John Sheppard was a study in contradictions. Ronon liked contradictions, liked contrasts, the starkness of light and shadow, hard and soft, blurry and sharp. It was why he fought and also why he painted and wrote poetry. Hard and soft, blurry and sharp. John Sheppard was sharp angles - pointy ears, slender wrists, spiky hair - and soft features - delicate cheekbones, sweet mouth, slinky hips. He was soldier discipline and rebel insouciance. He was impatient ignorance and genius-level calculations. He was as ruthless as Ronon, as quick as Rodney, as measured as Teyla. Ronon liked him, and Ronon respected him, but he wasn’t sure he understood him. Trying to figure him out was a fun puzzle, though, filled the spaces between combat and meals and running and sleeping and dreaming.
The first time Ronon watched John in battle, refusing to give up on a soldier lost to the madness of the Wraith, he knew John was loyal. He hadn’t expected John to be sentimental, except one day he went to the command office to ask John a question and he saw John crowding Major Lorne up against one of the desks, kissing Lorne and stroking his hair and calling him beautiful.
John didn’t talk about his feelings, except he could describe in detail to Ronon why he liked a certain football game, or a song, and it all came back to feeling like he was free, and in control, and had prevailed over impossible odds. John didn’t talk about his family back on Earth, but he knew his family on Atlantis. He made sure Rodney didn’t eat anything he was allergic to, saved extra shares of popcorn for Teyla on movie nights, was patient about teaching Ronon how to read English, which was the written language of the expedition.
When Colonel Carter informed him, Teyla, and Rodney that John’s father had died, Ronon was surprised. Obviously John had a father - he was alive, after all - but he’d assumed John’s family was dead, for all he spoke of them. Teyla could not accompany John in her condition, and Rodney had an assignment off-world, to protect a planet full of children from the Wraith. Ronon wasn’t sure whether Colonel Carter knew about John and Lorne, but even if she did, Lorne couldn’t accompany John to Earth for the funeral, because Lorne had to assume command while John was gone. The only logical choice, then, was Ronon. He’d been to Earth once before, when Rodney’s sister was kidnapped. He could handle being on Earth again.
Ronon didn’t know what to think when Major Lorne cornered him on his way to the gate, made him promise to keep an eye on John and protect John and, bizarrely, forgive John.
John was silent during their quarantine at the Midway station, and Ronon wasn’t about to press him for details. He knew John had been married once, but he and his wife had gone through some official separation process, and John was unmarried now, had been at least since he’d come to Atlantis. Ronon didn’t know about John’s mother or whether he had any children - he was surprisingly good with children, especially as compared to Rodney and Zelenka - or any brothers and sisters.
On Earth, everyone who spoke to John offered him condolences, which John accepted stiffly, uncomfortable with the sympathy. The last time they’d come to Earth, they’d beamed right down to Canada where Rodney’s sister had been kidnapped from, but this time they took an airplane to a city far away from Cheyenne Mountain, a place called Boston.
The closer they got to Boston, the more tense John became, constantly scanning their surroundings, watching anyone who watched him for too long. They rented a car at the airport to drive to the place where the funeral was being held.
On the drive, John finally cracked. “I’ve never told anyone this,” he said.
“Not even Rodney or Lorne?” Ronon knew John loved both of them, but in different ways. He kissed Lorne, slept with him, but he was closer to Rodney, somehow.
John shook his head. “No. Not Rodney. And Lorne - he already knows.”
A puzzle piece slid home. That was why John kissed Lorne and not Rodney. The vulnerability in sex - the emotional, not just the physical - was something John couldn’t risk with Rodney, with the weight of this secret he was essentially being forced to share with Ronon. John had no secrets from Lorne, wasn’t as vulnerable with him.
“My family is dangerous,” John said. “My father is - was - like a warlord. He owned the streets of South Boston. He was a criminal and a dictator, a genius and a tyrant. As the oldest son, I was expected to take over, but I didn’t want to, couldn’t -” He swallowed hard. “My younger brother will likely take over the family in my father’s place. But I don’t know if my father really died of a heart attack or something else. I could be walking into an Irish wake, or I could be walking into a war zone. And it’s not the kind of war we fight. It’s not about protecting people from the Wraith or Goa’uld or Ori. It’s about greed and ego.”
Ronon thought of Kell, the betrayer, the criminal, the thug.
John darted a glance at Ronon. “If you want to sit this fight out, I totally understand. But this is my family and my past, and I couldn’t run away from them forever.”
Ronon eyed him. “If your family is like this, why even come home for the funeral?”
“Because,” John said softly, “he’s my father.”
The place where the funeral was being held was outside the city, on a massive estate, with wide green lawns, multiple outbuildings, and a giant house. The long gravel driveway was crowded with shiny dark cars that looked expensive, and people in dark suits were everywhere.
John parked at the end of the line of shiny dark cars and slid out of the rental car, buttoned his suit jacket - he hadn’t worn his fancy blue uniform, like he had for Beckett’s funeral - and stood up straight and tall. Ronon followed him toward the house and noted that almost every single man was carrying at least one gun.
Everyone wore dark clothes, and everyone watched as they approached the front steps where a cluster of men were gathered.
The man in the center was tall, square-jawed, blue-eyed, handsome.
He broke away from the group, descended the steps. “John.”
Some of the older men turned, smiled broadly, and greeted him with cries of, “Baby John!”
Ronon would never have, in a million years, referred to John Sheppard as Baby John. But the older men came down the steps and swarmed John, hugged him, pressed kisses to his cheeks and hair, patted him on the shoulder.
“Welcome home, Baby John,” one of the oldest men said. He had white hair and a certain familiar pointiness to his ears. “So glad you got the news. You home for good?” He cast the blue-eyed man a look.
“I sent the news to your CO at Peterson,” the blue-eyed man said. “But messages don’t always seem to reach you.”
“I came as soon as I heard,” John said.
The blue-eyed man raised his eyebrows at Ronon. “Who’s your friend?”
“Dave, this is Ronon Dex, one of our civilian contractors. Ronon, this is my brother Dave.”
Ronon offered a hand. “Nice to meet you.” He’d learned Earth formalities well.
Dave huffed. “Bet Baby John didn’t even tell you I existed before today.”
Ronon was good at keeping a straight face, merely shrugged.
Dave stepped closer, lowered his voice. “Why did you come, John?”
John met his brother’s gaze. “How did Father really die?”
A muscle twitched in Dave’s jaw. “Let’s go inside.” He started for the door. Several of the older men followed, including the one who’d welcomed John home. When Ronon went to follow, several men moved to block his path, but John said, with quiet authority,
“He’s with me.”
The men stepped aside - their deference was different than the Marines’ - and Ronon followed John into the house.
Ronon knew enough about Earth culture and art to understand that John’s house was expensive. They walked through one set of glass doors and another, into what looked like an office. It had thick carpets, tall bookshelves, and a massive wooden desk, behind which Dave sat. The other men arrayed themselves on either side of him, like vassals before a chieftain, leaving John and Ronon on the other side of the desk.
“My CO said it was a heart attack,” John said without preamble. “But in our family, a heart attack can be a lot of things.”
“It was the Flanigans.” Dave’s blue eyes were icy.
John sucked in a breath. “They’re from California. What are they doing all the way out here?”
“They came to visit once and, unbeknownst to us, decided they liked it, started digging their hooks in with some of the Armenians,” Dave said. “Dad was right, you know. About that kid, Bluebell. He was dangerous. He started something, but then he ran off before he could finish it, and someone took it in a different direction.”
“Bluebell?” John echoed. He looked shocked. And hurt.
Dave nodded. “You remember him, right? All blue eyes and dimples.” He smirked. “You got real friendly with him when he was in town. Except - oops! Don’t ask, don’t tell, right, brother?”
The other men laughed.
John’s expression went dangerously blank.
“It looked like a heart attack,” Dave said, “and his death certificate says it’s a heart attack, and everyone who comes to pay their respects will talk about how tragic it is, Dad dying so young.”
“Then I’ll pay my respects and go,” John said.
“It’s not that simple, and you know it. You run out on your family, disrespect your father and the Sheppard name, and you show up now, when the old man is dead?” Dave fixed John with an unimpressed look. “You’re a loose cannon, John, a loose end. Are you here to challenge the will? To take over the family? Because you’ve been out of the game. You don’t know how things are run on the streets anymore.”
“I wanted off the streets,” John said. “I wanted in the air.”
“And you got your wings. So why come back now?”
John huffed, shook his head. “You don’t know what it’s like out there. You don’t know how the world works beyond these streets, this city. I came back because he was my father too. In all this madness, family is what matters.”
Dave sneered. “You call yourself family, after you turned tail and ran, like a coward? After you fucked things up with Nancy and -”
“Nancy was none of your business.” John’s voice was soft, dangerous.
Nancy was an Earther name for a female. Had she been John’s wife?
John reached into his jacket.
Immediately every man in the room, including Dave, was holding a handgun.
But John held out his hand. On his palm was a ring.
Dave stared. “Where did you get that?”
“I’m Patrick Sheppard’s oldest son,” John said. “He gave it to me when I turned eighteen, as was my birthright.”
Dave’s throat worked. “He said it was lost.”
“He meant I was lost.”
The other men holstered their weapons. Ronon, who’d reached for one of his knives, forced himself to relax. This was like nothing he’d ever dealt with before. There was so much going on, history and emotion and all the things John had never dared to say.
“Give it to me. It’s mine by right, by blood, by sacrifice.” Dave reached for it.
John closed his hand around the ring. “How did Father really die?”
Fury flashed in Dave’s eyes, but he sat back, affected a deliberately relaxed pose. “Poison. Puffer fish. Odorless, tasteless. At his favorite sushi restaurant.”
“And the chef who served it to him?” John raised his eyebrows.
“Fish food in Boston Harbor.” The cold, matter-of-fact way with which Dave described the chef’s demise was both frightening and familiar.
John nodded. “And you’ll be seeking vengeance?”
It was Dave’s turn to raise his eyebrows. “You want a piece of the action? You’re a soldier, after all. You kill for money, don’t you? And for God and country.” He tilted his head, expression sliding into amusement. “Not so different from being part of this family, now is it?”
“I want no part of it,” John said. “I just want to know -”
“The bastard who did this will die. I’ll see to it, with my own hands if necessary.” Dave stood up, extended a hand. “Now. The ring.”
John reached out, uncurled his fist, dropped the ring onto his brother’s outstretched hand without touching him.
Dave slid it onto his right hand, fourth finger, and some of the tension in his shoulders eased. “You really didn’t come home to take control of this family, did you?” He gazed down at the ring, pleased.
“I really didn’t. I just came to say goodbye.”
Dave lifted his head. “Then goodbye, Sean.”
“Goodbye, Daibhead.” John spun on his heel and headed for the door. Ronon followed him, leery of turning his back on so many armed men, but the black-clad men outside the door parted for them, and every crowd parted so John had a clear path to the room where a large, ornate wooden box was on display.
“Stay here,” John instructed, and he stepped toward the box, laid a hand on it.
It was much fancier than the box they’d put Beckett in to bury him, and it was surrounded by flowers. There was a framed photograph perched on top of it. The old man in the photo didn’t look like Dave or John.
Ronon turned his back on John to give him some privacy, scanned the crowds outside of the house for any threats. People were eyeing him, he suspected because he was with John, and he stared them down, dared them to make a comment or start trouble.
Then John said, “Let’s go.”
They walked to the car in silence. John drove them back to the city. He drove the way he flew - fast, aggressive, with complete control and complete abandon.
“We going back to the airport?” Ronon asked.
“Have some errands to run first.” John parked down a side street, and he and Ronon walked to a small market. Ronon held a wire basket while John filled it with popcorn for Teyla and chocolate for Rodney. They paid for the treats and went to another store.
It was an art supply store. Ronon had heard of them, talked to Lorne about them once or twice, but he’d never seen one, not even in a movie. John went up to the desk, handed the teenage girl a folded piece of paper.
She stared at it. “Are you sure these are the brands you want? Because -”
“Money is no object,” John said.
The girl nodded, wide-eyed, and Ronon followed her around the store with a basket while she loaded it with paints and pastels and brushes and pencils and charcoal and paper and paper and paper. John paid, not even blinking at the cost, and then he and Ronon were on the road again.
The further they got into the city, the more Ronon was sure they were going to get on a plane and go back to Colorado, but they parked outside of an old, grey building with an ornate facade.
Ronon followed John up the steps and into a foyer with a black-and-white patterned tile floor. Two staircases curved up to a second floor, and John took the stairs two at a time. No one was wearing military uniforms, so Ronon had no idea what they were doing there or why. No one really looked at them twice, either.
John paused on the second floor landing, checked a sign on the wall, and turned a sharp left. They stepped into a bustling office.
Most of the people were sitting at desks, bent over computers, just like in the labs back on Atlantis. One woman - slender, with a graceful neck and soft-looking brown hair - looked up, saw them, and her eyes narrowed.
“I told you I had an ex-wife, right?” John leaned against the counter, hands in his pockets.
“Here she comes.”
The slender woman wove around the desks and computers and headed straight for them. “John Sheppard,” she hissed. “What the hell are you doing here?”
John reached into his pocket and drew out a slim silver device. “In town for my father’s funeral.”
The fury on the woman’s face abated. “I’m sorry about your loss. But you’re insane, showing your face here.”
John slid the device across the counter to her.
“What is this?”
“Something you might want,” John said, “in the coming days.”
The woman stared at it. “Why?”
“Because my father didn’t really die of a heart attack.”
The woman scooped up the device, pressed a button on it.
Tinny voices emitted from it.
“How did Father really die?”
“Poison. Puffer fish. Odorless, tasteless. At his favorite sushi restaurant.”
“And the chef who served it to him?”
“Fish food in Boston Harbor.”
“And you’ll be seeking vengeance?”
“You want a piece of the action? You’re a soldier, after all. You kill for money, don’t you? And for God and country. Not so different from being part of this family, now is it?”
“I want no part of it. I just want to know -”
“The bastard who did this will die. I’ll see to it, with my own hands if necessary.”
The woman stared at the recording device. “John. You have to get off the streets. They’ll kill you -”
“The prosecutor’s office wants to convict my brother, doesn’t it?”
The woman nodded stiffly.
“You have what you need.” John straightened up. “You said goodbye to your family, Nancy. Now I’m saying goodbye to mine.”
“John,” the woman began, but John jerked his chin at Ronon, and together, they left the fancy grey building.
“Where to now?” Ronon asked.
“Home. We’re going home.”