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"I must warn you. This machina I've fashioned will always beat the same, can never beat faster when he's frightened or in flight. He'll never experience the flush of desire or love - only the calm, even beat of this clockwork heart."
John's mother had repeated the old machinator's warning many times, reminding John of his limitations, usually immediately after he'd dangerously surpassed them. Despite his best efforts - at times of greatest emotion or exertion - his heart twisted in his chest as if it no longer wanted to beat at that unalterable rhythm, could even break free from its moorings and fly .
"If only," John would think in his lowest moments. "If only it could."
Grateful for the reprieve, Juliana gently cradled her second son to her breast, crooning a lullaby as tears rolled down her cheeks. John, who was beloved from the moment she heard his first choked wail, had not fared well either. His right arm was missing from just below the elbow and would clearly be useless for any gentlemanly pursuit. Worse though, his skin was far too pale, his lips tinted blue, the slightest effort leaving him gasping for air.
"I fear the babe will not be long for this world, Domina," the midwife cautioned, as she settled mother and child in Juliana's opulent bedchamber. "I've seen this before. It's his heart. It's not strong enough."
Juliana gazed down at her son, who was struggling to nurse. "He wants to live. I can feel it." She looked back up at the midwife. "I will return to my father's house in the city. He is sure to know someone who can help John."
Dominus Sheppard already had a strong, healthy heir, so he raised no objection to Juliana's proposal. Still weak from the birth, Juliana knew it would be a long and dangerous journey across a winter sea. Indeed, she suspected that Patrick hoped for a convenient result, one that left him a widower with only one son, free to acquire a fertile new wife. It broke her heart to leave behind her first-born, David, but she knew that he was safe with his father.
Boarding one of her husband's steamships with her faithful maid, Kate Heightmeyer, Juliana handed the captain a missive directing him to immediately lay a course for Atlantis. Despite his evident misgivings, the captain ordered his men to follow the owner's orders, and they were well out of the harbor before nightfall.
As Juliana had feared, the voyage was plagued by high seas and storms. More than once, she thought she'd lost her precious son but, somehow each time, he found the strength in his frail body to draw another breath. Finally, both women - weary beyond measure - felt the rolling sea calm. When they cautiously ventured to the top deck, they were greeted by gleaming towers rising above the horizon.
Atlantis welcomed Juliana home.
Puzzled, Juliana slowly approached the cage, until she could finally make out what had caught Kate's attention. She turned to Janus and asked,"Did you build this bird? It almost looks alive, singing and fluttering its wings."
"It is alive." Janus walked over and opened the cage door, coaxing the seabird out so Juliana could see the small gears and pulleys on one wing and both legs. "I found it on the sill one morning, badly injured. It took a little work, but I was able to put it back together, good as new." With an odd chortle, Janus opened the window to let the bird fly out. "He likes a little exercise now and again, but he'll be back when he's hungry."
"Good as new," Juliana murmured, her eyes following the miraculous flight. After a few moments, she turned her attention to Janus, holding out her swaddled son. "Can you do the same for him?"
Janus' constant barrage of useless information and non sequiturs had done little to assuage Juliana's anxiety as she watched the odd man bent over her son's slack-limbed body. She paced back and forth behind him, ignoring Kate's efforts to get her to sit and rest, until Janus finally straightened with satisfied chuckle.
"Hah! This should allow him to lead a normal life. Come, Domina, see here." Doffing a strange cap holding multiple magnifying lenses, Janus gestured Juliana closer to the polished metal table, where he'd been working on her son for what had seemed like forever. "I've finished the most difficult part. It is overlarge for him now, but he will grow into it. "
Janus pointed out the details of his snowflake-shaped creation. "See here, these two arms are attachments, while the other four pump the blood into and out of, well... you know...." Janus waved his hand above John's chest as though he was performing magic, although Juliana recognized at least a few features that reminded her of her father's favorite watch. She caught sight of a tiny gold anchor and dual springs - with windings so thin she could barely make them out – just before Janus concealed them under a golden cover. Safely closed away, the whirring of the intricate gears was scarcely detectable as they restored vitality to John's wasted body. As the blue faded from her son's lips and his breathing eased, Juliana could feel her fears diminishing.
They returned full force, when Janus pointed to a small slot in the center of John's new heart. "This is where you will need to rewind the praecordia - on every full moon without fail."
"And if it isn't rewound?" Juliana asked, fearing the answer even as she accepted the tiny winged key Janus handed to her.
"It will fail to continue beating, of course," Janus replied, nonchalantly. "And he will die." He paused for a moment, his brow furrowing in thought. "Oh, and he should avoid too much exertion and strong emotions. Most particularly the emotions. Those are too complex for the gears to handle and will only lead to frustration."
Juliana appeared distracted as she gathered up her son and held him close, so Kate spoke up from the corner. "Frustration?"
"Yes. Let's say that he runs too fast while playing. His muscles will simply stop working efficiently until his heart catches up," Janus said absently, searching through odd-shaped parts on a nearby shelf. "However, if he becomes too angry or even too excited, he'll likely fall into a faint until he has calmed, which could likely prove a problem."
"A problem," Kate repeated a little more loudly - just in case her mistress wasn't listening.
"Exactly!" Janus clapped his hands together, startling Juliana from her delighted counting of five little newly-pink fingers and ten warm little toes. "Now," he declared in manic glee, "for the easy part. His prosthesium, a new arm and hand!"
John inspected both of his arms and nodded in agreement with his grandfather. The difference in length was very apparent and had been throwing off his balance during his daily workouts with his best friend, Ronon Dex. Despite Janus' cautions on overtaxing his heart, John was always pushing to run faster and fight harder during his training to be a gentleman of Atlantis. He depended on Ronon to help him grow stronger despite his limitations.
Ronon had been John's constant companion since the principe had bought him to be John's body servant, and he had always shared John's lessons. When John celebrated his twelfth birthday, he had declared Ronon to be a free citizen of Atlantis - just as his grandfather had declared Juliana freed from her contract of marriage to Dominus Sheppard. Although Ronon could have left the Vincente household to make his way in the world, he had chosen to stay.
"I'll ask Kate to find the next size, when she's in Mother's room later. I don't want to disturb Mother's rest." John frowned when he recalled how pale his mother's face had been that morning and how little she'd managed to eat. "She's so tired these days. I wish one of the medens would figure out what is wrong and fix her."
The senior John reached out to pat the boy's shoulder, his voice gruff as he said, "I'm afraid they have done all they can, my boy. Sometimes a heart simply wears out."
"No!" John exclaimed, jerking away from a touch that could not console him. Unlacing his shirt, he pulled it open and pointed to the golden case he carefully concealed from the world. "I'll go to Janus and ask him to give her a heart like mine and then...."
"I had already thought of that, but Janus is six months gone – found dead in his workshop." The interruption was blunt, the principe's face bleak. "And there is no other machinator on Atlantis who possesses even a fraction of his skill."
Whirling about, John ran up the stairs to his mother's rooms, Ronon close on his heels. John was glad of Ronon's silent support as Kate let them into Juliana's bedchamber.
"You must be quiet," Kate warned, following John towards the bed. "She has had little rest for days."
Juliana looked up from the book she'd been drawing in. "Nonsense, Kate!" she chided. "John and Ronon are always welcome." Her brilliant smile tried to belie the blue tint to her lips and the breathlessness behind her words, but John knew that his grandfather was right.
His mother was dying.
Falling to his knees at her bedside, John clasped her cool hand in his. "Mother, Grandfather just told me Janus is dead and cannot build you a new heart and you're dying!"
Juliana freed her hand to brush back John's unruly hair before pressing a kiss to his forehead. "I am sorry you had to learn that, my dearest." She settled back into her pillows and smiled through the tears in her eyes. "Come now, don't be sad. I have had a good life. I have seen you grow into a strong young man."
"No!" John protested, jumping to his feet and ripping open his shirt. "The medens can use my heart, Mother!"
John had never seen his mother so angry, hectic color in her cheeks, her eyes narrowed and hard. She sat forward and yanked him down to sit next to her, her voice a low rasp as she refused the offer. "I would never accept it! No mother would! Promise me you will never, ever say that again, John!" Breathless, she released John and collapsed backward onto her pillows, as white as as the linens she lay on.
Terrified that he'd killed her, John whispered, "I promise. I won't, Mother. I won't." He held his breath until he could hear hers, gasps that slowed to steady, and then he matched them, repeating, "I promise."
"You're a good boy," Juliana murmured, smiling. "That will be the end of it." She gestured at Kate. "Can you please bring me John's new prosthesium?"
Kate, who had already retrieved the replacement arm and hand from storage, laid it in Juliana's lap and accepted the one John had outgrown in return. "There are only two more after this, Domina." she said, before carrying it away.
'Then it is good you are nearly grown." Juliana smiled at John as she helped him adjust the prosthesium on his stump, the cool metal quickly warming as it clasped his skin, the connections wakening as he flexed the fingers. Drawing his hand to her lips, Julian kissed the tip of each replacement finger, just as she had done when he was a child. "There. Good as new."
"Thank you, Mother," John said, smiling back at her. "Now, I'll be able to beat Ronon the next time we spar."
Ronon chuckled from his chosen place by the door. "It'll never happen. Not even with three arms."
"Hah, you'll see!" Accepting Ronon's jibe as a challenge, John charged him with a yell.
The two boys laughed and wrestled for a few moments, until Kate suddenly cried out, "No! Domina, no!"
"Good, you're awake," Ronon said, gruffly. "Took you long enough this time."
"Thank the gods!" Kate replaced the cloth on John's forehead with a cooler one. "Janus warned your mother that strong feelings were more dangerous than over-exertion," she fretted, wringing her hands in distress. "I could have lost both of you in one day."
Brushing aside any assistance, John sat up and shoved back the blanket covering him. "That won't be a problem," John assured her, his face composed as he rose to his feet. "It won't happen again. I can control my emotions."
And, from then on, he did just that, hiding everything behind a smirk and a flat hazel gaze.
John rubbed his stump and frowned. "I'd rather have Kate smuggle out one of the old ones than give him the satisfaction of of being right."
"Then you'll really be useless in a fight." Ronon reached out and poked a twisted gear. "Might just as well stay in that palace of yours and leave the sailing to me."
John grabbed the piece before it could roll off the slanted surface. "Hey, it's not my fault the Genii have some new weapon that's able to blast through Atlantean aesferro," he protested. "Even with three ships against one, I think we could have held our own if they hadn't taken out our cestrosphendones." It had been a fierce but short battle, ending when Teyla's cooler head had prevailed on John to retreat to fight another day.
"Indeed," Teyla agreed. "At least now we know who has been scuttling so many ships and how. We are fortunate The Aquila is the fastest ship the Vincente shipyards has ever built, otherwise we would have been food for the fish and flagisalluses."
"Still no sign of the pirates, Navarchus Dex, Principe Sheppard. I think we've lost them."
John turned toward the door and frowned at the sailor hovering just outside. "Just Sheppard, okay? None of that principe stuff, Ford. Not when I'm trying to travel incognito."
"Sorry, sir, uh, Sheppard." Ford ducked his head in apology. "I, uh, couldn't help overhearing, but I, uh, know someone on Atlantis who could probably fix that." He pointed to the gleaming metal orb that had replaced his left eye. "He made this for me."
Aiden Ford had lost his eye in a freak accident aboard one of the Vincente ships. John had been glad when Aiden had returned to duty with a better-than-new eye, a replacement able to see both nearer and farther than any made of flesh. If Aiden thought the arm could be repaired, then John thought it was worth a try, especially if it saved him from an ignominious return home in the flagship his grandfather had gifted John on reaching his majority.
"Sounds like a plan," John said. "Point out the closest dock for Teyla, and The Aquila will have us there in no time. He'll fix my arm, while Ronon oversees repairs on board."
Ronon nodded. "And maybe this machinator can build us some new weapons, too."
A voice from the next room answered the indirect question. "Yes, yes, so he did, and now it is mine." The owner of the voice then appeared, polishing a pair of oculi with a cloth as he approached the group. After inspecting the lenses, he carefully positioned them on his nose before peering through them, a frown tugging down one side of his mouth. "So what have you broken and is it absolutely..." He paused to stomp over to Aiden, who'd picked up a miniature sextant, snatching it from Aiden's hands and carefully returning it to the shelf. "...necessary for all of you to be here? One at a time! The rest of you outside!"
"Yes, Machinator McKay, sir!" Aiden was the first out of the door, scurrying as if the machinator had threatened to take back his eye.
Teyla followed, after a polite bow, but Ronon was reluctant to leave John alone and stood resolute, just inside the doorway. It wasn't until John said, "Go, I'll be fine," that Ronon left, hand on the hilt of his sword as a blatant warning.
"Sorry about that," John apologized, rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassment. "They're a little...."
"Pushy? Rude? Overbearing?" McKay shook his head and waved away the apology. "Not the worst, unfortunately. People are often disappointed that Machinator Janus died."
Holding up the bundle containing his prosthesium, John said, "Well, Ford certainly wasn't disappointed. He thought you might be able to fix this."
"Might?" McKay huffed, pointing to his balding head. "Genius here. There is nothing anyone has made that I can't fix or even improve. Now, over there." He snapped his fingers and pointed to a table by the wall.
A trifle irritated by the machinator's rude behavior, John reminded himself that he was incognito and followed orders. Setting down the oilcloth, he unrolled it, saying, "I'm afraid it's kind of in bad shape."
"Hmmm. Oh, I see."
His arm no longer concealed by the bundle, John could almost feel McKay's inquisitive gaze, as though McKay could see through the tied-up sleeve. The flaw had rarely bothered John, but then he'd never appeared in public without a prosthesium. He was glad when the bits and pieces captured McKay's attention instead.
McKay stirred the pile with his forefinger, shoving a larger section aside and catching an errant gear before it could escape to the floor. "I've seen this before. Now where...." Whirling into action, McKay shoved John out of the way and headed into the next room, muttering, "...just need to find that forma."
The ensuing bangs and crashes brought Ronon back inside, sword at the ready, but John laughed and shooed him right back out with a laugh. "He's noisy but harmless. Go." Unable to restrain his curiosity, John crept toward the door and peered inside. The two rooms he remembered visiting had been cluttered, with scrolls and books stacked every which way, just like the stairs that led to the second floor. Now, although the front room was tidy and organized, the back room had descended into chaos, likely facilitated by the cat currently scrambling from tables to bookshelves.
"Damn cat! I had these in order...."
Stepping inside the room, John followed the grumbling to find McKay on his hands and knees under a table, sweeping together a pile of parchments. "Is there anything I can do to help," John asked, wincing at the resulting thud.
"Well, not creeping up on a person would be helpful!" McKay grumbled as he backed out from under the table. John felt a little guilty about the red mark on McKay's forehead, but that quickly dissipated when McKay shoved the dusty mess into John's arms, saying, "There, take those and see if your prosthesium's forma is in there. I could repair it without them, but why waste time re-inventing the wheel when you can use it to build a better machina?"
Resigning himself to the task, John found the sorting more interesting than boring, the fanciful formas catching his attention as he traced out Janus' ideas for steering mechanisms, elaborate winches, and talking clocks. The forma that brought John to a standstill, however, was for a set of wings that would allow a man to fly. He wasn't done looking it over when the forma was twitched out of his hand.
"How did you get this? It doesn't belong with Janus' formas!" McKay carefully dusted off the parchment, inspecting it for smudges or tears.
John peered over McKay's shoulder and asked, "Are they yours? Are you making wings?"
"Just a fancy of mine, not really useful. Based on some random thoughts Janus scribbled down about the dynamics of ventus versus terram." McKay tucked the plan under a stack of books and turned back to the piles John had created on the table. "Any luck with the prosthesium?"
John shook his head. "No, there's a lot here, but nothing on that."
"I know I've seen...." McKay tapped his chin as he mused. "Where, where...Oh! I know where!" Lunging toward the bookcase, he tugged a long wooden box from under a pile of unused parchments. Opening the box, he crowed, "I knew it!" and extracted a tightly wound scroll. Carrying the to the front room, he unfurled it on a drafting table and pointed to the label at the top. "When I saw who the formas were created for and how complex they were, I set them aside to study later."
John, having followed McKay to the table, leaned in to read, "Prosthesiums for young male, commissioned by Principe Vincente." The lines on the forma seemed to match what John had worn since he was but a babe in his mother's arms. "This is it. I recognize the design."
"Commissioned by...you're not Principe Vincent," said McKay. It was a statement, not a question.
John shook his head. "No, I'm John Sheppard."
"Sheppard." Squinting at John, McKay took off his oculi and polished them on his ink-smudged shirt before replacing them. "I don't really pay much attention to politics, but isn't the principe's grandson's name...."
John sighed and admitted that he was indeed, "John Sheppard. Yes."
"Hunh." McKay looked John over one more time before turning his attention back to the forma. "So, I see Janus created increasingly larger versions, I assume because you grew." He looked up at John, so John merely nodded. "And this pile of junk must be the last one he made?"
Another nod from John.
"Well then," McKay said, rubbing his hands together. "Let's see if I fix this or make a new one."
McKay was just as unimpressed by John's lineage. He'd ordered John outside and not to come back until he'd finished, claiming John would be a distraction.
"Perhaps we should share our food," Teyla suggested on the third day of waiting with John outside the obficina. "We haven't seen him leave to buy any, and he doesn't appear to have a servant."
John nodded. "All I saw was a cat." He rose to his feet and stretched. "I think you're right. Give it to me and I'll brave the beast in his den."
Slinging the leather sack over his shoulder, John knocked on the machinator's door. When there was no response, he leaned in to press his ear to the wood, hoping to hear movement. He nearly fell over when the door was flung open, saved by McKay's broad hand splayed against his chest.
"I'm not done yet," McKay grumbled, shoving John back so he could close the door again, but John's boot propped it open. "What part of not done don't you understand?" McKay shouted. "They're simple words!"
"Brought you food." John thrust the pack at McKay, taking advantage of McKay's distracted stumble back to slide into the room. As Teyla has suspected, there were only a few mugs scattered about, no dishes, no sign that McKay had been eating.
McKay let the door slam shut and rummaged through the sack. "Bread. There's bread. And cheese." McKay set each item on a table by the window, a pleased smile tugging at his crooked mouth. "And you brought some kind of meat. Do you know how long it's been since I had any meat?"
"I'm guessing it's been a while." John said, as he pulled his knife from his belt. When he saw how McKay's hands were shaking, John did the cutting himself, using his stump to steady the food. McKay stacked the cheese and meat on a slab of bread and took a huge bite, his eyes closing in bliss. John smiled as he watched, thinking McKay was going to need a few more meals or his clothes would slide right off - although it likely explained the odd belts McKay used to secure his pantaloons.
McKay slowed down after another bite or two, long enough to say, "Thank you. I get caught up in my work and forget to buy food until after the stalls are closed." He ripped off a piece of meat and tossed it to the cat twining itself around his legs. "Cesare had to share his dried fish last night, so now I'll share with him."
"It is only fair," John agreed, picking up one of the empty mugs. "I'll send Teyla for some more provisions. Do you need tea, too?"
Pointing to a beaker with a brown sludge at the bottom, McKay shook his head. "No, I developed a taste for a darker brew, kava from Majeco. It helps me stay awake during late nights. I still have some, but if your servant could...."
"Teyla is my navigator, as well as my best negotiator." John corrected McKay's assumption with a smile. "When she makes a deal, the other person should check to make sure they still own their clothes."
Setting the remains of his meal aside, McKay retrieved the beaker and walked up the stairs to the second floor, carefully negotiating precariously stacked books. When he reached the top, he called back down to John, "Well, come on. It takes a few minutes to make a fresh batch. And bring the food with you!"
Fortunately for John's pride, sorting through the formas and materials both Janus and McKay had accumulated proved a pleasant third choice. John sent Ronon and Teyla off to Menaria, while he collected parchments and kava mugs, shopped for food and cooked, and played the occasional game of latruncularius with McKay. The gaming was the best part in John's opinion, especially when he won and McKay yelled about cheaters and pelted John with centurions carved from wood. They would retire upstairs to sleep on pallets a few feet apart, and John grew accustomed to McKay's soft snores, the sound lulling him to sleep, almost a match to the soft whir that ruled his life.
A soft whir that seemed to have developed a hiccup.
It didn't happen very often and John ignored it, just as he'd ignored nearly every other limit imposed by his clockwork heart.
McKay, however, wasn't built to ignore something that sounded broken. "What is that?" he demanded late one night as they lay side-by-side, the city noises subdued. "That grating sound?"
John rolled away from McKay, crossing his arms over his chest, wishing he'd pulled their pallets farther apart. "I don't hear anything," he lied, glad McKay couldn't see his face.
"You know, Sheppard, when I found the plans for your prosthesium, I noticed a second forma for a very, very ambitious project. A praecordia. For the same principe." There was a rustle, light flared, and then a warm hand gripped John's shoulder. "May I?" McKay whispered.
John shuddered under his gentle touch and silently rolled to his back. Although John would rather have faced a hundred Genii pirates, he allowed McKay to raise his shirt, the first person to see what Janus had fashioned since John was a young boy. That day, John's mother had kissed him as she clasped a gold necklace around his neck. The key it held had thudded against his breastbone as he promised to never share the secret with anyone.
He never did. After both Janus and his mother died, only three people in the world knew the principe's heir was less than human by more than an arm: his grandfather, Kate, and finally, Ronon, who had helped John maintain the illusion that he was whole.
Now, there was a fourth and a broken promise, although John was certain his mother would have understood.
McKay slid the lumina closer and bent over John's chest, his warm breath causing John to shiver in the cool night air. Fingers tracing the air above the arcane machina, McKay murmured, "Amazing. Simply amazing. How did he...?" Breaking off his study with a hiss, McKay tapped a right-hand section of the golden case. "Here. It looks as if...." Tugging the cover free, he peered inside, leaving John feeling more exposed than if he'd doffed all his clothes.
Before John could utter a protest, McKay was gone, clattering down the stairs. John could hear the rattle of the glass-fronted cabinet and slamming drawers and then McKay was back, dropping to his knees next to John. He held up a second lumina and a pair of tweezers with edges as thin as a hair, saying, "There is a tiny piece of shrapnel, likely from your arm. It is impinging on a gear and it could jam the works if I don't remove it."
John looked up at McKay, noting how steady his hand was despite his breathless rush for a tool. He raised an eyebrow and quipped, "I'm guessing I could die either way, so what say we do it your way, McKay?"
McKay nodded, his smile wide as he agreed. "Yes, what say we? And, it seems rather foolish to be so formal with my hands inside your heart. I know your praenomen is John, so feel free to call me Rodney, if you like."
John returned the smile. "I don't think I could find better hands. Pleased to meet you, Rodney."
John followed McKay's instructions, twisting the wrist and flexing each finger. "You did a great job, Rodney. It feels even better than before."
"Well, I did make a few improvements," Rodney admitted. "Once I had the original forma in front of me, I could see where some streamlining would help the weight distribution and I adjusted some of the relays and...."
"And made it better." John smiled and rose to his feet with ease, the new prosthesium returning his balance to normal. "If you improved my ship's defenses, it would cut down on the need for repairs in the future."
"Nice try, but the last time Ford was in here for an adjustment, he mentioned the Travelers had taken care of your Genii problem." Rodney packed his tools away in their proper drawers, which had been organized by John. "Your replacement prosthesium should be ready in a week or so, then you can sail away and forget about me."
John, who had been petting Cesare with the new hand and marveling at the improved control, turned to look at Rodney, whose hunched posture was a reminder of when they'd first met. "Hey," John said, crossing the room to clasp Rodney's shoulders and give him a gentle shake. "Never going to happen. Besides, I kind of like it here."
Rodney's answering chuckle was a little watery. "Principes don't waste their time visiting obficinae, even if the machinator is a genius."
"Principes don't sail on merchant ships, either, so I guess I'm just an exception to those rules." John tugged his necklace free from his shirt and slipped it over his head. "Here, keep this for me. That way you'll know I'll be back."
Rodney shoved his hands behind his back, refusing to take John's key. "I do not want to be responsible for your life. With my luck, you'll get shipwrecked and die on some uncharted island because your heart wound down."
"Too late." John shrugged and slipped the necklace back over his head. "You already are responsible."
His chuckles at Rodney's incoherent sputtering lasted all the way to the docks.
After Ronon pointed out that Rodney had probably been jealous, John never mentioned Teer or Larrin or Mara, not that he'd really cared for any of the women. They'd shared a kiss at most, John retreating behind his smirk and a glib farewell, when they'd pushed for more. His mother's warning about emotions had always been in the back of his mind, making it safer for him to leave them behind.
It was easier with Rodney, never dangerous, although there were times John would look at him and feel his heart jolt into an odd twist. A joke and a laugh later and John was back on an even keel - until the next time.
Even his father's death failed to disturb John's equanimity, since he'd only met the man a few times over the years. John had never enjoyed visiting Virginiana, resenting how Ronon was treated by both the family and the retainers. David's visits to Atlantis had been just as strained, their shared resentment finally spilling over at the dominus' funeral. When David demanded to know what John's expectations were, John's vision darkened, but Ronon pulled him away before the anger took hold. After, John walked along the beach, rolling an oddly heavy stone in his hands and thinking of how the waves reminded him of Rodney's soft snores. His calm restored, John told his brother that he would make no claim on a family he did not belong to and left Virginiana behind forever.
On his return to Atlantis, John gifted Rodney with the odd stone and a tale of the mermaid he'd stolen it from, just to make Rodney laugh. They stayed awake late that night sharing stories until Rodney fell asleep, his snores following John into his dreams.
However, the weather cares nothing for human promises.
Ronon made John rest as the crew struggled to repair the jagged hole in The Aquila 's hull, but the moon's waxing visage was implacable. Repairs complete, they limped toward Atlantis, Ronon growling ineffectual orders, knowing John's time was running out.
No longer able to stand without the darkness closing in, John sprawled on the bow's deck, looking up at the stars. "Ronon, tell Rodney I was sorry."
"Not telling him anything," Ronon growled back. "He's your problem."
John frowned at him. "Then go get Teyla. She'll understand."
"She's busy getting us to Atlantis so you can tell him yourself." Ronon glanced up at a cry of "Atlantis" from the crow's nest. "Just hang on a little longer. We're almost there."
Chivying Ronon and his slurring burden inside, Rodney huffed, "Of course, I was right. Genius, remember?" Rodney pointed. "Set him down on the table. Where is his key?"
"Gone." Ronon said. "Bottom of the sea."
"Good thing I made a copy then." Rodney hurried to the cabinet of many drawers to retrieve the key, while Ronon arranged John's slack limbs atop the smooth wooden planks, Trotting back, Rodney quickly opened John's shirt and prepared to insert the key, but John fumbled to hold his hand back.
"Enough," John whispered. "I don't want to live without love anymore."
Rodney's eyes filled with tears, as he squeezed John's hand. "All right, John. I understand."
As John drifted away into the dark for the last time, he heard Ronon growl, "Give me the damnable key," then there was nothing.
"What the hell?" he roared, throwing back the blankets covering him and jumping to his feet.
He wasn't dizzy. He was angry and shouting and he felt fine. Hearing feet thudding up the stairs, he yelled, "Why am I still alive?" just to feel the unfamiliar stretch of his lungs.
Ronon stuck his head inside the room. "Because he fixed you!" he shouted back at John, his grin wide and infectious.
"He fixed me," John repeated slowly, still not understanding.
Ronon rolled his eyes and left, clomping back down the stairs.
Rodney replaced him, sidling sideways into the room, wringing his hands. "I know you might be a little upset, but in my defense, I didn't exactly have time to explain."
Feeling as though every nerve was fizzing, John began to stalk Rodney, who kept backing away. "Explain. Now."
"Uh, I improved the workings and you don't need a key anymore?" Rodney thumped back into the wall with a squeak that John was determined not to find adorable. "It was that rock you gave me. I call it naquadah and it's an amazing power source that will last longer than the rest of you and...."
John propped his hands on the wall on either side of Rodney's head and leaned in, exulting in the unaccustomed strength he could feel coursing through his muscles. "And?"
"And I added variable demand gearing and now you don't have any restrictions and Ronon and Teyla are waiting for you and, and...." Rodney slid down the wall and scrambled away. Patting down his disheveled hair, he straightened his oculi and cleared his throat. "I'm busy." Backing out of the room, he disappeared down the stairs.
"Hunh." John glanced around the room he'd spent so many nights in, smiled at the changes he saw in its future, then followed his quarry.
Rodney was in the back room, stroking Cesare and looking out the window. John walked over to the drafting table, where Rodney had laid out a complicated forma. "This what's so important?" Dropping the cat, Rodney tried to cover the design with some scribbled parchments, but John had seen enough. "The wings? For me?"
"Who says they're for you?" Rodney folded his arms, his chin lifted high. "Why are you still here, Sheppard? Don't you have someone waiting for you to fall in love with them? A woman in every port?"
John moved to stand in front of him, smiling. "Never really been all that interested in women, Rodney."
Rodney's eyes widened as his arms were gently tugged apart and placed around John's waist. "I...what?" he stammered, as John carefully removed his oculi and placed them on the table behind him. "John?"
"I'm really glad you fixed my heart, Machinator McKay," John said, as he lowered his head, pausing just above Rodney's lips. "Because I'm already in love."