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A Beautiful Lifetime Event

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A Beautiful Lifetime Event

"Well, how was I supposed to know?" Rodney yelled, wide-eyed and panicky. "You're the one who activated it!"

"You're the one who told me to touch it!" John yelled back.

"Oh, like you didn't want to!" Rodney said.

"I didn't know what the hell it was going to do!"

"Will the both of you please shut up and get out of the bloody way so I can make out the readings?" Beckett yelled at both of them, pointing them to opposite corners of the room.

John backed up against the wall and folded his arms, shooting another dark look at Rodney across the room, and telling himself not to freak out. Maybe it was a mistake. Beckett had just gotten here and taken a first look -- he might have misread the screen. It could just be some other kind of medical equipment. Maybe it just did DNA analysis -- compatibility scans --

The oval canister in the middle of the device started to glow faintly, a kind of translucent reddish-orange light filtering through the milky interior. "Oh my," Beckett said.

"What? What?" Rodney said, leaving his corner before he'd even really gotten into it in the first place.

"The device is really quite fascinating," Beckett said. "It's duplicating the conditions of the womb perfectly, as far as I can tell -- "

"Jesus," John said, and rubbed his face with both hands. This wasn't happening.

"Hey, is that -- " Rodney said, and touched a button on the device console. A projected beam sprang out of the top and swirled around, turning into one of those weird three-dimensional diagrams the Ancients liked so much, except instead of star systems, it was displaying a clump of blobs.

John stared in horror: the thing was growing. Every one of the blobs swelling up, and then slowly and inevitably splitting in two, and then those both started getting bigger -- "Look, isn't there -- can't you turn it off?"

"Excuse me?" Beckett turned and glared at him.

John glared right back, furious, wanting to shake Beckett -- "This is an accident with Ancient technology, not a beautiful lifetime event! I want a goddamn morning-after pill!"

"It's not as though you're going to be carting the consequences around for nine months if we don't act this second!" Beckett said. "I'm sorry, I'm not comfortable just flipping a switch without taking a few bloody moments to think about the moral implications -- "

"Oh, for -- " John whirled on Rodney. "Okay, you turn it off!"

"Huh?" Rodney was still staring mesmerized at the blobs. "Oh, hey, wait, I bet that one's going to go next!" He pointed at a blob that obligingly squeezed itself in two.

John clenched his fists, he couldn't believe -- acting like this was just one more fucking experiment -- "You know what," he snarled, "since you guys like the idea so damn much, you two can get together and make your own." He stepped forward, put his hand on the machine, and thought at it, off off off!

"Hey!" Rodney said indignantly, and Beckett said, "Colonel!" but it was wasted effort all around: the machine made a rude bleating sound and flashed something in Ancient, and stayed firmly turned on.

"What did that say?" John said, with a sinking feeling.

"Error, viable something something within," Rodney said. "Also, what the hell was that?" He pushed himself protectively between John and the console, and glared.

"Oh, don't even -- that is not a baby! That is a bunch of cells!" John pointed at the projection, trying to swallow down panic. There had to be some way -- they couldn't, he couldn't -- "Look, don't tell me you can't cut the power to this thing somehow."

Rodney folded his arms. "Well, maybe I don't want to, and since we're apparently making unilateral decisions here -- "

"This is your fault in the first place!" John grabbed at him, Rodney shoved back, Beckett tried to separate them, and things pretty much all went downhill from there.

And the day had started out great, too. Ford was down with a sprained ankle, courtesy of M3X-G87, so for the last week John had been exploring a lot of corridors and rooms that turned out to be perfectly safe -- as in empty and boring. And not that he didn't like hanging out with Teyla, but it just wasn't the same without the rest of the team: he kept waiting for the sarcastic remark, and it threw him off his rhythm when it didn't come.

Then that morning, Rodney had roped him into helping with the backlog of mysterious-Ancient-devices-we-can't-get-to-work that the research team had stacked up in one of the big empty storage areas at the north pier. John had made protesting noises on principle, because he was still wary of turning into light-switch guy -- Rodney had a way of taking a mile if you gave him a quarter of an inch -- but secretly he'd been all for it.

The stuff had been divided pretty neatly into two camps. There were the incredibly complicated things that none of the early testers had been able to intuit well enough, like the device they'd figured out was something like an electron scanning microscope, only it actually worked on electrons, which had gotten Rodney yelling, "Take that, Heisenberg!" in delirious joy. Then there was the screen that let you see three seconds into the future, which would have been creepy as hell if it hadn't been so useless: the only thing you saw was yourself, and all you were doing was looking into the screen except for the last two seconds, which wasn't enough time to do anything worth predicting.

And then there were the things that the testers had just been overthinking -- the electric razor equivalent, which he'd solemnly handed over to Rodney, who was looking a little scruffy after a week of lab work. "Oh, good work, Colonel; maybe we'll find a magic comb next," had been the dry-as-sandpaper response. They'd finally agreed to disagree on whether a whirly red thing was actually a salad spinner (John's vote) or a currently-underpowered miniature particle accelerator (Rodney's, clearly wishful thinking).

There had been kind of a fight over the Ancient iPod, too. John was nodding along, thinking the music sounded pretty cool, and then Rodney said, "My god, who knew NSYNC were time travelers?" and they ended up in a stealth war, turning it on and off whenever the other one had his back turned.

The shivery below-the-skin rush of power every time one of the devices lit up under his hands, that feeling of coming home that never seemed to go away; placing bets with Rodney on what each new gadget would turn out to be, making up increasingly ridiculous guesses -- it had all been fun and games, until they'd tried the device that needed two operators, and a jabbed and bleeding finger later, John discovered he'd been signed up involuntarily for fatherhood --

"All right, all right!" Elizabeth said, holding up her hands, and John swallowed the next five things he'd been about to say and contented himself with glaring across the table at Rodney.

Once they'd both quieted down, Elizabeth sighed. "Okay," she said, rubbing her forehead. "So, this makes five million and one on the list of decisions I wasn't expecting to have to make in the Pegasus galaxy."

"Elizabeth," John said, trying to sound reasonable, practically biting his tongue in half, "there's no question here -- "

"As it happens, I agree -- " Rodney broke in.

"Quiet!" Elizabeth yelled, before they could get started again. "Colonel, I understand your position. Obviously, this was an accident, and you can't be held responsible. However -- however!" She glared Rodney down before turning her attention back to John. "Rodney is not to blame either. You both have an equal right to decide how we deal with the consequences, and I need you to acknowledge that."

John groaned and let his head tip back. "Fine. I'm sorry I tried to turn the damn thing off without asking -- " since it didn't work, he added mentally.

Rodney folded his arms and looked smug.

"And Rodney -- " Elizabeth turned, "You're pro-life and I didn't know? I must have been misled by the I dig Pro-Choice Chicks t-shirt you were wearing in the lab the other week."

"Um," Rodney said, and stopped looking quite so smug. John glared at him.

"So, dispense with the Moral Majority rhetoric, all right?" Elizabeth stood up. "Now, the two of you are going to stay here and work this out together, without the hitting and the shoving, and I am going to go see if Dr. Beckett's nose is actually broken."

They sat staring mulishly at each other across the table after she left. But Rodney got kind of unfocused after a while, probably working on some research problem in his head, and time was on his side. John gritted his teeth and tried not to think about exponential growth.

It wasn't that he didn't like kids. He liked kids a lot. They were laid-back, they didn't have a lot of hangups, they had the good taste to like stories and games and amusement park rides -- they were great, as long as they were somebody else's kids, and went home after you finished playing with them, and didn't need you, and weren't going to get messed up if you didn't love them enough.

Even just the mechanics of taking care of a kid, especially bouncing between missions, between crises -- how the hell could you not get resentful at the endless demands, and then how did you keep from taking it out on the kid, or even just letting the kid know? You didn't, that was the thing, even if you had the ordinary decency to try; a kid could tell if you didn't really want him around. He'd always known, himself.

And there was Rodney sitting there like it was all about having a great new toy, and not thinking about what it would actually involve -- like Rodney had any business raising a kid either, when he reduced grown scientists to tears on a daily basis. And, what the hell, Rodney didn't even like kids -- he'd freaked out over them on the Lord of the Flies planet, Ford had had to rescue him --

John finally started to cool down as he thought that through. Rodney couldn't seriously want a baby. He'd just gotten pissed off because John had tried to do an end-run around him -- which, fine, hadn't been the fairest thing to do -- and then he'd gotten entrenched. That was all that was going on. John figured he just needed to calm down and back off, and get Rodney to start thinking straight again.

He took a deep breath and broke the silence. "Rodney, just think about this a minute. Why would you even want a kid? Seriously, give me one reason." Calm, reasonable. He was proud of himself.

"Well, I've always felt an obligation to humanity to pass on my genes," Rodney said.

John lay on his back panting, soaking wet from the ceiling sprinklers. His chest was still smoking a little. One of the chairs was tipped upside down next to him: its casters were spinning slowly around over his head. He considered for a moment, and then he said, "Ow."

Rodney was lying next to him, also dripping. His eye was rapidly blackening. "Oh, stop whining. That line was less than twenty volts." He struggled up and tucked the electrical wire back into the wall.

"You set me on fire!" John said.

"You hit me!" Rodney said.

"Not hard enough!" John rolled over onto his hands and knees and crawled to the wall to sit propped up. He put his head in his hands, and then with alarm reached up farther to touch his hair, which seemed a lot fluffier than he remembered. Rodney closed up the wall panel and thumped down next to him. He looked over at John and smirked.

John glared. "How would you like a matching set?" he said, pointedly looking at Rodney's eye.

"No, thanks," Rodney said hurriedly. "Anyway, I think you're going to be in enough trouble with Elizabeth as it is, really."

John looked around the room. There was still a puddle on the big table, most of the chairs were overturned and the rest were soaked, and half the lights had blown out when Rodney had yanked the wire. "She's going to kill us."

"What's with the us, kemo sabe?" Rodney said. "You're the one who started it."

"I was driven past human endurance," John said. "Rodney, what exactly are you planning to do, change diapers in your free time between offworld missions and lab disasters? Because I'm telling you right now, I'm not helping."

"What are you talking about?" Rodney said.

John turned to stare at him. "The not-yet-a-baby? In the jar?"

"Are you nuts?" Rodney said. "I don't want to raise it."

John demanded, "What are you planning to do with it, just, what, ship it back to Earth for adoption?"

"Well, duh," Rodney said.

"Oh," John said.

"What the hell would we do with a baby?" Rodney continued. "Move in together and play My Two Dads?"

"That's what I've been -- ! Oh, never mind," John said. He sat for a minute, trying to figure out how he felt about the idea -- he'd been so busy panicking, adoption hadn't even occurred to him. Somehow, it still made him uneasy, but at least it wasn't completely insane. "And you're okay with that? Just -- giving the kid up, and never seeing it again?"

"I think that beats flushing it, yes!" Rodney said.

Well, okay, Rodney had a point there. And -- maybe he could at least write the baby a letter or something. Sorry I had to give you up for adoption, I was busy saving the galaxy -- that was a pretty good excuse, right? That wouldn't make the kid feel insecure or unwanted or anything, and the SGC would find it a good family --

"Okay," John said, finally. "But no bonding! Beckett takes the whatever it is, the baby machine; when it's done, we sign the papers, the kid gets sent through the gate: we don't even look at it."

"But -- " Rodney paused. "No, no, you're right," he said, if a little wistfully. "No sense in getting attached. We'll tell Carson not to even tell us anything about it -- he can move it to one of the back rooms in the infirmary. It's a self-contained system, I don't think it's going to need much maintenance."

John nodded, deeply relieved. "And we'll just forget the whole thing ever happened."

John had pretty much done just that, well enough that it took him a minute to figure out what Beckett was talking about when he came running into the conference room, breaking into their pre-mission briefing. "Rodney, I'm sorry -- the gestation unit, there's something wrong -- I've got some of your people in, but they haven't been able to fix it, and we can't get her out -- "

They stared, and then Rodney was up from the table and running down the hall. "Oh, shit," John said, and took off after him, doing the math. Not quite nine months, but close enough, and Rodney had a cat he still missed after two years away from Earth, and a dog he was still bitter over losing, twenty years later -- so the chances he wouldn't get attached to a baby, given half a chance, struck John as dangerously small, and also, her?

They burst into the infirmary together: Zelenka and Simpson and two other doctors were all huddled around the baby-machine, and Rodney staggered to a halt, staring: there was no projection anymore, just a baby inside the canister itself, curled up awkwardly behind a kind of veil of fleshy pink, tiny fists flailing weakly. John grabbed his shoulder and shoved him onward before he could spend much time looking at it. "Rodney! Focus!"

"Right, yes," Rodney said, jerking back into motion, and knelt down next to Zelenka at the open back panel. "Have you tried -- "

"Yes!" Zelenka snapped, doing something arcane with wires. "Also we have tried -- "

The two of them fell into technobabble along with Simpson. John stayed back, carefully not looking at the canister; he wasn't going to save Rodney and screw up himself. The error-message beeping was starting to get to him, though: like somebody had designed the noise just to grate on his last nerve. It was taking them a long time, and he couldn't help noticing that Beckett and the other doctors were looking more and more anxious.

Then abruptly Rodney said, "Wait -- wait -- " He jumped up and grabbed John's arm and pulled him over to the device. "Touch it, and think open with me, on three -- " Rodney said, but the second John touched the machine, the canister whooshed open, fluid went pouring everywhere, and John was abruptly holding a squirming, coughing baby girl.

They both stared down at her.

"Oh my god, it's a baby," Rodney said, and toppled over in a faint.

John didn't even notice, that or the scurrying as the medical staff tried to figure out how to divide their attention, or the fact that his shirt and his pants were soaking wet and dripping, or that there was anyone else in the room, really, because the baby was blinking up at him, unfocused deep blue eyes like nothing he'd ever seen -- so beautiful, and she just fit into his hands, like a jigsaw puzzle piece he hadn't known was missing.

"Hi," he said to her, softly, and she moved her head towards the sound of his voice, looking for him -- looking for him, and she clutched her tiny perfect fist around his finger and made a little gurgle of happiness back.

"Let me -- " Beckett said, reaching, and John stepped back from him, automatic and involuntary, drawing her closer. "I'm not going to run out of the room with her, Colonel, I just need to check her vitals!" Beckett said, and John tried to explain how utterly wrong it was to ask him to let her go, but as he attempted to string the words together, he realized how insane he sounded even inside his own head. He had to force his arms to uncurl anyway.

The instant Beckett took her, she started to wail at the top of her lungs, a miserable abandoned cry, and John staggered back and away and put his fists to his ears, because he couldn't bear it. The second Beckett said, "All right, then," John sprang forward and snatched her back.

She stopped screaming, after a last couple of hiccupping, accusatory sobs, and then nestled against him. John groped for the wall with one hand, never taking his eyes off her, and slid down to the floor next to Rodney's unconscious body with her cuddled in his arms.

Beckett crouched down and said, "I'll just be telling Elizabeth the adoption's off, then, I take it," and John didn't even bother replying to the dry sarcasm, just said, "Yeah, do that," vaguely, unable to form any thought more coherent than mine mine mine.

"It's got to be something special," Rodney said. "I mean, your looks, my brains -- this kid is going to be a rock star, we can't just call her something random."

"Right, unlike most parents," John said, but he couldn't really get the appropriate amount of sarcasm into it -- secretly he was in complete and totally irrational agreement.

John realized he hadn't looked at her for thirty whole seconds. He leaned forward over the crib. Rodney had found it somewhere in storage, complete with mattress and some silky-shiny blankets; Teyla had borrowed them some baby clothes from the Athosians on the mainland, and the Systems team had donated their stuffed Cthulhu mascot. The baby wasn't really interested in it yet, or much of anything but the bottle and kicking her feet in the air. She was still the most incredible thing he'd ever seen.

"Well, I mean, usually people name their kids after a family member or something stupid like that," Rodney said. "And at the risk of sounding like the ungrateful child I am, I don't feel like naming her for my mom. Besides, Agatha, no. How about yours?"

"Skip it," John said, shortly. "Any other relatives?"

"Well, my grandmother was pretty cool," Rodney said. "She bought me a college-level chemistry set and The Joy of Sex for my thirteenth birthday. My parents were really pissed off."

John grinned. "Okay," he said, "she does sound pretty cool. What was her name?"

"Oh," Rodney said. "Um. Muadhnait."

"What?" John said.

"Mua-- it's Scottish, never mind," Rodney said. "How about naming her after someone famous? There's Marie Curie, that's appropriate. Maybe she'll go into particle physics."

"Eh, Marie's kind of generic," John said.

"True, true," Rodney said. "Ada? First computer programmer."

"I don't know, it's kind of short?" John said, feeling a little bad; he was having a hard time coming up with any names himself, none of them were perfect enough, and he just kept saying no to Rodney's ideas.

"Hm." Rodney frowned thoughtfully. "Oh, um, what's her first name, Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Aha, that's it, Valentina!"

"Valentina?" John said, wincing. It just sounded a little too... pink.

"You know, I only took that Women in Science course to pick up girls," Rodney said. "I'm surprised I remember this much of it, but it's starting to come back to me. Hey, that's one -- Leelavati, she was a mathematician in India -- "

"Um," John said.

"Oh, oh, wait!" Rodney said, getting enthusiastic, "Aglaonike, she might be the first woman astronomer -- or there's Theano, she wrote the text on the Golden Mean -- "

"Uh," John said.

"Hypatia!" Rodney stared at John in sudden wide-eyed delight. "That's it, oh my god, that's just perfect -- "

"You know what, Marie has been kind of growing on me," John said.

"No, seriously, listen to me," Rodney said. "She taught at the library in Alexandria, she was one of the top scientists of her time, she wrote books on astronomy and mathematics, she invented the freaking astrolabe -- that's perfect, we have to go with that -- "

"Okay, look," John said, desperate; he had to save her. "One of us should get to pick the first name, the other one gets the last name." He felt that was pretty heroic; he really wanted her to have his name, but Rodney was clearly on a rampage here and had to be stopped.

"Yeah, okay, that's fair," Rodney said. "Anyway, it'll be good for her not to be in my shadow when she starts publishing."

"What?" John said.

"Hypatia McKay Sheppard!" Rodney said, and he picked her up out of the crib and held her up, beaming.

The baby opened her mouth and screamed.

"Are you stupid?" Rodney said, coming out of the second bedroom. "It's got a balcony."

"There's a solid railing!" John said.

"My cat could have gotten up onto that thing," Rodney said. "No, forget it! We're not living someplace that requires her sense of rational fear to develop quicker than her ability to use a stepladder."

John sighed. So much for potential apartment 36. He'd liked the view, too. "Okay, next?"

Rodney consulted his data scan of the city. "There's a three-bedroom place off corridor C-15, level 5."

John squinted. "Wouldn't that be near the exhaust vent for the jumper bay?"

"Oh, you're right," Rodney said. "Scratch that."

Candidate number 38 only had two bathrooms. "No," John said, vetoing. "She's going to need her own, and I'm not sharing with you." He'd seen Rodney's apartment.

The rooms were too small in 39, 40, and 41. "Ceiling feels low," Rodney said, to number 42. "Too isolated," John said, to number 43.

By the time they staggered into 56, they'd been going for four hours straight. John looked it over once, then started going through the rooms more thoroughly, waiting for Rodney to call something out. He couldn't see anything wrong with it himself. Nice inlaid tile floors with enough texture they wouldn't get dangerously slippery when wet -- that had axed number 11 -- windows in all the bedrooms, walls in good condition -- unlike number 24 -- transporter less than five doors down the hall, nice breakfast island in the kitchen, a small spare room that would be good for storage --

"You know, this looks pretty good," Rodney said, joining him in the front bedroom. "I mean, the closet space isn't ideal, but other than that -- "

"Oh my god, done," John said. He fell backwards onto the bed and sprawled out. "I'm taking this one."

Rodney poked him in the stomach. "Come on, we need to get back, we're already late. She'll be waking up any second."

"You go," John said. "I'm not moving."

"Yes, well, then she'll scream," Rodney said, and poked him again, harder.

"Ow," John said, but got up without any more protesting. He was trying not to openly gloat about the fact that Hyp would only quit crying for him, because he could tell that beneath the joking and handwaving, Rodney was really kind of upset about it, but secretly it gave him an intense, selfish glow of satisfaction -- that she recognized him, that she felt the same sense of bone-deep connection he did. And it wasn't just that pleasure, either. He just couldn't understand how anyone could get from this feeling to where he'd ended up with his own parents. He wavered between being pissed-off at them and scared he was going to screw things up the same way, and he was desperately grateful for the proof that he was clearly doing something right.

A month of twelve daily feedings later, he was a little less thrilled that Hyp wouldn't so much as take a bottle from Rodney. Elizabeth had offered them both paternity leave, but after it became clear that Hyp would accept no substitutes and had really impressive lung capacity, Rodney had given up on taking an equal share of the childcare and gone back to the lab. John couldn't even complain -- Rodney was too obviously depressed -- but he'd never planned on being a stay-at-home mom.

"There's got to be some way to get her to stop freaking out for anyone else," he said to Beckett. "I mean, is Rodney maybe just holding her wrong?"

Beckett looked down at her in the crib. Hyp was busy putting her foot in her mouth and, since Beckett wasn't trying to pick her up, wasn't complaining at the moment. "Colonel, did your parents ever tell you anything about your development?"

John snorted. "They told me the reason I was an only child was because I screamed non-stop for the first six months." Then he frowned.

"Right you are," Beckett said. "I expect she'll start calming down a bit herself in five months or so then." He gave John a cheerful, unsympathetic smile and clapped him on the shoulder before leaving.

"Wait, wait, wait," Rodney said, that night. "That's it? Five months, and she's going to get over it?"

"That's it?" John said, voice rising. "I'm chained to the crib for five more months, and you're saying that's it?"

"I consider it a judgment on you for gloating," Rodney said, unrepentant.

"I did n -- not gloat!" John said, but he wilted under Rodney's glare. "Okay, fine, I gloated a little."

"You gloated a lot," Rodney said. "For weeks." He bounded up joyfully and went to hover over the crib. "Don't worry," he told Hyp, who blinked up at him. "Just a little longer, and you'll have developed your critical faculties enough to want to spend time with the smarter parent."

"Except he's going to be dead by then, because I'll go crazy and kill him," John said. "Rodney, I can't." He'd been thinking about five more months of this all day, since Beckett had left, and he was starting to feel really desperate.

Apparently it showed, because Rodney looked at him and frowned and said, "Look, go crash in your old apartment, take tomorrow off. I can put up with her screaming for a day; it can't be worse than writing my dissertation with the punk band practicing one floor down."

"She won't eat," John said, wavering anyway; it sounded like fucking heaven.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "A missed feeding or two isn't going to kill her. Anyway, she'll take the bottle eventually if she's hungry enough. I mean, obviously you did, or else you wouldn't be here -- "

John practically ran out of the apartment. He slept on a naked air mattress, better than he had in a month, borrowed a jumper not entirely with permission and flew to the mainland, lay on the beach, swam in the ocean, and then went to the Athosian settlement to find some adults to talk to. Halling and his pals were really great guys, John decided, three rock-hard ciders in, while they listened to him try and explain the principles of the zone blitz defense.

He woke up the next morning on a cot in Halling's house. Halling smiled at him gently, gave him tea and fresh-baked bread, and patted him on the shoulder. "They grow so very quickly," he said. "I know it is difficult to believe, but in a year you will be looking back upon this time with regret."

"Uh, yeah," John said, and drank his tea as slowly as he possibly could. He felt weirdly twisted up inside, a steady thrumming of instinct urging home all mixed up with exhaustion and panic, and also the smoking-hot curry that the Athosians had fed him last night. And maybe this was how it started -- this was how you ended up freaked out and resentful, and how the kid ended up hating your guts, and that was enough to make him leave the rest of his breakfast and head home at top speed.

When he got back to Atlantis, Rodney didn't get on his case for taking closer to two days than one, and he reported that Hyp had taken her bottles and even gone to sleep -- eventually. But she was lying in her crib huddled up small and miserable next to the stuffed Cthulhu, and when John picked her up, she made a small whimpering noise and flailed at him with her tiny fists as if trying to cling. He crumpled into a chair feeling more desperate than before, shuddering with guilt, telling her, "I'm sorry, I'm here, I won't go, ever, I swear -- "

Rodney stood over them, frowning, and then he left. John realized a few hours later, after she'd finally fallen asleep again, that he hadn't even said thank you. He cleaned up the apartment a little and made dinner, though it made him feel even more like June Cleaver, but Rodney never showed. John finally fell asleep on the couch, holding the baby.

He jerked awake the next morning, instantly tense, and found Rodney above him, picking Hyp up. "What are you -- " John started, and then Hyp's eyes flew open, she drew a deep breath, screwed her face up -- then stopped, sort of deflated, and just hung there in Rodney's hands, looking only mildly annoyed.

"Ha!" Rodney said. There was a small metal box hanging around his neck, with a couple of green and red LEDs attached, blinking.

John stared up at him reverently. "What did you do?"

Rodney beamed at him. "Well, we couldn't isolate any kind of pheromones, and since it started when she was born, obviously it wasn't visual; and then it came to me -- the brain generates a low-level electromagnetic field, that's how we interface with the Ancient technology, and obviously your field matches theirs better, and she's sensitive to it, so -- " He jerked his chin towards the box. "I built a miniature EM generator, tuned it to the spectrum of your field, and voila."

He carefully sat down on the couch, the baby cuddled possessively in his arms. Hyp still didn't cry, though she was frowning, and she did grumble a little. John thought she looked confused. "Hm," Rodney said. "I guess it's not a perfect simulation."

"Are you kidding? It's the most perfect thing ever," John said. "You're a genius."

Rodney looked smug. "Yes, I am, and in fact I am even more of one than you realize, because I also talked to Teyla, and she said if it worked, there are a bunch of Athosian teenagers who wouldn't mind doing babysitting work in exchange for, say, iPods."

"Don't take this the wrong way, Rodney," John said, "but I think I love you."

They hung the EM generator over the crib. It worked pretty well, Hyp did start letting people other than John pick her up, but she kept frowning doubtfully at the dangling box until Rodney added a mobile around it.

"Well, it's good for babies to have visual stimulation," he said defensively, when John couldn't make his mouth stop twitching.

"Oh, absolutely," John said. "Rotating sheep really train the eye."

They worked out a routine, after that -- Rodney ordered piles of gadgets from Earth to pay their Athosian babysitters, Elizabeth agreed to their staggering their days off, and John could go back to work.

"I hate to say this, but -- " Rodney said, as they worked out the schedule at the kitchen island.

"Yeah," John said, reluctantly. They'd been avoiding the question, but everything else was pretty much done. He fiddled with his pen.

"We just can't take the risk," Rodney said.

"I know," John said.

Breaking up the team was the worst part -- the only part that gave him any real regrets, lingering ones, and not just because Rodney picked Kavanagh as his replacement. "Sorry," Rodney said, when John tried to argue. "Radek is smarter, but Kavanagh's got a more developed sense of self-preservation. I am not ending up as a single parent."

So, yeah, that was loads of fun. But even after Kavanagh mellowed out -- Teyla had taken him aside after the fifth mission for a "talk" that John didn't feel the need to know anything more about -- it just wasn't the same. Rodney was fine with it, even though he was the one who'd been grounded. Now that they had the ZPM, there were a billion and one things all yelling for his immediate attention right in Atlantis, so it only made sense, but weirdly John was the one who missed it more. Maybe it was because the change was more noticeable, since he was doing the same work, just -- no Rodney.

Not that he would've traded it for a second, now that he wasn't on the verge of a psychotic break. It wasn't like he didn't get to see Rodney, they had dinner together most nights -- whoever came home last picked something up from the mess hall, or once in a while John made something on his days off, and Rodney did the dishes after. And then they'd crash on the couch and watch laptop tv, or John would read while Rodney tinkered with something, taking turns on bottle or diaper duty if the baby woke up. Actually it was kind of fun getting to trade stories about what had happened in their respective days, and once in a while Rodney figured out something they'd been stumped by offworld, or John had an off-the-wall suggestion for a problem in the lab, or could straighten out some snafu between the research and the military groups.

But even without all that, there wouldn't have been any room in his brain for regret. He didn't talk to anyone else about it, because he suspected he'd get sent to Heightmeyer to talk about his issues, but he felt as though he'd been alone his entire life before the second when Hyp had landed in his arms. The only thing he could compare it to, even a little, was that instant connection he'd made with Chaya -- that feeling of I know you, you're like me, only a thousand times stronger and more clear. Something he'd been missing all along, without even knowing it existed, and all of a sudden things made sense, people made sense, in a way they never had, because now he wasn't just on the outside looking in.

He didn't have much solitude anymore. He didn't miss it.

"Rodney?" John walked into the kitchen, yawning, hearing the front door open, then he woke up fast, yelled, "Whoa!" and leaped forward and grabbed Hyp just as she headed out of the apartment at a rapid crawl.

"Is she okay? What happened? Is she all right?" Rodney came running in. "How did she get out of the crib?"

They went to her bedroom and found the crib had retracted down its legs and was sitting on the floor, all four sides unhooked from each other and lying flat, like a box with its edges cut open. "I didn't know it could do that," John said, staring.

"It unfolds for storage," Rodney said, also staring. "I didn't know she could do that. Can you believe this? She's eight months old, and she's already manipulating Ancient technology!"

"Oh, great," John said, thinking rapidly about childproofing.

"I know!" Rodney said, excitedly. "We should see if she can turn on the puddlejumper!"

Hyp gurgled and smacked John in the chin with a wet fist. He sighed.

A month later John caught her on the kitchen island interestedly examining a large knife. She'd gotten up by convincing what John had thought was a completely ordinary table in the corner to slide across the room and play elevator for her.

"You're going to stunt her intellectual development!" Rodney said, after coming home to find the apartment refurnished with Athosian handmade wood furniture. John had begged Halling for help and recruited a couple of Marines for the moving.

"She's going to stunt herself a lot worse if she cuts off her own fingers!" John said. "You didn't grow up controlling furniture with your brain, Rodney, and you turned out okay."

"Yes, but she's already developing problem-solving techniques," Rodney said. "You're going to confuse her by taking away the tools!"

"We'll get her a toy screwdriver set," John said.

Stymied by the sudden disappearance of the magic furniture, Hyp transferred her interest to speech and went from babbling to full sentences in the space of three months instead of three years. John won the argument over who got to be "Daddy" as the result of a carefully orchestrated secret campaign, carried out on his days off, which involved coaching her with photos to call Rodney "Papa." Rodney was so thrilled to be first that he forgot the argument completely -- Hyp was still pretty obvious about preferring John, even though they hadn't needed the EM box for a while now, and Rodney was still pretty obvious about minding, even though he pretended he didn't.

Things balanced out a little more after she hit the "Why?" stage, shortly before her second birthday, and discovered that Rodney could and would keep answering a lot longer than John. "Isn't she a little young for this stuff?" John said, after Rodney had finished explaining that the sky was blue because of Rayleigh scattering and the different wavelengths of visible light, complete with diagrams and a side detour into the definition of frequency and wavelength.

"If she's old enough to ask, she's old enough to know," Rodney said, airily, and John gave up for the moment, but there were limits -- and he hit them the evening after Hyp's second birthday party when he finished putting away the dishes and came back out to the living room to find Rodney saying, casually, "Oh, we had an accident with a piece of Ancient technology, it sampled our DNA -- "

"Rodney!" John glared.

"What?" Rodney said. "She asked where she came from."

Hyp was looking at them both interestedly, having interrupted the game that involved breaking apart her new See n' Say -- an already-obsolete gift from Rodney's sister that had arrived with the last Daedalus mission two months before -- to figure out how it worked.

John dragged Rodney aside and hissed, "You can't tell her she's an accident!"

"Oh, what, you were going to go with the stork?" Rodney said.

"No! But you don't have to make it sound so cold!" John said. "You have to emphasize the -- the loving and nurturing part -- "

"-- of having an accident with the Ancient technology?" Rodney said.

John glared.

Kathy St. Germain had come over in the third Daedalus run, so she'd been in Atlantis almost two years now, but John hadn't gotten to know her beyond a handshake and name recognition. He would've been just as happy not to get to know her, at least at first, since it happened because she was the head ICU nurse when he got carried in after taking a poison spear in the leg, half-paralyzed, with both kidneys damaged.

Antibiotics and surgery saved the leg, but they left his kidneys starting to fail, and there weren't exactly a lot of organ donors in the Pegasus galaxy. They were talking about sending him through to Earth, but God only knew if he'd get a kidney even there, and no matter what it would've been a year before he could have gotten back -- maybe two if they didn't change the Daedalus schedule for him and he missed one of the eight-month round trips. He'd been pretty fucking depressed, living on a dialysis machine and massive quantities of drugs, and Hyp had been so frantic that seeing her only made him feel worse.

Kathy had given him both sympathy and bullying in exactly the right proportions, along with killer neck rubs, and when Rodney saved the day -- finding an Ancient device that could actually regenerate the kidneys over the course of a month -- she sat with him every day for the full two hours that the thing was running, while he sweated and gasped through the excruciating pain.

He gave it a week after he finally got out of the infirmary before asking -- Hyp was pretty much clinging on to him nonstop, for one thing -- and when Kathy said yes, he figured that had to be a good sign, since she'd seen him at his absolute worst. He adjusted that up to a very good sign after their third date, when he got to see and touch and lick her very very very nice creamy-skinned breasts, silicon-free and sprinkled with freckles, and then to a great sign after the fifth, when he got laid, spectacularly, for the first time in seven months.

Luckily, Rodney wasn't dating right now and didn't mind being at home nights; and Kathy was understanding about the couple times emergencies kept him in the lab and sent John home unexpectedly. It was the first relationship he'd had since coming to Atlantis, and the first one he'd ever had in his life that felt real. He thought he might really be able to fall in love with her, and even the idea, the possibility, felt like a victory -- like suddenly he'd figured out how to do something everybody else apparently took for granted. He pushed it along pretty fast, but she didn't seem to mind.

They'd been seeing each other for a few months. Then one day he got back early from a mission to M79-HR4, went straight to her apartment, and pounced on her practically without warning. She met him with equal eagerness, and they had sex up against the wall, her hands dug into his hair, her moans in his ear, and afterwards they fell into bed without even showering and did it again. He slept pillowed on her beautiful breasts, so sated it felt like his whole body was just humming in contentment.

He woke up again around 3am, his cycle messed up from offworld travel as usual, and slipped out after a last sleepy kiss, not wanting to keep her awake. He was whistling as he walked through the halls and came back in the door, and it was like a slap in the face when Rodney stood up from the couch, mouth set in a hard line, and said, "Nice of you to drop by, you son of a bitch."

"What?" John said, staring, and then tensed up. "Is Hyp okay? Did something happen?"

"Oh, nothing much," Rodney said, bitingly sarcastic. "Just a little fit of hysterics because you didn't fucking show up after a mission."

"Oh, Jesus," John said. "Why didn't you tell her -- why didn't you radio?"

"I did," Rodney said, glaring, and too late John remembered that he'd stuffed his radio into his bag before going to Kathy's. "And when you didn't answer, then she wouldn't believe me that you were fine. I had to get Teyla to come over and swear to her you'd made it back okay, and then I had to show her that the computer tracked you in Kathy's quarters, and then, oh, then," and John braced himself, because Rodney had clearly been building up a head of steam, "I got to explain why you love Kathy better than her, and I hadn't even realized how much time you've been spending -- I mean, what the fuck are you doing?"

"What?" John said. "Hang on a second -- I'm sorry about tonight, I screwed up, but -- "

"No kidding!" Rodney said. "And that's the least of the things wrong here!"

"Excuse me," John said, starting to get angry, "What the hell is your problem? You've dated before!"

"Yes, I have gone on dates!" Rodney said. "I have even, on memorable occasions of which I wish there had been more, gotten laid. But not like this! Where exactly do you think this relationship you have is going? If you've been bothering to think, which I doubt!"

"How am I supposed to know?" John snapped. "I've been dating her for four months, we're not at the ring-buying stage yet -- "

"It's not the ring-buying stage that's the problem," Rodney said. "It's the moving in together stage. Are you actually going to walk out on Hyp?"

"Maybe Hyp would want to live with -- " John said, too pissed-off to think about what he was saying until the words were already coming out of his mouth and he stopped, too late.

Rodney didn't say anything, just took a shaky half-step back, staggering, his face gone white and sick, and John whirled around and walked out of the apartment, because he didn't know what the fuck else to do. The hallways were deserted, and he headed out past the patrol area and broke into a run, did five miles out to the city perimeter at about twice his usual speed and collapsed panting on the edge of the east pier, dripping sweat, exhausted.

He showered in an empty apartment and took a transporter back, trying to maintain the comfortably mindless state, and he opened the door to the apartment as quietly as he could. Rodney wasn't in the living room anymore and his bedroom door was closed. John crept past down the hall to Hyp's room, wanting just to look in on her.

But the door was open. Rodney was sitting at the side of her bed in the dark, his face bowed down against his folded hands, utterly silent, and there were tears dripping from his fingers. John flinched back, and he must have made a sound, because Rodney straightened up, turning his face away from the door while he wiped it. His expression was rigid when he came out. He nodded towards the living room and followed John down the hall.

Rodney didn't come all the way into the living room, just stayed at the edge, arms folded around his chest, tightly. He didn't look at John. "She shouldn't have to move," he said dully. "I'll find a new place."

He paused, not waiting for an answer, just breathing hard. "I'll want her on my weekends," he added, and abruptly he turned around and went into his bedroom, and closed the door quietly behind him.

The worst part of it was, Rodney hadn't yelled. He hadn't even sounded angry, he wasn't even fighting -- he believed Hyp would be happier with John, with John and Kathy, than with him; he was just giving in. Rodney, of all people, just broken like that. It was unbelievable, except John knew in every atom what it would do to him if this were the other way around, if Rodney was the one she'd preferred, if Rodney was the one taking her away to someone else she'd learn to love, and John knew it would leave him in too many pieces to ever put back together again.

And apparently this was part of the deal: he couldn't love Hyp and not know exactly what he'd be doing to Rodney. And knowing, he couldn't do it; he couldn't even imagine it, any of it -- standing in this room watching Rodney pack up a couple of bags and leave, going to an empty apartment and an empty life -- Rodney, who had fucking carried him half the way here --

John ended up sitting on the couch, shivering, not even sure how he'd gotten there. He stayed hunched over with his face in his hands all the rest of the night, while the windows got pale and blue and the sun rolled over him like a death sentence, and then he got up and went to tell Kathy it was over.

Things changed anyway.

Rodney ate at the mess now, the nights John was home, and he disappeared into his room the minute they put Hyp to bed. Even while she was awake, he stayed at the dinner table working instead of joining them on the living room floor. John hadn't even realized how used he'd gotten to their regular routine -- dinner, playtime with Hyp until she fell asleep; then hanging out together, sometimes talking, sometimes not, purely comfortable either way.

Now it was anything but. It wasn't that Rodney got obnoxious or nasty. He got polite, scrupulously so, and very quiet; it was horrible, like suddenly being back in time, in his parents' house, the stiff formality. John thought it would get better after a few days, then he thought it would get better after a few weeks, and then he started to get seriously pissed-off. Hyp knew something was wrong, and it was freaking her out. She would stop playing and go to the table and try to coax Rodney to come away; and when he wouldn't, she would end up going anxiously back and forth to ask him "Why?" questions one after another, as quick as she could think of them.

And she wasn't acting completely like herself with John, either. He'd apologized, the morning after, and feebly tried to explain to her tearstained and bewildered face, and for a few days she'd seemed okay. But now she got extra clingy when he left for work in the mornings, even if it was just to a briefing, and she kept making him promise he was going to come straight home after each mission.

Finally he couldn't stand it anymore; he couldn't live like this, not again, not after what they'd had before. He asked Teyla and Ford for a favor and got them to take Hyp to the mainland for a sleepover, and then he cornered Rodney in the apartment when he came home. Rodney tried to avoid him and go on by to his room, and John grabbed Rodney by the arm and swung him around to face him. "I don't know what the hell your problem is, but this has got to stop -- "

Rodney punched him in the mouth, taking John totally off guard, and screamed at him, "You fucking asshole, you were going to fucking destroy my life, you said so to my face and you didn't even think twice about it, don't you fucking dare expect me to treat you like a friend -- "

John had caught himself against the couch; his hand touching his lip came away stained with blood, and he looked incredulously at Rodney and yelled, "Fuck you! I broke up with Kathy, I didn't take Hyp away from you -- "

"Oh, yes, and don't get me wrong, I'm glad you developed enough of a conscience at the last minute not to hurt Hyp by screwing up her life," Rodney said, bitterly. "I'm pathetically grateful, in fact, for every minute I have left with her, until you decide she's finally old enough not to be traumatized by your trading me in for a more compatible model."

"I didn't -- I -- " John stammered, appalled, and when Rodney turned away, he jumped and caught his arm and said, "Rodney, I was never going to -- Look, you were right, do you get it? I wasn't thinking, I hadn't thought, and then you pissed me off by rubbing my face in it, and I said something stupid. I'm sorry -- I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. I'm not going anywhere. I'm not, Rodney, I swear to you -- "

"Okay, shut up, you're babbling," Rodney said, abruptly, his face a little red and blotchy and his eyes blinking fast. "Also, you're still a jerk."

He sounded like himself again, cranky and snapping and nowhere near polite. John stopped, panting hard, and sat down against the back of the couch, his legs shaky with relief. "So are you!" he said, blotting his lip cautiously. "I can't believe you thought I was just -- biding my time, or something."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, well, next time I'll keep in mind that my default assumption should just be total lack of any rational thought on your part." He went to the kitchen and came back with paper towels and an icepack for John's face, and they moved to the other side of the couch so John could lean his head back.

"So why didn't you just say any of this before?" Rodney demanded, after they'd gotten settled. "Like, oh, say, that night?"

"Because I was fucking upset, okay?" John said, lifting away the icepack so he could talk. "I liked Kathy, I liked her a lot, and I was stringing her along without even knowing! I just didn't realize I was already fucking married, I thought there would at least have been a memo or something."

Rodney blinked. "Huh. You know, it never occurred to me to think about it that way either."

"See!" John sat up and pointed at him.

"Oh, shut up." Rodney pushed him back and shoved his hand with the icepack back onto his lip. "Personally, I think it's because you're a really terrible wife. Your legs are okay, but you're nowhere near blonde, and also the lack of breasts is kind of a downer."

"Don't talk about breasts to me," John said, half-wistfully. He hadn't really had time to regret Kathy the last few weeks, too tied up in knots over the more important things he'd lost at home, and now that the tension was fading and he had a minute, she already felt far away, like someone in the distant past. "Do you know, that was almost my longest relationship ever?"

"What, four months?" Rodney said. "I managed six once."

"I've made it to seven," John said. "But that's because I got sent to Iraq for a tour of duty for six months in the middle."

"Well, my six months were with a KGB agent who was under orders to seduce advanced alien technology out of me," Rodney admitted.

John eyed him. "I'm not sure I want to know the answer to this question, but did it work?"

"Of course not, am I stupid?" Rodney said. "As soon as I'd given her what she wanted, she would've dumped me, and she was the only thing keeping me from freezing to death. The heat in my room didn't work."

John raised an eyebrow and waited.

"Okay, yes, I could've fixed the heat. But come on! She was a KGB agent!" Rodney said defensively. "You wouldn't believe the things she could do with her tongue."

"You know what, let's not talk about this," John said. "I'm getting depressed. I really liked having regular sex again, you know?"

"God, yes," Rodney said.

They both sighed and slumped back into the couch.

"Although, it's kind of miraculous, when you think about it," Rodney said, after a moment.

"What is?"

"That we've made it more than three years," Rodney said. "Considering our track record, I feel like we should be celebrating our golden anniversary or something." He poked John. "I want flowers and candy."

"Maybe if you hadn't just punched me in the mouth," John said.

Hyp's fourth birthday, going by the Atlantean calendar, turned out to almost coincide with Guy Fawkes Day back on Earth -- at least, that was a good enough excuse for Elizabeth. John brought home some sulfur from an offworld mission and Rodney and Zelenka made fireworks that they set off on the mainland after a dinner picnic: green and yellow and red and blue, with the kids' eyes big as saucers and everyone who could get over for the display cheering.

The Athosians pulled out instruments, and some of the Atlanteans had brought theirs too; the music and dancing went on late into the night. The kids all fell off to sleep, one by one, and were piled together in a heap, snug under warm blankets. John tucked Hyp into the pile, still clutching her Cthulhu, and then went back to sprawl next to Rodney on their blankets. "This was a great idea."

"Mmm," Rodney agreed, satisfied and yawning with his hands behind his head. "Have to think of some way to top it for next year, though."

"Hey, that reminds me," John said, and leaned over Rodney to rummage in the backpack he'd brought along. "Happy anniversary." He dropped the Snickers bar on Rodney's chest.

"Oh my god," Rodney said, grabbing it up. "I take back everything I said, you are the best wife ever. Where did you get this?"

"I have my sources," John said, grinning. He'd found out about the secret stash of candy bars Ford kept getting from his grandparents, a couple of years back. "It might be a little stale, though."

"Who cares." Rodney ripped open the wrapper, broke the candy bar in two and handed half to John. They ate it slowly, Rodney making small breathy ecstatic noises, and lay back still licking the chocolate from their fingers, to fall asleep under the open starry sky.

That was the last minute of peace and quiet they had for a while. A cascade of small things all started to break one after another in chain reaction -- the Ancient technology had lasted ten thousand years, but another seven years of heavy use was turning out to be too much, and Rodney and his team were working nonstop to keep ahead of the game.

Offworld missions multiplied in turn, as Rodney had giant shopping lists of materials they needed, and then Colonel Everett had a massive coronary in the middle of a planning meeting: clutched his chest once and was dead by the time he hit the ground. John was suddenly ranking military officer again, with security, city defenses, war strategy and piles of bureaucracy to manage, all on top of running missions. He and Rodney would pretty much wave at each other in passing at breakfast, on a good day, and had to talk by radio to make sure at least one of them was going to be home to tuck Hyp into bed.

Then Rodney and Zelenka finally made a breakthrough in figuring out how to reduce the stress on the city systems, just as the Daedalus arrived with the last of the necessary supplies, and Colonel Vollner to take over from John. For five minutes, it looked like they might have a chance to relax, and then Hyp shuffled up to the breakfast island the next morning, forehead pale and hot to the touch, and whispered, "M' throat hurts."

Her cold lasted for almost the entire week they'd taken off to catch up on sleep, and by the time she was fine, they were both at the end of their ropes. Rodney had a fit, threw his coffee mug through the window -- or would have, if the window were glass; instead the metal mug just bounced off and rolled on the ground, which only got him more angry -- and yelled, "Okay, I've had it, this is ridiculous. We've been going nonstop for three months, in which I have done five million impossible repairs, you have gone to a thousand alien planets, the kid has been sick, we have saved the known universe at least eight times between us, and we haven't had a minute alone together the whole time, and I am done!"

He stopped, panting, wild-eyed, and John said, prudently, "Right," and went out to radio Ford and beg him to take Hyp out for the day.

After she'd been packed off, waving happily, for a play date and a sleepover on the mainland, they collapsed on the couch together, still in boxers and t-shirts from the night. After a few minutes, Rodney toppled slowly and inevitably over, already snoring, and his head landed on John's shoulder.

John yawned, enormously tempted just to let his head fall back too, then he forced himself to move, just enough to get his and Rodney's legs up on the couch, and both of them at least vaguely stretched out so they wouldn't end up with serious cricks, and then he pulled the throw blanket down over them and let his head tip back as Rodney snuggled deeper into his chest.

He woke up with Rodney blinking down at him, saying, "You want lunch?"

"Yeah," John said, and they got up and made a second helping of scrambled eggs and toast. They left the dishes in the sink, and then they made microwave popcorn and went back to the couch and watched The Village, which they'd been saving for a special occasion since the Daedalus had brought it about seven runs ago, and then they argued for two hours about whether the various plot twists were good or stupid, trading positions a couple of times just for variety's sake. Afterwards they showered and picked up dinner from the mess hall, and John led Rodney to a nice terrace that he'd found on a city-exploration mission, overlooking the southwest bay, with a great view of the sunset.

Rodney pushed away his empty tray and sighed and sprawled out on his back in the last rays of the sun, closing his eyes. "God, I needed this."

"Yeah," John said, yawning, and stretched out next to him. It was getting chilly with the sun going down, but Rodney had enough padding to make him a nice little heat source if John lay close enough.

They napped for a while, until the last of the warmth had faded and the sky was fully dark, and then they went back to the apartment and started cleaning. They had to run the dishwasher first, because it was already full, and then load it up again with the stacks that had piled up in the sink; in between, Rodney scrubbed down the counters and the table, while telling John in appalling detail about the latest microbiology studies about the prevalence of harmful bacteria in household settings.

John dusted and swept the small heaps of dirt into the air-filter intakes, and ran the laundry, and after they put the dishes away, they folded clothes together and went through the bedrooms stripping sheets and pillows, putting away their own clutter and the scattered bits of computer hardware that were Hyp's favorite toys.

"Hey," John said, when they were done, "let's get some air in here." They threw the windows all open wide, made coffee, and sprawled on the couch under throw blankets, with the crisp salt air rushing through and the steady crashing of the waves on the breakers outside.

John told Rodney about the abandoned city on M3H-P64, one of the places they'd raided for trinium during the series of crises; the towers twisted and blackened, blasted by the Wraith, but still rising up into the sky far beyond the limits of any Earth skyscraper. "Wow, starscrapers," Rodney said, dreamily. "It's got to be the trinium -- the combination of the tensile strength and the high elastic limit; you couldn't get away with building that high otherwise."

Then Rodney told him about the accident that had resulted in the entire Chemistry group flinging off their clothes and trying to have a wild orgy in the hallways, having to be pried apart by medical staff in hazmat suits; and that led John straight into the story about the Mieklans, who had offered lots of nice supplies, if only they agreed to participate in a really freaky sex ritual involving oranges -- "Oranges?" Rodney said. "Aliens were threatening my virtue, and you're hung up on the oranges?" John said -- and they had a lot of other stories saved up from the last few months, so without even noticing they got to 3 am, and the coffeepot was empty, so they reluctantly closed up the windows and walked down the hall together still talking.

John leaned against the doorframe of Rodney's bedroom; they were both yawning every few words now, but this day had been too perfect, he just didn't want it to end yet. Rodney clearly felt the same way, because he wasn't stepping back into his room, until he said suddenly, "Oh, hey, and I almost forgot, I wanted to show you something," which meant John could follow him inside.

The something turned out to be a really cool Ancient planetarium device that had turned up in one mysterious lab or another. They turned off the lights and lay down on Rodney's bed and projected the star-diagram on the ceiling, zooming into one system after another, the ones that John had visited lately.

From there, they pretty quickly descended to playing a version of Connect Four -- though they made it Connect Ten -- using the laser-sight lines, and making the stars the points of a giant grid. Somewhere around move sixty-two Rodney squinted up and said, "Hey! You're going to beat me!"

"I was wondering when you'd notice," John said, smirking, and got thumped with a pillow, which he'd expected, and then Rodney propped himself up on an elbow, looked down at him affectionately and said, "You know, I really love you," which he hadn't.

John said, "I love -- I love you too," stuttering as it sank in, and then he had to say it again just to let the words settle into his mouth and his brain, "I love you."

Rodney didn't seem to notice anything odd, just smiled at him and lay down again. The projection faded slowly until there was only a scattering of the brighter stars, like the real night sky, as though the roof had opened up above them. After a while Rodney drowsily said, "Night."

John vaguely said, "Yeah, night," and as Rodney drifted off into open-mouthed sleep next to him, he lay there still staring at a billion distant stars, shaken down to his bones, breathless.

He woke up the next morning in sunlight, disoriented for a second: his own bedroom window faced west. Rodney had his face kind of mashed into John's shoulder, and a heavy arm slung over his chest. The edge of the sunlight crept a little further along, hitting Rodney; he mumbled incoherently in protest and rolled over and away without even waking up.

John yawned and climbed off the bed, stretching, and went to make coffee. He had some ham on the griddle by the time Rodney appeared, bleary, groping for his mug, and by the time Rodney climbed out through his third cup, blinked at him, and said, "Morning," the pancakes were ready.

"We should do this more often," Rodney said, licking syrup off his fingers and eyeing John's last piece of ham.

John gave him half of it. "How's Friday for you?" he said: joking, but wistfully. He wanted Friday; in fact he wanted today, except their leave was over and he had mission-prep in an hour and Rodney was due back in the lab.

"Well," Rodney said, thoughtfully, "I have a staff meeting in the morning, but I could get the afternoon if I trade a couple things around with Radek."

"Yeah?" John said, blinking, and thought about it for real: offworld Tuesday, back Wednesday, post-mission debrief Thursday -- he could probably swing Friday too. "Hey, we could take Hyp to the beach; it's still pretty hot during the day over near the settlement."

"There's a thought." Rodney nodded, enthusiastic. "She'll crash by sundown, we can come back and put her to bed, take the rest of the night off."

"Sounds great," John said, smiling at Rodney across the island, a kind of silly, helpless grin pulling up the corners of his mouth, and then the front door opened and Hyp came bounding in ahead of Ford, singing out, "Look, look, I have a lizard, I caught it, it spits," and pushed an indignant-looking bumpy red iguana-like thing into John's hands, where it promptly confirmed the description by squirting him with orange-red slime.

There were several long and meaningful conversations about the importance of not touching alien critters and the need to leave wild animals in the wild, followed by tears and Rodney wimping out. "I could build her a terrarium," he said feebly, before John glared him down.

They set Bob the Lizard free on the beach on Friday, and distracted Hyp with building sandcastles. After the tide started coming in and wrecked the masterpiece -- sixteen coffee-cup towers, an encircling wall, seaweed gardens and a moat -- they put her in the water wings Rodney had made out of the tires of a wrecked MALP and took her out for a swim, and then she and Rodney sat on the beach and waved to John as he surfed for a while.

They all went for a walk along the long coastline as it got cooler, Hyp swinging herself wildly in the air between them, lifting her feet off the ground and squealing as they swung her up. Then she caught sight of a deposit of seashells, and put their hands together to close up the space while she ran ahead to go pick through the heap.

John felt a little silly holding hands with Rodney, and he wondered if he should let go. But then he figured it might seem rude if he dropped Rodney's hand like a hot potato, and it wasn't like it was unpleasant or anything, just, well --

"So, this is weird," Rodney said abruptly.

"Yeah," John said.

"Not that it's -- "

"Yeah," John said. But somehow they were still walking down the beach holding hands, because Rodney hadn't let go, and John didn't want to be the first one. Anyway --

"Actually, it's kind of nice," Rodney added, uncertainly, looking over at him.

And it really was, which was the weirdest thing about it, but, "What the hell," John said, shrugging at him. "Our life is pretty weird anyway."

So he laced his fingers in with Rodney's broad and callused ones, and they kept on walking, while Hyp went running up and down the shore ahead, bringing them the broken bits and pieces of the strange whorly seashells, scraps of interesting driftwood, handfuls of polished and shining-wet rocks.

Dr. Hedda Arnois arrived on the Daedalus that winter: the former head of emergency medicine from Georgetown University Hospital and a trauma surgeon: a more appropriate specialization than genetics, really, for a chief medical officer whose practice had turned out to be less about research than planned. Beckett's mother had started failing.

The medical team threw him a big going-away party, with cake and music and balloons, and then afterwards there was a smaller, sadder one at Elizabeth's apartment, unofficial, for the twenty or so first-wave team members still left, all of them already more-or-less drunk. Beckett slumped down on the couch and cried when they showed him the going-away present, a disk of video messages from all of them, and an old-fashioned wind-up pocket watch Zelenka had built to run on Atlantis time, hanging on a chain with one link for each time he'd saved one of their lives. It was too long for him to actually put in his pocket; John had put twenty-three links on just by himself.

People drifted away one and two at a time, hugging Carson goodbye, until it was just John and Rodney and Elizabeth left, the last of the senior staff. They stayed up, not even really talking anymore, until 3:17 am -- 9 am back in Colorado Springs -- and then they walked him to the gateroom and stood watching together from the control console as he went through, his face still unashamedly wet. In silent agreement, they didn't leave even after he'd gone, waiting until the wormhole had finally shut down.

John shut the apartment door behind the babysitter. He and Rodney hadn't talked much on the way back; drunk worn down to tired, last of the energy gone, and for some reason John couldn't stop thinking about Kavanagh tonight: trapped behind the shield he'd gotten up to protect John and Ford and Teyla, how scared he'd been, and the afterimage of his face against the meltdown-white reactor flare of the explosion.

John went down the hall to Hyp's room and stood in the doorway looking at her, half-wishing she would wake up so he'd have an excuse to give her a hug. He felt hollow. After a little while he closed the door and went back to the kitchen. The pot of coffee was already full, waiting; Rodney was leaning on both hands against the island, head hanging forward.

Abruptly John went to him, caught his shoulder and pulled him back. Rodney looked at him confused and just stood there at first while John tried to work out how to get his arms around someone who wasn't really cooperating, and then Rodney got the idea and suddenly John was wrapped up tight, Rodney's arms around his back, pulling him in, and John breathed out against Rodney's shoulder and closed his eyes and just held on, the empty corners inside filling up with the sound of Rodney's heartbeat, the warmth of his body.

They just stood there hugging, Rodney rubbing his back, until the coffeemaker clicked, turning off, and they broke apart. They poured coffee and sat down on the couch, close enough their shoulders and thighs were touching.

"Miko's going back too," Rodney said after a while. "On the Daedalus -- the equipment she's taking back won't fit through the gate."

"She's leaving?" John said, more surprised than he'd expected; he had a kind of list in his head these days, the first-wave people who were going to be drifting away, when they'd go, and she wasn't anywhere on that list; somehow he'd classified her in with him and Rodney and Elizabeth, Ford and Zelenka, the ones who weren't ever leaving.

"The Japanese government asked her to come back," Rodney said, and yeah, that would do it. "They want her to head up the STA -- that's their big-science agency, the spaceflight program. They're taking over the development of the Icarus, the international coalition thing has just been falling apart."

"Not to mention that's still a really bad name," John said.

"It's just part of the natural sequence!"

"Yeah, just don't say I didn't warn you when it falls apart the first time it gets too close to a sun or something," John said.

"With Miko building it, that thing's going to be so invulnerable it could go through a sun and come out the other side only lightly toasted," Rodney said, and then the coffee mugs were empty, and they went to bed, and as they were falling asleep Rodney put an arm over John's chest.

"Can I sleep over at Liezel's?" Hyp asked, out of the blue, one of his weeknights, and after John finished blinking -- they'd arranged sleepovers and play dates for her, and she liked them fine, but she'd never asked for one before -- he said, uncertainly, "Who's Liezel?"

"She came on the last Daedalus with her parents and she's six and a half and she has a computer all her own," Hyp said, in faintly accusing tones. John didn't want her spending all her time playing on the computer instead of actually, well, playing. Rodney just felt she shouldn't have her own until she could build it out of parts and install linux by herself.

John had so far privately stymied that project by hiding all the spare video cards in the pantry. Rodney was about as likely to look inside that as he was to jump out the window, and there was a high padlock on it, which they'd installed after the time last year when Hyp had independently invented papier-mhé and put up her own wallpaper, blocked up the drain, and got her hair clumped into a solid block, most of which had ended up being cut off.

"Well, okay," John said, still a bit startled; there were a few other kids in the city itself, but they'd all been born here -- you put about a thousand brilliant single people in one place, accidents happened -- and Hyp was the oldest of them. He walked her over to the Myers' apartment and met Liezel's mom, Anna Myers, who turned out to be a former Montessori school principal. "We'll have the school on the mainland," she said. "The Athosian children ought to have the chance to attend also, and they can afford the travel time less easily."

She invited him to stay for a bit while Hyp and Liezel settled in, but all she offered him to drink was a glass of water, explaining earnestly that it was important to set a good nutritional example for children by not drinking lots of caffeinated or sugary beverages.

"And you left our child with this lunatic?" Rodney demanded, when he got home from the lab around midnight.

"I didn't think Hyp was going to pick up any bad habits from a teacher." John shrugged, carrying over the coffee cups. He gave Rodney one and stretched out from the opposite end of the couch, their legs overlapping comfortably.

"I just, this school thing," Rodney said. "How are they going to provide an adequate environment for her needs?"

"Rodney, she's going to be in kindergarten," John said. "It's mostly singing songs and eating milk and cookies."

"Oh, yeah, that's what they make it sound like," Rodney said. "That's just a front. They're going to try and teach her things, like the alphabet and counting. I was telling her about infinite series yesterday; what the hell good is A-B-C going to do her?"

John winced. It was true; Hyp didn't really seem to need to be taught -- she just unexpectedly started doing new things, like reading the nutrition labels off MREs and demanding explanations of "partially hydrogenated," or finding a paint-with-your-mind Ancient device and making giant pink and yellow murals all over the apartment. It had taken John three days to figure out how to use the damn thing himself and save their eyeballs.

"Well," John said, "what do you want to do? I don't think they're going to force us to send her."

"She'll feel left out if all the other kids are there," Rodney said, turning contrary.

"Okay," John said. "So let's give it a chance and see how it goes. I mean, most of the kids here are pretty damn bright, and at least it's going to be a small school."

Rodney muttered under his breath and sighed, but didn't argue it anymore. "You want to watch something?"

"Nah," John said, yawning. "I'm pretty much ready to crash. You mind if we just read a while?"

"Sure," Rodney said. They settled down in Rodney's room; John had found he really liked waking up with the sun, and without it Rodney did a good imitation of a log in the mornings. John's eyes were closing after about two pages; he tossed the book on the end table, scooted down and went to sleep, with Rodney next to him still reading in the island of light from the bedside lamp.

His shoulder skidded in the rain-soaked turf as he tried to roll, and it turned into more of a slide, with what felt like half the slope coming loose under him and racing him down the far side of the hill until it spat him out across a stretch of more level ground. He had to push hard to get himself up, thick suction-cup sound as he wrenched his arms free of the muck and wiped his face, trying to see Ford, Teyla, Hathaway.

Teyla had apparently gotten down the hill in a controlled fashion, and she had one of Hathaway's arms, keeping the skinny scientist more or less on his legs; Ford was dragging himself out of the mud on the other side of them, already trying to clear the junk off his P-90.

The very restless natives had more prudently stopped at the top of the rise, but they were still firing away with their leather slingshots: the rocks they were flinging were small, but they had a hell of a bite, and John didn't want to see what one would do if it hit somebody on the head. "Ford, I've got our six, take point and get moving!" he yelled, and tried to make the P-90 do something other than make choked clicking noises; these goddamn things were supposed to be able to take any kind of weather, he thought savagely, and finally it spat out a burst of gunfire that at least made the whoever-they-were duck and stop flinging rocks.

They ran staggering back to the jumper; the rain kept coming by in spurts, never enough to wash them clean, just enough to make the ground into soup that dragged at John's boots with every step. He twisted his ankle painfully twice, turning around to blindly fire more warning bursts. He took a half-dozen more rocks anyway, the last one catching him just at the jumper door, in the already-aching small of his back, and he stumbled and fell to his knees on the floor of the hatchway, hissing, "Fuck, fuck, fuck," and grabbing at the sharp, stabbing point of pain.

"Colonel, are you all right?" Teyla said, reaching for him.

"M'fine," John said, dragging himself up; he lunged at the front console and the rear hatch slid shut, and then he let his head fall back against the headrest for just a second, ignoring the thump-thump-thump of rocks hitting the hull. All in all, John thought wearily as he got the jumper in the air, he'd rather have been at home, reading Hyp the riddle-game scene from The Hobbit again.

Judging by the medical team's expressions, back in Atlantis -- faces half-amused, half-alarmed -- they looked almost as bad as they felt as they limped out of the jumper. And of course the soil had to be sampled for dangerous alien microbes, allergens, toxins, grass, whatever; and they couldn't even shower because of that time three years back when soap had reacted with the weird oily stuff on M83-G42 and given two Marines second-degree burns all over their hands and arms.

Finally Dr. Arnois cleared them, and John went slowly back to the apartment, carrying the little pre-packaged bag of muscle salve, alcohol wipes, and bandages. Rodney looked up from the dinner table as John came in and said, "What did you do, go swimming in mud?" even as he got up and came to take the medical kit and John's bag, which got dumped in the corner of the kitchen.

"Pretty much," John said, stifling a faint groan as he limped to the bathroom. He gave up on actually washing after about thirty seconds and instead just stood there under the spray, gazing vaguely at his feet as the dirt and bits of grass swirled away into the drain.

"Are you all right?" Rodney said, sliding open the shower door, startling him with a gust of the cooler air outside. "You've been in here -- okay, ow." John blinked down at himself, following Rodney's appalled look: his body was mottled with fist-sized bruises all over, angry scratches still clogged with dirt, red raw patches where skin had been peeled away.

Rodney stepped back and took his own clothes off, and then climbed in. John gratefully leaned against him, closed his eyes; Rodney's hands felt so damn good, gentler than the water on the sores and scrapes, carefully dabbing them clean with a washcloth. John was sagging and half-conscious by the time Rodney maneuvered him out of the shower and down onto the toilet seat, and even the sting of the alcohol wasn't enough to really wake him up.

Rodney put him to bed, in John's room for once: the sheets were fresh and soft against his tenderized skin, and Rodney pulled the curtains tight and turned off the alarm, moving quietly around him. John was only vaguely aware of him turning off the light, and was asleep before Rodney closed the door behind him.

John woke himself up groaning, his whole body clenching up and tightening around the hard little knots of pain. Rodney came in almost at once. "Here, take this, drink this," he said, putting the ibuprofen and the glass of water directly into John's hands. John swallowed, gulped, and fell asleep almost right away again, and when he woke up he wasn't too horribly stiff. He got up and did some stretching and managed to get himself dressed and out of the room, a couple hours ahead of the scheduled debriefing.

Rodney even went and got him breakfast from the mess hall -- lunch, by now -- and John squinted at him across the table. "Do I still look that bad?"

"Yes," Rodney said, flatly, and though Rodney wasn't not-eating, he was going through his meal pretty slowly, for him.

"Hey," John said, "it's not that bad, seriously. I mean, don't get me wrong, it sucks, and you should absolutely feel free to keep waiting on me hand and foot for the next week, but it's just bruises."

"You're getting more bruises than you used to," Rodney said.

"I'm just whining about them more, now that I know it'll get me special treatment," John said, trying to joke him out of it, and to his relief Rodney rolled his eyes and stole a bite of his chocolate cake, letting the subject drop.

The Icarus ended up with more than four times the carrying capacity of the Daedalus. Its first mission arrived shortly after Hyp's fifth birthday, with two hundred new scientists. John was already asleep when Rodney finally came in around 3 am, towards the end of the second week after, but he woke up as Rodney crawled onto him and buried his face in John's chest with a groan. "Save me from the idiots," he said, muffled.

John rubbed his head. "Sorry, I'm only allowed to shoot the dangerous aliens."

"They are dangerous aliens." Rodney sighed, rolling off onto his back. "They're just -- they're all wrong. None of them are out of the SGC or Area 51, they've just been recruited out of universities, and they're going to have to spend the next six months unlearning half the crap they just spent the best fucking years of their minds on. I hadn't even realized -- do you get that nothing has been making it out of the program?"

"That's kind of what 'top secret' means," John said.

"I'm talking about fundamental physics!" Rodney said. "Mathematics, chemistry, hell, even medicine -- you can publish a paper on theoretical wormhole dynamics without talking about aliens and stargates!"

"And when people start asking where the hell all of the new research is coming from?" John said dryly.

"Which is why we should've been letting it out little by little, all the way along!" Rodney said. "Then we wouldn't be in this mess -- " He propped himself up on an elbow. "John, this is a disaster. None of them can work without close supervision, and they all resent it, because they can't deal with the fact that they just went from being the fucking rock stars of the scientific world to being stupider than our five-year-old daughter."

John grinned.

"You think I'm kidding," Rodney said grimly. "The babysitter brought her by the lab this morning because she wanted to see me, and Hyp pointed out a giant gaping error in the wormhole physics equations on Dr. Vashniyan's whiteboard that I've been waiting for him or any of the other ten new scientists working in the room to notice for the last three days. For a second I thought he was going to hit her."

"What?" John said, sitting up.

"Relax, nothing happened," Rodney said, pulling him back down and throwing an arm over his chest. "Except Vashniyan disappeared; I think he went somewhere to cry."

Besides the scientists, Icarus had also brought a lot of others: staff and operations personnel, and some more Marines, and a bunch of people had brought families along. Almost six hundred new people, all told, half again their population, and the official "welcome to Atlantis" party had to be held out in the central plaza of the city. John wandered around trying to meet as many of the new people as he could, and then pulled back to a low balcony and just stared at the crowd, a little weirded out.

"Feel like you've been invaded?" The tall, dark-skinned woman smiled at him, offering a glass of champagne. He'd met her maybe an hour ago, by the fountain; she was a scientist in the genetics research division, that was it; her name was -- was --

"Yes, but in a good way," John said, smiling brightly as he took the glass, playing for time.

She grinned. "Duana Navarro."

He winced. "Yeah, thanks," he said ruefully. "Can we pretend we haven't met before? Hi, I'm John Sheppard." He held out his hand, and she solemnly shook it.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Elizabeth still circulating, and a lot of her senior staff also, nudging people into mingling; Rodney was foraging at the buffet -- "You can meet and greet, I've already suffered more than my fair share" -- and keeping an eye on Hyp, who was playing with some of the new kids in the area that had been set aside for them.

The party was finally starting to break up, people heading off to the base clubs or just going home; John figured they could take off in another twenty minutes or so without being rude. In the meantime, Dr. Navarro had a lot of questions about the city, and answering them was a good enough excuse that he didn't have to feel guilty about not diving back into the party.

Despite Rodney's complaint about his people, she seemed to be adjusting okay -- she was already deep in her work, which sounded neat, something about applying algorithms to find patterns in genetic drift over known human populations, and then using that to work back towards a complete Ancient genome. He mentioned to her that she was settling in well, and she shrugged wryly. "I went to a ten-girl Catholic school outside Guadalajara, college in Mexico City, and Oxford from there. I'm used to jumping into bigger pools than the one I've been swimming in. Although," she added, glancing up at the Atlantean night sky, "I admit, I wasn't expecting to jump quite this far."

John grinned. "Don't worry," he said. "After a few weeks, you won't even notice the first hundred million light-years."

"Well, it's already starting to feel like home," she said, and smiled at him. Then she put down her glass and said, "Would you like to maybe continue this inside?"

Okay, so she'd been flirting, and he'd missed it completely. First he spent a second feeling like an idiot; but this meant he could maybe even have sex tonight if he played his cards right, which was a much more compelling thought; and then he realized he hadn't had a night off with Rodney in two weeks and wasn't going to get another chance for the rest of the month, and he opened his mouth and said, "I need to head home, actually," apologetically.

She handled it like a pro, friendly smile and a goodnight handshake, not a twitch to show she'd been interested in anything more. He watched her walking away feeling like a kid outside a toy store window, because damn, those were some nice legs, and maybe she would've wrapped them around his waist, and --

"Hey, you ready?" Rodney said; he was carrying Hyp, who was slumped bonelessly against his shoulder, already falling asleep.

"Yeah," John said.

"What, are you nuts?" Rodney said, back home, after Hyp was in bed and John had awkwardly mentioned the incident. "Seriously, are you feeling okay? Because -- " Then Rodney sat up. "Wait, this isn't -- is this -- " He stopped.

John stared blankly. "I have no idea what you're asking me."

Rodney sighed. "Is this because of what happened with Kathy? Because -- and I am not apologizing for freaking out over that, because it sucked and you were a jerk -- but I didn't mean you had to be celibate, and it just occurred to me it's been a ridiculously long time since -- "

John glared at him, annoyed. "And when was the last time you got laid!"

"Oh, God, don't make me count back that far," Rodney said. "But it's easier for you."


"You can just pick someone up, you don't have to date them first."

"What, because I'm an asshole?" John said, annoyed.

"Because you're hot!" Rodney said. "Those of us who've spent more time in the lab than in the gym these last five years have to put a little more effort into it, and I don't have enough time for you and Hyp as it is."

"Well, I don't want to just fuck somebody I don't even know!" John said.

Rodney stared at him pointedly. "Legs? Wrapped around your waist?"

"Oh, shut up," John said. "It wasn't going to happen anyway -- I mean, unless I really did want to be an asshole, somewhere along the way there I was going to have to mention the fact I'm married, and that kills the interest for most women."

"Yeah. Funny how that happens," Rodney said glumly, and they both sighed.

Until then, John hadn't really thought about how completely dead his sex life was -- which freaked him out more than the lack of sex itself. The problem was, he was getting everything else at home, friendship, family, love -- and not even just the emotional side. Rodney's big hands steadily working the knots out of his shoulders and neck after a long mission; doing the same when Rodney had been up all hours at the lab; just being held whenever he wanted it; sleeping with another warm, breathing person next to him, someone he loved -- there was nothing left over, nothing he wanted and nothing he had to give, except fucking, and whatever Rodney thought about his hotness, they weren't exactly lining up around the block for a piece of him.

He tried to jerk off more often, to prove to himself that he still could -- but after a few times he slid back to the usual once or twice a week, because it wasn't -- it wasn't hot, it was just clinical, he was turning it into a chore of all insane things. And then he started noticing there was some gray in his hair, and somewhere along the way he'd dropped to doing two miles instead of six in his workouts, and the weights had started creeping down. And okay, he really hated crunches, skipped them for months at a time -- but he'd always been able to flatten out his gut again with a solid two weeks of work, and now suddenly it was putting up a fight.

He figured this was how midlife crises got started, but he'd already had an affair and hadn't that been fun, and he already had the coolest ride in the history of humanity, and anyway he was happy, goddamnit, so it couldn't really get a grip on him. It all left him a little depressed, though, and then as if the universe was out to make sure he really couldn't miss the point, he ended up staying in the infirmary after three missions in a row: dislocated shoulder, wrenched knee, and the last time a slipped disc that made Dr. Arnois take him off duty for six weeks, starting with a couple days of bed rest.

Hyp took it okay, once he was back home and she was reassured he was going to be fine, but the first night, she went through another round of refusing to let go of him. She finally fell asleep between them, clutching John's t-shirt with one hand. Rodney just looked at John, mouth unhappy, lines of worry around his eyes, and didn't say anything.

Neither of them wanted to have the conversation. Atlantis was more than just home, it was theirs. The first-wave people had been slipping away quicker and quicker the past year, and pretty much only the people on John's mental list of permanent residents were left: Elizabeth, Zelenka, Teyla, Ford, and they were all family by now. Leaving them behind would be like cutting off a limb -- except that was a bad metaphor, since staying looked like it was going to really lose him a limb, or worse.

Guys older than him were still doing offworld missions, at the SGC, but -- well, from what he knew, they were a lot more serious about their workouts than he'd ever managed to be, and mostly they didn't have kids, or at least not small ones. And after seven years of basically no expenses, he and Rodney had a scary amount of money sitting in their account, not to mention John had hit his twenty years and his pension would start rolling in whenever he felt like taking retirement.

So then what -- sit on a beach somewhere? They'd both be bored to tears in a week. Rodney could probably get a job by snapping his fingers, and John supposed he could find one without much trouble too, but how could he walk away from this to sit in an office somewhere, or even fly ordinary helicopters -- which wasn't exactly the safest career either, and how stupid would that be, to quit the Stargate program and die because he crashed in a private chopper.

The same kinds of thoughts were clearly going through Rodney's head, so they still hadn't worked around to actually talking about it by the time he was okayed for active duty again. They celebrated with an evening at one of the swimming pools and dinner on the terrace, and neither of them wanted to ruin the mood, and when they got back they had email from Elizabeth, asking them to come to her office together in the morning.

That was a little weird -- they didn't really work with her together that often anymore, outside of big staff meetings. Rodney went to the top-level meetings, but Colonel Vollner did those, not John; and Rodney wasn't at the offworld operations meetings. So something was obviously up, and that meant they could put the conversation off a little longer, because they weren't going to take off on Elizabeth in the middle of any kind of crisis, so they just spent the evening quietly in bed, fiddling with the star-projector some more.

"So," she said the next morning, "This isn't public knowledge yet, but -- the President has decided that he's ready to declassify the Stargate project."

"Well, it's about damn time!" Rodney said. "Now we can actually publish something!" And then his eyes got really wide and he groped for a chair, wobbling, and sat down hard. "Oh my god, I can publish."

Elizabeth hid a smile. "Actually, that is one of the jobs, now; I'd like you to prioritize papers from the research division for declassification review --"

Rodney waved a hand distractedly. "Radek and I have twenty ready to go -- although, maybe we should start with the books, we've got a couple -- I've got another eight papers of my own, Radek has six, Chernatova has three or four, Miko must have more by now, I'll write her; oh, and I have a couple of Kavanagh's saved that weren't completely stupid -- "

John couldn't help but smile at Rodney's dazed expression, although in a selfish corner he felt his stomach sinking. If Rodney could actually publish, and start talking about this stuff out in the open, every fucking university on Earth was going to want him. A nice college campus, great neighborhood, good schools for Hyp, probably a research job with nothing to do but keep publishing -- Rodney had said more than once that he had enough material to keep writing for ten lifetimes already -- maybe once in a while wander into a packed-to-the-roof lecture hall --

"Okay, sounds like you've got enough to keep the panel busy for a while, then," Elizabeth said, interrupting both of them. "The other reason I asked you both here -- things are going to get a little, well, interesting with this. As you can imagine, the President would like to shape public opinion of the Stargate project in a positive way -- "

"Oh, no, no, no; you're kidding me," Rodney said.

"Sorry," Elizabeth said, smiling faintly. "All the department heads are going to have to be available to the media -- "

"Hey, you're going to be a star," John said, smirking at Rodney. "Have fun."

"Well, John, as it happens," Elizabeth said, turning to him. "Colonel Vollner has decided that he wants to, as he put it, 'get out before the shit hits the 24-hour news cycle.' " She smiled. "The President says the job is yours if you want it."

"Oh," John said. He looked over. There was a chair. He sat down, slowly. It was like having his brain abruptly wiped clean to the edges and scrawled across with ten-foot-tall letters of flame: Colonel John Sheppard.

"You can take some time to think it over," Elizabeth said.

"Yeah, okay," John said, dazed.

"He doesn't need time to think it over!" Rodney said. "Yes!"

"Are you sure about this?" John asked abruptly, back at the apartment; Rodney was heating up leftovers for lunch. In Elizabeth's office, he'd taken Rodney's yes and run with it, not looking back, but they still hadn't talked about it --

"What? Of course I'm sure," Rodney said. "The whole point was no more offworld missions, why else would we go?"

"I thought you might want a university job," John said.

Rodney snorted. "Oh, yes, because you'd do so great as an academic spouse. You'd probably crash yourself in a helicopter joyriding out of boredom or something."

"Wait a second, but if that's what you really want --" John said.

"For you to die in a fiery helicopter crash?" Rodney came over with the plates of lasagna, only slightly scorched. "I mean, maybe it would be fun to be able to get eight hours of sleep on a regular basis, and go to academic conferences and do the keynote speeches in front of all those morons -- God," Rodney interrupted himself, actually pausing with his fork in mid-air, "what I wouldn't give to see that asshole Werkner's face at Harvard; would you believe after my dissertation was published he said I was likely to make 'minor contributions' to the field -- "

"Rodney," John said. "Focus."

"Right, yes, sorry," Rodney said, getting back to the lasagna. "Anyway, so what? It could be the astrophysicist's version of Disneyworld, I'm not going to be happy if you're miserable."

"I'm not that helpless," John said. "I can find something."

"Shut up, you idiot," Rodney said. "I'm doing brilliant work, Hyp's actually happy at school even if all the other kids are stupider than her, and you want this so much your eyes practically turned starry and jumped out of your head. We're staying."

John finally let himself believe it, and all of a sudden he couldn't stop grinning. He was getting promoted, he was getting promoted above the zone, it hadn't even been a full six years since they'd made him lieutenant colonel. It didn't seem real. Even though he'd been being called Colonel for a while now, that Lieutenant had always been hanging there in the air, in his head -- Colonel Sheppard had always been somebody else. And they were giving him Atlantis, they were giving him a base command --

Rodney poked him. "Eat."

"Yeah, okay," John said, and just sat there beaming at him over the table.

The senior staff all had to spend a week doing scripted video interviews, and Rodney and his staff all went into conniptions over what papers were going to be sent in what order, but after that, declassification was kind of an anticlimax. They were insulated from the worst of the shock by the distance -- opening the Stargate back to Earth still ate up an entire year's worth of power, it wasn't the kind of thing you did just for the equivalent of gawking at a train wreck.

The SGC people did tack on some of the more entertaining bits of interviews and talking heads to the compressed data-burst exchange each week. John's favorite was the daytime talk show where the self-appointed head of the Church of Daniel and the self-appointed head of the Church of Ascension got into a fist-fight over which one had the right interpretation of Dr. Jackson's papers, followed as a close second by the one where the head curators of the Louvre and the British Museum and the head of the archaeology department at Harvard pretty much did the same thing in prime-time, except with funnier accents and a little less physical violence.

To watch them at home he almost had to get into a fistfight of his own with Rodney, who had only watched the clip from CNN where some science guy had called him "the next Einstein" a thousand and five times so far. Rodney sulked next to him on the couch after John finally wrestled the laptop away, but he eventually cracked up as the two cult leaders started in on the hair-pulling, and they were pretty much crying on each other's shoulders by the end.

"You know," Rodney panted afterwards, as they lay muddled together in a gasping heap, "that really would've been classic, if only they'd gotten Dr. Jackson to come out at the end," which set them going again.

The Icarus only took four months to make the round trip, instead of the eight for the Daedalus: unfortunately, because the passenger manifest this time was going to be made up almost entirely of politically-motivated appointees. Rodney took one horrified look at the resumes of the scientists coming and said, "Okay, I quit," and went on strike before they even arrived. Elizabeth had to swear up and down that he wouldn't have to actually give them research assignments before he would go back to work.

John himself was going to have the fun of dealing with foreign military personnel: with the expansion of operations, the Russians and the Chinese had demanded and gotten their own offworld teams in Pegasus, and a bunch of other nations had bargained themselves slots, plus the UN had brokered a compromise that was bringing him 200 peacekeepers, which was great in theory, but they weren't going to be an existing unit. The point as far as the politicians were concerned was for each of them to have at least one man of their own on the ground, so he was getting 200 people, all from different countries, who'd never worked together before in their lives, and mostly had never even met before the trip. At least he'd managed to insist on all of them being able to speak English, but he had a bad feeling that for a lot of them, it was going to be the way he spoke Spanish after his four years in high school.

Arrival Day was crazed as usual, trying to get everyone unloaded and sorted out to their apartments. They'd started officially assigning housing a long time ago, because things got too nuts otherwise. Even so, Elizabeth had two staff people working on housing issues almost full-time now. They'd learned not to try and get anything else done on Arrival Day, either -- people got escorted to their new homes and ordered to stay in until someone came to get them the next morning, and that was it.

John got home around eleven, not much worse than usual, and Hyp was sitting up in her pajamas almost on top of the personal-items shipment, practically bouncing off the walls with excitement: they'd promised her she could stay up for it this time instead of having to wait until morning. It was the best part about Arrival Day -- just like Christmas, getting to watch her rip through the seals and throw the padding all over the place, squealing over the boxes.

Then her eyes got really big and she carefully pulled out a thin flat box with an apple on the top and carried it over to them, mute and hopeful, and Rodney looked guiltily at John and said, "Yes, it's for you." John half-heartedly frowned, but he got too much of a kick out of seeing the ecstasy on her face as she got the laptop out; he couldn't build up any steam over it.

Heroically, she actually put it aside without turning it on first, and went back to the crate for the bundle of letters and a box of caramel popcorn, then she came to sit on John's lap munching while Rodney sorted through the mail. A stack of work stuff for Rodney, various scientists and institutions; a fat envelope from Jeannie and a smaller one addressed to Hyp, who loved getting her own mail, which had two postcards from Jeannie's boys with photographs of Canada landscapes on the front; and then Rodney said, "Huh," and handed John a letter addressed to him.

The postmark was Texas. John stared at it, cold knot forming in his stomach. "Daddy, you have a letter, all for you," Hyp said, bouncing on his behalf: John didn't get mail. "Can I open it?"

There was no way he could get out of it; he gave her the thin envelope to rip, almost hoping she'd shred the return address beyond recognition or something. "Hey," Rodney said quietly, while Hyp very carefully tore open one side. "What is it? Ex-girlfriend who used to stalk you?"

John swallowed as Hyp triumphantly handed him the letter: single sheet, folded in thirds, edges crisp; writing only on one side; he could see the strokes of the pen through the paper. "It's from my father."

Rodney came back from putting Hyp to bed, half an hour later; John hadn't read the letter yet. "Okay," Rodney said. "Now she's asleep, I'm going to kick your ass."

John startled and looked up from the still-folded letter. "What the hell?"

"We've been married six years and this is the first time you mention your parents!" Rodney yelled. "I can't fucking believe you!"

"You don't exactly talk about your parents much either!" John said defensively.

"That's because they're dead!"

"Well, mine are -- I'm dead to them, okay?" John said. "I don't even know why he wrote to me, I haven't talked to them since before Antarctica -- "

Rodney glared. "You still could have talked about them to me! What did they do, beat you?"

"No! They didn't -- it wasn't anything like that," John said. "They did all the right things, they took care of me -- " He stopped and shrugged, angrily, feeling stupid and whining. Rodney's parents had been real jerks, the kind that had screaming matches and threw stuff at each other and occasionally caught the kids in the middle of both. He didn't have anything like that to complain about.

Rodney frowned, and then he came to the couch. "Okay, move over, come here." He settled down and pulled John to lie against him, warm and solid, and John closed his eyes and felt the tension just bleed out of his muscles as Rodney put his arms around him.

"They didn't want me," John said, after a few minutes. "I mean -- I wasn't an accident, they thought they wanted me until they actually had me; I don't know, I guess they just didn't -- " love me, he wanted to say. His shoulders started tightening up, and then Rodney's hands were on him, thumbs pressing into the knots and smoothing them out.

"We do," Rodney said, quietly. "Hyp and I do."

John felt a rush of something hot and wonderful, tears prickling at his eyes. He struggled over and wrapped his arms around Rodney's chest, and lay still, breathing in the familiar warm smell of his body, while Rodney rubbed his back and shoulders. "God, I love you," John said, muffled, and Rodney worked himself down lower on the couch and wrapped himself even more thoroughly around John, thighs pressed against the outside of his legs, cradling John's head where it was pressed against his neck.

The letter was pretty crumpled by the time they sat up, John wiping his face roughly. "You don't have to read it," Rodney said. "I've got matches around here somewhere."

"No, I can't," John said. "They could need something."

"So what? If they were awful, you don't owe them -- "

"It's the other way around," John said. "They weren't awful, they did all the right things, they just did it out of obligation. If they'd loved me, I wouldn't owe them."

Rodney squinted. "Okay, so should I just assume that makes logical sense in some version of reality? Because otherwise -- "

John rolled his eyes. "Go get me a beer, I'm going to want one after this." He unfolded the letter. His dad's writing hadn't changed: neatly shaped letters, in rows as even as if he'd used a ruler. The same opening, the same formal language, Son, I hope this finds you well. Congratulations on your promotion. Your mother and I saw your interview on CNN. We thought you looked well.

He put it down after the first couple stilted paragraphs, the awkward polite phrases; it was like chewing on glass, and he took the bottle Rodney held out to him and gulped about half of it in three swallows. "So?" Rodney said.

"He hasn't gotten to it yet," John said, and picked it up again, skimming down: some random bits of news about people whose names he vaguely recognized as his parents' friends, some about people he'd gone to school with who still lived nearby. Then the last paragraph:

We have moved to a new house. I have noted the address below. It is a little smaller, as the old one was becoming a chore to keep up. However, we do have a room set aside for you, and as I hope you know, you are always welcome. I understand that in your circumstances it may be difficult for you to obtain leave, and of course your duties must come first. But I believe your mother would very much like to see you, if you have the opportunity for a visit.

Sincerely, Dad

"Great." He handed Rodney the letter and got up to pace around the living room. Nothing about Afghanistan, the black mark, Antarctica; not a question about how he'd ended up in another galaxy; not a word about anything real.

"Do you want to go?" Rodney said, looking up.

"I have to," John said. "For all I know it's something major and he doesn't want to say in a letter that's going by the military censors."

"Okay," Rodney said. "Do you think it can wait a few weeks? I can't just dump the pile of new idiots on Radek and take off, he'll kill me."

"You don't have to -- " John said.

"Shut up, you're getting yourself right back into ass-kicking territory," Rodney said.

John wrote back, just briefly, and Rodney wrote to Jeannie. "A week at your parents' place, then we'll see her and Dan and the kids at Disneyworld," he said. "At least Hyp will get to meet them all, and seriously, a week, how bad can it be?" John tried not to think about the answer to that one.

A message came back in the next weekly transmission, confirming, and he gave up hoping for an escape. It still took a month before things were in any kind of shape for them to go, and then they had one frantic late night of packing and fell into bed for a few hours of sleep. The weekly dial-in was at noon: there were a handful of other people traveling, a couple moving back, others taking leave back home. It was Hyp's first time going through the gate, and she was so excited John could feel her whole body trembling when he swung her up as the wormhole formed. "Scared at all?"

"No, I'm not a baby!" Hyp said, squirming to get down. "I can go myself."

"Well, okay, but maybe I'm scared," John said. "You're not going to make me go through alone, are you?"

Hyp looked unimpressed. "You can go with Papa." She squirmed again.

"Yeah, don't worry, I'll hold your hand," Rodney said dryly, swinging the duffle onto his shoulder. "She'll be fine. Go on ahead and you can be there when she comes through."

"Okay, okay," John said, giving up, and let her down a little regretfully; she wasn't even six yet, he didn't see why she couldn't be a little kid a while longer.

Hyp did let him hold her hand once they were done with post-gate travel clearance and outside; or at least she didn't notice when he took it, because she was too busy drinking in a million things with her eyes: houses, roads, shops, and the sheer mass of people. The plane to Dallas was magic, for the first hour, and they'd brought her laptop along, so when she finally got bored she could play games.

They'd splurged on first-class, so there was plenty of room, but John kind of wished they'd gone for a charter, because there were a couple of people who gave them sideways looks; another few who tentatively smiled. He'd figured they wouldn't get recognized -- it had been five months now since the news had broken, they'd only sent one tape each, and the media was a lot more excited about the shiny and visible SG-1 than the far-away Atlantis expedition.

But he'd seen enough tabloid headlines screaming in the airport to be very, very glad he lived in another galaxy: things like, Team Orgies! Shocking Photos Reveal The Truth! and Samantha Carter: I Had A Secret Alien Love Child!, not to mention O'Neill and Daniel Fight Over Carter! and Carter and Daniel Fight Over O'Neill! and O'Neill and Carter Fight Over Daniel!

Teal'c didn't show up in the tabloid headlines or photos. He was on the cover of Time magazine for a story on the Jaffa rebellion, and the sidebar to the article inside had photos of six different very unconscious paparazzi photographers he'd beaten the crap out of for following him in the first weeks after declassification.

John couldn't get away with that, seeing as how he didn't have extra-special diplomatic immunity for being the leader of several billion warrior aliens, and now he really didn't want to see what the tabloids would come up with about Hyp if they got a chance. They were wearing civvies, and he and Rodney hadn't had the chance to shave for a few days, so they were looking a little scruffy, but he was still worried. He was glad when Hyp finally fell asleep in his lap and Rodney fell asleep against his shoulder, so he could turn off all the overhead lights, close the windows, and turn his own face away from the aisle.

In DFW airport they rented a new Mustang convertible and headed east out of the city with the top down at 100 miles per hour, which made Hyp scream wildly with delight from the back seat. Rodney screamed a little too when John blew past trucks, and spent the rest of the time with one hand grimly on the dashboard. John grinned at him. "What, you don't trust me?" he yelled.

"This is me trusting you!" Rodney yelled back. "If it was anyone else I'd have thrown myself out of the car by now!"

He really did look a little freaked out, so John throttled back to 75. He wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere. It was early spring, not ridiculously hot yet, trees and blue sky and late afternoon sun and a mostly-open road, and he had everything in the world that mattered right here in the car with him. He looked over at Rodney and reached out to squeeze his hand.

"Hands on the wheel!" Rodney yelled, eyes wide. "Both hands on the wheel!"

"Okay, okay!" John said, and pulled back. Instead Rodney reached out and put a hand on his leg, and left it resting there as they drove on down the highway.

It was dark by the time they got to Killeen. John knew the way once he got off the highway, though there were a lot of new streets, and a half-dozen ridiculously large shopping centers in a row along Jasper Drive. A little farther out past the new sprawl, things started to look more familiar. He slowed down going past the high school: lights still on over one section of the football field bleachers, a handful of kids hanging out with bottles in their hands, and the smell of fresh-mown grass filled his nostrils.

Rodney opened his eyes and yawned hard, sitting up. He craned around to look at Hyp, lolling with her head pillowed on her small bag against the side window.

"We're almost there," John said.

The new neighborhood was less than ten minutes away from the old one; he recognized a couple of houses where he'd been to parties in high school. The new house wasn't exactly tiny, either, just a single-story place, pale orangey brick behind meticulously-clipped hedges, on a quarter of an acre with some trees and green lawn, nothing unusual. He rolled up to it slowly, not just because there were kids playing basketball in the driveway two doors down, and when he parked out front he shut off the engine and just sat in the front seat, hand curled tight around the keys.

Rodney reached over and put his hand over John's. "You okay?"

"Sure," John said. "Can we go back to Atlantis now?" Then the front door opened, and he had to get out of the car.

Cowardly, he went around to get the luggage out of the trunk while Rodney extracted Hyp, leaving the introductions to sort themselves out.

"You must be Rodney," his mother said. "I'm Gwen, and this is my husband Richard. You must be tired after your trip; I see she's already out. I hope you didn't have bad traffic?"

Behind the lid of the trunk, John winced at the inanity of it. "No, no," Rodney said. "This is not lulled by bad traffic sleep, this is the we just drove at speeds human beings weren't meant to go, post-adrenaline crash kind of sleep. Is there any coffee?"

His mom, leading the way into the house, almost stumbled over the first of the front stairs. "I can make a pot," she said, uncertainly. "Would you like regular or decaf?"

"Decaf?" Rodney said, and then he actually short-circuited the usual rant and just said, "Um, regular would be great, thanks. Do you have a couch I can dump her on?"

"Let me give you a hand with that," his dad said to John, trying to get at the suitcases.

"I'm okay," John said, but let him take one, keeping Hyp's small bag and Rodney's duffle, which felt like it was full of rocks -- probably half a dozen external drives and the laptop.

Inside, his dad led him down the hall: the room they'd put aside for him was full of the stuff he'd left behind: the old beat-up toy chest now full of blankets at the foot of a new bed, queen-size; a pile of old sports equipment vaguely organized in the corner; the plain chest of drawers with his football bumper stickers still on the top next to the closet.

His dad said, "I hope you'll be comfortable. We've put Hypatia in the office, since it's right across the hall. There's a futon couch in there."

"It'll be fine," John said shortly, swinging Rodney's bag onto the bed.

"Though, um," Rodney said, appearing in the door, kidless, "do you mind if we move the computer out of there? Because otherwise we're about five minutes of Internet use away from questions about porn and prescription drugs that I'm just not ready to answer."

"Sure, or we could unplug it from the network," his dad said.

"Yeah, that would take her thirty seconds to figure out on a bad day," John said, still recovering from having Rodney say porn to his dad.

But that was the longest stretch of words he said for the next hour: slouched at the kitchen table, feeling like his sullen teenage self again and hating it. He felt guilty; he was being a jerk to poor Rodney, leaving him to carry the conversation; but he knew what a real family was like now, and he couldn't make himself go through with the goddamn pretense anymore.

Except it ended up not being horrible after all. Rodney crushed his parents' formerly invincible capacity for meaningless small talk with a rush of the too-intimate babble he fell into when he was nervous, and then his parents tentatively asked a few questions about Hyp. Rodney could go on about her (and her unparalleled genius, and the evidence thereof) for hours, without being asked, so that kept things from descending into uncomfortable silence, and then his mother asked, "Is Hypatia a family name on your side, Rodney?"

"No," Rodney said, smugly, "she was a scholar in the Library at Alexandria -- " John privately rolled his eyes while Rodney went through the story for them, and then Rodney added, "of course, she never published original work, as far as we know, but she was still pretty young when she was murdered -- "

"What?" John said, sitting up. "Murdered?"

Rodney blinked at him. "Yeah, a mob of religious fanatics dragged her into the street to make her recant her belief in science and tore her limb from limb -- "

"I don't believe you!" John yelled, staring. "You named our daughter after someone who got dragged in the street and dismembered?"

"So?" Rodney said. "Hypatia was brilliant!"

"So I'm going to kick your ass!" John said.

"Oh, please," Rodney said. "It's not like it's bad luck, people name their kids after martyrs all the time."

Five minutes into the fight, when it had wandered over to whether Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a good movie or not, they both noticed his parents' expressions had gradually gone from shocked to bemused, watching them, and they both trailed off. "Oh, uh, I guess it's kind of late!" Rodney said, looking at the clock.

Gwen recovered with that opening and said, "You've had a long day, and we're keeping you up, I'm sorry." John was still grateful to escape, but at least it hadn't left him with that sour taste of disconnection.

The mattress was new and firm, and strange after the ones in Atlantis that worked like something between that special memory foam and a waterbed, and there were crickets outside the window instead of the sound of the ocean. But, "God, I'm tired," Rodney said, putting an arm over John's chest like he usually did, cuddling close, and the building tension ebbed away again.

John was just drifting off when Rodney suddenly said, "Um, hey."

"Yeah?" he said drowsily.

"This is occurring to me a little late," Rodney said, "but what exactly did you tell them?"


"They have another spare bedroom at the far end of the hall," Rodney said.

John struggled to make sense of that past the sleepiness. Then he figured it out, woke up all the way, and lay there staring at the ceiling. "Oh."

"Yes, oh."

"I -- I told them about Hyp, and I just said you were my partner," John said, defensively.

"Right," Rodney said. "Let me guess, the idea was they'd have a homophobic freak out and uninvite you?"

John sighed. Busted. "Maybe something like that. Sorry. I forgot I hadn't told them -- "

"Well, it's not like I mind not being stuck in separate rooms," Rodney said. "As long as they're not going to come after me with a pitchfork or anything, which I guess they aren't if they put us in together." He yawned and put his head back down. "Night."

John lay staring into the dark. He hadn't even realized -- his parents hadn't said a word, and it wasn't that they'd always been tolerant or anything; he remembered some of the stuff his dad had said about Clinton at the start of that whole don't-ask-don't-tell fiasco. He tried to figure out if they'd acted any differently, if they'd treated Rodney strangely --

His head went around with it in circles, over and over. Rodney started snoring softly after a bit, breathing warmly on his neck, and eventually the steady familiar rhythm of it eased him into sleep.

He woke up with his neck drawn tight, teeth aching where he'd had them clenched. Rodney was still dead to the world; the sun had barely come up. John climbed out of bed, got on his running shoes and slipped out the front door as quietly as he could. He ran until his eyes were stinging with sweat, thighs and hands trembling when he finally ran out of breath and stopped, almost doubled over, panting.

He walked the last quarter-mile back; he wasn't used to running on pavement, his knees and hips were aching. It was a good excuse for being late, and when he got back, everyone else was already up and in the kitchen. He ducked through with brief good-mornings and headed for the shower, hot water doing nothing to work out the brutal knots in his shoulders.

John didn't want to care about what his parents were saying or doing; or how, inflections and tone, but he couldn't help listening for it, trying to catch some sign of something different in the way they looked at him, in the way they looked at Rodney or at Hyp, and it was starting to drive him a little crazy that he couldn't.

Hyp was the only thing that made breakfast bearable; she was shy for about thirty seconds after meeting her grandparents, but after that she pretty much didn't shut up for the rest of the meal, talking about driving and pestering them all about cars. Rodney was too busy devouring giant stacks of french toast to answer her questions -- for once he was trying to mind his manners and not talk with his mouth full.

So John found himself and his dad trying to explain to her how an internal combustion engine worked, but she pretty quickly got beyond their level of knowledge, and then it turned into something like Twenty Questions, with Rodney either nodding or shaking his head -- mostly shaking -- as they took variously good and bad guesses.

Rodney finally finished glutting himself and rolled his eyes and said, "Okay, stop it, I'm going to have to show her, now that you people have gotten her completely confused. Do you have any power tools?" he asked John's dad.

"In the garage, I'll go get them," Richard said.

"What's a garage?" Hyp said, and ended up following after him to see for herself; the squeals of delight suggested they might be a while.

John frowned, hearing a faint crash. "Is there anything in there -- "

"Please, there's nothing in there anywhere near as dangerous as driving just below escape velocity," Rodney said, polishing off another cup of coffee, and John got up with him to collect the dishes, ignoring his mother's faint protests, and they brought them to the sink to wash up.

"Did you both sleep all right?" his mother asked, something a little artificially casual about it; she was putting away the food.

"Yeah, it was fine," John said, tightening up again.

"Yeah, and Hyp was fine too," Rodney said. "She just always gets up at the crack of dawn, sorry," because she'd woken the rest of them all up around 7am playing with the futon: she'd figured out how to fold and unfold it by rigging a kind of pulley system with the desk chair and her bedsheets.

"Oh, that's fine, we're early risers ourselves," Gwen said. She started busily wiping down the cleared-off table, not looking at them. "She's a beautiful girl. I -- I suppose she's adopted?"

"What?" John said, and then he looked at Rodney.

"Oh, no, no, no," Rodney said. "She's your mom, you explain! I had to tell Jeannie."

Gwen looked at them both in confusion, and John gave up and said briefly, "She's ours. Both of us."

That didn't seem to have cleared things up, judging by his mom's expression. "But -- "

"Okay, forget it, shut up," Rodney said to John, rolling his eyes. "Look," he told Gwen, "there was this Ancient device lying around, and -- "

"It's classified," John cut in, abruptly; because that was enough, dammit, and he didn't really want to go into the details with them.

"Huh? It is?" Rodney said, and "Ow!" as John kicked his foot hard. "Oh, uh, right. Yeah. Sorry," he said to Gwen. "Anyway, the point is, she's our biological child."

"Your -- Well. I'll take your word for it," she said, a little blankly. "At least," she added, "that explains how she looks so much like John -- " and then she stopped at once, looking mortified, and said, "I don't mean -- "

"Believe me," Rodney said, "I'm perfectly happy she got the pretty genes from his side." He smirked at John. "As I like to say, his looks, my brains -- " And then he stopped and said, "Uh, not to say -- not that there aren't brains on his side! Because there are, I mean, obviously, or else I wouldn't -- And lots of them, I only mean -- It's just a question of degr-- Maybe I should go see how they're doing in the garage."

"Hey!" John looked over indignantly, hands still soapy, but the door out to the garage was already closing behind Rodney's hastily-retreating back.

He kept his back to the room and worked on over the sink, until he'd put the last of the dishes into the dishwasher and set it going, and then he poured himself another cup of coffee and stood at the window to watch. Rodney and Hyp and his dad had just come out onto the driveway with a box full of tools and a long extension cord trailing behind them. Rodney popped the hood on the Mustang, and Hyp perched on the side, his dad keeping an anxious hand out to catch her if she slipped.

"He seems very nice," his mom said, behind him.

John, lifting his coffee cup to his mouth, said absently, "Who?" before he realized she meant Rodney, and burned his tongue trying not to choke. "Rodney? Nice?" He turned and stared at her, not even trying to hide his scorn.

She flushed and said, "Well," and tried again, "he's obviously very intelligent."

"Intelligent! There you go, that's a better compliment." John smiled, mirthlessly, and turned back to the window.

"I'm sorry, I only meant -- I'm just glad he makes you happy -- " she said, and on the last word, with no warning, her voice suddenly cracked two octaves higher, and she made a strange choked strangling noise.

He jerked around, staring: she'd sunk into a chair at the kitchen table and had her face buried in her hands. He didn't think he'd even seen her cry before, ever, and now -- Jesus, her shoulders were shaking, she was sobbing so hard. He looked around wildly for a box of tissues, some kind of off switch, something somewhere else that desperately had to be done right now, and then he went over to her and awkwardly touched her shoulder.

"I'm sorry," she said, gasping, gulping down the rest; she turned half-away, wiping at her face. "I'm sorry, I don't want to -- I know you don't like it -- "

"Don't like what?" John said, bewildered. "What is going on, are you okay?"

"I'm fine!" she said, taking deep breaths. "It's nothing, I'm fine."

"No!" He pulled the chair around and made her look at him. "Goddamn it, you always do this, for once in my life, just tell me -- "

"What is there to say?" she said, getting up, short jerky movements as she pushed the chair back in under the table. "I don't want to argue, you're only here for a week."

"Yeah, and I don't get Earthside leave again for two years at best, so maybe this would be the best time to argue there's ever going to be!" John said. "It can't be worse than this. Dad writes to me out of the blue, you start crying and you won't even tell me why -- "

"For God's sake," she said. "You must know how worried we've been, seven years and not a word from you, we hear about you from the television -- "

"Well, excuse me, I didn't think you honestly cared that much!" John said. "It wasn't like you didn't know how to reach me, even if you didn't know where I was stationed, you never wrote either -- "

"You seemed to want it that way," she said. "You didn't answer the last one we sent; what was the use?"

"You actually want to blame me for not writing -- after that letter -- " He breathed hard, fast, desperate; he didn't even want to think about it, he didn't want to remember what it had felt like, reading, We were sorry to hear about your recent difficulties, but we hope you will find your new posting interesting, sitting on his bunk with his bags packed for Antarctica.

He felt sick with anger, boiling up from his gut, spilling over. "You knew goddamn well what that black mark meant; Dad knew, you both knew it meant my fucking career was over, I had two years left and not a goddamn chance they were going to promote me, I came half a fucking inch from getting kicked out on my ass to begin with -- "

"You didn't get kicked out on your ass because your father flew to Washington and went on his knees to every senior officer he ever met!" she said, and shocked them both into silence.

After a minute, he groped for a chair and sat down, heavily, feeling like he'd just been kicked in the stomach. She sat down again too, slowly. He could hear the whirring of machinery from outside: Rodney was already deep inside the engine, with a neat double row of disassembled bits and pieces on the sidewalk, along with an audience of local kids hovering as close as they dared get.

"Why didn't you ever tell me?" John said.

She lifted her hands and let them drop limply back into her lap. "We didn't want to burden you," she said.

He closed his eyes and put his face in his hands for a minute. He didn't understand what it meant; he didn't know what to say at all.

"I shouldn't have said anything." Her voice sounded thick with tears. "Some things can't be forced. We know you never really loved -- " She stopped.

"I never -- " He lifted his head, staring at her. "You don't -- do you know what that would have meant to me? Do you understand, just, knowing he did that for me -- "

"You're our child!" she said. "Do you really think there's anything we wouldn't do for you? I know we've never been able to give you much affection, we always seemed to rub you just the wrong way, even when you were a baby, but how could you not know -- " She pressed her lips together, swallowing.

He sat staring at her, and suddenly he imagined what it would have been like, if Hyp hadn't calmed at his touch; if she hadn't wanted him so obviously -- the way Rodney had looked, that first week, when after a solid hour of crying she'd just stopped and broken into smiles, the instant John took her out of his arms. If neither of them had been able to make her happy, if it had just gone on and on that way, if Rodney hadn't figured it out and fixed it --

"I didn't know," he said, and then he stretched out across the table and took her hand: warm, dry skin a little papery, the first time he'd touched her in -- he didn't even remember, and he said again, "I didn't know, I really didn't know," and she reached out a shaking hand and touched his face.

He was in bed when Rodney came back inside. "You know, your dad's really not too bad, he -- John?" Rodney shut the door behind him and came to the bed. "John? Are you okay? Do you want to leave? It'll take me half an hour to put the engine back together, forty-five minutes tops, we can -- I can -- " and John gulped and sat up and pulled him down: Rodney was covered with motor oil and grease and dirt, and John didn't care, he just wanted --

"No," he managed. "No, it's -- it's good, it's okay, just hold me," and thank god, Rodney stopped asking questions and just pushed off his shoes and wrapped his arms around John and held him tight.

He woke up about an hour later, still in Rodney's arms, a little less wrung out and also just starving. Rodney was dozing, but he woke up as soon as John stirred. "Hey," he said, worried. "You feel like telling me what's going on?"

"Yeah," John said. "But let me save it for tonight, okay? I'm fine, I just worked some things out with my mom."

"Sure," Rodney said simply, and they got up and John splashed some water on his face and changed his clothes while Rodney took a quick shower, and then they went back out to the living room. Hyp was sprawled on the floor putting together a giant 3-D puzzle of Atlantis, which must have been a present from his parents. His dad was sitting nearby and reading. He looked up anxiously when they came in, searching John's face, and then he seemed to relax a little. "I thought we could go out to dinner," he said.

John didn't actually talk to his dad about it at all, or to his mom again; neither of them tried; dinner was just light conversation, and for once he was glad. He still felt a little fragile: he'd just broken pieces of himself apart and put them back together in a different way, and they were still settling into place. But he felt good, too, at the same time; like waking up on another planet and finding out that it was home, too.

The next day, they took Hyp to the Army base at Fort Hood. The Mustang sounded different post-Rodney, more low and growly and smug, and John had the suspicion that it could do a lot more than 145 mph now. They spent a couple of hours in the military museums and had a picnic at Belton Lake; then it turned out John's dad had pulled a few strings and gotten them access to a Black Hawk, which was fantastic -- John hadn't had a chance to fly one in years.

"So, if your dad's Army, why aren't you?" Rodney asked him, still wobbling, as they were getting back in the Mustang for the trip home; John's parents were following them in their SUV.

"I liked the Air Force better," John said, shrugging.

"And? Why?"

"I don't even remember, I was just a kid," John said. A couple of miles down the road he said, "My dad pushed the Army a little. I guess he wanted me to follow in his footsteps, he flew a chopper in Vietnam."

"So in a fit of wild adolescent rebellion, you ran all the way to the Air Force, where you, uh, flew helicopters," Rodney said.

"Oh, shut up," John said, without heat. "It was what I was good at! I really loved flying, it was the one thing we ever really -- " He stopped, mid-sentence, then finished, "connected on," belatedly, startled: he hadn't even realized how they'd both been trying all along.

Everything looked different like that all of a sudden; as though he'd been wearing dark glasses for years and just taken them off. John took the car out alone after dinner, Hyp down for the count and Rodney happy to have some time to write, and he just drove around the town: a lot of the old stores, old houses, his old school, smaller than in his memory and less awful; he'd been so damn desperate to get out of here, to get out fast, bored and miserable and smiling at the same time.

"Well, you've gotten about as far as you possibly could," Rodney said, after he'd gotten back.

John said, "Yeah, I knew there was some reason I went on the mission in the first place," wryly.

The four of them took Hyp to the giant Target superstore the next morning: Gwen and Richard had also given her a ridiculously large gift card. "We're making up for six years of presents," Gwen said defensively. "Besides, every child should have the chance to go running through a store picking anything she wants off the shelves."

"I don't remember getting that chance," Rodney said, squinting.

"Neither do I!" John said.

Gwen and Richard looked at each other guiltily. "Well, we're grandparents now," Richard said. "We're supposed to spoil her."

Rodney had smuggled along a life-signs tracker unit from Atlantis, and he'd put a special identity tag on Hyp so they could see where she was even if she was out of sight. They trailed her up and down the aisles as she foraged, bringing back her prizes. So far the shopping cart Richard was pushing had a remote-controlled Mustang bigger than Hyp's head, twenty different miniature Hot Wheels cars along with a playset that apparently involved running water and electricity, a giant LEGO kit for building robot vehicles, and a cordless power drill and screwdriver set.

John was lagging behind a little, enjoying the chance to watch her run around, and then somebody behind him said, "Shep?"

John turned around and stared. "Bren?" he said, not a hundred percent sure: the hair was mostly gone, so were the sideburns, and though Brendan had been a pretty damn big guy even back in their varsity days, he hadn't had a gut like that one.

"I knew I recognized that head of hair!" Brendan said, squeezing the hell out of John's hand: not all his muscle had gone to fat, anyway. "Aren't you supposed to be on another planet or something crazy like that? Man, I can't tell you how nutty it was seeing you on television."

John smiled feebly, getting his hand away and trying to unobtrusively rub some feeling back into his fingers. "Yeah, pretty nutty for me too," he said. "I'm just home on leave for a few days."

Brendan nodded. "Seeing your folks, huh? So, what, you going to be sticking it out there, at this Atlantis place?"

"Yeah, a while," John said. The conversation was feeling more surreal by the second: chit-chat about Atlantis? He'd skipped his high school reunions for a lot of reasons, and only one of them was that he'd been in another galaxy for the last seven of them. "What are you up to these days?" he asked, desperately.

"Here," Rodney interrupted, coming up to them; he was carrying Hyp, who was clutching a giant pink box with a mulish expression. He shoved her into John's arms. "I'm terrible at being the bad mom, you explain to her why she can't have a Barbie Porsche. I tried feminism, I tried anti-globalization, I tried to distract her with hardware, and now I am going to go hide in the section with the giant flat-panel HDTVs before I can cave, bye."

"Just for this, I'm doing one-fifty all the way back to Dallas!" John yelled after the rapidly disappearing Rodney. He looked at Hyp.

"I want the Barbie car," Hyp said, frowning. "Grandma said I can have anything I want, and it's my gift card, so if you don't give it to me, that would be stealing, and that would be wrong, and also it's obviously unfair -- "

"Great," John said, as Hyp kept going. "My day just got worse," he said wryly to Brendan, who was staring at him with a weird expression.

"John," Brendan said, "I teach Sunday school now."

"No kidding?" John said, staring. He hadn't even known whether Brendan had managed to graduate high school. "Hey, that's, that's great. Around here?"

"Um. Yeah, at New Hope," Brendan said. "John, listen, I don't think this is a coincidence, us meeting like this. I'm sorry, I know this is kind of rude, but I think it's my duty -- look, you've got to see, this is a chance -- a wake-up call -- " He looked at Hyp, a little desperately, and stopped there.

"What, to repent my sins?" John said, incredulously, as he figured out what the hell Brendan was talking about. For a second he thought about punching the guy out for pulling a stunt like this in front of Hyp. But Hyp wasn't paying any attention to anything but her pink car, it wasn't bothering her, and really it was a little too ridiculous. Brendan was just being so damn earnest, looking kind of miserable and embarrassed at the same time, and really, John wished he fucking had sins to be lectured for.

Then he blinked, turned around and walked away from Brendan without another word, still carrying Hyp, and found Rodney in the television section standing in front of a six-foot-tall screen the thickness of a sheet of cardboard. "It's got a resolution of 9600 by 6000," Rodney said without ever looking away from it, eyes dreamy. "And it folds up. We could take it through the gate -- "

John put Hyp down -- she hadn't stopped arguing for the toy the whole way -- and he gave her the card and said, "Okay, go ahead and buy it." She stared up at him open-mouthed and speechless for a second, and then she clutched the box tight and darted away. He caught Rodney's arm and pulled him away from the screen and turned him around.

"Hey, wait, I was looking at that -- " Rodney said, protesting, and it was the same feeling, just seeing everything new, for the first time, and John took Rodney's face in his hands and kissed him, hard and fast and deep, in front of the two hundred giant television screens all going at once, kaleidoscopes of color bursting in his peripheral vision like fireworks, like stars.

After he let go, Rodney just stared at him, gaping, and then he said, "Oh my god, you're a genius, why haven't we," already leaning in, and they were kissing again. So damn good, just tasting his hot wet mouth, with Rodney's hands tightening on his hips, pulling him closer, and John's whole body was just waking up, parched and thirsty and desperate, and that, of course, was when the paparazzi found them.

"This is all your fault," Rodney said, panting, as they ran for the car.

"I didn't notice you complaining!" John said.

"You could have waited to have the epiphany until we were in private!" Rodney said. "Also, I can't believe you let our daughter buy that thing."

They dived into the Mustang; Rodney kept Hyp on his lap and yanked the seatbelt around them both as John peeled out. "Call my parents' cell, will you, let them know we had to run?" John said, checking his mirrors: a bunch of cars were pulling out behind them, and he wasn't about to try any real evasive maneuvering on residential streets.

Luckily, his parents' cul-de-sac was private property, and after about half an hour of leading their impromptu caravan through side streets, they got a call from John's parents and headed home: there was a police car at the entrance to the cul-de-sac, blocking non-homeowners from getting in.

"You're not going to be in trouble for this, are you?" his mom asked anxiously.

"No, not under the new rules," John said absently, not looking at her. It wasn't that he couldn't meet her eyes, it was that he couldn't stop staring at Rodney's mouth, and it was only 6:43 pm and they couldn't get away with going to bed for another two hours at best, and Hyp was so wildly excited about her new toys -- all currently more or less distributed across the living room floor, some beginning to stake a claim to the kitchen -- it was going to take another hour just to get her to fall asleep, and he was going to die.

As it turned out, they didn't manage to get her tucked away until past 11 pm, and then they finally fell into bed still partly-dressed and clutching at each other. John bent his mouth to Rodney's neck, licking the skin, and Rodney shuddered and said, "God, John," really loudly. They quieted and lay there in panic, listening hard. After a few minutes of silence, Rodney slid his hand just under the waistband of John's boxers. John nearly strangled himself trying to smother the groan as Rodney's fingers just brushed the head of his dick, but enough of the sound got out that Rodney froze.

John panted, catching his breath, and then he grabbed Rodney's boxers and started tugging them down, and then Rodney caught his hand and hissed, "What the hell do we do with the sheets after?"

The washing machine was in the kitchen. The thought of stuffing stained bedsheets into it in front of his mother was almost enough of a turnoff to make this seem like a bad idea; he'd had more than enough of this kind of humiliation when he'd been fifteen.

"Tissues?" Rodney said.

"We'd have to leave them in the trash, and no," John said. "Maybe a t-shirt?"

"And then what do we do with that, pack it back into our suitcases?" Rodney hissed back. "Anyway, aren't they just on the other side of the wall? There's no way they aren't going to hear once we get going -- "

"I need to stop thinking about that right now," John said.

"Well," Rodney said. "There is -- I mean, we could -- " He looked red, and then he said, "Here, we'll take turns, just concentrate on not making noise," and then he scooted down the bed and John seized the pillow and covered his face desperately, because jesus that was Rodney's mouth right near his dick and that was Rodney's breath on him, and then he got how Rodney meant to avoid the whole cleanup problem, and then Rodney tentatively licked him and for one glorious moment, his whole body shuddering, John didn't care if his parents heard them, and then the bed thumped against the wall.

Rodney crawled back up and flopped onto his back next to him.

"Okay," John said, "we need a plan B."

But the bathroom only had a single boxy shower stall; the Mustang's back seat was barely big enough for Hyp, much less both of them; and the paparazzi were still hovering at the mouth of the cul-de-sac, so they couldn't even go get a hotel room somewhere, never mind how they'd explain that.

"We're flying to Orlando in two days," John said, wide-awake and aching the next night, staring at Rodney hungrily. "There's always the Mile-High Club."

"I'm sorry, but no. I draw the line," Rodney said. "Call me an insane romantic, but I am not having sex with you for the first time in an airplane bathroom, even if we are flying first-class. Anyway, those things are practically smaller than the shower stall, we'd probably fall over and accidentally unlock the door and wind up arrested for indecent exposure, and then we'll never be able to come back to Earth ever again, and that would suck, because I want to see my sister once in a while and your parents aren't too bad after all."

"Yeah, okay," John said. "We've got a suite at Disneyworld, right?" and groaned softly as Rodney took his hand; their fingers slid against each other, interlacing, and it wasn't nice anymore, it was the furthest thing from nice, and he was shivering and his hips were moving restlessly, involuntarily.

One more day, one more day, like a litany going round and round in his head. He couldn't even jerk off in the shower, not after the fucking years of doing only that; it felt better to be frustrated out of his mind, with the warmth of Rodney's skin just under his fingertips, pressing his dick hard into the mattress and trying not to move.

But weirdly it made other things easier: he was too busy counting down the hours, too busy thinking about sex, or trying not to think about it and failing: he had no time to tense up again around his parents and withdraw, and he was too distracted to get into any real arguments. They spent the last few days staying in, hiding from the photographers, and helping Hyp build her own child-size Mustang out of LEGOs, spare parts, and the cannibalized bits of the remote-control version, with a little engine Rodney made her that could hit ten miles per hour going around the cul-de-sac with fuel made out of cooking oil.

"It's great, but how are we going to get this home?" John asked, watching her go around in circles gleefully. "Because if we try to leave it behind, we're in for a serious fight."

"Am I stupid?" Rodney said. "Don't worry, it breaks down into mostly-flat pieces, it'll fit in the suitcase."

John hugged his parents goodbye when they left: awkward and tentative on both sides, and god knew they hadn't fixed everything. But even so, it was something, more than he'd ever had with them before, and he swung Hyp up and hugged her tight before he put her into the back seat, full of silent gratitude all over again.

John broke 120 mph trying to lose the most persistent of the paparazzi on their tail, got pulled over by a cop for his trouble, and only then realized, with flashbulbs going off in his face, that his driver's license had expired three years ago while he'd been off-planet.

They missed the plane.

Fortunately, a call to the SGC cleared the charges and got them a police car ride the rest of the way to the airport, plus a restraining order on the photographers. They hid out in the airline's first-class passenger lounge until they could get on the next flight on standby, landed in Orlando about ten hours later, reached the resort at 4 am, stumbling with fatigue, put Hyp down on one bed -- she'd fallen fast asleep in the lounge and never stirred since -- and crashed on the other with most of their clothes still on.

The phone woke them at 9: Jeannie and Dan had arrived with their kids. Lyndon and James were 5 and 7, so just bracketing Hyp: when they came over -- they were going to have room service breakfast in the suite -- the three of them stared at each other silently for a little bit, then Hyp said, "Want to come ride in my car?" and they were instantly best friends.

Rodney finished an entire pot of coffee by himself and still only looked half-conscious; John felt even less functional. Towards the end of the meal, when Jeannie had had to repeat yet another question to Rodney three times, she said, "You know what, you guys are just beat -- why don't we take the kids to the rides, and when you wake up you can call my cell and come meet us."

"Thank you," John said, fervently, and abruptly they were alone. They stripped and crawled into bed exhausted; he thought all he wanted was to sleep, but he leaned over to kiss Rodney just once, and then Rodney's palm stroked down his side and he had to kiss Rodney again, and then they shifted and moved together, lying on their sides with their legs tangled, and his dick was pressing into the curve of Rodney's belly, snug and warm, and his whole body jumped to life like an engine turning over, even while his mind floated hazily somewhere closer to sleep than wakefulness.

Fresh sheets underneath them, clean sweat springing up all over his body, Rodney's fingers sliding without conscious thought over the curves and planes of his back, knowing him already so well. Rodney's skin, the smell of it, home and love and hunger; rubbing his thigh against Rodney's hip, curling around him; Rodney's cock bumping blindly at his inner thighs, unbearably good.

He rolled onto his back, tugging, until he had Rodney's weight pushing him down into the mattress, heavy and blanketing. Writhing underneath him, pushing up, sliding, every movement a caress, cradling Rodney between his legs. Kisses landing on his collarbone, his neck, his jaw, below his ear; teeth at his lobe, tugging gently, lick of Rodney's tongue and hot breath into his ear, and his pulse stuttering wildly.

The french doors onto the balcony were open, hot summery air blowing in, long bars of sunlight crawling over the bed. Rodney had rolled them over; John slid down his body, pillowed on his chest, closed his hand around Rodney's cock, closed his eyes, stroking, listening to the rolling ocean-wave rush of Rodney's heartbeat and gasping breaths under his ear, the quivering jerk when he rubbed his thumb over the soft tender head.

Rodney was murmuring incoherently, "John, yes, oh, god, love you," moving restlessly under him, hands wandering into John's hair, his thigh pressing between John's legs for him to rub up against. The climbing roar and fall of a speedboat went by outside; the wind picking up behind it, rustling the trees.

Blankets tangled at the foot of the bed, hanging off the bedposts, and Rodney sprawled out across the bed, eyes closed, mouth open, chest moving in slow heaving deep breaths. John crawled back up and kissed him again, licking into his mouth. Rodney cupped the back of his head and his hip and tumbled them over again. Warm patch of sunlit sheets underneath him, Rodney's dick rubbing up against his, coming, small spurting jerks, slickness all over his belly and his thighs, and his balls tightened up and the climax rolled over him like a wave.

They never made it out of the hotel the first day; to apologize they took all three kids the next day and let Jeannie and Dan have their own day off. That was when John realized belatedly that Hyp had been spending way too much time hanging out in the labs: she'd picked up Rodney's technique of bludgeoning people into submission with his brain, and she wasn't afraid to use it.

Lyndon and James both seemed like smart enough kids, but after their first few attempts at expressing independent opinions were crushed with all the tact and consideration of a steamroller, they took the path of least resistance and went with unquestioning obedience. John tried to fix it by giving the three of them turns deciding what to do next, but Hyp, calmly superior, just informed them of the right choice of ride, snack, or store, and the boys a little uncertainly went along.

"This is all your fault," John said to Rodney, as they staggered out of Space Mountain for the sixth time in a row.

"What? What's the problem?" Rodney said. "She's right, it is the best ride."

"Not helping!" John glared at him. "We're going to have a talk about this when we get back."

"Yeah, okay," Rodney said, distracted, and stared at John's mouth, which made John lose track of whose turn it was, and also nearly fall over a hedge.

By evening, the kids were exhausted, but unwilling to admit it and go back to the hotel, even tempted with the promise of dinner with the Disney characters: Hyp didn't know Mickey or Donald from a hole in the ground, and thought the people in costumes were all kind of silly; the boys looked more interested, but weren't going to embarrass themselves by admitting it in front of Hyp. "All of a sudden I'm regretting our previous stance on commercialism," Rodney said.

"Yeah," John said, contemplating the three kids: they were all leaning against each other, eyes half-shut, on the bench between them. "Think we can just sneak them onto the monorail without them noticing? I can manage Lyndon and Hyp if you'll take James."

James sat up. "I'm not tired!"

"Yeah, good luck with that plan," Rodney said to John.

"We should have dinner in the castle," Hyp said, blinking and sitting up.

"I think we're going to need a reservation for that," John said, too late: all three of them were already on the bandwagon and clamoring.

"Okay, okay, we'll see if we can get in!" Rodney said, raising his hands.

"But if we can't, we're going back to the hotel," John said. "And seriously, if any of you guys scream about it, we're spending tomorrow playing golf."

"Um, you can play golf," Rodney said, pushing himself off the bench with a groan. "I'll be getting a massage."

The castle restaurant was packed, and the reservation book didn't look like it had any slots left. The hostess looked up with an apologetic smile when John asked, then she stared at him and said, "Oh, um, give me a second!" and suddenly they were being led to a nice table in the corner.

"I hope she didn't give us somebody else's table," John said, feeling vaguely guilty.

"Please, it's about time we actually got something out of being celebrities besides weird looks and embarrassing photos," Rodney said. "Oh, prime rib," dreamily.

John was almost too tired to taste the food, which was only okay, but then Rodney's knee bumped up against his under the table and he woke right back up. On the other side of the table, Rodney jumped a little, stared at him, and then swallowed and nudged him again, deliberately. John shivered all over and reached for the salt, which was right by Rodney's hand, so he could casually stroke his thumb over the back of Rodney's hand as he picked it up, and Rodney was just grinning at him, wide and dopey, and John was pretty sure he looked just as silly grinning back.

Five days of glory later, they staggered back onto the airplane for the trip back to Colorado Springs. "I need a vacation," Rodney said, letting his head fall onto John's shoulder.

"Yeah," John said, yawning. Hyp was in the window seat still waving bye, even though the airport was already about thirty thousand feet below. "Think Elizabeth would give us another week off?"

"Are you kidding me?" Rodney said. "I'll consider myself lucky if over ninety percent of the city is still standing."

The stewardess came by with drinks and a snack, and John was just wondering if maybe Rodney's view on the Mile-High thing might be different now that it wasn't their first time, when Hyp finished her baby carrots and said, "Daddy, Papa?"

"Yeah?" John said; Rodney lifted his head. "Mmm?"

"Can I have a brother?"

"No," Rodney said instantly.

"Sorry, kiddo, you were kind of a one-shot deal," John said.

"Well, actually," Rodney said.

John's head snapped around. "What?"

"The gestation unit is still in the lab," Rodney said.

"Are you nuts?" John said.

"I'm not advocating anything!" Rodney said. "I'm just saying, technically -- "

"Rodney, shut up now," John said.

"So I can have a brother?" Hyp said, hopefully, having followed that just a little too well.

"No!" John said firmly.

John stared at the machine. "Are you sure about this?"

"No," Rodney said, also staring.

"Okay, then," John said. "So, what do we do?"

"You're the one who turned it on last time!" Rodney said. He studied it from both sides for a minute. "I think we just both put our hands on the plates, here, at the same time -- "

He put his hand on the side of the machine; it was blinking green and yellow. John took a deep breath and put his hand on the other plate. And waited.

"Nothing's happening," John said, after a few minutes.

"Are you thinking on at it?"

"Yes!" John said. Rodney looked at him. "I am!"

"Look, if you don't want to do this -- "

"No, I do -- I do, Rodney, it's just -- " John sighed and dropped his hand. "Doesn't this feel a little clinical to you?"

Beckett's notes had said the unit only needed a daily check of the vital stats, which they could do themselves, and a monthly more careful exam of the embryo, which Dr. Arnois said she didn't mind doing as a house call, and Rodney wanted to watch, this time around. So they'd decided to bring the unit back to the apartment. Hyp was at school; they'd taken the day off, lugged it over, and set it up in a corner of the bedroom.

"How is this worse than last time?" Rodney said.

"We know what we're doing this time!"

"That's obviously open to debate." Rodney sighed. "Okay, so, we need to get you into the mood. Candles? Wine?"

"Very funny," John said, glaring at him.

"Actually, you know, we could always," Rodney said, and looked at the bed.

"What?" John said, and then he swallowed. "Oh. Uh. That -- that could work."

"Yeah?" Rodney said, a little breathlessly.

"Can't hurt," John said, already peeling his shirt off over his head.

"Wait, let's move it first," Rodney said, and they carried the unit over so it was right at the side of the bed. Then John pounced on him and they tumbled onto the bed, kissing, Rodney groping urgently and blindly at his belt. They had to stop and take off their shoes after their pants got stuck; then Rodney was pushing him back against the pillows, climbing on top of him, already hard and panting. John lay back gasping, arching up for Rodney's fingers.

Rodney fumbled at him a little, slick fingers skidding before they finally got into him. John moaned, trying to push down; his dick was stiff and twitching frantically against his stomach, and he wanted, god, he wanted Rodney in him, right now, because then Rodney would touch his dick, would wrap that slick hot fist around him, jerk him and fuck him at the same time, and he didn't know if he could wait for it.

"God, I love you, Rodney," he gasped. "Yeah," Rodney panted, kissing him, then Rodney pushed his thighs up and started moving into him. John gulped deep breaths; they hadn't done this a lot yet, from either side, and it hadn't ever been this good before. They'd been so damn careful before, but this time Rodney was just shoving at him, desperate, and it was so hot John felt like he was going to pieces.

"Yes, yes, come on," he said, Rodney's dick hitting him in all the right places, and yes, finally, Rodney's hand on him, stroking. So good, but then Rodney said, "Wait, I want -- can I just -- " and let go of his dick and gripped John's thighs instead and pushed him open more, and started just fucking him, and John made a helpless dazed mewling noise, and he wrapped his legs around Rodney's waist and pulled him in tighter, because yes, god yes, he wanted it, he wanted Rodney to just take it --

"John," Rodney said, kissing him frantically. "John -- " John grabbed his hand and reached for the unit, and he was coming even as he felt the needle prick at his finger.

"Okay," Rodney said afterwards, sinking down onto him, still gasping. "That was way more fun than last time."

"Oh yeah," John said. He stretched out luxuriously, idly rubbing his leg slowly along Rodney's side, little aftershocks of pleasure still bouncing around inside him, like his nerves were making tiny ecstatic jumps.

"Hey, I had a thought," Rodney said, after a while.

"Mmm?" John said, yawning, more occupied with mapping out Rodney's back with his hands than paying attention to what Rodney was saying, and then he pushed Rodney off and sat up glaring. "You've got to be kidding me!"

"Oh, come on, it's a great name!" Rodney said.

"Forget it! We are not naming our kid Tycho," John said. "I let you get away with this last time, look what you pulled. For all I know, Tycho was run over by a truck or something."

"He was a sixteenth-century astronomer!" Rodney said.

"Run over by a cow, then!" John said. "Not a chance."

"How about Galileo? I'm pretty sure he just died of old age."

"You know, John's worked out well for me," John said. "Nobody can really harass you on the playground for the name John."

"Oh, so now we're naming the kid after you?" Rodney said. "What's wrong with Rodney, then?"

"You can have the last name this time!" John said. "John McKay, see, that's great, how about that?"

"Sure, great for getting him confused with the five million other John McKays out there," Rodney said. "I don't want somebody else piggybacking on his fame!"

"How do you even know it's a boy?" John said. "We just conceived the kid."

"Okay, how's this," Rodney said, "If it's a boy, I name him, and if it's a girl, you name her."

John eyed him suspiciously. "Are you sure you can't tell?"

"Of course not," Rodney said.

And they lived happily ever after.

All feedback much appreciated!
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