Rodney had never given the number four much thought, at least not until the day John disappeared.
He was four when his family discovered he was too smart for his own good and put him in a classroom with children two years older than he was. He was eight when he built his first bomb. Twelve when he fell in love with space and decidedly knew he was going to be an astrophysicist. Sixteen when he left home for university, and twenty when he graduated with his first set of degrees.
Significant events in Rodney’s life tended to come around every four years and not all of them were good.
He was twenty-four when he got his heart broken for the first time. Twenty-eight when he joined the Stargate Program, and it went downhill from there at thirty-two. At least until thirty-six came along when he met J.J. and John.
Four years of living together in familial bliss with no complaints other than John was a morning person and a friendly person, too, always the one to drag them into town to eat at Cora’s Diner when they spent too much time isolated on their mountain.
Rodney knew the four year change had come when his phone rang in the dead of night. He didn’t believe in luck, but if he had, he might think that after four weeks of trying to hold onto his family, that his luck was about to run out.
“Here you go, Dr. McKay,” Angie said, handing him his dinner. “Two turkey sandwiches, hold the fixings but keep the slaw and one roast beef on rye, hold the slaw but keep the mustard.”
“Thanks, Angie,” he said, pulling cash out of his wallet.
“You’re quiet today,” she said, giving him a courtesy smile. “Everything okay?”
“I think so,” he said, meeting her eyes.
“I take it John’s back?” She nodded at the brown bag with the third sandwich.
Rodney looked at his watch. John was on his way home, at least that’s what the SGC informed him. He’d been gone a month, the longest they’d been apart. Usually it was a week, nothing more, both agreeing J.J. needed stability in his life and not absentee parenting like the both of them had through their own childhoods. Promises were broken this time, and it was left to Rodney to explain that to J.J.
“He should be home by the time we make it up the mountain,” Rodney said, trying but failing to keep the anticipation out of his voice. None of the town knew the real reason for John’s absence, only that he was away for work.
“Not the same without him, is it?” she asked, and her expression said more than her words, that she remembered the man he used to be even if he didn’t. The bitter, paranoid doctor who was lonely despite his bravado was long gone from Rodney’s life. He was a ‘family man’ now with a husband and a kid, and things didn’t work without John.
“No. No it isn’t.” He tapped the counter, turning to leave.
“You be sure to bring everyone in this week for dinner,” she called after him. “We’ll cook you up something nice!”
He swung by the school to grab J.J. At twelve years old, the kid had sprouted, all limbs and hair and so much like his father it hurt to look at him some mornings while John was gone. Thanks to Rodney’s colleagues at the SGC who took an interest in J.J.’s education, he was as knowledgeable as his teachers in some regards. Regular school was a placeholder for J.J., something John insisted his son have even though Rodney thought it over-rated, but J.J. seemed to like it, had enough friends to keep busy, and that was enough to make John happy with his decision.
“Hey, kid,” Rodney greeted J.J. as he jumped in the passenger seat of Rodney’s new, old Volvo. His burgundy beast died not long after John moved in, and despite having the means to buy any vehicle he wanted, Rodney bought another used model, only this one was camel in color. J.J. hated the car and the color, told him it looked like diarrhea which only spurned Rodney on to take every opportunity to drive the kid to and from school, honking his horn when J.J. stood with his friends to embarrass him further. John wanted the kid to have a rounded childhood, so Rodney was sure to deliver on that.
He didn’t honk this time, though. J.J. sensed something was different about today, probably because Rodney had shaved off the four weeks of facial hair he’d been growing, or maybe it was the haircut he got before he picked up their dinner.
“He’s back?” J.J. asked, his face carefully schooled, another trait he got from his father.
“Should be,” Rodney said, pulling away from the curb.
“You talked to him?”
They rode in silence up the mountain, both a little nervous as to what they would find when they got home. Two years into the war with the Ori, Rodney and John made the decision to tell J.J. everything, what they did for a living, what was under the mountain in Colorado and what John could do with Ancient technology. They never wanted to lie to him and he was too clever to ignore that ‘deep space telemetry’ was code for something bigger. They figured he was responsible enough to keep their classified secrets…at least some of them. J.J. was a smart kid, inquisitive by nature, always asking the right questions, and even though it was a good decision to tell him the truth, it was inevitable it would change him. He looked at the world differently, harder, with an intensity that made Rodney wonder if they had stolen his childhood by telling him things a he couldn’t really comprehend, which was why John insisted he have a normal upbringing despite what was happening in the background of it. And J.J. did for the most part. He played soccer, took piano lessons and John even taught him to surf on their vacations to the coast. It was a good life, if a little unconventional to grow up with a bunker under your bedroom and world ending imminent alien invasion only a phone call away.
Rodney still did his best to tell J.J. the truth, so when John’s team was declared missing and being held captive off-world, Rodney told his son the brutal truth, that John was taken by an enemy force, probably tortured for information and may not come home. The kid handled it better than Rodney thought, considering he’d already lost one parent at such an early age, but maybe he had the same faith in John that Rodney did, that he would do everything in his power to come home to them, or maybe, like Rodney, he wasn’t ready to accept the loss of John.
It was supposed to be a routine mission to a planet where they found evidence of Ancient technology. The SGC was hoping for another ZPM to power the gate after their only one was depleted in the Ori war. Rodney wanted to go, but as per their contract negotiations, only one of them was to be off-world at a time. The SGC wanted John because of his gene, so a displeased Rodney acquiesced. Four days later, he was informed John had been captured, and J.J. and Rodney hadn’t slept soundly since.
The second night of John’s disappearance, Rodney heard J.J. in his room, stifling his tears, trying to be brave, but the cabin walls weren't like the bunker, they were made of drywall, not concrete and Rodney’s heart broke for him while he listened, deciding what he should do. He cracked open the door to see J.J. curled up on his side, sniffling into his pillow. Rodney wasn’t the parent who comforted J.J. when he needed it. He left that up to his dad. Rodney was more of the distraction in times of need, showing him something new to take his mind off the hurt. Rodney needed to be John and he wasn’t sure how to do that. So, he climbed in the bed beside J.J., tucking him against his chest like John would've done.
“He’s coming back,” Rodney whispered, soothing a hand over his head. “He wouldn't do that to you. To us.” He let J.J. cry in his arms until he fell asleep, and then Rodney succumbed to slumber soon after.
Rodney was torn about not being at the SGC to help in the search. He wanted to be there making sure they were doing everything possible to find the team. The waiting around doing nothing was the hardest part, but as he lay in the dark, holding a tearful kid, he understood this was where he was supposed to be, where John would want him to be.
It wasn’t every night J.J. crawled into his bed in the middle of the night, but it was near enough. They never spoke of it, Rodney never made him feel bad for needing the comfort and Rodney would be lying if he thought he didn’t need it, too. The four weeks were hollow with only worry and fear filling its place as they went through the motions of carrying on with their lives, waiting for word if John was alive.
Rodney pulled into the driveway to find John’s truck parked in place like it had never left. Colonel Carter had informed Rodney of the basics of what John’s team endured, leaving it up to John as to what he wanted to share, but less than a week in the field, and three weeks of capture, Rodney wasn’t sure what state John would be in, what they would walk into, only that John had been well enough to drive home, so that had to account for something.
“Hey.” Rodney reached for J.J.’s arm when he opened the car door. They shared a look, an understanding that didn’t need words. Whatever happened to John, however he was, it didn’t matter. He came home to them and that was the only thing that held any weight.
J.J. nodded and Rodney patted his arm with a grim smile. He let J.J. go in first, giving father and son some privacy. Rodney sat behind the wheel for a few breaths, collecting himself and their dinner before following J.J. inside the cabin.
He found John, a little thin around the edges, with J.J. in his arms, hugging him, kissing the top of his head as his son held tight, too afraid that if he didn’t squeeze hard enough John would disappear again.
Rodney met John’s eyes and there was nothing but love and apology looking back at him. John opened his arm, motioning Rodney forward until all three were in a bone-crushing embrace. There were no tears, though, they had shed enough in the four weeks waiting for word of John’s return.
“What’s for dinner?” John said, pointing to the bag in Rodney’s hand. “I’m starving.” He roughed up J.J.’s hair, throwing an arm around his shoulder to lead him to the kitchen island.
Over the years, they made some modifications to Rodney’s cabin. It was built for one person in mind, so when John and J.J. moved in, it was a tight fit. A new addition with a master bedroom suite and an updated kitchen were the two requests John had asked for and Rodney delivered. The kitchen island, bigger and sturdier, comfortably sat the three of them for mealtimes and was now their family go-to place for catching up on the day’s activities. Rodney never thought he would be one of those people who cherished moments like this, but sitting here with his family whole again and listening to J.J. fill John in on what he’d been up to was a memory he was likely to remember for years to come.
They retired to the bunker to watch a movie—another area where Rodney had made changes. He turned the main area into a theater style room, complete with a TV too big for the room and surround sound that rattled the computers on the workstations. It hadn’t been ‘true bunker ready’ in years. Forgoing function for familiarity, Rodney figured they had months rather than years if an emergency were to happen that forced them into a lock-down, and the truth of it was, he no longer cared.
They settled on the sofa, John in the middle without hesitation on anyone’s part, his arms around both J.J. and Rodney. They watched a comedy, nothing with explosions, or guns and ‘fight for their lives’ scenarios. It was all saccharine and easy, except for John who never quite relaxed for the duration of the movie. Rodney felt the energy thrumming through him, and no doubt his son could as well.
It was obvious from the moment they walked in the door, John didn’t want to talk about what happened to him, not tonight. This night was for family and reconnecting and just being present. Rodney could live with that, but being tucked up against John, feeling harder lines than he remembered, left him with his own ache that couldn’t be soothed. John even smelled different, a bit sterile from too long of a stay in the infirmary. Despite the physical changes in John and the tension in his body, he seemed at peace, surprisingly. Rodney had come to recognize the signs of John shutting down. It didn’t happen often, the last time being his father’s passing a year ago. There was none of that with him tonight. John was genuinely happy to be home, like his capture had never happened.
As the movie’s credits rolled, J.J. stood, stretching his arms over his head. He was getting so tall it wouldn’t be long before he could touch the doorways in the bunker. Rodney could still see the little kid in nothing but Rodney’s oversized T-shirts arguing with him about the necessities of wearing underwear.
Four years came and went too fast.
“I’ve got some homework to do,” J.J. said, glancing at Rodney then back to his dad. The lie was a kind one. The kid never had homework, but he understood they needed to be alone. He was a good kid, and smarter and wiser than his years.
J.J. hugged John, giving him a kiss which he stopped doing some time ago, so it came as a surprise to John. He told his dad he loved him and was happy he was home. They were both close to tears, but none were shed, there would be plenty of time for those when the shock and relief wore off.
With the distant echo of the kitchen door closing, Rodney turned to John grabbing his face in his hands to stare him down.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m good, Rodney,” John said, and the hint of a grin made Rodney believe he was telling the truth.
“Thank god,” Rodney said, kissing him hard and soundly on the lips. “Don’t ever do that to me again. To us.” He peppered his face with kisses, admonishing him for his disappearance.
“It’s not like I had a choice,” John said, chuckling between Rodney’s mouth on his.
“Never.” John took a deep breath. It was warm and heavy against Rodney’s cheek. He realized how thinly he’d been holding everything together for J.J. and feeling John’s breath on his skin was what undid him.
“I’m sorry, Rodney,” John said, pulling him close. “I’m sorry.”
“I know. It’s just,” he shuddered, “I’m not cut out to tell a kid his father isn’t coming back. I can’t do that.”
“Our kid, Rodney,” John said. “And I see you handled it just fine. Like I knew you would.”
Rodney’s exhale was staggered as he tried to stifle the emotion behind it. “I wanted to go. I wanted to help…”
“You did. I made it through knowing you were here with him.”
“Was it—are you okay?”
“It wasn't as bad as they made it out to be,” John said, and in Sheppard-Language that meant it was bad. “Ford and Ruthers got the worst of it. Lorne and I made out all right, probably because we have the gene.”
Rodney snorted, knowing exactly what John meant by that. Ford and Ruthers were young. Lorne and John had been in combat situations and were more familiar with the methods of torture.
Rodney had to see for himself. He lifted John's shirt over his head, and the reason why John hadn't been able to relax during the movie was staring Rodney in the face. His ribs were black and blue with green and yellow tinges around the edges of the dark spots. And John the Martyr had let them rest against him for two hours!
“You two seemed comfortable,” John said with a shrug.
“You idiot,” Rodney said.
“It's not as bad as it looks. Carter healed us some. A little bit for everyone, but Ford had a broken leg, so he got the most mojo.” He lifted his hand, waving his fingers imitating the Goa’uld healing device Carter could wield.
Rodney traced his hands over the skin he thought he’d never see again. Four weeks since they'd held each other, and it felt like a lifetime. John shivered, letting him have his fill, but before Rodney got too familiar with it, John led him to the bedroom where nothing much had changed in the last few years, only some easy access lighting. This space wasn't used for much other than the nights they needed more privacy than their master suite could offer them.
“Let's not go through this again,” Rodney said, removing John's pants, gasping when he saw the contusion on John's thigh. It was about the size of a softball, not a baseball, bigger than that. It was the kind of bruise that caused problems like compressed blood vessels and compartment syndrome. If these were John’s injuries getting a once over from the magic healing glove, he’s glad he didn’t see him when he was first rescued.
“It’s really nothing,” John said, reaching for Rodney’s shirt. “Clean bill of health from Dr. Lam.”
“So, we’re talking about this later.” Rodney said it without room for discussion. They were going to talk about it, but when John was ready, and Rodney was open to listening. Right now, all he wanted was to have John in his arms. He didn’t think John would be up for much, and Rodney was okay with naked cuddling if he got to feel John’s steady heartbeat against his chest.
During the Ori war, they lived in the cabin on top of their mountain, traveling back and forth as they were needed and worked out of the bunker in the event disaster struck. So, when John was declared MIA, Rodney thought it was going to be the change that followed him around every four years, that he had lost him forever and another four years would see a kid graduating high school without his father. Rodney lay awake at night, listening to J.J.’s shallow breaths as he slept beside him, wondering what the hell he was going to do without John, their rock, their center of their universe. They didn’t work without him, they were a team, and a team needed more than two people.
Sensing Rodney’s melancholy, John lifted Rodney’s chin, gently kissing him with a whisper of a touch. He didn’t want ghosted lips, he wanted the solid assurance that John was here. Careful of his injuries, Rodney rose to his knees, pushing John back against the bed. Their clothes were gone, and the length of John’s body was underneath him, skin on skin, warming the chill that had settled inside of Rodney weeks ago.
“This okay?” Rodney asked, avoiding pressure on John’s ribs.
“I’m not going to break, Rodney. Carter put me back together.” He flipped them, so Rodney lay beneath John, and as he hovered over him, he stared into his eyes with an intensity that made Rodney shiver. John thrust his hips against Rodney’s without breaking eye contact, but the friction wasn't satisfying enough, not to get them where they wanted to be.
“I need you to…I need, fuck, John...” Rodney trailed off, tilting his head back against the pillow.
“Yeah,” John said with lips against Rodney's skin as he reached across the bed. “Need to be inside you.”
“Yes. Yes,” Rodney said like there was any other option than having John fill the hollowness of his absence.
Everything after that was awkward and rushed, nothing like their usual attentions were paid. It finished before it ever really began. And after, John panted heavily in Rodney's ear from their exaggerated efforts until their breaths turned into laughter.
“Well, that was pathetic,” Rodney said.
“I'm glad it wasn't just me.”
“I held on longer than you, thank you very much.”
“What can I say? Four weeks without this,” John still held Rodney's spent cock in his hand, “and I revert to a horny teenager.”
“Speaking of which,” Rodney said, tracing circles on John's back.
“No. No, we are not talking about our son’s launch into puberty right now.”
“I'm just saying, he's at that age, and I, ah, noticed a few things in the early hours of the morning.”
John raised his head, his expression one of question as to how Rodney would know that.
“He slept in our bed most nights.”
John's eyes went soft, teared up a little. He kissed Rodney with all the emotion he’d been holding on to, held him tight until Rodney felt his body’s attempt to come back to life.
“We managed,” Rodney said. “We had each other.”
“Just when I thought I couldn't love you more…”
“Well, I am pretty amazing. Your son is, too. I'm sure that's because of me. Someone has to knock some self-preserving sense into him.”
John chuckled, shaking his head. “And just when I thought you'd gone all modest…” He nudged his hip against Rodney's. “Should we try again?”
“As much as I'd like to say yes, my body is saying 'hell, no.’ You need sleep and I don't sleep when you're not in the bed, so I'm taking full advantage of your body, and getting weeks’ worth of rest tonight.”
John looked disappointed, but his heavy eyelids proved Rodney right.
“Sleep.” Rodney nuzzled his nose into the side of John's neck, letting him wrap his arms around John like he wanted.
He was on the verge of falling under, that place where waking dreams mixed with reality and nothing seemed to make sense. Which is why he almost missed what John said. It was whispered, like it floated in the air but it sounded like, 'We found it.’
The words slid over Rodney without comprehension. John didn’t follow it up with anything else, just let the words hang there until Rodney grasped what he said and when he did, exhaustion was pushed aside, thrown to the floor along with half the blankets. He was wide awake, now. He needed to make sure he heard John correctly and it wasn’t part of his dream.
“It,” John said, caressing Rodney’s thigh like this was an everyday conversation. “A ZPM.”
Rodney clapped the lights on so the brightness made them both squint. When his eyes adjusted, John was smiling.
“You found the Zed-PM? And you didn’t lead with that? This whole time?”
“I was kind of busy,” John said, putting his hands behind his head, trying to be casual but Rodney recognized his excitement.
“Is it fully charged?”
“As far as Carter can tell.”
“Carter knew?” Rodney’s mouth dropped open. “That little—why didn’t she tell me?”
“I asked her not to.”
“Why? What other secrets is she keeping?”
“Probably many,” John said, sitting up to pull the covers around them.
“All this time you’ve been holding on to that information?”
He trailed his finger along Rodney’s cheek. “I wanted to see your face.”
John rested his arms on Rodney’s shoulders. “I needed to know what the right decision was.”
“What are you talking about?” It wasn’t often Rodney was confused like this, but John was talking in circles and he wanted him to bottom-line it for him.
“The SGC has been given the go ahead for the Atlantis Expedition.”
Rodney’s heart skipped a beat. He was excited and pissed off all at once. He hadn’t been included in the decision process or the announcement which meant he wasn’t being considered for the expedition team. It was conundrum to the highest degree. A slap in the face for the four years of hard work he had done to help save the planet. He couldn’t believe he wasn’t even given the choice. He was the one who had been studying zero-point energy, the one with the most knowledge about Ancient technology and now the greatest scientific discovery had been laid before them and the decision was taken away from him.
Or was it?
“You said, ‘was.’ ‘What the right decision was.’”
“I know how much you want this, Rodney. How much you want Atlantis. You’ve put your life on hold long enough for me and J.J., so I accepted on your behalf…informally, of course, but figured you could use some good news. I asked them to let me tell you.”
And just like that, Rodney went from outraged to elated to heartbroken in the span of a few seconds. The four-year change was upon him. John was letting him go.
“Oh,” Rodney said, pulling away from John’s arms. The air from the vents was the only sound in the room while he held his breath.
“Well, that didn’t go as I expected.” John’s voice was higher than usual. “I thought you’d be ecstatic. You don’t want it?”
“I do. It’s a life-long dream, or at least I thought it was.”
“But?” John scratched his head, eyebrows furrowed.
“I guess I thought my life was here?”
“It’s Atlantis, Rodney.” John seemed to be panicking, which Rodney couldn’t understand.
“Yes, but it’s not the same without you. I just spent a month in hell thinking I lost you, and now you’re telling me to go to another galaxy without you.”
John started to laugh, the deep, belly braying laugh he did when things were too over the top for him to process.
“I don’t think that’s very funny at all.” Rodney started to gather the blankets, but John stilled his hands.
“I’m sorry. I guess I did a poor job of explaining this to you. Blame it on the excitement and exhaustion, or maybe the torture.” He flinched at that word, but before John continued he made sure Rodney was looking at him. “They want the both of us. Me as second in command of the military operation, and you the head of the science and research division.”
“What? What about J.J.?”
“I had a lot of time to think while I was held captive. A lot of time to think about how I want him to grow up. You came into our lives and opened us up to all kinds of possibilities, and it’s time you had your shot. We’re a packaged deal, the three of us. There are so many worlds out there to explore, any twelve-year-old kid would be lucky to experience that.”
J.J. was on a similar path as Rodney had been. If they were to move their home to Atlantis the possibilities for J.J. at sixteen were unfathomable, short of danger and death, or course.
“But how? They don’t know anything about Pegasus. It could be a hostile galaxy. The city may not be livable.”
“The MALP says otherwise. The city is underwater, preserved from the elements in its own bubble.”
“It’ll more than likely be a one-way trip.”
“Oh,” John said with a sinful grin. “I guess I forgot to mention the other ZPMs?”
Rodney slammed a pillow against John’s head. “How many?” When John held up four fingers, he hit him with the other pillow, much harder this time. “Four in total?” And another smack for good measure when John nodded. “Again! Why didn’t you lead with that?”
“I was busy!”
“You are a horrible, horrible person and I hate you.” Except he didn't. Not even a little bit.
“They want to colonize the city. They’ll be accepting families on the third round of recruitments. Our family will be the first, a bit of an experiment before opening it up to more. Plus with the the Daedalus capable of making the trip between galaxies, we wouldn't be stranded. We’ll take three ZPMs to Atlantis and leave one here to travel between galaxies.”
“We're going to Atlantis?” Rodney couldn't believe he uttered those words. He wrote off the possibility of Atlantis the moment he said, 'I do’ and committed himself to John and J.J for life.
“We’re going to Atlantis.” The soft expression in John’s eyes told Rodney that whatever he went through these past weeks, he wanted Rodney to know it was worth it to experience Rodney’s happiness.
“What happened to a normal life for the kid?” Rodney asked.
“Normal is overrated. Alien worlds are much cooler and more educational.”
Rodney's heart pounded in his ears. The thought of sleeping was gone. He had too many things to do, to consider, and berating phone calls to deliver to the people who kept this from him for days. He was poised to jump out of bed when John caught him, held him close with a wolfish gleam in his eyes.
“It's not going anywhere, Rodney.”
“But I hav—” John cut him off with his lips.
“If you're not sleeping, then we're giving this another go. I’m taking my time with you, and I promise all thoughts of hostile planets and lost cities will be gone.”
“Hardly,” Rodney scoffed.
“You have four months to get organized, Rodney. You can spare a few hours.” John hitched his leg over Rodney’s, trapping him in place so Rodney could feel John’s intentions.
“Four, huh?” Rodney smiled. He could live with that.