Title
The Journey Home: John's Story
Prompt
Big Bang 2009.   Anything goes.
Summary
When John is forced to leave Atlantis and the Air Force, he thinks his life is over. But amid the chaos of his shattered life he discovers the true meaning of family and where he really belongs.
Pairing
Sheppard/McKay, Sheppard/OFC, McKay/OFC
Rating
NC-17
Word Count
258500 words
Notes
Much thanks must go to my betas, Chaps and DJaddict. If you find any mistakes it's because I didn't listen to them.
Warnings
This story has warnings; they are listed at the end of the story.
Jump to the warnings.
Companion Artwork
  • Journey Home Acceptance by cybel
  • Journey Home Banner2 by cybel
  • Journey Home Banner3 by cybel
  • The Journey Home Banner1 by cybel

Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard was nervous.

Okay, so maybe that was an understatement.

He fidgeted in the Gateroom, waiting for the latest transmission from Earth. Last week, the approvals for Elizabeth Weir, Carson Beckett, and Rodney McKay had come in, clearing them of any charges after they had stolen the Jumper and taken back Atlantis.

But not John's.

He knew Landry had been more than pissed at him—the shouting when John had cut the transmission left little doubt to that—but John hoped the fact that he not only saved the city and returned it to Earth's hands, but also saved O'Neill and Woolsey in the process… He hoped that was enough.

Five more minutes until the check-in.

"You're wearing a hole in the floor, John," Elizabeth said quietly as she walked into the control room.

He shot her a sheepish look. "Sorry. I'm just hoping what comes through is my clearance and reinstatement of my command of Atlantis. And I'm worried it's going to be orders to return to stand trial. Again." His black mark and record would not work in his favor if that happened.

"I know. We're all waiting to hear back. General O'Neill was pretty positive, but I'm still not unpacking too much of my personal belongings yet."

"You guys at least got your clearance last week. That means it's all but wrapped up. You're also civilians, so it's harder for them to do much to you."

"They weren't our official ones. Not yet."

He nodded. After him, he knew she was probably in the most danger.

As he thought it, the gate began to light up, and the call "Incoming wormhole," made him straighten into almost full Attention.

"Try not to sprain anything," she said quietly to him before turning to the technician. "Keep the shield up."

"Yes, ma'am. I'm receiving the SGC's IDC, and what appears to be an audio/video transmission."

"Put it on the screen and activate video and audio on our end," she said gesturing to the main screen in the control room as she moved toward the camera. "This is Doctor Weir."

Jack O'Neill was on the screen, and he smiled. "Doctor Weir, good news for you! I'm sending the official approvals for you, McKay, and Beckett. The IOA dotted all the I's and crossed all the T's."

"That's good to hear, sir. I'll make sure I pass that news along. And what about Colonel Sheppard? I think that's the last one we're waiting on."

John shifted slightly so he was in the picture. He was careful to blank out his expression as much as possible.

"Ah. I see he's there. Good." O'Neill glanced down at the papers in his hands. "Along with this transmission, you're going to be getting a new set of paperwork. Colonel, you have new orders which will be effective in three days. You'll report to the SGC in person at that time. Doctor Weir, you also have new personnel joining your expedition. All the paperwork should already be in your inbox."

John felt like he had been punched in the gut. "Can you give me an idea of what my new orders will entail, sir?"

"That will be detailed to you on your arrival. We'll expect you at 0900 that morning. Don't be late. You should have plenty of time to pack."

"Yes, sir." John gave him a quick salute.

"Elizabeth, I'll be able to give you further details at the same time. But expect approximately thirty additions to the military roster. Please ask Major Lorne to make the appropriate arrangements."

"Of course, General." She didn't look happy. "I'll look over the paperwork, and let you know what questions I have in three days then."

"It's self-explanatory. Just get it done. O'Neill, out."

The gate shut down, and it took everything John had not to show how uneasy and upset he was. His immediate reaction was to put on his blank, nothing bothers me expression even though it was the farthest thing from the truth.

She turned to him immediately. "This is not the final word, John. I won't let it be."

Her compassion, though, was just a little too much, pushing his fine control aside. "Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck," he whispered, feeling unsteady. He needed to sit down.

Her hand around his upper arm kept him on his feet and guided him into her office. She let go in the vicinity of the guest chair, letting him drop into it. "This is not the end of the matter by any means. I'm going to fight it, John."

"Odds are good the decision has already been made at this point." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. What if he was put on trial again, like last time? What if they assigned him to another bottom-rung Earth-bound gate team? He wasn't honestly sure which thought horrified him more.

"Decisions can be changed." Her voice was firm, determined.

He wanted to believe her. "God… I need to go pack up the few things I took out…"

"I'm going to do everything I can, John. Trust me."

"I know, it's just… a lot of 'what ifs' going on in my head right now."

"I know. We'll work it out. I promise."

"I should go… start packing I guess."

"John…" she started, but quickly trailed off. Yeah, she knew how likely it was that she'd be able to change their minds.

He looked up, managing a wan smile. "It will all be okay. Don't worry."

"I'm not giving up," she said. "I don't want you to, either."

"I won't. I promise. With luck, I'll be back here in a few weeks. We should probably check out the emails O'Neill sent, and see if there are any additional details."

She nodded silently.

He stood up, giving her another attempt at a smile. "If anyone needs me, I'll be in my quarters."

"Of course, John," she said, letting him leave without another word.

John made his way down the halls in a daze. When he looked up next, he found himself in his room, not even remembering the walk to his quarters. He glanced around, taking in the sparsely furnished room. It was mostly still empty from their last move, but still…

The door slid open a few moments later and McKay was talking even before he stepped foot inside. "…can't believe how idiotic they are! You just saved Atlantis for them—nearly single-handedly I might add—and this is how they repay you! You saved O'Neill's ass! And Woolsey's, too!"

Despite himself, John had to smile. McKay had that effect on him. "I know. I… I don't even know what to tell you." The situation, and all the possible ways it could go, made John sit down again.

"They should be pinning a medal on you, not tossing you out on your ass! And while I agree that Lorne deserves the promotion, I still don't think he has enough experience to do what you do. He's still wet behind the ears!"

John looked up, swallowing. "They've officially given the command to Lorne?"

"Oh…" McKay said, stopping short and looking incredibly guilty. "Well, I might have…let the proverbial cat out of the bag on that one, but it was all going to come out anyway…"

John had to get up and make a dash to the bathroom, losing everything he had eaten for the past several days, it felt like. He was never coming back. Never. He had lost Atlantis.

"Ah…Sheppard…" McKay said a few minutes later. He was hovering uneasily by the bathroom door. "Should that be…do you need…I can call Carson or someone…medical. You know, to…ah…help you with that."

When he was sure nothing else was coming up, John just let himself fall backward so he was on his back, staring at the ceiling. "Nothing they can do. I'll… be fine. Maybe they're going to put me back on an Earth gate team."

McKay swallowed thickly, nodding. "Yes, maybe that's exactly what they're going to do."

John couldn't survive that again. It almost made him want to throw up again, but there was just nothing left. "Yeah."

"Look. I'm already writing a reply to this bogus order of yours. After everything you've done, they have no right to do this to you," McKay said, getting all righteously indignant on his behalf again. "They have another thing coming if they think I'm just going to lie down and take this. They don't know what they started."

John turned his head, and managed a weak smile. "Thanks, buddy. But odds are good the decision has already been made. Don't shoot yourself in the foot to save me. You guys all got your official sign-offs today in the burst."

McKay waved his hand, more-or-less disregarding his comment. "I knew they couldn't tell us to pack it up and go home. They need my cooperation more than I need them. They're going to find that out really quickly, let me tell you."

John sat up, shaking his head. "Rodney… I appreciate it, more than I can tell you. But… don't do anything rash, okay?"

McKay rolled his eyes. "Just…go back to slouching. It'll all be fixed soon enough." He was almost to the door when he turned around again. "So, dinner? I think Teyla said something about movie night afterward."

John shook his head. "Honestly, I don't think I'm up to it tonight. I have a few days before I have to report back to the SGC, so maybe tomorrow."

"You need to eat and Teyla will pout if you don't. I'll see you in a few hours." McKay was out the door a few seconds later.

John sighed and pushed himself up off the floor. He rinsed out his mouth and made it back into the bedroom, collapsing on the bed. Maybe he could fall asleep, and this would all prove to be nothing more than a bad dream.

When the door chimed a few minutes later, he knew that wasn't going to be the case.

Sitting up, John put on the best face he could before triggering the door. "Yes?"

"Sir?" Lorne looked a little sheepish as he stood in the doorway. "Am I interrupting?"

John shook his head, standing. "Not at all. Come on in."

"Sir," he said as soon as the door closed behind him, "I want you to know that I knew nothing about this. I just received my new orders and it—"

John stopped him. "I know. It's not your fault, and I'm not angry at you. You're only following orders."

"This is just…wrong, sir."

Sighing, John shrugged. "Believe me, it's not my idea. With luck, I'll be able to talk them into letting me come back once I'm there."

"I hope so, sir, because I really don't want your job. Especially not this way."

"You'll do fine. I have every confidence in your abilities, Evan. No matter what happens to me, you'll keep this base running. It's in good hands."

"I appreciate that, sir. It still doesn't make this right. You've done a good job here."

"And so will you." John hated this, but he couldn't let Lorne believe this was his fault. "Don't worry about me."

"I'm not going to complain about the pay raise that comes with the new rank, but this isn't the way things should be. You deserve more than this, especially after everything they did. Maybe you'll lead a team at the SGC? You're more than qualified."

John barely managed to bite back the hysterical laugh. "Who knows what they'll do with me once I'm there. It's anybody's guess, honestly."

"Sir?" Lorne said, tilting his head to the side. "Don't you know your new orders yet?"

"No, I haven't opened my inbox." John's stomach dropped. He had a feeling he wasn't going to like this. "I've had a lot on my mind since I talked to O'Neill, so I haven't gotten to it yet. Give me the highlights, such as they are."

"I'm not sure what your orders say, but mine were along the line of 'due to the immediate recall of Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard' that I would be 'stepping in' to assume the military command of the Atlantis mission." Lorne hesitated. "That kind of wording never bodes well, sir."

John swallowed hard, and forced down the bile. Lorne didn't need to see that. "I guess we'll see. I should probably read what my actual orders are. I think I keep hoping this is all some kind of bad joke."

"It has to be, sir. This…this isn't right." Lorne paused, running a hand through his hair. "If I can help you with anything before you leave, just let me know."

John nodded. "Honestly, I'm still not really processing all of it. I haven't… Haven't gotten too much unpacked again yet. So really, it's probably the other way around. If I can answer any questions about anything before I go, just let me know what you need."

Lorne nodded, heading toward the door. "If you want…I have some beer I brought back with me. Maybe we could grab one before you head out."

"I'd like that." John managed another weak smile.

"Okay," Lorne said with a nod. There was an unnaturally long and awkward moment of silence. "I'll just…" He gestured to the door.

John nodded, giving the other man a little wave. As soon as the door was closed, he moved back to the bed, collapsing on it and pulling the pillow over his face.

This royally sucked. The one thing he really wanted he couldn't have anymore. He guessed it just proved that he really was the screw up his father and all his commanding officers said he was.

By the time evening came around, John hadn't moved, and he had managed to convince himself he was completely useless. His life was one big mistake, and the IOA was probably right to recall him.

Ronon banging at his door didn't do much to help his headache.

He triggered the door open, but didn't move.

"Come on, Sheppard. I can't stand McKay's bellyaching anymore."

"Maybe another day, Big Guy." John moved the pillow off his face enough to look at his tea—former teammate. "I'm not really up to a group thing tonight."

Ronon moved forward, wrapping a beefy hand around John's arm and hoisting him upright. "Come on. Teyla's waiting for you."

Grunting, John tried to pull his arm away, but Ronon had him in the hallway before he could blink. "Fine, I'll come say hi, but really, I don't think I can do a movie tonight."

"It's your favorite. Back to the Future."

John shook his head. "I don't even think I can sit through that right now, honestly."

"Course you can." Ronon wasn't taking no for an answer.

John walked with him, more so he wouldn't be frog-marched through the halls. When they arrived, he gave Teyla and Rodney a small wave. "Hi, guys. Ronon insisted I come say hi."

"It's about time you got here," McKay said, waving him forward from his position on the couch. "Your food's getting cold."

John shook his head. "I'm not really hungry, honestly. And like I told Ronon, I don't think I can sit through a movie tonight."

Even though Teyla looked like she was going to allow him to bow our gracefully, McKay simply blustered his way right over her. "For god's sakes, Sheppard. You need to eat. You're already skin and bones. Sit down, eat, and watch the movie."

John started to refuse, then realized he only had a few more precious days with these people who had become his family. "All right, I guess I'll stay a while."

"Of course you're going to stay," McKay said, settling back into the cushions.

John gave Teyla a weak smile, and sat down. He was pretty sure anything he tried to eat would just come back up later, so he picked at the plate, listening to the quiet back and forth going on between the other three.

He was going to miss this. More than he wanted to admit to himself.

It hurt. God. The first place he had ever really felt like he was accepted for who he was, had people who were family, who weren't trying to make him be something he wasn't… and now. Now he was being sent away.

"Can you believe that!" McKay said, startling him out of his thoughts. "That goes against every law of science known to man—and aliens!"

John glanced at the screen, shrugging at the antics of Marty McFly and Doc Brown. "I guess."

"What do you mean you guess? There is no way that any of this is possible."

"I know." John gave his friend a small smile. "Bet you could have made a better movie."

"I'm a scientist not a cinematographer," he grumbled.

"Yeah, but the science would have been better." John pushed his plate over to Ronon.

"Of course it would have. That's beside the point," McKay said as Ronon pushed the plate back toward John.

"You can have it, Big Guy. I'm not hungry." John pushed it back over, and looked at McKay. "Maybe someday you can write a paper on how all the science really would have worked."

"It's yours," Ronon said, shoving it back.

"I'm really not hungry."

"McKay says you need to eat more."

"He's probably right. But I don't have much of an appetite at the moment."

The skin around McKay's mouth and eyes looked tight as he watched the two of them. "They're making a mistake."

John sighed. So they were going to talk about it. He guessed now was as good a time as any. "Whether they are or not, I don't really have a choice. I was given orders. You guys will be fine though. Lorne is taking over as military leader, and he's a good guy."

"He's not you," McKay said, looking decidedly sour.

"You guys will be fine, and so will Atlantis." John looked around at all of them. "You'll get a new teammate, and continue to do your jobs. With luck, they'll let me pass emails back and forth to you, so you can keep me posted on how you're doing."

"Much has changed here, John," Teyla said quietly. "I find myself wishing to spend more time with my people now. Your departure has only emphasized my need for family and friends."

He nodded. "It's been a rough month, with us getting kicked out, only to come back and save the city, and now I'm getting kicked out again. I don't think anyone would blame you for wanting to spend more time with your people."

"I plan to inform Elizabeth in the morning," Teyla said. "I shall miss Atlantis and my friends, but it is time to move on."

John reached out, squeezing her hand. "If the SGC does let me pass emails, I'll ask Elizabeth to pass on communications to you. Hopefully, we won't lose touch."

"That would be nice," she said with a smile. Ronon picked up the conversation a few beats later.

"I'll be going with her when she leaves. There are still Runners out there. We can help them."

Nodding again, John sighed. "I know Atlantis will miss you both. But if there's anything I can do to help, while I'm still here, just let me know."

"We have time with which to spend together. That is all I require," Teyla said squeezing John's hand.

He squeezed back, smiling at all of them. "We'll all be fine. It's not the end of the world, we're just… moving on I guess."

"It seems your departure has spurred much change," Teyla said with a small, tired smile.

"I'm just one man. You guys will all be fine. We survived the entire expedition leaving before. This time, it's just me."

McKay shook his head. "This is different."

"It is different, but you'll be fine, McKay. You'll be here, doing research, finding out what makes the universe tick. I want postcards from time to time though."

"Maybe. I already sent my complaints back to the IOA. Opened up a wormhole and shot it through in a high-speed burst. We'll see how they respond in the morning."

John's eyes widened. "McKay… I appreciate the thought and the effort, but don't put your position in danger, too."

"They're putting us all in danger because they have their heads up their collective asses. And what's done is done. Depending on how they respond, you might be helping me pack tomorrow."

He shook his head. "They might get irritated with you, but while I'm replaceable, you're really not."

"It's my choice, Sheppard. And it's on my terms, not theirs."

"Just… don't do anything rash, okay? You belong here."

"I guess we'll see just how much I'm worth to them now won't we?"

"McKay… what did you send through?"

"An ultimatum. If they want you gone, then they're going to lose me, too. They've already lost Ronon and Teyla. So with one fell swoop they've decimated the flagship Atlantis team."

"You don't want to do that. Atlantis needs you. You still have time to take it back."

"I don't want to take it back. I believe in what I said to them." McKay offered a shrug. "They need me more than I need them."

John had to lower his head. That McKay had done that, would give all this up for him… it was a little overwhelming. "You guys…Thank you. For everything."

Rodney snorted. "Someone had to point out to them how stupid their decision was. I was the likeliest candidate."

"Still… thank you." John smiled at him.

"There's nothing to thank me for," McKay said, simply waving him off.

John shrugged, and smiled again. He decided he was going to do his best to enjoy his last few days with his friends, and try not to worry too much about what came next.

It was the least he could do.


The next few days went by in a blur for John. There was a lot of righteous anger on his behalf, and a lot of well-wishing and attempts to make him feel better. He didn't have the heart to tell them it wasn't working, so he smiled and pretended.

Now he needed to talk McKay out of walking through the Gate with him. Atlantis needed him, and this was John's last chance to try and convince him to stay. He rang the doorbell to McKay's quarters, and as soon as they swished open, he started his pitch. "You don't have to do this."

McKay looked at him like he had grown a third head. "Do what?"

"This." He swept his hand to encompass the room. He knew the IOA hadn't responded at all, and he didn't want his friend to do something he would regret later. "Don't give up Atlantis for this, McKay. You love it here. And the city needs you."

The scientist wasn't listening. He rolled his eyes and moved back a few steps toward the duffel he'd been packing. "It needs you more."

He shook his head. He had to make McKay see. "There are other grunts out there who can do what I do. But there's only one Rodney McKay."

McKay's expression changed, softening and he did something weird with his mouth before he replied. "No, Sheppard, they can't," McKay said. His tone firmed up as he continued. "And look. I made up my mind and you know it's impossible for me to change it once that happens."

With a sigh, John sat down on McKay's bed, not bothering to ask if it was okay. "I just know they aren't going to change their minds about me. I hate that I'm going to be the reason you lose Atlantis again, not when we just got it back."

"Not everything revolves around you, Sheppard," McKay said, rolling his eyes. "I made the choice to go back. And honestly with Teyla and Ronon heading out in a few days there's nothing left."

John watched him pack quietly for a few minutes, taking in the set of his body, the determination on his face. He wasn't going to be able to talk McKay out of this. "At least promise me, no matter what ends up happening, you won't disappear on me, okay? If we both have to be stuck on Earth, we might as well keep each other sane, right?"

He paused, looking at John with that surprised expression again. "Wait a minute. You're purposely making plans to stay in touch with me? You can barely stand being around me most days."

Smiling, John shook his head. "Not true. You're my best friend. Sure, we argue, but that's half the fun, isn't it?"

McKay snorted and rolled his eyes. "If you say so. And who knows where I'll end up. I have to see what happens once I get back. See what the SGC wants from me."

"I know… Just. Promise me, okay?" For a moment, everything came crashing down on him. He almost couldn't breathe with the thought of it. "I don't know what they're going to do to me, or want from me. I… Look, I suck at this, okay? I just… don't want to lose touch."

"I…of course," McKay nodded, bobbing his head. "Whatever you want."

"Thanks." Swallowing back the pain and fear, John managed a small smile. "I guess I should head to the Gate Room. We'll be dialing out in about a half hour or so."

"You should help me finish up. I need to cart all this stuff down there, too," McKay said, gesturing at the bags and boxes around the room. It wasn't much, but it was enough. Too much for one man, just enough for two. It was just like McKay, too, making John help with the physical stuff.

He stood up and looked around. It was better than trying to look stoic while everyone watched and waiting for him to break. "Sure. What do you want me to carry?"

McKay gestured around the room. "Something. Take your pick. They all have to go."

He looked around at the bags and boxes, and, nodding to himself, started to stack them into two piles that would be easiest for them each to carry. When he was done, he picked up the one he had done for himself, with a little more than half of McKay's possessions. "Ready?"

"I…yeah. Minute," McKay said, turning to finish with the last few items, shoving them into the open duffel. He closed it a few beats later. Hefting it over his shoulder he nodded to himself as he glanced around the room. "Yeah. I think I have everything."

They walked down the hall together, and when they reached the Gate Room, John set McKay's things down on the main floor, next to his own duffel bag.

There were way too many people in the control room, crowding the area by the railing. Apparently, they were the spectacle of the week.

Looking around, John did his best to keep his face impassive. He glanced up to the bridge, where Elizabeth was standing. "I'm ready when you are."

"We have fifteen minutes yet," she said, her voice carrying. "Why don't you both come join me in my office?"

Nodding, John glanced over at McKay before heading up the stairs.

John heard McKay sigh, but seconds later he was following a few steps behind. Honestly, John didn't think either of them wanted to go, but it also wouldn't be good to ignore what was the last order she was going to give him. The door closed behind them once they were all in her office.

He sank into one of her guest chairs, acutely aware this was probably one of the last times they would see each other, in all likelihood. "I don't suppose you have good news that this was all a bad joke?"

"No, I'm sorry," she said shaking her head as she sat down in her desk chair. "The data burst this morning had the reminder about your transfer to the SGC." She paused and turned toward McKay. "And they still haven't answered your emails."

McKay shrugged, his expression resigned. "I really wasn't expecting them to."

"You're going to go through with this then? Going through the Gate with John?"

"I'm not backing down. I know they expect me to, but I'm not. This is too important."

She sighed. "I don't want to lose either of you. But to lose you at the same time… isn't there anything I can do to make you reconsider?"

"Refuse to let them do this to Sheppard."

"I've tried." She rubbed the bridge of her nose. "I've been exchanging increasingly heated emails since General O'Neill first dropped this on us."

"And? Sheppard saved his ass."

"He knows, and while he hasn't come out and said it, he's against this course of action. He… implied that there's someone else who has been pushing the IOA to remove John for a while now, and who took this opportunity to drive the point. But O'Neill wouldn't give me a name."

McKay rolled his eyes and snorted. "Politics. I hate it."

She made a face. "I don't blame you."

John had been sitting quietly, but he suddenly sighed. Everything made sense now, in light of that. "There's no stopping this, then. Not if it's who I think it is. In fact, I'll be lucky to get out with an Honorable Discharge if he has his way."

"Who, Sheppard?" McKay asked, turning toward him.

"He was the Colonel who was in charge of the base where I was stationed in Afghanistan. You've both read my records, so you know how that went. I knew he got connected to the SGC program about a year or so ago, but honestly I didn't think much of it since I wasn't directly in contact with him." John swallowed. Hard. He was going to be sent to prison. He was going to spend the rest of his life locked in a little cell going insane.

McKay, of course, just bulldozed on. "What does he care about what you're doing now? That's old news."

"He's a General now, I think, and when I was sent south instead of being discharged, he was furious. At the time, he cornered me before I shipped out and promised that wasn't the end of it, but I took it as a hollow threat, honestly. I didn't think there was anything else he could do to me." But oh he had been wrong. If John had been smart…

McKay shook his head. "It has to be something else."

John shrugged, fighting the urge to laugh hysterically. "Dunno, but he's the only one I know of in the program with both the grudge and the clout to go up against O'Neill."

"But O'Neill doesn't hold the strings anymore. The IOA does. This is all political."

"Exactly. If he's gotten the ear of the IOA, I'm as good as gone."

McKay sighed, rubbing his hand over his face before glancing into the control room. John turned as well, spotting Carson and Teyla. Ronon and Radek were also there, hovering. John swore he spotted Miko and Simpson in the corner, the first one crying. "We should probably…" McKay said, gesturing toward the crowd.

John tensed up, not wanting to do this. But he knew he had to. "They'll be expecting me soon, yes."

Elizabeth nodded, rising to her feet. She gave John a hug first. "Don't think you won't be missed, because you will be," she said quietly before moving across the office to envelop McKay in a hug as well.

"You know you're always welcome here. And I'll be doing everything in my power to get you BOTH back, sooner over later."

"I know, but we come as a package deal," McKay said gruffly.

She smiled at both of them. "I'll keep that in mind. And I won't stop fighting for you."

"Fight for Sheppard. He needs the help. This was my decision to leave."

She squeezed McKay's shoulder and turned enough to bring John into the hug as well. "I'll always fight for you both. Atlantis needs you. Both of you."

McKay frowned, but remained silent.

They moved into the control room and down the stairs to where their bags sat. John took a deep breath, watching as the Gate slowly dialed. This was the last time he would see it.

Swallowing he allowed himself to look around as it connected. All the men and women who had served under him. All the civilians he had dedicated his life to protecting. It seemed like the entire city was here, and he had to struggle to keep his composure.

It had been hard enough to do that when Carson was trying hard not to cry on his shoulder as he hugged him goodbye. At least Ronon just pounded him on his back. His lungs might have been relocated, but it was better than the Scot's manly crying. Teyla had been so serene and calming, refusing to say goodbye. Instead she had simply told him she would see him again.

He listened as Elizabeth opened the channel to the SGC. This was the last chance. This was the last moment they could change their minds.

McKay bumped his shoulder with his own, offering a tight smile.

John heard the orders. Heard them tell Atlantis to send him through. He took a deep breath and straightened, looking around the room again, and this time giving a crisp salute—the only way he knew to express his gratitude, his love of this city and its people.

"Help me with my stuff," McKay said, bending down to pick up his duffel.

When John had made sure he had made eye contact at least briefly with everyone in the Control Room, he knelt down, picking up his own duffel and as much of McKay's stuff as he could carry. It was time.

He took a step forward and looked back, too choked up to actually say his final goodbye.

McKay grunted under the weight of his baggage, not even waving goodbye, too intent on not dropping anything.

Closing his eyes briefly, John turned again, and took the final few steps toward the Gate.

"Come on. Let's get this over with already," McKay said, his voice off—tight. Apparently this was affecting him, too.

Nodding, John came even with him, and together, they went through, emerging in the SGC.

Honestly, it was a little anti-climatic. Sergeant Harriman was waiting for them at the bottom of the ramp, a clip board in his hands. "Oh. Doctor McKay. We weren't expecting you."

John heard McKay snort. "Of course you didn't. The right hand never knows what the left is doing."

John set McKay's stuff down on the floor in front of the gate. "Where am I expected, Sergeant?"

"General Landry is waiting for you in his office."

"Thank you." John looked over at McKay. "If I can, I'll meet up with you later, okay?"

"Of course. They have to figure out what they're doing with me now, so I'm not going anywhere."

John gave him a slight smile. "All right. I'll see you later then."

John grabbed his own duffel back off the floor, and headed to Landry's office. When he got there, he knocked politely on the frame, even though the door was open. "Sir. I was told to report to you here."

"Sheppard, good. You're here. Come in and have a seat."

"Yes, sir." John moved inside, dropping his bag and sitting in the chair Landry had indicated. He stayed stiff, sitting straight up, uncomfortable already.

Landry moved things around on his desk—files and papers—letting John sit there. He finally spoke a few minutes later. "So, it seems like we have a bit of an issue with you."

"Sir?" John's hands were fisted tightly in his lap. "I know I disobeyed your orders, sir, and I'm sorry, but I knew I could save Atlantis."

"Your actions didn't leave us much room to maneuver. Doctors Weir and McKay have been vocal as…character witnesses on your behalf, but we can't ignore what you did. Especially because it's not the first time."

Swallowing, John nodded. "I understand, sir. So what happens next?"

"You have two options. One you can resign. In your file it would read that you were Honorably Discharged. Nothing else would go in your file. You'd have a severance package, but that would end your time with the SGC completely. Working here again as a consultant might be an option in the future, but that would take some time." Landry paused, letting the words sink in. "Second, if you wanted to work for the SGC again as a government employee, you could stay but this…situation might come to a head and have to go to trial. You might end up with a dishonorable discharge."

John closed his eyes, lowering his head. He felt like he had been punched. "In your opinion, sir, what are my chances if I went to trial? Would there even be a chance at getting back to Atlantis?"

"Do you want my honest opinion?"

Opening his eyes, John looked up, and nodded. "Yes, sir. Honestly, I don't want to stay at the SGC if I can't at least hope for Atlantis."

"You screwed up and you're going to be called on the carpet. Your best bet: take the package and go live your life."

"Atlantis was my life, sir." John shuddered, and had to lower his head again. He had gambled, and lost it all. "Do I have to tell you now what my choice is? Or can I have the night to think about it?"

"You have a new life now, Sheppard. You should have thought of that before you disobeyed orders. And the longer you wait, the less choices you'll have. The IOA will force my hand. I'd say you had a few hours, tops."

John wanted to scream, to rail against the unfairness of it all. But he also knew that he was even being given this choice was probably because of O'Neill, and possibly Landry, going to bat for him. It didn't make it hurt any less though. "Then I guess there isn't much else to say, sir. If you get me the paperwork, I'll formally resign my commission."

Landry nodded. "I'll have Sergeant Harriman bring you the paperwork. You can wait in the main conference room."

"Thank you, sir." John rose, feeling lost. He managed to pick up his bag and make his way to the conference room, somehow. He didn't even know where he was going to go. What would he do?

"Sheppard," Landry called, making John pause in the doorway.

"Sir?" John turned back, unable to hide the pain anymore.

"For what it's worth, I know why you did what you did. I understand it. But that doesn't mean I agree with it. You're a cowboy. You always have been. It's about time it caught up with you."

Flinching, John could only stare silently. Right now, he couldn't even marshal up anything in his own defense.

Landry held his gaze for a long moment until McKay's shrill voice interrupted them. "What do you mean I can't leave? I quit! It's simple. Print out whatever papers I need to sign."

John closed his eyes again. "I'll be in the conference room, sir."

As John turned into the conference room he spotted McKay as he stormed in, a soldier hovering behind him carrying all of his luggage. The scientist was headed directly into Landry's office. "General! Your staff is worse than mine on Atlantis!"

John slipped out, listening to the beginning of McKay's rant. But honestly, he didn't think he could do anything to help his friend. Just the opposite. Sitting down in the conference room, John stared at the wall. This was really happening.

"Sir. Do you mind if I leave Doctor McKay's stuff here?"

John looked up at the young face, and quietly waved a hand. "It's fine. He'll probably end up here anyway."

"Thank you, sir," the solder said, gratitude on his face.

John watched him pile the stuff in the corner, then he was alone again.

His thoughts wandered. Where was he going to go? He didn't even have an apartment—even before, when they had been kicked out of Atlantis, he had just lived on base. What was he going to do with the rest of his life now? He had always believed he would die in combat.

He could go back to his father's house, but the way he'd left… Yeah, that wasn't his first choice.

The family business, entering the world of finance… God. He shivered. But that was all he had, other than flying. John felt sick, and leaned forward, putting his head on the cool table, hoping it would help chase the nausea away, at least for now.

He didn't want to go slinking back to his father. He had money. He hadn't spent any of his pay for the last few years. But that wouldn't last. He didn't want to dip into the trust fund if he didn't have to.

He looked up when the door banged open. Right now, he welcomed any distraction, and was happy to see McKay barge in. "Hey."

"They're not letting me leave."

John swallowed. "What do they want from you?"

"They think I'm having some kind of…mental break or something." McKay waved his hands in the air as he dropped into a nearby chair.

"So what's next for you then?" John glanced up again as Harriman bustled in, his hands full of paperwork.

"God only knows. I'm trapped here until they finally decide I made this decision of my own free will. I never thought it would be so hard to resign."

John's laugh came out probably slightly more hysterical than he really wanted.

"Sheppard?"

He had to close his eyes and take a few deep breaths. "I was told I can either resign quietly and I'll lose my pension, but it will be listed as an Honorable Discharge and none of this will go in my record. Or I could stay and try to fight, but it's pretty much already been decided if I did that, the best I could hope for was a Dishonorable Discharge. These are my resignation papers."

"What? What kind of choice is that?"

"And it was made clear that if I didn't decide now, that option would disappear, and trial and dishonorable discharge would become my only option. So I took it."

"They have their heads up their respective asses," McKay said, rolling his eyes. "I'm sure they'll get me sorted out by the end of the day. I have to see if my automatic rent payments were still going through. Otherwise I'm going to need to find a hotel or something."

"I… don't know where I'm going." It felt like a weight was suddenly dropped on his shoulders, admitting it out loud. "I don't have anywhere to go."

"What do you mean? I'm sure you have a bachelor pad somewhere."

He shook his head. "I lived on base. I… this is all I have." He gestured to his duffel.

"Don't you have family?"

John shrugged. "I… haven't seen them in a long time, and didn't exactly leave on good terms. So that's not really an option I want to explore. Not yet."

"So…you can get a hotel until you find an apartment. It's something."

"Yeah. Yeah, that's probably what I'll do. I don't think they'll let me stay here tonight."

"Why not? You should still have base privileges. You were honorably discharged, you know."

"It's a little different here. This is all classified and I don't have clearance anymore. So…"

"Oh. That's….that sucks."

John swallowed, and took the paperwork Harriman pushed over. John picked up the pen, but just stared. He didn't know if he could do this.

"Can't you just print me out a copy with my name on them, too. You did it for him," McKay said, pointing at the Sergeant helping him get through the stack of paperwork.

"Sorry, sir. I can only produce these on order. I have to have this set for Colonel Sheppard on General Landry's desk in the next half-hour."

"So I order you to print me out a set. How about that?"

"Sorry, sir. It has to come from the General."

John signed the last paper. And realized he was no longer in the Air Force. He felt the blood drain from his face and he put his head in his hands and closed his eyes, trying to gain his composure.

"Sir, you okay?"

John couldn't answer. When his stomach finally stopped rolling and his heart felt like it wasn't going to pound out of his chest, he nodded slightly.

"Sergeant, let's get Sheppard out of here. Doctor McKay, let's get your paperwork straightened out before I do something I'll regret," Landry said, sounding exhausted.

"McKay, in my office. Now." Landry's voice was hard. Dry.

John heard McKay storm into Landry's office, his voice fading as he moved further away.

"Sir, I'm sorry. Do you have family you can stay with?" Harriman was quiet, polite, and courteous.

"No." John just wanted to go to bed and never get up again. "Just put me in a cab or something and send me to the nearest hotel."

"I'll get you settled in the long-term stay place we usually use. One of the drivers can take you."

"Okay." He didn't have the energy to resist.

They made their way to the surface. Two elevators later and they were at the main checkpoint. "Sir, I need your key card for the SGC."

John pulled it out, and silently handed it over. The next thing he knew, he was being put in a car, his duffel sliding in beside him.

"Take him to the suites hotel and make sure you get him checked in and registered," Harrison said before closing the car door.

The ride was quiet, and John stared blankly out the window, not really seeing any of it. He ignored the driver, and assumed the guy must have followed orders because soon he was being led to a room. His duffel was placed on the bed, the key on the table, and then John was alone.

He was back on Earth and alone, really alone and purposeless for the first time in nearly twenty years.

Sinking onto the bed, John stared at the ceiling and tried not to think. He just couldn't right now. He wondered how long the SGC would let him stay here. It was a nice bed. Maybe he could just go to sleep, and never get up again.

But then that dick of a General would have won, would have beaten him. He didn't want to give him the satisfaction.

So… what now? He really had no idea. He supposed he should decide on a place to live. He didn't think he wanted to stay in Colorado. There were too many people here who knew him, knew what had happened, and he knew pity would just hurt too much.

He didn't want to run into SGC members at the grocery store. Maybe California. At least he could surf.

He was lost in his pros and cons of cities when someone was suddenly banging on his door. Who the hell was looking for him? And how did they know where he was?

"Sheppard, open up."

"McKay?" John sat up, blinking at the door. "Is that you?"

"Who else would be looking for you?"

"I have no idea." He pushed himself and managed to make it to the door. "Hey."

McKay was standing at his door, a duffel at his feet. His hair was every which way and he looked decidedly rumpled. "Can you believe that I was evicted?"

"Evicted? From the SGC?" John stood aside to let his friend enter.

McKay picked up his bag and dragged it inside. "No. My apartment. Someone screwed up the automatic payments and they evicted me. I think the landlord had it in for me anyway. He never liked me."

"Oh. That sucks. What happened to all your stuff?" He shut the door and moved back to sit on the bed, watching McKay fuss around.

"I had the cabbie go to the local storage place. I have some of my stuff in there, so I just added whatever I'd brought with me. It took me nearly an hour to flag down a new cab to bring me here." He eventually dropped into the desk chair.

"What about all the stuff in your apartment? What did they do with it?" John had seen McKay's apartment—it had a ton of shit in it.

McKay scowled. "Let's not talk about all of my collectables. I did find out that my old landlord bought himself a really nice house."

"Ouch." John shook his head. "Did the SGC finally let you out of your contract?"

McKay nodded. "Reluctantly. I had to do a dance for the shrink."

"But at least it's done, and you're free now." John sighed. "So what's next for you then?"

"I need to get a cell phone. And update all of my credit cards and whatnot. We were just here, so it's not that horrible. Right now I just want to eat dinner and sleep for a week."

John gestured toward his bag. "I think I remember someone stuffing some paperwork in there. My wallet and stuff are probably there. I imagine I'll have to renew everything too."

"Yeah. I don't even have cash on me and with no car…" McKay sighed. "This sucks."

"Majorly." John made a face. His stomach was still not settled, but he knew he had to pull himself together. Somehow. "I have to figure out where I want to live. I know I don't want to stay here."

"Of course not. No one lives in a hotel. No matter how nice."

John snorted. "That, too. I also have to figure out what to do with myself. I… really have no idea. I have my Masters in Mathematics, and since resigning means my discharge was honorable, I might be able to get a job flying commercial jets. But I don't know."

"I need to get a new computer, too. My old one was in the apartment. I need to start job searching. The SGC paid me well, but I can't live on that forever."

"Working for a private lab? How much of your stuff is owned by the SGC, and how much can you fudge on a technicality? You could probably make a ton of money from patents if you can find a way to release them without incurring the wrath of the government."

McKay snorted. "Everything was owned by the SGC, but if I can get into a company that was partnering with them…you kind of see where I'm going."

"Yeah." John managed a small smile. "So are you going to go back to Canada? Or stay here in the States?"

He shrugged. "I'll go where the job is. I figure I can hang around here for a few days and then maybe give Jeannie a call. I might be able to wrangle an invitation."

"Yeah, if you can, I know she'd be happy to have you visit." John looked around. "I don't think I want to make any decisions tonight. Want to make an attempt at dinner with me?"

"You have cash? If not, we have to see if we can find some."

"No." He paused. "Actually, I have no idea. My old wallet is probably in my bag. Let me see if there was anything in there."

"I spent whatever I had on cab fare. It was expensive to cab from the Mountain into town."

"They stuck me in a car and sent me here. I don't think they were sure I would actually leave otherwise." John reached over to snag his bag, pulling it up to start rifling through it. He tossed a few stacks of paperwork on the other side of the bed, and finally found his wallet.

"They booted me out and let me fend for myself. Do you know how far a walk it is to the main gate at Cheyenne? I had to walk with all of my crap."

"Just another friendly policy from the folks at the SGC." John was going to have to be careful, or he would get bitter. Opening his wallet, he noted it was exactly like he had left it, and his one credit card expired. He'd never bothered to update it when he was here last. But there was a hundred bucks stuffed in there. He pulled it out. "Think we can both eat on this?"

McKay nodded. "That's plenty. If we spot my bank along the way, I'll see if my ATM card is still working. I used it two months ago, so it should be." He rose to his feet, grimacing and groaning as he stretched. "And why is everything expired? We were on Earth for six months."

"I didn't bother to renew anything then. I lived on base, and really never left." John rose as well.

"Oh. I figured you actually got out and did stuff."

"Nope." John shrugged. "I didn't really have anything I wanted to do, and anyone I would have done it with was either in another city, or off-world at different times from me."

"Oh." McKay was silent for a few moments. "So. Dinner?"

"Yeah. Know of anything in the area, or should we ask someone?"

"I have no idea where we are. The only reason I could find you was because I browbeat Harriman at the SGC before I left and then the girl at the front desk."

John chuckled. That was so McKay. "Let's ask at the front then. They can probably call us a cab, too."

"Ah…you can ask."

Shaking his head, John headed out, the scientist trailing behind him. At the front desk, there was a young woman who started to scowl as soon as she saw McKay. Hoping to head that off, John stepped up and put on a smile. "Hi. We'd like to get some dinner, but we don't know the area. I don't suppose you have a favorite place to eat you can recommend nearby?"

"With him?"

John nodded, still smiling. "Yeah, I know he's a bit rough around the edges, but he's a good guy if you get to know him."

"Yeah, right." She rolled her eyes. "What do you want to eat?"

John shrugged. "Honestly, it's been an incredibly crappy day for me. As long as it's decent, I'll be happy."

"There are a few places nearby. Mostly chain restaurants. There's a diner, too. Then the usual fast food stuff."

"The diner actually will probably work perfectly. Is it in walking distance, or will we need a cab?"

"Two blocks down to the right."

"Perfect. Thanks. I appreciate it." John smiled at her again.

"Just keep your friend away from me."

"No problem." John turned away, and headed back to McKay. "What did you do to that poor girl that's got her so worked up?"

"Nothing! I just demanded that she actually do her job. She's in customer service. She's supposed to make me happy."

Shaking his head and laughing, John put a hand on McKay's shoulder and led him out. "Let's go get something to eat. There's a diner a few blocks from here, so we can walk."

"I didn't do anything to her," he grumbled, letting John lead him. "It's not my fault that she took exception to my requests." He glanced over his shoulder at her. "Maybe it's because she was intimidated by my good looks and my brilliance. Maybe I should go back and talk to her again."

"Ahh, why don't you let it sink in and try again another day. Give her time to come to terms with your magnetic power."

"Ooo. Good plan," McKay said, offering John a broad smile.

Shaking his head, John decided he really needed to get McKay settled down with someone who appreciated him. He was too good of a catch to be single, once you got past his defense mechanisms. "Any time, buddy. Any time."

"Maybe I can try again tomorrow. I'll be here for a few days, I'm sure."

"Yeah. You could do that. Or, you know, we can keep an eye out. Maybe find someone who's not as intimidated by you. You need someone who can keep up with you."

"But she's cute," he said, glancing over his shoulder again even though they had walked far enough away there was no way he could see her. "This is my new start."

"True. But you'd get bored with her after a while. You need someone cute, who's got a brain to back it up."

"You're right," he said, turning back to John. "You know, you know all this stuff. You should help me out. You're…Kirk. You have all the moves."

"Hardly." John made a face. "I'll help you out if you want, but I think you'd be disappointed in my actual track record. I haven't actually had sex in probably a year or more."

"Okay. I know that's a lie. I've heard the stories."

"That's all they were—stories." John shrugged. "I've been pretty much celibate for a while. I know how to flirt, yes, but that's about all I ever do."

"I find that hard to believe," McKay said, sending John a weird look. "But it doesn't matter. You know all the lines. I'm sure you can help me get laid. I have a much larger pool here than I did on Atlantis."

John ignored the weird stab that thought gave him, and he nodded. "I can try if you want. Not sure how helpful I'll be. Honestly, women are interesting and sex is okay, but it never compared to the thrill of flying."

"Sex is just okay!" Okay. He forgot how loud McKay could get. "Well, I'm sure you'll be able to give me all kinds of pointers while I'm staying with you."

Raising an eyebrow, John decided a change of subject was probably a good idea. "Staying with me? They didn't give you your own room?"

"No. They claimed they were sold out."

Chuckling, John shook his head. "Well, you're more than welcome. I don't know how long the SGC has me checked in for, but I'm sure there are a few days, at least."

"Two weeks."

"Oh." John ran a hand through his hair. "Well, that gives us some time."

"Least it's more comfortable than the off-world tents we use."

"I'm convinced even the ground would be more comfortable than those things." John pointed. "There's the diner."

"Oh, good. I could eat a horse." McKay stepped out into the street without looking, the oncoming minivan leaning on its horn as it swerved around him. "Idiot driver! Look where you're going!"

Wincing, John looked both ways and followed his friend. "I have to admit, I'm not really hungry, but I'll try to eat a little something."

"I'm always hungry. You should know that. I have to watch my blood sugar."

"I know. And it scares the shit out of me when you just eat a PowerBar. I feel much better when I know you've had a good meal."

"Those are great, though. Compact, easy to carry with me." McKay paused in the middle of the road, despair on his face. "Oh no."

"What?" John caught up and grabbed McKay arm, steering him the rest of the way across the street.

"Where am I going to get unlimited access to MREs?"

"Ug." John's stomach protested. "Those things are truly disgusting. You have access to a grocery store now. You can eat real food."

"They are real food! They're safe. I know which ones I like. They last forever. They're like the perfect food."

"No. You can get fresh food and cook it. Then you'll know exactly what's in the food, and it will be real food, not super-processed."

McKay made a face. "I don't cook."

"I'll buy you one of those beginner cookbooks."

"I own…well, I owned one pot to make mac and cheese. Everything else was frozen TV dinners or fast food." McKay paused for a moment. "I had a coffee pot, too. And a mug."

"That doesn't surprise me." John laughed as they walked inside. "I'm not really much of one to talk since I'm not a whole lot better, but it's not all that hard. Once you get settled somewhere, I'll come throw you a housewarming and buy you some kitchen stuff."

McKay snorted. "We're not girls, Sheppard."

"Yeah, I noticed that." John made a face. "But honestly, I spent a lot of time getting you in shape. If I can do something to help you stay healthy, I'm willing to sacrifice my manhood for an afternoon."

"What? Why?" McKay looked a little panicked.

"Don't worry. I'm just going to get you a new pot and a one-pot cookbook. That's all I ever use, and it's not hard."

"What's wrong with how I lived before? I was fine." The hostess looked at the two of them and gestured them toward a booth near the back. Yeah, apparently she figured they'd do less damage back there.

"Nothing. But don't you feel better now than you did before, with a little bit of exercise and eating a little better overall?"

"I don't know," McKay shrugged. "I don't think about it."

"Well, it's not like I'm your mother or anything. I won't force it. Just suggesting. It's not that hard."

"I tried cooking once," McKay said as he slid into the booth, the hostess leaving the menus on the table. "I was in college at the time. I decided it would be a good exercise in chemistry. It didn't work as well as I'd anticipated."

"I would think it would appeal to your scientific nature. That's all cooking really is—science."

"I thought so, too," McKay said, a thoughtful look on his face which he quickly let fade into a scowl. "The fire department and the college administrators didn't agree."

That startled a laugh out of John. "McKay, never change."

The scientist glared across the table. "You know, I didn't come here to be mocked. I was thirteen at the time. It's not my fault that I didn't know butter could flame."

John shook his head. "I wasn't mocking you. Honestly, I still feel guilty you're here, but at the same time, I'm glad you are. I don't think there's anyone else I'd want by my side, going through all this shit."

McKay snorted, picking up the menu and starting to page through it. "Don't thank me. I didn't actually help you any."

"Maybe not in saving my job. But whether you know it or not, you're probably the only thing keeping me sane and moving forward right now." John looked down. He hated admitting to stuff like that, but he needed McKay to know that.

"You're the one who's going to land on his feet. I have grand plans, but knowing my track record, nothing will actually pan out. I'll be trapped living in my sister's basement for the rest of my life, never getting laid."

"I doubt that. You're too brilliant to stay down for long." John looked up again, with a small smile. "We'll both land on our feet, I hope."

"So what are you getting?" McKay asked, concentrating on the menu.

"I don't know. Something light. What about you? What sounds good?"

"The burgers look good. So does the gyro. Mmmm….or maybe a steak."

"Get whatever you want." John studied the menu, and decided on a turkey sandwich for himself.

"Mmmm…curly fries. Oh! And sweet potato fries. Oooo…onion rings, too."

Laughing, John waved the waitress over. "I'll have a turkey sandwich, and I think he'd like half your menu."

"No…not half. Maybe a third…okay…this mushroom cheddar burger with barbecue sauce. I want that, but make sure the mushrooms are fresh. I don't want any of those dried things. And I want it medium rare. Oh and a sesame seed roll. Extra barbecue sauce on the side. And I want a side of onion rings, sweet potato fries, and curly fries."

The waitress' eyebrow went up, but John was laughing softly.

"Oh and make sure there's enough for us to share. He might be skinny, but he can pack in the food." McKay paused. "Oh yeah. And I need coffee. Bring a pot."

"Yeah, I'll pick at the fries. I haven't had good fries in a while. And just water for me. Thanks."

"Bring him a Coke, too."

John raised an eyebrow. "Why do I need a Coke?"

"I know you."

John had to shrug and quietly admit to himself that McKay was probably right.

"Oh and do you have those jalapeño popper things?" McKay asked as the waitress took their menus.

"No, sir, we don't have those." She was jotting down things as Rodney was calling them out.

"Well, why not?"

"Cook doesn't make them."

"How about mozzarella sticks?"

"We got those. You want an order?"

"Yes," McKay nodded. "Extra marinara sauce."

"Sure thing. Anything else?"

"Do you eat fried calamari?" McKay asked, looking at John.

"Sure. Just remember, I've only got a hundred bucks on me." John grinned.

"Plenty of money," McKay said, waving him off. "We'll have an order of them, too."

"Sure. What else, honey?"

"Dessert probably, but I can wait on that." McKay leaned back in the seat, a smile on his face. "Oh wait! Absolutely no citrus products anywhere within ten feet. I have no intention of going to the hospital tonight."

At the waitress' raised eyebrow, John stepped in. "He's allergic to it, and even a drop will cause his windpipes to swell up. It's not a pretty thing, and usually requires a fast visit to a doctor and several days of recovery in the hospital if something does get through."

She looked at them for a long moment before nodding. "I'll mention it to the cook."

"Thanks. We both appreciate it." John turned back to McKay when she was gone. "So you going to call your sister tomorrow, or go computer shopping?"

"I need a phone first."

"There's one at the hotel."

"It'll cost me $200 to talk to her for five minutes."

"Your sister?" John nodded. "Probably. I forget about international rates. No telling what they are now. So you're going to get a cell phone?"

"I need one."

"If you can wait until tomorrow afternoon, once I get my card renewed, I'll go with you. Since I don't know where I'm going to end up, that's probably a better idea. At least I can leave a number when I start applying for jobs."

McKay nodded. "I plan to sleep in. No worries about being invaded my hostile aliens."

"True." John chuckled. "I'll get up to jog. I've been doing it too many years not to. I'll start making calls about my credit cards and drivers license when I get back from that."

"Jog?" McKay snorted. "No way in hell will I be getting out of bed. Don't wake me."

"I won't." John grinned. "I don't plan to do a long one, just something… normal."

"Don't get hit by a car. There are lots of idiot drivers here. They seem to see me and just start wailing on their horn." A bus boy or someone set down two glasses of water, a piece of lemon floating in each. "Okay. What part of NO CITRIS did you not understand?" McKay actually shifted away from the glass.

John intervened before the startled boy could respond. "He's allergic and we asked that no citrus be brought to the table. Could you bring him a new, clean glass without lemon?"

"Water comes with lemon."

"Could you bring a glass without it? It will kill him. It's a deadly allergy."

"And wipe the table down," McKay said as the boy took the glass away.

"McKay," John shook his head, smiling. "I don't think any splashed."

"Then you can eat here. I'll go somewhere else," he said, already shifting to get out of the booth.

"No." John reached out, stopping him. "We'll have him wipe the table if it will make you feel better."

"A drop could kill me," he grumbled, settling back down.

"I know. I just didn't see any spill. But we'll have the table wiped down, okay?"

The bus boy walked back, brandishing a rag and a spray bottle. There was a giant lemon on the front. Lemon scent.

John stopped him before he could spray anything. "Ah, that has lemon in it too, doesn't it?"

McKay's "OH MY GOD IT'S LEMON CLEANER!" more or less eclipsed the boy's "it's the cleaner" reply."

John pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, we're really not trying to be difficult here. But he really is deathly allergic to citrus. Could you use a clean rag and plain water to wipe the table? Please?"

The guy rolled his eyes and moved away again as McKay started patting himself down. "I knew I smelled something wrong about this place. Am I swelling? I can feel it. I'm swelling aren't I? Do you have an Epi pen? You might want to get it ready."

"Yes, I have an Epi pen. But no, you aren't swelling. Don't worry okay? I'll take care of it. I haven't let you down yet, have I?"

"You have one?" That one point seemed to entirely derail McKay's rant.

"I always do. I kept one in the pocket of my BDUs all the time, and when I changed into jeans, I transferred it over. I thought you knew that. Teyla and Ronon both carried one at all times, too, just in case."

"They took the one I had when I left the SGC. They claimed it was government property."

"No one noticed that I had it. We can go find a medical supply store tomorrow and pick up some new ones though."

"I need to." McKay shifted on the bench, eyeing the table.

The busboy returned, this time with a dry rag and a glass of water—no lemon. He gave the table a quick rub-down and left without a word. John sighed. "Yeah, that's an important item on the agenda."

McKay eyed the table carefully, keeping his hands folded in his lap. "I'm really not looking forward to the mall. But the bank is really first on the agenda."

"Yeah. We'll figure it all out tomorrow." John was grateful he could do all this with someone. It didn't feel quite so overwhelming with McKay there, too.

Food arrived a few minutes later—cheese sticks and calamari—along with the pot of coffee. McKay barely held himself back from diving face-first into the plates.

John looked it over and was pleased to see no more lemon, even on the calamari. He nibbled while McKay devoured.

"Oh this is amazing. Eat more," he said, shoving over the plate of mozzarella sticks.

John took one, nibbling. "They are good. Nice call."

"I know you have nothing in your stomach. Eat."

"I'm trying. I don't want to go too fast and have it all come up again."

"Oh. Okay," he said, sitting back, slowing down. "It's really good. This was a good choice."

"Yeah. Just some good comfort food. This is…better than I thought my first day as a civilian would be. Thank you."

"So…you're just like me now."

"Yeah." John gave him a weak smile. "It will take some getting used to. I haven't been a civilian in twenty years. I don't even know how to go about finding another job."

"Well, you need a resume. You do know how to write one of those, right?"

"Um." John ran a hand through his hair. "I know the idea behind them. I've never actually done one."

"What do you mean? Everyone's done one."

"I joined the military right from college, actually while I was still in college. So it was my first, and only, job."

"Huh. This was my…" McKay counted on his fingers, silently mouthing something as he touched his thumb to each finger. "…tenth job. Most of them were through the government, so maybe they were less. I did a lot for the US government over the years in a lot of different places.

"Well, it was the only job if you don't count the family business. But that's what I was running away from, so I don't know if it counts or not."

"So what's that? What's the family business?" McKay asked, picking at the calamari rings.

"Finance. With a side of horse breeding. The horses I loved. I used to ride all the time growing up."

"What kind of financing?"

"Investment firm. Started by my grandfather, and my father runs it now."

"Really? So you come from old money. What kind of investments?"

"All kinds. They even do some in science, I think. Sheppard Industries is the name of it."

McKay snorted. "Very original." He tilted his head to the side, and narrowed his eyes at John. "Wait a minute. Are you that Sheppard?"

"What Sheppard?" John looked up from his hands. "What do you mean?"

"The one…" he said, waving his hands. "The big scandal. The heir to the throne decides to leave for places unknown."

John flushed, looking away. "I was being groomed, yes. When my father realized I had inherited the head for numbers that he and my grandfather had, he started prepping me to take over one day. But I wasn't all that interested."

"You could have made millions! Billions even."

He shrugged. "I wanted to fly."

"Oh my god! It is you!" McKay exclaimed just as the waitress walked up with their dinner plates.

John flushed again. "I haven't talked to my family since the day I joined the Air Force. It's old news. And I can't believe you've heard that story."

"Of course I heard it. One of the companies I was working for at the time had Sheppard Industries as an investor. Granted, I was only there for a few months, but we still heard all about it. All the rumors, too."

"Rumors?" John shook his head. "I don't know about any of that. All I can tell you is that I told my father I wanted to join the military and fly, we yelled at each other, and I walked out of the house. And never went back. I've never even touched my trust fund. Everything I've got, is mine, not his."

"Yeah. There were tons of rumors." He held up his hand and starting ticking them off. "You had knocked up some girl and needed to lay low. You had run away and joined the circus. You died in a planned accident because your father couldn't bear the thought of you not in the business. You ran away with your hot gay lover. You decided to become a missionary in Africa somewhere. I don't think the military ever made it into the whole…rumor mill, so I never put it together."

John's eyebrows had gone up as McKay listed all the rumors, and now they felt like they were in his hairline. "Wow. No wonder my father never made any attempt to find me, either. I'm surprised he didn't have me hunted down and killed. The reputation of the business was always the most important thing in our house."

McKay shrugged. "They were rumors. We didn't believe any of them."

"It wouldn't have mattered to my father. Just the fact that there were rumors…" John sighed. "Even if I was willing to go crawling back to him now, knowing that, I doubt he'd even let me on the property."

"Of course he would. You were the heir to the throne. He'd welcome you back in an instant. You could bring him millions of dollars."

"Doubtful. I'm good at math. That's about it." John shook his head. "My brother, Dave, I'm sure has taken over that role now."

"He was always the one in the social pages, right?" McKay shoved a few fries in his mouth and hummed in appreciation.

John shrugged. "I guess. He was the good son, always doing what Father wanted, being where he was needed, and acting the way he was supposed to act. I was the one who never did what was expected of me."

"He was the dumb one, though."

John shook his head. "No. He might not have the Sheppard head for numbers, but he's not stupid. He took more after our mother than our father. But he wasn't dumb."

"He was the dumb one, trust me," McKay said, digging into his burger. He chewed a few times before speaking again around his food. "You should go back to school. You have the money and the time."

"Why would I? I have a Masters. And I have some money put away from my back-pay, but not that much."

Rodney shook his head. "You have your severance pay, which is a nice number. Yes, I looked. You have your pension, which is really nice. And you have your back pay, which you haven't touched in twenty years that also includes combat pay and other stuff. And to top it all off, you have a trust fund. You're loaded."

John shook his head. "I won't touch my trust fund."

"Oh stop it. You have the money, with or without your trust fund and I still think you should just use it. And eat."

"Even if, and I stress if, I was willing to touch it, why the hell would I want to go back to school?"

"Why not? One, you're not dumb. Two, you have the time. Take something you like. Enjoy your life for once."

"Even so, what's the point of getting a degree? I already have one."

"Get another. I have several."

"Why?" John ate a fry. "I don't need one."

"Come on. You'd love to design planes, right?"

"No one would let me." John bit his lip. "Would they? I may have been a pilot, but that's not the kind of thing you just walk in to. Especially not with my military record."

"You have the math already. Get an engineering degree. Make them let you. Get the qualifications."

"Maybe some day. That doesn't really do me much good right now. I still have to figure out where I'm going to go in the meantime. Even if that was going to be a goal some day."

"So work for your father. Make some of your own money while you go back to school. Then once you have your degree, you'll have the Sheppard Industries name to back you. Everyone will listen to you."

"I don't want to go crawling back and admit I was a complete failure. Call it pride or stupidity or whatever you want, but that's not something I'm willing to do right now."

"You're not," McKay said. "You've finished one stage of your professional life and you're looking to start the next."

"I feel like a failure." John toyed with a fry. "At least right now I do. I know I accomplished a lot in Atlantis, but…"

"Stop it. You're not a failure." McKay narrowed his eyes at him.

"I know it on some level, but right now…" John managed a slight smile. "I guess I can still hear my father yelling as I walked out that I'd come crawling back one day, when I had fucked up every other option out there."

"Make it be your choice."

John shrugged. "I honestly don't think he would let me back even if I wanted to. Why put myself through that?"

McKay sighed. "We went through this already. He'd take you back in a heartbeat. You're his Hail Mary."

"Hardly." John made a face. "You don't know my father. We might not have talked in twenty years, but I can't imagine he's changed all that much."

"Eat. We can make more plans tomorrow."

"Yeah." John let the subject drop. The rest of dinner was spent in mostly idle talk, and they made it back to the room without any issues. It had been a long day, for both of them, so they fell asleep on their respective beds as soon as the lights went out.

The next morning, John was up early, his internal clock not letting him sleep in. He quietly rolled out of bed and found a pair of old sweats in his duffel. He let himself out and went running, pounding out some of the pain of loss and worries about the future.

By the time he made it back, the sun was all the way up. McKay was still sleeping, so John slipped in the shower, then got dressed and headed across the street to the little coffee joint. He got two larges, and brought them back, setting McKay's next to the bed, where he knew the smell would wake his friend up soon.

All John could see was the top of McKay's head, the hair all messed and sticking up in places. Sure enough, less than a minute later the scientist was groaning and lunging for the coffee cup. "Oh god. You are the best," he grumbled—at least that's what John translated it to be.

Chuckling, John looked up from the paperwork he had dug out and was actually going through. His discharge papers were the most important. He'd need them to get a job in the future.

Paging through his stuff he realized there was an up-to-date driver's license in the package, along with a current bank card. Okay, apparently Harriman was god or something. It was a start.

Looking up again, he waved the two at Rodney. "So it looks like they knew what was coming and got me all set. We can focus on getting you sorted out today."

The Canadian snorted. "Easier said than done. You don't have to go deal with the paperwork from two countries. It's going to take weeks."

"Well, we have to start somewhere, right? And you said you just had it all done when we were here before. So maybe this time will be smoother."

"I don't know what's up to date and they wouldn't let me check on things from the SGC. Apparently, they take offense when someone resigns of their own free will. Seems they'd rather fire them." He had shifted to a seated position, his back against the headboard as he drank his coffee.

"Well, that way it's their choice, and not yours." John set down the packet after putting the new cards and discharge paper in his wallet so he had it handy. "Do you want to call around first, and see what's still current? That way, at least we'll know where to start."

"My wallet's around somewhere." He waved his hand absently. "It requires me to look though."

John stood up, going over to the bag Rodney had brought in. "I can look."

"Go ahead. Help yourself. My stuff is your stuff… Why are you up so early? It's not even nine yet."

"I went jogging, and took a shower. Then I went and got the coffee." John shrugged. "I've never been a late sleeper. And here's your wallet." John tossed it over.

John could tell that McKay debated catching it, but it would require him to let go of his coffee. He let it fall into his lap. "Thanks. I'll look in a few."

"No rush." John sat back down and kicked up his feet. "I think when we get around to the store, I'll pick up a computer, too. I can't imagine I won't need one."

"Everyone needs a computer." Rodney drained the rest of his coffee, putting his cup on the bedside table before picking up his wallet. He picked through his credit cards, checking dates.

"How many do you have?" John moved to the bed and grabbed the Amex.

"Enough," he said with a shrug.

"I don't have that many. Just a plain old Visa, but that's it."

"Your family is loaded. You have plenty." He shoved in the last card and shoved the blankets down. "Okay. It looks like I'm good with two cards. Two more have to be renewed. I should have done it three months ago. God only knows where the new cards are. I'll have to call and get them sent somewhere. It looks like I have a bank card, too. I just need to track down the bank."

"Good. So when you're ready, we'll get breakfast and get going."

"You still have cash?"

"A little left. I think there's about thirty bucks after last night. Why?"

"Means we can eat before we need to find the bank."

Grinning, John nodded. "You going to shower first?"

"Yeah, I guess." He rubbed a hand over his face. "Shower and shave, then food and lots of it."

They got moving, and breakfast was back at the diner—no more citrus drama, fortunately—before they grabbed a cab. At the diner, the waitress had said McKay's bank was at the mall, so they decided to just head there and get it all done in one fell swoop.

He started with one of the reps, but ended up talking to the bank manager. It was easier, especially since he needed to shift some of his money around now that he was going to be using the accounts. Nearly an hour later, they were finally walking out of the bank headed for the electronics store.

"Wow, McKay, I didn't think getting your accounts set up the way you wanted would take that long." John shook his head.

"That wasn't bad, actually. Usually it takes hours. I don't have a ton of money, but I've tried to make wise investments. The SGC paid me well, and I hadn't really spent much of what I've made." He shrugged. "You're the one with the padded bank accounts."

"No, that's my father, and I was never involved in his finances." John shook his head. "So where to first? Computer store, or cell phone shopping?"

"We should get a plan that lets us call each other for free. You're like the only person I know who would actually want to talk to me. I might as well do it for free."

John looked over at him and grinned. "Ditto."

"So, cell phone?"

John pointed. "There's a store over there that looks like it has a few different carriers. Want to start there?"

"Sure, sure. Lead the way."

Over the next two hours, they nearly drove a sales guy out of his mind, as they bickered over features, pricing plans, coverage, and almost everything else in between. But finally, they managed to find a carrier and two phones that made them both happy—and they could talk to each other for free.

McKay had to get the latest and greatest phone will all the bells and whistles. He spent a fortune on it, but he didn't care. He was like a kid with gadgets like this.

John had opted for something a bit simpler. He could program a few numbers into it for fast dialing, but otherwise, it was just a phone. No complicated shit to try and figure out.

With a bouncing McKay next to him, they headed to the computer store next. It was almost amusing to watch the scientist browbeat the sales guy. Honestly, he'd give McKay a discount just to get rid of him after all of the questions and demands. Of course he went for the top of the line model with more computing power than god—or so it seemed.

John decided to let McKay handle his computer as well. He was the first to admit, when it came to this stuff, more was probably better. Besides, he wanted to play some of the new games, and he was guessing a better system would be the ticket.

Several thousand dollars later and they were lugging out their custom computers, wandering down to where they could grab a taxi.

John managed to hail one, and before long they were back in the hotel. Rodney got them hooked up to the Internet and their phones programmed correctly. John stared at his, not sure what to do next. "Um… would you help me write a resume?"

"Just download a template off the net and then tweak it. It's easy."

John pulled up Google and typed in 'resume template" then stared in dismay. "There are millions of them. Which one do I start with?"

"Pick a few and look. If you don't like them, keep going."

He spent the next hour looking at, and rejecting, templates, until he finally got sick of it and just decided to use the next one he opened. Then he stared again. "Okay, I have one. Now what?"

McKay glanced up from what he was reading, giving him a weird look. "What?"

"What do I put on it?" John shifted uncomfortably. "I mean, I could just put 'Air Force' but that doesn't seem like enough."

"Oh. Resumes. Put in your positions…your ranks. Then list the various responsibilities."

"Most of them are still considered top secret, so I can't say anything about them. I mean, 'military commander of the lost city of Atlantis' probably won't get me in the door."

McKay sighed. "Lieutenant Colonel. In charge of…how many soldiers? Managed the lemmings, organized training missions, ran special operations. Fudge it."

"Oh. Okay." John ran a hand through his hair. It took him another hour or so to list his move through the ranks, finding ways to say what he did without saying what he did. When he was done, since Rodney had been so interested in his childhood, John added in his degrees, and some of the experience he had gotten with his father's firm before he walked away. "Okay, I think I'm done. Will you look at it for me?"

"Yeah yeah. Email it to me."

"What's your email address?" John paused. "Wait a minute, I don't have an email address anymore."

"Set one up on Google. It's free."

"Oh. Okay." John found 'gmail' and got to the part where it wanted a screen name. "What should I call it?"

"Whatever you want. Preferably something you'd remember."

He thought about it. JSheppard would work, but was kind of boring. Skaterdude didn't sound very professional if he was trying to get a job. Then he got an idea. "What's your email address? I want to send this to you."

"RodneyMcKayPhDPhD at gmail dot com."

Rolling his eyes, John sent the resume over, then waited for the reaction.

John heard the ping telling him that McKay had received a message. Seconds later he got the reaction he wanted. "Cowboyflyboy! What the hell were you thinking?"

"It's just an email address. What else should it be?"

"Something sane! Something professional."

"What's wrong with that one?"

"Do you actually want to tell people that you're an insane pilot who does whatever the hell he wants? What kind of first impression are you trying to give?"

John rolled his eyes. "It's fine. Just tell me if the resume is okay. If I'm going to start job hunting, I need it to be half-way decent."

"You might want to start with a normal email address," McKay grumbled, but did pull up his resume. He ended making a few changes and sending it back with various notes in red.

John made the changes, then saved the new document to his hard drive. "All right, now I'm starving. What time is it?"

"Ah….afternoon sometime. Maybe dinnerish. That might explain my headache."

"That means we're going for dinner." John set the computer aside. "In the mood for anything?"

"Food. Something relatively tasty and not necessarily good for you," McKay said, closing down a few programs and shutting the laptop's lid. He yawned and stretched before rising to his feet, padding barefoot into the bathroom. He misjudged the doorframe and banged his shoulder into it, making an absent groan of pain before disappearing inside.

Smiling, John had to admit this… domesticity was comforting in a way. This whole thing was a lot easier with his friend along for the ride, too. He stood up and stretched, grabbing his wallet and putting his shoes back on. When McKay came back out, the two of them made their way to a steak restaurant they had seen earlier, and both got huge cuts of beef. John leaned back in his chair as they waited, relaxed. "So what's on tomorrow's agenda?"

McKay shrugged. "Sleeping in. Eating. I should see if I can make some calls. But I'm not in any hurry. I deserve a vacation. I hate to get a car right now since I don't know if I'll be staying in the area, but it would be a whole lot easier to get around."

"Maybe we could rent one." John kind of felt the same way. "I figure I'll start poking around the help wanted ads tomorrow, and see if I can at least get that process started. The sooner I get a job, the sooner I can find a place to live."

"I was thinking vacation first. Maybe visit my sister. You should come."

John shrugged. "I doubt your sister really wants me showing up on her doorstep."

"Why not? She told me I was always welcome to come and visit and bring friends. I think you qualify."

John smiled. "You only think I'm your friend?"

McKay rolled his eyes. "That's not what I meant and you know it. She knows you at least a little and you're probably the only person who I can even remotely describe as a friend."

"You're my best friend." John shrugged. "But that still doesn't mean your sister wants me showing up unannounced on her doorstep."

"Of course she does. It was an open invitation. You're coming and that's final."

Both of John's eyes went up. "I am, eh?"

"Yes," McKay nodded, shoving the last bite of his steak in his mouth. "You are. No arguing. We'll make plans tomorrow."

"And what if she says no?"

"She won't."

"She might."

"Stop arguing. It's been decided. You're coming with me. Finish your steak." McKay was eyeing it and the baked potato even though he'd demolished his own.

John shook his head and dug in, eating slowly. He cut off a large chunk and put it on the bread plate, pushing it across the table.

"Stop it." He shoved it back. "You need the food more than I do."

"I won't be able to eat all this. And you still look hungry."

"I have my eye on the Death by Chocolate cake over there." McKay pointed to something somewhere behind John.

He turned around to look, and blinked. "That's a really big cake."

"Uh huh. I can just imagine the size of the slice." McKay's hands framed out a piece of cake that was roughly the size of a small dog.

Turning back to his steak, John made a face. "I think if I had that much sugar, I'd get sick."

"You're just not used to it. You have to work up to it."

"How do you work up to that?" John took another bite of meat.

"One bite at a time," McKay said with a smile.

That startled a laugh out of John. "Tell you what. You order it, and I'll steal a few bites."

"Good plan," he said, waving down the waitress.

The rest of the meal went well, with both of them cracking jokes and relaxing. When McKay's cake arrived, John was impressed. "I guess if you're going to do cake, this is the way to do it."

McKay was practically drooling.

John grabbed the extra fork and took a bite. "Hey, that's pretty good."

The sounds McKay made when he took the first bite would make anyone blush. God!

John found his pants getting a little uncomfortable. Okay, maybe he had been celibate a bit too long if this was arousing him. McKay wasn't the only one who needed to get laid, apparently.

"Oh, My. God. This is like an orgasm on a fork." He shoved the plate closer to John. "Have more."

Licking his lips, John hid his sudden discomfort by taking another bite. And decided to try a little moan for himself. Maybe McKay did it because it helped the sexual frustration.

"It's good, isn't it?"

"Uh huh." John licked the chocolate off the fork, and took another.

"I could eat this every night."

"I don't know about that. I'd go into shock."

"You'd be fine." McKay said, eating several more bites and moaning around each and every one.

John shifted in his seat, trying to relieve the pressure of his pants. What the hell? He needed to jerk off or something and get this out of his system.

"Have more," McKay said around another mouthful.

"I'm good. You finish it." As much as it was disturbing him, John found himself oddly transfixed. He wondered if the SGC was right that he needed a serious psyche eval stat.

"You sure?"

"Yeah. It is good though. But finish it." John managed a soft smile.

McKay made this weird happy noise in the back of his throat before diving into the dessert. It took him about five minutes to polish off the rest and then he leaned back in his chair, burping quietly. "Oh, that was amazing."

John had to silently agree. He hoped the check took long enough for his now full erection to disappear. Otherwise, he was going to embarrass himself. He took a swallow of water, hoping to get his throat working again.

"Maybe we can come back here tomorrow night."

"If you want to." John thought he must be insane, that he was going to volunteer to watch McKay eat this thing again. "The steak was fantastic, too."

"Oh yeah. You can never have too much steak or chocolate."

"So we'll come back tomorrow, too."

"Good plan, good plan." McKay signaled the waitress, asking for the check with the universal hand gesture.

John swallowed again, and told his dick firmly that cake and steak was not an appropriate thing to get hard over. By the time they had paid, he had managed to talk it back to half-mast, so he could walk pretty much normally. Thank god.

They chatted on the way back to the long-stay hotel, stopping at the nearby quick mart to pick up some water and snacks for the room.

By the time they finally collapsed into their beds, John realized that, while he wasn't happy with what had happened by any stretch, he was… content right now.

The following morning was a repeat of yesterday, with John jogging, showering, and getting caffeine for McKay before they started the day. He was a little surprised that one of the first things McKay decided to do once he got moving was call his sister. John had thought he would just forget about it, and that would be that.

The one-sided conversation he'd heard was interesting. It was a combination of insults, yelling, and apologies. Apparently that's how they communicated.

Shaking his head, John opened his laptop and started idly job hunting. He wasn't exactly sure what he should ultimately look for, at least for now. Maybe he should send some inquiries to the commercial airlines. It wasn't flying a jet, but he might be able to make it work.

There were only a handful of openings, but it was something.

John shot his resume to each of them, and closed the computer just as Rodney was hanging up. "How's your sister doing?"

"Good. Fine. She refuses to give Madison piano lessons. I told her I'd pay for them, but she still refuses." McKay shook his head. "She expects us at the weekend."

"Why do you want your niece to take piano lessons?"

"She has the McKay genes. She'd be great at it. I want her to get tested, too, but Jeannie won't let me do that either. You need to nurture geniuses from an early age."

"Maybe she wants Madison to have a normal childhood first, and then she can make decisions about the rest of her life when she's a little older."

"She needs to start when she's young. This is the time to start. If they wait, they'll lose precious time!"

"Maybe Madison won't want to be an academic." John shook his head. "Take it from me—if the parents try to push something the child doesn't want, it will backfire."

"You have no idea what's it's like to be a genius," McKay said, his voice hard. "It takes a lot of dedication and training."

John shrugged. "I can imagine. And I can't imagine what kind of childhood you had. All I can tell you is that my father tried to make me into something, and he pushed so hard I left and never looked back."

"And look where it got you." McKay got to his feet. "I need some air."

"McKay—Rodney." John stood up and grabbed his arm. "I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to be offensive."

"Just…" he said, shrugging out of John's grasp, and stepping around him. "You have no idea what's it's like. No idea. I only want what's best for her. I'll be back in a while. We can make reservations then."

John sighed and watched him go. Great. He had managed to possibly fuck up the only friendship he had now. John dropped back into the chair and idly surfed the Internet and wondered if he should insist McKay see his sister solo. Maybe going along would be a bad idea.

When McKay finally came back a few hours later, he had a bag from the local grocery store filled with opened boxes of Hostess cakes and potato chips. Another bag held two six-packs of beer—two bottles missing. "Here," he said, dropping both in John's lap, before collapsing on his bed.

"What's this?" John took the stuff out of the bag and set it on the table.

"A peace offering. I might have started without you though. Sorry."

"I'm the one who's sorry." John tossed a beer over. "I shouldn't have said anything."

"It's just a…sensitive subject."

"Yeah." John took a swig of his own beer, leaning back in the chair until it was tipped back on two legs. "I won't bring it up again."

"It's just that…" McKay sighed quietly. "If it wasn't for my father, I wouldn't have accomplished anything. Jeannie…she gave it all up to have a family. I resented that. Sometimes I still do. I want to make sure Madison has every opportunity."

John nodded. "I can understand that. The only reason I said anything was because I had the opposite experience. Everyone was so intent on cramming me into the mold they wanted for me, no one stopped to ask what I wanted. And when I finally voiced what I wanted, it caused fights and ultimately led to me being estranged from my entire family."

"This is different."

"Probably. Every family, every kid is different. Just… don't decide what Madison should be without asking her, okay?"

"If she doesn't try it, she won't know what is available to her. Jeannie won't even let her try something…anything that might mean she's as smart as her mother."

"And I agree that's not the way to go either. The best thing in that situation is let her try anything she expresses any interest in, and if she does have a real aptitude and love for something, encourage her to keep at it. I'd guess your sister is probably just going the extreme opposite. Maybe you could propose something to meet her in the middle? Once she realized that letting Madison try didn't mean she was losing her childhood, she'd probably be more open to suggestions."

McKay shrugged, taking a sip of his beer. "She's smart. Really smart. Jeannie just…refuses to see that."

John sighed. "Well, maybe while you're visiting, you can find a way to broach the subject. If you're up for some advice, don't try to tell Jeannie what she has to do. No woman, especially a mom, wants to hear that."

"Madison could be…amazing."

"And she will be." John smiled at the other man. "If she's anywhere near as smart as you, whatever path she ends up on, no matter when she starts it, I'm sure she'll shine."

"If she's given the right opportunities when she's young."

Shrugging, John decided to change subjects. "So when is she expecting you? Jeannie, I mean?"

"She's expecting us at the weekend. We can do laundry there, so we should just pack everything. We can figure out what we're going to do once we get there."

"You're sure it's okay that I'm coming? I really don't want to impose, especially if you and your sister want to catch up."

"Trust me, I need some kind of a buffer. You've been volunteered. Ever since you showed her that tape…" McKay shrugged and took another swig of his beer. "Trust me. She wants you there more than she wants me."

"I doubt that." John made a face. "And speaking of clothes, I haven't worn much in the way of civvies in a long time. I have a few things, but I'm starting to run low. Much as I hate to, I think I'm going to have to actually go to a department store."

McKay actually looked scared. "You're kidding. Just turn your boxers inside out. You'll be fine."

"I already have." John flushed. "I had a few pairs that weren't military-owned, but not much. I'm going to start to smell if I don't get some clean clothes."

"Oh. Okay. Now?"

"Well, not right this moment, but today, probably. Unless you had a better idea." He didn't want to spend the day cooped up in the hotel room anyway.

"We should do it before we drink all the beer."

Chuckling, John stood up. "All right. I just need a few things so I don't smell."

McKay stood, listing to the side. He laughed. "Whoa. I guess three in a row was a little much."

John stepped forward and steadied him. "I can live without clothes for the day. I don't want you to hurt yourself."

"I'll be fine." He weaved again, headed toward the door.

John had a feeling this was going to be a long afternoon as he followed McKay out the door and hailed a cab.

They braved the mall without incident—McKay wasn't as drunk as he had seemed, or he just recovered fast. By the time the cab had dropped them off, he had been mostly fine.


John shifted on his feet as he stood in the commercial airport waiting to board a plane he wasn't flying. They had finally checked out of the hotel and were heading to Canada. John hadn't managed to talk McKay out of it.

He hadn't heard back at all from any of the places he had sent a resume yet. McKay assured him that was normal, but he was really hoping to have a job soon. His bank account wasn't tiny, but it wasn't exactly made for a life of luxury, either.

McKay walked up with two coffees in hand. "Stop vibrating. You're making people nervous."

"I am?" John looked around. "Who?"

"Come on," McKay said, tugging John by the arm toward a row of chairs. He pulled John's laptop bag from his shoulder and shoved him in a chair. "Sit. Stay. I'll go find you some food, too. Something with meat. I know all we're going to get is tofurkey at my sister's."

"Ew." John made a face. "And I wish I knew why I was nervous. It's not like I haven't met your sister before."

"I don't even want to start to dive into the depths of your psyche. Drink up. I'll scout for food. Watch my stuff."

"Okay." John moved both of their bags so they were more under his feet, then proceeded to bounce his leg and look around. Until he realized he was profiling them all as potential hostiles. God, he was fucked up, wasn't he?

He watched McKay weaving in and out of the people in the food court. It was actually amusing to watch him interact with other people. If that's what you called interaction.

He knew why a lot of people found the man crass and hard to get along with. But John could never get enough. McKay was the most interesting and entertaining person he had ever met.

It was about twenty minutes later when he finally headed back toward John, brown bags in his hands. He smiled as soon as he realized John was looking at him. He held up the bag, pointing to it.

John gave him a big grin and a thumbs-up.

He wandered over a few minutes later. "I got the biggest, meatiest sandwiches they had."

"Sounds good. Can we eat them now, or should we wait until we board?"

"Well, it's a three hour flight. I'd probably wait."

"It's weird to be getting on a plane I'm not flying myself."

"It'll be fine."

"I know. It's just weird." John stashed his sandwich in his bag. McKay had gotten the brilliant idea to go get Nintendo DS handheld game units, with a few games each, so they wouldn't go nuts on the long flight. John was looking forward to checking them out.

"Supposed to have good weather all the way to Toronto."

"Which is good. Commercial airliners can't get high enough to avoid all the air currents, which is what causes turbulence."

"Just ask for a drink when we get on board. You'll be fine."

John rolled his eyes. "I don't get airsick."

"For the nerves."

"I'll be okay." John tapped his foot. "I think I'm more nervous about meeting your sister's family than anything else."

"Kelvin is fine," McKay said, waving his hand. "And Madison just expects presents. You've already met Jeannie."

"I thought your sister's husband's name was Caleb."

"Caleb, Kelvin, whatever. He's an English major. He knocked her up."

John knew McKay still didn't approve of his sister's choices, but he wasn't going to get into that here. It wasn't his place anyway. "How long are we staying there again?"

"Until we get bored or find a job." McKay shrugged. "Whichever comes first."

"If I stay for more than a week or so, I'll need a Green Card, won't I? Or whatever Canada uses for long-term non-residents."

"No. You're fine. You have a few months."

"Oh. Okay." John let out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. Until it wasn't an issue, he hadn't realized it was weighing on him.

"I'm sure you'll get a job quickly. So enjoy your vacation."

"Yeah, I'm going to try." He gave McKay a little smile. "We should see if there are any touristy stuff near where Jeannie lives."

"Tons, I'm sure."

"We should try and get at least some of them in. I haven't been a real tourist in a while."

"Sure thing," McKay said as the overhead speaker came on, announcing their flight.

John dug out his ticket, and they both stood up. They had splurged on business-class seats, so it was easy to get settled. The flight itself was long and uneventful. John even managed to doze off.

When he woke up, about an hour before landing, McKay was literally vibrating next to him, his leg bouncing continually.

"Mmmm. I miss anything?" John stretched slowly, unkinking every muscle.

"No. Nothing. Everything's fine."

John wondered why McKay was giving him an odd look, but shrugged it off to nerves. "If you see one of the flight attendants, flag her down for me. I could use a glass of water."

"Sure, sure. Water." He bobbed his head, his leg still bouncing.

Reaching over, John put a hand on McKay's leg. "You're going to vibrate us both right off the plane."

"What? Sorry, sorry," he said, his leg stopping, only to continue as soon as John let go.

He reached over again, stilling McKay's leg. "Why are you so nervous? It's just your sister."

"Trust me," he said, sending John a sad and desperate look. "That's a really good reason. I'm a horrible brother and a worse uncle."

"You'll be fine." John smiled at him. "And I'll be there to help, remember?"

"I'm really glad that you're coming. I don't think I could face her alone."

John squeezed McKay's knee. "I think you would have been fine. You've faced down worse and lived to tell the tale. But I'm glad I'm here, too."

"Jeannie's worse than the Wraith."

Chuckling, John squeezed once more before letting go. "I have faith in you. You'll be fine."

McKay snorted, his leg starting to bounce again.

"We should get some flowers to bring her when we get off the plane."

"Where? She's meeting us. Remember. It's not like I can pull that out of my ass."

John tried not to laugh at the image McKay's words evoked. "She'll have to wait outside the security gate. I'm sure there will be somewhere we can get a bouquet in the terminal before we go through."

"I guess. Maybe." He was quiet for a few moments before turning back to John. "See. This is exactly the thing that makes me a horrible brother. I didn't even think to get her flowers or something."

"That doesn't make you a horrible brother. Honestly, most siblings probably wouldn't think of that. But I'm not her brother, so I can think of her as a girl. And I know girls like flowers." He shrugged.

"I guess." McKay turned back to staring at his hands, his leg still bouncing.

"It will be fine." John put his hand back on McKay's leg and just decided to leave it there.

The scientist calmed after that—but still looked vaguely sick to his stomach.

John did his best to be a calming presence. He didn't want McKay to regret coming here.

They finally landed—a little hard and jarring if John had any opinion about it—and McKay was up on his feet at the first available opportunity, pulling things down from the overhead. He was a whirlwind of nervous energy.

Shaking his head, John stood up more slowly. They were among the first to get off, and he immediately started looking around for someone selling flowers.

McKay headed for the coffee shop.

Trailing behind him, John managed to catch up before he actually got in line. "Hey there, why don't we wait to get coffee? Jeannie might want to stop somewhere and get some, too."

"Oh. I'll get some then, too, if we stop."

"Okay, you're already vibrating off the walls, McKay."

"What?" he asked, turning to John with a perplexed expression.

You're practically shaking you've had so much coffee." John took his arm and steered him away. "You don't need any more caffeine right now."

"But coffee calms me down…"

"No it doesn't."

McKay didn't fight him too much as they headed down to baggage claim to get their stuff. John even managed to buy a bouquet of flowers without losing the scientist to the lure of yet another coffee shop.

He passed the flowers over to McKay, hoping to distract him. "Here. Give these to her as soon as you see her."

"Wait, what? Don't we still have to go through customs?"

"I have no idea. Does Canada make you go through customs?"

"Of course. It's another country. Please tell me you have your passport." McKay's eyes got wide and panicked for a new reason. Hey, at least he wasn't worrying about his sister.

"Yes. They made us both show them at the airport, remember? It's in my bag."

"Oh, yeah. Right. You had it then. You didn't lose it, right? You still have it? Wait. Where did I put mine?"

"Yours is with mine." John had taken them both since McKay had started to wander off toward a coffee shop then, too. He was starting to see a pattern.

"Are you sure? Maybe I left it at the gate. Or on the plane. We might have to go back."

John huffed and dug out both passports, waving them in front of McKay. "Nope, we're all good. I've got your back."

McKay visibly relaxed, nodding and smiling. "You do. You always do. Thanks."

"That's what I'm here for." John clapped him on the shoulder and got them moving again.

They managed to get their luggage and go through customs without any additional hassles. He spotted Jeannie as soon as they stepped through the doors and he directed McKay toward his sister.

"Over there." John grinned as Jeannie saw them and came bustling over.

McKay awkwardly gave Jeannie the flowers and admitted that John had bought them, but she ignored him, enveloping McKay in a big hug before turning to him. "I'm so glad you came."

John smiled. "Thanks for inviting me. And if I get in the way, don't feel bad about kicking me out."

"I'd kick my brother out first, trust me," she said before stepping back. "Okay. Come on. Let's get you to the house. Madison's staying with a neighbor and I want to get back."

John blinked, and trailed along behind the dueling McKays, bemused by the rapid-fire chatter.

Jeannie gave as good as she got, but John shouldn't be surprised. He had seen her on Atlantis, more than holding her own among all the scientists. And it wasn't just because she was McKay's sister. She really knew her stuff.

He didn't even bother to try and get a word in edgewise, just glad to see McKay had relaxed a little.

Some of the manic had worn off, but the fact that Jeannie fully admitted in front of McKay and him—nearly a perfect stranger—that she would kick her brother out before she tossed him out, worried him a bit. He knew there had been issues. It seemed like that ran a lot deeper than he'd originally thought.

He sighed to himself. Maybe he could start to bridge the gap between them while he was here. It was the least he could do.

The Millers were about an hour outside of Toronto in the suburbs. The house was nice, a four-bedroom two level with a full basement that was semi-finished. The yard was huge, and John spotted a swing set and various other toys out back.

He dutifully put his bags in the room Jeannie pointed him toward, and took a few minutes to get organized and settled. He hung his stuff up in the closet and put away his folded clothes, stashing the luggage in the closet as well. It didn't take long, but was better than living out of suitcase like he had been.

When he wandered downstairs, McKay was nowhere to be seen, but there was a little girl in the living room playing with a train set.

He guessed this must be Madison. Not wanting to scare her, he made enough noise to get her attention. "Hi, there. I'm John."

She gave him a brilliant smile that reminded him of McKay and immediately got up, running to him. He managed to turn a bit, otherwise he would have taken a shot right in the boys as she hugged him around his legs. "I'm Madison. Did you bring me a present?"

He was glad McKay had said something about Madison liking presents. "Well, let's see." He pretended to look through all his pockets, then pulled a small, wrapped box out from behind his back. "Well, what do we have here?"

"You brought me a present!!" She grabbed it out of his hands and ran to the couch, ripping open the paper.

Grinning, he followed more slowly, sitting down next to her.

She pulled out the small doll and then launched herself at John again. "She's pretty! Thank you, John! You're so much nicer than Uncle Mer. Can you be my uncle instead?"

"Nah. He's the one who spotted this one and told me you'd like it. He deserves all the credit." John hugged her back. "Your uncle is a pretty awesome guy. You just have to get past the gruff parts."

"No. He's mean. He makes my mommy cry. I like you better."

John sighed. "He doesn't do it on purpose, sweetheart."

"Yes, he does. He said so."

"He was only kidding."

"No, he wasn't." She pouted for a minute, looking a lot like her uncle. "I still like you better. Play with me?"

John sighed to himself. This was going to be harder than he thought. "Sure. What would you like to play?"

She waved vaguely toward the toys. "Play."

John slid down so he was sitting on the floor. "Pick something out. I like all kinds of toys."

"Good," she said, tugging him over to a small table that had all kinds of toys and games set up.

John scooted, and saw she had a huge pile of Lego blocks. "Wow, I used to love these. I made all kinds of planes and space ships with them when I was your age."

"Then you can show me how to build planes, Uncle John." He gave him a brilliant smile and pushed the Legos to him.

John grinned at her, and immediately started pulling out blocks. He still remembered how to make the basic models, so he started with those, showing her how to do each step along the way.

She caught on quick, really quick. McKay was right. Even at four, he could tell she was a genius. An hour later, she was building her own planes and adding all kinds of embellishments.

John had sat back and was just giving pointers now. She didn't just want pretty planes, she wanted them to be functional as well. Well, as functional as a Lego plane could be. "We should find your Uncle and see if he'll show us how to build little engines for these. Then we could really fly them."

"You do it."

"I can build the outsides, but I'm afraid I don't know how to put a working engine together, sweetheart." John gave her a smile. And he wondered where the hell McKay and his sister were.

He heard a noise and glanced up. Jeannie smiled and put two glasses of juice on the table. "Having fun?"

He nodded. "I don't suppose you know where your brother is, do you? I want to see if he'll build us some mini engines for our planes."

"He took the car and headed out. He didn't talk you to?"

John shook his head. "What happened?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. I was heading to work out back and he asked if he could borrow the car. I gave him the keys."

He sighed. "You know he was really nervous about coming here. He wants to be a good brother and uncle, but he doesn't really know how. And he gets frustrated when nothing he tries seems to work. But he does try."

"It never mattered enough to him," she said quietly. "Vegetable lasagna sound good for dinner?"

"Yes it does. I think it always did. He just…" John shrugged. "I'm the first to admit he can be hard to read sometimes, hard to get close to. But once you stop being offended by everything he says, and pay attention to the things he doesn't say, you realize most of the bluster is a shield to keep himself safe from the world. I don't know what your childhood was like together, but… give him a chance. Don't teach your daughter right off the bat that he's the bad guy. He came here because he wants to fix things. He might not be very good at it right now, but… don't shut him out from the beginning."

"You didn't live with him for years, grow up in his shadow. Leave it alone," she said tightly. "Dinner will be ready in an hour or so. Caleb should be home in a bit." She turned toward the kitchen.

John stood up and followed her in to the kitchen, watching her. He didn't honestly know if he should push, or just let it be right now.

She moved purposely around the kitchen, getting all the fresh vegetables ready for the lasagna. "You know, standing there staring at me isn't going to make me change my mind."

He sat down on one of the stools. "I can help if you tell me exactly what you want me to do. And I don't want to force anything down your throat. I just like your brother. He's my best friend, and he just walked away from a job he loved because of me. He didn't care about that, I've seen him face down a Wraith, scared to death but standing his ground, but I've never seen him as nervous as he was on the plane coming here. He wants so badly to have a relationship with you, but he hasn't got the first clue how to do it."

She turned to look at him as he spoke, her eyes narrowing. "He quit for you?"

John nodded. "The SGC recalled me, and it was with the understanding that I was going to be either demoted or kicked out altogether. McKay… Your brother fought them for me, and when they wouldn't change their minds and forced me to resign my commission, he forced them to release him from his contract as well."

She snorted, shaking his head as she turned back to the cutting board. "So, that's what happened. He wouldn't tell me why he was back on Earth."

"Honestly… I don't know how sane I would be if he wasn't here with me. I haven't done anything my entire adult life except the Air Force, but he's gotten me moving. And seeing that while that part of my life might be over, it means I have a chance to write a new chapter for myself."

"Good for you. You'll find something quick, I'm sure. Now my brother…" She shook her head. "He's a big talker. He always had grandiose plans."

"I know. But that's one of the reasons I enjoy his company, and enjoy working with him. He's never at a loss for ideas, and when one doesn't work, he keeps trying until it does."

"So he's out of work?"

"Yeah. He mentioned that he had a few job offers, but he wanted to come visit you before he starts seriously looking for something permanent."

"A few job offers." She snorted again. "That was his secret code for might have one lead and it's shaky at best."

John chuckled as he carefully cut the vegetables she put in front of him. "Maybe. But somehow I doubt it will take him long to find something. Especially if he can figure out a way to play off some of his discoveries during his time at the SGC, and not break his confidentiality clauses."

"The best he can hope for, honestly, is teaching at some community college in the middle of nowhere. We both know that. And we both know how well that will go for him."

"I don't think so. I have a feeling he'll end up in a lab somewhere, doing research." John shrugged. "He's trying to convince me to go back to school for the extra degrees I need to design and build my own planes. If I ever made it that far, I'd hire him in a heartbeat as my chief engineer."

"Then you're the only one. Before the SGC, he always had problems with jobs and whatnot," she said, moving to the stove. She put on a pot of water and pulled out the lasagna noodles. "He had a slew of them after he left college."

"He is hard to work with, I know." John fiddled with his veggies. "But I have to believe he'll land on his feet. He's too… larger than life not to. What I don't understand is why you seem to hate him so much."

"I don't hate him. I've just known him a lot longer than you have."

"You knew him before. Atlantis changed him."

She shook his head. "He can't change that drastically. Trust me. Rod was the brother I always wished I had."

John felt a flash of anger, and stood up. "Then I think maybe both of us would be better off staying somewhere else. You're not willing to give him a chance, and I'm not going to stand by and watch my friend be shot down by his own sister every time he tries to make an overture."

"I'm giving him a chance. He's here, isn't he? I could have told him no when he called, but I'm willing to try. But he's the same man I've always known."

"Because that's all you're willing to see." John shook his head. "Almost the first thing you said to him when you saw us was that he would be the first one in the street over someone you've only met one other time. And then you spent the entire ride here reminding him of every mistake he's ever made toward you, and rubbing it in. McKay's not perfect, I won't pretend to that, but it takes two people to make something work. And right now, only one of them is making any effort at all."

"I'm trying. He's staying in my home, but he was never a good brother. I know what to expect."

"No, you don't." John sighed. "And you can tell yourself inviting him to stay here when he called and asked if he could is trying. You didn't have to put yourself out there, or lose anything by it. You're not the one wearing your heart on your sleeve, and dusting it off every time it gets tossed carelessly on the ground, only to offer it again and again hoping for a different reaction."

She slammed the spoon on the counter, her eyes flashing. "What do you want me to tell you? He disowned me because I decided not to pursue science full-time, because I didn't live up to his expectations. It's not my fault that he's miserable and he wants everyone else to be. I have a life and a family now. I'd like him to share that with me, but he hasn't changed."

"And I'm not excusing what he did in the past. But the fact that he's here, that he's trying, is his way of attempting to apologize for it. But instead of letting him, you've lashed out at him every opportunity. How long are you going to make him pay for his past mistakes? Even to the point of teaching your daughter that her Uncle is a horrible man she shouldn't have anything to do with?"

"I did no such thing."

"The first thing she said to me was that I was better than her uncle, and could I be her family instead because he's not a nice man."

"I didn't say anything to her."

"You didn't have to. Kids pick up on a lot of things. She's only repeating the lessons she's learned from watching you. Which is why I said anything at all." He sighed. "I didn't come here to yell at you, or accuse you. I came here because my friend asked me to, because he was terrified of the reception he was going to get."

"And yet he didn't ask you to go along on his field trip."

"Because he wasn't going on a field trip. He was running away to nurse the bruises before coming back to try again."

"No, I wasn't. I was getting some food that wasn't vegan," McKay said quietly, his voice tight. John turned, surprised the scientist had been so quiet. He had several bags in his hands. He looked…angry and exhausted. He moved into the kitchen, leaving the bags on the counter. He dug the car keys out of his pocket. "Here. I seem to have lost my appetite. See you in the morning."

He turned on his heel and moved out the door, into the living room. John saw him heading for the stairs before losing sight of him altogether.

John followed him, abandoning Jeannie without a second thought. He caught up to the other man just before McKay managed to shut his bedroom door. "Hey. Stop. Wait. Please!"

"Enjoy your dinner. I'm not in the mood for this."

"I'm not hungry." John managed to slip in the door. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything to her. I was just… trying to help. To make her understand how much you were putting on the line for her by coming here."

"It doesn't matter. Look. Go out and enjoy yourself. I'm a big boy. I'll be fine." McKay looked…defeated. "I bought some burgers. She'll let you grill out back."

"I'd rather stay here, if you'll let me." John folded himself down, sitting on the floor. "You're my friend, not your sister. If I have to choose, I'd rather spend my time up here with you."

"Sheppard…just…" He sighed, slumping down on the bed. "Look. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have pushed you to come."

"You have nothing to be sorry about." John gave him a small smile. "I'm the one who should be apologizing here. I just didn't want to see you get hurt, and I know how much it means to you to find a relationship with her. I thought… I guess I thought maybe I could make her see how incredible you are."

McKay snorted, just like his sister. "Yeah. Sure."

"You are." John hated that McKay couldn't see that.

The scientist let his body fall back onto the bed, his arms spread wide, and one hand hanging off the edge. "I don't know what I was expecting. I should have known everything wasn't going to be all light and roses."

"Maybe not," John scooted so he could lean back against the dresser. "But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Or keep trying. I've seen you overcome impossible odds before."

"So, now you know all my secrets. My sister was always good at pointing out my finer points."

"You were a different person then. You're still you, but… I think she's judging you harshly, using a standard you could never live up to, even if you were the best brother on Earth. You're you. If she loves you, she has to accept you as you are, not as she might have dreamed you could be."

McKay snorted again. "My father never did. As soon as he found out I was bi, he dropped me faster than a hot potato. And Jeannie…" he snorted again. "At first she couldn't believe it and then she ended up sounding just like our father. Things kind of went downhill from there."

John blinked. "Bi what?"

McKay lifted his head, looking at John. "Oh. She didn't share that part yet, did she?" He paused. "Sorry."

"Share what part?" John was confused. "Nothing to be sorry about though."

McKay rolled to his side. "Apparently the cat is out of the bag. I was sure that was the first thing my sister told you. I've known I was…sexually curious from an early age. I just don't…broadcast it around. My dad walked in on me and one of my friends in college. Wow. What an explosion. It was consensual. I still don't see what the issue was."

"Wait, you… with men?" John blinked again. "Why didn't I know that?"

"Because even I know not to share that with my straight commanding officer."

"I wouldn't have cared. There were several guys in Atlantis I knew played for the other team, but honestly, I never thought it had any effect on the job they did." He shrugged. "As long as it's consensual all around, have fun and enjoy has always been my philosophy."

"Some people have some very different opinions about that. I don't like to spread it around, so I didn't."

"I don't blame you." John had to admit, the knowledge didn't make him like or respect McKay any less, but it did make him feel… something. "So what's it like? With men?"

"Okay," McKay said, rolling to a seated position. "I'm not having his conversation with you. Can you go and grab me some dinner? I don't want to go back down there tonight. I'll take anything at this point. I know the lasagna won't be finished yet."

"Sorry." John blushed. "That just sort of slipped out. I've never really thought about it before." He ran a hand through his hair. "So anything I can rustle up? Any special requests?"

"Nothing citrus."

"Well, other than that." John grinned and pushed himself up.

"No, no other requests." He paused. "Wait. A beer. I bought some."

"Oh thank god." John grinned. He slipped out and headed downstairs again.

Caleb was home. He was sitting with Madison in the living room when John walked down.

"Um, hi there. I'm just going to get some food for McKay and I."

"Colonel," he said, disengaging himself from his daughter. He stepped forward offering his hand. "Good to meet you finally. Jeannie said dinner would be ready in a little while."

"Not a Colonel anymore." John shook his hand. "Although it is a pleasure to meet you."

"Oh no? Took early retirement? Good for you."

John made a face. "It was that or risk going to trial and possibly jail. They weren't too happy with me. McKay left to protest the whole thing. It's been… a long last week or so. But it's getting better. Moving on. How about you? How's school? It's almost time for summer break, isn't it?"

"Yeah. Another week. Not too much left," Caleb said, letting the other part of the conversation go.

"I bet you're looking forward to it. Do you work part time in the summer, or take it off?"

"I'll be working this summer. Two summer sessions, but it's only one class each time. A few hours a day in the morning. Easy classes, too." Caleb shrugged. "We want to expand our family soon and I need to make sure we build up the bank account before we do."

"Really? You guys are hoping to have another one, eh? Good for you." John smiled at Madison.

"We bought this house with that thought in mind. And we're still young."

"Very true. Good luck with it." John shook his hand again. "And I should go get something to eat. I don't want McKay to get sick because I waited too long."

"Like I said, dinner will be ready in a little while. I'm sure Jeannie's brother can wait a few minutes."

"Yeah. I'll go poke my head in. Thanks again for letting us stay here, too."

"Of course. You took care of my wife while she was…" He waved his hand. "I appreciate that."

John smiled again, and wandered into the kitchen. He cleared his throat to get Jeannie's attention.

"Oh, hello there," she said looking up from the salad she was making.

"Hey. I'm going to grab a couple of beers, and plates for McKay and I. We'll eat upstairs out of your way."

"No, you're not. You'll eat down here with us like a proper guest. Tell that idiot brother of mine that goes for him, too."

"No." John shook his head. "I'm through trying to play go-between. It didn't work so hot the first time. I'll eat where he eats, but if you want him to come down, you'll have to go talk to him yourself."

She put down her knife and wiped her hand on her apron before heading for the living room and the stairs. "He will eat downstairs with the rest of us."

John sighed, and got a couple of beers out of the fridge. He sat down at the kitchen island, opening both and taking a long swig of one.

He heard her stomping up the stairs, yelling "Meredith!" at the top of her lungs.

"That approach totally isn't going to work," John said it to his beer. "She's exactly the same as him. No wonder they have problems relating to each other."

"That beer taken?" Caleb asked quietly a few minutes later.

John pushed it over. "I'll get another one out for McKay if your wife gets him to come down. Otherwise, I'll take one up for him."

"She will. She's a force of nature."

"Yeah. But she's a rock meeting a hard place. And apparently there's a lot of not so great history between the two." John took another swig. "I know McKay wants to fix that. It's why he came here."

"Jeannie, too. She told me about the other…brother."

Nodding, John made a face. "His name was Rod, and he was… creepy. To be honest, I prefer our version. I thought he was a suck-up, and the kind of guy who would drive a saint to want to punch him after any kind of exposure."

"Jeannie liked him. From what she told me, he was really involved with her and her family. She wished she had that."

"Because she only saw a little slice of it. And only what he wanted her to see." John had hated him. "I was more than happy to send him back to where he came from."

"Well, one Rodney McKay is enough for everyone." Caleb took a swig of his beer. "So…no body rolling down the stairs. Think it's safe?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. I count it a victory that no one has come down screaming."

"Jeannie left her knives. We should be safe."

John laughed softly. "Always a good thing. Should we go check on them, or stay down here where it's safe?"

"Daddy!" Madison came running in. "What's an asshole?"

"Oh damn." John rubbed a hand across his face. "Maybe that means I should go intervene." John took the—relatively—coward's way out, slipping out and letting Caleb handle that one.

In the living room, he could catch one word in ten. Usually curse words.

He slowly made his way up the stairs. Maybe this was a good thing. Let them both get some of the pent-up anger and hurt off their chests.

"At least I didn't let some…English major knock me up before I finished my degree!"

Damn.

"Oh, so it's better that dad found you doing it with a twenty-year old when you were seventeen?"

John poked his head slowly around the door, and saw the two of them, toe-to-toe, waving their fingers in each other's faces.

"That was none of his business! It wasn't yours either! It was consensual!"

"And it was a guy!"

"So what! I'm bi-sexual for the hundredth time! What are you worried that my bi-sexuality will rub off on Madison? Is that why you don't want me here? I hate to tell you, but most geniuses aren't constrained by sexual stereotypes. Get used to it."

He decided to make his presence known, for better or for worse. "Ah, hi."

They both turned on it, but it was McKay who yelled at him. "You couldn't leave well enough alone, could you? I asked you for food and a beer!"

"That was what I was going to get!" John ran a hand through his hair. "But I was told we would eat down there. And I told Jeannie if she wanted to invite you down to eat, she'd have to do it, since I wasn't going to order you to come eat down there."

"I didn't say that! You're guests and I refuse to have you sulking in another room when we're all eating downstairs."

"Look, I just want you guys to… find some common ground or something. Rodney, your sister just wants you to accept her life choices and be happy for her. And Jeannie, your brother just wants you to accept him for the person he is, not the person you wish he was."

"I don't care that the English major knocked her up!"

John waved his hand at both of them. "Look, why can't the two of you see that you're doing the exact same thing to each other? You're both determined to try and force the other to be what you want them to be, but you hate it when they try to do it to you!"

"We're discussing the situation," Jeannie said.

"Good." John deflated. "I'm hungry, and Madison is downstairs asking what 'asshole' means. I'm going to go have dinner with Caleb. When you two can speak to each other without screaming, you're welcome to join us." He turned and walked out, closing the door behind him.

Caleb was leaning against the doorframe leading into the kitchen, sipping at his beer, when John walked down. "Still alive I see."

"For the moment. I think I just managed to focus the combined irritation on myself though. We'll see if I survive the night."

Caleb chuckled and shook his head. "You're fine. I know for a fact she likes you."

"That might not be enough."

"You're fine."

Chuckling, John returned to the kitchen and his beer. "Maybe."

"One thing I know is my wife," Caleb said following him inside. Madison was at the table drinking a glass of milk.

"I hope so. And, um, should we pull that lasagna out of the oven before it burns?"

"No, we're good. She has the timer on. We still have twenty minutes."

"Oh. Good. Another beer?"

"Yes." Caleb nodded, draining his bottle and putting it on the counter while John dug two more out of the fridge.

He passed one over, and realized he was seriously exhausted. And since he was, everything just seemed… harder.

"I can grill up some tofu sausage if you want. Has a great Italian taste."

John wrinkled his nose. "No offense, but I think I'll pass, at least for now. I might be feeling more adventurous later."

Caleb chuckled. "It tastes a lot better than it sounds," he said, moving to the fridge and pulling out a package of sausage. "I'll just brown a few then for Jeannie and me. I doubt Meredith will eat them either."

"If you call him that, I can guarantee he won't." John smiled. "And if you're cooking them anyway, I'm willing to try."

"Good!" Caleb offered him a warm smile as he pulled out a pan. "And it's his name. What's his issue with it?"

"I got the impression it was used to taunt him quite a bit when he was growing up."

"Eh. Kids will be kids. Everyone has issues when they're young."

"I know. But he's sensitive about it. We didn't even know Rodney was his middle name until Jeannie visited. He never told anyone."

"Always trying to be something else," Caleb said quietly, shaking his head as he got the pan warmed up.

"Not really." John looked carefully at Caleb. "I know he and Jeannie have been at odds for a while but… whatever she remembers, he's not the same man she knew. He's saved my life, and the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of others. Yes, he's got bluster, but under it is one of the most selfless men I've known."

Caleb shrugged, his eyes on the pan. "It's just hard to think of Meredith as anything other than what I know him to be."

"I know. And I have a feeling Jeannie is struggling from the same thing. Just give him a chance. He's the one who made sure we got presents for Madison in the airport, and who was so nervous about getting just the right flowers to give Jeannie when we saw her. He stood in little flower shop and worried for almost thirty minutes about which one she would like best."

"She likes all flowers. It's an easy choice."

"Yeah, but once I suggested it, he decided we needed to get just the right bouquet. He's admittedly not good at the whole people-interaction thing, but he does try. I'd like it if, while we're here, Jeannie, and you, can see past the mistakes he makes along the way to the intent behind them."

Caleb didn't say anything. He dropped the sausage into the pan and sizzling filled the air.

John let the silence stretch. It wasn't awkward or uncomfortable, and maybe Caleb, who had less emotion tied up in Jeannie and Rodney's relationship, could help his wife see past it too, to the man McKay had become.

"Can you grab plates from the cabinet?" Caleb finally asked, pointing with a hand before sliding the sausage onto a serving platter.

"Sure." John rose and found the plates, and figured the table would be where they would all—hopefully—eat. He found the silverware as well, and set out five places.

"Grab glasses, too," Caleb said as he passed him by with the tofu-sausage.

Nodding, John opened and closed a few different cabinets before he found the right one, and was glad they were mostly plastic. It made it easy to stack them and carry all five to the table in one shot. "Should we be worried that it got really quiet up there?"

"Na. Not yet." Caleb headed for the oven, the buzzer going off. He opened the door and then grabbed the oven mitts, pulling out the lasagna pan. Madison sat at the breakfast bar, simply watching them.

"Smells great. I can't believe there's no meat in it." John watched Caleb being domestic. "How did that happen anyway? Being a vegetarian I mean. Is it for health reasons, or humane ones?"

"Little of both. Jeannie just went along with me. I know she gets steak for lunch sometimes, but it's fine."

Chuckling, John nodded. "I can't imagine giving up meat. We lived without it for so long on Atla… on base, that now it's like the ultimate luxury item."

Caleb glanced up. "She told me all about it, you know. You don't have to censor yourself."

"Oh thank god." John relaxed. "That makes it a lot easier."

"Jeannie and I don't keep secrets from each other."

John gave the other man an almost wistful look. "I tried marriage once. It didn't last long. I kind of wish I had that kind of relationship sometimes though. Not with Nancy, but with someone. It must be nice."

"It has its good and bad moments," he said with a chuckle. "Like anything, I guess. She's my best friend, but we still fight and disagree."

"Yeah." John laughed softly. "I imagine you do. If she's anything like McKay, 'headstrong' is putting it mildly. But life is never boring when you have one of them around, is it?"

"No, not at all," he laughed, picking up the lasagna to bring it into the other room. He put it on the table in the middle. "So, who wants to go upstairs?"

"Well, I already managed to piss them both off, so I might as well. No sense having both of us in the doghouse tonight." John grinned at him, and took a long swallow, finishing off his beer. Liquid courage.

"Good luck."

"Thanks." John took a deep breath, and headed back up. He approached the door slowly, listening for clues as to what was going on in there.

It was quiet. Really quiet.

He eased the bedroom door open, trying not to let it make any sound so he wouldn't get caught.

McKay was lying in the middle of the guest bed. Jeannie was nowhere to be seen.

"Hey. What happened?"

"She got tired of arguing and stormed off."

Sighing, John moved to the bed, sitting on the edge. "I'm sorry."

McKay glanced up at John. "Not your fault. I think we got everything off our chests, though."

"Good. So maybe once you both have a chance to let it all sink in, it will be better. Dinner is ready, if you want to come down and try to eat a little something."

"We'll see." McKay paused, blinking a few times. "You bring me food?"

"It's downstairs, but I can if you want."

McKay sighed. "Jeannie wanted me to eat with everyone."

"So why don't you come down. It's a small compromise. You guys have to start somewhere."

"I guess."

John held out a hand, and hauled McKay to his feet. "Come on. You don't have to stay long, but you might find you enjoy it. Caleb seems like a great guy."

Rodney snorted. "He knocked up my sister and he's an English major. Saying he's a great guy is stretching it."

"And you're going to have to get past that. She made her choices, and she's happy. You don't like it when she judges you and your decisions, so if you want her to accept you, you have to do the same."

The scientist snorted again, rolling his eyes. He let John lead him downstairs to the kitchen table where Jeannie was just starting to dish our dinner.

"Hey. Got room for two more?"

"Of course," Caleb said, gesturing to the two open seats. Madison was already picking at her dinner, blowing on small bites of pasta to cool it off. "Beer's in the fridge."

John gave McKay a push toward the table, and went to get them both a beer.

When he got back, he found his friend scowling at his plate of food, an uneasy silence at the table.

John sat down and pushed McKay's beer over. "So. I was thinking I haven't had a real vacation in I don't know how long, so I'd love to do some fun stuff while we're here. Plus, this is my first trip to Canada. So what do you guys recommend?"

McKay reached for the beer, downing half of it in a single gulp. Caleb answered him, giving him several ideas of things they could do. He even offered to take John to get a rental car. There was an office nearby. Some of the places were a little off the beaten path.

Through it all, Rodney drank three beers—he'd retrieved two others in a short time—and ate what he'd been given. His eyes, though, stayed focused on his plate instead of his sister across the table.

At least they were in the same room together, and there was no screaming. John decided to count it as a victory, however slim. "That would be great, Caleb. This way, you guys won't be stuck shuttling us around every time we want to get out."

"I told Jeannie she should have mentioned it to Meredith before you arrived. With me still working and Madison with her schedule, it makes it hard."

"I can imagine. Madison doing any summer camps or anything, or do you stay home with her for the season?"

"We'll do a few week-long day camps here and there. We're planning a family vacation after I finish my two summer sessions. We haven't decided where we're headed yet, though."

"Nice. If you have passports, and you like to ride horses, I can recommend a few places that are kid-friendly."

"Jeannie and I can. Mad hasn't had the chance yet, but we'd like her to learn. You know how to ride?"

John nodded. "I grew up around them, and used to love it when I was her age."

"Oh, that's great," Caleb said, getting a snort from McKay. "I love horses. Always have. I just never had the time to do a lot of riding."

"It's one of the few things I miss from my childhood. Maybe I'll try to find a job where I can actually own a horse or two—or at least ride them at a nearby farm."

"Doesn't your family still have horses?"

"Probably." John shrugged. "I haven't talked to any of them since I joined the Air Force. I was, for all intents and purposes, disowned at that point."

"Why? Aren't they proud of what you've accomplished? You're a what? Lieutenant Colonel? That takes a lot of smarts to get there. I might not agree with what you do, but I do respect you and your abilities."

John sighed, and shrugged. "I have no idea. My father wanted me to join the family business, and I wanted to fly. When I left, that was it. I doubt they even know if I'm still alive or not, honestly."

"I'm sure they know exactly what you're doing. They're family. Even if you fight, deep down there's still something that keeps you together."

John looked at Jeannie and McKay, and licked his lips. If they could do it, maybe he could, too. And honestly, he didn't have many other options. "I doubt they care, but… maybe I'll think about sending my brother an e-mail. Just to let them know I'm not dead yet."

"I'm sure he'd appreciate hearing from you. I know how hard it is on families that are left behind. They always wonder if their brothers or sisters are okay, if they're still alive. They know how hard communication is when you're on assignment. Being on another planet altogether makes it even harder."

John huffed. "Well, they don't know about that part. Classified, unfortunately. But… I'll send him a note tonight. It would be… nice to see how he's doing."

"If you have a laptop, there's wireless in the house. Jeannie set it up. Feel free to log on and use it. If not, we have a computer in the basement."

"Yeah, I have one. One of the first things we bought when we got back."

The rest of the dinner was quiet, with a lot more small talk. When he finally got back to his room, John found himself getting out his computer and opening it up, staring at it. Would his family really want to hear from him? Would they care?

"Hey," McKay said, standing in the doorway. "You need to use the bathroom? I'm going to take a shower and head to bed."

"No. Go ahead." John hesitated, then looked up. "If you hadn't heard from Jeannie in half a lifetime, would you want her to send you a note, out of the blue?"

"I'm the one who showed up at her doorstep after four years. You should ask her."

He sighed. "I'll think about it. You feeling any better about coming here?"

McKay scowled. "What do you think?"

"Keep trying."

"Oh yeah, dinner was a pip. I can't wait for the rest of the week."

"I think it will be fine." John gave him a lopsided smile. "I hope."

"I'm guessing the whole tourist routine during the next week will help to put distance between us."

"You don't need distance. You just need to see each other for what you are now, not what you were when you were kids."

"Whatever, Doctor Ruth," McKay said, rolling his eyes. "I'm going to take a shower."

John chuckled, and closed his computer, leaving the empty window with his brother's email address—grabbed from the Sheppard Industries website—still open. "I'll see you in the morning.

"Yeah, yeah. Bring coffee when you wake me." McKay shuffled off to the hall bathroom they were sharing, closing the door behind him.

Crawling into bed, John had a restless night. He finally gave up when dawn had crested, and he heard some noises from downstairs. He put on a t-shirt and wandered down in his boxers, hoping maybe there would be coffee. "Hello?"

Jeannie was standing in the kitchen in front of the coffee pot, scooping grinds into the liner-encased basket. She was dressed in an old terrycloth robe and had on fuzzy pink slippers. She looked like she'd had as rough a night as John had. "Hi."

He slipped onto a stool and watched. "Sorry about last night, and the trouble I caused."

"Wasn't you."

"Yes, it was, in a way. I'm the one who was pushing him to try and repair his relationship with you."

"It would have happened whether you were here or not."

He sighed, not wanting to start it up again—at least not before he had a liquid kick-start. "So what's on the agenda for today?'

"I haven't thought much beyond coffee, honestly," she said, giving John a wry grin.

He laughed. "Yeah, that's my thought. I need to start thinking about what I want to do about a job, too. And where I want to live when I do get one."

"You have time." She offered a shrugged as she turned fully, leaning a hip against the counter. "And sorry about…yesterday. I wasn't really planning on that kind of reception."

"No problem. It happens. Part of being a family, I think." He smiled.

"Always been part of ours."

"It's been a long time since I've seen my real family. The people in Atlantis had become my surrogate family. It was hard to leave them."

"Atlantis was…different. It kind of forced you to pull together."

"In some ways, yes. But it also helped that we were, for the most part, all misfits in one way or another."

Jeannie offered a tired smile. "Less dysfunctional than most real families I imagine."

He shrugged, and sipped on the cup of coffee she pushed over. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course." She sipped on her own cup before turning to the fridge, pulling out the milk. Soy, of course.

He fidgeted a little. "Okay, I was thinking about siblings, and family, last night when I went to bed. I haven't talked to any of my family in… a very, very long time. I don't even know if they know or care if I'm still alive. But… as a sibling, how would you feel if you got an email from your brother after that long, out of blue?"

She played with the spoon in her mug for a long moment before answering. "You already know that he just…showed up out of the blue on my doorstep. Honestly, even though I would have said I hated him, I still worried about what he was doing, about how he was."

"Are you glad he did it now? I know you guys are still working through some things, but is it better having him here, having a relationship with him again, than the just not knowing?"

"Yes," she said without hesitation. "It's always better to know. As much as he…drives me crazy, he's still family."

John nodded, looking down. "I don't know if I should email my brother or not. On the one hand, it's been a long time since my father and I had that fight and I walked out. On the other…" He sighed. "I'd more or less be crawling back admitting that I failed."

"Why? You did what you wanted to do and you were successful."

"It wasn't what my father wanted from me. He wanted me to take over the family business. I'm assuming that's my brother's role now, and I don't want to show back up and take that away from him. That's part of it too. He's been there all this time, it's his to keep. But I worry that waltzing back in… I just don't want to cause him any more trouble."

She chuckled bitterly. "Do you think this was the life my father wanted for me? I was supposed to follow in Meredith's footsteps. My great, big, genius brother."

John looked up. "And I think you resent your brother for it, even now. Maybe my family would be better off if I just stayed away."

"My brother and I always had a love-hate relationship, even as kids. We were very competitive." She shrugged, taking a sip of her coffee. "It's…good to see him. It is. But it also seems like we have years of fights to make up for."

He chuckled. "Hey, all siblings fight. I just don't think you realize how much some of it hurts him. Arguing about science and daily stuff, that he enjoys. But feeling like you hate him, and he can't ever atone for past mistakes, that effects him more than you realize."

"I'm sure he'll get over it."

John shrugged again. He wasn't going to push. He was doing his best to help, but in the end, it had to be McKay and his sister who worked it out between them.

"So what are you plans for today?" she asked a few minutes later.

"Not sure. I think I'll take your husband up on his offer to go over to the rental car place. But after that, I hadn't made any plans. Any suggestions?"

"There's plenty to do in Toronto. Museums and the like." She shrugged. "I don't really know what you like to do apart from ride horses and fight aliens."

"I like to go fast." John grinned at her. "I like Ferris wheels, and anything that goes more than two-hundred miles per hour. Oh, and football. And movies."

She chuckled, shaking her head. "Then, I have no idea how you and my brother can even carry on a conversation. He hides at the first sign of danger, doesn't like heights, and drives like a ninety-year-old man."

"You'd be surprised at the danger he's faced down," John said, shaking his head, looking at her over the rim of his coffee cup. "He might complain about it, but he doesn't run. And the driving thing… if he drives a car like he does a Jumper, then yeah, I have to agree with you there."

"I'm surprised he managed to get his license. I have no idea how he passed the test," Jeanie said, rolling her eyes.

John ventured a guess. "Maybe the tester was afraid for his life if he didn't pass him."

"I don't know," she said with a shrug. "He's overcautious and it'll probably get him killed."

John finished off his coffee. "I think I'll go up and take a quick shower before everyone else gets moving."

"You have plenty of time. Caleb won't be up for another two hours yet."

Laughing softly, John pushed himself up. "Good, plenty of time to jog before I shower."

"Do whatever you want. I have an extra set of house keys for the two of you, so you can come and go as you please. Remind me to dig them out before you leave."

John nodded and headed upstairs to pull on his sweat pants and running shoes. He got the keys from Jeannie and the directions to a local park, and started out slow at first to warm up his muscles.

Remembering where he was going was important, too, so he took his time really looking around. The last thing he needed was McKay taunting him that he got lost in a residential neighborhood.

He found the park without incident, fortunately. It was empty this early, so even though it was pretty tiny, he enjoyed having it to himself. Finally, though, he could feel the twinges that told him he was going to need to stop soon, so he started back.

The neighborhood was starting to come to life. Business men and women, dressed in suits, were leaving for their commute into work. He could hear the sounds of kid's voices as they got ready for the last weeks of school. He spotted a school bus starting to make its rounds in the distance.

It was nice. Domestic. It reminded him of why he had done what he did for all those years, all the people he was quietly protecting, so they could go on about their lives like this.

He jogged up the final steps to the Miller house. As he stepped inside, he spotted Caleb and Jeannie in the kitchen. Madison was eating cereal at the table. She offered a wave and a smile.

"Hi. Nice neighborhood." John smiled at them, not coming too far in since he knew he now smelled.

"Yeah, it's a great bedroom community," Caleb said with a smile. "You were gone for a while, so I guess you found the running trail?"

"Yeah, out by the park. I bet it's beautiful out there in the fall when the leaves start changing."

"It is great in the fall, but I wasn't talking about the park," Caleb said. "Our property backs up to a nature preserve and there are some really great trails. Easier on your knees, too."

"Huh. I'll have to try that tomorrow. Thanks for the tip!"

"You're welcome, of course." Caleb glanced at the kitchen clock. "I have to leave here in about thirty minutes if you want me to drop you. That okay?"

"Perfect. Let me take a quick shower, and I'll be ready to go." He headed upstairs, not taking too long, but enough of a shower to feel clean again. Once he was dressed in jeans and a black tee-shirt—McKay had given him hell for not buying anything else—he headed back down. "All set."

"Good. You going to eat when you get back?"

"Yeah. Don't do anything special for me though. I can always grab a bowl of cereal or something."

"Jeannie might be here or not," Caleb said, picking up an insulated cooler which probably held his lunch. "Depends if you decide to go wandering. You have a phone?"

"Yeah." John grabbed a piece of paper, and wrote down his new number twice, tearing it in half and giving one to each of them. "This way you can get me if you need me for anything. McKay already programmed the house number and your cell phones into mine, so unless you've changed numbers recently, I should be good."

"No. We haven't changed it since we moved in," Caleb said as they moved to the front door, kissing Jeannie as he passed her. "See you tonight, hon."

John felt a little twinge of jealousy for the closeness, but shrugged it off. He was just feeling sorry for himself.

He and Caleb talked easily on the way to the car rental company. He really was a nice guy. He managed to pick up a car for two weeks—he'd extend if he had to later—complete with a GPS. He immediately programmed the Miller house in and then headed back to get McKay.

When he pulled up, there was no screaming or sounds of things breaking. Always a good sign.

Jeannie's car was in the drive and the front door was unlocked. He discovered McKay on the living room couch, staring at the wall, coffee cup in his hands.

"Hey."

The scientist glanced up, scowling. "What are you so damn happy about?"

"Huh?" John sat down across from McKay and kicked up his feet. "I had a nice run this morning, and just got back with a rental car, so we can go anywhere you'd like."

"Anywhere that's not here."

"Okay. I haven't eaten yet. Do you want to go get something?"

"As long as there's copious amounts of coffee and nothing vegan, I'll be happy."

John stood up again. "Let's go then. We should tell your sister we're going though."

"I have to get dressed," McKay said, standing and handing John his empty mug. "Give me ten minutes." He was dressed in worn pajama bottoms and a white undershirt. His feet were bare.

John chuckled and wandered into the kitchen to put the mug in the sink. Then he went looking for Jeannie to let her know where they were going.

He found her on her hands and knees out back, weeding like mad.

"Hey there."

She glanced up, offering a smile. Sitting back on her ankles, he wiped her hands on his thighs. "You're back already. Did you find Grumpy?"

"Yeah, he was on the couch. We're going to go grab some breakfast out. Can I bring you back anything?"

"No, I'm good. I have some errands I need to run later before I pick Maddie up from school."

"Sounds good. I think we're going to do some exploring, so don't look for us before dinner."

"If you decide to stay out, give me a call in the afternoon and I won't plan dinner for you."

"Will do." John gave her a quick salute.

"Have fun," she said, going back to her weeding.

John wandered back in, not spotting McKay yet. He leaned against the wall to wait.

The scientist stomped down the stairs a few minutes later, dressed in jeans and some kind of double-shirt thing. He was holding his sneakers and socks in his hands. "Two minutes."

John raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything.

"What?"

"I didn't say a word."

"You conveyed enough with the eyebrow," he grumbled, sitting down and forcing his feet into his shoes.

"I'm not allowed to move my eyebrow? Maybe it itched."

"I know you and that look."

"I don't have a look."

"Oh, yes, you do." He tied his laces and then stood, narrowing his eyes at John. "Are you ready?"

"Yup." John pushed off and dangled the keys. "Just point me in the direction you want me to drive. And before you ask, no, you can't drive."

"I don't care. Somewhere. Anywhere that's not here."

"You said that." John followed him out of the house. "Something happen this morning?"

"I always love getting the silent treatment. If I wanted that, I would have gotten married."

"Your sister was outside weeding, and you were inside…"

"Not the whole time. Someone in the bathroom made a racket and woke me up." McKay climbed into the passenger side of the car, slamming the door.

"Oh. Um, sorry."

McKay glanced at him. "It was you?"

"I got back from my jog, and Caleb was leaving in half an hour, so if I wanted a ride to the rental place, I had to hurry. Sorry about that."

McKay shrugged as John pulled out, heading toward the main part of town. "Needless to say, my sister wasn't exactly…chatty when I finally wandered downstairs. She stormed around the house until it was time to take Madison to school. When she got back, she went around back and started pulling out plants."

"I wish I had some advice to give you." John glanced over as he stopped at a red light. "And holler when you see some where you want to stop."

"I don't care as long as there's coffee and food."

Sighing to himself, John spotted an IHOP—they had those in Canada?—and pulled in. "How's this?"

"Good. They have good coffee." That might have been a smile. Maybe.

"And the stuffed French toast is amazing."

"Don't they have some kind of chocolate thing?" he asked as John pulled into a space.

"Probably. I think they change it out regularly, but odds are good there's something covered in chocolate here."

"If they have something incorporating chocolate and coffee, I think we're coming here for every meal," he said, climbing out of the car.

John laughed and followed him into the restaurant.

Breakfast went well. McKay perked up as soon as the waitress started flirting with him. Well, that and the copious amount of coffee helped, too. And the sugar from the chocolate pancakes.

John enjoyed his French toast stuffed with strawberries, and was content to sit back and relax for the moment.

Even with all the drama, McKay was easy to get along with. They were very different in a lot of respects, but right now it was great just having a friend at his side.

The rest of the day was spent meandering around town, stopping at the odd store to poke around, both of them buying a few things here and there. They made it back to the house in time for dinner—at John's insistence—and the evening went… relatively well.

That night, John screwed up his courage and shot a note to Dave. He wasn't holding his breath, honestly, but it was a start. He'd gotten used to his family on Atlantis. Maybe it was time to see if he could have that again here on Earth.


From: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]
Sent: Saturday, May 19, 2007 01:07 AM
To: Dave [mailto:d.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]

Subject. Um. Hi.

Hi. It's John. Your brother.

I retired from the Air Force, not exactly of my own free will, but it was an honorable discharge, and now I'm sort of free at the moment. I'm going to start figuring out what I want to do with the rest of my life. I know I'll need a job, and a place to stay. If you'd like, once I figure it all out, I'll let you know.

So… how's Father doing? And Mom? Is Katie still the cook for them? What about you? Last I heard, you were getting married—I'd love to meet her one day, if you'll let me.

I don't know if you want to hear from me, and if you don't, feel free to just ignore this. I'd understand. I'm not even sure I should be doing this, but, it's been a long time. So I thought maybe…

Well, anyway. Hi. My cell phone number is below, and this is my email. So if you want to talk, you can find me.

-John


John stared at the ceiling, trying to will his mind and his body to slow down. Even though he and McKay had been sight-seeing for the past several days, driving and walking all over creation, each night it was getting harder and harder to fall asleep.

He hadn't heard from his brother yet, and if he was being honest with himself, it was heavy on his mind and his thoughts.

He rolled to his side as his mind went through all the possibilities—again.

He heard a door close in the house, heard the light footsteps he'd come to associate with Jeannie. She was headed downstairs. It seemed like he wasn't the only one who was having problems sleeping.

He resisted the urge to follow her down. Even though he was getting along well with Caleb, Jeannie was still a little frosty to him. He wasn't sure what that was all about. Maybe she was jealous of the relationship he had with her brother. But that's the thing. If the two of them were just willing to bend a little they'd be able to start repairing their own relationship.

He sighed quietly, shaking his head. A few moments later, another door opened and John heard the heavy tread of McKay in the hall. Maybe he was just going to the bathroom.

John held his breath.

McKay and Jeannie weren't exactly on speaking terms yet and if the scientist headed downstairs he'd walk right into her.

Of course, that's when he heard the creak of the third stair from the top.

Damn. McKay was headed downstairs.

John closed his eyes for a moment, trying to decide whether or not it would be a good idea to follow. The last few times they'd "talked", Caleb had played referee. It might be John's turn this time if he didn't want the two of them to wake up the entire house.

Pushing himself out of bed, John quietly left his room, and headed for the stairs. His stealth training served him well here. He didn't make a sound, not even on the squeaky stair, as he moved to the bottom where he could hear what was going on, and step in if necessary.

"Sorry," McKay was saying. "I didn't realize anyone was up."

"No, fine. I couldn't sleep. Tea?"

"That tree-hugger tea you usually drink that smells like feet? No, thank you. Is there still milk? And not that soy crap, either."

John could practically feel Jeannie's tone turning to ice. "You have two feet to walk to the fridge and look yourself."

"Well, you're not exactly skinny and you're blocking the way."

"Oh, like you're one to talk, Mer. My grocery bills have nearly tripled since you've been here."

"I've bought groceries," McKay said, his tone hard. "Or do you forget that lovely conversation you were having with Sheppard when I walked in the other day? Did you have to share all my bad traits in one conversation?"

"He should know what he's getting in to, being with you."

"I've worked with him for three years! He's seen me at my best and my worst. Trust me. He doesn't need to hear your version of our childhood and how it's made me into the horrible brother I am today." Damn. John didn't like the bitterness in his friend's voice.

"Maybe if you had told him any of it, I wouldn't have to."

"He doesn't need to know that dad hated me, that I was a failure to my family."

"Dad didn't hate you! You were the Golden Boy, the object of all his affection and love. The ideal standard I was supposed to live up to." The bitterness in Jeannie's voice was as heartbreaking as McKay's.

"Yeah, right. You weren't there when dad was screaming at me the night he walked in on me."

"Oh, so you made one little mistake. Whoop-di-doo." Jeannie snorted. "You were still his little genius, his crown jewel of an accomplishment."

"Like hell I was. That's the last time he talked to me. He made sure to tell some of my professors and fellow scientists, too, so when it came time to have my grants renewed all of my funding dried up. I went to work for the government because they were the only ones who dad hadn't bad-mouthed me to. They were the only ones willing to pay me."

"What?" Jeannie's voice betrayed how shocked she was.

"You knew! You had to have known. It wasn't like he kept it secret from anyone. I was his freak son."

There was silence for a moment. "No. I didn't. At home, all he ever talked about was how I needed to work harder, to be a genius like you. You were the standard I was held to, and I never, ever measured up."

"Well, neither did I."

"When you disappeared, he told me you left because you couldn't be around such inferior minds anymore—meaning me—and if I ever wanted to be anything, I had to work harder."

"He wouldn't let me come home," McKay said, his voice low, bitter. "After that night, I had to work for every single solitary thing I needed or wanted."

"I thought you didn't come home because of me."

"Dad made it abundantly clear he didn't want anything to do with me and he didn't want my…ideas to rub off on you. I tried to stay in touch, tried to encourage you to stick with your science because I knew how important his approval was for you. I didn't want you to go through what I did."

"I never… you never sent anything. I asked about you a few times, and I was told you didn't have time to bother with such a stupid little girl."

McKay was silent for several minutes. "Look. We've both said some things, and we both have a lot of issues to deal with. I still think you shouldn't have gotten yourself knocked up, but we've had that conversation a few times already. This isn't fair to Sheppard. He's here for a vacation and we're here hanging out the family laundry."

John heard her harrumph. "Apparently we were both lied to about each other. Dad is probably laughing right now at the two of us."

"I don't know. I think he wanted it this way."

"Probably. Maybe."

"Do you still talk to him?"

"Me? Sometimes. Usually around holidays. And then sometimes he calls to tell me he hasn't seen any of my published research yet." Jeannie sighed. "He always wants something. You?"

"No. Don't expect to hear from him again either."

There was a quiet moment before Jeannie spoke again. "So, truce for now?"

"For Sheppard's sake, I think we need to."

After a moment of silence, Jeannie sighed softly. "I think we can do that. And… maybe later, once you've gotten settled somewhere… maybe we can sit down and work all this out. I think I'd like to have my brother back, the one I still remember from when we were young. I guess before Dad decided to play us off each other."

"You know as well as I do that we can never go back to the way things were before. We know too much, have done too much." McKay sighed, but continued a few minutes later. "Most of what dad said was true. Maybe that's why it hurt so much. And I've been looking for a job since I got back and it's just like it was before. I'm just glad I had a few consulting jobs before I went to Atlantis and I didn't spend the money."

"Maybe we can't go back, but… I think between us we can find a way to move forward. John keeps telling us both, politely of course, that we're being pig-headed and refusing to move past the past." She paused. "And if you'll let me, I might be able to help with the other thing. I have some contacts I occasionally consult for, mostly when Caleb and I can use a little extra cash. If you'd like, I can give you their names, and call ahead as a reference."

"I don't want you to jeopardize your livelihood for me. I'll figure out something."

"It wouldn't be. They always want more time than I'm willing to give them, so by recommending you, I'll be giving them what they really need. And you can bring me on as a consultant occasionally still."

McKay sighed. "I'm not going to tell you not to. I need a job."

"I'll call them tomorrow. It can't hurt, right?"

"Who knows. Maybe I'll manage to ruin your reputation in the process. That should just make everything that much better between us." McKay sighed and John heard him shift. "So should we tell Sheppard to come in?"

John started. He hadn't made a sound.

"John? He's in bed, isn't he?"

"No. He followed me down. Probably thought we were going to kill each other."

John heard footsteps, but before he could make a dash upstairs, Jeannie's head popped around the corner. "Um. Hi." He offered a sheepish smile.

"How did Meredith know you were here?"

"I have no idea." John unfolded himself and came into the kitchen. "How did you know I was there McKay?"

"I heard you sneak down the stairs. You're not as quiet as you think. And since you didn't go back up, I figured you were listening," McKay said. He looked tired and drawn.

John huffed. "I just wanted to make sure you guys would be okay."

"So now you know the dark McKay secrets."

"That your father apparently set you both up to hate each other? That's not really either of your faults, you know."

McKay shrugged, but it was Jeannie who answered. "We…we still have a lot of…misunderstandings and miscommunication to work through."

John nodded. "It will take time, but you've made the first step. And you both look like you could use some sleep now."

"I guess," McKay said, rubbing a hand over his face.

Reaching over, John squeezed his friend's shoulder. "It will all work out, buddy. One way or another. After all, I've got your back, so what can really go wrong, right?"

McKay snorted, but offered a tired smile. "You've like jinxed me for the next seven years, haven't you?"

Chuckling, John steered him toward the stairs getting both McKay and his sister moving. "Nah. I think when you put the two of us together, bad luck somehow morphs into good. Otherwise, we'd be dead several times over. We stick together, and it will all be okay."

"Yeah, right. We won't mention all of those tribal sacrifices we barely survived."

"But the point is that we survived. I didn't say anything about not getting a bit singed along the way…"

"Hey! I'm still not going to apologize about that. It was your fault that they managed to light your hair on fire. You use way too much styling product than is really necessary for a guy," McKay said, stumbling up the stairs.

Laughing softly, John steadied him, making sure he got to the top okay, with Jeannie right behind him. "Yeah yeah. I happen to like my hair the way it is, thanks. And anyway, I don't use styling products. It does this on its own, without my input."

"There's no way that can happen," McKay insisted, letting John push him into his room. Jeannie offered a small wave and a smile as she moved down the hall to the master bedroom.

"It does. I have occasionally tried products to tame it down, but I gave up a long time ago and accepted the fact that I have perpetual bed-head."

"You do not. It's like a living…thing on your head," McKay said, gesturing toward John. "It attracts attention…maybe I should try to grow mine…do that, too. I might get laid then."

John rolled his eyes, pushing McKay toward the bed. "My head is a mass of cowlicks. Trust me, it's all natural, and doesn't contribute in any way to getting laid. Now go to sleep. I'll see you in the morning."

"Isn't it morning already? I should just have coffee and stay up," McKay said. His eyes were half-closed but he was protesting, just like a four-year-old.

John stepped into the room, and gently pushed McKay down into the bed. "Sleep. You'll feel better after a couple of hours."

"But I'm not tired."

"Humor me then. Lay down and close your eyes and rest. You can do math problems in your head if you want." John didn't think that would last all that long. McKay was in desperate need of rest.

"But I'm not tired," he whined even as his eyes closed.

"Uh huh."

"I'm not."

"Okay. Just close your eyes for a little while then."

"But why? We can go downstairs and watch TV without having Madison whining about the show. And I bet there's no purple dinosaur dancing on the screen now."

"Because I am tired, and once I get you settled, I'm going back to bed myself." As if on cue, a huge yawn escaped him.

McKay opened his eyes and peered up at him. "So why were you eavesdropping?"

John shrugged. "I'm worried about you."

McKay snorted. "This is nothing. Last time she got physical."

"Close your eyes, McKay. That's an order." John grinned at him.

"You're not my team leader. I don't have to listen to you."

"Come on. You'll feel better after a couple of hours rest." John pushed him again so he was lying on the pillow.

"But I'm not tired."

"Then rest your eyes."

"I got up before because I wasn't tired. What makes you think that it's going to work now?" He scowled. "I never got my milk, either."

John sighed. "All right. I'm going to go to bed, myself. I'm having trouble sleeping, but I want to at least try."

"Oh. Okay. You should go to bed, then."

"Yeah. See you tomorrow, McKay." John gave him a little wave.

"Night," McKay said, offering a half-wave of sorts.

"Night."

John got himself settled back in, and even managed to doze off and on for the rest of the night. The next morning, he got in his run and shower, and decided it was time he got serious about job hunting. He wasn't really on vacation, after all, He was, technically, unemployed.

But where did he start? That was the real question.

He gathered up his laptop and headed downstairs, finding a place on the porch to ensconce himself. He still wasn't sure what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. That was the problem. All he had ever wanted was to fly. What was he supposed to do now, with that option gone? The few resumes he had sent out to airlines had all been rejected.

He could try some of the private companies, but he wasn't sure it would make much of a difference.

He spotted McKay in the kitchen. "Hey, McKay. What else am I qualified to do besides fly planes? I need some inspiration in my job hunt."

"I thought we were going downtown again today."

"We are, but I thought I should at least spend part of the morning job hunting. I just don't know where to start." John was starting to feel a little frustrated with himself. And, he admitted privately, a little afraid. He really didn't know what he was supposed to do now.

"Why? You're on vacation. Worry about it in a week."

"I'm just… worried. What if I can't find anything?" John looked down, trying to pull himself together, and push away the depression threatening to descend on him.

"You'll find something. Just…" McKay walked over toward him. "You'll get something, Sheppard. I'm certain of it."

"What if I don't?" John looked up. "I just… I really don't have any idea of even where to start. The airlines don't want me, and that's all I know how to do."

"They don't have openings right now. I saw the email, they're not hiring right now. Maybe in a month they will be."

"Airlines are always hiring pilots. That was the polite way of saying someone has been calling around making sure I can't get in the commercial companies."

"You don't know that and don't start thinking that way." McKay's voice was hard, firm. "Just, stop it. You'll get a job."

Swallowing hard, John silently nodded. He needed to believe that.

"Come on. Let's get out of here."

"Yeah, okay." Taking a deep breath, John closed his computer and ran it back upstairs, grabbing his wallet and the car keys before heading back down. "So what are we seeing today?"

"Something. Anything. Let's just enjoy our vacation. We both deserve it." McKay offered a smile. "Maybe we can even find you a roller coaster."


From: Dave [mailto:d.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]
Sent: Sunday, May 27, 2007 10:35 AM
To: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]

Subject. RE: Um. Hi.

John-
Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. I was on a business trip and without internet access for most of the week.

Honestly, I was surprised to hear from you. The last we'd heard was that you were stationed in Antarctica.

Everyone here is doing well. Charlotte and I got married a few years back and we have a two-year old—Andrew—tottering around the house. He looks just like I did when I was that age. It's a little disconcerting, honestly.

So, since you're back in the States, when are you coming for a visit? I know you and Dad parted on bad terms, but we could use your help if you still need a job.

Give me a call and let's talk.
-Dave


John stared at his computer screen. He read the email a second time. Then a third.

Wow.

He looked at the phone number in the signature, and wondered if he should call. Should he do it now? Wait a day or two? "McKay!"

"What?" He sounded grumpy. Someone probably forgot to make a third pot of coffee. John heard cabinets banging in the kitchen.

"Come read this and give me some advice."

"What? You've lost the ability to comprehend English all of a sudden?"

"Just give me some advice." John handed his laptop over.

McKay sighed and stomped over to the kitchen table. He read the email and then pushed the laptop back. "Call him."

"Now?"

McKay shrugged, heading back to the cabinets in his search for coffee. The scientist hadn't made a pot yet this week, so it was amusing to watch him struggle. "Why not?"

John fiddled with his phone for another minute, then nodded. He knew if he didn't do it now, he might chicken out. Before he could talk himself out of it, he quickly dialed the number.

It took a few rings before it was answered. "Sheppard residence."

"Hi. I'm looking for Dave. This is his brother, John."

"Of course, Mister Sheppard. I believe he is in the kitchen having brunch. Please hold."

John made a face. It was weird hearing someone call him 'Mister'. He walked into the living room, taking a seat on the couch while he waited.

The phone was picked up a few minutes later, the voice achingly familiar. "This is Dave."

John had a swallow an unexpected lump in his throat. "Hi. It's John."

"John! Good to hear from you. I didn't expect you to call so quickly," he said, sounding somewhat happy to hear from him. "When Millie said it was you I wasn't sure. How are things?"

"Yeah, I just got your email, and figured I'd give you a call. Things are… all right. I'm not in the Air Force anymore, as of about two weeks ago now. So I thought I'd give you a call. I know it's been a long time, but… you know. I figured it couldn't hurt to try and catch up."

"Of course! So when are you coming home? And where are you now?"

"Well, I'm in Toronto right now, staying with a friend and his family. I'd never been, and he offered to show me around until I figured out what I was going to do next. I didn't… know if I would be welcomed home, honestly. But I'd love to come and visit."

"You're always welcome here! Mom and dad are in the townhouse now, so this sprawling mansion is empty with just Andrew and Charlotte here. You can take over the East wing and we still would have plenty of room."

John blinked. "You mean, come and live there? You'd actually want me there?"

"Why not? If you're going to work for Dad, you need to be hands-on. Honestly, he's gotten old and slow. We need all the help we can get."

That was hard to hear. While he wasn't on great terms with his father, hearing that he was starting to fail… "Yeah, okay. I haven't done it in a while though, so I'm not sure how much help I'll be. But if you want me, I'll come."

"Of course. You're family. We might not have seen eye-to-eye on things, but that doesn't mean we can't work together." Dave paused for a moment. "Look. I don't know what happened with you and Dad, and he's never shared that with me, but you're family and family's important."

John smiled, even though Dave couldn't see it. "Yeah. I… you might not believe it, but it is to me, too. I stayed away because I didn't want to be something that came between you and Dad. The reason I left…it was both of our faults. I was young and stubborn, determined to join the Air Force and fly, and he was determined to mold me into what he wanted. The night I left we got to the point where we were shouting at each other over it, he said if I walked out, not to come back, and I took him at his word."

"Dad can be…difficult. He's set in his ways and he likes getting his way. Don't worry about it."

"Yeah. And while I hate to admit it, I have a lot of him in me. Neither of us was willing to give any. But while I regret not seeing you guys for so long, I honestly don't regret the rest of my life. I got to fly some of the most amazing vehicles every known, and I've made a lot of good friends."

Dave chuckled. "You have no idea. So, when should we plan on seeing you?"

John looked over to see Rodney hovering in the doorway pretending not to eavesdrop. Smiling, John gave him a thumbs-up, sure his relief was probably written all over his body. "How about next week? I'll look at flights, and let you know when I have something booked."

"Sure. Just call Simon. He'll set everything up."

"Simon?"

"You remember Dad's valet, George, right?"

"Yeah. How could you forget him?"

"Simon's his son. That gangly kid that always fell out of the trees and off our horses. He's the family's majordomo now. He handles all that kind of stuff. I'll have him email you."

"Wow. I remember him now. Did he get any better at riding?"

"He stopped riding. Got tired of breaking bones."

John shook his head. "I don't blame him. Yeah, have him shoot me an email. I'll need to see about renting a car for at least the short-term, too, until I get around to buying one. Everything I own right now fits in a duffel bag, so it hasn't been much of a priority."

"Your old car's still here. It still runs, too. Simon makes sure all the cars are in working order."

John's eyes widened. "You… what? Why? Dad hated that car. I figured he would take the first opportunity to dump it."

"It was yours."

"I… wow." John shook his head.

"Look, if you don't want to drive that clunker, we have an arrangement with the local dealer here. You can get what you want when you get here."

"Gotta admit, Davy," John fell back on his old nickname for his brother out of habit, "I'm a little overwhelmed right now. I wasn't even sure you would want to talk to me, much less this… I… thanks."

"What's family for? So, enjoy your vacation and we'll get everything rolling tomorrow so you can start when you get here."

"Sounds good. Have Simon email me tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to seeing you guys again."

"Me, too. See you in a week or so and we can get caught up." Dave paused for a moment. "I'm glad you emailed. This will be good. The Sheppard boys are back together again."

John had to laugh softly. "I can feel the world starting to shake in fear already."

"Good," Dave laughed and something inside of John unclenched. "Don't be a stranger before you show up, either."

"I won't. I promise. I'll see you next week."

"Enjoy the rest of your weekend, John."

"You, too, Dave." Hanging up, John put the phone in his lap and just stared at it. He was… wow. He hadn't expected it to go that well in any of the best-case scenarios he had been running through his head since his 'retirement'.

"So…" McKay was bouncing on his toes. "I take it they're not going to throw you out when you show up."

He looked up. "They kept my old beat-up used car that I bought to piss my father off when I was seventeen when I got my license. And it still runs."

McKay chuckled, taking a few steps over to the overstuffed chair. He settled in with a groan and took a long pull of his coffee. "I'm sure you'll get something a little more…up-to-date when you get there."

"Yeah, that's what my brother said. It's just… wild. That they still…that they're welcoming me back like this. He's already given me the entire fucking East Wing of the estate, and is putting me to work in the business as soon as I get there."

"Good." McKay nodded. "I knew they weren't stupid. I knew they'd take you back in a heartbeat."

John shook his head. "I wasn't expecting that at all."

"I was," he said, taking another long sip of his coffee. "So, what's the plan for today? Jeannie headed to the lake and she said we were welcome to follow if we wanted."

"Well, I've got about another week of vacation now. So… what would you like to do?"

"Doesn't matter. Not turning into a lobster is always a good thing. Plus there are lots of flies and mosquitoes. And bees."

"So the lake is out. What about that science museum you were eyeing when we drove past the other day?"

"Closes at five."

"We could co-opt your sister's PlayStation, go buy a few games and spend the day one-upping each other."

"We did that the other day."

"That never gets old, but I'm open to other suggestions, too."

McKay shrugged, sipping at his coffee. "I'm bored, but nothing seems interesting."

John laughed. "Well, why don't we take a walk to the park then? It's nice out today, and it will be good to stretch our legs."

"If we're going to do that, we might as well go to the lake."

"So what do you want to do? I'm pretty much game for anything."

"Whatever you want," McKay said, climbing to his feet. "You're only here for another few days. I'm staying for a while yet."


As the plane came in for its final approach, John fidgeted. It was weird not being with McKay. Not only had they been almost glued together the last few weeks, they had been more or less glued together on Atlantis all those years, too.

He was glad they had unlimited minutes to call each other, and email was free.

Now it was time to start a new chapter. Simon would be waiting for him when the plane landed, and John would be going back to his family.

It was for real.

The landing was uneventful—John had spent the bulk of the flight staring out the window and yearning to be the one at the controls—and since he had packed everything into his duffel, he didn't have any checked bags.

Making his way out of the main terminal, he took a deep breath and wondered what would happen next.

A tall thin blonde man approached him a few minutes later. "Sir?"

John blinked. "Simon? Is that really you?"

Simon nodded, a slight stain of red shading his cheeks. "Yes, sir. It's good to see you again. You haven't changed."

John chuckled, and grabbed the other man's hand, shaking it. "It's good to see you too! Wow, you've really grown up! You look fantastic!"

"Thanks, sir. That's nice of you. Let me get your bag and we can be on our way."

"This is the only bag I've got, so don't worry about it. I've hauled it this far." John grinned at him. "Why don't you catch me up on what you've done since I last saw you?"

Simon, though, wouldn't take no for an answer. He managed to grab John's bag right from his hands and started walking across the pick-up area, headed toward the parking lots. "There's not much to tell," Simon said. "Finished school, got my degree in business administration and started working for your family."

"Wow, congratulations on the degree! Hopefully, they treat you well, right?"

"Of course, sir. The best."

"Good." John clapped him on the shoulder. "You're pretty much family, so I'd be irritated if they weren't. Dave said you aren't riding anymore though?"

"No, sir. The last time I fractured my arm in three places. That was enough for me."

"I don't blame you. Is the stable still running horses in the Derby? Did they ever breed Jet?" Jet had been John's horse, raised from a colt. He had actually won a few minor races, although he had never had the chance to run him in the big leagues.

"Yes and yes. That side of the business is doing very well. Funny Cide was one of Jet's. After he won in '03, things got very busy once word got out we were the breeding house." He pointed to a black town car. "That's the car, sir."

"Wow." John shook his head. "Good for Jet! If we have any of his progeny in the stables now, I'd love to go see them once I get settled in. I have to admit, I've missed riding."

"Of course, sir. Your parents are coming for dinner. Drinks will be at five, but your time until then is your own. Mister David is working downtown today and Miss Charlotte has a charity event this afternoon. Mister Andrew is with Emily in the nursery."

John felt sudden panic set in. "Wait… My parents will be here? Tonight?" He wasn't sure he was ready to face his father just yet. He and Dave had continued to email each other back and forth over the last week, but neither of them had mentioned their father much.

"Yes, of course," Simon said, opening the back door of the car. "They've been preparing for the dinner all week. Just a few family friends. I don't think there are more than thirty people coming tonight."

John was pretty sure he squeaked. "Ahh, if I remember correctly, these… affairs… are usually not jeans and tee-shirt-type events. Simon, you're looking at the type of clothes I own right now. I have two more pairs of jeans and a few more shirts like this one in that bag. That's it." Maybe if he didn't have the right clothes, he could get out of this.

"Mister David arranged for a tailor. He will be waiting for you as soon as we arrive. Once that's taken care of you have the remainder of the day."

John ran a hand through his hair. Fuck. Not only was he going to be seeing his father again for the first time in almost twenty years, he would be doing it in front of an audience.

Simon let John climb into the car before closing the door. A minute later the trunk closed and then Simon was sliding into the driver's seat. "You have an appointment with the dealer in town tomorrow morning after breakfast. They have a large variety of cars available. I'm sure you'll find something to your liking."

"I… wow. You're efficient." John's head was starting to spin a bit.

"It's my job, sir."

"You're very good at it. And you don't have to call me sir. Just John is fine."

"Of course, sir. It's just…habit. I'll try to make the adjustment."

John managed a smile. "I've spent my entire adult life in the military, and we didn't exactly part on the best of terms. So 'sir' has different meanings for me than the rest of my family, I'd guess."

Simon nodded, pulling out of the parking lot and headed for the highway leading out of the main city area. Everything looked exactly the same and completely different. It was a little disconcerting to say the least.

John watched the scenery, remembering the last time he had seen it. He wondered what people would think of him now. He might have been raised high-society, but too many years in the military had changed him. He knew that.

His phone buzzed once in his pocket. Pulling it out, he saw he had a text message.

Glad the plane didn't crash. Try to have fun.

Smiling, John flipped it open.

They have a tailor waiting for me, and my parents have a party with 30 people planned. What did I get myself in to again? How are you?

It took less than a minute to get a reply. Was McKay bored already?

You have a job and people who actually want you there.

Jeannie wants you there. You guys just have stuff to work through. And you're interviewing tomorrow.

They cancelled.

Why?!

The phone rang a few beats later.

John saw the caller ID was McKay, and flipped it open. "Why the hell did they cancel the interview?"

"I don't know. They didn't say and they didn't reschedule. And I can't do the text thing for too long. It hurts my thumbs."

"Why don't you call the place where Jeannie consults? I know you've been resisting it, but it can't hurt."

"I did already. They'll get back to me when there's an opening."

"You have contacts in labs all over the world. I can't believe none of them want you on full-time. They were begging for you when we were on Atl…" he stopped himself, remembering Simon wasn't cleared, and would probably think he was nuts. "When we were on base."

"That was then, this is now." McKay sighed. "So, what's it like to be treated like royalty?"

"Hardly. You should come out here. I'll teach you how to ride."

McKay chuckled bitterly. "Sure. I'll probably fall off the horse and break something valuable, like my brain."

"I wouldn't let that happen and you know it. Want me to ask around tonight when, if I know my father, there will be some big names attending? Odds are good at least some of them will be in the science field. Or hell, you should just start your own lab."

"No, don't worry about it. Just enjoy yourself and settle in. I hear the brat coming so I better get off the phone."

"You should. The more I think about it, the better I think the idea is. Fuck all the people who can't see how brilliant you are. Start your own lab and blow them all away."

"No! Get off me you little monkey! Gotta go."

The line went dead, and John had to laugh. This would be good for McKay. They could work through everything without him there as a buffer—or as an excuse.

"We should be home in about fifteen minutes, sir…ah, John."

"That was fast. I remember it being a lot longer drive for some reason."

"The new highways make it faster."

John looked out the window, and before long, the old, familiar estate came into view. It was just weird to be back here. He was having a hard time believing it was real.

Simon was out and around to his side of the car in no time flat, opening the door. "Millie will show you to where Henry is waiting for you. I'll bring your bags up to your rooms."

Getting out, John looked around. "Wow. It really hasn't changed at all. It still looks exactly like I remember it."

"Your father wanted to keep it that way."

John nodded, following Simon toward the main door. "Where are my parents staying now, if Dave has the main house? Do they live full time in the townhouse in Louisville proper?"

"Yes," Simon said. "Your mother's allergies were getting to be very severe in the country. They've been much happier in the townhouse."

"Are they still involved in the day-to-day running of the business or the stables?"

"To a certain degree. Your brother can answer most of your questions, I imagine," he said. The door opened a moment later and a woman smiled at them, Millie, John guessed.

John reached out and shook her hand before she could stop him. "Hi. I'm John, and I'm guessing you're Millie, right?"

"Yes, sir," she said with a kind smile. "Welcome home."

"Thanks." John ran a hand through his hair. "So I hear I need to go get all dolled up for a party tonight? Jeans and t-shirts aren't considered dinner-wear here, right?"

"Henry is waiting for you. I'll show you the way."

Nodding, John followed her through the halls, shaking his head at the sense of deja vu he was experiencing. Whipping out his phone, he quickly shot off a text to McKay.

Feels like I've stepped back in time.

Millie led him to a large room in the back. He didn't remember what it had been when he was here before. There were various racks set up with suits and trousers and sport coats hanging from them. Another entire rack held shirts. And there were boxes of shoes on the floor.

He blinked. "Please don't tell me this was all brought in just for me."

"Of course, sir," Henry said, turning to look at him. He offered a tight smile. "Your brother and father were quite specific. There's an area for you to change into the first suit," he said, gesturing toward the corner of the room where there was a room divider.

"Just John. You don't have to call me sir." John looked around. "I thought I was just getting a quick suit for tonight?"

"I was informed you required a complete wardrobe, sir. The first suit will help me with sizing. Please." He gestured toward the changing area.

"I usually just wear jeans and a tee-shirt." John peered at the changing area, and sighed. He knew he really didn't have a choice. Might as well get it over with.

"I'm sure that would be appropriate for the stables, sir."

John pulled on the suit, looking at himself in the mirror. It was really, really weird. "I haven't seen myself in anything formal except the occasional dress uniform in a very long time."

"You'll get used to this very quickly, sir," Henry said, immediately pulling and tugging at the material. "It seems like you'll need one size down from this one," he said a few moments later, moving across the room and pulling out two suits, one single-breasted, the other double. "Let's start with these. I can use these as a template for other suits."

"Isn't the office still based here in the house? Dave actually gets dressed up to work from home?" John pulled on the second suit he was given.

"I do not know, sir."

When the other man's back was turned, John rolled his eyes. "Do you think you could get me a few pairs of BDUs? They're actually really comfortable, and the base took mine back when I was discharged."

"I have some khaki pants for you."

He took that as a 'no'. He'd have to go online and find a military supply store to get a few pairs later. Then he spotted the tuxedo. "What's that for?"

"It's a tuxedo."

"I'm not getting married. Why do I need one of those?"

"The Sheppards have an image to uphold. I was told to have you fitted for a tuxedo."

He made a face, but relented. The rest of the afternoon was spent getting through the rest of the pieces he was, apparently, going to need. When he was finally done, the first thing he did was pick up his phone and dial McKay. As soon as his friend picked up, John was talking. "I've been playing dress-up all day. How about you?"

"Well, I was forced to drive to the farmer's market and spend hours wandering around a vermin-infested roadside hut."

"You weren't a living doll. And every piece was a suit, or preppy. Oh, and a tuxedo. Apparently, I have to have one in my closet ready to go on a moment's notice. Why did I think this was a good idea?"

"They're giving you a job and you have an entire wing of a mansion. I think I'm moving into my sister's basement."

"Come live here. I have the room. And Henry can outfit you with a tuxedo."

"I have one in storage. It's from the 80s when I thought I was going to be the youngest person to win a Nobel."

"It probably needs updating. Henry was pretty firm about what is and isn't appropriate. I'm wandering around the halls now trying to remember how the hell to get to the East Wing."

"Turn left, sir."

John whirled and nearly brained the unobtrusive servant who had spoken, just managing to stop himself. "Holy shit! Don't sneak up on me like that! And, um, thanks."

"Yes, of course, sir." She pointed down the main hall. "Just make a left here. The East wing begins just past the French doors."

"Thanks." Blushing, he followed her directions and found the doors, stepping into what was, apparently, now his. "Holy fuck. I don't know if this was a good idea, McKay. I might just fit in here worse now than I did when I was a teenager."

"You'll be fine," McKay said, his voice quiet. "You know how to act appropriately in social situations."

Sighing, John looked around. "I feel really out of place. God, I miss Atlantis."

"You'll get used to it."

"Maybe." John wandered down the hall. There were a lot of doors. "You have to come out here and help me figure out what all these rooms are for. Maybe we could turn one into a game room."

"I'm sure you can figure it all out. It's not like it's rocket science or anything."

"No, I'll leave that to you." It took him a few tries, but he finally found his duffel and guessed this was the bedroom. "Okay, this is going to need to be redecorated if I'm going to live here. It needs less… foofiness."

"I'm sure you'll get used to it." McKay paused. "Look. I have to go. Jeannie's headed my way with what looks like a full head of steam."

"Give me a call later and let me know how it goes. I think I'll go out to the stables. They bred my old horse, so I want to check it out."

"Have fun." He hung up without saying goodbye. John was getting used to that.

Pocketing the phone, he wandered back out. Fortunately, the stables were still where he remembered. Wandering in, he admired the beautiful stock they had. He stopped at one stall where an almost jet-black stallion was sticking his head out, rubbing his nose. "Why hello there. You look a lot like my Jet used to."

"Johnny?"

He turned, his eyes widening as he caught sight of a tall, salt-and-pepper haired man. He felt like he was stepping into his memories. "Joe? God, is that you?"

"I could ask you that same question," he said with a welcoming smile. He shuffled over to John and enveloped him in a hug, pounding his back a few times. "You look good, Johnny."

"Wow, you, too!" John hugged him back. "You haven't aged a day you old coot. I didn't know you were still in charge of the stables!"

"Where else would I go?" he asked, spreading his arms out. "This is home. And I never expected to see you here again."

"Yeah, me neither. But things changed, and now here I am. I'm moving into the East wing, and apparently coming to work for the family business. And I was hoping to get involved with the horses again, too."

"Good. You always had a good eye for them—and the numbers." He nodded and smiled again, gesturing for John to follow him. "We have a few new additions to the stock. Just brought them in two weeks ago."

John followed him, admiring all the horses. "Really? For breeding or racing? And you have some gorgeous lines in here. Is the black one of Jet's line?"

"Both," he said, offering another nod. "Jet was a good stud for us. Gave us some great stock."

John beamed. "I knew he had it in him."

"He lived a long and good life."

"I wish I could have been here for him. I'm glad he had you, though." John sighed. "Leaving the stable was one of the hardest parts of walking away."

"You loved flying more," Joe said with a shrug. "I knew you wouldn't stay."

"Flying is… was… everything. But now it's time to move on, I guess."

"A new chapter. Time to settle down, find a wife." Joe nodded. "Nancy still comes around from time to time. She's friends with Charlotte."

John looked at him in horror. "Oh god! That's… wow. No. I… she's a nice girl, but we just didn't mix."

"Obviously. You two seemed like a good match, but she didn't want to be the wife of a military man. I hear she's in Washington now."

"Good for her. Yeah, I wasn't what she wanted, or needed, at all. Honestly, I don't know if I'll ever get married again."

"I'm sure you will. Come on back and meet my boys."

Humphing, John followed him. The first to catch his eye was a stallion that was so red he almost looked like he was on fire. "Where the hell did you find him? He's gorgeous!"

"I have my sources," Joe said with a chuckle. "I'll let you poke around. I need to get back to my office and finish up a few things before the guests arrive."

"Guests?" John was already lost in admiring the red's lines.

"Your father will probably bring a few of the guests to the stables tonight to show off the horses. I have to make sure we're in tip-top shape."

He looked up. "Oh yeah. I forgot about that. Can you make sure I leave here with enough time to change? I'm pretty sure showing up late from the stables wouldn't be a good way to kick off the new start."

"It's three now, so you probably have an hour."

John pulled out his phone, and set it to buzz him in an hour. "All right. If you don't mind, I'll get better acquainted with the boys, and then head up. If my father does come down, I'll be with him."

"Sounds good. And welcome home, John. It's good to see you."

"You too, Joe." John shook his hand, smiling.

When his phone went off an hour later, he was engrossed in the horses and it took him a moment to remember what it was. "Well guys, I have to go for now, but you can bet I'll be back here later."

He headed in, managing to find his way to his rooms. There was a suit on the bed along with a stripped blue shirt. Shoes and socks were next to the bed. In the huge bathroom, all his toiletries were laid out along with lots of new stuff.

He raised an eyebrow. Okay he really hoped they didn't plan to lay out his clothes for him all the time. He shaved and showered, and just to be arbitrary he picked out a different, green shirt to wear under the suit.

There was a knock on his door and he padded over in sock-clad feet. His mother was standing there, looking old and beautifully regal at the same time.

He wasn't sure why he was surprised to see her. "Mom?"

She smiled, reaching out to him with a thin hand. "Johnny, I'm so glad you're home."

He stepped forward, giving her a big hug. "It's good to see you too. Sorry I didn't come looking for you right away. I guess I just got a little overwhelmed with being back here."

"We just got here a little while ago," she said easily, letting John lead her inside to the small sofa. "Your father is inspecting the food and the kitchen."

"How is Dad?" John sat down next to her, reaching out to hold her hand. "And how have you been?"

"He's the same as he's always been," she said, squeezing his hand. "And I'm the same, too. Nothing really changes here."

"I… I'm sorry I never wrote to you, or called or anything. I always meant to. It was Dad and I who had the problems. I just… I guess I was angry, and then I was busy, and then… I just… managed to convince myself it didn't matter. That I didn't matter and you were better off without me."

She patted his hand. "That's all behind us now. You're here and that's all that matters."

He held back a sigh. He was still skeptical he could ever fit in here, but since he really had no where else to go at the moment, he was stuck. And besides, even if he did leave again, hopefully it would be on better terms. "So tell me what else has been new."

She chatted easily about people he didn't remember—dad's friends, her friends—until he finally heard dinner chime. The blasted bell thing Dad insisted they use.

John blinked. "Holy shi—ah, wow. You still have that thing?"

"Yes, John. Your father likes it," she said, rising to her feet.

He took a deep breath and stood up, offering her his arm. He decided not to comment further on the bell.

As soon as they were downstairs, she patted his arm and glided off, presumably to find his father before making the grand entrance she had always loved.

There were about ten people wandering around in the hallway leading into what passed as the sitting room, servants swirling about offering beverages and plates of finger foods.

John didn't recognize any of them. He quietly slipped into the sitting room, looking around and sticking to the walls, observing.

His brother slid up next to him, holding out a tumbler of some amber liquid. "You look a little shell-shocked."

John accepted it, downing about half in one go. "A little overwhelming, I have to admit. It's good to see you though."

Dave offered his hand, clasping John's hand tightly. "Good to see you, too. You're looking well. Seems like you found everything."

"Mostly, I think." John smiled, squeezing his brother's hand. "And you look fantastic, too. Where's Charlotte? Do I get to meet her tonight?"

"She's mingling," he said, glancing around. "Dad was looking for you earlier."

"He was? I was upstairs visiting with Mom until we heard the bell. I can't believe that it's still in use. It has to be falling apart by now."

"Oh. So that's where she went. I didn't know. And yeah," he said, rolling his eyes. "Dad bought a new one two years ago. I couldn't talk him out of it."

"Heaven help us." John shook his head. "I never figured out why he loves that idea so much."

"They do it in Europe—or so he claims."

John rolled his eyes, taking another sip of his drink. "So who are these people, and why is it so important they all see me back tonight?"

"Dad wanted to have a few key people over now that you're back with us. Mostly they're part of the business, or key investors." Dave shrugged. "This is just a few of Dad's friends, mostly."

"What exactly am I going to be doing? You're the second-in-command here, and I won't just waltz in and take that away from you."

"We'll figure it out."

John made a face, quickly bringing it under control when he spotted their father coming into the room, Mom on his arm. "Wow. He got old. Fuck."

"It's been twenty years, John."

"I know, but… In my head, I guess, he never changed."

Patrick Sheppard spotted John in the crowd and changed his course, heading directly to them. "John. I see you found your way downstairs."

"Father. It's good to see you again." John reached out to shake his hand.

"I see you decided to come back to the nest. The best decision you've made in a long time."

Sighing softly, John shrugged. "Dave invited me."

"You should have come back years ago. The family needs you."

"I was… away. Classified locations. It was a good command, and to be honest, I didn't want to leave, but I made enemies while I was in the Air Force, and one of them finally caught up with me, I guess." It still hurt to think about, so he did his best to shove it away.

"Doesn't matter," his father said, waving it all away. "You're here now, right where we need you."

"I'm sure Dave has done a fantastic job. I'm not here to replace him. Just help out where I can."

"And you will. We have great plans for you. Mingle and say hi. Don't be a wallflower. I know you're not. Get out there and circulate."

John felt like a teenager again, and had to resist the urge to be contrary just out of habit. He straightened, and shot Dave a look before drifting into the crowd. He told himself to think of it as approaching a potentially hostile population on a world they'd never visited before.

The women were exactly as he remembered—plastic and false. The men were still boastful and full of themselves.

John smiled and charmed; two things he had never forgotten how to do.

Dinner was served precisely on time, one hour after cocktails were served. The main dining room was decked out with servants standing in the corners, bottles of wine and water in hand.

John drifted, spotting his brother standing with a lovely young woman. Wondering if that was Charlotte, he made his way over to them. "Hi, there."

"John, good timing. You're sitting by me. But let me introduce you to Charlotte, my wife."

John took her hand, bowing over it and kissing it. "A pleasure. Dave is one lucky man."

"Why thank you. Nancy did say you were a charmer."

He straightened, and kept his grimace to a minimum. "She was a nice girl who deserved a lot better than I could ever give her. How is she doing?"

"Very well. She married again, but I'm sure you knew that. He's a good man. She's heavily involved in Washington herself now. I think she's busier than Eric these days."

He found himself relaxing. "I didn't know she was remarried. Good for her."

"About five years ago," Charlotte said as Patrick Sheppard ushered everyone to their seats. John ended up next to Dave and Charlotte—one on either side—and at the other end of the table from his parents.

He participated in the conversations around him, giving enough not to let anyone think he was ignoring them. It was all a dance, and one that, while he hadn't been using it in this particular setting in a long time, he had been using in off-world trade and negotiations. McKay called it flirting, but it was the art of people management.

The dinner was seven courses and by the time it was over he felt like he'd run a marathon. His father headed into the den for cigars and after-dinner drinks with a few of the men, while the woman headed into the living room.

Hesitating, John debated slipping away, but decided that would get things off onto the wrong foot. This was his first night home. He needed to put in some effort. So instead, he drifted in after his father and brother.

He tried not to cough as soon as the cigar smoke hit him. Did they all light up in less than a minute?

Wrinkling his nose, he moved toward the far end of the room, opening the window there a crack. At least he'd have a little fresh air.

His brother slid up next to him, offering him a scotch on the rocks. "You surviving?"

"It's all very surreal, I have to say. But I think I'm still in one piece."

Dave chuckled quietly. "I hope so. You need to get used to this again."

"Believe it or not, I did get some practice in schmoozing while I was away. But nothing like this, admittedly. It feels like I stepped back in time."

"Get used to it. Dad loves this kind of networking."

"I remember that. You'd think it would get old after a while." John straightened as their father approached with a few associates in tow.

After introductions were completed they ended up talking about nothing more pressing than the local sports team and their golf scores. They eventually shifted away, leaving John feeling limp and wrung out.

It had been subtle, but everyone he had talked to tonight wanted to know what his plans were. Was he re-joining the company? What was he going to do? The problem was, he didn't know that himself.

He needed to figure it out, too.


From: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, June 4, 2007 06:19 AM
To: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]

Subject: Still alive?

Did you survive the first day back home? You wouldn't believe what Jeannie made me do as soon as you left. Work, work, work. Vacation is officially over for me. Do you even see what time it is? AND I've been awake for an hour already. This is ridiculous.

I think she plans to have me help her tear out part of the weeds and crap in the garden. I'm a scientist, not a gardener! I'm going to tear my nails down to the quick and it will get infected and then I'll have to go to the hospital…

Anyway. Hope everything is going well. Try to blend in.
-MRM


From: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, June 4, 2007 08:45 AM
To: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]

Subject: RE: Still alive?

It wasn't too bad. My father is as domineering as I remember, but my Mom is looking really good. He just looks old, which is kind of sad. Dave's wife is a real gem, and I'm looking forward to getting to know her more.

I just got back from my jog—used the bridle paths for the horses, which worked just fine—and got a shower. I'm heading downstairs to meet my mother for breakfast and catching up, which will be nice. Later today, I hope to know what, exactly, they want me to do. I'll keep you posted.

-John

PS: Your nails aren't gong to get infected. Go help your sister in her garden.


From: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, June 4, 2007 09:01 AM
To: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]

Subject: RE: Still alive?

Did you really expect him to change? I mean, come on. He was old when you left and set in his ways. But he has a HUGE account balance and he wants his sons working for him. Enjoy it.

And jogging? Why would you keep up with that if people aren't chasing you? You really are deranged.
-MRM

PS: I don't think there's enough coffee or alcohol to help offset the agony of pulled muscles and ripped nails. Staying inside with the brat seems like a better option.


Chuckling, John shot off a quick reply to McKay's email that afternoon, when he got the chance to catch up quickly. He had spent an hour or so at breakfast talking to his Mom, Charlotte and Dave, and it had been really nice. He was surprised at how much he was starting to relax.

His father had headed back into town first thing, so he'd missed talking to him. Dave assured him they'd catch up later in the week in the office.

John had just accepted it. Their father had never really stuck around for the personal stuff. It didn't really surprise him that the man still didn't.

He changed from the jeans and tee-shirt he had worn down to breakfast—getting a few raised eyebrows—into a pair of khakis and a polo shirt. He and Dave were going to officially sit down and talk about what John's role was going to be, with Dad on the phone chiming in.

"Is John there?" his father asked, his voice getting louder and softer with each word. Apparently he had the speakerphone on his in office, too.

John rolled his eyes, settling into Dave's guest chair. "I'm here, Dad."

"Good, good. I want you to start with the books. I want you to look over the past five years of investment history, get the feel for what we've been looking at. Then we'll move you onto new investments. We have several of them we're looking at currently."

John nodded. He had figured as much. "I can do that. What kinds of investments have you been focusing on?"

"It varies," Dave said with a shrug. "We've gone with some high-tech companies, a few Internet ones, a few private labs… We're looking for high ROI, quick-turnarounds."

"That's what I remember, so okay. What are the deciding factors when it comes to investing or not? I'm guessing the numbers aren't everything."

"Numbers are important, but you're right, they're not everything," his father said. "Sometimes it's a gut feeling. Sometimes it's just a really good proposal and it's the right thing to do."

John smiled. "Good. Excellent."

"Then, there are the horses," his dad said.

John perked up. "I was down in the stables briefly yesterday, and saw the new studs. I'd love to work with Joe on their breeding and racing programs, if that wouldn't be stepping on anyone's toes."

"We need someone to keep a better eye on it," his dad said. "Dave's not really that interested in it."

John shot a grin at his brother. "I'd love to take that off his plate, if he doesn't mind."

"I don't mind. Less work for me is always a good thing," Dave said.

"Great. I'll walk down later today and chat with Joe about it, if you can shoot me over all the paperwork you have. I'll get caught up on the programs we've been running, and how the horses have been doing on them."

"Dave has everything in his office," Dad said. "I want the investment overview by the end of next week."

"I'll have it for you, along with any suggestions I might have for the stables." John relaxed. This just might be okay after all.

"Good. See that you do."

Their father hung up, and John and Dave shared a look. "All right, where is all the paperwork, so I can start going through it? Also, I have a laptop, but do you want me to work down here in the office part of the house?"

"I have the IT company coming in to set you up an office," Dave said, rising to his feet. "They should be here tomorrow."

"Perfect. I'll start going over the hard copy stuff wherever you're going to put me today, and I can move on to the electronic records tomorrow. Once I have a handle on what I need to do, I'll let you know what my schedule is to balance between working here and working over in the stables. I'll talk to Joe about setting up a space for me there, so I can keep the two roles separate."

"Why? It's the same company," Dave said with a shrug. "And until we get your office set up, feel free to work anywhere."

"Because it's easier to stay focused on what you're doing if you have a dedicated space for it. That was the best trick I found for managing my base." John took the stacks of paperwork from Dave.

"Do whatever you want," he said. John thought he was going to say something else, but his brother shifted in his seat, focusing on his computer monitor instead.

Nodding, John headed out, and figured the empty office across the hall was probably going to be his. He moved to the desk, and immediately started organizing the huge stack. It took him an hour to sort through it all, but when he was done, he had a pile for each investment type, sorted by date the initial money was spent, and a pile dedicated to the running of the stables. The stable pile he set aside for now, and picked up the stack of investments made to scientific endeavors. He figured that was as good a place to start as any.

When Millie knocked softly on the door about two hours later announcing lunch, John had already found two investments they needed to get out of immediately. Whoever had agreed to them hadn't done their due-diligence, or something. Or maybe they just weren't paying attention. Both of them were way below the estimated returns and had already placed requests for additional funding.

He smiled at her, standing up and stretching. "Will Dave be at lunch as well? I have a few things I'd like to bring to his attention."

"He went downtown this morning, sir. He plans to return for dinner."

John nodded. "All right, I'll give the office down there a call then. Do you know if the number is programmed into this phone? Or if not, where I can get it?"

"You should be able to dial extension 50 for the receptionist in the office from any phone in the house. To dial out normally, you have to press nine."

"Perfect. I'll be in to lunch in a few minutes then." John sat back down and picked up the phone, dialing the receptionist.

"Sheppard Industries. How may I direct your call?"

"This is John Sheppard. I need to speak with either Patrick or Dave Sheppard please."

"Of course, Mister Sheppard. Please hold and let me see who's available."

"Thank you." John flipped through the files he had flagged while he waited.

"Sir," the receptionist said as she came back on. "David is not in the downtown office today, but your father is available. I'm putting you through now. Please hold."

John tapped his fingers until his father came on the line.

"John," his father said curtly when he came on the line. "I didn't expect to hear from you. Is there a problem or are you throwing in the towel already?"

John rolled his eyes. "I've started going through the books, and there are a few investments we need to get out of immediately. The Usher Labs project and the Peconic-Washer Alliance are both way under the projected profits, and both of them are requesting a huge amount of additional funding without anything to show for what they did with the first round. As far as I can tell, they've had a few very minor breakthroughs, but nothing up to the level of what they guaranteed when Sheppard Industries first invested in them."

"What percentage of profit have we seen with them?"

"Five percent in Usher against a projected eighty-five, and eight percent with Peconic-Washer against a projected seventy-five."

There was a long silence before his father replied. "I hadn't realized they were underperforming to that extent. I knew they were off, but not that much. I'll put legal in touch with you to get those papers drawn up. Anything else?"

"I've just started going through the paperwork, so I'm sure I'll have more later. Greenware, HighJinx, and Percy Labs are all performing at or above projected profits right now. Those are the only five I've been through so far though, sir."

"Good. That's good," his father said, sounding a little stiff. "Alert me immediately if you come across anything else."

"Of course, sir."

"And…good job." The click of the phone and a dial tone indicated that his father had simply hung up.

John sighed, and hung up, wandering out to the dining room. He was hungry. As he walked, he flipped his phone open and dialed McKay.

It took four rings before the phone picked up. "What? I'm already working my fingers to the bone in your backyard. What do you want now?"

"My father has gardeners who take care of the yard, although if you ever want to come help, I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

"What?" McKay squeaked and there was a rustling of the phone and the scientist was back on again. "Sheppard. I thought you were working."

"I'm heading to lunch and figured I would see how you were doing."

"Working my fingers to the bone, no thanks you to."

"What did I do?" John grinned as he made himself a sandwich from the sideboard, phone propped up between his shoulder and ear.

"You were the one who told me to help her. You should see the scrapes and bruises. Not to mention the pulled muscles."

"It's good for you to get out and get some fresh air and a little exercise. You'll sleep better. Any luck on the job hunt?"

"You should see the sunburn I got yesterday," he groused. There was a weird groan before he continued. "I might be relegated to doing yard work for the rest of my life. I actually have contractors coming to the house tomorrow to see about Jeannie's basement."

John winced as he dropped into a chair. "That bad, huh? What about teaching? I know it's not your first love, but maybe you could do it for a while, then move back into lab work?"

"I'm still exploring my options."

"I'm telling you. Put together a proposal and send it to me. Maybe I can get Sheppard Industries to fund your own lab. Then you can do whatever you want."

"I don't want your money," McKay said tightly.

"It's not my money. It's an investment firm that looks for good ideas and opportunities for profit. I know damn well whatever you come up with will be fucking amazing, which means it will be profitable for the company."

"Okay. Apparently you're now hard of hearing. I. Don't. Want. Your. Money."

John sighed. "Fine. It was just an idea. So what else is new? How's Madison?"

"Nothing and fine. She has her parents wrapped around her finger."

"That's what little girls are supposed to do. Is she ready for her recital this week?"

"I suppose so. She's been stomping around and saying she was dancing."

"Make sure you stop and get her a pink flower, to give her after the performance. It doesn't matter how bad it is, you have to go and tell her she was amazing."

"Yes yes. I've already gotten the riot act read to me and there are flowers on order with the florist in town. I'll be sneezing for the next week."

"Good." John laughed. "I won't pretend it will be an enjoyable experience, just don't make any of your real observations out loud, lie through your teeth about how fantastic it was, and by the next day it will all be forgotten."

"Sure it will be." McKay didn't sound convinced. "So, how are things going by you?"

"Good and bad." John played with his sandwich. "Had a call this morning going over everything I'll be doing for the company. I was surprised they gave me management of the stables completely, and right now I'm going over the last year's worth of investments. But when I called my father to let him know what I had found—a few companies we needed to get out of now—his first words to me were that he wasn't surprised I was calling to give up already."

"He's an old coot with a chip on his shoulder. He'll get over it."

"I guess. I've decided to think of him as a commanding officer. I don't have to like him, I just have to do what he says, and say 'Yes, sir' a lot."

McKay snorted. "I guess. How'd the party go last night?"

"It was… odd. Seeing my parents for the first time after almost twenty years was just weird. It was almost as if my father was looking for a reason not to have to talk to me directly. Even now, he's really only saying the absolute minimum, then hanging up."

"Is that new for him? The not talking thing."

John sighed. "I don't know. He was always curt with us growing up if we didn't live up to expectations, and I'm the black sheep, so I guess it's not surprising. I'd guess right now, he probably feels something close to hate for me, but figures he'll use me while he can."

"Wait and see. You haven't really settled in yet."

"Maybe. I've been stationed places and given duties I didn't much like before. I'll survive this, too."

"You'll be fine."

"I know. So will you, you know."

"We'll see. I'm not panicking yet."

"Good." John smiled. "So when are you going to come visit me here?"

"Maybe when you've been there longer than two days," McKay said. The sound of shuffling feet made John look up, finding Millie hovering near the door.

"Hang on a sec, McKay." He looked at her. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir. Simon is waiting in the hall for you. You have an appointment at the car dealership, sir."

He blinked. "I completely forgot about that. Hey, McKay, I'm going to get a new car. I'll take some pictures with my phone and send them to you."

"Let me guess. It'll be red and look like you're trying to compensate for something. Have fun."

John laughed, even as they hung up, and he rose from the table. "Thanks, Millie."

"It's not a problem, sir."

"Just John." He smiled at her.

He got a blush and a smile in response. "Yes, Mister John. If you'll follow me. Simon is waiting."

He figured that was as good as he was going to get, so he followed her through the halls. It wasn't until he was in the car with Simon heading for the dealership that he realized he had never even taken a bite out of his sandwich. Oh well.

"Sorry to interrupt your lunch, sir," Simon said, glancing in the rear-view mirror. "I know Mister Anderson made a special appointment to meet with you this afternoon."

"Don't worry about it. I'm more or less done." He smiled. "I never asked. What car dealer is it?"

"There is a standing arrangement with a dealership in Lexington, sir. It's about an hour's drive."

"All right." John leaned back, closing his eyes. He worked on his breathing, clearing his mind like Teyla had taught him, and letting his stress and worries go.

They arrived without incident and discovered that Mister Anderson was the owner of the dealership. They specialized in high-end foreign cars and John had the pick of what was on the lot.

He looked around, eyes wide. "Anything at all?"

"Yes," he said with a knowing smile. "You can take any of them for a test drive if that will help make your decision easier."

John wandered around the lot, barely restraining himself from bouncing. These babies were some of the fastest cars in the world, and as close to flying on the ground as you could get.

He narrowed his choices down to three: the SSC Ultimate Aero, Saleen S7 Twin-Turbo and Ferrari Enzo. "I'm leaning toward these three, but wow, they're all fucking gorgeous."

"They are," he said, nodding approvingly. "We have all of them in stock. One each since as you can imagine, we don't get a lot of call for them. You're welcome to take a test drive."

"Is there anywhere nearby I can get them up to top speed without getting arrested?"

"Unfortunately, not really."

John made a face. "I'll take my chances then."

"There's a GPS built into the cars and these all have all the options already added in."

"Sweet." John was almost drooling. He slid into the seat of the first one, and shivered. This was better than sex.

He took each of the cars for a test drive, falling in love with each of them for a different reason.

After agonizing a little over which one he wanted to own, he finally decided on the Saleen S7 Twin-Turbo. It had a top speed of 248 miles per hour, could hit 60 in 3.2 seconds, and drove so smooth you'd never know you were going that fast. It was fucking perfect.

Mister Anderson was in his office when John got back from the last test drive, going through some paperwork. It was just after five and most of his sales reps had already gone home for the night.

"I'll take the Saleen."

He glanced up and nodded. "Let me print out the paperwork and get your temporary plates. I'll need your driver's license."

John pulled his license out, handing it over. As he sat and waited, he looked out the window at the car he was actually buying. It was a beautiful shade of blue—like the sky on the horizon if you caught it at just the right time of day.

In less than thirty minutes, John was the proud owner of a new car. And what a car it was.

He walked out, and walked around it, admiring it. Pulling out his phone, he snapped pictures from all angles, and sent them to Rodney with a little icon for drooling.

Simon was standing by the black town car, looking on appreciatively. "Good choice, sir."

John ran a hand over the hood reverently. "I might never want to get out once I start driving her."

"You'll have to at some point, sir. Don't want to ruin the interior."

"True." John grinned and bounced on his toes. "Tell everyone back at the house not to expect me right away. I want to take her out and get a real feel for her."

"Of course, sir. You remember the address?"

John ran a hand through his hair. "This thing has GPS, so let's program it in now while I have you here. This way I can drive wherever I feel like, and don't have to worry about finding my way home later."

"Of course, sir," Simon said, his lips twitching. "It's been twenty years since you were home, so…"

"Exactly. Plus…while I am an excellent navigator in the air, it has been pointed out to me from time to time that I'm next to useless when I'm on the ground." He blushed.

They managed to get the GPS set up without too many issues and then Simon headed back to the house, leaving John with his new car.

His phone buzzed once indicating an incoming text message. He pulled it out of his pocket and chuckled when he spotted the message from McKay.

Typical. Did you get a penis extension, too?

Grinning, John shot back: You're just jealous. She's fucking beautiful.

As he was climbing in, he got McKay's reply. Ha! You're overcompensating.

Who needs a big penis when you've got a car like this? I'll take it over sex any day.

He felt his phone buzz again a few minutes later, but he was already pulling out. He'd answer later. The last thing he wanted to do was crash his brand new car.

John took it out to the long stretch of highway where he had noted there were pretty much no cars on his test drives. He wasn't stupid, but he did get it going pretty fast. Fucking perfect.

He eventually made it back to the house close to nine in the evening. He was wired and starving in equal measure.

Pulling it into the garage, John reluctantly got out. He pressed his hand into the hood, communing with his new car.

If it only had an Ancient interface…

Finally sighing, John headed inside, heading straight for the dining room. He knew no one would still be at dinner, but maybe there would be some leftovers he could steal.

No one was in the dining room, so he ventured back into the kitchen and it felt like he was stepping back in time. There was an older woman straightening up at the end of the spacious chef's kitchen.

His eyes widened. "Katie?"

The woman turned and everything clicked back into place. "Well, now. What has the cat dragged in?"

"Damn, I didn't know you were still here." He moved closer, returning the huge hug she gave him. "If I had, I would have come down sooner!"

"Where else do you think I've gone?"

"I didn't think about it." He grinned. "So just like old times, I'm wandering in after hours starving."

"And let me guess, you were up to no good as usual," she said with a smile as she headed toward the large fridge.

"Just bought a new car today, and had to try it out. It's about as close to flying as you can get on the ground." John's expression turned dreamy.

She chuckled as she pulled out several containers containing leftovers from dinner. "I'm guessing that was your sandwich you left uneaten on the table this afternoon, too."

"Um, yeah. Sorry about that. I made it, but I was talking to a friend, then I was told I had an appointment at the dealership. But tell me about you. What have you been up to?"

"Working," she said with a shrug. "Your father was kind enough to keep me on when he downsized the staff here."

"When did he downsize? And why?"

"A few years ago, when your father moved to the townhouse. With less people in the house, there's no need for a large staff here anymore."

"I guess that makes sense. I still don't understand why he moved to the townhouse though."

"Your mother always preferred the townhouse," she said, putting together a plate for him. "It was easier for her to entertain there and meet up with her other lady friends."

"True. At least she's not so isolated as she was out here. Although I'd think since Dave married and her grandkid is out here…"

Katie moved down to the microwave, popping in the plate of food and setting it to heat up. "I don't ask questions and Miss Charlotte has her own schedule."

John shook his head, sitting on one of the stools at the counter. "Yeah, me neither. I have to admit, I still don't much understand society rules. Military rules are a hell of a lot simpler."

"It's all what you get used to, I imagine." She offered a warm smile. "So, tell me what you've been up to since you left us."

"Well, I joined the Air Force as soon as I left, and that's where I was until a few weeks ago. I made it up to Lieutenant Colonel, but I made a few enemies along the way, and they finally found a reason to get rid of me. But I was running a remote, classified base when I was asked to retire."

"I knew you'd do well for yourself," she said with a smile, heading down to the microwave when it beeped. The steaming plate was placed in front of him a few seconds later, fork and knife appearing a few beats later. "What did you want to drink?"

"Just water. And thank you." He gave her a big smile before digging in. "I've heard my ex-wife hangs around with Charlotte, so I'm sure you heard about that little disaster. Other than that… there's so much I wish I could tell you, but I can't because it's all still classified. Suffice it to say I got to go places and do things that only a very, very small few do."

"Miss Charlotte doesn't say much and I've learned not to listen to the gossip mills." She put a cold glass of water next to the plate.

He shrugged. "I made a mistake when I married her. I didn't love her, but I guess I thought maybe I could learn to."

"You both looked lovely when you got married."

He looked up. "You've seen pictures?"

"Of course. Your father has an album or two from the wedding."

"He… what?" John just stared at her.

"You didn't know?"

John shook his head. "As far as I knew, they didn't know or care what happened to me after I left."

"He always approved of Nancy," she said. "He was happy when you got married."

"He knew we were dating?"

"Of course. I thought he'd introduced the two of you."

John shook his head. "I hadn't spoken to him in twenty years. I… always assumed he just wrote me off completely, like I never existed. I think when I left, I kept expecting him to come after me, to send me a letter or something, especially when I was stationed in the Middle East, but… nothing. I assumed that meant I was as good as dead to him."

"Oh no. He always kept up with what you were doing. He was always talking about his son off here or there."

He didn't know quite what to do with that. "I thought he hated me."

"I don't know about that. He was disappointed in you for leaving."

"I wasn't what he wanted." John was surprised at how bitter he still was about that, even all these years later. "I can still remember what he said the night I left. That if I walked out that door, never to bother coming back, that I was a failure, and don't come crawling to him when I fucked up and had nowhere else to go."

"Well, you're certainly not crawling back to him now," she said, patting his arm. "You're a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force. You've done really well for yourself."

He sighed. "Maybe. I know I did a lot of good out there, saved a lot of lives. But I lost lives too, and made some bad decisions along with the good."

"Everyone does. Even your father," she said, huffing a little as she moved to start cleaning again. "Especially your father. Stop worrying so much of what other people think of you and live your life."

He chuckled, lightening up again. "Remember, I was in the military. You live and die by their rules and the image they want of you."

"Well, get over it."

"Sir, yes, sir!" John snapped off a crisp salute.

She turned toward him, giving him 'the eye'. "Last time I checked, young man, I was a woman. And we'll have none of that in here. Now, finish your dinner."

He laughed. "In the military, everyone is sir, male or female. And this is good, thank you."

"You're welcome. Now eat up before it gets cold. Some of us have some work to do," she said, moving off toward the pantry.

He grinned, polishing off his meal. When he was done, he took the dishes to the sink, quickly cleaning them and putting them away.

Moving through the quiet house, he saw light coming from the den and shifted his path, heading down the hall. The television was on—he could hear it in the hallway—some drama playing on the screen. When he peered in he found Charlotte inside, curled up on one end of the big leather couch.

He shifted enough to make some noise and get her attention. "Evening."

"Oh, John," she said, shifting. "I didn't realize anyone was still up."

"I just got home a little while ago, and was in the kitchen grabbing a bite to eat." He moved further in, smiling. "I'm surprised you're still up."

She shrugged. "I'm a night owl. You brother headed to bed an hour ago. If you're looking for him."

John shook his head. "I wasn't looking for anyone. I just saw the light on and thought I'd come say hi."

"Feel free to come in. I'm just watching a rerun of Law & Order."

"I've never seen it. I wasn't stationed anywhere with television, so we just watched old movies, and whatever series on DVDs anyone could smuggle in."

"Really?" she said, moving on the couch again so she was seated a little more normally. "We have thousands of DVDs in the media room down the hall—television shows included. I just usually can't be bothered going down there to find one of the disks, which is why I end up in here."

He leaned against the couch. "When you don't have it, you don't miss it much. We watched a lot of the same movies over and over, and it was more of an excuse for everyone to officially separate work and time off. We were on call pretty much all the time, so when you could get a few hours in to relax, you took it."

"Then you should be happy to be retired and back home. It'll be a nice change of pace."

"Yes and no. I wasn't ready to retire, and there was still a lot I wanted to do." He drifted off, wondering what Atlantis was doing now, how its people were. Then he snapped himself back. "But it wasn't an option, so I'll move on and make a new life for myself here."

"I know Dave can use the help. He's been working himself to the bone."

"I can't believe how much he was doing." John shook his head. "Dad should have gotten him some help, or at least an assistant a long time ago. No knock to Dave, but as I'm starting to go through the books, I'm seeing the effect of wearing him so thin in things that have gotten overlooked."

"Your father wanted to keep it in the family, so we made due." She shrugged.

"Well, I'm here now, so hopefully I can take some of that stress off him. I'm also taking over the stables, which I know he never really liked, even growing up, whereas I could have lived down there."

Charlotte chuckled. "Honestly, if it wasn't for Joe, we would have gotten rid of the stables long ago."

"Which would have been a shame. There are some truly magnificent animals down there now. I'm looking forward to getting involved again, and spending time working with them."

"I don't know. They're such a time drain, and let's not talk about money."

"Ah, but a well-run program will make you back twice what it costs, if not more." John smiled. "When we were kids, and our father took an active interest in the stables, we were probably tripling our profits off them on a regular basis."

Charlotte waved her well-manicured hand. "So you say."

He shrugged. "I'm hoping to take it there again. Joe's got the right animals, but while he's amazing at the day-to-day running of things, and good at knowing which animals to breed when, he's overwhelmed. With luck, I can step in and in a season or two we'll have a prize-winning stock on hand again."

"We have prize-winning stock on hand. It helped for a while, but…" She let her words drop off.

He reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm taking it off Dave's plate, so it's one less thing for you guys to worry about."

She nodded, her eyes focusing on the television once again.

He smiled. "And with that, I think I'll head to bed. Night."

"Have a good night, John."

He wandered back to his suite, shedding clothes and sprawling across the bed. It finally occurred to him to check his phone to see who called earlier.

He had one missed call, a voice mail, and one text message. The text message was easiest—and from McKay.

Least you've had sex in the last decade.

He rolled his eyes and shot back: Driving the car was more fun. Sex is overrated.

He checked the number of the missed call and of course, it was McKay. John rolled his eyes and pulled up his voicemail.

"Sheppard. It's McKay. What are you doing? It's ten at night. Don't tell me you're still driving that…thing. Anyway…call me if you want. You don't have to."

Checking the time, John realized McKay had called while he was talking to Charlotte. He had accidentally turned the ringer off at some point. He quickly dialed his friend back. "Hey."

"Oh, hey," McKay said quietly. "I see you're still alive."

"Yeah, I was talking to my brother's wife when you called before. Sorry. What's up? And this car is fucking incredible. I can't wait to show you."

"Your brother's wife? Is she pretty?"

"I guess. She's a society girl, and what I imagine my father wanted me to marry. She's a lot like Nancy was. I hear her and Nancy are friends, actually, which is weird."

"Why?" There was some weird sound in the background.

John realized he had probably never told McKay he had been married. "Nancy is my ex-wife."

"You have an ex-wife?"

"It didn't last long, and was a horrible mistake on my part. I knew I didn't love her, but it was my one attempt to at least consider trying to make amends with my family. I was young and stupid."

"Huh. You were married."

"For about six months, of which I was probably home a grand total of two weeks. It ended when she accused me of loving flying more than her, and I said yes, and I always would. She left and I got divorce papers a few weeks later on the base where I was stationed."

"Huh. Let me guess, she's a lawyer now."

"I think someone mentioned she works for the government, but I don't know in what capacity. Apparently she's re-married too. She was a good girl, so I'm glad she's found someone. I've just never met a woman interesting enough to hold my attention. Hell, I think at this point, our friendship the longest relationship I've ever had with anyone, McKay."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah." John smiled at the ceiling. "You're just too damn interesting for your own good."

"Well, then be glad you're not my type. Who knows what would have happened then."

"Awww, I'm crushed. And here I was hoping for a mad love affair." John chuckled.

McKay sputtered some in John's ear, making him laugh harder.

"Anyway, it's been a long day for me, so I'll talk to you tomorrow, okay? Don't stay up too late."

"I was in bed staring at the ceiling trying to ignore the pain in my entire body. I swear even my toe nails hurt."

"Take a hot shower and some ibuprofen." John smiled again. "Sleep well, okay, buddy?"

"Yeah, right," he grumped. "Night."

"Night."

John fell asleep quickly himself, and the next few days followed very similar patterns. He got through all the current investments and pointed out a few more problem areas, and got started working with Joe on revamping the stable program.

It was going surprisingly well as he settled in.

About two weeks after he had returned home, John was headed into a meeting—his first—with his brother and father. It was weird, but he was starting to get over it. As they were getting ready to walk into the building, the unmistakable sound of a gunshot rang out, and without thinking, John had pulled his family to the ground, standing over them as cover with the knife he had gotten, to compensate for not having a gun in his hand and open as he scanned the area, trying to see past the panicking people running around in circles.

"What's going on?" his brother asked, looking panicked and wide-eyed.

John held up a hand to signal for quiet. He continued to scan, and spotted what was probably the target. Someone was being quickly ushered into a black car, with a lot of guards clustered around. From there, his eyes went to the surrounding buildings. There. In a warehouse across the street, a glimmer of movement. "Stay here. Don't move. I'll be back."

"What are you doing? What's going on?" That was his father as he struggled to his feet, dirt on his pants.

"Stay down, or get inside." John started jogging for the building, keeping an eye on the window. Another glimmer. Good. The shooter was staying put, probably hoping for a second shot. That gave him time to get there before he lost the guy.

"John, what are you doing?"

"Getting the bad guy before he gets away." John didn't wait for a reply, picking up his pace and making his way to the building. It was empty, which was probably why the shooter picked it. The movement had come from the third floor, on the south side of the building, so he found a set of emergency stairs and took them two at a time. When he reached the third floor, he slowly, quietly slipped out, soundlessly making his way down the hall.

He heard the sound of sirens in the distance. The police were on their way.

Good. He spotted a door that was cracked open a hair. Bingo. Easing his way forward, he peered through the crack. A person was crouched down, looking out.

He had a case open beside him, padded on the inside. His gun case. He could break down his weapon and simply…walk out without anyone even noticing.

Not likely. He hadn't counted on John.

Moving to the right side of the door, John decided his best bet was to wait until the guy tried to make a run for it, and catch him by surprise as he came out the door. This way, with luck, he could have the guy down and disarmed before he could react.

But then he lifted the gun again, sighting down the barrel. He was aiming again.

Fuck. John eased the door open, moving silently and swiftly forward.

He wasn't dressed for this. A good suit and dress shoes were not the best attire for taking down bad guys.

As the guy adjusted his aim, John's stupid shoe squeaked.

It was all or nothing at this point—especially as the guy turned, catching sight of John as he approached.

Training and instinct kicking in, John stepped forward and grabbed the barrel of the gun, twisting to yank it out of the guy's hand.

The little twerp was stronger than he looked.

John stepped forward, and they struggled for a few minutes. John lost his knife, but finally managed to get the gun away, so they were going at it hand to hand.

He took a few punches, but got the upper hand eventually. Ronon's training—down and dirty Pegasus style—certainly helped him to fight. By the time the police were storming the building, he had the guy on the ground, arms held together high on his back.

"Hands up!"

John looked up. "I'm retired Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, and I happened to be in the area. I'll stand up slowly and let you have this guy. His gun is over there, and my knife is here somewhere. I don't know if he is or isn't further armed."

"Stay where you are and don't move." The police moved in, taking the guy's hands and standing John up. They cuffed both of them and began reading them their rights.

He sighed. It was so much easier when it was military-run. "He was preparing to take a second shot when I arrived."

"You can tell us all about it when we get you downtown," one of the cops said, tugging him forward. This was not what he had in mind when he came up here.

Great. Dad was going to have a fucking cow.

They led him down the stairs, coming out into the sun on the street a few minutes later. Of course, John spotted his brother and father at the edge of the police tape—front and center.

He nodded at the guy who was leading him. "Those two over there are my family, and I was with them when the first shots rang out. They can vouch for me."

As soon as his father spotted him, John saw him gesture to a nearby police officer, his hands waving as he talked.

Yeah. John was never going to hear the end of this. But on the up side, he had stopped the guy from taking a second shot, and possibly hurting someone. So it was a fair trade, in his mind.

The police officer his father had been yelling at headed his way a few moments later, before they were going to put him into the backseat of one of the police cars.

"Hang on, Smith. Check his wallet for a military ID. He's supposedly retired military."

"It's in my breast pocket. Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, retired about a month ago."

The police officer—Smith—reached in John's suit pocket and pulled out his wallet, flipping it open. The top two IDs were his driver's license and his military one. He showed the other man and John watched his eyebrow rise. "So you're a Sheppard."

"Yes, Sir. I heard the first shot, and saw movement in the window. I'm more than happy to go downtown if you'd like to question me, but I made the snap decision to ensure he didn't get away, or take any further shots. My background training is in Special Ops, as well as Urban Warfare."

"Let him go," the older officer said. Smith obeyed quickly, uncuffing him seconds later. "I'm Detective Feehan. I'm sorry for the misunderstanding. If you could come down to the station today to give your statement, we'd appreciate it."

John smiled, and nodded. "Of course. You guys are only doing your jobs, and I was there. You have no way of knowing why. Don't worry about it, and I'd be happy to come down."

"Here," he said, pulling out a business card. "Give me a call when you're going to come in and I'll make sure everything's ready for you."

John took it and nodded again. He could see his father storming over, Dave trailing behind. "Okay."

"Thanks again for your help and I'm sorry for the misunderstanding."

John shook his hand, and joined his father. "Ah, thanks, Dad. I still need to go downtown today to give a statement, but… thanks."

"I tried to explain to them before they stormed the place that you were in there, but they didn't listen," he said, scowling across the crowd at several of the officers, Feehan included. "We'll see if we support them again this year."

"The detective was very apologetic."

"He should have listened the first time I told him you were military."

John was a little surprised that his dad was defending him, and not chewing him out. But he wasn't going to complain, at all. "Do we have any idea who he was shooting at? He was getting ready to try a second shot when I got there and got the gun away, but I didn't get the chance to look out the window and sight the target."

"The State Senator was doing a tour of the city today. That was his car they were shooting at," Dave said, glancing over at where the black car had been earlier.

"Apparently he's pissed someone off." John shook his head. "I hate people who think killing is a good way to make a political point."

"God, John. Look at your suit," his father said, pointing at the rips in the pants.

John looked down, and made a face. "Yeah, this isn't the best attire for wrestling on the floor. My shoes squeaked when I was creeping up on him, so we went hand to hand to try and get possession of both his gun and my knife. Sorry."

"Aren't you carrying?" his brother asked as the officers quietly, but firmly, gestured for them to leave the crime scene area.

John followed them behind the police-taped area. "No. I need to get a concealed weapons permit to carry a gun, and I haven't yet. I do carry several knives, though, and I'm trained in a variety of hand-to-hand techniques. I can even beat someone into the ground with a stick." He smiled as he thought about all the training with Teyla. He should get back to doing some of those exercises so he didn't lose his reflexes.

"What does it matter?" his father asked as they made their way to their office building.

"Why does what matter?" John tried to brush some of the dust off his suit, but he knew it was probably hopeless.

"You carrying weapons or being able to beat someone to the ground. We're businessmen, not thugs."

Ah, here came the lecture John had been surprised to avoid earlier, he was sure. "I spent twenty years in the military, Dad. And a lot of that time I was fighting for my life. It's not something I'm going to forget, or give up easily."

"Apparently not."

Sighing, John looked down at himself. "Look, I doubt you want me walking in there now, especially looking like this. Why don't you go without me, and I'll catch up with you later?"

"This is your meeting, John. You should have thought of that before rushing off to play hero," his father said, pushing open the door into their building.

John narrowed his eyes slightly at his father's back, but took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. He had commanded a base. He could command a board room, even with a dirty suit.

He took five minutes to freshen up the best he could in the hallway bathroom before heading into the boardroom.

He walked in, using body language and his training to immediately command attention, and give him control. "Gentlemen, thank you for having us. Sorry we were a bit delayed. There was a bit of an incident outside before we got in."

The men were very forgiving, simply waving off the delay. They knew better than to protest. They were here looking for money from Sheppard Industries. For John, this was the first time he'd outline what was required in the application process and what they were looking for in terms of ROI.

He fell easily into the presentation and explanation, and asked a lot of questions once it was their turn to pitch. It was a lot like going to the SGC and justifying WHY you needed more men or bullets, only this time, it was money.

A few of them gave him some very convincing arguments. Others, were obviously not prepared at all. There was one guy who was very quiet and stumbled through his presentation. But there was something that piqued John's interest when he was outlining his company's mission and product.

He focused on that guy—just one guy instead of a whole group, asking a lot of questions. He wanted to put his finger on what was setting off his internal antenna.

After about fifteen minutes, Dave quietly interrupted. "John, do you want to take this off-line? If you don't have questions for anyone else, we can let them head out."

He nodded. "Sure. Thanks everyone, and we'll be in touch."

There were a few quiet grumbles, but they all filed out, leaving John alone with the one man—Arthur Havenstein. Patrick and Dave had walked out with the others, discussing due dates and submission guidelines.

"Arthur, there's something about your project that's escaping me. Run through it one more time for me."

He got a nervous scowl in response—very much like McKay when he was trying to be brave. Maybe that was what was giving him that weird feeling.

John just smiled, trying to be encouraging.

"I don't want to get into too much detail, because…well, honestly, I don't want you to be able to take my work and pass it off as your own," Arthur said.

He shook his head. "I don't want to steal your work, Arthur. For one, I'm not smart enough for that, and second, what good would that do me? I'd rather hire you and fund your company to make a profit for everyone."

"That's what I've been told before."

"Fair enough." John ran a hand through his hair. "I want to help you, but I know that without a bit more detail, I'm going to have a hard time pushing it through. Can you give me anything else I can work with, without compromising your work?"

"Why did you single me out? My idea's small compared to the others."

"Because I think yours has the most potential." John shrugged. "And you remind me of my best friend."

"Oh, great," he mumbled, rolling his eyes.

"He happens to be the most intelligent man I've ever met, and while his ideas don't always work the first time, they're always generations above what anyone else is thinking about. I see some of the same qualities in you—which makes me curious about your project, and interested in investing in it."

"Okay, now you're just trying to be nice."

"Nope. Well, I'd like to think I'm a nice person in general, but in this case, my interest stems from having a hunch that you're probably a genius with an idea that, if you get funding, could have huge impacts. Which, in turn, means Sheppard Industries makes a huge profit right along with you."

"Right after you steal my rights."

John pushed a paper across the table, tapping on it. "This is our contract, and, if you read through it, you'll see that once we've all signed, if we were to steal anything, you could sue us for damages. Not something I'm particularly interested in going through, honestly." He paused. "Why are you here today? Obviously you're worried about me, but at the same time, you're the one who initially contacted us to inquire about funding."

Arthur looked a little constipated. "I…I need the money."

"And I really want to give it to you. But you're going to have to trust me, at least a little." John rose. "Tell you what. Look through all the paperwork here, and the process we have in place for approvals. Here's my business card with my direct contact information. If you decide you want to trust me, call. If you decide to take your ideas elsewhere, that's okay, too."

Arthur stared at the card in his hand for a long moment as John slowly headed for the door. "Who do I remind you of?"

"His name is Rodney McKay. I worked with him when he was a civilian contractor at the base I commanded for the Air Force. And I still talk to him on a regular basis."

"The astrophysicist?"

John looked back, surprised. "You know him?"

Arthur shrugged, stumbling to his feet with a strange nervous energy. "Not really."

"But you've heard of him? I know he hasn't published in a long time, because everything he's been working on lately is classified."

"Thought he was dead."

John shook his head. "No, he's just worked for the government for a while, although he recently terminated his contract with them. Unfortunately, while he had some huge breakthroughs, they all belong to good old Uncle Sam, so he still can't publish them."

Arthur nodded, shoving all the papers and documents in his briefcase, fastening it closed with shaking hands.

"I hope to hear from you soon, Arthur. And feel free to do any background checks on me that you'd like."

"I…ah…yeah. I will," he said, shuffling out of the conference room like his ass was on fire.

John shook his head and grinned. Geniuses were so cute when they were flustered.

John turned back to the conference room table, straightening up his own papers. He was almost finished when his father walked back in. "You picked the smallest ROI to focus on?"

"He's low-balling himself because he's been burned before, with people stealing his ideas. But if we can get him on board, he'll probably triple our bottom line in the long term."

"If we can get him on board. That's your job, to convince them to work with us. He looked like he was scared as he ran out of here."

"I've dealt with his type before. McKay is the same way. Skittish and temperamental, but if you can get past the brave front they put on for show, there's real gold underneath."

"If you say so," Patrick said with a snort.

"If I'm willing to put my life in their hands, I'm willing to put my money there as well."

His father rolled his eyes. "I want these deals closed by the end of next week."

"We should walk away from UBI and Osirus. I wasn't keen on them to begin with, and this meeting didn't change anything."

"They have real potential." And they were the two his father had brought to the table.

John shook his head. "They're fudging their numbers. If we invest, we might—and I stress might here—be able to get a few percent ROI out of them if we're lucky. If not, we'll lose money."

"You can't tell that just by glancing at their sheet."

"Yes, I can." John pulled out the paperwork they had been given. "The numbers don't add up. Look here, and here, and here. They're jumping by massive percentages, and when you look further at the detailed breakdowns, you can see those don't match these projections."

His father was silent as he took the pages from John's hands, his eyes narrowing as he examined the numbers. His body tensed up the longer he looked and John could see the moment realization set in.

"They're trying to play us. My guess would be get a huge amount of cash, create some phony reports, and then skip town. When I was researching their companies, I couldn't even find much information, which was my first red flag. But it wasn't until they gave us this bullshit today that I figured it out."

"I'll talk to them," his father said stiffly.

"Why?" John shrugged. "We'll just tell them no."

His father glanced up, glaring at John. "There's more involved than that."

"We haven't invested in them yet, unless you told me this was my meeting, but you went behind my back without telling me and made deals with them. If that's the case, then why am I here?"

"Some of these have been in the works for months," his father said defensively.

"Which is fine, but they're bad deals. They're trying to steal from us. I don't care how long they've been trying to do it."

"You don't know that for sure!"

"Sure I do." John gestured to the paperwork. "It's all right there. They tried to hide it and assumed we wouldn't catch it, but it is there."

"Anthony's a family friend—"

"And he's trying to use that to steal from you."

"He wouldn't do that," his father said defensively.

"He is doing that. Take the numbers and go over them yourself."

His father scowled at him, but didn't respond.

John finished organizing his papers, and straightened. "I need to head to the police department to give them a statement about what happened earlier. If you have the driver drop me there, I'll catch a cab home tonight."

"I'll send Simon to get you."

"That's not really necessary."

"You're not taking a cab back to the house and that's final."

John knew when to pick his battles, and this one wasn't worth it. "Fine. I'll probably be a few hours, by the time they get everything they need from me." John whipped out his cell phone as they headed out, along with the business card of the detective. He also saw he had a text from McKay.

He checked that first. Don't panic if you hear from my sister. I'm fine.

John's eyes widened, and he completely ignored whatever his father was saying to speed-dial McKay's number.

It rang five times before going to voicemail.

"McKay, you had better call me when you get this, and if you've done something stupid, I will come up there and kick your ass. Goddamnit! You can't send me texts like that! What the hell happened?"

He got a disapproving look from his father, which he pointedly ignored. He hung up his cell and immediately scrolled down to Jeannie's cell number. She picked up after eight rings.

"Hello?"

"What the hell happened to McKay?"

"John?" Jeannie sounded exhausted.

"I just checked my phone, I've been in meetings all day. What happened? He didn't give me any details, just said not to worry if I heard from you."

"I'm sorry. I meant to call you this morning, but I've been up to my eyeballs in paperwork. Meredith doesn't have any health insurance coverage so it's been a little crazy trying to figure out who's paying for everything."

"What. Happened. To. Him?" John was struggling to keep from panicking as he climbed into the car, his father and brother right behind him.

"It happened last night during dinner," she started, but was distracted by another voice. Maddie. "Yes, honey. We're going to see Uncle Mer now. Sorry, John. Ah…we were eating dinner and you know how Mer can get about things."

"What happened? Is he okay? Where is he now? Did he have citrus?"

"It was a bee," she said with a sigh. "We didn't see it, but he started having a reaction less than a minute after he said it stung him."

"Oh my god." John closed his eyes. "Is he okay? He did have an epi-pen on him, right?"

"He's going to be fine. We're going to the hospital to see him now. I think they'll probably release him later tonight."

"Make him call me as soon as he can."

"I thought he had his phone. Although, the nurses were yelling at him about having it this morning, but he wasn't in any shape to argue with them. They might have taken it away."

"I just had one text from him, and it was dated from this morning." John was surprised to see his hand was shaking a little. "Fuck."

"They probably confiscated it, then." She sighed quietly again. "Yes, Madison. We're going. John, let me go. I need to finish this paperwork and then talk to the doctors. He was biphasic, so I want to make sure everything's okay before we bring him home."

He swallowed. "All right. Go. Call me if you need anything. If I need to be, I can be on a plane up there tonight."

"That's not necessary. We can handle it."

"Just… take care of him. God. Call me as soon as you have an update, or make him do it if they release him."

"I'll try. Thanks for calling, John."

"Yeah. Bye, Jeannie." John hung up, and shot a quick text for Rodney to get when he got his phone back. Jerk. If you die and leave me alone on this planet, I will hunt you down in Hell. Get well soon.

The car pulled up outside the police station a few seconds after he looked up from his phone. "Problem?" Dave asked. His father was on his own cell talking away.

John had to take a few deep breaths. He could take a man down without breaking a sweat, but even the thought of McKay in trouble sent him into a tizzy. He was fucked up in the head. "McKay was stung by a bee, and he's allergic. He went biphasic, and is in the hospital now. That was his sister."

"McKay? That's your friend you were staying with?"

John nodded. "Bastard left me a fucking text telling me not to worry if Jeannie called. I'm going to kill him when I see him again."

"If he's fine, then there's nothing to worry about," Dave said with a shrug. "I'll send Simon back with the car once we get home."

John knew neither Dave or his father would really understand, so he just nodded. "All right. I'll… see you later then. Thanks. Don't let Dad make a bad deal."

His brother nodded as John climbed out of the car, it pulling away a few seconds after he closed the door.

John had to shake himself a few times. Right. Police station. Report. He pulled the detective's card out again and dialed it as he walked in.

"Feehan."

"This is John Sheppard. I'm walking in to your station now, and you had said to call. Sorry I didn't call sooner, I had an emergency with a friend and I was trying to find out what was going on."

"Do you need to get that sorted first?"

"No. He's in Canada, so there's not much I can do at the moment. He's in the hospital, but I spoke to his sister, and she thinks he'll be okay. Bad allergic reaction to a bee sting."

"Oh, okay. So you're walking in now?"

"I'm standing inside getting a very nasty look from the gentleman at the front desk, actually."

"Ignore, Artie. Tell him you're waiting for me. I'll be there in five."

"Sure thing. Sheppard out." John held the phone out to the guy at the desk. "Artie? That was Detective Feehan, and he's coming out for me now."

"Have a seat."

John nodded, taking a seat in the small waiting area. He fiddled with his phone and worried about McKay. What if he had another reaction? What if he died?

McKay's allergies were bad. He knew that too well. He'd seen one reaction on Atlantis and that was all he needed to scare him into believing the scientist wasn't kidding about everything he said.

Jeannie had never answered him about the epi-pen, either.

John jumped when someone called his name. "Yes?"

The detective was hovering over him. "Sorry to startle you."

John shook his head. "I was just worrying." He stood up.

"Your friend?"

John nodded. "Yeah. We served together, and still keep in pretty close contact."

"That's always good to hear," the detective said, escorting John through the various corridors. "Sometimes people lose touch after serving together and it's sad."

John managed a chuckle. "I have a feeling McKay and I will never lose touch. We have a weird friendship."

"Those are the best," Feehan said with a smile. "And before we start, I want to say thanks again for your help this morning and I'm sorry for the misunderstanding."

"I probably should have stopped to think about what I was doing." John gave him a wry grin. "To be honest, training kicked in before I considered if it was a good idea or not. My father and brother, I think, were horrified that I actually ran into a building where someone with a gun was trying to kill people."

"It was a good instinct and the Senator appreciates your help, I'm sure."

"I was just doing my duty, sir. Serve and protect."

"Not everyone would step in, Colonel." He gestured to a chair across from his desk. "Have a seat. Can I get you anything?"

"Actually, water would be great." John gave him a tired smile and took a seat.

"Get comfortable and I'll be right back with your water," he said, heading back out.

John leaned back, checking his phone one more time before pocketing it. Nothing. Not that he really expected McKay to text back so fast.

The detective handed him a bottle of water when he walked back in, closing the door behind him. As John opened it up and took a sip, Feehan sat down behind the desk. He was a built like a line-backer and the large desk did nothing to disguise it.

"So what do you need from me now?"

"Let's walk through everything you saw and what you did," he said, pulling out a tape recorder. "We might need you as a witness later on, but I'd like to get as much down now as possible."

John nodded, and proceeded to go over the day, from when he first heard the shot, through to when he first met Feehan. They went over it several times, with the detective asking a lot of questions.

Finally, the detective nodded, jotting down a few more notes. "I think that should do it. I'm sorry you had to come down and spend your evening in the police station."

"No, it's okay. I'd rather do this now, and make sure the guy who tried to solve his problems with a gun was permanently out of public circulation and behind bars."

"Thanks, again," he said rising to his feet and extending his hand to John. "If there's anything I can help you with—permits, parking tickets, whatever—please let me know."

John chuckled. "Thanks. So far I've managed to keep myself out of trouble, but I'll keep that in mind. Feel free to give me a call if you need anything else."

"I will," he said, pointing to his notebook. "I have your number."

They shook hands again, and the detective led John back out to the front hall. John spotted Simon sitting in a guest chair. "Looks like my ride is here too."

"That's always helpful," Feehan said with a chuckle, reaching out to shake John's hand again. "Thanks for your help. It's much appreciated."

Simon got up as John approached, and led him out to the waiting car. "Thanks for coming all the way out here. I could have grabbed a cab, but I know my father was adamant."

"This isn't a problem, sir," Simon said immediately. "It's my pleasure."

John had given up trying to get the staff to stop calling him sir. It was still really weird, but just not worth the hassle.

"Did you want to stop anywhere to get some food before we head home? It's late and it's Katie's night off. I'm not sure what's in the house."

John slumped in the back seat. He was absolutely exhausted. "To be honest, I don't even know if I'm hungry. It's been a long day."

"I can pull through a drive-thru if that will help. I know Mister Sheppard doesn't approve of them, but it's good in a pinch."

"Yeah, my father doesn't really understand the perfection of a hamburger and greasy fries at 2 am."

Simon chuckled as he backed the car out of the parking space, headed for the road. "I don't think he's ever had one, honestly. Can you imagine your father eating a Big Mac?"

"I think the world would actually come to an end if he had." John laughed.

"So, McDonald's or Wendy's?"

"Either one is fine—whichever we come to first. It's been ages since I had either."

"They're about twenty feet from each other. It's your pick, sir."

"Let's do a Big Mac then, and a small fry."

"So a supersize Big Mac meal. Diet Coke or regular?"

"I can't actually eat that much. You'll have to share the fries then. And something without caffeine to drink. Lemonade or whatever they've got. I want to sleep when I get home."

"Of course, sir," Simon said, pulling into the drive-thru lane. Less than five minutes later, John had a lap-full of greasy, hot fast food.

He devoured the burger, surprised at how hungry he actually was, and then nibbled on the fries—making Simon take half up in front with him—the rest of the way home. By the time they made it back to the estate, he was full, exhausted, and ready to just collapse. And there were no new messages on his phone.

Did he try calling again? Did he wait? Part of him just wanted to get on a plane and fly up to Toronto and find out for himself. But he had meetings tomorrow. Things to do.

Sighing, he decided to shed his clothes in a pile—they were pretty much ruined anyway—and collapse into the bed with the phone right by his ear and the volume all the way up. At least this way, he'd hear if Rodney or Jeannie tried to get him.

He was going to give McKay a piece of his mind when he finally did call and tell him everything was okay. This type of…thing was just…unacceptable.


John's week passed in a blur. He checked in with Jeannie daily, but with the treatments Rodney was taking to make sure the reaction didn't come back, and all the poisons were out of his body, he was either sleeping or completely out of it.

It didn't make it easier for John, who just needed to hear McKay's voice to reassure himself his friend was okay. The only reason he wasn't up there was Jeannie telling him he would have to sleep in the grass if he tried.

And when she used that tone of voice, he had to admit he was scared of her.

Sitting at his desk, John stared blankly at the screen. Maybe he should go out to the stables and grab one of the new studs to ride. They needed exercise, and it would take his mind off things.

The phone on his desk gave a hearty ring a few minutes later when he was considering actually climbing to his feet.

Sighing, John picked it up. "Sheppard."

"I wouldn't recommend asphyxiation as a way to go. There's no way it could ever be erotic, either."

John blinked. "McKay?"

The scientist coughed, covering the phone. "Sorry. And yeah, it's me. Or what's left of me."

"Christ." John sagged into the chair. "You scared the shit out of me, you jerk. How are you feeling?"

"Better than I was, if that's any consolation."

"Your sister is scary. If she hadn't threatened me, I would have been up there days ago."

"Nothing you could do except watch me sleep. She actually stole my cell phone, so I managed to find the house phone. She ran out to the store and would kill me if she knew I got up."

"So what exactly happened? She said you were stung by a bee."

"Yeah. On my left arm. No one believed me until I couldn't breathe."

"Shit. But at least they got you to the hospital in time."

"Eventually, yeah. I honestly don't remember much after a certain point in the backyard until I was in the hospital. The doctors say the scar will eventually go away."

"Fuck." John rubbed a hand over his face. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Send Jeannie a few boxes of epi-pens so she has some in the house next time this happens. I don't want to get another hole in my throat if I don't have to." He coughed again, pulling the phone away from his mouth so he wasn't coughing in John's ear.

John swallowed hard. He crooked the phone between his ear and shoulder, and immediately started searching the Internet for a medical supply store. "When do they think you'll be completely back to normal?"

"Few more days. I was fine a few days ago, but Jeannie's been worse than Carson.

"Good. You need to give yourself time to heal before you go abuse your body again."

McKay snorted quietly. "Yeah, I guess. I'm just glad it all worked out. I never want to hear my sister crying and screaming like that again."

"God… Rodney…" John had to swallow again. "Yeah. Don't do that again, okay?"

"Trust me. It wasn't my plan in the first place." He sighed. "I hate this and I feel bad about yelling at Jeannie about not being prepared since she's been walking around looking guilty for days now. I mean, it's great to be waited on hand and foot, but still…"

"I know. I wish I was there."

"There's nothing you could do."

"I still wish I was there."

"Why? There's really nothing you can do except watch me sleep. Jeannie barely lets me get out of the bed to go to the bathroom even though I am more than capable of navigating the house on my own."

He had to smile. It was a clash of wills he was sure. "I'm glad you're feeling better, though."

"Me, too," McKay said and John could hear the sincerity of it. "Jeannie's been going on for days now that I have to stop scaring her. But I have to tell you, it was pretty scary from my end, too."

"I can imagine. Well, no, I can't, but…" John sighed. "So when can I come up and visit you without your sister hurting me?"

"You just started working. You can't want a vacation already."

"I want to see for myself that you're still alive and well."

"I'm fine. I'm talking to you aren't I?"

John couldn't explain why he was having such a hard time, and wanted to see McKay for himself so badly. "I know, it's… I guess you're right. You should still come visit me though."

McKay snorted. "Like Jeannie would let me. She barely lets me out of my bedroom to pee, let alone go to another country."

"I didn't mean tomorrow." John rolled his eyes. "Maybe next month."

"Maybe," McKay said. There was a strange fumbling and a broken-off yell over the line a few seconds later.

"Is this John?" Jeannie. Damn it.

"Yeah. Hi." He found himself ducking his head, even though she couldn't see him.

"My dumb-ass brother thought it was a good idea to trek downstairs to get the phone. I have to have a talk with him and put him back to bed."

"We just wanted to talk. Catch up. You know. It's been a few weeks."

"It's been a few days."

"You could give him back his cell, and we'll go back to texting each other all day."

"He needs his rest."

"He'd be resting. In bed, laying down, just pressing some letters on a keyboard. Or, better yet, give him his laptop and we can IM each other."

"That is not happening," Jeannie said firmly. "And Meredith Rodney McKay, where do you think you're going? Sit right back down until I tell you that you can get up."

John flinched. It was never good when they used your full name. "But Jeannie…" He didn't care that he was whining.

"John, I will call you back later. Bye."

She disconnected the line before John could even put up a token protest.

"Damn." He made a face at the phone before hanging it up.

He and McKay managed to sneak in a few more short calls over the next week before Jeannie, exasperated with both of them, finally declared Rodney fit to get out of bed. They immediately went back to almost constant communication, and something in John's chest loosened back up.

Everything was right in John's world again, and for the first time in weeks, he turned all of his attention back to his work.


From: MIT Graduate Admissions [mailto:mit_grad_admissions@mit.edu]
Sent: Monday, June 25, 2007 09:09 AM
To: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]

Subject: Welcome to the MIT School of Engineering

John,

We are proud to welcome you to MIT AeroAstro, part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Engineering.

The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century. And your academic achievements have proved to us that you are among those who will take us closer to our future.

The Institute admitted its first students in 1865, four years after the approval of its founding charter. The opening marked the culmination of an extended effort by William Barton Rogers, a distinguished natural scientist, to establish a new kind of independent educational institution relevant to an increasingly industrialized America. Rogers stressed the pragmatic and practicable. He believed that professional competence is best fostered by coupling teaching and research and by focusing attention on real-world problems. Toward this end, he pioneered the development of the teaching laboratory.

Today, MIT is a world-class educational institution. Teaching and research—with relevance to the practical world as a guiding principle—continue to be its primary purpose. MIT is independent, coeducational, and privately endowed. Its five schools and one college encompass numerous academic departments, divisions, and degree-granting programs, as well as interdisciplinary centers, laboratories, and programs whose work cuts across traditional departmental boundaries.

Welcome to MIT. We hope the next few years will be as rewarding and fulfilling for you as we believe they will be.

Susan Hockfield
16th President of MIT


John stared at his screen. What the fuck? He hadn't applied to MIT. Maybe it was a new spam chain. He picked up the phone and dialed his brother's office. "Hey, did you just get a letter welcoming you to MIT?"

"No. Why would I? I didn't apply."

"Huh. Neither did I, but I just got an acceptance letter. I was wondering if it was some kind of spam."

"Why would MIT send you spam?"

"Why would they send me an acceptance letter when I didn't apply? Hang on, I'm forwarding it to you."

"Sure," Dave said, shuffling things on his desk as John forwarded the message on. He heard the ding on the other end of the phone a few seconds later. "And…this looks real."

"Again, why would MIT accept me into a program I didn't apply for? I have my Masters, and I wasn't really planning to get my PhD."

"I don't know. Ask McKay. Look, I have to get back to this letter. I need to get it out today."

"McKay…?" John suddenly had a sinking feeling. "Yeah, okay. Thanks."

As soon as he hung up with Dave, John was dialing Rodney's cell.

Three rings later, Rodney picked up. "Yeah?"

"Did you send in an application to MIT on my behalf?"

"Ah…why?"

"Because I just got a letter from them telling me I was accepted into their Aeronautical Engineering doctorate program."

"Congratulations!"

"I didn't apply!" John rubbed the bridge of his nose. "What would I do with it?"

"If you got an acceptance letter, then you obviously applied. They don't just send those out willy-nilly. And you should be honored that they're taking you in the special pilot program that doesn't require you to actually go to Cambridge."

"What!" John blinked. "I don't know anything about the program!"

"Best in the country."

"I don't even know what's involved. What would I have to even do for it?" John hated that he was getting suckered in to this, damn McKay.

"I'm sure they'll tell you everything you need to know. Congrats. It's a great honor. It's a good school."

"You are an evil man, you know that right?"

"What? What did I do?"

"Don't be coy. I know you sent in the application, and we both know I'm insane enough to do it now that I've been accepted."

"You'll enjoy it."

"You're still evil. Where am I going to find time to do school work along with all the financial stuff and running the stables?"

"You'll enjoy it," he repeated with a chuckle. "Congrats, John. You deserve it. I'll talk to you later."

"Bastard." John didn't put any heat into his words, getting another laugh from McKay as they hung up. Well. He supposed he should tell his father, since it would mean at least some juggling of duties. He wondered what kind of a reaction this was going to get.

His phone rang a few minutes later as he was composing a letter to his dad.

He picked it up absently. "Sheppard."

"So do we need to throw you a party?" his brother asked.

John grinned. "Apparently I'm getting my PhD. McKay is a bastard, but he knew damn well I wouldn't be able to turn down an actual acceptance into the program."

Dave laughed. "Well, you know how he is. Congrats. I'm sure dad will be pleased."

"You think? I'm shooting him an email now, with the letter from MIT attached."

"Of course. It'll help you to tell the difference between some of the proposals. It's all good."

"It's aeronautical engineering."

"Good. Those are things we couldn't handle before. That'll be great. McKay was right."

John shrugged. "We'll see. I'm sending the email to Dad now."

"Good. Let me go and finish this before lunch calls."

"All right. I'll talk to you later then." John pulled up MIT's website, looking for more information on the program he was apparently now enrolled in.

It was a little overwhelming, but also very exciting at the same time. But, god. He'd be competing against kids half his age.

His phone rang again, and this time he checked the caller ID. Dad. Taking a deep breath, he picked it up. "Sheppard."

"Were you going to tell me you applied?"

"I didn't apply myself. My friend, McKay—you've heard me talk about him—had been on me to do it, and when I didn't, he decided to do it for me. So, um, I'm apparently accepted into MIT's doctorate program."

"You're going to accept it? What about your responsibilities here?"

"I was thinking about it. The program is aeronautical engineering, which is my passion. I'd still work here though, for you. It's a pilot program, apparently, that doesn't require me to attend classes there."

"And what kind of benefits will this give us for the business?"

"Well, I'd be able to evaluate a wider range of investment options. And eventually, I could design planes as a subsidiary to Sheppard Industries."

"Would we be able to pick up governmental contracts because of your previous postings?"

"Possibly. To be honest, it would depend on who we were trying to deal with, and why. I have enemies in high positions, but I also had friends."

"But this…degree would benefit the company."

"You could say your son was a doctor." John knew if his father wasn't on board, he could rebel and do it anyway, but life would be hell. If he didn't want to disrupt the semi-peace they had managed to come to…

He was silent for a few minutes, obviously thinking. "Okay," he said begrudgingly. "You can do this as long as it doesn't impact what you're already doing."

John wanted to give a sarcastic retort not to do him any favors, but held his tongue. "Thanks."

"Just…make sure nothing gets past you. This family is counting on you."

"Don't worry. I can handle it."

"Of course you can. You're a Sheppard."

John huffed, and they signed off. He stared at the computer, then started going through the MIT program in more detail, looking at what he would need to take, and when.

It was a little overwhelming, but wow. This was going to be fun.


It had come surprisingly easily, which worried him. Once he had talked to MIT and found out the courses were starting soon for the summer session, he had rearranged his schedule and fit it all in. His days were full now, but… a lot more fun than he would have guessed before.

It was late afternoon, one of the times he set aside for work in the office on the financial side of things, when his phone rang. "Sheppard."

"John Sheppard?"

"Speaking." The voice sounded vaguely familiar.

"This is Arthur Havenstein."

John blinked. "I remember you. I figured you had decided to go somewhere else. What can I help you with?"

"Can we meet again?"

"Of course." John opened up his calendar on the computer. It synced with his laptop and his phone, and was the only way, these days, he knew where he was supposed to be and when. "When's a good time for you?"

"Friday? Around lunchtime."

"I think I can do that. How about Vincenzo's in the city?"

"Are you paying?"

"Of course." John smiled. "After all, I'm the one trying to win your trust and your business."

"Okay. Yes, then. That's fine. Noon?"

"I'll see you there." John made a note of it in his calendar.

"Yes. Friday. Noon. And you're buying."

He laughed. "Have a good week until then, Arthur."

"Ah, yes. You, too, Mister Sheppard."

The week passed fairly quickly—John and McKay were still talking every day, usually more than once—and Friday John used the meeting as an excuse to take his very sweet car out for a ride. If his father was involved, having Simon drive them was non-negotiable, but John loved when he could get out on the road himself.

Vincenzo's was a nice place and one John tended to go to for work lunches. Good food, good service and they didn't care how long you stayed.

He handed off his keys to his usual valet—he tipped the guy very, very well, so he knew his baby was always going to be well taken care of—and headed inside to the concierge.

"Mister Sheppard," Alfred said with a smile. "Your guest is here. I sat him at your usual table."

"Perfect. Thanks." John flashed him a smile and another big tip before heading to his table. "Arthur, good to see you again!"

The scientist fumbled to his feet, dropping his napkin, two forks, and a knife as he stood. "Mister Sheppard…oh sorry, but ah, thanks for coming…for lunch…for meeting me."

Trying to put the scientist at ease, John smiled, picked up the dropped items, and sat down. "It's a pleasure. I'm glad we finally get to sit down and chat again."

A waiter swooped in, changing out the silverware and napkin immediately. "Yes, ah…thanks again for saying yes…and taking time out of your schedule."

"What made you decide to give me a call? I'm curious."

Arthur glanced down at his hands, shrugging. "Honestly, I'm running out of options."

John felt bad. "I don't want to force you into something you're not comfortable with. We can talk about anything you'd like, but at the end, if you're not interested in working with me, I won't be offended if you walk away."

"And…you said you knew…McKay."

John smiled, and nodded. "I talk to him every day." John's phone buzzed that he had a new text, making him chuckle. "In fact, that's probably him yelling at me for driving too fast."

"He…you…"

John rolled his eyes. "He knows my family's estate address, which is where I live and work most of the time, and he has access to my online calendar, so he knows, generally if he's in the mood to look, when I'm leaving. The bastard uses Google to figure out how long it should take me to get there, and he hacked the GPS in my phone so he can see how long it actually took me. I still haven't figured out how he did that."

"He was good…ah…at everything."

"He still is." John shook his head. "He's in Canada for Christ's sake, and he still manages to track me. He's decided to look at a teaching job up there. His interview is next week, I think."

"Teaching?"

John sighed. "Because so much of his work is still classified, and he hasn't and can't publish any of it, he's having a hard time getting in to an established lab. Teaching would at least be a step back in that direction, since he could get some funding for small projects that way and work his way up."

"So, he's still…ah…working…in the field. Or he had been."

"He was the chief of science at the base where we were last both stationed, before he severed his contract. What about you? How do you know him?"

"It's been…years since…" Arthur paused, straightening the napkin on his lap. "You wanted to talk about my project."

John blinked. That was abrupt. "Well, I figured we could get to that after lunch."

"Oh," Arthur said, suddenly nervous again. "I…ah…got water before. Still water, not the bubbly kind. It gives me gas. I didn't know what you wanted and they kept coming by asking…"

"They already know what I like, so they'll bring out that, and an appetizer for us in a few minutes." John looked at him. "Why are you so interested in McKay, and yet you don't want to tell me how you knew him?"

"So we…you ordered already?"

"Just an appetizer. I usually have them start me with the same thing for the table, so unless I tell them otherwise, they automatically bring it out."

"Oh..ah…I'm going to ah, run to the men's room for a minute. I drank a lot of water before…" Arthur quickly shoved his napkin on the table and headed for the back of the restaurant, only managing to drop a spoon this time.

John waited until he was out of sight, then whipped out his phone, speed dialing McKay.

"Shouldn't you be eating lunch and not calling me?"

"I'm in a meeting with Arthur Havenstein, who says he knows you but won't tell me how. He just ran to the men's room, and I need some details on him so I can decide if my father's company is going to give him money. What can you tell me?"

"What? Who?"

John slowed down a bit. "A scientist by the name of Arthur Havenstein. He says he knows you, or did, and I got the impression it was a long time ago. But he's hedging when I try to press him, which makes me nervous."

"He knows me?"

"He says he does. Think McKay. He reminds me a lot of you actually, which is what sparked my interest. But he's been reluctant to tell me much about his project. I guess he's had stuff stolen this way in the past. So I have to make a decision whether to sign him and invest a substantial amount of money in him going on my gut feeling. So I need to know if he's lying to me about knowing you."

The Canadian was quiet for a moment and John looked around, checking to see if Arthur was headed back yet. So far, so good. "What does he look like?"

"Average height. He's got brown hair and green eyes. Nervous, and drops things a lot. No glasses."

"Thin?"

"Yeah."

McKay was silent again, but John could tell that something was going on in the scientist's brain. "Arthur. Does he have a fascination with AI systems?"

"I have no idea, but yes, that's what the general idea behind his project is. I don't have any real details on it, though."

"Huh."

"You remember him?"

"If he's the person I think he might be. Granted, this would have been…more than twenty years ago, so I could be wrong—"

"Who do you think he is? If I have something to go on, I can try to verify it."

"Ah… Right. I think I slept with him."

John found he was more shocked that he probably should be. "You slept with him? When?"

McKay sighed in his ear. "Remember the…incident I told you about with my father?"

"Where he caught you, and pretty much threw you out?"

"Um…yeah. That one. Good memory."

"And it was with Arthur?!"

"Ah…maybe. I think so. It was a long time ago and honestly, I've tried to block that entire night out of my mind—for obvious reasons. But, if it's the same guy…he was good. Really smart. Older than me, but he didn't have an issue with me being young…ah, younger than him."

"Holy fuck." John rubbed at his face. "Seriously, how do I manage these things? And you… I always picture you dating super model-types. He's not… good enough for you."

"He's smart. I like smart. The…body…package thing…I don't get as hung up on that part as other people."

John shook his head. "It's not that. He's just…you can do better. You deserve someone… I don't know. Awesome. And he's coming back, so I'll have to call you later."

"Be nice to him!"

"Yeah yeah." John hung up and pocketed the phone just before Arthur got back. He studied the man a little more closely, trying to figure out why McKay, who shone so fucking bright it was blinding, would be attracted to this guy.

Arthur shifted in his seat as he settled in, obviously feeling that something had changed. "Is there…a problem? Look, I can leave if you changed your mind about lunch. I shouldn't have pushed you to—"

"Did you sleep with McKay?" Okay, so not as subtle as he'd originally planned.

"I…" Arthur paled immediately, answering John's question.

John rubbed his face again. "Look, there's nothing wrong with that. Why didn't you just say it to begin with?"

"That was a…rather traumatic night, if you have to know. I'm just grateful I didn't get brought up on charges. How was I supposed to know that he was underage?"

John sighed. "He told me about it, although I didn't know it was with you until about five minutes ago."

"Look. You're obviously uncomfortable. I'll just go. Thanks for your time," he said quietly, starting to shove back his chair.

"Stop. I didn't say it was going to affect our business dealings. Did it take me by surprise? Yes. But I called him because I needed to make sure you weren't lying to me. If I'm going to give you money based on my feelings about what you are or aren't capable of, I needed to know I could trust you when you wouldn't even verify that information."

"I didn't think a…personal relationship—however short—was appropriate business conversation. Or even appropriate as a reference."

John shrugged. "I'm not your average business man. I was in the military for a long time, and learned fast to trust my instincts, and to always ask a lot of questions about things not necessarily pertaining to the immediate business. You never know what kind of situations that might either save you from, or open up for you."

Arthur settled back down in his chair, making a weird half-scowl. "Mostly it's been a hindrance."

John gave him a half-smile. "So tell me more about your project—or at least what you're comfortable telling me."

The scientist was quiet for a moment, examining John carefully. And then he started talking about what he wanted to do. It involved the internet and a smart computer, making people's interaction with it more seamless and more natural. At first, it would be based for personal computers, but he wanted to open it up to home systems, really integrating the computer and the internet with homes.

It was really cool.

"How much of an investment are you looking for from Sheppard Industries, and what kind of stake are you willing to give us in the long-term profits for it? I'd like to get a feel for what you're thinking, and what you'd be happy with."

"I…I don't know. I hadn't thought that far ahead. I need capital to move forward, and honestly, you're the only one who has sat down with me." He paused, taking a sip of water. The waiter picked that moment to come in, setting down their lunch plates—sampler platters. "After that night…people started talking. It almost ruined me."

"I'm sorry. I don't know if it makes it better or worse, but I know McKay had a lot of problems after that, too." He ate a few bites, considering. "I'd be interested in investing a half-million for now, in exchange for thirty-five percent of any profits, with an additional clause for up to another two million over time, with the stakes going as high as fifty percent if we reach the full investment amount."

"You'd…" Arthur's eyes were wide.

"How it would work is that I would send over the paperwork, and you would have your lawyers look it over, to make sure it's all acceptable. On signing, the half million would be transferred into your account, in exchange for the set percentage of stock. For each additional half million you requested over a two-year period, up to the two million limit, you would provide another five percent of shares, to the cap of fifty percent. If and when we reached the caps and you needed more, we would sit down and examine all the numbers, and come up with a new deal at that time."

"I…yes," Arthur said, nodding immediately. "Yes, of course. That's…wow…yes."

John smiled. "It's a good deal for me, since I have a feeling your project is probably worth billions. McKay said you were smart, and my gut has told me, since I first met you, that you're capable of a lot. I think we can both make a lot from this partnership. I'll have all the papers and contracts drawn up and sent over to you. Take a few days to read them over and have anyone you're comfortable with look them over. And we'll go from there."

"I…sure," he said, reaching down for his briefcase, looking like he was about ready to bolt from the table.

"You can finish your lunch if you want. I promise, nothing is going to disappear if you do, and you aren't going to wake up."

"This is…wow. I'm sorry. Nothing like this has ever happened to me and if it does it ends up being a really horrible nightmare because it's a dream."

"It's okay." John smiled again, and grabbed his hand across the table, shaking it. "You have a great idea, and the abilities to back it up. It's everyone else's loss if they couldn't see it."

"Thank you. Thank you so much," he said, returning the handshake.

"You're more than welcome. I think I'm getting a pretty damn good deal, myself."

They finished lunch rather quickly, with Arthur practically vibrating in his excitement. John waved him off and paid the bill when they were done, calling back to the office to have the people his father employed to handle the legalese draw up the contracts to his specifications. Fortunately, his father had pretty much given him full rights for the moment—letting him sink or swim, he knew. But this was going to be big. He could feel it.

He finally remembered he had a text message from McKay from before lunch and opened up his phone as the valet retrieved his car.

You drive too fast and I'll laugh when you get a ticket.

John rolled his eyes and texted back. What's the point of having a fast car if you don't go fast sometimes? It's like flying. And I signed Arthur. Thanks.

He got a reply seconds later. Good. Arthur's good people. And I have a date tomorrow night.

John's stomach flipped, but he ignored it. Probably something he ate. A date? With who?

It's all Caleb's fault.

"Fuck this." John just called. "What's Caleb's fault, and who are you going on a date with?"

"Whatever happened to the 'That's great to hear, buddy! You'll have fun!' thing you're supposed to say? What's with the twenty questions?"

"I can't be excited for you until I know who it's with, how you met, and if they're worthy."

"It's someone Caleb knows. Julie or something. It's a date, though. And she's cute."

"Oh. Well, good. Good luck. Bring her flowers, and take her somewhere nice to eat. I know you'll do great."

"Caleb already made reservations at an Italian place. I'm borrowing Jeannie's car. I need to get one of my own if I'm going to be driving to and from the college at all hours of the day and night."

"How's that going, by the way? The college thing I mean. I know you said Caleb got you an interview with the science department. Are you all ready for it? And what classes would you be teaching?"

"Apparently, Caleb forgot to mention that I didn't actually need an interview. Tomorrow I'm touring the campus and getting all my paperwork."

"Really? That's fantastic, buddy!" John grinned, taking his keys from the valet and slipping into his car. It automatically switched the signal to the Bluetooth system as he did. "So what classes? How many students? And I know they're in summer break now, so I'm guessing you'll formally start with your first class when the fall semester starts?"

"I have no idea," McKay said with a sigh. "It's something at least. Classes start at the end of August sometime."

"Hey, it's a step in the right direction. You can get established, and start writing some papers that will get you noticed, and get you some funding. Then you can move into the type of research you're interested in."

"I guess. Who knows. Maybe I'll get laid tomorrow night. That'll be something good at least."

"I'll be rooting for you."

"Although, I don't know if I could have sex in my sister's house with a four-year-old down the hall. I can't wait until they finish with the basement."

"You're going to permanently move in down there, then, instead of getting your own apartment? I know you were going back and forth on the pros and cons."

"They're going to finish the basement and I'll stay there until I find something else. Give everyone a little more privacy."

"Yeah, that's a good idea. It will basically be your own apartment." John turned onto the highway back to the estate.

"Sort of. It'll be something." He sighed. "I've become the pathetic older brother who can't find a wife or get a real job so he's stuck living at his successful sister's house, haven't I?"

"No, and stop talking about yourself that way. You're incredibly smart, and you've accomplished a lot. You're just transitioning from a government contractor to a civilian."

McKay snorted. "Whatever. Drive carefully back to the house and I'll talk to you later."

"All right. I'll talk to you tomorrow." John wished there was more he could do for his friend.

It was still relatively early when he got back to the house—somewhere in the neighborhood of three o'clock. It seemed that everyone was home. Dave's car was in the drive and Charlotte's was in the garage.

He wandered in, and looked around, wondering if they were working, or relaxing for a bit.

The office wing was quiet, more or less shut down for the day.

Huh. As far as he knew, there wasn't anything planned for the day. He made his way into the personal wing, the general living spaces he now shared with them. If they were in their private quarters, he wouldn't bother them.

He heard Andrew laughing—giggling actually—the sound echoing down the hall. He'd been here for weeks now and had barely seen his nephew. It was weird in a way, but not surprising. Their own nanny was more a mother to them than their mom.

Popping his head into the more casual family room, he smiled at the scene in front of him.

Dave and Charlotte were sitting close together on the couch, watching as their son built towering block structures and then knocked them down and laughed.

John didn't want to intrude on this personal family time, so he straightened and prepared to move away without calling to them.

"John! You're back," his brother said, gesturing him in. "I wasn't sure what time your lunch meeting would be finished. How'd it go?"

"Hey. It went really well. I have legal sending him a contract, and this has the potential to be pretty lucrative."

"Great. That sounds good. I have good news for you, too."

"Oh?" John moved into the room, and perched on the edge of a chair.

"Well, you know the summer social is this Sunday," his brother said, shifting on the couch. "And you know how important it is."

John made a face. He didn't really want to go, but he knew he didn't have a choice. "Yeah…"

"Well," he said, sharing a look with Charlotte, "we've been talking. We don't like that you're always spending time by yourself and you really need someone to go with on Sunday. So, Charlotte talked with some of her friends and we've arranged for you to take Andrea Nevitt to the social on Sunday. It's all arranged. You can pick her up beforehand."

"What?" John blinked. "I… why? I'm not a good date, Dave. I appreciate it but… I don't want to lead anyone on. I suck at that kind of thing."

"You'll be fine," Dave said, waving him off. "She's all excited. I don't know if you remember her or not from school. She certainly remembered you."

John felt the stirrings of panic. "Ahh, no? To be honest, I really don't remember anyone from school. I was always paying more attention to the horses, or reading about planes."

"She's really looking forward to meeting you, John," Charlotte said with a smile. "She's nothing like Nancy was. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised."

"Ahh, thanks. I… wow. I wasn't expecting this. I just hope she's not disappointed."

"I have her phone number if you want to connect before Sunday afternoon," Charlotte said, rising gracefully to her feet. He moved to the small side table by the door, grabbing a pen and a piece of paper from the drawer. She scribbled down the number and handed it off to John. "I really think you'll get along well."

He stuffed it in his pocket without really looking at it. He was now dreading the social for an entirely new reason. But he didn't want to make Charlotte feel bad. "Thanks."

"I know you're humoring us," Dave said. "I know the look. But…she's nice. Different. I think she'll make the evening pass a lot faster for you."

He gave them a small smile. "I do appreciate the effort. And I will try. I just haven't gone on a date of any kind since Nancy and I were dating. Social flirting I can do. But spending a whole evening with one person is a bit terrifying, if you must know."

Charlotte and Dave both chuckled. "We've noticed."

"I just don't get women I guess, no offence Charlotte. Horses and flying are much more…. predictable."

"And men are just as unpredictable to women, John. Just enjoy the night."

"I'll give it a try. McKay is going to mock me shamelessly, you know that right? I'll never hear the end of this."

"He'll probably cheer you on. He only wants what's best for you," Dave said, rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, but he also likes taking any opportunity to mock me." John chuckled. "He has a date tomorrow too, so at least we can share pointers."

"See. He's just not sitting home moping," Charlotte said, sitting down next to Dave again. "You need to…lighten up a bit."

"Have I really been that bad?" John ran a hand through his hair. "I know I still occasionally have problems adjusting to being non-military, but I thought I was doing pretty good overall."

"You've been…quieter than I remember," Dave said with a shrug. "But I was young when you left."

John smiled at them. "I'll try harder. I don't want to be the black cloud stalking around the house."

"Good. So, after dinner we're going to watch a movie in the media room. I convinced the local theater to get us a copy of The Bourne Ultimatum. Interested?"

He laughed. "I'm always interested in movies where stuff blows up. Lemme go get a few things done for school now, so I'll be free to enjoy dinner and a movie tonight. Sound like a plan?"

"We'll expect you at nine in the media room."

"I'll see you there." John smiled at them again, and resolved to try harder.


It felt like the blink of an eye before Sunday arrived, and he was suddenly dressed in the 'casual elegance' his father had mandated for the event, going to pick up his date.

Andrea lived in a good part of town—of course—another sprawling mansion owned by her parent's parents. When he arrived, he was ushered into the front marble hall by an attentive butler. Andrea showed up a few minutes later and honestly John had to admit she was gorgeous.

"Hi. John Sheppard." He took her hand and bowed over it, pressing a kiss to the back.

She chuckled softly, the tone reminding him of Teyla. She had that same quiet elegance, too. "Andrea Nevitt, as you've probably already guessed. Or do you greet all women that way?"

"I was always taught to be polite." He grinned at her. "Are you ready, or did you need to grab anything else before we head out?"

"I'm ready, unless of course you don't like what I'm wearing. I'm sure I could find something else."

"I'm the last person to cast stones when it comes to that." She laid a hand on his arm to be escorted out. "If I'm given any input, I'm usually in jeans and a tee-shirt."

"Just be glad you don't have to wear heels. You'd be crippled in a few minutes, I bet." She chuckled as they turned to head outside. "And, just as an aside. I don't want to alarm you or anything, but it seems like you have an alien life form on your head."

John shot her a startled glance and laughed. "Oh no. Not you too. My best friend constantly insists my hair is sentient and waiting for the right time to take over the world. He got to you, didn't he?"

"What? No. I'm a huge scifi fan and I've just never seen any guy's hair do that." She blushed. "Sorry. It was the first thing that came to my mind and I'm nervous and I seem to have lost all ability to censor my comments."

He laughed again. "I'm a scifi-buff too, so no worries. I promise, it doesn't bite." He opened his car door for her.

"Biting can be fun at times." She paused, her mouth forming a little "o". "I used my outside voice, didn't I?"

He laughed, one eyebrow going up. "Kinky. But it depends on the who and the where."

"Very true," she said, chuckling as John slid into the driver's seat. "I guess this explains why I've never gotten married."

He shook his head. "Trust me. It's not all it's cracked up to be. I'd rather have a good time with good friends, myself."

"Good," she said, falling into silence for a few minutes as John pulled out. "So Charlotte and Dave need a hobby, I think."

"You mean other than meddling?" John chuckled.

"Yes. Other than meddling. So, you were in the Air Force?"

He nodded. "For almost twenty years. I loved it. How about you? What do you do?"

"Whatever I feel like, generally," she said with a quiet chuckle. "Right now I'm running the woman's martial arts center in Louisville. I have my MBA, but…" she shrugged. "The family business just didn't interest me. I've done a lot of travel, seen a lot of places."

"We have a lot in common." John grinned. "I ran off to join the Air Force because I wasn't interested in the family business, and yet I've been sucked back in. I'm working on my PhD now in Aeronautical Engineering. I'm thinking one day I might try to design planes."

She chuckled. "They always suck you back in."

"That they do."

They talked all the way to the event, and John found himself relaxing. She was nice. Easy to talk to. And she made him laugh.

The evening went just as well. They had similar senses of humor, and spent most the party laughing and quietly making fun of the other guests.

God. He hadn't had this much fun…in a long time. It felt good. He dropped her off at her house and walked her to the door.

"Did you want to come in? I'm sure I could find something to drink in this house. We might even have the pool table to ourselves."

He hesitated. He was really enjoying her company—a lot—and he hoped they could be good friends. But he didn't want to give the impression that it would be more than that.

"No strings, John."

"I like you, Andrea. I'm just not ready for more than good friends right now. I would love to name you one of them, but I don't want to make you think—"

"Make me think what? I'm not an innocent girl. I know you're not looking for anything. Neither am I, honestly. I like you. I think we could have some fun."

He smiled and followed her inside. "Me, too."

She led them deeper into the house, finally ending up in a large media room or den. There was a wet bar on one side and various couches and chairs, along with a pool table and a huge flat screen television. "What do you want?" she asked, headed for the bar, dropping her purse on one of the tables.

"Something light. I'm not a big drinker, so I have almost no tolerance."

She chuckled, her voice a little deeper. "Oh, that could be fun."

He dropped into one of the side chairs. "Only if you like poorly sung renditions of mashed up songs."

"It could be interesting," she said. "Beer?"

"Perfect, thanks." He grinned.

"You play pool?"

"Who doesn't" John stretched. "Eight or nine-ball?"

"Either. Your pick," she said, handing him a beer and then taking a drink of her own. She'd kicked off her heels at some point, too.

"Classic eight, then." He stood up and walked over to the table, finding everything to start racking up the balls.

They played a few games, drank a few beers, and ended up teasing and flirting with each other easily throughout the remainder of the night. She really was someone he could totally fall for. How did Charlotte know?

He knew, when they were winding down, that he was probably too tipsy to drive. "Mind if I crash on your couch for a bit? I don't want to crash my baby."

"I'd offer you my bed, but I know you won't take it—at least not now. Come on. There's plenty of guest rooms," she said with a smile.

He made a face, and followed her in to a generic, but very nice room. "Thanks for a really nice day."

"Me, too, especially because I'd rather poke my own eyes out instead of attend," she said, leaning in. "I had fun. I'll see you at breakfast in a few hours. Right?"

"Yeah, although I have to leave pretty early. I have to be in the office by 7:30 tomorrow morning."

"Oh come on. That's…" She checked her watch. "Four hours from now."

He grimaced. "Yeah. And I'll need to shower and change too. So I'll sleep for an hour or two until I can drive, then head back."

"Sure you wouldn't rather stay up, then?" she asked with a wink and a wicked smile.

"Ooo, you're bad." He laughed. "Trouble with a capital T."

She laughed loudly as she shifted away from him, sashaying down the hall. "I'm next door if you change your mind."

Shaking his head, he went into the guestroom and set the alarm on his phone for two hours, crashing hard. When it went off, he moaned, not really wanting to get up, but knowing if he didn't, his father would crucify him. He rolled himself up, found a pad of paper to jot a quick note for Andrea, and slipped it under her door before heading home.

He managed to get in, get showered and changed, and get into his office right on time, if barely alive.

Dave was at his door, leering at him, about five seconds later. "Spent the night, did you?"

"Get your head out of the gutter. Nothing happened, but yes, I like her a lot. We have a lot in common, and she's fun. I hope we get to be good friends."

"Good friends, eh?"

John rolled his eyes, laughing. "Yes, friends. I like her, but I'm not going to hop into bed with her."

"At least not tonight."

"Andrea was right, we need to get you and your wife a hobby."

"Oh why? Tormenting you is a lot more fun," he said, shifting on his feet as he turned toward his office.

John stuck out his tongue. "Just wait until I find something to tease you about!"

"Not gonna happen," he said, throwing the words over his shoulder.

The whole week passed quickly, with John now talking and texting both McKay and Andrea constantly. Rodney actually had a second date with the woman Caleb had set him up with, and was settling into the college, so things seemed to, finally, be falling into place. More or less.


From: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 10:45 AM
To: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]

Subject: Idiots

I work for idiots. And the students are even worse.


From: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 011:09 AM
To: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]

Subject: RE: Idiots

It's only the first semester. Give them time.


From: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 011:47 AM
To: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]

Subject: RE: Idiots

What took you so long to respond? Are you actually working?


From: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 011:49 AM
To: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]

Subject: RE: Idiots

I was on a call with my father. He's got ears like an elephant—and he calls me out on it if he hears my typing.


From: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 011:53 AM
To: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]

Subject: RE: Idiots

Well, we all know you didn't get your ears from him. There had to be an elf in your family line somewhere.


From: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 011:59 AM
To: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]

Subject: RE: Idiots

I'm convinced you and Andrea are conspiring against me. First the hair, now the ears.


From: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 012:04 PM
To: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]

Subject: RE: Idiots

Ha! I don't need any help. And I definitely don't need the help of your girlfriend.


From: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 12:10 PM
To: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]

Subject: RE: Idiots

She's not my girlfriend, just a good friend.


From: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 012:14 PM
To: John [mailto:CowboyFlyboy@gmail.com]

Subject: RE: Idiots

Yeah right. That's all you ever talk about anymore. I might be dense, but even I can tell she's your girlfriend.

And crap. Class started 15 minutes ago.


John rolled his eyes, and shot back a note to McKay telling him to go do some real work, then started his own school stuff. A few hours later, he needed a break and got up, stretching.

For some reason, the thought that McKay thought Andrea was his girlfriend sat… poorly with him. He didn't know why, but he did know he wanted his two closest friends to get along.

Thinking, he shot a quick text to McKay. Hey, when's your next school break? You still owe me a visit.

He didn't hear back from him until sometime after dinner, a brief text back. I get vacation? That's news to me.

Come on, I want you to visit. Name the time, and I'll make sure I'm free. Haven't seen you in forever.

John snapped his phone closed and a few seconds later it rang in his hand, just as he turned toward the den.

"Sheppard."

"I love how you answer your phone, all manly and professional," Andrea said with a laugh. "I should hang up and call back to hear it again."

He rolled his eyes. "Hello to you, too. What's new?"

"You want to do dinner tomorrow after I kick your ass?"

He laughed. "You are so not going to kick my ass. But I will make you buy me dinner."

"How about the loser buys?"

"Deal." John yawned, catching himself. "Sorry, been a long day. And I'm trying to convince McKay to come here for a visit. He still hasn't been out."

"Send him a ticket and don't give him a chance to say no. You were in the Air Force, I know you know how to give orders."

"That's not a bad idea. And his sister will tell me when he's actually out of school, so I won't be interfering with his job. Thanks."

"I always have good ideas. You just usually don't take me up on them."

"Your ideas always seem to involve a bed and some complicated rope ties. And you wonder why I decline?"

"Oh come on. You know you'd have fun."

He laughed. "So what time am I kicking your ass tomorrow?"

"How about four? Your classes should be finished then."

"All right. I'll swing by and pick you up then."

"I'll be at the studio already. Just meet me there."

"Sounds like a plan." He shook his head. "Try not to get into any trouble between now and then."

"It's early yet. There's all kinds of time. You sure you don't want to swing by?"

"I'll talk to you tomorrow, Andrea." John laughed, hanging up.

He had a text message from McKay. Shouldn't have bought the piano. She practices after dinner every night and makes a racket over my head.

And you love it. Don't lie.

John headed down to the den, dropping onto the couch and flicking on the television. He found a baseball game. His phone buzzed about ten minutes later. Banging piano keys and headaches don't work well together.

It's quiet here. Nothing around for miles. John grinned as he hit send.

John watched a few pitches and missed hits before McKay replied. Bastard.

He chuckled softly. Come visit me, and I'll even give you a room that's quiet all day long.

Ha! Probably next to yours so I can hear you and your girlfriend going at it.

We haven't slept together, and I have no real plans to. She's just a friend.

Chaya.

You're never going to let me live that mistake down, are you?

What are friends for?

Jerk.

McKay didn't text back that night and John ended up falling asleep on the couch and waking up sometime in the small hours of the morning, a blanket thrown over his body.

He looked down at his phone, bummed there was still no text. He shot another one to McKay quickly—Didn't mean it. Don't leave me! —before stumbling up to his room.

When he came down for breakfast the next morning at a more reasonable hour, his phone was annoyingly silent.

He sighed, hoping McKay hadn't taken him seriously. He shot his friend another text before sitting down to work. You're not mad are you? I'm sorry if I pissed you off.

He got a reply almost immediately. Life does not revolve around you, you know.

His chest immediately loosened. Thought I'd been abandoned.

Ha. No. More like the other way around.

Never.

I have to go to work.

John punched in Rodney's number. "Never. You're… I don't know. I can't even imagine life without you to banter with."

"John…" McKay said with a sigh. There was slamming and shuffling in the background. "I can't talk now. I'm late for work."

"Sorry. I just don't want you to think I'm abandoning you for anything."

"Not everything in my life revolves around you," he said bitterly, slamming something else. "Look. I'm late and this doesn't involve you."

"All right. Sorry. Call me later if you want."

"Yeah, sure." McKay hung up a second later.

Sighing, John pocketed his phone. He spent the day distracted, checking his phone and email constantly, but there was no more word from McKay. By the time he met Andrea that afternoon, he was worried.

She beat him easily in hand-to-hand, barely breaking a sweat. When she dropped him for the third time, she stepped off the mat. "What's wrong?"

He stayed on the mat, staring up at the ceiling. "Something's up with McKay. He snapped at me this morning, and now I haven't heard from him all day. I'm worried about him."

"Something happen at work?"

"He didn't say. He sounded pissed off, though, and told me it didn't involve me and then hung up."

"So, it doesn't involve you," she said, dropping a towel on his chest. "The last time I checked, I think he was an adult. Not that I've met him."

John made a face at her. "I can't help it. He's still team to me, and that means I want to help."

"So if he's not talking, who will? I want to get this settled before you buy me dinner."

"I don't know. I thought about calling Jeannie, but I don't want to make anything worse, or piss him off that I'm meddling."

"How about his brother-in-law?"

"Caleb? I don't know. That'd be more or less like calling Jeannie, wouldn't it?"

"He's only related by marriage. It's different."

John knew he was being wishy-washy, so he just harrumphed.

Andrea rolled her eyes and stomped over to his backpack, pulling out his phone. She scrolled through it and then pressed a button, holding it to her ear.

It took him a moment to realize what she was doing. "Hey! You can't do that!" He struggled up to his feet.

"Hi, Caleb? You don't know me. I'm John's girlfriend, Andrea. He's been moping all day because he thinks he pissed off McKay. What's happening up there?"

John moaned, putting his head in his hands.

"Uh huh. Really. Was there a specific reason? Huh."

He peeked through his hands at Andrea, now sitting on the bench chatting.

"Well, yeah, of course I understand. That's just really uncalled for."

"What happened?" John's protective instincts toward McKay kicked in. "If someone fucked with him, I'll come up and kill them."

Andrea scowled at him, waving her hand at him to be quiet. "Yeah, I know. That's just…yeah. So when does your semester end?"

He started pacing, wondering what the hell was going on.

"That's great. So you'll have almost six weeks off. Do you have plans?"

"What happened to Rodney?"

She scowled again. "Okay. I should go before John paces a hole in my floor. It was nice talking to you. I hope I'll get to meet you and your family in person soon. Thanks, Caleb. Bye."

"What's wrong with Rodney?"

Her mouth twitched. "It actually doesn't involve you."

He scowled. "If someone hurt him, I will break them."

"No, you won't because I'm not going to let you. Come on. Let's change and go get dinner. And then you can call him yourself."

John dug in his heels. "What did Caleb say?"

"I'm going to go change. I think you should probably do the same," she said, tossing John his phone.

"Andrea!" John was frustrated.

"Stop being a baby and call if you really want to know," she said, throwing the words over her shoulder as she ducked into the ladies locker room.

Growling, John almost threw the phone at the wall, but stopped short. He didn't have any numbers memorized, so if he broke it, he was SOL.

Rodney. Jeannie. Jeannie. Rodney. Who would give him the best information and not hang up on him?

He dialed Jeannie.

As soon as she picked up, he heard piano playing in the background. God, it was loud. "Hello?"

"Hello?"

"Jeannie? It's John. What's all that noise?"

"Hello? John? Hang on, I can't hear you when Maddie is practicing. Let me step outside." He heard a bang and the piano playing went down a few notches. "John?"

"Hey. Sorry to bug you, but I'm worried about your brother. He sounded off when I talked to him today."

"Meredith?"

"Yeah. Is anything going on there?"

"Apart from the racket thanks to your friend's supposed generosity, I haven't seen my brother since yesterday morning."

John sighed. "I know something is up, but I sort of pissed him off, so I don't want to call him directly again."

"Sorry. I really don't know much. I think Caleb saw him at some point. He mentioned something, but things have been crazy here."

"All right, I'll just call Rodney directly then. Thanks."

"He's not home, so that's probably best."

"I'll talk to you later." John hung up, and punched a nearby bag to let out some of his frustration. Then he took a deep breath and dialed McKay.

The scientist didn't pick up, the call forwarding to his voice mail.

"Hey, it's me. I just wanted to check and see how everything was going. My phone's on, so… give me a call later. Bye."

As John hung up, Andrea stepped out of the locker room, dressed for dinner. "You didn't shower yet?"

"I called Jeannie and she doesn't know what's going on, and McKay's phone went to voicemail. I left him a message." John let out a huff of air.

"So you don't know what's happening."

"No."

"Caleb knows."

"I'm not going to bother him again tonight." John ran a hand through his hair. "I'm jumping in the shower. I'll be back."

"I'll be waiting."

He headed in, letting the hot water beat out some of his frustrations. He took a little longer than normal, finally wandering out about a half-hour later, hair still wet. "Sorry I took so long."

"Not a problem," she said, looking up from the paperback she'd been reading. "Did you want to try again before we left?"

"I don't want to piss him off more by calling a million times."

"You have a voice mail."

John grabbed his phone and hit the button, waiting impatiently for the menus so he could hear the message.

It was McKay. "Sorry I missed you. It's been a really crappy day…well, two days. I'm fine…just…" He sighed. "I'll talk to you later or tomorrow. I don't have class until noon."

John deleted the message, and looked at Andrea. "It was McKay. Lemme call him back. He sounds really run-down."

"Do you just want to call it a night?"

He gave her a half-smile. "Do you mind? I promise I'll be more attentive tomorrow if you want a re-match."

"I'm busy tomorrow, but I can meet you Thursday if you want," she said, sliding her book into her oversized purse. She stood. "I'll walk you out. I need to lock up, too."

"Thanks for understanding." He gave her a quick hug.

She returned it, holding on for a few seconds longer than he did. "Come on. Let's get you to your car so you can call McKay."

They walked out, and John made himself be a gentleman, getting her into her car, even though he wanted to run to his to call McKay back. "I'll see you Thursday."

"Yes, you will," she said with a smile. "And he's fine, you know."

"I know. But I have to talk to him."

"I know." She climbed out of her car again, pressing a kiss to his cheek. "You're a good friend."

He smiled. "So are you. Drive home safe."

"You, too."

As soon as he was in his own car, he was dialing Rodney.

The scientist picked up four rings in. "Don't you have better things to do except call me?"

"No." John smiled a little as he pulled out of the parking lot.

"Aren't you having dinner with Andrea?"

"I was too worried about you, so we put it off until Thursday. What's going on? It sounded like you had a long day."

"It's stupid. Nothing, really."

"Not stupid if it was bothering you."

"I'm a genius with a brain the size of a planet. Lots of things bother me."

"Stop hedging and tell me what happened that had you so upset today."

McKay sighed. "Why do you care so much?"

"Because it obviously bothered you, so it bothers me. Is it so surprising I actually like you enough to worry about you when something is so obviously wrong?"

"She dumped me."

"Marie?"

"Julie. And she told people that I was horrible in bed."

John growled. "She obviously has no fucking clue. You're better off without her."

"She was the first girl I had sex with in years and this is what happens." McKay sighed. "I don't know why I bother trying."

John ached for his friend. "You deserve so much better."

"Now I'll never get laid."

"Yes, you will. I promise. Come down and visit me. There are a lot of people I can introduce you too, and maybe one of them will catch your eye."

"Ha! Socialites and scientists don't mix."

"You and I mix just fine."

"You're different." He sighed again. "Look, I should probably head back to the house before Jeannie thinks I crashed her car or something."

"I wish I was up there to buy you a beer." John sighed.

"Beer's overrated. I'm working my way through cheap vodka."

"At least get the good stuff. It's a better hangover the next day."

"It all tastes the same after Russia."

John chuckled. He had heard some of those stories. "Just don't get so hammered blowing shit up in revenge sounds like a good idea. And seriously—don't listen to her. Anyone with any degree of class would just walk away and leave it at that. But to spread rumors takes a certain breed of bitch that you're better off without. We can do better for you, buddy."

"It's not my fault I couldn't get it up. She wasn't exactly helpful in that regard, either."

"Yeah, once Mister Happy decides he's not interested, there's not much you can do. And the fact that he was declining the party tells you right there she obviously wasn't good enough for you."

"Of course you'd name your dick."

John made a face and huffed. "You're missing the point."

"Right now, I don't think I care."

"Yeah, I know. Women suck. That's why I stick with planes and horses."

"You're the one with the long-term girlfriend."

"She's not my girlfriend in that sense. She's a female friend, yes, but we're not sleeping together. I like her, but honestly I don't have any sexual interest."

"Yeah, right," McKay said, the sarcasm thick. "You don't have to lie to make me feel better. Go back to the restaurant to meet your girlfriend, John."

"I'm not lying. The only hand that's touched my dick in years has been my own." John shrugged. "I'm just not all that interested in what they have to offer, honestly. When I say I think sex is overrated, I'm not kidding. It's not bad, don't get me wrong, but nothing I can't live without."

"Yeah. Whatever. I'm going home. You should, too. Or do whatever it is you do these days."

"I'm headed home now. In the car. And you should come down here for a visit. The change of scenery would do you good."

"Right. So I can watch you moon over your girlfriend. No thank you." McKay snorted and then John heard the slosh of liquid. "Go home."

"Rodney…" John sighed. He wanted to help, but didn't really know how.

"What? What do you want me to say?" he demanded, his voice rising. "I'm the loser living in my sister's basement with a job at a back-end college in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere Canada, teaching kids who would rather be smoking pot than attending my classes! And the one chance…the one chance I had and I can't even get it up to enjoy it. God! What the hell do you want from me?"

"I want you to be happy."

"Well, that's an impossibility in this lifetime and dimension. Try a different one."

"You should go back to Atlantis. The SGC and Elizabeth would gladly take you back, and you were happy there."

Rodney snorted and John heard liquid again. "I burned that bridge months ago. Up in flames."

"Not necessarily. You could try. I just hate to see you so… miserable." And it's my fault, John thought to himself.

"I can't try. There is no try. Zippo. Nothing. No chance in hell. You should have heard Landry." He snorted again.

"When I finish this degree, come work with me. We'll start a business building awesome planes and make a fortune."

"You wouldn't want me. I'd screw it up. Blow it up. Up in flames, just like the rest of my life."

"You're the only one I'd even consider trying it with. Without you, I'd never get it off the ground."

"Go home, John. Your girlfriend is probably waiting for you."

"I'm going home to the estate, and Andrea—who is not my girlfriend—is at her own house. I abandoned her to talk to you."

"She must me mad at you. You shouldn't have done that. Means you won't get laid tonight. Make sure you buy her a nice gift."

"I don't want to get laid." John rolled his eyes as he pulled into the garage, switching the signal back from Bluetooth to his phone, and heading upstairs. "I know it's hard to believe, but seriously, I'm not all that interested in women. They're nice and all, but I have better things I could be doing."

"Like having sex with your girlfriend."

"One: not my girlfriend. And two: we haven't slept together, nor do I have plans to. She's just a good friend."

"I know you. You're just trying to make me feel better, but it's not working. I know better. I can tell that you're lying."

John let out a frustrated breath. "Whatever. I haven't slept with her, but obviously, you want to believe otherwise. I don't know why that's so hard to believe. Other than one stupid mistake with Chaya, in all the time you've known me, I haven't slept with anyone."

"Is your nose growing? That's a whopper!"

"No, it isn't. Rodney, I was with you almost every night, off-world and on. When do you think I had all this time to sleep my way through the galaxy?"

"Plenty of time, lots of time. All those chieftain's daughters are missing you right now. The priestesses, too, I bet. Crying their eyes out." There was another slosh of liquid in the background.

"Are you drunk?"

"I don't know. Am I? There's still vodka left, so probably not."

"Fuck. Rodney…" John sighed, dropping down into a chair in his room and kicking off his shoes. "I wish I was there."

"I'm not giving you my vodka."

"I don't want it. But you're going to need someone to rub your back when you're puking at 2 am."

"I should probably go home."

"Where are you?"

"Here."

"Where is here? I don't want you to drive. You're my best friend, and I'd really rather not lose you to drunk driving."

"I don't know," he said and John heard his friend take another swig. "Here. I'll find my way."

"Where is here? Your office? A bar?"

"I'm in Jeannie's car. She let me borrow it."

"And she would be really unhappy if you wrecked it." John grabbed his landline phone. "Lemme call her on the other line, and she can come get you. Okay, buddy?"

"I'm fine," McKay said and John heard the car start up. "It's pretty up here. Did you know that?"

"Yeah, I do know that. Rodney, please. I'm begging you, as your friend, just stay where you are. I really, really don't want to get the call that you're dead because you were driving tonight."

"You drive fast all the time. I know because I've tracked you." John heard some shifting and then the crunch of gravel under tires. The wind picked up, too.

"Yeah, but I never do it drunk." John was starting to panic. "If you want to drive fast, do it tomorrow when you don't have a bottle of vodka in you."

"I'll go slow now. It's dark. Hmm. Right. Maybe. Yes, right."

"Rodney!" John closed his eyes. He couldn't take hearing his friend die. He was pretty sure it would destroy him, but he didn't know what else to do except stay on the line.

"Yes, John? Can I call you John? You called me Rodney, so that means I should be able to call you John, right? Although, I'm so used to calling you Sheppard. Like a sheep herder. Just like Carson. I heard from Carson. Did I tell you that?"

"Yeah, you can call me John. I don't mind at all. What did Carson say? I haven't heard from anyone back on Atlantis."

"John. Johnjohnjohnjohn. He's dating Cadman again."

"Is he?" John idly thought that while it was weird to hear Rodney call him by his given name, it was also… kind of cool. "When did that happen?"

"I don't know. Before. And wow. Those are pretty lights."

"Rodney. Please, please, pull over, look for a street sign, and tell me where you are. I'll have someone come get you."

As soon as he said that, John heard the whoop-whoop of a siren. Damn.

"John, I think there's a Mountie behind me. Mounties always get their man!"

"Fuck. He's probably going to pull you over for drunk driving. Pull over, Rodney, and stop the car."

"But why? I'm not speeding like you."

"Because you're probably weaving, and it's dangerous."

"I don't have a weave. My hair's not that bad yet. Or is it? Maybe that's why Julie didn't like me anymore."

"Your hair is fine just the way it is. Have you pulled over yet?"

There was another whoop of the siren as McKay answered. "I'm not going fast. He can pass me."

"Rodney! Pull the damn car over. He's not using his siren to tell you you're going too slow. He's telling you he wants to give you a ticket."

"But I don't want a ticket."

"At this point, you don't have much choice, buddy. You need to pull over now, or you're going to get arrested and get a ticket."

"But I didn't do anything wrong," McKay protested, but John heard the sound of the car stopping. Jeannie still needed to get her brakes fixed.

"The law considers driving while under the influence of alcohol wrong, buddy." John slumped, glad that at least Rodney wasn't driving the damn car anymore.

"Oh, look! Hi, Mister Mountie! Hey, John. Mister Mountie is here."

John rubbed his face. "Ask Mister Mountie where you are right now, and tell him I'm going to call your sister to come get you."

McKay started to answer, but then there was a shuffling of the phone. John heard McKay's protest a beat before a low, hard voice came on the phone. "Your friend is currently incapacitated, driving under the influence, talking on his cell phone, with no headlights on and weaving. You can pick him up in the morning."

"Sir!" John managed to stop him before he could hang up. "I'm actually down in the United States right now, and I've been yelling at him to pull over and tell me where he is so his sister can come get him. I can call her now, but I need to know where she can get him from."

"He'll be allowed one phone call when he gets to the station, once we process him. The car will be impounded, too. Have a good night."

"Fuck." John stared at the phone as it went dead. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." He immediately dialed Jeannie.

He almost thought no one was going to pick up, but when Caleb's voice came on the line. "Hello?"

"Hi Caleb, it's John. Sorry to bother you again tonight, but I was just on the phone with Rodney, who was just pulled over and arrested for drunk driving. Apparently, the bitch who dumped him and spread rumors about him really messed him up badly, and he's going to need someone to go get him in the morning."

"Fuck," he said quietly. "He promised me he wasn't going to drink."

John sighed. "I'm really worried about him. He was pretty upset, but I couldn't get him to pull over and tell me where he was so you could get him before he got pulled over."

"Okay. Ah…I guess I'll need to wait until he calls us, or something."

"The Mountie took his phone and told me he'd get one phone call when he gets there, when I asked where they were taking him so you could get him. As soon as you hear from him, and what station he's been taken to, can you give me a call and let me know? And… if it's possible, ask Jeannie not to give him a hard time. I know this was stupid, but… he's really having a hard time. He feels like a total failure right now, and the bitch didn't help matters any. I'm worried that one more thing might send him over the edge."

"Of course. And yeah, Jeannie and I were talking about him earlier. I'm actually glad the semester is coming to an end. It's been a rough re-introduction, I think."

"I've been after him to come down here for a visit. I think getting away for a week might be good for him. When is a good time? I'll book the tickets, and just send them to him so he won't have an excuse not to come."

"I can get you the dates in the morning. I don't have my calendar in front of me."

"That's fine. And call me when you know what station he was taken to."

"I will. Thanks for the heads up."

"No problem." John sighed. "I'll talk to you in a bit."

It was maybe an hour later when John got a quick call from Caleb, with the station name and location. John immediately found the number and called, using his credit card to pay for all the fees and tickets Rodney had acquired this evening, including the cost to get the car out of impound. They still wouldn't release him until the following morning, but at least that would be one less thing for Jeannie and Caleb to worry about.

Once that was done, exhausted and worried, John fell into bed.

Caleb's email was waiting for him when he got into the office in the morning, giving John the dates of their six-week intersession. It was still a few weeks off, but it would give McKay something to look forward to.

He got online, and booked business-class tickets for the day after the session ended, with the return flight open. Rodney could stay as long as he wanted this way, from just a week or two, to the full break if he wanted.

John tried to work for the rest of the day, but it was hard to concentrate. He hadn't heard from Jeannie, Caleb, or Rodney and he was reluctant to call.

He finally gave up as late afternoon approached. Walking over to his brother's office, he popped his head in. "Hey, I'm completely distracted today and getting shit done. I'll be out at the stables exercising the horses if anyone comes looking for me."

"Okay, yeah, sure," his brother said, distracted. "And we got the sign off on the Havenstein project."

"Good." John nodded. "I'll see you in a bit."

John headed up to his room to change into his jeans and a t-shirt before he wandered out to the stables. It only took him a few minutes to saddle up one of his favorite studs for a run. "Hey, there. You need a good hard run as much as I do, don't you?"

The horse whinnied and danced on his feet, tossing its head.

Chuckling, John led him out and mounted up. He headed for one of the long stretches, where he knew they could fly.

It was about two hours later when he finally came back, feeling a little better, but still worried. At least his four-footed friend was much less restless now.

He started brushing him down, but when Alex darted in, John let him finish up. He was one of their more eager stable hands and the horses liked him.

He changed back out of his riding clothes and wandered back up to the house. He wasn't really feeling hungry, so instead of going to the dining room, he turned for his rooms. Maybe he'd just take a shower and crash early for the night.

His phone rang just before he climbed into the shower.

"Sheppard here."

"Have I told you that I love how you answer the phone?"

He smiled slightly. "Hi, Andrea. What's up?"

"I didn't hear from you today. I wanted to see how you were doing and if you talked to McKay last night."

He sighed, leaning against the wall. "Yeah, I did. He was arrested for drunk driving. I talked to Caleb and got the dates to book him a ticket to come down for a visit, but I haven't heard from anyone today on how he's doing. It's been a truly shitty last couple of days."

"Drunk driving? Oh god, that's horrible. And all because of that little tramp?"

"Yeah. She was spreading rumors about him, and made things worse. He was already feeling pretty low about everything, and this just made it ten times worse."

"The bitch. And yes, I'm allowed to say that because I'm a girl."

John chuckled. "I've been calling her that too, so no worries. But yeah, I'm just really worried about him. I was just getting ready to hop in the shower, and then maybe put on some football to fall asleep to early."

"So you're standing there talking to me all naked? You sure you don't need any help? I can jump in the car and come right over."

He laughed. "You're incorrigible."

"But you love me anyway. So was that a yes?"

He rolled his eyes. "I promise you, I'm not all that great in bed. I don't know why you're so eager to jump in with me."

"Oh, I'm sure you'd be just fine," she said with a chuckle. "You sure you don't need me to come over and wash your back…and other parts."

Shaking his head, John marveled at her tenacity. "I'll talk to you tomorrow, Andrea. Have a nice night."

She chuckled again. "You, too, big boy. Sleep tight. Don't let the bed bugs bite. That's my job."

After they hung up, John got his shower and lounged in bed with the television on, but he wasn't really tired. He didn't know quite what to do with himself, so he ended up staring at the ceiling.

His phone rang again, just as he was drifting off to sleep, somewhere in the neighborhood of midnight.

"'Llo?"

"Oh, shit. I woke you."

"Rodney!" John sat up. "No, I wasn't sleeping yet. How are you? Where are you?"

"Not so loud!" he groused. "I'm home. Jeannie took the keys away."

"Sorry." John lowered his tone. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, apart from the ripping hangover. Caleb actually had to call in sick for me today."

Sighing, John wished, yet again, that he was there to help. "I'm sorry. I wish there was something I could do. Did you check your email?"

"No. I really haven't been all too conscious today. And it's probably for the best. By the time Jeannie got around to lecturing me, she was too tired chasing Madison around to really put energy into it. And, you didn't have to pay my fines."

"It was the least I could do, since I wasn't close enough to do anything else useful for you. And check your email. I sent you something I'm hoping will cheer you up."

"I'll look tomorrow. Jeannie took that away too, so I need to find out where she hid it. I've only managed to find my phone so far."

John smiled. "Your sister loves you. She's just worried you'll push yourself too hard."

Rodney snorted. "She was just glad I didn't wreck her car."

"Probably that, too. But she does worry about you."

"Sure she does." He sighed quietly. "I really don't know why I called you."

"Because I'm your friend, and that's what friends do." John smiled. "I'm glad you did. I've been worried about you all day."

"Apparently I've been unconscious for a good portion of the last twenty-four hours. I was told it was a good thing."

"I've had some pretty killer hangovers before, so it probably is a good thing you slept through it."

"I guess. Defeats the whole purpose of getting drunk, though."

"Honestly, I've never really thought it had much of a purpose."

"Well, I don't remember much after I drove to the park. I might have talked to you, though. It's kind of fuzzy. Oh…did I interrupt you having sex with your girlfriend?"

"No. I left her to call you last night. And she's not my girlfriend, and we haven't had sex. We had that conversation last night." John paused. "And you decided to call me John instead of Sheppard."

"I did? Oh, I'm sorry. I really must have been drunk then."

"Why? I don't mind it at all. I call you Rodney."

"No, you don't."

"Yes, I do." John chuckled. "You can call me whatever you want."

"I'm sure I can come up with some creative names."

"Gee, thanks." John chuckled.

"I should let you go back to sleep."

"To be honest, I wasn't really sleeping. I had been lying on the bed staring at the ceiling for the last several hours. It wasn't very exciting."

"Why?"

"I was wishing I was in Canada where I could actually do something to help."

"Why? You have a job and a girlfriend and a life. It's bad enough I call you and bother you all the time."

"I work for my father, I have a female friend who is not a girlfriend, and my life consists of schoolwork and riding horses at the moment, with the occasional boring social thing I get dragged to against my will."

"That qualifies as a life. At least you didn't get arrested for driving under the influence and drunk and disorderly conduct."

"You have a life, too. You're teaching, and you have Jeannie and Maddie and Caleb. And you could always start doing research again, invent something. I know you have a lot of ideas, and it would be good to have a hobby again."

"I live in my sister's basement. She barely tolerates me and the brat torments me when I'm home. The students I teach are barely smart enough to grasp the concepts of my class and will never amount to anything."

John sighed. "I don't know what you want me to tell you."

"Nothing. There's nothing you can do."

"Get out there and find something to do you enjoy. Even if it's just part time. You'll be a lot happier that way."

Rodney was quiet for a long moment. "I should let you go to bed."

"I can stay up. Besides, I'm already in bed. So you don't have to let me go to do anything. And I'd rather talk to you than sleep."

"This is not exactly a scintillating conversation."

"So? It doesn't have to be."

Rodney sighed, and John heard him shifting, the glide of fabric against fabric. "I'm supposed to go to work in the morning."

"Me, too. Go lay down in bed with the phone. If we fall asleep, fine."

"Are you a fourteen year old girl now? This isn't a sleep over."

John felt himself flush. "Sorry. I don't know. I'm just trying to be supportive and helpful."

"I know. Look. I'm going to go to bed."

"All right. I'll talk to you tomorrow then." John sucked at this, he knew. But hopefully he got points for trying.

"Yeah. Night."

"Night."


The next few weeks were a weird up and down. John talked to Rodney most days, but his mood was all over the place. Of course, John had gotten yelled at after Rodney had discovered the ticket to Kentucky, but he hadn't really complained about it. It was more for show, John thought, than actual annoyance.

Finally, the day arrived that Rodney would be here. John declined Simon's offer to pick him up, choosing instead to do it himself. He was waiting in the terminal with two Venti White Mochas—one with an extra shot of espresso—tapping his foot for the damn plane to land already.

There had been delays out of Toronto due to the weather, but the flight had finally taken off, landing only two hours later than originally scheduled. Apparently, Rodney had checked baggage because it was forty-five minutes later and there was still no sign of him.

John sighed, dumping the now-cold coffee and ordering an identical one so he could at least give his friend hot coffee when he finally showed up.

When John finally spotted his friend, Rodney was dragging his suitcase out of the customs area, looking tired and worn. He had another bag on his shoulder. His laptop from the looks of it.

Heading over, John relieved him of both bags, and handed him the coffee. "Hey, buddy."

"What? Hey! Oh," he said, looking up. "It's you."

"Yeah. Figured you could use this after the flight. How was it, other than long?"

"Horrible. Long." He took a sip of the coffee and moaned quietly. "Oh, this is good."

"Your favorite, made just the way you like it." John grinned leading him toward the parking garage.

He shivered as soon as they stepped outside. "I thought it was supposed to be warm here."

"This is warm for Kentucky. It's up around fifty today." John laughed. "And you'll be happy to know that while my entire family is dying to meet you, I've managed to postpone the welcome dinner until tomorrow. So you'll have time to get settled in first."

"Oh, thank you. You are a saint." He took another sip of his coffee. "I don't think I could handle any more people today."

"Yeah, I figured. Your room is all ready for you, so if you just want to crash and relax for today, you can, or I can give you the two-cent tour of the estate. Or if you really want to go into the city, we can."

"Um…" Rodney looked a little wide-eyed. "Whatever."

John grinned. "It's good to have you here." He pointed to his car. "That's us."

Rodney stopped dead in his tracks and stared for a long moment before he started laughing. Really laughing.

"What?" John gave him a sheepish look.

"You…" he managed to get out, before succumbing to laughter again.

John couldn't help but join in, until they were both hiccupping from it.

"Oh god," Rodney said, wiping the tears from his eyes. "It's even worse in person. If that's not the poster perfect ad for Viagra, I don't know what is. I don't know how you managed to find a girlfriend with that…" He waved his hand at the car.

"Just get in the car." John grinned at him and put his bag in the back. "And seriously, she's not my girlfriend. You'll meet her tomorrow."

"Of course she is. She calls herself your girlfriend; therefore she is your girlfriend." At least he got into the car without arguing. Small victories.

"She's a female friend, and hence a girl friend if you want to call it that. But we're not dating."

"Do you or do you not talk to her every day?"

"Rodney, I talk to you every day. Does that mean we're dating, too?"

"We're not talking about me. We're talking about you and the huge issue of denial you have. Now answer the question."

"Yes, I talk to her almost every day. But I talk to you more, between calling, texting and email."

"Do you or do you not take her to dinner?"

"Sometimes. But she pays about half the time, too."

"Probably a quarter of the time, if that, in reality. I know you. Who do you go to every social affair with?"

John rolled his eyes as he pulled out of the lot. "She is a good friend, I've never denied that. And other than you, my only friend outside my family. And you're in Canada most of the time, so who else am I going to hang out with?"

"So is that a yes?"

"Why are you so determined to get me attached to someone?"

"I'm not determined to do anything! You did it yourself!"

"I'm not dating her! We're just good friends. By your standards, I'm closer to dating you than her."

Rodney laughed. "You really are in denial."

"Whatever." John got onto the highway. "We're about forty-five minutes from the house. Is there anything you want me to stop and get before we head that way?"

"No. I'm at your mercy," Rodney said, sipping at his coffee with a pleased grin on his face.

"Jerk." John shot him a grin. God, he had missed this.

"Idiot."

"Bastard."

Rodney shot him a look with narrowed eyes before turning back to his coffee. "It's not my fault that I'm required to tell you what's going on in your own life because you have no clue."

"I can't help it if just because I have a female friend, you automatically assume I'm sleeping with her."

"Of course you are. That's what you do."

"Seriously. I've never slept with her. And Chaya was the only one I slept with the entire time we were on Atlantis, and the last time I had sex, period."

Rodney rolled his eyes, his free hand making talky gestures as John tried to explain. "You're dating her. End of story."

John gave him a 'talk to the hand' gesture he had learned from his nephew.

"What are you, five?"

"One of these days I'm going to have to do something to prove to you I am, in fact, both male and not a child."

Rodney snorted. "Unlikely, but you can try."

"Oh, I'll think of something."

"Doubtful."

They bantered non-stop until John finally pointed. "That's the house there. The stables are around the other side."

"Oh. My. God. This is a mansion."

John felt himself flush. "Well, not really, but it is big. The entire East Wing is mine, so that's where you'll be staying, too. Other than a few people who straighten up, for the most part I'm left alone. I tried to convince them I could clean up after myself, but they just started getting more sneaky about it, and I finally gave it up as a battle I wasn't going to win."

"I knew your father was loaded, but I didn't conceptualize it until now. Wow."

"Other than the salary I'm getting for working for him, I stay out of his money." John didn't want his friend to think he was just being handed a silver spoon.

"Well, I'm sure you pull a nice salary—even after you pay for your tuition. How's that going?" Rodney asked as they pulled into the garage.

John made a face at him. "Surprisingly well. I've been getting top marks across the board, but it is a lot of work."

"Well, it's not supposed to be easy. It's the top rated school in the country." Rodney climbed out of the car as John got out, heading for the trunk.

Simon beat him there, pulling the bags out. "Hello, sir. I'll see that these are delivered to your room. Light refreshments have been set out for you in the parlor."

"Food?" Rodney perked up. "For me?"

John came around and shook his head. "Rodney, this is Simon. Simon, Rodney. And what are you and Katie up to?"

"We thought you might be hungry after the flight, Mister McKay," Simon said, gesturing for them to go into the house. "Katie prepared a few things she thought you might enjoy."

"Oh. I could eat," the scientist said quietly, shooting a quick look at John.

Laughing, John nodded. "All right, let's go. And don't worry—I talked to Katie earlier, and she knows your allergies. So while you're here, nothing will be made with any citrus, so everything will be safe for you."

"Really? Even after my…reaction, I still have to remind Jeannie."

"Yeah, I didn't want anything along those lines. This is supposed to be a vacation for you. Katie has been here since I was a kid, so you don't have to worry. She's amazing."

"Really? So does she have embarrassing pictures of you, too?"

John led him into the bright, airy parlor, which Katie knew was one of the few formal rooms of the house he actually liked. "Probably, but with luck they're all buried in a ditch somewhere."

"Hmm…I'll be sure to ask later," Rodney said, heading right for the sideboard where there was a huge array of food set up. Everything was bite-sized: from sandwiches to cookies and exotic-looking crackers.

John spotted one of his favorite party foods, and snatched one up. "Katie is constantly trying to fatten me up. That's the only reason she keeps putting these out. She knows I can't resist them."

"Well, you've always been skinny and that hasn't changed."

"I can't help it if my metabolism is good. I know I'm lucky—if it wasn't, I'd probably be a walking blimp."

"Doubtful. You still run every morning."

"True." John grinned. "And try those." He pointed at a little cookie. "I think you'll like them."

"Really?" Rodney looked at him with wide eyes for a moment before shifting down the buffet.

John grinned as Rodney tried everything, making his usual racket of porn noises. He hoped Katie would swing by so she could see how much her food was appreciated. Rodney was a true believer in good food.

When his friend had finally eaten his way through the buffet and collapsed on the couch at the far end of the room. He patted his stomach and uttered a quiet burp. "Oh, that was good."

John was stretched out nearby, feet up on an ottoman. "Yeah. I didn't know how hungry I actually was until we ate."

"So was that lunch or an early dinner?"

"Either. There's always food downstairs around dinner time, so if we're hungry, we can come down, and you can meet my brother and his wife."

"I think I love your house."

John laughed. "Good."

"And I think I might be a little jealous. Here you don't have to fight to have meat."

"Hey, you know you're always welcome. I have more than enough space, and you could devote yourself to research. Hell, my father would probably hire you on as a science consultant."

Rodney shot him a hard look. "We're not having that conversation again. It's bad enough that you paid for me to come here."

Shrugging, John relaxed into his chair. "I knew it was the only way I'd get you to come for a visit. Call it a selfish move on my part."

Rodney snorted and rolled his eyes. "So, am I going to get a tour?"

"If you want one. Where do you want to start?"

"Your house, your tour." He groaned as he climbed to his feet.

John started on the main level, since they were there anyway, showing Rodney the media room, library, kitchens—spending about a half hour chatting with Katie—and taking him to the East Wing. "Here's your room."

Rodney stepped inside, pausing only a few paces in. "This is huge."

"Yeah. It's actually the secondary master suite. I have no idea why, but there are two of them in each wing. I'm in the other, right across the hall."

"Oh, good. I won't hear you and Andrea going at it, then." He walked deeper into the room, poking his head into the attached bathroom.

John rolled his eyes. "I'd guess Simon put all your stuff away, so check the drawers before you do anything else if you can't find something.

"Wait," he said, walking back out to stare at John. "He touched my underwear?"

John grinned. "I'm pretty sure he didn't use tongs."

"That's just wrong. No one touches my underwear except me."

"Don't tempt me."

"You are twelve!"

John laughed. "Come on. I'll show you where I've set up my own personal media room, since I knew my father and brother wouldn't exactly approve of me setting up a gaming center in the main wing."

"You have a PlayStation?" Rodney asked, hurrying to follow John.

"Of course."

"Then what are we waiting for?"

John led him down to the end of the hall, where he had pretty much turned the small library that had been here into his own personal movie theatre slash video game den. "Ta da."

"Wow," Rodney said, looking around the room. He wasn't focused on the electronic equipment, however. "How many books are in here?"

"I don't know. I never counted them."

It was actually amusing. With all the technology in this room, Rodney was focused on the books lining the shelves built into the walls. He was carefully touching a few of the spines as he read the titles.

John sat down in one of the insanely comfortable chairs he had brought in. His school books were nearby, since this was where he came to do most of his studying for that, too.

"You have some old books here. Some of them are worth a lot of money."

"Probably. My father used to be a big collector when he was younger. There's this library, another one the same size in my brother's wing, and then the large library with about three times the books in the two small ones put together."

"Okay…that's impressive."

"I didn't know you were into old books."

"It's…" Rodney offered a shrug as he walked across the room and settled into a chair. "I don't know. It's hard to explain. In a way, books mean knowledge in a much more…tangible way than a computer does."

"True." John looked around. "I guess I take them for granted since I grew up around them. But you're more than welcome to read through anything you want in here, and if there's something you're interested in that's not in this wing, I'll ask Simon. There used to be a dedicated librarian on staff, but when my parents moved into the townhouse in the city permanently, they let the bulk of the staff go, other than a few that had been with us forever. But Simon will know where the records are kept of what's stored where, so he can look up anything you want to look for."

Rodney nodded. "So, you just…left all this."

John nodded. "I still have a hard time with it some days. It's… it all comes with a price. You have to look and act a certain way, be in a certain profession, have a certain level of success, and you aren't free to rise or fall on your own. It's all wrapped up in image, of the family even more than your own. I didn't want that kind of life, and even now, it's not easy. I still go head to head with my father, but I've learned to pick my battles a bit more carefully."

"You mean you're actually learning?"

John made a face. "No choice really. I honestly don't have anywhere else to go right now. So it's get along and do what I'm told, or else."

"You look…happy. Or at least content. That's a good thing. Nine months ago was a very different story."

"Really?" John squirmed a bit. "I guess I am for now. I'm working on the degree, which I'm enjoying, and when I can't stand sitting in an office anymore, I head out to the stables and work with the horses. I always loved them, and that never changed."

"That's good."

"I want you to get settled, and find some peace, too." John gave his friend a little half-smile. "You're here because of me. I know it was your decision, but… I don't want you to think it was a mistake, or you're a failure, because you're not."

Rodney shrugged. "This is probably as settled as I'll ever get. Atlantis was different, but…" He sighed. "It was very different than what I was used to."

"You don't have to stay at the college if you aren't happy. There are other options."

"I don't think I will, but for now it's a job. When I was in Atlantis, that was the longest I'd stayed anywhere since college."

John nodded. "Take some time to think about it. But while you're here, just relax, okay? No pressure, and I promise I won't bring it up again unless you do."

"I know you'll bring it up again. It's just a matter of time."

"Okay, I promise to try not to bring it up unless you do first." John grinned. "Now, I believe I am owed a rematch in several games."

"You believe you are?" Rodney gave him a wicked grin.

John laughed. "Get over here, McKay, so I can kick your ass."

"In your dreams, flyboy," Rodney said, moving to the chairs right by the gaming unit. "You are so going to regret that challenge."

They spent the afternoon and late into the evening playing and talking smack. Since dinner was long over by the time they were hungry again, John ran down to the kitchen to get a light snack before they headed to bed.

The next morning, he took Rodney out to the stables, introducing him to Joe, although he couldn't convince his friend to actually ride. Maybe later in the vacation. They toured the grounds and spent some time in the main library that Rodney wanted to check out, until, finally, it was time to introduce him to the family at dinner.

John convinced him to put on a pair of khakis and a button-down shirt, standing in Rodney's bedroom doorway as he waited. "You ready?"

"To eat? Yes. To be paraded around, no." Rodney scowled at him before turning back to the mirror as he tried to straighten his collar.

"Unfortunately, that's part of the deal here. But you look fine. They'll like you."

"I look like an over-weight, balding college professor. Oh wait. I am." He rolled his eyes, but did turn toward John, walking toward the door.

"You look great." John clapped him on the shoulder.

"I shouldn't have to dress up on vacation. But look at you. You're like…out of GQ or something."

John rolled his eyes. "Hardly. I'm wearing the same thing as you, practically. Our shirts are different colors, that's about it."

"Mine is from Zellers and yours is from Brook Brothers. Huge difference.

John shook his head. "Hardly. You make that look good."

"Whatever," he said, waving John off. "So, are we ready for this dog and pony show? And who exactly is going to be here?"

"Dave and his wife, and my parents. As far as I know, that's it. I told them I didn't want to overwhelm you with too many people all at once, otherwise my father has a tendency to make stuff like this into social affairs."

"Wonderful," he said, matching John's pace as they walked down the hall. "Your girlfriend going to be here, too?"

John shot him a look. "No. I didn't invite Andrea, my friend, tonight. I figured I would introduce you later in the week."

"But I thought you said yesterday that she was coming tonight."

"I don't think I did. I didn't invite her, so I wouldn't have said that."

Rodney made some kind of indistinct noise in the back of this throat, but didn't continue the conversation. John was going to take the small victories wherever he could.

He led Rodney into the small sitting room that led into the main dining area, and smiled at his family. "Everyone, this is Rodney. Rodney, that's my brother Dave and his wife, Charlotte, and my parents, Patrick and Jeanette."

Rodney wiped his hand on his pants before shaking hands, making quiet comments of thanks as he greeted everyone. He looked distinctly uncomfortable—almost reminding John of how he'd act off-world when he didn't trust the natives.

John did his best to put his friend at ease. He had warned his family ahead of time that Rodney wasn't great at the whole social thing, so there were no surprises.

"You're a science professor now," Patrick said, pinning Rodney with a look.

"Yes. I teach several classes at the local community college."

"But John told me you previously worked as the head of the science department at the base where he was stationed, correct?"

"I did." Rodney shifted on his feet. "I've worked on and off for the government since I was in college."

"So why aren't you consulting?"

"Because that wasn't an option at this point in time."

"Why not? If you're as smart as John tells me you are, I'd hire you today. We have a science division that's been performing under expectations for years now. I'd like to bring in someone who knows what the hell they're doing to oversee it."

Rodney turned to John, a scowl on his face. "Did you put him up to this?"

John shook his head. "No, of course not." He looked at his father. "I've offered to hire him more than once, but he turned me down."

"Look. It's none of your business what I decide to do with my life. If I decide to teach at a community college the rest of my life, that's my choice," Rodney said, turning to Patrick. "And besides. I'd probably be more of a hindrance than a help to you right now anyway."

John's father shrugged. "Your choice. If you ever change your mind, let us know. It's a shame to see talent wasted, and I can always put it to good use."

"Is there anything else you want to know about my sordid past?"

Dave laughed, grinning. "You're just like I pictured you from what John's said and when we talked. It's great to finally be meeting you in person."

Rodney scowled. "Well, I'm glad I live up to someone's expectations."

John blinked. "Wait a minute, you two have talked before? When?"

It's actually quite funny how quickly Rodney could go from annoyed to guilty. "Before."

"Before when?" John looked between Rodney and Dave.

"Before…now."

John narrowed his eyes, and looked over at Dave. "You care to shed any light on this for me?"

"Not if I don't have to."

"You have to."

"It's nothing, John. Let it go," Rodney said quietly.

"If it's nothing, why are the two of you refusing to tell me?" John looked back and forth between them.

"Because we both know how badly this is going to go once we do tell you and I'd rather enjoy my vacation if I can."

"Wonderful." John rubbed the bridge of his nose. He was actually grateful that dinner was announced. He was now edging toward pissed off, and this gave him a moment to collect himself.

Dinner was a wonderfully stilted affair, tense and uncomfortable for most everyone at the table—except his nephew Andrew who was oblivious to everything.

John was grateful when it was over, since being a small family thing meant they didn't have to do the long social session afterward. He was polite and correct, and headed for his room as soon as he was able to do so gracefully.

He collapsed in one of his chairs, brooding and scowling. He was surprised that the first knock on the door didn't come until more than an hour after he'd left.

"It's open."

"Hey." It was McKay, stepping only a foot or two into the room. "I'm sorry I screwed up dinner."

"It was fine."

He snorted. "Sure. Look. I talked to Simon and he'll take me to the airport. There's a flight out tonight."

"Like hell." John sat up straight. "You're not leaving yet."

"You're pissed at me and, honestly, I can tell you really don't want me here."

John sighed. "Am I irritated right now that apparently you and my brother are conspiring behind my back? Yes. But that doesn't mean I want you to leave. This is the first chance in almost a year we've gotten to hang out. I'll get over it."

"You might not feel that way when I explain," Rodney said quietly, moving deeper into the room and closing the door.

"So tell me, and let me decide. Don't just disappear on me."

"I…ah…I contacted your brother as soon as we got back."

John's eyebrows went up. "From Atlantis?"

Rodney nodded silently as he sat down on the nearby couch—not too close, but not across the room either. "More or less as soon as I had an internet connection."

"Why?" John shook his head.

"Because I didn't think you would and I wasn't going to let you get stuck in some backwater town doing something you hated and pretending that it was just fine. I saw how much it hurt that you had to leave, that they forced you out. I knew you were going to need a…nudge in the right direction."

Sighing, John ran a hand through his hair. "Why didn't you tell me then? Or even when I first sent an email to Dave? And if you two had been talking, why did he wait for me to send an email to him? And was so surprised I had?"

"Because it had to be your idea."

"What if I had decided not to?"

"It was the best thing for you, really. We would have figured out something." He sighed quietly. "I really did have your best interests at heart."

"So why is it okay for you to interfere in what I do, but you get furious with me when I try to do the same for you, done with the same intentions?"

Rodney scowled. "Because if I hadn't you'd be in that same flea bag hotel I found you in after they let you go."

"And I'm trying to get you out of your sister's basement and a teaching job that's making you miserable."

"I'm fine. I signed a contract for a two-year stint, so I'm stuck."

John sighed. "Tell you what. I'll agree not to get pissed at you for this, if you agree to stop being pissed at me when I try to help you."

"I don't need your help. I'm fine."

"So it's okay for you to meddle, but not me?"

"Look. I said I was sorry. But at the point that I did meddle, you needed help. I won't do it again." He rose to his feet.

"Sit down." John sighed. "I think I'm more irritated about the double standard than anything else now."

"You can't just order me around," he said, scowling down at John, arms crossed over his chest. "I said I was sorry."

"And I accept your apology. But I want the same rights you have, at the very least the right to not have you get pissed off at me if I even suggest stuff to you."

"I don't."

"Yes, you do."

"I do not."

"Rodney, even talking about the possibility of it right now has you defensive and getting annoyed with me."

He scowled at John, but didn't say anything.

"You know I'm right."

The scowl got deeper and Rodney shifted on his feet.

John just waited to see what he would do.

"Look," Rodney finally said, hands waving. "You needed the help."

"Maybe. But maybe I think you do, too."

"I have a job and a place to live."

"And you spend most of the time telling me how unhappy you are."

"I'm still settling in."

John sighed. "Just… promise me you won't get pissed off at me if I make a suggestion or try to help. You can say no thanks, just don't get mad at me for caring enough to want to help, okay? That's all I ask."

"Fine."

John sighed again. "And you're still standing, hovering. Sit down, Rodney."

"I'm not a dog." He did sit, though, perched on the edge of the couch.

"Why are you so determined to always take what I say in the worst possible way?" John gave him a small smile. "You're my friend."

"You were the one falling apart. You needed the help."

"Why are we back on that? I didn't even mention that. Rodney… stop being so defensive. I'd like to think we've known each other long enough now to be past you worrying that I'm going to betray you or hurt you."

"People change," he said quietly, his eyes drifting down to his hands.

"You can trust me."

"I do." He paused. "Mostly."

"Mostly? What does that mean?"

"I don't really trust anyone absolutely." He snorted bitterly. "Not even myself."

"You can trust me."

Rodney lifted his head, meeting his eyes. "And I do. More than anyone else."

John sat forward and reached out, putting a hand on Rodney's knee. "You're the only person on Earth I'd trust my life to."

Rodney snorted. "You sure that's wise?"

"Absolutely."

The scientist fell silent, his eyes fixed somewhere over John's shoulder.

"It's getting late, and it's been a long day. Why don't we both get some sleep? I think Katie is making waffles for breakfast."

"Yeah, sure. That sounds great," Rodney said without a whole lot of enthusiasm. He rose to his feet, rubbing a hand across his face. "See you in the morning."

John rose as well, taking a chance and stepping in to pat Rodney's shoulder a bit awkwardly. "No worries, okay. You're on vacation. I wanted you to come here so you could relax."

Rodney stiffened at John's touch, backing off as soon as he could. "Right. Vacation."

John watched him go, sighing softly. It seemed like he couldn't do anything right, not even helping his friend relax.

In the morning, Rodney ended up sleeping in and missing breakfast. His brother, though, was waiting for him at the table as soon as John walked down.

John hadn't slept particularly well, so he nodded at Dave, heading to the sideboard to put a plate together.

"Your friend is very persuasive when he wants to be."

"He can be, yes." John sat down. "And I'm still a little irritated that you never told me."

"He asked…told me not to." Dave took a sip of his coffee. "I wasn't too keen on having you come back."

John pushed his food around on the plate. "I thought you took me back a little too quick. I was expecting you to hate me, and if I even did see you again, it wouldn't be like this."

"I'm still…angry about you leaving the way you did and basically dropping everything in my lap. You should have been the one to take care of everything here. Not me."

"I know." John looked up. "But I couldn't, not then. If I had stayed, you would have hated me. The whole family would have, and I very well might have driven the company into the ground."

"Rodney convinced me that I needed to give you a second chance and that you'd changed. He was right. You have changed."

John nodded. "I have, in more ways than one. I needed that life and all it offered."

"You're…harder in some ways. I've watched you work and you have this…focus I'm envious of. And now with the MIT thing…I don't know how you can juggle everything and do it better than me and still joke about stuff." Dave sighed, taking another sip. "Don't get me wrong. I like the life I have, but I always wonder what else I could have done if you hadn't left."

"Military life taught me to focus and juggle, and the base where I was in charge… if I couldn't handle a lot of shit all at once, people died. I had to learn fast how to think on my feet. And keeping a certain amount of humor about everything kept me from going mad." John looked back down at his plate. "I never meant to leave like that, though. It just sort of happened."

"You and dad were too alike. You were both pigheaded."

"We still are." John smiled slightly. "And back then, numbers were in my way. I wanted to touch the sky, and I wasn't going to let anyone or anything tie me down. I think if I had stayed, I would have probably completely destroyed myself."

"I know that now. Rodney…Rodney told me some things. Don't take it out on him. He meant well. He really did."

"I know. We talked last night. I think I was more irritated with him for having a double standard and getting pissed off at me for interfering when he does the same thing." John paused. "And what did he tell you? I'm curious more than anything else."

"About how you've risked your life. About some of the missions you've been on. It was really general, but he told me enough."

John shrugged. "It was part of my job. I was there to protect the base and the people on it."

"Still. You didn't have to do what you did."

"I wouldn't have done it any other way. Even though, ultimately, that was what got me forced out."

"But you saved their lives."

"Sometimes, yes. And sometimes they saved mine. I'd be dead several times over if not for Rodney and the others on my team."

"Is he as smart as he says he is?"

"Even more. And he gave up the perfect position for me, because he was protesting them sending me home. He should be working in the best labs in the world, but instead, because almost all of his stuff is still highly classified, he has to start back at square one."

"I looked him up after I talked with him the first time," Dave said, toying with the handle of his mug. "From what I was able to find—thanks, in part to your ex—he handled some extremely classified projects but was never paid for some of them. There are parts of his file that were completely missing. Partly from his teen-aged years. Some from more recently."

John chuckled. "He was discovered when he was still in grade school. He built a working nuclear reactor for a science fair project—he just didn't have access to uranium."

"Actually, that was in there," Dave said with a quiet chuckle. "Just how much do you really know about him, John?"

"Quite a bit. I've read his file, obviously, the full one, with all of the classified information, just as he's read my full file. And we've worked closely together for years now."

"Are you're sure you've read his full file?"

"Yes. I had to, being the head of military for the base. I read everyone's file."

"Your friend's probably more dangerous than you are."

John nodded. "Yes, in some ways he is. He's horrible at social things, which leads a lot of people to underestimate him."

Dave nodded, picking up his cup and sipping at what was probably cold coffee. "So, how long is he staying?"

"As long as he wants. I booked the return flight as an open ticket. He has six weeks off for the break, so I've invited him to stay the whole time if he wants, or he can head back whenever."

"What are your plans for work?"

"I'll get that and school done, even if some of it is later at night."

"I thought you were done with your semester."

"I am, for the most part. I have some research I'm working on that's not really on a time crunch since it's not due any time soon, but that I'd like to get ahead on."

Dave nodded again, his eyes drifting past John.

John glanced over to see what had caught his brother's attention.

It was Rodney, looking sleep rumpled and bleary eyed. He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, but hadn't managed to find shoes so he was barefoot. His hair was standing up in spots, too.

A jolt of something went through John, gone almost as fast as it came, leaving him blinking in confusion. "Hey there."

Rodney hummed something, blinking a few times before his eyes settled on the coffee pot on the sideboard. He lurched vaguely in that direction.

John smiled as he watched. "The waffles are awesome."

"Is he even awake?" Dave asked, watching as Rodney got himself a cup of coffee.

"No. He needs caffeine first."

As Rodney plowed through his first cup, Dave asked, "Did we make enough?"

"Probably not. He can do a full pot all by himself." John laughed softly.

"That can't be healthy."

"Probably not, but the combined efforts of a lot of people still haven't gotten him to change, so I doubt he ever will."

They watched Rodney drain the first mug and then prepare a second before turning toward the table, sinking down into a nearby chair.

John pushed his own plate in the scientist's direction, knowing food would help wake his friend up, too.

"You need to eat."

"I'll get another plate."

"Don't want your food."

John shrugged. "All right. What do you want then? I can make you something up."

Rodney shrugged. "Food."

Shaking his head, John went back over to the sideboard, filling a plate with everything he thought Rodney would like. And grabbing another mug of coffee for him. "Try this."

The scientist looked it over for a long moment before digging in, making pleased noises all the while. His brother simply looked on in amazement.

John pulled his own plate back over, picking at it slowly and watching in amusement.

Rodney inhaled the entire plate—plus a biscuit from John's—downing a total of four mugs of coffee before he leaned back in his chair. "Oh, that was good."

"You look more alive now."

Rodney scowled at him. "Thanks. So what are we doing today?"

"Well, there's a horse race over at the track. I thought maybe you'd like to go and see what it's like. We don't have any stock in it, so it would just be for fun."

"To watch a horse on a track?"

"There are a couple of different types of races, but essentially, yes. It's more exciting to watch than it sounds."

"Sure, whatever," he said, waving his hand not holding onto the coffee mug. "Let me get changed and showered and whatnot."

"All right. The races go on all day, so we're in no rush."

"Okay," he said, climbing to his feet. He topped off his coffee before heading out of the breakfast room, leaving Dave and John behind.

John chuckled again.

Dave was still looking back and forth from the door to the table, a look of disbelief on his face. "That didn't just happen, did it?"

John grinned. "You get used to it."

Dave shook his head, pushing his chair back. "I'm going to head down to the office and try not to think about that man playing with explosives."

John laughed. "He has his own methods, but they work."

"I certainly hope so." Dave headed out after refreshing his own cup of coffee.

John took a few minutes to finish his breakfast before heading upstairs to change himself into something that would be comfortable for the day.

Rodney's door was cracked open and John could hear the shower running in the bathroom. There were clothes strewn across the bed. Apparently the clothes for the day. The bed also looked like someone had wrestled with the covers—and lost.

Smiling, John took in the scene. He had shared a room enough times with Rodney to make the chaos feel…homey.

He rolled his eyes and pulled the door closed behind him. The last thing he needed to hear was that someone had walked in on him as he was getting ready.

John didn't need another shower, but he did change, pulling on a pair of jeans and comfortable shoes, along with a polo shirt.

He ended up flipping through the television channels in his media room while he waited for the scientist to be ready to go. When Rodney finally arrived, he was dressed in what looked like ten layers of clothing, including the orange fleece he had in Antarctica on top.

John blinked. "You're going to be hot in all that."

"It's not even five degrees out there. Celsius. I looked."

"We'll be inside for the bulk of it. They have a nice area set up where you can see everything, place bets, get food, etc."

"And? Places like that are notoriously drafty."

John rolled his eyes. "You're going to die in all that, but at least it's layers so you can strip as needed."

"I have a very delicate constitution," Rodney said, tilting his head up defensively.

John grinned at him, standing up. "I know, buddy. Let's go."

"So do you actually bet on the horses?" he asked as they walked to the garage and John's car.

"Not really, although I have occasionally. I really go more to enjoy the races. It's a sport, and seeing what the animals can do, and how their jockeys bring it out of them is the interesting part to me."

"Jockeys are weird," he said sliding into the car.

"Why?" John glanced over. "They're just people who like to race."

"They're so tiny," he said, gesturing with his hands.

Laughing, John backed out and started for the tracks. "They're short, yes, but still…"

"Tiny. Huh. I wonder if any of them are named Tim."

John laughed again. "I have no idea. They only have their last names on their jerseys."

"Huh. Well, you should find out."

"We can ask around if you want to."

The track wasn't far, especially at the speeds John drove, so they were pulling up twenty minutes later.

It turned out to be a fun day, with Rodney asking lots of questions about the race and how things worked. He placed a small bet on one horse and managed to actually win a little money. It was good to see him smile.

John couldn't actually remember the last time Rodney had been this relaxed and happy.

The next few days were equally fun. They ended up tooling around the area where John got to show Rodney all of his old—and new—haunts. Tonight, though, Rodney was meeting Andrea.

John was a nervous wreck. He wanted his two closest friends to like each other and hit it off. It would be hard if they didn't.

"I'll behave myself," Rodney said quietly, about half-way to the restaurant. He'd actually gotten a little dressed up for dinner—slacks and a button down and a sports jacket.

"I'm not worried about that." John glanced over and smiled. "I just… I really want you guys to get along. You're really my only friends, so I want you to be friends, too, as stupid as that probably sounds."

"It's not stupid."

"She's pretty easy going, and I talk about you a lot, so hopefully there won't be any awkwardness."

"Caleb said she was nice, if you value his opinion."

John glanced over, startled, until he remembered Andrea had called him. "I completely forgot about that. I was worried about you but didn't want to call too many times and piss you off, and she got irritated with me and took my phone."

"It wasn't you I was pissed off at."

"Yeah, I know that now. But at the time, I was just worried about you."

Rodney shrugged. "You'll get used to it. Normal course of events for me."

"Doesn't mean I'll worry about you any less every time." John gave him a wry look. "I can't seem to help it."

"Yeah yeah," he said rolling his eyes.

John got them to the restaurant, one of his favorites, without crashing, which he considered a minor miracle considering how nervous he was. Once inside, he glanced around to see if Andrea was here yet.

Vincenzo's was busy, but Albert was waiting for him. "Mister Sheppard, it is good to see you tonight."

"Hello, good to see you, too. This is my friend, Rodney, and we're meeting another friend, Andrea, here tonight. Has she arrived yet?"

"Yes. Miss Nevitt has already been seated and I believe she has already ordered wine," he said, gesturing for them to follow him.

John nodded, silently following Albert to his usual table, Rodney right behind him.

Andrea was there and she looked fantastic. She'd gone all out tonight, it seemed. Her face brightened as soon as she caught sight of him. "John! There you are. I wasn't sure if you got lost on the way or not."

He held out a hand, helping her to her feet. "Sorry we're a little late. I was fussing. Andrea, this is Rodney McKay. Rodney, this is Andrea Nevitt."

"It's ah, nice to meet you," Rodney said, stumbling a little over his words. Andrea simply enveloped him in a hug.

"It is so good to finally meet you. John can't stop talking about you so it's about time we finally met."

John could tell Rodney was surprised by this, but it was in a good way. "I'm just glad I finally get to introduce the two of you in person."

"Here. Sit down and let's get to know each other a little better. Honey, order us some food I'm starving."

John raised an eyebrow at the endearment. "They'll be bringing us my usual, along with more wine, to start."

"More wine is always good. It might get your Canadian friend here to loosen up a bit," she said with a smile toward Rodney.

John gestured the waiter over and ordered another bottle of wine. He really hoped this would go well.

"Ah…beer…beer would be good," Rodney said as Andrea helped him into a chair.

She grinned, and leaned forward, elbows on the table. "So, John talks about you a lot, but I want to hear more. Give me the skinny on you."

"There's…ah, not really much to say. I'm a professor at a local community college. I live with my sister."

"Ahh, but I know there's more. So talk."

Rodney shot John a "help me" look even as he started to answer. "Not really. I lead a pretty boring life."

John shrugged, but he did get his friend a beer.

Andrea rolled her eyes. "If you were a boring person, John wouldn't be so obsessed over you. So tell me about you."

"Really. There's nothing enthralling about me. John and I worked together for a few years. That's it."

Andrea made a motion for him to go on.

"Please, just tell me what you want to hear and I'll tell you. I don't know what you're looking for."

"I just want to get to know you. Tell me about your childhood, what you like to do for hobbies, what you and John did together for fun, stuff like that."

"Ah…I have a sister. I think my parents are still alive. Maybe. I haven't talked to them since I was in college. I built a working nuclear bomb when I was twelve and I was in college when I was thirteen. My sister barely tolerates me and I'm still not sure why John hangs around." He shrugged. "Like I said. Not much to say."

"Hmmm, so you're a genius with self-esteem issues. I can work with this." She grinned. "What do you do for fun?"

"The last time I drank I ended up in jail, so…" Rodney shrugged. "Nothing really."

"Yes, I heard about that, and it wasn't really your fault. She was a bitch who didn't know what she had."

"I shouldn't have gotten involved with someone I worked with. I know better."

Andrea waved that away. "I've gotten involved with people I work with plenty of times, and that doesn't have to end badly. So. Hobbies? I know you like computers, and you've done something to John's phone to track him. What else can you build?"

"Um…" Rodney glanced at John again. "Anything—given I have the tools, equipment, supplies, and whatnot."

"See, now that's interesting." Andrea perked up. "Tell me about some of the cool stuff you've made."

"Most of it's classified."

John had to grin at the interplay.

"Not all of it though. Tell me about that stuff. It's probably neater than weapons anyway."

"I…ah…wasn't talking about weapons. I've worked for the Canadian government, the US government, the Russians, the British…" He shrugged. "I moved around a lot."

"I bet you got to see some great places. I love to travel. Where's your favorite vacation destination?"

"I'm really more of a homebody, really. I hate moving and change. It takes me a while to adapt my surroundings to my liking, so I'd rather not move if I don't have to. I mean, I've had to, a lot, in the past. Move that is. But it doesn't mean I liked it or it was my choice in the matter."

The waiter arrived at that point with the appetizers, and the conversation evened out a bit. "So Rodney, how long are you staying with us? Have you decided yet?" Andrea smiled.

"I haven't really thought much beyond what's happening a few hours from now, honestly. I have to go back at least a week before term starts because they want my lesson plans and whatnot, so…" He shrugged. "I figure John will get sick of me soon enough."

John rolled his eyes. "Hardly. I wouldn't have booked an open ticket if I wanted you to leave right away."

"We'll see if you're still singing the same tune in a week," Rodney said, poking at the food on his plate. "Is this even dead? What is it?"

"Try it. You'll like it." John had ordered for the table even before they'd arrived. He wanted to make sure everything had been prepared ahead of time.

"But what is it?" Rodney put his fork under the decorative greens on top, shoving them to the side.

"It's salmon. And don't worry, I told them absolutely no citrus. The dish didn't come with it specifically, but I made sure they didn't add any as a garnish or anything."

"Good. One trip to the hospital a year is enough for me," he said, sniffing at a forkful of fish.

"Let's try and do less than that. I don't think I could take too many of those."

"You can't," Rodney huffed, getting a quiet chuckle from Andrea. "Try it from my end one of these days."

John shuddered. "Yeah, I don't want to even think about that. Let's just agree to both stay out of the hospital, okay?"

"And jail."

"Yeah." John made a face. "We should just agree to stay out of trouble, especially since it's not our jobs anymore to go seek it out."

"It seems to find me, in any case," Rodney said with a quiet sigh. He took a tentative bite of the fish. "Huh. This is pretty good."

"I thought you'd like it."

"Reminds me of the fish we had…" Rodney's fingers wiggled in the air. "When Ronon fell in the river."

John smiled softly, remembering. "God, that was a good night. One of the few missions where absolutely nothing went wrong."

"Except for the river thing."

"I think he was just hot and decided to take a swim."

"He was mad he got his coat wet."

John chuckled. "That was pretty funny."

Rodney laughed quietly, his eyes on his plate. "Yeah. It was." Andrea was watching them carefully from across the table.

"Remember the time Teyla scared the shit out of him and then just grinned for like an hour."

"Yeah. She was one brave woman."

"She was also the only one who could kick his ass on a regular basis."

"True," he said with a bob of his head.

"God, those were good times." John sighed. "I wonder how they're doing."

"Fine. I hear from Radek and Carson every now and then. Teyla checks in with them every few weeks."

"I wonder why none of them ever contact me." That was depressing.

"Knowing you, you probably never gave them your email address." Rodney rolled his eyes and John could hear the unspoken "you idiot" hanging in the air.

John flushed. "Ahh, probably not. I'll do it tonight when we get back."

The table settled into silence as they ate their dinner, John actually letting himself think about Atlantis and the people there. He hadn't in a long time.

It hurt as much as he had thought it would, but it was also bitter-sweet. God, he missed it, just like he missed flying. The urge to be in the air, that he had kept tamped down for a while now, was almost overwhelming.

Andrea's hand closed over his. "You need to leave?"

John swallowed, and shook his head. "No. I'll… be fine. Just really missing flying."

"So buy a plane and fly, silly. Your dad has the money. You probably have the money, too."

John sighed. "It's not the same. One, I can't afford it on my own, and other than the salary he gives me for working for him, I don't take money from my father. I haven't even touched my trust fund. And two… it wouldn't be freedom then. It would be… something else."

"But you'd be able to fly, at least for a little while," she said, squeezing his hand.

Shrugging, John stared down at his plate. "If I can finish this degree, and convince Rodney here to do it with me, I'll found my own company designing and building planes some day. That would be… I think that's what I really want now."

"I'm sure you'll be able to convince him, John." She squeezed his hand again. "You can do anything."

Snorting, John looked over at Rodney. "Is that even something you'd be interested in?"

"I'd just screw it up," Rodney said quietly, giving John a weird look before glancing away. "You don't need me anyway. Once you have that degree, you'll get your own backing and you'll be fine."

"I don't want to do it with anyone else. Without you, it wouldn't be… fun."

"It would be plenty fun. And you know I'd help, just not…officially. It would be better in the long run for you."

John shook his head. "I wouldn't do it without you."

Rodney gave him a weirdly intense look. "You trust me, right?"

"With my life. You know that."

"Then trust me when I say it would be better if I wasn't officially involved with any of your endeavors."

"Why? You're my partner in a lot of ways already. We're a team."

"Just…trust me on this, John. Please."

Shrugging, John let it drop. He wouldn't do it without Rodney, but he wasn't going to press either.

Rodney was quiet the rest of the night, but Andrea talked more than enough for all of them, keeping the conversation going. By the time they finally said goodnight, it was nearly midnight. Andrea leaned in for a quick kiss on John's lips before giving Rodney a hug.

"It was so good to meet you and I hope we'll be able to have some fun before you head back to Canada."

John blinked. "What was that for?"

She chuckled. "Love you, too, John. I'll talk to you tomorrow," she said, climbing in her car.

He just stared after her, then looked at Rodney. "Why do I get the feeling that she thinks we're dating, when I think we're just friends?"

"You are dating," Rodney said, rolling his eyes as John's car was brought around by the valet.

"But… we're not…"

"Yes, John. You are."

"I've never slept with her! I swear!"

"Not yet and not sleeping with someone doesn't necessarily mean you're not dating."

John made a face as he took his keys. "Why do I feel like I'm missing something here? And what did you think of her? I think she really liked you."

"She's nice," he said, sliding into the passenger side of the car. "Actually, I think she's exactly what I expected."

"Is that good or bad?" John started for home, glancing over.

"Good. She's good for you."

"We have a lot of fun. I know Dave and Charlotte were worried about me for a while, never going anywhere."

"Well, now you don't have that excuse."

John snorted.

"What? It's the truth."

"I'm still home more often than not, between work and the degree."

"And you still spend too much time on your computer and cell phone talking to me when you should be spending time with Andrea."

"I like talking to you, so stop it."

Rodney rolled his eyes, looking out the window as the dark scenery passed by. There was a full moon that night, so the countryside had a strange glow.

They were both quiet on the drive, lost in their own thoughts. John found himself driving a little slower, not really wanting the peace of it to end just yet.

It seemed like Rodney was in a similar frame of mind, remaining silent for the entire ride home.

The weird flash of whatever hit John again briefly when he glanced over at his friend, bathed in moonlight, but like last time, it was gone again too fast for him to figure out what it was, so he shrugged it off.

He was happy to have him here. It made something inside of him unclench, seeing him here, knowing he could fix anything that happened. Huh. Apparently the protective aspect of his personality still extended to the scientist.

It was with a certain amount of regret that he pulled up to the house. They walked inside together, neither of them willing to break the silence until they got to their rooms. John gave Rodney a small smile. "Night."

"Night, John," he said quietly, returning the smile with a soft of one his own. "Tonight was…nice. Thanks."

"Yeah, it was." John lingered for a minute. "Sleep well."

"You, too." John walked away, moving to his room across the hall. "She's…I like her. She's right for you."

John made a face, but Rodney had closed the door on that remark. He sighed, retreating to his own room.


The rest of Rodney's vacation was just as relaxing. Rodney had refused to let John do the Christmas thing with him, so the entire holiday season had been a lot more low-key than usual. Sure there had been decorations and whatnot, but it had just become easier to humor Rodney than to argue with him about it. They had dinner with Andrea a few more times, and John was amused that they exchanged email addresses so they could talk without him as an intermediary. He was glad they had hit it off—Rodney could use more friends, too.

Once his friend had finally gone home, John found he was a little depressed, but they fell back into their routine quickly.

A few weeks after Rodney had left, Andrea was over at the house, and they were enjoying a cocktail before she headed home. She had been over for dinner, and they had played pool for most of the evening, with the final outcome at a tie.

"You know Valentine's Day is only a week or so away," she said, sprawled on the leather couch in the game room.

John was sitting on a couch next to her, and glanced over. "Are we dating?"

She narrowed her eyes at him. "For months now."

"Huh. That's what Rodney told me, but I said we were just good friends."

She rolled her eyes and chuckled. "Honey, that's one of the reasons I love you. You're just so…oblivious sometimes."

"Huh." John ran a hand through his hair. "Wow."

"Wow? What's that supposed to mean, exactly?"

"I'm just readjusting to the idea that we're dating."

She laughed again, pushing herself into a seated position. "Then I really expect a big gift in ten days."

He gave her a wry grin. "So if we're dating, why aren't we having sex? I always sort of assumed the two went hand-in-hand, which is why, I guess, I didn't think we were dating."

"I figured you needed to take it slow and flirting is a lot of fun. Besides, there are other ways a girl can get some satisfaction."

"I always thought you were just teasing me, and didn't really mean it."

"I mean everything I say, John. So…interested in finding out what first base is like, big boy?"

He found he was oddly nervous. "Um. You should probably know I haven't had sex in probably three or four years now."

"But I'm sure you're just fine at kissing," she said, getting up and crossing to the other couch. She sat down slowly, straddling his legs.

John swallowed hard, sure he probably looked like he was eighteen with his first girl, but finding he couldn't help it.

"What? Don't you find me attractive?"

"I…yes, I do…find you attractive. I just…" He decided the hell with it and pulled her in for a kiss.

She squeaked a little when he tugged her in, but quickly got with the program, her hands threading through his hair.

Oh. Yeah. This was good.

They kissed for a while, and he was surprised to find himself enjoying it. He had never hated kissing, but had never really found it to be all that great, either. This was much better.

They ended up lying on the couch, entwined in each other's arms. Andrea was smiling lazily up at him, licking her kiss-bruised lips. "So…"

"Hmmm?" John smiled down at her.

"Good?"

"So far. You?"

"I could do this with you for hours and days and not complain."

He chuckled. "Well then…" He dove back in for round two.

This round was more playful than anything, with them nipping at each other's lips and their hands searching for sensitive and ticklish spots.

The hall clock clattering that it was midnight startled them both. Laughing, John rose and held out a hand. He was proud it was only shaking slightly now. "Care to stay the night?"

"Actually, I think I'll head home," she said, a teasing smile on her face.

He gave her a wry smile, and laughed again. "I think I'll leave that one up to you."

"Besides, I wouldn't want to just…give you everything the first time out. Where's the fun of that?"

"Tease." He pulled her to her feet and kissed her again. "I'll walk you to your car."

"But you love it," she said with a smile, straightening her hair with one hand, her other entwined with John's.

"Maybe." He grinned.

When they got to the front door, Andrea leaned in, pulling John down for a deep and dirty kiss. When she broke it off, they were both breathing hard. "Just a little something to tuck you in for the night."

"Mmmm, sweet dreams."

"You, too," she said grabbing her coat from the rack and sashaying out the front door.

He shook his head. Wow. They were dating. He was going to get some serious hell from Rodney when he told him.

John stumbled into bed managing to wake up in the morning with a very persistent hard-on.

It had been a long time since that had happened.

Slipping his hand inside of his boxers, he stroked himself, groaning at how good it felt, imagining what it would feel like again to have someone else's hand doing it instead.

He drew it out a bit, letting himself get a little lost in the sensations.

When he finally crested over the edge, his toes curled in pleasure. He ended up panting heavily as if he'd just run a marathon or something. But god. That felt good.

He hummed his way through his morning jog and shower, and was still feeling pretty darn good when he got down to his office later that morning.

He had an email from his brother with a time stamp from last night. He quickly clicked it open.


To: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]
Sent: Tuesday, February 5, 2008 12:07 AM
From: Dave [mailto:d.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]

Subject: Suggestion

The next time you decide to have sex on the couch in the den, please close the door. I don't need to see that again. I think I'm scarred for life.

You dog.


John felt himself going bright red. Oh shit.

He quickly closed and deleted the email, rubbing a hand over his face. His phone rang a few seconds later.

"Sheppard." His cheeks were still burning.

"Can you believe there's foot of snow and they are insisting on having class?"

John blinked, and smiled. "I thought there was always like ten feet of snow on the ground in Canada. One foot should be cake."

"I might live here, but it still doesn't mean that I like it."

"True." John chuckled. "And I hate to say it, but you were right."

"I'm always right, but what about this time?"

"I talked to Andrea last night, and it turns out, we are dating. She was torn between being pissed and amused that I had no clue."

There was a long silence and then Rodney started laughing. "You are an idiot!"

John laughed a little ruefully. "Apparently."

"So," Rodney said, his voice getting a little low. "How was it?"

"We just kissed last night. I guess she decided she's having too much fun teasing me, and wants to draw it out."

"Just kissed. Right."

"Well, and a little touching. But when I offered to have her stay the night, she sashayed out and said she didn't want to give it all away at once."

Rodney laughed again. "And you were okay with that?"

"Surprisingly, yeah. I was a little nervous last night. It had been almost four years since I slept with anyone, so I felt a little out of my element. At least this way, I can ease back into it."

"Four years…right." John swore he could hear the roll of Rodney's eyes over the phone. "So it was good then?"

"The kissing? Yeah. It was nice. I always kind of thought of it as something you just had to do, but this wasn't that bad."

Rodney laughed again. "Good for you, Casanova."

"I keep telling you I'm not all that good at this sort of thing." John grinned a little ruefully. "I can't help it."

"And that just makes it even more amusing. You never see it coming, do you?"

"No, I really don't." John felt himself flush again.

"Okay, I'm here, so let me go and find out if they shoveled my parking spot. If not, I'm parking on the sidewalk."

"Just don't hit any students, and you should be fine. Give me a call before you leave tonight so at least someone knows when you're supposed to be home, if the roads are still bad."

"Yes, mother."

John laughed. "Talk to you later."

"Go get some work done and stop thinking about your jerk-off session this morning." McKay hung up, leaving John with the dial tone.

"Jerk." John flushed again, but hung up the phone.

The next several weeks were amazing. Andrea was having a great time teasing the hell out of him physically, and Rodney was doing it over the phone. John was surprised to realize he was actually happy. He was even on better terms with his father overall, after finding a few more problems with accounts that saved them millions, along with bringing in a few new accounts from his growing connections at MIT.

Business was flourishing. Spring was heading their way, but had mostly been relegated to rain for the last week. He would be happy once it was finished so he could get back out into the stables. The horses were getting restless with only their training inside the large closed-in arena John had built in the fall.

They had a good line-up for the races this year, and John was confident this would be the first year in a long time that Sheppard Stables would be among the top five.

This would give them some much-needed leverage to get their hands on some new breeding stock. He had his eyes on a few he'd like to get to expand their gene pool. Good placement in the races would give John exactly what he needed.

Stretching, he was glad when the end of the day came. Andrea was coming over for a quiet dinner and a movie John had picked up. It was awesome that she loved sci-fi as much as him. He was looking forward to the evening.

Katie was going to make them a dinner they could eat in the media room and they'd hang out. He was in his late thirties, but this whole…making out and necking thing was certainly a lot of fun.

They settled in once Andrea arrived, and John had to admit it was nice to just watch a movie curled up next to someone else. It was kind of comforting.

About halfway through the movie, someone was knocking at the door. They were normally left alone, but John called out, telling them to come in. They weren't doing anything—well, not a lot in any case—and the movie was easy enough to pause.

Simon appeared a moment later, white and shaky.

John sat up, pausing the movie. "Simon? What's wrong?"

"It's…" he started breaking off. "Your father. He was rushed to the emergency room."

John felt his blood draining even as he rose. "Which hospital? What happened?"

"Your mother…she was…" Simon's hand waved in the air. "University Hospital, downtown."

"Oh god. I'm going there now. Where's Dave? Does he know yet?"

"He was putting on clothes. Miss Charlotte is waiting for him. I've brought the car around," Simon said, trailing behind John as he walked through the house.

John spotted his brother in the main hall. "Dave. I'm coming with you."

"So am I," Andrea said, pulling on her coat and grabbing John's from the closet.

John shot her a grateful look.

The ride to the hospital was tense and mostly silent. Simon hadn't had a lot of details of exactly what had happened, so they were all anxious to get there.

The ride seemed abnormally long, even without traffic. Andrea held his hand, squeezing it tightly every now and then, offering a small smile to him.

Simon dropped them off at the front of the hospital. They were brought by a nurse up a few floors, and it was Dave who spotted their mother. "Mom! What happened? How's Dad?"

She looked drawn and worn, her face splotched with red patches, tears on her cheeks. "He's…they still have him inside. They won't let me in to see him."

John knelt on her other side, both him and Dave taking one of her hands. "What happened?"

"He thought he was coming down with something. A cold. He hadn't been feeling well for a few days. But tonight…he…he got up from the couch and just…" Her shaking hand gestured his actions, how he'd fallen to the ground.

John swallowed hard. "He'll… he'll be okay. They'll help him. It's Dad…"

"They came quickly, but he wouldn't respond. They shocked him with…with paddles…right on the den floor…"

"Christ." Dave looked shaken.

"They…they didn't say much when they took him in, but now no one will tell me anything…" his mom said, breaking back down into tears.

John moved to the chair next to her, wrapping his arms around her. He glanced over at Dave. "Why don't you see if the doctors will tell you anything, while I stay here with her?"

"Yeah, sure," Dave said, nodding as he climbed to his feet, glancing around. Charlotte immediately moved to Dave as Andrea sat down next to John.

"You okay?"

"I don't know. Shocked, I think." John hugged his mother.

"I know," she said. A moment later she got up and moved, settling in on his mom's other side.

They waited for a few minutes, until Dave returned. John was tense waiting for the news.

"He's…" Dave said quietly. "They…they said he had a massive heart attack."

John swallowed hard. "But he'll be okay, right? They can fix that."

"They're…they're doing everything they can, but…" Dave shook his head.

Their mother started to sob again, and John pulled her in for another tight hug. "God… No…"

"Oh, John," Andrea whispered, "I'm so sorry."

He shuddered, but he knew he had to keep it together, for his mother and brother. Gesturing, he let Dave trade spots with him. He took a deep breath, calling up the ability to deal with death that he had hoped to never need again.

Andrea was on her feet a few seconds later, ushering Charlotte in to take her place.

They were there for the bulk of the night, waiting for news. It was near dawn when a weary doctor finally came to see them.

Dave immediately looked up as soon as the doctor shuffled into view. Andrea had been standing with John, her arms wrapped around him.

They were all tense, hoping for good news, but fearing the worst.

"We tried every means possible," the doctor began and John knew immediately.

Their mother started to cry quietly again, and Charlotte wrapped her arms around her. Dave looked shell-shocked, and John wasn't feeling much better. "He's… was he in pain?"

"No. He didn't regain consciousness after his initial collapse at the house. If you'd like to see him…" He gestured to the rooms behind him.

John and Dave exchanged a long look. "Andrea, will you and Charlotte stay here with Mom?"

"I want to see him," his mother said immediately, struggling to rise to her feet.

"Mom, I don't know if that's a good idea…" John and Dave both moved to help her stand.

"I want to see him," she repeated, her voice strong and not boding any argument. "I want to see my Patrick."

Nodding, John and Dave fell into step behind her, following to doctor to the now-quiet room where their father had… had…

He looked…he looked like he was sleeping.

Unfortunately, John had dealt with death too much in his life. He swallowed hard, seeing the signs he recognized, made that much more horrible in someone he loved. And he had loved his father, even with their differences. "I've had to arrange for… services…before. If you want me to do it now, I will." He said it quietly, offering his mother and brother a way to avoid the pain that planning that part of a funeral brought.

Dave nodded, giving him a grateful look, as their mother broke down again, clutching at their father's hand.

John swallowed hard, turning to the doctor. Quietly, in the corner of the room, he signed the necessary paperwork and got the information he was going to need to have the body moved to the funeral home.

The cause of death was cut and dry. A massive heart attack. He was probably dead even before he hit the floor at home.

There was still so much to do, to plan.

He moved into the hallway, leaning against the wall and running a hand over his face. It would hit him later, he knew. Right now it was all just so…unreal.

He took a few deep breaths, leaning into Andrea when she put her arms around him. "Do you know of any good funeral homes? I need to get that part of things rolling."

"Of course. They won't open for another hour or so, though. We have some time. How are you doing?"

He shook his head. "I'll be a wreck later. Right now, I'm just repressing it so I can handle what needs to get done, so Dave and Mom don't have to." He took a deep breath and pulled out his phone, dialing the lawyer who dealt with all the family's personal needs, and who was also a close friend of his father's. He needed to know now, to get the legal stuff rolling.

Andrea held him, comforting him as he talked and he arranged his father's affairs. There was a will and the estate would need to be apportioned. And god…there was so much paperwork. The family business made up a ton of it.

It was going to take them a few days to get it all sorted out, but Jason was a good guy, and he would handle as much of it as he could.

Andrea got him the number to the funeral home, and he left them a message along with his cell number, to call him as soon as they opened.

"John," Andrea said when he hung up. "Why don't you go and say your goodbyes? Dave and Charlotte brought your mom down to the family room."

He nodded, and stepped inside the room.

His father's body hadn't changed at all, so he just stared at it. He was grateful, in a way, to the military now. For ousting him when they did. It had given him a chance to mend fences that otherwise might have stayed broken forever.

They weren't buddies, but then they never were, even when he was growing up. But, he'd been able to talk to his father as a man and really see what drove him. He loved his family and had only wanted to do right by them. His way was the only way he knew; the same way his father had raised him.

John sighed, then snapped himself into full attention, giving his father a full, crisp salute. The only way he knew how to express what he was feeling.

He held it for a long moment, but he could feel the first cracks in his own demeanor. But he struggled, taking a few deep breaths. He had to hang on.

He held it for a full two minutes before he let himself fall back into parade rest. "Bye, Dad."

He moved back out into the hallway and pulled out his phone again. Andrea was talking with one of the nurses down the hall. He hit speed dial and waited for Rodney to pick up and was a little surprised with it went straight to voice mail.

He looked at the phone. Rodney had his phone turned off?

With a sigh, he left a message. "Hey. I just wanted to tell you my Dad died tonight. I…I don't even know what to feel right now. I guess I'll try you again later."

He turned the phone off, checking the time. A little after nine in the morning. They had been here longer than he'd thought. Rodney should have been on his way to the school. Maybe he was on the phone.

John stuffed his phone back in his pocket, and rejoined Andrea. "Do you know where Dave and Mom went?"

"Yeah, they're down the hall in the family room. I think Charlotte brought a doctor in for your mom to give her something."

"Thanks." John gave her a tired smile. "I'll be down there with them."

"I've called the florist already to put in a preliminary order for you. I've also contacted the caterers to get them prepared for the wake. I hope that was okay."

"God, yes. Thanks." He pulled her in for a quick hug.

"You're welcome. Go be with your mom. The nurse said there was some other paperwork you'd need to do, but it wasn't ready yet. I'll bring it to you when it's ready."

He nodded, giving her another squeeze before letting go and making his way down to the family room. He dropped into a chair next to Dave. "How's Mom doing?"

Dave offered a weary sigh as he looked across the room at Charlotte and their mother. "She's upset. Docs gave her something to take the edge off."

"Good. I've called the funeral home and left a message, and called the lawyer to start having Dad's estate taken care of. And Andrea was a doll and called the florist and caterer so we can start getting the wake together. Right now, I'm just waiting on a bit more paperwork the hospital needs to have signed."

"Okay, good. Thanks," he said with a grateful smile. "The doctor was going to check on mom in a little while, so it might be better to just wait here until they give her the all clear."

"Yeah." John ran a hand through his hair. "This just all seems so unreal."

"I know." Dave sighed again. "I almost expect him to walk in the door and yell at us for not being in the office."

John managed a little smile. "I know."

They stayed in the family room as Andrea flittered in and out, bringing them various papers and documents for them to sign or read. John was a little surprised when the door opened and in ran a ball of energy.

"Uncle John! Uncle John!"

He blinked, managing to get his arms open before Madison barreled into him. "Maddie?"

"Uncle Mer told us about your daddy," she said, squeezing him tight.

"He…" John looked up as Jeannie, Caleb, and Rodney walked in. "How…?"

"First flight out and lots of coffee," Jeannie said with a sad smile.

"But…I just left Rodney a voicemail about an hour and a half ago…" John hugged Maddie, surprised at how much comfort the little girl offered.

"Andrea called me last night," Rodney said, dropping down into the chair on John's other side. "I would have been here sooner, but there were no flights until this morning."

"She…" John was a little overwhelmed, going on no sleep and too many emotions for him to really process.

"We're here, John. We'll help," Jeannie said, slipping an arm around Caleb's waist.

He looked at all of them, and swallowed hard, nodding before he had to duck his head to hide the tears that were threatening. "Thank you."

"Hi, I'm Dave," his brother said, rising to his feet. "You must be Rodney's sister."

She took his hand and pulled him into a hug. "Yes, I'm Jeannie, this is my husband Caleb, and my daughter Madison. We're all just so sorry."

Rodney's arm slipped over John's shoulder, patting him on the back. "I'm sorry we weren't here sooner."

John leaned into his friend a little. "No, it's… I didn't expect you at all… Thank you…"

"Nothing to thank us for. You're family. Of course we're going to come. And besides, it snowed yesterday and there's three feet on the ground and I have no intention of wrenching out my back shoveling it."

John laughed a little, knowing it was starting to verge on hysterical, but for some reason, he was okay with that.

The nurse walked in again, with more paperwork for John to sign.

Once John signed the last few sheets, the nurse offered a smile. "You're all set. We'll transfer the body to the funeral home no later than tomorrow afternoon. Again, we're so sorry for your loss. Mister Sheppard was well-liked. He will be missed."

John nodded, and managed another small smile. "Thank you. What about our mother? I know they gave her a little something. Is she okay to go as well?"

"Yes, but she shouldn't be alone right now."

"We're going to take her home with us, instead of letting her go back to the Townhouse."

"Whatever you think is best, Mister Sheppard," she said with a nod. "She should be okay, but it would be best to have someone with her."

John got Dave's attention and gestured him over after the nurse left. "We're okay to go. They'll have… Dad… sent to the funeral home from here, and they said Mom is okay to leave, but they suggested not leaving her alone right now."

"Of course," he said. "Charlotte and I can go to the townhouse and stay with her there. I'll ask Emily to bring Andrew, and Simon can pack us a few days worth of clothes."

"You want to go there, instead of bringing her out to the estate?"

"Mom never really liked the estate. But I guess we can see what she wants," Dave said, glancing over at Charlotte and their mom. Madison was eyeing them as well and John was wondering how long it would take before the girl started giving everyone hugs.

He and his brother went and knelt down next to their mother. "Hey, Mom. The doctors say we can go now. Do you want to come back with us to the estate for a few days, or would you rather have Dave and Charlotte come stay with you at the townhouse?"

"Oh, I don't know, Johnny. It's…he's gone, Johnny. My Patrick is gone."

"I know, Mom." John felt the tears threatening again as he pulled his mother into a hug. "But you still have us, and we'll all get through it together."

She sobbed quietly onto his shoulder and John closed his eyes, trying to hang onto his own emotions. A hand touched him lightly and he opened his eyes. It was his brother.

"Let's all go to the house. It'll be easier if we're all together."

John nodded silently, and managed to stand up, helping their mother to her feet as well.

"We rented a van if you need room. I don't know how many cars you have," Rodney said, standing off to the side.

"We all came in Charlotte's car, and I think Mom came in the ambulance, so we probably do need the room. Thanks." John shot his friend a tired smile. "I'll ride with you guys so I can point you in the right direction."

"Whatever you need, John. Just let us know."

They headed outside, and John and Andrea went with Rodney and Jeannie, with Dave and Charlotte taking their mother. "I'll call the house on the road, and let them know we're coming," he told his brother.

"Okay," he said, standing with their mom as Charlotte called Simon. He'd been called before and was waiting nearby for them. Jeannie, Caleb, and Madison had already gone on ahead while Rodney and Andrea waited off to the side for him.

There was just so much to do, and think about, and John's reserves were dangerously low. He just hoped he could hold it together long enough to take care of everything.

Rodney managed to direct them to the mini-van Caleb had rented, pushing him into one of the back seats. Andrea immediately slid into the far back with Madison, leaving Rodney in the other open back seat.

"Just point the way, John," Caleb said."

"We need to get on the highway, heading south." He pointed. "That's Dave and Charlotte there, if you want to follow them."

"Great. Will do. Just sit back and relax," he said, pulling behind Charlotte's car.

John sat back, then sat up again, pulling out his phone. "I need to call the house so they know we're coming."

Katie answered his call, letting him know that preparations were already underway. Bedrooms were airing out as Katie cooked in the kitchen.

He glanced back at Andrea, and gave her another grateful smile once he hung up.

Slumping down, John shuddered a little, still more than overwhelmed by everything.

Rodney awkwardly patted his arm.

Oddly, that helped, a lot, giving him a little more composure. "Thanks again for coming guys."

"We had to come as soon as we heard," Jeannie said.

"It means a lot." John sighed. "God, this is all so sudden. He was fine. I talked to him yesterday."

"Things happen, John. But we're here to help." Jeannie shifted in her seat, giving John a small smile.

"I wish I could have introduced you to everyone under better circumstances, but I'm really glad you're all here."

"Just let us know how we can help you."

"I will." He smiled again, and fell silent, watching the scenery a bit mindlessly until they got to the house. He was surprised at just how exhausted he was.

He was even more surprised when Rodney was helping him out of the car and leading him into the house.

"What…?"

"Don't worry about anything. You're going to take a little nap right now," Rodney said, steering him down the hall.

"I… there's so much to do…" John's protest was weak, but he couldn't find the energy to fight.

"Sleep first."

Rodney led him into his room, and got him partially undressed. John couldn't even get coordinated enough to help before he was helped into bed. "Thanks, Rodney," he mumbled, catching the other man's hand and squeezing it. "Glad you're here."

"No place else to be. Rest. We'll be here when you wake up."

"'Kay." That was the last thing John remembered for a while.

Although, getting woken up by a screaming, flying banshee child wasn't exactly what he had in mind either.

"What, who, where?"

"You have horses!"

John blinked a few times. Madison. Right. "Yeah, we do. Do you know how to ride?"

"Mommy said you can teach me later. But it's later now. Can you teach me?"

He had to smile. "I'd love to teach you." He glanced over at the clock, surprised to see he had slept most of the day. It was probably a good idea to get up now, so he would have a shot at sleeping again tonight. He did feel a little better, if still run-down. "I need to get dressed and talk with your Mom and your Uncle first though, okay?"

"But why?"

"I need to make sure they don't need me for anything else."

"There's lots of people here. I was supposed to stay with Andrew, but he's boring and he doesn't talk."

He rolled out of bed slowly, not surprised people had started to congregate. He hoped someone had done the same thing for Dave that Rodney had done for him, and let him get some sleep, along with Andrea and Charlotte. It had been a long night for all of them.

Pulling on a pair of jeans and a shirt, he picked up Madison—she was getting big, but it was still comforting—and wandered out looking for everyone. "Let's go find them and check in, and then I'll see if I can get away for a little bit to teach you to ride now, okay? If I can't, I promise I'll teach you before you leave."

"But Uncle John…"

"Madison!" Jeannie said as John rounded the corner. She had her hands on her hips and looked pissed off. "John. I'm sorry. She wasn't supposed to go bother you."

He smiled. "It's okay. I needed to get up anyway, so I don't get myself too turned around."

"Everything's under control," Jeannie said, taking Madison from John's arms and putting her down on her own two feet. "Meredith went to take a nap a little while ago. He was up most of the night arranging everything."

"God, I don't know what I would do without you guys." He stepped forward and gave her a firm hug.

She hugged him back just as hard. "It'll be hard for a while, but we'll stay for as long as we can," Jeannie said, stepping back. "Caleb is staying through the end of the week and Meredith's trying to get a leave of absence. But, either way, you're stuck with me and Madison for a while."

He had to swallow back more tears as he hugged her again. "Thank you."

When he finally let go, he had managed to get himself a bit composed. "I don't suppose you know if my brother and his wife, and Andrea managed to get to sleep too? I'm assuming getting Mom in bed was the first thing Simon probably took care of."

"Andrea went home, I think. I haven't seen her in a while. Your mom is sleeping as well. I think the drugs they gave her helped with that. And I think Dave and Charlotte went in for a nap not long after you. I do need to wake Meredith soon though."

He nodded. Good. So everyone was getting some sleep. He would wait until later to call Andrea, if she didn't turn back up, since he hoped she was sleeping now. "If there's nothing you need from me right now, I think I'll take Madison and show her the stables. It will be a good distraction for me. You're welcome to come too, if you're interested."

"Caleb already toured it with her. He talked to…Joe, I think," she said. "Madison needs to get in the bath right now," she said, glancing down at her daughter.

John laughed softly. "Joe is in charge of the stables. And all right. Sorry Maddie, but your Mom gets the final word. I will teach you to ride while you're here though, I promise."

Madison started whining, but Jeannie ignored her. "Actually, if you want to be useful, go wake up my brother. He needs to call the college back."

"All right. Did Simon put him in the room across from mine, where he stayed before?"

"I think so," Jeannie said. "This place is huge and we're in a different…wing. I think Simon called them guest suites or something."

John nodded. "Yeah. The north wing is all guest quarters. I'm in the East wing, and Dave is over in the West. South is all the servant quarters, kitchen, living spaces, etc."

"Huge," she repeated. "Go and get him up. He needs to call the college before five."

John nodded, smiling again. He headed back the way he had come before, glad they had put Rodney across from him. It was comforting.

He knocked before walking in and had to laugh. Rodney was sprawled across the bed in his boxers, the blankets in an uproar. How did he sleep like this?

Moving to the bed, John put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Hey, buddy. Time to get up so you don't get your nights and days all backward."

Rodney snuffed into the pillow, but otherwise ignored John.

"Come on, Rodney." John shook him a little as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "Time to get up. Your sister said you need to call the college back, too."

This time he got a vague mumble and he swore it sounded like "later".

"Nope. You need to get up, Rodney." John rubbed his back, surprised at how smooth Rodney's skin was.

The Canadian hummed for a minute, seeming to press upward into John's touch before waking with a jolt, his head popping off the pillow. "Wha—?"

John smiled at him. "Hey. Jeannie said it was time to get you up, so you didn't get too turned around."

Rodney groaned and turned over, tugging the blankets up a little. "She's annoying."

John chuckled. "She's your sister. But she is right. And she mentioned you needed to call the college back before five."

Rodney groaned again, covering his eyes with his arm.

John smiled. "Thanks again for being here. I don't know if I could cope with all this without you."

"You'd be fine," he said. A few seconds later he shifted, sitting up in the bed, the blankets pooling in his lap. "I'm getting old," he complained as he rubbed his face with his hands. "I used to be able to go for days without sleep."

"Tell me about it." John sighed.

Rodney was silent for a long moment before looking at John. "You okay?"

John laid back on the bed so he was stretched out next to Rodney. "Honestly, I don't know. It was just so sudden… I think I'm trying not to think about it too much, but when it finally hits me, it will be hard."

"I can imagine," Rodney said, nudging John with his foot.

John smiled a little. "At least I had the chance to make peace with him. I don't know how I would have reacted if I had still been on Atlantis, and just got a note that he had died, without me ever getting the chance to fix our relationship. In a way, that makes it both easier and harder."

"Yeah. Are you glad you were home?"

"Yeah. I can take some of the burden off Dave and Mom, and… yeah. I got to talk to my father again, and find some common ground. If he had died with our last words being the fight we had the night I left as a teenager…"

"You'd feel pretty shitty."

"Yeah."

Rodney sighed quietly. "Family's important, isn't it?"

"More than I think I realized when I was younger." John scooted so he was up against Rodney. "Glad you're here."

"Hindsight and all."

"I guess that's why you have to just keep moving forward. Looking back, there are just regrets. At least for me, for leaving them and staying away all those years. I should have at least made contact sooner than I did."

"It wasn't like they reached out to you. Don't blame yourself. It takes two people to fight."

"I know." John sighed. "But still… I'm glad I had a chance to start fixing that relationship before he died."

Rodney poked him in the shoulder. "You're in my bed."

John grinned. "And?"

"The last thing you need is to have people talk." Rodney poked him again. "Let me get dressed and call the college before Jeannie sends in the brat."

"What would they talk about? You're my friend." John rolled his eyes. "And yeah, I should probably head down and see what's going on, and what still needs to be done."

"Think Katie cooked yet? I think I'm hungry." Rodney shoved the blankets off onto John and crawled out of the bed, padding over to where he'd dropped his jeans on the chair.

John kicked them off and sat up. "Probably. Maddie mentioned there were people here when she woke me up, so I'd guess Katie's whipped something up to feed everyone."

"Oh yeah. They arrived before I came up here," he said, pulling on his pants. Then he started padding around the room, looking for his shirt.

"I guessed people would start arriving. Which is even more of a reason for me to get down there and start managing everything."

"Are you lying on my shirt?"

"Maybe."

"Maybe? How about you move your lazy ass and check?"

John rolled over and sat up, pulling out a shirt from underneath him. "Is this it?"

"Yes," he said, taking a few steps to the bed and grabbing it out of John's hands. He gave it a few sniffs. "Huh."

"What?" John finally stood up, running a hand through his hair.

"I think I need a new one," he said, throwing it at John's head as he turned to his suitcase.

John caught it and rolled his eyes. "Why, this one is fine."

"Take a whiff. It's a bit ripe. Had it on for…a while. Wore it to work."

John sniffed it, then wrinkled his nose. "Okay, yeah. Good call."

Rodney tugged out a long-sleeved shirt and pulled it on, going back in for socks a minute later. "Yeah. I was hoping I could get away with it, but with people here…not so much."

John shrugged. "I doubt anyone will be at their best for a few days." When Rodney was dressed, John walked out with him, heading for the main section of the house.

"I could gnaw my arm off," Rodney said a few minutes later, turning toward the kitchen. "Think Katie has something I can eat?"

"Let's go look in the parlor. If she has anything prepped already, it will be in there. It's the most logical room to use as a staging area."

"Oh. Okay." Rodney face fell, but he followed John. The Canadian had gotten to be very friendly with Katie when he was here on vacation. Their love of food was a good common ground for the two of them.

In the parlor, there weren't any people, but there was a spread of food that both of them immediately went for. John realized he hadn't really eaten anything in almost a full day.

Rodney filled a plate with food and a huge mug with coffee, moaning appreciatively as he ate. Jeannie showed up a few minutes later, immediately hounding Rodney about the call to the college.

"Meredith! Have you called yet? They close at five, and you need to talk to them before then."

"I just walked down and I'm eating something before my blood sugar drops."

She pulled his phone out of his pocket and handed it to them. "You're more than capable of multi-tasking." She took John's plate, loaded it with more food, and handed it back. "You aren't eating enough. I want to see every bite of that gone."

Rodney stared at her as she walked out of the parlor a few moments later. "I forgot how scary she can be."

John looked down at his plate. "Totally. Want some of this?"

"I have enough," he said, holding up his own plate.

John picked at the food Jeannie had given him. "You'd better call. If she comes back again, she might kick both our asses if you haven't."

"And you better eat. I can't lie to her."

"I'll try." John nibbled at his plate as Rodney plopped down in one of the chairs and dialed the school.

"There is no try," Rodney commented as he put the phone to his ear.

"Yes Master Yoda."

Rodney snorted, sitting up a second later as someone apparently answered. "Meyers, it's Rodney McKay. I need to talk to you about taking over my classes for the next week or two."

John sat down in another chair, working his way slowly through the plate while he listened to Rodney's half of the conversation. He really hoped the school would give him the leave.

"All my lessons are on the computer in my office. It's not hard. Just read my notes."

Someone cleared their throat in the doorway, getting John's attention. He stood up and stepped out, letting Rodney deal with the school.

"Sorry to bother you, sir," Simon said.

"No, it's fine." John gave him a little smile. "I'm sure the next few days are going to be insane."

"You've had several messages from the funeral home and the florist and the caterers. And also, Katie wants to know what the plans are for your guests."

John ran a hand through his hair. "I'll call them both back now. Jeannie said that Caleb is here until the end of the week, but her and Maddie will stay on for a little while. Rodney is on with the college now trying to get a leave of absence, so I don't know how long he'll be with us yet. Who else is here so far?"

"Miss Charlotte's family will be arriving tomorrow. I believe your uncles are also arriving tomorrow along with their wives. They will be staying at the townhouse, though. Miss Andrea called and said she would be arriving for dinner tonight."

John nodded. Wow, he hadn't seen most of his family for even longer than he hadn't seen his parents and brother. "All right. Set up guest rooms for Charlotte's family, and go ahead and do any preliminary opening up of the rest of the rooms, just in case we need them. I'm going to call the funeral home now and see if I can get a time and date set that we can start putting out."

"We've already started at the townhouse. We called in a crew to do a cleaning."

"What would we do without you?" John gave him a grateful look. "Call in whatever help you need here, too. I don't want you and Katie running yourselves to a thread."

"Already taken care of, sir."

John clapped him on the shoulder and squeezed before pulling out his cell phone. First things first. He called the funeral parlor back.

They were very efficient and by the time he hung up an hour later, everything was arranged. In two days they'd have the wake, with the burial the following morning. That would give everyone plenty of time to come in.

Rodney had passed him at some point, a scowl on his face as he headed deeper into the house. Madison and Andrew were bouncing around the house, playing their own version of some game. The maid service also arrived along with mops and brooms and various cleaning products.

John took care of the florist, a mercifully short call where he was mostly giving them times and dates, and then went hunting for Rodney.

He spotted him outside in the yard through the window in the breakfast room with his orange fleece zipped up to his chin. He was gesturing with one hand and he seemed to be yelling in the phone.

Uh oh. That was never a good sign. John decided to let him be for the moment.

He detoured into the kitchen and found Jeannie elbow's deep in cooking along with Katie.

"It smells fantastic in here."

"Good," Jeannie said, offering a smile. "Did you know Katie had never cooked tofu before?"

John did his best not to make a face. "Ahhh, really?"

"Yes. And the market had some beautiful tofu. I had them bring in a bunch of it."

John resigned himself to healthier eating from here on out. "As long as there is still meat allowed, I'm okay with tofu."

"Don't worry, John," Katie said with a smile. "I've got you taken care of."

He smiled and found a stool to lean on. "So, got any cookies ready I can steal. I could use some sugar therapy today."

"We're eating in about thirty minutes."

"So?"

"So you can wait. Now shoo."

"Awwww…."

"Go calm your friend down before you end up back at the hospital again. Once was enough," Katie said, pointing out the window.

John saw Rodney was now pacing outside, hands waving. "Crap, that's never good. Lemme get my jacket and go out there."

He found his jacket in the hall closet and then quickly headed out back. Rodney was talking to himself and waving his hands, his cheeks red from the cold and his temper.

"Hey, buddy…"

"They're all idiots! Every last one of them!"

"I take it they won't give you a leave, huh?"

"It's like I'm asking for a sacrifice of their first born child! No one will cover my classes."

John squeezed his shoulder. "It's all right. I understand."

"No, you don't," Rodney said, shrugging off John's hand as he continued to pace. "They'll cover two classes for me, max. Meyers even had the gall to complain that my lesson plans were too complex and he's the department chair!"

John leaned against the house, oddly soothed. He had missed Rodney's rants.

"Too complex! He wanted some advanced theory and now he has the nerve to complain about it!"

"He can't just make up some new plans for a few weeks?"

"He's too busy screwing the TAs."

"Is he really, or are you saying that because you're pissed at him?"

That stopped Rodney in his tracks and he turned to John with a confused expression on his face. "What? No. I caught him a month ago."

"Does he know that you know?"

"I don't know. I didn't ask." Oh, John loved the patented McKay sarcasm.

"Why don't you call him back and ask then. I bet he'd give you the time off you want then."

"He's already told me no."

John shrugged. "It's up to you. Blackmail is kind of wrong, but it is an option."

Rodney scowled at John. "So, is that how you do things now?"

"No." John sighed. "I don't know why I even suggested it. Being selfish, I guess."

"Look. I have one more person I can try before I throw in the towel. Okay?"

John nodded. "Okay. And…I do understand if you have to go back. The fact that you're here at all…it means a lot to me."

"I just…" Rodney sighed. "Let me make this call. Okay?"

John nodded.

Rodney pulled out his cell phone again and walked over toward the stables, huddled in on himself.

John took a deep breath and wandered back inside the house.

Things were picking up in the dining room and kitchen, with food starting to appear on the buffet, mostly placed on the warming trays to make sure everything was still hot when they did finally sit down to eat.

He wondered who would be joining them, and how his mother was doing.

Katie caught him staring at the food trays when she came out, potholders and a new tray in hand. "John, would you see to your mother? If she's not up for company, we can make a tray for her."

"You read my mind. I was just thinking of checking on her."

"I know you well, John. Go and check on her."

He smiled and headed up to where he knew his parents still had a suite, for when they stayed out at the estate. He knocked softly on the door, not wanting to wake her if she was sleeping.

Her voice was quiet when she called out. "Come in."

John opened the door and slipped inside. "Hi, mom. I thought I'd come see how you were holding up."

She was propped up on various pillows and there were tissues all around her, littering the duvet covering her. "Johnny…it's so good to see you."

He smiled, cleaning up the bed a bit for her before sitting down close and taking her hand. "I'm glad I could be here."

"You remind me so much of your father. Did I ever tell you that?" she asked, gently touching his cheek.

"No. I didn't know that." He smiled slightly. "We were both stubborn and pig-headed, I know that."

"Yes," she said, smiling sadly. "He was the black sheep of his family. Always had a head of steam and was running off to do things he wanted to do. Just like you."

"Really?" John had never heard that.

"He was the one who loved horses when he was younger. You could always find him at the races, wasting his money, as his father said."

John sighed. "If that's the case, why was he always so pissed off at me for wanting to fly?"

"He only wanted what was best for you, Johnny. He knew the heartache following your dreams could bring."

"What was his dream?"

She sighed quietly. "He had so many over the years. He loved racing, but there was no way he could do it, so he expanded the horse breeding his father had started. Then he wanted to be the most well-known breeder in the world and he forgot about his family for a long time."

"I remember not seeing him much when we were really young."

She nodded. "He was…off doing whatever it was he did. It ended well in the end, but I think you and Dave lost something because he wasn't here."

"Maybe." John squeezed her hand. "I'm just glad I was able to start fixing things with him.

"He was so proud of you, Johnny. About what you did. He was so happy to see you finally settling down. We had talked about it a few nights ago."

John swallowed hard, looking away with tears in his eyes. He was surprised at just how much it meant to know his father had been proud of him. He hadn't realized…

His mother reached forward, tugging him to her chest. "Shhh…"

John shuddered, and a sob that he had been keeping at bay broke through. He was pissed that this had happened now, just when things were starting to get better.

His mother held him, rocking them both together. He felt the drops from her own tears falling on his neck, but she didn't loosen her arms.

They stayed like that for a little while, and John had to admit, he felt a little better after. Not much, since there was still grief, but… He lifted his head, giving his mother a weak smile. "Thanks."

"You've always been so strong, my Johnny," she said quietly, wiping the tears from his cheeks with her fingers.

John lowered his eyes, but didn't pull away. He needed this, but at the same time, it was hard to acknowledge it out loud.

"Now, you didn't come up here to sit and cry with your mother, did you?"

He managed a quiet laugh. "Maybe. But I also came to see if you wanted to come down for dinner, or have a tray sent up."

"If you don't mind, I don't think I'm up for a lot of people right now."

"I don't blame you. I'll have Katie make you up a tray, and Dave and I will handle everyone coming in."

"Thank you, Johnny," she said offering a soft smile.

"Love you, Mom."

"Love you, too, my strong and handsome boy."

John smiled a little, and gave her a big hug before he stood up. "Mind if I wash my face before I head down?"

"Go ahead."

He went into the bathroom and washed up, removing the tear tracks on his face. His eyes were still red and puffy, but there wasn't much he could do about that.

His mother was resting comfortably when he walked out, offering John a small wave.

He waved back. "I'll have Katie come up with a tray for you. And if you need anything…"

"I'll call you. I promise."

"Good." John took a deep breath and headed back downstairs.

Simon was just turning the stairs heading up to his parent's—his mother's—room as John started down the stairs.

"Hey. Mom said she'd just like a tray of food tonight. Katie had asked, and I'm looking for her now, but if I get sidetracked…"

"I'll let her know. I was coming to let you know dinner is served."

John nodded. "Thanks. In the parlor, or the formal dining room?"

"Dining room."

Nodding, John headed that way. Fortunately, it wasn't a formal affair. He circulated, accepting condolences from the relatives who had managed to make it in so far, but by the time he made up a small plate of food, he was starting to feel a bit of the strain. It was just a lot.

Madison appeared at his elbow around the same time, tugging him toward the table. "I want you to sit with me, Uncle John."

He smiled at her. "Okay. Lead the way."

She tugged him to the end of the table, closest to the door and away from the crush of people by the food. Her plate was already set up, along with a glass of milk.

He was grateful to get some breathing space, sitting down next to her.

"Eat," she ordered him, looking at him sternly.

"Yes, Ma'am," he shot off a quick salute. "Where are your parents and uncle?"

She shrugged, shoveling food into her mouth. She was swinging her legs under the table.

He glanced around, looking for them, and anyone else he would need to talk to as he slowly ate.

She poked his arm a minute later. "Eat."

He looked back at his plate, which was still mostly full. "Sorry." He took another bite.

"There's yummy dessert and you need to finish your plate before you can get any."

"There is, huh? What kind of dessert?"

"Good stuff that makes Uncle Meredith make weird sounds."

Hmm, probably something mocha. Rodney made sounds that were near pornographic for anything with that flavor combination.

"Katie yelled at him when he made those sounds."

John chuckled softly. "I bet that was pretty funny."

"It was," she said with a laugh. "He got all mad at her."

"Hey, you've gotta let a man enjoy his desserts in peace, right?"

"But he didn't eat dinner yet!"

"Hmmm, that is problematic. Why don't we call this a special exemption, just this once?"

'Nooooo," she said, shaking her head. "Katie took it away from him."

John laughed. "Oh dear. Well, hopefully, he had a little bit of dinner so he can have it back."

"I don't know. Him and mommy went somewhere. They were yelling at each other again."

"That's how they show they love each other. Different people show it in different kinds of ways."

"Are you sure? Daddy told me not to listen to them."

"I'm sure. That's why he said not to listen to them. They're not really angry at each other all the time, they just communicate by yelling."

"Oh." She ate some more bites of her food before turning back to him again. "But why don't you yell?"

"Everyone communicates differently. I do yell sometimes, but I save it for when I'm angry, where your uncle and Mom use it all the time because that's how they learned to talk to each other."

"But mommy doesn't let me yell."

"Well, she's hoping to teach you a better way of getting your point across. You don't see her yell at anyone else but her brother, do you?"

"She yells at daddy. And at other people in cars."

John shook his head. "Well, I'm not sure what to tell you then."

"But you're smart. Uncle Meredith says so."

John raised an eyebrow. "He does? Huh."

She giggled and went back to her plate of food. There wasn't much left.

John smiled, and ate a bit more of his own dinner. He wasn't starved, but he knew he needed to eat.

People circulated, offering their condolences and small-talk when they managed to catch John's eye, but more or less he was left alone with Madison. Rodney stormed in just as John was finishing his dinner, heading right for the food.

John smiled, watching him, and catching his attention to wave him over once Rodney had a full plate.

He dropped down in the seat next to John, immediately digging into his food.

"So?"

Rodney looked at him. "What?"

"Did you find someone to take your classes? Or do you have to head back with Caleb at the end of the week?"

"I have to call back in the morning."

"Okay." John gave him a small smile. "Maddie said there are some awesome desserts once we finish dinner."

"Yeah. There are."

"Katie actually took them away from you?"

Rodney scowled and nodded. "Jeannie is a tyrant."

"Behave, your niece is sitting here." John grinned at Maddie, who was listening avidly.

His scowl got deeper. "I didn't curse. It's an improvement."

John chuckled, then spotted Dave, who looked about as run-down as John felt. He waved his brother over.

Dave shifted toward him and ended up standing behind Madison's chair, patting her head. "Did you get some sleep?"

"Yeah. I got in a nap. How about you?"

He nodded. "Yeah. I needed it."

John ran a hand through his hair. "I went up to see Mom a little bit ago. She's hanging in there."

"Good. I stopped in earlier and she was sleeping. Charlotte will sit with her for a little bit tonight. Is Andrea here? I know I heard she was supposed to be coming."

"I haven't seen her yet, but I've been holed up over here for a while. To be honest, all the condolences were getting to be a little too much."

"And we're far from done."

"God, I know." John sighed. "How are you holding up?"

"As good as can be given the circumstances." He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "I should circulate a little. Most people won't stay too long and I've asked Simon to politely start ushering people out."

"Thank God." John stood up. "I'll go the other way then."

"Can I come with you, Uncle John?"

He was surprised. "Sure, Maddie. If you'd like to."

She gave him a brilliant smile and immediately climbed off her chair, threading her fingers with his.

It made him feel a lot better, for some reason. John squeezed Rodney's shoulder, and then headed in the opposite direction of his brother, meeting and greeting with Maddie.

Instead of focusing on his father, most of his conversations revolved around the little girl attached to his hand.

He wondered if Madison had, in some way, known that. It definitely made things easier, and she was at her most adorable.

"Uncle John?"

"Yeah?" They had just moved away from another group, and were circulating again.

"Can we get dessert now?"

John chuckled. "Sure. I need to see this dessert that made your uncle make the funny noises. I think I should try it."

"But only a small piece."

"Why's that?" John led her toward where the sweets were set up.

"Because if you eat dessert all the time you'll become as huge as a house," she said matter-of-factly, letting go of John's hand to grab two plates.

"Well, I jog every morning before I go to work. That's one way to have bigger pieces without worrying about getting too big."

She nodded. "Mom said so."

Smiling, John looked at the spread. "Which one are we trying?"

"All of them?"

That made him laugh softly, but he went down the line and put a little bit of each item on both plates.

"Can I have milk, too?"

"Sure. There's some set up at the end of the table. Why don't you go find us a seat again, and I'll get the milk?"

"Can we sit with Uncle Meredith?"

"Of course."

"I'll save you a seat."

John nodded, smiling at her. He moved to the end of the table and poured two glasses of milk.

She had left a seat open between her and her uncle—where he was viscously tapping at his cell phone.

John sat down, trading her a glass of milk for a plate. "What did that phone ever do to you?"

"It's the content, not the phone," he grumbled, glancing up. "Oh. Dessert's served?"

"Yeah. We decided to try a little bit of everything."

"I'll be back," he said, shoving back his chair and dropping his phone on the table. "I know what I want."

John grinned, tasting a little bit of each item. He had to admit, the mocha crème thing really was the best of the bunch.

Rodney's phone vibrated on the table next to him and John glanced up. The scientist was across the room fighting with the coffee pot.

Picking it up, he glanced at the caller ID.

Meyers, Andy and a Toronto number was on the screen.

Meyers. That was Rodney's boss. John tried to catch his friend's eye across the room.

Unfortunately, he wasn't paying any attention to him, too busy arguing—and losing—with the coffee pot.

John debated which was better… letting it go to voicemail, or picking up and answering until Rodney got back.

He let it ring another two times and then picked up.

"Hello?"

"McKay, what the hell was that last message supposed to mean?" Meyers asked—loudly.

"Ahh, this is his friend, John Sheppard. He's across the room at the moment, but he'll be right back."

"What? Who?"

"I'm John. My father just died, so that's the reason Rodney is asking for the leave."

"And you're not family, so he's not entitled to leave."

"Actually, we are sort of family."

"There's no legal paperwork indicating a familial connection and the college will not permit leave without the legal paperwork. Tell McKay he had better be at work on Monday or he can look for another job."

"He's coming back now." John sighed. No wonder Rodney hated this guy so much. He was an ass.

"I'm sure you're capable of passing along that information. I don't want to hear from him again, but I want to see him in my office first thing Monday morning. No excuses."

John handed the phone to Rodney as he walked up. "Meyers is threatening you."

"What else is new?" he asked, taking the phone from John once he put down his plate and coffee. "I'll be right back," he said, moving into the hallway, passing Caleb as he walked out.

John waved the other man over. "Apparently Rodney is at war with his department head, huh?"

"Meyers is on the phone?" Caleb asked, glancing over his shoulder. He sighed and rolled his eyes. "They've been at it since he started."

"I just talked to him briefly, and he's kind of an ass. So I can see why."

"And he screws anything in a skirt."

"Apparently Rodney saw him with a TA not long ago. Why is he still working there? I'd think the school would get rid of him."

"Tenure." Caleb shrugged. "And he loves the power the position gives him."

"Yeah, but doesn't screwing students sort of negate tenure? I thought that was ground for dismissal right there."

"If someone were to report him, maybe," Caleb said, glancing at his daughter on John's other side. "Honey, can you get daddy some dessert?"

She bounced up. "Okay, Daddy!"

Once she ran off, Caleb continued. "Meyers is an ass, yes, but he's a very powerful one."

"Which is never good. But I'd still think someone would report him."

"Meredith tried to, but no one listened."

"Why not?"

"He's very powerful and has a lot of friends. And he knows a lot."

John made a face. "I hate people like that, who have power and abuse it."

"Yeah. I didn't think it was as bad as it obviously is when I suggested him for the job. Now I'm wondering if it was a good idea."

John chuckled softly. "If anyone can take on a guy like that and win, it's Rodney."

"I know. But that's not what I wanted him to have to do."

"I know. And so does he," John said.

"How are you holding up?"

John sighed. "Good and bad. Right now I'm not thinking about it too much, but when I do…"

"It overwhelms you," Caleb said with a nod. "I know how it can be. The first few days are always a circus, too."

"Yeah." John looked around. "Fortunately, it's starting to clear out now. I'm hoping for some time tonight to just sit with you guys and not think a whole lot."

"I know how it was when my dad died a few years ago. It's crazy, but then sometimes when it gets quiet it's even harder. That's one reason why Jeannie wants to stay a little longer."

"And you have no idea how much I appreciate that. I'm really glad all of you are here." John shot him a grateful look.

"It's not a problem—no matter how much Meredith grumbles about it." Caleb offered him a smile as Madison showed up with a loaded plate of dessert for him.

John smiled. "I thought you said we had to take little portions. How come he gets extras?"

"He's daddy."

Caleb sat down next to his daughter and started eating his dessert. McKay wandered back in a few minutes later, his phone pocketed, a scowl set deep on his face.

"So?"

"I'm flying home Sunday afternoon, but I'll be on the first flight back Friday afternoon."

"You don't have to do that. I don't want you guys bankrupting yourselves with plane tickets."

"It's done and I'm not arguing with you," he said, taking a sip of his coffee. "I don't think Caleb is coming back, but Jeannie will still be here anyway."

John gave him a soft look. "Thanks."

"There's nothing to thank me about," Rodney said gruffly. "I shouldn't have gotten you involved in my mess in any case. You have enough to worry about."

John reached over and squeezed Rodney's leg. "Still."

"There's no still about it. It's rude and callous and I know better."

"Nah. It's a good distraction for me."

"You don't need a distraction," he grumbled, finally digging into his food.

John let it drop, noticing that it looked like pretty much all the guests had left for the evening. "Why don't we go find Jeannie and Dave, and Andrea should be here somewhere, and go somewhere a little more comfortable. We can always have some of the desserts brought in to nibble on."

"Ah…yeah, sure," Rodney said, looking at John for a minute with a quizzical expression on his face. "Whatever you want."

John was tired, but his nap had left him wired at the same time. "I just want to be surrounded by the people I love and not think for a little while."

"Love?" Rodney asked, pushing back his chair.

John shrugged, but decided not to respond because anything he said would just make him sound stupid, he was sure.

Rodney headed back to the desserts, putting a larger piece of the mocha cake on his plate. Jeannie walked into the dining room around the same time, looking around until she found her husband.

"Caleb, we need to get Maddie to bed."

He nodded. "All right. We're just finishing up. I'll meet you in the room."

"Good, good," she said, eyeing her brother and the cake he was eating. "I'll be there in a few minutes."

Caleb gathered up a protesting, but obviously sleepy, Madison and headed out. John had stood up as well, and stretched.

Rodney walked back to the table, picking up his coffee mug and glaring at his sister. "I don't want to hear anything about my weight or what I'm eating. Understand?"

She sniffed, and John intervened. "Are you and Caleb going to rejoin us after you get Maddie to bed?"

"I don't know. It's been a long day," she said, turning toward John.

He nodded. "I can understand that. If you do decide to, we'll probably be in the media room."

"That's back toward the garage, right?"

"Yeah." He pointed. "Over that way from here."

"Okay. Thanks," she said with a nod. She sent one last glare at Rodney before heading back out and to the bedroom where Madison would be spending the night.

John shook his head. "Let's see if we can find Andrea and sit still for a little while."

"Lead the way," Rodney said, picking up his coffee, his dessert in his other hand.

They wandered out and John popped his head into several rooms where people were still lingering, trying to find Andrea.

He found her in the media room, asleep on one of the couches.

Smiling, John went to her side, touching her arm gently. "Hey, there."

She stirred under his hand, smiling up at him. Rodney headed for the other couch, dropping down heavily.

"I was looking for you earlier. You didn't have to come back if you needed the sleep." John sat down next to her when she shifted to make room.

"I wanted to come back," she said, reaching for his hand. "I ate dinner and it was loud, so I came in here to get away from everyone. I think you were up with your mom when I got back."

He nodded, squeezing. "Yeah, it was a bit much there for a bit. Tomorrow will hopefully be a bit better. We'll all be working on a full night of sleep, for one."

"Sleep will help."

He sighed, looking at Rodney and Andrea. "Thanks again guys. I don't know what I would do without you."

Rodney waved him off, chewing a mouthful of cake.

"We're here to help you with whatever you want."

"I'm sure the next few days will be hellish. We have the viewing scheduled, and then the funeral itself. Then comes dealing with the estate, and reading the will, and then Dave and I have to decide what to do about the business." Just saying it out loud John was starting to feel overwhelmed again.

"John, we'll help you," Andrea said, squeezing his hand.

He shuddered slightly. "I just can't believe he's gone."

Andrea sat up, immediately pulling him into a hug.

John sniffed, but kept his grief at bay this time.

"We're here for you."

"It's all so…unreal. I fucking talked to him yesterday. We were supposed to meet for lunch in a few days to go over some numbers."

"It's okay, John. Everything will be okay," Andrea said quietly, rubbing his back.

He let out a huge sigh. "I'm exhausted, but I don't want to go to bed. I know as soon as I lay down, my mind is going to start spinning."

"So let's put something on the screen. We can watch something."

He nodded. "Okay. I don't think I care what we put on. Rodney, why don't you pick something?"

He glanced at the other couch, the empty couch.

"Rodney?" John sat up. "Where did he go?"

"Probably to the bathroom," Andrea said, tugging John back. "Put the television on and let's watch something."

He grabbed the remote and handed it to her. "Put on whatever."

She took it and then shifted, arranging them so they were pressed together, lying on the couch. She put on something vaguely science fiction-ish, a made-for-TV movie and pressed a kiss to John's cheek. "Rest. I'm here."

He nodded, closing his eyes.

"I'm here for you, John," she whispered again, tugging him closer.

He let out another breath of air, and forced his body to relax.

The next time he woke up, the room was dark and the television was off. Andrea was asleep next to him, still holding him close.

He closed his eyes again, forcing himself back to sleep. When he woke up again, it was light, and he was alone.

There was a travel mug on the coffee table and a blanket over his body.

He sat up slowly, reaching for the mug. Coffee. Sweet, wonderful coffee.

The door creaked open a few minutes later when he was about halfway through his coffee. "John?" It was Jeannie.

"Morning. I can't believe I slept down here. Where is everyone?"

"Around," she said, coming in with a covered plate. "Andrea headed home a little while ago."

"What time is it?" John accepted the plate, surprised he was hungry.

"Almost eleven. We didn't want to wake you because you needed the sleep."

"Wow." He ran a hand through his hair. "I need a shower, but do you know if I'm needed anywhere first?"

"It can wait until you're ready," Jeannie said. "Eat up and then do what you have to do."

He nodded, wolfing down the food and coffee before standing up. "God, this just doesn't seem real yet."

"It won't for a while."

He sighed. "I guess. I'm going to run and shower, and change into some fresh clothes. If you see my mother or brother, let them know I'm on my way down?" John stepped over and gave her a hug.

"Your brother headed over to the funeral home with your mom to pick out the casket. I think Charlotte went with them."

John made a face. "God. All right. Lemme shower, and then I'll figure out what needs to get done today I guess. Are you guys all right? Have everything you need?"

"We're fine, John. Just let us know how we can help."

He nodded. "Thanks."

He got his shower, and the rest of the day was hectic after that. There were more calls and decisions to be made, and more guests pouring in from around the country to attend the wake and funeral the following day.

One thing after another. It felt like it was never ending. He caught a few glimpses of Rodney during the day, but they were usually headed in different directions.

It was only after everyone had left and they'd locked down the house for the night that Rodney finally found him—back in the media room—but this time it was only the two of them. Andrea had gone home for the night and would meet them at the funeral home in the morning.

"Hey." John was spread out on the couch, exhausted.

"Hey. You need anything? I'm going to head up to bed."

John sighed. "I'm pretty sure sleeping in the same room and watching television so I don't have a chance to think is out of the picture, huh?"

"Sleeping in the same room as who?"

"Me. I don't want to give my brain a chance to start spinning."

"What?"

John shrugged. "You don't have to. I just know if I'm left alone too long, I'll start over-thinking everything, and I'm not ready for that yet."

"Let me get this straight. You want me to sleep with you."

John rolled his eyes. "Stop trying to make it sound dirty."

"I'm bi-sexual and it sounded like my best friend—who is currently dating a hot woman who is a martial arts fiend—just propositioned me. I'm sorry if it's a little…weird."

John stood up and rolled his eyes again. "I just don't want to sleep alone. I'm not asking for sex. I just want someone to stay in the room."

"O…kay. So, what exactly do you want me to do?"

"You don't have to do anything." John sighed. "I just wanted someone else in the room alive with me."

"I'm across the hall."

"I know. Just forget it. It's not a big deal. I'll survive."

"I'm just…trying to wrap my mind around what you're asking me to do. "

"Just sleep. But seriously, it's obviously bothering you, so don't worry about it." They headed up into John's wing.

"It's just that none of my straight friends has ever asked me to sleep with them before."

"Yeah, well… I'm not your average friend I guess."

"No, you're not," Rodney said, giving John a weird look.

John shrugged. "Sorry?"

Rodney shrugged him off. "I'm almost used to you being weird. This was just a new…component."

"Oh." John paused outside his door. "So does that mean you're going to, or not? Now you've got me confused."

"Go get ready for bed, John."

"All right. Night." John sighed, slipping inside. He pulled off his clothes and got comfortable in a pair of boxers.

He was settling into his bed when someone knocked on his door and it opened a second later. Rodney barreled inside dressed in sweats and a t-shirt. "You better not do anything weird."

John smiled, surprised. He thought Rodney was too weirded out. "I promise not to assault you in the middle of the night. And thanks."

"There is no inappropriate touching or cuddling or….anything that you do with Andrea. You understand?" he asked, pinning John with a glare.

John rolled his eyes. "Yes, Rodney. I won't threaten your virtue, I promise. Cross my heart and everything."

He snorted. "And this just proves you are ten," he said, climbing into the other side of the bed.

"Yeah yeah." John had put the television on, but he handed the remote over. "I honestly don't care what's on. It's just background noise, so if you want to find something you like, go ahead."

"I'm going to be asleep in about ten minutes flat," he said, shaking his head as he shifted down, pulling the blankets up. "Pick something and keep your hands to yourself."

Snorting, John set the remote aside and settled in himself. "Night, Rodney. And thanks again."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." He huffed a few times, shifting on the mattress. "Freak."

John chuckled, but fell asleep quickly, comforted by his friend's close presence


The wake was as hellish as John had imagined it would be, and the funeral was hard in a completely different way. By the end of the week, he felt completely drained both physically and emotionally, but he was glad at least most of the guests had gone home, leaving them with just close family. And for John, close family included the Millers and Rodney.

Rodney and Caleb were heading home tomorrow. Work wasn't going to let them take anymore time.

John was just grateful they had been here for some of it. It had definitely made things easier for him.

There was a light knock on the door to the media room and Simon stepped in a few beats later. "Sorry to bother you, sir. You have a visitor."

"I do?" John wrinkled his forehead. He wasn't expecting anyone, and if had been Andrea, she just would have come in. He stood up to follow Simon out.

"She's waiting for you in the parlor," Simon said, gesturing John forward.

"She?" John wandered in, curious.

"John," the woman said turning toward him. Nancy.

Fuck.

He didn't even know what to say. "Ahh. Hi? I wasn't expecting to see you."

"I was at the funeral home, but you were in the middle of so many people. I didn't get the chance to talk to you and I wasn't sure if I'd be welcome at the gathering here afterward."

John stepped forward, not sure if he should hug her, or shake her hand. "Thanks. It means a lot that you came."

"I liked your father. He was a good man. He'd been good to me over the years."

John finally settled on pulling her in for a brief hug. "He's going to be missed by a lot of people. It still doesn't feel real to me, honestly."

"It won't for a while yet," she said, hugging him briefly before stepping back. "I'm sorry for you, John. You've only been back for a little while and then this…"

He sighed. "I know. But at least I had the chance to make peace with him. I've been trying to take some comfort from that."

"I was sorry to hear about what happened to you," she said quietly. "You didn't deserve it."

He blinked. "How much do you know? I know you're working for classified projects, but…" It had never occurred to him that she would know or care about his career.

"I have pretty high clearance," she said with a half smile. "It's funny. I used to complain that you were always gone and that you couldn't talk about any of your missions. I'm married now and I hear the same thing from my husband."

Leaning against a chair, he chuckled. "Life is always weird that way I guess. But to be honest, I have a feeling you and I would have imploded for another reason if we hadn't had that one. We were trying too hard to make something bigger out of the friendship we had."

She shrugged. "I did love you, but…"

"I loved you in my own way. I just…. loved flying more I guess. I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you, though. I guess I thought I could change myself."

"And I thought I could change you."

He gave her a sad smile. "I'm just glad to hear you're happy now. You deserve it."

"And so do you," she said, patting him on the arm. "I hear things are going well with you and Andrea."

He nodded. "She's great and we have a lot of fun together. We'll see where it goes. I know she's good during all this. I don't know what I would have done without her, the Millers and Rodney."

Her face changed for a moment, but then quickly went back to her calm and concerned expression she'd had before. "Charlotte told me about the two of you. I was happy to hear that you were finally settling down."

He shrugged. "I guess you know I wasn't given a lot of choice. My discharge was honorable, but just barely."

"I know some of it, not all of it," she said. "But that's not why I came. I wanted to say I was sorry about your father and to let you know that if you needed any help…any at all, I'll do whatever I can for you."

He smiled. "Thanks. I appreciate that. Same goes for you. If there's anything I can do, just call, okay?"

"I will." He stepped forward, offering him a chaste kiss on the cheek and another hug. "Be well, John."

"You, too." John smiled.

"I can see myself out. But…be well, John, and I'm sorry again about your dad."

He waved goodbye, and sat down heavily. Well. That had been weird.

He stayed there for a while, before pulling himself to his feet. He found Rodney in the media room, sprawled on the couch, snorting lightly with the television playing an old episode of Doctor Who in the background.

"Hey."

Rodney didn't stir.

John sat down across from him, watching Rodney sleep. He wasn't sure why he found it relaxing, but he'd take it where he could get it.

He used to do it when he was on watch when they were off-world. There was something soothing about it then, watching him. It meant that everything was okay, calm.

He didn't remember falling asleep, but the next thing he knew, he was being shaken awake.

"John?" Rodney's face was dark and blurry above him as John blinked sleep out of his eyes.

"Mmmmm?" John hummed.

"It's late. You should go to bed."

"You too."

"Come on," Rodney said, tugging him to his feet.

John went willingly, following Rodney up the stairs.

Rodney undressed him and put him to bed, patting him on the head. "Sleep well, John."

"Not staying?"

"Shhh… Go back to sleep."

John sighed, rolling over and falling back to sleep immediately.

When he woke the next morning, he could hear Rodney yelling from across the hall.

John rolled out of bed and padded to his door, opening it. He listened for a moment before stepping out of his room. Rodney's door was open and when John's pushed the door open the rest of the way, he found Rodney and Jeannie facing off in the middle of the bedroom.

"…don't care. You're going to get yourself blacklisted from another job if you keep this up!"

"Hello?"

Jeannie jumped and turned toward him. Rodney just rubbed a hand across his face. "John! What are you doing up?"

"Heard you. What are you arguing about?"

As Rodney said "Nothing," Jeannie replied "Your dumbass friend is trying to screw up yet another career."

"What's he doing?" John looked back and forth between them.

"Right now I'm trying to pack so I can get on a plane in a few hours," Rodney said, narrowing his eyes at his sister.

John looked back at Jeannie.

"He's going after Meyers."

"Well, Meyers is sort of a jackass. It's time someone did."

"He's going to ruin the one chance he has at holding a job," Jeannie said, glaring at her brother.

"Hello! I'm standing right here," Rodney yelled.

John was still feeling like he was watching a tennis match. "He has other chances. And he'd be doing the whole faculty a favor getting rid of a power-mad, sexist jerk." John was with Rodney on this one.

"You have no idea how many favors Caleb had to ask for to get you the job in the first place. He put his own job on the line."

John winced.

"I didn't ask him to!"

"Well, he did! And now you're just throwing it away!"

"Right now, I'm packing so I can go home so I don't lose my job," Rodney said, waving his hands widely. "It's not my fault that Meyers likes to screw students who are barely legal. He loves the power he has over them and he uses it to fulfill his own debased needs. What's wrong with me trying to set things right? Would you rather I turned a blind eye to what he's doing?"

Jeannie huffed. "Of course not, but I don't want you losing your job because you're on a crusade, either!"

"I'm not on a crusade. He's abusing his position."

Jeannie glared. "And you're risking your livelihood to prove it. He has too much power, Mer. He'll squash you, and you'll never find work again!"

"You don't care about me. You care about Caleb and his job and his reputation. This isn't about me. This is about you. It's always been about you."

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, I'm worried about my husband, idiot, but I'm worried about you, too. What would you do if you lost this job? Where would you go?"

"I'd figure something out. I'm not an idiot, you know."

"No joke, Mer. But you're risking a lot."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Do you think this is a picnic for me? Do you think I looked for this?"

"Sometimes, I don't know."

Rodney scowled, turning away and shoving a shirt into his luggage. "I need to pack if you're done yelling at me."

"Just don't do anything stupid."

"That would be an impossibility in my case."

Huffing, she stormed out.

Rodney was silent for a few minutes, packing his bag. "Are you going to yell at me, too?" he asked finally, without turning around, sounding tired.

"No. I agree with you." John didn't know why he was mesmerized by the movement of the muscles in Rodney's back as he packed. He guessed he was more tired than he realized.

"I didn't go looking for it."

"I know. But it's a battle someone needed to fight. You're probably the best one there to take him on and win."

"Maybe. None of the TAs will come forward. I've talked to most of them."

"They're scared. If someone starts taking him on though, odds are good they'll come out of the woodwork. All you really need is one bit of proof to get the ball rolling."

"Which I don't really have. I may have walked in on something, but it's my word against his and he knows it."

"So start looking, and carry a camera with you. He's cocky. He'll fuck up again, sooner rather than later. Especially in front of you, because now he wants to flaunt his power."

"And in the meantime, he'll ride my ass about every little thing," Rodney said, shoving in the last piece of clothing before glancing over his shoulder at John. "I'm sorry we woke you. I didn't think she'd bring this up again."

"It's okay." John smiled slightly. "I'm glad I woke up. Otherwise I might not have gotten to wish you a safe journey."

"I still have a little time. I want to make sure I get my last breakfast from Katie before I head back. Caleb's returning the rental, so we'll drive back in a bit."

John nodded. "Sounds like a plan then. You're coming back next weekend?"

"I'll be back late Friday, yes."

John nodded. "Let me know the flight details, and either I or Simon will be there to get you."

"I can just rent a car. I don't want to bother you with ferrying me back and forth."

John rolled his eyes. "It's not a bother, so stop thinking that way."

"Fine," Rodney said, zipping closed his suitcase and dumping it on the floor. He went in search for his shoes a few moments later.

John sat on the bed and watched.

It was amusing, really, to watch the scientist stomp around the room, looking for his shoes. Especially since they weren't together. John spotted one by the bathroom door, half-hidden by a towel and the other one clear on the other side of the room, under a chair.

Leaning back, he smiled slightly.

Rodney found the first one—under the chair—and dropped down into it, tying it in place. He glared at John half-way through. "What are you grinning about? You could help me, you know."

"Why spoil the surprise?"

"I hate you right now."

"No you don't."

"Yes. I do. Especially right now since you're sitting there smirking instead of helping me find my shoes."

"I'm not smirking. I'm just… I don't know. Happy you're here."

"Happy I'm leaving don't you mean?"

"No. Happy you're here."

"But I'm leaving in an hour."

"I know. And that sucks. But you'll be back."

"Eventually. Instead, you get to deal with Jeannie and the brat."

"That's okay. I love your sister and Maddie."

"Yeah. I've noticed that and I'm not sure why you do," Rodney said quietly, shaking his head. He rose to his feet a minute later to resume stomping around the room—this time with one shoe in place. John was glad for the thick carpets since it was quiet and a lot easier on Rodney's knees.

"Want to play hot and cold? Cause right now, you're frigid, buddy."

"You're an ass."

"And you love it."

"That you're an ass? Not particularly." Rodney sighed, pulling open the closet again.

John chuckled. "You're still cold. It's on the other side of the room."

"What?" he asked, whirling around to glare at John. "You know where it is?"

"Maybe." John had the grace to look a little sheepish. "But I was enjoying watching you."

His scowl deepened. "You really are an ass. Where is my other shoe?"

"Under the towel under the chair." John shrugged.

"Nice," he grumbled, stomping across the room. He found his shoe and shoved his foot into it.

"How did you manage to get them so far apart? That takes talent."

"I don't know. They…they just found their way there." He rose to his feet. "Are you eating breakfast with us like that or are you planning on wearing something else?"

John looked down at himself. "Well, I suppose I should at least put pants on."

"Yes. Especially after flashing a married woman."

"I didn't flash her. I have boxers on!"

"Is that what you call those?"

John huffed. "These are perfectly acceptable male underwear."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "I'm going to get breakfast. Are you coming or not?"

"Yes. We just need to stop by my room so I can cover up the parts offending your delicate sensibilities."

"I don't have delicate sensibilities, but I know other people in this house do. And there is a five-year-old girl walking around, you know."

John rolled his eyes and they walked across the hall. "I'm pretty sure she's seen her father in boxer shorts before."

"Five!"

John found a pair of clean jeans and pulled them on, then went hunting for a t-shirt. "She's not going to be scarred for life by boxers."

"A man's nether regions should not be on display in front of a five-year-old."

"My nether regions weren't on display."

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and glared at John.

"They weren't!"

Rodney didn't reply, but his glare did deepen.

John huffed again and finally found a shirt to pull on.

"Can you hurry? Some of us have a limited amount of time."

"Yeah, yeah." John decided since he wasn't going anywhere, to just go barefoot. "Let's go.

John tried to be upbeat during breakfast, but for some reason he found it harder than usual to say good-bye to his friend this time. The entire Miller family was at the table, talking animatedly with Dave and Charlotte, but John just sat and listened.

He found he wasn't that hungry, so he mostly pushed his food around the plate, and wished Rodney's boss wasn't such an ass.

And then Rodney and Caleb were gone in a rush as Simon walked in, telling them there was traffic on the highway to the airport and they needed to leave immediately so they didn't miss their flight.

He walked them out, probably gave Rodney a harder hug than was really necessary, and waved them goodbye.

Even as Rodney and Caleb were pulling away, Madison was tugging at his arm. "Can you teach me to ride today?"

John looked down and smiled. "I need to sit down with Dave and go through some things this morning, but how about this afternoon?"

"But I want to go now."

"I know, but I have to go be responsible first. Then we can play."

Madison pouted at him.

"Sorry, kiddo. After lunch, though, I'll be all yours."

Jeannie appeared at his elbow a few seconds later. "Come on, Maddie. Stop bothering John. He has things he needs to do."

John smiled at her. "It's not a big deal. I just need to start going over the estate stuff with Dave and Mom this morning. But we'll go for riding lessons this afternoon."

"We're not here to take you away from what you have to do," Jeannie said, ushering Madison back inside. "Come on, John. It's cold out and you have no shoes on."

Chuckling, John followed them back in, returning to the dining room to find Dave. "Whenever you're ready, just let me know."

"Actually, dad's lawyer will be here in an hour."

"Good. We can get the will and estate stuff done then, so we'll be clear to figure out what's next for the business." John dropped back into a chair.

"You might want to change," Dave said, eyeing John's clothes.

John looked down at himself. "Probably. At least put on shoes if nothing else, I guess."

"You should at least attempt to look nice, John. This is for dad."

"I know." John ran a hand through his hair. "I'll go take a quick shower and put on something a bit more presentable. I guess I'll meet you in your office in an hour then?"

"In the library. We need more room. He asked for everyone to be present, even Andrew."

John raised an eyebrow, surprised. "All right. I'll see you there, then." Standing back up, John wandered upstairs. He walked across the hall to Rodney's room first, looking in and already missing his friend. With a sigh, he finally retreated, showering and getting dressed in a pair of dark slacks and a button-down shirt. He wasn't going to wear a tie if he didn't have to.

When John finally made it downstairs to the library, everyone was there, including Jason Gersweizer, their family lawyer.

He shook hands with the older gentleman, who had known both him and Dave since they were kids.

"Good to see you again, John. Please have a seat and we can get started. It's pretty straightforward."

"I wish it was under better circumstances, but good to see you, too." John took a seat next to his mother.

Jason took a breath and looked at everyone in the room, offering a sad smile. "I wish I was able to be here with you under different circumstances, but there are still a few matters of business which need to be addressed to finalize Patrick's estate."

He cleared his throat, and glanced down at the papers in his hands, and began reading. "I, Patrick Sheppard, declare this to be my Will, and I revoke any and all wills and codicils I previously made."

John took a deep breath. He wondered when his father had last updated it, and hoped his mother and brother got the brunt of everything. They deserved it.

Jason took another breath and kept going. "I give all my tangible personal property and all policies and proceeds of insurance covering such property, to my wife, Jeanette, and my two children, John and David, to be divided in equal shares. If she does not survive me, I give that property to those of my children who survive me, in equal shares, to be divided among them by my executors in their absolute discretion after consultation with my children. If they do not survive me, I give that property to those of my grandson, Andrew, to be held in trust until his twenty-first birthday. My executors may pay out of my estate the expenses of delivering tangible personal property to beneficiaries."

Wow.

"I give my townhouse residence, subject to any mortgages or encumbrances thereon, and all policies and proceeds of insurance covering such property, to my wife, Jeannette, and son, David. If they do not survive me, I give that property to Charlotte, my daughter-in-law."

John nodded to himself. That sounded right, and good. Mom could either stay in the townhouse or out here on the estate with them, whichever she decided was best.

Jason took a sip of water and continued a beat later. "I give my residence and attached stables and property, subject to any mortgages or encumbrances thereon, and all policies and proceeds of insurance covering such property, to my son, John. If he does not survive me, I give that property to his heirs, or in the case there are none, to my grandson, Andrew."

John choked.

David patted him on the back as Jason kept reading.

"I give Sheppard Industries my sons, David and John, in equal shares. If they do not survive me, I give my business to my grandson, Andrew Sheppard, to be held in trust for him until his twenty-first birthday."

John shook his head. It should have been Dave's, along with the estate. He decided to chat with Jason immediately after this formal reading to see what he could do to fix it.

"I give all the rest, residue, and remainder of my estate to my wife, Jeanette. If she does not survive me, I give my residuary estate to those of my children who survive me, in equal shares…"

John zoned out, the reality of what was now his too much to take in, only coming back to the present when he heard the conclusion of his father's will.

"I have signed this will this 15 day of July 2007."

He was close to hyperventilating. His father had changed his will a month after John's return.

Jason looked around after going through the last legalese at the bottom of the document. "Any questions?"

John raised his hand.

"John?"

"It should be Dave's. The estate, and all of the business."

Jason shook his head. "Your father was quite adamant. He wanted both of you to run the business and for you to have the house here."

"But… John looked over at his brother. "But he's lived here all his life. I just came back. It's his house."

"I've lived here and at the townhouse, probably equally," Dave said with a shrug. "I'm not going to contest it, John."

John was more than a little overwhelmed. "I never… I don't want to take what's yours. That was never my intention. We just fixed our relationship, I really don't want this to mess it up again. Are you sure you don't want to contest?"

"I'm sure, John. Trust me. The townhouse is plenty and you're the one who likes to play in the dirt."

John could only nod silently. It was all too much to take in. Some of the reading he had zoned out for involving where the cash and other assets his father had owned started to trickle in to his consciousness. Holy shit.

He owned a house…a mansion. The stables. Half of the business and a third of his father's money.

He had to swallow hard. This was surreal.

"If there are no further questions, I have some paperwork you all need to sign. Everything will be completed by the end of the week," Jason said quietly.

No one else did, so they quickly got everything signed. John waited for Dave and his family, and their mother, to file out, still seated biting his cheek. What the hell was he going to do with all this money?

Jason approached him, sitting next to him on the couch. "You okay?"

"Just… overwhelmed. This is a lot to take in. What the hell am I supposed to do with all of this?" John paused. "How hard would it be to set up a trust fund for Madison Miller?"

"Once the paperwork is processed, not hard at all. You have to fill out some forms and get everything notarized."

John nodded. "If you wouldn't mind, once all the estate stuff is taken care of, can you draw up paperwork for an interest-earning fund of $500,000, available to her on her twenty-first birthday. It's the least I can do for the Miller's and how amazing they've been."

"Of course," Jason said, already making notations on a piece of paper. "I have a few people I can suggest to you to help manage your money, to make some of your own investments." He paused, looking at John for a moment. "Also, you may want to update your will. The last one I have on file is several years old."

John dropped his head into his hands. "I think I'm going to be sick. I'm the fucking black sheep, Jason. I was career military. Why did he leave me all this? Dave is the one who stayed, and did what was expected of him. I just disappointed my father at every turn."

"No, you didn't. You argued and fought, but he still loved you. He followed your career."

John shook his head without lifting it. "And I fucked that up, too. God… I just… I don't even know what to think right now. First losing him, and now finding out all this…"

"Take a few days. I know it's a lot to take in especially since it's all still so new. Your father talked to me some, over the years. We were friends. If I can answer any questions, please don't hesitate to call me and ask."

Shivering, John did his best to pull himself together. "I… yeah, I will." Lifting his head, John stood up with Jason to shake his hand. "And I will need that name, of someone to help me figure out how to manage all this. I'm good with numbers, but not that good. I never touched my trust fund, either, so God knows how much that's worth now."

"A lot," Jason said with a smile.

John shook Jason's hand again, and wandered out in a daze.

He ended up wandering down to the family den, dropping onto the couch behind where Madison was watching some cartoon or other on the television.

He watched mindlessly for a little while, not really paying much attention to it, just trying not to let himself think too much about what had just happened.

He was rich. Really rich. And responsible for a hell of a lot of money and companies and people.

Dear god… He and Dave were going to have to sit down and figure out what direction the business was going to take now.

John didn't know how long he sat there, turning everything over and over in his mind. Madison eventually climbed up next to him, snuggling in but staying quiet. It was like she knew he needed the time.

Finally, he noticed Jeannie had come in and sat on the other side of him. "Oh, hey. When did you get here?"

"A little while ago. Charlotte told me about the reading," she said quietly. "You okay?"

John's was close to hysterical, and he knew he was hanging on by a thread. "I just went from owning pretty much nothing, to an estate, stables, half a multi-billion dollar company, and more money than I have any idea what to do with. I think I'm going to be sick."

"Oh, come on," she said, nudging him with her shoulder. "You can't let a little money do that to you. You've faced scary vampire-hand aliens."

"And yet, this is somehow more terrifying." He gave her a weak smile.

She chuckled. "Oh, come on. You deal with my brother. This can't be as bad."

John swallowed. "I like dealing with your brother. This… I don't even know where to start."

"Start wherever it feels right. You don't have to do it all at once."

He closed his eyes and sighed. "I don't even know. Why don't we go out to the stables? I think I promised some riding lessons, and honestly, I need the distraction."

"Riding!" Madison said immediately, jumping to her feet and tugging on John's hand.

John stood, and pulled Jeannie to her feet as well. "Come on. Even if you don't want to try riding, it's always nice out in the area where I'll be teaching Maddie."

"You might want to change."

"I have clothes out in my office out there. I usually spend part of the day there, and I never know when that will be on a given day. So I just keep a pair of work jeans and a t-shirt down there with sneakers so I can slip away whenever I want."

"Do I even want to know how many times you slip away to the stables?" Jeannie asked, following John out of the house.

"Probably less than you're imagining." He grinned slightly. "Between school and the financial end of things, I don't get out here as much as I'd like, but even… before… it was given to me as a primary responsibility. And now it will be even more so. Fortunately, Joe is a good guy, and knows his stuff, so I can rely on him when I can't be out there as much."

"That's good," she said with a smile, falling into silence as they walked to the stables.

John got changed, letting Joe know he was there and what he was doing. He then got Madison, and showed her and Jeannie both how to saddle a horse using one of their older mares with a very even and sweet personality.

"She's huge." Madison's eyes were open wide with wonder.

"This is Flower, and she's been with us for a long time. She got her name because as a filly, she managed to get into my mother's garden and eat every single flower before anyone noticed."

Madison giggled, leaning into her mom.

John made sure all the cinches were tight without being too tight, and then held out his hand. "Come put your hands on the reins right here. We'll take her out into the yard where there's a little bit more room."

"Me?"

"I'll be right here with you."

Madison was going to refuse again, but her mom gave her a push. "Go on, Maddie. You'll enjoy it. Trust me."

John took her hand and put it on the reins, just below his own. "Good, just like that. Now take a few steps forward, and give them a gentle tug."

"But she'll kick me."

"No, she won't. She's a good girl, aren't you Flower?" John rubbed the horse's nose, getting a soft wicker of pleasure from her.

Madison looked up with him with her big blue eyes before she nodded her head and straightened her shoulders—just like her uncle when he was trying to be brave. She gave Flower a little tug.

The horse snorted softly, and after a glance at John, obediently followed Madison out the doors. John stayed right beside them both, stopping them in the middle of the training circle. "Very good! See, that was easy, wasn't it?"

She nodded silently, awe on her face.

John pulled a sugar cube out of his pocket and handed it to Madison. "Put it in the center of your palm, like this, with your fingers out of the way." John arranged her hand, then guided it up to Flower, who nibbled it right up.

She giggled, trying to pull away as Flower's lips brushed her palm.

"It's okay. As long as you keep your fingers back like I showed you, she'll never get you." John smiled. "Ready to try getting on her back?"

"Really?"

John nodded. "For your first time, I'm going to lift you up there, and I'll lead her around so you can get used to the way it feels to be on her back."

She looked scared and glanced back at Jeannie, who waved her on. "Go ahead. It's fun. Trust mommy."

John held out his arms. "Trust me. I won't let anything bad happen, and you'll love it."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. This is how I learned to ride, too. You'll love it."

"Mommy first."

John grinned and raised an eyebrow at Jeannie. "Want to give it a whirl? I know Flower can hold you both, too, if Maddie wants to try it that way first."

"I know how to ride. So does my brother," she said with a shrug. "I can if you want."

Huh, John hadn't known that Rodney could ride. Bastard led him to believe otherwise. John gave her a hand up into the saddle. "How long has it been since you rode?"

"Ten years or so," she said, settling down. John adjusted the stirrups for her.

"If you're comfortable, go ahead and walk her around the yard. Otherwise, I'll lead her around."

"I've got her," Jeannie said, taking the reins from John. She tapped Flower gently and moved her forward. She had good posture and was letting her body flow with the horse.

John nodded in approval, calling out a few suggestions, and having Jeannie take her into a light gallop before coming back to a stop by him and Madison. "So Maddie, ready for your try?"

"How do you know how to do that, mommy?"

John looked at Jeannie. He had to admit, he was curious, too.

"I went for riding lessons when I was your age, Maddie," she said, swinging herself down from the horse. "So did Uncle Mer."

"I can't believe he let me think he didn't know how to ride. I'm going to have to give him hell for that."

"Oh, my brother hated it. He would have rather been home with his books, but mom insisted we learn."

Chuckling, John lifted Madison up into the saddle and started to lead Flower slowly around the yard. "Yeah, I can see that out of him."

Madison clutched at the saddle, holding on for dear life.

"Just relax. I've got you, and she can sense if you're tense. The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed Flower will be."

"But she's bigger than me."

"She doesn't want to hurt you though. She actually likes this. It means she gets to come outside and move around, and she knows if she's good, she gets more sugar cubes."

It took a while for Madison to finally relax and start to enjoy herself.

Once she did, John went up to a slight jog for him, which was just a slightly faster walk for Flower.

She laughed—loud and free. "Faster!"

John grinned and sped up to his usual jogging pace, pulling Flower into a slow canter.

Jeannie was smiling broadly from where she stood on the side, leaning on the fence and watching.

John didn't want to wear out Maddie's legs the first day, so he slowly brought Flower back down to a walk, finally coming to a stop next to Jeannie. "So how was it?"

"Fun! Can we do it again?"

John nodded. "Now I'm going to teach you how to hold the reins, and then tomorrow we'll do it again. With riding, it's always best to start slow, otherwise, your legs will really, really hurt."

"I'm okay. Let's do it again."

"Trust me, you'll feel it later." John smiled.

"No, I won't."

"Come on." John held out his arms. "If you stay on her, then I can't teach you how to brush her down. And Flower adores that part."

Madison made a face, but Jeannie quickly got her moving. "If you don't listen to John now, you won't ever go back on a horse again."

He hid a grin at how fast she was down after that. "Don't worry. I'll get you on her again tomorrow. And in a week or two, when you're comfortable handling the reins by yourself, you, your Mom and I will go out riding and have a picnic by the lake. How does that sound?"

"That sounds good," Madison said, grinning up at him. "I'm glad you're my uncle."

"Me too, kiddo." John gave her a big hug.

They took Flower back into the stable, where John taught her about caring for horses and their equipment. The rest of the day he worked on some stuff for school that needed to get done, as well as a few odds and ends for work that had gotten put off with the funeral.

The next morning, he and Dave met up in his brother's office to hammer out some of the finer details.

"The moving truck with be here tomorrow morning," Dave said as John settled down in the guest chair.

"Moving truck?" John blinked.

"We're moving into the townhouse."

"But… why? I mean, I don't want you to leave. As far as I'm concerned, the West wing is still yours."

"Mom wants to go back to the townhouse and I don't think she should be alone."

John ran a hand through his hair. "I can see that, but… It will be weird, being here with you gone. It's a huge house for just me, Katie and Simon."

"I know, but I'm sure Andrea will be joining you here soon." Dave offered a smile and a shrug. "The townhouse is big, too, and mom needs to be close to her doctors."

John sighed. "Yeah, I know. It's just… weird. I didn't think of that."

"And we need to figure out how to split the business."

"Yeah." John gave his brother a small smile. "What do you want? I feel like I pushed you into this the first time around, so this time, you decide what you want to do, and I'll pick up the rest."

Dave sighed and shrugged. "I know I don't want the horses. I just…it's never been my thing."

"And I love them, so I'm more than happy to keep that side of things."

"I'm also not comfortable with the scientific proposals, so I think I'd like you to handle them—all the way through."

John blinked. "Wow, okay. I can do that." Up to this point, he had been handing off accounts to either Dave or his father once he got them to a certain point. "If you're comfortable with me making those decisions, I'll do it. I miss being in command some days."

"I'll take everything else," Dave said. "If you're okay with that. And I'll also deal with the lawyers in the office."

John nodded. "Good."

"So, that should be about it, then."

John hesitated. "Well, I was going to bring this up with Dad once I graduated, but…"

"But what?" Dave narrowed his eyes at John.

"When I do graduate, I think, if you're willing, that I'd like to open a subsidiary of Sheppard Industries focused on aeronautical research and design. I would head it up, and between us, we've got the contacts to bring in some great people to work with me to design and build better aircraft."

"A new division."

John nodded. "I'd still be running the stables and handling the science part of the company, I'd just be running this as well. It's still probably at least a year or two out before I'd be ready to start something like that, but I figured now was probably a good idea to at least get you thinking about it."

"I don't know if we'll be able to do that. It's just the two of us."

John nodded. "I know. It was an easier dream before Dad… But, like I said, it's not something I want to jump in to tomorrow. Just…something I was thinking about for the future."

"I'll think about it. Okay? I can't really promise anything more yet."

John nodded. "Of course. And I wouldn't want to do anything about it now anyway. Who knows where we'll be in a year."

"Who knows…" Dave said with a sigh. "Well, I should finish up a few things before I shut down the computer to take tomorrow."

"Huh, I didn't even think of that. I'll be the only one working out here, too."

"You're always welcome in the office downtown. You do have an office there you know."

Shrugging, John nodded again. "I know. And I probably will from time to time."

"Well, if there's nothing else…" Dave said, leaning forward in his chair."

John took the hint and stood up. "I'll see you at dinner."

"Actually, Charlotte and I are going out."

"Ah, okay then. I'll… see you around then."

Dave nodded, already focused on his computer screen.

John wandered into his own office, but after an hour gave it up as a lost cause. He found Madison and gave her another riding lesson, but once that was done and she had to go do some home-school stuff, he found himself feeling a bit lost.

He knew Rodney was working, so he didn't really want to bother him, but he couldn't help it either.

He sent a quick text message. Hey, just wanted to say hi. Why didn't you tell me you knew how to ride?

He got a nearly instantaneous reply. Who told you that dirty, filthy lie?

Your sister. I'm teaching Maddie.

Be careful! She's only five.

I am, don't worry. And did Jeannie tell you about the will?

Will? What will? I'm in class. Giving a pop quiz.

John chuckled. They read Dad's will yesterday.

So you're even richer than you were last week. Nice.

Snorting, John rolled his eyes. I've never even touched my trust fund, what makes you think I'll suddenly start spending?

You just needed an excuse.

Hardly. You need to invent something I can invest in.

We've had that conversation before.

Yeah, but now I have money I can't just leave sitting there. I need to do something with it.

You'll figure it out. Need to berate students now.

All right. Call me later.

He didn't get a reply back, but John knew Rodney would give him a call when he was on his way home.

Fiddling with his phone, he decided to see if Andrea was busy and shot her a text. Hey pretty lady.

He got a reply a few minutes later. Yes, sexy?

It made him smile as he crashed on a couch in the media room. Sorry I've been AWOL. Been overwhelmed. Miss you though.

His phone rang a few minutes later.

He saw it was her, but still answered as if he didn't know. "Sheppard here."

"Mmmmm sexy voice."

He chuckled. "So hi. What are you up to?"

"Nothing much. Doing the monthly billing for the studio. How are you holding up?"

"It comes and goes. It's starting to sink in, but… They read Dad's will and he left me the estate, stables, half the business, and a third of his other assets. I'm in shock, quite frankly."

Andrea chuckled. "I can imagine. So, my boyfriend is filthy rich, eh?"

"Apparently. And Dave is moving out tomorrow to live with Mom in the townhouse. So I'm going to be rattling around here."

"I can always come keep you company."

"Good." He smiled. "I was starting to worry. I never did thank you for everything you did for me during all this."

"It was nothing. I could have done more, but you had the Millers there and I didn't want to intrude."

"You'd never intrude. Why don't you come to dinner tonight? It will just be me, Jeannie and Madison."

"You and your little harem, eh?" She chuckled quietly. "I'd love to."

"Good." John smiled. "It will be nice seeing you. I have missed you."

"I've missed you, too. But I didn't want to intrude with everything going on and I didn't think you were in the mood for much."

"It has been crazy. But things are starting to even out, I think. It will never be the same, but…"

"But?"

"I miss him, and I think I'm surprised by that, which makes me sad, I guess. We're getting back to as normal as we can, though."

"You're allowed to miss him, you know. And honestly, normal is what you make it."

"I know. And right now, I want normal to be you here having dinner with us."

"I can do that. What time do you want me?"

"Whenever you're done there. I'm too distracted today to get anything done, so I'm sitting sprawled on the couch staring at the ceiling while we talk."

"I'll be there in an hour. Think you can keep yourself busy until I get there?"

"Hmmmm… well, I'm sure I could come up with something…."

"I'm sure you can, lover," she said, chuckling low and a little dirty.

"Mmmm, come find me when you get here."

"Oh, I think I can do that. See you in an hour."

He hung up and wandered upstairs. He didn't know what Andrea would have in mind, but just in case it wasn't fit for Maddie, it was better he was in his own room.

He ended up lying back on his bed, letting his thoughts drift. He must have nodded off since when he next woke up, Andrea was straddling him. Her knees were on either side of his hips and her short skirt was hiked up, barely covering her. "Hey there, sexy."

John swallowed hard, his body taking notice. "Hi."

"Hi. What time's dinner?"

"I don't think I care right at this moment." He ran his hands up the sides of her legs.

"Oooo…I like the way you think, but you did invite me for dinner and I promised Madison I'd see her then."

John's hands drifted further up, where he could toy with the edge of her panties.

She shivered and smiled down at him. "Look at you. All daring. Moving right past third base to home are you?"

"You want me to stop?" John slipped a finger just under the band.

"Not particularly. Unless of course you're going to freak out." She shifted, leaning down over him, her hair cascading down.

He hummed, letting his finger sneak in a few inches further.

"Was that a yes to a freak out or a no?"

"Good so far." He smiled up at her.

She leaned down further, hands on either side of his head. "I'm glad," she whispered, lips brushing his.

He leaned up enough to catch her in a more searing kiss.

She groaned into his mouth, rocking above him.

John decided to flip them so he was on top—and managed to catch one of her legs and bang them both against the headboard.

"Ow! Easy, honey. I'm not going anywhere," she said, looking like she was trying not to wince.

"Sorry." He mouthed at the spots that had gotten caught. "How about I kiss them and make them better?"

"I wouldn't complain," she said with a smile. He picked up one of her legs and very carefully kissed along the skin. He hadn't been expecting to hit a ticklish spot—or get a foot in his groin for his efforts.

Groaning, he doubled over for a moment. "Guess I'll stay away from that particular spot."

"Oh god, I'm sorry," she said, her hands on his face. "It's an automatic reaction. I'm so sorry." She pressed kisses to his lips.

"It's okay. Now… where were we?"

"Um…I believe we might have been kissing before the injuries."

"Yes, I do believe you're right." John smiled and moved in to catch her lips again.

She must have shifted before they connected, because the crash of their noses wasn't very smooth.

John adjusted, ignoring the pain, and this time actually managed to connect for a kiss, thank god.

They managed to kiss for a while—without injury—even transitioning to a horizontal position on the bed.

John worked a hand under her shirt, and when he got it off without incident, he thought they were home-free.

He really wasn't expecting her bra to be adult-proof.

"Okay, do they male-proof these now?" He finally had to let her do it herself.

"Not usually," she said, reaching back to unsnap her bra and pull it off. "But you certainly have too much clothing on. Tit for tat."

Grinning, John pulled off his shirt. "How's that?"

"Better," she said, her eyes dilating as she looked him over. "Much better."

"I promise I won't break if you touch."

"Are you sure?" she asked, a teasing lilt to her voice. She did reach out, however, fingers rubbing over his nipples.

John shivered. It had been a long time since anyone other than him had touched his body with intent.

"Good?"

"Hmmm, very."

"Feel free to return the favor."

Smiling, John reached out to caress one of her breasts.

She moaned quietly, arching into his touch even as she continued to explore his chest.

The touching went fine for a while. But then it started going wrong again.

She scraped her nails along his chest, catching his nipple, sending a tendril of pain through his body. If he…accidentally clamped down on her breast at the same time…

They both yelped and jerked apart.

"Yeah, that's not a stress ball, you know."

He gave her a sheepish look. "And, ah, nails and nipples don't go together very well."

"Oh, sorry. Another…boyfriend used to like that."

"Mine are really sensitive, so too much, and…."

"It's okay. I'm sorry. Want to try with the kissing thing. Half-naked kissing should be better than fully-clothed kissing."

"Mmm, sounds like a good plan. We're good at kissing." John—carefully—lowered them back down to the bed.

"We've had a lot of practice," she said, shifting a little under him. The skin on skin contact, though, felt amazing.

John smiled and dove in for another round of kissing.

It went well for a while—very well—but as soon as they started on something a little more…involved, things went to hell in a heartbeat. With her skirt up around her hips, John had pretty easy access to Andrea and decided it might be time for a little more touching.

He slid her panties down, but instead of them coming off easily, they caught on some hair and pulled.

"Ow! Careful!"

"Sorry! Sorry…" John pulled them the rest of the way off, being extra careful.

He tossed the damp panties to the side and then moved to take off her skirt. She smacked his hands away and quickly shimmied out of it. And then she was naked, on his bed.

He sat back and took a moment to admire her.

She smiled up at him. "You like what you see?"

"God, you're beautiful."

"That's what you tell all the girls."

"Only if I mean it." John traced the curve of her leg with one finger.

"You better mean it."

"I do." His eyes drifted up to meet hers.

"I brought a suitcase with me."

"That's one of the reasons I love you—always thinking."

She chuckled. "I didn't want to seem too…forward, so I left it in the car."

He smiled. "I think maybe we should both be naked."

"I certainly wouldn't object."

John slowly undid his belt, and then his pants, standing up to push both them and his boxers down at the same time.

Andrea shifted onto her side, her eyes dilating as she took him in. "Oh, you are just as big as I thought you'd be."

John felt the blush traveling all the way down his torso.

"Come here, big boy. I can't wait to play with you now."

John climbed back onto the bed, arranging himself so Andrea had access.

She immediately took him in hand, stroking him. "Oh yeah. I can't wait until I can feel this on the inside."

John shivered, his body responding.

Andrea shifted forward—managing to bang their noses together again—before landing the kiss she'd apparently intended.

John's erection had flagged at the flare of pain, but now it came back as their mouths met.

The kissing part they had no issues with. It seemed to be anything more than kissing. She stroked him too hard or too lightly. He was either too rough or not rough enough. It was like they couldn't find a happy medium.

It was more…awkward than sexy.

And then there was the final straw. "You have condoms, right?" she asked a little breathlessly as he shifted on the bed, getting ready to slide in.

"Um."

"John?"

"I think I have some, but I have no idea where they are."

She looked at him for a long moment and then started laughing. Hard.

John got a little offended, then couldn't help it. He started laughing too, flopping down next to her on the bed. "We suck at anything more than kissing."

She nodded, still laughing.

They giggled until they were both hiccupping, and John had to go get them some water. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he smiled at her.

"That was just…awkward. Or is it just me?"

"Yeah. It was… really awkward, and, I hate to say it, not very, ah, arousing when taken as a whole."

"And it's not like either of us don't know the mechanics."

"I don't think I've ever had sex that… bad. And it wasn't like we aren't attracted to each other."

"I know!" she said, looking relieved. "You are…nearly perfect. Our timing leaves something to be desired, though."

"It was like Murphy's Law has descended down on us."

"Although the naked kissing was pretty good."

John chuckled ruefully. "So, I guess the question is… do we want to try this again, or do we want to say friends with kissing privileges?"

"I'm frustrated as hell right now, so I might need to finish myself off quietly in a corner—unless you want to watch. And we can figure out the rest as we go along."

John leaned back against a pillow. "I'll watch."

She laughed, deep and dirty. "I'll put on a good show for you," she said, reaching down to touch herself.

John watched her build herself back up until she finally crested. But while he was half-hard again, he was dismayed that his dick seemed to remember the pain and awkwardness more than the pleasurable bits, and really didn't want to come back out to play.

She was panting quietly, eyes half open. "Your turn."

He looked down with a rueful smile. "I'm not sure certain parts of me are going to cooperate."

"Need a little help?"

"We could give it a shot."

"What would help? Kissing? We're good at that."

He laughed and twisted so he was laying flat. "Let's try that, and go from there."

Andrea giggled and started nipping playfully at his lips.

They got down to kissing again, and it was good. Really good. But unfortunately, John's dick wasn't buying it this time.

She finally backed off, blinking up at him. "No good, eh?"

"Sorry." John sighed, flinging an arm over his eyes. God he was embarrassed.

"It's okay. We kind of broke the mood."

"Still." John made a face. "I suppose we should get dressed and head down to dinner."

Andrea shifted on the bed, glancing at the clock. "You mean the dinner we missed?"

"Shit." John sat up too fast and banged into her.

"Ow!" she said, shaking her head and chuckling.

John rubbed at his own head. "Wow, we're bad at this together, aren't we?"

"We need a lot of practice," she said quietly. "So…still interested in me staying for a while? To…see where this goes? I'm really okay if it's just sleeping together without the sex part. I do love you and I'm not sure I'm ready to call it quits just because we suck at sex."

He ran a hand through his hair. "Let's try just sleeping. I definitely don't want to give up, but… I don't think I'm up for trying anything again tonight, honestly."

"Oh, good. Me either. Sleeping with another warm body though, I think we can do. We've managed that on the couch already."

"Exactly." John smiled, and pulled back the covers, slipping in and inviting her to do the same. "It's been a long couple of days."

"Should we call down for dinner? We might scandalize Simon, though." She chuckled. "Although, that might be fun."

He chuckled. "Nah, let's leave the poor man alone, unless you're hungry. I know I'll live without dinner for a night myself."

"I am hungry," she said. "I never had lunch."

"Well then, we'd better get you fed." John squeezed her before sitting up and calling down to ask Simon if there were any leftovers they could raid.

Simon said he'd bring a tray up for them shortly, his tone carefully neutral.

"We need to pull on some clothes before he gets here. I'm not answering the door nude."

"I'm staying in bed," she said ducking under the covers.

"Coward." John rolled out and found his boxers and a t-shirt. He was decent when Simon arrived, and John managed, somehow, not to blush furiously when he took the tray.

As soon as John closed the door, Andrea was sitting up in the bed. "Oh, this is nice. Naked dinner in bed. We should do this more often."

"Just without the awkward sex first. I'd rather have mind-blowing sex and then naked dinner in bed."

"True, but right now I'm starving. Hand that food over," she said, making a gimmie-gimmie hand gesture.

Laughing, he pushed the tray within her reach, joining her a moment later to take his fill of the finger-food selection Simon had provided them.

They snuggled together, naked, enjoying the closeness and the food.

Eventually, they fell asleep, and the next thing John knew, he was being shaken awake.

"John?"

"Mmmmmph?"

"Your phone's rang four times in the last five minutes."

Groaning, he rolled out of bed and went hunting for it, finding it just as it began to ring again. "'llo?"

"Are you dead! Did you drive your car off a cliff? Why weren't you answering your phone?"

John glanced over to see Andrea had fallen right back to sleep, so he padded out into his sitting room. "I was in bed, sorry. We finally tried sex. And it was… not good."

"What! What do you mean it wasn't good?"

John relayed the whole thing, with the bumps, bruises, pain, and sheer not-sexiness.

"So…" Rodney said once John was finished. "You're still…together…as a couple."

"I don't know. We talked about trying it again, but I'm thinking we might just end up good friends who occasionally make-out for fun."

"But she's going to stay with you. In your bed. In your house."

"Well, she's here tonight, but honestly, after that disaster of sex… I don't think we'll be together-together. We'll be good friends, and still do a lot together, but it won't be dating. Just as friends."

"John, you just told me that you agreed to sleep together and not have sex. That's living together."

"Not permanently. Just for tonight. And we'll probably make-out and fall asleep together on the couch because that part is good, but… yeah. I don't think she's moving in here or anything."

"John, you're not listening to yourself. You told me you already agreed to the living together thing. You don't ever see it coming, do you?"

"We're not living together. It's… complicated. I don't think we fit into a neat box. I just know we have really terrible sex, and now my dick wants no part of trying it again."

Rodney sighed loudly in his ear. "Fine. Call it whatever you want. It's late and I need to go to bed. I'll see you Friday."

"Are you mad at me for having bad sex?"

"No. I'm just tired and I had a horrible day and I need to go to sleep. I'm tired of dealing with idiots today."

"I'm sorry. I'll give you a call in the morning, okay?"

"I'm pretty busy tomorrow. I'll see you Friday. Night, John."

"Rodney?" John looked at the phone. Rodney had hung up on him. Sighing, not knowing what to think, and exhausted, John went back to bed.

Andrea sighed quietly as he slid into bed and she curled up around him, falling back to sleep, her head on his shoulder.

The next few days were quiet. Dave and his family moved out, leaving John with the house. He continued to give Madison riding lessons, and he and Andrea… They tried it again the next night, with virtually the same results as the first time.

But she still stayed. John found her clothes hanging in his closet, her shampoo in his shower. They fell asleep together each night, taking comfort in the close contact.

It was…weird.

Sometime Friday afternoon, John realized he hadn't heard from Rodney and he didn't have his flight information. He went in search of Jeannie who had been spending a lot of time with Katie in the kitchen, cooking up various dishes.

"Hey. Your brother has gone AWOL on me. What time is he coming in tonight?"

Jeannie glanced up from the stove. "He landed a while ago. He should be here any minute."

"What?" John blinked. "But… why didn't he tell me? I was going to go get him…"

She shrugged. "He said he was going to rent a car and drive in. I assumed you'd talked to him."

"No. He hasn't been calling me back." John actually felt a little hurt. He wondered why Rodney was keeping him out of the loop.

"He's been busy with work. I know that much." She offered another shrug. "I can't talk for him, but he should be here soon."

"Great. Thanks." John smiled and wandered out. It couldn't be the weird thing between him and Andrea Rodney objected to. Hell, they had talked last night and pretty much decided another go at sex was not really a great idea if they both wanted to keep their sensitive bits intact.

Simon approached him a few minutes later, before he wandered into the media where Andrea was waiting. "Sir? Mister McKay has arrived and I've put his bags in the room adjacent to his sister, as per his request."

"What?" John blinked. "Why? He always stays in the room up by mine."

"I do not know, sir. I did as he requested." Simon looked a little pained. "Excuse me, sir, but I need to move his car into the garage."

"Right. Yeah. Where is he, do you know?"

"In his room, freshening up."

John nodded his thanks and went to the guest wing. He figured out which room was Rodney's, and walked in. "What the hell are you doing down here?"

Rodney was in his boxers, digging in his suitcase for clothes. He leapt back, his eyes wide in surprise. "What!? Don't you knock anymore?"

"No. Why are you down here? Your room is up in the other wing."

"Because you're living with your girlfriend there."

John rolled his eyes, and started gathering up the few things Rodney had scattered around already, shoving them into his suitcase. "She's stayed there the last few nights, yes, but she's actually heading home tonight. Not to mention, last night we decided to stick with good friends because sex just isn't going to happen without one of us coming away maimed for life."

"I'm fine here," Rodney said, grabbing back his clothes.

"No, you're not. This isn't your room. The one upstairs is."

"I'm not staying across from you and your girlfriend."

John managed to close the suitcase and started for the door. "She's not staying overnight here anymore, unless we fall asleep watching a movie or something. And she's not my girlfriend. Just a good friend now."

"Give me back my clothes."

John was suddenly exhausted, so he dropped the suitcase. "Fine, you know what, whatever. Stay where you want. I just… I can't do this right now. I just… it's too much, all at once."

"No kidding," Rodney said, grabbing his suitcase and opening it to dig for clothes. "I've had a hellish week and an equally horrible plane trip and all I want to do is change and eat and relax, but instead you barged in looking for a fight."

"No, I came in looking for my friend." John sighed. "It's just… between my father, and Andrea, and MIT… I just, I can't do it anymore. I can't…"

Rodney sighed, pulling on his pants. "Look. I'm sorry. If you'd rather I just leave, I can."

"No. I never want you to leave." John sat down in one of the chairs. "Did I tell you I'm withdrawing from school?"

"You can't just withdraw. Do you know what I had to go through to get you in?"

John had put his head in his hands, and didn't look up. "With Dad gone, now I own half the fucking business. I talked to Dave, and he's already convinced we don't have the manpower for me to even open what I want as a subsidiary of Sheppard Industries. And I can't abandon him again, not now. So my dreams and plans just got shot out of the fucking sky."

"No they didn't. Hire some help. You'll be fine. You can't give up."

"What's left to fight for?" The overwhelming depression that had been on the edges of his awareness for several days—weeks—now, all came crashing down on him.

"John, look," Rodney said with a quiet sigh. "Everything is going to seem really bad now, but it will get better. Trust me. Don't make any decisions now. Wait a few weeks and then re-evaluate everything. If you need help, hire people to help you. You can afford it."

"That's the other thing. What the fuck am I supposed to do with a fucking estate and all this money? I don't even know…"

"Live in it. Enjoy it. Don't make any decisions now."

John sighed. "It's all just… so much."

"I know and I'm sorry I've been an asshole lately. Just…try to enjoy it. Get help when you need it."

"You haven't been an asshole. I know you've been dealing with shit too."

"Doesn't mean I haven't been a bastard about things." Rodney sighed again. "Let me put on a shirt and can we go and get some food before my blood sugar dips too low?"

"Yeah." John finally looked up. "Yeah, let's do that. Jeannie and Katie were conspiring in the kitchen again."

"Oh god," Rodney said, looking more than a little worried. "Please don't tell me they were experimenting with tofu."

"I don't know. Whatever they've been putting out lately has been good, though."

"Fine fine," he said, pulling on a long-sleeved t-shirt. He had his socks on, and after a quick look around the room, gestured for John to head out.

John pushed himself up and slowly followed Rodney toward the dining room.

Rodney greeted everyone in his usual gruff manner, demanding food as soon as he stepped into the dining room. Andrea had wandered in and was chatting with Jeannie and Madison. The girls all got along really well.

John got some food and settled himself quietly in a seat on the edges of all the greetings and talking going on.

Dinner more or less went on around him and then Rodney was tugging him into the media room where a movie was put in the DVD player. He ended up on the couch with Andrea, Rodney on the other one. Jeannie put Madison to bed and wandered in a quarter of the way into the movie.

John had to admit, he really wasn't paying much attention to the movie. At some point, his exhaustion must have overcome him, since he was suddenly being woken up.

"Come on. Let's go to bed," Andrea said quietly.

John shook himself a bit, looking around. "Everyone else headed in? And I thought you weren't staying tonight?"

"Jeanie and I walked Rodney back to his room a little while ago. And…I'd rather stay if you don't mind."

"All right." John stumbled to his feet and followed her upstairs. He got rid of his jeans, and collapsed on the bed, falling back to sleep almost immediately.

Andrea was still dead to the world when he woke in the morning, somewhere in the neighborhood of seven. Early for a Saturday.

John got himself into the shower and headed downstairs in search of coffee.

Madison was up, eating cereal at the table. No one else was in sight.

"Morning, Maddie. Your mom around?"

"Sleeping. Just like Uncle Meredith."

John blew out a breath and poured himself a huge cup of coffee.

"We can go and wake him if you want. It's fun to make him yell and turn all red."

"Nah. Let him sleep. He's had a long week, too."

"Can we do something fun today?"

"What did you have in mind?" John sat across from her and sipped slowly.

She shrugged, taking another spoonful of what looked like Fruit Loops. When did they get those? "Something not here."

"Well, when everyone else gets up, we'll see if we can't come up with something, okay?"

"No. We can plan it."

"But you don't know what you want to do."

"Something fun. What did you do when you were a kid?"

"Well, I did a lot of riding."

"What else?"

"A lot of social events, which aren't all that fun." John chuckled. "I do think there might—and I stress might since I would have to see if they're still even open—be a carnival not too far away. It always came to town around this time of year when I was younger."

"That would be fun. We need to dress warm."

"First I have to see if they're still doing it."

"I wanna go to the carnival."

"If it's open, we'll see if everyone else is interested, too."

"I wanna go now!"

John regretted mentioning it.

"Can we? Please? You can take me, right?"

John rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Maddie, first we need to find out if they still have it. Then we'll talk about it, okay?"

"But Uncle John…"

"No buts, Maddie. We can't go if it's not there, so that's the first step."

She stuck her bottom lip out in a pout and started stabbing at her cereal. Jeannie walked in right about then and gave her the mother look, which stopped her immediately.

"Morning," John waved his cup at her.

"That it is. There is more of that, right? My brother isn't awake yet, so there has to be. You don't drink that much of it."

John nodded. "My first cup."

"Thank god," she muttered, heading for the urn. "I forgot how loud my brother can get at night."

"I kind of miss it, believe it or not. It became one of my signals that everything was all right."

"You like it when he wakes up yelling at three in the morning? You're sicker than I thought."

"Yelling?" John glanced up. "No, I've never heard him do that. Just snoring."

"Nightmares. He'd get them as a kid, too." Jeannie leaned against the sideboard, sipping her coffee. A bed-ruffled Andrea appeared a minute later, headed for the coffee pot.

"Really? I shared a tent and/or quarters with him all the time when we were in the field, and he never had any nightmares."

She shrugged. "He's always had them."

"Huh." John took another sip. "Morning, Andrea."

"Morning, John," she said with a quiet, private smile.

"Hey, do you know if they still have that late winter carnival thing? I remember going to it every year around this time."

"They should."

"I'll have to go see if I can find a number to call and make sure. Maddie and I were thinking about dragging everyone out there today if it's still there."

"That would be fun," Andrea agreed. Jeannie nodded, taking more sips of her coffee.

John figured once everyone was up, he'd go find the number.

"Madison," Jeannie said, "why don't you go and wake your uncle?"

John winced, knowing that wasn't going to be pretty. He stood up and went looking for Simon to see if he might have the number to the carnival.

Simon did—of course—and John made the call. It was open from ten until six and it was in the same place it had been in twenty years ago. Rodney was awake and dressed—and horribly grumpy when John returned. Apparently Madison had succeeded in rousting the scientist out of bed.

"Well, good news guys. We have a go on the carnival."

He got a scream of glee from the five-year-old and mixed reactions from the adults.

John smiled slightly and went for another cup of coffee. It would be good to get out of the house.

Rodney was hovering next to the coffee pot, more or less blocking it.

"Move over. The rest of us need it too." John bumped him with a hip.

"You weren't woken up by a screaming banshee. You can wait."

John grunted. "You've got a full cup. Lemme get a refill."

"I'm not done draining the pot." McKay took a huge gulp from his mug, finishing the last half all at once. He turned back to the pot, pouring himself another.

"Hey!" John looked at the now-empty pot. "I needed that, too."

"I needed it more than you did."

"No you didn't."

Katie buzzed in around them, apparently overhearing their conversation from the kitchen. Either that or she knew there would be blows over the lack of coffee. She pushed them both out of the way, making room.

"I think I love you." John held out his cup for a refill.

"Five minutes and it'll be ready."

"I still love you."

"I know, Johnny. Now, play nice." Katie offered him a smile before heading back into the kitchen with the old coffee grounds.

John humphed.

Rodney snorted into his mug.

"Hey, you've had two cups already. I've only had one."

"You were up first. Not my fault you didn't get more when you had the chance."

John humphed again and sat back down at the table.

Jeannie walked over to her brother, smacking him in the forehead. "That wasn't nice, Meredith."

John chuckled, and then looked up hopefully when Katie returned.

She had the new carafe of coffee and after topping off Rodney's mug, handed it over to John. "I expect you all to eat breakfast this morning, too, before you go off gallivanting."

"Maybe." John moaned appreciatively at the fresh coffee. "And this is good."

"Of course it is," Katie said with a smile.

They finished breakfast and eventually got everyone moving, and had a good time at the carnival. It was smaller than John remembered as a child, but Madison's laughter and good time was infectious for pretty much everyone.

The following day, John got word from Jason, his lawyer, that the trust fund for Maddie had cleared, and all the paperwork he had signed and notarized was all legal now. Smiling, he immediately went looking for Jeannie and Rodney to tell them.

Rodney was…packing again. It seemed John always managed to catch him doing that lately. At least he was dressed.

"Hey, what are you doing? You're not leaving until tomorrow I thought."

"No. Today's Sunday. I have work tomorrow."

"Today is Saturday." John blinked. Had he lost track of the days?

Rodney narrowed his eyes at John and spoke slowly. "Today is Sunday. I flew in Friday afternoon. We went to the carnival thing yesterday. Today is Sunday."

John sucked in a breath, feeling like he had been punched. "I…thought you were here for another day. Wow."

"No. I have no choice in the matter. Meyers won't give me time off." Rodney sighed. "Look. I'm sorry this is so…rushed."

"No, it's okay." John took a deep breath. "I just lost track of what day it was. But…I have good news. Come next door with me, since I want to tell you and Jeannie at the same time."

"What? Now?" He looked at his watch. "I have to leave in like half-and-hour."

"Just come on. This won't take long."

"Okay okay," Rodney said, shoving boxers and a t-shirt into his suitcase.

They walked next door where Jeannie was reading a book. John smiled. "Hey, I have something to share with you guys."

"Oh?" she said, looking between him and her brother. She closed her book, putting it on the end table.

John pulled out a copy of the paperwork and gave it to her. "Since I've now got more money than I know what to do with, I decided to set up a trust fund for Madison."

"You…what?" Jeannie said, looking at the papers in her hands and then back up at John. "But…you're going to have kids."

"Doubtful. But even so, you guys have become like family to me. This will earn interest over the years, but I started it at $500,000. When she turns twenty-one, it will be fully available to her, but she'll be able to pull some for college when she's eighteen by submitting something from the college with the cost of the year, and the trust will pay for it directly."

"But…"

"No buts." John smiled. "I wanted to do it."

"Was Andrea okay with it?" Rodney asked.

"I didn't ask her, but why would it matter? It's my money."

"But if you're going to marry her—"

"I'm not." John sighed. "We both know her and I would never work. We're just friends, Rodney."

"It certainly looks like you are," he said, rolling his eyes. "You didn't have to do this."

"Madison is a good girl, and I love her. This is my little way of making sure no matter what she wants to do with her life, she gets that opportunity." John smiled at Jeannie. "She's got her Mom and her Uncle's brains, and a lot of charisma. She's got a bright future ahead of her."

Jeannie offered a watery smile. "Thanks, John," she said, rising to her feet and giving him a hug. "This is…huge and more than we ever expected. Thank you."

He gave her a big hug back. "I know you worried about it, whether you mentioned it or not. I thought this was one way I could take at least a little off your shoulders."

"Thank you."

"You're more than welcome."

"You didn't have to do this," Rodney said quietly when they walked back next door, leaving Jeannie to call Caleb with the news.

"You guys are family now."

Rodney looked like he was going to say something, but instead closed his mouth and went back to his packing.

"What time are you leaving?" John sprawled on Rodney's bed.

"I have to leave in twenty minutes if I'm going to be on time. Why? And you're sitting on my boxers."

John lifted up so Rodney could grab his shorts. "Just wondering."

"I'm supposed to be back on Friday for another short weekend. I think Jeannie mentioned something about heading home with me then."

John sighed. "Yeah, I know she misses Caleb. And while it's been awesome having her, I don't want to keep her away from the rest of her life."

"We can come back in the summer if you want. See what it's like when it's not below zero."

John snorted. "As if it's not three times as cold in Canada right now."

"Oh god. My car's probably buried."

"Didn't you park in a garage?"

"No," he grumbled, closing his suitcase. "There were no spots."

"That sucks." John made a face.

"And not in a good way."

That made him chuckle. "Nice."

"What? Oh…" Rodney said, turning red. "I wasn't…"

John laughed. "It's fun getting you worked up. I miss this when you're not around."

Rodney snorted. "Nice. Real nice."

"Exactly." John stretched out on the bed, relaxing a little.

He shook his head and rolled his eyes, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "So…are you okay?"

John put a hand over his eyes. "I don't know. Sometimes I think yeah, I'll be all right, and then it hits me that Dad's gone and just… it's hard. I know it will take a while to really feel normal again, but… I'll be all right in the long run I think. I hope. I didn't send my letter of resignation to MIT yet, at least, on your recommendation."

"Don't do it, John. You'll regret it later."

"Probably. I just…right now I don't know how I can use it, or how I can make what I want to do happen. But it can't hurt to have the degree, at least. I know that. I was just overwhelmed."

"I know. You'll be fine. Trust me."

"I hope so." John moved his arm and gave his friend a smile.

"You walking me out?"

"Of course."

"Come on. I have to figure out where Simon put my car, too."

"Heh, good luck." John sat up and grabbed Rodney's suitcase. "I gave up trying to figure out his car organization system after the first month, and succumbed to just asking him to pull it out for me when I want to leave."

"Oh no. You are not just leaving me to find the car. This is your house now. You can find it for me."

"I'll just ask Simon to go get it. That's the easiest way."

Rodney snorted. "Coward."

"In some things… yes." John laughed softly as they made it to the front of the house. Simon was already ahead of them and had the car out front.

"Oh, look!" Rodney said in surprise. "Thanks."

"Don't look at me. I just have an awesome staff."

Rodney muttered something as he walked down the steps to the car, Simon taking his suitcase before he could even get close.

John leaned against the door. "See you next Friday. Text me when you get in tonight."

"It'll be late."

"That's why I said to text. I'll call if I'm still up when I get it. If not, I'll get it in the morning."

"Okay fine. Talk to you later," Rodney said, taking the keys from Simon. Minutes later he was headed down the driveway and out of sight.


John was in his office Monday morning trying to get focused again on what he needed to do as things started to fall back to normal. The last thing he expected was for Simon to show up at the door. He was usually left pretty much alone during business hours if he was actually working.

"Sir," Simon said. "You have a visitor. May I show her in?"

He looked up. "I'm not expecting anyone. Who is it?"

"It…ah. It might be best if she explains herself."

One eyebrow went up. "Show her in then."

"Of course, sir," Simon said, scurrying away.

John sat back, curious.

About three minutes later, Simon showed in an impeccably dressed woman, probably in her late-twenties, with dark, jet back hair and 50's tortoise-shell glasses. "John Sheppard?" she asked, looking him right in the eye and putting out her hand. "I'm Scarlett Rylee Harrison, your new personal assistant. It's a pleasure to be working for you, sir."

John shook her hand, both eyebrows going up. "Ah, nice to meet you, but I'm afraid there's been a mistake here. I didn't hire a personal assistant."

"I don't mean to argue, but there's been no mistake. You did hire a personal assistant. On Friday."

"No, actually I'm pretty sure I didn't. I'd remember doing that." John sat back again and took her in. She was a mix of outgoing and geeky, and surprisingly forward.

She pulled out her PDA and quickly tapped the screen a few times before handing it over to him. "There's the contract you sent me on Friday afternoon."

John took it and read it over. It certainly looked legit. The only problem was that he hadn't sent it. Then his eyes caught something near the bottom. The signature. M. Rodney McKay, signing in absentia for John Sheppard. Sonofabitch.

"So. Since everything's obviously in order, where's my desk?" she asked, a smirk on her face.

"McKay is going to get his ass kicked." John rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Until I get this sorted out, you can use the office next door to this one. I'm afraid I wasn't in the market for an assistant."

"I can see how obviously overworked you are, sir, just from a simple glance around your office. I can have you up and running smoothly in less than two days."

John raised an eyebrow again, but before he could respond, she was out the door and next door, from the sound of things. John immediately grabbed the phone to call Rodney.

But even as the phone rang, she was back at his door. "I'm sorry, sir, but the computer next door isn't satisfactory. It's not going to handle the scheduling software and all the other things I'll need."

"It's the same one I'm using."

"It's not fast enough and doesn't have enough processing power."

"At the moment, that's the best I can do for you. There aren't any other computers here except my personal laptop."

"Then I can order one today. Well, two. You need an upgrade, too."

John blinked. He opened his mouth to say no, but she was already gone again.

He vaguely realized his call had gone to Rodney's voice mail and he had been breathing in the phone for a few minutes now.

"Um. Hi. It's me. Who is Scarlett and why is she now my personal assistant? I didn't know I needed one. Call me."

She was back a minute later with her PDA in hand. Her suit jacket had also seemed to have vanished. "Let me see your phone."

"What?" John clutched his cell.

"You need a new phone that will interface with your new computer and the scheduling software you're buying." She reached out, palm up. "Phone please."

"No. This one has all my contacts, and Rodney did something to it."

"I can do that and more. I promise I won't screw it up."

John tried to keep it away, but she was quick, and had it, and was walking out the door again before he could stop her.

What. The. Hell.

She was back thirty minutes later, handing over his phone. "I didn't do anything to it, but I'll be able to update to your new phone in the morning when the computer equipment and new phones are delivered."

"Wait, what new software? And what new equipment?" John was a little overwhelmed.

"High-end computers with scheduling software to keep you and the house and business better organized. I'll be able to update your schedule on the fly and everything will synch together. Make one change in one place and everything will update within five minutes."

"What?" John's head was reeling. And Rodney still hadn't called him back. "And wait a minute, what am I paying you? And where are you living? What the hell is your job going to be?"

"I'm your personal assistant," she said slowly. "The salary starts at one-hundred-fifty a year, but I was told I can still negotiate that in three months. I have an apartment in Louisville where I've been living for two years. Before that I was in New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco. Those are the high points."

"And what are your qualifications for this job? I don't even know why Rodney decided I needed a PA, much less what his criteria were."

"My resume is in your inbox."

"Okay." John rubbed the bridge of his nose. He was getting the distinct feeling this was a battle he wasn't going to win. "What are your hours?"

"I'll be available 24/7, but for the first few days it'll be more like nine to five. I'll probably keep those as my official office hours."

"And you'll be organizing my life." John looked around his office. "He did tell you that I just inherited half of a very large company, I'm in school full time for my PhD, and I run the family stables, right?"

"I have an MBA and I've been handling several high-level executives for the past two years. You'll be a piece of cake."

John wondered when Rodney had even had the time to set this up. "Right. Well, since I apparently get no say in all this, I guess… do whatever you want. I'm former military, so if I do give you a direct order, I expect it to be obeyed, otherwise, I'm pretty easy-going."

"We'll get along just fine," she said, offering him a smile.

He gave her a weak smile back. "Right, well… I need to at least attempt to get something done today. If you have any questions, feel free to ask."

"I will," she said, wandering off to the office next door.

John took a deep breath and forced himself to dive back into all the accounts and details he had started that morning. Now that he had taken on the entire science wing of their company, he needed to get up to speed in a little more detail exactly where they all were, and what they were supposed to be doing.

Right around noon, his office line rang.

He picked it up absently. "Sheppard here."

"What's with the breathing in my voicemail? Are you mentally deranged?" Rodney. John rolled his eyes.

"Sorry. I was taken by surprise by the spunky young woman who showed up in my office this morning and promptly started taking over my life."

"Ah…what?"

"Scarlett. Whom you apparently hired as my personal assistant."

"Scarlett…"

"Yeah." John leaned back in his chair. "Whose contract you signed on my behalf."

"Oh."

"Yeah. That Scarlett."

"She's great. Came highly qualified."

"Why did you hire me a personal assistant?" John was more curious now than anything else.

"You needed a new Lorne."

"A new… Lorne? What does he have to do with anything?"

"Lorne kept you organized."

"Well, yes, but there was a lot going on. He was good at the detail stuff."

"So's she."

John looked around his office again. "She's already ordered new computers and software, along with new phones so everything will sync up. You'll have to tweak the new phone when you're here next weekend."

"She was a hacker at one point. She can do it."

John ran a hand through his hair. "A hacker.

"I…may have…worked with her before."

"May have?"

"Before she was a personal assistant."

"How exactly does one go from being a hacker to a personal assistant?"

"The government may have…convinced her."

"To become a personal assistant?"

"To stop hacking into high level government files. It was either that or jail time."

"Great." John put his head down on his desk. "Rodney, what have you gotten me in to?"

"She's been on the straight and narrow for ten years. Trust me. She's good."

"You know if it was anyone but you who sent her here, she'd be gone, right? I'm trusting you here, and trusting her with, essentially, my life and career."

"I trust her, John. I can't say that about a lot of people on this planet."

"Then I trust her, because you do."

"Just…she's really good. Let her manage you and you'll find yourself with a lot of free time."

"All right. I'll give it a shot."

"Good. Great. I have to go to class. I have another pop quiz."

"All right. I'll talk to you tonight then." John sat up and hung up the phone. Well. This was going to be interesting.

Three days later, he was a changed man. Or at least his office and life was. Rodney had been right. Scarlet was good. Scarily good.

They had new computers that were tied in with the phones, and with his personal laptop, he had access to the business files or school at any moment, and she always made sure he was where he was supposed to be, whether it was in the office working, or out at the stables giving Maddie her riding lessons—and that wasn't even a formally scheduled event, which was even more impressive.

Today she had scheduled a meeting for first thing.

His phone dinged as he was sitting at breakfast. Curious, he picked it up. He was still getting used to all the stuff it did.

It was a text message from Rodney. Coming in a day early with Caleb. See you tomorrow night.

John smiled and texted back. What time? I'll come get you?

Usual. Not many flight options.

Okay. I'll see you guys at the airport. Be safe.

He finished breakfast and wandered down to his office, spotting Scarlet at her desk as he walked past.

He popped his head in. "Rodney and Caleb are coming in tomorrow, and I'd like to pick them up at the airport." She had already beat it into him that any change to his schedule should be reported immediately.

"Usual flight time?"

"That's what Rodney said. He didn't mention why they're coming in Thursday instead of Friday."

Her flingers flew across the keys. "They're closing the college for the day."

"How do you know that?" Her computer skills fascinated him.

"I have all of his information and it's easy enough to find if you know where to look. It's all public sites. Don't worry."

John chuckled. "Good. As long as I don't have any agents knocking on my doors. I already had my fill of issues with the government."

"No, sir," she said, shaking her head. "I know better."

"I know." John smiled and wandered into his office.

"Are you ready for our meeting?" she called out.

"Oh, yeah. Come on in."

A minute later she was perched in his guest chair, her PDA in hand. "Okay. You need to hire at least four more staffers for the house."

"I do?" He blinked. "But I like Katie and Simon. I don't want to get rid of them."

"You won't. But right now, they're doing everything here. It would be good to have at least two more people for the house, helping Simon, Millie, and Katie. I would also recommend two others in the stables to help Joe."

"I'm the only one who lives here full time. What are all these extra people going to do? Jeannie and Maddie are going home this weekend."

"The house still needs to be maintained and Andrea is still here, so there's the two of you. And if you want the stables to really start making you money, you need more help."

John thought about it, and nodded slowly. "All right. But with more staff, we'll need to set up a house account for things like payroll, etc. And if we're going to have more staff, why don't you think about moving in, too? The commute has to be hell from Louisville every day."

"I've already set up a house account, figuring you'd want that. It just needs to be activated. I know you only think it's you here, but Katie's getting up in years. Right now she's feeding seven people three meals a day. Once Jeannie goes home, she'll still be feeding five people. And she really hasn't had vacation time or breaks. This will give her a little more downtime."

John sighed. "Yeah, I guess I hadn't thought about that. We'll make Katie, Simon and Millie the heads of their respective areas. And you didn't answer my suggestion for you."

"My apartment's fine."

"I didn't say it wasn't. It's just a long commute."

She shrugged.

John made a face. "I won't force the issue, but the offer is open."

"Thanks," she said, nodding her head. "So the new hires?"

"Give Katie, Simon and Millie each the authority to weed out the applicants and make recommendations to me as to who their final choices are. They'll be the ones working with and managing them, and they know best what they need in a person we'd hire."

"Yes, sir. I have some lists already and I'll have them start interviews tomorrow."

"Perfect. As for the stables… God, I hate giving up some of my time there, but I can't oversee it as much now that I've got more to do with the business. Let Joe hire a few more stable hands, and I'll have to rely on him a bit more going forward for the day-to-day stuff."

"That sounds like a good idea, sir."

"However, in my schedule, please try to make sure I get down there at least a few times a week. I enjoy riding and working with the horses, and I don't want to lose that connection with them."

"Would you prefer mornings or afternoons?"

"Afternoons. It's a good break when I can get it in."

"I'll schedule it in and update your calendar." She rose to her feet. "I'll also update it for Rodney's pickup."

"Thanks."

"Not a problem, sir."


The weekend with Rodney was more or less one big blur. John couldn't remember the last time the house really felt so alive, just like a home.

Madison ran circles around all the adults and Rodney grumped and complained about everything. Jeannie fought with Rodney—nearly every chance she got—with Caleb generally coming to Rodney's rescue.

It was actually fun to watch.

But now, they were all on planes back to Toronto, leaving him alone with Andrea. She'd been in and out all week, always staying the night in his bed. She had a life, a business, her own things, but she always came back to him every night.

He wasn't really sure what to think. They had decided not to have sex, but… were they a couple or weren't they? He was really confused.

Andrea walked into the media room a few minutes later, handing him a beer before dropping down next to him. "Oh god. I can't believe it's quiet."

"It's kind of odd. I'd gotten used to Maddie running around the place."

Andrea chuckled. "I know. The quiet is nice, too, though."

John glanced over at her and smiled. "True."

"You sound like you're doing better."

"Yeah. I am, I think. I don't feel quite so adrift as I did when everything imploded."

She smiled at him, bumping his shoulder with her own. "Good."

He bumped back, and took a deep breath. "So. I have to ask. What are we now? Friends? A couple?"

"A couple as far as I'm concerned. Why?"

"Well, we decided sex was a bad idea. So where does that leave us long term?"

"I'm not sure. The sex might get better."

"Maybe." John smiled at her. "I guess I just didn't know where we stood."

"I do love you. I just…" She offered a shrug. "Maybe things will change. Maybe they won't. Right now, I like having the comfort of sleeping with you."

John nodded. "I feel the same way. I love you, but. And I have to admit, I like sleeping next to you, too."

"And your kiss…."

"Kissing is amazing." John grinned and pulled her over to smack her on the cheek.

"Hey!" she said with a chuckle, sliding in against him. She took a sip of her beer.

He settled in, taking a deep breath. "Well, things should get back, more or less, to normal now at least."

"That's good," she said with a smile. "And by the way. Stop leaving the toilet seat up."

"I'm a guy who's lived alone for almost all of my adult life. That's not a battle you're going to win."

"We'll see."

John laughed.

"Let's turn this TV on already," she said, settling in close. "It's too early for football, but I'm sure there's something else we can watch."

They flipped through and found an old movie they both liked.

This was….nice, comfortable. He could get used to it.


From: Scarlett [mailto:s.harrison@sheppardindustries.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 06:07 AM
To: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]

Subject: Thought you might be interested in this.

Arrest Warrant Issued for Tenured College Professor
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/arrest-warrant-issued-for-tenured-college-professor/article1226649/


From: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 06:20 AM
To: Scarlett [mailto:s.harrison@sheppardindustries.com]

Subject: Re: Thought you might be interested in this.

HOLY SHIT!

-j


From: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 06:20 AM
To: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]

Subject: Fwd: Thought you might be interested in this.

What the hell???

-j

Arrest Warrant Issued for Tenured College Professor
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/arrest-warrant-issued-for-tenured-college-professor/article1226649/


From: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 09:43 AM
To: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]

Subject: Re: Fwd: Thought you might be interested in this.

Huh. Didn't think it'd hit the Globe and Mail.


From: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 09:50 AM
To: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]

Subject: Re: Fwd: Thought you might be interested in this.

What happened? Does this mean you don't have to deal with the fucker anymore?

-j


From: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 09:57 AM
To: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]

Subject: Re: Fwd: Thought you might be interested in this.

It means that he's pissed as hell, blames me for getting him arrested—which he deserves—and has made my life a living hell. On the plus side, the school is investigating his misconduct and he might be out of a job by the new school year and then I won't have to deal with him.

It's not my fault that one of the students took offense at his particular method of extra-credit.
-mrm


From: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 10:02 AM
To: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]

Subject: Re: Fwd: Thought you might be interested in this.

Ha! Serves him right. Keep me posted on what happens to him.

-j


From: M. Rodney McKay [mailto:rodneymckayphdphd@gmail.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 15, 2008 10:15 AM
To: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]

Subject: Re: Fwd: Thought you might be interested in this.

I think the trial is scheduled for two weeks. He really should have checked their ages before offering to "help" them out. As for the charge at the college, I think that's coming up with the Dean later this week.


The summer was flying by. John had settled surprisingly easily into his expanded role in the company, and Scarlett had proven to be invaluable. John had sent Rodney a huge gift basket from Starbucks as a thank you.

He and Andrea were in a weird place. They had tried sex a few more times, and while it had gotten beyond the point where there was a danger to certain body parts, it was just… okay. But she was still living at the estate and sleeping in his bed every night, and they had settled into a sort of domestic partnership kind of thing, with the occasional mutual masturbation session, which worked out rather well.

Even school was going well, and John had settled into a routine of work in the morning, spending at least a little time in the stables in the early afternoons, and then working on school for the late afternoon and spending evenings with Andrea. In between, he was still in constant contact with Rodney, via text messages, emails and phone calls, depending on what they were both doing at the time.

It was…weird, for lack of a better term. He never thought his life would be like this when he left the SGC, but now it was fulfilling in a different way. And the fact that he wasn't getting shot at on a daily basis put points into the plus column.

He was surprised that he was… happy.

His phone rang early one morning when he was getting ready to head down to breakfast. It was Rodney—very early for work.

John grabbed it. "What's wrong?"

"Meyers lost his tenure."

"Holy shit." John shook his head. "Well, he had to know that was coming when he was found guilty last week."

"I know, but the dean and the board had been dicking around since they started the investigation. He's out of a job, too. They're appointing Jacobson to lead the science department."

"Jacobson… Remind me again which one he is."

"Short, squirrelly, little beady eyes. Always in argyle socks even in the middle of summer."

John chuckled. "Obviously anything is better than Meyers, but how happy are we that Jacobson was named his replacement?"

"You can talk to him…well, if you can stand those little eyes staring at you."

"At least he's not a power-mad ass." John leaned back in his chair. "That's a relief. At least now you won't have to deal with Meyers at all anymore. Is he going to do any jail time?"

"They haven't had the sentencing hearing yet. I think they convinced the judge to let him stay home until they do. Although, he might have an ankle bracelet on. I didn't ask."

John shook his head. "Wow. What an end to this whole insane saga. And it only took them what, three months?"

"Something like that. Boy was he surprised when the prosecutor dug up some of the students from years ago. They were too afraid to come forward."

"But there's safety in numbers. I had a feeling once one was willing to speak up, the rest would start coming out of the woodwork."

"Yeah and they certainly did." Rodney chuckled into the phone. "It serves him right."

"Just goes to show… Karma's a bitch."

Rodney let out a real laugh. "Oh yeah."

John relaxed. That had been something bothering him in the back of his mind for months now. "Good, well, at least now we can all move on. Is Maddie getting excited about school?"

"Oh god yes. She's been bouncing off the walls."

That made him grin. "Good. She'll do fantastic. Jeannie has to be a mess. Her baby is growing up."

"Yes and no. I think she'll be happy for the quiet in the house, honestly. Madison has been insane."

"Give it a few weeks, and she'll be bored out of her mind. Now that Maddie will be in school full time, she should start thinking about a hobby, or maybe a part-time job."

"She's been doing some work on and off for the SGC," he grumbled. "I found that out last week when I found some papers on the kitchen table."

"Oh." John wasn't sure how he felt about that.

"I'm glad they trust her with it."

"Yeah, me too. It's just… weird I guess. I hadn't thought about them in a while."

"I'm not sure if I'm insulted or not. I haven't made up my mind yet."

"Yeah." John made a face. "Is she working with Atlantis, or just the SGC?"

"She wouldn't say and I didn't get a good look. One, both, does it really matter?" Rodney sighed in to his ear. "I should probably get ready for work. Summer session waits for no man."

"If… if she is in Atlantis, tell her to tell everyone I said hi."

"Did you still not send anyone an email?"

"I do. I've exchanged a few with Lorne, Carson and Elizabeth, but still… It's different seeing them in person."

"She's not going anywhere. It's all via email."

"Oh. Okay then." John ran a hand through his hair. "Still weird though."

"I have to go. Stay out of trouble."

"Yeah, you, too. Talk to you later."

"Later."

John hung up and shook his head. What an odd turn of events.


Sometimes John swore Rodney was manic-depressive or bipolar or something. You'd call him one minute and the world was coming to the end, the next everything was perfect.

Take the last phone call, mid-morning on a normal Wednesday in August. Rodney called up frantic about a flat tire on his Prius and claiming that someone had done it on purpose. Then he went on to elaborate on fifteen other things he swore weren't accidental.

First there had been the missing coffee in his office. Then his parking spot at the school had been taken over by the landscaping truck for a week. He swore someone had broken into his office on another occasion and his latest science journals were gone.

Then he claimed someone had tried to run him off the road. When John got the full story, he found out a little old lady had cut him off when she didn't look before switching lanes.

Paranoid a little?

John ran a hand through his hair. He friend was losing his mind.

When his phone rang minutes later—the caller ID indicating it was Rodney—John sighed. He was getting nothing done.

"Hey."

"Have you talked to Arthur? He keeps sending me emails."

John groaned. "Yes, and he's avoiding me now. I need to get more information from him so we can renew the contract, but all the sudden we're back to square one apparently."

"What did you say to him?"

"Nothing special, I didn't think. I called and left him a message that the funding we had agreed on in the original contract was coming to an end. We had included a clause for additional funding, but I need to see what progress he's made so I can justify pouring more money into it. And then he disappeared on me."

"You must have sounded…mad or something."

"I don't think I did. I wasn't mad. I still think he's on to something, but I need to see progress if I'm going to invest more money into it."

"He's good for it."

"I know he is, but I have to justify all the projects to the business. I can't just tell them I want to give him multi-millions because I like him."

"It's not multi-millions. It's just a little more. You need to stop being so…demanding. He's not exactly a strong individual."

John rolled his eyes. "Tell him he just needs to send me a synopsis on what he's accomplished and where he plans to go next. That's it."

"You tell him that. It's your investment. Just…be nice. I can take your toe-the-line personality. Some people can't."

"Whatever. Tell him to call me back and I will. I don't bite."

Rodney snorted. "You tell him, but stop scaring him." There was a pause and then Rodney came back on. "Oh. The auto club is here. I have to go."

"Wait, why is the auto club there? What's wrong with the car now?"

"Someone did something to my tire. Remember?"

"Again? You got that fixed last week."

"Tell me about it."

"It happened again?"

"Are you hard of hearing? Why else would I be standing here waiting for them?"

"Huh." For the first time John wondered if maybe Rodney was right. "If, and I stress if since I'm still not sure I believe your pet theory, but if someone was messing with you, who do you think it is and why?"

"Probably a dare or a practical joke. Let me go. I have to yell at these guys. They made me wait an hour."

"All right. Keep me posted." John sighed and shot another note to Arthur, CCing Scarlett, and trying to be more polite about explaining what he needed and why he needed it.

He got several texts from Rodney that day, complaining about the students, the traffic, and dinner. Things were back to normal.

John decided Rodney was probably right, and this was all probably some student's idea of a practical joke. Maybe someone Rodney had failed getting back at him. It would probably all stop once the new semester started.

And Rodney didn't mention car problems—or his ravings about people being out to get him—again. But of course, there'd always be something else. It was Rodney.

And John knew he wouldn't have him any other way.


Over the course of the next month, stuff continued to happen to Rodney's car off and on. Stupid pranks, flat tires, the same thing that had been happening, until they eventually tailed off and stopped. They all assumed whatever students had been messing with him had gotten tired of the game.

He and Andrea decided one night to have a nice dinner at home, and they went to bed early, both of them exhausted after a busy couple of weeks at their mutual jobs.

They weren't expecting the shrill ring of John's phone in the middle of the night.

He stumbled out of bed and grabbed at it. "'llo?"

"I'm looking for John Sheppard."

"Speaking." Andrea turned the light on, both of them blinking at the sudden brightness.

"I'm sorry to bother you at this late hour. I'm calling from Mercy Hospital."

John's stomach dropped. That was in Canada. "I…no, it's okay. What's wrong? What happened?"

"You were listed as the emergency contact for a Meredith McKay."

He couldn't breathe. "Yes."

"Unfortunately, I can't tell you much over the phone, but there has been an accident. How soon can you get to the hospital?"

"Is he…is he okay?" John swallowed hard. "I'm in the States. I can be on the first flight out in the morning."

"I'm sorry, sir, but until I get official confirmation of your identity, I can't reveal anything more over the phone. But I have been instructed to contact you to alert you that there is a situation here which you should be aware of and recommend that you come here immediately."

John wanted to scream. "I. Okay. I'll be on the first flight. Please, though. I just… is he… dead? I can't… I need to know."

"No, sir. He is not."

"Oh thank god." John shuddered. "I'll be there as soon as I can. Thank you for calling."

"Of course, sir. I'm sorry again about the lateness of the call."

"It's… no, thank you for calling." He hung up the phone and stared at it.

"John, what is it? What happened?"

"There was an accident. I'm listed as Rodney's emergency contact." John started shaking.

Andrea moved to him, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Is he okay? Why didn't they call Jeannie and Caleb? They're up there with him."

"I don't know. He couldn't tell me much until I get there and confirm my identity. He's not dead. That's all I know. I need… I need to go. Now."

He couldn't think. He needed to get a flight, and let everyone know where he would be. He needed to pack. He… needed to stop shaking so hard and get himself together.

"Let me help you," she said quietly, shifting and turning him until he was seated on the bed. "He's alive. Remember that."

John closed his eyes and let himself be wrapped in her arms. "I don't… I can't even imagine…" He sucked in a breath. "I need to pack and get to the airport and get on the first flight I can. Scarlett can let everyone else know who needs to, but I need to call her…."

"I'll call her. Pack a bag. We'll get you a pilot and a plane."

"Thank you." John hugged her and got up, packing in a daze.

As he packed, Andrea was on the phone, making arrangements for him. It was the middle of the night, but it didn't matter. When Andrea needed to get things done, she did.

He was grateful to have her. Once his bag was packed, he was at a loss. He wasn't sure what to do with himself right now. He was terrified at what was going on, and frustrated he was so far away and couldn't be there right now.

"Okay. I've gotten you a private jet. It's going to take a little while for the pilot to arrive but as soon as he's there you can leave. Scarlett's already working on filing the flight plan and getting your documents together. It'll be ready to return whenever you are," Andrea said walking back toward him. "Do you have your passport?"

"It's in the safe in my office." He ran a hand through his hair. "I need to get dressed. And…I don't think I should drive. I'll either crash or get a ticket."

"I've already alerted Simon. He'll drive you."

"Good. Thank you." He walked in circles. "Clothes. I need to get dressed."

"I'd recommend it," she said with a small smile.

With Andrea's help, he managed to get into something decent, and they got his bag downstairs to the door, heading to his office to get his travel papers. In the meantime, he tried calling Jeannie and Caleb's house, as well as their cell phones, but didn't get any answer on any of them.

He just wanted answers, but no one was answering. No one could tell him anything.

It felt like years before he was in the car with Andrea, sitting in the back seat as Simon drove them to the airport. It was like time was running in slow motion.

She gave him a kiss at the airport, pressing his passport into his hand. "Let me know what happened as soon as you can."

"I will. I'll call as soon as I know anything."

"Love you. Be safe."

"Love you, too." Even though it was a private jet the flight was still horrendous. It was just too slow and the weather was just not cooperating, making it a very rough ride all the way up into Toronto. He needed to be there right now, but they could only fly so fast. John wanted to scream at the time it was taking, rail at physics and bend the Earth to get him there faster.

But get there, he did. With a rental car and a GPS, he was on the road headed at top speed to the hospital.

It was sheer luck that he didn't get pulled over. He almost ran full speed into the hospital, heading to the main desk. "Hi. I'm John Sheppard. I got a call a few hours ago…sometime last night that Meredith Rodney McKay was in an accident. I'm his emergency contact."

The woman looked at him for a long moment, blinking at him before she started checking the computer. "Ah, yes. Fifth floor, room 537."

"Thank you." John headed for the elevator, barely breathing.

The fifth floor was quiet, hushed. It wasn't the ICU or anything like that, but everything just seemed so subdued.

He found room 537, took a deep breath, and knocked.

Someone called out to him from down the hallway. "Sir? Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for Rodney McKay…ah Meredith McKay. I was told he was here?"

The nurse looked at him carefully and gestured for him to follow her. She settled behind the nurse's station. "Can I ask your name?"

"John Sheppard. I'm his emergency contact. The hospital called me last night." He pulled out his passport and handed it over.

"And your relation to Mister McKay?" she asked as she examined the document.

"I'm his best friend."

She was quiet for a few minutes, checking his passport against what she had on the screen.

"Please… is he… what happened? They couldn't tell me on the phone."

She took a deep breath. "Mister McKay was admitted to the hospital last night, after passing out at his home."

"I was told there was an accident? What happened? Why did he pass out?"

She nodded. "There was. The accident involved Jeannie and Caleb Miller. I'm sorry to tell you but they were pronounced dead at the scene."

John's knees buckled.

"Sir!"

There were hands helping him up, placing him roughly into a chair.

John was shaking hard. "What happened? Jeannie… Caleb… Where's Maddie…?"

"From what the police report stated, a tire blew out on the car they were driving and they lost control, going off the road. The car flipped several times… They didn't suffer."

He was shaking hard. "Rodney… he kept saying someone was messing with his car, but I didn't believe him. Even when the tires had been messed with more than once… Why… Why were they… Where is Maddie? Where's Rodney?"

"Meredith McKay was understandably distraught when the officers told him the news. He…seemed to have been overcome. He was transported here and is currently resting comfortably. His niece, Madison, is with him."

"Where? Please… I need to see them."

"Room 537. If he's sleeping, please do not wake him. He's had a very difficult time since he's been admitted."

"Yeah. I won't. I just… I need to be there with him. I need… Jeannie…. Caleb…" John wanted to wail.

"I'm sorry, sir. Do you need anything? Are you going to be alright?"

He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. "I'm just… I was close to them. Very close. It's…. I can't believe it…"

"I'm sorry, sir. I wish I had better news for you."

He nodded silently, walking into the room where Rodney was in the hospital bed asleep, Madison curled up next to him. John's heart broke.

She shifted against her uncle, her red eyes blinking up at him. "Uncle John!"

"Hey, Maddie." John moved to her side, wrapping her up in his arms. "I'm here."

"Mommy and daddy…" she said, in a broken whisper.

"I know." He hugged her tight. "They told me. But you're not alone sweetheart. You have your Uncle Mer, and you've got me, baby."

"Don't leave me, please."

"I won't. I promise." John picked her up and brought her to the large guest chair, cradling her in his arms.

"Uncle Meredith was crying."

"He's very, very sad."

"The Mountie came and made him cry."

John swallowed hard, a few tears running down his own cheeks as everything really started to sink in.

Madison hugged him tighter. "I want to go home."

"I know, sweetheart. But we need to stay here until your Uncle wakes up and is allowed to go home, too. Then we'll all go together, okay?"

"I want my mommy."

John hugged her tight. "I know, baby. I know."

Madison cried into his shoulder, eventually the sobs shaking her body stopping as she got heavier, falling into an exhausted sleep.

John rocked her slowly, and when she finally fell asleep, he just held her tight. God. Jeannie. Caleb. He just couldn't believe they were gone.

John wasn't sure how long he sat there holding her. Time had no meaning. Not here. Not like this. Rodney stirred on the bed at some point later, shifting restlessly.

Very carefully, John put Madison in the chair to sleep and moved to Rodney's side. "Hey, buddy," he whispered hoarsely.

Rodney slowly opened his eyes—bloodshot and red—blinking up at him.

John reached out and took his hand, squeezing it tight.

"John? Oh, god…John…" he whispered harshly. "Jeannie…"

"I know. I know." John squeezed again, and managed to gather the other man in his arms and hug him tight. "I'm here though. I'm here and you're not alone."

"It's my fault. I should have gotten the tire fixed," he mumbled. "My fault."

"No, buddy. It's not your fault. It's not." John hugged even tighter.

"My fault they're dead. Oh, god, John…it's my fault."

"No, it's not your fault. You did get it fixed and someone messed with it again. It's not your fault."

"My fault."

"No." John pulled back slightly. "It wasn't. And right now, Madison is going to need you, buddy. Let's focus on her, and then when we get her settled, I'll be there to help you get through your grief too, okay?"

Rodney shook his head. "My fault. All my fault. I shouldn't have let them take my car."

"You couldn't have known, Rodney. There was no way you could have known."

"I should have known. I should have. It should have been me."

John hugged him again. "There was no way you could have known. You have to believe that, Rodney. It wasn't your fault."

But Rodney wasn't really listening, caught up in his own grief, his own pain. No wonder the hospital had to call him. There was no way Rodney could take care of Madison. Not like this.

John closed his eyes and took another deep breath. He was going to have to put his own grief aside and take care of them. When Rodney fell back into a restless sleep, John stepped into the hall and dialed Andrea.

She answered after two rings. "What happened? Is he okay?"

John sighed. "Jeannie and Caleb were in the accident, and pronounced dead at the scene. When the officers told Rodney, he passed out and is in the hospital right now for observation." John hoped by saying it fast like that, it wouldn't hurt as much. It didn't work.

"And Madison? Please don't tell me…"

"She wasn't in the car." John sat down heavily in one of the chairs in the hall. "But she's pretty devastated. And Rodney is blaming himself because they were driving his car, and the tire went again. He thinks he should have noticed and gotten it fixed again."

"His tire? The one that was going flat? I thought he did have it fixed."

"He did, about four times. Someone kept messing with it. We all just assumed it was someone playing a prank, but…"

"This is no prank, John. Two people are dead."

"I know." John closed his eyes against the tears. "I can't leave them up here. Not only can they not handle this by themselves, but obviously it's dangerous. I can't lose Rodney and Maddie, too, Andrea. And Rodney is almost non-functional right now. And Maddie…"

"Bring them here," she said immediately. "I'll have Scarlett start on whatever paperwork we'll need. Between our families we have two sets of lawyers. It still might take a few days."

He nodded slowly. "Maddie will need to be enrolled in school, and she'll probably need a good counselor who knows how to help kids with grief. And Rodney will probably need someone to talk to, too. I'm really worried about him."

"We'll get them set up with your family doctors here. They'll be in good hands. I'll be in touch as soon as I get the paperwork started. Give them my love."

"I will. I'll be at the hospital until they release Rodney. With luck it won't take long and I can bring them home to start packing. Could you have Scarlett arrange whatever we need to fly them home with me? And also see if she can start making arrangements for the house and all the stuff that will need to be taken care of up here.

"Of course."

"Thanks." John took a deep breath. "God, I just can't believe this."

"I know. Let me get to work on this stuff down here. You go take care of Madison and Rodney."

He swallowed hard. "I'll call as soon as I have any new information."

"Thanks, John. Love you and I'm so sorry."

"Love you too." He hung up and took a few deep breaths, putting his head down between his legs for a few minutes. Finally, he sat up and went back in the room. He wanted to make sure he was there if either Rodney or Maddie woke up.

There was a nurse or doctor floating around—someone in a white coat at least—checking Rodney's vitals while he slept on. He glanced up as John walked in. "Can I help you?"

"Sorry, I'll stay out of your way. I was his emergency contact, and I'm the closest thing to a surviving relative that they've got now." John wrapped his arms around himself. God… Jeannie… Caleb….

He checked the chart, making a notation. "You're John Sheppard?"

"Yes." John sighed. "I got here as soon as I could. Do you know when I'll be able to take them home?"

"Let's step into the hallway," he said, walking around the bed and gesturing for John to walk in front of him.

Biting his lip, John moved back out. He was terrified that more bad news would make him as helpless and overwhelmed as Rodney, and right now his friend and Maddie needed him to be strong for them.

The door closed behind them as they moved into the hallway. "Mister Sheppard, I'm Doctor Kattner and I'm in charge of your friend's care. He's suffered an extreme mental shock. I know the events surrounding his admittance were the trigger for his…breakdown. Is this something…common in his background?"

John had to sit down. "No. He's been through some pretty big traumas and things no one was expecting. We worked on a classified government project for several years together and he's always pulled it together. But… This was his sister, and he's blaming himself. Someone kept fucking with the tires on his car, and he kept getting them fixed, but now he thinks he should have noticed it happened again."

"This could have been intentional?"

"I don't know." John ran a hand over his face. "I know someone was fucking with the car, but we all just assumed it was a student he had failed who was trying to be irritating, or as a prank. But this…. This is more than that. To have the tire so bad, and yet done so they couldn't tell at a glance…"

"I'm going to need to report this to the authorities."

"Yes, please." John looked up. "I didn't care before when it was a joke, but now I want whoever did this to the tires found."

The doctor nodded. "Does Mister McKay have any other family we need to call?"

"Not that I know of. They're estranged from their parents. I'll handle any paperwork that needs to be signed, if that's okay. He's in shock, and I want to spare him as much as I can."

"While this was a major shock to his system, I don't need to keep him here. I'm going to prescribe some medication which I want him to take regularly. It will help him move through this time now."

"Thank you. I'll make sure he takes it. I'm making arrangements to bring both him and Maddie down to the States with me for at least a little while. I think right now, staying in the house for too long, with all the memories, will just be harder on them. I'll make sure they both get help from doctors as soon as they arrive, but any numbers you want to give me to pass on, I will, and if you or the police need numbers where they can be contacted, I can give you both mine and my assistant's, and one of us will be able to steer them toward Rodney."

"Yes. Once you get settled, his doctor can request his records and we'll send them directly." He reached into his pocket and withdrew a card. "This is my direct information to my practice."

"Thank you." John pulled out his wallet, and made sure he put the card where it wouldn't get lost. He also pulled out his business card, with all the ways he could be reached, as well as Scarlett's number. "Here's mine, too, in case you need it or need to give it out to anyone."

"Thank you," he said, pocketing it. "I need to get the paperwork started for his release. It should be ready in a few hours."

"I'll be in there with them, so you can find me there whenever you need me."

"Try to keep him calm when he's awake. I'm a little concerned about his blood pressure."

"I'll do my best." He stood up and slowly made his way back to the room. He felt horrible, and he could only imagine how Rodney must be feeling.

John stood there, staring down at his sleeping friend for a long while, his chest tight with grief and worry. He eventually moved to the chair, picking up Madison and held her close to him as he sat down.

He must have fallen asleep, because the next thing he knew, he was being shaken awake by Maddie.

"Uncle John?"

"Hey, sweetheart." John blinked awake. "I'm here."

"You're awake? You're not dead, right?"

John's heart broke a little. "I'm not dead, I promise."

"You were so still."

"I was just sleeping."

"Please don't go away."

"I'm not going anywhere. In fact, I'm going to bring you and your Uncle Mer to my house to come stay for a little while."

"With the horses?"

"Yeah. You'll get to ride them again."

"And you promise you'll never leave?"

"I promise." John pulled her in for a tight hug. "I'll be right here for you, sweetheart."

"I'm hungry."

"Yeah?" John managed a little smile. "Why don't we poke our heads out the door and see if there's a nurse who can get us something to eat? I'm sure your Uncle will be hungry when he wakes up, too."

"They gave him an IV last night."

"Yup. That's to make sure his blood sugar stays where it should. But that's not the same as real food, huh? Why don't we get him something, just in case?"

She nodded, hugging him tightly.

John stood up, holding her and taking her with him. He went out to the nurse's station across the hall. "Excuse me. Is there someplace I can go to get something to eat really quick?"

"There's a cafeteria on the ground floor. Just take the elevator and make a left."

"Thank you. Would you mind having someone keep an eye on Rodney McKay while we're gone? I don't want him to wake up alone."

"We're monitoring him."

"Thanks. We won't be gone long." John headed to the elevators, and he and Maddie found the cafeteria without any problems. "What would you like to eat?"

She shrugged.

"You can have anything you want."

She buried her face into his neck and held on tighter.

John hugged her close, and got in line. Using one hand, he grabbed whatever looked half-way decent, making sure to ask about citrus in each one, stressing they had someone allergic. This way, if Rodney wanted to try anything, he could.

Another visitor took pity on him when he tried to hold the tray and Madison, taking the tray and walking up to the fifth floor with him. Rodney was still asleep when they returned, so they ate quietly, neither of them really hungry.

John knew they were all going to be overwhelmed and exhausted for a little while.

When Rodney woke later, he was groggy and quiet, but at least he wasn't crying.

"Hey, buddy." John moved quietly to his side. Madison had managed to fall asleep again in the chair.

"Hey," he said quietly. "Sorry about…" he waved his hand, a little half heartedly.

"Nothing to be sorry about." John caught his hand and squeezed.

"Thanks for coming."

"I wouldn't be anywhere else. The doctors have prescribed you some medication, but all your release paperwork is done, so whenever you're ready to leave, we can."

He nodded silently. He looked…broken. There was no other way to describe him. "Madison…is she okay?"

"She's upset, but so far so good. I'm making arrangements to bring you both home with me in a few days. I think you'll both need a change of scenery, and I'd like both of you to talk to someone who can help you through the grief."

"But the house…"

"It will still be here. We'll deal with that later. Right now, I think you need somewhere that won't feel so… charged."

He nodded silently, looking away from John.

"It will be okay, buddy. We'll get you through it." John squeezed his hand again. "Do you want to try a little food? Maddie and I went down and got some stuff earlier. I made sure nothing has citrus. Even tasted it all myself to make extra sure."

He shrugged.

John grabbed a few different things and put them where Rodney could get to them. "I know you don't feel hungry, but if you can eat a little, it will help."

Rodney attempted a few things, but without energy or any real acknowledgement. John ached for his friend. It just reinforced his decision not to leave them alone, and to bring them both back where they could get the help and friendship they needed.

Rodney remained awake for the next few hours, barely speaking and answering questions John posed with a minimal, whispered reply. As for decisions, he just abdicated the responsibility of making any. He wouldn't acknowledge them beyond a shrug.

The doctors made sure he had his next dose of medication, and gave John the prescription for the next few weeks, and released them. He carried Maddie and carefully led Rodney out to his rental car.

John was grateful he had a GPS, because Rodney was in no shape to offer directions. He was unresisting as John led him outside to the car, going and doing whatever John told him.

He got them home, fortunately without incident, and settled them both in the living room, curled together, for the moment. His own heart ached at all the reminders of Jeannie and Caleb, and he could only imagine what Rodney and Madison must be feeling.

Rodney held his niece in his arms, his eyes unfocused as they stared across the room. They couldn't stay here long. A few days, max, and even then John didn't know if that would be good for them. A hotel might be better. Less reminders. But he also didn't want to pull them away from what they had left of their family.

He decided the best thing would be to start packing them, so they were ready to go as fast as possible. He started in Maddie's room upstairs. He first got clothes and some of the things he knew she loved and brought them downstairs for her. Then he found suitcases and packed up the rest of what he thought she would need. They could always buy more in Kentucky, and eventually they would have the house packed up and shipped.

When John had walked down with a few of Madison's toys, she was watching television and holding one of her dolls. Rodney was still on the couch, but this time clutching a pillow and crying silently.

John sat down next to him and pulled Rodney close.

Rodney collapsed heavily against him, his tears soaking into John's shirt as he cried, absolutely silent except for an occasional hitched breath.

Tears rolled down John's face, too, especially when Madison came up and joined them. All he could do was hold them both and try to offer whatever comfort he could.

For as much as Rodney fought with his sister, he had loved her, maybe even finding a weird peace during the year he lived with them. And to be gone like this…

It was more than heartbreaking. John wanted to hurt whoever had messed with the car. This was more than a prank. This was murder.

Eventually Rodney pulled himself back, wiping his face. "Need to pee," he whispered.

"Okay." John gave him another quick, hard hug.

Rodney climbed to his feet, looking broken and rumpled. He staggered up the stairs and out of sight.

John pulled Maddie close again, and wished he could make all this go away.

He heard the shower go on a few minutes later. Apparently Rodney had decided to do more than just pee.

Good. A shower might help him at least feel physically a little better. John got Madison settled in front of the television again and went in to see about putting together a little something for them all to eat before they went to bed. They were all tired.

Mac and cheese was quick and easy and comfortable. Madison eagerly took a bowl and sat eating it in front of the television. There was still no sign of Rodney, though so John headed upstairs to check on him.

The bathroom door was half open and the water was still running.

John popped his head in. "Rodney?"

The scientist's clothes were in a pile on the floor, but there was no answer from him.

Worried, John walked the rest of the way in. "Rodney?"

John pushed back the corner of the shower curtain, glancing in. Rodney was sitting on the floor, water cascading over him. He was shivering, the hot water long gone.

Turning off the water, John squatted down. "Hey, buddy. Let's get you out of there, okay?"

"Cold."

"I bet." John grabbed one of the huge, fluffy towels and wrapped it around Rodney as best he could. "Come on, let's get you out of the tub and dried off, and then I'll get some clean clothes, okay?"

Rodney nodded, shivering. John dried him off and then left him wrapped in a new dry towel sitting on the closed toilet and went searching for clothes.

He had to go all the way down into the apartment, grabbed boxers and sweats along with a t-shirt, and ran them back upstairs.

His friend was right where he'd left him, huddled in the towels, staring off into space.

John gently got him standing, dressing him and then leading him back downstairs, where he wrapped Rodney in a blanket and then pressed a small bowl of food into his hands.

Thankfully, he didn't argue. He ate what he was given, almost mechanically. Madison followed John into the kitchen when he went to get his own bowl, handing hers back to him. "Can I have more?"

"Of course, sweetheart." John put a little more in her bowl before handing it back.

"Thank you, Uncle John."

"You're welcome. How are you feeling?"

She offered a small shrug. "Sleepy. Hungry."

"Well, eat what you want, and then we'll all go to sleep."

"Can I sleep with you?"

"We're all going to sleep down here together tonight. I'll pull out the couch."

"Like a sleepover?"

"Yup, exactly like that."

"Uncle Mer, too?"

"Yup. All of us."

She offered a big, broad smile.

John smiled back. He knew both of them needed the closeness tonight. And having her there with them would probably be good for Rodney.

"I can get the sheets. I know where they are. And pillows. We'll need lots of pillows."

"Okay. When you're done eating, you can help me make the bed. How does that sound?"

She nodding, shoveling a few bites into her mouth.

John smiled and led her back out to the living room so he could keep an eye on Rodney. The scientist had finished his dinner and was staring at the television. There was some cartoon on that John didn't recognize.

"Hey, buddy. We're going to pull the couch out, and all three of us sleep down here tonight."

Rodney slowly turned his head toward John, blinking up at him. "My bed's downstairs."

"I know, but tonight we're going to have a sleepover here."

"Oh."

"Yeah. It will be good for Maddie to have us both right here." John figured getting his friend thinking that way was probably best.

"If you think it's best."

"I do. We should probably all sleep in here for the next few days, at least."

Rodney blinked a few times, looking at John in an odd, distracted way. "You're staying?"

"Yes. I'll be here the next few days, and then you guys are coming home with me to Kentucky."

"But we're Canadian."

"So?"

Rodney shrugged, looking away.

John squeezed his shoulder. "Don't worry. I'm not making any long-term decisions for you right now, but I am going to take care of you for a little while. Just like you took care of me when my father died."

"John? When did you get here?"

"I got here this morning. The hospital called me last night, and I flew up here as soon as I could."

"Oh. That was nice of them."

"Yeah, it was." John pulled the cushions off the couch and folded it out.

"What time is it?"

"Night. About 10pm."

"Jeannie'll be home soon. She said no later than midnight."

John blinked. "All…. right. Let's go ahead and make the bed, okay, buddy?"

"Does she know you're coming?"

"It will be okay. We'll talk about it in the morning, okay? Right now it's late, and we need to get Maddie to bed."

"She always liked you better," Rodney said absently. "You were like her favorite brother. She'll be happy to see you."

This wasn't good. Not at all. John got the bed made with Madison's help. "Your sister loved you a lot, Rodney. I promise."

He snorted, pulling the blanket tighter around him, the bowl sliding out of his hands and onto the floor. Thankfully it was empty. Madison quickly got it and ran it into the kitchen.

"Why don't you lay down and get some sleep? You've had a long day."

"I am tired," he said with a nod. "But Madison has to go to bed. She's up late. Jeannie'll yell if she knew."

"We're all going to sleep down here. It's a slumber party."

"But she needs to go to bed. It's late. After ten."

"That's why we're making the bed right now, buddy."

"Oh," Rodney said, blinking at John from across the room. "It's good to see you."

"Yeah. You too, Rodney." John's heart was breaking all over again, but somehow he managed to get Rodney and Madison both settled in the bed.

Rodney was out like a light, snorting minutes after he was horizontal. Madison wasn't far behind, snuggled up next to her uncle.

John went through the house and turned off the lights before he kicked off his shoes and stripped down to his boxers and curled in next to them.

He woke in the middle of the night, Madison's arms wrapped around him and her foot very close to his family jewels.

John carefully readjusted her, and was surprised when Rodney shifted closer too. John wasn't going to deny his friend the comfort, so he encompassed him in his arms too, as much as he could, so Maddie was in between them.

Sleep took a while, the second time, his mind going through everything that needed to be done. But eventually he fell asleep, waking when the sun was shining in his face. The television was on low—some cartoon or other—and the other side of the bed was empty.

Sniffling, John sat up, rubbing at his face. "Hello?"

He heard Madison pad into the room. She was holding a banana. "Hi, Uncle John. I'm hungry so I'm eating a banana."

"Okay. Where's your Uncle Mer?"

She shrugged. "I don't know."

Worried, John began searching the house.

The basement and the first floor were clear, so he headed upstairs. He found him curled up on the master bed, a pillow clutched in his arms. There was a picture frame next to him on the bed—Jeannie and Caleb's wedding picture—and fresh tears on his face.

A few tears of his own slipping down his face, John sat down on the bed next to him. "Rodney?"

"This isn't a dream, is it?" he asked, the words whispered, barely audible.

"I'm afraid not, buddy." John started rubbing his back. "But you're not alone. I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere."

"I…told her to take my car. I didn't feel like moving it. I promised them I'd watch Maddie so they could go out for dinner like adults."

"It wasn't your fault. There was no way you could have known someone had messed with your tires again. In fact, I'm beginning to suspect this was what someone wanted to happen, only with you at the wheel. I've already asked the hospital to report my suspicions to the police."

"It's my fault. It was my car. If only I'd moved it, had them take their own car…" Rodney closed his eyes, tears leaking out.

"It still wasn't your fault. You didn't do this, Rodney." John laid down so he could hug him again.

The sobs of grief were heartbreaking, shaking his entire body. All John could do was hold him and whisper over and over that he was there, and Rodney wasn't alone.

He felt so helpless, so powerless.

When Rodney's crying finally wound down, John spotted Madison hovering in the door. He opened his arms, inviting her to come to them.

"Shouldn't I be in school?"

He hugged her. "Probably, but I think they'll understand why you weren't there today. What do you think about going to school for a little while in Kentucky?"

She nodded. "I can learn about horses."

"Exactly." John smiled at her weakly. "We'll fly there in a few days, and Andrea is finding out about getting you enrolled."

"Okay!" she said, climbing off the bed and running out of the room.

John managed another soft smile. He knew she was hurting, but it was still amazing how resilient kids could be.

The hospital had been right to call him. Rodney was in no shape to take care of himself, let alone a five-year-old.

He rubbed Rodney's back a bit longer. "Why don't you come downstairs with me? I need to make some breakfast, and you need to eat."

"Not hungry."

"I know you don't feel hungry, but you'll need to eat, or your blood sugar will drop, and that won't make anything better."

"I don't care."

John kept rubbing. "I do. And so does Madison. She can't take seeing her Uncle in the hospital again, buddy."

"Leave me alone."

"I can't do that, Rodney." John pulled his friend up, and into his arms.

Rodney fought him half-heartedly. "Leave me alone."

"No."

"Please, just leave me alone," Rodney whispered, the tears starting again. "I killed her…please, leave me alone."

"You didn't kill her. It wasn't your fault. And I'll be here and tell you that until you can believe it."

Rodney just shook his head and cried, refusing to listen, refusing to believe. But John didn't give up, though. He couldn't. He wouldn't.

His friend eventually stopped crying, falling asleep in John's arms, dropping from emotional exhaustion.

John knew there was no way he could give Rodney all the help he needed. It was just another reason he needed to get them both to Kentucky as soon as possible.

He knew Rodney would be okay to skip one meal, but he would have to find a way to get him to eat lunch later. In the meantime, John got Madison some cereal and found the number to her school, calling and letting them know what had happened, and that she would be transferring for at least the rest of this year. He made a few other calls, to the college heads of both Caleb and Rodney's divisions, and then headed downstairs to start packing Rodney a few bags for the next few weeks, at least.

He set the alarm on his phone to buzz him at noon. He'd force food down Rodney's throat to make sure there were no other trips to the hospital.

He pulled out the largest suitcase he could find and started packing Rodney's clothes. There wasn't a lot—a whole lot less than he thought there should be. He spotted the closet at the back of the basement apartment and figured the rest were probably in there. The door was locked, however.

Odd. He started searching around for Rodney's keys, knowing that Jeannie had had an extra set to his car, and so wouldn't have taken Rodney's set.

After turning over the small apartment, he headed up to the main floor, finding them next to the door in a small bowl.

Grabbing them, he returned to the door, systematically trying each one.

One of the non-descript ones worked and John pushed inside. There was a small desk covered with papers and a huge desktop computer. Shelves lined the walls and tons of books and crap on every available surface.

Okay, really odd. Why did Rodney have this locked up? He began to look around a little, trying to figure out if there was anything in here his friend would need immediately, or if it could wait until some of the grief had passed, and he was ready to decide what to do with the house.

The second thing he touched lit up like a fucking Christmas tree.

John stared at it, not believing what he was seeing even as the object provided him with helpful information as to exactly what it was.

It was a digital picture frame—or the Ancient equivalent.

Looking around, John realized the room was full of Ancient odds and ends. There was no fucking way Rodney had this stuff legitimately.

He sat down at the computer and turned on the screen, getting a password prompt. He tried the first one that came to mind, the one the scientist had used on Atlantis. It worked, allowing him access to the system.

Fuck.

He stared at the screen. It was all of Rodney's research, and what looked, at a glance, like a good chunk of the Ancient database. Rodney must have been saving bits and pieces to it for years, ever since they first re-established contact with Earth.

This was… Wow. Fuck. This was… This couldn't stay here.

John quickly shut the system down again and looked around. He grabbed one of the small objects that was pretty harmless and headed upstairs.

Madison was still watching television and playing with her dolls—thank god for long attention spans—and he headed upstairs to where he left his friend.

"Hey, Rodney?"

The Canadian shifted on the bed, rolling over to look up at John.

John held up the little Ancient toy. "I was packing up some stuff for you, and found a closet full of stuff like this."

Rodney looked at it for a long moment before his eyes widened. "You shouldn't be in there."

"What are you doing down there?" John dropped onto the bed. "You've got God knows how much of the database hidden in there. How did you even get this stuff?"

"You…you shouldn't be in there."

"Too late."

"John, please. Just go put it back."

"I'm not going to put it back and forget. What are you doing, Rodney?"

John watched as stubbornness grew on Rodney's face. "Nothing."

"All right, so when I call someone in to clear out the house, it won't be a problem. Good."

"No, you can't," Rodney said, panic on his face as John stood. He sat up, his face paling as he swayed.

John sighed, catching him. "Right now, please come downstairs and eat something, and then we'll talk, okay? No more secrets."

"You can't know about this," he whispered harshly.

"I already do, so you need to give me the details now. I'm not angry, Rodney, but I need to know so I can help you."

"You can't know. It'll get you in trouble and after your discharge, it'll be worse."

"I'm not in the military anymore, and I'm not in the habit of running to tell them things." John was a little hurt that apparently Rodney didn't trust him as much as he thought.

"If they find out you'll go to jail."

"So will you."

"I don't feel too good."

"You need to eat." John helped him up and began to lead him downstairs. "The rest can wait until after that."

John managed to get Rodney into the kitchen and poured him some juice. After making sure he got that down, John made lunch for all of them. Madison joined them when John called, hopping up onto the chair.

It was just sandwiches, with a little bit of the potato salad he had found in the fridge. Both he and Rodney were fairly quiet, but Madison filled in the blanks, telling them all about her show.

It was nice. Domestic.

When she was done, she bounced back into the living room, and John looked over at Rodney.

He'd eaten most of his food, which was good. His eyes were down as he played with the little remaining on his plate.

"Feeling any better now?"

He shrugged. "I guess."

"Want to talk?"

"About?"

"Your choice."

"There are no good topics."

"Not good, but there are topics we need to talk about." John sat down across from him. "You can trust me, Rodney. You know that."

"I know."

"So talk to me."

"I'm trying to keep you safe since you have no sense of self-preservation."

John shook his head. "I appreciate the thought, but the cat's out of the bag, so you need to tell me."

"I wasn't going to leave my research behind."

John sighed. "I think, had I thought about it, I would have known that. How did you get it here? And where did you get all the Ancient doodads?"

"I…brought them," he said with a shrug. "It wasn't hard."

"What are you doing with all of them? And how much of the database do you have here?"

"Using it when I need it. I was only able to bring a small part back with me, but it was the important parts. ZPM research, primarily."

John sighed. "We need to find a way to pack it up and bring it with us. I don't want to leave it here while the house is unattended, and I don't know how long we'll be gone. You can make permanent decisions later."

Rodney nodded. "I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to get in trouble."

Reaching across the table, John squeezed Rodney's arm. "I appreciate it. But we're partners, right? So now I know. Let me help you."

He nodded again, but couldn't look John in the eyes.

John stood and moved around the table. He reached down to hook a finger under Rodney's chin, forcing him to look up. "Let me help you. With everything. All I need you to do is trust me, and tell me what needs to come, and what can stay for now. You can have all the time you need to get yourself together. I already got you an indefinite leave of absence from the school, and Scarlett is making arrangements for you and Maddie to come back with me where you can get some breathing room. And you can stay for as long as you want, whether it's just a few weeks, or permanently. Okay?"

"Okay," he whispered.

"Good." John gave him a soft smile. "Why don't you go sit in the living room with Maddie? She's been bouncing between being okay and being terrified one of us is going to disappear, so having you close will be good for her. I'll go back downstairs and pack what looks important, and lock away anything that looks like it will be okay by itself for a little while."

"Okay."

John stepped in to give Rodney another big hug. He hated seeing him looking so… fragile.

Rodney moved into the living room when John let him go, shuffling in and collapsing on the unmade sofa bed.

With a sigh, he headed back downstairs to see what he could do with Rodney's illegal technology stash.

What a mess, in more ways than one.


As much as John would have liked to have avoided the funeral part of this, there was really no way around it. He knew it was good for closure, but he also knew it was going to be hell on both Rodney and Madison.

After three days of living in the house with them, comforting them when their grief got to be too much, he knew the funeral was going to be one of the hardest things he'd have to go through.

As soon as word had filtered out, people had been in and out of the house—friends of Caleb and Jeannie—offering their condolences. John swore that the only thing keeping Rodney sane was the medicine the doctor had given him. He hated the drugs, but John made sure Rodney took them. While he was less likely to break down, it also made Rodney less Rodney. Everything about him was…soft, like he was simply floating through the days and hours from one pill to the next.

But that also mean that John had to handle everything—which is what he was there for. He didn't mind. He was good at getting things done and Rodney was his friend.

When the day of the funeral finally came, John got them both ready, made sure they were dressed in nice clothing, and drove them to the funeral home.

Rodney was…quiet, even more so than usual. Subdued. Guilty. But it was like John was the only one to notice. The place was packed with people from the community and the college. Everyone was so polite, so nice.

Scarlett and Simon and Katie had flown up along with Dave and Charlotte. John knew the latter two were only there because they had to be. The rest were there because they wanted to be.

The ceremony was harder than even he had imagined, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house after the eulogies.

Rodney's had been painful to hear and John had been surprised he'd been able to get through it. He'd talked about their childhood—a few happy memories—and how it had been to get to know her again as an adult.

When his friend sat down again next to him—Maddie was curled in John's lap—he reached out to put a steadying hand on Rodney's leg.

The rest of the service went by in a blur as John concentrated on comforting his friend. Rodney was on the edge of a breakdown and trying with every last ounce of his strength to hold on.

When it was finally over, they were the ones who had to lead the procession to the site where the coffins would be buried side-by-side.

John held Madison in his arms as he walked beside his friend. That short walk to the cemetery was the longest one John had ever taken.

The rest of the ceremony passed quickly, and he could only hope the same was true for Rodney and Madison. John was just grateful no one expected them to host anything afterward.

John wasn't sure any of them would last much longer.

At least they didn't have to watch the coffins get lowered into the ground. He wasn't sure Rodney would stand to have that image burned on his brain. This was bad enough.

Somehow, he managed to get them all back to the car, and drove home silently.

Rodney was…broken in a way that was just…unnatural. Curled in on himself. Morosely silent. Barely blinking or acknowledging anything. It was partially because of the medicine, John knew, but the guilt was there, too.

John wished he had the words to make it better somehow, but he knew nothing really would.

John helped his friend into the house, urging Madison to go and get changed as soon as they were inside. Rodney slumped down into the sofa in the living room, his eyes closing as soon as he was seated.

They needed to get out of here. Away from the constant reminders where both of them could get some breathing room.

"Do we have to stay here?" Rodney asked a few minutes later, the words barely audible.

"No." John sat down next to him. "We're scheduled to leave first thing tomorrow."

"I can't…I just can't…"

"I know."

"The last thing I did was argue with her, yell at her."

"She knew you loved her."

"I don't think it was enough sometimes."

"She knew." John put an arm around him.

His tears, this time, were silent, but exhausting all the same. John led him upstairs and helped him strip down to his boxers before letting him slide into the bed in the spare room. It would be quieter up there and he'd be out of the way when John finished packing.

Sighing, John checked in on Madison, finding her asleep and curled in her bed. He picked her up gently and brought her in, laying her next to Rodney so they could offer each other some comfort. Then he changed into jeans and started going through their rooms one more time, making sure they would have everything they needed.

It was quiet, his own catharsis, in a way. He remembered all the laughter, the smiles, from when he'd stayed here. He finished with enough time to make dinner and urged Rodney and Madison to eat before settling them into the sofa bed in the living room once again.

He curled up next to them on the end, setting the alarm on his phone for early. The next morning, he got them all up and dressed, fed a light breakfast, gave Rodney his medication, and was glad he had packed the car the night before. It was both painful and relieving to finally be driving away.

The trip back to the States was surprisingly easy. All the paperwork Scarlett had sent sped them through. They all traveled together—the house staff and Dave and Charlotte—making for an easy transfer once they arrived back home. Thanks to the help of the Miller's neighbor, movers would take care of the boxes in the house and should arrive in two days.

Simon and Andrea had set up Rodney and Madison in the rooms across from John's so they would be close.

Madison settled in quickly, making herself at home within hours. She had loved the house when they'd visited before and had her routine. For Rodney, though, he was lost in his own world of pain and grief and guilt.

John crumpled that night in his own bed, worried Rodney and Maddie would miss him, but exhausted. He hadn't slept much at all since that night that felt like years ago when the hospital had called.

A quiet knock on the door, made him sit up on the bed. The door opened to reveal Andrea. She walked in, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I'm glad you're home."

"Yeah." He gave her a big hug. "Sorry. God, this is just like a nightmare. I don't even know where to start helping them."

"It's going to take time," she said, hugging him tightly. "I already have appointments set up for the both of them tomorrow."

"Thank you." John kissed her lightly. "You're a saint."

"We're all here to help them get through this."

"I just hope they can. I know Maddie will be okay in time, but Rodney…"

"Will move on. It'll take time."

"I hope so. I'm really worried about him."

"I know. He seems so…" She shrugged.

"Lost."

"Yeah," she said with a nod. "Guilty, too."

"He blames himself for it, even though it wasn't his fault. I'm glad he'll have a therapist to talk to. I have no idea how to help him through this."

"When they finish the investigation and find out who did cause this, it should help to give him closure."

"I hope so." He relaxed, closing his eyes while she ran a hand through his hair. "Anything happen here while I was gone?"

"No. It's been quiet. Scarlett's been busy working on your stuff, making sure the paperwork was all in place. I think Madison can start school in a few days, on Monday. I already think Simon will handle all of her transfers. Scarlett's also been interviewing nannies."

"How did I survive before you guys?" He smiled at her. "And good. Maddie is brilliant, and getting her back in school—which she liked up there—will give her something normal to think about."

She nodded. "Kids bounce back quickly."

"Yeah. She'll have some rough patches I'm sure, but with luck, she'll be just fine."

"I think the horses will be good for her. Maybe you can give her one to take care of."

He blinked. "That's a really good idea. One of the mares is going to foal in the next few weeks. I'll talk to Joe about it, and see if we can make one of them Madison's to raise."

"Thanks," she said with a smile. "I have some good ideas, you know, but I'm stumped when it comes to your friend."

"Me, too. Part of it is the drugs they have him on to get through this, but I'm really hoping the therapist will be able to get him off those sooner rather than later."

"Yeah, that sometimes makes it worse. They don't ever deal with it."

"Exactly. It was good for the short-term, but long term it's not a good idea."

"We'll help him get through it."


Over the course of the next month, Madison, as they all had hoped, seemed to bounce back. She settled into school fairly quickly, and was seeing the child psychologist every day when she got home. She was having occasional nightmares and would come hurtling into either John or Rodney's bed needing to know they were still alive, but her therapist assured them that was normal, and would fade with time.

Rodney, though… John still worried about him. His therapist had taken him off the medication almost immediately, and Rodney spent several hours a day either in with him, or walking the grounds.

He'd started working on his research about a week after they'd arrived and had developed a routine John swore he could set his watch to. He wasn't sure if it was a therapist thing or a Rodney thing. Either way, it seemed to ground his friend, so John didn't do anything to interrupt it for now.

Thankfully, John didn't have to help him the way he'd had to when they'd been in Canada. Rodney ate regularly, dressed himself, showered, and even talked—a little. He was still far too quiet for John's liking, but it was better than the blank stares or the crying.

John had a feeling the medication had had a lot to do with that part of it, so if the walking and the routine helped him cope without needing drugs, John was all for it. Today, he popped in to the area Rodney had set up as an office, hoping maybe he could draw him out later. "Hey, buddy."

Rodney glanced up, his reaction still noticeably slower than John was used to. "Hey."

John moved in, smiling softly. "Andrea and I were talking about taking Maddie out to dinner tonight as a reward for doing really well on her test. I thought I'd see if you would be interested in coming."

John was a little disconcerted to see how quickly Rodney's face paled.

"You don't have to if you don't want to." He didn't want to make things worse. "I just thought I'd let you know you were welcome, you know, if you were interested."

"No…don't go."

John blinked. "You don't want us to go out?" He sat down on the chair next to his friend.

Rodney shook his head, glancing away. "Just…Katie can make a cake."

John nodded slowly. He knew Jeannie and Caleb had been out to dinner that night. So maybe Rodney wasn't ready to worry about losing more people he cared about that way. "We could do that. Maybe order pizza in, too. How does that sound?"

"That's…good."

"Okay." John smiled again. "So you want to come downstairs and celebrate with us tonight then? Pizza and cake?"

"I have to eat."

"True." John managed a little grin, then he sobered. "I… I know you're talking to the therapist, and that I suck badly at the talking thing, but… if you ever, you know, want to. I'm here."

Rodney glanced over at him, blinking a few times. "I…thanks for…everything."

"You're my best friend." John reached over to squeeze Rodney's leg, something he had been doing a lot lately. It was the best way he could find to let his friend know how much he cared.

"So," he said a few minutes later. "Madison's doing okay with school?"

John let the subject drop. "Yeah, she is. It's an all girl's school, and her teachers are all really pleased with her progress, especially given everything she's been through. I'm really impressed with her. She's going to blow us both out of the water with what she does when she gets older, I think."

"Has the McKay genes."

"Exactly."

"I know…I know I haven't been really…helpful."

"Hey, no worries, okay? When you're ready, she'll be here. She loves you a lot."

"I…Doctor Hendricks said I need to take some responsibilities soon."

John nodded. "I trust him, and I know you do, too. But you're not alone. You've got me, Andrea, Simon, Katie, Scarlett, and a lot of other people to help. Take on as much as you're ready to, when you're ready to."

"I just keep replaying those last minutes in my head, you know?"

"Yeah." John sighed. "And I can't promise it will ever fade completely. But I can tell you that after my dad died, in time, everything felt less… immediate. I still think of him and miss him, but the shock and pain of when he first died isn't as front and center anymore. I know the same will happen with you."

"It's different for you."

John shrugged slightly. "Yes and no. The biggest thing that got me through was my friends and family—and you've got that too, in me and everyone else. I'm not going anywhere, Rodney. You're stuck with me."

"At least it wasn't your fault he's dead."

"And it's not your fault Jeannie is gone. The police in Canada have been keeping me posted. They've investigated the car, and determined that the tire had been slashed in such a way as to be unnoticeable until you hit a certain speed. They've ruled it a homicide and are investigating who could be behind it now."

Rodney glanced away.

John squeezed his leg again. He knew this was something the therapist was addressing a lot with Rodney.

"No anchovies."

John nodded, squeezing one last time before letting go. "Those are disgusting, so I'm with you on that one."

Rodney nodded silently as John stood.

He gave Rodney a soft, half-smile. "See you later then, buddy."

"When…later?"

"We were thinking of doing dinner around five-ish. But I can come hang out before then if you want me to."

"I…" he started, pausing. John could see the wheels turning in his friend's head. "Only if you want. I'm not very good company."

John gave him another smile. "You're always good company, Rodney. I don't require anything more than just walking together if you want to do that."

"I…yeah," he said with a nod. "That would be okay."

"Good. I'll swing back by when you usually take your walk, and we'll go from there."

"Oh. You know?"

"I've been paying attention," John admitted.

"Oh." He paused. "Is it bothering you? I can stop."

"Why would it bother me?" John made a face at him. "On the contrary, if it helps, keep doing it. Hell, if it helps I'll walk with you every day. You're my friend, I just want to give you what you need."

"I need my sister to not be dead, that's what I need," Rodney said, the words hard, harsh, and bitter.

John sighed. "I know. I wish I could give that to you, more than I can say. I miss her, and I can't even imagine what you're feeling."

"I don't know. I can barely take care of myself right now, let alone a five-year-old."

"I know. But don't worry about her. I'm taking care of her, and I've got help. When you're ready, she'll be here."

"You shouldn't have to. It's my job, my responsibility."

"That's what friends do. We help each other. And you and Maddie are like family."

Rodney snorted, throwing down his pen and rising to his feet. "Like I need more family. I have enough to last me a lifetime right now. They hear someone dies and they flock to the gravesite to see if there's money in it for them."

John winced, but he knew there had been a few of them. Actually, more than Rodney knew, since he had managed to intercept and get rid of a few before they had gotten to his friend.

"Did you know my father had the balls to contact me, asking if Jeannie left anything for him? He called out of the blue. My own god damn father!"

"I hope you told him to fuck off."

"He hasn't talked to me since he walked in on me in college. But this he calls for."

"Do you want to change your cell number, and have it unlisted?"

Rodney stopped his pacing, narrowing his eyes at John. "You'd do that?"

"If you wanted me to. But only if you don't want to be found by anyone else."

"You're the only person I talk to now and you're across the hallway. Why the hell do I even need a phone?"

"So shut it off and toss it in a drawer. You can always decide later if you want to keep it active, and/or if you want to change the number."

"You can't just…shove stuff in a drawer and hope to forget about it. It always pops out at the most inconvenient times. Like during Thanksgiving dinner."

"Not forget about it. Just set it aside to deal with in a few days or weeks, instead of right now."

Rodney rolled his eyes and let out a breath, some of the anger leaving his body. "I'm just…I hate this. I feel so…out of control."

John nodded. "I know. But focus on one thing at a time, and when you have control over it again, you can move on to the next. You don't have to do it all at once, that's all I meant."

He snorted quietly. "Somehow I doubt that's going to happen anytime soon."

"So? You're not on a deadline. You don't have to be anywhere or do anything on any kind of schedule but your own right now."

"I can't just stay here."

"Why not? When you're ready to move on, you can. But why not stay?"

"I can't just…leech off of you. I'm an adult. I should be able to take care of things myself."

"You're not leeching. I like having people around. Even with Andrea, the place felt… lonely before."

Rodney gave him a weird look, but didn't comment. "I should…probably try to…" He waved his hand toward his computer. "You know."

John nodded. "All right. I'll see you later for our walk."

"Today?"

John gave him a weird look of his own. "Isn't that what we just decided?"

"I…I wasn't sure you meant today."

"Yeah. I'll be by later."

"Oh. Okay. You know the time?"

John nodded. "I do. I'll see you later, Rodney." He smiled softly before slipping out.

Honestly, John didn't get crap done the rest of the day until he walked by to get Rodney for their walk. John simply followed his friend around, letting him lead the way. They took a meandering path along the property, never going out of sight of the house, but far enough away for it to seem like there was nothing around.

His friend was quiet and John didn't push. He was here for support. But it was hard to walk like this and not have the silence filled with words and grand, waving gestures. It made him ache all over again for his friend. God, he was going to kill the fucker who had sabotaged the car.

Rodney finally spoke toward the end of their walk, as they turned the final corner, the house clearly in sight. "Jeannie really liked it here. I thought you should know."

John sighed. "I liked having her. I loved your sister like she was my own."

"She talked about it often when we were back home."

"Yeah?"

Rodney nodded. "She loved the horses. Reminded her of when she used to ride."

"She seemed to enjoy them, especially when we were teaching Maddie to ride. Did you know I gave Madison one of the foals from a recent birthing? Joe is teaching her how to take care of him and raise him."

"That's…good. She'll enjoy it." He paused, letting the silence build for a few steps. "How did you know to come to Toronto?"

"The hospital called me. They wouldn't tell me what had happened, only that I was listed as your emergency contact. It wasn't until I actually got there that I found out it wasn't you who had been in an accident."

"Oh. I…thanks for…" His hand waved weakly. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been there."

John put a hand on Rodney's shoulder and squeezed. "That's why I was there. We all need someone to lean on when things get rough."

"Just the thought of losing her now, just when we were starting to mend things…and then getting strapped with a kid… Sometimes it's still too much."

John nodded. "I can imagine. But take it one step at a time. Maddie's in school and doing really well, and her therapist is really happy with her progress. Being so young, she's bouncing back quickly. And everyone on the estate adores her, so there's no lack of people to keep her supervised until you're ready to take it over yourself."

"It's not fair on you, though."

"What makes it unfair? I love Maddie, and I love having both of you here."

"It's not our home. It's yours."

John shrugged. "If you want it to be yours, I'd love to have you permanently."

Rodney glanced over sharply, his eyes narrowing. "I don't think Andrea would really want us to stay."

John rolled his eyes. "Why? She loves you both too, and just wants you to be happy."

Rodney shook his head, looking away as they came up to the front of the house. "You don't understand. Look, I'm going to take a shower before dinner. The pizza thing in still on?"

"Yeah, it is. And seriously, you don't have to, but I would love to have you guys stay."

Rodney looked at him again before stepping inside, heading up toward his room. John wasn't sure what to make of his friend's reaction, but Madison—hurtling at him down the hallway—certain provided more than enough distraction.

"Hey there, sweetheart!" He picked her up and twirled her around in a circle.

"Did you hear? Aunt Andrea fell off the horse!"

John's eyes widened. "What happened? Where is she?"

"Simon's wrapping her ankle. She was doing good but then she just fell off! It was funny, but now she's limping."

John sighed. At least she hadn't been hurt. Carrying Madison, who was chattering in his ear, he wandered back to where most of the first aid was done in the house.

Andrea glanced up sheepishly as soon as John stepped inside. It looked like Simon was finishing the job of wrapping up her ankle in an elastic bandage. "I see Maddie found you."

"She did indeed. Since when do you fall off horses?"

"When I'm not paying attention and trying to show off for a five-year-old."

John chuckled. "That will do it. So how bad is the damage?"

"It's just a sprain. It'll be fine in a day or two."

"Oh good. Because we have a pizza party to attend tonight."

"We do? I didn't see that on the schedule. Did Scarlett approve it?" Andrea asked, a teasing smile on her face.

"Approved, and she's putting in the order for the pizzas for us."

"Even better," Andrea said, turning back to Simon as he moved to put the rest of the first-aid kit away. "Thanks for fixing me all up."

He nodded with a smile. "Any time, Ma'am."

John put Madison down to give Andrea a hand, but she waved him off. "I'll be fine."

"Right." He rolled his eyes and picked her up before she could object.

"John!" Andrea exclaimed. Madison just giggled.

"That's John, Knight in Semi-Shining Armor, at your service." He grinned and carried Andrea into the sitting room where the pizza would be coming later anyway.

Andrea rolled her eyes as he put her down. "Idiot."

"Maybe." John grinned again. "But for tonight at least, you should stay off of it, so you don't make it any worse."

"So, what, you're going to carry me everywhere?"

"If necessary."

She chuckled, shaking her head.

John sat down on the chair next to the one he had put her in, and stretched out a little. "So, Rodney's worried about staying because he thinks you'll be upset if he does."

"Why? He's more than welcome. You have plenty of room."

"That's what I said. But for some reason, he thinks it will be a problem. If you wouldn't mind, at some point when there's opportunity, could you talk to him and make sure he knows you don't mind?"

"John, this is your house. You can do whatever you want."

"I know that. And so does he. I think he's just worried you'll be angry if he decides to stay, and honestly, I have no idea why."

She tilted her head as she looked at him. "I guess it's the whole…couple thing."

"Which I still don't get why that would matter."

"Well, in some cases—and I'm not saying this would qualify as one of those cases—the male of the relationship might cut of ties with close friends to appease the girlfriend because she's jealous of the time he's spending with him."

John blinked. "I guess, maybe, I could see that. But neither of us is like that."

"I know. But some couples are."

He sighed. "So if you wouldn't mind just telling him you don't mind? It will ease his mind, I hope."

"I can try. I don't think it will make a difference, though."

"That's all I can ask. I'd really like for him to stay. I don't think it's safe up there, not with someone willing to go to such extreme lengths to get rid of him."

"I agree, but he can be stubborn."

"Tell me about it." John laughed softly. "But maybe we can wear him down. And he's not planning to leave anytime soon, so with luck by the time he would be thinking of it, he'll be settled in here."

"Maybe. So what's this I hear about pizza?"

John shrugged again, getting more comfortable in his chair. Madison had run off to go play. "When I mentioned going out to dinner to Rodney, he got really upset. He was so white, I thought he was going to pass out on me."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Jeannie and Caleb died when going out to eat, so I think he just started to panic. I offered to do pizza in instead, and he immediately got better. He's even going to join us."

"God. I can't imagine what that could be like. Getting the policeman on your doorstep."

"Me neither. It will take him a long time, I think, to really start to feel normal again."

She nodded. "To say the least."

"I just wish there was more I could do to help."

She offered a shrug. "Just be there. It'll take time."

"I know." John ran a hand through his hair.

Scarlett appeared a few beats later. "The pizza is on its way. It should be here in about ten minutes. I asked Simon to bring it to you in here."

"Perfect, thank you. You staying to eat with us tonight?"

"I certainly ordered enough," she said with a grin. "I think you have enough pies to feed this entire household three times over."

"That means we get to eat leftovers for a few days. There's nothing better than cold pizza for breakfast." John grinned.

He started laughing as soon as both women blanched.

"Fine, more for me!"

"Leftovers are fine," Scarlett said, shaking her head. "They just have to be hot."

"No, pizza is totally better cold the second day."

Scarlett shivered and rolled her eyes. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

John laughed again.

Fifteen minutes later, Simon walked in, barely visible behind the pile of pizza boxes.

John pushed himself up out of his chair. "You guys get started. I'll go get Rodney and let him know the food is here."

"It smells great and make sure you get Madison," Andrea said, straightening up on the couch.

"I will." He smiled.

Madison was easy to find. She was headed down the hall at a run. Apparently she'd smelled the pizza, too. "Pizza!"

John laughed. "Go get some before Andrea eats it all!"

"No!" she shrieked, picking up the pace.

He laughed again and headed upstairs.

Rodney's door was closed and he knocked lightly before open it. The room was dark and quiet, the hallway light spilling into the room. John's eyes adjusted in a few seconds and he spotted Rodney curled up on the bed.

"Hey, buddy." John moved to sit on the bed beside him.

Rodney's hair was still damp—probably from the shower. He was in a t-shirt and boxers and curled around a pillow, his breathing even and regular. John shifted and the light from the hallway caught a slight reflection on his friend's face—two lines of dampness.

Heart aching, John gently used his thumb to wipe away the tear tracks.

Rodney didn't move, sleeping easily. John sighed, glancing around the darkened room, his eyes alighting on a pill bottle and half-full glass of water on the bedside table.

He gently arranged Rodney so he would sleep more comfortably, covering him up before heading back out.

Andrea glanced up from her slice of pizza when he walked in, her eyes searching behind him. With a quick glance at Madison, she sent him a silent question about Rodney.

"Sleeping. He took his pills."

"He okay?"

John sat down next to her. "Just tired, and still worn out. He's having a hard time coping with everything."

She nodded, leaning into John. "It's never easy."

"No." John sighed, putting an arm around her and hugging her.

The mood lightened through the rest of the night as they spent time spoiling Madison and playing with her. She really was a delight and not the brat that Rodney generally said she was.

John had a feeling some of him calling her that, at this point, was almost as an affectionate nickname. John knew Rodney would probably never be able to admit he loved her.

The next few weeks bled from one to another. Rodney had his good days and bad days, but by the time Thanksgiving rolled around things had settled to a large degree. Rodney was still quiet and would have bad, dark days, but thankfully it had evened out.

He'd started spending some time with Madison, teaching her, playing with her, talking to her. She was a mini-Jeannie, so it had to be a hard reminder for him, but he buckled down and did it.

Since Rodney hadn't wanted to go back to Toronto, John had helped him sell and close up the Miller house. John had ended up flying there the day of the move, making sure nothing was forgotten. Rodney's Prius was totaled, and Rodney had been making some noise to get a new one soon.

Finally, everyone seemed to settle in to their places. As Christmas approached, John got bouncy, and wasn't ashamed to admit it. Dave and Charlotte were coming over to spend Christmas morning with them, and John had gone all-out, spending a lot of money on everyone in the house, including Scarlett, Katie, Simon, and all the servants.

Rodney spent most of the time scowling at John and rolling his eyes, but John didn't care. For Rodney, John had enlisted friends and clients in the science community and purchased him, basically, his own lab, set up in one of the large, unused rooms in the estate.

He couldn't wait until he showed Rodney. He was really looking forward to his reaction.

When the moment finally came, John stood up. He had left Rodney for last. "For yours, you've got to come with me."

"What? Why?" Rodney asked, glaring up at John, his mug of coffee paused mid-air. He was nursing his fifth cup.

"Because." John grinned and bounced. "Come on."

Andrea, sitting next to him, gave him a shove. "Go on, Grumpy, John's been waiting to show you for days now."

Once Rodney was on his feet, John led him to the door, which he had put a huge red bow on early this morning. John pulled out a key and handed it him. "Merry Christmas!"

"You are certifiable. You know this, right?"

"Uh huh. Open the door."

"Haven't you done enough for me already? I don't need anything else."

"This is your Christmas present. Come on! I want you to see it." John bounced on his toes again.

"But I didn't get you anything." Rodney had refused to go near the mall.

"So?" John rolled his eyes. "It's not about who got who what. I got you what I wanted to get you." Moving to the side, he gave Rodney a little push.

Rodney grumbled something under his breath, but finally stepped forward, putting the key in the lock. He managed only two steps inside the room before he stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes wide as he took in the stainless surfaces and the fully-equipped lab.

John bit his lip, suddenly nervous as he lingered in the doorway behind Rodney. On one side, there was an area with a few computers, but space where Rodney could bring down his other machines, as well as storage for all the odds and ends, and pretty much everything he might need to experiment on anything he wanted.

John had modeled it on what the scientist had had on Atlantis, since he'd set up a good part of the labs to his own specifications.

He watched as Rodney slowly took it all in, walking in a little further to see more. John was beginning to wonder if he had made a mistake. He just wanted Rodney to like it.

Rodney lightly touched the nearest counter, running his hand along the surface.

"So… what do you think?"

"How much money did you spend?"

"I'm not going to tell you that. It's a gift."

Rodney walked a few more steps into the room. "You…you shouldn't have done this."

"I wanted to." John gnawed on his lip. "Do you like it?"

"John," Rodney said, finally turning toward him. His expression was somewhere between shock and awe. "You…you shouldn't have. You've done so much already…too much."

"You're my best friend. And I wanted you to have a place where you can work, and that makes this… feel like your home, too."

"I can never…repay you for this."

"I don't want you to. I just want you to like it."

Rodney glanced around again, licking his lips. "Thank you," he said quietly. "No one has …"

John smiled. "I wanted you to like it."

"I…yes. I do."

John's smile got bigger. "Good!"

"We never…did this. The gift thing. It was…a waste of time and money. I…thank you."

"I like giving gifts."

Rodney turned back to him. "Thank you," he said quietly.

"You're welcome." John stepped forward and gave him a big hug.

Rodney returned it briefly, patting him awkwardly on the back before disentangling himself. "So…ah…I didn't get you anything."

"So?" John grinned. "Knowing you like this is enough for me."

His friend offered a crooked smile and that was more than enough for John.


Things seem to loosen up in Rodney after John's gift and the new year started well. It was almost as if the Canadian had set his mind to moving forward with his life.

He worked most days in the lab, eating dinner with John, Madison, and Andrea and then usually spent the evening watching television, playing pool, or doing something else. But it was also in January that Rodney started venturing out with his car once or twice a week, wandering in and around Louisville, sometimes staying out late into the night.

John would never admit that it worried him, that he stayed up until he heard Rodney's familiar steps on the stairs and in the hallway outside his room.

Today was one of those days. He'd gotten a few texts from Rodney throughout the day—the same as usual—but they never really said what he was doing or where he was.

So John was sitting in his bedroom, in the small sitting area near the door, listening for his friend. Andrea was in bed, the lights on low as she tried to sleep. He heard her turn over a few times, shifting beneath the sheets.

"John?" she finally asked quietly.

"Yeah?"

"It's almost midnight. You should come to bed."

"I… can't sleep. I'll be there in a little while."

She shifted again, rolling onto her side, propping her head up with her hand. "He's a grown man."

John was glad the darkness hid his flush. "I know that. He's fine."

"Then come to bed."

"I'm okay here. I'm not… waiting for him. Just… thinking."

Andrea snorted quietly. "And every night he comes home late you're there thinking until he walks in the door."

John felt himself heat up again. "So I worry."

"There's nothing to worry about, John. He knows how to take care of himself."

"I know. I do, I just… I can't sleep until I know he's home safe."

"Is that what you keep telling yourself?"

"Of course. I just worry about him. He's been through a lot in the past year."

"Yes, he has and he's come a long way. It's good to see him branching out, finding new friends."

John was trying hard not to think about what Rodney was doing with those other friends. He knew he should be happy the other man was finding companionship, but like the last time he had dated, John automatically hated them all.

"Have you even talked to him about it?"

"Of course not. Just because I'm fucking insane doesn't mean it should ruin his good time."

"Scarlett helped find him a discussion group for science and math. It's at a coffee shop in downtown. Some of the local professors and students go there to talk. It's all very informal."

"Which is, it's good. He needs that community to berate and yell ideas with. It makes him work better."

"You say it, but you don't really mean it."

John sighed. "I am happy he's got it. He always worked better in the labs when he had Zelenka there to argue with. I don't know why this bothers me, honestly."

Andrea snorted again, shifting on the bed, lying on her back. "Yes, you do."

"No, I really don't. I must be a shitty friend."

"Since you're going to spend the next hour 'thinking', why don't you try and figure it out? I'm going to sleep because I have to get up in the morning. Good night, John."

"Night." He made a face. He really didn't know why he worried about Rodney so much. And he still hadn't figured it out at almost 2am, when his friend's footsteps jarred him awake where he had fallen asleep in the chair.

And Rodney was talking to himself.

"…no," he chuckled. "You're still wrong wrong wrong…oh so wrong."

John's eyes widened. Rodney had brought someone home?

There was a silent pause and then Rodney spoke again. "Yeah, I know. Fine. See you tomorrow. Night."

John shifted wrong in his chair and fell. He froze, hoping he hadn't woken Andrea or alerted Rodney to his presence.

He held his breath, trying desperately not to move, to make a sound. He heard the click of Rodney's door closing a beat later.

Letting out a breath, John sighed. He was losing his fucking mind.

John stumbled into bed and barely managed to crawl out in the morning. He knew it was bad when Rodney was already eating breakfast when he finally wandered in.

John went straight for the coffee, grateful a fresh pot had apparently just finished brewing. He chugged an entire cup black, made a face at how terrible coffee was black, then made another cup with the milk and sugar he usually preferred.

"Bad night?"

He glanced at Rodney and grunted. "It was fine. Just couldn't sleep."

"Andrea keeping you up?"

"She was in bed. I just couldn't sleep." John plopped down in the chair next to Rodney and nursed his coffee.

"Uh huh," he said with a smirk, finishing off what looked like eggs and bacon.

"So… what did you do last night?"

"It was great. We got into this big discussion about parallel universes and time travel. Some people are just…idiots." He chuckled again, the sound warm, free. "I got in late, but slept like a rock. Oh. We're picking it up again tonight, so I won't be here for dinner. I need to tell Katie."

John bit the inside of his lip. "Sounds like you've made some good friends. Would I know any of them?"

Rodney shrugged, finishing his coffee and rising to get a refill. "Most of them are students, a few professors—mostly the assistants waiting for tenure. They're from the local college."

"Good." John managed a smile. "I'm glad you've found people to berate and yell at."

"It's just…fun, I guess. Someone to talk to about science."

"Good." John made a new promise to himself that he wouldn't, in any way, interfere.

"You could always come. You would be welcome and you do have more than two brain cells."

John knew he was pathetic when he found himself agreeing immediately. "Yeah, actually, sure. It would be nice to get out and do something different."

"Great. I'm planning on leaving at five."

"Okay. I'll be ready!"

Rodney headed off, mug in hand and John closed his eyes. What was he doing?"

The entire day he was more than a little distracted, barely remembering to let Scarlett and Andrea know where he was going to be.

Rodney appeared at his office door, bouncing on his feet. He was dressed in jeans and a nice button down. John hadn't realized his friend actually…dressed up for this. "You ready?"

"Ah. Yeah. I guess… do I need to change?" John was wearing the jeans and casual dress shirt he always wore, but next to Rodney he felt… schlumpy.

"You're fine. They'll all flock to you anyway because of that hair and the casual slump-thing you have going. Just remind them you have a significant other."

John rolled his eyes, but followed Rodney out the door.

Rodney refused Simon's offer to drive them down, deciding to take his little Prius into town. He'd picked it up just after the holidays. The little car gave a good amount of heat and only ten minutes into the ride, John was opening up his wool coat and cracking the window.

"Why do you keep it so hot in here?"

"I like it warm," Rodney said with a shrug.

John snorted and tried to get more air from the window.

"You're letting in cold air."

"I need to breathe."

"There's plenty of air in here," Rodney said, his left hand flicking the window controls and closing John's window.

"Hey! Seriously, I'm starting to feel like I'm being smothered. I need it at least cracked."

Rodney snorted, but changed hands on the wheel, clicking the heater down into low.

"Thanks." John shot him a grateful look, and the rest of the drive was quiet.

They were pulling into the parking lot of a little coffee shop when Rodney spoke again. "Are you sure you really want to be here? I can call Simon and ask him to come and pick you up."

"Of course I'm sure. We haven't hung out in a while, and you know I always liked listening to the science-talk. I'm actually looking forward to this."

"Could have fooled me."

John made a face, and a mental note to force himself to not bring Rodney down. "I am. I'm just still tired from last night, but that doesn't change that I'm happy to be here."

"It feels like you're about as excited to be here as you would be in the accountant's office. You didn't have to come baby-sit me."

"I'm not babysitting you." John gave his friend a smile. "I want to hang out."

"Right. That's why you were waiting up for me. You should turn the light out next time," Rodney said, climbing out of the car.

John's eyes widened. Fuck. He stumbled out of the car. "I wasn't… I'm not…" He sighed. "I'm not trying to baby-sit you. I just… I don't know. I miss hanging out, I guess. I have no idea what my issue is, honestly. But I am happy you've found people to talk to, and I am happy to be here."

"You don't look happy. In fact, you look decidedly unhappy." Rodney sighed. "I shouldn't have asked you to come. I thought maybe you might enjoy it, but I don't know now."

"I will." John forcibly put aside his weird mood. "Don't worry. I won't embarrass you. Come on, and introduce me to your friends."

Rodney gave him a look, but didn't comment. He led him inside and was greeted by a few people—a mix of college kids and scientists and professors, from the look of it. Rodney headed for the back corner, dumping his stuff on one of the comfy chairs. He pointed around the room. "That's Chuck and Carly and Joe, Brian, Amy, um…" He wiggled his fingers at a tall blonde. "Sophie…and Janice. There'll be more before the night's out."

John waved and smiled. "Hi. I'm John."

"Are you the Mensa John Rodney's talked about?" Amy asked.

John shot his friend a look. "Now why do you keep telling people that?"

"Because it's true," Rodney said with a shrug. "I'm getting dinner. Coffee's great here, too."

"I took the test to prove a point. I never actually joined. And I'll have something, too. You know what I like, so I'll trust your judgment."

Rodney gave him a wave as he headed to the counter in the front of the shop. It was nice in here, a place he would normally passed right by. There were various chairs and couches all over with coffee tables scattered between them. In one corner, there was even a piano.

"But you passed," Amy said.

He shrugged. "Yeah. When I first met Rodney, on the base we both worked on, and word got out… I thought I was going to be mobbed by angry scientists and forced to join against my will." He chuckled, remembering the looks on their faces. That had been a good day.

"Good to know you're not a joiner," Amy said with a chuckle. Her face lit up as someone walked in. "Hey, Sherry, Rodney's John came!"

John was beginning to wonder just how much Rodney had told them about him. He was disconcerted that, as the night went on, everyone who trickled in knew quite a bit about him. But he did relax and actually found he was enjoying himself quite a bit, even when the conversations got more technical and all he could do was listen. It was fascinating.

It was a little weird, though, to see the mix of people, of couples. It was even stranger to see Rodney closing in on a slim guy who'd walked in around nine. Gordon. He looked too old for a student, so he had to be a professor of some sort. Maybe. They'd moved to another set of chairs and were talking animatedly about something John couldn't hear.

He found himself watching Rodney out of the corner of his eye, even though he was paying attention to whatever conversation was going on in front of him, too.

Rodney and Gordon were friendly. Very friendly. John felt his chest getting a little tight when they started touching. A lot.

John gritted his teeth when they walked back toward the bathrooms and out of his sight. Amy, who'd moved next to him at some point during the night, her girlfriend sitting next to her, smacked him on the arm. "Stop it."

"Huh, what?"

"You've been glowering at him all night since Gordon walked in. Stop it."

"I wouldn't call it glowering…"

"I would."

"I'm not. He's having a good time."

Amy chuckled. "I'm sure he is."

John pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn't want to know, and he wasn't going to go snoop and find out.

Rodney and Gordon returned to their chairs about twenty minutes later and one of the kids near them hooted as soon as they sat down. Rodney blushed immediately.

Amy chuckled and cheered with the rest of them. "Gordon's been working on him since he first walked in the door."

"Working on him?"

"Hitting on him," Amy answered as Rodney tried to tug his shirt collar up.

John saw the hickey, though, before Rodney could hide it. For a brief moment, his vision went red, but he pushed it back fast enough that Amy didn't even give any indication she had noticed. He should be happy Rodney had found someone. So why did it piss him off so much?

"It's been going on since Rodney first started coming," Amy continued. "But god, Rodney can be stubborn. Everyone knew he was interested, that he loved the attention."

"Yeah. Yeah…it's good for him, to have a little fun." John even managed to say it with a grin, that at least fooled her into thinking he wasn't… whatever it was that he was.

The conversation moved back to science and math—something about black holes this time—and John tried to follow, but he was distracted. When Rodney finally appeared at his side, John was surprised.

"You ready to go home?"

"Ah, sure. whenever you are."

"We still have a long ride home and I know you didn't get much sleep last night."

"Whenever you're ready. I have to admit, you guys have moved beyond me in the last ten minutes with the discussion. I was following, but now…"

"Come on," Rodney said, reaching for his jacket, which had been shoved in the corner of a nearby couch. "You're ready to go home."

John stood up and stretched. "It was great meeting everyone!"

They got a round of good-byes as they shrugged on their winter coats and headed out into the parking lot. Gordon was no where to be found.

John waited until they were in the car and on their way to say anything. "So… have fun?"

"What? Yeah. Of course. They're fun to talk to. Did you?"

"Yeah. What happened to the guy you were talking to most of the night? I didn't see him leave."

"Gordon? He left a few minutes before we did."

"Ahh." So that was why Rodney had wanted to leave all of a sudden.

Rodney glanced over at John, the dashboard light shining on his face. "What?"

"Nothing."

"Obviously it's not nothing if you brought it up. What?"

"Nothing. I'm glad you found someone."

"He's just a friend." Rodney's voice was tight.

"Okay. I'm still glad you found someone you can relax with."

Rodney was silent for a few minutes, the scenery passing by outside the car in a dark blur. "You know, I don't have to ask for your permission."

"I know. I wasn't suggesting you had to. I'm happy for you."

"You don't sound happy."

"I'm just tired. It's been a long night, and I really had to concentrate to follow a lot of the conversations. They're really fascinating people."

"They are," Rodney said tightly, his eyes fixed on the road.

John sighed. "I'm not giving permission, or suggesting you need it. I just want you to be happy."

"Just…drop it."

"Okay." John was pretty sure he couldn't make this any better with anything he could say. Especially when he couldn't figure out why he wasn't happy for Rodney, when he knew damn well he should be. Trying to find a reason was making his head hurt.

The rest of the ride was done in silence, as was the walk to their respective bedrooms, Rodney heading into his without a word. John sighed and stepped into his room. Andrea was sitting up in bed, reading. She offered a smile when she saw him.

"Hey. How'd it go? They as geeky as I thought they'd be?"

John shrugged. "They were talking about some high-level stuff. I got most of it, but as the night progressed, it got more difficult."

"Did you have fun at least?"

"Yeah. Rodney has a… special friend. Gordon."

"Gordon?" She put her book down next to her, turning toward John. "Gordon Hughes?"

"You know him?" John froze and looked at her. "I'd never met him before, but apparently he's been… working on getting in Rodney's pants since they first met. Do I need to go shoot him?"

"He's…we went to school with him, John. He was a Junior when you graduated. He actually reminds me of you. Tall, thin, dark hair…his is a tad bit more under control, though."

"Gordon… Gordon…" John tried to think back, but it had been a long time. "I can't place him." He sat down heavily on the bed. "I'm just… I guess I'm glad Rodney found someone, even if it's not long-term. He… he seemed to be having a good time."

"Seemed to be having a good time?"

"He and Gordon were sitting talking in a corner most of the time."

"Since you're so worked up by it, I'm guessing it was more than just talking."

"They disappeared for a little while to the men's room, and Rodney has a hickey now."

"Ahhh," she said with a knowing smile. "That kind of fun. Good for him."

"Yeah. Good for him."

Andrea narrowed her eyes. "Are you jealous?"

"Why would I be jealous?" John rolled his eyes and stood up, finishing getting undressed. "I have you, and now he has…" John waved his hand.

"You can't even say his name."

"Who? Rodney?"

"Gordon's."

"I can, too."

"So say it."

He scowled at her narrowing his eyes. "I'm not jealous. I have nothing to be jealous of." John tossed his clothes in the hamper and got into bed.

"Uh huh," she said quietly, shifting down so she was lying beside him.

"I don't. Why would you even suggest that?"

"John, if you can't figure it out yourself, you're not as smart as I know you are."

"I have no idea what you're talking about. You keep saying stuff like that, but you're not making any sense."

She sighed quietly. "John…" she started, breaking off. "I'm going to go home tomorrow."

"You are home." He sat back up and looked at her, puzzled.

She shook her head. "You need to think about what you really want."

"What are you talking about?"

"You haven't noticed, have you?"

"Noticed what?" John was starting to get frustrated.

"I have a small suitcase worth of clothes here now, John. I've been moving out for the past two weeks."

"What?!" He sat bolt upright now, looking around. "Why? What did I do?"

"You need to figure out what you want, John. And I'm not sure if it's me. You need some space to figure it out."

"I have no idea what you're talking about. Please…" John rubbed the bridge of his nose, "Please just tell me what you mean. I can't fix this if I don't know what I did wrong."

Andrea sat up, reaching out to grab his hand. "You didn't do anything wrong. I just don't think you're happy with how things are right now."

"What do you mean? I thought we were happy. I thought we'd finally gotten settled."

"I am happy, John. I love you, but you're not settled. I don't want half of you."

"Half of me?"

Andrea nodded. "Give it a week and we can have this conversation again. Okay?"

"All right. I guess." John rubbed his face again. "Do you want me to sleep on the couch?"

"No. You're fine. And besides, you're warm and I turned the heat down."

"Oh. Okay." He scooted back down, but while she fell asleep relatively quickly, John spent most of the night trying to figure out what she meant. When morning finally rolled around, he was, if anything, more exhausted than he had been yesterday.

Andrea acted like there was nothing wrong at breakfast, but when she left to go to work, she took her small suitcase with her.

He didn't talk to anyone for most of the day, and got shit done. Andrea's words kept cycling through his head. How did she think he was jealous of Rodney's happiness?

He had—thought he had—her. Why was he getting so upset about Rodney finding someone? He knew he didn't want his friend to be unhappy or lonely. So why?

Rodney stayed in that night and the next day wasn't any better. It honestly got worse when Rodney headed out at five, driving back to Louisville and that damn coffee shop.

John ended up sitting on the floor of his room, door open, trying to figure out where he had gone wrong. He didn't even realize how late it was getting until he heard Rodney coming back.

"John? What the hell are you doing up?"

He looked up, sure by this point he probably looked like complete hell. "Hey. Didn't realize what time it was. What time is it?" Maybe he shouldn't have had Rodney's vodka.

"Two in the morning."

"Oh. Andrea left. Two days ago. She said she'd been moving out for two weeks, and that I was jealous, and she didn't want half of me."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Rodney asked, stepping into the light. His hair was a mess, standing up in a few places. "And why does it smell like a bar? Have you been drinking?"

John held up the bottle, shaking it. Huh. Empty. "Of you. Or something. She wasn't clear about it, but she said I was jealous, and she didn't have all of me. She thinks I want…. something. I don't know. I should be happy for you, and I am, but I want to kill Gordon. That's not normal, is it? I'm a fucking horrible friend, that I want to kill all your lovers."

Rodney sighed loudly. "That was my vodka and you're drunk."

"Probably," he admitted. "But I still don't understand what she meant. I've been trying for weeks now to figure it out."

"Drinking won't help the revelation come to you," Rodney said, leaning down and tugging John to his feet. "Let's get you in bed."

John let himself be tugged up, but he stumbled, ending up pressed chest to chest with Rodney.

The Canadian oofed as they collided, but he managed to keep them both on his feet. "Come on, Sheppard. You need to go to bed."

There was that… weird jolt again. It confused him enough that he didn't put up any fight when Rodney got him manhandled into bed. "I want you to be happy. So why does it upset me so much when you have sex? I'm happy when you made discoveries, and when you bounce around when you're excited, and when you make faces at Maddie, and call me names."

"I'm not having sex," he said as he efficiently stripped John down to his boxers and t-shirt. "I'm going to get you something for your head and a glass of water. Stay there."

"Okay." John wished he knew what was bothering him. "Do you know why I would be jealous?"

"No, John. I don't know," he said from the bathroom. The water turned on a moment later.

John sighed. "Neither do I. And it's driving me crazy."

"You'll figure it out." Rodney appeared at his side, helping him sit up and take two pills.

With another sigh, John laid back down. "Night."

"Night, John. And…I'm sure you'll figure it out soon enough and then Andrea will be back."

"I don't…think I want her to come back. Does that make me horrible, too? I like her a lot, but I don't think I love her. I know I don't love her. Not like that."

"No, John, it doesn't make you horrible. Maybe you…just needed the time to figure out what you do want."

"That's what she said, too."

"I always knew she was a smart one. Night, John," Rodney said, closing the door behind him as he stepped out.

He didn't remember falling asleep, but he woke up the next morning with the sun streaming through the windows. And a raging hard-on, with the lingering memory of a dream involving Rodney.

And he didn't even want to think of the hang-over he had.

Stumbling into the shower, John managed to make it through the day without really seeing or talking to anyone again.

He was getting better at it, although Scarlett's emails were getting shorter and more sarcastic.

He decided he needed to talk to Rodney, and went hunting for him toward the end of the day.

Surprisingly, he found him in the stables, brushing down one of the horses and talking quietly to him. Madison was with him and helping the best she could, Rodney correcting her quietly when he needed to.

John leaned against a stall—he hadn't been noticed. After a few minutes, he realized he was watching Rodney, the way he moved, the way his muscles moved.

God. His smile… Rodney chuckled quietly at something Madison said, saying a few words to her in return and getting a high-pitched carefree laugh.

John got another of the weird jolts, and all the sudden, he knew what it was.

Fuck.

He was straight. At least he thought he was.

But he wanted Rodney. And apparently had for a long time. Holy shit.

Rodney checked his watch a few minutes later and then nodded to himself. He said a few words to Madison and she was off in a flash, headed toward the house. Dinner. It must be time for her to eat.

Rodney continued brushing down the horse, his hands gentle.

John shivered, and all the sudden all the… stuff…he had apparently been repressing for a long time welled up. "Rodney…" He was breathless, fixated on those hands.

The Canadian didn't hear him, continuing to work.

John had to ask. He had to. He couldn't not, not now that he knew. Andrea had asked what he wanted, and John suddenly knew, with startling clarity. He pushed off from the wall and walked closer, finding a bit more of his voice. "Rodney."

"Hey," he said with a quick smile. "What are you doing out here?"

John's insides nearly liquefied at that smile. Holy fuck. How had he missed this for so long? "I figured it out. What I was jealous about."

"Oh?" He looked a little leery. "And?"

"Gordon. The bitch who hurt you before. All of them. I hate them because I want it to be me." John swallowed hard, the revelation still doing a number on his body.

"You want it to be you?" Rodney said the words slowly, enunciating.

"Yes. Me. With you." John shivered. "I never realized… all this time… I've been… but I didn't know what it was. I was ignoring it, all the times I… wanted you."

"So, what? I made you gay?"

"I don't know. All I know right now is that I want… you." John had to close his eyes. He wasn't sure, now that he knew, if he could take Rodney laughing at him, rejecting him. He'd never fucking cared about what anyone thought, never wanted anyone, ever, like this.

"Are you sure?" Rodney asked, his voice shaking a bit. "Because, if this is some kind of a joke—"

"No joke. I… God, I've never… not for anyone… never wanted…" He shivered, unable to move or open his eyes, but unwilling to walk away.

"John…open your eyes."

Slowly, shaking a little, John did what Rodney asked.

The scientist had stepped in close, right into John's personal space. "Are you sure?"

John could only nod slowly.

Rodney uttered a breathy "god" as his hand came up, gently touching the side of John's face. He leaned in, pressing a soft kiss against John's lips.

With a moan, John opened his mouth, leaning into Rodney's hand.

Rodney made a soft sound and tightened his grip.

John… god he… he needed… he leaned in, capturing Rodney's mouth.

He got another moan in response and then Rodney was pressed up against him—chest to chest.

John had never, in his life, been so turned on. He hadn't even known he could feel this way.

Rodney backed off a few beats later, panting hard. "John…"

"Please… Rodney…." John had, at some point, fisted his hands in Rodney's shirt, and he was unwilling to let go now.

"Are you sure about this? I don't want you to regret it later and I can't…I couldn't stand…stay here if this goes badly."

John's hands tightened, panic flaring. "Don't go. You can't go. I can't…. Now that I know, I can't…. Not without you…."

"Shhh," Rodney said quietly. "I'm not saying I'm leaving, but I also don't want to ruin what we have with just a…fling."

"Not a fling." John shivered again, overwhelmed by everything he was feeling. "I think… God… I think I've been in love with you for fucking years and didn't know it."

"That's what you say now."

"Spent the last few weeks thinking about it, trying to figure it out. I've… Rodney, I've never wanted anyone, not like this. I always thought people were lying when they… talked about…. talked about needing someone like this…"

"It's just that…after everything…another rejection would just be…devastating."

John pulled Rodney in and mashed their mouths together. He didn't know how to put everything raging through him into words, so he tried to show the other man.

Rodney moaned, his body shuddering against John.

He kept kissing, kept pouring it all into Rodney's mouth.

They eventually ended up with Rodney pressed up against the wall of the stall. John leaned in, blanketing Rodney's body with his own.

John had never felt another man's hard-on before, but now, feeling Rodney's pressed against his…it made him wild with need, his hips bucking without his conscious control.

Rodney's hands were grabby, tugging at his shirt, trying to yank it free of John's pants even as they explored each other's mouths.

John did his best to help, trying to yank at all the clothes that were in the way.

Rodney's hands were warm against his skin, sliding up his back under his shirt.

John had to break free of the kiss to gasp for air. Closer, they needed to be closer.

"John…house…bed…"

"Yes. Bed." John was panting hard, but he couldn't pull away. He was afraid if he did, Rodney would disappear.

"I am not having sex with you and a horse," Rodney whispered.

It made John laugh softly. "I… yeah. Yeah." He shivered, but forced himself, slowly, to let go of Rodney's shirt. "No pit stops. I… god I need you. I need… I don't even know what the fuck I need. I've never…. I don't know what to do."

"What we were doing will be just fine. Even better with less clothes in the way."

"Oh yeah…" John's voice was breathy and he gasped for air.

"Come on before the horse kicks us out."

Laughing a little again, John licked his lips and nodded. They slipped out of the stables and headed for the house. He hoped no one saw them, since, if he looked anything like Rodney did, they both were wrecked and rumpled.

They managed to get back to the house without incident, sneaking through the hallways and to John's room. The walk back gave him a little breathing room so everything wasn't so close, so pressing. He still wanted Rodney—badly—but it wasn't as desperate as it was five minutes ago.

As soon as the door was closed, John smiled, reaching out and pulling Rodney close. "Hey."

"Hey," he said, moving easily into his arms. It was…perfect.

"How did we miss this for so long?" John ran his hands down Rodney's back and sides, marveling at how right it was.

"You were straight. I looked, but I knew you were out of my reach."

"I didn't know. I never suspected." John made a face. "I… probably because between the way I grew up, and then the military, wanting a man just never occurred to me. I knew women weren't all that interesting, but… I never even considered it was because I wasn't straight. Or not entirely straight."

"Or maybe I really did make you gay," Rodney said with a quiet chuckle.

"Maybe. I guess it doesn't matter, does it?" John moved one hand to cup Rodney's face, dragging his thumb across Rodney's lips.

"I guess not," Rodney whispered.

"I… want to see you. Without clothes."

"Okay, but only if I can see you, too. Fair is fair, you know."

"Okay." John whispered softly. He brushed Rodney's lips again, then stepped back and slowly began unbuttoning his shirt.

"Wait," Rodney said, his hands on John's. "You asked first."

John nodded, dropping his hands.

Rodney took a breath. "Do you…want to…" He spread his arms wide.

John's breath caught, and all he could do was nod. He reached out, and slowly, carefully, undid Rodney's shirt, pushing it off the other man's shoulders.

Rodney helped him a little, but let John do everything, revealing skin one piece at a time.

When Rodney was finally naked, John stepped back again, this time to admire. "God… you're…I can't believe I never let myself notice before…"

John watched as a blush slowly grew on Rodney's body. "You're just saying that to get into my pants."

"Hardly." John smiled, spreading his arms. "Your turn."

"Mmm," Rodney said, stepping in. He ran his hands over John's body, teasing and tempting him as he slowly—ever so slowly—pulled off his clothes.

By the time John was naked too, he was harder than he could ever remember being in his life, panting hard.

"Come on," Rodney said quietly, taking John's hands and leading him to the bed.

John followed, laying down and moaning softly when Rodney laid alongside him and their skin touched.

"We don't have to do anything complicated."

"I want… touch me? Your hands… God, I've always been fascinated by them."

Rodney smiled and chuckled quietly. "I can do that."

John's smile turned to a gasp when Rodney's hands skimmed his side.

"And the kissing thing you had down pretty well."

"I liked that part a lot, too."

"So," Rodney said licking his lips. "What are you waiting for?"

John reached and pulled Rodney down, kissing him hard.

The moan and subsequent all body shudder John got in response was exactly what he wanted. Especially because it rubbed their skin together in all the right places.

John rolled them so Rodney was flat on the bed, with John on top, pressing down into him.

He was more comfortable on top and the moan he got from Rodney wasn't a protest or complaint. And Rodney's hands were moving along his back, fingers digging into his muscles.

As they kissed, John moved, moaning into Rodney's mouth when their cocks suddenly aligned as they moved together.

This was…perfect. Rodney was solid and strong and was just so…different than a woman. And the prickle of his stubble made it even better.

John had to break, gasping. So close. He was so fucking close… "Gonna… Don't want to yet…"

"Yes…yes, you do."

"Oh… God… Rodney…."

Rodney leaned up, capturing John's mouth in another kiss, teasing John's mouth open, his tongue exploring inside.

John moaned again, letting Rodney in, wanting more, and too much. He couldn't stop it, sensation flowing through him faster than he could stop it.

Rodney's hands slid down, cupping his ass and pulling him closer, grinding them together.

And that was all it took. John was coming harder than he had ever come in his life.

Rodney held him as he shivered and shook through his orgasm, his lips grazing his jaw.

John couldn't move, couldn't speak. All he could do was hold on and shiver through the aftershocks. "Mmmmmmmmmmmmm…"

"Yeah," Rodney whispered. "It only gets better."

John could only shiver in anticipation. "Your turn."

"Mmm, yeah," Rodney said, rocking his hips upward against John.

John gasped, his body over sensitive, but at the same time… it was amazing. "What can I give you? I want… everything."

"Won't take much," he panted. He tugged John's hand down and it didn't take long for John to get the idea.

He had never touched another man's dick, but it felt…. more right than he could ever have imagined. He fumbled a bit at first, until he got the trick of doing it to someone else, but then he found the rhythm.

And the sounds Rodney made…yeah. He just wanted to hear them all the time. It was coffee and chocolate all rolled into one and then multiplied by a thousand.

John captured his mouth again, dipping his tongue inside, tasting the unique flavor that somehow John became immediately addicted to.

Rodney moaned into his mouth as he squirmed in John's hands. Two more strokes and Rodney was coming, shuddering as John eased him through his orgasm. Rodney melted into the bed moments later. "Oh….yeah…"

John rolled so he was next to Rodney, curled close with one arm flung over Rodney's chest.

Rodney settled in close, his breathing easing a few minutes later, evening off.

John swallowed hard, and pressed a light kiss to Rodney's shoulder. He hoped to God this wasn't just a dream, then he closed his eyes, and actually slept for the first time in a long time.

He woke a few hours later and discovered Rodney still in his arms, curled in even closer than when they'd fallen asleep.

"Not a dream…" John looked at his friend… lover… in wonder.

A light knock on the door made him jump.

"Hello?" John couldn't imagine who'd be looking for him.

"Sir?" Simon.

"Ah, yeah?" One of Rodney's nipples distracted him, and John had to touch.

Rodney moaned quietly, shifting under him as Simon replied. "I can't find Mister McKay. Have you seen him? Miss Madison has been asking for him all night."

"Ah. Yeah. He's… fine. He's… with me. In here. Do you need him?"

"She's…upset." That was what had become a code word for her waking up screaming and crying.

"Shit." John sat up and nudged Rodney. "Hey, buddy. Wake up."

Rodney groaned and huffed, not waking until John nudged him again. "Hmmm….what? I'm not ready for more yet."

John chuckled, unable to resist pressing another soft kiss to Rodney's lips. "Maddie's upset because she didn't know where you were. We need to go get her."

"God, what time is it?" Rodney asked, moving quickly toward wakefulness. "I need clothes."

"Don't know. Simon just knocked and said Maddie was upset." John sat up and started hunting for his boxers. "We should move your clothes in here."

"What? Why?" Rodney asked, even as Simon knocked on the door again.

"Sir?"

"We're coming, Simon." John shrugged. "And, you could, you know, move in here. With me."

"I'm across the hall," Rodney said, ducking into the bathroom. The water started a moment later.

"I guess." John walked in behind him. "But maybe you could, you know, think about it? Moving in here with me, I mean."

Rodney was quickly wiping down his stomach and thighs with a washcloth. "How did I manage to get all of it on me?"

"Dunno." John's breath caught as he watched. He had to shake himself to snap out of it. "I'll find pants and come with you."

"Yeah, sure," Rodney said, glancing up with a quick smile. He tossed John the washcloth as he headed back out into the bedroom.

John quickly wiped himself down and wandered back out, finding his jeans and one of his favorite black t-shirts.

Rodney had just finished pulling on his clothes, his feet still bare. "I'm going to try and get her settled."

"I'm coming. She probably just got scared when you weren't in your room where she expected you to be."

"She's used to me not being around when she goes to bed," Rodney grumbled. "Why does she have to pick this night of all nights?"

"Kids are good at that." John finally opened the door, surprised to find Simon still there.

"Where is she?" Rodney asked, seemingly not fazed by the man hovering at the door.

"She is in her bedroom, Sir." Simon was wringing his hands. "I've tried to reassure her, but tonight is apparently a bad one. I'm sorry for having to disturb you."

"It's fine," Rodney said, stomping down the hall to Madison's room. He immediately went to her side, brushing the hair away from her face and talking quietly to her.

John moved to the other side of the bed, sitting down and reaching out to rub her back.

"I'm not leaving you, Maddie. I promise. There's nothing to worry about," Rodney was saying.

Madison was sobbing, and flung herself into Rodney's arms.

He held her tightly, patting her back and whispering nonsense words. He looked at John over her head, mouthing an apology.

John smiled and scooted across the bed so he could wrap his arms around both of them. "We're both here, Maddie. You're not alone. None of us are alone anymore."

It took nearly an hour to calm her down before she finally fell into an exhausted sleep. Rodney carefully laid her back down, tugging the blankets up to cover her. They moved quietly out of the room.

John smiled at him. "Come back to bed with me?"

"Are you sure?" Rodney asked as he tugged the door to Madison's room closed behind him. "I'm not sure either of us in really in the mood anymore. And I do need to eat something since we seemed to have missed dinner."

"I… I want you nearby." John smiled a bit shyly. "Want to get some dinner and then go fall asleep together?"

Rodney looked at him weirdly, one eyebrow raised. "Are you sure you're the same person I thought you were?"

"Why?"

"I never took you for a twelve-year-old girl. Please don't tell me your first bout of man sex made your brain melt."

John rolled his eyes. "Hardly. I just… I don't know. I don't want to sleep across the hall knowing you're there but I can't touch you, now that I know I can."

"Since when are you touchy-feely?"

"I don't know." John blushed. "You don't have to. If it bothers you. I just… I don't know. You're right, it's stupid."

"I'm not saying no. I'm just…I never took you for the blushing virgin."

"I'm not a blushing virgin. I've just always liked sleeping next to someone. I didn't care for sex, but I liked having someone close. You're the first person I've ever… really liked it with."

Rodney raised his eyebrow again.

"What? You are. Sex was always something I did because it was expected of me. But you… I… I've never… wanted anyone like this."

Rodney rubbed his head. "I need to eat before we have any more of these profound conversations."

"Yeah. Okay." John flushed again and followed Rodney toward the kitchen.

The house was quiet, Katie long-since in bed, so Rodney dove into the fridge, dragging out the fixings for sandwiches.

John found the bread, and together they made two huge sandwiches.

Rodney took a big bite, humming with appreciation.

John nibbled, nodding. "S'good."

"So…what's with all of these…touchy-feely feeling things?" Rodney asked around a second bite.

"It's not touchy-feely. It's just… I don't know."

"You were never like this before."

"We were just friends before. And I never… felt like this before, anyway. Toward anyone."

"You were married before."

"Out of duty more than anything."

"I'm just having a difficult time reconciling what you're saying after only a few hours of being gay. There's a freak-out in your future. I know it. You might decide this was a mistake. And honestly, I don't know if I can handle it if you decide it's too much or wrong."

"I can't promise I won't freak out, but… I know this is right. For the first time in my life, being with someone actually… feels right."

"It's just that after everything…" Rodney's voice trailed off. But John knew.

He reached across the table to catch Rodney's hand. "I think we've been together for a long time though, and neither of us realized it. The only thing we weren't having was sex."

"And I know I really shouldn't be turning down regular sex with someone so hot, but…I think we need to go slow and…make sure this is what you want."

"I…. all right. Okay. If you think that's best. I honestly don't know… I'm not good at relationships. But I want to try."

Rodney sighed, looking away. "Doctor Hendricks doesn't think I'm ready for a relationship, that it's still too soon." He paused. "Yes, I've talked to him about sex, about getting on with my life."

"So you don't… want this?"

"I didn't say that."

"So what do you want?" John's chest was tight at the idea of losing Rodney so soon after finally realizing what he wanted.

"I don't know. I just…I need to know that this is really something you want and I don't think a sudden revelation and a few hours of sex is enough incentive. No matter now good it was."

John managed a small grin. "Fair enough. So let's take it one day at a time for now. Tonight… I'd really like to fall asleep with you. I don't want to wake up and wonder if this was all a dream."

"Just sleeping?"

"You said yourself that neither of us is up for much more tonight. I make no promises about tomorrow morning before I go to work, however."

Rodney chuckled, shaking his head as he finished off his sandwich. "If you're not freaking out."

"I don't think I will."

"Maybe."

"So let's try it."

Rodney was silent for a few minutes before finally nodding. "Okay."

John smiled. "Done eating?"

"I think so."

"Let's clean up and go back to bed then."

Rodney gave him a crooked smile as he stood and something in John's chest twinged.

Standing up, John gave Rodney his own grin.

They cleaned up quickly and then John took Rodney's hand and led him back to his room and back to his bed. He undressed him for the second time that night and put him to bed, stripping and following a few moments later.

John settled in next to him, flinging an arm across Rodney's chest.

Rodney watched him the entire time, his eyes soft.

John swallowed hard. "Night."

"Night," he said quietly, licking his lips.

John sat up enough to press a soft kiss to Rodney's lips.

But the scientist leaned up, deepening it, his hand sliding around toward John's hip.

A moan slipped out before John could stop it.

They kissed—deep and greedy and warm—for several minutes before John pulled back, taking in his friend's—lover's—pleasure-filled eyes.

"You're fucking beautiful." John whispered it with awe.

"I know I shouldn't do this, but I can't not. I used to think about what you'd be like, but I knew it would never happen. You were straight. Really straight."

"You thought about sex with me?"

Even in the half-dark of the room, John could see Rodney's blush. "I…ah…shouldn't have said that."

John grinned. "How much did you think about me?"

"Too much for a guy crushing on his straight best friend," Rodney said with a sigh. "I convinced myself a long time ago you were out of my league."

"Not out of your league, just clueless for way too long." John had to give him another soft kiss.

Rodney responded eagerly, arching into him, moaning into his mouth.

John deepened it, wanting to taste everything, all of him.

Rodney tugged him closer, sliding his knee between John's as he rolled them onto their sides.

It was John's turn to moan.

It was Rodney who broke off the kiss this time, a few minutes later, panting into John's mouth. "I…thought…sleeping."

"Fuck sleeping. We can do that later." John slipped a hand along Rodney's side.

"Gonna…freak…"

"Shut up and touch me."

Rodney didn't disappoint, crashing their mouths together again as his hands trailed over John's skin. They rolled and touched and kissed, skin sliding deliciously together.

John ended up on the bottom this time, arching up into every one of Rodney's caresses.

This was perfect.

"Want… touch me… want you…"

"You've got me," he whispered against John's lips.

John moaned and arched again, sliding their skin together.

They rolled again, Rodney ending up on the bottom once again, his legs sliding open to let John settle in close.

"Oooh…" John thrust a few times, trying to get them aligned.

"Yeah…like…like that."

John settled into the rhythm, moving slow, wanting to drag it out this time.

"Yeah…" he panted, his hands running down John's back.

John gasped when Rodney squeezed his ass, sensation jolting through him.

"Come on."

"Oh god, Rodney… Rodney…."

"Yeah, John, just like that."

John sped up, unable to stop himself.

Rodney urged him on, rocking up to meet his thrusts. Their cocks rubbed together, igniting fireworks throughout his body.

John's world exploded.

A few seconds later John felt Rodney come, following him over the edge.

They both collapsed together into a sticky, panting pile.

Rodney pressed a kiss to his shoulder, the skin closest to him. He was still breathing heavily. "Good."

"Uh huh."

"Tired."

"Uh huh."

Rodney shifted under him and then stilled. "Sleep."

John was already starting to drift off, so he just hummed his agreement this time.

He drifted off to sleep easily, waking when the sun was streaming through the windows in his room. Rodney was still in his arms, in his bed and they were still pressed close together, chest to chest.

John shifted and immediately stopped when he realized they were stuck. Dried come was apparently as hard as cement.

"Hair and come don't play well together. Check." John had to grin a little.

Rodney picked that moment to shift, pulling a moan from John as the hair on his chest pulled.

"Ow, okay, stop moving." John used his weight to hold Rodney down.

"Hmm….what?" he mumbled, squirming against John's hold, rocking up in to him.

"Oh." John's body, much to his surprise, decided to focus on the more pleasant sensations now going on.

Rodney let out a quiet moan of pleasure, his hands trailing over John's back.

John settled in more firmly against Rodney's body, loving how solid the other man was, instead of the delicate female body he was used to.

"Yeah," Rodney whispered, groaning as he arched up into John, the hair on their chests pulling and tugging.

But John was too turned on now to care, too focused on Rodney, on how they felt together.

The little bit of pain only intensified his feelings of pleasure.

John pulled up and pulled them apart so he could move down, wanting to see and touch Rodney's body this time. Wanting to see his cock.

"Ow," Rodney groaned, but John quickly shushed him, touching him and arousing him again.

He traced a finger down Rodney's length then back up again, twirling it around the tip.

His lover moaned, arching into John's touch as much as he could.

It was fascinating. Rodney was thicker than he was, with less pubic hair.

"Tease," he muttered, his eyes half open, but fixed on John.

"I want to touch you." John hefted Rodney's balls, testing their weight.

Rodney let out a high-pitched moan, squirming under John. His hands were spread out on the bed next to him, his fingers digging into the mattress.

Curious, John leaned in and touched the tip of Rodney with his tongue, tasting him.

"Oh god!"

John licked his lips, testing the taste. He took another delicate lick, deciding it was different, but he might like it.

"John…god…"

"Can I… try? Blow you I mean?"

"Not…not gonna say no."

John hummed and took… too much in for his first try. Coughing, he pulled back up and made a face. Then he tried again, this time focusing on just the tip. That was better.

Rodney…Rodney was amazing. John could tell that he was trying not to shift or move too much, trying not to thrust up. He was shaking, trying to stay still. The sounds though, were even better than last night.

John hummed a little, trying to remember all the things he liked when he got the occasional blow job. He decided to try wrapping one hand around Rodney's shaft, since that way the other man would get some stimulation everywhere—and John thought he remembered a girl telling him once that it let her control how much was in her mouth if he started thrusting at all.

It didn't take much more once John did that then Rodney called out his name and said, "Coming." John didn't have time to back off before the warm liquid was spilling inside his mouth.

He choked a little on it, but managed to swallow most of it. When Rodney was done, he pulled off slowly, licking his lips and trying to decide how he felt about the flavor. It was a little salty, but… not bad at all.

He glanced up his lover's body, chuckling softly at the completely dazed and sated expression on Rodney's face.

"That's a good look for you."

Rodney smiled at him, his hand barely lifting from the bed to wave John up toward him.

John crawled up the bed, nuzzling in to press a kiss to the side of Rodney's neck, still marveling that he could do this.

"Give me a minute," Rodney whispered, his voice rough. "I'll…" His hand waved again.

"S'okay. Take your time." John smiled, closing his eyes to focus on how it felt to be in bed next to a solid male body. The smell of Rodney, the rough rasp of his hair… it made John swallow hard with emotions he couldn't readily identify.

"For someone who hasn't come yet, you're mighty polite."

"I won't be later," John chuckled. "You're benefiting from everything still feeling so new, so I'm willing to wait while I take it all in."

Rodney snorted. "All men are pushy when it comes to sex. I expect it."

"I've never been. While it didn't happen often, there were a few times I got my partner off then just went to bed."

Rodney shifted on the bed next to him, lifting his head to see John a little better. "You're kidding."

John shook his head, blushing a little. "I keep telling you, I was never all that interested in sex before. You're the first person I've ever really… enjoyed it with."

"Okay. So it's up to me to change your mind then. I consider myself ready for the challenge."

John grinned. "I'm looking forward to it. I always wondered why people were so… crazy about it. It wasn't bad, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't something I'd go out of my way for. And now… I just want to touch you all over so I can hear your noises. It's… a little disconcerting, but in a good way."

Rodney chuckled, low and dirty. "Just wait, Sheppard." He sat up, rolling John onto his back and straddling him. "By the time I'm done with you—and if you don't manage to freak out—you'll be thinking about sex all the time."

John shivered, arching up at the combination of the promise and the new sensations. "God… Yes…."

Rodney leaned forward, capturing John's wrists and pinning them to the bed. He hovered over him, staring him down. "Are you sure you're ready for this?"

John was stunned at the bolt of lust that went through him when he realized that, with Rodney's greater bulk, the other man could keep him pinned down. John made a sound composed of all vowels and tried to arch up for more contact.

Rodney chuckled again. "Oh no. Not yet. There's so much I want to do to you," he said, ducking down and nibbling at the skin of John's neck.

John moaned, moving his head to the side to give Rodney better access.

And then Rodney proceeded to nip and bite his way down John's neck and collarbone, pausing to tongue John's nipples. He chuckled deep and low as John squirmed under him, but Rodney held him down, kept him in place.

Panting hard, John could barely think. He had never been this turned on in his entire life.

Rodney's tongue did wicked and wild things to his bellybutton before he finally let go of John's hands and scooted down the bed between John's out-stretched legs. "So. Are you ready for me to blow your mind?"

John couldn't actually form words at this point, he just moaned again and let his legs fall open further.

His lover laughed again and then put his hands on John's hips. He swallowed John down, nearly all the way and then started doing something with his tongue and lips and mouth.

Oh. My. God.

John nearly screamed as pleasure shot through him. He had never known his body could feel anything like this. And every time he got close to coming, Rodney did something that backed him off, until John was almost sobbing with the need to come. When he was finally allowed to crest over the edge, the world went completely white.

When he came back to himself, he was tucked along Rodney's body and the blankets were pulled back over them.

"Mmmmmmmmmmm…"

"I think my work here is done," Rodney said, sounding smug.

John couldn't even dispute it. He just melted a little closer into Rodney's side.

"I expect you to be a fast learner," Rodney said quietly. "I know you have the brain cells to figure this stuff out."

"Uh huh." John let out a content sigh. "Lookin' forward to learning to do this t'you."

"I've had years of practice. I don't intend to wait that long."

"Kay."

"And just so you know, I'm an eager test subject."

John chuckled. "Good. We're going to have a lot of fun." John yawned hugely. Rodney had sucked all his energy out of his dick apparently.

"Just as long as you don't start freaking out—which I am expecting, by the way."

John humphed. "Night, Rodney."

"Night? Don't you mean morning? It's almost eight."

Groaning, John sighed. "I have to be downstairs at 9:30. Lemme get in a little bit of rest. The alarm will go off soon."

"I'm hungry. Sex always makes me hungry."

John had to laugh. "All right… How about we shower and then go get breakfast then before I have to go in and try to get some work done today."

"Showering would be good. The dried come is making me itchy. Huh. I wonder if I'm going to be allergic to you. And you better not come anywhere near any type of citrus product if you intend on this continuing."

"I haven't eaten anything with citrus in it in years." John sat up, running a hand through his hair. Coffee was going to be a priority today.

"You lie. I watched you drink orange juice two weeks ago at breakfast."

"It was mango juice. There's nothing with citrus in it in the house."

"I've seen orange juice containers," Rodney grumbled, rolling out of bed and shuffling toward the bathroom.

"Mango." John sing-songed it and followed him in. His shower was huge, so they both got in together.

"I know the difference between the two," Rodney said, leaning in to turn on the water.

"And yet, you're claiming I've had citrus when I haven't had any since I met you."

"I'm just happy you didn't have it yesterday because this whole experience would have ended up with me in the hospital. And honestly, that was one conversation I'd rather not have with the EMS people."

John chuckled, ducking under the water and soaping up his hair. "Yeah, I'd rather not have sex end in hospital trips for any reason, honestly."

"It's not fun and rather embarrassing. Although, for me at the time, I didn't care. You know the whole, trying to breathe thing was more important."

"I can imagine." John turned and pushed Rodney against the wall, pressing their mouths together. "It was fucking terrifying from this end, too."

Rodney hummed into the kiss, answering when John pulled back. "And yes. That time was no fun. I'm referencing hospital trips that were a result in me swallowing someone's…well, you know. Let's just say that he loved orange juice."

"Wow, that actually happened? I'll be extra careful then about making sure I don't touch anything with citrus."

"We won't talk about the…other trips to the hospital yet. I'll wait to scare you with those details."

"Christ." John kissed him again, this time more softly.

But Rodney deepened it a few seconds later, his hand threading through the hair at the back of John's head. Rodney held him in place as he plundered John's mouth a little roughly.

John was moaning again by the time Rodney let him up for air. He was panting hard, stunned he was getting hard again. "I've never… come this much… in one night…"

"This is nothing. One time I came so much my dick ached for days," Rodney said a little fondly. "Although, I was younger then and more…adventurous."

John moaned softly, rubbing up against Rodney.

The scientist shifted them, pressing John against the wall of the shower. He slid down John's body, looking up at him with a smile once he was on his knees. "Interested?"

John panted his reply, nodding.

"Mmm, I'm not so sure about that," Rodney said.

"Rodney…" John's hips bucked a little as he threaded his fingers into the other man's hair.

"Think about what you want, John, on what you think will feel good. Then tell me what it is. I want to hear it."

John swallowed. "I've never… done that before. I… I like blowjobs, like the one you gave me before."

"Mmmm, not sure any guy would turn down a blow job, honestly."

"True." John swallowed again, the water from the shower running down his body, adding another layer of sensation.

"We don't have unlimited hot water here, so what do you want, John?"

"I… I don't know." John shivered. "It's… nothings ever felt… as good as… as what you've done to me."

Rodney chuckled. "You're good for my ego, but we both know that doesn't need a whole lot of stroking. Come on, John. What do you want?"

"Use… use your tongue?"

"And?"

"On me. Everywhere."

"That's a lot of places and we certainly don't have enough hot water for that."

John had to swallow again. "My cock. And… and my balls?"

Rodney smiled broadly. "There we go. That wasn't so hard now, was it?"

John had to grin slightly. "I have a feeling the longer I'm with you, the more detailed it will get."

"Trust me. You'll get used to it," Rodney said, shifting forward on his knees to lick a stripe up the underside of John's cock.

John yelped in surprise, which turned into a deep moan as his cock went to full mast.

Rodney chuckled as he dove in, licking and nipping at the sensitive skin in and around John's cock and balls. By the time Rodney finally swallowed John down, John swore he was vibrating.

It didn't take much for him at that point. He managed to croak out a warning before he was coming hard for the third time in twelve hours.

And Rodney took him all, swallowing every last drop. He pulled off just when it was getting to be too much sensation, laying his head on John's thigh as he panted quietly.

John had to take a minute—or three—to catch his breath. "What… what can I do for you? What do you want?"

"Won't…won't take much," he panted.

John slid down the wall to the floor and reached out to fondle Rodney's nipples with one hand, taking his cock in the other hand.

As soon as John's fingers touched Rodney's nipples, John felt Rodney's cock jump in his hand and he moaned, leaning into him.

Ah ha, so Rodney liked that. John used the new knowledge to his advantage, trying everything he could think of, and basing what worked best on the kind of noise it evoked.

It was…fun to reduce his normally talkative friend to moans and words with only vowels.

John finally took pity on him and started stroking Rodney's dick with a firmer touch than he had been using.

Rodney groaned, the sound low, coming from the back of his throat.

"Yeah, Rodney?" John's voice had gone deeper, raspy with both his orgasm, and how amazingly sexy he found Rodney to be like this. "You like this?"

Rodney nodded, moaning again.

John felt another jolt of lust at the thought that he'd reduced Rodney to this state, although his cock was staging a protest and refused to even go to half-mast again.

"Come on, Rodney. I want to see you lose it. I want to watch you fall apart in my hands."

Whatever Rodney had been hanging onto, that last vestige of control, vanished as soon as John said those words. Rodney's cock jumped in John's hand, spilling between them as he came with a half-choked-off cry. He slumped forward against John's shoulder, his body shuddering as the rush slowly faded.

John pulled him in close, holding him as the hot water washed away the worst of the semen. He'd grab a washcloth to clean them both up in a minute.

"Th….thanks," Rodney whispered.

"Was awesome."

Rodney nodded, still not quite there.

John kissed the side of Rodney's head, then pushed himself up, grabbing a washcloth and soaping it up. He gave himself a quick wipe-down, then knelt again to give Rodney a more thorough one.

By the time John knelt again, Rodney was moving on his own, brushing John's hands away. "I've got it."

John swatted his hand away. "Let me."

"John, come on."

"I want to." John ran the cloth between Rodney's legs, fascinated with the way his hair disappeared and reappeared. "You're so different from being with a woman. It's… nice. Good. I want to… touch you."

"You have to go to work," he said quietly.

"I know. But I want to do this first. Please?"

Rodney looked at him for a long moment before finally nodding. He had a weird, soft expression on his face.

John cleaned him carefully, being extra careful with any delicate bits, and then having Rodney stand so he could get every inch of him. It was… oddly soothing for him.

By the time John finished and turned Rodney around to face him again, the Canadian's eyes were dilated in pleasure. He wasn't quite hard—on the way, but not quite there—but his nipples were standing erect. John never took Rodney as a sensual person before this, but now…

Dropping the washcloth, John leaned in for a soft, promising kiss.

Rodney returned it eagerly, his hands reaching around to hold John's hips, tugging them closer together again. This time, though, the kiss never turned deep, or hard, both of them knowing they had to get going. This was more of a promise for later.

John finally pulled back far enough so he wasn't cross-eyed. He stared at Rodney for a long moment realizing that this was not only his best friend, but also his lover. Rodney offered a lazy smile.

John smiled back, just as soft. "So… dinner tonight?"

"What about dinner?"

John gave him a sheepish look. "Ah, a quick one with Maddie and then something more… private?"

Rodney chuckled. "You're the one setting the pace and the tone for this, John. I'm not going to push you." He reached past John and turned the water off.

John nodded. "So let's take it slow. Ish. And play it by ear."

"Whatever you want."

John nodded, smiling again. They wandered out of the shower and got dried off, getting in a few more kisses before they both headed to their respective work.

John sat in his office for a while pondering this latest development in his life. Finally, he picked up the phone and called his brother. He didn't bother to say hi when Dave picked up, instead opting for, "So. I think I'm gay."

There was a long, dead silence before his brother finally spoke. "Excuse me?"

"Yeah. That's kind of how I feel. But I'm pretty sure I am. I had the best sex of my life last night with Rodney."

"With Rodney."

"Yes." John ran a hand through his hair. "I'm pretty sure I'm not freaking out, since I don't want to go run screaming through the halls or anything, and I definitely want to do it again, but can that happen? Can you be gay all your life and never realize it?"

"Ah…" There was a long silence again. "With Rodney?"

"Yes. With Rodney. I was trying to figure out what I wanted out of life, and it just sort of hit me yesterday that I wanted him. So. It went from there."

"But…" His brother paused again and John heard him shifting in his chair. "Rodney."

"What's wrong with Rodney? He's been my best friend for years now. I'm pretty sure we've been dating, and I just didn't know it."

"You're gay? With Rodney?"

"Apparently." John sighed. "But that brings me back to my original question. Can you be gay all your life and never know it? I mean, I was always sort of ambivalent about sex, but last night was… amazing. Does that mean I've just been repressing and denying to a kind of insane degree? Or am I just gay for him?"

"But…you were married."

"Exactly! But it was really more out of duty than because I really wanted to. She wanted to, and I didn't really care. But we both know how badly that turned out, in the end."

"But Andrea…"

"She apparently moved out weeks ago and I never noticed. She finally decided to take her last suitcase and head home. She said I should figure out what I wanted, which was what started me thinking in the first place. She kept making very cryptic statements about Rodney that make a lot more sense now, if you factor in the fact that I'm gay. With him."

"Rodney made you gay?"

John rolled his eyes. "I have no idea. That's why I called. I'm trying to figure out if I've always been gay and just didn't know it, or if I'm just gay for him."

"I… don't know. I don't think that's a question I can really answer."

"Come on. There weren't any…I don't know. Warning flags or anything? I'm totally fucking clueless when it comes to relationships! You're supposed to be the savvy brother."

"I'm married with a son. That's the normal way things are done."

John huffed. "You're not helping. I bet Scarlett can answer this question. Lemme go ask her."

"No!" Dave yelled in his ear. "No! Don't ask her."

John paused in the middle of hanging up and put the phone back to his ear. "Why not? I need to know if I'm totally gay, or just gay for Rodney."

"This is not something you talk about to someone outside of your family. And honestly, you don't talk about it with your family either," Dave said, his voice a little harsh. "I think you need to take a step back and really reconsider what you're doing, John."

"What do you mean? When I did stop and think about it, I realized he's the one I call first when something good or bad happens. He's the one I look to hang out with over anyone else. Hell, I was staying up late every night he went out waiting for him to get home and telling myself it was because I was worried he might get hurt somewhere."

"John, think about this very carefully. This affects not only you, but the rest of the family. Just think about mom and how she would feel if she knew. This isn't the way we do things."

John raised an eyebrow. "Okay, first of all, I'm not in the military anymore, so there are no rules against it. Second, I'd think she, and you, would be happy that I've finally figured out what makes me happy, and what was missing from my life all these years."

"I think you're not thinking straight and you need to reconsider what you're doing. That's what I think."

"Apparently I'm not straight at all. That's the whole point of this conversation." John sighed. "Look, I didn't call to piss you off or anything. I just wanted to sound it off of you. But I can tell you the one thing I won't change is that I want to be with him. I finally realized those weird jolts I've been getting around him all this time was lust. Dave, I had never actually felt… lust… for anyone before so I had no fucking clue what it was."

"John, look…just…think about it. It's probably just a phase or a post-traumatic stress thing. Don't do anything you're going to regret later on."

John shook his head, his voice low. "This is probably one of the few things in my life I won't regret. I just hope I don't lose my brother in the process of finding a lover."

"Just…think about it. Okay? That's all I'm asking. Andrea is perfect and you fit so well together. You're just going through a rough patch, that's all."

"We were never really together. What Andrea and I had was more good friends with occasional benefits."

"You were together for a year, John. Don't let all that time slip away."

"Who says it will? We're still friends."

"Mom wants more grandchildren."

"We'll raise Madison. To be honest, we already are and have been since Jeannie and Caleb died."

"I'm not talking about Madison. I'm talking about another Sheppard, one of your own."

"Dave, that was never going to happen, regardless of who I'm with."

"Don't walk away from your family, John. You have the responsibility to make sure the name continues."

"You already did that. I've never met a woman yet I wanted to have children with."

"It's your responsibility to continue the family line, too, John."

"That's never going to happen, irregardless of who I'm sleeping with. Ever."

"You didn't give it the chance before you were…running off on some wild goose chase with…with some washed up scientist."

John took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "I'm hanging up before you say something that will piss me off enough to have a fight with you."

"Think about what you're doing, John. About what will happen to the family name."

"Goodbye, Dave." John hung up the phone without giving his brother a chance to say anything else. He sat for several long minutes, staring at it, wondering if he was going to be forced to choose. With more trepidation that he thought he'd have, he picked up the phone and dialed his mother.

"Hello?" she answered, her voice quivering a little.

"Hi Mom. It's John."

"Oh, Johnny! It's so good to hear from you," she said, her voice warming up. "When are you and Andrea going to come see me? I haven't seen you in a long time."

He winced. "Well, while we're still good friends, she actually decided to move back home. We're, ah, not together anymore."

"What do you mean, Johnny? I was picking out invitations for you."

"Why were you doing that? We weren't even engaged."

"I knew it was coming," she said breezily. "Charlotte and I have been planning tables and who should sit with who. It's been good to be busy again. It takes my mind off your father, God rest his soul."

John sighed. "I'm sorry Mom. But, ah, I'm sort of… seeing someone else. But I'm not sure if you're going to be happy or horrified after talking to Dave."

"What do you mean, Johnny? How could you be seeing someone else? Andrea lives with you—not that I'm really happy with that since you're not married yet, but these young people these days…"

"She actually moved out a while back. Well, officially she left a few days ago, but apparently she had been moving her stuff out for weeks and I just didn't notice."

"John Patrick Sheppard, what did you do?"

"I just… didn't love her. Not the way she deserves, I think. I loved her as a friend and I always will, but she knew she didn't have all of me."

"John," his mom said, her voice getting stern. "You march right back to her house and apologize for whatever it is you did. Do you understand me?"

"I can't do that Mom. I'm… with Rodney now. And…I think this one is permanent. I didn't plan it this way, but…I think I might be gay. I've never really…I was with women more because it was expected of me. Now…I…he makes me happy in ways I didn't realize I could be."

There was a long pause. "Johnny, I think the phone if on the fritz. I thought I just heard that you said you were gay, but I know none of my sons would do that so I must have misunderstood."

He sighed. "It came as a bit of a shock to me, too, Mom. I have a feeling I always was, and just… didn't realize that was why I was never really into any relationship I was in."

"I'm going to give your doctor a call and have him recommend someone for you to talk to. This is just…impossible. If your father, God rest his soul, knew about this he'd disown you on the spot. And I will not allow you to bring reproach on this family or on the family name. We have conservative friends! Conservative business partners. No, this will not do."

"I know." John sighed softly. "If you want me to leave, and sign over the house and my portion of the business, I will. And you won't have to hear from me again."

"No! Of course not. We'll just get you the help that you need."

"It's not something I need, or want, help for Mom." John sighed, closing his eyes. Well, something he had been happy about, was now looking like it would tear the rest of his family apart. God, why? Why was he being forced to make this kind of fucking decision?

"I'll have the doctor call you this afternoon," his mom said, not listening to him.

"I'll talk to you later, Mom." John hung up the phone and put his head down on the desk.

Scarlett barged into his office at some point later, heels clicking on the floor. "Okay, boss. You have an appointment with Joe to go over the new studs—"

John didn't even lift his head. "Shoot me."

"I'd rather not go to jail, sir, so, no. Not going to happen. What's wrong with you?"

"I'm gay with Rodney, and my brother is angry about it, and my mother is trying to get me to see a doctor to fix it. And if I don't give up what I've finally decided makes me happy, I'll probably be disowned and be kicked out."

"No, shit? Really?" she asked and then slapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh! Sorry!"

John waved a hand over his head. "It's okay. Apparently I can't do or say anything right today, and no matter what I do, I'm going to be fucking miserable."

"Um…want some advice?"

"Sure." He lifted his head. "This day started out fucking awesome, but went downhill from there."

"Fuck 'em and do what you want."

He raised an eyebrow. "I should have come to you first, since I've already sort of messed that up."

She laughed. "It's your personal life and you have a huge house and lots of money. I'm sure you've been able to do one thing and tell your family something else at the same time."

He nodded. "Yeah, but nothing on this level. I'm talking about the person I want to spend every night sleeping next to. And help raise Maddie. And…"

"And you're the only one living here. This is your house, your money."

"But…" John stopped and took a deep breath. "I'm not the only one here. It would actually require a conspiracy of everyone who's here, including the servants."

"And?"

"And I'm not sure everyone here would agree to that. All it would take is one person who disagrees with the lifestyle and runs to my mother or Dave."

"Sir, do you think we care who you sleep with? A happy employer is a better employer."

He nodded. "I suppose. I just… Scarlett, I took some time to think about what I wanted, and… while it was surprising, I realized I want him. I don't honestly know if I'm gay, or just gay for him, but… I don't want to lose him now that I finally realized what I can have."

"Boss, you're preaching to the choir here. Have the life you want. Everything will fall into place. Now then, Joe's waiting for you in the stables."

He gave her a slight smile. "Thanks. I should have just come to you first. I guess I just… thought my family would be happy for me."

"They…they come from a different generation, a different mindset."

"My mother maybe, but not my brother. He's younger than me."

"He's old, trust me," Scarlett said with a knowing smile. "Now come on. Hop to it!"

"Yes Ma'am." John gave her a weak smile, but stood up and headed out to the stables.

The rest of the day was uneventful—which in John's book was good. He spent some time in the stables before returning back to his office to try and get some work done. Dinner with Madison was fun—as usual—making John laugh as she explained what she learned in school that day. Rodney sat across from him at the table, sending him questioning looks when Madison wasn't staring at him.

John mouthed, "Later," and gave him a reassuring smile.

He got a scowl in response that quickly turned to a smile when Madison turned back to him.

John smiled, but he was grateful that Maddie's day had been long, and she skipped off to bed shortly after dinner.

There were times like this that John really liked the fact that a nanny took care of a lot of Madison's day-by-day stuff. She needed a motherly influence and Sarah was great.

John collapsed on the couch next to Rodney and leaned into him. "So, I have good news and bad."

"Okay. I'm not sure which I want first. What's going to traumatize me less?"

"Well, I hope neither is too traumatizing. I had my slight freak-out today, but it was more over the fact that my mother and brother's first response was to either scare me into giving you up, or deciding to get me therapy. That's the bad news."

"So should I be moving back across the hall?"

"No. That's the good news." John caught Rodney's hand. "I realized that if I had to choose between being with you and being disowned, or not being with you and staying in Mom and Dave's good graces… that I wanted to be with you. Scarlett noted that there's only us living here, so we should live our lives and not tell them I'm with you. Which sucks, but…"

"So we don't broadcast it. What's one more skeleton in the Sheppard family closet?"

John sighed. "I know. I honestly didn't think they'd react that way. But I'll understand if that's not the life you want."

Rodney shrugged. "I think I can handle not having sex on the library floor."

John swallowed. "So you'd take me. Even with that restriction?"

"Like I told you this morning, you're the one driving in this…thing," Rodney said, his hand waving.

"Yeah, but you're not chopped liver you know." John reached out to stroke the side of Rodney's face. "Today just solidified what I had already realized. You're the one I want to be with."

"It's been less than twenty-four hours, John. I'd understand if you didn't want to…you know…have this go any further."

John shook his head. "Maybe only twenty-four hours since I realized it, but I also realized I'd been wanting you for a long time. I just didn't know what that feeling was in the pit of my stomach. I'd never actually physically desired anyone, so I didn't know what I was feeling. But I've been lusting after you for a long time."

Rodney snorted, rolling his eyes. "Have you been reading romance novels or something? I've never heard you like this."

John flushed. "No. But I am sort of feeling like a girl realizing she's in love for the first time, and it's even making me sick. I think you should do something about it."

"Do you? I said you were the one driving. This is all about you, John, about what you want, what you're comfortable with."

"Right now, I just want to not think about anything except being with you. And Christ, make me stop spouting this garbage!"

Rodney chuckled. "Maybe we need to retire to a more private location."

"I think you're right." John grinned and stood up.

Rodney let John tug him to his feet. "So, did you have something specific in mind?"

John bit the inside of his lip and blushed. "I might have been using Google before."

"You might have been?" Rodney raised his eyebrow at John. "That's usually an either or type of thing, not a might or a maybe."

"Okay, so I was googling gay sex, and ended up watching some of the porn." John felt his cheeks get even hotter.

Rodney paused in the middle of the hallway and laughed. "You watched porn at work?"

John's blush felt like it went down to his toes. "Maybe."

"Again, not an either or type of thing."

John made a face. "Yes, I was watching gay porn in my office."

"So you've outted yourself to your family and some of your staff and watched gay porn in your office today. Well, that certainly tops my day."

John was pretty sure he couldn't get any redder. "Well, you kept asking me what I wanted, but since I didn't know anything about it…"

"So you Googled gay sex."

"Yes." As they got into the bedroom, John sat on the bed. "Does sticking things in your ass really feel as good as they made it sound?"

Rodney chuckled. "It all depends on what you like. I, on the one hand, really like it. I've had lovers who didn't."

John twiddled his thumb. "I… they made it look really nice. So, I was thinking…maybe start small?"

"For you or me?"

"Me." John couldn't look Rodney in the eye. "Maybe…try a…a finger. One of the sites said that was a good place to start, to see if you liked it…"

"A finger. Are you sure? We can do other stuff until you're…ready for more."

"It….I was getting… hard… watching them… it… I wanted…" John was beginning to think even his hair was blushing now."

"Well, of course you were hard. That's what porn's for." Rodney rolled his eyes. "I just…I know you're all gung ho and everything, but I just don't want you to…you know, regret things later."

John rolled his eyes. "Believe me, if I don't like it, you'll be the first to know. And I didn't think we'd jump right in. I just… I wanted to know what it feels like."

"So…what do you want to do?"

"Can we… kiss for a little while? And go from there?"

Rodney offered a kiss and stepped closer. "Of course."

John smiled, melting into Rodney's arms a little. "I'm good at this part, at least."

"Very good. I have to say I don't think I've had anyone quite so skilled in this particular activity."

"It was always the only part of it all that I enjoyed." John gave him a shy smile, and licked delicately along the seam of Rodney's mouth.

Rodney eagerly opened up for him, tilting his head to fit their mouths together a little easier.

John pulled him down to the bed so they could fit together while they explored each other's mouths.

God, it was good. Even better than he remembered.

John lost himself in it, in the way their mouths moved together, their bodies fitting together perfectly.

John pulled back at one point, letting them catch their breath. "You know," Rodney said quietly, "we can't do this tomorrow."

"Why?" John's senses were glazed over, and everything except Rodney had faded into the background.

"I go to the coffee shop."

"Oh." John stiffened, the memory of Gordon surfacing.

"I'm not going to give it up."

"I don't want you to," John sighed. "I just think I hate the creep you played with in the bathroom before. I… I know we're not…. if you want to, I won't stop you from… with him…" It killed him to say it, but he didn't want to become something Rodney resented for holding him back.

"The creep had a name."

John sighed. "Gordon. I know. I don't want to hold you back if you… if you're really… interested in him."

"I'm not."

John ran a hand down Rodney's side, not looking him in the eye. "I want you to be happy. I always did, even when I didn't know I was jealous."

"So I made you jealous?"

"I wanted to kill him. One of your other friends told me to stop glowering."

Rodney chuckled softly. "Amy?"

"Yeah." John finally looked up. "Are you angry?"

"No. You always glower when you're angry. I'm used to it."

"You don't mind that I want to kill anyone who looks at you with interest?"

"You did that when we were on Atlantis. It's nothing new."

John blinked. "I did?"

Rodney chuckled again, nodding. "It was not the 'stay away from my lover thing' but the 'stay away from my scientist thing'. Little different."

"Huh." John shrugged."Well, apparently I've been repressing it for longer than I thought."

"Like I said, it was different. Still possessive, but for a different reason."

John ran an idle hand down Rodney's side. "I was thinking, since we have to fucking hide this from my family, publicly, I think I'm going to be very… depressed and angry. Maybe it will shame them into realizing they can't demand I make that sort of choice, and they shouldn't have asked me to."

"John, don't do that. If you pretend long enough it'll become second nature. Just…live the way you want to, but avoid the PDAs."

"Yeah, I guess." John sighed. "I just hate that I have to. I didn't even stop to consider that they would have that sort of reaction."

"People are strange. I've long since stopped trying to understand them, honestly." Rodney shifted his thumb against John's hip where he was holding on, rubbing the fabric. "There's no…standards, no constants. They change on a moment's notice. Very messy and unscientific."

John chuckled, scooting in a little closer. "I suppose. It's still disappointing though. I finally figured out what I wanted, what makes me happy, and instead of being excited for me, their first reaction is to tell me to give it up and forget it existed."

"People are like that. Trust me."

"As long as you're still here, I guess I'll just decide to ignore them." John smiled up at him. "So… you are going to turn down his advances tomorrow night, right? I mean… now that you and I…?"

"You mean Gordon."

"Yeah. Him."

"I don't know," Rodney said with a half smile. "I mean, this is only a one night stand so far. What's to say that I won't end up across the hall in a day?"

John bit his lip. "Well, beside the fact that I might really try to kill him…. Rodney, I'm willing to walk away from my family and everything here if I'm forced to choose between you and them."

"I'm not asking you to walk away from them, John."

"I know. But that's the only thing I can tell you to show that I'm not looking for something temporary here. I think I've… been… maybe… in love… with you… for a long time. And didn't realize it."

"This is why I think you need to go slow, to make sure. This is…big for you, John. And as much as I'd rather not turn down sex with you, I'd rather you were sure about everything."

"I know. I'm not suggesting we rush. I just… I want you to know this isn't something I'm playing at, or a game, or an experiment."

Rodney was quiet for a few moments, his thumb sliding back and forth. "Honestly, I don't know if it's okay with me if it is an experiment. On one hand it means I'll be able to have this for at least a little while and I think I might want it even if it's only a little. I know it's not very…romantic or…whatnot, but then I also have to think about what's best for me. If this is only going to be a fling…" He shrugged again, seemingly not willing to finish the sentence.

"I guess I'll just have to prove it's not just a fling. By not changing my mind." John smiled at him.

"I guess."

John sighed softly, resting his head down on the bed. "We should probably try to get at least some sleep tonight. I know I won't sleep until you're home tomorrow, and we didn't get any last night."

"We slept. Some," Rodney said with a smile. "And you're not coming with me tomorrow?"

John lifted his head up again. "I will if you'll let me. I wasn't sure if you wanted me to or not. But I would like to come. I enjoyed it last time, and I'll enjoy it more now that I won't be trying to figure out why I was so ready to kill the jerk."

"I'm not going to stop you if you want to go with me. It's up to you. Like I said, this whole…thing is up to you and what you're comfortable with. I've been in the closet and out, so…" He offered a shrug.

"I'll come then. I make no promises, however, if George tries to put any moves on you. If I have to, I'll kiss you right in the middle of the damn coffee shop and spend the evening with my hand on your crotch to let everyone know you're off the market."

"His name is Gordon and he's a theoretical physicist and an assistant professor."

John took a page out of Rodney's book, waving a hand in the air. "Whatever. The point is that Amy told me he had been actively trying to get into your pants since you first walked in the door."

"He still hasn't gotten into my pants. I don't just take anything that I come across. I'm not a slut, you know."

"I know. I wasn't suggesting you were. It's him I don't trust." John shrugged. "Apparently, when it comes to you, I've always been a jealous bastard."

"He was single. I was single. There was no harm in it."

"I know. Last time, I hadn't realized I wanted you for myself. This time, though…"

"This time you're not going to let anyone within a few feet of me."

"I will. As long as they aren't hitting on you, and… as long as I know even if they do, you'll be ignoring them and coming home with me."

"I won't go home with anyone else."

"And you won't disappear to the bathroom for necking, or… other things besides peeing?"

"Why? Are you going to stop me?" Rodney said with a half-smile.

"Maybe. You might have an irritated former Air Force Colonel with Special Ops training barging in and breaking things up."

"I might?"

"You will. And while you won't get hurt, I can't say the same for whoever's with you."

"But sometimes a little pain is a good thing."

"Kinky."

"So I've been told."

John grinned. "I think I like that."

"Do you?"

"Yeah." John ran his hand down Rodney's side again, and then up, this time working his way under the other man's shirt. "It could be a lot of fun."

"Some people think so, others don't," he said, shivering as John's hand skimmed along his side.

"Like you said, we can take it slow. Half the fun is trying new things and seeing what works, right?" John dragged his fingernails lightly along skin.

"Ooo…yeah," Rodney stuttered, his body shuddering a little under John's hands. He licked his lips. "New things are always interesting and as a scientist…I'm always…always up for experimentation."

"And we both know I'm a closet geek with a fascination for scientists." John rolled Rodney onto his back and pushed his shirt up. He had liked having his nipples played with yesterday, so John wanted to experiment with those a bit more.

"I have to say you have some really nice closets," Rodney said, his voice rough as John slid his hands up Rodney's sides.

"Oh?"

"The gay thing, the geek thing, the math thing…"

John chuckled and tried pinching a nipple. "Well, I happen to be a fan of closets, apparently."

Rodney moaned, arching up into John's hand, his eyes sliding closed. His hands clutched at John's arms.

"So you're a nipple person, huh?" John rolled each of them lightly between his fingers. "How sensitive are they?"

It took a few panting breaths before Rodney replied. "Sen…sensation…person and very."

John hummed. He decided to lean in and mouth at one while continuing to flick at the other.

"God…" Rodney moaned, squirming and shuddering, his fingers digging into John's arms.

This was fun. John switched back and forth between Rodney's nipples until they were both red.

He leaned back, grinning at how wrecked Rodney looked—just from John playing with those pert, red, and very erect nipples. And they were still dressed. Well, except for the shirt John had shoved up into Rodney's armpits.

John ran his nails along Rodney's sides again. "What do you want now, Rodney?" Two could play at this game.

"Skin…more…skin," he panted, opening his eyes to look up at John. They were mostly pupil, with the hint of blue all around. He licked his lips and tugged at John's sleeve. "Too much…fabric."

"Okay." John sat up on his knees and stripped out of his shirt. "How's that?"

"More…need more." Rodney's eyes were greedy.

John slowly unbuttoned his pants.

Rodney hummed, nodding. "More."

To get his pants off, John actually had to slide off Rodney's body and stand up. While he was there, he got Rodney's pants off as well, and then straddled him again. "How's that?"

"You left your boxers on."

"Oh, did you want me naked? You just said more skin."

"Off off off!" Rodney said, shifting on the bed to pull off his own shirt.

Laughing, John fell to the bed on his side, and stripped off his boxers.

As soon as John slid to the side, Rodney quickly shimmied out of his and kicked them away. They went flying to the floor somewhere southwest of the bed.

John propped himself up on his elbow and watched.

"You know," Rodney said, lying back where John had pushed him before. "The whole point to this…clothing shedding processes was to facilitate the skin-on-skin contact. With you over there, it defeats the purpose."

"I was admiring the view while I waited for you to be done."

"I'm done. Now get back over here," Rodney said, reaching out to grab at John's arm.

Laughing softly, John complied, moving back to straddle Rodney again.

"Mmm…much better."

"Totally." John's fingers found their way back to Rodney's nipples.

He moaned, arching up. "Don't…don't you want…to try something…else?"

"Like what?"

John pinched one of Rodney's nipples and got a yell in response, Rodney panting when John let go. "Finger…finger…you…"

John got a little breathless himself. "Yeah. I want that."

"Lube. You have?"

John licked his lips. "I think there's some in the drawer. Let me check."

"There better be."

John crawled over, and was grateful it was still there. He hadn't used it in a while, but Andrea had kept it there since she occasionally liked to use it on his cock. "Here."

Rodney had sat up on the bed, his own cock standing up proudly. "Towels. Get towels."

John licked his lips, a little transfixed by the sight in front of him. It took him a moment to snap out of it. "Right. Towels."

Rodney's dirty chuckle followed him the entire way to the bathroom. When John returned, Rodney had arranged the pillows on the bed and then had John put the bath sheet over them. "Okay, I need you to lean on the pillows, but make sure your ass is up in the air a bit."

John nodded. He was both nervous and turned on by the idea of what he was going to do. He laid across the pillows, adjusting a bit at Rodney's direction.

"Trust me, I'm not going to do anything you don't want me to. Okay?"

"I know. I trust you." John smiled back at Rodney, and let his body relax.

John had assumed that Rodney was just going to…dive right in, but instead he just started touching him, stroking his back, his ass, his legs. He pressed kisses to skin, nipped and licked at other parts.

John forgot about what the goal was, getting lost in the pleasure Rodney was creating.

By the time Rodney finally shifted between his legs, John couldn't wait.

He pressed his ass back into Rodney's hands, wanting more, but not really knowing what to expect. He just knew he was turned on and needed to be touched.

"Shhh," Rodney said, pressing a kiss just above his ass crack. "It'll be good. I promise."

John could only pant, silently begging for more.

But instead of a cold finger sliding into him, Rodney parted his ass cheeks and there was a hot, warm tongue licking at his opening.

John gasped and moaned, pressing up as sensation assaulted his senses.

Rodney just dove in deeper, fucking him with his tongue, holding John steady with his hands.

He took John apart. He couldn't do anything except feel, completely losing himself in how fucking amazing it felt.

And when John finally felt Rodney shift behind him, a single, cold finger sliding into him, he couldn't imagine not liking this. The spark he felt in his entire body when Rodney crooked his finger…

John moaned, trying to jerk his hips up, wanting more. He mewled when Rodney did it again and again, almost sobbing with the pleasure and the need to come.

Rodney shifted behind him and managed to push John onto his side. With one of John's legs thrown over his shoulders, Rodney swallowed John down and continued to press on that spot deep inside of him.

John was pretty sure, later, that he screamed as he came. The world didn't just go white this time. Fucking fireworks exploded in his head.

John was on his back in Rodney's arms when things finally settled once again.

"Nnnnnnnngh."

"I'll take that was a positive experience."

"Uh huh." John's brain still wasn't firing on all cylinders yet.

"We'll put that in the 'yes' category." Rodney sounded way too smug.

John hummed and closed his eyes, curling in closer.

Rodney sighed quietly, adjusting them.

John drifted for a bit, lost in the haze of pleasure Rodney had created. Finally, he surfaced enough to open his eyes and actually be semi-coherent again. "You?"

"Mmm? What?" Rodney asked, blinking his eyes open.

John licked his lips. "Want you to come, too."

"Oh. While I'm not going to argue with you, I'm okay if you need to sleep."

John shook his head. "Wanna make you feel good, too."

"You do," Rodney said quietly, pressing a kiss to John's forehead.

John hummed again, but worked up the energy to sit up enough to wrap a loose hand around Rodney's cock. For now, since the other man was mostly soft, John settled for fondling him gently.

Rodney hummed and then let out a long breath. "You know, I'd just managed to talk it down."

"Why'd you do that?" John rolled so he could use his other hand to roll one of Rodney's nipples between his fingers.

"Thought…oh….thought you were…oh…going to sleep."

"Just resting up." John smiled, licking his lips. If he shifted like that… and moved this way… Perfect. Now he could kiss Rodney while he played.

Rodney was so…responsive. He seemed to like anything and everything John did.

It was a bit heady to have that much power over someone. John found he enjoyed taking Rodney apart just as much as he enjoyed being taken apart by Rodney.

To hear this man reduced to vowels and begging was…really good for his ego.

John broke off his exploration of Rodney's mouth, moving to whisper in his ear. He'd never really gotten the hang of talking dirty, but with Rodney, he found the words just flowing out. "You're really hot like this, you know that?"

He got a groan and a pleading "John" in response as Rodney rocked up into John's hand.

"I want to make you come so hard, you're the one who sees stars this time. I want to see you fall apart."

"Can….try," he panted.

"There is no try." John blew softly in Rodney's ear. "I want you incoherent with it."

"Hasn't…hasn't happened yet."

"That just gives me a goal to work toward." John grinned and did a little twist at the end of his stroke up on Rodney's dick.

Rodney groaned and arched his back, pressing against John.

John chuckled, and set about doing everything he could think of to drive his lover insane with need.

Every time Rodney tired to take control, to move John one way or the other, John shifted, refusing to follow his lead. But Rodney was determined.

"Just let me make you feel good. Let go and relax."

Rodney shook his head, his hand aimed at John's right nipple this time.

John tried to move, but wasn't fast enough. He moaned as Rodney managed to send a burst of pleasure through his body. "No… no fair. Was… was my turn…"

"You snooze, you lose," he whispered.

John moaned again. "Wanna… make you… come…"

"Gotta work for it."

John tried to see past the haze of pleasure building again, and managed to maneuver so he could lick at the tip of Rodney's cock.

At least it put him—mostly—out of range of Rodney's clever hands.

John focused on trying to find ways to use his mouth to pull those delicious sounds out of his lover.

He got some of the sounds he wanted, but Rodney kept shifting and squirming.

John lifted his head, looking up Rodney's body. "What can I do that you'll like? I want to make you feel good."

"You…you are…sorry for…" Rodney's hand waved. "Can't help it."

"What do you need so you can come?" John's hand had drifted back to Rodney's cock, stroking him slowly as he talked.

"Not…not too much, honestly."

"Come when you can, okay? I just want you to feel good." John put his mouth back on the tip of Rodney's cock, trying to coordinate what he was doing there with what he was doing to the rest of his lover's shaft with his hand.

It only took a few more minutes before Rodney came, groaning and shuddering. John swallowed as much as he could, trying not to choke on the liquid filling his mouth.

When Rodney was done, and he could tell it was starting to be too much, John grabbed one of the towels from earlier to wipe off his mouth, and wipe up what had dribbled out on Rodney. Then he crawled up the bed to curl in close again.

"Mmmm…thanks," Rodney whispered, his eyes at half mast. "Sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about. Just glad you came."

"It…takes a lot for me to really lose it like you did. Most weren't so…thrilled about it."

John smiled and idly traced random patterns on Rodney's skin with a finger. "I don't see anything wrong with it. It just means I've got a challenge ahead of me to figure out what makes you lose your mind. That will be fun."

"We'll see."

"Half the fun is getting there."

Rodney snorted. "We'll see."

"As long as you enjoy yourself and feel good, I'll be happy."

"Mostly, yes. Stop jabbering and let me sleep."

John made a mental note to use Google again tomorrow to find some new tricks he might use. "Night, Rodney."

The next morning after some lazy morning sex, John actually managed to get to the office on time. He wasn't expecting the pile of books on his desk, however.

He blinked. "Hey, Scarlett. What are these and where did they come from?"

"What, boss?"

"I've got a stack of books pretty much obscuring my desk."

"They're books," she replied as John walked around his desk. His eyes bugged out when he saw the title: "The Gay Kama Sutra."

"Where the hell did these come from? I was with Rodney all night, so I know he didn't put them here. And I know damn well neither my mother or brother would have. So you are my only guess."

"I have no idea what you're talking about, boss. I just work here."

"Scarlett. Did you leave these here?"

"I wasn't the one looking at porn in my office yesterday."

John blushed, but shook his head. "I was doing research. Did you leave these books on my desk?"

"That was not research," Scarlett said and John heard her finally get up from her desk and stomp over to his doorway. "That was…bad porn."

"Granted. But it was still research."

"Bad. Porn."

John sighed. "Fine. Whatever. Did you leave a stack of books on my desk about gay sex?"

She turned on her heel and headed back to her office. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"These." John picked one up and walked into her office, setting it on her desk. "That!"

"They look like…books."

John rolled his eyes. "It's not a hard question. I'm just wondering who the hell put them on my desk. If it wasn't you, I need to find out who did."

"Why?"

"Because it would mean that someone other than you, my mother and my brother know about this, and since you're the only ones I've told, that could be a problem for the whole trying to hide it idea."

"Don't get your knickers in a knot. You're fine," Scarlett said, rolling her eyes.

"So where did you find an entire library of these things, and why did you decide to leave them all on my desk?" John picked up the one he had brought in to wave around and started idly flipping through it.

"You need all the help you can get," she said flippantly and then looked up, her eyes wide. "I…didn't mean that quite the way it sounded."

John rolled his eyes and waved his free hand. "Just next time…hide them behind the desk or something, okay?"

"Why? No one else goes in your office except me."

"Because it was shocking to walk in and see The Gay Kama Sutra on my desk before I've had any coffee."

"It's not my fault you decided to walk into your office before you had coffee."

John rolled his eyes again and went back to his own office. He cleared the books down to the floor, and he had to admit, there were a few of them he really wanted to read.

Rodney had been nicely sated, but he hadn't been…blown away. John wanted to blow his mind.

At lunch, John brow-beat Scarlett into helping him carry the whole pile upstairs. He cleared off one of the bookshelves in his library and filed them all away so he could find them. And also, so that they were out of the general view. He didn't need anyone finding them or Rodney mocking him.

The rest of the day went rather uneventfully. When Maddie got home from school, she came flying in to his office to tell him all about the cool art project she had done, showing him the pictures. Then he took her out to the stables and helped her work with her filly for a little bit before dinner.

It was really cool that she did that, shared so much with him. But sometimes he wondered if she did the same with Rodney.

He didn't know. He knew she didn't come in to see him every day, so he made a note to ask Rodney if it was because on the off days, she was spending it with him.

John finished working on his stuff for MIT and signed off his computer, swinging by the dining room to check on Maddie. She was eating dinner with Sarah and offered a wave as he ducked his head inside.

"Have you seen your Uncle Rodney?"

She shook her head. "No." Sarah offered a head shake of her own.

He smiled. "He's probably still in the lab then. I'll go get him and be back."

"I thought you were going out," Sarah said.

"We are. But I'm not sure what time, honestly."

"Oh, okay. Katie didn't make dinner for you which is why I assumed." She shifted, pushing back her chair. "Let me run inside and see if she can do something quick for you."

"No worries. I think we're eating there. Let me find Rodney and see what the plan is before you go to any trouble."

"Okay," she said with a smile. "Just let me know."

John gave another wave and wandered over to Rodney's lab, poking his head in. "Hello?"

Rodney was there, his eyes fixed on the screen in front of him. He hummed a little, but didn't actually acknowledge him.

John moved inside, wrapping his arms around Rodney's shoulders, still amazed he could do that now. "Hey."

The Canadian tensed for a minute, glancing over his shoulder, and then relaxed into John. "Oh, hey."

John smiled. "It's dinner time. Did you want to eat something here before we go, or just grab food on the way?"

"Oh. It's that time already?"

"Yeah. I finished my school stuff and came looking for you."

John eyeballed the stuff on Rodney's screen and realized most of it was in either Ancient or high-level physics. No wonder Rodney was intense. "Oh, yeah. How's that going?"

"Getting there. I have about another year to go. Actually, I'm starting to work on my thesis, so since we're going to be hanging out with high-level science types, I'm going to run some ideas by them." He pointed at the screen. "What are you working on? Anything fun and exciting?"

Rodney shrugged. "Usual stuff."

"I never got around to asking—what are you working on? Power generation?"

"Mostly."

"What else other than that?"

"Stuff," he shrugged again, reaching out to close down the various windows. "So, are you sure you want to go tonight?"

"Yeah, I am. Like I said, it was fun, and now that I know I was pissed off because I was jealous, I can keep it under control. And anyway, I actually do have some stuff I want to bounce off everyone as I'm moving forward with deciding on a direction for my thesis."

"Okay," Rodney said with a nod. "Let me change and then we can head out."

"What are you going to wear?" John stepped back so Rodney could stand up. "And you never did tell me what you want to do about eating."

"A clean pair of jeans and a shirt." Rodney shrugged as he rose to his feet, locking down his computer. "And it doesn't matter as long as I eat."

"Maddie and Sara are eating in the dining room now, if you just want to swing in there."

"Or we can go out."

"Whichever. I don't mind either way."

"Let's go out, then." Rodney led the way out of his lab, killing the lights as he walked past.

"Sounds like a plan." John grinned, popping his head back into the dining room on their way to let Sarah know they wouldn't be joining them, and to wish Maddie a good night. Both he and Rodney gave her big hugs and kisses before they headed upstairs.

Rodney ducked into his room to get clothes as John headed into his own. A few minutes later, John was ready and standing in Rodney's doorway, watching the scientist wander around the room in his boxers.

John took a moment to admire the powerful legs. "Nice view."

"Hmm…oh…what?" Rodney asked, turning around with a shirt clutched in his hands. "You're ready already?"

"I just tossed on some clothes. I didn't know you were actually getting dressed up. Should I be worried?"

"What? No," Rodney said, waving vaguely in John's direction. "I just need to find the clean clothes." He took a few steps toward John. "Here. Does this smell okay?"

John wrinkled his nose. "We actually have people who are paid to do the laundry. Why is all your stuff dirty?"

"I…ah…might have yelled at them at some point." He held up the shirt. "Not good?"

John rolled his eyes again. "No, it smells. And just bring your laundry and dump it in my hamper so it gets done."

"They shrank my shirts. I'll just…do it later," he grumbled, tossing the shirt on the floor as he headed toward the closet.

"They shrank your shirts." John shook his head. "Look… just… put your laundry in with mine, please? It will be easier for everyone if you do."

"I know how to do my own laundry, thank you very much. I'm not as pathetic or incapable as you think I am when it comes to taking care of myself."

"I wasn't suggesting you were. Just that it's a hell of a lot easier to let the people I pay to do it take care of those things so you're not stuck searching for something semi-clean if you forget."

Rodney was silent as he pawed through his clothes, finally coming out with a sad-looking striped button-down. He gave it a quick sniff and tugged it on. He started digging for jeans a minute later.

John flipped open his phone and shot a note to Scarlett. Hey, Rodney pissed off the cleaning people. Can you see if we can smooth things over so he has clean laundry again? Thanks. –J

Rodney gave a few pairs of jeans the sniff-test and ended up with the first pair, tugging them on in an amusing one-footed dance. Socks and shoes quickly followed. "Are you ready?"

"Whenever you are."

"I'm dressed. I'm ready."

"So let's go." John caught Rodney's hand and squeezed.

"You driving?" Rodney asked as they made their way down to the garage.

"Sure. I haven't gotten to take my baby out in a while."

Rodney snorted and rolled his eyes.

John cooed at his car as they got in, and reveled in the freedom he always felt every single time he drove it. "So where do you want to eat?"

"Coffee shop's fine with me," Rodney said, buckling in. "Doesn't matter."

"All right. They have sandwiches, right?"

"Sandwiches, coffee, soup, salad, mochas, pastries, cookies, coffee…"

John chuckled. "Just make sure you eat something in addition to all the coffee."

"Who said I was getting coffee?"

John glanced over. "You're not planning to drink any coffee?"

"I didn't say that either."

John laughed softly and shook his head. "You've been there more than me, so I'll trust you to pick me out something I'll like. To eat and drink."

"Oh, so now I'm getting you dinner?"

"I'm your hot date."

"Hot, yes. Date, no."

John sent a pout his way. "You won't date me in public?"

"I didn't say that either, but you have to remember that public means people see you."

John sighed. "I know. I keep wanting to shout it from the rooftops, and I can't, can I?"

"Well, there's pros and cons to that."

"Such as?"

"You do have to think about your family and what they'd do or say."

John nodded. "I know. I wish they had reacted differently. I'm still… disappointed they didn't."

"Not everyone is going to be happy about our relationship, John."

"They should be. They should just be happy I'm happy."

"They want…something more traditional."

"But they're putting what they want for an image over what I want as a person."

"I know that. You know that. It doesn't make it any less true."

John sighed again. "I think what bothers me most about it is that I feel you're going to get frustrated with it, and will get tired of hiding. For god's sake, I'm not in the fucking military anymore. No one should care who I'm with."

"When you're a Sheppard people care."

"Makes me seriously miss the days of obscurity when no one knew or cared who my family was."

"Do you really want that?" Rodney asked, turning toward John. He had a strange intensity again as he stared.

John thought about it, and finally shrugged. "I want to be with you, and have a good time together. But family is important." He sighed.

"Obscurity isn't what it's cracked up to be."

"I know. I don't think I want obscurity as much as I just want my family to be happy for me, and not decide family image is more important."

"Habit is hard to break."

"I'm just hoping maybe they'll change their minds over time."

"Maybe. Apart from a brief conversation after Jeannie died, I haven't talked to my father since I was in college and I'm not holding out much hope of that changing."

"I never did either, and it was as much of a shock to me as anyone that we managed to rebuild a relationship before he died."

"Your dad didn't make sure you were blacklisted from the science community because he didn't like your sexual orientation."

"True." John reached over to squeeze Rodney's knee.

"Sorry," Rodney said, offering a tight smile. "You remember the way?"

John squeezed again. "I do. And…whatever you need, just tell me, okay? I'm the first to admit I can be clueless about stuff like that, and I don't want to piss you off because I missed something."

"It's nothing."

"Okay. Just tell me if there's ever anything I can do. Or if you're getting tired of hiding… we'll figure something else out at that point."

"If you can last longer than a few weeks."

John just shot him a warm smile. He knew Rodney wouldn't believe it until he saw it. And honestly, John understood. He had reason to distrust relationships. He knew there was no way Rodney would understand how much John's world had just shifted on it's axis to align with the McKay Star.

They got to the coffee shop without incident and it was more crowded than the other night. They managed to snag a couch near the back of the shop and Rodney wandered off to get food.

John stretched his legs out, and struck up a conversation with a few of the people nearby about aerodynamics, sparking off a debate on what he should focus on for his thesis, much to his amusement.

By the time Rodney returned Amy and Janice were arguing quite emphatically.

John waved Rodney over, exchanging food for the seat he had saved. Rodney settled in close to John, pressing their thighs together.

John shot him a soft smile. "So, what do you think? Thesis A, or Thesis B? There seems to be some strong opinions for both."

"See who wins the fist fight," Rodney said, taking a sip of his mocha.

John's chuckle had a hint of dirty to it, and he was gratified by the brief flare of Rodney's eyes.

"You don't play fair," he whispered.

"Sure I do. I just play by my own rules."

Rodney snorted quietly. "Right."

John shot him a grin.

Rodney rolled his eyes and took a bite of his sandwich. Gordon walked in a few minutes later, glancing over at Rodney as soon as he was deep enough into the shop to spot him.

John couldn't help that he stiffened a bit, but forced himself to relax.

Rodney glanced up, his gaze meeting Gordon's across the room. He stilled immediately mid-chew.

John glanced over at him, wondering if he would go spend the evening chatting with the other man.

He saw Rodney give Gordon a small shake of his head before going back to his food.

John wanted to gloat, but instead, forced himself to eat as if he hadn't been holding his breath.

The conversation swirled around them, Rodney putting in his two cents every now and then, but he was distracted. He finally leaned into John. "Want to…" He gestured toward the bathroom.

John raised an eyebrow, but nodded. "Always."

Rodney offered a smile and rose, reaching out to take John's hand. They moved silently to the bathrooms.

As soon as the door was closed, John had Rodney against the wall, kissing him hard.

Rodney groaned into John's mouth, his hands tugging at John's clothes, pulling him closer.

John ran his hands along Rodney's sides, trying to get to skin.

Rodney whimpered, turning his head to the side as he panted.

John mouthed his way down Rodney's neck. "Can I… can I mark you?"

"God, yes," he breathed.

John made a happy noise and found the perfect patch of skin. He worked at it until there was a dark bruise there, stopping only to kiss and mouth at it with his lips.

"Yeah…so good…"

John slid down to the floor, fumbling at Rodney's pants. "I want… I want to…"

"Not here."

John whined low in his throat, pushing his nose into Rodney's groin.

"Please, John…wait."

John nodded, trying to suck in a breath. He was so fucking turned on it hurt.

"Come here," Rodney whispered, tugging John to his feet and wrapping his arms around him.

John nuzzled into Rodney's neck, kissing at the mark he had made. God, that was sexy, that Rodney had let him do that.

"Thanks," he whispered after a few minutes, simply holding on.

When both of them had calmed down to the point where they could breathe, John lifted his head slightly. "You're too fucking hot for your own good."

"Ditto." He offered John a smile. "We're going to get cat-calls."

John grinned. "Yeah?"

"Especially now."

"Now? What's different?" John pressed light kisses up and down Rodney's neck.

"The huge hickey I have on the side of my neck."

"Mmmmmm. I like it there."

"Possessive much?"

"Maybe." John turned his head a little. "I want people to know you're off limits."

"And maybe I want to be off limits."

John hummed, smiling widely.

"Want to go back out?"

"I suppose we should." John gave Rodney's neck one last little nuzzle before straightening. "And we are so having wild sex as soon as we get home."

"Maybe," Rodney said with a smirk as he headed back into the coffee shop. He'd been right about the cat-calls. He hadn't mentioned the scowl Gordon gave them, though.

John couldn't help it. He shot a brief smug grin at the bastard.

"Stop it."

"Sorry." John grinned. "I couldn't help it. I'll behave."

"Mmmm…not behaving is fun, too," he whispered before diving back into the conversation.

John had a little shiver of anticipation, and had to work to re-focus himself on the conversation.

It was probably an hour later, and he had gotten engrossed in what was going on. So he was a bit surprised when Gordon suddenly was sitting on Rodney's other side.

"And I still think you're wrong wrong wrong," Rodney said, his hands waving.

"Being wrong can be an opportunity." Gordon's voice was silky, suggestive.

"What? Why? How?" Rodney asked, turning toward Gordon in surprise. He was pressed up against John though.

"Well, being wrong gives you the chance to explore more…. diverse lines of thought. And you never know when one of those roads might spark the next big bang."

"Okay…that was just…over the top and just plain…wrong. Thomas is looking for an easy mark. Go talk to him."

Gordon smiled easily. "Oh don't be a prude, Rodney dear. I'm merely talking about exploring new avenues of exploration. No good scientist locks himself into a single idea without testing all the theories first."

"I tested all the theories I needed to." He leaned back a little more firmly into John. "I'm perfectly happy with my conclusions."

Gordon leaned back into the couch, stretching his arms out so one was behind Rodney. "No theory is so solid it can't be dethroned by a new idea. The world was flat once. The Earth was the center of the universe. These were tested theories that were later proven very wrong."

Rodney stiffened and then stood up. "John, we're leaving."

John silently nodded, standing up. He knew if he got involved directly, it would be… a scene. And Rodney could take care of himself.

"I hope you find what you're looking for," Rodney said tightly. "Have a good night."

John waved goodbye to the rest of the group, sending them apologetic smiles as they made their way out. In the car, John reached over to catch Rodney's hand and squeeze it.

"I didn't expect that, sorry."

"Not your fault. He was being a dick. But I thought you handled it well."

"By running away. Sure." Rodney rolled his eyes and slid into the car. The hickey John gave him clearly in sight.

John got in, and leaned across, pulling Rodney into a soft kiss. "You didn't run away. You spoke up, and when he refused to take no for an answer, you removed yourself from the situation."

Rodney didn't reply, leaning forward to take John's mouth in another kiss.

John opened up, letting Rodney plunder his mouth, giving back as good as he got.

He finally pulled back, panting. "Home…need to go home."

"Uh huh." John was breathing hard. "Home. Now."

"You need to put the key in the ignition," Rodney said.

John licked his lips, taking a few moments to collect himself and start the car.

Rodney slowly buckled himself in, his head turned toward John, watching him. "I like the mark," he said once John pulled out.

John glanced over. "I… really like it too. I like that everyone can see it."

"Feel free to do it again."

John nodded. "I will."

Rodney smiled. "Good."

John shivered. "God, we need to get home now."

"Just get us there in one piece."

John had to concentrate hard, but somehow he managed to get them home without hitting anything or getting a ticket.

It was close on the first one. Thankfully the cops weren't patrolling.

John practically dragged Rodney upstairs. "Naked. Now."

Rodney chuckled, his eyes twinkling. "Why?"

John was already stripping. "Sex. Now. Here."

Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head to the side, watching John.

John was rock hard, and now naked so he couldn't hide it. He was panting, standing in front of Rodney.

"That's a good look for you."

He swallowed. "Yeah?"

Rodney nodded. "Very good look."

"You should join me. It's looks pretty fantastic on you, too."

"Hmm. Why?"

John had to swallow. "Want to touch?"

"Hmm…not right now. Looking is good." And honestly, it seemed to be good for him if the bulge in his pants was any indication.

John knew he was blushing a little, but he moved to the bed, spreading himself out a little for Rodney's pleasure.

Rodney shifted on his feet, his eyes raking over John's body. "Touch yourself."

John's blush got deeper, but he reached down to play with himself.

"Light…light touches."

John nodded, licking his lips. He used just the tips of his fingers up and down his shaft, before drifting back further and teasing at his balls.

"Really good look," Rodney whispered, taking a few more steps closer.

John moaned softly, arching up, wanting more, wanting it to be Rodney touching him.

"You are so amazing like this."

John just moaned again, continuing the light touches. "More… Need…"

"I don't know. You're good just like this." Rodney licked his lips and stepped closer, a foot or so from the bed now.

John panted. "Rodney… Please… Need…"

"Need what?"

"You… Please…"

Rodney spread his arms wide. "I'm right here."

John panted. "Naked."

Rodney's mouth turned up on one side. "Make me. If you can."

John moaned again. There was no way he could move with how turned on he was.

Rodney chuckled, moving around the bed, his eyes never leaving John. "You can't get up, can you?"

John shook his head, panting and arching a little. He firmed up his touch on himself, hoping Rodney wouldn't notice.

"You're going to come just like that, aren't you? Just with me watching you with just your hand on your dick."

John whined low in his chest.

"I still have all my clothes on, but I'm hard as a rock watching you."

John tried to see him, but Rodney had moved out of his line of sight.

"You are so hot. Do you know how hot you are, John?"

He shook his head, hips jerking up as he sought more contact.

Rodney chuckled, low and dirty. "You need to come, don't you?"

"Please…"

"If you want it, you have to take it, John." Rodney shifted silently back into his line of sight, still completely dressed even down to his shoes.

John tried to move, but his body was too weighed down with pleasure, too turned on for him to do more than moan in frustration.

"Did you hear me, John? If you want me, you have to come and get me."

John managed to get himself rolled over and up on all fours, head hanging between his shoulders as he panted and tried to get some space.

"Think you can hang on, John? Or is everything too much? Does it feel like even the air brushing against you will make you come?"

"Yes. Please… Rodney…"

"No. I told you what you had to do, John. You have to take what you want."

John lifted his head, searching for Rodney in the room again.

He was standing at the end of the bed, about a foot away from the mattress. John could see the bulge in his jeans, see how turned on he was.

Crawling, John made his way closer.

"You're going to come before you touch me, aren't you?"

John shook his head no. He was trying to hang on.

"Oh, yes, you are. I can see it. One little puff of air is all that it'll take to push you over the edge."

John shook his head again, reaching out.

Rodney didn't move away, but he didn't shift forward either. He was still too far away.

Growling a little, John crawled a few more inches so he was right on the edge of the bed.

"You're getting there, John. But are you going to be able to hang on? Can you deny yourself the pleasure you want?"

John swallowed hard and swung himself carefully around so he could slide to the floor, shifting closer to Rodney.

"You're going to come aren't you? Just like that. On your knees."

John reached out, finally getting his hands on Rodney's pants, struggling to get them open.

Rodney lifted his arms to the side, giving John the access he wanted, but not helping in the least. It was so damn frustrating. He was so turned on and hard…

John growled in frustration, finally pulling hard on Rodney's pants. The fabric tore around the zipper, but John didn't care.

"Good, John," Rodney whispered above him. "Take what you want. I know you can, if you can hold on."

John was dangling by a thread, but he was managing to hang on. He yanked Rodney's pants down enough to let the other man's hard cock spring out, and swallowed it down. He choked again, but this time he was too fucking turned on to care.

Rodney moaned, his hands gently holding onto John's head to steady himself. "Come on, John…"

John sucked hard, the flavor and feel of Rodney in his mouth putting him over the edge. With a moan he was coming all over the floor and Rodney's pant legs.

"So…so hot," Rodney said with a little whimper. He pulsed into John's mouth a few moments later, groaning with his release.

John couldn't get it all down, but he didn't care. He leaned heavily against Rodney, still panting through his own aftershocks.

Rodney leaned forward, putting his hand on the bed to keep himself upright. He was panting heavily. "God, John…"

"Mmmmmmmmmm." John was feeling pretty damn pleased with himself.

"You…you need to move. I don't want to hurt you."

John gave Rodney's now-softening cock one last little suck before letting it slip out of his mouth.

He moaned at the sensation, before turning on one foot to collapse on his back on the bed. Except for his dick sticking out, he was still fully clothed.

John worked up the energy to somehow climb back onto the bed scooting in close.

"You were so hot," Rodney said, turning his head toward John. "You came without anything touching you."

John didn't have any blood left to flush at the moment. It was all still making its way back up from his cock. "You were hot. Telling me what to do… still clothed… God."

Rodney chuckled. "It works both ways, trust me."

John hummed, happy and relaxed.

"I need to get these clothes off," Rodney said a few minutes later, his hand flapping next to him.

"Uh huh. Been saying that since we got home." John grinned slightly.

"If you wanted them off, you know what you had to do."

"Was too turned on and too focused on getting you in my mouth. I think I might be developing a fetish for giving you blowjobs."

"I'm not going to complain about that, but I have to say, I really prefer to be fucked."

John shivered a little. "We haven't tried that yet."

"I know. You haven't even fingered me yet." Rodney offered a smile. "We have time."

"Uh huh. Lots to look forward to."

"So, you going to help me with the clothes? Especially since it's your spunk on my only clean pair of jeans."

John chuckled. "I suppose it would be the gentlemanly thing to do."

Rodney snorted in amusement. "As if you're a gentleman."

"Oh, so you don't want help then?"

"I didn't say that."

John laid back, putting his hands under his head. "You said I wasn't a gentleman, so you must not want me to do gentlemanly things."

"I don't know. What do you want?"

"What do you want?"

"That's…complicated."

"So?" John rolled back to his side. "It can't work if you don't tell me what you want, too."

"What I want and what I can actually have are two very different things."

"Let's start with what you want."

But Rodney shook his head. "No…I don't think…not now. It's too soon."

John sighed. "All right. I hope you learn you can trust me with it."

"I do trust you, but…" Rodney sighed quietly and then rolled to his side and shoved himself upright. "I need to get out of these clothes."

John put a hand on Rodney's chest. "Let me." He slowly finished undressing the other man, then went and got a warm washcloth to wipe them both down with.

Rodney was silent the entire time, watching John with careful, guarded eyes.

When he was done, John gathered up all the clothes and dumped the whole pile in his hamper before crawling back into bed.

Rodney had settled down on his side under the covers and John slid in behind him, spooning up to him and tossing an arm over his chest. Rodney let out a soft exhale and John felt him relax into the embrace.

"Night."

"Night, John."


The next few months seemed to fly by. When every day went by that John didn't run screaming from Rodney's arms, his friend and now lover seemed to relax a bit more. For John, he found he was only getting more attached, if that was possible, not less.

Andrea had managed to surprise him when she had shown up a few weeks into the relationship with cake. Rodney had been a bit wary at first, but she had been good-natured, and pointed out that she had never really had John in the first place—he had belonged to Rodney from the get-go. Now they were all three getting closer, as she came over about once a week for dinner and movie night with them.

She had even started bringing a new… friend… with her. He was pretty quiet but had a fantastic sense of humor, and John found he actually liked the guy. It helped that Andrea positively glowed every time they were together.

At the beginning of summer, John had convinced Rodney to go on a camping trip with him out to the cabin on the far side of the lake on the property. The two of them and Maddie had all ridden out and spent five days there together. Rodney had expected to hate it, and he wouldn't admit it out loud, but John knew he had had as good a time as John and Madison had.

It was the middle of June now, and John was grateful school was on break for the moment, although he worked on his thesis pretty constantly. He had another six months to get it ready, and then… well, he'd go from there. In the meantime, he was spending more time in the stables, working with Joe to bring the Sheppard name back up to the top in that arena as well. They had started winning some key races, and the breeding program was beginning to see some real potential.

Leaning back in his chair, John studied his current and most pressing project of the day. Arthur Havenstein sat across the desk and fiddled with a pencil. For some reason the man had never lost his nervousness around John, despite the fact that Sheppard Industries had come through for him on every point they had promised, and then some.

"So, Arthur, you called this meeting today. What can I help you with?"

"I…ah…I need a place to test the AI. Outside of the lab."

John raised his eyebrows. "You're ready to go into that phase? Last I heard it was working, but not ready for prime time yet. Granted, our last major update was about four months ago, but I'm impressed."

"I can't go any further in the lab. Part of the problem is that I need to see how it will work once I get the hardware and wiring installed in a house. I can either retrofit one or build one from the ground up."

"So what you really need is an empty house you can use as a model for the smart-house concept?" John rubbed at his face. "Well, I've been considering building a guest house on the property so I can use what's currently the guest wing as permanent staff quarters. Would that work?"

"I…yes. That would be perfect." Arthur's eyes were wide. "You'd do that?"

"Why not? It would let you work with the design from the ground up to get an idea of what the ideals will be. And if that's successful, we can talk about retrofitting the main house, probably one wing at a time, so you can get a feel for how that will go. When we are ready to go commercial with this, you'll need that kind of experience under your belt. And hell, I'll benefit since then I'll have the coolest fucking house in the world."

"I didn't think….that is, I didn't expect you to be so…agreeable."

"Why not? You've made some huge progress in the AI, and in the components you'll need to have ready to make a house completely self-aware and secure. This is the next logical phase. I'm just impressed you've gotten to this point so fast. I knew when I met you that you were one smart guy."

Arthur blushed, glancing away. The pencil in his hand bounced rapidly against his leg. "It's just…a big investment and it might not work."

"It's worth a shot though. And at worst, we'll have some ideas of what not to do in the future." John shrugged. "Why don't you draw up some initial plans? For a guest house, I'd like four master suites, each with a bedroom and full bath, as well as a separate kitchen, living areas, etc. Start there, and then when you're ready, we'll have another meeting with my architect, and then go from there."

"I'll…ah…need to hire an architect."

"Then go ahead and work with mine from the beginning." John hit the speakerphone and dialed Scarlett's office.

"Goddess of all things known. How can I help you?"

John rolled his eyes, noting that Arthur seemed startled by her. "Can you get me Bill Lewis on the line? Arthur is going to work with him on the guest house project to integrate some new ideas he's been testing. We need a real-world implementation, and this is a good place to start."

"Of course, I can," she said and John could hear typing in the background. "I'll also get the paperwork started with the town. You'll want it out back off of route three, I assume."

"Yeah, in the area we'd already talked about. Bill has our initial specs, so I want to get him and Arthur working together ASAP."

"We still need to get that road paved back there if you actually intend on using it."

"That will probably be part of the design plans, since I'm guessing Arthur will have some ideas on moving the integration beyond just the walls of the house." John smiled at the man across his desk.

He still looked like a deer in headlights, though. John had no idea what Rodney had seen in him.

Scarlett was still typing. "I know I sent Bill all the specs for the variances that you'd spoken about during your last conversation, but I'll forward them to him again. And his line is ringing through. I'll patch you in."

"You're awesome. Remind me to give you a fantastic bonus this year."

"Don't worry, you already did. Thanks, honey." She disconnected a moment later, leaving the line open that was ringing into Bill Lewis' office.

John chuckled, sending an encouraging smile at Arthur as Bill picked up. "Hi, Bill, it's John Sheppard. I have Arthur Havenstein here with me. He's been working on the components of a smart house with an intelligent AI, and we're to the point where he's ready to test it. I'd like to move forward with the guest house, and make this a featured component, so I wanted to introduce the two of you."

"So you're finally going to want those plans, eh?"

"Yeah. I've been meaning to for a while, and this is a good opportunity to prove Arthur's concept."

"We'll have to schedule a meeting for next week in my offices once I've had the chance to look at the land again."

"No problem." John looked over at Arthur. "When are you free? I can shuffle my schedule if I need to."

"I…whenever's good for you."

"When do you want us there, Bill?"

There was paper shuffling in the background. "Let's make it…Thursday. That'll give me enough time to get to the site."

John made the appointment in his calendar, along with a note for Scarlett as to what it was, and that Bill would be out at some point before that to survey the site. "Perfect. Why don't we make it for 11 am."

"Make it for ten. We'll need the time. I know you."

John laughed. "Fine, ten it is. And you know you'd rather have someone like me who's involved in the whole process and happy at the end, than someone who was hands off and screamed when it wasn't what they had pictured in their mind."

"You'll scream either way. Let me look over the documents your assistant is deluging me with and I'll see you in a week. Actually, I'll let you know when I'm going to look over the land. I can use the company."

John nodded. "Sounds like a plan. I know where I'd like to situate the house, so that will give you a starting point. And I know the road is unpaved right now, so that will need to be part of the project as well. Arthur, is there anything else we need to know before we meet next week?"

"Ah…no. Ah…well, utilities and a generator would be good."

"The house will be fully powered."

"Of course, but the AI requires a continual power source."

John tapped on his lips. "All right. Bill, we'll need to factor that in to the plans. Since this is an experiment along with a house, I'm sure there will be some interesting points along the way. We should probably plan to have it tied into the main power lines like the estate is for the primary power, with I'm thinking two back-up generators on hand in case something happens. That should cover us for what we're trying to do here. Arthur, do you mind if I send Bill some of the more general concepts for what you're trying to do? That will give him a better idea of what to start with so there won't be as many tweaks necessary when we get there next week."

"Ah…sure," Arthur said, the pencil just about ready to fly across the room.

John pulled up the files and sent them on, CCing Scarlett. "Sent. I'm looking forward to this, gentlemen. It will be a challenge, but if we can pull it off, it's going to be a massive step forward."

"Sure thing, John. I'll call you when I'm headed to the house."

"I'll talk to you later, Bill. Thanks." John hung up and smiled at Arthur. "Perfect. You should probably make a list of what you'll need at a minimum for this to work, and then a separate list of everything this house will have if you could build your dream test-house. My guess is that we'll end up somewhere in the middle."

"Dream house? Really?"

"My guess is that we won't be able to get it all in. But since this will be a test case, I'd like to try for as close to that concept as we can."

"I…of course…I'll start working on it as soon as I get back to my apartment," Arthur said, rising to his feet.

"Great." John stood up as well, and managed to catch Arthur's hand to shake it. "I'm looking forward to this. It will be great to see the ideas go from experiments to real-world implementations. When it's all said and done, you, Bill and I can sit down and go over what worked and what didn't, and make some notes on what would have to be done to retrofit an existing building. Once we've proven both are viable and sustainable, we'll start talking about how you want to go to market with this on a wider scale."

"I'll…yes," he said nodding. "Thank you…ah…thanks for the opportunity to…do this."

"Thank you. This is all your idea, Arthur. I'm just providing the capital to make it happen."

Simon appeared magically at the door, gesturing for Arthur to follow him out.

John grinned, sitting back down. This was going to be a fucking cool guest house. And if they could figure out how to retrofit the estate… It would, almost, be like living in Atlantis again.

Almost.

Thinking of Atlantis, John pulled up his email. He had a message from Carson waiting for him this morning when he'd signed in.


From: Carson Beckett [mailto:carson.beckett@sgc.gov]
Sent: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 12:07 AM
To: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]

Subject: Catching Up

John-
I know it's been a long time since we've spoken, but I wanted to send you a note to see how you were doing. Things have been…difficult at best and there has been more than one occasion that I've cursed the people who forced you out.

But that's not the point of this email. I actually was writing you about Rodney. I hadn't heard from him the last few times we'd sent a burst through and was hoping you'd have some more information about him.

I heard through the grapevine about his sister—the poor lass—but he's been silent on the subject. Is he okay? How is he handling the transition from uncle to father? He always claimed he wouldn't be a good parent, but I know he'd be fine if he gave himself half the chance.

Hope you're doing well.

Carson


John smiled and shot back a note.


From: John [mailto:j.sheppard@sheppardindustries.com]
Sent: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 12:07 AM
To: Carson Beckett [mailto:carson.beckett@sgc.gov]

Subject: RE: Catching Up

Hi Carson! Yeah, it has been a while, and I know that's my fault too. I've been swamped lately. Sorry to hear things are bad there. Anything you can talk about without having the censors up your ass?

Rodney is doing great, actually. He moved in here with me on the estate after Jeannie and Caleb died. He was in shock, and I went and brought him and Maddie down here to recover, and they've just become part of my family. Maddie is doing fantastic in school and adores riding the horses, and Rodney has a mini-lab of his own set up where he can tinker around to his heart's content.

He still misses Jeannie a lot, but he's really great with Madison most days. It probably helps that she has a nanny here who handles a lot of the day-to-day stuff. My brother and I were both raised that way, so it was just sort of natural to go with that when she first came here with everyone in shock, and it's just stuck.

Did I tell you I'm working on my PhD? Assuming I do okay on my thesis, I'll officially be Doctor Sheppard next spring. Maybe you and Elizabeth could get leave to come for the ceremony. It'd be great to see you again. Teyla and Ronon too. I think about you guys at night when I'm looking at the stars.

Well, duty calls. My assistant is sending me a slew of stuff I need to get signed today, so back to work for me. Tell everyone I said hello!

-John


He managed to finish most of what he needed to get done and sign everything Scarlett sent his way by the time the day was out. Tonight was a usual coffee shop night, but Rodney hadn't mentioned it.

Stretching, John wandered over to the labs. "Hey, Rodney, you here?"

Even though the computer was on, churning away with something, the room was empty.

John looked around, but when he found no trace of his lover, he headed upstairs, thinking maybe Rodney was already getting ready to go.

After searching a few rooms in their wing, John finally found Rodney on one of the couches in their media room/library. He was sitting completely still and silent, and from the looks of things, deep in thought.

"Hey, there." John smiled and moved in, easily leaning down to press a kiss to Rodney's forehead.

Rodney blinked a few times, his eyes clearing as he tilted his head up toward John. "Oh, hey. Hi."

Grinning, John leaned in further and caught Rodney's mouth for a deeper, if brief, kiss.

John managed to get a soft whimper from his lover before he backed off.

He dropped onto the couch next to the other man. "So you look like you were thinking hard about something."

Rodney shrugged, immediately leaning toward John. "I couldn't sit in the lab anymore."

"I know the feeling. Anything on your mind?" John tangled their legs together.

"I saw…Arthur when he was leaving."

"I keep forgetting you guys have a past. Sorry about that. He's going to work with Bill on the guest house, and use it as a test case for the smart house concept."

"No, it's fine. I knew you were working with him. I just haven't seen him in…years, since college."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Back when everything went to hell." Rodney chuckled humorlessly.

John captured Rodney's hand and squeezed it. "But things are a lot better now, aren't they?"

"They are."

"That should make it a little easier, seeing him, right?"

He shrugged. "It just…brings everything back."

"I'm sorry." John wished there was something he could do to change the pain his lover had experienced. "Do you want to skip the coffee shop tonight and just go have a quiet dinner for two?"

"I don't want to deal with Gordon tonight. I…" He shook his head.

John stood up and moved so he was kneeling next to Rodney. "So let's just go have a nice dinner, maybe see a movie if there's anything good playing."

"Do we have to go out?"

He immediately shook his head. "Of course not. Want me to have Katie whip us up something to eat?"

"That would be great. Are you sure you don't mind? I know you've been looking forward to the nights at the coffee shop."

John squeezed Rodney's hand again and smiled. "Half the reason I look forward to them is because I get so damn turned on watching you debate stuff. But as long as I get to hang out with you, I honestly don't care where we do it."

"Then let's stay in."

"Sounds like a good plan." John leaned up to kiss Rodney softly. "Anything in particular you're craving? Or want me to surprise you?"

"Just you," he whispered.

John hummed. "That's always a given."

"That's all I want."

John smiled and stood up, holding out a hand. "That's one thing, at least, I can give you. I'm yours, however, wherever you want me. We'll worry about food later."

Rodney took John's hand and stood, stepping into his body. They fit so perfectly. "Just…whatever you want."

John took Rodney in his arms, doing his best to kiss away whatever shadows from Rodney's past that had resurfaced. Somehow, he managed to get them into the bedroom and get them both naked.

"You locked the door?"

"I'll double-check." Madison had walked in on them once. That had been an interesting thing to try and explain. And honestly, he thought Rodney had been more traumatized than the six year old. She just had questions. Rodney had refused to have sex for two weeks.

That had been one of the longest two weeks of John's life. He made triple-sure the door was locked, then joined Rodney on the bed. "We're clear."

"Chair. Put a chair there, too."

John worked hard not to roll his eyes, but he got back up and moved one of the heavy chairs by the door so it blocked it from opening. "How's that?"

Rodney looked at it and then nodded. "Okay. That's okay."

John smiled and came back to bed, straddling Rodney so he could rub their cocks together. "More than just okay."

"It should hold."

"I wasn't talking about the door."

"I was. You don't just want people barging in when you're naked."

"We don't have to worry tonight." John shifted his hips so they were aligned better. "Right now, I just want you to feel good."

"I always worry."

"I know you do. But no one is going to barge in. The door is locked, and the chair is our second line of defense."

"Maybe you should move the armoire."

"Rodney." John leaned down to kiss his lover hard. "Stop worrying about the door."

"But people could walk in."

"No, they can't. I fixed it so they can't."

"But, John—"

John waved a hand to cut him off, then rolled off him and scooted so he could reach the bedside drawer. He pulled out a silk gag he kept there. He had found that Rodney was like putty when he was gagged for some reason.

"John, come on. It's a valid worry."

John didn't answer. Instead he shifted so Rodney could see the gag. He didn't give his lover time to object before he put it on him. Military training did still have the occasional advantage.

Rodney moaned, his eyes dilating almost immediately.

John smiled in satisfaction. They had finally gotten to the point where there was actual fucking about a month into their relationship. John had discovered he loved both topping and, much to his surprise, bottoming, but Rodney had a distinct preference for being on the bottom. They did switch, but tonight, John wanted to take care of the other man. He pulled out the few toys they had managed to acquire, some good quality lube, and a glass dildo that felt absolutely amazing. They were having a lot of fun experimenting with just about everything John could find on the Internet or in his books.

Rodney moaned again, his eyes widening when he saw what John had pulled out. He shifted away, but John quickly grabbed him and settled him back on the bed, spread out under him.

"Don't move."

John waited a few beats until Rodney finally nodded. It was a little long in coming, but John wasn't going to let up. Not tonight.

Humming, he ran his hands all over Rodney's body, loving the way his muscle and skin felt.

The only thing better than way his lover felt, were the sounds he made. There were all kinds. Soft ones. Loud ones. Shrill ones. Pleased ones. Whimpers. Groans. Moans. It was so amazing the different emotions and feelings you could hear in the tone of a single sound.

And John loved them all. He spent some time touching every part of Rodney's body before he encouraged his lover to turn over, exposing his ass to John's questing fingers.

It didn't take long for Rodney to rock up onto his knees, begging around the makeshift gag for John to do more. But John wasn't going to be rushed tonight. He got one finger slick and toyed with Rodney's entrance.

Rodney shoved himself back, but John managed to pull his finger free before it dove in deeper than he was ready for. He slapped Rodney's ass cheek, the skin pinking up immediately.

"Not until I'm ready."

This time John got a sobbing whimper in reply.

Content that was an agreement, John went back to the slow build up.

He had to stop a few times when Rodney tried to rush things again, but when John slid the dildo in all the way, he knew it was worth the trouble. Rodney gave John a full body shudder and moaned long and loud.

"Yeah, just like that. I'm so fucking hard right now listening to you, watching you get fucked. When I'm ready, I'm going to fill you up with my cock instead of this dildo."

Rodney moaned again, the sound ending in a whimper. John eased the man over onto his back once again before blanketing him with his body.

"So hot, Rodney. God, I fucking love you."

His lover reached back behind his head, tugging at the knot holding the gag in place.

"Not yet. I want it on when I fuck you."

Rodney whimpered, closing his eyes as his body shuddered again.

And as hot and as turned on as they both were, John had to laugh when he heard Rodney's stomach growl.

Once they were done, he'd get them food. For now, he pressed a kiss to Rodney's stomach, and then began to move, rubbing their cocks together slowly.

As Rodney moaned and arched up into John, a thought came to his mind. It might be…interesting to play longer than he usually did with Rodney's ass. He could get them both off now and then fuck him later. The dildo would keep.

Hmmm. John got a little lube between them so they could slide together more easily and began to rock harder. "You want to come, Rodney? I want you to. I want you to come with that dildo in your ass. I'm going to leave it there while I get dinner, then I'm going to come back upstairs, we're going to eat, and then, and only then, will I take it out and fuck you."

Rodney's eyes opened wide as they slid together, surprise and pleasure wrapped up in his gaze.

John began moving a bit faster and a few moments later, Rodney arched into him, his body shuddering hard as he clutched at John and spilled between them. He yelled loudly through the gag, his volume decreasing as pleasure settled in.

It was enough to put John over the edge, too. He moaned his own release as it mingled with Rodney's.

Rodney's hand awkwardly patted John's shoulder a few times before stilling. John could feel his lover melting into the bed, could hear his heart slowing.

Rodney had needed this. Needed to let go tonight and just relax.

John enjoyed the quiet, the comfort they had—and the non-complaining partner. Most of the times Rodney would shove John off complaining he was "heavyheavyheavy" but not tonight. If anything, it seemed to be relaxing him more.

This was perfect. John knew he needed to move in a minute, to call down to the kitchen and see about getting something brought up, but right now, he just wanted to enjoy for a few more minutes.

Rodney shifted under John, opening his legs so John could fit a little closer to him. He turned his head to the side and closed his eyes.

John traced one finger down the side of Rodney's face in a gentle caress.

His lover moaned quietly, his hands gripping John a little more firmly.

"Love you."

Rodney turned his head, opening his eyes to look at John in surprise and puzzlement.

John gave him a soft smile. "I do."

Rodney shifted his hands, stroking John's back. He held John's gaze, searching out his eyes.

John didn't try to hide anything.

His lover gently reached out, touching John's cheek, letting his fingers trail down his jaw to his lips.

John kissed them as they passed by, still smiling softly.

Rodney explored his face that way for several minutes, his touch soft, gentle. Cheeks, lips, eyes, forehead. His gaze was intense as he watched his finger trail along John's skin. Eventually his hand cupped John's cheek and gently turned his head, offering up his own pale neck to John.

John leaned in and kissed it, moving on to licking, and then marking.

Rodney offered up quiet, soft sounds, moaning when John's hands found his, twining their fingers together.

John sighed, happy in ways he had never imagined he could be.

Once he was content with the mark on his lover's neck, he pulled back, offering Rodney a smile that was returned a little drunkenly. A grumbling stomach broke the mood and startled a chuckle out of John.

"Let me call down and get something sent up."

Rodney cast a glance at the barricaded bedroom door.

"I won't let anyone see you. I promise."

Rodney nodded once.

John pushed himself up and wandered over to the house phone.

Katie answered after two rings. "Johnny? You're still here?"

"Yeah, we decided to stay in tonight. Any chance there's something quick and easy down there I can run down and get for dinner?"

"What did you want? I can make something for you. I'm surprised you didn't go with Mister Rodney to the coffee shop tonight," she said. John could hear her moving around in the background, probably walking around the kitchen.

"He stayed behind, too. Just wasn't up for it tonight, and I wasn't going to go without him."

"It's late! Has he eaten yet?"

"No, and he's hungry. That's why I figured I'd better see what you have down there."

"I'll send Simon up with some juice while I make something for you," Katie said, her tone not boding any argument from him.

"Yes, ma'am. Thanks." John smiled.

"You should know better. He needs to eat regularly."

"I know. We lost track of time. I meant to call down earlier."

"That's no excuse. I'll have a conversation with him tomorrow about taking care of himself. Simon will be up in a few minutes."

"Sir, yes sir!" John laughed as he hung up. Moving to Rodney's side, John grabbed an extra blanket and made sure his lover was completely covered. Then he found his boxers and pulled them on before moving the chair.

Rodney shifted on the bed, curling up on his side to watch John move around the room. His shoulder was sticking out from under the covers, an expanse of pale skin. The hickey on his neck was very dark against his skin and the silk gag just added another level.

John hummed softly as he straightened up the room, waiting for Simon to bring Rodney's juice.

Sure enough, Simon was knocking at the door three minutes later.

John unlocked and opened it. "Hi there. Sorry to drag you up here so late."

"It's not a problem, sir," he said, offering John a tray that held two glasses and a pitcher of some red juice. Maybe cranberry. "As soon as Miss Katie finishes your food I'll bring it right up."

"I appreciate it."

"Enjoy your evening, sir."

"Thanks." John set the tray down beside the bed and poured two glasses.

Rodney scooted up on the bed, letting the covers fall to his lap.

John handed him a glass, moving to pull the gag free.

He turned his head, giving John the access he needed. As soon as the fabric was free he licked his lips and offered John a silent "thank you", mouthing the words.

John leaned in and kissed Rodney softly.

Rodney hummed into the kiss, his juice momentarily forgotten.

John pulled back, smiling. "Drink. I don't want you to get sick."

"I'm okay," he said quietly. "I guess Katie was paranoid."

"Not a bad thing. I want everyone in the house helping me look after you. Extra layers of protection."

Rodney snorted, lifting the glass to his lips. He took a few swallows before setting it down once again. "Why do you care so much?"

"What do you mean?" John finished his juice, topping off Rodney's glass and refilling his own.

"About what happens to me and Madison."

"I love you both."

Rodney looked at John for a long moment, taking another sip of his juice.

John was content for the moment to finish his second glass and set it down, leaning back on the bed.

Rodney took another sip of his juice before handing the mostly-full glass back to John.

"Finish it. Food will be up soon, but I'd feel better if I knew your sugar levels were all right."

"I'm okay, John. I'll finish it with dinner."

"All right." John reached out to rub Rodney's leg.

"I can't believe I'm sitting here with a dildo up my ass."

"It's kind of hot."

Rodney smirked at him. "Kind of?"

"Okay, it is. Very."

He rolled his eyes and chuckled. "It'll make it easier for you later."

John hummed. "I'm looking forward to it."

"You're really getting into this."

"Into fucking you? Yes. We've been together for months now, and it's only getting better every day."

"Well, I'm glad you like that part of it, but I was talking about the whole gay thing."

"Oh. That. I keep telling you I'm not going to freak out."

"Yes. That."

"I'm not going to."

"You don't know that."

"Rodney." John sat up and looked at the other man. "We've been together for three months now. I'm happy. I'm not going anywhere."

"In the grand scheme of things, three months is not a long time."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"And granted, this is a strange conversation to have especially since you put a dildo up my ass, but still. Anything could happen to change things."

John rolled his eyes. "Stop trying to anticipate that I'm leaving you."

"You have to plan ahead for things like that."

"No, you don't. If you spend every day anticipating why someone is going to leave you, eventually you'll push them away. Just be happy, Rodney. I know I am. I love you, and I don't want to go anywhere. Stop trying to come up with reasons why I should."

"I'm not trying to push you away," Rodney said with a sigh. "I'm just trying to be…realistic. This isn't what you had in mind for your future."

"I have exactly what I want. Do I wish my brother and mother were a bit more understanding? Sure. But I'm happy with you, Rodney."

"Are you, really?"

"Yes. I am."

Rodney stared at him for a long moment before nodding to himself, as if something had fallen into place. He shifted on the bed, moving to straddle John.

John hummed and reached up to rest a hand on either side of Rodney's hips.

"I'm not going to say I won't doubt you from time to time. Because, honestly, it wouldn't be me. But, I want this, want you."

"I know." John smiled. "And I know we'll have fights and call each other names and mock each other. But I want this, too. I want you here, with me. And I want to help you raise Maddie."

"I never thought this was something I could have. Nothing like this ever happens to me. You are so hot and I'm…not. It's just…god."

"You're more than hot. You can't see it, but damn… you turn me on just by walking in the room."

"Mmmm," Rodney hummed as John's hands slid back, each hand cupping an ass cheek. "You always turned me on."

"Yeah?" John squeezed, his fingers finding the dildo so he could toy with it.

"Yeah," Rodney moaned. "From the time you sat in that chair and everything just…lit up."

"Did I light you up, too? Did you have a hard-on under that orange fleece?"

Rodney nodded, groaning. "I had to go back to my room and take care of it before I could get anything else finished."

"God, that's hot." John arched up a little into Rodney's body.

"You were so hot and everything just…lit up. We'd been working for weeks there and you just strolled in and…god, it was amazing."

"When else? When were you hard for me and I didn't know it?" John was hard right now, just talking about this.

"At staff meetings. You'd just…lounge there like you'd just gotten laid and all I could think about was who you'd fucked and I wished it was me. I'd think about all the things we could do in bed…"

John swallowed hard. "Tell me. Tell me what you fantasized about."

Rodney groaned as John's hands tightened on his ass and he rocked up into John. "Mostly it involved you fucking me…in the labs, in the jumper, on Elizabeth's desk, on the conference room table… I don't think there was a place that was left out."

"Fuck…" John arched. "You need to build us a Jumper so we can fuck in it."

"I'm sure we can find enough places here," he said. "So far we've kept it in the bedroom."

"I've been fantasizing about doing it your lab, in the stables, in my office…"

"Mmmm. Lots of possibilities."

"Oh yeah…"

"Have to make sure no one was around."

"It would be worth it."

"So, what's stopping you?"

"Didn't know if you would be comfortable with it."

"With proper precautions I'm game for anything."

John moaned and arched up again, stopped short by a knock at the door. Fuck, he had forgotten food was still coming.

Rodney glanced at the door, stilling in John's arms.

John rolled them so Rodney was flat on the bed and pulled the covers up so he would be covered. Talking sternly to his dick, John padded over to the door.

When he opened it Simon was standing there once again, a huge tray in his hands. "Sorry to bother you again, sir. Katie sent this up for you."

"I was expecting it." John tried not to blush as Simon brought the tray in and set it on a side table.

Rodney had burrowed deeper under the covers, but you couldn't really hide the body-sized lump on the bed.

John licked his lips, wondering if Rodney was still hard with Simon in the room. The extra layer of danger was making it increasingly difficult to hide how aroused John was.

"If you need anything else, give me a call, sir. Katie was headed to bed."

"I will. Thanks again, and head to bed yourself."

"In a little while, sir," Simon replied with a smile, keeping his eyes front and center. "Have a good night, sir."

"Night." As soon as the door was closed, John went over and re-locked it.

Rodney emerged from the blankets a few beats later, his hair tussled and sticking up in places. "Food?"

"Here." Katie had made them sandwiches, so John brought the whole plate over to the bed.

"That looks amazing," Rodney said, throwing back the covers completely and crawling toward the edge of the bed. What was even better was that John saw his lover was still hard.

Grinning, John selected his own sandwich and started munching.

Rodney looked over the tray and then something shifted on his face. He scooted closer to John and took a sandwich, a mischievous look on his face.

It took John a moment to figure out what Rodney was doing, but then he flushed, and his cock jumped, hard enough for Rodney to notice. He was eating it one bite at a time, savoring it like it was the most sensual, best tasting thing he had ever put in his mouth.

With each and every bite, dinner seemed to get more and more erotic. It was just a sandwich, but god…the way Rodney looked, the sounds he made, the way he licked his lips…

John was panting hard, wanting Rodney, wanting to do filthy things to him, by the time all the food was gone.

"Did you like that?" Rodney whispered, leaning in toward John.

"Yeah." John licked his own lips and moaned softly.

"Food and sex are so closely tied, aren't they?"

John nodded. God he was hard.

"Food can be so…sensual," Rodney said, whispering in John's ear, his tongue trailing along the lobe.

John moaned again, his body shivering. Rodney was a master at finding new ways to make John feel good. Really good.

"Do I turn you on like this?"

"Ye…yes." It was getting hard to think.

Rodney chuckled into his ear, gently tugging at the bottom of the lobe. He sucked on it for a few moments before letting it go and blowing on it. "Lots of things turn people on."

John had to lick his lips again and swallow hard. "Hands. Your hands… Used to watch you, in the labs. Hands always fascinated me."

"Mmm…really?" Rodney asked, pressing his nose against John's neck, nipping carefully at the skin.

John nodded. "And… yelling." John flushed. "Liked listening to you take charge of the scientists. It was… I don't know. Fascinating."

Rodney chuckled again. "Sometimes I loved when you gave orders in the field and I had an…unhealthy fascination with your gun holster strap."

"Yeah?" John arched a little as Rodney ran a hand lightly down his side. "What else? For you?"

Rodney shifted closer, nuzzling John's neck again. "Lots of things. I've always been experimental when it comes to sex. Must be the scientist in me."

"God, that's so fucking hot…"

"Hmmm," Rodney hummed in question, mouthing at the skin of John's neck.

John rolled them, so Rodney was beneath him yet again.

Rodney chuckled, immediately encircling John with his arms. He shifted John so he could continue licking John's neck.

Humming, John found a spot of his own and set to work making another mark to match the first.

Rodney didn't fight him, turning his head to offer up more skin for John to work.

When he was done, John lifted his head, panting a little. "Love you."

"You marked me. Twice."

"Uh huh."

"And I liked it."

John swallowed hard. "Me, too. I like seeing it there."

"You put them there," he said, rocking his hips up into John. "Just like the dildo in my ass. You put it in there before. I've had it in me stretching me all night."

"And in a few minutes, it will be me inside you."

"Oh really?"

John nodded, rocking his hips.

Rodney groaned, his breath catching. "But…what's the fun in that?"

"Well, I get to fuck you. That's all kinds of fun."

"But why do that now? Just think of all the other things we could do," he whispered, his hands making trails down John's back.

"Like… like what?"

Rodney lifted his head, whispering in John's ear. "Who says you have to fuck me tonight?"

John groaned.

"Think of it, John. That dildo is in my ass filling me up. It's not going anywhere until you take it out."

Panting hard, John rocked his hips again.

"But what does that mean, John? What does that leave for you to use?" It was like Rodney's whispered words were going right to his dick. "Imagine what it would feel like if you were sucking me and I was sucking you and I had that dildo in my ass. Imagine what it would be like for me. Taken from both ends…all because of you."

John moaned, nodding. "That. Let's do that."

"Mmm….sounds like fun."

John had to take a few deep breaths before he could move, flipping around so they could suck one another. They had never tried this position before, and the dildo just made it… hotter.

Rodney's hands were on his hips, adjusting him and then John's dick was surrounded by moist heat.

Gasping, he nearly lost it right then. It was only a nudge to his thigh that got him moving, taking Rodney into his own mouth.

Rodney moaned around him as John began sucking, pulling a moan from John as well. God. This was really hot.

It was a total feedback loop, until John got lost in what was his pleasure and what was Rodney's.

He used his hand to explore Rodney's body a little, stroking the skin around the dildo, shifting it within Rodney's ass. Maybe next time they did this, he'd ask Rodney to use the dildo on him, too.

Just the thought of them sucking each other and fucking each other at the same time… his hips stuttered and John moaned low and deep around Rodney's dick.

He got an answering moan from Rodney and an all-body shudder.

Knowing he was getting close, John sucked hard, using some of the tricks he had learned from Rodney to try and draw his lover's orgasm out. He ran his tongue around the lip of the head and sucked hard.

Rodney yelled around John's cock, his hips jerking as he began to climax. The bitter taste of come filled John's mouth and he swallowed it down, proud that he got Rodney off first.

He held off until Rodney was down to aftershocks, then he couldn't wait anymore. With a moan, he was coming.

His climax left him panting, his body humming with pleasure. He let Rodney's cock fall from his mouth as he rolled onto his back, catching his breath. Rodney stirred a few times beside him, but didn't really move from where he'd sprawled.

John made a happy noise, his eyes starting to close. Good sex was exhausting.

Rodney poked him.

John grunted.

"Wrong way."

"Humm?"

"Need to turn around."

John wrenched his eyes open. "Uh."

Rodney tugged on his hip, fingers sliding against skin.

John's over-sensitive skin made him moan softly, but he somehow managed to get himself righted on the bed.

With a hum of contentment, Rodney shifted again, rolling on his side with his back to John's chest. He tugged John's arm over his waist and let out a quiet sigh. He wiggled his ass a little, pushing back against John's cock.

John chuckled, more a huff than a laugh. "Dildo?"

"…good…" he muttered.

"Won't it be uncomfortable leaving it in all night?"

Rodney shifted again, pressing into John. "Probably." He paused, continuing after a minute.

"We can take it out."

"You sure?"

"Rodney, I don't want you to be in pain."

He was quiet for a long moment. "Then…yeah, probably. I'll still be pretty loose in the morning, though."

"That's fine. Let me," John said, immediately shifting on the bed, moving Rodney gently so he could pull the dildo free. He went to the bathroom and grabbed a washcloth, wetting it before he returned to the bed. He gently wiped Rodney clean before dropping it over the side of the bed.

They spooned together again once John slid back into the bed.

"You okay with it?"

"Of course I'd okay with it. I don't want you in pain," John said, giving Rodney a squeeze.

Rodney was quiet for a moment and then shifted again, rolling so he was on his back, looking up at John. He blinked a few times, seemingly getting a little more alert with every passing minute. "Honestly?"

John sensed there was more to Rodney's question than just the dildo for the night. "Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Some people aren't…interested in some of the more…adventurous or kinky aspects of sex."

John didn't answer right away. "I was so turned on, it hurt. I…admittedly I don't know much about this type of thing, but I'm not so innocent that I've never done anything kinky. I always thought it was kind of sexy, but with you… it was smoking."

Rodney blushed, smiling up at him. "You're good for my ego, you know? But…yeah…I've experimented a lot. As you…ah…have found out…I really prefer bottoming, and I'm up for just about anything, but your ass is…really great to fuck, too. It…ah…yeah…" Rodney said and John swore he blushed even harder. "It's one of those things that ah…I don't generally share…with others…because, well, you know the…ah…general…thought about this…ah…kind of…thing…kink…whatever you want to call it…is generally not…well, you know…mainstream."

John smiled and traced a line down Rodney's cheek. "I liked it. I want you to teach me about it, about what you like."

"There's not much I don't, honestly. And…the dildo thing…yeah…love how it feels but it does get uncomfortable after a while. But either way…even without it now…I'll be stretched for you in the morning…" Rodney shifted, running his foot up and down John's leg. John felt the brush of something a little higher and realized Rodney was starting to get a little hard again—just from thinking and talking about it.

John nodded, surprised to feel his cock twitch a bit as well. "I… I want to try everything. With you."

Rodney moaned a little even as he smiled up at him—brilliant and unguarded. "Okay."

John had to kiss him again, needing to taste that smile for himself.

Rodney kissed him back eagerly, chuckling into his mouth. His foot continued to rub John's leg, his hand stroking his back. It was really amazing to feel and hear and see how aroused his lover could get with just the thought of kinky sex.

When they finally broke for air, John grinned down at his lover, more happy than he had ever been in his life.

"You could have your wicked way with me again if you wanted to. I wouldn't argue with you."

"Well, I don't think my dick can handle any more right at this moment. But I foresee a morning quickie in our future."

"Well, I think we need to train your dick a little better. He should be up for anything we want."

"This is true. We'll have to work on that."

"Or else, have available alternative options."

"Like more dildos?"

Rodney shifted next to him. "Maybe."

"What else would we use?"

"They…have…things…specifically for that."

"Really?"

"Um…yeah." Rodney was blushing again.

"Huh. That's kind of cool."

"Okay…good. That's good."

John gave Rodney another sweet kiss.

Rodney hummed contentedly into the kiss, smiling up at John when he ended it. "If Madison has a bad dream tonight, you get to go in and soothe her."

"I will," John smiled. "I don't mind doing it."

"Because, short of an emergency, I have no intention of getting out of this bed."

"Good. I have no intention of letting you."

"Good. I'm glad you're a quick study."

John chuckled and got up to turn off the lights before curling back into bed. "Night, Rodney."

"Night," he said, shifting a little against John. Just when he thought the scientist was settling down, he spoke again. "And…feel free to…molest me if you wake up horny in the middle of the night."

John chuckled again, this time dirtier. "I'll keep that in mind." John kissed him again. "Night, Rodney."

"Night," Rodney said. This time his breathing eased off and John could tell when he fell asleep.

The next morning, John woke up first. He watched Rodney sleep for a while, mesmerized by the lines in his lover's face, the curve of his body. It was beautiful. Unable to help himself, he finally reached out to touch.

Unconsciously, Rodney reacted, humming even in sleep, shifting in towards John's touch.

John reached out, lightly grazing Rodney's chest with a single finger.

Rodney shivered, goosebumps breaking out on his skin. His eyes fluttered open a few seconds later and he blinked up at John, a smile growing on his face. "Hey…what are you doing?"

"Touching you."

"Feel that." He shifted on the bed next to John. "What do you want to do?"

"Right now? Just this. You're fucking gorgeous."

Rodney blushed, reaching out for John.

John waved his hand away. "Just let me. Please?"

Rodney raised an eyebrow, but didn't argue. He shifted his hands up above his head, giving John complete access to his body.

Giving Rodney a shy, happy smile, John went back to what he was doing. He touched Rodney all over, choosing random places, not more than a graze at any time. Rodney had said early on that he loved sensation and John hadn't thought too much about it. But now…

Now, he took his time. Exploring, trying different types of touches on different places of Rodney's body.

It was kind of nice not to have Rodney's grabby hands distracting him. Usually every time he started this, Rodney would distract him with his hands. He wasn't complaining because the distraction was…well, really good. But now…now this was really good.

Rodney was trying hard not to reach out, not to touch, and John loved him even more for it. As John continued to touch and play, his lover pleaded with his eyes, words long since escaping him. He offered up everything to John. Every touch made him shudder and moan in pleasure. His hips were thrusting up, trying to find friction or some way to give him enough sensation to come. He was gorgeous like this…desperate and needy.

Carefully, John spread Rodney's legs wide. He coated his fingers with lube and then pressed three fingers inside, fucking Rodney slowly with them.

If John thought the sounds before were amazing… God. He hoped the walls were as soundproofed as he thought they were.

The one place John had avoided touching was Rodney's dick, knowing it probably wouldn't take much at this point for his lover to come. Now he reached out, lightly caressing the leaking head.

John had been right. Rodney howled as he came, his body shuddering hard. John got a few more hard twitches out of his lover before he finally went limp, his head turned to the side.

Heh. Rodney had said it took more than most to make him come so hard he passed out. John was feeling rather pleased with himself. He carefully withdrew his fingers and got his lover—and his hand—all cleaned up before curling next to him to wait for the other man to wake up.

Rodney woke with a start a few minutes later, moaning quietly.

"Hey, there."

Rodney turned his head, blinking up at John a few times. "Hey." His voice was soft and a little rough.

Smiling, John gently caressed Rodney's cheek.

"That was…"

"Awesome."

Rodney licked his lips and nodded. "Your turn now. What do you want? My ass? Blowjob? Hand? What?"

"Mmmm. Dunno."

"I'm all stretched. I bet you can just flip me and slide in," Rodney said with a dirty little smile.

"You're evil." John swallowed hard, his dick twitching. It was in agreement with Rodney.

Rodney chuckled—low and deep—even as he rolled over, lifting his ass a little for John.

Moaning a little, John grabbed the lube and slathered it on before he just… sank right in. "Oh god…"

Rodney moaned, pushing back into him. "You a believer now?"

"Oh…yeah…" John took a few slow thrusts, then he had to speed up.

Rodney was…perfect. He rocked back into him, clenching down and making it just…wow. John found himself coming not long after, filling Rodney's ass.

With another quiet moan, as it was starting to be too much sensation, John collapsed on his side next to Rodney.

They stayed like that—curled up together—until the alarm went off and they were forced to get up and go to work. John worried about Rodney's ass, but he wasn't complaining and John sure as hell wasn't going to. Rodney may have walked weird for the next few days, but the smile John got every time he stopped to see him was well worth it.

And honestly, John didn't mind doing the research, either. Because surprising Rodney in bed and getting that brilliant smile was becoming more and more important to him.


It took a few weeks of planning and back-and-forth, but finally, the big day arrived. Ground breaking on the new guest house.

John was the first to admit, he was like a kid, and he was driving Rodney nuts. But this was the first step to getting their own mind-reading piece of the universe back. If they could get the AI working in the new house, they could port it over to the main estate, and Rodney could do a bit of tweaking.

Rodney walked into the breakfast room that morning, holding a few file folders and a mug of coffee. He'd been out of bed early this morning, vanishing into his lab even before John was awake. "I looked over this…house thing."

"Yeah?" John had been trying to get him involved for days now. Although he wouldn't interfere with Arthur for this stage, John wanted Rodney getting to know the systems so he would be ready with his upgrades when it came time to do the estate.

"You know I've been reluctant to get involved with any of the Sheppard Industries projects—and for good reason," he said, sliding into the seat next to John. "But after last night's mind-blowing sex you convinced me to take a look."

John beamed at him. "What do you think of it?"

"It has possibilities."

John nodded. "That's what I thought. With the guest house, I want Arthur to have full control. But when it comes time to move it here… I know you have certain… pieces and parts that he doesn't have access to that will give us more of what I'd be looking for long-term."

"There are some things I wouldn't have done on the AI. I think he'll have to re-write them, but this is his project."

John took the papers Rodney had and looked them over. "Yeah, I want this to be his baby. If he asks for help, fine, but I don't want to take this away from him."

"It would be better if I didn't help."

"For the guest house, I don't really want you to. I would like you to keep abreast of it, though, and I do want you more involved when it comes time to retrofit the main house."

"If we retrofit the house."

"I'm hoping that's where we can go with it."

"With the way he has the AI right now," Rodney said, pointing at the papers and shaking his head, "I wouldn't be comfortable with it."

"What changes would you make, if you were involved?"

"First of all, he doesn't have a back-door into the system. What if something went wrong and the AI went…wonky? The last thing we need is for the AI to get mad at us and suck all the air out of the house. In this one we don't have to worry, but I'm guessing the guest house will be a completely closed system."

John hummed, and nodded, making a note on a piece of paper. "What other major concerns do you have?"

Rodney proceeded to outline five other things that had caught his eye—apart from the back door thing, they were all minor.

John wrote them all down. "Thanks. I'll pass these on to Arthur, and let him decide if, and how, he wants to deal with them."

"You said you wanted my opinion."

"I can not tell him if you want."

"It's up to you, John. It's your money and Arthur's project."

"I know. I like him, a lot. And I want him to succeed."

"It's been hard for him," Rodney said after a few minutes of silence. "I know my father didn't exactly go easy on him either."

John nodded. "I know. I did some research after you first told me why you knew each other." He sighed. "I'll pass along the notes about things he might want to look at, and leave it at that. It will be up to him to decide what, if anything, he wants to do with them."

Rodney nodded. "Fair enough."

"So what's on your agenda for today?"

"Working in the lab. The usual." Rodney shrugged. "Gordon's been calling."

John growled involuntarily. "When will he get the hint? You're taken."

"He's persistent."

"To the point of stupidity. What's he hoping to accomplish?"

Rodney shrugged again. "I don't know."

John rolled his eyes. "If he comes to the coffee shop this week, I might have to have words with him."

"He's harmless, John."

"He's a pain in the ass."

"True," Rodney said, rising to his feet to top off his mug of coffee as John's phone buzzed with a text message. "Let me get moving. Have fun at the ground breaking."

"You should come." John pulled his phone out, glancing down.

"Maybe later," Rodney said, offering a wave as he headed out of the room.

John shook his head and hit the button to bring up his messages as he finished his coffee.

He had two missed texts. The first was from Rodney asking if he was up yet. The second was from Scarlett.

Thought you'd want to know that Andy Meyers has been charged with two counts of murder.

John choked on his coffee.

Holy shit.

It had been…months. Almost a year.

John stood up and immediately went hunting for Rodney.

Of course he ran into Scarlett first. "Boss! Did you get my text?"

"I just did. Holy shit. What happened? I thought they had decided there wasn't enough evidence to formally charge him."

"I've been following up with them every week or so and they finally found the evidence they needed. The detective called me this morning."

John was in shock. "What did they find?"

"They were actually following a lead from another case. Another professor had died in an accident a month or so ago. It seemed he had some of the same…complaints about Meyers that Rodney had. He wasn't quite as…vocal."

"Wow." John had to lean against a wall. "So where is he now? In prison?"

"Yeah. He'll probably try to get bail, but since he already has the other…convictions, he probably won't get it. He only had community service, I think."

"Wow. So what now? What do they need from us to make sure this fucker goes somewhere where he'll never see the sun, and make sure they lose the key?"

"I've taken care of most of it already. I'll let you know if they need Rodney to testify. I didn't want to upset him."

John nodded. "I need to go tell him. He needs to know they finally pinned Meyers down."

"Sir…don't upset him, please. I've finally just righted everything with the staff."

"He has to know." John swallowed. "This is. This is big." Pushing of from the wall, John started for the labs.

"Sir! Please!" Scarlett yelled after him as he strode down the hall.

John shook his head and walked in. "Rodney?"

"Hmm? What?" he asked, not looking up from the screen. "I thought you were going to the ground breaking thing."

John swallowed hard. "I… Rodney."

"What, John? You're going to be late."

"I just got word that they formally charged Meyers. For murder."

Rodney's head snapped up and around to John. His eyes were open wide. "What?"

John had to sit down. He was still in shock. "Scarlett just heard from the detective. They finally managed to pin Jeannie and Caleb's accident on him when another professor recently died in a very similar way. In the course of that investigation, they managed to tie everything together."

"They…he…they know he…"

"He rigged the car to kill you, and it just happened to be them driving it that night. But he's going to trial for this and several other similar deaths. For all the people who spoke out against him."

It seemed like all the blood drained out of Rodney's face all at once. John was on move immediately, catching him as he sagged, making sure he ended up in the chair and not on the floor.

John knelt so he was between Rodney's legs. "It's going to be okay. I thought you needed to know, but the bastard is in jail and is going to stay there. He's going to pay for what he did."

"So it was my fault," Rodney whispered harshly.

"No." John pulled Rodney into his arms. "It was Meyers who killed them. Meyers who rigged the car."

"But I pushed everything. I forced the issue."

"Which was exactly what you should have done. It was Meyers who couldn't handle any criticism, and thought he was above the law. In fact, your case has moved forward because another professor who wasn't even as verbally against him as you just died in a very similar crash. Meyers kills people who disagree with him. He's the one at fault. He's the one to blame. Not you."

Rodney buried his face in John's shoulder, his entire body shaking.

John held him tight, knowing there was nothing else he could say right now.

John heard a noise at the door and shifted enough to glance up. Scarlett was standing there, her hands clenched together tightly. She looked devastated.

John gave her a small smile. "It will be okay. We'll get through this." He directed it at both of them.

She nodded, but didn't look convinced. "Do you want me to help you get him upstairs?"

John shook his head. "No, but can you head out to the site and let them know I won't be there?"

"Sir…I thought you wanted—"

"I know. But right now, Rodney needs me more."

She nodded. "I'm sorry. I should have waited to tell you."

"No. You did exactly the right thing. This is more important than anything else." John hugged Rodney hard. "Family is always more important."

"I'll let them know immediately."

"Thank you. Tell them to proceed as planned, I just won't be by until tomorrow."

"Of course, sir," she said with a terse nod and then was off, disappearing down the hallway.

John turned all of his attention back to Rodney. "Why don't we go get Maddie and go for a picnic today? Just the three of us?"

Rodney shook his head. His eyes were red, but not wet. "I…I want to go upstairs."

"All right. Whatever you want, buddy." John stood up and helped Rodney up. "I'm not going anywhere for the rest of the day."

"You have…work…work to do," he said, letting John guide him, but managing under his own steam.

"I cancelled everything else. You're the most important person."

Rodney didn't argue, which told John that this was exactly what he needed to do. He got Rodney settled on the bed, pulling off his shoes and easing him down.

John kicked off his own shoes and laid down next to him, pulling Rodney into his arms again. It didn't take long before Rodney was limp against him, sleeping. John's phone had buzzed several times with missed calls and texts.

Easing his phone out, John was careful not to disturb his lover, pulling up his texts first.

He had five from Scarlett. Four of which were apologizing for the morning's news. The last was to let him know everything was rescheduled for tomorrow—weather permitting.

He managed—one-handed, with some difficulty—to send her a note back thanking her, and telling her he really was glad she had told him immediately, and that she did the right thing. Although, it would take a week's convincing and a bouquet of flowers to really make her believe that was the case.

Simon appeared at one point, knocking lightly on the door. He had a tray of food—soup from the looks of it—and offered a quiet "Katie sent this up" before he was gone.

John gave him a grateful smile, sitting up slowly. He shook his lover awake gently. "Hey, buddy. Katie sent up some food. If you can, I'd like you to eat a little."

Rodney woke slowly, letting John help him up into a seated position. Leaning into John, Rodney fed himself, finishing the bowl of soup almost automatically. John simply held him, supporting him silently. Sometimes that was all you could do.

When his lover had finished, John took the bowl and set it aside, settling Rodney back into his arms.

Eventually, Rodney slid down, pillowing his head in John's lap and falling asleep once again to the gentle caress of John's fingers in his hair.

John's heart ached for him. He wished there was some way he could have spared Rodney all of this. But it was Meyers he blamed, not his lover.

Madison appeared at the door at some point in the afternoon. She was quiet and subdued so someone must have told her that her uncle wasn't feeling well.

John held out his arms, inviting her up. "Hey, sweetheart."

She climbed up slowly, careful not to make any large movements. "Is Uncle Mer going to be okay?"

"Yeah, he is. He's just very sad today. But he'll be okay, because he has us to cheer him up, right?"

"He was sad a lot before," she said very solemnly and matter-of-fact.

John hugged her close. "He just got some news today that made him sad again. But he'll be okay."

"He thinks I'm a brat," she said. "He doesn't like me because I'm not nice to him."

"That's not true at all. He calls you a brat because he loves you. He calls me names too, that's how he shows that he cares. It's just hard for him to admit it, so he uses the names to show us instead. And he likes that you're what we call spunky. I know he's very, very proud of you, and loves you very much."

"No, he doesn't," she said shaking her head. "Sarah tells me I should be nicer to him."

"He wouldn't know what to do if you were." John smiled at her. "It's okay for you to show each other you care by snipping. You hear me and your Uncle do it all the time, right? It's how we all communicate with each other. We might be dysfunctional, but it works for us."

She fell silent, settling against John's side a little heavier.

John pulled her closer, so he had Rodney on one side and her on the other. "We're a family now, sweetheart. And we all love each other. As long as we stick together, we can make it through anything."

She hugged him tightly, and they stayed like that for a little while before Sarah appeared at the door. "Sir? I need to help Miss Madison with her homework before dinner."

John looked up. "Does it need to get done tonight, or can it wait until tomorrow morning?"

"It's just the stuff for her summer classes," she said quietly.

John nodded. "If it can wait, I'd like to have her here with us tonight."

"Of course, sir. I'll let Katie and Simon know. I'm sorry to disturb you." She pulled the door closed behind her as she left.

John pulled Madison in close again.

A little while later, a light dinner was brought up and he roused Rodney to eat with them.

After they ate, John turned on the television on low. Rodney whispered something about the bathroom at some point and stumbled off to take care of business.

John looked over and saw Madison had fallen asleep. Gingerly, he picked her up and tucked her into one side of the bed.

Rodney appeared a few minutes later, stripped down to his boxers and a t-shirt.

"Hey," John whispered, giving him a small smile and opening his arms.

He climbed in next to John, sliding right into place. "I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry for. You had a lot to take in today." John hugged him hard.

"Ruined your plans."

"You're more important."

Rodney snorted. "You're good for my ego."

John leaned back a bit to smile. "It's the truth. Rodney, I know you still don't fully believe it, but you and Maddie are the most important people in my life now. When one of you needs me, everything else becomes secondary."

"Thanks," he whispered, letting out a long breath as he relaxed against John.

John kissed his lover's head and pulled him deeper into his embrace. "I love you."

"I know."

"Good." John smiled against Rodney's hair. "So do you want to go back to bed, or do you want me to put on a mellow movie? Maddie is already asleep."

Rodney shrugged. "Doesn't matter. I'm not up for much."

"Let's sit on the couch then, and I'll put something on. It might help get your mind off everything if you have something just engaging enough to shut everything else out."

"Sure," he said quietly.

John put on a movie they had both seen a hundred times and loved, settling Rodney on the couch against him.

This was nice, the closeness, but John wished it was because of other reasons. His lover actually stayed awake for the entire movie, pressed against John, huddled in his arms.

When it was over, John caressed Rodney's arm, wishing he knew what to say and do.

"I love you, John. I think you know it already, but I thought I should say it, just in case you didn't."

Smiling, John leaned in to press a soft kiss to Rodney's lips. "I do know, but thank you. I love you, too."

"Are you ready for bed?"

"Whenever you are. I tucked Maddie in on your side, so you can sleep between us, in the middle tonight."

"I don't want to squish her."

"You won't." John smiled.

"She's small. I might roll over onto her."

John grinned. "If you want, we can switch for tonight and I'll sleep in the middle."

"I don't want you to squish her either."

"I won't. I promise. Once I fall asleep, I don't move until morning."

Rodney shrugged again. "Up to you."

"Come on to bed then." John stepped back, taking Rodney's hand and leading him to the bed.

"Aren't you going to change?"

John looked down, and blinked. He had forgotten he was still dressed from this morning. "I probably should. Go ahead and go to bed. I'll be in as soon as I change."

"Take your time. You probably have phone calls and emails to answer."

"They'll wait until tomorrow. Scarlett is handling anything that was immediate, and everything else I can do in the morning."

"Okay," Rodney said, sliding beneath he covers. "I'll be here."

John didn't take long, getting out of his clothes. He had started sleeping naked since Rodney moved in, but for tonight he left his boxers and undershirt on.

There was no way they were going to sleep naked with a six-year-old with them. Rodney was half-asleep by the time John slid into the bed.

"Night, Rodney. Love you."

He muttered something, rolling toward John.

Taking him into his arms, John kissed him softly, and closed his eyes, drifting into sleep.

The next day was better, much better. Rodney seemed to be almost himself and John headed off to the groundbreaking feeling that some things were going right.

He met Arthur and Bill, shaking both their hands. "Sorry about the delay."

"Everything okay today?" Bill asked, looking John in the eyes.

John sighed. "For the moment. We found out the guy responsible for the car crash that killed Rodney's sister and her husband was just charged with their murder."

"Oh…that's good news. Congrats," Bill said with a smile before turning to the operator of the heavy machinery. "So we ready?"

"Whenever you are, sir."

"John," Bill asked turning to him. "You want to do the honors?"

With a grin, John nodded. "Sure. All right guys, you've got the go-ahead!"

The sound of the machines starting up was loud and amazing at the same time.

As they watched, the first hole was made. John couldn't wait to see what happened.

This house was going to be amazing—and just a guest house. He glanced over at Arthur who was watching with an expression of awed surprise on his face.

Smiling, John remembered the notes he had gotten from Rodney yesterday, before things had fallen apart. As they walked away toward the main estate and his office, John pulled out the paper and handed it over. "I had McKay glance at your plans, since when and if we're ready to port this to the estate I'll want him involved since he lives here. He had a few suggestions for you, but you're free to take them or leave them as you wish."

"You had Rodney look over my plans?"

John nodded. "He did it under duress, if you want to know, and at my insistence."

"I…no, I'll look it over. He knows what's he's talking about."

John nodded. "We both wanted to make it clear that you can do what you want with the notes. It's not in any way a demand for anything."

"I…I didn't think he'd look it over."

"In a sense, this type of thing was his field on the base where we were stationed. But he didn't want to step on your toes, or make you feel like he was trying to take over, which is why he's stayed away. We both know this is your baby."

"I…no. I'd rather have him look at it."

John smiled. "If you want to talk to him about it, he has a lab at the house where he works."

"I don't want to bother him," he said, immediately backing off. "He's busy."

John rolled his eyes. "You wouldn't be. Do you want to go there now? I can pop my head in and see if he's free if it would make you feel better about it."

"Oh no. I can't do that."

John shook his head, leading a dithering Arthur inside. Instead of heading for his office, John just went to the lab and led the other man in before he realized where they were going. "Rodney?"

"Yeah, what?" he asked, blinking across the room at John. "Oh…hi."

"I know you guys know each other, so I won't bother with introductions. Rodney, I gave Arthur your notes, and he was very interested in talking to you about them and getting your opinions."

"You…ah…what?" Rodney tore his eyes away from Arthur and back to John.

"The AI for the guest house. You had mentioned some flaws and concerns you had with it, and Arthur wanted to go over them with you and hear your reasoning behind them before he makes any decisions about re-writing code or anything. Is that okay?"

"Ah…sure, that's…ah fine." Rodney quickly glanced around the cluttered lab. "Ah…maybe we should go to an office or the dining room or something."

"Up to you. If you want to use the office across from mine, it's empty now that Dave's not based here anymore, and it's still set up for anything you might need."

"Okay. Right. Good." God. Was Rodney nervous?

John led them both back to the office wing, showing them into Dave's old office. The desk and chairs were still there, and there was room for them to spread out if they needed to. "I'll be across the hall if you need me for anything."

"Right." Rodney's head bobbed once.

John didn't close the door, not knowing if they would be happier with it open or closed. They could always close it later, and made his way to his own desk, booting up his system.

John started working, half listening to the noise—or lack thereof—across the hall. Shouldn't they be talking?

He didn't want to interfere, though. He went online and ordered flowers for Scarlett, going through everything that needed taking care of from the previous day.

With that done, John got down to business, working through a few things that needed to be finished. He eventually heard quiet talking from the other room. Progress.

They were both brilliant men who had had the misfortune of a bad experience when they were young and inexperienced. If they could get past that, he had a feeling they could do amazing things.

By the time John glanced up again, hours had passed and dinner was on the agenda.

Standing and stretching out his kinks, John wandered across the hall.

Rodney and Arthur were talking quietly, the papers from the project still in a single pile on the desk.

"Gentlemen."

Their heads popped up like prairie dogs, glancing around with wide open eyes. "Hi," Rodney said finally.

John smiled. "It's getting late, and I'm starving. Why don't we take this to the dining room? Arthur, you should join us."

"What time is it?" he asked, glancing at his watch. "Oh…crap, I'm late. I'm sorry," he said, gathering up his stuff and trying to jam it into his briefcase and run out the door at the same time.

"Do you need me to have a car bring you anywhere?"

"No, I…ah…drove," he said rushing off down the hall, papers dropping behind him.

John raised an eyebrow. "O…kay."

He vanished around the corner headed for the front door a few seconds later.

John glanced at his lover. "So…how did it go?"

"It was a little…weird, honestly." Rodney offered a small smile. "I hadn't talked to him since that night dad walked in on us."

John smiled back as they headed for the dining room. "You've both come a long way since then."

"I guess. He's a lot more paranoid than I remember."

John nodded. "He was taken advantage of a few times, with his work, and had stuff stolen. He mentioned it when I first started funding him, and I did some looking. He was, unfortunately, a little too trusting of some people he shouldn't have been, and got burned."

"And I'm sure my father's influence didn't help any."

"No, I'm sure it didn't. So I can understand why he is the way he is. It's why I've been a lot more patient with him in some respects that I might have been with anyone else. He is brilliant, he just has trust issues."

"That's a nice way of putting it," Rodney said with a bitter chuckle as they stepped into the dining room. Madison was there, along with Sarah. And to John's surprise his brother and wife were there with Andrew as well.

"Dave! I wasn't expecting you guys!" He stepped forward to shake his brother's hand, and give Charlotte a hug.

"I heard about the groundbreaking and I had to come and see it myself," Dave said. "The project looks great."

John bounced before they all sat down. "It's going to be fu— really cool." John caught his language as he glanced at the kids. "One of the guys we've invested in for the AI to control an entire house was ready for a test-run, and I offered him this. It will be the most awesome guest house in existence."

"I can imagine. The plans look amazing."

"And once we work any bugs out there, my hope is that we can port it to the main estate too. Then, we'll have experience with both types, and can really take this thing commercial."

"You really think this will be something people will want?"

"I sure as he…heck do. And I think other people will too. Especially if we have a working model already to show that it's not just a dream and we can scale it to fit different lifestyles. Think about the elderly, as one demographic. If the house had a certain amount of awareness, it would give them more independence, and there would be less fear of something happening when they couldn't call for help."

Dave nodded his head. "Okay. I can see that. But are we giving up too much of ourselves to technology? I mean, it's supposed to know our likes and dislikes…"

"If it's scalable, people will be able to make some of that determination themselves."

"I guess. Seems too…science fiction, I guess." He shrugged. "I guess it's just different than what I expected you to be interested in."

"It's science, which has always been fascinating. But I guess I developed more of an interest when I was stationed on a base filled with some of the best geeks the world has to offer."

"I guess," Dave said, looking up as the servants walked in with dinner.

Rodney had settled down next to John, with Madison on his other side. "So, you've been looking over the science projects John's in charge of?" Rodney asked, narrowing his eyes at John's brother.

Dave shrugged. "Not closely, but I do keep abreast of them, just as he keeps abreast of what I've got in the air."

"I didn't take you for the…science expert."

"I'm not, which is why I'm glad John's handling this stuff. I read through most of it, but honestly I have no idea what it means. I just kind of get the general idea."

Rodney nodded, keeping silent as a plate was placed in front of him. "So… what is it you do now?"

John glanced over, surprised. Rodney had never really taken much of an interest in the business before.

Dave seemed a little surprised too, but good-natured about it. "What don't I do? A lot of the same things as John, just in different sectors."

"Like what?"

"Real estate, corporate ventures, that sort of thing. I know John's not as interested in that sort of thing as I am."

"Uh huh. Does it have anything to do with the land near the university?"

John looked at him, startled.

Dave blinked. "I'd have to check to see if we have anything going on there. Honestly, we have a few land deals in the works, and I don't remember off the top of my head all the details. Why?"

"That land was supposed to be the University's but someone outbid them. They need the land to build better facilities."

"Huh." Dave scratched his head. "I don't know, honestly, but I'll check tomorrow when I go in. If it's not one of ours, I can check the records and find out who was bidding, if you'd like."

"Please. Yes." Huh. So Gordon might have wanted something other than Rodney's ass.

The rest of the meal was mostly small talk, catching up since they hadn't had a chance in a while. After the meal, Madison and Andrew disappeared to play, and the adults adjourned to the sitting room.

Charlotte kept sending both him and Rodney looks throughout the meal, and finally Rodney had enough. He turned to her, glaring. "What? Do I have something stuck in my teeth? Did I put my shirt on backwards after we had mad monkey sex in the office? What is it?"

Both Dave and Charlotte gasped a little, and John put his head in his hands, waiting for the storm.

"What? What is it? Stop with the looks and the glances and the subtle hints. Just say what's on your mind."

It was Dave who answered. "You're… together. Aren't you?"

"Are you asking if we have sex? The answer is yes."

John moaned a little, as both Dave and Charlotte's eyes turned to him.

"What? Why are you looking at him? It takes two to have sex. I know you know that since you have a child."

John finally looked up, at his brother. "Yes, Dave. Rodney and I are together. Whether you like it or not, I love him, and that's not changing. You can accept it, and us, or you can disown me."

Charlotte stepped in, putting a hand on her husband's arm. "We don't want to do that," she said sternly. "It's just…a lot to take in and honestly, not something our…circle looks very favorably on."

John nodded. "I know, which is why I never mentioned it again. We've been together for months now. But… I was always missing something, and never knew what it was. I'm sorry you don't necessarily approve, but for the first time in my life, I know what I want in a partner. And he's standing right here."

"You just…not in public, John," Dave said. "That's all we're asking."

"Have I in the past, what, five months?" John looked over at Rodney, wondering if he knew the exact amount of time.

"Five months, two weeks and three days. That means you owe me a six-month anniversary gift soon."

John had to laugh. "I'll remember that." He looked back at his brother. "So have you seen any evidence in the last five months, two weeks, and three days? Would you even know if I hadn't told you?"

"Well, you have the…" He gestured toward John's neck.

John started, rubbing his neck. He turned toward Rodney. "I don't remember you marking me. When did you do that?"

"Um…night before last," Rodney said with a shrug. "During the…you know…"

John hummed, remembering fondly. Then he remembered Dave and Charlotte and blushed.

"See. This is what I mean," Dave said with a sigh. "Just…it's our family reputation and while some people are…forward thinking, most of them aren't."

John rolled his eyes. "I'm not shouting it from the rooftops, if that's what you're worried about. But I'm not going to give him up, either."

"We're not asking you to do that," Charlotte said, glancing at Dave.

It looked like his brother was considering objecting, but finally sighed. John looked over at Rodney and gave him a small smile. It wasn't a huge victory, granted, but it was a victory.

"We're serious about this," Rodney said quietly. "It isn't a fling. It's not a one night stand. It's not a phase. John and I have talked about it and we're going to be ourselves. We're not ones for huge public displays of affection, so you have nothing to worry about."

Charlotte nodded. "I think that's reasonable, and while I can't say I don't wish you had found someone more… female, John, I am glad you're happy."

"More female?" Rodney's voice took a turn toward the higher pitches.

John quickly moved to Rodney's side, squeezing his hand. "Ahh… why don't we chat about something else?"

"The only way I'd be more female is if I got a sex change!"

"Which is not going to happen. Period. I like you just the way you are." John was starting to get desperate to change the subject. "How's Andrew doing in school this year?"

"He's not in school," Charlotte said, raising her voice a little, realizing how badly this conversation could go. Especially since Rodney was muttering "more female" under his breath.

"What's he been doing for the summer? Maddie's been taking some classes at the local summer camp."

"Just…staying home," Charlotte said, sending a glance toward Dave.

"He's…not as educationally inclined as we'd like."

Rodney, of course, picked up on that. "He's what? Four? Let him be a kid!"

John couldn't win tonight. "I wasn't either, but it might just be that he hasn't found anything that interests him yet. He'll be fine, I know."

"He's four," Rodney repeated. "You might have to settle for the fact that your genes only allowed for an average child."

"Which would be fine." Charlotte seemed as desperate as John to find a safe topic.

"You should have married better, Dave. Seems like Charlotte's genes weren't as good as you thought they were."

"Rodney!" John smacked him on the shoulder. "Don't be mean."

"We'll you have a brain! So it can't be your side of the genome."

"Stop. You're just irritated at the comment, which I understand, but don't take it out on her."

"She called me a woman!" he yelled pointing at her.

"No, she said they wish I wasn't gay and had fallen for a woman."

"She said I needed to be a more of a woman!"

"No, she said they wished I was with a woman, not that you should be more of a woman." John rubbed his face. The night had started so well. "Can we please drop it? Please? You can yell at me later if you want."

"I want you to do something to me, instead of me yelling at you."

John sighed. "I just don't want to fight at all." John glanced at Charlotte. "Please, can you just apologize? Please?"

"I didn't say anything wrong," she said, he tone taking on a frosty edge.

John sighed. "I'm with Rodney. Please Charlotte, Dave… I know you don't approve, but this is my partner, whether you like it or not. I really don't want there to be a tense war going on between you guys. You don't have to like each other, but can we all at least agree to be civil? Please?"

"I'm always civil," Rodney commented.

"Civil! You're anything but civil," Charlotte said, taking a step forward.

John moved between them. "Please…"

Dave moved in also, urging his wife to take a step back. "Honey, you don't want to piss him off. Please."

John licked his lips. "I think I'm exhausted. Rodney, why don't we call it a night?"

Rodney, though, narrowed his eyes at Dave. "What do you mean, don't piss me off? What do you know?"

John didn't see this going anywhere good.

Dave shrugged. "When you first called me, I did a background check on you."

"You did what?"

"You were a person I'd never heard of, calling me about a brother I hadn't seen in more than a decade. I wanted to know who you were."

"And you found my file?" Rodney's tone was icy. "You read my file? How did you even get your hands on it?"

"Of course I read it. Wouldn't you have in the same position?"

"You don't have the clearance to even look at the room my file is stored in."

"Obviously, I do—or I know someone who does. It doesn't really matter now, does it?" Dave sighed. "John, I think Charlotte and I are going to grab Andrew and head home. It's getting late."

"You don't have clearance. I know you don't," Rodney said, his voice hard. "John doesn't even have that kind of clearance."

John glanced back at Rodney. "I've read your file. I did for everyone on Atlan…. on base."

"Atlantis," Dave said, finishing John's word. "Your base."

They both snapped their heads around. John was the first to recover. "How do you know the name of the base?"

"Like I said. I've read Rodney's file. All of it. Even the parts when you had projects with other governments."

John's eyes had gone wide. "Exactly how much do you know about where we were and what we were doing?"

"Enough."

"Tell me." John stared at him intently. "I need to know."

"I know, John. Isn't that enough?"

John ran a hand through his hair. "Yes and no. I'm trying to figure out if you know the location of the base."

"That it's supposedly in another galaxy. Yes. That your lover blew up a solar system. Yes. That your lover is not aligned to one particular government. Yes."

John had to sit down hard. "Holy shit. I didn't know you knew all that. Fuck. How much of my file have you read?"

"I didn't get your file, John," Dave said. "I got your lover's. You might want to read it in its entirety one day. It's…enlightening."

John sighed. "I've read most of it, and honestly, I don't think I care about the rest. We've saved each other's lives more times than I can count, and that's where you learn the true soul of a man. It's one of the reasons I love him." He felt a little sick. "God, I can't believe you know."

"You shouldn't have gone there in the first place. You need to take care of your home and family first," Dave said. "Come on, Charlotte. We're leaving."

"Where did you get the file?"

"Here or there. I don't have to tell you anything."

"Yes, you do. You shouldn't have the information in the first place. It's classified. All of it."

"Come on, Charlotte. Let's go," Dave said, managing to get his wife a few steps closer to the door. "There's no reason for us to stay here any longer." Dave paused, glancing over his shoulder. "And here I thought I knew you, that you actually cared about your family and our name."

"At the time, I didn't have anything left to lose, or so I thought. I didn't think I would ever be welcomed back here, Dave." John sighed. "And they needed me. I still wake up with nightmares about what might be happening there, even after all this time."

"Your family comes first, John. You need to remember that," Dave said, ushering his wife out the door of the study.

John didn't try to stop him this time, head still in his hands. He was exhausted, and wondered if Dave was right, if he had ever done anything right.

"I didn't do anything illegal," Rodney said after a few minutes.

"I know." John looked up. "I meant what I said. I don't care what may or may not be in it that I haven't seen. I know you, and that's all that matters."

"But he's right. I…I've done things."

John shrugged. "So have I. You don't get high-level special-ops training for nothing. You probably have read my whole file, and there are things in it I'm not proud of, but I can't change it. So I don't obsess over it. Or I try not to, anyway. Now I'm wondering if I've ever done a fucking thing right in my life."

"He wasn't attacking you. It was my file he'd seen. And I didn't give it to him."

"I know. I have no idea how he got the information he did. He shouldn't even know about Atlantis."

"We're going to have to tell O'Neill my file's out there and that there's some…serious issues with their security, too."

"I know. I'll take care of it. Maybe it'll just…blow over."

"Doubtful."

John sighed. "I know."

Rodney settled on the couch next to him. "I'm sorry."

"Why? You didn't do anything wrong." John looked up and leaned into his lover. "I just… I don't know sometimes. I've made mistakes, I know that, but… Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever really atone for them. Or am I going to have them tossed in my face unexpectedly for the rest of my life? Will I ever live them down?"

"They didn't throw anything in your face except me."

John shook his head. "I know Dave. That parting shot was aimed directly at me, and the fact that I walked away all those years ago."

"I don't think so. I think it's the fact that I'm not American and he's one of those who think charity begins at home in the good old US of A. I know a lot of people like that. Senator Kinsey comes to top of mind."

John sighed again. "I honestly don't know. I wish I did. I'm just… tired. In more ways than one. Sometimes I just want to run away with you and Maddie to an island somewhere and never look back."

"No. I burn too easily."

John managed a weak smile. "We'd find somewhere with lots of trees for you."

Rodney chuckled softly. "Can we go to bed?"

"Please." John stood up and held out a hand. "I'm sorry you had to be treated like that. I just… I want them to be happy for me, but that's never going to happen, is it?"

"I don't know," Rodney said quietly, taking John's hand. "Let's go upstairs and forget about them. Deal?"

"I can't promise I'll manage it, but I will try."

"How about I make you forget?"

John smiled as they headed up the stairs. "I could go for that. You're very good at making me forget everything."

"Good," Rodney said, offering John a broad smile. "I'm going to have some fun."


Over the next few weeks, John avoided his brother as much as he could. He wasn't sure what to say to him, and at least avoidance didn't involve screaming or name-calling. The guest house was making great progress, and John was pretty happy with everything. Arthur and Rodney had met a few more times to discuss changes. It wasn't exactly a friendship, but they were at least working together for the common goal of making Arthur's project a success. He was working in his office one day in the middle of the week when a cleared throat made him look up in surprise.

"Boss, sir?" Scarlett, dressed completely in black, was hovering.

"What's wrong?" John stood up, suddenly worried.

"I just…I know what happened the last time this subject came up and I'm not really looking forward to bringing it up again."

It took him a moment to work out what she was talking about, and when he did he immediately sat back down. "This has something to do with Meyers, doesn't it?"

She nodded, looking a little miserable. "I've been fielding all the calls about it. I don't want to upset Rodney again."

John waved her into a seat. "But if there's something he needs to know, I'd rather it be me who tells him. What happened?"

"They are prepping for the trial," she said, sinking down in the chair across from his desk. "I've been trying to convince them that the report Rodney filed months ago was going to be enough, but they want him there."

John's heart sank. That was going to be really rough on his lover. "Do they just need him to come in and give another statement, or do they want him there as a witness at the trial?"

"I'm trying to convince them we can do a sworn statement, but they're going to want it videotaped at the very least. They're really pushing for him to be at the trial."

John rubbed his face and sighed. "When would they need him there? And for how long? I know he's not going to want to be there for the whole thing. At most, I'd only want him there for a day or two when they actually needed him."

"They haven't said, yet. And I'm hoping I can browbeat them. But on the off-chance I can't…" Her voice trailed off. "I thought you should know."

John nodded. "I appreciate having the heads-up. When will you know exactly what they'll need and when?"

"A few days. They're getting everything set up now."

"All right. I'll hold off telling Rodney until I know exactly what they're going to need."

"I figured. I didn't want him to have to do this in the first place." It was actually very interesting how protective the entire staff had become of his lover once Scarlett had helped to settle the ruffled feathers from when he'd first moved in. John suspected that once people got past the gruff exterior, all the traits John himself loved about the man had shone through for everyone else, too.

"I'll keep you posted with everything," Scarlett continued a few beats later.

John sighed, nodding. "Thanks. Oh, and have you gotten anything from my brother? He was supposed to be checking on a property buy near the University, but he's not talking to me at the moment, and I wanted to follow up."

"I haven't heard anything about a property near the University. He hasn't mentioned it at all."

"Could you do me a favor then, and check? Apparently someone outbid the University on land they badly needed, and we're trying to find out who it was."

"Of course. I'll do that now. Won't take long."

"Thanks. I've done a little looking myself, enough to know it wasn't us who put in the bid, but I haven't had time to track down the actual buyer, or find out what they plan to do with it."

"I can get into the systems and find out. Take me no time at all," she said, getting to her feet.

John nodded, returning to what he had been working on, a few new proposals he was putting the finishing touches on to go out this week. It was hard to re-focus himself, but he knew these needed to get done today.

His phone rang five minutes later and he picked up on speakerphone. Scarlett was talking even before he got a word out. "Okay. This is weird. It's been purchased, but there's no name of the buyer. I'm trying to dig a little deeper."

He blinked. "How can that be? In order to complete a purchase like that, all the paperwork has to be filled out. There has to be a name on there somewhere."

"No kidding. This is wonky. I'll get back to you." She hung up without another word.

John shook his head. He hadn't really made this a priority, and was only following up because Rodney had asked him about it again last night. But now that they were digging, he was beginning to wonder if there was more going on here than he first thought.

His phone rang again.

Once more, he hit speaker.

"Hello? Am I on speaker? You know I hate speaker." Rodney.

John smiled and picked it up. "Sorry, I've been back and forth with Scarlett, and I thought this was her. What's up?"

"I'm running downtown. Wanted to let you know."

"Oh?" John raised an eyebrow. Rodney rarely went out without him. "Anything exciting?"

"Ah…Gordon asked to talk to me face-to-face so I'm meeting him at the coffee shop."

John stiffened. "What? Why? You know he's up to something. And we're doing some digging on the University site you wanted me to look at. No buyer name is listed in the public documents, so Scarlett is trying to get more information."

"He wanted to talk. Nothing is going to happen."

"Are you sure about this? I won't stop you, but are you positive you don't want me to come and wait in the car, just in case? I know you think I'm biased and paranoid, but I just can't shake the feeling that he's up to something."

"You are biased, paranoid, and possessive. But that's a different conversation entirely."

John chuckled. "I can't help it when it comes to you. But seriously…. something about him just raises my instincts. He reminds me of the natives who offered us smiles and trade agreements until we got into the village, where we were promptly taken prisoner and set up as sacrifices."

"He's not like that."

"I know you keep saying that, and I am trying to get past it, but… I'm just worried. Do me a favor and call me when you get there, before you head in? And again when you leave? I'll wait to panic or do anything rash until I don't hear from you an hour after you get there."

"I'll call," Rodney said and John knew he was rolling his eyes.

"You can mock me tonight, and I'll give you a fantastic blow job to make up for my paranoia, but it will make me feel better."

"I want more than a blow job."

"Deal. I'll do whatever you want."

"Surprise me, but I expect to be wowed."

"Mmmm, I can do that. Be safe."

"It's Louisville. What could happen? I'll talk to you when I get there."

"All right. Love you."

"Love you." Rodney hung up a few seconds later and John was left listening to the dial tone.

With a sigh, he hung up and tried to convince himself he was just being overly protective and paranoid.

He tried to work, but his concentration was long gone. Scarlett called a few more times, complaining about the lack of paperwork on the property. Rodney called when he got to the coffee shop, sounding fine. He was looking forward to a mocha and a muffin.

For the next hour, John stared blankly at his screen and fiddled with a pen while he watched every minute tick away.

He jumped when the phone rang.

He snatched at the headset. "Sheppard here."

"Okay, this is weird," Scarlett said.

John deflated a little. "What is?"

"I came across some paperwork in the city files—don't ask me how I got it—but according to these papers, we own that property."

"What?" John wrinkled his forehead. "We don't have any record of it anywhere in our files, and Dave and I are both pretty neurotic about that. We also wouldn't have bought it without listing our name…"

"That's why it's weird. It came off the market about three months ago and it was purchased by Sheppard Industries. It lists the address of the office downtown."

"Does it have a contact name listed for us anywhere? Or a phone number? I want to find out what's going on."

John heard her shuffling through papers. "No name, but it lists the main office number downtown. That's it."

"Send me the electronic version of them. I'm calling my brother now."

"On its way," she said just before hanging up.

John dialed his brother's direct internal line.

He picked up after four rings. "David Sheppard."

"It's John. I have a question for you." John had gotten the documents and had them open on his desktop now, and was searching through their records in the system. "What do you know about a property listed as CX848 that we own?"

"I'd have to look it up."

"I'm looking now, and there's no record whatsoever of it anywhere in our systems. And yet I have documents saying we bought it three months ago, and it doesn't list us as the buyer. The only contact information given is the downtown office and main line."

"I don't know what to tell you, John," his brother said. John heard typing in the background. "If you have papers that say we bought it, we bought it."

Getting an idea, John looked again at the city papers for the exact purchase price—holy shit that was a lot of money—and the date of sale, and went into their online systems to backtrack if a transaction of that size was made, and who authorized it. "How could we have bought something neither of us knows about? It's not even property that's of any real value to us."

"Property is always valuable, John."

"This piece is a chunk bordering University land, and there's nothing else out there. They needed it for classroom expansions, and I can't even begin to think what we would do with it."

"Oh, is this the land McKay was asking about?"

"Yeah. He kept asking me, so I started looking. And this is getting weird." He finally got to the right date span in the financial records and started skimming for the right dollar amount.

"I told him I'd look into it and get back to him."

"I know, but he was impatient, so I just went ahead and did it."

"Just leave it. I'll get an answer for him."

"I'm looking now at our financials so I can see who authorized the payments."

"John, leave it be. I'll look it over. You have better things to do."

"I don't mind. Now I'm curious too." John's eyes caught something. It wasn't one big payment, but his math-inclined mind put the four figures together to get the total for the land. Bingo.

The initials were PS.

PS? He made a face. Who the hell was that? S was probably Sheppard, but who was P?

The only person it could fit was his father, Patrick, but he was dead.

John opened the first of the records, wanted to get more information on who it had been paid to, and where that person was located. "I'll let you know if I find anything, Dave."

"John, just leave it alone. If we did spend the money we can afford it."

"I don't care about that. I want to know why we bought something there's no formal record of in our systems, who bought it, and why."

"It's probably just filed wrong. Just leave it, John."

John suddenly refocused on his brother. "Why are you so determined to get me to leave this alone? Usually you're more than happy when I find an inconsistency, since it means there was an error. But this time you're all but ordering me to ignore this one. Why?"

"Because it doesn't concern you. Okay?"

"So you are the one who bought it. Under our father's name, apparently. Why? Dave, what the hell is going on?"

"It was a favor for one of dad's associates. It's nothing."

"That's a lie, or it would have been in our records, and you wouldn't have done it under Dad's name. And you wouldn't be so desperate to get me to leave it alone now. I will find out what's going on. You can either tell me the truth now, or I'll just track it down myself."

"I'm telling the truth," Dave hissed into the phone. "It was a favor. He wanted it done quietly and apparently it was something dad had agreed to before he died. He had paperwork and everything."

Rodney had installed a little script on John's system that automatically recorded all calls, immediately erasing them when he hung up unless he flipped a switch and put in a flash drive to save it to. He did both now, copying the documents Scarlett had found and copies of the records he was looking at as well. Just in case. "Who was this associate? And you didn't think to question why he wanted this quiet? Or why it was suddenly coming to light over a year after our father died? If he did have the paperwork, why did he wait so long?"

"It was Henderson. Dad's golf partner. He came to the office a few months ago and showed me everything. I couldn't argue with it. It was dad's handwriting. And we had the money."

John started searching the records for Henderson. "Handwriting is fucking easy to forge if you know what you're doing, Dave. What did the paper say and where are they now?"

"They're in my file cabinet, with everything for the sale. Why?"

"I want to see them. Can you scan them and send them to me while we're on the line?"

"Yes, fine. It's not a big deal, John. Just leave it alone."

"It might not be, and maybe I'm being paranoid, which if I am, fine. But I want to see all the paperwork from the sale that you've got."

Dave sighed. "Can you hold? I have to go dig for it. Or I can call you back."

"I'll hold."

The hold music came on a few seconds later. He spotted Scarlett hovering in the door and waved her in.

Holding the mouthpiece away, he scrawled the name of this buyer on a piece of paper and handed it to her. "I need you to get me as much information on this guy as you can find."

She walked in and took the paper from his hands. "Right away, boss."

"Have you found anything else since I've been on? And has Rodney tried to call through at all?" John checked his watch. His lover's hour was up in about fifteen more minutes.

"All quiet. I have a few searches going on right now, but they haven't pulled anything yet."

"This name might help. Dave authorized the sale under our father's name. He says an old business associate said the deal had been done and showed up with paperwork in his handwriting a few months ago. Personally, all of my radars are going off that something isn't right here, and I want to know why he wanted this land, what he's going to do with it, and why he felt the need to do it in a secret, hush-hush manner with us as his middle-men." John paused. "And since I know you have… talents… find out if he's ever dealt with anyone known for forgery, publicly or not."

"I'll get right on it," she said. "And Dave authorized the sale? We don't have any records of it."

"That's one of the reasons I don't trust this. Either my brother was an unwitting pawn in some larger game, or he's part of whatever's going on. And I intend to find out which it is."

"I'll look it up now."

He nodded as the hold music turned off and his brother came back on.

"They should be coming to you now. There's not much."

John refreshed his inbox. "I see it. Did Henderson give you any indications as to why he wanted it kept off of all of our books?"

"It was one of dad's friends. We've known him since we were kids. I'm not going to argue with him."

"Why not? He shows up with a suspicious agreement he wants to cash in nearly twelve months after the man he supposedly made it with died. Not only that, but this piece of land wasn't for sale when Dad died. It had only gone up on the market a month before we bought it." John opened the documents Dave had sent him and immediately saved a copy of those to his flash drive as well.

"I don't know what to tell you, John. It's done. We own it."

"Are we holding it for him, or do we just own it? Are there any stipulations about what we can do with it?" John started skimming the files his brother had sent over.

"We own it. He had plans for the land."

"Do we have to authorize anything he builds there, since we own it?"

"No. Not that I know of. Look, I have a conference call in five minutes. Can we talk about this later?"

"Sure. Thanks for this stuff."

"It's really nothing you need to be concerned about."

"Uh huh." John hung up and started pouring through the terms of the sale and the paperwork Dave had sent him, while keeping an eye on the clock.

It didn't take long for Rodney's hour to be up. Five minutes past. Ten past. Fifteen. Nothing.

Finally, John picked up the phone and dialed his lover's cell.

It rang twice and then went to voice mail.

"Hey, it's me. Call me back in the next ten minutes just to let me know you're okay, or I'm coming down there, okay? I know you think I'm paranoid, but I can't help it. Love you."

John sighed and tried to concentrate on the papers in his hands. Scarlett knocked on his door a few minutes later, speaking as she walked in. "Sir, this is weird. I can't find much of anything on this Henderson guy you asked me to look up. I have a driver's license and his IRS forms. That's it."

John's stomach clenched. "He was a friend of my father's but I don't know much more than that. And now Rodney's not answering his phone, either."

"Oh. I can trace him if you want."

"Can you?"

"Of course," she said as she turned, headed back to her office. "What do you want? Car, phone, or person?"

"Person." John got up and followed her.

She sat back behind her desk and closed a few windows that looked like they were running searches on various databases. She brought up a tracing program and entered a numeric code. "Give it a few seconds to launch and do a search."

John nodded. "He should be in the coffee shop, or in his car heading home. If he's anywhere else, something is wrong."

"And…you don't know about this system. Sir."

"I don't?" John tried to look over her shoulders. "What is it, exactly?"

"Something I tweaked from available software. And yes, you're chipped, too."

"How the hell did you manage that?"

"Your family doctor was very helpful."

John rubbed his eyes. "Who else has them? And does anyone know about them now except me?"

"Madison does, too. Just the three of you. We needed to be able to keep an eye on you."

"Who is 'we'?"

"Oh. I didn't say?" she asked, clicking through a few windows on her computer.

"No, you haven't yet. I don't necessarily mind given that it's proving useful now, and honestly I've had some sort of tracking device on me most of my adult life. I just want to know who it is who wants to know where I am."

"Me. And Simon. It makes our jobs easier."

He looked at her, then had to laugh softly. "So that's why you both always know where I am. Just make sure it's encrypted enough to prevent anyone else from getting the data, and I don't mind. Any lock on Rodney yet?"

"No one can view the tracking information except me. And it's coming up. The connection to the satellite took a little longer than normal."

John moved so he could see the screen. He really hoped Rodney was in the coffee shop and had just lost track of time.

"Okay…let's see," she said, zooming in. "It looks like he's…near the University."

"Fuck." John closed his eyes briefly. "He's on this fucking piece of land we're trying to sort out. I'm going there now. If it changes, call me immediately."

"Wait, you can't just…run off."

"Yes, I can." John was already back in his office. He had several guns and knives stashed in various places, and he got them all, hiding them on his person. Just in case.

"Boss sir, wait! I can track him from here. He could just be looking at something."

"I don't care." John shrugged off his shoes and pulled on the sneakers he kept here for running or going out to the stables. "You can call me if anything changes, but I am going there now."

"I can't have the two of you running around out there!"

"You're going to track me too, and you're going to be telling me exactly where I am in relation to him." John put his phone in his pocket. "My headset is in the car, and I'll call you on that as soon as I'm in it."

"But, sir—"

"No buts." John paused to look at her. "I don't know what the hell is going on, but I will find out."

She sighed. "I know you will, but it's my job to worry about you."

He put a hand on her shoulder as he walked past. "I don't know if this is nothing or not, but if it's any consolation, if there is something…funny going on. Well. I think they all forget that when I want to be, I can be dangerous too."

"That doesn't make me any happier," she said with a scowl. "And Rodney's moved a little bit, within a few hundred feet."

John nodded and headed out to the car. As soon as he was on his way, he put in his headset and called Scarlett. "It's me. Where is he now?"

"He moved three feet."

"That's fine. As long as he's in the same area, until I get there, we're good."

"His car and phone are in town. It looks like they're parked at the coffee shop he usually goes to."

"Which is even more evidence he's not there by choice." John was tense, driving fast. His car ate up the miles, making it to the location Scarlett had mentioned in half the time. He parked his car a few blocks away. Again, just in case. "All right, from here I'm going to need you to give me directions."

"They're…there's no streets. It looks like it's woods or something."

"I know. But you'll have to give me a general idea of where he is in relation to me." John was moving forward at a quick run until he made it to the area. Then he went into stealth mode, moving slow and keeping his senses sharp.

"They're about half a mile north of you."

John didn't answer verbally moving silently through the trees. So far he hadn't seen anyone else, but he knew that was a false impression.

"Turn east. You're going to miss them."

John adjusted his path slightly. Up ahead, he heard a faint noise and froze.

He waited, listening. A squirrel darted down a tree, looked at him for a brief moment, and then ran into the underbrush.

John slowly withdrew his pistol, feeling better with it in his hands as he started forward again.

"Okay, they're moving," Scarlett said in his ear. "Stop where you are. Stop."

John froze in place.

"They're walking…kind of toward you, but not. Just wait."

John dropped into a crouch, listening closely.

"Look, I know you think this is some kind of…burial ground and you don't want anyone building on it, but you should have thought about buying it yourself before it was purchased by someone else!" Rodney ranting always a good thing. "I told you I was looking into who owned this property and I haven't been able to find out. Just because you think I have connections because I live with the Sheppards doesn't mean I can just…make things happen. I can't. I'm a houseguest."

John eased very slowly around a tree so he could see who Rodney was talking to.

He'd obviously missed something because Rodney sounded like he was answering a question. "Yes. A houseguest. I have an office there to work on my research."

John moved slowly, trying to get into a position where he could see them.

"Research," Gordon said, snorting. It didn't look like he was carrying anything. "Like you're doing research."

"You wouldn't understand or comprehend what I'm doing, Gordon. Not in a thousand years. You're too busy trying to be a professor."

John held back a growl. He had known this fucker was up to no good. John shifted. He wanted to see if it was just the two of them, or if there were more before he did anything.

Rodney sighed, shaking his head. "Look. I came. I saw. I understand that you're worried about the land, but I still don't have anything more to tell you. Can we go back to the coffee shop? I was supposed to call Sheppard an hour ago and it wouldn't surprise me if he was doing his cave man routine looking for me."

John rolled his eyes. But that told him it was just them, and that Rodney wasn't under duress. He carefully put his weapon away, hiding it. It never hurt to have a few surprises, just in case, and then straightened and stepped out. "And you'd be right."

Gordon jumped, Rodney just sighed again. "Scarlett?" is the only thing he asked.

"Yes." John looked around the woods, then at Gordon. "And maybe if you weren't trying to intimidate him into giving you answers and had come straight to me, you would have been more successful in whatever you're looking for. I'm the one who owns the land."

"You own it?" Rodney asked, shock on his face. "Since when?"

John sighed. "I did some digging today, and my brother apparently is the one who bought it on behalf of an old friend of my father. It's all cloaked in quite a bit of secrecy, and I'm trying to untangle it all now. Scarlett is doing research on who and what Henderson really is, and why he used us as a silent third party to buy the land."

"Henderson?" Gordon asked. "Professor Henderson?"

John blinked. "I didn't know he was a professor. A basic background check only gave us the fact that he exists. He's somehow managed to erase almost every trace of himself from the most common systems, which is why Scarlett, my assistant, is having to dig deeper."

"He…used to work at the University. He stopped teaching a few years ago. He was the one who got me interested in burial grounds."

"Is that what this is?" John looked around, and sighed. "Look, Gordon, you and I got off on the wrong foot, but I'm not your enemy. This isn't even in our records. The only reason I know we own it is because Scarlett and I spent a considerable amount of time today trying to figure out exactly who had bought this place. I honestly don't think we should own it, and as soon as I figure out why Henderson had us buy it, I plan to sell it."

"These sites are…different. A nexus of sorts. You can't have people building on it."

"Who was doing the competitive bidding before? Was it you?"

"No. I don't have the money," Gordon said, shaking his head. "My dad was loaded, but it still wasn't enough."

John gave him a little smile. "Who was bidding then? To be honest, I haven't had a chance to look back at the full bidding process yet. I have all the paperwork I was able to put together saved on a flash drive, but I haven't read them all yet."

"I don't know. And when everything went underground, I couldn't find out anything about the property. I thought Rodney would be able to help me."

John pulled the flash drive from his pocket. "Why don't we go back to the coffee shop, and see if between us we can unravel this? I have a strong suspicion Henderson forged the papers he claimed were from my father, since he probably knew that was the only way Dave would do what he wanted. As to what that actually is… I have no idea."

"Why would you do that?"

"Do what?" John looked at him, confused.

"Help me."

"Because there's something going on here, and I want to get to the bottom of what it is. You're obviously motivated, and intelligent, and I've never been one to waste resources."

"And because he doesn't trust you with me," Rodney added, rolling his eyes. "He's possessive."

"That too." John smiled at Rodney, then looked back at Gordon. "He's mine, and if you try anything with him, I will kill you."

"I get it," Gordon said, taking a step back. "I just thought I could use him to get some information."

"Well forget about that. If you want to work with me, come to me."

"I know that now."

"Good." John took Rodney's hand. "Then let's go back and start putting our heads together."

"Boss, sir?" Damn. He'd forgotten Scarlett was still on the line.

"Uh, yeah Scarlett?"

"I have more stuff for you. You might want to reconvene at a more convenient time."

"You found more?" John started walking back toward the car? "How much more?"

"More and you should know that Gordon has a permit to carry a concealed weapon."

"Lovely." John glanced over at the other scientist. "My assistant has more information for me, so she suggests we wait to meet until we have it all together. Why don't you come out to the estate tomorrow, and we can go over it all there. By then I'll have made a good dent in untangling exactly how my company is involved in all this."

"No," Gordon said, straightening up. "We'll take care of this now."

John sighed. "We can go back and go over what I've got, but if there's more I haven't seen yet, I won't be able to give you any firm answers. Frankly, I don't want this land. Once I figure out what the hell is going on, I intend to sell it to you."

Gordon narrowed his eyes at John, but it was Rodney who spoke up. "Look. We're trying to help you. Throwing your weight around or demanding you get answers now will be a mistake."

John shrugged. "I can sell it to someone else if you'd like. And if you do anything to me, I can pretty much guarantee my brother won't touch this land and whoever bought it will have exactly what they want."

Gordon nodded once, a few minutes later. "Fine. Tomorrow morning I want all the details."

"Good. You know where to go?"

"Yes. What kind of guarantee are you going to give me that you're not just blowing smoke?"

John shrugged. "I don't think I can, not without it coming off as a load of crap. All I can say is that I haven't given you any reason to distrust me, have I? When you get there, Simon will show you to my office."

"Maybe Rodney should stay at my place tonight."

"Not going to happen."

"I could insist."

"And then you'll get shit from me since I'll spend the rest of the night working on how to get him back instead of on what the fuck is going on with this land so I can sell it."

"If you really are working on it."

John rolled his eyes. "Look, Gordon. You can either trust me here, or you can be a dick. If you trust me, then you've got a pretty good shot at getting what you want. If you're a dick, that chance drops to absolute zero."

Gordon put his hands on his hips, narrowing his eyes at John. As soon as he'd moved, however, Rodney flinched next to him.

John was taking all that in. "Gordon, I'm a trained ex-military man with special-ops training. Whatever skills you think you may have, if you try anything now, I guarantee you won't succeed in doing anything except pissing me off. And if you actually manage to hurt me or Rodney, you're dead. Period."

"I need some kind of guarantee. Your brother's been dicking around with this for months."

"First of all, I'm not my brother and I didn't even know we owned this damn thing, much less what was going on. Second of all, this isn't life or death. I have to say you're being a little stupid when I'm telling you I'll sell it to you at less than cost as soon as I work out what the hell is going on. Third, if you want a guarantee, fine, but it won't be me or Rodney staying with you tonight or any other night."

"That's what your brother claimed, too, that he didn't know anything," Gordon snorted, rolling his eyes.

"My brother is…. a little too trusting, especially when it comes to our father's old cronies. Honestly? He really doesn't know what's going on. He was given what was probably a forged agreement supposedly made before my father died, and simply put it through no questions asked. I, however, am a lot less trusting and a lot more prone to see conspiracies in the bushes."

"Why should I trust you?"

"I could have shot you several times over already, but I haven't because I want to help you. You're beginning to make me regret that, however."

"Look, Gordon. We're trying to help. If you don't want to take John's word on it, take mine," Rodney said. "You approached me because you trusted me—and wanted in my pants. But that's beside the point. You can trust me."

John snorted, but didn't chime in again. It would just go downhill if he did.

"The ball's in your court, Gordon," Rodney finished, leaning into John. "We're willing to help you. Stop being a moron about it."

John had managed to maneuver himself in such a way that he could, if necessary, easily draw and fire his weapon.

And honestly, he wasn't sure which way this was going to go. But Gordon finally nodded. He was still scowling, but it was a start. "Tomorrow morning?"

"I'll be in my office at 7:30. You can come any time after that."

"Fine," Gordon said.

"Now, can we go?" Rodney asked. "We'll follow you."

Gordon rolled his eyes, but nodded, turning to head out. John saw the gun tucked into the back of his jeans then.

He didn't let out a breath until they were back in his car. "Christ."

Rodney nodded, watching as Gordon headed down the road toward where his car was parked. "I…we should go back and get my car."

John sighed, but nodded. "Probably a good idea. God, I very nearly shot him."

"I know," Rodney said with a sigh.

Scarlett, of course, picked that moment to speak again. "So, since you're going to have company in the morning, do I need to tell Katie and Simon about it? Also, boss, you really did a good job out there. I thought I was going to have to find some way to convince the police you really weren't a vigilante protecting his lover."

John rolled his eyes. "I do have a little experience with negotiating with terrorists. I might not be the most conventional guy out there, but hey, we're both still alive."

"What? Of course we're still alive," Rodney said, sending a weird glance John's way.

John pointed to his head. "Scarlett. And yes, my fearless assistant, please let Simon and Katie know he's coming."

"Will do, boss sir. Need anything else?"

"Nope. We're going to swing in and get Rodney's car, then we're heading home."

"Okay. I'll keep an eye on you until you pull in the drive. Be safe." She hung up a beat later.

He sighed. "She's watching us."

"Of course she is. She tagged us. She's always watching us. I think the only thing that disturbs me more is that I didn't think of it first."

John looked over, and after a heartbeat burst out laughing.

"What?" Rodney asked, looking hurt. "It would have saved us a lot of time and effort when we were on Atlantis. I think the S&R teams would have loved us."

John leaned over, pulling Rodney in for a hard kiss. "That's why I love you."

"Hmm…I can think of a lot of other reasons."

"Those, too."

Rodney shifted back, just far enough so he could look at John without crossing his eyes. "I'm sorry. It…it kind of got out of hand pretty quickly. I didn't think he'd do anything."

"It's okay. I was prepared for any possibility, but I understand why you did it."

"I just…I promised to help him."

"And we will, as best we can."

"I know. I'm still sorry it came down to this. I don't know what's gotten into him, but something is wrong here."

"Yeah. There's something going on more than anyone is telling us, and I want to get to the bottom of what it is before we make any decisions. When we get back, you, Scarlett and I are going to start pouring over what she's found so far and see if we can piece it together before Gordon comes knocking at the door."

Rodney nodded again. "Okay."

The ride back to the coffee shop was uneventful, fortunately.

Rodney slid out of the car and then leaned down, poking his head back inside. "I'm going to grab a coffee before we hit the road. Do you want anything?"

"Yeah. I'll come in with you then."

"I can just grab it for you."

"Up to you."

"What do you want?"

"Whatever sounds good. You know me." John smiled at him.

"So a berry-infused tea?"

John laughed. "I trust you."

"I know," Rodney said with a smile. "I'll be right back." He slammed the door closed and headed into the coffee shop leaving John alone.

Sighing, John slumped into the seat. He was getting too old for this kind of thing.

John watched his lover ordering their drinks—and from the looks of it several pastries—and arguing with the woman at the counter. He waited impatiently, pacing back and forth and checking his watch every fifteen seconds. Finally, he was headed back out to the car, maneuvering carefully with the take-out tray. He walked around to John's side of the car, waiting until he lowered the window.

"I'm parked a block or so away."

"Get in. I'll drive you over there so you don't have to walk the whole way. I'm following you home anyway."

"It's a block, John," Rodney sighed.

"I can just drive slow and follow you if you'd prefer that."

"Whatever. I'm tired and I just want to go home," he said, starting out toward his car.

John sighed and watched, slowly inching forward until he saw Rodney get in his car. John merged into traffic behind his lover and followed him home.

Rodney drove sure and steady, paying strict attention to the speed limit. By the time they were pulling into the driveway, it was getting dark.

John parked next to him, and as soon as they were both clear of their cars, he was stepping over, tentatively pulling Rodney into his arms. "I was terrified he was going to shoot you."

"He wouldn't have," he said quietly, relaxing into John's body, wrapping his arms around him.

"I didn't think he would, necessarily, but he thought about it. And that's what worried me. He had the air of a man pushed into a corner, and that made him unpredictable."

"He's…not well. He was ranting about some ancient burial ground that had special powers and…" Rodney shook his head.

John sighed. "Lets go in and relax a bit, then we can see what Scarlett has dug up. I don't like all the intrigue around this plot of land, and the sooner we can get to the bottom of it, the sooner we can get rid of it."

"Sure. Sorry I didn't listen to you."

"Not your fault. You couldn't have known."

"You knew."

"I didn't like him. I didn't have any real reason for it."

Rodney shrugged. "Think we can get dinner upstairs? I'm not in the mood to deal with Scarlett right now."

"Yeah. We need to relax a little and eat before we get started again."

"It's more that I don't want to hear her 'I told you so'."

John chuckled and took Rodney's hand as they walked in the house. "And you know she won't be able to resist."

"No kidding. Sometimes I swear she lives to annoy me."

"Hey, you hired her, remember. I think the ability to be persistently annoying was one of the qualities you interviewed for, if I remember correctly."

"Yeah, for you." Rodney scowled as they headed upstairs.

John laughed again softly. "You're stuck with both of us now, I'm afraid."

"We can always fire her."

"You want to be the one who tries that?"

Rodney glanced to the side, a serious expression on his face. "No."

"Me neither. So we're stuck with her." John smiled. "And honestly, I don't think either of us would survive without her anymore. She's managed to make herself too useful."

Rodney snorted. "No kidding."

As they got to their suite, John kicked off his shoes and started pulling out all his hidden weapons and setting them aside to take back downstairs later. "We can't really complain. She's good, very good, and we're lucky you found her."

"You had all that?" Rodney asked, staring at the pile.

John glanced over. "I didn't know when I left what I'd be walking in to. I decided to be prepared."

Rodney didn't say anything for a long moment and the shook himself, looking up at John. "I have to pee," he said suddenly, heading into the bathroom.

It was times like this when John wished he could read minds.

He heard Rodney banging around in the bathroom and he called down, asking Katie to send up dinner.

By the time Rodney re-emerged, John had changed into more comfortable lounge-around-the-house clothes and was sitting on the bed.

It took him a little bit by surprise when he discovered Rodney was naked and aggressive. He walked right into John's space and kissed him hard, holding his head in place with his hands.

John moaned, getting hard immediately. He gave everything Rodney asked for, his body begging for more as he was ruthlessly kissed.

He found himself on his back at some point later, Rodney sucking a patch of skin on his neck. God. He loved when Rodney was like this, aggressive, demanding.

John melted, lost in Rodney, in giving him what he needed. It was so fucking good, and John's hips were pressing up, up, up, seeking more.

"Turn over," Rodney whispered harshly, pulling back. He was reaching for the bedside table drawer and John knew exactly what was coming.

He took the opportunity to shove his pants and boxers off all in one swoop before turning over, getting on his hands and knees.

Rodney growled, low and deep, his lubed fingers sliding into John's ass seconds later. "Yeah. Just like this…"

John mewled and he shoved back. "More… God… please…"

"Come on, John, I want to hear you." Rodney scissored his fingers inside John.

John moaned, his shoulders hitting the bed so he could get his ass up higher.

"Yeah. So perfect. Just like this. You're going to feel me inside of you, filling you up."

"Yessss.." John trailed off as Rodney added another finger, stretching him.

Rodney pressed a kiss to his back, just above his ass as he rocked into John's leg. He could feel his lover's erection and moaned at the thought of it inside of him.

John couldn't form words anymore, so he pressed back, begging for more, for Rodney. He wanted it all.

When Rodney pulled his fingers out, he sobbed at the loss, but Rodney lined himself up and slid in with one thrust, filling him completely. Rodney groaned, stilling deep inside of him. He was trembling, holding himself back from pounding into John.

John tried to shove back, letting out a frustrated cry when he was prevented, held still. More. He needed. Please…

"You'll get it good," Rodney groaned. "I promise."

"Rodney…" John managed to get out the one strangled word as he trembled, his cock leaking all over the bed. Rodney had slowly been teaching him, training him in a way, to hold back his orgasms. Especially when Rodney was like this, John was learning not to come until he was told.

Rodney pulled back slowly—achingly slow—until just the tip of his cock was left inside. Then he pushed in deep and hard. He repeated it over and over again, until he was pounding into John's ass and all he could do was hold on and take it.

John's ability to think was gone. Completely. All he could do was feel. He belonged to Rodney, body, mind, soul. Right now, Rodney was all he knew or wanted to know.

He felt his lover pause deep inside him, his body shuddering as he climaxed. He collapsed against John, panting and limp and sated.

John sobbed, trying to push back, to get more. He needed release. Please…

But Rodney held him down, panting as he tried to catch his breath. He eventually shifted to the side, pulling free, and tugging John with him. His hand wrapped around John's cock and harshly stroked it, pulling John's orgasm from him in seconds.

John screamed his release, his body shaking so hard through it he was sure Rodney had taken him apart completely. He drifted back down slowly, very slowly, confident his lover would take care of him, put him back together better than he was before.

When he came back to the here and now, they were cuddled under the blankets in the middle of their bed, Rodney spooned up behind him, arms wrapped around him. He felt safe and loved and really, really good.

"Mmmmmmmmm."

"You okay?"

"Uh huh. Awesome. \Perfect." He didn't know if he would ever be able to string together whole sentences again, considering how he felt right now. Brain cells were gone, leaked right out of his dick.

Rodney chuckled quietly. "Good." He tightened his arms around John and settled in a little closer.

John hummed happily, cuddling in as close as he could get.

"You ask for dinner?"

"Mmm?" John had to blink a few times. "Yes…"

"Okay. I'll keep an ear out for it. Rest."

"'Kay." John closed his eyes again and drifted. He had no concept of time, but he whined softly when Rodney suddenly got up.

Rodney hushed him quietly. "I'm getting dinner. Stay there."

John made another unhappy noise, but he stayed where he was. He vaguely heard Simon's voice, but he wasn't focused enough yet to follow what was being said at all.

Rodney climbed back into bed a few minutes later. "Hey. Dinner's here."

John nodded, but didn't move.

"You need to eat and Scarlett has texted you ten times."

John huffed. "Comfy."

"I know. But I don't want her walking in on us."

John huffed again. "Text back."

"It's your phone."

"Comfy. Don't wanna."

"Me either."

John sighed. "Gimmie."

Rodney dropped the offending device on John's chest.

John picked it up and didn't bother to read any of the texts. He just wrote back, Had my brains fucked out. Talk later.

Rodney poked at him to sit up a few minutes later. "Come on. Food."

John made a face. "Don't wanna move."

"And I hate when your stomach growls in the middle of the night."

With a very put-upon sigh, John finally sat up. He saw his text light blinking again, so he picked it back up.

OMG I did not need to know that.

John had to grin. He shot back. Eating dinner now. Necessary to brief us tonight, or can it wait to morning?

Scarlett's response came seconds later as he was shifting himself to a seated position. What time is the stalker coming?

7:30 am. John crawled to the edge of the bed where Rodney was waiting.

Tonight. Make sure you're dressed. I'll be up in an hour.

He sighed again. "Scarlett's coming in an hour. She wants us decent. And she doesn't want to know when you've fucked my brains out."

Rodney snorted. "Maybe we should keep her updated a little more regularly. I think she needs to know that."

John grinned. "Would be fun to terrorize her for once. But she has info she says we need to hear tonight."

"Okay, but I only plan on putting on boxers and a t-shirt." John took a moment to actually look at his lover, noting that he was still naked.

"Shame. Like the view now."

"I think I may have scarred Simon for life."

John blinked. "You answered the door like that?"

Rodney blushed, the red trailing down to his chest. "Ah…I may have…forgotten. I was comfortable."

John laughed softly. "I wish I had been paying more attention. That would have been fun to watch."

"He wasn't exactly…amused. And I didn't mean to."

"Mmmm, showing off your sexy body. Bet he was jealous you're taken."

"I don't think so," Rodney said, reaching for the second plate of food. It looked like Katie was into southern home cooking tonight. Fried chicken and mashed potatoes. It had turned into one of Rodney's favorite meals and she tended to make it on days they were very stressed—just like now.

John smiled, reaching over to pull Rodney in close enough so he could press a kiss to his side. "Love you."

Rodney kissed him back soundly, but went back to his food. "Love you, too. Now eat."

John took the plate and settled against the headboard. "S'good."

"It always is. It's a little scary sometimes how much she hounds me to eat."

"She worries about you. I've drummed it in to everyone how important it is to keep you healthy. Plus they all like you and don't want to see you have an episode that could have been prevented."

"I guess. It's just…weird." Rodney offered a shrug, finishing off his drumstick before wiping his fingers with a napkin and digging into his potatoes.

John smiled, nibbling on his plate while he watched Rodney. He had discovered, since they got together, that he watched Rodney a lot. He had never really acknowledged it before then, but John had come to realize that his world had been revolving around Rodney for a long time now.

"You should be eating," Rodney said quietly. "You eat like a bird."

John blinked, then smiled again. "Sorry. I was too busy admiring you, and thinking how fucking lucky I am to have you."

Rodney blushed again, ducking his head. "This…isn't what I imagined when we came home from Atlantis. I'd hoped something might happen, but never believed it would."

"I never knew I could be this…. Happy. That being with someone could feel this perfect. It's…I don't know what I would do, if I ever lost you."

"So let's not worry about it, okay? We have enough on our plates with Gordon and your brother. And what's with him, just okaying a property purchase like that? It's downright peculiar. He knows more than he's telling, that's for sure."

John sighed. "I know. His excuse is plausible, but honestly I think there's something he's not telling me. He was very… persistent in trying to get me to leave this alone."

"I'd be interested in looking up more about the property itself. There has to be information on past owners and whatnot."

"Exactly. That's what I'm hoping Scarlett has for us, is that type of information. She was trying to find out everything she could about the land itself, as well as all the…interested parties we've got involved in it."

"And she insisted on tonight."

John nodded. "She knows Gordon will be here first thing, so it's obviously important enough that we need to be prepped before he gets here."

"And dressed."

"We should at least put on boxers, I suppose."

"And a shirt. She'd jump you in a heartbeat."

"Hardly." John made a face. He finished his plate, more to make Rodney happy than because he was starving, and got up to find something decent to put on.

Rodney got up as well, puttering around the room after he put the finished dinner plates on the tray sitting on the sideboard. John could watch him like this all day long.

Once he was at least decent enough not to send Scarlett screaming into the hills, John found clean boxers for Rodney and handed them to his lover before laying back down across the bed to just watch.

"How much time do we have?" he asked, absently stepping into the shorts.

"Dunno. I lost track of time when you came out and fucked me into the mattress." John purred a little, still feeling a bit tingly.

Rodney snorted, rolling his eyes. "You deserved it, coming in all macho and alpha male. You needed a good fucking."

"Mmmmm. Yes. More. Please." John found he was starting to get a little hard just thinking about it again.

"We have company coming, so no." Rodney rolled his eyes again. "Besides, it's my turn next."

"Yay." John grinned, giving Rodney a lusty look.

He chuckled, heading for the dresser where he kept his old, worn t-shirts. He pulled out his "I'm with genius" shirt and tugged it over his head. He pulled another shirt out of a different drawer and tossed it over to John. "Put some clothes on."

"I'm dressed." John didn't want to wear a shirt. "I'm comfortable."

"Put it on."

Pouting, John sat up and pulled it on. "I don't think she'd care as long as there are no cocks waving around."

"She might like that way too much," Rodney commented, heading back into the bathroom.

John laughed, and shook his head. "I love that you're a jealous bastard. We're a matched pair in that regard."

"Yeah yeah yeah," Rodney called out from the bathroom. "You're worse than me."

"I know." John grinned.

There was a knock on the door a few minutes later and John glanced toward the bathroom. Apparently Rodney wasn't going to get it.

Getting up again, John wandered over. "'llo?"

"You decent?" Scarlett called from the other side of the door.

He opened the door. "Mostly. Come on in."

She glanced around the room once before stepping inside. "Okay. You're not going to like what I found."

He grabbed a chair for her and pulled it over to the bed, plopping down. "Rodney's coming, let's wait for him before you hit me with it."

"Did you want to do it in here?" she asked, hovering over the chair. "Wouldn't the media room be…more appropriate?"

"I'm comfortable."

"You might be, but it smells like sex and friend chicken in here." She wrinkled her nose as Rodney stepped out of the bathroom.

"Probably because we had sex then ate fried chicken." John sighed. "We can move to the media room if you want."

She nodded yes as Rodney sputtered. John chuckled. It was fun to do that to him.

They all adjourned to the other room, and John and Rodney sat on the couch together, so their legs were touching. "So what did you find?"

"The land Gordon was so worried about was owned by the college before Henderson purchased it through your brother."

"But I thought the college was trying to buy it. If they didn't want to lose it, why did they sell?"

"Apparently not," Scarlett said with a scowl. "They've owned it for the past fifty years. Before that it was handed off between about five or six different families."

"Huh." John scratched his head. "Do we have any idea why they sold, or why Henderson wanted it? Or why Gordon cares so much?"

"No," she said immediately and then paused. "Well, there are rumors that strange things happen on that land. No one wanted it so the college bought it to expand, but things never went well with permits and whatnot."

"So they decided to sell for a profit. That makes sense, but why all the cloak and dagger shit?"

"I don't know, but the property was sold for four-times the asking price by an agency working for the college—at least that's what it looks like. But why would Henderson pay that kind of money for the land?" Scarlett shook her head. "I'm still tracking down all the survey documentation for that particular parcel."

"And why did he need to do it through us? And what does my brother know that he's not telling me."

"I don't know," Scarlett said at the same time that Rodney piped up with "I don't like it."

John ran a hand through his hair. "I hate when people try to hide things from me. How much were you actually able to get through today, Scarlett? Of the papers my brother sent over I mean."

"Most of them, but I'm still researching some stuff. I'll have more in the morning."

"From what you've seen so far, what are the working theories?"

"The land is cursed?"

"Cursed how?"

"The owners keep dying," she said, flipping through a few pages. "And not from natural causes. The one house that was on the property burned down in the middle of the night, killing everyone inside."

"Huh." John glanced over at Rodney. "Any ideas here?"

"Nothing is cursed," Rodney said, shaking his head. "There has to be another explanation."

"Depending on what happens tomorrow morning, we might need to take a drive out there and poke around a bit more."

"You want to walk around a forest?"

"With your scanners, yes."

Rodney gave him the stink eye. "I don't have any…scanners."

"Yes, you do. I've seen them. But we might not have to go that route. With luck, we'll find what we need buried in all the paperwork."

"No. I don't have any scanners."

John waved a hand. "Besides the point. We can put something together if necessary, and we both have experience spotting shit that's not what it should be."

"And I can always find you if something happens," Scarlett said, shuffling through the papers. "Okay. And here's the stuff on Henderson—which isn't much."

"How can a guy that prominent, with that much money, have so little recorded information?" John flipped through the folder she handed him.

"From what I can tell, it's all in his wife's name."

"What do we have on her then?"

She pulled out a thick folder. "This is her records for the last two years. IRS and everything is included. She owns a lot of property in the area and several pieces that butt up against the one in question."

"In other words, he's buying up everything in that area, and putting it all in her name." John took the folder and started flipping. "Any ideas why?"

"No idea and nothing I can find out is telling. There are no buildings on the properties as far as I can tell, but I'm still waiting for the satellite view. It's hard with the trees, so I'm not sure what we'll be able to see."

John sighed and handed back over the folder. "So why don't I just sell Gordon the damn thing tomorrow morning and be done with it?"

"Because there's a clause in the contract your brother signed. He can't sell the land for one year from the date of sale."

"What?" John looked at her in disbelief. "Why the hell did he do that?"

"I may be able to read your mind, but I can't read his," she said with a scowl. "Nor do I want to."

He closed his eyes, trying to hold off the headache threatening. "Honestly guys, I don't know what the hell to do here."

"I know, John," Rodney said quietly, his hand squeezing his thigh. "We'll figure it out."

"As far as I can tell, it's just a random plot of land. Why all the intrigue for it? It's not even in a particularly interesting location."

Scarlett shrugged, offering a sigh. "I'm still looking into its history, but like I said, it looks cursed, or something. There are more deaths on that land than anywhere in a five-hundred mile radius."

"Which is just plain weird. Keep digging and see what you can come up with. And who knows, maybe Gordon will have something for us on that tomorrow, since he seems to know a little bit about the property."

"Not really," Rodney said, shaking his head. "He just wants the land."

"Why?"

"It's like he…needs it. It's hard to explain."

"That's one of the things we need to try and pin down tomorrow when he's here. Everyone keep alert."

Rodney snorted beside him as Scarlett nodded. "If I find out anything else tonight, I'll send it to you."

"All right, we'll have to just keep digging then. That's all we can do."

Scarlett gathered up here phone and pad, leaving all of the other files behind on the table for John. She left quickly, pulling the door halfway closed behind her.

John slumped into the couch, suddenly worn out.

"This is a mess."

"I know. And I really have no idea how much my brother knows or is involved."

"I don't know either, but he's involved."

"Which is just…" John felt a little sick.

"Hey, come here," Rodney said, his voice soft and quiet as he pulled John into his arms, holding him. "We'll get it sorted."

John relaxed into his lover's arms. "I know. It's just… I thought we had left all this… bullshit behind."

"No," Rodney said quietly with a bitter chuckle. "Same shit, different day."

"No aliens though. I guess that's an improvement. And so far no one really trying to kill us."

"So far."

"I'm trying to find some sort of positive here."

"I know," Rodney said, squeezing him tighter for a minute. "Do you want to come to bed or did you want to read through this?"

"Bed," John said after a minute. "We're both tired, and this will keep."

"Okay," Rodney said, drawing back and rising to his feet. He offered his hand to John. "Come on."

John let himself be pulled up, and hand-in-hand they returned to the bedroom.

They settled into bed, curled into each other, taking the comfort that was offered.

John's sleep that night was troubled, and the alarm went off way too early for his liking. Together, he and Rodney got showered and dressed before gathering up all the papers Scarlett had left them last night and heading down to John's office.

His lover settled into the guest chair, a huge mug of coffee in his hands. He started wandering through the papers Scarlett had left them, reading them carefully.

John had taken the paperwork generated by Sheppard Industries, deciding to start there with untangling everything.

And there was a lot to untangle.

John got so wrapped up in it, he lost track of time.

He heard Rodney move around, getting up at one point to head to the coffee pot down the hall. By the time Simon knocked on the door announcing their visitor, John was already bleary-eyed.

Looking up, he blinked. "Right, yes. Come on in."

"Should I bring him? I have him waiting in the parlor."

"Might as well. And if you wouldn't mind, see if Katie has anything she can bring in for breakfast. I'm pretty sure neither of us should live on coffee alone this morning."

"Perhaps the small conference room…?" Simon asked, gesturing a few doors down the hall.

John nodded. He stood up and started gathering papers to cart across the hall. "Scarlett? You over there?"

"Where else would I be? You're a slave driver," she grumbled.

John rolled his eyes as they started to get settled in.

"Do you want me to stay in the room? I have a black belt in ninja," she asked, following them into the small conference room with several file folders that she dumped in front of John.

John shot her a look. "I'm pretty sure I don't need you here for protection, however, I would like you here since you've done the most research and can answer the most questions."

"You never know. He's probably not expecting a ninja."

John chuckled as they sat down and got settled. "With luck it won't come to that."

"John, has your family always lived in the area?" Rodney asked, the question coming out of left field.

He blinked. "As far as I know. My grandparents owned the estate originally, but I honestly don't remember if they were the first or not. Why?"

"In one of the papers I read, there was a mention of a Sheppard…really early on. I didn't know if there was any relation."

"Probably. Do you want me to look into when the Sheppard line first came here?"

"Not now," Rodney said absently, paging through the papers in his hands. Simon brought Gordon in a few minutes later.

John made a note on a pad of paper to look into it later before looking up. "Good morning."

"Are you just going to blow smoke at me or do you actually have an answer?" he asked, his tone hard as he stood in the door.

John sighed. "We're not going to get anywhere if you're going to start off combative. I have all of the papers we've gathered so far, and we're still working through them." He pointed at the stacks. "Have a seat and start helping."

"I'm here for answers, not research."

"The only way to get answers is through research."

Gordon scowled at him, crossing his arms over his chest, looking down at John with annoyance on his face. "That's what you have staff and money to do. I'm just an assistant professor at a local college."

"Fine. Then you can sit in a corner and scowl for the day."

"I don't think so. You told me you'd have answers for me today."

"We found information, but it led to more questions than answers."

"So. Tell me."

John frowned up at Gordon, but explained everything they found last night, Rodney adding a few comments throughout. Gordon didn't look quite so defensive at the end, at least.

John gestured to all the papers. "So now we're trying to find more information. If it doesn't lie in here, then we'll go back to the drawing board and search deeper."

"How long will it take before you have a concrete answer?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. This is quite a puzzle."

Gordon shifted on his feet, turning back toward the door. "I expect an update tomorrow."

"You know, you're kind of starting to irritate me. If you're so keen on being the one who buys this property from me, you could, you know, not be a jackass."

Gordon glanced over his shoulder, pausing in the doorway. "I'm your worst nightmare, Sheppard. Keep me informed." He disappeared down the hall a beat later.

"I hate to break it to the guy, but my worst nightmares involve soul-stealing aliens."

Rodney snorted. "If he only knew."

"Let's get to it then, and see if we can unravel this shit so I don't have to see him again."

"I'm going to do some research in my lab," Rodney said, rising to his feet. "I want to check out a few things."

"All right. I'll be here working through this stuff."

Rodney nodded absently as he rose to his feet, heading out a few seconds later. Scarlett sat at the table staring at him.

John ran a hand through his hair. "What?"

"You weren't kidding about the soul-stealing aliens, were you?"

He flushed. "Oops. I forgot you weren't in on that. For some reason I just assume you already know everything."

"I can't get into every database yet," she grumbled. Her eyes, though, were still wide. "So, Area 51 really exists, doesn't it?"

He flushed. "I forget what you know and don't know."

"It is a huge government conspiracy! I knew it! I was right all along!" She leapt to her feet heading back to her office. "Serves those aliens right if we're studying them. They've been abducting us for decades now…"

He stood up and followed her. "Scarlett! Look… there are… I can't tell you what I know because it's all classified. Suffice it to say Area 51 is real, no it's not what you think, and no, those aren't the people I was referring to when I mentioned my nightmares."

"You probably just haven't seen it all. There's supposed to be literally hundreds of miles of caverns and roads under the desert hiding everything they've found."

"Just… I know more than I can tell you. Can we please leave it at that? It's one thing to talk to you about stuff you already found out and clarify it, but I've signed a lot of papers that say I can't tell you about it first."

"It's okay. Just knowing it really does exist and I was so right about the cover-up is more than enough. Bert is not going to believe this." She was already typing up a storm on her keyboard.

John leapt over and grabbed the keyboard. "Please… you can't tell anyone. I could be arrested and thrown away for life if the government suspects I even confirmed anything to you."

Scarlett's eyes were wide. "I won't use your name. I promise."

"You work for me. It doesn't matter. Please, just… you can't. I can't stop you from hacking in your off hours, but seriously, I've signed my life away on this."

"But…Area 51 is big. Am I right that there's a secret facility tied to Area 51 in southern Ohio? Just over the river from us. There's always been a lot of abductions in this area."

"Can we please drop this?"

"But…aliens! You've seen them. That's just…are they really green?"

"I'm not talking about this…" John walked out.

He ended up back in the conference room with the door closed. He really didn't want to know how many alien or government conspiracy forums she was burning up.

John banged his head on the table a few times, then sighed and picked up the paperwork. Might as well get back to work.

Rodney called him on the office phone about an hour later. "Did you and your brother have the same parents?"

"Of course we did. Why?"

"Does he have the gene?"

"You know, I have no idea."

"I know you can't exactly ask him if things light up for him, but if your family was in the area for hundreds of years, there had to be an Ancient involved at some point. Actually, maybe even more recently than that since your gene is so strong."

"It's possible, I suppose. You have toys, right? Next time we see him, hand him something and we'll make up a story about it if it does light up."

"I have a paperweight somewhere, yeah. But don't you get it? This might be more than just a haunted piece of property and a mysterious buyer. What if it involves the SGC?"

John sucked in a breath. "You think there's an Ancient facility there?"

"I don't know, but it would explain the missing people that I'm reading in the files Scarlett pulled."

"If there is one there, is there any way we can find it?"

"I don't know. Let me think about it. I might have to call in some favors. I think Bob is in Ohio. He might know."

"If there is a lab there, we need to get in. There's no telling what's there."

"On the property or in Ohio? I know there's a facility in Ohio. I haven't been there, though. But, what if Henderson has something to do with the Trust or the NID or something. Maybe they know something."

"No, the property here. Especially if the Ancient who built it knocked up one of my ancestors."

"Let me call in some favors." Rodney hung up suddenly without saying goodbye.

John stared at the phone for a moment before hanging it up and returning to the research.

It was scary when the conspiracy theorists were right.

The rest of the day, John fielded random attempts by Scarlett to get more information peppered with more left-field questions from Rodney about his ancestors. By the end of the day, he totally had a headache.

Rodney slid into the chair across from him as he was rubbing his head. "So. Want to go on a field trip tomorrow?"

"You found something?"

"Yes and no. I found a series of abductions and returns all around the area, but they seemed to make up a circle of sorts, with a void in the middle."

"What kind of abductions?"

Rodney's mouth twitched. "So-called alien abductions. Little green men and all."

He rolled his eyes again. "What really happened?"

"I don't know," he said with a shrug. "Maybe an Asgard, maybe an Ancient, maybe someone else. I've spent the last eight hours reading up on alien abductions."

"Then yeah, let's go check it out tomorrow and see what we can find."

"And that void I mentioned, is right smack in the middle of your property," Rodney said with a tight smile.


The following day, John found himself back out in the middle of the property wandering around the woods following Rodney as he used various scanners to try and find whatever was here. He knew Scarlett was watching them on her equipment, and she was going to handle Gordon when he showed up for more information.

It was hard to concentrate, though. Scarlett had informed John that morning that the Canadian Mounties needed Rodney to appear next week to give a preliminary statement. He'd put off telling his lover because they really needed to find this facility. They'd talk later after they found what they were looking for.

With a sigh, he kept his eyes and ears open. He had told her to book them both tickets. He wasn't letting his lover do this alone.

"It should be here. The GPS is crap."

"You should build your own LSD. You have the knowledge."

"I need the Ancient crystals. The stuff we have here is horrible." He swung around, moving a few steps and stopping again. "Do you have those land surveys?"

John reached around and pulled the case with the papers out of the backpack he had slung on. "Here you go."

Rodney shoved the GPS in his hands, taking the blueprints and unfolding them. He turned them a few times. "Okay…the one house they built on this land was…" He turned the papers again another ninety degrees. "That way. About half a mile."

"You think it was built over the entrance to the lab?"

"Maybe it was close. We need a hill or something. Tall enough for a doorway. The lab is probably underground."

"Knowing the Ancients, I'd be surprised if it wasn't." They wandered forward, looking around. "It's peaceful out here."

"Always good not to have someone chasing us," he said, looking at the map and then adjusting their course.

"Well, there is that, too. I forgot how nice it was to hike without the threat of potential death."

Rodney chuckled. "It is nice."

It didn't take them too long to get to the approximate site, and then they started searching again.

"Look for a hill," Rodney said. "It shouldn't be far. This map is crap for elevations."

Nodding, John kept his eyes open. Even though he knew what they were searching for, he was surprised when he suddenly felt the slight pull that meant Ancient technology was close. "I think it's over here."

"What?"

"I can… feel something. A pull. Not enough to know where yet, but you know that… tingling in the back of your head that Atlantis had? It's like that, only a lot weaker. I probably wouldn't even have noticed it if I hadn't been away from the city for so long."

Rodney was at his side seconds later. "Close your eyes and think about where it's coming from."

Nodding, John did as he had been told, focusing in on the sensation. He took a few steps, confident Rodney wouldn't let him run into anything. Putting a hand out, he finally touched something. When he opened his eyes again, he saw he was touching a tree. He thought 'open' at it, and a panel suddenly appeared.

"No. It can't be that easy."

He shrugged. "I doubt our Ancient friend ever expected anyone with the gene to come looking for his hidden access panel."

"It's a tree."

"It's not a real tree."

"It's a tree," Rodney repeated.

John rolled his eyes, then turned his attention to the panel. It wasn't very complex, so he tried just thinking at it to open to door.

"Don't set off any burglar alarms."

"I'll try." He continued to focus, and then after a few tries, a set of stairs down finally opened up.

Stale air rolled out at them and they stepped back. "Give it a few minutes. God knows when someone was down there last."

"Probably a few generations, at least." John looked around. "I wonder how many people our randy Ancient friend got busy with, who might be related to me now."

"Just look for that hair and ears. They're hard to miss."

He gave in to his baser urges and stuck out his tongue.

Rodney sputtered, laughing at the end. "It's true though."

"Yeah, yeah." Grinning, John stepped closer and pulled Rodney into his arms and kissed him.

His lover moaned into his mouth, wrapping his arms around his waist and settling against him. John pulled back a few minutes later when they needed air. "So, Ancient technology makes you horny?"

"Maybe." John grinned again. "Then again, maybe it's just how your eyes light up, and how focused you get when you're working on Ancient technology that makes me horny."

"Are you sure you didn't take too big of a breath of that weird air?"

"Yup. Although it's probably cleared out now. We should go check it out, and we can have wild sex later when we get home."

"Mmmm….wild sex is always fun."

Laughing, John pulled away. "Come on. Let's go see what our friend was up to."

"You mean your relative."

"Yeah yeah." John shook his head and headed down the stairs.

"Don't yeah yeah me. You know whoever they were was probably sowing their seeds all over the area."

"I'm trying not to think too hard about that." As John walked in, lights were flickering on slowly.

It was definitely Ancient. And a lab. It was a little…freaky to find this.

"Talk about deja vu." John looked around while Rodney went straight to the consoles along one wall.

"What?" Rodney asked, looking up at him a little vaguely. "I'm trying to work here."

John smiled. "Don't mind me. I'm going to clear the rest of the building. I'll be right back."

"Don't touch anything!" Rodney yelled at him as he ventured off.

The lab wasn't that big. Other than the main room, there were a few smaller offshoots. One was set up much like the living quarters on Atlantis, so he guessed that was what it was. Another was probably a pantry and kitchen area. And the last looked like storage, although there wasn't much left.

It had been empty and unused for a very long time.

When he returned to the main area, Rodney had sat down at one console and was poking at the buttons and squinting at the screen.

"Any ideas as to what he or she was doing down here?"

"Working."

"Okay." John continued to look around, seeing what he could find.

He was reaching out to touch something when Rodney yelled at him not to touch. But when he turned around, his lover hadn't moved a muscle.

"Do you have eyes in the back of your head I just haven't found yet?"

"No. I just know you."

"Hmph." John moved away and sat down on the floor next to where Rodney was working.

Rodney worked for another hour before he finally turned toward John. "Okay. This was an Ancient research lab. Apparently whoever was here was doing genetic research."

"Why does that not surprise me?" John sighed. "It seems like that was their national obsession. What was this one trying to do?"

"It looks like they were studying gene dispersal patterns." Rodney paused. "Maybe. Well, it's something close to that."

"What does that mean?" John blinked.

Rodney turned toward John, actually focusing on him. "It's all about determining what genes are dominant or recessive. For example, you can only get blue eyes if both of your parents have the gene for blue eyes. It's a recessive trait. With this, it looks like the Ancient may have been altering one gene at a time and then studying how it fared in the population."

"Great, so I'm the product of a giant Ancient experiment. I'm starting to feel a little depressed here. What genes was he testing?"

"I think it was a she, in this particular case, and I'm not sure. Several. Which is also why I'm curious to see if your brother or nephew has the gene or not. Or your mother. Do you have any other blood relatives?"

"Some from both sides of the family. I saw them last at my Father's funeral. We really don't talk to them a lot. Anything else interesting here?"

"Hmm. I'd be interested to see how many of you have the gene. Especially since you have it so strongly. I wonder if both sides of your family had it or just the one."

"Don't know. If you can come up with a way to test everyone without giving it away, feel free."

"Blood samples and Carson?" He offered a half shrug. "I want to poke my head into a few things before we head out. It looked like there was some equipment in here for testing."

"Yeah, I saw a few things, but you told me not to touch them."

"Yeah. The last thing I need is the equipment deciding it likes you better than it should," he said rising to his feet. "Show me where it is."

John stood up and led Rodney into the side room where a few pieces of equipment had been left. While his lover examined it, John wandered over to the side of the room, looking at the walls. They were a little different than Atlantis' had been. Reaching out, he put a hand against the material trying to figure out what it was.

"Hey hey hey! No touching!" Rodney was at his side seconds later, slapping his hands away from the wall.

"It's a wall! Not even a piece of equipment!" But even as he said it, John felt… something… hum to life around them. "Oops?"

"I don't have scanners. I have nothing!" Rodney ran back over to the console, frantically paging through the screens. "I told you not to touch, but do you listen? No. You never listen."

"It was a wall! I didn't think it would turn anything on!"

"It's Ancient! They're always trying to get their hands on you."

"It was a wall!" John swallowed. "It doesn't feel like it wants to kill us…"

"Yet!"

"What's it doing? Any ideas?" He peered at the screen.

"I don't know. It booted something up. I'm still trying to sort everything out on this stupid screen. This must be a different dialect of Ancient."

John wished he had weapons. It would make him feel better. Looking around, he closed his eyes and tried to figure out what the system was doing that way.

"Don't do anything stupid."

"I won't." John focused in on the hum, trying to get a general sense of it. "Look in the section of the database on power management. This feels kind of like it might have something to do with that. Maybe."

"Power management? How do you know that? What are you doing?" Rodney's voice was heading up into the upper-echelons.

"I'm thinking at it."

"John! What—don't—you're going to fry your brain!"

"It's okay. I'm not really connected to it. Just getting a feel for what the hum is."

"Of course you're connected to it! Stupid, idiotic risk-taker!"

John opened his eyes. "You're not looking. Power management. Go to that section."

Rodney was scowling at him, his arms crossed over his chest.

He stepped over to his lover and wrapped his arms around him. "Really, I'm fine."

Rodney remained stiff and angry in his arms. "What did I tell you about touching things?"

"I'm sorry. I didn't know. I just wanted to feel the material of the wall. I didn't even stop to think that might trigger something, and I'm sorry."

"You're always sorry," he grumbled, slipping out of John's grasp and turning back to the console. "You managed to turn on ten things by touching the wall I'll have you know."

John wrapped his arms back around Rodney's waist from behind. "I'll make it up to you later with an amazing blow job."

"If we're still in one piece and not glowing by then."

"I'll let you spank me."

"You wouldn't sit for a week."

John winced. Yeah, Rodney was pissed. "Sorry."

Rodney moved are the screens on the console at light speed, touching this and that as he navigated through everything. "Okay. You did put yourself in touch with the power management system. Thankfully you didn't change anything. Otherwise we might be entombed here and that's just about the last thing on my agenda. But you did ask the lab to push several devices into an active stand-by mode."

"I did?" John winced again. Oh yeah, it was going to take a while to live this down.

"You did." Rodney muttered something to himself before pushing away from the console and heading down the hall, John following a few steps behind.

He decided it was in his best interests to keep his mouth shut, don't touch anything else, and just go where Rodney told him to.

Rodney put his hand against a section of the wall and closed his eyes for a brief moment, the panel sliding away a few seconds later. Now instead of wall, they were standing at the doorway to a large circular room with a table in the center. Ten alcoves were lit, highlighting the Ancient device housed there.

"Wow. I didn't know this was here."

"I looked it up," Rodney said absently as he moved into the room, looking at each device, but not touching.

"Oh. So what is all this stuff?"

"Research devices. Carson would probably have a field-day."

"Huh." John looked around. There were a lot of them. "Think we should call the SGC and tell them about this place?"

"We need to," Rodney said, glancing at him from across the room. "We can't have anyone just…wandering in. And I hate to break it to Gordon, but it looks like this land may have just become government property."

"Yeah. He's not going to be happy." John sighed. "And neither is our shady friend who used Sheppard Industries to buy this place." He pulled out his phone. "I don't have any reception down here, so I'll call them as soon as we're back in the car."

"With all of the…secrecy around him, I wouldn't be surprised if he had ties back to the NID or Trust or something. Maybe him and Gordon both." Rodney shook his head as he continued to move slowly around the room. "We do need to turn these off before we leave."

"God, I hadn't even thought of that. We need to get the SGC in here ASAP." John reached out and touched the wall, thinking 'off' at it.

He really wasn't expecting the wall to soften, grasping his hand.

"Shit!" He tried to tug his hand back.

"John…" Rodney's eyes were wide like saucers, a sea of white around the brilliant blue as he approached, hands up not sure if he should touch John or not.

John took a deep breath. "I told it off. What else can I try to reverse it? On again?"

"No…nono. Don't think anything at it again. Let me…" he held up his finger and ran to the console in the room, turning it on.

John did his best to not think of anything at all. "It doesn't hurt, at least."

"Yet." Rodney's voice was tight.

"So figure out why the walls went gooey as fast as you can."

"What do you think I'm doing?" Rodney asked, his eyes scanning the screen.

John swallowed. "Why do the Ancients have to build walls that go squishy when you touch them? Why can't they have normal walls?"

"Okay…it's started up a diagnostic or something…" He said, flicking through a few screens. "It…I think it wants a blood sample."

"Figures. Stupid Ancient…" John muttered a few curses. "Can I just tell it to take one and it will let me go?"

"No. I need to do it." He glanced up. "Are you okay with it?"

John nodded. "If it will make it let me go without any other issues, then yes, it can take one. Hell, maybe it will tell us which genes my Ancient ancestor fucked with."

"Okay. It might hurt, let me just…" He hit a few more buttons. "Okay. It's cycling to take a sample."

John braced himself. It hurt like hell and felt for a minute like the damn thing was going to take all his blood, but he did his best to hide it from Rodney.

"It's almost done."

When it finally spit him out, John stumbled back sinking to his knees as a wave of dizziness hit him. This was why he hated giving blood.

Rodney was there a minute later. "That's it. We're done. I'm so sorry. It…wanted to test you and I couldn't figure out a way to tell it no, but I told it that was the only test required at the time. See, look, the alcoves are all shutting down. It's over."

John nodded, taking deep breaths with his head down. "I'll be fine. I always get woozy when I give blood."

"But you're fine if you're bleeding from a gunshot wound."

"I know. I can't explain it except to say I'm probably as messed up as you accuse me of being."

Rodney chuckled softly, patting his back. "I need to make sure everything is shutting down and I think I have a flash drive I can connect to get your information."

"Good. Just give me a minute and this will go away. It always does."

"Okay." Rodney patted him one last time before heading to the other room. John heard him moving around, fussing with his equipment and the console.

By the time he felt like he could stand up without passing out, Rodney was coming ba