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Running On Empty

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Shopping at the grocery store made Rodney feel too closed-in and vulnerable, which was why he was a regular at the Shemanski Park Farmer’s Market. There were several exit routes he could utilize, and street access on all four sides. The crowds were big, but not overwhelmingly so, and Rodney could let down his guard long enough to get the weekly shopping done.

“Me see!” Lily held up her hands, making grabby motions.

Rodney looked down at her, eyes narrowed. “Me see what?”

“Me see!” she repeated, but then signed please. Rodney handed her an apple from the bag he was looking at, and she gave it a very careful examination.

“What do you think? Should we get some, or keep looking?”

“Some.” Lily kept the apple clutched protectively in her hands. “This mine.”

“Put it in your bag, it’ll be easier to carry.” Rodney paid for the apples, the vendor grinning down at Lily as she tucked the apple into the purple and green striped bag that was slung across her chest.

“Your daughter is beautiful,” the man behind the display of apples said.

“Thanks.” Rodney always felt awkward when people paid Lily compliments; it wasn’t as if he’d had anything to do with the way she looked. Still, he felt a swell of pride when he looked at her. She was healthy – he tried to buy mostly organic foods, which made the farmer’s market valuable for more than just an easy get-away – and as happy as she could be, under the circumstances. Or maybe that was just Rodney projecting. He did that sometimes.

“Poppa! Cookies!” Lily tugged on his arm.

“Don’t pull me, Bump. I’m coming.” Rodney kept one hand on Lily and one on the little wheeled cart that he pulled along behind them. Now that they were on the move again he scanned the crowd, looking for anyone who didn’t belong, anyone acting shifty. He ran through several scenarios in his head, plotting out his escape path and how quickly he could scoop up his little girl and be on the run. And then they were at the bakery tent.

“I’ve been expecting you.” Gretchen, the owner of the bakery, came around and squatted down to Lily’s eye level. “I saved you an oatmeal raisin.”

Lily’s eyes lit up and she threw herself at Gretchen, hugging her tightly around the neck. She was so easy with her affections, and Rodney couldn’t help wondering where she learned that. Not from him, certainly, and definitely not John. Which isn’t to say they weren’t affectionate with each other, but they didn’t dole it out so easily to others. It hurt to think about that, but in a numb, vaguely achy kind of way. The same way it felt to look at his daughter’s face and see so much of her father. He was there in Lily’s changeable hazel eyes, in her pouty bottom lip, in her narrow, almost pointed ears. The Sheppard genes were strong, overriding almost all contributions from the surrogate. They’d made jokes about cloning, once upon a time.

“What do you say, Bump?”

“Thank you,” Lily said. She stepped back and held out her hand. Gretchen produced an enormous cookie from the pocket of her apron, already wrapped up in wax paper. “Eat now?”

“Later,” Rodney replied. “You can have it after lunch.”

“How about you?” Gretchen got to her feet. “Something for Dad this week?”

Lily pointed eagerly at the whole grain carob chip muffins, obviously remembering how much Rodney had enjoyed them the last time. Gretchen laughed and went back inside the tent.

“I guess I’ll take two of those,” Rodney said. He pulled out his wallet, tipping it so that Gretchen couldn’t see his driver’s license. It didn’t have his real name on it, but why take chances? “How much do I owe you?”

“Six even. The cookie is on the house.”

Lily’s face scrunched up and she nudged at Rodney.

“That means it’s free,” he explained. “So you should thank Gretchen again.”

“Thank youuuuu,” Lily sing-songed. She tucked the cookie in her bag, where it would likely be reduced to broken chunks by the time they got home.

It took them another half hour to finish up the shopping, and by that time fat drops of rain were starting to fall. Rodney zipped up Lily’s purple windbreaker and swept the hood over her lopsided pigtails. Springtime in Portland – you could always count on a passing shower at some point during the day.

“Remember where we parked?”

Lily took hold of Rodney’s hand and led him out of the park. She had an unerring sense of direction. The car was in a restaurant parking lot; the signs warned of towing but Rodney suspected they never followed up on that on farmer’s market days, when parking was at a premium. It didn’t take long to get the groceries in the trunk and Lily in her car seat.

Rodney hated driving. He knew, better than anyone, how dangerous it could be. He spent so much time scanning the traffic around him, checking the rearview for anyone who might be following, and then counting the cars in the parking lot at the apartment complex that by the time he got out he was stiff and achy through the shoulders and he had a headache pounding behind his eyes.

“Me help,” Lily said as soon as she was unstrapped.

“I help,” Rodney corrected. He picked her up and put her in the trunk, so she could hand him the groceries to be repacked in the cart. When everything was ready to go he sat her on top of the lot of it and wheeled her and their food to apartment 11.

There were no signs that the lock on the door had been tampered with, and the fine thread that Rodney had left as an early warning system was still in place. He kept Lily behind him as he opened the door, punched in the code to disengage the alarm system, and did a quick scan of the living room/kitchen. Everything looked as it had when they’d left, and the air in the room didn’t contain any traces of foreign cologne or other scents that didn’t belong.

Lily signed bed, her way of reminding Rodney that he still needed to check the bedrooms. It had become such a routine for the two of them that he couldn’t even drum up the sick dismay he’d had at the beginning; he was just glad that Lily knew what they had to do because it made the whole process quicker.

Once the apartment had been cleared and windows opened let in some fresh air, Rodney and Lily began unpacking. Groceries were put away, everything in its proper place. Lily dumped her bag out on the tiny kitchen table: apple, cookie, tiny plush giraffe, new purple pansy barrettes, and the pocket-sized photo album that she took everywhere.

“Eat, Poppa?” Lily signed it as she said it. Rodney and John had decided early on to teach her sign language, so that they could communicate before she had the verbal ability. Lily had taken to it like a pro and though now she had a large vocabulary of spoken words, she still liked to use sign.

Rodney pulled out what was left of the turkey breast he’d cooked two days prior and cut part of it into bite-sized pieces too small to choke on. He paired that with some sliced grapes and baby carrots.

“No.” Lily pushed the carrots off the plate.

“Yes. Or no cookie.”

She thrust her bottom lip out but acquiesced, scowling at each bit of carrot she dropped back on the plate. Rodney kept an eye on her while he puttered around the kitchen. He took out some pizza dough for dinner, and washed up the breakfast dishes.

Lily made a big show of presenting her empty plate once she’d finished eating and Rodney gave her the go-ahead to tackle the broken remains of her cookie. While she was doing that he pulled out his laptop – webcam and all location software disabled – to check the news. There were several news outlets that he subscribed to, all covering key areas of both the US and Canada, and he’d written an algorithm to search for specific words and word combinations that would be red-flagged. So far nothing had popped up.

“Mmm. Yummy cookie, Daddy.”

That caught Rodney’s attention and he looked over at Lily. She had her photo album open and was pressing a bit of cookie against one of John’s pictures, safe from crumbs in its clear plastic pocket.

“Bump? What are you doing?”

“Daddy wants.”

“Daddy wants a cookie?”

Lily nodded, pigtails swinging. “Yummy cookie. Some?”

“No thank you.” Lily got back to eating and Rodney turned to the laptop with a lump in his throat. John had almost become an imaginary friend of sorts to his own daughter. Rodney was never sure how much Lily actually remembered.

Only about a third of the cookie was gone by the time Lily got tired of it. “Poppa. Sleep?”

Rodney helped her put the rest of her snack in a plastic bag, and then carried her to her bedroom. The décor was fairly Spartan, since they never knew when or how quickly they’d have to move, but he always made sure that Lily had a purple comforter on her bed and some sort of decoration on the wall (this time it was a large vinyl butterfly). The only constant was Snuggle Bear, a gift from Jeannie when Lily was born; they never moved without him.

Lily climbed into the bed and Rodney put up the safety rail. She arranged Snuggle Bear to her liking on the pillow, and then opened the photo album up to a picture of John holding her when she was just hours old. She gave the picture a big, wet kiss and then stuffed the album under her pillow.

“And what am I? Chopped liver?” Rodney feigned outrage, which made Lily giggle. She pulled him down by his ears and kissed him right between the eyes. Rodney kissed her back in the exact same place and then tucked her in. “Have a good nap, Bumper.”

Rodney left the room and rested his forehead on the wall beside the open door. He listened to Lily babble incoherently, but very quietly, to Snuggle Bear before she finally drifted off to sleep. He’d never felt more alone.

*o*o*o*

It was supposed to have been a new method of irrigation for overly dry farmland. They’d told Rodney he would be helping countless people grow crops where crops had never grown before. He’d felt virtuous.

And then the Department of Homeland Security came knocking on his door. It was a weapon, they said, and he was building it for a group of ruthless domestic terrorists called the Genii who only had a mind for murder. If he didn’t help the DHS they were prepared to take him into custody as an accessory, take him away from John and Lily and the life they were building together.

“You have to do it,” John said, though he looked as scared as Rodney felt. “Lily and I need you.”

Rodney had done what they’d asked. He met with the Genii, went over plans for the device, and he’d been able to collect information off their computer system wirelessly using a program he’d created. In the process of collecting that information it was deleted from the Genii’s hard drives. One flashdrive to save his life and bring the terrorist organization down. He reached out to his government handler, made plans to meet so Rodney could hand over the information and get his life back.

That meet never happened. Instead, his Genii contact texted him a picture. John’s truck, a smashed wreck at the bottom of a ravine. And a close-up shot of John’s lifeless body amidst the twisted metal, bloody and broken. The DHS had promised to keep his family safe and they’d failed. Horribly.

Rodney was sick, right there on the street, and then he went mindless with panic. He raced home, threw some things in a suitcase and picked up Lily from daycare. He ceased being Rodney McKay. A string of alternate identities followed as he moved from city to city, trying to keep one step ahead of the government and the Genii, both desperate for the contents of that flashdrive.

He learned to hold his tongue, learned to be cautious. He never learned how to forget John, or the overwhelming grief of his loss.

*o*o*o*

Rodney woke to the phantom press of lips against his shoulder. He rolled onto his stomach and pressed his face into the pillow. It has been almost seven months since John died. Seven months of sleeping alone, of dragging his daughter across the country and making her learn how to safely clear a room when she should’ve been playing with other children. Seven months of looking over his shoulder, and he felt like he was running on empty.

He didn’t think he’d ever adjust to not having John around. The man had been a huge part of Rodney’s life since they met in college, a classic tale of jock meets nerd, except the jock had been a secret nerd himself. They’d weathered John’s stint in the Air Force, and Rodney’s brief relocation to Siberia for a research project, and when they’d finally settled down together and decided to have a family it had seemed like their reward for sticking things out and not giving up on each other even when things were hard.

If Rodney had known how little time they actually had, he wouldn’t have waited so long to make a life with John. He wouldn’t have wasted one single second.

He didn’t have much time to wallow. Lily was an early riser and it wasn’t long before she was clambering into bed with him, wriggling under the blankets with Snuggle Bear in one hand.

“Good morning, Bump.”

Lily responded with a smacking kiss on Rodney’s cheek, and then she was snuggling up against him. Her little feet were cold where they pressed against his leg. It was their morning ritual, unaffected by what city they were living in.

Rodney wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. He needed to find a way out of the mess his life was in, for her sake. He couldn’t keep moving her around, changing her name, keeping her from having a normal life. In three years she’d be ready for school, and what then?

In the beginning there’d been babysitters, and even daycare for a while. Until Chicago. Ellie, the babysitter who’d been staying with Lily while Rodney was off utilizing public computer terminals for research and financial transfers, was in a terrible car accident and nearly died. It might have been completely random but Rodney was too paranoid not to consider the very real possibility that it was a message from the Genii, a sign they were closing in.

There had been no outside caregivers since then.

“I hungry,” Lily said against Rodney’s collarbone.

“Hmm. Let me guess what you want. Spinach pie?”

“No,” Lily said, giggling.

“Liver and onions?”

“No, Poppa!” More giggles.

“Dirty sock soup?”

“Faffles!”

“Waffles? Wow, I’m shocked. Just shocked. The Princess of Waffles wants waffles for breakfast.”

Rodney tickled Lily, giggles turning into shrieks as she wriggled around on the bed. No matter how many new breakfast foods he tested Lily out on, she always wanted the same thing. Whole grain waffles with strawberries on top. There were a ridiculous number of boxes in the freezer, one of the few things he didn’t make himself.

“Okay, Bump. Let’s go fix you some waffles.”

He flung her over his shoulder and carried her off while she squealed in delight.

*o*o*o*

“Look what I picked up today,” John said. He pulled a tiny pink dress out of the shopping bag; it had a purple Batman symbol on it.

“You’re ridiculous,” Rodney replied. He wouldn’t admit that he was terrified by the size of the little dress. The baby who would one day be wearing it would be so small and fragile, completely dependent on him and John. He wasn’t having second thoughts, but he was starting to have serious doubts about his own competence at being a father.

“My niece is going to be a nerd,” Jeannie lamented good-naturedly. Amy, hugely pregnant and eating mint chocolate chip ice cream right out of the carton, nodded.

“But she’ll be a well-dressed nerd.”

“I’m drawing the line on skateboards,” Rodney warned John. He’d caught him looking at some child-sized varieties on Amazon the other day. “No death-defying hobbies, if you don’t mind.”

John dropped down next to Amy on the couch and spread the little dress over her belly, which she was also using as a ledge for the ice cream carton. Amy fed him a spoonful of mint chocolate chip.

“We’re not done talking about surfing, though,” John said.

Rodney flapped a hand at him.

“Well, if she’s anything like Madison be prepared for a lot of jumping off the furniture. If your daughter doesn’t have a bloody head wound by the time she’s two I’ll be very surprised.”

Rodney stared at his sister. “Are you wishing head injuries on my unborn child?”

“Just trying to prepare you for the inevitable, Mer.” Jeannie smiled sweetly at him. “Speaking of your unborn child, are you any closer to picking a name?”

John exchanged a look with Rodney. They had picked a name, actually, after months of arguing back and forth about the relative merits of every girl’s name in the baby book. But really, that had been all for show. Rodney had always known that the baby should be named for John’s mother, who had died when he was young. John had finally agreed to it, with just a little manful crying.

“We’re keeping it to ourselves till she’s born,” John said apologetically. “Then we can make the big announcement.”

“Please tell me you took Shasta off the list.”

John solemnly shook his head. “I can neither confirm nor deny.”

Amy pressed a hand to her belly. “Someone’s up.”

Rodney watched as John put his hand where Amy indicated, saw the unbridled delight on his face with the baby moved and he could feel it. John was going to be an amazing father. If he had any doubts, like Rodney did, he certainly wasn’t being forthcoming with them.

“We can’t wait to meet you, Batgirl,” John murmured at the belly.

*o*o*o*

They came when Rodney was collecting dirty clothes to take to the laundromat and Lily was looking through her picture books, banging on the door with demands for entry.

“Department of Homeland Security! Open up, Dr. McKay!”

Lily came on the run, barefoot, bag already slung over her shoulder and eyes wide with fear. Rodney scooped her up and made for the panic room. It had started life as a laundry alcove but Rodney had reinforced the door and the inside walls. As soon as they were inside he sealed the room; it wouldn’t hold indefinitely, but all he needed was a minute to make his getaway.

“Up you go, sweetheart.” There was a ladder bolted to the wall and Rodney followed Lily up, making sure she didn’t lose her footing. He reached over her to unlock and push open the hatch in the ceiling, which led directly into the empty apartment upstairs; Rodney had rented it under a different name than the one he was currently using.

“Get your shoes, Bump.”

There was a stash of supplies waiting, including a change of clothes and extra footwear. Rodney grabbed his bug-out bag and flipped the switch that would fill the downstairs apartment with smoke. After a quick peek out the door, Rodney picked Lily up and settled her on his hip. He pulled the smoke alarm at the top of the stairs and waited for the other residents to start streaming out of their apartments.

“Nice and quiet, sweetheart. Okay?”

Lily just nodded, her arms tight around Rodney’s neck. He knew she was scared, and he didn’t blame her. This was the first contact he’d had with DHS in seven months, the first time they’d been able to track him down. He didn’t know what mistake he’d made to let this happen, but if they could find him so could the Genii and he wasn’t about to lose his daughter to those bastards.

Rodney juggled Lily and his bag, glad that so many people were home on a Saturday morning. He blended into the crowd, and then ducked into the hedges on the north side of the building. There was a narrow passage there that led to an alley, and from there he could slip through the back door of Panda Palace. While he was making that trek as stealthily as possible, Rodney pulled out his burner phone and contacted his one so-called underworld acquaintance in Portland.

“Russ, it’s Ronald Marsten. I need emergency transport.”

What’s your location?

“I’ll be at the Target on Morrison.”

Ten minutes. My man will be in the blue sedan, baseball on the antenna. Plate 728 ATL.

“Thanks.”

It was only a block to the nearest bus station once they cleared the Chinese restaurant, and he had to run to catch the next bus.

“Scared, Poppa,” Lily whispered. She kept her head pressed against Rodney’s neck, and he could feel her trembling. He hated this.

“I know. I’m sorry, Bump. I’m sorry we have to do this. But we want to be safe, right?”

“Safe.”

“That’s right. You know Poppa will do anything to keep you safe.”

Lily nodded.

“You have Snuggle Bear?”

Another nod.

“And your pictures?”

“Daddy,” Lily murmured.

Rodney took that as a yes. He rubbed Lily’s back and willed the bus to move faster. He kept an eye on the window, looking for any signs of the DHS and their distinctive black SUVs.

Lily perked up a little when the bus let them off at Target. She was familiar with the store and looked up at Rodney hopefully.

“Toy?”

“Not today, sweetheart. We’re waiting for a car.”

They sat down on a bench outside the main entrance and Lily pulled out her photo album. Rodney didn’t remember grabbing the pictures when he’d initially fled his home, but he was glad he had, glad his daughter had pictures of her other father. Maybe someday it wouldn’t hurt so much for him to look at them.

“Daddy and Bump,” Lily said. That same picture of John holding newborn Lily, who was little more than a baby burrito, swaddled in the white hospital blanket.

It was a whole lifetime ago, or at least that’s how it felt now. Rodney remembered John’s excitement the day Lily was born, how he’d hovered nervously at the surrogate’s bedside; Amy had laughed and teased him about it. He remembered John getting up with her in the night for her feedings, walking her around and around while he sang Johnny Cash songs. John was the one to start calling Lily ‘Bump’, because instead of crawling she’d bump around on her bottom.

Rodney pulled out his cell phone. One last call to make before he dumped it, the same call he always made when he was moments from moving on to another city. It was the only time he could.

Hello?

He didn’t speak. He never did, just in case someone was listening in. Confirmation of contact could be dangerous, though his sister never seemed to get that message.

Mer? Oh, honey.

Rodney’s throat constricted at the sound of Jeannie’s voice. He shouldn’t be calling her, shouldn’t be putting her at risk. DHS and the RCMP were both supposedly keeping her under surveillance, making sure her family didn’t suffer the same loss that Rodney’s had.

I hope you’re staying safe. I miss you and Lily so much.

The car Russ sent pulled up to the curb. The guy behind the wheel nodded at Rodney before getting out and walking away.

“Poppa. Car.” Lily pointed to it.

Lily? Is that Lily? God, she sounds so big! Mer, I –

It took all of Rodney’s strength of will to end the call. He tossed the phone in the nearest trash receptacle and bundled Lily into the car. Russ had dug up a booster seat somewhere, and while it wasn’t a proper car seat it was better than nothing.

“Here we go, kiddo.” Rodney adjusted the seat and the mirrors before pointing the car towards the exit. He almost got there, too, before his path was blocked by one of the black SUVs he’d been expecting.

Biting back an expletive, Rodney turned the wheel violently to the right. There was another exit behind the store, the one that the delivery trucks were supposed to use, and he pressed down on the accelerator to get there before DHS did. A quick mirror check showed two of the vehicles in pursuit.

“Fucking Russ,” he muttered under his breath. Either the guy had given him up, or somehow the suits had figured out that Russ was Rodney’s contact and they’d just been waiting. Idiot! Why hadn’t he planned for such an eventuality?

He swerved around an oncoming car and then he was around the backside of the store. There were no deliveries happening at the moment, which was lucky because there wasn’t a whole lot of space to maneuver back there. The exit looked clear and Rodney stomped the gas pedal that much harder. He had a second to see if there was any oncoming traffic before he shot out into the street.

All he needed to do was get to the interstate. Maybe it was faulty reasoning, but Rodney felt sure that if he could just do that he’d have an easier time ditching the SUVs. The Saturday morning traffic in downtown Portland wasn’t bad, but there were too many stoplights and he couldn’t run them all, not with Lily in the car.

DHS, who had the benefit of being a government agency, took advantage of the blue flashing lights on their vehicles and were able to move more easily through the stoplights than Rodney could. It wasn’t long before they caught up.

“No, no, no,” Rodney said. He was gripping the steering wheel so tight that his fingers hurt, but he wasn’t going to be caught. Not now. Not after so long. Not when the Genii were surely right behind the suits.

In the end he was outmaneuvered, simply because he was too nervous being in a car chase with his daughter strapped into a wholly unsuitable safety seat. DHS boxed him in, one SUV on either side of his borrowed car and one behind. A fourth pulled in front of him and then they all slowed down, forcing Rodney to either do the same or ram one of them; it was a lose-lose situation.

Rodney slowed to a stop and automatically put the car in park. He felt like an abject failure and dropped his hands in his lap. “I’m sorry, Bump.”

“Poppa?”

There was no time to offer Lily any comforting words, even if he’d had any. DHS suits were pulling him out of the car and slapping cuffs on him.

“Dr. Rodney McKay, you are being put in protective custody by authority of the Department of Homeland Security.”

“Yeah, yeah. Resistance is futile. I know the drill. Hey, don’t scare my daughter!”

Rodney’s protests fell on deaf ears as one of the DHS jackals unstrapped her and picked her up. Lily started to scream and struggle, trying to get back in the car.

“Lily! Sweetheart, it’s okay!” Rodney tried to go to her but the one that had cuffed him wouldn’t let him move. “She needs her bag! Just give her the bag!”

Oh, God, he was the world’s worst father and his heart was breaking just listening to her. His own struggles were just as futile as his daughter’s.

“We don’t have time for this. Let’s go.” The dickhead in charge pushed Rodney towards one of the SUVs, but his path was blocked by one of his compatriots, a huge guy with dreadlocks that were tied back in a thick ponytail.

“We’ll make time. Teyla?”

A diminutive woman appeared and took hold of Lily. “Get her bag. Shh, shh, little one. No-one will harm you.”

Lily calmed as soon as she had her bag in her hands, and then she turned her tear-stained face towards Rodney. “Poppa.”

“It’s okay, Bump. It’s okay.”

“This way, Dr. McKay,” Dreadlocks said. He didn’t manhandle Rodney, instead walking with him to one of the waiting SUVs and holding the back door open for him. Getting in was a little awkward with his hands behind his back, but he managed with a minimal amount of embarrassment.

“Put the girl in the other car,” the dickhead ordered.

“No! She stays with me, or I swear to God I will give you nothing.”

“I will ride with Agent Dex and Dr. McKay,” the woman, Teyla, said. “There is no reason to upset the little girl more than necessary.”

Rodney hated having to be grateful to any of them, but he was relieved when the booster seat was removed from the sedan and set up next to him in the backseat. Lily kept the bag securely looped over her shoulder, one hand in a death grip on it and the other curled up around a wad of Rodney’s shirt since he couldn’t hold her hand.

Dreadlocks got up front in the passenger seat. “Let’s go.”

“Everything will be fine,” Teyla promised. Rodney stared at her, but kept his thoughts on that ridiculous sentiment to himself. They’d told him that before and it had been a horrible, terrible lie. He wasn’t falling for it again.

The SUV caravan got rolling and Rodney didn’t bother to ask where they were going. No-one would’ve told him anyway.

*o*o*o*

“Let’s make a baby,” John said, nipping at Rodney’s earlobe while he jacked him slow, slow, slow.

Rodney rocked his hips, trying to get John to speed things up. “What?”

“Let’s make a baby.”

“You might…mmm…want to look at what you have in your…ooh, yeah…hand. We’re not properly equipped.”

“I’m serious.” John’s hand stopped moving, though he didn’t let go of Rodney’s cock.

Rodney sighed and rolled his eyes. “Do we have to talk about this now? It was just getting good.”

John rolled on top of Rodney, pressing their cocks together. Now that was more like it!

“Yes, I want to talk about it now. I want to have a family with you.”

It wasn’t like Rodney had never thought about what it would be like, him and John raising a couple of kids together. Neither of them had had a really solid childhood, and the thought of getting another go at it, of being better parents than their own parents were, was definitely appealing.

“So, what? Like adopting?”

John rocked his hips, and Rodney’s breath caught. “I was thinking surrogate. A little boy with your blue eyes and your brains.”

Rodney flushed, inexplicably embarrassed. It was sweet that John thought he had some good attributes to pass along to the next generation, but if they were talking about making a DNA contribution, it had to be John. He had a good body type, he was smarter than he liked people to know, and he was quite frankly beautiful.

“Tell you what,” Rodney said. “You stop teasing my orgasm, and we can have a serious, not-naked conversation about this. Okay?”

John grinned wickedly. “Oh, you’ll get your orgasm.”

And he did, twenty minutes later, John riding him and making the sexiest, most wanton noises that ever came out of a human mouth. Rodney had his orgasm, John had his discussion, and four months later they found the perfect surrogate mother to help them become a family.

*o*o*o*

The DHS safe house was in the hills outside McMinnville. Lily had fallen asleep during the hour-long drive, her head resting against Rodney’s shoulder. She hadn’t loosened her grip on his shirt, which meant that extricating her from the SUV without waking her was impossible. There were no more tears, just a wide-eyed, fearful expression that hurt Rodney’s heart to see.

“This way, Dr. McKay.” Once again, Dreadlocks didn’t feel the need to put his hands on Rodney, no doubt trusting that he wouldn’t do anything stupid with his daughter right there. And he was right, the bastard.

The house was isolated, the kind of two-story prefab log cabin that rich people used as vacation homes, which was probably what it had been until the government had co-opted it. The furnishings were minimal, the floors all polished wood without a rug to be seen. Dreadlocks freed Rodney from the cuffs and indicated that he should sit down on the long green sofa.

“Poppa!” Lily was carefully set on Rodney’s lap and he immediately wrapped her up in a hug, his face buried in her hair. “I scared.”

“I know. Me too, baby. Me too.”

Dickhead sat across from Rodney on a matching loveseat, one leg crossed over the other. “You led us a merry chase, Dr. McKay. Do you know how many man hours we’ve expended trying to find you?”

“Send me a bill,” Rodney muttered. He got Lily settled more comfortably, unwilling to let go of her for even a minute. He wouldn’t put it past these government assholes to try and use her for leverage.

“Would you like to tell me why you didn’t come in immediately when your cover was blown? We could’ve protected you, we could’ve –”

“Like you protected John?” Rodney snapped. His blood was starting to boil. “You weren’t too good at keeping your promises, why the hell would I trust you with my daughter’s life?”

Just being around the suits was bringing it all back, the cool assurances that, while what he was doing was risky, the well-trained agents of DHS would keep his family safe. As far as he was concerned, they were just as responsible for John’s death as the Genii were.

“What happened to Mr. Sheppard was regrettable, but –”

Regrettable?”

“That is enough, Agent Sumner.” Teyla stepped into the space between them, hands on her hips. “Now that we have retrieved Dr. McKay, I have been requested to take over this operation. You are to return to Washington immediately.”

Rodney watched with no small amount of glee as Dickhead Sumner got to his feet, face turning red.

“This is my op!”

“This was your op,” Teyla corrected. “You have mishandled the entire case, and the Director wants you removed from it before you make any further missteps.”

She had an oddly formal way of speaking, but Rodney was starting to like her. He hadn’t met Sumner during his first go-round with DHS, but his name had been bandied about.

“I’m going to Director Woolsey about this,” Sumner snarled.

“Give him my regards,” Teyla said. “Agent Duquesne, will you please see that Agent Sumner gets on the next flight to Washington?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

As soon as Sumner was out the door Teyla took his place on the loveseat. “Ronon? Perhaps Dr. McKay and his daughter would like something to drink.”

Ronon turned out to be the big guy with the dreadlocks. He nodded and went to the kitchen, returning with two bottles of water cold from the fridge. Rodney took them both with a nod of thanks.

“I would like to apologize for Agent Sumner’s behavior,” Teyla said. “His approach is very old-school and heavy-handed. He was perhaps the wrong choice to oversee your case.”

Rodney snorted at that. He held one of the bottles for Lily to drink out of. As soon as she was done she made the sign for hungry.

“Do you have anything Lily can eat? Preferably nothing processed.”

While Ronon rummaged around in the kitchen, Teyla leaned forward on the loveseat. “Dr. McKay, we are still interested in taking down the Genii organization, with your assistance. Are you still in possession of the information you took from them?”

“I have it. And I suppose you have some new assurances about how I’m doing the right thing and that this time no-one in my family will die a horrible death.” Lily made a noise of protest and Rodney kissed her forehead. “Why should I believe you?”

“You need to tell him,” Ronon said. He reappeared with a sloppily made peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cut into fours.

“I agree. Dr. McKay, it was never our intention to deceive you. Had you not dropped off the grid so quickly, perhaps the last seven months could have been avoided.” Teyla pulled out her cellphone and placed a call. “Bring him down.”

There were a lot of scenarios running through Rodney’s mind, countless other ways that DHS had screwed him, but nothing prepared him for the man coming down the stairs accompanied by yet another dark-suited agent.

John.

Disbelief warred with an almost paralyzing sense of betrayal. John was alive. All this time. Fucking alive, while Rodney ran from city to city and tried to keep himself and his daughter safe. He looked a little worse for wear – there was some scarring on the left side of his face and he had a noticeable limp – but he was alive.

He got to the bottom of the stairs and then just stood there, his expression an odd mix of relief and anxiety. Rodney couldn’t stop staring at him, drinking in everything that was familiar – the cowlicks, the lean grace, the knobby elbows. He tried to dredge up the anger he knew should be there, but it wouldn’t come.

“Daddy,” Lily whispered.

Rodney dragged his eyes off his resurrected spouse and looked down at his daughter. She seemed just as gobsmacked as he felt. He wondered if she remembered John, or if it was just the amazement of seeing the man from the pictures standing there in the flesh, an imaginary friend brought to life.

“We were able to get to him in time,” Teyla said softly. “We rushed him to the hospital. It was touch and go for a while. We fed the news reports with notification of his death, to keep the Genii off the track. Unfortunately, we had no way of letting you know the truth.”

“We should give them some time,” Ronon said. The agent that had come downstairs with John looked like he wanted to protest, but Ronon cut him off. “Sheppard can’t leave, and I’m pretty sure Dr. McKay won’t go without him.”

“We will be in the next room.” Teyla patted Rodney on the shoulder as she walked past. “Let us know when you are ready.”

The three agents left, and Rodney’s gaze tracked back to John. He didn’t know what to say. He’d been grieving for seven months, had been trying to move past his loss. Now he had John back and he just…he didn’t…

Lily wriggled in his lap. “Down, Poppa.” She signed please as an extra inducement, and Rodney let her go.

John got down on his knees as Lily crossed the room, though it clearly pained him to do so. Touch and go, Teyla had said. And Rodney hadn’t been there to hold his hand and beg him to stay strong. Hadn’t been there when he woke up and needed to see a familiar face.

“Lily Jean Shep’d-McKay.” Lily held her hand out, and after a moment John took it in his, shaking it.

“You’ve gotten really big, Bumper,” John said. His voice trembled.

Lily looked back at Rodney, delighted. “Bump!”

“Daddy gave you that nickname,” Rodney explained around the lump that had formed in his throat.

“Daddy home?” Lily asked John, who looked at Rodney a little helplessly.

Seeing the two of them together again made something crack inside Rodney, and he could barely keep his own emotions in check.

“Yes, sweetheart. Daddy’s…Daddy’s home.”

Lily threw her arms around John’s neck, hugging him tightly. John gathered her in, tears rolling down his face.

It was getting difficult for Rodney to breathe. He wanted to get up, wanted to be part of that tearful reunion, but he couldn’t get his legs to work. Luckily he didn’t have to because John got to his feet, Lily wrapped around him like a barnacle, and limped across the room. He sat on the opposite end of the sofa, as if not sure he’d be entirely welcome.

“Rodney.” Just one word, but it carried a heavy undertone of regret.

“Don’t,” Rodney managed to choke out.

John whispered something in Lily’s ear that had her scuttling across the empty space between them and giving Rodney a big kiss on the cheek.

“Me eat?” she asked

Rodney had forgotten all about the sandwich. He signed Lily eat, giving his approval. Lily took the plate and sat on the loveseat with it.

“I would’ve found you,” John said softly. “By the time I was able they already had me leashed.”

He pulled up the leg of his jeans and Rodney saw the tracking device strapped to his ankle. By the time I was able, which meant that John’s recovery from the accident had taken a long time. It wasn’t his fault, Rodney knew that. He’d been almost killed, and an unwilling guest of DHS for the last seven months.

“I’m sorry.”

“Shut up.” Rodney couldn’t take any more. No more unwarranted apologies, no more looking at new scars on a beloved face. He hauled John forward by his shirt, kissing him hard on the mouth. And then promptly burst into tears.

“I know,” John murmured, holding him close. “I know, me too. God, I missed you.”

The next thing Rodney knew, Lily was inserting herself between them, clearly distressed because he was crying.

“Poppa cry? Poppa sad?”

She hugged him tight, crying herself, and Rodney had to let go of John so he could comfort her.

“Poppa’s not sad,” he said. “Poppa just really missed Daddy.”

Lily reached around him and pulled Snuggle Bear out of her bag, practically pushing it in his face. Rodney laughed wetly and took it from her.

“Thank you, sweetheart.”

Lily ran her hands down his face, presumably to wipe the tears away. “No cry.”

“I’m all better now. See?” And that was grossly overstating the situation, but Lily nodded, pleased. She slid off the couch, only to return seconds later with her partially eaten sandwich, which she offered to John. “Daddy some?”

“No, thank you,” John said politely. But Lily took one of the squares and mashed it against his mouth.

“Daddy eat!”

Rodney could help but laugh, weak as it might have been. “She’s always trying to feed you,” he explained, and pulled out the photo album.

John made a show of chewing the sandwich, and Lily retreated back to the loveseat. He took the album from Rodney and paged through it. More than one of the plastic sleeves had food smears on it. He rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand.

“I missed a lot of time.”

“I thought you were dead,” Rodney whispered. “If I’d known…I would have done anything, John. To be there.”

John pulled him in for another kiss, and they only stopped when Teyla cleared her throat. Rodney glared at her, and the intrusion.

“I am sorry,” she said. “But we need to discuss what happens next.”

Rodney glanced at Lily and saw that she’s fallen asleep on the loveseat, last bit of her sandwich still clutched in her hand and a dollop of peanut butter on her cheek. He grabbed the blanket that was decoratively draped over the back of the couch and covered Lily with it, using his thumb to wipe away the peanut butter.

He and John held hands as they joined Teyla and Ronon at the dining room table, Rodney making sure he took a seat with a direct line of sight to his daughter.

“The Genii will not stop looking for you,” Teyla said, getting right to the point. “The only hope you have of a normal life is to help us take down their organization.”

“No,” John said immediately. “It’s too dangerous.”

“I can’t do this anymore,” Rodney said, making John look at him. “Always moving around, always looking over my shoulder. It’s not fair to Lily, John. It wouldn’t be fair to us.”

He wished the three of them could just vanish, find a tropical island somewhere to live on where they were the only people, and the only danger came from too much sun. But even there he’d be afraid that someone would take everything he loved from him.

“I just got you back.” John looked down at their joined hands.

“We want you to go for the flashdrive, Dr. McKay,” Teyla said.

“You want me to be bait.”

John shook his head but he didn’t say anything, his lips pressed into a thin, angry line.

Ronon nodded. “The Genii snatch you, we follow, and we get them on tape incriminating themselves. It’ll be enough to dump them in a deep, dark hole for the rest of their lives.”

“And what assurances can you give me for John and Lily’s safety?”

“This house is equipped with a state-of-the-art panic room,” Teyla said. “They will stay here until the Genii are taken into custody, and then all of you are free to go.”

Rodney would have to inspect the panic room for himself to make sure, but he supposed it was the best option under the circumstances.

“I’ll do it,” he said, and tightened his grip on John’s hand when the man twitched. “But if things go south, you get John and Lily to a country with no Genii ties, and set them up. New names, full documentation, and enough money to live on.”

Teyla looked him in the eyes, and he hoped that he was reading her sincerity correctly. “I promise you, Dr. McKay. We will take care of your family.”

“I hate this,” John muttered.

“Me, too,” Rodney agreed with a sigh. “Me, too.”

*o*o*o*

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Rodney said. John had been waiting for him in Arrivals, a huge grin on his face. “If I never see another Russian, it’ll be too soon.”

John wrapped him in a hug, and whispered in his ear, “I fucking missed you, you asshole.”

Rodney let his carry-on drop and hugged John back just as fiercely. The research project, which was only supposed to be three months, had stretched into four, then six. They’d emailed every day and Skyped whenever they could, but it wasn’t the same.

“I’m not doing that again, I swear to God.” Rodney pulled back and looked John in the eyes. “I mean it. Not being with you sucked.”

They’d already spent too much of their lives apart. John had done four years in the Air Force, four years that Rodney had resented bitterly even though he’d understood John’s need to serve.

“Not gonna argue,” John said cheekily, but Rodney could see the emotion in his eyes.

It’s not like he’d needed proof that their relationship was strong. Rodney had always known it was. Strong enough to withstand time apart and stupid arguments over things that didn’t matter and the censure of people who didn’t approve of their lifestyle. He figured they’d proven themselves enough.

“Here.” He pulled the jeweler’s box from his pocket and pushed it into John’s hand. “I brought you something.”

That earned him a raised eyebrow, but John gamely opened the box. There were two gold bands inside, unadorned save the matching inscriptions: forever’s not long enough. John looked up at Rodney, eyes gleaming.

“Really?”

“If you want,” Rodney said as nonchalantly as he could manage.

John had never been particularly demonstrative with his affections out in public, but he plastered himself against Rodney and kissed the breath from his lungs. There were some wolf whistles, and one old guy angrily muttering about fags, but Rodney didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything but the man in his arms.

“I do,” John gasped. “I really do.”

“No more time apart,” Rodney promised.

“No more time apart,” John agreed.

*o*o*o*

Leaving the safe house was one of the hardest things Rodney had ever had to do. Harder than abandoning his life and going on the run. Harder than being a single parent. John had clutched him tight, like he’d never let him go. And Lily has screamed and cried and made Rodney’s heart break over and over as he promised he’d come back, promised Daddy would take good care of her, promised things he knew he had no right promising.

Ronon stayed behind with them, which made Rodney feel slightly better. Teyla and two other agents were driving him back to Colorado Springs, where they would coordinate with local DHS agents to track Rodney and bring down the Genii. The only things Rodney had on his side were a tiny tracking device that had been placed under the skin of his neck at his hairline, and a watch that would also broadcast everything the Genii said back to DHS. It wasn’t much.

“As promised,” Teyla said. She was sitting with him in the backseat, and handed him a cell phone. “Encrypted and secured. You can speak freely.”

“Thanks.”

Rodney held the phone in his hand for a long moment as he tried to think of what he would even say. It had been so long. He finally took a steadying breath and dialed the familiar number.

Hello?

“Jeannie,” Rodney said, and his voice cracked on her name.

Mer? Oh, God. Are you okay? Where are you? Is Lily okay?

“We’re both fine. I…I’m with DHS. We’re going to get them, Jeannie. So I can come home.”

No. No! That doesn’t sound safe. You know they can’t protect you. Where’s Lily?

“She’s…uh. He’s not dead. All this time, not dead.” It was still hard to believe it, and judging by the silence on the other end of the phone, Jeannie was having a difficult time as well. “We all slept in the same bed last night, Jeannie, and it was…it was perfect, and I don’t…I had to leave them.”

He turned towards the window, trying for the illusion of privacy.

Mer, Jeannie said, and Rodney could tell she was crying.

“If I don’t… Contact Agent Emmagan at DHS. She’s going to disappear John and Lily, and you should have the chance to see them before she does.”

Don’t talk like that! When this is all over, the three of you will come and see me. Okay? Mer?

“Okay,” Rodney said. “I love you, Jeannie.”

I love you, too. Get those bastards. And come home.

“I will.” Rodney ended the call and handed the phone back to Teyla without turning around. He rested his forehead on the window.

He’d made so many promises. He hoped he could keep them.

*o*o*o*

Rodney and John lay in bed, the room dark. It was nothing new, having John in his bed, but that night was different. They were officially living together, which meant that Rodney would get to go to sleep with John every night and wake up with him every morning. It meant sharing one bathroom, and sharing rent, and just…sharing. Everything.

It was a big step. Rodney’s friend Laura said they were moving too fast. John’s friend Aiden had recommended keeping everything split right down the middle so it would be easier when they broke up. Even Jeannie had been dubious when Rodney told her what they were doing, pointing out that he didn’t have the best relationship track record.

He hated to call it intuition, or a gut feeling, because Rodney was a logical guy who believed in science above all else, but he couldn’t easily quantify what it was about John that made him believe in them. It seemed unlikely that Rodney could pin his future on someone who regularly went without socks and rarely tied his shoes. Then again, John didn’t seem to mind Rodney’s pre-coffee grouchiness in the morning, or his late hours in the physics lab.

“You okay?” John asked sleepily. He rolled over and tugged Rodney against his chest, his arm a warm, comforting weight on Rodney’s hip.

“We can make this work, right?” Rodney could help asking. “We’re not trying to canoe up the river of denial without a paddle?”

John huffed out a breath. “Did your mother drop you on your head when you were a baby?”

Rodney frowned. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Don’t overthink it, Rodney.” John wrapped around him like an octopus, and Rodney swore John had to be some kind of boneless medical marvel. “We’re cool.”

“Right. Cool.” And really, there was nothing bad about having John curled up around him. “Hey, we can have a lot more sex now that you’re living here!”

“Mmm. Tomorrow.” John’s breath was warm against Rodney’s ear. “Too tired to fuck.”

“Good thing I don’t love you just for your sexual prowess,” Rodney said dryly. And then his eyes widened when he realized what he’d said. Any hope he had of John not having caught that was futile, because those warm breaths had ceased altogether.

Rodney knew John cared about him. He wasn’t much into PDAs, but when they were at home he lavished Rodney with attention. Too much, sometimes, though Rodney would never complain about it. But they’d never said that word to each other.

“You know what? This is ridiculous. We clearly want to be together. I mean, you wouldn’t move in here just on a whim, right?” Rodney licked his lips. “So yeah. I love you. But if that makes you uncomfor…nngh.”

John kissed him, so hard it was almost bruising. “I love you too, nerd.”

“I never said it was unconditional,” Rodney warned. John burst out laughing, and Rodney couldn’t stop from doing the same. “Geez, we’re lame.”

“We sure are,” John replied. He sounded pretty pleased about it.

They fell asleep cuddled up together, Rodney’s ear pressed to John’s chest right over his heart.

*o*o*o*

Rodney walked down the sidewalk, everything so familiar and yet not, as if he was seeing it in a dream: the old neighborhood, where he and John had started their family together. He walked past the park, where they used to take Lily to swing and slide and just run around. Past the bakery that made the really good Napoleons. Past the florist that had sent over a bouquet of sunflowers and balloons on Lily’s first birthday. Past the newsstand where he’d sometimes sneak off to buy candy bars.

He stopped for a moment, and stared at the house across the street. Their house. It wasn’t big, but it was full of quirky turn-of-the-century details that John had found charming. Rodney wondered if it was still just as he’d left it, or if someone else lived there now. He didn’t imagine DHS had bothered to pay his mortgage all this time. Had Jeannie had to come down and clean it out? Box up all his things? He hoped not.

Rodney wished he could go back in time, turn down the Genii job. He wanted his life back.

He got moving, his back itching with the feeling of being watched. He knew Teyla was out there somewhere, tracking him, and he had to resist the urge to scratch his neck with the implant was. Were the Genii watching him too?

The flashdrive wasn’t hidden too far from the house. He’d been running around like a lunatic that day, and he could remember all too well how it had felt to get that picture of John, to believe without a doubt that his husband had just been murdered. Like a gut punch that he never recovered from, his breath forever coming in painful gasps.

There. Old Ms. Raczkowski’s yard. She had an egg-shaped rock in her flower garden – she called it her pterodactyl egg – that was too heavy for her to lift, so she always just gardened around it. It was almost too heavy for Rodney, but he’d been able to move it enough to slip the small, lead-lined box holding the flashdrive underneath it.

It was still there.

Such a small thing, and it had irrevocably changed Rodney’s life. If DHS didn’t come through, and the Genii were able to complete their plan, it wouldn’t just be Rodney’s life that was destroyed.

Rodney looked around, half-expecting to be instantly surrounded by Kolya’s goons, but the sidewalk was empty. It only made him more anxious. When would they come? What would they do to him before Teyla’s agents intervened? He hated not knowing.

He headed back the way he’d come, the box with the flashdrive stuffed into his pants pocket, wondering if the neighborhood would ever be home again. Even without the constant threat from the Genii, could he ever come back and pretend nothing had happened? Would he be able to take Lily out in public without constantly assessing exits and threats?

Maybe John would consider moving to Canada, starting over fresh.

Without even realizing he was heading there, Rodney found himself in the park. There were some kids playing, their parents sitting on benches chatting together and keeping an eye out. They had no idea how quickly things could go wrong.

Two boys were on the swings, trying to outdo each other. Lily loved swinging, always wanting to go higher. Like father, like daughter. It wouldn’t surprise Rodney if his little girl ended up being a pilot someday. He was sure as hell going to see to it that she got the chance, no matter what happened.

Rodney turned away from the swings, and his breath caught in throat. Kolya’s second-in-command, Ladon Radim, was leaning casually against the jungle gym. He didn’t look like a terrorist. He looked like any of the other young guys in the park with their kids, dressed casually in jeans and a plain green t-shirt.

“Dr. McKay.”

“Radim.”

“It’s been a while.”

“If you don’t mind, I really don’t feel like reminiscing.” Rodney had to fight the urge to cut and run, which had been standard operating procedure for the last seven months. He felt like he had a target painted on his chest.

“I don’t see your little girl,” Ladon said, making a show of looking around the park.

Rodney’s skin flashed hot. “You mention her again and I’ll rip your throat out.”

Ladon smiled. “Well, we wouldn’t want that. Are you going to cooperate like a good boy, or do things have to get…messy?”

By ‘messy’, Rodney was sure he meant involving the little kids that were laughing and playing, completely unaware of the danger that surrounded them; just because Rodney couldn’t see Ladon’s cronies didn’t mean they weren’t there.

“I want the flashdrive.”

“And I want some assurances,” Rodney retorted. “What’s to stop you from killing me as soon as I hand it over?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

“Which is why the information on the flashdrive is heavily encrypted. Your people might be able to crack my code. In a year or so. If you work at it every day.” It wasn’t idle boasting, and judging from the scowl on Ladon’s face, he recognized that fact as well.

“What are you hoping to accomplish? There’s no scenario where you get to walk away, Dr. McKay. You’re a loose end.”

“I think I can be excused for wanting to extend my life expectancy,” Rodney snapped. Hearing his demise discussed so easily, and knowing that Ladon saw it as a foregone conclusion, was terrifying. “If I help you, it’s on the condition that you stay away from my daughter.”

“That’s not up to me,” Ladon said with a shrug.

“Then take me to Kolya and I’ll make him the same offer.”

“If that’s what you want.” For some reason he seemed to find that amusing. “Let’s see how long you can extend that life of yours.”

Rodney had half expected that Ladon and his crew would be riding around in one of those panel vans with no windows, but instead they had an innocuous mid-sized SUV standing by. Rodney spent the duration of the forty-minute drive uncomfortably smooshed between two Genii “freedom fighters”, who were armed to the teeth.

Kolya had shifted his base of operations since the last time Rodney had paid him a visit. Previously he’d been utilizing an empty warehouse – which was a terrible cliché, all things considered – and now he was occupying a house just outside of town. It was fairly isolated and a little rundown, but no-one would guess that terrorists were plotting mass murder inside.

There was no way for DHS to approach the house without being seen, Rodney realized with a sinking feeling. Even if they busted in to take down the Genii, the odds that they could get to him before Kolya put a bullet in his head were slim.

Rodney was chivvied into the house and given an embarrassingly thorough pat-down to make sure wasn’t wired or smuggling in a weapon. He thought it was overkill, considering he’d already been checked before they left the park – and the flashdrive removed from his pocket – but he was gratified that they didn’t take his watch. As long as DHS was listening, and could put these bastards away, John and Lily would be safe. That was all he cared about.

The house had a Great Room, with cathedral ceilings and a wall of windows that had been completely covered by venetian blinds. It had been transformed from a family play space to Genii headquarters: laptops were spread around on mismatched desks, there were maps hanging on the walls, and three of the four big monitors were tuned into different news stations. The fourth monitor contained security footage from various points around the outside of the house.

“Dr. McKay.”

Acastus Kolya stood in the middle of the room, looking as imperious as always with his pock-marked face and ridiculous outfit. In that moment, face to face with the man who’d ordered his husband to be killed, Rodney felt nothing but rage, and a desire to inflict bodily harm. His hand curled into fists.

“Kolya. Still dressing like a Nazi extra in an Indiana Jones movie, I see.”

“And you still haven’t learned to keep your mouth shut,” Kolya replied pleasantly. He held out his hand and Ladon dropped the flashdrive into it. “So much trouble over such a small thing. All of this could have been avoided, Doctor. You made a poor choice.”

“Well, I’m about to make another one.” Rodney forced himself to take deep, even breaths. He needed to stay focused. “You’ll never access the information on that drive, not without my help. Which I’m offering to you.”

“And what do you want in exchange?” Kolya asked. He walked closer and Rodney had to force himself not to retreat. “Your life? Your daughter’s life?”

“My daughter. You stay away from her, and you keep this weapon away from her too.” Rodney glanced at the maps. “You’re planning to hit DC and LA? Let me make sure she’s not anywhere close to either of those cities.”

“You know as well as I do that the device you created for us relies on wind patterns. Do you really think there’s anywhere you can hide your daughter that she wouldn’t feel the effects?”

Rodney knew that better than anyone, but he’d gotten Kolya talking and that was the important thing.

“Why are you cartoon villains always trying to take over the world?”

Kolya was dangerously close to invading Rodney’s personal space. “I don’t want to take it over. I just want to destabilize it. Trim the population. It’s the only way to make this country the international power it used to be.”

“Right. The betterment of society angle. Never heard that one before.”

Kolya’s hand lashed out and wrapped around Rodney’s neck. Rodney’s hands came up of their own accord, trying to loosen the bruising grip.

“There’s no place for you in the new world order, Dr. McKay.” Kolya leaned in, his forehead practically pressed against Rodney’s. “But I will accept your offer, and you will be remembered as a hero of the cause.”

Rodney’s stomach turned, and he pulled in what little breath he could to spit in Kolya’s eye. Kolya released him, his face a twisted, angry mask as he wiped Rodney’s spittle from his face.

“I’d prefer you not remember me at all,” Rodney gasped, rubbing at his throat.

Kolya backhanded him, sending him staggering back into one of the desks. There was blood in his mouth.

“Just because you have to die,” Kolya snapped, “doesn’t mean it has to be quick. Or painless. You would do well to remember that.”

“My daughter for the encryption code,” Rodney said, his heart pounding in his chest.

“I will meet your terms.” Kolya tossed him the flashdrive, which he fumbled and nearly dropped, and then waved to the laptop on the desk behind Rodney. “If you try anything, you’ll be in so much pain you’ll be begging for your death.”

“Drama queen,” Rodney muttered. He sat down at the desk and plugged the flashdrive into the laptop. Kolya hovered over his right shoulder, watching every keystroke.

Rodney started inputting the encryption code. There were several layers to the process, and he hoped it would be enough time for DHS to get there. Where the hell were they? Were they screwing him over again? He thought of John and Lily and the promises he’d made to both of them. He wasn’t going down without a fight.

He’d just gotten to the third layer of encryption when an alarm started to sound. Rodney and Kolya both looked up at the security monitor and saw a swarm of government-issue SUVs coming up the driveway and ranging themselves out in front of the house.

It was Rodney’s only chance. He kicked back the rolling chair and swung the laptop into the side of Kolya’s head, driving the man back.

“That’s for John, you asshole!” he shouted.

There was blood streaming down the side of Kolya’s face but he was going for his gun. Rodney swung again, snapping the monitor off the laptop and knocking Kolya to the floor. Rodney immediately straddled him, keeping him pinned. The Great Room was in chaos, there was gunfire coming from the front of the house, and Ladon Radim was trying to pull Rodney off of Kolya.

Rodney swung the laptop over his head, and there was a satisfying crunch as it made contact with what he could only assume was Ladon’s nose. “That’s for Lily!”

His arms were trembling and he was hyperventilating, but Rodney wasn’t done yet. He held the remains of the laptop high and looked down into Kolya’s dazed face. “And this is for me. I hope you rot in hell.”

He brought the laptop down one final time, right on Kolya’s throat, and the man immediately started writhing beneath him.

It was a short-lived victory. Something hard and heavy hit Rodney in the back of the head, and he barely had time to feel the pain of it before the blackness swallowed him up, laptop still clutched tightly in his hands.

*o*o*o*

Rodney hated frat parties. Laura loved dragging him to them. They were eternally at odds and yet Rodney still found himself in the middle of yet another party, because Laura never took no for an answer. She had almost instantly abandoned him, calling “Mingle!” over her shoulder.

He didn’t mingle. Rodney grabbed a cup of piss-warm beer and tried to find an unobtrusive corner to hide out in. Or more specifically, one that wasn’t already occupied by people making out.

It was no secret that Rodney was having a dry spell. It was his own fault, for setting his standards so high. He’d had his share of lightweight flings Freshman year, and now he was looking for something a little more serious. He wanted to be with someone as invested in their education as he was, and who had a modicum of intelligence. Laura thought he needed to loosen up; he was certain the opposite was true.

Rodney hated frat boys.

The bulk of the party was happening downstairs in the common room and the kitchen, so Rodney wandered upstairs. He didn’t go in any of the rooms that had closed doors – he wasn’t a voyeur and had no interest in watching other people have sex – but then through one partially open door he heard the unmistakable sound of the TARDIS from Doctor Who.

Rodney cautiously poked his head into the room. It was a double, all tricked out with a microfridge, a big TV on top of one of the tall dressers, and a computer setup he instantly coveted. There was a guy lounging on one of the beds, wearing basketball shorts and a black tank top, head bent over a book.

“Which Doctor?” Rodney asked.

The guy looked up, and damn! He was hot. Dark, floppy hair hanging over his forehead, full lips, and piercing eyes that looked kind of green and kind of gold. His nose was a little crooked, but somehow that tiny flaw just added to his overall attractiveness.

“What’s that?”

Rodney gestured to the TV. “Which Doctor?”

“Oh. Uh, the one with the celery.”

He wasn’t Rodney’s favorite, but it was better than having to watch the drunken antics happening downstairs. “You mind if I watch?”

“Not enjoying the party?” the guy asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Not especially. But my so-called friend insisted I come, right before she ditched me.”

“You could just leave.”

Rodney shook his head. “Laura has a well-developed spidey sense. If I try to leave, she’ll foist me on some brainless jock with more muscles than personality. I don’t need that in my life.” Anymore, he added silently. He hoped he hadn’t offended the guy, who quite possibly was a jock himself. He didn’t have the ridiculous musculature, but he was lean and well-toned. Track, maybe. Or swim team.

“Well, in that case, make yourself comfortable.” The guy gestured to the other bed, then leaned off of his so he could pop open the microfridge. “You want a real beer?”

He tossed Rodney a Corona. Also not his favorite, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and at least it was cold.

“Sorry I don’t have any lime for it.”

“Considering I’m deathly allergic to citrus, I don’t mind.”

“John Sheppard.” He saluted Rodney with his own beer.

“Rodney McKay.”

John tossed aside the book he’d been reading, which turned out to be a textbook. Combinatorial Topology. That was pretty serious stuff.

“Math major?” Rodney guessed.

“Yeah. You?”

“Graduate program. Astrophysics.”

“You must be a pretty smart guy, Rodney McKay. You don’t look old enough to be in grad school.”

“I’m a genius,” Rodney said confidently. “I’m in Mensa.”

“That hard to get into?”

Rodney just stared at him. “It’s Mensa. Of course it’s hard!”

John shrugged. “Okay.”

They started actively watching Doctor Who after that, and Rodney was surprised at how well John knew the franchise. They both agreed that Tom Baker was the undisputed best Doctor of them all, and Rodney confessed that he’d had his grandmother knit him a scarf just like the one the Doctor wore.

In fact, John knew a lot of things. He could work math problems in his head like a computer, he was well-versed in both Marvel and DC comics, and he had the world’s weirdest laugh. And just like Rodney had thought, he was on the track team, as well as being part of Air Force ROTC. He had to stop himself from asking what John’s GPA was.

When Laura finally tracked Rodney down, it was well past three in the morning, and the party had mostly wound down. Rodney was a little disappointed to leave, because he’d been having such a fun time hanging out with John, but then John scribbled something on a piece of notebook paper, which he tore off and stuffed in the front pocket of Rodney’s jeans.

“Give me a call sometime. If you want to hang out again.”

Rodney stammered out a goodbye and had to endure Laura’s crowing all the way back to their dorm. When he fished the paper out of his pocket, he saw that John hadn’t just given him his phone number. He’d given him an equation to solve that would presumably reveal his number.

“I think this might be love,” Laura said, reading over his shoulder.

Rodney didn’t want to admit it, but he thought she might be right.

*o*o*o*

Rodney woke to the phantom glide of fingers across his forehead. He hated dreaming of John, being reminded of what he’d lost, but he also knew he’d be devastated when the dreams eventually stopped, because they were all he had left.

“Don’t go,” he whispered.

“Isn’t that my line?”

Rodney’s breath froze in his throat, and he struggled to blink his eyes open, which was far more difficult than it should’ve been.

“Hey. Breathe, Rodney. It’s okay.”

He pulled in a ragged breath and turned his head. John. He hadn’t dreamed him, he really was alive, though he looked a bit rough at the moment. John needed a shave, and he looked exhausted and pale, the line of scars down the side of his face standing out in relief.

Rodney tried to say something else, but his throat was so dry he choked on it.

“Whoa. Easy. Here you go.” John held a cup with a straw in front of Rodney’s mouth. The water was lukewarm, but it felt amazing going down.

“You look terrible,” he said.

“You say the sweetest things.”

“Am I in the hospital?”

John’s expression turned grim. “Yeah, and I could kick your ass for it, too. I didn’t wait months to see you again just to have you be all heroic.”

Rodney tried to remember what heroic act he’d committed, but his memory of Genii headquarters was hazy at best. Mostly he remembered being terrified and angry and certain he was going to die.

“I won’t do it again. I promise.” Rodney realized John was holding his hand, and he gave it a squeeze. “Did we get them?”

“We sure did. Between the information on the flashdrive and what DHS found on site, the whole organization is going down. And Acastus Kolya will be eating through a tube for the rest of his god-forsaken life.”

Rodney fought back the burn of tears. He’d done it. He’d saved John, and Lily, and now…

“Lily! Where’s Lily?” Rodney struggled to sit up, but John gently pushed him back down.

“She’s fine. I’ll go get her, okay? I’ll be right back, I promise.” John leaned over the bed and pressed a chaste kiss to Rodney’s lips.

John left, and a nurse came in, poking at him and checking his pulse and his IV line. She told him that the blow he’d taken to the head had caused some bleeding, and they’d had to drill a hole in his skull to relieve the pressure. The Genii really had almost killed him.

When John returned, he had Lily on his hip and Jeannie in tow.

“Poppa!” Lily squealed, and John had to murmur to her about taking it easy.

“Come here, Bump.” Rodney patted the side of the bed and John carried Lily over. She immediately snuggled up to Rodney, just like they always did, and he wrapped his arms around her, careful of the IV. He had his family back, and he was overwhelmed with gratitude.

“Poppa hurt?”

“Just a little,” Rodney assured her.

“Mer,” Jeannie said, her voice choked with tears. “It’s really good to see you.”

Rodney held out his hand and she took hold of it.

“It’s really good to see you, too.”

“We go home?” Lily asked.

Rodney looked at John, who in turn looked at Jeannie.

“What?” he asked. “You’re up to something, the two of you. I can tell.”

“Jeannie thought –”

We thought,” Jeannie corrected.

“We thought maybe we’d go stay with her and Kaleb for a little while.” John rubbed the back of his neck, something he always did when he was feeling uncertain. “Just till we get back on our feet, so to speak.”

“We’ve missed so much time,” Jeannie said. “And I’d be able to watch Lily for you, while you and John reconnect. And Lily could get to know us. Madison is dying to meet her.”

Rodney thought about their little house by the park, and every place he and Lily had lived on their own. A fresh start was what they needed.

“Sounds like a great idea,” he said.

Jeannie looked relieved. “I’m so glad you think so. Don’t worry, I’ve already made all the arrangements.”

“Of course you have.”

“Are you sure that’s what you want?” John asked softly.

“I just want to be with you, and Lily,” Rodney replied honestly. “We can figure out the rest later.”

“Do you want to come stay with your auntie?” Jeannie asked Lily.

Lily shook her head and burrowed closer to Rodney. “Stay with Poppa.”

“What if Poppa and Daddy stay with Aunt Jeannie, too?” Rodney asked.

“Daddy stay?”

“Daddy stay,” Rodney confirmed.

Lily nodded, her head bumping against Rodney’s collarbone.

John grinned at Rodney, and he couldn’t help but smile back. It was finally time to stop running.

Epilogue

It was decadent, lounging around in bed in the middle of the day, but Rodney didn’t have the ability to feel guilty about it. Every moment was made to be treasured, including a free afternoon while Lily and Madison were at dance class with Jeannie. Rodney stretched languidly and turned onto his side.

John was watching him with half-lidded eyes, his expression open and affectionate.

“I love you, you know,” he said.

“I love this big-ass bed,” Rodney countered with a grin.

It was a king, bigger than the bed they’d had in the old house. And bigger still than the bed they’d shared at Jeannie and Kaleb’s. Not that they needed the space, except for when the sex got especially vigorous, because they slept curled up around each other. But it was big enough for Lily to join them every morning, and for the occasional pillow fight, or lazy days spent with books scattered across the bed while they took turns reading stories.

There was a yard with a swing set and a plastic playhouse, a porch for grilling on in the summer, and the most advanced personal security system on the market. They paid for the whole lot of it with the “reward” money Rodney had gotten from DHS. Teyla had delivered it personally, when she came to thank Rodney for everything he’d done. He’d had no qualms about cashing it and using the money to start their new lives.

“I love your big ass,” John countered. He groped the ass in question, pulling Rodney closer.

Rodney kissed him, with plenty of tongue. He’d just about recovered enough for another go-round. As had John, whose cock was hardening against Rodney’s thigh.

Life wasn’t perfect. There was job stress, Lily was well into the terrible twos, and Rodney and John still had occasional nightmares. But they faced everything head-on, together, and that was all that mattered.

That, and moments like these where Rodney could take John apart slowly, show him how much he was loved, and in putting John back together again Rodney would do the same for himself.

Life wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty damn good.

John slowly rotated his hips. “Hey, Rodney?”

“Mmm?”

“I think Lily needs a brother.”