Jan 06 2017

If Found, Please Return – Chapter Four

Story Index Page

Chapter Four

Alex set aside the one-inch-thick stack of non-disclosure agreements and veiled threats. It had taken him nearly an hour and a half to read just the highlights and sign everything. This was not at all what he expected to be doing with his Monday.

He’d arrived in Nevada with Matt and Dave last Wednesday, followed on Sunday by Patrick. Shortly after Patrick arrived, he’d mentioned that the Air Force was going to read Alex in on the top-secret project the company was working on, but he wouldn’t explain why they wanted to read him in. And it didn’t make sense; he had no real connection to JADEM, so he couldn’t imagine what they would have to tell him. Yes, it could be awkward on occasion that everyone worked on a project Alex couldn’t know about, but he was used to tiptoeing around classified materials.

Regardless, it seemed important to his father, so he had read and signed the huge stack of forms presented to him by an Air Force major named Davis. “Okay,” he said, leaning back in the chair, “now what?”

“How about we take a ride?” Matt suggested before the major could get going. “It’s easier to explain if you can see it.” Major Davis inclined his head in agreement, and all of them were quickly on the way to who knew where.

Despite the oddness of the whole thing, Alex was glad to have something tangible to do. He didn’t know how he was going to occupy his time for the next month, and he was not accustomed to sitting around all day. He was already going stir crazy.

Not that he didn’t enjoy getting to know his brothers, but there was only so much togetherness Alex could stand. Plus, Dave and Matt had actual work to do. The only blip on the horizon since he’d arrived had been the call from the FBI letting him know about an issue at NCIS. They had the CODIS entries related to Alex tagged to send an alert if anyone accessed them. NCIS had apparently run a familial DNA search on Alex just last week.

Alex had immediately called Gibbs, who’d taken nearly a day to call him back. Apparently Abby hadn’t been content with the FBI’s ability to submit a DNA profile to CODIS and had decided to run the check herself ‘to be sure.’ Alex had been livid—to him, it didn’t feel like it was being done out of care. It felt arrogant and intrusive as fuck.

Without any input from Alex, the FBI had filed a formal complaint with NCIS, and Abby had been officially reprimanded. For some reason that made her angry at Alex, which he did not understand, but he also didn’t really care. He knew his anger at her was covering a lot. He’d been close to Abby for a long time, and her lack of support in this situation had thrown him for a loop.

There’d also been the news that John would be home on leave sometime this week, so Alex was wondering how that was going to go. He wasn’t oblivious to the tension surrounding the subject of John, and it wasn’t just because he was in the military. There was something else going on, but Alex hadn’t pried into it.

When the car pulled up to the gates of an enormous military base in the middle of nowhere, Alex tried to get his bearings and figure out where they were. He prided himself on knowing all the military bases in the US. There was really only one place it could be, and Alex was suddenly flummoxed.

After all their IDs had been carefully checked and they were moving again, Matt grinned at him. “Welcome to Area 51.”

What in the hell was going on?

– – – –

Two hours later, Alex rejoined his father and Dave after going on an exhaustive tour with Matt and Major Davis while everything was explained; the stargate, Atlantis, aliens… everything. He kept swinging between awed and stunned.

“Are you all right?” Patrick asked as Alex slid into the seat next to him at the conference table.

“Confused,” he admitted.

“Something not explained completely?”

“No, not that. Why tell me?”

“We want to offer you a job,” a two-star general replied as he walked into the conference room. The man was about Alex’s height with grey hair and brown eyes. “Man, that was good timing,” he remarked as he crossed to the table. “Seriously, how often do you time things so perfectly? I didn’t even have to lurk in the hallway.”

Alex’s lips twitched as he got to his feet and shook the general’s hand. “Timing is everything. I’m Alex Sheppard. It’s a pleasure.”

The general’s grip was firm. “Jack O’Neill. Please tell me you have all the questions and disbelief out of the way, because I was carefully avoiding that portion of the program.”

“I promise to wrestle with my disbelief in private,” Alex assured.

“Good man,” O’Neill remarked. “All right, let’s get to it. Homeworld Command has never wanted to read AFOSI or NCIS in on the program. We’ve always handled investigations in house—that hasn’t worked well for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is our senior officers, who are tapped to run the investigations, do not have the requisite skill set. Plus, we just don’t like doing it.

“Frankly, the task kept getting back-burnered as we dealt with problem after crisis after catastrophe. Finding the right fit for this loony bin was a time-consuming effort that just never rose to the top of the heap. Truthfully, we were asked to vet you to be read-in on the program because of your family connections. And before you get your pride tied in knots, we could read you in without offering you a job.”

O’Neill leaned forward bracing his elbows on the table. “In my estimation, you’re a bizarrely perfect fit for this madhouse. You think outside the box, are resourceful, unflappable, and good in a crisis.”

“How could you know that?” Alex asked.

“How about Sergeant Atlas?” O’Neill retorted.

“Ah.”

“Anyone who can wake up chained to a pipe next to a corpse and a near corpse, keep his head, and get himself and the near-corpse out alive is uniquely qualified to work for us.”

The other three Sheppards at the table looked horrified, and Alex rubbed his temples. “Thanks for that, General.”

“Kid, come clean with your family about the last eleven years of your life. They’ll have the warm fuzzies about you working for us,” O’Neill advised, and Alex glared. He held his hands up. “Just a bit of advice.”

“What is it exactly you want from me?” Alex asked, getting the topic back on track before he got grilled like a trout by his family.

“Set up a one-man Resident Unit here at Area 51 and liaise formally with AFOSI so you can cover both the Marines on base as well as the Air Force. Frankly, we want you to handle the shit that goes wrong around here. Thought about offering you Cheyenne Mountain, and that’s on the table if you want it, but Area 51 has more actual investigations. More personnel, less containment… it’s a bigger problem. Though, if you choose to join us, we’d likely pull you to Colorado if there was a need.”

Alex just stared.

“I’m sure it’s not an easy decision. Our information-mining little moles down in the computer jungle tell me you have a strong connection with your team and roots in DC.”

Alex nodded. “I definitely need to think about it.”

“Well, I find thinking goes better with concrete information. Instead of you finishing out your leave, how about we borrow you for the month? You can check into the issues here, get familiar with the base, maybe make a run to the SGC. I can promise you, the media won’t be an issue here or in Colorado Springs. You’re due back at NCIS HQ on January second; we’ll give you until February sixth to make a decision. That work?”

He stopped himself from reflexively saying no, not even sure where it was coming from. It was a good offer, and, if nothing else, it would keep him from being bored out of his skull for the rest of the month. “Yeah. That works.”

“Questions?”

“No. I’ll wait and see what comes up.”

O’Neill got to his feet. “I love a short meeting. You keep all my meetings this short, we’ll get along great.” He made a face. “It probably says something about my life choices that I judge the day by whether I can keep my meetings short.”

Alex laughed. “Meetings suck.”

“If I’d known being a general was about meetings, I’d have said no.”

“Ah, but it’s about paperwork, too,” Alex countered.

O’Neill snorted. “You’re a smartass, kid. Whatever happens, find a way to keep hold of your sense of humor.”

– – – –

The last year in Pegasus had apparently made John paranoid. It was either that or everyone in the damn mountain knew something he didn’t. Stepping through the stargate and returning to Earth had given him mixed feelings. He’d begun to think of Atlantis as home, and not having the city humming in the back of his mind was an adjustment. But, by the same token, he was glad to be back and anxious to see his family.

But it seemed that there had immediately been whispering and sidelong looks, and he was pretty sure he wasn’t imagining it. So far, there hadn’t been an opportunity to talk with Rodney, Beckett, or Weir to see if they were seeing the same thing. They’d been ordered to report to medical first thing and would begin debriefing after everyone had been cleared by the base CMO. He’d briefly met General Landry, the new head of the SGC, but had also seen General O’Neill propping up a wall, and he seemed to be watching John rather intently. One more thing that seemed strange.

They’d already been in medical for four hours, and John felt like everyone was staring at him. The nurse who was taking his blood pressure, again, murmured, “Has anyone mentioned–”

“Unless what you were about to ask something regarding the major’s blood pressure, I suggest you keep quiet,” Dr. Brightman snapped, coming around the corner.

“Yes, ma’am,” the nurse quickly replied.

Brightman picked up John’s chart. “Major Sheppard’s blood pressure has been checked quite enough. I think it’s time to leave this particular patient alone, don’t you, Lieutenant?” John was utterly bemused as he watched the nurse nod and walk out of the room they were waiting in.

Dr. Brightman replaced the chart. “Dr. Beckett and Dr. McKay will be back from imaging shortly, then we’ll have the four of you on your way as soon as all the test results are complete—maybe another hour or so. After that, we’ll finish up with the rest of the Atlantis contingent.” They’d only brought eight people through on this trip. In a few days, more were scheduled to return.

“Hey, Doc,” he said as she started to turn away, “is there something I need to know?”

She hesitated briefly. “General O’Neill will meet with you as soon as you’re medically cleared.”

So there was something up. Now he was starting to worry.

He exchanged a look with Elizabeth after Brightman had left. “Any ideas?”

She shook her head slowly, eyes narrowed. “No, but it does seem focused on you. No one has spared the rest of us a glance.”

Rodney and Carson entered a moment later, and Rodney stood next to John’s bed, hands on hips. “You’re one of the Sheppards?”

John blinked. “What the hell is going on?” he hissed.

“I don’t know! I didn’t get any more out of the radiology tech than your father is Patrick Sheppard before Brightman was on the scene, glaring everyone into silence.” Rodney huffed. “How could you leave that out?”

He knew that he and Rodney needed to have a talk, but right now, there were bigger issues. It felt like there was a lead weight in his stomach. Hopping up, he went into the main part of the infirmary where Brightman was reviewing paperwork. “Is something wrong with my family?” he asked without preamble. Everyone knowing who his father was could only mean his family had been in the news.

“General O’Neill will be meeting with you right after you’re cleared medically,” she repeated, not answering the question.

John was getting pissed. Something was wrong, and every damn person in the SGC seemed to know about it. “I need to know what’s wrong.”

“Major–”

“I’ve got this, Doc,” O’Neill said from the doorway where he stood, hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels. There was a folder tucked under his arm.

“He’s not cleared yet, General,” Brightman said sternly.

“Well, he’s just going to be with me. I’ll take the risk. If he brought some weird Pegasus-bugaboo back with him, I’ll just keep him company in isolation until you save us from our own stupidity.”

Glaring she said, “I won’t have him out of medical yet.” Then she sighed. “But I’m also tired of corralling my staff. I’m giving them all a refresher on following orders. That said, just use my office.”

O’Neill nodded and tipped his head, indicating John to follow. Stomach in knots, John trailed O’Neill into the CMO’s office.

“Sit,” O’Neill ordered as he took one of the two seats.

“I’d prefer to stand, sir. What’s wrong with my family?”

“Nothing at all, Major. Now sit.”

Anxiety lessening and confusion increasing, John sat. “But you do have something to tell me.”

“Your family is perfectly fine. Everyone on base is acting weird because you need to be briefed on a situation, and I didn’t want you to hear it piecemeal. So they were all ordered to keep their yaps shut.”

“I… what?” What could the general possibly need to tell him that everyone on base would know about?

O’Neill rubbed the back of his head. “Hell, John, I volunteered for this and I don’t know where to start. Let’s begin with the easy stuff. I love easy stuff. Your family—father and brothers—were read into the stargate program.”

John’s eyes widened and the feeling of dread suddenly intensified. “Why?”

“Contractor for the Daedalus was behind schedule and over budget. Homeworld put pressure on the IOA to get a new contractor on board, see if we could salvage the schedule. The aerospace division of JADEM was the final choice. I swear, your brother Matthew is the only human Hermiod actually likes. It’s really kinda creepy.”

“My family knows I went to Atlantis?” he confirmed.

“They do.”

Yeah, he was screwed. Part way into the trip, he’d known he wanted to square things with his father if he ever got the chance. He spent a lot of time trying not to think about his brothers. Especially Mattie. He’d screwed up massively, and now there was no chance of keeping just how much he’d screwed up from his family.

“So people figured out I’m the oldest of Patrick Sheppard. I can’t say that I see how that accounts for the sheer level of weird going on here the last few hours.”

“You’re right. There’s another issue, and I guess we’ll just start at the beginning so you have less questions at the end.” With a heavy sigh, O’Neill opened the folder and said, “Fifteen November of this year, Quantico Virginia, a pair of severed female legs were found in the woods, identity of the victim unknown.”

John blinked in astonishment, not at all prepared for that opening. Was this someone he knew? What was the connection of severed legs to him or his family?

“Bite mark and blood on the leg led to an NCIS agent, now prime suspect, by the name of Anthony DiNozzo, Jr,” O’Neill continued.

“Why do I know that name?” Despite his confusion, John racked his brain, trying to bring up the vague memory.

“College ball,” the general prompted.

“Right! Final Four… mid-nineties?”

“1994 and 1995,” O’Neill confirmed. “Damn good player.”

“Okay, so this DiNozzo guy killed a lady and cut off her legs. That’s creepy as hell, sir, but what does it have to do with me?”

O’Neill shook his head and consulted whatever papers he had. “FBI arrested him, but he was later cleared when the rest of the body was found by NCIS—the woman was a Jane Doe victim of a car crash.”

“So this guy does creepy things with the legs of dead people?” John made a face. That was really disgusting.

Obviously fighting a laugh, O’Neill replied, “No. Someone he’d pissed off in his years in law enforcement elaborately framed him for a non-murder.”

“Okay,” John drew out, getting more confused by the minute.

“With the supposed victim being a Jane Doe, the FBI does something called a,” O’Neill glanced at the notes briefly, “familial DNA search. Except the lab screwed up, sent DiNozzo’s DNA through for a search as well. In my experience, screw-ups rarely have such a good outcome.” He pulled out an 8×10 picture of a man and passed it to John. “DiNozzo’s blood sample was a match to Emma and Patrick Sheppard. Mitochondrial DNA confirmed he’s Alexander Sheppard,” the general ended bluntly.

John couldn’t breathe as he stared at the picture, immediately seeing the clear resemblance to his mother. He suddenly felt like he wasn’t on steady ground—like he’d taken one step out of reality. “They found my brother,” he finally managed. Holding the picture tightly, he looked up. “They’re sure? This isn’t a mistake?

O’Neill nodded. “Because of your family’s connection to the program and a few other reasons, I had our people confirm the match. He’s Alex Sheppard.”

Closing his eyes briefly, John tried to get control of himself. He’d been living with the pain of Alex’s disappearance for over three decades, and, oddly, the news seemed to have ripped all those old wounds wide open. “When can I see my family?”

“Tomorrow night.” O’Neill was watching him carefully. “We have to do an initial mission debrief—which we both know is going to take all damn day—then you’ll be on your way. Before you leave, you’ll be notified when you need to return to meet with Landry and the IOA for detailed review on certain issues. Your father has already arranged to have one of his planes waiting to take you to Nevada.”

“Nevada?” he echoed.

“Near Area 51.”

John’s brain clearly wasn’t working, because Nevada should have been obvious. If JADEM was working on the BC-304, of course some of the team would be at Area 51. “So all the sheer weird around here…?”

“The media circus has been ridiculous. You might have flown under the radar here at the SGC, but the press aren’t limiting their attention to your brother. All of you have been mentioned in various reports. Including that the oldest Sheppard son, John, is an Air Force major. The connection to you isn’t exactly hard to make.”

Blowing out a breath, John couldn’t think of what to do. He wanted to call his family, hear Alex’s voice immediately, but knew he couldn’t even do that until after the debrief.

O’Neill passed him the folder, and John took it hesitantly. “Background on Agent Sheppard. Thought you might want to get caught up when you have a minute.” O’Neill got to his feet. “There’s a letter in there for you as well.” He hesitated for a moment before saying. “My door’s always open to you.”

John didn’t know O’Neill all that well, so the offer felt out of left field, but he still appreciated it. He rose as well and nodded his appreciation. “Thank you, sir.”

When they exited the office, Brightman was waiting with a set of BDUs. “Clean bill of health, Major Sheppard. There’s an Airman in the corridor ready to show you to your quarters.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he replied reflexively, accepting the clothes.

– – – –

John paced his temporary quarters, the folder on his bed remained unopened, and it felt like a landmine. When he’d joined the others, it was clear they wanted to know what had happened, but he wasn’t up to talking about it. Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. He really wanted to talk to Rodney, but he had no way to justify singling the man out at the moment.

Before he could talk himself out of it again, he flipped open the folder and found the letter O’Neill had referenced. It just said ‘John’ on the front in Mattie’s handwriting. He opened it carefully.


John.
If you’d been here, you’d have won.
-Matt

The list was titled ‘Alex’s bad habits and vices’ and checked them off against each of the three other brothers. He found himself smiling as he began to peruse the list. Then he started to laugh. Mattie had listed Johnny Cash as a bad habit but had only given Alex a half point for ‘lack of fanatical appreciation.’ Another ‘bad habit’ Matt had noted they had in common was ‘math degree.’ His baby brother was such an engineering snob.

John suddenly felt choked up. God, he’d fucked up. How was he going to explain this to his family? Hell, he wasn’t even sure he’d even explained it to himself.

Pushing the thoughts away, he settled on the bed and began to read the file.

For some reason, the SGC had done a thorough background on Alex, including big portions of his personnel file. He started to feel like he was invading his brother’s privacy, but couldn’t seem to stop reading.

John knew his own job was dangerous—he was in no position to throw stones at Alex’s career—but why in hell did his brother get hurt so often? Beatings, gunshot wounds, knife wounds, sprains, breaks… oh, and the plague. What the fuck was going on at NCIS?

The very last thing in the file was a printout of genetic tests done on all the members of the Sheppard family. They all had the ATA gene, but none as strongly as John… and Alex.

Everything snapped into focus—the thorough background check, the genetic testing—the SGC planned to recruit his brother. Anxiety settled on him like a blanket. He didn’t want his brother pulled into this madhouse.

His eyes strayed to the folder and he closed it sharply. Well, this sure seemed like a lose-lose proposition.

John lay back on the bed, trying to pull his chaotic thoughts into some kind of order.

He wasn’t sure how long had passed before he heard a tap on his door. Although he was hesitant to answer, he was relieved when he found Rodney waiting on the other side. Meeting like this was risky as hell, but he let his lover in anyway. The relationship was still new, and they were careful to keep it well below the radar. Being trapped in another galaxy, unsure if they’d make it home… well, John had been willing to take some chances he might not normally consider after he’d nearly lost Rodney during the Genii invasion.

Rodney wandered the small space not saying anything. John sat in one of the chairs and waited for the Rodneyness to be over.

Finally, Rodney took a seat in the other chair—farther away than John wished were necessary. “We know the rooms are under video surveillance, but they’re not under audio. They said they weren’t, but not like I’m going to trust the military.” He snorted at the obvious absurdity of that.

John found something to smile about. “Do you have a scanner in your pocket?”

“Of course. One that beeps if it finds something. Now…” he trailed off, watching John carefully, and his expression softened. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.” He rubbed his hands over his face. “No. I don’t know.”

“All of the above?”

“Yeah.”

“You… why didn’t you tell me?”

John sighed. “I don’t talk about it. My COs usually know my father is Patrick Sheppard, but I’ve tried to fly below the radar on that. I never wanted my family connections to matter. As for Alex…”

“That I understand. You can’t exactly reveal one without revealing the other.” Rodney glanced away briefly.

“Does it matter? About who my father is?” he asked, feeling concerned.

“Of course not, John. I felt like… I talk too much—sometimes about stuff that isn’t even important—and maybe I hadn’t given you any room if you wanted to tell me.”

“You do talk a lot,” John agreed with a grin. “But I like that. You don’t overwhelm me, so just stop whatever’s going on in that big brain of yours. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get into it.” He blew out a breath. “You can’t know what it was like… growing up, meeting new people, and them wanting to ask about Alex. The specter of my brother’s loss has been hanging over my family my whole life. When I joined the military, I just wanted to be John Sheppard, pilot. Not Patrick Sheppard’s son or Alex Sheppard’s brother.”

“You know I don’t see you that way, right?”

“Yeah, I know. But we’re still finding our way. It hasn’t been that long, for all that some days it seems like we were out there forever.”

Rodney huffed a little. “I want to find my way into your lap.”

“Fuck, Rodney.” John groaned. “You think I don’t want that? But–”

“Right.” Rodney rubbed the back of his head, looking thoughtful. “So… they found your brother. They tell you anything about him?”

John tilted his head, indicating the folder still lying on the bed.

Rodney was up and had it in hand in a blink. Then he paused. “This okay?”

John figured he probably shouldn’t but he nodded. It wasn’t like he could stop Rodney from finding out information if he wanted it. “Just keep it all–”

“I’m not going to say anything.” And then he was reading. John leaned his head back against the chair and closed his eyes.

Rodney made a little disgusted noise. “Are all your brothers this freakishly attractive?”

He choked on a laugh. “Rodney!”

“What? It’s ridiculous. If the other two are like you and Alex… you’re like bloody movie stars.”

“Don’t start lusting after my brother,” he teased.

Rodney snorted. “Lusting after you is a full-time occupation.” He went back to his reading. After a few minutes, he suddenly asked, “They ran mitochondrial DNA? Seriously, how’d they have your brother’s hair?”

He found himself smiling. “Alex had a ton of hair when he was born. Started falling off here and there almost immediately. Mom… she collected some of it and stuck it in an antique pillbox.”

“You remember him?” Rodney blinked. “You were three!”

“I remember,” John replied, not really wanting to get into it.

Rodney cleared his throat. “So… is Homeworld recruiting your brother?”

“That’s your take on it, too, huh?”

“No reason to run your family’s DNA unless they were looking for the gene. And he has your freakily strong expression of it.”

John felt his expression get hard. “It’s not happening.”

“John–”

“No. I don’t want my family getting hurt.”

“They’re building our ships,” Rodney said more gently than John would have expected. “They’re involved. And you don’t know what kind of offer they’re going to make him.”

Feeling a change of subject was in order, John braced his elbows on his knees. “I want you to come with me.”

“No. We talked about this already. Your family isn’t going to feel free to yell at you if I’m hanging around. I’ll join you after you play nice.” At John’s expression, Rodney added, “Will you feel the torment is evenly distributed if I go see my sister?”

John’s eyes narrowed. “Yes. But you said you weren’t going to do that.”

“Yeah, well, that was before I found out that your family knows about the program. It’s not like you can hide how much of a dick you were. This is me trying to be fair.”

“Rodney,” John said, completely exasperated.

“What? You were.”

“So were you.”

“Well, yeah, but I’m going to get away with it.”

John grabbed the half-empty bottle of water off the table and threw it at his lover. But with Pegasus-honed reflexes, Rodney ducked and went back to reading.

– – – –

After twelve hours of debriefing, and hoping the pilot would let him fly for the under-two-hour trip to Nevada, John boarded his family’s private plane. But thoughts of flying evaporated as he halted in his tracks at finding Mattie sitting in one of the chairs, expression stiff.

They stared at each other for several long minutes before John dropped his bag and said, “Jesus, Mattie… I missed you. And I hate myself for doing something that put that expression on your face.” Mattie wasn’t meant to be closed off—he was too vibrant.

Matt’s expression became a little pinched, then he was out of his seat, and John half expected to be punched. But then he was being hugged, and he mentally kicked himself in the ass. “I’m so sorry, kid.”

“I’m so fucking angry at you, John,” his brother whispered, holding on even tighter, “but I’m so damn glad you’re safe.” Matt finally pulled away and turned abruptly, wiping at his eyes, and John felt like a complete dick. He hated making Mattie cry.

A few minutes later, they were underway, and John wasn’t sure what to say. “I half expected it to be Dad.”

“I think he would have—he wanted to—but I’m so pissed, John, and we need to clear the air. I don’t want to drag Alex into this. So it probably makes me an asshole, but I came so we could talk this shit out.” For all that Matt was saying he was angry, mostly John was picking up a lot of hurt, and it broke his heart a little.

“It doesn’t make you an asshole, Mattie.”

“Yeah, it does. I should just be giving you a hug and saying welcome home, but I want to strangle you.”

John sighed. “Just get it out, Matt.”

“Just tell me why. Why not at least say goodbye? Say something!” The plea for there to be a real reason made him wince.

“It was pure stupid selfishness. I didn’t want to face Dad and see the worry. And get the lecture. And, honestly, this kind of mission isn’t something you can do if you aren’t cocky and convinced you’re going to make it back.”

“Was–” he stopped abruptly, then tried again. “Did you not call me because the last time we talked, I tried to get you to see Dad?”

“Oh god, Mattie, no. It had nothing to do with you. Or David, or even Dad. I just…” He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to get his fractured thoughts in order. “It all made sense at the time, even though I knew I should say something more than that stupid email about a new post. And then everything went ass over tits out there, and it was like having the blinders ripped off. There were a couple times when I thought we were so far beyond fucked, and my only regret was not making things right, not seeing you guys before I left.”

Matt looked away. “You’re gonna go back, aren’t you?”

“If they let me,” John said gently.

Eyes slipping shut, Matt was silent for a long time. “I don’t know how to be okay with that.”

John didn’t know what to say. “How angry is Dad?”

“He’s not,” Matt snapped, and the re-surfacing anger surprised John.

“Mattie–”

“No, John. Your head needs to part ways with your ass, and you need to listen for once! Dad is hurt, and he has every right to be. David’s hurt, I’m hurt. But it’s you who’s stuck in the past. You who can’t let go of past mistakes. I spent years defending you and trying to make Dad understand, and you know what? Along the way, Dad changed. He got that he was being overbearing and pushed you away. But you wouldn’t hear it!”

“You think I didn’t try to see Dad? There was always that goddamn look in his eyes, no matter what he said,” John insisted.

“What. The. Fuck!?” Matt looked so aggravated that John worried for his continued good health. “That’s family, John! You expect him to turn off the worry? I never did! I just hid it better. You went off to war! Repeatedly! And yet you think he’s just going to pat you on the back and be proud? Dad is incredibly proud of you, but he worries… he’ll always worry. And, yeah, it feels shitty to worry Dad, I get it, but you’re a fucking adult! Man up, for fuck’s sake!”

John was stunned. Mattie had never blown his lid like this before. Not at John anyway. “Dad and me… the history–”

“Oh, stop it! I was there! I remember the fights, okay? I know that was hard on you, and I’m not defending Dad being an overbearing asshole when we were growing up, but he’s changed, and apparently he’s the only one!”

“That’s not fair, Matthew.”

“Oh, it’s completely fair! I’ve been on your side in every fucking argument, but you need to see the other side for once! Dad has been different for a long time, but you are stuck in his micro-management of your life. And he hasn’t tried any of that in more than a decade!

“But you! You’re the one who took off to another fucking galaxy and couldn’t be bothered to say a fucking word to anyone! I sure the fuck don’t know why everyone says I’m the stubborn one. You’re the most stubborn, grudge-holding asshole I know.”

John took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Dad’s not a saint, Matt.”

“No, none of us are. But just because Dad screwed up after Mom died, did not mean you needed to find a way to win the asshole-of-the-family trophy.”

“I know I screwed up, and I am sorrier than I can possibly express. You can yell at me all the way to Nevada if that’s what you need to do. But, Mattie, I don’t know what you want here.”

“I want you to fix shit with Dad!” Matt insisted.

“For fuck’s sake, Matt, I’m going home, aren’t I?” John retorted, utterly exasperated.

“Oh, please. You’re coming home because of Alex.”

“No,” John said sharply. “Just no. Before I stepped through the gate, I knew that as soon as I could manage it, I was coming home. I told Dad in that message that I was sorry, that I wished I had done things differently.” Matt looked away, a muscle in his jaw working. “I’ll take the anger, Matt, I deserve it, and I’ll fix things with Dad—I’ll do my best anyway—but don’t expect me to rewrite history and pretend like it didn’t happen.”

“I’m not asking you to. I’m asking you to have a little fucking perspective. I know it hurt you that Dad was supportive of what David and I wanted, but kept shutting you down. I can only imagine how that felt. David and I wanted to be engineers and got patted on the head, and you wanted to be a pilot and join the Air Force and got years of arguments. I know you felt singled out. And I’m not defending Dad, it was complete bullshit, but his infant son was taken, and then he lost his wife to cancer. Nothing scares Dad so much as losing another one of us.”

John just shook his head. He got it intellectually, but that didn’t help with feeling rejected by his father for years—feeling like he was never good enough. And he felt like he’d been living under the shadow of Alex’s kidnapping his entire life.

Matt sighed. “All right, John. Change of subject. So, what do you know about Alex? Did you get my note?”

Latching on to the new topic, John nodded. “The SGC ran a thorough background on him and let me read it. You know they’re going to recruit him, right?”

Matt started laughing. “That ship has sailed, brother mine. They offered him the job on Monday.”

“What?!” John’s hands tightened on his armrests. “Did he accept?”

“Sort of, but not exactly. He agreed to trial run for the rest of this month.”

“Trial run of what?”

“NCIS/AFOSI Resident Unit at Area 51. Oh, and Ancient light switch. Though he’s apparently creeped out by the look of avarice in the eyes of the scientists when he’s around.”

John felt like his heart was in his throat. “He’s already working for Homeworld? With his propensity for major injury and near-death experiences?”

Matt raised an eyebrow and gave John a look that he could only describe as pitying. “Okay, John, do I really have to spell this out for you?”

He glared at his baby brother. “Spit it out, Mattie. Don’t be a condescending prick.”

“Alex’s line of work freaks you out, huh?”

“Hell yes! Have you seen his injury reports?”

“No… no, I haven’t. I’ve heard about the plague, and serial killers, and bees and sewers. That was more than enough. But, yeah, no one is thrilled about his line of work.”

“No kidding! He’s gonna get himself killed!”

Matt raised that patronizing brow again and smirked, and suddenly John twigged into his hypocrisy.

“Oh. My. God. I’ve turned into Dad!”

Mattie started cracking up. “You so deserve this epiphany. I am going to treasure this moment for years to come.”

John buried his head in his hands and groaned. “I hate you right now.”

Matt eventually managed to contain his mirth and his expression softened. “I’m glad you’re home. I’ve missed you.”

Throat feeling tight, he managed to say, “Me, too, Mattie.”

– – – –

As soon as John entered the front door of the unfamiliar house, he was unceremoniously pulled into his father’s arms. For the first time in so long, he just let himself relax and accept his father’s care. “Hi, Dad,” he whispered.

“Welcome home, John,” his dad replied softly. He pulled back and gave John a thorough once over. “You look good.” For the first time since he was a kid, John didn’t bristle at the concern in his father’s eyes. “Come upstairs. David is on the phone with Alex.”

John stopped and stared. “He’s not here?”

His Dad huffed. Literally huffed. His father. Huffing. It was so fucking bizarre. “No. And I have no idea what’s going on.”

He wondered if he was going to feel this spike of anxiety every time his brother walked out of the house. Mattie skirted around him heading for the stairs, biting his lip, obviously containing his amusement. John rolled his eyes and followed. Matt was such a pain in the ass.

Following Matt through the unfamiliar house, he entered a spacious study on the second floor. Dave was sitting in one of the wingback chairs, talking on his cell, but his eyes snapped immediately to John. He looked incredibly relieved, but he wasn’t giving anything else away.

“That’s okay, Alex, we’ll see you whenever you get here.” … “No, I’m sure John will understand.” … “Yeah, I’ll pass on the message.” … “Okay. Bye.” David set his phone down and got to his feet. “It’ll probably be a few days before I’m ready to really talk, John, but…” He yanked John into a bruising hug. “Thank you for coming home.”

He and David had always had a somewhat weird relationship. They were almost the same age, but David was so much like their father that John had often felt at odds with him. David was usually more uptight than John or Matt, which had sometimes caused them to butt heads. But, no matter what, John loved David fiercely. He’d wait until Dave was ready to talk.

When they were all seated, he asked, “So, what the hell? Where is he?”

“He’s arresting people,” David said with a sigh. “He apologized for not being here.”

John blinked in surprise even as his father said, “He’s doing what?”

“He’s been on this job for four days, and we knew he’d stumbled onto something because he’s barely been home, but he wasn’t talking about it. Guess whatever it is came together and threw off his plans to leave early. He said they finally had everyone in custody and he hoped to leave soon.”

“Seriously?” Matt asked incredulously. “He’s at the base for four days and he has to arrest multiple people? What the hell was going on?”

David shrugged. “He said now that it was almost wrapped up, he’d explain what he could when he got home.”

“I’m just gonna get it out there,” John began, “and Matt has already pointed out the irony of my position, so let’s not, okay? But, his job…” He dragged his hand through his hair. “I’m gonna go grey.”

“No one likes it, John,” Dave replied.

“Boys, let me talk to John, please,” his Dad said gently as he watched John closely.

John nearly flinched. Way too many discussions with his father had started with just those words. Matt and David left, Matt giving a squeeze to his shoulder on the way out then closing the door.

His father looked pensive. “I messed up with you, John. In reality, your mother did, too. And before you get pissed at me, I’m not blaming Emma. We all have her so high on a pedestal, it’s easy to forget that she wouldn’t let any of you out of her sight. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right, and I have so many regrets. There were reasons—so many reasons—but not one of them is an excuse for not accepting your choices, and I’m sorry, son.”

John didn’t even know what to say, so he just stared at his hands.

“It wasn’t just my relationship with you that was strained; I had to work things out with David and Matthew as well. You just weren’t here to see that they too were chafing under the restrictions caused by my overprotectiveness.” His Dad held up a hand. “That was not blame, it’s just a fact. You did not see that I had to sort out these same issues with all of you. I need to have learned from my mistakes, John.” His expression was pained. “And not repeat them.”

John wasn’t sure how he felt about this sudden empathy he felt in regards to his father. He’d been resenting his father’s attempts at control for so long—he knew that wasn’t going to vanish in a day—but his desire to wrap Alex up and protect him was giving him some insight he wasn’t sure he even wanted.

“What’s he like?” John finally asked then found himself smiling. “I saw the bad habits list.”

“He’s a little like all of you… he hides his feelings the way David does. He relates to Matthew’s sense of humor, though I sometimes think he’s a little more like you in that regard—he has a caustic edge to his humor that I think Mattie lacks. He’s incredibly intelligent, like all my boys. Though, honestly, he reminds me most of your mother.”

John swallowed hard, wondering what that would be like. He missed his mother so much, every single day. “How?”

“He has her conviction and compassion, and though it doesn’t make much sense, he seems to have her temperament.” His Dad looked away. “He plays the piano like her. I swear, if I wasn’t watching him play, I’d think it was Em.”

Rubbing his hand over his face, John tried to process that. Alex edged out Mattie for looking the most like their mother, and apparently was the most like her in many other ways. “Is it hard?”

“Sometimes. But I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t change him.” His father’s gaze was intense. “I never wanted to change you, John, and I was always proud of you. I just couldn’t bear to lose you. And when you were the one trying the hardest to get away, I held on tighter. Too tight.”

John felt like he’d been living under the specter of Alex’s disappearance for so long, but he wondered if perhaps that shadow had lifted a long time ago, and it took something drastic for him to finally see it.

“I don’t want to screw up with him,” John admitted.

“None of us do, but we probably will. But I think he’s also like your mother in his tendency to forgive. He already knows none of us are comfortable with his line of work, and we have to get over it. I don’t want him hiding important things, like injuries, because he’s shielding us from the reality of his work.”

John blew out a breath. “So tell me everything. The SGC gave me background on him, but the details of his kidnapping and the criminal trial against DiNozzo were sketchy.”

– – – –

Alex finished reviewing Dr. Michael Purnell’s statement. For all that Dr. Purnell was why this had all started, he was one of the last to give his official statement.

“Is there anything else I need to do?” he asked tentatively, his body language still protective and closed off.

“No. This looks fine for now. And it’s late—you should go home, rest, take some time off.” He held up a hand when the young scientist looked like he was going to protest. “Listen, I know all about going stir-crazy at home and wanting something to distract yourself. But they’re not going to let you resume your work until you’ve passed a psych eval, which means mandatory counseling. Take the time.” Casually, he mentioned, “Quite a few people are being given leave in the wake of the investigation. I believe Corporal Miller is on leave as well.”

“Oh.” Purnell looked both pleased and worried by that, but Alex knew they’d do better sorting this out together. “What’s next?”

“You’ll be contacted by both JAG and the federal prosecutor when they’re ready for depositions. In the meantime, just focus on you. And if you need anything, you have my card… just call. Airman Miranda Phillips is waiting to to escort you to your vehicle.” He made sure to give the Airman’s first name so the scientist knew he was being escorted by a woman.

Once Purnell was gone, Alex began getting all his paperwork in order. He had a mountain to do, but now that he had the arrests done and the victim and witness statements handled, he could take care of the rest tomorrow.

“Didn’t know you were going to kick over a hornet’s nest this big your first week on the job,” Jack O’Neill said casually from the doorway. His posture was relaxed and almost indifferent, but his expression was intense.

Alex had heard one of the generals had left Colorado Springs earlier today to deal with the aftermath of his investigation. He wasn’t surprised that it was O’Neill and not Landry. “Oh, it’s way bigger, General.”

“What?” O’Neill’s brows drew together sharply in a frown.

“Close the door.” Alex was too tired to care that he was ordering a general around. Once the door was shut, and O’Neill was propping it up, he continued. “I prioritized the extortion and coercion investigation because they involved human victims, but I believe a sizeable piece of this base’s security forces, those close to Captain Hynson, are involved in multiple crimes on base.”

“Explain,” O’Neill ordered.

“I’m still investigating, but Hynson ultimately controls the duty roster for the SFs. Almost all the missing goods and even petty crimes occurred when the same group of people were monitoring the base security feeds.”

“How does coercion and extortion fit in?”

“I think they started with smuggling supplies and even arms off base. They’re keeping the shortages small in the arms, but other supplies, including some expensive scientific equipment has, frankly, gotten less scrutiny than it should have when it went missing under the last CO.”

O’Neill made a face but didn’t say anything.

“This is a guess but I think they started subtle campaigns of sexual harassment against the civilians they found attractive—many of them younger and willing to buy into the threat against their position if they told anyone. I’d liken it to psychological warfare. They even stalked some of them. When they began to coerce sexual acts… it was just an escalation. If they found out secrets people didn’t want revealed, they’d use that to extort money or more leverage for coercion.”

O’Neill was starting to look pissed. “How long?”

“At least two years, but I’m still figuring everything out. I really need a team for an investigation this large. As I said, I focused on the sexual coercion and the extortion, but it’s just the start of this investigation.”

“I understand you also have one NCO and four enlisted men and women who gave statements.”

“Yes. A combination of threats, blackmail… whatever they could use to force cooperation and coerce sex acts. But, figure the real count is probably at least three times that many, maybe more. When the investigation goes public, a few more will come forward, but certainly not all.”

“How do you figure the numbers?”

“Subordinates are a safer target than civilians; they have more real power over actual military personnel in their command. I’ve got five civilians and five military who would talk to me. There’s no way those numbers are equal. The civilians were too high risk. They were the last phase of their criminal enterprise. They would have focused where they had more power first: the young and naïve enlisted personnel.” And just thinking about some of the stuff he’d found when he’d searched Hynson’s office had Alex’s blood boiling. He had to compartmentalize or he couldn’t do his work. “There’s a bit of a conflict of interest I should warn you about.”

Eyes narrowing, O’Neill made a go-on gesture.

“I found these earlier when I was searching Hynson’s stuff.” He passed over the folder.

O’Neill’s eyebrows shot up as he looked at the photos. “Well, yeah, Sheppard, that is a conflict of interest.” He sighed. “And that’s just too bad. You’re staying on this case. I’ll get you some more help. You’ve met Colonel Carter?”

“Sure. Before I met you, actually.”

“She’ll report to you in the morning. When we could spare her, she handled several investigations at the Mountain, so she at least has some familiarity and is magic on a computer. Let her help while I figure this out.”

“Sir,” Alex began cautiously, “the investigation… I have to look into why so many problems were swept under the rug. That’s going to lead me up the chain of command,” he said leadingly.

“You mean right to the former CO of this base who just was reassigned to the SGC?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yeah, I figured that. Just keep going and we’ll deal with whatever you find. If you get to the point that you need to question Landry, you talk to me first.”

“Right.”

“I’m curious about what tipped you off,” O’Neill said, head cocked to the side.

Alex sat back in his chair. “First thing you do in a new post is look for patterns in reports. Supply discrepancies, petty crimes, quashed reports of sexual violence or harassment. A lot of it was obscured in the reports but it’s there. Also, my first day, I went into one of the labs where they work on Ancient tech.”

“I heard about that. They said you lit that lab up like a Christmas tree,” the general said with a smirk.

“Right. There was a whole sciencegasm going on that I’m not interested in repeating, thank you very much. But it was Dr. Purnell who caught my attention. Everyone else was excited and chattering, and he was quiet and nervous and acting peculiar. At first I thought he might be involved in my suspected theft of scientific equipment, but the more I observed him, the more he reminded me… well, he reminded me of a rape victim,” Alex said bluntly.

O’Neill winced. “And so you…”

“Talked with him, drew him out, got him to tell me about the leverage they used and how long it had been going on. I’ll spare you the details. It’s ugly.” Also Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a thing; Purnell’s Air Force boyfriend would likely get outed no matter what Alex did, but he wasn’t helping it along by doing any actual telling until he had to. It would all come out, Alex was sure, but he wasn’t going to do anything to damage Corporal Miller’s career if he could help it.

“The thing is, General, they weren’t trying too hard to hide their actions. Records of it, yes, but they were pretty blatant when I went looking. It only took me another day to figure out some of their likely other victims and, well, this is what I’ve been doing for the last four days.”

Nodding and looking thoughtful, O’Neill asked, “In the course of your limited investigations into the other malfeasance on base, did you determine if any alien technology or artifacts have been compromised by the security issues?”

“I don’t believe so. From what I can tell, your most highly trained and best SFs are assigned to the high priority areas. Ultimately, it was a few of them personally vouched for by Colonel Vlahakis who aided me in the arrests.”

“I’ll make sure Vlahakis knows to give you whatever support you require as you continue the investigation.”

“Thank you.”

“By the way, your brothers are here. I held them off until I talked to you—General’s privilege.”

“Wait. What? Which ones?”

“All of them.”

Alex suddenly realized his mouth was hanging open. He’d put off his mental preparation to finally meet John for the drive home. Now he didn’t have that buffer.

O’Neill just grinned. “Suck it up, Sheppard.” He handed the folder back. “Talk to your family about that.”

“I don’t–” He knew he had to, needed to, but he certainly wasn’t prepared to do it now. “Yeah. Okay.”

Hand on the doorknob, O’Neill paused and pointed a finger at Alex. “You are a pain in my ass. But good work, Sheppard. Now more than ever, I hope you’ll consider making your permanent home with us.”

“Still percolating, sir.”

O’Neill just shook his head and left with a parting, “Two doors to your left.”

Taking a steadying breath, he locked up some files, grabbed the stuff he needed, then set the security code on his cobbled-together office.

John wasn’t waiting in the room O’Neill mentioned. He was leaning against the wall, watching Alex closely, brows knitted.

He halted a couple feet from his oldest brother. “Hey,” he said awkwardly. “Sorry about–”

“Hell, kid,” John interrupted, “just get over here.” Alex found himself unceremoniously hauled into another Sheppard-style hug.

“So not a kid,” he retorted when he pulled back. He felt lighter; he’d been dreading meeting John for some reason. It was probably a side effect of all the family tension around John’s absence, but now that it was over, he suddenly felt more settled about the whole situation.

John had hold of him by the upper arms. “You’ll always be my kid brother, and damn, but I’m glad we finally found you. I’ve been missing you for thirty-two years.”

For some reason that really got to Alex, and all he managed was a nod.

– – – –

John leaned back in the slightly uncomfortable office chair as he chatted with his brothers. For all that Alex looked exhausted, his personality was evident, and there was definitely some quality that reminded him of Mom. He wasn’t even sure how that could be, but it just was.

He’d gotten tired of waiting for his brother, not really wanting to admit he was worried and his mind wouldn’t settle until he’d seen Alex for himself. At almost 2300 hours, he’d decided to go to the base and either retrieve his younger brother or sit with him until he could come home. Of course Mattie wasn’t going to let John go alone, but he was a little surprised that Dave came along, too.

Since Alex had finally joined them in the conference room a few minutes ago, they’d been doing idle get-acquainted conversation, but John wanted to get out of here as soon as possible. “You finished with whatever held you up, or do you need more time?”

“I’m done for tonight. But the investigation is ongoing. Before we leave though, I need to apprise you of a situation, Matt. Officially.”

“Are you serious?” Mattie asked.

“I wish I wasn’t. I can hold this until tomorrow if you like. Also, I have to ask if you’d prefer we talk in private. Normally I’d hand this off to another agent because of our relationship, but there is no other agent.”

“What is going on?” John began, but Mattie shot him a quelling look.

“Be the protective older brother later, John. He’s talking to me.” Mattie looked to Alex. “There’s nothing I’m not going to tell them, so just get it out.”

Alex took a deep breath. “The details I’m going to give you are sketchy, because I can’t tell you more, and I’m going to ask that what you do learn, you not discuss with anyone.”

“You are totally weirding me out, Alex.”

“Yeah, well, with good cause. There’s some systemic criminal activity and corruption in a portion of the security forces for this base. I’m still determining how much and how far reaching, but we arrested seven SFs today, two people who work the base security station, and their CO, Captain Hynson.”

“Hynson?” Mattie repeated. “I’ve talked to him a few times.”

“Yeah, I know, Matt,” he replied.

“You do?”

“My working theory is that they were working their way up the criminal ladder. They moved on from theft and extortion to coercing sex from some of their junior enlisted personnel.”

“Oh my god. Who?” Matt asked, sounding bewildered.

“That I can’t say. I think about six months ago, they moved on to some of the younger, more attractive civilians.”

John was trying to treat this like a mission debrief, or something, but his hands were clenched so hard, they were white. He knew exactly where this was going.

“Are you telling me they’ve been raping the civilians on this base and no one has done anything?” Matt asked, outraged. And John knew Mattie was going to blow his lid when he found out the UCMJ did not classify sex by coercion as rape. It was, at best, classified as sexual assault. It was ugly, but it was reality.

“I’d say they were very good at getting people to keep quiet,” Alex said gently.

“Why are you telling me, Alex?” Matt asked, looking furious.

Alex opened the folder John had been wondering about and spread out about a dozen photographs of Matt. Some were clearly from security feeds, some were telephoto, others were just candid shots.

Matt was staring, horrified, until Dave put all the pictures in a pile and turned them upside down. Alex retrieved them and shoved them back into the folder.

Alex cleared his throat. “Hynson seemed a bit obsessed with a couple of the male civilians. You’re the subject of one of two sets of photos we found locked in his office. I don’t know how they intended to approach you, or what they planned to do, but I don’t know that we’ve caught everyone. Until we’re sure we have the whole ring, you’re going to have a guard. And we’re going to have a long talk about situational awareness.”

“Now wait a second!”

“Matthew!” David and John yelled at the same time.

Matt subsided back in his chair and pinned Alex with a look. “Is this my brother talking or the person responsible for investigating crime on the base?”

Alex’s brows shot up. “As your brother, I’d like you to stay at home for the foreseeable future or find some way to work out of the JADEM labs. But as an NCIS special agent investigating criminal activity on base, of which you were an intended victim, I’m assigning you a Marine. A really big one with excellent range scores and a total badass at hand-to-hand. I’ll readily admit protectiveness is at play in my selection criteria.”

Matt’s eyes were narrowed, and he seemed to be assessing Alex’s intent. Finally, he sighed. “Okay, Alex.”

John’s mouth fell open. Mattie never agreed to anything that easily.

Matt suddenly winced. “Do we have to tell Dad?”

“Yes,” Dave and Alex said in unison.

Alex added, “He’s on base sometimes. You think he’s not going to wonder why there’s a burly Marine shadowing you?”

“I’ll take care of it, Mattie,” John offered.

“You will?” Matt asked incredulously.

“Yeah. Let me talk to Dad.” John was furious about the situation and angry about the danger to Matt. Plus, he was still upset about Alex’s whole career—and this situation shone a light on exactly why. He wondered if it escaped Alex’s notice that he could have easily been a target of these men as well. Although, Alex carried a gun and his constant awareness of his surroundings wasn’t lost on John.

For all that he wasn’t thrilled about the situation, he was really impressed with his little brother, and proud of him, too. Having the four of them together still didn’t feel completely real, but it did feel whole.

– – – –

John watched his father’s shifting expressions as he absorbed the information John had relayed. Eventually he asked, “And Matthew has agreed to a guard?”

“Yes.”

“Hm,” his father murmured noncommittally.

“What are you thinking, Dad?” John asked, worried about the expression his father wore. “You’re not thinking of interfering in Alex’s case, are you?”

“Of course not, John. I’ll let the legal process grind to its inevitable conclusion and then I’ll ensure that every single one of them is ruined.”

His father had been overbearing and protective most of John’s life, but he’d always known he was loved. And it was easy to forget just how ruthless his father could be. In that way, John was more like his father than he thought any of his brothers were. He certainly knew the extent of his own ruthlessness—the time on Atlantis had shown him all his rough edges and how far he truly was willing to go.

After a long silence, John offered, “I get it, you know? And I feel like I should admit it. Maybe I was being deliberately obtuse when I was younger, or just too young to understand, but I want to wrap them both up and keep them safe, and it’s making me crazy.”

Dad’s eyebrows shot up. “You know, John, I’m not less wrong just because you understand where I was coming from.”

John shook his head. “I don’t know why you’re making this so easy for me, but I’m grateful.”

“Because you’re my son.”

John glanced away. Maybe it was that simple. And, yeah, he’d deliberately ignored some things in order to justify the decisions he’d made.

“You rode back with Alex. How was that?” his father prompted, obviously moving to safer ground for John’s sake.

“He’s… I don’t know. I think I had this mythical image of what he might be like if we ever found him. The reality is better. He fits. And, god, Dad, so much like mom.” It kind of hurt in a way to have so much of her. “He even quirks his eyebrow the way she did. How can that be?”

“I have no idea, John. But for all that it’s a little painful to be so reminded of Emma, I’m also grateful for it. I need to be reminded of your mother.”

“I miss her,” he murmured. “Having Alex here… it’s filled that void we all lived with all these years. But it’s more, because it’s also like getting a little of mom back.”

“Your mother would be so proud of you, John. She’d kick your ass for making Matthew cry, but it wouldn’t change how she felt about your accomplishments. I know because it’s how proud of you I am.”

John had always wanted his father’s approval, but he wasn’t sure how to react to it now. “And are you going to kick my ass for making Mattie cry?” he asked somewhat avoiding the subject.

Dad gave a bark of laughter. “Matthew can handle you just fine without any of my help.”

“Well, that’s certainly–” he broke off when he heard the faint sounds of the piano. “Alex?” he asked.

“I’m not surprised, really. I’ve noticed he seems to need to play more when he’s upset about something. He’s been playing every night after work. It helps him calm, and probably allows him to get all the ugly things he sees compartmentalized. Since we’re all up so late, I expected it.”

John got up and cracked the door open so he could hear better. Then he leaned back against the wall of his father’s study, listening as the soft sounds of Loch Lomond filled the house. “Did you tell him about the song?”

“Just that when Em was pregnant with him and he’d get restless, she’d play this and he’d settle down.”

John thought it was probably kind that Dad hadn’t mentioned how, for years, whenever she’d feel despondent about her lost son, she’d go to the piano and play Loch Lomond. For all of them, the song was forever associated with Alex and the horrible pain of his loss. There was a sort of tragic completeness in Alex playing it now as they thought of her.

“Welcome home, Alex,” he murmured.

– – – –

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