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Walking up to the house that he had grown up in, Elizabeth and General O'Neill leading the way, John wondered why this encounter in particular was making him feel so nervous; he'd stood up to millennia-old Wraith queens, and yet just the thought of talking to his father again made him feel like he was fourteen years old all over again, wishing for his parents' approval and simultaneously knowing that he'd never receive it unless he sacrificed everything he wanted out of life.

He was suddenly wishing he'd taken the offer to have some theatrical make-up applied to his face; he'd never look like he would have appeared if he'd simply never been injured in the first place, but at least he wouldn't stand out as much…

No.

This was his family he was about to speak to, and he was going to meet them as himself; he'd save the disguises for when he was going on missions back in Pegasus. There were definitely going to be times when being the Phantom wouldn't be practical and might attract undue attention, but if he was going to explain everything to his family, he wanted them to know everything that he was able to tell them about what he'd been.

Falling into position behind the other two, John kept his head bowed and waited as General O'Neill and Elizabeth knocked on the door, waiting for a moment before the door opened, revealing an older, well-built man with short white hair and thin-framed glasses, wearing a dark suit.

He was the first family member John had seen in almost two decades.

"Patrick Sheppard?" O'Neill said politely.

"Yes?" the older man replied, looking curiously at the general.

"General Jack O'Neill," the general said, nodding politely at him. "This is Doctor Elizabeth Weir; my colleagues and I would like to talk to you."

"Is your son here?" Elizabeth asked. "What we have to say concerns him as well."

"Uh… of course; come in," Patrick Sheppard replied, clearly confused at this turn of events as he stepped aside to wave them in. "And Dave's here; we were… going over some details about the company stock…"

As he walked into the family home for the first time in years, John fought down the initial urge to get out; he was too used to the relatively open corridors of Atlantis to be completely comfortable in such a comparatively small space…

Pushing those thoughts aside, John followed his father, O'Neill and Elizabeth into the lounge, where his older brother was going over some paperwork; Dave was only a couple of years older than him, but it appeared that his brother retained his more physically imposing bulk compared to John's more wiry frame, even if he had simply followed in their father's footsteps into the still-thriving business that their father had started so long ago. He'd done a bit of background reading before this meeting and found that his mother had passed away a few years ago, so he knew that he shouldn't bother waiting for her, but it was still a bit awkward to come back to his family home and find her absent; she'd always been the more tolerant of the family towards his own private ambitions.

"Dad?" Dave said, looking at their guests in surprise. "What's this all about?"

"I… well, actually, I don't know," his father said, looking uncertainly at O'Neill and Elizabeth. "Why are you here?"

"Well, that's a bit of a long story," O'Neill said, nodding at Patrick before he turned to indicate John. "In which case, you should probably let this man tell you what he came here to say."

Under other circumstances, John would have been annoyed at Jack taking away his choice like that, but right now, he supposed that he should appreciate it; he couldn't allow himself to back out after coming this far.

As his father opened his mouth to speak, John made a decision and threw back his hood, trying not to wince at the obvious shock on his family's faces as they saw what he looked like now; they'd react with fear, but they wouldn't try to attack him like Pegasus natives would in the same situation.

"Hi, Dad," he said, smiling slightly at his father, hoping that the voice would make up for the absolute mess his face had become over the years.

"What…" Patrick Sheppard said, staring at the twisted mess that had once been a man's face before his eyes finally widened in recognition. "Oh my God… John?"

"That's me," John replied, smiling uncertainly at his family; he'd spent some time practising how to smile in a manner that wouldn't immediately terrify anyone who saw his face before he'd decided to adopt the mask on a permanent basis, but there was only so much he could do when he was missing so much of his original face.

"Oh God…" Dave said, staring at John in horror as he walked up to his brother, eyes fixed on John's mangled face. "John, how… I mean, what…?"

"I was… abducted… and taken to a distant country while I was out on that walk," John explained; the cover story they'd come up with was complicated, but considering John's distance from his family even before the teleportation accident happened, he hadn't felt comfortable arguing that they should be given clearance to know about the Stargate program, and he wasn't planning on remaining in regular contact with them after this anyway. "I managed to escape my captors- the reasons for them abducting me in the first place are a long and complicated story that you really don't want to know- but… well, you can see what they did to me before I got away."

"Someone did that to you?" Dave said, looking incredulously at his brother's face.

"Part of it was an accident; trust me, you don't want to know the details," John said, trying to give his family an answer that would be relatively honest; he's taken a few knocks in fights over the years, but the majority of his facial damage was just an accident.

"Well… we can fix this," Patrick said, looking uncertainly at him. "I can get all kinds of plastic surgeons in to take a look-"

"I'm not coming back," John interjected; if they were going to have any kind of conversation, he should make his current situation clear.

"Excuse me?" Patrick repeated.

"Face facts, Dad; even if you can find any plastic surgeon willing to work on something like this, they're never going to make it perfect," John said resolutely. "I've lost too much skin and muscles for it to just be repaired without extension transplants, so I'd just end up freaking out anyone you'd want me to talk to, and I'm not exactly qualified to do anything you were planning for me to do with my life after all this time; I came here because I had a chance to talk to you, but I'm really not in a point where you can tell me what to do any more."

"Hold on; you've just been getting by in some kind of hellhole where people did… did that to you, and you want to go back there?" his father said, staring incredulously at him. "What are you even doing with your life now?"

"Mr Sheppard, I run a multi-national program directed and financed by various governments; John holds a position with this program due to his long experience of the region in which we operate and his dealings with the locals," Elizabeth explained; the scenario they'd come up with was a bit of a stretch on credulity, but it accounted for most of the essential details. "His position is… unconventional… but John's proven his abilities more than once over the years."

"Proven himself?" Dave said, looking uncertainly at John. "After something like that? What do you-?"

"What we do, where we do it, and how I got there is all classified," John interjected, looking firmly at his brother with just a slightly apologetic aspect to his manner (Elizabeth supposed that it was hard to feel sorry for someone you hadn't really spoken to in years). "Trust me, you don't want to know the details-"

"And they're expecting you to stay somewhere like that?" Patrick practically spat, waving a hand indignantly at General O'Neill and Elizabeth, who could do little more than sit in awkward silence. "You've clearly been through Hell-"

"And I asked to remain," John said, staring firmly at his father. "I've spent two decades in that 'Hell', but I can use what I learned during that time to really make a difference where I am, Dad; I'll never have that here."

As soon as he'd said the words, John regretted the way he'd phrased it- the look on his father's face made it clear that he'd been hurt by John's indirect rejection of everything he'd done with his life- but it had to be said; he just didn't have any interest in taking on any kind of position in the family business, and the sooner his father accepted that the better it would be for everyone.

"I mean, you have to face facts; is this really the face you want to inherit the company, Dad?" John asked, standing up and glaring at his father, the fear Elizabeth had seen him demonstrate when he was last unmasked in public no longer present; he'd committed himself to explaining things this way, so he'd have to stick with it. "I was barely interested in the job before I spent the last couple of decades in a place that would give most hardened soldiers nightmares; the crap I've had to do just to stay alive isn't exactly the kind of thing you want on a CV in a standard job, but it's an actual asset in my current line of work!"

"You don't have to define yourself by past mistakes-!" Patrick protested.

"What I did saved lives, and you're acting like it was a mistake?" John practically spat at his father, glaring at the older man. "You know, I don't even know why I came here; even if I could tell you what I've been doing all these years, you'd still never understand why I did it!"

"You ran out on your family-!" Patrick began, standing up as though the two were about to begin their traditional arguments.

"My disappearance was a goddamn accident; if I could have come back earlier, I would have, but there was a load of crap to deal with that meant I couldn't just walk back home and leave it at that!" John protested, standing up as he continued to yell at his father. "God, I went out there and made something of myself on my own- something that most parents would kill for, I might add- and you still can't cope with the fact that I'm not living the life you wanted, can you?"

"John," Elizabeth said, looking warningly at her military commander.

"Uh… right," John said, his initial tension vanishing as he looked apologetically over at the only woman in the room. "Sorry about that…"

"Hey, you've been through a lot; only natural you'd want to vent," General O'Neill said, smiling in understanding at him before he looked back at Patrick Sheppard. "For the record, I approved your son's commission personally, and I've earned more than a few favours with the right people that I wouldn't cash in unless I was sure that he was worth it."

"Oh," Dave said, looking between the general, his father, and his brother for a moment, clearly lost for anything else that he could say, before his gaze settled on the brother he hadn't seen in years. "So… you're happy where you are?"

"I… yeah," John said, nodding in agreement of his brother's question; defining himself as 'happy' might be a strange term to consider when he was going back to a life where he was hunted by centuries-old monsters who wanted to suck the life out of him, but it was his friends rather than his enemies that made it what it was. "Been a rough ride to get where I am, but… I like where I am now."

"That's what matters," Dave said, smiling at him in understanding before he looked over at his father. "We're not going to get anywhere making John stick around where he doesn't want to be, Dad."

"We are his family-" Patrick began.

"And John's been away for a while," Dave interjected, looking grimly at him. "I've missed him too, but you're not going to force him to stay if he doesn't want to; in case you've forgotten, he barely listened to you when he had to, and he's definitely past that point now."

For a moment, Patrick just sat and stared at the three visitors- it was increasingly clear that John wasn't going to stay in this house, so he had to be considered a visitor too as far as he was concerned- until he sighed.

"I just… I wanted what was best for you, John…" he said at last, looking uncertainly at his son.

"I got that, Dad," John replied, giving his father a brief smile. "Had a lot of time to think while I was away, and believe me, I got my head around that; it's just… we didn't agree on what was best for me. You had your vision of how my life was going to be, and I just… I had my own dreams that didn't fit your plans for me."

There was an awkward silence in the room at that point; the Sheppards seemed to be lost for what to say after that statement, and while Jack and Elizabeth were both increasingly feeling as though they were intruding on a private moment, getting up to leave just felt like it would draw even more attention to them.

"We tried to look for you, you know," Patrick said, looking at his returned son. "I spent so much time and money trying to find you… appeals in the media, hiring private detectives after the police called off the search… how could you have just-?"

"It was… complicated," John said, not wanting to hear any more of that than he had to. "I'm not sure how I ended up getting out of the country myself; I was… pretty out of it for most of the trip."

"But… you got back?" Dave asked

"Total fluke, really," Jack said, grateful for the chance to contribute something else to this discussion. "I was in charge of authorising the deployment of Doctor Weir's team; if I or any of the other people in charge had said so, she might never have gone there, never run into John, and he might not have had the chance to make such a positive impression on us all."

"Everything just fell into place, huh?" Dave said, smiling over at his brother.

"Bit more complicated than it sounds, but I obviously can't say much more," John said, shrugging apologetically at his brother. "Sorry, but the things I've seen…"

"Classified, huh?" Dave said.

"So classified they've had to invent new definitions of security clearance for it," Elizabeth confirmed. "We're only telling you this much because you're John's family and you deserved to know that he'd been found, even if… well, even if he's not staying here."

"Ah," Dave said, looking at his brother with a slight smile. "You have a really complicated life, huh?"

"It's… interesting, to say the least," John replied. "Let's leave it at that."

"Well," Dave said, standing up from the chair, "if you're going to leave anyway, I'd better just get something."

As Dave left the room, John was left sitting awkwardly opposite his father, trying to think of anything he could say that wouldn't just make it worse, but the moment quickly passed as Dave came back, carrying a rolled-up piece of paper.

"Here," he said, handing the paper to John. "It's a small thing, but if you're setting up in a military base… well, you might want this to help you start personalising the place."

Taking the paper from his brother, John unrolled it, a smile slowly spreading across his face as he took in what it depicted.

It was his old Johnny Cash poster, one of the first major acts of defiance he'd ever committed against his father- Patrick had never fully approved of John's tastes in music, but that was just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg- still intact after all the time that had elapsed since he'd stayed in the room where he'd left it.

"You… you kept this?" he said, looking up at his brother in surprise.

"Whole room's still intact," Dave said, smiling at him. "We kept it as it was even when it… well, it was fairly obvious that you wouldn't be coming back any time soon. A few things were traded off over the years- as time went by, you obviously weren't going to want everything in it when you got back - but the essential stuff's still there."

"Huh," John said, smiling at his brother for a moment. "Maybe I'll… take a look at that later?"

"It'll be available," Dave said, smiling back at John in a tentative understanding. Patrick said nothing, but the hopeful expression on his face gave John some hope that he hadn't burned all his bridges with his brief argument.

He still didn't really know what kind of relationship he was going to have with his family in future- to say that they'd grown apart was an understatement; John wasn't even sure what he'd talk to them about after so long away from Earth culture- but the seeds had been sown for him to pay them a visit later, and that was enough for now.

At the moment, his priority was getting back to Atlantis to make a start on settling into his new official position…


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