I keep swearing off writing fanfiction and manage to hold off for about… oh, a month? Two? So here we go! Another story! This is a fic I've been mulling over and pecking at since I created the backstory for Sheppard in my other fic, Beatae Memoriae, and while I am 'borrowing' the backstory from that story, this is in no way a sequel and definitely a stand-alone.

This story is set in late Season 3, after Sunday, but before Vengeance, so Carson, much as I love him, isn't in this, for reasons that may become evident later on in the story. If you haven't seen Season 3, this has mega-spoilers, so please be mindful of that.

This story will also get majorly Jossed by the time Outcast airs (whywhywhy do I read spoilers?), and truth be told, I almost abandoned this story in light of the fact, but I want closure, dammit! So, I guess, please consider this an AU – and I hope my muse wasn't misguided in demanding that this thing be written, jossing be damned. Again, pardon any incomprehensible scientific mumbo-jumboing, and any medical inaccuracies are to be taken with a grain of salt, though I do try to research as much as possible.

A huge, huge thank you to my wonderful friend and brilliant beta, who I blame entirely for keeping me in the full throes of this addiction. I adore you, darling!

While this story is still a work in progress, I can safely say that it is largely written and just needs some serious editing and fine tuning, so I will try to post each new chapter as quickly as the edits go and pesky real life permits.

The Sky is Not Less Blue

The sound of footsteps approaching in the nearly empty airport gate corridor made Rodney look up from his clasped hands. John raised his head too, panic flickering briefly on his face before he reined it back in, kneading his hands on the fabric of his pant legs as he and Rodney sat side by side on the bench, waiting for something they both dreaded.

They'd taken the red-eye from Colorado Springs to Reno, and the morning sun was still a hazy red ball low in the flat desert horizon. The footsteps came nearer still, and from the corner of his eye, Rodney could see an elongated shadow darkening the gleaming tile floor. He glanced back at John, and there it was again, the barely constrained fear, his entire body tensing, his hands leaving damps streaks on his faded jeans.

"You sure you want to do this?" Rodney asked. He kept his voice low, but John still startled a little at the sound. Rodney then shook his head at the stupidity of his own question. "I mean you... you don't have to do this. We can still figure something else out."

"No, we can't," John answered with a faint, but bleak smile. Rodney opened and closed his mouth silently, struggling to think of something encouraging to say but then the footsteps and the long shadow materialized into a tall figure striding up to them. An older man, in his late sixties, early seventies, maybe, wearing dress slacks, a pressed white shirt and striped tie.

Rodney stood and looked the man up and down, curious, despite himself. "General Sheppard, I presume?"

The man nodded, studying Rodney with the same blatant curiosity. "General William Sheppard," he confirmed. "And you must be Doctor McKay?" Posture rigid, military all the way, he held out his hand for Rodney to shake.

"The one and only," Rodney answered, forcing a grin as he took the man's hand. Of course, the general had one of those sadistic handshakes that come within a hair's breadth of finger crushing. From the little John had told him of his father, Rodney had expected as much. Without thinking, he squeezed back just as hard, and the two men stared into each other's eyes with a sudden hostility for which Rodney couldn't find a reason. He wanted to point out that their plane had arrived nearly forty minutes ago, but for once, he held his tongue, for John's sake.

Before he had even been officially discharged from the military, John had shocked not just Rodney but their entire team when he first contacted his father. To John's own surprise, his old man had not only readily replied to him, but had also offered to take John in, as though the near fifteen-year rift between them had never happened. But Rodney knew that John was only doing this because he had nowhere else to go, because he hadn't wanted to be a burden to his team.

John slowly got to his own feet then relaxed into his deliberate and characteristic slouch. General Sheppard frowned a little at that. Rodney took the opportunity to extricate his hand, resisting the urge to massage his aching fingers.

"Hi, dad," John said with a smirk and a sloppy salute, the display of rebellion marred by the faint but noticeable tremor to his voice. He kept his head slightly down, self-consciously hiding his eyes.

"John," the older man replied with a curt nod, finally looking closely at his son. He blinked, unable to hide his shock at the sight of the fine network of scars on John's cheekbones and the deeper one bisecting his left eyebrow. The old man reached out a hand and hesitated a moment before grasping John's shoulder. Not expecting the contact, John flinched, stumbling into Rodney, who quickly caught and steadied him. Even as John muttered a quick apology, his father jerked his hand away as though scalded. His eyes flicked back down the hallway, as if he were wishing he could turn tail and walk away again.

Rodney wanted to shout at the old man; He's blind, not fucking contagious, you idiot! Instead, he forced himself to take a deep breath, to just stay objective about this whole thing and cut the old man some slack. After all, he'd had the decency to show up. Late or not, he was here, accepting responsibility. That was something, wasn't it?

Then in an oddly familiar mannerism, General Sheppard schooled his features into inscrutability as he studied the son he hadn't seen in fifteen years. As Rodney watched the older man take in the full reality of his new, six-foot tall responsibility, he looked for further similarities between John and his father. Though a little stooped by age, William Sheppard had the same lanky build as John, and his hair was nearly as thick, but a luxurious silver-gray in color. The same color Rodney imagined that John's would turn about five years from now, judging by the number of light strands he'd noticed suddenly beginning to streak John's dark hair. Then looking back into the old man's eyes that was where the similarities ended. William Sheppard's eyes were a cool, hard pale gray, whereas John's, even now, were warm and far more expressive than John was probably even aware of, or would have liked.

"We should probably head out now before the rush hour traffic starts," William finally said, clearing his throat. He glanced down at the luggage by John's feet. "That everything?"

John nodded. "Yep. That's it." He'd given away most of his possessions before leaving Atlantis, claiming he no longer had any need for them, and to Rodney, it seemed strange that John's entire life could be so easily packed up in one suitcase and a large duffle bag.

William stooped to retrieve the suitcase, while John reached down for it at the same time. He stumbled into his father then lurched backward, his face coloring with shame and uncertainty. William said nothing, only grasped hold of the suitcase handle with a gnarled, trembling hand. John backed up until his legs hit the bench; his fingers reaching down to touch the seats, grounding himself.

"Hey, I got the other one," Rodney piped up little too brightly, his voice rising an octave along with the tension. He pulled on his own backpack then hefted the duffle bag onto his other shoulder. He bit back the urge to complain when his back twinged in protest. And it was just typical of Sheppard to insist on keeping both his skateboard and boogieboard and taking them with him to freaking Nevada. "I'll walk you to the car."

William Sheppard nodded in thanks while Rodney moved close enough to John to brush up against his shoulder. He waited for John to make the next move. After a moment of hesitation, he did—reaching out and loosely grasping hold of Rodney's forearm. It was an unwritten, hard-earned rule between them—John took Rodney's arm when he was damn well good and ready, not the other way around. John's father, keeping his eyes averted, turned and strode ahead of them as though in a hurry, or embarrassed to be seen with them.

"It's gonna be okay," Rodney reassured John, even though he knew his friend hated platitudes. "It's just temporary and until you learn how to live on your own without burning the place down or seriously maiming yourself every five minutes."

"I know," John replied too quickly through gritted teeth, his face set in a determined scowl.

"I bet he's a great guy once you get to know him," Rodney said, hopeful, jerking his chin in the direction of William Sheppard's back.

"He's an asshole," John said simply, as though commenting on the weather.

Rodney didn't know what to say to that – what could you say to that? – and so in silence, they followed William outside and into the parking lot. The air was dry and already too warm with the promise of a scorching hot day. The old man stopped at a black Ford Explorer, opened the back hatch and threw John's bag inside. Rodney handed him the duffle, which followed. When the trunk was slammed shut with a solid thump, John flinched again, and misery, fear and indecision passed in rapid succession over his features. Rodney felt like he was handing his best friend over to the enemy.

"Hey, you guys hungry? Because I'm famished!" he blurted, waving in the direction of the freeway. "How about breakfast? I don't know about you, but I'm dying for some pancakes and real bacon." John couldn't hold back a faint smile at that, which was an improvement at any rate, so Rodney found himself babbling on. "I don't have anything better to do until my flight tonight, and what is there to do in Reno this time of day, anyway? Besides throwing away perfectly good money in slot machines, I mean? Maybe there's a—"

John stopped him by squeezing his arm a little tighter. "Thanks, McKay, but I'm pretty tired, and we probably should head out now."

Rodney looked at his friend and didn't know if John's quiet resignation was making this easier or harder. He glanced over to John's father, but the other man was now leaning against the driver's side of the truck, his back to them, curls of smoke drifting over his head as he puffed on a cigarette. He was all but ignoring them, or giving them a moment, it was hard to tell which. At the same time, couldn't the man at least pretend that he gave a good goddamn about his son beyond moral obligation?

Rodney found he wasn't quite ready to give up so soon. In fact, he wasn't ready for this at all. He directed his attention back to John. "You sure? I was gonna spring for it."

John smiled again, that lopsided smirk somehow both grateful and reluctant at the same time. "Ah, you're just saying that now that I turned you down."

Rodney tried to look affronted then remembered with a sharp pang that John couldn't see it. "Are you insinuating that I'm cheap?" he said, forcing his voice to squeak a little with indignation.

"Not insinuating. You are cheap," John told him.

"Hah, so says the man who, even before giving away most of his stuff, owns only three decent shirts, seven CD's and four books. Oh, and a skateboard and surfboard. I don't even want to know what you're planning on doing with those."

"You counted my stuff?" John said, incredulous.

"Hey, who do you think helped pack up your precious stuff?"

"Fine. And that's not cheap, that's practical," John drawled. "Pack up, ready to go anywhere, anytime you w—" He abruptly broke off when both of them realized that John's days of doing just that were over. John rubbed a hand over his forehead, then swallowed hard and shuffled a few steps away, letting go of Rodney's arm. He reached behind him until his fingers found the fender of the truck. "Yeah… well. Take care of yourself, Rodney."

Rodney nodded, finding his throat suddenly too tight to speak and then remembered again that Sheppard couldn't see him. "Yeah," he said in a hoarse voice. "You, too."

"Later, McKay," John said, smiling again, though his sightless eyes were suddenly bright with the threat of tears. "Thanks… for… Thank you." He held up a loosely fisted hand, Ronon-style.

Rodney clasped it tightly, equally manly, then in a spontaneous, decidedly unmanly moment, grasped the back of John's neck with his other hand and pulled him close. John was too surprised to resist then relaxed into the unexpected but comforting embrace a moment.

"You are coming back to visit once in a while, right?" John asked as he pulled back, frowning with suspicion. "You know, Starbucks, old Doctor Who reruns, Big Macs? Bacon from real Earth pigs?" He meant it to be light, to inject a little levity, but Rodney could all too clearly hear the unspoken plea; don't forget about me.

"Are you kidding me?" Rodney said, playing along and scrunching his face with disgust. "Big Macs? Do you know what they put in those things? Now sushi… Sushi is worth coming back for. And, of course, bacon. I wonder if they even have any decent sushi places in Reno?"

"Right," John said, nodding and reassured. "We'll do sushi and bacon and eggs." He thought a moment, then scowled. "No, on second thought, you can have sushi. I'll stick with the Big Macs." He slid his hand along the truck, and Rodney knew better than to help John find the passenger seat. That, he knew, John would insist on managing on his own.

General Sheppard tossed his cigarette butt to the pavement and watched his son, making no moves to help him either. When after a moment, John found the door handle and pulled it open, William nodded to Rodney. "Thank you for your assistance, Dr. McKay."

With that, he waved Rodney off as though he were nothing more than a valet service. The old man climbed into the driver's seat, slammed the door and started the engine. Standing in front of the open passenger door, John turned in Rodney's general direction, pulled a wry face and shrugged.

Rodney let out a soft laugh at that despite the overwhelming sting of loss. In that moment, he was glad John was unable to see him because the grief and remorse seized full hold and there was no way Rodney could even try to hide it anymore. This was it, this was goodbye.

John reached in the car to feel along the seat before sliding inside. He pulled the door shut with a terrible sense of finality. Rodney almost expected John to look back and wave, or flash Rodney a cocky grin while flipping him off, but then Rodney remembered again. Everything was different now.

John kept his head down as the truck pulled out, turned the corner and was gone.

-- tbc --

I know it seems like the end, but like the song says, we've only just beguuunnn…