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The Providence of Stars

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Fic: Providence of Stars (nc-17)
Title: The Providence of Stars
Author: [info]melagan
Pairing: McKay/Sheppard
Rating: NC-17
Word Count: 23,700
Betas: [info]mischief5 and [info]mezzo_cammin. Mistakes=mine.
Warnings & Catagories: Drama, Humor, Hurt/Comfort, Historical AU, Mpreg, kitchen sink...
Summary: In the summer of 1942, young Dr. Rodney McKay steps off a train, eager to continue his work on the war effort. Nearly a year later, he's running for his life with Captain John Sheppard.


Cover Art:

(click image to enlarge)

Manhattan Engineer District, June 1942

Dr. Rodney McKay toyed nervously with his slide rule. Maybe he should have voiced his opinion a bit more diplomatically because, judging from Major General Reybold's purpling face, his young genius status wasn't going to get him off the hook this time.

It wasn't fair. Rodney had thrown all his energy into finishing off his second doctorate so he could join this project. Maybe his social skills needed work but he was just as proud to be part of the war effort as every other twenty-seven year old.

The new face on the Manhattan Project, Colonel Marshall, didn’t look too happy with him either. Rodney winced. They could have avoided all this awkwardness if anyone had asked for his input in the first place.

That was it in a nutshell and the very reason why the American Army couldn't find the crack of their ass without a solar flare lighting their way. Rodney bit his lip. He wished now that he hadn't said that last part out loud.

Reybold narrowed his gaze on Rodney. "Colonel Marshall."

"Yes, sir."

"I think we can find a different project for Dr. McKay to spend his efforts on, don't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. See to it."

"Now, wait just a minute," Rodney interrupted. "Theoretical physicists don't just fall off the turnip truck. Unless, of course, that's where you Americans are getting them and, unsurprisingly, that explains so much – No, wait. Think about this. My not being on this project could set you back years."

"I think we can manage just fine, Dr. McKay." The general smiled tightly at Rodney. "With or without a solar flare." With a terse nod in Col. Marshall's direction, the general added, "Oh, and Colonel, after today, I don't want to hear that McKay has gotten within 200 miles of this particular project."

~~~

Three hours later, two servicemen hustled Rodney into the back of a jeep. He was handed a portfolio of orders with classified stamped all over them, the duffle bag he came with, and a one-way train ticket.


Col. Marshall had made it short and crystal clear. The general's orders would be carried out ASAP, and Dr. McKay's loud mouth and scrawny ass would be someone else's problem. Rodney felt it highly unnecessary for the colonel to add, "That poor bastard."

It wasn't until he got off the train that things got creepy.

~~~

"Dr. Rodney McKay, I presume? I've been sent by the Agency to pick you up."

Rodney looked at the black car and took stock of the man hovering next to it: rumpled black suit, black, skinny tie, and the nicotine-stained fingers of a chain smoker. The dark glasses made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He couldn't see the man's eyes, and since they were standing under an overcast sky, Rodney knew it had to be deliberate. "The Agency? That doesn't sound military. I have important work here, and I expected…"

"If you wouldn't mind, doctor, we're on a schedule. I'm going to have my driver take you directly to the facility where you'll be working."

Rodney balked and hugged the portfolio to his chest. "Who are you?"

"Call me… Mr. Smith. I assure you, Dr. McKay, everything is in order. This is merely a minor change to your reassignment." Smith took a long drag off his cigarette and with a cold smile added, "I'm sure you'll have no difficulty getting up to speed. As I understand it, you should be grateful you didn't end up in Siberia."

~~~

That was two weeks ago and it was still creepy. The security around him definitely wasn't military. They all looked like thugs in badly tailored suits. Rodney tried to shrug it off. It could be worse, he supposed. At least, the lab was adequate. He had his own percolator coffee pot and access to the Z3 room.

He had no idea how the Agency managed to get their hands on one of Konrad Zuse's machines, unless they smuggled it out of Austria. Rodney wasn't going to quibble, not when he could get his hands on a computer with 2,300 relays, floating-point binary arithmetic, and a 22-bit word length.

He had state-of-the-art equipment to play with and little going on outside to distract him from his theories. The food was readily available if unimaginative. Just the way Rodney liked it.

Only, he couldn't help the small niggling of doubt that he'd gotten misplaced within the system, and no one other than the cigarette smoking man with the fake name actually knew where Dr. Rodney McKay was.

Well, that he could rectify. Rodney knew it was only a matter of time before his co-workers recognized his brilliance. Rodney tapped his chin in consideration. It certainly would save time and nasty embarrassment if he informed them now that coffee and chocolate were acceptable forms of placation.

Decision made, Rodney moved onto more pleasant tasks. Working on the Manhattan Project had taken all of his time and concentration, and he'd missed celebrating his 27th birthday by two months. The latest gossip, currently shuffled about by the lab rats, was that the cook was making chocolate cake today. He fully intended to get his share because, if he didn't miss his guess, chocolate was going to be the next thing slotted for rationing.

Rodney stood with his hands on his hips, glaring at the equations on the chalkboard. He was being a good little astrophysicist and staying away from fission research, just as ordered, but that didn't mean he couldn't indulge his own hobbies every now and again. Electromagnetic separation wasn't going to get him a Nobel but it had some intriguing promise.

Besides, what else was he supposed to do in bumfu…Oak Ridge, Tennessee?

"Hey, McKay, Dr. Prince wants to see you in his office."

Rodney flinched under the hand that clamped down on his shoulder. Great, just what he needed today, Dr. Prince's personal security here as an escort. "Let me ask you a question, big guy. You and your…" Rodney waved a hand, "Boy's club – excuse me, security – stalk around with the fashion sense of pall bearers. Yet, even with those long coats, you can't manage to conceal a weapon. Why do you bother?"

"Move it."

"Yes, yes, I'm coming." Rodney gave him his best cocky grin. "I wouldn't want that charming snarl to freeze on your face."

~~~

Rodney dropped the stack of paperwork on his desk in disgust. Landon Prince was a peculiar little man. No stranger than a lot of the scientists he'd met, but still, Rodney couldn't help but wonder if the doctor was completely off his rocker. This forty-page document in front of him was just one more example.

They were in the middle of fighting a war and Dr. Prince wanted Rodney to sign onto a project for cloning. Cloning! Just as if Rodney were some sort of cockamamie biologist instead of a rising star in his own field.

Dr. Prince had practically glowed with maniacal glee when he'd lectured Rodney about the success of Spemann's embryology experiments. Left up to him, Rodney wouldn't give a plugged nickel for a bushel of amphibious embryos from forty years ago. Why Dr. Prince thought the war effort needed salamanders, Rodney had no idea. Just thinking about it made his brain hurt.

Frowning, he sat down to read. This thing wasn't getting his signature until he was sure of getting full credit for his work. He'd worked with jealous, petty men before who wouldn't think twice about stealing his ideas. Rodney grinned to himself. He had enemies because he was that damn good.

A couple of bad cups of coffee later and Rodney had read enough to know that the Agency wasn't trying to cheat him; they were wasting his time. Idiots.

He blew out a sigh and tried to work the crick out of his neck. The last few pages had started turning blurry in front of his eyes fifteen minutes ago. Even after coffee and three aspirin, he still had the headache from hell.

With two pages left to read, Rodney decided the proposal was nothing more than the sad waste of a good tree. He knew it was time to call it a night when the coffee grounds in the bottom of his cup started staring back at him.

He penned his name on the last line with a pained squint and a grimace. No matter what Dr. Landon Prince tried to tell him, he knew the current technology was a far cry away from achieving human cloning.

The next night, Rodney found out how very wrong he was and what he’d given the Agency permission to do.

He was in the lab when they came for him. Everyone had left except for security. Unfortunately, it wasn't his security. He froze when a gun muzzle pressed against the back of his neck.

Questions swirled in Rodney's head but he swallowed them down. He didn't know any of these men in their long, black coats but they all had guns. Guns they looked very comfortable holding.

"No talking, doc. Just do as you're told and you won't get hurt. Much."

He grabbed Rodney by the elbow and pulled him to his feet. With a sharp nod of his head, he pointed in the direction he wanted Rodney to go.

Panic tasted like bile. Rodney lost track of the number of corridors and turns although he knew they'd gone down at least one level. That frightened him even more. Rodney had worked in the facility for two months; he hadn't even known it had another level.

"We're here."

The words were as hard and as rough as the hands that shoved him into a large room. Stark white ceramic walls looked like a cross between a hospital and a meat locker. Gleaming stainless steel tables and cabinets reflected Rodney's image back at him, all wide blue eyes and pale face – and he was not alone.

More goons stood there in lab coats and it didn't do a damn thing to disguise the menace in their stance. Swallowing hard to fight back the panic, Rodney realized he couldn't fight them, not here, not like this. By the time the doctors came in, they had Rodney strapped down to the table and stripped of his shoes and pants.

Rodney breathed a sigh of relief. These were educated men; he was certain they would listen to reason. If he could just get his pants back, he wouldn't even press charges.

"Hey, listen to me. I'm not supposed to be here. These goons have made some kind of mistake." The cold smile he received in return wasn't comforting.

"No mistake, Dr. McKay. All of your paperwork is in pristine order. It makes a very nice change from our usual…patients."

Rodney realized then it wasn’t the men with guns he needed to be afraid of. These doctors wanted his brilliance. They wanted his genius. They wanted to be able to mold it to suit their needs.

Everything was shiny and sharp until the IV turned it all into a blur. Rodney wasn't sure, but he thought he heard screaming.

Langford Residence, Nevada, April 1943

Catherine Langford stared down at the woman in her bed. Ernest had sounded frantic and excited on the phone and she was beginning to understand why.

They’d settled the rather large man on the couch. He stretched across the full length of the rose brocade divan, and his feet and hair still hung over the edge, and what strange hair it was. Despite the determined set of his shoulders, he’d looked like he was about to topple over any minute when he first came through her door. Still, he seemed to recover more quickly than the woman he’d carried. Ernie was finding him something to eat and asking questions of him, even now.

Yet, Catherine suspected, it was this woman who held their answers. Unfortunately, she'd collapsed before she's spoken a single word. Ernie had immediately made a hurried phone call to his cousin, Carson Beckett. From what she could overhear, Ernie was quite insistent that these strangers not be admitted to the local hospital in Beatty. Why, he wouldn’t say.

Catherine knew Carson was a brilliant doctor and that they were lucky to have him as the Project's physician. That didn’t keep her from worrying. The base infirmary was small and simply not designed to handle more than two or three patients at a time.

With a shake of her head, Catherine turned her attention back to the woman in her bed. She was petite, and to Catherine's travel-experienced eye, carried the elegant bone structure of a Zanzibar native. She had streaks of gray running through her hair, deep lines in her face, and a scar on her chest. The mark was so unusual that Catherine couldn’t begin to fathom its cause.

Despite her unconscious state, the mysterious woman possessed an aura of dignity that made Catherine sit up straighter in her chair. She flushed, glad that no one had seen, and smoothed her shirt over her knees for the twentieth time. She hated being unnerved, but at least the habit was better than biting her nails.

From the low voices coming from the living room, Ernest was making some headway with their large guest. If she didn’t love Ernie so much, she’d have been tempted to slap him for bringing two such very odd strangers to her door. Catherine sighed. Well, she’d always professed to have an open mind; she really shouldn’t be surprised when Ernest trusted her to do so now.

"Cat, come here and met our intrepid explorer." Ernest beamed, his smile lighting up his entire face. "He says his name is Mr. Ronon Dex and our lady of mystery is Miss Teyla Emmagan."

Catherine held out her hand to Mr. Dex, who raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest.

"Ernie, can I see you in the kitchen a moment – dear." Catherine said, knowing her tone made it perfectly clear it wasn’t a request.

Ernest bobbed his head in answer. "Um, excuse me, Mr. Dex, I’m…"

"Yeah, you do that," Ronon answered. "Oh, and can you bring back some more of those skinny meat strips?"

"You mean the bacon? Right away." Ernest winked at him. "Well, just as soon as my girl is done with me. It might be a few minutes."

~~~

Catherine backed Ernest against the fridge. "I want some answers, Ernie. What is going on?"

He stared back at her with wide eyes as his explanation spilled out in a fast, excited jumble.

"It’s the Door to Heaven, sweetheart. You know how we’ve been increasing the power levels? The most amazing thing happened. There was this big swhoosh." Ernest laid his hand on his chest. "I swear, for a moment, I thought the ocean was going to spill into the bunker. Cat, you should have been there. As my cousin would say, it was a bloody miracle.

"Only I don’t think it was us that did it, because they came through from the other side –and to all indications that's not – well, we can discuss that later. The water formed a wall – oh my stars, you should have seen it, Cat – and Mr. Dex, in there, walked right through it, carrying Miss Emmagan in his arms.

"Don’t you see, Cat? Our guests, they’re from…" Ernest blinked up at her. "See, that's the thing, we don't exactly know where they're from but it must be from some place incredible. We have to find out everything we can, darling."

"Oh, Ernest." She didn’t get to say anymore before there was a knock on the door.

"It’s Carson. Took him long enough. Um, sweetheart…" For the first time since this started, Ernest looked uncomfortable. "Do you think you could take him in to see Miss Emmagan? I’d rather not, you see. It's not gentlemanly."

"Oh, Ernest."

Oak Ridge Facility, April 1943

It hurt. It hurt so damn much. The injections seemed endless, day after day of them. His body didn't function as it should. Off balance and nauseous, he had to pee every twenty minutes. Rodney had long since used up all of the cuss words he knew but he was willing to make up more if he could just stay awake. He curled up on the hard, narrow cot, exhausted and grateful to be finally left alone at the end of the day.

Rodney hadn't touched his belly in weeks. It felt like a travesty. Then the baby kicked and he knew he couldn't let them have it. He'd overheard enough to know what they had planned. He refused leave his baby in the hands of the Agency for them to rear as some bastardized, miniature McKay.

He dreamt about it. He dreamt about a sweet, blue-eyed boy, morality screwed all to hell by his captors. Cradling his belly, he remembered the quote, Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man he will become. He imagined a warped, twelve-year-old version of himself gloating over the detonation of his first atomic bomb.

Imprisoned for months, he continued to prepare for his escape.

Every time Mr. Raines gave him a larger nightshirt to wear, he smiled at Rodney, cool and knowing. Rodney's happier dreams were the ones about pushing that face into the wall and wiping that smile off permanently.

~~~

Thanks to his healthy paranoia, Rodney started chewing his fingernails when he was first captured, but not because of nerves. Oh no, not at all. Instead, he took the keratin protein, used as a stabilizer, tossed in the right chemicals on the sly, and now he had a tidy little package of plastic explosive in the heel of one slipper and the catalyst for it in the other.

It wasn't enough do a lot of damage, but it would be the devil to pay on a door lock.

He could do so much more damage if he just had pockets so he could smuggle things into his room. With a soft snort, he gave grudging credit to his captors. It had taken a few electric shocks but they were starting to learn.

Rodney tapped his chin in thought. His jailors had made another mistake, many actually, but their first was to allow Rodney back in his lab. The second, well – he shrugged. As far as he was concerned, there was really no point in listing them all. Idiots. But, thanks to their incompetence, he was ready to put his escape plan into action and none too soon.

He patted his creation with a wry smile of satisfaction. Rodney sighed. He'd had to resort to hiding the parts in his coffee pot. A sacrifice, yes, but worth it for the smallest Electro-Convulsive gun ever built. Fully assembled, it fit in the palm of his hand. It was a far cry from perfect but the voltage was high enough to bring even the biggest goon to his knees.

~~~

"Sir, I thought you might like to know McKay's getting restless. He's been asking about where the egg the docs used came from. I think he's trying to figure out who the mother is."

"What did you tell him?"

"I told him the cover story, just like you said, Mr. Spender. That it was from an Army nurse killed in the line of duty."

"Good. He believed you?"

"Sure. So… you're not telling him?"

"That the mother is a really a man? That we used stolen genetic material to give the child certain – enhancements? No. He already suspects that it's not only his genius we want. Believe me, Steve, putting too much information in the hands of Dr. McKay can only bring down trouble."

"Yeah, okay. I thought putting him in lock-down was excessive until I had dealings with the man." Steve rubbed at his wrist where it still tingled from the last electric shock. "Experiment, my ass. It’s no wonder Dr. Prince wanted to keep him isolated."

Spender lit another cigarette and exhaled slowly. The smoke left a haze around his head like a malevolent halo. "He’s got the lab guys looking over their shoulders and as jumpy as hell, too. They’ve stopped referring to the project as New Son. Now they’re all calling it Demon Seed."

"I’m not really comfortable with what’s going on here," Steve said. "You're paying me to keep my mouth shut and I will, but playing God, messing with a man’s insides – It just don't sit right. Why didn’t the lab rats just find a woman for McKay to knock up?"

"Unfortunately, they couldn’t find one with the right cocktail of genes," Spender answered. "There's something special about these. The lab rats call it eminently adaptable and are still crowing over how well the Captain’s DNA is adapting. Smacking McKay’s arrogant ass down and forcing him to be their little male pregnancy experiment was just icing on the cake. I'm telling you, Steve, the Agency is drooling to get its own mini-genius to train up as their personal prodigy. The project surgeon, Doctor Kenmore, is nearly slap-happy over how well it's working."

"What’s going to happen after the birth?" Steve asked.

"Talk is, if the kid dies, they do the whole process to Dr. McKay again. If the kid makes it, then McKay gets slipped a little something special in his IV and never wakes up again. I hope it hurts like hell."

"What about the baby? Jesus, I wouldn’t want any kid raised in this place."

"Don’t know, not our problem, and if you know what’s good for you, Stevie boy, don’t be caught asking."

They moved down the hallway out of earshot and Rodney clutched at the doorframe, knees weak with shock and nausea. The only good thing out of all this was that they hadn't noticed him standing there.

Rodney grimly faced the facts in front of him. He was eight months pregnant. He had to escape now, tonight, before they decided to take the baby and… Rodney shuddered. He couldn’t think about that now.

Thank heavens for lax security. No one actually believed Rodney would try to go anywhere in his condition. They underestimated his genius and his resolve. Bastards.

~~~
He waited until midnight. The soft ticking of the clock in his cell sounded too loud in his ears as Rodney strained to hear any sound outside his door. Plunging the whole place into darkness hadn't been an option. Rodney still needed to see his way out. That didn't mean he couldn't shut the power off to the remote areas of the facility and use it as a distraction.

Idiots. They'd given him access to a computer and months to work on the coding. Despite the desperate circumstances, a smug smile of satisfaction teased at his mouth. It was going to take those sons of bitches weeks to figure out what Rodney had done.

After forty minutes passed without a sound outside his door, Rodney pulled out his cultivated explosive. Seconds later, and with an undramatic puff of smoke, the door-lock was toast.

Rodney laid a hand on his belly and drew in a shaky breath. He gathered up his bathrobe and his resolve and snuck down the hall to the stairwell.

He was so close to freedom he could taste it. The door to the outside world was just a few feet away and had an alarm he could disable in his sleep.

He'd timed his escape with as much precision as he could manage while being watched. By his calculations, he had ten minutes before the delayed meltdown of the Z3 computer tripped every fuse box in the building.

Rodney cautiously opened the door to the ground level and stared straight into the face of a security guard. Panicked and desperate, Rodney shot him. The guard landed on the floor in an unconscious heap. His arms and legs continued to twitch in the aftermath of the shock as Rodney watched in horror and the faintest bit of pride that his device had worked so well.

Rodney stared down at the guard's gun for long seconds and wondered if he could kill someone in cold blood. He'd just decided when a hand clamped down over his mouth.

"Don't scream, princess. I'm on my way out of this place and I want some answers."

Rodney nodded, his cuss words effectively muffled.

"Name's Sheppard." He let go of Rodney, picked up the gun from the downed guard, and checked the chamber for ammo. "Captain John Sheppard, U.S. Army Air Corps. Near as I can tell, I've been their 'guest' here for a time. Believe me, I'm just as anxious to get out of here as you are. Who are you?"

"I'm Dr. Rodney McKay. Maybe you've heard of… Hey, don't point that at me!"

"Doc, huh, not one of those…" John's hand tightened on the gun.

"No, god, no. Would I be running around in a bathrobe and nightshirt if I were?"

The corner of John's mouth turned up in an amused quirk. "You're the one that cut the power?"

"Yes," Rodney hissed. "Now, can we get out of here? They're going to figure out how to get the power on any minute. Of course, they'll do it wrong because they're idiots. Things are about to go ka-blooey." Rodney quirked a grin. "I did a little rewiring."

"How much time have we got?"

"Let's just say, Captain, that we shouldn't be wasting time talking about it."

John arched an eyebrow. "Expected casualties?"

"What? Do you mean dead people? No, no. I assure you I don’t need a trail of dead bodies on my conscience. I can tell you, though, that every piece of functioning equipment will be worth a plug-nickel in about ten minutes. That little disaster should keep them tied up for hours. They're going to flip a wig when they figure it out."

"C'mon, then." John put a hand under Rodney's elbow. "This way."

~~~

Rodney looked up at the man beside him as he worked. He was pale and gaunt with an unruly shock of black hair and a scruffy beard. Both looked wet with something Rodney didn't want to think too closely about. The only thing he wore was a pair of pants that dipped low on his hips. A shoelace threaded through a couple of belt loops held his trousers up. Barely.

"Those obviously aren’t the pants you walked in with," McKay said.

"Is this really the time to discuss my clothing choices, princess? Why don't you concentrate on disabling that alarm instead?"

"Oh, please, don't bother to insult my intelligence. I could strip and reassemble this in my sleep. What happened to your other shoelace?"

"My what?"

"Shoe. Lace." Rodney enunciated clearly, as he rerouted the last wire on the alarm and the door slid open without a squeak. "You're not wearing any boots and you're using one shoelace to hold up your pants. Ergo, one lace is missing."

"What do you say we escape first, and then we can discuss fashion? Oh, I know," John continued, "Maybe we can do each other's hair and talk about going to the dance."

"You know, there's no need for sarcasm. It's a perfectly astute observation," Rodney huffed, trying to catch his breath and keep up with the captain's sprint to the parking lot. "Normally, I'd be extremely annoyed at you, but right now, I'm too overcome with jealousy over your pockets."

John stopped and turned to stare at Rodney. "My pockets? What in blue blazes…?"

"It's the best part of a pair of pants. I had no idea I'd miss them so much."

"You sound downright wistful, princess. Try waking up bare ass naked in a tank of goo before you decide to get jealous over my britches."

Rodney sighed, exasperated. "Pockets. As in pants. As in – something in them. The pants you took, have you gone through them yet? And don't call me princess."

"Let's see, go through the pockets of the pants I liberated from the guard I left catching up on his beauty sleep." John smirked. "Yeah, that did cross my mind. Sweetheart."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "And?"

"A little money we can use later and, better still, car keys." John grinned, holding the key chain up in front of Rodney's face. The tiny license plate swung on the chain like a charm, clearly identifying which car they belonged to.

The next moments passed in a blur for Rodney as they looked for the license plate to match the keys. He let the captain lead as he shivered in the cold, wet dew. The sharp gravel bit through the thin soles of his slippers and his hands were shaking from fatigue.

Rodney gritted his teeth and forced one foot in front of the other. He needed to get out of here, he needed a doctor he could trust, and damn it to hell, he needed to pee – again.

John whistled, soft and low. He stood in front of a black Buick Roadmaster. Rodney caught him staring at the license plate for long moments with an odd look on his face.

"Is this the right car?" Rodney prodded.

"SN 1621. Yep, according to the tag on the keychain, this is it." John slid in behind the wheel. "Let's see if this key…" The engine turned over with a satisfying rumble. "Bingo. C'mon, get in. Make it snappy unless you want me to leave you behind."

Rodney got in on the passenger side as quickly as his awkward belly would allow. "Are you sure you're okay to drive? You don't look so good, and I didn't want to mention this before, but you're leaking."

"Yeah, I am, aren't I. Don't worry about it." John pulled the car out onto the main highway and floored it. "Worry more about how much speed this baby has." He smiled over at Rodney. "I'll be fine. I know a doctor who will fix us both up right as rain without asking too many questions. Hey, see if the glove box has a map in it."

Rodney gave one last look at the concrete building they were leaving behind. Black clouds of smoke began to roll out the windows. "Hey, I didn't do that."

John tilted his head at Rodney and smirked. "Not you, princess. I left them a little going away present. Something to show how much I appreciated their hospitality."

Rodney stared at John and gave him a slow nod. The man had wire-fine tubes still sticking out of him. They were coppery looking things that sprouted six or eight inches long from the Captain's arms and back. Tiny drops of silver liquid oozed from their ends.

Until they could get to a doctor, there was no telling how deep they went. Judging from the dried blood around a couple of them, they were in deep enough that the captain hadn't been able to pull them out. Rodney was full of questions and no small amount of annoyance but for now, he decided not to agitate the crazy, injured person.

"What they did to you," Rodney asked. "Does it hurt?"

"Like a bitch."

Rodney shifted, trying to get comfortable. "Do you want me to drive?"

"No, thanks. Driving takes my mind off things," John answered. "You don't look in such good shape yourself. Why don't you try to get some sleep? I'll wake you when I need a break."

"We should…" Rodney yawned, "We should try to get to a pay phone. Call for help." He never heard Sheppard's answer before his eyes closed and he fell into an exhausted sleep.

He slept, unaware of how the captain studied him or how the lines of tension in his own face eased, his eyelashes leaving half-moon shadows over his pale cheeks.

~~~

The car jerked to the side of the road and startled Rodney out of his nap.

"McKay, wake up!" John hissed

"Oh god, what is it? Is that…the cops?" Rodney rubbed his eyes, forcing himself to alertness. The strobe of red lights ahead of them lit the night sky.

"Road block," John said, killing the car's lights.

"Do you think they're looking for us?" Rodney asked.

"I don't know, but we can't take the chance. It seems like a hell of a coincidence to me."

Rodney nodded at Sheppard with a crooked smile. "Even if they're not, neither one of us is exactly the picture of a fine, upstanding citizen right now. We can't afford to lose time answering questions. Can you get us turned around?"

"Yeah." John began to back the car around. It wasn't going to help them any if someone broadsided them while they were sitting halfway across the road in a black car in the dead of night. "We passed a dirt road a few miles back. See if you can figure out where we are from that map. And while you're at it, princess, keep your eyes peeled for a filling station. We're going to need it."

The car was almost on empty when an old, grey Shell station loomed up on their left. As derelict as it looked in the moonlight, it was the most beautiful thing Rodney had seen in hours.

John pulled up to the pump and nodded in his direction. "See if you can find anything we can use while I fill the tank and check the oil."

Rodney gave him a distracted hand wave over his shoulder while he rooted around for change. "There's an old Coca-cola machine over there. Heaven knows we could both use some sugar and caffeine." Rodney waddled over to the refrigerated chest. "Oh look, the bottles still have frost on them…" He turned around to show John his prize but the man had disappeared. "Captain Sheppard?"

"In here."

'In here' turned out to be inside the attached garage. Rodney peered into the gloom. The smell from years of oil changes and automotive grease assaulted his senses and he had to fight back the nausea. The bare light bulb hanging from the rafters failed to do much to light their surroundings. It was just enough for him to see Sheppard rummaging around by the workbench.

"What are you doing? Are you trying to get caught?" Rodney hissed.

"Relax. There's no one here. I found some stuff we can use." John held up a long sleeved work shirt and a roll of electrical tape. "See if you can find anything I can wear on my feet."

"Have you gone bonkers? No, don't answer that, I'm trying desperately to hang onto my illusions. Go back to the car and sit. I'll look. You're just asking to step on a nail and get lockjaw and die horribly. Oh, don't even bother with that pouty face. It won't work." Rodney glared at Sheppard. "Go."

"But…"

"I promise to scavenge anything useful. Now, why don't you just be a good little captain and go leave some money on the counter."

"Fine. But meet me back at the car in five minutes. Five minutes, McKay. Then I'm leaving, with or without you."

Rodney watched as Sheppard carefully picked his way over the grease-stained floor. "You know, if you keep threatening to abandon me, I'm going to get a complex."

~~~

Rodney slid into the car. Perhaps not so much slid as lumbered, but it didn't stop him from smiling. He'd scored better than he'd imagined. "Pull around behind the garage."

Sheppard cocked an eyebrow.

"I hooked up the garden hose to the bathroom sink and ran it out the back window." Rodney grinned. "Hot running water at your service, sir." Then he held up and rattled the first aid kit he'd found. "This has gauze and hospital tape. Let's get you cleaned up and get that disguising goop off of you. You were planning on taping those wires down with electrical tape, weren't you? Of course, you were." Rodney snorted. "You probably even thought it was a great idea. Don't deny it. With this, we can actually use something that won't increase your chances of rampant infection."

"Geez, McKay, you're all heart."

"It's not entirely altruistic, you know. One of us has to look presentable enough to be seen in public, and right now, you're the one with pants. And boots."

"Boots?"

"Oh sure, just look at the happy glow on your face now." Rodney beamed back at him. "I found them in the bathroom – they're out back with the hose. Well? What are you waiting for? Bupkis?"

They didn't dare take the time for more than a quick rinse. Still, John managed to get the worse of the gel mess sloughed out of his hair and beard. Rodney stared at the wires for a moment and then gently wrapped the tape and gauze around John's arms. "Turn around, Captain. I'm just going to tape down the two on your back. Be careful not to pull them loose while you're driving."

John grunted, but did as he was told.

"I can do a better job of it once we find a place to stop." He gave John a little smile. "Maybe we can find real shears to cut the tape with instead of this crappy jackknife. Let's get back to the car and turn the heater on. You're shivering." Rodney passed John the shirt. "Here you go – Todd."

"What?" John looked down at the name sewn over the breast pocket and grinned. "Let's eat dust, princess, before we meet anyone who knows this guy. I doubt very much I could pass as his twin brother."

~~~

"I'm starving. How soon before we can stop and get something to eat?" Rodney had the map spread out in front of him. "We've made it across the state line; that should give us some breathing room."

John glanced over at Rodney's belly, raised an eyebrow, and deadpanned, "Have you ever heard of cause and effect?"

"Har- har, very funny, Captain."

"I could eat too. I think."

"You think? What do you mean by that? Don’t you know?" Rodney asked, unable to keep the worry out of his voice. "Is it something to do with...?" He made a wide gesture toward John's body.

"Probably."

Rodney waited for John to elaborate with what, to his mind, was considerable patience. Two minutes later, he sighed. "Fine, no talking about it. But seriously, we're going to have to stop soon; it's almost dawn."

"Well, looky there." John nodded at the passing sign that said, Wynnes TruckStop 1/2 mile. "One diner up ahead, just like you ordered, princess."

John pulled into the truck stop's parking lot and pocketed the car keys. "What do you want me to bring you?"

"Nothing. I'm going in."

"You're going in dressed like that. Sure. Why not? I'm sure they see a fat man in a bathrobe and slippers every Tuesday."

Rodney flashed John his best crooked grin. "I have a plan." Then he ran his fingers through his hair, fluffing it up until it stood on end. "They wouldn't give me a haircut in that place. Didn't trust me near shears, apparently. Idiots. There, I just need one more…" He grabbed a pencil stub from the glove box and tucked it behind one ear.

"You're certifiable," John said.

"Certifiable like a fox, my friend. All I have to do is throw words around like relativity and unified field theory. Thanks to good ol' Albert, people expect this look from scientists."

~~~

John slid into the booth, watching the parking lot though the window. Rodney wedged his way in on his side. "Couldn't we have taken a table, Captain?"

"Shhh. Call me Todd. It will attract less attention."

Rodney looked down at himself. "Right. Because you're the one here who's an attention getter – Todd. Clever use of your name badge by the way." Then he rolled his eyes. "No one will ever figure it out."

John glared at him but before he could make a cutting remark, the waitress came over to take their order.

She snapped her gum with good humor and asked, "What can I get you, fellas? You both look like you could start off with a cup o' Joe."

"Excellent! Oh, can I get a glass of milk with that?" Rodney asked.

"One moo juice coming right up. Have you decided what else you want, sugar?"

John spoke up, pointing at the menu, "I'll take the pancakes with syrup and a slice of ham. Rodney, what do you want?"

Rodney looked at the waitress. "I don't suppose I can get meatloaf and potatoes?"

"As it happens, that was last night's special. I'll see what's left over in the kitchen." She glanced down at Rodney's belly and winked. "I do appreciate when a man knows how to enjoy good food."

She headed back to the kitchen, calling out, "One blue plate and an order of blowout patches with machine oil and a side of Noah's boy."

Rodney looked at John. "I hope that tastes better than it sounds."

~~~

Rodney pushed his empty plate away. "What now? I don't know about you, cap…Todd, but I don't think I can take another six hours on the road. Not even if I sleep in the backseat through most of it, and you haven't had any rest."

"That's not the only problem, Rodney. We need to stay out of sight during the day. We're going to have to find some place to hole up, and soon. Look." John pointed out the window. "The sun's coming up." John turned his gaze away from the window. "Um, Rodney?"

"What? Oh."

The waitress stood there listening, coffee pot in hand.

"Miss, we don't, I mean, we can explain," John blurted. "I don't know what you overheard, but I swear we're not criminals or anything."

She stood chewing her gum for a minute, then leaned over to refill their coffee mugs. "Oh, honey, it's no surprise to this ol' gal that you're in some kind of trouble. You don't look so good and neither does your friend."

She pulled a set of keys out of her apron pocket. "My baby brother shipped out last week and his place is sitting empty. Well, it's not much of a place. He rented a couple of rooms at the local motel, thinking to visit awhile before he shipped out to Hawaii. It's paid for until the end of the month. You can use it to get yourselves cleaned up and get some rest before nightfall." Then, after a quick look over her shoulder, she lowered her voice and added, "I wouldn't wait any longer before heading out."

John paled and Rodney's meatloaf felt like a dry lump in his gut.

Her face softened. "Couldn't help but notice you drove in from the east. People in town, we don't like what they're doing back there, much. We heard they've named it Oak Ridge. Don't know who they're trying to fool. Giving a place a name doesn't make it respectable."

"Why would you help us?" Rodney asked.

"We've seen some others come through here, most of them too scared to take help. I think you boys are different." Then she winked at John. "Honey, as long as you don't tell anyone that we're helping ease people along, we won't tell anyone where you went."

"Where…?" John started to ask.

"Head down the road another half mile and turn left. You can't miss the motel. It's got a big ol' flying horse on the sign." Then she reached over and tucked the keys in John's shirt pocket. "Be a sweetie, Todd, and leave the keys under the mat when you leave. I'll pick them up tomorrow just in case anyone else needs the place in the next couple of days. I don't think a soul will give you any bother, but if someone should ask questions, tell them you're a friend of Vera's."

~~~

John moved in front of Rodney, gun in hand, and inspected their new, temporary lodgings.

"Not exactly the Ritz but it’ll do. Bath’s got a tub and a shower. I can't wait to finally get clean," Rodney said, peeking over John’s shoulder.

John grunted. "One bed."

Rodney gave him a nod in return. "Hmmm, well, at least it’s big enough for two. Guess our boy didn’t entertain much. There's not even a couch. I, for one, cannot begin to tell you how badly I want to collapse and sleep for a week. But we really have to clean up first. And by first, I mean you." Rodney pointed his index finger at John. "Wires. Infection. Don't even pull that stubborn face. Do you want me to sing it for you? In – fec – tion…"

"You are the most aggravating son of a …"

Rodney just grinned and handed him the soap.

~~~

"Princess, get in here."

"John?" Rodney heaved himself up off the chair and went to see what John needed in the bathroom. "What do you…?" His voice trailed off as he got an eyeful of naked Air Corps captain.

"These damn wires. They keep getting in the way. Every time I reach up to wash my hair –"

"They get tangled and pull, got it," Rodney said. "Just hold still and I'll do it."

"You're going to get soaked."

"Don't worry about it. I'm tossing this filthy nightshirt in the tub and washing it, or rather you can, out of your extreme gratitude for the shampoo. After my shower, I'm going to wrap up in a clean sheet to sleep in."

John reached out and wrapped his hand around Rodney's wrist. "I am – you know – grateful. I'd still be a prisoner there if you hadn't cut the power like you did."

John's hand was warm against his skin, and for a moment, he couldn't take his eyes away from the strong fingers circling his wrist. "We can talk about it later." Rodney paused to steady his breathing. "Or not at all. That would be good too."

"Oh, we'll talk, princess." John winked. "Consider it a date."

~~~

Rodney lay in bed next to John and tried not to think about how soft John's hair felt, or the way it curled around his fingers when wet. He looked younger clean-shaven. Not vulnerable, but touchable. Rodney sighed. These were not the kind of thoughts he should be having, not if he expected to fall asleep soon.

It didn't help that, even with the shades pulled down, the morning sun peeked in around the edges, bright and harsh.

"Can't sleep?" John asked.

"No," Rodney whispered back.

"Hey, look, can I ask a favor? I know it's going to sound strange."

Bravely, Rodney reached out his hand and gently touched John's side. "Look where we just came from. I think strange is almost a requirement."

"Do more of that. That touching thing. It…" John bit his lip. His eyes were squinched shut as if he was in pain, but he continued. "Ever since the tank, if I stay still too long, it feels like I'm going to float away. Like maybe I should float away. It helps when you touch – it grounds me."

Rodney didn't answer back with words. Instead, he threw one arm and a leg over John's body, pinning him down to the bed. He did his best to keep his belly from rubbing against John but the captain didn’t seem bothered by it.

"Better?"

"Yeah, thanks."

"Hey, can I ask you something?" Rodney whispered back. "Why do you keep calling me princess?"

"When I first saw you, you were standing there, all sandy curls and blue eyes, looking in more need of rescuing than I was."

Rodney felt the soft huff of John's breath in his hair. He held very still so that John wouldn't move away.

"Those times I threatened to leave you behind, princess? That was never going to happen."

Careful of the gauze and tape, Rodney slid his hand down John's arm and held onto his hand, equally comforted by the touch. Moments later, he was sound asleep.

~~~

Rodney woke up to the sound and smell of coffee percolating. His lumbering run to the bathroom wasn't just about need. He felt desperate for the privacy because he was still shaking off his dreams. Dreams that involved the captain pressed naked against him and the silky feel of John's hair against his skin.

"Ohh, coffee. Hey, you found shoes." Rodney nodded at the brown and white loafers sitting on the table; they looked nearly new. "Where did you get them? No, wait – coffee first and then we can talk."

"I like your attitude, princess." John smirked. "You’re not going to worry if I knocked someone out and stole their shoes until after you have caffeine."

"A man has to have his priorities …" Rodney stopped talking to inhale the aroma of fresh brew. He decided it was worth the risk of a scorched tongue and took a sip. "Mmm, if you can make coffee this good you should marry me."

"Sure, that's right on my list after rescuing our asses."

Rodney raised an eyebrow. "You? It seems to me you'd still be in the charming hands of the Agency if I hadn't…"

"Fine," John interrupted. "We'll call it a collaborative effort."

John got up and poured them both more coffee. He put a stack of saltines on the table. "It's not much. The cupboards were bare except for coffee, this, and a couple of cans of soup. We might as well eat these before the mice get to them."

Rodney picked up a cracker and inspected it on both sides before putting it in his mouth. It didn't hurt to double check that the mice hadn't gotten there first.

"I couldn't sleep, so I did some poking around. Turns out, the motel has a lost and found; that's where I got the shoes."

"Pants?" Rodney asked hopefully.

John practically beamed. "Overalls. And a shirt. It's red plaid; you'll look like a farmer in it but it looks big enough."

"I'll look like a clown in overalls and those shoes." Rodney grinned at John. "But I really, really don't care."

"They'll never miss it. It looks like junk's been collecting for years. Look at this, I found a poster of Big Bill Broonzy!" John spread the poster out across the table. "Can you imagine anyone leaving this behind?"

"You're going to cart that poster everywhere with us now, aren't you?" Rodney shook his head in mock surrender. "Well, as long as it makes you happy."

"Just as soon as it's nightfall, we'll hit the road. If we avoid the main highway, it will add a few more hours to our trip but I'll feel a lot better about it. Once we get further west, this route," John tapped the map, "is our only option. There's just nothing else out there for roads decent enough to drive on."

"So, we keep to the secondary roads for now, rest, stock up, and then make one fast run for it. To where exactly?" Rodney asked.

"Nevada. I've got friends a few miles west of Groom Lake that will hide us until this blows over. I used to fly personnel and supplies into Pahute Mesa as my regular run. Met some good people while they were building the new base. They'll remember me there."

Rodney looked at the route John had plotted out for them in pencil. "Is this where your doctor friend is?"

John nodded. "Dr. Carson Beckett. He's an ace at his job. Never met better. You'll like him."

Rodney reached out and touched John's arm with gentle concern. "Look, you go take another shower before we hit the road. I don't know if you’ve noticed, but your wires are starting to drip blood. Trust me, that's a sentence I never thought I'd have to say."

"It's just a few drops of blood, not a bullet wound. I'll be fine until we can get to Carson."

"How long, do you think?" Rodney asked.

"Four, five…" John lifted an eyebrow. "Maybe six days away, if we have to keep stopping for you to take a leak."

Langford Residence – West of Groom Lake

Catherine reached out to help as Miss Emmagan struggled to sit up.

"I need to see my friend." Her thin, fragile fingers wrapped around Carson's wrist, but her gaze homed in on Catherine.

Carson patted Miss Emmagan's hand. "If you’d make us some tea, Catherine, I’d appreciate it. There now, ma'am, we’ll have you right as rain in no time."

"What has happened? Why do I feel so tired?" she asked, as she fought to keep her eyes open.

At a loss for words, Catherine looked at Carson.

"Not to worry," Carson answered with another brisk pat on Miss Emmagan's hand. "According to your big friend, you’ve both been through a bit of a traumatic experience. It’s not unusual for that to bring on exhaustion. You need to get your rest and drink plenty of liquids. Catherine’s tea is just the thing."

Miss Emmagan inclined her head in quiet assent. "If we are to share tea, please call me by my first name. My friend is…"

"I’m right here," Ronon said as he poked his head through the doorway. "How are you feeling? Do you think you can make it to the other room with some help? There are some things about this place that you really need to hear."

"Yes."

That was as far as she got before Ronon scooped her up, carried her into the next room, and sat her on the couch.

Catherine draped a blanket over Teyla’s knees and handed her a cup of hot tea. "Mr. Dex has been telling us some interesting stories. My Ernest has been filling his ear full of all kinds of things as well. Honestly, I think they're having too much fun trying to impress each other. I daresay, it’s up to us ladies to get it all sorted out."

Teyla smiled back at her. "Yes. I have had some experience with this. Certain men do seem to get distracted easily when not in the middle of a crisis."

"I’m afraid that’s my Ernest in a nutshell. Everything is a marvel to him." Catherine smiled. "It's quite charming, really, when it's not completely aggravating."

Teyla’s hand trembled as she sat the china cup on its saucer. "We must talk now. I’m not sure how much time I have and I must ask a favor of Dr. Beckett."

Carson spoke up, "I couldn’t help but overhear. What can I do?"

"My friend, Ronon, has suffered – a sort of injury. I know he won’t ask for himself but he has a device in his back that must be removed for everyone’s safety. If he does not have help, he will try to remove it on his own."

"I'll not be allowing anyone to perform self-surgery on my watch. How long have you had this thing in you, lad?" Carson asked.

Ronon scowled. "A half-year."

"I've never heard of anyone surviving the hunt for more than a few weeks," Teyla said.

"I don’t understand," Catherine said. "What do you mean, 'for everyone’s safety'?"

Teyla leaned back against the couch, looking too exhausted to continue. "Ronon?"

"The Wraith have a tracking device they put inside people. Then they let them go so they can hunt them. They did that to me."

"They do this kind of thing for sport?" Carson asked.

"Don't know. Wraith don't explain – they just do what they want." Ronon looked at Carson. "If you can help, do it. I don't know if they can follow me here but it's not safe to take that chance."

"Well, then, let's see what's been done to you, lad." Carson directed Ronon to Catherine's bedroom and out of the ladies' sight.

Ernest looked as completely baffled as Catherine felt.

"That’s what I wanted to tell you, Teyla," Ronon said, just before Carson closed the door to the bedroom. "None of the people on this planet have ever heard of the Wraith."

Wynne, Arkansas

John pulled back the curtain and watched the sun go down. "Ready?"

Rodney stuffed one last cracker in his mouth. "Hhmmff."

"Why are you so hell bent on bringing that busted clock radio along?" John asked.

Rodney gave the shiny wood veneer of the Philco a fond pat. "It looks brand new. Vera’s brother must have bought it just before he left. I’m sure I can fix it – it’s probably just a vacuum tube. I want to do this, John, and when all this is over, we can both give it back to Vera."

"Yeah, okay. We both owe her one heck of a thank you. Here, let me have it. I’ll put it in the car. Besides, you look plain ridiculous trying to walk with that thing balanced on your belly."

They drove the first hours in comfortable silence. John seemed happy with the time they were making on the road and Rodney watched for the road signs. He was certain John was going to get them lost on these back roads otherwise. He also kept an eye out for the next all-nighter. John might be confused about his need to eat, but Rodney was starving.

"When are you going to tell me what they did to you?" John asked, interrupting the quiet.

"Trust me, you don’t want to know."

"Fine, McKay. You don't want to talk about it. What do you want to talk about? I'll start. Now, me, I could go for some ice cream right about now. Maybe a Good Humor Bar."

"Oh, yes," Rodney said. "The kind with the chocolate coating. I love the way it has that perfect crunch when you bite into it." Then he sighed. "As good as that sounds, we haven’t got the stamps for it."

"Stamps?"

"Ration coupons. You can’t get anyone to sell you one without them. Ice cream’s been on the list for almost a year now."

"The list?" John asked. "Okay. You need to slow down and explain this to me."

"You don’t… Oh, dear heaven, you don’t know. John, what’s the last thing you remember?"

"I remember my engine stalling. When I couldn’t pull out of the dive, I hit the silk. The chute opened like a dream and I remember thinking I’d never seen a sky so blue. I must have hit my head when I landed because the next thing I remember is waking up in that damn tank."

"When was that? What…" Rodney touched John’s shoulder gently. "Can you remember what day that was? The date? I think we need to know more about that 'tank' and how long you were in there."

"It was September fourth, 19…" John clenched his jaw. "1939. We’d gotten word that Britain and France just joined the war. Me and some others were getting our promotions pushed through because of it, and I was under orders to fly to Kelly Field in Texas." John took a deep breath, visibly shaken. "I already figured out it's not 1939 anymore. The plates on the Buick said 1943. Four years. I lost four years.

"Damn it. Another week and I would’ve been a major leading my own squadron." John's fingers tightened on the steering wheel, knuckles turning white. "When did it happen, McKay? When’d we go to war?"

"1941. Oh, crap. You don’t even know about Pearl Harbor." He blew out a sharp breath. "Okay, this is what we're going to do. We're going to make a stop in Oklahoma City and we're going to the cinema."

"Why…?"

"Newsreels. Half of it's probably propaganda but – never mind that. I'll fill you in on the way."

John nodded, looking paler than Rodney had ever seen him. With no way to soften the news, he began to talk about that December morning.

He talked into the night, surrounded by the hush that lay between them, and the glow of dashboard lights. He told John about the surprise morning attack from the Imperial Japanese Navy – the ships lost, the wounded, the thousands of Americans that died. He talked until his throat was dry and his eyes burned. He told John about the men thrown into shark infested waters, wounded, waiting to be rescued, and how for some – help came too late.

Rodney paused, finally out of words. The silence lay thick between them.

"Captain Sheppard? Are you okay?"

Instead of answering, John pulled the car to the side of the road with deliberate precision. He sat there for a few seconds, his breath harsh in Rodney's ears. Without a word, he opened the car door, leaned over, and heaved into the roadway.

Rodney watched as the muscles in John's back twisted with the effort. Gently, so very gently, he reached over and rubbed John's shoulders until the tremors eased.

~~~

He settled the grocery bag on one hip, and with one hand on the railing, hauled himself up the narrow stairway through sheer determination. They'd never made it to see the newsreels in Oklahoma City. John had grown paler with each mile until Rodney realized it was more than a reaction to some terrible news. The captain was bleeding again.

That's when Rodney had made him lie down in the backseat and took over the driving. Desperate, exhausted, and more worried about John than he wanted to admit, he'd pulled into the first mom-and-pop filling station he could find. The rest of the night had been surreal.

*

"Snake? Your name is Snake?" Rodney glared at the attendant's greasy name badge and crossed his arms over his belly. Logically, he knew redneck germs couldn't leap out and lower Mini's IQ, but it made him feel better.

"Yep." He hooked his thumbs into his belt loops and grinned with both teeth. "Snake Albertson, at your service. What can I do you for?"

Rodney shuddered. "I don't suppose you have a soda machine? And we need gas."

"Machine's around the corner. Hand me your mileage book and I'll pump your gas in a jiffy."

"Oh. Um…see…"

John's voice piped up from the back of the car. "Tell him we're friends of Vera."

"Vera sent you? Well, now, that changes things a bit, doesn't it? You go get your soda pop, big fella, and I'll take care of things on this end. Dang, but I miss that girl. The gams on that dame could make a grown man weep."

Snake turned out to be a genuine angel in the rough, filling the car with gas, checking the oil, and providing them with a few amenities to grease their way. Good 'ol Snake also slipped him a note with an address on it. It wasn't that Rodney wasn't grateful but it took more hours on the road to get there than John could afford.

Getting John up the stairs of the third story apartment was – interesting. So was getting up for the third time to hold John’s head while he threw up in the dingy little bathroom.

Finally, he managed to get the captain settled on the couch. The man looked like the blood had been drained out of him but at least he was able to hold down his coca-cola for more than twenty minutes.

Bowing to the inevitable, Rodney gave John a nod as he crammed his swollen feet back into his shoes. Then he offered up a silent prayer for the local grocery to be close by because, this time, it was his turn to go out to get bandages and food.

*

So now, Rodney found himself standing at the top of these particular stairs, balancing a bag of groceries, and trying to catch his breath.

Milk, peanut butter, and bread were the easiest things to get these days. And so help him, after all this, Captain John Sheppard was going to eat his peanut butter sandwich and like it, or Rodney was going to punch him in the face.

He'd just worked up a good head of steam when John opened the door and smiled. "Let me take that for you." John took the bag and put it on the table. "Oh, neat, we can have peanut butter sandwiches!"

Helpless in the face of John's smile, Rodney grinned back. "You look better."

"Took a shower and a nap. Figured there's nothing we can do until we get help. Hey, why don't you get off your feet and I'll make the sandwiches."

"You're sure?"

"Well, I'm not crazy about this situation or the war but, yeah, I'm feeling a lot better now."

"If you're feeling that good, do you mind bringing the Philco up here? I'd like to work on the radio for Vera."

~~~

Rodney came out of the bathroom, still towel drying his hair, to see John with his head bent over the radio. "Excuse me. Why are you sitting there turning the knob on and off?"

John shrugged.

"That's not going to fix anything," Rodney huffed. "From the static, I'd say it's an antenna or a vacuum tube problem. Neither one is going to be fixed from a page out of The Captain Sheppard Handbook of Radio Repair. "

"I figured, if we can get this radio to work…" John gave it a small thump. It went dead quiet. Not even the static, so annoying before, came out of the speakers. "Uh-oh."

"Let me look at that thing. What did you do?" Rodney tapped the radio dial. "You probably ham-fisted something loose. Now, move over and let me try."

"Wait. I know how to fix this, princess. Hold on." John pulled a small device from his pocket and laid it on top of the clock radio. It glowed against the polished wood with a green-blue light. The sounds of the Glen Miller Band began to fill the room.

"What is that?" Rodney asked. His hand hovered over the device. "Well, obviously it’s some kind of remote electric cell. Is it giving off an electromagnetic pulse? There aren’t any obvious connections and it’s too small for vacuum tubes…" Unable to resist, Rodney picked it up and it turned dark in his hand. The radio kept playing in the background.

"That’s it? It’s out of power?" Rodney asked, disappointed.

"Let me see that." John held out his hand.

Rodney reluctantly dropped the device into it and it flared back to life. "Well, crap. That's not fair."

"Hey, it fixed the radio, didn't it? Maybe we can find out if there's anything on the news about a manhunt."

Rodney frowned. "John, where did you say this gizmo came from?"

"Didn't say." John flipped the device back and forth over in his hand like a large coin. "It's strange. I woke up in that tank and everything was dark, disorienting. That thing was on a shelf next to me, giving off the only light in the room. I know how this is going to sound but it felt – friendly. I knew it didn't belong there anymore than I did."

John hesitated for a moment. "There's something else. This gizmo? It led me right to you. It wanted me to find you. I don't suppose you have any insight as to why that might be?"

The Langford Residence, Nevada

Her bedroom turned into a makeshift infirmary, Catherine did her best to reassure Teyla. It was obvious that Carson's concerns for Ronon's spinal cord weighed heavily on her.

"Dr. Beckett is the most talented medical doctor I've ever met. If anyone can do this, he can."

Teyla gave her a wan smile in return.

"If you're up to it," Catherine continued, "perhaps you could tell me more about where you came from and how you got here. It will make the time pass easier while we wait."

"Yes. Perhaps over more tea? I found it quite restorative." This time, Teyla's smile reached her eyes.

"Have you known Mr. Dex long?" Catherine asked.

"Not long. Our paths crossed just a few days ago. I was returning from my First Journey."

"First journey?"

"It was the first time I was allowed to handle trade negotiations without my father's guidance and I was feeling quite proud of myself. I was on my way back to the Ring when I heard yelling.

"Ronon was trying to cut himself down from a trap set by the Wraith. No doubt he could have gotten free in time, but perhaps not soon enough before the Wraith found him." A twinkle sparkled in her eye as she added, "He was tangled in Wraith webbing, hanging upside down from a tree. I thought it best not to tell him how amusing he looked."

Catherine smiled back. "His hair?"

Teyla laughed. "Poking out from the webbing in every direction like an angry, wet panthera."

Ernest came in with the tea tray, interrupting their conversation with questions of his own. "What can you tell us about the Door to Heaven?"

"My people know it as the Ring of the Ancestors," Teyla began. "It is well known among we Athosians. Other worlds know it as well, although I have heard it called by many different names." She looked up at Ernest. "We don't know how we ended up here. This was not our intended destination. You said we are in different galaxy? One I believe you call the Milky Way?"

"Ah-ha!" Ernest said with glee. "I knew that it wasn't activated from our end. Still, by our calculations, it must have taken a huge amount of power to bring you this far."

"Perhaps it was the hive ship?" Teyla asked.

Catherine paused with her teacup raised halfway to her mouth and asked, "What's a hive ship?"

"Bad news." Ronon leaned against the doorway with a very exasperated Carson waving his arms behind him.

"I can't get the bloody fool to stay in bed." Carson glared at Ronon. "At least sit down before you fall down and tear your stitches out, you daft git."

Not the least bit sheepish, Ronon sat next to Teyla. She leaned into his side, quietly gathering his strength and sharing hers. Catherine couldn't help but observe; they truly were the most remarkable people she'd ever met.

Ronon spoke. "The Wraith, they tracked me to the planet. Teyla Emmagan was trying to help me when one jumped us. She got fed on. I shot it, and then I shot down the dart it beamed down from. Saw it smash into a Wraith cruiser."

"Yes," Teyla said. "It must have damaged something vital because the ship was about to crash into the Ring when Ronon picked me up and jumped through."

"Fed on?" asked Catherine.

Teyla answered. "The Wraith do not take prisoners. They drain the life from us or they take us as…food reserves. Had Ronon Dex not interfered I would most certainly be dead."

Catherine shuddered in horror but Ernie bounced out of his seat and started talking, his words tumbling over themselves in his excitement.

"That's it! The explosion must have been massive. That's your power source. Only…" Ernest stopped and scratched his head. "It explains how you got here but not why you got here. Hmmm, I wonder if sunspot activity could have influenced – because you know, there were several solar flares –"

"Ernest!" Catherine interrupted. "If you're going to start writing equations, you go right back to the base. I will not have grease pencil markings all over my good tablecloths again!"

~~~

 

Clinton, Oklahoma

It was getting to be a comfortable habit, falling asleep with his arm and leg over John. Waking up to the sound and smell of coffee brewing was working for him too. "What time is it? Did you sleep at all, Sheppard?"

"Hey, what happened to calling me John?"

"John."

"There you go, princess. Not that hard, was it?" John was grinning from ear to ear. "We've got a couple of hours before dark. I found some kitchen shears. I thought we could spiffy up a little."

Rodney twisted a blond curl around his finger and smiled back. "Good idea. It doesn’t have to be the cat’s meow, just help keep the stares down for the next all-nighter we stop at. With a shave and a haircut, we'll look almost civilized."

John laughed. "Blue Plate Special, here we come."

"Oh. Do you think it might be meatloaf again?" Rodney said with a wistful sigh.

~~~

Rodney sat very still as John's fingers carded through his hair with a gentle touch. It would be so easy to lean back for more of it. John's fingers were like the rest of him: lean, strong, capable, and surprisingly soothing.

"You know, I haven't given up on seeing a newsreel," John said.

"Hmmm," Rodney answered. "You seem to be feeling a lot better than you did yesterday. I thought I'd broken you."

"Can't explain it. It's like everything was sloughing off – well, out. The bleeding has completely stopped. I was thinking, we could trim the wires now and just tape the ends down."

"You're sure?"

"Rodney." John's breath tickled the back of his neck and Rodney shivered.

"Any luck getting someone on the phone?" Rodney asked, desperate to distract John. "Because I’ve got a pocketful of change."

John grinned. "You're really jazzed about those pockets, aren’t you?"

"It’s a bib overall, John. It’s got this great, big pocket on the front that I can stuff all kinds of things into. So, anyway—any luck?"

"To say it’s not going well is an understatement," John answered. "I’ve tried to call a dozen people I thought might help us. When they’re not hanging up, they’re cussing me out for mimicking a dead man. What about you? Can’t you call someone?"

"I’m not sure who we can trust. I haven’t exactly made a lot of friends and the one person I was close to —" Rodney paused, finally deciding in for a penny in for a pound. It wasn't as if he had any respect left to lose. "Charlie died in the war."

John's fingers stilled in his hair with the shears frozen in the air above Rodney's scalp. "Charlie as in Charlene?"

"No. Charlie as in his name was Charlie. He went down on the Arizona. They – his family – they did a private memorial service for themselves, his fiancée, and her family. I couldn’t go, of course. No chance to say…"

He blinked hard a couple of times before continuing. "I was so angry. Angry at the attack, angry with him for being on that ship. Angry because I didn't even know there was a fiancée until then. I had some crazy, vengeful idea that I needed to get more involved in the war by making the biggest bombs I could."

John knelt down beside him and laid a hand on his thigh. He rubbed it in gentle circles as he spoke. "I get it. I do. I’ve had a Charlie or two in my life. Nothing serious, though, not like that. They always made it perfectly clear that if there wasn’t a fiancée already, there would be down the road."

"You? Really?" Rodney couldn’t keep the soft hopefulness out of his voice.

~~~

They continued with their casual routine. John still did most of the driving, like now. Rodney watched him, pleased to see more color in his face. John seemed to get better, stronger, with every passing hour.

"It looks like whatever they did has finally left your system."

John turned his gaze from the road to look at Rodney and smiled. "Four years of whatever junk they were pumping into me – guess it just took time for my body to get rid of it."

Rodney cradled his belly. He and Mini weren’t doing anywhere near so good. He was going to have to tell John, soon, exactly what was at risk.

Meanwhile, they took breaks when they needed, finding places to eat and gas up on the way. They kept their traveling to the night hours, Rodney putting his trust in John’s night vision because the headlights on the Buick were crap.

During the day, they slept, cleaned themselves up, and studied the map – for all the good that did. There was only one road that would get them to their destination: Route 66. If anyone was following, well, the three of them weren’t going to be very hard to find.

Rodney glanced over at John. He was beating out some rhythm on the steering wheel and a smile quirked at the corner of his mouth. He’d been in a fiendishly good mood ever since they’d hit an open stretch of road and he discovered the car could hit 100 miles an hour.

On the other hand, Rodney still had a cramp in his hand from gripping the door's armrest. He couldn’t remember it all now, but he was fairly sure he’d screamed a variety of death threats. In any case, John had apologized and promised not to do it again. At least, not right away.

Rodney closed his eyes, lulled by the motion of the car. He drifted off to sleep, thinking about that brief moment of intimacy between them back in Clinton, and wondering if it would ever lead anywhere.

~~~

"We're here."

Rodney was startled out of his doze to see the neon of the Line Bar & Motel sign blinking down at him. "Where?"

"New Mexico," John answered. "C'mon. Let's get checked in while they're still serving breakfast."

They were simply travelers here, dusty, road weary, and just like a hundred others passing through. Well, Rodney thought with a wry smile, perhaps not exactly like them.

"Pass over the stamps. Let's see what we've got left," John said.

Thanks to Snake, they had plenty of ration coupons and a nice new X sticker on the windshield of the Buick. Rodney wasn't about to question how authentic they were. He pulled the book out of his front pocket and handed it to John.

"I have to say, princess, it's paid off being a friend of Vera's."

Rodney just grinned at him over his glass of milk.

After breakfast, they settled into their room, John rattling around in the tiny kitchenette while Rodney pulled the map out.

"What are you doing in there?" Rodney asked.

"We've still got eggs, flour, and a couple Hershey bars. I thought I'd try to make brownies."

"I like how you think. John? Why did we stop here instead of traveling straight through to Gallup?"

John walked over to Rodney, wiping his hand on a dishtowel. "I didn't want to mention it, but that last time when we were on the road so long, you didn't look so good. I thought we'd better take the rest of the trip in shorter runs."

Rodney nodded, not comfortable meeting John's eyes. "This doctor of yours, that you say is such a miracle worker – you're sure about that?"

"He’s the best. Are you holding up okay?" John added gently.

"I appreciate the concern, but I think getting there sooner is better than later. There's some…" Rodney paused, trying to figure out how to explain what the doctors at the Agency did to him. "They put some drugs in my system. Hormones and other things. If the same thing happens to me that happened to you – I'm not sure how bad it's going to get when they all wear off." Rodney stroked a hand over his belly. "It could be life threatening."

"When are you going to tell me what they really did to you?" John asked.

Grimly, Rodney answered, "I'll tell you when I'm sure you really want to know."

In truth, he didn’t know himself. He knew they'd included muscle relaxants of some kind and other drug cocktails to create and thicken a false womb. If the walls grew too thin from the lack of daily injections, there was a real danger of Mini getting tangled in Rodney's intestines and killing them both. Thinking about it made him…

"Fuck, McKay!" John slid the wastebasket over just in time for Rodney to upchuck everything he'd eaten for two days. He clutched at the rim as the room spun and went grey.

Rodney woke up to the comfort of a cold washcloth on his forehead and a gun pointed straight at him.

Deadhorse Base, Nevada

Catherine stepped through the hanger-sized door on the lowest level.

"You say you've seen a lot of these ring things?" Carson asked Teyla. Catherine was glad he'd insisted on the wheelchair for her. She looked far too frail. The rest of them stood staring at the big metal ring with varying degrees of interest.

Catherine cleared her throat, "My father, Dr. Langford, discovered this on one of his excavations. I was very young at the time, but I remember it well. It was such an intriguing discovery. And yet, no one knew quite what to do with it."

"But now?" Teyla prompted.

"Recently the government stepped in to help fund the project. Father agreed to have the ring brought here to one of their underground bunkers. Unfortunately, a little over a month ago, he was called away."

Catherine couldn't help but notice Teyla's questioning expression. "There was a terrible mining accident in Montana. The owners of the mine asked for my father's help. He's a bit of an expert at digging near unstable ground, you see." She stopped, uncertain of whether to continue.

Ernie took her hand and gave it a squeeze, answering for her. "At last count, there were 74 bodies needing to be brought up from the mine. Dr. Langford offered to stay and help for as long as they needed him. In the meantime, he left me to oversee the project."

"Where's your Touch Stone?" Ronon asked.

"Our what? Oh. You mean dialing device." Ernie looked sheepish. "We don't have one. We've been dialing manually. We figured out that the symbols signify a destination but until you came through, we weren't even sure it worked."

Ronon raised an eyebrow.

"Ahem, yes," Ernest said, flustered. "Obviously, we know now it works."

"We can help you with the address," Teyla offered. "Although, most of the symbols on this Ring are unfamiliar to me."

"You're going to need a bloody big power source." Carson rubbed at the whiskers on his chin. "I've seen a fair bit since signing on as the project's physician. Don't get me wrong, there's enough power here to jolt a man off his feet. I should know, I've treated two bad cases of electric shock, and at least three of the engineers have managed to set either themselves or something else on fire. But, Ernie, where are you going to get enough power to travel to another galaxy?"

Very quietly, Teyla turned to Catherine and asked, "Please, will you help us get home?"

~~~

Catherine took in the sight in front of her and smiled. Teyla sat Indian style on the living room rug, the green silk from Catherine's borrowed dress billowing around her like a tranquil sea. For all of her fragility, she radiated a force of calm strength. Not at all what Catherine expected of a woman in her sixties.

Teyla bowed her head as Catherine walked in with the tea tray. "Tea is a lovely idea. Thank you, Catherine. Is there any news?"

"I've been making phone calls all morning. My father's met a lot of people in his work, and I think I've found someone who can help us. He's an archaeologist and a bit of a maverick in his field."

"But he will help us?" Teyla asked.

"Yes. Professor Jones has one of the best libraries available for research on lost cities. It can't be a coincidence that both of our galaxies have stories about Atlantis. He's promised to call as soon as he finds anything useful. Of course…" Catherine smiled. "Knowing Dr. Jones, he'll want to come along if he finds out why we really want that information."

Glenrio, New Mexico

John's hand was shaking. "What did they do to you?" He swallowed. "Are you – are you changing into something, McKay?"

"What are you talking about? Could you not aim that gun at me? It's disconcerting."

"Disconcerting? That's all you've got to say? You collapsed. When I was putting you on the bed, your stomach moved. By itself. I saw it."

Rodney lifted himself up on one elbow and raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I see. And of course the very first thing you thought was that some monster was going to—what, exactly—jump out of my belly and attack you?"

"Well, when you put it that way." John lowered the gun. "It does sound pretty ridiculous."

Rodney gave a weak chuckle. "You haven't heard anything yet. You, Captain Sheppard, just saw the baby kick. Now, will you please put the gun away?"

~~~

"You're really…" John stared at Rodney from across the table. "That's…" John tilted his head to one side as if looking at Rodney sideways would make it more believable. Then he rubbed the back of his neck and asked, "Could you run it by me one more time?"

Rodney raised an eyebrow with all the sarcasm he could muster. Then he held up his hand and began to count on his fingers. "Secret government operation – Evildoers – Conspiracy. Captive genius." He paused a moment. "I should count that one twice. Where was I? Oh, yes." He resumed counting on his fingers. "Highly experimental and illegal procedures with genetic material. And let's not leave out, they made me pregnant. Really, I expected more of you, John. After all, they stuck you in suspended animation for years and now you're walking around making brownies and acting like you weren't bleeding out blood and quicksilver just a day ago."

John stared back, eyes wide. "You're dead serious. A real, honest to god…. Wait. Did you say you named it, Minnie?"

"Mini." Rodney looked at John's face. "Ah-ha! See, you do believe me. I had that same expression on my face when they first told me that the nuclear transplant had detected a full set of chromosomes and was starting cellular division. Frankly, I thought they were years away from that kind of…. Oh, you look kind of pale." Rodney softened his voice. "Too much information?"

Shaking his head, John pushed the half-eaten bowl of milk and crackers closer to Rodney. "Be sure you eat all of it. Milk's good for the…the…"

Rodney smirked. "I think the word you're looking for is baby."

"Yeah, um, that. A ba…" John rubbed the back of his neck. "Hey, do you want more? Because I can go out and get more, right now if you want."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "This is fine. Thank you." He reached out and laid a hand on John's arm. "Hey, I'm not going to break. Mini and I are doing just fine for now. What's with you, anyway?"

"I … I don't know. I…wow, it's a baby, Rodney. Can I touch it? Your belly, I mean."

Rodney looked into those big, green eyes and didn't have the heart to say no. "You realize this is weird, right? Oh, what the heck." He pushed his food away and stood up with his arms out to his side. "Go bananas."

John reached out and pulled his hand back twice before finally settling it on Rodney's tummy. Mini picked that moment to kick and John's eyes grew wide. "That's the baby kicking?"

"Yes," Rodney said. "And if you think that feels strange, you should feel it on this end."

~~~

With hours to kill until nightfall, Rodney worked on his calculations. There were things they'd have to have as they got deeper into desert country and John was doing a supply run. They were hoping that, if they were being followed, they were a. too far from Oak Ridge for anyone to care, and b. that splitting up would make it easier to throw off a tail.

Rodney smiled, grim and tight, thinking they'd done well to get this far. Maybe, like John hoped, they were in the clear. He hitched the white cotton up under his armpits, shifted his weight, and tried to get comfortable on the hardback chair.

John was supposed to bring back clean clothes amongst other things. Nothing else came close to fitting Rodney like the overalls, but that didn’t mean he had to wear them until they were capable of standing by themselves.

They'd found clothes for John easily enough. Nothing fancy, except for the brown fedora that brought the green out in his eyes. Rodney slapped a hand to his forehead with a soft curse. This was no time to be thinking about the captain's eyes. Certainly not when he was sitting bare-assed in nothing but a bed sheet.

He glanced up at the clock and then back at his calculations. Both were frustrating. The first because John should have been back by now. The second because no matter how precise his calculations were, there was no way to pinpoint exactly when Mini's gestation would be complete.

"Hey, Rodney." John stood at the door. "Come grab some of these bags, princess. At least half of this stuff is yours."

"It took you long enough."

John cracked a smile. "You were worried about me."

"I never said…" Rodney bit his lip, feeling the hot flush rise on the back of his neck.

"I left most of the stuff in the car, but …" With a flourish, John pulled a quart bottle of beer out of bag. "I got a couple of these and some corn we can pop. I thought we earned a chance to relax."

"I'll get the glasses. Oh, wow, they're still cold."

"I wrapped your nightshirt around them. Used it for insulation."

Rodney flashed him a grin. "Better use of that nightshirt than I ever got out of it. Mmm, I haven't had one of these since – well, it's been at least nine months."

John smirked, tipping his bottle in a casual toast. "Four years for me."

Rodney narrowed his eyes. "Are you always this competitive?"

John snorted. "Can I help it if my overnight stay with the Agency tops yours? Dang, princess, I hope this tastes as good as I remember."

~~~

Two hours later they sat, feet on the coffee table, tossing popcorn at each other. John had a smear of butter on his chin that Rodney wanted to lean over and nibble off.

"I want to propose a toast," John said.

"To?"

"Courage under fire. The ones that never made it home." John looked straight at Rodney. "Bravery."

"Pearl Harbor?" Rodney asked.

"Yeah. If I'd been there, I could have... maybe I could have saved some of them."

"Stop right there." This time Rodney did lean forward. "You do not get to do this. I'm glad you weren't there because then I would have lost two people I care about."

"I should have been…"

"What, exactly, John? Should have been shot down in a dogfight? What makes you think you wouldn't have been one of the thousands…." Rodney wanted to grab John by the shirtfront and shake some sense in to him. Instead, his hands cut through the air as if he could push all of John's stupid thoughts away. "You want something to fight that much? How's this? You fight for getting us somewhere safe." He collapsed back against the couch, suddenly weary. "I need a promise from you."

"What?" John asked.

"If something…if something takes a turn for the worst, I need you to try to save Mini."

John paled. "Nothing's going to happen."

"Idiot." Rodney's voice was full of soft affection. "If things go bad, they'll go bad fast. An emergency cesarean might be the only option." Rodney pulled the jackknife out of his pocket. "The blade is as sharp as I can make it. Please. If it comes to it, I'm asking you to save one of us instead of letting both of us die. Can you do that?"

Rodney waited until John reached out with a slow nod and took the knife. "C'mon then, let's get some sleep. We have to hit the road in a few hours."

They curled in bed together in their usual positions with Rodney using his body's weight to steady John, and John's presence doing the same for him. This time, Rodney didn't hesitate to reach out and pet John's hair, offering comfort. John leaned into it with a contented sigh.

He didn’t have a name for what was happening between them. Still, it felt like a promise when John fell asleep with his hand on Rodney's belly.

~~~

"Wake up, princess. We overslept."

Rodney blinked his eyes open. John was standing over him, dressed, and holding out a hand to help him up. Considering how often he literally rolled out of bed these days, Rodney took it with a grateful nod.

"How fast can you get ready to leave?" John asked, as he steered Rodney to the bathroom.

"Coffee?" Rodney asked.

"We'll get it on the road. Sorry about that, but I've got this feeling that we've stayed here too long already."

Once in the car, Rodney tried to fall back asleep but John's unease was contagious. They drove into the night, neither one offering conversation as the Buick chewed up the miles under them.

Rodney didn't complain once about John's disregard for the speed limit laws. Instead, he stared out the window at a night sky so full of stars it helped light their way and wondered if anywhere was far enough away to feel safe again.

Deadhorse Base, Nevada

 

Catherine leaned into Ernie's arms. The stars in the night sky spread out above them, sparkling with new mysteries. As the evening air tickled at her arms, she shivered, but not from the cold.

"Been a bit since we've stargazed, love. Are you warm enough?" Ernest asked.

"I'm fine. I just needed to see this again. It’s never going to look the same, is it?"

Ernie kissed her on the cheek. "'Fraid not, Cat. But that's not such a bad thing, is it?"

"Oh, Ernie." She turned and pressed her face against his chest. "I wish I knew."

"What has you so worried?"

She lifted her head in surprise. "I have aliens from another galaxy staying with me. They're drinking tea and telling stories about horrid creatures with space ships that eat people. Oh, Ernest." She laughed softly. "They walk through rings to other planets like we go to the grocery store."

"Yes," Ernie said, petting her hair with a grin in his voice. "Isn't it marvelous?"

Route 66, Arizona/New Mexico Border

They were a few miles short of the New Mexico border when Rodney's stomach growled loud enough to startle a snort out of John.

"I can take a hint, McKay. We'll stop at the next town and eat. We need gas anyway."

Rodney turned to stare at him, one eyebrow raised. "Is that a fart joke?"

John looked at him, utterly failing to keep a straight face. They both fell into giggles that lasted until they pulled into Jack's Diner.

~~~

The waitress poured Rodney another cup of coffee. With one hand on the coffee pot and the other on her hip, she shook her head in amazement. "My land, if that doesn't beat all. I don't think I've ever seen anyone drink three cups of Burt's mud in under fifteen minutes."

She grinned over at John. "Most people around here complain that it makes their spoon stand up straight. Now, boys, what'll it be?"

"The specials will be just fine," John answered. He gave Rodney a little kick under the table before Rodney had a chance to argue it.

"Hmmm, oh yes. The special. Maybe with an egg cream?" Rodney asked, hopefully.

After the waitress left, he whispered to John, "Why the specials? Not that I mind."

"It should be the fastest thing they can dish up, and I don't want to stay here too long." John looked over at the early morning coffee drinkers already filling the barstools. "I'd just feel better if we can get out of here before the breakfast crowd starts coming in."

"We need to find a place to stay, too. Hey." Rodney nodded toward the counter. "Grab that newspaper. Maybe there's something close by."

John didn't intend to strike up a conversation, but the minute his fingers brushed the newsprint, the man sitting next to it said, "Traveling through?"

"Yeah. Something like that. Do you mind if I –?"

"Go ahead. I think you'll find it interesting."

John looked down at the headline. It read: Navy to name ship USS Gallup. A grainy picture of a frigate took up most of the top section of the page. "Huh."

"Hell of a thing, isn't it? A little town like this getting that kind of attention." The man stabbed his cigarette out in the ashtray and then straightened his tie, avoiding John's eye. "You might want to look at an article on the back page. Seems there's a power line to nowhere out in Nevada. That's quite a curiosity, don't you think?"

John nodded and backed away. He gave the stranger a glance over his shoulder, but all the man was doing was putting his hat on to leave.

He barely made it back to the booth before Rodney held out his hand for the paper, snapping his fingers.

"You know how some things make the hair on the back of your neck stand up?" John asked.

"Yeah, yeah, sure." Rodney flipped the paper open. "What? I'm listening. Creepy neck-hair raising, got it. Go on."

"Never mind. What's this?" John picked a white matchbook up from the tabletop and turned it over.

"Where did that come from?" Rodney asked.

"It just fell out of the paper." John flipped the cover open. "There's something written inside it."


Capt. Sheppard – Don't let them get your son.

John looked at Rodney and then back down at the writing. His face paled with a gasp, sharp and harsh. The sound made the hairs on the back of Rodney's neck stand on end.

Watching his face, Rodney could see how everything suddenly clicked into place for John. He had to give him credit. He was faster at putting the pieces together than Rodney had been.

"My son?"

Instead of answering John, he swallowed down the dry lump in his throat and waved the waitress over. "Miss, do you know who that man was that just left? Is there any chance that he works for the military?"

"Mr. Mulder? He used to be a regular around here. For months, all he'd ever talk about was his little boy." Thoughtfully snapping her gum, she added, "No, he's not in the service. I've never seen him in anything but that suit." After checking over her shoulder to make sure no one could overhear, she leaned over and whispered. "I think he's a government spook."

"Do you have a back exit?" John asked.

~~~

Five minutes down the road, Rodney turned to John. "I think we should do it." He tapped the back page of the newspaper where a notice, circled in red, announced that the Mission Church Retreat renovations were temporality halted due to the war effort. A building that was less than ten miles away, and sitting empty.

"You're sure, now?" John asked.

"Yes. I admit I was a little edgy about following directions from some mysterious stranger." He frowned down at the paper. Not only had their spook circled the notice, he'd drawn a map in the margins. "But you have a point. Why warn us if he's not trying to help?"

John quirked an eyebrow.

"Yes, yes, we've been helped by strangers all along the way. I did notice that, actually," Rodney huffed. "Well, at least this has the advantage of being off the main highway; we'll be that much harder to find."

While Rodney was busy agreeing, John turned the car onto a dirt road, throwing up a dust trail that billowed behind them. "Okay, then." John drew in a deep breath. "Like it or not, princess, I think it's time you and I have a talk."

Deadhorse Base, Nevada

Ernie tugged at his hair in frustration. "It's still not enough power. Even if we figure out the right planetary address, it won't do us any good if the Door to Heaven won't engage."

"What about the new power line?" Catherine asked.

Ernie nodded and then frowned as they stood watching the engineers. "The heavier cable will handle more voltage, Cat, but I still have my doubts that it will be enough. Carson was right. It's not like we can duplicate an exploding ship."

Sparks flew in all directions around them as the engineers made the final connections. Catherine took a step back. She already had one dress with tiny burn holes in the skirt; she didn’t need another. "Ernie, do you think whoever buried the Door might have left behind a power source for it?"

"Cat? What are you getting on about?"

Catherine worried at her lip. "My father found something else at the site. No one paid much attention to it. The cover stone was small, you see, and buried a quarter mile away from the main site. I think I'm the only one who thought it matched the Door's cover stones. I tried to point that out to one of the archaeologists, but who listens to a child?"

"And you think this might be…"

"A power source. Yes, Ernie, I do."

"Well, it's worth a try. Where is it? If it's still in Egypt, it's going to be difficult to get out of the country."

"That's not going to be a problem. Because I thought it was pretty and since it didn't have any glyphs or drawings on it, Father gave it to me. It's here. With me." Catherine cleared her throat. "I've been keeping it stored in my hope chest."

~~~

Teyla and Ronon sat at Catherine's dining table; a large leather-bound book lay open in front of them.

"You look tired, Teyla. You should rest."

"I'm fine, Ronon." She pushed a stray gray lock of hair out of her eyes. "This is something I can do, and I must try.

"Do you really think the answer is in here?" Ronon asked.

"I do not know. But Dr. Jones seemed to think it would be useful or he would not have had it flown in from Connet ta cut."

"There's no Wraith here," Ronon said. "You could stay. Be safe."

"And never see my family again?" Teyla touched her chest. "Before this happened, my father was training me to take his place as leader of my people. If I stayed, I would feel like I abandoned all of his teachings. What about you? You could stay."

"Can't." Ronon shrugged. "I have to avenge my people. Are you sorry you didn't run when you had the chance? Most wouldn't stay and help someone they just met. Fewer still would help a runner."

"No. I could never be sorry for that. How did it happen?"

"Kell, my taskmaster. He betrayed Sateda to the Wraith. I heard him admit to it with my own ears. I don't know how he did it, but somehow he bargained his life for mine. I promised myself I'd live to see Kell draw his last breath by my hand." He tilted his head in Teyla's direction. "But something else is bothering you."

She touched her face. "This…"

"You've been touched by the Wraith and survived."

"Yes. I believe my people will welcome me back, but I will be watched."

"They'll think you're a Wraith worshipper and wonder if you'll betray them to get your youth back." Ronon laid his hand over hers. "I'll make sure they know the truth."

Teyla smiled. "In that case, Ronon Dex, we will scour every page until we find the answer."

~~~

 

Gallup, New Mexico

Rodney crossed his arms over his belly. "Since you've decided to interrogate me, you might as well get on with it."

The muscle in John's jaw flexed. "It's not an interrogation. But you have to admit, you left out a few facts. Things like – oh – I'm going to be a father!"

"Well, you know, now. Although –" Rodney held his finger up. "Technically, you're the mother because the egg came from you. In a manner of speaking."

"I don't have eggs!" John ground out between clenched teeth.

"Well, it came from somewhere and it was chock full of your genes. I'd say that makes you the mommy," Rodney snapped back. "Let's move on to your other questions before I have this baby, shall we?"

"How long have you known I was the father?" John insisted, sounding calmer than Rodney thought possible.

"I hate to admit it, but it took me longer to figure it out than it should have. It was months before I found out the genetic material came from a man. I didn't know that man was a captain in the American military until I overheard a conversation the day I – we escaped.
There wasn't time to think, John. They had plans to kill me or start the process all over again, depending on the outcome of the delivery. After that, it wasn't until you used that gizmo on the radio that I put all the pieces together. When you said it led to me, I realized some connection was leading you to Mini, not me." He laid a hand on John's arm. "I hope you know I had no idea they were holding you there. I would have found a way – I would have – to get you out."

John gave him a jerky nod in reply. "How do they know it's a boy?"

"I'm not sure. But if there's a test they didn't do to me, I can't imagine what it is."

Rodney watched a ghost of a smile cross John's face.

"I never thought I'd have a chance at kids. The dames and I aren't exactly – well – you know." John turned to him, and his smile changed into a full-blown grin. "Hot damn, Rodney, we're going to have a son."

~~~

"Hey, isn't that our church?" Rodney asked. The stark brick bell tower stood like a sentry in the midst of scrub brush and red-brown earth. A white sign with the words Mission Closed tilted on its post. The Spanish and Navajo written underneath were so faded they were nearly unreadable.

"No cars around," John said. "It looks like the intel was good." The relief in his voice was clear.

"You jerk." Rodney punched John in the arm. "You had no idea if we were driving into a trap."

"I didn't want to worry you and I thought it was worth taking the chance. You know as well as I do, Rodney, we had to do something to throw a tail off."

The rooms were small with smaller beds. They took one look at each other and decided to put two mattresses together on the floor. Dust hung in the air in the hazy sunshine and John opened a couple of windows to catch a cross breeze.

They sat on a Navajo blanket, making peanut butter sandwiches for the road. John sat so close, their shoulders bumped and Rodney found himself leaning into him. It must have been the hormones because he thought that, if John didn't kiss him soon, he was going to cry with frustration.

John spread the map out on the blanket. "When we hit Kingman, we'll get on Route 93. With luck, whoever is after us will think we're still on 66 traveling through to California. We should probably rest up there for the last leg of the trip, and I'll try to reach Carson again. They've used some of that area for target practice and we don't want to stumble into any surprises. Besides," he looked straight at Rodney's belly, "Beckett's going to need to be prepared for the, uh, unusual."

John leaned closer, his breath almost in Rodney's ear. There was genuine concern in his voice when he added, "We're going to be heading into rough country; do you think you can handle it?"

John was so close now, Rodney couldn't breathe without smelling him. He bit his lip and forced himself not to lean into John.

"Rodney," John reached out and traced the side of Rodney's face. "I'm glad I found you."

Mouth gone too dry to answer, Rodney nodded.

"I want to touch you. Can I?"

Rodney shivered at the words. Somehow, his hand ended up grasping John's shirtfront, trying to pull him closer.

Of course, he expected John to lay a hand on his stomach. He didn't expect the soft 'oh' of surprise when Mini moved under John's hand. He didn't expect John to unfasten Rodney's overalls and slide them down or that John would push his shirt to one side, and lay his cheek against Rodney's bare belly.

"Come to bed with me?" John asked.

"Shouldn't we, ah, talk more? Or something?" Rodney blurted.

John quirked an eyebrow. "Nervous? Because I know you've done this before."

"Well, excuse me. I've never done this fat and pregnant before. My feet are like blimps, and…and…"

"And you have to pee every thirty minutes," John finished for him. "But you want this?"

"Like you would not believe. It's been driving me crazy sitting next to you in the car for hours. You smell so good, I just wanted to lean over and lick you."

John chuckled. "Well, princess, now's your chance."

Undressing them both, he took Rodney by the hand and led him to the makeshift bed. "Mmmmm." Encouraging Rodney to lie on his side, John scooted up behind him and nuzzled Rodney's ear. "I've wanted this since I saw you trying to escape wearing nothing but that silly nightshirt and an old bathrobe."

Rodney let his head fall back against John's shoulder. "It's strange. You were a crazy, scary man looking like a wild escapee from a metal jungle but I knew I could trust you."

John put his arms around Rodney and ran his hands gently over his round tummy. "You're incredible. Do you know what it was like finding you in that place? Suddenly, I wasn't alone, and the world wasn't completely insane. You looked petrified standing over that guard." John chuckled. "I can't believe that in the middle of that, you gave me such shit over a missing shoelace. But I have to hand it to you. It helped me focus, and got my head out of that fucking tank. Then I watched you disable the alarm on the door with nothing but desperation, wits, and the smallest screwdriver I've ever seen." John pressed a kiss on to Rodney's shoulder. "Is your skin always this soft?"

"I don't know, I don't…" Rodney babbled as John guided him onto his back. He knelt over Rodney, and slid his hands down slowly over Rodney's belly like he couldn't touch enough.

Rodney tensed as John's hands went even lower.

He knew he was giving John mixed messages as he tried to pull him closer and push him away. "Wait."

"Problem? Because I know you're interested." John paused to nip at one of Rodney's nipples. "I can tell by the way your hand is gripping my cock. And you know what else?" John husked in his ear, "You're very good at that."

Rodney moaned. John hands were a soothing fire everywhere he touched until Rodney's spine felt like butter in their wake. Everything was go—go—go except for one significant thing. "Nurrg."

"Mmmm?"

"I want to. Believe me, I want to," Rodney managed to gasp out. "But the drugs in my system…I can't. I haven't…not since they started the injections."

John looked at him with a thoughtful expression. Then he cupped Rodney's balls. "But this feels good? And this?" He leaned down, took the head of Rodney's soft cock into his mouth, and gave it a gentle suck.

"Yesyesyes. Ohhhh…"

John lifted his head and Rodney watched him lick his lips in a slow tease.

"Can you come?"

Eyes still riveted to John's mouth, Rodney nodded.

"Then let me do this. Let me make you feel good."

Helpless to deny John anything, Rodney closed his eyes with a soft, "Please."

He tried to tell John not to be so careful – he wasn't going to break. All he got for his efforts was the heat of John's lips against his balls and a rasp of stubble along his inner thigh.

Rodney's sense of time was utterly shattered as John used his hands and mouth and –merciful heaven – his tongue in ways that made him gasp and arch into John's touch. It could have been hours or minutes. He clutched at John's shoulder with a moan.

"McKay, did you just say Relativity Theory?"

Thighs trembling, Rodney tugged at John's hair until John's mouth was within kissing distance. It was wet and red, with a smear of come on his bottom lip.

He looked as dazed as Rodney felt as he stroked warm, gentle palms tenderly over Rodney's skin.

"Einstein," Rodney answered. "He's been selling his theories all wrong."

"I'm going to have to get used to astrophysicists jokes, aren't I?" John said, smiling. His cock bumped against Rodney, its skin stretched so taut it looked painful.

John nudged at Rodney's hip. "Lay on your side." He scooted up behind Rodney, and put his arm around him, pulling them close. "Try to keep your legs squeezed tight together."

He did exactly that, and, oh, there was John's cock pushing between his legs, hard and insistent. It hit the back of Rodney's sack with every thrust and sent shock waves through him. He dug his fingers into the mattress with a groan.

When John's seed finally spread wet and warm between his thighs, Rodney shuddered down to his toes. Just before he drifted off to sleep, he thought he felt a gentle caress across his forehead, along with the words, "Get some rest, princess. I'll take care of the mess."

Rodney woke up sprawled across John's warm, naked body. It was tempting to fall back to sleep, but he could see the orange streaks of the setting sun through the open window, so he gently prodded John instead. "Hey, sleepyhead. Time to get up."

Thirty minutes later with dry peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast and ablutions attended to with rusty water from a squeaky pump, they hit the road.
Rodney ignored John's suggestion to stretch out in the backseat. He liked it right where he was. If his hand happened to inch over until it was nestled against John's thigh, well, he could blame it on John for taking the curves too fast.

Rodney sighed. "I'd kill for a cup of coffee right now."

"You know what's scary about that?" John asked. "I'm starting to believe you would."

Rodney grinned and leaned back to find John’s arm across his shoulders and a shy smile on his face.

They drove though the night with nothing but the stars for company and the occasional stray cactus caught in the beams of the headlights. Rodney watched the needle on the speedometer creep up higher with every passing hour and knew John could feel it too.

Time was running out.

Langford Residence

Catherine organized her notes as Ronon gently tucked the old, soft afghan around Teyla. She looked weary, the wrinkles settled deeper into her face in the afternoon light. Catherine had to admit she'd been shocked when she found out Teyla was nearly the same age as herself.

"Carson said you've made progress?" Catherine asked.

"We think so," Teyla answered. "Ronon found something interesting in Dr. Jones' book. We have reason to think your Atlantis is the same as our City of the Ancestors. The reference to the great wave is in many of our stories as well."

"There's more," Ronon added. "The gold border design on the page – that's not decoration – that's Ancient text." He cleared his throat. "My mother made me study it."

"It's a language?" Catherine bent over the book, tracing a finger over the lines with delicate care. "I never would have guessed."

"We think," Teyla said, "the destination symbols for Atlantis are woven into the Ancient text as well. But we will need to see your Ring again to be sure."

Catherine felt like the all the air had left her lungs. "And then you can go home."

"Possibly. If not home, then at least it’s a chance to get back to our own galaxy." Teyla laid her hand over Catherine’s. "This is something both Ronon and I need to do."

"How long before we can leave?" Ronon asked.

"If you’re right about the glyphs? Soon, I would think." Taking a deep breath, Catherine added, "I’ll tell Ernest straight away. He has the engineers hooking up the new power source now. If everything works like Ernie expects, then you should be home by morning."

Two miles east of Kingman, Arizona

"Is everything okay?" John asked.

"What?"

"You're pacing, Rodney. Usually, all I see you do when we stop to rest is to find a place to put your feet up."

"Yes, well, I guess I'm just a bundle of nervous energy. You've heard of nervous energy, haven't you, Captain? I'm not like you, where if I can't use my gun, I'll just lean against the wall until the crisis is over."

John smirked back at him. "I can think of a much better way to use that energy, Rodney."

"Oh, um. Really?" Rodney stopped pacing and gave John a shy smile.

John stood up away from the wall, and tucking two fingers in Rodney's front pocket, pulled him close. "A much better way."

"What about calling your doctor friend?"

John started undressing Rodney, stopping just long enough to leave love bites along his collarbone. "It's only three a.m. Let's let the good man sleep a little longer." John backed Rodney up against the bed. "Be a shame not to try out this nice full-size bed we have right here, courtesy of the Ranchito Motel."

Rodney sat down on the bad with John hovering over him. A minute later, John had them both stripped naked and was skimming kisses up over Rodney's belly.

Panting, his fingers curled in John's hair, Rodney blurted, "Oh, my god, you have a fetish."

John pulled back. "I do not…"

"You do, you completely do. You have a pregnant belly fetish. No, no, it's all right." Rodney grabbed John and pulled him back down. "I approve of a good fetish, I really, really do."

John snorted against Rodney's belly, his shoulders shaking with laughter. Grinning, Rodney petted at his hair and wondered if he could get John to suck him off again. Or maybe –

"John?"

"What is it, princess?"

"We're going to have a talk about this name-calling later, Captain, but, um, right now, something has come up."

John slid his hand down between Rodney's legs. "Why, so it has. And a very nice something it is, Rodney. Full of lust and need, John's husked out his name again—slow and nasty.

Rodney's cock jumped at the sound and he bit his lip with a groan.

"Tell me what you want, princess, and you can have it." John's voice was all low, gritty temptation in his ear. "Anything, Rodney. Do you want to fuck me? Work that nice hard cock into my ass, make me scream for it, make me beg you to grind it into me so hard I can feel it in my throat?" John gripped Rodney's cock and gave it an encouraging tug. "I'd like that."

Rodney tried desperately to say, "Yes—too much—don't stop," but it came out as a strangled groan as he tried to push his cock into John's hand. To his dismay, gravity and leverage worked against him and he flopped back on the bed, gasping.

John, the bastard, had the nerve to grin down at him and say, "Why don't we stick with what works."

Since his next words were, "I’ll suck you," Rodney decided to forgive him.

~~~

"Operator, please connect me to Dr. Carson Beckett at Deadhorse Base, Nevada." John gave Rodney a thumbs up sign while he waited for the operator to connect him, but Rodney wasn't buying it. John's shoulders looked tense enough to bounce a quarter off.

"Catherine? Is Carson there? It's …"

That was all Rodney was able to overhear of the conversation before John bent his head to talk into the receiver. He refrained from rapping on the glass and asking to be let in. Not that it would do any good. The oak booth was well made but far too small for the both of them. Rodney walked around to the side, leaned against the solid wood, and impatiently waited for John to finish.

He was rummaging through his pocket searching for more dimes when John stepped out.

"Is everything okay?" Rodney asked.

"Yeah. No. I got a message through to Carson. He's expecting us." John rubbed the back of his neck as the color rose in his cheeks. "He thinks that you’re a girl that I… got in the family way, and that's why I disappeared."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Fine. You get to explain to Mini that his father is a fallen woman. That should be entertaining."

"There's something else."

"What now? Did you tell Dr. Beckett you were facing a shotgun wedding?"

"No. Rodney, this is serious. The operator was listening in on that call. I could hear the clicking on the line. We need to get out of here, now."

"Crap. How long do you think we have?"

"Depends. If we shook them in Gallup, twenty-four hours – maybe. Forty-eight if we're lucky."

"I know I'm going to hate myself for saying this," Rodney said, as he got into the Buick, "but this time, John, I think you should step on it."

Langford Residence, Nevada

"I just got the strangest phone call, Ernie," Catherine said. "I don't know why the call came here. The man wanted Carson Beckett and it should have gone to his office."

"Maybe the operator made a mistake, Cat, or more likely the lines got crossed."

"Maybe. It worked out. Carson was here checking on Ronon's stitches, so he took the call. But that's not the odd thing. This man claimed to be John Sheppard and I believe him. So does your cousin."

"Cat, it's been four years without a word. Everyone thought he died in a plane crash. Are you sure?"

She smiled. "Fairly sure. He knew things about us that only John would know. Still…" she tapped her chin thoughtfully. "He told Carson he's bringing the pregnant mother of his child with him."

Ernest raised an eyebrow. "Truly? My stars, that's quite unlike the John Sheppard I remember—you're sure?

"You're going to get to see for yourself. He's bringing his young lady to see Carson. Ernie, I think we should wait until he gets here before we try to dial Atlantis."

"It's too late, Cat. We already tried. It didn't work."

~~~

Carson's mouth dropped open. "Is this…"

"It's not a joke," John said. "We need your help and we don't have a lot of time."

"Bathroom?" Rodney asked.

Carson mutely pointed towards the back of the small infirmary. That was fine in Rodney's book. Let John make the explanations.

He braced his hands on the sink and took a deep breath. John had driven those last few miles like a madman. He understood the need, even encouraged it, but the shale and dirt roads were rough and Rodney's kidneys felt like they'd been jolted up behind his back teeth.

Still, they'd gotten here in one piece and without being followed. John had driven straight to Carson's small infirmary, pulling the car up to the back door. Rodney thought he must trust Carson an awful lot because John just pushed the door open without so much as a knock first.

They were both covered in road dust and day-old sweat. Even John's hair looked subdued. No wonder the doctor's jaw looked ready to hit the floor at the sight of them.

Rodney looked longingly at the small shower. Maybe later.

"Rodney, get out here and come introduce yourself to Carson."

Bracing for the inevitable, Rodney stepped out of the bathroom to see John sitting on the exam table. His shirt and pants were off and the doctor was probing at the ends of the wires.

"You did a good job of keeping these clean, Mr. McKay."

"Doctor. Dr. McKay." Holding a finger up, he added, "Not a medical doctor."

"Medical doctor or not, you did a good job. There's no sign of infection."

"Can you get them out, doc?" John asked.

"I would say yes, once I can figure out how deep they go," Carson answered. "What's that?"

"This?" John stopped flipping the RFG between his fingers and held the device out to Carson. "It's a Radio Fixing Gizmo of some kind. At least, that's all I've seen it do. It works good, though."

Carson took the RFG and held it up for a closer look. He ran his thumb over its surface with a thoughtful hum. A moment later, a three-dimensional image blossomed around John. Details of every bone, vein, and wire in John's body expanded out in shades of blue and white, right in front of him.

Carson stared. "I'd say this does a bit more than fix radios, John," he managed to choke out. "It's bloody amazing."

John stared down at himself. He flexed one hand, watching the bones and blood vessels move with his action. "Carson, you have got to try this out on Rodney." He grinned. "You might want to sit down first."

~~~

Catherine looked over her teacup at the oddest assortment of people that had ever sat around her father’s dining room table. A smile teased at the corner of her mouth despite the seriousness of events. Every person here was a friend, old or new.

John didn't look a day older, considering four years had passed since she'd last seen him. At fifteen, she'd had quite a crush on the dashing Air Corps pilot. Catherine had to admit he still looked terrifically dashing. But in the meantime, she’d met Ernest. As an older, wiser woman of nineteen, she’d been swept off her feet by his intelligence and charm.

And then, there was John’s friend. Well, goodness, she shook her head – pregnant because of horribly odd circumstances. She only believed it now because she’d seen the miracle with her own eyes.

With Dr. McKay's permission, Carson had used the RFG and shown all of them the tiny infant cradled inside an artificial womb. The babe had been sucking its thumb, of all things. Catherine pressed a hand over her mouth to suppress an unladylike snort as she remembered the look on John’s face. He’d looked so insanely pleased when he pointed at the image and announced, "Look! See, right there! It is a boy!"

Poor Rodney just looked miserable and worried but he’d smiled at John then, with a sweetness that took her breath away.

Ronon leaned over the table and said to Rodney, "Littlefield says you have a plan to get us home."

"Yes. I'll need to…"

"You'll need to deliver that baby before you do anything else," Carson interrupted. "My nurse is getting everything prepped and I expect to see you in my infirmary in one hour. And you, Captain." He glared at John. "You stay off that leg. It was a near thing getting that last wire removed without causing irreversible nerve damage. I gave you that cane to use for a reason."

John held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

"Look," Rodney protested. "I can easily do this. Littlefield already has the basic information I need in order to calculate the stellar drift. It's not like I'm going to do any heavy lifting." He looked at John. "Can you explain to them that we're running out of time?"

"You could come with us," Ronon said. "You said it yourself, Sheppard. Your military thinks you're dead and from what Beckett says, with the condition you're in, they aren't going to let you or McKay fight. But if you want a battle, my people will welcome the help."

"Go where we can get eaten by aliens. That sounds…" Rodney paused. "You know, that could work." He turned to John. "The Agency would never find us there and I'm sure I can figure out a way back, given time. Of course," he continued, shaking his finger at Ernest to make his point, "You'll have to hide the VEM at least until the war is over. Can you imagine if Hitler got his hands on that kind of power?"

"VEM?" John asked.

"Mmm," Rodney nodded. "That's the gizmo that's going to power the Ring all the way to another galaxy."

John still looked puzzled.

"Didn't I tell you? Littlefield and I decided to name it the Vacuum Energy Modulator." Rodney grinned. "Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"

"Then I suggest," Teyla said with serenity, "You use this time to gather your strength. You and your unborn child will need it."

~~~

Catherine breathed a sigh of relief when she heard the baby's first cry. Maybe now John would stop pacing. She turned to offer her congratulations when Carson stepped into the waiting room with a smile.

"Congratulations, John. You can hand out the cigars now. You're the father of a fine baby boy."

"Cigars? I…should… I haven't…" John stuttered.

"Ernest will have some he can give you." Catherine laid her hand on John's arm with a smile. He looked shell-shocked and a far cry from the cocky, devil-may-care flyboy she remembered.

"That RFG is a bloody miracle." Carson nearly beamed with enthusiasm. "It gave me a picture perfect view of everything I needed to see. I don’t mind telling you, John, without it I’m not sure I could have saved them both." Carson shook his head. "It would have been a near thing at best. Never seen anything like it and I don’t expect I ever will again. It did all but take my hand and guide it."

"Rodney?" John asked.

"He’s fine, and the wee bairn is the picture of health. You can go in as see them both in a minute." Carson stripped off his gloves. "The nurse is just getting him weighed and cleaned up a bit. Mind you, Rodney needs to get his rest. You’ve caused a bit of a stir, you and your young gentleman, John. We weren’t exactly prepared for this."

John raked his fingers through his hair. "Tell me about it."

Carson smiled. "I rather think Catherine has enjoyed hunting down baby clothes."

"And diapers," Catherine said, smiling. "Please, just don't tell my father where his Egyptian cotton towels have gone until I've had a chance to break it to him."

"I’m afraid all we’ve got handy to feed the babe is tinned milk. It won’t do him a bit of harm for a few days." Carson paused and looked at John with a thoughtful frown. "Of course, what you really need is a strapping young lady with a babe of her own and plenty of milk. A lass like that would make a fine wet nurse."

"I don’t… I don’t think… a wet nurse?"

"John, you’re looking a fair bit o’ pale." Carson gave him a hearty pat on the shoulder. "I take it you weren’t expecting to be a father?"

"I—I just found out two days ago," John stammered.

Carson smiled. "Well, then, why don’t you go on in now and get acquainted with your new son."

With a nod and a deep breath, John took a step toward the infirmary door. Catherine was about to go with him when Carson took her by the elbow.

"They need a few minutes alone, lass. What do you say we see how much progress Ernie is making on those calculations and see if we can hurry him along?" Carson said.

"Why?" Catherine asked.

"I didn’t want to say this in front of John or Rodney, and to be honest, I didn’t put the pieces of it together until Rodney told us about the men who forced him into his condition."

"Carson, you're scaring me. What is it?"

"Our friends have less time than they think. Just before they got here, my office received a telegram. It seems a certain Dr. Kenmore has volunteered his services as a surgeon. He's flying in tonight."

"And you think he's the same man?"

"Aye, Catherine. And I think John and his family need to go through that big Ring to the Pegasus galaxy before he gets here."

"I don't understand any of this. Why go to these lengths to get at John?" Catherine asked.

"I don't think it's John they want, or Rodney either. I think it's the babe."

~~~

Rodney sat up in the bed with Mini in his arms, wrapped up in a soft, blue blanket.

"Rodney?" John asked, poking his head through the doorway.

"Shh, get over here and meet Mini. Boy, am I glad to see you. You can't believe how traumatizing this whole thing has been. I don't suppose you brought anything to eat?"

"What?"

"Okay, never mind that now." Rodney pulled the blanket to one side so that John could see the baby's face better.

"He's so tiny."

"Seven pounds, two ounces. Want to hold him?"

John stood there, hands clenching and unclenching, as though he had no idea what to do with them.

"Oh, for pity's sake. He's not going to break. Take him."

After some uncertain fumbling, John sat on the side of Rodney's bed with Mini in his arms. He stared down at the baby with a look of wonder on his face. "He's got your eyes, Rodney."

"Yes. And your hair. I'm sure that's where the two extra ounces came from. Not to mention the heartburn."

John didn't bother to answer. Instead, he traced one delicate shell of Mini's ear.

"Yes, he has your ears too. Oh, stop gloating." Rodney yawned. "Hey, see if you can get Carson to spring me."

"So soon? You just had surgery, Rodney."

Rodney dismissed those concerns with a wave of his hand. "It's the RFG effect. According to Carson, it speeds up the healing process. He noticed it first on your injuries. Did you know that without it, you probably would have been crippled for life?" Rodney took in John's startled expression. "Oh. Guess he didn't mention it. Anyway, he seems to think I'll hurt for a few days, but nothing like the weeks it could have taken."

"Time to go, gentlemen." Carson stood in the doorway with a wheelchair. "We need to get you to the room with the Door to Heaven. I'll explain on the way. Yes, Rodney, I'm sure Catherine's bringing food."

~~~

Catherine set the second basket of food down and watched the hubbub around her. Ernest and Rodney were writing fast and furiously on the chalkboards that took up one side of the room. Ronon crouched down by the Ring, carefully inspecting each glyph while Teyla held the baby and called out descriptions for each symbol.

Carson had disappeared somewhere and John – John was flipping the RFG in his hand again and leaning over Rodney's shoulder, checking his math. The VEM sat in its casing, ready and waiting. A quiet urgency hung over them and Catherine wished she could do more to help.

At her feet sat a small trunk of baby things, tinned milk, and a bottle Carson had cleverly devised out of his infirmary supplies. She'd barely gotten to hold the baby before John lifted him out of her arms, crooning some country-western lullaby.

Well, she might appear calm but Catherine's nerves were as frazzled as everyone else's, and if John didn't stop flipping that RFG, she was going to – She walked over, snatched the RFG out of the air, and ignoring the hurt puppy expression on John's face, and went over to Teyla. "Can I hold the baby?"

Teyla smiled. "Of course."

"Cat," Ernie interrupted. "Can you run and get Dr. Jones' book, love? Dr. McKay thinks we're short a symbol. We need to find an eighth one."

"I'll be right back, Teyla. Oh, here." She held out the RFG. "It's John's little talisman. See if you can keep it away from him for fifteen minutes."

Before Teyla could take it, Mini yawned and stretched. His curled up fist bumped against the device and it glowed with a soft yellow light. It glittered full of stars, and for a moment, Catherine was mesmerized by the sight.

"Teyla!" she gasped.

Ronon was there in three strides and everyone else came running.

"What is it?" Teyla asked.

A slow smile crept over Ronon's face. "You're healed. The Wraith-age is gone."

"How do you feel?" Catherine asked.

"I feel – well. Can someone take…?" Teyla asked.

"Got him," John said. He lifted Mini up, "Hey, buddy. What did you do?"

Rodney was there a heartbeat later. Watching the snap of his fingers, Catherine could see him put the pieces together from the scene around him. "It's the RFG. Whatever it is that makes it work for you, John, it's nothing compared to what Mini can do."

"Is it dangerous for him?" John asked, pulling Mini up close against his chest.

"It doesn't seem to have done any harm. Maybe we should ask Carson?" Rodney answered. "Where is he, anyway?"

Ronon nodded towards the door just as Carson came in carrying two large suitcases and a medical bag.

"What have you got up to now?" Carson huffed. "I've only been gone a few minutes. Daft buggers, can't stay out of trouble…"

"It's Teyla," Ronon said. "She's better." He started grinning as Teyla smiled back at him. "A lot better."

~~~

"All right." Rodney clapped his hands to get their attention. "I'd like to take the time as much as the next person to celebrate the marriage of the miracle of youth and the vagaries of alien technology but let's not forget we're on the clock. There are lives to save here, including mine. Move it, people!"

"How much time, Rodney?" John asked.

They all froze as they heard the phone ring.

After a deep breath, Ernie picked up the receiver. "Hello?" He listened for a moment, said, "Thank you," and hung up.

"Well, what is it, man?" Carson asked.

"That was Major Davis. Dr. Kenmore's plane just landed at the airstrip at Pahute Mesa. We have less than thirty minutes before he gets here."

"I have an idea!" John grabbed the RFG out of Teyla's hand, ran up to the Ring, and slapped it down against the metal. He jumped out of the way as the Ring began to dial.

"Are you serious?" Rodney yelled. "If it even works… okay, it works. The Ring is obviously drawing power from the VEM. But how do we know it's going to take us to the right place?"

"It is. Look," Ronon said, pointing to the Ring. He was right. Catherine had seen the symbols for Atlantis in the book of Lost Cities enough times to know that the Ring was dialing the same glyphs.

"What about the eighth symbol?" she whispered to herself.

"Wait for it," Ernie said. He'd come to stand right beside her and she'd been too enthralled to notice.

Catherine gripped Ernie's arm as the eighth symbol engaged and a giant whoosh of water formed. "How is it possible?"

"The device must come from the lost city, Cat." Ernie answered. "My guess is that it's programmed to dial back home whenever it comes in contact with one of those big rings."

"Like a built-in homing gizmo," John offered, rocking up on his toes in unrepressed delight.

"Tick-tock," Rodney snapped. "Or did everyone forget already?"

Carson started grabbing up his bags.

"What are you doing?" Ernest asked.

"I've got three fragile patients heading to God knows where. I'm not letting them go without proper medical care, even if I have to go with them."

"Are you sure?"

"Aye. Besides, cousin, if I stay long enough to see Dr. Kenmore, I'm afraid I'll be bloody tempted to shove his face into a wall." Carson frowned. "What's McKay grinning about now?"

With no time to waste, Teyla, Ronon, and John gathered up the rest of the supplies while Rodney held Mini. The ring of water shimmered in front of them, waiting.

"Best get a move on," Ernest said, his voice suspiciously thick. "We still need time to hide the VEM."

John nodded. Rodney snuggled the baby closer, fussing nervously with his tiny blanket.

One step away from walking into the unknown, John leaned against Rodney and cradled the baby's head gently with one hand.

"Have you decided on a name? You can't call him Mini forever." John nodded at the circle of water in front of them. "You have to admit, a brand new galaxy is a fine place to start."

Rodney looked at John, then down at Mini, who was clutching his finger in one tiny, determined fist. He smiled. "I've always had a soft spot for the name Meredith."

~*~

Epilogue

 

Vera stared at the radio with a puzzled frown. The nice Army Air Corps major brought it to her door yesterday with very little explanation. She'd gone ahead and taken it at his insistence because it certainly looked like her brother's radio.

Miss Langford, on the other hand, had been more than gracious and had shaken Vera's hand with genuine warmth. It had been the easiest thing in the world to respond in kind and promise to keep the radio safe until her 'young men' returned for it.

Hands on her hips, Vera snapped her gum and tried to make sense of it. Funny thing was, even turned off, it continued to give off a soft glow. That wasn't all. This radio did a lot more than pick up the local AM station. She could listen in on all sorts of programs now, some of them in languages she'd never heard before.

She picked up the note and read it one more time --

Dear Vera,

Thanks for all your help. We figured fixing the radio was the least we could do. Rodney says to tell you not to worry, and to play it as much as you like -- this battery will never run out of power. (You might want to keep that to yourself though.)

Affectionately yours,

~ Todd