When someone hands John a tiny, red-faced old man, bundled in what he thinks might be a dishtowel, his brain does something complicated and goes suddenly offline. He's pretty sure they came for a baby, he and Rodney – that Sunshine's been trying to give them a baby for several rounded months and eight-and-a-half sweaty, painful hours – but this is an old man he's holding; nineteen-or-so inches of tiny old man in a knitted cap, mouth working tremulously as if there might be a cry behind those lips. John would hand the old man back and protest that they came for a girl if not for two things – that he saw this child born mere minutes before, saw his very own flesh-and-blood slide into the world, and that he feels a bewildering force of love for this old-man-daughter that defies the limits of his ribs and heart to carry it. "Hey, um – Mere . . ." and wow, he really doesn't have a lot of breath stocked up to handle this, "You know. Meredith." She wrinkles her nose at him, and he thinks that makes her look less like an old man and more like him. Disturbing thought. "I'm uh – . . ."
He can't say it – he's run through with joy and fear and the dazed incomprehension he last felt when he fell out of the sky in a downed and listing chopper – and since he can't say it he just does what comes to mind instead: pulls her in, sets her into the crook of his arm and looks up into Rodney's brilliant, smiling face.
"She is amazing," Rodney says, jabbing a finger toward Sunshine even as a nurse is easing them out into the family waiting room beyond delivery. "She is amazing and her stats were incredible and Katie didn't get to ninety-every-three nearly so fast and, god, if there were Olympics she'd be in, and . . ."
John swallows and thinks about shrugging, but remembers the baby. "Uh – " He presses his lips together for the light, grounding pressure of the habit, tries to focus, closes his eyes, lets his words up before he tries to risk some speech, then, "Fuck, Jesus, McKay," and nods toward the daughter he's carrying. "She's like . . . really fucking small, all right?"
And Rodney does the damnedest thing – takes John's face between his hands and kisses him soundly, laughing all the while.
"So, uh." John shifts from foot to foot; the kitchen floorboards squeak in protest. "Buddy . . ."
"We're having a baby," Rodney says quickly.
Finn squints at them both, wiggling the toes of his dirty bare feet and sucking thoughtfully from his juice box. He looks from one to the other, steps forward, pokes Rodney in the belly, then does the same to John. "No, you're not," he says, as if that settles everything.
Sunday morning, almost afternoon, and John's hands are covered in a putrid green gunk that was once a jam sandwich, the remnants of which he found moments ago when he launched a search and rescue for Finn's two best toy cars – a model Lamborghini Gallardo (Hot Wheels, special edition) and a milk truck (circa 1976, purchased at a garage sale for the ten cents in pennies that Finn fished out of his shoes). With his cars returned, Finn runs outside, chases Burp through the corn stubble, making noises like he's a freight train retrofitted with turbo boosters, and then Fruitcake and Baby Jesus join in the bedlam, running around their pen and bock-bock-bocking with glee at every grub they unearth from the newly-thawed ground. John blinks at it all as he turns on the kitchen faucet, reaches for the industrial grade soap they keep on the windowsill, and scrubs at his hands. He can hear Rodney yelling in the garage, throwing epithets at no one in particular as he searches for god knows what, and when Finn tears past the chicken coop with the dog in tow, runs into the garage and starts dive bombing his father with a rescued milk truck, the decibel level of madness ratchets up another ten degrees. John reaches for a fork, uses a tine to scrape under his fingernails where the once-jam-sandwich is turning to Ebola before his very eyes, and glances toward the open kitchen door as Rodney stomps up the porch steps.
"Our son," Rodney says, stepping inside, a mysterious and visibly decrepit edition of Good Housekeeping in his hands, "is a heathen."
"Well – "
Rodney pauses and stares for a moment, says, "You have a zit on your nose." Then he wanders away, flipping through the magazine and humming Smells like Teen Spirit.
John stands quietly, fork tine still wedged beneath his nail. "Huh," he says, reaching to scratch his zitted nose, but thinks better of it while his hands are a breeding ground for dysentery or whatever it is the kids are bringing home from pre-school these days, so contents himself with a wry, contented smile.
"You can't blame the kid," John murmurs into his pillow, half-asleep and wishing Rodney's internal man-batteries would run down sometime this century. "He knows. 'Bout stuff."
"Yes, well, this is what comes of sharing crucial reproductive information with children who aren't yet old enough to process it critically, and for that I blame Laura Cadman, who right this moment is gestating in wild abandon and probably draping her lamps with silk scarves," Rodney hisses viciously.
It's too warm, and there's no breeze coming in through the open windows. "You're the one who told him penis," John yawns, rubbing his toes against the sheets.
"Whereas you'd prefer that he went around spreading falsehoods and lies about storks and cabbages and fairies, no doubt."
John cracks open one eye. "Fairies."
Rodney humphs and turns onto his side, wriggling a hand beneath his pillow. "This entire state is a cesspit of sweat and hog manure," he says petulantly. "It's clearly rotting my brain cells and destroying my ability to give proper attention to higher-order thinking."
John stares at him. "Though that was th'sex."
"That too," Rodney sighs. "Thighs. Death of me."
John considers the proper response to that for long enough that Rodney's eyes fall closed. Confused, John pats him absently on the hip and drifts off into a humid, sticky sleep.
"We have a problem, you know," Rodney says over dinner. He's chasing peas around his plate with a fork, and John idly wonders who came up with the idea of flatware.
"Prob-LEM," Finn offers helpfully.
John picks up a fish stick and eats it with his fingers. "We do?"
"Stop that," Rodney says, waving his fork. "He'll only grow up thinking it's okay to . . ." He glances at Finn, who has a fish stick hanging out of both corners of his mouth.
"Rarrrrr," Finn says, fish sticks wobbling.
Rodney reaches for his beer and takes a long, appreciative swallow.
Finn waggles his fingers. "RARRRR," he says before the fish sticks disappear into his mouth. "Arrrghnomnomnom."
"So, you were saying," John prompts.
"Saying?" Rodney stares at him for a moment, and John wipes his mouth with the back of his hand in case there's ketchup caught on his upper lip or in his stubble, but Rodney blinks and seems to shake himself out of his stupor. "We – " He shovels peas into his mouth and chews rapidly. "Laura's having a baby."
There's a moment of collective silence. "Duh," Finn says at last.
John smirks at Finn sympathetically
"Well, no, yes, I understand this isn't news," Rodney scoffs. "I'm just saying. Baby. Baby in – " He waves his hands. "Soon!"
"Decemb'r twelve!" Finn crows.
"Or thereabouts," Rodney offers. "Which means – "
"DECEMB'R TWELVE," Finn repeats mutinously.
"Yes, yes, that's the day the doctors think she'll . . ."
Finn looks at John.
"True," John says, licking his fingers clean. "Babies come when they want to."
Finn scowls and folds his arms. "Stupid."
"I . . . what?" John asks blankly.
"Stupid!" Finn says. "Babies are stupid and they don't come when they's supposed to and – " He gestures something that's either an impressionistic dance about whales or the size of his current annoyance with the world. "STUPIDS."
John glances at Rodney, who's already looking at him, eyes wide. "Uh oh," Rodney says without moving his lips, as if that magically means Finn can't hear him.
"STUPID," Finn says, hitting his fork on his plate, his glass of milk, the salt shaker, the table. "STUPID."
John reaches across the table and takes his fork. "Enough."
Finn sticks out his tongue.
John arches an eyebrow. Finn wrinkles his nose, and for a second looks so much like Rodney in a snit that John thinks he's going to ruin everything and burst out laughing. He controls himself. "Time out?"
"No," Finn says sullenly, and expertly flicks a pea right at John's head.
"Oh, excellent, just what we need," Rodney says, standing up and swooping in to catch Finn up in his arms, haul him into the living room where the Step Stool of Doom (™ Finn McKay) is sitting in the middle of the rug. "Three minutes!"
"HE SHOULD HAVE PEAS IN HIS HAIR!" Finn yells, unrepentant. "PEAS IN HIS HAIR AND HIS PANTS!"
"STUPID!" Finn yells and starts to wail with all his might and main, hands balled into tiny fists of fury as Rodney walks back into the kitchen and sets the timer on the microwave. They've learned much from Ada Gunderson, including the best off-label cures for intestinal upset and the proper way to curse at the mayor in Norwegian, but nothing of late compares to her recommendation that they microwave their son's tantrums to avoid raising a thankless little snot.
"Was this the problem?" John asks over Finn's plaintive cries.
Rodney swigs from his beer. "No." He winces as Finn coughs and splutters, then wails anew. "The problem is we have no day care in six weeks because Laura's having a child."
John blinks, trying to process the thought. Laura's been expanding exponentially for a while now, and yet the idea that she'd eventually need time off never occurred to him. He glances at his own lap and chalks up another one to his cock's amazing powers of ignorance. "Well, shit."
"I don't even know how we – " He pulls at his own beer. "We can't do it."
"Definitely not." Rodney glances at the microwave – 1 minute, 20 seconds to go. "We'd . . . die. Or. Something."
John nods solemnly. "Or just fail to show up to work, one or the other."
"And I can't – "
"I can't – "
"Neither of us – "
"So . . . " Rodney worries at the label on his beer bottle.
"We'll ask Laura," John decides, speaking with a certainty that seems to be coming from the soles of his boots. "She'll have ideas."
"Ideas." Rodney says the word slowly, as if it's a strange and marginally explosive thing.
"Yeah." John sets down his beer with a thump. "Yeah, she'll – "
"Right." The microwave beeps and Rodney heads back into the living room, where the wails have become half-hearted sniffles. John tilts his chair back onto two legs so he can watch Rodney crouch down in front of Finn, waiting for an apology.
"Sorry," Finn says, his voice wobbling.
"Yeah, I know," Rodney murmurs, and he picks Finn up, hugging him tight, kissing him right above the ear. "Come on. Ice cream for dessert."
"Yeah," Finn says, laying his head on Rodney's shoulder as they head back into the kitchen.
"You are a troglodyte, but very luckily, my big, best dork," Rodney says, kissing his hair, and that, John thinks, is the problem with kids – they're regular demons dressed in Target sweatshirts, but they love so fiercely it's all you can do not to shake apart with it when they offer up their heart in their hand.
It's a dark mood that sends John to the barn at the Brennemans, that has him roll out Martha, rev her engines and fling himself into the sky, into a roaring silence churned by propellers, up toward clouds still too far away to touch. He doesn't understand one half of what he's feeling – isn't given to understand much – but there's a gnawing loneliness behind his breastbone and a shivering rush of fear that comes over him now and again. He has no business indulging himself and his genes and his dumb, narrow want for another kid; no business messing things up; no business with a bigger family than the one he's somehow managed not to fuck up so far; no business. None.
This is his business, achingly familiar, this sweep of wings and dip of air, this vibration of instrument and shiver of dial as he turns and climbs, spins and soars. Below him are fields turned gold with drying corn, some already harvested, more still standing beneath the weak September sun, and the roads that twist and stretch to the horizon are a map of possibility – a hundred exits, maybe a dozen routes back home.
He can still feel the itch of Afghanistan beneath his skin, the grip of memory that woke him that morning, and with loss ground into his scars he remembers too clearly the drop of his stomach, the sight of blood and the men he couldn't save, all his loyalty a door-to-door insurance package, sold by a con-man, nothing to claim. And he heard his mother in his sleep, a voice he misses yet, a warm, giving laughter that colored his twelfth year and left the rest to unfold without that sound – and he grits his teeth at the physical pain of carrying shattered grief around with him still.
They shot down his chopper weeks before Mitch and Dex, had him fight like hell with skin and bone and every shred of blasphemy he had to steady his bird, set her down in a maelstrom of dust. He didn't lose a man, busted his own arm and knocked himself out, came to with Jameson hovering like some great, useless angel, fumbling with a field dressing and telling him to wake the fuck up because the tea-party was canceled and consciousness was pretty damn necessary in a fire-fight. But he still doesn't remember how they got out of there, just that Dex brought him Zane Grey novels as he tried to reacquaint himself with his brains, and Mitch told him every off-color joke in his repertoire until he laughed out of self-preservation, Jesus, make it stop.
He doesn't remember much, but he remembers flying, bullets be damned; he remembers that with his hand at the stick he had a chance, an armor, a defense he'd lost once, that he'd lose again. Martha's different, his grandfather's wings, and they handle with a grace that belies the history of each rivet. But it's still flying, still his escape, and here he's hardly weightless, but his nightmares aren't quite as strong this high.
They hear the heartbeat next morning in a doctor's office that's bright with fluorescent light. Sunshine's still flat-bellied and she laughs at their fish-mouth wonder, pats John's arm and pulls her shirt down over the incomprehensible feat of her pregnancy, covering up The Blob with a faded picture of Dylan that someone's made neon. And there, in a nondescript examination room, Rodney's fingers curled around his elbow, John staggers back a step, catches himself, feels the swish-swish-swish of life burrow down into his being, and he knows with a drowning man's certainty that he might lose all of this, but he'll love it like breathing right now, like mornings tangled bodily with a man he often barely knows, like Finn grinning manically over his bowl of cereal, and he looks at Rodney and his eyes are wet. "Coffee," Rodney says, and his eyes are wet too, and John says "Sure" because what else do you say when you're flat beneath the weight of something you never saw coming but realize it's woven into the marrow of your bones?
"Do you have your poem?" Rodney asks.
Ronon stares at him without expression. "Seriously?"
Rodney waves a hand. "I know about you artist types, temperamental and agonizing over wheelbarrows while you're high and . . ."
Ronon looks at John.
"I got nothing," John offers.
"Poem's here," Ronon says, pointing at his head, and he wanders off, leaving Rodney flustered and babbling beside an enormous pile of presents wrapped in every loathsome pastel shade of wrapping paper John's ever seen. Baby showers are apparently serious business, with a baby shower for Laura Cadman coming in at the seriously serious end of the spectrum. It's beyond serious and clean into bugfucking nuts that Rodney's the one throwing the shower, but at least John pulled him off the internet before he could settle, for sure, on replicating every dumbass shower game the world has ever unleashed on pregnant women and their kin, and no one's tasting baby food for kicks later in the afternoon.
"No one should work with poets," Rodney mutters darkly and pulls on his beer. "Do you think we have enough food?"
John glances at the wall-to-wall jam of well-wishers mingling in their living room, plates weighed down with Ada's deviled eggs and Mrs. Brenneman's pasta salad. He contributed seven bags of Cheetos. "Plenty." He catches Laura's eye and raises his beer in salute – she grimaces and waves a cup of lemonade, yells, "When do I get presents?"
"Honestly," Rodney sighs, but he puts down his beer and grabs two likely-looking parcels. "I mean, really, is this – can you, seriously, just . . ."
John squeezes his shoulder. "Man up, buddy." He gives Rodney his best fake smile and resolves that no one is allowed to throw them a shower, not unless it involves an afternoon marathon of video games and a gift card to Lowes. "Couple more hours."
"Hmmmph," Rodney manages, and wades into the mixed-sex sea of people gathered around Laura and thrusts a package wrapped in duck-motif print at a thoroughly bewildered Brad.
They don't do it on the day the court announces its ruling, shifting the legal landscape just enough. A week goes by and the newspapers fill with photos, with front-page stories of new-wed bliss, and John finds himself reading the announcements in the classifieds, ready to pretend he's looking for a car if anybody asks. Two weeks, three, and it's legal for a month. Brad stops asking when they're going to get it over with, and Rodney says the secretaries have finally stopped checking out his hand. Jeannie sends them a toaster, with nothing on the shipping label but "!???" – and life goes on as it did before, in shades of green and fall-crisp brown, with cheerios falling down the back of the couch, the truck acting cranky on rain-sodden mornings, and Finn digging a hole by the garage and insisting he's going to check on "all the lavas" before he has lunch.
It's old news, months past, by the time Rodney takes the morning off work, and if Laura wonders why they call to say Finn's not coming by after pre-school, she doesn't say. John picks out the shirt (pale blue) that Rodney's always liked, wears a pair of jeans with fewer holes than most, slips his wallet into his pocket, considers shaving, then decides he won't. Finn picks his own outfit – his Spiderman t-shirt is even clean – and takes along Dinosaur and a baseball that's covered in dirt. Rodney wears khakis, and his shirt is gray, then white, then, eventually, blue, and when John points out they kinda match, he turns pink around the ears and says, "well, that's supposed to be the point," and "they're not the same shade! Tonal, not matching!" and "Oh, god, should I change? Should I? Do you think – " and John fills up with a fondness he can barely stand, so he kisses him quiet and offers to drive while Rodney's still blinking and confused.
(Fuck you, dad, John thinks with satisfaction to the rhythm of the pavement beneath the car's wheels. Fuck you, fuck you, and oh yeah, fuck you.)
They pick up Ada; Ronon meets them at the courthouse. The license is creased from living in John's back pocket, but it doesn't seem to matter, and they've waited the full three days. Finn stands between them both, stares up at the judge with wide, solemn eyes, and when John has to say the words, his voice starts to shake, and he shuffles his feet, laughs at the way Rodney's grinning at him, says, "okay, okay," when Finn tugs at his jeans. Rodney says his part with gusto, as if he's memorized lines, as if he's been practicing at home, but when John slips the ring on his finger, he goes suddenly pale. "Fuck me," he says, almost reverently, and Ada smacks his arm; Finn jumps up and down – "Dollar! Finn dollar!" – while the judge attempts to stifle her laughter by turning it into a cough.
They muddle through, get a ring on John's finger to match the one Rodney's already begun to twirl with his thumb, and John thinks for a second he's going to lose his mind – whoop, or shout, or have his legs give out from under him, because it shouldn't make a difference, doesn't really change a thing, except it does, it has, it's legal now, and what a judge and a court and two witnesses and a son have joined together, no one gets to break apart. It makes his chest tight to think about it, makes his eyes burn and his throat close up, and when the judge says they can kiss now if they want to, he trusts that Rodney can take that in hand, because he barely knows how to goddamn breathe, thank you very much.
And Rodney does – Rodney kisses him, chapped lips, a hint of stubble, scent of soap and god, so warm. It snaps John out of wonder into something a good bit more wild, and he pulls Rodney closer, makes the kiss really count, makes it into a kiss that could light up the city if they only had power cords and cables and other useful junk. Rodney shivers; Ronon whistles hard; Ada applauds; Finn jumps on John's feet. It's pretty damn perfect, even if John says so himself.
There isn't a photographer, but Ada snaps some pictures, and Ronon says he'll write a poem about it, which is more than immortal enough for John. There isn't cake, or a reception to speak of, and John's pretty thankful that there'll never be a first dance, but they pile over to the diner, order eggs and sausage and pancakes and toast, and Ada gives them gift-wrapped lube as a wedding present, which makes Rodney turn purple and gives Ronon a chance to steal the bacon right off his plate. The waitress brings them congratulatory muffins; Mr. Jemison grumbles, "about goddamn time," when he hears the news; Ada makes her excuses and picks up the check and Ronon grabs Finn, stuffs him under one arm, a wriggling, shrieking, human football, says "I'll have him back by dinner," and suddenly, he's gone.
John's ring is heavy – a wide silver band – and he finds himself staring at it when he only meant to reach for his coffee.
"I," says Rodney, "would very much like to go home now." Rodney's wearing a ring too – a heavy silver ring, fourth finger, left hand, and wow, that's – wow.
"Home," John says, and he manages to look up from both their hands, to glance at the way Rodney's smiling at him, to swallow awkwardly and feel about sixteen. "Yeah, I could do that."
"You could do that, huh?" Rodney says; he seems amused.
"Yeah," John says. "I could." He shifts against the vinyl-covered bench. "What? You wanna make something of it?"
"Plenty," Rodney suggests.
They get home without saying much else, and John can't help but think of another drive, a concert risked and Rodney quiet, a first kiss against the truck's warm hood, fevered and thankful beneath an audience of stars. John feels it seize him all over again, that painful, May thud of his heart's recognition, and he kisses Rodney as they climb the porch steps, as they fumble with the kitchen door, as they twist toward the stairs. "Need this," John mumbles, words skipping out of him, warmed by his breath, and they fall onto the bed, still fully clothed.
"Yes, god," Rodney whispers, fingers busy with John's shirt. "Would you – god, you're so slow," and he's laughing, fumbling, and they bare just enough to let their bodies slide and arc, and when they come it's almost silently, clasping one another, shaking with something so urgent that they still have their boots on, couldn't take off their pants, might never extricate themselves from the tangle of their shirts. "I," Rodney whispers, forehead pressed to John's, "think I might like you. Just a fraction."
John rubs his nose against the curve of Rodney's neck. "Me too," he says. "Some. You know." And he rests his hand against Rodney's jaw, thumbs his cheekbone, closes his eyes. "Lots, actually."
Rodney kisses him. "Husband," he says, sounding suddenly young.
John hums. "Life," he whispers, and burrows close as Rodney pulls him in.
"A girl?" Rodney says, and he sounds suspiciously strangled. "There's a girl in there?" He points in the general direction of Sunshine's rounded belly, but not directly at lest he offend their kid, John thinks hysterically, imagining their baby – daughter – appearing in the world to lecture them on manners.
"Definitely a girl," says the OB-GYN, and she has a name, Doctor Someone, but John can't remember it – she's Doctor Baby Finder right now and she's pointing at the screen, the fuzzy gray shapes that allegedly show girldom.
"I don't see it," Rodney whispers.
"Me either," murmurs John.
Sunshine smacks her hand against her forehead – John doesn't think she was quite this dramatic before she met them, but he can't blame her an inch. "Look," she says, leaning up on one elbow and gesturing toward the monitor. "Butt, back, shoulders, head."
John squints as if it's a 3-D puzzle and he just has to figure out the trick of making his eyes relax, but Rodney seems to get it faster if his sharply drawn-in breath is anything to go by.
"I need to talk to my – him," he says, jerking a thumb at John and pulling him out of the exam room, dragging him bodily down the hall and into the men's room, where he checks there's no one lurking in a stall.
John waits for an explanation. "Hi," he asks at last.
"It's an alien," Rodney hisses.
John's not really sure what to say to that.
"Believe me, I have seen aliens, and while you may not have actually seen aliens you know aliens exist, you've been through the – " and he makes a whooshing sound while he draws a circle with his hands, which is apparently bad code for walking through a stargate. "And I am telling you, that thing with the gray and the pixels is an alien. We are HAVING AN ALIEN."
John tries to say something – his jaw works fine, but no words are coming out.
"I have no idea how a symbiote would get in there, or how we didn't notice before, but, oh god, oh god, we have to call – I'll call Sam!" he says, holding a finger aloft. "Yes, yes, excellent idea . . . except no, no, I – oh, she'll laugh and laugh and . . ."
John clears his throat. "I don't think – if . . ." He scrubs at his eyes as a cover for rapid thinking. "One, she wouldn't laugh. Two . . ." He drops his hands. "It's not an alien!"
Rodney's lips thin into a stubborn line. "Oh, because you've seen so many aliens inside people's bodies."
John resists the urge to dope-slap him. "I've seen pictures of ultrasounds before."
"Of fetuses! Babies! Things."
"Oh, please. When have you seen ultrasounds of fetuses!"
"I dunno . . ." John says, exasperated. "Dateline, TLC, PBS, whatever, how the hell would I know where I saw it?"
"HA!" says Rodney.
"No!" John says back. "No ha!"
"If I'm right – "
"You are not right!" John shouts back. "You are out of your mind! And – " He pulls in a breath, steadies himself. "You are fucking terrified."
Rodney tilts his chin.
"Just. Like. Me," John says with determination.
Rodney straightens his shoulders.
"It could be an alien."
"It could be an alien. Don't play probability with me, Mister I Flew Planes So I Think I Know Math. The statistical chances of . . ."
John sighs. "Okay." He holds up a hand. "Tiny chance it could be an alien."
Rodney nods once. "That's what I'm saying."
John scratches an itch on the crown of his head. "Right." He stares at a urinal for longer than anyone probably should. "Okay, so . . . right." He grabs Rodney's hand and pulls him toward the door. "We're done here."
"I just don't want anyone taken over by a . . ."
"Don't say it," John hisses as they walk through the waiting area back to exam room 6.
Rodney blows out a breath and pokes him in the shoulder. "You'd thank me. If I were right. You'd thank me and be glad I know enough to know when to protect us, and Sunshine, from the incursions of a . . ."
John kisses him soundly, swiftly on the lips. "We're done." He pushes open the exam room door and shoves Rodney inside.
"Can we get a print of those?" Rodney asks, waving a hand at the monitor, and John thinks Carter's no match for this, resolves to call Jeannie the first chance he gets.
"Girl, then," says Mr. Brenneman, pushing a thick, earthenware mug of coffee across the kitchen table toward John.
"Girl," John agrees, and sips from his cup. The brew's so strong he's probably growing brand new hair as he drinks, but so long as it doesn't grow on his back he doesn't care, it's cold enough he can see the virtue in a pelt.
"Raised three girls," says Jim, nodding comfortably. "Boys too."
"We are so screwed," John offers in a burst of honesty. "What the hell do we know about . . ."
Jim slurps from his mug, one eyebrow raised. "I hope you're not saying what I think you're saying."
John glances around as if the dishes in the drainer can translate. "Huh?"
"You're not suggesting a girl needs some special raising a boy doesn't, right?"
John guiltily swallows coffee for want of a reply.
"Last time I checked it wasn't 1924," Jim says mildly. "And your grandmother would have words on the subject. By hell, she'd have words."
"Hey, now," John protests. "We're – " He makes a heroic attempt to gather his wits, scattered by a conversational turn he wasn't expecting. He thought he'd get sympathy; thought he'd get advice – he's been stewing about this since they found out they had a daughter on the way, and here's Jim Brenneman trying to tell him it's for nothing. "She's gonna – I mean. You know. Later on. There'll be. Stuff."
Jim laughs at him, flat-out laughs at him, wheezes and slaps the table with his hand. "Weak," he offers, snorting into his cup.
John smarts at the idea. "So you're saying we raise her the same as Finn." He can hear the sarcasm in his own voice, wishes he couldn't.
"Hardly," Jim says, standing up to shuffle to the coffee pot, warming his cup. "'Less you're breeding clones? That how you did it?"
"John Sheppard, so help me, you're muddling with a notion of family, not following some procedure for landing that plane of yours," Jim says, emphasizing words with jabs of his mug. "Not a one's the same as the next one, and for all you know this one will want you to dress up and talk about dolls on a Sunday, but that doesn't mean squat. You love her square and she'll be fine." Jim raises an eyebrow. "Despite you being her father."
John feels a sweep of cold run down his spine and he looks at the floor near his boots, needs a second before he can look up, a studied neutrality pasted on his face.
Jim's watching him, sympathy in his expression, and he shuffles back to the table, sits down and taps the work surface with a finger swollen with age. "He was wrong about you. Always was. And you listening to that voice is about the dumbest thing I ever knew a person to do." He nods firmly. "Your father was about as bad at raising a kid as a person can be, and you seem to have found your way all the same. Any kid you have's has an advantage you didn't, has parents who seem to get along fine, fight some, but who doesn't?" He doesn't let his gaze waver. "Quit this pity, stop carrying what you can put down. Him and all the rest – those boys over there, they need their peace too."
John lifts his mug and drinks from it deeply, savors the taste of it, the earth-ripe warmth. "Woke up wordy today, huh?" he manages.
Jim cackles, a short, sharp burst of sound. "Smartass," he says, and they sit in companionable silence for a good long while.
They fight about whether to go to the hospital when Laura gives birth – whether to visit while Aiden's still hours old, or whether to wait, to give them all time, to let their friends settle back into their house and find their rhythm before they bombard them with gifts and chatter and germs. John argues they should wait, Rodney argues they should go, Finn argues they're big stupid meanies, and John changes his mind. Rodney follows suit and Finn decides they hate him and life and Laura and presents ". . . and probably freedom," John mutters to himself.
Finn's will is strongest, and John finds himself in Laura's hospital room a couple of hours after Brad's incoherent phone call, feeling a lot like he's entering some no-man's land where he really ought to have a gun. Everything smells faintly of disinfectant, and Laura looks luminous and exhausted and like she could break someone's spine. She polishes off the cheeseburger they brought as if she hasn't eaten in hours, and when Rodney observes as much they're treated to a treatise on exactly what happens to a woman's body during labor. John winces and gets very, very quiet, content to let Finn babble about Christmas and his birthday and how the lack of snow is making him cranky and mad.
Finn's fascinated by Aiden, pokes him quite a bit, but always gently, and he mimics the baby's expressions to Brad's prosaic glee. "When's he getting bigger?" Finn asks John at last, and "Will our baby look like this?" and, "Is he always gonna be red?" and, "What if he doesn't like his hat?" – all questions to which John has no good answers, so he suggests Finn sing a song to Aiden very, very quietly, and tries not to swell with pride when Finn busts out with 'Ring of Fire.'
Rodney sleeps close that night, pressed right up against John's back, and John lies awake, Rodney's hand against his chest, emptying his mind as best he can of everything but the pressure of Rodney's fingertips against his stretched-tight skin.
"Why are you changing the oil when it's forty degrees?" asks Rodney, peering under the truck where John's lying on his back.
"Needs doing," John says.
"Right this second?" Rodney asks. "Right this very second?"
"Good as any," John observes, cleaning up the drain plug with a rag.
Rodney mutters something indistinguishable, and next thing he's lying on the garage floor, head propped up on one hand, apparently settling in for the long haul. "You are not a bad father," he says.
John jerks so hard he almost smacks into the underside of the engine and swears as though he did just that, mostly for effect. "Jesus."
"Please," Rodney huffs.
John screws the drain cap back in place and reaches for his wrench moments after Rodney's snatched it out from under the truck. "Hey!"
"We are talking about this."
"While I'm under the truck?"
"Since it seems it's the only way I can pin you down – wipe that smirk off your face – yes, yes, while you are under a truck." Rodney clasps the wrench with his free hand. "You've been brooding for months, and no matter how many people tell you you'll do fine, you insist on believing otherwise. You have a son! You have not fucked him up! If he is fucked up we have undertaken to bring that about on a pure, unadulterated, fifty-fifty split, and I resent the idea that you are worse at this than I am!"
"You," Rodney says, pointing with the wrench, "enjoy things involving dirt and obnoxious music and large engines and pretty much anything the powers that be see fit to air on HGTV – do not interrupt me!"
John closes his mouth and doesn't protest that his fondness for design shows is purely academic, mostly since he thinks Rodney will call him a lying son-of-a-bitch.
"These are all – well, save for anything involving the artistic deployment of lemons as design statements – good things to offer our child and areas in which I have no expertise. I may be able to teach him to blow up the world before he's nine, but I cannot select the appropriate soundtrack for that event, and so, please, please, enough." He looks suddenly deflated. "Why the hell do you insist on . . . " He lets the wrench go and rolls onto his back.
"I thought maybe you thought it too," John mumbles, stealing the wrench while he can.
"Well, that's just stupid," Rodney shoots back. "And I am owed a serious portion of time in which to freak out, because you have hogged almost all the available slots so far, and we are four weeks from the due date, and I need to lose my mind if that's not too much of a bother."
John tightens the drain plug and stares at the undercarriage of the truck. "Wanna get married?" he asks.
"Sure," Rodney says. "Finn stole your oil filter to make a kite."
"Okay," John offers, and wonders if the spark plugs need changing, rather than trying to name the sore, unsteady warmth that's spreading in his chest.
"Here, like this," says John, helping Finn set the straps of a bright red, Speed Racer backpack on his shoulders. "Like it?"
Finn twirls in place, and almost takes out two other Target shoppers, comes to a halt and tilts his head thoughtfully. "Will all my stuff fit?"
"Sure," John says, crouching to mess with the buckles. "Books and . . ." He wonders what else a kid takes to pre-school. "Markers."
"Glitter," says Finn, looking sly.
John raises one eyebrow and hopes he looks suitably parental. "Glitter?"
"Glitter is fun," Finn tells him, his expression growing more mischievous by the second.
"Do you want to tell me what you did with glitter?" John asks warily.
"Nope!" Finn twirls again, and almost smacks John in the face. "I like this one. We get this one. And some markers and some crayons and some pencils and some glue and maybe a basketball."
"Basketball, huh?" John stands up and brushes his hands on his jeans. "It's pretty snowy for basketball."
"Well, duh," says Finn, offering John his hand to hold as they wander out of the backpack aisle and off toward sports. "But snowmen like throwings too."
"I did not know that," John says solemnly.
Finn sighs. "Is lots of stuff you don't know. You're too big," he confides, and runs ahead to a display of discounted baseball bats. "I need THIS!" he crows, "need it REALLY BAD, Baffa!"
And John channels his mother, says, "We'll have to see what Santa can bring," and manages, by dint of setting Finn on his shoulders, to exit Target without injury, arson, or larceny taking place, and with most of his bank account mercifully intact.
Rodney fetches Merrie when she cries at 3am, brings her back to bed with a bottle and a beach towel that could serve as a burp cloth for passing giants. "She's hungry," he yawns at John, settling in among their piled-up bed pillows – and while John shouldn't need the information, he's right in the middle of Operation Sleep Deprivation, Week Three, and he barely knows his own name, much less why his daughter insists on bawling in the middle of the night.
They had an idea, based on some wild combination of logic and amnesia about what it was like when Finn was small, that one of them would sleep while the other one checked on Merrie's needs, but neither of them's any good at sleeping through her tears, and John watches her root at her bottle, her fists waving happily in the air, and he wonders how she's almost outgrown her newborn pajamas already, and if they're out of peanut butter, and who won the Cubs game he watched before bed.
"Is Merrie bein' dumb?" Finn asks, hovering at their bedroom doorway, rubbing one eye with the back of his hand. John pats the bed, helps Finn climb up beside him, barely protests when Finn clambers over his body and sets himself down in the divot between his parents' knees.
"Not dumb," Rodney manages around another yawn. "Hungry's not dumb."
Finn leans in and watches her eat – her eyes track right toward him, and she reaches for his face, kicking her legs. "She should go to sleep," he offers definitively, sitting back on his heels and rubbing Elephant's ear between his fingers. "It's sleeping time now."
"Under," John says, holding up the duvet, and Finn squeaks appreciatively, wriggles beneath and gnaws happily on elephant's head. "Sleeping time," John repeats, patting Finn's legs from above the covers, and he looks across at Rodney, who's mostly asleep and looking back through slitted eyes. "Hot stuff," John whispers, and snorts at his own hilarity.
"Mmmhmmm," says Rodney, grinning and vacant, and when Merrie pushes the bottle away from her mouth, belching like a trucker, he noses at her head and snickers like he's drunk. John's practically comatose and definitely hungry and probably he's just clean out of his mind, but it feels like truth when Rodney tells her, "You're just like your Baffa," and he sleepily adds, "That's our girl."
The farmhouse is dense with sleep, surrounded by a quiet woven from the low hum of crickets, the timpani of moths against the window-screen. John cries, and his mother's there before he's time enough to work up steam – she's sleepless as it is, and the rocking chair by the window's a better place to pass the time than the bed she's sleeping in alone.
Baby at her breast, she looks across the fields, picks out the tip of Orion's sword and the star-studded reach of his belt. There's peace here, looking skyward; peace in this house beside a back-road field; peace in the scent of earth and the rumbling snore of her parents down the hall. She tips her head back against the rocker, hums as John nurses, casts a net of future dreams off into the night.
John shifts, a sleepy weight in the crook of her arm, and lets loose a belch that startles her into laughter. "That's my boy," she smiles, and half-swears he smiles an understanding in return.