Operation:

Keeping Your CO Oblivious

Chapter 2: The Debriefing

Rodney watched as John slowly started to allow himself to believe it was real. He was still staring, his mouth still hung open and he didn't seem capable of saying anything, so Rodney grabbed his arm and yanked him up to the pilot seat and pulled the door open.

John reached out a shaking hand and gently touched the cool metal, as if he fearing it would vanish with one touch.

"It's real, Colonel. All of it."

"This better not be a dream, Rodney. That would be the cruelest dream I've ever had."

Rodney pinched him again. "See? It's not. Now get up here and look at your new bird."

John stared at the metal as he ran his hands over it.

Sitting in the pilots seat, Rodney proudly launched into the wonders of the machine he had created, having wanted to tell John about this for months.

"It's half ancient and half old Air Force design. You can control it with your mind, but the actual nav systems still have to handled the old fashioned way, since we all know you love pushing all those damn buttons and yanking that stick around for some inexplicable reason so we kept it. And it's got thrusters too so you can fly it in space and you can use the rotor during atmospheric flights. Nearly all the ancient systems have the old systems as back-ups so if anything goes wrong, they'll take over. All the weaponry is ancient too and you've got tons of drones you can fire with it. It's got more room than the original design called for too, since you'll have a lot of people tagging along with you, and by the way, I so call shot gun for our first flight…"

Rodney started to realize that John wasn't paying attention to a word he was saying and looked like he was shaking slightly. He had put his sunglasses back on, a sure Sheppard sign that he wanted to hide.

Not knowing what was really wrong, Rodney grabbed John's arm and turned him away from the chopper.

"Alright, people. Get back inside. It's time for the kitchen maids to follow through with their promise of real chocolate cake."

Everybody was touching John as they passed by, congratulating him and clapping him on the back. John seemed to shrink smaller and smaller into himself as they walked, a frozen smile on his face that John probably thought could pass for the real thing. Rodney pulled him along faster, still chattering the whole way.

"—not to mention, the Colonel has to prepare himself for blowing out forty candles. And Maguire? There better be forty damn candles on that cake! You promised me months ago you had harvested enough wax to make forty and I expect to see forty! Yeah, you better start running now!"

Elizabeth and Teyla had also picked up on John's sudden fragility and helped herd them through the crowd, yelling for everyone to get to the messhall and that John just had to clean up and he'd be there in a second.

As soon as they were through the doors, Rodney yanked John into the first empty room and mentally locked the door behind him.

"Alright. What's wrong? Don't tell me you don't like the chopper."

John turned away from him and crossed his arms across his chest. He was still shaking and Rodney barely saw the tense shake of his head.

"Then what's wrong? Is this some freak-out about turning forty? Because if you really want, we can take one candle away and pretend its thirty-nine. In fact, you can stay thirty-nine for the rest of your life if you want."

Again, a small shake of his head. Rodney saw John press his lips together and for the first time, noticed tears escaping from behind the dark glasses.

Rodney had had enough of talking. Besides, talking never did any good with John. Not at first anyway.

He walked around him and slowly put his arms around him, resting his chin on his shoulder and stroking his back.

He felt John stiffen, always uncomfortable at having people touch him, but he didn't let go.

"It's okay. It's just me. You know that."

Slowly, the tension ran out of John and he brought his arms up and hugged Rodney tight enough to squeeze the air out of his lungs. He buried his face in Rodney's neck and they stayed that way, absolutely silent, as John's shaking got worse.

"It's just me, John." Rodney whispered, hating that it still took his friend so long to feel comfortable about having any physical contact with him.

Then a loud sob racked its way through John's body and he started to sob into Rodney's neck, the sunglasses digging into Rodney's skin.

Rodney held him for long moments, stroking his back and muttering nonsensical things, waiting for John to finish letting it out and start talking.

Harsh, painful sobs echoed around the room and Rodney felt his shirt being soaked, but he thought it was a small price to pay. If he wouldn't have gotten John out of public and let him break down like this, he would have kept it inside and it would have possibly lost it at a time when he couldn't afford to have John break down.

Finally, John's sobs quieted and he hiccupped quietly into Rodney's neck, warm breath blowing across his collarbone.

"Okay. Tell me what's wrong."

John murmured something.

"What?"

"You remembered. You all did."

"Of course we did, moron! It's your fortieth! That makes it not only your birthday but a damn special one. Of course we remembered." Rodney found himself feeling insulted that John would think so little of his friends and family.

"Nobody has before."

"They're all idiots and none of them deserved to know you."

"But—"

"No. No buts. If they didn't use your one special day of the year to tell you and show you what an amazing, wonderful person you are, then they're a waste of space."

John hiccupped into his neck, apparently thinking it over. Rodney stroked his back firmly.

"I can't believe you thought we forgot."

"I—I—"

"Thought we were as insensitive and idiotic as the rest of the garbage that has raised you and associated with you your entire life, yes, I know."

"I can't believe you built me a chopper."

"It wasn't easy, you know. It took months of covert operations. But I knew how much you missed flying choppers. Though, God knows why. They're rickety, loud and not as agile as the jumpers, but what the hell do I know? I'm just a scientist. So we all brainstormed what would make an awesome birthday present for you."

"Who thought up the chopper?"

"The idea came from Lorne."

"Lorne? He was in on this too?"

Rodney laughed. "The entire base has been in on it from the beginning."

John pulled away from him and yanked his glasses off, his eyes red rimmed and still watery, but he was glaring.

"You were running covert ops under my nose for days and I didn't know?"

"Days? Try two and a half months, Colonel."

"What?"

"But before you start getting all irritated and mad at yourself, just remember that no enemy can know you as well as your family does. We knew exactly how to act and what to say. Besides, we planned the hell out of this."

"That's a story I'd like to hear."

"And there are dozens of people who have been wanting to tell you. Your marines nearly cracked a few times. Bishop had to be threatened with a court martial before he promised to make more of an effort not to grin like crazy when you were around. Seriously, I thought marines had more control than that."

"And I suppose your geeks never had problems keeping their mouths shut?"

"They were properly motivated to keep quiet."

"I see. Should I be looking for any body parts in hidden corners?"

Rodney waved a dismissive hand. "I'd never leave such obvious evidence behind. I know how to get things done. My team leader was special forces, after all."

John smiled sadly. "Yes, he was. A long time ago."

"Come on. Time to get to your birthday party. The kitchen staff has been practicing baking cakes from different Pegasus ingredients for weeks and are damn excited to see what you think. Not to mention that everybody wants to tell you how we managed to pull this off."

Rodney started walking past him towards the door but was suddenly grabbed when John pulled him into a tight hug.

He moved his mouth right up to Rodney's ear. "Thank you," he whispered. John always had an easier time whispering things than saying them loudly. Who he was scared of, Rodney never knew.

Rodney turned his head towards John's ear and whispered back. "You're welcome. You deserve it. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. You're a wonderful, amazing person and you work so hard to keep us all safe and we wanted to give you a day that would show you how much we appreciate it and how much we care about you."

John squeezed him tight and then abruptly let him go and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand before sliding his glasses back on.

"Come on. I have a party to get to."

Smiling, Rodney followed him out.

XXXXXX

After John had been pulled and pushed into a chair in the center of the mess, the kitchen staff came out carrying the largest cake John had ever seen with forty flickering candles on top.

Then Elizabeth stood up, gave a signal and the more than two hundred people squeezed into the messhall launched into loudest, strangest rendition of Happy Birthday that he had ever heard. The words were sung in about twenty different languages, half the people were entirely out of tune and off-key and Teyla and Ronon were apparently making up their own tune. All of his marines and pilots sang it in time to a marching jig with Lorne conducting, making John laugh hard enough to nearly start crying again.

Then he gestured for as many people as possible to squeeze around him since he knew he would never be able to blow out forty candles by himself. Counting it down, a small tornado was whipped up as everyone helped him blow out all the candles, no matter how far back they stood in the crowd. As they were blowing, the ventilation systems seemed to turn on and Atlantis seemed about to start helping too. Knowing the messhall would be turned upside down by the resulting hurricane, John quickly sent a warm thank you at the presence in the back of mind but told her to relax and let them handle it.

Then John leaned back and demanded to know how the hell they had pulled this off under his nose, making sure to throw a mock-glare at his marines and pilots, who were trying to keep a straight face, and his 2IC, who was openly grinning at him with a highly unprofessional but very Lorne-like twinkle in his eyes.

The story was one which should be taught as an example at all covert military training camps.

After Lorne had suggested making a chopper, Rodney had immediately declared that he would make one, fine, but that he refused to make the same antiquated, rickety old things that the USAF used.

John was about to interrupt with a complaint but Rodney held up a hand.

"How many times have you been shot down in a jumper?"

"Uhm, once or twice."

"And how many times in a chopper?"

"Uhm, maybe a few more."

"Right. You'd have to use a logarithmic graph to plot the comparisons."

John chuckled and allowed Rodney to continue. From time to time, other people would interrupt and throw in their own comment or correct Rodney when he got carried away.

A few scientists on the Deadalus were secretly recruited to get some supplies they needed from earth and to smuggle them onboard during the next round trip. The military serving on the Deadalus couldn't be trusted, and besides, the scientists knew every nook and cranny onboard and could easily hide things and explain them away as necessary components. Apparently, Lindsay Novac and Hermiod had been the smuggling king-pins, organizing the bounty and making sure it was properly stored away before leaving.

The rest of the supplies were covertly taken from places around Atlantis—all the metal used for the outer casing had come from bathroom equipment they had dismantled in unused quarters—or the Athosians were quietly supplied with things to trade and were sent off to their allied worlds to trade for what they needed.

Once they got all the materials, it was decided that they would start building in the north wing. There was an unused lab there in which they could store their supplies and build parts and run simulations. As the helicopter started to take shape, they had to move the parts out onto the landing platform.

The scientists were the ones who threw themselves into building it. Rodney split his staff into shifts, making sure everybody had one shift doing something essential—such as fixing something important—one shift spent sleeping and eating, and a third shift working in the north wing. Long term projects were put on hold, ancient gizmos that they hadn't tested yet sat untouched on shelves and long-running simulations were saved and stored away to be continued after the chopper project was finished.

It wasn't only the physics and engineering departments who helped with the construction. The marines were recruited for carrying things and welding and hammering, and the botanists, oceanographers, geologists, astronomers, biologists, chemists, microbiologists and others were given their mandatory shift in the wing which they spent helping others and learning how to assemble electronics and putting up with Rodney's constant crowing about this proving that their degrees really were useless.

The military contingent, the rest of John's team and Elizabeth were responsible for keeping John from finding out about the plan at all costs. Rodney and Radek had coaxed and pleaded with Atlantis until she had grudgingly started displaying John as a red dot instead of white, allowing Lt. DeWinter to easily track the Colonel wherever he went.

There was always a security team patrolling close to the north wing, ready to run and intercept the Colonel with some inane task when he got too close to the wing.

The one big problem the marines found was their CO's strange and unique friendship with the head geek. The Colonel always stopped by the lab a few times a day to chat with Rodney, poke at various gizmos lying around and correct a few equations on the whiteboard. Since Rodney didn't trust Radek to run the chopper project by himself, he spent a great deal of time running back and forth between the wing and his lab and less time sleeping than usual. So the marines learned to communicate with Ronon, Teyla and Elizabeth to keep the Colonel occupied and away from the labs too.

They quickly learned what type of emergencies would make the Colonel more suspicious and how much interference was too much.

After morning PT, the marines would cluster infront of a small screen set up in one of their training rooms and post a few guards at the door to keep the Colonel distracted and out of the way. This was the same time that the science department heads had their daily meeting and a lot of that meeting was devoted to discussing the progress of the chopper project and what problems had arisen in construction and in running interference and any slip-ups that had occurred.

Everybody got used to suddenly having Lt. DeWinter calmly telling them to head this way or that or put down what they were holding or face the other way and pretend to be engaged in a conversation with someone behind them, and sure enough, moments later, the Colonel would brush past them, completely oblivious to the fact that he had just walked by somebody holding a piece of a helicopter engine.

Rodney insisted on nearly doing everything himself, not liking grubby fingerprints on the metal, not liking the stiffness of the joystick and yelling about the flight simulations being all wrong. He nearly made himself sick with lack of sleep and food and Radek resorted to drugging his coffee a few times to get him to sleep.

After months of worry, running around, lying, and holding their breaths, they were done.

They wrapped the chopper, told everybody to start discreetly making their way to the north wing, told the two security teams guarding the corridor to be ready to help the Colonel find the 'intruder' and gave Charles the go-ahead to tell the last lie he would ever tell his CO.

Atlantis was asked to kindly lie to her favourite person one last time and to wipe his LSD clean so he wouldn't detect the crowds of people gathering on the landing platform.

By the time they were done proudly explaining their story, John had smiled and laughed so much that his face was hurting, but he couldn't seem to stop. Part of it was the fact that this was the best damn day of his life, and the other part was that Atlantis was so thrilled with herself that she was positively glowing too, a bubble of warmth spilling through John's whole body. Part of it was probably smugness (and he resolved to give her a little dressing down later too), but mostly she just seemed happy to have helped make his day special.

He mock-glared at DeWinter and Lorne and the rest of his marines and pilots, who looked a bit sheepish.

"We're really sorry, sir. We wouldn't have had to lie if you were just a bit dumber."

John laughed out loud. "Thanks, Lorne. I think."

He got up and circled around the room, thanking his marines and pilots and Lorne, laughing and clapping them on the back, congratulating them on a covert op that was carried out more efficiently than he had ever seen.

Stopping by Charles, he grinned at him, shaking his hand hard. "Lieutenant, the next time I need to pull the wool over somebody's eye, I'm taking you with me."

"I'd be honored, sir."

"So would I. But from now on, any fibbing is done for me, not to me."

Charles grinned. "You got it, sir."

Then he made his way through the scientists, thanking them for their hard work and only tensing up a bit when Radek grabbed him in a bear hug and then spun him into Ronon, who picked him up and nearly crushed his ribs. Teyla laughed and touched his forehead to his and Elizabeth kissed him on the cheek before giving him a tight hug and whispering 'Happy Birthday, John' into his ear. Everywhere he turned, there were people grinning and congratulating him and clapping him on the back.

He was still slightly bewildered, feeling like he should be the one grinning at them and congratulating them, not the other way around.

During one rare moment when people weren't grinning at him, he took a second to gently touch the wall closest to him, feeling it glow warmer under his touch.

Thank you. You're damn sneaky and a liar, but thank you.

A smug feeling filtered into his mind and the wall at his fingertips seemed to sparkle a bit. Pressing his lips together to keep from laughing at her, John rolled his eyes.

Yeah, yeah. You just keep laughing.

As the cake started being cut and pieces started being passed around, John found Rodney at his elbow, three pieces of cake piled on his plate.

Rodney saw his amused glance. "What? I deserve it."

"Yeah, you really do."

They glanced around themselves, everybody eating cake and talking and laughing, the only indication of these people not all being related being the different uniforms and flag patches they wore on their sleeves.

The pilots mingled with the biologists and a marine was cutting cake pieces for the engineers eagerly standing behind her. Teyla was laughing with Lisa Simpson and Charles DeWinter and Radek was nodding and saying something to Ronon, who let out a laugh and sprayed Radek with cake crumbs.

John couldn't help but smile. These were his people, his family. And they not only respected him and trusted him, but they actually cared about him and each other. Looking out for each other and for him wasn't just a job for them anymore than it was for him, they did it because they wanted to.

He wasn't so sure about him being the one who was amazing and wonderful, but he knew that everyone of these people here was.

Especially the one sitting beside him, holding a piece of cake in each hand and launching into a long explanation for why his equations had led to a smoother simulation than Radek's or Simpson's and where the hell did she get that aeronautical engineering degree anyway, a cereal box?

John poked Rodney in the side with his elbow and slid his glasses down his nose.

"You wanna come fly with me tonight? I need a co-pilot."

Rodney lit up like a Christmas tree. "Hell yes! But no adding onto your crash landing record!"

John laughed. "I'll try." Somebody pushed another piece of cake into his hand and Rodney launched right back into his tirade, but he didn't seem to be as on track as he had been a second ago.

They were his family and John wouldn't trade them for anything in the universe. He would protect them and die for them if necessary, and it amazed him to realize that for the first time in his life, he was protecting people who would do the same for him.

He was surprised by the lump in his throat and he slid his glasses back up his nose to hide the tears welling in his eyes.

Rodney must have heard the slight hitch in his breath and he moved his elbow down beside John, gently squeezing his hand, still keeping up a tirade about incorrectly labeled USAF helicopter specs.