Title: How to Win a War (2710)
Rating: PG, for language
Summary: SG1 AU where Rodney's Air Force, John's an engineer, and Jack O'Neill's got an unpleasant job to do.
Warning: kidfic. Extreme ignorance about SG1 plotlines (if it's wrong–hey! AU!). Mentions Charlie (O'Neill's son, who killed himself accidentally as a child), so if that gets to you, don't read, ne.
Jack feels weird pulling into the driveway, because it is and it isn't his house these days. He has a comfortable furnished apartment, closer to the mountain and backing onto a well-stocked lake. Everything important is there: his pictures and fishing rods and things. A few alien artefacts that aren't so alien that he can't get away with displaying them on the mantelpiece and calling them modern art. He's more than used to thinking of home as something portable, and it has been years since he exported himself from the house. But there are memories here that aren't so easy to pack up. They linger, like ghosts.
He can see changes as soon as he has the car over on the lawn side, so that the way to the garage is still clear. Someone has drawn in chalk all up and down the cement. The backboard has a new net. There is an unholy tangle of bicycles and roller skates and jump ropes and water guns all piled on top of a trampoline next to the kitchen steps, and for a moment he feels — old, he thinks, and angry, and alone, and guilty as fuck. Not a pretty mix. He folds away his sunglasses and pulls on his visiting manners.
After all, he was the one who'd told McKay, the genius on loan from AIRCOM, that it was fine to use the house when he and his husband (husband! those wacky Canadians) relocated. He'd known they were a family. He'd asked, when they first arrived, if McKay had a lock box, and Sheppard had given him a dark, chin-down glare. Sheppard made him feel guilty right from the start, for sending McKay off-world, for bringing them to Colorado and the front lines of war, for the genetic fluke that got Sheppard spaceships to reverse-engineer and weapons training and a place on a gate team. Jack was happy enough to leave McKay and Sheppard the hell alone. He was busy enough elsewhere, with troubles of his own.
There's a note taped to the front door: baby sleeping — come on in. So he does, announcing himself with a Hey just loud enough to be heard over the television.
John Sheppard's hand waves from over the back of the sofa, a bit the way Jack imagines someone in a lifeboat might hail a passing ship.
"I don't even care if you're a burglar, rescue me," Sheppard says, and Jack leans over the sofa to peer down at the spectacle of a grown man pinned helpless by a drooling infant asleep on his stomach. "Sir," Sheppard adds, and almost salutes before he apparently decides that's inappropriate. "There's a crib in the dining room?" He raises his eyebrows hopefully.
"Thought McKay was supposed to be taking care of. . . things." Jack hasn't held an infant in a very long time. It — he, he supposes, if the blue terry wrap is anything to go by, though in this day and age, who knows? — snuffles as he reaches down carefully, and he holds it — him — reflexively against his chest.
He remembers how to keep a baby from startling, and how to set him down to sleep: babies like a firm, decisive touch. They like the feeling of comfort. He gives the baby a few pats on the stomach to get him settled, and then goes to see if Sheppard needs help. McKay has taken three whole months off, what he calls paternity leave and the SGC calls a ridiculous indulgence. For that, he really ought to be here, making sure his husband doesn't break his neck stumbling to the toilet. O'Neill didn't sign up for subordinate babysitting when he joined the Air Force.
He supposes that it's probably just the guilt kicking in.
He turns the television off and picks up some of the junk on the floor, books and toys and crayons. "You okay in there?" he calls to Sheppard when his peregrination brings him within sight of the bathroom. The door is ajar.
"Peachy," Sheppard shouts back. "You try dealing with all this bondage gear one-handed."
"Way too much information," Jack snaps back. "I'm going to raid your kitchen."
"You could make sandwiches."
Jack frowns into the refrigerator. "Do you have any food that isn't healthy?"
"Nope." That's Sheppard, limping his way in to lean on a chair. He should be on crutches, but the cast from the latest wrist surgery probably makes that difficult. "But if you put the sliced turkey on the sourdough with mustard and pickles, you can pretend that it's really bad for you." He takes a breath and crosses over to the drainboard to grab two plates, and then shuffles sideways to set them down on the counter. "Rodney said you might be dropping by. I was going to cook spaghetti or something." There is, yup, a jar of organic tomato sauce laid out, and a bag of pasta. "I just — " he grunts a little, wincing, as he stretches for the utensil drawer to grab a knife — " I can't let Bean cry himself to sleep in the crib, you know?"
"You named your son Bean?" Jack takes over the job of opening the mustard and pickle jars; Sheppard rolls his eyes, maybe in thanks, it's a little unclear.
"It's a tribute to Orson Scott Card and his support of gay marriage," Sheppard says, piling on the turkey like he's starving. "Not. Max kept insisting that Sean ought to be pronounced seen and then — " he shrugs — " Bean."
"And Max is — ?" Jack asks, taking the plates to the table.
"Our daughter. Whose birth name, I kid you not, was Lolla. Sort of a cross between Lola and lollipop." He grins. "Max is short for the Princess of Maximum Entropy." He turns his head, like a dog catching a scent. "And if I'm not mistaken, they're home. Prepare to meet your doom."
Jack isn't sure if Sheppard means his husband or his daughter, or both. He isn't really sure that it's a joke. Seven months ago, McKay had promised Jack messy, painful death several times over. Just because he doesn't say it any more is no reason, Jack thinks, to let his guard down. Less, probably. Seven months ago, McKay had been relieved that at least John wasn't dead.
Now. . . well. He watches Sheppard make his way slowly to the front door. This might be as good as it gets, the knee that collapses without a brace, and the joint stiffness, and the unresponsive fingers, and the screws and plates holding the whole mess together. He knows Sheppard has been told that. He doesn't know what McKay's reaction was.
Sheppard opens the door and is staggered by fast brown arms thrown around his waist and a squeal that goes from Daddy to gotta pee as the child — Max, most likely — tears off down the hall, slamming the bathroom door with a resounding bang.
"Hi, honey, I'm home," McKay says, making it sound like an accusation, arms weighted down with canvas shopping bags. Sheppard tries to take one, and McKay says something sharp and angry.
"Hey," Sheppard says, making McKay drop the bags in the hallway and pulling him in close. Only his fingertips poke out of the cast, but he touches McKay's face anyway, rubbing McKay's cheek as he leans in for a kiss.
It doesn't make Jack uncomfortable; at least, not that they are two guys. He does feel that he is invading a private moment, so he goes to look at the baby. He is obviously a second child: the toilet door slams again and Max races into the kitchen, hollering Can I eat this? and Ew, mustard, and Bean doesn't even twitch.
"You want me to make you one plain?" he asks, wandering back into the kitchen after a glance shows that McKay and Sheppard are still wrapped up in one another, Sheppard's good hand in McKay's hair and McKay holding Sheppard tight.
"With tomato," Max says. "I'm Max."
"You know, I guessed you were." Jack saws off two crooked tomato slices, tops the sandwich, and cuts it in half with a flourish. "I'm Jack O'Neill. I. . . this used to be my house," he says, awkwardly, and feels a horrible frisson, like déjà vu. Somewhere, he knows, in a whole bunch of somewheres, he's sitting in this kitchen right now and talking to Charlie. Charlie's almost twenty by now. He probably eats stacks of sandwiches and is hungry again an hour later. He probably sneers at Jack's car but begs for the keys on weekends. He probably still looks a lot like his mother, but with Jack's eyes. He's probably tall.
Not that he has anything against Max, personally, but he really wishes that she wasn't here for a moment. And then feels guilty.
"What can I do for you, Colonel?" McKay says, crossing his arms and jerking his chin up as he rocks on his heels in the doorway. McKay's solid in a cushiony kind of way, and Jack thinks that he ought to look ridiculous when he goes all alpha male like that. But he doesn't. He looks — beneath the anger — bone tired and worried.
"I expect I'm being put back on active duty," Sheppard says, laying a hand on McKay's shoulder — more as a restraint than a comfort.
"Part time," Jack admits. "We need him, McKay. We can't afford to fall much more behind in getting the new prototypes ready for production." He doesn't say anything about the war that is rolling across the galaxy, coming towards them like a wheel of fire. McKay's been there himself; he knows.
"He's a civilian contractor," McKay says, still — always — belligerent. "He could quit."
"I'm not going to quit," Sheppard says, as if the very idea is incomprehensible. "I need to get back out there. Yeah. It's time."
Jack wonders belatedly how Sheppard is holding up mentally. What Max, who's watching them wide-eyed, her sandwich forgotten, thinks. He wonders if she knows her fathers are heroes. Probably McKay has mentioned it several times over.
"Max," Sheppard says, looking relaxed and casual and amused in his entire posture, only his eyes showing something different, "why don't you take Colonel O'Neill out and shoot baskets for a while? Try not to humiliate him too badly," he adds.
Jack nearly says something about his knees, but he figures Sheppard's got him beat on that count.
Max is a four-foot basketball demon who steals the ball and shoots baskets while standing on the hood of her father's car. Jack keeps one eye on her, hoping she doesn't break any bones while he's on watch, and the other on the kitchen window. Through the broken Venetian blinds he can see McKay and Sheppard arguing. They're obviously keeping it down, but McKay's hands can't stay still. He's sketching rage on the air. Sheppard says something, his mouth tight, sharp lines appearing between his eyebrows, and McKay grabs him and shoves him backwards, hard, slamming him into the refrigerator with enough force that all the cereal boxes lined up on top come tumbling down.
It's a completely different kiss this time, nothing sweet and loving about it. McKay pins Sheppard's hands over his head with one hand. His other hand curls tightly around Sheppard's jaw so that he can't turn his head away. It looks like punishment. Jack forces himself to look away, grabs the ball and ricochets it off the rim a couple of times. Max laughs. Jack retrieves the ball and passes it to her. She dribbles it between her legs and then — swish — shoots a perfect basket.
Jack high-fives her, and then — he can't help himself — he looks into the kitchen again. McKay has his face buried between Sheppard's neck and shoulder, and Sheppard has his arms around him and is rocking him gently.
"So I should be going," Jack says, making a show of flipping out his cell phone to check the time. "Whoa. It's nearly four."
"Don't go," Max says, dragging the words out into a masterful wheedle. "You just got here."
"I'm supposed to be working," Jack says.
"Do you fly planes like Rodney or build planes like John?" she asks, and Jack realises again that she's a whole other generation from what he's used to. Charlie would never have used his first name. . . of course, when Charlie said Daddy, he only meant one person.
"I used to fly," he says, taking out his keys and tossing them in the air. "Now I mostly just tell people what to do."
"I don't want John to die," she says, the same deep wrinkles forming between her eyes. "I don't want Rodney to die."
"Nobody's dying, kiddo," Sheppard says, hopping down the back steps and rubbing her head so that half of her braids stick up. There are red marks on his neck from McKay's fingers, but he either doesn't know or doesn't care.
"Do me up," Max shouts, throwing her arms around Sheppard's neck and jumping.
Sheppard makes a horrible face at Jack over her shoulder, but grabs her at the highest point of a jump and swings her up. She braces her hands on his shoulders and throws one leg around: it's obviously something they do often — or did, Jack supposes. Sheppard looks briefly as if he might collapse like a badly-made chair, but he shifts as much weight as he can to his good leg. Max grins, oblivious, from her perch on his shoulders and waves her hands for the ball. Jack hands it to her, not wanting to call down the wrath of McKay should he smack Sheppard in the face.
Max misses three times and makes four baskets before Sheppard tells her to get down. She slides down his back, strangling him a little on descent, and runs into the house yelling for juice.
"I need to head on back," Jack says, and Sheppard nods, looking mellow.
"When should I show up?" he asks, leaning back against the car (which must be his, because Jack can't imagine any alternate reality where McKay would willingly own a cherry-red PT Cruiser with gold flames) and massaging his shoulder.
"Your team's scheduled to leave for the production site at eleven hundred hours."
Sheppard bobs his head again, as if keeping time to some mental music. "I'll be there."
"I'm sorry," Jack says. He's been meaning to say it for a long time. "I'm sorry the fuel trial schedule was rushed." And we blew you up along with the Ancient technology. "I'm sorry — " He waves a hand, trying to indicate everything.
"It's cool," Sheppard says, and adds, "Rodney understands. He's mostly angry because he understands."
"I understand that."
"He just wishes things were different."
"Don't we all." In some other reality, it is entirely possible that Jack plays basketball in this driveway with his grandchildren. Somewhere in the infinite possibilities, they are winning the war — hell, maybe the war had never started. And if wishes were nickels. . . . "So thanks anyway for the sandwich."
Sheppard laughs, loud and genuine. "Which you never got to eat. Come over Friday night, we're having barbeque and Canadian beer."
Jack shakes his head. "That's probably not a good idea." He pushes the door opener on his key, and the lights flash. It's a technology he hates: it reminds him too much of Gou'ald possession. "But I appreciate the offer."
Sheppard shrugs and watches him get in, and follows him as he reverses. He's only made it halfway down the drive by the time Jack's facing the right way in the road. Jack beeps, twice, and Sheppard raises his hand. Jack keeps an eye on him all the way to the end of the road, and then he turns and the house and Sheppard are out of sight and gone. It gives Jack a chill like someone walking over his grave. It's what happens when he goes back to the house, he thinks, and rolls the windows down to blow away the clinging touch of old ghosts.