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The Price That Life Exacts

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One year to the day after Sheppard goes missing, Lorne's team finds a group of people huddled in the ruins on MC1-047, a planet devoid of current human habitation. They're ragged and filthy and starved, and their eyes are dead. None of them can speak.

They bring the little band to Atlantis immediately, but it's too late. The old man dies first, followed closely by the old woman. The last adult survivor is an emaciated young woman who dies the second day clutching her infant daughter to her chest. The young woman fades in and out of consciousness the whole time she's in Atlantis, and is unable to communicate anything about how they ended up where they were.

The second day, Keller calls Rodney to the infirmary, where the staff has rigged a space for the baby in the corner. Rodney hears its sharp cries from across the large space.

Keller pulls him into her office and forces him to sit down. "There isn't a good way to do this," she says, biting her lip and staring at her hand, which is clenched white-knuckled around something. "So. So, here."

Reflexively, Rodney holds out his hand.

She thrusts her fist towards him, uncurls her fingers, and spills something sinuous and metallic into Rodney's palm. "These were under the baby's clothes," she says softly.

At first, his brain can't even categorize, let alone identify, what he's holding. It's like a sucker punch to the gut when he gets it, sharp and out of nowhere, and he doesn't even hear his own gasp, only senses it after the fact. Because what he's got curled in his shaking hand, cold against his palm, are Sheppard's dog tags.

Suddenly it's too much, and he realizes he's sweating, heart stuttering wildly through an irregular rhythm. Everything in him is screaming, go, go, go, go find him now, but his brain -- his brain doesn't stop functioning. So even as he's about to push to his feet, follow this clue, retrace Lorne's steps, a thought stops him dead in the water. He's dizzy and breathless on the strength of it, and he turns his eyes to Keller again.

She must read his question on his face, because she nods. "I checked, ran tests. I'm. I'm sorry? Or not, I don't know, but Rodney, that baby, that little girl, she's John's daughter."

"I... What?" he manages, breathing hard.

"The DNA matches. That young woman who just died is the mother, and the Colonel," Rodney wills her to not use the past tense, and she clears her throat. "The Colonel is the father. No doubt whatsoever. I ran the genetics three times to be sure."

Rodney has to cover his eyes with his hand for a few deep breaths, though he resents even those seconds lost to the task of finding John. He loses track of time for a while as he breathes, trying to get his head to stop spinning and his stomach to stop feeling like he's in freefall.

"How..." he whispers.

"We don't know anything yet, really," Keller says softly. "We're working on determining the cause of death of the mother and the others, but off the cuff I'd say it was some sort of influenza. Exacerbated in the mother's case by childbirth, nursing, hunger..." Her voice fades, frustration evident in her silence. Rodney knows the year's been hard on Keller too, watching so many die, running low on critical supplies, facing constant threat.

"Okay, okay," Rodney says lamely, still struggling to get his brain to function properly. "Was there anything else with them, anything that could identify where--"

Keller purses her lips. "We don't know yet. There are already people working on it."

Rodney pushes to his feet, has to steady himself on Keller's desk. Her eyes are full of compassion, and that makes his stomach twist again. "I've got to, to start running tests. Fabric samples, bacteria, anything that could..."

"Of course," Keller says softly. "Come see her first, though."

"See who?" Rodney snaps, already putting together a mental list of all the types of testing that will need to be done, the leads that should be followed.

"The baby," Keller responds. She aims a level gaze at him. "John's daughter."

He wants to run away, dig in his heels and refuse, but the look Keller is giving him makes it clear it'll be easier to just get it over with. He won't have to ever look at the baby again, if he just does it now.

Keller leads him over to the corner, where the baby is crying even louder than before. He doesn't look down at her yet, but closer like this, her cries are deafening and drown out all the other sounds of the infirmary. He feels like he's going to go out of his mind or crawl out of his skin if the crying doesn't stop, and stupidly, he lets the feeling come out into words. "Well, isn't someone going to do something?"

A harried nurse rushes by, and Keller sighs. "We're so short-staffed, and it doesn't make any difference anyway. She won't stop crying no matter who picks her up or what they do. She won't take a bottle, either, and she's already dehydrated." She sighs and rubs her forehead, then adds, "I've been putting it off, but I'm going to have to stick an IV in her if something doesn't change, and soon."

Rodney makes himself look down at the baby, who's on her back, face scrunched and bright red. Her mouth is open, and her screams are punctuated with hiccupping gasps for air. Her tiny hands are balled into fists, which bat frantically against nothing.

Someone's stuck a hat on her, but it's come loose. Rodney suddenly can't breathe very well, and he has to reach out and lean his weight onto the edge of the table her little basket-bed is on, because her hair -- her hair is standing in thick dark tufts, ridiculously luxuriant and thick for an infant. Something twists in his chest, and he barely stops himself from reaching out a hand to touch the long dark locks.

He sucks in air and is going to leave, but then -- then the baby's eyes open, and she quiets a little, her cries turning to a mewling. His heart thuds again in his chest, because her eyes are hazel in the harsh light of Keller's office, and there's a tilt to her lips that's familiar. Between the dark hair and the flashing eyes he's rooted to the spot, mesmerized.

It seems like she's looking right at him, examining him with a clear gaze. After a minute, she starts to fuss again, gathering breath to turn her hiccups into screams, and he finds himself reaching out his hands toward her. Incredulous, he stops himself and tries to pull back, but as quick as anything, Keller reaches past him, lifts the baby up and deposits her right into Rodney's shaking arms.

"I don't--" Rodney protests feebly, feeling the bundle squirm and hearing the baby's little unhappy sounds.

"Try," Keller says behind him. "That's the quietest she's been since she's been here." It's not really a request, and Rodney can hear the edge of desperation in her voice; the desperation of a doctor who's lost too many people over too short a time.

He's been holding his arms loosely, but some instinct compels him to pull the blanket-wrapped body a little closer. The baby stills, gasping out one last little cry, and then she's looking straight into his eyes, unblinking. She's surprisingly heavy for something so small, and she's warm, radiating heat through her blankets and through Rodney's uniform.

Something hot and terrible pushes its way up from his chest to his throat, and no, no, no, he's not going to do this, here especially, so he fights it back, pushes it down. He's certain that if he lets it start, lets himself think or feel, he won't be able to stop. The lessons of the past year have been harshly effective; after a few seconds, he manages to shove it down far enough to breathe around it.

The baby scrunches up its face, and he realizes his hands have been squeezing her harder, too hard probably. "Sorry," he whispers to the bundle in his arms, "Sorry."

She stills again and smiles, straight into his face.

"Well wouldya look at that," Keller breathes from behind him. "She's smiling! Her first time."

Suddenly overwhelmed, Rodney reaches for a remnant of his former self. "Let's call all the local news channels," Rodney grits out. "A baby smiled." He huffs out a breath. "It's probably gas at this age, anyway. It's always gas, right? That's what they say?"

Keller smiles at him, and the kindness in it irritates him, scrapes raw against the feeling that's so close to the surface right now. "I think she likes you," she says, and that's it, he's reaching his limit and he knows it.

He thrusts the bundle back at Keller without speaking, then turns and walks out of the infirmary, ignoring Keller's voice calling after him. He ignores the baby's cries too, which have started again and are rising to a new pitch. It has nothing to do with him, and he has work to do.

Though he's wracked with an uncharacteristic need to do something physical, go somewhere, do something, Rodney realizes quickly that the urge is irrational, that right now his talents are best used for investigation, that boots on the ground are fungible but brainpower applied to evidence is not.

Over the next twenty four hours, Rodney ignores twelve emails from Keller, two visits from Teyla and one long significant look from Ronon. He's coordinating forensics on the bodies of the survivors and everything they were wearing or had with them. Though Lorne's technically in charge, Rodney's also monitoring the results from all the teams searching the planet the survivors were found on and interviewing people from nearby systems who could have come in contact with them. In spare moments, he's working on algorithms for search patterns based on the location of the planet as related to -- well, that's the problem in a nutshell; they have no idea what to relate the planet's location to, because they have no idea what they're dealing with. Or who. Just like they haven't for twelve excruciatingly long months.

He also ignores emails from Woolsey which first ask, then demand, that they meet to discuss "proper allocation of resources." Rodney refuses to think about what that phrase might mean.

Sometime about a day and a half after the survivors are found, Woolsey visits him in the laboratory, which is almost unprecedented. Rodney thinks it's night, but he really isn't certain. He's pretty sure people have been bringing him food, because any shakiness he feels doesn't seem like the kind brought on by hypoglycemia.

Woolsey sits down on the counter next to where Rodney's working, annoyingly close to the corner Sheppard always perched on. Rodney ignores him, but he starts talking anyway. "We've been over this, Dr. McKay," he says softly. "You agreed that the search had to come second to the city's survival. Which, I might remind you, is under constant threat."

Rodney doesn't even look up from the screen where he's finalizing search grids. "Things changed. There's proof he's alive."

Woolsey sighs. "Keller estimates the baby is about two months old. That means there's proof that some of the Colonel's sperm was viable about eleven months ago. That's only a month after he disappeared. Though for that matter, it might just have been a piece of his DNA that created the, the infant."

It's like a bucket of ice water to Rodney's face, because how has he not thought of that, that instead of John himself being involved, the baby might have been created with a sample of something from John's dead or soon-to-be-dead body?

But then he remembers. "The dog tags," he says, tilting his chin up.

Woolsey nods. "There's hope. That he was alive eleven months ago. But someone could have taken them off his body. They could mean nothing more than that. Regardless, it doesn't change the fact that if Atlantis is to survive, everyone here has to work towards its survival. Especially you."

Rodney's eyes are drawn by the figures on the printouts lying in front of him: the coordinates for the planet the baby and its mother were found on. He's sure there must be a reason, an explanation for why these people turned up almost-dead on a boring uninhabited planet in an obscure binary system. In his head, he sees a three-dimensional map of space, lines linking planets and star systems. Right now, it's got one coordinate for the planet John's baby was found on and one coordinate for MCX-190, the planet John disappeared from over a year ago. If he had one more set of data points, he's sure he could make meaning out of the locations, but right now, there's nothing, nothing at all, just--

"Dr. McKay! Please!" Woolsey's irritated voice interrupts Rodney's thoughts. Woolsey pushes off the desk and stands in front of Rodney, tilts his face to the side in the gesture Rodney's learned to recognize as a brand of Woolsey's own stubbornness. "Nothing has changed," Woolsey says, enunciating every word. "You continue to accept the parameters. You know I can't afford to have a Chief of Science who isn't one hundred percent committed. We talked about it, before. Don't make me reiterate what I will need to do if you let this interfere with your job."

Woolsey lowers his voice. "We need you here, Dr. McKay. You are integral to this mission." A typical Woolsey threat, Rodney thinks -- veiled but not, and highly effective. Just thinking the word "Earth" sends chills down his spine. He can't leave here. No fucking way. It's bad being here, each day a new definition of bad, but anywhere else--No.

"Fine," Rodney snaps back. "Same deal as before. Full-time on Atlantis stuff, off-hours are mine." Rodney waves his hand. "Excepting attacks by the Wraith, Replicators, etcetera, then it's twenty-four-seven, I'm obviously not stupid."

"Fine," Woolsey says. "And you have to get some sleep, that's an order." His voice softens. "Look. He wouldn't have, Sheppard wouldn't have wanted you to do this, spend all your time looking. He would have wanted--"

But Rodney's reached his limit, and cuts him off. "You don't know anything about Sheppard. You don't have a clue about what he would have wanted."

Woolsey sighs, and leaves.

Rodney looks around the laboratory, really looks, for the first time since they found the survivors, the baby, the dog tags. He checks his watch, and yeah, it's two in the morning. The lab is deserted and depressing and so very quiet. Suddenly he can't stand to be there a minute more. He really does need rest; it won't do anyone any good if his brain can't function due to sleep deprivation.

After a few minutes, he stops himself in the middle of a corridor. He realizes that he's en route to the infirmary, even though he has no memory of any decision to take that path. That way lies madness, so he carefully retraces his steps and heads to his room.

When Rodney wakes two hours later to his alarm, Keller's got a message pinging for attention on his laptop. Incredibly, the now-dead survivors have turned out to be Athosian. The DNA is clear, she says. The finding is so bizarre, it triggers a ragged flare of hope in Rodney's gut. It quickly becomes evident, though, that knowing they were Athosian is not going to help locate John. Teyla says that these people were not with those taken by Michael; instead, she believes they are a family group which disappeared mysteriously well before that. Rodney vaguely remembers the incident, with Teyla leading Atlantean search parties when Athosian efforts to find the family failed.

It takes a while to find their particular clan; the surviving Athosians chose to settle on this planet with the Atlanteans after being rescued from Michael, but they're still a little disorganized. Finally they locate people who confirm what Teyla remembers about the unexplained and sudden disappearance of a family a few months before Michael culled the rest of the Athosians. The clan leaders say that three people were taken: an aging husband and wife and their newly-married daughter. They'd been off in the woods gathering a ceremonially-important plant and they'd never come back. Despite weeks of searching, no trace of them was ever found. Then Michael came, and all thoughts of the family were forgotten, except perhaps by the young woman's grieving husband. Rodney's investigation hits a dead-end when they discover that the woman's husband is no longer alive to question; he died a few weeks into captivity by Michael.

Three days after finding the Athosians, they're no closer to finding any clues which might lead to Sheppard. Neither the style nor the color of the dead people's clothing is Athosian; their clothes are shapeless and devoid of color. They turn out to be made from a plant which grows on seven out of ten Pegasus planets. The plant the dye is extracted from, six out of ten. The bodies have trace amounts of various chemicals and minerals which are found alone or in combination on virtually all habitable planets in the galaxy. The contents of their stomachs is -- not much. But what there is grows on the same astronomically large number of planets. Though they suffered from dehydration and the adults had a virus, they were otherwise healthy; in fact, they have no signs of the parasitic illnesses that so often seem to dog the residents of the Pegasus Galaxy.

They've only begun to investigate, though; there are a lot of angles left to pursue. Rodney's deep into creating a formula for weighing the relative importance of the different pieces of information they have about the victims when Keller shoves some of his papers to the side and sits down unceremoniously on the coffee-stained desk in front of him.

"Rodney," she says.

He gets a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"Have you gotten my emails?" She holds up a preemptive hand. "Strike that. You've gotten my emails, you just don't want to answer them. Listen, Rodney--"

He shoves his chair back. "No. No, I won't waste my time with some, some babysitting because you are too incompetent to do your job. Now go away."

Her voice is disgustingly gentle. "I understand that this is difficult, that the associations..."

Rodney slams his notepad down on the desk, inches from Keller's leg. She doesn't even flinch. "But, Rodney--"

"No," Rodney snaps. "No, no, no. Do you not speak English any more? It's not my problem, not my responsibility, and I don't have the time to--"

"You have time," Keller says in the steely tone she gets sometimes. "You have time, and I am going to make you come see her, I'm going to get the marines to escort you there if I have to, because if there is even a chance that for some unknown reason she will eat if you hold her, that is what is going to happen."

Rodney picks up and examines a chart, blocks out her presence as best he can.

She lowers her voice and speaks very quietly, enunciating every word. "Do you know what it's like to stick an IV in someone so little? Because I had to do that almost right away, she was already so dehydrated. But that's nothing to sticking that feeding tube down her throat and into her stomach."

Rodney clutches the edge of the desk with his free hand as his stomach churns.

Keller's voice is relentless now. "It hurts her, and I can't drug her, because she's so close to critical as it is." She lowers her voice even more. "It hurts her, and we have to tie her hands down because otherwise she claws at it. But what's even worse is, she's still not thriving. She's going downhill and there's nothing the hell," she slams her hand down on the desk, "that I can do about it."

Rodney's head is bowed and he just takes it, all of it.

Keller sighs and scoots off the desk. On the way out the door she pauses. She speaks softly. "Rodney. He-- She's all we have left of him."

The chart crumples in Rodney's hand, and his sight blurs for a moment. Does she think he's an idiot? They have nothing left of Sheppard. Nothing at all.

Later that night, Rodney wakes from a nightmare, panting. It's the second time he's slept in his bed since they found the Athosians. He's sweating and breathing hard, tangled in his sheets. His bedside clock says three in the morning, but he knows from experience there's no way he's getting back to sleep. Besides, the four hours he's gotten is more than he's had for a very long time.

He showers and brushes his teeth and is on his way to the mess hall when he finds himself at the infirmary door. It's ridiculous that his feet have brought him here, and he leans against the wall for a moment, cursing Keller and the universe and his own stupid subconscious.

But he keeps ending up here, so he sighs and walks over to the small enclosed incubator which has replaced the basket as the baby's home. A couple of nurses and doctors are working quietly in the far corners of the infirmary; no one is near the baby right now. Rodney walks over, drawn inexorably forward, though his brain is screaming at him to leave, walk away, leave it alone.

What he sees is actually worse than what Keller's description prepared him for. The baby is lying motionless, cords and wires snaking from its body. He identifies one as an IV line and has to swallow against nausea when he sees a small clear tube leading into its nose. He's seen enough hurt people since he's been in the Pegasus Galaxy to recognize it as a feeding tube. The baby's hands are mittened, presumably to keep it from scratching itself, but he's not sure why, since its hands are also gently restrained by straps.

To his horror, the baby is making sounds -- horror, because if he were in its position, he'd want to be knocked out, not feel the helplessness of his position. The baby's eyes are scrunched tight closed, and its skin is blotchy and red. Despite the tube, it's still crying. Its cries are different than they were a few days ago. Now they're weak and whimpery, whereas before they'd been lusty and deafening. Its chest rises and falls rapidly, and he thinks he can see the rhythm of its heart beating too fast in its throat.

Rodney leans over the basinet. "Don't be stupid," he murmurs.

Weirdly, the baby opens its eyes and looks up at him. They're red and dull, but still that hazel color he remembers. It's gasping for breath now, whimpering low in its throat. It's obviously exhausted.

"Here," a nurse's aide says next to his ear, startling him. "Let me just..." and with a few efficient motions, the aide unhooks the baby from its various wires and tubes, then melts away to some other section of the infirmary.

Something sharp twists in Rodney's chest, seeing the baby flailing now, little fists weakly stabbing at the air, chest rising and falling rapidly, staring up at Rodney and making a pathetic whimpering sound in her throat. Not letting himself think, he reaches down and scoops the baby up awkwardly into his arms. Its body shakes with its gasps, and Rodney finds a nearby chair so he won't drop it. He holds it and sits, blanking his mind because otherwise...

He wakes with a start. Keller is crouched next to him. There's a warm weight in his arms, which somehow still curl tightly around the baby despite his nodding off. It -- she he tells himself -- is quiet, not crying. He looks down and has to bite the inside of his lip, because she's staring up at him, silent and still, eyes brown and green and gold together.

Keller's gaze is warm on Rodney, eyes suspiciously bright. "Thank you," she whispers. "Thank you. Here, try this." She hands him a bottle, and he raises an eyebrow at her.

"It's easy," she whispers. "Just bring it to her mouth, touch her lips with it, see what happens."

The baby continues to look straight at Rodney, eyes wide. It feels like she's seeing into his head, but that's ridiculous. The bottle rests on her lips for a moment and she stares at him some more. Her lips quirk a little -- is that a smirk -- and then open, letting the nipple in, start a weak sucking.

She's so tired, he can almost feel it in his own limbs. It feels like she almost gave up, almost gave in to the ease of letting go, giving up. He understands this so well it scares him.

Her tiny body's been through so much, but now she's sucking harder, cheeks hollowing with the force of it. Something inside Rodney, something primal and fierce, is rejoicing in it -- her will to live despite everything.

"Thank god," Keller sighs next to him. "When she's done I'll show you how to burp her."

"How. How do I know when she's done?" Rodney asks, voice rising to a virtual squeak. "I've never. I have no clue what I'm doing here."

Keller lays a reassuring hand on his knee. "You're doing great, Rodney. It'll be fine. It'll be fine now. The tube should have helped her more, but she didn't..."

Rodney turns and looks at her when he hears the odd note in her voice. She clears her throat. "Frankly, I was sure she was going to die. You can stick food in them, but if they've given up--Well."

"She's Sheppard's, though," Rodney murmurs. "She's John's," he repeats, as if Keller's an idiot or he needs reminding himself. "A kid of his wouldn't give up." He takes a breath, swallows. "A Sheppard wouldn't ever give up," he whispers, voice cracking a little.

Keller's hand squeezes his knee and her voice is very soft. "No. He wouldn't. But an infant..."

Rodney swallows and watches the baby. Her eyes are drifting closed now, and she's drained about a third of the bottle. Her body's going lax and satiated, heavy now in the cradle of his hands. Her lips pop off the nipple, and there's a little foam clinging to her full mouth. Sheppard's mouth is shaped like that too, curvy and round.

Rodney turns to Keller. "Well, my work here is done," he says, instinctively lowering his voice. If his words come out sounding a little raw, she ignores it.

"Can you come back in two hours?" she asks.

"She'll be fine now, won't she?" Rodney says. "Now that she's got the hang of it, she'll eat with anyone, right?" He can't explain the panic gripping him, but it's very real. He passes the baby to Keller, and as if on cue, she starts to cry, at first little hiccupping coughs, then fuller, all-out screams.

Keller raises her eyebrows at Rodney significantly. "We can try," she says. "But so far, she hasn't reacted like that to anyone else."

The baby is really wailing now, fists hammering ineffectually at the air, face scrunched into a red grimace.

"That's ridiculous," Rodney huffs.

"Maybe," Keller says. Her lips quirk. "But there's no accounting for taste."

"Hey!" Rodney whispers. "I heard that."

Keller grins at him, obviously pleased she's elicited a response like that.

Rodney grimaces and stage-whispers, "I can't come here every two hours! In case you hadn't noticed, I'm the Chief Scientist of this expedition. I'm working every minute I'm not sleeping! And I'm running a search and rescue operation, too."

"Yeah," Keller says. "I know."

Rodney isn't really all that surprised when Keller calls him a few hours later. "We've tried everything, Rodney, everyone. She'll calm down a little bit with a couple of people for a few minutes -- Ronon and Teyla, actually -- but she won't eat for them. You have to come."

"I can't!" Rodney says. "Maybe you didn't get the memo which explains in simple words why my time is, what's the word, oh right, valuable? I think you don't understand my situation."

There's a moment's pause, and then Keller's voice turns low and precise. "I think you're the one who doesn't understand the situation. Because if you're not going to feed her, this is what's going to happen. I am going to get you, and then you are helping me change the feeding tube. This one's irritating her nasal and throat passages, and I'm worried about infection, so she's going to need a new one. So what you do, Rodney, is first, you have to push it into her nose, through a nostril, then down her throat, down into her sto--"

"Fine. I'm on my way," Rodney snaps. He's always known Keller has a core of steel; no one gets to be chief of medicine at a place like Atlantis without it. She really means it, he can tell; he can totally picture her showing up with some medieval medical torture devices and forcing him to be the one to use them.

Keller's working frantically on some wounded marine when Rodney walks in, and she motions him to go on over to the baby. Things are tough around here these days; they're short-staffed and low on supplies and sometimes even short on medicines.

He walks over to the baby's basinet and peers down at her. She's doing that weak version of crying again; it's been five hours since Rodney was last here, and he gathers she's been screaming for most of it.

"Hey there," he says, feeling ridiculous. "Hey there."

And there she goes again, opening her eyes at his voice, opening them wide and staring right into his face.

"She's been changed," Keller shouts over to him. "She just needs feeding. Dylan has a bottle ready."

An aide thrusts a warmish bottle in his hand, and before he can think, he's got an armful of baby again. This time, she turns her head, seeking the bottle, and bats at it weakly. Her hands are tiny, with perfect little fingers – each knuckle distinct, each fingernail a pink crescent, the fingers themselves long and elegantly tapered.

The baby sucks hard, making desperate sounds in the back of her throat. As she eats, Rodney thinks of John's fingers, which are long, too; long and strong. They can assemble a gun or strangle a man in seconds. But they can be gentle; they can lend support with a pat on a back, squeeze quick reassurance on a shoulder. They can...

The baby squawks. Rodney's hands have tightened involuntarily, and her expression is indignant.

"Well, excuse me," Rodney says, pressing down any lingering thoughts about fingers, elegant or otherwise. "Wouldn't want to disturb the little princess during her meal." She starts sucking again, but keeps her eyes open, as if watching him to make sure he stays on-task. "Her meal that she needs every two-point-five hours," he adds in a hiss that only she would be able to hear. He's probably imagining that her eyebrow arches.

"Seriously, Keller, we need to talk," Rodney says when they're done. Keller's smock is covered in something that's probably blood, and she has dark circles under her eyes. Her hair is hanging in wisps outside of her ponytail. They got another group of refugees two days ago; in some areas the Wraith attacks have gotten so bad that people are abandoning their planets.

"What is it, Rodney?" she says, sounding so defeated that Rodney swallows what he was going to say.

"I." He clears his throat. "I can't keep coming here and doing this -- it's taking up all my time. Can't someone," he waves a hand to the bustling infirmary, "Can't someone bring her to me or something?"

Keller shakes her head. "I don't know, Rodney. I'll try. But we're so short-staffed. As it is, everyone's working way more hours than they should."

He sighs. The whole city's been working like that since -- well, since forever. The Wraith have been on the march through the galaxy, Michael's forces have regrouped, and the Replicators have staged at least three separate attacks on Atlantis. "Maybe a compromise. I'll radio, or better yet, you have someone call me. We'll see whether you've got anyone who can bring her to me. And if not..." He sighs again, looks down at the baby, who's now sleeping peacefully, sucking on her fist. "If not I'll just have to make time." He narrows his eyes at her. "Until we can find someone else to feed her. Once she's better, she's going to eat with someone else. I mean, she has to, right?"

Keller just looks at him, then shakes her head. "I don't know, Rodney. I'm not sure I can promise that. Usually babies will eat, when they're fundamentally healthy like she is; they don't refuse food. I mean, she's got nothing organically wrong, no diseases or infections, nothing. Babies her age, normal babies, don't care who's on the other end of the bottle." She reaches down and brushes her capable hand softly over the baby's head. "Well, it's different if they're nursing, of course, but this little one – well, it's been a while since she's been able to do that."

A pattern sets in, one which mercifully leaves Rodney too exhausted to think about it. He had thought he was bone-deep tired before, but that was nothing; this baby thing happens over and over, relentlessly, day after day, every few hours.

Every day they try again to have other people feed her, and it doesn't work. Ronon and Teyla are able to hold her for a few minutes without her screaming immediately, but she won't take a bottle from either of them, and within a few minutes her little hitching cries start up. With everyone else, she just screams.

He finally asks Keller about it, a few days in, "But why is she doing this? I mean, it doesn't make any sense! Why only me? Shouldn't I be the last person in, I don't know, the galaxy, who a baby wants to be with?" He can hear his voice rising to something pathetically near a squeak.

Keller shakes her head. "No clue. Another Pegasus mystery, I guess."

"With me as the victim," Rodney murmurs to Keller's back as she walks away to tend another patient.

They've worked out a system, sort of. Someone calls Rodney when it's time, and they figure out if there is anyone who can bring her to him or whether he needs to come to the infirmary. More often than not, it's him going to the infirmary; that's how short-handed the entire city is.

It's taking a toll; Rodney finds himself nodding off not just during meetings, but during simulations and official science department work and computer runs on theories he's testing about John's most likely whereabouts.

He wakes up suddenly in the mess one morning to Ronon's big hand pulling on his shoulder. "McKay."

Rodney jerks up and finds that his face has been lying on a plate of pancakes. He feels like he's going to cry, or hit someone. The side of his face is sticky, and they're no closer to figuring out where John could have been taken or how the Athosians got his dog tags.

Ronon holds out his hand. There's some kind of cloth in it. "Here," he says. "It's for babies."

Rodney takes the cloth and examines it. It's some sort of brightly-colored stretchy fabric, a huge long swath of it. Part of him wants to laugh, but Ronon's eyes look a little funny. "Saw my sister use one," Ronon adds, and Rodney's glad he didn't laugh. He didn't even know Ronon had a sister.

Rodney swallows. There's no point talking about their losses, but it helps a little, knowing that others have lost so much. "So how do you...?"

Ronon grins. "Let's get the baby and we'll try to figure it out."

Later that morning, Rodney enters the lab warily. He figures the best defense is a good offense, so he says as he enters, "Not one word." He holds up a finger as if to stave off any comments. "You all know who controls the assignments around here. Not to mention everything else."

Zelenka gapes at him for a minute anyway, then hurriedly puts his head down, shoulders shaking suspiciously. Miko's wearing a dreamy fond expression Rodney doesn't even want to think about.

Whatever, he decides. If it saves him a little time and helps Keller, he'll do whatever's needed. To a point.

He'd thought that it would be horrible, that all the motion and noise would make the baby more fussy than ever, but weirdly, she's quieter. Her body feels relaxed like it usually isn't, snuggled up tight against him in the local version of a Satedan carrying-cloth Ronon fashioned from some hideous blue paisley curtains that somehow got included in a Daedalus run back when it carried things like that.

She goes longer between feedings, too, and it's close to four hours before he has to unwrap her and offer her the bottle. She hardly fusses; it's just obvious that it's time from the tension that gradually builds in her body.

The part he refuses to do is change her diapers, or even think about diapers, but Zelenka seems happy enough to do it with the supplies Keller sent, singing softly under his breath in Czech; it turns out he has younger siblings he helped care for when he was a teenager. Rodney rolls his eyes at him, but some part of his brain is noting the fact that when Zelenka hums, the baby quiets a little.

He has to call Ronon to come help re-wrap the carrying-cloth; it's more complicated than creating simulations of multi-dimensional space. He spares a few seconds for a little scathing internal commentary at the spectacle of Radek and Miko and himself frantically trying to organize the brightly-colored strip of cloth into something resembling a carrier. All their advanced degrees mean nothing in the face of a carrying system that some primitive woman undoubtedly thought up thousands of years ago.

Late in the day, Teyla brings the next piece of equipment. It's a sort of sling-chair set up on a frame, with soft straps to hold the baby in. It can sit on the floor, or -- only if you're very, very careful, she warns -- a table or desk. Teyla's got a soft smile on her face when she puts the baby in it, and Rodney realizes she's thinking of Torren, already grown out of this device, terrorizing the city as he runs on chubby little legs to work his mayhem. It frightens him a little that he can read what she's feeling; he's always been terrible at knowing what other people are thinking, and he'd really rather still be that way.

The baby seems to take to the infant-chair fine for short periods of time, so long as Rodney's within a few feet. There's a procession of people who drop by, and each of them inevitably crouches down and talks with her or makes ridiculous faces or waves something brightly-colored in front of her face.

Rodney brings the baby back to the infirmary that night and Keller sighs. "Rodney."

"What!" He's starting to get a feeling about this baby thing, a feeling that he's in over his head.

She looks at him with the level gaze she seems to get better at every week.

"You can't seriously mean it," he says before she says a word. "I'm sorry, but last time I checked, geniuses who -- wait for it. Geniuses who save Atlantis single-handedly every third day -- hmm, what was the rule?"

Keller narrows her eyes at him, but he forges on, because suddenly he's spitting angry. "Oh yes, I remember. They don't have to babysit the spawn of their missing, their missing--" Rodney's throat closes off a little, closes on the word, "friend," and Keller's hand touches his sleeve softly. He shakes it off, and he's even angrier. "Their missing colleague," he says, handing the baby to Keller and striding quickly out of the infirmary.

"She needs a name," a voice says in Rodney's head. He shifts and almost falls off his chair; he's apparently fallen asleep in the lab again, head drooping on his chest. Reflexively, he darts a glance toward the baby in her infant seat. She isn't crying yet, but she has the look on her face that she gets right before she's going to wind up and yell.

Rodney looks around the lab and decides it's probably late evening, because there's no one there except him and the baby, plus Teyla and her son. Torren is hovering behind Teyla's legs, and while Rodney groggily rubs his sore neck muscles, she gently coaxes Torren over to the baby. He crouches down in front of her, and soon is making happy sounds. Though Rodney knows the baby is likely starving, she gurgles back at Torren, still managing somehow to dart an accusing glance at Rodney from under her lashes.

"What!" he says to the baby. "You've worn me out; it's not my fault I fell asleep."

Teyla's smile widens, and Rodney is suddenly self-conscious. But she just says softly, "She needs a name."

Rodney shrugs. "What? So? Why? And also, why are you telling me?"

She levels one of her patented judgmental non-judgmental looks at him. "That is four questions, Rodney," she says solemnly in the tone of voice Rodney's never sure is joking or serious.

He crosses his arms, because if Teyla brings something up she never lets it go, and he wants to show that he can be stubborn too. Part of his brain counsels just giving in now, but the anger rising in his chest belies that voice of wisdom. Fuck them, he thinks, and he refuses to think about why he's angry. Fuck them.

"Excuse me, I must have missed the memo that appointed me her keeper," he says, channeling the anger into sarcasm.

"The child appointed you her keeper," Teyla says.

Rodney narrows his eyes at her. "Now that you mention it, doesn't anyone else in this entire city think that's weird?"

"Weird," Teyla intones flatly, the corner of one lip twitching upwards.

"Yes, weird! It doesn't make any sense!"

Teyla's forehead wrinkles, and her eyes turn warm. "Rodney. Clearly, she trusted you, when she trusted no others."

"A baby doesn't care about trust. And why would she trust me?"

"Maybe--" Teyla presses her lips together.

Rodney waves his hand at her. "Come on, come on, give me your theory that's going to run roughshod over every scientific principle known to humankind."

"Fine," Teyla says, glaring. "I believe that, somehow, she trusts you because of John."

"Because of John."

"His trust in you," Teyla says softly. "Even greater than his trust in myself, or Ronon."

"Ridiculous," he scoffs, ignoring how his throat feels tight.

Teyla's voice is very soft. "Perhaps. But in any case, she must be named."

Rodney sighs. "Since when do babies need names anyway? But if she needs a name, name her."

"It is not my place," Teyla responds, voice infuriatingly calm. "But a child needs a name."

Even Rodney knows he's avoiding things he doesn't want to think about when he asks, "What? Some quaint custom of your people requires it or babies aren't considered to have a soul or something?"

Teyla narrows her eyes and takes Torren's hand, steers him toward the door to go. Before she leaves, she stops for a few seconds, then turns. "I know how difficult this is for you, Rodney. It is difficult for all of us. But for whatever reason, she has chosen you. I know your grief must be--"

He can't take it a second longer. Teyla knows how to fight dirty, he reminds himself. "She's just a baby," he says. "All she cares about is food."

Teyla turns and gives him a look, then leaves without another word.

As if on cue, the baby starts to cry. Rodney bends to pick her up, trying not to think about how he's obviously offended Teyla. He sighs as he feeds the baby, forcing himself to think about the latest problem with the jumpers. He's never been good with people.

"Fine!" he says to Ronon three days later. He's lying panting on the mat where Ronon has thrown him. These days, Rodney takes staying in shape and learning to fight a little more seriously than he used to; he wants all possible resources at his disposal if he ever needs them. The baby seems content to sit in her chair for short periods of time now, so long as he's within sight. Or, hmm, maybe not sight exactly, maybe within sensory range or something. But anyway, he can have her off his body for longer stretches of time recently, which is allowing him a little more freedom.

Ronon smiles down at him, a tiny smile, but one Rodney can read easily now. Ronon reaches a hand down to Rodney and pulls him up effortlessly. The Satedan mourning-beads braided into Ronon's hair clink softly against each other with his movement. There are five of them, each a different color. Rodney has never asked what they stand for.

"Fine?" Ronon says, grinning a little.

"Oh, don't even bother being all innocent," Rodney huffs. "The baby, a name? I'll think of something."

Ronon grunts and gives him a fighting stick. "Make it good," he growls.

"Right, because that's what my brilliance in astrophysics and assorted other branches of science qualifies me for, naming babies!" Rodney says. Ronon's raised eyebrow and gentle smile warms Rodney a little, but a part of him still expects someone to lob a sarcastic jab back at him, up the ante in a never-ending game of snark. But though Ronon is a good friend -- and who would have thought he'd ever be able to say that -- it's not the same, nothing is the same, no one flips the sarcasm back at him the way--

He swallows and nods. "Right," he says, advancing on Ronon with less fear than he would have a few years ago, but still a lot of fear, because, well, Ronon.

Rodney rolls his eyes at Woolsey behind his back at the weekly status meeting in the conference room, adjusting Amelia in her carrying-cloth almost instinctively. She seems restless today, and she woke so many times in the night that his head is a blurry mess of exhaustion. It's been a while since she's woken so often, and he makes a mental note to have Keller check her for illnesses or genetic malfunctions or food allergies. He doesn't remember how she ended up staying in his quarters; last he remembers, she spent her nights in the infirmary, but now she's a fixture in his room, and when she doesn't sleep, he doesn't sleep. Not that he sleeps much anyway, but still.

Patience fraying, he interrupts Woolsey mid-bureaucratic paragraph. "So excuse me, but couldn't this entire half hour be summed up as, 'We still have no clue what happened to Sheppard?' Or is that too, I don't know, in English for you?"

Woolsey favors Rodney with one of his prissy looks, then carries right on. Something snaps inside Rodney. He figures it's the result of too many nights with too little sleep, and the ever-present ticking of an internal clock, the timepiece that informs him every day, every hour, every minute, how long Sheppard's been missing, and how the odds of a good resolution go down, down, with each ticking second. "I'm out of here," he says as he heads out the door. "Send me a memo if you figure anything out."

But they won't figure anything out, he's sure of it. Not without new information: all the data that can be mined from the Athosians and Amelia herself has been mined, all the people interviewed who might have any knowledge that would be useful. Though Rodney tinkers every day with the data they do have, he knows that it's not enough, won't be enough to lead to any progress in the search, despite his niggling feeling that there's something there, something he's not seeing in the tiny shreds of information.

He slams his papers down on his desk in the lab when he gets there. All the scientists and techs become very engrossed in their work. Even Amelia is mercifully quiet for a change, and Rodney almost loses himself in the experiments he's running on maximizing power utilization. Almost.

Rodney can't believe how it feels. It feels like sneaking, like something illicit. And he's acting like it, too. He uses his hard-earned Pegasus Galaxy tactical skills to plot a route where he's unlikely to run into anyone, just in case someone other than a stray security officer is roaming Atlantis at three in the freaking morning.

The motions involved in skulking lull Amelia, but the second he sets her down in her infant chair, she starts in again with the high-pitched whines he knows from experience will turn to crying and then screams. Keller's given her a clean bill of health and says it's just colic, though Rodney remains suspicious of her abilities as a pediatrician and watches Amelia all the time for signs of the many terrible diseases which plague infants, according to the medical database.

He feels ridiculous here in this room. He would feel that way any time, but especially at this hour of the night. It's off a corridor near the east end of the city, and there's a harsh knot of something in his stomach as he arranges Amelia's infant seat and sits down. He's known about this place for months, but thought he'd never come here.

The idea had first struck him a few days ago, but just thinking about it had made bile rise up in his throat, so he'd pushed it away. He'd been changing Amelia's diaper before bed -- he didn't even want to think about how he'd ended up doing diapers as a matter of course -- and she'd been fussier than normal. She'd scrunched up her face in the signal Rodney now knew meant major shit-fit coming. Desperate, he'd found himself humming a tune almost under his breath.

Her eyes had snapped open and pinned him with what he'd felt sure was an accusatory stare.

"So?" he'd said, using her undoubtedly momentary stillness to whip off the old diaper, clean her and slap a new one on with practiced movements. He hadn't wanted to focus on how good he'd gotten at this, so instead he'd focused on her face.

"It's music," he'd murmured. "Music."

Now, sitting in her infant seat on the floor next to the silvery bench where he's sitting, Amelia moves her mouth into what almost looks like a frown, so Rodney says, "Fine, fine," and cracks his knuckles a little. He thinks for a minute, but comes up blank on anything resembling a lullaby. He muses that the drinking songs Ronon has taught him are not exactly appropriate, and Teyla's Athosian spiritual stuff –- just, no.

Amelia's cries grow a little louder, and he runs his hands lightly over the keyboard without pressing any notes, studiously ignoring the fact they're shaking a little. He takes a deep breath and then does nothing. Really, he thinks, all the hesitation is ridiculous, it's no big deal. Only it is, it really is, because he hasn't touched a piano since he was ten.

Of course, this isn't exactly a piano, and he takes another moment to examine the instrument in front of him. In most ways, it's astoundingly similar to a piano: it has a long keyboard, seven keys per octave, and raised keys in between whole note keys which he assumes create sharps or flats. But there's half an extra octave at the high and low end of the instrument, which is arranged in a semi-circle so it comes around in a bit of a curve at each side. And instead of white and black keys, the Ancient piano -- he can't think of any better name for it -- has keys in two different shades of silver, one lighter and one darker.

He's heard that one of the geologists tuned it shortly after they discovered it, so he's relatively confident it will produce sound at least somewhat acceptable to his ears.

Amelia starts crying just when his fear is overwhelming him again, and so he just starts. The sound is slightly off from that of a piano; it's deeper and more resonant. At first his playing is tentative and horrible, and he almost stops, repeatedly. But Amelia -- on the floor next to the instrument in her little seat -- is smiling, gurgling and even cooing, something she rarely does. So he keeps going, playing fragments of things he remembers. Bach of course, Chopin, even some Ravel. A hazy memory has him trying some Brahms he suddenly remembers which is a lullaby, but it doesn't put Amelia to sleep. Instead, she just stares at him, smiling and gurgling softly, little fists occasionally flailing at the air.

Eventually, though, her eyelids droop and her whole body relaxes, and she falls asleep, peaceful smile on the bow of her mouth.

Now it's just him and the music. He tells himself that he needs to keep playing or she'll wake up. He tells himself that and he lets the music take him, lets himself wander from remembered pieces to inventions and back, lets his hands rediscover the language of notes and rhythm, the expression of tempo and volume.

Partway through the achingly sad first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, his hands falter and his sight blurs. He keeps playing haltingly for a while, hands shaking, but eventually comes to a stop, fingers just resting on the keys, body hunched and head hanging. Rodney's been afraid of this; this is what he's staved off for over a year now. Now that it's here, grief shakes his whole body, bends him down so his face is cradled in his hands on the keyboard, body trembling. He had been afraid this would happen; he'd felt it like a tidal wave of dark ocean poised on the horizon, ready to swamp and swirl him away. He won't turn his back on Atlantis, he won't let himself do that, so he hasn't let himself feel it. He's feared that if he let it happen, let this overtake him, he'd never come up to the surface. There aren't any tears; it's worse than that.

He stays like that for a long time, eyes dry, body shaking. It feels like he'll never raise his head again, feels like he can't possibly go on, can't possibly go out in the world and function. It's too much, too overwhelming. One person can only deal with so much before it becomes too much.

And then Amelia cries. Gustily, loudly –- not a whine or whimper, but a strong yell, the one that means I want food now. He tries to ignore it, but. She needs him. She needs him.

Blearily, Rodney raises his hand and scrubs at his face. "Okay, okay," he says, voice a little croaky. He goes over on shaky legs and squats down in front of her. Amelia doesn't care that he's stubborn and arrogant and stupid with people, and she doesn't care that he's a mess; she smiles at him, hiccupping as she swallows her cries now she can tell he's going to take care of her. "Food coming right away, ma'am," Rodney says. "And by the way? Hello, it's four in the morning. You realize that, right?"

She smiles at him full-out, hazel eyes sparkling. A dangerous heat prickles in Rodney's eyes, and he swallows. "None of that," he says. "None of that." He picks up the carrier and heads back to his quarters where there are bottles and formula waiting, shutting the door to what the Atlanteans are calling the Music Room softly behind them.

Grinning, Amelia grabs for the shirt Rodney was about to put on her, and throws it off the changing table. He'd had no idea that babies did things like this so young; it's like every day she triples her personality quotient.

"So is that what you're learning at child care?" Rodney huffs. "The, quote, teacher, unquote, is probably a sociologist in his spare time, isn't he?" He narrows his eyes as Amelia chortles and squirms, keeping a careful hand ready to block her should she attempt to spontaneously fly off the table like she does so often these days. She has two speeds, go and asleep, and he's had his heart in his throat too many times to be anything but religiously careful now. Though it just about kills him to leave Amelia even for the few hours he's had to so far, he has to admit that the man is careful; everything in the jury-rigged little babysitting room is meticulously child-proofed. And since the only time he has to leave her there is when Teyla is also busy, that means Torren is there to keep her from getting too scared. Amelia seems to enjoy the handful of other children who come there, too; Atlantis has small but growing refugee population, people who for whatever reason choose not to live with the Athosians in their settlement.

"Or more likely, I'll bet it's Torren teaching you shirt-flinging, isn't it? Bad influence. Older man and all that." Amelia grabs the tube of diaper cream and tries to stick it in her mouth while Rodney digs another shirt out of the shelf under the table one-handed; he manages to get the lotion away without her screaming by quickly substituting a favorite stuffed dragon. "Well, you can just forget it. No way I'm letting you succumb to the wiles of Torren or anyone else."

"Da da da," Amelia trills. Rodney freezes.

"No," he says. "No. I'm not your--No."

"Da!" she says. Really, it's ridiculous. He's read all the information, and babies aren't supposed to make sounds that are anything like words so young; it should be months before any of that starts. Maybe it's not really a word, but it makes his heart want to stop in his chest, makes his insides churn, for more than one reason.

"Da, da," she coos, and it sounds a lot like music, and wow, maybe she understands that this is the time of day they usually sneak through the halls to the Music Room; Rodney's figured out that by late evening, most people are in their quarters and no one is around, let alone frequenting the little room holding the Ancient piano and a few cast-off pieces of furniture.

It's become their ritual now, the thing that calms them both down at the end of their long days, and it seems to help Amelia slide gently into sleep.

"Fine," he says to her. "But first, reading." All the studies show that children grow up smarter and have less chance of becoming juvenile delinquents or unwed mothers if you expose them early to books. His first attempts hadn't been too successful, but now that he's (only temporarily) replaced science texts with a handful of board books and colorful Athosian cloth picture books, reading has turned into one of Amelia's three favorite things.

"Brrrp, brrrp," she says, pounding on her current favorite with her hand.

Rodney snorts. "Figures you like that one best," he says, pushing the jagged edge of pain away with an attempt at sounding snide. "I'm not making the airplane sounds, though," he says, and she pounds the picture of a jet with her hand and looks up at him expectantly over her shoulder. He rolls his eyes, because of course he's going to make the sputtering sounds she loves. Of course he is, because it's hopeless, it's all hopeless.

Later, Amelia is drowsy in her infant seat and he's deep into a Bach variation when he hears a sound, a little cough, swiftly covered. The last few times he's been here, he's thought he heard someone in the hall just outside the door, but they didn't say anything or do anything obnoxious, and they were gone by the time he and Amelia left, so he didn't do anything about it.

This time he stops playing abruptly, turns and catches Zelenka trying to sneak out of the room. Radek shifts back and forth from foot to foot, as if he's weighing which would be worse, facing Rodney now or fleeing and facing him later.

Radek's right to be afraid, because it feels like a violation, especially considering some of the particular music he tends to play toward the end of the night. Fortunately this time it's just Bach, but still. He narrows his eyes at Radek and says, "Because we don't get enough quality time together."

"I can explain," Radek says. "I was not trying to intrude, simply was wishing--"

"Wishing what?" Rodney spits. "That I be driven insane by morons twenty-four seven?"

Zelenka stares at the floor. He shakes his head and then looks up at Rodney again. "It was a mistake. It will not happen again." He turns to go and Rodney finally sees what he's been trying to hide behind his back all this time -- a violin and a bow.

Radek's shoulders are hunched over as he walks out the door, and Rodney says, "Wait."

Zelenka freezes in the doorway and Rodney takes a breath, then says to his back, "I didn't know you played."

Radek turns and says softly, "I did not know you did, until other night. I was curious, so to my shame followed you and Amelia. Your playing, it is beautiful, Rodney. It reminds me of my family and--" He stops abruptly. He might have tears in his eyes, though it's hard to tell with Zelenka, and Rodney's not having any of that, so he motions impatiently to him to come back in.

"Well, let's see what you've got," Rodney says. "It can't be any worse than what I have to listen to at native festivals on the backwater planets around here."

"Thank you for vote of confidence," Radek deadpans, putting some sheet music in front of Rodney on the piano and raising his bow with surprising competence. "I am not in your league, but perhaps you will enjoy duet."

And Rodney does enjoy it, actually, chasing Radek's unsophisticated but sweet Mozart with the piano. Later they move on to some Czech folk songs and then circle back to Bach; Radek's smile is huge during the Bach; he's a mathematician too, Rodney remembers, and the beauty of the precise underpinnings of the music, its point and counterpoint, obviously affects him like it does Rodney.

Amelia coos and chortles and Rodney blames Radek, because she was calm before he came, but Zelenka saves the day by sketching out Sheep May Safely Graze to a slow sonorous beat, and when Rodney joins in, keeping everything gentle, Amelia quiets and then noticeably droops, getting the all-over relaxed look which means she's easing into sleep.

After that, it's hit or miss. Sometimes Radek comes and sometimes he doesn't. He always leaves after an hour or so, leaving Rodney and Amelia alone. That's the time when Rodney lets himself invent, playing songs in a genre he'd never listened to in the past, letting himself weave them into something new. He starts slow and careful, sticking to the source material. After a while, he lets himself build on the simple melodies, translating the underlying chords and progressions into something more akin to the purely classical music he played as a child. It's a weird amalgam of two things that shouldn't fit together, but somehow do, and it's the only time in his day that he's able to put everything aside, stop thinking about anything except the key he's playing in, or how to fuse a country beat with a fugue.

When Rodney starts playing, Amelia at first gets lively, hands moving with the music or feet kicking out, but as Rodney plays, as the night grows later, she relaxes. This is the time of night when she becomes most calm, staring at Rodney with wide hazel eyes, a small secret smile curving up the corner of her mouth.

He loses himself in it most nights, but Amelia doesn't seem to mind, and the music seems to work a gentle peace in her, smoothing her edges.

Rodney doesn't even notice at first when one night Radek's violin is joined by a deeper sound. Only when they've powered through a rousing though ragged version of a Vivaldi sonata does Rodney turn to see who it is. He probably should be more surprised than he is that it's Miko, bowing her head a little to him and flashing her teeth at him. "Sorry Doctor McKay, my playing is so very rusty, honor to play with you."

He narrows his eyes at her and says, "Yes, well, you and Radek can practice together to get up to speed. Not anywhere in my hearing." She smiles and bows again, which is perhaps only right on some level, but he can hear Sheppard's voice in his head making fun of Rodney for having an assistant who acts like Miko, and has to admit it's a little creepy. He doesn't have the heart to tell her to go away though; she's at least as good a player as Zelenka, and actually, it's wonderful to hear music again that isn't the nails-on-the-chalkboard rap most of the younger marines favor or the wailing of Athosian spirit-song.

He doesn't let himself become consciously aware of the thing that starts happening next, though of course he knows about it on some level. One Saturday night a few weeks after he'd first made his tentative way into this room, he turns around after a stirring rondo to check on Amelia, and lets himself see. The room is full of people sitting in little groups; couples with their heads leaning together, people sitting alone by the windows that show the starry night sky, Torren lying asleep in Teyla's lap, a few refugees from various planets. There are scientists and marines, communications technicians and cooks, fathers and mothers. They're all quiet, and a few look like they're somewhere else entirely, with a far-away look in their eyes.

Part of Rodney wants to tell them all to leave, leave him alone with the piano and the night. Another part of him derives something akin to comfort from this, feels the unspoken bond of those who are very far from home.

Strangely, Rodney's not weirded-out by the silent comings and goings, the people listening to his playing, so long as they all leave early enough for him to have time just for himself and Amelia right before bedtime. And they do, every time.

Whether Radek spoke to them or some other mechanism is in place, everyone always leaves by late evening. Everybody is always quiet and no one ever tries to talk to Rodney, which is how he wants it.

Four months after Amelia came to them, the Daedalus returns; the last time it was in the Pegasus Galaxy was during the time they'd found Amelia and the dying Athosians. It's been a long hard time since its last trip to Atlantis, and people are excited, to say the least. They'd had Midway Station almost rebuilt half a year ago, but then its systems were hacked by the Replicators; they'd ultimately had no choice but to destroy it themselves. With no Midway, and the SGC beleaguered on all fronts, they're lucky if they see the Daedalus every three or four months. Because power is so precious now, data bursts aren't sent via wormhole except in cases of extreme emergency, so news of all kinds arrives only about four times a year: family communications, world events, even sports scores.

For weeks, there's been a feeling of sharp expectation in the air. Knowing the Daedalus is on its way, people have been a little freer with their carefully-hoarded stashes, too, whether of alcohol, chocolate or coffee. Amelia has started trying to grab for some of the desserts that have been appearing at Saturday music nights, though Rodney has lectured her about ingesting only formula (custom-made to his specifications) and items from the carefully-structured program of baby-food introduction that he's begun now that she's six months old.

Two days after the Daedalus's arrival, Rodney hurries, grumbling under his breath, to a meeting with Woolsey. Rodney feels a little tense about it; there was something a little odd in Woolsey's tone of voice when he asked Rodney to come to his office. It's also unusual these days for Woolsey not to just come to Rodney wherever he is if he needs to talk with him about something. Rodney chalks this up to Woolsey having finally seen the obvious; that Rodney's time is more valuable than his. It hardly makes sense to have Rodney traipsing to Woolsey's office on demand instead of using the time to keep them all alive another day.

Sure enough, Woolsey is radiating discomfort as he sits straight-backed in the conference room with a dress-uniformed officer who's not from Atlantis; the officer must have just arrived here on the Daedalus. Rodney's tension ratchets a little higher.

"Well. Doctor McKay," Woolsey says, staring down at his hands, which are folded on the table in front of him. Rodney notices that Woolsey's knuckles are going a little white. The officer just nods at Rodney, a short, clipped dip of his head, and Rodney tips his head infinitesimally back at him.

Rodney absent-mindedly shifts Amelia in her carrier. She weighs so much more than she did a scant few weeks ago, not to mention is so much taller, and it's getting hard to sit with her strapped to his chest like this. Her growth is astounding to him, though he's embarrassed by being astounded. He isn't religious in the slightest, but it really is a miracle how people are formed, cell by cell, bit by bit, growing a little every day for years. How is that even possible, he wonders, not for the first time. Oh, sure, he understands intellectually about matter and molecules. But really, where does it come from, the stuff that makes up Amelia's new height and weight, her ever-growing toenails, her long legs? It's somehow both disturbing and comforting, the thought that maybe people really are formed out of matter subtracted from the rest of the universe.

Woolsey clears his throat and Rodney focuses on him, startled. He realizes he's been absently stroking Amelia's fine, dark hair, quieting her preemptively, as he's learned to do.

Woolsey swallows and leans forward a little across the table. "We've asked you here--"

"Excuse me, but who precisely is the 'we' in this scenario?" Rodney blurts, looking pointedly at the officer sitting next to Woolsey. The guy sits up straighter, if that's even possible, and Rodney thinks, oh shit, maybe the government is going to contest those deductions I took. But they wouldn't have a meeting with him just about that, would they? Send some sort of government accountant? But that doesn't even make sense, given the uniform, and...

The guy looks at Rodney with a weird expression on his face. Rodney's suddenly aware of the paisley baby carrier around his chest, his hand caressing Amelia's hair, the baby-food stain on his sleeve. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair, but tilts his chin up a little, because really, he doesn't care what this guy thinks.

"I'm Smith. Legal," the guy says. "Work for the SGC," he adds, after Rodney stares at his uniform for a few seconds.

"Let me take a wild stab and guess I'm not going to like this," Rodney says.

"Actually, Dr. McKay, you probably will be very pleased at what I am here to tell you," Smith says. He smiles stiffly. "You see, when informed about the child," he waves his hand in Amelia's direction, "the Sheppards were thrilled. Of course."

"Of course," Rodney deadpans. If Rodney hadn't already guessed most of it from knowing John, he'd learned all he needed to know about the Sheppard family from Ronon after his trip to Earth for John's father's funeral.

Smith looks at Rodney expectantly, like he's supposed to be able to figure out what he's here for now. Rodney is losing patience, thinking of the critical simulation he's got running right now on boosting energy output from the city's dwindling power sources. "And?" he says. "So?"

Smith smiles a little, not in a nice way. He slows his words down as if he's speaking to an imbecile. "The Sheppards wish to take custody."

Rodney tilts his head and he sees Woolsey flinch a little, in his peripheral vision. "They--"

"Yes," Smith says, smiling full-out now. "Of course they want the child. And that's without them knowing the true situation as to her whereabouts, the dangers she's subjected to out here."

Rodney just stares at Smith, who apparently takes his silence as an invitation to share. "Of course, confidentiality requires that the family not be told about this location. They believe that she is on a secret base on Earth, so secret that no communication has been allowed. So," he says, still smiling, teeth whiter than is possible without the copious use of bleaching agents, "I will take custody of her upon the Daedalus's return to Earth in a few days. The family has arranged for a nanny to accompany us on the voyage home, and all the comforts."

"All the comforts," Rodney says. "What--That is,"

"Now, Dr. McKay, I'm sure it feels a bit sudden, considering the," Smith smirks, "the relationship you've apparently developed with the child, but I am sure you see that this is what is best."

Rodney is out of his seat and halfway to Smith, hands clenched into fists, before he even realizes he's moved. Woolsey is standing now too, and has his hands outstretched as if to stop Rodney from whatever he might be contemplating against Smith. As if, Rodney thinks, as if, realizing that his body has instinctively gone into one of the martial arts stances that Ronon's been working with him on. He'll never be a real warrior, but he sure as hell isn't soft any more, and he lets one small corner of his brain contemplate how there is no way Woolsey could stop him if he wanted to do violence to this lawyer-accountant in what is obviously a show-uniform.

It's worth it for the shaken look on Smith's face, but Rodney's shaken, too, because he has no memory of getting out of his seat or clenching his fists or launching himself at the guy. He's stopped himself a few feet away from Smith, and he's shaking and his stomach is clenched in a knot and his throat feels raw. "I," he says, then shakes his head. "I need to think about this."

Smith smiles. "I'm sure that once they learn of the extent of your efforts, the family will provide remuneration to compensate you, and--"

Rodney lurches a step closer to the guy and Woolsey holds up a hand, turns and gives Smith a scathing look. "Stop. Talking. Please leave us. I believe it would be best if I spoke with Dr. McKay myself at this point."

Smith glances back and forth between them, then picks up his briefcase. At the door, he stops. "Fine," he says, voice clipped. "But don't forget, Woolsey, the family is very influential. The SGC has no intention of getting between one of the Sheppard's pet judges and a child."

"What is he talking about?" Rodney says, stomach knotting.

Woolsey turns to Rodney. "Dr. McKay, if you will sit down, there is additional information which I need to convey to you."

Rodney eases back down into a chair, feeling suddenly weak. He doesn't even notice when Smith leaves the room.

"I'm sorry," Woolsey says, sitting down next to Rodney after a moment. "He insisted on bringing the news to you himself."

Rodney nods.

Woolsey looks at his hands for a moment, then looks up at Rodney. His voice is very soft. "Given the fact that Amelia's mother is deceased, normally her guardianship would fall to a relative. I'm sure you understand that."

"Of course," Rodney says, chest aching. "I guess I hadn't-- Well."

"It's largely my fault," Woolsey says. "I kept hoping that the Colonel would be found, which would render the entire issue moot. And then there has been crisis after crisis. And with Atlantis out of contact with Earth except for the Daedalus's trips, well, it became too easy to forget that there are people on Earth with an interest in this child. Nevertheless, it was my responsibility to say something, ensure you remembered the likely response of the Sheppards." Woolsey sighs next to Rodney.

"Right, because I'm a moron who can't remember basic things," Rodney snaps, but even he can hear that his voice sounds tight and strained. "So what did Smith mean about the pet judges?"

Woolsey pushes his glasses up on his nose. "Far from a moron, as that question goes right to the heart of what I want to discuss with you. You see, the SGC is, hmm, concerned, about how influential the Sheppard family is. There is more than one judge who tends to listen to the Sheppard family."

Amelia stirs a little on Rodney's chest, and he realizes he's conveying some of his tension to her. He wills his body to relax, as much as he can under the circumstances.

"And so?" Rodney prompts.

Woolsey smiles at him, something so disconcerting that Rodney can momentarily ignore the tightness in his chest. "So bear with me. Because there is something Smith neglected to tell you. Colonel Sheppard left a will of course."

"Of course," Rodney says, thinking of all the paperwork the SGC requires before anyone is allowed to go off world.

"Which he updated the last time he was on Earth," Woolsey says. He turns fully toward Rodney, looks at him levelly. "Do you recall the provision asking your preference for a guardian, in the event you fathered a child and the mother was deceased?"

Rodney nods and swallows. He feels a little faint. He'd closed his eyes and named Jeannie.

"Expedition members' wills are kept on Earth, in the SGC's legal department," Woolsey says. "Since Colonel Sheppard's legal status is Missing in Action, there has been no reason for anyone in the SGC to look at any of the provisions in his will."

"Right," Rodney says. "Since he's not dead. A will has no effect unless a person's dead."

"Yes, since he hasn't been declared dead, the will has been irrelevant."

"Still not seeing the point here!" Rodney says. He feels flushed and his heart is beating fast.

"So, obviously, I sent word back with the Daedalus last time, word about Amelia."

"Yes, yes, or Smith wouldn't be here, get to the point."

"Right," Woolsey says. "When the Daedalus arrived with my message, given the unusual situation, Legal pulled out the transcript of the Colonel's will, just to check to see whether he'd filled out that provision. That is, a provision for a guardian in the event he had a child and both he and its mother was deceased."

"Fine, fine, we have a fabulous legal department," Rodney says, attempting his usual brand of sarcasm. His throat hurts and he wants to crawl into bed and sleep for a week.

"Colonel Sheppard named you," Woolsey says, voice very gentle. "They sent a copy of the transcript for me to review, and a copy of his original recording. On the Daedalus."

Rodney swallows. "What?" His voice comes out half-strangled sounding. Amelia stirs restlessly, and Rodney jiggles her a little without really thinking about it.

Woolsey's voice is even gentler. "He named you."

Rodney shakes his head in disbelief, then realizes what Woolsey's leading up to. "No," Rodney says, "We can't."

"I see you've already anticipated what I'm going to say next," Woolsey says.

"Yes, and I won't do it, I won't go along with it," Rodney says, pushing his chair back. The harsh grief threatens to surface, and he shoves it down hard.

"But," Woolsey says, "in the event that Colonel Sheppard is pronounced dead, his will goes into effect." He pauses, then continues. "That would still be no guarantee that you would ultimately be awarded Amelia. You are familiar with how custody is awarded when both natural parents are deceased?"

"I assume so," Rodney says, "but. You're a lawyer, right?"

Woolsey nods. "Though this isn't my area of expertise, I do know that in such cases, a judge determines who will be guardian by deciding what placement will be in the best interests of the child. The judge does not have to grant guardianship to the person named by the deceased, but obviously that is given huge weight. Generally speaking, the judge will, in fact, grant guardianship to whoever is named."

Rodney's throat is constricted, and his voice sounds funny to his own ears when he says, making a desperate bid for time to think, "And this all means--"

Woolsey's voice is even quieter than it has been when he says, "You're the smartest man in two galaxies; you know exactly what it means. If you wish to have a hope of keeping custody of Amelia, we have to declare Colonel Sheppard killed in action. Otherwise, I don't have a leg to stand on to keep her here; there is no circumstance in which a judge will allow her to remain here rather than being with her closest relatives if the will is not called into play."

Woolsey leans forward towards Rodney. "Dr. McKay, if we don't declare Colonel Sheppard dead, I will have to let Amelia go back with that man to the Colonel's brother. Maybe that's what I should do. But knowing what Colonel Sheppard wanted, I can't in good conscience not discuss the options with you. Even if we declare him dead and invoke the will, I'd still anticipate, knowing what I do of the Sheppard family, that they will fight you in court, fight to be named her guardian, claim that being placed with them is in Amelia's best interests. But without the will being invoked, it's not even an issue; Amelia will have to go back on the Daedalus when it returns to Earth in two days."

Rodney's head hurts and his vision is blurring. A vise has gripped his chest, and his stomach is churning. Amelia, in her carrier on his chest, squirms and starts to fuss. "I don't think…" he says. His voice breaks a little, and he's suddenly furious. He pushes to a stand. "I'll have Amelia to Smith in a few hours."

"Dr. McKay," Woolsey says, forehead pulled together in worry lines. "I'd like to suggest that you view the recording Colonel Sheppard made. I'd like to suggest that you view his recorded statement before you make any decisions."

"I'll think about it, but you know what, no," Rodney says. "They'd be right about Amelia's best interests, wouldn't they?" A hot pressure is rising up in his throat, and he knows he can't stay here in this room for a minute more. "They'd be right."

"I am not sure about that," Woolsey says, a considering tone in his voice. "I really believe you must watch the recording."

"Not happening," Rodney says, and flees.

Rodney doesn't know what happens after that, because he's out of the conference room and striding down Atlantis's halls, gulping in breaths of air to try to counter the feeling that's gripping his windpipe, squeezing a tight band around his chest.

He isn't aware of where he is, where his feet are propelling him, until he finds himself in their quarters, with their tall windows opening out onto the sky. It's only then that he allows himself to become aware of Amelia, still strapped to his chest, struggling now against the carry-cloth in the way she does when she wants out, out now.

He sits on the sofa and unwraps her, still gasping a little, and she looks at him resentfully when he doesn't produce a bottle immediately. She fusses with little eh-eh-eh noises which aren't really cries, not yet. God, he's been stupid, so unbelievably stupid. How could something so obvious blindside him like this? Because it did, he will admit it to himself; he somehow completely and totally forgot that John had a brother, that Amelia could have family other than here on Atlantis. Though generally he rejects psychology as the pseudo-science it really is, even he has to admit this is a textbook case of cognitive dissonance and accompanying denial. Stupid, stupid. His brain hadn't let himself think about the Sheppard family, because obviously it hadn't wanted him to. How the hell had he gotten so wrapped up in this baby that he lost higher brain function?

He looks at her, fussing in his arms, keeps looking at her, and really sees her as a person in her own right for the first time. He doesn't usually see, maybe he hasn't wanted to, but now he makes himself. Her hair is just like John's, except somehow feminine, ridiculously dark and thick and definitely sticking up despite his attempts to comb it into something like a girl's head of hair. The bow of her lips is curvy and full, just like John's, and she has his ludicrous elf-ears.

He fights the memories, bowing his head: making fun of Sheppard's hair, ears.

Amelia kicks a little and flails her hands at him and tries out a couple of cries to let him know that yes, she really means she needs food, now. She shoots him more glares from under her dark lashes when he doesn't produce it right away, and he can just imagine the girl she'll become, full of snark and smarts and frightening daring; he can already see all of that in her, and more. Of course there's a whole other person's DNA besides John's involved, and he can see that sometimes in the slow measuring gaze she occasionally fixes on people, her delighted responsiveness to music, and her joy in colors and textures. Whatever else her Athosian mother was, she undoubtedly was beautiful, too: Amelia's cheekbones curve in an arc that promises a gorgeous woman will emerge from the babyish fat, and her skin is honey gold.

Rodney stops himself right there, because thinking about all of that, the whys and the hows of Amelia's conception, John apparently fathering a child with some Athosian beauty, doesn't lead to any place productive. And furthermore, furthermore, it's just stalling. He's not a particularly nice person, he knows that, but he has become a braver person since he's been in Atlantis, and he knows what he has to do.

Later, after he's fed Amelia and changed her and sung Cash's You'll Never Walk Alone and given a monologue that has Amelia giggling as he acts out the fight Radek and Jones had in the lab, he makes a call to Woolsey. A little later, he comes to the conference room, laden with a couple of bags. As he requested, Smith is waiting, drumming his fingers on the table.

"Here," Rodney says, thrusting Dragon and Blackhawk into Smith's manicured hands. "Dragon is for bedtimes or when she's hurting. Blackhawk is for when she needs distracting. You fly it, it makes sounds, easy." Smith's face is coolly amused, but Rodney doesn't care. He doesn't. Care. He fights off the memories of the young marine who thrust them into his hands, apologizing for her sewing skills, explaining that she wanted to do something to honor the commanding officer who'd given her a chance when others wouldn't.

Rodney forces his attention back to the matter at hand. "She eats every four hours. I've included a chart detailing the schedule for introducing her to solid foods. She loves books and music."

He feels himself on the brink of choking up, and that is not going to be happening, so he deposits Amelia into Smith's dress-shirted arms and turns to go. On his way out the door, he stops and turns and says, "And she's not "the child." Her name is Amelia. Amelia."

"Did Colonel Sheppard name her that?" Smith asks.

"What?" Rodney says, distracted by Amelia's panicked face.

"Did he somehow name her that, before he went missing?"

"No, what, no!" Rodney yells. "Are you even more of a moron than you seem? He disappeared. I named her, because no one else would. Did you think she came with her name engraved on her forehead?"

Woolsey shakes his head at Smith and Rodney takes a step back into the room, narrowing his eyes. "What!" he says. Amelia's panicked look has changed to anger, and she's taking a breath to launch into screams.

Woolsey closes his eyes, but Smith looks straight at him, ignoring Amelia completely. "Well, naturally the Sheppards may have another preference. I'm told they are the type of family which has certain traditional names they like to use."

Rodney's realizes his hands are clasped into fists and he's holding his breath. Amelia's bottom lip wobbles.

He walks out. Because if he stays one more second and has to hear about Amelia being called something else, he'll grab her back and not let her go. Which, though tempting, wouldn't be what's best for Amelia, and isn't that the whole point of this, what's best for her.

As if on cue, Amelia launches into ear-piercing screams, which he hears for a very long time, despite how fast he's creating distance between himself and Woolsey's office.

Rodney ends up back in his quarters. He looks, really looks, for the first time in months. There are colorful cloth books in a pile next to the sofa. The furniture is littered with baby blankets and stuffed animals, rattles and bottles. There's a small portable crib that he rigged up, and carved Athosian toys and hand-woven hair decorations.

He huffs out a breath and sits down hard. There are scattered papers on the floor covered in equations, half-built electronic devices littering the coffee table. His dirty clothes are mixed in with hers, on the floor in heaps.

It's not a place for a baby, for a young child, it's not. Not with him, not in Atlantis, not in the Pegasus Galaxy.

He'll deal with it. It'll be hard, but he'll deal. And she'll be fine. She'll be fine in a couple of days. She'll forget him and grow used to her new caretakers, and then grow to love her family, her real family, of Sheppards. She'll grow used to her new fucking name.

Resolutely, he scrubs at his face with his hands and stands to go to the lab, when the door whooshes open. Teyla strides into his room with a look on her face that makes him swallow. He has to forcibly stop himself from stepping back.

She comes right up to him and says, voice low and vibrating with sheathed menace, "What are you thinking?"

"I-- what do you mean?" he says, voice cracking a little.

"You know precisely what I mean," she says, voice modulated as always, but with an underlying hint of steel. "I have heard the details of Amelia's situation. Why have you relinquished her into the hands of John's brother's representative?"

Rodney can't really think too clearly right now, but obviously Teyla's spoken to Woolsey, or has a pretty amazing information network, which really shouldn't surprise him any more, but still does. He tips his chin up a little, but his voice is soft. "I think. I think it's the right thing."

"The right thing!" Teyla comes even closer, and Rodney can practically feel the heat of the anger rising off her body. "I know our societies are very different, but please explain to me how this can possibly be the right thing."

Rodney sits on the sofa, because obviously he's not going to get to go about his life until Teyla is satisfied. He motions vaguely for her to sit and she does, cross-legged on the end of the sofa. "Explain," she says.

Rodney sighs. "I could go on and on," he says. "But the bottom line? The Sheppards are her family. I'm not, we're not, no matter," he holds up a preemptive hand when she draws breath to speak, "no matter that to us, it feels like we are." He's amazed at how easy that was to say; it's something he wouldn't have been comfortable enough even to think a year ago. Time and his experiences in Atlantis have stripped away his embarrassment about some things, and how he feels about these people is one of them. Mainly. "Doesn't Athosian culture value family highly as well?"

"Yes," Teyla says. "And no. We have more people who are considered family. Our concept of family is not limited to a nuclear group. But yes, family is most important."

Rodney nods.

"It is wrong. It is not what John would have wanted. I know this," Teyla says. "And I believe you know this as well. Is there not a recording?"

Rodney sighs. "Even if that's what he said, what right do we have, do I have, to take that away from her, all the opportunities of being a Sheppard?"

"What opportunities are those?" she asks.

"Hmm, let's count them up," Rodney says, trying to make his voice sarcastic. "Education, travel, money to do what she wants, knowing her family, being in her home country, being on her home planet, living where there aren't life-sucking space vampires--"

Teyla waves a regal hand and he stops. "Ronon told me, told us, what John's family is like. Do you honestly believe that John would want his child raised by such as them?"

"Yes," Rodney says, voice overly loud. "Yes, he would. Family is important. He may have had issues with them, but they're still important. And let's not even talk about the risks for Amelia of staying in Atlantis."

Teyla is silent for a moment, but Rodney knows her well enough to see that she's not swayed by the obvious logic of his argument. Instead, she's considering how to say what she believes to be true. "What does John consider important?" she asks softly, just when he thinks maybe she isn't going to push it any more.

"He-- what?" Rodney says.

"You heard me," she says. "Of the things you have named, what does John Sheppard consider important? Does he value wealth? Security? Safety?"

Rodney is silent for a moment, thinking about John's disdain for wealth, his propensity for flouting authority, his obvious disregard for safety over discovery. He pushes the memories away and shakes his head. "For a child, though. For a child, he would. Part of that, yes. He would want his daughter safe."

"And you think the Milky Way Galaxy is safe, that Earth is safe?" Teyla asks softly. "Though we know that the Wraith have targeted it, that Replicators have already made it there, that Earth's people are trying their best to blow each other up, destroy their planet through their greed?"

Rodney presses his lips together. No matter how she argues, Teyla won't persuade him.

Teyla lowers her voice, speaks very quietly. "Have you viewed the recording, Rodney?

He looks at her for a long moment, then shakes his head.

"I know it must seem impossibly hard, to watch such a thing," Teyla says. "But you have done the impossible many times. I do not think you will be able to live with yourself if you do not view it."

Rodney's throat burns. He hates this place, suddenly, this place that's given him so much and taken so much away.

Teyla places a warm hand on his shoulder. She stands to go, then turns. Her voice is very soft. "Be very certain, Rodney, about Amelia. Be very certain that it is not your own fear that drives you. Your own fear of becoming attached to her, of the risks involved in loving her. Be very certain, because I know that her place is with you. I know it, Ronon knows it, and in your heart you know it. You will regret it all your days if you make the wrong choice out of fear. If you do not at least try."

Rodney gapes at her, speechless, and she leaves. He sits for a long time, a very long time, staring at the mess in his quarters left behind by raising a baby.

Woolsey leaves Rodney with the remote in his hand, the windows to his office opaqued. Rodney's throat feels funny, and he feels a little shaky. Maybe he forgot to eat, or...

He swallows. He's being chicken-shit and he knows it. And really, how bad can it be? It can't really be worse than having Sheppard gone.

He presses play.

The picture on the screen resolves into John, sitting loose and lanky, sprawled in a chair in an office which is clearly on Earth, based on the yellowish cast to the light streaming in through the windows behind him. He looks relaxed and easy, less tense than Rodney remembers him being a lot of the time, under his outside air of nonchalance. He's wearing civilian clothes; a loose dark green button-down shirt that brings out his eyes and a pair of washed-out jeans. He looks like he's about twenty-five.

Rodney feels the strange whooshing-feeling he gets when he's about to do something very, very brave. It seems out of place here in this office where there are no predators or cliffs or exploding suns or life-sucking vampire aliens, but of course he should have realized that the reality of seeing John on film from over a year ago...

He swallows and forces himself to listen. As he does, his brain catalogs John's breathtaking looks: the leanness of the lines of his body, the lush lips and chiseled intelligence of his features. Those looks are easy to forget when you spend a lot of time together debating the relative merits of various superheroes or discovering cool artifacts side-by-side, or even fighting terrifying aliens, but. But with the distance of time, there he is.

John's smirking a little, leaning back as if he doesn't have a care in the world, though Rodney's already realized that this was most likely filmed the last time John was on Earth, which would have been when he went to his father's funeral.

"So, typical military deal," John says lazily into the camera. "Left me alone with the camera this time, though, so that's good." He grins. "Course they're gonna make me sign paperwork out the ass, but nobody's seeing this thing unless I'm dead, in which case..." He smirks directly into the camera.

Rodney's throat is closing up and he's struggling against what feels like a heavy weight on his chest.

"So let's cut to the chase," John says, voice firming into something more serious, body echoing that feeling by sitting up straighter. For the first time, he looks hesitant, looks down at his hands. He presses his lips together and looks back up into the camera. "Thing is," he says, "my brother -- hell, all the Sheppards -- have everything they need, and more. And. Well." John stutters to a halt and looks down at his hands again. When he looks back up, his eyes are serious, and Rodney feels their intensity in his chest.

"I'm. Just." John clears his throat. "I'm not giving anything to my brother's family except a couple of family things, things I've listed on," he sorts the papers in front of him briefly, "on Asset Disposition Form A, Section F."

"Here, Section, uh, C, I've listed the stuff I want to go to Teyla Emmagen and Ronon Dex, citizens of Atlantis." John looks straight into the camera, firms his posture and says clearly and distinctly, "Family to me."

He fiddles with the papers in front of him a little more, then faces the camera again, this time with a smirk. "This is so worth it just to imagine the look on McKay's face if I die. So yeah, to Rodney McKay, excuse me, Doctor Rodney McKay," John rolls his eyes, "to Rodney McKay, I'm leaving all my assets. Which are considerable enough to keep him in Power Bars, large-breasted blondes and research assistants to harass till the dawn of the next century."

Sheppard rolls his shoulders, like he's a little tense after all. He looks back up, and his eyes are sparkling. "Hell, he can start a Foundation. 'The Rodney McKay Foundation for the Advancement of My Genius,'" he says, grinning.

Rodney aches to say, "Hey!" and make disparaging remarks about the ridiculousness of John's fortune, which is apparently much larger than he had let on. But he can't, and John is continuing.

"And god, this is so ridiculous, but they make me say something about this every time. So, if I somehow have a kid, through some sort of virgin birth process, and hey, considering where I'm stationed, anything is possible I suppose, and the mother dies or isn't, " Sheppard glances down as if checking the wording on a paper, "isn't locatable. If that happens, I don't want my brother or any other Sheppard to raise them." John's expression grows serious and he leans forward a little. "I mean that. I don't want a kid of mine anywhere near my family growing up, if through some bizarre means I have a kid, and there's no mother or no mother around. I mean, they should visit my brother and the clan, but not live there, not be subject to them daily. I want--" Sheppard stops dead in his narration, which honestly, Rodney thinks, is amazing only because Sheppard didn't stop sooner; for him, this whole thing has been a rather stunningly long string of words.

"Right," Sheppard says to his hands. "I would want." He raises his eyes, dark and serious, to the camera. "I would want Rodney to raise the child. Be its guardian, parent, whatever. If he's willing."

Rodney's breath whooshes out on the force of his gasp, and he clutches the edge of the table as if its steadiness will offset the dizziness he feels. Though he knew before watching that this must be what John said in this recording, actually hearing it is shocking. John's voice continues after a few seconds and Rodney tries to get himself to focus. "If he's not willing or able," John says quietly, "then Teyla, Teyla Emmagen if she's willing to do it, but with her having her own baby I think it might be too much. Ronon Dex if that won't work. And if this unlikely event happens, and Rodney can't or won't do it, no 'alien' bullshit, people." John makes air quotes to emphasize his point. "These people are more human than most humans."

John makes a face. "You'll be calling me a moron right about now, Rodney, because obviously if this is playing, I'm dead. And I suppose if you're still watching, I miraculously became a daddy, so I need to make with the present tense, right? So, the thing is." John pauses for long moments, fiddling with the paperwork on the table in front of him. "I." He seems to make a decision, because he straightens and looks right into the camera. "Despite so many indications otherwise, the truth is, I think you'd be a damn fine parent. Guardian, whatever. I know you'll hate it on some level, but the thing is, under it all? Well." He smirks into the camera and Rodney figures Sheppard's at the end of his rope, talking-wise. "I don't need to tell you anything, because you already know it, have it. Here." John presses a fist to his heart. "The things that matter. The rest is window dressing."

Something warm wedges itself in Rodney's chest, and his sight blurs a little. He can't believe Sheppard said something like that. He can't believe Sheppard would do this.

A smirk grows on John's face and Rodney finds himself leaning forward, breathless with anticipation, because he knows Sheppard is about to mock him. "Though if you could dampen the hypochondria a bit and the whole 'I'm-a-genius' thing, and up the positive encouragement a little, like by infinity, so that my kid isn't scarred for life by the time they're two, yeah, that'd be good. And you sure as hell better teach them the truth about the relative merits of Star Trek and Star Wars."

"You are insane," Rodney whispers to the monitor. "Certifiable."

"Goodbye, Rodney," John says, voice husking into an even lower, softer range. "We're. We're good, right? I want us to be good, I want you to be good. In life." He shifts restlessly in his chair. "Oh, hell, these things are torture. I'm done." Only he reaches his hand abortively, just for a moment, toward the camera, and there's a look in his eyes... The picture cuts out and Rodney reaches towards the screen automatically, without thought. His hand hangs there, halfway between him and the monitor for a few seconds, and then he brings it up to cover his eyes momentarily.

When he finally gets up from the table, he's still not completely sure what he's doing, not the whole picture, but life's taught him a lot recently about seeing himself clearly, and he knows that at least one part of what Teyla said was true. He didn't give Amelia to Smith two days before the Daedalus is scheduled to leave because it'd be best for her; he did it because it would be easier for him this way.

He radios Woolsey to get Smith's location as he jogs through the late-evening halls of Atlantis, suddenly frantic.

Rodney can hear Amelia's cries when he's still twenty yards away from the room Smith's been assigned, and a cold spike of guilt temporarily stops him in the hall. Damnit, it had been his own welfare, not Amelia's, that made him thrust her into a stranger's arms like he had. If he'd waited, let her get used to Smith over a few days, at least it wouldn't have been so terrifying for her. And it had been his own feelings, not concern for Amelia, that made him cling so stubbornly to that "Missing" label for John, insist that Woolsey not switch it to "Presumed Dead" way past the time when it would have made sense.

He takes a deep breath and walks the final distance to Smith's door, which is standing open. Mixed with Amelia's cries, he can hear Woolsey and Smith talking. Arguing, actually.

As he enters the room, Rodney sees that Woolsey is gesticulating aggressively and Smith's face is stony, but Rodney has eyes only for Amelia, who's lying in a crib in the corner of Smith's room. Her face is bright red and wet with tears, her eyes scrunched tight shut, her hands balled into fists. She's hiccupping and gasping the way she does when she's been crying and crying, occasionally gathering strength for an exhausted scream. Rodney hates himself right now with a burning passion, because what kind of selfish idiot does this to a helpless child?

He's over at the crib in a microsecond. He scoops Amelia up and holds her to his chest, leaning his head down and breathing in her baby-smells, kissing her forehead and her ridiculous dark hair tufts, babbling into her skin. "I'm sorry," he whispers, holding her to him tightly. "I'm so sorry. I won't send you away, I won't. Not ever again." And right then, he gives up any half-conceived plan to introduce her slowly to Smith, then send her back to Earth with him in a few days. He won't give her up willingly; if they want John's little girl, they're going to have to get a court order, and then they're going to have to fight the challenge he'll mount to that order.

Amelia's crying changes the second he lifts her into his arms; at first it escalates, then quickly subsides to little wracking sobs. Her hands come up and grab onto his shirt, clinging like she'll never let go. Gradually, the crying stops, but her body is still shuddering with little aftershocks from her fear.

Rodney slowly becomes aware of silence in the room around them, and looks up to see Smith staring at him with frank disdain. Woolsey is carefully looking elsewhere –- at the drapes, the wall.

"What?" Rodney manages to croak. "What!"

Smith smirks. "I was just telling the commander here that I do not intend to leave Atlantis without this child."

"Prepare to be here a while, then," Rodney says, only Amelia in his arms keeping him from launching himself forward at the guy, getting up in his physical space. "Since Sheppard explicitly names me as her guardian in his will, I think you're going to have a long wait."

"His will is irrelevant," Smith sneers.

"Not for long," Rodney says. "Well, what are we waiting for?" he asks Woolsey. "Let's get the declaration made."

Woolsey nods solemnly at Rodney, without once letting on that it's been Rodney all these months who's argued against taking this very step.

"I'm sure you're very good at," Smith waves a hand airily at Rodney, "whatever it is you do. But the Sheppards have the money and power to hire the best lawyers, pay off judges, do whatever is needed. The fact that Colonel Sheppard awarded guardianship to you is only one factor a judge will take into consideration in determining her disposition. Judges in cases involving orphans make determinations based on the best interests of the child. They consider the expressed wishes of a parent, if they are properly memorialized." He makes a face indicating skepticism over whether John's recording was legally proper. "But the wishes of a parent aren't binding on the court. Not at all. I can think of a hundred," he gives Rodney a withering look, "make that a hundred and one reasons right off the top of my head why living here, with you, is not in the best interests of that child."

"Now you listen to me," Rodney says, walking toward Smith, voice modulated so as not to frighten Amelia, whose eyes are open and staring at him with what he's sure is an accusatory look for his earlier abandonment. "While you were sitting in your posh office hoping to get your secretary to have bad sex with you to make your life less excruciatingly boring, I was saving this city, and oh right, the human race a few times a day."

Smith is backing up a little, and Rodney realizes he's been advancing on him steadily this whole time. Rodney forces himself to stop, and lets his mouth quirk into the shape it wants to, to reflect his contempt. "I have more intelligence in my pinkie finger than you do in your whole, whole SGC corporate lawyer department. If I have to do a crash-course in guardianship law, I will, because John Sheppard, a guy who's worth a hundred of you, for some inexplicable reason chose me to take care of his kid. And that's exactly what I'm going to do."

Amelia chooses that moment to make a little sound, which Rodney knows means she's getting annoyed. "When did you last feed her, anyway?" he asks.

Smith shrugs, and if he weren't holding Amelia, Rodney knows he would actually hit the guy, which is a simultaneously frightening and exhilarating piece of self-knowledge.

"Regardless, Rodney," Woolsey says softly from behind him. "Perhaps it would be best to take Amelia to your quarters? It's very late and she's undoubtedly quite tired."

Rodney had honestly almost forgotten Woolsey's presence, but his quiet voice reminds him that he owes Woolsey a debt for this, something he's not too happy to admit. "You're right," he says, backing away from Smith.

Smith smiles. "And don't forget, there's no declaration yet."

Woolsey puts a piece of paper down on Smith's end table. "Actually, there is. Sheppard's officially declared presumed dead. Let's go, Dr. McKay."

Rodney trails after Woolsey, leaving Smith staring at the official papers.

Partway down the corridor, Rodney gently grabs Woolsey's arm, stops him. Rodney clears his throat. "You...?"

Woolsey presses his lips together firmly. "Dr. Keller and I have had it prepared for a long time. We were waiting until a-- a suitable moment," he says softly.

"Thank you," Rodney says, equally softly, because he hears what Woolsey hasn't said out loud: they were waiting for Rodney to be able to deal with it. "And. And thank you for helping, with Amelia."

Woolsey adjusts his glasses and stares at Rodney appraisingly. "It hasn't escaped my notice," he says, "that since you have been caring for that child, your overall efficiency has actually gone up. Not to mention the improvement in your working relationships with others."

Rodney gapes at him. Since he's been taking care of Amelia, he's been sleep-deprived and busy and frantically running between her needs and the needs of the city. Woolsey smiles at him, a smile Rodney's never seen before, and ducks his head. If Rodney didn't know better, he'd say Woolsey looks shy. Woolsey nods awkwardly toward Amelia. "Well, go-- do whatever it is you do to take care of her."

Amelia is silent during the walk back to his quarters, and silent as he changes her diaper and feeds her a bottle. Her eyes are still open, though her eyelids are drooping, and he doesn't want to let go of her for even a second. From the way her hands are twisted in his shirt collar, he's guessing she feels the same way. Screw the baby books or what anyone would think, he decides, toeing off his shoes and crawling into bed with her cradled right next to him. People slept right next to their babies for eons of human history, and it's not like modern, enlightened humans are exactly paragons of sanity.

Amelia stares at him for a long time, hands fisted in his shirt, just stares, and he leans forward and kisses her forehead every few minutes. Slowly, her body relaxes and her breathing becomes deeper. Gradually, her eyes shut, but her hands are still clutching him.

Rodney's eyes sting. He's been holding the memories off all day, but now that he's got Amelia safely back with him, now that she's relaxed down into sleep and he's away from anyone else, memories of John's recording flit into his head, first in little flashes, then in whole segments. His excellent memory is both a blessing and a curse at a time like this; he can see John in his mind's eye like he was sitting right there in the room with him, see his awkward fidgeting and then his stunning seriousness.

John's words reverberate in Rodney's head, and questions rise up inside Rodney like they have every day since John disappeared, this time with even more bite. Grief chokes him and he tightens his arm around Amelia.

Unbidden and unwanted, memories flash into Rodney's head, memories he's tried to suppress, memories he mainly has suppressed for over a year. It's hopeless to fight them off any more, he can sense it; they're flooding him now and won't stop. He gives in with a silent gasp of longing and fear, because he wants to relive it, he wants it so badly, even though he knows it will just make everything worse.

Sheppard had been steely-eyed and silent for a very long time; the night they brought Teyla and her baby home was the first time Rodney had seen him smile since Teyla was taken. They'd made it through the collapse of Michael's trap around them, made it through the terrible aftermath, and survived the battle to free Teyla and stop Michael. Not unscathed, but alive.

Keller treated Rodney and Sheppard and then released them; in Rodney's case it was his wrist that needed the most attention, in Sheppard's his leg. They stayed in the infirmary anyway, of course, until they knew their team was going to be okay, only leaving when Keller threatened to admit them to the infirmary if they didn't leave and get some rest.

Even Torren, Teyla's honey-skinned little son, was given a tentative clean bill of health, though of course he and Teyla had to stay overnight for observation. Ronon did too, though Rodney wouldn't lay odds on him being there by morning. Last he'd heard, Ronon and Keller were having an argument in which Keller kept saying the word concussion and Ronon didn't say anything, just took her hand and held on, grinning.

They hadn't taken the time to go to the locker room or change, and Rodney fumbled with the fastenings on his tac vest as they approached his door. "Damnit," he said under his breath, as his injured left hand failed to cooperate and pain shot up his arm.

Sheppard took a long look at Rodney and shook his head. "I'll come in and help you."

Rodney snapped, "Don't be ridiculous," but his heart wasn't in it; he found himself barely able to stand now that they knew Teyla would live and Sheppard really hadn't been disintegrated in front of his eyes. Rodney nodded and Sheppard followed on Rodney's heels into his darkened quarters. Neither of them thought the lights on; Rodney's head was pounding as it was. He tried one more time to undo his vest, this time one-handed, but even the fingers of his good hand were clumsy.

"Come here," Sheppard said, voice husky, undoubtedly from the smoke which had hung in a pall over Michael's fortress during the battle and afterwards, not to mention the exhaustion dogging all of them.

Rodney shuffled closer, knees suddenly weak, as if getting to his quarters had used the last of his reserves. Sheppard reached out, then shook his head and grabbed Rodney by the shoulders, pressing him backwards. "Here, lean against the wall," he murmured, hands already feeling for the vest's buckles. "That way you won't fall over."

Sheppard's voice sounded a little shaky, and Rodney focused enough to remember that Sheppard was probably hurting in a million places. "You don't have to--" but Sheppard's long fingers were working at the fastenings already.

Rodney let himself lean his head back against the wall. Really, it'd be virtually impossible for him to get out of the vest any other way. And having Sheppard here was actually sort of comforting; some silly part of him really didn't want Sheppard out of his sight. He should be used to it by now, but something about today...

For the first time since the terrifying moment when Michael fired his souped-up energy weapon at point-blank range at Sheppard, Rodney let himself think about how close a call the whole thing had been. And how crazy a risk they'd taken, relying on his calculations and his design for a cobbled-together personal shield.

Rodney realized that he was trembling a little, just a minor vibration, but it seemed to be running through his whole body. He looked down at Sheppard's hands, which he could see outlined in the low light coming from the bathroom where an ambient nightlight always stayed on -- he didn't want to look at Sheppard's face right now -- and Sheppard's hands were shaking too, shaking seemingly in time with Rodney's own internal tremor.

"Hey," Sheppard said, still trying to work the releases on the vest, voice even huskier than before. "You okay, buddy?"

Rodney snorted, or tried to; it came out a little weak. "Of course I'm okay, why wouldn't I be? We only staged an impossible rescue operation against an insane megalomaniac Wraith, relying on something I put together with toothpaste and chewing gum to protect you from an instantaneous and messy death."

"Yeah," Sheppard said, very close to Rodney. He fumbled with the buckles of Rodney's vest some more. "Don't worry. We'll have you out of this in a jiffy."

Rodney laughed, he couldn't help it; it seemed to come from somewhere deep inside. "A jiffy? Did my Aunt Mabel get stuck in your head in some Pegasus-generated soul-swapping event? Seriously, have you traveled here from Fun With Dick and Jane Land? Mayberry, maybe?"

"Rodney," Sheppard growled, fingers tangling fiercely in the vest's last buckle, which finally sprang free. Only the zipper was left now.

The after-effects of so much adrenalin and fear, plus stimulants and sleep deprivation, were messing with Rodney's body. He felt on edge, and he was suddenly aware of how close Sheppard was standing. He could feel his warm breath on his face, hear his shallow inhalations. For that matter, he could smell him, the harsh tang of male sweat mixed with C-4 and dirt and god knew what else.

A fierce thought filled his brain for a second: he hoped it was blood, blood of the people who'd hurt Teyla, who'd tried to blast a hole through Sheppard, because, well, because. The wrongness of that thought registered, but he didn't care, because John had almost died today, again. His hands came up, he couldn't help it, they came up and gripped Sheppard's biceps. He told himself he'd squeeze just for a second.

He squeezed, and Sheppard took in a loud breath and leaned a little towards Rodney, which -- considering how close he'd already been standing -- well, it was almost going to be a hug, and that wasn't something Sheppard really did, so Rodney prepared himself to let go.

Only Sheppard was breathing a little hard, and Rodney let himself look at his face. Sheppard looked like he almost never did; the mask of nonchalance was stripped away, something Rodney had witnessed only a handful of times. He looked like he was going to cry, or strangle someone, or freak out. His eyes were closed at first, but then he opened them, and their faces were hardly any distance apart, bodies almost touching, Sheppard's hands on the top of Rodney's vest's zipper. Something electric and strong kicked through Rodney's body, and he struggled suddenly to breathe. His hands tightened reflexively on Sheppard's arms, just as Sheppard's fingers moved from fumbling at the vest's zipper to grasping the top of his vest, hands tightening into fists, holding on hard, reeling Rodney in even closer.

Sheppard's proximity was almost overwhelming; Rodney could feel his breaths warm on his face, feel the heat rising off his body. It seemed like he should be able to feel Sheppard's blood coursing under the skin of his arms, where Rodney's hands were grasping tighter, tighter.

Sheppard's body tensed and he inhaled a little choked-off breath and leaned his head down. Rodney's body responded automatically, leaning in. Then somehow their heads were touching, their foreheads resting against each other like the Athosian greeting.

Rodney's eyes closed without conscious thought, and with his sense of sight gone, the weirdness of their positions hit him hard. How they hell had they ended up like this, and what the hell--

Sheppard moved a little. Rodney figured they were stopping the almost-hug thing now and he moved too, but they moved at the same time and in the same direction, so their faces sort of ran into each other. John froze under Rodney's hands, and Rodney's breath caught. He could hear the rush of his pulse in his ears. Their faces were pressed together now, not just their foreheads, and Sheppard's breath was hot on his cheek, the side of his mouth.

Michael's energy weapon discharged again in Rodney's imagination, a sickly bluish-silver beam which knocked Sheppard down with its force. Rodney's breathing sped up, his heart pounding in his chest as his hands slid up Sheppard's arms and then curled possessively around John's back a fraction of a second before Sheppard's fingers uncurled from Rodney's vest and grasped at Rodney's shoulders.

Rodney felt suddenly breathless, and his little gasp for air seemed to pull Sheppard's face around, pull Sheppard's mouth to Rodney's. It was like the moment before a problem's mathematical solution formed itself in his head; a moment poised on the brink of, of something unknowable until there was a solution. Was this really happening, Rodney wondered, as Sheppard slid his mouth the fraction of an inch necessary to cover Rodney's lips with his own.

It was really happening; Sheppard's lips were dry on his, tentative. Rodney was gripped by that poised-on-the-brink feeling still, because this could go either way even now. He balanced there for a second -- they both did -- just breathing against each others' mouths.

Then Sheppard made a little sound, and warmth blossomed in Rodney's belly. The whole thing shifted, unbalanced, and Rodney was sliding, falling into Sheppard, aware only of Sheppard's mouth on his, the heat of his body, pressing closer, closer.

It'd never occurred to Rodney that Sheppard would go for this, that Sheppard would consider a guy, that Sheppard would consider him. Well, he supposed it had occurred to him, in a vague occasional wondering way; once in a while there'd been a little -- something -- that Rodney'd wondered about. Rodney hadn't let himself think about it, hadn't wanted to think about it, because the whole thing was just-- they were friends. And they were both going to find good women, get married, have kids, and be happy doing that, if this galaxy let them survive that long.

But he didn't care, didn't care about any of that, not today, with Sheppard's warm body pressing into his, his mouth opening under Rodney's, with Sheppard alive and breathing and right here.

A tiny part of his brain tried valiantly to yell something about post-battle adrenaline, something about careful, careful, but he ignored it, and after a few seconds it stopped or got overridden, and he was lost, lost in the revelation that was Sheppard's mouth hard on his.

It wasn't enough, it wasn't nearly enough, and Rodney surged against Sheppard, tongue swiping a desperate line against his lips. Sheppard's mouth opened easily under his, let him in. Rodney's head was spinning, his hands roaming restlessly over Sheppard's back and shoulders to confirm he was there and alive, pulling Sheppard's taut body flush against his own.

They both gasped when their hips brushed -- Rodney was already half-hard -- and he rocked forward without conscious thought. Someone moaned and it was like a switch had been flipped. Until now, it had been Rodney whose tongue pushed in, Rodney whose hands pulled Sheppard closer. Now Sheppard crowded into his space, shoved Rodney against the wall with his body, opened his mouth with an aggressive tongue.

Rodney gasped out a breath. His brain was starting to white out at the sensation of Sheppard, fuck, John using his strength and skill to pin him in place, fumbling at Rodney's clothes.

John's hands came up and reached once again for the tac vest's zipper, resting there for a heartbeat of time. Rodney couldn't talk, didn't want to talk, but in case that was a question, he answered it by pulling John's shirt out of the back of his BDUs, tugging it out and running his hands hungrily over the hot skin of John's back, tacky with sweat and grime. John surged into his mouth again and worked clumsily on the vest's zipper, clearly getting the message that it was fine with Rodney, more than fine.

Rodney was starving for John's skin, for more of it, all of it, under his hands. His hands went of their own accord to John's vest and miraculously worked the zipper down while John was still attempting to work Rodney's. John shrugged off his vest while Rodney got his hands on John's t-shirt, but John knocked his hands away and stripped it off in one quick motion, flinging it to the side.

A tiny part of Rodney's brain, the part not immediately involved in getting more of John's skin under his hands, crowed a little at the correctness of Rodney's occasional thought that John might be one of those people who was at least sometimes wild and fierce in bed even though all evidence seemed to indicate something much more lazy and desultory. Ha! he felt like saying to all the insipid people he'd accidentally overheard speculating about the subject, ha! An even tinier part of his brain wondered whether there was something about Rodney specifically that made John like this, but that seemed impossible.

Rodney realized he was in danger of losing track of the proceedings if he wasted any more time thinking, so he let himself fall all the way into sensation, running his hands over the muscled bare flesh of John's torso, his breath catching when John gasped as Rodney's fingers caught a nipple.

Overwhelmed by the gleam of Sheppard's flesh in the low light, Rodney forgot what he was doing, what he wanted to do, for a few seconds, time John used with superior strategic thinking to finally finish unzipping Rodney's vest and pull his shirt up and off. John was staring at Rodney now, running his eyes and then his hands over Rodney's shoulders and upper arms. His hands moved softly over them at first, then harder, molding their shape like he'd been thinking about them.

Rodney thought John maybe really had been thinking about them when he leaned in suddenly and mouthed at Rodney's left shoulder, then the right, hot mouth loose over the muscle, then giving a hint of teeth. Rodney moaned and John's tongue got involved, licking a stripe over the top of his arm, up and up towards his neck. Rodney's knees felt weak and he was suddenly having trouble standing. John pulled off to look at him, breathed, "Yeah," and hauled -- there was no other word for it -- Rodney over to his bed, pressed him down on it.

The world seemed to be flashing in and out of existence for Rodney; he was falling deep into a world of sensation, where only Sheppard and his hands and his body existed, interspersed with brief moments of awareness. Desperate for Sheppard's mouth, Rodney grabbed John's head from where he was tonguing his shoulder and pulled him where he wanted him. The kiss was desperate this time, frantic, and John's weight came down on top of Rodney, pinning him deliciously to the narrow bed. He gasped into Sheppard's mouth and shoved his hips up, and then Sheppard was grinding down onto him, groaning around Rodney's tongue.

Rodney's next conscious thought was awareness that John had inexplicably pulled off him a little, and oh. John's hands were at the zipper of Rodney's BDUs and he was looking up at Rodney, maybe with a question in his eyes. His hair was standing on end, except for the places where sweat had plastered it around his face, and his chest was rising and falling rapidly. His eyes were wild, intense, and his hands seemed to be shaking a little on Rodney's fly, which filled Rodney with a feeling -- a shaky feeling that he didn't want to waste time identifying.

All Rodney could do was nod a little, in case it was a question, because yes, did John think he was insane, yes John could unzip his fly, yes John could do whatever the hell he wanted, because Rodney's body had never been so starved, never needed the contact with another person's skin so much.

John still had his pants on, but time blurred a little then, because the next thing Rodney knew, they were tangled naked on Rodney's bed, and John was under him, oh god, and there were endless expanses of skin under Rodney's hands. There was hard muscle and surprisingly smooth skin, prickly hair and sweat, and it was too much, too much to process -- this body, this person under his hands who had almost been disintegrated today, blown into infinitely small particles.

Everything was fast and hard and overwhelming. It was almost like wrestling; desperate and physical. Rodney ground down into John, pushed into John's mouth with his tongue. Later, some unknowable amount of time later, John surged and had Rodney pinned under him again, cock hot and hard against Rodney's leg.

Rodney bit back a moan when John's mouth came off him for a second, John arching his head up and gasping for air. The tiny break gave him a second to think, and he jammed his hand between their bodies, searching for -- ohgod -- John's cock, already leaking and--

"Fuck!" John said, then bit his lip, arching over Rodney. "Do both," he gasped, and Rodney's cock spasmed a little right then, because do both holy fuck, but John was Mensa too, and Rodney did, wrapped his hand around his own cock next to John's, stripped them both together. John groaned when he did, a deep bitten-back sound, which made Rodney feel like he could let out a little more noise himself. And it was a good thing, because--

Now John was arching up over Rodney, sweat glistening on his chest, his shoulders, his temples. The hotness was short-circuiting something in Rodney's brain, seeing John, normally laconic and tamped-down, panting above him, passionate and fierce. "Oh god," Rodney said, "Oh god," as his hand pumped their cocks together, slippery and hot and yeah, evidence of them both being alive, living to see another day.

John stared down at Rodney, getting a look on his face Rodney's couldn't identify, then bent down and kissed him, tongue pushing harsh into Rodney's mouth. He kissed him and kissed him, and Rodney kissed him back, bringing his free hand around to John's neck, holding him there. They pulled off, gasping for air and panting into each others' faces, breath stale and humid, but Rodney didn't care, didn't care.

They were kissing again when Rodney felt the tightening in his balls, the curling in his soles that signaled imminent orgasm, and he didn't want it, he wanted this not to stop, wanted it to keep going and going. He gasped into John's mouth and John gasped back, groaned, "I'm --" and Rodney's thighs clenched and he curled up and came, blindingly hard, came and came, arching up into John, hearing John grunt and groan, feeling his come spatter on Rodney's stomach and his cock, mix and mingle with his own.

John collapsed on top of Rodney, and Rodney felt John's chest rise and fall against his own, his breath fast and shallow against his shoulder. John's face was turned away from him, and Rodney felt the first faint stirrings of unease. He lay there panting into John's neck, lips open and tasting a hint of salty skin even though his tongue wasn't on John any more. The sweat was cooling on Rodney's body by the time he finally was able to think anything coherent, and what he thought was, oh fuck. John's body tensed, as if he, too, was realizing what they'd done. God, John was probably regretting it already, and who would blame him.

They lay there in silence for a long time, too long, Rodney trying to think of what to do, what to say, mind still struggling to come to terms with all the implications of what just happened.

The silence continued, and Rodney's faint unease stirred and grew into something more serious; John was stiff and quiet above him. There were reasons why you didn't do this with a colleague, reasons you didn't do it with a friend, and reasons not to do it with John most of all, so many reasons.

The cold fear clutching at his heart right now -- that was one of them. Because no matter what, no matter what, he needed John for a friend.

How many things would John regret about this? A rather infinite list, really. Despite appearances to the contrary, Rodney was self-aware enough to know that he wasn't exactly the most in-demand guy as a friend or a lover. In fact, he was painfully aware of his own deficiencies. John's physical response to him was no doubt composed equally of friendship and crossed wires due to the adrenalin surging after today's battle, and the sleep deprivation preceding it. Sure, he cared about Rodney, but there was no way he would view this as anything but a mistake; obviously he'd just engaged in some strange type of transference.

Even now, the wrongness of trying anything between them was being made clear: the silence had gone from long to painfully long, and was bordering on sheer freaking ridiculousness. Neither of them were good with feelings, let along talking about them, and that was not a winning combination.

Someone needed to step up. Since the odds of John being the one to do so were close enough to zero to be its equivalent, Rodney realized with a sinking feeling that it was going to have to be him. He sighed into John's shoulder and moved a little. John must have read it correctly as a signal that it was okay to move, because he took the opportunity to roll off next to Rodney onto his stomach, face buried in a pillow.

Fuck, Rodney thought, and managed to rasp, "I--"

"Yeah," John said into the pillow. "You don't need to--"

"Right," Rodney said. "I'm. Sorry."

"Alright," John said, finally turning to look at Rodney, only he didn't look at him really, just looked at a place somewhere over Rodney's shoulder, then levered himself up to sit, tugging the rumpled sheet to partly cover himself. "So I'll--" John said, scrubbing at his face a little.

"Right," Rodney said. "We're--" He hoped John didn't hear the catch in his voice. God, he was bad at this kind of thing.

"We're good," John said to the bed, then pulled on his boxers and leaned over, fumbled around on the floor for the rest of his discarded clothes.

Rodney coughed into his hand, then swallowed. "Right," Rodney said, a cold feeling spiraling down his throat and settling in his stomach. He grabbed his own boxers and pulled them on, sat shakily on the side of the bed.

John stood and pulled on his pants and then his t-shirt, which he had to retrieve from across the room. Rodney remembered him throwing it, and figured John remembered that, too, by the clenching in his jaw.

At the door, John turned and looked back at Rodney, but if he had intended to say anything, he seemed to think better of it. He slipped out and the door closed softly behind him, leaving Rodney alone with sheets still warm from John's body.

They didn't talk about it the next day. John didn't look at Rodney, probably couldn't bear to look, and Rodney made himself scarce in his lab.

They didn't talk about it the next day either, or the day after that. Rodney's stomach felt funny and he was hyper-aware of John's every move, brain flashing at inappropriate times to the taste of his skin, the wet heat of his mouth, the strength of his muscled body. He knew it was up to him to try to get them to talk about it, because John just didn't, couldn't, he knew that. But Rodney didn't know what to say, didn't even know what he wanted, had no clue what Sheppard was really thinking. It was like an equation without a value for any of its variables: it could spin in an infinite number of directions.

Rodney hadn't felt this way about anyone, ever, and he didn't know what it meant. It was unpleasant. His stomach hurt and he had a headache and he blew three experimental sequences in a row before giving up. It was messy and fucked-up, and Sheppard was impossible to read.

John was acting weird -- avoiding being alone with Rodney, not making fun of Rodney, not slouching around in his peripheral vision -- just as Rodney had anticipated and feared. It was pretty clear that John regretted what had happened, and pretty probable that he despised Rodney some now. As maybe he should, because Rodney should have known better. John had just escaped almost-certain death, so it was basically like taking advantage on Rodney's part.

A coil of panic wound tighter and tighter inside him, because Atlantis with this distant, non-mocking version of John -- no.

Rodney decided to be strong and brave and all the things he usually wasn't. Three days was enough time for this weirdness between them to last. He was going to talk to John, he really was going to do it. He'd done it before, come into John's quarters and talked about stuff, even though those talks were always halting and monosyllabic. Still. They'd usually managed to get the point across to each other.

But then John had to go to some planet for a day and play bus driver, so Rodney relaxed a little and figured he'd talk to him when he got back, use the day to figure out what to say. Not that talking was necessarily going to do any good, because, well, talking. But still, a chance for them to maybe, possibly, hopefully, get things back to where they were, before, hopefully get Rodney's stomach to uncoil. And maybe with time, Rodney could figure out what the hell he was feeling, what the hell was going on.

That night, John didn't show up in the mess hall for dinner. By late evening, when John failed to respond to repeated hails, Woolsey authorized a search. It turned out, John had radioed in and let Chuck know that he was done with the ferrying job and was going to have a swim before heading back to Atlantis.

Sure enough, they found the still-warm energy signature from the missing puddlejumper in a picturesque spot next to a lake in the mountains of Bathenia, right where John had indicated he was swimming. Rodney could imagine John here perfectly; the lake was in a bowl between high snow-capped mountains, surrounded by wildflowers, and the water was pleasantly cool.

Rodney couldn't breathe at all for hours, until they determined definitively that John's body wasn't in the lake. Rodney still had nightmares about drowning, and it took him a while to get over the nausea induced by imagining John fighting to stay afloat, then gradually giving in to the cold, the final rush of frigid liquid.

Rodney headed up the investigation team, of course. None of the Bathenians had seen or heard anything; the site John disappeared from was a hundred miles from any human habitation. They searched a two hundred square mile area for evidence, interviewed all the people at the small human settlements nearest to the lake, searched frantically for traces of John's subcutaneous transmitter's signal. There was nothing: no evidence, no information.

There were readings which could indicate, possibly, that another spacecraft of some kind had been in the area sometime in the last month. The Bathenians knew nothing about any such craft; the Atlanteans were the only space-faring race, other than the Wraith, that had ever visited their planet to their knowledge.

The trace emissions picked up in the investigation were similar to those of the puddlejumper, and it was completely possible that they were just remnants from John's and the rescue teams' landings there. But just in case, Rodney created a computer model to break down the component chemicals in the emissions to track their fuel source and any other information they could provide. The only thing definitive that his weeks of non-stop work revealed was that if there had been another ship, it wasn't Wraith, something that loosened the hard knot inside his chest just slightly. Other than that, if there had been another ship or ships, it ran on a generic type of fuel.

Rodney would never have given up, would have run every test a third time, a fourth, infinite times. He would have stayed by that lake or in his lab running down clues forever, but after a solid month, Woolsey made his ultimatum.

Rodney wouldn't have cared about that, except for one thing: he knew exactly what John would want him to do, and damnit, John would be right.

He didn't stop, he wouldn't ever stop searching, but he went back to helping the city and its people survive.

Rodney wakes up hours later to the small sounds of Amelia. He opens his eyes and she's staring right at him, eyes wide, still curled next to him under his outstretched arm. He glances at the clock next to the bed and can't believe it; she's made it all the way to morning without eating. She looks at him solemnly and he feels his chest constrict again, thinking about yesterday. "Will I always feel like this?" he asks quietly. "Because I'm not sure it's good for a person, having their heart ripped out on a regular basis."

Amelia smiles at him tentatively, then smiles even bigger, cooing and batting at his face with her hands.

"Oh," Rodney says, flooded with a feeling he's beginning to recognize. "So I guess I'm doomed, then."

Amelia laughs, out-and-out laughs, and helpless, he laughs too.

After he's changed her and fed her, he looks around his quarters. Really looks. He's been too busy to move into larger quarters like everyone's been suggesting. Strike that -- it's clear to him now that he was resisting any sense of permanence about this arrangement.

But it's obvious he really needs to find something bigger. They really need to. There's wall-to-wall stuff in what's essentially one room, his and Amelia's all jumbled together. Soon she's going to need a room of her own, and a safe place to play while he works.

He takes Amelia with him later that day to explore options.

Taking a tour of possible accommodations, he's struck by something he's noticed before about Amelia, but not really paid close attention to: the city reacts to her a lot like it does to John. Doors open disturbingly quickly. In a couple of rooms, devices come on, or strange colored lights begin to glow. He's suddenly rooted in place by a thought so frightening it sends ice through his veins: he knows that the crawling and toddling stages she's going to go through next are the most dangerous ones for children, but the dangers of Atlantis for a baby with a (pretty obviously) strong ATA gene boggle the mind. She'll never be able to be out of his sight for even a second, or barring that, the sight of someone eminently trustworthy. As it is, the little child care operation that's sprung up to meet the Atlanteans' growing need is barely capable of caring competently for Amelia for more than an hour or two, in his considered judgment. Add in the dangers for a child with a strong natural manifestation of the gene, and it makes him fantasize about locking her up for the next eighteen to twenty years.

"Da!" Amelia gurgles, "Da, da, da!" She kicks her feet against him, rocking her body in the carry-sack with a delighted crow. She's big enough to face outwards in the carrier now, and that's what she likes best most of the time, unless she's exhausted or scared. She's keenly interested in everything around her, he thinks smugly, so of course she prefers facing out where she can see everything and everyone.

"What's got you so excited?" he asks her, "Hm?"

He's gotten a little more relaxed about the whole "da da" thing: he's done some reading and understands that this is a sound all babies make when they're starting to vocalize. It doesn't really mean anything; it's just a sound. Of course, she is precocious on the timing -- she's very young to be at even this early stage of vocalization.

She kicks him especially hard. He says, "Alright, alright, what's so--" and stops abruptly when he finally looks up. "Oh," he says. "Oh."

This is the fourth space they've looked at today. The others were fine, but didn't seem quite right. But this one -- this one takes his breath away. They're in a corner of one of the southeast towers near the sea. The room they're standing in, the living room he supposes, has windows covering a whole wall. Through them, there's a view down to the ocean, dashing itself in waves up on the edges of the city. He can see people walking on the sea-side promenade. Higher up, gulls circle in the crystal-blue air, and a puddlejumper rises slowly from the 'Port, then accelerates swiftly into flight. Amelia crows again, pointing at the jumper.

"Yeah," he says to her. "Flying. It's flying. Of course you like this room." And it hurts, so badly, but it's right, right that she should love it like John.

The quarters are perfect. The living area is large enough, but not so big it feels cold. There are three bedrooms, which probably is a little too much space, but they can use one as an office or a playroom during the rare times they are not at work or day care, the gym or the mess. There's a tiny kitchen area with some of the strange machines the Ancients apparently used for cooking, and there are two bathrooms.

It's a little further from the mess and the Gate Room than his current quarters, but it's actually closer to Science.

"So, I'm thinking it's a yes?" Rodney says. Amelia kicks and laughs as she watches the gulls soar on a sea-driven breeze and he nods. "Okay then," he says softly. "Okay."

Two weeks after they've successfully made the transition to the new quarters, Rodney's awakened in the middle of the night -- actually it's more like early morning -- by an urgent page. Obviously, that's nothing unusual, but it is somewhat unusual that it's one of his scientists. Usually they don't exactly fall all over themselves to initiate contact with him.

"Dr. McKay?" the young tech on night duty says hesitantly.

"Yes, yes, what is it?" Rodney growls, not bothering to hide his impatience.

"It's just. You left explicit orders to be woken up. I'm really sorry to bother you, but..."

Rodney rolls his eyes and tries to remember the kid's name. Was it Campbell, Collins, Connor, something like that? Anyway, it's irrelevant. "In what universe," Rodney breaks in, and the kid shuts up immediately. "In what universe have I ever given an order like that and not meant it? Am I in the habit of giving orders that don't have very good reasons behind them?"

"Uh." The kid's voice is shaky.

"Oh, for god's sake," Rodney says. "Just tell me what happened."

"Well, I was checking the reports for today, like I do every night, and the team, Team 3, I think?"

Rodney bites his lip to stop himself from yelling at the guy, because he knows from experience it will only make it take longer until he finally manages to spit out the information. But seriously, where are they getting their people now? He makes a mental note to check the guy's grad school credentials.

"They reported finding some people," the tech says quickly.

"Yes?" Rodney says, paying close attention suddenly.

"Some people, and it reminds me of the other time, when we found those survivors, the baby--"

"On my way," Rodney says, adrenalin kicking through his body like a firestorm. "Have the information ready. McKay out."

He radios Teyla and within minutes is depositing a sleepy Amelia into her arms. They'd made an agreement quite a while ago to help each other out, with Ronon as backup to that arrangement for both of them. Rodney's found to his surprise that he doesn't mind taking care of Torren occasionally; it's weirdly fun to watch Amelia interacting with him. They're definitely two of the most beautiful children he's ever seen, and both of them are of course highly intelligent, each in their own way.

Teyla takes a look at his face and raises an eloquent eyebrow. He says, trying desperately to keep his hopes tamped down, "I don't know. Maybe something. Probably not," and she nods.

"I'll call when I know more, or you call me if I forget. I don't want it to be too long until she sees me again," Rodney says, nodding at Amelia, who's snuggled comfortably into Teyla's arms. He thinks Amelia trusts him again as much as she used to, but he's not taking any chances.

The tech shoves a stack of printouts into Rodney's arms when he comes running into the lab. He only needs to read for a few seconds before he's on his way to the infirmary.

Keller nods at him as he jogs in. "I was just going to call you," she says. "They're over there." She leads him to the curtained-off area of the infirmary that they use as an improvised morgue, and consults a pad. "Two young females of childbearing age, one middle-aged male. All died within the forty-eight hour period before Team 3 found them."

"Any similarities?" Rodney asks as they enter the cordoned-off area, trying to keep the hope out of his voice, but probably failing miserably, given the look of sympathy in Keller's eyes.

She touches his arm and nods. "Yes," she says. "It's tentative for now of course, until I get the verified results, but, yes, the situation is strikingly similar to Amelia's family's."

Rodney's knees feel a little weak, and her hand on his arm instantly moves under his elbow and becomes an arm to lean on, perhaps some secret skill taught in medical school. "Sorry," he says after a moment.

She shakes her head. "Nothing to be sorry for. But Rodney, I don't think there are any more clues here than before. I mean, there could be, but I've done preliminary tests and everything is generic: clothes, food in their stomachs, even the influenza that probably killed them. We may not learn anything at all from this. And of course, it could be coincidence."

"But it's not," Rodney says.

"Even so," Keller says softly. "Even if it's not, the odds against John--Well." She looks at the floor.

"I know," Rodney says. "But I just think -- I think he's out there." Saying it like that, out loud to someone else, makes Rodney realize how much he believes it. It may be denial and wishful thinking, but he knows he won't really believe John is dead until he sees his body. And even then, some part of him wonders whether he'd leave it at that. He doesn't know how or why John's come to mean what he does to him, but he's pretty much come to terms with one basic fact: for whatever reason, he's willing to do almost anything to get him back. He'll worry later about what that says about him.

Three days later, Rodney's no closer to determining the link between the people they found and John. The data doesn't form any kind of meaningful picture that he can discern. It's unbelievably frustrating. All the chemical analyses of the items found on the bodies are just as devoid of clues as the ones on Amelia's family had been: there is nothing on any of the bodies that links them to any specific planet by unique plants used to make their clothing, food in their stomachs, or culture-specific artifacts.

He glances over at Amelia where she's stirring a little in her portable crib; she's been sleeping soundly for a few hours. He gave in, or as he prefers to think of it, adopted the intelligent multitasking approach, two and a half days ago, and set it up here in the room he's turned into an office.

He's been working almost non-stop since the discovery of the bodies on MCX-149, either on Atlantis science department business or the search effort. Surprisingly, here at home is where he gets some of his best thinking done.

Amelia made it pretty darn clear early on that she doesn't mind how much Rodney works, so long as she can be in close proximity to him and he plays with her or reads to her occasionally. Though she happily spends a few hours a day in child care now, more than that turns her cranky and miserable. So setting up this office at home, as well as a corner area in the lab where she can hang out, has been a stroke of genius.

Rodney bends over his laptop, which displays a 3-D model of the picture he's had in his head for a very long time. Prior to their most recent discovery, it had showed three points. The first was the location of the Bathenian planet from which John was taken. The second was the planet which was the original home of Atlantis and the Athosians, from which Amelia's family was taken. The third was the planet on which Amelia and her dying mother and grandparents were found. In two dimensions, those coordinates form a triangle, with Bathenia and Athos as the base and MC1-047 as the apex.

He's added a dot for the coordinates of MCX-149, the planet where they found the most recent batch of bodies. It's not particularly near any of the other coordinate points, though it's closest to MC1-047. He sighs in frustration, because no matter how long he looks at it, no matter how he tweaks the data, it doesn't reveal what he'd hoped it would: some type of clue that will help them find John.

He's convinced these aren't coincidences, the disappearances and appearances of bodies in small groups in uninhabited areas. He's sure that whoever's doing this is purposely taking only people who are on their own or in tiny groups, in situations where there are no witnesses. And he suspects there's some order to the dumpings as well.

He'd been waiting so long for a fourth coordinate; he'd really believed that having one would help pinpoint an area, and by pinpointing an area, help locate the planet from which these events must be originating. He'd hoped -- had been almost sure -- that a fourth coordinate would enable his brain to determine some logic to the disappearances and appearances. But even if he postulates for the sake of argument that the four coordinates they know about are the only relevant ones, the area etched out by the four coordinates on his laptop is impossibly huge. It spans virtually the whole galaxy.

Amelia makes a sound and he sees that she's awake. She's got Blackhawk, her stuffed helicopter, in her hands, and is waving it in the air above her head, making little putt-putting noises. He can't help smiling, and realizes with a little pang that he's been doing a whole lot more of it recently. Blackhawk swoops and dives, and he glances out the windows that line the study: it's located along the same outside wall as the living room. The pinkish gulls that thrive on this planet swoop and dive in the sky, and he can see a puddlejumper departing for an early-morning mission. Everything here revolves around flight in a way, he muses. Sometimes it's easy to forget, but really, this whole place is premised on flying. Atlantis herself is just one giant helicopter in some ways, just like Blackhawk, albeit a highly sophisticated space going helicopter. It never stops making his heart beat a little faster when he thinks about it, the fact that their apartment, the towers, each building in the city, is actually part of a giant machine capable of flying between stars, propelled by a star drive. Atlantis, theoretically, could travel endlessly through the galaxy, never coming to a permanent resting place…

He freezes in place. Amelia's happy sounds fade to background noise, then virtually disappear, as his brain tentatively posits a hypothesis. He's almost afraid to put it into words, even in his own head. Could John's kidnappers be based, not on a planet, but on some type of roving vessel or world? It could explain the lack of reports and evidence after all this time, if it was a group which rarely touched down, or kept their existence hidden. It might also partly explain the link between the different points on his map, since if the kidnappers didn't have a home base, their travels wouldn't really have a pattern. So far, he can't think of anything that precludes the theory, and in fact some things support it better than others they've considered.

It's only a hypothesis, but he's suddenly struggling to breathe, has to lean his face into his hands for a moment to gather his wits. Is it possible he's been so stupid? Could he really have ignored the very thing that the gathered evidence, or more precisely the lack of evidence, actually does tell them? It couldn't be, could it?

"Keller," he says softly, keying his radio. "Keller."

"What is it, Rodney?" she asks, sounding sleepy.

"Regular people?" His hands are shaking and he grips the edge of his desk to get them to stop.

There's a pause. "Yes?"

"Regular people, they have things, you know, stuff from the planets they live on, in them? Bacteria, molecules of, I don't know, bugs, things from the soil?" His voice sounds tinny in his ear.

"Sure," she says. "There are always going to be things that are endemic to certain areas, things you find if you autopsy people. Parasites, things like that."

"The people we found, did they--" Rodney has to stop to breathe again.

"Well, sure, they had bacteria on their skin, some in their digestive tract, that kind of thing," she responds.

A vise seems to grip Rodney's chest. He keeps forgetting that hope is sometimes more painful than despair.

"But, hmm," she continues. "Actually, wait a minute, it was a little strange now that you mention it." She sounds like she's coming more fully awake. "I'm going to need to pull up my results. I was up all night. I was just grabbing a nap, so I'll have to get to the infirmary."

"Meet you there?" Rodney asks, already pulling on a shirt and grabbing Amelia's diaper bag.

"Ten minutes, infirmary lab," she responds.

He packs a little bag of Amelia's things; he figures he's going to be gone for a while.

When he walks in, Keller's already pulled up her results from the two different people-dumps. "Hmm, yes, you're onto something, Rodney. But not bacteria, parasites. Their levels of parasitic infection and evidence of past parasitic infections are definitely way low for this galaxy. In fact, they'd be low even for people living in modern cultures on Earth." Keller frowns, says low and tight, "Damnit, I should have noticed this."

After a moment, Rodney puts a hand awkwardly on her shoulder. "It's not something you'd look for," he attempts.

"I should be looking for everything," she says. Her voice is bitter, angry.

Rodney remembers Keller staying up with him, round the clock, when John first went missing, refusing to go get sleep. "You did," he says. "You did everything, everything anyone could ever be expected to do. And that's not something I ever say, so just suck it up."

She breathes out hard and rolls her eyes at him at the same time, and he figures maybe he's getting a little better at this dealing-with-people thing.

"So what does it mean?" he asks, trying not to hold his breath.

Keller frowns again. "It's too many people to be a coincidence. I think that, hmm, the best hypothesis is that they'd been living in an environment where there was no soil, no water running through soil. Where parasites existed, sure, because they can live anywhere, but where the regular Pegasus Galaxy dirt-borne parasites didn't, couldn't, because..." She trails off and frowns again. "What are you thinking, anyway, Rodney?"

"Whatever you did find, the amount of parasites that you did find, could those amounts be explained from contact with the soil just for the amount of time they were on those planets? That short of an amount of time? About forty-eight hours?"

"Yes," she says. "It was only the amount and type of thing you'd get from brief exposure, not long periods. Oh my god, what are you thinking, then, where do you think they--"

Rodney feels the certainty solidify in his gut. He has to stand up and pace, adrenalin making him jittery. "I think the people who dumped Amelia and all the others are not based on a planet at all. I think they live in space, only space, and then they dumped those people, for whatever reason. That would explain why they don't have any artifacts on them or clothing which has any distinct characteristics. If they were careful, they could just use generic stuff. And if my hypothesis is correct, which at this point I'm willing to certify is about ninety-five-percent probable, then--"

"Then that explains their lack of parasitic infection and the small amounts of bacteria and trace chemicals. They'd have been exposed only from those two days on the planet they were dumped on. Alright. So, so, next step," she says. "What is it?"

"Right," he says, trying to ignore the clenching of his stomach, the guilt rising up hard in him. How the fuck could he not have seen this? His hands shake and he feels dizzy, and he leans heavily on a counter. Right when Keller's starting to look concerned, Amelia cries -- he'd set her infant seat in a corner when he came in.

"Oh," he says. "Um, okay if I change her in here, feed her? I raced down here and--"

"Sure," she says, turning to her monitor and scrolling through data. "You need anything?"

"Just a corner of the room," he says, spreading out the portable plastic pad he carries in the diaper bag.

Keller raises an eyebrow at him and he scowls. "Well, you convinced me!" he says, lifting Amelia up and setting her down on the pad. "It took a while, but I checked those articles you referred me to about the relative germ content of various surfaces, and--"

Keller laughs out loud, startling him. "Never thought I'd see the day," she says. "Rodney McKay changing a baby's diaper on the floor. And I don't know which part of that is weirder." She holds up a hand when he opens his mouth. "It's true, though. Floors are more sanitary than kitchen counters. Well, depending on the floor, but you get the point."

Amelia fusses a little and Rodney turns to the task at hand. His insides feel all churned up, and he lets himself settle into the mindlessness of this task. "Right away, ma'am," he says softly to Amelia. He takes extra care to be gentle, though his hands are shaking a little. "We'll have you fixed up in no time," he says. She smiles at him and his hands steady a little.

When he's got her dressed again, he grabs the bottle he stuck in the diaper bag before they left and sits down in a chair in the corner. He feels like he's been hit by a truck, and he worries he's communicating some of that to Amelia; she's staring at him with big eyes while she gulps hungrily. "It's okay," he says softly. "Just a little excitement." She closes her eyes then, her lashes curling softly on the dewy skin of her face.

He fights the hope which struggles for purchase; he knows it only makes things worse and clouds his judgment. But oh, to finally, after so long, have a real working hypothesis.

When Amelia finishes, he sits her up on his lap while he thinks. On an impulse, he has Keller pull up his 3-D coordinate map, and they look at it while Amelia plays with her toys. Once in a while he jiggles her up and down in the way she loves, and her laughter is sharp and strong and beautiful.

"So the piece we're missing," Keller says after they stare at the diagram for a while, "is why these locations? You're trying to figure out -- what?"

"How to predict it. Either end of it," Rodney says softly. "Either where they're picking people up next, or where they're dumping people. Because that way, we can catch them."

Keller nods and sits back in her chair, eyes focused on the diagram. It's even more depressing than it was before a fourth coordinate was added. The shape etched out by the coordinates is bigger than it was before; a huge rectangle, really long on two sides, quite short relatively speaking on the other two. It looks like the face of a box of fireplace matches, or a ruler -- an elongated rectangle, essentially. A rectangle measured in light years.

"So, the red dots are where they've taken people from," Keller says after a few minutes.

"Yes, yes," Rodney says, jiggling Amelia, who's swooping Dragon through the air on his lap. "Our old planet and Bathenia, where John was taken..."

"And the blue dots are where the two people-dumps were," Keller continues.

"Let me know when you tell me something I don't already know," Rodney snaps, but his heart isn't really in it. "And now the area in question is greater by a factor of more than I care to calculate."

Keller's apparently unaffected by his sarcasm, and he supposes by now she's probably used to it. "True," she says. "But the two planets people were dumped on are actually pretty close, or, well, they're at the same end of the galaxy."

"'Same end of the galaxy,'" Rodney says sarcastically. "Because that narrows it down so much."

On his lap, Amelia squawks in delight. He glances down at her. She has Dragon in one hand and Blackhawk in the other. She's making growly sounds, part of a game they've played about a million times. "Monster time, huh?" he asks, and she grins at him. "Yeah, well, in this galaxy the monsters are real," he quips, then stills.

"Fuck," he says, head snapping up so he can see the display on the monitor. "The monsters. Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck."

Keller says, "Rodney!"

Amelia gurgles and he stares down at her. "I mean, oh god. Oh, I didn't say that, fortunately you're too young to know, but that's a bad word. A bad, bad word, but oh my god, the monsters. The fourth coordinate. Maybe it's not, it's not where, but where."

Fortunately Amelia seems unperturbed by his incoherence, not to mention the swearing, but she seems to catch his mood and grabs his hand with her fist, gurgling happily. "Oh my god," he says, lifting her up and cradling her to his chest, holding onto her, wrapping her safe in his arms and feeling her young heart beating strong and sure against his body. "Oh my god. Don't get excited, though, it's probably not, but what if it is, oh my god."

A little cough reminds him that Keller's in the room with them, and he feels heat flood his face. "Yes, well," he says, voice catching a little, looking at Keller, "You totally get partial credit."

"That would be more meaningful to me if I knew what the credit was for," Keller says, deadpan.

"Yes, and we need to check, because I might be remembering wrong." Rodney pushes to his feet, holding Amelia with one arm, and starts pacing. "Pull up the records we have, access the database, pull up all Wraith deployments for," he snaps his fingers, thinking, "for the times matching the discoveries of the people-dumps. We need everything on the location of the main Wraith fleet when Amelia was found, and everything from around five days ago. No, make that everything from about two weeks ago till now."

He's got a fantastic memory to go along with his intellect, but he's not sure that he's remembering right; it's not exactly like he's got maps of Wraith deployments in handily-marked catalog form in his brain.

Keller's been working steadily, and when he looks at the computer display, he can see that she's already anticipated Rodney's next request. On the screen in front of her, the four-coordinate map is superimposed over a display of Wraith deployments during the times the people-dumps occurred. Each dump is very, very close to the then-locations of the Wraith fleet.

"Oh my god," Keller says. "Oh my god."

Rodney sits down hard in a chair and Amelia laughs, probably thinking he's doing it on purpose for her benefit. "Oh god," he says.

"They're dumping the people near the Wraith. The closest locations to the Wraith fleet at the time," Keller breathes. "But why?"

Rodney swallows and hugs Amelia tight to him. "The question isn't why," he says, probably the only time in his life he's uttered that particular sentence. "The question is, where next?" Even he can hear the edge of determination in his voice.

"How could I have missed this?" Keller asks, not for the first time.

"Tell me about it," Rodney says, guilt and fear making his voice sound rough to his ears. "It was right there, right in front of me." He looks at the printouts lying in front of him on the conference room table.

"Of us," Keller adds. "In front of us."

"Looking back will not do anything to improve the situation. And besides," Woolsey says, pushing his glasses further up on his nose, "until three days ago there was no pattern whatsoever that would indicate anything particular about the locations the bodies have been found on. We had only one site. Even now, it's just a guess. Two instances are not enough to really be solid evidence of anything."

"True," Rodney says. "But taken together with everything else--"

"They form a basis on which to do some preliminary scouting," Woolsey says.

"Preliminary scouting!" Rodney yells.

"Yes," Woolsey replies softly. "Because it really doesn't make any sense. Why just these people, why these particular people? Even if your hypothesis is true, and," he holds up a quelling hand, "I grant you that it is compelling in many ways, we still have no idea whether it's true, or who's involved. But as I said, I'm willing to send out some teams to make inquiries, and use our long-range scanners to keep an eye out."

"So let me get this straight," Lorne breaks in. He's just arrived, and has been looking back and forth between the three of them, obviously impatient to find out what the hell is going on. "I got here late, so I'm catching up. You're saying-- "

"I'm saying," Rodney blurts, suddenly tired of talking, more tired of talking than he ever thought possible, "that the people are being dumped on planets near the latest known positions of the Wraith for that particular time. For whatever reason, those people were put on planets -- either uninhabited planets or in locations far away from habitation -- without food or water, as close to the latest location of the Wraith as possible."

Lorne gets a grim expression on his face that Rodney associates with military people for whom a military operation has become personal. "So we can figure out where they're going to dump people next," he says, voice low and hard. "And we can catch them and get the Colonel back, if he's alive. And we can stop them from ever doing it again."

Rodney nods at Lorne across the table, and suspects he looks just as grim. "Exactly." He doesn't need to add the words out loud, but they're there between them just the same: and make them pay.

Larrin, aka the space hussy who kidnapped Sheppard two years ago, tosses her hair and puts her hands on her hips. "No idea," she snaps. "I told you when you were first looking for him I don't want Sheppard. If I had wanted him, I would have kept him." She briefly caresses the black leather of her skin-tight corset and Rodney fights an inappropriate urge to launch himself through the view screen and throttle her.

She looks dreamy for a moment. "He did look really good tied up," she says almost wistfully. Rodney bites his lip to keep from interrupting and ruining the slight chance of getting information.

"But no," she adds, suddenly businesslike. "Ultimately, he was just too … nice," she says.

Rodney's running on the thin edge of complete exhaustion. The last five days have been a blur of effort. He's supervised the rerouting of as much power as possible to the long-range scanners. He's personally analyzing all scan data, looking for information on the location of the Wraith fleet and anything that seems out of place in the vicinity. He figures Atlantis would have heard about any ships that went around brazenly kidnapping people, so he's assuming that any ship or ships are cloaked, and careful to cover their tracks. On that assumption, he's written programs to automatically analyze areas near Wraith territory for suspect energy signatures or anomalies which might be consistent with a ship or ships under cloak.

"Look, Xena," Rodney says, patience snapping. "What we want to know is, have you heard anything, do you know anything, about other people living in spacecraft? People who raid or take people, but don't live on a planet."

Larrin focuses her gaze on Rodney. "What makes you think I would know anything? And why the hell would I tell you if I did?"

"Because," Rodney says softly, "if we find out you knew something and didn't tell us, we will find you. We will hunt you down, and I will personally ensure that every bit of technology you possess never--"

"What Dr. McKay means to say," Teyla says, breaking in, "is that we would be extremely grateful to you for any information you provided. Gratitude which we would express in material form."

Larrin's eyes grow hungry. "Weapons?"

"Perhaps," Teyla says lightly. "Or provisions. We have heard rumors that your people have suffered much deprivation recently."

"My people are fine," Larrin says, pulling herself up to her full height.

"We'll tell people it's you," Rodney says, and even he can hear the uncharacteristic undertone of viciousness in his voice. "We'll tell them that you're the ones stealing people, leaving them to die on planets near the Wraith."

Larrin narrows her eyes at Rodney. "Well damn, would you look at that. The boyfriend found his balls."

"I'm not – " Rodney starts, then stops himself. "Whatever. We want anything you know or even suspect." He takes a moment to wonder about himself; when did he become a guy who makes threats people actually are worried by?

"Well," Larrin says. "I see your point." She narrows her eyes and looks directly at Woolsey. "Gratitude which will be expressed in material form?"

He nods. "Within the constraints I have to operate under."

She narrows her eyes, but it looks like she's thinking. Underneath the bluster and leather, Rodney reflects briefly, she's still a leader of her people. She seems to come to a decision, pressing her lips together and nodding. "I don't know who it is, but I know of a remote possibility."

Chills run up Rodney's back. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but it feels like they're close. Hang on, John he thinks, just a little longer, then kicks himself mentally. Then kicks himself again, because he doesn't believe in jinxes either. He has to focus on reality, not wishes and superstitious nonsense.

Teyla smiles at Larrin. It looks warm, but Rodney knows better. "Explain please," Teyla says softly. "Now." The tone of command underlying her quiet words is unmistakable.

Larrin focuses on Teyla now and she licks her lips. "Now you," Larrin says. "You I'd love to have -- entertain me for a while."

Teyla stares at her stonily, and Larrin swallows. "Fine," she says. "Be that way. My chief of science was an interesting person," Larrin continues, and Rodney's about to protest her change in subject when Teyla makes the signal from the field for silence, a quick cutting gesture, in Rodney's direction.

"He -- well, let me put it this way," Larrin says. "He really enjoyed the science of genetics. Because of our limited population, we have quite a tradition of sophisticated knowledge in this area. Let's just say that he got a little enthusiastic about his research." She frowns. "He was a real do-gooder, always wanting to help humanity. I needed him to focus on the needs of our people, the Travelers, and he wouldn't do it, kept blathering on about biology and destiny."

"You speak of him in the past tense," Teyla says, leaning toward the screen intently. "What connection might he have with these disappearances?"

Larrin laughs. "Well, I have no idea whether it's him. Last I saw him, I'd exiled him from our fleet, given him a runty little ship and enough fuel for a couple of weeks. I let him take whoever wanted to go with him, I figured they'd last a few days before they got killed by the local people somewhere who didn't want good done to them."

"And?" Teyla prompts.

"And a couple of weeks ago, some people we, hmm, trade with said they'd heard of a small fleet with invisible ships taking people who wander away from their villages. We hear all kinds of rumors all the time, but the thing that made me wonder about this one was the report that someone had seen a man with one arm and white hair, in the forest near where the people were taken. Bucklin has one arm." She grimaces, and Rodney wonders briefly about the story behind that.

"Where was this, where were they taking people from?" Rodney asks. He can hear the urgency in his own voice; it's impossible to disguise his interest in obtaining another coordinate.

"I'll give you the coordinates," Larrin says. "And all the information I have. Which isn't much; I've told you everything I know."

"About this Bucklin?" Teyla asks.

"Yes. Well, he's a true believer in protecting all of humanity from the Wraith," Larrin says. "But he's not very concerned about the welfare of individuals." She frowns. "If he's the one who took Sheppard, Sheppard won't like him much."

"Sheppard wouldn't like anyone who kidnapped him," Rodney snaps.

"You think?" Larrin purrs. "He liked me well enough." Her smirk makes Rodney want to come through the screen, and he can feel Teyla next to him tense, then take a deep breath as if to prevent herself from saying anything.

"Send us the information," Teyla says, in the same stony voice as before. "Do it now."

"Yes, ma'am," Larrin says sultrily. "Contrary to what you may think, I wouldn't actually want Sheppard harmed, at least not for the sake of humankind. I'll give you everything I've got. And for that matter," she says, dropping the sultry pose and hardening her expression, "I'm going to give you whatever I can to help you find that nut job. I don't know if he took Sheppard, but he's giving space-livers a bad name. I'm signing off. Look for the information immediately."

Larrin's information doesn't really help them at all, other than confirming that maybe there's a rogue element roaming around taking people for some unknown purpose. According to Larrin's people, Bucklin has a worrying combination of scientific background and military tactical training; he's also known to be very persuasive and charismatic, but obsessed with genetic improvement of their space-faring race and humanity as a whole. The last experiments he ran involved people who weren't informed of the manipulation of their genetic structure until it was too late.

"So basically," Rodney says, at the meeting called after they've analyzed all the data, "we're talking a genius charismatic psychotic scientist." No one around the conference table says anything.

"With technology. Ships. Weapons and cloaks," Ronon says. "Travelers-type weapons. Like my gun. But bigger."

"This may have nothing to do with John," Teyla puts in softly.

Woolsey nods. "Alright, I've made my decision." He sighs. "Our resources are so depleted now, we can hardly afford to go around randomly searching for a threat we don't even know with certainty exists." He holds up a peremptory hand in Rodney's direction. "That's not to say we won't do anything. I'll authorize the continued use of long-range scanners to look for evidence, and anything else which doesn't take too much power."

Lorne clears his throat.

"And yes, of course I'll approve Major Lorne drawing up contingency plans for a rescue operation, one plan assuming we'll have use of the Daedalus, and one which assumes we won't, though that scenario, I have to warn you, I'm highly unlikely to approve." Woolsey looks at his hands. "I think I can justify, barely, allowing Ms. Emmagen's and Mr. Dex's plan to scout and interview, when time allows. One puddlejumper, only when there are no other more urgent items to attend to. And that's it."

Rodney bites the inside of his mouth hard to stop himself from protesting, insisting on the plan he wanted, in which Atlantis puts all its resources to this task.

Woolsey sighs. "I wish I could do more, but I can't. Our fate, even the fate of Earth, may rest on us putting our resources where they're most important. I am sure that Colonel Sheppard would be the first to say that."

Ronon, surprisingly, speaks, looking at Woolsey. "Your job is hard. You're doing good."

"Well," Woolsey says, flushing a little and looking down. "I. Thank you. I know I don't always -- well." He lifts his eyes and looks around the table. "Let's get to it, then."

Rodney picks up Amelia from child care later feeling strangely at loose ends. He's done everything he can for the moment; now it's up to the computer programs he's written, the scanners, and the people of Atlantis, who he knows will, despite orders, gather intelligence wherever they go.

And it's up to him to wait.

Though he tries to push it away, hope has managed to bully its way into him, and there's a nonstop litany in his head of we might find him, no he's dead, he might not be, he isn't dead I know it, we might find him, we have to find him.

He feels restless, irritable, not a good state to be in when taking care of a baby. But it's Amelia, so her open smile when she sees him makes his own mouth reluctantly curve up. She reaches out her arms to him and he pulls her against him. "She's got a fresh diaper, and she just ate," Kevin says.

"Da, da, da!" Amelia babbles, rocking back and forth and pushing up in his arms with her strong legs. Her hand bats his cheek. "Da!"

"Okay," he says. "Music?"

She grins and bounces more. "Mm Mm!"

It's not a bad plan; they're both a little keyed up for the late hour, and it will help both of them relax.

She sits on his lap for a long time, bouncing in time to the Ancient piano as he runs through some of her favorites. Her inordinate fondness for country beats simultaneously makes him smile and irritates him. She giggles as he sings along to Ring of Fire, sinking his voice down into a low register in pseudo-imitation of Johnny Cash. He'll never sing in front of anyone else, but he has to admit it's sort of freeing to do it with her.

Eventually she grows quieter, so he sets her down gently in her infant carrier, the one she's going to grow out of soon, and puts Blackhawk and Dragon into her hands. She looks up at him with big eyes and he leans down and kisses her soft cheek, kisses the top of her head. "Goodnight," he says softly.

But she stays awake a long time, staring at him with dark hazel eyes as he plays. When he lets the music carry him, when feelings rise up in him and turn the music into longing, mixing John's music with his, she's still awake. She says, softly, "Da. Da."

Late at night, Bach and Cash melding together under Rodney's fingers, her face often takes on a look -- a look he can't describe. He laughs at himself, but sometimes it seems like she's listening to something else, like she's somewhere else completely, somewhere different than this room in Atlantis. She looks miles away right now, even with her eyes open. "Da," she says again, softly, sweetly, cuddling Blackhawk more tightly to her. "Da."

Inexplicably, chills run up Rodney's spine.

It's very late when he finishes and carries her back to their apartment and lies down in his bed alone, like every night. Maybe tomorrow, he thinks, right before he goes to sleep. Maybe tomorrow.

Two weeks later, they're no closer to finding Bucklin's mystery ship, or group of ships, despite running constant scans of the section of space nearest the Wraith fleet. The first week, they found a suspicious energy signature, and sure enough, there was a small ship under cloak hovering outside the atmosphere of a minor planet. They interviewed the grungy-looking captain over video screen, simultaneously preparing a puddlejumper to visit the ship in person if necessary. It turned out to be a small-time criminal operation; the ship ran a little black market operation in drugs, both recreational and medicinal.

The second ship they'd found was similarly a dead end; this time, a religious cult with four ships in a mini-fleet. Though the Atlanteans winced at the conditions on the ships -- the religion valued children above all else, so very young girls got pregnant, and there were babies everywhere -- they obviously had nothing to do with abducting people.

Rodney's been through the cycle of hope with each of those findings, and he's burned out on it; it's beginning to look like the whole thing is just rumor.

He has Amelia strapped to his body for one of their almost-daily walks next to the sea before dinner -- babies need fresh air and sunlight to develop properly -- when Woolsey's voice snaps suddenly in his ear, Teyla's voice layered on top.

"On my way, on my way. Don't worry," he says to Amelia, who loves their walks. "It'll be another red herring. We'll be on the promenade again in a few minutes. Seagulls? You want to see seagulls?"

She bounces in her wrapping, kicking out happily with her legs. She loves watching the gulls as they soar around Atlantis's spires, loves the wind off the sea.

Rodney immediately senses the tension in the air when they jog into the Gate Room. Amelia must feel it, too, because she stiffens against his body in her carrier, legs going rigid.

"We had multiple pings off the scanners for cloaking signatures, centered in Sector 16 very near the Wraith fleet," Woolsey tells him quickly. "There are at least ten ships, multiple life signs in each of them. Their commander's just come on-screen. It's Bucklin." On the view screen, a silver-haired man in a uniform, one sleeve hanging empty, stands stiff-backed, staring intently at Woolsey.

"As I've said," Bucklin says on the screen, "we don't take unwilling people, and I've never heard of your Colonel Sheppard." He shakes his head. "I'm very sorry, of course. We'll keep an ear out." He smiles.

Amelia stiffens even more against Rodney's body; he can feel tension radiating from her even through the carrier. She's holding her arms rigidly out from her sides now, hands balled into tiny fists, and it feels like she's holding her breath.

Out of Bucklin's sight, Teyla is looking at a computer display while simultaneously talking on her headset. Ronon is suiting up and strapping on weapons. Teyla whispers to Rodney, "Lorne has taken a pair of puddlejumpers with full complements of marines through the nearest Stargate, as a precaution. They should be close to Bucklin's ships by now."

Woolsey's still talking with Bucklin. "Ah, well, since you've been in the sectors near where there's been suspicious activity," Woolsey says, "we'd very much appreciate it if we could meet with you in person, ask you a few questions."

"Oh, I do apologize," Bucklin says. "That simply won't be possible, I'm afraid. We have pressing business and really can't spare the time right now."

"We have people in the area," Woolsey says. "I'd appreciate it if you waited a moment for me to confer with my colleagues."

Bucklin mutes the sound and confers with someone outside the frame. "Fine," Bucklin says. "Two minutes is all I can spare. I'll wait that long. I'm also prepared to send you a complete set of ship manifests with lists of all personnel and passengers, to ease your minds."

"Yes, that would be excellent," Woolsey says, then cuts the sound.

"Those lists won't mean anything," Rodney huffs.

"Buying time," Woolsey snaps, turning to the gathered staff. Lorne is on speaker and reports that he's near the location of Bucklin's ships.

"We could do it, sir," Lorne says. "We could raid any one of those ships, get the Colonel if he's there."

Woolsey's shaking his head. "We can't just raid a ship, completely unprovoked, with no evidence. And there would be bound to be casualties, going in like that. What would we do, search every ship? We'd need a huge force for that."

Against Rodney's body, Amelia makes a choking sound and yells, "Da! Da!" Her stiff arms flail in the air, then reach as if for a person, reach forward into the air. Teyla turns and gives Amelia a searching look, just as Rodney's heart flutters inexplicably. He reaches to the knot of the carry-sack and begins to unwind her.

"How many ships are you showing now?" Woolsey asks Lorne.

"I've got fifteen, sir. A few of them must not have shown up on the long-range scans. A couple of them look like they're carrying major firepower."

Woolsey shakes his head. "Damnit."

Amelia, now loose in Rodney's arms, goes slack and relaxed and her eyes open wide. "Da," she says, twisting her body around and reaching out her arms, not toward Rodney, but around so she's reaching toward the view screen. "Da, da, da," she sings, in the special voice she uses at night, when they're alone with the Ancient piano and the music Rodney plays only when alone.

Chills run up Rodney's spine.

Something tight and certain clutches in his chest. He grips the edge of the table and draws in a harsh breath. "Don't let him get away," he says low to Woolsey. "There's something--"

Woolsey must hear something in Rodney's voice, because he turns and gives Rodney a quick measuring look, eyebrow raised. "I can't attack just based on suspicion," he says softly. "And I don't have anything to attack that fleet with anyway. The Daedalus is weeks away."

Amelia does it again, reaching toward the view screen, saying "Da, da!" in a sweet clear voice.

Rodney looks into her face. "What are you trying to say?" Rodney whispers.

She bounces in his arms, reaching for the screen, crooning.

The chills run back down Rodney's spine, then up again, pooling in the back of his neck. His voice sounds low and urgent even to his own ears. "Don't let them leave. They'll kill him, dump the body, hide the evidence. We'll have gone through all of this for nothing; he's on one of those ships, he's in that fleet."

"How can you be sure?" Woolsey asks quietly.

Amelia crows, "Da! Da!"

"She -- I know it sounds insane, but I think she knows somehow, I think she knows," Rodney says, cringing at the words even as they come out, because, wow. "Have Lorne's team check for readings, the subcutaneous transmitter, the puddlejumper, anything that has Ancient signatures."

"Of course they're already doing that," Woolsey says.

"Have them send me the raw data right now," Rodney says. "And," he snaps his fingers, "and I need to be there, maybe I can pull some information out of the general readings if I'm closer."

Woolsey darts a quick glance down at Amelia, then looks at Rodney with measuring eyes. "How sure are you?" he asks.

Rodney swallows, feels Amelia's body, uncannily stiff and now completely still against him. "Sure enough," he says, hating the pleading he hears under the surface calm of his voice.

Woolsey presses his lips together and looks back at the screen. "Goodbye, gentlemen, ladies," Bucklin says, and Rodney thinks, no, not now, not after all of this, not like this."

"Wait!" Woolsey says to Bucklin in a commanding tone. "We have some concerns I really must insist on speaking with you about."

Bucklin raises his eyebrows, but doesn't cut the communication, and doesn't order his fleet to go. Rodney's grateful; it feels like even those few precious seconds could make a difference.

And they do: Lorne's voice crackles over the radio, but not before Woolsey gives the signal to mute the sound on the view screen transmission. "I'm getting a reading that matches the signature of the subcutaneous transmitters! It's coming from one of the less-armed ships, a medium sized freighter. It's garbled, I can't be sure, but it's on the same frequency as--"

Rodney turns to Teyla and Ronon, holding Amelia out. "I've got to go there. One of you? Please?"

Ronon and Teyla look at each other, engaging in silent communication. After a few seconds Teyla holds out her arms and says to Ronon, "Fine. But if you don't bring Rodney back--"

"I won't be coming back without him," Ronon says, leaning forward and kissing Amelia on her forehead. She reaches out and grabs for the mourning-beads in his hair and he grins at her while she babbles at him. Ronon turns to Teyla. "I owe you. Next time I'll take care of the babies, and you'll go fight."

Teyla nods and pulls Amelia tighter in her arms.

"Let's go," Ronon says.

"Thank you," Rodney murmurs to Teyla, knowing how incredibly difficult it must be for her to stay here when they may be about to find John, or at least those who took him. He looks at Amelia and is suddenly torn. She's comfortable with Teyla, but for him to leave... Still, if they don't find John, he'll always wonder whether his abilities would have made the difference. He kisses her baby-soft cheek and blinks hard. He whispers, "I'll be back," and she makes kissy sounds at him.

"Go find him," Teyla says. "Go find him and bring him home."

Woolsey has his lips pressed together and is watching them, then speaks, enunciating carefully. "If you can pinpoint a location, if you can do it without endangering civilians, if you can do it without engaging the fleet as a whole. Otherwise, no. Check in every five minutes. I'll stall him as long as I can. Go."

As they sprint down the halls to a waiting jumper, Rodney hears Teyla radio Lorne and begin planning refinements to one of the operations they'd sketched out together ahead of time.

Woolsey has stalled as long as he can, and Bucklin's fleet is turning tail and heading out. Their cloaking technology is sophisticated; if Rodney didn't know there were a number of large ships in this sector of space, he'd never guess it.

Rodney hunches over the readouts on Bucklin's fleet, willing his brain to sort information faster. The puddlejumper has just exited the nearby gate, so if there's a SCT signal to be seen, it ought to appear, given how much closer they are now. There's nothing, nothing, and then -- yes, there it is, what Lorne saw, a faint signature, appearing for a microsecond, then disappearing. Hurriedly scanning the records from the last few minutes, Rodney sees the same pattern: many minutes of only the emissions a freighter like this should be generating, then a microsecond burst of something heart-stoppingly similar to the frequency on which the SCT broadcasts.

"Got it," Rodney says to Woolsey and Lorne simultaneously. "It's on the blip in the middle of the formation. Which, hmm, could be another sign it's him."

Lorne's voice comes over the headset. "Sure could. Obviously they don't know about the SCT or they would have dug it out of him, but maybe they're afraid we'll try something, stuck the ship he's on in the middle of the formation. Looks like it's some type of freighter."

Rodney takes a second to give silent thanks for Lorne, who's talking like he's assuming this is Sheppard. Rodney's trying hard to tamp down his expectations, but his chest is hurting and his throat feels tight.

"They're going to go through a gate any minute," Ronon says. "We've got to go now or we lose them."

"Right," Lorne says. "Teyla?"

There's a pause, then Teyla's voice comes on. "It's a go. Lorne, your people execute the diversion; Ronon will go in with the elite team."

Rodney shakes his head. "I'm going, too. That ship is huge, and we need someone along who can follow a garbled signal trail. I'm not going to sit here on the jumper. No way."

Ronon doesn't even nod, but just throws Rodney a weapon. Of course Ronon would understand that Rodney can't sit here if there's a chance that's Sheppard on the ship.

It's like time is speeding up, because things are moving very quickly. The next thing Rodney knows, Lorne's two puddlejumpers are approaching the ships between Rodney's jumper and the freighter. The freighter is still cloaked, but emitting strong signals now which highlight its location.

The other jumpers are engaging in some amazing flying; Rodney watches as they buzz the outer rings of ships, suddenly decloaking, then re-cloaking before a firing solution can possibly be calculated.

They're gambling here, but Rodney thinks the odds are in their favor in this sense: Bucklin's fleet is fairly rag-tag, obviously pieced together from the dregs of spacecraft left in this galaxy. He doubts they have sophisticated scanners like the Atlanteans do, and though they clearly have weapons, they seem ponderous. Two of the larger battle ships have shields; the others don't, including the freighter.

At first there's no response to the jumpers, and Rodney uses the time to visually scan the freighter to determine which of their admittedly-bad plans will be the best to attempt. The ship is old and beaten-up looking, but it's easy to identify two sets of exterior doors into it, both near the back and bottom. Sure enough, though the doors are obviously meant to be operated from the inside, he can see the expected mechanisms on the outside of the ship for triggering the doors. Now if only--

"Gonna be able to do it?" Ronon asks. If Rodney hadn't known him for four years, he might not hear the unspoken words under the calm exterior: gotta do it now or never. Distantly, he can hear the sounds of the jumpers beginning to fire drones to distract the freighter from what's going to happen.

"Yes," Rodney says, though he has no idea whether he really can; he and Ronon both know they're going to try anything short of a pure suicide run. "I'm trying to figure out which one's for cargo, which for their shuttles -- they've got to have some type of smaller craft for getting back and forth if they stay in space all the time, even on a boat like this. The damn hull's putting out some kind of field, and I can't get a good enough picture to tell which is which."

Ronon nods. "Which is better?"

"I don't know," Rodney says, thinking furiously as he scans the ship in front of them. "One's probably for offloading cargo, and I doubt it's pressurized. So probably the smaller one -- there's a chance it has a small airlock that would accommodate this jumper. That'd prevent us from having to suit up."

"Hate fighting in a space suit," Ronon says dryly and Rodney throws him a quick glance over his shoulder.

"Okay, going in," Rodney says, reaching for the spacesuit behind him. "I hate these things."

"I got your back, McKay," Ronon says, and Rodney can feel everything else he's wanting to say, there unspoken.

"I know it," Rodney says.

"How long?" Ronon asks.

Rodney swallows. "Best case, once I'm at the mechanism, four minutes to get it open, a couple of minutes to get the jumper inside, another three minutes or so to reestablish atmosphere inside, though hopefully at that point I ought to be able to hook into the internal systems and it'll go faster. Not fast enough to surprise them, unless they're really distracted."

"We'll keep 'em real distracted while you're working. That's a promise," Ronon says.

The pilot, grim-looking, flies the jumper as close to the freighter as it can get. Ronon's coordinating with Lorne, and Rodney's vaguely aware that the other jumpers are firing drones, drawing attention away from what's happening near the freighter. Their cloak still seems to be functioning: so far, no one's firing on their jumper.

Rodney isn't kidding when he says he hates doing EVAs: he can feel the sweat pop out all over his body and his heart rate kick up just thinking about it. He focuses on the job he's got to accomplish and does some deep breathing. Before he knows it, he's hovering in space a few yards from the freighter's bay doors, pad and tool kit in his backpack, examining the mechanism on the outside of the freighter. He's attached to the jumper by a cord, and the jumper is hovering at the absolute minimum distance from the freighter; the pilot is totally silent on Rodney's headset, and Rodney can almost feel his concentration. Among other things, the pilot's trying to keep the open hatch towards the freighter as well as block any line-of-sight to Rodney from the other ships.

The freighter is so low-tech that it actually takes him a few seconds to figure out the best approach to getting the doors to open. There's always the C-4 that Ronon put in his pack, but he doesn't even really want to think about that at this point. It's carefully wrapped in insulation, but that does little to allay Rodney's fears. Hopefully it won't come to that; fortunately his years in Atlantis have reacquainted him with all different levels of tech and he's pretty sure he should be able to get the doors to unlock without ruining them.

"Sometime today," Ronon says, and Rodney has a brief memory of Sheppard saying that exact same thing more than once. He wonders if Ronon is doing it on purpose.

"Ha ha," he replies, then figures what the hell and, just for good luck, says, "Come on, baby, come to papa."

Ironically, it's the Phillip's head screwdriver that Rodney always carries which ends up doing the trick, but it's already way past his time estimate when the first mechanism finally unlocks. Now there's just the second one, and Rodney's facing a problem, because when it goes, if it goes, there's going to be a sudden depressurization inside, which is going to cause anything inside plus lots of air to rush at explosive force out the doors. He's hoping there's an airlock, in which case it'll be a relatively small volume of air only. If there's no airlock, the entire contents of the shuttle bay or whatever it is will explode outwards into space. Which is where Rodney is, hanging by a slender line from the jumper.

But it doesn't matter. He hasn't come this far to let anything get in the way of tracking what might be Sheppard's SCT. "Back the jumper off," Rodney says -- irrationally, whispers -- to Ronon over his headset. "I'm unclipping the line. You've got to get far enough away that when this blows, it won't disable the jumper."

Ronon makes a sound over the headset which Rodney doesn't know how to interpret, but just says, "Tie yourself onto something, McKay."

Rodney twists the screwdriver, unscrewing the last bolt on the door mechanism, and he holds on grimly after he clamps his line onto a bolt on the side of the freighter which looks sturdy.

He holds his breath and twists the bolt a fraction more. Nothing happens. "Shit!" he yells.

"McKay?" Ronon's voice over the headset, as close as he ever sounds to worried. "Running out of time up here. Don't look, but I think they've figured out the other jumpers are a diversion."

Arcs of drones light up the sky around Rodney, and he can hear Ronon and Lorne issuing orders over his headset, but he keeps himself relentlessly focused on one step at a time, each step leading in a line towards finding Sheppard.

"It won't open!" he yells over the headset, then kicks the door in frustration.

The door flies open, clipping him in the process and slamming his body back against the side of the freighter. It's enough force that he's sure his suit will breach, but somehow he's still breathing air afterwards.

"McKay?" Ronon yells.

"Yeah," Rodney pants, and his voice sounds weak to his own ears. "Okay. A little beat up, but breathing. You see it?"

"Yeah," Ronon says. "Stay where you are."

Rodney does, letting himself feel satisfaction for the moment's time it takes for the jumper to slide in the doors. Finally, a break in their favor: inside is an airlock just big enough for the small craft this society must use to travel between ships. It means they won't have to suit up, so long as they can get the doors closed and cycle air into the lock again.

Rodney waits until the jumper is fully in the bay, then wastes no time pulling himself inside hand over hand. He has to take a moment to pant for air when he feels the solid floor of the shuttle bay under his boots, and he wishes he could wipe the sweat out of his eyes. Instead, he sets immediately to work trying to get the doors to close. Hopefully his manual opening of the door from the outside hasn't broken the mechanism.

What looks like the console for the bay doors is just a few feet inside, and though he's battling pretty serious fatigue now, he doesn't let it stop him from assessing the situation. He's hampered by the thick gloves he's wearing, but he tries the easiest solution first. If he did his job right on the outside, the hinge mechanism and its controls haven't been affected at all.

When he pushes the button that he's fairly sure is for closing the doors, nothing happens. "Damnit," he swears under his breath.

"Easy, McKay," Ronon says in his headset, and Rodney doesn't waste time flinging back a retort, just tries the next most likely button. If he has to, he can dismantle this thing or hook his pad up to it and override whatever's got it jammed, but at this point every second is valuable.

Just when he thinks this button isn't going to work, either, there's a shudder, and thank goodness, thank goodness, the doors are shutting, slowly but surely.

When they're all the way closed, the lock begins pressurizing automatically, and within a few seconds Ronon's voice is on the radio. "Sensors show it's breathable," Ronon says. "Don't open the inner doors yet."

The jumper's hatch opens, and by the time Rodney's stripped off the spacesuit and thrown it back inside, Ronon and the elite team have taken up stations. They're leaving the pilot and one other marine to guard the jumper and man its guns in case they're needed when the freighter's inner doors open. The rest of them are checking their weapons and taking up positions.

Ronon doesn't even ask Rodney what he's going to do this time, for which Rodney's grateful. Because seriously, if anyone could think even for a second that he wasn't coming along? No.

They have no idea what's going to be on the other side of the doors when they open; the life signs detector's showing only static right now. There could be troops with weapons or no one -- Rodney has no idea whether the freighter's crew has realized they've been boarded.

When the doors open, it's almost as good as it could be; there are a couple of baffled-looking guards wearing uniforms similar to Bucklin's, but with less gold on them. Though their weapons are trained on the doors when they open, it only takes Ronon and his people a few seconds to dispatch them.

Rodney hunches over his pad, leaving it to Ronon's people to handle everything else. Unfortunately, now that they're inside the ship, he's picking up a huge number of electronic signals, and he's not seeing anything resembling the SCT's unique signature. For a moment, he despairs, since the ship is so large, but then he remembers the picture on his screen. The momentary signal that could be a SCT had been coming from below decks, further towards the front of the freighter.

He figures the signal might be stronger if they get out of the shuttle bay, since the thick interior walls probably block some transmissions, so he breathes a sigh of relief when, once they're in a corridor outside the bay, a brief flash of the SCT-like signal appears on his screen and then fades out.

It's enough, and he motions everyone to follow him. They move forward along the corridor, then file down three flights of metal stairs, hitting a momentary dead-end at a pair of huge, locked metal doors. Rodney's screen is blank now; obviously the doors are thick enough to block most signals from such close range.

"How sure are you, McKay?" Ronon says, sizing up the doors with his eyes.

"Very sure it's there, but I can't tell how far from these doors," Rodney says. "I don't have a reference point. It could be coming from just a few feet inside them, or from the whole length of the ship. Before it blanked out again, the life signs detector showed a lot of signals throughout a huge area past these doors." He bites his lip.


"Much as it pains me to do so," Rodney snaps, trying to put some of his old sarcasm in his voice, "I'll guess that the signal's coming from within fifty feet, but I have no idea what's on the other side of these doors."

"Good enough," Ronon says, and reaches into Rodney's pack to pull out the C-4.

"This is it?" Rodney says. "Our sophisticated plan?"

"You got a better one?" Ronon says, motioning everyone back and slapping a sizeable chunk onto the doors, then moving away and taking cover. "Fire in the hole," Ronon mouths, and presses the control for the detonator. The percussive blast is barely over when Rodney's through the gap in the doors. His heart soars, because the signal spikes suddenly, flaring into the unmistakable signature of the SCT.

He moves forward with barely an upward glance, pad clutched in one hand, nine mil warm in the other, when Ronon's warning shout snaps his head up, and he has time to think, Oh, shit, because this is exactly why he doesn't take the point position, like ever.

Somehow, he manages to get his gun up and shoots one of the goons who've suddenly materialized. Another goes down before Rodney can swing his gun around, the pulse of Ronon's energy pistol still echoing in Rodney's ears, and then Rodney's unexpectedly on the floor, a heavy weight landing on his back. His gun skitters out of his hand and an arm loops around his throat, cutting off Rodney's shout of surprise. He clings to the data pad desperately as the guy on his back flexes the muscles of the arm that's locked in a chokehold around Rodney's neck; the edges of his vision begin to narrow and darken, and the only thing he can think to do is rock his head back as hard as he can. The back of his head connects sharply with what he assumes is the guy's face; he feels a hot spatter against the back of his neck and hears the distinctive crunch of bone with a surge of vindictive satisfaction. He makes a mental note to thank Ronon and Teyla for his increased competence at hand-to-hand -- well, or at least self-defense -- as the goon's grip loosens and Rodney heaves his whole body to one side, trying to throw him off. The guy's still alive, though, trying to connect with blows to Rodney's kidneys, and Rodney's starting to get a bad feeling he's overmatched.

Then the weight is just gone, and he hears a short, gurgling shriek of pain. He rolls over onto his back, pad still clutched to his chest, in time to see Ronon casually toss the guy to one side -- his head rolling loosely on his neck -- then lean down and offer Rodney a bloody hand.

Rodney reaches for Ronon's hand, panting, and then freezes, because there, just a few feet away, lying motionless on the floor, covered with filthy rags and a snarled beard--

It's John.

Rodney gasps and can't speak, words dying in his throat, so he flips over and crawls towards him.

He crawls over the body of a guard, crawls until he can reach his hand to check -- and oh, oh god, John's got a pulse, thready and faint. He's burning up, and he's probably unconscious, but he's got a pulse, and he's breathing.

"Here," Rodney says, but it comes out a whispered croak. "Here!" he tries, and it comes out a little louder.

The team materializes around him. One of the marines is bleeding from a huge gash in his side and Ronon's got blood running down his face. "Out, now!" Ronon says, and Rodney becomes aware of sirens going off around them, the echo of running feet in a nearby corridor, all the sounds he's blocked out until now.

"Please, please," a weak voice calls, and Rodney looks up for the first time, sees with horror that there are people in cage-like enclosures lining the sides of this level of the ship. Huge machinery, which his brain rapidly identifies as engines, is in the center of the space, and a few half-starved people wearing rags look like they've been shoveling fuel into them. A few other people lie, just like John was, uncaged on the cold and filthy metal floor.

"Oh my god," he gasps, "the people."

Ronon's kneeling next to Rodney and checks John with gentle hands, eyes on the men and women lining the engine room. He starts to scoop John up.

Rodney's hand shoots out. "I'll do it," he says. "You fight."

Ronon nods and presses a warm hand briefly to Rodney's shoulder.

"Can we--?" Rodney asks, knowing the answer to his question before he even begins.

Ronon glances around the room again. Rodney hears feet thundering down the stairwell they came down; any minute Bucklin's forces will be here. Ronon shakes his head.

Sheppard's frighteningly easy to lift: he feels like a child in Rodney's arms. "He'd never leave these people," Rodney says, eyeing the pathetic people around them.

"He wouldn't," Ronon agrees. "But you and I would. Because otherwise we all die." Ronon's tone makes it clear he's willing to do that. "Choose."

The running feet are closer now, and the alarms are shrill. Any second it'll be too late and they'll have no choice. Rodney's under no illusions that there's much that three puddlejumpers and a small complement of fighters can do now that the fleet has had time to engage.

"Go," Rodney gasps out. "We go."

They flee, and it's a nightmare of shooting and blood. It's a good thing Rodney's holding Sheppard, because Ronon is needed to fight off the uniformed thugs who block their way. One of the team falls to an energy weapon and is quickly picked up by his teammates, but the rest of the Atlanteans fight through.

Suddenly they're in the shuttle bay. Rodney uncloaks the jumper and gets Sheppard in the doors while Ronon and the rest of the troops hold off the guards who are now massing. They're running out of time; Rodney vaguely sees people with large energy weapons running into the outer area of the bay. He runs to the console to try to shut the inner doors, but something he did earlier must have jammed them; he can't get them to close.

Energy weapons are discharging all around him now. His hands are slippery with sweat as he fumbles with the console, and damnit it can't end like this, not when they have Sheppard after all this time.

Then he finally hears what Ronon's been yelling. "Into the jumper. We'll blast our way out!" Rodney runs for it, diving into the jumper. Ronon and the remaining marines fall back in synch and Rodney lays down as much cover fire as he can, hearing John's voice in his head reminding him to be careful and not hit any of their own people, thank you very much.

The jumper doors close just in time to prevent Bucklin's troops from boarding, and Ronon's calling out orders to the pilot and gunner.

"Isn't this going to be a little dangerous?" Rodney asks, realizing immediately how ridiculous a question that is.

Ronon actually grins at him, then just says, "Fire!"

All hell breaks loose, but though the jumper is rocked, its Ancient-crafted exterior holds against any backwash of energy from the interior of the airlock, and a huge hole appears in front of them in the exterior doors of the freighter.

Rodney has a brief impression of people and machinery being sucked out around them, and then the jumper's free. They're being fired on by big weapons, not just small ship's fire, and Rodney can tell that the more heavily armed ships in the fleet are aware of what's happening and are involved in the battle now. The pilot weaves and spins, miraculously evading the barrage of fire. Rodney wonders hysterically whether the jumper might somehow sense that John's here, and put that little extra bit of oomph into evading Bucklin's ships. Then the pilot must have finally engaged the cloak, because the weapons fire suddenly isn't concentrated on them, and they're heading toward a gate, the chaos of the battle being left behind.

John. He's lying on the bench Rodney threw him on, right next to where Rodney's sitting. Rodney's vaguely aware of the jumper engaging in one last evasion, then darting through a gate to a secondary location in case they're followed, according to plan. But mainly his attention is focused on John, lying unmoving beside him.

Rodney scoots over a few inches and pulls John's head in his lap; the bench looks so hard. Before he realizes it, the fingers of one hand are carding through the snarled length of John's hair. He uses his other hand to search gingerly for injuries, then gives it up, fearing he could cause more harm inadvertently. Their medic checked John briefly when they first got in the jumper, and he's now frantically pumping drugs into one of their wounded; she's bleeding profusely from a thigh wound. Rodney hopes it's a good sign that the medic isn't doing anything to John, but fears it's because his injuries are beyond his capabilities.

As the crew scans to ensure they haven't been followed, and then gates to Atlantis, Rodney lets himself finally see what he's been trying not to. John's eyes are closed and his face is gaunt, and he's got dark rings around his wrists and ankles. Rodney realizes with a sickening lurch that they're bruises and fresh blood from manacles or some type of restraint, and then focuses on the rest of John more closely. There are bruises and marks everywhere, oh god, on his face, his arms, his thighs that are showing under the ragged garment he has on.

He's afraid to move John too much; all he wants is to get him to Keller, get him home. He's lifeless in Rodney's lap, but he's breathing, and suddenly it's all too much. Rodney's hand tightens convulsively on him, and his head lowers to John's forehead. "You're alive, you're alive," he whispers into John's dirty and bearded face. "You're alive."

"Dr. McKay," a young marine murmurs. "We're here. We're in Atlantis."

John moans, and moves, pressing his head weakly into Rodney's hand. His voice is the barest ragged whisper. "Knew. I knew you'd--" His voice fades out, but not before Rodney's eyes prick with heat. John's had more faith in Rodney than he has had in himself, more faith than he deserves.

"Back, back!" Keller yells to the Atlanteans crowding around the jumper.

"He's got a fever," Rodney says. "He's burning up." He pulls in a harsh breath, head spinning now that they're here, and then he's being knocked out of the way by Keller, who's yelling to her staff, "Go, go, go!"

He follows to the infirmary and paces outside the area they have cordoned off. Teams of doctors and assistants go behind the curtain and come back out, and he hears the lower murmur of Keller's instructions. As far as he can tell, John hasn't said a thing.

After some unknown amount of time, Teyla appears in front of him, Amelia asleep in her arms. Teyla walks right up to Rodney and leans her head down; his heart swells and he leans his own forehead to hers in the Athosian greeting. Amelia stirs in Teyla's arms, and he reaches for her reflexively. She snuggles into his arms, a warm living weight.

The room swirls around him, and then Teyla's pushing him down in a chair, sitting down next to him silently.

After a very long time, Keller appears in front of his chair. She says, "Oh, Rodney," when he lifts his face to her, with the softest expression on her face, and his heart falls into ash.

She says, "Oh! No, no, I meant you, you, Rodney, not him. He's fine. Well, not fine now, but he will be fine. Or maybe, not fine, but okay. He'll be okay. I'm sorry," she says, sitting down hard in the chair next to Rodney. "I'm not doing this very well."

"Wait," Rodney says. "You're saying -- he's going to be okay?"

"Yeah," she says, turning toward him and smiling. "Yeah. He's going to need lots of time, and he's in pretty bad shape. He's got a bad virus on top of everything else, but it's something I'm able to treat, so yeah."

"Oh god," he says, and has to put his hand over his eyes. Keller's hand lands softly on his back, and just stays there, rubbing soft circles. Amelia squirms in his arms after a minute and he laughs a little in her hair.

"Oh, Rodney," she says again. "You did it. He's home."

He sits ups, head still spinning. "Yeah, well it took me a year and a half longer than it should have," he says. "And you had something to do with it, too." He sits up straight and blows out a breath of air, then turns to Teyla beside him, "Can you? Can you watch Amelia for a minute, I mean," he turns to Keller, "I can go in to see him?"

"And I," Teyla says.

Keller narrows her eyes. "One minute each. And you have to wear a mask. I've identified the virus; it's a common one and isn't much of a problem for healthy adults. But it's not something to mess with around babies. And likewise, Colonel Sheppard is still very weak."

He enters the cordoned-off area as quietly as he can, but Sheppard's eyes flutter open anyway. Rodney approaches his bed carefully. It's like John's been burned down to his essential self. His skin is tight on his body, and any excess flesh, not that there was much to begin with, is gone. Someone's shaved him and trimmed his hair roughly, cleaned him up. There are more lines around his eyes and grey hair salted in among the dark. He's got bandages many places that Rodney can see, and he's sure he sees the suspicious lumps of more under the sheet.

John makes a noise, and it doesn't sound anything at all like speech. Rodney's gut clenches hard, but he stands his ground, stands next to the bed.

"McKay," John whispers, voice scratchy, like it's not been used, or used too much.

"Sheppard," Rodney whispers back, voice catching in his throat. He fights a desperate desire to touch John. He's going to make a fool of himself in a second if he doesn't get his shit together, so he breathes in a harsh breath. "We didn't stop, I didn't stop."

"I figured," John says. His mouth quirks up a little, and it almost breaks Rodney's heart. "Too stubborn," he whispers.

"Right," Rodney says, trying to lighten his voice but probably failing miserably. "Do you, do you need anything, is there anything--?"

"McKay," John grates, the warning tone Rodney remembers so well.

"I should go, Keller said one minute," Rodney says. "I'm so," and his traitor voice breaks, but John doesn't seem to notice; his eyes have closed and his chest is rising and falling in a regular rhythm. He's hooked up to an IV and some monitors, and he looks so small compared to Rodney's memory of him, so small and fragile. So sorry is what Rodney wants to say.

"Rodney," Keller says softly from behind him. "He's got to rest."

"Right," Rodney says, slipping out of the alcove and taking Amelia from Teyla's arms. Teyla slips into the curtained-off area, and Rodney waits for her.

He wants to wait here forever, sit in the hard plastic chairs, stay in the infirmary and keep watch, but Keller's shaking her head already. "No," she says, "you can't stay here. He'll be asleep or out of it on medications for days. He needs to heal. You can visit any time, but you and Amelia belong at home. And Amelia shouldn't get near him."

Rodney nods. He feels a sudden wave of exhaustion hit hard; he feels shaky and weak, like his legs won't support him.

"On second thought," Keller says, "sit down a second. I'm getting you something to eat."

Rodney sits and soon is eating an energy bar and drinking some juice. "And by the way," Keller says, "I'll consult with Dr. Rodriguez, but I don't think John should be told about Amelia yet. He's been through a lot, and I have no idea how he's going to take it. We don't know anything about his, um, possible relationship with her mother, either. Who's dead now, so."

Rodney nods. "I hadn't even thought about that," he says. Oh, god, and he hadn't, he'd been so caught up in John being here. It's so petty, but he's wondered, wondered about that, what happened between John and the young Athosian woman who was Amelia's mother.

"Look, you need rest," Keller says. "Let's talk about it in a couple of days, after I've had a chance to consult with Rodriguez about the psychiatric angle."

"Okay," Rodney says, feeling like he's in a fog; he can't believe John is back. He whispers, "Is he -- ? What did they do to him, Jennifer?"

Keller presses her mouth together and shakes her head just a little. "I don't know, other than the obvious fact he wasn't exactly treated with kid gloves. The extent and, uh, nature of it, I don't know. And what I do know, or learn, I won't be able to tell you, you know that." Her voice is infinitely gentle.

Rodney nods. "Of course, of course, I wasn't thinking, just--"

"I know," she says. "You want to know so you can try to help him. But I really don't know much of anything. And he'll tell you, I'm sure of it. You'll probably know more than me."

Somehow, Rodney doubts it.

After he gets back to the apartment, settles Amelia in her crib and gets ready to go to bed, he just sits on the edge of his mattress, hands on his knees. Something feels wrong, like he's forgotten something or ended up in a stranger's room.

When the reason hits him, he curls into a ball on his bed and shuts his eyes, willing sleep to come. In the way of these things, now that he finally is allowed to sleep, he can't.

For the first time in a year and a half, he's not searching for John.

When he wakes a few hours later, Atlantis feels different. Everything feels different.

Amelia is trying to stand by pulling herself up on the rails of her crib, and greets him with such joy it's like her whole body is smiling.

He feels an urge like necessity pushing him to see John, just see him again, see for himself that he's whole and here, so he leaves Amelia with Ronon for a few minutes and goes to the infirmary.

John's asleep, lashes swept down over hollowed-out cheeks. A faint flush covers his face, and there's sweat beading up around his graying temples. Rodney's gut clenches and he grits his teeth. John should have been back in Atlantis the week after he was taken, the day after, the hour after.

Rodney resists the urge to reach out and touch, but it must show on his face, because when John's eyes open, he looks at Rodney and for a moment -- just a moment -- there's a soft expression on his face, the kind of expression Rodney would catch on John's face sometimes, never sure if it meant anything, back before everything changed.

And then it's gone, John's face going blank, shutting down to the careful neutrality of which it is capable. "McKay," John rasps.

"Sheppard," Rodney says, fighting an urge to put a hand on Sheppard's arm, to feel living skin beneath his fingers. He's sure his voice reveals too much, but damnit, a friend can have missed a friend, right? "You? You're doing alright?"

Sheppard nods weakly. "Yeah. Where are the people?"

"The people?"

"From Bucklin's ships. The survivors."

Rodney shakes his head. "John. We couldn't--" He's sickened thinking about it, and the feeling grows worse when he sees John's face.

"What!" John strains and tries to sit up, starts scrabbling ineffectually to try to pull out his IV line. It's horrible to watch him incapable of this simple thing, something that would have been nothing to his soldier's body of a year and a half ago.

Rodney leans over to try to prevent John from doing damage to himself. "Damnit, stop it, you'll hurt yourself!" He pushes John's hands away from his IV line.

John laughs bitterly. "Hurt." He coughs for a few seconds, a weak-sounding wet rattle. "Bucklin?"

Rodney can only shake his head. "We couldn't. The Daedalus is weeks away, we're short on jumpers, weapons, people, we had to make a decision..."

"I need to-- We can't let him--" John tries to push again at the lines running into his body.

"Okay, okay," Rodney says, holding John's hands, John fighting weakly to free them.

Rodney's eyes feel hot when John falls back winded, panting for breath; there's never been a time when Rodney's thought he could overpower John, despite his considerable advantage in weight.

"Damnit, do you know what he's doing, what they're doing."

"No," Rodney says, shaking his head. "It took us this long just to find you. We had to get you out of there. When you get better-- "

"I'm not going to be better," John says, voice rough.

Rodney swallows.

Keller takes that moment to come into the curtained-off area. "He needs to rest now," she says.

John shakes his head. "No. No." but his voice is getting weaker, and he falls asleep between one word and the next.

For the next few days, Rodney spends every moment with Sheppard that he's not caring for Amelia or battling crises in the city. After a first flurry of attempts to persuade everyone to go after Bucklin now, John appears to give in and stops talking about it.

After a few days, John has his voice back, but talks even less than he used to, and only about inconsequential things.

John's often silent, staring off into the corner of the room or turning on his side away from Rodney. Rodney babbles on about stuff in the city, the most recent news from Earth, any safe subject he can think of. John'll respond a little, join in half-heartedly, but not much more than that. Rodney knows this behavior is expected, knows from Dr. Rodriguez that it's going to take John a long time to get back to anything near normal, but he can't help but feel that John's hiding a lot. Rodney knows he's not very good at this type of thing, but he tries to project an aura of being willing to talk. John doesn't.

Rodriguez comes to speak with John twice a day, but Rodney guesses John doesn't talk to him either, not really, given the look he sees on Rodriguez's face sometimes when he leaves.

Woolsey sets John to work writing a report, and Rodney's grateful for that. At least it will give him something to do other than stare at the wall, though Rodney imagines John is including only the strategic and tactical details that he perceives are required for a mission against Bucklin, and nothing more personal.

John's recovering in leaps and bounds physically; the virus has been pushed off by Keller's anti-viral cocktail, and the bruises and lacerations on his body have faded to dull marks. Rodney can't help but stare sometimes at the rings of purple around Sheppard's ankles and wrists, the fading greenish marks on his face. They make something sharp twist in his stomach, make him want to do things he usually never thinks about, like kill someone with his hands.

John's mainly kind of -- blank. Polite and utterly, utterly distant. The only time Rodney's seen anything he thinks is real emotion, since the night they brought John back to Atlantis, is when Ronon brings a knife and puts it in John's hand one afternoon. Teyla is there, too, and it takes Rodney a minute to realize that Ronon's gathered the team on purpose.

John stares at the knife for a second with glittery eyes, something hard and intense flashing in them briefly. He's sitting up in bed at this point for longer and longer intervals. Ronon scoots a chair close to the edge of the bed and leans a little way over John. "Cut out the brown one," he says, indicating the mourning-beads braided into his hair.

John's eyebrows shoot up and he looks surprised. He reaches with a shaky hand and cuts the brown bead out, which Ronon lets fall to the bed cover.

"Now you, the purple one," Ronon says to Teyla.

She smiles a little and cuts it efficiently from Ronon's hair.

"You, the blue one," Ronon says to Rodney, and his hand barely trembles as he cuts it out.

"Wait," Ronon says, grabbing Rodney's wrist as he's about to return the knife. "The green one, too."

Rodney doesn't get it at first, and then he does; this one must be for Amelia, who John doesn't know about yet; she obviously can't do it for herself.

John says, voice shaky, "He gets two?" obviously trying to adopt a jokingly-aggrieved tone.

"Yes," Ronon says. "He does."

It occurs to Rodney suddenly that there might be more than one reason he gets two, and he flushes a little. John's turned his eyes down, but Rodney thinks he sees something flash in them right before they do; a question, maybe.

"Now mine," Ronon says. "You have to look at me," he says to John. "Put your hand on my wrist."

"Alright." John's voice is shaking a little, and Rodney thinks, good, something real.

Ronon cuts the red bead out of his hair, John's hand on his wrist. "Okay, good," Ronon says.

Rodney huffs, "What, that's it? Aren't there any ritual words or something?"

Ronon raises an eyebrow at him and then grins. "You want to say something?"

"No, no, no," Rodney says. "No. I'm good." His voice wobbles a little, and for a second, he sees John's eyes on him, intense and not veiled at all. Rodney doesn't know what's showing in them, but it twists his heart and leaves him unable to speak.

Ronon scoops all the beads up in his hand and gives them to John. They drip into his hand one at a time, reminding Rodney suddenly of the way John's dog tags had slithered down into his own palm out of Keller's a few months ago.

After the incident with the mourning-beads, John goes back to his regular pattern of talking a little without really saying anything. Rodney brings movies and they watch them on his laptop, though most of the time John falls asleep after a few minutes. Teyla brings Torren and has him play where John can watch. Ronon comes and sits, seemingly content to have silence between them, occasionally telling a story about his military training on Sateda.

A week after John returns, when he's sweating and panting , trying to walk for the first time, obviously in pain, leaning on Keller and an orderly, he turns and looks at Rodney where he's sitting in a corner and says, "Go. Away."

Keller darts a quick troubled glance at John, then nods to Rodney. "Perhaps the Colonel would like privacy as he's recuperating."

Rodney nods, dread curling in his stomach. "Sorry," he says softly to John. "Sorry." Rodney's so bad at dealing with people, and he doesn't know what he's supposed to do.

He comes back anyway, trying to sense when he's supposed to leave and when it's okay to stay. John continues to be neutral and blank; Rodney can't tell what he's thinking at all.

It's ten days after John's been back and he's being released from the infirmary. Rodney paces in his quarters as he waits for Ronon to bring John; Teyla is already here. After conferring with Rodriguez, they decided to wait this long, but they can't wait any longer: they have to tell him about Amelia. John hasn't asked about a child the whole time he's been back, so they're pretty sure he has no idea of her existence. They've decided to tell John in Rodney's quarters, so he can see Amelia in relative privacy. They've timed it for near the end of Amelia's afternoon nap; this way, she can be awakened when John's ready to see her.

Rodney refuses to let himself think about what will happen next, once John discovers he has a child. It will all work out the way it should, and it will be best for Amelia; children belong with their parents.

John limps in the door to Rodney's apartment with Ronon. John's been ambulatory for a few days, but still favors his right leg. Rodney doesn't know, and maybe never will, what's wrong with it, but John's been starting to work out -- though worryingly, not with Ronon, but by himself -- so it won't be long, he figures, before he's back to full strength. Physically.

When Rodney's thought about how John would react to Amelia, he's thought of a lot of possibilities. He's imagined John getting upset he hasn't been told earlier about her. He's imagined him filled with joy about her existence. He's imagined him needing a little time to get used to the idea, or immediately making plans to take her to ride a ferris wheel.

What he didn't imagine was anger at her very existence. "What!" John says in a low, cracked-sounding voice, sitting awkwardly on Rodney's sofa next to Teyla. "There's a mistake," John says, voice rough with something that sounds like anger.

"No mistake, John," Teyla says softly. "Dr. Keller checked her genetic makeup many times when she came to us. It has been confirmed over and over."

John closes his eyes and holds tightly onto the arm of the sofa. He leans his head into his hand, elbow at an angle on the sofa arm. "No," he whispers. He turns haunted eyes to Teyla. "What, who, where is it?" he says after a moment.

"I, uh, took care of her," Rodney says. John's head snaps towards Rodney and he looks him straight in the eye. "She. For some reason she wouldn't eat except with me. When she first came to us. She was going to die," Rodney continues.

"She responded to Rodney in a unique manner," Teyla says softly. "If not for him, she likely would not be here."

John turns angry eyes on Rodney.

Rodney swallows. "And then. The will?"

John boggles at Rodney, looking blank, like he doesn't know what Rodney's talking about. Rodney can see it when it registers with John, the fact that Rodney watched the recording John made. "The recording I made when I-- Oh god," John says, turning his face away from Rodney and swallowing hard. Rodney remembers John's halting words on the recording, his attempt to say things to Rodney, things John's probably regrets he ever said.

Teyla says softly. "She is here. You can see your daughter."

John laughs, not a nice sound at all.

"She, she lives here, with me." Rodney leans forward. "John, she's wonderful," Rodney attempts, but John stands up abruptly and shakes his head.

"No," he says. "I appreciate it, Rodney," he says, obviously forcing the words out of reluctant lips. "but I don't want anything to do with any kid they're saying I fathered."

"But--" Rodney doesn't even know how to begin answering John.

As if on cue, Amelia announces she's awake with a loud chorus of babble from her room.

"Won't you just look at her, see her?" Rodney tries, knowing the second the words are out of his mouth that it's a mistake.

John's face turns stormy and he turns and strides out the door. Ronon rolls his eyes and heads out after him without saying a word.

"Well," Rodney says to Teyla after a few minutes. "In the universe of telling someone they've fathered a child while in the clutches of a psychotic madman, that wasn't that bad."

Teyla levels an even stare at Rodney and he deflates. "Yeah, pretty much sucked," he says, looking towards Amelia's room.

"It is wrong for a parent and a child not to be in harmony," Teyla says, looking worriedly towards Amelia's voice.

"Everything about this is wrong," Rodney says, pushing to his feet to go take care of Amelia.

He tries again with John the next day. They're in the mess hall when John walks in. Rodney's got Amelia in his arms, and she gets a delighted smile on her face when she sees John, kicking her feet and reaching out her arms. It's obvious from John's expression that if he'd known they were here, he wouldn't have come in, and he stands there, hands dangling at his sides, staring at the floor.

"John," Rodney says low. "She's your daughter. I know it's hard, but it's not her fault, you've got to--"

John's right up in Rodney's space instantly, breathing hard and fast. "I don't have to do anything," he says in a low voice.

Rodney looks down at where John's hands are; they're knotted in Rodney's shirt, gripping ferociously. Amelia cries, and John looks at his hands, then lets go suddenly. A wash of some type of strong feeling paints John's face, and he whispers, "Sorry," then turns and strides out of the mess.

"It's okay, 'Melia," Rodney croons. "It's going to be okay." Even he can hear how unconvincing his voice sounds.

The people sitting around the conference table look wary, warned by Woolsey's expression that what he's going to tell them won't be pretty.

Even by Pegasus standards, it's not.

Even though John hasn't told Rodney or Teyla or Ronon a single thing about his time in captivity, he apparently has written up a report for Woolsey with enough information in it for this meeting to be called -- dubbed an informational and planning meeting on the senior staff schedule.

There's only a small group here; Woolsey is limiting who knows this. John himself is sitting silently at the far end of the conference table staring at his hands, radiating his intent not to speak.

"We're here to discuss the intelligence gathered by Colonel Sheppard about the activities of Bucklin and his fleet,"Woolsey says. Rodney smothers his desire to make an inappropriate comment, because seriously, as if none of them know what this is about.

"The first thing everyone must understand," Woolsey says crisply, "is that Bucklin is a true believer. Though obviously deluded, he believes that his actions are for the ultimate good of humanity. This makes him more dangerous, I believe, than someone who acts purely due to craven motives. For obvious reasons, we were unable to take any action against him at the time we liberated the Colonel. Now we're faced with determining whether our strategic interests require us to do so. Or whether other interests dictate it."

John shifts uneasily in his chair. Rodney sees his hands tighten around the edge of the table, knuckles turning white.

Woolsey looks down at a stack of papers under his hand, then presses his lips together and looks up to address them again. "Essentially, what Bucklin's been trying to do, what he's been doing for his entire career as a scientist, is to find a human genetic code which is incompatible with Wraith feeding. Given the many different ways in which Pegasus societies have tried to avoid or mitigate the effects of the Wraith, this approach is hardly unsurprising, though it obviously takes more advanced scientific knowledge than most Pegasus cultures possess."

Rodney's brain leaps ahead, making the connections between pieces of evidence, and he gasps. "Oh my god." He has to work to try to keep his lunch from coming back up when he gets it, heedless of what else is happening in the meeting. "That was the piece I couldn't figure out, why those dump locations, why they placed those people in the dump locations they did!"

"Yes," Woolsey says, nodding at Rodney. The other people sitting around the conference table look uncertainly at Rodney, except John, who just keeps looking away. Woolsey turns to address the other people around the table. "Sometimes I forget just how much of a genius Dr. McKay is; he's made the critical leap, I believe, to see what we're dealing with." He nods slightly at Rodney, and Rodney nods back automatically, brain occupied with following up all the implications of what Woolsey's saying; Woolsey's voice fades into the background.

"Bucklin," Woolsey's voice continues, a low drone accompanying Rodney's thoughts, "engages in...experiments seeking to discover a genetic code which will make humans unpalatable to the Wraith. He began these experiments many years ago, when he noticed that the Wraith are often drawn first to some people in a group, and only feed on others later. He speculated that perhaps some people are less...palatable to the Wraith. His whole focus since then has been to try to determine what genetic combinations might yield a human which the Wraith cannot or will not feed from."

Woolsey holds up a preemptive hand when Lorne clears his throat. "In and of itself, not necessarily a bad concept, though fraught with ethical dangers of course. And in recent years, he's apparently trampled over any generally-accepted ethical principles for science, and has included the, er, forced donation of genetic material for the creation of new genotypes."

Rodney darts a quick glance at Sheppard, whose hands are clutching his knees now, white with how hard they're holding on.

"But Bucklin -- and I believe that this is what Dr. McKay has just deduced -- not content with performing these experiments on a theoretical level, has begun a practice of leaving humans with different genetic structures on worlds near the Wraith, then watching to see whether there are any which the Wraith reject as feeding material."

There's a collective intake of breath around the table. Ronon's hands ball into fists and Teyla looks white.

"According to Colonel Sheppard's report," Woolsey says, voice even more clipped than normal, "Bucklin has turned his quest into somewhat of a, let us say, cult, or religion. The people in their society who are scientists, geneticists specifically, are at the top of the social structure. All others are in their, er, service."

Rodney winces inside, remembering the dark bruises around John's ankles and wrists.

"All the resources of their society serve their primary purpose; finding a human genetic code which repels the Wraith. Bucklin believes that any harm done by his methods is far outweighed by the potential benefit to humanity in producing a genetic type which the Wraith cannot feed from."

Woolsey scans the faces at the table and presses his lips together. "It seems that Bucklin's message is one which has begun to resonate with some of the societies in the galaxy, or at least some disaffected people within them. As you know, his fleet now consists of at least fifteen ships, of which at least two are heavily armed."

"But if that is the case, how have we not heard of this before now?" Teyla asks.

"A question I wonder about as well," Woolsey replies. "I can only speculate that due to the cult-like nature of his operation, a premium is placed on secrecy. Obviously, they also know that if word got out about their methods, many people would wish them stopped."

"So the people we found on those planets, the Wraith never came for them?" Ronon asks.

"Well," Woolsey says, looking at his hands. "We don't know for sure. But we have every reason to believe that the Wraith did come, that the bodies we found recently were those rejected by the Wraith. They were too close to death to be worth feeding on. According to Colonel Sheppard, Bucklin also uses these dumps as a convenient way to get rid of those who are sick or a drain on his fleet. So though most of the people he places at the dump sites are healthy, he'll also place those he wishes to get rid of in these locations."

"Why aren't there bodies left behind, then, bodies of the people they've fed on?" Ronon asks, leaning intently over the table.

"Apparently the Wraith have figured out that these dumps are safe for them, that there aren't any people around who are going to fight them," Woolsey says, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "They can take their time. They take the people they want with them and leave the ones they don't."

"They must be children," Teyla says, horror in her voice, "They must be children he puts out there for the Wraith. He would not have had the time for them to be much older than children."

Woolsey nods. "Yes. Children. And some adults with genetic patterns he hasn't come across before, to test and see if they're taken."

"So, did Bucklin take the Colonel because of the gene?" Lorne asks. Rodney looks up sharply because yes, good question, though he thinks he knows the answer.

"No," Woolsey says. "That's the amazing -- and I suppose in a way the lucky -- thing. It appears to be totally random. All indications are that they grabbed Colonel Sheppard because he was alone, far from any habitation, on a sparsely-inhabited planet which Bucklin's fleet happened to be near."

"So the jumper?" Lorne asks.

Woolsey obviously doesn't know the answer to that one, and turns to John, who looks murderous at being forced to speak. "I never made it fly for them," John says, voice tight. "It's sitting in the command ship's hold last I knew."

Rodney's horrified, thinking of the ways in which Bucklin may have tried to make John fly it.

Rodney's brain has skipped ahead again, and he can't stop himself from speaking, though he knows he should just shut up. "Oh my god, you got sick on purpose," he says to John, who looks up sharply as if not expecting to be addressed by Rodney.

Everyone at the table turns their eyes to John and he ducks his head.

"That was your plan?" Rodney says, voice rising to a noticeable squeak.

John doesn't reply at first, and Rodney thinks he's not going to, but then he does, in a quiet voice, looking at the table. "That was my plan. Well, after the hundred or so escape attempts." He rubs his right wrist distractedly, where the faint signs of bruising are still visible.

"What, to get tossed out as garbage because you were dead, that was your plan?"

"My plan was to get tossed out as garbage because I was close to dead," John says, with what looks like an attempt at a smirk.

"And, and, then you assumed we'd, what, just find you?" Rodney asks, voice rising. "They stick those people on deserted planets, with no food, no water."

"Actually, yeah, Rodney. I assumed you'd find me," John says in a flat voice. The unspoken or I'd die free hovers in the air.

Rodney's stomach turns over again, trying desperately to heave up the red jello and meatloaf he just ate for lunch.

Woolsey clears his throat. His voice is gentle. "For obvious reasons, Colonel Sheppard has made a case for us to attack Bucklin, put him out of business. And I have to say, I would very much like to do that." He holds up a hand to stop the chatter that starts up around the table. "However, there are many things to consider before we take on something like that. And we don't have to make any decisions now, because we couldn't take a step like that without the Daedalus, and without approval from Earth. So for now, we'll adjourn. Obviously, we'll be revisiting this topic."

Rodney's reeling after the meeting. For a year and half, he felt like he had failed John, not finding him. Knowing more details of how John suffered during that time is ripping him up, reinforcing the guilt.

He'd thought -- well, he supposes he'd thought that if they ever found John and brought him back, that everything would be okay. But everything's far from okay; John's almost like a different person than he was.

And then there's Amelia. Rather than the warm reunion between Amelia and John that Rodney supposes he envisioned, John's continued to ignore her completely. Rodney tries to mainly keep her away from places where he knows John's going to be, but it's not always possible. John doesn't even act angry any more, but instead pays her no attention whatsoever.

And it's breaking Rodney's heart, because Amelia doesn't deserve that; she deserves a father. Rodney's pretty sure that Amelia somehow senses that something's wrong, not as it should be, because she's been fussy recently.

Tonight is no exception. When he picks her up from child care, she's restless and whiny. He makes a snap decision to head to the Music Room; he feels unmoored in the way that only playing music eases. Fortunately no one else is there, and he sits down hard on the sofa to feed her with the bottle he's got in the diaper bag. She's so much bigger now than when she first came to them; her legs stretch out across his lap and are pudgy and strong, not thin and tiny like when they found her.

As she eats, Amelia grabs onto the thinning hair at the nape of his neck; it's something she's been doing for a while now. Even though her eyes are closed, she grips him tightly, winding his sparse curls in her fingers.

Amelia's hair is longer now, thick and dark on his cradling arm, trying to make its way out of the Athosian infant hair-knots Teyla showed him how to braid.

"Poor little girl," he says softly. "Poor thing." He sighs. "He'll come around." Something fierce and protective rises up inside him, and he says, "I'll make sure he does."

Almost like she understands, Amelia chooses that moment to come off the bottle, and she opens her eyes and stares at him. Her lips curve into a familiar smile, and he pulls her to him, pulls her tight to his chest. "Kids need their fathers," he says into her hair. "I won't let him do this, you watch. And anyway, he's not as much of a moron as he seems right now. I think."

After a few minutes he puts her in her infant chair and she kicks happily. He starts with some of her favorites -- things with bouncy country beats, some of the songs he remembers from his own, admittedly abbreviated, childhood.

After a while her eyes flutter closed, and he lets himself roam with the music, playing out his own stubborn grief, the sadness he feels for Amelia, his helpless anger over what happened to John.

Partway through his amalgam of Bach and Cash, he catches a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye. It's John, slipping into the room like a shadow, sitting as far from Amelia as possible, leaning back against the far wall of the room. Rodney's hands clench for a moment, along with his heart, but he's able to make them keep playing with hardly a stutter. It feels too revealing, the music he's been playing, so he segues smoothly into a Mozart concerto.

Rodney closes his eyes and breathes deeply, willing his fingers to keep going, focusing on doing nothing to scare John off. John's like a wounded animal right now, skittish. One wrong move might send him away, maybe forever. So that can't happen. Given Rodney's record with people, he thinks it's really not fair that he's in the position of trying to figure Sheppard out. Of course, John isn't exactly normal, never was even before Bucklin, so maybe Rodney's in as good a position as anyone.

He takes another deep breath and tries to focus on the music, tries to lose himself in it, forget who else is in the room and just feel. It feels like baring something in his own soul to play in front of John; it's completely different than playing in front of random Atlanteans. It feels scarily intimate, like John will be able to see inside of him.

He does it anyway.

He doesn't know when John slips out of the room as silently as he came in, but he's pretty sure he stayed a long time.

Rodney goes back to the Music Room every evening, bringing Amelia with him. Over the course of a week, John comes every day but one. Each time, he slips in after Rodney starts playing, then leaves quietly before he's done. Rodney can sneak little glimpses of him, sitting against the side wall behind Rodney, arms around his knees. He sits a little closer to Amelia each time, but never close enough to touch.

He doesn't think he's imagining that Amelia's started staying awake longer, almost like she's waiting for John to come. He knows he's not imagining that only after John's there do her eyelids start drooping.

Once or twice other people come, but they don't stay long. After a few days, no one comes at this time of night except John. The Atlanteans have always had a good informal information network, and this is no exception. Rodney smiles softly to himself; the whole city is rooting for Sheppard.

John hasn't been cleared for active duty yet, but he's intensely involved in planning the possible confrontation with Bucklin, tentatively scheduled for when the Daedalus makes its next appearance in the Pegasus Galaxy, projected to be in a few weeks. Like all other non-emergency news, a possible action against Bucklin doesn't warrant opening a wormhole for a data burst, so all planning is contingent on Colonel Caldwell going along with it.

If John's chafing under the wait, he's not actively showing it any more; he's starting to move around the city more, interact a little with people. Rodney tries not to be hurt when he finds out John's been practicing self-defense with Teyla and weapons with Ronon, even though he won't do anything with Rodney or Amelia -- though he is still appearing every evening as a silent presence in the Music Room.

Since he got released from inpatient care levels, John's been sleeping in the infirmary in one of the small cubicles which serve as sleeping-rooms for families of the sick. They'd cleaned his stuff out of his old quarters a year or so ago, and it's all in storage somewhere, except for a few things Rodney keeps in his quarters and a couple of items Ronon and Teyla took. So far John hasn't made a move to set up new quarters.

One day a few weeks after they found Sheppard, Keller hunts Rodney down with a purposeful gleam in her eye. "It's not healthy, physically or mentally, for him to remain in the infirmary," she says, giving Rodney what is undoubtedly a significant look. "And I don't know whether it's healthy for him to move into some empty shell of a room by himself, either."

"Let's skip the part where I'm hopeless at human interaction, and get to the part where you tell me what I'm supposed to do," Rodney says, trying to channel some of his old vinegar. He feels like he's out of practice, like he's a different person than who he's always been.

"Alright," Keller says, smiling gently. "I think, and Dr. Rodriquez thinks, that we should explore the possibility of Colonel Sheppard moving in with you and Amelia."

"What? No!" Rodney says, fear chasing up his spine. "In what conceivable universe is that a good plan?"

"The universe," Keller says softly, leaning over her lunch tray, "where John is in close proximity to his child, and where there is a friend to watch out for him as he recovers. The one where you have an extra bedroom."

"You want me to babysit him?" Rodney protests, red jello sitting idle on his fork.

"No, Rodney, we want you to offer him a place to stay, that's all," she responds quietly.

"Wait, you mean he doesn't know about this scheme yet?" Rodney squeaks. "No way, no way, are you kidding me? He barely speaks to me, he won't even acknowledge Amelia's existence, and you want me to introduce this insane idea? No. Absolutely not." He gets up and throws the rest of his food away, uneaten.

Rodney's jogging with Ronon next to the sea when he realizes it's hopeless to resist any more. He's been worried that Sheppard hasn't resumed his runs with Ronon, instead going off for hours on his own, but it's been good for maintaining Rodney's aerobic fitness.

Rodney's sweating and gasping for air and can't form a sentence if his life depends on it. Ronon looks like some sleek jungle cat; he looks like he's barely strolling. He says, not even breathing hard, and how is that fair, "He should live with one of us for a while."

Rodney stops right there, leans over with his hands on his knees. "How do you figure that? He won't even talk!"

"Yeah. Not much. Hasn't gotten his own room yet, though. So, you or me?" Ronon's eyes glitter at Rodney from under his eyelashes and his mouth curves up into a sweet smile. "If it's you, he gets to know his kid."

In the face of that, what can Rodney do? "Fine," he snaps. "Fine. Why don't you ask him, tell him my place is available."

"McKay," Ronon growls.

"Fine!" Rodney says. "When he kills me with his bare hands for asking, please take care of Amelia."

Ronon grins at him and Rodney can't help but grin back.

It turns out that both Keller and Dr. Rodriguez do broach the subject with John, but he doesn't move in. Rodney finally brings the subject up himself over lunch one day. Sheppard's started sitting with the team again, though he still hardly speaks. "My rent is really out of control," Rodney blurts to the table. "Big city prices." Sheppard ducks his head and mumbles something into his sandwich. Rodney says, "Look, Sheppard," and stops, completely at a loss for what to say next. He's hopeless at stuff like this, just hopeless.

John doesn't move in. He continues to live in a bare room next to the infirmary, doesn't move into quarters of his own. Rodney doesn't know what to make of that.

Nor does he know what to make of John's silent presence most nights when he plays. John's inched closer and closer to Amelia's infant chair, and Rodney's caught him staring at her more than once, looking with dark intense eyes and a face that is impossibly blank.

Sometimes John falls asleep, curled up on the ragged sofa or on the big pillows people spread on the floor, and Rodney lets himself indulge then, lets himself play the merged music of Cash and classical which he played so often when John was gone. It doesn't seem like it should work, but it does, the simple harmonics of the country and blues-based music bleeding into classical progressions. Those nights, he lets himself go, carried on the music, the sleeping city all around him, Amelia and John warm presences nearby. Creating his own music is like creating a new mathematical solution; it feels like the first time he saw Atlantis, opening up pathways in his brain and heart that have never been used.

He's pretty sure that one night, John will reach out and touch Amelia; he's moving closer to her every day. And when he does, Rodney figures, his job will be done. He doesn't let himself think about how that'll be for him; he just focuses on Amelia, and the girl who needs her father to be part of her life.

If anything, John looks more ragged a few weeks after coming back to Atlantis than he did when he first got back. Woolsey has him going for psych work every day and hasn't freed him for active duty yet; John has a look in his eyes that Rodney associates with being grounded from flying. It's not a peaceful look; there are dark circles under his eyes, and his skin's pulled too tight over his cheekbones.

Rodney's breath catches at least once a day still when he catches sight of John out of the corner of his eye, walking slowly down an Atlantis corridor or slouching uncomfortably into the mess hall. After the fact, he can admit to himself what he didn't while John was gone: a significant part of him really did believe John was dead, no matter how much another part of him believed he was alive.

Though John is back, there are whole pieces of him that seem missing, whole pieces of how John interacted with Rodney, and Rodney with John. He still hardly talks with Rodney, except for simple "yeah" and "no" responses, necessary questions he has to ask to plan the upcoming operation, simple things about food in the mess hall or who someone is. John doesn't make fun of Rodney any more, doesn't seek him out and harass him, doesn't find him and bring him to some new discovery in the city or force him to do tortuously healthy things or watch bad science fiction movies. He's just -- kind of blank.

Rodney's tried to get Sheppard to hang out like they used to, but he always just shakes his head, says, "Sorry, not tonight." Rodney's asked, and asked, but eventually figured it was driving John crazy and stopped.

Rodney's standing in his living room one night after John's been back in Atlantis for about a month. It's late, very late. He's just put Amelia down in her bedroom and is on his way to his own after getting a glass of water; he's exhausted and is going to try to sleep.

His doors whoosh open and John just walks in, like he used to. Rodney's so surprised, he doesn't know what to say or do. He just stands there, a little breathless, because though he's mainly used to John being back, there's something that knocks the wind out of him about seeing him here, in Rodney's quarters. It brings everything back with a crash of immediacy.

It had taken Rodney a very long time to process the fact that John was really gone, before, and apparently he still hasn't completely processed the fact that he's back. Seeing him here, standing in this room, stuns Rodney into momentary silence.

"Hey?" he finally tries, voice catching a little.

John's eyes are wandering around the space, and Rodney remembers with a lurch that of course, John's not really gotten a good look at this space, since the only other time he was here, when they told him about Amelia, he didn't exactly examine the decor. He can't tell what John makes of the wall of windows, the sense of space that his old room never had.

He feels a surge of hope in his throat which he needs to stop feeling, like now, because just because John is here doesn't mean that they'll ever get back to how it was, the easy friendship that he took for granted. In fact, somehow John's presence here makes Rodney realize a fundamental truth; whatever they might end up being, it's never going to be the same as it was before. A wave of grief, the grief he's guarded against for so long, hits Rodney hard, and he reaches for the back of the nearby sofa to steady himself. Or maybe it's new grief, because it's never going to be the same again.

John's fidgeting idly with something he picked up from the end table. He smirks, but it's about as fake as possible. Rodney realizes suddenly that what John's turning over in his hands, obviously without paying any attention to what it is, is Blackhawk, Amelia's now-bedraggled stuffed helicopter. Rodney has to turn a totally inappropriate laugh into a cough.

"I--" John says. His skin is shaded golden in the soft light of the table lamp. His cheeks and chin are dark with stubble and his eyes rest anywhere but on Rodney. He frowns then, finally seeing what he's got in his hands, and hastily sets it back on the end table. Rodney coughs into his hand.

Rodney takes a step toward him, then hesitates. "Do you?" His voice cracks a little. God, Rodney's so bad at this kind of thing. Why John chose to come tonight, he can't imagine. "Do you. Want to watch a movie or something," he blurts, really fast, as if that will mean Sheppard won't hear it if it's a stupid thing to say. "I mean, that's probably a stupid thing to say, you haven't wanted to, but I--" He forces himself to stop before he can say anything even more inane.

The good thing about his babbling is that John's at least looking at him now, lips quirked into something that looks like the beginnings of an actual smile. It's not really mocking, or snarky, but it's a start.

John's incipient smile fades, and he takes another step toward Rodney. He rubs the back of his neck with his hand and rolls his head around a little, and Rodney wants to touch his hair, his neck, feel John's skin under his hands.

John looks up at Rodney and must see something on his face, because he takes another step toward him, and his hand makes an awkward motion toward Rodney, then falls to his side. "Movie," he grates out. "Yeah, okay."

Rodney has to hold himself back from hugging John to him, pulling him close on the strength of the hope blooming in his chest. Oh god, oh god if John could be whole again, be himself, be his friend.

He rifles through his DVD collection, painfully aware that the collection just stops after John disappeared. Before that, he'd enjoyed finding movies that would wow John or make him laugh or make him say scathing things about Rodney's taste. He hadn't noticed at the time that that was what he was doing, but it was.

John's sitting on the sofa, body stiff.

"So, there's bad-science based science fiction," Rodney says. "Or action-adventure starring ridiculously buff guys who probably can't even hold a gun in real life, or. Well. You get to choose, of course, since it's clearly your turn, since you haven't exactly been here, so--" Rodney stops abruptly, feeling heat creep up his neck and into his cheeks. Way to go, McKay, he thinks.

He puts the first Star Wars in, instantly regretting it because of the memories it calls up of watching it together, before. He can't tell what Sheppard is thinking; he's a quiet mass beside him on the sofa, and Rodney's heart pangs thinking of how he used to flick Rodney shit, critique the actors and the premises of the movies they watched, critique Rodney's criticism for god's sake.

When Luke is returning to the burned-out shell of his uncle and aunt's home, John says suddenly, in a choked-off voice that sounds like it was wrenched from deep inside, "Rodney." Rodney pauses the movie and turns to look at John, and then he can't move, because Sheppard -- John -- is staring at Rodney like ... "I need," John half-whispers. "I can't--"

Rodney's brain races, trying to make sense of John's words. Then, from the tension in John's body and the way his knuckles are turning white on his knees, Rodney thinks he knows.

"John?" Rodney whispers, and John's face changes, becomes less open but more intense. His eyes go to Rodney's lips and Rodney feels a surge of longing and lust. Sheppard's body is radiating heat -- he can feel it even from a couple of feet away. The sleek lines of his body are clearly outlined underneath his BDU pants and tight t-shirt, more visible than ever due to recent deprivation. His eyes, full of keen intelligence and too many memories, continue to focus on Rodney's mouth, and Rodney is desperate for the feel of John under his hands, under his mouth, on his body. It's a bad idea, he knows it, a really bad idea, but oh god he wants it, wants a connection between them, no matter what it is.

Sheppard's eyes fall away from Rodney, and focus intently on his own hands, twisting slowly on his knees.

"It's okay," Rodney ventures softly, because whatever John means, Rodney's okay with it. He has enough self-awareness to know that, at least; he'll do anything for John, pretty much.

John keeps staring down at his hands, hands which Rodney now sees are shaking. Rodney takes a deep breath and moves his hand slowly, cautiously, closer and closer to John's leg. John doesn't pull back, just sits there, so Rodney lets his hand keep going, coming to rest curled over John's knee. He can't help pressing a little, feeling the knob of John's knee bone, John's skin radiating heat through his BDUs. "What do you--?" Rodney begins, but he's interrupted by John surging around, sliding to his knees in front of Rodney, nuzzling his head up against Rodney's belly, rubbing his face across it and letting his lips catch, then slide, on his fraying t-shirt.

Rodney gasps and brings a hand up to touch John's hair tentatively, afraid that he isn't allowed this, but apparently he is, because John growls and slides his hands up, first Rodney's calves, then his thighs, to his fly. "I need," he says to Rodney's lap, and Rodney knows he won't stop this, not for anything, with the world fading out around John's dark head and hard hands, even though he knows it's wrong in so many ways he can't even begin to count them.

He doesn't stop John, whispers, "Yes, anything," so softly John probably doesn't hear. And then he can't speak at all, because John's unzipping him, then rubbing his face against Rodney's dick, hard through his boxers, then mouthing it through the fabric, his hot breath shorting out what remains of Rodney's brain.

Rodney moans a little, and John pulls his boxers open so Rodney's dick springs free, doesn't even stop to pull them down, and then his tongue is on Rodney, licking hot stripes around the head. Rodney's head crashes back against the sofa, and he spends a moment thinking, too fast, too fast, it's all going too fast, I should slow this down, make sure. And then John's got his dick in his mouth and it's impossible to think at all. Rodney comes blindingly hard and blindingly fast, and he's still shuddering on the intensity of it when John comes up off the floor, grabs Rodney and pushes on his shoulder and hip, urging him over on the sofa, reaching under to yank his pants and boxers down, just enough.

Rodney turns over easily; absolutely John can have this, and John doesn't hesitate, doesn't ask, just pushes fingers wet with Rodney's own come, oh god, inside him, first one, then two moving rapidly to three, making Rodney writhe and gasp underneath him. Then there's John's hard cock, pushing in, pushing in, not gentle at all.

There's no real pain, though Rodney has to consciously relax -- it's been a long time since he's done this -- but the intrusion is shocking and intimate and brutal in all the good ways.

John's groaning on top of him, hands bracing his weight on either side of Rodney's head, left hand slipping off the sofa a little, scrabbling for purchase, and Rodney relaxes enough to be able to push back a little, tentatively. John gasps and pulls out then pushes in, thrusts again and again. Rodney's rising into it now; even though John doesn't seem to be paying attention to anatomical details, they're at an angle where he's hitting Rodney's sweet spot every few thrusts. There's no chance of him coming again this soon, but god it feels good. The intimacy of it feels better than anything, knowing it's John inside him, knowing John is inside of him. How had they not done this before, how had they not done this and done it again and again?

John's fucking him hard, relentless, and his harsh breaths sound like remembered pain, like something hard and tight inside him unspooling. Rodney would give him anything, anything, but this is like taking, taking and getting a part of John that he doesn't share with anyone. Rodney's so grateful, so glad it's him that John's showing this to. It feels like John's reclaiming some part of himself, powerful arms pulling Rodney up and back, his balls flush against Rodney's ass, using Rodney's body to become himself again. And then John's thrusting frantically, biting Rodney's shoulder hard, muffling his body-shaking groan into the meat of Rodney's upper arm.

They fall flat on the sofa after a few seconds, John still inside Rodney, and Rodney's shaky with aftershocks, thrilling to the feel of John's body pressing him down, his breath warm and still frantic on his neck.

After a few moments, Rodney feels John's body stiffen on top of him. John slips out and half-falls awkwardly to the floor next to the sofa, then crouches there quietly, just breathing. From where he's lying, Rodney sees John's hand reach towards him, then pull back, sees him cover his eyes with his hand for a moment.

Rodney's eyes close involuntarily. Fuck, John can't even touch him. Rodney bites his lip and sighs softly. He never should have let this happen. Any idiot can see that John isn't ready for anything like this.

John gathers his clothes quietly. Rodney tries to figure out what to say, what to do. Yes, John asked for this, but Rodney should have known better -- did know better -- and did it anyway.

He can't think of words, and then it's too late, because John's slipped out the door.

After they fuck, things are even worse than they were before. John is like a ghost, slinking around Atlantis just out of Rodney's sight. He's clearly avoiding Rodney, and it's just as well; Rodney doesn't trust himself not to make things even worse.

John's stopped coming to the Music Room, though, and that's just wrong. It's his only time near Amelia, the only way in which John seems to let himself be around her, and Rodney's not going to be responsible for that tentative relationship ending. It's also wrong that he seems to be avoiding all social situations, even the tenuous beginning he'd made with people other than Rodney; John needs his relationships with Ronon and Teyla and all the other Atlanteans who are so happy to have him back.

Rodney has to psych himself up to do it, but he finally lies in wait for John in the mess hall at the weird time in the afternoon that John's been coming here to avoid him, corners him at his table. He'd considered going to John's room off the infirmary, but decided that might be weird. Weirder.

"Just hear me out," Rodney says quickly, when John's muscles tense to stand up. John sinks back down into his chair and nods jerkily.

"I know --" Rodney sighs, wishing John would fucking talk to him for once, because this just feels impossible. "Look," he manages. "Obviously, things are fucked up."

John looks at Rodney for the first time in days, a slight smirk threatening his icy expression. For a brief moment, Rodney wants to hit him. John reins the smirk in quickly, face sliding back into neutrality.

"The point is, you can't let our, our fuckup, stop you from everything else."

John fiddles with a pudding cup, but at least he's not leaving.

"You need to keep coming to be with -- to listen to the music," Rodney stammers. He can feel a flush rising in his cheeks, because they've never acknowledged John's presence there in the Music Room before this. "And start hanging out with people again."

John mumbles, "You want me to be near you, after...?"

John keeps looking down at the table, and Rodney can't stand it anymore, says, "Yes, yes of course, idiot. Look, I'm not going to bother you, I won't talk to you, I won't touch you, just, just come."

John looks up at him at that, questioning expression on his face, looking like he's searching Rodney's face for an explanation. Of what, Rodney can't think.

"For Amelia," Rodney says, then wants to kick himself, because John's expression turns stony.

Still, it must have worked, because that night he comes, sliding into position against the farthest wall, back in the place he started in, a whole room away from Amelia.

This time, John doesn't move closer to her infant chair every night. He sits in the same place every time he comes, always slipping out well before Rodney's done playing. But he comes.

Rodney's music is colored by his mood, and he finds himself playing pieces laden with melancholy, sneaking in some of Cash's slower ballads if John goes to sleep.

It's so tenuous, this connection, but it's something.

One night, when Rodney thinks John's asleep, he lets himself go further than he has up until now, lets himself wander into a long complicated piece he wrote when John was gone, the one that speaks most clearly of loss. It has echoes of the gospel underpinnings of Cash, the precise joy of Bach, the yearning of Mozart's best, but it's wholly his own: a sonata of Rodney's loneliness, mixed with his growing bond with Amelia.

He forgets where he is, forgets who's in the room, forgets everything except letting the music flow. When he's done, he has to stretch a little, arching his back up, splaying out his hands over the keyboard.

"I never knew you played." John's voice, soft from the shadowed corner of the room.

Rodney closes his eyes and slumps with relief. Everything isn't hopeless, if John's talking to him. "It. It wasn't something I wanted to think about," Rodney says quietly. He's afraid to turn around, afraid to do anything to puncture the mood here in this darkened room. "I hadn't played since I was ten. Until, well."

"Jesus," John says. "It's beautiful. You play like, like nobody else. Why the hell did you stop?"

Rodney's never talked to anyone about this, ever. He hesitates.

John must read Rodney's reluctance in his silence or his body language. He says, "Sorry. I've got no right to ask."

John's voice sounds raw with some type of pain that Rodney doesn't understand, and he shakes his head, dares to half-turn his face toward where John is sitting.

"No. I just mainly don't talk about it, that's all. I had a teacher when I was that age -- I was a prodigy." Rodney waits for John to make fun of him, but it never comes. He misses it, the teasing, so much, not that he'll ever admit that. Or maybe he will, because despite himself, the next thing out of his mouth is, "Well, aren't you going to give me shit for saying I was a prodigy?"

John clears his throat and stands up. "Never again." He leaves the room quietly, and Rodney sits in the dark for a long, long time after he leaves.

John doesn't talk to Rodney again during his nightly visits to the Music Room, but he comes every night. Sometimes Rodney catches glimpses of John's face, and he sees an expression there that makes him believe John doesn't really want to come, but is somehow compelled. Rodney doesn't try to hide the music he's playing any more, but John doesn't say anything that indicates he's figured out that some of the music is more to his taste than Rodney's.

Increasingly, John comes early enough that Amelia's still awake. Sometimes, she's on Rodney's lap, doing her version of singing, when John walks in. Rodney forces himself not to turn around, not to try to get John to interact with her. He can't help showing her off a little, though, getting her to sing, to babble and clap her hands. At first he feels funny talking to her like he always does: it's not exactly baby talk, but it's not in his normal tones either. But he's decided, fuck it. Things are so absurdly fucked-up anyway between him and John, what's one more embarrassing intimacy. He knows, too, that some small part of him keeps hoping that if he shares himself with John, John will eventually share back.

Rodney freezes the first times Amelia says, "dada," but John doesn't make a sound and Rodney acts like it doesn't mean anything, which really, it doesn't.

One night very late, after Amelia's been asleep a long time, after he'd thought John was long asleep too, after Rodney's played one of his compositions that, to his ears, pretty much lays him bare, John suddenly talks. "When I..." he says into the silence.

Rodney freezes in place on the bench and closes his eyes, wills John to continue.

"When I was there. On Bucklin's ship," John murmurs. "Sometimes, when I felt most -- most alone. When it seemed like I couldn't keep going..."

Rodney's frozen in place, heart aching, thinking of John alone in the dark during the hell of his life on that ship.

John's voice continues, steady in the late-night quiet. "Sometimes I felt like I heard music, something like music, in my head. I thought I was going crazy at first. But then I figured, so what, because it kept me going sometimes. Something to hold onto. It sounded like this."

"That's good," Rodney says, knowing how lame he sounds, but afraid to attempt anything more for fear of saying the wrong thing.

"No," John says, and then he talks, more words than he's said to Rodney since he's been back, words that sound like they're being forced out of somewhere deep inside him. "I mean, it sounded exactly like this. I thought I was making it up, but it was this music, these pieces you're playing. How--?"

Rodney turns and allows himself to look at John. There's a note in John's voice Rodney hasn't heard since he's been back, something very real. Rodney feels his own forehead wrinkling. "I don't know," Rodney says. "I started coming here when music seemed to help Amelia so much. I started, well, sort of writing things. Do you--?" Rodney swallows. "Do you mean, you heard these pieces, this instrument?"

John presses his lips together and stands to leave. "Must have been imagining it," he says, expression and voice shuttered again.

Rodney doesn't understand it, but he remembers the feeling he had sometimes when he was playing, like he was reaching out to John wherever he was, through the dark reaches of space. He swallows and looks right at John. "Maybe not," he says softly. "Stranger things have happened."

John doesn't answer, but he gives a short, jerky nod right before he leaves.

He doesn't talk again, the next night or the next, and he doesn't move any closer to Amelia. But he's there. He's there.

Before Rodney can figure out what to try next with John, things shift gears completely. The Daedalus finally arrives. Caldwell narrows his eyes when they describe what Bucklin's been doing, and after a few minutes closeted with Woolsey, they have a go for a mission to stop him. Now all they need is a location for Bucklin's fleet. With the weird luck that occasionally visits, it's only the day after the Daedalus arrives when all hell breaks loose because the scanning programs Rodney set up are blaring a warning. Bucklin's fleet is hovering out of sight and has just made a people-dump on a deserted planet near the current location of the Wraith fleet.

Astoundingly, Woolsey and Rodriguez let John go on the mission -- though really, Rodney reflects, it's hard to imagine telling John he can't go; he wouldn't want to be the one trying to tell him that, that's for sure. Teyla is assigned to "assist" Sheppard, which only allays Rodney's concerns slightly.

He's left Amelia with Ronon, who has Torren also. It's killing him, Rodney can tell, but Ronon promised Teyla, and you don't go against a promise to her, you just don't. Not about something like this. Ronon and Teyla and he discussed it, too, and they decided they didn't want there to be any chance that Amelia would end up back with the Sheppard family, something that could happen if all of them were lost on the mission.

Rodney vows right then that he's not going to let John get away with ignoring the situation with Amelia any longer; he's going to force him to face his responsibilities as a father, like it or not. It's just wrong that the people who are watching out for Amelia's future are everyone other than John.

The raid on Bucklin's operations goes exactly as planned. They use a few puddlejumpers, but it's really the Daedalus that is the centerpiece of the plan.

Rodney's assigned to ensure that the fleet's computer systems are under their control and that no evidence is destroyed in the labs.

Teams of marines are inserted into each of the fleet's ships and swiftly overpower their amateur guards. Bucklin's fleet has operated on stealth and fear and zeal, not military prowess, and it shows: they're no match for a Sheppard-planned surprise assault. The operation is flawless; perfectly timed and executed. It's clear, though, that had they attempted to conquer the fleet back when they rescued John, it would have gone the other direction; the ships of the fleet have more arms, and more sophisticated ones, than any of them would have predicted. The element of surprise prevents the fleet from using most of its weapons, and the Atlantean and Daedalus soldiers suffer only a few injuries.

Rodney's had a niggling worry in the corner of his brain about Sheppard during the whole operation, even as most of his thoughts have been centered on bringing the ship's systems under Atlantean control. This morning John had seemed almost too-casual in his demeanor, and weirdly, he actually spoke to Rodney at breakfast even without Rodney first speaking to him.

So Teyla's call over the headset almost doesn't surprise him, Teyla sounding as close to panicky as she ever gets, saying something about, "Lied to me, though you may not believe it." Oh, Rodney believes it alright; Sheppard can hide just about anything if he sets his mind to it. Rodney bites his tongue to prevent himself from asking Teyla how the hell she could have lost track of John; he can tell she's out of her head, frantic now. If it had been Ronon, he reflects in a weird moment of irrelevance, he undoubtedly would have lost track of John even sooner.

"What do we know?" Rodney snaps.

"It is unclear how, but things got -- mixed up. Orders changed. And no one has Bucklin himself yet. People do not know where he is, though they believe that he is either in his quarters or in the cells where they hold prisoners."

"Okay, okay," Rodney says, snapping his fingers and directing his staff to complete the work in the lab, already jogging towards the transporters. "I'll check Bucklin's quarters, you check--"

"The holding areas. Teyla out."

Bucklin certainly didn't spare any expense on his quarters: they're huge and have mirrors everywhere, and lush carpeting, and items which look like they've been scavenged from every culture in the galaxy.

But as he skids to a stop in Bucklin's bedroom, he doesn't see anything except John, standing over Bucklin's body.

Bucklin's on the floor, his one hand secured behind his back, legs tied, face already a bloody and bruised mess, and John's aiming a kick at his ribs. He connects and the guy screams, full-out, and Rodney thinks he hears ribs shattering. John kicks him again, and the guy gasps, "Please! No more."

John smiles, a smile Rodney's never seen before, or strike that, seen a couple of times, but never etched so sharply into the planes of John's face. It's a smile that sends ice through his veins. John bends to pick up a wicked looking knife from where it's lying on the floor and kneels next to the guy, who's writhing on the carpet. "There's more," John tells him, voice low and hard. "There's so much more."

The knife's at the guy's throat now, digging in so that blood is welling, then spilling over his neck onto the carpet. Bucklin whimpers, but John smiles again, then murmurs, "Don't like it used on you, huh? Used it on plenty of us. Don't move," and begins carving a shallow line down the guy's sternum, down his chest, where his shirt is already cut open.

Bucklin catches Rodney in his peripheral vision, and latches onto his face like a lifeline. He's panting and sweating, arching his body ineffectually away from the knife. He says, voice hoarse, "Please, stop him. Stop him."

Rodney watches, sickened, as blood wells sluggishly in the wake of John's knife, blooms and spreads on Bucklin's white shirt.

"Please," Bucklin begs, eyes fixed on Rodney.

"John," Rodney whispers.

John's head snaps toward Rodney and his eyes narrow, lips firming into a hard line. "Don't."

"John," Rodney repeats, taking a step forward.

Bucklin whispers, "Make him stop," and Rodney ignores him. Sheppard backhands the guy casually, a hard one that knocks his head around, then digs the point of the knife into his lower belly.

John meets Rodney's eyes easily. Almost casually, he recites, "Jephson of the Alcalante, Misa of the Trabal, Rashaan of Athos." As he speaks, the knife digs into Bucklin's abdomen a little, and he screams again.

John waits until Bucklin's screams have subsided to gasping sobs and starts again. "Amelia's mother," John whispers roughly, running the knife almost gently back up Bucklin's torso. "The virgins, the young girls."

Bucklin is keening now, tears running from his eyes, begging Rodney silently.

"John, you still can-- The justice system." Rodney stops. John obviously isn't listening. Isn't letting himself listen.

"Justice?" John's voice is quiet and terrifying. "If it existed, this would be what he got every day. And if there was anyone he gave a shit about? He'd know this was what they were getting, too."

"I--" Bucklin gasps between sobs, "I was doing it for them, to protect them, protect humanity from the Wraith, from--ahhh!" John stands up quickly and kicks Bucklin again, square in the ribs, using all of his strength. Bucklin's thrashing on the floor, blood trickling from his mouth.

Bile rises in Rodney's throat. He reaches, and finds, what he's looking for.

"I wish I had years with him, but I don't," John says. "I have to make it count."

"John, stop," Rodney manages. "Stop."

"Why the fuck should I stop?" John snarls.

"You know why." Rodney's voice sounds hoarse, but it's steady, though desperation is rising in his throat and threatening to choke him. "It's not right, it's not you."

"This is me, Rodney. Even if it wasn't before. Which, actually, pretty sure it was."

"No," Rodney breathes, and brings up the gun in his hand. "No." He raises it and aims at Bucklin. He has a perfect head shot; he knows because John taught him. John's safely off to the side for a moment, and Rodney's arm is completely steady. He sights just like John taught him, sights and pictures John if he is allowed to do what he wants to, if he gets to keep doing this; even if they bring Bucklin to Atlantis John won't stop, and -- no. He squeezes softly, just a simple squeeze. The gun fires and Bucklin's head explodes, a perfect shot. John's hit with splatters of blood.

John turns and looks at Rodney, a look of pure venom, then starts walking toward him, but Rodney doesn't have time for that; the marines will be here any minute. He takes a breath and sights again, shoots Bucklin in the belly and the side, two more perfect shots, removing the evidence of what John's been doing.

"Give me your knife," Rodney demands as John advances on him, breathing hard and fast, fury in his eyes.

Rodney makes himself hold his ground, makes himself meet John's eyes. He's scared -- he'd have to be an idiot not to be. John grabs his bicep with brutal fingers, yanks Rodney close and brings the knife to his throat. Rodney has time to note, hysterically, that the blade is still red.

"You felt sorry for him?" Sheppard sneers into Rodney's face.

"No, you idiot," Rodney snaps. He's pretty sure it's the bravest thing he's ever done. Rodney's exhausted and afraid and full of adrenalin. Before he can stop it, the truth begins to slide out from his lips, even as he feels his eyes narrow in an attempt not to look like he's scared out of his mind. "If you think I care about Bucklin, you're even more fucked up than I thought," Rodney spits.

"Then why the fuck," John asks, breathing hard into Rodney's face.

"Because this isn't who you are. And you don't need something else to beat yourself up over, later."

John's eyes go wide, then narrow. He's got one hand holding Rodney tight up against his body, the other holding the knife to his neck. Rodney can feel it pricking into the soft skin near his jugular, feel John's hand around his biceps, grip like iron, fingers digging harshly into the muscle. Rodney closes his eyes for a moment, remembering kisses, sweat, hard-lean-body-up-against-his-own. John's breathing is harsh and loud, and Rodney can practically feel the endorphins and adrenalin pumping through John's body.

"Here's the fucking knife," John says after an infinite amount of time. "Here's the fucking knife." He loosens his grip and lowers the knife, puts it into Rodney's shaking hand, then walks out of the door.

Rodney manages to get the knife under his shirt before the marines charge in.

"He was attacking Sheppard," Rodney manages to say to the lead marine, pointing with his chin to Bucklin on the ground.

"No loss," the marine says. "I've seen what's in the holding cells. Fucker deserved worse than this."

Rodney can only nod.

Woolsey takes one look at Rodney when he returns from Bucklin's ship and sends him to his quarters to rest. "The analysis of what we've got, what they were doing, all of that can wait," he says. "We've got all the worst-off in the infirmary and we have people manning all the ships to sort through the rest. You need to go rest. That's an order."

Teyla calls him as he's picking up Amelia from Ronon. "What, did you lose him again?" Rodney says, carefully keeping his mind blank of everything he's seen today; last he'd seen, John was being led into a jumper with Teyla's hand hard around his elbow.

The silence on the other end is deafening.

"Oh, god, you did! Kidding, I was kidding!" he attempts.

"He got back fine. But he wanted to be alone, and I just think we ought to ensure that he is alright," Teyla says.

"No, because I'm so stupid I can't see that he's just a little bit messed up!" Rodney says, heart tripping into a rapid beat. Damnit, he'd thought John wouldn't evade Teyla; clearly, he's underestimated him again.

They decide to split up: Teyla wants Rodney to check the Music Room and his own quarters first, despite Rodney's protests that John is highly unlikely to go there. Teyla and Ronon are checking some of John's other regular haunts.

The Music Room is empty, and by now Rodney's a little frantic; strike that, a lot frantic. He's never seen John like he was today; Rodney's completely out of his depth and he knows it. If they don't find him soon, he's going to call Dr. Rodriguez tonight, no matter how much John might hate him forever.

By the time he reaches his apartment, Amelia is thankfully asleep in her infant chair, so he carefully transfers her to her crib; fortunately, this is one of those times when she doesn't wake up at the motion. After a quick search of the third bedroom and the balcony reveals nothing, Rodney suddenly realizes that a shower's running, and has been since he walked into the apartment.

A bolt of hot fear shoots a new round of adrenalin through his body; maybe John has hurt himself, maybe he's finally given in to the pain that he's obviously carrying around.

Rodney jogs down the hall, tries the bathroom door. It's locked. "Sheppard!" he yells, banging on the door. "Sheppard!" No answer, no answer, and he's getting desperate now, so he pulls out the multi-use tool he keeps in his pocket with shaking hands, runs a blade in the space between the door and the jamb, and yanks the door open.

Swirling hot steam engulfs him, and for a second or two he can't see a thing. After it clears a little he strides over to the shower and yanks the door open.

John's in the shower in his black tee and BDUs, leaning with his arms crossed on the back wall and his head resting on his arms, back to the spray. Water is streaming in rivulets through his hair, down his back, off his legs. Blood swirls and eddies in the drain, and there are still dark patches of it in John's hair, on his stomach where his shirt's ridden up, on his arms. But Rodney can tell it's not John's blood, or at least nothing fresh.

Rodney's heart beats hard. John's alive, alive and here, not lying cut open or overdosed on pills. He's in the shower, here in Rodney's shower, seriously messed up, but here. He taps his headset and tells Teyla he's found John, tells her he'll let her know if he needs her or Ronon.

"Jesus, Sheppard," he says, "Jesus Christ."

John doesn't move, just stays leaned up against his folded arms, body unnaturally stiff. Rodney thinks he sees a slight tremor, a small shaking, running through John's body.

"Come on," Rodney says. "Come on," but John doesn't move, just stays there, body trembling perceptibly now.

Rodney can't reach the faucet from where he's standing, and John isn't moving.

Rodney's learned a few things over the past year and a half, he reflects as he hovers there, uncertain. He's learned a little bit about courage, and choices. So it isn't even really that hard; he doesn't waste much time thinking about what he's going to do, even though in some ways this is harder than standing in front of a knife or discharging a weapon at a guy's head: this is getting into John's space.

He steps into the shower.

"Ouch! Damn," he says, as the hard beat of too-hot water hits his back, soaks him immediately.

John hasn't moved, is still leaning up against the wall. His hair is sleek and dark with water, his tee and BDUs are plastered to his body, and he's shaking all over.

John's given no indication that he knows Rodney's there, and now that he is, Rodney doesn't know what to do. Anything he thinks of is dangerous. He wants to touch John, reach for him, but he's not sure he can stand to see him go stiff and still, can't stand the thought of making things even more awkward than they already are. But if he doesn't reach for him, doesn't try, John will just stay alone in his pain, whatever it is.

Rodney's heart hurts, literally hurts -- and he'd thought that was an expression -- as he watches John's tight back muscles under his soaking tee, sees the tense line of John's shoulders.

It's only a few inches, the journey of a hand from his side to John's arm, but, ridiculous as it sounds, it feels more intimate than anything they've done.

He touches John's arm, just below the bicep, and when there's no reaction, he gently, gently pulls, just a tiny motion; enough that John can turn if he wants and not turn if he doesn't.

The water is beating down on Rodney's back now, and he really should have turned it off first, but all he'd been thinking was John.

John is still trembling -- Rodney can feel it under his hand -- is he crying? Impossible, impossible, Sheppard wouldn't, couldn't, but his body is definitely shaking under Rodney's hand, and then, and then --

And then John's turning, turning, not pulling away from Rodney's hand, thank god, turning and Rodney doesn't care about the shower, the water, the walls that John holds strong against this. He doesn't care, he needs to feel John in his arms, alive and warm under the shaking.

So he reels him in, fights past any remaining resistance on John's part, pulls his trembling body closer, closer, until he's holding him, first loosely, then tighter, tighter. He almost lost John forever, both when he was gone for that year and a half, and more recently, after he came back. He might be losing him right now, because what John did, there in Bucklin's bedroom, it's going to be hard for John to deal with, and whatever happened on Bucklin's ship when he was a prisoner, John's not anywhere near having dealt with.

"Please, please," he hears himself babbling into the crook of John's shoulder, not knowing what he's asking for, lost himself in things he never meant to feel.

John's arms have been hanging loose next to his sides, his body passive, but suddenly it all changes. John gasps, a wet choked sound, and then his hands come up and touch Rodney's back, softly at first, then pull Rodney to him so hard he can hardly breathe.

Tighter, tighter, John's arms come around him, and Rodney's arms echo the motion, pulling John's shaky body to him, rubbing his back, his shoulders, anywhere he can touch.

They stand there forever -- thank goodness for Ancient showers and their limitless supply of hot water, Rodney thinks crazily -- until eventually it seems like it's been enough time, and Rodney fumbles behind him and turns off the water.

"Idiot," Rodney murmurs, stripping John as quickly as he can of his sodden clothes and wrapping him in towels he grabs haphazardly from the rack. John just stands there, still shaking, so Rodney strips his own clothes off briskly, wraps himself in a towel and hauls on John.

"I should go," John whispers.

"Don't be ridiculous," Rodney says, talking over John. "You should have moved in here weeks ago." He half-pushes, half-pulls John into the extra bedroom, after considering and quickly rejecting the idea of taking him into his room. He yanks the covers back on the bed and pushes John down into it, pulling the damp towels off John as he goes. He pulls the sheet and blanket up over John, then fumbles in the closet for a spare quilt, mounds that on top of him as well. "Don't even think about leaving," Rodney says. "You need rest and you have to get warm. Just stay."

"Sorry," John whispers into the pillow. "Sorry."

"Oh for god's sake, there's nothing--" But John's eyes are closed, arm out-flung on the bed. Rodney stares at him a long time, fighting not to climb in next to him, soak in his living warmth.

Rodney sleeps huddled in the chair in the corner of the bedroom John's asleep in, wearing sweats he's pulled on hastily, afraid to crawl into the bed even though it would just be to sleep, but even more afraid to go to his own bedroom and miss it if John gets up in the night. He's afraid of what John might do to himself, where he might go, what he might decide to confess.

His back hurts and he wakes up half a dozen times, but he's not going to leave until he knows John's okay. Or, well, not exactly okay, but at least not like he was earlier tonight. He contemplates calling Rodriguez about a billion times in the night, but then every time, he thinks, but, psychiatrist. He knows he could tell Ronon and Teyla -- they'd understand -- but he's pretty sure John would consider him telling anyone a unique kind of violation, something only he should do, if he chooses to.

"Hey," John whispers, eyes glinting in the dark, waking Rodney out of a light doze sometime near dawn. "The baby is crying."

"Okay, okay," Rodney says, groggy and exhausted down to his bones. A glance at his watch shows it's three in the morning.

John pushes his covers partway back and says, "I'll head out." He keeps his eyes down when he talks to Rodney, stares at the floor between them. His voice is scratchy and hoarse-sounding.

Rodney's at the end of his rope and can't take it any more, finally loses the temper he's been holding onto for weeks. "Because that's what I need, one more thing to worry about."

John looks up at Rodney, obviously startled. "What?"

Rodney sighs. "I know, I know, you hate being near me, for all kinds of reasons which are I'm sure very good, but seriously, I'm not going to touch you, I'm not going to get in your space. I get it, okay, all that was a mistake! So would you just, just stay here, so I don't have to lose even more of my beauty rest worrying about where you are?"

"But that's not--" John says, but Rodney's on a roll now; he can tell that last night loosened something in John, at least for the moment, and he's going to take advantage of that while he can. "And furthermore, just move in! People are starting to be seriously freaked-out by you living in the infirmary guest room; it's, it's -- unseemly."

"Unseemly?" John says, and Rodney's chest feels tight, because he almost swears he sees a suspicious tilt to John's lips, the bare shadow of a smirk.

"Yes," Rodney says. "And don't think for a second that I'm not making you see Rodriguez, like every day. I'll kick your ass myself if you don't stop bullshitting him and start talking about real stuff, and I will so tell Woolsey what really happened over there if you don't get real with Rodriguez, and I'm not even kidding."

John stares at him, wide-eyed, then looks down again, pressing his lips together. And that's not what Rodney meant, he didn't mean to make John feel worse.

"Look," Rodney says, hearing Amelia's fussing escalate to actual crying down the hall. "Yesterday -- well. Can we? Can we just forget about it? The whole thing. Other than talking to Rodriguez about what happened for that year and a half. Or someone, talk to someone. Talk to Teyla, talk to Amelia for all I care, just -- you have to, John."

"I know," John says softly. "I'll. Yeah."

"And seriously," Rodney continues, pressing his advantage while he can. "People here worry about you. So would you stop being a selfish asshole and at least pretend you're getting better. Move in here. Just fucking do it."

John's head comes up and his forehead wrinkles, but he nods after a few seconds, short and sharp.

Rodney sighs out a breath he didn't even know he was holding. "Now if you'll excuse me," Rodney says, "I have a hungry baby to take care of."

"You shouldn't have to--" John begins, the lines of his face stark, voice low. "After I--"

"Not listening!" Rodney waves his hand dismissively back at John. "Unseemly!" Whatever John was trying to say is lost as Rodney heads out the door to feed Amelia.

John's gone when Rodney wakes up. Rodney kicks the frame of the perfectly-made bed John slept in; he can just see him making the corners perfectly square before he went away to have a freak-out, or worse.

Except then Rodney notices that there's a small pile of stuff against the wall; a duffle bag, a couple of photos, a pair of running shoes. There's nothing particularly personal -- no Cash poster or guitar -- but the stuff is definitely John's.

He closes his eyes and sways on his feet for a moment, then goes to get himself and Amelia ready for the day.

Rodney keeps worrying that it won't last, but John's been sleeping in the spare bedroom for the last week. He slips into the apartment after Rodney and Amelia have gone to bed, or comes in before them, so they never see him, but he's there at night, an almost-silent presence.

He keeps coming to the Music Room too, never talking, but he's back to inching nearer to Amelia's infant seat, each night a little closer.

Amelia's taken to babbling at him at the beginning of the evening, making her stuffed toys fly and kicking her feet, crooning along with whatever Rodney's playing.

One night, Rodney feels a chill in his chest after playing longer than usual. He turns slowly and there it is, what he's been hoping for, for such a long time. John's next to Amelia's little seat, curled up asleep on some large pillows on the floor. Amelia's asleep, too, face turned toward John's like she was looking at him right before nodding off.

John's hand is resting on Amelia, her tiny hand nestled snug in his large one.

Rodney just looks at them for long minutes, fighting the compressed-feeling around his heart. It's how it should be; it's what is best for both of them, father and daughter together. Sure, it might take some more time before they're completely comfortable together, but Rodney can see the path ahead. Each day, John and Amelia will get a little more used to each other. Each day, he'll teach John something about her. And soon, very soon, there won't be any need for Rodney any more. They'll move out, be together as they should. He'll turn into Uncle Rodney, a vague presence in her life, John's friend and only that, again.

After a long time, he turns back to the piano. The Moonlight Sonata flows out of his fingers, its haunting melancholy saying the things he can barely articulate even inside his own head. When he turns back, a long time later, Sheppard is gone, and Amelia is awake, smiling at him with her big hazel eyes, in the quiet way she does sometimes in the middle of the night.

The next night, while Rodney's still putting her empty bottle back in the diaper bag, before he's even begun to play the Ancient piano, Amelia flings Dragon down on the pillows where John's sitting. Rodney sits back on his haunches and watches, mesmerized, as John stares at the toy lying at his feet, then up at Amelia in her infant seat. Amelia's got a look in her eyes Rodney recognizes very well -- a mocking fond look which dares John to do anything but retrieve her toy.

After a long moment, John reaches for it.

"That's Dragon," Rodney says softly, beginning the process of teaching John about his daughter.

"Dragon," John says. "Dragon's looking a little worse for wear."

Rodney looks at the stuffed toy. It's filthy and stuffing is seeping out a crack near its tail, and there are worn places where Amelia's teethed on it. "Yeah," he says. "But it's hers. She doesn't care."

John looks at Rodney, looks right into his eyes and swallows. "Yeah, I guess so." He turns toward Amelia, offers her the toy. His hand is only shaking a little. "Here you go."

Amelia smiles a huge smile and laughs. "Da!" she says. "Dada!"

"Holy shit," John says.

"Yeah," Rodney says. He looks at John and Amelia and connections that have been vaguely bothering him grow inside his brain. "She, when you were gone? Listen, this is going to sound crazy, but--"

"Yeah?" John says, staring at Amelia.

"It's like she knew you were on Bucklin's ship. Woolsey was about to let him get away, and she, she started acting really weird. She let me know, she knew you were on that ship, I swear, and how can that be possible?"

John frowns. "What are you saying?"

"I don't know," Rodney says. "And make a note of this day and time, because that's not something that happens, like ever."

"Huh," John says. He stares at Amelia for a while and then leaves, silent.

Woolsey and Rodriguez clear John for flight.

"I was wondering if you, you and Amelia, might want to, you know," John says, ducking his head in the living room where he's surprised Rodney this morning. "Fly. Sunset?"

Rodney's weirdly tongue-tied in response; he just nods when he figures out what John's talking about.

They do a simple arc around the planet, chasing the ball of the sun for a while, flying into full day, then back into night. The ocean scrolls bluish-black under their wings, and John's flying grows in confidence as they go. He rolls hard to the left as they fly in sight of Atlantis, and Amelia laughs out loud.

John grins over his shoulder at her and banks right. She laughs again and flings her arms up, kicks her legs.

Rodney can't help but smile, seeing their matching smiles, the wild joy in their eyes. "But if you take her anywhere near a ferris wheel, I'm coming after you," Rodney says, fighting down a grin of his own. "Just what the world needs," he grouses, "another insane Sheppard."

John sobers at that, staring at Amelia and then cutting his eyes away sharply.

Rodney wants to kick himself for saying exactly the wrong thing.

When they're back in Atlantis, John stumbles as he walks out of the Jumper. Rodney grabs for him instinctively with his left hand; he's holding Amelia tight to his chest with his right arm. John lurches back away from Rodney's hand, then catches himself, but too late for Rodney not to have seen the emotion in his eyes: fear.

Something flips over inside Rodney, the dam he's kept locked tight breaks, and he snaps, "I told you, I'm not going to touch you like that. Jesus Christ John, I'm not going to attack you; you're safe with me!"

"I -- what?" John gasps. "I'm not afraid of you touching me," he says fast and intense into Rodney's face, as if startled into saying something real.

"Well. Good!" Rodney yells. "Then what the hell--"

Amelia screams and they both turn to look at her. Rodney's hand has tightened around her inadvertently while he and John yelled at each other. "Sorry," Rodney says to her. "Sorry."

Other people are milling around and they both back off, go their separate ways. Damnit, Rodney thinks, kicking a recalcitrant computer console that evening. Damnit.

"I don't know where you got that idea," John says, startling Rodney late that night as he rests between songs; he'd thought John was asleep, curled next to Amelia.

Unfortunately, Rodney knows exactly what John's talking about. He swallows. "You know, what happened on Bucklin's ship. What they did to you." He keeps his back turned to John, giving them both privacy, keeps his voice very neutral.

"They didn't," John says, so low Rodney can hardly hear him. "Could have. Did, to some guys. I was too used up by the time they would have."

"Oh. I thought--" Rodney says, then kicks himself for saying anything to interrupt the flow of words, which from Sheppard is a veritable tidal wave.

"I'd give anything for that to be how it went down," John whispers into the dark behind Rodney.

Chills run up Rodney's spine. He waits and it feels like the whole city is waiting with him, breathless. He forces himself not to ask, not to ask. John doesn't say anything more, just stands up in the quiet and walks out of the Music Room.

If John isn't afraid of Rodney touching him, then what is he afraid of?

Rodney walks into Amelia's room to settle her in her crib; she's fallen asleep on the way home tonight.

There's someone in the chair in the corner, something glinting in his hands. "Jesus Christ!" Rodney whispers when the figure resolves into John, holding something thin and shiny. "If you want me to have a heart attack, just say so!"

"Sorry," John murmurs, but Rodney can tell by his voice that he's not present enough to really know what he's saying.

"Oh god," Rodney says, because he's just figured out what John has in his hands. "They were. I should have given them back to you, I just--"

"I hoped," John whispers. "I hoped someone would find her in time, she deserved that."

Rodney freezes where he's standing.

"She was so young," John says, almost too softly for Rodney to hear. "Brave. Must have put the dog tags on Amelia, when she knew she wouldn't--" John swallows and looks at the floor. "I snuck them into her hand, when they took her. I knew I wasn't getting out of there, figured they might be dumping her. There were rumors. She was sick. I thought there was a chance--"

Rodney knows he means there was a chance someone would find her, find the dog tags, that word would somehow get to Atlantis -- obviously one in a million or so, but still.

For John to give them up, though, give up something that integral to who he is, that last link to his past... he must have thought it was hopeless, that he'd never get away.

"We never. We never stopped looking for you, I wouldn't, I wouldn't ever--" Rodney chokes on his words.

John nods. "I know."

"She--" Rodney tries desperately to figure out what to say, what comfort he can give. "She didn't suffer, at the end. I asked Keller. She was peaceful, she made sure it was peaceful, and--" He stops himself from babbling through sheer force of will. John's finally talking to him, and Rodney's so afraid he'll screw that up.

But he has a question that's burning to be asked, and he lacks the strength of will to stop it. "Did you--?" Rodney coughs and looks down, then swallows and looks up at John, who is looking at Amelia in her crib behind Rodney. "Did you, did you love her?" Rodney asks, voice soft, soft.

John's head snaps up and he looks at Rodney. "No."

"I mean, it's none of my. That is, I don't mean. I shouldn't ask that, it's not--"

"No. It wasn't like that." John's face, what Rodney can see of it in the dark, has closed off.

Rodney swallows. "You can have them, of course, the dog tags. Take them, you--"

"They belong here," John says. "They gave me new ones anyway, and these; they belong here."

John stands up and leaves. Rodney hears the door to his bedroom shut quietly behind him. Rodney hopes desperately that he hasn't said too much, or too little.

Rodney's given up on hiding his music from John. He plays the arrangements he created when John was gone, doesn't hide the emotion behind them; what's the point, it's there in everything he's done anyway. He figures if John can't handle it, he would have stopped showing up here a long time ago. Still, it feels like uncovering a dark secret when John finally says late one night: "It's Cash. There's Walk the Line and Man in Black in there. And that one, Never Walk Alone, you wove that in somehow to the Bach, what the hell, Rodney." John's on the sofa near the piano, Amelia's seat at his feet.

Oh, shit. Rodney glances at John over his shoulder. "It's, well. It was a challenge, finding the links, the underpinnings that would fit them together. I needed a distraction," Rodney says. Lying without lying, a good technique he's become better at.

"Huh," John says.

Rodney suddenly thinks of Amelia's namesake. For her, courage was, "The price that life exacts;" she'd said people had to pay for peace with courage. He's pretty sick of being courageous, but on the other hand, the alternative is so often worse.

He takes a breath. "See, my teacher was right," he says to the piano softly. The urge toward confession is a frightening pressure under his sternum, in his throat.

"Rodney?" John whispers, voice thick with something Rodney doesn't know how to categorize.

"My teacher was right." He turns on the bench and looks at John.

"Your teacher?" John's eyes are glistening and dark and full of questions.

"When I was a kid. I hadn't played since then. Jesus, thirty years. I left it behind, the music. My teacher said--" Rodney swallows. John keeps looking at him, steady.

Rodney bites his lip, then raises his chin and looks John in the eye. "He told me that I was a prodigy technically. That I had all the notes, all the skills. But he said I lacked the feeling behind the notes, that I would never succeed with music as a career."

John's forehead wrinkles, a line creasing it in the middle. "Fucked up-thing to say to a kid."

"Yes," Rodney says. "But he was right." He lowers his voice even more. "He said that, for all intents and purposes, what I was doing when I played wasn't music. I had all the notes, but none of the feeling. And he was right. Until last year, I didn't know, didn't let myself get it, life, what it's about. That stuff," he finishes lamely.

John ducks his head, and Rodney thinks the conversation is over. He turns back to the piano, and yeah, he feels pretty exposed, but it's okay, it's fine.

"They--" John says softly. Something in his voice makes Rodney keep his hands still, hold his breath.

He stays in the position he's in, to let John start talking without facing him.

John's voice is rusty-sounding, low and hoarse. "They pumped us full of drugs, hormones, testosterone, experimental crap. I fought it, but." John takes a big breath, and Rodney risks turning.

John's looking at Amelia now, and Rodney can't help it, he needs to be closer to him, so he carefully, slowly, telegraphing every move, slides off the bench and over the few feet to the far end of the sofa.

John talks in a rushed murmur, looking down. "They stuck you with someone, matched for a genetic linkup they hadn't tried yet. It was pretty random; they didn't ever have a clue I had the ATA gene."

Rodney can imagine the lengths John went to ensure they stayed ignorant. He shudders.

"It was like a fire burning you up, all you could think about was," John puts a hand over his eyes, then pulls it away and looks straight at Rodney, as if challenging him to react, "was fucking. They made us do it, over and over, till something took." A muscle in John's jaw tightens.

Rodney gasps in a breath. He wants to go kill Bucklin all over again, but do it slowly this time, make it personal.

"They watched sometimes. For fun." John says low. "I tried--" John's voice breaks, and Rodney can't help it, he's sliding over next to him. He doesn't touch him, because he doesn't think John wants that, he's promised John he's safe with him, but just in case John wants it, he tries to silently convey the fact he's there, he's there.

"I resisted, fought it, fought them," John says, looking at his hands. Rodney remembers the bruising around John's wrists, on his body.

"It hurt. To fight it. The chemicals made it hurt. I gave in." John's voice is a ragged whisper.

Rodney's chest is tight, and his eyes prick with heat.

John gasps in a breath, and it's like a dam has broken, and words come rushing out of him. "I tried to be gentle. Rashaan was kind and sweet and in love with her husband and I did that to her. Over and over."

"She--" Rodney says. "She must have known that you--"

"Can you believe it, she tried to fucking comfort me. They--" John pulls in another long breath. "They drugged the women, too. Made them want it. But that didn't matter. Because what I did to her--"

Rodney's throat is tight and he feels like he can't breathe. John, of all people, really would rather this were done to him than ever do it to someone else. It's part of John's fundamental nature; he takes care of people, especially the defenseless.

"She made me swear if somehow I got free, I'd find the baby she figured she'd have, take care of it. And I've been shit at that, too. I couldn't even do that."

"John," Rodney says, and his voice sounds strange to his own ears, laden with a tone it's not used to bearing. "John, it wasn't rape."

"She said that, but it was"

"If it was," Rodney says carefully. "If it was, it was done to you too, it was like rape, what they did to you."

John shakes his head, bowed on his chest. "After they took her away, I kind of went nuts. They-- After a while, they put me down in the engines. Kept me chained. Drugged."

"Jesus," Rodney breathes out.

John shakes his head, waves a hand toward Amelia, who's still asleep in her infant carrier near John's feet. "I know it's not her fault," he says. "But I don't know how I can…"

Rodney doesn't want to respond with platitudes. Stuff like this doesn't go away, can't be washed away with time or anything else. He thinks for a while, then says softly, "Do what you have to, what's right. You've always done that. You will with this, too. Time, you just need time."

John looks down again. "What I did to you, that night..." John's hands are white, clenched desperately tight around his knees.

Rodney can feel his brain kick-starting into gear, finally getting the implications of what Sheppard has been thinking. "Are you brain damaged on top of everything else?" Rodney says, relief at John not running out at his sort-of confession making him a little giddy. "You didn't do anything I didn't want. And wait, wait, are you really that stupid? You thought, because of the thing, the thing there on Bucklin's ship, you thought you did that to me?" He snorts out a little laugh. "Um, no?"

John covers his eyes with his hand. "Don't pretend it wasn't--Don't try to protect me."

Rodney can't stand it any more and reaches his hand, slowly, slowly so as not to spook John, to his shoulder, waits until John looks up at him. "I said yes. Are you deaf now too?" He's tried for a mocking tone, but it comes out infinitely gentle.

John searches Rodney's face, then says, "Oh."

"Yes, oh," Rodney says. "I thought I'd fucked up forever, letting that happen. I thought you hated me because of it. Like--" Rodney takes a deep breath. It's probably insanely stupid to bring up the distant past, but to have John actually talking to him seems like too good of an opportunity. "Like before? When we. That time?"

John grimaces and looks down at his hands. "No. I just. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what it was."

"Yeah, well. You and me both."

They stare at each other a moment. John ducks his head and Rodney feels himself flush; he looks away.

Amelia cries and they both startle, then laugh a little. Without talking about it, they walk together through the corridors of the sleeping city, Amelia in Rodney's arms, John carrying the infant seat.

"Well, I'll just--" Rodney says, suddenly shy as they stand inside the apartment.

"Right. I'm going to hit it," John says.

Rodney feeds Amelia her bottle, then heads to his bedroom. The air feels thick, laden with possibilities. He feels like he's a teenager, or a hundred years old. Nothing's going to happen tonight, nothing should happen for some time to come, but he thinks, maybe, something's going to happen one of these days. He waits for the fear any such thing should cause, given his track record with people, given his old ideas of what his life would be. It doesn't come.

"So in what universe does 'meet at the transporter at eight' mean 'lollygag around and make Rodney come and find us,'" Rodney complains as he walks in the door to the apartment.

"Da! Dada ba brrrph!" Amelia crows, crawling faster than the speed of light towards him.

John is lying on his back on the floor with one of Amelia's dresses smashed on the top of his head, holding Blackhawk up in the air in one hand and a newish stuffed whale in the other.

Rodney gapes for a second, then fumbles for the Ancient gadget he carries in his pocket that takes photos as well as stores data.

"Oh, no. No way," John growls. "If you even think about it, the ones I have of you are going on the server, the ones from the Castle Game. And you can't find them: I have them in a secure location." He flips over on his stomach and looks up at Rodney. "And also? Lollygag?"

"Yeah, well, I don't think someone with a dress on his head is in any position to criticize my vocabulary," Rodney says, swooping Amelia up in the air to her delighted cries.

Rodney can't help but sneak glances at John, lying lithe and laughing on the floor, so different outwardly than he was a scant few weeks ago. His eyes linger longer than they should, tracing the filled-out limbs and muscles, the healthy glow to John's face.

"Hey," John says from the floor under Rodney. "Get down here."

"What? No!" Rodney says as Amelia bounces in his arms. John tugs on his leg and Rodney collapses theatrically to the floor, groaning as dramatically as possible to make Amelia laugh on their way down.

"Monster Game!" John growls, and within seconds, Rodney's pinned to the floor under John on one side and Amelia on the other, both of them growling and laughing.

"I'm not scared," Rodney laughs. "And besides, in a galaxy where monsters are real..."

John grins down at him and time seems to slow. Amelia is a warm weight cinched tight in Rodney's left arm and John is pressing him down on the right. They're both holding him down as he pretends to try to get away.

John's grin fades. Rodney stops struggling and John quits laughing, and something snaps, electric and warm, between them. Rodney licks his lips without thought, and he can feel his body go liquid and still under John's.

John leans down and Rodney's hand comes up towards John's graying temple, doesn't quite touch.

"La! Lalala!" Amelia sings, beating softly on Rodney's chest.

They both startle and pull back; their faces are inches apart.

"Uh. Well, I, I better get her started for bed?" Rodney says, hearing his voice squeak embarrassingly. "Unless. Maybe you should try it? Bedtime?"

John nods. "Yeah, time for me to bite the bullet." He stands and reaches out his arms to Amelia, and she goes right into them, laughing. "I'm going in," he says to Rodney, mock military-serious.

"She's been having trouble getting to sleep recently," Rodney says. "You might have to lie down with her."

"Okay, check, princess bed here I come," John says over his shoulder.

Later, much later, the muffled sounds from Amelia's room having ceased a long time ago, Rodney tiptoes down the hall to check them. He has to reach out a steadying hand to grip the doorframe when he sees: John and Amelia are asleep on the twin bed they moved in here for future use. It's not actually decorated princess-style: instead, it's covered with a simple green Athosian woven cloth. John's kicked off his shoes but is still in his BDUs; Amelia's in her yellow footie pajamas. Amelia is snuggled up against John, nestled in his arms. Their faces are inches apart, Amelia's dark hair spread across the pillow, mingling with John's.

Their faces look peaceful, like they've come home.

Rodney's throat hurts and his chest aches, and he's having trouble breathing. They're beautiful, and they've finally found each other.

Eventually he backs away from the door and makes his way to his bedroom. It takes him a long time to get to sleep.

"So I was thinking," Rodney says, a few days later. "That this apartment? It's too much for me, and I think you and Amelia should live here. I'll move, you know, closer to Science and really it will work out for the best and the two of you can have this location which, actually, will be excellent for Amelia's intellectual as well as psychological benefit, with the views of flying things and--"

"Rodney!" John interrupts. "No fucking way. Just, no."

"Language!" Rodney says, covering Amelia's ears with his hands showily. Amelia giggles, probably thinking he's playing some new version of monkey-see-monkey-do.

John rolls his eyes at him across the sofa. "She's ten months old, Rodney."

"Well, if you don't think she's soaking in everything you do or say, ever, to pull out when she's sixteen and wants you to let her stay out past curfew with some hunky football player named Dereck or Josh -- no offense on the football, except actually, offense -- you're sadly mistaken," Rodney says.

They've been watching Star Trek Voyager, which Rodney asserts provides a good female role model in Captain Janeway, but John claims will skew Amelia's perceptions of the Star Trek franchise forever. They've started doing more things together after their conversation in the Music Room; at first it was a little weird, but Rodney thinks they've both gotten used to it, more or less.

"Look, Rodney," John sighs. "First of all, she's just barely getting to know me, and I'm just learning how to take care of her. Second, I still have, well, a lot to work out. Work through."

John fiddles with a string coming out of the weave of the sofa arm. "And third, Amelia needs you. I don't see why we can't stay here, you know, like this." John's forehead wrinkles. "Unless you, you know, want--?" John is engrossed in the sofa arm. "You might want a break from her, me, this." John flaps his hand around in a way that would almost be funny if the subject weren't so serious. "Get on with your life?"

"I--" Rodney's heart is collapsing into a tight ball, even though obviously he knows that sooner or later this arrangement has to end. Does John want him gone? "I can wait?" he tries. "What about you? I mean, eventually I suppose you might want to bring someone here? You know."

"Rodney," John says, in the low voice he uses when something really matters. "I haven't-- Look, that's not really something I've been interested in for a while."

"Okay," Rodney says, heart leaping weirdly in his chest. "Your, um, military? You'll be okay, if we do this a while more?"

John laughs. "Plausible deniability and all that. It's brilliant, actually. Child needs the person who took care of her when supposedly orphaned, also needs her father."

"Yeah," Rodney says, "right. And has the added benefit of being true. So maybe we should wait, give her some more time?"

"Sounds good," John says, then fiddles with the seam on his pants for a while. Rodney can tell he's got something more he wants to say, so he settles in, waits in the way that he's learned sometimes leads to John talking.

Amelia takes the opportunity and says, "dada!" then follows it up by crooning nonsense in the voice she uses when she wants to hear music.

"That's her 'music voice,'" Rodney tells John, diverting Amelia with Whale.

John presses his lips together, then says softly to his lap, "When I heard the music..."

Rodney's brain scrambles to figure out what John's referring to, then gets it: the time on Bucklin's ship. He keeps his voice neutral. "Yes."

"It wasn't just music," John mumbles. "It, warm." He swallows audibly and adds, looking up. "I felt things. It was like I was feeling what she felt."

John ducks his head again, and Rodney's face feels suddenly warm in response.

"But I didn't understand," John says, clearly trying to soldier on through his embarrassment. "I just thought it was something my brain had done, to cope. But, it's--I wasn't, I can't have been; I can feel it now." He looks up at Rodney, eyes a little wild. "Rodney, what the fuck?"

Rodney shakes his head and looks down at Amelia, who's happily gumming Whale, looking outwardly like any other baby. "I don't know," he says softly.

"It kind of kept me going. Every night, I could close my eyes and almost feel safe, happy, remember what that felt like," John murmurs like it's a confession. And maybe it is: Rodney can't imagine someone like John living in captivity for very long.

Rodney looks at John and decides to be brave. Again. "She kind of kept me going, too," he whispers.

The look John turns on Rodney -- full of feeling, not masked, for once -- makes Rodney breathless, makes him want to reach out, just to touch, nothing else. Their eyes catch, and hold.

Amelia throws Whale onto the floor by John's feet and laughs, and the mood breaks. John's lips turn up, and his eyes actually sparkle a little. "She's a pistol, huh?"

Rodney can't help but smile, though he misses Amelia already, seeing the inevitable in John's growing bond with her. "Yeah. She is."

John stands up and gives Amelia her toy, then leaves silently. Rodney stares at nothing for a long time.

They're sitting around a conference table that reminds Rodney frighteningly of the last time he met with Smith. There's one critical difference this time, though: John is here.

The last time the Daedalus came, Rodney had been so caught up in the fight against Bucklin that he had almost forgotten about the Sheppards' interest in Amelia. There hadn't been time at that point for them to hear that John was alive, so Rodney had half expected some further effort to claim Amelia. And in fact, he's learned today that the family was going to mount a battle to get Amelia, which was interrupted by John reappearing. Rodney hadn't expected them to try for her now, though.

Smith shakes his head. "You're making a mistake," he says to John. "Of course the family is relieved that you are alive, but your brother is a much more suitable guardian for her at this time."

"Yeah, well," John says, slouching even more obviously in his chair. "I've never been real good about doing what is suitable. Is there anything else?"

Smith sits up impossibly straighter and pushes the papers in front of him into a perfect stack. "There is one request your brother and uncles would like me to convey to you."

"Shoot," John says with a drawl.

"Her name," Smith says.

John sits up straighter. "What about it?"

"They wish me to convey their wish, their desire, for her to have a name more in keeping with the Sheppard tradition. There are some family names which they'd like you to--"

"No," John says. He sounds casual, but Rodney can see the tension curling through his body.

"Now really, John," Smith says patronizingly, "there are some beautiful names for you to consider, which would honor--"

"The name Amelia," John says, "was given to her for a reason."

Rodney turns and stares at John. There's never been any hint that John knew there was a reason he named his child Amelia. John's never asked about it, never said anything about it at all. Rodney's hands tighten on the papers in front of him.

John stands up. "Her name means a lot to me; I'm not changing it." He walks out of the room, leaving Smith and Rodney staring after his back.

"Well then," Woolsey says, "That will be all, I suppose."

They file out of the room, leaving Rodney sitting at the conference table. His face feels warm and his heart is beating fast.

Rodney's sitting on the sofa reading the data they've gathered from Bucklin's experiments. John put Amelia to bed again tonight, but this time he stumbled out afterwards and sat down on the other end of the sofa. He's making his way through a huge pile of papers: he was reinstated as military commander of Atlantis last week, and has been complaining vociferously and unconvincingly ever since about the paperwork.

They've been working quietly for quite a while when Rodney senses John is looking at him. "Can't the biologists do that?" John asks.

Rodney keeps his head buried in his laptop. "Oh, please, as if those pseudo-scientists would recognize a useful biological tool if it came up and sequenced their DNA for them!"

John's quiet when Rodney's expecting a comeback, so he darts a quick glance in his direction. John's leaning back against the sofa, head turned toward Rodney. He's smiling, a smile that reminds Rodney suddenly of how John used to look at him.

"You totally baited me," Rodney says, even as his heart does a little flip. "Asshole." He's having a hard time suppressing a smile.

"Yeah," John says. "Kind of did." He grins, quick and sharp, and it lights up his whole face. "Watching you light into the soft sciences just makes me happy, what can I say?"

"Oh, swoon, Colonel Sheppard likes me," Rodney says, deadpan.

"He really really does," John says.

Rodney's brain catches up with the conversation and he's the one ducking his head now, smiling uncertainly. He brings his laptop screen up again and tries to refocus.

"Rodney," John says, voice flipping from flippant to serious in a way that makes Rodney's stomach swoop and dive.

"Busy," Rodney says, waving a hand in John's general direction.

"Rodney," John persists. "Amelia Earhart, right?"

Rodney sighs in the direction of his laptop. "Yeah."

"Because she loved to fly?"

Rodney nods, and is going to leave it at that, but decides, what the fuck. "She broke the rules a lot, too, lived how she wanted," he says, smiling despite himself down in the direction of his lap. Rodney feels John's eyes on him still, assessing. Rodney's heart is beating fast and his face feels hot, but he forces some more words out. "And she disappeared."

John's voice is very soft. "Some people never gave up hope of finding her."

"Yes, exactly," Rodney says, face heating even more.

"Rodney," John breathes, and Rodney can't look at him. Rodney presses his lips together and sighs, because this is probably the part where they have a serious conversation where John explains that what they have isn't that kind of a thing.

"Rodney, why did you pick it?"

Rodney sighs and turns to John. "I researched a lot of options, and 'Amelia' was the best one, I thought. And you know why, you said it yourself."

"Yeah," John says, voice soft now, "but why?"

Rodney closes his eyes. His heart is pounding. It's one of those moments, the scary kind. It's humiliating, but what the hell difference does it make anyway? John must already know how Rodney feels. He bites his lip and opens his eyes, looks John right in the eyes. "You know why," he manages to whisper.

John's forehead draws into lines. "I--"

"You know what?" Rodney says. "Actually, on second thought, can we just skip the part where we're friends and it's been real and everything, but you need to get on with your life? Because it's been kind of a long day."

Weirdly, John laughs. Of all the things Rodney was expecting, that wasn't first on the list. "What?" Rodney asks.

John keeps laughing.


"It's just, for someone so brilliant, you can be so damn stupid. And so consistently stupid, too." John's smiling, but he's ducking his head in that way that means he's actually shy about something.

"Wait, what?" Rodney asks, voice rising into a high register.

"Jesus, Rodney, do I have to spell it out for you?" John's cheeks are stained pink.

"What are you talking about?" Rodney says. Yells, maybe.

"I don't think it could be more obvious," John says.

Rodney gapes at him a minute, then rallies. "Well, if you mean the thing, the sex, I think that can probably be explained by some sort of weird reverse Stockholm Syndrome, you know, since I helped take care of you, after, not to mention your kid, which could cause feelings of--"

"Jesus Christ, Rodney!" John says, rolling his eyes. "Not just since I've been back. It's years of me--" He stops abruptly. "But you, I always thought you wanted a wife, kids, but what you did when I was gone, and then now. Well. I've wondered." John gets very busy with the threads of the sofa arm.

Rodney shakes his head. "Wait, wait, do you expect me to believe--?"

"Look, on top of everything else, I gave you my kid!" John blurts, finally looking at Rodney.

"Your theoretical kid," Rodney says.

As if on cue, Amelia starts crying in her room. "Not very theoretical now," John says in a growl, glowering a little at Rodney and standing up. "I'll take care of it. Then I'm going to go to bed." When he's almost out of the living room, John turns and looks at Rodney again. "I--" John ducks his head. "If--My door's open."

Rodney sits on the sofa, laptop now discarded, listening to the gentle sounds of John changing Amelia, talking to her quietly, setting the Athosian spirit-chimes playing, settling her back down in her crib. He hears John leave her room, walk down the hall, visit the bathroom, go into his bedroom.

He hears the quiet, hears his own heart beating, fast, fast.

He's never felt like this before, and he finally understands why not. It's not like he thought; it's scary and makes his stomach hurt.

John's right, Rodney realizes. Rodney had always thought he'd get married, have kids. He'd been set on that goal for a long time. Funny, he'd forgotten all about that when John went missing. Even geniuses could be stupid, he guessed. Oblivious, even.

Rodney sighs into the dark living room. That time so long ago, when they'd had frenzied sex in the wake of rescuing Teyla, he hadn't gone to John afterwards. He'd been too chickenshit, too afraid. They hadn't talked it over, and things got weird, and then John got taken. Rodney'd sworn he wouldn't do that again, but look at him. Sitting on the sofa when John Sheppard was leaving his door open for him.

Earhart had been right: he'd never know, if he didn't go in that door, what might have been, and he'd always wonder.

There were so many ways this thing could get fucked up. So many ways this could lead to Rodney hurting. But it was like that 3-D map Rodney had plotted when they were trying to find John: until you had the final coordinate, you really had nothing.

Rodney stands up and walks down the hall and in John's door, all the way over to the bed in one burst of movement so he's not tempted to stop until he's there.

"Hey," John says, on his back right in the middle of the bed.

"Hey," Rodney says, voice maybe cracking just a little. He sits down fast on the edge of the bed before he can chicken out, turns toward John.

"So I was calculating the odds," John says, "but I couldn't figure out which variables were the important ones."

"That's always the hard part," Rodney says, heart squeezing impossibly.

"Yeah," John says. "Like trying to find somebody lost somewhere in a galaxy."

Rodney takes a breath and holds it, brings a hand toward John's face, slow, slow, so John can stop him if somehow Rodney's managed to misunderstand, because it wouldn't be the first time Rodney's gotten something badly wrong.

John doesn't stop him, and when Rodney's hand -- admittedly shaking a little -- reaches John's cheek, John turns his face into it and closes his eyes.

Rodney's chest hurts impossibly more and he closes his own eyes, oh he's been so stupid. He leans down, leans his forehead gently onto John's, whispers, "I'm sorry, I didn't know, before, I was starting to get it I think, but it wasn't until you were gone..."

John turns his face under him, turns so they're breathing into each others' mouths. "I'm sorry, too," he breathes. "I'm an asshole sometimes."

"True," Rodney says. "But despite your obvious inadequacies, I think you -- this, and Amelia -- are what I always wanted?" He means it to be flippant, but it doesn't come out that way at all.

John takes a deep breath. "Is that a question?"

"No. No, it's not," Rodney whispers. "It's the farthest from being a question that a thing can be, the opposite of a question, what's that called when something's even beyond the opposite of something, because--",

"Rodney," John says. His voice is laden with things that make Rodney shiver, and the knowledge suddenly slams back into him that he's poised over Sheppard, their mouths inches apart.

"Right," Rodney breathes, brushing his fingers over John's temple, stroking the hair there, then letting his lips ease softly down onto John's. John makes a little sound in the back of his throat and Rodney does too, and then they're kissing, Rodney's other hand moving to John's face, so he's cradling him between his hands, John's palm curling around the back of Rodney's neck and holding him close. It feels like a first kiss, and in a way, it is; it's full of fear and hope and tenderness.

Something that's been bothering Rodney at the back of his brain surfaces briefly, and he pulls off, already lightheaded, murmurs, "What about Amelia, does she know what you're doing, feeling, like you do with her, because it would be really weird, not to mention wrong, if--"

John leans up for another kiss. This time it's searing and Rodney loses his train of thought, but then John pulls away and pants, "It's not like that, and anyway I can sort of scrunch it down, make the connection stop."

"Scrunch?" Rodney says. "Is that a technical term?"

John glares at him, but the effect is ruined by his kiss-swollen lips and dark eyes. "Yes," John says. "It is."

Rodney tightens his hand in John's hair and leans down and kisses him hard. "We really," he pants into John's mouth. "Really need to talk about her, figure it out, what's going on with you two."

"Agreed," John says, running one hot hand down Rodney's back, curving it gently over the rise of his ass, making Rodney gasp. "Maybe a little later," John says, voice raspy. "Unless you really need it to be now, because we can do that, we can--"

"Asshole!" Rodney laughs, running his hands down John's arms, lacing his fingers in John's outspread hands and pressing them down just a little. He whispers into John's ear, "'Scrunch' it. Now please."

"Done," John purrs. "Now what?"

"Now we get some more coordinates," Rodney says, turning into John's neck and licking a jagged line back up to his ear, making him arch and squirm underneath him, then licking back down his neck to his shoulder. John shoves ineffectually at Rodney's clothes, but he evades his hands.

Suddenly impatient, Rodney shoves the sheets down and has to swallow; John's naked underneath, body simultaneously shadowed and revealed by the low light from the hall. Rodney leans in and licks at salty skin under John's arm, around a nipple, swirling his tongue down and down, through scratchy hair and over taut muscle, till John is arching and gasping under his mouth, hands first soft, then more demanding, in Rodney's hair.

"I really," Rodney pants into the humid skin of John's belly, "really have been wanting to do this, for a really," he licks at the head of John's cock and groans a little, "really long time," and he lets himself take John in his mouth, the silky hot length of him. He can tell John's trying not to thrust, his hips making little abortive movements, hands alternately clasping, then releasing, in Rodney's hair. John tastes of salt and precome and maleness and life, and Rodney could do this forever. John's making hot moaning sounds up above him, and seriously, forever.

John has other ideas, though: Rodney snaps back into awareness when John tugs on his hair hard, says, "Up, up here, get up here, clothes off," in a ragged voice.

Rodney pulls off reluctantly, crawls his way back up to John's mouth, fumbles with his zipper, then gets diverted. John gasps when Rodney kisses him, gasps and clenches his hands tight around Rodney's back. "I want," John pants when they separate for a second. "I--"

Rodney gasps, "I want, I want you to fuck me, if you want, if--"

John's hips rock up into Rodney, and he tongues the shell of Rodney's ear. "I want you to-- I want you to do it to me. Rodney, do you, you do that?" John's voice is rough, broken.

Rodney's hands clamp tight around John's neck and shoulders, because yes, he does, yes, he wants to, along with so many other things. But. "Yes, I want to, but this time, you should, you should because." Rodney puts his mouth down to John's ear, whispers, "You should take it back, John. Take it back from them, this."

John gasps, and then he does, first flipping Rodney onto his back and stripping off his clothes, then pressing kisses onto Rodney's shoulders and collarbones and stomach and balls, pushing slick fingers inside Rodney and then pushing himself in, arching down over Rodney as Rodney arches up to meet his mouth.

Rodney's chest hurts now, hurts and hurts and probably won't ever stop, because this whole thing, this whole feeling, is one giant courage-requiring deal. But oh, he thinks, as John takes him apart and comes apart inside him, he wouldn't live any other way, wouldn't give this up for all the safety in the galaxy. Peace isn't bought with safety, he thinks, with the few brain cells he possesses that aren't being blown, now he gets it; it's bought with courage, that's what she meant, the Amelia who flew because she had to, flew into uncharted waters because it was the only choice for her.

John's hair is curling a little around the edges with sweat, framing his face. The crinkles around his eyes are deeper than they used to be, highlighting their color even more, which -- dark pupils, blown wide, lips parted, red and a little swollen from kissing, and he's looking at Rodney, looking at Rodney like --

Rodney brings his legs up around John's back and John groans and his arms start to shake. He strips Rodney with one hand and pushes him over the top, and Rodney spurts hot and wild onto his belly. John freezes and comes deep inside Rodney with a groan, then collapses on top of him. Rodney breathes into John's hair, feels John's chest rise and fall, rise and fall on top of him.

He can't help but tighten his hands around John's back once again, can't stop himself from pressing little kisses into the scars on his shoulder, his neck.

"So the thing is," John says after a while, voice raw and scratchy, "that I, I don't know how to do this. Be with someone. Let alone, let alone be a father."

Rodney blows out a breath and John rolls off a little to the side. "Tell me about it," Rodney says.

"That's it?" John says. "That's what you're giving me here after my heartfelt confession?"

"Pretty much," Rodney says, feeling the smile curve up his mouth. "It's not like they give you a manual for any of it."

"I don't know, seems like you've done pretty great with Amelia," John says softly.

"Well, of course I've researched all the aspects of infant care," Rodney says carelessly, though his heart feels full. "Though truthfully, you should have seen me when I started. The cluelessness can't be rendered in any language known to man."

"Wish I could have," John says softly, and Rodney stiffens.

"Relax," John says. "I just mean, I would have made fun of you."

"Right," Rodney says, twirling John's silky hair around his fingers.

"But I've got plenty of new opportunities for that." John's voice is fading out now, drowsy.

"Glad I'll be able to provide some amusement," Rodney murmurs, feeling sleep tugging him down.

"Me, too," John whispers into Rodney's chest, and Rodney pulls his arm tighter around John, pulls him closer, closer.

They fall asleep like that, and don't wake up until morning, when Amelia's happy cries waft into the room. "Da! Dada!" she calls, loudly.

"It's for you," Rodney whispers.

John grabs Rodney's head and kisses him, morning breath and stubble and dried come on his stomach and all. "No, idiot," John says, kissing him in between each word. "It's for both of us."


Keller smiles at them over her desk and shoves a copy of her report across it. Rodney picks it up absently, but he already knows what it contains. They know all they're going to know, at least for now. He hates loose ends, hates not understanding something completely, but he's just going to have to deal. As has been pointed out to him repeatedly by an annoying Air Force Colonel.

"So, in summary," Rodney says. "You have no clue why this has happened."

"Rodney," John says in a warning voice, rolling his eyes.

Jennifer laughs. "Now, Rodney, as I just said, we know a lot. We know that Amelia does have higher amounts of activity in her prefrontal cortex than normal Earth-human or Athosian babies. We also know that for some reason, the Colonel's own level of activity in the same areas of the prefrontal cortex has increased: we see this when we compare scans from before his absence to those done now. The conclusion I've been forced to draw is that something about Amelia's existence triggered something in Colonel Sheppard, essentially opening up this previously-underused area of the brain."

John leans forward, the lines of his back and shoulders suddenly tense. "What about the Wraith? Does this have anything to do with what Bucklin was trying to do?"

Jennifer shakes her head. "Nothing at all. It's funny. He had this amazing thing right in front of him, but he couldn't see it, because he was so fixated on his goal. No, I can only postulate that Amelia's abilities are somehow related to the Colonel's very strong expression of the ATA gene, in combination with the traits specific to Amelia's mother -- the strong Athosian Wraith-sensing abilities which run in her family, similar to Teyla's."

Rodney's brain, against his will, leaps ahead. "So. Hypothetically, in the future, if the two gene pools, um, interact more, we could see more of this, more of these mental abilities."

Keller nods. "Yeah. Pretty wild, huh? I think--" She pauses, then nods again. "I think if we stay here, in the Pegasus Galaxy, the genes are going to interact in new ways sometimes. The database tells us that the Ancients did have advanced mental abilities of various kinds. I think those genes got scattered around both galaxies, and it's only now that they're coming back together in the combination that yields us someone like Amelia." She pauses and smiles. "Or in a weird reverse way, John."

John looks troubled, and Rodney thinks he knows why. Rodney clears his throat. "Some people could see abilities like this as a type of...a type of weapon," he says carefully.

Keller looks straight at Rodney, and then at John. "No one will see Amelia as anything but a child on my watch," she says. "You can be sure of it."

Rodney relaxes a little, and he sees the answering easing of tension in the way John holds himself. "Woolsey's not stupid," Rodney says softly.

"No," Keller says. "And he'll probably want to see if the Colonel has any other new-found abilities. He might even dream of using the connection between them some day. But he won't go any further than that."

"How can you be so sure?" John asks, and Rodney can tell from his voice how much he's been worrying.

"Because he had me remove all mention of this in our database, and destroy all other copies of the results, except this one right here." She taps on the report she's put on the desk. "Which you're taking with you when you leave."

John ducks his head and smiles a little, and Rodney has to admit he's feeling better, too.

"Of course there's still the possibility that others will want to breed for this when they figure it out," Keller says reluctantly. "But as far is Woolsey is concerned, he's seen enough attempts to breed new traits for the good of humanity to last a lifetime. Or so he said."

"Yeah, gotta say I agree with him there," John says easily.

Rodney takes the file as they leave: it's going somewhere very, very safe.

They pick up Amelia and head home; Ronon and Teyla and Torren should be arriving soon. John hasn't told Rodney why, but he's invited everyone over tonight.

John's nervous, Rodney can tell that much: his hands shake a little over the box he pulls out when they're all sitting in the living room. "I wanted." John coughs and clears his throat.

Teyla pats his hand, then carefully withdraws hers. "Whatever it is, John, you are among friends," she says calmly.

"Yeah," John says, smiling and ducking his head. "I know. So, here's the thing. I asked Ronon if it would be appropriate, and he said fine, though he didn't know what I was doing." John fumbles with the lid of the box, which looks like one of the Athosian handmade things they sell in marketplaces at the settlement.

"I'm not. Not good with saying stuff," John stutters, hands full of some type of leather braids. "I just wanted to thank you, for taking care of her, of me, to say--." He shakes his head. "So here." He thrusts his hand out and dumps a pile of braided wrist-circlets on the coffee table. "There's one for each of you. And Amelia. They made hers so it can expand as she grows. And I did one for Torren, with a yellow stone I found. If you want," he says, darting a glance at Teyla.

Sometimes John still surprises Rodney, and he's done it now. Because braided into each circlet, subtle yet there for the world to see, is one of Ronon's mourning-beads. He'd had no idea John kept them, let alone that he'd do something like this.

"There's something different about Amelia," John says. "It's why she trusted Rodney, and you." He nods at Teyla and Ronon. "When she wouldn't let anyone else hold her, when she was so alone and scared." John seems to be at the end of his capacity to speak, and he looks down, fingers worrying the leather of his own brown-beaded braid.

"She trusted us because you trust us," Teyla says. "John, this is not a new thought for Ronon and myself. We have understood this for a very long time."

"Oh," John says sheepishly. "Well. Yeah, of course."

"I will wear this proudly," Teyla says. "She is my family, as are you."

"As all of you are to me," John says softly. "If you want, that is, if you--"

"John," Ronon warns, fastening his own circlet and nodding at John meaningfully when he cinches it closed.

"Right," John says, blushing now. "Also, I'm giving her a middle name. Rodney left her without one, for me to give when I came back."

Rodney feels heat rise in his own cheeks now, because yeah, he'd done that, hoping against hope that John would be able to complete her name himself.

"You all know I've looked for family of hers, with Teyla's help. But no luck." He swallows. "So I thought we could drink a toast." John pours from the bottle of champagne he traded for with Brown in Engineering. "To Amelia Rashaan. And to her mother, who was very brave--" John's voice breaks a little, and he shakes his head.

Rodney says quietly, "Brave, and beautiful, and kind. To Rashaan of Athos. And to family."

John sends him a grateful glance and they raise their glasses in unison and drink.

Rodney adds a few theatrical flourishes to the end of the Mozart concerto they've been playing. Miko glances at him and plays along easily, as does Zelenka, following. The people sitting around on sofas and cushions clap as they bring it to a close. Rodney can hear Amelia over everyone else, clapping and laughing. She's been standing in John's arms bouncing, but now she gets free and runs over to him, still a little wobbly on her toddler legs. She pounds on the piano and Rodney swoops her up to the bench.

"You're right," Rodney says. "Time for the Athosian songs." He winces on the inside.

He has to admit, though, leaning back on a pillow and letting the strange harmonies carry him, that Athosian music has its own beauty. And it's important for Amelia to be exposed to this part of her heritage: children do best when they're taught about their backgrounds.

Rodney risks a glance at John, sitting a couple of feet away. Amelia has run back over to him, and he's got her ensconced firmly in his lap. She's swaying a little to the song, and John's eyes are closed. They lost two people this week, young marines, on what was supposed to be a routine mission to a safe planet. John takes these losses hard, and Rodney knows he worries about Amelia, thinking about how dangerous it is out here. John really believes he's doing the right thing, keeping her here in this galaxy with him, but it's hard on him. Hard on Rodney, too.

John opens his eyes before Rodney can look away, and he's caught staring. John smiles, a small tight secret smile, and yeah, Rodney can see that John was thinking of the lost people, the risks. And maybe about his time on Bucklin's ship; all that time away, all the time he lost.

Rodney smiles back at John, and Rodney suspects his smile is tinged with all they've been through, all they have yet to face.

Later, when John's put Amelia down in her crib and Rodney's looking over some power consumption figures, John says lightly, too lightly, "Something came on the Daedalus run for you. It's on the coffee table."

Rodney picks up the envelope, sits down on the sofa and slits it open. "Is it a Nobel notification?" he asks, pretty much joking; only tiny bits of his research have been declassified.

John is hovering in the doorway. "You, uh, don't have to. It's just, you know, if you want--"

"What, you hit your head on MXC-510 and can't talk anymore? Oh wait, excuse me, that is, can't talk more than you already can't?" Rodney says, distracted by the legal look of the papers in the envelope.

"Something like that," John says, voice tight.

Rodney scans the papers and closes his eyes.

"You don't have to," John says, low, coming over to sit on the arm of the sofa.

"You really want this?" Rodney asks.

"Yeah," John says. "But it's a lot of responsibility: something could happen any time out here. I mean, I understand if you don't want to."

Rodney thinks, yeah. The list of things to be scared about on Amelia's behalf is pretty infinite. "Yeah, well, you can get run over walking out your front door back on Earth," he says.

John says, looking away. "Kids need two parents. Even more so out here."

"As if there is any universe in which I wouldn't say yes," Rodney says. "You do realize, though, that if I officially adopt her, I have equal parental rights? I could send her off to computer camp when she's three or forbid her from going on dates, like, ever."

"I realize," John says dryly.

"Okay then," Rodney says. He takes a deep breath and picks up the closest pen, then nods at John and signs his name with a flourish.

John smiles and bends toward Rodney, eyes impossibly warm. Rodney's heart aches, and leaps, all at the same time.

We pay with courage, Rodney thinks, as John leans in the final distance and kisses him. And yeah, Rodney counts it more than fair.

The End