Disclaimer: According Intellectual Proprty Laws, someone owns these ideas, characters, scenarios, etc. and whoever that is it's not me. I'm playing with 'em anyway. So sue me. (Actually, no, please don't.)
Overture: Antonine Dvorak, Slavonic Dances Op. 72, No. 8
Radek's rooftop homecoming is bittersweet, as he'd known it would be. Three years is a considerable span in the life of a pigeon, and a number of old friends are gone. Still, more than a few of his favorites remain -here is Marak, with the white streak on his head, and pretty, pale feathered Lenka, and there is one, a particular favorite, named Jana, that he is truly overjoyed to see. She remembers him, too, or so it would seem, for she flies over to land on his shoulder, just as he had taught her to many years ago, reaching her little head across to nibble at his lips with her beak.
Radek has the decency to feel a little ashamed that this dry, birdy kiss means more to him than the perfunctory peck on either cheek with which his sister had greeted him at the airport two days ago. It's not that he doesn't care for his sister; it's just that they have absolutely nothing in common. It has always been so, as though they both lived in different worlds, even before he had travelled to another galaxy to live and work.
Jana will expect a reward for performing her little trick, and he does not disappoint her, producing a handful of seeds and bread-crumbs from his pocket for her, and soon he has many feathered friends. To be fair, Radek's sister isn't alone in her inability to take an interest in the things that mean the most to Dr. Radek Zelenka. There really isn't anyone amongst the friends and acquaintances he spends his time with here in Prague who does. The academic communities where he had once worked, and will soon be working again, are too fraught with ambition and politics for him to be comfortable making friends there, and no one else he knows has the first idea about what Radek's work involves. When Radek really has something he wants to share, he has discovered that his birds do a better job of pretending to care than any of the humans he knows.
His long time neighbor, Jiří Pravec is the closest thing he has to a friend here, for he is the one who at least shares Radek's passion for his birds, and for racing them, and that is something anyhow. Still, it is clear that Jiří has mixed feelings about Radek's return, in spite of his wide and welcoming smile when Radek appeared at his doorstep this afternoon. This is only fair, as Radek had told him that the birds (including a number of record holders Radek is proud to have raised) would be his to keep if he did not return in four years, and now he has returned, one year too soon.
Jiří is also the manager of the apartment building where they both live, and he has been paid a princely sum to hold Radek's old flat for his eventual return. He has sublet it, of course, but promises that the current tenants will be out in two weeks, which is fine with Radek. He does not mind spending as week or two in a hotel room as long as the loft is where it always has been, on the rooftop of Jiří and Radek's apartment building, overlooking the city he had thought of as home for so long.
Racing pigeons is a Zelenka family legacy, though neither his sister nor his late mother ever seemed to care for them. The loft and its occupants were foist upon him the day after his father died and they have been here on this rooftop ever since. Growing up, his father's pigeon loft had been where Radek had first gone to dream as a young boy. He'd sit among the fluttering, cooing flock and look out over the rooftops and wonder things, things which he already knew no one in his family would ever bother to wonder.
He'd wondered what it was like to fly, as do all who spend time with birds, and what it was like to have a compass in your head, to know where you were on the planet, and feel which way was home. As he grew older and his wonderings grew larger, he would spend long summer evenings in the loft waiting with the timing clock for their birds to come in from a race, and wonder what it must be like to live a life where doing what you loved most would take you to far places and unknown adventures. It was fairly unlikely, he'd thought back then, that he'd ever live such a life, but it had been impossible, as he'd watched each bird return from it's untold adventures, not to dream.
As chance would have it, though, young Radek Zelenka's dreams had been no match at all for where doing what he loved had actually taken him, but that adventure is over now. Its conclusion was unexpected, but seeing as it had ended much more pleasantly than it might have, Radek doesn't feel like he has any place to complain. And home is where you go when the adventure's over; you don't loiter about in the vestibule wishing it wasn't. Prague is where Radek has always been proud to call home, and so that is where he has gone now.
Rodney McKay has tried manfully to convince him otherwise, but he doesn't understand why Radek can't work at Area 51, or even head up the puddle jumper project. Though it was painful to say no to this last in particular, Radek reminds himself of how much more painful it would be to face the task of reverse engineering and recreating a puddle jumper when he knows that the equipment he really needs to analyze the Ancient technology, and the equipment he needs to build the jumper components... and plenty of jumpers themselves for that matter, lie just on the other side of an event horizon... and forever out of reach.
It is much too much like having his nose pressed against the window of the candy store, knowing he will never have candy again. He truly wonders how Rodney can stand it.
Radek draws in a deep breath, smells the sour tang of pigeon droppings, the clean scent of rain and bitter-sweet oder of auto exhaust, and gets a pigeon feather up his nose. It smells like home and makes him laugh just a little. It is spring and the short distance racing has already begun for the older birds. Jiří is terribly excited to show Radek some of the birds who have matured in Radek's absence, ones who's training he has overseen himself, and Radek is happy to let him run the show for a spell. He's been out of the pigeon racing business for a while, after all, and doesn't mind letting Jiří reacquaint him.
The longer distance races will begin in a few weeks and by then Radek will be back in the saddle, ready to pick up his life pretty much where he left off three years ago. He is annoyed that he has to remind himself that there's nothing wrong with that, and confronts himself with memories of the several times it had looked like he was not going to survive the Atlantis adventure at all. When viewed in this light it is easy for Radek to feel as if there is nowhere on earth, or anywhere else, he'd rather be now.
He is back in the city he has always called home, where everyone speaks his language, has his apartment back, and a job that is a bit better than the one he had before he left. He has his birds back, even Jana, his favorite, and the loft he has always enjoyed sharing with them. He can come here to dream and wonder, just as he always has, but now, he realizes with sad certainty, he need no longer wonder what it would be like to have doing what he loves lead him to travel and adventures, for he knows. Now, instead of imagining what that life might be like in some unlikely future, he will remember what it was like, for the three miraculous years he lived in the city of the Ancients, in a galaxy far, far away. Picturing his future now takes no imagination at all.
-Radek remembers Atlantis-
** Bedřich Smetana, Má Vlast [My Fatherland] - From Bohemia's Fields and Groves **
A flutter and a light 'thunk' announces the latest arrival into the loft. It is little Bedřich poking his head through the trap, home at last. Radek takes the bird up carefully to remove the rubber race band encircling his leg and places in into the timing clock to have Bedřich's arrival time officially logged in. Bedřich was a young bird in the last racing season Radek had taken part in; now he is in his racing prime, although his time in this race will set no records. He is the next to last of Radek's birds to come in; only Jana remains.
This is Radek's third race this season and the longest yet, at over three hundred kilometers. Jiří chose not to race Jana in any of the longer races last year, in part out of deference to Radek because he knew that she was a favorite of his, and in part because he knows that every winter that Jana remains in the loft she may produce yet another record breaking offspring. She has, after all, produced three already.
Radek appreciates this, but Jana loves to fly and when the time had come to pack up the birds he was taking on this race Radek had been unable to leave her behind. He isn't overly worried about her tardy arrival, though. There's no telling what mischief a bird might encounter on such a long race to delay it's arrival home, and birds frequently arrive at their lofts days, weeks or even months after a race. There is even an instance Radek has read of where a British pigeon returned from a race four years after it was released.
Waiting in the loft for his birds to return is a quiet, contemplative task and one of Radek's favorite aspects of pigeon racing. Even if he no longer wonders what his own life will bring, he still enjoys wondering how his birds are faring and imagining where they have travelled. Thinking of what lies between this race's release point and here, Radek wonders where Jana is now, imagines her winging her way home over fields and factories, highways and housing complexes. His reverie is broken by an unusually heavy and rapid tread on the rickety stairs that lead to his rooftop sanctuary.
"Hey, Radek! You up there?"
Now Radek's tranquil mood is violently shattered. There is no one in all of Prague who would say his name in this fashion, with that awful flat American style 'a' and no roll on the opening 'R' at all. The voice is entirely unmistakable though, for all it is entirely out of place.
"Rodney??" He stoops to exit the loft and shuts the door behind him, stepping over to peer down the stairs. Sure enough, it is Dr. Rodney McKay who is making his way up the last flight, now a little out of breath. He breaks into a wide grin as he sees Radek and puts out a hand, as much for Radek to pull him up the last few stairs as to shake it.
"Damn it's good to see you," he says, still breathing hard as he looks around him, taking in the view, then, as always, cuts to the chase. "Why the hell aren't you packed?"
It takes Radek a moment or two to find his English, like switching gears inside his head that have gone just a little rusty, though it's only been a month or two. "It is good to see you as well," he says, in all honesty. "But why should I be packed?"
Rodney's mobile face reveals his impatient irritation for the briefest of moments, then comprehension. "You didn't get my email?" he asks.
"Rodney, I have been out with my birds racing since yesterday," Radek explains, rolling his eyes and astonished at how the dynamic between them has changed not in the least, in spite of their time apart. "Am still waiting for last one to come home."
"Huh," says Rodney, as if to himself. "So'm I, it would appear."
"I beg your pardon?" Radek asks.
"Radek, we got her back!" Rodney's joy is contagious and there can be no question what he is talking about. Still, Radek can scarcely believe it.
"What?" he asks, steadying himself against the side of the loft.
"She's all ours again," Rodney reiterates, taking both Radek's shoulders in his hands, so overcome with joy is he. "We're going back, Radek! We're going back to Atlantis, and you have to come."
"Oh my god," Radek says in a quiet voice, feeling a little overcome himself. Rodney's hands on him are welcome and steadying, the look in his face intent.
"You are coming back with us, aren't you?" he asks.
"Rodney, you will need to give me a moment," Radek says, pulling over an old wooden crate to sit on. "This is all very sudden."
"Right, right," says Rodney, "I suppose it would be."
"Can you tell me how this happened?" Radek asks, figuring that this give him some time and will help him get used to the idea.
Rodney looks about briefly, probably realizing that this rooftop is probably as good a place as any to have such a conversation, and then launches into his tale. He is, perhaps, even a little more animated than usual as he recounts how Atlantis was regained, but the tale is worthy of it. Naturally, Rodney makes himself out to be the hero of the day, but Radek knows that the essential facts are all true, and that Rodney really is a hero, anyhow. Watching his friend and collegue pacing bouncily back and forth on the rooftop before him, hands gesticulating wildly as he speaks, Radek feels something swell within his heart, and it is several minutes before he realizes that it is joy, pure and uncomplicated.
He thinks that perhaps he can actually see Rodney's eyes shining as he tells Radek of the three (three!) ZedPMs installed on Atlantis now, and then he thinks that it is possible that his are too.
When it grows dark Radek knows it is time to give up his vigil for the day and he and Rodney go out to dinner. Rodney does not ask him again if he is going back, for he knows the answer already. In the morning Radek calls Jiří to tell him that he is moving out again, and that he is free to take any or all of Radek's new furniture. Jiří has the grace to respond sorrowfully to the news of Radek's departure, even after Radek has told him that the birds are his to keep. He knows now that he is never coming back, and that it is no longer Prague that he thinks of when he thinks of the word 'home'.
It takes him two weeks to put his affairs in order and in that time Jana does not return. Radek suspects now that she never will, but he is not altogether sorry. There is some foolish romantic part of Radek that thinks that maybe it is better for a bird to end this way, out on the wing in the wild, than to grow old and drop off the perch in the middle of some winter night to be found cold and still on the floor of the loft the next morning. There is some part of Radek that recognizes that he has just made the same choice for himself, and he is not sorry about that either.
It is as he is standing before earth's Stargate, Rodney McKay at his side, that Radek realizes that he has at last discovered an answer to one of his very earliest questions. While he does not actually know what it is like to have a compass in his head, or what it feels like to a pigeon to be headed in the direction of home, he knows what it feels like to him. Radek knows now that for him, the feeling of going home is the feeling of stepping through the event horizon of an intergalactic wormhole. It takes him to the place where doing what he loves has lead him, and the place he knows he'll call home for the rest of his life.
Finale: Antonine Dvorak, Slavonic Dances Op. 46, No. 1
(c) T. Dancinghands 2006
I've raised doves before, but pretty much everything I now know about pigeon racing I learned here:
I'm a sloppy researcher though, so any mistakes I've made in this story are mine, and must not be blamed on this excellent site. If you've caught me in some glaring error I don't mind being set straight (so I can do the same for my story), as long as you can be civil about it.
In addition, Jana the pigeon is named after Jana Tichá, a Czech astronomer and expert on 'near earth objects' who has two asteroids named after her. Little Bedřich is, of course, name after Bedřich Smetana, the noted Czech (Bohemian) composer.
And seriously, give the music a listen while you read the story sometime. It's good!