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How Not to Fly

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The gravel lane curves again and again, shaded by lush Virginian greenery. With every fresh bend in the road Rodney finds his gaze flicking helplessly back to the knobs of John's knuckles against the steering wheel. He can't decide if this is normal for John, the perfect ten-and-two grip. It looks strange, but John's a pilot after all, and maybe he operates motor vehicles with the same care he gives his air- and spaceborne craft. Or maybe John's being uncharacteristically careful. Rodney can't make up his mind.

Finally they pull up into a big circular driveway, and John parks their ugly taupe rental Ford right up front of the imposing marble stairway. The air smells damp and ripe and sticky. John shoots his cuffs and wiggles his tie, probably unaware he's doing it. Rodney glances down at his own rumpled khakis and button-down striped shirt, shrugs, and tromps behind John up to the entrance.

The woman who greets them is a secretary or something, her business casual attire seeming weirdly modern in the echoing vast foyer. She tells them they're expected, and to please follow her, and then it all happens so fast: a half-flight of stairs, a turn down a hallway, and then a heavy oak door with gold painted letters: Headmaster.

"You must be Colonel Sheppard," says the man behind the huge desk. He is about their age, which doesn't mesh with Rodney's half-formed preconceptions of American prep schools. "I'm Lionel Gould, pleased you could get here so quickly."

John shakes hands. He's still being weirdly stern and adult, but he forgets to introduce Rodney, so he's definitely not all here. "Uh," says Rodney, when Headmaster Gould looks his way. "Rodney McKay. I'm Colonel Sheppard's colleague. Here for general, uh, moral support, I suppose."

"Of course," says Gould, like it's normal for an Air Force colonel to bring a co-worker with him on this kind of trip. And, hell, maybe it is normal. Rodney has never quite been in this situation before. "Please, gentlemen, have a seat. Can I offer you some coffee or tea or"—

"Oh, coffee, please," says Rodney, and glances at John. John has sunk into the offered chair, which is a stiff-backed leather-and-brass-tacked monstrosity, and he's staring with some abstraction at the blotter on the headmaster's desk. "He'll have the same," Rodney says. "Black for both of us."

The headmaster steps to the door, leans out, has a quiet word with the secretary. Rodney hears, "Coffee." He also hears, "Send for the Sheppard children."

The coffee arrives after thirty silent seconds have ticked by on the headmaster's mantle clock. John turns the dainty porcelain cup in its saucer. Rodney downs his in three scalding gulps. "You're flying out of D.C. this evening?" asks the headmaster.

Rodney agrees that they are. John sets the coffee cup down on the edge of the desk, folds his hands in his lap. Jiggles his knee.

"We have taken the liberty of informing the children," says Gould. "Not in detail, of course, only the basic"— and he's interrupted by a sharp rap on the oak door. "Ah, here they are. They should be packed and ready to go."

They're in some kind of formal uniform, dark bottoms and white monogrammed shirts. But they are neat and seem to be well looked-after. The girl is older, in the tall late stages of childhood, slender and a little awkward around the joints. The boy looks very small, too small to be living at a school away from – well, away from what, exactly? His sister represents half his immediate family, after all, and here she is with him.

"Hi, Uncle John," says the girl, politely. Her hair is dark as John's, but infinitely neater, swept into a glossy braid at the back of her neck.

"Hi Uncle John," echoes the boy. He looks like he wants to hold his sister's hand but is putting on a brave front.

"Hey guys," says John, rising to greet them. He comes close, pulls the girl into an awkward arms-length hug, settles for tousling the boy's dark auburn hair. "Nora, PJ, this is Dr. Rodney McKay. He's"—John stalls out on what Rodney is.

"I'm, uh, glad to meet you," says Rodney, switching it around for John. He wants to shake hands but thinks better of it. Nora has John's pointed ears. PJ has his messy hair.

"Is there any news about our dad?" asks Nora. Her elbows, narrow and awkward, tuck closer to her body all of a sudden, and Rodney's throat hurts.

"No news yet," says John. "Got your stuff? Good, let's go, we have a flight to catch."

They shake hands with the headmaster again and then Rodney has one of the small matching Pullman suitcases rolling behind him and they are headed back out, through the echoing foyer, to their waiting rental car.

It's a few hours to D.C. Every half hour, John flips through radio stations before turning the stereo off again, leaving them in stark silence. In the back seat, Nora rests her head against the window and stares out at the passing scenery. PJ has a handheld video game that keeps him occupied. Rodney pulls out his laptop and cleans up his inbox as much as possible without an internet connection.

"Did you eat lunch at school?" asks John when they're about an hour out. Jesus. Thank god John thought of that. Even if it's nearly four o'clock already, and maybe a bit late to be checking. No one should have left the two of them in charge of children, for christ's sake.

"Yes," say the kids. Rodney sighs in relief.

"We'll grab food at the airport," says John.

"Is Rosa coming to Miami?" asks PJ.

"Rosa doesn't work for us anymore," says Nora. "Remember?"

"Oh, yeah," says PJ. Rodney catches him in the rearview mirror, bringing the heel of his hand to his forehead in a comic gesture of forgetfulness. "Uncle John, is my dad hurt pretty bad?" He sounds matter-of-fact about it.

"Pretty bad, yep," says John, equally matter-of-fact.

"But the doctors are taking care of him," says Nora, turning to reassure her brother. "It's okay, PJ. It'll be okay."

On the phone that morning, they'd told John there was a 90% chance it wouldn't be okay, but Rodney holds his peace.

The airport is exhausting as always. Every time Rodney comes back home, it seems there are four new security measures in place just to get to the gate. This time it's a full-body scanner. Rodney stands, sighing, with his hands clasped up over his head while the machine whirs around him. He hopes the tech on the other end appreciates the show when John goes through the same process right afterwards.

"This is my first time on a plane," PJ tells John. "Uncle John, why don't they let you carry liquids over two ounces? How much is an ounce?"

And because John is good with kids, and patient, he explains about security and bombs and then he has to explain about why people would try to bomb a plane and then PJ says, "When are we eating dinner?" and the whole conversation is derailed onto an entirely different track.

"I've been on a plane before," solemn Nora tells Rodney over their cellophane-wrapped sandwiches and milk cartons. "So has PJ but he doesn't remember. We flew to Seattle when I was seven years old. We went with Granddad."

Rodney makes an interested face and stuffs his sandwich into his mouth to avoid coming up with a reply. It's more than he'd usually do for a kid conversing with him, but this is John's niece, so he's making an effort; besides, he doesn't want to traumatize her any more than necessary.

"It was for Granddad's business but he took us along and we saw the Space Needle." Nora cuts a glance over at her little brother. "PJ didn't like being up so high, he cried."

PJ, happily, is too busy grilling John about the possibility of a brownie for dessert to notice that Nora is casting aspersions on his character.

Nora pulls apart the halves of her sandwich and picks out the tomato with a delicately wrinkled nose. She eats the rest of the meal in silence.

For kids, they aren't too annoying, Rodney thinks.

Someone from Sheppard Industries called ahead to book their seats from D.C. to Miami, so they're flying first class. The short-haul plane seats four across in the first class compartment with a break for the aisle. Rodney is prepared to suggest that he and John take one side and the kids take the other, but PJ asks, "Can I sit next to you, Uncle John?" and "Can I sit by the window?" and John waves him into the seat and settles down on the aisle.

By unspoken agreement, Nora and Rodney mirror the arrangement on their side of the cabin with Nora next to the window and Rodney on the aisle across from John. Nora goes straight back into her leaning and staring act, but she's not so pale now that she's eaten. Rodney watches her discreetly during the take-off for signs of anxiety but she's only quietly interested. Her feet don't quite reach the floor under her seat.

Across the aisle, John is drawing on a drink napkin and telling PJ about lift and drag and the shape of the plane's wings. PJ is bouncing in his seat and he has a milk mustache.

Rodney settles back and lets himself drift a little.

Rodney wakes just as they begin their descent into Miami. Beside him, Nora is paging through the in-flight magazine. John is checking his watch. PJ is slumped sideways on his seat, fast asleep.

"Should I wake him up?" John whispers.

Rodney looks over at PJ, the soft dark fan of his thick baby lashes on pale tired cheeks. "Can you carry him?" Rodney asks, dredging up vague memories of his father carrying a sleeping Jeannie into the house from the car after a long trip. "Is he too big?"

"I've carried you before," John points out with a low note of humour in his voice. "I think I can handle a seven year old." He leans forward a little, checking out Nora. "She's a tough cookie, isn't she?" he says quietly, with obvious respect.

Rodney squints at John. "You think she's being tough?" he says, genuinely baffled, and then they have to stop talking as the flight attendant comes to check their seat belts and stow their trays.

John does manage to get PJ into a sort of modified fireman's carry, and the kid barely stirs. Nora helps Rodney with the carry-on luggage as they form an awkward caravan down the gangway and into the main terminal. There's a driver waiting, holding up a sign with the Sheppard Industries logo and a hand-scrawled "Lt. Sheppard" underneath. Rodney takes it as a bad sign that John doesn't bother correcting the guy.

"Are we going to the hospital?" asks Nora, speaking for the first time since D.C. as they break out of the air-conditioned building and are hit with a wall of tropical heat and humidity.

"Uh huh," says John. He adjusts his grip on PJ. The driver is waving them into a limo, of all things. "Nora, can you scoot to the far end of the seat so I can lay him down next to you?"

"He needs a seat belt," says Nora, a little sharply, and John squares his shoulders with surprise before he nods.

"We'll buckle him up," John says. "You're right."

So they end up sitting in the same configuration facing each other on the bench seats of the limo: Rodney and Nora on one side, and John with PJ drooping onto his shoulder on the other.

"Did you turn on your phone yet?" John asks Rodney, reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and pulling out his own SGC-issued cell.

"Yeah," says Rodney, frowning. Why the hell should John care? And then his pocket buzzes and Rodney understands. He pulls the phone out, leaning just a little away from Nora so he can keep the screen out of her line of vision.

I'll go in to see him first, says the text message from John. You stay with the kids.

Rodney hastily inputs a reply: Any word from the hospital?

John nods at his phone. He'd made a quick call while they were waiting for their luggage to roll onto the carousel. He's still alive. They don't know for how much longer.

Nora says, in a small voice, "Why do they have to drive so fast here?" She's looking out the window again, and it's only then that Rodney sees how her fingers are biting into her leg with fear.

Rodney is stunned with pity, and he can see John is likewise incapacitated. He can't think of the right words to comfort her. There are no words.

Finally Rodney manages to say, "Some people are always in a hurry."

"I hate it," says Nora, and bites her lip, and suddenly she looks so like John. Rodney's heart lurches.

"We're almost there," says John, finding his voice too. "Hang in there."

David Sheppard is in the intensive care unit of a private hospital. Rodney is unused to the sleek look of privately insured American health care; he feels like they're in a museum as they tread granite-tiled floors and are whisked upward in a silent wood-paneled elevator. John finds the family lounge for the ICU and eases PJ down onto a couch.

"I don't think it's a good idea, leaving me alone with them," Rodney says, getting in close to John and whispering hurriedly. "I mean, it's me. I'm going to do something to make them cry."

"PJ's asleep, McKay," John points out. "You're bad with kids, sure, but not that bad. And Nora – well, she seems to be taking this pretty well. Just – just keep her company, you don't have to be a therapist or anything."

Rodney accepts this grudgingly with a nod, stepping back and taking a seat near Nora.

"I'll be back in a minute," John tells them, and disappears to find the nursing station and his brother.

Rodney folds his hands in his lap and tries to think of something innocuous to say. He cuts a furtive look over at the kid: Nora's formerly immaculate braid has become a little fuzzy with the stresses of the long day, but otherwise she is still composed and neat. She fixes her gaze on Rodney, sensing his attention.

"I'm twelve years old, you know," she says.

"I know," says Rodney, defensively. "Well, actually, I didn't know. But I guessed you were about"—

"PJ's asleep," she points out, interrupting him. "You can tell me what's really going on. I can handle it." Her chin is pointed and defiant.

Rodney knows this is probably not what John meant by keeping Nora company, but there is something convincingly grown-up about Nora: her poise and her impeccable posture and her sooty-lashed green eyes. "I don't know all the details," Rodney stalls. He doesn't want her to start weeping on his watch.

"All they told me was that my dad was in a car accident and he's hurt," Nora says, steady and calm, and yeah, okay, that's not really enough detail for a kid her age. Rodney considers making her wait until John returns – but, better with kids or not, John's at least as bad with this bad news stuff as he is.

"Well, your dad was here on business," Rodney begins with a sigh, "and he was on his way back to the airport early this morning. It was rainy and dark, and maybe a little slippery. From what we heard, the driver took a turn too fast and lost control." Rodney pauses to check how Nora is taking this level of description. So far she seems fine, just nodding her head. Perhaps she knew most of this already. "He swerved into oncoming traffic and a truck – a truck hit the car." Rodney lifts one hand and brings the other up perpendicular to it. "They call it t-boning because one car hits the other one at right angles, like the bone in a t-bone steak. Your dad was on the side where the truck hit them."

"He wasn't wearing his seat belt," says Nora dully. "My dad hates wearing his seat belt."

Rodney nods, still feeling shaky and nervous in the retelling. "The driver of your dad's car is okay. But your dad – he hit his head pretty hard. It's called a closed-head injury, that means his skull is intact but it also means that when his brain starts to swell – because of the accident – there's nowhere for it to go."

Nora nods again, taking this in. Rodney is flooded with gratitude for her, for her unexpected poise.

"When they talked to John this morning, they said they were going to do a procedure called a trepanation. Basically they're cutting a little hole in his skull and then they take that piece of his skull out for a while so his brain can swell up without hurting itself more." Rodney checks his watch: 1:30 a.m. Miami time. "They did it around noon today."

Nora thinks about this for a while. "Can you see his brain?" she asks.

"No," says Rodney. He has a sudden flash of Elizabeth, after the siege by the Replicators. "No, his head will be all bandaged up."

"Is he awake?" Nora asks.

"I don't think so," says Rodney. "When you hurt your brain, you usually go to sleep for a while afterwards."

"You mean, he's in a coma?" asks Nora.

"Yes," says Rodney. "But comas aren't like on TV. Anything less than fully awake and conscious, like you and me right now, is considered a degree of being comatose. It can be anywhere from being dopey and disoriented all the way to – well."

"Not ever waking up." Nora swings her feet, crossed at the ankles. "How bad is his coma?"

"I don't know," Rodney says truthfully. "Pretty bad, I think."

Nora doesn't ask any more questions, just sits and stares at her feet with a slight frown. Rodney runs his hands up and down his thighs, jittery on her behalf. She shows no sign of bursting into tears, however; Rodney relaxes marginally.

Finally, she lifts her head and says, "You know, my mother died right after PJ was born." She points at her rib cage. "She had a pulmonary embolism. That's a blood clot in her lung. Because she had a cesarean section to have him. His head was pointing the wrong way."

Rodney didn't know that. The first he heard of Nora and PJ's very existence was only about twelve hours ago, en route from Atlantis to D.C. John said, at the time, "We have to pick up Dave's kids and take 'em along with us," and Rodney asked, "He has kids? What about Dave's wife, can't she do it?" and John said, merely, "She's gone."

"I'm sorry," says Rodney awkwardly. "About your mom."

Nora shrugs. "I was only five. I don't remember her much." She looks over at the door of the lounge, silent again.

John comes back a few minutes later and gently shakes PJ awake. "Come on," he says, to him and to Nora. "They're going to let you see him just for a minute, and then we'll go to the hotel."

PJ is dopey and disoriented and his hair is even messier than before, but he stumbles to his feet, willing to follow. Nora is visibly reluctant, but she rises anyway, shuffles over to John.

"Okay," says John, "before we go," and he proceeds to explain briefly about wires and bandages and swelling and bruising. It's the sort of speech he and John have both heard a dozen times in the infirmary on Atlantis. Rodney watches John talking, sees the deep exhaustion written under his eyes, in the slope of his shoulders. PJ and Nora are not the only ones caving in with fatigue. "Are you okay to go see him?" John finishes.

"Yes," says Nora.

"Yeah," says PJ, but he sounds small and scared. He reaches for John's hand and John awkwardly takes it. They head out the door again.

In ten minutes, they're walking back to the company limo and PJ is crying quietly into John's tense shoulder. Nora looks alarmingly white, almost translucent in the moonlight outside, and Rodney wishes it were okay to carry her too. She looks like she could use it.

"I wish it was yesterday again," sniffs PJ.

No one asks why.

They're staying near the hospital, only a few blocks away, at a first-class resort hotel. David Sheppard's company has booked them some kind of ridiculous luxury suite with a living room, Jacuzzi, ocean view, and two bedrooms with two queen-size beds each. There are already three flower arrangements and a fruit basket waiting for them on the coffee table. Flowers aren't permitted in an ICU, Rodney remembers.

Nora and John seem equally casual about their digs. Rodney upgrades Ronon's assessment of John's family from "pretty wealthy" to "seriously loaded" because it's clear that they are used to this kind of accommodation. While Rodney fumbles out a crumpled five for the bellboy, John dumps PJ into one bed in the larger of the bedrooms.

When Rodney comes to join him, Nora has disappeared into the bathroom to change and brush her teeth. John is staring down at PJ, who is dead asleep again. "I guess I should take off his shoes and get him under the covers," says John, hesitantly.

"I guess," agrees Rodney, not prepared to offer his assistance.

John reaches down, wiggles PJ's small black loafers off his feet, then his socks. PJ's still wearing an uncomfortable-looking white button-down, so John sighs and unfastens the shirt, wrestles the kid out of it so he's left in his miniature dress pants and an undershirt. Good enough. Rodney tugs down the covers on the other side of the bed and John rolls PJ over so Rodney can tuck him in.

Nora reappears, wearing pink cotton two-piece pajamas and white slippers. Her hair is loose and crimped from where it was braided. "He needs his bear," she tells them, and fetches a small plush toy from her brother's suitcase. John takes it from her and places it on PJ's pillow, frowning.

"Good night, Uncle John," she says. "Good night"—and she hesitates, biting her lip. She's either forgotten Rodney's name or isn't sure how to address him.

"Dr. McKay," supplies John with a half-smile.

"Rodney," Rodney corrects firmly.

"Good night, Dr. McKay," Nora says, siding with John. She wriggles into the other bed and sighs. She seems very small against the vast mattress. "In the morning are we going back to the hospital?"

"You bet," says John, then hesitates. "If you want to go. You don't have to."

"I want to go," Nora says bravely.

John and Rodney dim the lights and head for the living room, closing the bedroom door behind them. They are terrible at this.

John digs through the flowers and fruit on the coffee table and comes up with a bottle of scotch. "Ah," he says appreciatively.

"Ah," agrees Rodney, and goes off in search of glasses.

They sip, each sprawled on his own sofa, each lost in a mixture of fatigue and melancholy.

"How bad?" says Rodney once they're safely into their second drink.

"They think he'll last the night now," says John. "The first twenty-four hours are the most critical, though."

"God," says Rodney, shot through yet again with the sick sense of reality, of déjà-vu. But this isn't Atlantis, and there won't be a last-minute Ancient miracle. "Fuck."

"Even if he doesn't"—John waggles his fingers. "Go. He's not. He won't be back, not really." He turns the glass a quarter-turn between his fingers, sips again.

"Do the kids know, do you think?" asks Rodney. "That it's – that it's so bad?"

"Nora might," accedes John. "PJ…no. I guess I need to tell him."

Rodney tosses back the rest of his drink, pours them each a third. "They're actually not too horribly irritating, as kids go."

John grins into his glass, taking that for the compliment it is. "PJ is pretty cute, huh?"

"Nora looks like you in a skirt," says Rodney, "with better hair."

"Hey, I can rock a skirt," says John, giggling now. He's definitely at least half drunk.

Rodney relaxes a little with the realization. "Oh, I have no doubt," he returns archly. They fall into silence again. "Poor fucking kids," he says, more to himself than John.

John fumbles his empty glass onto the table with a rattle of ice and lurches to unsteady feet. A bit more than half drunk then. "Okay, I need sleep," he says, or slurs.

"Me too," agrees Rodney, none too steady himself as he rises.

It's not until they're both stripped down to boxers in their bedroom that Rodney realizes: two beds. He should probably take one for himself. But John is patting the mattress impatiently and Rodney is not about to restart an argument, so he clambers in beside John, presses close, drops immediately into a deep dreamless slumber.

Rodney wakes the next morning to the sound of PJ chattering loudly punctuated by low unintelligible rumbles from John. Rodney pulls on jeans and a t-shirt and staggers into the living room to find everyone already eating room service breakfast. "Coffee," he says, and John points to the silver carafe.

PJ is far more rambunctious today, enough so that Rodney almost wants to take back his generous assessment of the kid's character from the previous night. It takes half a cup of coffee before Rodney can be bothered to decipher PJ's happy chatter. The kid veers from topic to topic -- dinosaurs! soccer! planes! -- like a pinball, and occasionally pauses to wiggle energetically in his chair. Still, he and Nora have the impeccable table manners Rodney would expect from kids who were being brought up as American corporate royalty: elbows off the table, fork and knife held just so, napkins in their laps, and so many 'please's and 'thank-you's that it's starting to sound like a Tim Hortons at rush hour.

Nora, with dark shiny hair loose and long today, is a little more talkative after a full night's sleep, though she doesn't begin to approach her brother's energy. She chats with PJ and lightly teases him by turns. She seems like a much kinder older sibling than Rodney was himself.

It's almost nine in the morning, Miami time, which makes it far too early on Rodney and John's mid-Pacific schedule; but they're both used to difficult time zone shifts, and they kill off the coffee between the two of them before taking turns in the shower. The kids are delightfully and unexpectedly independent about dressing and grooming themselves – a side effect of boarding school, Rodney suspects – and so they are all pretty much ready to head out long before ten o'clock. PJ races to the elevator so he can press the call button first, and jumps as the elevator car begins to descend, giggling helplessly at the momentary sensation of weightlessness.

"You're cuckoo," Nora tells him, smiling a little, and PJ starts dipping his head from side to side, chanting in a high pitched voice: "Coo-coo-coo-coo!"

"All right, enough," says John, a bare second before Rodney is about to snap. He plants his hand on PJ's head and steers him out the elevator towards the exit. "Settle down, Peej."

"Peej," says PJ, still giggling. "Why are you calling me Peej? My name is Pee-Jay!"

"It's a nickname," says John, patient behind sunglasses.

"PJ is already a nickname!" PJ points out.

"Right," says John, "well, I guess I nicked it even more."

"Coo-coo-coo-coo," says PJ, turning in circles before diving into the waiting limo headfirst.

Rodney flares his nostrils meaningfully at John while they wait for Nora to get in.

"Hey, go easy on him," says John, pulling a sad face, hamming it up.

"Pity will only take me so far," says Rodney warningly.

But PJ sobers rapidly as they drive the short distance to the hospital. By the time they pull up to the front entrance, he's a small freckled mirror to his silent sister. "I don't want to see my dad," he says, very quietly.

"You don't have to, buddy," says John, throwing a quick apologetic glance at Rodney. "Dr. McKay will hang out with you down in the cafeteria. You have to mind what he says, though, okay?"

John and Nora head for the elevators; a minute later, still en route to the cafeteria, Rodney's phone buzzes.

Called the hospital first thing this morning. Dave no better. ICP too high.

ICP was intracranial pressure, the pressure exerted on Dave's injured and swelling brain as it expanded inside his skull. The trepanation would have eased the ICP for a while, but Dave's brain would continue to swell for some time yet. The higher the ICP, the higher the likelihood for seizures. And if the brain stem started swelling too – well. Then it would be game over.

"Do you want something to eat?" Rodney asks PJ. It might be a long morning. "How about jell-o? Kids like jell-o, right?"

"What's jell-o?" asks PJ, looking puzzled.

"Oh, that's just not right," Rodney says. "Come on, it's time you had your first taste of artificial food substances."

The ICU won't allow John and Nora to stay for more than half an hour at a time. When they appear in the cafeteria, Nora looks like she's already been drained of all the energy she recouped overnight, and John isn't much better. They sag into chairs like marionettes with their strings cut.

"How is my dad?" asks PJ. "Is he awake yet?"

John's phone rings before he can answer. Rodney shoots him a dirty look.

"Hello," says John into the cell. "Oh, hello. Yes, this is John Sheppard." And he is standing up from the table, wandering into a quiet far-flung corner of the cafeteria, phone cupped to his ear.

"Dad's still asleep," Nora tells PJ. "You have whipped cream on your mouth."

PJ swipes lazily at the smear of the jell-o topping, leaving most of it in place. "Is he going to wake up today?"

"Maybe," says Nora. She doesn't sound convinced. She looks over at Rodney, checking. Rodney gives a tiny negative headshake. "Maybe not," Nora revises.

"I think I want to wait until he's awake to see him," says PJ thoughtfully.

Nora pulls a napkin from the dispenser on the table, reaches over and wipes PJ's mouth. "Dr. McKay, are you a medical doctor?" she asks.

"No," says Rodney, affronted. "God, no."

"I told you so, Nora. All the doctors here have really white teeth," says PJ, unbothered.

Rodney closes his mouth, self-conscious. "Well, people in Miami are shallow," he says. "It's the plastic surgery capital of the eastern seaboard."

"What kind of a doctor are you?" asks Nora, continuing her line of questioning.

"I'm an astrophysicist," says Rodney. "And an engineer."

"Like, spaceships?" says Nora, getting it without translation.

"Cool!" says PJ. "Are you an astronaut?"

He sort of is, Rodney supposes, but he has to tell them, "No. I just work for the Air Force, with your uncle. Theoretical models, that sort of thing."

"My Uncle John is a pilot," says PJ, as if Rodney might be unaware. "He flies helicopters and planes. He's flown a Blackhawk, an Osprey, a Cobra, an F-16, and an Apache."

"Dr. McKay knows that," Nora scolded PJ. "They work together, he just said."

"Do you ever get to fly with my Uncle John?" asks PJ, awed. "In an F-16?"

"Not in an F-16," Rodney admits. "But other things."

"A Blackhawk?" says PJ, avid.

"What's this about a Blackhawk?" asks John, rejoining them.

"Can I go for a ride in your Blackhawk?" PJ asks, effortlessly changing gears.

"I don't have a Blackhawk anymore," says John. "Maybe sometime I can take you up in a Cessna."

"A Cessna?" groans PJ with a long-suffering expression.

"Who called you on the phone?" asks Nora, beating Rodney to it.

John shifts. "Someone from the company," he says. "They needed to talk about your dad's job."

"Are you taking over for him for now?" asks Nora.

"No, no way," says John, smiling. "I'm not nearly smart enough to do what your dad does." He lifts a shoulder. "But while he's, he's out of commission, someone needs to take over for him. I just have to give my official permission."

"Like when Granddad died and Dad took over," says Nora knowingly.

"Yeah, like that," says John, a little stiffly. He glances at his watch, bites his lip. "Hey, guys, we have to go upstairs for just a minute now, all of us." He catches Rodney's eyes and mouths the words: child life.

Rodney has been fortunate enough, spending most of his adult life with other adults, never to encounter his particular horrifying type of so-called professional. Dave Sheppard's care team has referred them to the child life department, which appears to be built out of knee-high primary-coloured furniture and decorated with various trademarked cartoon characters.

The theory, Rodney is given to understand, is that the department's specialists are trained to explain difficult medical treatments and diagnoses to children, sparing the parents or guardians of those children from having to do the dirty work themselves. The reality, of course, is that he and John are forced to perch on tiny bright red chairs while listening to a twenty-three year old community college graduate simper to PJ and Nora about "special kinds of doctors" and "special machines" and "special medicine."

Amazingly, the child life specialist does seem to connect easily with PJ, showing him the different kinds of tubes they're using on Dave Sheppard and demonstrating on a doll how Dave's brain was hurt and was swelling up "like a balloon, but it wouldn't ever pop."

Nora, on the other hand, sits with her arms crossed and a dark expression. Rodney empathizes: twelve year olds are too old for this bullshit. Five more minutes of this, and Rodney's going to start throwing the anatomically correct ragdolls at someone's head.

"We don't know how hurt your dad's brain is," says the child life specialist, whose name Rodney has promptly forgotten. "Brains are pretty good at getting better but it can take a long time and sometimes they just don't heal."

PJ squishes a ball of play-dough in his hands, nodding.

"Your uncle is going to stay here and take care of you for now, so you don't need to worry about anything," she continues. Then she hesitates. "Do you know what the brain does? What's its job, PJ?"

"It thinks," says Nora dryly.

"That's right, Nora, that's very good!" says the young woman, too enthusiastic. "What else?"

"It has feelings," says PJ, working out the problem. "It knows stuff."

"That's right. So if your brain gets hurt, sometimes it stops being so good at thinking or feeling or knowing stuff."

Nora goes still in her chair. This has struck home for her, somehow.

"Your dad might not be quite the same when he wakes up," says the specialist, gently. "He might need time to remember how to talk or walk or do something like give you a hug."

"My dad is never good at giving hugs," PJ says, with a dramatic eye roll.

"Can I tell you something else, PJ?" says the specialist. "Your dad's brain is so hurt that he just might not be able to wake up."

Nora ducks her head. Her shoulders hunch in. Rodney's stomach clenches in sympathy.

"My dad might die," concludes PJ, flattening the play-dough. "I know."

"Do you want to talk about that?" asks the specialist, and Nora bolts.

"I'll go," volunteers Rodney hastily, waving at John and the idiot specialist. Anything to get out of this nightmarish room.

Rodney finds Nora inside the ladies washroom down the hall, rinsing out her mouth. "Did you throw up?" he asks in a half-whisper, not wanting to spook any women who might be lurking in the stalls.

"No," lies Nora automatically. "Yes. Just a little."

"Come on," says Rodney. "Let's find you a proper glass of water."

They raid a nursing station for a paper cup and some ice water when no one is looking and then settle down onto a convenient bench in the hallway near the child life room. "That nurse or whatever," says Nora, fiercely, "she thinks I'm so stupid."

"She's obviously pretty stupid herself," agrees Rodney.

"She's definitely stupid," says Nora. She takes a shaky sip from the waxed paper cup. "Why does she have to go and tell PJ that stuff?"

"It's her job," says Rodney. "The doctors asked her to help John talk to you guys."

"Ugh," says Nora eloquently.

"Your uncle hates having to talk about this stuff," Rodney says in John's defense.

Nora takes another sip, steadier this time. "I hate it too."

Rodney feels his mouth twitch. "You're a lot like him," he tells her.

"Ugh," says Nora again. Another sip. "So if they're going around telling little kids that my dad is going to die," she says, and trails off.

"It doesn't look good," admits Rodney. "I'm sorry, this totally sucks."

Nora chokes back a giggle. "Totally sucks?" she repeats, disbelieving, and shoots a glance at Rodney. "I didn't think doctors talked like that."

"Oh, astrophysicists absolutely do," says Rodney, solemn. "Ask anyone."

Nora drains the last of the water, and sighs. "We'd better get back to that stupid lady before she makes PJ throw up too."

"She okay?" asks John as they walk back to the elevators. Nora is a few meters ahead of them, and she's got her arm slung around PJ's shoulders.

"She's okay," Rodney says. "I think. Fuck. Is there an okay in this situation?"

"No," concedes John. "Probably not."

David Sheppard makes it through another day. It takes some persuasion from John, but Rodney takes PJ back to the hotel after lunch because there's no point in keeping the kid around when he doesn't want to see his father. After PJ has assured Rodney that he has been swimming since he was four and has taken lessons and even swims for his school meets, Rodney slathers them both in sunscreen purchased in the lobby (SPF 55, the strongest they had) and takes PJ down to the pool to play. PJ immediately befriends another kid staying at the hotel and the two children spend a few hours playing together in and out of the water.

Rodney sits poolside in trunks with his laptop open and reads every website he can find on brain injuries. They went through this before with Elizabeth and it all looks devastatingly familiar. If Dave was younger; if the injury was less severe; if he'd regained consciousness at all since the accident; if he was starting to score higher on the coma score – but no.

John texts Rodney every few hours, as annoyingly laconic in SMS as he is in real life:

No change.

New medication, ICP spiking less.

No pupil reaction. Bad.

CT scan in 2 days. Swelling will have gone down enough by then.

"Dr. McKay, watch, watch, watch!" shrieks PJ, and cannonballs into the deep end.

"You're a marvel of humanity," shouts Rodney.

There are several new emails in his Atlantis inbox, mostly inquiries after John and his brother. Rodney knows John and his ironclad stance on privacy, but can't help sending a quick one-paragraph update on the situation. People will want to know. Teyla and Ronon and Lorne – they'll all be wondering and waiting.

"Can we get sodas from the machine?" asks PJ some time later, dripping and spiky-lashed and standing too close to Rodney's expensive computer.

"I don't know, do you have any money?" asks Rodney, not looking up.

"Dr. McKaaaaay," groans PJ, dancing on the spot, and Rodney fumbles for his wallet on the deck beside him and hands PJ an American bill.

"I want change," he says warningly. "Back in five minutes!" Rodney's phone buzzes again.

Nora hungry. Heading back to hotel. Meet you in the room in 20.

Rodney closes his laptop and pushes up his sunglasses so he can rub at his eyes. This isn't at all how he pictured this trip going; in his mind, he thought he'd be spending more time in manly stoic silence with John and less time getting sunburned by a pool while subsidizing the soft drink industry. He feels like he's barely spoken to John apart from their curt text messages to each other.

"Come on, we're done here," says Rodney when PJ reappears holding a can of grape soda pop. "Your uncle and sister are coming back, we need to get you showered and dressed for dinner."

"Nooo," whines PJ, "I want to stay and play." He is stretching the words out, grating and high-pitched.

"Good god," says Rodney, appalled, "I didn't think you made those sounds. You had me fooled."

"Please, Dr. McKay, please?" says PJ, dancing onto one foot and pouting.

"This is not a negotiation," says Rodney, rising, grabbing PJ by the hand. "Say goodbye to your fellow hoodlum, we're leaving."

Horrifyingly, PJ has started to sniffle and tear up, but he seems to recognize Rodney's stubborn resolve. "Good –goodbye, fellow hoodlum," he says in a wavering voice. "I have to go and have dinner now."

The other kid is less concerned, just racing away with a careless, "Okay, bye!"

Thank god, PJ recovers his calm quickly, and is back to his sunny hyperactive self by the time their elevator stops at their floor. He wriggles away from Rodney's grip, hands him the sweating can of grape pop, and pelts down the carpeted hall towards their suite, barefoot and damp.

"Looks like you guys had fun," says John. He's sitting in the suite's main room, an open beer bottle in hand. The coffee table has sprouted more flower arrangements in Rodney's absence.

"The pool is so much fun!" enthuses PJ, and steps out of his trunks right there in the living room. "Nora, you have to come play after dinner."

"Maybe," says Nora, and frowns at him. "PJ, it's rude to be naked in front of guests."

PJ squints at John and Rodney, unimpressed. "They aren't guests, dummy Nora. They're Uncle John and Dr. McKay!" He does a little power dance, then breaks for the bedroom.

"Shower!" Rodney orders loudly. "You reek of chlorine."

"Okay!" PJ hollers back, and a moment later they hear the water running.

John is cracking up behind his fist, and Rodney glares at him as soon as Nora disappears into the kids' bedroom. "This is so not funny," he tells John, pointing at him.

"How can you not like kids?" says John, shoulders still shaking. "Come on! Naked dancing!"

"You didn't think it was that funny when they made you do it on M3R-334," Rodney points out, but he can't help smirking a little. He gingerly picks up PJ's wet trunks from the posh carpeted floor, hanging them on the doorknob leading into the kids' room. "Give me a minute, I'll change and we can go down to dinner."

He pauses just before going into the bedroom, casting a concerned look back at John. Unwatched, John has subsided into a quiet brood as he nurses his beer. "You doing okay?" Rodney asks, even though he knows John is going to shrug off the question.

"I'm good," says John as predicted, but then he flashes a quick glance Rodney's way, unguarded and bare. Rodney's chest hurts. He wishes he could pull John with him in to the bedroom, undress them both, take an hour to provide what comfort he can in the way they always end up comforting each other.

Nora comes back out of the bedroom at that very second, wearing a somewhat rumpled cotton sundress and holding a hairbrush. "Uncle John, can you help me do a straight part down the middle?" she asks, and Rodney ducks into the bedroom to change with a sigh.

They go to the restaurant in the lobby, which serves Cuban food along with some American standards. The kids once again demonstrate their familiarity with good etiquette; Nora primly orders a Shirley Temple for her and her brother and then helps PJ pick out something from the kids' menu. Rodney gets Cuban roast pork with beans, rice, and yucca on the side. John stares moodily at the menu before ordering a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp.

"You're not having half of my entrée," Rodney warns him.

John rubs his temple. When the server returns, he orders a draft beer. Rodney, never forgetting he's south of the 49th parallel, wisely sticks to his carafe of cabernet.

Swimming seems to have tired PJ out a little, thankfully, and Nora has recovered some of her usual calm after the dramatics of the morning with the child life idiot. John must have some secret facility with a hairbrush and an elastic band, because Nora's hair has gone from its earlier loose disorder to two more or less acceptably neat braids. Rodney is a little sorry he missed that performance.

They have a quiet dinner. John picks at his salad and then eats half of Rodney's rice, the kids hardly eat anything until they get their ice cream sundaes for dessert, and finally they retire back to their suite.

"No swimming," says John when PJ begins to campaign for a return to the pool. "It's not safe just after dinner and it'll be bedtime soon." He hands Nora the television remote for the gorgeous huge flat-screen none of them has turned on yet, then pulls out his cell phone and disappears into his and Rodney's bedroom, presumably to call the hospital again.

Nora finds the cartoon network within a few clicks, and she and PJ settle down on the couch opposite the TV to watch. Rodney locates the beer John had found in the mini-bar – Innis & Gunn, probably $20 a bottle in this place, but thankfully not American – and pops two of them open.

John wanders back out and gives a quick headshake from behind the couch where the kids are sitting – no change – before taking one of the beers and dropping bonelessly into an armchair. Rodney mirrors his movement on the other end of the coffee table. They sit and drink and study the kids while the Miami sky darkens in the picture window across the room.

John lets the kids finish out two episodes of something annoying and probably a little too mature for them, and then he's up on his feet and hustling them into bedtime preparations. It occurs to Rodney that neither of them has checked on the kids' clothing, so he goes into their bedroom while they're brushing their teeth and pokes around. The school seems to have packed well: a couple of pairs of jeans, dress clothes, several t-shirts each, underwear enough for a week. A bathing suit, dry and unworn, in Nora's suitcase to match the damp suit PJ was wearing that afternoon. Sandals, dress shoes, sneakers. Toiletries and a few precious toys like PJ's bear.

"You're doing better than you think," says John from the doorway, still nursing his beer. "With the looking after kids thing."

"Well," says Rodney, "I just wanted to make sure PJ doesn't have any more excuses for nudity than necessary." He waves a hand at John. "You're the one who's remembering food most of the time. If you keep remembering food, I'll cover clothing. Except for hair, you're doing hair."

"Deal," says John. The kids emerge from the bathroom, bickering about who gets which sink tomorrow morning.

"Can I read for a while?" asks Nora once they're in bed. PJ has his bear clutched close and is already mostly asleep.

"Half an hour," says John, switching off the main overhead light so that Nora's bedside lamp provides the only illumination. "Then sleep."

They're finally alone together and conscious, but one glance at John shows Rodney that it won't be for long. Rodney is getting tired of watching John so tired. "Go to bed," he says, and snaps John's beer out of his hand. "I'll wake you if the hospital calls."

"I need to make sure Nora turns off the light in half an hour," says John, sagging already with the thought of sleep.

"I've got it," says Rodney irritably. "I've got clothing already, I'll take reading curfew too. Go away."

John heads to the bathroom, then to bed, without another word of protest. Soon enough his snores are drifting into the living room as a gentle soundtrack to CNN. Rodney watches the news, checks his email. Woolsey has written back on behalf of Atlantis. Rodney sends another two-sentence update. This time he remembers to mention the kids. With a start, Rodney then recalls the reading curfew and pops his head into the kids' room to make sure Nora has turned off the light and gone to sleep. Thankfully, the room is dark and both kids are out cold.

He knows John will want to know if he wakes, so before Rodney turns in, he calls the hospital and pretends to be John asking for an update. He scrawls down the answer (ICP responding well to new medication, some signs that swelling has spread to left hemisphere, no voluntary or purposeful movements) and leaves the notepaper under John's charging cell phone in the living room.

John doesn't budge when Rodney finally slips into their dark room and gets undressed, but his snoring slows and then stops. He's awake, and faking sleep. Rodney worms his way in close, a little unsure of his welcome, but John reaches for him in answer. "Hey," says John into the quiet black, up against Rodney's lips, "it's good you're here."

"Better than when Ronon came?" prompts Rodney shamelessly.

"Well, he's better in bed, but other than that," says John, and Rodney has to seek out a nipple to pinch in retaliation while John snickers quietly.

They fall into kissing from there somehow, the kind of lazy directionless kissing that ends with them drifting into sleep more often than not. This time it ramps up after several minutes, though, and John rolls on top of Rodney before tugging their boxers down just enough.

"Yeah?" says Rodney, happy and surprised.

"Yeah, definitely," agrees John, and gets his hand between them. It's over in a matter of a couple of minutes, shaky and heated and frantic, nothing more elaborate than John holding them both and rubbing them off. "Shh," says John with a bubble of laughter, as Rodney finishes, "holy shit, Rodney, there're kids next door."

"Ah," says Rodney, his whole body melting into the soft bed. "Fuck 'em."

"You're noisy," John says fondly, and kisses Rodney's chin. He disappears for a second and comes back with some tissues to clean them both up.

"You're repressed," Rodney responds with eyes drifting closed.

"I am not," John returns. It's an old argument, well-worn and comfortable; far more comfortable than other, more recent disputes.

"You are," says Rodney, still drifting. "When you come you're all, 'Mmm. Well. My, my.'"

"I am not," says John again, but he's laughing and tucking himself around Rodney.

"Yes," says Rodney, getting into it now, opening his eyes. "You are. Your orgasms sound like you just found a penny on the ground. 'Oh. Hey.'"

"Well, maybe next time I bend over to pick up a penny you can swoop in and take advantage of the situation to teach me some new noises," John suggests. His stubble is scratchy against Rodney's bare shoulder.

"Oh, if you're bent over in front of me I'll definitely seize the opportunity," Rodney promises, and they both snicker as they drop into sleep.

Sometime in the middle hours of the night Rodney wakes to a sudden weight on his foot, then his calf. "What?" says John beside Rodney, startled. "Peej, whatcha doin'?"

Rodney rolls over. In his sleep, he's migrated away from John, and PJ is now busily nestling into the gap between them.

"PJ?" says John, muzzy and confused.

PJ gets under the covers and curls up like a shrimp. In the dark, Rodney can see that his eyes are open, and not with the unseeing stare of the sleepwalker.

"Feeling a little lonely?" asks John, getting it as he wakes a little more.

PJ nods and tucks his bear under his head.

"Okay," says Rodney, too tired to argue, and drops back into sleep.

It's not until morning that Rodney realizes: PJ crawled into bed with John and Rodney. PJ saw them sleeping in the same bed. He is, in fact, probably the first person other than John and Rodney to be privy to such a scene.

"Do we tell him it's a secret?" Rodney whispers in the early light over PJ's sleeping form to where John is sitting up slowly, obviously hitting the same revelation.

"Nah," says John, biting his lip, anxious and trying to hide it. "Better just to – not mention it at all."

"You don't think he's going to have questions?" hisses Rodney. "About why his Uncle John the super-cool Air Force pilot is spooning with that weird astrophysicist?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," John says, rubbing his hair into even greater unruliness. "Did you call the hospital last night?"

"Yes, of course I did," Rodney says. "I left you a note by your cell phone, I wrote down everything the nurse said."

John rubs his eyes and stumbles out of the bed, off to read Rodney's report. He pauses to pull a t-shirt on over his shorts before going out into the living room.

Rodney feels weird lying in bed with a seven year old boy, weirder for some reason than when John was there with them, so he gets up too, heading for the shower.

By the time he's done and dressed, Nora and PJ are both up and sitting at the small dining table with messy hair, still in their pajamas. John is on the phone again, murmuring into the cell at the far end of the room.

"Good morning, Dr. McKay," says Nora.

"Can we have pancakes?" asks PJ. He has sleep wrinkles all down the left side of his face. His bear is on the table in front of him. He's kind of cute, Rodney supposes.

"Ask your uncle," Rodney says. "He's in charge of food."

Now that the cat is out of the bag about David Sheppard's true condition thanks to the child life idiot, John is being a little more open with the updates. When he gets off the phone with the hospital, he just tells everyone: "No change, really. They scheduled the CT for tomorrow."

"What's a CT?" asks PJ.

"It's like an X-ray for your brain," says Nora. "Can we get pancakes today?"

"Sure," says John.

"Yeah, pancakes!" shouts PJ, and does a victory lap of the hotel suite. He is suddenly less cute.

"Can we go swimming?" asks PJ. "Can Nora stay and swim with us?"

Nora's face clouds over, but John speaks first. "I think that's a good plan. Nora, I'll go to the hospital, you stay with your brother and Dr. McKay." Rodney wants to be annoyed that John is making this proclamation without consulting him, but in truth he's already noticed that Nora manages PJ better than either he or John, and Nora herself doesn't seem to need much management at all. John is actually doing Rodney a favor.

"I want to see my dad," says Nora, expression darkening.

"You will," promises John. "We'll get you to the hospital today sometime. But why don't you take the morning off?"

Nora bites her lip and frowns. Rodney is struck anew with her resemblance to John.

"Listen," says John, when PJ races off to the bathroom for a minute, "like the doctor said, if your dad gets – worse. It won't happen that fast. I promise, you won't miss the chance to – to see him again."

"I don't particularly feel like swimming," says Nora with great precision.

"Fine, then," says Rodney, "you can help me with my work."

Rodney really does have work for Nora to do. They stake out a table with a shady umbrella (Rodney smothering all of them in sunscreen first) and Rodney sets up his secondary laptop for Nora to use. "These are simulations," he tells her, and pulls up the current parameters for the hyperdrive repairs. The SGC won't even discuss taking Atlantis back to Pegasus until they're certain that Rodney's fixed the star drive completely. "It's like a game, sort of, where you're trying to get this whole city into space and to another galaxy." He taps a few keys. "Okay, to make it go, you hit the spacebar." The green mesh outline of Atlantis rises from the ocean and wobbles up through the atmosphere. Nora leans forward, entranced. The mesh brightens, zooming in to a schematic of the star drive core, and then the numbers start running.

"Simulation failed," says Nora in despair.

"Yeah," says Rodney, unsurprised, "it does that. Here, let's just," and he changes a few of the numbers. "Try it again."

"Hey, Dr. McKay, watch me!" shouts PJ, and does a forwards somersault in the water.

"You're an aquatic genius," Rodney hollers. "There, it's going now. Let me know if it fails."

Nora watches, eyes bright. Technically no one needs to watch the simulation; the computer saves all the data for review later. But if it keeps the kid entertained…

It turns out Nora is pretty quick on the uptake. After watching Rodney tweak the numbers for a few new simulations, she catches on and starts doing it herself. There are only a few times that she runs numbers which are completely ridiculous; Rodney can only hope Zelenka decides Rodney was drunk when he did those.

"Maybe I will get my bathing suit," says Nora after about an hour has passed.

"Don't let me stop you," says Rodney, sliding the room key her way.

His phone buzzes while Nora is upstairs: Still swelling on left side. Doing another trepanation on that side this p.m.

"I thought they already did that," Nora says when John comes to get her.

"This is the other side of his head," says John. "The left half of his brain is swelling."

"Why?" asks Nora, and for a second, she's completely lost the shell of outer calm she maintains most of the time. Her question comes out sounding terrified and plaintive.

"It just is," says John helplessly. "Come on, they'll let us see him before he goes into surgery."

Rodney can see Nora pulling herself together. It's mesmerizing, like a slow-motion video of John accepting bad news. Except, of course, she's not wearing BDUs. Nora is wearing a navy one-piece bathing suit with white polka dots and a little bow at the neckline. She's just a kid.

"Hey, you don't have to go," says Rodney, stricken.

"No, I do," she says, and rubs her nose with her hand. "Give me a couple of minutes, Uncle John, I'll go change back out of my suit."

Rodney stares John down as Nora hurries away. "She doesn't want to go," he says.

"Well, I promised her. And surgery is dangerous, there's always a chance he won't make it."

"He's not going to make it anyway," Rodney returns, feeling his eyes go buggy. "Come on, John! Jesus Christ! Can't you see what this is doing to her?"

"Dr. McKay, watch me, watch me!" shouts PJ behind them, and Rodney whips around to see PJ do a wobbly splayed-leg handstand.

"You're Aquaman!" Rodney shouts, maybe a little too loudly, and then he hauls on John's arm and pulls him a little further away from the pool. "John. She can't do this much longer."

"How are you suddenly an expert on this?" asks John, annoyed as hell. "Is one of your PhDs in child psychology?"

Rodney doesn't know how to answer; the truth is, he sees so much of John in Nora that he feels like he knows her very well somehow. But John wouldn't understand, he wouldn't even accept Rodney's assertion that Rodney knows him that well. "Hey, I'm just telling you what I see," he returns vaguely but with conviction. "John, put yourself in her place. Weren't you about her age when your mom"—and Rodney cuts himself off.

John stares over Rodney's shoulder, jaw clenched. "They kept me away," he says, "and I was pissed, okay?"

"We're not keeping her away," Rodney insists. "You've let her see him plenty. But sometimes there is such a thing as using your better judgment." He struggles for a moment, seeking the right words. "It's freaking her out, and she's being brave because she thinks she has to be brave for him."

John sighs through his nose, apparently torn between arguing with Rodney and conceding the point. Finally, he nods once, tersely. "Okay. So maybe there's no reason for you guys to stick around here." He glances over at the pool, taking it in for the first time. "Why don't you rent a car and drive the kids up to Disney World or something for a few days?"

"Disney World?" repeats Rodney, incredulous. "First of all, no one wants to associate the Magic Kingdom with the death of a parent. And secondly, what the hell do you think I'm going to do alone in a theme park with your niece and nephew? I'm going to commit infanticide, that's what!"

"You guys are hitting it off," John complains, but he clearly sees Rodney's point. "Okay, maybe not Disney World. The Keys, maybe?"

"More swimming and sunburns? Oh, goody."

"Fine, you fucking think of something if you're such an expert," snaps John.

"Fine, I fucking will!" Rodney barks back, and oh. Here's one of those less-than-comfortable fights again.

"Dr. McKay, look at me, look at"—and there's a pause, and then an unearthly wailing. Rodney looks over to see that PJ has slipped and fallen on the pool deck and is clutching his knee, sobbing, heartbroken.

"Oh, Jesus," says Rodney, "you go take care of it, I'm done being your nanny today." It's not fair, and it's not true; Rodney isn't fed up with PJ or Nora, he's fed up with John, and he's fed up with being the observer in this fucking awful family trauma.

John squares his shoulders and goes over to PJ, who has gathered a crowd of vacationing mothers with his hysterics. One of them has a band-aid and another has a granola bar, and soon enough PJ comes limping over to Rodney like the walking wounded, John trailing behind with not an iota of good humor on his face.

"Okay, I'm ready," declares Nora, appearing just in time with wet hair, wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

"Come on, let's get lunch," Rodney says, and grabs PJ by the hand.

"I fell so hard on my knee," confides PJ, "there was blood everywhere!"

"Yes, you're a brave little toaster," Rodney tells PJ, and pilots him towards the sandwich bar. John and Nora shear away towards the lobby without a word of farewell.

By the time John and Nora return, Rodney has a plan.

"Cape Canaveral," he announces with hands spread wide in triumph.

"Cape Canaveral?" says John, then his eyes light up with understanding. "Oh, cool."

"What's Cape Carnival?" asks PJ. He's peeking under his band-aid at the scab underneath.

"Cape Canaveral," corrects Nora. "It's where they launch the space shuttles."

"Whoa!" exclaims PJ. "Are we going there, Dr. McKay?"

"Yep," says Rodney, beaming. He is the coolest – well. Not uncle, he supposes. The coolest grown-up? Coolest colleague-of-an-uncle? Whatever. "I made a few calls to an old classmate. We're getting a private tour."

"We're going into space?" PJ hollers, and bounds onto the couch with elation.

"No, of course not," Rodney says, a little deflated. "But we're going inside the shuttle. We can pretend."

"Sounds like a totally awesome time," says John, selling it a little too hard.

"Totally awesome?" repeats Nora, squinting at her uncle. "You guys talk the same."

"Excuse me, I most certainly do not sound like him," Rodney retorts, putting on a wounded air. "I'm Canadian, I have a far superior form of elocution and"—he's forced to cut his diatribe short when PJ leaps up from behind and grabs him around the neck with skinny boyish arms.

"We're going in a space shuttle!" he shouts in Rodney's ear. "You're the coolest uncle ever!"

"He's not our uncle," Nora says, rolling her eyes, killing Rodney's glow.

"Right," says PJ, letting go. "I knew that," and does the comic palm to forehead thing again.

The surgery goes smoothly, but Dave has a rough night after. The phone rings a few times after midnight, the nurses calling with updates. John and Rodney are both awake this time when PJ comes stumbling into their room. "Come on, buddy," says John, dumping the phone back onto the nightstand, yawning. PJ clambers between them, does his prawn impression, and drops back into sleep.

"His ICP is all over the map," says John. "They said it's normal after the surgery. But if it wasn't worrying them, they wouldn't call."

"Are you going in?" asks Rodney. John's hand has drifted down to smooth (or attempt to smooth) PJ's wild shock of hair.

"Nah," John says. "Nothing I can do."

"Wanna come see a space ship with us tomorrow?" asks Rodney hopefully.

"I've seen a lot of space ships before," John says, but not without a little smile. "I should stay here. There's business to work through with Dave's lawyers."

"I thought they settled the board thing?" Rodney asks, trying to find a spot on the mattress that hasn't been invaded by an overheated seven year old.

"They did," John says. "This is about the kids."

"Oh," says Rodney. "So. Um."

"I'm the executor," says John, "which means I decide where they go, and with who." He rubs his eyes. "Um, Sarah, that was their mom – she had a sister, but they weren't close. Still, she's married, has a couple kids of her own around their age. They're up in Connecticut, not too far. And PJ and Nora have lots of money in trust to help out with any expenses they'd incur."

"Sounds like a good fit," agrees Rodney.

John is quiet for a minute. "I mean, I'll still see them," he says.

"Right," says Rodney, because John sounds like he needs Rodney to agree.

"I'd definitely still see them," says John again. Rodney, drowsing, dimly notes the change in tense.

"Where should we get lunch?" asks Rodney as they drive into Cape Canaveral. He's acutely aware that he's temporarily taken over John's portion of the kid-duties: food and hair. Nora may have to look like a nightmare for the next few days, but at least Rodney can make sure they don't starve to death.

"Where is there a good restaurant?" asks Nora.

"I feel like fish and chips," says PJ loftily.

"I meant fast food," says Rodney, rolling his eyes. "Burger King? McDonald's? Chick-fil-A?"

There's silence from the back seat for a while. Finally, Nora ventures, "You mean, one of those places with trays and plastic tables?"

"Oh my god, you two are not normal," Rodney groans. "Right, start with the classics. McDonald's it is."

After PJ and Nora discover the joy of salty greasy mass-produced food, they head for the Kennedy Space Center. They do the visitors' center first, taking their time as they wander through the various exhibits. The kids look good, had perked up as soon as they left Miami and continued to grow louder and more cheerful the longer they were away. Rodney walks them through everything, stopping often to explain some point of engineering or tell them an anecdote about the early astronauts.

"They are like superheroes," says PJ with reverence. Nora is characteristically quiet, but her eyes are bright and wide, fascinated.

They meet up with Rodney's friend for dinner in the cafeteria. Dr. Shaun Thibodeau was a grad student at Northeastern with Rodney and afterwards was recruited by NASA while Rodney was picked up by the USAF and the Stargate program. Unlike so many of Rodney's erstwhile colleagues, Shaun is deep enough into the space program, with a high enough security clearance, that he knows Rodney's work, if only tangentially and by the occasional rumor filtering through.

"Good to see you back on, uh, American soil," says Shaun, shaking his hand and making a quick save. "Made a bit of a splash on the west coast when you arrived back home, though," he continues with a little smile.

"I take no credit for that," says Rodney, lifting his hands to show his innocence.

"And you guys are, what, Jeannie's kids?" asks Shaun, making a reasonable guess.

"Nope, we're David's kids," says PJ. "David and Sarah."

"David and"—says Shaun, looking at Rodney askance.

"Long story," says Rodney. "They're the niece and nephew of one of my colleagues in the Air Force." He waves towards the line-up. "Shall we?"

Shaun has put on a few pounds, lost a little hair (and maybe Rodney has too) but he's still got the good taste to respect Rodney as his superior. "I warned them you were coming today," he says, speaking of his co-workers in the shuttle design unit. "They're going to be disappointed if you don't point out at least one overlooked error."

"Oh, I'm sure I'll find several," Rodney says with a wave of his hand. "Is Jenkins still working at Boeing up in Washington?"

"Haven't you heard, he's moving on," says Shaun.

PJ fidgets beside Rodney, then says in a stage whisper, "Is this the guy who's going to show us the shuttle?"

"Yes," Rodney whispers back, equally loudly.

"That was awesome," says PJ, still floating on an IMAX high as they leave the Center that evening.

"Now you sound like Uncle John," Nora said, teasing.

"It was totally awesome," says PJ, not bothered.

Rodney checks them into a much more modest motel with only one room and two beds. "We can get a cot," Rodney offers, "or you guys can share."

"Definitely a cot," says Nora. "PJ kicks."

Rodney is about to agree vociferously when he remembers that Nora doesn't necessarily know PJ has been climbing into bed with both him and John, even if she's seen him coming out of their room the past two mornings.

PJ sticks his tongue out at Nora and performs a kicking interpretative dance while Nora flips through the channels on the small traditional tube TV. "Did Uncle John call about the CT?" she asks quietly, once PJ is engrossed in cartoons.

"Yes," says Rodney. "Do you want to hear about it now?"

Nora studies her fingernails for a moment. "No," she says. "Actually, can it wait until tomorrow?" She hops off the bed and gets her toiletry case and her pajamas. When she comes back out, she's scrubbed and pink and ready for bed. "Today I almost forgot," she says. "You're good at helping me forget, Dr. McKay."

Rodney flushes, and then flushes more from having reacted to a compliment from a twelve year old. "PJ," he says, edging down on the bed to boot PJ in the back. "Teeth. Pajamas. Bed. Go."

"Oh, crap," says PJ, another lovely turn of phrase borrowed from John. "Fine, fine."

Once Nora and PJ have dropped off to sleep, Nora in one of the double beds and PJ on the cot, Rodney puts a stop in the jam of the door and slips outside to call John again.

"Good day?" says John, sounding amused at Rodney's cheery greeting.

"Awesome day," says Rodney. "Tomorrow we're going up to the lighthouse and then we'll drive out to Cocoa Beach for the day."

"Sounds like a good time," says John. "Did you tell Nora about the CT?"

"She decided to wait until tomorrow," says Rodney, a little defensively. "She was really happy, she"—

"Rodney," John interrupts. "It's okay. I get it, you were right."

"Oh," says Rodney, and can't help adding, in a huffy tone: "Well, thank you."

"Are they asleep?" says John.

"Yeah, I just stepped outside."

"Mmm," says John. "I don't suppose you'd be open to a little display of affection out in the parking lot?"

"Shut up," says Rodney, hating the way he blushes when John sounds like that, like John has a remote control for Rodney's body. His dick twitches in his jeans. "Is it still hot down in Miami?"

"I don't know, is it hot there?" John returns in a sultry voice.

"Shut up," Rodney says again, urgently, and turns to face the wall so no one can spy the effect John is having on him. "You are so – I'm in a motel parking lot!"

"Mmm, I'm not," says John, and it's not fair that John only ever does those sounds when Rodney is too far away to see him or touch him. "I'm in bed. Oh, hey, is that a penny on the floor?"

Rodney grits his teeth, but he can't stop the laughter from bubbling out. "Is that your way of telling me you just came?"

"Maybe," John hedges, but he's laughing too. There's a bit of a pause. "So I really do have my hand down my shorts," he admits, and now he sounds more like John usually sounds in bed: shy, and a little bit sheepish.

"Yeah?" says Rodney, casting a quick eye around the parking lot. Deserted. But too many curtains are open around the place, too many lights on in rooms. Oh well, John can enjoy himself, at least. "Are you hard?" he asks, dropping his tone a little lower.

For a while, he can only hear John's breathing, a little loud and unsteady. "I wish you were here," says John, heartfelt, "I wish it was you."

"Me too," says Rodney. He's really hard now, but he doesn't dare do anything about it short of adjusting himself a little, very quickly. "Please make noise," Rodney begs, even though John is always quiet.

"Rodney," says John, breathless, soft. "I feel stupid, doing that."

"Come on," Rodney urges. "I'll think of it in the shower later. Please."

John is quiet for a moment, save for quick uneven breaths, and then he makes an effort: "Fuck."

"Yeah," says Rodney, closing his eyes, picturing it.

"Oh, oh," John says, losing his self-consciousness a little, gaining some volume. "Oh, fuck. Oh. Fuck."

"Come on," Rodney says again, panting a little.

"Ah!" John cries out, and gasps. It sounds like he drops the phone into the pillow for a second, the sound gets raspy and muted. When he gets back on the line, he's laughing. "So, did I make you commit an indecent public act?"

"Well," says Rodney, feigning thoughtfulness, "I wouldn't go that far, but it was a definite improvement. You sounded more like a CPA finding an error in someone's tax return."

"Bite me, McKay," says John. "Right, I'll let you go so you can take care of that, uh, little problem I've caused you. Try not to wake the kids when you jerk off in the shower. They're traumatized enough."

"Oh, hilarious," Rodney answers.

"Goodnight, Rodney," John says, more seriously.

"Yeah, goodnight," Rodney says back.

He half-limps into the room and makes a beeline for the shower. Stupid Sheppard.

They tour through the lighthouse and drive out to Cocoa Beach for lunch the next day. Nora waits until PJ gets over his fear of the salt water and is splashing around happily before she brings up the CT scan again.

"I'm ready, you can tell me," Nora says. She's wearing a different suit, one they just picked up that morning since her old one was still damp and starting to smell mildewed. This one is red with little yellow flowers. It's also a one-piece, but for some reason the red spandex fits differently, and Nora looks less like a little girl today. She's got – well, "curves" is a big overstatement. She's got shapes. Small shapes. Rodney glares around, hoping to scare off any pubescent males in the vicinity. "Dr. McKay?" she prompts, impatient now.

"Will you call me Rodney, already? Your uncle's not around to enforce his repressed Irish Catholic rules of order," Rodney complains.

"Rodney," says Nora, exasperated, "fine, Rodney, please will you tell me about my dad's CT scan results?"

Rodney suddenly feels bad for picking a fight with Nora, even though he knows he just did it out of anxiety. It seems wrong to break this kind of news after a verbal skirmish. But there's no backing out now. "It's not good."

Nora squints out at the ocean. "I thought so."

"The brain stem," says Rodney, "that's where your body controls things like breathing and heart rate. Basic stuff."

"Okay," says Nora. She digs her fingers into the sand at her sides, keeps her focus on the water.

"Well, your dad's isn't working. It looks like most of his brain isn't working, but the brain stem is the, it's like the keystone. It means, if the doctors take out the tube that's helping him to breathe, he won't do it on his own."

"They can do a tracheotomy," says Nora, "and attach a respirator there. They did that to that guy who was Superman in the old movies."

"That guy had a spinal cord injury," Rodney says, trying to hide his surprise, but of course Nora has been thinking about this, of course she has – "not a brain injury. The point is, even if your dad could breathe on his own, there's not much of him left there. He's – he's pretty much gone."

Nora blinks hard, fierce. Rodney watches her, heart in his throat. Years from now, he realizes, she will still remember this instant of her life with perfect rending clarity: sitting on Cocoa Beach with a virtual stranger, learning that her dad has left her forever, that she is alone. Rodney wants to hug her, but Nora is so like John, and every inch of her screams hands off and by god, Rodney has been well trained to read those signals.

"I'm sorry," Rodney says. "God, Nora, I'm so sorry."

Nora blinks again, tears welling and being held back, over and over. It's John, hearing about Elizabeth, all over again. God. She is becoming an adult before her time, before Rodney's very eyes. "What next?" she says.

"Next," says Rodney, wishing for the right words, willing them to surface, "next the doctors are going to take your dad into surgery and take out all the organs that are healthy enough to donate. John told me that's what your dad would have wanted, it's something that will help lots of other people."

Nora flinches at the first mention of the organ donation, but she steadies herself soon after. "Yes," she says, "okay, yes."

"But they won't do anything until we get you guys back to Miami. That way you can say goodbye."

Nora accepts this with a quick brave nod. "And after the surgery, after my dad – after. What happens next, after that?"

Oh. Oh. Oh, this is far out of Rodney's jurisdiction. "John is figuring that part out. First there'll be a funeral, and a wake."

"When will we know where we're going?" asks Nora. "I mean, are we going back to our school? It's almost summer, we're going to miss May exams if we don't."

"I just don't know," Rodney confesses. "I'm sorry."

"Is that Canadian?" says Nora, voice growing hard. "Sore-y? I hate that, I hate the way you say that."

"Yeah, well," says Rodney, stung, "your money is stupid."

"At least it's not purple!" retorts Nora, and there it is – the edges of a Sheppard smile, gathering and cracking across her face. "I hate you," she says, and giggles, out of control. "I hate you," she says again, and bursts into a sob, and finally, finally, collapses against Rodney.

Nora takes forever to fall asleep that night. She's good – too good, probably – at bottling everything up when PJ's around, but as soon as he's curled up and asleep on the cot, Rodney looks up to see that she's started crying silent round tears again. This time it's clear he's not meant to notice, so Rodney turns on the TV, finds some awful 80s movie, and watches it grimly as he ignores Nora sitting six feet away, curled up on herself and weeping.

John meets them back at the hotel when they arrive the next morning. They have half a minute alone together while Nora goes to the bathroom and PJ inspects all the new flower arrangements that have arrived while they were away.

"You told her?" says John, not really asking. Nora's eyes are puffy today, and she barely managed a proper hello for John.

"Are they doing it today?" asks Rodney. He casts a glance at PJ, who is sounding out the word condolences with great effort. Rodney risks a little touch, sliding his hand around to the small of John's back.

"Yeah," says John. He doesn't lean into Rodney's hand, but he doesn't pull away either. "Yeah, but we've gotta tell PJ first."

It's easier, and harder, to tell PJ. Against Rodney's objections, John takes them all back to the child life department to get the job done.

"Your dad," says the idiot, "the part of your dad that made him think and talk and breathe, that part was inside his brain and it's too hurt to get better."

PJ burrows into John's side, taking this in, all eyes and hair and freckles standing out against pale skin. This small boy is only seven years old. He is Madison's age.

"But the rest of your dad's body, it's healthy and strong," she continues. "There are all sorts of things inside his body that he doesn't need anymore, because he's gone. So the doctors are going to help your dad share all his healthy parts that he doesn't need," and okay, she's doing a decent job here, "share them with lots of sick people who will get better because of your dad."

"But he's alive still," PJ protests. "You said he's still alive."

"Not really," says John, taking over. He places a hand on PJ's head, tentative. "Peej, he's not inside there anymore."

"You remember chapel, from school," interjects Nora. "Daddy's soul is gone. It's already up in heaven with Mommy. We have to let him go." Rodney searches Nora with a glance, sees she is telling a convenient tale, files the fact away for later pondering.

"I don't want Daddy's soul to go away," says PJ. "I wish it was the day before the accident."

"I know, Peej," says John, and in a surprising show of affection, bends down quick and kisses his forehead. "Me too."

So the first time Rodney sees David Sheppard is the last five minutes before the nurses wheel him off into an OR to be sliced into his component parts. It's weird, because while the beeping and whirring of the machines all around speak to Dave's continued life, it's all contrived. In a way, they're already at the wake, all of them.

"What do we do?" asks Nora, who was the one insisting Rodney come along.

"Whatever you want," says Rodney, trying to catch John's eye, failing. John's gaze is fixed, rigid, on Dave's supine body. Rodney can see the slightly uneven breaths John is drawing, at odds with the mechanical smooth rise and fall of Dave's chest.

John steadies himself visibly, steers PJ towards the bed by his shoulders, and the two of them stand there staring for a long minute before John breaks the spell and reaches out, lays his hand on Dave's shoulder. "I'm glad," says John, "glad we talked a little, after Dad went. I'm – it should have been more. But at least we tried."

PJ takes John's cue, and comes in closer. "Dad doesn't like hugs and kisses," he whispers, and touches Dave's shoulder right next to John's big adult hand.

"I think he wouldn't mind this time, if you want," says John, and PJ leans in, kisses Dave formally on his cheek.

Nora squeezes Rodney's hand, then pulls away and joins John and PJ. She too presses a cool careful kiss against her father's face and then backs away, trembling. "I don't want them to do it," she says, desperation running just under her voice like a fine tremor. "Uncle John, please."

John tucks her under his arm, presses her tight to him. "I know," he says.

Rodney wants to melt away, but Nora twists around and gives him an agonized look, terror and loneliness writ large over her small beautiful John-Sheppard face, and Rodney lurches forward instead, comes close to the bed and gets on Nora's other side, palm against the flat of her back, fingers just brushing up to John's arm.

"I'm sorry I never met him," says Rodney quietly. "I wish I could have met him."

John shoots Rodney a look that says, clear as anything: You would have hated the hell out of each other; and it's so wonderfully and refreshingly John, Rodney has to bite down on the urge to smile with relief. "Yeah," says John, and looks away, looks back at Dave.

It's weird, standing like this, like Rodney is somehow merged into the family unit, but Nora is just barely holding herself together and Rodney can't back away, not now.

"What do we do?" says PJ again. "I mean, do we really say goodbye?"

John tucks his chin in a little, considering. "I guess we could do that," he says.

"There's no one to say goodbye to," says Nora tautly. "That's what everyone keeps saying."

"Well," says PJ, "then maybe my dad is listening from heaven."

Nora releases a little impatient sigh, and Rodney feels John's fingers squeeze a warning into her arm.

"Yeah," says John. "PJ, you could say a prayer, maybe. That might be nice."

PJ nods, temples his hands, closes his eyes. "Dear God, can you please tell my dad that we came to say goodbye, and when you see him can you also ask him to say hi to our mom for us? Her name is Sarah and she has red hair. Oh, Sarah Phoebe Sheppard is her full name. And make sure that my dad gets a chair by the window and not by the bathroom in heaven or he'll probably yell at an angel and get everyone upset. He does that sometimes."

Rodney shakes with a surge of laughter and John's arm slips down to nudge him into decorum.

"And help me and my sister not to be sad, and Uncle John too, because my dad is his brother. And please help Dr. McKay not to lose his temper whenever I am fidgeting or talking back because I just can't help it sometimes. Um. " PJ is running out of ideas, or steam, so he blinks and crosses himself. "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in, um. In the"— he says, faltering, and John and Nora chime in with the last part, "beginning, is now, and ever shall be." The two older Sheppards make the sign of the cross with him. "Amen."

"Amen," they all echo.

The nurses come in a moment later, quietly but busily, and John makes a sudden darting motion like a snake striking – he bows down and kisses his brother, hard, on the forehead, and Nora squeezes Dave's inert hand, and PJ starts to sniffle and shiver, and Rodney feels miserable for all of them as the nurses gently come around between them and the bed, and slowly wheel David Sheppard out of the room.



Rodney's been through his share of deaths by now, and he knows that the hardest part isn't standing by the bedside until it's all over; the hardest part is figuring out what to do with yourself, after. Sometimes he's been lucky enough to have this decision made for him, with Wraith or Replicators bearing down on them and too little time to think of the right strategy, let alone time to mourn. Other times, though, are more like this: lots of silence, the strange resentment that the world just keeps going, the mundanity of going through the motions. Pushing the call button for the elevator. Deciding where to take the kids for lunch. Trying to remember where he'd parked the rental car in the vast hospital parking garage.

Time is tricky after a death. One moment it stretches out in all its infinity before you: one vast unforgiving landscape of After where nothing is easy or normal; and the next it jumps forward in huge chunks of activity: funeral arrangements, meals, phone calls, lists. Even from Rodney's outsider's perspective, time plays these games with them after Dave Sheppard dies. The trip from the hospital to the hotel drags on forever while PJ asks the kind of questions kids ask when confronted with their first death; and then, leaping forward, they are suddenly on Sheppard Industries' private jet. It's the next day, and they're flying Dave Sheppard's body, and his children, back home to D.C.

Rodney watches John closely throughout the short flight. PJ has been glued to John's side since the hospital yesterday, and he's worn away at his uncle's stiff exterior slowly but surely. John has become, if not affectionate, at least tolerant of PJ's limpet-like clinginess. Right now he's absently stroking PJ's hair while the kid rests his head on John's chest. It's perhaps a little weird, how trusting PJ is with him when by John's account, PJ only met John once briefly after Patrick Sheppard's wake. But kids are like that, Rodney reminds himself, they have a sense of entitlement when it comes to being coddled. He's not sure when exactly that gets outgrown, but – glancing over at Nora – it's obviously gone by the age of twelve.

Nora is reading some paperback with a Newbery Medal seal flashing golden on the cover, fiercely concentrating on the book and nothing else.

Time runs on fast-forward again once they land, rushing through the drive through horrible D.C. traffic out into the wealthy suburbs and the gated community where Dave Sheppard apparently has his family home. It's not palatial, it's not an estate exactly – there are no horses, no vast grounds – but it's a damned big house, warm and modern and with its own private gravel drive.

"Hi Brutus, hi, hi!" says Nora delightedly when they are set upon by a giant Rottweiler in the front entryway. PJ shouts with happiness and flies at the dog, and both the kids spend a long couple of minutes joyfully wrestling with the beast while John and Rodney introduce themselves to Dave's housekeeper ("Rodney McKay – I, uh, I work with John") and bring in their luggage and the kids'.

"I've made up your rooms," says Darlene the housekeeper to all of them. She's an older woman, perhaps in her late fifties, and she has the look of a brisk, efficient person, the kind of person Rodney tolerates fairly well. "Can I show you to them or would you like something to eat first?"

"Food," says Rodney before anyone else can venture an opinion, and Darlene waves them down a long hallway towards the kitchen.

"Brutus was supposed to be a guard dog," PJ tells them, lifting his sandwich to his mouth and inspecting it for errant lettuce. "But he is a big chicken so we mostly play with him."

Brutus doesn't look like a chicken. He looks like he might take Rodney's food by force if necessary, sitting too close to the table with giant jaws open and tongue lolling. Rodney pulls his chair a little closer to the table and averts his eyes.

"Brutus is the best dog in the world," PJ concludes.

Nora is frowning at her plate and picking at her food. So is John.

Darlene has put John and Rodney in two guestrooms across the hall from each other. The kids are off in another wing in their own rooms, so Darlene takes advantage of their absence to confide, "I hope you don't mind, I've called Rosa and asked her if she can come back and help with the children until – well, until we know where they're headed next."

Rosa, Rodney guesses, is the former nanny, and she'll be arriving tomorrow. Rodney and John share a relieved look – someone the kids actually know and who probably doesn't even have to keep a mental list of food, clothing, sleep to care for them – before agreeing that Darlene is a genius.

John and Rodney spend the rest of the day embroiled in funeral preparations. They're joined shortly by Dave's former personal assistant, a terrifyingly organized young woman named Martha, who makes things much simpler by producing Dave's advance directives, including a full program for the service and details on which caterers and which funeral home they should hire. They'll hold the wake here at the house, and Martha has already contracted with an event planner to manage the whole thing, from rearranging furniture to putting everything back to rights. Sometime in the middle of all the discussions, the children reappear asking for dinner, and Darlene feeds them and sends them packing.

More people begin to arrive. First there's a representative from the funeral home, going through everything in excruciating and often boring detail: this casket, this lining, this family plot, these flower arrangements. Next comes the priest of the parish where they'll hold the funeral service. He insists he would like to visit with the children, and John resists steadily, and then the priest would like to pray, and John and Rodney cast long-suffering can-you-believe-this-harvest-ceremony-shit kind of looks at each other, and the priest would like to discuss the selection of the readings for the funeral service, and finally John goes tight around the mouth and Rodney very deliberately reaches across and lays his hand up high on John's thigh. Suddenly Father Rivero would very much like to see the children, and John sends Darlene to fetch them because it looks like the damned man won't leave until he has a chance to commiserate with the kids. PJ is sober and courteous and Nora, wonderful Nora, is scowling and impatient, and finally the priest tells the children that God will bless the memories of their hearts and comfort them in their grief, before he makes his exit.

"Ugh," says Nora quietly afterwards, and Rodney rolls his eyes at her, and she almost smiles before her sadness catches up with her all over again.

Then it's another of Dave's assistants, and during it all, there's delivery after delivery of floral arrangements which Darlene whisks away, thank god. Martha has a schedule for John for tomorrow, including a meeting with the corporate lawyers regarding John's new unwelcome status as the majority shareholder with Sheppard Industries. They've also arranged for a meeting with Dave's family lawyer who will be talking to John about the children.

"There's nothing left for me to do," says John, half awed, half frustrated.

"Actually," says Martha, "we're holding a memorial service at the corporate offices for employees who knew Mr. Sheppard, and I think it would be nice to assemble a little home video reel for the occasion. I was wondering if you'd mind going through some of the family footage and picking out some appropriate pieces? Darlene can help you find everything."

"Yeah," says John, obviously glad of having a task. "Yeah, of course."

"We're doing all the work of inviting people to the funeral and wake, of course," says Martha, steaming forward, "but I'm sure you have a few names for the list."

John casts a helpless glance at Rodney. "No, uh, I think McKay here is really the only"—

"Don't be a moron," says Rodney, grabbing a piece of paper, starting to scribble a list. "If you just give me the details, I'm sure I can pass everything along to John's friends and family." The "and family" bit slips out almost accidentally, but Rodney looks at the names he's written and he can't think of a better word for it.

"I'll forward everything once the times and places are settled," agrees Martha. "Right, I think that's all for now." She stands up, straightens her immaculate skirt and blazer, and gives John a warm handshake, offering her sympathies. John accepts the gesture with stiff thanks. As soon as she's gone, he heads for the bar in the corner.

They're each tossing back their second glass of scotch when Darlene pokes her head in the study and says, "The children are settled in bed, so I'll just be heading home."

"You don't live here?" asks Rodney, surprised.

Darlene smiles wryly. "A widower whose children are off at school doesn't really need that much help around the house. He's – he was hardly ever here."

"I guess not," Rodney accedes, thinking about it. "Uh, thanks?"

"Goodnight," says Darlene, and a moment later they hear the front door close.

"Hey, that makes the sleeping arrangements easier," says Rodney, kicking John's foot.

John is lost in contemplation of his empty glass.

There's probably some sort of alarm code, Rodney realizes when he goes around to lock up before bed. There's an electronic panel by the door, glowing a faint LED green in the dim light. Rodney could probably pop it open and trick it into thinking it had been armed with a code, but it's more work than he wants to undertake after his fourth and final drink. He just flips the deadbolt instead and goes off in search of other doorways to the outside.

Rodney gets a little lost when he wanders into a new part of the house, but eventually he locates a staircase leading up from the kitchen and finds himself in the wing of the house where Nora and PJ are sleeping. He pokes his head into their rooms, identifying them from the faint nightlight glow under the doors. Nora's room is pink plaid and butterflies. PJ's is blue plaid and frogs.

The hallway curves off to the left, then Rodney hits the main staircase he'd taken earlier in the day. From there it's easy to find their guest rooms.

John, who hadn't stopped until his sixth drink, is poured out over the king-sized guest bed, naked and flushed and lax.

"Hello, hello," says Rodney, then feels like a bit of a jerk for coming onto John in his grieving state.

John lifts his head to look at Rodney and a crooked intoxicated smile curls over his lips. "We're alone," he says, delighted.

"Everyone left," Rodney agrees, "and I just checked on the kids, they're out."

"Oh, good," says John. "I'm so spinny."

Rodney gives a fond, exasperated sigh before heading into the bathroom to brush his teeth and get undressed. He digs in John's suitcase for a pair of boxers so John can be decent in the morning, then remembers PJ's proclivity for joining them and takes a second to check if the door locks. It does. Rodney presses the little button in the center of the doorknob and it makes a satisfying click.

John is still, miraculously, awake. "Get the"—he says, and makes a shocking un-John-like gesture with two fingers of his right hand. Rodney gets the lube, still unconvinced that John can follow through on his great idea.

"You're drunk off your ass," says Rodney. "So'm I. But you're spinny drunk." He climbs across the bed and collapses half onto John, dropping the bottle onto his hairy chest.

"I'm awesome drunk," John disagrees, fumbling for the lube, getting it open. "Get on top of me."

"Not until you prove you can do the deed," Rodney bargains, and reaches down to take John in hand. It takes a while – John is pretty drunk – but after a little coaxing, John's cock does show signs of life. Rodney's, pressed up against John's outer thigh, responds in kind.

"Is this fucked up?" slurs John, as Rodney clambers over to straddle him. "I mean, my brother's"—

Rodney gets his palm over John's mouth just in time. "No talking," he says. "Sex."

John laughs into Rodney's hand, then switches out his loopy smile for a fascinated frown as Rodney slicks up his fingers and reaches around behind himself. It's easy when he's drunk like this, probably because he's not feeling any tension or twinges of pain. He just slides in, slick and fast, gets himself wet, switches to three fingers.

"Okay, okay," John says, hands gliding up and down Rodney's thighs, impatient and grabby. "Okay, now."

Rodney moves back a little more so he can get John's cock wet, first with his mouth and then with the lube. John is breathing noisily now, hips shifting. They never pulled back the fucking comforter, Rodney realizes in a daze, he has to remember not to get come on the nice expensive comforter.

Rodney scrambles forward again, suddenly desperate for this, homesick and lonely and needing John. John, whose head arches back as Rodney lowers himself onto John's dick, who makes soft sexy repressed accountant noises in his throat as Rodney settles down, ass to John's too-thin hips. "Oh fuck," says Rodney into the stillness, and starts to move.

John is a little out of control when he fucks drunk like this. He never seems to lose his grip on his voice, but his hips rise more, he shivers and arches, he pulls Rodney's hands around his body without hesitation, using Rodney for his pleasure. At some point he opens his eyes and says, "Can you go harder?" and Rodney, sweating, does his best. But a minute later, John's hands settle on his hips and Rodney stills, knowing what John wants. He lifts off, remembers to kick the covers down while they're moving anyway, and settles on his knees with his palms braced on the wall over the bed's low headboard.

John gets behind Rodney, and typical of John, can't get right to it. He spends a couple of minutes fingering Rodney instead, draped over his back, nuzzling into his armpit and his neck and making Rodney grunt and gasp. "Say you want it," John whispers, and for a guy who hates it when Rodney asks him to make noise, he sure as hell likes to hear Rodney talk.

"I want it," Rodney says, because he doesn't have any stupid hang-ups. "Fuck, John, I want you in my ass, come on, fuck me, do it already."

John fingers him a little longer, probably just to prove Rodney can't boss him around. Finally he moves back a little, and Rodney lets out a loud sigh of anticipation, and then – John pushes in, John uses his knees to push Rodney's thighs further apart so he can get better leverage. "You good?" asks John, and Rodney adjusts his grip on the wall, shaking and wanting it, and John gets his hands on Rodney's hips and pulls out, slams home.

They both love this but they rarely get to do it. It takes time and privacy, two things in severe shortage on Atlantis, and it takes both of them being willing to give themselves up so spectacularly, which is another rarity when they spend so much of their damn lives getting kicked around by the Pegasus galaxy.

John likes to watch, and he likes to listen, so Rodney lets his head drop down, hang loose from his shoulders, and pants and curses and urges John to go harder while John is busy staring down at where they're joined, greedily taking in Rodney's noises and the slap of their skins colliding, the wet sounds of their fucking.

Rodney doesn't really pay much attention to himself when they do this, not beyond the fantastic pleasure zinging from his ass through his prostate, though his cock and balls. He always knows he's close, and John's close, when John leans forward and slaps one hand over his mouth, closes the other around Rodney's cock, and shifts into fast vicious thrusts that make Rodney's vision grey out and his throat raw.

John comes long and hard, and Rodney follows, and as usual they both check out for a while as they fall down into an entangled sticky heap of limbs.

"That was," gasps John, sweating and shaking into the nape of Rodney's neck. "Oh."

"Yeah," says Rodney appreciatively. His mouth is dry and his thighs and arms are screaming with pain from holding himself up and open against John's onslaught. He can only imagine how John feels.

"I need to go get a cloth," says John, and moves his hips, riding out one late aftershock. They both make pained noises. "You need to go get a cloth," John tries again, and rolls off to the side with a little sigh.

"Why do I have to go?" Rodney says, cool suddenly all along his back where John was lying, where sweat had gathered between them. But he gets up, because he knows from experience he'll be a knotted aching mess in the morning unless he stretches his muscles before he falls asleep. To the en suite bathroom, and back with a warm wet cloth. Rodney wipes himself down first, then flings the cloth at John before digging around for his shorts and John's. "Put 'em on," he orders John.

"Why?" whines John. Rodney doesn't answer, just takes the cloth and pitches it in the hamper, then steps into his shorts and fetches them each a glass of water from the bathroom to stave off the inevitable hangovers. On the way, he pauses to unlock the door, and that must be answer enough for John because he wriggles into his boxers before taking the water and getting under the covers.

PJ probably doesn't even know where they are, but in case he's figured it out, it's better to just let him in. Maybe he won't even come to them now that he's in his familiar home and bed. He didn't when he was sleeping on the cot in the motel at Cape Canaveral.

"I thought I'd cry if I got drunk enough," says John sleepily from the far side of the bed.

"If at first you don't succeed," Rodney reassures him.

"That was better than crying anyway," John says thoughtfully, still drunk as hell.

PJ comes in around four in the morning. Rodney barely wakes at the now-familiar feeling of the boy clambering in between them, but instead of doing his usual prawn impression and dropping off to sleep, PJ seems to be crying quietly. Rodney lies completely still, waiting to see if –

"Hey," says John, raspy and hung over. "Hey, c'mere." And there's a rustling of covers and PJ's sobs get louder for a minute while John pats his back and whispers to him, over and over, "It's okay. It's okay." Gradually PJ drops off, and so does Rodney. He's not sure if John joins them in slumber.

In the morning Darlene unearths the rich-people version of a shoebox full of Super-8s. The Sheppard family videos are in a sleek leather binder with DVD sleeves, each one printed professionally with the date and event chronicled. "You can watch them in the home theatre," she tells John. "The children won't be in your way, they mostly use the main den down the hall."

Rodney pages through the binder, identifying events and coordinating them with things John has told him over the years. The DVDs go back to Nora's birth, to Sarah and Dave's wedding (John was there, he tells Rodney), and then further back. Dave must have had a bunch of their old VHS and Super-8s converted to digital format, because here's Dave's graduation from Yale. Here's John's wedding, god. Here's the summer John was ten and his dad had taken the family to Cape Cod and John's mom was sick but no one told him or let him near her. Here is something very promising labeled "John's first recital" and please god, let it be dancing and not violin.

"I can go through these," Rodney offers with an innocent expression, hoping for something humiliating in the ballroom oeuvre. "If you want."

"Nah," says John. "I'll do it. I have some time between meetings with the lawyers."

Even more people start showing up than the previous day, including Rosa (wonderful blessed Rosa), who takes custody of the children with lots of hugs and hair-stroking and murmurs of comfort. Rosa is a bit younger than Rodney imagined, perhaps only in her late twenties.

Martha gives Rodney a slip of paper with the funeral information: the service and wake are to be held in two days. Rodney gets his laptop and types:


John's brother died as expected, two days ago in Miami. We're back up in D.C. planning the funeral for this Friday. I'm attaching a list of the people who should be in attendance. I expect you won't have too much difficulty getting the necessary security clearances as this is of the utmost importance.

Because people will ask, I guess you can say that John is doing as well as can be expected.

I need Teyla to bring his dress uniform along just in case he wants it for the service. It's on the left hand side of his closet in his quarters in a black nylon garment bag.

Guess we've had enough funerals to last a lifetime already.


Rodney hits "send" and checks his watch: it's early on Atlantis, but he knows Richard Woolsey and he will have risen by now. Sure enough, the answer comes back within a few minutes.

Dr. McKay,

Please express my deepest condolences to Col Sheppard and his family. I will personally vouchsafe for the attendance of everyone you mention. I will also pass your request on to Teyla with regards to the uniform.

I think I can speak for everyone here when I say that we are very pleased you are with Col Sheppard at this time. It's important to be with family.


Richard Woolsey

p.s. You may be assured that the SGC is gladly postponing the expiry date on their offer to you until after the funeral.

The other messages start arriving as the rest of Atlantis wakes up. John has disappeared into his first meeting, so Rodney makes a mental note to share them with him later. First comes Ronon's voice message:

Hey McKay, sounds like I'll be seeing you in a couple of days. Tell John I'm sorry. His brother was kind of a dick, but he was still his brother.

Next, Teyla's:

Rodney, I was unhappy to hear of Dave's passing. I know you are the reason we are included in this celebration of Dave's life and I am glad we will have the chance to be present for John at this time. Atlantis continues much the same as you left it, but we are sadder in your absence. I look forward to seeing you and John soon.

Carson writes back with his usual haste:

Rodney, please give my most sincere sympathies to Colonel Sheppard and assure him I will move heaven and earth if necessary to be at the funeral. And given my particular situation on this planet, that may even be necessary.

Lorne's email arrives around noon, the late riser of the bunch:

Dr. McKay,

Thanks for passing along the news about the colonel's brother, and for inviting us to the funeral. I'll spread the word with the troops. I know they'll be thinking of him too.

- Evan

Rodney locates John in the home theatre room around noon. The screen is showing flickering jerky silent footage in faded 70s colors.

"Starting right from the beginning, I see. Is that you?" Rodney asks, flopping down next to John on the leather couch. "I feel like I need popcorn to properly appreciate this experience."

A taller kid with a long brown bowl cut is riding his bike in and out of frame while a smaller dark-haired boy crouches over a sidewalk with chalk. It could be any family's summer vacation videos. Kid John rises, dusts off his hands. His hair is very short, which was the height of uncool back then, but probably the only way they could keep his mane under control. He's very skinny. He has knobby knees showing under very short orange shorts and a matching striped hideous tank top.

"Hey, you look like a girl," says Rodney. "You look like Nora."

"Shut up," says John. "I didn't get to pick out my own clothes, I was six."

Kid Dave attacks kid John from the left, tackling him to the ground. They're laughing and fighting. Dave looks a lot like PJ, Rodney realizes, and he can't be much older than PJ is now.

"Remind me to show you later," Rodney says, wishing he could curl his arm around John's shoulders, "I got a few messages from home for you."

John doesn't respond. The video ends and the DVD takes them back to a menu page: 1974, 1975, 1976, and then, incongruously, 1984, Dave's high school graduation. Rodney is about to ask what happened to the rest of the 70s when he remembers Cape Cod and John's mother. She must have been the one holding the camera.

"You should use that part, with you guys wrestling," Rodney says.

"You think? Not too combative?" John says.

"Nah, you were kids. Kids wrestle."

"He beat the holy hell out of me most of the time," John says, mouth twisting. "It made me scrappy, I guess."

"I'm suddenly glad I only have a younger sister," Rodney answers, then, "You should come and eat lunch. Darlene made some kind of soup. It smells amazing. Did you know her sister has a citrus allergy?"

John fiddles with the remote, selects 1975: John's First Recital. Rodney is dismayed to see John sitting at a piano, no tulle in sight. "I think I'll keep doing this for a bit," says John, eyes fixed forward. "Lots to go through."

Rodney watches, wondering what could be the possible purpose of a silent movie of a music recital. Proud moms, he supposes, don't really care. John is wearing a powder blue suit with a wide navy tie. That is kind of awesome. "Okay," Rodney agrees. "I'll get Darlene to bring you a tray." He risks a quick fond stroke of John's head, a squeeze at the nape of his neck.

"Sure," says John, already clicking into the next clip.

That afternoon, Rodney asks Martha to call him a car. John is still camped out in the home theatre room and he has another legal meeting later on anyway.

It's refreshing and awesome to be away from the house, the grief, the Sheppards. Rodney has zero interest in the Ameri-centric tourist attractions of D.C., so he points the driver to the nearest huge mall and spends several happy hours in Best Buy and Borders before settling down with a Starbucks latte and a muffin to inspect his purchases. He does check his phone periodically but John doesn't text or call.

When he gets back to the house around six o'clock, there's a plump but well-groomed woman in her thirties standing in the foyer, flanked on either side by matching blue-eyed blonde children. John is also there; he flashes Rodney his crazy-eyes look in greeting, though Rodney can't figure out what John is trying to convey. "Ah, Evelyn," says John, waving his hand at Rodney, "this is my, uh, colleague, Dr. Rodney McKay. Rodney, this is Evelyn. She's Sarah's sister."

This doesn't clarify things at all until Rodney remembers PJ's weird deathbed prayer and the reference to his mother by her full name. "Oh," says Rodney, and juggles his bags so he can extend his right hand in greeting. "Right. The aunt."

"And these are," begins John, but he gets stuck on the names of the twin girls.

"Madelyn and Mackenzie," provides Evelyn with a tight smile. "My girls. Girls, say hello to PJ and Nora's uncles."

"Oh, no," says John, "Rodney's just a friend, he, uh – I'm in the Air Force." Rodney rolls his eyes, safely out of view again behind Evelyn's shoulder. "Anyway, let me take your coats."

So this is the woman who's going to take Nora and PJ, thinks Rodney, watching her critically. She hasn't said anything stupid yet, other than assuming (well, correctly, to be fair) that Rodney and John are an item.

Once he's shoved their coats in the closet, John sticks his hands in his pockets and stares blankly at the blonde trio. "Food?" he suggests, desperately. "It's almost dinnertime."

"No thanks," says Evelyn. "Our family is on a very strict whole foods organic diet. We'll eat back at our hotel."

"Oh my god," says Rodney, appalled. "Seriously?"

John grabs Rodney by the elbow and hauls him into the study opening off the foyer, saying, "Excuse us just a second," in a clenched voice.

"Whole foods. Organic." Rodney feels that simply repeating the woman's idiotic phrase back to John best states his case.

"Yeah, could you not insult and alienate the nice lady who might be taking custody of my orphaned niece and nephew?" John hisses. The crazy eyes are back, but this time Rodney can guess what they mean.

Rodney is about to protest that Evelyn 'Whole Foods, Organic' will do no such thing when it occurs to him that John really has no choice. The kids have no choice. He snaps his mouth shut, suddenly feeling stung and helpless. "PJ hates lettuce," Rodney says, to no end. "Nora won't eat tomatoes."

"Yeah," says John, "well, they live at school nine months of the year, they'll survive holidays with Evelyn's family somehow."

"Her twins are creepy," Rodney says, losing steam.

"All twins are creepy," says John, spreading his hands wide at the futility of Rodney's complaint.

"That's true," Rodney concedes. He still hates Evelyn and her creepy twins. He hates that Nora and PJ are stuck with them. "Have you talked to her about everything yet?"

John chews on his lip. "No," he admits. "I thought I'd get to know her a little first. But, I mean, she's gotta suspect that's on my mind."

Rodney sighs, and John makes a face, and they head back out to Evelyn and the Creepy Twins.

"Hey, maybe Rodney can track down Peej and Nora," John says, rubbing his hands together, awkward and unhappy. "You guys can get to know each other. Evelyn, why don't you come into the, uh, the living room over here and we can have a visit and you can meet some of Dave's staff and Father Rivero?" He leads them all down the hall and Rodney tromps up the stairs in search of the kids.

He finds them down in the den by the home theatre room. It's probably meant to be a playroom but it's mostly just drab and carpeted with a huge TV and a small bookshelf with some preschooler puzzles. PJ is watching cartoons and Nora is painting her fingernails. Rosa is with them, folding laundry.

"Hey, guys," says Rodney, and PJ and Nora snap to attention, looking hopeful. "Your Aunt Evelyn is here."

"Who's our Aunt Evelyn?" asks PJ.

"She's mom's sister," says Nora, puzzled. "Why is she here?"

"Because of the funeral," says Rodney. "She brought her kids with her. Girls. John wants you to go and play with them."

"Why?" whines PJ. "Girls? Agh!"

"How old are they?" asks Nora, long-suffering.

"I don't know. They're twins. They're about this tall," Rodney says, holding a hand just above his waist level.

"Ugh, yuck, little kids!" groans PJ, rolling around in agony.

"Do we have to?" says Nora plaintively.

"Um, let me think about that," Rodney pretends to ponder, "of course you do! John said so. Go on, go upstairs and find them. They're in the living room."

"Yuck, double yuck," PJ grumbles, but he follows Nora out of the room with trudging steps.

In the silence that follows, Rosa continues to fold laundry, carefully neutral even as her mouth twitches. "That went well," Rodney says. "They're sure to be the best of friends."

"They'll be okay," Rosa says. "Kids mostly get along if you give them time." She holds up a small pair of dark pants and clucks her tongue. "Dr. McKay, can you let Colonel Sheppard know that the kids will need new clothes for the funeral? Everything is too small."

"Seriously?" Rodney says, dismayed. "Can't you or Darlene or someone from Dave's work take care of that? Who normally buys their clothes?"

"I did," says Rosa, "when I worked here last summer. But I have another job now, I just got a day and a half off to help out here. I don't have time to go shopping before Friday."

"What sizes are they?" asks Rodney. "Do I have to take them shopping with me?"

Rosa grabs a piece of paper from the end table near her and scribbles on it in coloured pencil. "They'll probably like the clothes better if they help pick them out," she says, "but it's up to you. Either way, I have to leave tomorrow at noon."

"Right." The piece of paper has Nora and PJ's sizes, and lists a few places where they might try looking. "What do kids wear to funerals, anyway? All black doesn't seem right."

"I don't know," concedes Rosa. "For their grandfather's funeral Nora was at school and Mr. Sheppard didn't think it was appropriate for PJ to attend so he stayed back here with me. They only went down to the estate for a weekend visit after it was all over." She shrugs. "I guess you can ask the clerks for help."

"I guess," says Rodney miserably, and tucks the paper into his pocket.

Rosa folds for another minute, then looks up at Rodney with a solemn expression. "It's none of my business, I know – but do you know who's going to take the kids now?"

Rodney shrugs. "John's hoping that this Evelyn lady will take them on. I think he wants to keep them at their school, though."

"They kept asking," confesses Rosa, "and I didn't know what to say."

"Don't say anything," Rodney warns her. "John will want to talk to them first, and he hasn't even had the conversation with Evelyn."

"Of course not," Rosa says hastily. "It's just – I feel bad for them. Poor kids."

A second passes, and then the Creepy Twins appear in the doorway followed by Nora and PJ. "Let's play tag," suggests PJ, and pushes one twin over. Rodney hides his smile behind his hand and leaves Rosa to be referee.

John is back in the home theatre room when Rodney pokes his head in again later. This time he's reached the 1980s and the videos have (awful) sound. There's John surfing in hot pink board shorts. There's Dave, looking more like the man Rodney saw in the hospital room, wearing a white blazer with an electric blue shirt underneath. He has poofy hair and a mullet. So did Rodney at this point in history, to be fair.

"Let me guess," says Rodney, leaning over the back of the couch, "1986?"

"Got it in one," says John. He's holding a beer. His dinner is sitting untouched on a tray in front of him.

"Miami Vice," Rodney says. "Why aren't you eating? Do I have to get Ronon to come sit on you?"

"I ate," says John, and points at the corner of the plate where he had two bites of chicken and a piece of broccoli. On screen, Dave is giving John a noogie. John is young and thin and has thick dark lashes. His mouth is red. He's very pretty.

"This is right before I told them about Stanford," says John, the one sitting on the couch. The camera angle jiggles and now Dave's holding it on a handsome older man who must be Patrick Sheppard. He's complaining that he doesn't want to be on camera while John chuckles in the background and Dave tries to interview him. "Dave got this camera for his birthday, he just tormented everyone with it. Mostly I think he used it to shoot amateur porn in his room at the frat house."

"Well, that would be great to include in the memorial footage," Rodney says dryly.

"Dad never noticed all the shit Dave got into," John says, almost fondly. "I think he did a lot of blow at Yale. He definitely got at least one girl pregnant." He takes another swallow of beer. On screen, Dave zooms in on a girl wearing a bikini. His girlfriend, maybe. "It didn't matter what he did, Dad was too busy trying to fix my life."

"What a d-bag," says Rodney. "Have some more chicken."

"He wasn't, really," John says, and then pauses while Dave makes comments about the girl's butt. "Okay, he was. But mostly it was because we had a shitty childhood."

"Hey, you had the same shitty childhood," says Rodney.

"Exactly," says John. "And we both turned out like different kinds of shits. Dave was the ivy-league old money pretentious businessman kind of shit. I was the abandon your family and never grow up kind of shit."

Rodney leans forward a bit more, gets his hands on John's shoulders, squeezes. There's no point in telling John he didn't abandon his family, they abandoned him. John is programmed to see himself as the villain in that story, and Rodney has tried and failed to make him look at it from a different perspective. "Hey, you're here now," he says instead. "You're here when it counts."

"I didn't even come to Sarah's funeral," says John. He pauses the video, and the sudden silence is shocking. "I just sent a note."

"You were, what, in Afghanistan?" Rodney asks. "You were in the middle of a divorce, too, weren't you?"

John empties the beer bottle, puts it down with a sigh. The conversation is over. Rodney lets go of John's shoulders and straightens up.

"Rosa says the kids need clothes for the funeral," he says. "I'll take them shopping tomorrow afternoon. Are you coming?"

John shakes his head. "Can't. The company is holding the official board meeting. I have to be there so I can say that I don't want to be there ever again." He twists his head, looking up at Rodney. "Hey, did I bring a suit?"

"You brought a suit," Rodney says. "It's in your blue garment bag, remember? You wore it when we picked the kids up at their school."

"Right," says John. "I guess I should get it dry-cleaned."

"I'll tell Darlene," Rodney says. "Teyla's bringing your dress uniform."

"Teyla's coming?" says John, and he lights up. It's kind of cute.

"And Lorne, and Ronon, and Carson. And Woolsey, too," Rodney says, fighting a grin.

"Should I wear that for the funeral?" John asks, mussing his hair, uncertain. "I just wore a normal suit to my dad's wake."

"A suit is fine," Rodney says. "You'll just have to wear it two days in a row. I'll get you a different dress shirt and you can wear one of Dave's ties so it's less obvious."

"Okay," agrees John, and looks back at the TV. "I'll be up to bed in a bit."

"Eat some goddamn chicken," Rodney says as he goes, only half kidding.

Everyone has gone home to bed and Rodney has forgotten again to ask Darlene about the alarm code. He leaves her a note on the kitchen counter about John's suit and heads upstairs to make sure the kids got to bed okay. Rosa is staying over tonight, too. Rodney can see the light under the door leading to her room.

PJ is dead to the world, but when Rodney peeks into Nora's room she sits up and says, "Rodney?"

"Yeah," Rodney answers, hovering.

"Is Aunt Evelyn the one who's going to look after us?"

Rodney bites down on his tongue, forcing himself to think before speaking. "I don't know," he finally says, which is mostly true.

"I don't want to live with her," Nora says. "She got mad at me when I called PJ stupid."

"Was PJ being stupid?" Rodney presses, checking her story.

"He was trying to jump down the stairwell when Rosa wasn't looking," Nora says.

"That's stupid all right," agrees Rodney. "Well, some people don't like that word. I don't know why, when it's sometimes the most accurate word to hand."

"She said it was a strong word and I wasn't supposed to use it in front of the little girls." Nora snorts. "It's not like I said the f-word."

Rodney wants to suggest that he'll take that word for a whirl with Evelyn, but forces himself to shut up. He's about to duck out again when Nora says, "Can you sneak Brutus in here? He sleeps in a kennel in the laundry room but he really likes it when he gets to sleep with me in my room."

Rodney says, "Sneak him in yourself. What, are your legs broken?"

"I'm not supposed to leave my room after bedtime," Nora says, exasperated.

"I won't tell anyone if you don't," Rodney returns. "I'm going to bed. Get your dog and go to sleep."

"If I get in trouble with Rosa or Darlene I'm going to blame you," says Nora, but she's slipping out of bed.

"Oooh, I'm so scared," Rodney says, wiggling his fingers in terror.

Nora sticks her tongue out at him, making a face, then darts in and gives him a quick squeeze around the middle. "Thanks, Rodney."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Rodney says. "We never had this conversation. In fact, I'm not even here right now."

PJ sleeps through the night for a change, but Rodney doesn't.

He wakes at four o'clock feeling cold and disoriented. The other side of the bed is empty. John isn't here.

Downstairs, the screen is flickering, muted, through what looks like Nora's birthday party. She is maybe three or four, her hair a shade lighter than it is now, and she's wearing a lemon yellow dress and clapping chubby toddler hands together. The camera pans around, and look – there's a slender dark blonde woman who has to be Sarah, the kids' mom. Behind her, there's Patrick Sheppard. The video looks recent, and it strikes Rodney suddenly that this was only eight or nine years ago. He'd been in Nevada. John was still married. Of course, he's nowhere to be seen in the video, he would have been off in North Korea or one of those other places John's officially never seen.

The frame moves a little, zooming in on Sarah, who is pretty and seems to laugh a lot. Rodney thinks he can trace a bit of Nora in her face, a bit of PJ too, around the mouth.

John shifts on the couch next to Rodney, rousing a little from his light slumber. "Hey," he says. "They have a lot of discs."

"Pick the big events," Rodney suggests. "Birthdays and Christmases."

"I think he was a pretty good dad," John says, nodding towards the screen. Dave must be the one holding the camera. "There's not a lot after my mom, for us, but Dave kept going. He recorded everything. It had to have sucked, doing all that alone after Sarah died."

Rodney shrugs. "We all do stuff that sucks. I overdosed on Wraith enzyme. You almost blew yourself up. Twice."

"I think that might have been easier than this," John says, dead serious. He finds the remote, powers down the system.

They sit quietly in the dark for a minute. Rodney's guts feel twisted, horrible, and yet he can't bring himself to reach over and bring John to him. He doesn't know what John sees on the screen when he's watching, but he's certain that it's not what Rodney sees. That fact is written in the dark circles under John's eyes, the half-eaten tray of food that still sits in front of them. Pegasus seems very far away; Rodney can almost count every one of the three million light years that separates them from home.

After a while John slides to the floor and gets in front of Rodney. Rodney's known for a long time that this is how John deals with grief but sometimes it strikes him as weird, how they sometimes have more sex when someone's died than they do when everything is going well. They are both pretty fucked up, Rodney supposes. Then his head falls back with a sigh and he rests his fingers in John's spiky hair.

They're mostly alone the next morning, Rosa and John and Rodney and the kids, sitting around the breakfast table in their pajamas. Brutus is under the table, silently begging for bacon, and he's the first to react when the doorbell rings, leaping up and barking as he bounds towards the front door.

"Who"—says John, startled, because most of the business and planning was wrapped up yesterday and no one's supposed to be coming in today. Even Evelyn and the Creepy Twins are spending the day sightseeing in D.C.

Darlene wipes her hands on her apron, ready to go and greet the visitor, but Rodney waves her back and grins at John.

Teyla, Woolsey, Ronon, Carson, and Lorne are gathered on the stoop, faces showing varying degrees of surprise as they take in the sight of Rodney and John greeting them in their boxers and t-shirts.

"We have come too early, I fear," says Teyla, the first to gather her wits, and then Ronon pushes past and wraps John in one of his epic bear hugs while John laughs and struggles and hugs him back.

"Colonel Ellis was kind enough to, er, give us a lift," says Woolsey with a significant glance upwards. "It's good to see you, Dr. McKay. Colonel Sheppard, my sympathies."

"Sir, I was sorry to hear about your brother," says Lorne, and squeezes John's shoulder. Carson edges in next to convey his sympathies.

Brutus the fierce Rottweiler is hanging back in the entryway, doing a nervous tap dance on the hardwood and whining. Behind him hover Nora and PJ, watching with wide eyes.

John makes introductions, Brutus spends a joyful few minutes leaping all over Ronon and licking his hands (much to Ronon's delight) and they all go into the kitchen together. It's noisy and chaotic and PJ has taken a shine to Lorne, and it's like a huge refreshing Lantean breeze has blown through the stuffy Sheppard household. Darlene serves coffee and cooks up some more eggs and the kids go a little nuts showing off their dog and their house, thriving on all the admiring adult attention.

"We should get dressed," John says after a half hour has gone by. "We weren't expecting company."

"You heard the man," says Rodney, and Rosa hustles the kids up the kitchen stairs, hurrying after them. Rodney and John linger a minute longer, unwilling to walk away from the familiar babble of voices, before following.

The Atlantis contingent is all dressed in civilian garb, which does little to disguise their various eccentricities. Teyla still speaks formally, Ronon forgets about manners, Lorne habitually calls John 'sir', and Woolsey might as well be wearing a suit, he's so stiff and awkward in his chinos and tucked in dress shirt. It's troubling, to say the least, that Carson is the most normal of the bunch.

They stay in the breakfast room; it's light and bright and reminds Rodney of the mess hall on Atlantis, and it feels natural to gather around a table and sip coffee and natter on about everything. Once Darlene is safely out of earshot and Rosa's taken the kids downstairs, talk turns away to Atlantis gossip, and from there to John's new situation as guardian of his two young charges.

"They seem like very well-mannered children," Teyla says. "And Nora is very like you, John."

"So McKay keeps telling me," John says. "They're good kids. They're doing okay, I think."

"They're doing fine," says Ronon. "Talking, eating, fighting. That's good." It strikes Rodney that both Ronon and Teyla are probably experienced when it comes to seeing children who have lost their parents.

"I have to agree, you have done a fine job in looking after them," Woolsey chimes in.

"Aye," agrees Carson. "I had no idea that childcare was among your many skills, John."

"Well, McKay helped," says John, and everyone makes faces and Rodney is forced to jump to his own defense.

After the dust has settled, Woolsey folds his napkin and says, "I fear we're intruding on private family time, we should really go and check into our hotel."

John protests, but Woolsey is resolved. Teyla and Ronon agree to stay a little longer but Lorne, Carson, and Woolsey depart together. Rodney checks his watch and sees that Rosa is due to leave soon as well, so he hollers down the stairs that the kids should be ready to go shopping now, now, now, and he doesn't want to be kept waiting.

"Huh," he says, as he comes back into the kitchen, "how am I getting there anyway? Martha called me a car last time."

John holds up a set of keys, obviously prepared for Rodney's quandary. "Dave's Beemer?"

"Oh no, no, no," says Rodney. "I'm not a BMW guy. I never did cocaine in college or rushed a frat or knocked anyone up."

"Well, better hope you don't get pulled over by the douche police then," John says, and tosses him the keys. "It has a GPS, Darlene says."

Rodney pulls a face at John, but it's not worth arguing over. The kids come up the stairs, and then Rosa, and they all have to kiss and hug goodbye so of course PJ gets the sniffles.

"I'll come tomorrow, to the wake," Rosa promises them, and kisses them each again. "You be good and listen to Dr. McKay, alright?"

It's a pleasant surprise when Teyla volunteers to accompany Rodney and the kids, probably guessing that Rodney doesn't feel capable of looking for child size funeral clothes on his own. The kids are wary of her but polite as they all get buckled into the car and Rodney programs the GPS to lead them to the nearest Macy's.

Rodney saw the labels inside the kids' clothes in their suitcases and when Rosa was folding laundry, so he knows generally that they're looking for expensive pretentious designer wear. Once they're in the store, Teyla takes Nora and Rodney takes PJ and they head to the girls' and boys' departments respectively. "Make sure it's expensive," Rodney tells Teyla in an undertone as they part ways. "I'll come find you when we're done."

Shopping for clothes with PJ is fairly easy. Rodney tells the nice gay department clerk to fit PJ out for a funeral, and to spend a few hundred dollars doing it. PJ doesn't have many opinions on his clothes and seems pretty used to formal wear. The clerk picks out a small black suit (Ralph Lauren) and a white dress shirt (Calvin Klein) and a red striped tie (Club Room). "Does he need socks and underwear?" asks the nice gay clerk.

"Do you?" Rodney asks. PJ shrugs. "Let's get 'em just to be sure." Rodney pretends not to notice the total when he signs the credit card receipt.

Teyla and Nora are still in the dressing room so PJ and Rodney flop down on the squishy chairs outside and wait.

"Is it acceptable?" asks Teyla when Nora comes out wearing something like a navy party dress with white flowers. "Not too cheerful, but not drab either."

"It'll be fine," Rodney says, and beckons Nora closer to peek at the tag. "Good god. This had better last you until high school."

Nora smoothes her hands down the puffy skirt and smiles. "I think it looks nice," she says primly, and runs back to change out of the dress.

Teyla hands Rodney another hanger with a small white cotton bra suspended from it. "The sales clerk seemed to think Nora needed to get this as well," she says, a little suspicious. "I do not know if"—

"Haha!" PJ says. "Nora's got boobies!"

Rodney glares at PJ, swatting him lightly on the head with his free hand. "No teasing your sister," he says, blushing himself. "I'll get it. It's up to her if she wants to wear it. God."

Nora returns and hands Rodney the dress on a hanger. If she notices the other garment in Rodney's hands she doesn't say anything about it. Rodney buys both items and hands her the bag to carry. "Shoes," he says, and they take the elevator down to the shoe department. This goes somewhat faster than clothes shopping. PJ gets simple black dress shoes and Nora picks out a white sandal with a tiny square heel. The last stop is in the men's formalwear department so Rodney can buy John a different shirt to wear tomorrow.

"Thank god that's over," says Rodney fervently as they head back out to the car.

"Amen," says PJ earnestly.

When they get home Nora seems a little droopy and sad, so Rodney doesn't protest when she asks if she can have dinner in her room. PJ runs off to find Brutus and Ronon in the backyard, Teyla follows, and Rodney heads upstairs to put PJ's suit away. John is back from his meeting. Rodney finds him in their room hanging up his own suit, still wearing boxers and his dress shirt.

"Got you another," says Rodney. "I gave it to Darlene to iron, she'll bring it up before she leaves."

"Thanks," says John.

"I bought Nora a bra," Rodney adds, mostly to enjoy John's awesome reaction. "It wasn't my idea. Apparently the clerk thought she was in need."

John's ears go red and he spends a while straightening his suit jacket on the hanger.

"Did it go okay?" Rodney asks, waving at the suit.

"I am now officially freed of any and all responsibility for Sheppard Industries," John says. "Nora and PJ will each get half of Dave's shares when they come of age and they're being held in trust by a special appointee of the board, one of Dave's friends from Yale." He begins unbuttoning his shirt. "They have trust funds, too. More than enough to cover college. And the insurance money from Dave's policy will get them through prep school and give them a little nest egg for a down payment on a condo or house someday."

"That's good," Rodney says. He sits on the edge of the bed, watching John without pretense.

"They're going to be okay for money, is all," John says, almost sounding defensive.

"I said, that's good," Rodney returns with the same edge to his voice.

John rubs his eyes, then shucks off his shirt. "I guess I have to decide whether to sell the house and cars and all the family property. Shit."

"Well, there's no hurry," says Rodney. "It's not going anywhere."

"It belongs to Nora and PJ," John says, continuing his line of thought. "But I'm the executor, so I have to decide what's in their best interest." He digs around in his suitcase for a shirt. "This seriously sucks." He comes up with his panda shirt, sniffs it gingerly. "Why couldn't he just wear a seatbelt?" he says into the black fabric.

"Woolsey's coming over after dinner," Rodney says. "He's bringing alcohol. And Lorne and Carson."

John tugs the shirt over his head, jolted out of his melancholy by Rodney's announcement. "Sounds like a perfect night."

"Yeah, well, don't forget we have to get the young ones back into their pods before we can party down," Rodney says. John finds jeans and pulls them on too. He looks really good in jeans. "C'mere for a sec."

John obligingly looks over, wrinkles his nose playfully, and takes a few steps, landing in front of Rodney, arms crossed.

"C'mere," Rodney says again, and tugs on the collar of John's shirt, and they kiss for a minute and it's not like the bright desperate kissing they've been doing behind closed doors. It's easy and casual and friendly. "I like this shirt," Rodney tells John. He can't help affecting a bit of a goofy voice, he always does it when he feels like he's being too mushy.

"I know you do," says John, and kisses his chin. "You like the jeans too."

"Mmm, they don't really hold a candle to those pink board shorts," says Rodney, "or that powder blue suit. What happened to your awesome sense of style? It's sad, really."

"Shaddup," says John, and tackles him to the bed. Rodney hollers and they fight for a minute before sagging into helpless laughter.

"What are you guys doing in there?" Nora calls from across the house.

John claps a hand over Rodney's mouth and shouts back, "Nothing! It's fine!"

"I was going to tell her we were playing Twister," says Rodney, still giggling. "Or maybe giving each other a special hug."

"Gross, Rodney," says John, but he's still cracking up a little. His eyes flicker over and meet Rodney's for a second. "You think Nora knows?"

"I think she may have noticed we're sharing a room, yeah," says Rodney, snorting. "Come on, I smell pork chops. Can we convince Darlene to move to Atlantis, do you think?"

In the end, Nora stays up in her room for the rest of the night, and they don't bother pushing a bedtime on PJ. He and Lorne seem so mutually thrilled with each other that it seems a shame to break them up, and then Woolsey lets PJ taste the brandy he's passing around, and PJ's reaction has them all killing themselves laughing. At some point PJ crawls up into John's lap and the next time Rodney looks, John's rubbing the kid's hair fondly and PJ is drifting off to sleep.

"You are very good with him," says Teyla with a smile curving over her mouth.

John is trying not to look pleased with the compliment.

"Can you imagine him back on Atlantis?" says Lorne, grinning. "Man, it's too bad we can't take kids with us when we go to Pegasus."

"Thank god we can't," says Rodney, heartfelt, and cringes when Teyla glares. "With the exception of Torren," he says hastily, "who is in no way annoying and troublesome."

Woolsey pours another round.

"At this rate," says Ronon, "we're not taking anyone back."

John and Rodney look over at Woolsey, who shrugs helplessly. "You know as well as I do, the IOA is considering all its options here. Atlantis makes a formidable military base to protect Earth, especially now that the Wraith have destroyed the Ancient weapons platform from Antarctica."

"Atlantis does not belong to Earth," says Teyla for the millionth time. "She is the legacy of the Ancestors and belongs to the people of my galaxy."

"And yet," says Woolsey, waving his hand, "here she is." He sits forward, shakes his head. "Let's not argue. It won't change anything."

They all sigh and settle back a little. "I must admit, I bloody well miss that place," says Carson into the silence.

"Me too," says Ronon, and chinks his brandy glass with Lorne, who's nodding his agreement.

"Me too," says Rodney gloomily.

"As do I," says Teyla.

Rodney looks at John, who is weirdly silent on the subject. He's stroking PJ's hair still, staring down at him, with an odd troubled expression.

The next day all hell breaks loose again. The service at the church isn't until one o'clock but that's not nearly enough time to get ready when it takes ten minutes to get through one room of the house. There are caterers and decorators and event planners and people keep sending more flowers and cards. Rodney goes into Dave Sheppard's closet in search of a new tie for John and ends up hiding in the walk-in monstrosity for twenty minutes just reveling in the quiet.

"Is this okay?" he asks John when he braces himself to rejoin the real world. "I took one from the back, hopefully nothing anyone would recognize."

"It's fine," says John. "PJ, what do we do with your hair?" PJ is freshly showered and bouncing around their room with wet hair at seven different angles.

"If you don't know what to do with it, who will?" asks Rodney, appalled.

"I don't know, Rosa was combing it so it looked better," says John. "PJ, did Rosa put gel in your hair?"

"No, no, nope!" says PJ.

"Use whatever you put in your hair," Rodney says. "That stuff in the green jar you think I don't know about."

John glares at Rodney, but he digs in his toiletry kit and finds the secret green jar. It doesn't really tame PJ's hair but it does make it look like it's more deliberately messy. "We should have gotten you a haircut, Peej," says John regretfully.

"It's fine," says PJ. "Do I get dressed now?"

"No," says Rodney, "you have to eat first. Darlene is bringing you a sandwich."

Nora knocks at the door and then enters, already wearing her navy dress and white sandals. She's carrying an elastic band and a hairbrush.

"Right, sit," says John, and pushes her down into a chair. He points a finger at Rodney – "Not a word, McKay," – and parts Nora's hair into three straight shiny sections.

Rodney mimes zipping his mouth closed, but it doesn't last long. "Are you wearing lipstick?" he asks Nora, noticing the shell-pink gleam of her lips.

"I'm allowed," Nora says, "and it's lip gloss."

"Nuh uh," says Rodney, and goes to get some tissue. "Nope, not for a funeral."

Nora scowls at him but dabs at her lips. "Hold still," says John, speaking around the elastic band clenched between his teeth.

Darlene shows up with the sandwiches and PJ pounces on them. "Colonel Sheppard, Father Rivero called to tell you that he'll sit with you and the children in the rectory until the service starts. You can just ring the bell and go on in. It's the house next door to the church, just go up the stairs and you'll find the sitting room."

John makes a pained face but nods his agreement. He swiftly ties off the neat braid he's made and pats Nora on the shoulder. "Eat."

"You, too," says Rodney, pushing a sandwich into John's hands. "It's noon, we are leaving for the church in five minutes."

"I'm finished, help me with my tie!" PJ shouts, and Rodney goes to help PJ get buttoned and tucked in and put together.

Then they're leaving, and it's like all those awful limo rides back in Miami – only a few days past, actually, but feeling like years ago. Nora goes quiet and pale, PJ follows suit, and John keeps adjusting his tie, his cuffs. "I should have worn the uniform," he says.

"You look good," Rodney tells him dismissively.

"It's a cheap suit, the dress uniform looks better," says John.

"Well, you can change before the wake if you want," Rodney offers shortly, losing patience.

"This is a stupid conversation," says Nora into the window glass, and okay. Things may have evolved a little since Miami.

"Mouth," says John, drawing himself up, becoming the unfamiliar John of the boarding school again.

"Sorry," says Nora, not sounding sorry.

They pull up at the church at twelve fifteen and John leads the way into the rectory. Rodney hesitates at the threshold, feeling like an intruder for a moment, but John just holds the door open and waves him in.

"I need to use the restroom," Nora whispers, clutching at her stomach and looking even paler. It's possible she's faking to get out of another round of priest-talk, but she seems genuinely distressed either way.

"Fine," says Rodney. "Go on, I'll find a bathroom and bring her up." John steers PJ up the staircase and Rodney pokes his head around the narrow hallway in front of them until he locates a small room with a sink and a toilet. "Here, here," he says, "are you going to barf?"

Nora shakes her head no, looking miserable, and goes into the bathroom. Rodney leans against the wall, hoping Nora is going to throw up and get it over with, and then he hears her voice, soft and wobbly: "Oh, no."

Rodney gives her a minute, in case he wasn't supposed to hear, but then Nora says it again, and he can tell she's crying. "Oh, no," she says, and hiccups.

Rodney raps on the door. "What's wrong? Are you sick?"

"No, I'm not sick," Nora says, but she's still crying. "Oh, no."

"Okay, you have to tell me," says Rodney. "Are you worried about the funeral? Is it about your dad?"

"No," says Nora. "Rodney, it's too embarrassing."

"Hey, I have seen it all when it comes to embarrassing," Rodney tells her, not without sympathy. "Some time I'll tell you the story about how I got an arrow in my a"—

"It's, I think, it's my period," says Nora all in a rush.

"Oh," says Rodney, and feels himself suddenly blushing madly. Her period? In a priest's bathroom? "Have you – have you got anything with you? For that?"

"No, Rodney, it's my first period," says Nora, agonized.

"Oh, shit," Rodney says, heart sinking. "Right. Well, I'm thinking Father Rivero doesn't have anything that could help. Stay put, Nora, I'm going to run over to the church and find someone with – breasts."

He sprints down the walkway and over to the big Catholic church. It's nearly empty, still forty-five minutes before the service, but thank god Dave Sheppard was a big corporate cheese and there are a few mourners already gathering, angling for the best seats. Rodney scans the sanctuary – too old, too young, too scary-looking – and finally lands on a woman who looks to be in her late thirties, carrying a promisingly large purse. He scoots up the aisle and taps on her shoulder.

"Hi, I'm sorry, this is probably the most awkward question I've ever posed, but do you have anything in the way of, um, feminine hygiene products on you?"

The woman's eyebrows shoot up, and who could blame her? "Not for your own use, I'm guessing?" she says.

"No, sorry, my – well, my niece," he improvises for the sake of brevity. "She's twelve. It's her first, um, time?"

The woman smiles now. "Come on, take me to her. Her mom's not around?"

"No, her mom is gone," says Rodney, pathetically grateful to this amazing stranger. "Thank you so much," he begins, babbling, and they pause in the narthex.

"Don't thank me yet," says the woman, "I only have tampons."

"Perfect!" says Rodney, "We'll take one!"

"Tampons aren't any good for a first period," says the woman, shaking her head, bemused. "I need to find someone else, I just thought I'd save you the pain of asking." She steps over to a middle-aged woman chatting a few feet away, leans in, and murmurs to her. The other woman shakes her head regretfully and points over at someone else, and Rodney's saviour moves on. It takes a couple of minutes, but then Rodney sees it go down like a drug deal: a younger woman slips a square flat green package over to Rodney's friend, she in turn tucks it into her bag, and then she swings back over to Rodney, triumphant.

"Right, where is your niece?" she asks.

"Oh, I can take it to her," Rodney says, not wanting to further embarrass Nora.

"She might need some help," says the woman, persistent. "I'll just come along and stay quiet in case she needs me."

Rodney sighs and nods, and leads the woman down the steps of the church and towards the rectory. He hears the slight check in her steps as she makes the obvious connection – Rodney is taking her to a family member of the deceased – but to her credit she carries on into the hallway.

"Hey, I found a, a thing," says Rodney to the closed bathroom door, and snaps his fingers until the woman passes it over. "I'm sliding it under, okay?"

"Okay," comes Nora's answer, a little calmer by now.

"Do you know how it goes on?" Rodney asks.

"I think I can figure it out," Nora says with just a hint of sarcasm, and Rodney relaxes. Sarcasm. Nora is okay.

He turns to wave the woman off with a gesture of thanks and notices that she has gone quite still. "Nora, is that you?" says the woman, damn her.

Nora cracks open the door and peeks out. "Aunt Nancy!" she cries, and the woman – Nancy, no, Aunt Nancy, oh holy fucking Christ – pushes past Rodney and slips inside the bathroom.

Rodney slumps against the wall, stunned. He's just met John's ex-wife.

Nora and Nancy emerge after another minute of hushed conversation behind the door. "Nora tells me you're John's friend," says Nancy, and extends her hand. Nora looks a little better, though still quite pale. "I don't suppose John has mentioned me?"

"No, he has," says Rodney, and shakes her hand. "Why the hell didn't you tell me who you were?" he asks, irate.

"I could ask you the same," says Nancy, arching an eyebrow. "Go on up, Nora," she says, and Nora heads up the stairs. "She's fine," Nancy confides softly after she's out of earshot. "The first time is usually a shock, that's all. And obviously it's bad timing, today of all days."

Rodney can't stop staring at her. Ronon's exact words were: "Pretty. Tall. Skinny. Kind of boring." With his usual flair for understatement, Ronon missed the part where Nancy is gorgeous as hell and obviously not in the least boring. She crackles with energy and intelligence and impatience. "I just said she was my niece for the sake of brevity," says Rodney, a little too late.

"Of course," Nancy says, waving a hand in dismissal.

"Why are you here, exactly?" Rodney asks.

If Nancy's surprised by his bluntness she doesn't show it. "Dave was a dear friend. He introduced me and John," she says, "but I didn't hold it against him."

"Hmm," says Rodney, not bothering to fake a smile. "Right. Well, I'm supposed to be upstairs comforting the bereaved or something. Thanks for the help with the – thing."

Nancy catches Rodney by the arm as he's about to head up the stairs. "Is John taking guardianship of the children?" she asks, with a sudden strange curiosity in her eyes.

"What, and give up his glamorous life in the USAF?" says Rodney with a snort.

Her grip relaxes incrementally. "Right. Of course not."

The service is sad, like every funeral for anyone gone before his or her time. There are readings, and prayers, and eulogies, and all sorts of other weird arcane Catholic rituals. Rodney mutters his way through the service, feeling every bit as incredulous and out of place as he does at every mystical voodoo ceremony in Pegasus. At one point John gets up in front of everyone and makes a short awkward speech about family and sacrifice and commitment, weirdly secular and bracing and sort of corporate in the incense-laden sanctuary. They drone hymns and listen to Father Rivero talk about living in hope of resurrection, and finally the pallbearers roll the casket down the aisle and out to the waiting hearse.

Rodney hasn't had a chance to speak with John, having been shunted out of the too-short family row and back into the row with all the other Atlantis people, and now John is swamped by men in suits, Father Rivero firmly at his side like a weird religious version of the Secret Service. The children hover close to them like flotsam in John's wake.

"Will you come in our car, Rodney?" asks Teyla kindly, as Rodney watches Nancy make her way towards John. "Ronon tells me there is a feast at the house before the interment of the body."

Rodney tags along with the Atlantis crew, feeling vaguely guilty for leaving John behind with the kids. Back at the house the set-up is complete, the funeral directors just finishing with placing the casket (closed, thank god, closed) in the front sitting room where guests can pay their respects.

"All the food is free," Ronon tells them soberly, and heads straight to the buffet. Guests begin to arrive and the hired wait staff take coats, usher people into the house, direct them to the washrooms, encourage them to take their plates and their drinks out to the backyard and enjoy the May sunshine.

Rodney lingers in by the back entrance in the kitchen, where John and the kids will come in to avoid the crush. It's half past two, which means only about two hours they have to survive here before they head to the small family graveside service. Teyla joins him after a few minutes, and they stand in silence, both of them stiff in their unaccustomed formal wear.

When John comes in the door, Rosa swoops in out of nowhere and gathers the children up, takes them off to their room downstairs so they can avoid all the mourners who want to say how sorry they are. John unbuttons his blazer and leans against the counter, drained.

"There's some sort of party out there," he says, "or so I'm told."

Rodney is prepared, and hands John a glass of wine. "To Dave," Teyla says, and all three of them clink glasses.

"That was fucking awful," adds Rodney, sincerely.

"Funerals are all fucking awful," says John. "It's a whole new thing when it's fucking awful, plus you've got two kids crying next to you." He drains the glass. "Do me a favor, make sure no one lets them into the room with the casket. It's better if they just don't know it's here. And keep that damned preacher away from them, too."

Teyla and Rodney nod, both keeping a careful eye on John.

John wanders over to the window looking out onto the yard with all the people mingling. For a moment, Rodney thinks he's just brooding, but then he realizes that John's studying the windowsill, where there's a small white candle in a silver candlestick. It's probably purely decorative, but John pulls a matchbook out of his pocket and lights it, then cracks the window just a little bit. "To guide his spirit," John says, nodding at the candle, "and to make sure he can leave," nodding to the window. He stuffs his hands into his pockets, staring at the flickering flame. "It's stupid, isn't it?"

"It's not stupid," says Teyla, chiming in at the right moment. "It is a beautiful gesture." She comes up and hugs John, one of those weird one-sided Sheppard specials where Teyla is doing all the work and John is hanging there stiffly like a board.

"Carson – the original Carson – his mum did it at his wake," Rodney agrees. "Have another glass."

Rodney leaves John and Teyla to go and give some directions to the funeral home guys, wanting to make sure they know to redirect the kids away from the room with the casket just in case one of them gives Rosa the slip. Then someone has to keep the priest busy so he doesn't go off looking for bereaved family members to mourn with, so Rodney finds Carson and introduces him to Father Rivero. Rodney figures they're both in the business of giving unwanted advice and feigning sympathy, so they should have lots to talk about. Carson doesn't agree, from the look on his face, but Rodney just pats him on the back and abandons him.

When Rodney gets back to the kitchen, he finds John and Teyla sitting close, heads bowed, in quiet conversation. Teyla's hand is covering John's, and John is speaking so quietly that Rodney can't make out the words.

Rodney takes his cue and silently leaves before either of them can notice him.

Nora wants to come to the graveside but PJ stays behind with Rosa.

"He is too young," says Teyla, and Ronon looks like he might object, but doesn't.

They're all too young, Rodney thinks, to have watched this many bodies go into the ground or up in the air as ash. They're gathered, only a small group: John, Rodney, Teyla, Carson, Ronon, Nora, and Evelyn; the priest, thankfully, was not invited to be part of this silent ceremony. The coffin is lowered and some idiot from the funeral home has given Nora a flower to throw onto it as it goes. She is sobbing, deep soul-rending sobs, unable to catch her breath, and when she comes back from the grave's edge John puts his arm around her and she pushes her face into Rodney's side, trembling. Evelyn cries too, but the Lanteans are stoic for John's sake.

The house is empty barring a few lingering catering staff who are doing clean up. Nora has mostly cried herself into exhaustion but she wants to stay with everyone while they sit and drink and keep each other company, just as PJ did yesterday.

Rosa pokes her head in as she leaves, and Rodney takes the chance to duck out and have a quick word. "Nora," he says, "she had her first, uh, menstrual. Thing. Today."

Rosa makes a sympathetic face. "Oh, god, poor kid."

"Listen, she's going to need more – supplies," Rodney manages.

"Oh, there's a package of Always thins in her closet, top shelf. She knows," Rosa says. "Mr. Sheppard," and she blinks a little, rapidly, "Mr. Sheppard asked me to make sure she had everything she needed last summer in case she was an early bloomer."

"Okay," says Rodney. "Thank you." He reaches out, grabs her hand, squeezes it. "Really. Thank you for, for all the help."

"No problem," says Rosa. "I love those kids, you know." She squeezes his hand in return. "I really think Colonel Sheppard is going to be good for them, too."

Rodney coughs and blinks. "Pardon me?"

Rosa smiles. "It's okay, he told me he's keeping them. But don't worry, I didn't say a word." And she sweeps out the door leaving Rodney with his mouth wide open.

No one has ever accused Rodney McKay of being a good liar, and though Rodney knows he can be a credible actor if his life is on the line, he's no good at hiding it when he's pissed off. He tries to be casual as he goes back into the sitting room where everyone is continuing to chat and drink like nothing's different, but it's pretty clear that he's not pulling it off. Teyla, the most perceptive of the bunch, catches it first and moves over to where Rodney is standing with arms folded over his chest, tapping his fingers irritably on his biceps and wishing everyone would just leave, already.

"You are troubled," says Teyla, who probably was helping John make this insane decision earlier in the kitchen, the traitor.

Rodney shoots a glance over at Nora, curled up into a little drooping ball of misery in the corner. She's finally dropped off into an uneasy sleep, and Rodney's grateful for her sake.

It's not that he doesn't get it – even Rodney, who doesn't like kids, gets it – John has grown attached to Nora and PJ, of course he has. Especially PJ, who's small and affectionate and helpless; and a helpless kid is like kryptonite to John, whose life mission basically consists of rescuing every person ever in the history of people needing rescuing. "They won't let him take them to Pegasus," Rodney says, not bothering with the pretense of Teyla not knowing. Of course she knows.

"I believe that is true," says Teyla, calm and sad.

"What is he, going to dump them at some school and just come back to Earth for the major holidays? Keep Stargate-hopping like there's no tomorrow?" Rodney says, trying to keep his voice low. It's not working; Carson is shooting short looks their way, concerned.

"I do not think it would be wise for John to continue to undertake such dangerous work as the sole support for the children," Teyla says. "I believe he agrees."

"So, what," says Rodney, and now he really has lost control of the volume of his voice, "so, what – he's leaving? He's leaving everything?"

"What's this, then?" says Carson. "Who's leaving what?"

All heads turn towards them, barring sleeping Nora, and Rodney goes flush with anger and annoyance. "This moron," says Rodney, pointing at John, "he's"—

"Rodney," John snaps. "Enough. Not here."

"Yes, yes, they're very cute," says Rodney, "and needy and unloved and god knows I can see they've had a shit life so far and you can probably relate to that on all sorts of rich-boy angst levels, but, John"—

"I said, not here," John says, strained.

"Come on, everyone in this room deserves a chance to weigh in, don't you think?" said Rodney, waving a hand around to bring the whole group into the discussion. "I mean, you've said it yourself, this is your family too, you can't just close the door in everyone's face and walk away."

"Oh," says John, getting to his feet, voice getting louder, "like you're one to talk, McKay."

The thing is, they've actually had this argument before. Granted, it wasn't in front of six other people, but it's all very familiar. Only, last time, Rodney was on the other side of the fence.

Nora suddenly stirs, and everyone freezes guiltily. "Come on," John says, voice abruptly gentled, and beckons her out of the armchair, "come on, up to bed."

Nora obviously gets that something's going on, but she doesn't protest, casting a nervous eye around at all the people she barely knows before letting John usher her from the room.

There's a bit of awkward silence after John and Nora have closed the door behind them, and then Woolsey steps into the breach with typical diplomacy. "I think perhaps it's best if we call it a night," he says. "We're all very tired and"—

"Sheppard's planning to stay with the kids?" says Ronon, looking between Teyla and Rodney for confirmation. "He's not coming home?"

"Apparently not," says Rodney, glad that Ronon seems as thrown as he was.

"John feels that the children need him," Teyla intervenes, "and it has not been an easy decision for him to make."

Lorne, Carson, and Woolsey are standing and putting drinks down, almost comically stealthy in their motions, and yeah. Okay. This is probably a team thing. "I have to disagree," says Rodney, "because I've seen John making this kind of ridiculous rash decision before, and trust me, there is absolutely no thought going through his stupid thick head at moments like these. All he's capable of doing is acting on his screwed-up impulse to save the entire universe. The only difference this time is that it's a slow-motion suicide run."

"Surely you do not believe that John is trying to end his own life?" says Teyla sharply as the rest of the Atlantis crew ease out the door.

"What would you call it, then?" says Ronon. "Look around: the kids have everything they could need. They'll be okay."

"That's not the mission," says John, coming back into the room as Ronon speaks. "Ronon, buddy. That's not the mission."

Rodney can't take it – he sees Ronon's face shift from angry denial to something like clarity, and Rodney can't fucking take it, they're all going to side with John in this ridiculous choice. "Oh, this is perfect," Rodney explodes. "Yes, by all means. Treat them like some special ops maneuver, it's not like they're living humans who've already been through huge trauma and who will be lucky to make it to adulthood without serious emotional issues even without the help of an uncle who thinks of them like a duty to be carried out, like some inherited crusade."

"Oh, so now you're the expert?" rejoins John.

"I'm the one who's been doing all the goddamn work, John!" Rodney shouts. "Or has that slipped your notice? I'm the one dressing them and feeding them and entertaining them, I'm the one who's standing in the church asking strange women for feminine hygiene products for your niece's fucking period, I'm the one who's been living the oh-so-glamorous life you're about to claim as your own. It's not what you think it is, John, it's fucking menial work and it's exhausting and consuming." He pauses. "I didn't stick around to watch my sister flush her life down the toilet and I'm not doing it for you, either."

"No one's asking you to stay, Rodney!" John says, hands wide, furious. "No one's keeping you from your precious Nobel and your goddamn dreams of fame and fortune, no one's expecting you to understand about loyalty and sacrifice, Jesus Christ!"

"Don't you talk to me about loyalty!" Rodney yells. "Dammit, John, don't you dare talk to me about loyalty!"

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" John demands, and Rodney's now only vaguely aware of Ronon and Teyla in the background, Ronon's tense posture, Teyla's repeated soft attempts to interrupt them.

"It means you were supposed to offer to come with me to Colorado, you asshole!" Rodney says. "It means, I'm supposed to mean more to you than the ongoing opportunity to throw yourself under every single bus that comes along! How did you not get that?"

John's stunned, and Rodney is darkly victorious, and Teyla comes up and physically gets between them, saying, "It has been a trying time, you both need rest and peace before this can be resolved."

"No," says Rodney, "no, I think it's as resolved as it's going to get." He brushes past Teyla, gets up in John's face. "You're not cut out for this, John. I give it a few months, tops, and then there's going to be some crisis and the SGC will need you, and you're going to dump the kids at that godawful school and step through the gate to god knows where and die horribly – and then those poor goddamn kids are going to go through it all over again, you immature fuck."

Atlantis landed on Earth in early January; the offer didn't come through until May. That made four months of nothing, four months of mundane maintenance and boredom and stasis. People started to drift away, as people do, tempted by offers of more exciting work elsewhere, by the possibility of taking long-deserved leave, of seeing family. No one came to work in a different galaxy without being a bit of an adrenaline junkie, after all, and Atlantis suddenly became nothing more than a ghost town peopled by those who were required to stay and the handful of them who stayed because they were at home.

Rodney couldn't figure out which camp he belonged to, was the thing.

"It's actually kind of amazing," said Rodney, waving a fork around the mess hall, "how much of the senior staff has stuck around this far. You know, barring some, um, significant medical-type people of whom we have vowed never to speak again."

"What do you mean, stuck around?" said John, dropping his own fork and raising his head to look at Rodney.

"Oh," said Rodney. "Well, you know. We're dead in the water here. Literally." He fidgeted in his seat, uncomfortable.

"For now," said John with careful emphasis on the second word. "Just for now."

For now, just for now stretched out longer and longer, though. The gate was dead, had been since they landed – it couldn't override the Earth gate, after all. That meant no offworld missions, of course, and no offworld missions meant that Rodney was trapped in his lab day in, day out, doing boring trivial work on maintenance and boring theoretical projections on the possibility of taking Atlantis back even though it was looking increasingly unlikely it would ever happen. No missions, no huge all-consuming projects, no time spent with his team. He saw John frequently, mostly after hours; but Ronon and Teyla were always off doing something else: debriefings at the SGC, teaching hand-to-hand with the marines, indulging in the novelties that Earth provided them. Rodney was bored, and he was lonely as hell.

It was one thing, Rodney discovered, to be stuck in another galaxy, making incredible scientific advances and saving lives and pulling miracles out of his ass; it was quite another to be stranded here on Earth, hidden away from not only the sight of common people, but of Rodney's peers. He hadn't gotten over the humiliation of the initial welcome he'd got at Malcolm Tunney's horrendous conference, and it didn't escape Rodney's notice that those few scientists aside, most of his colleagues still thought of him as a wash-out. Back here on Earth, it was all too clear that Rodney's brilliance was not only going to waste, it was going unrecognized. That made it all the more tempting when Rodney took the fateful call from Landry: they were offering him so much more than work for his idle brain. They were offering him true acknowledgment of his capabilities, his genius.

It was everything Rodney had hoped for, hanging in front of him, glittering and bright and a hundred times more vivid than the fading specter of hope that Atlantis might someday return to Pegasus and Rodney would be able to regain his position as the scientific leader of the expedition.

Rodney and John were in Rodney's quarters, not doing anything in particular. John was lounging on the couch, leafing through a magazine. Rodney was maybe a little twitchy, looking for an opening to tell John the news. He moved around the room restlessly, lighting and then taking off like a fly seeking an exit.

"Just spit it out," John said at last, wearily.

Rodney didn't bother playing dumb. "They want me on SG-1."

"They want you on SG-1," John repeated doubtfully.

"Yes, yes," said Rodney, waving his hands, pacing. "Yes, it seems that Sam Carter is moving on, something about a position at the Pentagon, though I think we can all guess why she's really so eager to move out to D.C., and yes. Landry called. They want me to replace her, not just on the team, but her whole – everything. Working with the science department at Cheyenne. Taking the lead for the whole SGC. Basically replacing Carter, completely, if you can imagine it."

"Have they asked Jackson? Does Mitchell know?" John said, still skeptical.

"Yes, of course, you think Landry just invites people onto the elite exploration team willy-nilly? Besides, this galaxy isn't like Pegasus anymore, most of their missions don't have a high likelihood of ending in bloody death for all. Between Mitchell and Teal'c they hardly need another Air Force colonel, and they did just fine without her while she was with us on Atlantis." Rodney stopped pacing, faced John. "Are you even listening?"

John had gone back to looking at his magazine. "Oh, I'm completely listening." Rodney stalked closer and slapped the magazine out of John's hands, eliciting a startled "Hey!"

"Would you stop being a jackass and engage with the words I'm saying to you?" Rodney snapped. "I'm talking about leaving Atlantis. For good."

"Yeah, I get that," said John snappishly. "You're abandoning ship. Fine."

"Oh, right, we should all spend our lives chained to a floating hunk of dead Ancient tech just because we used to live here, because it used to be important," Rodney huffed. "That makes me the bad guy, just because I didn't want to sit on my ass and wait for further orders? Because I'm not content to let my mind rot and lose any chance of doing some Nobel-worthy work? Doing scut work and maintenance on a dead city is hardly worthy of my intellect!"

"Then why are you still here?" John demanded, waving a hand at the room, at Atlantis.

"You know, I'm starting to ask myself that very question," Rodney shot back, quick and venomous, and it hung in the air between them like the silence before a thunderclap.

And then the door chimed, and Woolsey came in looking mournful and anxious, and everything got derailed.

Rodney packs his suitcase quickly, with angry motions, but it's mostly a pretense. The anger has run out of him by now leaving him with an incipient hangover and a heavy sense of despair. John is sleeping in the guest room across the hall, the one neither of them used before tonight. At least, John's pretending to sleep. Rodney doesn't know if it's genuine, doesn't really care, because it gives him the space and privacy he needs to be doing this.

Rodney's an expert in crying, mostly because he seems to provoke it in other people all too often, so he knows what this is, this heavy choked feeling that keeps looming up in his throat. He swallows it back down for the dozenth time and zips his suitcase shut, grabs his garment bag with his suit. He has to dig for a minute to find his com-link headset but finally he unearths it and switches it on.

"Come in Daedalus, this is Dr. Rodney McKay."

They're expecting his call; Rodney made arrangements over the phone earlier with Landry.

"Ready for departure, Dr. McKay?" says the tech who's manning the transport array during the graveyard shift.

"Yeah," says Rodney, and kneels so he's placing his hands on both his cases. "Me, plus baggage, to beam up."

Rodney, plus baggage. He's still smirking over that one when he blinks and finds himself orbiting the Earth on the sterile deck of the Daedalus.



Headmaster Gould is very understanding, which makes John suspect that his brother has made some generous donations to the school in recent years. His suspicions are confirmed when Gould accidentally lets it drop that the school doesn't take boarders as young as PJ, that they'd been persuaded (likely in the form of cash) to make a special exception for the Sheppards.

"So they can finish up their exams or whatever," says John. He jiggles his knee, hating this place, wanting to be done with it. "Finish their year."

"I'm sure we can arrange something," says Gould. "Nora, PJ, you can say goodbye to your uncle now if you like."

PJ says goodbye with a boa constrictor hug that makes John's throat tight with worry. Nora's farewell is more casual. She's been one cool customer during the week since the funeral, mostly with her head stuck in a book and few, if any, words for John. Even when he broke the news that they were going to live with him, that he would be taking care of them, Nora's only response was, "Live where? Here?" and John was forced to extemporize about not knowing where he was going to find work and whether they really wanted to stay in D.C.

Gould shoos the kids off to their dorms and takes a moment to assure John that the school has a child therapist on staff who will schedule weekly sessions with Nora and PJ to the end of the term. "We can ask her for a reference to a psychologist if you're more comfortable," he says, misreading John's expression.

"No, no," says John, raising his hands. "That's just fine." He starts to stand, ready to go, but Gould stops him.

"Colonel Sheppard, our registrar tells me we don't have any contact information for you in our files. Is there a number where we can reach you in case of emergency?"

"Oh, right, of course," says John, feeling stupid. "Uh, I'm a little hard to reach for the next while but there's a number, hang on." He pulls out his cell phone, scrolls through the contact list, then scribbles down the SGC's hotline number for uninitiated family and friends. "I'll be back to pick them up on the last day."

Gould makes some motion that checks John halfway through starting to stand up again. "Uh, I'm sorry to keep you, Colonel, but I thought – you should have a way of reaching the children directly, I think."

"Right," says John, just now realizing that he's going to have to call, of course, it's not like he can just break off all contact and pick up where they left off in three weeks' time. He can't really believe how bad he is at all this. "Yes, that sounds like a good plan."

Gould gives John the names and numbers of the house advisors for each kid and talks about arranging for a phone visit every few days. "We're also doing registration for the coming school year, might I assume that the children are returning in the fall?" he says casually, like John is going to be just like Dave, just like their father before him, depositing these kids and going about his life with no thought at all to how they might feel.

"No," says John, hearing his voice – too abrupt, a little annoyed. "No, they won't be returning."

Gould is surprised, and John thinks, Take that, McKay before quashing the unwelcome thought.

"I'm leaving the Air Force," John says, out loud for the first time, "resigning my commission. I just need a few weeks to tie up loose ends and then I'll be working a regular job so the kids can attend day school."

Gould is caught completely off-guard by John's defection. He stammers a little about how his school does offer options for day students but he seems to sense John's resolve. His handshake of farewell is much cooler than the one he used in greeting only a few minutes earlier.

It's depressingly easy to resign his commission. Of course there's paperwork, and there's even a bit of flattering argument from Landry, but ultimately John discovers that "I've got to take care of my dead brother's kids" is kind of the best clincher ever. Because Atlantis has become just another defense platform at this point, the SGC is happy to leave Lorne in charge of military operations.

There are forms to sign, of course. John doesn't have to sever ties with those in the program, not exactly, but he has to promise they won't discuss the Stargate program. He has to acknowledge that he's giving up his security privileges with regards to visiting and contacting all SGC bases, which includes Atlantis and her email servers. John, in short, has to walk away from everyone and everything that has comprised his life for the past five years.

Ronon is deeply unhappy at John's departure, but he above all people understands what it's like to have the dead leave you with a mission, and he mostly doesn't try to talk John out of it.

"I just," says John, picking through his clothes, sorting out what belongs to the USAF and what's actually his, "I just, they always thought I was running away." He breathes out through his nose, steadies himself. "I was," he corrects himself. "I was definitely running away. But it's different, running away from your parents and your big brother."

Teyla is sitting on the edge of John's bed, clutching the rolled-up Johnny Cash poster that John is insisting she keep. She nods slowly. "They are children," she says, "and they have no other people to care for them." And John remembers it's now six months, nearly, since Teyla saw her own small son, and thinks that she probably understands too.

"It's not," starts John. "It's not that I don't have people here too." He comes across one of Rodney's t-shirts mixed in with his, and impulsively throws it in with the rest of his own civvie clothes. "I mean. This is home."

"We know," says Ronon. "Hey. Sheppard. We know."

John stinks at goodbyes, and he stinks even more at explaining his feelings, but he is kind of weirdly relieved that now of all moments is when the dam finally breaks: not drunk in his dead brother's house, not in the silence and the dark with Rodney unable to grasp the fucked up shit piling up in his head – but now, now in his stupid tiny quarters, his belongings half-hanging out of a beat-up military duffel, now with Teyla and Ronon nearby. John dashes his forearm over his eyes, quickly, but it's futile. His cheeks are wet, his guts are uncoiling, and Ronon's got him, and Teyla's got him, and they just stand there and let John grieve.

"You know," says John, once he mostly gets his shit together again, shaking and red-eyed and rolling his shoulders, "you know, it's bad enough when your brother dies."

"You have lost much more in this tragedy than a single family member," says Teyla, making it okay somehow that John just fell apart over leaving Atlantis and leaving his team when he couldn't produce a single tear over his dead older brother the last two weeks.

"You're still our people," says Ronon gruffly. "Always."

"And it may not seem it yet," adds Teyla, moving to reorganize John's haphazard stack of t-shirts, "but there is a richness in such a great sacrifice. You will come to see it."

"Yeah," says John, and he wants to say, Tell McKay, would you? but if there's one loss John doesn't want to think about right now, that's it. "No, I know. I mean. I think it'll be okay."

"Can I have your surfboard?" asks Ronon, and John laughs, and loves them both so, so fucking much.

John doesn't bother watching out the window of the transport plane; the city is cloaked anyway. There's nothing there to see anymore.

It's hard, still, not to feel fucked up and angry at first. It's John's choice, it's a choice he made all on his own, and the last thing he wants to do is start off his new life with PJ and Nora by being a resentful miserable son of a bitch. He forces himself to think about things he's going to like: having regular hours, time to golf, watching the kids grow up and showing them what family's supposed to be like – something that Pegasus taught him. John gets dressed in his San Francisco hotel room his first morning as a civilian and then he puts on optimism like it's another piece of clothing. He's still a team leader, of a sort, and he's got to lead.

Time has flown by, and it's only a week until the kids are done school and John's got to be back in Virginia to pick them up. That's one week to start figuring out his life from here, where they're going to live, what he's going to do for money. He knows he can't live in Dave's house, so he calls up Darlene and asks her to pack up the kids' stuff into boxes, to put the place into hibernation. He offers her a lump sum for the job, and then adds her a small stipend if she'll keep an eye on the place until he decides what to do with it.

"What should I do with all the boxes for the children?" asks Darlene.

"I'll let you know," says John. "Just pack it all up for now, toys, clothes, books, everything."

"And what about Brutus?" she asks, and crap. John forgot all about that big stupid dog.

"We'll be taking him with us, I guess," says John, and that's one more thing to worry about. "We'll come to get him when I'm there to pick up the kids next weekend."

Any money needed for the kids and for the maintenance of their inheritance can come out of their trust funds, John knows, and that's probably more than enough to support all three of them decently with lots of room left over for education; but John can't stomach the idea of living off the family money after being independent for so long. He's got a good amount of savings from when he was living on Atlantis pulling in combat pay with no expenses to speak of. He was actually only a couple years out from being able to retire and have his pension, but it's not worth thinking about when he would never have retired so soon anyway.

So John needs a job, and he needs to decide where to live.

It seems too daunting a to-do list for today, though, so John takes a cab into the city and goes shopping. He buys himself a new civilian wardrobe to replace the outmoded civvies he hasn't had a chance to wear much since Atlantis. The kids probably have plenty of clothes, but John remembers that they had outgrown a lot of them. He makes it all the way into Gap Kids and is staring at a wall of jeans before he realizes that Rodney was the one in charge of clothes. John has no idea what size the kids are.

That night at the hotel he calls the school for their regular phone appointment. Nora's house advisor tells John that Nora is busy with studying for final exams so only PJ could come this time. John feels relieved – Nora is so hard to talk to – and then guilty.

"Hey, Peej," says John, rolling onto his back on the hotel bed.

"Hi Uncle John," says PJ, sounding cheerful as usual.

"What's up at school?" John asks.

"Nothing," says PJ. "It's the end of the year so all the teachers are just showing movies and playing games."

"Fun times," says John. "Hey, Peej, do you know what size your clothes are?"

"No," says PJ. "Hey, Uncle John, do you know how to make your armpit fart?"

John rubs at his mouth, trying not to smile. "Yep, I guess I do," he admits.

"Can you show me? Because Hugh Patterson knows how but he's keeping it secret and I can't figure it out."

"I'll show you," says John. "PJ, can you look inside your shirt and see what the tag says?"

"I'm in the house advisor's study," says PJ, scandalized. "I'm not supposed to take off my shirt, duh."

"I know, buddy, I just meant you could check the tag," says John, and then gives up on explaining how to do this. Seven years old is always a bit younger than John thinks. "Hey, it's okay, we'll go shopping for clothes when we get together."

"Okay," says PJ. "Can we go back to Cape Carnival again? I want to ride in the rocket ship."

"Probably not," says John. "I think we're going to try and get settled before we take any vacations, Peej."

PJ is quiet for a few seconds. "Uncle John? Nora says we're not going to live in our house anymore."

"Nope, we're not," says John. "We're going to get a smaller house for just the three of us."

"Can I choose the color for my room?" asks PJ.

"Yep, you can even help paint it," says John.

"Can it be purple?"

"It can be whatever you like."

PJ is properly impressed. "Okay, I have to go," he says. "You know, some of the kids here have cell phones," he adds meaningfully.

"I bet they do," says John, pretending to miss his point. "Okay, goodnight, Peej."

"Goodnight, Uncle John."

John lies on his back in the middle of the hotel bed after hanging up, staring at the stippled ceiling and feeling his optimism drain away. He misses home. He misses his uniform. He misses – everything.

Rodney misses John.

That asshole.

Rodney sighs, levers himself up to punch his pillow into a better shape, and collapses back down onto the bed. His whole Colorado Springs apartment smells musty and awful. He should have given it up years ago but he didn't, and here he is in his smelly old apartment sleeping on his saggy old orthopedic mattress missing John.

He turns over, impatient with himself. Maybe he should just call, or email.

Of course, he can't call or email, because John is an asshole and hasn't left Rodney with a phone number to call, and his only email address was at so of course that won't work.

SG-1 sucks.

Jackson has fucked off to do research on some ridiculous project with some pretentious Scottish asshole in the butt-end of the Milky Way. Vala and Teal'c seem to treat the Stargate like a cat door, coming and going as they please and never around when they're wanted. Mitchell is good, he's solid, but he's All American and southern and chiseled and Rodney tried talking about Batman with him and got a blank look for his troubles, and besides, Rodney's never quite trusted him after the thing with the lemon back on Atlantis. The team has been on exactly one mission in the three weeks that Rodney's been at Cheyenne and it was boring and pointless and Rodney spent the whole time sneezing and rubbing at his eyes due to hideous alien pollen.

He misses John.

Rodney rolls over again, this time onto his back. He wishes he felt like jerking off; it might help him sleep. He reaches into his boxers but is immediately bored with himself.

He finally gives up on sleep and gets up, goes to his computer and opens up a few files. Insomnia is doing wonders for his work ethic.

John can't decide what comes first, the job or the city, unused to making any decisions about either. He tries to think of the kind of work he'd like to do, but it's limited by his skill set. His academic qualifications, while good, are decades out of date. He's basically good at flying and fighting. The thought of commercial piloting makes his eyes roll back in his head with boredom, and besides, it would have to be short-haul flights if he's going to be at home for the kids every night.

John could teach flying, he thinks. There'd be some work, some qualifications and licensing, and sure, it's been a while since he flew anything that had spinning parts and used fossil fuels, but it'd come back to him soon enough. Still, flying lessons mean hours trapped in a tiny cockpit with assholes who have too much money and time on their hands.

Which leaves fighting: probably too dangerous a field for a guy who's the sole support for two kids. John can't do private security and he can't teach hand-to-hand at his age and anything else is likely to be as risky or out of reach.

Maybe start a business – but no, if he wanted to be a business guy, he could have taken the reins of Sheppard Industries when they were offered to him.

John has to retrain, then, in something.

Maybe better to pick the city first, he thinks, and closes his eyes, wishing for sleep.

John wakes up the next day and stares out his hotel window across the bay. The San Francisco area is gorgeous, he thinks, lots of weird people and fresh food and good weather. It's not So Cal with its smog and heat and it's not the Pacific Northwest with its rain and gloom. It's as good a place as any, he thinks, and snaps open the paper to look for a house to rent.

Rodney's cell phone rings on Sunday evening. He's been working from home all weekend and the apartment is a disaster zone. It takes him a minute to find the phone in the chaos.

"Yes, yes, McKay here," he says brusquely, catching it on the fourth ring. "Did you even try my home number first?"

"I don't have your home number," says the voice on the other end. It takes a minute for Rodney's brain to click: it's Nora.

"Oh, hi," says Rodney, hastily tidying away the DVD cases for the porn he'd been watching last night even though Nora can't see him. "How did you even get this number?" he asks.

"You wrote it on the fridge for Rosa and Darlene," she says, reasonably. "I copied it down just in case."

"Oh," says Rodney. "So. Uh."

"I'm back at school," says Nora. "Just to finish out the year. Uncle John says we're not coming back here."

"Did he?" says Rodney. "Well, that's, uh, that's news. Is it good news?"

"I don't know," says Nora, pensive. "I don't really want to go to a new school."

"Are you kidding me?" says Rodney. "It's a clean slate! You could show up on the first day with, with green hair and a pierced nose and tell everyone your name is Yogurt and they'd think you were amazing and cool."

Nora is giggling on the other end. "Yogurt?" she says. "That's not that cool."

"Oh, you could sell it," Rodney assures her. "If anyone could do it, it'd be you."

Nora is quiet for a few beats. "Are you coming with Uncle John to get us next weekend?" she asks.

"No," sighs Rodney. "No, sorry, I'm busy with work."

"It's okay," says Nora, too quickly. "I was just wondering."

Rodney nods inanely, eager to move on. "So otherwise, are you doing okay?" he asks. "I mean, with school?"

"Yeah," says Nora. "Everything's okay. Some of the teachers feel sorry for us because of our dad. It's really annoying."

"And how's PJ?" Rodney asks, suddenly feeling very far away.

"He's okay," says Nora. "I don't know, I don't see him very much. Except when they make us go see the school therapist."

"Therapist?" repeats Rodney, surprised.

"Don't worry, she's not dumb like that one at the hospital," says Nora. "She's okay. Mostly she just lets us talk about whatever PJ is worried about."

"That's good then," Rodney says.

"So I guess I should go," says Nora.

"Oh, okay," says Rodney.

"Um, if you talk to my uncle, don't tell him I called, okay?" she adds hastily.

"I – sure. Mum's the word," says Rodney, gutted.

"Bye," says Nora, and there's a click.

John finds a fully furnished pet-friendly three-bedroom rental bungalow way out in Oakley, nearly an hour and half outside the city. It's small but relatively new, in a nice cul-de-sac in a middle class neighborhood, close to a good public school. The kids' portion of the rent will hardly draw on their trust funds at all, which is good, and once John has a job he thinks he'll be able to swing the whole amount on his own. He has to sign a one-year lease on it but he figures he might as well let the kids settle in before he thinks about uprooting them again by buying a permanent place. A year gives him lots of time to find a good job and decide if they want to stay in the Bay area or move elsewhere. Kids need stability, he remembers hearing that somewhere. A year should be lots of stability, he figures, especially for kids who are so used to being shuttled back and forth between school and home and vacation home.

Next John has to buy a car so he can return the rental he's been using to look for a place. He sold his last vehicle almost ten years ago so it's crazy to see how many things come standard now: CD players, and navigation, and power locks with cool key fobs like the jumpers back home. He has a lot more fun shopping for a car than for a house, but he finally settles on a Subaru Forester that's only a few years old. It's not exactly a sexy car, but it's black and spacious and it's more like a truck than a mini-van, at least. He figures he can hand it down to PJ when he's old enough to drive, and celebrate by getting himself something fast and low-slung.

Once he's got a car and a house, a million other details start to come together. John makes lists and spends his last three days frantically rushing to get everything done: flights for him and the kids, arrangements to get their stuff shipped out from D.C., legal bullshit that gives him official guardianship papers, sheets and curtains and pillows for the kids' bedrooms, a doggie bed and dishes for Brutus.

It's kind of great, because it gives him no time to think further ahead than Saturday, and every night John hits his mattress completely drained and falls asleep immediately.

Reuniting with the kids is actually pretty great. John's had plenty of time to freak himself out about taking them on, but as soon as he sees them, his heart does a funny throb and he realizes that he's actually kind of missed them. PJ notices him a second later and does an awesome running jump-hug-tackle move that has John laughing and feeling grateful and relieved.

"Hey, hey," he says, and finds himself hugging back, PJ's narrow skinny boy's body fitting inside his arms perfectly. "Nice to see you too."

"Did you know that my name is not PJ?" says PJ when John deposits him back on the ground. A few feet away, Nora is hovering with arms folded and a partial smile. "See?" and he holds up a folder made out of dark blue cardstock. John takes it, opens it, and smiles. It's his report card, and on the top it says "Patrick John Sheppard".

"I knew that your name was not PJ," John agrees, though honestly he'd sort of forgotten that it wasn't short for 'Patrick Junior' after all.

"I'm John, too!" PJ says, thrilled. "I'm P-John and you're U-John."

"'Uncle' isn't his first name, dummy," says Nora, and hands John her own blue folder.

"Can I call you UJ?" asks PJ, undeterred.

"Sure, why not," says John, and flips open Nora's folder. Nora Elise Sheppard, middle name for John and Dave's mother. He'd remembered that one.

"Okay, UJ," says PJ. "We're supposed to show you our rooms and teachers and everything but do you think we can just go?"

"I'm fine with that plan," John says, looking at Nora askance. Nora nods and shrugs. "Did you guys say goodbye to all your friends?"

PJ is already trying to heft his small bags up, focused on getting to the car and uninterested in sentimentality. John waves Nora away to say her farewells and helps PJ with his bags. "Let's get loaded up and then we'll go," he says.

"Is Uncle Rodney in the car?" says PJ, all innocence.

John's blood goes cold for a second but he forces himself to keep moving. "I thought Nora told you he wasn't coming," he says, forcing himself to remain casual.

"Oh yeah," says PJ, and does the 'duh' forehead slap. But John thinks he can read something a little disappointed in PJ's shoulders as they keep moving.

Nora comes along with her own bags, wiping her eyes a little but putting on her usual brave face. "Okay," she says, "I'm ready, let's go."

"Let's go," echoes John, abruptly terrified.

It's like a new assignment, John tells himself as they leave the San Francisco airport the next day on the long drive to the rental house, kids in the back seat and Brutus in his big travel kennel behind them. John is good at doing the fresh start thing, he's done it a dozen times before. And this time, he doesn't even have his personnel file trailing after him like a bad smell. He's his own CO. Or maybe the kids are his COs. Okay, he gets it's not a perfect analogy, but still – fresh start. New assignment.

At first it's easy and familiar, if a little more difficult without that extra set of helping hands from another adult. John knows how to travel with the kids, how to stop frequently for bathroom and food breaks, knows how to bully PJ into entertaining himself without tormenting Nora. It's all familiar, right up until the moment they pull into the driveway and John realizes this is it: they're stopping here.

"It's a pretty house," says PJ with an air of graceful critique.

"Did you buy it?" asks Nora.

"No, it's a rental," John admits. "Do you like it?"

"Well, I haven't really seen it yet," Nora points out.

They climb out of the car and John goes around to the back to get Brutus out of his crate. Nora takes hold of the leash while Brutus and PJ bounce around energetically and John fumbles for the house keys. It's weird having keys again. "Okay," he says, "I picked out everyone's rooms but you guys can swap around if you want." They've arrived in the warmth of mid-afternoon, grateful to step into the air-conditioned interior.

PJ and Brutus immediately take off on a running tour of the house, PJ shouting out his discoveries as he goes. Nora pokes around a little more slowly while John looks on, wary of her judgment. It's probably the smallest house Nora has ever been in.

She opens the fridge and John winces. Nora's looking at three-day-old pizza and Chinese takeout. "We'll go out for food right away," he promises.

Nora closes the fridge without comment and moves on to the small half-bath off the main living area, then further back into the hallway that leads to the bedrooms. Brutus has calmed down a little and paces up to lick John's hand, content with the new surroundings.

"I want to keep my room!" PJ yells, and slams the door.

"Hey," John barks, "that's not how we close doors in this house," and jesus, he sounds just like his father, it's amazing.

PJ cracks the door open again. "Sorry," he squeaks, grinning, and ever so gently pushes it closed.

Nora looks into John's room, with its small attached bath, then into the larger bathroom she'll be sharing with PJ. Her room is at the far end of the hall, and it's actually the larger of the two kids' rooms. The whole house is decorated in neutral tones, designed to offend no one, but John's made an effort to make her room look a little girly. There's a pink comforter with butterflies and matching curtains. Most of her stuff is still in boxes at the far end of the room but he found a small teak jewelry box at the top of one of them and placed it carefully centered on the dresser. She wanders over to it now, opens it, closes it. Her expression is shuttered. John can't read her at all.

"Is it okay?" says John. "We can get new stuff, anything you want."

Nora glances around again. "It kind of looks like a kid's room," she says, hesitantly.

John is about to laugh, because Nora is a kid, but he controls himself just in time. He can remember being twelve, sort of, and he guesses he didn't feel like much of a kid. "Yeah, you're right," he says hastily. "I just, I just grabbed some stuff, but we can change it around."

"Okay," she says. "Can I have a cell phone?"

"Jesus," says John. "Who are you going to call?"

"My friends in Virginia," says Nora with a huff. "You can get plans so that long distance is free for certain numbers. It's probably cheaper than me running up the phone bill."

John is taken aback by the whole thing – not just the request for a cell phone, but that Nora's thinking about saving money, and sure, he supposes Dave made some efforts to instill brains in her when it came to managing wealth, but – he blinks and looks around the house again. "Nora, we're not poor," he says, aghast. "We're doing okay, we have money."

"Fine then," says Nora, "I'll just run up the phone bill. Never mind that every single other person my age has their own phone."

"What did your dad say about it?" asks John, narrowing his eyes, suspicious of this sudden new teenage attitude.

Nora folds her arms. "He said I – I can have one when I'm thirteen."

"Right, then," says John, vindicated. "We'll revisit this at that time."

"Ugh," says Nora. "Please?"

John might not know anything about twelve year old girls, but he knows a lot about establishing a command structure. "We'll see how things go," he says, closing the discussion without completely shutting Nora down. He'd done the same thing Lorne's first week when he'd asked for more offworld missions.

"Fine," says Nora, not sounding like it was fine at all. "Whatever."

"Glad we could see eye to eye," John says sarcastically, and goes to find PJ so they can get dinner and groceries.

The first few days they have to struggle to find a rhythm. Brutus is the only one among them that seems to have no trouble with the transition to their new life.

Both the kids are a bit jet-lagged and it's a bit of work to get them into the habit of going to bed before ten and getting up at a decent hour. John hasn't cooked for a while, and has never cooked for such picky eaters. He tries setting a good example by making curries and samosa and kim-chi and anything else he can think of that he's had during his various tours of duty. PJ and Nora gag and carry on and generally resist eating anything that's not plain chicken or spaghetti or grilled cheese sandwiches. John gives up when he catches himself nearly launching into a speech about how kids in Pegasus would give anything for a home-cooked meal of tabouleh and dolmas.

Then there's the issue of what to do with all the time John suddenly has. They have day after long summer day to fill, and John has no idea how to entertain the kids. At first he lets them guide him: they swim, they picnic (plain PBJ sandwiches and apple wedges for them, leftover pita and hummus for him), they go hiking, they get a sprinkler and water guns and have an epic water fight. They have a Star Wars movie marathon (the kids have never seen even the original trilogy, which is a travesty) and they get art supplies and make a huge mess in the kitchen with them.

But gradually it becomes harder and harder to find things that make both Nora and PJ happy, and Nora increasingly refuses to participate in whatever activity or project they've chosen. At the end of June, PJ meets a boy his age (named Oscar, of all things) who lives three houses down, and John has to go over and meet the kid's mom and make sure no one is a serial killer or pedophile or Mormon. Oscar's mom is named Lara and she seems normal enough; most promisingly, she seems intent on making sure John's not a serial killer or pedophile or Mormon, which John figures makes her a decent person. When he explains briefly about how he wound up with the kids, she warms instantly, and soon he's confiding to her about Nora and not knowing how to keep her busy.

"She's twelve?" says Lara. "Well, all girls do at that age is hang out with other girls and talk and giggle. Why don't you sign her up for a day camp or swimming lessons so she can meet some other kids?"

Lara is a freaking genius.

Swimming lessons solve at least part of the Nora problem. She seems a little happier and John even catches her smiling and chatting with some other girls when he comes to pick her up one day. It all falls apart spectacularly when Nora refuses, flat-out, to go to her lesson the next Monday.

"Nora," John says, knocking on her door the next morning, "what about today?"

"No," says Nora. "I quit."

"Did you have a fight with someone?" John asks. "Your teacher said you were doing really well so I know it's not the swimming."

Nora doesn't answer.

It's not until John's emptying the garbage bins around the house later that morning that he spies the pink plastic wrapper in the kids' bathroom wastebasket and puts two and two together. Right. Shit.

There is just no damn way John feels prepared to give Nora a lesson on tampon insertion, so he calls up his new friend Lara and awkwardly explains the situation.

"Well, they come with instructions," says Lara. "My mom just got me a box and left it for me to figure out my first time."

"Really?" John says, relieved. "So no one needs to – to show her?"

"No, she can probably do it on her own as long as she has a basic understanding of her own body," says Lara. "Though I did have a friend in school who told me she put a tampon up her butt the first time. But, you know, she was pretty dumb. Nora's a smart kid."

So John goes to Target while PJ is playing with Oscar, and stands around looking confused in the feminine hygiene products aisle until a passer-by takes pity on him. "Um," he says, "my niece needs tampons. For the first time." And the woman hands him a box that promises a smooth-glide plastic applicator, which does sound like a good thing. John tries not to think of the butt story.

He leaves the box on Nora's bed the next time he has a chance. Nora doesn't say anything and neither does John, but the next day she comes out of her bedroom in her bathing suit and towel and flip-flops and says, "Hurry, we're going to be late!"

Still, the whole experience is traumatic enough for both of them that John decides to give Nora a little more autonomy. The next week he takes PJ and Nora both shopping and gets them bikes. PJ's been spoiling for one for weeks now. Nora is more ambivalent.

"Listen," says John, once PJ's off racing around the block, "this is so you can get around on your own." He hands her the cell phone he'd picked up while the kids were picking out their bikes. "This is so you can call if you get lost or hurt anything."

Nora squeals with delight and throws her arms around him. "Does it have"—

"Unlimited texting," he says, "and you can go online and pick out the numbers you want to be able to dial for free. Anywhere in the country." John schools his face into a stern expression. "I'm not paying for a replacement if you lose it, remember, so be careful."

"Thank you thank you thank you!" Nora exclaims, not fooled for a second, and runs into the house with the phone, leaving her new bike in the middle of the yard.

John rolls his eyes and wheels the bike back into the shed. He may never see Nora again.

"What is it?" says Rodney, not a little sharply.

"Hi Rodney," says Nora, not at all troubled by his tone.

"Oh," says Rodney. He clicks out of his simulation program, instantly losing about half his frustration with it. "Hey you. Long time no talk."

"Yeah, well," says Nora, "Uncle John just gave me a cell phone. I can call you for free."

Rodney deliberately chooses not to ask whether John knows she's calling. "Wow, he's a super cool uncle," he responds dryly.

"He's doing okay," Nora says, generously.

"Hmm," says Rodney. "So where did you three wash up, anyway?"

"We're in Oakley," says Nora. "It's outside San Francisco."

"Yeah?" says Rodney. "Is he feeding you? Clothing you?"

"He keeps trying to feed us totally gross food from weird places," Nora says, "but there's good food too. And we've gone shopping lots too. Did you ever hear of this store called J.C. Penney? It's got nice clothes."

"It rings a bell," says Rodney, rolling his eyes and thinking of all the Ralph Lauren and Laura Ashley and Calvin Klein in Nora's closet gradually being replaced by middle class department store clothing. "Is he gainfully employed or are you all living a life of leisure?"

"He says he's going to wait until the fall to look for work," Nora says. "I guess because then he doesn't have to find anyone to watch us during the day."

"I'm sure he has other reasons," Rodney answers. "Any other thrilling news from the west coast?"

Nora takes a moment to think this over. "Brutus sleeps in my room every night now."

"Lucky for Brutus," says Rodney.

"Are you and Uncle John still fighting, then?" asks Nora, all in a rush.

"We were never fighting," lies Rodney automatically.

"Yeah, right," says Nora. "Really convincing."

"You know, I don't like this tone you're developing," says Rodney. "I think you're spending entirely too much time with your uncle."

"I'm just saying, you should stop fighting. It's stupid."

"You're stupid," says Rodney, sputtering.

"Goodbye, Rodney," says Nora, snickering.

Rodney can't sleep again that night. Finally he gets up and hacks into the SGC mainframe, locating the folder with all the surveillance folders of past SGC personnel who've since returned to normal civilian life.

The house in Oakley is nice, Rodney has to admit. PJ and Nora look okay, more tanned than he's seen them, thriving in the California sunshine. Most of the photos are taken as they walk to or from the car, and John's head is always bowed. He's always wearing sunglasses. There's one of him having a conversation with a woman who looks like a suburban mom. Rodney snorts, "Kirk," before scrolling on to the written reports.

Nothing much to see here. John is taking the kids to swimming lessons. He's taking them shopping. He's taking them into the city for the day, to the science centre, to the movies. John's buying groceries at Safeway.

The summary report concludes that subject Lt Col J Sheppard seems to be adjusting well to civilian life and shows no signs of initiating contact with any known Trust operatives or other Earth hostiles. It notes, somewhat amusedly, that the subject hasn't yet even signed up for an email account. The writer recommends that surveillance be stepped down to random spot-checks until the next report is due in six months' time.

Rodney clicks back to the photos. John looks like a celebrity avoiding the paparazzi, he thinks, and realizes that John probably knew full well when he was being watched. Head down, sunglasses on. Rush to and from the car. Stay out of the front yard, away from the front windows.

Probably he even knew Rodney would be looking at these photos eventually.

Rodney scours them again, looking for some signal that John is thinking of him. There's nothing there.

August in the Bay area is not like August in the rest of America. It's cool and rainy and foggy and strange. Where the first two months of summer felt boundless and bursting with possibility, August closes around them like a fist, claustrophobic and damp and dark.

"We need a vacation from our vacation," says John after a week goes by.

They leave Brutus in a doggie hotel and drive northwest to Yosemite. John has visions of camping out and impressing the kids with his field skills but when they stop for gas at Oakdale, PJ says, "UJ, my stomach feels gross," and barfs all over the asphalt. John finds them a motel and spends the night wiping puke off the toilet seat and the bathroom floor and the sink and the ice bucket they're using as a barf pail. PJ is clammy and pale green and unable to sleep so they curl up together on the cool tile floor of the motel bathroom and John rubs PJ's back and strokes his hair and coaxes him to try a little Gatorade now and then.

PJ falls asleep at last around five in the morning, and John pours him into one of the motel beds before collapsing beside him. Three hours later PJ is up and bouncing around with not a care in the world and Nora is the one opening her eyes and looking miserable and then running for the bathroom.

Nora, at least, requires a little less coddling. John leaves her with the ice bucket and some soda crackers and Gatorade while he takes PJ out for breakfast. (PJ is starving, and by the way, wow, Uncle John, are we in the desert yet? And will we see coyotes?) John watches PJ pack away three pancakes and two sausages, all the while thinking how unappetizing it all looks; but it doesn't hit him until they get back to the motel and the sick miasma of the room hits John and he's the one bolting for the toilet this time.

"Everyone's barfing!" says PJ, obviously a little thrilled to be the trendsetter. "This is so gross!"

It is indeed gross. Nora is mostly recovered by the end of the day but John must have gotten a whopping dose of the stomach bug by cuddling PJ all through the previous night, because he's rarely been laid out like this. He feels bad enough for the kids that he staggers into the motel office and gets the adjoining room so they can sleep in peace while he spends the entire night kneeling in front of their beleaguered toilet puking out everything he's eaten in the past year.

"Are you okay?" asks Nora, poking her head into the room around three in the morning. "You sound awful."

"I feel awful," croaks John. "I'm sorry if I woke you."

"No," says Nora. "I just wanted to check on you." She comes over and lays her hand on his forehead. "I don't think you have a fever," she says, and god help him, John feels better being fussed over, even by a kid. He closes his eyes, grateful for her cool hand on his sweaty face. "I guess it's probably norovirus," she says. "Everyone had it at school last year. I looked up the symptoms on Wikipedia."

"That's probably it," says John, drifting as he hits the ebb of the nausea before the awful inevitable swell. "Hey, best vacation ever, huh?"

"Right," says Nora. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'll be fine," mumbles John, exhausted. "Been through a lot worse, you know."

"I know," says Nora, though of course she doesn't know. When John opens his eyes again half an hour later, she's gone, and his stomach is beginning to pitch and roll again.

Rodney gets a text in the middle of the night. He is awake, as usual.

Can you die from throwing up?

Nora's number.

Rodney texts back, Of course you can.

How much do you have to throw up? she answers speedily.

It's not quantitative, types Rodney. Who's sick? Is it you? You're not bulimic, are you?

It's Uncle John, Nora answers. He's thrown up twelve times. I think it's norovirus. PJ and I had it too.

He'll be fine, Rodney says. He's been through a lot worse. If he loses consciousness and you can't wake him, call 911. Rodney's been around John when he's throwing up before; he makes the most awful noises.

He's still talking, Nora types, so I guess he's okay then.

Make him drink Gatorade, Rodney says. Anything with electrolytes.

Okay, says Nora, and that's it.

A minute later, the phone lights up again:

Thanks, Rodney.

John gets about three hours of sleep after the last of the sickness leaves him, and when he wakes he panics for about two seconds before he remembers that the kids are next door.

"Hey," he says, pushing into their room, finding them eating crackers and watching television like kids out of a crack den in a movie. "Who wants to go to a national park?"

"You look like crap," says Nora darkly.

"Come on," says John, "crap wishes it could look as good as me."

"That doesn't even make any sense," she says. "You threw up fourteen times."

"Really?" says John, flattening his hand over his stomach. "You were counting?"

"You need electrolytes," says Nora. "We're not going anywhere until you can eat something and keep it down."

"What are you, a doctor?" John complains, but really it's kind of cute to see Nora fussing like this, a miniature version of Carson Beckett minus the brogue. At least, it's cute until he realizes that Nora can't have gotten any sleep herself, judging by the dark circles under her eyes. He might have spooked her a little, he thinks. Shit. "Okay, you win," he says, and sits on the bed. "Where's that Gatorade?"

They finally reach Yosemite the next day, but they haven't recovered enough to feel like roughing it. John lays out the money for a little chalet with bunk beds for the kids and a double for himself. Over the next few days they hit all the tourist hot spots like the giant sequoias and the waterfalls, and they do as much hiking as PJ's short legs will allow. John shows the kids some of the backcountry tricks gleaned from his special ops training and five years in Pegasus.

The fourth night, they roast marshmallows while John tells Pegasus ghost stories (with certain significant details altered) and it's all very cozy and unexpectedly comfortable. "Do you want to go home tomorrow?" he asks Nora once PJ's nodded off. "Or do you want to drive a little further?"

"Where else can we go?" asks Nora.

"Well, we could go over to Nevada and see the desert," John suggests.

"How about farther?" says Nora, poking at the fire.

John smirks. "Virginia's a long ways away, if that's what you're thinking."

"I know," says Nora dismissively. "What about Colorado? The Rockies?"

"That's a pretty long ways, too," John says, hoping his surprise didn't show. Nora couldn't know. Colorado was just another place to her. "It'd take a few days in the car."

"That's okay," says Nora.

"What about Nevada?" says John, trying to steer her back from dangerous territory.

Nora pokes at the fire some more, her face inscrutable. "Fine," she says, though it's obviously not fine at all. "Whatever."

John decides to take PJ into the house; he is suddenly afraid his face is revealing too much.

They spend another week in Nevada before heading back to Oakley. If Nora had any reason for wanting to see Colorado, John can't figure out what it is, and it doesn't come up again much to his relief. Meanwhile, back in Oakley, it's nearly the end of August and John has to do all sorts of unfamiliar weird parent-type things like registering the kids for school and getting their transcripts and records faxed over and buying binders and notebooks and figuring out which after-school activities the kids should be doing.

"Ballet?" he asks Nora. She scrunches up her face. "What?" says John, stung. "I thought all girls liked the tutus and the pink boots."

"They're slippers, not boots," says Nora, "and I'm not a pink girly girl, in case you hadn't noticed."

"Piano?" says John, and Nora makes another face. "Hey, your teacher in Virginia has very glowing words of praise about you here." He taps Nora's school records.

"Ugh," says Nora.

"I want to take piano," says PJ. "I like piano." He looks around. "Only, we don't have a piano for practicing on."

"Oh," says John. "Right. Well, we can get one. Okay, piano for PJ, I'll ask Lara who teaches around here." He shuffles through the flyers from community programs. "More swimming?" he asks Nora, and she shrugs. "Is that a yes?"

"Eh," says Nora. She flops her head down onto the table and sighs. "I don't want to go back to school."

"Why not?" asks PJ. "You're going to be in seventh grade."

"Because I hardly know anyone," says Nora, still planted on the table. "And I'm probably not cool."

"You're totally cool," John tells her. "Karate?"

"No way," she says.

"Figure skating?"



Nora lets out a long-suffering sigh.

"I want to do soccer," says PJ.

"Well, you have to come up with something," says John. "Unless you agree to one of these, I'm just going to sign you up for golf lessons so you can keep me company on the weekends."

"I want to take golf lessons," says PJ, and John hauls him over, gives him a noogie.

"You got it, Peej," he says. "Nora?"

"Swimming, I guess," she says. "If I have to."

And so John signs Nora up for swimming once a week, and PJ for soccer and piano, and suddenly it's the week before school starts and the kids have absolutely zero school clothes. John freaks out a little and gives Nora three hundred dollars, unable to face the prospect of going through another decision process with her. "Pants," he tells her, standing at the mall's entrance, "at least four pairs, and at least seven shirts, and any underwear things you need, and everything has to cover your knees and your belly button and your shoulders."

"Even my underwear?" says Nora, quirking her mouth.

"Meet us back here in three hours," John says, "and I want to see receipts."

He and PJ hit Target and the Gap and knock out a decent school wardrobe in less than an hour. It helps that PJ has no opinion whatsoever about his clothes. John could probably buy him a pink unitard and PJ would go along with it cheerfully.

Nora does okay with her shopping, though she picks a skirt that definitely lands above the knee. "My school uniform skirt was the same length," she tells John when he expresses his doubt later, back at home.

"Yes," he agrees, "but your legs were shorter then." Thank god, she still seems to be too busy shooting up in height to be spending much energy filling out anywhere else. "Fine, fine, it's fine," he gives in, unwilling to argue.

Nora's phone chirps for the tenth time that hour and she wanders off, fiddling with it. PJ is busy playing with the weird anime toys he'd talked John into buying while they were killing time waiting for Nora. John sinks gratefully into the armchair; he can deal with PJ without breaking a sweat but Nora's already causing him to go prematurely grey.

"Uncle John," says Nora now, coming back down the hall.

"No," says John, eyes closed. "Go away."

"Uncle John," she says again, more urgently.

"What?" John grouches, and Nora is pressing something – her phone – to his ear. "Uh, hello?" he says, straightening up and shooting a glare at Nora.

"Oh, thank god," says Rodney on the other end. "John, they're sending us back."

John's been doing a pretty good job of maintaining that fresh start he'd imagined. If he thought of Atlantis at all, it was late at night and dark, and if the pain of separation cut like a knife sometimes, it was some help to know that Atlantis was only a hundred miles away; and that his Atlantis, the one he was missing, wasn't anywhere at all. His Atlantis was dead and wasn't coming back and there was no point in longing for something that couldn't be had.


"Who's sending who where?" says John, feeling like he's been knocked down by a stunner blast, breathless and prickly.

"You know I can't talk details on this line," says Rodney. "And you know perfectly well what I mean. They are sending us back. They. Us. Back."

"I'm not part of us," says John nonsensically.

"You are if you want to be," says Rodney, and now John's starting to hear it, the familiar giddy joy in Rodney's voice, and suddenly John's whole body is a giant mess of wanting. He wants Rodney, he wants that voice next to him, he wants Atlantis under his feet and an alien sky overhead. "Landry's going to ask you."

"Holy fuck," says John, breathless and pained.

"Can you believe it?" Rodney says. John can almost see him bouncing on his toes. "Almost seven months and suddenly they decide to do it. I'd given up. We'd all given up."

"Rodney," says John, "I can't talk about this, this line isn't secure, you know"—and then he becomes aware of where he is again, like slamming back to Earth from orbit, and PJ is clinging to his shirt and saying, "Is that Rodney? Is that Rodney?" and Nora is watching with elbows tucked into her sides, worried, and John can't do this right now.

"I know it's not secure," says Rodney. "Why do you think I'm calling, I wanted to make sure you're home." And the doorbell rings.

John is standing on the threshold and Rodney barely has time to register him, the tanned lean shape of him, when he's hit by a speeding PJ and a wildly licking Brutus.

"Uncle Rodney!" PJ says, and tries to climb up his body while Brutus assaults Rodney's ear with his tongue.

"Ow, stop it, Jesus," Rodney says, trying to pry PJ off and avoid Brutus at the same time.

"He's trying to hug you," says Nora, and oh. Rodney can do that. He gives PJ a perfunctory hug and PJ releases him. Rodney pats Brutus gingerly on his giant toothy head.

"I know presents are de rigeur," Rodney says to the kids, "but I came on short notice, so you'll have to take a rain check." He reaches out an arm and pulls Nora in. "Hey, you."

Nora seems reluctant to come close but once within his reach she suddenly clings to him in a fast desperate hug. "I missed you," she says, mumbling into his shoulder, and how is she taller already since May?

"Me too," says Rodney, and they're apart and smiling stupidly at each other, and god, has Rodney ever liked a kid like this before? It's weird. It must be because she's so like John.

John, who is still standing on the threshold, silent and with Nora's phone in one hand. "What are you doing here?" he asks, wide-eyed.

"Zzt," Rodney says, and pulls out his tablet to scan for surveillance devices, pushing his way past John into the house. It's small but relatively clean. It smells like tuttle root soup, the good kind. "Hey, are you cooking?" asks Rodney, his stomach rumbling with recognition. "I'll have some, please." He pivots, completing the scan. All clear. "All clear."

"Is that a computer?" asks PJ, pawing at the tablet.

"Yes, and it costs more than you're worth, so hands off," says Rodney, stuffing the computer back in his bag. "Are we having soup? What did you find that smells like tuttle root?"

"Jicama," says John, "and some sweet potato. With turmeric. Why are you here?"

"You know why I'm here," says Rodney, pointing up, then throwing a look towards the kids. "We'll talk later. Let's have soup now."

"You called Nora's phone," says John.

"Well, it was the number I had handy," says Rodney. "The SGC couldn't pull your home number in time."

"You have Nora's number?" John says.

"Were you always this slow and I've forgotten?" asks Rodney, studying him. "Or has your brain atrophied over three months of playing Mr. Mom?"

"Why do you have Nora's number?" John says, beginning to look dangerous, which was at least a familiar look for him.

"Because I called him," says Nora. "What's a tuttle root?"

"It's a root," says Rodney. "From a tuttle plant. Where's the kitchen?"

He's already seated at the table with a bowl of passable mock tuttle root soup when John finally makes it into the room. "Help yourself, Rodney," he says, but he's starting to look less gobsmacked and more annoyed, which is a good change.

"This is pretty decent," says Rodney.

"Can I have some soup too?" asks PJ.

"You wouldn't try it ten minutes ago," John says.

"Rodney says it's good," PJ points out.

"And you trust Rodney," John says, but he dishes out two more bowls anyway. "Nora? Do you trust Rodney more than me too?"

"No," says Nora. "But I can make myself a sandwich."

They eat together, PJ showing his affection by pestering Rodney within an inch of his life, Nora quietly smiling and swinging her feet a little. John eats and glares.

"I'm starting third grade soon," says PJ.

"Isn't seven too young for grade three?" says Rodney, squinting over at John.

"Well, my birthday is in August," says PJ.

"August 29th," says Nora. "He'll be eight."

"August 29th?" says John. "Oh. Really?"

"You didn't know his birthday? It's in, like, two days," says Rodney, appalled. "You're terrible at this."

John looks affronted. "I knew it was in the late summer," he says, defensively.

"What day's Nora's birthday?" Rodney presses, arching an eyebrow.

John stares at Nora, obviously freaking out. "December," he tries. "December 12th."

Rodney looks at Nora for confirmation. She shrugs. "December 14th. But he was close."

"You probably don't know my birthday," John says, pointing his spoon at her.

"It's not my job to know your birthday," Nora points out.

"It's January 5th," Rodney tells her, and looks back at John. "I'm awful with dates and even I remember that."

"I'm taking soccer and piano," says PJ. "Nora's doing swimming lessons again."

"That is just fascinating," says Rodney. "Please, tell me more."

"He's being sarcastic, PJ, it means he doesn't want to hear any more," Nora translates before PJ can open his mouth again.

"Hey, now," says John. "Cool it, Nora."

Nora's cheeks flush and she stares down at her sandwich.

"I'm sorry, PJ," says Rodney, wearily. "Please tell me more."

And PJ does.

"What's that thing he keeps calling you?" Rodney asks after dinner, when PJ leads them into the backyard so he can show Rodney his cartwheels. "Yooge?"

John makes a face. "Oh. Well. It's a nickname. Short for UJ. Uncle John. Like how I call him Peej?"

"That's adorable," says Rodney flatly. Nora edges in beside him, leaning on the railing too.

"Watch, watch!" hollers PJ, and does another floppy weird cartwheel followed by a half-second handstand.

"You're an acrobatic marvel!" Rodney says with false enthusiasm. John leans on the railing on the other side of Rodney. Whichever way Rodney turns his head, he's greeted by the same green eyes, but he's aware of John's lanky heat in a totally different way than he perceives Nora's presence.

"You shouldn't have come," says John, very quietly.

"We'll talk about it later," says Rodney.

"No, Rodney, you shouldn't have come." He's a bit louder this time.

Nora shoves up off the railing abruptly, and storms into the house.

"What's her deal?" says Rodney, staring after her.

"She does that," says John. "I think she's probably pissed at me. Again."

"Oh," says Rodney. "So, it's nice. What you did for them, this summer. It seems like you've had a nice – summer." He doesn't want to dwell on it, this weird domestic tableau he's barged into, because he doesn't want John to see himself the way Rodney sees him right now: settled. Besides, Rodney can see the unhappy lines at the corners of John's mouth. Settled or not, John isn't content.

"I can't come with you," says John, taut and resolved.

"Yes, you can," says Rodney. "Don't be an asshole."

"I can't," says John, but it's less firm this time. PJ is shouting and Brutus snaps out of his lazy sprawl, suddenly bouncing to life and running to chase PJ.

"Forget me," says Rodney, "it's not about me, it's not about scoring a point off me. It's Atlantis. She needs you." He dares to turn his head a little, catch John's expression of confusion. "You need her, too."

"What happened to the floating hunk of dead Ancient tech?" says John, and damn him for having such a good memory anyway.

"It's different now," says Rodney. "You know it's totally different."

"Teyla and Ronon must be happy," says John.

"They went back on the Daedalus a couple of months ago," says Rodney, "but yeah, I imagine they'll be excited to have us back."

"Woolsey still in charge?" asks John, and ha! His curiosity is starting to get the better of him.

"Woolsey's still in charge," says Rodney. "And Jackson's coming, too."

"Anything to escape being on your team, I'm guessing," says John, but his pointed ears almost pricked up with interest at that one.

"Look, they're going to ask Mitchell to take on the military leadership if you don't," says Rodney.

"Mitchell's a good man," says John.

"He's an uptight southern mamma's boy," says Rodney, "he just happens to be good at flying and killing things. And he doesn't have the gene."

"Who's going to fly the city anyway?" says John, a hint of a smile flickering over his mouth.

"You are," says Rodney.

"Who've they got?" says John, not playing along.

"Carson again," says Rodney. "He's dreading it."

"He'll be fine," says John, but his voice is tight. He slaps the railing, straightens up. "Well, you should be going."

"What? No way!" Rodney exclaims, offended. "I haven't even made my pitch yet. They want to offer you a promotion too! To a full eagle colonel or whatever. Apparently you were already in some sort of promotion zone when you decided to go play Betty Homemaker."

"Hmm," says John, pleased. "Okay, now you can go."

"John," says Rodney, and makes a last-ditch effort. He gets John by the wrist, tows him close, then grabs the back of his head. To his surprise, John comes along fairly easily after the initial startle of resistance. They kiss for a couple of seconds, too aware of PJ twenty feet away for it to turn into anything more, but Rodney can feel the way John is leaning into him, the desperation and sadness he's containing so carefully.

"No," says John. "If PJ were a little older, I could maybe see coming back, but as it is, I've got at least ten years to serve here before I can think about something like that, and somehow I doubt you guys are going to want me when I'm fifty-one and out of shape."

"You know," says Rodney, getting angry again, "I'm the first to admit I'm not an expert on kids, but even I know that if you're thinking of them like a jail sentence, they might be better off without you."

"Jesus, I don't know why I bother," says John, wheeling away towards the house. "You know what, just go. You can think of it as me scoring a point off you if it makes you feel better." He pauses before going in, leaning towards the yard and yelling, "PJ! Come say goodbye to Rodney."

Rodney wants to protest but now he's pulled Nora and PJ out and there's no way of arguing that John should abandon them when they're standing right here in his face like this.

"Why are you leaving?" says PJ piteously.

"Because Uncle John was mean to him," says Nora.

"Nora, that's enough," says John. "PJ, Rodney has to leave because he has work to do somewhere else. He just stopped in to say hello."

"Why can't you stay?" says PJ, and out of nowhere, bursts into tears. Rodney looks to John, horrified, but John seems equally shocked. "Hey," says John, and scoops him up. "Hey, hey, it's okay." PJ burrows into John's neck and really lets go, huge wails like a much smaller kid who's overdue for a nap, and Rodney notices how much PJ has grown because he looks too big even against John's long torso. "Come on, shh," says John, and he is jostling PJ from side to side like Teyla with Torren, stroking his hair, and PJ subsides a little, still weeping.

"Can I still call you?" asks Nora.

"Well," says Rodney, "actually, I'll be out of, uh, the service area pretty soon. But here, here's my email." He gets a card out of his wallet and hands it to her. "I usually only check it every week or so but I promise I'll read it."

"Okay," says Nora. "Well, bye." And without any other words, she disappears down the hall and into what must be her bedroom.

"Peej, are you gonna say bye?" asks John, and PJ, sliding down off John's body, shakes his head and bolts down the hall after his sister, Brutus following. "Wow, you're still quite the charmer, McKay," says John, but he's looking down the hall after PJ, and he's worried.

"Right," says Rodney. "Well."

"I think he's just had enough goodbyes," says John, and sticks his thumbs in his jeans pockets.

"Haven't we all," says Rodney. "Look, if you reconsider," he begins, and sees the tearstains on John's shirt and feels like a shit. "I should go," he says, and points his thumb over his shoulder towards the door.

"Right," says John, and walks him back to the front entrance. "This wasn't my Plan A, you know," he confesses, his tone softening. "It wasn't even my Plan M."

"Oh, it was mine," says Rodney, "it comes right before Plan N, which was us going back to the planet of the slugs and becoming co-husbands to that slime queen," and they both crack up for a second.

"Okay," says John, and takes one hand out of his pocket to pat Rodney's shoulder. "Bye."

"Bye," says Rodney, grabbing his bag. "Bye."

John's fresh start has definitely been screwed up by Rodney's whirlwind visit of destruction and chaos. Not only has Nora abruptly become more withdrawn and sarcastic than ever, but PJ is heading into his first week of third grade still prone to weird seemingly unpredictable crying jags. On top of all that, John himself is shaken. It's one thing to have Atlantis dead in the water one hundred miles away; it's quite another to know it's about to take off and come to life again, that all John's people are flocking back to it like the lifeboat it once was, that John himself has committed to stay behind and drown in the mediocrity of this life he's just begun to build.

John pretty much stops sleeping. He hates Rodney. Rodney's an asshole.

They get a Dairy Queen cake for PJ's birthday. It's got robots on it and some minimum wage drone has written "Happy brithday DJ" in loopy red gel icing, but there's chocolate fudge on the inside and eight candles around the top, which is good enough to make PJ deliriously excited. Nora and John give an awful rendition of Happy Birthday and PJ's friend Oscar from down the street comes for a sleepover. It's pretty low-key for an eighth birthday but PJ seems over the moon, especially when he opens his gift from John and finds an Xbox 360.

Rodney didn't say when Atlantis is leaving, and John spends a lot of his sleepless hours wishing he could know for sure when it was gone. He's certain that knowledge would put a damper on the low-grade buzz of misery in the back of his mind. If he could only be sure Atlantis has left, he could sleep again; this is weird and paradoxical, given that to John's best knowledge, Earth is going to be pretty much defenseless again once Atlantis goes.

On the Friday before school starts, General Landry calls and makes his formal offer. John forgot this was supposed to happen, so it's rending all over again, to go through his refusal. In the end he has to pull out his trump card to end the conversation: "Sir, I'm truly flattered," John says, "but I can't leave these kids behind and I don't see any way of taking them with me."

And Landry says something about declassification being in the government's long-term plans, and possible expansion of the Pegasus base to include more civilian personnel, but it's all theoretical and it's all future tense, and they both know that John's not willing to come along just in case the kids can join him in a few years, and Landry's not willing to hold John's place until all the hypothetical pieces fall in the right spots.

"Sir, if I can ask," says John, before Landry can hang up, "when is the expedition leaving?"

"I thought your refusal was final, Colonel," says Landry.

"It is, sir, I just – I just wanted to know."

"Well," says Landry. "That's classified information. I'm sorry."

John hangs up a little harder than he means to.

"Are we even going to be able to get her off the planet?" asks Chuck doubtfully as the city does another slow graceful leveling maneuver to accommodate the latest cargo shipment, one of dozens and dozens they've taken over the past few weeks.

"Please, we're practically adding grains of sand here relative to the mass of the city itself," says Rodney, but he does some extra calculations just to be sure.

They're so busy – only six, make that four, no, now it's two weeks left! – that Rodney shouldn't be feeling the sick lurch of wrongness as often as he does. But it's amazing how often it hits him, how many times his hand goes up to his radio earpiece to tell John about something, how often he walks all the way to John's old quarters before remembering they're now occupied by a social scientist, how he wants to kick back on the pier and a bottle of beer after every long grueling day. And then he remembers all over again that John's not here, he's not coming, and they are actually going to leave without him.

"It's not that I don't understand," says Rodney into the phone. Out of sheer desperation, he's gone insane and called his sister for advice. "I wish I didn't get it, but I do. He's stuck in this incredibly shitty situation and he's doing the right thing."

"You know," says Jeannie, "not everyone views parenthood as an incredibly shitty situation."

"Yes, yes, earth mother, attachment parenting, organic tofu," Rodney says, waving his hand with boredom. "But he's not you. I mean, I know he cares about the kids, that's obvious. But this has got to be killing him. It'd be killing me."

"Maybe he's happy, Meredith. Maybe he wants some peace after all the stuff you guys have been through," says Jeannie.

"Oh my god, you don't know him at all," Rodney says, scrubbing his hand through his hair, frustrated. "Don't you get it? It's not about peace and quiet. It's not about John deciding to pass the torch onto other hands. He was happiest here. He was best here. Without Atlantis, John is just – nothing at all."

He can hear Jeannie drawing breath to speak a couple of times before she finally seems to settle on something to say. "Okay," she says, "I'm going to ignore the part where you basically just implied that John would be better off dead"—and Rodney opens his mouth to call that a gross oversimplification, but Jeannie just raises her voice and keeps talking –"and focus on the part where you're clearly unhappy."

"Oh please, I'm only unhappy because John's not here!" Rodney shouts.

There's a beat of silence.

"Oh," says Rodney.

"You're such an idiot, Meredith," says Jeannie.

When Rodney tries to relay the gist of this conversation to Zelenka later, Zelenka gets it all mixed up.

"Much as I hate to admit it," says Rodney, "this time Jeannie was right. Well, technically I had the same thought as her at the same moment, but we won't quibble over credit. Even though it was really a joint effort."

"What are you trying to tell me?" says Radek wearily, rubbing at his eyes under the lenses of his glasses. "Does it have to do with new weapons platform design limitations?"

"What?" says Rodney, irritated. "No, of course not. I'm talking about me and John."

"Need I remind you again of the American military policy on this subject?" Radek says.

"No," says Rodney, "especially as neither of us is in the military at this point." Radek has to concede Rodney's point, and he sighs and signals Rodney to continue. "Anyway, I realized – with some input from my sister – that John is the only thing standing between me and true happiness."

Zelenka straightens up in his chair suddenly, showing interest for the first time. "Yes?" he says, pushing his hair back.

"So if I want to be happy," says Rodney, still giddy with discovery, "I just have to put John entirely out of my mind."

Inexplicably, Zelenka's posture collapses again. "You are certain this is what your sister meant to tell you?"

"Of course," says Rodney. "And really, how hard can it be? I mean, I've already moved on admirably quickly from that other – well. We won't speak of her. But I think I've shown a potential for rapid progression through this sort of crisis. I suppose it's not surprising, given the sheer speed at which my mind works."

"You are certain you are not seeing this situation from the wrong side?" Zelenka says, lamentably thick. He lifts his hands up, holding an imaginary object, and performs a 180-degree twist. "Perhaps Jeannie is saying that if Colonel Sheppard's absence makes you unhappy, his presence might have opposite effect?"

"What? No! That's not at all what she was saying," says Rodney, but already he's starting to see what Zelenka might be driving at. "I'm certain that she meant I should put Sheppard behind me."

"Well," says Zelenka, "perhaps in a literal sense?" and he smiles a dirty odious Czech smile and Rodney is forced to make loud sounds of dismay. "I think you see that 'don't ask, don't tell' works both ways," says Zelenka smugly. "Only, think about what I have said," he adds, and goes back to his work.

"No," says Rodney, "you're just confusing the situation. It was perfectly clear in my mind and you've just – sullied it. I don't know why I bother telling you these things."

They work in silence for a few minutes and then Rodney lifts his head up from his computer screen, hitting upon a new argument. "It's not like I could even take that approach," he says, triumphant, "since the whole problem is that John can't be here anyway."

"Yes," says Radek. "And, of course, you cannot be with him on Atlantis, so you cannot be with him at all."

"Exactly," says Rodney. "Wait. What?"

At least once a week, and usually a lot more often, John hears Rodney's voice in his head, saying "You're terrible at this." And honestly, he kind of is. He's never been a details guy, he's a strategy guy, but it seems like looking after kids is all about the details, details that John keeps letting slip through the cracks in his memory.

There was the time, back in early summer, when PJ started complaining that none of his shoes fit. John hauled him to the shoe store, shocked that PJ's feet had grown another size in just under two months, and the clerk was the one who tugged off PJ's socks and said, "Well, his toenails are a little long," and John realized that, duh, seven year olds didn't know how to cut their own nails, and how had he failed to notice that?

"Well, I bite my fingernails," PJ said philosophically in the car on the way home, John's ears still flaming with embarrassment, "so maybe you didn't look at my feet."

And then there were the three separate times that John forgot to wash Nora's swimsuits after a week of lessons and he had to send her to the pool wearing last week's chlorine-scented unlaundered suit. And the thing with the birthdays, and the other thing with the tampons, and the thing where they were out for groceries and someone called PJ a pretty girl and John looked down at him and realized he'd bought PJ's jeans out of the girls' side of the Gap and they had heart-shaped back pockets.

Still, John is good with some things: he always remembers to check the ratings before he lets Oscar and PJ watch a movie or play a game; he gets into the habit of packing PJ's bag lunch every night and leaving out cafeteria money for Nora; it even occurs to him that the kids need to have check-up appointments and he tracks down a good pediatrician on Lara's recommendation. He figures out how to subscribe to a net-nanny service when he finally gets a computer for the kids to share, for schoolwork and whatever else kids do online these days.

But it seems for every ten things John does right, there is at least one glaring error. Today he's managed to make PJ hysterical and Nora furious, all before they've even eaten breakfast.

"Hey," he says, coming in the front door fresh from his first run in months, feeling sweaty and breathless and good. "You guys are up early."

Nora gets up from the couch and goes to her room, slamming the door.

"What'd I say?" asks John, bewildered, and it's then that he notices the tear tracks down PJ's cheeks, his swollen nose and puffy eyes. "What happened, I left for 45 minutes!"

"I woke up," says PJ, drawing a shaky breath, fresh tears spilling over, "and went into your room and you weren't there."

"Oh, I just went out for a run," says John. "You never wake up that early, I thought you'd still be asleep when I got back."

"You, you weren't there," says PJ, hiccupping, "and I went and got Nora, and she looked – looked everywhere, and your wallet was still here, and your car keys, and Brutus s-started to cry, and – and"—and he loses it, going on a crying jag like he hasn't since Rodney's disastrous visit.

"Jesus," says John, and swipes his hand through his sweaty hair. "Peej, I'm sorry, I really didn't think you'd even know I was gone. I just went for a run."

"N-Nora thought you'd leave a note, if you went out," PJ says, though he's a bit hard to understand through his sobs, "and she was going to c-call the police in a minute, and – and – she already called Uncle Rodney, but his phone is out of service."

John steps out of his sneakers and goes over to where PJ is curled up on the couch in a ball of misery. "Hey," he says, "I'm okay. I'm here." He holds out his arms, ready for PJ to spring into them as usual, but PJ just shakes his head, and somehow that makes it all much worse. "God, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," says John, sick to the core, dropping his arms back to his sides. "I promise, I'll always leave a note from now on."

PJ brushes at his eyes, sniffing hard, obviously trying to pull himself together. "Okay," he says in a small wobbly voice. "You'll leave a note?"

"Always," says John. "Do you want me to make pancakes for breakfast?"

PJ nods and John leaves him to unwind a little, knowing he'll be himself again by the time breakfast is done. He doesn't have the faintest clue how to approach Nora. He never knows, with her.

She reappears, showered and dressed and outwardly composed, right as John is tidying up dishes. "Here," he says, and passes her a granola bar. "You have to eat something and we're leaving for school in two minutes."

Nora takes the package but doesn't meet John's gaze.

"PJ!" John shouts, because the kid has disappeared off to his room to dress. "Two minutes, move it or lose it!"

Nora reaches over and takes her lunch money from the counter, carefully tucks it inside her knapsack's front pocket. She's obviously still annoyed as hell.

"Look, I screwed up," says John, dumping the frying pan in the sink. "I'm sorry you had to deal with it."

"It's fine," says Nora, predictably. "Whatever."

"It's not fine," says John, gritting his teeth. "I'm saying, it wasn't fine, I screwed up."

"No big deal," says Nora. She pulls out her phone and starts texting someone.

"PJ says you tried to call Rodney," John prompts her. "Next time, try Oscar's mom first, okay? Her number's on the fridge."

"Next time?" says Nora, arching an eyebrow.

"Well, not that there would be a next time," says John, "but if there's ever any kind of emergency and I'm not home, call Lara first."

Nora keeps texting.

"Okay?" John says, trying not to sound pissed, because he knows he's in the wrong, but Nora has a way of making him mad without doing much of anything.

Nora ignores him.

"Okay?" John repeats, putting his hand between her face and her phone.

"Fine," says Nora.

"Oh no!" cries PJ. "Oh, Brutus! Yuck-o-yuck, that is gross! Uncle John, Brutus pooped everywhere!"

"Didn't you let him out?" John asks Nora, exasperated and pissed off.

"I forgot," says Nora, unconcerned and chilly. "We're going to be late for school."

"Leave it, Peej, I'll clean up when I get home," John calls down the hall, and goes to find Brutus so he can kick him out into the yard. "Nothing but shit and tears and attitude," John mumbles to himself, dragging Brutus by the collar towards the back door. On the other end of the house, the front door slams as Nora goes out to the car to wait. John hears it, again: Rodney's voice saying, You're terrible at this.

John can't really disagree.

John's got a job but it's only three days a week, including Thursday evenings, so it's less than ideal. Still, it's a foot in the door and it's good to be doing at least one thing where he gets to be the competent grown-up he knows he used to be. The flight school is near a private airfield about half an hour west of their house, in a town called Concord. It's small and far enough away from Berkeley and San Francisco that it's earned a reputation as an economical alternative to the more expensive flight schools in the Bay area. That's just fine with John; if he's going to be stuck in the cockpit of a tiny Piper with a student, he'd much rather that it be someone who's scraped together the cash out of love for flying than some rich asshole who just wants to be able to pilot his own private jet to Maui.

The chief flight instructor's eyes just about bugged out of his head when John sauntered in with his resume a few weeks back. "Is there anything you can't fly?" he asked, whistling as he scanned John's flight logs.

"Well," John said modestly, "it's been a while since I took a Cessna out for a spin."

"You're gonna feel like you're riding your baby sister's tricycle after this much time in an F-18." The guy skimmed a bit further. "You haven't been flying much since 2004?"

"Oh, um," said John, "let's just say the Air Force doesn't like to talk about what I was flying up until recently."

And just like that, he was hired. He teaches a few private lessons during the day on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and on Thursday nights he teaches ground school, which surprises him by being the most interesting part. They have a small classroom upstairs in the school, with a whiteboard and some second-hand desks arranged in a semi-circle. John takes the students through the most basic of physics and aerodynamics but he likes it – the math, the familiarity of the subject matter, the squeak of the dry-erase markers on the board. The students have heard about John's background from the other flight instructors and sometimes they try to corner him and pump him for stories of flying missions overseas, but John's found the best strategy is to look at his watch and say something about the babysitter getting pissed off if he's late.

The babysitter is Lara, and in truth she doesn't particularly seem to care what time he gets back. They've done a trade: John's Thursday nights for her Fridays, so she can get out with friends and on the occasional date while Oscar and PJ play video games and race Hot Wheels and generally make a lot of noise. John worries sometimes that Lara might have a thing for him; she smiles a lot when he comes by to pick up PJ and Nora, and once she asked him to stay for a glass of wine. And it's not like Lara isn't attractive, because she's definitely pretty, but John doesn't want to screw things up for PJ and Oscar and he just can't imagine that anything else could come of it.

"Nora wanted to go back home to work on her essay," says Lara one night when John arrives. "And PJ crashed in Oscar's room, as usual. How was work?"

"Good," says John. He doesn't see a wine bottle as he casts a glance around the kitchen. Relief. "Thanks again. I'll just go grab Peej."

"He, uh," says Lara, "he was telling me about his other uncle earlier on."

"His other"—John begins, confused. "Oh. Yeah. PJ's a little mixed up about that. Rodney's a friend, he's not related." John chews on his lip, telling himself to stop freaking out over this; he's a private citizen now, who gives a flying fuck if someone thinks he and Rodney are – well. They were, actually. "He's my ex," says John all in a rush.

"Yeah, I got that," says Lara, mouth curving into an amused twist. "Well, that makes me feel a little better, actually. Here I thought you were either spectacularly clueless or you found me completely repellant."

"Oh," says John stupidly. "Uh. None of the above."

"I'm sorry to hear about the break-up," she says, waving John's awkwardness away. "It's tough when the kids get attached. I'm completely paranoid about Oscar meeting anyone I'm seeing, especially with his dad out of the picture. But this is better, actually, having you in his life without any of that pressure. He really likes you."

"He does?" John says, surprised. Mostly he thinks of Oscar as a dark tan blur zipping through the house in PJ's wake.

"The boys want to be fighter pilots for Halloween," says Lara with a laugh. "What do you think?"

"Oh," says John. "Well, I do have a few extra pairs of aviator shades." He flicks his finger towards Oscar's bedroom. "I'll grab PJ and get out of your hair. See you tomorrow at seven?"

"You bet," says Lara, and dives in to kiss John's cheek. "Goodnight."

Hi Rodney,

Thanks for your last email. Sorry I haven't answered back for a while. School is super busy. I guess I like seventh grade okay. Math and science are my favorites. I'm also taking swimming lessons and I also joined the school's swim team. It's so wierd not to wear a uniform to school anymore. I hate picking out my clothes every day.

Every thing else is ok here. Oakley is nice and it's still warm even in October. I don't think I'm going to dress up for Halloween. Uncle John is teaching flying lessons and last weekend he took me and PJ up in a Sessna. He is getting to be friends with a mom who lives down the street. I really hope he doesn't get her as a girlfriend though. She is nice and every thing but I think it would be wierd.

Yesterday Brutus got out of the yard and nearly got hit by a truck. It was scary he's ok though. PJ forgot to shut the gate like a dummy.

I think that if you came back to Oakley for a visit Uncle John would be nicer this time. He's not as grouchy now that he has a job.

Here's a picture of me and PJ and Brutus. PJ is wearing his Halloween costume even though it's still two weeks until Halloween. He is such a doofis.


Nora Sheppard

Rodney prints out the photo and tacks it up at his work station in the lab. PJ is wearing a small green flight suit and overly large aviator sunglasses under a helmet with a taped-on paper ventilation mask that's been spray-painted black to look like an oxygen mask. Nora is wearing jeans and a purple t-shirt and she's got her arms crossed self-consciously over her chest. Rodney remembers Jeannie walking around like that for most of grade seven too.

"Oh, hey," says Lorne when he drops in and sees the photo. "Look at my man PJ. Wonder whose idea that was? Is that for Halloween? I miss that kid."

Zelenka looks up from his work, overhearing. "I think Rodney also misses him," he says with a pointed look in Rodney's direction.

"Have you heard from Colonel Sheppard then?" asks Lorne, all innocence and smiles.

"No," says Rodney, then revises his story to avoid questioning. "Just an email. He's teaching at a flight school and dating someone's mom."

"Still can't believe he's not coming with us," says Lorne. "I mean, Colonel Mitchell is great, but – Colonel Sheppard." He slaps Rodney on the back as he heads out of the lab. "It's going to be weird seeing you go through the gate without him."

"T-minus seven hours until launch," Zelenka announces for no apparent reason.

Rodney sighs loudly and opens his email client.


Glad to hear things are going well at school. It may be some time before I'm able to write you again.

You should dress up for Halloween. Once you're an adult there are no more opportunities for free candy.

Rodney stares at the screen. He can't really say anything else, it's all classified.

Tell your uncle that

He hits backspace, deleting the sentence.

I miss you all

Backspace again.

Wish I could

Rodney highlights the three words and deletes them. He glances over at the photo again. Nora's gotten taller, he thinks. He wonders if John was the one taking the picture.

Rodney closes out of the draft email without saving it or sending it.

Nora changes her mind about Halloween and decides to go as Princess Leia – the one from Episode IV, thank god, not the one in the metal bikini. They find a costume shop that has the white robe thing, but John has a hell of a time with the two Leia buns when they do a trial run the week before Halloween. Nora's got plenty of hair but it still takes two braid extensions and a whole card of bobby pins to get the right effect.

"I need a blaster," she says, and strikes a pose right off the movie's poster art. It's so unlike Nora to be acting silly that John cracks up in spite of himself. "Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder!" Nora quotes with pitch-perfect Carrie Fisher intonation.

"Who's scruffy-looking?" says John, eyes wide, unable to keep a straight face. He's never been prouder in his life.

"I want to be Luke Skywalker!" PJ says.

"Next year," says John. "You've already got a costume."

"But Leia is Luke's sister and Nora's my sister," PJ says, aggrieved.

"Next year," John repeats firmly.

"Luke is a pilot, you know," Nora tells PJ. "You could be Luke, just wearing a different uniform."

"Okay," says PJ brightly and runs off.

Nora smoothes her hands down the white robe a few times, fiddles with the rope belt, and then, as though hurrying before she can change her mind, she lunges at John and gives him a quick hug. "Thank you," she says, and John changes his mind: this is the proudest he's ever been in his life.

Then the phone rings and Nora sits down to start taking apart the buns. John doesn't recognize the number on the call display and is about to ignore it, figuring it's probably a telemarketer, when he notices the area code.

"Oh, shit," John whispers, and his heart leaps into his throat.

It's really what Rodney should have expected: he's only been back in Pegasus for less than a week and already he's been taken hostage by a hostile culture. In fact, it kind of is what Rodney expected, and he also fully expects that he'll be rescued in fairly short order by the rest of AR-1, led by Mitchell. Rodney himself has taken a few cracks at orchestrating his own escape but so far that's only landed him with a concussion and tighter restraints.

By now he's figured out that his captors have him in an Ancient warship and that they've heard, probably via Larrin or another one of the Travelers, that Rodney can fix anything that the Ancestors made. Strangely, though, they haven't given him much of anything to do yet, perhaps not trusting him not to rework the systems in his favor. And to be fair, that's exactly the sort of thing Rodney's been hoping he could try.

What Rodney truly hadn't anticipated, in all the four days he's had to stew in this metal-walled holding cell, is that John Sheppard would be the one leading the rescue effort. John, decked out in full black BDUs, complete with sidearm and P-90. John, hastening into Rodney's prison cell and yanking him up by the arm, barking, "Hurry, hurry, we need your help."

Rodney blinks stupidly at John as they run – well, John runs and Rodney stumbles after – down the corridors of the ship towards some mysterious destination. They've only gone maybe twenty meters when John slams Rodney back against a bulkhead and hands him his Beretta, saying, "Get down!" and then unleashing a few rapid bursts of automated fire. And then they're running again, Rodney falling out of shock and into old conditioned behaviour, gripping the butt of the Beretta with sweaty hands and hoping like hell that they get wherever they're going soon.

Where they're going turns out to be a control chair room, where Ronon and Mitchell and Teyla are standing ready. "You found him," says Teyla, and rips her velcroed pack off her back, passing it to Rodney. "Hurry up," Ronon says, as Sheppard hurls himself into the chair.

Rodney opens the pack, finds a tablet and Ancient interface electrodes, gets an access panel open at the base of the chair and hooks into the system. "What do we need?" Rodney asks. "Oh, this is great, this ship is leaking atmo like a sieve and I don't even want to think about the rads I've absorbed the last few days, the stardrive is like Chernobyl on crack."

"McKay," says Mitchell, impatient, breathing down his neck. "Cut the complaining and secure the bulkheads between here and the bridge. We need to lock down our position first and then worry about getting out of here."

"Thanks, I hadn't thought of that," snaps Rodney. "It's already done, but there are whole sections of the ship with no power, they need to be manually locked down if we're going to hold this position."

"Tell me where," demands Mitchell and Rodney points on the schematic. Mitchell and Ronon head out, guns raised and at the ready.

"John," says Rodney, "I need you to go into power systems and start shutting a few things down." The chair is already tilted back, Sheppard's eyes closed in the way that means he's linked up with the AI, so Rodney begins rattling off a list of things that are sucking the ship's ZPMs dry. "Okay, next up, I need you to start sealing off sections of the ship where the hull's been compromised."

"Is there any chance we will be able to pilot the ship?" asks Teyla, standing guard at the door.

Rodney shakes his head. "I'd need to get at the propulsion systems and I can't access them directly from here. Please tell me we have a ship on the way."

"We have the Hammond twelve hours out," says John. "Good enough?"

"That's how you got here so quickly?" Rodney asks. "It took you as far as the edge of Pegasus and you gated to Atlantis from there?"

"Not now, McKay," says John. "What's next?"

"What's next," says Rodney, "is communications. We have to cut the bridge control but that's going to take some doing. You tell me what you have access to, I'll see what I can patch together."

"It is very good to have you back, John," says Teyla quietly, and then Ronon and Mitchell come back with guns literally blazing and everything gets a little chaotic for a while as Rodney takes cover and starts squeezing off rounds in the general direction of the bad guys. John rolls down beside him after a couple of seconds, but for some reason he's slow to draw his P-90 and join the fire fight. It's not until the dust settles that Rodney looks over and sees John trying to work a field bandage out of his tac vest.

"Oh, for god's sake," says Rodney. "Where did they get you?"

They got him in the meat of his left calf, where the chair's arms weren't protecting his body. John is pale and sweaty but otherwise he seems okay. Ronon comes over and helps Rodney cut away the leg of John's pants and bind the wound. "Can you still work the chair?" Rodney asks, and John nods, perspiration beading on his upper lip. "There's vicodin in the field medical kit but I think you need to tough it out or the interface will be sluggish."

"Right, toughing it out," John bites back as Ronon hauls him to his feet and helps him up into the chair. "Jesus. That smarts."

At least Ronon and Mitchell have gotten the bulkheads secured, and without the ATA gene or any apparent knowledge of Ancient technology, Rodney's hostage-takers won't be likely to open them up again anytime soon. The tension eases a little in the room and soon only Ronon is keeping watch while Teyla and Mitchell unpack field rations and help John to drink a little water.

"I think I owe you a beer," Mitchell tells John. "I promised you wouldn't take fire on this one."

"I'll hold you to it," John mutters abstractedly, busy trying to help Rodney switch over control of life support systems.

After an hour, they've got as much control of the ship as they can hope to get with the dilapidated systems, and Rodney finally gets a chance to find out what the hell has happened since he was abducted four days earlier.

"The people are from a world called Minaria," says Teyla. "They have some technology, mostly Wraith, that they've managed to acquire over the centuries. On one of their forays through a distant orbital gate using a dart, they stumbled across this vessel orbiting the planet. One of them had heard of a man who could control the ships of the Ancestors and so they laid a trap for our team and took you hostage."

"They wanted Sheppard," Ronon adds, "so they sent a message through the gate saying they'd kill you in five days if we didn't send him in exchange."

"I tried to tell 'em Sheppard was out of the business," Mitchell says, quirking his mouth over at John, who's now slouched against a wall and drowsing. "But they didn't believe me. We offered Beckett's services, but it was a no go. So we dialed up Earth."

"Wait," says Rodney, "are you saying they didn't even want me? That I just happened to be the one they grabbed?" He's trying not to be offended but it's difficult under the circumstances. He's never been a human shield before. Usually when he's a prisoner it's because of his mind, not simply his beating heart and Lantean allegiance.

"Well," says Ronon, "you're the slowest one on the team. Probably the easiest to pick off."

"Oh, that's very nice," Rodney gripes. He looks over at John, who's still refusing vicodin in case they need him again. "So I'm guessing that you offered to send Colonel ATA here over and ambushed them with the whole team instead?"

"Something like that," says John muzzily. "Does anyone have something I can throw up into?"

Ronon takes over an empty MRE bag and John makes use of it noisily.

"How many more hours?" Rodney asks, abruptly desperate to get out of here, back to safe Atlantis.

Mitchell checks his watch. "Nine and a half. We might as well take turns getting some rest. It's going to be a bit of a wait."

Rodney concurs, and balls up his torn uniform jacket for a pillow. He settles near John because, vomiting or not, John's presence is hugely comforting after so much terror and uncertainty.

"Can't believe you're here," Rodney says very quietly when he's sure that everyone else is either sleeping or distracted.

"Me neither," says John. "You owe me so big right now." But his hand creeps out and he brushes a pinkie across Rodney's upper arm, almost accidentally.

Rodney wants to know more about it, about how John reacted when the SGC called, about who's watching Nora and PJ, about what it feels like for John to be back in uniform and walking through gates and firing guns, but Rodney finds himself afraid of the answers. He only wants to revel in this unexpected and imperfect gift: John Sheppard drowsing next to him, like nothing's changed at all.

When the Hammond arrives it's all over very quickly. They get beamed up, the Hammond hails the Minarians, and under the threat of the SGC's greater firepower the ship is quickly surrendered. Rodney knows they'll need him back on the Ancient warship soon, to cobble together enough propulsion to send her limping back to Atlantis, but for once he is less than eager to be elbows-deep in crystals and wiring. He complains about his headache from the lingering concussion so that the sick bay will hold him for observation while John is getting stitched up in the next bed over.

"Through and through," says the doctor examining John. "That's good, it saves us having to go in after the bullet. It looks to me like it's just a flesh wound but we'll have to see how it heals up. You're going to be off active duty for a few weeks, Colonel."

"Not a colonel," says John, sagging back against the bed. "Just dressed up like one for the mission. I'm a civilian now."

"My mistake, Mr. Sheppard," says the doctor. "Right, let me get a suture kit and we'll see about getting this cleaned out and closed up."

John is stoic as always through the procedure, betraying his pain only with the briefest of grimaces now and then. Rodney knows he's staring but can't seem to stop, and John must not mind or he would have said so. "I have no idea what I'm going to tell them," John says once the doctor's done.

Rodney doesn't have to ask who John means. "Severe bee sting?" he suggests.

"Attacked by a tall chihuahua," John returns thoughtfully.

"Or a very short archer," Rodney offers, and they both laugh half-heartedly, too tired and sore to really enjoy the moment. It's the last thing Rodney remembers for a little while, until the nurse jostles him awake taking his vitals and he looks over to John's bed.

John is gone.

It takes a while for Rodney to start snoring lightly, but as soon as he's out, John is struggling to his feet and reaching for the crutches they foolishly left near the bed. Much as he wants to pause and have a last look at Rodney, John limps out of the sick bay without a backwards glance, down the corridor to the bridge.

He doesn't know the colonel commanding the Hammond but he makes his case quickly, and soon he's in the back of a jumper and flying through the orbital gate to Atlantis. Teyla and Ronon will be pretty pissed, and Carson and Lorne and all the others will be even more pissed that John didn't come in to say farewell, but leaving Atlantis again has got to be fast, like pulling off a band-aid. John's too afraid of what might happen if he lingers a second longer than he needs to.

So Chuck is the only one John talks to, and Chuck doesn't hesitate when John says, "It's Halloween at home," he just dials the SGC and gets permission to send John back.

It's shitty, what he's doing; John knows it. He can't stop picturing Rodney's face when he wakes, when he asks and finds out that John hasn't just left the ship, he's fled the galaxy. Every time John imagines it it's another punch to the gut, but there's no helping it. He'd rather imagine it a million times than live through the inevitable argument where Rodney demands that John stay. John wouldn't have the strength to refuse.

John's military transport touches down at an Air Force base an hour north of Oakley, and he gets back to the house at 7 p.m., just as Lara is getting the kids out the door for trick-or-treating. He managed to change into loose-fitting track pants and a t-shirt on the flight from Colorado Springs but there's no helping the crutches or the stink of old sweat and fear that's clinging to him.

"Uncle John!" bellows PJ, and pelts down Lara's front walk to attack him. "Did you break your leg? What happened?" he asks, and squeezes and squeezes John's waist.

"A very tall chihuahua," John says, "bit me right in the calf."

"You're so weird," says PJ. "Are you coming trick-or-treating with us?"

John is exhausted, his leg is shooting hot stabs of pain with every step, and he'd give anything just to have a hot shower and ten uninterrupted hours of sleep. Only one day ago he was shot on an Ancient warship three million light years away.

Nora comes down the walk, smiling and looking worried at the same time. "Are you really hurt?" she asks. "Where did you go?"

"I'm fine," John says, and uses every ounce of effort to pull himself upright on the crutches. "Are we getting candy or what?"

Dear Rodney,

I decided to go trick-or-treating after all. I was Princess Leia. Here's a picture that Uncle John took. He went on a trip last week but he won't tell us where or what he did. Maybe it had to do with our dad. Uncle John doesn't ever talk about him. Lately he's being super mean and he never listens to me. He treats me like I'm a kid no matter what.

I hope you're ok. I know you can't check your email very much wherever you are but you haven't emailed since the beginning of October. Even if you don't have time to say anything, you could just write back and say you're ok.

I am probably going to get my ears peirced for my birthday. If Uncle John lets me because you have to sign a form unless your'e 16.


"Oof, Peej," says John, startling out of sleep as PJ's foot lands squarely on his bad leg. John squints over at his bedside alarm clock: 3:24 a.m. "Bad dream?" John asks.

PJ doesn't answer, just clambers under the covers. John supposes he should be thanking God for small favors, as the middle of the night does seem to be the only time that PJ doesn't provide a stream of commentary. And though sometimes John can't guess what drives PJ into his room in the middle of the night, it's clear enough in this instance. This is the third night since John got back from his mission, and PJ's been here every night since.

"Did you hear a noise?" John tries, without much optimism.

PJ is clutching his bear and his eyes are open but he doesn't answer.

"You even awake?" John asks.

PJ nods, then closes his eyes.

"You know I came back as fast as I could," John says with all honesty. He doesn't mention how he almost considered never coming back at all. The thought twists his guts badly enough without being articulated.

PJ lies awake with John in the darkness. John supposes they're each fighting their own demons.

Halloween was a Saturday, so by the time Tuesday rolls around, the pain in John's leg has subsided a little. Still, he can't stomach the thought of climbing into the rattling cockpit of a Cessna after being reminded so recently of what it felt like to whisk through space in a jumper. John calls in sick for his private lessons, saying he has a pulled muscle, but there's no avoiding the evening ground school session.

"We missed you last week," says the chief flight instructor when John shows up on Thursday night. "You didn't give us a lot of notice to find a sub for you."

"Sorry about that," says John. "Like I said, family emergency."

"Well, I hope you'll be back at it next week," says the flight instructor with just the right amount of threat to his tone.

"Of course," says John, and limps into the classroom. He ditched the crutches at home to avoid too many questions but his calf muscle is none too jokey about all the weight it's bearing. He perches on a stool and waits for the chatter to settle down. "Right," John says, "turn to page 43 in your handbooks," and he starts in on the discussion of principles of flight. Thankfully, John has taught the material before as a flight instructor for the Air Force, so he can breeze through the topics at hand without too much effort, pausing only to answer questions from the less mathematically inclined among his pupils. Around them, the rest of the flight school shuts down as the sun sets until they're the only ones left in the building.

John finishes a few minutes early but has to linger to answer questions and usher everyone out the door so he can lock up. He's moving out into the corridor with a half dozen students when a voice stops him in his tracks.

"You know," says Rodney, "you've got a much better handle on the basics of aerodynamics than I would have guessed."

John is frozen in the hallway outside the classroom; around him his students brush past John and Rodney like they're stones in a rushing brook. Rodney is here. Rodney is standing right here.

"I mean, I knew intellectually that you would have done advanced propulsion and aerodynamics as part of your military training," Rodney continues, "but I thought that was the sort of thing speed junkies like you just crammed into your head for exams and then forgot about once you got into the cockpit."

Rodney is here, in Concord, at John's workplace.

"I'm babbling," says Rodney. "I'm, uh, trying to work through the overwhelming urge to throttle you, by the way."

"The feeling's mutual," John says, unblinking.

"The thing is," Rodney says, "I actually don't want to kill you. Well, I do. But if I did that would defeat the whole purpose of my being here."

John squints.

"Which is to be with you," Rodney clarifies. "I mean, not with you in the biblical sense. Not necessarily. Just. I have this theory about how shitty and angry I've been feeling since you ditched me lying wounded and unconscious in the middle of an alien galaxy. Do you want to hear it?"

John doesn't want to hear it. He wants to blink and he wants McKay to disappear.

"My theory is that I'm not just experiencing typical feelings of abandonment and the attendant anger," says Rodney. He's talking with his hands. John feels the strong urge to slap them down but he's frozen. "My theory is that I'm incapable of being happy without you around, and your recent arrival and subsequent departure reminded me of this uncomfortable fact. The question," and he raises his finger and waves it at John, "the question is, is this happiness derived from a very specific and likely unworkable situation, or can it translate to, say, the hallway of a shitty second-rate flight school in the ass-end suburbs of San Francisco?"

"This is not a shitty second-rate school," says John.

"That's what you choose to refute?" Rodney squawks.

John can't cope, he just simply cannot cope. His hand goes out, he's going to kill Rodney, he's going to punch him in the face and push him to the ground and smother him with his bare hands. But instead he's grabbing a handful of Rodney's shirt and pulling Rodney close, and he's got him in a weird wrestling vise-grip of an embrace, nine-tenths desperation and loneliness and one-tenth a weird mistrusted joy.

"Ow," says Rodney, muffled by John's shoulder. "Ow, pain. Recent head injury."

"Fuck you," says John, choked and terrified. "God, fuck you."

"Is this supposed to be sexy?" asks Rodney, struggling a little. "Because I'm starting to feel like Hallmark movies have lied to me about what joyful reunions look like."

John starts to laugh, and then he starts to shake, and everything goes wavy and dark for a second. When he blinks himself back into normal vision, Rodney is a few inches away and John's cheeks are hurting from – is it a smile? John doesn't even know.

"Ten words or less, McKay," says John, like he's said a hundred times before, "explain what you're doing here."

"It's just – when you left, again," Rodney says, and John can see him trying not to digress into another rant on the subject, "when you left, I started thinking that maybe there was no point to Atlantis if you weren't there. And that got me thinking that maybe there was no point to any place if you weren't there."

"Way over ten words," John points out, but he's starting to feel his own fingers and toes again, and the rushing in his ears is subsiding a little.

Rodney sighs, put-upon, and holds out both hands, counting off as he goes. "Leaving Stargate program to spend life in suburbs with you." When he's done, he looks a little shocked, like he hadn't put it into such plain terms even in his own mind. "God, that's romantic, isn't it?" he says, sounding pleased.

"I gotta ask," says John, "are you sure? Are you sure?" Because John can still taste it, the boundlessness of Atlantis, the freedom it brings, and he can't imagine that Rodney is really sacrificing all of that for this dingy hallway and John's utterly mundane new life.

"Is anyone ever sure?" says Rodney. "Are you even sure?"

"No," John admits, throat tightening. "But I'm doing what I have to. For them."

"If you can do it for them," Rodney says, "I guess I can probably do it for you." He goes up on his toes and does a little bounce. "No, really, I'm getting really good at this declaration of undying love thing. I can't believe you're not ravishing me against the wall right now."

"Well," says John, "I'm injured. If anyone should be doing the heavy-duty ravishing, it's you."

"Ugh," says Rodney. "I do all the work." But his hands come up and touch the back of John's head and neck, gently, as though afraid John would object. John's eyes close as he's struck with a wave of contentment so strong he's almost dizzied by it. Rodney presses a careful kiss to the corner of his mouth, draws back. "Can we"—Rodney hesitates. "Can we go home now?"

Rodney doesn't want to deal with details, he wants to launch into action just like he and John always do when they've made a fundamentally insane and strategically flawed decision. He wants to throw himself into this new life and make it work like they always make things work.

He doesn't want to be sitting in his rental car in the darkened parking lot of John's flight school, jiggling his knee and waiting while John talks on his cell phone in the next car over. And in the dark and silent waiting, Rodney doesn't want to think about all the phone calls he's going to have to make himself tomorrow. He left Atlantis on the pretext of a few days of personal leave, and now he's going to have to call General Landry and give his notice. They're going to want him back to tie up loose ends. They're going to argue with him about his resignation and they're going to do the American military version of Jesus' temptation in the desert, complete with retention bonuses and huge raises and more autonomy to work on big projects. They'll probably even get Sam Carter to do the talking because they know all his weaknesses and she's a big one.

"Come on, come on," Rodney says, watching John talk, biting his nails. "Fuck."

Finally John clicks out of the phone call and raises his hand at Rodney, signaling that they can leave. Rodney sighs with relief and trails John back to the small rental bungalow that's supposed to be his new house.

"Sorry," says John, after they've pulled into the driveway and gotten out of their respective cars. "I had to talk to the sitter and convince her to keep the kids overnight."

"Is that the mom you've been sleeping with?" Rodney asks.

John tries to hide his shock. "Nora's got a big mouth, I guess. But we aren't sleeping together. She thinks," and he checks himself, tries again, "she knows I'm gay."

"Oh," says Rodney, dumbstruck.

"Wait, you thought I had a girlfriend and you still decided to come back here?" John presses, suddenly suspicious.

"Well," says Rodney, "I hardly think she'd present any competition. I mean. It's me."

John makes that face where he's trying not to smile. "Well, I guess we should go inside," he suggests, all false lightness and ease.

"I guess," says Rodney, but he doesn't move.

"Are you changing your mind?" says John, only about half teasing. "Because I really would have to kill you if you came this far and chickened out."

"It's a big moment," says Rodney in his own defense. "I mean, the second I go in there, it stops being your house and it becomes our house. And we've never shared a house before. I've never even had a roommate."

John comes closer, pulls on Rodney's shirt, tows him towards the door. "Come on, McKay," he says, "I'll give you the full tour."

Rodney exhales involuntarily, hating that he has this Pavlovian response to John's bossy touch, this immediate sense of trust and relief. He's powerless to resist. They go up the walk and into the house. It's messier than the last time Rodney was here, more cluttered and chaotic, and Rodney remembers Nora's last message and the hints that John wasn't coping any better with his return than Rodney was.

"So, this is the living room," says John, and his hand lets go of Rodney's shirt, glides over and cups his shoulder, and suddenly they're kissing and tugging at clothes and Rodney can't focus on anything and it's perfect.

They wind up in John's bedroom, naked and making out sprawled on top of the covers, John over Rodney and kissing his way across Rodney's chest, both of them trembling and gasping. "Jesus," says John, and sucks Rodney's nipple into his mouth, licks at it, and pulls back to say, "Jesus, I want to fuck you so bad."

"Okay," says Rodney easily, wriggling to get his legs apart, to get John settled between his thighs. "Yeah, do that."

"I can't," says John, "I don't have anything. Do you have anything?"

"My suitcase is in the car," says Rodney, and it's not even a little bit funny because they're both stark naked and hard and the car might as well be in a different solar system, but John starts laughing anyway and Rodney joins him, helplessly. "You seriously don't have any condoms or lube?" Rodney asks, a little appalled, between giggles.

"Yeah, you'd think more people would be lining up to sleep with me," John says, snickering, "I mean, I was given to understand that PTA meetings were just a big meat market." He shimmies up Rodney's body a little to kiss his mouth some more. "Give me a second, I'll get dressed and grab it," John says, thrusting his hips down into Rodney's.

"No," says Rodney, "later. Stay here."

John hums agreeably and goes back to kissing as they rub against each other. Rodney slides his hands down John's back, gets a hold of his ass with one cheek in each hand, urges John to move against him. "Oh," says John, and starts to find a rhythm. "Just like this? That's what you want?"

Rodney doesn't know what he wants, he just doesn't want to lose this feeling of John covering him, John's weight and skin pushing into his, John's shuddering breath in his ears. "This is all strongly in support of my theory," Rodney tells John as earnestly as he can, and John starts laughing again, and they've never laughed and fucked at the same time quite like this.

They go from laughing to something quite a bit more desperate in the space of a few seconds, and suddenly John is open-mouthed and breathing hard and Rodney is pulling John tight against him, trying to work himself off against the taut hairy flesh of John's belly, and John makes a choked sound and comes, and Rodney rolls him over and fucks down against John's body half a dozen times before he follows. "I haven't done that since I was a kid," says John once they catch their breath. "That was fun."

"I think we got come all over your quilt," says Rodney, pushing up and looking down at the wet patches they've left.

"Good thing we saved the sheets for later then," says John, unconcerned, and pulls Rodney back down to him. "I can't believe you're here," he says in a much softer voice, and presses his mouth to Rodney's. "You're right, you know – you're a romantic son of a bitch."

"I'm totally smooth," Rodney agrees, and kisses John back. With a start, he pulls away. "Oh, shit, your leg. I forgot. Did I hurt you?"

"It's fine," says John with a snort. "Mr. Smooth Romantic."

"Dr. Smooth Romantic," corrects Rodney, and curls up next to John, yawning. "Just, just give me half an hour, I'll go grab that bag."

John wakens, chilled, a few hours later. Rodney has migrated across the bed from him as usual, and neither of them is under the covers though they're both still naked. John scoots off the bed as quietly as possible and flips his half of the covers up and over Rodney before pulling on his track pants and t-shirt. He goes off in search of a glass of water and Rodney's car keys.

Rodney's suitcase is a small carry-on size, which makes John realize that Rodney's not done, he's still got to go back and make this all official, collect his belongings, clear off his desk. John carefully puts that thought out of his mind and digs until he finds Rodney's shaving kit with a strip of condoms and a small bottle of lube. Both are the same brand that Atlantis's infirmary stocks, and John finds himself smiling to think of Rodney popping in and asking Carson for supplies before heading out on his mission to reconcile with John.

John heads back into the bedroom, dropping his pants and shirt on the way in. Rodney has moved out of his typical faceplant sleeping position and is curled up on his side under the covers, watching John.

"I didn't mean to sleep for that long," says Rodney, rubbing his eyes. "Oh, is that what I think it is?"

John sits on the mattress and shuffles his way into a prone position near Rodney, wary of his bad leg. "I don't know," says John, taking Rodney's hand and pulling it down, "do you think it's a hard-on?"

"I meant the lube," Rodney scoffs, but he takes John in hand anyway, strokes him lightly. "How do we do this with – with your leg being all"—

"Well," says John, "you could do the cowboy, or the reverse cowboy, or"—

"Oh shut up," says Rodney, and kisses him. "Is that what you want? To fuck me?"

John thought that was what he wanted, but now Rodney's sort of hovering over him, he changes his mind. "Nah," he says, "like this. You in me. Face to face."

They take longer this time, warmed by the covers and each other, still shaking off the vestiges of sleep. Rodney scoots back on his knees and sucks John for a while, then snaps his fingers for the lube and keeps going as he slicks John up. John doesn't do this very often, only a handful of times with Rodney even over the several years they were sleeping together, but he likes it just fine when he's in the right mood, as he is now. "Okay?" asks Rodney, coming up for air with reddened cheeks and swollen mouth.

"Yeah," says John, and slaps around until he locates a condom. "Here."

Rodney swears as the condom wrapper slips away from his lubed fingers, so John helps, getting the thing open and urging Rodney forward so he can roll it over Rodney's cock. It's already lubed (all the Atlantis condoms are for some reason) so Rodney can just shift back and pull John's right thigh up, the good one, and rock into him without pausing. "Good?" says Rodney. Rodney always wants feedback, which sometimes annoys John when he's in the moment, but right now John has no compunction about arching his head back and giving a long sigh of contentment as his body accommodates the unaccustomed stretch of Rodney in him.

John's glad he's chosen this, this slightly unfamiliar act between them, because it takes all of his mind and body into the situation as they remember how this works, at what angle and what depth and what speed, where John's leg rests on Rodney's shoulder, how they can shift so Rodney can lean in close and kiss and kiss. "God," Rodney is saying, over and over, and once in a while he adds a heartfelt, "I've missed you so much, oh god, missed this, missed you." John normally likes to keep his eyes open when they fuck, likes to take in all the startlingly dirty and gorgeous places where they're moving together, but this time his eyelids keep drifting shut as he's overtaken with unexpected shivers of happiness. They are here, this is real. This is Rodney in John's bedroom, in his life, and Rodney thinks he might stay, and they might do this again and again in this same dark and intimate small space.

"You're not faking this for my benefit?" Rodney says at one point, startling John's eyes open. "Because I can take a little constructive criticism, if it's well-phrased."

"What the hell are you talking about?" John asks, blinking sweat out of his vision, gasping.

"All these porn-sounding noises you're making," says Rodney, who is a goddamn sexual god, because he's actually stopping that sweet perfect motion and holding himself up over John, looking down the bridge of his nose with suspicion.

"I'm not making porn noises," John says, voice scratchy.

"Oh, yes, you are," says Rodney, suddenly breaking into a smile. "Wow. So I guess you're not faking it then. I'm really that good." And he pushes in again, deep and fast and in the exact right place, and this time John hears it, the soft happy moan that escapes his own throat. "Yeah," says Rodney, "do that again," and John, unable to do otherwise, complies.

John falls back into it within a few more thrusts, and it's not until Rodney asks, "Do you want my hand or are you going to"—that John realizes neither of them has even touched John's cock.

"I'll do it," says John, almost embarrassed, and reaches down to find himself achingly hard and his belly hair wet and sticky where he's been leaking steadily this whole time. After that it becomes a lot more urgent, and Rodney shifts into a faster breakneck pace while John strokes himself frantically.

Rodney comes first, pushing himself in hard, hips flush and insistent against John's ass while he cries out and executes a long series of happy leisurely thrusts that have John's thigh folded back almost touching his own torso. John strips his cock faster, eyes fixed on Rodney's blissed out expression, and comes a moment later as Rodney finally eases back a little.

"Oh, I think I'm having a heart attack," says Rodney, breath rushing fast and hard, arms trembling as he works himself out of John's body with one hand on the rim of the condom. "Seriously, I think I'm going to die right here."

"You're not dying," John assures him, because Rodney has said this before. "Ah, Jesus, slow, slow."

"Sorry," says Rodney, slowing down a little, the mostly-hard shape of him slipping away from John's ass. "God. Maybe it's a stroke. Are my pupils even?"

"Mmm," John says, lowering his leg back down and feeling the strain all up his body as his heart slows. "Holy shit."

"Oh, hey," says Rodney, coming back from a lean over to the bedside table to deposit the condom. "Wow, look at all this." He uses his index finger to trace the stripes of John's come on his chest. "That's impressive."

"Stop it," John says, not really meaning it, because now he looks, it is kind of impressive. Rodney bows his head and licks at the bit just under his collarbone. "Mmm, okay, don't stop," says John, melting into happiness.

Rodney keeps going, obedient and methodical, and then while John drifts Rodney pulls the covers over them both and nestles in close. "I'm glad I'm here," Rodney says, almost inaudible. "This feels right."

"Me too," says John. "But I still think you're stupid for choosing me."

"It wasn't so much a choice," Rodney tells him. "Wow, I'm totally on a roll. That makes three awesome romantic things I've said and you're still striking out at zero."

John is mostly asleep by now. "I'll come up with something in the morning," he promises, and drops off.

John's alarm goes off about three and a half seconds after Rodney closes his eyes; at least, that's how it feels.

"Get up," John says, and jostles Rodney's shoulder.

"Nuh," says Rodney, squashing his face into his pillow. "No work today."

"Kids," says John, grouchy and sleepy. "Kids coming here before school."

"Oh, fuck," says Rodney. "Really? Can't I just hide here?"

"I think they'll notice your car in the driveway," John points out. "If you hurry we can shower."

Rodney groans and thrashes but concedes after another minute or so of baleful blinking. He stumbles into the small bathroom leading off John's bedroom and finds John already in the shower.

"How long do we have?" Rodney asks, once the spray has woken him up a bit.

"It's quarter after six," John says, "and Lara was going to drop them off in time for me to feed them and drive them at 7:15. School starts at 7:30 for Nora and 8 for Peej. I'd say we have about twenty minutes to make ourselves presentable."

"That's lots of time," says Rodney, scrubbing shampoo into his hair, leering tiredly at John.

"Save it for later," says John. "Once they're at school we have the house to ourselves all day."

"Oh," says Rodney, and leers a little more.

The kids burst in the front door at 6:50, dressed and noisy and with another kid in tow. Rodney and John are sitting at the kitchen table, showered and dressed if not shaved, sipping at their freshly brewed coffee. "Whose car is it, the grey one?" PJ says, and then spots Rodney. "Agh!" he shouts, and attacks. Brutus almost bowls Nora over as he skids into the kitchen next, and then Rodney's being embraced and kissed and licked on all sides as he shouts about oxygen deprivation and dog germs.

"Hey kids," says John, not lifting a finger to help, "did you notice that Rodney's here?"

"I have a wart on my finger," says PJ. "See?"

"Oh my god," Rodney says, averting his eyes. "Go away, short people."

"When did you get here?" PJ asks. "Are you going to stay for a holiday with us?"

"Quit grilling Rodney and eat your cereal," John tells him. "Oscar, did you eat yet? Grab a bowl. Who wants a glass of milk?"

Oscar is the third mysterious kid, it seems, and Lara's son. Rodney gets the full story of his and PJ's friendship as the boys slurp their breakfast down and talk over each other more and more loudly. Nora eats more deliberately, but betrays her happiness with the small smile popping onto her face now and then.

"Five minutes," says John from the kitchen counter, where he's assembling a bag lunch. "We're leaving in five minutes!"

"How long are you staying?" Nora asks Rodney while the boys head to the bathroom.

Rodney looks over at John, who's looking back at him with frank curiosity.

"Just a couple of days this time," Rodney says, "and then I've got to get back to my job and clear some things up. But after that I guess I'm back for good."

Nora's face lights up. "Really?" she says, eyes wide and delighted. "For good?"

"Yeah," says Rodney, and finds himself reflecting her delight right back to her, then over to John. "For good."

John brings the bag lunch over to the table and leaves it at PJ's place, then hands Nora a folded bill. "Lunch money," he says, and with just as little ceremony, he pauses and drops a kiss on Rodney's cheek before starting to clear the empty cereal bowls. Rodney tries to hold back his pleased blush but it's difficult, because John just kissed him at breakfast. In front of someone else.

"Wait," says Nora, dropping her spoon. "Are you guys gay together?"

Rodney blinks out of his happy daze and looks over to see Nora looking stunned. For a second, he thinks she must be kidding, but that wouldn't be like Nora, and so Rodney quickly runs down the facts: she's never seen them sleep in the same bed, or hug, or kiss, or exchange anything like affectionate words; Nora has spent most of her childhood in a carefully sheltered upper crust boarding school; John is her uber-butch air force colonel uncle; and Rodney was never introduced to her as anything but John's work friend. They had assumed for a while that Nora had put two and two together, but it seems they assumed wrong. Rodney looks over at John, panicked.

"Duh, Nora," says PJ, having walked back into the kitchen in time to hear his sister's question. "Didn't you know that already?"

For a dreadful moment, Rodney is terrified that Nora is going to flip out and John is going to tell Rodney he'd better leave and everything they've carefully begun to build since last night will come crashing down horribly. But after a few seconds that feel like an eternity, Nora picks up her spoon and digs into her cereal again. "Oh," she says, with a little sigh. "That's – I guess that makes a lot of sense, actually."

"So"—John says, voice dry and nervous, "so, it doesn't bother you, right?"

"It's okay to be gay," PJ reassures John. "Right, Nora?"

"Yeah," says Nora, "I think they know that, PJ. They just want to make sure we're not going to be all weird about it." She takes a sip of milk. "So, you mean, you're not just staying in Oakley," she says to Rodney, "you're moving in with us?"

"You're moving in with us?" says PJ. "Really?"

"Yeah," says Rodney, a little more tentatively than the first time. "Really."

"Can I finally call him Uncle Rodney then?" PJ asks John, with the tone of someone launching into an old debate.

"If Rodney thinks it's okay," John says noncommittally.

"Sure," says Rodney. "If you want. Whatever."

"Are they gay together?" Oscar asks in a stage whisper, having entered midway through the discussion.

"Yes," says PJ. "But it's okay."

"Oh," says Oscar. "Mr. Sheppard, we're going to be late, that clock on the stove says seven-one-eight and Nora's school starts at seven-three-zero."

"Shit," says John, and launches into action. "Go, go, go! Do you have your bags? Homework? Peej, do you have your piano books, today's your lesson."

In thirty seconds flat, the house is clear and Rodney's left sitting alone at the table listening to the sound of John's SUV coughing to life in the driveway. He wipes at his face firmly, but the stupid grin seems to be stuck there for the duration.

Rodney figures he'd better make use of this elation to take care of some business. He pulls out his laptop, types a hasty letter of resignation, and emails it to Landry and Woolsey. In the email, he assures them both that he'll do everything in his power to help sort out his succession on Atlantis and, if they'll have him, he's happy to continue to work for them as a freelance consultant for longer-term projects.

As John comes back through the door, childless and sort of shyly smirking, Rodney types one last hasty email, this time to Zelenka and Jeannie:

You'd both better enjoy this moment, because it's probably the only time I'll ever give you the satisfaction: you were right about John. I was wrong.

- Rodney

They spend all morning and early afternoon in bed, something John has done all too rarely in his life and not at all for many years. They spent a good part of the time having sex, of course, but they also doze and joke and talk. John tells Rodney everything that he's missed and finds himself giving Rodney a litany of all his various failures as a guardian. Rodney starts tearing up with mirth around the point of PJ's toenails and he's giggling helplessly by the time John gets to the swimming lessons and the tampons, and his most recent failure, letting PJ eat so much Halloween candy that he'd barfed all over his bed in the middle of the night.

"I figured, my dad never let us eat any candy, really," John says, and Rodney is slapping at the mattress, wheezing for air. "I guess I'm overcompensating."

"You're terrible at this," Rodney says, but this time he sounds fond instead of contemptuous. "Don't worry, I'll probably be even worse. At least you like kids to begin with."

"Come on, Rodney, you like our kids just fine," John says, and Rodney's smile goes lopsided with tenderness. "That's one," says John triumphantly, and wets his finger to give himself a point on an imaginary scoreboard.

"Still winning," Rodney says, unconcerned. "Hey, we still have an hour before you have to leave to pick up the kids, right?" and he dives in and starts kissing John's throat.

"God, I'm kind of sore," John says. "I'm way out of practice for this sort of thing."

"No pain, no – oh," says Rodney, sticking his hand down John's shorts, "I think I found some gain."

When it's time for John to go and get the kids, Rodney decides to come along this time. "Why public school?" Rodney asks as John turns down the main road towards Nora's school. "I mean, when you were talking about it back in May it sounded like you had more than enough money to send them to another expensive prep school."

"They've been around those kinds of schools long enough," says John with a shrug. "I wanted them to meet normal kids from different backgrounds. Besides, there's still time for Nora to do prep school for high school if she decides to shoot for an Ivy League college."

"College," says Rodney wonderingly. "God, I guess it's not that far off for her, is it? Only five years. Well, she's extremely bright, and with my tutelage I don't see any reason she shouldn't get accepted at any school in North America."

"Hey," says John, "go easy on the pressure. She doesn't have to grow up to be a super genius."

"She won't," says Rodney baldly. "She's only very bright, she's not on that level of intelligence. But very bright people can still go far – look at you."

"Aw, Rodney," says John sarcastically. "I'm so touched."

Having Rodney here with him does a strange trick on John's mind. For the past five months John truly thought he was dealing with reality and mostly doing a decent job of it. But Rodney's presence, his participation in John's new reality, makes it all suddenly seem one hundred times more vivid. The best comparison John can make is to the feeling of being snapped out of one of the Replicator fantasies, that momentary disorientation followed by a sense of rightness and solidity.

But that has nearly always been an awakening to a dangerous situation from a happy fantasy, and this time it's almost the polar opposite. John can suddenly see all the places he was very nearly headed as he walked this path alone: the escalating fights with Nora, PJ's continuing insecurities, John's own suppressed anger and resentment. Now Rodney's here, and the train that was starting to skid off the tracks finds a desperately needed counterbalance.

It's not that simple, John reminds himself every time he feels this way; Rodney isn't the solution to everything, and he and Rodney have a lot of work ahead of them even to ensure that things between them are good, stay good. But it feels that simple, somehow, when Rodney's presence transforms Nora into a talkative smiling tractable kid again, when PJ clambers into bed with them and Rodney rolls his eyes the next day and says, "Can one of the schools refer us to a good therapist for the kids?"

And John thinks why didn't that occur to me? because of course the kids need to talk to someone, jesus, they just lost their father and here John had been subjecting them to the Sheppard Grief Coping Method, which bore a striking resemblance to "don't ask, don't tell" and worked really well in a combat zone but probably not so well in seventh or third grade.

And John himself – well. John, who stopped looking for happiness the moment he left Atlantis back in May, has no choice but to admit that happiness seems to have found him anyway.

John makes some excuse for hovering nearby when Landry calls on Saturday morning. It's not that he doesn't trust Rodney's word – if Rodney says he's staying, then he's staying – but John remembers how difficult it was for him to sit through that phone call and hold his ground. Rodney barrels through with his usual lack of tact, though, and when he hangs up he says, "They're emailing me a contract. Would you believe I'm keeping eighty percent of my salary and I get to work from here?"

John has to sit down to take that in. "You're, what, consulting?"

"Yes," says Rodney. "I'm going to need to set up an office somewhere in the house. How long is our lease? We need to move someplace with four bedrooms so I can have a proper office. Or maybe someplace with a guest house in the back so I can really spread out."

"Use the garage for now," John suggests. "I never park in there anyway. Lease is up in June, we'll look for a place to buy starting after the winter holidays."

"Okay," Rodney agrees. "Thank god Landry agreed, I was worried I'd have to teach at a community college or something. I might still have to pick up some other consulting work to keep myself busy, but it won't take long for word to get out that I'm back in the game here." He scratches his face where the stubble is darkening; Rodney still hasn't shaved since arriving. "I have to go back on Monday," he admits, "and you know it can take a while, going that direction. I don't think I'll be able to get back here before December."

"That's okay," John says, surprised that it really is okay.

Nora comes out of her room and beams at Rodney. It's pretty clear she's been eavesdropping, but then they haven't said anything they shouldn't have, so John lets it go. "Rodney," she says, "can you help me with my science fair project? My proposal is due on Monday."

Rodney passes the cordless phone to John and waves Nora over to the kitchen table.

"Rodney, be nice," John warns him.

"I'll be nice if her idea isn't stupid," Rodney says, and Nora practically skips over to join him.

"I don't want to go," Rodney says Sunday night, or maybe it's early Monday morning. John isn't letting himself look at the clock. They're stretched out on the bed in their boxers, delaying the inevitable – soon they'll have sex for the last time before their month apart.

"I know," John says. "Say, maybe you can send me an email when you're writing to Nora."

"Meh," says Rodney. "She's a much more interesting correspondent."

"You two aren't building a warhead for her project, are you?" John asks, narrowing his eyes.

"No, no," says Rodney, "that's more of a grade five project. Nora is far more advanced."

"I don't want you to go either," John says, instead of laughing on cue as he's supposed to.

"You know," says Rodney, "Landry pretty much told me that we could bring the kids to Atlantis and that the USAF would look the other way on the cohabitation thing."

"He did not," John says, shaking his head, calling bullshit.

"He did," Rodney says, and damn, he's telling the truth. "But the kids have been through enough. The last thing they need is for us to uproot them again. Besides, Nora would shrivel up and die if we took her out of the service area for texting." He meets John's eyes, pupils wide and dark in the dim room. "Was I right?"

"Definitely right," John says. "Maybe someday, we'll decide to take them on an adventure, if Landry's still game. But not now. Not for a long while."

"It's good I'm still involved," says Rodney. "It's going to be a lot easier to get Ronon and Teyla here for visits now and then. And maybe they can smuggle in some rus wine."

"God, rus wine," says John ecstatically, and Rodney tackles him.



It's late January when they all fly back to D.C. for the laying of Dave Sheppard's grave marker. Things have been good enough for long enough now that it's jarring to be knocked back into this atmosphere of grief. Rodney's still the outsider, the one who is only feeling a sort of second-hand loss, but this time when Nora is still and pale and silent he feels okay to wrap his arm around her shoulders – only half a foot below his these days – and pull her in tight while they watch the stone go into the ground. This time Nora lets her tears spill over much more readily, and this time PJ is the one who seems the most at peace; six months is a long time in the life of a child.

John, wearing a long black dress coat, nose reddened from the unaccustomed winter chill, keeps his eyes fixed on the ground, but he's got PJ in front of him, John's arms crossed over PJ's chest. Rodney isn't sure if John's sheltering PJ or maybe using him as a talisman. Maybe it's a bit of both.

Afterwards, they drive southwest towards Maryland. The kids are a little distant, obviously still at the graveside somewhere inside their minds, but gradually they seem to wake up to the mystery of their destination. PJ starts to pester John and Rodney for details, but when they prove to be immovable, he speculates aloud about all the things they could be doing.

They pull up to the Andrews Air Force Base about an hour later, and John has a couple of quiet words with the airman at the gate. One phone call and a wink later, they're driving through the base on their way to the hangars.

"I thought you guys deserved to try something a little cooler than a Cessna," says John, and leads them into one of the open hangar doors.

"Whoa," says PJ. "What is that? What kind of plane is that?"

"That's a C-38," says John, then corrects himself. "A Gulfstream G-150. Isn't she a pretty little thing?"

PJ runs over to get a closer look and John waves at a uniformed man standing in front of the small jet. "Major Hansen," he says, "this is Dr. Rodney McKay, my nephew PJ's the one fondling your plane, and this is my niece Nora."

"I hear your uncle's taking you guys up for a ride," says Major Hansen, and PJ goes a little nuts.

Rodney can't help but hate the idea of going up in the air when John has that wicked eager glint in his eyes, but he's trusted John to fly him much faster in much much older craft, so he climbs in with only a few words of complaint.

John gives the kids a full tour of the cockpit and all its controls. Nora likes to know what instrument measures what; PJ just likes all the flashing lights and computer screens. "Hey," says John, settling down in the cockpit, "there's two seats up here." He affects a puzzled expression. "Well, I don't know if anyone would want to sit up front here, it's kind of scary to"—and PJ starts hollering so loud that Rodney's ears are ringing.

John gets PJ buckled in, PJ clutching a barf bag just in case. Nora and Rodney settle down in the back, and then John's talking to the tower and doing his preflight and even Rodney gets a little caught up in the excitement.

Without inertial dampeners, or failing that, the vast bulk of a commercial airliner, there's nothing to mask the thrilling lurch in Rodney's stomach as they whoosh up into the air.

"Everyone okay?" John shouts. PJ whoops in answer, and when Rodney turns his head to check on Nora, she's beaming as she watches out the window. Rodney smiles, happy to see her happy today of all days. It's difficult to talk much over the engine noise, louder in this small jet than in a big airliner, but they shout at each other for a while. They gradually fall into silence as John levels off and the landscape takes precedence.

"Nora's turn," John announces, and PJ reluctantly surrenders his co-pilot's seat. Once everyone's safely settled again, John decides to show off a little, and PJ alternately shouts with joy and goes green around the mouth until Rodney yells at John to stop.

Nora comes back into the cabin after another few minutes, and Rodney looks at her, surprised. "He says it's your turn," she tells him, and bites her lip against her smile before leaning in and whispering in Rodney's ear, "He let me fly the plane!"

Rodney squeezes up front and settles next to John, busying himself with his five-point harness before he gathers the courage to look out the window in front of them. It's a panoramic view, nothing but clear gorgeous blue sky, and barring the roaring of the engines it's a sudden stunning flashback to a million jumper trips sitting next to John, travelling to the mainland or across the surface of some other alien world. Rodney looks over at John, sees that John's feeling it too.

"No HUD," says John, a little wistful, "and she won't even break the sound barrier, but it's something anyway."

"It's something," agrees Rodney. "Can I fly? You let Nora fly."

John laughs and waves Rodney towards the co-pilot controls. "You know how the"—and Rodney rolls his eyes and John closes his mouth again. "Right. Well, I'm switching over control. Try to fly straight."

John flips a switch and Rodney knows that there's no palpable mechanical difference in the control yoke now that he's the one flying but he feels it nonetheless, the little hum of power under his hands. He's breathlessly cautious at first but John's little smirk eggs him on and Rodney executes a slow deliberate roll to the right, taking them due west.

"That's it," says John, in his flight instructor voice. "Feels a bit different than a jumper, huh?"

Rodney nods and adjusts their heading, a little more confidently this time.

"Good. You wanna take us down a little?"

It's their jumper lessons all over again, except John's had some practice at being patient since then, and Rodney's learned to trust John's instructions, and the whole thing just seems to work a lot better in general now that they're sleeping together. John gets Rodney to pull up again, slow down, speed up, and finally he takes back the controls and puts it into autopilot. They both sit back and breathe in the view for a minute.

"When PJ was up here, before," John says into the silence, "he." And he stops himself, visibly gathering courage. "He said he liked it up here. He said he felt like Dave could see us better because we were closer to him."

Rodney reaches across, takes John's hand.

"I told him," says John, a little thickly now, "that he's like that candle – remember that candle we put in the window? – him and Nora, they're like that candle, that Dave can always find his way to them because they're burning so bright." John pulls his hand away and rubs it quickly over his eyes. "I can't figure out if that was the right thing to say."

They can faintly hear the sounds of the kids in the cabin behind them, squabbling over something, noisy and self-important and energetic.

"Did it make him cry?" Rodney asks.

John snorts. "No, he's Peej. You know. He just takes that stuff in."

"Then I think it was the right thing," says Rodney. "No crying equals a parenting win, remember?"

"Yeah, we've really got to start raising our standards for that," says John, but he's smiling and reaching for the controls. "Right, let's see if I can make you squeal, McKay."

They sweep through the perfect blue; it's boundless and bright.



Flying Crooked

The butterfly, the cabbage white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has — who knows so well as I? —
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

— Robert Graves, 1938