(a/n: The Manhattan Project was begun in 1938 out of fears that Hitler would pursue his own atomic weapon. However, in the early years research was spread across the country at various universities with a small central office in… Manhattan. It wasn’t centralized in Los Alamos, NM until 1943. But, as the author, I decided to take a little artistic license and have it located there from the get-go for plot and simplicity sake.)
Not exactly where I’d pictured myself ending up, but things hadn’t exactly gone as I’d planned the past several years. I’d left Texas looking for an escape from my past, what I found in Seattle was my future. The sagebrush desert of the Dust Bowl years had left me with the lingering taste of dirt and dejection that the rains of the Pacific Northwest had washed away so that I could finally find something I never knew I wanted until it was almost gone… acceptance, acknowledgment, affection and a thousand other words to describe the man who was never without them.
Rodney and I had moved into a small house up on the mesa that fingered out over the New Mexico landscape like the hand of an old woman reaching for a young child. Whether she was a soothing grandmother or the wicked witch of fairy tales, I wasn’t completely sure, and given the research that was taking place, my opinion changed daily. I was back in the desert, but it was a different one from where I had been born. This one had trees, and snow in the winter, and yes, now and again, we got rain. It wasn’t Seattle by any means, but it quickly became home.
No one said anything about our cohabitation. Maybe they just figured we’d come from Washington together and it made sense that we’d stick close to each other. Maybe it was the fact that the community was predominantly scientists and they had more important things to worry about than the living arrangements of the two new guys. Or maybe it was like McKay said, and J. Edgar Hoover really was a cross-dresser and didn’t have room to comment on our private lives.
I honestly didn’t care. All I knew was that I’d never been happier in my life.
Rodney started work on the Manhattan project the day after we arrived with our bags, boxes, and cat carrier wedged in my car. His car we sold to buy furniture and sock aside a little nest egg for later. I’d never worried about later before. At times it was terrifying to realize how dependent I’d become on that concept since moving to New Mexico, but the reasons why I’d become so dependent… a kiss when we left for the labs in the morning, a pair of feet propped in my lap while Rodney worked on the sofa at night, a waggle of eyebrows when he put his notebook aside and hitched his head toward the bedroom, warm arms wrapped around me while I slept… were enough to chase any momentary panic away.
At first Rodney was excited about his work. Physics. Honest to God physics. He was like a kid who had been given an ink pen, the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog, and told to circle everything you want, it’s yours. But after a couple of weeks, his enthusiasm started to wane, and one night, while I sat reading and he sat at the table working on calculations, he looked up at me with an expression that made we wonder if the stew I’d fixed for dinner hadn’t gone over as well as I’d thought.
“I’ve been studying their calculations for the bomb,” he admitted to me quietly. “It’s big.”
“How big?” I asked, his unease starting to make my own stomach flip uncomfortably.
“Millions?” I coaxed in confusion.
“Of people. Dead.” I didn’t say anything. Hell, what could you say to something like that? His eyes flicked to the papers before him then back up to me, and he spoke barely above a whisper. “I think I know a way we can make it bigger.”
“How much bigger?”
He stood, walked to the fireplace, and tossed his notebook onto the low flames. “Too big.” He watched it for a few seconds, satisfied that the fire would sufficiently destroy his work over the past month, before he started down the hall. “Are you ready for bed?”
That night I covered him like a warm blanket, running slow kisses from the nape of his neck and all the way down his spine and back up again, nuzzling behind his ear, nipping at the back of his jaw, telling him as best as I could that he had made the right decision, that he’d already crossed one line he’d said he never would, there was no need to cross the one he’d been willing to all along. And I did it all without speaking a single word aloud.
The next day, McKay was off the project. Rumor around town had it he’d finally pissed Oppenheimer off to the point that he was thrown out of the lab. Rodney claimed Oppenheimer was a major prick and he’d finally had enough of His Royal Omnipotence trying to prove he was the heir apparent to God and Newton combined. Whatever people believed, I didn’t care and neither did McKay, since I knew the truth of the matter.
But the end result was that Dr. Rodney McKay came to work with me on the Pegasus Project. Named after the mythical winged horse, we were the secret group that was going to swoop in and lead America to victory… even if we never officially joined the fight. Rodney quickly rose to the demands of running the lab, even though Zelenka was officially in charge. But regardless of the fact that Radek knew more about the devices and what they were capable of than Rodney, McKay knew how to rustle a herd of unruly scientists better than anyone I’d ever seen. And within a few weeks, Rodney was on par with Zelenka in the knowledge category, too.
Two months after Rodney started in the lab, operatives behind the German line were able to locate Radek’s family, and we had to start prepping for our first mission. Yeah, mission. Ends up the plan all along was for me to do more than just sit in a lab and make things light up, which went a long way in explaining the intensive German language classes I found myself in almost more than the lab. The best way to stop Hitler from being a threat to the U.S. was to stop him from advancing his hold on Europe and keep him from using the devices he already had, and that meant I was going to the fight instead of waiting for the fight to come to us. McKay insisted he needed to come, too. A fact I learned when he showed up and sat down next to me in my language class with a cheerful, “Guten morgen.”
If anything happened with the equipment, he could fix it, and he could probably figure out what anything we found was for. Or so he claimed. I claimed there was no way in hell he was going into a combat zone, end of story. And three nights of yelling at each other to the point that the cat had taken up permanent residence under our bed hadn’t resolved anything, which didn’t really matter to me seeing as I’d been sleeping on the couch that entire time.
Finally Rodney had come into the living room and sat at the foot of the sofa where I was grumping under the blanket. “If our roles were reversed, Sheppard, if I was the one who could operate the devices and not you, would you want me to go without you?”
“I just want you safe, McKay.” That’s all I’d ever wanted, and here, in New Mexico, in the middle of a top secret government research facility, that’s exactly what he was.
“Well, yes, I’d prefer that, too.”
His admission had me rolling my eyes under the covers. “Then why the hell are we arguing about this?”
“Because I’m right and you’re too incredibly bullheaded to admit it.”
“McKay,” I growled, preparing for another round in the ring, but what he said next kind of took the fight out of me.
“No one cares for you like I do, John. No one would do anything to make sure you stayed alive like I would. I’m the best man for the job of watching your back, just like you’re the best man to do the same for me. I just can’t figure out if it’s me you don’t trust, or yourself.”
Reaching out a hand from under the blanket, I tugged at him to lie down beside me on the couch. “I trust you, Rodney.”
He curled his arms around me, slid his leg between mine. It was such a natural move that I’d taken it for granted until I’d gone without it for a few days. “And I trust you.” I sighed, started to say he really shouldn’t, but he spoke before I could. “I feel safe with you, Sheppard. Most secure I’ve ever felt in my life. You think leaving me behind will keep me safe, but you’re wrong. If you go over there and get yourself killed, I’ll never be safe again in my life. Is that what you want?”
I could have argued with him some more, could have told him he was bat shit crazy, that his argument was the most ridiculous one I’d ever heard in my life. But I couldn’t disagree with him, because I knew exactly what he meant, because I felt exactly the same way. “Goddammit, Rodney, I really hate you sometimes.”
I adjusted the covers over our shoulders to keep out the chill, and he snuggled under my chin with a kiss. “I feel the same way about you, too.”
As the time for our trip approached, Rodney grew more anxious. Radek didn’t help matters, that’s for damn sure. He was coming as our guide, our interpreter for his home country, and to make sure the United States government actually followed through with their promise and saw his family safely back to America with him. But he literally jumped every time he fired a gun, to the point that he nearly jumped out of his skin one day in the lab when Miko accidentally dropped a book on the floor. At first I thought his jitters were rubbing off on McKay, but then he finally confessed what the real problem was. Rodney wasn’t looking forward to the flight across the Atlantic. For some reason the first leg of the flight that would take us to the East Coast didn’t bother him, but it was the idea of our plane going down over the vast open waters of the ocean that had him on edge.
Carson had tried to calm him, suggesting he look at it in a purely scientific fashion as he did everything else. “There are laws of aerodynamics that govern these things aren’t there? Just concentrate on reciting those during your trip and you’ll be fine.”
“Brave words from the man who doesn’t have to leave the safety of the ground,” McKay snapped back.
A look of utter happiness passed over Carson’s face. “Aye. Praise be to the saints for that one.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Oh, that makes me feel so much better.”
“I’m sorry, Rodney, but there are certain things that just don’t make sense to me.”
“You mean like glowing cubes?” He tossed the portable power unit to me. “Activate that, I need to see if it can rejuice the concealer by just being in proximity or if I have to wire it up somehow.”
“It’s more basic than that,” Carson continued. “We aren’t birds, we don’t have wings, we shouldn’t take flight.”
“Not helping, Carson,” I gritted in warning under my breath, but it was too late.
“If that were a rational argument, you’d never get a date.” Rodney flashed one of his most smartass smiles, which had Beckett crossing his arms across his chest.
“And why, pray tell, is that?”
Rodney waved a hand at the physician. “Well, you aren’t a sheep, you don’t have wool, and yet…”
Yanking McKay out of reach of the Scott, who was opening and closing his mouth in outrage, I told them, “Okay, fun time’s over. We’ve got more important things to worry about.”
“Aye,” Carson agreed fervently. “If I were you, Rodney, I’d be much more concerned with my jump across the puddle and less about implying untruths about me and the livestock.”
I blinked at his phrasing, then asked curiously, “Jump across the puddle?”
“The puddle, the pond,” he stated, as if that would clear things up but when I just looked at him he said more slowly, “the Atlantic. When are you lads going to learn to speak proper English?”
But the term stuck with me, and a few weeks later, I flew for the first time in my life, and we undertook our first Puddle Jump.
* * * *
Rodney stood in front of the mirror in the bedroom of the safe house we were using on the outskirts of Prague. Tugging at the German officer’s uniform he was wearing, he turned one way then the other and nervously studied his reflection. “So, how do I look?” he asked with an uneasy shift of his shoulders and an adjustment of his glasses. “Would you buy that I was capable of commanding the respect of a sizeable portion of the German army?”
I took off the hat that went with my own uniform, a lesser rank than McKay’s seeing as I was supposed to be his driver in this little charade, and dropped it on the bed. Then I dropped to my knees, unzipped him and took him in my mouth before he was completely hard. His hissed protests and attempts to push me away quickly changed to moans of pleasure as he threaded his fingers into my hair. On the one hand it was my own private fuck you to the Nazi Party who would kill us for this act alone before they even bothered to find out we were spies. And on another, more personal note, it was my own form of motivational speech.
By the time I finished up, Rodney was half slumped against the wall, a blissful smile on his face. I zipped him up myself, stood, leaned in and kissed him hard. “You’re king of the fucking world, McKay, and I expect you to be a benevolent ruler to your most loyal subject when this is all said and done.”
Unfortunately, when it was all said and done, I wasn’t exactly in the best shape to receive his generosity. The mission itself went off smooth as silk. When we were stopped at the checkpoint leading into the city, Rodney browbeat the lowly infantryman on guard duty in flawless German until the kid was practically genuflecting as he waved us through. Radek, who was in civilian dress, sat gripping his briefcase with white knuckles until we rendezvoused with his family… all seven of them. There were parents, siblings, a nephew and brother-in-law, lots of hugging and crying and excited explanations that involved lots of hand motions and way too many consonants… and I was the one that was going to get them out.
The device I was going to use to do it was the bulkiest one we had, about the size of a typewriter, and also the most difficult to operate. When I activated it, the truck would simply vanish, and as long as I held my concentration, it would stay invisible. The problem was, I had to concentrate like hell to maintain the cover. Rodney was convinced the unit wasn’t meant to be operated on its own, that it should be integrated into another device, possibly a transport vehicle of its own, that would maintain the system once it had been activated. But as a stand-alone piece of equipment, it was exhausting to use for extended periods of time, and the almost five-hundred-mile trip from Czechoslovakia to the Yugoslavian border was going to push my endurance to the limit.
Rodney and I had driven almost three times that far on our move from Seattle to New Mexico. Windows down, sun shining, Glen Miller and Jimmy Dorsey on the radio, McKay’s right arm pinking up from hanging out the window as he rode with a Coca-Cola bottle in one hand, then his left arm catching up when we switched out and he drove for a while… it was a trip that I really didn’t want to end. Not like the one through occupied Europe. For one thing, the dirt roads that had turned to mud because of the late September rains were the furthest thing from Route 66 you could think of. Five hundred miles along the summer-heated asphalt of the southern half of the United States flew by in less than twelve hours, including the stops at every other diner that caught Rodney’s attention with a sign for the best pie you’ll ever eat. But twelve hours into our escape and we were barely on the far side of Budapest.
“We can keep going,” I insisted when McKay called a halt for the day. “You guys can swap out driving.”
“But no one can swap out with you,” he countered, prying my fingers free from the device.
“I’m fine,” I told him, feeling anything but, and, as I figured, Rodney didn’t buy it.
“No, you’re not. I’ve solved the murders of corpses that looked better than you do.” He took the device and handed it back to Radek. “You need rest, Sheppard. Not to mention food. We’ve found cover, we’ll set up a watch, and you’re going to sleep.”
I hadn’t realized I was shaking until I no longer had the unit to cling to and when he helped me stand to walk me out of the back of the truck, I realized it wasn’t just my hands that were trembling. Rodney clicked on his flashlight to illuminate the path into the darkened barn they had hid the truck in for the night. At the light, sharp pain spiked through my head and I pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes to block it out as I staggered into the panel of the truck. Rodney’s arm tightened around my waist, keeping me on my feet as he led me to a corner of the barn and sat me down with a quick kiss to my forehead and a promise to be right back.
I didn’t dare try to open my eyes again; the railroad spikes in my head had at least toned down to an intense throbbing ache. And who the hell would have ever thought that would be considered an improvement? When he returned, Rodney pressed a canteen into my hands, wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, and then wrapped his hands around mine to steady them so I could drink deeply. We knew when we took on this job that if anything happened to either one of us when we were behind enemy lines, the only medical help we’d have would be from each other. And Carson had prepared us as best he could. Rodney put some of his training to the test, checking my pulse, my pupils, making sure my brain hadn’t actually exploded like it felt like it had. Evidently he was satisfied with the results, if not pleased, because he sat beside me with a sigh.
As soon as he was settled, I turned and wrapped my arm around his chest, pressed my face into the crook of his neck and held on for dear life. I’d had a similar reaction before when we were testing the device in the lab, a headache that lasted all night and most of the next day, but seeing as I’d never maintained the connection for so long, it had never been this bad before. But the longer McKay held me, the more the shaking and pain subsided. I drifted off to the sound of rain dripping outside the wooden walls of the barn, the pungent smell of hay and manure, and the feel of Rodney’s hands running circles along my back. At some point he woke me, had me eat, checked my vitals again, then pillowed my head in his lap where I fell instantly back to sleep.
It felt like I had only been asleep for a few minutes when Rodney shook my shoulder. “John, the sun’s coming up and it looks like there are troops moving into the area. We intercepted a radio transmission a little after midnight. They’ll be here within the hour.”
I nodded, pulled myself up using his arm and winced at the sunlight already starting to show through the slats.
“Can you do this? We can always wait for them to pass by. They may not even see us, and if it looked like they had, you could activate the device then.”
I shook my head and at least it didn’t feel like it was about to burst like an overfilled balloon. “And have them walk into an invisible truck when they come to check it out? I don’t think so. Help me stand up.”
We made it out of the barn without the German troops ever knowing we were there. Rodney watched me closely that day, tried to intercede before I was in even worse condition than I had been the night before, and unfortunately didn’t succeed. We did manage to make it to the border, a cheer going up in the truck when we bypassed the last German check point and crossed onto Yugoslavian land that had me moaning at the way my head felt like it was about to crack open down the center. Radek was hugging me, thanking me, his mother was kissing my cheek, his brother-in-law patting me on the back, nephew clinging to my leg, and suddenly the world was spinning. Somewhere in the press of people around me was the one I was looking for, but I couldn’t see him. Hell, I really couldn’t see anything anymore.
“Rod…ney?” I could feel the ground falling out from under me and I fought to cling to awareness.
“It’s okay, Sheppard,” he promised, his voice instantly at my ear as he slung my arm around his shoulder, and I could only imagine how he’d made it there so quickly. Dropkicked the kid and hip-checked the grandma for all I knew. “You’re safe, we’re safe, you did it.”
But we weren’t safe. Not entirely. Sure, we were out of German territory, but that didn’t necessarily mean we were in friendly territory. Countries have interests, not friends. And ten people bound for the United States could draw the wrong kind of interest in a country that was hanging on to its independence by its collective fingernails. And that meant we didn’t have time to rest on our laurels just yet or let down our guard. We needed to get out of Europe and back to the States, pronto. And that meant I wouldn’t get a chance to recuperate until we were back on my native soil.
The next several days were a blur, and as much as I had hated the idea of McKay going on this mission, I was thankful as hell that he was there. There were papers and trains and airplanes and more papers and questions from customs agents and more paper work and phone calls to the Agency to get us out of security offices. I moved through the entire ordeal in a disoriented fuzz that was only interrupted by intermittent periods of excruciating pain and I relied completely on Rodney to take us home. He kept checking me, kept trying to find me quiet places to rest, cotton in my ears, lights off, curtains closed… not an easy task in crowded train stations and busy bureaucratic offices. And he was never, not even for a minute, out of arm’s reach.
Once Caldwell himself showed up to get us out of the Baltimore airport, Rodney decided he’d had enough of traveling around the world with a man teetering on the edge of total collapse and I’d had enough of being dragged. Even though we were finally on safe ground, the stimuli in an American city were more than we’d had in Yugoslavia. Instead of taking us back to Los Alamos, he promptly checked us into a hotel, closed the curtains, disconnected the phone after a quick phone call to Beckett, put out a ‘do not disturb’ sign, stripped me down, put me to bed, stripped himself, collapsed beside me and was snoring before I was. We spent the next three days like that, wrapped in darkness, cotton sheets and each other’s arms and legs. Never speaking above a whisper, even when he ordered room service. Sleeping, touching, kissing. Healing. And me, at least, hoping that Rodney would decide that one mission was enough and he’d be more than happy to stay behind the next time something came up.
Yeah, fat chance that would happen.
* * * *
In early November, we were in Brussels helping to locate a new device and the scientist who was studying it, not to mention the young German soldier who had the gene and could operate it. All three of them came back to the United States with us.
For Thanksgiving I cooked a turkey. Hey, there’s a first time for everything, and given the year I’d had, stuffing a bird was probably five hundred and twelfth on the list of things John Sheppard had never expected to do in his lifetime but had. Considering I was serving a contingent representing Canada, Scotland, Czechoslovakia, Japan, Belgium, and Germany, I was deemed the only one with the experience necessary to undertake the assignment.
Carson’s mother came for a visit at Christmas time, stuffing us all full of various boiled meats and sweets and mixing a mean spiked eggnog that had Rodney and I stumbling home in the snow after our early Christmas celebration, early because we were shipping out soon for another Puddle Jump. We left Carson’s home leaning on each other and laughing and kissing and groping and already halfway gone by the time we tumbled onto the floor in front of our fireplace and unwrapped each other in a fevered frenzy before collapsing naked and panting and sporting a fresh set of rug burns. And I decided Rodney could have saved himself a lot of bitching about the difficulties of cutting wrapping paper to the correct size if he’d just stuck a bow on his sweaty body, because I could never dream up a better Christmas gift for myself than that.
Four days later we were huddled together under a bridge along the Seines, McKay complaining about the cold and how rude the waiter was at the café where we’d had lunch that day.
“You’d think being occupied would humble a man, especially one who made a living making espresso, although the drink was well worth the attitude. Yours looked a little weak, though…”
We were waiting to make contact with a member of the French resistance who had information about the whereabouts of another stash of Pegasus devices and I sat and listened as the words rolled over me and snow drifted gracefully onto the river; I figured there were worse ways to spend an evening, especially when I checked my watch, leaned over and silenced him with a kiss.
“Merry ‘Day After Christmas’, McKay.”
He shook his head with a snort. “You are such a sap I could spread you on my pancakes.”
“What? We’re in Paris, the most romantic city in the world.”
“Disguised as German Officers, hiding under a bridge, on the verge of frostbite…”
I kissed him again, this time taking a more leisurely approach. “Merry Day After Christmas, McKay.”
He was already leaning back in to resume the kiss. “Merry Day After Christmas, Sheppard.”
The sound of footsteps pretty much stopped things from going any further and we were left pretty much speechless when Teyla arrived, greeting us warmly and explaining she was working undercover as a singer in a Parisian cabaret that was very popular with German officers.
“There has been talk of an operation with the code name Atlantis,” Teyla informed us. “Rumors of machines that are from a long forgotten race and a weapon that Hitler is convinced will allow him to defeat his enemies.”
“Sounds like your kind of toys, Sheppard,” Rodney commented with a frown.
“Any idea what sort of weapon?” I asked.
Teyla shook her head. “From what I have learned, the Germans are not sure what purpose it serves, either. Escorts are standing by to move it to Germany. It is scheduled to arrive by ship in Calais in four days.”
“Calais?” Rodney asked in confusion. “That means it must be coming in from Britain.”
“It is being smuggled out of Africa somewhere. Hitler is trying to keep it out of Mussolini’s hands, which is why he shipped it instead of moving it north over land. He does not completely trust his supposed ally. It is coming in on a cargo ship out of Lisbon called The Orion. The captain is a free trader… a smuggler who my contacts say will stop in Portmouth for another transaction in England before crossing the channel and coming here. A transaction the Germans are not aware of.”
“Then Portsmouth is our best chance of intercepting it.”
My observation had Teyla nodding in agreement before telling us, “Unfortunately, the Germans plan to launch a blitzkrieg against London at the same time the ship will be in port.”Part 6