared to be the same color they’d always been. So not an evil demon-Ori-thing, which was good. He tried to sit up and failed, slumping back down to the floor, ashen-faced. “Where are we?”

“Somewhere safe,” Rodney said, because he couldn’t think of anything else that was true and not liable to require three hours of explanation. This was apparently the right answer, because John’s eyes slid shut again, the tension easing out of his spine.

He remained boneless and complacent while Rodney half-carried, half-dragged him over to the bedroom. (The couch was a black hole and not to be trusted with anything so precious, although Rodney did shove the P-90 underneath it for safekeeping.) The slightly-damp tac vest came off easy enough, but the t-shirt underneath was soaked through and nearly dripping, and Rodney had to peel it off John. The socks and boots were the same, as if he’d gone swimming in them before appearing on Rodney’s floor. The scars uncovered one by one were all familiar, until Rodney rolled John over onto his stomach and found himself confronted with a stranger’s back. There were more scars—too many scars—and tattoos where there should have been none, and it was like discovering that his hands weren’t his own.

He kept going on autopilot, and once John (or whoever the hell it was—the face said it could be him, the dogtags said it was him, but there were counterclaims and Rodney didn’t know what to trust) was stripped out of his wet clothes and warm and dry and comfortable as could be managed without his cooperation, Rodney sat down and started going through pockets. They were full of the usual detritus from a mission—the tail end of one, because there was only the wrapper of a power bar and a few crumbs. But there were also the oddities like a set of obviously well-used lockpicks, a few tiny packets of crushed herbs, and some kind of stone the size of Rodney’s thumb.

Still, everything either fit with Rodney’s memories or could be hand-waved, and that meant the person in his bed probably was John Sheppard. The question was, which John Sheppard? Because the John Rodney had known hadn’t had a single tattoo—not even the initials of his highschool sweetheart—and this one had enough ink on him to write screeds. His thumb and first two fingers on his left hand were swirled with indigo, he had wings of all things stretching practically from shoulder to hip, and his spine was covered in knot-work the width of Rodney’s hand. And he was young, at least five years younger than John had been, no silver in his hair or lines set around his eyes.

But he’d said ‘Rodney’ in the same tone of voice that Rodney remembered, had trusted Rodney without hesitation. He was sleeping in a strange bed, as at ease as if it were his own. And in the end it didn’t matter where he’d come from—he was John, and Rodney would remake the universe for him if necessary.

Yes, and that went so well the last time, didn’t it, said the treacherous little voice in the back of Rodney’s head, but he ignored it and went to hang John’s clothes in the bathroom so they could dry. When he got back, John’s eyes were open, although he didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular.

“John?” John blinked once before focusing on Rodney. “John, what happened?” Because that was the main question. Rodney could come up with a half dozen possibilities for what—who—this John was, but none of them explained how he wound up in Rodney’s kitchen, soaked to the skin. Or rather, soaked from the skin out.

“Fell, I think. Or blew up, maybe. Not sure.” And wasn’t that a reassuring answer. John rubbed at his eyes like he had a headache. “Where are we?”

“Somewhere safe,” Rodney said, repeating his earlier answer because he couldn’t come up with a better one. ‘My apartment in Podunk, Michigan’ would probably only muddy the matter. “Look, why don’t you just go back to sleep, and I’ll explain things in the morning.” Which was a lie, because he hadn’t the foggiest idea of where even to begin, but maybe by then he’d be thinking straight again. Or maybe John would be able to explain, because whatever had happened must have been on his end. There wasn’t anything in Rodney’s kitchen that could have caused it, no matter how futuristic the coffee maker looked.

“I—” John hitched himself up on one elbow and squinted at Rodney. And then around the room, which Rodney really didn’t want him to do because it was obviously not Atlantis. “Huh. Yeah. Sleep is probably a good idea.” He didn’t move, though.

“Right, then,” Rodney said after a long moment in which they just stared at each other. “I’ll just go . . . read or something and let you sleep.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of the door.

“Okay,” John said, flopping back down onto his stomach.

“Okay,” Rodney echoed, and turned the lights out. But he left the door open, because he recognized at least some of John’s body language. It said that John was beginning to assess the situation, which meant he was at least part way to realizing he wasn’t where he was supposed to be, and Rodney really didn’t want him to do something stupid like try to climb out a window.

Apple meowed from the kitchen. Right—there were still feathers or something on the floor, and the scrub brush needed to be put away. But when he got to the kitchen, the only feather in sight was the one Apple was playing with; all that remained was a faint arc of dust, already partially-scattered by the cat.

At this point in the evening, disappearing feathers weren’t worth mention, so he just gave a mental shrug, picked up the scrub brush, and went to finish brushing his teeth. And to not think about the fact that John Sheppard (who was dead, damn it, no ‘supposed’ about it—Rodney’d held him when he died) was in his bedroom, and Rodney was either going crazy or the fabric of space-time had ripped somewhere.

He wasn’t sure which possibility worried him more. Or no—he wasn’t worried about anything except losing John again. Sanity be damned.

With that comforting thought, he opened the bathroom door and almost ran into John, who was bent over in front of the door, petting Apple with one hand and with the other clutching the waist of the boxers Rodney had loaned him. Rodney stared at him blankly for a moment, mind going places it really shouldn’t, because even if this was John, it wasn’t Rodney’s John, and the only excuse he had was that it had been a very long time. “Couldn’t sleep?” he asked at last.

“Needed to use the bathroom.” Needed to scope out the location, more likely, if this John was anywhere near as cagey as Rodney’s John had been. And maybe this John could read Rodney as well as Rodney’s John had, because his expression went vaguely sheepish. “Look—it’s pretty obvious that this place isn’t Atlantis or Earth or anywhere I might conceivably wind up after everything went to pieces, but I couldn’t find any bugs in the bedroom, and if there are guards outside, they must be ninjas. Besides, I’m not tied up, there aren’t any needles stuck in me, and as far as I can tell I’ve still got everything attached, so I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

“Not Earth?” Rodney asked, more curious than worried; at least John didn’t sound like he was planning on bolting out the door.

“If I were taken back to Earth, I’d be in some Air Force run facility, not a postage stamp apartment at the back of nowhere. And McKay wouldn’t be there either.” John somehow managed, one handed, to pick up Apple without getting clawed—something not even Rodney could manage.

“You don’t think I’m Rodney McKay?” Wow, he . . . probably should have expected that. Given that he was now definitely balding and kind of grey. And wasn’t really in shape to outrun unhappy villagers or Wraith anymore. Good thing he didn’t have to. (Good thing. Right.)

John looked at him almost pityingly. “Yeah, I mean, you obviously tried hard, but the details are all wrong. If you were the real McKay, by now you would’ve yelled at me or told me I was stupid or something, and you’d be about ten years younger. So just—spill. Who are you, where are we, and where’s the rest of my team?”

And Rodney wanted to answer that set of questions about as much as he wanted to have his fingers cut off. But he knew full well how much damage John could do to someone if he thought it was necessary, and if he really didn’t think Rodney was Rodney. . . . Well, that was somewhere to start, anyway. “In order: I’m really Rodney McKay, we’re in Michigan, and I don’t know where your team is. I know where my team is—former team, rather—but they’re still in Pegasus.” Except for John, who was dead and buried in Virginia.

John—other-John—frowned at him, all the lines of his body gone tight as if anticipation of an attack. But he kept rubbing his thumb against Apple’s ribs. “Try again.”

“It’s the truth! I don’t know what you expect me to say, but you just appeared on my kitchen floor this evening, and I haven’t the faintest clue why.” Clearly that wasn’t what John had expected him to say, because his frown faded into confusion.

“So, what? You expect me to believe I somehow fell through dimensions or time or something, and you’re actually Rodney McKay, in Michigan, and not some alien bent on screwing with my head?” He cocked his head to one side as if considering the picture he’d just presented. “That’s crazy enough that no one would think it up as a cover story.”

“It also happens to be true,” Rodney pointed out somewhat irritably. “And would you please stop seducing my cat?” Apple was now a boneless puddle, draped over John’s arm like breathing velvet that had a tendency to shed.

“It’s not my fault he likes me,” John said with a look that was too innocent to be trusted. But he handed Apple over without protest, even when his wristband got snagged by a claw and he had to wait for Rodney to release him. “Why Michigan?” he asked once the transaction was complete and Apple was purring happily, head jammed into Rodney’s armpit. It was a question with too many answers, and Rodney had to take a minute to sort through them all.

“It’s quiet here,” he said at last, running a hand along the smooth curve of Apple’s spine. That was only part of the truth, but even after almost five years, the rest of it stuck in his throat until he thought he might choke from it all.

John didn’t say anything in response, but the corners of his mouth curled down as if he wanted to. Apparently Rodney was as bad at hiding things as he'd ever been.
awwww ...! I love the way you write -- it's so graceful and lovely. The mix of melancholy and wistfulness and trust is just perfect here, plus the little flashes of humor (like the boneless cat!). And it makes me wonder what the full story is.
The full story (on both sides) is not very happy, but not entirely sad either. Most of it will (I think) come out over the course of things--John's not going to let Rodney continue evading the subject.

I did not expect Apple to be quite so demanding of attention.
There's more, or will be after I finish with the things that have deadlines. Don't worry; this is one of those stories that told me I was going to write it. I don't have much say in the matter.
Truly L-worthy! ^^ I like the distinctions you're already making between wingedJohn (I'm forgetting what you call that AU--sorry!) and slashJohn, and the fact that Rodney already accepts the differences as a natural part of the equation, whatever it may turn out to be--very much in character for an Atlantis veteran! And also the flipside, for John--this isn't his natural setting, so it must all be a hoax for nefarious purposes...and yet, the instinct to trust McKay is very strong, even when he *thinks* he distrusts the whole setup. Wonderful!!

...Though what I like best, of course, is that the end product looks like it'll be good and long! =D Because already I love this AU.
It helps that John's so visibly not the same John Rodney knew, and that Rodney's had years to become accustomed to John being dead. John, on the other hand, is still a lot farther from believing Rodney than he lets on.

And yeah, this thing's probably going to be pretty hefty. Currently it's either two or three on my list, so there should be more of it pretty soon. Fortunately, it seems to be one of those stories that just sort of tells itself, without needing a lot of help from me.
^^ I do love the whole feel of this, you know, and I'm glad you have a good handle on it! I'm very much looking forward to seeing how these two interact--and how the situation will resolve! A Rodney (btw, love the name order switch!) completely unfamiliar with magic might have some difficulty figuring out how to return John to his own 'verse...and of course, a Rodney who's vehemently determined not to lose John again might just not try too hard....