Category/Rating: Gen. AU. PG, a little bit of language
Original Story: An Annoying Cousin by leesa_perrie
Word Count: ~4,200 words
Summary: Like every new life experience, Rodney McKay had been absolutely terrified, and it was John's duty as the older, more responsible sibling... cousin—to impart the wisdom of the older generation.
Notes: This is a remix of the fourth story in Leesa Perrie's Cousins Series, an alternate universe in which John and Rodney are first cousins. I'm not sure if it's self-contained enough to be read outside the series, but I loved the original too much to not try and remix it for Leesa. If you're curious about any of the events referred to in the story, I'd suggest reading her stories. They're among my favorites I know. This takes place pre-series, so no real spoilers involved.
The engine on 'Ike' didn't exactly purr so much as sputter and spew as Rodney cranked the key under his older cousin's watchful gaze. He tossed a nervous look over his shoulder, eyes widening and mouth forming a small 'o' as he shook his head minutely.
"What?" John asked.
"This is a bad idea."
"Relax, Rodney." John pat his shoulder lightly. "You're just taking the General for a quick spin. What could go wrong?"
It had been a sunny summer afternoon in California when eighteen year old John Sheppard had shanghaied his younger cousin in the beat-up orange clunker to the most remote back roads he could possibly find in order to give the fifteen year old his first driving lesson. Like every new life experience, Rodney McKay had been absolutely terrified, and it was John's duty as the older, more responsible sibling... cousin—to impart the wisdom of the older generation.
Almost twenty years later to the day, it appeared that Rodney was trying out a little bit of role reversal.
The transfer papers to the SGC were still crumpled in John's fist when Rodney began to catch up to him, babbling that same line of logic of how John was wasting his talents in McMurdo, who had the gall to insinuate that John was afraid of moving on with his life after Afghanistan. Rodney McKay had been holed up in labs and classrooms his entire adult life and knew nothing about the hell that John had gone through in Afghanistan, and damn it, he liked it that way. Rodney's childhood hadn't exactly been a happy one, and the less ugliness that touched him the better.
Ignorance was no excuse for interfering with John's life, though.
"Come on, slow down."
Over twenty years later and Rodney had filled out from the gangly awkward teenager that had first graced the Sheppard household, and his tall frame nearly matched John for height, enabling him to keep up with John's lengthy strides. However, John had always been able to shake his human shadow whenever he wanted to, and he didn't intend on that changing.
"I'm not talking to you," John snapped at the jogging scientist.
"But you just did." The satisfied smirk did nothing to quell the anger radiating from John. "Look, I'm sorry—" John paused in his stride for two seconds, and upon seeing that the smirk hadn't so much retreated but only dimmed ever-so-slightly, picked up his pace again. Rodney McKay was never sorry, especially when he was convinced he was right. "Okay, so maybe I'm not that sorry—"
One of the bright points of spending his high school and college years under the same roof as McKay, John had developed a very handy ability to tune out the long droning monologues his cousin tended to drift off on. Like riding a bike, you never forgot how. John concentrated on winding through the labs and stations in the underground research post. If he just kept walking, eventually his shadow would take the hint and slip away.
"Fine," Rodney had moved from sensible pleading to borderline irritated, "be that way if you want."
Panting, almost out of breath, he put on an extra burst of speed and placed himself directly in front of John, forcing the pilot to stop so he wouldn't crash into him. It was a dirty trick, because Rodney knew that as angry as John would get, he'd never let him get hurt in even the tiniest, stupidest ways. John had lost a lot of friends in high school and college because of that.
"Take it," Rodney puffed, holding out a small laptop as if it were the holy grail. "There's some reports I really think you need to read."
Lips pressed into a thin line, John regarded the laptop and then the man holding it out to him.
"Look, I know you're pissed." The smug expression was gone now, replaced with the bunched up expression that appeared whenever Rodney was about to try something strange, new, and decidedly scary. "I just... it might explain to you why I'm doing this. Please."
'This' referred to John's forced transfer into the Stargate program, and his cousin's not-so-thinly veiled requests to have the pilot join the Atlantis expedition. John shouldered past him, leaving the laptop and the pleading expression behind. Rodney was leaving for another galaxy whether John liked it or not. He didn't understand that—couldn't understand that in fact, because this wasn't the same person that John had grown up with. His timid little brother—damn it, cousin—had been replaced with this stranger.
"This is a really bad idea."
"Rodney, you have to learn to drive sometime. I'm not going to be able to take you everywhere once the semester starts."
"If you give me a pencil and a pad of paper I can illustrate to you all of the ways this is going to end in tears."
"Put it into first gear and ease off the clutch," John told him again.
"I don't want to do this." Rodney fixed him with a wide-eyed expression, trying to melt John's resolve with a sad blue-eyed puppy dog stare.
John felt some of his resolve crumble, but he squashed it down and physically moved Rodney's hand to the gearstick. "Tough. I'm not taking 'no' for an answer."
The hard-eyed stare wavered, giving a glimpse of the frightened fifteen-year-old that had been afraid of putting a car into first gear. John's hot anger cooled a little as the laptop shook ever so slightly in Rodney's grip, as if the muscles in that arm weren't quite used to holding weight for an extended amount of time. As his eyes tracked to the shaking grip, a dark look flitted across Rodney's face. He quickly added a second hand to stabilize the quaking wrist and the shadows retreated.
Despite being wrapped in several layers of thermal wear, John felt a sudden chill. He hadn't seen a look like that since the first time he and Rodney had met, back when there were more dark and angry memories than good ones.
"Please." The request was simple and Rodney's voice remained strong, as if he hadn't just slipped off to a different time a few moments before.
Without a word, John took the laptop, but he didn't try to hide his lingering frustration. He was not happy about anyone playing fairy god mother with his career—his life—especially his irritable little cousin. John stalked away, laptop firmly tucked under his arm. Rodney wisely let him go, possibly sensing how close John was to committing fratricide.
"Now, as you ease off the clutch, give it a little gas—"
The car lurched forward a few inches as the engine roared in protest before giving a painful dying cough. As the rumbles faded to silence, Rodney's eyes widened. "Oh crap, I just killed your car! See, this is a very, very—"
With an aggrieved sigh, John reached over and flicked the key into the off position and pulled it from the ignition. He held the key up to eye level, and very slowly, Rodney met John's stern gaze. "Why are you such a pain in the ass?"
"Excuse me? I told you I can't—"
"No, I think it's a 'you won't'."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"It's a car, Rodney. It's not exactly rocket science, which, oh hey, happens to be your latest hobby."
"They are completely different animals." Rodney sniffed disdainfully.
John leveled his younger cousin with a look.
"Look, I just don't see why you're pushing this."
"I'm not always going to be around when you need something," John explained as patiently as he could. "And it'll be handy for you to know how to change gears if we ever have to outrun the law."
He expected to hear some sort of derisive comment about "trouble-prone flyboy wannabes" or possibly a derogatory comment about orange hatchbacks named after World War II generals and their inability to make a break for it in even a slow speed car chase. Instead, Rodney's eyes flicked downwards.
"Oh," he said softly, "I get it."
"I'm not so sure about that." John studied the downcast expression, trying to figure out where the conversation had derailed.
"Look, I understand that you want your own life and I'm not exactly the life of the party, maybe a little weird, can drag things down—"
"Rodney," he interrupted sternly, "that's very true—but also complete crap."
"I do want to have a little freedom, but it has nothing to do with you."
"But you said you wouldn't be around if I need—"
"Something as inconsequential as a ride to the library," John clarified, getting where this was going. Two years and sometimes he still wanted to shake the kid, because he just didn't get it. Rodney opened his mouth to interrupt, and John forged on before he could start. "However, you better damn well say something," he jabbed his younger cousin in the chest to drive his point home, "if you ever need me."
The reports were dry, straight to the point, and signed by none other than John's new commanding officer, one Brigadier General Jack O'Neill. It was all very official, very classified, and from the date at the top of the document, very old. Almost five years old.
Five years ago, John had been part of a black ops group in North Korea, doing what he had thought at the time was the one of the most classified and dangerous assignments for the Air Force. He'd been out of contact with the rest of the world, protecting his country and by extension his family.
John had stripped the warm gloves from his hands so he could operate the laptop's keyboard a little easier without mashing two keys at a time. Right now, blunt fingernails were digging into his palm as he carefully read each line of the report. It was a very good thing Rodney had made himself scarce, because John had found a whole new reason to be pissed.
"Idiot," he snarled at the LCD screen.
How Rodney could be so smart yet so damn stupid was beyond John. Actually, if he gave it two seconds thought, it wasn't. People pandering to Rodney's ego had always been his downfall even when they were teens. The rogue NID faction that had lured his cousin off world for their little side project probably used similar tactics to the assholes back at CalTech. There were a handful of incidents off the top of John's head where some upperclassmen had tried to take advantage of the sixteen year old racing through the curriculum and try and ride the genius coattails for an easy grade. The difference back then had been an older cousin with no compunction about getting a little rough with the ne'er-do-wells, and well, no alien technology that physically put the kid on a different planet.
For four long years it had been an uphill battle trying to get Rodney to see past the various styles of ego stroking to look at what was really going on behind the happy words. Maybe John had babied him too much, because maybe if Rodney had been able to learn the hard way back then...
He glared at the screen, paging down to the next part of the report.
They had achieved second gear. John might have permanent whiplash, but they were now creeping down the road at a very ambitious fifteen miles per hour.
"You're a regular Bo Duke," he remarked dryly.
"What?" Both eyes and hands left the designated points as Rodney fixed John with a sideways glance and flailed slightly with the movement.
"Hands at ten and two!" John put a hand on the steering wheel to steady the car's path. "Eyes forward."
"Nag, nag, nag. I was doing good!"
"You were." It was nice to see the nervousness had faded away, replaced by that oh-so-familiar over-inflated ego that John loved to hate. "But don't get distracted."
"You were talking to me!"
"It's called multi-tasking," John shot back. "Another handy life skill, just like the ability to drive a car."
"We're already in second gear. What more do you want from me?"
"More speed." John grinned. "You're pace is putting me to sleep, Grandma."
"Hey! Do you think you can do better?"
"Seeing as I'm teaching you all of this—yes."
"Eyes on the road!" John reminded with another steadying hand to the wheel.
The lines of the report were a blur as John sat stiff-backed in the chair. The hard clench to his jaw made his teeth ache and there were now deep gouges in his palms. He was no longer cold, because his blood had started to boil once he'd gotten to the part of the report that went into detail about the fascinating alien "bracelet". The one that had been forced on his younger cousin when he'd finally seen through the Rogue NID's ego pandering; the thing that had embedded itself into Rodney's arm and nervous system. The bracelet that was in actuality a goddamn torture device.
John had been in Korea for four months. He'd been sneaking around, flying stealth ops and licking his wounds from signing the divorce papers Nancy had served him with. Four months, in which some smug bastards from John's own government had lured an insecure civilian away from the safety of the labs and academia and coerced him to do their bidding.
Those bastards had hurt his little brother—cousin—no, brother.
And John was only on the second page of the first report.
He had been so buried in that damn operation that someone had not only abducted Rodney, but the bastards had used some alien torture device to force him into doing their dirty work. Someone had hurt Rodney, and John had remained blithely oblivious until now. Five years later.
John's fingers slipped from their tight hold on his palm, and in a detached sort of fascination, he held up the hand to see that his blunt nails had broken the skin. It was strange, because he could see the blood, but he couldn't feel the pain. Either his hands had gone numb from the room's temperature—
—or there were still pages left in this damned report.
Thirty miles per hour and old Ike was taking the steep turn with all the care and consideration of a panicked chicken trying to take flight. John's fingers were digging permanent holes into the leather of the passenger seat and the wild pounding of his heart was only drowned out by the hysterical babbling coming from the driver's side of the vehicle.
"We're going to die! Out on some god forsaken back roads because you don't want me to take the freaking bus! Well, let me tell you something, John Sheppard! Public transportation is for winners! And by the way, naming your car after World War II generals in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Dukes of Hazzard because you're too damn lazy to paint your car a color that doesn't blind people—"
"Tree!" John sacrificed his precious hold on the seat to grab the steering wheel and help the car swerve out of danger.
"Hey! I'm driving!"
"No, you're panicking!"
"That's because my driver's ed instructor is going into a catatonic state!"
"Pay attention." John reached out and physically turned Rodney's head to face the correct direction.
"Why, is there—oh god, where did the road go?"
"It's a hill." John was not going to smack his cousin. Hitting Rodney never solved anything; it just led to more complaining. "Just slow down and hit the brakes."
"Right." Rodney's Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed and slammed his foot down on the pedal on the right. The engine roared and the car shot forward with an extra burst of speed.
"I said brakes!"
"Oh god," Rodney resumed babbling, "we are going to die!"
John's sarcastic reply was drowned out by his cousin's terrified shriek as all four of Ike's tires left the ground and the tiny orange hatchback took flight.
Scientists and soldiers wisely moved to the side in deference to the figure stalking down the hall. He didn't pause to ask for directions because he knew exactly where to find his quarry. With a single minded purpose he strode into the area that had been cleared out as McKay's work area and slammed the laptop down on the metal table that had been set up as a desk. The metallic clang echoed through the room, and Rodney looked up from his work hesitantly. "I take it you've finished reading then?"
John didn't answer, just snatched Rodney's arm with one hand and shoved up the several layers of sleeves to reveal an ugly puckered white scar tracing his forearm. Unconsciously John gripped the arm tighter as a band tightened around his chest.
"Okay, that's a little tight there." Warm, long since healed flesh constricted under John's palm. "Seriously, ow—"
John let go as if he had been burned, stalking away several paces to a safe enough distance before he jabbed an angry finger in Rodney's direction. "You didn't tell me!"
"I couldn't. It was classified."
"You were—you should have told me!"
"What good would it have done?" Rodney shook his head as he pulled the sleeves back down. "The people responsible were already being dealt with by the authorities, and it wasn't like you had proper clearance to know any of the details."
"I should have known," he seethed, bloodied fingers curling into a fist. "They..."
John couldn't say the word aloud, because that made it all the more real. He couldn't actually say that someone had tortured his little cousin, the kid he had sworn to himself to protect from the ugly side of the world.
"What happened to your hand?" Rodney asked quietly.
"I read the reports!" he spat. How the hell was he supposed to react? "You kept this from me for five years, Rodney. Why tell me now?"
"Because I'm going to Atlantis, with or without you," Rodney said softly. "Even if I'm really hoping for the 'with' part."
"So what? Then you made me read that just to make me feel guilty?"
"No!" Rodney snapped. "It's just an explanation. I just—I got myself into that mess, and I was lucky to get out alive. You would have been the only person to miss me if things had turned out for the worse. I mean, the world would miss my genius, miss out on the advances to science—"
"Rodney," he warned.
"—but they wouldn't miss me." The walls were down, and John found himself staring at that scared teenager again. "They need me on this expedition, and you have no idea how it feels to be needed like that." He paused, considering that. "Well, maybe you do. But I can't not go." Okay, maybe John wasn't staring at the teenager that was afraid to put a car into first gear because the man standing in front of him wasn't scared of trying something new. "I have to do this. I need to do this. But if something else like that happens again, I just wish that I could know that someone... I just need..."
His jaw shut with an audible click as he looked away.
If you ever need me...
The anger drained out of John and he shook his head at his cousin. "You're a mess, you know that?"
"Maybe," Rodney admitted reluctantly, "but I'm still going." John had gotten that part, yes. No need to reiterate it a million times. "And I'm not sorry about getting you transferred—you deserve more than forced retirement or whatever else was waiting for you at the end of your tour at McMurdo."
Rodney wouldn't force his cousin to join the expedition, but he wasn't going to leave on possibly a one-way trip to another galaxy without trying to put John back in the driver's seat of his life. Stupid smug bastard. It was a hell of a way to say goodbye.
"Hopefully, you'll forgive me someday." It was said airily, but a hint of desperation crept through. Rodney was leaving, of that there was no doubt, and he probably didn't want the last memory of John to be of them fighting.
"Don't get me wrong," John said after a long pause, "I'm definitely not happy with the way you went about this—"
Brakes or gas—moving forward or turning back—either way it was up to John. It was his own life, and he didn't have to do anything he didn't want to. Unfortunately, it worked the same for Rodney; the last remaining member of John's very tiny family. Rodney didn't want to stay—for probably a multitude of reasons ranging from his unhappy childhood to the discoveries that would await him on the other side of the known universe. He just didn't want to be alone.
And neither did John.
"But?" Rodney prompted again, dread creeping into his tone.
"You're a stubborn pain in the ass," John admitted quietly, "but we're good."
"Oh, good." Rodney deflated with a sigh of relief. "Does that mean—?"
"It means I'm still thinking about it," John lied.
The car landed with a spectacular crunch, the vibrations from the impact rattling John's teeth and sending tremors up his spine. They continued to lurch forward before the beginning driver finally found the brakes and sent them to a skidding halt. John tried to ignore the fact that his heart was trying to leap out of his chest and turned to appraise his cousin's condition at the same moment that Rodney decided to do the same.
"We're alive?" he asked hesitantly.
"I think so," John said slowly. "You in one piece?"
"I think so," Rodney echoed. "You?"
"You should probably take over again—I'm really not ready for this."
That was probably the smartest idea either of them had all day. John's nerves would definitely be happier if he had control of the vehicle. Ike's shocks would certainly appreciate having a calmer, more experienced individual behind the wheel. Tires were meant to drive on the ground—not the air...
"That..." John said finally, "was cool."
"So very Dukes of Hazzard."
"That is the most ridiculous show on the face of this planet and doesn't relate—"
And Rodney would never learn if John allowed him to give up at the first sign of trouble.
"Just put it into first gear, Rodney." John grabbed his hand again, putting it back on the gearstick. "We're staying out here until you get this."
"Why do you hate me so?"
"Because it's my job."
It was the next day when John ambled up to his cousin, a bemused Elizabeth Weir trailing behind him and he made his announcement to join the expedition almost as loud and clear as the "accidental" reveal of Rodney's birth name.
Cheeks flaming red, Rodney glared at his older cousin petulantly. "Is that it? Your revenge for all of this is telling people my first name?"
"Nope," John grinned wolfishly, "my revenge is that I'm coming with you."
"But that's what I wanted!"
"I know. You should be careful what you wish for."
"Is that supposed to scare me?"
There was a lingering annoyance at Rodney's manipulations, but John had decided to excise his frustrations in the most fun way possible: winding the man up.
"You know," John tapped his chin thoughtfully, "I'm having a flashback to an incident with a toaster—"
McKay slapped a hand over John's mouth. "No, no, no, no! No one needs to hear about that—" John mumbled a few more muffled words about the toaster-from-hell. "He's deranged people, doesn't know what he's saying!" With a wicked smirk, John licked the palm covering his mouth, drawing a disgusted cry. "That's disgusting! Unsanitary!"
He watched as the scientist vigorously rubbed his palm on his orange fleece, scowling irritably and muttering obscenities. It was the oldest trick in the book; one that Rodney seemed unable to learn. As the older, wiser, more responsible and level-headed cousin... sibling, it was John's responsibility to continue to try and teach these little valuable life lessons to the younger generation.
And he certainly couldn't do that from a different galaxy.
Rodney couldn't seem to stop grinning as he successfully maneuvered around another sharp bend of the back road. Ike's engine was still sputtering, and John could feel in the shaky ride the time he would be spending in the garage later. He should have been angry about it, but honestly, he couldn't muster up the feeling when his cousin was having so much fun.
It was just one of those things he had learned over the past two years about being an older cousin—brother. It was annoying, exhausting, sometimes unfair, and with Rodney almost always frustrating as hell—
—but at times it was also worth it.
Rodney chanced a glance from the winding road to flash John a thankful smile.
Really worth it.