The chair would have just slowed Rodney down, and he hadn’t even looked at it as he hobbled out of the infirmary as if on fire.
A soft snitch of the rubber tips of the crutches connecting with the Ancient flooring echoed around him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough noise to drive away the jumble of thoughts and realizations crashing down on him.
He huffed as he increased his pace, barely missing a passing marine, who gave the determined and hobbling figure a curious look. He ignored the stare, trying very hard to focus on the way his shirt jammed into his armpit with each shuffling step he took.
Snitch. Snitch. Snitch.
It had happened when he was five.
Rodney had been sitting in the living room, disassembling an old toaster, trying to explain to his father the mechanisms behind the coils heating up. Bouncing Jeannie on one knee, his father had just nodded patiently and asked innocent questions, as if he had never comprehended what made his toast so crispy and brown every morning.
Rodney lost himself staring at the bundles of wire below the stripped protective covering, not noticing that his father’s questions had ceased. When Rodney finally pulled his fascination away long enough to ask why copper was used as opposed to the far more conductive silver, he could see his father staring at him with an expression he had not seen before up to that point in his life.
Later he would see it reflected on professors’ and colleagues’ faces when he corrected their wildly inaccurate equations. Disdain. Anger. Shock… and sudden comprehension.
The answers to his questions became short, terse, before the toaster was finally taken from him and Rodney was left to watch a happy gurgling baby sister. Angry shouts from the next room drove him to pull out the confiscated coils so he could try and explain their significance to the wide-eyed toddler next to him.
The cause of the incident had always eluded Rodney.
The constant pressure of his quick steps had begun to chafe at his underarms. Unconsciously his fingers tightened on the crutch supporting his weight.
Now, though, Rodney understood.
That was the day his father realized the son he was raising wasn’t actually his.
* * * * *
It was like some giant cosmic joke. John was forty years old and in another galaxy, and his father was still finding ways to interfere with his life.
Oh, John, a brochure for Harvard came in the mail. I’ve got a friend in the admissions office, so you won’t have to worry too much about that essay. By the way, John, I’ve got a general who owes me a favor. He assures me that the Air Force can just conveniently lose your enlistment papers. While we’re not on the subject, I might have forgotten to mention cheating on your mother while I was setting up our Canadian headquarters way back when. Oh, and there’s just the slight possibility that loudmouth you insist on taking with you everywhere might be your illegitimate half-brother. But it’s your life, son, and if you think it’s best…
It just went to show that Patrick Sheppard’s hold on him was insidious and as far reaching as the Pegasus Galaxy.
Without realizing it, John had found himself at the gym. He watched as a marine tried to charge Ronon, only to be clotheslined when the Satedan sidestepped the maneuver. The large man flipped his dreadlocks out of his face and tipped his chin in a greeting.
“You up next?”
Without hesitation, John shucked off his jacket and took up a spot on the mat. “God, yes.”
* * * * *
The red scrubs of the infirmary escapee were attracting too much attention, so Rodney had to swing by his quarters for something a little less conspicuous. Changing out of his pants proved too difficult as his leg was starting to stiffen up. So he settled on changing out his shirt and grabbed a spare jacket.
If he had been less harried, and not under the influence of at least one painkiller, he might have realized that green, red, and gray wasn’t exactly the most flattering combination of colors. And even if he wasn’t, none of Rodney’s many PhDs were in fashion.
He briefly considered just laying down on his bed and staying there until the Harpy Squad came looking for him. The room was far too small, though, and the bits of his past on his wall kept bringing back more memories. Rodney didn’t have a single picture of his family, but it didn’t mean that every time he looked at his diploma from Northwestern he wouldn’t remember Jeannie’s excited phone call telling him she had applied at his alma mater.
So he resumed his quest to find wide open spaces, not caring that he looked like a dying Christmas tree.
However the relative freedom of an endless hallway or the dull ache in his leg could not stop him from thinking things or asking himself a million rhetorical questions. Like why his father hadn’t left his mother earlier. Why he had waited for Jeannie to graduate high school before filing for divorce. Why he had been the supportive parent for Rodney, when he hadn’t actually been a parent to him at all. He couldn’t fathom raising a child who he knew, or at least strongly suspected, was a physical reminder of his significant other’s infidelity. There was no logic in it.
The grips on his crutches were growing damp with sweat as his ambling took him further away from the city center. He was also starting to seriously consider tottering back to his quarters to down several Tylenol from his medicine cabinet.
Of course, he could have been adopted. Maybe he had been left on a doorstep by the Kirk of Days Gone By and was taken in by the quasi-kindly Canadian couple. It was just a coincidence he shared a striking resemblance to his mother, who Jeannie was also taking a lot after. At least she had the last time he had seen her.
Then another disturbing thought occurred to him.
Did this make him half-American?
* * * * *
Blood was thicker than water.
John was never one for sentiments, especially that one.
He picked himself off the floor, feeling his abdomen protest at the movement. Of course Ronon would catch him with the same maneuver he had with the marine. “Nice one.”
“Am not.” John had seen far too much blood in his lifetime, and there were times it flowed just like water.
John feinted to the left, trying to dart behind his sparring opponent. Ronon seemed to anticipate this move and blocked him with a quickly extended leg. John went down in a tangle of limbs, and turned to glare at the Satedan.
“Distracted,” Ronon confirmed.
“I’m just getting warmed up,” John grumbled, getting to his feet.
Ronon was watching him, to the casual observer looking almost bored with the proceedings. The ever so slightly peaked brow told John that he was being studied closely. The pilot slowly circled his opponent, narrowing his gaze as he tried to focus on any physical cues from Ronon for his next move.
There were two problems with that. The first being that Ronon never gave anything away in a fight. John found himself on the mat again, staring at the ceiling. The second problem was that Ronon was right. He was distracted. By blood, DNA, and everything he didn’t want to think about.
A hand appeared, offering to help him up. John grabbed it without hesitation, letting Ronon haul him to his feet.
He rolled his shoulders. “Best two out of three?”
Ronon shrugged. “If you insist.”
* * * * *
Rodney wasn’t going to eat apple pie and hot dogs.
Well, okay, he was, because they were delicious, but he drew the line at doing it out of some misplaced sense of nationalism for a country he hadn’t been born to. He had never understood the whole concept of showing patriotism via food consumption. He certainly didn’t feel the maple leaf on his shoulder glow a bright proud red when he ate pancakes and maple syrup.
Dad had really liked those pancakes.
Damn it, no!
He had come out to this balcony to distance himself from his daddy issues, not wallow in them. And he might have not chosen said balcony for its view, rather that it was closer than his quarters, and the dull ache in his leg had become more of a slow throb. He probably should have gone back to the infirmary, but that would involve talking to Carson, who was entirely responsible for said issues.
Of course, there was always the possibility that he had it backwards and his dad had been the one to cheat on his mother, making Sheppard part-McKay.
But then they could also perfect travel at some point in the future. John Sheppard would then journey to the past in order seduce his poor Grammy. He shuddered at that thought. All that he knew is that he certainly wouldn’t be risking a temporal paradox unlike some Shatner-esque people he knew.
And perhaps that was a teensy bit unfair, but he had a hard time caring at the moment.
He had managed to drive away every person with any sort of family tie to him. Jeannie had held on the longest, but in the end he had ruined that relationship too. The tiny group of people he had grown close to here on Atlantis were a surrogate family, but they had never been obligated to care about him. He was starting to wonder maybe if it was that familial obligation that was tripping him up. If someone had to care because they were expected to, perhaps it injected a little bit of falsehood into all the sentiments expressed between those individuals. And that eventually built up to the point where it all fell apart.
He and Sheppard had enough lingering issues from Doranda. They certainly didn’t need any imagined obligations adding to the strain of a still-repairing friendship.
He bowed his head into the breeze that wafted over the side. “This really sucks.”
* * * * *
John caught the bottle of water that was tossed to him and drank greedily. He was parched, exhausted, and bruised. The raging torrent of emotions had quieted to a dull ache, but he hadn’t been able to beat them down completely. Now he only felt the urge to short sheet his father’s bed rather than take an actual swing at the man.
“Feel better?” Ronon rumbled behind his own bottle.
“Some,” John admitted reluctantly, eyeing the mat that had been occupied by the next set of sparring partners.
“Want to go again?”
“I say yes, but my body says no,” John cracked a smile.
“Need to talk?”
John just looked at him, and Ronon gave him half-smirk in return.
“Right. Forgot who I was talking to.”
John snorted, setting the water down in favor of grabbing one of the clean towels. “You don’t exactly strike me as the sharing type either, big guy.”
Ronon mirrored his actions as he toweled off the sweat covering him. “I’m not. Teyla’s just persistent.”
“She is at that.” The words muffled a little as he rubbed his face dry. He paused long enough to ask the next question. “What do you guys talk about?”
“Athos. Sateda.” Ronon shrugged and picked up the bottle. “The past.”
John wrinkled his nose. It struck almost too close to home, but there was no way Ronon could know what was really going through his head. “Not my favorite subject, I’ll give you that.”
“Mine either.” He paused, mid-sip as he gave his team leader a searching look. “Ignoring it doesn’t change it though.”
It sure made thinking a lot more bearable. “Your words or Teyla’s?”
“Huh.” John raised an eyebrow at that. “Got a little bit of philosopher in you?”
“A little,” Ronon grinned, his bared teeth almost resembling a lion.
John draped the towel across his shoulders as he sat heavily on a bench. “What does your philosophy say about change?”
“Depends on what’s changing.”
“Anything in particular?” Ronon asked a little too innocently.
“Nothing,” John waved a hand quickly. His hand stilled mid-air, as he realized how Rodney-like the action had been. He dropped the hand to grab the bottle of water again, and cleared his throat. “Absolutely nothing.”
“I don’t know.” Ronon twisted away so he could grab a second bottle of water. Like knives, he had an endless supply. “You’ve finally left the infirmary. That’s different.”
“I haven’t been there that much.”
His teammate shrugged noncommittally. “More than usual.”
“Lies.” Okay, half-truth. He had been there, but only to try and figure out what Carson was hiding. Part of him wished he had left well enough alone. The other part...
“All right, maybe a little,” John amended.
Ronon studied him for a moment. “You want to try to pick up Torrell’s trail again?”
John tried not to look startled by the train of thought. He hadn’t thought about that – well, since he had played folder-frisbee with Rodney. He might’ve been tempted by the offer earlier this morning, but vengeance had taken a back burner. Especially since he had new priorities. “The trail’s even colder now than it was the first time.”
Ronon grunted, as if John had just insulted his tracking skills. “Another round, then?”
“No,” John laughed dryly, “I’m done.”
“My need for violence has passed,” John assured him, leaning back into the wall and closing his eyes. Whether he liked it or not he had to think about his next move with Rodney. He couldn’t stay in the gym forever getting the stuffing kicked out of him. Eventually Ronon would get bored; and McKay deserved more than that.
“He’s going to be fine,” Ronon rumbled.
John cracked an eye open. “Who?”
He wasn’t so sure about that, judging by how quickly Rodney had managed to disappear from the infirmary. “Of course he is.”
There was also a chance he was still hobbling across half the city trying to outrun the same thing that was haunting John. He let his head fall back against the wall, banging against it lightly. Maybe he just needed a few more bruises to get his head back in order.
Because shit, Rodney was his—
“What’s the problem then?”
He shot Ronon a look, partly for interrupting his train of thought, and partly because he was far too astute for being ignorant of the situation. “You’re like a dog with a bone.”
His answer as an annoyed grunt.
“The problem is… complicated.” Like the fact that John really sucked at the whole family thing. He had a whole clan of Sheppards who could attest to that. After the day was over, he wondered if Rodney would join their ranks.
“Massively complicated,” John added unnecessarily.
“You avoiding it?”
“More like delaying.”
He had just needed to clear his head before seeking Rodney out. It wouldn’t do for Patrick Sheppard to be a dark specter hovering over their inevitable conversation. Had it been anyone else but Rodney, John might have been tempted to keep ‘delaying’ the issue with Ronon.
Although if he delayed much longer, he had a feeling that Carson was going to send someone searching for the injured man. He was sure that he would have heard from Beckett if McKay had returned to the infirmary. Meaning he was still wandering around on that leg. With a sigh John levered himself up.
His body felt like one giant bruise. Next time he needed to think, he’d just take his clubs down to the south pier. “Thanks… I think.”
“Anytime.” Ronon settled back to watch the next match.
John bid him a farewell and limped out of the gym. As much as he hated the whole emotional entanglement aspect of this whole situation, part of John felt as if this was the natural course of action. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, giving the whole big brother thing another shot.
* * * * *
John finally found him on a balcony away from the city’s center, huddled in a mismatched jacket and staring blankly at the horizon. Sheppard paused at the door frame, not sure if he was welcome. Giving McKay a once over, John didn’t like what he saw. The scientist’s pallor was almost gray in the waning light and he was sitting awkwardly in order to stretch out his injured leg. He pulled the jacket around himself tighter as a light sea breeze wafted over the balcony.
“Are you just going to stand there all night?” Rodney mumbled from his roost.
“I was trying to give you space.”
“It works better without you hovering in doorways.”
“I can go.” John said and started to pull away. He wouldn’t go very far—just enough to call Beckett.
“You can stay—I think I’ve sorted through most of it.”
Needing no further invitation John joined the other man on the floor of the balcony, resting his back against the wall. The sun was just sinking beyond the horizon as dusk started to settle over the landscape. Far below, waves crashed against one of the piers, barely heard over Rodney’s jacket rustling softly in the wind.
“You stink,” Rodney muttered after about a minute of silence.
“I thought you said you had worked through—”
“No, I mean you smell,” Rodney gave him a sideways look, “worse than week old road kill.”
“I dress to impress.” John nudged Rodney’s scrub-clad knee with his own. “Unlike some people I know.”
“At least I don’t smell like dead animals.”
“Yeah, well at least I don’t look like a depressed Christmas tree.”
Rodney’s gaze drifted to his hastily put together ensemble. “It’s not that bad.”
“My retinas beg to differ.”
“So does my nose, but I’m not rubbing it in.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not—okay, maybe I am. But seriously, you couldn’t take a shower before sitting like two inches away from me?”
“I would have had time but someone didn’t take a wheelchair like they were told to.”
“You’re not my mother…” Rodney winced. It was still too soon for that type of comeback to be funny.
In the spirit of their newfound brotherhood, John decided to rescue him from the uncomfortable moment. “Takes a little getting used to, doesn’t it?”
Rodney nodded mutely and turned his gaze back to the horizon and John did the same, letting the balcony once again lapse into silence.
Well, this was awkward.
The silenced seeped away at the relaxed air established by their normal banter. Rodney made no move to strike conversation back up, gaze firmly fixed away from John. If he waited for the other man to start again, it was likely that they would be here all night. Considering that Rodney’s pasty complexion had absolutely nothing to do with the amount of time he spent in the sun, expediency was probably a good idea.
Meaning it was up to John to lead the conversation.
Not exactly his strong point. After a few clumsy and thankfully silent failed starts, he decided to start vague and work his way from there.
“I’ve been thinking.”
The molding on the architecture poked at one of the fresh, Ronon-acquired bruises. “You have no idea.”
Rodney cracked a smile at that.
John decided to get back on topic, because it wasn’t getting any easier to talk sitting out here than it had been with Ronon in the gym. “We’re not our parents and we already don’t follow in their footsteps.”
Rodney didn’t respond, forcing John to continue with his clumsy monologue. “Why let decisions they made more than thirty years ago determine what we do?”
“Oh, thank God,” Rodney breathed.
Some of the weight that had been sitting on John’s shoulders fell away at the relief in Rodney’s voice. It seemed like they were on the same page so far. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” the scientist let out a shaky laugh, “you see I’ve been terrified of having to face this.”
“I know. Me too.”
“I’m just glad we’re in agreement here.” Rodney forged ahead before John could reply. “I mean, if we don’t do anything it’s not like anyone would know. Other than Carson and his questionable DNA tests, which I still would like a second opinion on, but that goes against the whole not doing anything. Anyway, it’s not something we have to share.”
The beginnings of something started gnawing deep in his gut, but Sheppard ignored it. “Well, it’s not like making a public announcement would help things here.”
“It’s better this way,” Rodney continued, either not hearing or choosing to not acknowledge the caution in John’s tone. “I mean really, what would it change, pretending to be brothers? I’m not one for overly-maudlin sentiments, you know that. But we’ve just gotten through that Doranda mess. Despite your gravity-defying hair and fondness for death wishes, I like being your friend.”
At the last statement Rodney finally looked up, giving John an intense, honest, and very raw look.
He wanted to say something in kind, but couldn’t seem to wrap his tongue around any of the sappy responses that would be appropriate. So, he went with what was comfortable: humor. “Well, I’m not such a bad guy.”
“No, on a good day you’re almost tolerable,” Rodney mustered a ghost of his usual cocky grin. “I’m… I’m just glad we’re going to let this go.”
Rodney was just winding up, effectively cutting John off from getting any word in edgewise. Or perhaps that was the idea.
“This would just be one more thing I’d have to fit into my life. I mean, I’ve already got the whole unappreciated genius thing going on. Then there’s the overworked supervisor part. People can’t do a damn thing without me holding their hands. Zelenka’s like a lost puppy, I swear.”
It seemed between the cool sea air and the emotions he was expounding, Rodney was growing paler by the minute.
“Then there’s the other half that’s waiting for me to freak out or relapse into the whole enzyme addiction. Which is stupid, because I’m far more likely to destroy another solar system—”
John stopped the self-depreciating rant with a curt, “McKay!”
Tired blue eyes focused on him, and the words stopped spilling over. John could feel the gnawing in his stomach turn into a cold, dead void inside him even as he plastered an easy smile on his face – and told Rodney exactly what he needed to hear.
“Don’t worry about it.”
A good portion of anxiety poured out of the other man at those words. Despite the ache deep in his gut, that was only partially due to his workout with Ronon, John knew he had made the right decision.
“You look like shit, by the way.”
“You’re a real cheerleader, you know that, Colonel?”
“It’s my job.” John rested a hand on Rodney’s shoulder, ignoring the annoyed look tossed his way. “I think you’ve used up your free time.”
“I’m fine here, thanks.”
“Yes, that’s why you’re turning a lovely shade of blue. Really clashes with the whole Christmas theme you’ve got going.”
“No one asked your opinion, Lieutenant Colonel Fashionista.”
“I wonder what Carson would think of it.”
“One day, you’ll thank me.” Using his grip on Rodney’s shirt, John managed to get them both to a standing position.
“You know, some people might show some appreciation for all of this effort.”
“They’re not being manhandled.”
A hiss escaped the scientist as he settled too much weight on his bad leg. Immediately John’s hand started snaking towards his earpiece.
“I’m… I’m fine.”
“You sound fine.”
A tiny, niggling voice in the back of John’s mind insisted that there was something else he could say or do. He quickly squashed it down as he half-dragged Rodney back towards the infirmary.
He was looking out for the welfare of his family, which was more important than any paltry unmentionable sentiments.
As their journey progressed, Rodney began to lean onto John heavier. He pretended not to notice how the scientist’s grip tightened with each step, and instead wondered aloud if tinsel would go with Rodney’s ensemble.
Because in the end, that was what a real brother did.
* * * * *
“He’ll be all right,” Carson said quietly as Rodney lost the battle with sleep, slipping into a light slumber. “Looks like he just overexerted himself.”
“Big surprise there,” John muttered, arms crossed.
“You two work things out?”
John didn’t look at Carson, just stared intently at the dozing figure on the bed. “Yeah, we did.”
Carson had been afraid that their friendship might suffer because of his findings, especially when they didn’t reappear after a long while. He had been about to send out a search party for his wayward patient when Sheppard had finally brought Rodney back, each sniping at the other like usual. The bickering was so normal it was actually a relief. Carson secretly hoped that it might even be a sign of a forming kinship between the two.
“That’s good,” Carson smiled, but it died away as tension radiated from the man standing next to him. “John?”
“We,” the word was almost spat, “have decided to let it drop.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we,” there was less hesitation on the word this time, “don’t need any DNA tests to tell us how to act.”
Carson shook his head slightly. “That’s not—”
“Just make sure those papers are destroyed.” John’s pursed his lips into a thin line. “He—we don’t want this coming up again.”
“Carson,” he cut the other man off, “it’s fine.”
With John Sheppard one had to listen for more than what he just said, because the man was the master of talking around a matter. And the implication behind that statement didn’t sit well with the Scot at all.
“No,” he snapped back, “it is not bloody ‘fine’ or even remotely fair to you. You daft, self-sacrificing—”
“Last week you told me to finish War and Peace.”
Carson blinked, stopped mid-lecture by the abrupt change in subject. “What?”
“After the time dilation field,” John’s voice had quieted, “you told me to distract myself with a good book.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“I don’t read when I need a distraction.”
Carson shook his head, not following the logic.
“To keep from going back—” One of John’s hands gestured helplessly, trying to illustrate what he couldn’t put into words. “I... I don’t read, okay?”
It clicked then. What John was saying, or not saying in this case, as well as the reason for the absurd amount of childish antics over the past week. “Oh.”
“Tolstoy’s dead.” John flexed his jaw. “He’s not going anywhere.”
“Neither is he,” Carson motioned to the bed.
“The decision on what to do is ours,” and at that John made sure to differentiate that he was only including Rodney, not Carson, in that ‘ours’. “Right?”
“Yes,” Carson agreed, reluctantly, “it is.”
“Then it’s a closed subject.” John gave the Scot a long, hard look. “Never to be opened again.”
“Closed,” John insisted.
Carson sighed and held up his hands in surrender. “Aye, it’s closed.”
Rodney muttered something incoherent in his sleep as he shifted restlessly on the cot. Sheppard chewed the inside of his lip as he watched, looking as if he was having some sort of internal debate. Carson let him be and instead busied himself with checking a nearby chart. After a few moments he stole a glance back in John’s direction. The pilot started towards the bed but stopped after a few steps. A soft, resigned sigh emanated from him as he ran a hand through his hair.
Carson pursed his lips. The hand remained tangled in the pilot’s hair as he looked at the sleeping scientist with a troubled expression.
Despite the vehement insistence on the whole matter being resolved, Carson wasn’t so sure. From John’s nervous actions and Carson’s own experience growing up in a large family, it seemed that the line between friendship and kinship was often blurry at best.
Sensing his gaze, John looked up at Carson. He quickly dropped his eyes back to the charts, feeling the aggravated stare bore into his back.
From firsthand experience, Carson also knew that “closed subjects” often had a way of reopening themselves… and usually at the most inopportune time.