The Kids Are Alright
Big Bang 2008.   Forks in the Road: Outcast - Rodney goes back to Earth with John instead of/in addition to Ronon.
When John Sheppard's father dies, he finds himself faced with an estranged brother, runaway Replicators, and a budding relationship with the ever-complex, frequently annoying Rodney McKay. There is only so much a guy can take before reaching his breaking point.
Word Count
43250 words
This story would never have been finished without the following amazing people: My Betas - indybaggins, kimberlyfdr, and sam_gamgee; My incredible support group - who praised me and pushed me to keep going, even when I didn't think it would ever be done - indybaggins, darsynia, wickedwords, and chandri; and my tireless cheerleader d_odyssey, who has had to listen to me whine about this for months and has read over my rough drafts more times than I can count. You guys all rock!! Thank you so much!
Companion Artwork
  • The Kids Are Alright - Alternate Cover [II] by clear_as_blood
  • The Kids Are Alright - Cover [I] by clear_as_blood
  • The Kids Are Alright [III] by clear_as_blood
  • The Kids Are Alright [IV] by clear_as_blood
  • The Kids Are Alright [V] by clear_as_blood

John stands quietly in front of the stargate, duffel bag in hand. He keeps his eyes forward, pretending he can't see the sympathetic looks, doesn't know the question they all want to ask. Why don't they believe him when he says he's fine? He's dealt with death before: his mother, friends and comrades, Carson, Elizabeth. What he feels now is nothing compared to the bone-deep ache he felt then. John blows out a puff of air and tries not to think about what kind of man - what kind of shitty son - that makes him.

On the verge of yelling up to Chuck, to see what's taking so long, a blur of motion to his right catches his eye. John turns to find Ronon standing next to him, wearing a stretched out black T-shirt he got from who knows where, and the jeans he'd gotten from the SGC his last time on Earth. Before John can open his mouth, there is further commotion to his left and suddenly McKay is there, barking orders into his earpiece while adjusting the straps on his backpack. John stares at him, then back at Ronon.

"Where you going?"

There's a loud whoosh as the gate finally activates. "With you," Ronon answers simply, before walking towards the gate.

"Yes, yes, did you seriously think we would let you go do this alone? Never mind, of course you did."

John realizes McKay is speaking to him and turns back, mouth still hanging open. "But-"

"Shut your mouth. You look like a fish. And I simply told Zelenka he was going to have to suck it up and deal with the demon children this time. I had more important things to do. Well, are you just going to stand there all day, or are you coming?"

The rush of words is familiar and oddly comforting. John follows behind McKay, feeling a little stunned. What the hell just happened here?


Rodney sits down in the seat next to John, where he's been scrunched looking out the window since their flight took off. He has been trying hard to give John space, give him some privacy, but he doesn't know what his role here is. This thing, this whatever it is he has with John, is so new that he's not even sure it qualifies as a thing yet. All Rodney knows is that he hates seeing John in pain, and feels this overwhelming need to fix it.

"Nice view." Rodney waves a hand towards the window, where all that can be seen are clouds. John grunts in reply. He points over John's shoulder. "Look, is that the Grand Canyon?"

There is a second of silence, and then John lets out a low chuckle. Rodney can just make out the crinkle of lines at the edge of his eye that means he's smiling. "'S in the other direction, Einstein."

Rodney relaxes a little as John uncoils in his seat and shoots him a fond, exasperated look.

"Don't tell me you skipped all your geography lessons in school, McKay. And don't think I don't know what you're doing," he adds, before Rodney can come up with a suitably scathing response.

Rodney lifts his chin defensively. "I don't know what you're talking about, Colonel." John raises an eyebrow and Rodney caves instantly. "Okay, so maybe I just want to help." He cuts him off before he can protest, yet again, that he's fine. "And don't give me that crap about being fine. You're not fine and you're not supposed to be fine. Your dad just died. You just-" Rodney's anger drains out of him as quickly as it came. "You don't need to put up some macho front for me, okay?"

John mouths the word 'macho?' back at him, but then says, voice hushed, "Yeah, okay."

Suddenly uncomfortable with all this weird talk about feelings, Rodney looks away and starts fiddling with the end of his seatbelt. He can feel John's gaze on him and he tries really hard not to say anything else that might further embarrass himself. Apparently his mouth has other ideas.

"Sorry, it's just that…I want to do this right, this you-and-me thing." He makes a vague circular motion between the two of them. "I don't want to screw things up again, and-"

"Hey." John's voice is soft. "You're doing good, Rodney."

Rodney looks up at him. "Really?"

He isn't quite smiling, but the tension around his eyes and shoulders is gone. "Yes, really."

Rodney glances around the small cabin, but Ronon is dozing a few rows up, and otherwise they're alone – a small concession from Stargate Command for not allowing the Apollo to just beam them to Virginia. Emboldened, he then reaches over and takes John's hand.

There is a frightening moment when John doesn't react at all, and Rodney thinks he's made a huge mistake, but then John lets out a sigh and threads his fingers through Rodney's, giving his hand a squeeze. This time John's smile reaches his eyes.

Heart pounding, Rodney relaxes into John, who takes it as an invitation to lean over and rest his head on Rodney's shoulder. His hair tickles Rodney's ear and he's about to complain about colonels who can't keep their follicles to themselves, when he realizes John's fallen asleep. Staring down at where their hands stay joined between them, Rodney can't stop the smile from spreading across his face.

Ronon yawns and stretches in a seat clearly not built to hold a man his size. He prefers riding in the back of the puddle jumper, where there's room to move around, even pace if he wants to. He's never been very good at holding still.

Tilting his head back to check on Sheppard, Ronon can't hold back a grin. Sheppard and McKay are both asleep, fingers entwined on McKay's knee, their heads pressed together as if they're sharing a secret. Ronon is reminded, with a twist of melancholy, of his sister's twin boys and the way they had been inseparable, even in sleep.

It doesn't surprise Ronon, that Sheppard and McKay have formed this bond, although Teyla insists he not mention it to anyone. As if he would. Okay, so maybe he doesn't get what Sheppard sees in McKay, but they're both kind of weird and like to talk a lot about stuff that makes no sense to anyone but each other.

Closing his eyes, Ronon shifts in his seat and tries to get comfortable. At least he can take a break for a few days. After all, how much trouble can those two get into here on Earth, while attending a funeral?

John jerks awake to the whine of the plane's landing gear descending. There's a fair amount of blushing and avoidance of eyes as he and Rodney pull apart.

"We will never speak of this again," Rodney declares. John nods in agreement. "Deal." But there's little chance of that, if Ronon's amused look is any indication. John attempts a stern look – which doesn't even work on Lorne these days – and Ronon's smile widens. Oh yeah, he and Rodney are lucky Ronon doesn't carry a camera.

John almost forgets why they're all there, until Ronon stands up and retrieves the bag containing their suit jackets. Oh yeah. Crap. There's a rental car waiting for them when they land in Roanoke. After a brief scuffle over the front seat, which Ronon wins easily by pointing out that for him to fit into the back seat Rodney would have to be squashed against the dashboard, they're on their way. Twenty minutes later they're pulling up to his father's house.

John steps from the car and slips on his jacket, waiting while the others do the same. The material pulls tight across his shoulders, forcing him to stand straighter despite his best efforts. Shoving his hands into his pants pockets, John walks across the well-manicured lawn, towards the small crowd already gathered on the patio. He's never felt comfortable calling this place home, even though he did spend a lot of his childhood here.

It doesn't take long for John's brother Dave to spot them, and he comes over. Once close as kids, their relationship had been yet one more casualty of John's falling out with his father. Neither of them had understood John's passions, nor his need to follow a different path than that expected of him.

There is an uncomfortable pause, then Dave reaches out to shake John's hand firmly. "It's been too long," he says, voice grim. "I was afraid my message wouldn't get to you. They don't always seem to."

John nods, hearing the recrimination behind the words. "I came as soon as I heard."

Dave is polite upon meeting Ronon and Rodney, and raises a skeptical eyebrow when McKay introduces himself as "Dr. Rodney McKay, PhD."

"And you three…work together in the Air Force?"

"They're civilian contractors," John swiftly clarifies; ready to head off any uncomfortable questions they can't answer.

Rodney shoots him a glare. "I was going to say we're your friends. You are allowed to have friends, right?"

"Rodney," John hisses. "Now is not the time."

"What?" Rodney does his defiant little arm cross-chin raise maneuver. "I realize it's a sign a weakness in your tribe to admit you can't deal with absolutely everything on your own, but surely-"

"McKay!" The desperation in his voice must get through, because Rodney's mouth snaps shut. John risks a look at Dave. To his surprise, the constipated expression is actually gone, replaced by an amused smile. John doesn't care. He just wants out of Family Hell right now.

"John, we should probably talk later." Dave glances back at the milling crowd of visitors. "I'll come find you." John just nods dumbly.

Dave is barely out of hearing when John feels a sharp jab to his ribs. "Why didn't you ever tell me – er, us – that you had a brother?"

"Oh, c'mon, McKay. It just never came up, okay? It's not like you mentioned Jeannie until you thought you were dying!" And, okay, he doesn't need the pointed look to tell him that's a lousy excuse, given their past circumstances. "I just – it's complicated."

Ronon grunts. "He doesn't look a thing like you." They both turned to stare at him. "What? He doesn't."

John's hand twitches at his side. He misses his gun. His nerves are unraveling; he can feel them twanging in his gut. The reality of this situation is crashing down around him and if he doesn't get away…

"I need -" John waves a hand towards…somewhere, anywhere. "I need to go -" And he just walks off, trusting them not to come after him.

Rodney moves to follow Sheppard, but is stopped by a hand on his arm.

"McKay, let him go."

"But, but, he's upset. We should, I don't know. Aren't we supposed to help him? Isn't that why we came?" Rodney hates feeling helpless. His job is to fix things. That's what Sheppard keeps him around for.

"We will. We are." Ronon's voice is unreasonably calm. "He needs to do this on his own."

"And when did you become such an expert?" The words fly out of his mouth without thought, and Rodney's immediately horrified. "Oh God, I am insensitive and bad with people."

Thankfully, Ronon doesn't punch him. Instead he rests his hand on Rodney's shoulder and somewhat gently guides him in the other direction from the way Sheppard took. "C'mon, I think I saw some food over there."

"Yeah, okay," Rodney agrees weakly. "I guess I could eat."

The Sheppard house is really more of a small estate. Rodney looks around and takes it all in while working on his third (tiny) plate of finger food. The main building is a sprawling grey stoned two-story, surrounded by a well manicured lawn, potted plants, and a dense forest of trees. He counts at least four chimneys atop the roof, and while windows run continuously along both levels, Rodney has trouble imagining an interior that is anything but oppressively dark.

The viewing is currently taking place to Rodney's right, in what appears to be a guest house or annex of some sort. In front of him is a small pool, which looks more decorative than practical, and beyond that an enormous horse stable and training pen. The Sheppards must really be into horses. He grunts to himself. They are also obviously very, very rich.

Rodney licks a smear of cream cheese from his lip and eyes the dessert trays. Ronon's answer to the teeny-tiny plates is to carry three at once, all piled high. Sure, it works well for Ronon, who is a freak of nature with gargantuan hands. Something Rodney feels compelled to tell him.

Ronon grins. "You're just jealous."

"Humph." Okay, there may be some truth to that. "Maybe we should make a plate for Sheppard and get him to eat something." Rodney picks up a new plate and tries to decide what John might like.

"Sure, good idea." Ronon scans the crowd and gestures with a shrimp on a toothpick, towards the horse pen. "He's over there."

They make their way through the crowd, around the pool – and Rodney is never going to let Sheppard live down the whole Oh My God, So Rich! thing – to where John is standing quietly on his own. A horse wanders over and sticks its head over the fence and John reaches up to rub its nose. Snout? Whatever.

"Hey," Ronon calls out, startling John out of whatever thoughts he was having. "We brought you some food." He doesn't, however, make a move to relinquish one of his three, so Rodney sighs and offers the plate he's carrying. John waves it off.

"Nah, I'm good. Thanks though."

"Is this the house you grew up in?" Ronon asks, popping hors d'oeuvres into his mouth like they're peanuts.

John squints into the waning sun and Rodney bets he wishes he'd brought his sunglasses. "Yeah, one of 'em." They all look around at the house and grounds again for a minute.

Rodney looks back and snorts. "You are so filthy rich."

Ronon mops up the last of the sauce on his plate with a crust of bread, wondering if he can slip away and get some more. McKay has been rambling on and on about Sheppard being something called 'The Man', which makes little sense to him. Sheppard's nodding along, clearly not listening, when his body stiffens and his face goes pale. Immediately on alert, Ronon searches the crowd for impending danger, but all he sees is an attractive woman heading their way.

"I told you guys I have an ex-wife, right?" Sheppard asks nervously, biting his lip.

"Yeah, why?"

Sheppard winces. "Because she's heading this way." Ronon watches in fascination as Sheppard's expression morphs from horrified to overly polite in the blink of an eye when he turns to greet her. "Nancy."

There's an awkward hug and Sheppard introduces Nancy to Ronon and McKay, who is eyeing her the way he does the new scientists off the Daedalus: like fresh meat. Suspecting the shocked silence is about to wear off, Ronon grabs McKay by the elbow and pulls him away, trying to give Sheppard some privacy.

From the back, Sheppard looks tense and uncomfortable. Ronon takes the opportunity to study Nancy. She carries herself with confidence and is naturally beautiful. Not like those plastic women with inflated breasts that bounce around in a lot of Earth movies Ronon's seen. He imagines she's strong willed and independent, a good match for Sheppard.

"Wait, Sheppard…Sheppard was married?" McKay sputters next to him. "And you knew?" He pokes Ronon in the chest with his index finger.

Ronon blinks slowly and stares, daring McKay to try that again. "Sure," he shrugs. "Sheppard told me a while ago. You mean he didn't tell you?"

"Well, of course he - that is to say - no." His shoulders slump. "Why wouldn't he tell me something like that?"

Raising an eyebrow, Ronon says, "Maybe because he thought you'd be upset."

"Upset? Upset?! Do I look upset to you?"


Sheppard and Nancy hug again, and Nancy looks kind of sad as she turns to leave. Ronon is smart enough to know better than to get between McKay and his potential target, so he hangs back to enjoy the show. He doesn't have long to wait.

"Ex-wife?!" McKay's voice carries across the lawn, and a few guests look over. John grimaces, takes him by the elbow, and hustles him closer to the fence. "I can't believe you were married and never told me! And why does Ronon already know?"

Ronon just looks amused and raises an eyebrow. He's no help at all. "Look, Rodney, it just never came up, okay?"

"Oh, I see, just like you never thought it was important to mention you had a brother. Here I am, thinking you're an orphan or something, and you've got relatives and ex-relatives all over the place!"

Rodney gives him a hurt look and turns away, pretending to be interested in his food. John's chest tightens; he wants nothing more than to run a soothing hand down Rodney's back or to pull him close and stroke his hair. Anger flares in him, because he can't do any of those things, not here, not now. Instead, John clears his throat and leans closer. "I'm sorry." He wants Rodney to know he means it. "I should have told you."

McKay looks up, directly into his eyes, and John can't help but squirm under the scrutiny, but doesn't look away. He must be satisfied with what he sees there because Rodney makes an 'hmm' noise and shoves his plate at John. "Here, eat something. I'm not going to be responsible if you keel over during the funeral.

John knows that's Rodney McKay speak for 'I forgive you' and takes the plate. Under McKay's watchful eye he dutifully chooses a meat dumpling and pops it into his mouth, smiling thinly. "There's not going to be a funeral. My father requested there be no services."

"Oh, well that's…okay."

John's smile widens. "I have a better idea anyway." He looks at both his friends. "Why don't I show you the bar?"

Ronon claps him on the back, nearly knocking him over. "Sounds good to me."

"Oh, god, yes," Rodney agrees. "That's the best idea I've heard all day." John can't help but agree.

Turns out there really is a full-sized bar at the house, located in a dark paneled room that could easily have been transplanted from a Gentlemen Only club. The bar itself, made of a dark mahogany, runs along one long wall. Behind it, a smartly dressed bartender takes orders and fills drinks. One half of the room is taken up by a large pool table, while plump, leather couches and chairs form a comfortable seating area at the other end, in front of a crackling fire. All that's missing, Rodney muses, is a row of deer heads on the wall.

Sheppard has been sidelined on his way to the bar by an elderly woman with a sympathetic face. She's talking and touching John's arm, while John nods politely. He hides his discomfort well but Rodney can see the tense line of Sheppard's shoulders from there. He's just about to go rescue him, when Ronon nudges Rodney with an elbow.

"Ow! Watch it, you Neanderthal! I happen to like my ribs intact, thank you."

"McKay." Ronon nods his head towards the fireplace.

Rodney looks, but all he sees are people standing around with drinks in their hands. "What? What am I supposed to be looking at?"

Ronon nods again, his voice low. "That woman over there. She's watching Sheppard."

"Of course she is," Rodney snipes, lowering his voice instinctively, to match Ronon's. He sees her now. A young woman, probably in her early twenties. Sort of pretty, with mousy brown hair. "Sheppard attracts women of all ages wherever he goes. Why would a funeral be any different?"

"She was outside before, when Sheppard was talking to his wife."

"Ex-wife!" Rodney feels the need to clarify. He's still a little put out by that unexpected news, not to mention astoundingly surprised that Sheppard actually had the nerve to go through with it. He wonders if this woman is yet another ex crawling out of the woodwork. "And you didn't feel it prudent to mention this before?"

Ronon shrugs. "Telling you now." Ronon's fingers twitch at his side, like he wants to draw his gun. "She could be trouble."

"Yes, or she could be a gold digger after the Sheppard fortune." Deciding it's his job to run interference, Rodney squares his shoulders and marches over. "Excuse me, can I help you?" he bites out harshly.

The young woman startles, then peers closely at his face. "Dr. Rodney McKay?"

Temporarily taken aback, Rodney stares back at her. "You've heard of me? I mean, not that you shouldn't have heard of me, but it's been a few years since I've published and -"

"My name is Ava Dixon," she cuts him off. "I have come here to speak with Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard regarding something of utmost importance."

"Of course you have." Rodney rolls his eyes. "And you two know each other from…?"

"We haven't met, but you all know the man I used to work for: Henry Wallace."

Rodney feels Ronon tense next to him. He's starting to wish Sheppard had let the big guy keep his gun, or at least a few knives in his hair.

"I-I don't know what you're talking about." Worst case scenarios bounce through Rodney's brain: What if she's found out Sheppard's role in Wallace's death and wants to blackmail him? What if she's here to finish the job Wallace started? Oh god, what if something's happened to Jeannie again? Ronon looms closer, as if reading his mind.

Ava purses her lips. "I understand your caution, but I don't have time to play games. I'm not here to threaten or harm you, but I do need to speak to you and Colonel Sheppard somewhere more private, immediately."

Rodney scowls at her. "You do realize his father just died."

"This can't wait," she reiterates stubbornly.

Rodney exchanges a look with Ronon, who gives a slight nod. "You're going to have to. The colonel is off duty. Go find someone else to clean up your dirty work." Before Ava can protest further, Ronon moves in and gently but firmly takes her by the arm, leading her towards the door.

Letting out a nervous gust of air, Rodney moves to finally join Sheppard at the bar.

"There you are, buddy. Thought I lost you." Sheppard reaches up and gives Rodney's shoulder a squeeze. With his other hand he motions to the bartender and holds up three fingers.

"Sorry, I, uh, was helping Ronon look for the bathroom." Rodney's cheeks heat up. He is such a terrible liar.

"Ah." The bartender brings them three large scotches, just as Ronon ambles up to join them. "Find it okay?" John asks him.

"Find what?"

"The bathroom," Rodney hurriedly interjects. "You know, the one I was helping you find." He raises a pointed eyebrow and tilts his head towards Sheppard, who just looks amused.

"Sure," Ronon agrees easily.

John slides a drink towards Ronon, hands another to Rodney, then holds up his own. "I just wanted to thank you guys for coming with me. I know it hasn't been fun, and, well, I appreciate you being here." He tilts his head back and drains the glass. Ronon quickly follows suit.

Rodney takes a huge swallow, the amber liquid burning a trail down his throat and into his stomach, where it churns dangerously. Hacking and coughing, he wipes furiously at the tears in his eyes. "Real smooth," he manages to choke out.

When he's able to see again, Sheppard is laughing, but Rodney notices his eyes are shining too, and there's a pinkness to his cheeks and ears.

Ronon holds up the glass for closer examination. "This stuff is good. Can we bring some back with us?"

"Oh, absolutely," John agrees, immediately ordering up another round. "Absolutely."

The second whiskey goes down easier than the first. By the time John's nursing the third his eyes have stopped watering…mostly. They've moved away from the bar. John and Rodney are slouched together on one of the couches by the fire; Ronon is sitting in an adjacent chair. The day still sucks, but the alcohol is slowing winding its way through John's bloodstream, making him not care just a little bit more with each passing minute.

Rodney is warm where they're pressed together shoulder to thigh, comforting in a way John never expected. The crowds are thinning and no one comes over ready with condolences or a story to tell about John's father. To some he's the other son, the disappointment; to most he's just a stranger. John doesn't know whether to be angry or relieved.

John is shaken from a half-doze some time later by Dave's sudden appearance at his side. He suggests now would be a good time for them to talk, and John acquiesces easily. Rodney is slumped against him, fast asleep, and makes a small noise of protest when John slides out from under him. He can't resist smiling down on him fondly. It's still late afternoon Earth time, but it's already been a long day for all of them. He and Ronon exchange nods and John knows Rodney will be safe until he gets back.

Dave leads John into what had been their father's private office. As they sit on opposite sides of the large, oak desk, hope sparks in John's chest. Maybe some good will come of this. Maybe he and Dave can finally patch things up. He smiles warmly at his brother, but Dave doesn't smile back. Instead he shuffles some papers around on the desk, clearing his throat uncomfortably.

"I hate to be blunt, John, but the lawyers are urging me to proceed with all the necessary paperwork as soon as possible."

"Okaay." John scratches his head, confused.

Dave leans forward. "I need to know if you're going to contest the will."

John stares back, smile frozen in place. "What?" Any feelings of good will evaporate as the penny drops. "That's what you wanted to talk to me about? You think I came today because of the money?"

"Didn't you?"

"I – I thought you -" The words choke off as John's throat closes.

"C'mon, John," Dave continues, when John doesn't. "We haven't seen you in years and then you suddenly show up. What am I supposed to think?"

A surge of anger and hurt threatens to overwhelm John, stinging his eyes and curling his hands into fists. There are more ways than one he never sees it coming. Only, he really should have. Nothing's changed here. He pushes himself to his feet.

"You're supposed to think I'm your brother. You're supposed to think I came to say goodbye to my father." His voice cracks on 'goodbye', and he forces himself to breathe deeply until he's clamped his emotions back down tight. "Y'know what? We're done here. You've got nothing to worry about."

John turns to leave, but something stops him, makes him turn back to pick up a pen off the desk. He scratches his cell number on one of the papers. "If you decide you'd really like to talk, give me a call."

Dave stands, real regret etched on his face. "John, wait."

John doesn't turn back again.

Sheppard comes back sooner than Ronon expected. He assumed the two brothers would have a lot to talk about but, judging from his stony expression and the way he keeps clenching his jaw, the conversation didn't go well.

"Let's get out of here," is all he says.

Ronon kicks at McKay's foot. He jerks awake with a 'Huh?", one arm flailing out. Ronon catches it easily, using it to haul McKay to his feet. "C'mon, McKay, we're leaving."

McKay stumbles and rubs at his eyes. "We're not staying here?"

Sheppard shakes his head. "The SGC called ahead, booked us a room in town."

"But I thought -" McKay gets a look at Sheppard's face and abruptly cuts himself off.

They follow Sheppard silently to the rental car and climb in. Ronon knows what it's like to grieve in public, understands the need to hold it all together for your friends, while inside it feels like the world is ending. If Sheppard drives a little too fast and takes the turns a bit too dangerously, Ronon's not going to say anything. Even McKay must get it because, aside from an occasional whimper, he stays quiet in the back seat.

By the time they make it to the hotel, Sheppard has worked off a lot of his anger. The familiar quirk to his lips slides back into place and he even gets into a spirited argument with McKay over who should carry their bags. On the way up to the room, Ronon rests a hand on Sheppard's shoulder, giving it a squeeze.
They exchange an unspoken 'You okay?' 'Yeah' and both break out into grins when McKay spontaneously announces to the world that he may be a little drunk.

"Oh my god, I need real food," Rodney groans, flopping down onto the couch in their hotel suite.

"Pizza," Ronon adds. Coming from him it sounded more like a demand than a request.

John drops his bag on the floor with a thud and moves to check out the mini bar. Pulling out three beers, he raises an eyebrow at Ronon. "Pizza?"

Ronon settles into the recliner and picks up the TV remote. He starts flipping through channels and shrugs. "I've seen it in your movies, and you all talk about missing it. Figured it must be good."

"Mm, pizza," Rodney agrees.

"Okay, pizza it is then." John hands Ronon a beer and leans down to press a button on the side of the recliner. "Here ya go, buddy." The feet shoot out, surprising Ronon.

"Cool!" Rodney's not sure if that's in answer to the beer or the chair. Ronon pops open his beer and flips through the TV channels until he finds something mindless and violent enough to satisfy him.

Rodney takes his offered beer and scoots his feet out of the way to make room for John. Never let it be said he doesn't think of the needs of others.

Easing himself down with a groan, John immediately yanks off his tie and kicks off his shoes. "God, I hate ties!"

He gets no disagreement from Rodney, who lost his hours ago; it's currently stuffed into the pocket of his suit jacket, hanging over one of the desk chairs.

Eventually they muster up enough energy to order dinner. After it arrives – one large with the works for John and Rodney, a second one for Ronon – and they're settled again, they dim the lights and eat in silence. Bored with whatever tripe they're watching, Rodney turns his attention to John, who is picking listlessly at his slice of pizza.

John's body is arranged into a casual sprawl, but one hand is fisted on the armrest and his eyebrows are drawn together into a slight frown. Rodney doesn't think John's really watching the movie either. He tips his head back to swallow the last of his beer, and Rodney's attention is caught by the slide of his Adam's apple, moving up and down the long expanse of his throat. The flickering light from the TV catches on the prickle of stubble along John's chin, accentuates the planes and shadows of his features. He's so beautiful, Rodney thinks, breath catching in his throat.

John lets his head fall onto the back of the couch and closes his eyes. There's a tightness around his mouth and eyes that worries Rodney. He looks tired, vulnerable. He looks old. This unusual stillness unsettles Rodney most of all. He's used to a Sheppard who is constantly in motion, to the point of irritation, who is always ready with a smirk and an irreverent quip, even under the direst of circumstances. Maybe he should be honored that John is comfortable enough around him – them – to let his guard down, but part of him is not sure he's ready to take this on. It feels like a lot of responsibility.

"Think I'll take a shower now," Rodney announces far too loudly into a momentary lull in the action on screen. John startles beside him, and Rodney swears he can feel his watchful gaze burning into his back as he grabs his travel bag and retreats to the bathroom. Once under the hot spray, he adjusts the settings to massage and tips his head forward to rest his forehead against the cool tile.

He stays that way, the thrum of the water drumming down on his back, easing away the day's tensions, until the heat and steam make him light-headed. Reluctantly, he shuts off the water and steps out into the cooler air of the bathroom. Goosebumps immediately spring up along his arms like little pin pricks.

Quickly toweling off, Rodney slips into a fresh T-shirt and boxers. After a moment's hesitation, he heads back into the living room. They haven't talked about sleeping arrangements and there are only two bedrooms. His back isn't going to be happy with him if he ends up on the sleeper sofa.

The TV is shut off and Ronon has disappeared, presumably into one of the bedrooms. John has gotten up and is standing by the floor-to-ceiling window, looking out. There's a small bottle from the mini bar in his hand, and two more empties lie on their sides nearby. Rodney pauses, unsure of what to do. He considers and dismisses several useless platitudes and opts instead for the Rodney McKay blunt approach.

Rodney grabs up a slice of pizza and stomps over to join Sheppard. Snatching the half empty bottle out of his hand, he shoves the pizza into it instead. "Eat something, damn it."

"Not really hungry, McKay." John still isn't looking at him.

"I don't care. You haven't eaten anything all day, and if you think we're far enough along in this relationship for me to hold your head while you pray to the porcelain gods all night, you're deluding yourself."

John does look at him now, both eyebrows raised. "Oh really?"

Rodney quickly replays his last few sentences, horrified to realize he used the 'R' word. Licking his lips nervously, he keeps going, hoping Sheppard didn't notice. "I mean, anyone with an ounce of sense knows better than to drink alcohol on an empty stomach. My driver's license has probably expired and Ronon doesn't even know how to drive, so there won't be anyone to take you to the hospital if you get alcohol poisoning." He folds his arms over his chest sternly.

John's expression softens, that damned crease in his forehead finally smoothing out, and he smiles fondly. "Aw, Rodney, you care."

"Of course I care, you idiot," Rodney sputters, running out of steam. "I would have thought that was -" He's stopped by a hand on his cheek. "Oh."

"I'm kind of fond of you too, y'know."

Rodney's cheeks heat up and he fights the urge to duck his head shyly. He's a grown man, for god's sake. "Well, of course you are. What's not to like?"

Sheppard's grin widens just before he leans in and presses his lips against Rodney's. "Right now I have no idea," he murmurs, tongue swiping out to lick the corner of Rodney's mouth.

Rodney's pretty pleased with himself until he feels something cold and lumpy press up against his back. "Oh, ew, that's disgusting! I'm never going to get those grease stains out." Rodney twists and tries to look at his own back. "I'm going to have to change my shirt again now."

John huffs out a laugh and tosses the now mangled pizza slice onto the coffee table. Pulling Rodney closer, he murmurs, "Or you could just take it off."

Rodney stops struggling and humiliatingly blushes deeper. "Oh, uh. I, uh, suppose I could do that." He runs a hand up the front of John's shirt and leans in for another kiss, only to be thwarted by John's huge, jaw cracking yawn.

It's John's turn to blush. Rodney's amused when it's his ears that turn red. "Jeez, Rodney, I'm sorry. It's been a long day." Rodney's scathing retort is sidelined by a reciprocal yawn of his own.

"Guess we'd both better get to bed," John amends. He starts pulling Rodney towards the bedroom, and then hesitates at the door. He looks unsure and suddenly so god damned young; it makes Rodney's heart ache. "Unless you'd rather – I mean, I could take the couch…"

"Don't be ridiculous." Rodney yanks John through the doorway, happy to see a king-sized bed inside. "There's plenty of room for both of us." He sets about pulling off the comforter and picking out the best pillows, then moves to change into another fresh shirt. Behind him he hears the soft sounds of a zipper being pulled down and clothing hitting the floor. Climbing in, Rodney settles himself on his back, staring at the ceiling. When he chances a look, he discovers John's left the room. For a moment, Rodney thinks he's panicked and retreated to the sofa bed after all, until he hears water running in the bathroom.

He closes his eyes, not a bit sleepy, until he feels the bed dip under John's weight. He can smell fresh soap and the tang of toothpaste when John leans over him. "Comfy?" John sounds amused.

"Not really," he admits. He's not sure of the protocol here, for two men sharing a bed, who might be dating, sort of, but aren't really sleeping together…yet.

"Here, why don't you -" John's hands pressed against Rodney's side, guiding him to roll over onto his side, away from John. Before Rodney can admit to his disappointment, John stretches out behind him, pressing his front to Rodney's back. His chin comes to rest in the crook of space between Rodney's jaw and shoulder, warm air puffing against his neck as John breathes.

There's a moment of tenseness, as they both settle in, then Rodney allows himself to relax, melting against John's body. Rodney's just on the edge of sleep when he whispers, "You okay?"

Instead of Sheppard's typical response, there's a long pause. Rodney's just thinking John must already be out, when he hears whispered back, "Not really, but I'm getting there."

Reaching up to give John's hand a squeeze, Rodney falls asleep to John's soothing warmth against his back.

An annoying ring jerks John awake the next morning. A pale strip of sunlight threads its way through a gap in the curtains, dancing across the blankets and hitting John square in the eye. Groaning, he taps futilely at his ear for a few seconds before he realizes it's his cell phone. He fumbles for it, managing to hit the send key on the third try.

"Yeah?" He's half asleep and pretty sure it's still unreasonably early for niceties.


Shit. John sits up all the way. "Dave?" He squints at the phone by the bed. It's 7:30am.

"I, uh, need you to come by the house this morning. Soon as you can get here."

Dave's voice is tense and business like, his request coming out far too much like an order than suits John. It takes a moment for his brain to come online so he can answer with something other than 'I'll come over when I feel like it.'

John knows that's childish, knows that despite their argument the day before that Dave is not a bad guy. He wouldn't be calling at this hour unless it was important. Scrubbing a hand across his face, John pulls himself up to lean against the headboard. A quick glance to the left confirms that Rodney's still out cold, face planted into his pillow, limbs splayed in all directions.

"Something wrong?" he asked tiredly. Being back on Earth is disturbingly like being on Atlantis: there's always a crisis brewing.

"No, it's -" There's a long pause. "I wanted to remind you the lawyers are coming this morning, and you have those papers to sign."

What? John's pretty sure Dave said the lawyers were coming at one o'clock, and he'd never mentioned anything about signing papers. Unease builds in the pit of his stomach. This doesn't feel right. "Okay, want me to pick up some breakfast on the way? Those bagels you like?" He holds his breath and waits. There's another pause.

"Don't forget the strawberry cream cheese." The line goes dead.

John stares at his phone, fingers clenched tight around it as if that could squeeze more answers out of it. Dave hates strawberries. What the hell is he trying to tell him?

Tossing the phone back onto the nightstand, John nudges at Rodney with a knee to the side.

"C'mon, Rodney, time to get up."


Getting up, John digs fresh underwear and a pair of jeans out of his travel bag. "Rise and shine, McKay!" he calls back over his shoulder.

Rodney lifts his head a fraction and peels open one eye. "Coffee?"

John's busy slipping into his jeans, but can hear Rodney moving around on the bed. "Yep, there's a big ole cappuccino with your name on it, if you hurry up."

"Are you serious, Colonel? Because, according to the clock it's still the butt crack of dawn, and unless the hotel is on fire, I planned on sleeping for at least another four hours." He flops back down. There is something so very wrong about the fact that John finds Rodney's crankiness soothing.

Years of experience have taught John how to deal with a reluctant McKay. He reaches down and swiftly yanks the covers down.

"Hey!" Rodney's hands flap, looking for his missing blankets. Sitting up, he gives John the stink eye. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

John can't help himself; he takes a moment to look - really look - at Rodney. His T-shirt is rumpled and rucked up on one side, revealing a little bit of belly, and there's a suspicious wet spot on the shoulder. Rodney's hair – what there is of it – is flattened to his head on one side, and sticking straight up on the other. There's a red crease along one cheek, from the pillow. None of that should be attractive, yet somehow it is. John smiles at him affectionately.

Rodney looks down at himself, frowning. "What? What's wrong?"

John's smile widens as he heads into the bathroom. "Nothing," he singsongs. "Now get your ass in gear, McKay. We've been summoned."

By the time they've collected Ronon, packed up their gear, and stopped for pastries and three large coffees, John has filled them both in on his early morning phone call. For all his outward calm, Rodney can tell John's nervous from the way he keeps tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and rubbing the back of his neck. Maybe it's a case of living on the edge of panic for too long, but Rodney trusts John's instincts.

Relegated to the back seat (again!) Rodney chooses to straddle the uncomfortable hump in the middle. Better to see where they're going, and also easier to get at the donuts. He leans forward between the seats and snags the only cherry filled one. Powdered sugar spills onto John's shoulder, the seat back, Rodney's pant leg… Taking a huge bite, Rodney chews noisily, thinking out loud.

"So, you think your brother was trying to warn you? Some sort of Secret Sheppard Code?"

John sighs and wipes futilely at his shoulder – that sugar is never coming off. "I don't know, Rodney. Maybe? He just sounded strange, okay?"

Licking a glob of jelly from the corner of his mouth, Rodney considers this. "You two haven't talked in years. How do you know what strange is for him? Maybe he's just constipated and needs to eat more bran for breakfast."

There's a strained silence from the front seat, and Ronon of all people turns to give Rodney a disapproving look.

"What? What'd I say? I think, as someone who was estranged from my own sibling for four years, I'm entitled to an opinion."

Sheppard's hand creeps upward again, and Rodney's just barely resists the urge to bat the hand away and rub John's neck himself. No one says anything for a while, until Sheppard releases a long, resigned breath.

"Okay, so maybe you're right. Maybe I'm just being overly cautious. Doesn't hurt to be prepared, does it? It's not like we're going to go in guns blazing." Ronon raises an eyebrow at him. "Okay, not going in guns blazing," John clarifies.

Rodney wipes his sticky hands on the seat cushions. It's a rental, after all. "You guys have guns? Do I get a gun?"

"No!" they chorus, just a bit too quickly for Rodney's liking.

He huffs and sits back in his seat. "Wow, your faith in me is really underwhelming. Remind me again why you didn't just leave me back at the hotel, where I could still be sleeping." Sheppard mumbles something that sounds suspiciously like 'I was wondering that myself', so Rodney thwaps him soundly on the back of the head. Ah, one advantage to being stuck in the back seat.

John pauses the car at the end of the Sheppard driveway. The gate is wide open, and Rodney can feel a palpable rise in tension in the car. He pulls up into the drive, but stops far clear of the house. Ronon reaches down beneath his seat, and pulls his energy gun from his bag. He then hands John a 9 mil.

John presses his lips together tightly and automatically checks the clip. They can all see from where they are that the front door to the house is ajar. Climbing out of the car, Sheppard slips the gun into the waistband of his jeans and motions for them to follow. When they reach the door, Sheppard signals silently that he's to go in first, with Ronon on his six. Rodney watches them disappear inside, ears straining for the sound of voices or gunfire. He's patient for all of 2 minutes and 26 seconds, before he follows behind.

The house is eerily silent, although brighter in the morning sun than Rodney had expected. Rounding a corner, Rodney finds Sheppard and Ronon in what appears to be an office. Books and binders line the walls on bookshelves, and there's a printer/fax hooked up in one corner, next to a tall, gray filing cabinet. A bulk of the room is taken up by a heavy oak desk. Coming closer, Rodney can see what's got Sheppard and Ronon so curious. In the center of the desk sits an open laptop computer, with a post-it note stuck to it that simply reads 'Colonel Sheppard'.

"McKay," Sheppard spins around and pins him with an angry glare. "I thought I told you to stay put outside."

"Actually, you did this." Rodney mimics John's hand signals back at him. "What's with the note?"

John rolls his eyes and turns back. "That's just what we were going to find out." He presses a few buttons, and the screen brightens to reveal a paused video clip. Rodney sucks in a breath. He recognizes that face. It's the woman from yesterday.

"Oh, god." Rodney exchanges looks with Ronon, who lets out a "Huh."

"Guys," Sheppard's tenses beside him. "Talk to me."

"I'm sure it must be just a coincidence. I mean, she could just be friend of your brother's or something." Rodney knows he's babbling, and it doesn't help that Sheppard's intense focus is aimed directly at him.

"Rodney." John enunciates each syllable carefully. "What?"

"It's just," he points at the screen. "I may have seen her before."

Before Sheppard can respond, Ronon leans forward and presses another button and the video begins playing.

This message is for Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, My name is Ava Dixon, and I believe you know my former employer, Henry Wallace…

The video goes on to explain Ava's employment with Stanton Research, a division of Wallace's company, Devlon Medical Technologies, and their research into nanite programming, known as Project Archetype.

…I apologize if my actions appear extreme, but it was vital we ensured your cooperation. I promise you he will not be harmed…

John is angry. No, strike that. This is way beyond angry, shooting past furious and heading towards incensed. Pacing back and forth between the desk and bookcase, he doesn't even know where to begin.

"Where the hell do you get off, McKay?!" he shouts.

McKay steps back, eyes large and worried, mouth twisted into a guilty frown. "I said I was sorry! I only wanted to help."

"By not telling me about the nice lady who built her very own Replicator…and then lost it?"

Rodney winces, then rallies, jutting his chin out defensively. "Well, obviously she didn't tell me that part. It's not like I'm a mind reader."

Two strides take John well into Rodney's personal space, nose to nose. "She kidnapped my brother, McKay!"

"Yes, and we both know I do have some experience in that area," Rodney snipes back.

"Yeah, and if weren't for Todd, your sister would have died!"

Rodney's mouth snaps shut and his eyes grow wide with surprise and hurt. Good, John thinks meanly, although it's a hollow victory. His words hang uncomfortably between them until Ronon clears his throat loudly.

John turns to face him. He has no problem reading the Get your head out of your ass and get back in the game expression on his face. Rubbing tiredly at his jaw, John closes his eyes and mentally pulls himself together. Ronon's right. Pointing blame isn't going to get Dave back…or find the Replicator. God, why did it have to be Replicators again?

"So, what now?" Ronon asks.

Cocking his head to one side, John sticks his gun into the back of his jeans. "Now, we go meet Ms. Dixon." He spins on one heel and leaves the room without looking back, confident the rest of his team will follow.

Rodney scrunches himself into the corner of the back seat, arms crossed defiantly. He very rarely second guesses himself (there's never any need to), but if he's willing, this time, to admit he made an error in judgment – even he is allowed one every so often; he never claimed to be perfect - the least Sheppard could do is listen. Normally, his fights with Sheppard are swift and loud, with a lot of pointing and hand waving, and then they're over. Rodney's not used to this uncomfortable silence. Part of him wants to make a cutting remark, something that will set Sheppard off, because at least that will feel familiar. As socially inept as he sometimes is, even Rodney knows that's totally fucked up.

Despite his resolve, Rodney's gaze drifts to Sheppard, in the driver's seat. The tight line of Sheppard's shoulders and his white knuckled grip on the steering wheel are all that keep Rodney from continuing their argument from before. His anger dissipates. Rodney hadn't been kidding when he said he knew how Sheppard felt. He knows the terror of having a sibling in danger, especially when she (he) is all the family you have left. Rodney's stomach clenches uncomfortably; he tells himself it's Sheppard's insane driving on these winding country roads, but decides to make a point of calling Jeannie when all this is over with anyway.

The GPS loudly bleeps out its first instructions in a while, startling Rodney. Leaning forward, he reads the display. It looks like they're almost there, and he wonders if they'll have to sneak in or blast their way in. Judging from Ronon's grim determination, he guesses Ronon's hoping for the latter.

As it turns out, neither is necessary. Their car is ushered right in at the gate and directed towards a parking spot, where someone is already coming to meet them. Rodney recognizes the petite figure from their quick meeting at the wake: Ava Dixon. She immediately heads for Sheppard and extends her hand in greeting.

"Colonel John Sheppard? I'm Ava Dixon. Thank you fo-"

"Where's my brother?" Sheppard growls. He keeps his hands on his hips.

Ava blinks, the rest of her greeting unspoken, and turns back towards the door she came through. "This way, please. I'll be able to explain everything once we get to the lab."

Rodney peers into doorways as they head down the hall. Inside, people are bustling about busily, bent over laptops and fiddling with equipment Rodney has drooled over in catalogs. "Who funds this place, anyway, and how can we get some of this stuff shipped back home?"

"McKay," Sheppard warns.

"It's all right, Colonel," Ava assures. "I know all about Atlantis and the Stargate program." When Sheppard scowls at her, she clarifies, "Stanton Research is funded at the highest levels. Our success with nanite technology would not have been possible without data provided by the SGC.

"Stolen from the SGC you mean," Rodney counters.

At least Ava has the decency to look chagrinned. "I assure you, Dr. McKay; we had no knowledge of Henry Wallace's illegal research project or his kidnapping of you and your sister, until much later. At the time, all we knew was that we had been given a key piece of programming, something that allowed us to make a major breakthrough.

"And by 'we' you mean…?" John asks.

"Myself and Dr. Richard Poole, my mentor," she continues, leading them into an empty lab. "He recruited me right out of college three years ago. We've been working to increase the complexity of nanite interactions.

Rodney crosses his arms and looks down his nose at Ava. "Because building your own Frankenstein monster seemed like such a good idea at the time."

Ava opens her mouth to protest, but is interrupted by Ronon asking, "So, what went wrong?" He's been moving quietly at their six and Rodney had almost forgotten he was there.

"Richard told me there had been a security breech and that we needed to shut everything down. It was only later that I learned about the IOA investigation into Wallace's research. I guess…" she pauses, frowning, as if trying to find the right words. "It's hard to believe, but I think the Replicator reacted in self defense. He only fled to prevent Richard from deactivating him."

Sheppard's eyes scan the room. "And where's this Poole guy now?"

"When I was unable to bring you back with me yesterday," She pauses to type on a nearby keyboard, and misses the dirty look Sheppard shoots Rodney. "Richard went out looking himself. He said he'd managed to turn on the tracking device inside the Replicator remotely." She twists the laptop around so it's facing the others. On the screen, a program resembling a GPS tracker is running. "This is his last known location, but Richard locked me out, so I don't know where he is now."

Rodney cracks his knuckles and moves towards the laptop. "I'm sure I could -" but he's stopped by Sheppard's hand on his chest. "Wait. We're not going any further until I see my brother." Ronon moves up to stand next to them and fondles the butt of his gun. Only then does it occur to Rodney to wonder why they've been allowed to keep their weapons at all.

"Of course, Colonel, my apologies. I'm sorry I had to deceive your brother into coming with me." Admittedly, Ava looks and sounds contrite. "I didn't know what else to do. When Dr. McKay and Ronon wouldn't let me speak with you…"

"Yes, yes," Rodney waves his hands in defeat. "I think we've all beaten that dead horse to death. Can we move on please?" He can't quite bring himself to meet Sheppard's eyes.

Ava leaves and comes back a few minutes later with Dave Sheppard in tow. Rodney doesn't see any obvious signs of a struggle: no bruises or torn clothing, not even a hair out of place. (Which is such an antithesis of his Sheppard's hair that Rodney can't help staring.) His face is pinched into an unhappy scowl, and Rodney wonders if stick-up-his-ass is Dave's normal expression.

Sheppard moves towards Dave, then pauses, as if unsure of his welcome. He asks, "Dave, are you okay?" at the same time Dave barks out, "John! What the hell is going on here?" They both stop and stare at each other.

All too familiar with the dance of siblings who don't know how to relate to each other, Rodney turns his attention back to the laptop. All he needs to do is crack Poole's code and they can wrap this thing up and go home.

Relief washes over John, tension uncoiling in his belly as he realizes Dave is okay. His brother looks pissed, and it's so familiar John wants to laugh. "Uh, Dave," John doesn't know what to say. How can he explain without giving anything away?

Dave storms over, pulling him aside. "What have you gotten yourself into this time, John? One minute I'm having breakfast, the next this woman shows up at my door looking for you. She said it was a matter of national security and that you were in danger if she didn't find you immediately."

John's eyes cut to Ava, standing nearby. "Yeah, well, she exaggerated." He yanks his arm from Dave's grip, angry all over again at being put into this situation against his will. "So, what," he bites out bitterly. "You just volunteered to come along, to make sure I was safe?"

Dave takes a step back, a fleeting hurt expression crossing his features before his mouth draws into an even deeper frown. "Of course I did. We may not always get along, and I don't even pretend to understand what you're doing with your life, but you're still my brother."

Silence hangs between them. Oh. John bites at his bottom lip. For years, decades even, it's been easy to resent Dave for being the 'good' son, to blame him for John being labeled the black sheep. While their father had always been quite vocal in his disapproval with John's choices in life – both personal and professional – it had been Dave's silence, his cold indifference that had eaten away at him. Weren't brothers supposed to stick together? Only here was Dave now, potentially putting himself into harm's way, no hesitation, no questions asked…for John, and John just doesn't know what to do with that.

John spares a glance at Ronon, who's been standing nearby and probably heard the entire exchange. Ronon simply lifts an eyebrow and shrugs a shoulder. Thanks for the help there, big guy, John thinks with a mental sigh. Fortunately, he's saved from potentially having to talk about his feelings by McKay, who shouts out "Sheppard, get your skinny ass over here!" from across the room.

Nodding a quick apology to Dave, John makes sure to amble over to where Rodney is hunched over one of the lab computer keyboards.

"Yes, yes, take your time, Colonel. It's not like we're on a strict timetable here or anything. Why don't we break for lunch while we're at it?"

John's stomach rumbles at the mention of food. It feels like days since he ate that half-donut in the car instead of just this morning. "I could go for a sandwich," he half jokes. He's rewarded with an impatient huff and a patented McKay eye roll. John smiles to himself and leans over Rodney's shoulder, far into his personal space, taking a moment to inhale deeply. Oddly, the familiar scent of coffee, soap, and sweat grounds him, helping him to focus on their immediate problems. "So, what'cha got for me, McKay?"

"Well," Rodney settles back in his seat. "As you know, Poole locked everything down tight before turning Rogue Replicator Hunter. He used a pretty sophisticated security system, backed up by multiple passwords-"

"-which you've totally hacked," John finishes.

"Naturally." Rodney preens. "Uh, that unfortunately was the easy part." He taps a few keys on the keyboard and rows of numbers and symbols fill the screen. It all looks like gibberish to John. "I've accessed Poole's files, but they're encrypted using a 448 bit-key symmetric algorithm. Which in layman's terms means-"

"I know what a symmetric algorithm is, McKay."

"Hmm, I keep forgetting you're not entirely stupid, Colonel."

"Gee thanks, McKay. Careful, you're making me blush," John deadpans, rolling his eyes. "Now, you being so much smarter than I am, you wanna tell me how long before you crack the code?"

Rodney jumps up. "Excuse me, Colonel How-Long-Before-We-Get-There, did I leave out the 448 bit-key part? Even for someone with my higher intelligence, it's going to-"

"So, you've got nothing."

Rodney's shoulders sag in defeat. "I've got nothing."

John reaches over and gives McKay's arm a squeeze. "Don't worry, I promise not to tell the other MENSA members."

"Oh, ha ha."

Ronon comes to join them, twirling his weapon around one finger. "So, are we going to go out and hunt this thing or what?"


Rodney gapes at John. "I just got finished saying I don't have the tracking systems operational yet. You don't even know where he is."

"No, but we know where he was," John says. "And that's a start. We're going to need reinforcements though." John reaches up to touch his ear before remembering where they are. All hopes that no one noticed are dashed by McKay's triumphant smirk and Ronon's chuckle. Putting on an air of 'I meant to do that', he instead pulls out his cell and dials.

John's less confidant when he gets off the phone with the SGC. "Damn it, the Apollo is out on a scouting mission and won't be back for a few more days.

Ronon shrugs. "We don't need them. Let's go."

John squints up at him. "Hold your horses, buddy. The IOA is sending a squadron over with some of those cool anti-Replicator guns you like so much."

Ronon makes a face, like he's torn between having to stand around and wait some more and getting to play with the cool toys. "Yeah, okay."

"I'm ready," Rodney adds. "I've started a decryption program going. It'll take some time, but eventually we should be able to access the files." He starts to get out of the chair, but John pushes him back down gently, with a hand on his shoulder.

"You're staying here, McKay."

"What?!" Rodney's voice takes on that annoying high-pitched squeak that always makes John's teeth hurt. "Who's going to take your six?" John and Ronon both stare at him. "Okay, point taken, but, but, I'm still a valuable member of the team, and as such-"

"As such," John interjects. "I need you here, monitoring the decryption program. Who knows what valuable information is in those files."

"You don't need to placate me, Colonel," Rodney mutters, frowning. "I'm not a child." John raises an eyebrow at him. "Okay, fine, I'll stay here, but you'd better maintain direct radio contact at all times, so I know when it's time to come save your ass."

"Yes, Mom." John smiles beatifically at him and ducks when McKay throws a pencil at his head.

Ava, who has been hovering nearby, hesitantly approaches. "What would you like me to do, Colonel?"

"Stay with McKay. You're far more familiar with Poole's work so maybe you'll have better luck cracking his codes." John ignores Rodney's snort and turns to find Dave by the door, watching him intently. Damn. He walks over. "Um, look…"

Dave gives John a rye smile. "Let me guess: you have to go, it's important, and you can't tell me anything about it."

John scrubs at the back of neck and blows out a frustrated breath. "Yeah, pretty much." He nods back to the group. "They've kind of lost one of their research projects and need our help them find it."

"Stolen, you mean; corporate espionage? That's an odd assignment for an Air Force pilot, isn't it?"

John looks at his hands, the floor, anywhere but at his brother. "Yeah, well, my job description is…"

"Complicated?" Dave almost sounds amused.

John's relieved he doesn't have to explain further. Not that he could, even if he wanted to. "Yeah." He finally looks up and yes, there's a small smile on Dave's face.

"I'm beginning to see why Nancy left you." Dave's eyes are twinkling.

John blinks. Was that a joke? He thinks this may be the most civil conversation he and his brother have had in years, and it only took their father's death (and a pseudo-kidnapping) to make it happen. He tamps down on the unexpected rush of sadness that threatens to overwhelm him. Even so, his laugh sounds choked to his ears. "Hey, it was a mutual agreement!"

"Of course," Dave deadpans.

There's a cough from somewhere behind them, and John remembers where they are. As nice as this is – and it actually is nice – this isn't the time for fraternal bonding. He pulls out the keys to the rental and holds them out to Dave. "I want you to take the car and go home." John winces; he hadn't meant it to sound so much like an order.

Dave's eyebrows shoot up and his frown returns. "You're kicking me out?"

John shrugs. "Something like that." He keeps his expression neutral but serious. There is no giving in on this. "There's nothing you can do here, and people are probably worried about you," John says. 'This isn't your world,' he doesn't say.

Dave cocks his head to one side, studying John closely. He must find what he's looking for, because then he nods and accepts the keys. "You'll be careful?"

"Piece of cake." When Dave doesn't move, John adds, "I'll be fine."

"Will you be coming back to the house when you're finished?"

"I…" The implied invitation surprises John. He hadn't really been planning on it. "Do you want me to?"

"I think we still have things to discuss." And maybe Dave realizes how that sounds, because he adds, "Yes, I'd like you to, if you can."

"Oh, okay, sure." John tries to hide his surprise behind a casual 'whatever' gesture, although he doubts he's fooling anyone.

Dave reaches out and gives John's shoulder a squeeze – which is the Sheppard equivalent of a hug – and looks over at Ava. "Would you mind showing me how to get out of this place?"

"Of course." She glances up at John, as she leads Dave out the door, and then he's alone again with his team."

Rodney watches Sheppard talking to his brother with mild interest, then turns back to his work. He pulls out his own laptop and connects it to the lab's network. Opening up his decryption program, Rodney sets up the parameters he wants and activates it. When he's satisfied that everything is running as it should, he looks up again, only to find both Ronon and Sheppard hovering over him, watching.

"Jesus!" Rodney can't help jumping a little in his seat, which is just embarrassing. "One of these days you're going to give me a heart attack doing that. Who's going to be brilliant and save the day then, huh?"

"Zelenka," Ronon deadpans.

"Oh, very funny," Rodney grouches. "You've been hanging around with Sheppard too long." Both men look entirely too pleased by this. "Now if you're both done being twelve years old, I've loaded the last known coordinates of the Replicator onto this tablet. Beyond that, until I can get the tracking program working from here, you'll be on your own." He hands the tablet to Ronon.

Sheppard smiles grimly. "There's a team waiting outside the gate to pick us up. We'll load everyone down with ARGs and hopefully flush this guy out quickly and be home in time for dinner."

Ronon nods and heads for the door and Sheppard turns to follow, but Rodney stops him with a hand on his sleeve. "John?"


"Are you," Rodney clears his throat. "Are you doing okay?"

John's Adam's apple bobs up and down as he swallows, and he doesn't answer right away. Finally, his eyes soften a little at the edges and he nods. "Yeah, I'm okay." He hesitates, then adds, "Thanks for asking."

"Oh, well," Flustered by the warmth in John's voice, Rodney waves his hand around in a vague circle. "That's what…friends do, right? Ask that kind of stuff." He wonders if they're supposed to hug now or something.

"Sheppard, you coming?" Ronon calls from the hallway.

"Yep!" he shouts back. He then leans in and gives Rodney a quick, dry kiss on the lips. "See ya tonight, dear." Before Rodney can come up with a response, he's left staring at Sheppard's retreating back.

A few minutes later, Ava comes back and immediately moves to her own computer. Neither of them says anything. Rodney figures they're both worried; they both have people out there. He fingers the cell phone in his pocket. Even though he silently mocked Sheppard earlier, Rodney misses the speed and reliability of their headsets. His ear feels strangely naked without it.

It's not often Sheppard or the others goes off-world without him these days, and yes, technically he and Ronon are still on the same planet, but it's not as though Rodney can just hop into a jumper and fly to the rescue, and oh god, Sheppard's finally done it; he's brainwashed Rodney into wishing he were out there, putting himself at risk with the rest of the team instead of staying back, safe in the lab.

Rodney pictures Sheppard in his tack vest and thigh holster and his stomach does a little flip. He doesn't like guns, has never been a proponent of violence unless as a last resort, but there is something about Sheppard in full gear that just… he licks his lips. Someday soon he and Sheppard are going to reenact one of Rodney's favorite fantasies, the one where he very silently strips Sheppard, item by item:

He'll start with slowly lowering the zipper on Sheppard's vest, the only sound in the room the click of metal teeth and their intermingled breathing. Slipping his hands inside, Rodney pushs the heavy material aside until the vest slides off Sheppard's shoulders, landing on the floor with a thud. Next goes the thigh holster. Rodney bends to unfasten the lower buckle, bringing him close enough to see Sheppard is already getting hard. If he breathes in deeply he can smell the faint scent of arousal. His hands move to Sheppard's waist, the belt buckle coming open for him easily. The holster joins the vest on the floor.

If Rodney's lucky – and this is his fantasy, so he's always lucky – Sheppard is only wearing a tight, black T-shirt. It's a little damp from sweat and clings to Sheppard's skin as Rodney slides his hands underneath the material, running them up his chest. "John," he whispers, and it sounds right, now that he's out of uniform. "Shh," John whispers back. He raises his arms to allow Rodney to pull the shirt over his head, then rests his hands comfortably on Rodney's hips. John licks his lips and leans forward, his breath hot against Rodney's mouth as he –

Just as he's getting to the good part, the computer running the decryption program starts beeping. Rodney's face feels warm and sweaty, his jeans have become uncomfortably tight, and he can't believe he let himself go there here, now, while Sheppard is out there… He swipes a sleeve across his brow and slides over to examine the results. Bingo! "We're in!"

Ava is already on her way over. If she notices Rodney's disheveled appearance, she doesn't say anything as she bends over his shoulder to watch. Rodney begins pulling up files: invoices, personnel files, monthly audits. Digging deeper, he starts finding test results, technical specs and research that looks remarkably like his own.

"I've never seen some of those files before," Ava murmurs, a frown in her voice.

Rodney doesn't have the time or patience to feel sorry for her crushed trust in Richard Poole. He snaps his fingers. "Start the GPS. We should be able to track our guy now." Finding a passworded file hidden inside a sub-folder, Rodney types in Archetype and it opens right up. "Yes," he hisses under his breath.

"He is in the same location as before," Ava calls out. "He probably doesn't know where else to go. He isn't programmed for social interaction."

Rodney pulls out his cell phone and dials Sheppard's number. It rings four times and Rodney's just about to start worrying when John's hushed voice comes over the line.

"A little busy here, McKay. You got anything for me?"

"No, this is a social call. What do you want on your pizza tonight? Of course I've got something for you."

There is noise in the background; it sounds like Ronon talking. He hears Sheppard say "McKay" away from the phone, and then louder, "Yeah, yeah, never doubted you for a minute. Fill me in."

Rodney's eyes are scanning the file, searching for any information that might help Sheppard and Ronon. "If you didn't get yourself lost and managed to find the last known coordinates we had, Ava says our boy is still in the area."

"Okay, can you narrow down 'in the area' for me? This is kinda a big place with lots of hidey holes."

Frowning, Rodney pulls the laptop Ava is monitoring closer to him. "I have an idea."

"Of course you do."

He types in a few lines of code, refreshes the screen, and a new green dot appears near the red one already present. "I've updated the GPS system to include a search for your subcutaneous chip." Rodney zooms in closer. "Where exactly are you?"

"Some sort of abandoned warehouse near the river. Lots of dust and cobwebs and rats. You'd love it here." As if on cue, Sheppard sneezes.

"Oh yes, sounds like paradise." Rodney rolls his eyes. He should have known Ronon wouldn't keep his mouth shut about the rat incident. "He's about 350 meters south of your location." He pauses to switch angles. "Up one level."

"Great. On it. Thanks, McKay."

"Stay on the line!" he yelps, worried Sheppard is going to hang up on him and leave him out of the loop.

Sheppard sounds amused. "Why, do you have some juicy gossip to tell me from Geometry class?"

"No," Rodney snipes. "You'll need me to tell you if he's on the move, idiot."

There's a pause. "Okay, point."

Motioning for Ava to continue watching the monitor, Rodney goes back to scanning the specs on their target: stronger, faster, the usual; he's a regular Six Million Dollar Man. He can hear Sheppard giving orders in the background, directing his team to close in from all sides.

"The target is in sight," Sheppard hisses, his voice barely a whisper. Rodney can hear the whine of the ARG powering up. "He doesn't seem aware of our presence yet. We're moving in."

Rodney bites back the urge to say, "Be careful." His attention is divided between listening for Sheppard and reading the file, which is how he almost misses it. Scrolling back up, he reads the line again. "Oh, no!"

John tucks the still active phone into a vest pocket and waits for his men to get into position. He couldn't have been more surprised when former-Sergeant Bates, had greeted him and Ronon outside the gates at Stanton Research. He feels a little bad that he never looked the guy up before, but there had been so many casualties back then and, let's face it, he and Bates weren't exactly buddies at the time. Still, it's nice to see him doing well and John's grateful to have at least one more man out there he knows he can trust.

John's radio clicks three times, the prearranged signal from Bates, and he signals the rest of the team to prepare to attack. So far, the Replicator – which John has named 'Jeff' in his head – doesn't seem aware of their presence. He lines up Jeff in his sights and is just about to move forward when Rodney's tinny voice squawks "Sheppard!" from his pocket. It's muffled, but still loud enough that Jeff looks up, alerted to the sound. John hisses and silently draws back, taking cover behind a concrete pillar.

"Not now, McKay!" he hisses into the phone, but Rodney doesn't hear him. He's too busy shouting, "Abort the mission! Abort the mission!"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"The ARGs, they won't work. The Replicator has been specifically designed to be resistant to current anti-Replicator technology."

Crap. John is reaching for his radio when all hell breaks loose. Jeff lunges forward, grabs one of the IOA men by the arm and hurls him across the room. The lieutenant hits the far wall with a sickening crunch and slides motionless to the floor. The other men start firing, but Jeff comes at them, unfazed.

"Switch to standard ordnance," John shouts out. "Those weapons won't work on him!" He pulls his 9 mil and advances, firing at Jeff's back. He can hear Bates shouting orders from somewhere to his left, and Ronon's energy weapon firing to his right. The Replicator jerks as bullets hit from all sides, but he still doesn't go down. Instead he scales one of the columns to the catwalk above. From there, as John watches slack-jawed, he takes a running leap and crashes through the window at one end.

John ducks and covers, as glass rains down on them all. He can faintly hear Rodney's voice calling his name. "McKay?" For one confused moment John thinks Rodney is lost in the building somewhere.

"You okay?" Ronon comes over, shaking glass from his dreds. He bends over and retrieves John's cell phone from where he dropped it during the fight, and hands it to him.

"Yeah, thanks. You?"

"I'm okay." He cocks his head to one side. "I thought those fancy guns were supposed to disintegrate him, like they did on Atlantis."

"They were," John makes a sour face. "Unfortunately, Poole knew about that too and programmed out that particular weakness. Rodney was able to warn me just in time." This reminds him. John holds the phone gingerly to his face; there's a cut on his cheek from the glass. "McKay?"

"Oh, thank god! I thought you were – is everything – did you get him?"

"Ronon and I are fine; just some cuts and bruises. Jeff got away though."

"Jeff? Who is – oh, you've named him." Rodney's voice drips of sarcasm. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Damn it, McKay, if we'd known about this sooner we could have brought in more fire power and finished him off for good."

"Hey, I did the best I could! You're just lucky I was able to decrypt those files when I did."

John sighs. "I'm not blaming you, McKay. I'm just…frustrated. You did good."

"Oh, well, yes. I'm…" He trails off.

Ronon nudges John. "He can't have gone far. I can go after him."

John waves him off with a motion that's half yes and half no, because he's not letting Ronon go after Jeff alone.

"McKay, can you still track him, tell us where to go once we've regrouped?"

"Yes, wait, no." There is some muttering in the background, and then McKay comes back on the line. "The only signal we're getting now is yours. His chip could have been damaged in the firefight, and at the speeds he's capable of, he could be miles away by now. We'll have to figure out another way."

"Roger that. We'll be back to pick you up soon." He hangs up the phone. "Sorry, Big Guy, no can do."

Ronon frowns disapprovingly, but doesn't protest. Instead he moves off to help Bates and his men attend to the wounded. John scrubs tiredly at his eyes. The scuffle has sent up clouds of dust and debris, making them sting. This could have gone down so much worse, he knows, but that doesn't help ease his anger or frustration. He just hopes McKay can come up with another plan soon, because John's really beginning to hate this guy.

Rodney is practically bouncing off the walls by the time Sheppard and Ronon show up. "Well, it's about damned time you -" He breaks off when he sees their disheveled appearance. Dirt clings to their hair and clothing, and both men have smudges of dirt on their faces. There is a streak of blood down Sheppard's forearm and what looks like a nasty cut on his cheek. His face is grim, his eyes red-rimmed. "Oh god, how many died?"

"What?" Sheppard asks wearily. He runs a hand through his hair, sending a shower of dust and glass to the floor.

"You've been crying. Was it a massacre? I tried to warn you in time."

"Whoa, slow down, McKay." Sheppard grips his upper arm firmly. "We suffered some minor casualties, but no fatalities. What the hell makes you think I've been crying for god's sake?"

"Your…" Rodney motions to his own eyes. "They're all red and bloodshot."

"Yeah, from the dust we kicked up. That place has probably been abandoned for years."

"Oh." Rodney feels foolish. Now that he looks, Ronon's eyes are pretty red too. "Well, I saw the…" he points to the blood. "and the…" he waves his hand at Sheppard's face. "So you can hardly blame me for jumping to conclusions. Although now that I think about it, you didn't even cry at your father's wake, which is…but maybe you did, when you went off by yourself. It's really none of my business, so -"

"Rodney!" Sheppard gives him a little shake. Rodney's mouth snaps shut. "It's okay to be worried."

Rodney juts out his chin mulishly. "Of course it is. You went off without me; anything could have happened."

A genuine smile spreads across Sheppard's face. "I'm fine; we're both fine, I promise. Didn't lay a hand on us." His brows come together in a frown. "Damned thing jumped out a third story window and got away though." He turns his gaze on Ava, who has been standing quietly nearby. "You guys come up with any ideas how we're going to find Jeff again?"

"Jeff?" Ava looks at Rodney questioningly.

He waves her off. "He likes to name things."

She still looks skeptical, but continues. "We haven't been able to reactivate the tracking device on this end," she explains. "If you were using standard projectile weapons, it is possible one of the bullets penetrated far enough to damage the locator chip."

Sheppard rubs at the back of his neck. "Mostly small caliber ordnance, but it was enough to make him back off. How soon before he regenerates?"

Ava purses her lips thoughtfully. "Self-replicating isn't one of its primary directives. He does have the ability to self-repair, although without access to necessary base materials it is somewhat limited. I believe he'll go back into hiding. You've frightened him, shown him he can be damaged."

"So, all we have to do," says Ronon. "Is figure out how to flush him out again." All eyes turn towards Rodney.

"Oh, of course, leave it to me to come up with the seemingly impossible, yet brilliant plan, as always."

"Well, I think the brilliant plan will wait until tomorrow," Sheppard assures. "It's getting late and I for one could use a nice, hot shower."

"And some food," Ronon adds.

"And some food," Sheppard agrees. "Everyone put their thinking caps on and we'll all meet back here in the morning."

Ava nods. "I'll leave word at the gate, along with your visitor's passes." She starts to go, then hesitates. "Colonel Sheppard, did you…was there any sign of Dr. Poole out there today. Any indication that he'd been there, or…"

Sheppard shakes his head. "No, I'm sorry. I've given the IOA the heads up. As soon as I know anything I'll let you know."

"Thank you." She nods sadly and heads out the door.

Rodney begins unplugging his equipment. "Just give me a minute to pack up my stuff."

"Okay." Sheppard's sitting on the edge of the desk, absently scratching at his belly through his t-shirt. The shirt pulls up a bit, revealing a flash of tan skin, and a hint of hipbone exposed by Sheppard's low slung jeans. Momentarily distracted, Rodney stares, his brain skittering off to parts unknown. "McKay?"

Rodney shakes himself. "What?"

Sheppard wrinkles his nose at him. "You okay? Thought I'd lost you there for a second."

"Yes, I'm -" Rodney waves his hands around, flustered. "I guess I'm more tired than I thought." He stuffs the last cord into his bag and hefts it over his shoulder. "By the way, how are we going to get back to the hotel, if you gave your brother our car?"

John sidles up next to him until their shoulders bump. "IOA loaned us a vehicle." He leans in closer, until his nose brushes the shell of Rodney's ear. "It's okay to look, y'know. It's allowed."

Rodney swallows. "Oh, right." And then he can't keep himself from grinning.

Back at the hotel, after a quick swing through a fast food drive-thru, John's most pressing desire is to finally strip out of his filthy clothes and get into a steaming hot shower. He undresses in the bathroom and leaves everything in a crumpled heap on the tile floor. Stepping under the spray, John lets out a low, gratified moan. He reaches up to adjust the nozzle to the massage setting, then turns to let the water pummel his neck and back.

He doesn't remember Earth being this tiring when he actually lived here on a regular basis. John puts on a good show for the others, but maybe Ronon's right; maybe he is getting old. Tipping his head back, he lets the spray soak his hair, rinsing the worst of the grime down the drain before he reaches for the shampoo bottle.

John soaps himself down, quickly and efficiently. His hands glide over his chest, washing away the day's sweat, and his nipples perk up at the attention. Slowing down, he skims over them lightly, and feels a pleasant tightening in his groin. He pictures Rodney there with him: pale skin pinking from the heat, his cock jutting out proudly from a mess of dark curls. Oh yeah.

John briefly considers calling out for McKay, asking him to join him. They've been dancing around each other for months (years), but it's only recently that they've admitted there is something going on between them. Maybe John's just not ready to risk giving up the fantasy yet. Instead, he reaches down and cups his own balls, rolling them between his fingers and squeezing gently. His wrist rubs up against his cock, creating just enough friction to tease. Wrapping his other soapy hand around it, he begins to jack himself off with long, languid strokes.

Rodney would prefer them short and quick, John thinks, his cock as impatient as the rest of him. He'd never stop talking either. John chuckles, hearing McKay's running commentary in his head. C'mon, c'mon, I don't have all day! Suddenly neither does John.

Tension coils in his gut, spreading up through his torso and into his limbs. John can feel his pulse thrumming under his skin, bringing up gooseflesh despite the steaming shower. Bracing himself against the tile with one hand, John bends his head forward, his breath coming in short gasps as he tightens his grip, stroking faster, harder. It's pleasure just this side of pain, and John needs this, needs to let go. When he does, it's with a shutter and a low guttural moan that startles him with its intensity. God.

John takes a moment to catch his breath. He feels loose limbed and sleepy; his eyes keep closing of their own accord. He rinses the rest of the soap off and stumbles from the shower, swiping a towel haphazardly up and down his body, not really caring if he's dry or not. His boxers cling to him uncomfortably in spots, the cool air of the bathroom making him shiver.

Back in the bedroom, John spares a glance at McKay, who is hunched over his computer, but he doesn't have the energy to argue him away from it, so he lets him be. Instead he yanks down the covers and tumbles into bed. Pulling the blankets up tight around his chin, John squirms himself into a comfortable position and is asleep in minutes.

The next morning at breakfast, Rodney's got his laptop open at the table. He drinks deeply from his third cup of coffee of the day and announces, "Okay, I think I may have found something here." He turns the screen so the others can see it. Sheppard and Ronon give him identical blank looks.

"What are we looking at, McKay?"

"It's a waybill for preassembled masonry panels. They're being shipped to a warehouse in Reading, Pennsylvania." Rodney beams at him.

Sheppard makes a little circle with his finger, the universal sign for continue. "Yeah, so?"

"So, 'pre-assembled masonry panels' just happens to be a code word used at the SGC to identify shipments of neutronium." Sheppard shrugs and Rodney rolls his eyes. He never thought he'd miss having Radek there to understand him the first time around. "Neutronium – it's the base element from which nanites are made."

"And Ava said the Replicator would need that stuff to heal himself," Ronon says, catching on.


Sheppard looks thoughtful. "Okay, we know where he's likely to be headed, if he's not there already. Reading is only a few hours from here."

"If you damaged him the way you said, it'll probably slow him down, but yes, we need to move quickly," Rodney agrees with a nod.

"So we organize a major strike force, air cover if we have to, and wait for him to show up." Sheppard shrugs, taking a bite of his toast.

Rodney throws up his hands. "Oh yes, that's always the way with you military types. Let's just blow him up."

Sheppard leans over the table. "You got a better idea?"

Ronon shovels a huge bite of pancake into his mouth. "Too bad he doesn't eat."

Rodney and Sheppard both turn to stare at him. "Why is that, buddy?" Sheppard manages finally, when Ronon doesn't say anything more.

"Because then you could poison him or something, set a trap so we don't have to risk the manpower."

Rodney snaps his fingers, an idea sparking in his mind. "You just might have something there."

"I do?"
"He does?"

"I'm not sure what yet, but yes, I'm confident I can come up with an answer." He smiles smugly and goes back to eating his breakfast. Ronon pulls the computer over to his side of the table and begins clicking buttons. "What are you doing?" Rodney squeaks, choking on his toast.

"I'm bored. You guys eat too slow."

"Well forgive me for actually wanting to chew my food before I swallow it," Rodney complains. "Just…try not to break anything."

Ronon raises an eyebrow at him. "I think I know how to find mind sweeper, McKay."

Sheppard chuckles into his coffee cup and peers over Ronon's shoulder. "Hey, click on that."

"What is it?" Rodney cranes his neck to see.

"Ava Dixon's personnel file."

"Ooh, what schools did she go to?"

"Yes, McKay, because that's what's important here; whether or not she's smarter than you."

"She is not smarter than me," Rodney grouches, but Sheppard is no longer listening. Instead he's staring at the computer screen, dumbfounded.

"Does this mean what I think it means?" Ronon asks.

"What, what?" Rodney pulls the laptop back across the table. There's a photo of Ava on the screen, along with a copy of a newspaper article. "This says she was in a car accident last December." His eyes go wide. "She's been dead for almost a year!"

"Yeah," Sheppard says, slumping back in his seat.

"Then that means-"

"She's a Replicator, yeah, that's what I'm thinking."

"But, but, that doesn't make sense. She came to us. Why would she do that if she one of them?"

"Maybe she doesn't know," Ronon says.

Rodney considers it. "I suppose it's possible Poole erased or blocked the information from her programming. Her belief that she is the real Ava Dixon would only serve to enhance the charade."

Ronon turns to Sheppard. "So, now what do we do?"

Ronon sits in the car, listening to McKay defend his position that they should continue to let Ava help them, despite what they've discovered. Ronon's already offered his opinion. If there is one thing he learned in his time as a runner, it's that sometimes you have to kill or be killed; neutralize any potential threats while you can. The Atlanteans frustrate him. They always have to talk about everything first.

"According to her file, Poole programmed the Ava Replicator with her real counterpart's memories and personality. She can even experience simulated emotions," McKay explains.

Ronon looks back over his shoulder at McKay. "Does it say she can't or won't kill like the other one?"

"Well, no." McKay fidgets with the computer on his lap. "But I suspect it's far less likely. She doesn't have the military programming Jeff does." He goes back to tapping on his keyboard.

Ronon grunts, unconvinced, and glances over at Sheppard, who isn't saying anything. His lips are pressed together in a thin, unhappy line. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," Sheppard answers a little too quickly. He grimaces and lets out a sigh. "It's just…" His eyes flick over to Ronon, then back to the road. "It would be nice to go five minutes without a new crisis popping up, y'know?"

Ronon recognizes that that's as close as Sheppard is ever going to get to admitting he's stressed. It worries him. "You know I've got your back, right?"

Sheppard pulls up to a traffic light and cocks his head to study him, his mouth curling into a crooked smile. "Yeah, I know, buddy."


"The light's green, if you two are done with your male bonding up there," McKay pipes up from the back seat. Sheppard's face splits into a wide grin, and yeah, Ronon thinks, not for the first time, it's good that McKay came on this trip. He's just the distraction Sheppard needs.

When they arrive at Stanton Research, John's surprised to find the civilian guards at the gate have been replaced by marines. He feels Ronon tense next to him, but they're waved right through, and by the time they park, another soldier is standing by. John recognizes him from yesterday's tactical team and relaxes a little.

"What's going on?" Rodney whispers nervously.

"IOA," John mouths back.

At the lab, there is another man stationed outside the door and several more inside. Ava is standing by her desk, placing what appear to be personal items into a cardboard box. She's pale and her eyes are red-rimmed, as if she's been crying. Before he can approach her, John catches movement in the corner of his eye and turns to greet Bates.

"Recovered from our little adventure yesterday?"

Bates smiles. "Yes, sir."

"You really don't have to call me that anymore, you know."

Bates smiles wider. "I know; old habits and all that."

"So, what's up?" John nods towards Ava and Bates' men. He sees Ronon has planted himself discreetly behind her, appointing himself guard duty. Rodney is busy plugging his tablet back into the mainframe.

"Orders from the IOA. We're to seize all equipment and files in this lab – pending capture of the fugitive - and the entire facility is under investigation."

John raises an eyebrow. He's not surprised, but this is fast, even for the IOA. "What brought this on?"

Bates leans in, his voice lowered. "We found a body last night while performing a sweep of the warehouse the Replicator was hiding in. Preliminary data suggests it's Dr. Richard Poole, the man in charge of Project Archetype."

John blows out a breath. Well, that explains Ava's tears. He watches as Rodney moves over to speak to her and they bend their heads together over a computer printout. John's struck again by how human Ava appears. Ronon clearly doesn't trust her, not that he blames the guy, but it's not like they haven't encountered a similar situation before.

John swallows hard, the uneasy weirdness he'd felt upon meeting his own Replicator self rising back to the surface. He still thinks about it sometimes, usually when he's lying in bed, unable to sleep; wonders if a creation capable of self-sacrifice can really be considered less than human. Given the chance, would they have brought 'Elizabeth' back with them, a less than perfect replacement for the friend they'd lost? It doesn't seem like such a stretch that Poole, given the knowledge and resources, wouldn't want the same thing.

"Cause of death?" he asks Bates, although he can guess.

"Blunt force trauma to the back of the head. It's likely he never saw it coming."

"Damn." John chews at his lower lip. "So much for that 'attacking in self-defense' theory."

"Any luck reactivating the tracking device, Colonel?"

"No, but McKay has a theory." John explains about the shipment of neutronium and the warehouse in Pennsylvania.

"I'll send a surveillance team up to keep an eye out," Bate says.

"No direct contact," John reminds him. "We don't want to spook him before we've got a plan in place.

"Right," Bates agrees, as he heads out the door.

John goes over to join Rodney, leaning over his shoulder to see what he's doing. "Got anything for me, McKay?"

"Why, yes, Colonel. I have the answer right here. I just decided not to share." Rodney squints towards the door, then looks up at John. "Was that Sergeant Bates?"

John chuckles. "Wow, nothing gets past you, McKay. That's what I like about you."

Rodney manages to look both pleased and confused, and John has to resist the urge to ruffle his hair. Instead he rests a hand on Rodney's shoulder, allowing his fingers to stroke the back of Rodney's neck along the way. The skin is warm and smooth where John continues to skim across it with his thumb.

Rodney blinks up at him, thoughts clearly derailed. His mouth forms a little 'o' of surprise, then quirks up into an almost shy smile. John smirks back at him cockily until he feels the hand on his inner thigh. Okay, not so shy then. Quickly glancing around the room, John sees Ava bent over her computer; Ronon is watching her. If the marines are aware of what John and Rodney are doing, their stony expressions don't give anything away.

Sweat prickles the back of John's neck. When did it get so warm in there? He looks back down and now Rodney is smirking and his hand has moved further up John's thigh. John has clearly lost control of the situation.

"Later," he whispers, his voice sounding low and hoarse to his own ears. He clears his throat and tries again, louder. "So, what'cha got for me, McKay?" He can see the moment McKay's brain comes back online.

"Oh, um," Rodney swivels back around. "Unfortunately, as we found out the hard way, our ARGs won't work on Jeff."

Ronon leans back against a lab table, arms crossed. "Why would you create something that dangerous, and then eliminate the only way to stop him?" he asks Ava.

"Yes, that seems rather short-sighted of you," Rodney adds. John can't help but agree.

"Richard handled all the programming," Ava explains. "I-I don't know why he would have done that. It's never come up before. During all the preliminary testing, the Replicator shut himself down whenever we asked him to. It was only when he suspected Richard was going to dismantle him permanently that he ran."

"So, he's been programmed for self-preservation," John says, thinking out loud. "Obviously whoever is really funding this little project of yours is looking for some sort of super soldier, one that's practically indestructible."

"But," Ava looks distressed. "I was assured funding for Project Archetype had been approved at the highest levels."

"Hmm, I'm thinking not so much," Rodney says.

"Not really our problem right now," says John. "What we need to figure out is how we're going to stop him."

Ronon shrugs. "Can't we do what we did to the Asurians?"

Rodney snorts. "Even if I had enough time – which I don't - and I had the necessary software with me – which I don't – it would basically necessitate me building a thir-" His eyes dart towards Ava, and then away. "Another Replicator. Something I'm pretty sure we don't want to do."

"No. We don't." John plants his hands on his hips and fixes them all with a stern glare. This subject is clearly not up for debate.

They lapse into silence, mulling the problem over.

"So, we can't split the nanites apart…" John begins, an idea forming.

"Yes, I believe I just covered that, Colonel," Rodney snipes. "Try to keep up."

John makes a face at him. "…but what about at the base level?"


"Can we do something to alter or infect the base material – the neutronium – so that it won't, I don't know, won't want to stick together?"

Rodney opens his mouth – no doubt to say something scathing - then shuts it again. "Huh."

"What if -"

Rodney holds up a hand. "Shut up now. Thinking."

John shoots Ronon a knowing look and receives a smirk in return.

Rodney's brain immediately begins working on the problem, even as he's snapping his fingers and shouting out demands. Two marines bring in a white board from somewhere, and soon Rodney has covered it with long strings of equations.

At first he thinks the answer lies in introducing a foreign substance, in the form of a liquid or a gas, but he eventually decides he's on the wrong track and scraps his work, starting over. There's something about what Sheppard said about infecting the base material… or to be more precise, infecting it at the molecular level.

"Yes, yes, yes!" Rodney loves those little 'eureka' moments. Working off data from Ava's files, Rodney sends her to collect the necessary parts he needs. She seems to intuitively understand what he's going for, requiring surprising little instruction. Rodney spares a moment to wonder if that's because the human she was created to replace really was that smart, or if it's because, well, because she's a machine herself.

As for Rodney, while engineering is not his primary field of expertise he's certainly no stranger to modifying what technology is available, to create what he needs.

"How's it coming, McKay?" Sheppard leans into his personal space for about the tenth time in however many minutes. Really, all that's missing is Zelenka muttering under his breath in Czech.

"Can't you go hover somewhere else, Colonel?"


Rodney shoots him an annoyed look, but Sheppard just beams back at him. "Well, you can at least make yourself useful." He shoves a screwdriver and a pocket PC into Sheppard's hands. "Take that apart."

"What are you going to do with-?"

"Ah, ah," Rodney holds up one finger. "Ava, where are those numbers?"

"Right here, Dr. McKay." Ava brings over a stack of papers. "Do you really think this will work?"

"Of course," Rodney frowns down at the devise in his hand. "Well, probably."

Sheppard ambles closer and raises an inquisitive eyebrow. "You built a Frankenstein iPod?"

"Oh, ha ha, yes, Colonel. I plan to load it up with Johnny Cash and toss it in."


Rodney rolls his eyes. "I'll try to explain this in terms even you can understand, Colonel."


"As I hope we all know by now, nanites are individual 'cells' if you will, each creating it's own electrical current. When more than one nanite is present, a paramagnetic field is created. This is what bonds the nanites together. In the past we've been able to utilize the ARGs to disrupt the magnetic field, thus causing the Replicators to disintegrate."

"Yeah, but those weapons don't work on this thing," Ronon says.

"True, so that means we need to come up with another way to diamagnetize the nanites…from the inside." Rodney is met with blank stares.

"And that gizmo is going to do…whatever you said?" Sheppard ventures.

"Yes. Well, no, not directly. We're going to use this," he waves the device – he'll have to come up with a cool name for it later – "on some neutronium to alter the magnetic flow on a molecular level."

Sheppard's face brightens. "Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!" he crows, delighted.

"Please, Colonel, your inner geek is showing. This is nothing like-"

"It is. You built your own sonic screwdriver!" Sheppard claps him on the back, looking so pleased that Rodney can't help but smile back at him.

"Oh, well, I guess there is a similarity in the technology…"

Ronon coughs. "So, how are we going to get the neutronium into the Replicator?"

"Ah, well, that's where you and the Colonel come in."

Ronon is surprised once again that the people of Earth can be so technically advanced in some respects, and yet so backwards in others. Sheppard explains how they load goods into large vehicles and transport them, sometimes for days, in order to distributed them among their people, rather than using technology like they have on the Daedalus. When he asks, Sheppard just says it's complicated. Ronon's beginning to think that's what Sheppard says when he doesn't feel like explaining.

There are plans to block the road to stop the truck carrying the shipment of neutronium, but in the end it isn't necessary. Apparently, drivers are required to stop and rest every so many hours. It's nothing for Ronon to slip inside the upper berth and stun the man while he's sleeping.

The back entrance is locked by an electronic keypad. Ronon is prepared to shoot it, but Sheppard reminds him they need to be as inconspicuous as possible. Shrugging, Ronon walks the perimeter while McKay hooks his tablet up to the lock.

It's a quiet night. There are no clouds in the sky and they've moved far enough away from the city lights that Ronon can see the stars again. They're not nearly as bright though as they'd been on Sateda, or many of the other worlds they visit in his galaxy. He remembers, as a boy, lying on a grassy hill with his father and older brothers, being taught the different star formations. His father had said the stars would always guide you home. Of course, that was before he'd begun traveling through the stargate. Ronon wonders how the people of Earth find their way, when they so rarely can see the sky.

"Everything okay out there?" Sheppard asks in a hissed whisper.

Ronon comes around the other side of the vehicle. McKay's got the heavy doors open and Ronon catches one as it swings back. "Yeah, all clear." Peering inside, Ronon sees several large crates stacked along the sides of the vehicle's flat bed. They're held in place by thick, heavy straps.

Sheppard turns to McKay. "Do we need to pry them open in order for you to do your stuff?"

McKay is fiddling with his new gadget and answers with a distracted wave. "No, we shouldn't have to."


McKay glances up, making a sour face. "Okay, fine, no. Our preliminary tests of the device indicated that there doesn't need to be direct contact, and that the energy waves can pass through wood."

"Well, okay then. Can't blame a guy for asking."

"Yes, Colonel, because now is the time to worry about these things, rather than, oh say, back at the lab."

Ronon tunes them out. They bicker like old ladies. It used to bother him until he recognized it for the courting ritual it is; now he just finds it amusing.

"Alley oop, McKay." Sheppard bends at the knees, with his hands clasps in front of him, ready to give McKay a boost.

McKay gapes at him. "Oh, please, you can't be serious!"

Sheppard stands and spreads his arms wide. "Okay, Rodney, hop on up there then."

"What…I…" McKay sputters. "Fine." He awkwardly swings up into the back of the truck with Sheppard's help. "You just wanted an excuse to touch my ass," he mutters once up there.

Sheppard grins until he catches Ronon watching. He then ducks his head and looks away. Grabbing a handle sticking out, he jumps up easily to join McKay. "Showoff," McKay mumbles.

Ronon makes another circuit of the perimeter. The chill of evening is setting in, dew forming on the grass at the side of the road. A stone shifts beneath his foot and he kicks it, sending it skittering off down the pavement. According to Sheppard, most of the people of Earth are unaware there is life on other planets, that stargates even exist. It's hard for Ronon to imagine a life without travel to other worlds. He remembers his first time through the gate on his own and how proud he'd been that he no longer needed to cling to his mother's hand.

A noise in the trees puts Ronon on alert and he's got his gun in his hand before he can even formulate a thought. A small, hoofed mammal with spindly legs pokes its head out and stares at him.

"Relax, big guy," Sheppard whispers, coming up behind him. "It's not deer hunting season yet." When Ronon cocks his head at him, he adds, "Besides, it's just a baby."

The deer chews at some grass then bounds back into the undergrowth and disappears. Ronon hesitates, and then reholsters his weapon. "You finished?"

"Yeah, McKay is locking the doors again. How much longer before the stun wears off?"

Ronon looks at his watch. "Maybe a half hour."

Sheppard nods. "Okay, lets go wait in the car. We can listen to McKay complain about what the cold, damp air is doing to his sinuses or something." They exchange smiles and Sheppard turns back, Ronon on his six, just like always.

Back at the hotel, John checks in with Bates, and with General Landry at the SGC. If tomorrow's plan doesn't work out, they'll have to enlist the aid of the Apollo, which is due back some time in the next twenty four hours. John really, really hopes it doesn't come to that. He just wants this over and done with.

John's wired and nowhere near ready to sleep. Rodney is fidgeting on the edge of the bed, fiddling with the TV remote. "You gonna turn that thing on or what?" John teases. Rodney looks up with a "What? Oh." and sets it down. He looks as out of sorts as John feels. There's an awkwardness in the air that John doesn't know what to do with. Grabbing his sneakers from behind the bed, he announces, "I'm going for a run."

"What, now? It's dark out!"

John gives Rodney a look. "Yes, I'm aware of that. I'm also a big boy, McKay." He stuffs his feet into his shoes and yanks the laces tight, suddenly annoyed.

"Forgive me for expressing concern, Colonel. It won't happen again."


"Only I thought maybe we should talk about-"

"How many times do I have to say it?!" John explodes, rather louder than he'd planned. "I'm fine and I don't need to talk about it!"

Rodney stares at him, his expression growing stormy. "I think we've all gotten the message now," he says icily. "I was going to say we should talk about the whole Ava being a Replicator thing, but since you've just announced your well-being to the entire planet, I'm sure you've got that well in hand too, so I won't bother."

"Rodney, wait. I didn't mean -" Before John can finish, Rodney gets up and stomps from the room. "Damn it!" John kicks at his duffel bag. Snatching his wallet and room card from the dresser, he heads for the door.

Once outside, John forces himself to take a deep breath and unclench his fists. He doesn't like what just happened up there. It's rare for him to lose his cool that easily. He's going to have to watch it if the changes in his personal relationship with Rodney start to bleed over into the job. Maybe it's because Teyla's not there. She always has a calming influence over them all.

After a few stretches, John starts to jog at a gentle pace. He saves his bursts of speed for when he's trying to keep up with Ronon. It's late enough that the streets are nearly deserted but the sidewalk is well lit. John concentrates on his breathing, letting the day's problems slip away one by one until all that's left is the sound of his feet hitting the pavement. The cool evening breeze ruffles his hair and feels good on his face, but he can feel sweat prickling his skin and dampening his shirt, causing it to cling uncomfortably to his back.

John stops for breath at a public drinking fountain. After a long drink, he takes a look around and sees he's entered the 'old' part of town. If he remembers correctly, most towns in the area maintain an historic section, used to attract tourists. This is where you would find rows of privately owned shops selling antiques, used books and hand-crafted furniture. Behind the large glass window in front of him, an old baby doll with a porcelain face sits in a small, antique carriage. Next to her is a large spinning wheel, a sideboard laden with stacks of flower-patterned china, and a lacey wedding dress on display. John remembers riding his bike into the nearest town as a kid, searching through piles of junk for matchbox cars and old baseball cards.

There's an ice cream parlor a few doors down and John stares at it longingly, thinking Rodney would probably love a few scoops too, but sadly it's closed up tight, just like all the rest of the shops. Feeling guilty he's been gone so long, John starts to walk back. McKay is probably worried, and John didn't even think to bring his cell phone. The wind kicks up a little, and by the time he gets back to the hotel John is cold and tired and ready to sleep.

Slipping back into their room, John's a little surprised that Rodney is already asleep, curled into a tight ball on one side of the king size bed. He knows he should take a shower, but John's suddenly too exhausted to care. Instead, he strips off his clothes, rubbing himself down with his t-shirt, and crawls into bed. His hand hovers indecisively before gliding with a feather light touch down the outline of Rodney's arm and shoulder, underneath the covers. Rodney shifts but doesn't wake. "Sorry," John whispers. He rolls over, burrows into his pillow and is asleep in moments.

Rodney wakes up grouchy, despite having fallen asleep ridiculously early the night before. His ego is still smarting from his argument with Sheppard. That's the last time he wastes his energy worrying about that asshole, he tells himself, even though he knows it's a lie.

He stomps his way over to start what will undoubtedly turn out to be a truly crappy pot of coffee, and heads for the shower. Sheppard is still asleep when he gets out. He has sprawled out and is now lying face down in the middle of the bed, head partially buried under Rodney's pillow. The sheets have slipped down, twisting themselves around Sheppard's hips, revealing just a hint of blue-checked boxers. He looks more like a big kid than a 40 year old military commander.

Rodney pauses to watch the play of muscles under the skin of Sheppard's back as he shifts in his sleep, and his resolve crumbles just a little. His hands tingle with the urge to run themselves up and down that warm expanse of skin. He longs to straddle Sheppard's hips, to lean forward and mouth at the hollow where neck meets shoulder, while his cock rubs deliciously against his ass. Now Rodney wishes he'd taken the time to jerk off in the shower, because no way is that happening this morning. He is still angry, damn it.

Using that eerie sixth sense that always seems to tell him when he's being watched, Sheppard rolls over with a groan and props himself up on his elbows. His hair is even more askew than ever, his face flushed from sleep, and he's wearing the bewildered expression of the half-awake that can only be described as adorable – well, by someone less manly than Rodney anyway. Sheppard's eyes focus on Rodney and he breaks out into a dorky grin. It's the grin that does him in. An unexpected wave of affection washes over Rodney and he catches himself smiling stupidly back. Blinking fuzzily up at Rodney, Sheppard asks, "McKay?"

Embarrassed to have been caught staring and irritated at himself for giving in so easily, Rodney stumbles backwards and savagely flips on the light switch. This elicits another groan from Sheppard, who shields his eyes. "Jesus, McKay, you could warn a guy."

"Forgive me for wanting to actually see what I'm doing, Colonel. Not all of us can afford to sleep the day away," Rodney blusters, grabbing up his laptop and retreating to the far side of the room.

"Whoa, sounds like someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning." Sheppard squints at the bedside clock. "And since when is 7am considered sleeping in?" He moves to get up, but his legs are now hopelessly tangled. He wrestles with the sheets until Rodney can't stand to watch any more.

"Oh, for the love of…" Rodney storms back over and gives the sheets a sharp tug and they come loose all at once, revealing Sheppard's hairy legs, knobby knees and all.

Sheppard stares up at him, eyebrows drawn together. "Are you mad at me?"

Rodney's eyes narrow. "Is there a reason I should be?"

Sheppard stays silent, one beat, two, then smiles at him beatifically. "None that I can think of."

Fine, two can play that game. Rodney turns his back on him and starts picking through his clothes, looking for anything remotely clean. It's a good thing the IOA lent them some uniform shirts or he suspects they'd all be smelling a little ripe by now.

Rodney continues his silence through breakfast. He downs three cups of marginal coffee in succession but only picks at his eggs. Sheppard and Ronon are quietly discussing plans for the attack on Jeff, and if Ronon glances quizzingly at Rodney a few times, he pretends not to notice. There is a lot riding on the success of Rodney's plan, and while he's 99.95% sure it will work, that final .05% has come back to bite them in the ass one too many times for his comfort.

Then there's the question of Ava. They still haven't talked about what to do with her yet. On the one hand, Rodney knows she's a potential threat, that they don't fully understand her programming or what might trigger her to go rogue, like Jeff. On the other, he still feels a pang of guilt over creating Fran and then sending her to 'die' on the Replicator planet. Ava, like Fran, was created for someone else's purposes and could be considered an innocent in all this – as innocent as an artificial life form can be anyway. Plus, she's done all she could to assist them, and disintegration feels like a lousy reward.

"You gonna finish that, McKay," Ronon grunts, pointing with his fork.

All that coffee churns sourly in Rodney's stomach and he pushes his plate over. "No, take it."

Ronon lifts an eyebrow. "You okay?"

"Fine, fine." Rodney waves a hand dismissively. "I'm just thinking about the mission."

Sheppard's hand reaches part way across the table and then stops. "It'll be fine. It's a good plan." His smirk is an attempt at reassurance, but his eyes search Rodney's face questioningly. Rodney grunts and looks down at the table instead. He swears he can hear disappointment in Sheppard's voice when he says, "Okay kids, let's pack up and get this show on the road."

Rodney is the first one out of the booth and out the door.

As Ronon sees it, the plan itself is a simple one: ambush the Replicator and blast the hell out of him. Ronon likes that plan. If their weapons don't stop him then there's always McKay's poisoned bricks, but he kind of hopes they don't need to use them. He'd like to break the thing's neck with his bare hands if he could.

Sheppard snaps his cell phone shut and makes a right turn at the next corner, deviating from the usual route to the laboratories. When Ronon looks over, Sheppard shoots him a tight smile. "Change in plan," is all he says.

The road they're on takes them away from town. The houses are becoming bigger and spread further apart, and they keep passing groups of large animals - some brown, some black and white - milling around in fenced in areas, chewing on grass.

"What are those?"

"Cows," Rodney answers from the back seat. It's the first thing he's said since they left the diner. Ronon isn't sure what's going on between him and Sheppard, but figures they'll work it out. They always do. "We use some of them for beef, but those are dairy cows. Their milk is used for a variety of things."

"Huh." Ronon has learned a lot about Earth from watching the films they've brought with them to Atlantis, but there are obvious gaps in his education. Of course he knows what beef and milk are, but seeing the animals in person does nothing to explain the 'cow tipping' the marines were laughing about the other week.

Sheppard turns onto a dirt road, which leads them to a flat, grassy field. Ronon hears the thup thup thup sound before they come over the hill and stop. In the middle of the field sits a large machine with rotating blades on top. Ronon recognizes it as a helicopter from some of the movies Sheppard's shown him. Sheppard hops out of the car, then bends to poke his head back in. "C'mon, we're going for a ride."

The turning blades are kicking up a fair amount of dirt and they all have to duck their heads and shield their eyes to climb in. Ronon's seat is by the window, with Shepard next to him. He shows Ronon how to buckle in and hands him a set of headphones, which help dampen the noise. Ronon grins as Sheppard turns to buckle McKay in and McKay swats at his hands. McKay is scowling and his lips are moving, and Ronon doesn't have to be able to hear to guess what's being said.

Sheppard reaches up and presses something on his headset, and Ronon hears him say, "We're ready whenever you are." The helicopter lurches awkwardly then lifts off the ground. Ronon glances over to see McKay gripping the handle by his seat with white-knuckled intensity, his mouth forming a tight, unhappy line. Looking out the window, Ronon watches the ground fall away. It's kind of like riding in a 'jumper, except it's a lot bumpier. The helicopter swoops and rises, buffeted by the wind and Ronon grins. A lot more fun too.

"God, I miss inertial dampeners," McKay whines, his voice sounds tinny through his headset.

"Want me to see if they'll let me take the wheel, McKay?" Sheppard jokes, elbowing McKay in the ribs.

"Hell, no! You'd probably have us doing barrel rolls or something."

Sheppard snorts. "You can't do barrel rolls in a chopper, Rodney." Ronon swears there's a wistfulness to his tone.

Once he's bored with looking out the window, Ronon experimentally feels around for the button on his headset. "You flown one of these before, Sheppard?"

"Sure, flew them for years with the Air Force." He leans into Ronon's space to look out the window. "Apache, Black Hawk, Cobra, Osprey…"

Ronon doesn't recognize those words but nods anyway.

Sheppard snaps his fingers. "Remember watching the movie 'Black Hawk Down'?"

Ronon nods, impressed. "That was you?"

"Well, Somalia was a little before my time," Sheppard shrugs. "But you get the idea."

"Huh." Ronon looks back out the window. "So how'd you end up in Atlantis?"

Sheppard is silent so long Ronon thinks he didn't hear him, but when he turns back Sheppard's lips are pressed together into a thin line, and he's wearing his 'I don't want to talk about it' face. McKay is watching him too, curious, but for once doesn't say anything either.

"ETA is three minutes, sir," the pilot cuts in.

"Thank you, Major," Sheppard answers, his shoulders visibly relaxing.

Ronon settles back in his seat. He can't wait to see what it's like to land in one of these things.

Bates is waiting for them when they land. Shrugging into an offered tac vest, John gets an updated report. He can feel Ronon and McKay crowding in behind him.

"We're here," Bates points to an area on the large map taped to the side of the tactical van. "About a mile from the drop off point. The target," he points again, at a spot further south. "was spotted here a few hours ago. We believe he's waiting for the delivery to arrive before moving in."

"Good," John answers, checking the ammo for his 9 mil out of habit more than anything else. He doesn't really expect to use it. The P-90 is going to do far more damage, and damage is what they're going for. "We'll take our positions inside the warehouse. Don't want to spook him, so keep back until the shipment and the target are in place, then move in to form a tight perimeter. We can't afford to let this guy get away again." Bates nods and moves off to brief his men. "You good?" John nods at Ronon, who raises his weapon in answer.

Walking over to the gun rack, John selects his gun and a few extra clips. After a moment's hesitation, he grabs a second one. McKay is busy struggling into his vest when John walks over. "You should probably stay here and monitor our progress. Bates says they've got the whole place fitted with cameras."

McKay sucks in a breath, ready to argue long and loud about why he shouldn't get left behind, but is cut off by John shoving a P-90 into his hands. "But I want you on hand, in case we need your gizmo again." He doesn't really think they will, but Rodney's part of the team and, as weird as it sounds, John feels more comfortable having him along.

"Like I would have let you go in there without me to watch your ass," McKay snorts. John lifts an eyebrow and McKay's face reddens. "Um, I didn't mean…not like…oh for god's sake, is that all you think about?"

"I'm a guy, Rodney," he shrugs.

"Colonel, there's one more thing," Bates says, coming back over. "We received a report this morning that Ms. Dixon slipped away some time during the night. We did have a detail monitoring her house, but she may have been planning this for a while."

"Damn it!"

"I think the IOA was going to go easy on her anyway," Bates continues. "Considering all of her cooperation and the likelihood that she was unaware of Poole's illegal activities, but we have sent out a standard APB. Just thought you should know."

Shit, shit, shit. This is John's fault for avoiding making a decision. Rodney had even wanted to talk about it last night and John blew him off. He exchanges frustrated looks with Ronon and McKay. Ronon is stone-faced and were it anyone else, there would be an 'I told you so' coming. Well, Ava is going to have to wait. She still hasn't shown any signs of violence, and maybe Rodney's right; maybe she is programmed differently. Right now Jeff is definitely the bigger threat.

They're dropped off about three quarters of a mile from the warehouse, to minimize the chances of being spotted. They head down a narrow service road which, according to the map, winds around to a back entrance gate. Ronon immediately takes point, John's on their six, with Rodney in the middle. It may be overkill, considering they're on Earth, but bearing in mind there are now two human form Replicators on the loose, John's not taking any chances.

John thinks it should feel different, being 'home', but were it not for the asphalt pavement under his feet, they could be on any planet in the Pegasus Galaxy. Well, that and the fact that the natives here are more likely to get his jokes. He wonders how it is for Ronon, who doesn't really even have a home world to go back to, and feels a little guilty, like maybe he should be appreciating it more.

McKay is moving at a pretty good clip and John has to hurry to catch up. He bumps Rodney's shoulder with his own. "Hey, McKay." Rodney does not bump back. They're away from prying eyes so John reaches out to squeeze Rodney's elbow, then slides his hand down until his fingers tickle Rodney's palm. Rodney makes a surprised noise and pulls away sharply. "Hey, it's okay; no one's here but Ronon, and he doesn't care."

"Oh, well as long as no one can see us…" He can hear the sneer in McKay's voice.

John scratches his nose, confused. "You mad about something?"

"What would I have to be angry about, Colonel?"

"I dunno. You tell me."

McKay stops and looks at him, his eyes searching John's. His mouth is turned down unhappily. John tries on a winning smile but McKay's mouth only droops lower. Finally he says, "I'm just trying to do what you want, keep things nice and professional. Wouldn't want to get to personal or anything. Now if you'll excuse me." He makes a sweeping gesture and starts walking again.

What the fuck? McKay is being deliberately obtuse and John really doesn't have time to deal with his little snits. "Fine, whatever," he snaps back, letting McKay get ahead of him again. Whatever his problem is, he can keep it to himself.

Ronon walks ahead of the others, senses on full alert. They are far enough away from the city noise that he can hear birds again, and the sound of wind rustling through the goldening leaves on the trees. The flinty smell and dirty haze in the sky is less oppressive here.

Rounding a bend in the road, Ronon sees a high fence and gate up ahead. He raises a fist to signal halt and moves forward cautiously. Once he's determined there are no Replicators lurking in the bushes, he signals the all clear and waits for Sheppard and McKay to join him.

Sheppard nods his approval and produces a key. McKay looks nervous: shoulders drawn up tight, arms hugging his vest as he paces back and forth. On Sateda, McKay never would have become a warrior. He is too timid and loud and doesn't follow orders well, but he also never gives up or backs down; he doesn't let his fear keep him from being part of the team, and Ronon admires him for that.

The gate swings open with a squeal and one by one they slip through. Sheppard taps his radio. "Got anything for me, Bates?" He nods and listens, his face grim. "They've lost track of Jeff," he tells Ronon and McKay. "They don't think he's gotten into the warehouse yet."

"They don't think? McKay snorts.

"They've got security cameras monitoring all the entrances," Sheppard reminds him, not looking very happy about the situation himself.

"Oh, well I'm comforted."

Ronon pulls out his gun and fires it up. "Only one way to know for sure."

Sheppard nods at him tersely and the three make their way to the door. Once inside, Sheppard motions for them to spread out. Ronon moves right, stepping cautiously until his eyes adjust to the dim light. Crouching down behind some boxes, he scans the large room for any signs of movement. McKay has taken up a similar position to his right and Sheppard is on the far side. A familiar stack of boxes sits in the middle. There is nothing to do but wait.

When the attack begins, Ronon doesn't see it coming. The sound of a footfall behind him is his only warning before a sharp pain explodes through his skull, whiting out his vision. Knocked forward, he rolls and kicks out, using his momentum to his advantage. His foot connects, repelling his attacker long enough for his eyes to clear.

The Replicator is coming at him again, swinging a large piece of wood. Ronon manages to twist out of the way and the board glances painfully off his shoulder instead of the direct hit aimed at his head. He stumbles to his feet, eyes scanning the floor for his blaster. In the distance Sheppard shouts and he hears the blast of a shotgun. The Replicator jerks and turns away, but not before backhanding Ronon across the face. This time, when he goes down everything goes black.

"Hey," John calls out again, hopefully distracting Jeff's attention from Ronon, who is lying way too still. Rodney is still hidden, which means he is following orders for once. The Replicator turns towards the sound of his voice and comes closer. John smiles brightly.

"Why don't you pick on somebody your own size?" He fires off a couple more rounds and hears the satisfying clink of Replicator pellets hitting the concrete. Something whizzes dangerously close to his face and John lets out an embarrassing yelp as he realizes Jeff's got Ronon's blaster. "Oh c'mon now, that's just not playing fair." He nose-dives out of the way, just in time to dodge the next blast.

John hits the ground hard. His vest absorbs most of the impact, but he still manages to whack the side of his head against the crate he'd been hiding behind. His head swims for a moment and he feels something warm and wet slide past his ear. John grits his teeth. This isn't exactly going to plan, but then again, when does it ever. He reaches up for his radio, to call for backup, but it's fallen out somewhere. Terrific.

The heavy crate in front of John shakes and lifts from view, tossed aside by Jeff like it's a child's toy. Rolling onto his back, John fires up into him at close range, aiming for the hand holding the gun. He's rewarded with a shower of pellets raining down on him and the sound of Ronon's gun skittering to the floor. The hand doesn't grow back right way, which is hopefully a good sign that Jeff is running out of resources.

"What's a matter? Almost out of gas?" John uses his feet to scoot further away on his back, at the same time releasing the spent cartridges from his rifle. Before he can get off another shot though, Jeff grabs it by the barrel, wrenching it out of John's hand. A new pain shoots through John's twisted wrist.

Fuck. Jeff's face fills John's field of vision as he bends closer, grabbing John by the front of his vest and hoisting him clumsily to his feet. They stand face to face for a few tense seconds, Jeff eyeing John with an almost sad expression. "I didn't want to kill him," he says.

John assumes Jeff means Poole. "Yeah, well, you did, and now we're going to have to stop you before you kill anyone else."

Jeff's expression turns hard. "I don't think so." His hand moves up until John's jaw is cradled in the web between thumb and fingers.

Uh oh. "Now would be a good time, McKay," John shouts out, just as he feels the fingers tightening, cutting off his air supply. He knows he's not in an ideal position, that he is as much of a target as Jeff – especially given it's McKay who's doing the shooting – but there's not a hell of a lot he can do at this point.

Jeff squeezes tighter and lifts John up until his feet are dangling inches off the floor. There's a sensation of movement, then something solid at his back, which he finally recognizes as a wall. John kicks out, his hands reaching up to pull futilely at fingers made of steel. His breath is coming in gasps now, the world around him turning fuzzy as he starts to lose consciousness.

Somewhere in the distance John hears the comforting sound of McKay's P-90 firing. Jeff's body jerks and twists at the impact, but he still doesn't let go. John braces himself for the sting of a bullet wound, relieved when none comes. McKay must be a better shot than he remembers. There's a shout, then a blur of motion. A dark arm wraps around Jeff's neck, pulling him backwards.

The Replicator lowers John, allowing him a split second of relief, while he turns to swat at Ronon. John sags forward in his loosened grip, gulping in air as fast as he can. Through his blurred vision, he can see Ronon attacking with feet and bare hands. There's a nasty cut over one eye with blood streaking down his face. He's tough, but even one-handed Jeff has no trouble striking out, sending Ronon flying across the room again. He lands like a rag doll. John swallows hard, hoping Ronon is just knocked out, and then that's all the time he's got before the hand starts squeezing again.

C'mon, Rodney, John thinks. Do your thing…whatever it is. It's your turn to rescue me. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but the grip on his throat feels looser, like maybe Jeff is starting to run out of steam. He claws at the hand again, but he's got nothing left. It's an effort just to lift his arms. His eyes are watering; his mouth opens and closes like a fish, trying to suck in air that's just not getting through.

John is on the verge of passing out when suddenly the pressure on his throat releases. He falls to the floor in a heap, unable to even hold himself up. There is more shouting in the distance, which John thinks is McKay calling out to him. His chest heaves, trying to suck in much needed air through his swollen windpipe. It takes everything John's got to work his hand up and grasp the zipper of his tac vest, pulling it open. Blessed relief as his lungs find more room to expand. He braces his hands beneath him, attempting to push himself up, to sit or at least roll over, so he can see what's going on, but it's just too much. Sweat (and maybe blood) rolls from his face; his throat aches when he swallows. All John can do is close his eyes and let the darkness take over.

Rodney sees Sheppard fall and can't keep himself from crying out to him. "John! He watches, horror struck for one interminable second, two, three… until finally John's chest heaves, drawing in ragged breath after ragged breath, and all Rodney can think is a loop of Alive, alive, he's alive!

His hands shake, still clutching the gun that might as well have been a paperweight, for all the good it was. Sheppard could have died while Rodney stayed crouched down, hidden, waiting for a signal that almost came too late. How would he have explained that to Ronon and Teyla and the others? Rodney braces the butt of the gun between his knees and tucks his hands into his armpits, gratefully distracted by the whirlwind of arms and legs in front of him: two Replicators locked in battle. He can't believe Ava came back, can't believe she saved Sheppard. She and Jeff are pretty evenly matched, something that surprises Rodney. Perhaps it's part of a self-defense protocol written into their base code.

Jeff's taken quite a beating, metallic wounds visible through tears in his clothing, but when he stumbles back, Ava doesn't follow through. Instead she stands where she is, waiting for him to right himself. "It doesn't have to be like this," she calls out. Jeff stares back at her in confusion, as does Rodney. "No one else needs to die."

"They want to deactivate me."

"They're afraid; they don't understand us." Ava takes a step forward. "I've learned to adapt to my surroundings, and so can you."

Rodney picks up the gun again, but Ava is standing in the way of him getting a clear shot. He doesn't get why she isn't moving in for the kill and starts to wonder who's side she's really on.

Jeff's eyes flick uncertainly between Ava and the stack of boxes containing the neutronium. When she still doesn't move, he goes over and pries the top off the nearest crate. Rodney waits for a warning from Ava, about what they've done to it, but none comes, and it finally clicks, what she's planning.

The material is in soft metal form, and Jeff pulls out an object the size of a small brick. Rodney watches amazed, as he holds it aloft in one hand and the element is slowly absorbed into his synthetic skin. Ava purses her lips. "None of this was your fault." Rodney assumes she's still addressing the other Replicator. "I'm sorry."

The effects of the tainted enzyme are almost instantaneous. Instead of healing Jeff's wounds, they become wider. Jeff wavers on his feet, head jerking up to stare at Ava in disbelief. His limbs are elongating, stretching down to the floor as if melting. "What have you done to me?"

"I'm sorry," Ava says again.

It's pretty disgusting, but Rodney can't look away. Within a minute there's nothing left of Jeff but a pile of dirty rags and a puddle of base elements. When Ava turns to face him, Rodney realizes he's still got the P-90 in his hand, and it's trained directly on her. He could do it. At this range she might sustain enough permanent damage she couldn't recover from on her own, and she's seen the results of using the neutronium.

Ava watches him calmly, making no effort to attack or escape, and Rodney knows he can't do it. For all his bluster and demands to be treated as an equal member of the team, he's a scientist at heart, not a soldier. "Thank you," he says. "For coming back. I – He would have died if you hadn't and I…" He's not sure how to finish that sentence. Ava smiles at him without saying another word, turns and runs away.

Rodney doesn't even bother to see which direction she went. Instead he's finally able to make it over to Sheppard, who has managed to roll onto his back and prop himself up on his elbows. He looks up at Rodney blearily. Blood is matted in his hair, his face bruised and streaked with tears. "Oh my god, John." The words get stuck in Rodney's throat. His hands reach out to flutter along John's skin: neck, cheeks, forehead. He wants to touch so badly, but is afraid of hurting him. He ends up gently resting one hand on the side of John's head just below the ear, one thumb gently sweeping across his dirty cheek.

"Rodney?" he croaks. "What happened?"

"You're okay, you're okay." Rodney chants, as he helps him into a sitting position. "God, John, I'm so sorry." It comes out as a half sob and Rodney self-consciously hides his face in John's shoulder. He feels a hand come up to rest on his arm.

"Why, what'd you do?" John sounds confused. "Did you shoot me?"

Rodney lets out a desperate laugh, wondering what the hell is wrong with him because he is not normally like this. To show emotion is to show weakness, but he can't stop with the touching and the shaking and oh god. The last time he felt this desperate was when Jeannie almost died.

"Hey," Sheppard's hand pats awkwardly at his shoulder. "It's okay. You're okay. I'm okay."

When Rodney pulls back, John is wearing a warm, loopy grin. "I really should have gotten you that ice cream."

"Oh my god, you're concussed, aren't you?"

He frowns. "I don't think so, but, uh, everything kind of hurts."

"I should think so, after being pummeled and choked within an inch of your life." It's a little easier to say out loud, now that John is up and talking and alive.

Rodney can tell when the pieces snap into place. "Replicator?" Rodney nods. Looking over his shoulder, he asks, "Did Ronon get him off me? Where is he?"

Ronon! Rodney jumps up, horribly guilty to have forgotten. He runs over to where Ronon is lying still and shakes him gently by the shoulder. To his relief, Ronon groans and slowly rolls onto his back. "McKay?"

"Yes, yes," Rodney fusses over him. "Leave it to you to take a nap in the middle of the big climactic battle."

Ronon pushes himself up, swaying on his feet until he gets his equilibrium back. "The Replicator?"

"Puddle of goo. My plan worked like a charm, of course."


"Battered and bruised, same as you." Rodney's abruptly aware of just how uninjured he is, but Ronon doesn't comment on it. They stagger back over to where Sheppard is struggling to his own feet.

"You still got your radio, McKay?" he asks. Rodney fumbles it out of his ear and hand it over. "Bates?" Sheppard scans the room, eyes spying the Replicator puddle. "The target has been neutralized. Stand down your men." He listens for a few seconds, then rolls his eyes skyward. "You're kidding me."

"What, what?" Rodney demands, impatiently.

Sheppard signs off and grins at Rodney and Ronon. "Guess who's back in town." That's as far as he gets before everything begins to sparkle and fade out. The next thing Rodney sees is the deck of the Apollo.

John spends an unwarranted six hours in the ship infirmary. Not because he's that badly injured – a few cracked ribs and there are some spectacular bruises forming – but because they let him fall asleep. He still thinks someone slipped him a mickey. Ronon isn't any worse off so John is willing to put this one in the win column.

After a quick bite to eat in the mess with the others, including Bates, they all trudge wearily down to the conference room for a mission debrief with General Landry, via vid-cam. Bates has been handling the Earth-side press and politics – opening road blocks, coming up with a cover story for why a small warehouse in Pennsylvania was inexplicably shot full of bullet holes – and Ronon proudly explains how he beamed back down to help clean up what's left of Jeff. When it's reported that the remains have been beamed into space, low Earth orbit specifically, where every nanite should have disintegrated upon reentry, he grins with satisfaction. McKay is strangely subdued during the meeting, but John's not exactly feeling so chipper himself, so he can relate.

John waits until all the others have filed out before reporting what he knows about Ava Dixon. He wants it clear he is taking full responsibility for her escape.

"I'm sorry, sir. Had I told Bates and the IOA what I suspected, I'm sure they would have gone to greater lengths to secure her."

Landry sighs. "Hindsight, Colonel. I understand having to make split-second decisions in the field. It's been a tough mission during a difficult time for you, and believe me I appreciate how quickly your team took care of the matter." He leans in closer to the camera. "That said, I don't expect it to happen again. Am I clear?"

"Yes, sir."

The team is officially ordered to stand down and the transmission ends. The Apollo will continue to sweep for Ava's transmitter signal, although John suspects they won't have any luck. Gingerly easing away from the table, he winces as the movement tugs at his sore ribs. Hell, sore everything. He leaves the room only to find Ronon and McKay waiting for him, faces grim.

"Taking one for the team, Colonel?" McKay sneers, arms crossed tightly against his chest.

"We all knew and decided not to tell," Ronon adds, surprising John.

"And ultimately it was my responsibility," John counters. "Hence the 'leader' part of team leader." Neither looks convinced. "Look, guys, it's okay. A slap on the wrist, that's all." They start to walk together down the hall.

"So, we done here then?" Ronon asks.

"Yeah." John rubs at the back of his neck. "I want you both to head back to Atlantis. I – I've got a couple things to do here still."

McKay's chin raises and John just knows an argument is coming. "I'm staying with you."

"Thanks, McKay, I appreciate the offer, but I don't need you for this." A flash of hurt crosses his face, making John wonder what he's said wrong this time. He glances up at Ronon, who shrugs. "I'm just gonna go explain things to my brother, that's all."

"I assumed as much. I just thought you – that we…" Rodney trails off and looks away. He sounds so defeated that it makes John's chest ache.

John reaches out to give his arm a friendly squeeze. "Hey, I just figured you couldn't wait to get back and start analyzing all that new data we decrypted. Of course I want you to come with me, if you're not too busy." Truth is, John had been hoping for some alone time with Dave, to try and work on repairing their relationship, but seeing the relieved smile on Rodney's face, John figures he's made the right call.

They say their goodbyes to Colonel Ellis and to Bates – John promising to send him reports now and then, on how Atlantis is doing – and collect their bags, which had been beamed aboard the Apollo at some point, probably while John was sleeping. Ronon pulls him aside.

"You going to be okay?"

"Yeah, think so." He tilts his head towards Rodney, standing off to the side. "McKay's got my back."

Ronon nods, then pulls him into a huge bear hug. Ow, ribs. John only just manages to stifle a girly whimper. When he pulls back, Ronon's smiles and slaps him on the back, nearly sending him sprawling. "See you when you get back."

"Not if I see you first," John mutters, half joking. "Say hi to Teyla for us," he adds.

Ronon taps his earpiece, "Okay, I'm ready" and disappears.

The Apollo beams Rodney and John down into a deserted alleyway, in the town nearest the Sheppard home. While Rodney would complain about the hassle of lunging their bags and finding a cab, he can see the point of not just materializing outside Dave Sheppard's door with no visible means of transport.

John is tense in the seat next to him, eyes focused out the side window. He keeps rubbing his hands nervously along the tops of his thighs and he's too far away for Rodney to touch without being obvious about it.

Dave answers the door with a look of surprise, then an unsure smile. "John!"

"Hey, Dave." John ducks his head a little, his familiar shy pose.

The smile fades a little when he catches sight of Rodney further back, but Dave rallies, ushering them both inside. He looks younger, dressed in a sweater and casual trousers rather than a suit. "I wasn't sure I'd see you again. I mean, I didn't know if the base would give you more time off."

They step through the foyer, into what looks like a formal sitting room. Rodney doubts it's used often. John shrugs. "They owe me a few more days. I was worried I'd missed you, that you'd gone home already."

This surprises Rodney, who was assuming they all lived under the same roof. Maybe he's grown up watching too many episodes of Dallas with his mother. Then again, the image of Sheppard as a Bobby Ewing-esque family black sheep isn't such a stretch.

"There's still a lot to do around here. I sent Beth and the kids home yesterday. The girls have school and this is boring for them. Your other friend…"

"Ronon," Rodney reminds him.

"Right, Ronon. He had to go back then?"

"Yeah, I told him he didn't need to hang around."

Dave glances over at Rodney and he might as well have said it out loud: 'Why is he here then?' A silence falls over the room. Great, Rodney thinks, two Sheppards with an inability to communicate. He wanders over to look at some knickknacks on a shelf. Not because he's interested, but more so he has something to do. There is a series of china teacups on display. Rodney wonders if they belonged to Sheppard's mother. John has talked about her as much as he has the rest of his family (which is to say, not at all), but since Rodney didn't see her at the wake, he assumes she's already dead.

"So, uh," Rodney hears Dave clear his throat behind him. "Did you find what you were looking for?" At first Rodney thinks he's being addressed, then realizes Dave is talking to John about the mission.

"Yeah, took a bit longer than we hoped but…yeah."

"That's good. I'm glad you came back."

"Really?" Sheppard perks up a little.

Dave shoves his hands in his pockets. "The lawyers are coming over tomorrow to review Dad's will."


Rodney wants to punch Dave in the face. The asshole heads towards the door. "I'll just go have Ann make up some rooms for you so you can freshen up before dinner." As soon as he's gone, Sheppard turns and shoots Rodney an almost desperate look.

Plastering a falsely cheery smile on his face, Rodney says, "Well, that went well."

John stands in front of the vanity mirror in his room, fresh from the most welcome hot shower he swears he's had in his entire life. He had to unwrap his sore ribcage, but it was totally worth it. The reflection staring back at him has certainly seen better days. Surprisingly, John's face escaped the worst of the damage. There's a cut running through his left eyebrow and a welt on the side of his head, mostly hidden beneath his hair. From the neck down though, it's a different story: scraped knuckles on both hands; fist sized contusions marking his chest, stomach and back, melting into each other as they turn from red to blue/black; and then there's his neck. There's no escaping the familiar pattern of bruising, perfectly mapping out the grip of a man's hand.

John shutters, remembers the helplessness, the desperation of trying and failing to breathe. He wonders if that's what it feels like to drown. The swelling has gone down, apparently thanks to liberal application of ice packs as he slept, but it still hurts to swallow. John stares, mesmerized, at his Adam's apple, sliding up and down beneath the damaged skin.

A knock at the door jolts John out of his thoughts. "It's open," he calls out, reaching for one of the clean t-shirts he found on his bed when he got out of the shower. He's expecting McKay, only that's not whose face he sees, staring at his reflection in the mirror.

"Jesus, John," Dave says, coming into the room. "What the hell happened to you?"

"Ran into a door," John deadpans. He tries to get the shirt on but Dave puts a hand on his arm to stop him.

"Oh my god." John stands motionless while Dave takes it all in, eyes moving from one wound to the next, until they fix onto the handprint circling his neck, his expression horrified. "I had – I mean, you always hinted that your job was dangerous, but I had no idea."

Part of John wants to tell him, 'This is nothing. I've been shot, stabbed, blown up, and turned into a bug. I've seen friends die. You have no idea what I go through on a daily basis.' But he thinks his brother has had all the epiphany he can handle for one day. Instead, going for casual, he says "It's not as bad as it looks."

Dave rolls his eyes. "Right, I forgot. It's just a flesh wound." His voice takes on a strangely British quality at the end.

Johns eyebrows shoot up. (Even that hurts like a bitch.) He'd forgotten their mutual teenaged love for all things Monty Python. Chuckling, he can't help responding with, "'Tis but a scratch!" John's accent is even worse.

"Liar!" Suddenly they're both laughing, until John's holding his side, trying to keep his ribs in place.

"Listen, John," Dave begins, once the laughter subsides.

"Okay, Sheppard, knowing you you've already taken off the bandages, so I took the liberty of -" Rodney breezes through the open doorway, arms laden with medical supplies. He stops dead in his tracks upon seeing Dave. "Oh."

They all stare at each other, then start talking at once.

"Hey, Rodney, we were just -"
"I didn't mean to interrupt. I can -"

Dave gives them both an odd look. "I'll let you finish getting dressed. Dinner will be at six." He catches John's eye before leaving. "Maybe we can talk later."

"Yeah, okay." John squints at Rodney, who looks like he's a cross between flustered and put out. "What?"

"Nothing." McKay bustles into the room and begins laying out bandages, scissors and tape on the bed. "Sounds like you guys have patched things up."

John scratches his head. "I guess we're trying, but it's not like it's going to happen overnight. We've been fighting for over twenty years."

Rodney looks over in surprise. "Why not? It worked for me and Jeannie."

John shuffles his feet and stares at the floor. It's not like he can just hand Dave a CD with a pre-recorded, heart-felt confession of brotherly love. Just the idea of it makes him uncomfortable.

"Wow." Rodney's suddenly standing very close, his hands hovering over his chest. "Can I?"

Feeling self-conscious, John pulls the shirt in his hand up to cover himself.

"Oh, come on, quit being a baby. I'm not going to hurt you." Rodney tugs the shirt gently from his hand and tosses it on the bed. John tenses, preparing himself, but when Rodney does lay his hands on him it's with a feather light touch. His fingers dance across John's mottled skin, a barely-there sensation that has John breaking out in gooseflesh, even though the room is warm.

"Wow," Rodney whispers again. John's not prepared for the gentleness and has to swallow a lump in his throat. When his eyes meet Rodney's, he finds pain and worry and something else there he can't identify.

"I -" His voice cracks on the single word. Rodney's touch isn't in any way sexual but John's nipples are already standing at attention and his dick is getting hard. A quick glance at the still partly open bedroom door reminds John that Dave could walk back in at any time. "Uh," Clearing his throat, he stutters back and away without thinking.

Rodney's hands fall to his sides. "Sorry." He looks away, but not before John catches the disappointment on his face.

John reaches out. "No, Rodney, I'm -"

Rodney picks up the roll of bandages. "Are you going to stand still and let me tape your ribs or do I need to use these to tie you to the bed until you're healed?"

John flushes at the image. He swallows hard again. "I'll – It's -" Fortunately, Rodney doesn't need permission. He sets to work binding John's ribs tightly.

"Hey, you could leave some room for me to breathe," John protests, fighting back fleeting panic at the sudden restriction to his chest.

"They're supposed to be tight, moron, or they won't work." McKay steps back to admire his handiwork. "I guess that will have to do. It's not like I'm Car- Keller. Just don't go jumping into the pool before morning."

John knows an evasion when he sees it. He ducks his head, trying to meet Rodney's eye, but McKay stubbornly looks away. "Hey." He stops him from backing away with a hand on his wrist. "It's not that I don't want to, y'know. This just isn't a good time."

Rodney's chin comes up in that comically defiant pose that usually makes John want to either roll his eyes or laugh. "This was a bad idea. I shouldn't have come."

"Why did you come, Rodney? I said I didn't need you to."

And there's that unhappy look again. Before John can take it back, McKay stalks from the room, making John want to give in to the childish impulse to throw things and stomp his foot. Honestly, how can one man be so tender and kind one minute, and so completely infuriating the next? The least he could have done was help John get this damned shirt over his head before he left.

Dinner is made up of delicious food (Rodney could orgasm over the peach cobbler alone) and stilted conversation. He gets the impression that Dave is struggling to find questions for John that he'll actually be able to answer. Rodney does his part by expounding for a while on the sad state of science programs in the American school system, until Sheppard kicks him under the table and asks Dave about his family. Any remaining conversational lulls are filled with boring anecdotes about little Melinda or Melissa (whatever) and her sister (something beginning with 'D', or maybe 'P').

Once the dessert dishes are cleared away, Dave leads John away for a brotherly chat. Left to his own devices, Rodney wanders the first floor until he comes across the big screen tv. Planting himself on the couch with his laptop, he hacks into the home network and ends up checking his email while watching a ridiculously over-the-top program called Ugly Betty. Fifteen minutes into it, Rodney decides the Sheppard family has nothing on the Meades. John joins him halfway through, looking a little pale, and they spend the rest of the hour mocking the show's idea of fashion. It's comfortingly familiar.

When the programming shifts to some sort of hospital drama/soap opera, John slaps Rodney on the thigh and announces, "Time for bed." Sadly, he knows that's an order, not an invitation. It is only nine o'clock, but it's been an incredibly long day, so he follows Sheppard up the stairs without argument.

They stop at John's door and, since the hallway is empty, Rodney leans in for a kiss. All he wants is a light press of lips, he's not demanding tongue or anything, but John still steps away, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. "I should – I'm really tired."

Rodney stares at him, mouth hanging open, then snaps it shut angrily. Fine, he knows when he's not wanted. Stomping down to his room with Sheppard's "Night" ringing in his ears, he nearly picks up his bag and calls a cab a half dozen times. He'd been an idiot. John never wanted him here in the first place. In the end, stubbornness and exhaustion win out. Rodney knows he's where he's supposed to be – or he's pretty sure anyway. There's a good reason his relationships don't ever last – and thinks maybe this is one of those tests, that he has to get past Sheppard's weirdness in order to pass.

Stripping down to his shorts, Rodney climbs into bed, bone weary from something other than physical exertion. He wonders which bedroom used to be John's when he was a kid, and whether it's weird for him to sleep somewhere else. He wonders if John's lying in bed on the other side of this wall, worrying that things are spiraling out of control and can't be fixed. Rodney snorts. Of course not; he's probably already zoned out and snoring up a storm. Besides, since when isn't there a problem the great McKay brain couldn't solve? It's still a long time before he falls asleep.

The next day, McKay doesn't materialize from his room until almost noon. John has been up for hours. His entire body still hurts, but it's down to a manageable ache now. He'd found his suit hanging on the back of the bedroom door – God, he wants to burn the damn thing by now - freshly pressed with a note sticking out of the pocket.


Had to go into the office for a few hours. Ann has the day off, but there's plenty of food in the fridge. I'll be back after lunch. The lawyers are coming at 2pm.


Pulling on clean jeans and a fresh t-shirt, John had wandered down to the kitchen. He stood in front of the open refrigerator door for a good five minutes, a bit overwhelmed at all the choices, until his skin started to prickle from the cold. He's starving but doesn't feel like cooking, so in the end he makes toast spread with peanut butter and finds a box of Froot Loops in the back of the pantry. He smiles at the idea of his old man, dressed for the office with the Wall Street Journal spread out before him, eating the multi-colored cereal, even though he suspects the box belongs to Dave's kids. He washes the whole thing down with a big glass of orange juice and resolutely doesn't think of Rodney.

Okay, that's a lie. John's brain is circling on an endless loop of 'Dad-Dave-Lawyers-Rodney', making it impossible to focus on any one thing. There had been times yesterday when he had ached to reach out, to touch and let Rodney anchor him. He'd wanted Rodney to kiss him, wanted to haul him into the bedroom and say "Stay with me" but he couldn't, wouldn't allow himself that. He's got to stay strong and in control, and this is the only way he knows how.

To distract himself, John roams the house, familiarizing himself again with rooms he hasn't seen in years. It's amazing how little has actually changed, but maybe it shouldn't be. It had always been his mother who cared about the decorating and fresh flowers in every room. Once she was gone, his father had hired people to take care of those things for him and that was that.

John's old bedroom has been turned into a little girls' room, complete with a huge dollhouse in one corner, twin beds covered in matching pink bedspreads, and pink curtains on the windows. It's no doubt where Dave's daughters stay when visiting. A sharp twist of jealousy knots John's chest, as if somehow these girls had taken his place, were welcomed into a home he'd been turned away from. He knows that's not fair, but can't help being glad he's never met them, hasn't had to see their shiny happy faces, or their sorrow at losing their grandfather.

God, his dad had been a grandfather. John tries to imagine it. He only has vague memories of his own paternal grandfather: a favorite leather chair, the smell of pipe smoke and peppermint, demands that he and Dave stop running in the house. They'd been pretty young when he died. John has trouble picturing his father giving piggy-back rides, taking the girls for ice cream and letting them call him 'grandpa', but looking at that room, he thinks maybe he could be wrong.

When he gets back from his tour of the house, Rodney is just stumbling down the stairs, still unshaven, hair uncombed. He's got that not-quite-awake-yet-god-I-need-coffee expression on his face. The one that always squeezes John's heart a little and puts a goofy smile on his face.

"Morning, McKay," he slaps Rodney on the back.

Rodney blinks at him and croaks, "Coffee."

"How about I make us some lunch…and coffee?" he amends, when Rodney's eyes narrow.

They head for the kitchen and John starts a pot brewing. Going back to the fridge, he pulls out eggs, bacon, cheese, peppers and onions. There's not a lot of opportunity to cook on Atlantis, but after all these years John can still make a mean omelet.

McKay hums around his first cup of coffee, clutching the mug tightly in both hands like he's afraid someone will take it away from him. He is still strangely subdued (for McKay), but John can't help grinning back at him. Rodney eyes him like he's gone insane, and maybe he has, or maybe John just likes the quiet domesticity, being here together.

They're alone in the house. It would be so easy for John to walk over, wrap his hand around Rodney's warm neck, and pull him in for a kiss. He could do that. He wants to do that, but he's still hesitating when McKay slides off his stool. "I'm just, uh, going to get dressed."

John hides his disappointment behind a lopsided smile. "Okay, honey."

McKay rolls his eyes and disappears upstairs. John is just sliding omelets onto plates when Rodney gets back. He slips one of the plates and a fresh cup of coffee in front of Rodney and stands over him, waiting. Eventually he stops shoveling food into his mouth long enough to scowl up at John. "Something you want, Colonel?"

John plants hands on hips. "How about a little gratitude for the chef, McKay."

McKay waves his fork around. "I guess it's not half bad."

"If you don't like it…" John reaches for the plate. Rodney practically throws himself over it protectively.

"I like it! I like it!"

Satisfied, John nods and starts in on his own food. The bacon is crisp and just greasy enough that the flavor sticks to his fingers, and John doesn't think he'll ever get tired of real eggs. He sucks noisily on each finger, one by one, until McKay sputters, "Stop that, it's disgusting." John just smirks around his thumb, leaving it in until Rodney's eyes are focused on it, then releasing it slowly with a soft 'pop'.

Dave gets home just as they're putting the dishes in the sink. He gives John – who is still wearing his jeans and t-shirt from this morning – a stern look, the words You're not going to wearthat are you? clearly on the tip of his tongue. Rather than going down that road (which can only end badly) John instead excuses himself to go shower and change, getting rid of those damned bandages while he's at it. An hour later, he's shaved and in his suit, sitting uncomfortably in front of his father's old desk, across from three crotchety old men wearing identical disapproving stares.

It's a lot like the time he'd been caught trying to peek under Angela Jacobs' skirt at school when he was nine, only this time he can't run away and hide in the hayloft. John's head turns involuntarily towards the door anyway. He's quick; they'd never catch him. Instead, John wipes his sweaty palms on his trousers, concentrates on sitting up straight, and waits to hear how much his father didn't love him.

Rodney finds Sheppard a few hours later, in the den where they first met Ava. He's behind the bar with his hands wrapped around a tumbler of scotch, and he's looking a little shell-shocked.

"Forty percent," John says without preamble.


"He left me forty percent of his shares in the company."

And that's – "Really?"

He just nods and stares down at his drink.

"Wow, that's -" Rodney doesn't know what that is.

"Yeah, I thought he…" John's eyebrows draw together almost painfully and Rodney notices tight lines around his eyes and mouth. "I just assumed he'd written me off, y'know? That he didn't want to have anything to do with me."

There's a thick envelope sitting by John's elbow. It looks unopened. Rodney moves to slide it over and take a closer look, but Sheppard slaps his hand down on it with an unreadable expression. "No, Rodney."

He lifts the glass to his lips, and Rodney hears himself snap, "Don't you think you've had enough?" They're nothing like the comforting words he's been trying to come up with in his head.

"Jesus, McKay, I'm not drunk."

"Well, I'm sorry for worrying about you. It won't happen again." And neither are those.

"Wow, what crawled up your ass and died?"

Rodney has absolutely no idea, and it's pissing him off. (The irony is not lost on him.) He turns and stomps out the door, only it's the wrong door and he finds himself blinking in bright sunshine. He hears the door behind him open and close, and Rodney can see Sheppard ambling towards him out of the corner of his eye.

"Hey, wait up, McKay."

Since there is nowhere for him to go and no convenient transporter to jump into, Rodney slows his pace and allows John to catch up to him.

"C'mon, Rodney, I'm sorry, okay?" This does make Rodney pause. Sheppard seems sincere, although he's awfully good with the faces. Still, it's not like Rodney wants to be mad at him. "You've been acting weird all day. What's wrong?"

What's wrong here is that John is actually asking about his feelings. In public. Without the coercion of Teyla standing over him with her sticks and a stern expression. The really horrifying thing is, Rodney actually wants to tell him.

"I'm, uh, I've been thinking about Ava Dixon," Rodney hedges. He swears there is relief on John's face. It's not a complete lie anyway.

"Rodney, I told you not to worry about that. I took care of it. Besides, all three of us made the decision not to tell anyone together. It's not any one person's fault she escaped."

Rodney's gaze drops to the ground. "Yeah, well, about that…"


"Maybe it's not such a bad thing that she got away." He peeks up and winces at John's expression of disbelief. "I mean, she helped us find Jeff and hasn't hurt anyone."

"Not so far." Sheppard's got his hands on his hips. "Rodney, did you forget the fact she's a Replicator? We don't like Replicators."

"Yes, I do realize that, Colonel. I'm not an idiot. I also think there is enough evidence to show violence can be programmed out of them. It's what I was trying to talk to about the other night."

Sheppard's eyes narrow. "You're not still angry about that, are you?"

"What, about the fact that you'd rather go for a run than spend time alone with me?"

"Oh my god, you are!" He points at Rodney accusingly.

Leave it to Sheppard to only now realize how pissed off Rodney was two days ago. "Oh, please, as if I don't have anything better to do with my time than draw hearts in my notebook and wonder why Colonel Sheppard won't talk to me."

John takes a step back. Hurt flashes across his face before he schools his features into a blank mask. Rodney's got the sinking feeling he's put his foot in it again. John gives him a long, searching look. "Y'know, McKay, this hasn't exactly been a stellar week for me, so, if this is your idea of being supportive, don't bother."

Rodney stares at his retreating back. Shit, shit, shit. There comes a time when even someone of Rodney's intelligence has to admit he needs help. Resignedly pulling out his cell phone, he does what any man in his position would do: he calls his sister.

John slams through the door and nearly runs into Dave, who is standing by the hall table.

"Whoa, John," Dave drops the stack of mail he's holding back onto the table and reaches out to steady him. "Are you okay? What's going on?"

"I'm fine." John answers on autopilot, still somewhere between angry and confused.

Dave leads him by the elbow into the front room until John shakes him off. "I said I was fine!"

"I call bullshit." Dave's right in his face, hands on his hips, in a pose that's eerily familiar.

John throws up his hands. He's tired of people thinking they know how he feels, when even he hasn't figured it out yet. "Oh yeah, and what do you know about it?" Dave just gives him a pointed look until the penny drops. Shit. John's been so caught up in his own drama he forgot that Dave's going through the same damned thing.

Wincing, John ducks his head. "Sorry, I – I guess I should ask how you are holding up." Dave quirks an eyebrow at him, his mouth curving up into a half smile. John thinks it really is weird to see his own facial expressions on someone else's face.

"It's getting better. But then, I've had a few more days to process everything."

John flops down onto the sofa behind him and throws an arm over his eyes. "God, I am such an asshole." He hears a chuckle and lifts his arm to peek under it. Dave is looking at him with a fond smile.

"You're my brother; it's expected." Dave moves to sit in the chair across from John, crossing one leg neatly over the other. John wonders if Dave ever really relaxes anymore, or if the slouch has been trained out of him completely.

"So," Dave continues. "Are you going to tell me what was going on out there? You looked pretty upset when you came in."

John waves him off. "It was nothing. McKay and I were just…having a disagreement."

Dave's expression clouds. He hesitates, like he wants to say something but doesn't know where to start. Finally, he says, "John, I know you say this Dr. McKay is your friend, but I can't help wondering if there's something you're not telling me."

Panic seizes at John, catching in his throat. Dave couldn't have figured it out. John's been careful, he's sure of it. "Like what?" he chokes out.

Dave unfolds his legs and leans forward in his chair, arms resting on his thighs. "Like maybe he was assigned to come with you to, I don't know, help you in some way."

John's so relieved that Dave doesn't know, he doesn't know that it takes him a few seconds to get what he's hinting at, and when he does he can't hold back his laughter. "Oh my god, you think McKay is my shrink?"

Dave sits back, nonplussed. "Well, it seemed like a plausible explanation for why he's here. You don't act very happy to have him around, and you have gone through a lot lately…"

Just the thought of McKay as anyone's therapist sets John off again. His laughter must be contagious because, by the time he's calmed down, Dave is grinning back at him. "So that's a no then, I take it."

John chuckles again. "That would be a resounding no. Rodney's doctorate – or one of them – really is in astrophysics. We really are friends, we just have an odd way of showing it sometimes." John's suddenly filled with an overwhelming affection for Rodney, who has put up with a lot of John's shit to be here for him, in his own unique McKay way. When they get back to Atlantis, John's definitely going to have to make it up to him.

"Well I'm glad I'm wrong then. No one should be alone at a time like this." Dave coughs and shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "John," He waits until John's eyes meet his. "I know we're more like strangers after all these years, but you are still my brother. You can always come to me if you need anything. You know that, right?"

Warmed by the sincerity in Dave's voice, John smiles back at him. "Yeah, I think I'm getting that. Uh, me too. Me for you, I mean," he stutters uncomfortably. Surprisingly though, John realizes he means it.

Dave slouches back into his chair, apparently as relieved to have gotten that out as John, and says, "Cool."

When Jeannie answers the phone, Rodney immediately begins spilling his guts, launching into an uninterrupted rant that lasts several minutes.

"…and I should totally get credit for this, because I've gone out of my way to be understanding here (he cringes at the word even as he says it) and it's not my fault Sheppard keeps pushing me away and is too much of an idiot to appreciate me."

There is a long, drawn out silence and Rodney is just starting to think Jeannie's hung up on him, when she says, "You and John, Mer? Really?"

"How did you -?" Rodney sputters, because he's fairly sure he didn't say anything about that.

There's a 'pfft' sound over the line. "Oh, please, Mer. You acted the same way in the tenth grade when you spent all that time doing Michelle Young's science homework and she still wouldn't go out with you."

Rodney sniffs loudly. "Her loss. I'll bet she would jump at the chance at dating a younger man now."


"Okay, fine. Yes, there may possibly be something of a…of that nature going on between me and Colonel Sheppard. There, I admit it. Are you happy now?"

"Strangely, yes. Although, I hope you don't call him 'Colonel' in bed." Rodney lets out an embarrassing choked squeak. "Oh, don't sound so scandalized. Married woman with a child here. I do know what sex is."

Rodney can feel his face heat up and he paces further away from the Sheppard house, even though there is no one there to see or hear him. "Thank you very much for that image I can never give back. And as it happens, Miss Fast and Loose, John and I haven't, um, haven't, you know…" He trails off weakly.

"That's Mrs. Fast and Loose, thank you very much, and what are you waiting for? Colonel Sheppard ishot!"

Rodney claps a hand over his face. Just when he thought the humiliation couldn't get any worse. "Be that as it may," and Rodney really can't deny it's true. "It doesn't matter what Sheppard is or isn't, because nothing's going to come of it anyway."

"Oh. There's a pause. Why not? What did you do?"

"Why does it have to always be something I've done? I just got finished telling you it's Sheppard's fault."

"Well, that doesn't make any sense. Anyone with eyes can see he's got a thing for you."

"Well, of course, I'm – wait, what? Really?"

"Of course. He flirted with you the entire time while I was on Atlantis."

"Flirted with Rod you mean."

Rodney can practically hear the eye roll over the phone. "Oh my god, Mer. Only you could manage to be jealous of yourself," she laughs. Before Rodney can come up with an appropriate comeback, there is a loud crash in the background, and then the wail of a small child. "Damn, hang on, Mer. I'm coming, Maddy. What's wrong?" Jeannie's voice floats off into the distance.

Rodney finds a seat on a stone bench near the reflecting pool, and taps his foot impatiently. Honestly, Rodney's time on Earth is limited; surely his crisis should come first. He hears the sound of footsteps approaching, then a male voice comes on the line. "Hello?"

"Who are you?" Rodney pulls the phone away from his ear and glares at it.

"Caleb. You know, your brother-in-law," the voice says very pointedly. Rodney's not sure he approves of Caleb's sarcastic tone.

"I was talking to my sister. Put Jeannie back on the phone."

"She's a little busy at the moment. Madison had a bit of an accident."

"So I heard."

"Yes, and she's fine, by the way."

Rodney is reminded why he and Caleb don't talk more often. "Well, of course she is, or else you would have hung up to call for an ambulance or something," he blusters.

"Hmm," Caleb says after a beat. "Jeannie tells me you're having trouble in the romance department."

"She what?!" Rodney shrieks. Now he remembers why he doesn't talk to Jeannie more often.

"She thought maybe I could give you some advice."

"Oh she did, did she?" Rodney wants to cross his arms, but he needs one hand to hold the phone to his ear. "Well, the day I need any kind of advice from a…a…"

"English Major?" Caleb deadpans. And Rodney's got to give him credit; he's good.

"Okay, I'm back," Jeannie says in the background. "Thank you, sweetie." There is a wet noise in Rodney's ear that sounds suspiciously like kissing. Ew.

"Hey, you two, whenever you're finished, maybe we could get back to my problem!"

"Sure, Mer," Jeannie says. "Because it's all about you."

"Well, duh." Great, now he's been reduced to the vocabulary of a teenager. "I don't think your husband likes me very much."

"Considering you can never remember his name, not to mention you got me kidnapped and almost killed, can you blame him?" She had a point there. "Look, Mer, if you really think there's something wrong between you and John, you're just going to have to talk to him."

Rodney stares at the phone, aghast.

"Oh, quit being so dramatic."

"I didn't even say anything!" Rodney huffs indignantly.

"You didn't have to. I know you. In fact, on second thought, maybe you should wait and not do anything until you're back on Atlantis. You know, so he can't get away."

"You don't think I can do it without screwing up, do you?" Rodney accuses.

"Well…" Jeannie hesitates. "Subtlety isn't exactly one of your strong points."

"I can so do subtle," Rodney snaps. "In fact, I'm going to go talk to Sheppard right now."


Rodney hits the end button before Jeannie can talk him out of it. Jumping up from the bench, he marched towards the door, determined to confront John and find out what's going on, once and for all.

John's in his bedroom, still feeling pretty good about his talk with Dave, when McKay bursts through his door.

"Are you trying to break up with me?"

John looks around to see if there is someone else in the room McKay is in the middle of a conversation with. Nope, just him. "What?"

"Are you breaking up with me?" he repeats insistently.

"McKay, I don't know what -"

"Because if you are, I wish you'd just come out and say it instead of playing these games. Really, I can -"

"Rodney," John grips him by the shoulders and gives him a little shake to shut him up. Rodney's arms are wrapped tightly across his chest, his shoulders tense. His mouth is pressed into an angry slash, but John recognizes fear in his eyes. He's serious. "I'm not trying to break up with you."

Rodney falters, then sort of droops, arms falling to his sides. "Oh."

"Now, do you want to tell me what the hell is going on?"

"This is all Jeannie's fault," McKay declares in a rush. "She said we needed to talk."

Four words no man likes to hear. John's heart rate speeds up and his mouth goes dry. "About what?" he asks nervously. He knows McKay can get these wild ideas sometimes and his giant brain just runs with them.

"About the fact that you want to -" John gives him a stern look and he breaks off with a scowl.

"Rodney," John begins, in his sooth the savage native/farmer/priest with a big sword voice. "I don't know where this is coming from, but in case you haven't noticed, I kind of like you… a lot." It's meant to be a joke, but Rodney's scowl just deepens.

"Really, because actually I haven't been noticing that lately."

John scratches at his head. "Uh, noticing what?"

"The liking me part."

"What?" John asks again, startled.

"And I know this is rich, coming from someone who has never taken no for an answer from Samantha Carter, but I can take a hint. I know when I'm not wanted."

John chews at his lower lip as the pieces slide together in his head: Rodney's sudden outbursts and surliness, Dave's odd comment earlier. You don't act very happy to have him around. Thinking back over the last few days, John realizes that what he saw as caution and restraint, Rodney had been taking as rejection.

Suddenly feeling like a heel, John blurts out, "It's not you, McKay, it's me." Wide, horror-filled eyes stare back at him, no doubt mirroring his own. "Wait, no, that's not what I meant!"

"What did you mean?" Rodney looks hurt and angry, and John doesn't blame him.

"I didn't mean to be a jerk, or make you feel like I didn't want you here – because I do – and…" John steels himself. "And I'm sorry."

After a moment that lasts a lifetime, Rodney sniffs. "Apology accepted."

"You have to understand what all this is like for me, McKay," John continues, because he really wants Rodney to get it. "To me, this is still my father's house. I grew up here."

"What, you didn't bring home a lot of boyfriends to meet the parents when you were a teenager?" Rodney says in his typical sarcastic tone. John knows he doesn't mean anything by it, but still has to tamp down on a wave of hurt, the words hitting a little close to home. It must show on his face though because suddenly Rodney's right there, pressed close, one hand stroking the back of his neck. "Oh, hey, I'm sorry. That was supposed to be a joke."

Rodney continues his stroking and it feels nice. He is studying John's face with an intensity that leaves John feeling exposed and raw and cared for, all at the same time. "I'm sorry I hurt you," John whispers, the words slipping out without warning, surprising him.

Rodney leans in and presses a warm, dry kiss to the corner of John's mouth. "I'm sorry I hurt you too," he whispers back.

This still feels new, the two of them just being close, comforting each other. It's not something John would have ever admitted to wanting – not to himself, let alone out loud in front of other people – but he's starting to think he kind of likes it.

"Still mad?" he murmurs.

McKay gently noses his neck, just below the ear. "Yes."

Pulling back, John delivers his most dazzling smile, the one that made even his ex-wife swoon (back in the days before the sheen of their infatuation had worn off and it became all about John leaving his dirty socks on the floor in the bathroom.) "Aw, c'mon McKay, how can you resist this face?" John lets his lower lip puff out just a little.

"Yes, well, you know me. I'm surprisingly Sheppard-resistant."

That's a blatant lie and they both know it. John steps closer again, running his hands up Rodney's forearms until he's cupping his elbows. "Yeah," he says in a soft voice. "I know you."

Rodney closes his eyes and melts into him. John can feel Rodney's hands come up to rest on his hips, then slide around to his back, their warmth seeping into John's skin, even through his shirt. John presses gentle kisses to each of Rodney's eyelids, then ducks his head to capture Rodney's mouth.

It has been days since they've done this, but it feels like months and god, John's missed it. He pushes aside the tiny voice in his brain that's tells him Dave could walk in at any moment, and wraps his arms around Rodney tightly, pulling him in until they're pressed together from chest to knees. Rodney hums happily into John's mouth and nips at his lower lip. John eagerly opens up, letting Rodney in deeper. The kissing goes on for some time, and when they break apart it's only far enough to rest their foreheads together. Rodney's breath is warm and wet against John's cheek.

"So, you talked to Jeannie about me?" John teases.

"I, uh, called her about something else and your name may have come up in passing."

John beams. "Uh huh. So what did she say?"

Rodney's eyes focus somewhere around John's Adam's apple. "Just that you weren't deliberately trying to push me away."

"Smart lady."

"Yeah, well, I might not have totally believed her."

John almost kids Rodney about never trusting an opinion that is not his own, but Rodney sounds so lost and sad that the joke dies on his lips. Instead he captures Rodney's chin in his hand, lifting it until he forces Rodney to look him in the eye.

"Hey." He swallows down an unexpected lump in his throat. "You know I never would have made it through all this without you, right?"

"Me and Ronon, you mean."

"No – well, yes, Ronon too – but you, Rodney." The confession is easier this time. Rodney's cheeks redden and his hands flap uselessly at his sides.

"Well, of course, that goes without saying. You've always been lost without me." Rodney's trying for sarcasm, but John easily reads the true meaning behind it. He is just leaning in for another kiss, when a loud commotion and raises voices coming from downstairs startle them apart.

Somehow, between one blink and the next Sheppard's got a gun in his hand. Rodney would really like to know someday how he does that. He motions for Rodney to stay put – which is patently ridiculous – and they both creep quietly out the door and down the hall. They can still hear voices downstairs, but there aren't any sounds of a scuffle. Sheppard peers over the landing railing and his shoulders visibly loosen just a bit. Rodney moves to look, but is stopped by a stern glare and a hand across his chest.

Tucking his gun visibly into the front of his jeans, Sheppard slowly and calmly heads down the stairs, Rodney on his heels. About halfway down, Rodney can see Dave in the front hall, speaking with three men in suits. Government, Rodney's brain immediately supplies, and it takes him a bit longer to realize one of the suits is (former) Sgt. Bates.

"Bates," Sheppard says, in an unruffled tone that puts Rodney on edge.

Bates looks over, his eyes traveling down to the gun and back up. "Colonel."

"Something I can do for you?" Sheppard saunters over – and really, that's the only word for it – to stand next to his brother, thumbs hooked into the front pockets of his jeans. Dave is watching him with a surprised expression.

Bates clears his throat. "We're just here to speak with your brother, sir." Either Bates is falling back into old habits, or he's being carefully respectful because he wants something and doesn't think Sheppard's going to like it. Rodney is betting on the latter.

"And why would that be?" There is cool steel behind Sheppard's deceptively friendly smile, which runs shivers down Rodney's spine. Almost instinctively, he moves closer to stand by John's side.

"We've been reviewing the security tapes from the Stanton labs and interviewing everyone who has come into contact with Ava Dixon." He coughs, giving Sheppard a long pointed look before turning towards Dave. "We need you to come with us, sir, just for some routine questioning."

There's no need to look; everyone knows Sheppard's fingers are mere inches from his gun. For one panicked moment, Rodney thinks he's going to do something idiotic (under the guise of heroism, of course), but instead he just continues to lock eyes with Bates. Rodney flashes back to numerous confrontations during the early months on Atlantis.

"It's okay, John," Dave says quickly, probably sensing the tension between the men.

John flashes Dave a grim smile. "I'm coming with you."

"No problem, Colonel," Bates cuts in. "I assumed you would."

When Rodney moves to follow the group out the door, he's stopped by John's hand on his chest. "Stay here, Rodney."

"But -"

"Rodney, please. I can handle this. I want you to stay here." He gives Rodney an indecipherable, almost pleading look and Rodney has no choice but to comply.

"Fine, but I'm not happy about it."

That actually makes John crack a smile. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Once the others have gone, Rodney briefly toys with the idea of hotwiring Dave's car and following, only to discover Bates left one of his men behind outside the front door. Pacing impatiently up and down the hallway, it takes an embarrassingly long time for Rodney to remember he's not powerless here. He has connections. Flipping open his cell phone and punching the speed dial for the SGC, Rodney vents some of his frustration on the hapless soul on the end other who is responsible for screening General Landry's calls.

"I don't care if it's after five o'clock and the General has gone home. You get him on the phone and tell him he needs to get Sheppard out of there. After all the crap we've put up with on this trip it's the least he can do."

He hears muffled words that may or may not be an insult to his mother, and then Willy/Wally/Whatever - the annoying little guy with the glasses - promises he'll fill Landry in on the situation and hangs up on him. Somewhat mollified, Rodney allows Ann to coax him to the table for a light supper. She's surprisingly unruffled by the fact that the men of the house have been taken away by men in suits. Then again, after a few decades working in the Sheppard household, she's probably seen it all.

Rodney tries to protest that he's not really hungry, but Ann stands over him until she is convinced he's eating, and pretty soon Rodney's surprised to find himself scraping his fork along an empty plate. He tries not to worry – he tells himself that John's a big boy and can take care of himself – but his mind keeps coming back to worst case scenarios: What if Dave really was in on it with Poole? What if the IOA blames Sheppard for not telling them about his brother's involvement or Sheppard loses his cool and tries some half-assed rescue attempt? This is why John shouldn't go off without Rodney. He needs Rodney's voice of reason – oh ho, and isn't that ironic? – to counteract the ridiculousness of his usually hair-brained schemes.

Eventually Rodney wanders out to taunt Bates' man but quickly grows bored when the poor man's Will Smith fails to rise to the bait. Finally, unable to concentrate on anything more mentally strenuous than a game of minesweeper, Rodney flops down in front of the big screen TV and ends up falling asleep to a 'Law and Order' marathon. In his dreams, Sheppard is locked in the holding cell on Atlantis, dressed in nothing but his underwear, and Rodney is there to interrogate him. It's not such a bad dream at all.

"God damn it, Bates!" John smacks his palms down hard onto the table in front of him. "How many times do I have to tell you my brother had nothing to do with Poole or Ava Dixon or any of that?"

Bates remains as calm as ever, something which annoys John to no end. "With all due respect, Colonel, you yourself admitted to not having been in contact with your family for several years. There could be any number of things you're unaware of."

And the thing is, John knows Bates is right. He's been a stranger to his family for more years than he cares to admit. But he also knows he's not wrong, not about this. He scrubs tiredly at his face. "Look, Ava went after Dave to get to me, because she wanted my help. I was careful not to reveal anything classified and got him out of there as soon as I could."

"I believe you, Colonel. I do, and if it were just up to me…but I have my orders. This is just what I said it was: a routine debrief."

"Then why can't I be in there with him?" John asks again, stubbornly. Bates crosses his arms and shoots John the same frustrated look he used to give him on Atlantis.

John sighs. He knows Bates caught the shit end of the stick, and that he'd be doing the same damned thing if their positions were reversed, but that doesn't make it any easier. He's not sure what they're saying to Dave, or what Dave is going to think of him when this is all over.

"So, what's a guy got to do around here to get a cup of coffee?"

Bates smiles, relieved. "You know, I think the mess is still serving. Let's grab a bite and by the time we're done your brother should be ready to go home."

John gives Bates a long steady look and decides he has no choice but to trust him. True to his word, when they come back up Dave is waiting for them.

"You okay?"

Dave gives him a tight smile. "Sure. They asked me about that woman who wanted your help and I told them everything I know, which isn't much. I've got nothing to hide." The unlike you remains unsaid.

"I appreciate you coming in on such short notice," Bates says, holding out a hand for Dave to shake. "I apologize for any inconvenience."

Dave nods in acknowledgment. "If it will help get someone dangerous off the streets, I'll do all I can."

The ride back is a quiet one. John keeps thinking he should explain or apologize, but he's not sure what for. He opens his mouth several times to say something, only to close it again when the words don't come. Dave stares silently out the car window. He's not acting like he's mad at John, but at the same time, that feeling of camaraderie between the two of them earlier in the day has been lost. John wants to kick or hit something, to rail against the injustice of it all. He wishes Ronon were here to knock the frustration out of him.

Inside the house, Dave says a quiet goodnight and disappears upstairs without another word. Tired but too wound up to sleep, John wanders into the kitchen and pours himself a glass of milk. Grabbing a handful of cookies from a plate on the counter, he follows the sound of the television into the family room, where he finds McKay snoring on the couch.

John just stands there and watches for several minutes. Rodney has curled in on himself a little in his sleep. He's got one fist tucked up underneath his chin while his other arm hugs a small throw pillow. Not wanting to disturb him, and definitely not ready for the barrage of questions he is sure to start in on him with, John lays an afghan over his sleeping form and heads outside instead.

The fall evening air is cool and crisp, but it feels refreshing to him after the stuffy car ride. He walks over to the pool, watching the way his reflection ripples in the water and melds with that of the bright round moon above. John's skin itches and feels tight across his bones and muscles. Impulsively, he strips down to his skivvies and jumps into the water. He comes up sputtering against the cold and quickly begins to swim to the far side.

His joints start out stiff and protesting, but warm to the task as John does lap after lap. It's a short pool, so John concentrates on counting how many strokes it takes to get to the other side: seven, eight, nine, ten; until his mind is clear and his body exhausted. Dragging himself out of the water, he gathers his clothes and drips his way back to the house. He is still shivering from the cold when he goes to wake McKay.

"C'mon, McKay, time for bed."

Rodney blinks up at John sleepily. "Y're back? S'okay?"

John reaches down to help him up. "Yep, we're back. Everything's good."

"You're all wet. Is't raining?"

John chuckles. "Yeah, it's raining."

"Why are you in your underwear? Am I still dreaming?"

John isn't touching that one with a ten foot pole. McKay's clearly not awake yet. With any luck he can get him tucked into bed and retreat to his own room without any argument. He keeps McKay from falling on his face on the stairs and successfully navigates him down the hallway to the guestroom.

"Here ya go. This is your stop," John says, planting a chaste kiss on Rodney's forehead.

McKay stops him with a hand around his wrist. "Stay."

"Rodney, I can't," John whines, even though he wants to say yes. "You know I can't." McKay nods and lets out a loud yawn, making John smile at him fondly. "Besides, I don't go around molesting people in their sleep."

"Too bad," Rodney mumbles, releasing his grip on John's arm as he turns into his room. "G'night."

"Goodnight, McKay." For a long time afterwards, John lies awake in bed, the fingers of one hand encircling his wrist, imagining they are Rodney's.

Rodney wakes up groggy and disoriented. He doesn't remember coming to bed, and there is a strange remnant of a dream floating around in his head: an image of him and Sheppard in a cage, with John leaning over him, dripping wet, wearing nothing but boxer shorts. There are times when his subconscious frightens even himself

Staggering down to the kitchen in search of coffee, Rodney finds Sheppard already there, staring into his own cup. The events of the day before come back to Rodney in a rush and he's instantly alert.


"Morning, McKay."

"Is, um, did everything turn out okay?"

"Hunky dory." Seriously, where does he keep coming up with these phrases? John looks up and flashes him a quick smile. "Dave already left for the office."

"Oh well, good, good. That's good, right?"

He shrugs. "I wouldn't know. I think he might be angry with me about last night."

"Well that's hardly fair. None of this is your fault." Rodney can't resist the lure any longer and moves to pour himself some coffee.

"McKay, my brother has a lot to deal with right now, and instead of coming here and helping him, I bring all this crap along with me. Who else is he going to blame?"

Rodney brings his cup to the table and sits across from John so he can look him in the eye. "Has he actually said those words? Has he said 'I blame you, John for all the crap you brought home with you?"

Sheppard's lips twitch. "Well…no."

"Okay then." Rodney sits back, satisfied, and takes a blissful sip. "You can stop moping and thinking the worst. That's supposed to be my job. And now that I think of it, you never have shown me around this place, and if we've got the house to ourselves I expect you to entertain me."

"I could take you riding," John says thoughtfully.

Rodney stops, cup halfway to his mouth. "Ah…won't it still be too wet outside?"

Sheppard tilts his head to one side. "Rodney, it didn't rain last night."

"Oh. For some reason I thought it did."

John's smile widens. "Must have been a dream."

"Huh, I guess so."

After breakfast, Sheppard does take Rodney on a tour of the house. As he suspected, it's mostly dark wood paneling and impersonal antique furniture, but every now and then John stops to leaf through a book or touch a knickknack or vase on a shelf.

"My mother loved fresh flowers. There used to be vases of them in every room." He smiles sadly. "She saw this one in the window of a second hand store and fell in love with it, but my father was in a hurry and wouldn't stop. Dave and I pooled our allowances and road our bikes back into town the next day and bought it for her. She always said it was her favorite."

When Rodney asks which bedroom was John's, he makes a sour face and changes the subject. Eventually they head outside, where Sheppard gleefully points to an upstairs window. "That's the window I fell out of when I was eight. Broke my arm in two places." He says it like it's something to be proud of.

"Ah, so you've always been a klutz then."

"Ha ha. No, see I'd made these wings out of construction paper, and…"

"Oh my god, are you sure your parents didn't drop you on your head when you were a baby? Actually, that would explain a lot."

Sheppard reaches out and cuffs Rodney on the back of the head. "I'm rubber and you're glue, McKay."

"Oh yes, Colonel, very mature." Rodney tries to sound disgusted but fears the dopey grin on his face is ruining the effect.

He's silently gleeful a few minutes later, when he reaches out to stroke Sheppard's wrist while they're walking and John doesn't pull away. Instead, he slips his hand into Rodney's, twining their fingers together and giving them a light squeeze. Rodney ducks his head, suddenly shy. They walk that way for a while, shoulders bumping occasionally, John's palm warm and dry against his own. When they reach the stables, he leads Rodney inside. It's surprisingly clean and dry. Certainly nothing like Rodney's image of what a stable would be like, aside from the god awful smell.

Laughing at Rodney's wrinkled nose, John opens one of the stalls. Rodney takes one look at those huge hind quarters and powerful legs just made for kicking, and takes a large step back. Sheppard runs a hand gently down the horse's flank, making an odd clucking noise with his tongue, before sliding in beside the giant beast.

"There you go," he coos. "It's alright." Sheppard pulls something out of a small canvas bag hanging on the side of the stall and holds it out to Old Nelly in the palm of his hand.

Aghast - because it's always fun until someone loses a finger - Rodney can't resist calling out, "Be careful, Colonel. It's hard to fly a jumper with only one hand."

Sheppard just chuckles again. "You wouldn't hurt me, girl, would you?" It's the happiest Rodney's seen him in days.

"I, uh, didn't know you were so fond of horses."

Sheppard gives the horse a few more pats on the nose and finally squeezes back out onto safer ground. He rubs his hands on his jeans and shrugs. "Grew up with them. I guess they were my dad's biggest passion outside the office."

"Well, now that we've communed with the animals, Colonel Doolittle, what's next on the tour?"

Grinning slyly, Sheppard points to a wooden ladder attached to the wall. "Wanna go check out the hayloft?"

"Oh yes, of course, because I revel in the idea of sneezing uncontrollably and having hay poke me in uncomfortable places."

"Aw, you're no fun, McKay." Sheppard pouts and then grows thoughtful. "I used to go up there all the time when I was a kid, to hide from my parents or when I just wanted to think about stuff. The stable hands were great and never ratted me out."

"Well, as much as I appreciate the invitation into the secret clubhouse, I think I'll pass this time, if you don't mind." Rodney's actually quite pleased that John wants to share this with him, although, thinking back over the conversation, he might have had less innocent activities in mind.

Rodney's not about to turn down that offer, so he moves swiftly forward, startling John into taking one step back, then another, until he's backed up against the wall. His eyebrows have moved up into his hairline and he's licking his lips nervously.

"Uh, Rodney? Hi, buddy."

"You said I wasn't any fun," Rodney scolds. He places his hands firmly on John's hips and leans in.

"Guess I was wrong." John tilts his head back, exposing a long line of neck. His eyes are locked on Rodney's mouth. That's all the invitation Rodney needs. "Oh yeah," he whispers, as Rodney sucks and nibbles his way up John's jaw line.

His hands stroke up and down Rodney's sides and back, then one hand moves to thread through his hair. They're pressed belly to belly, which means Rodney feels as well as hears it when Sheppard's stomach rumbles loudly.

"Oh, you can't seriously be hungry now!"

"Ignore it," he murmurs, lips tracing Rodney's cheekbones. His stomach growls again, even louder, and John collapses against Rodney in a fit of giggles, gasping, "Sorry, sorry."

Rodney tries to look stern, but John's laughter is contagious and he finds himself grinning back at him. "Great, the mood's shot now. Might as well go feed you." He holds out his hand, someone mollified when John takes it and lets himself be led back towards the house. With any luck, Rodney thinks, he will have his hard-on under control by the time they find Ann, to fix them some lunch.

Dave comes home early, looking his usual somber self, and pulls a thick sheaf of papers from his briefcase.

"The lawyers dropped off the final papers at my office this morning." He looks questioningly at John. "There's no rush though, if you want to wait until later."

"Nah, might as well get it over with." John glances at Rodney, who shoots him a sympathetic look, before he follows Dave into his father's old office.

Being in this room brings back unpleasant memories for John, mostly of the hurtful words he and his dad flung at each other in those last days before John left the house for good. He kind of wishes Dave hadn't taken it over for himself. It makes every talk with his brother feel like he's been sent to the principal's office.

Dave slides several stacks of legal size paper across the desk towards. "Are you sure you want to give me the proxy vote for your shares? It's not too late to change your mind."

John slouches in his chair. "Sure, I trust you. Besides, it's not as if I'll be available to attend board meetings or anything." This is followed by an uncomfortable silence. John picks up a pen and the first packet of papers, intent on getting the job done, but his fingers are shaking so hard he fumbles the pen. It hits him hard, without warning, that doing this makes it real. His dad is gone and won't be coming back. No more arguments over John's future, no more chances to make him proud or to make things right.

Tears sting the corners of John's eyes and he hopes Dave's not watching – he doesn't dare look up to see – because really, this is embarrassing. He is a grown man, a military officer. This is nothing compared to seeing entire civilizations wiped out by wraith. Ronon is practically the lone survivor of his entire planet, for Christ's sake.

Sucking in a shaky breath, John tightens his grip on the pen and scrawls his name on the line, flipping to all the pages Dave has marked with neat, red post-it flags. When he's finished, he tosses the papers back onto the desk and dares to look up. Dave is watching him with a mixture of sympathy and determination. It's a look Elizabeth used to aim at him often, and the unexpected reminder makes John's chest ache. He wants nothing more than to escape, but before he can get more than halfway out of his seat, Dave reaches out in an abortive gesture and makes an 'Um' sound.

John sighs and sits back down, hands still gripping the arms of his chair tightly. "Okay," John says preemptively. "Go ahead and let me have it."

Dave's mouth twists into a half smile, like he's not sure if he should be amused or not. "Let you have it for what?"

"For last night; for taking a crappy week and making it a hundred times worse."

"John, I think we've all had a 'crappy' last few days and need to cut each other some slack. I know last night was out of your hands, and I may not agree with some of the decisions you've made or understand why you choose to do what you do, but I get that it's important to you."

Something in Dave's tone hits John the wrong way. Maybe it's the emphasis on to you. He mutters, "Well, that's a first," under his breath.

Dave's expression hardens. "What's that supposed to mean?"

John turns to glare at Dave, the anger that's been simmering deep in his gut for a long, long time boiling to the surface. His skin itches with it. "It means it would have been nice to have your support a long time ago, when I was fighting for the right to live my own damned life, instead of always siding with Dad!"

"I never took Dad's side!" Dave raises his voice. "I just wanted to stay out of it."

"Then why did you act like you were mad at me every time I tried to see you?" John shouts back.

"Because you left!" Dave explodes, red in the face. He jumps up and paces back and forth behind the desk, clearly trying to calm himself. "Jesus, John," Dave says finally, in a much quieter voice. "Did you ever stop to think what it was like for me to be left behind, having to be dutiful son enough for the both of us? We were close once. Do you remember that? I thought I knew you, and suddenly you'd turned into this angry stranger. You found something you cared about more than your own family. Of course I resented it."

"I -" John swallows hard and presses the palms of both hands hard against his thighs. He's never thought about it that way. "I don't know what to say. I didn't know…"

Dave drops back into his chair, scrubbing a tired hand across his face. "Yeah, well now you do."

"So, coming home was a bad idea." It's a statement not a question, in John's mind.

"Don't be stupid, John," Dave says with an exasperated sigh. "First of all, he was your father too. You have every right to be here. Second, we're talking about hurt feelings from over twenty years ago. I had hoped we could try to put them behind us and start over. I kind of thought we'd made some progress towards that yesterday."

"Yeah," John agrees. His voice sounds rusty to his ears, like he hasn't spoken in a month, and he still can't get past the fact that all he's done since he got here is make people unhappy. John feels hollowed out inside, as if someone came along and scooped out all his anger and resentment, leaving behind a huge, gaping hole that he doesn't know what to do with. Sliding back his chair, John says, "Maybe I should -"

"John, wait." Dave stops him. "Have you opened the envelope yet? The one Dad left you?" John shakes his head. He's been working his way up to that one. "I really think you should." Dave gets up and comes around the desk. For one horrified moment John thinks he's going to try and hug him or something. Instead, he rests a hand on John's shoulder. "Dad loved you, John, whether you believe it or not. I don't know what's in there, but whatever it is, he felt it was important that you get it."

Jerking out of his chair, John starts backing towards the door. He needs to get out of there, needs time alone to pull himself together before he sees anyone else, or something's going to break. "Yeah, okay, whatever."

When Dave calls out to him again, John doesn't look back.

Rodney doesn't miss Sheppard right away. He finds the blog of an old colleague of his and gets embroiled in a lively discussion – if Rodney pointing out all the ways he is wrong, wrong, wrong can be called a discussion – with the man and his misguided followers.

It's not until his neck begins to cramp and he starts thinking of food that Rodney realizes several hours have passed without John annoyingly leaning in doorways or looking over his shoulder, whining that he's bored. A quick search of the house – with a minor detour to the kitchen for some of Ann's fresh oatmeal cookies, and god, he wants to recruit her for Atlantis – finds the other Sheppard in the room with the bar.

"I don't know where he is," Dave sighs tiredly, taking a sip of is drink.

"It's your house. How can you not know where he is?"

Dave gives him a pinched, unhappy look and okay, yes, now Rodney sees the resemblance. "Look, I'm sure he's fine. We had a rather intense conversation and he's just gone off by himself for a while. He used to do it all the time, disappearing for hours at a time. Drove our father nuts."

"And you never figured out where he went?"

Dave shrugs. "We were kids. As long as I wasn't the one getting in trouble, I didn't much care."

Rodney wants to make some sort of threat beginning with So help me god, if you've done anything to hurt him… but can't figure out how not to sound like a bad romance novel…or an episode of The Love Boat. Instead, he gives Dave a parting glare and stomps off to search for John himself.

On Atlantis it's easy: Sheppard can usually be found in a jumper or an out of the way balcony somewhere. But here, he could be anywhere. Having already looked through the house, Rodney steps outside, scanning the horizon as if maybe he will just appear for him and stop wasting his time. Maybe he's taken one of those horses for a ride, Rodney thinks. He looks towards the stable, and then it hits him. He knows exactly where John is.

A few minutes later, Rodney pokes his head through the opening into the hayloft. Sure enough, there he is, sitting with his back to the wall, knees drawn up to his chest. Rodney is struck by how fragile he looks in the dim light.

"If I get a splinter from this ladder and end up dying of a horrible infection, I'm having them blame you during the eulogy."

Sheppard watches silently while Rodney struggles the rest of the way up into the loft and gingerly makes his way across the slippery hay. Dust hangs in the air, caught in the streaks of light seeping through the cracks surrounding a small door in the far wall. The smell of the horses below permeates everything and is no doubt already soaking into Rodney's clothes. He thinks he feels the tickle of a sneeze coming on.

"As romantic as this seems, couldn't you have picked a more sterile hiding place?"

John continues to gaze at his knees, and now Rodney can see some papers propped up against his thighs. A familiar envelope, now open, lays next to him in the hay. Ah. "So, you finally opened it." Leaning closer, Rodney can make out rows of neat handwriting. "What is it, a letter?"

Swallowing loudly, John tilts his head to look at Rodney. "Not just a letter. He must have written one every couple years for I don't know how long…and there's something else."

He reaches down for the envelope and Rodney hears the unmistakable sound of jingling keys. "He bought me a damned plane."

"He what?"

"I guess he thought it would be like a peace offering." John lets his head fall back against the wall and closes his eyes. "I blew it, McKay. All this time I thought he never wanted to see me again, and he was just waiting for me to come home. I could have -" He cuts himself off, voice cracking.

"John, don't you get it? Your father was a coward."

"What the fuck, McKay?" Sheppard growls. Rodney holds out his hands.

"No, wait, let me finish. Think about it. Why didn't he just mail the letters? Sure, they wouldn't have all gotten to you, but some of them would have." John just stares at him with wide eyes. "Your father, he…" Rodney struggles for the right words. "He wanted you to know he still loved you, but, well, let's just say the Sheppard stubbornness doesn't fall far from the tree."

Rodney recognizes the expression on John's face. It's the same broken look he gave him when he told Rodney he couldn't let him sacrifice himself to save Jeannie. It's not any easier to see this time around.

"My father died, Rodney," John whispers.

"I know."

"He died thinking I didn't love him anymore."

"He knew you did."

"How?" John's voice is husky and thick with emotion.

Rodney shrugs. "It's a father-son thing." Of course, he has no idea if that's true, but the answer makes the corner of John's mouth tilt up. Reaching out, he draws John towards him. He feels trembling arms come around him tightly, and a wet breath against his neck. He catches himself rubbing circles into John's back and stops, only to start again when John makes a noise of protest.

They stay that way for a while, John's nails digging into his back, while Rodney silently panics. The last time he felt responsible for someone this vulnerable his parents were placing a newborn Jeannie into his arms for the first time. Funny how the same thoughts keep circling his brain: What if I screw up? What if I drop him?

When John finally pulls away, his eyes are red but dry. There's an awkward moment when neither of them knows how to acknowledge what just happened, then John smiles shyly. He puts a hand on Rodney's shoulder, giving it a squeeze. "Thanks, McKay," he says, looking at him with grateful, trusting eyes.

That's when Rodney finally cracks. "I let Ava escape," he confesses in a rush, like pulling off a band aid.

Sheppard frowns. "Rodney, not this again."

"No-no-no, later, when she came back. You were – it was when Jeff had you pinned to the wall." Rodney gestures a little wildly, nearly taking off Sheppard's nose. "He had his hand around your neck and he was squeezing so tight. I – I tried to stop him but your lips were turning blue. I thought – I thought -" Rodney has to stop because the band tightening around his chest is making it difficult to talk. His vision blurs and when he swipes a hand across his eyes it comes back wet.

"Hey, hey." John rubs Rodney's upper arm comfortingly. "It's okay. I'm okay, remember?"

Rodney peers up through his – well, might as well admit they're tears – and chokes out, "All I could think about was that I'd been mean to you all day and how our last conversation was an argument, and you were dying and there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it…again. That is not okay!"

John nods, appearing somewhat horrified. "And then Ava showed up?"

"She pulled Jeff off you and she could have let him go, but she didn't. Instead she tricked him into taking the tainted neutronium. She never once came after me, even though I had my gun on her, and, well, after all that I figured I owed her one, so I…"

"You let her go," John finishes quietly.

"And now they're blaming you. I wanted to tell you the truth, but I, I just couldn't. I guess I really screwed up."

"You didn't screw up anything, McKay."

He pulls him close again and this time it's Rodney's turn to cling tightly, letting John's gentle tones wash over him. It's way more comforting than Rodney cares to admit. When he's feeling more like himself again he mumbles into John's neck, "Careful, I'm about to wipe snot on your shoulder."

Laughing, John turns his head to press a kiss to Rodney's temple. "Guess we're even then."

"Eww!" Rodney struggles in John's arms, trying to swipe at his t-shirt, which only makes John laugh harder. He takes Rodney's face in his big, warm – probably filthy – hands and stills him.

"Careful, Rodney, I'm about to kiss you."

Rodney shrugs. "Well, if you insist." Which apparently he does. John's lips are dry but his mouth is warm and inviting. Rodney opens up immediately, letting out a groan when John presses closer. The kiss starts softly but quickly turns desperate and needy.

"God, Rodney," John murmurs, somehow managing to talk and kiss at the same time. Rodney's always admired his ability to multi-task. His hand works its way under Rodney's shirt, warm and callused and scratching his soft skin in all the right places. "I've really missed you."

"Which is ridiculous, because I've been right here."

John chuckles. "Yeah, I know. I just get lost sometimes."

"Well, you do have a lousy sense of direction. That's what you need me for."

"Yeah," John whispers a second time, just before capturing his lips again.

Wanting to get even closer, Rodney leans forward, tipping them both off-balance. Finding himself with the advantage, his weight pressed on top of John's, he grins wickedly and attacks his neck with little nips and wet kisses.

"Whoa, whoa, Rodney, wait a sec." John pushes against his chest until Rodney pulls back.

"Oh for god's sake, what now?" he whines. "There's no one here but the horses, and I don't think they give a rat's ass if we finally get to have sex."

"Hey, I never said I didn't want to have sex," John protests, panting slightly. His face is flushed and his lips are red and puffy from kissing. Rodney barely stops himself from diving in again. "I just, y'know," he scratches at the back of his neck. "Thought maybe you wouldn't want to look back and remember our first time being a literal roll in the hay."

Rodney glances around. Oh yeah. Hayloft. "Smart thinking. My back might never survive." He rolls to the side and Sheppard crab-crawls out from under him until he can stand up.

"Yeah, that and I had a piece of straw jabbing me in the back." He swipes at his clothes, sending dust particles cascading down onto Rodney.


"Hay, straw, same thing." Sheppard reaches down, offering Rodney a hand up. Rodney rolls his eyes at the abominable pun, but accepts the help. That's when he realizes the only way back down is that same treacherous ladder he used on the way up.

"Uh, how are we-?" His question is cut off by another searing kiss, this time with the added benefit of Sheppard's hand on his ass. Rodney melts into him and his mind blanks out. The next thing he knows they're back on solid ground. "Wow," he says, glancing around, startled. "That's some secret weapon."

John smirks. "Too bad I can only use it on you."

Rodney's eyes narrow. "Too bad for whom?"

He just keeps smirking. "C'mon, let's get out of here."

With the promise of sex on the horizon, Rodney is only too happy to follow.

By the time they make it to Rodney's room, John's heart is pounding. All his determined restraint and carefully thought out objections fly to the wayside in the face of Rodney McKay doing a clumsy striptease in front of him.

McKay stops mid-hop, one leg bent to pull off a sock. "What? Are we not doing this now?"

John swallows thickly and reaches for his belt buckle. "Yeah, we're still doing this now. Jeez, McKay, what's your rush? Got somewhere else to be?"

"Oh, I'm sorry." McKay lowers his foot and plants his hands on his hips. The stance might be more effective if he didn't have hay sticking out of his hair, and if his pants weren't down around his knees. "Excuse me for getting excited over the prospect of getting laid. You've only been Colonel Cock Tease since we got back to Earth."

Stung, John looks away, blinking at tears that still insist on springing up in the corners of his eyes. That was the problem with sharing your emotions with someone; it was damned hard to turn them off again. Rodney is at his side instantly, soft fingers touching his wrist.

"Sorry, sorry. I didn't mean it. I was just…"

"Being you?" John says with a smile.

"Ha ha, I'm going to be generous and let that one slide just this once." He attacks John's belt buckle with renewed vigor, grunting in frustration when it gets stuck. "Do you have a lock on this thing or something?"

"Yes, Rodney, it's a military issue chastity belt. They come in olive green too." Teasing McKay really is just too easy, and way too much fun. John is feeling better already.

McKay shoots him a dirty look. "Fine, you're on your own then." He turns away, nearly tripping over his pants in the process. Suppressing another smile, John skims out of his t-shirt, undoes the belt buckle (one-handed) and button fly, shinnies out of his jeans and kicks off his shoes. By the time McKay turns around again, John is standing there in nothing but his boxer shorts.

"How do you do that?" Rodney sputters, bug-eyed.

John lifts an eyebrow and smirks. "If I told you, I'd have to kill you."

McKay eyes him up and down and licks his lips. "Yeah, well, what a way to go." John blushes. Rodney finishes undressing and then it's John's turn to give him the once over. He's pleased to see two matching pink spots rise up on his cheeks too. Pointing to a spot of floor directly in front of him, Rodney snaps, "Get your ass over here so I can fondle it."

John considers ignoring the order, but quickly dismisses the idea because, hello, fondling. However, he doesn't want to appear desperate either. He suspects, given the speed with which he complies, that he's just ratted himself out anyway.

Firmly planting both hands on John's ass, McKay rubs his entire upper body against John's, shooting off tingling fireworks all along John's skin wherever they touch. Both he and Rodney are half hard, their dicks brushing up against each other eagerly, even through two layers of cotton. Threading
the fingers of one hand through Rodney's hair, John slides the other hand down the back of his shorts.

"Hey there," he says, reintroducing his mouth to Rodney's.

"Mnng," Rodney hums back, the sound buzzing along John's lips. His hips jut forward; the sword fight is getting mighty serious down there. "Bed."

"Okay," John agrees readily. There's a moment of confusion when they stumble into each other, heading for the same side of the bed.

"I thought you -"
"Yeah, sorry, I -"

"Top or bottom?" McKay's all business, but since none of John's encounters with other guys have required an answer to that question, he just stands there. "Oh my god, you're hopeless!" Rodney flops down onto his back, squirming into position in a way that should in no way make John as hot as it does. "Well?!"

Not needing to be asked twice - three times at the most - John scrambles into bed. He ends up lying half on-half off Rodney, his hard dick poking into Rodney's thigh. The sheets are soft and cool, further accentuating how hot and sticky John feels. He spares a moment to wish he'd showered first before McKay reaches down and palms him through his underwear.


Rodney smirks. "Been a while?"

"Well, yeah, kind of. It's not like life on base allows for many opportunities for anonymous blow jobs, McKay. Besides, you and I have been, you know, for a while now and…" He trails off.

Expression growing soft, Rodney reaches up to tangle his hand in John's hair. "I'm glad we're 'you know', just so you know. In fact, I'm hoping we can move past 'you know' and onto 'nudge nudge, wink wink' soon, and maybe even 'bow-chicka-bow-bow', oh, say, how about right now."

John hides his face in Rodney's shoulder. "Shut up, McKay." He feels a light smack to the back of his head.

"Stop being an idiot and kiss me."

John swipes his tongue along Rodney's skin. Hmm, salty.

"I said kiss, not lick. What are you, a puppy?"

Grinning to himself, John kisses his way up Rodney's stubbled jaw to his ear, then along his forehead and down his nose. He stops once he reaches the mouth, his face hovering over Rodney's. "Not a puppy." He shifts his hips so that his hard on rubs alongside Rodney's.

"No-oh! Of course not." Rodney arches his back, bringing his hips forward in a frantic search for more. "Forget I said it."

"Well, okay then." John lowers himself down until he and Rodney are pressed together from nose to thigh. Snaking his hand down between them, he tugs at the front of Rodney's boxers, freeing his erection to spring happily into John's hand.

"Yes-yes-yes, that's good," Rodney slurs happily, grinding himself into John's palm.

"How about a little reciprocation here, buddy," John grunts, trying to rub himself off rather unsuccessfully against the back of his own hand.

"Right, sure, oh god!" John swirls his thumb around the tip of Rodney's cock and watches his eyes roll up into his head. They wiggle around a bit until Rodney can get John's cock out too, and then there is nothing for a while but the sound of moaning, skin moving along skin, and squeaking bed springs.

Rodney appears determined to make John come first and has pulled out all the stops, mounting his offensive with a single-mindedness that John would have admired even if it wasn't giving him extreme pleasure.

"Oh yeah, Rodney, right there. That's it, harder." John can't seem to stop spouting sex clich├ęs, not that he thinks Rodney minds…or is even listening. By this time John is breathing hard, sweat has broken out along his spine and he's got one hand twisted in the sheets. "So close, so close, oh fuck." A jolt of pleasure explodes from John's gut, zinging through his veins and straight out his dick. His hips jerk wildly, one last hurrah, and then he's coming so hard he sees stars. As a warmth spreads between them, John's last valiant act is to push himself to the side, so that when he collapses, Rodney doesn't have to bear all the weight.

Rodney gives Sheppard precisely sixty seconds to enjoy his post-coital bliss before poking him in the side. "Hey, How about a little reciprocation here," he mimics, with just the right amount of sarcasm thrown in for good measure.

"Hmm, what?" John jerks awake with a snort. His hair is damp with sweat and plastered to his head on one side, and he kind of stinks, but he's still way sexier than anyone has the right to be.

"Earth to Sheppard. Anyone home?"

"Wow, Rodney, that was a-ma-zing," he drawls, smiling at him vacantly, clearly still not back from Orgasm-land.

"Yes, and it would be even more amazing if I could get off too." Rodney tries to scowl, but sleepy Sheppard is just too damned cute and his lips keep curling up instead of down.

John blinks and looks down, his expression turning devilish as he takes in Rodney's angry, red cock. He trails his fingers down Rodney's chest and through the cooling mess puddled on his stomach, continuing down until they are wrapped around his dick, nice and tight. Eyes still locked on Rodney's, John lowers his head to Rodney's belly, tongue darting out to taste his own come.

"Jesus, John." Rodney throws his head back, eyes focused on the ceiling so that he doesn't come right. That. Second.

"Do you want me high or low, Rodney?"

It takes him a moment to figure out what Sheppard's asking, and he's torn. Torn between wanting to prolong this as long as possible, and getting off before John falls asleep again. "Low, god, low."

Sheppard chuckles, moving down to wrap his lips around the head of Rodney's cock. It's not the best blow job Rodney's ever had. Sheppard is sloppy, using too many teeth and too little suction, but he quickly learns to interpret Rodney's grunts and moans. Pretty soon Rodney's hips are lifting off the bed to meet John's mouth and he's got one hand clenched in his hair.

"Oh god, oh god, oh god." He gives the hair a hard tug, causing Sheppard to look up with a sharp "Ow!" "I'm gonna come," Rodney warns.

John scrambles up beside Rodney, his hand still jacking Rodney off, and kisses Rodney hard. He can taste himself on John's tongue and that's what finally sends him over the edge. Everything goes white, and when Rodney comes back to himself John is draped lazily across his chest, head tucked into his neck.

"Comfy?" Rodney asks, amused.

"Mm hmm."

"We're going to have to get cleaned up."

"Don't wanna."

Rodney's hand strokes languidly down Sheppard's back, dipping into the cleft of his ass and then back up. He weighs the pros and cons and decides moving is overrated. "Me neither."

"Always knew you were smart," Sheppard mumbles.

Rodney smiles, closes his eyes, and lets himself drift off to the sound of John's breathing in his ear.

Startled awake sometime later by a soft knock on the door - Ann, letting Rodney know that supper will be ready in a half hour – John waits for his heart to stop tattooing in his chest before rolling over and sitting up on the edge of the bed. He's disoriented at first, in that way you get when you've fallen asleep in the middle of the day.

"Hey," Rodney says from behind him. There's the sound of rustling sheets, then a light kiss pressed to his right hipbone. "You okay?"

John looks down at Rodney's sleepy, smiling face and smiles back. If they're ever going to pull this off on a regular basis, McKay is going to have to tone down the beaming. "Yeah, I'm great." And he is too: the tension he's been carrying with him for days is gone. He's feeling boneless and relaxed and sated, and all those other things that happen after a really good orgasm. He's also sweaty, sticky and in desperate need of a shower. Instead, he lies back down on his side, facing Rodney.

"Hi." He leans in for a kiss, which leads to another and another, sweet and long and gentle. John's hands reach up to cup Rodney's face, while Rodney's arms slide around his waist and bring him closer.

"Thirty minutes, remember?" Rodney says into his mouth.

"Yeah, yeah."

"We both need to shower."

John lifts his head and cocks an eyebrow towards the bathroom door. "We could…"

Sighing mightily, Rodney heaves himself up. "I think we'd better handle this one solo. The last thing we need is for Ann to walk in on us, checking to see if we need more towels."

John's face falls, but he knows McKay's right. They've taken a huge risk here as it is. They both climb out of bed, John's attempts at getting dressed again hampered by the need to stop and kiss every few seconds. When he is finally presentable enough to make the short trek back to his room, Rodney walks John to the door, where they kiss again. Stepping out into the hallway, he can't resist turning back and giving Rodney two more quick pecks. "See you downstairs."

"Twenty minutes," Rodney promises.

John is still grinning stupidly at the closed door when he hears the sound of a voice clearing behind him. Heart in his throat, John slowly turns towards Dave, who is standing at the top of the stairs watching him curiously.

Damn it! John thinks. This is exactly what he's been trying to avoid. "I – we -" John doesn't know how to explain this away. Dave doesn't seem angry or disgusted. In fact, all he says is, "Did Ann find you?"

"Uh, yes?" John points stupidly towards his room door. "I was just going to take a shower first."

Dave smiles tightly. "Good idea. I'll see you both at supper then."

"Right." John stares after him, not knowing what to think.

Suppertime is even more confusing. John expects cold silence or maybe a confrontation, but instead Dave is outwardly friendly towards McKay, even going so far as to ask him about his family. Rodney proudly announces his designation of Uncle and launches into a story about Madison that John's never heard before. Probably because you've never asked, John reminds himself, which makes him feel like a bit of a jerk.

After the dessert dishes are swept away, John and Rodney retreat to the family room to watch television. Still distracted, John lets Rodney grab the remote and they end up watching hockey on the big screen. A little while later, Dave wanders in to join them. Even though they haven't been touching, John springs up from the sofa, earning odd stares from both Dave and Rodney.

"I'm, uh, just going to get us a couple of beers."

"Ooh, check if there are any cheetos left," Rodney says distractedly, attention focused back on the game.

By the time John returns with the beer and a bag of Doritos – no Cheetos – McKay and Dave are sitting next to each other, heads bent together over something on their laps. Nonplussed, John peers over McKay's shoulder, only to find a cherub-cheeked, much smaller version of himself smiling toothlessly back up at him. "The hell?!" John makes a grab for the photo album, but McKay snatches it up and clutches it to his chest.

"Not a chance, Colonel. I'm only up to the toddler years and this is prime blackmail material."

John turns his menacing glare on Dave. "Where did you dig that thing up?"

"I found it in one of Dad's drawers while I was cleaning out his desk. I thought Rodney might enjoy seeing it." Dave smiles up at him guilelessly.

Oh, so it's Rodney now. And since when are the two of them best pals anyway? John squeezes in between McKay and the arm of the couch, forcing him to make room.

"If you're looking for the obligatory bearskin rug photo, McKay, I think you'll be sorely disappointed."

"That's okay, Colonel, I've already seen the one of you in the bathtub." Rodney beams at him and turns another page of the book.

Fantastic. This must be some sort of karmic revenge for getting all those stories out of Jeannie last year. John feigns disinterest, but eventually his curiosity gets the better of him. The album is arranged in chronological order and there are plenty of pictures of both him and Dave at various ages: building a snowman in Vermont, splashing in the waves at the beach house on the Carolina coast; lots of pictures of them with the horses.

Rodney pauses at one picture in particular. In it Dave is dressed in full dressage gear, complete with breeches and black helmet. John is wearing a cowboy hat and boots, and has a plastic gun holster strapped to his leg. They're both smiling up at the camera, with their mother standing between them.

"Is that your mom?"

John reaches out to trace her image with his finger. He doesn't remember that day, but he remembers her smile and how she always smelled like fresh flowers. "Yeah."

"Wow, she was a hottie!"

"McKay!" John's eyebrows shoot up, scandalized.

Rodney squints closer. "What's with the cowboy hat?"

"My dad was crazy about horses," Dave explains. "He had us riding with a training saddle practically before we could walk. Of course, John being John – I think he was five or six at the time – all he talked about was becoming a cowboy. The hat was a Christmas present from our mother's brother and for months John wore it everywhere, even to bed. I think he would have worn it in the bathtub if they'd let him."

John shrinks back into the couch cushions and covers his eyes with his hand. He's never going to live this one down.

McKay pokes at him, grinning like a loon and singing, "I wanna be a cow-boy…"

John jabs him sharply in the ribs with his elbow. "Shut up, McKay."

The torturous trip down memory lane finally ends somewhere in John's pre-teen years, which was about when he'd turned surly and camera shy. It's still early but John grumpily suggests it's time for him and McKay to hit the hay. "We've got an early day tomorrow." When Rodney demands details, John refuses to say anything more.

At the bottom of the stairs, John pulls Dave aside. Rodney shoots him a speculative look, then heads up without him. "What the hell was all that back there?" John hisses.

"What are you talking about?"

"You – with the sitting and the pictures," John waves his hand around in truly Rodney-esque fashion, which is how he knows he's doomed. "You were nice to McKay at dinner!" John points accusingly, as if Dave had committed a ritual sacrifice right in front of them instead of carving the roast.

"John, I just thought I should get to know your friend a little better."

John eyes him narrowly. Dave seems sincere. "Why?"

Dave gives him a pointed look. Oh. The bottom drops out of John's stomach, all hope that maybe he'd imagined Dave in the hallway earlier vanishing. Thinking back, he realizes his brother never acted surprised or shocked.

"You knew?" he asks faintly.

"About Dr. McKay? No, although I guess it should have been obvious, the way you hover over each other. About…you?" Dave shifts uncomfortably, hands stuffed in his pockets. "Let's just say I suspected, back when you and Dad had that big blowout before you left for college, but then you came home with Nancy a few years later and I figured I'd gotten it wrong."

John looks down at his feet. He doesn't know what to say. He has protected this secret for over twenty years and its sudden loss is almost physically painful.

Dave reaches out to touch his arm. "Just tell me one thing: is it serious?"

Head jerking up, John snarls, "Will it be a problem if I say yes?" Dave steps back, no doubt recoiling from the venom in John's voice. It kind of scares John too.

"No, I – John, I just want to know if you're happy."

Just like that, John's anger vanishes. The knot of tension he's been carrying in his belly all evening – possibly for years – uncoils, leaving him almost breathless. "Yeah, it's pretty serious," he murmurs. He can't meet Dave's eyes. "It's not easy where we're at, but, well, I'd like to think we're happy sometimes."

When Dave pulls John into a tight hug, he doesn't see it coming. Fighting the urge to pull away, he instead brings his arms up, awkwardly patting Dave on the back. "I'm glad, John," he hears in his ear. "I really am."

Afterwards, neither brother can look the other directly in the eye. "Look, ah, there's something I want to do tomorrow morning, and then I think McKay and I are going to have to take off," John says, shuffling his feet. "My superiors have been generous with my leave as it is."

Dave nods. "You'll stay in touch? Maybe come back for a visit sometime?"

John grins and punches Dave lightly in the shoulder. "You bet. I can't let McKay go on thinking he's the only awesome uncle around here."

"I'm holding you to that."

"Guess I'd better…" John points to the stairs.

"Yeah. I'll see you before you go?"

"Sure." Dave smiles at him and disappears down the hallway. John heads upstairs. When he reaches the top he hesitates, then, making his decision, he turns towards Rodney's door.

Nobody could have been more surprised than Rodney when Sheppard had showed up in his bedroom the night before and begun stripping off his clothes. He tried voicing his concerns, but John just waved him off and climbed into the bed, where he then proceeded to systematically break Rodney apart – molecule by molecule – with his hands, mouth, and cock.

Morning brings mutual sloppy blow jobs (Poor Ann; the sheets are never going to be the same), breakfast, and now here they are in a borrowed car, heading…somewhere.

"Tell me where we're going," Rodney demands for the fifth time. He hates surprises that he's not in on.

Sheppard continues smirking that annoying little smirk of his. "Nope, it's a secret."

Rodney taps his fingers on the armrest. "Is it at least something I'll like?"

Worry lines creased John's forehead. "I – it's – it's something I want to share with you, okay? Jeez," he says finally, with great effort. His eyes are locked on the road ahead.

"Oh." Rodney relaxes back into his seat, inordinately pleased. "Well why didn't you just say so in the first place?" Instead of answering, Sheppard fiddles with the radio, settling on some annoying morning show, where a guy calling himself 'Jack Diamond' is rambling on and on about his son Connor. As if Rodney could possible care.

Twenty minutes later, Sheppard turns off onto the service road for a small airport and the puzzle pieces all slot together in Rodney's head. John shoots him a nervous look and he responds with what he hopes is a reassuring smile. They pull up in front of a small office, where they are greeting outside by a bouncy, fifty-ish looking woman, whose nametag pronounces her to be 'Janice'.

"Colonel Sheppard?" Janice holds out her hand in greeting. "I can't tell you how happy I am to finally meet you."

"Uh," Startled, Sheppard flashes Rodney a confused look. "Yeah, I've been stationed out of the country for quite a few years now. I, uh, don't get home very often."

Janice's expression softens even more. "Oh, you poor thing." She rests her hand on his arm. "I can't thank you enough for all the sacrifices you've made to keep our country safe." Rodney rolls his eyes and bets she's got an American flag stuck to the rear bumper of her car. Meanwhile, Sheppard's eyebrows have climbed into his hairline and Rodney's not sure if it's the way Janice acts like she knows him already or the hand still resting on his arm that's got him so rattled.

They begin walking towards one of the hangers nearby, with Rodney trailing behind. "The crew performs standard maintenance checks once a month, per your father's instructions," Janice continues. "I was so sorry to hear about his passing."

They step into the hanger and John's eyes go wide. He begins circling the plane, one hand lifted to reverently brush its side as he goes. Rodney doesn't know a thing about small planes, but it seems nice enough: two wings, propellers, and there's a jazzy orange stripe down the side. Janice has finally stopped talking, and they both stand there quietly, watching Sheppard commune with his new plaything, until Rodney wonders if he should be jealous.

When Sheppard rejoins them, Janice says, "Your flight plan has been filed and we can taxi the plane out to the runway for you, if you're ready to take her up."

"Yeah, that'd be great, thanks."

Rodney swivels to face him. "Wait, what? You're not seriously going to take that thing up in the air, are you?"

Sheppard is still beaming. "Nope. We're going to take 'that thing' up in the air." He bounces several times on the balls of his feet.

"Oh no," Rodney throws up his hands. "No way are you getting me into that death trap. You think I don't hear the news reports? Small engine aircraft crash into mountains all the time."

John's smile fades and the light goes out in his eyes. "But," he looks longingly over his shoulder. "It wouldn't be fun without you there."

Rodney feels like ten times the jerk for harshing on Sheppard's joy. He'd do anything to put that glow back on his face. "Okay, fine, since you put it that way, how can I refuse?"

"Thanks, Rodney."

"But I call dibs on the parachute."

"Um, Rodney, these planes don't – You know what, never mind."

Once they're settled into their seats and Sheppard is performing his pre-flight instrument tests, a new wave of panic seizes Rodney. "Are you sure you remember how to do this?"

"McKay, I fly jumpers practically every day."

"Yeah, with your mind."

Rolling his eyes, John flips a few more switches. "My certification may have lapsed a little, but if I can fly a dart, I think I can handle this."

"Yes, well, just remember who is sitting in the passenger seat. The future existence of two galaxies depends on me arriving safely on the ground again."

"Of course, McKay," he deadpans. "Control, this is Sheppard. We're ready for takeoff." The whir of the engines starting up cuts off anything else Rodney may want to say, and then they're barreling down the runway and it's all he can do not to scream "Oh my god, we're going to die!"

Miraculously, they don't die. The plane lifts gently off the ground, climbing steadily into a cloudless, blue sky. It's actually kind of pretty up there, once his stomach unclenches and Rodney's brave enough to lean forward and look out. He turns to Sheppard to admit as much, and notices tears forming at the corners of his eyes.

"Isn't it amazing, McKay?" He glances over, face full of joy, and Rodney's heart constricts and expands, filling him with warmth and affection. He thinks suddenly, How can I not love this man? The Air Force, the Wraith, certain impending doom on a daily basis: none of it matters in the grand scheme of things. Not as long as the two of them stick together. Rodney reaches out and rests a hand on Sheppard's thigh.

"Yeah, John," he chokes out, catching his eye. "Amazing."

The End

The End
Thanks to The Who, for the story title.