Chapter 04


~*~*~*~*~*~

Beta kudos to Cryysis!!

Chapter IV

          The funeral had been – in a word – excruciating.  John didn’t think he’d felt this awful since…well, after Afghanistan.  Although killing Sumner and waking up the Wraith came real close, that was all more guilt than grief.  Even losing Elizabeth and Carson, despite how close he’d been to them, hadn’t quite felt like this.

          Through most of the service, he’d felt nauseous and shaky, worse than the hangover of a Wraith stunner-blast.  When he was presented the flag from the casket, John had to swallow back the bile a few times, and if it hadn’t been for his team closing into his personal space with hands on his shoulders, and Teyla’s hand gripping his free one, he might just have let his knees buckle right out from under him.  As they’d lowered Jenny into the grave, he wanted to leap forward and scream at them not to do it, not to put her in the ground because she wasn’t dead, couldn’t be dead…  When the bugler played TAPS (Jenny had been law enforcement, after all), John wanted to curl up and die, too.  It was all so completely irrational, but he just couldn’t seem to help himself.

          When it was finally over, John saw the approaching crowd of mourners and gave in to the panic that suddenly rushed up from his churning gut.

          “Rodney, god, I can’t do this.” He practically moaned it, and from the startled, worried look his friend gave him, he guessed he’d probably just scared him, too.  Because he wasn’t acting much like his team had come to expect him to act.

          “John?”  Rodney leaned in close, hand on his forearm in an attempt to steady the man, feeling the tremors of tension under his touch.  “What is it?”

          “The people…I can’t do this, Rodney.  Get me out of here!”

          Blue eyes widened, flickering to the first of the approaching mourners and back.  Grim understanding and determination set in, and Rodney nodded abruptly.  “Right.  We’re going.  Teyla, Ronon.”

          “Yes.”  Teyla acknowledged, then she and Ronon flanked John immediately while Rodney looked over toward where Daniel was standing, speaking to the priest.

          “Daniel!”  He called, and when the archaeologist turned to look at him, Rodney signed that they were heading for the Jeep.  “Keys?”

          The archaeologist hurried over and dropped the keys in Rodney’s hands.  “Go.  I’ll handle this.”

          Nodding once abruptly, Rodney shooed Teyla and Ronon along with their leader boxed in by the three of them.  “Thanks.  We owe you one.”  Rodney said gruffly, trudging quickly after his team before Daniel could reply.

          Teyla sat in front again, as Ronon took the very back seats for himself.  After John climbed in and slid over at Rodney’s none-too-gentle shove, the scientist got in, closing and locking the doors.  He turned immediately to his friend, barking, “Take a breath, hold it, then let it out slowly, Sheppard, before you hyperventilate.”  He could see the pallor and fine trembling, hear the shaky, gasping pants for air, and he knew exactly what a panic attack was like.  He also knew John was unlikely to just obey without some sort of firm, no-nonsense tone.

          Rodney narrowed his eyes when John looked about to protest.  “For once, just shut up and do what I tell you.  Good.”  He relented a little when the officer did as he was told.  “Do it again, and keep doing it until the worst of it passes.”  He reached over, thinking to pat John on the knee in reassurance (somewhat awkwardly, since comforting others was not his strong suit), but John grabbed his hand instead and gripped it like a lifeline, startling Rodney.  However, seeing that it was helping, Rodney bit back a protest (token as it would be) and let him keep hold of it.

          “Rodney?”  Teyla murmured his name in question.  He flicked a glance at her, but only long enough to acknowledge he’d heard.  His focus remained on John.

          “He’s fine, Teyla.  Well, relatively.  It’s a panic attack.  He just needs to calm down and get his breathing under control again.”  Rodney squeezed John’s hand.  “Better?”  He asked, eyeing the officer carefully, looking for any more signs of distress.

          John took another deep breath and nodded, colour rushing up into his cheeks – even to his ears – with embarrassment.  “Yeah.  God, I’m so sorry.  I don’t know what that was!”

          “Don’t apologize.  You hoard all your stress and emotions like Scrooge McDuck hoards his money.  Eventually it was gonna vent.”  Rodney brushed aside the apology.  “Be glad it was just a mild panic attack and not something more serious.  I don’t think General O’Neill would be too happy if I called him to tell him you’d gone berserk or something.”

          The idea was so ridiculous to John that he actually laughed.  It made Rodney relax a little in relief, but that didn’t last long when John’s laugh turned sort of hysterical and sobbing.  Not really sure what to do, Rodney urged the officer to lean forward and put his head down between his knees, rubbing his back and shoulders in what Rodney hoped was a soothing manner.  He gave Teyla a “Help!” look, and the Athosian just smiled and shook her head.

          She thought he was doing just fine, and believed John would not be so welcoming of anyone else’s touch or comfort right now.  Rodney’s expression was pained, but it was entirely overshadowed by his concern for John.  A glance toward the back of the vehicle at Ronon was equally reassuring.  The Satedan was calm and unconcerned, if a little sympathetic, but not otherwise taking the out-pouring of emotion from Sheppard badly.  He caught her looking, and shrugged, deciding to speak up himself.

          “McKay’s right, Sheppard.  If you don’t let it out now it’ll eat at you like poison.  Get it all out so you can put it aside and move on.  For your cousin.”  Ronon’s voice was uncharacteristically soft.  “She needs you to fight for her, now, and you can’t do that if you’re so mired in your grief you can’t see past it.”

          Under Rodney’s hand he could feel muscles twitching and shuddering with tension as John reacted to Ronon’s words.  He wept silently, probably for the first real time since he was just a little boy.  The last five or six years worth of loss and anger and pain just seemed to fuel his tears, and he couldn’t seem to stop.  But through it all, Rodney’s presence was solid, warm, and reassuring, and the hand on his back never lifted.  It grounded him when he would otherwise fly apart in pieces, and he unconsciously leaned into that source of strength.

          Eventually his body ran out of tears and the crying jag came to a halt.  The occasional hiccoughing sigh made him shiver, but otherwise he was so done with crying.  He bent forward, arms resting on his knees, and let his head hang down to hide his embarrassed, and no doubt messy, face from his team.

          John blinked blearily when he felt his cap lift off his head and strong, nimble fingers dove into his hair to rub at his scalp.  It was a pleasant warmth that tingled through his system at the gesture, and even though he shouldn’t allow it, he made no move to remove Rodney’s hand.  He didn’t even stop to wonder when Rodney had gotten touchy-feely or thought such an intimate touch was copasetic.

          A tissue was shoved under his nose and he took it, using it immediately as he sat up.  “Thanks.”  He muttered, sounding horribly stuffed up.  “Sorry.”

          “Apologize again and I’ll make you play light switch everyday for a month when we get back home.”  Rodney threatened, swatting him upside the head lightly.  “I have a whole lab full of things I haven’t had the chance to test out, you know.”

          John gave a smile – small and weak, but still a smile.  Rodney huffed and handed him another tissue.

          “Daniel is returning.”  Teyla informed them from the front, reaching over to unlock the driver’s door.

          “Good.  Let’s get back to the General’s so we can get out of these suits.”  Rodney made a face.  He’d never been comfortable in formal wear.

          Daniel slid in and shut the door, turning slightly toward John and Rodney.  “Everything alright?”

          John rubbed at his face, nodding.  He figured he probably looked as awful as he still kind of felt.  “I’m sorry to have left you to do that, Daniel.  I owe you a big one.”

          Daniel flashed a reassuring smile.  “Don’t worry, John.  It was part of the reason I came along, after all.  I’m just glad you’re feeling better.”

          “Still…thank you.”

          “Can we go now?”  Rodney complained, not realizing his hand was still cupping the base of John’s neck and stroking the soft hairs there.  Thankfully, if Daniel noticed (or cared) he didn’t show it or comment.

          “Absolutely.  Keys?”

          “Oh, right.”  Rodney blinked as he removed his hand from John to reach into his pocket for the keys, then flushed deeply as he handed them over, realizing where that hand had been.  “Uh…”

          John shook his head and nudged him with an elbow.  “It’s fine, Rodney.”

          Bewildered, Rodney said weakly, “If you say so.”  He couldn’t believe he’d done that.  He hadn’t even thought about it, he’d just reached out and…and…petted John like he was Rodney’s cat – and John didn’t seem to care!

          Daniel started up the Jeep and put on his seatbelt.  “So the NCIS people seemed very nice.  They were very surprised to learn you are Jenny’s cousin, John.”

          He shrugged, slouching back into his seat.  “She was a private person.  She didn’t like sharing much of her personal life with everyone around her, so that doesn’t surprise me.”

          “Were you able to learn anything new from them, Daniel?”  Teyla asked.

          “Nothing very relevant, unfortunately.”  Daniel grimaced as he drove, heading for the cemetery exit.  “I hardly got a word in edge-wise, between the three of them asking questions.”  He looked vaguely amused for a moment, pulling out into traffic.  “They’re good.  Really good.”

          John frowned a bit.  “What did they ask, and what did you tell them?”

          “Oh, mostly it was about you – who you are, how you know Jenny, where you are stationed, that sort of thing.  All I told them was the truth mixed with just a little untruth.”  Daniel chuckled softly.  “Jack’s been a bad influence, teaching me how to lie believably.”

          “Gave them the standard cover story, huh?”  Rodney nodded and crossed his arms.  “Good.  It’s as far as they’d get doing a check on any of us anyway.”

          “Yeah.  They asked about me, too.  They wanted to know why a civilian linguist was working for the USAF and speaking on your behalf.”  Daniel rolled his eyes a little.  “Particularly one working at Cheyenne Mountain.”

          “They’re investigators.  It’s what they do.”  John didn’t really care if they asked.  The programme’s security would put a halt to any further inquiries anyway.  “Who did you speak to?  Agent Gibbs?”

          “No, actually, he wasn’t with them.  It was their Medical Examiner, Dr. Mallard, their lab-tech, Abby Sciuto, and their Jr. Agent, Timothy McGee.”  Daniel replied.  They were stopped at a red light.  “I didn’t see where the other three went.”

          “They’re two cars behind us.”  Ronon’s deep voice rumbled from the back seat.

          “What?!”  Everyone glanced back at him then out the back window to try and see for themselves.

          “They’ve been behind us since we left the cemetery.”  Ronon added, helpfully.

          Rodney gave him a withering glare (ineffectual on the big man, but it seemed like the thing to do anyway), then looked puzzled.  “Why are they following us?  We haven’t done anything.”

          “They must be really curious.  Or really bored.”  John sighed.  He didn’t need this.

          Daniel pulled out his cell phone and passed it back to John.  “Speed dial 1 is Jack.  Better call and ask what he wants to do.”

          “Yeah.”  John obliged, pushing buttons.  “Keep an eye on the car, Ronon.”

          The Satedan gave him a mildly dirty look, a ‘what do you think I’m doing?’ sort of stare.

          When the General answered, John quickly explained.  O’Neill was silent a moment, then said, “Let ‘em follow.  They won’t learn much.  Just come back to the house so we can decide our next step.  And were you a Black Ops-trained soldier or not, Sheppard?”

          The last was asked a touch grouchily.

          “Yes, sir.”  John replied, taking the rebuke for what it was.  O’Neill believed he could handle it, so he would.  He was being told to get his head back in the game.  “On our way, sir.”

          “Oh, and tell Daniel to pick up more beer.  I’m running low.”

          John blinked and stared at the phone as O’Neill hung up on him before John could respond.  “He really is succinct, isn’t he?”

          “Sometimes way too much, the ass.”  Daniel agreed, his brow furrowing in exasperation.  “What did he want us to do?”

          “Um, let them follow and pick up more beer.”  John told him apologetically.

          Rodney couldn’t help snickering.

~*~*~*~*~

          Gibbs watched two of them get out of the Jeep and go into a liquor store.  He’d found a good spot just a few cars away on the other side of the street to sit and watch the USAF vehicle and its occupants.

          Beside him, Ziva made a frustrated noise and lowered her binoculars.  “I cannot see who is still in the vehicle, Gibbs.  The windows are too dark.”

          “They’re in a fleet car.  It’s got tinted windows.  And what?  Did you expect one of them to roll out of the car while moving?  They’re all still in there, Ziva.”  DiNozzo said from the backseat, sounding a tad bored.  “Hey, boss, want me to go in and pick us up some…”

          “No, DiNozzo.”

          Tony sighed.  “Didn’t think so.  Too bad.  I could use a beer.”

          “We are on duty, Tony.”  Ziva reminded him primly.

          “So?”

          “DiNozzo, if you want to be useful, call McGee and see what he found out so far.”  Gibbs cut off the argument before it could even start, not in the mood.

          “On it, boss!”  Tony whipped out his cell and dialled.  Once McGee answered, Tony put him on speaker.  “Spill it, McGoogle!  What’d ya find?”

          “Nothing much.”  The reply was a mix of apology and frustration.  “All I could get on the Lt. Colonel was pretty much the same things that the linguist with him – that’s Dr. Daniel Jackson, Tony’s ‘PR’ guy, by the way – told Ducky, Abby, and I when we asked.”

          “Which was?”  Ziva asked.

          “Director Sheppard was Lt. Colonel John Sheppard’s first cousin by their fathers, for one.”  McGee began to rattle off all that he’d found.  “And they – Jenny and John – were pretty close, from what Dr. Jackson insinuated.  Lt. Colonel Sheppard is a USAF Special Operations pilot, currently assigned to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs.  When we asked, Dr. Jackson said they were all working there, some civilian and some military personnel.  He said their primary work is with…” McGee paused, and his voice turned somewhat confused and sceptical, “…deep-space telemetry.  Whatever that is, exactly.  He said it’s an international group now, as the more they got into it, the more they realized they needed experts from outside the US.”

          Gibbs raised an eyebrow at the information, and grunted his acknowledgment.

          “What about this Jackson guy?  And the others?”  Tony asked for him.  Gibbs nodded and watched as their targets came out of the liquor store with a couple of cases of beer and some other bags full of unknown purchases.

          “Well, he’s a linguist alright.  PhD in philology.  He’s also an anthropologist and an archaeologist, PhDs in both – and something of a pariah among his academic circles.  However, the only information I could get on him is at least 11 or 12 years old.  But boss,” McGee directed his next statement to Gibbs, “there’s a whole lot more fishiness about this.  I ran facial recognition on the other three, and only one of them got a hit.  Here’s the hinky parts: the woman and the really big guy in dreads don’t seem to exist.  I mean at all.  Abby and I have been running them through every database we could think of and nada.  And the one we did find?  His file came back with minimal data and the same work location, only this guy is a real, honest-to-god Genius with a capital G.  He’s got three PhDs, too, like Jackson, only this guy – Dr. Rodney McKay – is a theoretical astrophysicist with doctorates in that, Mathematics, and Electrical and Computer Engineering.”  This said with no little amount of awe (McGee and his MIT Masters in Computer Forensics and BSc in Biomedical Engineering from Johns Hopkins not quite on par with what McKay apparently had).  “Whatever they’re doing, boss, out there in Colorado, it’s huge.”

          “No, really, McGee.”  Gibbs said dryly.  “Anything else?”  He carefully let the other vehicle get a couple cars ahead, then pulled a U-turn to follow.

          “I don’t think you understand just how big this seems to be.”  McGee stated, a hint of apology in his voice for possibly sounding like he was questioning his boss’ intelligence (or Ziva’s and Tony’s).  “When I tried to look up Sheppard’s service record, I didn’t just get the usual warnings and flags and walls we normally find, I ran into security the likes of which I have never seen.  I got the same when I tried going deeper on Jackson and McKay – and it was worse there because they’re civilians!  Heck, McKay isn’t even American!”

          “Really?”  Tony sounded surprised.  “What is he then?”

          “Canadian.  Actually, his file had one familiar flag.  It was CIA.”  McGee added before anyone could ask.

          “The CIA has a file on a Canadian astrophysicist?”  Ziva repeated, bewildered.  “Did you find out why?”

          “No.  Uh…I didn’t know if you wanted me to go to Director Vance and ask him to get the files from either the Air Force or CIA, boss.”

          Gibbs scowled, but agreed.  “No, McGee.  Not yet, anyway.  We really have no reason to want to know beyond curiosity, so we probably would get told where to stick it.”

          “Yeah, right after they stopped laughing.”  Tony grumbled behind him.  “Hey, this is a pretty swank neighbourhood, boss.”

          They were in an upscale area of Alexandria, one Gibbs knew housed a lot of VIPs from the Pentagon and other high-powered government offices.  “McGee, you and Abby keep looking as far as you can without stepping on any toes.  We’ll be back on base in an hour, should Vance ask.”  Gibbs ordered, slowing to keep far enough behind the other SUV, which was also slowing and preparing to make a turn.

          “Bye, McGee!”  Tony said cheerfully and hung up on the younger agent.  “Wow.  Gated community.  Whoever they’re going to see must have some extra dough to throw around.”

          “One of the Doctors, perhaps?”  Ziva speculated aloud.

          “Doubt it.  Not when they’re supposed to be working out of Colorado.”  Tony denied.

          Gibbs had a much easier (and quicker) way of finding out.  He gave it a couple minutes, then turned into the entrance and pulled up to the security gate.  He took out his ID and rolled the window down as a guard leaned out the window of his booth.

          “Good afternoon, sir.  Name of the person you’re visiting and ID, please?”  The guard requested politely.

          “Gibbs.  NCIS.”  Gibbs flashed his badge and ID.  “We’re following the people in the vehicle that just passed through.  It would be really helpful if you’d let us through.”  He said with as much charm as he ever allowed himself to use, which was rare but something he certainly possessed.

          The guard frowned unhappily.  “I really don’t think…”

          “Look, we’re just running surveillance, son.  We don’t intend to intrude or bother anyone.”  Gibbs tried, talking over the man who looked like he’d rather not be involved.

          “I could lose my job, sir.”

          “We’re federal agents, friend.”  Ziva glared at him, leaning around Gibbs to do so.  “You are hindering a federal investigation.”  She wasn’t above lying a little to get what they needed.

          He was obviously torn, but also wavering, so Gibbs pushed a little harder.  “If anyone complains, they can complain to me and to my director.  So just let us through, son.”

          The guard hesitated some more, but then nodded, raising the barrier and opening the gate so they could pass through.

          “Thank you.”  Ziva said, bestowing a smile on the poor guard.  “One other thing: could you tell us who they are here to see?”

          Sighing, the guard consulted his clipboard.  “Dr. Jackson signed in for General O’Neill, Agents.”

          “Okay.  Thank you.”  Ziva sat back in her seat smugly, and Gibbs nodded at the guard before driving through the gate.  Before Gibbs could even ask, Tony was on his cell feeding the name to McGee to run a search on it.

          They drove through the community slowly, looking for the Jeep, until Ziva pointed and exclaimed, “There!”

          After he found a good spot with a view of the Jeep and the townhouse it was parked in front of, Gibbs parked, turned off the engine, and took the binoculars from Ziva to assess the place.

~*~*~*~*~

          Daniel sipped at his coffee and stared out the window of Jack’s study.  “Yep.  They’re there.”

          Jack rolled his eyes.  “I swear federal agents are as bad as reporters!  Always wanting to know everything.”  He tilted his head questioningly at his partner.  “Think they’ll stay long?”

          Daniel shrugged and pulled up a seat in front of Jack’s desk, raising his sock-feet to prop them on one corner of the desk (disregarding Jack’s scowl).  “Nah.  They really have no justification for it.  I’m sure NCIS will be wondering where they are soon enough and they’ll have to leave.”

          “Right.  Good.  I really didn’t want to have to make up some kind of story for them, or better – have to call whoever their Director is now to complain.”

          “You worry too much, Jack.”

          “Do not.”

          “Do.”

          “Not!”

          “Do!”

          “Not!  And anyway, we’re going to have to talk to them eventually.”  Jack picked up a crossword puzzle from his desk, fiddling with a pencil.  He glanced toward the door.  “How’d the funeral go?”

          “As well as can be expected.  John didn’t want to stick around to talk to people afterward – not that I blame him, ‘cause I sure wouldn’t want to have to put up with people’s questions and curiosity.”  Daniel huffed, cradling his giant mug in his hands.  “He’ll be fine, though.  I think that was the worst part of it for him.”

          “People were actually insensitive enough to ask questions?  Geez.”  Jack made a face.  “What’d they want to know?”

          “Oddly enough, I guess she wasn’t very forthcoming about her family to others, because most people were very surprised to learn she had a cousin.  Even the NCIS people didn’t know.”  Daniel told him about the conversation (re: inquisition) with Dr. Mallard, Abby, and McGee.  “They were very nice, polite, and sympathetic, though.”

          Jack grunted, mulling over Daniel’s report on the events of the morning.  Staring at his window as if he could see the NCIS agents in their car from his seat at the desk, he had the unsettling premonition that this was going to be one of those missions where he wished he’d never gotten out of bed in the morning.  Looking back at the man who had once not only saved his life but changed it, Jack asked his opinion of Sheppard’s condition.  There was no one the former SG1 leader trusted more, after all.  “And Sheppard?”

          It spoke to how much they thought on the same wavelength that Daniel understood what the older officer wanted to know.  “I don’t think he’s going to lose his rationality and go cowboy or something, if that’s what you mean.  I do think he’s going to be running on anger, though, and that’s always tricky.”  He dropped his feet and walked around the desk to Jack’s side, perching on the edge next to the man in his chair.  “But I’m not worried.  Not only does John have Teyla and Ronon, but he has Rodney.”

          “What do you mean?”

          Daniel gave him a small grin that was a cross between amusement and smugness.  “You have your geek, General, and John has his, whether or not either of them have admitted it yet.  And they have formidable support in their Pegasus teammates.”

          Both eyebrows went up and Jack gaped in surprise.  “Sheppard and…McKay?  Really?”  The concept was a bit strange to consider, what with McKay’s known obsession with Sam Carter.

          “Yes, Jack.”  Daniel chuckled and leaned down and over to plant a fond smack of a kiss on Jack’s stunned mouth.  He blinked up at Daniel, somewhat speechless, then sighed and reached for his partner.

          “That boy really loves making his life complicated…” He grumbled, trying to convince Daniel to move closer so he could…well, whatever came naturally.  “And I thought McKay had a thing for…”

          “Sam?”  Daniel rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest, though he didn’t push Jack’s hands off his hip and thigh.  “Being infatuated is different than being in love, and you know it.  Especially as you once had a ‘thing’ for Sam, too.  Remember?”

          Jack looked sheepish for a moment, then shrugged, leering at Daniel.  “Yes, but you know where I’d rather be any day, right?”

          “Stop that.  You look ridiculous.”  Daniel unfolded his arms and reached out to run his fingers through Jack’s soft, silvered hair.  “If I didn’t know, Jack, would I be here?”

          All in all, the General couldn’t help but smile with complete contentedness.  Yeah, he was the luckiest damn bastard in the universe.

~*~*~*~*~

          By the time John and the others came back down from changing out of their funeral clothes, Mitchell had beamed back down and was waiting for them with Daniel and O’Neill in the General’s study.

          And their NCIS shadows had gone away.

          “Hey.”  Mitchell greeted them.  “Made some new friends, I hear.”

          Rodney’s response was an undignified snort, though John just shrugged and nodded.

          “Well, now that you’re all here…” Cameron glanced at his CO.  “Mind if we borrow a TV, sir?”

          Jack reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a remote, handing it over and pointing at the medium-sized plasma screen over in one corner.

          “Thanks.  We picked this up on-board Odyssey from monitoring news reports about the Director’s death.  Thought you’d want to see it.”  Mitchell turned on the TV and flipped channels until he came to a news station.  At the moment, the weatherman was giving the mid-day forecast for the week, but soon after it returned to the news and Cameron hiked the volume as the reporter came on.

          “I’m standing outside the burned out shell of what was once a historic building of residence to Washington D.C., and the home of NCIS Director Jenny Sheppard.  As of now, we are unsure as to the cause of the devastating fire, but we have been told that the body of the Director was found among the ruins and that she died from smoke inhalation.  NCIS has issued a formal statement that was handed out to the press early this morning.  Leon Vance, formerly the Assistant Director of the agency, has been named Director in Ms. Sheppard’s place, and will assume all duties immediately.  Fire inspectors,” the camera panned off to the side slowly, taking in the taped off area and the men and women in uniforms who were still poking around the yet smoking and blackened building, “are making a thorough search to determine what, exactly, caused this tragedy, but sources say that it is very likely a gas leak of some kind was the culprit.  More on this story on the evening news hour.  Back to you, Jed.

          Mitchell turned off the TV.

          John sat there, stunned.  “What the hell?” was all he could say.

          “Yeah.  We had no idea about any of this.”  Mitchell agreed with the sentiment.  “So add another couple of mysteries to the pile: who would burn down the house and why, and who was the body they found in the wreckage?”

          “And not only that.”  Rodney tossed out, waving at the TV – though his eyes kept darting to Sheppard in clear concern.  “But also, what does NCIS have to do with it?”

          Everyone looked at him.

          “Whatever do you mean, Rodney?”  Teyla asked.  “I do not see why they would destroy a person’s home like that – especially when they seem to have cared so much for her.”

          “No, not that!”  Rodney shook his head.  “Well, maybe it was them…but what I meant was if they identified the body from the fire as the Director, then who did we just bury in Arlington?  Or,” he continued as eyes went wide all around him – and John went very, very pale, “if it really was Ms. Sheppard in that casket today, then it means NCIS is covering up the cause of her death, because the timing of the fire was well after they supposedly found the Director in that diner – all the way over on the West Coast, I might remind you.”

          “My god, Jack.”  Daniel gasped.  “He’s right.  NCIS would have to have known which body was which, and would almost have to know about this fire.”

          Jack sat silently for a moment, staring at his desk as he mulled it over.  He sighed heavily and ran his fingers through his hair.  “What a fucking mess.” He groaned, glancing at Teyla.  “Pardon me.”

          She inclined her head, smiling a little.  “I have heard much worse, General.”

          John finally spoke up, his voice very carefully neutral.  “Sir, the only way we’re going to get any answers at this point is to go to NCIS and demand them.  I’ll take my team with me, and I’ll ask nicely.  At first.”  His face was set in stone, but his eyes were dark, deep hazel.  “I’ll ask as her cousin and surviving relative.”

          Jack leaned back in his chair, hardened brown eyes watching him all too closely and clearly.  “And if they won’t talk?  Because they’ll likely play the National Security card.”

          “If so then I’ll go to SecNav, the Joint Chiefs, hell!  I’ll bang on the Whitehouse doors if I have to.”  John declared vehemently, sitting up straight as a ruler in his determination.  The General winced at the idea of John making a huge ruckus with the top brass so carelessly and hastily intervened.

          “Okay, alright, calm down, Sheppard.  That won’t be necessary.  You just let me rattle people’s chains if it comes down to it.  You don’t need the hit on your career.”

          John sat stiffly, almost coming to attention as he realized how close to being insubordinate he was becoming.  “Sir.”

          Jack looked at Mitchell.  “Go back to Odyssey for now, Colonel.  Continue to monitor the media reports and communications, and stay ready to assist.  I’m sure Sheppard will yell if he needs something.”

          “Yes, sir.”  Mitchell left the remote on Jack’s desk before having himself beamed out.

          Jack pushed away from his desk and stood.  When Sheppard began to rise, the General pointed at the chair.  “You, sit!”  He barked, though not harshly.  “The rest of you out.  Daniel, call Davis and let him know about the fire.”

          Glancing back and forth between his partner and the younger officer, Daniel hesitated only for a moment before ushering the others from the room.  Jack followed and closed the door to his study behind them, then returned to where John sat with a worried look of confusion on his face.  With a sigh at the protest of one knee (the one that ached most in concert with the weather), Jack dropped himself down into an armchair opposite John, looking at him silently.  Consideringly.  Unsure and uncomfortable under that gaze, John fought not to fidget, until he finally asked, “Sir?” tentatively, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to.

          “I know when Elizabeth pestered me to assign you to the Expedition – and to her – that you’d find your place in Pegasus and prove not only to me, or Weir, or to any of the brass with their eyes on you, but also to yourself that you were truly the leader you’re capable of being.”

          John blinked at him startled.  He hadn’t known what to expect, but this certainly hadn’t even been a possibility.  Jack continued.

          “You’re a damn good pilot, Sheppard, one of the very best I know.  More, you’re one of the best men I’ve had the pleasure and honour to command and serve with.  I won’t lie and say that I was totally sure of you from the very moment I read your file, because that wouldn’t be true.  Unfortunate, but true.  But then, I didn’t know you, only what your record says about you, and while it’s fairly comprehensive, it doesn’t tell all of the truly important things I like to know about the people whose lives I’m required to make life and death decisions over.  I think by now you get that my command style is nothing like what most Generals would have – or should have.  It’s personal, with me, and that’s been both a curse and a blessing sometimes.  Since the moment I was recalled to active duty, and they told me about that big stone ring, and then Daniel telling us that it was a gateway to other planets…It’s been personal.  That fact has bitten me on the ass more times than I’d like to remember.”  Jack’s face looked weary and sad, and John wondered briefly if he ever regretted staying with the programme as long as he had.  “So if you think I don’t understand what you are feeling right now, think again.  And don’t bullshit me and pretend you’re not feeling the anger, the need for vengeance, and probably guilt, too.  I’ve been there.  Every time one of my people – especially my team – was injured, infected, possessed, kidnapped…shit, died for god’s sake, I’d go through all those emotions and more.  Sometimes I was able to do something about it.  A lot of times, not so much.  The real test of command comes when it’s time to send your people back through that Gate and let them fly on their own again after a mission that goes wrong.  We’re expected, as officers, to be able to detach and remain as removed from the situation as possible in order to make the correct, pertinent decisions that would save the most lives.  No matter the rank.”

          John looked down at his hands in his lap, saying only, “But the job we all do is like no other posting ever, sir, and we can’t be expected to be commanded or to command in the same way as others would.”

          “See, now, this is why I like you, John.”  Jack slapped his leg in emphasis, and John looked up again suddenly at the use of his given name, eyes wide.  “You’re smart in the ways that matter most when it comes to the work and the life that Gate has brought with it.  You are, in fact, very much like myself – which is probably why Daniel seems to think I’ve taken you under my wing, so to speak.”  Clearly Jack thought the linguist was either really full of it or reading something into it that wasn’t there.  “But anyway.  What I’m trying to get at here, is that you’ve come into your own as an officer, as a commander, and as a man who has finally found something worth protecting.  And I don’t just mean Atlantis.

          “There have been a lot of naysayers trying to oust you over the years, but I refused to let them have their way.  I fought for you, John, because I believed you were truly fit for the job.  Then, too, I understand a little about guilt, and pride, and all those things I really suck at talking about.”  Jack made a face (John understood that all too well, himself) and continued.  “You needed a chance to make things ‘right’ out there, even if you were not at fault.  Aht!  Don’t argue with me.”  Jack waggled a finger pointedly.  “I know you’ll probably never stop blaming yourself for the Wraith, or even for Sumner, but the rest of us never blamed you.  So just accept it and move on.”

          “Sir,” John shook his head, “not that I don’t appreciate what you’ve said or anything, but…I think I’m missing a point in here somewhere.”

          “I haven’t gotten there, yet.”  Jack motioned expressively with one hand.  “But I’ll be brief.  I know Jenny was the one who used all her connections to get you McMurdo instead of a dishonourable discharge after Afghanistan.  I know that despite the huge family rifts going on between your father and hers, and between your father and yourself, that she was the closest to you and vice versa.  So I know what all this must be doing to you.  You’re grieving, and you’re angry.  I know a lot about that, too.  I’ve watched Daniel die a few hundred too many times, not to mention when my son…shot himself with my gun accidently when he was eight years old.”  John sucked in a harsh breath at that, having not known that of the General.  “Yeah.  But my point – at the risk of sounding like Teal’c or one of Daniel’s glowy Zen moments – is that you can’t let the rage rule you or your actions.  You’ve got to make it work for you.  I want you to keep in mind that ruining your career is not helpful to your cause, nor would your cousin appreciate you ruining all her hard work.”

          Flushing, John stared down at the floor, unable to look at Jack in the eyes.  “I do know that, sir.  Really.”

          “You’d better, Sheppard.  Don’t make me regret going to bat for you.”  Jack sighed.  “I suck at these things.  We ought to just get really drunk instead.”

          John nodded fervently in agreement.

          “Alright.  Go get your team ready and take the Jeep to NCIS.  I’ll clear the way so you won’t have trouble getting inside.”  Jack pushed himself up out of his seat and headed for the phone on his desk, waving the younger officer away.

          “Yes, sir.”  John got up, too, then paused and faced his superior officer when Jack called him back.

          “One last thing.  I know you want to jump into the action and knock a few heads together, but try to remember that you’re not alone anymore.  You have more than just yourself to think of.  You have three very loyal and protective teammates at your back who only want to help you.  Don’t forget that, and don’t forget to let them.”

          “Sir.”  John nodded slowly, then seemed to draw himself up as if coming to some determined conclusion.  He snapped to attention and gave a perfect, sincere salute.  Jack blinked and returned it just as sincerely (if a tad less text-book), a tiny crinkling at the corners of his eyes the only sign of a smile.  He watched John leave bemusedly, scratching his ear thoughtfully, knowing that such a gesture was very rarely given by Sheppard to his superior officers freely, certainly not with much degree of genuine respect.

          “Huh.”  Jack muttered to himself, mouth twitching into a grin.  Shrugging, he picked up his phone.

~*~*~*~*~

On to Chapter 05:  https://kalichaos.wordpress.com/stargate/veritas/chapter-05/

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