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Sheppard Minor

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A flash of light blinded Rodney momentarily and he flung up a hand. When he blinked the dots away from his eyes, he stared in horrified disbelief at the spot near the recently discovered Ancient console where Major Sheppard had just been standing. He blinked rapidly, rubbed his eyes with a frantic hand, and looked again, but the sight was unchanged.

"Oh, my god. Oh, no, no, no, this can't be happening. It's not possible!"

A leg moved and a whimper issued from the crumbled form in front of the console.

Galvanized into action, Rodney tapped his radio and yelled, "This is McKay! I need help! Medical emergency! Oh, my god! Carson!"

He backed away cautiously, wishing the door weren't on the far side of the room beyond the console.

"What is the nature of the emergency?" The smoothness of Grodin's voice came through even via the earpiece.

"It's an emergency! That's the nature! Send Beckett! Right now! Crap, it's moving!"

"Rodney!" Weir's calm tones had their own brand of incisiveness. "What's moving? Do you need Sergeant Bates to send a team? And where's the Major?"

"Somebody better come right away! Because I'm not-- Oh, no, I think it's crying. Carson, where the hell are you?"

"I'm on my way, Rodney, calm down. I need to know what we're dealing with. Is the Major hurt?"

"The Major's gone! Or...something."

"What do you mean, gone?" Weir's voice chimed with Beckett's, "Or something?"

"It's-- He touched the console and a beam shot out and enveloped him. Then, then...and this, this, uh, appeared. And now it's moving and-- Carson, how long until you get here? Because I can't deal with this thing on my own!"

Beckett sounded out of breath. "About two minutes, Rodney. What is this thing?"

"It's...it's small and it's crying and, hell, now it's looking at me. Carson, it's looking at me!"

Beckett's breathing became stentorian. "Almost there!"

Beckett rushed in a few moments later carrying a white medical kit. He looked around, his eyes skimming over Rodney, who pointed a finger from where he was standing with his back pressed against the wall to the console in front of the door. Beckett rounded the pedestal and started.

"Bloody hell. Is that--?"

"Yes! At least, I think so. It must be. What else could it be? One minute, he was here; flash of light; next minute, it was there. Oh, my god, Carson, do something! It's moving!"

"Rodney, for heaven's sakes, calm down, you're frightening him."

"Frightening him! What about me?"

Beckett moved closer with a slow and unthreatening manner. His voice was quiet and soothing. "Easy, lad, it's all right. No one's going to hurt you. Everything is all right."

He reached the console and crouched down to look at the small form curled into a ball in the narrow space underneath it. "I'm Dr. Beckett. I'm here to help you. Do you hurt anywhere?"

A big watery sniff greeted him and liquid eyes went to Rodney. Rodney twitched, looked away, but couldn't help looking back. It was unbelievably weird, seeing Sheppard as a--

"God, Carson, it's naked!"

"Rodney, shut up!"

Beckett had pulled the child-sized Sheppard into his arms, which made the adult-sized pants, boxers, and jacket slide right off his skinny little limbs and pool around his feet like a black puddle. All Rodney could see were two small arms close with strangling force around Beckett's neck and a shock of dark hair as the boy pressed his face against him.

"This is seriously bad. I mean, really, really bad."

"Rodney."

"Well, it is! And everyone is going to blame me and it's not my fault. This is so not my fault. How was I supposed to know touching that thing would have a monstrous transformative effect on him?"

Beckett stood up, holding the boy. "He's a child, Rodney, not a monster."

"Same thing." But he muttered it because Beckett was looking decidedly unamused, plus Beckett's arm was banded around Sheppard's small naked backside below the hugely enveloping black T-shirt that had ridden up under Beckett's other embracing arm, and the very size of Beckett's hands emphasized the smallness of the body. Not that it could be missed, but still. It was disconcerting seeing what a fragile armful he made. And moreover--

"It's still crying."

"He's in shock, not to mention frightened, and no wonder considering your carrying-on! Ah, at last."

The rest of the medical team arrived at a fast clip with a gurney.

Beckett's voice softened again. "Come now, laddie. Let's lay you down and we'll get you to the med lab and make you feel better." When Beckett pulled the T-shirt down, it covered the boy to his knees.

But the small arms refused to let go and Beckett patted his back. "Aye, it's scary, I know. It'll be all right, I promise you." To the medical team, he added, "I'll carry him. Would you get my bag, please."

As Beckett strode out of the room, the medics following with the gurney, he updated Weir on the situation, voice fading as he moved down the corridor until Rodney was alone in the room. He stared at the heap of dark clothing under the console and slumped back against the wall, scrubbing a shaking hand over his face.

:::::::

"He's eight, going on nine." Carson updated Elizabeth in a quiet voice as they stood a little distance from the bed in the med lab where John was sleeping. "I gave him a sedative to calm him--he was in mild shock, poor lad--then gave him a thorough examination. He's in perfect health and everything about him checks out as normal for his age."

She gave a soft laugh. "Normal! It's very difficult to think of anything in this situation as normal."

"Aye, it is. But he's here and, until we find out how to change him back, we'll have to see about looking after him. He can stay here for a little while, but the med lab is no place for a child, even this separate area." He frowned around the room he'd brought John to, which was clean and safe, but also dull and featureless, only the copper panels providing a hint of colour and variety.

"Does he remember anything?"

"He knows his name and his birthday, and he asked where his mother was. Then he got quiet and said she's dead. After that, he wouldn't say anything else or answer any questions. He fell asleep shortly afterwards. He doesn't appear to remember anything about being an adult. It would seem he's been thrown back in all ways to when he really was a child."

"His mother died of cancer when he was about eight, I believe." Elizabeth frowned at the small problem lost in the middle of the bed. "I have no idea how to deal with this, Carson. What are we going to do with him?"

"Well, hopefully we'll have him turned back to himself soon. I'm sure Rodney and Radek will come up with a solution in no time." He spoke with determined optimism because the alternative was too unsettling even to contemplate.

:::::::

Rodney and Radek spent five frustrating days examining and testing the console every way they could think of.

"We got nothing." Rodney stepped back and stared at it. "What could be the point of this thing? And just leaving it lying around! That could have been me that touched it!"

Radek pushed his glasses up his nose with a roll of his eyes. "Yes, that would've been very nasty for everyone. Much squealing and whining and demanding. At least little John is a sweet child."

"Sweet?" Rodney's voice came out a squawk. He flung up his hands. "I don't know how he's managed to wrap the entire lot of you around his very short and skinny finger in just a few days. He's a terror."

Radek laughed. "He is not a terror, Rodney."

"He keeps terrorizing me!"

"Yes, he seems to find you oddly fascinating. It's the only strangeness I've seen in him. Otherwise, a nice, normal little boy, very polite and well behaved."

Rodney gaped. "Can we possibly be talking about the same child? Four feet of hellion with the hair of a demented chimpanzee and gleaming little gimlet eyes?"

Radek's mouth twitched, but he spoke solemnly. "A very handsome little boy."

"God, the whole city's gone mad. I'm going to get some work done. This is useless."

He strode out of the room to the nearest transporter and went to the lab. It was blessedly empty and he booted up his laptop and got to work. Half an hour later, he felt eyes on him and looked up to see the small figure of John Sheppard, former Major and military commander of Atlantis, current munchkin-sized terror of Atlantis--and specifically of Dr. Meredith Rodney McKay, Ph.D, Ph.D--leaning against the door jamb. Rodney started.

"Oh, Jesus. You're trying to give me a heart attack, aren't you? This is payback for some, I don't know, grudge you're holding because I was the first person you saw when you turned into...you. You've imprinted on me like a duckling. Go away!"

Instead, of course, Sheppard Minor came inside. He walked slowly and circuitously, but inexorably, towards Rodney in a meandering course around the lab, trailing his hands over every surface he could reach as he passed.

"Will you stop touching everything. That's what got you in this mess in the first place. You might have been squashed into a midget, but you'd think you'd have retained at least a few brain cells."

"I'm not a midget; Dr. Beckett says I'm a completely normal boy." But he dropped his hands to his sides, although he didn't stop his meandering walk past lab counters that were all even with the top of his head. Occasionally, he'd stop and go up on tiptoes to peer up onto one.

"Yes, Pinocchio, I'm well aware you're a very annoying boy."

Sheppard Minor pursed his lips. "That's not what I said. Nobody says that except you."

"That's because they're all deluded idiots and you've managed to pull the wool over their eyes with your absurdly abominable cuteness."

Sheppard Minor reached Rodney's lab table and leaned his shoulder against the leg, looking penetratingly up at Rodney. "I'm not cute. Babies are cute, and puppies and kittens are cute. The marines said the art they had up on the wall of their ready room was cute."

Distracted, Rodney glanced down and met the stare of large, hazel eyes. "Cute art? The marines have art in their gear room?"

"Private Mason said it was a classic example of centerfold pin-up art--" he enunciated the last words carefully, with a line of concentration between his brows "--but Sergeant Bates said I was too young to look at it and made them take it down."

"Good Lord." Rodney rolled his eyes. "Well, now that the enlisted men's ready room is safe for your pure young eyes, why don't you go bother them for a while--or, say, a decade?"

"They're practicing battles and stuff on the north pier. Sergeant Bates said I was too young to do that, too, and wouldn't let me even go and watch." He kicked the leg of the table.

"Do you mind?"

Sheppard Minor kicked it twice more, then smiled with all the adult Sheppard's evil, disarming charm when Rodney glared at him.

Rodney muttered, "Hopeless," and turned back to his work.

"Teyla is practicing sticks and Dr. Weir is working in her office and Dr. Beckett is dissecting an arm--" he imbued the word with the thrill of horror and shuddered theatrically "--a Wraith arm, and I wanted to look at it through the microscope, but he said the frozen cells had to be examined quickly and he couldn't stop to let me see, and Dr. Grodin is working on the sensor array and Dr. Zelenka is--"

Rodney turned his best scowl downwards. "Thank you so much for the blow-by-blow account of all my colleagues' current activities. Now you've completely wasted fifteen minutes of my invaluable time, it only seems right for you to go and bless somebody else with your brilliant company."

He leant down on the last words so his face was close to Sheppard Minor's, but Sheppard Minor just stared up at him unblinkingly and didn't shrink back even a centimetre. Rodney gave up and turned back to his computer.

"I've already visited Dr. Simpson, and I didn't mean to spill the water over their papers, but Dr. Kavanagh told me to get out and not come back. Dr. Biro said I'm not allowed in the morgue because I might catch something nasty. Corporal Myers is busy getting lunch ready and said they can't have me underfoot in the kitchen with the knives and boiling water and stuff. I wanted to go in the jumper with Lieutenant Miller and Dr. Anton, but they said they had to survey something up in the stratosphere and it would just be boring for me." He sighed, and added, in a low voice Rodney only barely heard. "I just wanted to fly for a little while. I would have been good and not bothered them."

Rodney felt a twinge, and ruthlessly stamped on it. "The day you don't bother anybody is the day the world ends."

Undaunted as always, Sheppard Minor continued: "Lieutenant Ford said he'd show me how to fish off the south pier, but Dr. Weir sent him and Sergeant Stackhouse and Dr. Kostas to--" he paused and Rodney glanced down despite himself and saw the gamin face screwed up in concentration "--M3A-859 to gather rocks and mineral samples. I could've helped to do that, you know. I told them. I'm good at carrying rocks."

Rodney turned back to his computer and made a rude noise.

"I am so! I helped Halling carry rocks for the path he built in the village and he said I was a big help and he couldn't have finished the job nearly as quickly without me."

"Yes, well, Halling has a lot more time on his hands than-- Ah!" He looked up, then consideringly down at the watchful face. "Yes, okay, that'll work. Perfect, actually."

He smiled sunnily and Sheppard Minor, contrary child that he was, frowned up at him. If he were the version that was three decades older, Rodney might have said there was more than a smidgen of suspicion in his look. He brushed aside the thought.

"How about if I take you up for a ride in a jumper?"

Sheppard Minor's face lit up with such undiluted joy that, for a moment, Rodney almost felt happy himself. It would be inconvenient and a waste of time, but he could make up his work once he'd ensured himself of no more interruptions.

"I'll take you to the mainland and drop you off with Halling and you can spend the day there playing with the kids. Overnight, too, maybe. Yeah, I don't see any reason why not, as long as Halling doesn't mind and I don't see why he would; he seems to have a peculiar liking for brats." He beamed congratulations for his own brilliance, proven in action yet again.

But Sheppard Minor's face fell, as monumentally sad now as it had been happy a moment before. Rodney stared at him.

"What?"

Sheppard Minor rubbed his hand against the woven fibres of the Athosian clothes Teyla had acquired for him; they didn't have any child-sized Earth clothing with them. Sheppard Minor's head was bowed, his tufts of messy dark hair hiding his face, and he rubbed the toe of his shoe against the floor.

"What? Will you for god's sake say something? What the hell is the matter now?"

"They said I'm a freak." Sheppard Minor didn't lift his head and the words were mumbled into his skinny little chest.

It made no sense for a moment, and Rodney almost said, "Well, of course you're a freak; I tell you that all the time," but then the actual meaning of the words sank in and cold fury raced through his blood.

"Who said that?" He didn't mean to bark, but Sheppard Minor didn't even jump, though he also didn't lift his head.

"The kids."

"What kids? Jinto and, and Wax or whatever that other one's called?"

"No, the younger kids, the ones my age."

"Oh, great, Pegasus schoolyard bullies."

Rodney's hands clenched with a vilely reminiscent impotent rage because he supposed Weir and Beckett really wouldn't like it if he bashed these kids any more than he'd been able to bash certain tormentors in his own past. It wasn't fair that he was now big enough to do it and still couldn't.

If possible, Sheppard Minor's head sank even farther, a turtle without a shell trying to curl up inside itself. "Jinto and Wex are nice, but they said they liked me the way I used to be and they hoped I'd be him again soon." And it really wasn't possible for his head to sink any lower. Really. But he seemed to shrink before Rodney's eyes. "Like everybody else."

"What everybody else? Who the hell are you talking about? Who says they liked you better before?"

"Everybody."

"Who is everybody? You're going to have to be more specific here, because I don't recall anybody saying any such thing. In fact, as far as I've seen, they all insanely dote on your terminal adorableness."

"I get in the way and I'm a nuisance and nobody has time to be bothered with me and I'm no use."

"Well, of course you're a nuisance. Your job description is brat. It goes with being six."

Sheppard Minor lifted his head and scowled at him. "I'm nine. Or almost."

Rodney looked him over, startled. "Did I know that? Why are you so small? I'd have thought you'd be taller."

Sheppard Minor kicked the leg of the table twice, hard enough to make Rodney's laptop shake. "Dr. Beckett says I probably had a growth spurt when I got to be a teenager. The other me--him did."

"'Him did'? Hasn't Peter been giving you grammar lessons, or did I dream that?"

The table vibrated again. "And Dr. Beckett said I'll probably have a growth spurt when I'm a teenager."

"Wonderful, something for us all to look forward to: more of you. And also? If you kick my table one more time, I'm going to take your shoes away and you can break your bare toes kicking whatever you like."

Sheppard Minor huffed a sigh and turned away with a disconsolate set to his narrow, slumped shoulders. Rodney looked at his laptop, now with the screensaver of gate addresses lighting up in turn on it, then at Sheppard Minor heading slowly for the door, trailing his hands on either side of him over everything he could reach. Rodney struggled with himself and lost.

"Okay, fine, scratch the rural paradise slumber party with the dickhead kids. While I finish going through these reports, you can get on with the inventory database, then we'll take a jumper out for a cruise over the planet and to hell with all the idiots and busy people who don't know how to have any fun."

Without waiting for a response, and ignoring the light in Sheppard Minor's face as the boy turned to him, Rodney picked up the small-for-his-age almost-nine-year-old and plopped him on a high lab stool. Sheppard Minor grabbed the edge of the table in front of him and held on as Rodney picked up both stool and kid and put him tight up against the table. Rodney reached past him and brought up the inventory on the laptop. He scrolled down to where Sheppard Minor had got to last time, and left him to it. He'd have to check the numbers later, but only cursorily; Sheppard Minor rarely made a mistake with the numbers, unlike certain adult members of the science staff, unless he was left doing it for too long and got tired. With a little peace and quiet, Rodney should be able to finish up his crucial work in a half hour or so.

Later, as he held Sheppard Minor on his lap, with his hands resting over the boy's small ones on the controls, and they sent the jumper skimming with the grace of a crane and the speed of a jet between miles of ocean and sky with no end of either to be seen, the tightness that came from constant work and worry loosened in Rodney and he felt a little of the wordless joy that had set Sheppard Minor's whole body aquiver.

:::::::

Three days later, a crisis with a naquadah generator powering lights to the occupied residential area made Rodney miss a meeting Weir had called with all the department heads. By the time he, Radek, and a team got the generator stabilized and back in operation, he realized he'd forgotten entirely about the meeting. He didn't consider it a loss, though, as forgetting just conveniently made it so he didn't have to pretend he'd forgotten since he hadn't intended to bother going, anyway. He went back to the lab, which was blessedly empty.

At least it was for a whole five minutes until Radek came in looking as sweaty and frazzled as Rodney felt. Radek sank with a sigh onto a stool at his own desk and put his head down on his folded arms. He was quiet, which was all Rodney required, so he tuned out Radek's soft breathing and the eventual quiet tapping at Radek's laptop keys that followed, and focused on writing up the report about the incident Weir would require as soon as possible.

He was so involved in examining a possible flaw garnered via analyzing the problem in the report that it took a few moments for him to realize the slight vibration of his table wasn't just from his vigorous typing. He glanced down, unsurprised to see the shock of dark hair on the bowed head of his own personal pint-sized nemesis. Rather than kicking the leg of the table this time, Sheppard Minor was thumping it rhythmically with the base of his hand.

Rodney wondered if he could get away with threatening amputation, and stole a quick look over his shoulder at Radek, only to meet a narrowed stare that made him twitch and quickly turn back, muttering, "Fine, fine," even though even Radek couldn't possibly know what he was thinking. He wasn't that bloody obvious.

Okay, well, whatever.

He confined himself to rapping the top of Sheppard Minor's down-turned head. "Enough with shaking my table. Why don't you go visit Radek? He's just sitting there doing nothing but twiddling his thumbs and I'm sure--" he raised his voice and half-turned his head towards Radek "--he'd be utterly delighted to be blessed with your thrilling company."

Sheppard Minor muttered something Rodney, concentrating on his report again, didn't hear. "What? Never mind, it doesn't matter. Go tell Radek."

"They're going to send me away!" Sheppard Minor's yell made Rodney jump and he stared down at him, aware in his peripheral vision of Radek straightening.

"Who's sending you away? And where exactly can they send you to? And, most importantly, who have you been annoying that has that much power? I've been trying to get rid of you ever since you arrived, and look how far I've got."

"Rodney--"

Sheppard Minor's voice, truculent and querulous, cut across Radek's protest, but it was the hint of a sob that made Rodney narrow his eyes and study the boy.

"They're having a meeting, Dr. Weir and Dr. Beckett and Teyla and Halling and Dr. Grodin and Lieutenant Ford and--" Sheppard Minor flung a hand out in a dramatic gesture "--everybody and they're going to send me away because nobody wants me and I'm too much bother. And I'm not." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I don't mean to be."

"A meeting?"

A meeting to discuss what was to be done long-term with Sheppard Minor? He'd vaguely recalled talk about something needing to be decided, but he hadn't thought it would be so soon, or was the subject of today's meeting. Though he supposed Sheppard Minor was still staying in the med lab because he had nowhere else to live; at least, he hadn't heard of any alternate arrangements. Not that he paid the least attention.

Radek dropped to a knee in front of Sheppard Minor and put a hand on his shoulder. "It will be all right. I'm sure Dr. Weir and Dr. Beckett will only do what's best for you."

"No, they won't." Sheppard Minor's voice quavered and his mouth was trembling, but he spoke with a proud bitterness that made Rodney twitch with memories. "They'll do what suits them best."

Radek's voice was soft. "John, everyone cares about you very much and the only thing that matters to all of us is for you to be well and happy."

Rodney snorted, but managed to keep the sound low.

"They wouldn't even let me say what I want because nobody cares. They wouldn't let me go to the meeting. I had to listen outside the door." His voice was sounding suspiciously watery.

"Hold it, hold it. The point is, where the hell could they send him? We can't put him on a plane back to Earth."

Sheppard Minor blinked his eyes rapidly as he stared up at Rodney. "Teyla and Halling found a family on the mainland that want to--" a sob escaped him and he struggled for a moment to control his breathing "--take me to live with them. For always."

"That's absurd." Rodney stared down at the pale face and soft, trembling mouth. "It's ridiculous."

Yet it might just be a solution that appealed to everybody: shuffle their inconvenient burden to a third party, out of sight, out of mind. Anger surged and he stood up. "Well, that's just peachy. Come on."

He grabbed Sheppard Minor's thin wrist and strode out of the room with the boy trotting to keep up with him and Radek calling after him, then following. They got into the nearest transporter, Radek squeezing in through the closing doors.

"Rodney, what are you doing?"

"I'm going to this meeting. I was supposed to attend; I'm just a bit late."

"But the boy--it's no place for the boy. Let me take him--"

"Oh, no. He's coming, too."

The transporter stopped and they emerged into the hallway near the control room. Rodney strode to the conference room, opened the door without knocking, and went in still holding Sheppard Minor's arm. Radek hovered behind him. Weir, Beckett, Teyla, Halling, and various other senior staff and Athosians looked up, startled.

"Rodney, we thought you'd forgotten about the meeting."

"I had, Elizabeth, but I've just been reminded. What the hell is going on? Are you all nuts?"

Weir's mouth tightened and Beckett winced. All eyes went to Sheppard Minor, who pressed himself against Rodney's leg like a tick that wouldn't be dislodged except via a sharp pair of tweezers.

"I think it best that John not be here." Weir aimed a warm, if forced looking, smile at Sheppard Minor. "Dr. Zelenka, would you mind taking--"

"Yes, yes, good." Radek came around Rodney and reached for Sheppard Minor, who pressed harder against Rodney and wrapped an arm like a vice around his thigh.

Rodney ignored Radek and peeled Sheppard Minor away from his leg, leading him forward. "From what I understand, this meeting's about Sheppard Minor and he's got every right to be here, Elizabeth. You are discussing his future, right? Getting ready to wash your hands of him for good?"

"Rodney! The boy doesn't need to hear these matters."

"Oh, please. He was miniaturized, not lobotomized. You think just because you try to shut him out that he's not going to know exactly what's going on? It's his life you're screwing with! You don't think he has a right to hear about it? He's just supposed to sit in a corner like a good little idiot and meekly accept whatever crappy decision you make that will affect him for the rest of his fucking life?"

He paused to recognize the fine cold rage he was in, then harnessed his anger and prepared to launch it at whatever target was needed. He pulled out a chair and guided Sheppard Minor into it, then sat in the chair next to him. Sheppard Minor scrunched down, but peered around the table at each person in turn from under the wild fall of his dark hair with eyes like a feral mink's. His long-fingered hands gripped the chair arms with white-knuckled intensity.

"We're trying to decide what will be in John's best interest. That's our only concern." Weir's smile at Sheppard Minor looked even more plastic this time.

Sheppard Minor glanced at her, then stared down at his knees, which were locked in a straight position since his legs were too short to bend in the chair. Very softly, his toes set up a light rhythmic thumping against the underside of the table, feet bouncing upwards, invisible to everyone but Rodney.

"Yes, fine, we've got the mandatory disclaimers out of the way, so can we now cut through the bullshit and get to the heart of the matter?"

"Rodney!"

"What?"

"While John is here, I think we can all make an effort to watch our language." Her smile at him this time across the table was brittle.

Rodney stared around the table and saw heads nodding in sombre agreement. "My god, you think he's going to be warped by hearing a little bad language when you're planning to shuffle him out of sight and out of mind without the slightest regard to what he wants or needs?" Weir opened her mouth, and Rodney raised his voice and spoke over her. "Forgive my bluntness, Elizabeth, but he's as capable of seeing bullshit as any other reasonably intelligent person is. He's eight, not two."

"I'm almost nine," a sulky small voice intoned from his left and the drumming on the underside of the table increased in speed, if not volume.

"Whatever. The point is, kids aren't deaf, dumb, and blind when it comes to, oh, their lives. Don't any of you recall what it was like to be nine or however old? Or maybe none of you went through situations like parents divorcing and hacking up the kids' lives in the concern for parental rights and no concern for what the kids might want or need, and nobody bothering to even consult them." He paused and added, without glancing to the side, "Sheppard Minor. Shoes."

Beckett frowned in puzzlement, Teyla tilted her head to the side, Weir raised her eyebrows, and Halling glanced back and forth between Rodney and Sheppard Minor. Sheppard Minor, however, simply sighed and pulled his legs up to cross them on the seat of the chair, sitting yoga style.

Rodney folded his arms, tucking his hands under his armpits to hide their shaking. He took a breath, doing his utmost to keep his anger contained, and went for the blunt approach.

"You can't hand him off to strangers like he's the unwanted soap-on-a-rope you got for Christmas."

Weir's and Beckett's protests weren't unexpected, but it was irritating to see people he worked with and whose intelligence--for the most part--he respected, being blatantly self-deluding.

Teyla's clear voice was a calm oasis of sound. "On the contrary, Dr. McKay, John is very much wanted." She smiled warmly across the table at Sheppard Minor, then inclined her head to the Athosian couple seated beside Halling. "Nanea and Mosten are unable to have children of their own. They had adopted a child orphaned in a culling, but he was lost during the raid. Their hearts and their home are wide open and eager to welcome John."

Nanea and Mosten met Rodney's gaze with the stoic gravity and old eyes in young faces that marked most of the small band of adult Athosians. Virtually all of the surviving Athosians had suffered loss: of friends, children, parents, siblings, lovers. Loss was etched like tattoos on their eyes, but all the adults had an air of calm in the face of horror.

The Athosians were good people. More than that, he trusted both Teyla and Halling not to have suggested this particular couple if they hadn't been sure Nanea and Mosten would be good parents. Hell, they'd probably be much better parents than Rodney's own had managed to be. Sheppard Minor wouldn't grow up in a house with arguments and recriminations tearing nights into battlefields instead of havens of peacefulness, with a little sister sobbing quietly against his side, her tears wetting his pyjama pants over his hip as he raged with impotence.

But no matter how good parents they'd be, their home wasn't where John Sheppard belonged.

"No offence intended, and I'm sure they'd be great parents--" he managed a stiff smile at the couple, but flinched away from their wooden stares and a deepening of the shadows in their eyes "--but to an Athosian child. Sheppard Minor isn't Athosian and he doesn't belong there."

"You can hardly say he belongs on Atlantis, either, Rodney." Peter Grodin's cultured voice was as collected as the Athosians' demeanour. "We're liable to be attacked at any time, and there aren't any children here. This is an unnatural environment for a child."

"Living with the Athosians would be an even more unnatural environment for an Earth child! His heritage is Earth and our collective history and culture and, hell, most importantly our science. He has a right to be brought up with our knowledge and understanding of the universe, of how and why wormholes work, not just accepting they work because the Ancestors willed it so. His heritage isn't to grow up learning how to farm tava beans and worship sometimes crackpot and completely human Ancients as gods."

He paused for a breath in a frozen silence and glanced at Halling, then Teyla, his eyes flicking away from their unnerving, calm stares and Teyla's pursed mouth.

"Just because John is living on the mainland doesn't mean he'll be barred from learning about Earth science and culture, Rodney. But he'll have a home and family and friends--"

He cut off Weir's reasoning voice without compunction. "Oh, yes, little friends who remember him as he used to be and never let him forget it."

He leaned forward, impatient with the waste of time and the inability of people to just simply acknowledge he was right.

"Look, Zelenka and Simpson and I haven't given up trying to fix our little problem. Has anyone explained to these nice people--" he looked at the Athosian couple, who were watching him attentively "--that it might not be a permanent arrangement? They've already loved and lost one child. Are they really that eager to devote themselves to another one only to lose him, too?"

The man blinked and his gaze flickered down, and though the woman's eyes remained steady on Rodney, they narrowed in what he hoped was thought about the reality of what they were letting themselves in for. He couldn't abide cruelty, not to animals, not to brats; and this proposition was cruel: to Sheppard Minor and to this earnest couple whose desperate desire for a family of their own was being exploited.

People around the table shifted in discomfort.

Rodney sighed. "Fine. Look, at least ask the kid what he wants. We don't really have to enact crappy Earth parenting habits way out here, do we?"

In the silence that followed, Sheppard Minor's voice piped up, right on cue; never let it be said a Sheppard in any form didn't know how to pursue his own interest when Rodney gave him a blatant pointer:

"I want to stay here. I can feel the city humming and it's empty and silent on the mainland. I like to visit, but I don't want to have to stay there all the time." He scowled. "And those aren't my parents. I don't have any parents, but I have my own people and they all live here."

"John, I fully understand how frightening it can be to face a major change in your life, but you can't go on living in the med lab. It's no place for anyone permanently, much less an acceptable place for a child to grow up."

"I'm not going to grow up there." Sheppard Minor's high voice acquired an uncanny facsimile of the stubborn tone familiar to all of them in his adult counterpart. "Rodney and Dr. Z're gonna fix me."

As he turned a penetrating frown on each of them in turn around the table, Rodney bit back a laugh at the unspoken but loud addendum: And when that happens, you're all going to be sorry if you make me do something I don't want to do. Bates straightened in his chair, then looked annoyed at himself, while all the Athosians were exchanging uneasy glances with each other. At last, people were buying a clue that their precious little John wasn't just your average adorable, and largely harmless if annoying, brat.

Rodney felt a surge of pride for his erstwhile team leader. A Wraith queen; Kolya of the Genii; a freaking Superwraith; and various idiots armed with blunderbuss-style weaponry had failed to make John Sheppard do what they wanted. He didn't know why he was the only person who seemed to see the Sheppard in Sheppard Minor, but, whatever, his good deed for the day was done. He was half out of his chair when that damned piping voice sounded again, just as set and determined as before:

"Anyway, I don't have to stay in the med lab. I can live with Rodney. Then I won't be in anyone else's way."

"What? No!" He looked wildly down at the pint-sized terror who looked up at him with one of his deceptively sweet smiles. "No, no, no. Also, not a chance in hell!"

"Oh, I don't know. You did speak very passionately for our responsibility in schooling John appropriately in the sciences, Dr. McKay." Weir's dry voice held its own steel under a hint of laughter and an emphasis on his title.

"Absolutely not!"

"It seems like a most equitable solution." Teyla sounded thoughtful, but just as damned determined as Sheppard Minor. "Especially as such an arrangement might perhaps provide you with a little extra--" she paused to give him a smile that could only be described as merciless "--incentive to find a solution to the problem as quickly as possible."

Grodin was outright grinning and Beckett rubbed his hands together. "Excellent! I'll have some staff help John move his little collection of things to your room right away."

Rodney quailed at the thought of Sheppard Minor's airplane and puddle jumper models, notebooks, collection of goddamned rocks from the mainland, and who knew what other rubbish that he'd accumulated in his extremely short time amongst them, stuffed into his small quarters. But he knew a done-deal when he heard one, so he straightened his shoulders and tilted his chin up.

"Fine. It won't be for long, anyway. Zelenka and I are very close to a solution."

He ignored Sheppard Minor's sceptical stare.

He headed for the door and Sheppard Minor jumped down from the chair and hop-skipped to his side.

Rodney looked down at him and figured there was no time like the present to commence educating him. "The first responsibility you have to learn is to bring me a hot, fresh cup of that Menaran coffee-substitute crap from the mess every morning ready for when I wake up."

"Rodney!"

He paused in the doorway to look back at Weir and raised his eyebrows in question.

"Atlantis might not be geared towards children, but please take it as written that child labour laws are in effect."

He waved a hand and turned to leave. "Of course, yes, taken as written."

Once he and Sheppard Minor were out of earshot of anyone in the room, he added, "I like my coffee black with two teaspoons of sugar and you'll need to fetch it exactly five minutes before my alarm goes off. Now, why five minutes?"

He had an insulated travel mug with a cover he'd insist the kid use; it would be good practice for Sheppard Minor in remembering proper procedure and also a hands-on lesson in the usefulness of vessels that conserve heat without getting warm on the outside. Also, if Sheppard Minor tripped or had one of his sudden explosions of energy in which he broke into a run, he wouldn't spill the coffee or scald himself, thereby reducing his usefulness for a day or so. Win all around!

Child labour laws, pshaw. Every scientist knew the first law of a productive lab was always to have adequate hot coffee on hand. He'd teach the brat the proper way of doing things from the ground up, the way all good minions should be taught, but tragically few were.

Anyway, Sheppard Minor's energetic young legs would come in handy running errands, including trips back-and-forth to the cafeteria, and it was a sorry scientist who didn't use all the resources he had at hand in a crisis: And he'd need a hell of a lot of coffee-substitute crap and mystery meat sandwiches to get him through the marathon days ahead as he and Radek frantically searched for a way to delete Sheppard Minor and restore Sheppard Major.

As Sheppard Minor jumped two-footed down the long corridor at his side like an unruly pet kangaroo, grinning both at the echoes his stomping raised from the copper panels and Rodney's glares down at him, Rodney updated the project deadline in his head to forthwith and hastened his steps towards the lab.

Trust even a miniature Sheppard to know how to light a fire under Rodney's ass and get a job done faster than humanly possible.