"No," Rodney said automatically.
Sam tilted her head, eying him with part exasperation and part compassion. Rodney hated both.
"It's my understanding that they're just children, Rodney. Do you really want to leave them vulnerable to the Wraith?"
"We wouldn't be leaving them to anything. Send Zelenka. Or Peterson. Or, hell, even Ruebens. I may be the best, but I'm not the only one who can fix the problem," Rodney said.
"I know you're not the only one," Sam said, her back straightening as her looked turned serious again. "But you're the one I'm assigning to this mission."
"Sam, you don't... you don't understand." Rodney's hands clenched in frustration. "I can't let him go alone."
"Why?" Sam let out a harsh breath. "I understand that this is a difficult time for him, but he'll have other family there. You said yourself he had a brother. He won't be alone."
"Oh, please!" Rodney threw up his hands and began pacing Sam's small office. "The only reason I even know about his brother is that I hacked his file! Do you think he ever talks about them? Do you think he's ever even once mentioned his father? No."
Rodney stopped and gave her a pleading look. "The first time the Wraith attacked we all thought... well, you know what we thought. We all thought we were going to die! We did what we could and then... then we all said our goodbyes. All of us. Except John."
"Rodney," Sam sighed. "That doesn't mean -- "
"He has a brother. He had a father. Hell, he even has an ex-wife. He didn't send a message home because he didn't want to." Rodney felt an ache in the pit of his belly just thinking about it. He'd been estranged from Jeannie then, and he'd still wanted her to know what had happened, wanted her to know that he was... sorry. And knowing that John hadn't felt the same, hadn't needed to reach out to his own family, told Rodney everything he needed to know about them. "Sam, please." Rodney hated the way the words came out, the way his voice broke just a little on the one vowel in her name.
She looked at him for a long time, her blue gaze more insightful than he could have wished for.
"All right." She nodded.
He inclined his head in silent thanks, then strode out of the room.
The door opened smoothly and Rodney stepped in, nervous energy surrounding him like a cloud. He'd never been good in situations like this, situations that called for sensitivity. He assumed this situation called for sensitivity anyway. He hated the look on John's face when he finally glanced up at him, the door closing just as smoothly behind him as he cleared the archway.
It was a familiar look. The same look John always got when he wanted to guard whatever it was he was thinking.
"Hey," Rodney said, fumbling for words that might wipe away that look. "I, uh, heard what happened. I'm, uh, very sorry."
But he should have known it was a useless effort. John's walls were up and it was going to take nothing less than a full scale siege to bring them down again.
"You okay?" He knew it was a stupid question as soon as it left his mouth.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Because John would never answer truthfully.
Rodney wanted to reach out and pull John into his arms, but the brittle way he moved flashed an almost visible sign above his head that read "NO TOUCHING" in big block letters.
"I'm going with you," Rodney said without preamble. "My bag's already packed." He nodded toward the door. He'd left his duffel just on the other side. "Sam's approved it."
"Rodney," John said, sighing a little and looking away. When he looked back, his face was expressionless once again. "I'm fine."
"No," Rodney said, coming around the bed, unable to help himself this time. His hand cupped the back of John's neck and he pulled him down so that their foreheads pressed together. "You're cool. I'm fine. Remember?" Rodney wasn't sure why he was whispering, or why he was suddenly holding his breath, but he didn't release it until John nodded against him and he felt John's lips brush tentatively across his.
John's breath was hot against his mouth as they stood together, some of the tension leaving them both as the familiar heat of their bodies mixed and mingled.
John huffed a sigh. "You don't have to come."
Since it was so convenient, Rodney slapped him lightly on the back of the head, just hard enough to get his attention. "Don't be an idiot."
They stood together for a minute longer before John pressed another soft kiss to Rodney's lips. "Thanks."
"Shut up," Rodney said and kissed him back.
The plane vibrated beneath John's feet, Rodney's light snores a counterpoint to the steady hum of the engines. They could have waited for a transport, the funeral wasn't for another couple of days, but John hadn't wanted to linger at the mountain. So, they'd flown commercial, even though John hated public transportation. Hated the crowds and the noise and the totally alien feel of... the whole thing. To be honest, it probably wouldn't have been any better on a military transport. It was strange but Earth felt alien to him now. Atlantis was the only place that felt like home.
He shifted, lifting the arm rest between them so that Rodney fell against him, head resting against John's shoulder. Even though John missed Atlantis, he couldn't help loving the freedom they had with each other away from the base. He took a deep breath, Rodney's scent invading his senses. John would never tell Rodney this, but that scent and the familiar weight of Rodney beside him helped ease the weird mix of homesickness, regret, and grief that had been churning in his belly since Carter first broke the news to him.
He was glad Rodney had insisted on coming, that he hadn't let John pretend that everything was okay.
Not that he couldn't have done it on his own. Faced his brother, faced his old life. He could have. He would have. But having Rodney with him made it all just a little more bearable.
Rodney was a reminder of home, a reminder that John wasn't the fuck-up his dad had always thought he was. Even if he'd never have approved of John's relationship with Rodney, of John's relationship with anybody that wasn't Nancy, or at least a woman... John didn't care. It wasn't as if John was a stranger to disappointing his father.
Dave had always been the golden boy, had always been the perfect son. There'd been a time when John had hated him.
Rodney snorted and pressed closer, knocking John free of his thoughts. The seatbelt light blinked on and John felt the subtle change in air pressure as the plane began its descent. Lifting the shade, he glanced out the window seeing nothing but sky and clouds. They were probably still about forty minutes or so from landing and apparently it was going to be one of those gloomy, rainy East Coast days. It definitely fit his mood. Or at least it would once they finally got below the cloud cover and lost sight of the bright blue sky above it.
He usually loved that sight, but he doubted that even the familiar rush of being in the pilot's seat would have made this trip any better.
Even though he knew he wouldn't be seeing Dave or anyone else for another couple of days, he felt the anticipation knotting in his stomach the closer and closer they came to touching down.
He turned to find Rodney blinking blearily at him.
"Morning, Sleeping Beauty," John said with a smirk.
"Oh, ha ha," Rodney said, wiping the sleep from his eyes as he straightened in his seat. "You okay?"
John sighed. "I wish you'd stop asking me that." The answer would always be the same, no matter how John was really feeling. He'd spent too many years pretending everything was fine to stop now.
"Sorry." Rodney looked genuinely contrite.
John offered him a tentative half-smile. "It's okay." John nodded toward the window, wanting to change the subject. "We're almost there."
Rodney nodded, pulling away from John as he dry-washed his face and straightened his clothes. John missed his warm weight almost immediately.
The PA system beeped a warning and John watched as the flight attendants made their way back to their seats. Outside the window, Reagan National Airport slowly came into view looking small and a little forlorn, or maybe that's just how John was feeling at the moment. Even though it had been over a decade since he had been here last, DCA was a familiar view. A tiny, three terminal airport with just forty-four gates to its name.
They could have flown into Dulles, but John actually preferred the slower pace DCA provided. Plus, it was closer to their hotel and if the traffic was anything like John remembered, would have added at least an hour to their trip. And the trip was already going to be long enough, John thought.
"God, I hate commercial flights," Rodney complained, cracking his neck loud enough to make John wince.
"It's only about twenty minutes to the hotel," John said, glancing around the plane. The flight was only a quarter full, which pleased John since it meant quicker disembarkation. Neither John nor Rodney had checked any baggage, so they could head straight to the Avis desk once they landed.
The rental car terminal was similarly deserted, though there was one guy already at the Avis desk. He looked a little harried and a lot annoyed, and John could already tell that the poor girl behind the counter was not having a good time.
John would have been more sympathetic if he hadn't been having such a bad day himself. After years of learning how to tune out the white noise of Rodney's complaints when he had to, John didn't have any problems ignoring the obnoxious ass in front of them.
He ignored the way Rodney finally stepped forward and harangued the guy into taking whatever car they had left for him. Ignored the pleading look the Avis girl gave him, easily dismissing it with a practiced shrug. He knew if he let Rodney have his head, they'd be out of there in a matter of minutes. He did offer the girl an apologetic nod as he followed Rodney out of the terminal and into the lot.
It was a relief to finally be alone again. After piloting jumpers for so long, a brief moment of claustrophobia hit him as he slid into the familiar contours of the car, but then the ability to close the rest of the world out with the slam of his door did a lot to soothe him.
The rain slanted sideways against the car windows as traffic slowed them down to a crawl. Rodney cursed under his breath, feeling clumsy and unfamiliar with the mechanics of driving a car again. It worried him that John hadn't wanted to drive, that he was content to lean back in the passenger seat and watch as the city shifted in minute increments by his window.
Rodney wanted to reach out, rest a hand on John's thigh, or something. Just wanting to remind John that he wasn't alone.
But he didn't.
At the best of times, neither one of them was comfortable with the whole touchy-feely thing, though ever since Rodney had made up with Jeannie, he'd at least been trying. Rodney wished he were better at it, that he knew how to give John the kind of easy affection that Jeannie seemed so capable of.
The kind of affection they both seemed to need.
It was only when they were in bed, sated and exhausted, that was it easy for either of them.
The wipers were swishing steadily back and forth across his windshield when Rodney finally caught a glimpse of their hotel, the brick facade wet darkened by the rain. He'd booked based a little on convenience and a little on reputation. He hadn't wanted to bother John with the details and the Hotel Monaco had looked like a good bet.
He'd gotten one of their Mediterranean Suites, preferring a room that wouldn't leave them feeling overcrowded. The rooms on Atlantis weren't minuscule but they weren't luxurious either, and Rodney thought John deserved a little bit of luxury right now.
The room, when they finally got into it, wasn't exactly Rodney's style. The colors were a little too... colorful for him, but the bed was big and comfortable, and the tub looked big enough for two. Not that they were going to spend a lot of time relaxing this trip, Rodney thought.
He watched John pace toward the windows and back, occasionally pausing to stare out at the gloomy weather. "It's supposed to clear up by tomorrow night." Rodney left silent the thought that the day of his father's funeral was supposed to dawn bright and clear. John didn't answer, and Rodney searched for something else to say.
Rodney hated this. He hated any problem that he couldn't solve with a math proof and a fully charged ZedPM. He wanted to banish the heavy brooding silence that had draped itself around John like a cloak, but he didn't know how.
"Are you hungry? We could order room service," Rodney suggested. "Or go out, if that's what you want."
John shook his head. "You can go if you want."
Rodney snorted. "Okay, that's it." He pushed away from the bed, but didn't move towards John. "Are you ever going to tell me what happened between you and your father?"
John turned slowly toward him, one brow raised in question. "I didn't think I had to."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Rodney asked.
"I know you hacked my file, Rodney. Hell, you probably know more about my life than I do, at this point." John rubbed a palm across his face, looking tired and worn. "You know my dad was career military."
"So?" John said, a hint of color pinking his cheeks. "So?" John said again, anger or frustration or something in his voice. "He didn't exactly approve of my... lifestyle."
Rodney had already guessed as much. "There wasn't anything else? Anything more?"
"Didn't have to be." John shrugged. "Dad had a zero tolerance policy."
"Did you ever try to, I mean, I know you didn't send home a video, but have you ever wanted to... "
"What? Talk? Make up? No." John cut him off, rubbing hand over his mouth and sighing. "I'm not really in the mood for this, Rodney."
"I know, I'm sorry," Rodney said, wringing his hands. "It's just... I want to hate him, you know, for you, but - "
"No," Rodney interrupted. "He was a bastard. He was wrong. He had no right to tell you how to live your life." Rodney frowned. "But... "
John frowned, but stayed silent, studying Rodney's face and waiting.
"But I'm not much better, am I?" Rodney sighed and dropped back down to sit on the edge of the bed. His shoulders slumped a little as he said, "I cut myself off from Jeannie when she chose Kaleb over science. When I thought I knew what was best for her." Rodney didn't like knowing that he was anything like John's father.
"Don't be an idiot."
Rodney barked a short laugh. "That would be impossible. Genius, remember?"
"Yeah, well, you're not acting like it right now," John said, suddenly beside him on the bed. "You're nothing like my father."
"How can you say that?"
"Because I know you. Because you were angry at Jeannie because you loved her and you wanted what was best for her. Yeah, you were wrong," John said. "But you were man enough to admit it."
Rodney wasn't sure he ever really had. He didn't remember ever actually saying the words. He had been making an effort to show Jeannie that he cared and that he accepted Kaleb, as much as he could ever accept anyone who ate tofu chicken. And Madison, he was sure, got most of Jeannie's genes making him hopeful for the next generation. But, it wasn't as if he'd absolved himself just because it seemed that Jeannie was willing to try.
"That still doesn't make us any different. How do you know your father just never got the chance I did?" Rodney said, still pushing.
"He had a lot more than four years to decide whether or not he'd made a mistake, Rodney," John said, falling back onto the bed and covering his eyes with one arm. "Just trust me. You're nothing like him."
The "hands-off" vibes were so strong they were practically pushing Rodney off the bed, but he held his ground.
"Do you think I would have approached Jeannie, ever tried to understand, if the SGC hadn't forced me to?" Rodney said, feeling a weird mix of anger (at himself) and gratitude (at Carter).
"Rodney," John sighed. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
"Well, tough," Rodney said, letting some of his own anger color his voice.
"What do you want from me?" John said, throwing his hands out to slap against the bedspread.
"I don't know!" Rodney said, exasperated. "Nothing. I just want... I just want to help you." Rodney held up his hand, stopping John before he could begin. "Your father was wrong. So, incredibly wrong. But," Rodney said, snorting at the irony. "I know what that's like. Did you ever think maybe that he was so set against you being gay because he knew how hard it was going to be for you? Because he... loved you?"
"You don't know everything, McKay." John's voice was raspy, making him sound tired. "My father never loved me."
"What? How can you say that?"
"Because it's true." John rolled onto his side, resting his head on one hand as he looked up at Rodney. "There was always something... I was never good enough. Dave could do no wrong, and I could do no right. It's always been that way. I don't... I don't know why. I don't know what I ever did... But I know he never loved me."
"John." Rodney felt an ache somewhere deep in his chest. "Whatever you thought... Whatever he -- It wasn't anything you did."
John shrugged and rolled onto his back. "I married Nancy for him. He really liked her. Loved her. I thought maybe... but it didn't work out."
"Of course not!" Rodney said, angry now at John's father. "If you didn't love her, if you only married her because -- "
"I liked her a lot. She was a good person, Rodney," John said.
"So, what?" Rodney wanted to take John and shake him, make him see... Rodney didn't know what. He took a deep breath, and ran his fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry," Rodney said finally.
"For what?" John's small smile made some of the tension in Rodney's shoulders ease. "Being jealous?"
Rodney knew that John was just trying to change the subject, trying to distract Rodney from the intimacy of their conversation. Rodney let him.
"Me? Jealous?" Rodney said, haughtily. "Like you'd give this up? Genius and a hot body?"
John laughed and the knot in Rodney's belly eased some more.
"Yeah," John said. "I'm pretty lucky." Then he pulled Rodney down beside him and took his mouth, one leg sliding between Rodney's. "No more talking." John lifted his head, eyes serious as they bored into Rodney's. "Okay?"
Rodney nodded, sighing into John's mouth as their lips came together again. He didn't mind being a distraction, never minded when John's focus turned solely toward him.
John's focus was amazing.
He was hard and aching before John pulled him free from his trousers. Groaning, Rodney pressed his face against John's throat as John slowly stroked him.
"God," John whispered hoarsely. "I love how you feel in my hand. How you feel inside me." John's fingers played at the head of Rodney's cock, teasing the slit. "Want that. Want you," John said, suckling on Rodney's earlobe, making him shiver.
"Yes," Rodney hissed, bucking his hips, unable to keep still. "Please, John."
They were both naked now and Rodney watched, breath hitching in his chest, as John prepared himself. John's eyes were half-lidded, his face flushed as he slid his fingers in and out, stretching himself.
"Fuck," Rodney groaned.
"Yeah," John said, then he was climbing into Rodney's lap, fingers circling the base of Rodney's cock. Pressing the head against his opening, John slid down, taking Rodney in inch by inch.
Rodney loved when John rode him, when he could watch the look on John's face as he fucked himself on Rodney's cock. John seemed lost in the moment, eyes closed as he focused entirely on the feel of Rodney inside him. Rodney reached up to play with John's nipples, pinching and rubbing until John arched into the touch.
John's soft moan was so erotic, Rodney couldn't help pulling him down into a hungry kiss. Their bodies moved together, John's hips rocking Rodney deeper and deeper until they were both incoherent with need. John broke the kiss, pressing his teeth into Rodney's shoulder as he rubbed his cock against Rodney's belly.
Cupping John's ass, Rodney urged him faster, harder until he could feel John shuddering against him, could feel the hot splash of John's come between them. Rodney groaned, hips thrusting off the bed. Once, twice, three times and then he was coming inside John, filling him.
Later, they're both under the covers, warm and sated and spooned together. This was Rodney's favorite part, this feeling of complete satisfaction. He threw an arm over John's middle, loving the fact that John just let him, relaxing back against Rodney's front.
"Thanks," John said softly, surprising Rodney who'd thought he was already asleep. Before Rodney could ask what he was talking about, John continued, "For... coming with me."
Rodney forbore reminding John not to be an idiot, instead he kissed the nape of John's neck and said, "You're welcome."
John thought that the extra day would give him some time to prepare, but it hadn't. It was almost as if yesterday had never happened and he went straight from Carter's announcement to his father's funeral. The suit he wore felt stiff and tight, despite the fact that he'd worn it before and knew that it was the right size.
His hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel and John was thankful that Rodney didn't comment. He could see Dave out on the lawn as they drove up and knew it would only be a matter of minutes before he'd have to face him.
It was strange seeing him again. John felt nervous, and hated it.
He stepped out of the car and pulled on his jacket, straightening his clothes self-consciously. Dave was always a stickler about his appearance, another thing that their father had admired in Dave and disliked in John.
"You look good," Rodney said absentmindedly as he came up beside him, buttoning and straightening his own jacket. "Ready?" He looked as if John's answer really mattered. As if he'd just get right back in the car and drive away with John if the answer was 'no'. It somehow made John feel a little braver, a little better.
They'd only taken a few steps before Dave was upon them, hand held out. "John."
"Dave." John shook his hand.
"I wasn't sure you were gonna make it," Dave said, his tone grating on John's nerves. "It's good to see you. I contacted your unit commander at Peterson but sometimes those messages don't seem to reach you."
"Well, I came as soon as I heard." John knew the moment Dave noticed Rodney's presence, his head cocking curiously as he eyed Rodney, a knowing look on his face.
"Uh, this is Rodney. Rodney, this is Dave, my brother," John said, good manners kicking in.
"Yes. Nice to meet you." Rodney shook Dave's hand.
Dave looked from Rodney to John then back again. "Pleasure. You two work together in the Air Force?"
Stupidly, John felt his shoulders tense. "He's a civilian contractor." John gritted his teeth at the look on Dave's face. It reminded him so much of their father that it left John feeling a confused mix of anger, loss, and guilt.
"Right," Dave said, sarcasm so obvious that John could almost see it hovering in the air.
"Yes, right," Rodney said, his own sarcasm rising up to meet Dave's. "I'll have you know that I have been a civilian contractor since the CIA showed up at my sixth grade science fair. Off and on, anyway," Rodney said, throwing John a flustered look.
"He's a genius," John said.
"Anyway." Dave gave them both a look of disbelief. "John, I think we should probably talk."
"Yeah," John said, not looking forward to it.
"I'll catch up with you later," Dave said, the unspoke 'alone' clear.
John let loose an inaudible sigh and nodded at his brother. He watched him walk away, greeting each mourner with the kind of aplomb that their father had always tried to instill in them both. It was easy to see, especially when they were together, why Dave had been their dad's favorite.
John started to feel that sinking in the pit of his stomach, started to wish that he really could just turn around and get back into the car, until he felt the light touch of Rodney's palm against the small of his back. He turned to find Rodney watching him, concern lightening the blue in his eyes.
"You okay?" Rodney said, then winced, obviously remembering John's request that Rodney stop asking.
"It's okay," John assured him. "I'm okay." He shook his head, wishing that the day were already over. "Let's just get this over with." He knew how callous the words sounded, but he'd never been comfortable in his father's world, and he doubted he ever would be.
Rodney nodded and they walked together toward the familiar looming fortress that had been one of John's childhood homes. He hadn't always hated it. As children, he and Dave had both loved the acres and acres of yard they had to run around. Back then they hadn't worried about anything beyond who could hit a baseball the farthest, or throw a pass the straightest.
They'd been competitive, even then, but it had been a good-natured rivalry. Dave had looked up to him, had treated John like... like he was a hero, even though John had never done anything braver than climbing the highest branch of the old oak at the south end of their property.
Though they'd moved around a lot, the family had owned several properties which had been acquired several generations ago when the Sheppard's had first made their fortune in utilities. Their father had sold a few, but kept several of the original family homes as they moved from post to post, including this one. This house was one of the few constants they'd ever had, besides each other.
John nodded at various people, trying to ignore the number of dress blues he passed along the way. Though Rodney was a comforting presence beside him, John found himself blocking everything else out as he came upon the room that housed his father's body. There were people already in there, paying their respects and John was grateful for the short reprieve as he watched them through the open door. It was only seconds later, though, that they made their way out, nodding at him along the way.
John stepped in to take their place, glancing briefly at his father's portrait before concentrating on the coffin. He had to fight the urge to reach out and touch it. Instead, he straightened and buttoned his jacket, feeling self-conscious, like the rebellious teen he'd once been.
He snorted softly, wondering what his father would say to him now. What his father might have said if he'd known exactly what John had become and where he'd been for the past 3 years. He might not have cared at all, might have seen John as nothing more than the screw up he'd always been.
But John wondered... and wished he'd had a chance to find out.
"Hey," Rodney said, his hand warm against John's back. The contact was brief, but John was grateful for it.
John sighed. "He was a perfectionist, you know?" John said, staring hard at the coffin. "I tried but... " He shook his head. "God, I think he even hated my hair." He ran shaky fingers through his spiked strands, remembering how often his father had looked at him with exasperation and sometimes with what seemed to John, at least, like disgust.
"Can you really blame him?" Rodney said, a teasing note in his voice, his fingers brushing lightly over John's elbow.
"Rodney," John said, but he couldn't keep the corners of his lips from lifting ever so slightly.
"I'm just saying," Rodney continued. "It defies gravity."
John chuckled softly, sobering as a glint of sunlight caught the polished surface of his father's coffin. "I just... I don't even know if he'd heard that I'd made Lieutenant Colonel," John said, wearily. "And I hate that I care."
Rodney was silent, and John wished they weren't in such a public place. He was tired of thinking about his father, his childhood, his life. He wanted Rodney to make him forget, to make him not care.
"We can leave," Rodney said, suddenly. "Find your brother and tell him that something has come up, that the world needs saving again. Well, not that, since he's not supposed to know, but... "
"We're at my father's wake, Rodney. I can't just leave like that." Though, John wished he could.
"All right." Rodney cupped his elbow and steered him toward the door. "I'm fairly certain there's food and drink at these things, yes?"
John let himself be led, feeling a weird sense of relief to be out in the cool, fresh air again. He nodded when Rodney offered to get them food, even though he knew he wouldn't be able to eat a bite.
He watched Rodney walk away, ripping a leaf from a nearby try and shredding it subconsciously. Nervous energy suffused him and he wished he'd taken Rodney's suggestion and made his excuses. He barely knew anyone at the service, including his own brother. And just to rub that fact in, he looked up to find Nancy striding toward him.
"Hell," John said, feeling green and all together too young. He shifted, stuffing his hands into his pockets and then pulling them out again.
John nodded, glancing quickly around for Rodney. "Nancy. I didn't expect to see you here."
He tried not to stiffen when she pulled him in for a hug.
"I'm very sorry."
John patted her back a little awkwardly, thanking her for the sympathy. When they pulled apart, Rodney was standing their, overflowing plate in hand and a questioning look on his face.
"Nancy, Rodney. Rodney, Nancy."
He watched as they sized each other up, mildly amused by Rodney's obvious, at least to him, dismissal.
"Pleased to meet you." Nancy smiled at Rodney and John was reminded of one of the reasons he'd thought their marriage might actually work.
"Yes, well," Rodney said, stuffing a fat grape into his mouth and juggling the plate so that he could wipe one hand clean on the linen napkin he'd brought, in order to offer it to Nancy. "So you're -- "
"So, how long are you here?" John interrupted, unsure of Rodney's caustic tongue but shooting him a rebuking look anyway, even as he unconsciously took a step closer to him.
"Just for today. I have to be in Washington tomorrow, so ..."
"Still with Homeland Security?"
"Yeah. I just got promoted. I'm a director now."
"John's a lieutenant colonel," Rodney said into the awkward silence.
Nancy smiled. "Yeah, I heard. Congratulations."
"I guess Dave told you, huh?" John assumed that Dave must have gotten the news when he'd called Peterson to let John know about their dad.
"No, your father, actually." Her smile never faltered as she searched his face for something, John wasn't sure what. "He was very... he was very proud," she said it as if she actually believed it.
John didn't know what to say. He pushed the knowledge that his father had known, that he might have kept tabs on John's career, to the back of his brain and searched for something else to talk about. "How's – how's Greg?"
"Grant." The look she gave John was almost indulgent, and definitely familiar.
"Grant." He gave her a sheepish smile in return.
She nodded at his silent apology. "He would have come, but he's trying a case in Phoenix."
"Sounds like he's doing well." John tried to think of a graceful way out of this conversation. It wasn't that he didn't want to talk to Nancy, he'd always liked her, it was just that... he didn't want to talk to anyone, really. Not about his father and not about the past.
"Yeah, he is. He's, uh ... yeah, he's doing well." She looked at him as if she had something serious to say, and John braced himself. "You know, your dad was always very good to me."
"Well, in his mind, marrying you was probably the best thing I ever did." He winced, realizing how the words sounded, but not willing to take them back.
"Okay. Well, it's good to see you again, John. Take care of yourself." She turned to Rodney and held out her hand again. "It was nice to meet you." She walked away before John could say or do anything else.
He felt only a little regret as he watched her cross the lawn. He hadn't meant to hurt her feelings, but he wasn't willing to pretend anymore. Not here. Not now.
"So, that was Nancy, huh?" Rodney said around a mouthful of cheese and crackers.
"Yeah, that was Nancy," John said, tossing what was left of the shredded leaf to the ground. "Come on." He nodded toward the house. "I need a drink."
Rodney tried not to be too obvious about his worry, tried not to let John catch the way he couldn't stop watching him. There were grass stains, or something, on John's fingertips, just a faint wash of color darkening his skin. Rodney remembered the way John had fidgeted while he spoke with Nancy. He'd had something in his hands, absently ripping it apart as they'd talked.
It bothered Rodney, that small show of agitation, because he wasn't used to seeing anything but John's normally cool facade. The only time John ever lost that smooth composure was when of his team, or one of his men, was in trouble. And even then, he stayed cool, though Rodney could always see the waves of anger (and sometimes fear) bleeding over.
Too absorbed in watching John as he tried to signal the bartender, Rodney practically jumped when an unfamiliar voice intruded.
"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard?"
"Yes?" John turned and Rodney shifted too, catching sight of a slim, serious looking woman.
"My name is Ava Dixon," she said, then turned toward Rodney. "You must be Dr. McKay."
John frowned, and though Rodney couldn't see them, he knew suspicion darkened John's eyes. "Do I know you?"
She shook her head, and something that looked like guilt flashed across her face. "No, we've never met, but you knew the man I used to work for – Henry Wallace."
John shrugged. "Doesn't ring a bell."
Rodney understood why John was pretending ignorance and nonchalance, but Rodney couldn't help stiffening at the mention of Wallace's name.
Jeannie had nearly died. Wallace had as good as killed her when he'd plunged that syringe into her flesh, no matter that his 'sacrifice' had eventually saved her life. Rodney still woke sometimes gasping for breath, that heavy weight of guilt and pain and anger pressing down on his chest.
Of course, he'd never tell Jeannie that.
The woman, Ava, leaned in suddenly, and Rodney was drawn back into the present. "Look, I realize you have to keep up appearances in public, but I don't have time to play games. Henry Wallace was the man who kidnapped your sister and yourself, Doctor McKay, and forced you both to work on a highly illegal research project involving alien technology ..."
Rodney bristled, but before he could say anything, John grabbed her, his voice going quiet with menace, "Who the hell are you?"
"We need to talk, but not here."
Rodney was getting tired of all the run around, but he could see John going taut with tension and what Rodney knew was also anticipation. John was looking forward to the distraction, and truthfully, Rodney was, too. Though it didn't lessen his worry any.
He followed John's lead, biting his tongue as they walked back across the lawn. Before they could make it back to the car, John stiffened and let loose a slow breath.
Unprepared, Rodney fumbled the keys that John tossed at him.
"Take her to the car."
"John -- " Rodney had seen Dave making his way toward them.
"Just go, Rodney," John said, soft and sober. He didn't look back as he said it, eyes fixed on Dave.
Rodney hesitated, but when John continued to ignore him, Rodney went. He didn't take his eyes off John, though. Frustration ate at him as he watched the robotic way John moved as Dave said something Rodney was too far away to hear. Anger washed through him as he saw the way Dave looked at John, disappointment, yes, but it was more than that. Dave's expression said that the disappointment wasn't any surprise, that he'd been expecting it.
Rodney wanted to march back over there and punch the jackass in the face.
Instead, he unlocked the car and let Ava into the back seat. She gave him a strange look, possibly because he still hadn't said a word to her, or possibly because she'd heard rumors about the kidnapping and was curious to find out the truth. Rodney didn't know and didn't care, he was too wrapped up in worrying over John to bother finding out which.
He watched as Dave pulled something from a pocket sewn into the inner lining of his suit jacket and pressed it into John's hand. The envelope was bright white against John's tanned fingers. He took a step before he even realized it, as John's fist clenched around the envelope and stuffed it into the pocket of his own suit jacket.
Rodney's fingers tightened around the top of the car door as he stood waiting for John to join him.
"What was that?" he couldn't help demanding the moment John was within hearing range.
John just shook his head. "Later," John said, opening his door and nodding toward the interior. "Get in, McKay."
John's voice had gone quiet and flat, so Rodney didn't argue. He threw one last scowling look Dave's way, then slid into the passenger seat. Though none of them spoke a word, John seemed to know where he was going.
Rodney burned with curiosity. He itched to reach over and pull the envelope from John's pocket. He'd seen the look on John's face when Dave had handed it over, and he knew it couldn't be good. At the same time, he wondered what the woman in the backseat wanted with them. Wished that just once the universe would give them a break. Give John a break.
They pulled into a nearly deserted parking lot, and Rodney looked up, unsurprised to see that John had driven them to a coffee bar. Dusk was turning into evening, the sky going dark as they walked through the front entrance. It wasn't a large place, only a handful of tables and most of them empty. It seemed like the perfect place to talk. Public enough so that John could ensure their safety and private enough so that they wouldn't have to fear being overheard.
"I would have come to you sooner, but you were a hard man to find," Ava said, capturing Rodney's attention again. She wasn't exactly pretty, but she had big brown eyes and long straight hair. Her cheeks were flushed, and she looked earnest and young. Rodney thought she looked a little like John's ex, and wondered if John thought so, too.
Normally, Rodney would never consider coffee a waste of time, but he was impatient to find out what the latest disaster entailed so he huffed until the waiter finally left. Then huffed some more when John refused to begin the discussion until their order arrived. Rodney realized what John was doing, getting rid of all the interruptions before they could cause a problem, but he still shot John an annoyed look. He regretted it almost immediately when John just looked back at him with tired, but watchful eyes.
"All right," John said, turning to Ava. "You've got our attention. What's this all about?"
"For the past three years I've been working for a company called Stanton Research, a division of Devlin Medical Technologies. I was recruited out of college by a brilliant scientist named Doctor Richard Poole and together we worked on a secret project codenamed Archetype."
"What kind of project?" Rodney asked, a growing sense of dread pushing away the curiosity that usually filled him. He wrapped his hands around the hot mug, letting the heat warm his palms as he listened with growing anger as Ava continued her explanation.
"We were experimenting with nanite programming, trying to increase the complexity of their interactions. Listen, I wasn't aware of what happened to Doctor McKay and his sister until much later. At the time, all I knew was that we'd been given a key piece of programming, something that allowed us to make a major breakthrough."
"What are you talking about?" John said.
"Yeah, right. A key piece of programming and you didn't wonder where it came from?" Rodney said at the same time.
Ava shook her head and shot Rodney an apologetic look, but Rodney didn't want apologies. He could already see where this was going.
"It's one thing to inject nanites into a mechanical or a biological system for the purpose of effecting changes at a molecular level, but it's quite another to use them as building blocks to create an entirely self-sustaining entity," Ava said and Rodney wanted to grab her and shake her until all the stupidity fell free.
"To be honest, I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime, but then all of a sudden we began making incredible advancements, and the next thing I knew, there it was." She sounded awed and excited when she said it.
"Well, believe me you're going to be regretting that you did," Rodney said and when both John and Ava looked at him blankly he snorted in frustration. "See it in your lifetime," he added slowly, so that they'd both understand.
"What are you talking about?" John said again, this time looking at Rodney for an explanation.
His face turned stony as he said, "They built a Replicator."
"Technically, that term isn't accurate because self-replicating isn't one of its primary directives, but ... yes," Ava, the idiot, said.
"Oh, for the love of – you have no idea what you've done," Rodney said.
"There's no way you had authorization to do this," John said, his body going still and his voice going quiet.
"Richard told me the project was being funded at the highest levels." There was that deadly earnestness again. She'd actually believed it, truly believed that what they'd been doing was right, was good.
"And you believed him." John echoed his thoughts.
"Maybe it sounds a little naive, but Richard was like a father to me. My own parents died when I was very young. I trusted him."
Rodney had no sympathy, especially when she began to explain what really happened and why she needed their help.
"One day he came back to the lab in a panic. It wasn't until later that I found out what was really going on. The IOA's investigation of Devlin Medical was closing in and Richard wanted to get rid of the evidence." Her eyes looked sad as she explained, but Rodney knew she didn't have a clue. She had no idea what she and her Dr. Poole had unleashed on Earth. "He killed to escape. If he's threatened, he could kill again. You have to do something."
"We have to -- ?" Rodney sputtered, though he already knew that they would. That John (and Rodney) would take it upon themselves to save the world. Again.
"You're telling me there's a Replicator loose on Earth?"
Rodney wondered how Ava kept from withering at the menace in John's voice and the intensity of his stare.
"That's right," Ava said.
"How long?" Rodney said, hoping that the Replicator didn't have too much of a head start. The Earth was a big place to hide, and Rodney's mind was already spinning solutions that might give them an edge against him.
"Well, he escaped three weeks ago. We've been working on a way to track him, but so far have had no success. He could be anywhere by now," she said, confirming Rodney's fears.
"Of course," he said, unsurprised.
John signaled Rodney to hang back then nodded at the two soldiers with him. They rammed the door open and surged through, one cohesive unit as they converged on the man who was responsible for this whole damn fiasco. He felt Rodney's presence at his back as Poole jumped to his feet, obviously unarmed. Shock and then anger flashed across Poole's features as the sergeant moved in to cuff him.
"Colonel Sheppard," Poole said, then added when Rodney came to stand beside him, "– and Dr. McKay, of course. How did you find me?"
"We had a little help," John said and watched as Poole's expression turned into one of deep concern.
"Ava?" he sounded more worried than betrayed.
"I'm sorry, Richard," Ava said, sadness lacing her voice.
In that instant, John had a flash of what the girl must be feeling. He knew, too well, what it was like to disappoint a father, to feel the weight of your own failure in the way they looked back at you.
"Ava! My God! Do you realize what you've done?"
John's finger twitched, and he wished he had on his BDU's, the familiar shape of a P90 in his hand. Not that he would have used it. He'd punch the bastard in the face before wasting any bullets on him.
"I didn't have a choice! I couldn't let this continue any longer." Ava defended herself. John admired her a little for it, even though she was almost as responsible as Poole for letting a Replicator run loose on Earth.
"I had the situation under control!"
John snorted at that. "Your little science project got two of your own men killed – and he's still on the loose. I don't think you have control of anything."
"He killed in self defense! If he's not threatened again, he won't harm anyone." Poole sounded like a bear defending its cub, and John could only shake his head.
"You can't guarantee that," he said. He was used to scientists, Rodney, defending their creations, justifying their experiments, but this was too god damned much. "We're gonna find him, and we're gonna neutralize him ..."
John activated the transponders, sliding one into Poole's shirt pocket. "And you are gonna help us."
"Apollo, we're ready," John said and waited for the familiar tingle that came with the Asgard beaming tech.
He'd given instructions earlier to beam Poole directly to the holding chamber. John left him there to cool his heels for a few minutes, while he and Rodney made their way to the lab to meet Dr. Lee. He stayed just long enough to greet Lee and get a layman's summary of what they planned before making his way back to the interrogation room.
John stared at Poole, wishing for once that things could be easy, that they didn't have to work so fucking hard all the damned time. Even with Rodney and Lee working on cracking the codes, John knew that it could take hours, maybe days, before they got results.
His palms itched.
They didn't have hours or days to waste.
"All right, let's start with giving me the access code to the data files we recovered," John said, though he really didn't have much hope that Poole would cooperate.
"I don't think so." The bastard had the gall to laugh.
John wanted to grab him and shout in his face. Did he really not realize what he'd done? Did he really not know how dangerous a Replicator could be? Whatever this one had been programmed to do, John knew its... potential and he really didn't think that Poole did.
"You do know we will crack it eventually."
"The entire directory's encrypted with a 448-bit key symmetric algorithm. Good luck," Poole said, making John want to smack that self-satisfied look off his face.
John scrubbed at his own face instead, wishing that Ronon were here to put a little fear of God into the good doctor. He turned to Ava, though he was pretty sure he knew the answer before he asked the question. "What about you?"
"I never gave her the code. It's for her own protection. Look, I'll cooperate as long as you guarantee that I get to bring him in." Poole jumped in, unmistakable worry in his voice. It was obvious to John that Poole cared about Ava as much as she cared for him, but that didn't lessen John's anger or his frustration any.
"Forget it." There was no way he was letting this guy out of his sight.
"We are talking about an incredibly advanced and valuable piece of technology here."
John hated that Poole sounded so much like Rodney. Except Rodney knew the dangers, and he'd never put the Earth in jeopardy for a piece of tech. An uninhabited solar system, maybe, but not the Earth.
"You've had your chance; now it's my turn. Are you gonna help us track this thing or not?" At this point John wasn't even sure he cared about Poole's answer. They'd crack the code, find the Replicator and end this thing with or without his help. Hell, John would even get Carter there if he had to.
"I'll help you, Colonel." Ava stepped forward and John saw the flicker of something in Poole's face.
"Ava - "
"Be realistic, Richard. He's out there alone. You know he's not programmed for ordinary social interaction. What happens if someone accidentally frightens him or corners him? We can't afford to wait any longer."
John nodded, then stood. He didn't give Poole a second glance as he walked out, Ava following behind him.
He knew it would still take time they didn't have to find what they needed in Poole's files, but he also knew that they didn't exactly have a lot of choices. Poole wasn't going to cooperate, and Ava was the closest and best chance they had to getting inside the bastard's head and breaking his encryption codes.
John still hated the inactivity, hated having to stand around with his thumb up his ass while Lee and Ava and Rodney did all the work. He paced in his room, and went over various strategies for taking the Replicator down once they did find him. Past experience told him it wouldn't be easy, and he wasn't even sure at this point how they were going to do it.
He wasn't surprised when his door opened and Rodney came in, looking harried and worried. The look was so Rodney, frenetic even in his emotions, that John sighed and felt some of his tension loosen.
"You okay?" Rodney said, looking apologetic when John raised a brow at him.
John had pushed thoughts of his father and Dave and the damned letter burning a hole in his pocket away until that very moment. "I'm fine," he said, but found himself shaking his head.
"Are you going to tell me what that was back there with Dave now?" Rodney asked, stepping closer and cupping a hand around John's elbow.
"Shouldn't you be in the lab cracking codes?" John deflected.
"We're close, actually. That's why I came to find you. We're closer to refining the search parameters for the Replicator signal than we are to cracking Poole's codes, but... either way we have some time," Rodney said. "And don't change the subject."
John sighed and dropped onto the bed, running his fingers through his already mussed hair. "Dave wanted to know if I was going to contest the will."
"What the fuck?" Rodney said, indignant on his behalf. It made John smile, a little. "Did you tell him you could give a rat's ass about the will?" Rodney demanded.
"Not in those exact words, but yeah," John said, looking away. He didn't want to think about the sharp sting of Dave's words. Didn't want to think about fault or blame or what his father had really been thinking before he'd died. And he definitely didn't want to think about that damned letter.
"So what the hell was that envelope he handed you, a preemptive strike?" Rodney asked, some of the anger was starting to leak through the worry in Rodney's eyes.
"No, it -- " Jesus, John really didn't need this right now. He scrubbed at his face, feeling a day's worth of stubble scratch across his palm. They'd been going non-stop since Ava had introduced herself, and John knew that it was only just beginning. He took a deep breath and then said in a rush, "It's a letter. Dave said he found it in dad's desk. It's addressed to me."
Rodney's hand went to the nape of John's neck, gently massaging. John leaned back into the touch, closing his eyes, wanting Rodney to just let it go. He needed to focus on the immediate problem, on the fact that a Replicator was loose on Earth, not on whatever parting words his father thought to leave him with.
"Have you read it yet?" Rodney's voice had gone soft, and it made something inside John twinge.
"Been a little busy," John said, though truthfully, he'd been happy for the distraction. He'd known it would only be a short reprieve, but it hadn't been hard for John to throw himself into dealing with this latest crisis.
"Well, we've got some time now," Rodney said.
John didn't answer, wanting to delay the inevitable.
"You don't... you don't have to read it," Rodney offered.
"Yeah," John said, feeling more tired than he had in years. "Yeah, Rodney, I do." He knew that he wouldn't be able to destroy the letter without reading it, wouldn't be able to keep wondering for the rest of his life what his father had wanted to say to him.
"Do you want me to leave?"
"No." John shook his head. "I... I need you to stay," he said. "Please."
Rodney nodded, fingers still kneading John's nape.
John hated that his fingers shook as he reached for the jacket he'd tossed across the bed. He could hear the crinkle of paper as he reached in the pocket, pulling the folded envelope free. He cut himself as he slipped his finger beneath the flap and tore it open. The sting felt... appropriate. At least it shook off some of the numbness that had begun to seep in.
The paper felt crisp and cool between his fingers, his father's neat, perfect penmanship flashing up at him as he unfolded the letter. Rodney moved closer, and John knew he was reading the letter, too.
I should have done this sooner, I know. Your mother wanted wanted me to, but, it doesn't matter now, does it? I did my best and that's all a man can do. She loved you and she wanted you to know the truth. I'm finally giving it to you.
First, I want you to know that I'm sorry.
That day I found you with... It was just another sign to me, just another nail in the coffin, so to speak. You were so different from me, from Dave, though I could see some of your mother in you. I gave up that day, John. Gave up trying to make you into something you weren't.
Your mother's letter should explain it all.
I did do my best. I tried to love you, John. I did. I forgave you a long time ago for... that. I just never knew how to talk to you, what to say to you.
In the end, at least, you were a good soldier. Maybe there was a little of me in you after all.
John's sight went a little hazy, the words blurring in front of him. "What the hell?" His voice sounded raspy, which wasn't surprising because his throat had suddenly gone dry. A hysterical kind of chuckle escaped him as he clutched the wrinkled, old envelope that had been enfolded in his father's letter in one hand.
"Jesus," Rodney said.
"I told you he never loved me," he said, his chest feeling tight, every breath burning. He didn't want to read his mother's letter, didn't want to know anymore.
"John." Rodney turned him, wrapping one strong arm around his waist and using the hand at John's nape to press his face to Rodney's shoulder.
John lay limp against him, soaking up Rodney's heat, waiting for his pulse to steady. "I have to read her letter, don't I?" he said, already knowing the answer.
"You don't have to do a damned thing." Rodney's defense of him was vehement, but then he sighed, hand warm and gentle at the small of John's back. "But I know you. And, yeah, you have to know."
"Yeah," John agreed and pulled away. He reached for the flap on second letter, wanting to get it over with, wanting to rip the band-aid off as fast as possible, even though he dreaded the sting.
The envelope was old and a little yellowed around the edges. His mother must have written it years ago, probably when he was still a boy since she'd addressed it to 'Johnny', the nickname she'd used when he was a kid.
But before he could tear it open, the PA system beeped. "Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard please report to lab three. Doctor McKay and Colonel Sheppard to lab three, please."
"Fuck!" Rodney said for him. "We don't have to -- "
John shook his head. "No, it'll keep." He stood, leaving both letters on his bed as he pulled on his jacket. He didn't bother with his tie, though. John felt like his entire world had just been turned upside down, felt like his father's words had been echoing in his head for years, though he knew it had only been minutes.
"John," Rodney said, the worry back in his voice, not that it had ever really left.
"Rodney," John said with a sigh. "There's a Replicator loose on Earth. This -- " He waved at his bed, at the mess that was his life. "Can wait."
Rodney nodded, but he looked miserable. Somehow, that made John feel better.
When Rodney stood, John didn't want to fight the need he felt to pull Rodney into his arms. He was solid and strong, and John wished he could spend some time just holding on. But he couldn't.
He pulled away, but gave Rodney a hard, brusque kiss along the way. "Thanks," he said with feeling, hating the emotion that wanted to strangle him. He turned without waiting for an answer and stalked out of the room knowing that Rodney would follow.
Rodney could hardly contain the thoughts that wanted to break loose. He wanted to talk to John, to help, but he wasn't sure how. He'd thought that his family was dysfunctional, and yeah, his father had never exactly been the demonstrative type, but... Rodney could barely wrap his mind around the fact that John's father wasn't... well, his father. Not that this kind of thing wasn't common enough, but that John had found out like this and with such hideously bad timing.
John didn't even have time to take it in. No, they were off and running again, before John could even open the letter his mother had left him. Rodney hoped to God that his mom had been more tactful, at least. John had never spoken about his mother, no big surprise, but Rodney had the feeling that she'd at least cared about her son.
He'd glimpsed the rumpled envelope before they'd had to leave and saw the scrawled nickname on the front. Mother's didn't give their sons nicknames if they didn't care, right?
He threw John another assessing look without trying to be too obvious.
"Colonel Sheppard. Doctor McKay."
They both turned at the same time to find Bates coming up from behind them.
"Bates!" John even sounded glad to see him. He probably was. Just another distraction from things John didn't want, or have time, to think about.
Rodney nodded his own greeting. He'd never particularly liked Bates, his animosity toward Teyla putting him at odds with the entire team. It was more than that, though. Bates hadn't liked the civilian staff, either. Hadn't liked having to follow civilian orders. And he'd made no effort to hide it.
"How have you been?" John asked, shaking Bates' hand.
Rodney reached out as well, trying not to stare at the white in Bates' hair. Bates noticed anyway, fingers brushing lightly over the strands in question, a self-deprecating smile on his lips.
"Yeah. He got the drop on me, but I still managed to get in a few shots. How are you both doing?" Bates said, dismissing his Wraith injuries just like that.
John shrugged and they started walking down the hall once again. "You with N.I.D.?"
"IOA. After the Air Force gave me an honorable discharge due to my injuries, the IOA contacted me. They were starting up a new field division dealing specifically with operational threats on Earth, and it seemed like a good fit."
Rodney had to admit that it did sound like something right up Bates' alley.
"Well, it's good to see you back in action," John said.
Rodney thought so, too, mostly because it always felt good knowing someone else had survived another encounter with the Wraith. A kind of victory, even if Bates hadn't exactly escaped unscathed.
"You too, sir," Bates said.
"You don't have to call me that any more," John pointed out.
"I guess not. Old habits die hard." Bates smiled and Rodney found himself smiling, too. The conversation was a little reminiscent of their flight home on the Daedalus just after John's promotion.
"So how are our prisoners?" It wasn't surprising that Bates got right down to business.
"The girl's co-operating," John said.
"Yes," Rodney added a little grudgingly. "She actually had more useful information than I'd originally thought."
Bates nodded. "What about Doctor Poole?"
"Yeah, not so much," John said, and Rodney felt John's sigh all the way down to his own toes.
"Can we track the Replicator without him?" Bates asked.
Rodney snorted at that. "What do you think?"
"We're working on it," John said more diplomatically as he shot Rodney a chastising look.
Rodney glared right back, unwilling to concede anything when Bates' question had been patently ridiculous. Of course, they could track him. It was just a matter of whether they could afford the time to do it without Poole's cooperation or not. Not that it mattered. It wasn't as if they had much of a choice.
When they entered the lab, Lee was babbling to himself about something. "Stupid emergency contact numbers. Never should have answered that damned phone."
"C'mon, Doc, it's not so bad." John, as always, tried to play nice.
"Ha! That was my first vacation in three years! Two weeks, all-inclusive, nothing but surf, sun and skimpy bikinis as far as the eye could see, and then they beam me right out of the damned hotel room."
Rodney couldn't believe that Lee actually thought his stupid vacation was more important than finding the Replicator. More important than John having to leave his father's funeral and then... fuck. It wasn't as if Lee knew anything about why he and John were on Earth, and Rodney knew that John preferred it that way. He wouldn't want anyone knowing about his personal business if he could help it.
But it was annoying as hell listening to Lee's petty complaints.
"Oh, please. Look at you! You're a lobster! You're lucky we pulled you out of there when we did," Rodney said, because he really couldn't say anything else.
John gave Lee a small smile, then said, "Next time, use a little sun block, all right?"
Lee grimaced but didn't say anything else, which was perfectly fine with Rodney. He fiddled with the crystals in the open console instead, and Rodney knew that meant they were close. "What have you found out?" Rodney asked, growing ever more impatient to get this whole thing over with.
"Almost... there," Lee said, slotting one last crystal into place. He glanced over at Ava who was waiting patiently in front of a laptop. "Give it another shot."
She nodded, then keyed in a few commands. "It's working."
"Finally," Rodney muttered under his breath as he followed Bates and John over to her station.
"This sensor technology is incredible. Is it alien?" Ava sounded like a kid in a candy store.
Rodney didn't think the question was much of a leap, in fact, to his mind it was kind of a ridiculously redundant question. But he saw the way that Lee glanced at John and the reluctance that John had to answer.
"Oh, please!" Rodney threw up his hands. "She's on a spaceship, orbiting Earth. Do you really think that telling her that we're using alien technology is really giving away trade secrets at this point?"
"Rodney," John said, exasperated.
"Sorry. I forgot. I'm not supposed to know any of this," Ava said, as if it were really possible for any reasonably intelligent person not to already have realized that they've had their share of alien contact.
"Oh, hey, I'm picking up a signal. Let me see if I can narrow in on this a bit." Lee broke into the silence. Rodney would have pushed him aside, if he hadn't been so quick about it.
"There. He should be in there." There was a map pulled up on the laptop screen, a section of the grid circled and glowing.
"How big of an area is that?" John asked, and Rodney could practically see the cogs turning as John went into commander mode.
"That's about five city blocks," Lee said.
John turned to Bates. "Seal it off – get everyone out."
And Rodney could see that old habits really did die hard because Bates snapped to it as if he were still under the Atlantis CO's command. Rodney was actually surprised that he didn't salute. "We'll call it a chemical spill. I'll get my people on it."
Rodney watched as John turned all his considerable intensity on Ava. "I need to know what I'm up against. What kind of capability does this thing have?"
Rodney usually loved watching John when he was in his element like this. Even amidst the fear and the constant threat of death, Rodney never could help the frisson of arousal that it had caused almost from the first moment he'd met John.
But this time, Rodney's worry was overshadowing everything else.
"Speed, strength, agility – all well beyond normal human levels," Ava said.
"What about tactics? Escape, evasion – does it have any military training?" John asked.
Rodney didn't see how it couldn't. Why else would they have built the thing, anyway? It wasn't as if Devlin Technologies hadn't been intimately aware of the US military's likely response to a super soldier like this.
"I wasn't responsible for that aspect of his programming," Ava said.
"Of course not," Rodney mumbled. They hadn't caught any breaks so far, why would this be any different?
John nodded, and got that look on his face. Rodney followed him back into the corridor, already knowing where he was headed.
"He's not going to tell you anything. You've already tried this."
"Yeah, well, I might have a couple more tricks up my sleeve," John said, grim determination etched into his features.
"John -- "
"Just leave it, McKay," John said. "I'll get him to talk."
"How?" Rodney couldn't help pushing, wishing that he could make this easier on John somehow.
"Don't worry about it."
"Don't worry about it?" Rodney repeated, sputtering. "Are you kidding me?"
"Rodney," John said, teeth gritted.
"No," Rodney said, putting a hand to John's arm and stopping him in the hall outside the holding cell. "No. Just... don't do anything you're going to regret later, okay?"
John nodded, but the expression on his face and the tone of his voice didn't do anything to appease the roiling in Rodney's gut. "Believe me, McKay. I'm not going to regret a thing."
Rodney wasn't so sure about that. He still remembered the look on John's face when Rodney had walked into Lee's lab and seen them wheeling away Henry Wallace's body. Wallace had volunteered, Rodney knew that, but he also knew that the incident hadn't left John untouched.
It had been the right thing to do, Rodney would never argue with that fact. John had done it for him, for Jeannie, and it had been the best, most logical solution. But it had left another scar on John Sheppard's psyche and Rodney wasn't sure how many more wounds John could take. He was probably still bleeding from the cuts his father's letter had left on him just a few hours ago, and he didn't need anymore. What he needed was time to heal, time to think about himself for once.
But all Rodney could do was nod and watch as John slipped through the holding cell doors.
Years ago, before he'd even joined the Air Force, John had learned the value of compartmentalizing his feelings. His father had never wanted to know how hard it was for John to move from school to school, or how confused he'd been once puberty hit. He'd tried hard to be the son his father had said he'd wanted, but no matter how hard he played or how good his grades had been, Patrick Sheppard had never been satisfied.
John supposed that now he knew why.
Not that he had the luxury, or the inclination, to think about all that now.
Poole looked nervous, but belligerent and that only made John's anger flare.
"See, I've had this really crappy few days, so I'm beginning to lose my patience." John glared at Poole, frustration beating at him from all sides. "So, whatever you can do to make this easier may work in your favor."
Poole shook his head. "Where? At my trial? In front of a judge and jury of my peers? We both know that's not gonna happen. They're gonna put me in some deep, dark hole at Area 51, never to be heard from again, and nothing I say or do now is gonna make any difference."
There wasn't really any arguing with that. So, John went for the only leverage he had. "Well, maybe not for you. What about the girl?" Ava had said that Poole had been like a father to her, and John had to believe that Poole felt the same way.
At the almost desperate quality to Poole's next words, John knew he'd been right. "She didn't know that this technology was obtained illegally. She's completely innocent."
John wasn't sure that he believed that. As smart as Ava was, he found it almost impossible that she hadn't at least suspected. "Well, like you said, there isn't gonna be a trial." They had been fighting for their lives for so long, that John didn't even consider this fighting dirty anymore, though he had the fleeting thought that Rodney might.
"But she's helping you!" Poole was starting to sweat, and John knew he'd won.
"Not good enough," John said, pushing away from the table and giving Poole an impassive look. "What's it gonna be, Doc?"
John accepted Poole's nod of defeat with one of his own, then left the room without another word.
Rodney was still waiting for him. It was obvious how worried Rodney was, despite how hard he tried to hide it. John wished that he could ease both their minds, but at the moment even the possibility eluded him. He was glad of the need to focus, the need to concentrate on their current situation because without it, John wasn't sure what he'd be doing.
Even though his mother's letter was waiting for him back in his room, he felt as if it were burning a hole in his pocket. He'd reached for it more than once since they'd been called to the lab, hating the way he couldn't stop fidgeting. He knew Rodney had noticed, but he hadn't said a word.
John was grateful.
"What's the status?" John asked, wanting to continue the trend.
"The area's been evacuated," Rodney said, falling into step beside John. "Bates' men cleared out a radius of about 5 miles. It's an old warehouse district."
There was silence for awhile, just an echo of their boots along the hall. Then, "What about Poole?"
"Ready to go," John said without further explanation.
Rodney nodded, but John felt his surreptitious gaze on him again. He should have known that Rodney wouldn't need any explanations. "Do you really think she's as innocent as she claims?"
John shook his head. "I don't know."
"She's smart," Rodney said as they rounded a corner that led to the armory. "Not as smart as me, of course, or even Zelenka for that matter. But, smart. She could be useful at the SGC." Rodney offered the suggestion offhandedly, but John knew he wouldn't make the recommendation unless he'd been suitably impressed by Ava's intelligence.
Of course, that still didn't resolve the issue of her innocence.
"Maybe," John said. "I think we'll probably have to wait and see how the rest of this op goes. If the Replicators overrun the planet, it's not really going to matter, is it?"
Rodney snorted. "Like you'd ever let that happen." That made something inside John's chest loosen, and he felt one corner of his mouth turn up in a half smile. "You know you're going to concoct another ridiculous plan involving hair gel, C4 and speeds of 250 mph or more that will somehow save the day."
John laughed, and Rodney gave him a look that made John wish that they were somewhere more private where he could pull Rodney in and imagine the rest of the world away. It sounded so... harlequin romance, even to John, but he couldn't deny that Rodney had become some kind of refuge for him.
He wasn't sure how he'd be holding up if Rodney hadn't been with him on this trip. He was fairly certain that one more blow and he was going to go down. He didn't want to think about the knockout punch waiting for him back in his room.
"Come on," he said instead, slapping the back of Rodney's shoulder. "Let's gear up."
He liked the familiarity of having Rodney beside him as they pulled on their BDUs and holstered their 9 mils. John gestured at Rodney to grab a P-90 as well, knowing that Rodney would be more comfortable with the weapon. John, on the other hand, would be looking for something with a bit more kick to it. Those would be waiting on the ground for them along with their strike team.
The team was already assembled by the time he and Rodney beamed down. The map that Lee had showed them had been blown up and printed out, the area they were to concentrate the search on clearly marked. The air was dank with the scent of the nearby river which, from the smell, wasn't exactly pure anymore.
"He's in defensive mode. Basically, he's hiding. He'll be where he's least likely to encounter people."
John was pretty sure that they could have figured that one out on their own, but he didn't bother pointing that out to Poole.
Bates must have done his homework because he pointed to a spot on the map and said, "That would be this warehouse here. It's been abandoned for months. The company went bankrupt."
Poole gestured to one of the ARGs. "And you won't need these. He's been specifically designed to be resistant to current anti-Replicator technology."
John had already assumed as much, and Rodney had agreed. They both knew that it wasn't going to be that easy.
"So what do we hit him with?" Bates almost sounded angry, and John was reminded of the soldier he'd known on Atlantis.
"Well, without access to base materials, he has a limited ability to self-repair." Poole sighed, running his fingers through what little hair he still had. "But if you insist on damaging him, conventional weapons ought to do the trick, although you'll need a fair amount of fire power."
"Fire power we can do. What's he gonna do when he sees us?" John was starting to feel the calm that usually settled over him right before a dangerous op. He could feel his pulse pounding fast and steady as his mind moved ahead to all the possible outcomes.
"He'll continue to evade as long as possible. He'll counter-attack only as a last resort," Poole said.
John hoped he was right. He turned to his men, feeling the weight of command settle on his shoulders. "All right, listen up. Let's try to get this right the first time. We're gonna operate in teams of two. Your objective is to find the target, and once you do that, you will not engage him. You'll radio in his position. We'll coordinate, see if we can't corral him into a corner, at which point we will bring as much force to bear as we can and take him out, all right? Let's do this."
He watched as the men gathered their weapons and headed off. Christ, he hoped this went more smoothly than he imagined it was going to.
"Doctor Poole, you're with me," Bates said.
John probably should have taken Poole for himself, but he was glad when Bates did it for him. He wanted Rodney with him, not that Rodney wasn't capable of taking care of himself. Hell, Rodney had come a long way from the bumbling scientist who'd run scared at the first sign of danger. But, John was used to having Rodney on his team, used to protecting him.
The sergeant in charge of weapon distribution tried to hand Rodney a rifle, but John put out a hand to stop him and shook his head. "No, he's good."
Rodney frowned. "Are you sure? Because those look bigger."
John took one for his own. "They are."
"Then why - ?" Rodney followed as John checked over the rifle.
"Because," John said patiently. "You've never used one. You're better off with the P90. It's familiar and you'll be able to get off more shots, so you'll have a better chance of hitting him."
"Oh," Rodney said, then stopped, making John turn to look at him. "How are you doing?"
John sighed. "Rodney, we don't have time for this."
"I know," Rodney said, sounding a little sad. "It's been one hell of a week hasn't it?"
"Yeah," John said, turning away and rubbing a palm over his face.
"Just -- " Rodney's hand was comfort, big and warm on his shoulder. "Pay attention, okay? I don't want to have to save your butt just because you're mooning like a little girl."
"Yeah," John said again with a snort. "Okay."
Their radios crackled and Rodney watched John go taut with tension.
"Colonel Sheppard, come in." It was Bates.
"Go ahead," John answered, a kind of stillness coming over him as he listened.
"We've got a visual on the target. He's hiding out in a building about a hundred yards due east of my start position. Looks like he's alone."
Rodney's fingers tightened on his P90, a reflex to knowing that they were about to go running into danger.
"Stay put. We'll be there in a minute." John gave Rodney a grim look.
"Understood. Bates out."
The radio went silent, the sound of his own breathing suddenly loud in Rodney's ears.
"Let's go," John said, slapping Rodney's shoulder as he headed back in Bates' direction.
They ran at a fast clip, making it to Bates' position in no more than a minute, just as John had promised. But when they rounded the corner, Bates wasn't there. It took Rodney a moment to realize he was on the ground, unconscious.
"Shit," Rodney said, falling to his knees by Bates' side and checking for a pulse. He nodded at John. "He's alive."
"Apollo, this is Sheppard. I need you to beam up Agent Bates immediately."
Rodney stood the moment Bates disappeared, P90 up and ready as he scanned the area. "Where's Doctor Poole?"
John's grim look was back, and they both glanced at the old warehouse at the same time. Rodney nodded and John took point as they made their way toward the supposedly abandoned building.
"Shouldn't you call the others?" Rodney asked softly.
"Not until we get a visual. He might have already made a run for it. He could be miles away by now," John answered, crouching low as they entered a large room filled with cartons piled on top of cartons.
Something caught Rodney's eye and he gasped. "Hey. Over here," he called to John and fell to his knees for the second time that day. This time, when he pressed his fingers to Poole's pulse, he found nothing.
"He's dead," he told John, starting to feel a little shocky. It wasn't as if they hadn't dealt with enough death in the last several years to inure Rodney to it, as much as anybody could be anyway, but... like he'd said earlier, it had been one hell of a week and there was only so much any person could take.
"Lee, come in."
Rodney stood and joined John as their radios crackled again.
"Uh, yeah, go ahead."
"We've got a problem. Poole's dead." There was anger and frustration in John's voice. Even though he hadn't liked Poole, Rodney knew that John had felt responsible for him. The same way that John feels responsible for everything and everybody. "Are you still tracking the Replicator?"
"Uh, yeah, just hang on."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Maybe I should go up there?" he suggested while they waited for Lee to answer.
"No time." John shook his head. "Besides, I need you down here."
"Okay, I've got him. He's on the move. He's heading south – he's right by ... Woah!"
"What? What?" Rodney got impatient as Lee sat back on his heels and did nothing.
"Uh, I-I just lost the signal."
"Crap!" John swore, looking at Rodney as if there was anything he could do.
Rodney shrugged. "Lee's a moron, and I can't do anything from down here."
"It wasn't me. I mean, he just disappeared," Lee said.
"Well, get him back online," John said through gritted teeth. "Rodney and I are going after him." He gestured toward the exit with his head, and Rodney nodded, lifting his P90 a little higher.
"He's probably halfway across the country by now," Rodney muttered, then went silent when John shot him a dark look.
Before John could say anything to reprimand him though, gunfire echoed in the distance and John shot off like a rocket toward the sound. Rodney followed, unsurprised to find even more bodies on the ground. At least one of them was conscious this time.
"Sorry, sir. I know we weren't supposed to engage but he came from out of nowhere. He hit us before we knew what was happening."
"All right, you'll be okay, Sarge. Sit tight." John reassured the sergeant while Rodney went to check his third pulse for the day.
"Fuck!" Rodney cursed, shaking his head at John. Just like Poole, the soldier was dead. John was beside him in an instant, hand briefly squeezing Rodney's shoulder before tugging him onto his feet again.
More soldiers had shown up while Rodney wasn't paying attention and John directed them to take care of the sergeant. When he looked back at Rodney, he looked tired and angry at the same time. "All right, so much for evasion."
"He's desperate. He knows we've got him trapped," Rodney said.
John activated his radio as they ran after the Replicator. "This is Sheppard. Change of plans: fall back, create a defensive perimeter. Rodney and I are gonna flush him out."
"We are?" Rodney gasped, but didn't break stride. Really, he'd already known what John had in mind, but that didn't necessarily mean that he liked the plan.
John didn't bother answering.
John signaled Rodney to go right, while he climbed a set of old metal stairs. Rodney had only gone a few meters before he heard two loud rifle shots. He turned instantly and headed back John's way, heart pounding at the thought of finding John on the ground as well.
He caught a glimpse of the Replicator, fingers tightening automatically on the trigger as he shot a spray of bullets toward the fleeting figure. For a second he was torn between chasing the Replicator and checking on John, but he could practically hear John's voice in his head telling him to go after the bastard. So, he trusted that John was okay and gave chase.
As he descended another set of metal stairs, Rodney really hoped that John, or at least one of the other soldiers, wasn't far behind. He didn't relish the idea of being trapped down here with just the Replicator for company. It was dark and he had no idea where the Replicator had gone. Then, before he could decide which way to go, more gun shots went off.
Rodney ran, hearing even more gunfire as he broke free into the daylight again. He caught sight of John for a brief second, relief flooding him, before everything else was blocked out by the Replicator suddenly appearing right in front of him.
"Oh, shit," Rodney said, trying to raise his P90, but unable to move fast enough.
The Replicator grabbed him by the neck and lifted. Rodney closed his eyes, and waited for his neck to snap, but instead of blinding pain and instant death, Rodney felt a jolt. When he looked up it was to see a spray of silver exploding from the Replicators back.
"Let him go!" John shouted, coming up from behind, and putting another rifle shot into the Replicator's back.
The Replicator spun around, holding Rodney to his chest like a shield.
"Hold your fire!" John shouted, eyes locking with Rodney's.
Desperate, the Replicator shifted this way and that, looking for an escape.
"You're trapped. Let them take you in," Rodney said, trying to reason with him. "They'll shut you down, sure, but at least you'll have a chance of being brought back online some day. If you don't give up now, they'll destroy you completely." Rodney wasn't even sure how he managed to get all that out with the Replicator's hand still wrapped tightly around his throat, but he had and he hoped it was enough.
"They'll destroy me either way," he said, then suddenly they were moving, Rodney's weight seemingly nothing to the Replicator.
"John!" Rodney shouted in panic before he could stop himself. He wished he hadn't, not liking his own cowardice or the flash he'd seen of John's face before the Replicator swung him up and away.
They were climbing the crane tower, though Rodney had no idea what the Replicator had planned once they reached the top.
"You'll never get away. Just give up already!" Rodney shouted, trying to struggle free.
The Replicator didn't answer, just took them higher and higher.
"Did I ever tell you that I'm afraid of heights?" Rodney said, looking down briefly and catching a glimpse of John climbing the tower ladder behind them. "I don't suppose that matters to you."
Still the Replicator said nothing, and Rodney glanced up to see that they were almost to the top.
"You know," Rodney said softly, almost casually. A kind of calm had come over him as he realized that he could be dead within the next few minutes. "If you kill me, he'll hunt you down like a dog and take you apart piece by piece."
There was no reaction from the Replicator and Rodney wondered if he realized how true Rodney's words were.
When they got to the top, John was just a few seconds behind them. John's rifle was trained on them, his face set in a fierce mask that Rodney had never seen before.
"Let him go," John said again, each word enunciated almost painfully.
"I just want to live," the Replicator said, just as fiercely. "That's all."
"Yeah, well," John said, eyes darting from Replicator to Rodney and back again. "Tell that to all the men you've killed."
Rodney still had his P90 attached to his tack vest, though it was at such an awkward angle that there was no way he could get a shot off that would even come close to damaging the Replicator. Instead, he did the only thing he could. He grabbed at the weapon, then used all his might to ram it backward into the Replicator's gut. He'd known that he didn't have the strength to really incapacitate him, but it was enough to make the Replicator loosen his hold.
Rodney dropped to his knees, folding himself into as small a ball as possible as John fired shot after shot at the Replicator. Silver rained down on him, and Rodney watched as the Replicator staggered back one step at a time until he was tumbling over the edge.
They ran after him, peering over the side to watch as he landed with a tremendous splash into the river below. Soldiers crowded the ground below them, weapons trained on the Replicator's entry point, but he didn't reappear. Not that Rodney had expected him to.
"There's no way that finished him off," Rodney said.
"Yeah," John said, then turned to him, his hand going to Rodney's neck where Rodney was sure there were bruises forming. "Jesus."
"Yeah," Rodney said back, not knowing what else to say.
Hours later they were still there, searching, though Rodney knew they wouldn't find anything. They'd sent several teams of divers out, but all the Replicator had had to do was wait until he touched bottom and then walk away. There had been no reason for him to resurface anywhere near their position.
"We checked the whole area twice. No sign of him," Bates said as they walked along the pier.
"Do you think he was going to wait around for us to find him?" Rodney said, patience worn thin. John shot him a reprimanding look. Rodney ignored him and continued, "He could be anywhere by now."
"What about the tracking system?" John asked with a sigh, probably already knowing the answer.
"Doctor Lee's working on it but the sensors haven't picked up anything yet. He must have found a way to mask his signal," Bates said.
"Great," John said, sarcasm dripping from every pore. "Back to square one, then."
Rodney nodded, fingers absently rubbing at the place where his collar chafed the bruised skin of his throat.
"It's just a few bruises," Rodney said, once again arguing the futility of going to the infirmary. "What can the witch doctors do for me?"
"Stop arguing, McKay," John said, not in the mood. Rodney had nearly died in front of him, and maybe he was right that his injuries weren't that bad, but John wasn't willing to take the chance. "Just... I need to make sure, all right?" he said the last quietly, resignedly.
Rodney gave him a look, but then agreed. "Fine."
Sure enough, nothing was broken and the doctor didn't do anything more than prescribe a few aspirin, but John felt better.
"There, are you happy now?" Rodney asked, jumping off the exam table as soon as the doctor had left them alone.
"No," John said, hating the dark bruises that peppered Rodney's skin. They were injured often enough in the line of duty, and John had learned to live with it, but it didn't make him happy. It never did. "I'm not." He fingered the bruises lightly, not wanting to hurt Rodney anymore, but wishing there was some way for him to make them disappear.
"John," Rodney said, voice softer than he ever used with anyone else.
"We should head back to the lab," John said, pulling away, hating the way his emotions churned inside of him. He'd felt... at sea almost since the moment Carter had cornered him in the hallway, what was it? Two, three days ago? Christ.
"No," Rodney said, forceful now. "It'll take Lee a while to boost the signal, and you need some rest."
"There's no time for that, Rodney," John said, shaking his head. "I've gone on less sleep than this plenty of times."
"Yes, but why should you? Take what rest you can now, while there's time," Rodney coaxed. "Don't be a moron. It's not like it'll be more than an hour or two, anyway."
"All right," John gave in, mostly because he wanted time alone with Rodney more than anything else. "But you're coming with me."
"What? No," Rodney shook his head. "Lee -- "
"Can take care of things on his own. He's not exactly the idiot you think he is, Rodney," John said.
"Maybe not," Rodney conceded. "But I could -- "
John glanced around quickly before interrupting Rodney's fledgling tirade by shoving Rodney into the nearest unlocked door, which turned out to be an empty bathroom. He took Rodney's mouth in a hungry kiss, wanting and needy, the kind of kiss that John had been wanting to give Rodney since the moment he'd broken free of the Replicator. "Come with me," John said again, voice rough.
"Okay," Rodney said, pressing his forehead to John's. "Okay."
They made it to John's quarters without running into anybody. The Apollo was only half-manned at the moment, most of its crew on leave when John and company had commandeered the vessel for this op.
As soon as the door closed behind them, John was on Rodney, pressing his back to the nearest wall and devouring his mouth with desperate kisses. "Fuck, Rodney," John said, pressing his erection to Rodney's hip and feeling an answering bulge against his thigh.
John could still feel the rush of emotion, he wasn't sure he could put a name to it, that had gripped him when the Replicator had grabbed Rodney. They both knew that the Replicator had no qualms about killing to save its own life, and that thought had nearly brought John to his knees as the Replicator's fingers had tightened around Rodney's throat.
John bent now, lips brushing lightly over Rodney's neck, tracing every bruise with his tongue.
"John," Rodney said with the kind of breathlessness that always undid John. He could feel himself leaking, dampening the trousers he still wore.
"Need you," John said hoarsely, desperate to be inside Rodney, to remind himself with flesh and heat and desire that Rodney was alive.
"Yes," Rodney said, thrusting against him, groaning as he rubbed his cock against John's thigh. "Yes."
John gripped the front of Rodney's shirt, pulling him toward the bed. He didn't hesitate to sweep the letters he'd left there onto the floor before tossing Rodney onto the mattress. "Get naked," he said, reaching for the buttons and fastenings of his own clothes.
He watched with hungry eyes as Rodney stripped for him. It wasn't fancy or sexy, except for the fact that it was Rodney and that always seemed to be enough for John.
Before tossing aside his pants, John retrieved a small silver packet from the pocket. He tossed the condom onto the bed and went around to the side to grab the lube from his duffel. Rodney was waiting, watching him as he moved around the room, his cock thick and heavy against his belly.
John knew that he wasn't going to last very long, that his need was too great. He had to have Rodney, had to feel him hot and tight around him. He needed to know that Rodney was there, needed to come, to fill him and mark him and make sure that everyone knew that Rodney was his. Even though somewhere in the back of his mind he realized the impossibility of that, realized that they still couldn't tell anyone, though he was pretty sure that Teyla and Ronon had guessed the truth.
But logic didn't matter. He climbed onto the bed, and covered Rodney's body with his own. It felt good, damn good, to have Rodney beneath him like this.
"I want you," John said, kissing him. He fumbled with the lube, the cap falling from his fingers as he squeezed the gel into his palm. Rodney groaned, long and low, as John pressed slick fingers to his opening, carefully breaching him with one finger. He forced himself to move slowly, in and out, in and out, until Rodney was gasping and arching beneath him.
Then he added a second finger.
"More," Rodney gasped, and John groaned as he slid a third inside. Rodney's cock was rubbing against his own, precome dripping from them both as they slid rough and hot against each other.
Rodney was slick and hot, still so tight around him. It wasn't often that John took top, preferring to have Rodney thick and hard inside him. But it was often enough that Rodney was used to it, and John knew that he enjoyed it just as much as John enjoyed giving it to him.
He pulled his fingers free, swallowing Rodney's moan with another kiss, tongues playing as they tasted each other. John turned to stare at the condom he'd thrown onto the pillow earlier, suddenly wanting to take Rodney, really take him, without any barriers between them.
"Rodney," John said, groaning as the head of his cock rubbed against the short curls of Rodney's belly. "I want... Can I... " It wasn't as if they'd never gone bareback before, but it was rare for them, mostly because of the mess. "Inside you... " John was so desperate he could barely get the words out between gasps. "Naked." He finally finished, still playing at Rodney's entrance, teasing the rim with the tip of his middle finger.
"Oh, fuck, yeah," Rodney said, cock pulsing between them.
John didn't waste any time, shifting so that he could slip his arms beneath Rodney's knees and lift his legs to John's shoulders. "Not gonna last," he said as he wrapped clumsy fingers around the base of his cock and positioned the head at Rodney's hole.
"You think I am?" Rodney grunted as John slid home. "Jesus, John."
And then neither of them had time for words, the hard slap of their bodies together loud in the otherwise silent room.
"Want to come inside you," John said, possessiveness and hunger combining to make each thrust a living, breathing exclamation point for his words.
"Want you to," Rodney answered, eyes closing as his body stretched out beneath John, arching and flexing with each pulse of pleasure. The position made the veins in his neck stick out, highlighting the bruises there.
"Fuck," John said, anger mixing with arousal. "Fuck."
"Please," Rodney whimpered, and John lost it.
He shifted again, sweat trickling down the length of his spine as he rearranged Rodney so that his legs were wrapped around John's waist. Rodney's ankles crossed at the small of John's back, digging into the flesh there as they both reached for the same thing. Pleasure. The kind that drowned out every other emotion, every other thought.
Rodney was gasping, fingernails scoring John's biceps as they moved together. When he thrust, making Rodney's breath hitch, John knew he'd found the one spot that would make Rodney scream. He thrust again and again, hitting Rodney's prostate over and over again until Rodney's whole body went taut and his cock spasmed against John's belly.
A rush of heat blossomed between them, Rodney's come spreading across John's skin like liquid fire.
"Rodney," John's voice cracked as his hips jerked and he exploded.
John was pretty sure they both passed out for a few minutes, at least. When he came to, he'd slipped free of Rodney, their bodies a sticky mess. "Jesus, sorry," he murmured against Rodney's shoulder.
"For what?" Rodney snorted. "Making me come so hard I passed out?"
John laughed softly. "Maybe we should get cleaned up."
"In a minute," Rodney said, the arm wrapped around John tightening to bring him closer. "I'm comfortable."
"Yeah," John agreed. He wished they had more time, wished that this whole trip hadn't turned into one big fuck up. What the hell had happened? Poole was dead, the Replicator was still loose and they had no better ideas on how to capture or incapacitate him than they'd had twenty-four hours ago.
"Something's not right," he said, the thought coming to him suddenly.
"What do you mean?" Rodney asked, snuggling closer. John smiled despite himself and the situation.
"Well, why did Poole go in there? Why did he risk his life?" It didn't make any sense.
"He thought he could talk the Replicator in," Rodney said, glancing curiously at John
"Even if that worked – even if we decided not to destroy that thing, it doesn't change the fact that Poole's going away forever." John shook his head.
"Maybe he didn't wanna see his life's work destroyed," Rodney said, and John imagined that Rodney knew what that kind of driving need was like. John could see Rodney doing the same, if he thought it necessary, but he didn't think that had been Poole's motivation.
He shook his head. "That's what he wanted us to think, but I'm not buying it. He's been spoon-fed half this technology; he stole the rest. No – he wanted to save the Replicator 'cause he thought it would do him some good. I'm thinking he's got a buyer – somebody who can get him out of this if he delivers the goods."
"To who?" Rodney asked. "Military? Or ex-military? I can think of a thousand different organizations that might want this kind of technology, including both our governments."
"Yeah," John said, thinking of the Trust and wondering what other shadow organizations they would have to deal with before this was all over.
"So, where does this leave us?" Rodney asked, and John knew then that there was only one other place for him to turn. One other person he could trust, even partially, to help them.
John sighed. "Lee hasn't been able to decrypt those files. Do you think you'll have any better luck?"
John could see Rodney warring with himself. He wanted to give his typical arrogant answer, but he also knew that they were running out of time, that no matter how much he wanted it to be true, it would still take, even him, more time than they had to crack the code. John nodded, even before Rodney could say a word, reading the answer in his features.
"I have one more avenue I can try," John said, knowing he had no choice.
"Don't worry," John said. "It won't take long." He pulled away and reluctantly left the bed. "We better get cleaned up though." There was a small sink in the corner that reminded John of the claustrophobic bathrooms they had on commercial jets. He used it to wet two washcloths and tossed one at Rodney.
As always, Rodney read his mind with more accuracy than John was sometimes comfortable with. "You really think she'll help? That she can help?" Rodney asked as he caught the wet cloth.
"I guess we'll see," John said, throwing the dirty washcloth aside. He really needed a shower, especially if he was going to visit Nancy, but he needed to make the call to her first and check in on Lee's progress before he did anything else.
After John left, Rodney spent some time just sitting on the end of John's bed, fingering the envelopes he'd retrieved from the floor. He'd given John a questioning glance before he'd left, but John had just shaken his head.
"No time," he'd said again and Rodney found that he was beginning to hate those words.
John deserved the time to deal with his family, his life. Hell, they'd been on leave. Rodney cursed Ava and Poole and the IOA. He cursed the whole damn world because it just wasn't fair. It wasn't fucking fair.
Rodney knew that John was going to meet with Nancy, and Rodney hoped that she had something, anything that might help them end this. He tossed the letters aside with a heavy sigh. He was tempted to read John's mother's letter, but knew that he couldn't.
After stopping by his own quarters, Rodney headed of to take a quick shower before heading for the lab. Lee was shaking his head when Rodney got there.
"Sorry, I managed to boost the sensitivity two hundred percent but I still can't pick anything up."
Rodney wasn't surprised, so he just nodded. He headed over to Lee's laptop, checking on his progress. "How's it going with those files from the lab?" he asked, though with a quick glance he already knew the answer.
"Well, I'm running a decryption program but it's slow going. I may have to make a few tweaks," Lee said, messing with some crystals in a nearby panel.
"Let me take a look at it," Rodney said, grabbing a stool and tapping away at the keyboard. "We'll focus on this for now."
"What about the tracking program?" Lee asked, brow furrowing. "We can still -- "
"Oh, give it up," Rodney dismissed him. "He's masking his signal. Poole must have told him how we were tracking him, the idiot. We're never going to find him that way."
"We don't know that there's anything in the files that's gonna help us track him, either," Lee countered.
"Yeah, well," Rodney said. "We don't really have any other options at the moment, do we?"
Rodney worked for several hours, trying different algorithms but having little success. He finally gave up waiting, leaving Lee to monitor the program he'd created and hoping that John had gotten something out of Nancy at least.
He'd heard that Ava had beamed down to the Stanton labs and wondered what she wanted from there considering that they'd taken all the hard drives and paperwork they could find the moment they'd captured Poole.
When he walked in, Ava was packing a small box full of things she'd pulled from Poole's desk.
"Hey," he said softly, remembering what she'd said about Poole, the way her voice had softened as she'd spoken of him.
"Doctor McKay," she said by way of greeting. "They said I could come, take some of his personal things."
"I'm, uh, sorry about what happened," Rodney offered, feeling a little out of his depth. Twice in less than one week he'd had to offer the kind of comfort he wasn't sure he knew how to express.
"Me too. He died thinking I betrayed him," Ava said, eyes large pools of sadness.
Rodney frowned. "Well, you don't know that." John hadn't said what happened in the interrogation room before they'd beamed down to meet the strike team, but Rodney had a feeling he'd known. Poole had cared for Ava, no matter what had happened between them.
"It's nice of you to say, but this project meant everything to him." She looked down into the box of treasures she'd collected, and Rodney wondered what they meant to her, a collection of junk that Poole had collected over the years.
"Well, maybe you meant something to him too. You never know what people are thinking," Rodney said, thinking of John's parents and the pair of letters waiting for them back on the Apollo.
"Even those you're closest to?" Ava asked, sounding hopeful.
"Especially those." Rodney nodded, thinking now of Jeannie and his own parents. Thinking of the years he'd wasted being angry and hurt and not even realizing why.
"Doctor?" Ava's soft voice brought him back to the present.
"Look, I know this is not a good time, but I've got to ask you something," Rodney said, tired of their non-existent progress.
"What is it?" Ava didn't seem half as eager to help now as she had before Poole's death. Rodney wasn't sure he could blame her.
"Did anyone else know about this project?"
"No." Her answer was disheartening, and altogether too abrupt.
"No-one came to check on your progress?" Rodney couldn't believe that there hadn't been anyone else in on it. After his conversation with John earlier, Rodney had to assume that whoever was in line to buy the Replicator technology from Poole would at least have wanted a sample.
"Richard and I were the only ones who had access to the lab," Ava seemed confused by his questions, and Rodney wondered if she were really as innocent as she claimed. Maybe Poole had arranged for visits while she'd been away. He hadn't given her any of the codes. He'd tried to shield her as much as possible, probably to keep her from getting into the kind of trouble he knew he would be in if he were ever caught.
"Was he in contact with anyone, maybe from the military – phone, e-mails?" Rodney asked, though he had the feeling that Poole had been just as successful keeping those things from Ava as well.
"Not that I know of," she said, confirming Rodney's suspicions.
He nodded, resignedly. "All right." He offered to help her carry the box, but she shook her head, indicating that she was still packing.
"Doctor, how's it coming with the sensors?" she asked, a note of something Rodney couldn't pinpoint in her voice.
"It's not, but we're pretty close to breaking the encryption code," Rodney said, knowing that his program was continuing to run the numbers as they spoke. He stood to leave, but stopped when Ava spoke again.
"I thought that was impossible," she said, surprised for the first time since he'd met her.
Rodney snorted. "I realize you don't know me, but... I'm the brightest mind in two – I mean, in this galaxy. Nothing's impossible."
She nodded, still looking a little shell shocked.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Rodney asked, stepping toward her.
"Yes, I -- " she gave him a sad smile. "I just need a moment."
"All right," Rodney said, leaving her to it.
When he got back to the Apollo, John was there waiting for him.
"Anything?" he asked.
John shook his head. "Not yet."
They walked into the lab together, finding Lee staring intently at his laptop screen.
"Well, how's it going?" John asked.
"I was just about to call you," Lee said. "I managed to open those files from the lab."
"You managed?" Rodney sputtered.
"Yes, all right, we," Lee said, stepping aside so that John and Rodney could see the screen.
"Nice work. Anything interesting?" John said, grinning at Rodney.
"Yeah, you could say that."
John's grin disappeared at the tone in Lee's voice.
"Stanton Research personnel records. That is Ava Dixon's file. She was in a car accident last December – head-on collision. She's been dead for almost a year," Lee said, surprising them both.
"Of course," Rodney said, wanting to kick himself.
By the time they made it back to the lab at the Stanton Research Facility, Ava was gone. They found one of the guards lying unconscious but alive on the lab floor.
John swore and Bates paced the room, stopping to pick up a sheet of paper on one of the lab tables. "Sheppard," Bates said, lifting the paper to catch John's attention.
"Colonel Sheppard. I never meant for any of this to happen. I am very sorry. Ava." John read it aloud, then cursed again, crumpling the paper in one hand. "Fuck!"
Rodney sighed in frustration, feeling one step behind again.
Lee was waiting for them when they beamed back to the Apollo. "I got two sets of blueprints – one male and one female," he said.
"What about the sensors?" John asked, hands going through his hair, making it even spikier than normal.
"Ah, we've got nothing. She's masking her energy signature, same way the other one did." Lee sounded apologetic.
"That's not surprising," Rodney said. She'd been hiding herself in plain sight, there was no way she was going to let us catch her now.
"Doesn't make any sense. She came to us. Why didn't she just keep her mouth shut?" Bates chimed in, looking at them as if they had the answers.
"Why didn't she kill the guard?" Lee countered, and Rodney thought he had a point.
"C'mon – a Replicator with a conscience?" John dismissed the idea.
"You didn't see her in the lab. She was looking at all this crap on Poole's desk like it meant something. Like it was all she had left of him." Rodney admitted. "Her programming is distinct from the other one. He's a military model; she's designed for social interaction, simulation of emotions, maybe even empathy. He built her to replace a dead woman from his past. He wouldn't have wanted her if she couldn't at least simulate the emotions."
"Does that mean she can't kill?" Bates asked.
"I'd say it's less likely, but not impossible," Lee said and Rodney shook his head.
"It's just as likely as any human killing," Rodney offered, glancing around the room and seeing that nobody found any comfort in that statement.
"Well, we need 'em both." John finally broke the silence. "Anything useful left in those files?"
"Well, not much so far," Lee admitted.
"Great," John said, biting back a curse.
"I'll get on it," Rodney offered, taking control of Lee's laptop.
"Colonel Sheppard, come in." The PA system beeped into life.
John shared a glance with Rodney, before answering. "Yeah, it's Sheppard. Go ahead."
"You've got an urgent message, sir, relayed through Peterson."
"Nancy," John and Rodney said together.
"Keep on it," John ordered, and disappeared down the corridor.
They were running out of time. Though it chafed John to have to go to his ex for help, he knew this was their best bet. He checked his watch for the fifth time, just as the passenger door opened. Nancy slipped inside with a smile and, for a minute, John was thrown back in time.
"Well, you've really got the cloak and dagger thing down," he joked because the rush of memories left him feeling off balance.
"I learned from the best." Nancy's smile had always left John feeling warm. It was one of the reasons why he'd stayed with her as long as he had.
He took the flash drive from her, nodding his thanks.
"It's everything I could find on Archetype. It's not much, but whatever it is, no one will touch it with a ten foot pole," she said, her curiosity clear.
"I owe you one," he said not sure if he was ever going to have the chance to repay her.
"Damn right you do!" she said, and he had to laugh. "You know, it's funny – when you and I were together, I couldn't stand it when you wouldn't be able to tell me where you were going or what you were doing. And now, every once in a while, I catch Grant looking at me the same way."
John gave her a sympathetic smile, there wasn't much to say to that.
"When I was doing my snooping around, I took the liberty of asking a few questions about you, John."
He wasn't surprised, though he could have told her not to bother. "That's probably not such a good idea."
"Yeah, I got that impression. I've seen walls go up quickly before, but never like this. And whatever you're into, it's obviously big and – my guess – is very dangerous." She was looking at him again just like she used to, a mix of concern and confusion on her face. Her hand felt small compared to Rodney's as she lightly squeezed his arm. "I just want you to be careful."
"Well, you know me," he said, trying to lighten the situation but failing miserably.
"Yeah, that's the problem." Her smile this time was wistful and a little sad.
John nodded but didn't say anything else.
He wanted to call her back and say thank you, wanted to tell her that it hadn't been her fault, that even if his missions hadn't been classified John probably still wouldn't have been the kind of guy who sat down to talk about his day with her. But Nancy was already gone, and John figured it was way too late for those kinds of apologies.
He didn't waste any time getting back and handing over the flash drive to Lee and Rodney.
"She wasn't kidding. So far, it's a whole lot of nothing. I mean, lab requisitions, non-disclosure agreements. Oh, here's an exciting one: an internal memo reminding employees not to use the south parking lot due to ongoing re-paving!" Lee said.
Rodney had finally gotten his own laptop, and was searching through the same data and having the same amount of luck. "This is ridiculous."
"Well, it's all we got," John said, and Rodney snorted in agreement.
"Hold on." Lee suddenly straightened.
"What is it?" John asked impatiently.
"It's a shipping waybill with instructions to deliver a load of pre-assembled masonry panels to a warehouse in Redding."
"So?" Rodney asked, sounding annoyed. John didn't blame him. It didn't seem like that great a discovery.
"So – 'pre-assembled masonry panels' – that was a code word we used a few months back to identify shipments of neutronium," Lee clarified, though John still didn't get it.
Rodney was snapping his fingers though, getting that look that usually meant that he was on to something. "Yes!"
Lee and Rodney were grinning, and John wanted to slap them both. "So? What the hell does that mean?"
"Neutronium – it's the base element from which nanites are made," Rodney said, eyes bright. "We damaged him. You saw him before he went into the river, right? He was healing himself, but nowhere near his normal capacity. If he wants to fully repair, he's going to need the neutronium."
"So, he's gonna go for the warehouse," John said, looking at Rodney for confirmation.
"Exactly." Rodney's smile was smug.
"Assuming he knows where it is," Bates said, raining on their parade.
"Well, to be perfectly honest, we don't have anything else." Lee didn't mince words. And he was right, they didn't have many options.
"It's a good point," John said, shrugging.
"All right. I'll set up a stake-out and if he shows up, we'll know about it," Bates said, not looking too happy. Then again, Bates never looked too happy, so John couldn't exactly base anything on that thought.
"This could be our last shot," Rodney said.
"Yeah, we've gotta make sure he goes down for good this time." John felt the frustration building again. He still didn't know how they were going to do that.
"It's not gonna be easy. I mean, if this was the movies, we'd dip him into a vat of molten steel, or a volcano," Lee said, half joking.
But the idea resonated, and the glance he shared with Rodney told him that Rodney thought so, too.
"You know, the fires from whence he came," Lee clarified unnecessarily.
"That's a really good idea," John said, and Rodney nodded.
"It might work," Rodney conceded, and John grinned feeling hopeful for the first time in days.
"Really?" Lee sounded surprised and John laughed, while Rodney shook his head in disgust.
Since there wasn't much they could do until the Replicator showed himself, John finally had the time to think about other things, not that he necessarily wanted to. His room felt suffocatingly silent as the door slid shut behind him.
It looked like Rodney had cleaned up a little, the bed was still rumpled, but relatively put together and the letters that John had strewn across the floor were lying neatly atop the covers again. John's fingers shook as he picked up the one from his mother. He wondered briefly if he should wait for Rodney to join him because he knew that Rodney would, but John didn't want to wait any longer.
The paper felt brittle in his fingers, though he knew it wasn't that old.
To my Johnny,
I'm so sorry that you're finding out this way. I wanted to tell you in person, wanted to tell you the truth, but your father,Patrick, convinced me that this was for the best.
I never meant for it to happen, though I'll never regret it. Having you was such a joy, Johnny. I love you and your brother so much, you'll never know how much. I'll always love Jan for giving you to me. He was a nice man, a good man.
Patrick was on his first tour and things were... difficult. We married so young, and neither of us really understood what that kind of commitment meant. I loved Patrick, I still do, I always will, but...
I met Jan one day at the library. He was brilliant and funny and he paid attention to me. I never meant for things to go so far, but I can't blame anyone but myself.
He understood that I loved Patrick. When we found out I was pregnant, I know that he wanted you, Johnny, never doubt that. But he knew that I wouldn't leave Patrick, and so he left... knowing that he could never truly be a part of your life even if he'd stayed.
I'm sorry for that, love.
He left you something, though. A legacy, he said. I made Patrick promise to keep it safe for you. I hope... I hope it gives you some closure, gives you some idea of what your father was like. I'm not sure it will, I'm not actually sure what it is, truth be told. But, it's from him, and I know you'd appreciate having something of his.
I love you, Johnny.
John shook his head, blinking furiously though his eyes were dry. It was obvious that his mother had written this right before the cancer had finally claimed her. She'd wanted to tell him before she'd died, but his dad, Patrick, had convinced her not to. John wondered what things might have been like if she had.
"Hey." Rodney was there, though John hadn't even heard the door chime. He took the letter from John's numb fingers and settled beside him, raising one brow in question.
John nodded. "Go ahead." He didn't have the strength to tell Rodney himself, so he'd just let him read the letter.
"What kind of name is Jan for a boy?" Rodney asked, and John huffed a laugh, surprised that he still could.
He'd pretty much known what was in the letter, but the reality of it had sort of slapped him in the face. And the reminder of his mother's illness hadn't been pleasant. He'd loved her furiously. She'd made up for all the times his father had ignored or belittled him. After she'd died, John hadn't had anyone. Dave had already decided to follow in their father's footsteps, to treat John with the same kind of distance and disdain that Patrick Sheppard had always offered.
John had been seventeen, Dave fifteen, but it felt like they'd been decades apart. John had enlisted the following year. It had taken him several years to get his degree, even with the help of the USAF's Bootstrap program, then to make it into OTS. But John had always known he'd wanted to fly and he'd done what he'd had to in order to qualify for a commission.
Rodney's arm snaked around his waist, and John leaned into him, too exhausted and emotionally drained to fight the need for comfort. "What do you think he left you?"
"I have no idea," John said, wondering if his father had kept his promise. "Dave said they hadn't read Dad's will yet." John assumed that he'd find out soon enough.
"We'll go see him after all this is over," Rodney promised.
"You don't have to come with me," John said automatically, though he wasn't sure he wanted to go alone.
"Oh, shut up," Rodney said, pressing a kiss against John's hair.
"Thanks," John said around the lump clogging his throat.
Rodney felt way too jittery and nervous. He hated waiting, he didn't have the patience to just sit around and not do something. He especially hated waiting when he knew that there would probably be a decent amount of pain involved at the end of it. He nearly jumped out of his skin when their radios crackled to life. John gave him a funny look and he shrugged. What could he say? Imminent danger made him jumpy.
"Sheppard, this is Apollo. We're all set."
"Understood," John said, then signed off.
"I have to admit, it is a good plan," Rodney said. "Not too many other ways to destroy a Replicator, and of course, there's no way it would work if we were dealing with more than one." Rodney shrugged. "But this should definitely do it."
"Gee, thanks, Rodney," John said, deadpan.
Rodney glanced at his watch again, wondering how much longer they would have to wait. "Are you sure he's going to show up?"
"The IOA said they spotted him nearby."
"And what if he spotted them?" Rodney asked, glancing around the warehouse and noting the milling soldiers. It wasn't as if they were exactly being stealthy.
John shrugged. "He doesn't have much choice. He's got to have the neutronium to repair himself. I don't think the fact that he's going to have to take us on to get to it is going to be much of a deterrent for him."
John was probably right, Rodney thought, though it wasn't as if any of them had degrees in Replicator pop-psychology. Rodney really just wanted to get this whole thing over with. It felt like months since they had stepped through the Stargate for Patrick Sheppard's funeral, instead of the few days it had actually been.
John tapped his radio again, "Bates? You see anything?"
"Negative. All quiet over here," Bates reported, and Rodney sighed.
"This is ridiculous, we don't even -- "
"Be patient, he'll show," John interrupted, signaling for Rodney to be quiet.
Rodney rolled his eyes. If John was right, it wouldn't matter whether Rodney recited the entire periodic table at the top of his lungs. The Replicator was either going to show or he wasn't.
Before Rodney could tell John any of that, they were attacked. Rodney didn't even have time to get his P90 up before two more soldiers went down. He swore, pulling the trigger and hitting the Replicator almost dead center, but it barely phased him.
"Oh, no," Rodney said, turning to dodge out of the way, but it was too late. All the breath was knocked from his lungs as the Replicator's palm impacted against Rodney's chest. The room became a blur, then a massive jolt of pain hit him as his back slammed against one of the large crates dotting the warehouse floor.
He shook his head, trying to clear the ringing and saw the Replicator with his hand at John's throat. It looked like John was in real trouble, his face turning a mottled shade of purple and red that was beginning to alarm Rodney.
Rodney did his best to lever himself up so that he could help, then, before he could launch himself forward, Ava appeared. It looked like all she did was flick her wrist, but the other Replicator went flying, and John fell to the floor, gasping for breath.
Crawling toward John, Rodney kept one eye on the two Replicators as they fought. It looked like any normal fight, but Rodney knew the strength behind each punch and kick would be enough to fell any human. Ava was holding her own though, so Rodney turned his attention to John.
"Hey," Rodney said, helping John to sit up. "You okay?"
"Thought I told you to stop asking me that." John's voice was raspy, and Rodney knew there'd be bruises circling his throat in the morning.
"Yeah, well, I figured your near death experience invalidated the request!" Rodney shot back, pretending that he was more annoyed than afraid. Seeing John fall had... well, it had knocked the breath from Rodney's lungs.
"Rodney," John said, meeting his gaze for one suspended moment. "I'm fine." Then Rodney watched as John patted his pockets, finally coming up with the specially designed transponder that Rodney had put together.
"You sure this is going to work?" Rodney said, beginning to doubt.
"It's activated," John answered. "We just have to get close enough to use it."
John was already up and circling behind the Replicator's back when Ava went down.
"You should not have interfered," the Replicator said, sounding a little too calm for Rodney's tastes. He didn't even look like Ava had tired him even a little.
John tried to dart forward while the Replicator was still busy with Ava, but it didn't work. Before John could get the transponder in place, the Replicator turned, face devoid of emotion as he (intentionally or not) knocked the transponder from John's hand.
"Rodney!" John called out as he engaged the Replicator, throwing the first punch.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Rodney scrambled after the transponder, just managing to get his hands on it when he heard John's muffled grunt.
The Replicator had his hand around John's throat again, and this time Rodney didn't think John would last nearly as long. He lunged forward, intent on ending this now before it was too late, and hit the switch that would free the transponder's blade. It sliced through the Replicator's flesh, or whatever was passing for flesh, smoothly, embedding itself to the hilt.
He made a sort of angry, growling sound – the first indication that the Replicator might actually see them as a threat, or at least an annoying gnat – and turned on Rodney.
"Now!" Rodney shouted, knowing that the Apollo had kept the radio channel open.
And in a flash, the Replicator was gone.
Ava stirred. "What happened? Where did you send him?"
"Low earth orbit," Rodney said, falling to his knees as he fought to catch his own breath. He could feel the aches and pains catching up with him now.
"Yeah," John said, pulling himself back onto this feet. "Re-entry's gonna be a bitch." Then John was there, hands moving over Rodney, checking for injuries. "Hey, buddy, you okay?"
Rodney nodded. "You?"
"Yeah." John shook his head, then chuffed a laugh. "Yeah, I'm okay."
Later, after they'd both been bandaged and drugged Rodney followed John back to his quarters. He was glad that the Apollo was so understaffed at the moment. Despite the reasons, he'd looked forward to spending time with John on Earth where they wouldn't have to worry about prying military eyes all the time. He was tried and groggy from the painkillers, but he doubted he'd be able to sleep.
"So?" Rodney said, settling beside John on the bed. He'd just rest here a few minutes before heading back to his own quarters. "What are we going to do with her?"
"Rodney, I really don't want to talk about this right now." John sighed. "This is going to be the first actual night's sleep we've had all week. She's under guard. We can deal with her in the morning."
"Her last morning," Rodney said, feeling vaguely guilty. "You know there's no way that they're going to let her go free."
"Rodney," John said.
"I'm sorry." Rodney said, sitting up and trying not to wince as his muscles twinged in protest. "I can't sleep."
"I know," John sighed. "I'm pretty wired, too." He shifted closer, one arm snaking around Rodney's waist, his lips pressing softly against Rodney's temple.
Rodney laughed. "The flesh is willing, always," Rodney said, turning to nuzzle John's cheek. "But... "
"Shh," John said, pushing Rodney onto his back and covering Rodney's body with his own, settling warm and heavy between Rodney's thighs. "All you have to do is lay back and let me do all the work." John's lips were soft, the softest thing about John, which is why Rodney could spend all day just kissing him.
"Mmm," Rodney said, tilting his face up for more as John pulled away with a grin.
John rocked his hips, rubbing their erections together in a slow, torturous glide. "Yeah, just like that Rodney." John's voice had gone low and shiver inducing.
It was perfect, exactly what they both needed. Slow and sweet, and achingly good.
Rodney wrapped his arms around John, hugging him close as they moved together. He loved the feel of John's muscles, the way they shifted beneath his fingers. There was something about the leashed strength in John's every move that was almost unbearably arousing to Rodney.
John's balls were heavy against his own, the weight of them making Rodney groan and reach for him. He cupped John's ass, urging him closer.
"Hey," John said, grinning. "I thought you were tired."
"Oh, ha ha," Rodney said, grinning back. "Just make me come already so I can pass out."
"Your wish is my command," John said, bowing his head to kiss Rodney again, his tongue sliding across Rodney's in a familiar dance.
"John," Rodney said, breath hitching. He could feel John's cock leaking against his own, making the sweet slide of their bodies that much easier.
"Yes," John said, burying his face against Rodney's neck, kissing and suckling the flesh there.
John was marking him, Rodney knew. It was something that John did every now and then, something that made them both a little crazy. John appeased a little of his possessiveness, and Rodney loved knowing that John felt so proprietary toward him. It was an amazing turn on to think that a guy like John could feel jealous over someone like Rodney. At least it was to Rodney.
When he felt the scrape of John's teeth across the tender flesh of his shoulder, Rodney came.
"Oh, fuck," John said, hips moving frantically against Rodney's. Seconds later, John's come was mixing with Rodney's, leaving them both sticky and sated.
"Jesus," Rodney said, running shaky fingers over John's sweaty back.
"Yeah," John said, laughing softly. "I kind of needed that."
"Me, too," Rodney admitted quietly, letting the relief finally ease into his bones. It was over, mostly. They got the bad guy and saved the day. Again. He smiled softly to himself. He'd always wanted to be a superhero when he was a kid, had always wanted to be the one to thwart evil and get the girl. His grin widened as he turned to study John. Of course, he'd never realized how hard it was going to be.
Or that his blond bombshell was actually a brunette stud.
"What are you grinning at?" John asked, looking amused and wary at the same time.
"Nothing, Lois," Rodney said, patting John's chest. "Go to sleep."
John shook his head with a laugh. "I thought we already established that you weren't Superman."
"Yeah, well, after a while saving the day kind of goes to your head."
"Just so long as you don't start believing your own hype," John said, eyes darkening as he turned serious again. "You're not invincible, you know."
"Look who's talking," Rodney countered, suddenly remembering the way his own chest had tightened at the sight of John beginning to lose consciousness at the hands of the Replicator. "You're only human, too, remember?"
John nodded. "So, neither of us is Superman. Got it. Now turn off that big brain of yours and get some sleep."
Rodney laughed and kissed John again. "Yes, sir."
"How are you settling in to your new life?" John asked, watching Ava carefully. He wanted to ensure that she was good, that she hadn't gotten screwed over for doing the right thing.
They'd created a beautiful world for her. He hoped that they'd given her everything she needed, everything she could want.
"It's a bit of an adjustment." Ava sighed, rubbing her hands together nervously. "One of the stipulations of my release is that I don't look for a job in any scientific field. To be honest, I'm not sure what I'm gonna do."
It was strange to think of her as another Replicator, to think of her as a machine. She looked and acted as human as any woman John had ever met.
"Well, I'm sure you'll figure something out," he said, reassuring. Funny to think she needed reassuring, but his words seemed to comfort her.
"I wanted to thank you, Colonel. I know they never would have agreed to let me go if you hadn't put in a word for me."
He had to look away at that. A part of him still felt guilty at the ruse they were playing, but he liked to think that it was for her own good. At least now, in here, she had a chance at being happy. "You saved my life – putting a word in is the least I can do."
"I have to admit: I'm a little scared. I mean, I know these emotions are supposed to be artificial, but they seem pretty real to me."
A Replicator with a conscience, John thought again, believing it now. "C'mon, what have you got to be scared about?" John said, grinning at her.
"Well, I've never really been alone before. Richard was the closest thing I ever had to family." She stopped and turned to him, her eyes enormous in her pale face. "Anyway, it was nice for you to check up on me. I guess we'll never see each other again."
"Well, one thing I've learned about my business is never say never."
She nodded, but John could tell that she didn't really believe him. "Goodbye, Colonel."
He watched her for a second before triggering his exit from the program. Rodney and Dr. Lee were waiting for him when he got out.
"So?" Rodney asked, looking a little anxious. John knew that he was just as concerned about Ava as John had been. They'd discussed it at length that morning, and Rodney had actually been the one to come up with the idea.
"Well, it's very nice work. Very convincing." John gave him a reassuring smile. "I think she'll be happy there. Artificial emotions or not."
"Good, good," Rodney said, helping him up. "Her body's been taken care of. We deactivated the bond between her nanites."
"Yeah. I'm glad we were able to download her consciousness intact. Now she has a whole virtual world to explore," Lee said, looking from John to Rodney and back again. "It's a good reward. Fitting, I think."
"Yes, well, we didn't have very many options, did we?" Rodney said. "But, I'm glad we came up with something."
"Me, too," John said, feeling relieved and a little less burdened with guilt. He'd never planned to go through with the threats he'd made to Poole and he'd hated the idea that there might not have been a choice.
"So, what now?" Rodney asked.
"Well, I don't know about you two, but I've still got another week of leave," Lee said. "And I never checked out of my hotel room."
John grinned at him. "We'll make sure they beam you back exactly where they found you, Doc."
"Thank you." Lee smiled back, slapping his hands together and rubbing them in anticipation. "Surf, sun and skimpy bikinis here I come."
"Just remember to wear sunscreen this time, okay?" John reminded him.
"Sure, sure," Lee said, already heading for the exit. "Have a good trip back!" he called out before disappearing down the hallway.
John shook his head, then caught Rodney's eye. "You sure you want to -- "
"Don't be an idiot," Rodney cut him off. "We never checked out of our hotel, either, you know," Rodney added, giving him a look.
"Good." John said, thinking that it was nice to have somewhere to go. He knew he shouldn't put off the confrontation any longer than necessary, but he needed a few more hours of downtime before he could face Dave. "Good," he said again.
It didn't take them long to pack up what little they had brought with them. They were back in their room at the Hotel Monaco within the hour.
"Are you sure you don't want to just go see him now?" Rodney asked. "They've probably read the will by now."
John snorted. He still remembered the words his brother had said to him the day of their dad's wake. "Dave thought... thinks the only reason I came back was to contest the will," John admitted.
"What?" Rodney had laid himself out on the bed, but sat up abruptly now.
"Yeah," John sighed, dropping his duffel and falling onto the cushioned desk chair. "He said... he said it was my fault that he didn't know me. That he had no reason to believe that I came back for anything else."
"Asshole," Rodney swore.
"No," John shook his head. "He's right. I stayed away all these years. Dave was just a kid when I left. How is he supposed to know anything about me?"
"John -- "
"What am I supposed to say to him, Rodney?" John wiped at his face, feeling weary. "No, really, I don't care about the will, but, uh, could you tell me if dad left me anything?"
"It's a valid question," Rodney argued. "You only want what's rightfully yours."
"Is anything rightfully mine? He wasn't even my father." John said the words aloud for the first time. "Should I... do you think Dave knows?"
"I don't know," Rodney said, getting up and coming to kneel in front of John. "I think it's highly unlikely though. I mean, they seemed pretty secretive about it, your mom and, uh, dad, I mean."
"Yeah," John agreed. Rodney's hands were on his thighs, a warm solid weight that John wanted to cling to. "Do you think... do you think I should tell him?"
"I don't know," Rodney said again. "I wish I could answer that for you, but I can't."
They were quiet for what felt like hours. "Who was he?" John said into the silence. "I can't believe my mom had an affair. I mean, Jesus, I know she loved dad. And she was... she was so... good." John felt like his whole world had tipped over.
"This doesn't make her any less good," Rodney said. "She just... she just made a mistake. People make mistakes, John."
"And I was the result."
"No!" Rodney's face was flushed and his eyes were snapping brightly at John. "It's obvious she loved you. She never regretted having you. She said as much in her letter. She was lonely, she missed your father. She needed to... connect with someone. That's all."
John nodded. "You know, Dave and I were close once. Best friends. We moved around a lot and for a long time all we had was each other."
"I know what you mean." Rodney nodded. "Jeannie and I were the same way. That's why it... hurt so much when it felt like she was turning her back on me, on science and everything that we'd shared."
John was starting to feel a little gutted, like someone had reached in and hollowed him out. He hated thinking about his past, hated dissecting the feelings that sprang up when he thought of the disappointment he'd been. And now... now he didn't even know what he was feeling, or what he should be feeling.
"Hey," Rodney said, bringing John back to the present. He looked down, trying to lose himself in Rodney's eyes and the feel of Rodney's hands running smoothly up and down his thighs. Heat radiated from the touch, and John felt some of the chill leave him. "If I could make up with Jeannie, then there's definitely hope for you."
John laughed, cupping the back of Rodney's neck and leaning down for a kiss. "Thanks." He said, shaking his head again. "Christ, it feels like that's all I've said to you for the past week."
Rodney's chin tilted up slightly. "Well, you have a lot to be thankful for."
"Yeah, I do," John said, then sighed. "Do you mind if we don't wait after all? I don't think I'm going to be able to relax until we get this over with."
"Are you sure?" Rodney asked.
"Should we call first?"
"No, I think that surprise might be our only weapon at this point," John said.
"You really think we'll need one?" Rodney said, looking worried again.
"Well, what Dave said went both ways. I don't know him either. Not anymore." And John hated knowing that he was mostly to blame for that. Dave had taken his cue from their father, but John had let him. He'd stayed away for years, away from his father and the cool disappointment that always greeted him. But John had let his avoidance of Patrick Sheppard extend to Dave, too, and that had been his fault.
"It's not too late," Rodney said, no doubt thinking of his own relationship with Jeannie.
"I hope not."
Rodney could feel the tension in the car getting higher and higher the closer they got to the Sheppard estate. He wished there was something that he could do, but he was probably the least qualified, despite his reconciliation with his own sister, to help. He and John were more alike than not when it came to emotional confrontations.
"Ready?" Rodney asked as he pulled the car into the drive.
"As I'll ever be. Jesus, I hope he's home." John was wiping his hands on his jeans, nervously drying the sweat from his palms.
"Are you sure you want me to go inside with you? I can wait out here. Whatever you want." Rodney thought he might be feeling almost as nervous as John, but then again, probably not.
"No, just," John said, glancing from Rodney to the house and back again. "Maybe just until we get the initial, uhm, stuff over with? I don't know. Can we just wing it?"
Rodney nodded. "Yeah, yes, of course."
He followed John out of the car and up the front walk. The house was just as imposing as it had been when they'd arrived for the wake, filled with a history that Rodney wasn't sure he wanted to know. He couldn't believe that John had grown up here, even part time. On the other hand, the estate was filled with a kind of muffled stillness, the same kind of feeling that Rodney got from John sometimes when he was bottling everything up and shutting himself down.
John rang the bell and they waited, both of them fidgeting nervously.
The look of surprise on Dave's face was quickly replaced with wariness, and Rodney fought the urge to sigh. At least he'd been home.
"Hey," John said.
Dave stared at them for a long while. Rodney thought that maybe he was less surprised to find Rodney with John, than he was to open to the door to them at all. Finally, he nodded.
The living room was sunken, the ceiling cathedral style. It should have been light and airy but the room, and the house itself, had a dark feeling to it. The furniture was burnished cherry wood, the stones in the enormous fireplace a burgundy brick that did nothing but absorb what little light was coming through the slanted shades.
"You remember Rodney?" John said, lazy drawl back in action, though Rodney thought he knew how much of an effort it was costing John.
"Yes," Dave said, nodding at Rodney. "I suppose you're here about the will, then?" he didn't waste any time saying as they took seats facing each other on the sofas.
John sighed, wiping a hand over his face. "Dave -- "
"John doesn't need your father's money," Rodney interrupted, unable to help himself.
"Got your boyfriends fighting your battles now, John?" Dave said, making Rodney scowl. He hadn't meant to put John in that kind of position.
"I'm not -- " Rodney started.
"He's not exactly easy to control," John said, giving Rodney an apologetic smile, though Rodney wasn't sure what he was apologizing for. "And he's not saying anything that isn't true. I don't need dad's money."
"Oh?" Dave said. "Then what are you doing here, John? We don't see you for almost two decades, then dad dies and suddenly your johnny-on-the-spot. What am I supposed to think? You say you're not here for the will, or dad's money, but what else is there? What else is there, John?" Dave said again, visibly upset now.
John sighed, a long slow exhale that didn't seem to help at all. "There's you," John said, though Rodney could tell that Dave wasn't believing a word of it. Rodney wished that there was something he could do or say to make things easier for them both. "And there's the truth."
"The truth?" Dave shook his head. "Do you really expect me to believe that you came back here for... for what? For me? Nice try," Dave said.
"Dave." John blew out a breath. "The truth is... I'm not... " Rodney could see John struggling to find the words. "Mom had an affair while dad was on his first tour."
"What?" Dave's shocked expression couldn't be feigned. It was obvious that he'd never been told. "What the hell are you saying?"
"I'm saying." John shook his head. "I'm saying that Patrick Sheppard wasn't my father."
Rodney watched them both, hating his helplessness. He was so used to being able to think his way through any problem, any situation, that his inability to do anything to help John was eating at him. He shifted, nudging John's knee with his own. The contact was brief, but Rodney felt better and he hoped that John did, too.
"I... " Dave made a face that was all too familiar, then ran shaky fingers through his hair. Despite the circumstances, Rodney found the whole thing vaguely amusing. "I don't know what to say."
"I guess there was a reason dad and I never really got along," John said.
"You can't, believe" Dave said, shaking his head again. "John, I told you that dad always regretted what happened between you two."
"Dave, you and I both know that dad never... He never loved me," John said, his accompanying chuckle was more sad than not. "Jesus, he could barely stand me."
Rodney gave John as encouraging a smile as he could.
"That's not true," Dave protested. "He just... he didn't understand you."
"Yeah, because I'm such a complicated guy," John said sarcastically.
Rodney cleared his throat. Loudly.
"What?" John's brow furrowed as he turned to Rodney.
"You are kind of," Rodney said and it was his turn to give John a slightly apologetic smile. "Complicated, I mean."
"Look who's talking," John said.
Dave was looking back and forth between them. He held up a hand. "Look, I just... I don't know what's going on here." Dave's expression morphed into something Rodney couldn't decipher. "Is that why you left? Why you never came back?"
"No." John said, regret and a flash of pain coloring his eyes. "I just found out. The letter that dad left me... It... God, even that's complicated," John said. "It had another letter in it. From mom. She said that my... biological father left me something. That dad -- " John shook his head. "That Patrick was supposed to keep it for me."
"Oh," Dave said, still looking a little poleaxed. Rodney had the feeling that he'd wanted John to say yes, that he'd wanted a reason for John's disappearance so many years ago.
"Dave," John sighed. "You know why I left. And I... I never thought I'd be welcome back. Dad made it clear that... hell, that he didn't want me around."
"And what about me, John? Did you care what I wanted?" Dave asked, then shook his head, looking away for a moment. Finally he cleared his throat and said, "Forget it. You came to see if dad left you anything, right? If he kept his promise to mom?" Dave stood.
"Dave, wait," John said, standing too, one hand held out to stop Dave. "I'm sorry."
"Forget it," Dave said again.
"No. I was... angry and young and I wanted to prove... prove that I wasn't the fuck-up that dad thought I was," John said. "Except that I never did."
Rodney stood up then, too, ready to defend John against himself, but before he could John continued.
"I don't know why I thought that I'd be able to follow orders any better in the military than I had at home." John laughed, self-deprecatingly. "I couldn't come back. I couldn't stand seeing the disappointment and disapproval in dad's eyes again. You wouldn't understand. Dad loved everything about you. You never had to face that... look, never had to see your own failures reflected in his eyes."
Jesus, Rodney couldn't believe that John had said so much, that he'd admitted so much. Rodney didn't think he'd ever heard John talk so baldly about himself, about his feelings before. He sank back onto the couch, watching the brothers argue back and forth like a tennis match.
Rodney saw Dave's eyes soften, saw him reach out to touch John's arm. Rodney thought that maybe, just maybe, things were going to be all right, but then Dave's hand fell away and he saw how Dave's next words sliced across John's already raw wounds. "You don't know anything about me or my relationship with dad because you weren't here to see it."
Rodney could tell that John wanted to pull away, to maybe turn around and walk out the door, but he didn't. He held his ground as Dave continued.
"I had my own fair share of disappointed looks, John," Dave said. "How do you think it felt every time he talked about you? Don't you realize how... Jesus, dad was career military. Don't you think he was disappointed when I didn't enlist, too? He followed your career, did you know that? No, I don't suppose that you would have."
"Yeah," Dave said, nodding at John's disbelief. "I heard about every single time you moved up in rank."
"Sure, and I bet he was real proud when I got that black mark, too, huh?" John spat back, letting anger replace some of the confusion.
Dave shook his head. "You should have seen him the day he found out you made it into OTS, or hell, the day you made lieutenant colonel."
John seemed to deflate a little at that. "Nancy said... but I didn't believe her, not really. Why didn't he ever say anything?"
"I told you," Dave said. "He just didn't know how."
John fell back onto the couch, his head in his hands. "I'm sorry, Dave. I didn't... I saw the look on your face, too, that day. You didn't want anything to do with me afterward. I guess I didn't think you'd miss me much either."
"I was sixteen!" Dave practically shouted. "I was shocked and confused. The brother that I'd practically worshiped my entire life was gay! How was I supposed to react?"
"What about afterward? After I left? I never got a letter or a phone call. Why didn't you ever say anything?" John asked, looking back up at Dave who was still standing, towering over John.
"I guess I didn't know how either," Dave said softly. "Then you married Nancy and I didn't know what to think." Dave glanced at Rodney briefly.
"She was a friend. We met dad at a military function, he really liked her and I thought... " John shook his head. "I tried to be what he wanted."
"Yeah," Dave said, as if he understood.
Dave took a seat again and they were both quiet for a long moment.
"There was something," Dave said, breaking the silence. "In his will."
Rodney could practically feel the low thrum of excitement, or maybe it was expectation, begin to hum through John's body.
"You'll have to contact the executor, Jonathon Ward, but there was something about a security deposit box. Jon said that dad had left all the contents to you."
John nodded. "Thanks."
"There's probably a message waiting for you at Peterson. I told him I didn't know where you were, and he wouldn't release the key to the box to me," Dave said with a shrug.
Dave looked at John, then Rodney, then John again. "You're not really stationed at Peterson, are you?
"Maybe you should tell him?" Rodney said softly.
John wished he could. "Rodney."
"He can sign a non-disclosure, just like Jeannie," Rodney suggested. John knew that Rodney was trying to make things better, trying to give John a way to show Dave that he was trying, that he wanted to try.
"There's a reason Jeannie had to be told," John said.
Dave was silent, just watching them both.
"I want to tell you," John said.
"But it's classified," Dave finished for him. "Who's Jeannie?"
"My sister," Rodney explained. "She... collaborated on one of the projects on base with me."
Dave nodded, seemingly resigned. Something in John's chest twisted. He didn't want to leave things like this, didn't want to walk away with Dave still believing that John didn't care, that it would maybe be another two decades before they saw each other again.
"I'll talk to Landry," John said, even though Dave would have no idea who John was talking about. "If you still want to know... I'll see what I can do."
Something in Dave's expression shifted and John felt the first stirrings of hope that maybe they'd be able to salvage some kind of relationship. "It'd be good to know how to get hold of you, at least," Dave said and John nodded.
"Okay," he said. "I'll let you know."
"Thanks," Dave said, then stood. "Let me get Jonathan's card for you. His offices are just downtown."
When Dave disappeared down the hall, Rodney turned to him. "See? That wasn't so bad, was it?"
John laughed, relief and something else mixed in with the sound. "What do you think is in the box?"
Rodney shook his head. "Who knows?"
"Yeah," John said, itching to relieve himself of some of the tension still riding him. His conversation with Dave hadn't gone nearly as bad as John had thought it could, but until he found out what his father had left him, found out... whatever it was he was going to find out, he wouldn't be able to relax.
Past dusk now, the room was already darkening. Dave flipped the lights on as he reentered the room, handing John a business card. "His offices open at seven. I'm sure he'll see you."
John nodded. "Thanks." Rodney stood with him as John shook his brother's hand.
"John, I don't... " John wasn't sure what Dave had planned to say before he cut himself off and said instead, "You have my number."
"Yeah," John said. "Yeah, I, uh, I'll let you know what Landry decides, one way or the other."
Dave nodded and walked them to the door. "It was... good to see you," he said.
"You, too." John swallowed around the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat.
"And it was nice to meet you, Dr. McKay." Dave reached for Rodney's hand.
"Rodney." Rodney said, as they clasped hands.
"Rodney." Dave mimicked, his mouth lifting in a half-smile. "I guess I'll be seeing you?" It was said in the form of a question, and John wondered if it was Dave's way of asking or acknowledging Rodney's presence in John's life.
John was pretty sure that Dave had already figured it out considering that John had nearly rubbed himself raw with emotions that he seldom let see the light of day in Rodney's presence. Then again, Dave didn't know John anymore, maybe he didn't realize what it meant for John to reveal himself in front of another person like that.
"Yes," John said, as Rodney glanced at him for guidance. "You will."
John grinned at the trace of pink that darkened Rodney's cheeks. He wasn't even sure why Rodney was blushing, but John liked it whenever Rodney showed that rare hint of shyness.
They said their goodbyes and left, Jonathan Ward's business card still clutched in John's hand.
"We could try calling him, maybe he's working late?" Rodney suggested as he slid behind the wheel of the rental car.
"No," John said. "I think I've had enough excitement for tonight." Even as antsy as he felt, John was pretty sure exhaustion was going to win out soon. He felt as if he could sleep for days, though he knew he'd probably wake up at oh-dark-hundred tomorrow in anticipation.
Rodney didn't bother answering, he just turned the car in the direction of the hotel. The lobby was buzzing when they got back, arriving just at the dinner hour. People were going in and out, some dressed in jeans and t-shirts and some dressed to the nines. It was weird watching everyone go about their business as if everything were normal, as if John's life hadn't been turned upside down in the last week.
"I'll order us a pizza," Rodney said as John haphazardly tossed his jacket onto the desk chair.
John wasn't hungry, but he didn't argue. He was bone weary and all he really wanted was to lay back and close his eyes, which is exactly what he did, listening as Rodney called room service. Faint sounds of rushing water made John open his eyes. He caught Rodney coming out of the bathroom, pulling the hem of his shirt from his pants.
"What are you doing?" John asked, feeling a little fuzzy.
"Pizza's going to be an hour or so. I thought we could take a bath," Rodney said, pulling the shirt over his head.
John cocked a brow at that. "We?"
"It's big enough for two," Rodney said.
"Rodney, I'm not sure I'm up to -- "
"What? A relaxing bath?" Rodney said, admonishment in his voice. "Just... let me take care of you, of things, for a little while."
John nodded. "Okay."
Rodney came over to kneel at the end of the bed. He worked at John's shoes, untying the laces and pulling them free. John's socks went next, and then Rodney was on the bed beside him. There wasn't really anything sexual about the way Rodney was undressing him, except that it was Rodney and so by the time Rodney was through and John was naked, he was half-hard.
"Come on," Rodney said as he dropped his own pants to the floor and stepped out of them.
John went, too tired to do anything but follow orders. The bath was pretty large, he hadn't noticed it before, too preoccupied with everything else. The water was hot, just below scalding, making John smile because it was obvious that Rodney had done all this for him. Rodney hated the kind of hot, steaming bath that John preferred. Rodney slid in first, then beckoned John to join him. He stepped between Rodney's legs and let himself sit back against him, his back to Rodney's front.
Rodney didn't complain about the water temperature, didn't say anything at all. He just reached for a washcloth that he'd left at the edge of the tub and soaped it up. The soft brush of the cloth across his skin was sort of hypnotizing, leaving John feeling languid and warm and... good.
He let loose a soft rush of breath as Rodney slid the hand towel across John's nipple, hardening it to a sensitive point. John leaned more heavily against him, closing his eyes and letting Rodney do all the work.
"Good," Rodney whispered in his ear, making John shudder. "Just relax, John. I've got you."
And John did, letting the world go into slow motion. He concentrated on the feel of Rodney's hands on him, the soft pressure of his back against Rodney's chest and the sounds of Rodney's deep breaths as he focused all his attention on John.
When Rodney's fingers finally circled John's cock, he let his thighs fall open as far as they were able in the narrow tub. John's fingers dug into Rodney's thighs as his hips stuttered forward. It wasn't anything like their usual frenetic pace, wasn't the explosion of movement or passion that normally swamped them.
It was slow and steady and exactly what John needed.
He could feel Rodney's erection, hard and hot against him. It seemed to go on forever, this lazy loving, and John wished that it wouldn't ever end. The rest of the world, the anticipation and fear and endless worry, seemed to fall away as Rodney touched him.
But then John was coming, the end suddenly washing John's sight in bright bursts of light and color as he arched, sloshing water everywhere.
Rodney kissed the nape of his neck, soft lips bringing John back to reality.
John turned, kissing Rodney roughly, desperately. He felt raw and vulnerable, felt almost as if Rodney had suddenly become his only anchor in a raging, unforgiving sea. Rodney whispered to him, words that were drowned out by the roaring in John's ears, but they soothed nonetheless. John kissed him again and again, not knowing what else to do, what else he could do.
John reached for him, stroking him fast and hard, with none of the gentleness that Rodney had just shown him.
"John, you don't have -- "
John swallowed Rodney's words with more kisses. Then Rodney was groaning into his mouth, his cock pulsing within the circle of John's fingers.
John just kept kissing him, touching him, needing him, until Rodney finally broke away. He didn't understand at first what Rodney was saying, then the words finally coalesced in John's brain.
"The pizza's here."
John nodded, and moved away so that Rodney could lever himself out of the tub. He watched as Rodney grabbed one of the bathrobes, watched as he went back into the main room to answer the door.
John was still breathing hard, still feeling a little possessed. Tomorrow he was going to find out who his father had been. Maybe. Tomorrow he was going to find out something.
Maybe the seas would finally calm then.
The office was the typical shade of neutral. There was some sort of potted plant in the corner and the desk that sat between them and Jonathan Ward was made of heavy oak. John was fidgeting nervously beside him as the lawyer got his papers together and went through whatever spiel was required before he could tell John exactly what was bequeathed to him.
Ward was an old man with a white-gray tuft of hair that was a kind of crazy amalgamation of Einstein and Mark Twain. He had a kind face, and a sort of grand-fatherly appearance that left Rodney a little unnerved for some reason. Maybe because he knew how hard this was going to be on John, how hard it was on John, that the appearance of kindness was a little like a slap in the face.
"... and all its contents to my son, John Sheppard."
Rodney watched John flinch at that, though he was pretty sure the lawyer hadn't noticed. He handed John a key and an envelope.
"The address of the branch office is there," Jonathan said. "It's local."
"If you could initial here and here." Jonathan pointed to several pages that had been marked with colorful post-it flags. "And sign here," he said, flipping to the last page. "The box will be transferred to your name. You may keep it, or close it as you see fit."
Rodney watched as John woodenly followed directions. He could see the nerves warring with curiosity as John signed the last page, accepting the key and whatever else his inheritance might contain.
"The bank has already been notified of your father's death and his wishes. They've got your name on file. You'll need to bring a valid ID, of course, but there should be no problem if you'd like to claim the contents today."
"Yes," John said, pocketing the key and envelope. "I do. I will. Thank you."
They stood, and John reached to shake Ward's hand.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Ward said, repeating his condolences. "Your father was a good man."
John nodded stiffly and Rodney could tell he wanted to get out of there, that he was tired of reacting to every mention of Patrick Sheppard as his father.
"Thank you," Rodney said, holding out his own hand and forcing Ward to release John and turn to him. They shook briefly and Rodney herded John out the door.
"I suppose you want to go straight to the bank."
John just looked at him, and Rodney held out his hand for the envelope. It didn't take long to input the bank's address into the rental's GPS. John remained stiff and silent the entire thirty-minute ride over.
John showed both his Air Force badge and his driver's license to the bank manager and they were led into the vault. The air was cold and the room felt almost sterile as the manager showed them the correct drawer. He slid in his own key and twisted it, indicating to John that his key would open the box the rest of the way.
They slid the steel box free, and set it on the table. Rodney had no idea what John was feeling, what he was thinking. They were both a little impatient as the manager continued to drone on about the security of the bank, no doubt hoping that John would retain the box. Rodney didn't think that renting security deposit boxes could really bring in that much cash for the bank, but he assumed that the manger thought that John had the same kind of money his father had. He was probably hoping for more than just a monthly rental fee from John.
When he finally left, John just stood there, staring down at the box.
"Do you want me to open it?" Rodney asked, unsure.
"No," John said. "Just... give me a minute."
"Yes, yes, of course." Rodney was quick to agree. John could take all the time in the world, Rodney would wait for however long it took John to gain the courage to face this past that he'd never known about. He tried not to stare at John, tried not to fidget. He couldn't make himself look away though, so he was watching when John finally lifted the lid and swore softly.
"What?" Rodney stepped up, heart hammering. He saw immediately what had upset John. "It looks like a... puzzle box."
"Can't there be one fucking thing about this that's easy?" John asked, exasperated.
"But why would he, they, whatever use a puzzle box?" Rodney shook his head. "I mean what's the point? It was already locked up. Could your father really have been that paranoid?"
"How should I know, Rodney?" John didn't shout but his voice went hard and brittle. "You think I know anything about anything at this point?"
"No, I'm sorry." Rodney regretted having said anything. He hadn't meant to upset John anymore. "Look, let's just take it back to the hotel and figure out how to open it, okay? It can't be that difficult. After all, you've got a genius at your disposal." He couldn't help trying to lighten the mood, just a little.
John didn't even crack a smile. He just reached into the drawer and pulled the box out, tucking it beneath his arm. "Let's go."
Rodney leaned over, checking the security box one last time.
"What are you doing?" John sounded impatient and frustrated.
"Nothing," Rodney said, feeling disappointed and disheartened that there hadn't even been a note explaining... anything.
John once again let Rodney drive as he studied the box. Rodney knew that John wasn't actually trying to solve it, instead he was just absently running his fingers across the carved symbols. Without a closer look, Rodney couldn't be sure, but the symbols looked purely decorative. Then again, he'd owned a few puzzle boxes in his time and it was pretty common for the creators to decorate their boxes with clues.
Rodney didn't waste time asking John if he wanted to stop for lunch, he just headed straight back to their hotel. He knew that John wanted, needed, answers as soon as humanly possible.
When they got back to their room, Rodney followed John to their bed, where he laid the box down in front of them both.
"May I?" Rodney asked, reaching for the box. He waited for John to nod before picking it up. It was heavy, the wood stained a deep, dark brown. He fingered the symbols, worrying his bottom lip as he tried to make sense of them. "Do these look... I don't know, familiar to you?"
"What? No," John said. "Can you open it or not?"
"Yes, of course," Rodney felt vaguely offended. "What kind of question is that?" he asked, but for a moment he flashed back to that day on Dagan when John's life had been in his hands and Rodney's mind had gone blank. He hadn't been able to solve the puzzle then, but John had. That was the day that Rodney had discovered that John more than just a head for numbers. Not that Rodney hadn't already known that John was smart. He just hadn't known that John was Mensa level smart.
Though it hadn't been as much of a surprise as Rodney had made it out to be.
"I need my laptop," Rodney said, rolling off the bed.
"You think you recognize it?" John asked, picking the puzzle back up.
"I don't know. It looks like some sort of weird amalgam of Egyptian and Greek. I thought that the symbols were just, I don't know, pictures at first, but I think they might be in some kind of sequence." Rodney booted up his computer, and logged onto the internet. "They look familiar, if I can figure out where I've seen them before... "
"You can solve the puzzle," John said.
"Yes, yes, I already said I could."
"No," John said, making Rodney look up. "Never mind, just get on with it."
"You know," Rodney said as he typed in a few different searches. "Maybe you're supposed to solve it." Rodney knew it sounded crazy, but he couldn't get over the idea that someone had left this puzzle for John.
"What do you mean?" John asked as he pushed at one of the panels surrounding the box.
"I mean, you're... dad left this for you. He must have thought that you'd be able to open it," Rodney said.
"And how could he have known that, Rodney? He left before I was even born," John said. "At least, I think he did. Mom wasn't really specific about that in her letter."
"I don't know. Maybe... maybe your mom gave you a clue or something. Did she ever tell you any stories or -- "
"This isn't a movie, Rodney," John said. One side of the box shifted and John's breathing increased.
"I know that," Rodney said, feeling a little hurt. "I just -- " the panel shifted again, the edge sliding away from the top of the box, leaving a slim opening.
"Shit, I almost got it," John said, pouring all his concentration into the puzzle. He pressed on a couple of the symbols, then traced one edge of the box with the tip of his finger. "Come on. Open, open, open," he said in a kind of chant.
There was a flash of light, so brief that Rodney thought he might have imagined it, but then the panel slid all the way open.
"Yes!" John hissed, spilling the contents carefully onto the bed.
"Holy crap," Rodney breathed. Several familiar looking objects had fallen out along with a few pages of hand written notes. "That's... " He couldn't believe it. He felt dizzy with excitement, or anticipation, or something. Rodney let his fingers brush lightly across the worn lettering. "John... that's Ancient."
"What the fuck?" John said, voice hoarse. At the quiet, pleading tone of John's voice, something inside Rodney shifted. John's eyes were dark with confusion. "What the hell does this mean?"
Rodney thought John already knew the answer to that. "I think you know what it means," Rodney said quietly, touching John's arm lightly. He didn't know what this kind of situation called for, what John needed from him.
"It's not possible," John said, pushing everything away. Rodney had to suppress the automatic reflex to reach for them, to treat them as fragile and precious.
"They're all gone. Ascended." John shook his head. "There's no way my mom could have... I mean what the hell was he doing here?"
"Maybe he wasn't an Ancient. Maybe...?" Rodney tried to offer some other explanation, but there really wasn't any. And the fact that John's biological father was an actual Ancient explained so much; the strength of John's ATA gene, the way Atlantis had seemed to welcome him home, and his innate ability to use almost any Ancient tech.
John's laughter was hysterical as he flopped onto his back and used one arm to cover his closed eyes. "This is just perfect," John said, resigned. "The perfect ending to a ridiculously bad week. My father never loved me because I wasn't his. My mother had a secret affair. And I'm half Ancient."
For a long moment, Rodney just stared at him. John could sympathize because he had no idea what to say either. He'd used up all his words on that last outburst, and now he just lay back and waited. He wasn't sure what he was waiting for, maybe just for the world to keep on spinning. He didn't know anymore.
"Well," Rodney finally said. "At least you already knew you were gay."
Laughter burst free, choking him, making his chest burn. Before he even realized it, his eyes were stinging. He pressed the pads of his fingers against his closed lids and tried to swallow back the wash of emotion that had suddenly flooded his system.
"John," Rodney said, his arm wrapping around John's waist. "We'll figure it out. We'll translate the pages and --"
"Great," John said, turning into Rodney's warmth and pressing his face to the curve of Rodney's throat. "Another fucking letter." John had recognized the language almost immediately, but he hadn't actually believed it was Ancient until Rodney had said the words aloud. "What the hell, Rodney? What the hell," he said, feeling so freaking tired.
"It makes a crazy kind of sense, though, doesn't it?" Rodney's breath whispered across John's scalp, teasing his hair. "Atlantis has always loved you."
"But... how is it even possible?" John closed his eyes and let himself sink against Rodney, wanting to pretend the last week had been a dream.
"Maybe he left you something that will answer that question," Rodney said, his hand moving over John's back, soothing some of the tension.
"I don't know how many more surprises I can take," John said on a long exhale. On the one hand he was dying to finally get all the answers, but on the other, his mind was still reeling from what few answers he already had. He sucked it up, though, taking one more long, deep breath before sitting up. "Okay."
"John, we don't have to do it now," Rodney said, though John knew he had to be dying to play with the toys that had been hidden in that box for so many years.
"Let's just get it over with," John said. "I know you're itching to get your hands on the tech."
"I know, Rodney. Just... take the letters, will you? I'll see what the toys can do." John sifted through the devices resting near the edge of the mattress. There were only three of them and one looked extremely familiar, so he picked that one up first. He studied it briefly, then lifted it to his chest, pressing it firmly against his sternum.
He felt a tingle and caught a flash of green in his peripheral vision. Beside him, Rodney snapped his fingers excitedly.
"A personal shield!"
For a brief moment, John remembered those first few hours after Rodney had discovered the personal shield on Atlantis. It had been one of the first times that John had seen Rodney, well, happy. He'd been like a kid in a candy store, and John hadn't been able to help getting caught up in the feeling. Rodney was grinning at him now in that same boyish way and John felt the tug of it but he was too weighed down to grin back.
"Yeah," John said, thinking 'off' at the shield and catching it in the palm of his hand as it slid away from his body. "At least he left me something useful." Rodney's smile faded as John pocketed the shield, making him feel vaguely guilty.
Rodney pulled his laptop close again, and was studying something on the screen. John assumed it was Ancient, something to help him translate the handwritten pages they'd found. "These look more like lab notes than letters," Rodney said, producing a notebook and pencil from somewhere and jotting down some notes of his own. "I've seen this before," Rodney said, losing himself a little in the translation.
John was just about to reach for the next piece of tech when Rodney snapped his fingers again, obviously excited at his discovery.
"The shield," he said, smiling at John again.
John frowned, pulling it from his pocket. "What about it?"
"No," Rodney scowled at John, looking at him for a moment as if he were one of the idiots in the lab. "The notes. These notes are about the personal shield." Rodney held up the first couple of pages. "I think it's instructions for recharging them. It will take a while to translate the whole thing, but there might even be directions for building new ones! At the very least I should be able to extrapolate most of what I need from the schematics he included."
"That's great," John said, trying to sound enthusiastic.
"John," Rodney put the notes down and scooted closer on the bed. "Like you said, at least he left you something useful. Something good. Can you imagine if we're able to give every soldier, every team rechargeable personal shields?"
John didn't turn around, but he felt Rodney's tentative touch, the warm press of his palm against the small of John's back. John nodded. "I know, I just -- " John sighed, feeling like a killjoy and an ungrateful bastard all at once. "Am I really supposed to be grateful, Rodney? Tell me. Tell me how I'm supposed to feel about all this because I don't know. Because all I feel right now is numb." And, fuck if he wasn't tired of talking about his feelings already.
John had spent years trying to forget how it felt every time his father had dismissed him. He'd buried all those feelings in a box with the lid tightly shut for most of his life. And now... John felt as if he'd spent the week being bombarded, hit after direct hit, splintering that box open and leaving John not only having to relearn how to deal with all those old feelings but getting smothered beneath the debris of all these new ones. He was choking, desperate to claw his way to freedom but he couldn't, he didn't know how.
How was he supposed to react? How was he supposed to feel?
"I don't know," Rodney said, voice softer than John ever remembered it being before. John wanted Rodney to have all the answers, wanted Rodney to fix this the way he fixed everything else for John. "Does it bother you more that he was Ancient or that he existed at all?"
"Jesus, Rodney. What kind of question is that?" John shook Rodney's hand off, pushing away the urge to turn into the touch instead.
"It's a valid one. I'm just trying to... help you figure things out."
"I know," John sighed. "I don't know how to answer that. I'm freaked out that he was Ancient. Hell, yes. So, what I'm not exactly human now? Christ."
"You're not a freak," Rodney said. "You're half higher being!"
John frowned. "I didn't say I was a freak. I said I was freaked."
"Oh." Rodney sounded apologetic. "Well, still."
"Thanks a lot," John said, but he couldn't help laughing softly.
"Besides," Rodney said, moving close enough this time so that his front was pressed to John's back. He rested his chin on one of John's shoulders and wrapped his arms around John's middle. "You're still you. You're still the same guy you were before you opened that letter."
"And who is that?" John said, shaking his head. "I thought I knew, but... Now, I'm not sure I ever did."
"Oh, please," Rodney scoffed. "You're the guy who likes ferris wheels and fighter planes. You're the guy who leads the charge, the one who'll fly a nuke onto a Wraith hiveship and live to tell the tale. Team leader. Lieutenant Colonel. Commanding Officer. All around good guy." Rodney's arm tightened, pulling John back and down until they were lying tangled together above the covers. "You're John."
John turned, hiding a half-smile against Rodney's shoulder. "You make me sound like some superhero tag line," he said.
He felt more than saw Rodney's answering grin. "Yeah? Well, who knows? Maybe there'll be an action figure or two in your future.
John rubbed his cheek against the softness of Rodney's shirt, breathing in his familiar scent. "Thanks." Rodney had somehow made him feel lighter, as if some of the crap that had been weighing him down had been lifted. He drifted for awhile on the feeling before he let reality intrude again. "We're going to have to call the SGC aren't we?"
"I want to be noble and supportive and say no, not if you don't want to," Rodney said, giving John an apologetic look. "But, yeah."
"Yeah," John agreed. "I figured. Though I can't say I'm excited about airing my dirty laundry in public."
"It's not yours!" Rodney said, angrily. "Whatever your mother did, whoever your father was... it doesn't have anything to do with you."
"That," John said, a little surprised at Rodney's vehemence. "Doesn't make any sense. It has everything to do with me, Rodney."
"No," Rodney sat up, looking down at John with a frustrated expression on his face. "Okay, yes. You've got probably one of the greatest gene cocktails in history. I mean your mother wasn't exactly an idiot. I hacked your file remember? I've seen her IQ, and yours, too, by the way."
John nodded, watching Rodney with bemusement. He'd pretty much guessed after Rodney found out that John had passed the Mensa test that Rodney would dig until he found out what he wanted to know. He was actually surprised that Rodney hadn't mentioned it sooner.
"And Ancient? You didn't just get the ATA gene," Rodney said. "But." Rodney held up a hand to stop John before he could speak. "So what? You're smarter than the average bear." Rodney was staring at John so intently that John felt a shiver race up and down his spine.
It was a different kind of intensity than the kind that usually marked Rodney's features when he was in the middle of his lab or figuring out how to save the day. Maybe it was just that Rodney's entire focus was on John, without any of the usual overtones. This wasn't about sex or Atlantis or the SGC. Even though, in a weird way, it was.
"Listen to me, John, because you'll probably never hear me say anything like this ever again." Rodney sounded so serious, so intense that John found himself sitting up, too, straightening his back and bracing himself for whatever Rodney was about to say. "Intelligence is just a small part of what makes you, you. The ATA gene? Doesn't matter. You'd still be the guy who risks his life to save his friends. You'd still be the guy who never leaves a man behind. You'd still be you, John."
"Intelligence doesn't matter, huh?" John said, amused despite the confusion that still swirled like a sandstorm inside of him. "The great Rodney McKay is actually admitting that non-geniuses are people, too?"
"Oh, shut up," Rodney said, blowing out a breath in exasperation. "I'm trying to be supportive and helpful here."
"I know," John said, smiling a real smile for the first time in what felt like years. He pulled Rodney to him and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "So, you're basically saying you'd love me for me no matter how high my IQ was?" John turned away, hiding his grin.
"Oh, what are you? A girl?" Rodney said, but his hands rested against John's sides, gently kneading the muscle there. "Yes, all right? Yes, I would," he grumbled, but John heard the sincerity behind the words.
"Thanks," John said, voice suddenly gruff. "I wouldn't either, by the way. Care about your IQ, I mean." He cleared his throat and just kept holding on to Rodney, not willing to let go yet.
"Oh, like you have to worry about that," Rodney huffed.
John laughed and squeezed Rodney one more time before finally releasing him.
Rodney wasn't sure that anything he'd said had helped. John still looked haunted, worried, confused. When he'd first insisted he accompany John on this trip, Rodney had wanted to protect him from his father, his brother, from his past. He hadn't realized just how much of John's past was going to rear its ugly head. Rodney wasn't sure he was equipped to provide this kind of emotional support. He hoped that he was giving John at least a little of what he needed to get through it.
His own mind was still racing with the idea that John was half Ancient. Half Ancient! He'd told John it didn't matter, and it didn't, but the idea was staggering. No wonder Carson had needed John's DNA to complete his gene therapy. No wonder, Atlantis and every bit of Ancient tech they'd ever come across practically sang at John's touch.
John was just staring at the rest of the devices laying across the mattress. Rodney thought that maybe he was a little too afraid to touch them, too afraid to uncover anymore secrets.
"What if they want to... study me or something?" John said, and Rodney realized he was continuing their conversation from earlier.
"The SGC?" Rodney asked softly. He felt like he had to do everything softly lately, felt like John had suddenly grown fragile over the last week. "They studied you pretty thoroughly already, when we first found out how strong your gene was. Hell, Carson ran so many tests on you I was surprised you didn't bleed out from the million needle pricks the bloodsucker gave you." Rodney winced a little, thinking of Carson. Part of him felt disrespectful making fun of his old friend, but the other part felt... well, it was his way of keeping Carson alive. Sort of.
"How do you think the others will feel?" John asked, not looking at Rodney.
"Do you mean, do I think they'll treat you any different?" Rodney asked, feeling an ache in his belly, wishing he could leech all the doubt and worry from John's mind. "No. Why should they? You haven't gained any superpowers or discovered the cure for cancer. You've got the same abilities, the same mind, the same personality you did before we took this trip. All you've got now is a better explanation of why Atlantis sits up and begs like an overgrown puppy whenever she sees you."
"Do you treat Teyla any differently?" Rodney asked gently.
"Teyla? What are you talking about?" John shook his head, looking at Rodney again.
"After we found out she had Wraith DNA in her. Do you think we treated her any differently? Did you treat her any differently?" Rodney silently congratulated himself on the comparison. He had a feeling that it would do more to soothe John than any other argument he could come up with.
"Bates sure as hell did." John scowled, brow furrowing as he remembered.
"Bates is an asshole," Rodney said. "Or, at least, he was."
"Yeah," John said, absently agreeing.
"But, do you think it matters to me that Teyla's got Wraith in her? Or Ronon? Or Carter?" Rodney shook his head. "No. It doesn't. And you know, if Ronon doesn't care, if Ronon can still see Teyla for who she is, not all the parts that make her up, then he's not going to give a shit about you."
"Gee, thanks, Rodney," John said, but Rodney could tell that his shoulders had lost some of their tension and that he was starting to believe, even if it was just a faint belief, that everything was going to turn out all right. Eventually, anyway.
"You're welcome," Rodney said, crossing his arms and jutting his chin out just a little. He couldn't help feeling a little defensive, even though he knew John wasn't dismissing his ideas for any reason other than the fact that he was scared.
He watched as John reached out and took hold one of the two remaining devices. John wore what Rodney thought of as his "On" face, the expression that he tended to wear whenever he was concentrating on something Rodney had given him.
The device was small and round, it looked almost like a buzzer from an old Milton Bradley board game, or something, except that Rodney knew that what John held in his hand wasn't some child's toy. It was silver, like so many of the Ancient tech they'd found, the rounded dome in the middle a pale off-white. Suddenly the dome lit up, a deep blue glow emanating form the center, lighting up the room. The light shifted and changed, coalescing into the figure of a tall, thin man with short medium brown hair, cropped close to his scalp. He had a strong chin, and large, slightly pointed ears.
"Crap." The word was a harsh whisper across John's lips. He dropped the device and the hologram winked out. "Crap," he said again, staring at Rodney with wide, rounded eyes. "That was him."
"Well," Rodney said, searching for the appropriate words, but all that came out was, "At least we know where you got your ears from."
John didn't laugh, and Rodney wished he could take the words back.
John's hand was shaking when he reached out again, cradling the holo-whatever in his palm. He closed his eyes briefly and the room lit up again.
"Jesus," Rodney said, and John's eyes fluttered open, almost reluctantly.
"My son -- " The hologram said and once again John dropped the device to the bed.
"I can't do this," John said, sending Rodney a pleading look.
"Do you want me to - ?" Rodney asked, gesturing toward the innocuous looking device.
Rodney nodded and picked it up. He placed it in the center of his palm and concentrated on turning it on, but nothing happened. He looked back at John helplessly. "It's not working. Either I'm not strong enough or he keyed the device to you." It made sense, really. Just added security that if anyone else who happened to have the gene found the box, they wouldn't be able to work any of the tech inside. Unfortunately, that meant that John would have to work the hologram himself.
"Of course, he did," John said with a resigned sigh. "Give me a minute."
"Yeah, yes. Whatever you need, John." Rodney didn't know what else to say, how else to help. He kneaded the back of John's neck as he waited, John's silence stretching out for long minutes before he finally shifted to reach for the Ancient tech again.
The hologram flickered back into view and Rodney found himself instinctively comparing the image to John. The ears, definitely, but the eyes, too. Not the color exactly, but the shape, the lines crinkling the corners.
"My son," the image said again, and Rodney felt John tense beside him. He found John's free hand with one of his own and entwined their fingers. "I regret that I am unable to be there for you in person. I am Janus. I am... your father."
"Stop," John said in a rough voice, but he held onto the device this time, his fingers curling around it in what looked like a punishing grip. Strangely, the image obeyed, stilling just as if John had pushed some kind of mental pause button. The room was quiet, the sound of their breathing echoing through the room. Rodney squeezed John's hand, unable to believe this latest disclosure.
"Do you think it's that Janus? Elizabeth's Janus?" John said, his voice suddenly loud in the silent room.
"I never looked him up in the database afterward. I left that research up to Elizabeth," Rodney said, though it was another piece that fit perfectly into the puzzle, wasn't it?
"He built that time traveling jumper. He could've... but what was he doing in 1966? And with my mother?" John was starting to sound a little hysterical, so Rodney gave his hand another squeeze and nudged him with an elbow.
"Why don't we find out?" he said, nodding toward the stilled hologram.
"Okay," John whispered, and the image lurched into motion again.
"It wasn't until your mother told me of her pregnancy that I realized what I'd done, who you were. During her recovery, Elizabeth told me of her people, of your bravery. I hadn't known then that putting in the city's failsafe-mechanisms would save my own son's life."
"Oh my god," Rodney said. "It is him."
"Elizabeth was a remarkable woman." Janus said, his expression turning slightly wistful. "Beautiful. Intelligent. Passionate in her beliefs. She convinced me to break the rules for her. For her people. For you. Though, I must confess that it wasn't difficult." Janus smiled down at John, making it seem almost as if he were actually there with them. "And as I promised her, I continued my research after the evacuation. I was able to build a second time jumper. During one of my tests, I met your mother. I hadn't meant to interact with anyone, I didn't want to disturb the time line anymore than I already had. And I stayed much longer than I should have." John paused the image on a half-smile that was so familiar that Rodney nearly did a double take.
"Wow, he really does look like you," Rodney said. "Or, I suppose, you look like him." John stiffened and Rodney wished he could learn to keep his mouth shut. "Sorry."
"It's okay," John said, sighing and dropping his head to Rodney's shoulder. "I can't believe Elizabeth knew my father."
"Yeah," Rodney agreed. "It must be kind of... strange. And a little creepy given the crush he obviously had on her."
"You could say that." John's voice dripped with the sarcasm Rodney supposed he deserved. But in Rodney's defense it wasn't as if you could find the proper etiquette for this type of situation in Emily Post.
"Sorry," Rodney said again.
John just nodded, and started the hologram up again.
"Your mother, in many ways, reminded me of Elizabeth. She was just as beautiful, just as intelligent. The only thing she lacked was the confidence that Elizabeth had always exuded, but she was still young and I found myself... drawn to her. I broke the rules again, I'm afraid. I have no idea the repercussions of my actions this time, but I hope that as my son you will not suffer for it."
"How could he do that? I mean, that's not just breaking the rules -- " John cut himself off with a hysterical guffaw. "God, I sound like I'm arguing against my own birth! I don't even -- " John shook his head, breaking away from Rodney and wiping a shaking hand over his face. "I don't even know what to say to all this."
"I don't think there's anything you can say." Rodney was still trying to wrap his brain around the possible causality issues of John's birth. Or even the possible problems his not being born would have caused. There was just no way to know, at least not without some very high powered computer processors. Rodney wasn't even sure Atlantis' system would be able to calculate something like that.
Nevertheless, Rodney kept trying to imagine the expedition without John. Kept wondering what they would have done, how they would have survived after Sumner had been captured. John had told Rodney what he'd done, how he'd put Sumner out of his misery. But what if John hadn't been there? Would the Wraith queen have drained and revived him again and again until Sumner finally gave up Earth's Gate address? Would the Milky Way be overrun by Wraith now, as well?
There were so many turning points, so many monumental events that could have affected literally every human on Earth that had been tied to John that it staggered Rodney to think of all the possibilities. Not to mention the smaller, individual influences he's had over the people in his life. Rodney had never been a fan of It's a Wonderful Life, but he definitely believed that, like George Bailey, the world, Rodney's world in particular, would be drastically different without John.
"There's no use debating the issue now. Janus made his decisions for whatever reason, and I for one am glad that he did," Rodney said.
John didn't think it would be that easy. It wasn't like he could just turn off the questions in his head. Why? How? Why?? John kept circling back to that. What had made Janus do it? Had he just fallen in love with Grace Sheppard, nothing more, nothing less? Or had it been something in his subconscious? Something that remembered the stories that Elizabeth had told and knew that John Sheppard had been born, that he should be born? How had he even met John's mother? She'd said they met at a library, but John couldn't even understand what Janus had been doing there. He felt like he would go crazy with all these unanswered, unanswerable questions rattling around inside of him.
Rodney was right, he had to just let it go, but John knew that would take time. For now, he figured he'd get what information he could and figure the rest out later. It wasn't as if he had much choice in the matter.
John didn't bother answering Rodney, since there wasn't really anything to say. He just started the playback again and waited.
"And though your mother, Grace," Janus said her name with a kind of sad, soft smile. "Lacked Elizabeth's more mature confidence, she had strengths of her own. Her innocence and integrity shown like a beacon to me. I left you in her care because I knew that I could not take you with me, and that you were destined to one day return home to Atlantis. You are truly the second evolution of our people. But though, physiologically you are similar and were raised among the humans of Earth, you are not one of them. Not completely. You have abilities the others lack, abilities that you have yet to discover."
"Woah," John said, feeling a sudden rush of dizziness. He'd already known that part, but it stunned him a little to hear it said aloud. "I think I'm having a Clark Kent moment."
Rodney's sharp bark of laugher jolted John out of it. "Sorry," Rodney said, "But Jesus, I hadn't even realized how much it sounded like... never mind," he broke off when John raised a brow at him.
Yeah, John thought, the whole situation definitely had shades of Superman going for it. But, hell, he wasn't Superman, though he was starting to feel just as alien, or alienated, as Superman might have been. Christ, he wasn't completely human? What did that mean?
"It doesn't matter," Rodney said, reaching for him again. "It doesn't matter, John."
John shook Rodney's hand off. He saw the look on Rodney's face and felt a stab of guilt, but he didn't want to be touched just now. He didn't want to be comforted. He didn't know exactly what he did want, but it wasn't to be soothed. He didn't want to be calmed, or placated. He was angry and, yeah, a little afraid. This wasn't something that could be fixed with a hug or a hard fuck... though God knew John wished it could.
"It doesn't." Rodney sounded angry now, too.
Good, John thought meanly.
"We already knew you were half Ancient," Rodney said.
"Half alien, you mean."
"They weren't alien! They were here before us, for god's sake!" Rodney was snapping at him, and John felt the swift kick of adrenaline that always shot through him whenever he and Rodney argued like this. It was followed just as quickly by a hot rush of arousal, which he ignored because, yeah, that wasn't going to fix things this time.
"You heard him, Rodney! I'm not human," John said, keeping his voice low, though he knew Rodney could feel the intensity behind his tone.
"Completely! Not completely human!" Rodney's face was red, his pupils blown wide with agitation.
"Are we really going to argue percentage points, Rodney?" John said, unconsciously grinding his back teeth.
"Yes!" Rodney was still going full throttle. "Yes, we are! Because! It! Doesn't! Matter!" he shouted each word as if it were its own sentence.
"God damn it, Rodney!" John shouted back. "You can't just say something and make it true!"
"Yes, I can!" Rodney shouted, then cleared his throat and continued in a less hostile tone of voice. "I mean, it is true, John. Not because I say so, just because it is. You're you! The other stuff doesn't matter. How many times do I have to say it before you're going to believe me?"
John wasn't going to believe him. He wanted to, but... how could he? "I have to go," John said abruptly, pushing himself up and off the bed.
"No!" Rodney followed, looking worried and desperate. "Don't, John."
"I'm not going to disappear, Rodney. I'm coming back. I just need... I just need some time to think things through." John pushed a hand through his hair, feeling restless. His skin felt itchy and hot, like it was suddenly too tight on him. "I really have to go, Rodney." He grabbed the keycard and headed for the door.
"John," Rodney said, making John pause on his way out. "Just... it doesn't matter to me, all right? I know I can't promise anything else, but I promise you that."
John nodded and felt something inside him twist itself into a knot at the tone in Rodney's voice, more earnest than anything John had ever heard from him before. Two long strides took him to the door, the knob cold and hard in his hand as he twisted it open.
John couldn't say how long he walked or who he passed along the way. Somehow he ended up at Arlington Cemetery. While hunting the Replicator, he'd managed to miss Patrick's burial, but he knew that it had been here, at Arlington that he'd been interred. John felt a fresh stab of guilt about that, too. John had loved his father, no matter how many times he'd told himself he didn't, told himself that it hadn't mattered that Patrick had never loved him back. He had meant to be there, really he had.
He stopped at the guard house to ask directions for his father's grave marker. As he made his way through the cemetery, he thought about his childhood. His mother. His brother. His father. And no matter who his biological father was, John had thought of Patrick as his father for too long to change the designation now. Even knowing that Janus had wanted him in a way that Patrick never had, or at least it seemed so, John couldn't really think of him as his father.
The gravesite, when he found it, bore nothing more than a simple white marble headstone. John knew that his father could certainly have afforded the luxury of a vault, but he'd wanted to be buried here like any other soldier. The Sheppard family had made its money in utilities, but Patrick Sheppard had prized his military record above all other things.
John remembered the letter his father had left him. Remembered the way he'd felt when Nancy had told him that Patrick had known of his promotion and had, maybe, even been proud.
He crouched at the site, running his fingers over his father's name before sitting back on his haunches.
"Was it true, dad? Were you even a little bit proud of me?" John whispered, feeling a little foolish but unable to stop himself from saying the words aloud. "And what would you say now? How would you feel knowing -- ?" Not that John would have been at liberty to tell his father, or anyone outside of the SGC who his biological father had been. John had spent so much of his life first trying to live up to and then rebelling against his father's expectations. And now, to find out that Patrick wasn't even... to finally know why it had been an impossible task to begin with...
He wished his mother's grave was nearby, wished he could talk to her one last time. Grace Sheppard had been just as beautiful and vibrant as Janus had described her. John had loved his mother with everything inside of him, and after the cancer had slowly leeched away her strength, her life, John had closed off the part of himself. The part that knew how to feel with that kind of young man's intensity. The memories he had of his mother were innocent and, well, sweet, and he had trouble reconciling the fact that she'd cheated on his father with the image of her he'd been carrying around for so long.
"How did you forgive her, dad?" John asked, just as unable to believe that the morally strict father he'd known could forgive such a sin. But all these years, John had been completely oblivious to the circumstances of his own birth. And the memories he had of his father and mother together were loving and unblemished. Not that the couple had never fought, far from it, but it had been obvious that Patrick Sheppard had loved Grace fiercely. The only time John ever remembered seeing his father cry had been the day after they'd buried his mother.
John sat for a long time just staring at his father's headstone and sifting through the memories that had all come swimming to the surface. After a while, the ache in his chest eased a little. Gradually the sky darkened to amber, and the sun slowly sank below the horizon. A guard came by to warn John that the cemetery would be closing within the next fifteen minutes, so he stood and dusted himself off.
He felt... better. He wasn't reconciled to anything yet, but some of the storm that had been churning inside of him had calmed.
As he walked back toward the hotel, he tried not to think about what would happen when they told Landry, when they went back to the SGC. It seemed ridiculous that they wouldn't allow him to go back to Atlantis, but some of John's old fears resurfaced. The IOA had never been known for its logic or its sense, and John knew from experience how the SGC treated what they considered a 'valuable resource'. Elizabeth had fought for him once, but who was going to fight for him this time?
Before he could even pull the keycard form his pocket, Rodney was opening the door, looking anxious and worried.
"Are you okay?" Rodney asked, then winced.
For once, John's grin felt real, the brittleness melted away by just those few words. Rodney. Rodney would fight for him.
In answer, John leaned in and kissed him, heedless of the people in the hall or the surprised sound Rodney made. He just wanted to crawl inside all of that warmth, to lose himself in the security of knowing that Rodney really didn't care. That as closed off as they both were, as hard as it was for either of them to express themselves, John knew how Rodney felt. And Rodney knew how John felt.
There wasn't any hiding, or pretending. There weren't any lies or half-truths. Not between the two of them. And that was another kind of security, another kind of need that Rodney had fulfilled for John before he'd even realized the necessity.
John pushed at Rodney until the door closed behind them, until Rodney's back was pressed hard against the wall. "Want you," John mouthed against the skin of Rodney's throat.
"Yes," Rodney said, his easy capitulation spurring John's arousal to new heights.
"Fuck," John growled, thrusting against Rodney, dry rubbing their cocks through two sets of clothing. "Rodney. I need... need," John gasped.
"Yes, yes, already!" Rodney's hands were at John's waist, pulling at his shirt and scrabbling for bare skin. They both moaned when Rodney's hands went under and in, skating across John's sides and over his chest and belly.
John went back to Rodney's mouth, tasting him, drowning in him as they both pushed and pulled until they were bare from the waist down. John didn't, couldn't, wait. The feel of Rodney's cock against his own was too much. He pressed two fingers to Rodney's mouth, groaned as Rodney sucked them in, wet them down.
He knew that he should pull away, find the lube, but he couldn't break contact, couldn't stop touching Rodney. Their hips came together again and again, desperation in every thrust. Rodney's tongue swirled over his fingers as he pulled them free, his face flushed, eyes glazed with arousal as John shifted to lift one of Rodney's legs to wrap around his waist. Then his fingers were at Rodney's entrance. He tried to go slow, tried to be as gentle as his mood, his need, would allow.
Still, John knew it couldn't have been all that comfortable, yet the groan that Rodney loosed held no hint of pain, only pleasure. Rodney bore down on the intrusion, his cock leaking against John's heated skin.
In and out John pressed, doing his best not to rush Rodney's preparation, but before he even realized it he was pressing the head of his cock to Rodney's entrance. And then he was there, pushing home.
It was probably one of the most erotic moments of his life. John fucking him like this, against the wall, with their shirts still on.
John filled him, the familiar stretch and burn of it making Rodney gasp. He slid his hands beneath John's shirt, skimming the muscles of his back as they flexed and tensed at John's slow thrust. John's face was buried against the curve of Rodney's neck, his mouth hot and wet against the pulse at Rodney's throat.
When John was all the way inside him, his balls pressed so sweetly against Rodney's ass, he stilled.
"John," Rodney croaked his name, cupping John's ass and trying to urge him on.
"God, Rodney." John didn't move, but there was something in his voice, something that made Rodney's grip on him tighten. It was desperation and need and maybe something like relief. Rodney didn't know, but it made Rodney's chest ache.
"I'm here," Rodney said in answer to that weird note in John's voice. "I'm here." He kissed John's shoulder, the tip of his ear, and then his temple. He just kept dropping kisses wherever he could reach, while John's arms came around him, and pulled him in tight.
It was such a weird mix of eroticism and tenderness that Rodney was at a loss. "John?"
John's cock was pulsing inside of him, a slow and steady beat that Rodney felt all the way down to his toes. Rodney moaned, but John cut the sound off with a kiss. Though John's lips were soft against Rodney's, the kiss was hard and possessive, just as desperate and needy as John's embrace had been.
John's tongue slid across his own, curling and teasing until Rodney couldn't help whimpering.
He didn't know where John had gone or why he'd returned like this. Rodney only knew that he'd give John whatever he wanted, whatever he needed. John's fingers curled around the back of his knee, lifting Rodney's other leg so that he could lock his ankles at the small of John's back.
John's strength always amazed Rodney. He was taking all of Rodney's weight now as he slowly, finally, began to pull out, groaning against Rodney's mouth as he did. Sweat made Rodney's shirt stick, the usually soft cotton chafing his skin. But he didn't care, all he could feel was John, moving inside of him.
It was just them again, flesh on flesh. John had been in too much of a hurry to even think about the condom. Despite what John thought, Rodney didn't really mind it. He liked the feel of John's hot skin sliding so sweetly inside of him, liked the hot splash of come that filled him when they went bareback. It was well worth the extra clean up time.
Rodney leaned in, nuzzling John's neck, trying to encourage him with whimpers and moans.
"God, you're so fucking responsive," John said hoarsely, hips stuttering when Rodney pressed his wet, open mouth to John's skin.
Rodney nodded because it was true. "Yes," he said. "When you're inside me like this, I can't help it." He licked at a bead of sweat that trickled down from John's temple, making John shudder. Or maybe it had been his words that he made John shudder. Rodney didn't know, so he just kept on talking. "I really like it when your naked, when it's just your cock, hot and hard and silky. When there's nothing between us and I can feel you so deep."
"Oh, fuck," John groaned, speeding up, each thrust causing Rodney's back to rub an inch or two along the wall. "Rodney."
"Yeah, John," Rodney whispered. "Want to feel you come inside me. Want to feel you come apart."
"I am," John said, dipping his head to kiss Rodney on the lips again. It wasn't a long lingering kiss, more like a series of teasing bites. John nibbled on Rodney's bottom lip, outlined the usually hard lines of Rodney's mouth with his tongue and then started all over again.
John was trembling, and though it wasn't the first time that had happened to either of them while making love, it made Rodney wrap his arms around John. It made him want to hug John until, well, until forever, as corny as that sounded. It made him want to tell John that everything was okay and that Rodney would never leave, never lie, and never ever hurt John.
And that he'd kick anyone's ass who did.
Of course, he didn't say any of those things. He kept his arms wrapped around John, though, kept him cocooned with arms and legs and silent understanding. Rodney held him until John's trembles turned into shudders, and he felt liquid warmth filling him.
John grunted as he thrust one final time, one hand coming up to cup Rodney's nape, the other wrapping around Rodney's waist, locking Rodney to him.
Rodney was still hard, hadn't thought about his own want as he'd offered himself up to John. But now he could feel the throbbing need of his erection, the exquisite torture as he shifted and rubbed himself against John's belly.
He must have made a sound because suddenly John was moving, carrying him effortlessly to the bed. Rodney's legs fell away from John's sides as John set him gently atop the covers. Then John was pulling out, the wet sound echoing through the room. Incongruously, Rodney felt embarrassment turn his aroused flush into a full fledged blush. John's come was inside of him, and when he moved to let John kneel between his thighs, he could feel some of it dribble free.
One of John's fingers traced the curve of his cheek, and Rodney blushed even harder. John smiled tenderly at him, and Rodney reached up to pull John down, to lose himself in more of John's kisses. But John only gave him one -- a hard, swift peck on the lips -- before he was pulling away and scooting down.
"Jesus," Rodney gasped as John swallowed him down, just opened his mouth and took Rodney all the way in. He worked Rodney's cock with a single-mindedness that left Rodney arching and writhing and incoherent. "Please. Please. Pleasepleaseplease." Rodney didn't even realize he was begging until John's tongue rasped along the sensitive vein on the underside of his cock and he exploded, one long, low whistling, "Please," escaping as he came.
He might have blacked out for awhile. When he opened his eyes again, John was curled around him. Rodney realized that John must have cleaned him up while he'd been out because they were both naked beneath the covers now, and Rodney no longer felt in need of a washcloth. He rolled over, returning John's loose embrace so that they were facing each other across the pillow.
"What, uhm," Rodney said, clearing his throat. "What brought that on? Not that I minded," he quickly added. "I just... are you okay?" He really couldn't stop the question from popping out and he was getting kind of tired of trying. "And I'm not going to apologize anymore for worrying."
"I don't want you to," John said, his voice soft.
The room was dark, the only light filtering in from the street lamp right outside their window. The dim lighting coupled with their closeness, the feel of John's callused fingers on Rodney's now bare back, made Rodney follow John's lead, keeping the intimate and hushed feeling of the moment. "Good," Rodney said, just as softly. "Are you going to answer my question?"
John smiled, just a brief flash of white in the dark. "I'm okay, Rodney. I mean, I'm not... I, uh, took a walk to Arlington."
"Oh, shit," Rodney said, just barely restraining himself from slapping his forehead. "I didn't even think about the fact that we missed your father's, I mean, Patrick's - " Rodney wanted to slap himself again. "Internment."
"He was my father, Rodney," John said with a sigh. "No matter whose genes I ended up with. Patrick Sheppard raised me, he... he did his best."
Even if his best wasn't good enough? Rodney thought.
"And, it's okay. I don't think I really minded missing it. I mean, I feel a little guilty, but... I liked being there alone today. I... " John's eyes rolled away from Rodney's, so that he was staring up at nothing instead. "I sort of talked to him."
"Yeah?" Rodney said, trying to sound encouraging.
"Yeah," John puffed out a breath. "It didn't resolve anything, but I... I feel better."
"Good," Rodney said, tilting his face up to give John a soft kiss. "Good." When Rodney started to pull away, John followed, stealing several more light, biting kisses before letting Rodney go.
"I think a part of me just... " John shook his head, and looked away and then back again. "I loved my mom a lot, you know? She was... she was a lot different than dad. She... loved me." John gave him another fleeting smile.
Rodney didn't know how he was supposed to feel at those words. Angry? Sad? Glad that John had had at least that much? What Rodney actually felt was a confusing jumble of everything.
"I always thought she could do no wrong, you know? And I... I couldn't understand... I still can't," John said and Rodney reached out to grab one of John's hands and interlace their fingers. "But, while I was at the cemetery today, I remembered all the times my father smiled at my mother. All the times that I caught them kissing, or... or the way he'd cried when she'd died."
There'd been a catch in John's voice when he'd said the last, and Rodney squeezed his hand.
"He knew. He knew that I wasn't his, that my mom had cheated, but... he loved her anyway," John said. "And I realized that if my dad could love her like that, then I guess... I guess there isn't anything wrong with me loving her, too."
"John," Rodney said, feeling moisture sting his eyes. He blinked furiously and held tightly to John's hand.
"I'm still angry." John shrugged. "And a little hurt, but... I'm better."
Rodney didn't know what to say. He wanted to be brilliant, wanted to fix everything with the perfect words, but he just... didn't know what to say. And before he could even attempt it, John went on.
"And I'm still really freaked over the whole not completely human thing. I kind of have this, uh, fear that they're not going to let me go back, you know? That I'm going to be stuck in some lab at the Mountain and that I'll never see Atlantis again." John said the last in one big rush, as if he were ashamed to admit his fear.
"Don't be ridiculous," Rodney said. "I'd never let that happen!" He'd quit first. He'd tell those morons exactly what he thought of them if they tried anything like that. How could they justify keeping an Ancient, even a half-one, from Atlantis? They couldn't.
"I know," John said. His smile this time was wide, almost indulgent, yet it still held that hint of tenderness that had left Rodney so nonplussed earlier.
"Well," Rodney said, brow furrowing. "Good."
"Thanks, Rodney," John said, voice breaking just a little on the 'thanks'.
"Do I have to remind you again not to be an idiot?" Rodney said, trying to focus on something, anything, other than the lump of emotion that kept threatening to clog his throat.
"I think you just did," John said with a quiet laugh.
They were both quiet for a while after that. Rodney shifted closer, resting his cheek against John's shoulder. John's warmth seeped into his skin, and he liked watching the steady beat of John's pulse at the base of his throat. He thought for a moment that John had fallen asleep, but then his rough voice broke the silence.
"I should call Landry tomorrow."
"We'll call." Rodney nodded, involuntarily tightening his embrace. "And we still have to go through the rest of Janus' things."
"I know," John said, weariness creeping into his tone.
"Tomorrow," Rodney said, kissing John's shoulder. "We'll go through it together."
"Okay," John murmured, nuzzling Rodney's hair.
Rodney wanted to say more, to remind John that he wasn't alone, that Rodney wasn't going to make him go through any of this by himself... but before he could, a soft snore tickled his scalp.
He snorted, quietly so as not to wake John, and shut his own eyes against the sudden rush of affection that washed through him.
Rodney was still sleeping when John awoke. He took a long, scaldingly hot shower, trying to put off the inevitable. He was still drying his hair with a towel as he walked out of the bathroom to find Rodney on their bed, Janus' notes spread around him.
"Hey." Rodney looked up, tilting his head slightly as he studied John. "You okay?"
"Rodney." John shook his head, but he couldn't deny, at least to himself, that Rodney's concern felt good.
"Right, fine. Whatever," Rodney said with a sigh, his gaze returning to the papers scattered along the mattress. His laptop was open, his fingers tapping away with a familiar, comforting clicking. "I studied these some more after you left yesterday."
"Yeah?" John asked, tossing the towel over the back of a chair and sitting on the edge of the bed, next to Rodney so that he could read the screen, too. "What did you find?"
"Well, you know, I was hoping for some schematics or notes or something on ZedPMs but no such luck. There is, however," Rodney said with a triumphant grin. "Some interesting stuff on time travel." Rodney's eyes were bright, his face flushed. It reminded John again of the day Rodney had discovered the personal shield.
"Woah, I'm not so sure it's a great idea to mess around with that," John said, though he could see why Rodney was excited. It definitely had some awesome possibilities, but John had mixed feelings about the whole thing.
"Oh, come on!" Rodney threw his hands out toward the notes. "We wouldn't even be here if it weren't for this research! Atlantis wouldn't be here!"
"Okay, okay." John held up his hands in mock surrender. "I'm just saying we should be careful."
"Of course," Rodney said, indignant, but then his expression shifted and he added. "Sorry."
John shook his head. "Forget it. I guess I'm a little sensitive about the whole thing."
"I'd say that you have sufficient reason," Rodney said and John laughed.
"Yeah." He stood then and went over to the desk where Rodney had placed the puzzle box and the other two devices it had contained. The personal shield was still in the pocket of the pants John had worn yesterday.
He took up the holographic device again and concentrated on it. Light burst through the dome and John thought 'fast forward' at it, and the images flickered passed until John recognized the spot where Janus had told him that he wasn't human. Wasn't completely human, anyway. He slowed it down and let the hologram return to normal speed.
"You are truly the second evolution of our people. But though, physiologically you are similar and were raised among the humans of Earth, you are not one of them. Not completely. You have abilities the others lack, abilities that you have yet to discover."
John flinched, hearing the words again. Suddenly Rodney was beside him, his arm around John's waist, a warm hand at John's hip. John didn't mind having Rodney there to lean on.
"To that end, I have left you a small portable database. It holds a history of our people, along with some medical data regarding our physiology. You'll also find several useful exercises, they will help you to achieve your potential." Janus' smile was rueful and without thinking John touched a finger to his own lips, wondering.
Rodney noticed. "Yeah," he said, answering John's unvoiced question.
"Children's lessons, but you will need to start at the beginning, I'm afraid." The image paused, Janus' expression turning fond. "My son," he said again, turning as if he could actually see John and bestowing that fond look on him. John shivered, but didn't stop the hologram from playing. "It awes and inspires me to know that our efforts in the past have allowed Atlantis to survive for so many thousands of years, that the City was still standing to welcome you home. You are our legacy. I hope that I have given you all that you will require to ensure that Atlantis stands for thousands of years to come. You hold the keys to her future, John, guard them well."
The hologram winked out and the room was suddenly so silent it made John's ears hurt. "So," he said, because the quiet was just too much.
"Yeah," Rodney said, the hand on John's hip curling and uncurling in an unconscious caress. "This is good," he said. "He's given us a lot to work with. There could even be instructions on building a ZedPM on the database somewhere."
John wanted to say something chiding about Rodney's one track mind, but he didn't have it in him at the moment. Besides, Rodney was right. Having that info could really ensure that Atlantis survived for another ten thousand years, which seemed to be Janus' fondest wish.
Rodney untangled himself from John and picked up the last piece of Ancient tech. John watched as Rodney studied the database, the Ancient's version of a flash drive, he guessed. John wasn't exactly sure how they were supposed to make it work. Then Rodney did something and the top of the device slid open, revealing a small chamber filled with crystals inside.
"Ha!" Rodney said, looking excited and happy again.
John leaned over to peer inside. It was just a handful of crystals, maybe half a dozen, sitting securely in tiny slots that seemed to have been made for them.
"I guess we have to wait until we get back to Atlantis to find out what's on 'em?" John asked, even though he already knew the answer.
"Looks like it. I don't think they have anything at Cheyenne that will do," Rodney replied, carefully sliding the lid closed again. Rodney suddenly looked wistful and a little sad.
"What?" John asked as he went to retrieve last night's pants. He put the personal shield, the crystals and the hologram back into the puzzle box and closed everything up again.
"I was just thinking about Elizabeth," Rodney said. "A whole database of Ancient history. It's not a lot of crystals, it must be pretty condensed, but I'd imagine that Janus chose the most important events, the things that he thought would be most relevant. I was just... " Rodney shrugged and John could see the weight of loss hanging around his shoulders. "She would've been really excited."
"Yeah," John agreed, imagining Elizabeth's expression if John had walked in with that kind of find a year ago. Jesus, they'd lost a lot of friends. Ford, Carson, Markham, Elizabeth, hell, even Sumner. No matter how much the bastard had disliked John, or how little John had known him, he still felt the loss.
John could feel the grief stacking up, threatening to knock over what little hope he had left of finding either Ford or Elizabeth alive. And yet John couldn't give up completely, not until he saw their bodies himself, not until he had solid proof.
He thought about what Rodney had said before, thought about the difference an army of men wearing personal shields could make. It wouldn't make them invincible, but it would sure as hell help. And who knew what else was on those crystals? What else Rodney could do with those notes? They might even get another ZPM or two out of this.
John felt the first stirrings of promise, anticipation. He had no idea what Janus had meant when he'd said that John had abilities, and he was still more than a little afraid to find out. But...
"I think it's time to call Landry," John said, and Rodney nodded.
Dave was already feeling claustrophobic by the time they'd dropped ten levels. His escort had said that they'd be going down to level 28 which wasn't all that far below the surface, but with a 1,000 meters of mountain on top of them, Dave was starting to feel jittery.
It was a ridiculous story. The idea that John was off in another galaxy, that what he was doing was really a matter of national security, or... planet-wide security, was insane. But, Dave had signed the non-disclosure agreement and he'd agreed to meet John here at Cheyenne Mountain.
Of course, the further he got into the mountain, the more he began to question his own doubts. John couldn't have convinced an entire base to go along with a practical joke, not to mention the amount of time something like this would have taken to set up. Dave may not have seen John in years, may no longer know his own brother, but even he realized that this was excessive.
Dave followed his escort around a corner and nearly ran into a very large, serious looking soldier with a weird tattoo on his forehead. The man bowed, a small smile on his face as Dave apologized.
"I'm sorry," he said, taking an automatic step back.
"You must be Colonel Sheppard's brother," the man said, bowing again. "I am T'ealc."
"You know my brother?" Dave said, a little surprised, though he wasn't sure why. Obviously, if John worked on base, he'd know a lot of the soldiers.
"Indeed," T'ealc said.
Dave waited for him to continue, but apparently he had nothing more to say. "Okay. Well, it was nice meeting you." Dave could see his escort waiting politely at the end of the hall for him.
T'ealc bowed again, and Dave followed suit, feeling a little silly but not wanting to offend him. Then he was gone, and Dave was once again moving down the hall.
Down the end of another corridor, they finally stopped.
"Dave," John said, pushing away from a table in the middle of what looked like a lab to greet him.
Rodney was there, too, but he didn't even acknowledge Dave's presence. It irked Dave a little, to be ignored that way, but then John elbowed Rodney who looked up with an annoyed scowl and said, "Working here!"
"Rodney," John said, nodding toward the doorway where Dave still stood.
"What?" Rodney still looked annoyed, but he followed John's not-so-subtle hint and finally caught sight of Dave. "Oh! Hello." he stood abruptly, making the stool he'd been sitting on wobble a little, and brushed nervously at his trousers. He seemed more nervous than both John and Dave combined, but then again they'd learned from the best how to keep their emotions from breaking the surface.
"John. Rodney," Dave greeted them. "So, this is where you work then?"
Dave watched Rodney and John exchange a funny look, then they both turned back to him.
"No," John said. "Not exactly. This is Stargate Command, yes, but we're based on Atlantis. We're only here until the Daedalus can get us back."
"Right. Atlantis," Dave nodded, trying to keep the sarcasm from his voice. "In the Pegasus Galaxy."
Rodney snorted, nervousness obviously gone as he rolled his eyes.
"I know it's hard to believe," John said. "Believe me. It was a pretty big shock to me, too."
"I bet," Dave said.
"Oh, stop being an ass," Rodney said.
"Wow," Dave said, at the same time that John said, "Rodney."
"What?" Rodney was clearly irritated with them both now. "You invited him down here for a reason, right? A reason that I assume was not to just stand around and insult us?"
Dave felt a little guilty at that. "Okay, hey, look," Dave started to say.
"Yeah, well I wanted him to see -- "
"Then let's show him!" Rodney said.
"That I wasn't crazy," John finished, throwing a look Dave's way.
"John, I don't think you're crazy. I... I don't know what to think," Dave admitted.
"I know," John said, giving him a sympathetic look.
"It would be a lot easier if we could actually show him Atlantis," Rodney grumbled.
"Yeah, well, that's not going to happen. At least not any time soon." John said, shaking his head.
"Look, I believe you," Dave said, trying to be gracious. "There's obviously something other than NORAD going on down here, and," Dave said, capturing John's gaze and holding it. "I told you. I just wanted to know where I could contact you. That is, I'd like it if... if we could stay in touch this time."
"Yeah, that," John said, clearing his throat and throwing another of those quick looks at Rodney. It was as if they held some kind of silent conversation in the thirty seconds their eyes met every time. "That would be great."
Dave felt the knot in his belly unfurl at that. He hadn't realized how nervous he'd been but the sudden loss of tension left him giddy enough to grin at them both. "Good, I -- "
Suddenly, a siren blared and the lights dimmed as red and yellow strobing alarm lights flickered. "Unscheduled off-world activation." Warnings boomed over the speakers and both John and Rodney visibly tensed in front of him.
"What the - ?"
The look that John and Rodney shared this time was more familiar exasperation than anything else. They'd obviously been through this type of drill, or whatever it was, before.
"Stay here!" John shouted at him over the sirens, then motioned to Rodney to follow.
They took off running down the hall, and Dave, with just the briefest flicker of hesitation, followed. They ended up in a room that was on some kind of observation deck, looking down over a room that was mostly empty. There were computers everywhere and several soldiers scrambling around the room. There was also a general and that T'ealc guy he'd seen earlier. Dave bowed automatically, and T'ealc smiled, nodding at him.
"Sir," John said, snapping to attention. "What's going on?" he addressed the General.
"Colonel." The General looked around John to glare at Dave. "What is he doing here?"
John's gaze flicked to him, and Dave shrugged an insincere apology. "I'm sorry, General," John said. "This is my brother Dave. You approved his visit to the base today."
"I realize that, Colonel, but what is he doing in the control room? We have an incident that -- "
"Sir, it's SG4's IDC," the little bald guy at the keyboard said. He put a hand to his ear piece. "They say they're coming in hot," he relayed.
"Open the iris," The General, Dave realized he must be Landry, said.
They all turned to look through the glass windows and Dave followed suit, doing a double take. There were soldiers lined up at the bottom of the long ramp he hadn't really noticed earlier, their weapons all pointed at a gigantic metal circle that had what looked like a... puddle of water shimmering in it.
"What the hell?"
"It's the Gate," Rodney said. And when Dave turned to look at him, his smile was smug.
Then something exploded against the glass barrier and Dave instinctively ducked. He realized that someone was shooting at them, but he couldn't figure out where the bullets were coming from. Unable to resist, Dave peeked over the computer consoles and down into the room below just in time to watch four soldiers tumble through the puddle, or whatever it was. Three of them were on their feet, racing down the ramp and the other literally rolled, a dark stain covering the front leg of his trousers. Two of the other soldiers caught him at the shoulders and ankles and carried him down the rest of the way, ducking the entire time as more gunfire, or... laser fire, came through the puddle.
Something else flew through the puddle, a small silver ball that hovered in the air. Every soldier in the room began focusing their fire on it and within moments it exploded into fragments. Then the puddle winked out. Blast doors opened and a medical team with a gurney appeared to carry away the injured man.
"Get those men to the infirmary!" Landry ordered. "I want a debrief within the hour." And then he was gone, and Dave was left gaping.
After the chaos of the alarms and the gunfire, the room seemed unnaturally still and quiet.
"I guess we won't need the Daedalus' help after all," Rodney said.
Dave closed his mouth.
"You okay?" John asked.
"Sure," Dave finally said. "I just found out my brother lives on another planet, in another galaxy, and that aliens exist. Why shouldn't I be okay?" Dave tried not to let his calm facade slip. "Got any other revelations for me?"
John laughed, sharing another look with Rodney before clapping Dave on the shoulder. "I think we'll save the others for later."
Dave nodded. "Okay."