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"O'Neill's crazy. They made a mistake. That kid doesn't even look like me."

This statement is so outrageous that Rodney's jaw actually drops. Because the sixteen-year-old girl on camera, currently screaming obscenities at the top of her lungs for them to let her go and punctuating her demands by smashing her skateboard against the walls, is basically a clone. Rodney now knows what John looked like at sixteen. Although he doubts that John's hair was pink, had a ring in his nose, another through his bottom lip, or tats lined up on both arms. Weren't there underage laws against that sort of thing?

"By all means, let's ignore those DNA tests that have confirmed--irrefutably, I might add--that this is your child. And if we accept the entire field of genetics as nothing more than hooey--Carson Beckett reduced to a clown with a microscope--as bonus stupidity, so many people have the weird pointy ears, hazel eyes, and black hair combo. Of course, I'm just guessing that--based on the color of her eyebrows--and, oh look. They're the same shape as yours."

"Not my kid, Rodney." John insists but doesn't look at Rodney when he says this, keeping his eyes on the screen as Johnny Clark swings the skateboard in a particularly vicious arc and steps back in satisfaction as a chair disintegrates into pieces.

It's not like there isn't a secret pact among the team whereby they all tacitly accept that John Sheppard is an emotional fucktard and that Rodney McKay is a verbally abusive megalomaniac, but this is beyond the pale. God, they need Teyla, because this is her forte, forcing John to acknowledge unpleasant truths with just a few pointed comments. However, she's on some sort of training junket at Quantico, teaching their CIA counterparts on how to negotiate with the un-negotiable; which is why Ronon is there. Because when you can't negotiate with people, then you have to kill them really fast and Ronon's an expert on that.

Rodney's about to let loose, just let John have it, when the girl stops, as if defeated, her shoulders slumped forward. Then she straightens up, and with an identical determined expression Rodney has seen on John's face a million times, right before he's about to pull the trigger, she turns toward the door and stares.

It opens.

She races out, and John and Rodney can hear Lorne's voice ordering her to halt.

Rodney turns to John and says, "You were saying."

"Fuck," John mutters and begins running down the hallway.

******************************

"Gentlemen, I believe we have a situation."

No one answers. The person who should be answering-- John--is staring at the table and not responding. Jennifer had said that his nose wasn't that bad, just sort of battered and mushed as opposed to out-and-out broken. Per the usual, John had refused pain meds, and based on the green tinge around the edges of his mouth, he is currently in agony.

"Will you just stick a goddamn hypo in him?" Rodney whispers to Jennifer, who gives him an exasperated look, like he's asking her to repudiate her Hippocratic Oath or something. Rodney fishes for the bottle of Motrin he keeps in his pocket at all times, gives the bottle a shove, and it skitters across the table and hits one of John's hands. He looks up.

"Take four or I will club you to death with my chair."

It's a measure of exactly how dire this situation is that Rodney's demand doesn't elicit either a sarcastic remark or a stoic refusal. John uncaps the bottle, dry swallows four, shoves it back across the table at Rodney, and goes back to staring at the table.

They had trapped her near the mess. When John had turned the corner, Johnny was gripping her skateboard like it was a bat, keeping everyone at bay. When daughter and father finally had come face to face, there had been a definitely a cartoonish, Hanna Barbara element to it as they stared at each other, shocked. All of them had been slack-jawed, frankly, because the genetics were so overwhelming. The only thing that Johnny seems to have bogarted from her mother's side was a southern twang, which she used to great effect when she had dropped her skateboard, marched over to John, and had smashed John's face with a righteous haymaker, screaming, "You son of a bitch" (which came out "bee itch"). John hadn't moved, just stood there as his daughter pummeled him. Fortunately, Lorne had been on his game and had pulled her off of John. Without the board as a weapon, the kid knew she was done, and all the fight went out of her.

"Get her some food, will you, Major?" was all John had said before walking off, not bothering to staunch the blood running down his face.

*****************************

Jennifer shoves a bunch of wadded cotton up John's nose, and then the senior staff convenes for an emergency meeting.

"Obviously her ATA gene is quite strong," Jennifer notes.

Rodney swallows back a sarcastic, "You think?"

Now that they've returned to Earth and his days no longer consist of marveling that he's alive to see another sunrise, Rodney is trying valiantly to keep the cynicism and scorn to a minimum. They haven't been a couple very long--only four months--but sparks are still flying between them, and Rodney is hoping that this might be serious, as in "marriage" serious. Pegasus changed him, humbled him, and in some ways enlightened him. He now sees that his relationship and near engagement with Katie was nothing more than a desperate attempt to connect with someone, anyone, before the Wraith sucked the life out of him. Initially, his attraction to Jennifer might have had similar roots--plus, hello, blonde--but here they are back on Earth, leading relatively normal lives, and their relationship seems to be weathering life's normal slings and arrows. As in, Rodney is slob and Jennifer is something of a clean freak, however, that seems to be the most pressing problem they have.

Their sex life is more than adequate. Rodney is a generous lover, mostly because it's more fun the more generous you are--a clear case of the ends justifying the means. Jennifer has a tendency to be a little shy in bed, which should be a turn-off, but actually stokes those testosterone fires because it makes him feel ridiculously manly. Rodney is normally the shy person, largely because geeks are automatically assumed to be lousy lays. As if sex isn't loaded with enough ego-deflating possibilities, even before fingering the button open on his pants he's got something to prove. That has never been an issue between the two of them--not even in the very beginning--and if that isn't a basis for laying the groundwork of a serious relationship, Rodney doesn't know what is. Although it works for him that she's bashful, it also is a reminder of that he's nearly forty and she's in her mid-twenties. Because as much as Rodney hates to admit it, the reason why she's shy is because she's young. Which he really doesn't want to think about too closely.

"Aside from her DNA work-up," Jennifer pauses to give John a smile, "all the rest of Johanna Clark's scans show her to be nothing more than your typical, healthy, sixteen-year-old girl. They found traces of marijuana in her system, but nothing more serious than that."

Although John still doesn't look up, the knotted muscles currently constituting his shoulder blades ease just a fraction. What no one says is that Johnny looks like a meth addict in training, what with the tats, numerous piercings, steampunk/goth outfit, and ripped clothing. While watching Johnny destroy that office, Rodney had computed that the ratio of holes to actual material was something like three to one.

"Colonel, I believe you have a brother who lives in..." Woolsey flips though a folder in front of him. "Chevy Chase and Connecticut, hmmm, and vacation homes in Hyannis Port and the Turks and Caicos. Seems like he would be in a position to give your daughter, Johanna, a home. Although I believe she goes by 'Johnny.' Is that correct, Colonel?" John gives a terse nod. "Would he mind taking her in?"

Unspoken between all of them is the knowledge that despite John being the eldest, when Sheppard Senior died, Dave Sheppard became CEO of Sheppard Industries. Although he had felt like total heel while doing it, after the shocking revelation that John had actually been married at some point, Rodney had conducted a full-blown, damn-your-firewalls search of John's background. Aside from the tony penthouse in an exclusive building in Chevy Chase, the estate in Greenwich (staffed with a chauffeur, chef, three full-time gardeners, and six maids), the summer house in Hyannis Port, and the beachfront enclave in the Caribbean (its perimeter guarded twenty-four seven by an armed security force), there's a dude ranch in Jackson Hole that Woolsey didn't mention. So, yes, Dave Sheppard is in a perfect position to "take her in," at least as far as basic upkeep is concerned. Rodney's not sure if this is a diabolical move on Woolsey's part to force John to participate in this discussion--because Rodney has learned to underestimate Richard Woolsey at his peril--or Woolsey is being dense. "Family" is the A-bomb word in Sheppard-ese. The shoulders seize up again and, although Rodney didn't think it humanly possible, John's hands clench even tighter.

"No."

"Colonel?"

"No. She's not going there. Not Connecticut or Maryland. Especially not Connecticut."

Every miserable second of John's childhood is encapsulated in that "no." Rodney knows squat about John's childhood, but Rodney would bet thirty of his I.Q. points that the fuel feeding John Sheppard's martyr complex begins and ends at that house. And it doesn't take a genius to connect the dots that John would rather leave Atlantis than subject a child to that environment, even a kid who uses a skateboard as a battering ram. Oh, bonus epiphany. John probably understands that rage.

Without thinking about it twice, Rodney says in his the-scientist-isn't-kidding voice, "Of course she isn't. Going anywhere, I mean. She stays here. She's a valuable asset. If you think I'm going to hand her over to Sam, you're crazy. The only person on this base who has a gene as pure as Colonel Light Bulb is his daughter. Given the Colonel's tendency toward insane self-sacrifice, it behooves us to have his daughter stay here. As a back-up light bulb."

John finally looks up and his expression can only be described as relief. Rodney's initial suspicion that John sees the arrival of his long-lost daughter as the end of his career on Atlantis is confirmed. Woolsey's face doesn't betray anything, but Jennifer begins frowning.

"We'll home school her, or home base her, I guess, so she finishes high school. Throw a few textbooks at her. If she has half the brains Colonel Daddy has," Rodney ignores the glare John levels at him, "she probably could take the GED tomorrow and ace it."

Woolsey normally channels extreme forbearance when dealing with Rodney, but a rare smile of approval twitching the corners of his mouth tells Rodney that Woolsey had connected the dots probably even before they'd entered the room. The panic that has begun to roil Rodney's stomach eases. The only way to stop John from resigning is to keep his daughter with him on Atlantis. Problem solved.

Then Jennifer sits forward and says in a sharp voice, "Rodney, this is not the proper place for a child."

She is a brilliant and thoughtful woman, and no doubt her arguments are valid and worth listening to. He has a second when he wonders if this might be a relationship breaker, but then decides to plow ahead anyway. This is John. Surely Jennifer will get on board with this.

"If we send her back, expect my resignation. They'll put her through God knows how many tests, essentially draining her of blood to ATA up the entire military." Rodney gives O'Neill metaphorical kudos in absentia, because saving a kid from the excesses of the American military by sequestering her on a classified military base is pure genius. "I don't care what age she is. I don't care about security clearances. She stays here. If you want cover, I'll write up a twenty-page memo on why Science Division needs her." Just to emphasize the point he adds, "I'll go to the mattresses on this," meaning that short of a nuclear winter, Rodney will do anything to get his way on this.

Woolsey makes a few notes on a pad of paper and then looks up, smiling.

"Excellent point about the ATA gene, Doctor. I don't see how General Landry can possibly justify her presence at Cheyenne versus her value to us here on Atlantis. Write up your request, heavy on the science," Woolsey lowers his glasses and gives Rodney a pointed glance, "and have it on my desk ASAP."

In general, Rodney fails at subtext, and being a bureaucrat, Woolsey is all about subtext, however, they clearly are on the same page here. The issue of providing room and board and home schooling his daughter to keep Colonel Sheppard on Atlantis will not be mentioned. Should it come down to some sort of dog fight, they have O'Neill's tacit support, plus Rodney has some favors owed that he's been hoarding for a rainy day. Now is the time to cash them in. All of them and then some. If worse comes to worse, he will beg Sam on his hands and knees to enlist her support. The very idea of John leaving Atlantis makes Rodney want to hurl.

"I'll have the request on your desk in the morning, Woolsey," says Rodney, ignoring Jennifer's frantic semaphore of "hold on a minute" with her eyebrows. "I'll send out an Atlantis-wide request for areas of expertise. Those linguists, chemists, and botanists can finally earn their pay. As that high school she attended in Texas probably wasn't anything more than a finishing school for creationists, I imagine we will have to start with her freshman year and work her like crazy."

Rodney has no faith in the American educational system, and on second thought, assuming that she has a freshman-equivalent level of education is far too generous. Fifth grade is probably more likely.

They wait for ten beats for John to say something and when he still remains mute, Woolsey stands up to signal the meeting is over. He and Jennifer file out the door, with Rodney ignoring the pointed looks that Jennifer is giving him to trail after her. Obviously, she is not happy, and while it's pretty rare when they fight, Rodney can tell by her expression that this one is going to be a humdinger. In three seconds it's just him and John at the table. The only discussion that really matters is:

"Okay?"

"Okay."

*****************************

Rodney plans on hiding in the lab for a couple of hours before the inevitable fight with Jennifer, but she outsmarts him and waylays him at the transporter. He tags along behind her as she moves at a clip toward his quarters, and if her body language is any indicator, she's righteously ticked off. The door swooshes closed behind him and before he can even blink, she starts talking. Given that Jennifer is a rational, mature person, she's not yelling or throwing things. Her comments sound as if she'd typed them beforehand and was now reading them off a page from their nice little metaphorical bullet points.

  • Atlantis is no place for a child. With the unknowns regarding Atlantis' technology, it is conceivable that with her gene the mere act of walking down a hallway could kill her. Or others.

Rodney can't dispute the power of the ATA gene, however, he can counter-argument the point about kids and Atlantis with the fact that Torren is now on Atlantis. Before he can open his mouth, she continues.

  • It is true that Torren lives on Atlantis, but Torren does not have the ATA gene, and he is watched twenty-four seven. Teyla herself acknowledges that this cannot be Torren's home long term. No one can or should watch a sixteen-year-old girl twenty-four seven.
  • This is a military base. As such it has a designated purpose, which is to prepare for war. There are no guarantees that at some point they won't be asked to fly back to Pegasus, and then there will be no place for Johanna Clark to go.
  • It is a wonderful thing that she has reconnected with his father--Rodney ignores the disapproving, pinched tone of Jennifer's voice--but the Colonel is not currently in a position to foment a belated relationship with this child. After the recent death of her mother, Johanna needs a stable environment where people are not on-call at any given moment. Where she won't be abandoned yet again.

She stops talking. All these things are true and compelling and he doesn't care.

"Jennifer, Colonel Sheppard is the only thing standing between sacrificing this child to an industrial military complex that views people as nothing more valuable than tissue paper."

She rolls her eyes. "Rodney, that is not true. Dave Sheppard can take this girl. There is no reason--"

Rodney loses it at this point and shouts, "Stop being so naïve, Jennifer. Do you think that the military is going to sit on their hands now that they know she has the gene? Say Johnny Clark is forced to leave this base and ends up in Connecticut. She's currently underage and John won't sign anything, but the second she turns eighteen they will promise her things and woo her and then use the holy fuck out of her, and nothing that I have heard about Dave Sheppard gives me any faith he will do jack shit to save this girl from herself. Have you seen those disclaimers they sign? She goes, John goes. And that's not happening. Do you hear me?"

She reels a little, as if Rodney has raised his hand to strike her. Then she gives him a look that he can't decipher and walks out of the room.

Rodney knows something big just happened, but he's absolutely clueless as to what. He emails botany and in return for a bouquet of flowers, he barters away three Godiva chocolate bars and a six-pack of Canadian beer that he's been saving for a dire occasion. The barter system has taken some serious blows now that they are back on Earth, however, Godiva chocolate remains viable currency. The beer happens to be a favorite of Parrish's, so Rodney's got it covered. He's not sure the flowers will help, but it's all he's got.

On his way to botany to pick up the flowers, he detours to the pier, just in case, and, yes, John is there. Rodney sits down and the ensuing six minutes of silence tells him that John is in emotional lockdown mode; Rodney is going to have to verbally sandblast him to get him to talk.

"So, I guess Dr. Phil would say we're past the denial part of the program. What's next?"

John still doesn't say anything, so Rodney pokes him in the ribs. Hard.

"Hey," John growls.

"Just checking to see if your vocal chords are working."

Rodney waits a couple of minutes and is about to poke him again when John says in a voice not much above a whisper.

"Thanks. Back there. I just can't, Rodney."

John is speaking in Sheppard, which means that Rodney has to infer ninety percent. Translation? That last sentence is an apology. Because John would break up the team for this kid, who clearly hates him. Although this seems ridiculously self-sacrificing even for John Sheppard--leaving your home, killing your career, and alienating your best friends--it's obvious that John will do anything rather than send his daughter to Connecticut.

"I know you can't. Once we get the okay from O'Neill--"

"If they say no, I'm leaving with her and going underground."

Which Rodney knows he will do. Because John is the military, and he knows better than anyone that his daughter is now an asset.

"It won't come to that. My report will make sure. Plus, O'Neill's on our side. I'll put together a curriculum. We'll run her so ragged she won't have time to hate you. Science Division will have her from eight to noon. I suppose we'll have to feed her. We'll give her an hour for lunch. Then you and Lorne can torture her from one to five. Boot camp a la Atlantis. Sticks with Teyla, an afternoon or three a week with Ronon, work-outs with Cadman and her crew, and we'll exhaust all the fight out of her."

The force-field of tension around John eases a fraction and he says in a normal voice, "Yeah, that might work."

The only reason why they are experiencing a crisis of such epic proportions is because some kid, who qualifies as perfect cannon fodder, had marched into a Marine recruiting office two weeks earlier. She had lied about her age, but obviously smart and articulate, they had looked the other way. In addition, she also had lied about being an emancipated minor, which isn't so much a lie, because her mother had died three weeks earlier and she didn't have any other family. There's the subtext that this kid doesn't have any place to go and the military is a last resort, but no one voices that. She's got twenty-fifteen vision, her agility and visual spatial stats are off the charts, her I.Q. hovers around 150, and she only has trace amounts of marijuana in her system. Plus the ATA gene. Pretty much before you can say what the fuck, they have her on a transport to Cheyenne. Naturally, her file lands on O'Neill's desk. Who takes one look at this kid's photo and without preamble ships her to Atlantis before anyone else can get their hands on her. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, even in the U.S. military, apparently.

"You know, I don't--Christ, this makes me sound like such a jerk--but I don't remember. Her. The mother. Just got out of officer training and feeling like I was hot shit. During a two-week stint at Goodfellow I boozed it up pretty hard every night, hitting honky-tonks trying to get laid. Guess I was so drunk I forgot to glove up. Fuck."

Rodney could so see this. John ambling into bars with a cocky swagger that Afghanistan would wring out of him. At twenty-four John Sheppard would have been something. Under the sad impression that his shitty childhood was nothing more than a memory, he would be exactly the type of arrogant, conceited flyboy that Rodney had run into over the years and had hated with a passion. With his looks, physical grace, and charm, John would score pretty much every night, fucking his way through the Texas panhandle before being shipped out to God knows where.

Rodney didn't know what to say to that. By twenty-four he'd just finished up Ph.D. number two and hadn't been laid in two years.

"She's not leaving; therefore, you're not leaving. I'm going to write up my report. Where are they housing her?" Rodney heaves himself up.

"The Wraith cell."

Rodney groans while offering John a hand up.

"I know, but do you have a better idea?" John asks and runs a tired hand through his hair before grasping Rodney's hand. "It's the only place that she can't open. I put a cot in there so at least she won't have to sleep on the floor. We'll talk with her in the morning. Maybe, you know. Uh. Both of us?"

Teyla once said that John equates asking with moral surrender. They have all come to accept this aspect of John's psyche and have fashioned various techniques to do an end run about John's inability to ask for anything. Initially inordinately pleased that John is for once letting down the emotional drawbridge, Rodney does a mental head desk when he realizes that this plea for help is because ultimately this isn't about John, but his daughter.

"Lorne, too?" Rodney suggests and then notes, "He's the only normal person on this base besides Jennifer."

There's an uncomfortable silence, which is broken by John. "Jennifer is not cool with this. Rodney, don't fuck up--"

"No, she's not. Meet you at Wraith cell at seven. We'll ply her with breakfast. Tomorrow is Wednesday, which means sausage and scrambled eggs. When I was sixteen, food was always a good way to get my attention."

Rodney heads in the direction of botany to pick up the flowers.

*****************************

Somewhere between Lorne hiking Johnny's arm back so far that Johnny's elbow goes numb for three days and then locking her in a cell reserved for Wraith, Lorne and Johnny have come to guarded terms. While glaring visual daggers at John, she shrugs an okay when Lorne suggests that they go down to the mess for some breakfast.

It's a silent walk to the mess. Johnny tries to keep her indifference on high, although she's clearly impressed by all the technology; the ride on the transporter gets a muttered, "Awesome." Plus, Atlantis is showing off for her. Pure ATA genes are rare. She has to put up with all these engineered nobodies, so whenever pure-bloods like John or Johnny show up, she struts her stuff. The ride seems smoother, brighter, and a little sparklier than normal. John catches Rodney's eye and allows himself a little grin. Rodney grins back.

All conversation stops when they enter the mess, eyes darting back and forth between Sheppard senior and Junior. Of course, by now the only person who doesn't know that John Sheppard's daughter is on base is Private Mendoza, who is in a medical coma in sick bay.

"What in the fuck is your problem?" Johnny screams to the room at large.

"As you were," barks out John and everyone turns away. He leads them all to "their" corner next to the window. "I'll get us some, um, you know..." John mumbles and then gets in line for grub.

"Coffee, Dr. McKay?"

"God, Lorne, don't be an idiot." He turns to Johnny. "Coffee? Cream? Sugar?"

That gets a vigorous nod and Lorne trots off. Rodney without his first cup of coffee must not be kept waiting. This leaves the two of them, just as Rodney had hoped.

"They are military, I am not. Therefore, I can say all sorts of ugly things they cannot. Others might attribute this rant to severe caffeine withdrawal, however, I'd like to think it's just plain common sense talking. Whatever issues you have with your father, you keep them behind closed doors. You undermine his authority on this base by being disrespectful in public and you will experience the wrath of Dr. Rodney McKay. Few have lived to tell the tale. Second, we're trying to keep you here because while I appreciate that you were desperate without any options, the U.S. military is a ruthless bastard, present company excepted, of course. You can either live on the most fantastic place in the entire universe, or you can ruin it by being a rude brat with an axe to grind. Ah, coffee, thanks, Major." Rodney hands Johnny a mug filled to the top with coffee and then slurps down half of his own before saying, "Thank God we have real coffee again. This is Major Lorne. I don't believe you've formally met. You will recognize his rank at all times. If, in private, he says you can call him by his first name, then that's up to the two of you, however, when in public, he is 'Major.' You can call me whatever you want. I am a civilian and, therefore, not subject to the same line of command. Plus, everyone's terrified of me so it doesn't matter what you call me."

At that point John arrives with enough food to feed ten people and the talking stops.

When they finish breakfast, Rodney snaps his fingers six times and says, "You. You're spending the day with me in the labs." He doesn't bother to see if Johnny is following but notes with relief that she's standing next to him in the transporter. John plans on spending the morning trying to figure out where to move to, because being Colonel Hair Shirt of Atlantis, his quarters are among the smallest Atlantis has to offer.

Now that they are back on Earth, the latest and greatest computer games are on the network. Rodney hands Johnny one of his spare laptops and brings up the directory where the games are housed.

"Don't bother me for three hours."

There's a pump on the west pier that has suddenly stopped functioning; Rodney completely forgets about her until John appears and mumbles something about lunch.

Johnny has that sleepy, slack eyed look one gets after several hours of playing computer games. She stretches the kinks out of her shoulders and then asks Rodney about lunch, ignoring John completely. Again, it's a silent ride down to the mess. Rodney's scathing email to the base at large (minus John, of course)--that he will cut off everyone's hot water if they don't stop staring at Colonel Sheppard's kid--has had the desired effect. The three of them are effectively ignored as they make their way through the line. Inexplicably, now that they have access to decent food, it has gone downhill. The only edible lunch items are the sandwiches and salads, and only the salads because Teyla had asked the kitchen staff very politely for an upgrade in the greens, which they do immediately as there is only one person on Atlantis who elicits more respect than John, and it's Teyla. The sandwiches are decent because you have to try really hard to fuck up sandwiches, and he doubts the staff puts any energy into anything they do.

Halfway through lunch, Johnny asks the inevitable question: "Why can I open doors? It's like she's talking me to. Telling me shit."

Rodney kicks John underneath the table, because Rodney doesn't know what it's like to have the pure ATA gene.

"The people who used to live here had a special genetic marker on their DNA. I... We have it too. We can..." John scratches his head, "open doors."

Despite being the worst parents on the face of this Earth, the Sheppards didn't raise no idiots. Because at this point the less Johnny knows about her power the better. John makes it sounds like the ATA gene isn't that big a deal. Not like one could flies cities or anything as silly as that.

"It's kinda cool. What are you going to do with me?" Johnny asks Rodney, a guarded look on her face. Rodney bets it's cool. Compared to the desolation and desperation of the pathetic Texas town she was living in when her mother died, this is beyond cool. Plus, Atlantis is doing her damndest to make Johnny stay, singing her little siren song constantly.

John kicks Rodney under the table as if to say, your turn.

"If the brass signs off, we home school you. There are more Ph.D.s on this base than the cities of Berkeley and Cambridge combined. That will be your morning. Plus, since you are on a military base, we'll devise a mini-boot camp for you. You'll spend your afternoons with the Marines." What Rodney doesn't say is that Johnny needs to "man" up in case they are attacked. "That work?" Rodney asks, although it's not like Johnny has a choice.

Johnny nods in that slouchy, non-committal way teenagers do. "Anything's better than Texas." Having been to Texas several times in his career when he was consulting for Ross Perot at EDS, Rodney can't help but privately agree. "Do I have to stay with that asshole?"

"Yes," John barks.

"Motherfucker," Johnny barks back, but, Rodney notices, in a voice that isn't too loud.

"And you need to ditch the clothes and the face jewelry."

Based on the belligerent scowl on Johnny's face that's a possible deal breaker.

"We'll give you back the skateboard," John wheedles. Contrary to a lot of C.O.s, John has never believed in breaking the people under his command, he tended to be of the "carrot and stick" school of management, heavy on the carrots.

"Now. I want it back now," Johnny demands, still addressing Rodney.

"Not that you're in any position to make demands," John drawls in the same faux charm that he uses with people like Kolya. "But sure. I'll hand you a bunch of BDU's at the same time."

"Oh for God's sake, you aren't East Germany," Rodney glares at John, "and you"--Rodney narrows his eyes at Johnny--"aren't West Germany. You can't go around looking like some Victorian-era time machine spat you out. I will say this one more time. This is a military base, not that piece of crap Texas Podunk town that vomited you up." Rodney hit his com link. "Major Lorne, do you copy? Would you please come down to the mess? Bring Cadman and mini-Colonel's skateboard with you, and then have Cadman take her to stores and requisition her some clothes and boots. After she changes into some decent clothes and removes all her piercings, all of them, she may have the skateboard back. Then bring her back to me in the lab. Over and out." Rodney turns to both of them, exasperated. The next few months were going to be hell. "Was that so hard?"

*****************************

Although Rodney's geared up to fight this to the very top, O'Neill's approval comes through within a couple of days, which is good because Johnny is like any other sixteen-year-old, full of too much energy. Both John and Rodney are terrified that she will start testing the ATA gene out of boredom, because the city loves her already and is constantly showing off. Corridors that she has no business exploring light up when she strolls down the hallways. The boxes with gadgets that they never figured out are removed from the lab because everything she touches glows a little, even objects that shouldn't glow.

Basically, she's either with John and/or Rodney, so John and Rodney are reduced to communicating by email.

My God, I can't believe what a total slut she's being. She didn't do this with you, did she? MRM

Nah, but then I think she was shell-shocked from being underwater all that time. She's been giving me little bursts of approval now that Johnny's here. JS

Ew, TMI. You know, people think the concept of sentient city is cool until it actually happens to you. I'm having flashbacks to 2001. You know, when Hal went crazy? MRM

She's just excited Johnny's here. Which is good, because she probably wouldn't stay otherwise. JS

******************************

John pulls rank for once in his life and put dibs on a suite in the north tower with a view of San Francisco Bay. Carson had landed them smack dab in the middle of the shipping lanes, so the first thing John had had to do once they were stateside was to move the city farther north and west. They can't see the lights of the city anymore, but on a clear day they can still see the Golden Gate Bridge. While Johnny plays yet more Halo, Rodney helps John move his stuff, which consists of the guitar, two duffle bags, a box of video games, War and Peace, three skateboards, the golf clubs, and a surfboard.

"Jock, much?" Rodney pants as he shifts the golf clubs to the other shoulder.

Johnny appears at the door a couple of minutes later, Lorne standing behind her. Getting a look at the meager pile that constitutes John's worldly possessions, Johnny snorts out a "Fucking pathetic, much?"

*****************************

After a week of not speaking to him, Jennifer finally thaws out. Although they return to the status quo of sharing dinners and having great sex, Rodney's not sure that he didn't break something that might not be fixable. He has stopped looking at engagement rings and she has stopped talking about moving in together. Plus she's now curt with John Sheppard, which can't help but affect their relationship, and has made it very clear that she considers John as nothing more than a no-good, horn-dog skank. While Rodney can't actively defend John, neither can he condemn him. Last time he looked, it took two to tango, and although John should have been responsible and loaded up on condoms before he so much as left base, Johnny's mother had also borne some responsibility. When Rodney had tried to introduce an objective take on this--in that twenty-four-year-old men are ruled by their dicks--Jennifer had gone all ballistic and feminist, and had begun quoting Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer at him. Fortunately, none of her ire is directed at Johnny.

Although Jennifer still is not convinced this is what is best for Johnny, it's impossible not to love this kid. If John Sheppard has charisma, Johanna Clark (who's officially become Johnny Sheppard--no one calls her Johanna) has CHARISMA. While she's his father's physical image, her personality is infused with that big, easy Texan charm that Rodney thinks is partly because she grew up in Texas and partly a legacy of her mother.

Like most people with inordinate amounts of charm, Johnny has this knack for appropriating people. By the end of two weeks, they all have nicknames: Miko becomes Miko-san and Johnny makes sure to bow to Miko in respect when she enters the lab. Simpson becomes B.B., after Black Beauty because, apparently, Simpson was one of those teenage girls with a quasi-sexual passion for horses. Radek becomes Checkers. The first time Johnny uses it brings tears to Radek's eyes because, apparently, Elizabeth used to call him that in private, which caused a series of frantic emails back and forth between him and John because Radek and Elizabeth? Jennifer becomes Dr. Blondie. He becomes Doc Oct after the Spiderman character. Chuck becomes Chuckles, which Rodney would take extreme offense to had his name been Charles, however, it turns out that this is a treasured family nickname, and Chuck is delighted to be called Chuckles. When she finally meets Teyla, she becomes "Miss Teyla"; Ronon is "Dude."

The only three people who don't have nicknames are Lorne, John, and Woolsey. Lorne is always "Major," Woolsey is always "Mr. Woolsey, " and John is always "the Colonel." Because aside from discussing math problems, Johnny has yet to speak to John directly.

*****************************

Things ease up considerably when Teyla and Ronon return from Virginia. Which is a blessing because one month in and the father and daughter reunion still hasn't advanced much beyond controlled hostility on Johnny's part and grim forbearance on John's, although by this point they are in a fairly comfortable routine. Rodney sends a scathing anonymous email to the governor of Texas because if Johnny Sheppard's knowledge base is any indication of the quality of the schools, they should put the entire educational system in receivership. Fortunately, there isn't a branch of academia that isn't covered by someone on the base (Simpson, it turns out, has a double PhD in physics and English). Despite technically being a high-school junior, Johnny has an eighth-grade understanding of all subjects except math. At which she is a whiz. No duh. Still, being her father's daughter, she's one bright kid and Rodney figures she will be at the appropriate grade level in three months. Math-wise, she's already competent in lower-division college calculus.

Rodney insists that John take over the math curriculum because John's got an intuitive feel for math that Rodney lacks. Plus it's the only time father and daughter actually converse with each other. Simpson looks happier than she has in years, and Rodney suspects that her true love was English lit, but she went into science because it paid better and she could get a job. Woolsey's PhD in modern world history comes in handy; he has Johnny four hours a week. Radek handles the physics classes and beginning Russian, Miko is teaching her Japanese (Johnny's already fluent in Spanish), and Jennifer gets her for three hours a week for biology and chemistry. And then the Marines, Teyla, and Ronon work her over. Between the studying and the fighting, she's asleep by nine every night.

Teyla is back on base only a day before she appears in Rodney's lab, wearing that serene but determined expression on her face that always causes Rodney's stomach to plummet.

"Good morning, Rodney, I wish to tell you about Quantico. Are you in a position to take a coffee break?" Like Rodney cares what new and exciting forms of torture Virginia has devised. John and Rodney share a grimace because you don't say "no" to Teyla when she speaks to you in that tone of voice. On their way to the mess, Teyla chit-chats about their trip, mostly about how many teeth Torren has sprouted since they left. When they sit down, she's all business.

"We have a situation, Rodney."

"Yes, well, I'm doing my best. Take two of the most stubborn people in the universe and put them in a room together and you get nothing."

She puts her hand over his.

"I am not blaming you, Rodney. Convincing Washington to domicile Johanna Sheppard here until she is of age is most admirable. However."

"You know what he's like!" Rodney protests, not feeling he needs to qualify who "he" is. "The man never met an emotion he didn't hate. Except guilt."

Teyla takes a sip of her tea.

"We do indeed have our work cut out for us."

Teyla co-opts Ronon into her Operation Family Sheppard offensive and soon Johnny is joining John and Ronon for their morning run.

"What did Ronon do?" Rodney whispers as John hands Johnny over to Simpson for their English lesson. "Arrive at your door, throw a pair of sneakers at Johnny's stomach, and order her to lace up?"

"Pretty much."

John earned the loyalty of the people around him the hard way. He rode nuclear weapons and constantly put himself on the line so that people knew he thought their lives were worth as much as his own. The old timers would cut off their right arm for John Sheppard, and the new timers are slowly getting on board as well. Johnny Sheppard with her Texas drawl, easy manners, wicked wit, and outrageously gorgeous face has the base in the palm of her hand within two months. Atlantis adores her and as a consequence is a lot less cranky--as in giving them adequate warning when systems are about to fail--which makes Rodney's job a lot easier. Johnny becomes the sister, kid, niece, and friend that they've all been denied over the years. And because she doesn't have the history that most of them have, where life was one long siege, everything immaterial in the face of death by Wraith, she asks the normal questions that you ask of people. The questions they never asked each other. They learn more about each other in two months than they have working side by side in five years.

*****************************

One Saturday Johnny skates into the lab (the doors just open for her), finishing up with a flourish in front of Rodney's computer.

"You got a minute, Doc?"

"I have a minute to ream you another one for skating in the lab," Rodney snaps.

Johnny gives him one of her smiles in response and Rodney rolls his eyes. Rodney even gets a little push from Atlantis as if to say, oh, come on, she's just a kid. "You feel like, uh, taking a walk?"

Rodney is actually in the middle of a critical simulation; however, just like he can never refuse the father, he can't refuse the daughter.

They stop by the mess to load up on coffee before heading to the pier. It's a crapper of a day. Summer in San Francisco means fog: damp, freezing, endless fog. With Atlantis being "berthed" off the coast, they get the full monty. It creeps in at four in the morning, lifts about noon, and then plops back down hard around four in the afternoon. Fall will mean sunshine and long hot days, but that's a ways off. This has been going on for weeks now and tempers are getting short. Jennifer has had to put in a special order for nose splints as the number of broken noses has increased tenfold, and the brig is full of Marines cooling their heels because of petty altercations.

Warming their hands on their coffee mugs, they sit on the edge of the pier for a while in comfortable silence, until Rodney does a stagey, "Ahem," to get to the point, because that simulation isn't going to run itself.

"Mr. Woolsey got an email for me from my uncle, Dave. We've been invited to Thanksgiving. Dave must have sent the same email to the Colonel, because the first thing he says to me this morning is, 'We are not going to Connecticut for Thanksgiving, so don't even go there. Your uncle is a tool.' When I tried to actually ask, like, you know, why not, like, maybe my uncle might actually not mind having a niece, I got the usual deep freeze. What's his fucking problem?"

Not even Teyla's efforts have resulted in anything but a stalemate. Father and daughter share a room, have the same penchant for turkey sandwiches, both love football, both have a natural athleticism that is truly enviable, and they can't talk to each other beyond mathematical equations. There's no point in debating who has the problem, and there's no point in denying that John acts like his daughter is a huge burden. Rodney is convinced that John doesn't actually feel that way, but neither can he deny that John is acting like an asshole ninety-nine percent of the time. Rodney decides to ignore that whole issue.

"Some of it is that he was brought up on the East Coast. Some of it is who he is. What he's been through. Afghanistan. Lots of childhood crap, I suspect. Not that I know, because he doesn't talk about it..."

They have a little laugh at John's expense.

"He kill people?"

That comes out of nowhere, but Rodney doesn't miss a beat. It's better that Johnny knows exactly what constitutes being a soldier as opposed to those infuriating commercials where they show Marines pulling people out of burning buildings. What they never show is the first half of the commercial where reason the buildings are in flames is because they've been subject to mortar fire. From the Marines.

"Yes, lots of people. I've killed people, too." At some point Rodney accepted that the guilt he feels at killing a bunch of Genii that time on PX-14598 will never abate. "He's killed more than I have; that's part of his job. But he's saved more than he's killed. He's saved my life about a bazillion times."

Johnny chews on that for a bit and then says, "Maybe he has to. You know, save people. Trying to balance it out."

Rodney has never been able to connect those dots before, but now it's so obvious that he privately chides himself for his extreme stupidity. It's John's sick twist on the old Beatles' lyric: And in the end, the lives you take, are equal to the lives you save.

"I can't tell you what we've been doing for the last five years, but--"

"You guys were up there, weren't you?" Johnny points to the sky.

Rodney mentally curses the security breech, but that was to be expected. Johnny's with the Marines for a huge hunk of the day, and most of them are Pegasus veterans.

"Yes. It was awesome and horrible, pretty much at the same time. Your father is the reason why I'm still alive. Teyla, Ronon, Radek, Major Lorne. All of us. Atlantis even."

Rodney stops talking because by naming all of them he can't help but remember that as much as they tried, they couldn't save Elizabeth.

"Major Lorne says that about you, too. That you did impossible shit. Not that he, you know, gives any details, just that you did the impossible shit."

"We did the impossible together." Rodney hopes this conservation is now over because this is getting into super-classified territory, plus, now that he's not in front of the computer, he realizes he's hungry. "Look, give your father a break."

That request is greeted with massive eye-rolling that is so reminiscent of her father that Rodney can't help but smile.

"When he stops treating me like I'm some sort of walking plague, I might consider it. You know, my mother was nothing but trailer trash. I know that. But she had a million times more integrity in her little finger than that asshole--"

"Johnny," Rodney warns.

She holds up her hands in surrender. Rodney notices that she's not wearing her jewelry anymore. He doesn't know if that's a good or a bad sign. Johnny pounds the dock with her fist. "I don't get him. He's so fucking frustrating."

Rodney can't help but agree. "Yes, he drives all of us crazy. Watch the swearing. But I'm the biggest coward on this base, and I've stepped in front of him to take a bullet meant for him. That should tell you something." Damn, that had hurt. The scar still itched when it got cold. It was itching now. "You ever see Shrek?" Rodney still hasn't forgiven Jeannie for forcing him to watch that movie with Mads.

"Yeah."

"Your father's like the donkey. He's got lots of layers. Give him time. You doing okay?"

"Teyla asked me that just yesterday. Yeah, I like everyone. The city talks to me, which is so fucking, I mean, freaking weird. She's constantly trying to push me and the Colonel together. Will lock us in our suite sometimes when we fight. When I fight. He walks into his room and won't come out." Then she laughs. "Sometimes we when fight and he does his usual exit stage left shit, I mean stuff, she douses the lights and he ends up banging his shins against the furniture. I can hear him swearing. That makes her laugh."

Rodney tamps down the jealousy, because at best Rodney has a dry professional relationship with Atlantis. She clearly thinks of him as Dr. McKay. He can't imagine hearing Atlantis laugh.

"Layers, Johnny. Aside from having a ventriloquist dummy for a father and an insane ability to talk to a city, everything else okay?"

"Kinda lonely," she admitted. "No one my own age to hang out with on the weekends. The Marines treat me like a kid, except for Cadman and Major Lorne. She's pretty awesome. I guess I'm here for awhile. My nose ring hole closed up already. I tried to shove an earring in yesterday and nearly broke my nose."

"And here I thought you just had one gigantic outbreak of acne."

That got a chuckle and a punch to the shoulder. "You're a pretty funny guy, Doc."

"Us astrophysicists. A staple on Comedy Central. Come on, let's get lunch. I'm starving."

*****************************

Teyla pats Rodney's arm off and on for the next four days in little gestures of approval as Johnny begins to watch John with more speculation and a lot less scorn. Rodney tries to address Johnny's loneliness by reinstituting movie night, something that had died when they returned to Earth.

After a senior staff meeting one morning Rodney pulls John aside and says, "Lighten up on her, she's lonely. You might consider going to Dave's for Thanksgiving so that she can meet the rest of her family."

"I'll come up with something, and no to Dave's invitation," John replies in a curt tone and then breaks into a run, forestalling Rodney's response.

"Hearts and minds, Colonel," Rodney screams after him. For all the good it will do.

*****************************

John tries to address Johnny's loneliness by establishing a base-wide basketball league that includes the scientists. Somehow Rodney ends up being team coach for the SciDiv Raptors. Where upon he discovers a side to Radek that he wishes he hadn't, and that Simpson had paid her way through Stanford undergrad on a basketball scholarship. Rodney ups his cred with the Marines, because although he know squat about sports, he knows everything there is to know about objects through time and space. He tells Miko to increase the velocity of her passes, Simpson to decrease the torque of her dunks, Parrish always misses the basket by three degrees so work on that, Hollenbeck out of biology needs to move his lazy ass because currently the ball always is moving at a greater velocity than he is, Chase from sick bay has a Michael Jordan thing going on that needs no correction, and Radek is a mad-man on the court, with a physical speed that's frightening. Despite being old, geeks, short, and largely female, the SciDiv Raptors become the team to beat. John's team gets knocked out in the first round, which tells Rodney that he didn't try too hard because John is something of stud at basketball, however, the happy look on his face is a rare thing as he watches his daughter try to whip her Marine Monsters into a winning frenzy against the Sadaten Storm. Rodney realizes with a start that he hasn't thought of the Wraith in six months.

*****************************

Teyla touches foreheads with all of them before they board the launch, even Jennifer.

"Have a safe journey and Merry Thanksgiving."

Ronon nods at them; they nod back.

Their special military status means they are waved through the security lines at SFO. Once they ascertain where their gates are--they are all flying United--John jerks his head in the direction of the bar, and since Rodney is terrified of flying, he readily agrees. As the cocktail waitress approaches, Jennifer whispers in Rodney's ear that alcohol contributes to jet lag. She orders an orange juice. Rodney ignores her pointed glances and indulges his secret passion for cosmopolitans. John orders a double Jack with a beer back and then shoves the beer in Johnny's direction. Jennifer chatters about her family, only stopping to give a Rodney dirty look when he orders another round.

John's initial refusal to even consider Dave's invitation had resulted in a nadir moment between the two of them in the mess. Since John had essentially refused to discuss this in private, Johnny played dirty and brought it up at lunch one day, Johnny screaming at him that they were her family too and that she had a right to know them, and John grunting back a series of "no way in hell" replies. Johnny had yelled for another for five minutes until Rodney had waved a paper napkin in the air and said quietly, "She needs to do the math herself, Colonel."

Not bothering to look at or address either of them, John had stalked out of the mess, returned ten minutes later, and had thrown the print out of their tickets at Johnny's head.

The Sheppards fly out first. John shuffles to the front of the line, his shoulders hunched forward in misery. He's got their tickets in one hand and a plastic bag full of paperback Sudoku puzzles that he picked up at the newsstand in the other. Johnny's iPod peeks out of her jacket pocket and ear buds are firmly shoved in her ears as insurance against her father's inevitable silence as they fly from one coast to the other. The only time Rodney has seen John look this wretched was when his father died.

*****************************

At his "Meet the Hicks" dinner with Jennifer's family, Rodney hasn't even sat down before he is convinced that Jennifer is a genetic anomaly; her relatives have turned out to be the most stupid people on God's earth. And there are masses of them, talking in a "Fargo" accent that Rodney had assumed Frances McDormand exaggerated for dramatic effect. Who knew that people actually talked like that? He adds the entire Midwest to the list of states that he has visited and will never buy a plane ticket to again, Chicago is the only exception because their pizza is still the best.

Within thirty minutes of shaking hands with everyone--thirty Kellers strong--he insults Jennifer's Aunt Marjorie, a woman who looks like Lucille Ball on a bender. Her outlandish pronouncement that the unseasonable weather they are having (it is late November and sixty-five degrees outside) has absolutely no relationship to global warming and do the Democrats think everyone is just stupid requires, no, demands a response.

Rodney stops loading up on mashed potatoes and puts his plate down because defending science takes precedence even over food.

"It doesn't matter what the Democrats think. It's the scientists that we need to consult. And the last, oh, I don't know, ten issues of Science, a peer-reviewed journal that is non-partisan, as in people actually use their brains to debate scientific issues at hand, thinks that, yes, these insane weather patterns we are experiencing are in direct response to global warning. I trust scientists more than I trust, say, Republicans. Who know absolutely nothing on this issue and, in fact, celebrate their ignorance. Madam."

He hopes that is the end of that. Of course, it's also the end of Jennifer speaking to him for the rest of the night. And the next day. They aren't due to return to Atlantis for another five days, and he still has Thanksgiving to suffer through. Based on Jennifer's scowl, it is going to be five more days of unrelenting silence and the continuing embargo on sex. Apparently, this is the Aunt Marjorie who has been a surrogate mother to her since her mother died. Who'd baked her cookies and listened to her woes about being a teenager in medical school and who'd made the quilt on Jennifer's bed and who knitted her socks and those ugly sweaters she wears.

And who is the most uninformed, bigoted person Rodney has met in years.

In an attempt to make amends, he agrees to play a few round of gin rummy with a pair of great uncles who are stone deaf. As a matter of rote, he methodically counts the deck as the cards are dealt and surprise! A normal deck of cards does not contain five jacks. Bonus suckage! So in addition to being as deaf as posts, they are consummate cheaters. When his cell phone chirps, he excuses himself, trying to hide the relief on his face. Short of McNeill announcing that Earth is about to be invaded by the Wraith, he doesn't care who is on the other end of the line. It is his chance to escape and possibly get a couple of hours in on his laptop.

An unknown telephone number blinks at him, but at this point he will even relish someone trying to sell him life insurance. "Hello and whoever you are, I'm eternally grateful."

"Me. There's an American flight out of St. Paul to La Guardia in two hours. Can you be on it? I pulled some strings and got you a ticket."

John's voice has that "mission is going FUBAR" flat-line quality to it. Rodney waits for more intel, but that is it. Nothing else. As if on cue, Uncle Jim shrieks, "Gin," at the top of his lungs. Rodney doesn't need to give it another moment's thought.

"Yes."

"Cool. I'll pick you up in front of the American terminal." John hangs up.

He couches his apologies to Jennifer and her father with very vague references to "military issues" and "Colonel Sheppard" and non-secure line phone lines, and he is so sorry but it looks like he is going to miss Thanksgiving and will Jennifer drive him to the airport?

"What sort of military issues?"

"I don't know, he didn't say."

Based on the increasingly ugly tenor of their voices, Jennifer's father knows that a fight is brewing and mumbles something about checking up on a patient. By the time he reaches the door, he's nearly running.

"It's Thanksgiving. Can't it wait?"

"I don't know."

"How often do we actually take holidays? Can't someone else handle it?"

"I don't know."

Jennifer puts her hands on her hips and stares at him.

"I don't know!" he insists. "Will you drive me to the airport or should I call a cab?"

"I'll drive you," she says in a cold voice. "But think hard about this, Rodney. Some day you might need to choose."

He can't really blame her for being angry, but neither can he stay another minute because these people are insufferable. And what in the hell does that mean? Choose? Choose what?

She drops Rodney off at the terminal without a kiss good-bye, and that sense of doom that is hovering around the edges of this relationship has just tripled. Rodney waits until the plane is taxiing down the runway before having his first panic attack. What in the hell is going on that John would ask him to interrupt his Thanksgiving holiday? Rodney's imagination supplies a number of scenarios, which results in panic attacks two, three, and four.

By the time he collects his bags and exits the baggage claim area to the sidewalk and pick-up area, his blood pressure is hovering around 220 over 140. Because John never asks, ever, and here he's not only asking but implicitly begging. Rodney turns at the deep honk of car horn, and there is John behind the wheel of a brand new Porsche 911. Without saying a word, John flips open the front. Rodney throws his bags in, slams the trunk closed, and gets in.

John gives him one of his inscrutable military jerks of the head as a greeting, and the anger vibes are so potent that Rodney is afraid of getting whiplashed as they bounce off the windshield. He tightens his seat belt. Bette Davis drawling, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night," comes to mind. He doesn't intended to say anything because John and machines that "go" are a package deal. Rodney ignores it when the speedometer hits 80 miles per hours, then 90, then 100. At 105 miles per hour enough is enough.

"John, I'm so frightened right now that I'm about to have a raging case of diarrhea all over these seats. This isn't a puddlejumper; it's a car. And because the specs say you can go 150 miles per hour, doesn't mean you have to."

John doesn't say anything but immediately the car drops in speed. At the first off-ramp they come to, John peels off the freeway and brings the car to a stop at a side street at the bottom of the ramp. They sit there in silence, John kneading the wheel, flexing his hands open and shut against the leather. Finally, he throws his head back and mutters, "Fuck."

"So?"

"It's Johnny."

Rodney's stomach tumbles over itself.

"Is she okay? God, why didn't you--"

John holds up a hand. "She's fine. It's the house. Them. Mostly that asshole brother of mine."

"Dave?" Rodney prompts, because despite all the recent drama in the last six months that has forced John to actually acknowledge that he has a family, he is still utterly psychotic about keeping even the most innocuous details about his family secret. Of course having hacked into numerous data bases, Rodney knows that John only has one brother, but he's not going to let John know that he knows. That would be incredibly stupid.

"Yeah."

"And?"

"We arrive. Nothing's changed. The house I mean. Even the same furniture. The trees are a little taller but that's it. We still have cocktails at 5:30 and dinner at 7:00, and yeah. It's the same house, and I'm trying to keep down the dry heaves for the first twenty-four hours."

Listening to the barely controlled rage in John's voice as he describes the house, Rodney figures that for John Atlantis was the first and is now the only place that feels like home. John tries to hide it, but the city always coos a welcome when John comes through the Gate. Rodney called him on it once. John smirked and shrugged it off, but Rodney knows that John coos back in mental acknowledgment. The Atlantis equivalent of "Honey, I'm home."

"It's okay at first. Susan, Dave's wife, is like a lot of women. You know. In that set." No, Rodney doesn't know. His frame of reference isn't the Social Register so much as the Who's Who in academics. Before he can say anything, John fills in the blanks. "Blonde, trim, she rides, sails, and plays a mean game of tennis. She's a little too Bryn Mawr for me, but she's not too bad. The kids are young enough that they're okay. Johnny connects with them right off the bat. She plays board games with them and apparently she can ride, and, yeah. She connects. Susan's bought tickets to see The Lion King for the six of us--"

Rodney cannot help it. He grins. "Wait. You went and saw The Lion King?"

John glares at him, which Rodney shrugs it off. Later, when they are back on Atlantis, John will hear "Hakuna Metata" twenty-four seven. Rodney will enlist the entire Marine contingent and the scientists. It will be torture. It will be so sweet. Rodney can't wait.

"We do the matinee. The play is, well, the play, and Johnny pretends it was lame, but we can all tell that she liked it a lot. Afterwards Dave and I do the NBC tour at Rockefeller Center with the kids while Susan takes Johnny to Bloomingdales, where she buys her a leather jacket that's equal to three months of my take-home pay. And that's just the jacket. She buys Johnny so many clothes that they have to deliver them. High-end crap that looks cheap with holes, but apparently there are holes because your clothes are old and then expensive holes made by blind nuns in Perugia."

Rodney is a little surprised that Johnny is so easily bowled over by a bunch of designer clothes, but then she had grown up pretty poor.

"Then we have dinner at some fancy restaurant where I'm really under dressed, and Dave picks up the tab before I can even reach for it. I think... You know I think it's... Goddammit, I think it's going to be okay. That the rumbling in my gut is bullshit."

John begins killing the steering wheel again, and Rodney can only thank god they aren't on the highway, because if they had been having this conversation and John was driving, they'd be up to one hundred and twenty miles per hour, minimum.

"It's not bullshit," Rodney confirms.

John brays. Something of an ironic bray, and Rodney is a little surprised to realize that now he can actually characterize the differences between the various permutations of donkeyesque sounds that constitute John Sheppard's laugh.

"Nope, it's not. After we get back, Dave muscles me into the library. Johnny's promised to read the kids a chapter in Harry Potter, and I think, oh, we're just going to chat and wait for Susan to kiss the kids good night and then she'll join us."

They are coming to the meat of it, Rodney can tell. John's voice is getting lower and lower, tighter and tighter, and Rodney has to lean forward to hear him.

"He pours me one big motherfucking glass of cognac into crystal brandy snifters that are probably a hundred years old. We're sitting in front of the fire and Dave, well, Dave's sitting in my father's chair. Which makes me a little uncomfortable but I ignore it. Then, it's like this chair has superpowers because what's coming out of Dave's mouth is just the sort of shit my father would say. How do I know Johnny's my daughter? Have I had her DNA tested? Her mother was a total tramp; Dave had her investigated. Maybe she's looking for someone with deep pockets. I'm sitting wondering at what point in this conversation do I throw the fucking cognac in his face when it really gets good. He says, 'She doesn't even look like us.'"

Rodney now hates Dave Sheppard.

"I'm hearing the words coming out of his mouth and I'm looking at the picture of my mother over the fireplace. It was painted when she was eighteen--they did that when women came out--and it's Johnny. She's the spitting image of my mother, and how he can spew such crap when that picture isn't three feet away from his goddamn motherfucking head..."

Rodney knows that this is not the time to remind John of his initial refusal to acknowledge the Sheppard in Johnny, or the observation that Johnny might look like his mother because Johnny's the spitting image of her father. Maybe it doesn't matter. Because John is now on Team Johnny for the win, and Dave Sheppard is really, really dumb. Because when John decides to join your team, that's it. John goes all the way.

It's getting dark and this neighborhood looks a little dicey. If Rodney hadn't personally see John Sheppard take out, as in kill, six guys single-handedly--with a broken arm--he might be more worried; however, no point in putting John's Black Ops skills to the test. He needs all his strength and smarts to battle the home front.

"So let's get on the road, because we can't leave her alone with jerks like that."

John begins to stammer, which is such a one-eighty from his usual confident drawl that it makes Rodney cringe. Because this house has reduced John to a stammerer, which not even Koyla could do. "Thanks for... You know... Is Jennifer..."

Rodney flaps a hand. "Believe me, I couldn't get out of there fast enough. This way there might be a few of Jennifer's relatives that I haven't insulted. Had I stayed there the entire five days, I would have successfully alienated everyone. Don't worry about it."

Before starting the car, John grips Rodney's shoulder in one of his rare displays of physical affection.

"Is this your brother's car?" Rodney asks after the engine purred to life.

"Yeah, his birthday present to himself."

"Then I think some righteous stripping of gears is in order, don't you?"

"Gotcha," Sheppard replies with a semblance of his usual sass. The screech and protest of the transmission is music to Rodney's ears.

*****************************

It's like a Monty Python episode but without the funny; lots of non sequiturs that mask vaguely insulting subtext. Although happy to see him, Johnny is puzzled because she's smart enough to know that something's going on but what isn't clear.

Within fifteen minutes of meeting the brother and sister-in-law, it's obvious that they think he and John are lovers, and that Rodney's numerous references to his girlfriend, Dr. Keller, are patent lies. With a sly smile on her lips as she asks if it's close enough, Susan shows him to a bedroom that's right next to John's. Rodney debates calling her on it, but then realizes that his job here is to channel Teyla. Which, hello, how bat-shit insane can a situation be when Rodney McKay is considered diplomat material? Although extremely ill-equipped to channel Teyla, he is damned and determined to do his best to stop John from becoming unglued. Because if John loses it, then Johnny will know that her newly found uncle and aunt think she's a gold-digging nobody. In the larger scheme of things, whether they think he and John are doing each other is immaterial.

"It's fine. Thank you," he manages to say with only the slightest trace of snide.

Before-dinner drinks are devoted to Dave vetting Rodney's credentials. Rodney isn't sure if this interrogation is to ascertain that Rodney is actually good enough to butt-fuck his brother, or if Dave is hoping that John has hooked up with a sleazeball. Rodney suspects the latter. As Rodney is a credential whore extraordinaire, he has enough degrees and awards to last through drinks and the first course. Once he's exhausted even his ability to boast about himself, he immediately begins pontificating about statistics and how mathematics are now ruling the stock market. Two minutes in it's obvious that Dave is also a math whiz, and if Susan's eyes glaze over, Rodney doesn't care. He and Dave shoot the mathematical shit, with John chiming in every now and then. Using algorithms to manipulate the stock market isn't John's thing, and Rodney knows that the only reason John is participating in this conversation is to keep the heat off of Johnny.

Because if they aren't talking money, Dave and Susan are interrogating Johnny about her childhood, trying to fill in the details that the private detective had missed. It doesn't reveal anything that John and Rodney don't know already. Her mother, a single parent, moved around a lot tending bar in hard-scrabble oil-patch towns where it was pretty much church on Sunday and alcoholism the rest of the time. The smiles on Dave and Susan's faces keep getting tighter and tighter, but Johnny doesn't seem to notice. As soon as the dessert plates are cleared, John suggests a game of Clue or Monopoly, anything to get them away from that table and those questions.

To make up for the time lost sucking up to Jennifer's relatives, Rodney spends the next day on this laptop. He moves it from the stables to the garden to a bench on the tennis court, depending on where the action is. As awkward as he is with his own daughter, John is a natural with his nieces--which is no surprise considering he and Ronon are the most beloved of the Atlantis crew among the Athosian children. Although it's hovering in the low forties, the sun's out and the day is spent moving from sport to sport. At some point late in the morning, John unearths a cobweb encrusted basketball hoop from the back of the stables. The girls get bored with basketball fairly quickly so while Rodney pushes them on the swing set, father and daughter play a game of horse. In between pushes Rodney watches the two of them. He's always enjoyed watching John. Some of it is the nerd who is hopeless at anything physical gazing on in envy, some of it is just pleasure watching someone doing something really well, and some of it is watching John.

John and sports are like ham and eggs, and his daughter has inherited that ability. To see the lean lithe lines of the both of them, their torsos feinting, running, and jumping is a little intoxicating. John is one of the most competitive assholes he knows, and whether Johnny inherited that drive or has something to prove means the game has a bite to it, but it's more like two athletes trying to best each other as opposed to a daughter furious at her father, which is how Rodney would characterize most of their interactions over the last few months. Due to Atlantis boot camp, Johnny has the stamina and agility of two teenagers, but John is smarter about the game, and it ends in a draw when a gong sounds for lunch. They are sweaty and a little winded as they walk toward the house, debating points won, points lost. It's almost normal.

At lunch, Johnny talks about how cool the horses are, asks about the history of the house, and really, wow, his great-great grandfather had been ambassador to England? They came over on the Mayflower? Wow squared. Rodney isn't surprised in the least how that all that stability, that permanence works its magic on a sixteen-year-old girl who has never lived in one place longer than a year.

On the second night Rodney endures yet another game of Monopoly where John kicks everyone's ass. The financial world is probably a better place deprived of John's drive and ruthlessness. Around eleven, Rodney says goodnight and hopes to get in a couple of hours on his laptop before calling it a night. He is simultaneously emailing Jennifer, playing chess with Radek, and running diagnostics on the water purifiers on Atlantis (no one wants to do those menial chores and yet no one wants to drink ocean water), when there is a tiny knock on his door.

It's John. He raises his fingers to his lips. Rodney can hear music coming up the staircase. John beckons with his finger and they make their way down to the living room, the sound of Mozart getting stronger and stronger. The closer and closer he gets, the genius of the musician becomes more and more apparent. Rodney he can't imagine anyone in that house having...

It's Johnny. She abandons Mozart and moves on to Joplin. After pounding out rag for a couple of minutes she switches to Brahms, then abandons that halfway through for some Beethoven. John's finger gently pokes Rodney's shoulder and their eyes meet. John is looking for confirmation. That something special is going on here. They've only talked a couple of times about Rodney's abandoning piano for physics, but he obviously trusts Rodney to give him an opinion. Rodney nods and fights back the tears. Because Johnny has that heart that Rodney had lacked. Technically he was a marvel, but he lacked soul. It was a hard lesson at the time; that you can love something with all your heart and yet it doesn't love you back.

The tension leeches out of John until he's half leaning against Rodney. He doesn't know how long they stand there, but when Johnny finally puts the lid down, they high-tail it up the staircase into Rodney's room.

"She's very gifted. Her teachers probably didn't know what to do with her. I'm no expert, but, yes, I'd say definitely gifted," he says in a low voice once they've closed the door. Mom might have been a booze hound, but she saved her hard-earned tips and had paid for whatever third-rate piano teachers were available. John nods, that slow sort of nod you make when someone confirms what you're already thinking.

"That's what I thought, but I wasn't sure. I know this is weird, but can I sleep in here? They put me in my old room and... I'll sleep on the floor."

Rodney cuffs him on the shoulder.

"You're an idiot. It's a king-size bed. We sleep together all the time, well not, you know what I mean. Frankly, they already think we're gay."

"Yeah, I got that vibe, too. Thanks. You know, when you answered the phone... Uh, things not great at Jennifer's?"

"Oh, you'll love this." Rodney starts to toe off his shoes while logging off. "So I'm meeting all of Jennifer's family. They must have found her in a cabbage patch, because this bunch of yahoos--"

*****************************

On Thanksgiving morning they have a late breakfast. A dozen Sheppards are due to arrive around four. Susan is happily recounting the guest list, and by the ever-growing scowl on John's face they are all people he would cheerfully feed to a Wraith queen. John waits until Johnny has corralled the kids for a rousing game of "Mother May I?" out on the lawn before saying, "I want Mom's piano, Dave. I don't want any money or land or even one of the horses. I just want Mom's piano."

Susan makes a little "eep" noise at that, which tells Rodney this is a big deal. She then makes some half-assed comment about checking with the cook about the turkey and runs out of the room.

Dave waits until she's left, but doesn't even bother to drop the newspaper before saying, "Fuck you, John."

*****************************

Two days ago Rodney had been willing to do anything to extricate himself from another meal with Jennifer's ignorant relatives. Now, however, the old saw, 'more tears are shed over answered prayers' had never seemed more appropriate. If Jennifer's relatives were well-meaning, if woefully ignorant hicks, John's relatives are extremely well-educated evil trolls, self-congratulatory and smug behind all their moneyed privilege.

Ironically, Rodney doesn't snap when they make sneering remarks about the exorbitant taxes for general education for morons who can't learn. He also lets go the homophobic/anti-Semitic rant--a twofer--about the fags and Jews ruining this country. But enough is enough when they start in on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and how it's affecting their stock portfolios. Never mind the morality of such wars, which is certainly debatable. That never enters into the equation. The color on John's face goes from tan to pale, and the hand clutching the stem of John's wine glass begins gripping it so tightly that John's knuckles gleam in the dim candlelight. Rodney has hated the American military for years, and he doesn't see that changing anytime soon. But it's one thing to question the moral imperative of the Department of Defense and it's quite another to insult the man sitting across the table from you by reducing these wars as being nothing more than a financial debacle, because now we were in debt to the "Chinks."

Fortunately, Johnny had volunteered to eat at the kids' table in the kitchen so Rodney has no need to self-censor.

"Colonel, I think I've heard enough. How about you?" Rodney doesn't wait for an answer. He stands up and throws his napkin on the table. "We educate children because they are the best defense against privileged cretins like you who seek to deny them their rights and have no compunction about sending them into battle so that they can get their faces blown off. I have personally witnessed this man," he flaps a hand in John's direction, "willing to sacrifice his life for his country on more occasions than you have fingers and toes. Combined. He believes the collective 'you' are worth it. I don't think so, but fortunately, I'm not wearing his uniform. Come on, John, we'll have our pie in front of the television. I can't stand to be in the same room with these utter cretins another second." He holds out his hand for John to take.

Rodney has a moment, the briefest of seconds when he thinks he's gone too far, but then the sardonic Sheppard smile appears. John hoists himself up from the table and with the sarcasm on high, he drawls, "Night." He grabs Rodney's hand and they make their way out the cavernous dining room. "Oh, Fergus," John calls out to the butler on point, "Dr. McKay and I will take our pie up in our room. You want chocolate or vanilla ice cream?"

"Are you insane? Chocolate, of course. Two scoops. And pecan pie. And whipped cream."

"I'll take one scoop of vanilla," he says with a loaded glance at Rodney's stomach. "And pumpkin."

He doesn't let go of Rodney's hand until they reach Rodney's room. Rodney immediately turns on the television, clicking until he finds a cartoon channel.

"The hand holding was a nice touch," John comments in the gap between when the Flintstones ends and the Jetsons begin.

"I thought so. Where there's ignorance there's rampaging homophobia. I didn't think you'd mind."

"Not so much."

*****************************

Rodney wakes up to see John standing at the window, his hand pushing the curtain back. The night has a 3:00 a.m. feel to it, that special stillness before dawn.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing."

"Then get back in bed. You're keeping me awake."

John doesn't answer or make a snide remark back.

"Was someone down there?"

"No. They paved over my mother's rose garden to put in another tennis court."

Rodney's strongest associations with the word "Mother" are the click of a lighter and the New York Times crossword puzzle. He'd have liked to have the aroma of roses be emblematic of his mother as opposed to the smell of an ashtray full of cigarette butts and a four-letter word for alchemy.

John climbs back into bed, but instead of lying down, he props himself up against the headboard. Rodney debates grilling him on what is the matter, but that never works with John, so Rodney decides to go back to sleep. He is just dropping off when John says, "Do you think we're like Pinky and the Brain?"

"You," Rodney pokes him, "are a moron. I've thought that for years."

"Why can't I be the Brain? I mean, yeah, he's got that pie gut, but--"

"That question makes it perfectly obvious why you can't be the Brain. First of all there's only one other entity in two galaxies who has a goofier laugh than you and it's Pinky. Second, the Brain does not have a pie gut. Third, I don't have a pie gut. Fourth--"

"Do too. Or you will in the morning." Even in the gloom, Rodney can see John's hair splayed in a million different directions. "You know, we're more like Slinky and the Lame."

They lie there howling at the ceiling until both of them wipe the mirth from their cheeks.

"Idiot." Rodney's insult is said with total affection. He is two seconds away from dropping off when John says quietly, "Can we go home now? I'm done."

Rodney nods, inexplicably teary and outraged and sad, afraid to say anything because he's only been in this house for three days and it explains so fucking much.

John takes the rustle of Rodney's head against the pillow as a yes because he says, "Good. If I stay any longer I'm going to kill someone."

*****************************

Johnny's still asleep when John heads out for his morning run. The door hasn't even closed properly before Rodney storms into Dave's study, who is on his computer tracking the stock market.

"We are leaving. I'd appreciate it if one of your minions drove us to JFK. We're on a 1:00 pm flight to the west coast--however, if you decide to be the petty jerk I've come to known to loathe and despise, I doubt you'll do us any favors. I've booked us a cab just in case you meet my expectations. I've made a few phone calls. Tomorrow, six Marines with forearms the size of hams are coming to move the piano. That piano is the only thing he wants, in this entire house, from the entire goddamn estate, so you will not give them a hard time. They hear one complaint, one word, and your life will become hell.

"I know you think I'm nothing but John's boytoy, picked up in some S&M leather bar south of Market, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I am a genius. I know computers, you dickhead. I know them on a level that you can only dream of. As in, I can and do hack into anything I damn well please. You stop that piano from leaving this house, and I will, Dave, fuck up your shit. I've been checking up on you, and I know you have an IPO in the offing. It would be a crying shame if the SEC and the business editor of the New York Times received an anonymous tip that David Sheppard, CEO of Sheppard Utilities, was a porn aficionado, who happens to be stupid enough to have extreme porn on his work computer. Even though John is dying to pound your sorry ass into the Aubusson, he won't because he's a much better person than I am. John is actually somewhat principled. I am a total bastard with a vindictive streak a mile wide. If that piano doesn't arrive in ten days, I will salt your hard drive with porn. Curl your toes porn. Count on it. That IPO will be history faster than you can say 'I fuck sheep while wearing women's lingerie.' Are we clear?"

Dave turns an ugly shade of red, then white, but nods. If Rodney were the sort of person who cared about making enemies, then he might be worried. As it is, the venom contorting Dave's face does the polar opposite. Rodney mutters an internal "Excellent."

"Good. I'm not a total asshole, Dave. I've ordered you a new piano; miles better than the one you have. It should arrive within a week. Boast to your friends you won it in a card game. Because what we've been playing is asshole poker. You can lie about winning this round. We won't be around to contradict you. Oh, we're taking the portrait of your mother as well. John wants to give it to Johnny so she has a picture of her grandmother."

*****************************

Rodney doesn't know when it changed. He just knows that it has. His first real indication--analogous to global warming, it's been going on for a while, but only now that the polar ice caps are melting is there cause for alarm--is on the plane home. Johnny snags the window seat and begins rocking out to some horrible nonsense on her iPod that is so loud Rodney can hear the thumpthumpthump of the bass, even though the buds are cemented tight in her ears. Rodney is stuck in the middle seat because no amount of whining will convince John that his legs are longer. For one thing they aren't. Rodney keeps it up until John threatens to cut off his feet with the plastic knife from his lunch. Given how the holiday has gone, Rodney isn't sure he's kidding.

Before they take off, Rodney mentions that they heard her playing the piano and asks if she wants a keyboard. Johnny shrugs. "In my world, asking doesn't mean getting. Just means asking." Before Rodney can reply, he hears John sigh, but then the plane starts taxiing down the runway and Rodney has to spend every erg of energy fending off his usual panic attack. Which is so dumb because he never feels like this when John is at the controls of a puddlejumper, but then John is sitting next to him and not flying this plane, so the panic attack is inevitable.

John commented on it once--as they were flying from Cheyenne to D.C. to get reprimanded for something--how they fly together all the time and Rodney never panics. "I've seen you defy the laws of physics while flying. I have no faith that some red-necked yahoo who only got into the air force because the local community college rejected him or her can handle this monster." John had laughed and now always seems to have an endless supply of paper bags at hand. At the rev of the engines, he hands one to Rodney and tells him to breathe deeply.

The infant in the seat ahead of them starts screaming on take-off; two hundred miles later it's still wailing. If that isn't bad enough, he has another kid directly behind him, a ten-year-old boy who keeps kicking the back of his chair until he rears up and snarls, "Do that one more time and I will reach down your throat and pull out your heart and stomp on it." Which entails John doing the usual variation on a theme; charming the mother into not pressing criminal charges against Rodney. It has all the hallmarks of a mission: being in trapped in a hostile environment with people who want to kill him. Or at the very least, put his verbally caustic ass in a jail cell.

Finally, around the middle mark, both kids fell asleep and Rodney can actually concentrate on something other than infanticide. Unearthing a pad of paper out of his backpack, he begins making critical modifications to the puddlejumpers--as in installing a coffee maker. He looks up from his schematic to ask John whether an eight-cup carafe is enough, even though it has to be because of space issues, but he can drink eight cups in one go himself and... Johnny has fallen asleep, slumped forward on the tray table, and Rodney can't help but internally remark at how much like John she is. Asleep, relaxed, her habitual appraising glare gone, the curve of her mouth, the sweep of her cheeks is pure John.

He turns to John, about to nudge him in the ribs to point out Johnny. John is staring at the onboard map, following their course across the U.S., no doubt blessing every single growing mile between their position and Connecticut. John's full bottom lip is nearly gone, eaten up by the grimace on his face, and his hands are gripping the arm rests like they were about to crash land in some Iowa cornfield.

Rodney's elbow stops just in time. Goddamn them. A proprietary yearning overwhelms him, and he has to physically stop himself from cupping John's cheek and giving him a kiss. Not a lay-one-on-me smooch, but a comfort kiss--and where in the hell had that come from? He doesn't because, hello, genius, but what Rodney does do is place one hand over the one closest to him and says quietly, "I have an amazing assortment of assholes in my family, too. Next Thanksgiving we'll go to my Uncle Alistair's house. He thinks Darwin was a crackpot, that the world was made in six days, and that Jesus Christ owns a car dealership out in Mississauga near the airport. He also believes that there are aliens in outer space. I cut him some slack on that for obvious reasons, not Jesus Christ selling Fords, however."

The grimace on John's face slowly unwinds and then eases into a small smile. That proprietary yearning roils Rodney's gut again, which he ignores and blames on too much coffee. Rodney removes his hand and forces himself to think about Jennifer's breasts spilling out of a leopard print bra.

"It might be fun to insist that next year we all celebrate Thanksgiving together. A McKay/Sheppard free for all."

"By all means. Let's invite the Keller contingent as well and sell tickets."

John's muted snort of amusement is accompanied by letting go of the arm rests to hunt for a Sudoku puzzle at the back of the in-flight magazine.

At this point Rodney has an inkling that their friendship is changing, but he doesn't want to delve too deeply into exactly what that means. Rodney honestly believes that he can salvage his relationship with Jennifer, and it's not like harboring unrequited love for John Sheppard isn't the most insane concept ever.

*****************************

His reunion with Jennifer isn't the fantasy of rambunctious sex and fulsome apologies on her part for inundating him with thirty Kellers at all once. No, it's a real honest-to-God interrogation about why he abandoned her and her family two days before Thanksgiving.

"But why did you have to be there?"

"Because he is an emotional fuckwit?"

"Rodney, please tell me that you honestly don't believe that Colonel Sheppard couldn't deal with his brother for a mere three days without you holding his hand."

That was actually true, but Rodney hadn't seen it in quite that light.

"Look, they started trashing Johnny. They weren't even honest about their assholishness. To her face they smiled and bought her enough clothes to outfit greater Newark, and behind her back began insisting that she was some trailer-trash gold digger who wasn't related to them at all. He knows he's a horrible father, but he also knows that Dave would be an even worst father figure. At least John is honest. In a very fucked up way," Rodney qualified.

"But why you?"

Rodney didn't quite understand what she was getting at.

"Um, because? I don't know. A team thing? You should hear the way she plays the piano, Jennifer."

Jennifer pushed away her half-finished glass of wine and even Rodney could see how much an effort it was to hike up her mouth into a tight smile.

"Do you think maybe we could spend Christmas with my father? I promise I won't inundate you with too many Kellers this time."

Rodney now understands that short of Washington being leveled by an atomic blast, he will get on a plane and enjoy Christmas. That he will "bond" with Jennifer's father, and compliment Aunt Marjorie on her hideous outfits, and let the great uncles cheat like mad at cards. No matter what, he'd have to go with the flow. Which should have been a warning sign complete with klaxons and flares, because when has Rodney ever in his entire life gone with the flow. But Rodney so wants this relationship to work that he convinces himself that he isn't trying hard enough. That's why other people's relationships survive and his never do. He just needs to buck up. In the hothouse environment of Atlantis, he does fine. Proof enough.

"Sounds wonderful," he says with what he hopes isn't too manufactured enthusiasm. "I'll send Woolsey an email right now requesting leave."

******************************

The piano arrives, with the portrait, and Rodney, in a fit of generosity, emails Dave Sheppard his thanks and a bonus bone:

Dave, piano arrived with the portrait. Smart move on your part. I'm surprised to see that John's intelligence isn't a genetic anomaly. Based on collective stupidity of the people that I had the misfortune of conversing with at your dinner table, it's obvious that all the brains came from your mother's side. Thank you. FYI. I hacked into your system just for the hell of it and your comptroller is embezzling a cool half million a month. I'm pretty sure she must be in cahoots with your forensic accountants, because any analysis for the IPO would have turned this up. Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD."

Rodney co-opts all of Atlantis into his schemes. Woolsey's love of music means he's a slam dunk, but Rodney still needs some sort of formal approval because Rodney's determined to house the piano in his labs. Rodney only has to mention in passing that Johnny plays Bach like Gould and Woolsey's sold. A week after they get home, John finds himself on the north side of the city defending the honor of the USAF against USMC in a game of Grand Theft Auto, while Johnny is shooed to botany for a day to "learn about green things." Atlantis' architecture veers between the claustrophobic and the cavernous--with little in between--so they knock down a couple of walls here and one wall there (including Kavanaugh's old office, the high from that lasts Rodney for two days) so the piano fits with the added bonus that he will be able to hear Johnny playing. The Corps of Engineers staff respect John and everyone on base adores Johnny, so the work goes smoothly and there's no visual evidence that these rooms have been renovated. He will spring his presents on them (plus piano lessons two nights a week in S.F. with someone who knows what in the hell they are doing) when they return from their Christmas holidays.

Because Jennifer is truly a nice person she suggests splitting the Christmas holidays between Vancouver and wherever. The first three days at Jeannie's are pretty good, except Jeannie, while being pleasant to Jennifer, is ticked at him and won't say why, and Madison keeps asking about John. To which Jeannie keeps saying, "Yes, how is John?" Rodney knows there's subtext there up the wazoo but damned if he knows what it is. He ignores her. They land in St. Paul, and Rodney is on his best behavior the entire drive to Chippewa Falls, the sad little town where the Keller family are largely domiciled. Determined that there will not be a repeat of Thanksgiving, Rodney has every intention of staying "nice" the entire time.

Jennifer is the sort of person who learns from her mistakes, and Christmas dinner is a small intimate affair of only eight people, not including him and Jennifer.

Unfortunately, those eight are all related to her.

He says nothing when that odious Aunt Ingmar comments on his table manners (or lack thereof).

He says nothing when Aunt Marjorie announces that Rush Limbaugh should run for president.

He says nothing when Jennifer's father begins questioning whether NASA has a purpose anymore.

He says nothing when he reaches for a piece of apple pie and Jennifer's brother says in a loud voice, "Gee, Rodney, you really think you need that piece of pie?"

He survives four days where he literally says a total of fifty sentences and three of them are, "Do you want to fuck?" and the other two are requests for the salt. The other forty-five are "Oh, really," repeated over and over, which seems to be the only relatively innocuous response to the imbecilic and ill-informed statements coming out of the mouths of Jennifer's nearest and dearest.

On the flight home he tears apart the latest issue of the Journal of Astrophysics, trying to convince himself that he hadn't lost any brain cells in the wilds of Minnesota or Wisconsin or wherever in the hell they'd been, when Jennifer taps him on the shoulder and says, "Wasn't that a lovely holiday?" He breaks off their relationship before they even collect their luggage.

*****************************

Rodney isn't back in Atlantis two hours before he's convinced that he has made a horrible mistake. Maybe they can make it work by limiting the visits to the hellish relatives. Of course, he doesn't include Jeannie or Mads in that calculation; it's all about limiting the visits to her hellish relatives. On his way to Jennifer's quarters to suggest that they get back together, he hears a bunch of hooting and hollering coming over his com link. He makes a detour to the pier where the launches are berthed, just in time to see Sheppard and Johnny return from their Christmas holiday. Johnny had wanted to go back to Dave's house for Christmas and didn't stop pouting until John bribed her with spending Christmas at Squaw Valley skiing.

It's kind of cute. Matching father and daughter leg casts.

"Did they give you a two for one discount?"

Sheppard glares at him and that scowl on his face is so John, so unbearably John, that it shocks him into silence. Rodney manages to cobble together a grin to stay in character, but now he can't deny that even as he and Jennifer tried to triage a doomed relationship, the Sheppard factor was converging. As he watches the two of them trying to navigate the deck of Atlantis with crutches, he stifles the scream of frustration tickling the back of his throat. Because he is an idiot. Because he is a moron. Because now there is no going back. Even as much as he would like to. With the certainty that one plus one equals two, Rodney now knows that any relationship with Jennifer will now never advance beyond the inevitable trips to the infirmary for his yearly prostate exams.

It doesn't help that John's reaction to the portrait and the piano is to pull Rodney forward and touch foreheads in an act of such open affection and approval that Rodney wants to burst into tears right there and then. Because John's lazy, slouchy, no-worries persona hides what Rodney knows to be someone who is equally as uptight as he is; John is just better at hiding it. John hides it so well that you don't know that he walks around judging everything and everyone and having people come up short until the day he actually approves of something you do, and then it's complete and utter nirvana. Like getting a smile from an angel. And the only thing that saves John from being a total asshole is that he's harder on himself than he is on anyone else. If he's judging you by some ridiculous private Sheppard Code of Conduct, then ramp that up threefold and that's what he expects of himself.

They stand there with their foreheads touching, Rodney thinking, Doomed, I'm doomed, until Johnny jolts out of her shock and barges between the two of them to give Rodney the hug of his life. Then Rodney really has to get a grip because he remembers what it was like to love the piano that much. The power of the hug is only matched by the wrenching away as Johnny flies to sit down at the keyboard and begins to play Bach, clearly in honor of Rodney.

Reminiscent of that night when he first heard Johnny play, John is standing behind him, sort of slouching into Rodney as they bask in the mathematical genius of a Bach Invention. When that finishes, she pounds out a jazzy riff on "I Walk the Line." He and John are standing so close that Rodney can feel the in-and-out of John's breath on his neck. One more breath, one more soft huff and he will go crazy.

Pulling away and murmuring something about putting the music over the P.A. system, he can't stop the shakes even as the formal sounds of the "Marines' Hymn" fills the hallways.

******************************

He wants more. It's that simple. And it's not like he's compensating for the loss of Jennifer. It's completely separate from his relationship with Jennifer and, well, anyone for that matter. Unique and totally John, he knows without question that he could never "break-up" with John. Ever. No matter what the configuration of this whatever is between them--certainly friendship, teammates, colleagues--Rodney's dick is now onboard with lovers--whatever, it's permanent and part of him, like his lungs. Goddammit.

Is he suddenly embracing his gay? There had been that six months where he'd had that affair with the head of the Organized Research Unit administering his National Science Foundation grant. Looking back on that, God, talk about plain, old-fashioned sexual harassment. He was underage for Christ's sake. But he'd always assumed that was because women weren't giving him the time of day--given he was at least six years younger than they were and super skinny and if people thought he was obnoxious now! That brief but relatively satisfying affair--hand jobs and blow jobs whenever he wanted one--didn't make him question his sexual orientation. At the time it felt like he preferred McDonald's fries, but here he was driving by a Burger King and he was very hungry. Yes, there have been a few men over the years where it had felt more like a scientific curiosity--where he'd see someone eating the end of a pencil erasure and wonder what his oral sex skill set is like--than what he would call a shift in his het credentials. Now that he is lusting after John perhaps a little reorientation was in order?

Rodney spends three weeks casing out all the men currently stationed on Atlantis because he needs a benchmark. Confirmation that he is, indeed, bi-sexual. Being a scientist, he concocts an elaborate spreadsheet with over fifty attributes that he meticulously fills in until he realizes that the spreadsheet is bullshit and it all boils down to him in love with John Sheppard. Although he also has to admit he would consider a one-off with Ronon because only a fool would turn down that opportunity.

By the time he deletes his stupid spreadsheet he knows everything there is to know about the love life of nearly everyone on base, and were he a gossip, he'd have enough dirt to dish out for the next six months; however, as a baseline for determining his position on the Kinsey scale, it's pointless. He has amassed some useless bonus info.

  • Hernandez is carrying on affairs with six different women, and if there is a spike in STDs, Rodney knows who will be responsible;
  • Link, who everyone assumes is gay, is madly in love with Cadman, who doesn't even know he exists;
  • Johnson has the hots for Major Lorne, who doesn't even know she exists;
  • Radek has a hobo, Czech, cutie-pie thing going on; and
  • Ronon is most definitely the man, in more ways than one

Apparently not all that whole, "We're Americans. We're Marines. We can't let that alien with the dreads make us look bad" crap that exhibits itself in the daily sparring sessions is purely stupid machismo. Some of the guys get off on it, as in, really get off on it, and what is obvious is that Ronon knows and is amused by it. For the rest? Ronon's been cleaning their clocks for five years and he's going to continue to clean them, so just deal.

This says to him that this is a "John" thing. That for some crazy reason he's reached a tipping point with John. That to not share a physical extension of what they've attained emotionally is, ironically, obscene. Or at the very least not right. He suspects it had something to do with Johnny, but damn if he knows why.

Rodney doesn't fantasize having sex with John Sheppard, because, truthfully, he just can't envision it. Plus, he's come to the conclusion that John might be a front runner for the Nobel Prize in flirting, but aside from Chaya, there really hasn't been anyone else. John always defends that pathetic episode by couching it in terms of Ancient genes mumbo jumbo, not hormones gone wild, and while Rodney publically snorts huffs of blatant derision and rolls his eyes in complete skepticism, privately he acknowledges that it was probably more cerebral than physical. Sheppard talks/flirts a great game, and it's not like there aren't legions of women (and, he suspects, some men) who wouldn't love to bed him, but there is that constant distance. Look and laugh and flirt back all you want, but please note the demilitarization zone. Cross that line, sucker, and your emotional shit is going to get blown-up. Basically an emotional North Korea, Rodney is convinced that on some level John really resents that the team has breached his emotional defenses, but also really appreciates it, and if that doesn't define what an emotional fuck-up John is, nothing does.

Had you asked Rodney what John's sexual orientation was six months ago, you would have had to listen to a bullet-by-bullet account of what Rodney privately referred to as Alien Princesses on Parade. However, having given it much more thought than was healthy, he had to admit that while all these women were in panty-melt mode over John, aside from Chaya, Rodney couldn't recall any true reciprocation on John's part. It was flirt with Alien Princess A to find out if they had a ZPM. Woo Alien Princess B to get her to unlock the cell door. Hit on Alien Princess Fill-in-the-Blank to save their lives. It was always schmoozing with a purpose now that he thinks of it.

All that Rodney can say with any certainty that John is John. And it's more than enough. John could very well be neuter, having determinedly over time excoriated every sexual impulse out of himself because sex always involves other people. Except for that time when he was twenty-four and impregnating cocktail waitresses. Given that John's general message is a blanket "don't ask, get the fuck away from me," Johnny Clark was probably the result of copious amounts of free-floating testosterone with a Jack Daniels' chaser. Even though he's sure that John did and continues to do agonized guilty emotional back-flips over his failed marriage, Rodney suspects that John married Nancy knowing full well it would end in divorce, thereby putting him in the perfect position to castigate himself for the rest of his life. Which doesn't tell him squat about John's position on the Kinsey scale, unless one's charting sexual self-destruction.

So assuming John even swings Rodney's way, which is highly doubtful--whatever temporary exuberance produced by youth, whiskey, and slide guitar, John has now programmed himself to swing no way, no how--Rodney is certain that he and John aren't physically matched. Rodney is a greedy lover, a cuddler, someone who likes a lot of foreplay and kissing. He suspects that John is something of a slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am fucker, Johnny being as conclusive evidence as any. Initially it was probably easier and cleaner, but now, it's just his operating procedure. In fact, Rodney's dead certain that should they ever actually have sex, it will be the most awkward and unsatisfying sex of his entire life. Despite John's physical grace, he is only easy and masterful with inanimate objects: skateboard, surfboards, footballs, and golf irons. Switch out a surfboard and put a living breathing person in there and John is lost. It's awkward shoulder bumps, claps on the back, and manly, firm but brief handshakes. The more Rodney thinks about it, the more he's convinced that any sex they have will be like teenage sex. Completely lacking in finesse, not knowing where to put hands and going forward because of blind want. He still wants it, however, in all its repressed glory. Because it's John.

Despite all this, Rodney has an ache in his psyche that manifests itself as an ache in his dick that he believes that only John can ease. Plus, there's the bully factor to consider. If anyone can bully John into having at least semi-decent sex it's Rodney McKay.

Rodney responds the only way he knows how. He starts hitting on anything with tits.

*****************************

The voice over the mike is John's "kill" voice. "McKay. My office. Now."

John never uses his office unless it's to bust people or get in few rounds of Grand Theft Auto with Lorne, so Rodney's not surprised when he enters the room and John's fists are bunched in anger, like he wants to hit him.

"I so don't want to have this conversation, McKay."

John begins pacing back and forth behind his desk in long, furious strides. His office isn't very big so it's an about face every five or six strides. When Rodney was six his parents took him to a circus--they were still under the delusion that they had a normal child--and there was an exhibit outside of the circus tent of the animals that were going to appear in the show. Rodney saw this panther, miserable, pacing back and forth in his fourteen-by-six cage, the anguish and rage palatable in every step. This panther had nothing on John at this moment.

"What the fuck, Rodney? I've gotten six complaints from various women who say that you're being a sexist jerk. Like really jerky. More than your usual cluelessness and rudeness."

Rodney can't say, "I'm in love with you and desperately trying not to be because that way lies madness, and I'm hoping that some woman will make me forget you for a while. A night. An hour. I'm not too picky at this point," so he says nothing, mortified and humiliated beyond all reckoning.

John interprets his silence as a protest. If John was angry before Rodney came in the room, he's shaking with rage now.

"This is your first and last warning. Put your balls on ice or the next warning is going to be official and I will personally put it in your file."

Rodney appreciates how horrible this is for John. That at this point the barriers between John as the CMO and Rodney as the CSO are very, very thin. So thin they are invisible. That John resents like hell that Rodney has put him in this situation. John isn't as angry at Rodney as he had been after Doranda, but Rodney knows he's fucked up big time. The part of him that loves John is grateful for the distance that will inevitably follow. The part of him that loves John is so nauseated at the thought that Rodney's is currently at the top of John's "People Who Have Failed Me List" that he wants to hurl his lunch into the nearest wastepaper basket. He doesn't say anything, just nods and leaves.

That night "Ain't Misbhavin'" comes in through the PA system.

*****************************

Rodney shuts down. He stops making eye contact with John, although that is probably unnecessary because John is, most likely, not making eye contact with him. Over the years, Rodney and John have had their fights, and the base has learned to work around their spats. By tacit agreement, Johnny has breakfast with Ronon and John, and her lunches with Rodney. Dinner is an MRE washed down by a cold beer. In the past when this had happened Teyla usually trots out Athosian homilies about trees and leaves falling and fields being sowed and seeds sprouting, none of which ever made any sense, but the subtext is clear. Ronon usually just says, "Cut this shit out."

This time is clearly different. They wait, dividing their free time between the two of them, as if they know why Rodney has been acting like such an unmitigated ass. One day the epiphany that they know that Rodney has been hitting on women in an attempt not to hit on John is so humiliating that he hides in his room for a solid week, claiming he has the flu.

The only bonus to come out of this situation is that Jennifer once again shows what a marvelous person she is. She shoves aside any resentment over their break-up and visits him most nights, and doesn't comment when he doesn't so much as sneeze or cough once. She changes his sheets and fluffs up his pillows, and brings him hot thermoses of chicken noodle soup, his favorite kind. Sure, the first few weeks after their break-up she had been short-tempered and snappish with him, but it's not like he could ever call her on it because he is short-tempered and snappish as a default. Basically, Jennifer is too normal, not nearly neurotic enough to be anything more than a temporary visitor passing through Atlantis. Whereas Rodney is almost a prisoner in that here he thrives, elsewhere he fails. The running joke of Atlantis being the Pegasus equivalent of the "Island of Misfit Toys" is hammered home once again.

After he slurps down the soup, they lie side by side on his bed working their way through her endless supply of stupid 1930s comedies until finally Rodney hits the "off" button to the remote. "If I see one more happy ending, I'm going to erupt into a psychotic rage."

She laughs and runs a hand through his hair. "Got to go anyway. I've got surgery in the morning." She scratches his stubble. "Shaving might be a good idea. Time for you to go back to work. You okay?"

He shrugs and then nods. "I'm really sorry. You're such a nice woman; you deserve a nice person."

"Yes, I am," she says with a bit of spunk. "I'm sorry, too. I think you're nice, but maybe not nice enough."

"Let's be honest. I'm a first-class jerk."

"Sometimes. Maybe a lot of the time. But I still miss you. I'm not sure he deserves you."

Rodney isn't surprised that she's sussed out his secret--after she knows him--but he trusts her. He kisses her gently on the cheek. Two years ago he would have said something along the lines that even if he weren't madly in love with John, her relatives were so loathsome that any relationship between them was doomed to failure. Now what he says is, "We would have only worked here; if we stayed on Atlantis. I don't think you want to stay here forever, and I can't see living anywhere else."

She runs her hand through his hair again, slowly, her face pensive and sad, like she's committing to memory the feel of her hand through the silk of his hair. "No, I've got another two years here and then I'm done. I'm dating Berger over in linguistics now. He's from Wisconsin too. We have a lot in common."

Like so many of them on Atlantis, Berger is yet another precocious genius. Awarded his PhD at twenty, he doesn't look any older than thirty and even aside from the Mid-west roots, is far more appropriate for her. Rodney feels really old and inadequate.

"Foreplay consists of discussing snow and mosquitoes."

"Something like that," she replies, followed by a naughty laugh. She gets up, tugs on his big toe on her way to collecting her DVDs and then leaves his room. They both know that short of him accidentally slipping on the dirty laundry strewn across his floor and breaking his leg in three places that she won't be back.

*****************************

When he stumbles into the lab haggard and sporting a week-old beard, everyone in the lab stares at him. Clearly, they thought he was faking the flu and sulking in his room. Which he totally was. When Teyla sees him in the mess, fumbling with a cup of coffee, she walks up to him and brings their foreheads together. Rodney drops the cup on the floor and has to dig his nails into the palms of his hands so he won't start crying.

He resumes his normal schedule. Johnny's overjoyed to see him. Letting out a very un-P.C. rebel yell, she hugs him so hard that Rodney actually squeaks. Although it seems like things are back on track--meals together resume, thrice-daily harangues berating the staff occur with their usual regularity--they aren't really. He'd done an excellent job of faking the flu, and he's doing an equally superb job of acting normal. Well, as normal as Rodney gets. Now beset with horrible insomnia, he find himself in the lab at one, two and three in the morning playing the piano, relearning all his old favorites. When he was younger he had loved the mathematical precision of Bach and the cheeky humor of Mozart. Now he's a hell of a lot older and Bach is too chilly and Mozart a little too arrogant. Beethoven comes close, but it's Chopin's etudes that capture perfectly how he feels: despair and longing, hand in hand. After an hour or two of fighting the keyboard with his now clumsy fingers, he finds he can sleep.

It's really a no-brainer when he hears the door open one night and someone slides next to him on the piano bench. He knows it's John even before he can smell the cheap alcoholic tang of Aqua Velvet. Rodney made a joke once about John being an Aqua Velvet man and laughed himself sick when John said, "What's wrong with Aqua Velvet?"

Rodney stops playing and eases the lid down on the keys. They sit there side by side for several minutes, Rodney relishing the warmth of John's arm and thigh against his own until John says, "Rodney, what in the fuck is--"

Rodney cuts him off.

"John, there are things you can't and won't talk about. We all respect that. I can't talk about this. Don't ask me again."

If anyone understands the concept of not talking it's John Sheppard.

"Yeah, but are we okay?"

Rodney quietly digs his nails into the wood of the piano bench, looking for purchase. Silently congratulating himself on basically accomplishing the impossible, he says in a normal voice, "Yeah. We're good."

*****************************

Teyla isn't fooled, but everyone else accepts that John and Rodney have "made-up." Spring is about turning seventeen, studying for the SATs, and baseball (John buys season tickets for himself, Rodney, Ronon, Lorne, and Johnny to watch the Giants; Rodney grumbles non-stop until he actually attends a game and then shuts up because the food at Pac Bell Park is fantastic). The basketball league starts up again (Rodney's team once again kicks ass), and Dave Sheppard issues Johnny an invitation to spend the summer with them on the Costa del Sol in Spain. Rodney's cynical enough to think that what they want is free babysitting rather than quality family bonding time and privately John agrees. But he doesn't fight it this time, and John and Lorne take Johnny to the airport and see her off. Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla are waiting for John's return on the pier with a six-pack of beer and a bottle of Jack. Lorne has agreed to babysit Torren for the night. The three guys get rip-roaring drunk, and Rodney wakes up at dawn to find all of them asleep on the pier, curled around each other like kittens. At some point, Teyla had supplied pillows and covered them with blankets. Rodney and John are holding hands, but fortunately their hands are under the covers so no one can see; the trigger callus on John's thumb is rough against one of his knuckles. Rodney doesn't pull away and goes back to sleep. When he wakes up again, John and Ronon are gone for their morning run and it's only him and Teyla.

*****************************

Atlantis mourns Johnny all summer, pouting and expressing her displeasure in a series of mechanical mishaps that are not serious but keep Rodney busy morning, noon, and night. Although most of these glitches are something that a menial grunt should handle, everyone knows that by this time anyone but McKay attacking her with basic computer code or pry bars, and she will royally screw them over by completely flooding the North Tower or killing their hot water for weeks. At one point, when he and John are up to their ankles in sewage, he screams at the top of his lungs, "Goddammit, she's coming home next week. Will you give me a fucking break!" John, who is on tool detail handing Rodney wrenches and C-clamps, donkey brays in laughter. "Bitch," Rodney pants out in between guffaws and suddenly they are back to normal. After five showers--if he could have boiled his feet in bleach he would have--Rodney wonders if she's been so pissy because Johnny's on vacation or because he and John have been on the outs.

*****************************

They haven't taken Johnny up in a puddlejumper yet because of the strength of her gene; the last thing they need is for Johnny to sneak into the jumper bay and try to take one out for a "joy ride." But for some reason John insists on getting clearance to use a puddlejumper to pick her up. Johnny's plane is late, so they nurse a couple of beers at the bar waiting for her to come in.

"Sometimes I wonder if we did the right thing. I mean she's not driving a car, going to dances, any of that crap."

"I didn't do any of that and look how well I turned out."

When John smiles--really smiles, not smirks--Rodney always considers is a huge victory.

Johnny is last person off the plane. They'd gotten cryptic emails from her all summer, all along the lines of "Swam today," "Tried clams today," Got sunburned today," so exactly how good a time she had is open for debate. In contrast to the tan that would make George Hamilton weep with envy--like her father she soaks up the sun like a sponge--Johnny's also got plane hair and exhaustion written in every move. And between the time she flew out in June and came home in August, she's acquired what Rodney fondly refers to as the Sheppard No Fly Zone, where her body language is plainly screaming, "Don't ask me any questions!"

Rodney has never been any good at obeying those signals, but at John's eyebrows, wriggling for Rodney to stay quiet, he only gives Johnny a hug, and then grabs her carry-on, only to then hand it to John with a relatively innocuous, "Let the Colonel carry that for you."

They trudge down to baggage claim in silence, and it's not until they are standing at the carousel waiting for her bags to appear Rodney says anything.

"So grim, huh?"

Johnny ignores Rodney and turns to John. For the first time since she arrived eleven months ago, she faces him without her habitual scorn. In a voice that might be angry but isn't angry at him, she growls out, "Okay, I get it."

Rodney braces himself for the inevitable Sheppard fail, because this is about connecting and sharing and doing all those emotional bridges that John has spent most of his life sabotaging. But he doesn't.

"Sorry, kiddo. I wish it were different."

"Me, too," she says in a small voice.

For all of John's physical grace with inanimate objects like golf clubs, surf boards, and guns, anything that involves human interaction is like watching the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. With an awkwardness that actually looks painful, John slings an arm around her. For a fraction of a second Johnny leans into him and then spies her bag and breaks away.

"I've changed my mind. We did the right thing."

"You think? That's why you insisted on the jumper. Dazzle her a little bit. Mitigate the effect of the rich and famous?" John begins fidgeting with the strap of Johnny's carry-on. "I don't think you have anything to worry about."

*****************************

Johnny nearly pisses with excitement at riding in the jumper, and now they have to add near orgasm while in flight to the list of traits she shares with his father. The Gate Room is filled with balloons, streamers, and people welcoming Johnny home. Atlantis goes berserk the second she steps out of the jumper, and even with Rodney's half-assed gene he can feel how much Atlantis has missed her.

Blushing like crazy from all the attention, the first words out of Johnny's mouth are, "Where's Major Lorne?"

Rodney has a bad feeling about this, which is only confirmed when he catches John's eye.

*****************************

It was like they were all holding their breath for months and months. Because now that father and daughter are at least on the same page about why being a Sheppard sucks hairy donkey balls, the Cold War that has been raging between the two of them seems to have reached a state of détente, and a metaphorical collective "whoosh" of relief wafts through Atlantis' halls. Johnny still makes a point of needling John every chance she gets, but it's not as pointed, and John has started smirking again, always a good sign.

Classes with the staff resume, and despite a hyper-vigilance on both Rodney and John's part, there appears to be no cause for alarm. By mid-October, as they are walking down the hall after a senior staff meeting, John says out of the blue, "Seems okay." Rodney knows exactly what he's talking about and nods. The last thing they need is for Johnny to develop a crush on Major Lorne.

The month of November is devoted to college aps. Johnny aces her SATs with perfect scores, which is not surprising considering that she's being tutored by some of the smartest people on the entire planet. Rodney appoints himself as major domo in charge of the college ap procedure. He lies awake nights debating what music school would be better: Berklee, Julliard, or Oberlin? All three of them have their pluses and minuses. Berkee is a better school than Oberlin, but possibly too snotty. Johnny might have to fight the impression that she's nothing more than a southern hick. Rodney relegates Julliard to the bottom of the list, the last resort, because the snotty factor there is threefold. Plus it's hard to imagine Johnny navigating the streets of New York, even while acknowledging that John is the only person whose scores at the firing range are better than hers. Which is mitigated by the fact that she can now kick her father's ass at sticks.

Auditions are arranged, and when John mentions that maybe Johnny shouldn't put all her eggs in one basket, Rodney forwards him the URLs for admission to Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT. Not that any of them have a decent music program, so Rodney doesn't quite understand the point.

It's a one-two punch, the sort of thing that used to happen to them in Pegasus all the time, but now that they are on Earth Rodney's gotten complacent.

There are a number of signs when Rodney looks back. When isolated they don't mean squat, but taken together as a whole, it's like a blueprint for the Titanic.

1. Johnny begins to call John "Colonel Dad."

2. Johnny's fascination with the puddlejumpers doesn't abate. For Christmas, she asks for flying lessons.

3. She starts off the fall with a fascination for Chopin. Rodney thinks that it's because Rodney is still battling with insomnia and leaves the sheet music for the etudes out. (With what used to be characteristic bitterness, Rodney notes that piece that he's been working on for months and still hasn't mastered take Johnny less than a week before it's note perfect.) But then Johnny moves on to the Nocturnes and then Rachmaninoff's piano concertos, and there is an anger to her playing that Rodney notices. He can't articulate why Johnny's playing is angry, Rodney just knows it is.

4. Ronon comes by the lab one day and says to Johnny, "Cut this shit out or I won't spar with you." He says this in front of everyone so that Johnny can't do anything but nod. Rodney conveys this to John and they both waylay Ronon one day in private. All he'll say is that it's between him and Johnny.

5. Letters arrive and Johnny's been granted early admission to Berkeley. At Johnny's embarrassed admission that she "must have aced the interview," Rodney's eyes hit the wall. "What interview?" "That week you were in D.C.," John says innocently. Had they not been serving meat loaf for dinner (Rodney's absolute favorite), he might have pursued it more vigorously. Which might have mitigated somewhat the ensuing firestorm.

6. Having bogarted Thanksgiving and Christmas the year before, they opt to stay on Atlantis and hold down the fort while other senior staff vacation off-base for this holiday season. Jeannie flies down with Madison for a few days in San Francisco for Thanksmas or Chrisgiving, whatever you want to call it. While at dinner at the hotel where Jeannie, Caleb, and Mads are staying, when the issue of colleges comes up Rodney talks for the next fifteen minutes about music schools and the audition schedule. Later he will realize that neither Johnny nor John had contributed a single word.

It all comes to a head when Rodney asks if they would mind detouring to D.C. before heading to Boston for Johnny's audition at Berklee. He and Sam are trying to set-up a meeting with Landry and...

The grimace on John's face and the flush on Johnny's face stops him in his tracks.

"What?"

Rodney can feel the whoosh of John's foot as he kicks Johnny under the table.

"I've decided to go to Berkeley. In math. And then, you know, the Air Force academy. At Colorado Springs."

Rodney doesn't know what's worse, the collusion between the two of them or Rodney's flashback to the moment where his piano teacher tells him that he is nothing more than a decent pianist and not good enough for anything other than teaching and playing in upscale piano bars for extra cash.

"I know where it is, and you cannot do that!" he shouts. All conversation in the mess stops. "We have all these auditions and plane tickets and--"

"I've accepted already. And cancelled the plane tickets and, uh, the auditions. I'm sorry, Doc."

Upending his chair as he shoots up from the table, Rodney doesn't bother to pick it up. He hates both of them. Hates, hates, hates them. It's obvious they've been plotting this for weeks. All behind his back. Letting him go on and on about this music program and that music program, while all the time filling out the paperwork for Berkeley and Stanford and God knows where else. So angry that he is shaking uncontrollably, Rodney by-passes the labs and does something that might earn him a professional rebuke; he leaves the base without telling anyone. He marches down to the pier where the launches are berthed and orders a grunt to take him to the city.

Rodney is not really much of a drinker and definitely not a walker, so all he can do is check into a hotel and spend the next few hours channel surfing, punching the buttons on the remote with such fury that he breaks it and then has to order a second remote from housekeeping.

After several calls to the front desk, there's finally a knock on the door.

He starts haranguing the poor sap on the other side of the door even before he has it open. "I am never staying here--"

It's John. He tries to slam the door shut but John blocks it, and in a physical fight, John will cream him so he just gives up. Of course, he found him. Those damn tracking transmitters they all had administered after John had disappeared.

He is not talking about this. He is not. He will just clam up like the flyboy bastard-in-hell fuckhead standing in front of him always does. Who now decides to talk.

"Don't blame Johnny. It was me. She wanted to tell you from the beginning but she wasn't sure and then we took that ride in the puddlejumper. And... And... She wants to fly."

"Of course she does. OF COURSE SHE DOES!" Rodney shouts.

John probably doesn't even hear the pride in his voice. He can't discuss flying without making it sound like a benediction. And Rodney knows that it's not fair that Rodney is furious that Johnny is recreating her father's dream and not his. It burns, yes, but what hurts down to his very marrow is the deception that went on. For weeks.

"Rodney, don't take this out on her. She's a kid. She's, well, she's our kid."

"Oh, for fuck's sake. Say one more word and I swear, John, I will deck you. I need to say one thing. No, two things. Yes, she is. Our kid, which is why I am so angry that I want to fucking well kill you right now. Two--and I want you to chew on this, Colonel--she will get her degree and go to Colorado and become an officer in the USAF and follow in your footsteps, maybe even best your record for promotions because she doesn't need to say fuck you to every authority figure that crosses her path like you do. And now that they know she has the gene, they will fuck her over a thousand times more than they fucked you over. They will ask her to do things that will make your tour in Afghanistan look like a debutante ball. You parked on the roof? Let's go. And do not talk to me. Seriously, not a word."

*****************************

That is punch one.

Rodney has fallen from grace in John's eyes several times and every time it's hell. But John has never fallen from grace in Rodney's. Being John he doesn't fight it, he just takes it. Teyla and Ronon are caught in the middle, and at Teyla's attempt to smooth the waters, Rodney swears at her for the first time in his life. "It's not me this time, Teyla. Back fucking off."

The base doesn't know what to do. Rodney has never drawn a line in the sand--despite his neurotic compunction to believe he is a total failure at life, John has rarely failed anyone--but this time he has failed Rodney and Rodney doesn't care who knows it. A part of Rodney thinks that John's psyche is so completely and utterly determined to live up to his father's contempt that he should forgive him because John probably alienated Rodney unconsciously. And then another part of him remembers all those times when Rodney screwed up and basically had to metaphorically crawl on his hands and knees for forgiveness, and even then it was months before John would forgive him. He ignores them both, which isn't really fair, but John knows all about collateral damage and he should have thought of that before putting his kid in the line of "friendly fire."

Three weeks into this Teyla and Ronon waylay him in the middle of the night while he's at the piano--apparently it is common knowledge that Rodney combats his insomnia by playing Chopin. She slides onto the bench next to him, takes his hands from the keyboard, and squeezes them tight. She doesn't say a word; she just keeps her hands in his.

"Teyla, he crossed a line."

"This is John," she murmurs, as if there are special rules for John Sheppard, which there are, just like there are special rules for Rodney McKay.

"I know. That's why it hurts so much."

"Johnny," she murmurs. And, yes, he needs to give the kid a pass.

"That I will deal with, but not John."

Ronon appears an hour later and isn't the diplomat that Teyla is, but basically says the same thing: "He fucked up. It's done. This is tearing the kid apart." and then leaves the room.

The next day he walks up to Johnny and says, "It's okay. It's your life. Your decision."

He doesn't bring up how that fulfilling her father's fantasy is a thousand times more stupid than fulfilling his. How her father carries the deaths of Ford, Sumner, Elizabeth, and God knows who else on his shoulders every day. How her father struggles to maintain his humanity in a job that demands he become inhumane so that he can actually do his job. How the sacrifices her father has made for the U.S. military are not commensurate with what they deserve. And how her father would violently disagree with him on this point. What they would agree on is that there is a terrible price to pay, regardless, and Rodney doesn't know how in the hell he can ask his daughter to pay that price. To Rodney, this is the most unforgivable thing of all. Which is why he still is not speaking to John.

Driving people to tears is pretty standard fare--or at least it used to be--and Rodney is always indifferent to their weeping because it's not his fault they are idiots. But when Johnny tears up, Rodney feels like a total dirt bag, so he asks her if the basketball league has started up again. Johnny nods and says the first round is tomorrow and they plan on kicking Science Division's ass.

"In your dreams," Rodney sniffs.

*****************************

Then comes punch two. It's a very slow wind-up, but it packs quite a wallop.

*****************************

Rodney's sudden participation in the basketball league is seen by all as a step toward normalcy, so the mood on the court is jovial, even giddy. Radek is overjoyed to see him--he hates being captain--and with alacrity hands over the clipboard containing their game plan. The SciDiv Raptors are competing against the Marine Monsters, and as long as they keep the ball away from Lorne and keep passing to Simpson (who has become the goddess of three-pointers), then they will win. When they have a comfortable fifteen-point lead, Rodney leaves to take a leak. He stands in the shadow of a beam, watching John watching the game. Rodney has not voluntarily laid eyes on John in three weeks; his cheekbones are sharper, like he's lost weight, and his habitual tan is a little gray, like he's not getting enough sleep. As furious as Rodney is, he can't help but acknowledge this desire to cross the court and shove a sandwich down John's throat and march him to his quarters and browbeat him into taking a nap.

John catches Rodney eye. Rodney looks away and focuses on the first thing that catches his eye. Which is the hunger on Johnny Sheppard's face as she watches Evan Lorne leaping up to make a dunk.

At the senior staff meeting the next morning, instead of shoving his chair back and marching out of the room, his standard M.O. for the last three weeks, Rodney stays in his seat and glares at John to stay in his seat. It says something about the depth of their friendship that they can communicate in eyebrow code. Without being asked, John tells Atlantis to shut the door to the conference room so that they have some privacy.

"Don't think that I've forgiven you because I haven't. But you need to know that our concern last summer was totally justified, as she in wants in this person's pants. In my opinion."

John doesn't meet Rodney's eyes. "Maybe you're seeing things."

"You're right. I am seeing things. I'm seeing your daughter lusting after your second in command!"

"Look, I'm sure--"

Rodney gets up, blasts Atlantis to open this door right now, and leaves the room. He doesn't have the patience for this anymore.

*****************************

Now that Rodney's radar is activated, it's obvious to him that Johnny has a huge crush on Major Lorne. Although Johnny is constantly issuing Lorne invitations, to his knowledge Lorne always drags him or John along, which explains the angry piano playing, because Johnny's frustration is mounting. What is worse is that Rodney's suspects that Major Lorne is crushing back, although it's not obvious. Rodney has to search hard to see evidence of it. Lorne is a blueprint for professional army, so he treats Johnny exactly as he should--like the daughter of his C.O. It's when he thinks no one is watching that his defenses weaken. He swallows at the sight of Johnny in a wife beater and camo pants. He blushes at the sight of sweat staining Johnny's tee-shirts after a rousing game of basketball. He makes sure that he never sits right next to Johnny, which is basically a battle of wills, because Johnny's constantly trying to maneuver it so that she's sitting right next to Lorne. Marching into adulthood with an alacrity that takes Rodney's breath away, Johnny Sheppard is at the height of her beauty. She will never be this gorgeous again. It is a measure of Lorne's professionalism that he is mostly successful in ignoring Johnny's constant preening for his benefit.

When compiling his "gay sex gods of Atlantis" spreadsheet, Lorne hadn't been worthy of a field. Rodney assumed his sexual orientation was highly hetero, the type of man who has a passion for buxom blondes who have four children, two boys, two girls, and are always the PTA president. And although Johnny is lithe, dark-haired, and can't muster up cleavage even if she wanted to, Johnny's beauty is formidable; plus, hello, Sheppard charm and smarts. The combination of physical wow, personal charisma, and staggering intelligence is an impossible combination to beat. As Rodney well knows. Rodney has the feeling that it's all Lorne can do to keep her at an arm's length. That he wants her as much she wants him.

This can only end badly. In the middle of a math lesson, John is writing a derivation on the white board when he gets a call from Lorne on his com link. They can't hear the other end of the conversation, but the very idea that it's Lorne has Johnny licking her lips. Rodney snaps. The second John signs off he grabs John's arm and drags him into the corridor and orders Atlantis to shut the door. For once she obeys.

"In your office. Now."

Rodney can count on one hand the number of times he's been in John's office and one of them was when John ripped him a new one for hitting on the staff.

"You have to do something. It's not fair to Lorne."

John begins staring at his desk top, trying to flip a paper clip through his fingers. Rodney slaps his hand and the paper clip goes flying.

"Goddammit, John. Lorne's career is on the line here. You have to talk to Johnny."

"I can't," growls out John. "I tried and I can't."

"It's mutual, by the way, except that Lorne's thirty-five-years old and actually has reservations concerning seducing minors."

At the word "minor" John winces.

"She's going to college soon..." Rodney can't help glaring because it's not the college he envisioned. "Maybe I take a leave and we drive around the U.S. all summer. Maybe we can sign her up for some sort of summer school abroad thing."

"We? I didn't think I was part of the decision-making process anymore."

"Rodney..."

He knows that voice. It's the voice of frustration that Rodney is opening wounds and ripping off band-aids and poking in emotional drawers that should be kept locked. Rodney doesn't care.

"Why, John? Why couldn't you tell me? Why did you have to do an end run around me? Are you jealous of my relationship with her?"

"No!"

That sounds genuine.

"So it's not that you're jealous. Let's try again. Am I that unreasonable? Did you really think that I would think that her attending one of the top mathematics programs in the world would be slumming? It's not like she's majoring in something totally useless like psychology. Apologies, Kate. Yes, the music is important to me and yes I was living out my fantasy of her making it whereas I didn't. But, hello? She lives out my fantasy and the chances of her seeing her thirty-fifth birthday are pretty high. Your fantasy? Shall we run the odds? "

"Don't. She wants to fly. I can't explain."

This is too important to give John his usual pass.

"Try. It's called English and you have a passing familiarity with it."

John does a good job of hiding it, but he's generally quick to anger, often hiding it behind a barrage of sarcastic remarks. It's never fun being on the other end of John's open fury, but he is not letting John get away with his usual shit. Rodney braces himself. But John doesn't respond with the controlled rage Rodney expects. He looks at Rodney, and it's the first direct and honest gaze that they've exchanged in weeks.

"Do you think I want her flying Chinooks like I did, picking up the pieces of dead soldiers? Watching your friend go down in flames from a direct hit from a bazooka. Having yet another friend bleed out in your arms? Or shooting your C.O. in the head to stop a Wraith from feasting on him for intel? I don't want that for her. Are you crazy? But she wants to fly, and I understand that. I think it's the ATA gene."

"And she has to sell himself to the military to do that?"

"Yes."

"Like hell."

"Yes, she does." Like piranha are biting his ass, John gets up and, reminiscent of their previous encounter, starts pacing like a caged jungle cat. "Because flying a plane is good but it's not enough. And flying M-16s is great, but it's not enough. She needs to be here"--the frantic pacing stops and he pounds the wall with the flat of his hand--"and flying that." John flails a hand in the direction of the jumper bay. Implicit in this statement is that it's the same for John. "The only way she can do that is through the U.S. military. This is her home and always will be whether we like it or not." Rodney has no response to this because this is Atlantis. Yes, sometimes he feels as if he's looking at Atlantis through plated glass, but the only way he's leaving Atlantis is feet first. And he has the engineered gene. Rodney can't imagine what it must feel like to have the pure gene. John plops down in his desk chair, props his arm up on his elbow, and rests his head in the curve of his palm, as if exhausted. "It's not like we have a fucking choice, Rodney."

Rodney is this close to forgiving John, but he's not sure that he wants to. Because forgiveness means Rodney's emotional barriers are weakened. Yes, there it is again, that heat in his groin, a delicious tightness in his chest, a glow all over--desire and longing and love--although a little muted than in the past because John has been a real prick and Rodney isn't a saint; he's a grudge holder. In the past he's never been able to hold a grudge against John for any longer than two days; however, this time had been different. Plus, it had been so nice to be free of all that wanting and not having. If he stays in this room any longer he will be asking John to forgive him.

"Talk to your daughter. Lorne's too good a soldier and a friend to sacrifice because your kid's hormones are going crazy."

John nods but Rodney knows he won't. And then Evan Lorne requests a transfer.

*****************************

John walks into the lab in the middle of the morning, something that he hasn't done in weeks, with that firm-chinned grimace that usually signals impending disaster. Rodney knows this is serious and gets up from his chair. They walk to the pier in silence, ignoring all of Atlantis' little pouts of displeasure. Johnny has been shipped off to a music camp that morning for two weeks. A catastrophic failure of the desalination system is probably only three hours away.

A thermos of coffee sits on the pier in a gesture of reconciliation, and Rodney feels his resolve begin to melt again and even worse, his dick begins to twitch. They sit down and John pours him some brew. John must have used the coffee press in Jennifer's office because it's Peets' Jamaican Blue Mountain--basically nirvana in a cup--and not the sludge that the mess produces. The coffee is perfect.

Rodney takes one gigantic gulp and sighs in pleasure. "You are such an asshole." But he says it with affection and John knows it.

"Yeah, but you're an asshole, too, so it all works out."

And if that isn't the whole point. For one brief second Rodney lets down all those emotional walls he's been frantically building for the last year and thinks to himself, I will always love this man.

"So why are you plying me with coffee?"

"Lorne's resigned."

"What?" Rodney screeches and then dials it back in response to John's hand signals to tone it down.

"Yeah, wouldn't tell me why. Said he needed a change of pace. I told him no. Tore up the paperwork in his face and then waylaid him by suggesting that he go on special assignment to Cheyenne for the summer to train a new batch of recruits. So we're okay for now. But we need to do something."

"We, paleface?"

"Don't go all racist on me, Rodney. I'm serious. We need to talk to her when she comes back. I can't do it by myself, I'll screw it up, and I don't want to ask Teyla because that compromises Lorne."

"Chain of command blahblahblah and, hello, maybe as her father you should handle it?"

"Something like that."

"Technically, she's legal."

"Rodney," John growls out.

"Sorry, okay, when she comes back."

"Thanks, buddy. Stop bogarting the coffee. Is there any left?"

John reaches for the coffee cup. Their hands brush briefly, and it's like someone swiped a hot match along Rodney fingers. He is so screwed.

*****************************

Johnny's return to Atlantis is much like her return the previous summer. Atlantis does little sentient cartwheels of joy, the staff is overjoyed that she's back, and the first person she looks for when she enters the mess is Evan Lorne. Who is currently on special assignment at Cheyenne.

In response to Lorne's absence, Johnny reverts back to the surly angry child that she was when she first arrived on Atlantis. She takes all her meals in their quarters, plays the piano for hours and hours, doesn't utter a single sentence that isn't replete with obscenities, and treats everyone with the contempt that she used to reserve for her father. The only people she treats with any modicum of respect are Woolsey, Teyla, and Ronon. Which is totally calculated politesse. No one in their right mind wants to piss off Teyla or Ronon, and Woolsey has the authority to bounce her truculent ass off the base. Now that she's officially done with high school, she has a lot of free time. She blows off horse-riding camp, another stint at music camp, and a hiking trip in the Sierras that had been planned for months. When she's not holed up in her quarters, she's taking the launch to San Francisco. They say nothing when she comes back to base with seven new piercings and three new tattoos, but they can't ignore when she returns to base falling down drunk, so drunk that John has to physically lift her out of the launch. At that point they decide to have the talk. As soon as she sleeps off her drunk.

Loaded up with a huge carafe of orange juice and a cocktail of vitamins that Jennifer swears will cure her hangover, Rodney and John wait for her to emerge from her quarters. Which she doesn't do until about 1:00 pm. The telltale stench of sick precedes her. At the sight of them she whirls around to reenter her quarters, but is foiled by John having a little one-on-one with Atlantis. Her door whooshes shut and although Johnny stands there swearing at Atlantis to open up, for once she doesn't obey.

Rodney rattles the pill container. "Dr. Keller says these will kill all the hangover cooties. Continue to be a brat and you can wallow in your misery for the next twelve hours."

Johnny stares at the pills, stares at the carafe of orange juice on the table, stares at the pills, and then sits down at the table. Not bothering with a glass, she raises the carafe to her mouth and drinks half of it straight down. Rodney chucks her the pills and with a shaky hand, she throws the pills into her mouth and chases them down with the rest of the orange juice.

"So? Don't tell me this is about boozing it up because like you didn't get tanked at my age," she says all 'tude and sass. Much like how her father probably sounded at eighteen.

Rodney bugs his eyes out at John because by all rights he should start this floor show.

"Johnny, no... Sure, I did... But it's not... Look... Okay, you know that this is a military base and that... There's a chain of command... You know how tight all of us are. It's more than just... All of the original Atlantis team are super special... And..." John throws up his hands in frustration. "Rodney?" John begs shamelessly.

Rodney shoots John a look that says, "Can you be any more pathetic?" To which John mouths, "Help."

As someone who was born without the "tact" gene, Rodney just plows on ahead, probably saying all the right things but in the wrong way, but tough.

"Tell us we're wrong, but we, your father and I, think you've got a huge crush on Major Lorne."

"I do not!" she sputters and blushes a zillion shades of red, thereby confirming their suspicions.

"All right, you don't. But if you did, it's super bad idea. Number one. You're the daughter of his C.O. Two, there are rules against fraternization, and don't tell me that you don't know that that is. Three--"

"I'm not in the military yet," she snaps.

"He's not going to jeopardize his rank and respect for his command by even thinking about you as anything more than the teenage daughter of his C.O," John snaps back. "Now stop mooning over him and pouting and acting like a jerk."

Rodney might have been blunt but John is brutal. Johnny colors again and then goes deadly white.

"Well, you'd know, wouldn't you? You know what? He's the only person besides Teyla who asked me about my mother. Do you even know her name? Did you even bother to ask? You didn't ask me. He did. Did you know her name was Jolene and that she had brown eyes that looked like the color of fine Kentucky whiskey? And that she had a voice better than Loretta Lynn but never got a chance to do anything but tend bar because some fucktard fly boy was too drunk to have the goddamn courtesy to pull on a condom. He asked about other things, too. Like who was my favorite musician and could I always play the piano like that and did I like Texas and was it hard growing up without a daddy. You know, all the things you should have asked and didn't, jerk yourself!"

She throws the carafe at him. Of course, he might be a jerk but he's a jerk off with phenomenal reflexes and it misses him by a good yard. It smashes against the wall; Rodney will be combing tiny shards of glass out of his hair for a week.

"I'm sorry," John mumbles.

Rodney is too mortified to apologize because Johnny's rage is completely justified. What in the hell had been the matter with them? And then his mortification turns to total humiliation because she's not done just yet.

"When you've got a handle on your love life, then you can fucking well criticize mine. Jesus Christ, have you guys been doing this for years? Doc pining for you, and you as oblivious as all fuck. Dancing around each other, faux fucking but never whipping it out. If you sucked each other dicks, like it's obvious you're dying to do, then maybe--"

She stops talking. Because the look on John's face is truly terrifying.

Rodney has known John Sheppard for seven years and in every possible situation, but this expression he can't name. It's fear and shock and surprise and something else. Maybe loathing. Maybe this is what finally breaks them. Out of the mouths of babes.

Rodney leaves the room. Fortunately, he makes it to his quarters before he loses his lunch.

*****************************

He takes a hot shower, brushes his teeth six times, and then contemplates his future. He could resign, but he doesn't want to resign. Atlantis is home. He could try to fake it out, like she was a stupid eighteen year old acting out of spite because they were calling her on her inappropriate crush, but he's pretty sure that won't work. Rodney doesn't know what emotions he was broadcasting, but he certainly knew that whatever John was feeling, the one thing that was obvious was that John believed what Johnny was saying. Maybe his face confirmed it. Rodney didn't know, as he was concentrating more on trying to spontaneously combust as opposed to masking his feelings.

Or Rodney can just acknowledge that he loves this maddening, irritating, emotionally stunted idiot and accept that it will never go anywhere, and those are the breaks when you love emotionally stunted idiots. John will probably ignore him for the next one hundred years. Or until one of them dies. Whatever comes first. He lies on his bed for hours, turning this over in his mind. As well as he knows John, Rodney still can't predict how this will play out. His mouth begins to feel like the La Brea tar pits again, and he gets up to brush his teeth one more time. The fog has come in and it's sort of darkish already. "Fuck it," he says out loud and heads for the pier.

His butt barely begins to feel the chill of the metal before he hears footsteps. They must have used a scanner to find him. He's not ready for this, but he supposes short of jumping into the freezing waters of the Pacific Ocean, where he will develop fatal hypothermia in less than 8.2 minutes, he doesn't have a choice.

They loom over him, Rodney can see the silhouette of her latest haircut--it looks like she blindfolded herself and then attacked her head with pinking shears--against the backdrop of the city. She has the same crazy hair as her father, and despite the fact that Rodney's so furious that it's all he can do not to rip her a new one, he also realizes how much he's grown to love this girl. Which is his usual state with John as well. Frustration hand in hand with the deepest affection. Or vice versa. These Sheppards.

"Apologize," says John in his most uncompromising, "I hate Wraith" voice.

She shuffles her feet a few times, coughs twice, and then says in a small voice, so small that Rodney has to lean forward to hear her, "I'm sorry, Dr. McKay."

If this kid hadn't arrived on Atlantis' doorstep, Rodney has to admit that he and Jennifer probably would be married by this point. Blond, beautiful, and smart, Jennifer is a hell of a decent person, and he had loved her. And, well, she was so easy. As opposed to this man, who is, well, first of all a guy, fucked up beyond belief, and basically wrote the book on difficult. And none of it matters. If Atlantis is now without question home, this girl has united them in a way he can't fathom; it's made the three of them a family. Which has nothing to do with whether or not he and John become lovers, and yet has everything to do with him wanting to be John's lover.

"As much as I'm on the verge of verbally blasting you to the point that you will have emotional scars for the rest of your born days, I will not. Because the person you need to apologize to is your father. I am Chief Science Officer. Short of pulling out a gun and going on a murderous rampage, there's not much that will get me bounced out of here. He," Rodney hikes a thumb in John's direction but doesn't look at him, "is different."

Even though her face is hidden by shadow, her voice is still sulky. "DADT was repealed--"

"Don't interrupt. Which means they can't officially can him, but that doesn't mean squat to the thirty percent of the soldiers who are homophobic trolls and even if Jesus Christ himself was Chief Military Officer, they would resent take orders from him. This is why you need to go to college and grow up. Because you've come this close to jeopardizing Major Lorne's career, and if you'd had this recent hissy fit in the mess where half the base could have heard you, then you would have jeopardized your father's."

Rodney pauses to let this sink in because she's so young and she's still so stupid.

"It might not matter to most soldiers, but to the ones it does, it can mean the difference between someone surviving and someone not making it. I don't want to be one of those who doesn't make it because a bunch of homophobic bozos decide not to follow their C.O.'s orders based on the immature screeching of a teenager. And then there's Atlantis." Rodney will never be sure whether that slight hiss he hears is from Johnny or John. "I might be her brains, but your father is her heart, and if you can't keep your hissy fits and pouts and general all around shit to yourself, then you don't belong here. Because he does and he comes first."

"But..."she interrupts, traces of pout still evident.

"No buts. I'm not saying that Evan Lorne isn't a wonderful guy. He is. He's saved my life; he's saved your dad's life. He's what the Marines call stand-up. In fact, I don't think you can do much better, frankly. But back off for a bit. Do him a favor. Grow-up. Go to school and come home on your breaks. And by home, I mean Atlantis. He's not going anywhere. But if you push it, then he'll request a transfer out, and your dad will have no choice but to give it to him. And if he does that, you'll earn the wrath of everyone on this base." Later Rodney realizes that what he says next really has nothing to do with Major Lorne and Johanna Sheppard but is an appeal to John. "If you truly care about him, then you will swallow your disappointment and you will treat him with the respect he deserves. You will not let whatever emotional baggage you're hauling around stop him from doing his job. Because above all else, he is a soldier. Don't take that away from him. He will hate you for it. Now go away before I say something I'll regret."

She doesn't wait for any response from John, but runs toward the city. Like her father she's light on her feet, and almost immediately Rodney can no longer hear the soft sound of the soles of her trainers on the metal of the pier. He waits for John to follow but he doesn't. John sits down and it feels almost normal between them.

After a while John says, "Thanks." His voice is its usual snarky drawl.

"No problem. I find it ironic that I've become the voice of reason in this trio. But then Atlantis and her curve balls."

After a couple of minutes, John says, "Am I supposed to do anything with your curve ball?"

John's voice is a little shy but neutral, and it's both a question and a statement. Rodney thinks, maybe, maybe, it will actually be okay.

"If I were to channel Teyla right now, I'd say, the more things change the more they stay the same. It's up to you."

He lets John chew on that for a bit and when there's no response, he makes to get up. A hand pushes down on his shoulder and stays there. Rodney tries not to lean into it. Tries not to read more into it than it is.

"I'm really bad at, um, things."

Rodney snorts.

"Tell me something I don't know. Unless it's wild mind meld sex with some sort of Ancient slut in a sparkly sarong, of course."

"Hey, I told you it wasn't like that. Sort of."

"And I told you she was an Ancient Mata Hari and was soundly mocked for my phenomenal insight. Which was spot on, I might add."

"I screw things up, Rodney." John's fingers tightened oh so slightly on Rodney's shoulders. "I mean, I can't even be a half-way decent father."

"Whereas my track record with relationships is unparalleled. You're doing okay with Johnny. Not that I'm an expert on child-rearing, obviously, perhaps the one subject on which I admit to being woefully ignorant. But it probably helped that you weren't around for the majority-- Ow, that hurts!" Rodney complained as a finger found some vulnerable pressure point along his collarbone. The finger eased up but the hand stayed. "That was crappy of us not to ask about her mother."

"Yeah. No doubt we'll get a lecture in the morning from Teyla."

They sat there contemplating being dressed down by Teyla at breakfast.

"We don't have to tell her," suggested John.

"Please, she just knows things."

"True. Did she know?"

"Yes."

"Ronon?"

"Yes. Did you?"

Rodney braces himself because this is basically truth time. John's hand is still on his shoulder but Rodney doesn't want to read too much into it.

"Yeah, sort of. But you know. Like you said. Soldier. DADT. Stuff."

Rodney is half-inclined to comment on how a man with advanced degrees from two of the top schools in the world has the vocabulary of a Muppet, but maybe it's just time to face this head on.

"I would never do anything to compromise your command, John. Ever. You know that, right?"

"Yeah." The hand slides down the length of Rodney's arm; a lone finger swipes the inside of his elbow, and then covers his hand. John's hand is strong, warm, and the calluses from years of operating weapons tickle the back of Rodney's hand. If a touch of a finger had had all the intensity of a hot match against his skin, John's hand over his is like an atomic blast, incandescent even. Rodney bites back a huff of sexual oomph.

"Whoa," says John, his voice surprised and even a little happy.

"Pretty much," rasps out Rodney.

"Who knew?"

"Pretty much everyone but us."

*****************************

Rodney isn't sure where this will go in the long term, but in the short term it's taking them to his quarters. He suspects that John is actually gay and that his determination to establish his het cred manifested itself by seducing a slew of cocktail waitresses and even getting married. That John is that clueless about his sexuality doesn't surprise him because this is John Sheppard, an emotionally stunted idiot. Rodney's sexuality? Apparently, he had his own donkey/layers thing going on.

As they walk through the halls on their way to his quarters, Johnny is at the piano, a sultry version of "Making' Whoopee" blasting through the P.A. system.

*****************************

Fin