John hadn’t realized he’d missed lunch until Rodney showed up in his office and plunked himself down in the chair on the opposite side of the desk. A plastic-wrapped turkey sandwich was tossed on top of the printed e-mail that John had read and re-read a hundred times since he got it.
“You could’ve called.”
“Sorry. Lost track of time.”
Rodney snorted. “Yeah, you look incredibly busy.” He gestured at John’s feet, propped up on the desk.
“Thanks for the sandwich.” John nudged it with his ankle but didn’t feel like eating.
“What’s up with you?” Rodney studied him as if he was a particularly confounding bit of Ancient tech. There were times John welcomed that focus – when they were in bed together Rodney could play him like a well-tuned instrument – but sometimes he wanted to keep his own counsel.
“Nothing’s up with me.” John tried not to, but he couldn’t help darting a glance at the paper underneath the sandwich. Before he could react, Rodney reached out and snatched up the e-mail, eyes moving rapidly as he read.
“Well, this is ridiculous, but I don’t see why it’s got you all worked up.” Rodney waved the print-out, flashing the Avenger’s logo. “Stark has a lot of pull, but he’s not getting his grubby hands on my city.”
John fought back a grin. He liked it when Rodney got that spark in his eye, and when he got possessive of Atlantis. That was something they’d shared since the early days of the expedition.
“Are you worried your Marines will like Rogers more than you? I don’t think they’d pass you over for Captain Clean-cut.” Rodney tossed the e-mail back on the desk, where it ended up leaning against John’s leg.
“I’m not worried about that.” He was confident of his place both in Atlantis and with the soldiers under his command. Besides, Captain America didn’t inspire the same blind devotion he had during World War II; he was too intertwined with the mess SHIELD had made, and the billions of dollars of damage incurred by the Avengers as they saved the world.
“Well, what is it then? Something’s bothering you, I can tell.” Rodney leaned forward in the chair. “Are you worried because he’s bringing the other guy with him? He’s been cleared, hasn’t he?”
Irritation welled up in John. “His name is Barnes, and yes. He’s been cleared.”
“Huh. Defensive. I wasn’t expecting that.”
There were times John wished that Rodney didn’t know him so well. It had been easier to get away with things when the man was still mostly oblivious to the intricacies of human behavior. Or at least John’s behavior.
“Come on, Sheppard.” And now Rodney looked a little hurt, which wasn’t what John wanted. “I can keep a secret, you know.”
John sighed. He supposed there was no reason he couldn’t tell Rodney what was on his mind, even though he’d never told anyone else; it was personal and private. But this was Rodney, and they didn’t have many secrets between them.
“I know. Look, it’s not a big deal. Just…personal.” John shifted his feet on the desk and closed his eyes, wondering where to start. “My grandfather served in World War II. He was part of the107th, knew the Howling Commandos. He used to tell my brother and I stories about them, especially when he’d had too much to drink. Which was a lot.”
John could hear Rodney settling back in his chair, and tried to remember enough that he could explain it in a way that Rodney would understand.
“You can’t always,” his cousin Marcus protested.
The other boys ranged around them, watching and waiting. It was a regular argument, and Johnny knew Marcus only complained because he didn’t like Johnny to have his way. But it didn’t matter, because Johnny knew the right words to say.
“Can, too. It’s my house.”
Marcus scowled but he knew when he was beaten. It’s not like he didn’t know that Johnny always wanted to play Howling Commandos, and when they did he always played Barnes.
Poppa Frank told Johnny all about Bucky and Dum Dum and Dernier. They’d been a team, and maybe Captain America had been their leader but Poppa said they’d been Bucky’s first.
Johnny pumped up his BB gun and ran to find some high ground so he could get off sniper shots at the enemy.
And then, in seventh grade, John read Behind the Shield by Marilyn Edgers. She told a very different story of the friendship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. Most of it was based on oral history – she’d talked to their family members, their friends, the surviving members of the Howling Commandos – though there were one or two documents that seemed to support the author’s claim that Rogers and Barnes were closer than friends.
John, who had read everything about Bucky Barnes and watched every documentary, believed. Rogers had broken every rule to get Bucky back after Hydra captured him. They’d been close as brothers growing up in Brooklyn. And when Bucky died, so did Captain America. Sure, it was a noble sacrifice in service to his country. But John felt it was an unnecessary one, made by a man so stricken with grief that he couldn’t face life without the person who had been his one constant.
Maybe it was just him projecting, but when John looked at pictures of the two of them he swore he could see it. The love they had for each other, shining in their eyes. John knew how it felt, having to hide his true nature. His true feelings. Hiding the way watching Marsh Mercer run track made John’s stomach feel funny, his skin feel too tight.
When John decided to join the Air Force, part of that was the patriotism that he’d grown up with. Poppa Frank, for all that he needed Scotch to get through a day, said that serving had been the best thing he ever did. Part of it was his burning desire to fly, to free himself from his father’s disappointment and his mother’s death and all the expectations that had been piled on him since the day he was born.
Part of it was wanting to make a difference. Just like Bucky.
John had seen pictures of Steve Rogers, as well as some news footage, and he always looked the same. Lost. For the first time in his life, John was able to empathize with the world’s biggest Boy Scout. He knew what that felt like. When he’d come back from being stuck in the time dilation field, he’d felt so out of step. It had been six long months for him. Six months without Rodney, or Atlantis.
After the Battle of New York, with the inexplicable wormhole opening up over Manhattan, the Stargate program had been declassified. General O’Neill had come to Atlantis with a contingent of IOA representatives, and SHIELD Director Nick Fury. The city hadn’t been made public, at least not yet, but Fury was interested in having some of his people in the city.
Two years later Fury was back, looking worse for wear, to recall his agents. SHIELD had collapsed, and everyone who’d worked there had to be re-vetted to make sure they weren’t Hydra. But that wasn’t the biggest news that came along with the Director’s visit.
Bucky Barnes was alive.
John had devoured every news clip, every article, and the transcripts from the Senate hearings. He hadn’t thought it possible, but his estimation of Barnes only increased. He’d been brainwashed, abused, made into a weapon. And still he’d been unable to follow Hydra’s orders and kill Captain America. He’d forgotten everything but his love for Rogers.
Again, John could relate. He’d been on the receiving end of that kind of single-mindedness, not once but twice. The bond he had with Rodney wasn’t something he’d ever planned on, but there was no mistaking it for anything as simple as friendship.
When John had seen a picture of Rogers and Barnes out having ice cream, Barnes looking a little shaggy but caught in the act of favoring Rogers with a shy smile, his eyes had burned.
“I’m not nervous,” John protested. Actually, he felt a little sick. Bucky Barnes had been such a big part of his life, and to meet the man face to face…it was never something he’d thought could happen.
“Do we know why they’re coming?”
“You read the e-mail. All it says is that the Captain wants to come and check Atlantis out.”
And that was the bitch of it right there. What reason did Rogers have for coming to Pegasus? It seemed like they had their hands full back home, especially now that the remnants of SHIELD were working in conjunction with the SGC against all alien threats. Had Fury changed his mind? Was he going to push for a presence in Atlantis?
“Superpowers or no superpowers, if Stark is sending them to do some sort of recon, or to infiltrate our systems, they’re going to be outmatched.” Rodney puffed up his chest.
John dropped his feet off the desk. “Come here.”
Rodney grumbled about bossy Colonels but he went, moving around the side of the desk and dropping down to straddle John in the chair. He was a warm, familiar weight, and John tipped his head against Rodney’s chest.
“I have this picture of him in my head, you know? What if the reality is…less?”
“He’s a man, Sheppard. Just like you, except with a bigger fan base.”
“I don’t have a fan base,” John protested weakly. They’d had that conversation more than once in the past.
“The hell you don’t. Every Marine on this base would take a bullet for you, no questions asked. They think you walk on water.”
John wasn’t about to launch into that argument again. Instead he kissed Rodney, soft and slow, grateful to still have the opportunity. There’d been more than one occasion where things had seemed dire, when John was sure Rodney would be taken from him forever, or vice versa. He knew all too well how it would feel to be alone again.
“Are you trying to distract me?”
“Is it working?” John kissed the hinge of Rodney’s jaw.
“You know it always does. But I’m not doing this here.” Rodney slid off John’s lap. “And not now. I have a meeting with Radek and that asshat Pomelov. Give me two hours?”
“That should give me plenty of time to think about what I want to do to you,” John replied with a smirk.
Rodney flushed. “Make that an hour and a half.”
John held back, let Woolsey do the talking. Rogers explained that he and Barnes were in Atlantis for a little R&R, away from the ever-present media. Nothing official.
“Bucky always was a science nerd,” Rogers said. “He’s in his glory right now. Wormholes, floating cities, spaceships; when we were kids that was comic book stuff.”
“Hey, Steve.” Bucky, who’d been talking with Rodney, came over. He looked much more relaxed, and was almost smiling. “Dr. McKay thinks I might have that gene.”
“That’s great, Buck!” The look Rogers gave him was full of naked affection.
John thought about how brave they were. When Barnes had been under Hydra’s control he’d done so many terrible things. But Rogers had overlooked that. Had championed Barnes in the press. Even more, Barnes had reached out. John was no stranger to the ways guilt could wear a person down, make them feel unworthy.
If Bucky Barnes could overcome all that, the least John could do was talk to him. He held his hand out, waited for the other man to shake it.
“I, uh. I just wanted to thank you.”
Barnes was back to looking tense. “For what?”
“You inspired me a lot. As a kid. You’re part of the reason I ended up here.”
“Oh.” Barnes shot a look at Rogers. “Okay.”
“Any time you want, I’d be happy to take you out in a ‘jumper. We have a pretty little galaxy out here.”
Barnes’ eyes lit up. “Yeah? I’d really like that!”
John was pretty sure he was grinning like an idiot, if the look on Rodney’s face was anything to go by. Maybe meeting your idols wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
“Come on, fanboy,” Rodney murmured in his ear. “Before you embarrass yourself and ask for his autograph.”
John led the tour with a light heart. For the length of Barnes’ stay in Atlantis, he’d do his best to give a little back to the man who’d given him so much, without even knowing it.
Thank you, Bucky Barnes.