The sound of the perimeter alarm drove Rodney McKay out of his workspace and to the window at the front of his cabin. He wasn’t expecting a delivery today. It was Monday, and Mondays were his, as were Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tuesdays were solemn days meant for interacting with grocery deliveries and UPS drivers, and god forbid, trips into town. Tuesdays were expected though, he could prepare for them, so the alarm alerting him to the interloper was an intrusion out upon his day to day modus operandi.
He watched as the unwelcomed miscreant boldly lifted the rusted latch on his gate, and the sound of the squeaky hinges cut through the wooded silence, forcing Rodney McKay to protect his cloistered way of life.
“Hey!” Rodney yelled through the window, hiding behind the faded, dusty curtains.
The insolent intruder froze halfway through the gate, eyes wide with confusion and shock.
People for the most part left Rodney McKay alone. He knew of the rumors circulating about him in town, the whispered gossip and speculations, the blatant stares and pointing, but frankly, it didn’t register with him. He liked his seclusion, and liked that people avoided him and his property. It allowed him the freedom to do what he needed to get done without unwarranted interruptions. He chose this mountain so he could communicate with people on his own terms, and those interactions were few and far between, and only when necessary. So, the snot-nosed, waify kid with a full head of dark hair who ambled up his dirt driveway was a first for Rodney, and unbeknownst to him, his four years of living a simple, sequestered life was about to change forever.
The kid swallowed, then raised his fisted hand which contained a crumpled, dirt-smudged envelope. “I-I h-have...”
“I-I...” Rodney mocked his stutter. “Spit it out. I’m a very busy man.”
“I-I,” he took a deep breath, “I found this on my way home from school. My dad said I should bring it to you.”
“What is it?” Rodney asked, still out of sight, safely hidden behind the orange patterned curtains. The kid strained his neck trying to locate the source of Rodney’s voice.
“A l-letter addressed to Dr. M-Meredith R. McKay.”
“Did you steal it?”
“No!” He put his arms down, snapping his chin up at the insult. “I said I found it.”
“Sure, kid. Is this a dare? Your friends put you up to this? How much are you getting for opening the latch to my gate? What about knocking on my door? Bet that’s a big prize.”
“No. I’m not getting anything. No one put me up to it.” He muttered something else under his breath, but Rodney couldn’t quite hear it. He did manage to catch the word ‘friends’ in the mumble.
“Speak up, kid!”
“My name is J.J., not kid.”
“Well, that’s a stupid name,” Rodney said.
“At least it’s not a girl’s name!”
The kid had gumption; Rodney would give him that. “You’ve given me initials. They could stand for Judith-Joyce for all I know. And if it’s a nickname, that’s even worse.” Rodney was a firm believer in a zero-tolerance nickname policy, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he never had one—well he did have one in grade school, but he would never admit to it.
“What do you want?” Rodney snapped.
“I see the schools have done away with teaching conversation skills. What else aren’t they teaching you? Mathematics? Can you count? I’ll give you ten seconds to get off my property.”
“I can count!” The nuisance yelled back, but stayed rooted in place.
“Your comprehension skills are clearly lacking for your age. What are you five? Ten?”
“Geez, I’m seven.”
“And when I was seven, I was on my way to building nuclear bombs. Age is not an excuse.”
The kid’s eyes went wide again, his body stilled for a few seconds, then he dropped the letter and bolted back through the gate, racing down the dirt road until he was gone from Rodney’s sight.
Rodney waited a few more minutes to make sure he was truly gone and there was no one else waiting for him outside. He checked the cameras, angled in all directions on his property, and when he was positive he was alone, he unlocked the two locks and the deadbolt on the steel door, retrieving the letter he’d been waiting for since last week.
It wasn't often Rodney made the trek into town. Most of the supplies he needed he ordered online, and as far as food went, he had a weekly delivery from the local grocery store where he got the basics like milk, a few vegetables and the makings for sandwiches. Over the years, he'd gotten used to the ready-to-eat meals the military used, amassing a large number to stock his pantry, and when times got tough, he'd gladly munch on the MREs in favor of driving into the small, busybody town he used for an address to satisfy the U.S. government.
It was roughly a ten-mile death trap of a winding gravel road down the side of a mountain into town. It was treacherous and distracting enough to allow his anxiety to take a backseat while he concentrated on the road. ‘Town Days’ were a big deal for him. He wasn’t one for medication, they dulled his sharp mind, leaving him with slow reaction times, and the thing about the end of the world was that one never knew when it would happen. He preferred to work his way through his fits of hysterics with breathing exercises and the recitation of Pi in his head to however many decimals he could get to before he lost his concentration. It had gotten better over the years, working for the most part, but some days it didn’t and he couldn’t unlock the front door. Those days he banished himself to his workspace—to his sanctuary—where he spent hours, sometimes days, with his research until he was ready to give the outside world a chance again.
Today, was a good day. He left his cabin without any pause, and once he made that decision to step out into the world, he was fine. He prided himself on how he concealed his affliction by being unassailable and contemptuous to everyone he met. It didn’t help his reputation, but then again, nothing would.
There were a few houses along the road, nestled back and hidden behind trees. Occasionally he would meet a neighbor on his journey, and they all shared the same terrified expression when they saw Rodney McKay's burgundy, 1998 Volvo wagon driving toward them, honking his horn and waving them out of his way.
That sense of survival from his neighbours transcended beyond Rodney’s car and to his person, so it was no surprise heads turned his way whenever he walked into Joey's Diner.
Sitting at the counter on the closest stool to the door, he pulled the daily newspapers toward him, checking to see if anything interesting was happening in the world.
"Dr. McKay," the young girl said from behind the counter as she poured him a coffee, and then glared at the two patrons whispering in the corner who were pointing in Rodney’s direction. He could never remember her name, ‘Joey’s’ niece or something related, but he appreciated how she tried to protect him from the harsh murmurs.
"Gracing us with your presence again?” she teased. “That's twice this month. If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were beginning to like us.”
"Please. I wouldn't have to be here at all if that sorry excuse for a post office kept regular hours or actually delivered my mail instead of dropping it in the road. What kind of federal office closes in the middle of the day? I tell you," he wagged his finger, "civil servants are the laziest sons-of—"
"Alfred had to attend to something personal," she said, cutting him off and sparing the rest of the diners from hearing his curses.
"Personal." Rodney snorted. "Well, isn't that nice. Wish we could all just have personal days. Some of us have actual work that needs to get done, and depend on letters and packages to be delivered to do that job. What kind of personal thing could close a post office, anyway? His IBS acting up again? I swear that man has no personal boundaries when it comes to his bowels."
"Funeral," she said, sadly. "His cousin up in Carson City passed away. Had to take his mama to the wake."
"Oh," Rodney said, choking on his coffee. "I suppose that's acceptable."
Someone in the diner laughed. Rodney turned to follow the obnoxious sound, but could only see the back of a head covered by a dusty baseball cap.
"Can I get you something to eat, Dr. McKay?" She brushed her red hair behind her ear, waiting for his order.
"Why else would I be here? It's not the company and it's certainly not the coffee." He glanced at the menu even though he knew what he wanted. "Roast beef, extra mustard, and none of that slaw. I mean it. None."
"How many times do I have to tell you? There's no—"
"You think I trust you? The nearest real hospital is—"
"Yes. I know," she said holding her hands up, "thirty miles."
"I could die in that time.”
"Yes, we know," the cook popped his head through the order window speaking at the same time as the girl.
Rodney heard the braying laughter again, and this time when he turned, he noticed the brown Carhartt jacket hanging next to the booth. The culprit must be a local, he thought. With their sweat-stained ball caps, love of durable, American workwear and pickup trucks, Rodney reserved some sympathy for the young people growing up in this hick town who were struggling with their sexual identity. God forbid someone chose tweed over canvas for a jacket.
Rodney scoffed at the stranger then opened the newspaper, glancing at the pages, continuing his mockery of the headlines while he waited for his food.
"Will this be to go, Doc?" she asked.
"What do you think?"
"I gotta ask," she said, packing up his food, throwing in a slice of coconut pie and some home brewed unsweetened tea. "Maybe one of these days you'll want to stay."
"Not likely." Rodney pulled out his wallet and threw down a twenty. It was the same every time. He never asked for change, but then he never asked for the pie either.
From his left he felt the presence of someone behind him. "Thanks, Angie," said a voice that was all nasal and sounded west coast, but with other places thrown into the mix. A tanned hand sticking out of the Carhartt placed some bills on the counter, then tapped it in a farewell.
"You're welcome, John. See you tomorrow. Tell your ol' man he still owes my uncle that game of chess."
The man tilted his hat, obscuring his face from Rodney, and then he was gone, out the door.
"Here you are, Dr. McKay. One roast beef on rye, extra mustard, and absolutely no slaw."
"Thanks, Angie," he said, mirroring the stranger and grateful for the help with the name—at least until next time when he forgot it again. "See you next month."
"Lord, help us." Angie smiled, revealing two deep dimples in her freckled cheeks.
As Rodney walked out the door he saw the man from the diner, at least the back of him, hop into an old, beat-up Bronco. Typical, Rodney thought, amused he was right about the west coast guess. He didn't recognize the vehicle—Rodney was more likely to recognize cars than faces—and something like that pile of junk would stick out amongst the over-sized dually trucks in this town. From the casual greeting Angie gave him, it sounded like he was a regular at the diner, so maybe the man was new to town, or possibly visiting family. Rodney hadn't realized he was staring until he heard the honk and watched the man drive by waving at him like an old friend. Rodney squinted to get a better look, but the sun beamed brightly maintaining the mystery behind the stranger.
Rodney was underground when the sensors surrounding his property tripped for the third time that week. With all of the animals this spring, he’d come to regret the sensors, but the tripwires were a small price to pay for his safety and peace of mind. He built his private sanctuary with a purpose in mind to protect his research and allow him the freedom to continue without catastrophic interruptions. It took years to get it where he wanted it, and the last and final installations were proving a bit temperamental.
He searched the cameras as he reset the sensors on his system, then did a double take when he saw something that looked nothing like a deer.
Cursing, he bolted through the doorway, pulling the lever to seal the heavy, metal door. He climbed the ladder rungs leading to the lower level of his cabin and up through the metal hatch, taking the wooden stairs two at a time, almost tripping on the tricky third step, and then he burst through the door into his dilapidated kitchen. Hitching the latch, he padlocked the door all within seconds.
“Hey!” he yelled out the window, huffing and out of breath, surprised to see the culprit back for more punishment. “Can’t you read, kid? It says ‘no trespassing’ everywhere on my property. It’s not like you could miss the signs. They’re posted every three metres!”
The kid shrugged, his thick, dark hair bouncing in the slight breeze, sticking up like he’d just woken up and jolted straight out of bed to come to Rodney's doorstep.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“Oh.” Rodney frowned trying to count the days he’d missed. He used to lose track of time when he worked with the air force, projects would consume him and he wouldn't be able to account for days. But that was years ago, and apart from the power fluctuations he was experiencing with the new generator, he wasn’t working on anything that would explain the lost days, other than having nothing or no one to remind him when to take a break.
As he lifted the curtain to get a better look at the trespasser, he caught a whiff of himself and was horrified by the days of sweat that had built up on his body. He needed to move some clothes down to his lab space and shower more regularly while he lost himself in his work.
“What do you want?” Rodney yelled, then sniffed his armpit to be certain the stench was coming from him.
The kid clasped his hands together and bounced on his toes. He stretched his arms in front of him, crossing them as he looked down at his feet. “...really build a...?”
“What? I can’t hear you.” Rodney caught sight of his reflection in the window and didn’t recognize himself. A pale face underneath a week's worth of beard stared back at him. He definitely looked the part of all the rumors the townsfolk said about him.
“Did you really build a bomb?” the kid asked louder.
“Several.” Rodney was never one to lie, and especially not to children. It was how his parents had raised him, and as far as he was concerned, he was the smartest man on the planet. He turned out okay growing up with the philosophy that kids shouldn’t be coddled or lied to without good reason. The world was a scary place, and the quicker they learned that, the longer they would stay alive.
“Why?” Rodney shot back.
“Just because.” The kid shrugged again, placing his hands on the gate as he kicked at the dirt.
“Until you can come up with an educated answer, you don’t deserve to know. Stupidity and bombs don’t exactly mix, now do they?”
“I’m not stupid!”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“It’s not nice to call someone stupid!”
“And who told you that?" Rodney chuckled. "Your mother?”
The kid’s hands turned into fists, and Rodney recognized the look of a tantrum about to happen.
“Get out of here,” Rodney said, resigned to the notion of ending this before it went any further. “I’m not a nice man, and your mother wouldn’t want you hanging around my property.”
“My mother’s dead!” the kid yelled, then turned and bolted down the dirt driveway just like the last time.
There was a brief, yet painful moment, where Rodney’s guilt threatened his dark mood but he pushed it aside, letting it go. He didn’t have time to worry about nosy seven-year-olds and their feelings. Children had no business hanging around his property, and the last thing Rodney needed was a lynch mob from town making its way to his place if word got out a child was seen near his cabin. The rumors he’d heard about himself were not kind, and there was no need to add fuel to the gossip fires. He could only hope his sharp tongue finally scared the kid off for good.
The sound of incessant knocking pulled Rodney away from the arduous task of testing the new generator’s compatibility with his current electrical panel. It was finicky, drawing too much power and taxing the system beyond what it should be with no apparent reason. He was tired, and sweaty, frustrated beyond comprehension and the last thing he needed was the sound of someone knocking on his cabin door.
People never got the jump on Rodney. They never got close enough to the porch without him knowing, and no one ever made it to the door to knock. It was the reason he installed the sensors and trip wires all over his property, but with the installation of the new generator and the modifications he needed to make it run, the power had been on and off intermittently throughout the day.
Flipping the power switch, Rodney glanced to the monitor, cursing under his breath. He didn't recognize the man at the door, however, he did recognize the Carhartt jacket and the Bronco parked at the front of his gate.
“Cue the lynch mob,” Rodney mumbled, wiping his grease-stained hands on a rag.
There were many reasons why Rodney chose this property, and at the top of his list was how remote it was, and yet here he was with two visitors on his doorstep in less than a week. This cabin, this underground space, was his salvation, a place to retreat from the world when the world had failed him. He didn't want to interact with people unless he chose to do so. There were no casual invitations to his place like, 'How about that drink, McKay?' or 'Thought I'd check in on you. See if you needed help with that roof.' Everyone in the town respected the unspoken rules. Unconventional deliveries made their way up the mountain and out-of-town builders came and went, finishing things Rodney couldn't manage on his own, but no one ever asked what he was up to which meant he was happy to let their imaginations run wild. They stayed away from him and he tried his best to stay away from them.
The truth was, Rodney had given up on the world and the people in it. The fate of the earth lay in the hands of idiots, and while he had tried to prevent its destruction, his voice went unheard. There was a time when most considered Rodney an egomaniac, but those years were long buried in scientific journals and bad behavior from his past. He had learned the hard way that he wasn’t infallible. He was still somewhat of an egotist, but he knew all too well the fine line between the two terms.
He didn’t need this interruption today of all days. He should’ve pretended he wasn’t home, but the chance of meeting this stranger in town and having this conversation in public went well beyond Rodney’s delicate balance with the outside world. With a long, insufferable sigh, he unlocked the deadbolts and opened the front door. On his porch was a man Rodney had never seen face to face, and even though Rodney was bad with names and faces, he was certain he’d never forget the long nose, two-day old scruff and the half smirk like there was a secret hidden on his tongue that he wanted to share.
“What do you want?” Rodney said, lifting his chin, and barring the door with his body. The man was easy on the eyes but that was no reason to throw caution to the wind and invite him into his home. He wasn't hot like a few of his old colleagues, but if Rodney was into the west-coast-hair with a slouch persona, then he supposed the man was somewhat agreeable.
“Hi,” the stranger said, managing to turn a two-letter word into a long drawl. “I’m—I’m not sure what to say, here.”
Even though the voice was higher pitched than before, Rodney recognized it from the diner. It was a shame, really, so much potential in that face and body, yet not much going on upstairs. It was always the way with these handy-man types, which is why he'd long ago given up on the idea of finding someone he was attracted to who could carry a meaningful conversation with him. When the world ended, and it would, he would be perfectly content in his solitary sanctuary.
“Yes?” Rodney said, hoping to move along the conversation.
The stranger took a deep breath, then shoved a hand through his hair, rubbing the back of his neck. “I don’t usually do this kind of thing. I prefer to let people fight their own battles, but when it comes to my—”
“I’m a busy man, so if you could speed this up.” Rodney made a motion with his hand, rolling his eyes in the process. The stranger stilled, and Rodney wasn't blind to the clenching of his jaw.
“I’m going to need you to stay away from my kid,” the man blurted out in one breath. His eyes were hidden behind his mirrored sunglasses, but Rodney was certain they were hard like how his voice had turned.
“Your kid?” McKay’s voice went up a few notches. “I don’t even know who you are!”
“I’m John Sheppard.”
“And?” Rodney scoffed.
“And you threatened my kid.”
“I did no such thing.” The image of the kid and his unruly mop of dark hair popped into Rodney's head. Glancing his eyes upward to the strangely similar—yet more rakishly styled—hair, he put two and two together. "You've got your story wrong. I do my best to avoid..." He turned his lip up as he held his hand to his waist to indicate the size of a child. "And I certainly don’t make a habit of speaking to the little...” he held the curse on his tongue, “as much as I can help it.”
“You told my son you were building nuclear bombs, and going to bomb the town.”
“Well," Rodney folded his arms, "your son’s a liar.”
Sheppard was silent for a moment, taking a deep breath before leaning closer to Rodney. “Kids have some wild imaginations, and mine is no exception, but the word nuclear isn’t exactly in his vocabulary, especially when it’s paired with the word bomb!” The man pursed his lips together, taking another deep breath. “The last thing I need right now is my son waking up screaming in the middle of the night, thinking he’s going to burn to death in a flash fire!”
Rodney’s mind replayed the encounter of the kid with the initials, vindicated he was right and this Sheppard was wrong. He’d threatened a number of children on a number of occasions, but his kid wasn’t one of them, and Rodney was appalled by the accusation.
“I never threatened him." Rodney held his chin higher. "He asked if I knew how to a build bomb, which I do. And for the record," Rodney's voice raised an octave, "your son was trespassing on my property. Perhaps you should keep a leash on your brat to stop him from wandering places he shouldn’t!”
“Look,” the man said, shifting on his feet, and Rodney noticed the stranger’s fisted hands. He figured he was about ten seconds away from being punched in the face. “Now, I know J.J. is somewhat precocious, but he’s a kid, and kids are...curious, so I’d appre—”
“How about this?” Rodney stopped him, plastering on a fake smile as he gripped the door. “You tell your son to stay off my land, and I won’t call the cops the next time he decides to be ‘curious.’” Rodney slammed the door, locking the bolts into place. He took three deep breaths staying rooted to his spot. He trembled from the interaction, his heart racing from the idea of this Sheppard invading his space, threatening him for something he hadn’t done. It was all too familiar for Rodney, and just one of the reasons he lived the way he lived. He didn’t need this hassle, and he certainly didn’t want it.
Rodney stayed safely behind the door until he heard boots on the porch steps and the truck’s engine rumble down the road.
Rodney backed away from his laptop, aware his friend was getting up close and personal with the inside of his nose. “We can start simulations early next year. An unlimited source of power,” Rodney said, his voice filled with wonder and hunger. “I’m telling you, Radek, this is big. Like really big. This is the steam engine, the internet, the French fry big.”
Radek Zelenka wasn’t looking at the screen, his attention split between Rodney and what he was working on thousands of miles across the ocean. “Yes. Yes. Big.”
“Why do I waste my time with you when you don’t even listen to me?”
“Because I am only friend and despite my listening but not listening, you need someone to stroke your oversized ego.”
“If that were true, I definitely wouldn’t rely on you,” Rodney scoffed.
Radek was one of the few tolerable people Rodney had met while he was exiled in Siberia. Radek was there to further his career, while Rodney was there because he’d screwed up and an Air Force general took offense to Rodney’s abrasive manners. If Rodney hadn’t given up on the world, he might have joined Radek at his current job with CERN, debating in person rather than through a video feed.
“It is easy to wind you up.” Radek finally looked at the camera, smiling. “Never gets tiresome.”
“Ha. Ha.” Rodney folded his arms. “Did you look at the corrections I sent back? Your power distribution calculations were off. It wouldn’t have been easy to find for someone like yourself, but for me…” Rodney’s grin was smug if not calculating with the intention of baiting Radek into an argument. It had been awhile since they had a heated debate, but Radek sensed the trap, sidestepping around it.
“You say this isolation is self imposed, but I wonder if it is imposed upon you,” Radek said as he pushed up his wire-rimmed glasses. “Hard to say with that thing on your face. You should remove it before you venture out of your cave. People might mistake you for wild animal and shoot you. Who knew you could grow such a thing?”
Rodney rubbed at the hair on his face. It was the longest beard he’d ever grown, scraggly and thick with streaks of white throughout the brown. Since that Sheppard had rattled his senses, Rodney hadn’t ventured upstairs too often, only to meet the odd delivery person or to catch a couple of hours of vitamin D while he worked on the solar panels. He was comfortable underground with his walls and his research. Safe.
“You mock me, Radek, but when the world is faced with destruction, you’ll wish you had heeded my warnings.”
“If total world annihilation happens, I promise to let you get last words in. I wait for the day I hear you say, ‘I told you so,’ before I die in fiery inferno.”
“The least you can do is shield your equipment from EMP. Don’t be an idiot, Radek. I'll need you to help me save what's left of the world when this all goes down. And take my advice, stock up on food and water. Those MREs are surprisingly not bad.” He picked up a white plastic bottle with a black cap and black lettering with the word Soylent on it. “And this stuff, too. It tastes a little chalky but it's a full meal in a cup.” He took a sip, smacking his lips at the thick and gritty taste.
A beeping started, a sensor being tripped again. It had been a peaceful few days since Rodney tweaked the output on the arrays. There were no triggers from smaller animals, only larger ones and they were few and far between.
“What is that?” Radek asked squinting like he could see something in Rodney's lab.
“Just a sensor. Probably a deer or some other pest.” Rodney glanced to the tiny, black and white TV monitors, then cursed as he slammed the bottle on the counter. “Definitely a pest. Have to go.” Rodney closed his laptop before hearing Radek’s protests.
He made the trek upstairs, slower this time, his legs carrying him up the ladder rungs as he wondered if the kid was brave enough to open his gate, or would he mull around the other side of the fence waiting for Rodney to yell at him some more.
“I thought I told you I wasn’t a nice man!” He glanced out the window, tucked safely behind the curtains looking for the kid’s father. “Didn’t your dad tell you to stay off my land?”
The kid squared his shoulders and actually smiled. “My dad says you’re a jerk, but a ‘harmless ree-cloose.’”
“You don’t even know what recluse means,” Rodney scoffed.
“Then you underestimate me being harmless.”
“But you wouldn't hurt me.” The kid put his hands on the gate, lifting his chin. His head was tilted, and his mouth had turned up into half smile, like he dared Rodney to yell at him for the brave intrusion.
“You and I both know that's not true.” Rodney snorted.
“Not on purpose.” He blinked against the sunlight.
Rodney folded back the curtain and leaned forward so his face could be seen under the windowpane. Sighing, he shook his head. “No. Not on purpose,” he admitted. He moved toward the door, taking his time with the locks and when he got the door open, the kid had unlatched the gate. Rodney stood on the porch with his hands on his hips, making it clear he wasn't inviting him any further. He glanced down at the mud mat to a medium sized, yellow envelope. The front had ‘SV Elementary’ stamped across it. Knowing he would regret this, Rodney picked it up and opened it anyway.
After a quick perusal of the contents, his face held a smile of its own. “You think I should be impressed with these grades?”
He shrugged, a habit Rodney began to find endearing if not troublesome for Rodney's prickly reputation. Rodney knew the kid's aloofness was an act, he could see he was terrified to come closer to the porch. His bravery was there, but he needed to work on his execution if he wanted to fool Rodney.
“Why are you showing me this?” He held up the slip of paper.
“I’m not stupid,” he said, then held his breath waiting for Rodney to spit out a biting remark.
“The only respectable grade is in P.E. The others are subpar.” Rodney frowned to emphasize how unimpressed he was.
“But I got 'below satisfactory' in gym.”
“Exactly,” Rodney said, genuinely smiling at someone for the first time in a long time.
“It’s ‘cause I’m too little,” he said, his voice lowering along with his head.
“No one cares about gym.” Rodney glanced down at the other grades on the report card. “You should care about that science grade. It’s deplorable. How do you expect to get through life skating by on a mediocre ‘satisfactory?’”
“My dad said it was good.”
"Good? And what does your dad do? Mop floors?"
"He's a pilot. Well, he used to be. Now he fixes things."
"A pilot, huh?" Rodney pretended to mull that over for a moment. "So, that lonely ‘above satisfactory’ means your math genes come from him, then?"
"He doesn't have math jeans, and his jeans are too big for me.”
Rodney fought the smile threatening to overtake his sour disposition. He doubted the kid even knew he’d made a joke, but it did the trick, making Rodney feel a warmth in his belly he hadn't felt in years. "Are you going to stand there in the UV rays all day, or you going to come up on my porch so I don't have to yell?"
He contemplated Rodney's request for a second, eyes darting from Rodney to the porch chairs to the dirt driveway.
"Suit yourself." Rodney turned to head back inside the cabin.
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."
"What? Where was this rule weeks ago?" Rodney asked, his voice considerably higher to emphasize the irony. The kid shrugged again in response. "You want an introduction?"
He nodded, his head bouncing a little too fast for Rodney to follow.
"Rodney McKay. But you're going to call me Dr. McKay."
"Doctor?" He asked, and Rodney was certain his face paled a few shades.
"Yes, but not the kind you think." Rodney waved his hand in the air. "I don't practice any of that voodoo stuff."
"Jonathan Sheppard Jr. I can read, unlike you." Rodney held up the report card.
Sheppard Jr. opened the gate, and all but skipped up to the front porch sitting in one of the Muskoka chairs Rodney brought with him from Canada. "You can call me J.J. Everyone else does."
"I will not." Rodney sat beside him, resting the report card on his lap.
"But that's my name."
"Listen, kid, I'm only going to say this once, all the great ones had good, solid names. Nicolaus, Isaac, Albert, Rodney...no respectable person is called by their initials."
"My grandpa is."
"Oh, yeah? And who's your grandpa? J.R.?" Rodney chuckled even though the reference was lost on Sheppard Jr.
"No. Patrick Sheppard, but people call him J.P."
"Well, that many initials in one family is absurd. Please tell me your dad doesn't go by J.T."
"No. He just goes by John." The kid’s sneakers didn’t touch the floor, so instead, he swung them in the breeze. Rodney doubted this little terror could sit still for longer than thirty seconds.
"Well, at least there's a generation gap of normalcy."
"But a lot of people call him major," he said, doing a mock salute.
"So, you're an air force brat, huh?"
"I'm not a brat."
"Right." It explained why Rodney hadn't recognized Sheppard, and why he seemed new in town. He did know Patrick Sheppard, not well, but enough to know he was a retired Air Force colonel and one of the few who lived on this mountain. "You just move here?"
The kid nodded, still swinging his legs. "We moved in with my grandpa."
They sat for a few minutes, listening to the faint sound of the trucks on the highway that curved around the bottom of the mountain. Rodney didn't need an explanation as to why they had moved here. He could read between the lines. Edwards Air Force base wasn’t far, and there were many ex-military personnel living nearby enjoying their retirement. He wondered if his mom's death is what brought them here, and how long it had been since she passed. From the rawness of a few weeks ago when Rodney had put his foot in his mouth, he guessed it hadn’t been long enough.
"How come you live up here?" Little Sheppard asked, breaking Rodney’s reverie.
"I like it,” Rodney said, leaning back in his chair, admiring the view of being surrounded by trees and not houses filled with people.
"But you're all alone. Don’t you get bored?"
"I’m alone because I choose to be. And I don’t get bored. Boredom is for idiots."
The kid’s eyebrows shot up, eyes wide. "That's a bad word."
“Idiot is a perfectly acceptable word. Only idiots think it's offensive because, well…they’re idiots."
"My grandpa has to put money in a swear jar every time he says a bad word."
"How's it filling up?" Rodney laughed.
"I'll be able to buy a bike soon." He grinned.
"Why on earth would you want to spend your money on a bike? They’re death traps."
"I'm eight.” J.J. rolled his eyes. “Every kid my age wants a bike."
"Thought you said you were seven?"
"It's called a birthday, Dr. McKay. Duh."
"Oh." Rodney hid his pleasure at the use of his title. "Happy Birthday, I suppose."
"Whatever." He banged his heels on the legs of the chair.
"Did you have a party?" Rodney regarded J.J.’s face. His expression had gone stony, reminding him of his father when he’d shown up on Rodney’s doorstep, only with more freckles.
"With who? My dog?"
“Whom,” Rodney corrected.
"Never mind,” he said. “I'm more of a cat person," he added when he recognized the hurt in the little guy's voice. "Don't you have any friends?"
"The school year was almost over when we moved here." He shrugged, and Rodney started seeing the defensive pattern with the shrugs. Even his parents weren’t cruel enough to make him change schools late in the year.
"That sucks." Rodney felt a familiar pang in his chest. The only friend he had was a whiny, Czech scientist who lived on the other side of the world, and their relationship was tenuous at best, mostly professional with the occasional screaming match thrown in to keep things interesting. And as far as family went, he lost hope for his sister when he tried to convince her to prepare for doomsday and she in turn wrote him off as crazy.
“Is that all you have to say?” Rodney asked, clapping his hands on his thighs. “I see we’re going to have to work on your vocabulary along with improving your science education. Anything else you’re lacking in? What do you like?”
“My dad and I built a model race car, once,” he said, smiling. “That was cool.”
“Huh,” Rodney said. “That is pretty cool.”
“He doesn’t have much time anymore, though…” J.J. swung his legs, banging them against the underside of the chair this time.
“I’m certain we can build something bigger than that,” Rodney said, resisting the urge to ruffle the kid's hair.
“Pfft.” Rodney rolled his eyes. “So pedestrian. You need to think bigger than that. There are way cooler things to build than bombs.” When the kid’s eyes lit up, Rodney ignored the flutter it left in his stomach. This was a child, and Rodney didn’t like children, but there was something about his eager face and relentless charm that left him with an affectionate feeling. Maybe he felt sympathy for him having lost his mom at an early age as well. He understood how difficult it was to speak to a father who didn’t make time for him. Rodney would never admit that his alienation plagued him sometimes, he had his science and space, and that was all he needed, and if the kid would let him, he’d teach him that, too.
Rodney was a terrible host, he realized, then again, he didn’t get many eight year-olds at his place. He didn’t get anyone at his place, not ever, so this was as new to him as the young ruffian sitting beside him.
The sun was high in the sky, putting the time of day just around mid-day. It was warm, but there was a slight breeze rustling the leaves that kept it from being overly hot like it could be at this time of year.
“You want something to drink?” he asked.
J.J. eyed him warily, no doubt wondering if he should accept something from ‘the crazy man on the mountain.’ His curiosity won. “What do you have?”
He scrunched up his nose in disgust. “Kids don’t drink coffee.”
“They don’t?” Rodney was genuinely surprised to hear that. He was positive he drank coffee at J.J.’s age. “Come on,” Rodney said rising, ignoring the cracks and groans from his body. “Let’s see what I’ve got. I’m a little peckish, too. You eat lunch? Allergic to anything?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Let’s hope not,” Rodney mumbled under his breath, thinking about the angry air force major who had shown up on his doorstep ready to punch his lights out a few weeks ago.
He led J.J. into the kitchen and told him to hop up on a stool nestled around his uneven and worse-for-wear island. The kitchen was small, in desperate need of some upgrades, but at least it was clean and somewhat functional to where Rodney needed it to be for the time being. Looking in the fridge, he settled on the makings of two glorious sandwiches. “Turkey or roast beef?”
“I should’ve known.” Rodney shook his head, wondering if he needed to cut the crusts off the bread. He refrained, figuring J.J. was old enough to eat what was put in front of him and not complain. He contemplated this pipsqueak kid with worthy math skills and his inquisitive and fearless mind. It took a lot of guts to show up on ‘Mad McKay’s’ doorstep, and even more guts to come back after being yelled at, and your father warning you to stay away. It was either curiosity or loneliness, and McKay knew a thing or two about both. Curiosity, he could handle, but if it was loneliness the kid was experiencing, he’d have to seek answers elsewhere.
"I can tell you right now,” Rodney said, brandishing the butter knife like a conductor's baton, “hanging around my cabin isn't going to help that reputation of yours in the friend department." Rodney placed the sandwich on a paper towel, pushing it across the yellow, laminate countertop.
“Milk or water?” Rodney asked, leaning to look in the fridge. “Or I have some iced tea from Joey’s.”
Rodney was confused by his manners. Most children his age didn’t know a thing about being polite, and up until now, Rodney thought there was no exception.
“Thank you,” J.J. said, accepting the cold glass.
Rodney sat next to him, digging into his own roast beef sandwich and glass of iced tea. It was lucky he had fresh food at all. He hadn’t been to town since Sheppard came knocking, and his weekly delivery wasn’t scheduled for two more days. There were military rations, of course, but they were downstairs and out of reach for an impromptu lunch.
They sat in silence, munching on their fixings, and by the time Rodney had almost finished his lunch, little Sheppard was still on the first half of his turkey sandwich, sitting back with the look of a hundred thoughts running through his head.
“Spit it out,” Rodney said, and when J.J. stopped chewing, ready to obey, Rodney clarified. “Not the sandwich, you turkey. Ask what you want to ask. There’s no point being quiet around me.”
He seemed to contemplate Rodney’s words—no doubt they were a contradiction in how his father was raising him. Those generational, military-type families weren’t much for stimulating conversations. I’m sure they were a 'children should be seen and not heard' family, and Rodney was all for that ninety percent of the time, except when it came to the pursuit of knowledge.
Deciding if the risk of asking what he wanted would get him into trouble, Rodney watched as J.J.’s expression switched from trepidation to acceptance. The kid took a deep breath, setting his turkey sandwich down and went for it.
"Kids at my school say you murder children."
"Yeah,” Rodney said, taking a sip of tea like he expected the accusation. “Heard that one."
"They also say you're a vampire."
"Hello?” Rodney set down the empty glass. “I'm out in the sun all the time! That one is preposterous."
"That's what I told Callum Nichols," he said with a laugh. “But not that word...whatever it means.”
“Pre-pos-ter-ous. Meaning contrary to reason. Ridiculous.”
The kid struggled with the word but eventually got it.
"What about the one where I chop up women and hide them up the mountain?" Rodney wriggled his eyebrows, grinning.
"My dad says you don't seem like you have the const-st—consti…"
"Constitution,” Rodney finished for him, somewhat surprised he discussed the rumors from town with his father. “And your dad would be correct. Blood makes me squeamish. So do women for that matter." Rodney shuddered, carrying his glass to the sink, wondering what else they had discussed.
"What do you do up here?" J.J. took a hesitant bite of his sandwich. It was obvious Rodney had loaded it down with too much stuff, and was only eating it to be polite. Rodney would have to remember that for next time. Next time, he thought, startled by how that pleased him and what it meant for his prickly reputation that a floppy-haired kid could derail his hard work with a piece of paper.
"I do very important work up here." Rodney pulled J.J’s untouched sandwich half toward him, removing the lettuce, tomato, chutney and whatever else he’d thrown on there, leaving only the bread, cheese, turkey and a little bit of mayo. “Better?”
J.J. nodded, smiling around a mouthful. After he swallowed, he asked, "Do you build bombs?"
"Unibomber McKay, right?" Rodney chuckled, sitting back in the chair. J.J. obviously didn’t get the reference, but he laughed at the crazy-eyed face Rodney made.
"I've heard that one, too." Rodney took a deep breath, closing his eyes. Out of all of the rumors, he supposed that one hurt the most. It was one of the reasons he had abandoned his world. Rodney could make weapons, very powerful, dangerous weapons, better than anyone else on the planet, but when the wrong people wanted to use those weapons for the wrong reasons, Rodney couldn't bear the responsibility of having a hand in so much tragedy and destruction. Despite his doomsday bravado, Rodney wanted to preserve life, amplify it by making it better for the disenfranchised, and extend protection from what he knew was inevitably coming. It was why he was up here alone with his research.
"No," Rodney sighed, smiling sadly, "no bombs, and you really need to move on from this obsession. Sorry to disappoint, kiddo, but I study space."
"Cool." J.J. grinned eating the last of his sandwich.
Rodney watched J.J. disembark from the stool, taking his glass to the sink like Rodney had. There was no disappointment there, and no recognition of Rodney's temporary melancholy, but he did light up at the word space, and that was, to Rodney's surprise, pretty damn cool.
Rodney woke the next morning with a horrible, sinking feeling in his gut. Although yesterday’s interaction with the kid had been remarkably pleasant and, dare Rodney say, fun, he’d invited a child into his home and fed him a meal. At the time he didn’t think anything of it; a harmless gesture filled with good intentions. However, the more he mulled it over, the more the rumors from town pressed upon him. He hadn’t asked J.J. if his father knew where he was, and looking back, he realized that had been a colossal mistake. J.J.’s father seemed like a serious man despite his initial aloofness, and Rodney knew all too well the attitudes of most military men. The last thing he needed was a pissed off, misinformed, intolerant asshole on his doorstep worried about the virtue of his child.
The knot in Rodney’s stomach grew by the hour, and even his beloved coffee started to taste rancid on his tongue. He needed to nip this in the bud before it blew up egregiously to the point where it couldn’t be contained.
Grabbing his keys, he locked up his place and as he turned from the door he heard the rumblings of an engine coming up his dirt driveway. The gray-green Bronco slowly rolled to a stop in front of his cabin, and as J.J.’s father stepped out, Rodney waited in the shadow of his porch, swearing under his breath.
Sheppard's face was politely schooled, giving nothing away as he shoved his hands in his jeans’ pockets, casually strolling toward Rodney’s front gate. As much as Rodney wanted to run inside and hide, there was no way he could unlock his door before Sheppard could get his hands on him. The only thing he could do was square his shoulders and face the inevitable confrontation.
“McKay,” Sheppard said, resting his forearms on the gate, hand suspiciously close to the latch.
“Sheppard?” Rodney said, trying to keep his voice from cracking by changing his intonation to disguise it. There was an uncomfortable pause between the two of them, long enough that Rodney catalogued things in his reach he could use in self-defense.
“Look,” Rodney said, waving his hands more than was necessary, “it won’t happen again. I’m sorry. Your son just showed up on my doorstep with a relatively impressive report card and I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m sorry.”
Sheppard frowned, shifting on his feet, then held up his hand to stop Rodney’s rambles. “McKay,” he interrupted, “are you always this high-strung?”
“Ah, yes. Yes I am.”
Sheppard laughed, straightening up, pointing to the latch for permission. Rodney nodded, watching strong arms lean over the gate and open it with the grace of a man who knew what he always wanted. He tried not to stare at the way Sheppard’s hips swayed as he walked up the steps, stopping a few feet in front of him.
“I’m the one who should be doing the apologizing,” Sheppard said.
With eyes wide, Rodney said, “You? Whatever for?”
“I want to apologize for J.J. showing up here yesterday and interrupting your day.”
“He told you?”
“We don’t keep secrets. I asked where he’d been all day, and he mentioned your name even though we had discussed the situation. You expressed your view about his trespassing, and I want you to know, I’ve had another talk with him about respecting people’s wishes. He won’t bother you again.”
“Oh.” It shouldn’t have hurt—it was what he wanted—but the disappointment surprised him. When he felt this way in the past, self-preservation was first and foremost, and he’d always taught himself to be quick to bluster, smarting back while he put up his practised defense mechanisms. Only this time, nothing was ready on the tip of his tongue.
Sensing Rodney’s despair, Sheppard countered. “Unless you...”
“No, no. It’s probably for the best,” Rodney said, looking at his feet.
“And why’s that?”
“You know,” Rodney raised his chin, “the whole ‘Madbomber McKay.’” He half smiled, lacking the decorum to hide the resentment.
Sheppard’s mouth turned up, and he chuckled again. “Personally, I’d go with the evil, mad-scientist schtick instead. Way more cool.”
In that moment, Sheppard sounded just like his son, and Rodney’s shoulders relaxed as his own smile turned genuine. “Well, I am a genius.”
“So my son tells me. He also tells me you taught him a few things about space and mentioned a telescope?” Sheppard asked, shoving his hands back in his pockets.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. He seemed interested and I get carried away. Sorry about that.”
“He also said you were Canadian.” Sheppard’s teasing drawl was rather endearing, but Rodney couldn’t help his eye roll as Sheppard rocked on his heels.
“Ha-ha,” Rodney said.
“Look,” Sheppard said, “I made a few calls and checked up on you—”
“He’s my kid, McKay.”
“Right. Of course. And?”
“And apparently you were a big hotshot in the world of astrophysics, and other sciency circles.”
“It’s a word.”
“Um, I’m certain it isn’t.”
“Would you let me finish?” Sheppard raised his eyebrows waiting for Rodney and when he nodded, Sheppard continued. “For whatever reason, you gave it up for a simpler life out here.” He held up his hands as Rodney started to protest. “I can respect that choice, no need to explain it to me, all right?”
Rodney looked at his feet, feeling the pang of those memories of the ‘circles’ he used to run in, and if this man, smelling of sawdust and pine, knew the extent of Rodney’s reasons for leaving, he wouldn’t let J.J. in the same town as Rodney.
“Okay,” Rodney said with his head still bowed.
“I don’t mind if J.J. hangs out here, especially if he’ll learn a thing or two, I just don’t want him to become a nuisance. He’s been through a rough time. The move hasn’t been easy on him, but for some strange reason he likes you.”
“He does.” Sheppard chuckled.
“Yeah. Can’t imagine why. You’re kind of a jerk.” Sheppard was smiling, and that smile left Rodney with a rush of warmth so very different than the one he felt with J.J. yesterday.
“Well,” Rodney said tilting his chin up, hoping his face wasn’t turning too red, “as far as little brats go, he’s not too terrible.”
Sheppard laughed again, and the resemblance to his son was uncanny. “How about we work out a schedule?”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Believe me, it is, or he’ll be here everyday and never leave.” Remembering J.J.’s comment about his father not having time for him anymore, Rodney felt defensive on his behalf. He wondered when he'd started thinking of him as J.J. and not just 'the kid' anymore.
“It’s not a problem, really,” Rodney said.
“It is when his chores start going by the wayside.”
“Chores? Who are you, Pa Ingalls?” Rodney snorted.
Sheppard pulled his hands out of his pockets, folding his arms and puffing out his chest. Rodney had to admit it was an admirable, well-defined chest hidden behind dark green flannel, and Rodney wasn’t intimidated by it at all. Not in the slightest.
Sheppard gave him a pout of disapproval before reaching out to shake Rodney’s shoulder. “McKay, I’m trying to do you a favor.” The hand was warm and solid, and it had been too long since he’d let someone willingly touch him. He wanted to flinch, run away and bolt his door, but something about Sheppard drew him in, making him want to lean into the touch. From this close, he could see the gold flecks in Sheppard's hazel-green eyes made greener by his shirt, and when Sheppard licked his bottom lip, Rodney’s eyes followed that tongue, causing his skin flush with heat.
“J.J. needs to help his grandfather in the mornings. We’re renovating the house, and the new roof needs to get done.” Sheppard patted Rodney’s shoulder twice before dropping his hand.
“Well, okay, then,” Rodney said, flustered and still unsure, his knees suddenly weak. Even if it was a lie on Sheppard’s part, it was a good lie designed to give Rodney some control again. “I’m not much of an early riser anyway...late nights and all, but lunchtime is fine. If anything, it’ll remind me to eat. Shall we say Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays? See how that goes? But it’s strictly a working lunch. I know where that elementary school ranks in the country, and believe me, its academic standards are mediocre at best.”
“Fair enough,” Sheppard said. “And if he gets to be too much, let me know. Or send him home. We don’t live too far, just down the bend a mile back.” Sheppard thumbed a hand over his shoulder, then pulled out his phone. “Maybe I should get your number.”
Staring at the cell phone in Sheppard’s hands, Rodney couldn’t think past the long fingers and the calloused palms of a man who worked with his hands for a living, and how he was exchanging phone numbers with such a man.
“Oh, yes, of course. I don’t have a cell phone, though. Landline,” he apologized, then recited his digits.
Sheppard raised his eyebrow at that. “No cell phone?”
“Never needed one up here, too many encryption problems with them. Until I can find the time to reprogram my own, I stick to the hard lines and such. Besides, cell towers and satellites will be the first things to go.” He was rambling again, but couldn’t stop himself even though his crazy shined through like a beacon.
“First to go?”
“Oh, you know,” Rodney waved his hand in the air, “when the power goes out. Storms and such.” Sheppard looked at him warily, but Rodney believed he was convincing enough to cover his tracks.
“Right.” Sheppard dug his wallet out, passing Rodney his card. He expected a USAF business card, but it was a plain, white card with black text, displaying only Sheppard’s name, phone number and a generic email address. “If you need to reach me,” he said.
“No longer in the air force?” Rodney asked. He never had the common sense not to pry, and the dark look on Sheppard’s face meant he should have kept his mouth shut. “It’s just that your son said you were a pilot and a major, so I assumed…”
“Oh.” Rodney let his exclamation hang in the air leaving only the pinging sounds of the cooling engine of the Bronco.
“Well, anyway,” Sheppard said, hitching a thumb toward his truck, “I should be going. Don’t want to keep you from where you were heading.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” It seemed risky to mention he’d been on his way to find Sheppard, there was no need to ruin their tenuous truce by volunteering that information.
On the way to his truck, Sheppard turned back to him, tilting his chin to the wind, making his hair ruffle in the breeze. Rodney’s heart fluttered at the image. “If I’m Charles Ingalls,” Sheppard grinned, “does that make you Mr. Edwards?”
“Very funny.” Rodney’s heart pounded in his chest.
“You going to dance a jig with my kid or teach him how to spit? Is this the ‘Little House on the Mountain?’”
“Oh, you’re a riot. Were you saving that one up, or did it take your brain that long to think of a decent comeback?” Rodney knew where J.J. got his charm and even his wit. John Sheppard was nothing like Rodney had thought him to be. He wasn’t like the air force personnel he’d worked with, and in less than twenty-four hours two Sheppards had worked their way into his life more than anyone in the town had in years.
“Hey, McKay?” Sheppard said as he opened the truck door.
“Just...” he sat in the seat, “...thanks.” Sheppard shut the door and had the engine started before Rodney came back to his senses. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had given him a heartfelt ‘thanks.’ Usually the word was filled with sarcasm or even trepidation, and never had that one simple word left Rodney speechless.
“You’re welcome,” he found himself whispering, but the truck was long gone, kicking up dirt in the road.
Sheppard must have had a long talk with his son about what was expected of him during his visits to ‘Dr. McKay’s.’ Gone was the aloof, daring young boy, and in his place was a pod child slightly resembling Village of the Damned circa 1960. He was helpful, polite and only spoke when he was spoken to, and if this was how their visits were going to go, it was only a matter of time before J.J.’s hair turned snow white and he started tapping into Rodney’s brain, making him do things against his will.
The pod-kid sat on his stool, back straight with hands clasped in his lap, and when his legs started to swing, banging against the kitchen island, he stopped them with a jolt, eyes wide staring at Rodney.
“Okay,” Rodney said, slamming the butter knife on the counter. “What the hell is this? Who are you and what have you done with the fearless brat who unlatched my gate?”
J.J.’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline.
“Yes. Yes.” Rodney waved his hand. “I said a bad word. But you’re seriously freaking me out. Did your dad tell you to be on your best behavior?” J.J. bit his lip, unsure what to divulge. “Well, guess what? Your dad’s not here, so screw that. I want the other kid, okay?”
“I’m supposed to be good, or I can’t come anymore,” he hesitated, and then his face scrunched up like he was in pain as he mumbled, “sir.”
“Sir?” Rodney snorted. “Although that is appealing in certain circles, formalities like that have no place in my home. Got it?”
“Grandpa said I’m to call you sir.”
“Well, he’s not here either, and I thought I told you to call me Dr. McKay, or if you’re really brave, you can call me Rodney.”
“Okay, Dr. McKay.”
“All right, then. And stop freaking me out. Swing your legs, ask stupid questions, explore.” Rodney circled his hands, then stopped mid-air. “But don’t open that door under any circumstances.” He pointed to the wooden door off the kitchen with the padlock safeguarding his life’s work. “I mean it. That’s the only rule I have. You can do whatever you want up here. Touch whatever you want, destroy anything in this vicinity, but never, I mean never, open that door. This is non-negotiable, and a complete deal breaker, and not to mention I can come up with some pretty creative ways to make you regret—”
“Geez, I get it.” J.J. rested his elbows on the counter, slumping over and looking like a exasperated eight-year old should.
“Well, good. Because I’m not kidding,” Rodney said, picking up the butter knife and waving it at J.J. before cutting the sandwich in front of him.
“What’s down there?”
“None-of-your-business is what’s down there. But if you must know, it’s my life’s work. Years of research. And don’t get curious about it, either. It’s off limits.”
J.J. let out a frustrated groan, shoving his hands through his unruly hair. “Okay.”
“Fine. Eat,” McKay said, shoving the plate and the basic turkey sandwich in front of him. “I have ice cream for dessert. Kids like ice cream, right?”
“Duh.” J.J. picked up his sandwich and Rodney sighed with relief knowing his brain was safe from any future pod-children.
Rodney sat beside him, digging into his own roast beef concoction. “So, I was trying to remember,” he said around a bite of bread and meat, “what I liked to do when I was eight. Although, let’s face it, the things you probably like and what I liked are vastly different. I was on my way to higher education and thinking up concepts you couldn’t possibly imagine. I was labeled a genius before I could walk, and well...I do remember video games were key. I wasn’t so much into the gaming itself, but what was inside the consoles.” He held his hands up forming a box. “Two days after Christmas I had my Atari torn apart to figure out how that sucker worked. It was the last time my parents ever bought me anything new.” Rodney glanced down at J.J. realizing his ramblings were going in one ear and out the other, so he changed tactics. “How would you like to build a computer? I have enough spare parts laying around. I doubt we’d need to order anything new.”
J.J. had a mouthful of sandwich, but he stopped chewing with his mouth hanging open as he stared at his plate.
“Do you have a computer?” Rodney asked, second-guessing his stupid idea. The kid was eight, didn’t all kids have their own computers these days?
J.J. bounced in his seat, shaking his head enthusiastically, and when Rodney saw the fist pump, he knew he’d hit the mark.
“It’s not going to be a walk in the park, you know. I expect you to do all of the work, well most of it anyway. Your father might take issue with you using a soldering iron. I was going to suggest a rocket, but that seemed a bit cliché. And a solid understanding of how computers work is the foundation to building a successful scientific education. If you succeed, I might be able to pull some strings and get us an inside tour of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab...which will take care of the rocket portion of your learning. And if you really exceed my expectations, maybe aerospace camp next summer—provided your dad agrees?” Rodney wasn’t sure where the thought of future plans had come from. This was their first ‘learning lunch’ which had every potential to end in disaster, so he shouldn’t be making promises, especially without speaking to Sheppard first, but Rodney had the contacts to make it happen, and if it was a money issue, he had plenty of that to spare, too.
J.J. munched dutifully to get the morsel of food swallowed with the difficulty of a closed up throat. His cheeks had turned red, and his bottom lip trembled as he fought the tears that wanted to be shed. Finally, with a wobbly voice, he said, “My mom wanted me to go to camp.”
Rodney took one look at him, and his heartstrings tugged somewhat harder than he thought possible. “There’s no crying in science,” Rodney said, taking pity on J.J. and his overwhelming response. “Eat up, so we can get to work. I’ll show you what I set aside last night.”
Once he’d finished his sandwich, J.J. cleared his plate then asked, “Do I get to keep it?”
“Of course you get to keep it. Anything you build here is yours.”
“I don’t have a computer. My dad says I don’t need one yet.”
"Well, I don't want to bad-mouth your dad in front of you, but your dad is wrong. Every kid these days needs a computer. It's a fact of life. Progress doesn't wait for dads who deny futures, and the sooner we get you learning about the intricacies of motherboards, the sooner we can move ahead with so much more."
"Like what?" J.J. asked.
"Whatever you want," Rodney said, then raised his finger when he saw the word form on J.J.'s mouth, "except that. No weapons. Your brain is the only weapon we'll be working on. Capiche?"
"What does that mean?"
"Just nod your head in agreement. You have a long way to go to reach an acceptable level of intelligence, but we'll get you there." He tapped J.J.'s temple. "You have the building blocks, you just need some finessing."
"My mom was really smart," J.J. said, looking at his feet as he kicked the rung on the stool.
"Well, you had to get it from someone. From what I can tell, all you got from your father is his ridiculous hair and your affinity for the shrug."
J.J. patted his hair, trying to flatten it. "When I was little," he said, like he was older now, and after losing a parent, Rodney supposed it was true, "the headmaster at my school told my parents my hair was too long. My mom would use the clippers and shave my head but then it’d stick up all over the place. She’d say bad words about my dad.” J.J. smiled like it was a secret.
“That’s a cruel and unusual punishment for a kid, but then I never went to a private school,” Rodney volunteered. He filed that slice of information away, wondering how someone like Sheppard, on an air force salary and drove a beat up Bronco, could afford private school.
“S’okay. My dad would take me for ice cream when she finished. He said the same thing happened to him when he was my age, but he didn't get ice cream.”
Rodney ruffled J.J.’s hair. “Looks like you’ve gone a long time without the clippers.” Rodney realized his mistake when he said it, and wished he could take it back.
J.J. looked down at his hands, hiding his face from Rodney. He was at a loss as to how he was supposed to deal with kids and grief. It was obvious things were too raw for J.J., and even though it seemed like he wanted to, they weren’t at a place where J.J. was ready to talk about missing his mom.
“When we moved here,” J.J. said, “my dad said I could grow it. He said no one would care about my hair."
"Well, kiddo, as you can see," Rodney rubbed at his balding head, "I'm envious of all that hair, so I say love it and let it grow before you end up like me."
J.J. started to giggle, which was infectious and before long they were both laughing at Rodney's receding hairline, making faces at each other to get the other to keep laughing.
"All right," Rodney said, "now that I've fed and watered you, I think your brain is ready for nourishment." At that moment, a raucous clap of thunder erupted and J.J. froze in his seat, terror evident in his eyes.
"It's just a little thunder," Rodney said, but J.J. was evidently shaken, so Rodney took charge. "Don't like thunderstorms, huh? I didn't when I was your age, either." Rodney put his dish in the sink and gently took J.J.'s hand, guiding him toward the window.
"They used to terrify my sister and me. All that booming and flashing lights, who could sleep or concentrate when it seemed like the world was falling apart, right?"
J.J. hadn't said a word, gripping Rodney’s hand, and his face was paler than it should have been. He listened though, which was a good sign.
"My mother got us books from the library,” Rodney said, “and we read them together about how and why thunderstorms happen, and voila! Once I understood it, no more fear." He smiled, looking down at J.J. who wasn't convinced. "Scientia potentia est, which translates to 'knowledge is power,' and that, my young neophyte, is how we should all live our lives."
By now, the lightning had started and the thunder booms were louder as the black clouds circled around the mountain. If Rodney remembered his clouds correctly, they were cumulonimbus clouds, which meant hail was likely to follow and sure enough, he heard the tick-tick sound against the windows as the hail began.
"Now, I'm no meteorologist, but I know enough about Earth's atmosphere to give it a go. You think you can handle learning about all this?" Before J.J. could answer, Rodney's phone rang, piercing through the cabin and making them both jump. "The phones still work!" He patted J.J.'s shoulder before moving to answer it.
"McKay," Rodney answered. It was an old, pea green phone, attached to the wall with a dial wheel that always worked even without electricity.
"McKay!" A harried voice said on the other end of the line. "Is J.J. still there? Is he okay? I'm coming soon, just got stuck in town at a job."
"Sheppard?" Rodney asked, his voice calm and serene compared to John's on the other end.
Rodney put a hand over the receiver. "It's your dad," he whispered to J.J. who promptly rolled his eyes, but then another clap of thunder sounded, rushing J.J. away from the windows toward Rodney's side.
Rodney held the phone out for him.
"Hi," J.J. said. Rodney didn’t know what their conversation entailed, but J.J. answered with short clipped words, and when he said, "I'm okay. Dr. McKay is going to teach me about thunder," Rodney couldn’t hide his smile. J.J. listened for a few breaths then sighed, handing the phone back to Rodney. "He wants to talk to you."
"I apologize," Sheppard was saying before Rodney got the phone to his ear. "I should have mentioned he’s not great with thunderstorms. Just tell him I'm on my way, okay?"
"Sheppard," Rodney interrupted. "We're fine. No need to rush. He's handling it like a champ—that is the proper term, right? I'm not much for sports analogies, but J.J. is fine, no freak outs here.” Rodney wrinkled his nose at J.J., making a hand signal around his temple. “And I was about to tell your son how my cabin is equipped to handle lightning and thunderstorms. What, with all my lightning rods set up around the property, the electricity will dissipate harmlessly through the underground conductive grid. In fact, it'll charge my generator for months—"
"McKay!" Sheppard yelled to shut him up and it worked. Rodney fell silent. "He's really okay?" Sheppard’s voice was soft and somewhat fond, Rodney thought.
"He is," Rodney said, looking at J.J. who had the beginnings of a smile. "I'll drive him home after the storm passes. Believe me, he’s safer here than anywhere in town. My property is self-sufficient."
There was a long pause on the end of the line, then Sheppard cleared his throat. "Thanks, McKay."
"Oh," Rodney said. "You're welcome?"
Sheppard chuckled into the phone, then disconnected the call.
The days rolled into weeks and Rodney McKay discovered he didn't mind kids all that much. Well, smart kids. Actually, one kid in particular who was rather bright and inquisitive and most of all funny.
“Well?” Rodney said, once he finished the last of the lasagna lunch dishes.
They were halfway done with the computer, working on it between other small projects and experiments. J.J. was learning more than any kid his age would in school, and Rodney was proud of their progress. He looked forward to his days with J.J., who had become a regular part of Rodney’s routine. He shopped for food on the days he had free, planning their hours together, thinking up creative ways to teach new things and Rodney even made his cabin more eight-year-old friendly with an Xbox for the days they needed ‘brain breaks.’
“You think that circuit board we worked on yesterday will power up, or did you fry another one?” Rodney leaned against the sink as he dried his hands.
“It'll work!” J.J. said. “My hands are steadier than yours. Grandpa says I could be a pilot, but dad says I'd be better as a surgeon.”
“What?” Rodney said, putting his hands on his hips. “You’ll do no such thing. You are not wasting your intellect on that voodoo stuff, and you're certainly not going to damage it seeking cheap thrills in death machines. When I'm through with you you'll be writing your own ticket to any worthy college in the country.”
J.J. rolled his eyes at him, something he did often when Rodney talked about his higher education. He'd given up explaining that he was only eight when Rodney would list off all the breakthroughs he accomplished by J.J.’s age.
“Don't roll your eyes at me, little Sheppard.” Rodney raised his finger, pointing it in J.J.'s face over the island. “You pretend like you don't care, and act like you're not interested in your future, but you came to me seeking knowledge.”
“It was a dare.”
“It was not.”
“Was not!” Rodney countered. “Lies, little man, lies.”
A voice cleared on the other side of the screen door from the porch. “You calling my son a liar, McKay?”
Startled, Rodney and J.J. looked up at the sound of the voice interrupting their banter. Weeks ago, Rodney would have been appalled someone could sneak up on his property without his knowledge, but the Sheppards had weaseled their way into his life in a comfortable way, easing some of his paranoia. He wondered how long Sheppard had been there listening to their conversation. Rodney was still apprehensive around Sheppard, but it was mostly because he hadn’t figured him out yet. Usually he discarded people upon first meeting, classifying them as a ‘waste of time,’ but Sheppard had never quite made it into that category even though Rodney had strived to put him there.
“Not a liar, only that he's telling lies,” Rodney said, turning back to the sink to hide his flushed cheeks.
J.J. sighed. “Why are you here?”
“Pardon me?” John said, still standing on the other side of the door.
“I think he means you're early.” Rodney looked at his watch to confirm Sheppard was an hour early.
“Can I come in?” Sheppard asked.
“Yes, of course,” Rodney said, waving him in as he took a deep breath. The sight of Sheppard in his cabin made him nervous. He filled the spaces making it smaller than what it was, unsettling Rodney’s surroundings. He tripped over words, hating how his stomach flipped when Sheppard smiled at him.
“S-something to drink?” Rodney asked, pulling at his T-shirt, fanning it to get some air.
“No, thanks,” John said, walking toward the island where J.J. sat. “I have to make a run into Porterville and thought I'd check if J.J. wanted to come.”
“Oh,” Rodney said, hiding his disappointment. He had a new video game he wanted to show J.J., a reward for working so hard, and when J.J. started to protest, he felt victorious until he saw the brief, pained look in Sheppard’s expression.
“You should go,” Rodney said to J.J. He couldn’t begrudge Sheppard wanting to spend time with his son. “I have things to do. I always have things to do, and this way I can get to them.”
“Do I have to?” J.J. asked his dad.
“You don't have to, no,” Sheppard said, ruffling J.J’s hair. “You can stay with Dr. McKay if it's okay with him.”
“Why can't he come?” J.J. asked.
Rodney’s stomach clenched at J.J.’s words, at the idea of leaving the sanctuary of his cabin to head into the city. He wasn’t prepared for the impromptu excursion. It took days to build up the courage to make that drive, and then there was the problem of sitting in the confines of Sheppard’s truck for hours, next to the man who frequented his dreams as of late.
Glancing at the thermostat, Rodney wondered if it was warm enough to put on the air conditioning.
“That's a great idea,” Sheppard said. “How about it, McKay? We can grab a bite to eat, maybe even see what movies are playing?”
“Yes!” J.J. shouted, pumping his fist.
Rodney rarely went into the 'city' and if he did, he planned his route and his stops meticulously for hours. He went in and went out, never stopping just for the sake of browsing or shopping, or god forbid, people watching to feel like a part of the world for a day. He couldn’t do it.
“No, I couldn't possibly—”
“You have to!” J.J. said from his chair, eyes imploring while he glanced from his dad back to Rodney.
Moving to stand in front of Rodney, Sheppard knew he was about to turn down the offer. He leaned in while Rodney held his breath. They were close, yet Sheppard showed no sign of backing away from Rodney.
“I can’t—” Rodney tried to move but was encumbered by the sink.
Sheppard clutched Rodney’s shoulder, conveying that if he denied his kid his happiness Rodney would be a heartless bastard. But Rodney was a heartless bastard, he knew it, and everyone else did except that kid with the hopeful smile and the fearless magnetism who drew Rodney in, making him want to be worthy of his veneration.
“Don’t fight it, McKay,” Sheppard mock whispered, “he’s a master at manipulation.”
“Gee,” Rodney said with a frown, “I wonder where he gets it.”
Sheppard laughed in triumph, wandering toward the workbench with the computer parts strewn across it.
He could do this, Rodney thought, breathing deeply. He could be the brilliant man J.J. heralded him as instead of the freak everyone pegged him to be.
“Fine,” Rodney sighed, wiping his clammy hands on his pants, “but I get to pick the movie.”
“Kid friendly,” Sheppard said.
“Yes, of course. What do you take me for?”
“I'm just saying,” Sheppard said, his voice higher as he raised his shoulders. “You’re having him build a computer. I think age appropriate activities are beyond your skill set.” He picked up a processor card socket, holding it up to the window.
“Only because you won't buy him one,” McKay snapped back.
“Because he doesn't need one,” Sheppard said between gritted teeth.
“Every kid needs one.” Rodney joined Sheppard at the bench, grabbing the delicate part out of Sheppard’s grasp. “Don’t touch, Mr. Grabby Hands. These are static sensitive.”
“That’s a myth,” Sheppard said.
“It is not.”
“I’m pretty sure it is,” Sheppard said, the corner of his mouth turning up into a grin.
“And how would you know? I doubt you know how to turn on a computer, which is probably the reason you won’t let him have one.” Rodney stood toe to toe with Sheppard, leaning closer as his diatribe continued. “It's borderline abuse at this point. What kid his age doesn't have a computer or some kind of electronic device?”
“Well, excuse me if I want J.J. to have a well-rounded childhood experience that isn't stuck behind a screen! He'll have plenty of that when he's older. I want to talk to my son, McKay, and share things with him while I can see his smiling face. I don’t want to see his hunched-up form connecting with ones and zeroes rather than me.”
“Oh,” Rodney said, withdrawing his argument. It was more than his dad ever said about him. He never felt like his dad wanted to spend time with him, it was more of a duty rather than a genuine longing, so Rodney and his sister buried themselves in books and tech to spare their father from their rushed and forced family time.
“That’s really—” Rodney floundered. “That’s kind of sweet...actually.”
Running his hand through his hair, Sheppard shuffled his feet looking down to hide the blush creeping up his neck. “Thanks.”
Rodney's own face heated up at the sight of Sheppard and his awkwardness. Moments like this had been happening often over the past few weeks, and Rodney found himself at a loss as to what they could mean. Surely, someone like Sheppard didn't think of him the way he thought of Sheppard, it was wishful longing on Rodney's part. The man had been married and was in the air force—for crying out loud! If Rodney continued to let his heart rule over his head it could only end up one of two ways. One, total and utter heartbreak, or two, total and utter humiliation, both of which were unacceptable to him. He tried to distance himself from Sheppard, tried to approach their interactions on neutral ground maintaining a hint of professionalism, but then Sheppard would tease him, challenge him, and offhandedly throw out references to binary sequences making Rodney's shriveled heart grow bigger like the Grinch's, except Rodney hadn't stolen Christmas, and even though J.J. was like his own Cindy Lou Who, he sure as hell wasn't going to be spreading happiness and joy to the people in the town below his mountain.
“Dad...” J.J. huffed before Rodney could finish his daydream of holding Sheppard’s hand while they sang carols around a tree. “Are we going?”
Rodney cleared his throat, stepping away from Sheppard, and Sheppard did the same.
“Sure, bud,” Sheppard said, helping J.J. with his bag.
“I just have to lock up.” Rodney needed to splash cold water on his face, change his shirt and crawl into a giant hole while he was at it.
“We'll meet you in the truck,” said Sheppard, pushing J.J. out the door and giving Rodney one last smile before they were gone.
This venture into the city seemed harmless enough, but like most things in Rodney’s life, there was potential for a catastrophe, especially if he couldn’t keep himself together, and the likelihood of him unraveling in front of Sheppard was astronomical. The panic was present like it always was, resting under his skin and ready to prickle its way through to the surface. Only this time it wasn’t cultivating, building into a full-blown attack from the thought of leaving the cabin. It was contained for once, overshadowed by his terror of spending hours with John Sheppard, crusher of rational behavior.
Sheppard glanced in the rear view mirror, smiling to himself. “He’s asleep,” he whispered.
“That was quick.”
They’d left the city lights behind only minutes ago, the sun long gone in the desert leaving the interior of the truck dark apart from the dashboard and the passing headlights, which were few and far between. It was stuffy in the cab with the windows closed. Rodney could smell the heat of the day in the vinyl seats, mixed with Sheppard’s earthy scent of cedar and wood smoke, and the garlic from the pasta they’d eaten for dinner lingered in the truck. It was quiet, too, Sheppard had turned off the radio when he started the engine like he anticipated his son’s slumber.
“He’s always been that way,” Sheppard said. “A moving vehicle, darkness, and he’s out cold. I suppose it’s my fault.”
“Why’s that?” Rodney asked, glancing behind him to see J.J.’s slumped over form, his mouth slack with a little drool trickling down his chin, and for the first time in Rodney’s life he felt the longing of fatherhood tug at his heart. He’d never wanted children, not even when he became an uncle. He had no one, and the majority of the time he was fine with it. He didn’t need anyone, nor did he want someone to need him, but seeing Sheppard with his son, both dependent on each other for love and support, and even laughter, Rodney’s chest ached from missing something he never knew he missed.
“J.J. was one hell of a crier,” Sheppard said. “Colicky until he was one, screamed all through the night. It was impressive, really. Who knew a tiny thing could hit those decibels?
“We were living near Ventura at the time, and I came home one night after a week stuck on base and Nancy—J.J.’s mom—met me at the door. She handed me the baby, a car seat and a diaper bag. Told me she needed a break. She didn’t care where I went or how, just that she needed a few hours of silence. It was midnight, not many places to go, so I drove. Thought my ears were going to bleed being in that confined space with him while he screamed bloody murder.
“After about five miles he started to quiet down, and after ten, he was out like a light. I drove up the PCH and back until my eyes started to burn, or until he got hungry. It became our ritual. I’d give Nancy a break, drive for a few hours, play music and bare my soul to a sleeping baby. In some ways, it was the simplest time in my life.” Sheppard chuckled, shaking his head as he glanced back at his son again.
The softness in Sheppard’s voice was a contradiction to any of the men Rodney worked with in the air force. He supposed he’d never spent enough time around them to see their tender sides, the ones they reserved for loved ones, but even so, Sheppard was not the man Rodney thought he was. From J.J’s disappointed mumblings, Rodney assumed Sheppard was like any typical father who put career and country before their family. He didn’t know Sheppard’s story, and didn’t know what led him to drag his eight-year-old son to live with his father, but he loved his son, that much was obvious, and for some reason Rodney understood it was difficult for Sheppard to talk about these things.
“That’s some dedication,” Rodney said. “Working days and nights, then driving around until all hours in the morning. How did you function?”
“It was just something I did. I don’t remember, to be honest,” John said and smiled at Rodney. “Though, I do remember how exhausted Nancy was, and how I wanted to be a better father than my dad. For most of my childhood he was deployed places we weren’t allowed to talk about. So, while I was stateside, I wanted to make sure I was there for my family, you know? Any way that I could. We knew the day was coming when I would have to leave.”
Rodney wanted to keep Sheppard talking, maybe for his own benefit to get to know the man behind the hair and the casual lean, but Rodney knew it was more. He couldn’t remember the last time he spoke with someone, really spoke with them rather than at them, and maybe this was kindred to Sheppard.
“So you just drove around listening to music and talking to a baby?”
“Pretty much. And as soon as I pulled into that driveway, the little bugger would open his eyes and let out a howl.” John chuckled at his own memories. “At least Nancy thought I was being tortured like she was all day. Garnered some husband points.” They both grinned, driving for a few miles in comfortable silence before Rodney breached it again.
“What kind of things did you tell him?” Rodney took a chance, wondering if Sheppard would indulge him further.
“Oh, I don’t know. Everything. Nothing. My hopes, fears. My regrets. It was like my own confessional booth. Things I couldn’t say to my father, my wife, even my commanding officers.” Sheppard shrugged. “It’s easy to be honest with a sleeping baby. I made promises to him that I’m trying my damndest to keep. But when Nancy died, things got tough.”
“I’m sorry about your wife,” Rodney apologized.
“Ex-wife,” Sheppard offered. “We hadn’t been together for a long time. Since J.J. was three.”
“Oh,” Rodney said. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s fine. We were still a team. We weren’t husband and wife anymore, but we were a family unit and made things work. She raised him while I was overseas, and I loved her for it.”
There was more to the story, but from the shuttered expression on Sheppard’s face, he’d pressed enough into Sheppard’s personal life. Rodney wasn’t a total pariah that he didn’t recognize the signs when a topic was closed for further discussion.
Rodney watched the shadows being chased by the Bronco’s headlights. He hated this drive, which is why he rarely made it. There was nothing but scrub on either side of the road with the odd eucalyptus or buckeye tree skirting along the edge of the hummocks in the distance. Even with all the driving Sheppard had done with his son, perhaps he felt the same about this road as Rodney. It wasn’t the picturesque view of the pacific coast, with its winding roads and frequent travelers. The road out of Porterville was a lonely stretch of road, made even lonelier at night.
“So, what about you, McKay?” Sheppard said, probably sensing Rodney’s mood shifting.
“Me?” Rodney asked. “What about me?”
“I just said more to you than anyone in years. I think it’s your turn.”
“Like, how about the choice to live on a mountain near the desert surrounded by nothing but trees?”
Sheppard snorted, shaking his head. “I don’t buy that.”
“You think you have me figured out?”
“Not at all,” Sheppard said, letting his grip slip from the steering wheel, resting a hand on his thigh. “But I think I have enough of you figured out.”
While Rodney contemplated what that could possibly mean, he watched Sheppard’s hand shift back and forth on his thigh, like he attended an ache that plagued him for years, rubbing it while not even aware he was doing it. He had seen a new side of Sheppard today, one he wasn’t likely to forget. The day had been full of surprises, a pleasant afternoon and evening with Rodney discovering how charming and affable John Sheppard was. It was apparent how much J.J. admired his dad, and their mutual respect toward each other was endearing to Rodney. They never made him feel like he intruded on their day, amusing Rodney and his diatribes, while easily fitting into their conversations. Eventually, J.J. and Rodney teamed up against Sheppard, pleading to watch a PG-13 movie until Sheppard reluctantly acquiesced, but only if Rodney paid for snacks. The day was enjoyable, made so because Sheppard and his son made him feel like he belonged, but even with the ease between them, it didn’t mean John was ready to hear Rodney’s truths.
“Not much to tell,” Rodney lied.
“But you worked for the air force.”
“With,” Rodney clarified. “I worked with the air force which is a big difference. And how did you know that?”
“For one, my son does talk to me despite what you may think. And two, I checked up on you, remember? There’s this new-found machine I’ve heard people talking about, a computer and something called the Google...or so they tell me.” Sheppard winked at Rodney.
“Oh, Funny. Zing.” Rodney grimaced, and when Sheppard held his eyes for too long, like he could see through Rodney’s deflection, Rodney felt compelled to look away. “Eyes on the road, Sheppard.”
“John,” Sheppard said. “Are you ever going to call me by my name?”
“Probably not,” Rodney said. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not the best at this.” He waved his hands around, encompassing the cab of the truck.
“I don’t know, McKay, you’re great with my kid. Maybe you just connect better with a younger mentality.”
“There you go again,” Rodney said, smiling, “complimenting me with a sarcastic undercut. But what you don’t know is that I’m incapable of feeling. I learned long ago to let things roll off my back, especially when they come from too-hot-for-their-own-good fly boys with cheeky attitudes.”
“That’s what you took away from that? Really?”
“Not the only thing.” Sheppard shrugged, but kept his eyes on the road. They were close to the outskirts of the small town they called home, and it couldn’t come quick enough. He could feel the ease of the day fading.
“So, what do you do up in that cabin at the end of the road?”
“Research, mostly,” Rodney said, figuring it was a safe bet and covered all of the bases.
“Research?” John sounded skeptical. “What kind of research?”
“All kinds, but mostly stuff beyond your grasp I would imagine.”
“If I wasn’t so used to you by now, I’d be insulted.”
“It’s not an insult if it’s the truth,” Rodney said.
“Wow. You weren’t kidding about the people stuff.” John turned off the highway and onto a side road that Rodney never used even though it was a shortcut. They were twenty-minutes out still, and Rodney wished John would drive faster, but this road meandered and was dangerous at night.
Most people didn’t understand what Rodney did, and what he could talk about sounded far-fetched and on the wacky side. He’d given up trying to explain his work to people, but he doubted Sheppard would let it go so easily.
“I don’t like to talk about my work,” Rodney said, wondering how Sheppard would take an information dump about space travel, aliens and weapons of mass destruction. What would Sheppard think if he knew Rodney was preparing for world annihilation, or that his research—with Radek’s help—could potentially save the planet? It sounded ridiculous even in Rodney’s head. ‘A paranoid conspiracy theorist,’ his sister had called him the last time they spoke. She warned him to stay away from her children until he came to his senses, that they didn’t need nightmares about snake-aliens from their crazy uncle Mer.
“Top secret?” Sheppard said, wriggling his eyebrows.
“Something like that.” Rodney crossed his arms, looking out the side window into the darkness. He recognized Sheppard’s teasing, but he couldn’t help the defenses he’d built up over the years. He felt the wall rising and the gate shutting the more Sheppard prodded.
“Must be important if you can’t even talk about it.”
He could feel Sheppard’s eyes on him, but he refused to look his way. They were close to Rodney’s road, which meant he could spend the rest of the ride in silence if Sheppard would let him.
It was the longest amount of hours Rodney had been away from his cabin in years. Time felt suspended with the Sheppards, like he never wanted the day to end, but with J.J. asleep in the back and Sheppard probing into his life, the road to his house seemed infinite. He always had strong convictions, never embarrassed by how he chose to live his life, but with Sheppard looking at him expectantly, he felt ashamed and somewhat defensive about his life and his decisions.
“Look, Sheppard,” Rodney snapped, “as much as this day was surprisingly pleasant, my work is my own, okay? Can we drop it?”
“All right, Rodney,” Sheppard took his hands off the wheel, “I was just curious. So long as you’re not building bombs or anything...”
“What is the obsession with weapons that you and your son have? No! I don’t build weapons!”
From the light on the dash, Rodney saw Sheppard’s expression go rigid like the day on Rodney’s porch. Sheppard glanced in the back to see if Rodney’s shout had woken J.J., but the kid slept, thankfully.
The air in the cab changed. It was charged now, and maybe it was Rodney’s imagination, but there had been a line drawn between them since the day they met, but over the past few weeks he found it fading. Glancing at Sheppard, he knew that line was back, only now it flashed yellow in warning.
Rodney’s breaths came short and fast with his shoulders raised, tense around his ears. He should apologize for his abrupt behavior, brush it off, possibly make a joke about his situation like he had so many times in the past, but that would mean lying to Sheppard and he didn’t want to do that. He wasn’t sorry for telling Sheppard to mind his own business. It was better this way, Rodney supposed, their lives were vastly different, and it was better to be at arm’s length when the world came crashing down around them and he could concentrate on his work.
Rodney stared at his chest rising and falling in the window, afraid to look at his reflection, and after some long, silent moments in the dark with the trees filling in around them, they turned onto Rodney’s dirt road. Sheppard slowed the truck, the brakes squealing as he put the Bronco in park. He turned to Rodney, words on the tip of his tongue as Rodney grabbed the door handle. It would be rude to run, Rodney thought, but he didn’t know what else to say to Sheppard.
“Dad?” J.J. woke, head back upright as he rubbed at his eyes. “We home?”
Sheppard chuckled, shaking his head. “Clockwork,” he said to Rodney, happy to share the joke with him. “Almost, buddy. Just dropping off Dr. McKay. Say goodnight.”
J.J. mumbled something, then laid his head back against the seat, presumably sleeping again.
“Thanks, Sheppard,” Rodney said, opening the door. “For...well...thanks.”
Sheppard took a deep breath, his hand twitching like he meant to reach out to Rodney, but then it relaxed and he shifted the gear instead. “You’re welcome, Rodney.”
"Why do you look like someone urinated in your porridge?" Radek’s voice sounded tinny coming from the laptop speakers.
"What?" Rodney snapped.
"Why do you look like—"
"The term is 'pissed in your cornflakes,' and no, I don't."
"What is this saying? Where does it come from?” Radek asked with humor. “I never understood."
"How am I supposed to know?" Rodney kept his head down, working on his tablet.
"Okay. Then why are you more irritable than usual?"
Radek scoffed, making Rodney look at the screen and he wished he hadn't. He didn't need to see Radek scrutinizing him from the other side of the world.
"Rodney, other than this week, you have been unrecognizable for the past month. Smiling even. And I wonder, 'Who is this man who looks like McKay, sounds like McKay, but is not McKay.’ This man willingly spends time with children, invites them into his home, talks to them, and dare I say...cured him of his horrible nature."
"It's not children, it was one child." Rodney crossed his arms. "There is no them. There was a him."
"Where is little apprentice? Did you destroy him and hide his body?"
"He wasn't my apprentice. And not that it's any of your business," Rodney said, "but I had too much work to do to waste my time on someone who was mediocre at best."
The silence on the other end was telling. As much as he liked to think he could lie to Radek, they had been friends for too long, and Radek was attuned to his moods even through the screen of a laptop. The two didn’t make it a habit to talk about personal matters, but every now and then something made its way into their discussions.
"I messed up, okay?" Rodney said, avoiding Radek's eyes. "I let the freak flag fly too much, and you know how well that always turns out."
It was nine days since that Thursday trip into the city. Nine days without any Sheppards in Rodney’s life.
"Don't, all right? I don't want to hear it. I never learn, but this time it's for good. I'm putting my efforts where they should be, not on some kid I have no reason to get attached to."
After the long Thursday filled with affable conversation and laughter, Rodney spent Friday feeling somewhat hollow. He planned to catch up on the neglected work he owed Radek, throwing himself into his research, working through the weekend to push through every distraction that made his mind wander, except he was plagued with the sinking feeling he ruined things with Sheppard. And when Tuesday morning rolled around, his suspicions were confirmed with a solitary phone call.
"If all goes well," Rodney continued, "I'm scheduling my test run in a few weeks. I need you to look over the calculations I sent. If I do a ten day simulation I’ll have to tax the system the equivalent of one year every two days."
There was more silence on the other end. He could feel the pity coming through the screen from Radek, and Rodney wanted no part of it.
"Please, Radek," he whispered.
"Okay." Radek's voice was soft but accepting.
Rodney was lying to himself more than to his friend, but he didn't know how else to get past this. The truth was he was heartbroken, blaming himself for allowing it to happen. It was over a week since he’d snapped at Sheppard in the truck, and he'd neither seen nor heard from J.J. or his father. His Tuesday morning ‘J.J. preparations’ had been interrupted by the piercing sound of the phone ringing. Patrick Sheppard was on the other end informing Rodney that his grandson was ill and would not be around to see him. It shouldn't have hurt Rodney like it did, kids got sick, Rodney understood that, but his over-active and sensitive brain imagined all of the worst scenarios. The most upsetting part was that Sheppard couldn't even call Rodney to explain; he had his father do his dirty work. By the time a full week rolled around, and still no sign of J.J., Rodney understood all too well.
As he stared at the shiny, blue bike sitting in the corner of his work-space, he felt the shame of his actions from that night in the truck. There was no justifiable reason for the way he reacted to Sheppard’s harmless questions, and he bought the bike as a way to make amends. It was meant to be a surprise when J.J. finished the work on the computer, but now it looked like it wouldn't happen. He wasn't one to wallow. He'd gone through too much disappointment in his life to dwell on insignificant things. If being banished to the cold depths of Siberia hadn't broken him, then a kid and his charming father never would.
With his chin held high, and his cheeks flushed, Rodney stared at Radek daring him to contradict his words even though his eyes begged Radek to let him have his delusions.
"Rodney," Radek said, smiling kindly but it didn't reach his eyes, "you are back to your old ways, my friend. I worried we lost you for good."
Rodney took a deep breath, grateful Radek understood enough not to harp any further. He would stick to what worked for him before the Sheppards barged into his life. He'd get someone to drop the bike off at the Sheppard's place the next time he got a delivery from town, and then he'd be done with them.
Rodney walked his property with the intention of finalizing the installation of his self-sufficient power grid. If he was to do a test run of the system he needed to ensure the work he’d done was complete and running smoothly to move on to the next phase. He pushed aside his feelings, refusing to surrender to his emotions, refusing to allow Sheppard any kind of power over him. One trip to Cora’s Diner told him all he needed to know. When asked, Tina told him she hadn’t seen Sheppard, but Patrick Sheppard and his grandson were in for lunch earlier that day. Rodney had been down this road before, and although this time the rejection hit him harder than the others, he wouldn’t let it deter him from the reason he was on this mountain. His work was all he needed.
As Rodney approached the top of the ridge, it was easy to see the scale of his property in comparison to his rustic home. The cabin itself was only a third the size of the space buried twenty-five feet underneath it. To the casual observer, he supposed the outward appearance of the weathered wood siding on his cabin matched his ‘madbomber’ reputation. He never cared what it looked like, inside or out, only that it did its job in the winter and maintained the facade to hide what was below—a state-of-the-art, high tech research outpost designed to withstand the end of the world.
It had been over a month since he walked the property, not since the Sheppards barrelled their way into his life. Rodney could see everything from the ridge, including the dirt road leading up to his cabin, which was startlingly dusty now, indicating a car had passed over it—a car, or a green beat-up Bronco.
Panicking, Rodney did a cursory glance around the cabin for any sign of Sheppard, and when there was none, his heart sank realizing he left the cabin door unlocked, as well as the door off the kitchen to the underground.
"Sheppard." He cursed under his breath, beginning his run down the ridge. He would never make it in time to intercept Sheppard if he chose to seek Rodney out when he didn’t answer the door.
"Sheppard!" he yelled, even though he knew he wouldn’t hear. He leapt and sidestepped over logs, trying to avoid a fall that would break his neck. It would be just his luck to die on the hillside leaving his life exposed to the one man he never wanted to discover his secrets. He ran harder than he had in years, his lungs burning with the effort to draw breath, and his knees ached from the punishing pounding of the slope.
There was no sign of Sheppard anywhere.
Rodney’s heart beat overtime in his chest, his own voice sounding fuzzy to his ears as he stumbled up the porch steps and through the door, calling Sheppard’s name.
He skipped the wooden steps to the underground, jumping them in two leaps and skidded to a halt at the top of the ladder to the tunnel underground. He slid down the ladder, his hands squelching on the metal as his sweat and skin ran over the side rail, landing on both feet at the bottom.
"McKay?" He heard the call back, but it didn't matter. It was too late. Sheppard had invaded his personal space. He saw what was down here, and was the first person to step foot in here since he'd built it. Rodney's stomach turned at the thought. His breaths came hard and fast, trying to catch up from the exertion of the run, and the humiliation of having his life exposed. It felt like his throat was closing, restricting his airflow. It wasn't a heart attack even though his heart was on the verge of being crushed. He recognized the panic attack for what it was, the clammy skin and overwhelming dread was all too familiar. Rodney leaned against the concrete wall, placing his hands on his knees hoping the position would help him breathe. The feelings of helplessness flooded his body. It was years since he had an attack, not since the days with the air force.
"McKay?" Rodney felt a hand on his shoulder. "You all right, buddy? What's wrong? You don't look so good." Sheppard tried to lift him by the shoulders. "Come on. Come sit down. What do you need?"
Rodney let himself be dragged to a chair, and shoved his head between his knees.
"You're not having a heart attack, are you? Allergic reaction? What is it? You need some water? Aspirin?"
Rodney heard Sheppard shuffling things around on his desk. Heard drawers and cupboards being opened, and mumbles of surprise after opening each one. If Sheppard hadn't gotten a good look at Rodney's ‘crazy’ before, he sure as hell had now, which only made it harder to catch a breath.
"Whoa!" Sheppard said, and Rodney heard something metal drop and then roll across the floor. "What the hell was that?"
Sheppard continued to move about the room, and when the item John dropped came rolling near Rodney's feet, he understood why Sheppard had dropped it. Rodney’s mouth fell open, but no sound emerged. His eyes were swimming in darkness with bursts of light being the only thing he could see before he hit the floor, and the concrete connected with his head.
“That’s it, Rodney. Come on.”
Someone tapped his cheek. Rodney tried to swat the touch away, but found his arms unwilling to cooperate. His limbs were heavy and useless lying at his sides, and his head hurt like a—
“McKay!” The voice was insistent, while hands shook his shoulders. “Time to wake up and explain what the hell just happened.” A sharp sting landed on his cheek, and then he was awake, blinking at Sheppard’s wide, hazel eyes hovering above him.
“You hit me!” Rodney shrieked, scrambling away from Sheppard until he hit the wall. He clutched his head in his hands. “I could have a head injury, and you might’ve made it worse. Why’d you hit me?”
“You don’t have a concussion, a nasty headache maybe, and it was a tap,” Sheppard said, standing and brushing at his pants. “And I tapped you because we’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes while you decided to take a nap after you fainted.”
“I did not faint.”
“Oh, no? Then what would you call it, Sleeping Beauty?”
Rodney took a deep breath, about to begin his sarcastic retort when he noticed the silver dollar sized light next to the yellow release button that controlled the door. The light was not the familiar green he was used to seeing. It was a solid red. He rubbed at his eyes to make sure it wasn’t a side effect from his pounding head. Staring in horror, he willed the light to turn green, but when it didn’t, he realized what must’ve happened while he was passed out.
Rodney hopped to his feet, reaching for the lab bench to steady himself as a wave of dizziness swept over him. He wasn’t convinced of Sheppard’s diagnosis, but being concussed was the least of his problems.
“What did you do?” Rodney screeched, hurting his own ears and John’s in the process.
Once his balance returned, he rushed to the steel door, slamming his palm repeatedly on the yellow button.
“What did you do?” he repeated, gripping the door handle and reefing on it with all his might even though he knew it was futile.
“I tried that already.”
“You idiot! You moron!” Rodney banged his hand against the eight-inch-thick, metal door. “I can’t believe how stupid—”
“Enough with the name calling!” Sheppard glanced behind him, and not just at something but someone. J.J. was in the corner of the room looking smaller than his usual boisterous self. His eyes were wide with tears threatening to spill, and his face was paler than was healthy. The poor kid was terrified, looking frantically between Rodney and his dad, and Rodney’s own hysteria corralled itself for the sake of J.J.
“Dr. McKay told me not to come down here. It’s my fault.” J.J.’s lip quivered and the tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Hey, hey, hey,” John said, rushing to his son and pulling him into his arms. “It’s not your fault.”
Rodney wanted to contradict Sheppard, but he didn’t think that would be well received, so instead he went to his lab bench, typing code and bringing up screens to confirm his dread.
“No. No, no,” he mumbled.
“We are so screwed,” he said under his breath.
There were good reasons why kids should listen when they were explicitly told places were off limits, and there were severe consequences for their insolence. That’s what he wanted to yell, but a hundred thoughts raced through his head, and most of them had to do with one side of his brain saying, ‘I told you so,’ while the other side said, ‘You are so screwed.’ Nothing good came from letting people into your life. This philosophy had worked well for him for years. If Rodney had kept to himself instead of inviting inquisitive eight-year-olds onto his porch, none of this would be happening. “I can’t believe—”
“McKay!” John shouted, lifting J.J. in his arms as he stood. “Want to fill me in, here? What is this place?”
“Fill you in.” Rodney snorted, folding his arms over his chest. He tried to hold back his anger, the kid didn’t deserve it, but it was impossible with his expressive face. “I hope you don’t have anywhere to be, Sheppard.” He glanced at his watch. “Oh, say, in the next ten days?”
“I have lots of places I need to be, McKay. One very important place to be, actually. Which is why we were here in the first place.”
“Well, that’s too bad, because whatever the hell your offspring touched effectively locked down this bunker.”
J.J. started to say something, but then Sheppard clued into what Rodney had said.
“Yes, a bunker.”
Sheppard was silent for a few breaths, then shifted to put J.J. in the chair behind him. He took a few meaningful steps toward Rodney with his hands on his hips. “Well, unlock it.”
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“It means I can’t.” Rodney raised his hands in front of him, shaking his head.
“Unlock the door, McKay,” Sheppard said between gritted teeth.
“What don’t you understand? It’s on a timer.”
“Speed up the timer, then.”
“It doesn’t work like that! It’s a bunker. There are fail-safes in place. I’m sure even you understand what that means.”
“Fail-safe for what?”
“So, there’s no chance of opening the door early in the event of an attack. There’s no way out.”
“An attack.” Sheppard turned, running his hands through his hair. His head moved from side to side like he was taking in the room for the first time, and now that he knew they were in a bunker, Rodney supposed he was. Sheppard’s eyes landed on J.J. who had his knees tucked up against his chest, still sniffling.
“Then what about from the outside?” Sheppard asked, moving to study the door. He took out his cell phone then frowned when he realized there was no reception. “Maybe there's a trigger of some sort to open the door from the other side? We could get a message to someone.”
“What? A trigger? It’s a bunker. Like I’d leave a loophole for someone to figure out how to get in here.” Rodney scoffed. “Are you nuts?”
“Am I nuts?” Sheppard’s eyes went wide, giving Rodney an incredulous look. “Am I—You’re crazy! You really are crazy. You know that?” John yelled, taking slow, measured steps toward Rodney. “What the hell are you doing with a bunker under your house? One you can’t get out of! You’re insane. I heard the rumors, but I never thought they were true.” Sheppard grabbed his hair, pulling and grunting in frustration.
“Stop it!” J.J. shouted. “Stop fighting! I’m sorry!” He ran further into the bunker, throwing himself on the oversized flop chair Rodney had in the living area.
The bunker was silent for a few breaths; both Sheppard and Rodney avoided each other’s eyes unsure of what to say. Then with a huff, Sheppard followed his son.
“It’s okay, buddy. This is not your fault. We’re not mad. We’re just trying to figure out what happened.” Sheppard pulled J.J. into his arms once again, and met Rodney’s eyes over the top of J.J.’s head.
Rodney didn’t know how to handle this; he wasn’t exactly used to kids and he definitely didn’t know how to comfort them, especially when Rodney was shaken as well. How was he supposed to tell Sheppard there was no way out, at least not for ten days, which is what he coded the release for on the last upload? Rodney’s plan for a test run next month just got bumped. It was supposed to be a dry run once everything was fully operational, but he was still weeks away. He had put the test on hold when the Sheppards waltzed into his life. He hadn’t felt compelled to test it, to lock himself away from them, at least he hadn’t until they abandoned him last week.
Rodney saw the panic in Sheppard’s face, but he didn’t know how to handle that, either. Sheppard probably thought they were going to die down here, lost to the world without anyone knowing what happened to them. Rodney could at least placate that fear.
“It’s a fallout shelter,” Rodney explained, leaving the word ‘nuclear’ out of the description. “There’s everything we need down here to survive up to two or three years.” It was supposed to be five years, but with two extra people he re-calculated the odds. “There’s food, water, a toilet, and we have power. And since this isn’t exactly an emergency, the satellites and phone line still work even though you don’t have cell service. We just can’t leave for the next ten days.”
“I was planning a test run, a simulation. I put the door on a timer for ten days.” Rodney wrung his hands, bracing for Sheppard’s sharp tongue. He was about to lash out at Rodney when J.J. hiccupped from crying too hard. Sheppard broke his death glare at Rodney, kissing the top of J.J.’s head.
“Looks like you’ll be missing the first few days of school.”
“He’ll be better off,” Rodney mumbled, earning another glare from Sheppard.
“I suppose it’ll be like uncle Chester's cabin,” Sheppard said to J.J., rubbing his back, “just without the fishing.”
“Or the bugs,” J.J. said.
“Without the bugs,” John agreed, chuckling as he stood to set J.J. on his feet. “How about you have a look around, but stay where I can see you while I talk to Dr. McKay?”
J.J. nodded, glancing from Rodney and John. “Don’t fight.”
“We’re just going to talk. Promise.” Sheppard ruffled the hair on J.J.’s head, pushing him toward the kitchen area.
As Sheppard’s murderous gaze landed on Rodney, he gulped, wishing he could join J.J. in the other part of the bunker.
With J.J. Safely out of earshot, Rodney began before Sheppard could. "I'm sorry, but you—"
"Don't," Sheppard snapped, holding up his hand while glaring at Rodney.
"You shouldn’t have—"
"I said don’t.” He glanced over his shoulder at his son, lowering his voice again. “I don't want to hear an apology."
“I’m not trying to apologize! You trespassed where you shouldn’t have!” The audacity of Sheppard’s misplaced anger fueled Rodney’s own outrage. How dare Sheppard blame this on him? They wouldn’t be in this mess if Sheppard had done the neighborly thing and left when Rodney hadn’t answered his knock.
“We weren’t trespassing, your door was wide open.”
“That doesn’t mean you can waltz in without an invitation!”
“Next time I’ll heed the warnings about secret, underground bunkers,” Sheppard’s indignation couldn’t be missed, “but for now, can we discuss how we get out of this?”
“We don’t. It’s a bunker.” Rodney’s words came short and clipped. “We wait out the lockdown. I built it to withstand a nuclear disaster. No one is getting in or out until the time is up.”
“But you designed it, right?”
“Of course I did.” Rodney admonished Sheppard like there was another acceptable option. “There’s two identically sized pods connected by that tunnel.” He pointed to a door off the side of his workspace. “One for living and one for function. The scrubbers are in there, pumping air out and bringing fresh, filtered oxygen in from the outside. The power room is down there, too, as is the greenhouse, food storage and exercise area…everything one would need to survive for years.” He spoke animatedly with his hands. “What I hadn’t planned on was sharing it with a kid and a pissed off air force major!” His voice rose out of frustration, so Sheppard held up his hands to calm him down, which only rankled Rodney further, at least it did until Sheppard glanced back at J.J. who was poking his head into the bedroom.
“Okay, okay,” Sheppard whispered. “All I was asking is if you designed it, and if you did, that means you can hack the door lock and get us out of here.”
“It’s a 128-bit encryption key.” Rodney rolled his eyes.
“But there’s a password, right?”
“No! I didn’t want the temptation of opening the door before it was time. What if I panicked and lost my nerve? There’s no password.”
“But you could crack it.” Sheppard quirked an eyebrow.
“I thought you were a genius, McKay.”
“I am.” Rodney crossed his arms.
“Then prove it,” Sheppard challenged with his hands on hips.
“Do you understand what a 128-bit encryption key even means? It means there are—”
“A couple of trillion possible combinations. Give or take.”
“Give or take,” Rodney huffed, surprised Sheppard knew that. “And I can assure you we do not have enough power to handle those kinds of calculations, and even if we did have the resources of a super-computer,” Rodney unfolded his arms with a smug grin, “it would take—”
“Thousands of years.”
“Try millions.” Rodney mocked a smile.
“I have somewhere very important I need to be in a couple of days.” Sheppard’s nostrils flared as he leaned toward Rodney.
“Well, it’s not happening.” Rodney shrugged, trying not to let Sheppard rattle him.
“That’s not possible, because in ten days, when we get out of here, my problems are not going to magically disappear. I doubt, ‘Forgive me, I was trapped in a bunker with a madman,’ is an alibi I can use to explain my absence. I can’t hide away in a bunker waiting for the world to end. I have real problems, McKay.”
The words stung as though Rodney had been punched. It was made clear this past week what Sheppard thought of him, but hearing the words coming from his mouth and the conviction in Sheppard's voice hurt more than it should, especially from someone who was essentially a stranger.
“This is not my fault. If you and your kid hadn’t trespassed on my property none of this would be happening.”
“How was I supposed to know you had a death trap under your house!”
“Dad?” J.J.’s voice came from behind them. “You said you wouldn't fight.”
“We’re not fighting,” Sheppard said, folding his arms. “We’re just talking. Right, McKay?”
If Rodney wasn’t working so hard to prevent another panic attack, his attitude toward Sheppard would be much different—murderous even, except Sheppard’s harsh words had broken the last of his tenacity. It wasn’t that Sheppard intimidated him, he rarely let anyone intimidate him, but having someone in his space left him vulnerable. Rodney recognized the defeat he was feeling, compounded by years of confrontations that never ended in his favor, and the last thing they needed was for this to end in a shouting match in front of J.J.
Sheppard leaned in, speaking low in Rodney’s ear. “We’ll continue this later, but right now can we reassure him everything’s fine?”
“Everything is fine,” Rodney said, backing away from Sheppard, hitting the edge of the workbench in his scramble. “I’ve been told my voice carries,” Rodney said, giving J.J. a quick smile. “I’m a loud talker.”
Sheppard gave Rodney a hard look before joining J.J. in the living area. “Well, what do you think? Did you check everything out?”
J.J. nodded, his head bouncing. “It’s so cool!”
“You think so?” John followed his son toward the bedroom and bathroom where J.J. pointed out things he discovered during his exploration of the bunker.
The brevity of their situation settled in with Rodney. He wanted to be livid with Sheppard for the invasion of his privacy, and if they weren't going to be stuck together for ten days without an escape he would have some choice words for him, but they needed to share this space with an eight-year-old boy who wouldn't understand that Rodney’s anger wasn’t directed toward him. Rodney knew all too well what it was like to be around combative adults and he didn’t want to upset J.J. further. For the sake of the kid, Rodney could put aside his grievances with Sheppard and make it work somehow.
There was only one bedroom with a queen bed, and a too small for sleeping sofa in the main area. He had a few extra clothes for when he worked long hours caught up in a project, but nothing that would fit J.J. There was a way to wash clothes, but that would get tedious after a few days. This space was designed for one person in mind, not to be shared with anyone, and definitely not with a man he was stuck with who possibly hated him, or even worse thought he was beyond eccentric and actually insane.
J.J. came rushing out of the bedroom toward Rodney, an infectious smile on his face. “You built this whole thing?”
“You haven’t even seen all of it,” Rodney said, stifling his pride when Sheppard caught his eye.
“Really?” J.J.’s eyes were bright and happy, and Rodney's anxiety gave way to his delight. Sheppard may not understand the ingenuity of the bunker, but at least his son could appreciate it.
“There’s more through here.” Rodney led the way toward the tunnel and out into the second pod. He opened the door to the utility room with the power grid and server room, where the scrubbers were kept at a cooler temperature than the rest of the bunker. He took a moment to look at the panel and the energy output levels. The generator and exhaust fans had kicked on as soon as the door was triggered, and despite his fluster, Rodney was proud of the work he’d done to make them purr as beautifully as they were. As far as test runs went, this was the only thing going right. The output levels were reading normal and if he weren’t so caught up with avoiding the icy stares from Sheppard, he would be boasting how the system had activated without any preparation.
“Do you know what this is?” Rodney asked J.J., and then continued without waiting for an answer. “It’ll help us breathe for the duration of our stay down here. Do you remember when we talked about oxygen and carbon dioxide on space stations and how astronauts breathe in space?” J.J. nodded. “It’s somewhat like that. It takes the bad air out and brings the good air in.”
He directed J.J. to the power grid panels.
“And these will keep an eye on how much energy we’re using and how much we have left. We’ll need to monitor our output so we don’t run out.”
“Kind of, yes. You know those solar panels up on the hill and on the roof? Those will help store up most of the electricity we use down here, but we can also charge them, too.”
“How?” J.J. asked, and as Rodney turned, he found Sheppard standing in the doorway watching, listening to them with a puzzled look on his face. Rodney felt somewhat naked under that gaze, and floundered for a mere second before gaining his resolve once again.
“Glad you asked,” he cleared his throat, “because you’re going to have to earn your keep around here if we’re to make it through the days.” Rodney knew they wouldn’t even come close to going through the power that was banked up, but at least it would give J.J. something to do and burn off some energy while he was cooped up down here.
“Follow me.” He slid past Sheppard, avoiding him entirely, and headed toward another room off in the corner where there was an exercise bike, a rowing machine and a treadmill.
“Every pedal, every row and every mile you run will generate energy and store it in the power banks in that room. So, if you want to watch TV, you’ll need to do some work before you can.”
“Dad! Did you see this? It’s awesome!” He jumped on the bike and started pedaling. “It’s just like the one mom had.”
There was a nudge at Rodney’s shoulder, and he felt the heat from Sheppard’s body through his clothing. He dared not turn around, not when Sheppard’s breath was at the nape of his neck.
“Thanks,” Sheppard whispered into his ear, while J.J. pedalled like his life depended on it. “He hasn’t been this excited in months.” Which seemed odd to Rodney, since J.J. was always animated during his visits, but Sheppard’s voice had cracked a little on the last word, and Rodney wasn’t so heartless that he would take this from Sheppard.
“How much electricity did I make?” J.J. asked between puffs of breath.
Rodney stepped away from Sheppard and his ridiculous body heat, heading to the panel in the corner.
“None,” he said, pointing to a large gray switch on the wall panel. “This needs to be turned on.”
“Aw, man! Now you tell me.” J.J. huffed, throwing his hands up in the air, and it was somewhat eerie how it reminded Rodney of himself. When he glanced at Sheppard, the gesture hadn’t gone unnoticed, either.
“I was flying. Did you see, dad?”
“I sure did,” John said with a chuckle. “Guess this’ll be good practice for when you get your own bike and need to ride up the hill to Dr. McKay’s.”
Rodney couldn’t deny how much J.J.’s elation played with his emotions. Despite his complicated attitude toward Sheppard, seeing J.J. thrive was Rodney’s kryptonite.
“Speaking of bikes…” Rodney said, grinning from ear to ear.
Rodney and Sheppard had formed a tentative truce. It wasn’t perfect, but they spent the remainder of the afternoon without any arguments. Rodney taught him the workings of the bunker and the rules they needed to abide by, and together, they came up with a plan for duties and tasks to keep them busy through the days. While Rodney monitored the systems, and J.J. tested his shiny, blue bike, Sheppard escaped to the bedroom to make a few phone calls using Rodney’s landline. Rodney didn’t know who he was calling, but when the dinner hour fell upon them and Sheppard returned, the tension behind his eyes told Rodney the amiable last few hours were about to come to an end.
Instead of poking at the peace between them, Rodney ignored Sheppard’s rigid shoulders and faraway stares, giving them their choice of entrees—‘à la MRE cuisine.’ Rodney chose his favorite, meatballs in marinara sauce, and when Sheppard mocked him, Rodney snapped back that his side of garlic mashed potatoes weren’t up for sharing.
After tucking into his cheese tortellini, J.J. exclaimed he was having the best vacation of his short-lived life, and that included the time they did a swamp tour in Louisiana and ate alligator at Tunk’s Cypress Inn.
“Of course, you and your progeny would think air boating at ridiculous speeds in snake infested swamps would be some kind of thrill ride vacation.” Rodney rolled his eyes at Sheppard. “And Alligator? Did you dangle the kid’s feet over the boat as bait?”
“Relax. We ate it at a restaurant,” Sheppard said, with an exasperated sigh.
“Tasted like chicken.” J.J. grinned.
“Yes, Yes. Everything tastes like chicken.”
“This sure doesn’t.” John pushed aside his half-eaten beef stew, turning his nose up at the brown mush. “Never understood why everyone traded for it. Wasn’t one of my favorites.”
“Then why’d you pick it?” Rodney’s voice went a little higher than he intended.
“I don’t know. Nostalgia? Wanted to see if it’s still as bad as I remember.”
“I’m guessing it is.” Rodney sniffed the stew, but didn't think it smelled bad.
“God, yes,” Sheppard said just as he let out a loud burp. It silenced the room for a moment but then induced a fit of giggles from J.J.
“Classy.” Rodney reached over to claim the stew. No point wasting a perfectly good meal. “You really are a self-deprecating idiot.”
“Bad word,” J.J. said with his mouth full of pasta.
“You want to talk about manners with that mouthful?” Rodney pointed his fork at J.J. with a turned-up lip. “I suppose you learned your bad habits from your dad.”
Rodney silenced Sheppard with a look before turning his attention back to J.J. “You’re going to hear a lot of bad words before the ten days are up, and since I bought you the bike, I get a free pass on the swear jar. Besides, it’s not my fault your dad’s an idiot. There are dozens of meals to choose from and he chose one he doesn't like.”
“I picked it for the brownie.” Sheppard held up the dark, brown square wrapped in thick plastic. He wriggled his eyebrows at his son, pointing at Rodney’s hard cookies and J.J.’s pathetic powdered pudding. “Makes it worth it.”
Rodney hopped up from the table with a skip in his step and a smug smile on his face. “You go ahead and have your brownie, Sheppard. The kid and I will eat our ice cream sandwiches.” Rodney opened a closet door next to the refrigerator, and pulled out two silver packages labeled, ‘Freeze-Dried Ready to Eat Space Food.’ “It’s the stuff the astronauts eat.” Rodney tossed a pack at J.J. who juggled it a few times before clutching it with both hands. He bounced in his seat, ripping the package open and marveled at the melt-proof ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate wafers.
“Hey, now, dinner first,” Sheppard argued.
“I’m done,” J.J. showed him his empty bowl.
“How about we share?” Sheppard offered his brownie to his son. “Half and half?”
“Nope.” J.J. took the biggest bite imaginable, stuffing his cheeks with the dehydrated dessert. Feigning his disappointment in his son, Sheppard leaned in close, frowning, and then he stuffed the entire brownie into his mouth giving J.J. a brownie infused smile.
“Oh, nice,” Rodney said, tucking into Sheppard’s leftover stew to avoid watching Sheppard swallow his brownie with his chocolate covered mouth. “I’m locked in a bunker with a couple of heathens. This will be quite vexing for my sensibilities.”
“I’m sure your sensibilities will survive, McKay.” Sheppard caught his eye, then licked the chocolate from his lips as he leaned forward on his elbows. “In fact, I’m pretty sure I can elevate those delicate sensibilities.”
Heat rushed to Rodney’s cheeks, and he couldn’t hide the flushed pink color that would inevitably accompany the warmth. His complexion was his worst enemy when it came to hiding embarrassment—amongst other things. Rodney wasn’t the best at reading signs, but it was hard to deny the taunting behind Sheppard’s words and the exaggerated manner of cleaning his mouth. Only hours ago, he called Rodney unmentionable names not worth repeating, so surely, he wasn’t flirting with Rodney, not here at the dinner table in front of his son.
Desperate for distraction, Rodney removed their dinner dishes, lingering at the sink until he felt the heat in his cheeks reside. Clearing his throat, he headed back to the table and to an oblivious J.J. who was eating his ice cream, unaware anything compromising had taken place. Sheppard’s expression was politely schooled, if somewhat hard, and if Rodney wasn’t crazy before, Sheppard and his boomerang emotions would drive him to madness in the next few days.
“Why isn’t it cold?” J.J. asked, poking the white bit of the ice cream sandwich.
“Ah…” Fighting disappointment and the feelings of delusion, Rodney opened his own ice cream treat, and then began the long-winded process of explaining how dehydrated food was made. They were going to be stuck down here for a while, no reason why the kid’s education couldn’t continue, and at least Rodney’s mind would be occupied with other things than how Sheppard’s lips would taste with a mouthful of brownie.
By the time Rodney finished his detailed commentary, their desserts were done and J.J.’s eyelids were heavy. He would fall asleep at the table if they left him any longer. Rodney cautioned a glance at Sheppard, and when their eyes met, Sheppard’s were warm and soft this time.
‘Thank you,’ he mouthed, then wrestled J.J. toward the bathroom.
Rodney wordlessly provided a T-shirt for sleeping, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and while Sheppard cleaned up, J.J., Rodney added sheets to the bed, pulled the covers back and fluffed up the pillows.
“You two can take the bed,” Rodney offered when Sheppard came in carrying a listless child. “I don’t sleep very much, and I’m too keyed up to get us out of this mess that I’ll probably work through the night. I can sleep a couple hours tomorrow morning and throughout the day while you’re both awake.” He knew he was rambling, but the words wouldn’t stop flowing from his mouth. “There will be plenty of opportunities to catch some shut-eye.”
“McKay,” John whispered, as he gently lay J.J. on the bed, pulling the covers around him. “I’ll put him here until we’re ready to sleep, then move him out to the sofa. He won’t even know the difference.”
“It’s really no trouble. I don’t sleep,” Rodney blurted out, eyes wide while his heart leapt into his throat at the thought of sharing a bed with Sheppard. J.J. rolled over at his outburst, which made Sheppard push Rodney out of the bedroom, closing the door behind them.
“We’ll figure it out,” John said. “But right now, you and I need to have that chat.”
“We do?” Rodney said, his heart still beating overtime while he processed the new scenarios popping into his head. Sleeping at his workbench was the only option for Rodney. There was no way he could lay next to Sheppard on that queen bed, not with him inches away with that body heat of his and looking the way he did with his wild hair and strong jaw covered in dark scruff. Rodney would get more sleep working through the night and catching some shut-eye in the day on his own.
It had been a long time since he’d slept beside another body, and Sheppard ticked most of the boxes he set forth for sleeping partners. From that first day Sheppard showed up on the porch, Rodney thought he was hot as hell, but then he’d come to learn the man was intelligent, too. He had wit and charm that was rather infectious, and not to mention he put up with Rodney’s bitter sarcasm without batting an eye. Rodney was in over his head and there were ten more days of this torture. He was likely to mess up worse than that fateful trip into the city, only this time Sheppard wouldn’t walk away without an explanation, he would murder Rodney and leave his body down here to rot.
Rodney reluctantly followed Sheppard to the table, and when they sat he saw that Sheppard’s brow was furrowed and his lips were pinched. The accommodating, pleasant behavior Sheppard had exhibited for the past few hours had been a show for his son, and without a J.J. buffer, Sheppard was about to let Rodney know just how furious he was about being trapped in the bunker.
Beneath the surface of their interactions, a friendship had been blooming, or so Rodney thought, but they were alone now and he sensed the stifled anger from the phone calls returning. Gathering up his courage, Rodney wanted to strike first before Sheppard, letting him know his absence over the past two weeks and then his sudden intrusion into his life was not appreciated.
“Why were you here?” Rodney asked, leaning back in his chair with his chin tilted toward the ceiling.
Sheppard narrowed his eyes, thinking of something to say, no doubt, so Rodney didn't wait for the yelling to begin.
“I know you’re pissed off about our situation, and I’m sorry about that, but it’s not exactly my fault,” Rodney said, crossing his arms.
Sheppard sighed, and in that one small gesture all the fight seemed to leave him. “Did you plan to store any alcohol in this bunker? I could really use a drink.”
Never had someone confused Rodney so much, leaving him struggling for something to say. Sheppard was an anomaly. Whenever he thought he had Sheppard figured out, he would surprise Rodney by doing or being the unexpected. Rodney was used to people being the constants in his controlled life. They never changed, and he knew what to expect from them, which usually entailed disappointment in some form or another. Sheppard was a variable in Rodney’s experiment of life, only he wasn’t a typical variable, he was more like a confounding variable, something Rodney had not accounted for and he was at a loss as to how to proceed with their friendship.
“Please tell me you have something,” Sheppard said with pleading eyes.
“Oh, yes. Yes,” Rodney said, snapping out of his daze and out of his chair. “I have quite the cache. Figured if the world turned to complete shit and there was no saving it, I’d just drink myself to death.”
“That plan kind of sucks.”
“Yes, well...” Rodney opened the freezer door, pulling out a bottle of Russian vodka. “From my Siberia days.” He smiled, pouring two glasses.
“Siberia?” Sheppard’s lips quirked, surprised by Rodney’s admission. “Maybe we’ll save that story for day five.”
Passing a glass to Sheppard, Rodney toasted him with one of the few Russian phrases he learned during his stay in the cold country.
Sheppard held his glass aloft, meeting Rodney’s eyes and responded with his own salute.
And there was that confounding variable charm again. Sheppard had toasted their friendship, in Russian no less.
Pleasantries aside, the tension remained. To keep control of the conversation, Rodney cut to the quick.
“If this is where you ream me out for being certifiable, you can save your breath, Sheppard. This is my place, my sanctuary. I never intended you or your son to even know this place existed. I was careless. You’d written me off, so there wasn’t a need to lock everything up when I stepped outside. Which leads me to my original question, why were you even here?” Rodney was aware of his accusatory tone, but the vodka was burning its way down his throat, giving him the courage he needed.
“Look, Rodney,” John took a deep breath, “I owe you an apology for how I reacted. I don’t think you’re crazy, not really. I was...”
“No,” John looked affronted by Rodney’s accusation, “I wasn’t scared, I was...”
“Well, yes, but what I’m trying to say is...”
“This is your fault.”
“No! I’d hardly call this all my fault,” John’s brow furrowed. “If you let me finish, I’ll tell you I’m sorry. I knew when I opened the cabin door and didn’t find you, we should have left. I saw the door to the basement, wondered if you were down there, and maybe couldn’t hear us. J.J. warned me not to go, something about imminent death or dismemberment, but I went anyway.” Sheppard took a slow measured sip of his drink. “I have to admit, after our discussion in the truck, my curiosity was piqued.”
“I get it.” Rodney shook his head. “But I didn’t mean ‘why are you here,’ that much is obvious. At least your son comes by his inquisitiveness honestly, and the reason I lock up everything. I meant,” he paused meeting Sheppard’s eyes, “why were you here? You couldn’t even call to tell me the truth, and then you show up on my doorstep?”
Sheppard seemed genuinely confused, frowning as he tilted his head. “What are you talking about?”
“You! Your son. I get it, I do. You didn’t want him around me anymore, my ‘crazy’ was too much for you, but you could’ve called and told me rather than get your father to do your dirty work.”
Sheppard took a deep breath, his expression as steely as his rigid back. “What did he say to you?” he asked between gritted teeth.
“Nothing! That’s the whole point. He said J.J. was sick and wouldn’t be coming over. And since that was two weeks ago, I assumed he meant ever again.”
“Rodney...” John sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “J.J. was sick, at least he was for a few days, and I’ve been out of town, so I didn’t have a say in what rules my father chose to impose. When I say he’s old school, I mean he’s old school. He has these ideals, and we’re working through them, but it’s taking time. He likes things a certain way, and doesn’t exactly bend when it comes to rules. Living with my father again has been...” Sheppard chuckled, “...an adjustment.”
Sheppard’s eyes fixated on his hands holding the glass, turning it a half inch back and forth. This was difficult for Sheppard, he could see that, but it didn’t stop Rodney from taking umbrage for his absence over the last few weeks.
“You could’ve called.”
“I’ve had a lot going on. This is all new to me, too, Rodney. It’s not been easy, and when I got home, J.J. told me he hadn’t been allowed to visit, so we came to make amends, and...” Sheppard paused, then added, “to ask a favor.”
“Oh,” Rodney said, feeling like a flood dam of emotions had opened. Warmth slid from his cheeks down his spine, pooling in the pit of his stomach. “You were out of town?”
“I had some loose ends to tie up at Edwards.”
Rodney caught the twinge of distaste in Sheppard’s words. It was subtle, but enough for Rodney to file away for later when Sheppard wasn’t so guarded.
For Rodney, the past two weeks had been torturous, filled with bitterness, and with Sheppard’s new revelation, Rodney felt foolish and relieved all at once. The last of his defenses the Sheppards were slowly chipping away at came crashing down at once. His chest ached knowing Sheppard hadn’t abandoned him, hadn’t given up on him. It was a misunderstanding filled with assumptions based on past relationships in Rodney’s life.
“I’m sorry, Rodney, I didn’t know. I would’ve done this differently if I had.”
He wasn’t used to forgiveness. It wasn’t something in his wheelhouse, but it turned out to be easier than he thought. “Apology accepted,” Rodney said, his voice raw from the heartfelt admission.
To give Rodney a moment, Sheppard glanced around the room, looking at the pipes above and the walls around them. “J.J. said he’d never been down here.”
“He warned me not to, but I went ahead anyway. I should’ve respected your privacy.”
“You should’ve listened to the eight-year-old.”
“That too.” Sheppard’s mouth twitched, and Rodney found it difficult to look away.
“I’m sure you’ve both learned not to touch shiny, yellow buttons.”
“Yeah, about that yellow button,” Sheppard said, drawing the words out and leaning back in his chair. “I might’ve pushed it.”
“Why does that not surprise me?” Rodney smiled, sipping his drink.
“How was I supposed to know it would trigger the lockdown of a nuclear fallout shelter?” Sheppard’s voice was tight with humor.
“What did you think it would do?”
“I don’t know,” Sheppard said, shrugging his shoulders, “maybe a panic button? Linked to rescue services? It’s not like you have a cell phone.”
Rodney rolled his eyes, not believing him for a second.
“You weren’t breathing, Rodney. I didn’t think I could carry you up that ladder, and J.J. was crying. I did everything I thought would help.”
“I stopped breathing?” Rodney asked.
“Only for a few seconds.” Sheppard pressed his lips together, his expression speaking the truth. “But it was enough to scare the shit out of me.”
“Yes, well,” Rodney said, fiddling with the ice in his glass. He’d already forgiven Sheppard, but knowing what he’d done, the lengths he went to help him was more than anyone had done for him in years. “Thanks. You know for...”
“You’re welcome.” John grinned, then slid out of his chair to grab the bottle of vodka off the counter. As he walked by, Rodney caught the scent of clean laundry and wood smoke in his clothes, the green, plaid shirt in particular, which made Sheppard’s shoulders look wider than they were. As he ogled the backside of Sheppard, he had a realization about those sleeping arrangements. He couldn’t go anywhere near that bed if Sheppard was in it, not if he wanted to make a mockery of this budding friendship.
“McKay?” Sheppard asked, waiting for an answer to a question Rodney missed.
Sheppard chuckled. “Nothing.”
Rodney reached for something to say, anything to cover the fact he’d been caught staring at Sheppard’s ass. “You mentioned you came to ask a favor?”
“It doesn’t matter now.”
“What was it?” Rodney pressed.
Sheppard sat back in the chair, spinning his empty glass before filling it to cover the ice cubes. “I had more business I needed to take care of out of town. I couldn’t take J.J. with me, so he proposed the idea of staying with you.”
“With me?” Rodney’s heart thudded in his chest.
“That’s what I said.” Sheppard mocked. “For some reason the kid would rather stay with you than his grandfather. My dad was busy anyway, but we were coming to take you to lunch and ask if you would mind watching him for a few days.”
Rodney folded his hands in his lap, keeping his head down to hide the shine in his eyes. His throat grew tight, and his chest ached as though it was too small for his heart. It was the vodka making him react this way, had to be. It was awhile since he had a drink, and nothing straight out of the bottle.
He didn’t trust himself to speak, not yet, so instead he stared at his glass, nodding his head and hoping Sheppard understood what it meant to him, that he trusted Rodney enough to leave his son with him.
There was silence between them for a moment. The only sound came from the hiss of the air vents, and Rodney’s ears were buzzing from it. He’d never spoken to someone about things so personal, and he was afraid he reached his limit. For the first time, he wanted to share everything with someone, with this man, and he wanted him to reciprocate. He wanted to ask Sheppard about his meeting at Edwards, about his father and the phone calls, but when Sheppard nudged his hand and Rodney braved a look at his face, he understood Sheppard had reached his limit of personal shit, too.
Rodney took a deep breath, tucking his emotions away for a later time, then returned the nudge to Sheppard’s hand.
John smiled. “Of course, this was all before discovering the secret, evil lair hidden underneath your house.”
“Please!” Rodney scoffed. This kind of banter Rodney could handle. It gave him back his balance, and it must’ve been the same for Sheppard.
Sheppard sipped his drink, meeting Rodney’s eyes over his glass, and the force of his gaze felt like a punch. Rodney wanted to get lost in those green eyes, those hands and tapered fingers. He was falling hard and he wasn't ready for what his heart was telling him. More importantly, he wasn't ready to lose Sheppard if he let his heart speak for him.
“Evil lair this is not,” Rodney joked. “This is definitely the bat cave in this scenario.”
“Whatever you say, McKay. And I suppose you’re a billionaire, too, and your beard and flannel are all for show.”
Rodney’s hand went to his face. He’d forgotten about the beard, realizing it probably played a part in Sheppard’s view of his secret bunker. He might need to do something about it to dispel the stereotype.
“Billionaire? No...” Rodney left it at that. He didn’t need Sheppard knowing that changing the ‘b’ to an ‘m’ was an accurate description of his finances. Selling a few successful patents back in the day was a lucrative way to fund his eccentricities. He didn’t live like he had money, a long way from what his bank account revealed, but how else could he finance the genius behind this bunker and its functionality, unless he managed his money.
He wondered if Sheppard’s elusive problems had anything to do with money, and he supposed they did if he moved in with his father who was as difficult as Sheppard professed. When they got out of here, as a means of reparation, Rodney would find a way to help Sheppard, even if he had to do it anonymously.
“Did you get in touch with everyone you needed to?” Rodney shouldn’t have asked about the calls, but he needed to divert the attention from himself.
“More or less.” Sheppard made a tight fist then released it as he blew out a breath. “What are the chances of us getting out of here before the ten days are up?” Sheppard asked, his voice hollow.
“Unlikely.” Rodney told the truth, watching for a reaction from Sheppard, but his face was carefully masked. The two remained unmoving for the better part of a minute, and then Sheppard sighed once again, pushing back his chair.
“I need to make another call,” he said. “What time is it?”
“It’s...” Rodney glanced at his watched. “Eleven-thirty.”
Sheppard nodded his head, as though finally resigned to their situation. “Tomorrow, then,” he said, heading to the bathroom, leaving Rodney alone at the table to ponder how he could help him, wishing Sheppard would open up to him, but they weren't there—not yet.
After a lot of arguing, mostly on Rodney’s part, Sheppard eventually moved J.J. to the sofa without even a twitch from the kid. Rodney was tired, exhausted really, and the vodka hadn’t helped, or maybe it had, Rodney could no longer tell, but he did know this was a disaster in the making. He reached a reconciliation with Sheppard where neither of them blamed the other for this fiasco, which meant Rodney’s feelings for Sheppard were screaming loud and proud and the last thing Rodney wanted to do was breach that friendly accord by acting untoward Sheppard in his sleep.
It would be a long night of staring at the ceiling.
As Sheppard settled beside him, the air felt thick with the unspoken, unaddressed rules for the sleeping arrangements. They had stripped to their boxers, leaving their T-shirts on even though their clothing would be limited in the days ahead, and even with the sheet and blanket settled between them they might as well have been naked for all the good it did Rodney.
He couldn’t sleep on his right side away from Sheppard, not without messing up his shoulder, and he definitely couldn’t sleep on his left mere inches from the man, so he lay on his back, unmoving and praying for Sheppard to fall asleep. However, luck wasn’t on Rodney’s side this entire day, so why should it change and end this day of days by sending Sheppard into a peaceful slumber?
“Thanks, McKay,” Sheppard whispered into the dark.
“For helping my son.”
Rodney wasn’t sure he meant today, or for this summer, but the sentiment was the same.
“Have I scarred him for life? Will he be okay?”
“Are you kidding?” Sheppard asked. “He thinks this is a vacation. I haven’t seen him this happy since before...his mom got sick.” The bed moved, and then Rodney heard a rasping sound as Sheppard rubbed a hand over the scruff on his cheek. It set Rodney’s nerves ablaze.
“It’s no swamp ride, but at least he’s safe.” Rodney lay petrified like stone, too afraid to move even the slightest toward him. He hoped that was the end of it and Sheppard drifted off, or his back was going to cramp.
Ignoring Rodney’s silent pleas, Sheppard kept talking. “You bought my kid a bike.”
“Yes?” Rodney asked, not sure why it needed to be stated. “Is that a problem?”
“No, but next time, maybe run the big stuff like that by me first.”
“I would’ve but you weren’t exactly around.”
“Fair enough.” Sheppard adjusted his pillow, the mattress dipping as he moved. “He was supposed to earn the bike, though.”
“In my book he has,” Rodney said. “He works hard when he’s here, and I thought that deserved a little reward. Besides, that’s a long walk home—and don’t give me the, ‘back in my day’ talk. The kid needed a bike and he earned it.”
Sheppard was quiet, too quiet, that Rodney thought he might have offended him. He dared not look for fear of disturbing Sheppard if he was on the verge of sleep.
But then Sheppard spoke softly again. “He listens to you. I’ve tried to explain things the way you do, but he doesn’t get it.”
“Because you’re his dad.” Rodney said it like it was the simplest observation Sheppard had overlooked. “He’s supposed to challenge you every step of the way. I’m no kid expert or anything, but I thought that was the gist of parenting.”
“I’m not exactly father of the year.” Rodney heard the sarcasm laced in Sheppard’s words.
“But you have time to change that. I don’t know the circumstances that brought you to this mountain, but I can see you’re trying. The kid sees it, too.”
“Thanks.” Sheppard shifted again, and this time it was enough for Rodney to feel the heat from him. He wanted to yell at him to stop moving, to stop sending mixed signals or he wouldn’t be responsible for his actions. Instead, he clenched his fingers in the blanket.
“Why all this?” Sheppard asked. His voice wasn’t accusing, only curious. “If it comes to the end of the world, why lock yourself down here alone?”
Out of the handful of people who knew about the bunker, none of them asked Rodney that question, no one cared enough to ask, not even his sister, and in Radek’s case, he understood without needing an explanation.
Rodney closed his eyes, trying to think of an answer that would appease Sheppard, but everything he should say wouldn’t be the truth, and lying here in the dark beside him after the day they had seemed wrong to lie. So, he told him a partial truth.
“Because I’m not finished yet.”
“Finished what?” Sheppard turned on his side, tucking his arm under the pillow. Rodney chanced a glance his way but the light from the hallway was behind Sheppard, backlighting his features. It unnerved him to think Sheppard was watching him while he couldn’t even make out the color of his eyes. He didn’t need to though, he knew they changed depending on the color he wore. Sometimes they were a deep hazel, shining in the sunlight and other times they were as green as the trees outside Rodney’s cabin.
The bed felt too small, the room a tomb for Rodney’s doubts and worries. They were circling back to that dangerous territory with still many days ahead of them, which meant having his truths laid out on the first night wasn’t the best of ideas. Rodney wasn’t ready for the reality of why he built the bunker, and he was damn sure Sheppard wasn’t ready to hear it, so he deflected instead.
“With life, the universe and everything,” Rodney said with a flippant wave of his hand.
“Forty-two,” Sheppard said, shifting the pillow closer.
“Forty-two,” Rodney mirrored, and felt the flush from his cheeks move down to flutter in his belly. This wasn’t happening, Rodney thought, luck was never on his side. He was lying in bed with a man making references about a book he read when he was eight, someone who was smart and clever enough to set Rodney afire, enough he wanted to be honest even if it meant opening up a part of himself he’d closed long ago.
“There are things out there that are world ending,” Rodney settled on, “and I’m not ready to give up on it.”
“World ending? Like a world war?”
“Something like that,” Rodney said.
“Meteorite? Aliens?” Sheppard chuckled into the dark, and Rodney hoped Sheppard couldn’t see the strain in his face. Even though it was years since he worked with the air force, the lengthy non-disclosure agreement he signed when he left was still in effect.
“The world is full of terrible people and horrible things,” Rodney said, leaving it at that.
“I don’t know,” Sheppard said. “It’s not all bad. Sure, it’s not easy sometimes, but it’s worth it, don’t you think? Worth fighting for?”
“Some things you can’t fight. And what about J.J.? Would you leave him without his father?”
“I’m all he has, I know that, but if there wasn’t a choice, I’d fight to give my son a world he deserves. It’s how I justified leaving for missions.” Sheppard’s voice hadn’t cracked per se, but there was an edge of doubt to it that dared Rodney to disagree.
From the moment he laid eyes on Sheppard, Rodney had misjudged him. He wrote him off as the typical military type, and with every passing day, Sheppard proved him wrong.
“You’re a good father,” Rodney said, and Sheppard let out his breath. He felt the warmth tickle his skin through his beard.
“I’m trying,” Sheppard said. “That has to count for something, right?”
“It counts.” Rodney thought of his own father, and how little time he had for him and his sister. He never had someone to listen to his darkest fears, never wanted to give a voice to half of the things he thought of at any given time, but with Sheppard, he felt like he might listen to Rodney without judgement. Rodney thought about why he built the bunker, and it scared him to be so honest. The reasons were somewhat self-absorbed, at least they would sound like it if he tried to explain. He built this place to start over, a safe place he could retreat to when things were tough. It was a giant safety net that would allow him to be the person he knew he could be without fear to mask his brilliance.
Stuck on the edge of the bed, it was a lot to consider. He was afraid Sheppard would discover more than Rodney was willing to share, and more afraid Sheppard wouldn’t want to hear it. He took a deep breath wondering just how far he could push him. Swallowing his pride, Rodney took a chance he never would have months ago.
“I misjudged you,” Rodney said, then after a pause he added, “I thought I had you figured out, and I was wrong. You’re a good man, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say that about someone.”
The room was unbearably quiet. He listened to the forced air through the vents, concentrating on his breathing to block out the heat from Sheppard’s body. His own body was tense with the worry he’d stepped too far into the imaginary boundary set between them. He could roll over, pretend he never said anything, and in the morning all would be forgotten, but then Sheppard breached the silence once more.
“I fucked up,” Sheppard confessed, his voice cracking. “I fucked up and now I have to face the consequences, and J.J. will suffer for it.”
Rodney instinctively turned his body, mimicking Sheppard with his elbow under his pillow. “What?” He wished he could see his face, wished he could raise the lighting with a thought.
“The reason I can’t be stuck in here is that I have a general court-martial I need to make an appearance for in a few days. That’s why J.J. needed to stay here. Turns out marriage isn’t the only thing I’m a failure at. I’m pretty good at fucking up my career as well.”
“I’m sorry,” Rodney said, and now his mind raced as to how he could help, whether it was unlocking or blowing up that damn impossible door, or calling in favors from people who wrote him off for dead years ago. “Whatever it is, I’m sure you don’t deserve this.”
Sheppard chuckled, taking a deep breath. “No, I do. I broke the rules and got caught. According to my father, it’s time for me to man-up and face the consequences.”
What the hell had Sheppard done, Rodney wondered. He wasn’t volunteering anything else, though. It was on the tip of Rodney’s tongue to ask, but he was ashamed to admit he was more concerned with how close their bodies were. Close enough Rodney felt Sheppard’s breath, smelling the mint from freshly cleaned teeth. The hair at the nape of Rodney’s neck rose, sending a shiver down his spine. Grown men didn’t share beds, not like this, not in a room so silent his ears ached, and not inches apart where one twitch on Rodney’s part would have his legs entwined with Sheppard’s and his arms around him.
His heart raced, and there was a lightness in his chest he wasn’t sure he’d ever felt. All he had to do was lean forward and touch Sheppard’s lips with his, comfort him the way he wanted to, the way Rodney would have wanted to be comforted, except then he’d break the fragile trust they’d been building.
The words, ‘don’t fuck this up,’ whispered over and over in his head.
“Rodney,” John breathed, rough and deep. And this was it, Rodney thought. He hadn’t misread the signs, this was what the whole day had been building to.
Rodney leaned forward, conscious of the ringing in his ears, and how sweaty his palms had become, and that they’d stopped breathing at the same time. It was John who closed the distance with barely a whisper of a touch. His soft, dry lips on Rodney’s lingered long enough for Rodney to change his mind or revel in the sighs from their mingled breaths. He wanted more, wanted to pull John’s body close, wrap his arms around him and feel the weight of him pinning him to the mattress. He wanted so much from this man that he ached. All the things he wanted to do with John, wanted to be, were within his reach. With the brush of those lips against his, he saw it laid out before him, and he wanted it more than he wanted to discover the calculations for unlimited power.
He opened his mouth with the barest of intentions, hoping for more, but it wasn’t meant to be.
They heard a rustle from the other room, and J.J.’s voice called out in the silence.
John rolled out of bed with a grace Rodney could never pretend to have. He was out of the room before Rodney knew what was happening. His heart pounded in his chest and his body was left aching with need. And when his ears stopped ringing, the clarity of the voices in the other room made him doubt if the last few minutes were real.
“Can I stay in the bed?” J.J. asked, sleep heavy on his voice.
“Sure, kiddo.” John appeared in the doorway carrying J.J. in his arms.
“We’ll fit,” John said, sliding J.J. into the middle of the bed. “He does this some nights. Crawls into my bed when things are a little off kilter.”
Rodney shuffled to the edge of the mattress, fighting his disappointment. He couldn’t exactly be angry, but damn, he wondered how far things would have gone without the interruption. John seemed unruffled, calm even, perhaps being a parent came with the ability to turn off emotions and libidos when required, or maybe Rodney’s overactive and eager mind imagined the kiss.
Rodney recoiled at the idea of having an eight-year old sleeping next to him. He’d never let his nieces this close, refusing hugs and all forms of touching, yet here he was with the object of his infatuation and his son sharing the same bed. It was a day of firsts, but that happened a lot with the Sheppards. What had his life become, and more importantly, did he want this and everything that came with it?
“Fair warning, McKay,” John said, crawling into the bed, “he kicks.”
The way Sheppard had brushed the kiss-not-kiss off like it hadn’t happened, left Rodney thinking that what he wanted wouldn’t matter. Anxiety stabbed at his chest, churning his stomach, and if he wasn’t a desperate and hopeless coward he would have gathered up the blankets and left the room.
“Well, so do I,” Rodney huffed, pulling the covers up to create some semblance of a barrier.
J.J. rolled on his side toward Rodney, putting his arm around his neck and was in dreamland before Rodney could protest.
“Looks like he’s sort of attached himself to you.”
“I see that,” Rodney said, his voice muffled from the pressure on his windpipe, but it warmed him nonetheless.
“He’s not the only one,” John whispered before turning away, leaving Rodney confused and terrified, and with a leech of a kid with a death grip around him.
Rodney woke to an empty bed and the smell of coffee. It was a long night of fitful bouts of sleep. Every shift and shuffle that came from the other side of the bed had him awake with drifting thoughts about the man he was getting to know better and what it meant for his steadfast life plans.
They’d kissed—at least he thought they had. It seemed fuzzy in the light of artificial dawn. He blinked against the simulated sunlight he’d installed in the bedroom which mimicked sunrise at different times of the year. It was the little details that made him smile, made him appreciate his safe space knowing he’d thought of everything—everything except two extra people.
He touched his lips. The memory of Sheppard’s kiss was ghosted on his mouth. One thing was certain, he was shaving the beard today. If more kisses were to be had, he wanted to feel every touch on his mouth, his jaw, every kiss from John. John. Rodney flushed at that, and flushed at the restless sleep he got lying awake wondering how this was his life. The night was tortuous filled with guilty thoughts. Each time he felt a jab in the shin from a fidgety kid, he'd curse and shuffle to his side. After a few hours of drifting dreams, he wished he'd never listened to Sheppard and his suggestion they all share the bed.
Rodney must have fallen asleep at some point, having never heard either of them rise in the early morning, and the bedroom door was closed. He should’ve reveled in the solitude, some quiet time before the lengthy day ahead, but he found he was eager to join his companions, if anything, to determine what the hell had happened between him and John before they were ambushed. They had been close, inches apart, and Rodney had wanted to lean forward, except he hadn’t for fear of ruining everything. Or maybe he had? Maybe he was the one who leaned in and put his lips on John, forcing him into a step he wasn’t ready to take.
Sheppard had been married, for Chrissake! What had Rodney been thinking? He was a degenerate. He mistook an innocent evening, one with honest conversation and friendship, and tainted it with his sordid infatuation of John.
Rodney’s willingness to join his companions waned, but he couldn’t hide in the bedroom, not when his bladder told him otherwise, and his temperamental back and shoulder argued with him from the constraints of last night’s restless slumber. Gathering what little courage and dignity he had left, Rodney went out to face the day, and then promptly froze in the threshold of the door.
Both Sheppards were on the floor, J.J. sitting on his father’s feet as John did sit ups...shirtless.
“Eighty-three. Eighty-four. Eighty-five.” J.J. counted, his head lowered as he watched his dad raise his upper body off the floor. The muscles in John’s shoulders were stretched over skin that was covered with a sheen of sweat. His boxers had narrowly ridden below his hips, revealing the uppermost part of his perfect, tight ass. It was enough to make Rodney swallow, thinking of so many wishful dreams he wanted fulfilled.
“Dr. McKay!” J.J. said, snapping Rodney out of his fantasy and catching himself short of breath. His father’s feet forgotten, J.J. bounded up and toward Rodney. “You kicked dad out of bed!”
“What?” Rodney asked, confusion setting in while he held his tongue from what he wanted to say...that he would never kick John out of his bed should it ever come to pass. “I did? I did not.”
“Yup.” J.J. nodded with a big smile. “You did.”
Rodney looked to John for clarification.
Finished with his sit-ups, John stood in the middle of the room with his shirt in hand. “I’m not sure which one of you heathens did the actual kicking, but someone did.”
Rodney’s eyes flitted from the dark hair on John’s chest, to the trail of peppered gray hair leading to where those dents in his abs pointed to inappropriate things to think of in front of an eight-year old. He settled on John’s face, afraid to break contact and instead, stared with his eyes open and unnatural while he made excuses about what he did or didn’t do in his sleep.
“It’s fine,” John said, reaching for the towel near Rodney. “I was pretty much awake. It was just unexpected. Both of you were dead to the world, so I got up to give you some space.” He wiped his face then draped the towel over his shoulders.
“I’ll sleep out here tonight,” Rodney apologized, wondering if he should offer restitution. Either way, Sheppard gave no indication the kiss happened, so Rodney figured it was best forgotten, which meant he needed to distance himself for his own sanity.
“No, I think J.J. will stay where I put him.” Sheppard lifted his son up and over his shoulder, smacking his bum making him scream and squirm. “Won’t you, bud?”
“Dad! You’re all sweaty!”
“Where are you going to sleep tonight?” Sheppard taunted.
“In the bed!”
Sheppard grabbed J.J. by the ankles, hanging him upside down so the oversized T-shirt hung around his head, and his fingertips brushed the floor. Rodney imagined a cracked skull and blood, lots of blood, as he watched Sheppard swing his son back and forth.
“Put me down!”
“Where you sleeping tonight, bud?” Sheppard dangled him by an ankle while he caught J.J.’s torso, tucking his head under his armpit.
“Dad,” J.J. squealed. “You stink! That’s gross!”
“Where are you sleeping tonight?” Sheppard enunciated every syllable.
“On the couch. Let me go!” J.J.’s giggles were loud and infectious, and as Rodney watched an elated Sheppard toss his son on the tiny sofa, Rodney felt that damn pain in his chest again, only this time it wasn’t darkened with sorrow or worry, it was bright like one of Vivaldi’s violin concertos.
“See?” Sheppard turned to Rodney, and winked. “No more bed problems.”
Rodney snorted, shuffling into the bathroom for some space. Bed problems, he thought. If only it were that easy. Rodney wasn't one to mince words, and if it was anyone else in any other situation, he wouldn't hesitate, he'd ask just what hell was going on between them, but this was different than any relationship he'd experienced. John was different.
Rodney used the time in the bathroom to collect himself, and when he emerged, he headed straight to the coffee pot, focused on filling a cup to avoid looking at Sheppard.
“Hey,” Sheppard said next to his ear, making Rodney jump. The man moved like a ninja.
“Hi.” Rodney gulped, aware he was in his boxers and T-shirt and Sheppard’s torso was still naked. “Have you been awake long? Did you eat?” Rodney asked for the distraction. The constant queasiness settling in his stomach would make breakfast somewhat impossible.
“Not too long,” Sheppard said. “We went ahead with breakfast. He was hungry.”
“Of course. Kids and schedules.” Rodney shrugged, turning to get the powdered eggs from the cupboard. His arm brushed across Sheppard's chest, sending a shiver up his arm. He had it bad. And when he glanced at Sheppard, he was relieved to see the smile playing at his lips.
He met Rodney’s eyes. “I guess I need a shower.”
“Yes.” Rodney swallowed.
“You stink!” J.J. said from the sofa.
“So do you,” John said to his son. “And don’t think you’re getting to skip bathtime while we’re down here.”
J.J. sniffed his armpits and shrugged.
John laughed, then mouthed, ‘later’ to Rodney, looking earnest and too vulnerable, and leaving Rodney without any doubts about that kiss.
The flutter was back, his heart stuttering, and Rodney’s smile wouldn’t leave his face. John had kissed him. He hadn’t imagined it, which meant this was the start of something petrifying, completely gut-wrenching terrifying, yet, exhilarating all the same.
Rodney took a few sips of his coffee, willing his body to act on his behalf for once, before turning to find J.J. staring at him from the sofa.
“What?” Rodney snapped.
“You’re being weird,” J.J. said.
“I am not.”
“Am not.” From experience, Rodney knew this thread of conversation could continue for quite some time, so he changed tactics. “I haven’t had my coffee, yet. I’m usually four or five cups ahead by the time you show up at my place.”
J.J. eyed him warily for a few moments, then jumped up to his knees on the cushion. “What are we doing today?”
Rodney processed the question, wondering what exactly he could do to keep them all occupied, and it was only the first day. “What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
Rodney was good with routines. Routines meant focusing and less wandering of the mind, less daydreaming about the sound of showers and naked bodies under streaming water.
“Just because we’re stuck in here,” Rodney sipped his coffee, pushing all other thoughts away, “doesn’t mean we have to change what we usually do. There’s plenty of things still to learn. We can carry on with your lessons if you like?”
“Okay,” he said, but didn’t sound enthusiastic.
“If you work hard enough, maybe we can have a movie night.”
J.J. bounced on the cushion, eyes bright with the idea. “Really?”
“You’ll have to burn off some of that energy on the bike, so we’ll have enough power to use the T.V.” Of course, Rodney was lying, but until J.J. learned about power consumption and how the battery banks stored energy it was harmless to let the kid think he could contribute to the running of the bunker.
“Yes!” J.J. said, fist pumping as John came out of the shower fully dressed, thankfully, towel drying his hair, which was damp, but the cowlicks were still present.
“That was quick,” Rodney said, looking at his empty mug and turning away from Sheppard.
“Didn’t want to waste water.”
“Not possible.” Rodney poured himself a second cup of coffee. “Well, it is possible, just not possible we could run out of water in ten days.” Rodney choked on the coffee as he sipped too quickly.
Rodney waved Sheppard’s concerns away, and then narrowed his eyes at him. “Your hair does that even when it’s wet?” he asked.
“Yes, Rodney, it does.” Sheppard rubbed at his hair.
Sheppard’s gaze was stuck on him a little too long, a lazy grin making Rodney self-conscious under his scrutiny.
“You’re being weird again,” J.J. piped up.
Rodney cleared his throat, turning his attention to J.J. who was swimming in the T-shirt he’d slept in of Rodney’s. “We’re going to have to do something about clothing.”
“I don’t need clothes,” J.J. pouted.
“He’s okay for a few days,” Sheppard said, “but any longer and we’ll have a Lord of the Flies situation with him.”
“We can do laundry,” Rodney said, aiming for a neutral expression, “it won’t affect water or power.”
“Dr. McKay said we could have a movie night if I ride the bike.” J.J. jumped to his feet.
“He did, did he?”
“But I have to do my lessons first.”
“What kind of lessons?” Sheppard asked.
“How about some simple volumetric calculations?” Rodney offered. “Air consumption in an enclosed space?”
“Simple.” John laughed.
“Practical,” Rodney countered. “We can base it on the bunker’s square footage, calculate three people instead of one and how much air is pumped in and out.” John was skeptical and J.J. looked bored. How could Rodney make this fun and still have J.J. learn something, and more importantly impress Sheppard? “You still want to make a bomb?” He tried instead.
“Are we going to blow up the door?” J.J. asked, his eyes lighting with wonder.
“McKay...” Sheppard warned.
“Not a bomb bomb.” Rodney rolled his eyes at Sheppard. “More like an explosion. And that door is explosion proof, not unless you want to explode with it.” He searched through the kitchen pantry, looking for the elements he needed, and when his eyes landed on the vinegar and baking soda, he cried out, “Eureka!”
Sheppard chuckled, shaking his head. His apprehension melted away as his expression filled with amusement in its wake.
“Now I just need some...” He rifled around in one of the drawers and found the sandwich bags he was looking for, then grabbed the box of tissues from the top of the fridge. “Well? You up for some chemistry?”
“Really?” J.J.’s eyes were wide with wonder, glancing from Rodney to his father thinking it was a trick of some kind.
“Hey, don’t look at me,” John said. “It’s Dr. McKay’s show. If you want to let him blow you up, well, then you better say your goodbyes to me now.”
“Could that happen?”
Sheppard ruffled J.J.’s hair, smiling over his son’s head at Rodney. The smile went straight to Rodney’s chest, making that painful, yet good, appearance again. John winked at Rodney, before kneeling.
“Love you, bud. It’s been a slice.” He hugged J.J., then picked him up over his shoulder again, flipping him back to his feet. “You better listen carefully to the genius. I wouldn’t want you to get blown up.”
“You’d miss me,” J.J. said.
“Maybe, but I’m more worried about the mess.” Sheppard pretended to shudder. “Yuck.”
J.J.’s mouth hung open for a moment, then he started to laugh, more than likely picturing guts and goo covering the ceiling.
“But it couldn’t happen, could it?” J.J.’s head tilted as he looked from Rodney to his dad. “We can’t blow up.”
“You doubt my skills?” Rodney mocked his offense, setting down his coffee cup.
“How do we do it?” J.J. asked.
“Let me have my breakfast and two more cups of coffee, and then I’ll show you.” Rodney picked up the powdered eggs, hoping to alleviate his blood pressure with some normalcy, and until then, he needed some space to think things through. “Why don’t you two amuse yourselves any way you see fit? Preferably in the other pod.”
It wasn't the teasing from his friend across the ocean that caused Rodney's face to burn. After their success with the kid-friendly explosions, Sheppard made more calls, and J.J. burned off his energy while Rodney bit the bullet and shaved off his two-inch-thick beard. He felt raw and exposed sitting in front of Radek while being scrutinized for his change in behavior.
“Where is Major McDreamy?” Radek asked, peering from the screen and over Rodney’s shoulder for evidence of people.
“Shut up!” Rodney hissed, looking behind him. Sheppard was in the other pod with his son, but sound traveled through the vents.
Radek grinned. “Is he not so dreamy anymore?”
“No. I mean yes. No. I don’t know! Just shut up. He’s in the other room, so stop talking that way.”
“I would like to meet the man responsible for bringing you back to civilization, my friend. It has been too long since I have seen your weak chin.”
“Ha. Ha.” Rodney rolled his eyes, then touched his face. “I’ll have you know I have my great-grandfather’s chin, descended from a long line of Scottish nobility. It’s a royal chin, unlike your weaselly one.”
“I have missed you,” Radek said with a fondness Rodney didn’t think he possessed.
“Just, would you…” Rodney sighed, dropping his hands, “…do you have any good news for me?”
“A way to get out of here?”
“Good news means not finding a way to open door, yes? A way to spend more time with Major Mc—”
“Radek!” Rodney hit the mute button. “Are you finished?” He waited for Radek to agree before turning up the volume.
“Sorry, Rodney,” he shook his head, “it is not possible. Your system is impenetrable, at least in time-frame you have given me.”
Rodney’s shoulders slumped even though he’d already known the answer. “So, we’re stuck here.”
“I warned you this would happen.” Radek pushed up his glasses.
“I think I would’ve remembered you warning me I’d get trapped in my bunker with two unwilling—well, one unwilling person.”
“I remember long conversation about failsafes, but did you listen?”
“Well, you can take your ‘I told you so’ and stick it up your ass. I’m not the one who pushed the button.”
Radek gave him a skeptical look, one that asked if Rodney had planned this, planned to get stuck in his fortress of solitude with the man who’d been starring in his fantasies this summer.
“You’re not helping!” Rodney snapped.
“This is good news, yes? Means all is forgiven. More time together.”
“No. Not for Sheppard. He has somewhere he needs to be. Somewhere very important. Life altering,” Rodney took a deep breath, “and stop looking at me that way.”
“All judgy.” Rodney folded his arms as he leaned back in his chair. “If I could get us out, I would. I don’t know what he’s facing, but he’s been on the phone all day, something to do with Edwards.”
“You haven’t hacked his file?” Radek’s eyes were large over the rim of his glasses.
“That would be a breach of trust.”
“Never stopped you before.” He continued to look at Rodney in disbelief, then he grinned. “You know, you could call—”
“No! Not happening.”
“It has been years, Rodney. I am sure she would take your call.”
“I have nothing to say to her. And I won’t be crawling back for that favor she owes me anytime soon. Besides, this would be one hell of a favor and she would want reparation in the form of selling my soul back to them. She can shove her apology up her—”
“McKay!” Sheppard’s voice echoed through the tunnel.
The abrupt interruption startled Rodney. Ignoring Radek’s protests, Rodney slammed the laptop closed.
“Hey.” Rodney stood, wringing his hands, wondering if Sheppard heard any of his conversation.
When Sheppard stopped suddenly, Rodney’s paranoia kicked in as John stared open-mouthed, taking in Rodney’s appearance. J.J. came barreling behind Sheppard, squeezing past him and froze as well.
“You look funny!” J.J. said, then proceeded to laugh and point at Rodney’s face.
Out of the mouths of babes, Rodney thought, wishing he’d been working on a time machine rather than unlimited power calculations for the past few years. He would turn back time to hours ago before he shaved so he could avoid the humiliation from their gawking.
Sheppard smacked J.J. on the head, pushing him out of his way as he took two steps closer to Rodney, stopping a few feet in front of him.
“I often wondered what you looked like under all that.” Sheppard smiled, and it reached his eyes, lighting up his whole face.
Rodney shuffled his feet, rubbing a hand over his smooth chin. “Figured it was about time to shed the ‘Madbomber’ persona,” he said.
“There was nothing wrong with the beard,” John said, “but I like this better.”
“You do?” Rodney lifted his head, meeting Sheppard’s eyes.
“Oh, brother,” J.J. said with a roll of his head, then ran to the sofa and threw himself on it. Sheppard chuckled, winking at Rodney before joining J.J. in the living area.
“Go have a shower,” Sheppard said to his son. “Then we’ll see about that movie.”
J.J. huffed but eventually went.
Once they were alone, Sheppard turned, putting his hands on his hips. His lip turned up and there was a gleam in his eyes as they narrowed in on Rodney’s bare face.
“Was that for me?” John asked, moving toward Rodney until he was inches away.
Rodney’s smile wavered, his confidence taking a hit as he tried to think of something to deflect his embarrassment. He stumbled over his words.
“I like it,” John said staring a little too closely.
“Yes, well, it was about time, I suppose. I don’t normally have all...that.” Rodney rocked his head back and forth, vaguely waving at his face.
“You, ah,” John brushed the back of his knuckles along Rodney’s jaw without breaking eye contact. He could smell the peanut butter on John’s breath from the cookies they had eaten earlier. “Didn’t have to do it, but I’m glad you did.”
“You are?” Rodney swallowed, trying to keep his voice from wavering. His palms were sweaty, and if he wasn’t so light-headed from the nearness of John, he would dry them on his pants. But then John leaned in, meeting his lips with his own. They were warm and hesitant, like before, but this time there was no doubt behind it as John pushed his tongue past Rodney’s lips, kissing him until he was breathless, and everything Rodney had been thinking about disappeared. He focused on the kiss, and the low noise in John’s throat as he curled a hand around Rodney’s neck. And then John just stopped, resting his forehead against Rodney’s, and Rodney could taste him on his tongue.
“I’m sorry,” John apologized. “I shouldn’t have assumed…”
“You can assume!” Rodney said, “Assume away.”
John pulled back, laughing. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.”
“Really?” Rodney had a hard time believing this man wanted anything to do with him. “I wondered if it was real last night. It was, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, Rodney, it was,” John said, his eyes shining for a joyous moment. He placed his palm against Rodney’s cheek, caressing his thumb across the edge of his jaw, and then traced a trembling finger over his lips.
“What happens now?” Rodney asked.
The shower in the bathroom turned on, reminding them they weren’t alone.
“Now, we watch a movie with my son until he drifts off into dreamland.” John took a step back, adjusting his jeans with a chuckle.
“Oh, right,” Rodney said, turning to the workbench and the laptop in front of him.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt your call,” Sheppard said.
“It’s fine,” Rodney held up his hand, “only Radek—an old friend.”
“I was picking his brains for suggestions on getting us out of here.”
Rodney shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
Taking a deep breath, John linked his hands behind his head, then walked into the living area. “No. Not really.”
“I’m sorry, John. I really am.” Rodney wished he could make it better somehow, take away the pain etched in John’s face. Rodney could tell this was costing him something big. “What’s going to happen?”
John sat on the sofa, head in his hands. “If I can’t make the hearing, there’s no doubt I won’t avoid jail time.”
“What? What the hell, John?” Rodney rushed to him, grabbing the kitchen chair to sit in front of him. “What did you do?”
“It’s not important. What’s important is that I’m going to lose my son.”
Sheppard was on the vestiges of holding it together. Taut with emotion, Rodney was afraid to touch him. He thought about his conversation with Radek, and whether he was selfless enough to do what his friend suggested. Making that phone call would be a big pill to swallow, one he wasn’t sure he could do, not without something to offer in return, to show them that what he’d been doing these few last years without them had been worthwhile. He needed an ace in the hole before he made that call, a way to take the upper hand and demand satisfaction with the knowledge that he had been right all those years ago, that he mattered, and his work mattered.
He was close in his research, but it wasn’t quite there, not enough to be revealed at this stage. If he and Radek had just reached that pivotal point in their calculations, he wouldn’t have an issue calling Cheyenne Mountain and demanding to speak with Colonel Samantha Carter—except he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Not even for John. Not unless...
“The tech!” Rodney jumped up, the back of the chair clanging on the floor.
“The what?” Sheppard asked, his expression rife with confusion.
“Where did it go?” Rodney was at his workbench shuffling papers and equipment, looking for the small, silver sphere he had been using as a paperweight for years. He had forgotten about it, too wrapped up in what was happening in the bunker that he missed one of the last things he saw before he had passed out. If he could just prove…
“Where did you put it?” Rodney asked, but when Sheppard didn’t answer quick enough, Rodney dropped to the floor, ignoring his protesting knees and Sheppard’s concerns. Crawling across the concrete, he looked under the tables and benches, searching everywhere for the metal object he’d last seen rolling toward his feet.
“What are you doing?” Sheppard asked, joining him in the work area.
“Where’d it go?”
“What!” Sheppard demanded.
Rodney did have something tangible to offer, something to get Carter excited about so it wouldn’t seem he was only calling for that favor. If Rodney’s assumptions were correct, John had that rare gene, the one the air force coveted which lead to scientific breakthroughs and discoveries with the technology the ‘Ancients’ left behind.
Rodney pushed the bench a few inches over, and then he saw what he was looking for tucked behind the metal leg.
“Ah-ha!” he exclaimed, grabbing it and popping to his feet, ignoring the creaks and hitch of his hip.
“Here.” Rodney held the small, metal sphere laced with etchings in another language toward Sheppard. “Touch this.”
“Why not?” he asked, holding it in Sheppard’s face.
“Because I don’t want to.” Sheppard folded his arms.
“It lit up when you touched it, didn’t it?” The way Sheppard reacted, Rodney was positive he had the gene, the Ancient one that was precious and powerful in the right hands, and from the way Sheppard’s nostrils were flaring, he’d bet he had a strong impression of it, too.
“What is it?” Sheppard asked.
“I can’t tell you unless you touch it.” Rodney stepped closer, holding it in the palms of his outstretched hands.
“No, thanks.” Sheppard headed back to the kitchen, checking on J.J. who was still in the bathroom, even though the shower had stopped.
“Sheppard!” Rodney chased after him. “Just hold it, and if my suspicions are correct, then I’ll tell you everything I know, and it may be a way to get you out of here.”
“I said no.” Sheppard opened the fridge, grabbing a beer.
“Why are you being so difficult? Just touch it.”
“McKay, I said no, all right!” John slammed the fridge shut making the bottles inside rattle, causing Rodney to take a step back.
“Oh,” Rodney said, dropping his hands, avoiding Sheppard’s angry eyes.
J.J. came out of the bathroom, steam escaping through the doorway. His hair was wet, and he wore Rodney’s too-large T-shirt again. When he glanced at Rodney’s solemn face and his dad’s hard expression, he looked at his feet while his fingers wrapped around the edge of his shirt. He somehow understood this argument was different than the others. He looked small and cautious, and Rodney’s heart swelled with the notion J.J. might lose the one person he had left in the world.
“Good shower?” John asked, the mask of composure safely in place again, making Rodney wonder if the ease came from living with lies for so long. “We were about to send in the Coast Guard to look for you. Thought you might have been swept down the drain with all the water you used.”
“Were you guys fighting again?” J.J. asked.
“We were having a discussion,” John said.
“An argument,” Rodney clarified. “Your dad is being pig-headed about what movie to watch.”
J.J. could sense the lie, but he smiled anyway, hopping to the sofa. “I should get an argue jar not a swear jar. I’d be rich.”
“You would, because your dad’s an idiot.”
“McKay—” John warned, then ran his hands through his hair. He tried to hide his glance at the sphere in Rodney’s hand, but Rodney caught it nonetheless. They would continue their discussion once J.J. was asleep. And tomorrow, Rodney would make his calls despite what John had to say. He would cash in those favors to get John to his hearing, and offer up anything and everything to expunge the charges against John to keep him with his son.
“What movie are we watching?” J.J. asked.
“Maybe Dr. McKay will let you look at what he’s got,” John said, but Rodney was quick to reply with a mumbled, ‘Not likely,’ under his breath.
Rodney’s hard drive was filled with movies, all kinds of movies he’d purchased from a man Radek knew in Russia. He had kept his options open when he compiled his collection, after all, it was going to be a long four years in the bunker alone.
John leaned in, whispering in Rodney’s ear, “I take it the kid friendly movies are mixed in with the porn?”
“I don’t have—” he started, but then John raised his eyebrows and Rodney caved, his cheeks growing warm with the admission.
“Fine. Yes. I have porn,” he hissed.
“I would’ve been disappointed if you didn’t. You’ll need something to entertain you for those four years alone.”
“My brain provides plenty of entertainment, thank you.”
“I’m sure it does.” John gave a mischievous grin, and all was forgotten for the time being.
John carefully shut the bedroom door. “He’s asleep,” he whispered. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this tired. Too much stimulation, I suppose.”
“No,” Rodney said. “It’s the drugs I have pumping through the vents.”
John paused on his way to join him on the sofa. “What?”
“I’m kidding!” Rodney crossed his legs on the footstool. “You should see your face.” He pointed to the beer on the table he’d opened for John, hoping to hide the guilt he felt.
Radek’s suggestion had niggled away at Rodney, and while Sheppard had been tucking J.J. into bed, Rodney had quickly, and somewhat unsuccessfully, hacked John’s file. He shouldn’t have, and he felt horrible for doing it, but he’d convinced himself it was to help John, and nothing more. He discovered a charge of larceny and a slew of others, but most of his file, the stuff that told the real story, was redacted. There was a black mark in John’s record, and mention of men who died during a rescue operation, but what Rodney couldn’t figure out was why the military brass was pushing for such a severe punishment.
“Speaking of faces…” John grabbed the bottle, then sat beside Rodney on the tiny sofa. His thigh rested against Rodney’s, and it was a warmth he didn’t know he was missing. “Where did we leave off?”
“We left off with a conversation you didn’t want to have,” Rodney said, pulling his leg away despite how much he didn’t want to. He wasn’t about to be sucked back into John’s charms until they finished this discussion. If they were moving ahead with this relationship, Rodney wanted it free of the pain and worry in Sheppard’s eyes.
“Look, Rodney,” Sheppard sighed, “I know you want to help, but I have my reasons, okay?”
“And what reasons would those be? I’m giving you a possible way out of this—a variable to change the outcome. I can help if you let me. I just need you to confirm what we both already know. So, touch the damn thing.” He pulled the sphere out of his pocket, offering it to Sheppard.
“I’m sorry,” Sheppard said, moving to stand like it carried a disease, “but I know what that thing means, and it still won’t change anything.”
“How can you know? How can you possibly know what this is?” Rodney turned it over in his palm, remembering the day he found out he didn’t have the Ancient gene and how devastated he was. It was a setback, for sure, but at least Radek didn’t have it either.
John took a sip of his beer, then began to pace. “I was active for a lot of years. Black ops. I know the definition of classified. I lived and breathed the word.” He pointed to the sphere still in Rodney’s hands. “I don’t know what that is, but I know it’s nothing good.”
“It worked. It lit up, didn’t it? You felt it.” Sheppard nodded his head in answer. “Then you know I can use that to call in some favors.”
“My father already made some calls. It’s no use.”
“No offense to your father,” Rodney scoffed, “but I think my contacts greatly outrank his.”
“It doesn’t matter,” John said, not the least bit surprised by Rodney’s admission.
“Of course, it does. You—”
“McKay,” John interrupted him, meeting his eyes, willful and defiant, “I’m gay, and last time I checked, the military doesn’t grant any favors for my kind. There’s no going back. There’s no undo button for me.”
Rodney’s shoulders sagged into the couch as the tension in them released. A part of Rodney had wondered about Sheppard, and now that he’d waylaid his doubts, it took everything in Rodney not to mutter his, ‘Thank God,’ under his breath. It was like a ray of sunlight had cracked through the twenty-five feet of dirt and concrete, shining a golden light on Sheppard with a triumphant sounding horn heralding Sheppard’s sexuality. Rodney’s celebratory moment was short-lived, though. Surely, a DADT charge couldn’t be the cause of the general court-martial. He hadn’t seen a mention of it in John’s file, but then again, he never had time to thoroughly look through it. The military rarely went to extremes in DADT charges, choosing to keep ‘gays in the military’ rather quiet in Rodney’s experience. Either way, it wouldn’t matter, because he could guess what would happen in a general court-martial if the defendant didn’t show, gay or not.
“That’s not the reason—”
“No.” Sheppard cut him off with a finality that Rodney understood meant closed for discussion.
“Well, I can assure you,” Rodney said with a wave of his hand, confident in his statement, “the people I can call, the branch of the air force where my contacts are...it’s not a problem. They don’t adhere to those moronic, backward ideals. It’s trivial compared to the things they deal with.” Rodney uncrossed his legs, thinking of the smug bastards at Stargate Command and the secrets he knew.
“It’s not the point.” John folded his arms, holding the beer bottle between two fingers.
“Then what is? It won’t matter you’re gay—I’m gay, too, by the way.” He gave John one of his crooked smiles, but John didn’t mock Rodney like he thought he would. He hoped his candid humor would open a window for John to talk, but it was obvious this decision weighed heavily—more than John was admitting. So, why wouldn’t he accept Rodney’s help?
Genuinely confused by John’s reaction, he pressed him. “What have you been charged with? And why?” Rodney asked, his tone serious as he leaned forward. “It’s not a general court-martial for DADT.” Rodney waited patiently for confirmation, but John wouldn’t even look at him.
Sighing, John exhaled as he sat in the kitchen chair, resting his elbows on his knees. “I’m tired of hiding who I am, Rodney.” His voice was low, speaking slow and with difficulty. “I don’t want to risk my life for a government who persecutes who I am. I lived a lie for twenty years. I’m glad it’s come out through all of this. I don’t want to hide anymore.”
Rodney understood a thing or two about hiding, but he’d never had to hide who he was like John. He’d never been ashamed of what he wanted or whom he wanted, so it was difficult to imagine the past John had lived. He wanted to help John any way that he could, and that meant digging through his own past. Once they got out of here, they could figure everything out later, but first Rodney needed a visual confirmation to make that dreaded call.
“Would you just touch the damn thing?” Rodney said, chuckling as he held out the Ancient tech.
“No, Rodney,” John said, setting his bottle on the table. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’m not getting involved in anything that could take me away from my kid. I hope you can understand that.”
“If you stay down here that’s exactly what’s going to happen!” He groaned in frustration, feeling powerless to help the only way he knew how.
John squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head as he rubbed at his chest. “I have a lot of regrets, things I can’t even begin to tell you, but the one good thing I have from all those years behind me is J.J.” John’s hand rested on his breastbone, pressing against it like he could suppress the pain. “Seventeen years in the air force. That’s a lot of hiding. I was a pilot, a soldier. I followed orders and didn’t question them, and when I did, it ended my career. I’m aware there are things out there I don’t want to know about. That,” John pointed at the sphere, “has the potential for a lot of questions I don’t want the answers to. I felt it, Rodney, a whole mess of unexplored, unexplained things just waiting for me to ask it.”
“Really? In that brief touch?”
“J.J. is all I have, and I’m all he has. I can’t leave again. I won’t do that to him. If I touch that,” he nodded at Rodney’s outstretched palm, “and you make that call, I know from that coveting look in your eye, I’m as good as locked into something bigger than I can imagine, but I’d be hiding again. I’m his father, his role model and if I can’t be myself, then what good am I to him? I have to trust JAG can get the hearing pushed back.”
“And if they can’t?”
“Then…” he ran his hands through his hair, taking a deep breath, “then I’ll reconsider. I still have some time, but for now, can we just live in ignorance? At least for tonight?” He met Rodney’s eyes imploring him to drop it, and Rodney didn’t want to, he could be just as stubborn, but for tonight, the conversation was done.
“Tonight, then,” Rodney said.
John picked up his bottle, finishing the last of it while he grabbed Rodney’s empty and put them in the sink. He stood still for a few breaths, and Rodney let the room fill with silence that didn’t need filling. John had his moment, and when he turned, Rodney’s stomach did a flip from the look John gave him.
“So,” John said, stalking toward Rodney with a gleam in his eye, “about that porn.”
“But—” Rodney had more questions, except he couldn’t ask them with John’s mouth covering his. It happened faster than Rodney thought possible as John cut his words off with a kiss that was hard and unyielding and left them both breathing heavily.
Rodney went to ask another question, but John pressed his finger against his mouth, shaking his head. When Rodney tried to voice his protests, John sunk to his knees with a devilish grin and sin in his eyes.
“Enough talking,” John said, pulling Rodney’s legs apart so he was settled between them. He rubbed his hands up and down Rodney’s thighs, pressing his thumbs in the curve of his hips, and his touch went straight to Rodney’s cock.
“We can’t.” Rodney tried to bat his hand away.
“Yes, we can.” John gripped Rodney’s hands, laying them flat on the sofa.
“But J.J…” Rodney tried to pull away, but John held firm.
“He’ll sleep through it.”
“How can you be sure? What if he doesn’t?”
“Rodney,” John huffed. “Do you want me to suck your cock or not?”
“Yes,” Rodney gulped. “I really, really do, but I don’t think I can. It’s just…”
“Been a long time?” John quirked an eyebrow.
“No!” Rodney blinked, and when Sheppard wasn’t convinced, he admitted the truth. “Okay. Fine. Yes, it’s been a long time.”
“I figured.” John let go of Rodney’s hands, sliding his fingers up Rodney’s thighs again.
“Why would you think that?” He tried to move, but with John settled between his legs, there was nowhere he could go. His leg certainly couldn't lift that high over John’s head. “How can you tell?”
“You’re kind of high-strung, Rodney.” The way John said his name, it was low and drawn out, like he was keeping a secret.
“Sex won’t change that.”
“Maybe not, but it’ll be fun trying.” John smiled, reaching for Rodney’s zipper and slowly slid it open.
Rodney’s cock was almost hard, like it was arguing with him as to how it wanted this to play out, and the way John licked his lips with promises of what was to come, helped to sway the argument in its favor. Except Rodney couldn’t shut off the part of his brain that wondered about the psychological damage this could do to an eight-year-old if he saw his father sucking another man’s cock.
“I don’t think I can…”
“Oh, I think you can.” John mouthed Rodney through his boxers, scraping his teeth along the ridge of his cock. Rodney’s groan couldn’t be stifled; it came loud and without restraint.
“You keep that up,” John whispered, and the heat from his breath was felt through the cotton of his boxers, “and you will wake him.”
Thoughts of J.J. pushed Rodney out of the moment. “I can’t. I can’t do this. Not here.” Rodney tried to push John’s head away, gripping his hair in his fingers, but John was determined.
“Just keep your voice down,” he said, then pulled Rodney’s boxers down, taking a firm hold of his cock before engulfing Rodney in the softness of his mouth.
Rodney bit his fist to cover his cry. He’d forgotten the intensity of a warm, wet mouth on him, and his cock heralded the triumphant win. Losing the will to protest, Rodney let his thighs fall open, relaxing into the feel of John working him up and down. Rodney had always been a talker, a proud vocal supporter of how much he appreciated his partner’s efforts, but he had to admit, there was a certain appeal to being quiet, to hold it in for fear of being caught. He supposed John was used to it, always living on the verge of discovery and while he appreciated the kink behind it, Rodney had sex like he lived his life: loud and private.
“John,” he tried again, but John’s tongue moved across his cock, slick and smooth, working him slow and dirty while he made encouraging noises that demanded Rodney’s attention. It was obscene enough for Rodney to forget and focus on the debauched look of John between his thighs with his messy hair gripped tight around Rodney’s fingers, and his mouth red and wet stretched along his cock. He wanted to shout his appreciation, but he settled on a whimper, high and tight in the back of his throat.
John took it as an invitation, lowering his mouth until his nose was flush with Rodney’s skin. Rodney threw his head back as thoughts of fucking John's mouth with abandon flooded his thoughts. He was going to come embarrassingly quick.
“Oh, fuck, John. Fuck,” he panted. “The things I want to do to you. I—” His sounds were muffled by the press of John’s palm against his mouth, making it somewhat difficult to breathe. With a choked off cry, he came down John’s throat. His breaths were hard and forced between John’s fingers, while the sensation of John’s tongue coaxing him to completion overwhelmed him until it became too much. John gave him one last lick, then buried his face in the crease of Rodney’s hip, inhaling deeply to catch his own breath.
“That was...” Rodney mumbled against John’s hand.
John chuckled. “Knew you could do it.”
He tugged John off his knees, kissing him until his heartbeat resembled some kind of normalcy, tasting himself for the first time in a long while. They sat half on the sofa and half on the floor, which wasn’t ideal, but Rodney was too wrecked to care, at least until John hitched his leg across Rodney, shoving himself against his hip in a not so subtle hint.
“Oh! Sorry.” He scrambled with John’s zipper. “We don’t have enough clothes to let you come in your pants.”
“I’d appreciate it if I didn’t,” John said, lifting his hips so Rodney could push his pants over his ass. There wasn’t time to admire John and the way his cock was long and lean like the rest of him, or the way it curved slightly up from his belly. As much as he reveled in the afterglow, a part of him still worried they’d be discovered with their pants around their ankles. With haste, Rodney licked a stripe on the palm of his hand before taking a firm hold of John.
“Yes,” John hissed. “God, Rodney.” He bit his lip, pushing his cock into Rodney’s capable hand, making breathless sounds while he shoved their shirts up and out of the way. Distracted by the smooth skin on skin contact, Rodney faltered, his hand losing its grip.
“Harder,” John said between his teeth, panting into the side of Rodney’s neck. His hand was slick on John, and with a few twists and pulls, John came, shaking to pieces alongside Rodney. He was quiet and quick, an expert at not making too much noise or too much of a mess where it might be noticed. For years, this was what John’s life would’ve been like, it was all he had, and Rodney understood why John was vehemently opposed to going back into the air force if it meant hiding who he was and living with the lie of being with whom he wanted.
When their breaths had settled, and they were moments away from that point after sex when things got awkward, Rodney ran his hand along John’s spine, trailing his finger over John’s ass, giving it a pinch. John was boneless, though, and didn’t move.
“When we get out of here,” Rodney said, “I’m going to lock us down here on purpose.”
“Oh, yeah?” John said, moving his head to rest on Rodney’s shoulder.
“I’ll leave us with a way to unlock the door, but I want just the two of us, so we can take our time and no one can hear us. None of this silent bullshit. I want to hear you, John.”
Rodney felt John’s smile on his shoulder, and the chuckle with it. “Promise?”
I know, I know! It's taken me forever to finish this. If you're still reading this, thank you, dear readers, for your patience and understanding. You are the best, and your little nudges and messages definitely kept me motivated to finish this and finish it right.
I'm posting the final 3 chapters along with this one today, and then I can mark it COMPLETE.
xo My gratitude is yours. xo
RECAP (cause it's been forever): Still stuck in the bunker, John's court marital is days away and unless he can get it pushed back, he won't make it. Rodney believes John has the Ancient gene, and even though he has huge reservations about calling in that favor, he thinks John's gene may help him. John refuses for his own personal reasons, and instead, tries to distract Rodney by other means...mostly his mouth.
Leaning against the arm of the sofa with one leg twisted and John’s body resting on top of him was not kind to Rodney’s back. It ached, pinching a nerve from the awkward angle. As much as he wanted to revel in the afterglow, he needed to move. He was about to suggest they head to the bedroom, but John pulled himself from Rodney’s arms, placing a quick kiss on his lips.
“You can make that call,” he said.
“What? The call? Really?” Rodney pointed to his disheveled state of undress. “Don’t tell me this made you change your mind?”
“Yes, Rodney, that rushed handjob was life changing.” John tucked himself back into his pants, then passed Rodney a towel from the kitchen.
“Then, why?” he said, refusing to be offended since it was John’s idea to give him a blowjob on a loveseat. “I thought you wanted to wait.”
“In three days I need to be at Edwards,” he said with a sigh. “JAG can’t push the hearing. I’m avoiding the inevitable. I have to show or face the consequences of a possible AWOL charge on top of everything else.”
“I can’t make any promises.” Rodney began to doubt his connections. “I don’t know if they’ll take my call. And I don’t even know what they’ll do with you, if they’ll force you into something you don’t want to do. They could. I think we should—”
“Rodney,” John said, reaching for his hand. “It’s okay. I trust you, and you trust them, right?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘trust’ is accurate.”
“I’m out of options. Besides, they still have to follow the law.”
Rodney lifted his shoulder, tilting his head back and forth. “Ah, technically, this branch is kind of off the grid. They don’t really follow earth law.”
“Earth law? What are you talking about?”
Rodney pulled the sphere from his pocket, holding it out to John.
“Okay, fine,” John relented. “I’ll touch the damn thing.” He grabbed the sphere and the instant his fingers met the metal it glowed a luminescent blue. Rodney’s mouth dropped open in awe, staring at John, who was obviously uncomfortable at the attention and threw the sphere back in Rodney’s hand.
“Why doesn’t it do that for you?” John asked.
“Because it likes you,” Rodney said, still staring at the sphere. “It really likes you.” He’d never seen Ancient tech respond so easily to anyone. No one at the SGC had gotten this thing to glow—they thought it was dead.
“We may not be able to change the rules,” Rodney said, “but with this we can bend them.” He smiled, wide and with wonder, seeking out John’s eyes. “A confounding variable. That’s what you are, John, and Carter will see it, too.”
“Someone who thinks she’s smarter than I am. A distant second, maybe.”
“Lt. Colonel Samantha Carter, USAF. John, you have no idea what this means. We’re talking top secret, right up the chain of command at the Pentagon. Aliens, space travel, everything you can possibly imagine in science fiction come to life.”
“Aliens?” John stared at the sphere. “Does this mean I’m an alien?”
“No,” Rodney said. “Yes. Maybe? I don’t know. Beckett hasn’t finished the complete correlation, yet, at least he hadn’t when I was still at the mountain. You may have alien ancestors?”
John’s face paled, turning a shade of green. He blew out a breath, placing his head between his knees. Rodney’s brain was in overdrive, processing too many things at once, jumping from one conclusion to the next and there were so many questions he had, but it would be nothing in comparison to what John would be wondering. Rodney took a breath, focusing his energy so he didn’t get ahead of himself.
“Okay.” He sighed. “I know you have a million questions, I do, too, but first, I need you to tell me what you felt when you held it.” John didn’t react, kept hunched over while Rodney rubbed soothing circles on his back.
“John?” Rodney waved a hand in front of his face. “Sheppard!” John snapped out of it, but his eyes looked distant. “I need you to focus.”
“This is a lot to take in, Rodney. You just told me I’m an alien.”
“No, I didn’t. And no, you’re not. At least I don’t think so. You have a rare gene that dates back thousands, maybe millions, of years from your very, very distant ancestors who may or may not have come from another galaxy.”
“Well, yes, technically, but inconsequential.”
“Fine. We don’t know why or how you have this Ancient gene, but there aren’t many people who can do what you just did, and definitely not as well. We may have our bargaining chip after all. Come on.” Grabbing Sheppard’s hand, he pulled him off the sofa, dragging him to his workbench.
“Here. Take it.” Rodney held out the sphere. “Tell me what you feel.”
Sheppard shook his head. “I’d rather not.”
“What if it turns me into a bug or something?”
“It won’t, at least, I don’t think it will.”
“Not helping.” John folded his arms.
“Did it feel like it was going to turn you into a bug?”
“No.” Sheppard was sheepish, avoiding his eyes.
“I don’t know, Rodney! But it sure as hell wasn’t warm and fuzzy. It felt like being summoned, down a long tunnel, like answering a call I didn’t want to pick up.” John shuddered, shaking out his arms.
“Why wouldn’t you want to pick up the call? Do you think someone was...?” With eyebrows raised, Rodney hesitated, coaxing John like he was an irrational child. “Was someone calling you? Like an intergalactic phone call?”
John rolled his eyes. “No, not like that. It just felt,” John shook his head, “weird, all right?” He stopped as something registered with him. “Does this mean J.J. has this mutant gene, too?”
“It’s not a mutant gene. It’s a gift. I’d trade places with you if I could. There’s nothing wrong with you.” Rodney placed his hands onto John’s arms, searching out his eyes. “I would think there’s high probability of J.J. having he gene, but I promise, John, nothing will happen to him. I’ll rain fire and brimstone, and believe me I can, if anyone tries to exploit him.”
John hugged Rodney, squeezing too tight, then kissed the side of his neck, making his way up to his lips. “I believe you.” He kissed him again. A gentle one, sweet and intimate, which only left Rodney wanting more.
“Make the call,” John said softly, chuckling at Rodney’s confusion.
“Right. Yes.” Rodney smoothed down his pants, and his hair, then moved to connect the call. The hour wasn’t late, but he didn’t expect anyone to answer. It rang three times, and went to a generic voicemail—no name, no number, no message other than a beep. Rodney knew what to do though, and recited a string of numbers, then waited until he could proceed.
“Sam, it’s McKay. Call me,” he said, then sighed as he disconnected the call.
“That’s it?” John asked, and Rodney sensed his disappointment.
“We wait.” Rodney shrugged. “Could be minutes or days, depends if she’s on a mission. Or there’s a possibility she won’t call me back at all.” Actually, there was a big chance of that happening. Their parting words hadn’t been kind, and if Rodney recalled, wishing death and dismemberment to Sam and her team, might not earn him a call back.
“Well, that was anticlimactic,” John said.
“What did you expect? Sirens and explosions?”
Ringing interrupted their banter.
“Huh,” Rodney said, feeling his heart flutter with the thought of seeing Sam’s face. If John wasn’t standing next to him, he might ignore it, so he could compose himself first. “I wasn’t expecting that to be so quick.” He pushed John out of the path of the camera, and answered the video call from Samantha Carter, his old nemesis. She looked exactly as he remembered only with longer blonde hair resting in a ponytail high on her head.
“Sam,” Rodney said, purposefully not using one of her titles, and even though the bitterness still existed between them, he couldn’t hide his fondness.
“Rodney.” She smiled, and it reached her blue eyes, which might have been a first for the two of them.
“I didn’t expect you to return my call so soon,” he said, shuffling his feet.
“Well, it’s not every day I get a call like that.”
“Congratulations on the promotion,” Rodney said. “Lt. Colonel.”
“You keeping tabs on me, McKay?” The corner of her mouth lifted.
“No more than your cronies are watching me.”
She chuckled. “They tell me you hacked the system today.”
Rodney’s face grew warm, and he coughed to hide the sound in the back of his throat. He didn’t tell John he hacked his file, and this was not how he wanted him to discover what he’d done.
“You’re slipping, Rodney,” she teased. “There was a time you could do that and be untraceable.”
“Yes, well, time wasn’t on my side.” He refused to look Sheppard’s way. Thankfully, Carter didn’t want to small talk.
“As much as I’m surprised to hear from you,” she said, “I have to ask why. Last we talked you wished me and my team a slow and painful death.”
Rodney had hoped she had forgotten, or at least looked past it, understanding how hurt he had been at the time. “Look, Sam,” he started to say but she stopped him.
“Rodney,” her voice was soft, and it matched her eyes, “I think we’re past all that.” His head came up to see if her words were true, and that was when he noticed how tired she looked. There were dark circles under her eyes he never remembered being there, and even though it had been a few years since he saw her, she looked much older than the years gone by.
“Sam,” Rodney said, sensing her apprehension, “just how bad is it?”
“Oh, you know, no more than usual,” she said, but she was lying.
“I’m sorry,” Rodney said, and suddenly his bitterness melted away. “I didn’t mean what I said, not really, anyway, and I trust none of that came to fruition?” He hadn’t heard of any losses for the team, well, except Jackson, but that guy never stayed dead. “I was...” Rodney swallowed, “...hurt.”
Carter wasn’t one to dwell on her emotions, and Rodney was grateful for that. She accepted his apology with grace and then waited for him to get to the point of his call. Rodney glanced in John’s direction, wondering how to proceed.
“I need to call in that favor,” he said, direct and to the point.
“Now’s not really a good time, Rodney.”
“I know, but this is important, and I think what I have to offer can help.” Beside him, John balked at Rodney’s choice of words. He tugged on John’s shirt, moving him in front of the camera. “I want you to meet Major John Sheppard, USAF.”
“Former,” John corrected, giving Carter a wave.
“Hi.” She smiled politely but was still unsure what Rodney wanted. He held up the sphere, moving it toward the camera.
“Where did you get that?” she asked, recognizing it for what it was.
“Doesn’t matter.” Rodney waved her question away. “John?” He pressed it into John’s upturned palm and the sphere lit up with a blue glow like before. He held it longer this time, staring at it until it hovered in his hand and began to spin.
“Huh,” Rodney said, watching the sphere floating in John’s hand.
“Yes, Sam. He has the gene.”
“And that’s classified, McKay.”
“He has the strongest impression I’ve ever seen. Stronger than Beckett, and even stronger than the general, both couldn’t get this thing to work.”
The light grew brighter, the sphere spinning faster. John’s eyes were closed with rapid movement underneath his eyelids.
“John?” Rodney said, hesitating to touch him.
“What’s happening?” Sam asked.
“I don’t know. It’s never done this before. He’s never held it this long.” Rodney brushed his outstretched arm, startling him, and John’s hand closed over the Ancient tech. The glowing stopped as John’s eyes popped open.
“Atlantis,” he whispered.
Carter and Rodney were silent, staring open mouthed at John, unsure if they heard what they did.
“What did you say?” They both asked in unison.
John cleared his throat. “Atlantis.”
“Sam, I never told him,” Rodney said, rushing for clarification. “He only knows about the gene. He doesn’t even know about the Stargate.”
“Major,” Sam said, “what just happened?”
“I saw it,” John said, his voice filled with wonder. “A city underwater.”
“McKay, you know what this means,” she said. Sam was already making a call, probably to Dr. Jackson, but Rodney couldn’t hear what she was saying with her back to the camera.
“He needs to sit in the chair,” Rodney said. This would only be the start. John would be in high demand at the Antarctic outpost.
“We’re going to need him to come in,” Sam said, once she hung up the phone. “Where are you?”
“This is where that favor comes in...and it’s a big one. I’ve sort of made an error in judgement,” Rodney said, lowering his head. “I’ve accidentally locked us in my bunker.”
Sam stilled for a few breaths, staring in disbelief, then she couldn’t contain her smile as she laughed at their predicament. “Daniel owes me a lot of money.” She wiped at her eyes.
“Oh, yes,” Rodney said, folding his arms, “laugh it up.” It was nice to hear her laughter, even if it was at his expense, but the idea of a bet was too much for Rodney. He felt his civility slipping, but then John shifted at his side. He wanted to tell Carter where to shove her laughter, just like old times, except he couldn’t. John and J.J. were depending on this connection, so whatever humiliation he had to endure, he would.
Sensing Rodney’s looming outburst, John leaned toward the screen. “Colonel Carter?” he asked. “I’m not sure what your intentions are with me and this thing.” John held up the Ancient tech “But before this goes any further, I need to clarify a few things about my situation. Some transparency about my past and my life.”
“I’m aware of some of it, major,” Carter said. “Your name was flagged today when Rodney accessed your file. We just weren’t sure of the connection.”
John clenched his jaw, as Rodney winced. “He did, did he?”
He reached for John’s elbow. “I’m sorry, John. I was going to tell you, I just—” John tensed with a imperceptible nod of his head. They would talk about it later, away from the Lt. Colonel who waited patiently for them to finish.
“Well, then, if it’s total transparency you need,” John placed his hand over Rodney’s, squeezing it, “then I’ll tell you that we’re together.”
“Oh,” Sam and Rodney said, neither expecting John to say that.
“Oh!” Carter added when she understood just what John had meant. “That certainly changes a few things.”
“I’m sure it does. I take it you’ve read my file?” John asked.
“Yes.” She nodded. “We’ve not heard from Rodney in years, but we’ve continued to monitor him for his safety. When he accessed a military personnel file, General O’Neill was notified of the breach. We’re aware of your impending court martial.”
“Therein lies the problem,” Rodney said. His grip tightened around John’s hand. “We’re pressed for time, Sam.”
“I will be honest,” she said, “there’s not much I can do to help your situation, major, but I can put you in touch with the right people. If your ATA gene is as strong as McKay says, and if you found Atlantis, then we need you, Sheppard. You’ll have some powerful people on your side.”
“I appreciate that, but there are two concessions I’m not willing to make,” John said, “and one of them is my son, and the other is my relationship with Rodney.”
“I see.” Sam looked earnest in her reply, a hesitation in her expression and an understanding in her eyes. Rodney’s heart raced, and he jumped when Carter’s phone began to ring.
“It’s the general,” she said. “I need to take this call. I’d tell you not to go anywhere, but...” She smiled.
“Ha. Ha.” Rodney rolled his eyes.
“I’ll call you when I have more news.” The screen went dark.
John’s fingers were wrapped around the edge of the bench, his knuckles white.
“I’m sorry,” Rodney apologized. “I shouldn’t have done it. I was only looking for answers and a way to help.” Rodney began rambling, apologizing for the hack and a way to make it right.
“I’m not mad,” John said, “not about that. I’m sure most of it was redacted, anyway. I would’ve been surprised if you hadn’t tried.”
“Then why are you angry?”
“I don’t know. I thought I was free of all of this, was going to take my punishment, do my time and forget it. And now...there’s a chance it could all go away.”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“No.” John’s lips were pinched, his eyes cringing like he was in pain.
“I don’t understand.” And he truly didn’t. If Sam’s reaction was anything to gauge, John would have those charges dropped with a few phone calls. He may have to sign his life away, but at least he wouldn’t be incarcerated with a record and away from his son.
“I guess I owe you the truth.” John walked to the table and sat, elbows up with his head in his hands. “I stole a helicopter,” he said.
“I gathered that from the larceny charge.” He saw the charges in John’s file along with the details of the crash and destruction of the military’s property. Rodney grabbed the vodka from the freezer, joining John at the table with two glasses. He poured, waiting for John to get the nerve to continue.
“When Nancy got sick I kind of went off the rails. Took too many risks, too many dangerous missions, I didn’t care who was in my path. I was hurting. I was reckless and stupid, and god knows how I survived those days.” John took a sip of the offered drink. “I didn’t think Nancy would die, not really, and instead of being there for her, I turned into someone she would’ve hated. I was so wrapped up in my grief, I never realized my actions could affect my son.”
When he met Rodney’s eyes they were red-rimmed from the gamut of emotions he was fighting. He looked as wrecked as Rodney felt. The last forty-eight hours were playing a toll on them both. It should’ve been a quiet, peaceful ten days in the bunker, a vacation, and a time to unplug, but instead, it was a race against time for John, and time for Rodney to face his worst nightmares. If Sam’s pallor and deep-set eyes were anything to go by, the reasons for Rodney building the bunker were valid. Something big was coming.
“I disobeyed a direct order, and men died,” John admitted. “It was all for nothing. They died for nothing.”
Rodney settled his hand on John’s thigh. He knew about the order, too. John was to stand down on a rescue mission when members of his team were trapped behind enemy lines. He ignored the orders and went anyway, taking on enemy fire and ultimately crashing the helicopter, killing the men he’d braved to rescue. Yes, he disobeyed an order, but he was trying to save them. It just so happened that a four-star general had a son who died in the crash. He’d read the brief in his file, but there was obviously more to it.
“One of the men who died was a friend,” John said, “he was also the son of a general who had it out for me, ever since the two of us were caught, well,” he took a deep breath, “let’s just say, part of my reckless behavior had a lot to do with fucking men. Holland thought he was untouchable because of his dad, and I no longer cared. I wanted to get kicked out, so we weren’t exactly discreet.” John swallowed the contents of his glass, avoiding Rodney’s eyes. He coughed as it burned its way down his throat. When he could speak again, his voice was rough, cracked and shattered. “Holland and his father didn’t exactly see eye to eye, especially when it came to me.”
“He’s the one pushing all of this?” Rodney asked, his mouth dry, realizing how much pressure John had been under since they met. He hadn’t known John for long, but he understood the punishment he inflicted on himself. He felt culpable over the loss of his men. If it weren’t for J.J., John would’ve accepted the punishment. General Holland wanted retribution for his son’s death, and he was taking it out on John any way he could. Larceny was a serious charge; one John was technically guilty of. They couldn’t deny he stole the military’s property, destroyed it, and disobeyed orders, and if a grieving general wanted to see someone pay for his son’s death, they were going to make a major, who wrecked millions of dollars’ worth of assets, accountable.
“How can he do that?” Rodney was outraged for John.
“I get it.” John shrugged. “I get why he’s out for blood. If it was my son, I’d do the same.” John’s need to be open and transparent about who he was meant everything to him. Secrets and shame had already destroyed one father and son, and John wouldn’t let that happen with J.J. There was so much more at stake than Rodney ever knew.
“Stop shouldering the blame,” he said, but telling John it wasn’t his fault would only be ignored. He believed he was to blame, and Rodney’s words wouldn’t change that. “Shitty things happen,” Rodney said, spinning the empty glass in his hands.
John chuffed, blowing out one long breath, then met Rodney’s eyes. “Yeah, they do.” He kissed Rodney and before it turned into something more, he pulled away. “It’s been a long day. Let’s go to bed.”
Rodney didn’t need to argue, he was wiped as well. While John moved J.J. to the sofa, Rodney grabbed the tablet in case Carter called with news.
The bed shifted as John got up to leave the room. They’d fallen asleep when their heads hit the pillows. And now, Rodney wasn’t sure what time it was, but the room was dark, which meant there was still time to sleep.
He wondered if John’s restless slumber had anything to do with regret. They hadn’t discussed John’s revelation about their relationship to Carter, and not the Rodney cared, but it was possible John was using it as an excuse, a way to sabotage his chances before they began. Rodney’s feelings for John were at a point of irrevocable damage. His heart was out there, waiting to be crushed and with the pressure John was under, he would understand if he had second thoughts. He needed to know if this was a thing of convenience for him or if his heart was where Rodney’s was.
The door cracked open and Rodney held his breath as John firmly shut it behind him. He slid in beside Rodney, nestling against him with an arm wrapped around him, holding him close.
“Everything okay?” Rodney asked, his shoulder hunched and finding it difficult to relax with John's breath next to his ear.
“Just checking on him. Didn’t mean to wake you,” John said, but the way his hand slid down Rodney’s thigh and underneath his boxers, he wondered if that was exactly what John intended.
“Why me?” asked Rodney. It came out rushed and panicked when John’s hand moved lower.
“What?” John nuzzled the side of his neck.
“I mean, you’re you and well, I’m me, and you’re so…” Rodney waved his hand, trying to encompass all that John was in a simple hand gesture in the dark. “So, I guess I want to know why me?”
“Is this going to be our thing?” he asked, and Rodney heard the smile in his tone.
John’s hand had stopped roaming, but it was heavy and present on Rodney’s hip.
“Every time I want to have sex, are you going to try to talk me out of it?”
Rodney flushed at the word ‘sex.’ He wasn’t used to hearing it in conversation with such ease. John seemed fluid with saying it, wielding it as a casual thing that didn't mean as much to him as it did Rodney. He was comfortable with having sex, just not talking about it.
“I’m just having a hard time believing, you know...” He was thankful for the darkness, and thankful his back was to John.
“No, I don’t know.”
“I think you do.” Rodney tried to pull the covers up, but John lay solid against him. “I’m not exactly in your caliber, flyboy. It doesn’t take a genius to see that.”
John’s heavy breath was all Rodney heard. He unraveled himself from Rodney, and when the warmth and comfort left him, Rodney wished he could take back his words.
“What?” Rodney asked. “I don’t think it’s a difficult question.”
“Who hurt you, Rodney?” It was said just above a whisper, and the room fell quiet while Rodney’s mind raced with thoughts from the loaded question.
Who hurt him? Did John want a list? If he did, it would start around the first grade with Kevin Farrell who smashed his working model of the solar system on his way home from school. Or maybe he wanted to know about Amy Herring who was five years older than him, and as a dare in senior year, asked him to prom, but then laughed when he said yes. They were just the start of a long list of shitty people in his life who did shitty things.
“No one hurt me,” Rodney said. “It’s called life’s lessons.”
“Something must’ve happened to make you this way, to make you want to build this bunker and hide away from the world.”
“I’m not hiding.” Rodney moved to the edge of the bed, ready to make his escape, but John grabbed him, pulling him close. He tried to get away, but John’s arms were firm around him, caging him in with nowhere to go.
“We don’t have to talk about it, not if you don’t want to,” John said, his chin tucked up against Rodney’s shoulder. “I’m all for burying things and forgetting about them, but don’t ask me things like ‘why you?’ if you don’t want to explain where those misgivings come from.”
This was the part that terrified Rodney, opening himself up to someone despite his past. There were many disappointments when it came to people, and if he learned anything over the years, John would more than likely prove to be no different—except he hoped he was.
“What about family?” John asked.
“I have a sister,” Rodney said, although he was certain she believed she didn’t have a brother—not anymore, anyway. It was years since they talked, and even though he’d been trying to protect her, he’d gone about it the wrong way, causing a rift between them that neither were willing to repair.
“We don’t talk. It’s better that way.” There was an edge to Rodney’s voice, which surprised him to hear, but then Jeannie was one of the few regrets he had.
John picked up on the ‘closed for discussion’ signal and tried for humor instead. “I thought you'd at least have a cat or something.”
“I thought about it, but I didn’t want to deal with the litter.”
“Can’t you train them to use the toilet?” John asked, his arms relaxing their grip.
“Really? They can do that? They can’t do that.”
“And I thought you were a cat guy.” John chuckled, and the vibrations rumbled through Rodney’s chest.
“I said I prefer cats to dogs, but neither by choice.” Rodney turned over, settling his arm over John and John did the same. “Besides,” Rodney said, “it would decrease my time and life expectancy in the bunker.”
“Don’t tell me you did the calculations.” The room was too dark to see John’s features, but he could imagine the teasing look.
“Of course I did.” Rodney stiffened, his back rigid with insult. “Not only would it cut my water rations, but food storage, and don’t forget the oxygen consumption. And my septic can only stand so much.”
“You’re unbelievable.” John’s voice went an octave higher. He pinched Rodney’s hip which tickled more than it hurt, making Rodney squirm.
“It’s not unreasonable.”
“It’s a cat, Rodney. A companion. Someone to talk to, to cuddle with...reaffirm your life.”
“You’ve never had a cat, have you?”
“They’re assholes!” Rodney said, louder than he intended.
“So are you!”
“Huh.” Rodney smiled even though John couldn’t see it. “Fair point.” He kissed John this time, and it was the most natural thing he felt in a while. The smoothness of his face against John’s lips made him feel unstoppable from that one kiss, like he could take on whatever lay in front of him outside of the bunker, and if John was with him he could look his demons in the eye, have a drink with them and laugh about the past. Okay, maybe not that last part, but perhaps it was time to put things to rest, starting with what led him here. Besides, he owed John his truth.
“It wasn’t what they did to me,” Rodney confessed, his voice no louder than a whisper. “I deserved what I got, and it’s just better this way.”
“You keep saying that, but better how?” John asked, his breath tickling the hairs on Rodney’s neck. “Because locking yourself in a bunker seems pretty lonely. What good is saving the world with no one to share the victory with?” John added a hint of humor to his tone, but Rodney heard the seriousness of the question, nonetheless.
Tucking his arm under his pillow, Rodney appreciated the coolness in contrast to the heat from his flushed body from his embarrassment. “I don’t share my life with anyone now. How would it be different if I didn’t have this place?”
“That’s not true. I admit, I thought you were eccentric when I met you, a bit of a jerk, but you’re not exactly a shut-in, Rodney.” John’s hand was firm across his back, like he expected Rodney to leave. “You still head into town when you need to, maybe when you’re craving a little company?”
“Hardly. It’s out of necessity.”
“I don’t buy that,” John said. “You don’t want to be alone, not really.”
The conversation stalled, and John’s breathing became slow and steady. They stayed motionless for a few painful minutes. He hated the silence he had forced between them. He was a self-serving coward and his confession would either push John away or make him accept Rodney for who he was. John thought he knew him, but he didn’t, not until he knew everything.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. “I made a mistake and I paid for it. I was arrogant and self-serving, and I was…” Rodney paused, having never admitted this to anyone. “I was wrong, and it almost cost a good man his life.”
“Almost. That’s more than some can say,” John said. And it wasn’t lost on Rodney that John hadn’t been so lucky.
“You don’t get it, though. I’ve only had to look out for myself, never been a part of a team, not even in school. I was always younger than my classmates, so I never had friends, never had someone to watch my back. The ‘no man left behind’ motto never applied to me, because I never applied it to anyone else.” Rodney’s world of academia was ruthless, especially when it came to his age and the number of people who thought they could take advantage of him. He learned that everyone had motives that went beyond friendship. “Let’s just say, there’s no one to let you down if you only have to rely on yourself.”
When Rodney was sent to Russia for his arrogance, he thought that was his punishment, a lesson in humility for leaving a member of SG-1 to die in the event horizon, but he had been mistaken, what came after was the real retribution. In Russia, he had civilization and relatively good food, but it wasn’t long before he was taken, exiled to a remote part of Siberia to work at a Trust infiltrated base disguised as a power station. It was there he met Radek, the only good thing to come out of that catastrophe.
There were parts of his story that were heavily classified, like the Goa’uld and the Trust incursion of the Russian outpost, but Rodney told John what he could, that he had been held prisoner, left for dead. When he realized a rescue wasn’t coming from his ‘employer,’ he saved himself. And after blowing up the entire power station, he returned to America, hiding away on the mountain, afraid of his own shadow for a long time. It wasn’t until he began construction on the bunker he felt safe again. He didn’t want to be part of an institution that would write him off, who thought he didn’t offer anything of value to risk a rescue. The last few years he’d dedicated his life to prove them wrong.
“They left me for dead. Those assholes owe me.” Telling John what he could of his story was cathartic. Only Radek knew the details, but he had been there. John listened, staying quiet for the most part, asking questions only when clarification was needed, and through it all, his arm stayed tucked around Rodney.
The room grew quiet again. Rodney was desperate to know what John thought. Sensing his apprehension, John kissed him, slow and tenderly, and his hand came to rest on his cheek. He could love John, and the truth hit Rodney hard in a way that made him want to run. It was the kind of love that left him breathless.
“You realize these are the same people you want me to trust,” John said. “You haven’t exactly painted them in a good light.”
“Mistakes were made on both sides. I’m arrogant because I can be, but sometimes it’s not well-received. I learned that the hard way, and I suppose it’s time for bygones and all that.” Rodney waved his hand. “They’re okay people—good people. Besides, they’re going to need you as much as you’ll need them.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” John’s slow drawl was present, and Rodney heard his teasing.
“They’re not the enemy,” Rodney said, realizing just how true that was now. “There are far greater ones out there.”
“What you went through is pretty shitty, Rodney.” John shifted in his arms. “And I know there’s a lot more than what you can tell me, but my takeaway is that you’re stronger than you think you are.”
“I’m not, though.”
“Well, my kid thinks you’re a damn superhero.”
“Really? Like batman?” Rodney couldn’t stop his smile. “I told you this was the bat cave.”
John pulled away. Rodney felt his eyes on him, and even though he was protected by the darkness, it still made him feel vulnerable. “You asked me, ‘why you,’” John said. “You make me happy, Rodney.”
“Is that enough for you?” Rodney hated the hesitation in his voice. He was in deep, and no matter what happened once they got out of here, he was glad he would have this time with John.
“You’re beyond smart, which I find incredibly sexy, and you’re the first person who’s gotten my kid to genuinely smile since his mom died. I wouldn’t pursue this if I didn’t want it to work. I’d never do that to you or J.J. He likes being with you, and I wouldn’t mess that up for something casual.”
Rodney hadn’t thought about the repercussions if this failed between them. Losing them both would be a devastating blow he didn’t want to think about, and thankfully neither did John.
Rolling on top of Rodney, John stretched his lean body between his thighs.
“Are we done talking, yet?” John said, his hand moving down Rodney’s side, settling on his hip. His heart raced as John inched his fingers toward his length.
“I could be persuaded to shut up.” Rodney shut his eyes, exhaling and reveling in the feel of John slowing working him through his boxers until he was hard. He pressed up into John’s palm, wanting more friction than his hand could offer, but John had him pinned and was in control.
Dragging his tongue and teeth across Rodney’s neck, John nipped at his ear which went straight to Rodney's cock. “I don’t suppose you have any supplies down here?” John’s warm breath sent a shiver through his body.
He hadn’t meant to curse so loud, but it was one of the things he overlooked when he stocked his bunker. Why would he think of lube and condoms? Lube, maybe, and that was an oversight on his part, but cursing his stupidity wouldn’t help him right now. He settled on the truth. “I wasn’t expecting company.”
“I’ve kind of been dreaming about that ass of yours,” John said, chuckling into the side of his neck. He shifted against Rodney until they were pressed together with only the fabric of their boxers separating their cocks.
“Condoms and lube,” Rodney panted, “they’re on my list!”
“Lots of them,” John said, then stripped them of what little clothing they were wearing. Rodney reached for John, but his hand was swatted away, and then he was flipped so he was lying on top of John. “This will have to do for now,” John said as Rodney shamelessly moaned when John grabbed his ass, grinding their hips together until Rodney forgot the need to be quiet.
“Oh, god, John.” Rodney’s head felt light. He wanted to yell filthy things to John, but he could only concentrate on one thing at a time. His hips wanted to rut against him, and his hands wanted to touch him everywhere. He wished he could see John’s face when he came except the damn lights were off, and he didn’t want to stop to turn them on. Their rhythm was not exact, faltering when Rodney wanted to speed up and John tried to slow down, but it worked enough that their bodies were covered in sweat after only a few minutes. It helped with the friction as Rodney’s thrusts grew more vigorous.
“Come on, Rodney.” John breathed in his ear, hitching his knee up so he could press harder against him, bringing them both close to the edge.
“Fuck. Oh, fuck.” Rodney moaned, biting his lip, hastening his hips. He didn’t want it to stop, but he needed to come, he was desperate for it. His heart beat too fast, rushing the blood to his ears, and muffled the sounds he was making. John shushed him with his mouth, and when their tongues touched, Rodney’s world went a little fuzzy. It was unrestrained as he slid over the edge, coming apart between John’s legs until his hips slowed to a stop and his breaths were loud against John’s chest.
He was too far-gone to notice if John had found his own release. It was only after his heart and his breaths calmed that he asked.
“Yeah,” John said, kissing Rodney’s temple, pulling him close so they were pressed together, spooning. They ignored the mess; both too exhausted and satisfied to care. “That was...”
Rodney’s smile was evident in his sighs. “Condoms and lubricants. Check.”
He felt unstoppable from that one kiss earlier. Now, he felt invincible.
Rodney woke to an empty bed again, only this time there was no hesitation, he went straight for the shower, avoiding everything else until he was washed clean.
When he came out of the bathroom, J.J. sat alone at the table, eating powdered, scrambled eggs, eying him carefully. John was nowhere to be seen, but it wasn’t like he could go far.
“Morning,” Rodney said, heading to the coffee pot where John had graciously left him a cup or three.
“Mornin’,” J.J. said, grinning with a mouthful of food. His expression was reminiscent of that first day when Rodney thought he might have been a ‘pod child.’ “What?” Rodney snapped, but J.J. shrugged, still smiling. “Now who’s being weird?” Rodney felt like he had missed out on something, like he was the butt of a joke. They hadn’t discussed what they were going to tell J.J., and thankfully, Rodney didn’t have to make that decision. He would do whatever John wanted, and if that meant hiding this from his son until John was ready, he would do his best to maintain that secrecy. But if J.J. already guessed, how was he supposed to lie to the kid?
“I’m not supposed to bug you,” J.J. said.
“That is not an answer, young man,” Rodney said, stirring his coffee. “What did your dad say?”
“He said, ‘sometimes adults need alone time.’ My mom used to say the same thing.”
“Well, yes, that is true.” He had no idea where this was heading.
“He also said you were special.” Rodney choked on his coffee while J.J. cupped a hand over his mouth. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.”
Reaching for the dish towel, Rodney wiped up his mess, hoping to hide his fluster. John had told his son that he was special. He couldn’t imagine what that conversation had entailed, and special could mean a lot of things, it didn’t mean he told J.J. they were together, as in a couple like he needed to prove to Sam.
John appeared from the second pod, towel resting over his shoulders. He was covered in a sheen of sweat from his workout, wearing a lazy grin with his boxers, and nothing else. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to a half-dressed Sheppard, and wondered if this was how he always was, so unashamedly bare, or if it was from the lack of clothing situation.
He headed straight for Rodney, kissing him on the mouth. “Morning.”
“You said there would be no kissing!” J.J. said, putting his head in his hands.
Well, that answered Rodney’s question, and his eyes went wide as he looked from John to his son, wondering how he was supposed to react.
“I never said that,” John said, grabbing a glass of water. “And that wasn’t really a kiss. More like a greeting.”
“It’s still gross.” He pushed his eggs around on the plate.
“It sure is, bud.” John laughed as he ruffled J.J.’s hair. Rodney liked this side of John, relaxed and playful, and honest. He could fall for him all over again.
“He knows?” Rodney asked the obvious.
“No more hiding, right? And that starts with him.” John rested his hand on J.J.’s head. “Are you okay with that?”
“Yes,” Rodney said quickly, and then adjusted. “Yes. That’s—I’m good.”
“You good?” John leaned down to ask J.J., who nodded with another mouthful of eggs. “We’re all good. Except for me. I need a shower.” Once again, he left Rodney with a flutter in his stomach that made him want to grab hold of him and take him back to bed—children’s prying eyes be damned.
J.J. took his dishes to the sink, and as he passed by Rodney, he sighed dramatically. “You’re weird again.” There was nothing else to do but stick out his tongue at J.J. He had succumbed to the level of a child, and the reversion was all John’s fault. He said as much to J.J.
“Whatever,” J.J. said, rolling his eyes, then as though the last five minutes never happened, his mind switched gears. “Can I play video games?”
Rodney thought about saying no just to punish the kid, but he hadn’t woken up yet and he needed quiet time while he ate some breakfast. He was surprisingly famished.
“You get one hour. Then you have work to do. Those equations I gave you yesterday won’t solve themselves.”
J.J. never heard the last part, though, rushing off to shoot some aliens before Rodney could change his mind.
They spent the day waiting for a call that never came. After their talk during the night, they were optimistic things were going to work out for them both. John’s decision might have been based on a selfish need to save himself, but if he could operate the weapons platform in Antarctica, and possibly lead them to Atlantis, he would serve a greater purpose, and everyone would benefit. But so far, it was radio-silence since that first call with Sam. There was one day left before John needed to appear before the court, and as the hours passed, John’s shoulders drooped, weighted by the possibility that it wasn’t going to happen in time.
When the hour finally reached J.J.’s bedtime, Rodney’s nerves had him jumping at every sound, hoping it was Carter’s call.
They sat on the sofa, both reading, or pretending to read. Rodney’s eyes had glazed over the same passage for the last twenty minutes, and as John’s leg bounced against the coffee table, Rodney watched the movement instead of reading the journal in front of him. Catching his eye, John stretched his arms over his head, groaning as his muscles stretched and tendons popped.
“I think we need to burn off some energy,” he said.
“Don’t tell me you want to do more sit-ups.” Rodney scoffed.
“No, Rodney, it’s not sit-ups I have in mind.” He kissed him, and it wasn’t gentle like the earlier ones. This one was demanding and desperate with a possessiveness Rodney was on board for. He buried his fingers into John’s hair, tugging as John’s mouth moved to his neck, sucking, licking, and no doubt leaving marks he’d have to explain to a kid in the morning. Pulling at Rodney’s shirt, John moved to lift it over his head, but they were interrupted when the computer started ringing. Rodney’s heart stuttered before picking up its pace. His hand flew to his mouth to smooth the burn from John’s scruff.
“Shit. Oh, shit,” Rodney said, a pounding in his rib cage that rang in his ears. Grabbing at his shirt, he tried to tuck it in, but then saw the tent in the front of his pants, so he left it.
John laughed while the computer kept ringing.
“Not helping!” Rodney squawked, moving to the workbench. “Am I okay?” he asked, pressing on his neck where John’s teeth were biting only seconds ago. John’s grin was devious as he shrugged, joining Rodney at the table. This whole ‘not hiding’ thing was getting indecent, he thought, as he answered the call.
Sam was there, and she still looked exhausted, but there was a shine in her eyes that wasn’t there before. She smiled when they greeted her, and she looked like she had years ago.
“Good news, guys. We’ve made some headway,” she said, skillfully ignoring the redness of Rodney’s cheeks. “The Daedalus is in orbit. First step is to get you out of there, and then we try and fix this mess with the court martial. We’ll beam the two of you aboard, debrief and see what Sheppard can do, which I won’t lie, heavily depends on clearing him of the charges.”
“The Daedalus? I didn’t even know it was in production.” Rodney had missed a lot in the last few years, all the technological breakthroughs, the victories and losses he had hidden away from choosing to isolate himself on the mountain. He thought he was doing good work, but seeing Sam in front of him, alive and well, and probably battle scarred, he began to regret his selfish actions these past few years.
John looked to Rodney, scratching at his chin as he pursed his lips.
“The Daedalus is a ship,” Rodney said, then clarified. “A spaceship.”
“I got that much,” John said, but his eyes were wide. It might have been wise to fill John in on more than he had, at the least capabilities of the spaceships, the aliens and possibly the Stargate, but he wasn’t sure how much he could divulge without permission.
“It has beaming technology.”
“Like Star Trek?”
“Uh.” Rodney nodded. “Kind of. Asgardian.” John was even more confused. “We can explain it later.” Rodney’s stomach danced at the idea of beaming aboard a ship. He never had the chance to travel on the Prometheus, so this fulfilled one of his fantasies. His thoughts slipped to John pushing him up against a porthole and having his way with Rodney while he watched Earth from orbit. That image was worthy of all the lengthy non-disclosures he would need to sign.
“Okay,” John said, bringing Rodney back to reality, “but there are three of us, Colonel. My son is here with us.”
Carter glanced down, weighing the options. From her pensive expression, they should’ve mentioned J.J. during that first call. “I’m afraid that’s not possible. I’m sorry, major, but we can’t risk it. Kids and spaceships, not a good idea for national security.”
“Then I have to decline. I won’t leave my son.”
“I understand,” Carter said, meeting Rodney’s eyes, and he knew what he had to do. His hopes of seeing a spaceship and orbiting the earth were crushed.
“Wait, John, you have to go,” Rodney said.
“He goes with me. We’re a packaged deal.”
“Except you’re not,” Rodney said. “This isn’t some Ferris wheel ride at the state fair. This is top secret, grade-A military stuff, and trust me, you don’t want your son involved if you can help it.” Rodney squared his shoulders, facing Carter. “Give us a few minutes?”
“I can do that. Call me when you’ve reached a decision, but don’t leave it too long.” She disconnected.
“I can’t leave him.” John moved to the sofa, elbows resting on his knees.
“I’ll stay. We’ll stay. That is, if you trust me with him,” Rodney said in a rush, trailing behind John. “It’s probably better this way. You’ll have a lot going on, and at least you’ll know exactly where he is and that he’s safe, pretty much in one of the safest places on the planet. I’ll set up a live camera feed, you can watch us at any time.” Rodney sat next to him, reaching for his hand. “I realize it’s a lot of faith you’re putting in me, but I won’t let anything happen to him. You have my solemn promise.”
John mulled over his words, squeezing Rodney’s hand in acknowledgement, but he wasn’t agreeing to anything.
“You can do this, John.” Rodney laced their fingers together. “You can take care of the things you need to. Clear your name. Make it so you never have to leave him again, not unless it’s by your choice.”
John met his eyes, they were shiny with unshed tears, but the expression in them was one Rodney didn’t know. There was quietness in the room, like a held breath, and he knew John was thinking of how to gracefully decline his offer without hurting his feelings.
He placed a soft kiss on Rodney’s lips. It tasted of sorrow and regret. “Thank you, Rodney, but I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“It’s the only way.”
“This is a hell of a lot bigger than what I imagined,” John said, his voice strained from fighting his emotions. “I thought it would be a few phone calls on my behalf, get the trial delayed. Not beaming up to a spaceship and leaving my son behind in a locked bunker. I don’t even know who these people are. I won’t leave him, not like this.”
“Ahem.” A throat cleared from across the room. They jumped apart at the sound, then John stepped in front of Rodney when he saw the intruder standing in the flesh in the bunker.
“Nice place you got here, McKay.” General Jack O’Neill stood next to Rodney’s workbench with a closed mouth grin and rocking on his heels.
“General!” Rodney would’ve taken a minute to recover from his almost heart attack by the general’s sudden appearance, but he didn’t look like he wanted to wait. “How? Why—” He stepped around John, wringing his hands.
“Needed to stretch my legs. Been awhile. Spaceships can be so...” He glanced around the bunker, “...suffocating.” He didn’t look as exhausted as Carter, but then he never did. He came out of week-long skirmishes looking refreshed.
“I see you found a friend,” he said, and there was a knowing lilt in his tone as he glanced to John, eyebrows raised.
“John Sheppard, sir,” John said. Rodney watched his hand flinch like he wanted to salute but changed his mind.
“Not Major Sheppard?” O’Neill baited.
“Right. Pesky details.” O’Neill took a tour around the room exuding confidence that was aloof and natural that only he could pull off and so far from anything Rodney could manage.
“Let’s cut the pleasantries, folks. Colonel Carter filled me in on the circumstances and your ability.”
“More like abilities,” Rodney piped in, but shut his mouth with one narrow-eyed look from O’Neill.
“Let me be as succinct as possible.” O’Neill’s lips pursed. “Sheppard,” he said. “Do you want to do this?”
“I’m not sure what ‘this’ is.” No one explained what they wanted John to do, but to be fair, it wasn’t something to explain in words. It needed to be experienced to believe.
“Aliens. Other galaxies. New planets. Spaceships. You know...” O’Neill waved his hand, picking up the bottle of vodka and sniffing it. “...the usual.”
Hearing it aloud and from a general whose gravitas carried a bit of panache must have been surreal for John. O’Neill wasn’t a typical leader, but men followed him, sometimes to their death and John would come to appreciate that, Rodney was certain of it from the gleam he saw in John’s eyes.
“Oh, that,” John said, then smiled. “I’m not sure I have much of choice, sir. I’ve kind of gotten myself into a situation.”
“Well, I’m giving you one.” O’Neill put his hands in his pockets. “I want people on my team who are there because they want to be. I read your file. I made some calls, and it seems you pissed off the wrong general.”
“It was a shame what happened to his son. You did your best from the accounts I’ve been told. But stealing a helicopter, disobeying orders? Those are some serious charges that even I can’t overlook.”
Rodney snorted, about to refute the argument with O’Neill’s long history of disobeying orders, except O’Neill was on to him, cocking his head and daring Rodney to interject. Rodney shut his mouth for the third time. O’Neill had a way of making him do that.
“I like risk takers, Sheppard. I like people who put others before themselves.” O’Neill looked directly at Rodney, but he refused to cower. He wasn’t the same man O’Neill might remember. Back then, he was at the SGC for the glory, he expected it. O’Neill’s team never wanted recognition for what they did. They did their jobs and sometimes they won and sometimes they lost. They made calculated risks based on facts and a whole lot of luck.
“I need people who can rise above the challenge when duty calls. Save themselves if need be.” O’Neill maintained his eye contact with Rodney. And then Rodney understood. He’d been too angry and arrogant at the time to see it. They hadn’t left him for dead, not really. Their confidence in him saved him, and saved them from an international incident. He was never in real danger, they never would’ve let it get that far, but Rodney took matters into his own hands and saved everyone the trouble, like they knew he could.
There was a slight twitch in O’Neill’s eye when he saw the dawning realization in Rodney’s expression and the moment he accepted the truth. He winked, then trained his eyes on John. “I don’t like heroes, Sheppard. There’s no such thing on my team. Are you a hero?”
John cleared his throat. “No, sir.”
“I didn’t think so.” With his hands still in his pockets he took a few steps toward John, looking him up and down. “I know a thing or two about disobeying orders.” O’Neill relented to Rodney, and Rodney smiled along with him. “You were trying to do the right thing, just went a little FUBAR.”
“Sir, you should know, that the Lieutenant and I, the General’s son, we were—”
“At-tut-tut...” O’Neill held up his hand to stop Sheppard. “I don’t need to hear that, because frankly I don’t care. I wear these stars,” he pointed to his collar, “so, I still need to adhere to some of those rules, but you won’t find that kind of bigotry on my team. There’s no room for it.”
“Told you,” Rodney whispered.
“Listen, Sheppard, I’m not going to tell you what you should do. You have a son. You want to protect him, I get it.” O’Neill swallowed, taking a moment. “This is bigger than you, him, bigger than all of us. But let me ask you something.” He paused for effect. He always did like a show. “Why did you want to serve?”
John thought for a moment, glancing to the closed bedroom door. “To protect what I love. And to fly.”
“Well, I’m giving you the greatest chance to do both.” O’Neill patted John’s shoulder as he walked back toward the workbench.
Taking a deep breath, John let it out slowly, lost in contemplation, probably wondering what the right answer was to the question that would seal his fate either way.
“We can bring you in, and work out the details,” O’Neill said. “We’ll try to accommodate your son. We do have people with families, not many, but we’re not monsters.” O’Neill pressed his lips together, then raised his eyes as he looked at Rodney. “I know General Holland, and I know the people he reports to.” Rodney didn’t need to tell John that those people were in Washington and residing at Pennsylvania Avenue. To clear John of his charges, his file would need to cross the desk of the president. “I’m not going to ask you to sell your soul, despite what McKay probably told you, but there are a lot of risks you need to consider. A lot. This isn’t flying Black Hawks in Kandahar. This is world ending stuff.”
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate that.” John’s voice was thin, stretched tight with the weight of his decision.
“If anything happens to him,” Rodney said, and this time he didn’t let O’Neill intimidate him, “you know I can make your lives a living hell. I have protocols in place that if something happens to him.” He didn’t, not yet, but the SGC didn’t need to know that.
“Is that a threat, McKay? You know I don’t do well with those,” O’Neill said.
“Not a threat, sir, a guarantee. And a guarantee you no longer have to play light switch. Sheppard’s gene is stronger than yours.” He knew how much O’Neill hated being a guinea pig for Ancient tech, and this was a way to appeal to his vanity.
“So, Carter tells me.” O’Neill gave Rodney the chance to take back his threat, but he refused to let the general get under his skin.
Rodney shuffled his feet. “I just needed to put that out there.”
“Yeah, I got that.” O’Neill stared for a few breaths with a forced smile, then followed John’s gaze to the bedroom door. “The Daedalus will be in orbit for another thirty minutes. Make your decision. I’ll do what I can to help whether you accept or not.” He pressed his comm and then he disappeared before their eyes.
John let out his breath, then sunk into the chair. “That was...”
“Yeah.” Rodney doubled over, hands on his knees. His heart was never likely to recover. Given O’Neill’s aloofness, he’d forgotten how intimidating the man could be.
“He’s in charge?” John asked.
“The one that matters, yes. He was sizing you up.”
“Yeah, I got that,” John said, and it dawned on Rodney how similar John and O’Neill were. They would make a good team.
John sat with his head in his hands until Rodney felt the burden of the clock ticking away. “I don’t mean to pressure you or anything, but you now have twenty-three minutes.”
“It’s not like I have anything to pack.”
“So, you’re saying yes?” Rodney sat in the chair opposite him.
“On one condition,” John said, his face serious once again.
“Only one?” Rodney would have a million if the roles were reversed, but he wasn’t cut from the same cloth as John. He was stoic and brave and did what needed to be done, regardless of his own needs, whereas Rodney questioned everything, thinking the worst of people even if they didn’t warrant his scorn. Perhaps with John at his side, he could learn to adapt.
“When the bunker opens,” John said, leaning toward Rodney, “you have to negotiate your own deal. I can’t do this without you.”
Rodney’s chest felt tight. He never dreamed of working for the SGC again. Oh, he had dreams of rubbing his discoveries in their faces and them begging him to join them again, but never would he willingly ask for another chance. The idea of Atlantis, and the wonders it held, had his mind turning, though. Having access to the Ancient technology was not something he could overlook. He needed to be a part of that team, and whatever threat was coming to Earth, Rodney had a reason to join the fight now. Two very big reasons.
“I can do that.” He pulled John into his arms. “We can do this.”
They held onto each other for a few minutes, reveling in the comfort each was offering, but it was a luxury they couldn’t afford.
“Do you want to wake him?” Rodney asked.
“No,” John sighed, looking like he was waging a war on himself. “I won’t be able to leave if I do. I think it’s better if I slip away while he’s sleeping. Is that okay?”
“I can handle it. I’ll think of something to tell him and you can call him from wherever you are, whenever you get there.”
John nodded, heading to the bedroom. He slipped through the door, silently shutting it so he could spend his last few minutes with his sleeping son.
John left without ceremony. He stood before Rodney and with one last wave he disappeared along with Rodney’s heart. The bunker was too large without him, empty just like Rodney. The Daedalus was leaving orbit after tonight, so even by some miraculous chance John cleared the charges, he wouldn’t get back in the bunker before the ten days were done. Rodney couldn’t dwell on that, though, he had an eight-year-old to entertain and keep from missing his dad. It didn’t feel right moving J.J. or sleeping next to him, so Rodney spent the rest of the night devising plans to keep them busy for the next six days, and when J.J. emerged from the bedroom in the morning, sleep crusted around his eyes, and hair sticking up all over the place, Rodney put his detailed plan into action.
“Hey, kiddo!” He jumped up from the table, coffee mug in hand. “Sleep well?”
J.J. nodded, rubbing his eyes. “Where’s my dad?”
Rodney vowed never to lie to the kid, so he didn’t. John left it up to him as to what to tell J.J., and since John was adamant about not keeping secrets, he honored that principle. He made him sit and he told J.J. exactly where his dad went, and how he went, hoping the technicalities would fly over his head.
“It’s all top secret,” Rodney said. “You can’t tell anyone.”
“Okay,” J.J. said.
“Okay? That’s it? That’s all you have to say? I just told you about spaceships and aliens and you say, ‘okay?’” Rodney threw his hands in the air, but J.J.’s frown told him all the story he needed. “You don’t believe me.”
“My mom used to tell me stories like this whenever my dad would leave. We would come up with a different one every time. We already did the alien one.” His voice was rich with melancholy, his finger scratching the wood on the table. “He had another mission, didn’t he?”
Rodney’s heart broke. He hadn’t expected this reaction. He’d calculated all the scenarios except this one.
“Your dad wouldn’t have left if it wasn’t really, really important,” Rodney said.
“She used to say that, too.”
“Listen, kiddo, he loves you the most out of everything in this world. He had to leave so he could stay. Does that make sense?” J.J. shrugged. “You can choose to believe me or not, that’s your prerogative, but there is nothing on this planet that would keep your dad from you.” And that was more truth than the kid would ever know.
J.J. shrugged once more.
“What’s with the shrugs? I thought we cured you of those.” Rodney squeezed his shoulder. “Your dad is going to call today. Why don’t we have some breakfast and look over the plans I have for us. You still want to build that computer?”
“How?” J.J. tried to be amicable, even though his heart wasn’t in it.
“I have enough components down here in storage, we’ll be able to finish one by the time we get out of here. I also have movie nights and all kinds of experiments planned for us. And guess what? No dad supervision. All the freeze-dried ice cream you want, no bedtimes, no rules—well, other than safety rules. ‘Safety first and you will last,’” Rodney mocked. “How does that sound?”
J.J.’s smile grew wide. There was a glint in his eyes that reminded him so much of John it hurt. “Can I have pancakes?”
“Of course, you can have pancakes!”
It was the last day of Rodney and J.J.’s lockdown. John would be waiting on the other side of the door when it opened, and after six and a half days of separation, he looked forward to seeing him in the flesh. Every spare moment John had he spent in front of a camera to connect with his son and Rodney. Sometimes they would play card games or charades, or watch a movie together, and other times they would leave the camera on—a live feed while they puttered around the bunker. John was very much present in their lives while he was absent.
It was domestic, more so than Rodney ever thought, and it worked. He was used to relationships via screens, more so than John, although they needed some new clothes. John had been right about J.J. and his refusal to wear anything but his underwear. However, the two came to a compromise with a knotted T-shirt during the days. The time passed quickly while Rodney filled J.J.’s head with information and structure, and even though J.J. had a few moments where a typical tantrum seemed imminent, they had become a team, working and living together seamlessly that once this was over, Rodney couldn’t imagine the inevitable parting of their time together.
They had hours left of their imprisonment, and J.J. was antsy while they waited for the time to pass, they both were. Rodney put them to work in the greenhouse, planting new beans and digging up potatoes. J.J. made more of a mess than he helped, but it kept them busy while the clocked ticked down to their release.
“Rodney?” J.J. asked, hands full of dirt, head tilted as he looked up at him.
“Yes?” Rodney set down the basket of vegetables they had harvested. They planned to have a nice meal with John who promised to bring real meat, steaks even, once they got out of here. John suggested eating at Cora’s for a change of scenery, but Rodney didn’t think he was ready for that, so convinced John he’d rather have his freedom in his cabin than in town his first night. John didn’t argue.
J.J. looked to be contemplating something, and whether he should voice it.
“What did I say to you when we first met?” Rodney brushed off his hands.
“Get off my property.” J.J. smiled.
“Well, yes, silly, I suppose I did.” Rodney rolled his eyes. “I meant that first time we had lunch.”
J.J. shook his head, digging into the dirt.
“I told you to ask what you wanted to ask. There is no point in being quiet around me. I’ll answer you truthfully and without offense.”
He took a deep breath, and then asked, “Do you like my dad?”
Rodney fumbled with the potato in his hand. “Ah...yes?”
“But do you like him like him.”
“I like him very much. Albeit, he drives me crazy some of the time, but no more than anyone else. Less actually.”
“Do you love him?” He held still in expectation, not meeting Rodney’s eyes.
Rodney didn’t know what the protocol was for talking about this with John’s son. He wasn’t sure how much John had shared, and if it was Rodney’s place to discuss his feelings, or their feelings for each other, but he said he would be truthful.
“I don’t know.” Rodney rested his hip against the edge of the garden box. “It’s all very new.”
“I think he loves you.” J.J. squished the dirt between his fingers.
Rodney’s mouth went dry as he felt his face grow warm. This was unexpected, yet, he was elated, even if it was a betrayal of John’s trust to ask his son about his feelings. “Why do you say that?”
Rubbing his hands together, J.J. cleaned off the dirt, but there was lots still stuck between his fingers. He went to wipe them on his T-shirt, the one he’d been wearing for two days, and Rodney was about to stop him, but there was no point. He had a fresh pair of clothes waiting for him up in the cabin.
J.J. met Rodney’s gaze with a furrowed brow and set jaw that looked just like his father. “Because he wouldn’t leave me here if he didn’t. He’d never let me stay down here with you.”
“Huh.” Rodney never thought of it that way. Leave it to a kid to make something so simple when Rodney thought it so complicated. They hadn’t known each other long, but John had trusted Rodney with the most precious thing in his life. “You are the most important thing—person—in your dad’s life. You know that, right?” J.J. nodded. “And no matter what happens, that will never change.” Rodney ruffled the hair on J.J.’s head. He didn’t need the words to know how John felt, and until J.J. had pointed it out, he hadn’t thought about it. Rodney loved them both, enough to uproot his whole life to help them and keep them in his life.
“I know,” J.J. said.
“I suppose it’s possible that I might love your dad. But regardless of that, what I do know is that even though you have a ridiculous name, I love you, kid, and I love spending time with you.”
“I love you, too, Meredith.” He threw his arms around Rodney’s waist, tucking his face into Rodney’s belly. It was startling, the whole conversation was, and Rodney's eyes welled with tears but didn’t let them fall. He didn’t know how he got so lucky, but he would take it, hold on to it and not let go.
“Come on,” Rodney said, extending his arms, looking down at J.J., “let’s get you washed up and looking presentable for when your dad comes.”
“You, too.” J.J. grinned, wiggling his dirty fingers at Rodney.
“Yes. Me, too.”
John was swept up into the Stargate fold. The charges were withdrawn by order of the president, and with his rank reinstated, he was transferred to Cheyenne Mountain. Officially, he would be a test pilot at Area 51. It was more than Rodney hoped for, more than he expected, and even though he didn’t know the full details of John’s deal—not yet, anyway, not until he signed his own contract and the lengthy non-disclosure agreement—John seemed happy. What terrified Rodney was the threat the SGC faced. On some nights after J.J.’s bedtime, Rodney would speak with Sam, and she would fill him in on what she could. The threat was real enough to put a four-star general in his place for ‘going after a major who was only trying to rescue his fellow servicemen.’ This new mission was bigger than disobeying orders and the destruction of million-dollar military assets, and definitely more important than sexual orientation. Rodney lay awake at night wondering what this meant for the people he cared about.
With John's possible discovery of the lost city of Atlantis, it was all hands-on deck, so to speak, and with Rodney and Radek's research of the ZPMs, they were considered the experts in terms of converting the power to a workable use with Earth technology. Unlocking the mysteries of the ancient city was a top priority. The hope was to find weapons and technology like the ones at the Antarctic outpost that would help fight what was coming.
If Rodney ruminated too long, his anxiety would creep up, nudging at his rational side, and before he knew it, he was in the bathroom, fighting for breath so as not to scare J.J. He worked through it, but it would take some time before he could fully process it.
As soon as the bunker opened, Rodney’s life would change. Gone were his days of self-imposed solitary confinement and gone were the days of hiding away from the world. In the span of a week, he managed to gain a new job, a new mission, a new love and a family of sorts. John was upstairs, or on the other side of the metal door, Rodney wasn’t sure. His stomach flipped every time J.J. asked how much time was left before the door unlocked, and there were enough times to make Rodney put a countdown on the TV, so he would stop asking.
“One minute!” J.J. yelled, and Rodney’s heart leapt to his throat.
“Okay, you heathen,” Rodney said, reaching for J.J.’s hand, which he gladly took. If the lock didn’t work, this would be quite the letdown. Rodney’s chest hurt to breathe. He wasn’t sure why he was so worked up since John had assured him no one was on the other side of the door other than him, and maybe that was the problem. Maybe John had changed his mind but didn’t want to tell him while he held his kid hostage. Oh, God, Rodney thought. That was it. He helped John out of his mess, and he didn't need Rodney, or more importantly, want him anymore. John was probably the newest member of SG-1 already. He could picture them sitting at lunch sharing a plate of fries, laughing at Rodney and his obsession with John.
His breaths came quick and with difficulty, his eyes darting around the room and how he could stop the timer. The yellow button was right in front of him.
“Ten! Nine!” J.J. started the last of the countdown, bouncing up and down, yelling as though his dad could hear him. “Three. Two…”
It was too late now. Rodney shut his eyes waiting to hear the triumphant sound. The room was silent, and when he opened his eyes, J.J. looked to Rodney to explain why it hadn't worked. Then the door beeped, the light near the yellow button turned green, and there were metal clunking sounds as the locks disengaged.
“It worked!” J.J. ran to the door, waiting for Rodney to turn the handle and reef open the metal cage, which held them prisoner for ten days.
“Open it, Rodney!” And Rodney knew he would never deny this kid anything. He pulled on the door, sliding it open to reveal a smiling, handsome John, freshly showered and shaved, dressed in snug fitting jeans, and a black button-down shirt. In his hands he held a tub of real ice cream. He held his arms wide, and J.J. didn’t waste a second. He leapt across the threshold of the door and into John’s arms, hugging him fiercely.
“Let’s not do that again,” John said, holding him tight. “I missed these hugs.”
J.J. rambled about everything they got up to while John was away even though he knew all of it, having talked and video chatted whenever they could. As he held J.J. in his arms, John’s eyes were intent on Rodney. The weight of his gaze reassured Rodney that everything was as it should be, as it was when John left. It was then he realized he’d been banking on disappointment, hoping for it so his life wouldn’t have to change.
John set J.J. down, handing him the ice cream. “Why don’t you go upstairs and put that in the freezer? We’ll be up in a second.”
He looked from his dad to Rodney. “Are you two going to kiss?”
Rodney searched for an excuse, his face felt hot while he struggled, but then John swatted J.J. on the head.
“Yes, we are,” he pushed his son toward the ladder, “and unless you want to see it, go on up there.”
J.J. giggled as he climbed the ladder, ice cream tucked under his arm.
“Hi.” John bit his bottom lip.
Now that he stood in front of Rodney, smelling divine and reminding him of the first time he showed up on his porch, minus the sunglasses, his nervousness bled through. Rodney showered, and washed his clothes, too, but it seemed inadequate compared to John whose swagger was straight out of GQ. John was here, waiting for him and wanting to kiss him.
Rodney tugged on the sleeves of his sweatshirt, giving John a tentative grin. “You mentioned a kiss?”
“You have to come out here to get it.”
Rodney hadn’t thought this through, not fully, anyway. There was a part of him that longed to stay in his protected world, and by dangling that kiss in front of Rodney, John must have sensed it as well, probably why he’d sent J.J. up without him.
“I may need a minute,” Rodney said, gripping the handle of the door. “You go and see your son. I’ll just work myself up to it and meet you up there.”
“Hey. Hey,” John said, in hushed tones, stepping toward him, but not through the door. “I thought we talked about this? What's happened?”
“That was before the door opened, and the prospect of everything else is a little overwhelming.”
“You can do this. No more hiding, Rodney.”
“No more hiding.” Rodney repeated the mantra.
“One step at a time, right?” John said. “Besides, I need you looking out for me. The SGC is…” John shook his head, running his hand through his hair. Rodney knew exactly what John meant without having to say the words. The SGC was a world he hadn’t been prepared for when he first joined. The people, the technology, the exposure to new worlds and the politics, it was difficult to navigate, especially alone.
“Yeah,” Rodney agreed.
“Okay, then.” John reached for his hand. “You have my back and I’ll have yours. We do it together. I won’t let anything happen to you.” John traced his fingers down the side of Rodney’s cheek, a gentle caress, one meant to soothe. “I’ll be your bunker, Rodney.”
He braved a glance at John looking for the usual teasing or bravado, but there was only sincerity behind his words, his eyes shining, pleading with Rodney.
“We’ll figure things out along the way,” John added. “Isn't that what you told me? Just take a step, Rodney, because I’m not going anywhere without you.”
“Me neither!” J.J. shouted from the top of the ladder.
John rolled his eyes, giving Rodney that winning smile that went straight to his knees, making them weak. John held out his hand, waiting for him to take a hold of it.
Rodney gave one last look behind him at the bunker that had been his safety net for so many years. Whatever lay in front of him he would face it with the help of John and an eight-year old kid who thought he was better than he actually was. He was no longer alone, and the future looked more what he imagined it to look like—minus a blonde—but all in all, stepping out of his bunker, out of his cabin without his usual preparations, and stepping back into the world, he was ready for what came his way. He felt safer than he had in years. He held John’s hand, and he crossed the threshold of the door. John looked like a pretty good bunker to him.
**For those who want a little more closure to this fic, I'm posting an extension or epilogue, if you will, of Rodney's promise to John. Which means this is now a series! Who knows...maybe I'll get some inspiration to add a few one-shots of life post bunker & working and parenting at SGC. Who knows?
Thank you for reading my first SGA story and my first kid!fic. This was inspired by many, many chats with fardareismai2, bookjunkie1975 and rameau. Where would I be without these three introducing me to the gift that is McShep? So many years, so many fics and so many chats! xo
THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO FOUND THIS FIC, AND STUCK WITH ME UNTIL THE END! XO
Your words of encouragement and love gave me the drive to finish this.