Rodney scowled at Jennifer as he took over pressing the square of gauze to his arm. "Honestly, you're worse than Carson. I'm not your own personal pincushion, you know."
Jennifer gave him a severe look. The childishness really wasn't endearing. He had enough sense to look embarrassed. "It's standard protocol for major bug bites, Rodney," she reminded him. She missed Earth, where bug bites might spread diseases or confer poison but pretty much never induced rapid genetic mutation. She handed the blood sample over to the waiting tech.
Rodney paled and opened his mouth, about to start a rant or a freak-out, but then he closed it again and swallowed. He nodded in a discouraged sort of way. "Can I go now?"
His mission had been a minor one, completely unmemorable except for the bite. He didn't even have a sunburn. She smiled and patted his shoulder. "Yep. All done." He slipped down from the exam table hastily and started away. "Dinner tonight?" she called after him.
He paused to look back. "Oh. Right. Yes. I mean, that is, if I haven't started turning into some kind of —" He made a face. "Sorry. Dinner, yes. Do you — I mean, when — seven?"
"It's a date," she agreed.
He flushed a bit with pleasure and turned away. Sheppard had been waiting for him, and he said something Jennifer didn't quite catch but that definitely included the phrase your turn. Rodney answered that with a Not helping, Colonel! in that waspish tone she disliked.
She rolled her eyes. He was right, the Colonel really wasn't helping matters. If it was just the two of them teasing each other, she wouldn't mind so much, but the Colonel kept encouraging Rodney to act that way with other people, too. Still, Rodney was doing much better lately, despite the Colonel's influence. She could give him credit for that.
Being the Chief Medical Officer of Atlantis meant handling several different competing responsibilities. Jennifer was supposed to supervise all of the clinicians, serve as a clinician herself, organize medical outreach, oversee most medical research, and somehow find time to conduct her own research.
Fortunately, the statistics for most of her long-term research were collected and collated by the computer system. She was running a variety of studies involving samples collected from Pegasus natives — epidemiology, genealogy tracing, fertility studies, genetic hybridization profiles and analyses, anything they could think of. The ability to study populations isolated from Earth and spread across hundreds of interacting worlds offered research possibilities for decades to come.
Most of those studies were predefined, and she had standard tests that were run on all samples, no matter how or for what reason they were collected. The analyzers were interfaced directly to the data accumulation system, and any tech-entered results also cross-filed to the database. All she had to do was watch for any pattern-match alerts.
The problem was that she wasn't always in charge of the computer system, and anyone who took over for her — however briefly — invariably messed up her settings. She had only been out of commission for a short while this time, thanks to a thief who stole her body, and she was still weeding out false alerts days later. As usual, the problem was that the filters had gotten switched off yet again.
Carson swore he wasn't to blame, and that of all people he knew better, but this only ever seemed to happen when she was away for whatever reason. Regardless of how it kept happening, with the filters down, the sample populations kept mixing. She really didn't need to be told that the detection rates of progestin levels and chicken pox antibodies were spiking — they weren't, but the sudden influx of expedition-member results threw everything off. Clearing out all the false correlation reports and secondary study triggers always took ages.
She should definitely write a memo.
She sipped at her tea as she opened the latest alert. Yes, definitely another false hit, because there was no way her own name should be appearing in this particular category. She cursed Carson silently, for not catching this if nothing else. Maybe she should make him fix this batch.
Then her eye caught the rest of the summary.
The next thing she knew, Marie was slapping her back and asking if she was all right as she coughed tea back out of her lungs. She nodded, regarding her drenched computer with dismay. She reached for her radio, unthinking. "Rodney?"
After several seconds he answered with an irritated-sounding sigh. "Yes?"
"I ... I kind of spr—. Spilled. Tea. On my computer. What do I do?"
"Unplug it, if it's plugged in. I'll come take a look at it."
"Oh." The thought filled her with panic. "No, no, that's — it's okay, really, I'm sure it'll be fine, I know you're busy. Really."
"It's not —" he started, sounding concerned now.
"Really. I'll handle it. Don't — just go back to what you were doing, okay?" She cut off the radio hastily.
Then she pressed her hand to her mouth, fighting back the moan of dismay. It couldn't be right. It had to be a false reading.
She had to know.
She looked up at Marie, who had retreated to the doorway, giving her a measure of privacy but sticking around to make sure she was all right. "I need a blood sample," she said firmly, shoving her own sleeve up as she headed over. "Will you draw it for me?"
She slapped every confidentiality flag and tag she could find on the sample and the testing requisition. She ordered the most detailed test possible. She had to know for sure.
Less than a week later, she did. She was proud that she was able to walk calmly out of the room before she threw up.
John glared at the Golden Gate Bridge, because he was trying not to glare over at Rodney and Keller.
He should be happy for his friend. He knew that. He wanted to be.
But he just couldn't. Keller was nice enough, but she was ruining McKay. She apparently thought she was improving him, and maybe once John would have thought that was a good idea, but she was wrong. The McKay who was over there tempering his cynicism and cooing that she was all he needed was the one who had started holding back, swallowing his words, trying to be considerate and cheerful and all that crap.
The McKay over there wasn't any good at any of that, and he was overriding his own instincts in the attempt. He hesitated to yell sufficiently at new scientists who made truly dangerous mistakes. He tried to temper his reactions, so that John now had trouble telling when a situation was rapidly escalating from problem to we're all about to die.
The McKay over there was going to get them all killed. The diminished, defeated, pathetically grateful look in his eyes all these months was just the icing on the whole crap cake.
"They are sweet, are they not?"
John reminded himself that trying to punch Teyla would only end in pain. He held himself to a grunt.
"John," she chided. "He is your friend, our friend. Do you truly begrudge him happiness? And they will need our support very soon."
John eyed her warily. "What do you mean?" He could think of a few possibilities, but they were all both disastrous and unlikely.
She winced. "I did not intend to bring this up with you directly just yet. But ... promise me that you will not be as difficult with him as you were with me. I have forgiven you, but I do not know that he would be so willing. Or that I would be again."
He frowned at her. "Am I supposed to know what you're talking about?"
"Is it not obvious? I am sure he will be somewhat distracted, but he is often so — it is his nature. We will protect him as always. And I am sure there will be times when Jennifer will appreciate our getting him ... 'out of her hair'?"
She had to be talking about marriage. She must mean that Rodney had proposed to Keller, without saying a word to John first. That, or — John's brain short-circuited right about there. There was no or.
"I confess I am confused," Teyla said. "I thought the custom among your people was to speak public words of binding first."
"First," John repeated numbly. Apparently there was an or after all.
"Do you think they would appreciate any of the supplies I no longer need? I know that your people often speak more highly of Earth-made goods than anything from Pegasus." There was a hint of hurt disapproval to her tone.
John really couldn't process that, though. "She. You're saying. She's." He swallowed and fixed his eyes firmly on the Bridge. "Pregnant."
"Didn't you —" She broke off for a moment, and then her hand firmly guided him to turn and look at her. "You had not heard. I'm sorry, John, I did not realize. But yes, it is widely said that Jennifer is pregnant. I heard shortly before we learned of the threat to your planet."
"He didn't ...." John wasn't actually sure what he meant to say.
"He has not spoken to me, no. Nor to you, I see. I understand it is custom among some of your people not to speak of such things before a certain time, in order to avoid tempting ill fortune. But I am sure he will tell us soon."
"Yeah," John managed. Pregnant meant disaster. Pregnant meant McKay leaving, settling down on Earth, picket fence and family and some regular-hours job that would suck the life out of him more thoroughly than any Wraith. Pregnant meant Atlantis without its brightest, surest hope of survival and John without his best friend. "Yeah. Can't wait."
"All right, Colonel, what the hell is your problem?"
John winced. He really hadn't expected Rodney to track him down. McKay avoided the training rooms almost as thoroughly as he avoided citrus.
But here he was. John gave up on his half-assed forms practice and tossed the sticks into a corner. "Problem?"
"Don't," McKay snapped. He looked awful, as usual, thoroughly exhausted. He and Zelenka had been racing around for most of the past three days, wielding every scientist they had — along with most of the Marines — in their attempts to keep the battered city from sinking into the Pacific. John had even seen an anthropologist and a linguist helping with some sort of spot-welding project.
For McKay to allow any social scientist within ten feet of anything of importance indicated a true crisis. That was why John had stayed out of his way. Yep.
McKay didn't seem to have caught on to this very sensible plan, though. "I'm not blind. You're avoiding me. Why?"
"Avoiding?" John meant to sound like he didn't know what Rodney meant, but he had already used that once. Which meant he probably just sounded like a parrot. He shrugged. "You've been busy. You always tell me not to distract you when you're busy."
"Yes, and you've ever listened to me before. Seriously, Sheppard, what the hell? Every time I catch sight of you for five seconds, you run off. I really could have used your help a couple of times, or, you know, someone to talk to for the four hours I spent getting the pumps in 12-sub-2 working, and it's just ... I mean, did — did I do something?"
Oh hell no. McKay did not get to play the hurt-and-bewildered thing, not now. "I guess that's one way of putting it," John said with a tight smile.
McKay looked startled, as if he had expected John to keep denying anything was wrong. "Wait. What?"
"Why are you even bothering with the repairs?" John asked him, both angry and honestly puzzled. "I mean, we both know it's not guilt, because guilt is for lesser mortals, right? Hey, I know — you just can't wait to see the backs of us. That's it, isn't it? You just want to make sure that we have a prayer in hell of actually making space if the IOA ever agrees to let us go back to Pegasus. Nice clean break so you can start your nice clean new life, right?"
McKay edged forward slightly. "Look, did you manage to give yourself a concussion with those sticks or something? Because you're seriously not making any sense."
"You know what really gets me? You couldn't even tell me yourself." McKay finally caught on, all the color draining from his face. "I had to find out from Teyla."
McKay turned even paler. "Teyla? Teyla knows?"
"Half the damned city knows, McKay! When the hell were you actually going to tell us? Tell me? Or were you just going to run off without saying a word?"
"Half the city," McKay echoed. He ran his hand over his face, looking sick. "How ... how .... Wait. Run off, what — I'm not going anywhere." That might have been a little more convincing if he hadn't sounded so dazed.
"Have you told Jeannie yet?" John demanded. "I'm sure she'll love hearing about this, after the way you cut her off for doing the same thing." He knew that was a low blow, but he couldn't help himself.
"Jeannie? What does — what — what?"
"Was that whole thing just because you were jealous? Figures. Just what you always really wanted, right? A perfect blonde wife helping you pass all those valuable genes along. Just one thing I don't get, though. What's with the rush? I always figured you for the 'make her an honest woman first' thing. Even Teyla noticed you're doing it all backwards. Or did you figure you'd just hop over to City Hall in a few days and take care of it? Or —" his stomach dropped even further "— did you already marry her and not even tell any of us about that either?"
"Okay, you know what? Stop. No, seriously, shut up." McKay frowned with his "I'm performing profoundly complex equations in my head" expression for several seconds. Then he looked startled, and then alarmed, and then ... disgusted? Finally he gaped at John. "You — you think ... she's ... we ... I —"
John probably could have predicted the tongue-tripping stammer. Even the sudden look of anger — no, rage — wasn't completely out of left field.
But the right hook — yeah, that was kind of a surprise.
Jennifer had tried ignoring the test results for several hours. She tried closing the file and then opening it fresh, just in case she was misinterpreting them. She tried explicitly disbelieving them.
None of it worked.
She would have asked for a second pair of eyes, if she intended for anyone in the entire universe to know about this, ever. Which she didn't.
Well. One other pair of eyes. She had to let Rodney know. Right?
Maybe not. Maybe she didn't. Who wrote the rules for something like this? Who said she had to tell him anything?
But if she didn't, then what? Dear Rodney, nice knowing you, I've decided to go live someplace very far away for reasons I can't explain? Yes, that was so likely to work with him. Because he was absolutely not the kind of guy to turn into a borderline stalker if he was dumped without any explanation.
And she was pretty sure she would never be able to cover her tracks enough to keep him from finding her, if he really wanted to. To hear him tell it, he could probably track down Jimmy Hoffa if he wanted to, and he was scary good with computers. No, there was no way she would be able to disappear, not without help from some ... agency or, or government, and even then.
So she was going to have to tell him something, but — wait. Wasn't that backwards?
Didn't he owe her an explanation?
"Jennifer. Um, long time no see. I mean, I know there was that bite, but it's been almost a week and I'm pretty sure I'm not turning into a bug, so you didn't have to avoid me. Well, a couple of times I thought I was maybe getting scales or something, but I think it was just dry skin. And there was that thing where I thought I was getting compound eyes, but it turned out I was just dizzy because I got caught up with a simulation and skipped lunch. And, okay, I know that time Sheppard was turning into a bug he grabbed Teyla and kissed her, but I would absolutely never do that to you. Not — not that I'm saying I wouldn't want to kiss you, you know, normally, because of course I would, because you're —"
Jennifer covered her ears. "Rodney, shut up." She waited until his mouth was actually closed before dropping her hands, moving one to cover her mouth briefly. She looked around at his room. "Are we actually alone in here?"
"What? Yes, of course we're — right." He winced, his hands twisting anxiously. "Alone. Yes."
"Good. Because we need to talk."
His eyes went wide and his hands started flying. "No no no no no, no talking, no need to talk, everything's fine, great, perfect really. Wonderful! Right? Or, okay, maybe not perfect, but whatever I did, I'm sorry, okay? Didn't mean it, really sorry, never happen again, whatever it was. So just tell me what I did and then I'm sorry and that's all, okay? And we don't need to talk —"
"Rodney!" she snapped. He immediately clamped his mouth shut and shoved his hands up under his arms. He looked hurt, and scared, and not even a little bit defensive.
When had that happened?
She felt weirdly displaced, as if she was suddenly seeing them from the outside. Or maybe just seeing clearly for the first time in months.
Their first real date, he had been obnoxious and she had called him on it. Eventually he pushed back. He had agreed with her that he should just accept that Tunney would get full credit for shutting down his own invention, even though Rodney had figured out the solution — but he told her he didn't accept it. He told her that it still bothered him, and that his need for credit wouldn't change because they were dating.
She had thought it was petty — still did — but she appreciated that moment. It told her she could keep pushing him, she could help him be better, because he would push back if she went too far.
Only ... she couldn't remember him pushing back again after that one time. For a moment all she could remember of their relationship was her voice, criticizing, and his fumbling apologies.
She didn't want them to be that way. She didn't want to be that person. How had it gone so wrong?
And given what she knew now — wrong didn't even start to cover it.
"It's not —" she started to tell him, but that wasn't right. It was like that, it was what he thought it was, at least in part. Unfortunately, it was a lot more than that.
She took a deep breath, steeling herself. "Look. There's something we need to talk about, but first, I need you to make sure no one will ever know about this. The door — is it locked?" When he nodded, she pressed, "How locked? Can you make sure that absolutely no one can get in here, no matter how, until we're ready to leave?"
"Well, yes, of course —"
"And what about surveillance? Audio, video — I don't know what kind of coverage the private residences have. If there's anything, even if it's super-top-secret, I want it off. And what about windows, or — or air ducts, or — anything. Anything."
Rodney frowned at her for a few seconds. Then he went over and did something to the door crystals. After that, he went to his computer and did something with that for a short while. "Okay. We've got complete isolation. Why do we need complete isolation?"
"Wait, no, give me your radio, too." She took her earpiece off, turned it off, and held out her hand.
Rodney drew back. "Um, no. Look, no offense, but you're acting kind of ... different, so if it's all the same to you, I think I'll keep my radio."
She rolled her eyes. "I'm me. I'm not that thief person."
"Yes, right, except —"
"I'd say that anyway." She sighed. "Look, I've been around the SGC. I've been here. I know the sorts of things that happen, and I don't want any accidental broadcasts here."
They worked out a compromise — he would turn his radio off and put it in his pocket, and she would do the same with her own. He was also careful to keep a few feet between them, just in case.
She sat in his computer chair and pulled the folded printout from a different pocket. She had wiped every trace she could find from the computers, and later she would have Rodney check to make sure it was really gone. This was the only remaining evidence.
She ran her fingers along the creases. She had spent hours trying to figure out how to start this, but it wasn't until she actually spoke that she was certain what she would say. "Tell me about 1981. September."
John considered getting back up, but he didn't really see much point. He waggled his jaw experimentally. Yeah, that was going to hurt for a few days.
"You … you sick …." McKay loomed over him, hands clenched. "How could you even think that I would —" He broke off, blinking rapidly and then looking at his own right fist, bewildered. "What, seriously?"
John was never, ever going to live this down, because who the hell got flattened by Rodney McKay? And McKay had an unfair advantage, because John's guard had been down, because — well, who worried about getting flattened by Rodney McKay? He just gave an eyebrow-shrug as his answer. It wasn't like he could exactly deny it, so he might as well give the guy credit. Even if McKay had cheated by, well, by being himself.
"Huh." McKay's mouth quirked into that lopsided grin of surprised pleasure for a few seconds but then twisted into a scowl. "Except, wait, no, you don't get out of this that easily, so don't even try. You — how dare you? Saying that about — saying she — I —implying —" He grew steadily redder as he struggled to complete even one statement.
"What the hell, McKay?" John sighed. "I just brought up what most of the city knew before I did. Which I'm not going to let go, by the way. I'm your team leader." Not to mention friend. "I should know this stuff. Where do you get off getting mad at me about it? It's not like I got her pregnant." McKay's face turned so furious and so flushed at that, John started seriously worrying about sending the guy into a stroke. He frowned — ow — at the way McKay was reacting. "Wait, so you're saying she's not pregnant?"
"What — of course she's not pregnant! She'd better not be pregnant. If someone — no, no, she is not pregnant. Why the hell would she be pregnant?"
John just raised an eyebrow at him, partly because he really would like McKay to stop saying pregnant and partly because, well, the answer was pretty damn obvious.
That somehow just set McKay off further. McKay gaped at him. "You think — we —" His hands moved in a gesture that was probably just a vague attempt to shape the concept for his own comprehension but had to be obscene in at least five cultures. His expression darkened further.
John braced himself for volume, but he'd apparently pushed McKay past even that, which meant they were entering previously theoretical territory. McKay's voice shook as he rasped, "She's my daughter."
Jennifer had known for years that she wasn't genetically related to her father.
She was taking a course in genetics, one in which they learned to run basic assays themselves, and they were running familial samples so that they could trace the relationships. They weren't required to use themselves as subjects, only to find two closely related individuals and document their relationship in the reports. Jennifer, like most of the rest of her class, just hadn't seen much point to asking two people for samples, especially when she knew she would be seeing her father the weekend following the assignment.
Certainly she meant to ask him first. But she had overslept, so he was outside when she went into the bathroom. His comb was right there, with one perfect rooted strand. It was just so easy to check that task off mentally that she had pretty much forgotten about it by the time he came back inside.
When she compared the results, at first she assumed she had done something wrong, which upset her. She had left herself plenty of time to do the assignment at least twice more before the report was due, but she wasn't used to failure. It made her feel guilty.
She went home again the following weekend, again taking along the swab kit she should have used the first time. She explained the problem to her father, fully expecting he would reassure her about her classes and agree to the swab with hardly a thought.
She never expected to learn her testing was accurate after all. She never imagined he could be that angry at her. She had never dreamed her family was anything but what she had been told all her life.
He was speaking to her again by the end of the weekend, barely, after nearly two full days of tears and apologies. He wouldn't explain, saying only it was her mother's business and not Jennifer's. They both still felt her absence too keenly for Jennifer to push, and she simply couldn't lose her father, too. Not over something so stupid.
Instead she turned to the kids she had babysat over her high school summers. She went with Amy Mullen and her mother, because it occurred to her the Grabowski twins might be fertility-treatment kids and she didn't want any complications from that angle. That gave her what had to be the answer. Someone from her father's generation wouldn't want to talk about fertility problems, especially not to his-daughter-the-medical-student. It was no big deal.
She couldn't exactly ask her mother, but she had seen her own baby photos. So maybe her mother had required a different donor, or needed in-vitro, or even arranged to adopt her as a newborn in a closed adoption. It didn't matter that she didn't share genes with her father, and it didn't matter that she would never know if she shared genes with her mother. They were still her parents, so it didn't matter.
She told herself that until she believed it.
She also tried to steer her coursework away from genetics. Her advisor wouldn't let her scrape by with the bare minimum, so she took what she had to and tried to focus on other areas. So of course she ended up having to step in for Carson Beckett, one of the world's foremost geneticists. She couldn't manage to get away from it, not for long.
And now it was all happening again, and she was just as unprepared as that first time.
John just blinked at McKay, confused. Daughter? "Who is?" He'd said Keller wasn't pregnant, dammit.
"Who — she is, you idiot! Who the hell do you think we're —" McKay clamped his hand over his mouth, the color draining away from his face again, which probably wasn't healthy. "Oh my god," he groaned through his hand. He then ran both hands through his hair, eyes wild. "Oh my god, I'm not supposed to tell anybody, she's going to kill me —" He flopped down on the mat beside John. "I'm dead. I'm completely dead. She's going to kill me, which will make me dead, which means I'll never get my Nobel, and she has scalpels —"
"Breathe, McKay." Finally, something he knew what to say to.
"Breathing. I like breathing. I'm going to miss it. Thanks so much for rubbing that in. Incidentally, while we're on the subject, I hate you." He said that without heat, though, so it wasn't anything John hadn't heard before. Pretty much daily.
They lay there, side by side, both regarding the ceiling. "Remind me, which one of us got punched here?"
"Oh, you so deserved that. Saying that — that —"
"I didn't just make it up, McKay," John said levelly, cutting him off before he could get all worked up again. "It's pretty much all over the city. I had Teyla lecturing me about being supportive."
McKay made a sound of pained sympathy at that news. Other than that, there were a couple of minutes of silence as John tried to fit his head around what McKay had said.
"So, wait. You're saying that Jennifer Kel—"
"No. No, I'm not, I'm not saying anything. You heard nothing. But … well … you did not hear this from me, because you didn't hear it at all but even if you did it was not from me, but, well … um … yes."
John considered that for another couple of minutes. "How does that even work?"
"How do you think it works? Half her DNA comes from me. Even for you, it should be pretty …." He sighed, and from the corner of his eye John could see McKay running a hand over his face. "It's a mess."
Rodney told her about September, 1981 … sort of. He rambled on about classes and music and geek movies, never once mentioning anything of importance.
Finally she couldn't take it anymore. "Look, stop, okay? I know. Just tell me the truth."
He blinked at her. "The … truth? I mean, sure, it's just a movie. It's not exactly Shakespeare — not that Shakespeare is exactly all that great, actually, just because all the humanities types get all —"
With a sigh she shoved the report into his hands. "Don't."
Rodney stared at the report for much longer than he could possibly need to read it. Finally he looked up at her, clearly confused, and then tried on a careful smile. "It's … funny? A good joke?"
"It's not a joke."
The fake smile turned to a look of real concern. "Okay, then ignore it. Seriously. I know people talk, but our relationship is really none of their business. In fact, I'll track down whoever did this. You shouldn't have to put up with this sort of juvenile prank. It's harassment, actually. We'll report them to Woolsey, get them —"
"No!" That was the last thing she needed. "It's not a prank. It's real. I double-checked. It's real."
He scoffed. "That's not even possible."
She straightened. "Isn't it? The tests aren't lying. I drew your blood myself. It's real. So what really happened?"
"What do you mean, what happened?" He didn't look guilty, just bewildered. "I'm pretty sure I would have noticed. It's not possible."
"I just want the truth, Rodney. I deserve the truth. Was it an actual girlfriend, or just some girl one night?" Was it her mother, somehow, or some scared teen? "Did you freak out? Did you even try, or did you just run away?"
"Would you please listen to me?" He had backed away from her slightly. His eyes were wide. "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about!"
Jennifer had believed in lies all her life. She didn't know who to believe anymore. All she could rely on were facts, and the only fact she had at the moment was the paper in Rodney's hand. "Just tell me what happened!"
McKay brought his hands up behind his head, elbows wide, letting out another long sigh as he settled in. "When I was twelve, I … changed my priorities. I decided to get serious about science, because it's logical and orderly. That's the year I built the model atomic bomb."
John had never imagined there might have been a time when McKay wasn't into science. The rare times he'd had to imagine McKay's childhood, he'd just pictured a tinier version of Rodney, with a science kit or a telescope. It was really kind of weird how little they knew about each other. What on earth would have been his "priority" before science? For that matter, what kind of twelve-year-old had "priorities" at all, much less went around changing them?
Then again, what kind of twelve-year-old built an atomic bomb for a science fair? Well, McKay, apparently.
"It was supposed to be hard, so I wanted to prove I could do it. Which I totally could. And, well, it's possible I may have had some 'anger issues'." McKay lifted his hands briefly to make actual air quotes. "Anyway, once everybody convinced themselves I wasn't part of some junior revolutionary group, they kind of gave up on that 'keeping me with my peer group for socialization' nonsense. They actually let me start taking classes closer to my level and test out of a lot of things. They also …." He took a deep breath. "They started letting me take a few college classes. Of course, I was still ahead of a lot of the college kids, especially in math, so I did some tutoring. I mean, I hated it, but it was easy and there aren't a lot of ways to make money at that age. And there were fees and things like that, so, tutoring."
John was pretty sure that, even as a freshman, he would sooner have dropped out than hire a pre-teen as a tutor. Apparently that wasn't universal.
"I got a lot of work from fraternity guys, and sometimes they'd have me come over to their house for it. And sometimes there were parties, and they didn't really care if I stuck around. I must have been too small for them to bother messing with me, and besides, they kind of needed me if they wanted to pass. So I stuck around sometimes, because, well, there were girls."
"Weren't you afraid of cooties?"
"What, seriously? My god, you were eight until you joined up, weren't you? What am I saying, you're still eight. No, Colonel, trust me, I was very much interested in girls, and having a built-in excuse for practically being eye-level with their breasts certainly didn't hurt."
"You're telling me they didn't just slap you down?"
"Some did. A lot of them thought I was cute, or funny, or whatever. And … I was pretty."
"Humble, too." That was automatic; he honestly wasn't surprised at McKay's ego at this point, or that it applied to his youth.
But McKay snorted. "Yes, every 13-year-old boy dreams of being called pretty. Every 13-year-old boy wants to be some confused coed's lesbian experiment. I'm not saying I was some masculine ideal at that point, I'm just saying that there were things about me some girls liked. And, well, especially the ones who had been drinking."
John covered his face with his hand, careful of his jaw. "McKay. Please. If you were having drunken sex at that age, I seriously don't want to know about it." Especially unprotected, and god, please let this end right now.
"Hardly. I'm certain I'd remember if I ever got that far. Besides, you asked, so deal with it. No, there was some kissing, some groping — mutual, I assure you — some rubbing, that sort of thing. Grow up," he added as John made a gagging noise. "But trust me, the height of my sexual exploits at that age was walking home without underwear, because it was less uncomfortable to throw it away and go without than walk home in it after I'd — you know." Oh, sure, now he got prudish.
"Well, that doesn't explain how —"
"I don't know, okay? I seriously don't, and the only things I can come up with … I mean, I just told you I was leaving, well, genetic samples around. That's literally the only way I can think of that makes any sense at all, but that would mean someone was going around …." He let out a shaky breath. "This is actually freaking me the hell out, okay? And I haven't been able to say one damn word about it, to anyone, and the thought that there was someone following me around when I was thirteen and collecting my sperm to breed children —"
"Breathe, McKay." Although, yeah, if that was what happened, that was seriously wrong.
"How many? Would they really have done — whatever this was to get only one kid out of it? And who the hell would it have been? I was only about a year out from being interrogated by your CIA, and that thought really doesn't help me sleep. And when I think of all the samples I've just handed over to your government for various physicals …."
"An army of McKays." Now there was a truly terrifying thought.
"What, you're telling me you don't love that concept? Your genes?"
"It'd be fine if I'd known about it. It'd be fine if it was on purpose. By me. With someone I trusted to raise them. But I don't have any idea how many, or who, or how long it went on, or if it's still going on, or what the hell it's for."
"Okay. Yeah." Because … yeah. This made that whole creepy thing with Mara look like a firm handshake. "Does Jennifer know anything?"
"No. Not really. Not like that. She thinks she might have been steered here — she says she took a lot of opportunities and openings for granted. Not that she's not qualified — I mean, obviously she's a genius — but she's trying to figure out whether anything might have been manipulated. Like whether anyone pushed her specifically into the research that got her noticed by the SGC, that sort of thing. But even if she can tell if there is someone who got her here on purpose, is it the same people, or an opposing organization, or someone unrelated trying to make up for it all somehow, or … I don't know. Amway, for all we know."
"I'm gonna go out on a limb and say you can rule them out."
McKay sighed again. "Right. Great. One down, infinity-minus-one to go."
Rodney sat in his desk chair, his head in his hands. "I honestly had no idea, not until right now." He believed her, finally, and she couldn't help believing him as he looked up at her briefly before dropping his gaze. "But I — I'm sure I would have done the right thing."
He was a terrible liar.
He probably would have been honest, once. I was a 13-year-old kid, Jennifer. There's nothing I could have done. That was entirely the truth — he was only fourteen by the time she was born, and he couldn't have taken on fatherhood at that age.
If he had known, he could have been involved in putting her up for adoption. Or maybe he could have gotten his parents to raise her, as much a sibling as a daughter. Maybe he could have tried to stay involved while someone else raised her — while her parents raised her, however it was they had gotten involved. At that age, he almost certainly wouldn't have, even if anyone had encouraged it.
But he offered her the polite lie.
She had done that. She had persuaded him to be nicer, to let people down gently, to hide unpleasant truths. She had honestly thought that was better.
But it was the same sort of lie she'd been told all her life. She should have remembered how much polite lies hurt when she knew the truth.
She still wanted the truth, desperately, but now she had nowhere to turn. She couldn't let this news become public, and only so many people could reasonably be expected to know what had happened in the first place. She would be talking to her father — her Dad, the man who had raised her, the man who was still her father in every sense but one — and this time she would make him answer, but she wasn't positive she could expect a real explanation from him. Rodney was supposed to be the one to give her that. Rodney was supposed to have known — that he had fathered a child at all, if not that she was that child. But he didn't.
He looked up at her again, pale and serious. "So what do we do now?"
"It's probably something simple, you know," John said. "Some coed didn't really want to be there and saw a way to drop out. A stupid way, but people can be stupid. Maybe that was her mother. Or maybe Jennifer's parents adopted from her."
"Maybe." McKay didn't sound comforted. "She doesn't think so. For either one."
At least they had considered it. "I'm just saying. Occam's Razor."
"Oh, please. The irony that you, of all people, would be lecturing me on Occam's —"
"Don't even try, McKay. What I thought wasn't exactly a leap."
"What you what?" McKay sounded honestly confused.
"Just now, when you channeled Rocky Balboa. Remember?"
"Oh. That." McKay's expression scrunched up. "That doesn't mean you should just go around making accusations like that."
"Look, I know you would never now, but you haven't known about this for long, have you? So why the hell does my mentioning that everyone else thinks she's pregnant get me punched? It could have been from before."
"Because we know now, and even if we had gone that far before, we're both intelligent adults who know how to use contraception. Would you like me to spell that one for you? Or I could use smaller words."
John was about one offhand insult away from shooting back a few choice remarks of his own, but something else in what McKay said was a little more important at the moment. He rolled his head slightly to get a better view of McKay. "'Even if'? Why do the words 'mile high club' come to mind?"
McKay got his caught-stealing-pudding expression. "Oh, I … that …." He winced. "All right, it's possible I may have made suggestions about certain … prospects. And there may have been some amount of exaggeration. Slightly. And, okay, if you actually believed me about that in particular, you're more of an idiot than I feared, because are you crazy? What exactly were we supposed to get up to? We had both just been soaked in freezing-cold water from who even knows what kind of system. That cheap bastard didn't even have fresh clothes for us or offer us a shower. And by the way, Jennifer had just been briefly dead, and even if we were remotely in any kind of condition, we had the Dalai Lama leering down at us!" The … what? "We just fooled around a little bit. You know, kissing and —" He made a face. "Okay, no, that memory is never going to be okay again. Dammit."
John had been kind of skeptical about that whole story anyway. "So why not just say that? Why make stuff up? And it wasn't just that one time, either. You've been acting —"
"Because I'm tired of being made fun of," McKay snapped, his voice hard. He sighed irritably. "Look, I've had plenty of girlfriends, but Katie was the first one to really stick around for something serious, you know? And we went really slowly, so I figured, that would probably work best with Jennifer. Only I knew what you'd say if you knew that, and it's not like you would have kept it private, either. So, I … suggested otherwise."
Okay, it was possibly true that John would have teased him. It was just teasing, though. It wasn't a big deal.
"So no, we haven't ever. Happy? That's at least the one saving grace here. Except it completely isn't, because what the hell do we do now? Jennifer doesn't want anyone to know, and I really don't either. You know what this place can be like. Both our lives would be hell. Only we don't have a good way to break up either, because we're still trying to figure this whole thing out, so we're spending a lot of time together on that, which doesn't really fit the whole 'breakup' model. And I don't exactly want people thinking she dumped me for some reason, and no matter what we said the reason was, certain people would pry. And then certain other people seem to think I haven't been managing to keep secrets for most of my professional life."
That did kind of suck. "Sounds like you're pretty stuck, buddy."
"Yeah. As I've been forcibly reminded, I'm not getting younger here. I'd like the chance to find someone I could actually get somewhere with. And, well, I want her to be happy, too. Hey, after we figure this all out — because I really don't want people thinking she dumped me for him — do you think maybe Ronon might want to try again? If he does, should I encourage that? On the one hand, I trust him reasonably well. But on the other hand, the paternal imperative might require that I smother him in his sleep if he does try. Or if not when he tries, if it ever falls apart, definitely. I'm not sure I see a happy ending here."
"No killing teammates. That's a rule."
"Of course you'd take his side." McKay sounded a lot more at ease now, though.
"Hey, look at it this way. You don't have to worry about having kids now. You've already passed your genes on, without all that messy child-rearing stuff."
"Trust me, I've been counting that one blessing frequently," McKay said, heartfelt. After a few seconds, he added, "It's tragic she's wasting her heritage on medicine, of course, but at least she's an accomplished genius at it. Naturally."
John waited a few more seconds before speaking again, but hell, if they were going to clear the air, they might as well get it all out there. There was no way in hell he was asking this question if he didn't ask it now. "Look. If she had been pregnant and not, you know, your daughter, would you have left Atlantis? Because you've talked about letting your contract expire."
McKay took a while to answer. "Honestly?" he said finally. "I don't know. I love it here, but …." He sighed yet again. John wasn't going to put him on the spot by looking over at him directly, but from what he could see out of the corner of his eye, McKay looked old and sad and tired. "I'm really tired of being alone. If keeping her meant Earth … I don't know."
That really wasn't the answer John had hoped for. So, fine. He would just have to do something about it. Maybe get McKay to marry an Athosian or something. He took a deep breath and rolled up to his feet, putting out a hand to help McKay up. "Come on. Let's go fix something. Or break something. Your choice."
Two days later, McKay announced with great fanfare that the city no longer had any immediate plans to sink. He then gave orders that he not be disturbed for at least twelve hours and was already halfway asleep by the time John had steered him to his quarters and dumped him in bed.
The day after that, John was having lunch with Ronon and Teyla when McKay and Keller came into the mess together. John was trying not to be obvious about avoiding Teyla, who had been smiling at him approvingly. He knew she was happy he and McKay had "made up", but he didn't want to give her the chance to start asking what could only be really problematic questions. Luckily Ronon was keeping her occupied today.
The volume of chatter in the mess dropped slightly when Rodney and Keller entered, and the quality changed as it gradually resumed its former level.
Rodney headed straight from the food line to their table, and Keller accompanied him with only a slight hesitation. John just nodded at them, and Ronon barely glanced their way, but Teyla beamed at them both. Luckily Rodney didn't give her an opening, immediately launching into criticism of something one of his minions had done.
The noise in the mess rose slightly as he spoke, and Keller clearly had her suspicions about the topic of conversation. She kept glancing over at a few of the noisier groups, though she looked down at her tray, blushing fiercely, when she saw that John had noticed her.
John assumed Rodney was his usual oblivious self, but after glancing at Keller a couple of times, he seemed to get it. He looked over at one of the noisier tables with a thoughtful glare, his mouth clearly running on autopilot as he considered.
After a couple of minutes he abruptly stood and bellowed, "Attention!"
John had no idea Keller's eyes could get that huge.
With almost every eye in the mess on him, Rodney straightened, puffing his chest out. "It has come to my attention that you have all become obsessed with a rumor about me and Jennifer. Obviously nothing about us is any of your business whatsoever, but as your nosiness is now interfering with our ability to have a peaceful lunch, I will clarify matters in the hopes you will all then shut up."
Keller was very quietly losing her shit, tugging firmly at Rodney's arm and whispering urgently at him.
He disregarded her, still addressing the room. "I am only going to say this once. Jennifer is not, repeat not, pregnant."
Keller froze, her mouth dropping open in shock. Teyla's smile disappeared, her expression turning about as startled as John had ever seen it.
McKay had started to sit back down but suddenly straightened again. "Actually, since a startling number of you have a frighteningly vivid imagination about gate team missions and Ancient devices — or an even more frighteningly poor grasp of basic human biology — I would also like to mention that I am not pregnant, either."
Keller started coughing. Ronon reached over to pound her on the back, looking like only his concern for her was keeping him from laughing out loud.
"So there you have it," Rodney continued. "She isn't pregnant; I'm not pregnant; neither of us is pregnant. Anyone who has been spreading rumors to that effect should be ashamed." He definitely shot Teyla a glance at that, and she ducked her head, avoiding his eyes. "Please transfer your scurrilous rumors to someone else, and until then, kindly shut up. That is all." He sat and went right back to eating.
"Um," Keller said finally, faintly. "… Pregnant?"
"Many people thought so," Teyla said uncomfortably. "It seemed a reasonable explanation. I am sorry that I assumed." She glanced over at John, her eyes narrowing. He just smirked back at her, partly because she deserved it and partly because he didn't want her thinking there was anything else to look for. If she was looking at him, she wasn't looking at McKay, who wasn't nearly as good as John at schooling his expression.
Ronon was grinning and promptly started giving Teyla shit. They really got going, so if John hadn't been sitting so close to McKay, he wouldn't have noticed Rodney using their distraction as cover, leaning in close to Keller and murmuring, "No, listen, we can use this …."
John carefully looked over at Ronon and Teyla so neither of them would realize there was anything to see. He leaned back in his chair, the last of the tension he'd been carrying for weeks finally unwinding.
Atlantis was stuck on Earth, for now, and no one knew if they would be allowed to go back to Pegasus or would be trapped on Earth forever, but the people who mattered all agreed they should go back. They would find a way. Most importantly, John's team was intact. Nothing that really mattered would change.
He took a drink of water to hide his smile.