If asked, Sam Carter would say she is indifferent to Rodney McKay. She knows little about him: he has a cat (which he brings in photos of, printed on copier paper), a sister (whom he only ever mentions on passing), and someplace he goes to for every holiday (which he never mentions at all, outside of the very occasional scheduling meeting). And that’s pretty much all, aside from a few food preferences she’s noticed from the times they’ve wound up in line together in the chow hall.
Pressed a little, she might allow that his work is respectable, particularly his math, but she thinks he’s sneaking help from someone—and almost certainly not from anyone associated with the SGC. (She doesn’t blow the whistle on him only because a) regardless of who’s doing it, it’s solid, and b) by the time she noticed, anything problematic would have already made itself evident.)
Under actual torture, she might admit that she snubs him entirely on habit now, and only because of a single misstep early in their association, the details of which she can only hazily remember at this point. She’d probably feel bad about it if she had the time to between alien invasions. (She does feel bad, actually, but just a little.)
What makes her a trifle nervous, from time to time, is that she suspects Rodney sneaks bits out of the lab to play with, in addition to his math. But she—grudgingly—accepts that he’s proved his discretion. (Also, she does it herself, every now and then, when she feels like she’s on the edge of figuring something out and can’t quite bear to set it down just because O’Neill’s ordered her to go home.)
So it isn’t really a surprise when she receives a semi-panicked phone call from him the week of Thanksgiving, saying he may have accidentally broken his confidentiality agreement, but that doesn’t matter because in the process he’s found someone who makes O’Neill’s ATA abilities look like card tricks, so could someone please come with the appropriate paperwork to patch things over?
John flies on weekends in the winter, sometimes; his dad served with the guy who now runs the private air strip a couple miles down the road, and they’ve got a sort of barter system going for lessons. It’s mostly bogus, just so John won’t feel guilty for taking advantage of a debt owed to his dad, but that doesn’t make the flying less enjoyable.
He’s toyed with the idea of getting certified as an ag pilot, but he loves rich, turned earth as well as deep, open sky. So instead he continues working the steady soil of his grandfather’s farm, dirt ground deep into the skin of his hands, and is mostly at peace.
Rodney sends daily emails decrying the incompetence of his coworkers, claiming that it’s a choice between telling John in writing and ranting loudly in the middle of his lab the next time someone is stupid. John doubts this—Rodney’s social skills have vastly improved since college—but welcomes the emails anyway. It’s a way to remain connected to the closest he has to a brother, and anyway, most of them are hilarious as well as cutting; it’s become custom for John to read the best bits aloud during after-dinner cleanup. (He’d wash the dishes, but apparently he does them the wrong way, and it’s safer to just accept his role as provider of entertainment.)
Sometimes when Rodney visits (which is both slightly more often than should likely be possible and also frustratingly infrequent), he brings whatever theoretical project he’s working on for the Air Force. It’s all very Star Trek, and probably slightly treasonous for John to look at, but working through the equations feels like being young and in college again, so he trusts that Rodney isn’t careless in what he shares and simply enjoys catching the small, stupid mistakes that always slip in because Rodney gets impatient with variables when they don’t cooperate.
John’s sitting at the kitchen table, bent over the latest offering and bickering with Rodney while Lucy sits across from them, laughing at them like they’re still the idiot boys she met in college, when his mother appears in the doorway, looking a little pale.
“Rodney,” she says, “I found something in your dirty laundry that probably shouldn’t be there.”
“What?” Rodney says, squinting at John’s corrections as though they’re personal affronts. But then his brain seems to catch up with his ears and he looks up at her. “Sorry, what? Did Kepler somehow manage to smuggle himself through airport security in my luggage?”
“No,” John’s mother says slowly. “But I suspect he managed to smuggle something else, and you probably don’t want anyone else to see it.”
Lucy’s eyebrows go up at that, and John can feel his own follow suit, as they both turn to stare at Rodney. But instead of embarrassment, there’s worry on his face, perhaps even tinged with fear. “What?” he says a third time, but is already out of his chair as he says it. “Show me.”
And then John’s alone with Lucy in the kitchen. “I wonder what that’s all about,” she says, still looking a bit amused.
“No idea,” John admits, idly turning a 0 into a red daisy. “I guess we’ll find out, if it’s not some sort of state secret.”
In retrospect, Rodney can see how it was bound to happen—if not to him, then to someone: everyone’s taken home something from work at least once, although none of them would admit it out loud—but that doesn’t make it seem any less implausible.
From what he can reconstruct, it happened like this:
Thursday, he had an argument with Sam Carter over some Ancient gizmo that Colonel O’Neill obviously didn’t even attempt to turn on. It was small and flat and fit comfortably in the palm of a man’s hand. On one side was something that Sam said looked like a camera but Rodney knew had to be a projector. The argument took place in her lab (she had her very own lab! Rodney had to share with three other people, and none of them understood that “shared space” meant “clean up your projects before you leave in the evening or they will end up in a bin under the table tomorrow morning”) and ended with Rodney shoving the gizmo (projector!) into his pocket and stalking off.
The rest of the day passed in a rush of irritation as everything (and one) conspired to prevent him from leaving early, as had been planned. So when he got home (at almost 8 pm) and discovered the gizmo had somehow made it home with him, despite the three layers of security between his (shared) lab and the mountain’s parking lot, he said some very nasty things and put it on his bedside table so he couldn’t miss it when he went back to work. Then, instead of packing (as had been planned), he shoved his dirty laundry into a suitcase, hoping that Ana Sheppard would forgive him for being a presumptuous guest, and went straight to bed because he had a 5:30 a.m. flight to catch the next morning.
At some point during the night, his cat Kepler, who always sulked under the living room sofa when Rodney got the suitcase out, deigned to join him on the bed. This almost certainly involved jumping on/off the bedside table. Not that Rodney thought anything of it at the time.
In the (can it be called morning when the sun won’t be up for another two and a half hours?) morning Rodney rolled out of bed, shoved his pajamas into the suitcase with the rest of the laundry, almost put his shirt on inside-out, shoved his extra house key under his neighbor’s door, and drove down to the airport, a little late and very glad all the traffic lights were green. He slept for almost the entire flight, was welcomed in the airport lobby by Lucy while John waited in the car, and spent the drove home nursing the thermos of coffee Ana had sent for him.
Later that afternoon, Ana claimed his suitcase (he made a token protest) and took it down to the basement to the laundry room. In the process of putting his dirty clothes into the washing machine, she uncovered the gizmo, and when she picked it up, it turned itself on.
Rodney’s learned a bit of diplomacy, over the years, which means that when he calls Sam because her extension is the only one he can remember through his wondering panic, he doesn’t begin by telling her that he was right: it is a projector. In Ana’s hands, it turns the dingy, whitewashed cinder-block basement into a miniature solar system, and Rodney thinks it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.
It’s a nice farm, as farms go, Jack supposes—worn, but well-mended. Someone’s out in the field on a tractor, and there’s the sound of a man singing in the barn as Jack and Daniel walk past—mucking stalls, from the smell of it.
Their path to the open kitchen door is blocked by an ancient and battered cat sitting on the porch stairs, who looks up at them with the indifference of someone who knows he can’t be moved—although a moment later there’s a call from inside of “Fish, Bashy!” which prompts a rapid but stately retreat.
After exchanging glances—Daniel’s accompanied by a silent mouthing of the name, eyebrows screwed up in the way that means he’s trying and failing to place it; Jack just shrugs—they follow the cat in.
Jack knows as soon as he meets her that something is up: Ana Sheppard feels like family, the way some of his mother’s cousins do. He calls her “ma’am” and shows his respects to her husband, who maneuvers his wheelchair with a grace that must have been hard-fought for.
Once safely ensconced in the living room, just Ana and Jack and Daniel, they do the whole show-and-tell: ATA, no ATA; light, no light. Normally, her increasing bemusement would signal approaching difficulties, but every instinct he has is shouting jackpot!, although he couldn’t give a reason for why.
Daniel’s holding forth on the entire history of Earth’s complicated relationship with her stargate, when Jack wins (yet again) his own privately-made bet: Ana corrects Daniel. It’s a minor detail—the pronunciation of a name—and she does it so subtly that Daniel almost doesn’t notice, but Jack certainly does, and that means Daniel does too. (That’s probably a sign of too many ‘diplomatic’ meetings gone south, but it comes in handy now.)
“What?” Daniel can be wonderfully articulate from time to time.
Ana smiles, a small but complicated thing. “Well, that is how it’s pronounced. Or—” she glances in the direction of the door to the kitchen, where her husband is waiting in patient exile. “Or was, back when I knew the place. Perhaps things have changed since then.”
Daniel gapes at her. In a moment he’ll start talking again, faster, and won’t be able to stop, so Jack jumps in while he has the chance.
“So, Ana, let me guess: you grew up a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
Ana’s parents gave her the name ‘Anantha’, which means ‘endless’ or ‘infinite’, but she prefers the name she chose for herself, which means ‘grace’. She willing gave up her infinity, and has doubted the choice only a few times in the cold dark of night; in the mornings she is always sure again. Her husband snores and would sleep until noon if allowed, her son puts too much jam on his toast, her dear, dear daughter-of-the-heart eats breakfast with her hair still in so many knots it’s nearly a beaver’s dam. Soon there will be a grandchild, and Ana’s heart is so full at the anticipation of it that there’s scarcely room for anything else.
So it is a shock almost beyond belief to find a tiny piece of her alien, ancient past mixed in with Rodney’s laundry, to realize that for at least a year now he must have been working on this sort of thing and neither of them knew that the other already knew of its existence. And for safety (for her, for her family, for Rodney) she should probably pretend nothing happened, but—
When John was young, and the early, gray mornings were theirs, she told him the long stories of her own youth, because she couldn’t quite bear to be the only one who knew them. She gave up her immortality, her infinity, but clings to what she can of her long-distant, first mortality. It’s in her bones and she cannot remove it without unmaking herself.
This mistake—on Rodney’s part, potentially on her own—gives her the never-dreamed-of possibility of sharing the full scope of his childhood stories with John, and she cannot deny that to him. If there is even a chance he might be able to see some of the things she’s told him about, to touch pieces of the seeming-fairytales she whispered in his ear when he was small—
She can’t, can’t deny him that.
“Rodney,” she says to the empty laundry room, then clears her throat because she’s been crying and hadn’t noticed.
She waits to go upstairs until her eyes are dry again.