The lights flicker almost in apology, but the flash of the event horizon is bright and brief and startling.
He's only a silhouette, standing there against a small standing sea, and Rodney doesn't know how he keeps himself from glancing back, even once.
Later, when he's piecing it all together, it makes a lot more sense.
It takes eighty six days and seventy five worlds to track him down.
He's in the back of a bar a galaxy away from where he was born looking a little like he's been there all his life. His hair still looks styled as he slouches in his chair, and his pants are some kind of suede that's been worn down nearly to the skin. His legs are splayed out beneath the table, resting on the heels of brown leather boots, and he looks more at ease than the people that actually belong here.
Rodney's always found it slightly unsettling the way John can blend in.
He knocks back another shot and doesn't meet his eyes, but Rodney knows he's been spotted by now. "You're a long way from home," he says. Rodney supposes he thinks that's clever, but even he's seen enough movies to know it's probably second-hand.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Rodney's never blended in anywhere. He can't help that. His voice draws every eye in the place but John's.
"Having a drink," John says slyly. He's got a thick leather bracelet around his right wrist instead of that black sweatband he used to wear like a talisman. It's all throwing Rodney off balance, because this was supposed to be a rescue.
He had himself convinced that was what this was. Almost convinced. 86.7 percent, at least.
"Do you have any idea what you've put everyone through?" Rodney asks. They both know that by everyone he mostly means himself, but it seems leaving Earth finally taught Rodney a bit of humanity. He knew the lingo at least.
"Don't really care," John says. His voice is still casual and cool and Rodney doesn't know if that's because he really doesn't care, or if he's just that good at lying.
It occurs to Rodney that John still hasn't looked him in the eye. Not once, and it isn't like him. John was always the type to look straight at you even as he pulled a trigger, some kind of honor code or something--wouldn't do anything without facing up to it, without looking it straight in the eyes.
Rodney wonders if he can even look in a mirror these days. Probably lucky the planet doesn't have any that he's seen.
John flexes one hand, and the bones move strangely beneath his skin. Not the way they're supposed to. Rodney tries very hard not to notice. "You're coming back," he tells him.
John finally looks up then, and the smile isn't reassuring. "Yeah, and how do you plan to manage that?"
Rodney crosses his arms defiantly. "Did you learn nothing at all from Ford?"
"I'm not Ford," John says easily. John's never had a hair-trigger temper. It takes a lot more than that to set him off, and Rodney's out of practice. "Nothing wrong with my brain chemistry, Carson said."
"Carson's voodoo doesn't really instill me with all that much confidence," Rodney says. "And you tromping off to join the natives doesn't either."
John's eyes are bright and too intelligent. Rodney kind of misses the days when he still thought John was kind of dim. "If you recall, my exile isn't entirely by choice," he says.
"And if you recall," Rodney snaps. "We weren't all on her side."
"Maybe you should have been," John says. He takes another shot. "Maybe she was right."
"If you believe that, then you really are useless," Rodney says.
"Oh, and you can't abide that, can you, Dr. McKay?" John asks. It's still doing nothing. It's still said calmly, coolly, almost amused.
Rodney is as close as he's ever been to begging, even if it was in true McKay fashion, and John had to know--had to know what it was costing him. That John wouldn't even acknowledge it was almost enough to get him to turn back around and leave.
Except he's not innocent in this, he knows.
The clearest memory isn't even the screaming, even though it takes so much to cause it in him, even though it was so hard to hear, even though it wasn't even from physical pain because there wasn't any, Carson promised that much.
The clearest memory is the laughing after it was over and he was just waking up, when he looked straight past him and snapped the restraints, tilted his head in Carson's direction and called him Dr. Frankenstein before walking right out the doors.
It was the way he moved as he did; not human.
"I need you back," Rodney says. It's his last try, the only thing he has left. He knows he can't force John to come back. No one could. He's seen what happens to those that try.
Dazed and lightheaded and under the impression their mission had been to give John all of their weapons and their rations and then leave.
It was another one of the side effects. John's natural charm went the way of the Jedi, these days. Rodney guesses he should just be grateful John hasn't used it on him.
He never had before, either.
"You don't need anyone," John says finally, softly. Rodney still hasn't managed to get him to raise his voice, but he's lowered it, and Rodney knows from experience this kind of concession from John is even harder to come by.
"You can't honestly believe that," Rodney says. "You think I would have spent every waking second looking for you if it was true?"
John gets to his feet in a motion so seamless Rodney almost can't process it, can't quite piece the images together to make it clear--one minute John is sitting and the next he's on his feet, leaning back against the wall.
Rodney doesn't change his expression. John's always been dangerous. This isn't new.
"I can't go back," he says finally. "Even if I wanted to."
"Even if?" Rodney asks, disbelievingly. "Maybe you don't miss us, but you have to miss Atlantis. She's still got glitches, and they get worse the longer you're away."
"She doesn't want me anymore," John says fiercely.
Rodney staggers back as he realizes John's right in front of him. His eyes are bright and fevered. Rodney tells himself that's just the alcohol.
"But she does anything you want. She's the one that helped you leave," Rodney says.
"Exactly," John says, turning away. "She helped me leave."
John's outside almost before Rodney can take a step towards him, and he pushes through the still swinging doors to see John standing with his hand in mid air. It takes a moment before Rodney realizes that's where he left the cloaked jumper. It doesn't bother him that John can find it so easily.
He always could. That hadn't changed, either.
"Weir wants you back too," Rodney says. "She's sorry about what happened, the way it was handled."
"Never saw you as her messenger boy," John says, and sticks his hands in his pockets. He looks startling normal like that, even with the Tarzan meets Davey Crockett attire, and Rodney's always kind of thought that was the worst part.
At least when Ford changed he wore it right where everyone could see.
"You really want to spend your life here?" Rodney asks. "This is nowhere. You're too good for this."
John tilts his head to the side, amused. "You really believe that, too, don't you?" he asks. "You have no idea what I am. You never did."
"I think I knew better than most," Rodney says. "I think that's why you're having such trouble meeting my eyes now."
John gives that boyish grin. He shouldn't be allowed to. It isn't playing fair, not when it isn't real. "I'm dangerous, McKay. Get it through your head. You're supposed to be the smart one."
"You're only dangerous to yourself," Rodney says.
"Tell that to the people I've killed," he says. "Do you have any idea how many it is now? Because honestly, by this point I think I've lost count."
"And I blew up three fourths of a solar system," Rodney says. "We all have crosses to bear."
Rodney's head bangs against the wall of the bar. He's moved ten feet in less than a second and John's got his hands fisted in his shirt. He should have looked angry after a move like that, but he looked more determined than anything. "Look at my eyes, then, Rodney," John says. "See what you think I'm hiding."
Rodney blinks and then does. They're the only part on the outside of John to have sustained a physical change, but it was so slight it was only noticeable to a select few. There was a ring of yellow around the outer rim, bleeding into the rest almost seamlessly but with a glow that definitely wasn't human.
He could still see John though. He wasn't even buried all that deep beneath this new shell.
"I know who you are," Rodney says. "I know you better than anyone."
"Maybe," John admits. "But that's hardly saying very much."
"I know who you are a hell of a lot better than you even do," Rodney says angrily. The point was to get John mad and talking, but Rodney knows this is backfiring. John's mad but he isn't really talking, and Rodney is, as usual, giving far too much of himself away.
John lets him go abruptly and backs away. "Go home, Rodney," he says. "Go save the world. Or go make someone cry. The things you do best."
"I would, but we've lost our funding," Rodney tells him. That stops John in his tracks, like he'd known it would. "With Carson's new drug, they think the Wraith aren't a threat to us anymore. They think we've learned all we're going to."
"It's not like we ever thought those pen pushers were very bright. Don't look so surprised," John says. "It doesn't change anything. I'm not going back. Not to Atlantis and certainly not to Earth."
"Lorne and Cadman both resigned," Rodney says, ignoring him. "Weir too. I quit--because I don't do that whole resigning thing. They're idiots and I let them know it."
"You always were one for burning bridges," John says.
"We're staying, John," Rodney says. "And we don't have to answer to them anymore. Do you get it now? They can't threaten you anymore. Come home."
John laughs. "You think they're the reason I left?" he asks. "Because they wanted me brought back to Earth to be their lab rat? I didn't give a damn about that, Rodney. I expected it from them."
John glares at him, his eyes sparking--miniature lightening bolts lighting up his irises before fading out again. "You didn't stop them either," he says.
"Because of what happened to you," Rodney says slowly, "Carson perfected his drug."
"And I got stuck like this," John says. "I'd have given my life, Rodney, but I drew the line at this and not one of you gave a damn."
"You're not any different," Rodney says. "Not really. If anything, you're--"
"Don't you even think about finishing that sentence," John says, pointing at him. "This isn't better. Do you have any idea what my dreams are like? I can hear them, Rodney. Every last one of them. They're in my head, under my skin."
John's shoulders slipped back into a slouch and he gave a sigh. "I'd be better off dead."
"Don't say that," Rodney snaps. "You know why I let them do it."
"Yeah, I know," John says. "And maybe I should be grateful that you were stronger than I was. The research will save a lot of lives."
Rodney glares at him. "That wasn't why. You would have died if we'd done what you wanted. You've always known I was a selfish bastard, John. I let them do it because I didn't want to lose you, and I didn't care what I had to do to keep you alive."
John shakes his head and his bangs fall over his forehead, not quite long enough to hide his eyes. "You made a monster."
"It was just blood," Rodney says quietly. "You needed it. You were going to die."
"I was supposed to," John snaps.
The scales shed away but not everything went back the way it was before. John kept tearing at his skin like there was something underneath trying to claw it's way out and he kept begging them to make it stop.
To get it out of him.
In the end, they just helped it hide a little better instead.
They all knew he probably wasn't going to forgive for them for that.
John feels dizzy for a minute and he backs away, slamming into the invisible barrier of the puddlejumper. The thrum thrum thrum of it is more comforting than he wished it was.
They pumped him full of Wraith blood and the enzyme, to keep him alive. He was caught between two different species and they had to choose one of them. Rodney likes to play the best odds, and stripping his genes until he was purely human again would have made it almost impossible for him to survive.
Letting that bit of Iratus in him thrive gave him a 91 percent chance.
They've told him that more than once, like it actually meant something, but John would have rather taken his chances. He's beat bad odds before.
"I just want you to leave me alone, okay?" he asks, and his voice has finally lost that undertone it's gained since he's changed.
He sounds human again, and that's probably when Rodney decides he's not going without him.
"I told you," Rodney says, tilting his chin up defiantly, not even blinking as the bright alien sun burns his eyes. "I need you."
John was always charming. He's always been good at getting what he wants, but it's a little different these days. He can say sit and you will, without knowing why, he can move faster than you can follow and he can hold you down with one hand.
He could make Rodney leave. He could force him to or ask him to with a slightly different tone and he would be gone, probably forever.
All he has to do is ask again.
He left the moment he woke up. Just out of surgery and feeling stronger than he's ever been, and he's got a homing beacon in his head. A million different voices trying to call him home.
But he's not one of them.
When he can't quite convince himself that's true, he leaves. It's his job to protect them, even from himself.
Especially from himself.
"I can't," John says. "I won't."
"You can't or you won't?" Rodney snaps. "Make up your mind."
"Does it really matter which?" John asks. "The end result is the same. You're leaving here alone."
"No, I'm not," Rodney says defiantly. "I'd rather not leave at all."
John snorts. "Suit yourself. You won't last five days. These people are nice enough but they've barely discovered the wheel let alone Microsoft."
"Microsoft sucks," Rodney says.
"You're intentionally missing the point," John tells him. "Go home. I don't want to have to force you."
Rodney steps up to him, taking the offensive for once, and glares straight at him. It's still John. It is--there's no other explanation for how he's still this stubborn. "You won't," Rodney says. "You would have done it by now."
"Don't count on that," John says. "There are things I never thought you would do, too. I was wrong. Don't make my mistake."
Rodney reaches out and frames John's face. His skin is cool and too smooth, like marble or glass, too perfect to feel real. Rodney doesn't pull away, though. He lost his sense of reality years ago. "How long are you going to punish me for this?" he asks softly. "I need you, okay? Do I need to say it again? I need you, I can't do this without you, I can't, not just because you won't--"
Rodney in this much pain has kind of always been an Achilles heel of his, so John grabs his wrists tight and gives him a slight shake, jarring him enough his eyes snap to his. "You don't know what you're asking," he says. "Ask anything else. Anything. Just not this."
"There's nothing else I want," Rodney snaps. "It took losing you to realize it, but it's the truth."
John leans across and kisses him gently. Rodney's too surprised to realize its goodbye. He kisses him back instead, gripping at his shirt with his keyboard calloused fingers and that little scar between his thumb and fingers, from when he first fired a gun.
John would like to give in. He would like to forget. He settles for forgiving. "I know you did it for me," he says. "I do know. I would have done the same."
Rodney sucks in air like he hasn't been able to breath for months. "Thank god," he says. "I would never, I just couldn't lose you--" Rodney grabs and pulls at him. The human contact is strange.
Follow him, they say. You know you want to.
"Say you'll come back," Rodney says. "John, say it."
"I'll come back," John says, and he's a little surprised to realize he sounds out of breath too. Not an easy feat, these days. His stamina's better than it's ever been.
Rodney dials the gate while he catches him up on Teyla and Ronon and Earth. John lets him talk. John's missed his voice. So follow it through, they say.
The Wraith have a lot to say. They're just waiting, waiting waiting for him to lead them back where they want to be.
"You first," Rodney says.
John glances up at the event horizon and it's soft foreign glow. It's more green these days than blue. His vision is a little more off color than it used to be. "I hope you figure it out some day," John says.
Rodney glances at him, frowning and too damn trusting. "What?" he asks.
"That you're better off without me," John tells him, because the truth is it's not that he won't go back. It's that he can't, because they'll follow him, but John refuses to toy with that brilliant mind of Rodney's that he loves so much, so he just pushes him in with one quick, painless shove.
And doesn't follow him through.