Fandom: Stargate Atlantis
Summary: "I hope you picked someone really intelligent, otherwise it seems like it would be kind of a waste. Of incubation time, if nothing else."
Author's notes: Thanks to everyone who gave suggestions, Jamjar for beta and help with the middle (and the title,) and Pru for helping me to get to the end. Also all you crackheads who said you wanted to see harlequin kidfic. Well, here it is. :)
(NEAR VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE)
TEN YEARS AGO
"Check it out," Cook said under his breath, "it's the Professor's time of the month." Fairfield and Warren glanced over at the door, then laughed. John looked too. The woman standing in the entrance to the dingy little bar was blonde, and curvy. She wore a black dress, and big thick glasses. Making her way directly to a booth in the back near the jukebox, she started pulling papers and books out of her suitcase, arranging them neatly on the table in front of her.
"Who's that?" John asked. Whoever she was, she wasn't from Casmalia. The one-horse town just outside Vandenberg had a population of two hundred, and one paved street-- the one that went straight through it. They didn't have a gas station, let alone a university with a professor of mathematics. And even from across the bar he could tell that those texts she was setting out weren't just everyday math books.
"Ah, the Professor. She comes in once a month, regular," Fairfield said, voice low. "Orders a drink, sits back there and does her homework or whatever she does."
Cook picked up the story. "Every month, she picks up some guy, invites him over to her table. They talk for hours, she comes on strong, and just when he thinks he's about to get some of that? She says goodnight and goes home. Alone. That guy ever tries to talk to her again? She shuts him down *cold*."
"Ice cold. And it's always a military guy," Fairfield added. "We try to warn the officers, but the NCOs can fend for themselves."
"I'd say it's kind of a rite of passage," Warren said. "Makes a man tougher. Teaches him that women are a freakin' mystery."
Fairfield laughed at him. "You just say that 'cause she got you good."
"Hey, I'm an ass man-- I saw the Grail, I went on a crusade." Warren took a long drink of his beer.
"Wow," John said, leaning back a bit to eye the lady, discreetly. She didn't look like the type of crazy head tripper the guys from Vandenberg were describing. She looked normal, even nice-- a little like John's sixth grade teacher, if Miss Watson had packed on about fifty pounds in all the right places and gone out on Friday nights dressed to kill, or at least dressed to break the hearts and bust the balls of innocent airmen. "That's really kind of awesome."
Then the blonde glanced up, though she couldn't possibly have overheard John's comment, and her eyes locked with his. He gave her his best 'hey there' look, and after a moment she smiled back, and jerked her head in an unmistakable command. Fairfield and the others hooted at John as he stood up, but he didn't care. She was a mystery. He was intrigued. "All right, boys, I'm goin' in."
"Yeah, that's what you think," Warren muttered, behind him.
The blonde had started stacking away the books as soon as John stood up. She'd also motioned to the bartender, so there was a beer on the table by the time he sat down.
"Lieutenant John Sheppard," he said.
She smiled. "Jeannie McKay."
The conversation was... interesting. Jeannie wasn't obvious about it, but she *was* clearly trying to find out enough about John to make a decision. About something. John didn't think that something would turn out to be sex, which was kind of too bad; she had a nice body, and big brown eyes behind those Coke-bottle glasses. John had always been a sucker for brown-eyed girls.
He answered each of Jeannie's careful, subtle questions with scrupulous honesty; probably more honestly than he would've answered a woman who actually seemed interesting in dating him, or even screwing him. He'd actually been right about her job, too. Turned out she was a professor of mathematics at Berkeley.
"I've also done some work on base, at the Vandenberg tracking station," she added, "analyzing data from satellite launches, that kind of thing."
"Huh," John said, "most of the women I've known from Berkeley weren't too fond of military types."
"I don't think fond is exactly the best word in my case either, but they have the best toys, so what am I supposed to do?" Jeannie asked, her finger moving in circles over the rim of her glass. "My older brother has just as many problems with authority as I do-- probably more-- but he was recruited straight out of college into an Air Force think tank, and he's never looked back."
"Hm," John said, and Jeannie smiled, having neatly steered the conversation to another of the questions he suspected had been pre-scripted for the occasion.
"What about you, Lieutenant? Is your family all military?"
Again, John answered a bit more honestly than he otherwise would have, just to see what she'd do with the data. "My father was a pilot too, yeah. My mom died when I was young; no siblings, no other relatives besides some second cousins in Kansas."
"Hm," Jeannie said, her expression not wavering. "I'm sorry-- was it sudden?"
"My mom?" John said. Jesus, what was she getting at? "Yeah. It was... It was appendicitis. She went to the hospital and they misdiagnosed her, gave her some ibuprofen and sent her home. By the time she-- There wasn't anything they could do."
Jeannie nodded, and didn't say anything for a while, sipping her drink. "Do you ever think about getting married? Starting a family?"
John opened his mouth to give the reflexive, right answer-- sure I have, just waiting to meet the right girl, I love kids-- and then he cocked his head and studied Jeannie McKay for a moment. "No," he finally said, "No kids. Don't think I'll ever get married, either."
"Hm." Jeannie said again. She finished her drink, pulled a few bills from her pocket and tossed them on the table. "Walk with me?"
They took a left out of the bar, Jeannie leading almost unconsciously. It was a dull gray evening, the sun low in the scrubby hills. She started to say something, then stopped, seeming nervous for the first time since John had approached her.
"It's a nice night to walk," John said, figuring she'd get to whatever it was in her own time. They walked for a while along the edge of the road, Jeannie's heels shifting slightly in the loose gravel. Her hand tightened and loosened rhythmically on John's arm where she was leaning on him for support, and John started to wonder if he was going to get laid tonight after all.
Jeannie stopped at the curve of the road. "I like you."
"Thanks," John said.
"You're a pilot, and therefore obviously healthy-- second generation, even better. Good eyesight, good reflexes, above-average intelligence." she continued seriously. "Very charming, excellent interpersonal skills, and you obviously have some sense of intellectual curiosity, just based on the fact that you've wasted an entire evening trying to figure out exactly what it is that I want from you."
"Hey, I wouldn't say wasted," John said, being very charming.
"Well, you haven't heard what I want yet," Jeannie said.
Then she told him.
EIGHT MONTHS LATER
"So, look, you're not a lesbian, are you?" Rodney asked, sitting uncomfortably on Jeannie's overstuffed couch.
"Wait, that came out wrong," Rodney said, flinching back as Jeannie scowled. Weren't pregnant women supposed to have a tender maternal glow? Jeannie just looked cranky and puffy and freaking huge. How did she not fall over with that growth bulging out of her abdomen? She looked like she was going to pop any second, and to be honest it was freaking Rodney out. So it really wasn't his fault that this particular visit wasn't going well. "What I mean is, it's fine if you *are*, your life choices are of course your own decision, even the current bizarre nonsensical one, and it's not as if I ascribe to some stupid strictly binary model of human sexuality anyway, so really it's just that this whole thing would make a lot more sense if you were-- if you had some secret lesbian lover lurking behind the door that you were going to, you know, raise the child with. So. Uh. Are you?"
"If I could get out of this chair without assistance, I would smack sense into you, Rodney. Or at least give it my best shot," Jeannie said. "But my God, you of all people should understand why I don't have any shred of sentimentality about the institution of marriage. I don't want a husband-- *or* a wife-- that's the last thing in the world that I want. But I do want a child, and I'm *having* a child. It doesn't mean I'm a lesbian, it just means I'm running my own life the way I want to. So deal already!"
"Okay!" Rodney said, throwing up his hands.
After a second Jeannie squinted at him. "Did you just come out to me?"
"Um." Rodney thought about it. "I guess? A little?"
"Huh," she said. "Does Mom know about this?"
"Oh, don't even think about it," Rodney snorted. "The shame of the pregnant unwed daughter beats the shame of the slightly, in theory, queer son, any day of the week." Jeannie continued to scowl and look puffy, but really, there was no argument there and she knew it.
"So what kind of guy did you pick?" Rodney asked, because he couldn't *not* ask-- it was kind of a fatal flaw, admittedly, but still. He really kind of had to.
"What?" Jeannie blinked.
"I mean, they give you your pick at the, the bank, right?" Rodney said, suddenly wishing he'd never even asked, because he was giving *himself* mental images, and wow, that was way too much imaginary information. "I mean, like, pictures? No, I guess they wouldn't have pictures. But they have profiles, don't they, so you can select an appropriate genetic donor? I hope you picked someone really intelligent, otherwise it seems like it would be kind of a waste. Of incubation time, if nothing else."
"Oh," Jeannie said, "right, yeah." She looked shifty for a second. Shifty and puffy. "Well, as a matter of fact, I did."
Oh, lovely, Rodney thought, Fantastic. Perfect. She'd probably picked some football player or firefighter or something equally cliched and ridiculous. She was going to pop out some hairy little terror who would enjoy torturing small animals. "Hey, whatever," he said, "as long as you're happy, I suppose."
"Good," Jeannie said, "because I really am." And even Rodney had to admit that she *did* look happy, maybe happier than Rodney had ever seen her.
Happy, and also really *spectacularly* puffy, especially around the face.
He decided not to mention that part.
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO
NINE YEARS LATER
Usually on Fridays, when Rodney picked Sara up from school, he preferred to just get her in the car and go. But on days when the world had nearly blown up twice before five-- and when Lt. Colonel Carter had come up with the solution all by herself, *both* times, which did kind of sting-- Rodney was more apt to sit around and let her run around to her heart's content first. Then there was a lot less energy to deal with at home, and Rodney could send Sara to bed early and get on with writing the post-mortem reports for the crisis du jour and, maybe more importantly, the apologetic e-mails.
This time he hadn't done much, just called Sam and Jonas "the chucklehead twins" and maybe made a snide reference to Carter's unfortunate solar-system-blowing-up incident. Not so bad, considering the stress they'd all been under. A person said things, in the heat of the moment-- it was nothing serious, and he and Sam were used to each other's personality quirks by now-- it would hardly be conducive to a productive working relationship for Rodney to start censoring himself at this late date, would it?
That kind of thing slid right off Jonas' back anyway.
And besides, they had been acting like a couple of complete and total chuckleheads... Rodney frowned, suddenly noticing that there was a weirdo standing at the edge of the schoolyard watching Sara and her friends boot their soccer ball around. Rodney was not a paranoid parent-- he really wasn't, there was a difference between being paranoid and being careful, no matter what anybody said-- but he didn't think it was necessarily paranoid to have noticed this guy. He wasn't any of the parents that Rodney knew by sight, his clothes were just a little too rumpled, the afternoon was not quite bright enough for the dark glasses he was wearing... and he was watching the kids just a bit too intently. Rodney wandered over.
"Yeah," the guy said, not taking his eyes off the kids as they ran and hollered.
"Rodney McKay," Rodney said, sticking out his hand. The guy tilted his head back, then offered his hand in return.
His hand was warm, not clammy. Not that that meant anything. Rodney stuffed his hand back in his pocket and turned his attention to the kids again. If Sheppard were some kind of pervert, he'd hopefully take off now, unnerved by Rodney's approach.
Sheppard didn't take off. "One of those kids yours?"
"Yeah," Rodney said, focusing in on Sara. "What about you? Got kids?"
Sheppard didn't say anything for a long moment, which was long enough for all kinds of weird scenarios to unspool in Rodney's head, but all he finally did was take his sunglasses off and shrug.
"One, yeah," he said, and even then Rodney still didn't get it.
"Not one of those in particular, though," Rodney continued, mostly trying to be annoying so that Sheppard would freaking leave already, "because you're not Liz' dad, you're a little too Caucasian to be Crystal's father, slightly too male to be one of Nina's two mommies, and you're not Sara's dad, because *I*--"
He broke off at the look that had flashed across Sheppard's face when he'd mentioned Sara-- as if he'd been slapped, hard, and was trying to hide how much it hurt. As Rodney's eyes widened, the other man's expression darkened, guilty but defiant.
"Holy shit," Rodney said, suddenly *really* looking at Sheppard. At Sheppard's pointed chin, his narrow but expressive eyes-- features that Rodney saw on his adopted daughter's face every day. "It's, you're-- Who the hell are you? Who do you think you *are?*" he said, trying to sound forceful but probably just sounding gut-punched. "You can't just walk into my life like this, our lives, and--"
"I'm not! I wasn't going to!" Sheppard held up his hands in surrender. "McKay, I wasn't going to do anything, I just wanted to *see* her--"
"You could have seen her when she was born," Rodney said. "She's nine fucking years old-- or you know, you could have showed up when Jeannie *died*-- where the hell have you been anyway?"
"Panama," Sheppard snapped, "Germany, Texas, Cambodia, Greenland and various other places, including about three months as a P.O.W. and some other stuff that's classified. I didn't know--"
"How could you not--?" Rodney said, then glanced over at the kids and lowered his voice. "How could you-- what the hell are you doing here?"
"Look, McKay, I liked your sister," Sheppard said stiffly. "She was-- I liked her, obviously, and I was in California yesterday and I thought I'd look her up. I-- I'm sorry she-- I'm sorry for your loss, but I don't *know* you, so I wanted to come out and see Sara. Just one time, to see if she was okay, and I'm shipping out to god damn Antarctica in twelve hours, so I'm not going to interfere in your lives, okay? I just wanted-- I just wanted to see her."
"Dad!" came a shout from the field, and Rodney tensed. Sara galloped towards them, the barrettes clipped into her short curls glittering colorfully. "Dad, Dad, Dad!"
Rodney turned. "What?" he shouted back, a little more sharply than usual. "What, what?"
"I want to go over to Corrie's--"
"Let's see," Rodney began, hands on his hips, "can we phrase that as a question?"
"Let's see," Sara drawled, matching his pose, "can *we* go over to Corrie's tonight and watch movies?"
"Hm," Rodney said, because it was always important to give the impression that you were taking your kids seriously and thinking about the ideas they were presenting to you, not just making a snap decision without giving their suggestions the proper consideration they deserved. "No!"
"We're not going to watch R rated movies or anything!" Sara insisted. "And sometimes you let me watch R rated movies, so you shouldn't say no just because one time I watched something you didn't approve, because--"
Rodney crossed his arms. "No, no, no-- I've had a really hard day, work *sucked*, and I just want to get some Chinese and go home, so how about that?"
"Dad!" Sara whined.
"Sara!" Rodney whined back. "Come on, your face will stick like that."
"I don't care if it sticks like this!" Sara glared. "I look *fine* like this!"
Rodney took a deep breath and blew it out again. "You still have too much energy. Go do a lap of the field. Go, go. Run! I want to see you hit that tree and the swing set. No cutting corners!"
He pointed, and Sara took off. Rodney turned back to Sheppard. He was completely prepared for the usual glare or shocked look, or maybe a negative comment about Sara's t-shirt, which had a cartoon rabbit on it mournfully proclaiming 'You suck and that's sad.' Rodney was also completely prepared to punch Sheppard in the face for having the audacity to even silently criticize his parenting skills, but instead Sheppard was grinning like a dope, his eyes suspiciously bright, staring after Sara with a truly impressive amount of awe.
"Wow." he said. "Wow, she's really something."
Rodney told himself not to be charmed, told himself to look at the situation logically. Logically, he should tell Sheppard to turn around and walk right the hell out of their lives; of course, logically he should've never adopted Sara in the first place, and that hadn't turned out so awfully. He hadn't accidentally killed her yet, had he? Which had been his main worry.
"People sometimes criticize my parenting methods," he said instead, and Sheppard laughed. "But what they perceive as a 'serious attitude problem' on Sara's part I call a finely tuned bullshit detector accompanied by the ability to clearly and concisely express herself, and frankly those abilities have served me better in life than the sort of hammer-down-the-tall-nail, sit-down-and-shut up pressure to conform to mediocrity that will inevitably be pushed on Sara from everybody in the world *besides* me, so I see no reason to discourage it. In fact, quite the opposite. What did you say your name was?"
"Right. And you have till tonight," Rodney said. "And then you're shipping out to *Antarctica?* McMurdo, I assume?"
Sheppard blinked, startled. "Yeah," he said, "I think it's gonna be cool." Then he smiled, and it was *Sara's* smile, the way she'd tried to smile when she'd broken her arm falling out of a tree last summer, and Rodney had been freaking out on the drive to the hospital. Just alike, right down to the sad angle of his eyes.
Rodney could never really explain why he did what he did next, but maybe it started with the fact that he'd never developed a viable defense against that look-- and, well, it wasn't like Sheppard could try and sue for custody from a freaking Air Force base in Antarctica.
"You're *not* going to try and take Sara away," he said, just to be sure, and Sheppard shook his head.
"No, I wouldn't-- I mean, she seems-- I wouldn't."
"Okay. Have dinner with us." Rodney said.
"What?" Sheppard said, and Rodney glanced over his shoulder. Sara had just tagged the swing set and was running back towards them again, probably curious about the stranger her dad was talking to.
"We'll say you're an old friend of mine from when I used to consult with the military in Nevada. You don't tell her who you are, you don't get weird, and you don't ask her a bunch of stupid social worker questions about whether or not she likes kittens or has friends. If those are acceptable terms, you can eat with us. How about it, airman?"
"It's *Major*-- and yes," Sheppard said instantly. "Yes. I-- I'd like that."
Rodney and Sara's favorite Chinese place was within walking distance of the school, so they went there. Rodney and Sara tucked themselves into one side of the booth, and Sheppard sat across from them.
"So you're a pilot? What kind of planes do you fly?" Sara asked. She picked up a piece of chicken curry up from her plate, holding it still, then maneuvered her head to the best position to nip it from the chopsticks. An innovative method, and a tragedy waiting to happen, but Rodney said nothing. One of the first important things he'd learned about kids was that any problem that could be solved with soap and water was (compared to all the other horrible things that could happen) so not a big deal that it wasn't even worth worrying about.
"Well, I like the ones that go really fast, but lately I mostly fly helicopters," John said, tucking into his beef and broccoli like he hadn't eaten in a week.
"Cool," Sara said. "I'm going to be an astronaut," and John's whole face crinkled in delight.
"Yeah, well, last week it was modern dance, and the week before that she wanted to be a horse trainer, so--" Don't get your hopes up, Rodney was going to say, but he cut himself off when Sara scowled.
"Don't invalidate me."
"Oh, God, you have to stop hanging around Nina's moms. There will be no psychobabble at this table."
"You're invalidating me," Sara insisted. "I want to be an astronaut. Why can't I be?"
"No reason!" Rodney threw up his hands, folding like a house of cards. "Absolutely no reason, I got nothin'. You are perfectly capable of being an astronaut, should you so choose." Sara smirked and went back to her innovative new method of eating. "My only point is," he added quickly, "it's not something you can really pick up as a second career and therefore it would naturally require a certain amount of dedication even from an early age," and Sara made her chopsticks open and close at him-- talk talk talk.
She was grinning, at *John*, who was grinning back. Rodney took a deep breath, telling himself not to get mean, not in front of Sara. John seemed to notice that he was growing tense, because he winked at Sara, then turned his attention to Rodney. "So how've you been since Nevada, Rodney?"
He didn't really have to say Rodney's name in that annoying way, Rodney thought. Really, it was just unnecessary.
"Fine," he said, "fine. I work at Cheyenne Mountain now, um, deep space telemetry, making satellites stay up and whatnot." Saving the Earth from aliens and Sam Carter's more crackheaded flights of lunacy on a near-weekly basis sounded so much cooler, of course, but Sheppard probably didn't have anywhere near the proper clearance.
"Did you know my mom?" Sara said, and John barely even blinked, just finished chewing his bite of broccoli.
"Why d'you ask that?"
"'Cause if you worked with Dad in Nevada then you've known him for a long time, so maybe you did." Sara shrugged.
"Oh," John said, and looked down at his plate. "I did meet your mom a few times, actually. She was smart, like you. And pretty. She didn't seem like a funny person at first, but she could be really sharp once you got to know her." He thought for a moment. "She liked butter pecan ice cream. That was her favorite."
"I only like vanilla ice cream." Sara said.
"Yeah?" John said, and smiled down at his plate. "That's my favorite too."
John didn't really know why he'd come to Colorado Springs. What if it had turned out that McKay was some neglectful absent-minded professor, or some mean son of a bitch who'd hated his sister and kept his daughter locked in a cage in the basement? What could John have even done? That weekend in Casmalia, Jeannie had opened her briefcase and laid out enough legal paperwork to choke a horse-- she'd signed ten different things all negating her right to pursue him for any kind of child support, and he'd signed about fifty different things promising he'd stay the hell away and out of her life. He supposed that if it came down to it, he could've tried some kind of legal Hail Mary and hoped for a judge sympathetic enough to do something way out of line, but then what? He wasn't cut out to be anyone's damn father.
It would've been smarter to just stay away. Good or bad, Sara McKay's life wasn't any of his business. But just like all the other stupid, reckless decisions he'd ever made, John couldn't make himself regret it, now that it was done.
It was amazing. *She* was amazing. A funny little blonde version of John, a tiny little piece of him sitting there sassing her dad with a grin. And she wanted to be an astronaut. And okay, maybe also a horse trainer and a modern dancer-- but also? An astronaut. She could probably do it, too, if she had anything like her mom's drive. God, it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to John, and after a while it just got too hard to make himself stop smiling.
He tried not to stare at Sara too much during dinner, as that would probably fall under McKay's definition of "getting weird," so he spent most of the meal aiming his stupid grins at McKay, who to be honest he was almost as crazy about, at this point. The guy was obviously not what you might call a *traditional* dad, but hell. John's dad had spent eighteen years trying to crush *John's* 'serious attitude problem' out of him by any means necessary, and had only succeeded in encouraging it; so why shouldn't McKay encourage it? Maybe she'd get it out of her system before she seriously fucked up her life. McKay seemed to not mind John's goofy looks too much, his mouth quirking slightly as if he understood exactly what John was thinking. Maybe he did.
Sara excused herself after a while to hit the ladies' room, and John slumped back in his chair, rubbing his thumb over the corner of his mouth. He'd been so screwed up lately, it almost felt weird to feel good about something. The order to leave his men behind, the one he'd disobeyed, the friends he'd lost... he felt small and fucking guilty about it, but he'd almost been looking forward to getting to McMurdo, if only so it would finally sink in: they were through with him, he was done. Pretty soon he wouldn't have to care any more, about anything.
"I don't even remember now why I decided to look up Jeannie," he told McKay. "But I'm glad I did."
He nodded. "We weren't-- close. I mean, honestly, I didn't even know she *knew* you. Personally. I thought she got a, a donation," he said, gesturing descriptively with his chopsticks, although not too descriptively for a family restaraunt. "If you know what I--"
"Yeah, yeah, I get it," John said. "And she did. Well, sort of."
"I don't need to hear about it." Rodney said quickly.
"No, I just mean we weren't dating or anything. She knew what she wanted, she wanted a kid. I was around and she, uh, liked my genes, I guess." John shrugged.
"They're good genes," Rodney said. "No complaints."
"Thank you," John said, and took a breath. Sara would be back any second, so. "How did she... how did she die? The lady at Berkeley didn't say."
"Ah." Rodney nodded. "It was an accident. Car accident. Stupid. She was riding her bike, the asshole was drunk. They, um... they said it was quick, I don't know how they could know that for sure. But that's what they said."
"Yeah, well." Rodney met his eyes, but didn't say anything more.
John looked back, then jerked his head subtly as Sara came out of the ladies' room and headed back to the table. Rodney picked up the gesture, but twisted around to check for himself, thus negating any subtlety pretty effectively. Sara rolled her eyes as she slid back into her seat. John was really starting to wonder if it was possible for a kid's eyes to get stuck like that.
"Dad," she said, "everyone else at school has their ears pierced."
"Ah," Rodney said. "I'll assume that you're purposely starting the discussion with the argument that is absolutely least likely to sway me?"
"Why can't I skip a grade?" Sara demanded.
"Well, obviously not because I expect them to be teaching you anything you don't already know," Rodney said, answering the question neatly despite the apparent non sequitur. "You're there to learn to interact with people socially. You can skip grades when you're in high school; you'll appreciate it more, trust me."
"Well, if I'm supposed to learn to fit in socially then I should have my ears pierced!"
"That is logical," John observed.
"It would in fact be logical if 'interacting with people' was the same thing as 'fitting in with people,' and while the distinction is subtle it is also quite important," McKay said, glaring. "Discussion closed."
The discussion was clearly not closed. "I am the only girl in my class who doesn't have her ears pierced! Making me an outcast doesn't help me make friends!"
"All right," McKay said, putting his chopsticks down on the edge of his plate. "You know what? You can build a nuclear device in the garage this year or you can get your ears pierced, pick one--"
"--oh, are you kidding me?!" McKay yelled.
"Ears pierced! You said!" Sara matched his volume, pointing at John. "He heard you! You said yes!"
John glanced around at the couple of other people in the restaraunt, but their table wasn't getting as many stares as John might have expected. Well, McKay *had* said they came here often.
"I know I did, more fool me, and I won't go back on it, so just settle down." McKay grumbled. "I'm just completely taken aback by your total lack of priorities! I thought you really wanted the nuke!"
Sara looked honestly regretful for a second. "I can still build it when I'm thirteen, though, right?"
"Wait," John said, his attention snapping back to McKay, "wait, you mean you're not kidding? A nuke?"
"Non-working model," McKay assured him with a sigh. "I built one myself in grade six. I thought it could be sort of a family tradition, you know, a special father-daughter bonding time, just the two of us. Two, the smallest prime number, indivisible, it's kind of beautiful actually, but I guess nobody but me really appreciates that sort of thing..."
"Oh, whatever, Dad," Sara said, "you can help me pick out earrings, okay?"
"Yes, fine, all right. But if you forget to disinfect the holes punched in your face, don't come crying to me when your ears fall off. Because they will."
"Yay! Fine," Sara said, and grinned.
After dinner they walked a bit further down the block to get ice cream. John would've really started to wonder about how Sara had her dad wrapped around her little finger, if it wasn't for the fact that Sara was the one that had to be talked into it by Rodney.
"What?" Rodney said when he caught John giving him a look. "I really did have a sucky day at work. Chuckleheads, all of them. If a satellite ever falls on Cheyenne Mountain you'll know who to blame. In short, I deserve ice cream."
"Can I have two scoops?" Sara ran ahead, not waiting for an answer.
"What do you think this is, Christmas?" Rodney yelled after her, but she had already reached the door of the ice-cream shop. "One scoop, you can have one--!"
This was probably the last opportunity John would have to say something to McKay without Sara overhearing. He frowned, then stopped McKay with a hand on his chest as he was about to follow Sara into the shop.
He didn't really know what he was going to say. "My mother died when I was young, too, and I..."
"Yes?" McKay said after a second of silence, his tone impatient but not as sharp as it had been a moment ago. "Spit it out, Major, she's getting a freaking bucket of ice cream in there, I can *sense* it."
"You're doing a good job," John said. "I'm glad she's-- I mean, if she couldn't be with Jeannie, then I'm glad she's with you."
McKay stared at him for a second more, and John almost thought he might be pissed-- like he *needed* John's approval, anyway? But then he turned away and dug in the pocket of his khakis, pulling a small palmtop out and flipping it open. "Give me your e-mail address."
"What?" John said. Rodney tapped the stylus against the keyboard impatiently.
"E-mail address," he said. "I'll send you some baby pictures, if you want them. Come on, hurry it up, the thirty-seven flavors wait for no man."
There was a kind of mathematical beauty to knowing, with razor-sharp precision, exactly how screwed you were, and later John thought that it was actually kind of cool in a horribly ironic way that he could pinpoint the exact spot, with GPS accuracy, where he'd fallen completely ass over teakettle in fucking love with the man who was raising his biological spawn: on the sidewalk in front of a god damn Baskin Robbins in Colorado Springs. If he could get ahold of Rodney's palmtop, John thought, it had probably recorded exactly when Rodney had input his e-mail address, and so he'd be able to backdate about three seconds to the exact moment, as well. He didn't know why the thought was comforting, but it sort of was.
It was something to hold onto, while he was stationed at McMurdo, waiting for the clock to run down so that his superiors could kick him to the curb, just how everyone had always expected he'd end up. It was something to think about while he was flying people around like a glorified taxi driver, except without actually being very glorified. It did hurt, of course, a dull kind of ache, but it was a better hurt than the kind John had been in before. And Rodney actually did e-mail him those baby pictures.
He'd helped make that little red squishy baby-- John couldn't quite wrap his mind around it, even now that he'd met her. He'd put that trout-slapped happy look on Jeannie McKay's face. He'd helped make Sara. Maybe he hadn't been a real big part of the process, but he'd contributed, and that was *something*.
"I warn you," Rodney typed in the e-mail, "she was a completely unattractive baby, but then, I've since learned that most actual babies are. Sara says hello, by the way; she remembers you fondly as the guy that made it impossible for me go back on the ear piercing decision. Thanks a lot for that. No sign of infection yet, but these things can come out of nowhere. I remain vigilant."
"Good," John wrote back, "you do that. I didn't get a chance to look at her ears while I was down there, but I hope she got your sister's, not mine. Thanks for the pictures, they're great."
That was the whole text of the e-mail that John sent in reply, and he figured McKay probably wouldn't write back. He'd seemed like a busy guy, a single parent with a stressful job, and probably it would be simpler for everyone if John just slipped right out of the McKay's lives. But when Rodney wrote back, the letter was three pages long, all about the weather in Colorado Springs and the new housekeeper's cat allergy which she'd lied about because apparently Rodney paid his housekeepers stupendously well, and then the idiots Rodney worked with, and it only got back to the ears thing near the end of the third page.
"I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary about your ears," Rodney had typed, after the page of complaints about think-tank idiots and military morons. ("No offense, of course.") John could almost hear him, vaguely baffled and snippy, and how weird was it to have this guy's voice in his head, when he'd only known him for less than a day?
"But Sara's ears are perfectly normal," the e-mail continued, "apart from the fact that they now are stylishly perforated. Oh, and now that she's won that battle, she wants to dye her hair, which was also something that I arbitrarily decided would be an activity that could wait till age thirteen. *I* don't think that's unreasonable. I think she's just taking on these small, meaningless rules to wear me down in preparation for the larger battles about important issues like cars and boys, both of which I have decided Sara will not have any contact with until her mid-thirties. Her latest tactic is threatening to become an anthropologist, which I think is just *mean*."
That was it, followed by Rodney's initials down at the bottom, RM. Habit, maybe, from all the memos he had to deal with at his job. It was kind of cute.
John clicked 'reply' and started to type. "What's wrong with anthropology? You can get a doctorate in it, can't you?"
The letter he got in response was five and a half pages long.
"I'm glad you guys liked the pictures I sent-- I tried to get some good ones. As for what McMurdo's like, well, it's different. Some ways it's like a big city, all different kinds of people from all over the world, everything going on the double around the clock. Some ways it's like a small town-- there's maybe four, five hundred people here now, though we'll get more as summer comes in. Sometimes it can almost seem too crowded, though you don't have to go too far to get away from that."
"It's gorgeous from the air, though. Maybe the most beautiful landscape I've ever seen."
"In revenge for me sticking to my guns on the hair thing, Sara has decided to become-- get this-- a *cultural* anthropologist. I feel sick, seriously, very nauseated. I think maybe it would be a good idea to ship her off to Antarctica to live with the penguins. Please let me know about the feasibility of this plan. She has plenty of warm clothes."
"Hey, guess what. There's snowboarding here."
"I see-- snowboarding-- it all begins to make sense now. Obviously it's something about *your* genes that has caused Sara to believe that she should be allowed to own a skateboard. Ordinarily I would encourage her desire to break into such a traditionally male-dominated field, but for some odd reason I have a hard time with any form of transportation that doesn't actually have a steering mechanism, a seat belt, an air bag, or any form of BRAKES."
"Oh, lighten up, McKay. What's the worst that could happen. Don't answer that... About your other question, yeah, I was pretty quiet as a kid-- used to go off by myself and run a lot, or hole up someplace with a book and just plow through it. I read the whole unabridged 'Count of Monte Cristo' when I was fifteen-- something like a thousand pages, but I finished it. Same thing with running, it gives you a sense of accomplishment, something you did on your own, not to anybody else's standards or goals. So I wouldn't worry too much. I mean, she's your kid, you'd know, but if it was me, I wasn't sulking, I just needed to be off by myself sometimes. I hope that helps."
"The point isn't really that I think it's too dangerous, it's obvious that it's *dangerous*. The point is that I can't teach her how, and I don't trust anyone else to. And by 'don't trust anyone else' I basically mean 'don't want to have a fatal heart attack at the age of thirty-five,' and really when I say that I'm thinking about the welfare of-- well, of the whole country. Some very important projects crucial to national security depend on my input, if you must know, and if being able to maintain them over the length of my natural lifespan means that Sara has to keep the skin on her elbows and knees intact, then that is a patriotic sacrifice that she is just going to have to make."
"Besides, there's always... I mean, there's always going to be some asshole out there in a car, and I worry. You know?"
"Yeah, I know. So listen, McKay, this might be an out of line question, but what happens if national security suffers a loss and you die? Who gets Sara? I know you must have something lined up, you're not stupid. You don't have to answer if you don't want to. I just wanted to ask."
"I don't mind at all, Major. I have a co-worker, Jonas Quinn. Despite what I might have said about him in the past, quite honestly when we're not butting heads I must admit he's very intelligent in a strange kind of out-of-the-box way. Perhaps arguably more importantly, he's a good man, a decent human being. He doesn't have any family in the area, and he borrows Sara sometimes because he likes to have an excuse to go to family movies, or the Children's Museum. He was quite honored when I brought up the subject, and..."
"I just wondered, that's all."
"At this point it'd be somewhat odd if you suddenly didn't care. I've noticed that about Sara too; she doesn't get too attached to very many things, but she gets amazingly attached to the oddest things nearly instantly, whether it's the new girl at school or the stray cat that's started showing up for meals, though you can bet I'm putting my foot down about that one-- who knows what kind of diseases it might have, my God, I can't even imagine. I had a cat in grad school that used to get into fights with feral cats, and every time I'd have to drag her in for shots it would take *hours,* and..."
TWO YEARS LATER
"No real news. Couple days ago a supply plane had a bad landing and tore a huge gouge out of the ice runway up on the Ross Ice Shelf. Some incoming flights had to boomerang around because of the damage, head on back to the mainland. I was hoping to get some hiking in this weekend, but thanks to the glitch I'm going to be on chopper duty for the next three days straight. It's funny, you wouldn't think there'd be that much to do out here on the ice, but my time's almost up and there's still things I didn't get done. It's always like that though."
"Hey," Rodney said from the couch, where he was curled up with his laptop on his knees and Boots purring on his sock-clad feet, "could you drag your birthday pictures into the shared folder?"
"Hm?" Sara was stretched out on her stomach in the living room's window seat, her laptop in front of her. "Why?"
"I want to send some to Major Sheppard."
Sara clicked and dragged the folder. "Yeah? Why do you always send him pictures of me?"
"Since when does the universe revolve around you? Maybe I'm sending him pictures of me," Rodney said, feeling very proud of his clever cover story. "I'm usually found in your general vicinity. You're just considered slightly more photogenic, and that's only society's age bias at work." He glanced up after a moment of silence. Sara was giving him a funny look, contemplative and weirdly adult. God, she was getting so big.
"Dad," she said, "I'm eleven years old."
"Yes, I attended the party," Rodney said, going to the network drive and starting to click through the pictures. "I paid for the party. I distinctly remember the subpar pizza and oh look, the large, animatronic mouse. I mean, I'm not saying I want you to grow up any faster, no way, but definitely when it comes to your choice of--"
"Anyway!" Sara broke in. "What I want to say is, you can talk to me. About stuff."
Oh my God, Rodney thought, it was the sex talk. Or, oh lord, the menstruation talk. Hadn't he paid the nanny before last to take care of the talk? Both talks? One of the nannies, anyway. Weren't there plenty of age-appropriate, clearly illustrated books on all these subjects in the well-stocked library just down the hall, just so he'd never have to talk about them?
"Stuff?" he said.
"Dad!" Sara said exasperatedly. She put her laptop down, came over to the couch, and picked up Boots off Rodney's feet, pulling the short-haired cat into her lap and stroking its fur. "I know that John is your boyfriend!"
Rodney's hands froze a centimeter above the keyboard. "...What?"
Sara rolled her eyes, threw out her arms and fell backwards onto the cushions with a thump. Boots meowed in protest and jumped off the couch to hide under the table. "Come on, I'm not a baby! I know! I've known forever!"
"No, but," Rodney stammered, sitting up, "he's not. We're just good-- I'm not-- well, I mean I-- We're not boyfriends."
"Oh, fine! Be that way!" Sara rolled off the couch, grabbed her laptop and stomped out of the living room.
"Oh my god. Sara," Rodney called after her, "c'mon now--"
"Not! A! Baby!" Sara yelled, and stomped up the stairs.
Rodney waited. Her door slammed. He looked back down at his laptop.
"Here are some pictures from Sara's birthday party," he typed. "By the way, I understand that Jeannie absolved you of all financial responsibility for Sara pre-birth, but you might want to start saving up now so you can make contributions to a therapy fund, as apparently our regular correspondence has convinced Sara that you and I are boyfriends. (Her word, not mine.) And if we ever do plan on telling her the truth about what relationship you actually do have to her, which I suppose wouldn't be a terrible idea someday, it will be nice to be able to get her some seriously professional help immediately afterward. This is a joke, by the way, my health insurance is fantastic and Sara is completely covered, but she really does think that we're hiding a secret passion in an attempt to protect her immature sensibilities, which of course offends her greatly. It's a bad habit of mine to leap to a conclusion and not move from it, so she gets it from me, I suppose, but it's still a rather irritating thing to be on the wrong side of. Anyway..." He thought for a second, deleted 'Anyway' and started a new paragraph.
"That's the news from suburbia. Oh, also, will you try not to get frostbite on that hike you mentioned? You probably already went out and came back, but honestly, it's really very easy to do damage to your minor extremities without knowing it, and it would be a pity to horribly cripple yourself right before you actually get to come home." He initialed the e-mail and sent it off before he could change his mind.
John sat frozen in the uncomfortable plastic chair in the McMurdo computer lab and stared at his e-mail. Oh my holy jesus christ, he thought.
"A secret passion," okay, that was one thing. Probably nothing. He didn't *think* his letters had been giving McKay any hints about John's weird little crush. He'd tried to keep them short at first-- breezy-- but for some reason McKay just couldn't get with the program, and he wrote *real letters*, like once he started typing he just couldn't stop. Like maybe he didn't have anyone he could really talk to, either, outside of work anyway. Okay, John could have just not written back, but he *needed* the news and the pictures of Sara, needed something to keep him from going nuts up here on the ice. So he had to write back, and he couldn't just be curt and impersonal with his replies. Not if he still wanted to hear about Sara. Not if he still wanted McKay to keep writing to him.
And he did. He really did, and okay, *fine*, it was more than a weird little crush, it had been going on for two years now, even though McKay had never given any hint that he felt anything for John besides a sort of abstract gratitude for being around and donating some stuff to his sister, and a sort of not-so-abstract contempt for loving the 'Back to the Future' trilogy.
No hint except for: "Home." Specifically, "it would be a pity to horribly cripple yourself right before you actually get to come home."
John growled and hit 'print,' grabbing it as soon as the page jittered out of the computer lab's printer. McKay didn't mean that. He meant "when you get *stateside*," he meant "when you get back to *your* home." He didn't...
He didn't mean what John wanted him to mean. There was a sick sort of tightness in his throat. Christ, John wanted that. He wanted it more than anything. And McKay had no goddamn clue.
He folded the letter up and stuck it in his pocket, and for the first time in a couple of months he just signed out of his internet session and went back to his quarters without replying to Rodney first. It didn't matter. Nothing he did now really mattered. Two weeks left, and then he was out.
The next time he could get back to the lab was two days later. Rodney had written him another letter without waiting for him to reply to the first one, which was kind of odd. Actually John couldn't remember him ever doing that before, and then he realized. Something was wrong-- something had happened. His heart was pounding as he clicked--
"Listen," the letter said, "I don't know what your plans for the future might be, but I think I know you at least well enough to state with some certainty that you don't actually have any. You can spend a couple of nights in the spare room here; we're a bit between housekeepers at the moment and Sara's once again insisting that she's old enough to get along without a nanny. I would totally agree, if she could drive herself to soccer practice, but as you are well aware, she won't be getting a car for two and a half decades. Anyway, my point is, come and visit. Let me know. RM."
It was a pretty short letter, for Rodney. Nothing about the boyfriends thing. Maybe Rodney had straightened Sara out on that issue already and just forgot to mention it, because it was so completely the *opposite* of a big deal it wasn't even worth talking about. Or maybe that was why he wanted John to visit, maybe he wanted them to tell Sara about John being her biological father, which might be easier if John were there in person. But he'd have probably mentioned it if he wanted to do that. Or maybe John was just overthinking this whole thing, and Rodney was just being polite.
And when it came right down to it, John didn't really have anyplace else to go.
He clicked 'reply.'
concluded in part two