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SGA Fic: Catalysis (3a/5)

Yes! I did it! I promised that if there was a snow day I would finish part 3, and I did.

...far be it from me to suggest a further bargain with the weather gods, but... *hopeful skyward glance*

Anyway. Thanks should go to mik100 for insisting I add more (descriptive!) gore. All in the name of good art. :)

Also, this part is... uh, a lot longer than parts 1 and 2, so it's posted in two parts. Er, sorry?

Title: Catalysis (3a/5)
Author: Chandri MacLeod
Pairing: John/Rodney
Category: Angst, Hurt/Comfort
Spoilers: Through Spoils of War
Rating: R
Summary: After Rodney is held hostage on a trading mission, he starts to slowly fall apart. When he won't admit anything's wrong, he's sent back to Earth to recover, and it's up to John to pick up the pieces.
Warnings: For this part? Character death. Lots and lots of it. But probably not what you think.
A/N: Thanks should go to mik100 for insisting I add more (descriptive!) gore. All in the name of good art. This part also came out quite a bit longer than parts 1 and 2, so I had to split it up or face the wrath of Semagic.

ETA - Direct links on LJ:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3a | Part 3b | Part 4a | Part 4b | Part 5a | Part 5b

Or: read in one piece on my website



John is biting his tongue from the second they leave the Parliament building, making an effort to keep from meeting anyone’s eyes. He’s afraid that if he does, he’ll start shouting about how completely moronic the Ministers’ plan actually is.

Cadman and Whitehall are quiet, too, and he can just sense them giving him expectant, uneasy looks. He’s trying to figure out what to say, how to express his growing dislike of these soft-limbed, soft-mouthed bureaucrats who are at once more insincere and less efficient than the kind he’s used to. At least the idiots in the military are idiotic in a set pattern, with obvious goals. The Avans almost seem to be behaving obliviously for the sake of it.

Sitting silent at the back of the Parliament, in the seats reserved for guests, he had his hands tight on his knees to keep them from shaking, because these people are so completely arrogant about their cluelessness he thought it was a wonder the city had stood for as long as it had.

If he’s honest with himself, they started getting under his skin from the second the window was blown out of the tower, the way Sarna dismissed Vaal like he was nothing. Like people who weren’t a part of the system couldn’t threaten it. That Ava at its greatest was simply too perfect to be beaten. John wanted to shout at her that that was crazy, that you didn’t dismiss hostage-takers, that nobody who moved to lead armed men to capture civilians was soft or unresolved or easily dismissed.

He didn’t, though, and he doesn’t. He’s still a representative of Atlantis, and you don’t say things like that in earshot of alien officials.

And there she comes, too, now flanked by half a dozen aides, all busily muttering and scribbling on the odd clunky input devices that are reminiscent of semi-Victorian data tablets.

“Colonel,” she says, smoothing back her hair and nodding curtly to dismiss all the aides but two; they go scurrying away to parts unknown as she focuses on John. So John has to face her, put the high sharp silhouette of the tower to his back like he’s been avoiding doing for hours.

“I wanted to tell you, we have dispatched security forces to arrest Eron Vaal’s accomplices. We should have acquired them within the hour.”

Acquired, thinks John, bitterly. Accomplices. A tidy way to describe a middle-aged female artisan and two teenaged boys. John has to clench his right hand around his P90, because barbarians take hostages to bargain with hostage-takers, but that’s impolitic, too; the Parliament was sure Vaal’s wife and sons had been helping or at least sheltering him, and on Ava, that’s enough.

At least it’s enough when you storm and capture a civilian power station and a dozen hostages. But fight fire with fire is still messy, and knee-jerk, and the province of tyrants and amateurs and those without finesse.

“Yeah,” he says, instead of all the things he wants to say. He closes his eyes and tries to think of what Elizabeth would say. He never could get that “understanding” voice down. He just doesn’t have the patience. “Minister, I need to say, again, that I think this is a bad idea. I feel strongly that this is just going to exacerbate the situation.”

And Sarna, damn her, smiles at him. “I understand your feelings, Colonel. But we did try your way first.”

John almost laughs. His way. Thirty minutes “graciously” given to his two techs to interface and argue with the power station’s lockdown protocols, all for nothing. John thinks they could maybe have done it with more time, but the techs say no. “In any case, we have been dealing with these terrorists for some time now. We know how to deal with them.”

John’s hand clenches harder of its own accord. We know how to deal with them, in a calm, motherly voice like it’s nothing, and for a split second John was almost screaming in her face, about how maybe killing this guy is worth six lives to her but it isn’t, to him. To them. He comes dangerously close to comparing them, city against city, but he doesn’t, even though a growing part of him is screaming that it’s true. He doesn’t sacrifice people. Atlantis doesn’t sacrifice people. They just… don’t.

He suddenly realises – because Cadman is discreetly elbowing him in the side – that Sarna’s done with him, that she’s turning away with a promise to keep him posted, and those are the words she uses. Like it’s nothing. Like it’s still a trade deal. Like this is just a hiccup.

He waits until she’s out of sight, out of earshot, before he dares to unclench his hands, relax his jaw. To his right, Whitehall looks a little pale, just as angry as John feels, and Cadman’s glaring coldly at the Minister’s retreating back.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?”

He glances at her, just a glance and a nod. “Yeah.”

“These assholes are going to get our people killed, sir,” she says, face hardly moving.

John lets out the breath he’s been holding. “Yeah,” he says, and then edges past them, back up the main street. “Come on. Let’s see how Plan B is doing.”

They’ve left their two techs under Lorne’s watchful eye, and they’ve set up shop at the end of the blind alley where John found the loose stone. They tried to tell the Avans about it, but five minutes into the Parliament session John changed his mind.

They already knew by then that they can’t follow the same route Vaal and his men took; it’s blocked with unquestionably Ancient bulkheads that won’t open, even to the significant amount of persuasion John can exercise. This city doesn’t know him, and anyway, he’s coming to realise, it’s forgotten a lot of what it was. When he reaches for it, it’s nothing like the easy welcome slide into concert with Atlantis. This city feels old, and tired, and irritable, and doesn’t trust him.

He still set the techs on trying to trick it open, though, and he crouches by the hatch and peers down into the dark. “Any luck?”

Dark little Navneet Bryce looks up, shading her eyes against the daylight. “We’re giving it one more try,” she says, glancing down at the tablet braced against her hip. “Paul’s just finishing up with the re-wiring.”

She says this last into the dark, and John can make out Doctor Donaldson’s tall, gangly shape against the paler metal of the bulkhead door, backlit by the pale blue glow of the crystal tray. “Just about ready to go,” comes his voice, echoing strangely through the underground chamber.

Bryce points at a scorch-mark on the wall nearer the hatch than the tunnel mouth, and says: “We think this is tied in with the city’s defence system. Whatever they did to force open the door the first time – we think some kind of cutting tool—”

“Something much less advanced than what they were cutting,” Donaldson interrupts irritably, not looking up.

“Yes,” agrees Bryce. “It was incidental damage, I expect, but they put a pretty deep score in the control console, and it’s probably the reason for the noise you say you’re hearing. It completely threw off the frequency of the pulse.”

“It’s not a pulse,” Donaldson mutters.

“It’s a pulse,” Bryce says firmly. “An extremely high-frequency pulse. Designed specifically to interfere with biological tech.”

John’s silent for a moment, contemplating the damaged console from above. “You mean Wraith tech.”

John tries not to look offended at the surprised look a lot of the scientists give him when he understands something right away, because he knows they don’t really mean anything by it. Well, Rodney does. But Rodney’s not here and right now John’s too distracted to pay it more than a second’s mind.

“Yes. And that explains why it’s manifesting as an unpleasant sound, at least to someone with the gene. Properly calibrated it should be unnoticeable.”

“Except for the way it probably makes Wraith ships fall out of the sky,” notes Donaldson from the dark.

“So is it damaged, or disabled?” Cadman asks with some – valid – concern, and a wary glance at the pale green sky.

Bryce glances down at her tablet. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I’d guess it’s still effective, but I can’t be certain. I honestly can’t tell how far out of tune it is in relation to where it’s supposed to be, without doing a more thorough diagnostic, and…”

“And we don’t have time for that right now,” John finishes, because “thorough” means “slow.”

“We’ll just have to hope there aren’t any hungry hives in the area.” Because the last thing – just about the last thing, anyway – they need is a culling coming down on their heads with a dozen hostages already at risk.

John stands up and stretches, because frankly he can’t think of anything else to do while Bryce and Donaldson are down there messing around with probably-broken Ancient tech. Lorne, who’s leaning against the smooth alley wall with his weapon hanging easily in his hands, cocks his head at him.

“You doing okay, sir?”

John gives him a studying, slightly suspicious look, and shrugs. “Yeah,” he lies, experimentally, and knows full well the lie’s a bad one when he sees Lorne do that little mouth-tilt thing he uses when he wants to call someone a liar but he thinks it might get him in trouble. It both amuses and irritates John because he’s pretty sure Lorne learned that move from him.

“So I guess that sound isn’t bothering you, then,” asks Lorne, eyes over John’s shoulder on Cadman, who’s still crouching by the hatch, chatting with Bryce.

John looks up, right into Lorne’s face, notices for the first time that Lorne’s usual cheerful calm has the widening crack of a headache in it. “It’s getting worse,” Lorne says, conversationally. “Though I guess it’s worse for you. And it’s worse here than it is out on the street.”

John is almost – almost – relieved, almost says something funny about misery loving company. The buzzing hasn’t faded, has gotten worse, but it’s growing usual, turning into background noise. At least until suddenly it pitches up with a sharp whine, and from below the street he feels it as the interface shorts; he can’t stop himself from clapping hands over his ears, sees Lorne do the same, and he steps up the edge of the hatch to see a tendril of blue smoke rising up into the air.

Below, as the whine dies away and the buzzing goes back to what it was a moment ago, he sees Bryce waving away smoke and hears Donaldson swearing. A moment later, Bryce is looking up at him apologetically. “Sorry, Colonel Sheppard,” she says, looking like she means it, like she’s failed somehow. “No good. If Doctor McKay were here he might be able to… but…” she shrugs, and Cadman reaches down to pull her up to the street as Donaldson starts to gather their equipment.

John steps back, because it might be his imagination but the buzzing is worse near the dark square of the hole, and has to shut his eyes for a minute to work through his frustration, turned toward the blind wall of the dead end. It’s not their fault, he thinks. Even Rodney’s been soundly beaten by Ancient failsafes, if that’s what this is. It’s almost the only thing they ever made that worked the way it was meant to work.

He scrubs his hands through his hair, and stops suddenly when he hears Rodney’s voice in his head, telling him it’s rakishly windswept enough already, and there’s nobody around here to flirt with, anyway. Instead he shuts his eyes again, and doesn’t open them until Lorne calls his name.

He turns to see two people hurrying up the alley, and the figures draw closer he sees it’s Hergaard leading Sarna’s twitchy little aide, the one who looked into the tower for them. Bryce and Donaldson are suddenly standing awkwardly by the open hatch as if they’ve been caught doing something they shouldn’t be… which, John realises, they probably aren’t. Any of them.

But John’s too angry at the Avan Parliament and too lost for alternatives and too frustrated with their recent failure to care, frankly, and he saunters over to stand with Lorne as the young man reaches them, breathing hard and sweating.

“Colonel Sheppard,” he says quickly between gasps for oxygen, taking in the open hatch and visibly dismissing it, “there is something I believe you should see.”

And there is such bare-faced hope in his eyes that John agrees. Not that they’ve got much choice.

They spare only a second to close up the hatch again, pack away the last tool and coil of wire, and then they follow Kalsan – which is, apparently, his name – back through the thinning crowds of the main streets toward the Parliament. But he veers off the main streets when they’re not quite there, leads them on a wending route through older and older buildings, leaning more and more towards the style of Ancient architecture, until finally they come upon a building fronted by stark white pillars and a gaping, ornate doorway.

It bears all the marks of pompous academics, and John knows he’s right when they step inside and find themselves surrounded by dusty glass cases, filled with artefacts that range from pottery to bits of shrapnel that may or may not be former Ancient devices.

Kalsan leads them right through the room of glass and through another three rooms and intersecting hallways, all cluttered and dim and clearly well-used. Finally they step through a door into a white room, all white and well-lit, with several long tables and walls of shelves and finally John knows where they are, or what this room is. There are jars of brushes and cases of tools scattered with equal neglect, dog-eared notebooks, several of the heavy Avan computers, and little string-and-paper tags on everything.

Kalsan goes directly to the furthest table, which bears signs of being the most recently disturbed. Perched on the end almost negligently is a roundish, silverish… something, and John doesn’t know what it is but he knows at once that it’s Ancient. It doesn’t even have a tag.

“Before the Parliament approved the apprehension of Seyla Vaal and her sons,” he explains breathily, touching the device gingerly, “they raided Eron Vaal’s base on the coast.”

He says “coast” with delicate revulsion. The Avans have only one punishment for crime, and that is exile. On a planet where the only protection is offered by the sanctuary of the city and its defences, it’s tantamount to a death sentence, even if it is a death sentence that hasn’t been carried out for two centuries. ost of Vaal’s rebels are exiles or their families, who moved to the coast, where the land is fertile, following their loved ones.

John stares at the device. “Okay… what is it?”

Kalsan shrugs. “From the notes found with the device – which we must assume they unearthed in the ruins on the coast – it seems Vaal believed it to be a transportation device. I’m not sure what that means, but…”

He trails off, because Donaldson has descended, wide-eyed, on the device, running his hands gently over its curves. “It’s damaged,” he says to John.

“Yes,” agrees Kalsan. “The notes tell us this, as well. But I brought you here because a similar device was brought to the city by an authorised group, less than a month ago.”

“Transportation device?” John looks at Donaldson, who glares down at the disorganised sheaf of yellowish Avan paper that accompanies the device.

“I don’t – this isn’t really my field, sir,” he admits. “Magical insight into Ancient technology is really more…” McKay’s job, he doesn’t say, or: Zelenka’s job. But he bends his head over the device again, anyway. He’s pulled open a side panel that was invisible a moment ago. Even John can see two crystals are cracked and charred.

Bryce looks at it, looks at the diagrams interspersed with the notes, and frowns. “Huh,” she says, half to herself.

“Huh?” John echoes, with some push behind it, and both scientists look up.

Bryce is suddenly fighting a grin, and as he sees it he feels his heart skip a few beats in ridiculous, desperate hope that he doesn’t let show on his face.

“If this is what I think it is, Colonel,” she says, “and we can get it working… we might have a chance.”

***

Jeannie was home when they got there, putting away groceries. Madison bounced in, gave her mother a cursory greeting, and then turned an imperious face on Rodney.

“Help me with my space station?” she asked, and it was clearly meant as an order, delivered with sweet challenge like only a five-year-old girl can muster, and even Rodney was helpless against it. He heaved a huge – fake – sigh, and followed Madison into the living room, where she carried the box to the coffee table and started laying pieces out with precision.

John went upstairs to get his book, came back down, and settled in on the couch, just a few feet behind Rodney. For a while he just watched them, unable to look away from the sight of them both bent over the little plastic pieces laid out in careful order, Madison spreading out the instruction sheet with careful hands, the quiet focus of both faces, the two pairs of narrowed blue eyes. They hardly talked, except when Madison loudly reprimanded her uncle for touching something he shouldn’t, yet, out of order.

John knew this feeling, had years ago learned to take it as a comfort, to seek it out in a crisis; the sharp radiant aura of Rodney’s mind working. It hovered around the pair of them like a bubble, a little circle of fervent concentration, of calm, ignoring everything around them.

Once, early on in the mission, John had seen the change in Rodney’s face when he stopped complaining and doomsaying and started working it out, the shift from the panicked I can’t to the absent shut up now, I’m working. He’d found himself briefly paralysed, abruptly grounded by it. Now, sitting safe and comfortable in Jeannie’s living room, John was practically transfixed by the sheer grace of it, how there were no wasted movements, no unnecessary words.

Affection hit him like a kick to the chest, a wash of realisation, conscious this time, that this was Rodney, this was Rodney. John thought, insanely, that right now he’d really like to touch Rodney just for the sake of touching him, and then he thought: bad idea, for so many reasons, and god, this could get so complicated. And yet it wasn’t an urgent feeling but almost matter-of-fact, and he wondered, with calm bafflement: When did that happen?

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been watching, mostly watching Rodney’s profile and how all the worry and tension and fear of the inevitable had disappeared, temporarily, from his face. But he knew it had to have been a while, because when someone touched his shoulder, and he blinked, they had most of the central section assembled and Madison was turning it critically in her hands while Rodney drummed his fingers impatiently on the edge of the table.

John looked up. Jeannie was there, smiling with a finger to her lips, and she tilted her head towards Madison and Rodney and beckoned John after her. John gave them one last glance and set his book to one side, following Jeannie into the kitchen. Neither Rodney nor Madison looked up. They were too busy arguing about miniature plastic solar panels.

“How long have they been in there?” asked Kaleb, who was stirring something in a bowl on the counter. John hadn’t seen him come home; he guessed he’d been too absorbed watching the progress of the space station and… other things.

“Almost an hour,” Jeannie told him, sounding amused as she handed him two loaded plates. “Here you go.”

John gave the other man an absent wave as he went out onto the patio, closing the doors behind him.

“That was a great present,” Jeannie said, handing him a beer from the fridge before going back to something simmering in a pot on the stove.

“I’m glad she likes it,” John says, taking a seat at the table. Frankly he’d been a little worried Madison would like the model kit better than what Rodney had bought her, but the fact that she’d spent at least the last hour demanding Rodney’s company had more or less erased that concern.

Jeannie seemed to have read his mind, because she looked through the kitchen doorway and smiled, delighted, the warmth fading just a little when she turned back to John. “I’ve been meaning to thank you for that,” she said, tearing open a package of pasta and pouring it into a saucepan of water.

“For what?” John asked, watching her fiddle with knobs on the stove.

When she turned back, she had her arms crossed, and she was wearing an expression John could only define as “determinedly sincere.”

“Don’t give me that,” she scolded. “If you hadn’t shown me that video I might have left Atlantis and never spoken to him again.” She sat down across from him with a bowl of freshly-rinsed potatoes, and leaned forward on her elbows. “If it weren’t for you,” she said, “he wouldn’t be here.”

John swallowed back several different protests against that, both because Jeannie was giving him a kind of warning look and because, in more ways than one, it was sort of true, even if he didn’t like to think about it. He swallowed again, against nothing at all, and Jeannie dumped out the potatoes and started peeling. He wasn’t going to argue, anyway; there were a lot of times he’d saved Rodney and even more Rodney had saved him.

But if Jeannie didn’t know about her brother offering himself up as Wraith food John sure as hell wasn’t going to enlighten her about life-changing experiences with Ascension machines or private conversations about alternate-universe doubles. John was probably the only person – outside of Ronon and Teyla, maybe – who’d seen how much Rod had bothered Rodney, who’d been privy to admissions of fear that his friends, or even his sister, might like Rod better. Rod hadn’t been any smarter, but he’d been braver, and steadier, and cooler. However little Rodney probably liked to admit it, that probably still meant something, meant a lot in some part of his mind he didn’t like to touch too often.

The funny thing was that Rodney pushed a lot of things down, but only for himself. It all still showed clear as day on his face. It had made John a little angry at Jeannie, for a couple of minutes that day in the mess, anyway, because she had to have seen it too, but he’d let it go because, well, siblings tortured each other. Or so he’d heard. It struck him as a natural law. Didn’t mean he had to like it, though.

John remembered, uncomfortably, the hard twist of pity brought on by the look on Rodney’s face that same day, in John’s quarters. He hadn’t meant to say it, even, but it had come to him with such speed and force that he hadn’t been able to stop himself. “You’re scared Jeannie likes him better than you.” And it had twisted harder when he’d seen Rodney’s face slump from outrage into epiphany, see the face fall.

“That is… possibly true.”

“Yeah, well,” he said, nervously peeling the label off his beer bottle, “sometimes Rodney needs… a bit of a push.”

“Truer words were never spoken,” laughed Jeannie, but gradually her expression turned thoughtful, turned sharp. “Can I ask you a question?”

Something about the look on her face, the intensity of the stare, suddenly scared the hell out of him. He covered it by peeling the last of the label from his bottle, and tearing it slowly into tiny pieces. It gave him somewhere to look other than into Jeannie’s face. “A question?”

“That is what I said,” she said, with more than a hint of a let-me-speak-in-small-words-so-that-you-can-understand tone in her voice. John glanced at her; she tilted her head to one side. “You don’t have to answer, but I need to ask.”

He looked down at the table; he’d shredded the label, swept the bits into a tidy pile, which left him with nothing else to do with his hands but pick up the bottle and roll it between his palms. Finally he gave her a slow shrug, a patented easy smile. “Ask away.”

"Are you sleeping with my brother?"

And there went all his alleged charm in a wash of panic. Jeannie Miller was not so unlike her brother, John thought, staring at her open-mouthed. For a few seconds, it was all he could think, as the rest of his brain was occupied with gibbering. That suspicious, triumphant, I'm-so-much-smarter-than-you-are look was so incredibly McKay that for a second he wanted to do a double-take and make sure he wasn't imagining it, that Rodney himself wasn't sitting here wearing a curly wig.

The really weird thing was that she didn't seem all that bothered about it. She just kept on peeling potatoes. The look she'd given him had lasted only a second, after she'd glanced around to make sure the others were out of earshot. Now she was back to peeling potatoes as if what she'd just asked was the most natural thing in the world. This had to be a Canadian thing. The blunt-and-semi-inappropriate-questions thing. Or maybe it was just a McKay thing. Maybe both. Good god.

"Well, John?" she asked, dropping another peeled potato into the bowl of water at her left elbow, shattering any hopes John might have had that the whole thing had been a hallucination. She raised her eyes a little, a little too carefully casual with a hint of shrewd, and god, it was a McKay thing. It had to be. Nobody could be that evil on purpose.

He'd asked her to call him John, because now that Rodney never called him anything else outside of missions, hearing his rank sounded strange. He was starting to wonder if that had been a mistake. He wondered if clicking his heels together would deposit him safely back in his room on Atlantis, far away from all awkward-question-asking Canadians. But he was here, and Jeannie was still looking at him. Eventually, she rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said, "I said you didn't have to answer. If it's an uncomfortable topic..."

"It's – no," he blurted, feeling he needed to say something to block off the hole rapidly opening in the floor under his chair. "No."

She eyed him. That's what she did, she eyed him, sceptically, mouth tilted a little to the left, hands still moving. Then she shrugged. "All right," she said, sounding, for all the world, like she was disappointed. "If you say so."

John glanced over his shoulder. Rodney was leaning against the couch, and Madison was excitedly waving the tiny Canada Arm II that had come with the model kit, making full use of expansive arm gestures. Rodney's face was fluctuating between alarmed and fond, like he couldn't decide which he'd rather be. John almost smiled despite himself, before he pulled himself together and turned back to Jeannie, leaning his elbows on the table.

"Look, I – why do you ask?" he asked, managing to sound amused by the conversation.

Jeannie rolled her eyes at him. "Oh, I'm not going to out you to your oppressive autocracy, don't worry," she said, with cheerful scorn. "Hand me the salt?"

Bemused, John handed her the saltcellar without looking away from her face, and she shook some into the bowl of water, now turning cloudy with potato starch. She sliced the end off of a piece of potato and positioned it near the end of the cutting board, the saltcellar next to it, and went back to peeling. John stared at that in puzzlement for a moment, and then cleared his throat. "What makes you think... I mean..." He frowned at her. She smiled at him, a little pityingly.

"Please. I am a genius," she reminded him, stirring the water a little. "Also, I live in Vancouver. Is it just guys or do you swing both ways?"

John, who had been taking a sip of his beer, had to labour briefly to keep from choking. When he could breathe again, he coughed: "Christ," and set the bottle carefully down. Tact had apparently not been a central tenet of upbringing in the McKay family, which came as very little surprise, though he'd always thought of Jeannie as the nice one.

John stared at her, wanting to say, desperately, that he could have taken his time off somewhere else, anywhere else, but Rodney had wanted to visit his sister; that he was still feeling guilty over getting Jeannie kidnapped, and he'd made such a big deal about it that John had agreed to go along. It wasn't as if John had anyone else to visit, and Jeannie had greeted him warmly enough. The coast was beautiful in early summer, Rodney had told him. Surfing, he'd been promised. Mountain climbing. Hiking. Really great beer.

Of course all of that had been a carefully worded fabrication on both sides; Rodney wasn’t supposed to know that Sam and Keller had asked him to come, to “keep an eye” on Rodney, and John wasn’t supposed to know that Sam and Keller had given Rodney no choice in the matter of leaving. He hadn’t complained, at the time, though he’d had his misgivings. But he couldn’t let Rodney go alone. Aside from knowing Rodney would spend the whole month pretending nothing was wrong, and maybe come back worse than before, he simply couldn’t let him go alone. He just… couldn’t.

There were a lot of things about this vacation better left unexamined. But John knew by now that the Universe really just liked to blindside him, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise that now he was trapped in the kitchen with McKay's sister, who wanted to talk about his apparent big gay crush on Rodney. What weird parallel universe threshold had he crossed today?

He cast another wild glance around the kitchen, but there was no way he could get outside without passing Kaleb, standing out on the deck grilling something made of soy, or even out of the kitchen without disturbing Rodney and his niece, and Rodney would notice something was wrong. Rodney was oblivious about a lot of things, but John was pretty sure that right now even Rodney's five-year-old niece would notice that John was freaked out. As if to underscore the point, Rodney chose that moment to laugh, loudly, and Madison began shrilly correcting him on something Very Important about miniature space station construction.

Jeannie laid a damp hand on his arm, and he turned back to find her face much gentler than a moment ago. "I'm sorry," she apologised. "I didn't mean to freak you out. It just seems a lot closer to the surface the last couple of days than the last time I saw you two together, and you both showed up here kind of wired." The shrewdness was back, but now it was concern rather than amusement. "Mer won't talk about it. I guess you can't, huh?"

And just like that, John felt his backbone bending, as he leaned heavily back into the chair. The anxiety was gone, and somehow thinking about the reason for their leave was less disturbing than thinking about what Jeannie had asked him a minute ago. He rubbed his eyes with one hand. "No," he said. "Sorry."

She looked at him, long and careful, and then stood up, pushing a sixth potato and the potato peeler into his hands. "Here," she said, going into the fridge and coming back with a bundle of leeks. She sat down and started stripping and chopping them. John began uncertainly peeling the potato, glad for something to do with his hands that wasn't clenching them on his knees.

"I guess I knew something happened," she admitted, cutting the leeks into tiny pieces. "Mer doesn't usually ask to visit, usually he waits until I invite him. That way he can pretend I made him come," she said, smiling, and John had to smile back, because he'd figured out that ploy months ago. Rodney loved his sister, and he was maybe even starting to like spending time with Madison, but admitting it out loud would be out of the question.

"I've noticed that," was all John said.

She nodded. "I won't ask, then," she said. "About that, since it's probably classified or something ridiculous like that. But about the other thing..."

John started, almost cutting himself. Jeannie rolled her eyes again. "Don't tell me that's classified too."

"It's..." Damnit, thought John, she'd blindsided him, and he had a feeling she was going to keep asking, too, whatever she said. For a second he was tempted to tell her, just to see the look on her face, tell her it wasn’t really his story to explain, that there was a difference between won’t and can’t. "I told you the truth." He hunched down in his chair, not looking at her, because he had a feeling she'd be looking at him with pity.

"And the rest of it?"

"Does it really matter?" His chest felt tight, out of panic or relief he wasn't sure.

There was a thoughtful silence, filled only with the sound of Jeannie's knife going thunk thunk thunk across the cutting board. "I don't like labels," she said eventually, primly, and then, with a glance over John's shoulder that took in her brother and daughter, and then flicked back, "I'm just asking because... I mean, Mer. He's kind of an idiot."

John frowned, hard, at the potato, as he peeled back the skin and found the dark blot of an eye consuming almost half of it. "Yeah," he agreed.

Jeannie persisted: "He hasn’t had a lot of... I mean he's never been any good at... you're important to him." Her lips were pressed thin, and she was looking at him expectantly.

John picked up one of the little knives near the cutting board and hacked out the dark eye from the white flesh like he was coring an apple. He handed it to her, hole through the middle, and she slipped it into the water, again without looking away from his face. "I know."

"And you... I mean I don't think anybody else knows, if that's what you're worried about."

Good, he didn't say, but he thought it, and it must have made it to his face, because Jeannie sighed, in a defeated sort of way, and got up from the table, picking up the bowl of drowned potatoes. "Fine," she said, going over to the sink and rinsing them off. "You're off the hook. For now," she added warningly, with a shake of the potato peeler, and John felt, honest to god, like he'd gotten a reprieve. She smiled at him with a sudden, terrifying sweetness, and said: "And this conversation stays between us, or I'll kill you in your sleep."

And strangely, John found that endearing, and he laughed, reaching for his bottle of beer - which was, after all, very good beer - and tipped it respectfully in her direction. "Deal," he said, taking a swig.

Rodney, followed closely by a chattering Madison, came into the kitchen then. He picked up Jeannie's lone forgotten potato slice, looking furtive. Then sprinkled it with salt and popped it in his mouth, chewing happily.

"That's disgusting, Meredith," said Jeannie, from the other side of the kitchen, but it was a fond smile she gave Rodney's back.

***

Go to Part 3b

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Chandri MacLeod
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