John wakes up three times that first night back home; once because he's hanging half off the mattress and his hand's freezing where it's slipped out from under the covers; once because he has to take a leak and comes back to find Rodney sprawled diagonally across the bed; and once because he hears birdsong through the open window and realizes dawn's not too far away.
By then, Rodney's warm against his back, an arm wound about his torso, holding him snug and close. Rodney's nose is touching the nape of his neck and on every exhale John can feel a wash of breath whisper down his spine. His face is chilled – his nose is flat out cold from the breeze dancing through the window – but his body is warm, content, lax, and sated, and he closes his eyes to navigate a clumsy path back to sleep.
When sunlight finally spills across the windowsill, John pries himself out from beneath blankets warmed by body heat. Rodney grumbles, pulls the covers over his head and clings to John's pillow with a half-asleep whine. John smiles, pulls on jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt, grabs a pair of socks and pads into Finn's room to check their son's not planning some unforeseen devastation since last they checked. But Finn's as dead to the world as his father, face mashed into his pillow, elephant held close to his cheek. His blankets are tangled, and John tugs and smoothes them, hushes Finn's sleepy murmurs, and pulls the door almost closed before he heads downstairs to brew coffee just the way he likes.
There's time to stand and absorb the idea of home while the coffee pot fills. Burp's thrilled to have everyone back where they belong and sweeps the kitchen floor with his tail, bestowing a doggy grin on the world as John checks the pantry, figures what they'll need from the store, wanders into Rodney's office and then idles his way to the living room. Things are almost tidy thanks to their week away, but everywhere he can see the transformation of his once solitary life into something messier, sprawling, strangely beautiful – Finn's painting of their family; the farm deed and Jake McGillion's photo hung side by side; snapshots propped up between candle stubs from the last power outage; books piled on the floor; toys stuck under the couch; Power Ranger DVDs slotted between 'The Best of the Stanley Cup' and 'Galaxy Quest'; physics journals mixed up with TV Guide and 'This Old House Magazine'; the model Piper-J Rodney gave him last birthday; the bright purple Finn McKay mark on the far west windowsill; a stray jigsaw puzzle piece; one of Burp's chewed-up tennis balls. John feels satisfaction warm inside him, filling him slow as honey, molasses, sunlight, making him want to laugh at the bills that need to be paid and the cheerios that are mashed into the rug. He reaches out with an absent hand when Burp nudges a wet nose against his thigh, scratches the dog's head. "Wanna run?" he asks softly, protective of the quiet upstairs. Burp ruffs softly, and John walks to the kitchen, pulls on his boots, leaves them unlaced and opens the back door. In a flash Burp's gone, a streak of gold bounding hell for leather across the yard, barking happily at whatever quarry he thinks he's seen, and – once he's filled a coffee cup – John follows at a more leisurely pace. He savors the languid creak of the porch beneath his feet, the hum of some truck far in the distance, the chatter of squirrels chasing madly through the trees. He could close his eyes and know this was home by the scent of leaf mold and dirt and rain; navigate through pasture and field by the texture of wood and gravel and corn stubble beneath his boots. A half-dozen birds scatter bright in the sky, flushed from the prairie grass by Burp's eager paws. John sets down his mug on the porch rail, whistles softly, and smiles as the dog bounds back, ready to walk with him to check that's all's stayed well while he was gone. "Heel," John murmurs, and Burp falls into step beside him, panting gently as they head toward the barn.
The barn door slides open with an easy rumble. Inside there's wood stacked up against the cold nights that aren't yet done; hay bales smelling sweetly of summer. The faint scent of oil laces through the soft, morning air, and John squats beside the tractor, eyes the leak that's staining the dirt floor. He cranes his neck, but there's no way to see exactly how bad things are until he can back it out, examine it in unforgiving daylight, but he has a good feeling – the old girl's not going to give up on him yet.
His workshop's full of sketches and half-begun projects – a table he thinks Ada will like, low to the ground, perfect to set in front of her couch; a polished new bookshelf for Finn's room; a chest for the porch where they can leave packages and oversized mail. He fingers the crumpled plan he drew for another rocking chair, touches the gently curved wood he's been coaxing into a seat, thinks fondly of the kid Jeannie'll be bringing into the world pretty soon. God only knows how he's going to get a rocking chair to Toronto, but he'll figure it out, and he tries not to mind the ache in his chest when he lets his thoughts wander, imagining another kid tearing through the yard, following Finn as though he hung the moon.
In the far north corner there's a damp patch among the straw, and when he squints at the roof, John can see daylight where there should be wood. He wanders outside, gets enough distance to squint up at the shingles, and calculates how much time it'll take to make repairs. It's bad news to imagine his sweet-leaning barn succumbing to age, but he can't ignore the gentle satisfaction he feels when he thinks of working with his hands again, of balancing against the ridgepole with nails pressed between his lips and a hammer in his hand, fixing things with the strength of his body rather than a quirk of his mind. He can feel the tangles and snarls of the week's new discoveries smoothing out beneath the prospect of plain, honest work, and perhaps in the steady rhythm of a saw and hammer he can figure out where he wants to belong, in this galaxy or the next.
When he heads toward the garden, Burp runs ahead, grabs a stick from under the apple trees, bounds back and drops it at John's feet with a tail-wag and a yip. John laughs and stoops to pick it up, throws it into the furthest pasture and grins as Burp follows, a joyful splash of color against winter's lingering touch. Left alone, he bends to test the soil, to rub dark, rich earth between his fingers and figure when he can till the vegetable patch again. Everything's too wet for planting, but if there's time between the barn roof and the rocking chair and groceries and laundry, he could turn a new stretch of soil, drag some pine branches over from the creek, mix the needles into the sod in anticipation of blueberry bushes in twelve months' time. He likes the idea of blueberry pie, of Finn's fingers stained indigo, of Rodney eating berries straight from the bush while he talks more than he picks.
John starts, turns around and laughs at Rodney's smile. "Stealth."
"I'm hardly Natty Bumppo out here. You were – " Rodney waves a hand, " – off somewhere that you couldn't hear me crashing through the undergrowth." He hands John his coffee cup, warmed. "Here."
John smiles as he takes it, reaches out to hook a hand behind Rodney's neck and pulls him in to press a kiss to his forehead. "Hi."
"Hi," Rodney says, turning his face to kiss the angle of John's jaw. "You were up early."
John shrugs. "Stuff to do."
"Hmmm." Rodney pulls back and looks up at him, eyeing him as though he's a conundrum he can figure out if he just stares long enough.
Rodney sips his own coffee, never breaking eye contact. "Just thinking."
John waits. "Thinking what, McKay?"
"Thinking – " Rodney wets his lips, nods as if in agreement with something no one's said aloud. "You should be here."
John raises an eyebrow. "Was I somewhere else?"
"Oh, ha, ha," Rodney counters dryly. "I mean here instead of Colorado. You should be here."
It takes a second for the idea to sink in, then John blinks, surprised, steps back and buries his thoughts in his coffee cup. When he's swallowed past the relief that's caught in his throat he glances Rodney's way. "Yeah?"
"You're a ridiculous bastard," Rodney says fondly, somehow managing to fold John into a hug without spilling anyone's coffee.
"You're not mad?" John mumbles against his ear.
"Did I fall for you because I knew you had the gene, you enormous imbecile?"
John rubs his cheek against Rodney's jaw, buries his nose in his shoulder. "No."
"No – I fell for you when you were a hick with a farm and a fondness for a motorcycle that still gives me a heart attack every time you take it out. I fell for you when you had a barn and a tractor and obscenely ripped jeans which, oh, yes, you still have."
Rodney smacks the back of his head. "All of it."
John smiles, pulls back a little, feeling sheepish. He gestures helplessly with one hand. "But the other stuff's cool. Important."
"So you offer to go for say – a week. Every six months. Train the monkeys and turn things on and if they need more, well, they're going to have to find some way to send their precious artifacts here. After the assorted garbage Daniel Jackson carted half way around the globe, I can't imagine they have a basis to object."
John squints, unconvinced. "It's the military."
"Yes, yes, so of course they will object, I'm just saying it's not reasonable of them to do so." Rodney tilts his chin. "So there."
One corner of John's mouth twitches into a smile. "So there?'
Rodney pulls a face that communicates all his impatience. "Just – stay. Here."
John lets out a breath and looks out over the fields that stretch away from the farm. Bill Peterson'll be plowing before long, Tim Miller scattering corn seed, half the county reckoning up the price of ethanol and the yields they might bank. "Yeah," he nods, the word soft and certain.
"Good," Rodney says, reaching for his wrist, squeezing there before linking their fingers and taking another pull from his coffee. There's quiet for a long, stolen moment, nothing else important in the world save the taste of Kona at the back of John's tongue, the callused press of Rodney's fingertips against the back of his hand.
"HI DADDIES! I SEES YOU'S RIGHT THERE."
John ducks his head and laughs as Rodney spits coffee. "Hey buddy," he calls, turning his head to look up toward Finn's bedroom window.
"HI BAFFA. IS WE DOING THINGS WITH THE DIRT T'DAY?"
"Sure," he calls back, squeezing Rodney's hand. "After breakfast, okay?"
"BREAKFASTS!" Finn yells, and he disappears from the window.
"That's our kid," John says, amused.
"It so is," Rodney agrees, and tugs him back toward the house.
They forage for breakfast – leftover pot roast, some apple sauce, a handful of Oreo cookies, lots more coffee – before Rodney pleads the necessity of a grocery run, and he's out the door and backing the truck down the lane before John can mock him for transparently avoiding chores to do with dirt. "Ready for some gardening?" John asks Finn, who nods emphatically around the cookies he's stuffing into his mouth with both hands. "You'll need boots."
Finn chews industriously. "An' hat," he offers, spraying himself with crumbs.
"And pants this time," John says, raising an eyebrow.
Finn giggles and grins a toothy, brown-crumbed grin. "Naked Finns!"
"Pants," John repeats, finishing his coffee and setting his mug in the sink. "No pants, no dirt. That's our rule."
Finn wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and succeeds in smearing cookie crumbs up his cheek. "Hoookay," he offers, and slides off his chair. "But first is poops."
John manfully bites back his laughter. "Good plan," he says as Finn heads off with the gait of a man who has urgent business to attend to. "You do that." And he makes a start on the breakfast dishes while he listens to Finn's newest extemporaneous song about toilets drift down from upstairs.
They get dirty pretty quickly after that – tramping down to the creek to saw off pine limbs, John dragging several back up toward the yard, Finn heroically managing one with much huffing and puffing and a smattering of masculine grunts. John digs a new patch at the very top of the garden and Finn helps with a trowel, focusing so intently on very straight corners that John can't help but snort at the influence of McKay genes. When the earth's turned over, thick and black, they strip the pine needles from the branches, throw them in the trench John's left exposed, then kick clods of dirt on top of them. John crouches down to work a second layer in with his hands, a tactic Finn endorses with fingers, hands, and elbows, even managing to get a healthy amount of mud in his hair.
"You're filthy," John observes, grinning.
"Yes!" Finn says back with a grin just as wide.
John explains at length exactly what they're doing – how the pine needles'll make the soil acidic enough for the bushes by next year; how this is better than factory chemicals; how they're taking care of the earth so that things'll still grow when Finn's a tall guy with kids of his own.
Finn sits back on his heels and studies John solemnly. "This be my house?"
John pushes his hair back from his face with the heel of his hand. "Sure, 'jumper. My Grandpa left it to me, and I'll – " He swallows, suddenly struck all over again by the fact that this is his son. "I'll leave it to you."
Finn blinks at him, then looks back toward the farmhouse, face dissolving into mischief. "I builds an airport inna field," he says, clapping his hands, and mud flies directly into John's eye.
When Rodney comes back, they're sitting on the porch steps, drinking apple juice out of glasses they've smeared with dirt. "Oh, Lord," Rodney sighs, getting out of the truck. "Tell me you left some soil in the yard."
John smiles happily. "Some."
Rodney reaches into the truck bed to pull out two brown bags of groceries. "I'd ask you to help me carry these inside, but I think it's best if you stay right there until I can hose you down."
Finn tilts his head. "Hoses?"
"Daddy wants to throw water at you before you can go in," John translates.
Finn beams. "You should just gets dirty too, Daddy!" he says, proud to have solved the problem.
"Ohhhhhh no," Rodney says, clutching his groceries close. John can see a head of celery poking out of the top of one bag, and he hopes it's for bloody marys. "You have one primitive, filthy, dirt-beneath-his-armpits father and one who likes to stay clean, thank you very much."
"Aww, Rodney," John says, smiling a little wickedly as he stands, leaving his glass on the porch. "I reckon you have some primitive in you, too."
"Don't you dare," Rodney says mutinously, tilting his chin. "I have eggs in these bags."
John quirks an eyebrow, prowling closer. "Did you just dare me?"
"No, no, I would definitely never do anything so reckless," Rodney says, lying through his teeth. "No dares at all."
"You dared Baffa!" Finn crows, both hands clasped joyfully around his glass. "You did, you did!"
"John, don't – "
John grins as he lifts the bags out of Rodney's arms and sticks them back in the truck bed. "I'm just happy to see you is all."
"You could be happy and not – John Sheppard!"
But John's already framed Rodney's face between two extremely dirty hands, and he's kissing him slow, pressing him up against the side of the truck, circling his hips just once, more an effort to grind filth directly into Rodney's clothes than to turn him on, but hey, it's all good. Behind them Finn gurgles with laughter, and after a second he manages a choked "dirt!" before he laughs some more. John pulls back and grins wickedly when he sees how much mud he's managed to smear across Rodney's jaw and into his hair. "Awesome," he breathes.
Rodney's lips twist mutinously. "Help me with the groceries or I'm firing you," he says.
John raises an eyebrow. "Firing me?" he asks.
"Yes. From – all jobs involving – bits of us and . . . good things!" Rodney manages.
"Dirt!" Finn giggles and collapses against the porch steps, writhing happily.
"I'm firing him too," Rodney says. "From – PB&J and . . . rocks."
"Good plan," John agrees and he reaches into the truck to pick up a couple of bags before sauntering inside, smirking.
He'd like to put it off, but John recognizes he's being a coward and calls Colorado later that afternoon. He's green-lighted through the system with at a remarkable speed, and Landry picks up far too quickly for comfort.
"Major? You've made a decision?"
"Yeah." And now the words are on his tongue, it's harder to speak them aloud than he'd imagined; harder to push aside the memory of a city that reached toward him, welcomed him in. "I'll go out for a week once every six months. The rest I'll do from here."
"Oh you will?"
John licks his lips and distracts himself from exactly how much he dislikes Landry by cataloguing the detritus on Rodney's desk – seven journals, a half-pack of gum, two granola bars (half-eaten), an empty coffee cup, six pens (two black, four blue), numerous mechanical pencils, a photo of John peering out from beneath the engine of the truck, and the koosh ball Rodney confiscated from Finn three weeks ago. "Yes, sir."
"One week every six months was not part of our offer, Sheppard."
"I'm aware of that, sir."
"Do I need to remind you of the critical necessity that the Atlantis mission succeed?"
"Or how vitally important your talents are to the defense of that base and, by extension, this galaxy?"
John pulls a face. Okay, that's low. "Sir – "
Landry snorts. "We're not done, Major. Expect visitors."
John frowns. "Visitors?"
"You heard me. Now if you'll excuse me, I have things to attend to."
And the line goes dead.
John wanders out into the yard, squinting into the sunlight, watching Rodney hover beneath the apple tree Finn's decided to climb. "What'd he say?" Rodney calls, glancing between his son's sneaker-clad feet and John, then back again.
"He said he's sending visitors?" John answers, scratching the back of his neck.
Rodney swears colorfully, ratcheting up so many dollars in the Finn jar that Finn almost falls out of the tree with delight.
"What?" John asks, closing the distance between them.
"Oh he's – " Rodney glances up at Finn. "Okay, that's high enough, how about you just – sit for a minute and enjoy the view?"
"I can gets higher, Daddy!"
"Yes, yes, I'm sure you can, but I'd prefer it if you didn't take after your Baffa and develop suicidal tendencies before say, grade school, and besides, I'm already going to be dreaming about – "
John coughs to cover a laugh. "Finn, buddy? Wanna jump down instead?"
"Course," John grins, stationing himself below him.
Rodney yelps and flaps his hands. "No, no, jumping is not good!"
"S'better than him climbing seventeen feet off the ground," John suggests, beckoning for Finn with his hands. "C'mon, 'jumper."
Finn grins and lets out a blood-curdling yell as he launches himself into John's arms, knocking the wind out of him and laughing crazily as they tumble to the ground. "Again, Baffa, again!" he cackles.
John wheezes and flails a hand.
"No, no, not again," Rodney says firmly, stepping in. "One jump from the tree per week, new farm rule, and only when Baffa is around to catch you, and clearly I need to teach you about the finer principles of aerodynamics so that you don't kick him in the . . . more delicate areas of his person as you fall and – "
Finn scrambles up and over John, planting one foot squarely on his stomach, making John's eyes roll back in his head for a second, and latches onto Rodney's leg. "Now with – air . . . air die?"
Rodney blinks. "Aerodynamics?"
"Damn-eye-icks!" Finn says, jumping up and down.
John pulls in his first real breath in several moments and coughs. "I'll just lie here. A bit."
Rodney hauls Finn up into his arms and ignores the song he's singing about Damn-Eye-Icks. "Visitors, you said?"
John rubs his stomach and nods. He's fairly sure he has ants in his hair.
Rodney sighs. "It means he's sending someone to try and persuade you you're wrong. Maybe several people."
"How bad can that be?" John asks.
Rodney gives him the stink-eye. "They used to send me."
John blinks and decides to stay in the garden for the next several years. "Damn," he whispers, then rummages in his pocket and pulls out a dollar, hands it over for the Finn jar without being asked.
The Visitor (the concept is capitalized in John's head) doesn't show up the next day, or for several days after that. Laundry gets done, hung out to dry, and predictably Rodney's the only one home when the line snaps and someone has to go chasing all over creation before their underwear's carried to Cedar Rapids by a brisk wind. The rain holds off and John gets his seeds planted; Finn selects seven books about Egypt from the children's section of the public library, and Rodney mutters darkly about Daniel Jackson's pernicious influence and the wrath of the gods. The windows John ordered come in, and he and Brad spend two days wrestling them into their new slots at the Brenneman place – all in all life goes back to normal, right up until Finn comes home from daycare with a bright, shiny nugget of news.
"Laura has babies," he says, setting his egg-carton-and-glitter spaceship on the kitchen table.
John squints at Rodney, who squints right back. "Baby what?" he asks.
"Baby Lauras an' Brads," Finn says, blinking.
John squats to look Finn in the eye. "There's a baby at their house?"
"Nooooooo." Finn sighs and sets his hands on his hips. "In Laura's belly. It has to cook some."
Rodney crouches too. "You mean – you mean Laura's having a baby?"
"Yis!" Finn nods emphatically. "Is a surprise."
"I'll say," John whispers, finding it strangely hard to breathe.
"Dear god," Rodney manages after a moment. "Brad's spawning."
John elbows him hard.
"Hey! C'mon! It's a terrifying thought!"
"Baffa?" Finn says, unzipping his jacket carefully. "I has a question."
John freezes and looks at Rodney, who's looking right back with abject terror on his face. No, Rodney mouths. No, no, no. He makes as if to leave, but John clamps a hand around his arm, holds him in place. "Question?" he asks Finn, still looking at Rodney.
"Baby is cooking in Laura's tummy," Finn says, sitting on the floor to pull off his shoes. "But how the baby get in there?"
Rodney sits down hard, mumbling helplessly.
"Well," John says, wetting his lips. "You see – "
Finn crosses his legs, props his elbows on his knees, and rests his chin on one hand, waiting.
"I don't know," Rodney says, lying.
"Complete mystery to me, you should ask Laura," Rodney continues.
"Be fair," John hisses.
"I am!" Rodney says, gesturing. "She's the one who got knocked up!"
"What's – knock up?" Finn repeats.
John dope-slaps Rodney up the back of the head. "Daddy's been in the sun too much today, buddy," he explains. "Makes him temporarily forgetful."
"Sun fuzzies," Finn says, nodding. "You need some water?"
"It's okay, I'll – yes, sun fuzzies, water is a good, good idea, you sit, I will get the water, yes – " Rodney says, pushing himself up and crossing the kitchen. "Baffa will explain about the babies."
"Babies!" Finn says, grinning, and claps his hands.
John gives a brief thought to all the ways he knows how to kill a man. "Well. See – when a man and a woman really love each other – "
Across the kitchen, Rodney spits water.
"Not helping!" John says, pointing a finger in his direction.
Finn waits patiently.
"See – the . . ."
"Man and woman who are in love," Rodney supplies.
"Yes," John grits out. "Them. Because they're in love they – like to . . . do fun things together."
"Like play with trucks?" Finn asks. "An' legos?"
"Sure," John nods. "Okay, so they, uh, they play with trucks. And legos. And maybe kiss."
"Exactly," John says, nodding. "Like Daddies. We think kissing's pretty fun, huh?"
Finn nods. "You kisses a lot."
John squirms. "Yeah. Well – so – there's kissing. And when you're real grown up sometimes you can uh . . ." He gestures helplessly. "Kiss more."
Rodney sighs in exasperation, sets down his water glass, and comes back to sit down at John's side. "Okay, okay. Look. There's a penis and a vagina . . . "
"What? Were you planning on telling him the stork brings the babies?"
"Was I a baby?" asks Finn.
For the second time, John and Rodney freeze. "Um – " says John.
"Yes," Rodney replies. "Yes, you were."
"So – I growed in a belly?"
Rodney groans and slaps a hand to his forehead.
John swallows. "Yeah, buddy, you grew in a belly."
Rodney laughs somewhat hysterically.
"No," John says, smiling patiently. "Not my belly. Babies can only grow inside girls."
"Why?" Finn asks, lifting his shirt to look at his own belly.
"Well, cause – uh." John rubs his forehead. He's sweating gently. "Ladies have different – bits. To men."
"Different bellies?" Finn asks, confused.
"Well – on the inside," John says. "They have – more space, for one. For the babies to grow."
"But how's the baby get IN the belly?" Finn asks again, coming full circle.
Rodney peers through his finger. "Fish sticks? You want fish sticks, 'jumper?"
"No. Want to know about bellies," Finn says, crossing his arms, looking mutinous.
John bites his lip and takes a breath. "Right."
Rodney straightens his shoulders and takes a deep breath. "Okay. Okay, so, Finn, it's – so – yes, it's . . ." He pauses. "You have a penis. That's the proper name for your peepee, and if you'd like to start calling it a penis, that's okay – just not in public, all right? Or in front of old ladies. They'll think we're raising a hellion. Well, most of them already do. But anyway – you have a penis, but if you were a little girl you wouldn't have a penis, you'd have a vagina. A vagina goes inside a lady's body and leads up into her belly, and it's through the lady's vagina that babies are – "
"They gets in!" Finn says.
"Yes," Rodney says weakly, looking exceptionally pale and perhaps a little brave. "So – when a man and woman decide they love each other very much – and they are very very grown up and know all about proper contraception – which we'll talk about some other time -- then they can do a fun thing together called 'sex,' and when they have sex the man . . . puts his penis into the lady's vagina and . . . well it's all very nice, and sometimes they get very lucky and they have a baby."
"Only grown-ups do this," John adds hastily. "You have to be very grown up to do this."
"And very responsible," Rodney says.
Finn frowns, chewing on his lip. "That's weird."
"You have no idea," John agrees.
Rodney slaps his own knee. "And on that note . . ."
"So only boys and girls has sex?" Finn asks.
"Ohhh, we were so close," John murmurs.
Rodney looks off into the distance. "Gee, I really am hungry and – "
"Sex!" Finn yells. "On'y girls and boys has sex?"
"No," Rodney says with exaggerated patience. "Men and men and women and women can have sex and enjoy it lots, they just can't make babies."
"You has sex?" Finn asks, tilting his head.
John presses his lips together to compose himself. "Yes," he settles on at last.
"When we – want to," John offers, feeling the tips of his ears turn pink. "It's a very – private thing. That Daddies do . . . um . . . privately."
"Like when I hides in the treehouse!"
Rodney blinks. "Uh. Sure."
John has sudden visions of Finn telling everyone he's having sex in trees. "Not quite like that, buddy, but – you don't have to worry about it yet. Long, long time before you have to decide who you want to have sex with."
"Ew," Finn says, screwing up his nose. "I's not having sex."
"That," Rodney says, leaning to gently poke Finn in the nose, "is the most sensible thing anyone's said in this kitchen yet today. And now I'm making fish sticks. And no one can stop me."
Finn giggles. "An' peas!"
"Peas it is," says Rodney a little too eagerly, standing up and crossing to the freezer. "You're in charge of juice."
"Yis!" Finn said, scrambling to his feet, and John's left sitting on the floor, watching his family return to normal and feeling like he's been hit by the Burlington Northern express.
There's an oppressive shadow of discomfort that lingers through dinner, bath time, stories, and goodnights, even as everything seems pleasant and familiar. Finn's tucked into bed; the farm settles quiet into darkness; the dishes are done and the TV hums low. John wipes his hands on a dish towel, sets the last mug and plate to air dry by the sink, ambles into the living room, and sits down easily beside Rodney, sprawling in what he hopes is his usual way. He can feel tension radiating from Rodney's body but doesn't say a word, lets it come to a head in its own time, which with Rodney is all of –
"He's going to ask again."
– five seconds.
John turns, hitches one leg up onto the sofa. "Yeah." They don't need to mention Katie's name.
Rodney stares at the TV – some Home Shopping Network special on support hose; John hopes he's just using it as distraction rather than in need of a pair – and clenches his jaw, unclenches it again. "So – so I tell him."
"Yeah. You do. We do."
Rodney nods. "And what if – he might have more questions after that and might want to know about her. Might want to meet her. What do I do then? What do I . . ."
John takes a deep breath. "She still work at Berkeley?"
"Hmm?" Rodney looks up. "Um – I think? I mean, I can find out."
"If he asks – if he wants to know, then . . . then we contact her. See what she thinks."
A second of something bitter and terrified flashes over Rodney's face. "I don't want to."
"Rodney – "
"I don't want to. I know I have to, but I don't want to. Don't want to let her near him, don't want – " His hand's clutching the TV remote so hard his knuckles are white.
"Okay, slow down," John says, reaching to gently disentangle the remote from Rodney's death grip. "Contacting her doesn't mean she'll want anything to do with him."
"I know," Rodney says, sounding exhausted. "And that's the problem, don't you get it? He's going to want to know about her and then he'll find out she doesn't – that she never . . . that she – "
"That she said, hey, go live with your dad 'cause he loves you something fierce?" John suggests gently.
"That she said, get out of my life, you're a nuisance, I want nothing to do with you," Rodney counters. "Can you imagine what he'll take that to mean? That he wasn't wanted, that he doesn't matter, that he – " He swallows, shakes himself, tilts his chin. "Anyway, I need – um . . . you want a beer?" He gets up, dusting his hands on his pants for a second before wandering out to the kitchen, John close behind.
"Rodney – "
"There's Goose Island, Molson, that terrible muck Brad left behind when – "
"Or – well, you don't have to have a beer, I suppose, you can just – hey." Rodney scowls as John forcefully closes the fridge door. "I was – "
"Shut up," John says, pointing a finger in his face as he steps in close, dropping it at the last second to pull him into a rough, clumsy hug.
Rodney stiffens, mumbles something inaudible that John nevertheless infers to be uncomplimentary, and tries to step back.
"Nope," John says lightly. "Not happening."
"Sheppard, so help me . . . "
Rodney wriggles furiously. "This is what happens when you start watching Oprah!" he spits, shoving hard.
John doesn't budge an inch.
"Oh, fine," Rodney snaps, and sags against him in surrender, bringing his own arms up to wind around John's back. He sighs. "Utter bastard."
"It's gonna be okay, you know," John says, nose pressed into Rodney's hair.
"You don't know that," Rodney replies, voice muffled by John's shoulder.
"Yeah I do."
"She could hurt him."
"I can't stand that," Rodney whispers brokenly.
"I know, buddy," John murmurs back, and they stand there a good while longer, John rehearsing all the insults he has at the ready in case Katie Brown gets it in her head to hurt any part of his family, and when they break apart, it's to have that beer.
By mutual agreement they decide they should both take Finn to daycare the next morning and get the official scoop on Laura's pregnancy, if only to stop Rodney's subconscious conjuring up more dreams where her swelling belly is explained by a frightening series of implants reminiscent of the second season of the X-Files. It's a challenge, coordinating three distinct schedules – Rodney's not used to meaningful interaction with humans before two pots of coffee, so it flummoxes him to be left in charge of Finn's lunch while John grabs a shower. Finn gets it into his head that everyone's staying at daycare and carefully recites all the rules Laura has about appropriate use of macaroni. He is, however, unfazed when John explains that actually his dads have work later – simply nods and says with wisdom beyond his years, "I dun think Daddy would be very good at naps."
All in all it's a small miracle they manage to tumble out of the house just before 8am with their requisite travel mugs (John and Rodney), PB&J sandwiches (John and Finn) and toolboxes (John alone). John loads up the truck and follows in Rodney's wake, thanking his stars he's not the one who had to listen to Elmo's Greatest Hits for the hundred-and-seventy-eighth time in a row.
"Morning!" Laura calls, coming out onto the stoop as they pull up and park, mug in her hand. "Came to hear it from the horse's mouth?"
"Maybe," John grins as he gets out of the truck. Rodney gets out of the car, shoulders tense with irritation, opens the back door and leans in to fumble with Finn's restraints.
"Daddy said swears!" Finn yells.
John wets his lips and smiles at Laura. "So – congratulations in order?"
Rodney pulls his head out of the back of the car. "I can't believe you – you let him – "
Brad opens the back door and steps out. "Wondered what the commotion was," he says, roughing up his hair.
"You!" Rodney says, pointing a finger. "What did you do?"
Brad smirks. "Well, first I kissed her some, and then I worked my way on down to – " He cuts off and laughs as Laura smacks his arm.
"DADDY!" Finn yells helpfully. "HI, LET ME OUT NOW!"
John waves a hand, communicating 'hold for just one second,' and ducks in the back of the car to undo Finn's seatbelt. "There you go, buddy," he says, barely getting out of the way before Finn shoots out of the car and runs over to the porch.
"Issa baby still cooking?" he asks, breathless.
"Yep," Laura nods. "Just like yesterday."
"I know all about it," Finn says proudly.
Brad throws John a look; John shrugs in a helpless fashion. Rodney glowers as he closes the back door of the car.
"See, mens have penises and womens have 'ginas and I has a penis but not 'round old ladies or in public but you's not old and we at your house so you can know," Finn blurts.
Laura nods solemnly. "Thank you, sweetheart."
"Welcome," Finn says. "I need books now, BYE DADDIES, LOVE YOU," and he runs inside.
There's a moment of stunned silence before John clears his throat and walks over to wrap Laura up in a hug. "It's great news," he grins when he pulls back. "Didn't even know you were trying."
"Oh, neither did we," Laura grins.
Brad smirks again. "But you know how it is when your boys just gotta . . . "
"Shut up!" Rodney says, storming over. Apparently he has something on his mind. "Just shut up, shut up, shut up – you had an orgasm, congratulations, it's wonderful to know you've achieved something the average male can do in his sleep. She has the hard job! She's the one who has to cook – I mean, nurture the baby, grow the baby, HAVE THE BABY, so wipe that grin off your face right this second and start thinking about what you plan to buy her to make up for this, and oh my god, are you drinking coffee?" He plucks Laura's cup out of her hand and smells it. "You are! Are you insane?"
John slings an arm around Rodney's shoulders. "Didn't we have a conversation about trying not to scare the nice people?"
Rodney pffts and wriggles in an attempt to get out of John's death grip – when that doesn't work, he settles for drinking what's left in Laura's mug. "Oh god," he says, pulling a face. "Decaf? I just drank decaf?"
Laura simply beams.
Rodney's ability to simultaneously attempt murder and fitful spurts of nurturing is interrupted by the arrival of Finn's other daycare pals, an intermittent stream of cars pulling off the county road and into the yard, disgorging preschoolers, all of whom seem to gravitate to Rodney, tugging at his pants. Laura and Brad briefly disappear beneath a deluge of congratulatory hugs, and John's left wrangling three-year-olds, and at one point, holding a baby; Ashlee Daniel's youngest, nine months old and of no discernable gender. John sticks the kid under his arm like a football and tries to make sure no one escapes.
Order's restored pretty quick once Laura extricates herself from well-wishers, and she herds the kids indoors, eases the baby out from beneath John's arm, and pats Rodney on the head as she passes. John swallows his laughter and something else that seems to have lodged at the back of his throat and does a little herding of his own, guiding Rodney over toward the car and whispering things about bacon, suggesting they get some breakfast in town before the day claims them fully for other things.
The rain starts mid-morning, scuppering all John's plans – there's no way he can till Ada's garden or work on the Johnsons' cattle shed in a downpour that's trying to wash him off the road – so he ambles back to the farm, picks up in the living room, throws everyone's sheets in the wash. It's as gloomy as night outside and he's forced to flip light switches wherever he goes. There's something unsettling about electric light in the middle of the day, and he finds himself drifting to the windows, watching the rain, lost in a strange, gray melancholy he hopes has a lot to do with the weather.
Still, he's not entirely clueless, much as he wishes he were from time to time. He finds himself in Finn's room, fingers running over the spines of beaten-up board books his son's long outgrown, cradling photos in his hand of a tow-headed infant staring with wide blue eyes at the camera that's been pushed into his face. Perched on Finn's stripped-down bed, he rubs a hand just beneath his ribs where he aches like someone punched him; like he's still the sort of man who still entertains a bar fight once in a while. He wants another kid – feels it with a restless certainty two steps removed from heartburn – and he's half-way into wondering about names before he realizes he's still gay, so in love that he's stupid with it, lacking eggs and vaginas and all kinds of necessary shit, and collapses back across Finn's mattress, groaning beneath the imagined weight of adoption, surrogacy, IVF, and god only knows what phobic laws.
Laundry and pick-up duty's no match for this particular kind of mental discomfort, so John throws a jacket over his head, jogs out to the barn – decides it's the perfect moment to wrestle a chicken coop into existence so that Fruitcake and Baby Jesus have a real place to live. He sketches out a plan on the back of an ATM receipt, sorts through lumber, tries to remember everything he's been told about flight and foxes and coyotes that'll dig clean under a fence if they have half a chance. There are many things he can face in life, he thinks as he saws up a two-by-four, but Finn's face as someone explains why his chickens were some critter's lunch does not number among the throng.
As usual, work soothes the snags and burrs embedded in his thinking, and by the time he gets around to slicing through chicken wire and tacking it to the frame, he's coming up with names for the chicks' new home, barely expending any energy on the hot, tight yearning that's a tennis ball of obstinacy in his gut. He reckons a coop'll seem like a palace after the cardboard box way station they've set up for the birds in the spare bedroom, and there are probably websites with information on gay adoption he could browse while it rains. "Sheppard?" he murmurs, righting the coop, sucking on his thumb where he's cut it on the wire. "You're fucking hopeless." And he stows his tools, jogs back to the house and shares his flattened PB&J sandwiches with Burp
By the time Rodney brings Finn home, John's worked himself in a regular stew. "I want another kid," he blurts as Finn runs his regular post-daycare laps through the house. Rodney's managed to shrug out of his jacket – his hair's plastered flat to his head from the rain – but his attention's on the pile of mail in his hand and not the way John's trying his damnedest to shred a dish towel between his fingers.
"A what?" he asks, looking up for a second, throwing a seed catalog, a flyer for the latest Ford sales event, and a glossy brochure for address labels aside.
"Kid," John says again. "Baby. Do you still – I mean . . . we haven't . . ."
Rodney looks up, blinking. "Baby?"
"Ours," John says, exasperated. "Would you – " He snatches the mail out of Rodney's hand and obligingly acts as ballast as Finn changes direction with his thigh as an anchor.
"We're having a baby?" Rodney asks, frowning in confusion.
"Not right this second."
Rodney's face goes blank. "Oh my god. Did you – did you . . ."
John watches him, waiting. "Did I . . ?"
"Floozy!" Rodney yelps.
John gapes for a second. "I didn't sleep with anyone, Jesus . . . "
"Well that's how we – "
"— got into this to begin with!" Rodney gestures widely, suggesting that 'this' represents son and farm and torrential rainstorm all at the same time.
"So, what, we should repeat the experiment?"
"No! No, I don't want you – I . . . " Rodney's mouth sets into a line. "Samantha Carter. She propositioned you, didn't she?"
John stares at him. "What?"
"She wombed you! She offered herself up for – "
"Oh, please," John says, rolling his eyes.
"No one offered up a womb, Rodney. Which is half the damn problem, but . . . " He gestures feebly, a Victoria's Secret catalog folded around the bills and circulars Rodney hasn't yet sorted. "I just."
Rodney watches him for a long, quiet moment, chewing on his lip a little, standing stock still. "You want another kid."
Finn runs another lap around them both and into the living room. Rodney swallows. "Okay."
John blinks. "Okay?"
"Well I mean – " Rodney tries to look as if this isn't one of the scarier things they've ever talked about. "Nothing's changed. I just didn't . . . it never seemed the moment to sit down and talk about it, and there's so much to consider, which route, fostering, adoption, biological methods of implantation, whether your sperm has the capacity for – "
John holds up a finger. "I'm sorry – what?"
Rodney tilts his chin. "Well, have your had your sperm motility tested lately?"
John narrows his eyes. "Not unless the Air Force stuck a monitor in your ass, no."
Rodney winces. "Okay, that's just disturbing."
John thrusts the mail back at him and crosses the room to pull a frozen pizza out of the freezer. "My sperm are just fine, thank you."
"Yes, yes, I'm very fond of them myself," Rodney offers, going back through the mail. "But perhaps we should find out if there are problems on your end before we go shooting swimmers into some poor woman's orifices on the assumption that – "
"You know, I'm getting offended," John says lightly when Rodney falls silent, sliding the pizza into the oven and slamming the door. "Why you'd presume that my boys . . . " He looks up, prompted by the tense quiet emanating from across the room. Rodney's deathly pale, staring at something in his hand. "What? What is it?"
"It's a joke, right?" Rodney's voice sounds insubstantial, pulled thin.
"I mean – I was just . . . I don't actually believe in, you know, a higher power, but it's entirely possible I tempted fate when I – "
John takes a step forward. "What?"
Rodney holds out an opened letter – cream notepaper, neat handwriting, blue ink; when John doesn't immediately take it, he shoves it more forcefully in his direction.
John plucks it out of Rodney's hand. "Dear Rodney," he reads as Rodney sinks into a kitchen chair. "I've been thinking about Finn and wondering if . . ." He flips the letter over, sees Katie's name signed at the end. "Oh motherfucker," he breathes.
"SWEARS," Finn cries jubilantly, running into the room and grinning ear to ear.
John nods. "Yeah. Dollar in the jar, buddy," he murmurs, sitting down and reaching across the table to grab Rodney's hand.
"I still don't believe it," Rodney hisses as they wash and dry the dishes, Finn settled in front of the TV, watching an entirely unprecedented hour of nighttime cartoons.
"Seems pretty real to me," John says with a calm he doesn't feel.
"I'm taking it with me tomorrow," Rodney whispers, continuing as though John hasn't said a word. "I'll find someone who can – there are tests! Tests that can be done on – on paper, on ink, on . . . on the saliva on the stamp."
"I think it was self-adhesive," John offers.
"So we'll trace where it was bought!"
John shakes his hands free of suds and turns to take the towel out of Rodney's hands. "You could call her," he suggests gently. "Find out what's going on."
Rodney pales and stands stock still for a second. "Tomorrow," he says finally.
"If you do it now, at least we'll know what – "
Rodney shakes his head. "Tomorrow," he says again, and this time there's a note of pleading.
John lets out a breath and nods, offers a half-smile, and noses a kiss into Rodney's hair.
They hold it together fairly well for the rest of the evening, in part because of circumstance. Remembering there's laundry still in the washer, John heads to the basement, finds an inch of water already standing at the foot of the stairs and the prospect of more if the rain doesn't let up. He curses softly – heads upstairs and pulls on his boots, rallies the troops and heads back down with a bucket and his toolbox, Rodney on his heels. As distractions go, it's a good one, hauling boxes out of the water, setting what they can up high, corralling Finn, who's wearing his rain boots and thinks the flood's been sent from heaven just for him. It's late by the time they've salvaged what they can and John's surrendered all hope of being able to fix anything until after the storm's given up and moved on. By that time Finn's sailing plastic ducks on the basement's high seas, pushing off toy sailboats with one finger and seeing how far they'll bob, giggling with glee when one of his squeaky-whale bath toys nudges harmlessly into John's leg. Rodney supervises a search and rescue for every last floating Finn-hazard, scoops up their son and carries him upstairs as John follows behind, switching off the lights and thinking of the mold problem they could have before long.
"The whales liked the big ocean, Daddy," Finn yawns, head on Rodney's shoulder, a duck in one hand and a whale in the other. He makes the whale squeak feebly.
"I know," Rodney says gently, his boots toed off. "C'mon. We'll make them a bed in your sock drawer, how's that?'
"Mmmmm," Finn agrees, and John's heart cracks just a little. Jesus, they can't lose him, they just plain can't.
He tells himself to get a grip as he turns off the kitchen light and TV. Katie Brown's hardly threatening some coup d'etat from California, lawyers at the ready, or an arsenal of social workers poised to swoop in. Her letter was polite – reserved, judicious – a gentle inquiry mixed with a little hope; a wondering at who her son might be. But if Rodney has his fears, John has his own, and it's bittersweet reassurance to consider that there was something in her to attract Rodney once – and John knows him well enough to reckon it had to be more than a simple willingness to have sex. Katie's probably sweet when push comes to shove, probably smart and interesting, probably doesn't swear as much as she did when she was giving birth. His brain flashes to an image of Rodney being kissed by a tiny, red-headed spark of a woman, and his gut cramps in response. He doesn't want to imagine Rodney with someone else, much less a woman, much less the woman who delivered their son, but there it is, the cold hard nugget of truth that has the potential to keep him awake at night; Katie Brown knew Rodney first, knew his body in ways John can only guess at, gave him a kid, speaks science as a language that comes naturally, and while Rodney's focused on whether she wants Finn, John can't help but map the idea that she might want more than to get to know her son.
Crossing the landing at the top of the stairs, he sets his jaw, pokes his around Finn's door to wish him goodnight. As he heads to his own room to peel off sodden jeans and a grimy t-shirt, he can hear Rodney's voice rise and fall, the familiar cadence of a bedtime story marking a counterpoint to creaking floorboards and a measured tread. John feels sick, disloyal – Rodney's done nothing to earn his distrust, to make it seem possible he'd turn to Katie and find something there. These are ghosts born of night and panic and fatigue, but John's hands are still shaking when he tugs off his jeans. He peels down to his underwear, sits on the bed, scrubs his face and falls back across the blankets, groaning at the way his brain's twisting, slick and miserable, to offer up every unhappy scenario it can. It's dark in their bedroom, and there's the faint scent of unwashed socks beneath the ozone smell of rain. John lies pressed down the weight of his doubts until Rodney shuffles in, sits beside him, lets out a breath that won't hold steady and wrings his hands.
"Is there some way I can say no?" Rodney asks.
John sits up, shoulders rounded from basements and letters and tricks of his mind. "I don't think so, buddy," he whispers, and kisses Rodney's upper arm. His t-shirt's soft beneath John's lips.
"I am so, so very scared," Rodney manages, words clipped and precise as if there isn't a tsunami of emotion behind them.
"I know," John murmurs, and shifts to fold Rodney in, graceless and awkward, elbows jammed in ribs and hands too cool from water leaks. "I know." And he pushes it away, everything he's feeling, buries it somewhere dark, locked tight, swallows the key and rubs a hand down Rodney's spine.
When John wakes the next morning, he feels as if he's drifted up from the cradle of his dreams into a different body. His joints ache; his back is sore. He squints at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, water running, razor in his hand, but he can't quite bring himself to tackle the stubble he sees. The line of his jaw seems unfamiliar, and he's fairly certain shaving would be tempting fate so he turns off the faucet, takes a two-minute shower, pads downstairs and pets Burp's head absently, lets him outside and makes a pot of coffee, every movement jerky and unsure.
Finn wakes up grumpy; Rodney dazed. John plies the latter with coffee, wrangles the former with as much patience as he has to offer, takes Finn outside and lets him throw sticks and balls for Burp while Rodney places a long-distance call. They agreed – at some hour that neither of them should have seen – that they'd get this over with as soon as possible; if Katie wants to come, she should come soon. Rodney steps out onto the porch more than half an hour later, his hands jammed hard into the pockets of his jeans, and says, "two weeks. She's – two weeks, she said." And John closes the space between them, tugs Rodney close and feels the soft release of breath against his throat, noses Rodney's hair. There's nothing much he can say, not stacked against the maelstrom he can feel thrumming through Rodney's body, so he holds on until Finn drifts back from the pasture's edge, puzzled and curious, wanting to know what's going on.
They sit on the porch steps, and the dizzying spill of what Rodney has to say dims for John compared to the grounding rustle of tall grass and scent of damp earth. Home, he thinks, one hand tucked inside the waistband of Rodney's jeans, warm against the small of Rodney's back. Home he thinks, and means the man beside him and the boy in his arms no less than the barn and the fields and the sun.
"So I cooked in her belly?" Finn asks, fiddling with Rodney's watch strap.
"Yeah," Rodney says, swallowing. "Yeah, and she – she wanted you to have the best home imaginable, and . . ." He gestures half-heartedly with one hand. "Sky and corn and a dog and – "
"And a Baffa!" Finn says jubilantly, punching the sky with both arms.
John smiles as Rodney looks at him, wonder and affection on his face, a shadow of worry caught by his eyes.
"Yeah," Rodney says as Finn takes off his watch. "Yeah, we both needed one of those."
John squeezes the back of Rodney's neck. "You ready to go to Laura's, 'jumper?" he asks gently.
Finn nods. "I have lots to tell the other kids."
Rodney winces. "I bet," he murmurs, but he buries his face in Finn's tousled hair, tickles his belly, and the sound of his laughter is force enough to make fears recede, at least for the moment.
John takes on the task of letting everyone know what's going on. Concern and sympathy are as hard on him as they would be on Rodney, but he has more experience in stuffing his feelings where the sun doesn't shine, and it's a good distraction, reassuring everyone else that there's nothing to worry about. Rodney zips between the opposing poles of fear and defiance twenty times a day, and John gets good at figuring out where he's at, slipping him coffee, suggesting he make a 'to do' list, packing him off to play pool with Ronon, kissing him pliant, listening while he rants. He channels what energy he has for himself into household repair, painting the porch, mending fence posts by the lane, raking and weeding and pulling up kale, drying out the basement before there's more rain. Through it all are strung the sharp, bright flashes of Finn's many questions – about Katie, about his dad, about California and his first trip on a plane. (John hates her, irrationally, for taking that from him – for his kid discovering that before he knew the yellow joy of a Piper-J he'd flown business class, squalling while John stood waiting below.)
"I think you should meet her at the airport," Rodney says two days before Katie's due to arrive.
John looks up from the paper – Merle Standish got arrested for making crop circles again. It being May, the most he managed was a muddy ellipse. "Me?"
"Well, just, you know, there might be – you two haven't met before and . . ."
John nods slowly. "And you want us to have alone time?" he asks, eyebrow raised.
"Yes. No. I – " Rodney blinks, uncertain. "I don't know."
"I think you have to meet her," John says slowly. "We can be there if you like, me and Finn, but – "
Rodney pulls a face. "I do not want this little . . ." He waves a hand in tight circles. ". . . thing going down in an airport lounge."
"So we'll wait for you here. Or I'll take him to the children's museum, you can meet us there. The park. Wherever – " John sits forward on the couch. "You have to meet her. You're the only one she knows."
Rodney looks defeated. "I don't want to – " He shrugs, as if he hasn't the words.
"Don't want to what? Go through with this?"
"Well, sure, that." Rodney scrubs a hand over his face and sits down beside him. "But I just mean – " He looks up, meets John's gaze. "She's not a horrible person. I'm kind of enjoying remembering her as some Machiavellian bitch on wheels but she's not, she's really not."
John nods, willing his stomach to quit before it even thinks of rolling. "I figured as much."
"You liked her well enough to sleep with her."
"Well. True," Rodney says, chin tilting. "But you don't exactly have to have a deep and lasting meeting of the minds to – "
"Okay, let's not go there," John says meaningfully.
"I just – she's very sweet. And I worry that she'll be nice, like she always is, and I'll forget that she wants to tear my family apart and – "
"She never said she wanted to tear your family apart."
Rodney looks sullen. "Well. No. But I just – "
"And it's legal, right? You being here with him, me adopting him."
"Of course it is."
"So." John reaches out, curls a hand around the back of Rodney's neck; wills his pulse to stop thudding so hard that Ada could call any minute to ask what the commotion's about. "So she's just coming to see him. She can't take him anywhere."
Rodney leans in, forehead against John's shoulder. "You're right, you're right, I know, I know, I just – things get away from me and I – "
"You're a good dad," John whispers, tugging him closer.
"The best. You love him to pieces."
Rodney sighs. "That's true."
"And he knows it."
"He won't want to start spending his weekends in California?"
John grimaces, then smoothes out his face. "Course not."
"Or summers. Because summers here are – "
"No." John scratches his fingers through the hair at the nape of Rodney's neck. "Nothing bad's going to happen, okay?"
"Okay." Rodney slides his arms around John's back, squeezes a little. "Any chance we could – you know – that you could – "
"Fuck you through the mattress?"
Rodney lets out a little snort of air. "Well, I wasn't going to put it quite that way but – "
John smiles and pulls back, kisses Rodney's forehead. "Hey, it works out pretty well for me too."
Rodney smiles at him fondly. "Yeah, I guess so."
"So let me check the dehumidifier one more time, and I'll be up," John promises. And when Rodney leaves and John clatters down the basement steps, he kicks the wall, decides not to blow his cover and punch the same, checks the dehumidifier, then climbs upstairs to bury everything he's hiding in slick, desperate sex.
Katie's flight gets in in the late morning – a red-eye to Chicago and a connecting flight to Cedar Rapids that for once isn't delayed. John stays at the farm, obsessively straightening things that don't need to be straightened, playing stick with Burp until even the dog gets bored, eventually stooping so low as to clean out the multiple half-eaten jars of salsa that stand like sentries at the back of the fridge. He tries not to keep a mental tally of exactly how many minutes have passed since her plane touched down (at 11.27am – he checked on the airline website, technology his blessing and his curse) but fails. Every possible traveling variable is color-coded in his head – a checked bag, a lost bag, the scrabble for change to get out of the parking lot, someone needing coffee, Katie wanting to check into her hotel. At any moment, she and Rodney could be ten minutes away or an hour, and John's nerves are jangling like he's just leaned his Pave Hawk into the wind, pulling evasive maneuvers to avoid the land to air missiles screaming up toward him from below.
He wishes his body didn't think of this as war, but muscle memory's having its way, and it's all he can do to keep things in check by thinking of Rodney, not himself – how Rodney's doing with the mother of his kid in the passenger seat of his car.
When the phone rings, John flinches before he grabs for the receiver. "Hello?"
"John Sheppard?" The voice is brisk and impersonal.
"Colonel Steven Caldwell, USAF."
John raises an eyebrow. Because today needed to get more complicated. "Sir?"
"I'm a member of the program team you became acquainted with on your recent visit to Colorado."
The visitors. John smacks his forehead against the wall, wondering exactly who he and Rodney pissed off to earn this sort of life. "Sir."
"I believe General Landry apprised you of our plans to send certain outreach personnel to your place of residence."
Outreach personnel. John rolls his eyes. "Yeah."
"I'm calling to update you on – "
"Tell me they're not coming today."
Caldwell clears his throat, sounding irritated. "We're presently undertaking a review of your alternative proposal."
It takes a moment for John to grasp what Caldwell means. "You're – "
"Certain personnel, when apprised of your proposal, suggested it warranted further consideration." Caldwell sounds as if he's speaking through a mouthful of ground glass. "I've been appointed coordinator of the effort, and anticipate the process won't take longer than four weeks."
"There are certain . . . logistical considerations in receiving input from all interested parties, Major Sheppard, that I'm certain you understand . . ."
John scrubs a hand over his face. "Yeah, yeah. So – four weeks."
"I'm pressing for an earlier decision."
"And no visitors in the meantime."
"Right." John looks around the kitchen.
"I'll be in touch." Caldwell sounds distinctly unhappy at the idea.
"Sure thing." John nods, and the line goes dead just as Rodney pulls up in the yard.
The much anticipated Katie Brown turns out to be no bigger than a minute, with a head of bright red hair and a nervous smile. She climbs out of the passenger seat of Rodney's car and looks around with bright, uncertain curiosity, smiles a little when she sees John coming down the porch steps. Rodney gets out of the driver's side, looks at John like he's the best thing he's ever seen. "Hey." His knuckles are white where his fingers curve over the top of the door.
"Hey," John smiles and kisses him, once, on the mouth. He rubs a hand over Rodney's shoulders as Katie rounds the car.
"I'm Katie," she says, smiling bravely, sticking out her hand.
"John," he nods, smiling a little as he takes her hand and shakes. "Good flights?"
"Not bad." She looks up at the farmhouse. "Beautiful place."
She means it, and John takes it as the peace offering it is. "Thanks. You – uh . . . you hungry?"
"Oh I'm – I'm, no, it's fine," she says, tucking a lock of hair back behind her ear. "I don't want to be any trouble."
"No trouble," John says easily. "Rodney's probably ready to gnaw on his own arm by now and – "
"Hey!" Rodney elbows him.
John smiles easily. "I haven't had lunch."
Katie nods, chewing on her bottom lip. "Well. If you're sure that – " She nods. "That'd be nice."
John eases Rodney away from the car door and shuts it. "C'mon inside." He hopes he sounds a lot more gracious than he feels.
They make it through lunch on a benevolent wave of pleasantries. Everyone's trying hard, and Katie's never been to Iowa, so there's plenty to talk about while they say nothing much at all. They eat sandwiches, drink iced tea, and John keeps his knee pressed up close against Rodney's, an unobtrusive reassurance that stands in for the better touches that'll have to wait until they're alone. There's an awkward pause when everyone's finished eating, and Katie looks at them both with a disarming level of determination.
"I just – " She takes a moment, as if to steady herself. "I just want you to know that – I'm not here to try and take him away from you."
John wipes his mouth on the paper towel he's been using as a napkin. "Okay?"
Rodney looks at him then back at Katie, his mouth set in its familiar crooked line.
"I just wanted to see him," Katie says, half-smiling, uncertain. "I'm . . . curious. He's – " She waved a hand. "He's probably the only child I'll ever have and . . ."
John sets down his paper towel. "So – is this . . ." He rubs his fingers together, trying to find the right words. "You want to be in his life more?"
"I don't know," she says honestly.
Something wild and angry curls up inside John's chest, but he doesn't let it show. Are you waiting to see if he's up to standard? he wants to ask but doesn't, reaching to collect their lunch plates instead.
"Don't – know?" Rodney asks as John stands up.
Katie shakes her head. "I don't know that I'd be any good for him."
John stacks the plates in the sink and hates that he can understand what she's saying. He's only thought the same thing himself a hundred times, and that's with Finn sleeping one room away.
"I'm not very patient," Katie continues. "I'm great with plants because they need so little – water and good soil and the right sort of insects and . . ." She steadies herself, drinks from her glass of iced tea. "I'm not good with people, not really. They're – " She sets down her glass. "Complicated. Especially the little ones."
"Not so complicated," Rodney says quietly, and when John turns to look, he's taken Katie's hand. "You just – love them a lot. Big, stupid, get-it-wrong-all-the-time love. You know?"
She shakes her head. "No. I don't."
"He's a good kid," John says quietly, leaning back against the sink. "He's easy to – you can't help but want to just . . ."
Katie looks at him, smiling sadly. "I'm glad," she says.
John nods and looks out the window.
"C'mon," Rodney says to her. "I'll show you pictures." And he stands and gestures toward the living room, following her through, and John can hear the thump of sliding books as Rodney pulls a photo album off the shelf.
It's John's idea that Rodney go pick Finn up from daycare alone. Katie agrees, making understanding noises about Rodney explaining things one last time, but John's reasoning's more basic – he can see a tightness in Rodney's shoulders, fatigue in the lines beside his eyes, and he knows only time alone with Finn can fix it. He bundles Rodney out of the house, tells him to take his time, hoards Rodney's smile of gratitude and raises a hand as he backs down the drive. Once the car's disappeared, there's nothing left but to go back inside, spend time with Katie, and he closes his eyes for just a moment before he turns back toward the screen door.
"You don't have plants," Katie observes. She's standing in the living room, head tilted to read the spines of their books. "Inside, I mean."
John smiles and rubs his jaw. "I got a bunch outside." He looks at her for a second. "You wanna see?"
She blinks, seemingly surprised. "Yes," she says, smiling brilliantly. "I'd like that."
It's new for John, to see the farm through the eyes of someone who's curious about the things he's taken for granted since he was a kid. He provides the names of the wildflowers clustered underneath the oak trees, talks nitrogen supply with Katie as they amble across clover-speckled grass. They rub soil between their fingers, talk about leaf rot and hornworms, and she loves the blueberry-patch-to-be, dark and damp and smelling faintly of pine. The corn out in the fields beyond the farm's newly planted, not even a crest of green above the soil as yet, but Katie can see the arc of the earth, points to the watersheds, comments on the timber clustered by the creek and asks about the ferns that'll grow there before long. They find companionship in loving things that grow, Katie with her scientist's eye, John with fingers turned accidentally green, and neither hears the car come back, doors slam or Rodney chiding Finn for finding a puddle right away.
"BAFFA!" Finn yells, running through the vegetable patch, launching himself at John's leg and wrapping his arms around him tight.
In that second, John loves him so goddamn much he thinks it'll be a miracle if he can remember how to breathe, but then he's bending, letting Finn wrap his arms around his neck, and standing up again with his son on his hip. "Finn, this is Katie," he says. "Daddy told you she was visiting?"
Finn grins at her blithely. "Hi," he says, waving.
Katie looks utterly stunned. "H – hi," she says weakly, smiling, and waves back.
"Want juice," Finn says, tugging on John's ear.
"What's the magic word?"
"Please," Finn cackles, throwing out his arms and bending backward as if to offer himself up to the sky. "Please, please!"
John looks over toward the farmhouse, and Rodney's watching them, naked longing on his face. "Juice it is," he says, setting Finn down again. "Go on, tell Daddy. We'll be right behind."
And Finn runs off again, arms and legs akimbo, yelling for the sheer joy of being not-quite-four and having a voice.
"Wow," Katie whispers.
"You okay?" John asks, looking at her.
She nods. "Just – just different. Seeing him. Not in pictures."
"I bet," John says with understanding, and pats her shoulder before they turn and head back to the house.
By mutual agreement, they give Katie time alone with Finn after juice has been dispensed and the Lego bin pulled into the middle of the living room floor. By equally mutual agreement, John and Rodney hover in the kitchen, out of sight to Finn but within earshot, clutching cups of coffee and pacing back and forth.
Katie clears her throat after a minute, helping Finn sort the bricks into piles of yellow, blue, red and green. "Your Daddy and Baffa told you who I am, I think?"
Finn nods emphatically. "I growed in your belly," he says, passing her a blue brick, since the pile's closer to her knee than his.
"Yeah," she smiles wistfully. "Yeah, you did."
"Laura is having a baby grow in her belly too."
Finn passes over another blue brick. "Laura looks after me inna day. With the other kids."
"Ahhh." Katie drops two yellow bricks onto the growing pile, and one red. "So – so . . . I asked your Daddy to take care of you. After you came out of my belly."
"I know," Finn replies, sing-song.
"Is that okay?"
Finn looks up at her, headed tilted on one side. "What d'you mean?"
"Well," Katie says, furrowing her brow. "I bet a lot of the other kids you know have a mommy who's around a lot more."
"Justin an' Claire an' Ian an' Davey an' Molly an' baby Michael," Finn says, nodding, and goes back to sorting bricks. "But it's okay."
Finn nods again. "See, cause I have a Baffa anna Daddy. No one else has a Baffa." He peers in the Lego bin. "All gone! You wanna share my red bricks?"
"Yes, please," Katie says, smiling.
In the kitchen, John sets his coffee down on the counter, since his hands don't seem very steady, and looks over at Rodney, who's hovering in the door. "That's our kid," John whispers, warm from head to toe.
"It so is," Rodney nods, and crosses to insinuate himself inside John's arms, resting there while Finn and Katie play.
It doesn't grow easier to have Katie around, much as John thinks it should. For every understanding they reach, there's another moment of doubt; for every daytime reassurance, there's paranoia once the lights go down. They're exhausted, and not a night goes by that Rodney doesn't press in close as they climb into bed, holding onto John as his fears bloom in the dark. There's nothing to be said – touch seems the only anchor either of them can comprehend, and John learns the contours of the back of Rodney's head with his fingers, night after night, soothing him into sleep with palm and body heat, tangled legs and steady breath.
Finn's the only one who takes everything in his stride. He insists they take Katie to the park, wheedles for pizza like he does every blessed night, draws a picture of a plane for Katie as her five days in Iowa draw to a close. He shares his toys, still wants his dads to put him to bed, still goes first to Rodney when he falls down and grazes his knee. It's humbling, John reckons, to see how completely Finns trusts them, how far beyond his comprehension it is to imagine the adults around him could act dumb or scared or unsure. He reckons it might mean they're doing okay with him, raising him right, that he accepts the world with all its quirks, safe and secure, laughing at thunderstorms, sailing his ducks in a basement flood.
"He's the most amazing kid," Katie says to John, sitting on the porch steps on her very last night. Rodney's grilling on the concrete lip outside the garage; Finn's running circles in the yard, alternating with Burp in a game of chasing and being chased.
"We like him," John offers, wry.
Katie laughs. "I just mean – " She ducks her head and looks at the beer bottle in her hand. "There was something else that made me come. Some other – "
John tenses just a little, despite himself.
"No – no," Katie says, shaking her head, holding out a hand as if to stop him. "Not in the sense that I . . . I haven't lied. I just – " She shakes her head and sighs. "My mom."
John eyes her warily. "Your mom."
Katie nods, smiling mirthlessly, picking at the label on her bottle, damp now from the palm of her hand. "She hasn't stopped telling me how guilty I should be feeling since the moment I gave him to Rodney."
"Is Finn her only – "
"Grandchild? No, no. My brother has two, my sister three."
John nods, letting out a breath. "Okay."
"She's never really understood my work, what it is I do, why I like it." Katie looks out at the farm, at the yard dusted green with every kind of grass. "She can't understand why I'd give him up, how I could think I know myself well enough to know – " She swigs her beer. "Know you'd do better."
John pulls at his own beer, needing the bitter tang of hops to clear his throat. "So she's – "
"Nagged me for four years. Told me how stupid I am, how many regrets I'm storing up for old age." Katie tosses her hair back over one shoulder and looks at John. "And I wondered if she was right, if I was deluding myself, but – "
"I'm not. I'm not the person he needs."
"Look, you're – "
Katie smiles at him. "It's okay. I'm not beating up on myself. I'm just – I'm better with plants."
John nods. "You're welcome, you know. To come back."
"I know." Katie watches Rodney flip burgers, glances over to where Finn and Burp are wrestling in a flurry of laughter and tail wags. "I know."
Katie leaves the next morning, drives out in a rental car to get to the farm before Finn goes to Laura's, says a private goodbye. It seems surreal to think it's over, John muses, watching her drive back down the lane, watching Rodney follow and turn left toward Laura's as Katie turns right. The quiet of the farm presses in from all sides and he sits down heavily on the top step of the porch, leans against Burp when the latter snuffles close, concerned and damp of nose, panting happily when John scratches fingers through his fur.
There are jobs waiting at the end of the lane, down the county road, threaded through town and out into the fields. He has errands to run and there are bills to pay, but as he looks out into his grandpa's creation, the sense of home he was gifted as a young boy, again as a man, he knows he's not going anywhere, stands instead to walk the perimeter of his fields.
By five that evening, people start to show. No one calls or announces they're on their way – people simply park their trucks and cars in the yard, carrying casseroles, pies, a cooler of beer. Rodney can barely squeeze his car in from the lane, but he finds a niche, comes inside, looks (bewildered) in John's direction, a little confused but utterly touched. Brad grabs Finn and dangles him by his ankles while Ada holds court over a pot of chili on the stove. Laura commandeers the stereo and refuses to play anything Rodney suggests, and Jim and Maggie Brenneman polish off pie on the couch. Mitch tells anyone who'll listen about the accident with the keg of Miller Lite and Preacher Able's daughter, and all evening long people drift in and out, pat John on the back, fold a persistently surprised Rodney into hugs, press brownies into Finn's sticky hands, and head back home as if it's no big thing.
By the time the sugar wears off and Finn finally crashes, only Jim and Maggie, Brad and Laura are left. John watches from the kitchen as Rodney bends to scoop up their wailing son, ignoring the tiny fists that beat at his shoulders as they head to bed, throwing John a smile as Finn slumps in his arms, tuckered out with a face smeared with chocolate, and it hits John then – Finn's still theirs.
Laura comes up behind him while he's rooted to the spot, slides her arms around his waist and hugs him tight. "You did good," she whispers, letting go to pick up her purse, waving fondly as Brad pulls her out the back door. Jim shuffles to the door himself, leaning on his cane; pats John on the shoulder. "Proud of you, son," he says gruffly, and John barely knows why, but he accepts the compliment anyway, kisses Maggie on the cheek and watches until they're safely on the road.
Finn's already out by the time John climbs the stairs, sprawled on top of his covers with his Elephant in his hand. The light's on in the bathroom, and John undresses while Rodney brushes his teeth, takes a leak when Rodney's done, ambles to bed feeling muddled and numb from the outpouring of affection served up in Corning bakeware in his kitchen that night. When Rodney slides in beside him, he lays a hand on John's chest, props himself up on one elbow and studies John as if he's someone he hasn't seen in years. He seems to be struggling with something, but when he finally meets John's gaze all he says is, "thank you."
It's enough. Suddenly all the walls John's been building come crashing down. He can't breathe because there isn't room for breath amid the realization that it's done, they're a family still, they've made it through. Finn still loves him – Rodney still loves him – and he shakes with the force of it, chokes it out in unintelligible words when Rodney drags him close, holds him tightly against the storm, kisses his temple and his hair and his neck whispering, "we're okay, it's okay," over and over again. John falls asleep to that mantra, and when he wakes, it's from a dreamless sleep, the world a gentle haze of grays in the pre-dawn light.
"Hey," Rodney whispers, and John turns his head, meets wide-awake eyes and a thoughtful smile.
He frowns. "Mmmmm."
Rodney lets out a long breath and touches John's jaw. "Were you worried?" he asks at last. "I've been lying here, thinking, for most of the night and it occurred to me that I – that you held me up and I never really thought to . . . you don't ask, not for yourself, and I should've thought to – "
John shakes his head, stubble scratching his pillow. "Shhhhh."
"No, c'mon, tell me. You – I know you were worried about Finn, but that's not all of it is it?"
John ducks his head.
"You were worried about me. And her."
John sighs, feels himself flush, ashamed. "It wasn't – " he begins, then tries again. "You're not why I . . . I never thought you'd – "
"God, John," Rodney whispers, and leans in to kiss him, a soft, sweet, morning kiss that says so much more than either are capable of with words. "I'd never – "
"Do you? I'd never . . ."
But John simply tugs on his arm, rolls them both until Rodney's resting above him, parts his legs so that Rodney can settle between his thighs. It's been too long since they had this, since they touched each other because there was no better way to express everything they felt, and John wants it, wants him, wants to feel this without all the misery of paranoia in the way. "Please," he whispers, lifting his head to graze Rodney's jaw with his teeth.
"God, yes," Rodney sighs, and they're kissing again, unhurried and teasing, mouths lush and soft with sleep, and if their breath's a little stale, all the better, John thinks, relieved to anchor himself in how real it is to have Rodney's weight above him, pressing him down into the bed. He steeples his legs and rocks his hips, a languorous thrust that makes Rodney sigh, and action becomes reaction as they touch and taste, as Rodney inks his feelings into every hollow and rise of John's shadowed body, breath and touch etching a trembling, blood-warm rush of need into willing, waiting skin.
When Rodney breaches him with one finger, John's eyes prickle with the intensity of it, the stretch and give after too long left untouched. His spine arches at two, his breath quickly hitching, and Rodney leans to touch their foreheads together, to soothe him into rocking back, pressing firm against Rodney's hand, his fingers tangled in Rodney's soft hair. He tenses at three but shivers when Rodney finds a nipple with warm, wet lips, realizes that he might be breaking open, lets Rodney take whatever he's been trying to hide and when Rodney shifts, pushes in with his cock instead of his hand, John groans and struggles for a second, whimpers and thinks he can't possibly, can't possibly – but oh god, there it is, the spark of warmth from deep inside him that spreads with every devastating hitch of Rodney's hips. John whimpers, grabs blindly, feels Rodney take his hands and press them back against the bed, and oh, oh, he'll shatter, he feels it, strains toward it, keens with the affection of damp, joined palms, and when he comes, it's with Rodney stroking deep and sure inside him, and he's lost, broken, cradled by gentle hands that pull him close against a trembling body, and he vows to never move his face from the sweat-slick curve of Rodney's throat again.
They set up the chicken coop in the back yard that weekend, just soon as John's sure the latch is strong enough and the run's secure. The chicks look less like chicks now and more like ugly little balls of scrawny hen-potential, and Finn helps spread pine shavings over the floor, fills the water and feed dishes, ducks into the run and helpfully kneels on the floor, flapping his arms and saying "bock, bock, bock," before giving it his seal of approval. They transfer Fruitcake and Baby Jesus one by one, introducing them to the water dish and letting them scrabble in the dirt before they shut the door tight. "Seven days," John reminds Finn.
Finn nods. "They stays inside an' after that they can eat lots of worms!" He grins at John, no doubt considering this the very pinnacle of existence for any creature on earth.
"Lots of worms," John agrees, standing up and heaving the sack of pine shavings with him. He can hear the telephone ringing inside the house. "You want to try some?"
Finn giggles happily. "Nooooo. Worms are for chickens."
"'Cept gummy worms."
"You don't think they'd like those?"
"No, gummy worms are for Finns!"
"And Baffas." John pushes open the barn door, sets the pine shavings inside.
"Maaaaaybe," Finn concedes, picking up a stick and whacking it against the wood pile. "If you's good!"
John laughs, amused. "I'm always good!"
"Daddy says you a nut."
"Well. Sure." John closes the barn up again. "But I'm a good nut." He bends and scoops Finn up by the waist, burrows under his shirt and blows a raspberry on his belly.
Finn screams with delight. "BAFFA, BAFFA, NOOOOOOO!"
John ignores him completely, making him writhe and squirm with laughter as he carries him back toward the house, looking up when he hears the screen door slam. Rodney's standing on the porch, face lit up as though he's heard a message direct from Einstein, singling out Rodney as his chosen son.
"They had a boy!" he calls.
"Jeannie?" John yells back.
"Robert Meredith Miller!" Rodney grins. "Robbie for short!"
John turns Finn over in his arms. "You hear that, puddlejumper? You've got a new cousin." He sets Finn down, who looks around, pretty confused.
"Where?" he asks.
"In Toronto," John laughs, grinning.
"Can we go see?" Finn asks, running ahead, bouncing up to Rodney. "Can we, Daddy, can we? I wanna see the cousin!"
Rodney looks over to John, who shrugs his acquiescence. "Test run?" John suggests. "See if we're really up to doing it again?"
Rodney hums, thinking it over. "It'll take me a couple of days to get things in order at the lab, and – "
"COUSIN, COUSIN, COUSIN," Finn yells, jumping up one step and then another before hopping back down on Rodney's other side.
John nods his agreement, thinking of the rocking chair he wants to finish. "So it takes a couple of days," he says.
"They could probably use the help."
"Not sure how much help we are bringing another kid into the mix."
Rodney grins. "But it'd be fun."
"And it's family," John puts in.
Rodney beams at him as Finn starts hopping on one leg, chanting cou-sin, cou-sin, cou-sin as he goes. "Yeah," he agrees, and John steps closer, flicks at the lobe of his ear, laughs at Rodney's expression, and kisses him just because he can.