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It happens like this; John smiles a little too sweetly at the wrong woman (and Rodney’s never sure there’s a right woman when it comes to Sheppard), stands a little too close to a revered Ancient temple and suddenly they find themselves bound and gagged in a small basement room on a backwater planet with no hope of rescue for at least two days. Rodney thinks that, perhaps, their team shouldn’t be allowed to handle trade negotiations. Teyla would argue that John, Rodney and Ronon should just not speak, but Rodney has so many issues with that idea that he wouldn’t know where to start. Or, rather, where to stop.

They’re there for one day and one very long night, stretched out on the floor as comfortably as they can be in a room that’s smaller than the en suite in Rodney’s sister’s guest room; which is to say that he spends the entire time with Ronon’s ass in his face and Teyla’s head butting against his (shoeless) feet. He somehow finds a way to make his complaints known, even through the gag, but then he is a genius after all. Even if it does nothing to alter the situation.

On the morning after the longest night of his life Version 19.0 (and this one is surpassed by a surprising number of them; although he debates whether his prom night goes just above or just below this – there’s nothing to be said for being four years younger than the rest of the graduating class), he and Sheppard are hauled up by the ropes binding their hands behind their backs. It’s painful and Rodney tells his captors this. Repeatedly. But they do nothing more than get increasingly rough with him and he shuts up about three seconds before he’s thrown into a hut and falls flat on his face.

It’s at this point that he notices that Sheppard’s not there and the extra gag they add doesn’t stand a chance of shutting him up.

 

* * *

 

If Rodney McKay had realised that this was a defining moment in the upcoming three years of his life, he might have taken a moment to pay a little more attention to what the idiotic locals were telling him. Instead he rants, he raves and he generally insults every village elder, every deity they’ve ever known, the kids who’re likely grow up to be village elders and everyone else in between. He even throws in the goat-like creatures they passed on the way into the village, just for good measure.

It’s only when he, Ronon and Teyla are being dropped off at the ‘Gate with a screaming child that Rodney thinks he might have missed something along the way.

 

* * *

 

“What do you mean this is Colonel Sheppard?”

“I don’t know how you expect me to be more clear than that, Rodney. Our tests conclude that that wee boy is the Colonel.”

Elizabeth takes a deep breath and lets out a resigned sigh. It’s a credit to just how fucked up their lives in Pegasus are, Rodney thinks, that she’s barely batting an eye at the situation. “Rodney, did the villagers say anything that might indicate how they did this, or even why?”

“Oh, yes, while we were being bound and gagged, they left the instruction manual and the secret diary of their insane plans out for me to look at!”

“Rodney.”

He lets out a huff of irritation. “I don’t know. It’s…possible I might have missed something they were saying, but they were unwashed, uneducated morons, so I’m sorry if I chose to ignore them after they kidnapped us and locked us in a basement.”

“Can you fix it?” Elizabeth asks, ignoring his ranting and he’s not sure if she’s talking to him or Carson until the Scot answers.

“There’s nothing more I can tell without further scans, but he seems to be a healthy wee boy. I’d say about two or three years old. I’m not really sure there’s anything I could do without knowing what caused this.”

“Do you have any idea what the machine looked like?” Elizabeth asks and Rodney barely manages to bite his tongue.

In fact he doesn’t. “What part of ‘we were dropped off at the ‘gate with it and held at spear point until we left’, was unclear?”

“Rodney,” Elizabeth says and she’s using her serious voice. Rodney rolls his eyes as she turns back to Carson. “Other than his age, there’s nothing wrong with him?”

“Not that I can tell and we’ve run every scan I can think of. He’s maybe a bit undernourished, but I’d guess that’s no different to the rest of his team. He should eat and maybe run off a wee bit of energy before bed. Other than that, it’s nothing a good night’s sleep won’t cure.”

Elizabeth nods. “Okay, I’m going to re-establish contact and see if I can’t negotiate for whatever did this. Until then-”

“Why can’t we just go back with bigger guns?” Ronon asks and, for once, Rodney’s in complete agreement with the man. Shooting the bastards actually sounds therapeutic.

Elizabeth doesn’t seem to agree. “I don’t think that’s the best way to start planetary relations with possible trading partners.”

“Trading partners? Are you insane?”

“Rodney, they have-”

“They turned Sheppard into a kid! A goofy looking kid with crazy hair and big eyes that does nothing but scream and cry. What could they possibly have for negotiations?”

“Well, I hear it tastes like coffee.”

“Oh, well that’s…I don’t care!” And, okay, so he does, but does Elizabeth actually think he’s that shallow? He shakes his head, feeling more hurt than he might have thought he would, but possibly less than he ought.

There’s a tug on the bottom of his uniform and he turns both ways before he realises it’s coming from below. When he looks down, he tries to keep the look of discomfort and sheer terror from his face.

“Um…hello…little boy.”

“John,” the boy says slowly, pointing to himself and treating Rodney like a brain damaged ferret. “What’s you’ name?”

And, oh god, this is Sheppard and he has no idea who Rodney is.

“I’m…you really don’t know who I am?” Although even he’s not sure why the boy – Sheppard, damn it – would. He’s been turned into a child and, Rodney’s lack of paternal instinct aside, it’s clear that he’s regressed back to an age where clearly they didn’t know each other.

“A’ you my fend?”

“Am I your what?” Rodney asks, wondering if the aliens programmed another language into the boy’s head, because he knows that two- and three-year-olds can speak just fine, even if they have little of intelligence to say.

“You’ fend.”

“Rodney,” Elizabeth says with an indulgent smile. “He wants to know if you’re his friend.”

“Oh,” Rodney clears his throat and looks at the kid, frowning. “Eh, yes, I suppose I am.”

“I’m fwee.”

Rodney pats little Sheppard’s head in a way he thinks is reassuring, but really isn’t. “Yes, yes, we rescued you.”

When the boy frowns, Elizabeth crouches to his eyelevel and he shrinks behind Rodney’s legs. “Are you three, John?” she asks and the light bulb goes off above Rodney’s head. “Is that what you’re telling us?”

The boy looks up at Rodney, as if asking for permission and Rodney nods. He’s a little confused, but he’s smart enough to know he doesn’t want the screaming to start again.

John nods. “I’m fwee and I’m John. Who’s you?”

“I’m Elizabeth.”

“Litzabit, Litzbit…Lizbet?” John fumbles and Rodney smiles at him for the first time. He thinks he might have laughed, too, if the look on the three-year-old’s face didn’t look so painfully familiar.

“Not quite, but it’ll do,” Elizabeth says.

John tugs at Rodney’s uniform again and pokes him in the stomach. “Name.”

“Oh, I like that, she gets a question, I get a demand.”

“Name, peese.”

“Yes, because being polite is so taxing.” The boy just glares. “Rodney,” he says with a resigned sigh.

“Wodney?” John asks.

Rrrodney.”

The boy nods. “Wodney.”

And, yes, trust him to have a name that starts with the one letter the boy can’t say. He glares at Elizabeth and the others, just daring them to say anything, almost wishing one of them actually would laugh, because he’s got a lot of anger bubbling under the surface and even he’s not about to aim that at the three-year-old at his knees. And, oh God, Sheppard’s three years old.

He tunes out what the others are saying, barely notes that both Teyla and Ronon are re-introducing themselves to the Colonel, because the only words he can hear are the ones flailing about in his head like dying fish.

Who the hell is going to save them now?

 

* * *

 

The debriefing is, in a word, painful. Rodney’s lost count of the number of times he’s wanted to bang his head against the table in the hopes that it actually would cause him damage just so he could get the hell out of the room. Elizabeth is asking the same questions over and over, as if she’s expecting Rodney to suddenly say, ‘Wow, I’m so stupid, I’ve just remembered that the village elders actually gave me a training course on how to turn the Colonel back to normal. I’ll have him fixed by bed time’ and Carson…well, he tunes out what Carson’s going to say before the Scot even starts to speak, because he really doesn’t need to know what’s going on with the boy’s three-year-old bowel movements, or whether or not the brat has head lice.

That last thought has him looking rather alarmed at the crop of messy hair that’s brushing against his chin. He’s uncomfortably aware of the fact that he has no idea what to do, but it wasn’t really like he’d had much choice in the matter; the moment he’d sat down, the boy had finally let go of his leg and Rodney had barely let out his sigh of relief when the kid had clamboured onto his lap, wrapped himself around Rodney’s torso like a limpet and conked out the second his head hit Rodney’s shoulder. He figures the only thing that saved him from being mocked and laughed at was the pathetic, wide eyed expression of fear on his face. He’s gradually relaxed by degrees, but every time the kid makes a noise or moves he’s convinced the world’s about to end, just to complete this cosmic joke.

“Rodney!”

He jumps a little, wincing when the boy at his shoulder moves. He glares at Elizabeth as the kid settles again and then lets out an irritated huff. “What?”

“I said that I’m going to send Lorne’s team through the ‘Gate to Alekesh tomorrow. See if we can sort this out. I think it might be best if you three didn’t go back at this stage. It’s-”

“Wait a second, tomorrow?” he asks incredulously.

“Yes, Rodney, tomorrow. It’s the middle of the night on the planet and I think it would be best if we didn’t turn up armed while they’re sleeping.”

“Are you kidding? That’s exactly what we should do!” Rodney’s voice is so shrill, he just knows that he’s woken the boy up, but that doesn’t stop him from continuing. “Why aren’t we storming the castle? Breaking down the hatches, or…whatever the hell we have to do to turn him back to normal?”

“Rodney!”

Elizabeth’s voice isn’t enough to stop him, but the sniffle right by his ear is. Alarmed, he looks down at the kid, wide-eyed.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, don’t cry!” he pleads and tries a smile. He knows he’s failed even before he sees the comically confused look on the boy’s face. At least his reaction seems to have staved off the crying.

“Rodney, my decision is final.” Elizabeth says, taking advantage of his distraction. “Now I expect you to accommodate for the Colonel for the time being. Dismissed.” And she leaves the room before he has so much as a moment to figure out how to stop her.

“Wodney?”

Brought back to the situation at hand, Rodney glances at the boy, looks around the room just in time to see Ronon’s smirk and Teyla’s smile (he just knows she’s laughing at him on the inside) as they slip out of the room. Leaving him alone with Colonel Shorty, who’s currently blinking up at him with eyes that, damnit, should not be that appealingly innocent. Rodney reminds himself that he hates kids once more, just to make him feel better, before reassuring himself that he’s a genius and he can totally handle this.

“Wodney, we go pay now?”

“Pay?” He frowns, takes a second to try and access some semblance of three-year-old-translator that might be lurking in is mind and comes up with only one possible solution. “Geniuses don’t play.”

John just looks at him in a way that’s painfully familiar and drawls, “Wod-ney.”

“This is just so wrong,” he mumbles and stands up, remembering at the last moment to keep hold of the kid before it tumbles to the ground. His mind is whirling off in a million and one different directions which, to be fair, isn’t really that different to his usual mental state. The difference is that, this time, all those directions have the same focus and how typical, Rodney thinks, that it would be Colonel John Sheppard that finally gets his brain focussed on the one topic, without even the smallest portion of his mind wondering how to improve the output of the power regulators on level thirteen, or the incorrect equations Kavanagh had been scrawling all over the lab’s whiteboards before he’d gone on the mission to Alekesh and had that really only been 21 hours ago?

He swings into the corridor leading to the military personnel quarters without even thinking and it isn’t until he’s already palmed open the door to Sheppard’s empty quarters that he realises what he’s doing. He freezes in the doorway, only peripherally aware that the boy in his arms is craning his neck to see into the room, and Rodney doesn’t know what the hell he’s supposed to do next. That in and of itself is enough to almost send him into a tailspin of panic; he always knows what to do and in those rare moments when he doesn’t, Sheppard takes up the slack.

They’re so doomed.

He takes a deep breath and steps back from the room, letting the door slide shut. The boy seems to realise that staying quiet is the way to go here and Rodney’s internally grateful that that particular trait of Sheppard’s is still there, regardless of age.

“Okay, okay, okay,” he mumbles to himself. This is one of the times that he definitely doesn’t know what to do. It’s not a mechanical, mathematical, physical, or astronomical fault (not until he can get his hands on that machine, or whatever they used, anyway), so this really isn’t his area. Usually, this is where Sheppard swaggers in and suggests something to take the problem out of his hands while he thinks, or else its life threatening and he has no choice but to think. He feels a ball of panic start to roll around in his stomach and tendrils of it snatch up his wind pipe like grabby little fingers. He can’t seem to breathe properly and he seriously does not need to panic right now.

Something in his mind suddenly clicks. He turns and walks a few paces down the corridor, palms open the door and storms into the room. He barely registers that Lorne’s room is a mess, doesn’t stop to process the fact that a few minutes earlier and he could have literally walked in on the Major with his pants down, and holds out the boy by the armpits, all but throwing him at the man.

“Major, meet the new Colonel Sheppard. Bond, or... something. Just keep it occupied and don’t bring it back for at least seven hours!”

He pushes the boy into Lorne’s arms and storms out the door, holding his breath for a moment and trying not to analyse why he lurks in the hallway to make sure he hasn’t just made the situation a whole lot worse.

“Sheppard,” he hears Lorne say in that same even ‘nothing can phase me’ military voice that the Colonel uses all the time.

John,” the boy responds and suddenly Rodney can breathe again.

He doesn’t wait around any longer. He heads straight for his lab and the look on his face, he hopes, seems violent enough that no one bothers to stop him along the way. In fact two marines physically flatten themselves against the wall to let him pass and that’s when he realises that, yes, he’s pissed off. At Sheppard. Because, damn it, the man seems to draw in trouble like he has some kind of magnetic attraction to it. He might as well hold up a flashing neon sign that says ‘Looking for Trouble’ in a universally spoken language. Maybe mathematics, Rodney thinks, momentarily side tracked, but then the knowledge that Sheppard would have got that makes him ache a little.

He storms into the lab, startling Kusanagi and Walters – who look like they need startling so they can get back to work – and heads straight to his desk. There’s an almost deafening silence in the room, that’s pressing on him more than the roiling ball of panic that’s now moved upwards and is clutched inside his chest. By the time Zelenka actually approaches his desk he’s mentally decapitated half his science team.

“What?” he barks, before the Czech can say a word.

“Is it true?”

“Is what true?” Rodney asks, keeping his voice steady and hoping that will somehow keep him sane.

“About…Colonel Sheppard.”

“You mean that he’s physically reverted to his mental age? Yes, it’s true. Now get back to work.”

He expects increased whispering and stolen speculative glances and is surprised instead to see Zelenka’s hand hover near his shoulder for a moment, before the Czech lets out a breath, nods and returns to his desk. He sees the smirk on Kavanagh’s face, but he really doesn’t expect the sympathy on everyone else’s. Somehow, that makes him feel so much worse.

 

* * *

 

Rodney isn’t sure what time it is when he finally notices he’s not alone, but he holds out a hand expectantly for the cup of coffee that Sheppard usually brings with him. When his hand is still empty a moment later, he frowns, but it doesn’t come flooding back until the silence is broken.

“Doctor McKay?”

He whirls around so fast he almost falls off his chair, but stands quickly and nods before the Major can comment. The man’s standing in the doorway with a sleeping child in his arms and Rodney takes a moment to study the messy tuft of hair sticking up from the man’s shoulder. He wonders what it means that it’s that more than anything, even Carson’s tests, that convinces him that the boy really is Sheppard and that the man isn’t suddenly going to come through the ‘gate demanding to know why the hell they left him behind.

“I didn’t want to disturb you, but I didn’t know what to do with him. We’re moving out in about six hours and-”

“No, no, I…well, yes.”

There’s an awkward moment where they try to work out how to get the boy from Lorne’s arms to Rodney’s – even though Rodney really doesn’t want to take him – and, somehow he gets the odd feeling that the other man doesn’t want to let him go. It takes longer than Rodney thinks it should for an Air Force Major and a genius with two Phd’s to exchange a child.

“I…” Lorne winces and runs a hand through his hair. “This is kinda messed up,” he finishes, looking distinctly uncomfortable and, oh God, Rodney really wants him to stop talking.

“Really, Major, I hadn’t noticed.” The man sighs and Rodney suddenly feels like a total heel.

“Look, I just…we’ll get him back.”

“I’m a genius,” Rodney says and knows that Lorne understands that he’s saying ‘of course we will’ and somehow thinks that maybe the Major even understands something that only Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon would normally hear; the words ‘I really need you to believe that we will, so that I can believe it’.

The man nods and heads to the doorway, calling back over his shoulder. “I’ll fill you in as soon as we get back.”

“Just don’t flirt with anything and stay away from their stupid temple.”

Lorne chuckles and nods. “Will do, Doc. Will do.”

And suddenly Rodney’s once again left alone with a three-year-old and no idea what he’s meant to do next.

 

* * *

 

The next morning, Rodney figures out he got off lightly the night before. Getting the kid into an oversized t-shirt and jury-rigging a tiny bed out of a drawer, two pillows and a couple of clean sheets was as easy as reconfiguring a DHD compared with being jumped on at six am by a hyped up little boy who looks rather demented and unable to contain far more excitement than is acceptable at this time of the morning.

“Wodney! Wodney! Wodney! Wake up!”

“Like you’re giving me any choice!” he growls, lifting the kid off his ribcage in the hopes that the bruises won’t actually end up covering his entire torso.

“Look!” John cries and then scrunches up his face.

Suddenly the entire room lights up in neon bright colours, like lights at an eighties disco, all the windows roll up into the ceiling letting in the freezing cold morning air and light, airy elevator music blasts out around them, making him drop the boy. Unfortunately, the boy lands on him.

“Turn it off!” he cries and as suddenly as it all started it stops. Well, the windows remain open, but the wobbling lower lip and the wet, blinking eyes in front of him are suddenly causing more distress than the thought of pneumonia. “Don’t cry,” he orders, going for a different tact, and, after a moment, the child sniffs and nods.

“Bweakfast,” he says decidedly and elbows Rodney’s already-bruised ribs in an attempt to get off the bed.

“Coffee,” Rodney says wistfully and the thought is enough to get him up, too. The mess in his room, however, stops him short. “What did you do? Was there a tornado in here this morning?”

The kid grins unrepentantly and nods. “Yup! Huwicane John!”

Rodney actually whimpers and considers falling back into bed in the hopes that, the next time he wakes up, it’ll all be a dream. The shout of, “Wodney! Bweakfast!” is enough to remind him that fate doesn’t really like him that much.

 

* * *

 

“Will you take it today?”

Teyla raises her eyebrows and glares at him simultaneously and he’s never really worked out (a) how she does it – it has to be a physical anomaly – or (b) how she always manages to make him feel worse than his grandmother ever had.

“I do not believe that would be in John’s best interests.”

“Why not?”

She sighs and, again, it’s like the ghost of Nana McKay is at the table with him. “Because I believe it would be best for you both to spend some time together. He is still John Sheppard.”

At his name, the little head next to him looks up. Rodney’s as appalled by the oatmeal mess on his face as Ronon is impressed. Without thinking, he picks up one of the napkins, cups the back of the kid’s head with one hand and scrubs the boy’s face with the other. He figures maybe he should have brought a towel and wonders how the boy managed to get more food on his face than he got in his mouth.

When he puts the napkin down, John’s glaring at him and the entire mess hall is silent. Rodney had thought it bad enough when he’d walked in the door with the overexcited toddler; John had bounced in and run around all the tables as if he was in some kind of garden maze until Rodney had yelled at him to ‘get back here’ before he killed himself. It had been like living behind the wrong side of the glass in a zoo and it wasn’t until he’d sat down at the usual team table with Teyla and Ronon that noise levels had started up again.

Rodney looks around the room and glares until everyone looks away and starts talking. The voices are hushed and he has no doubt as to what the topic is, but then he also knows that it’s unlikely they weren’t already talking about it anyway.

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Ronon says suddenly. “Lorne’s team will be back in a few hours. Besides, Sheppard’s been hit worse than this before.”

John,” the boy suddenly says, irritated.

“Sorry, kid,” Ronon says and he seems appeased.

But Rodney isn’t. The boy isn’t Sheppard and he really doesn’t know what to do about it.

 

* * *

 

“Have we heard anything yet?” Rodney asks, once again ignoring the wide-eyed stares of everyone around him. The boy is clutching Rodney’s right ear with one hand and the top of his t-shirt with the other and, after one poked eye and a few fingers up his nose, Rodney had figured it was less hassle just to leave the boy’s hands where they were.

Elizabeth just looks at him for a moment, then smiles and shakes her head. “Major Lorne and his team aren’t due back for another three hours, Rodney. The walk to the gate is at least four.”

“They didn’t take a jumper?” he asks incredulously.

“I felt that appearing in a spaceship would further damage relations with the Alekesh.”

“Further damage…” Rodney trails off hoping that his face finishes his sentence for him. He can’t believe that Elizabeth is actually being so cavalier about what’s happened to Sheppard and placing so much importance on a relationship with the people who did this to him. “What aren’t you telling me?” he asks suddenly.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Elizabeth might have the best poker face in Pegasus, but Rodney figured out her tell a long time ago. Well, okay, Sheppard had figured it out and told him, but the fact remains that he could see through the lie. There was something she wasn’t telling him.

“Elizabeth,” he pushes and she glances at the boy in his arms before looking at Rodney. She almost looks like she might be about to answer him when he hears the telltale noise of the Stargate coming to life.

“Incoming wormhole,” Chuck calls and Rodney has to bite his tongue to stop some sarcastic comment about stating the obvious. His attention wavers from the ‘gate room when he hears a noise coming from the child in his arms.

He looks down to see a gleeful little boy, with bright eyes, staring at the Stargate as if it were a Christmas tree. The boy’s grip on his t-shirt has it cutting into the back of Rodney’s neck as he leans forward, reaching out to touch the ‘gate even thought it’s far out of reach.

It’s been a long time since Rodney has seen someone looking at anything with that much wonder, let alone felt it himself, and he takes a moment to think about the first time he heard his grandmother fingers dancing Liszt’s Rhapsodies, the way each key had struck something that reverberated inside his chest, he thinks about the first time he realised that numbers sang to him and the world became a playground of primes, variables and universal constants. He suddenly realises that he’s jealous of Sheppard, jealous because Rodney doesn’t think he’ll ever see the world like that ever again.

He turns to Elizabeth and is completely caught off guard by the look on her face. She’s gazing at the boy with an expression that he doesn’t think he could quantify or understand no matter how long he tried. It’s true that he finds it hard to read people, finds it hard to relate and to make friends, but it’s rare that he’s ever wanted so much to read between the lines like he does right now.

He jerks out of his thoughts when the Major’s voice echoes through the ‘Gate room.

“Atlantis, we’re comin’ in hot!”

 

* * *

 

Rodney frowns again at the strange machine in the centre of the room. It’s completely inert now, although it had sputtered slightly to life when mini Sheppard had reached for it and only Ronon’s quick hands had got the boy out of the way in time. To keep him away, Elizabeth left the boy’s in Zelenka’s care (which Rodney secretly finds hilarious, because the Czech likes kids less than he does) having what’s likely to be a Grade-A tantrum.

“It doesn’t seem to be working at all, Doc,” Lorne says with a shrug. “I’ll be honest and say that Asher may have damaged it when I told him to yank it off the wall and what with the alarms and all it didn’t seem like a good time to stop and figure out if we’d broken it.”

Rodney would normally shout at him, threaten him with the million and one ways he could make the Major’s life a living hell for messing this up, but he’s already put together a picture of what happened (and at least Lorne – also Sheppard’s second in command as far as the gene goes – had had the sense not to touch the thing himself). He tries to hide the small smile, but thinks the answering twitch of Lorne’s mouth has given him away. Unfortunately, Elizabeth isn’t so amused.

“What do you mean ‘when you told him to yank it off the wall’?” she demands and Lorne fidgets a little at her tone.

“They were rather…reluctant to adhere to our request. The opportunity merely presented itself when they were called to attend their daily worship.”

“You stole it?” Elizabeth asks incredulously.

Lorne cocks his head slightly to one side and frowns. “I prefer to think of it as borrowing.”

Ronon’s eyebrows shoot up, as he gives Lorne a wide grin; Teyla frowns slightly, but Rodney can tell she’s finding it hard to find fault with the Major’s decision; and Rodney… well, he finds himself reassessing his opinion of Sheppard’s 2IC. Rodney wonders if the Air Force will give the man a medal on his recommendation.

“Your orders, Major, were to try to negotiate for the machine, not to steal it.”

“Well, it’s done now,” Rodney says, waving his hand as if it’s unimportant and, as he’d hoped, Elizabeth’s focus is back on him.

“Can you figure this out?” she asks, tightly.

“I’ll need time to study it.”

“Right, so in the meantime we need to figure out what to do about the Colonel.”

Ronon shrugs. “He seems happy enough to me.”

“Indeed, he does seem to be adjusting quite well,” Teyla says with a nod. “He has no memory of us, but he trusts who we are to him, Rodney in particular. I believe it would be best for us to accommodate for him much as we have been.”

Elizabeth frowns, but nods. “Okay, for now we’ll leave things as they are. We can meet in the morning and see if we have any idea as to how this will proceed.”

 

* * *

 

“Hey Doc, wait up.”

Rodney blinks, coming out of his thought process and lifting his gaze from the machine in his hands, as Lorne joins him and they continue walking.

“I’ve never figured out how you do that,” the man says and Rodney frowns. “You’ve been walking towards the lab, not walking into anything or anyone and you haven’t taken your eyes off that thing since you left the meeting. I’ve been trying to catch your attention since we left and you didn’t even see the transporter doors almost chop my damn hand off.”

“It’s a talent that requires more brain cells than the average military grunt possesses.” Lorne seems amused, so Rodney doesn’t think the man’s offended. “What can I do for you, Major, I’m a busy man.”

“That I know. Just thought I’d offer my services again. Babysitting,” he clarifies a moment later. “I figure half the city’s gonna offer, but I’m a bit worried that with the way the civilians are acting with John that they’ll let him get away with anything and most of the military contingent won’t be able to forget that he’s their CO.”

“And you won’t?” Rodney shakes his head and continues before the man can answer. “I hadn’t really thought about it. But, yes, that’s … yes.”

Lorne frowns at him and Rodney knows that the man can tell he’s working around to asking something. They walk in silence for a moment before Rodney stops and turns to face him, startling him slightly.

“How do you do it?” Rodney demands. “How do you…?”

Lorne winces a little. “Honestly? I’m pretending he’s the Colonel’s kid. It’s easier and I try not to think about the fact that he’s likely to remember I played cops and robbers with him for about four hours yesterday. And, hey, you’ll fix this in no time.”

“Sheppard’s son?”

“Yeah, Doc.” Lorne slaps a hand on Rodney’s shoulder. “Man with a brain your size, shouldn’t be too hard to figure that one out.” He winks and indicates the lab down the corridor with a jerk of his head. “Figure we should relieve Zalenka of the screaming.”

Rodney nods and finally lets the shrieking noise he’s been ignoring since he got off the transporter penetrate his thought process. They both wince on a particularly loud scream.

“What the…is he torturing the kid?”

 

* * *

 

When Lorne returns the boy that evening, Rodney doesn’t know what they spent the day doing, but he’s eternally grateful that the kid isn’t bouncing off the walls. It’s too early to put him to bed, but he has no idea what to do with him in the meantime.

When the boy changes into his Athosian style pyjamas and hold his hands up to be picked up, Rodney really looks at him for a moment. He has Sheppard’s eyes; they’re still bright and full of mischief, but the newly-acquired innocence he can now see no longer masks the intelligence behind them. There’s something hidden back there, though, something that Rodney’s secretly hoping is the key to turning him back into a man; memories. He’ll figure it out somehow, knows he has to, but in the meantime…

Rodney picks the boy up holding him by the arm pits and out at arms length, keeping him at eye level. He narrows his eyes, waiting a moment until the kid finally gives him a look that says, ‘What, Rodney?’ in that calm drawl he can almost hear in his head.

“Okay, so…right.” He clears his throat and the boy frowns comically. “Lorne says I should just think of you as the Colonel’s son, or relative or whatever. Somehow, I don’t think Sheppard would be stupid enough to leave me with a kid, let alone one he actually wanted to survive the encounter, but that’s beside the point. You’re not Sheppard, okay, you’re…you’re…”

John,” the boy says, eyes wide and voice vaguely patronising, but Rodney just nods.

“Yes, yes. You’re…you’re John.”

“Okay. We go pay now?”

“I told you, geniuses-”

“Don’t pay,” John finishes, rolling his eyes. “I know, Wodney.”

“Well then.” Rodney frowns and then takes a moment to think what the hell he is going to do with the kid before his own brainwave comes back to him. He smiles.

“I think it’s time I taught you how to count.”

 

* * *

 

On the third day of what Rodney now thinks of as his own personal hell, he wakes up to find he can't breathe properly due to a heavy object on his chest. He's half choking on tufts of fluffy hair and the wet patch on his left shoulder is, in fact, John-drool. Grossed out far less than he feels he should be, he simply lies still and tries to think of a point in his life when he'd ever felt more out of his depth. Apologising after blowing up the better part of a solar system, that had been hard and painful and, oh God, the look in Sheppard's eyes had damn near killed him, but this? He thinks it would be easier to define pi as a fraction than make it through this in one piece.

Dr. Meredith Rodney McKay has never been accused of being anything other than selfish and he’s never really denied that that’s exactly the way he likes things. He remembers, with a startling clarity, the look of embarrassed horror on his mother’s face the day she and his father had dragged a wide-eyed Jeannie into a room full of government officials because their son had build a (non-working!) weapon as his school science project. Until that moment, his genius had always been something to celebrate, to be proud of and revelled in – even if, in hindsight, Rodney can easily see that it was all in the name of making his parents look better in the eyes of others; their son, the genius.

From that moment on, however, it had been every McKay for him or herself. Or, perhaps, it had been him and Jeannie against their parents until that fateful moment when he’d opened his damn mouth and spouted out a whole lot of things he hasn’t been able to remember in full detail to this day. But Jeannie had been his. Had been his to cling to and to support in equal measures. And then she’d belonged to someone else, to two someone elses and Rodney had been on the outside again, because how could he compare to a vegetarian English major and a baby girl when he’d seen that look of love in Jeannie’s eyes. So he’d told her she was turning her back on her science and her potential when he was secretly screaming that she was turning her back on him and begging her not to leave him behind. It was the first time that she hadn’t understood Rodney since the day she’d been born.

He glances at the boy on his chest, trying to dislodge the lump of something caught in his throat and tells himself that the ache in his chest is the kid’s elbow. It’s easier, he figures, to pretend that it’s not Sheppard; that way he can think of it as ‘the boy’ or ‘the child’ or ‘the kid’ or just simply ‘it’, because if it’s really John Sheppard, Rodney has to care. Has to care because it’s Sheppard and because, no matter how many times he’s tried to stop himself, he cares about his team and Carson and Elizabeth in a way that he’s not cared since Jeannie had been his entire world.

He thinks back to what Lorne said to him yesterday and he knows deep down that that might be his only option, because, no matter what he’s been spouting off, he knows that the machine isn’t going to be doing a damn thing anytime soon and this child – John – is right in front of him and he has to deal with it. He tried the whole ‘ignore it and it’ll go away’ thing with Jeannie whenever she’d got particularly annoying when they were children, but that doesn’t work anymore with kids than it does with Kavanagh.

“Wodney?”

The sleepy murmur startles him slightly and, for a moment, he doesn’t know what to do with his hands when the child snuggles into his chest, as if he’s burrowing for warmth. He pulls up the sheet and, after a moment of random flailing, settles his arms around the boy’s shoulders.

“It’s okay, John, go back to sleep,” he says softly.

It feels strange, but having actually said it again, having actually acknowledged that the boy on his chest is John Sheppard, things instantly get better and worse simultaneously. Rodney’s never been one to give himself to something half heartedly, not with his work and not with his affection. It’s the main reason he gives the latter so scarcely, because with his work, he knows that 99.99% of the time he’s doing everything right and the margin for error is small enough to be negligible. With the other…well, it’s more of the reverse and Rodney’s not sure he’s built for that kind of loss.

 

* * *

 

In the first two weeks following the initial incident, Rodney approaches his 'parenting' a lot like he'd approached his lab work for his first doctorate. He spends his time recording data like how long it takes John to calm down at night, what foods send him into a hyperactive tizzy that end up with half the contingent of Atlantis watching gleefully whilst he grinds his teeth, what areas of the city are most responsive and at the same time least child proof, and so on until he has a working model of what John can and can’t do and a comparative working model of John doing whatever the hell he wants. The crossover is unsurprisingly alarming and he’s had science teams out on child-proofing missions since the day the Major walked into his lab and told him John had his own personal Scotty in Atlantis’ systems to ‘beam him up’. Even if he doesn’t actually believe Lorne’s wild story about a transporter beam, it’s still a wise plan.

He studies input and output a lot like John’s a computer system, a series of tests, a string of codes that he can crack and analyse so that he has a set pattern and a governing set of rules to explain the universe of a miniature John Sheppard. What he finds, however, at the end of all the observation and time spent turning the information into graphs and trends is that John simply will not be defined by any set parameters.

It’s unsettling to say the least, Rodney’s used to discovery and finding new ways of working, he’s used to adapting to new rules and limitations, but ‘just winging it’ was always more Sheppard’s thing and he’s having trouble adapting to that.

“Stop that!”

“No!”

“I said,” Rodney snatches the pda out of the boy’s hands. “Stop that right now!”

“No! You didn’t! You said ‘top that, you neve’ said wight now!”

“I swear to God,” Rodney throws the pda on the bed, picks up the screaming, wriggling child by the arm pits and deposits him in the corner by placing him in the metal tub he got from the Athosians for John to bathe in, knowing that the boy can’t get out on his own. “Stop that noise and…be good and I’ll let you out!”

“You can’t do dat!” John cries and Rodney blinks. That almost sounded like Sheppard, all indignation and righteousness. “Wet me out!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“No!”

John sniffs and Rodney’s eyes widen in alarm. “Please…Wodney…” he hiccoughs and Rodney sighs, preparing to relent, before he notices the gleam in the boy’s eyes.

“No, I certainly will not!”

“Fine!” John cries and disappears in a flash of blue light.

Rodney gapes at the empty tub for a few seconds. “Why you little brat!” He storms out of his room, tapping his earpiece on the way. “Major Lorne!”

Woah, what, McKay?

“Remember when I called you delusional?”

Which time?

“The little brat disappeared on me.”

He growls when Lorne chuckles. “I told ya, McKay, Altantis has a transporter beam.”

“Yes, yes, whatever. I need you to start a search, while I try to track him on the computers.”

Already on it, McKay.”

There’s a beep to signal that Lorne’s done talking to him and Rodney nods to himself, making his way quickly to the ‘gate room. He’s used to Sheppard cajoling and demanding more information, used to debating and verbal sparring, and he misses it, but he does appreciate that Major Lorne is efficient.

“Elizabeth,” he greets, stepping up to the nearest computer. He pushes Emily/Amy/Amelie/whatever-her-name-is out of the way and starts tapping away at the controls.

“Rodney,” Elizabeth greets conversationally, her tone curious and demanding at the same time.

“The little brat beamed out of our quarters.”

“Beamed?” she queries. “Like in Star Trek?”

“I knew it, you’re all secretly Trekkies,” Rodney says, blinking up at her for a moment, before getting back to the computer. “Yes, like Star Trek.”

“Wait a minute. Rodney, if he can do that, he could-”

“End up anywhere, yes, I know. Why do you think I‘ve had the science team trying to child-proof the- aha! Gotcha.” Rodney taps his earpiece, ignoring Elizabeth (he’s not stupid, he knows she’s trying to get him to talk seriously about this, but it’s one of the times he prefers to feign ignorance). “Major Lorne.”

Go ahead, Doc. You got him?”

“Yes. Outskirts of the cleared sections of the city; he’s in what we think was one of the old civilian quarters. Section 16, level three. You should pick him up with your life sensors when you get off the transporter.”

We’re on it.”

Nodding, Rodney turns to leave, but Elizabeth has blocked his path. “We need to talk about this, Rodney. You keep manoeuvring out of these conversations, but we need to talk.”

“I hardly think this is the time to-”

“Major Lorne will get him and if there are any problems I’m sure you’ll be the first to know. Now step into my office.”

His feeling of dread intensifies as he follows Elizabeth. He’s not the most sensitive of guys, but he’s far from oblivious and he knows that something has been off with her since they stepped back through the ‘gate with John Sheppard the Junior Version screaming his little head off, as Ronon held him under one arm and aimed his gun at the bad guys with the other.

“Rodney,” she begins.

“No. Just no.” He shakes his head and she frowns at him, looking stunned that he’s interrupted her already. “Look, I know what you’re going to say. Or, well, I don’t, but I’m working on this and I need time. He’s got about two hundred babysitters, he’s happy and… I can fix this.” He tries to ignore that he’s totally pleading with her, but he also doesn’t really care.

“Rodney, I can’t…” Elizabeth sighs. “Okay,” she says with a nod. “Okay, I’ll give you some time, but I need to make a report to the SGC. I can say we’re working on it in next data burst, but the Deadalus is due back in about two and a half weeks and we’ll need some answers by then, Rodney. The SGC won’t allow a toddler with all of John’s skills and experience to run around in a city he can control with his mind.”

“I understand. Three weeks. That’s plenty of time.” He forces a smile and leaves before Elizabeth can see that he’s not entirely convinced he’s telling the truth.

 

* * *

 

In the early days, Rodney had thought it wise to make sure that John had regressed completely; he hadn’t wanted to wake up one morning to find out that their resident three-year-old had set the base on self-destruct (and, yes, he knows it takes two command codes, but he also knows that Sheppard is a lot smarter than most people give him credit for and there’s no doubt in Rodney’s mind that, somehow or other, Sheppard has acquired at least one other person’s command code along the way. It isn’t like he hasn’t done the same himself). Simple tests and a few random observations from everyone from Kate Heightmeyer to Miko Kusanagi had allayed those fears and Rodney hasn’t given it much thought for a while.

But there are times when Rodney thinks that John might be more like Sheppard than they all originally deducted. It isn’t just that he never mentions his parents, never asks why he’s on Atlantis rather than Earth, why he never questions the utterly terrifying faith he has in Rodney, it’s more in the little things.

So, one morning after Rodney’s spent the whole night deciphering part of the database that might help him figure out the device and then fallen asleep perched at the top of his bed, his face gaining an imprint of his laptop keyboard, when John wakes up screaming, he feels it shouldn’t really surprise him as much as it does.

He takes a moment to react, not for lack of the ingrained jump of adrenaline mixed with self preservation that he’s been honing for the last few years, but because he’s trying to figure out what the hell it is that John’s screaming at the top of his lungs. Rodney crouches by the small bed that Lorne and Hinkleman (one of the not-quite-so-brain-dead-after-all Marines) fashioned out of a few trees from the mainland, pulling John’s clawing hands away from his little neck when he makes out the word “Bug! Bug! Bug!” on repeat and he suddenly gets it. He breaks instantly into a cold sweat and clutches John to him, pulling the boy onto his lap and trying to get the image of Sheppard, iratus bug attached to him, out of his mind.

It takes him about an hour to calm John down enough to get the boy to let go and longer to get him dressed, before Rodney drops him off exhausted at Teyla’s. He’s half way to the lab when the idea strikes and he smiles, really smiles, for the first time in three weeks, four days and sixteen hours.

 

* * *

 

“I don’t get it.”

“Of course you don’t, but don’t mistake your lack of intelligence for a bad idea,” Rodney snarls, almost startled when Lorne just rolls his eyes and lets the comment roll of his back like…like Sheppard would. Somehow that makes him resent the Major a little more.

“What are you saying, Rodney?” Elizabeth asks and he has to force himself not to notice the pinched and hollow expression he’s seen on her face a lot more often recently. He’s still a little angry at her and her deadlines and doesn’t want to admit to himself that there might be a reason for it and maybe he should figure it out.

“What I’m saying,” he continues, making sure to disguise his hope that, oh God, this might work with a put-upon expression. “Is that maybe if we keep trying to jog his memory, it’ll make things easier to reverse.”

Lorne frowns. “Like, show him places he’s been as an adult, re-train him to do certain things and it might all come back to him?”

Rodney nods. “Exactly.”

“I do not believe that we should teach a child how to use a gun, Major,” Teyla says, alarm barely masked by her calm voice.

Lorne looks horrified. “I didn’t mean weapons training!” he cries and Teyla relaxes.

“I apologise for the misunderstanding,” she says seriously and Rodney thinks that maybe he’s not the only one who’s finding it hard to see Lorne sitting in Sheppard’s place. Even the Major looks uncomfortable.

The man nods, hesitates for a moment and then scans the room before looking directly at Rodney. “Can I say somethin’, Doc?”

“Can I stop you?” Rodney accuses.

“If you want, but-”

“Oh, what is it?”

“Look, it’s not my place to pretend I’m an expert at this, but I got a big family and…look I want the Colonel back almost as much as you do,” he says and Rodney’s actually kind of grateful that he said ‘almost’ and isn’t trying to pretend that he’s lost his best friend, too. “But it just seems to me that we’re all forgetting something.”

“What are we forgetting, Major?” Teyla asks when he stops.

“We’re forgetting that, even though we know McKay’s gonna fix this, right now he’s just a little boy. Doesn’t matter that the Colonel might or might not be in there, the reality is that we’re dealing with a child and we gotta treat him like that. If we have to pretend the he’s the Colonel’s kid, or relation, or whatever so that we can deal, then so be it, but we can’t have the marines calling him ‘Sir’ and doing what he tells them, we can’t leave him on his own to run around Atlantis because he could activate anything and we wouldn’t know it, or worse, he could fall and kill himself because something isn’t safe.” Lorne sighs and glances around the room at all the personnel deemed necessary to attend. “Look, I’m just saying…we've got to remember that he's a little boy. He needs us to remember that.”

There’s a moment of silence and Elizabeth nods. “Agreed, Major. The Daedalus arrives in three days and I’d like everyone to ensure that there are no incidents until then. I’m sure we’d all like at least one visit to go smoothly.” She smiles at the knowing looks passed around the table at the knowledge that Caldwell is always arriving in the midst of some crisis or another. For Rodney it’s merely another reminder that Sheppard isn’t there to cause one.

“Whilst Colonel Caldwell is in the city, he will be in charge of the military contingent,” she continues, glancing at Lorne. “Until then and after he leaves, I’ve discussed the matter with General Landry and we agree that things are running smoothly under your command for the time being, Major, so things will remain as they are.” At his nod, she turns to the rest of the room. “I’d like Major Lorne, Doctor McKay, Doctor Beckett, Teyla and Ronon to remain, the rest of you are dismissed. Thank you for coming. Jennifer, I’m sure Drs Kusanagi and Simpson would appreciate some help with John,” she says to the young doctor, who shares a smile with her and chuckles as she leaves the room.

By the time everyone else has left, there’s a strange sense of foreboding in the air and Rodney shuffles in his seat. He exchanges a glance with Ronon and Teyla before turning back to Elizabeth.

“This isn’t easy to say, so I’m going to get straight to the point. Rodney, do you have any indication of how long it’s going to take you to sort this out?”

“Oh, yes, turn on the scientist. It’s not like I have a handbook or-”

“Rodney.”

“I…” he swallows. “No. I discovered what I think might be the control unit. It was in the lab. Sheppard turned it on about a month before we went to the planet and…I think that’s what caused the machine to work on just him and didn’t turn anyone else into children.”

Teyla sighs. “So their machine has never done this before, which would explain why the Village Elders were alarmed and did not wish our presence on their planet any longer. It would also explain why they released us, rather then keep us prisoner.”

“And it explains our even warmer welcome,” Lorne says with a frown.

“So John actually turned on the machine himself a month before he even went to the planet?” Elizabeth inquires.

“No, I think he would have turned it on anyway, I just think that he controlled the settings before he went, but I have no way of being sure.”

“And you can’t use this control unit to turn him back?”

“It’s broken,” Rodney says darkly. “It looks like someone’s been using it and I don’t know what happened, yet, but it’s in about fifty pieces and I have no idea how to put it back together. I’ll need to work out how to control it from the actual device.”

“Right,” Elizabeth lets out a long breath. “And you don’t know how long this will take.”

“No.”

She nods. “Okay. I’m not going to be able to hold off any longer, Rodney. I’m going to have to tell Stargate Command the full extent of what’s happened and there is every chance they will order that John be returned to Earth.”

“No,” Rodney says firmly. “That is not an option. He’s fine where he is.”

“Rodney-”

“No! How can you expect me to fix him if he’s not even here?”

“Rodney, you need to face facts; you might not be able to f-”

“Do not say that.”

“I believe that Rodney will succeed, Elizabeth,” Teyla interrupts and, as usual, her presence calms them all. “It is too soon to expect results. Rodney needs time.”

There’s a long moment of silence. “I’ll see what I can do,” Elizabeth says finally. “But I can’t promise you anything. In the meantime, we need to come to more arrangements regarding his care. If he’s to remain here, we’ll need to show that we can properly care for him.”

“He’s fine,” Rodney protests again.

“Rodney, I can’t have you indisposed all the time. What happens if something goes wrong in the middle of the night? I need you to be as available as you always have been. I agree that John seems to be happiest in your care, but it’s simply not possible to continue this way. Major Lorne is right, he’s a little boy and children need routines, Rodney.”

“So, what, you’re taking him away from me?”

Elizabeth shakes her head. “No, but I think it would be a good idea to share the responsibility. I think that, if she agrees, Teyla should take care of John in the evenings. Not every night, but I think it would be best for everyone involved if he’s looked after by more than one person. Especially given the nature of our work.”

Rodney gets what she’s saying, understands that it’ll be worse on John if he goes and dies on the kid, but it still feels like he’s being punished.

“Fine,” he snaps. “I’ll take him every second weekend and two weeks every holiday.”

“Rodney, that’s not what I mean. Have space set up for John in both your quarters and on the nights where you need to work late, he can stay with Teyla. If something happens in the middle of the night and we need you, Teyla can look after him and he’s going to need to be comfortable enough to stay in another room. Rodney, you know I’m right.”

And, yes, he does know she’s right. But at that moment, it doesn’t make him hate her any less.

 

* * *

 

“You are distracted.”

Rodney blinks and refocuses his attentions on Teyla, giving her an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, I…I’m sorry.”

“It is all right, Rodney,” she says, settling down on her bed.

Rodney looks around the room, takes in the changes they’ve made to accommodate for John’s presence, and tries very hard not to resent them. Teyla’s quarters always seem to calm him just as she does herself, as if he’s surrounded by her and it’s comforting in a way that he’d never really expected to find.

“You look lost,” she says, indicating that she’d like him to sit by her and he does, not sure he could ever deny her anything.

“I feel lost,” he admits, frowning. “I can fix this; I know I can fix this.”

“As do I. We all have faith that you will return John to us as he was before, but that does not mean that we should be unwilling to accept him as he is for the time we have him.” She smiles. “A child is a gift, Rodney, no matter the reason for its existence. John has been given something that many would accept with pleasure.”

“I don’t understand.”

Teyla sighs, frowning in a way that he knows well and he lets her collect her thoughts. “I have lived among your people for many years and still I cannot understand many of the restrictions you place upon yourselves and those around you. I have seen you all struggle through times of great adversity and I am proud to call you my friends and my family, but even you must see that this is a chance for John to break free of the responsibility and the pressure he has lived with for so long. We should care for him and let him enjoy this time. Perhaps, in turn, his presence will allow us to do the same.”

“But what if I break him?”

Teyla’s gentle laughter soothes him more than her words. “Rodney, you will not break him. I will be here to help you, as will many others.”

Rodney nods gratefully and swallows. He sometimes wonders if Teyla understands what she means to him, wonders if she can possibly realise that he’ll never understand how she can even like him when he so often doesn’t like himself very much.

“You are a good man, Rodney,” she says, almost reading his thoughts. “John is lucky to have you. Please, enjoy this time and believe you make things right in the end. We have faith in you.”

It’s that faith, more than anything that that makes him believe it.

 

* * *

 

“Where’s John?” Ronon asks, dropping into the chair next to him and Rodney jumps.

“How should I know?” When Ronon raises his eyebrows, Rodney huffs. “I think he’s with Lorne.”

“Just saw Lorne and the pretty doctor headed somewhere, John wasn’t with them.”

“Try Cadman,” Rodney says darkly and returns his focus to his computer.

For some reason that Rodney is unable to ascertain, John actually likes spending time with Lieutenant Cadman and it’s not because she likes to blow things up, because Elizabeth put her foot down where John and explosives were concerned and Cadman’s not stupid enough to defy her boss. Even without thing that go ‘boom’, however, John likes to talk to her, to chatter about his day and she makes him laugh with abandon and delights him with some magic that Rodney doesn’t think he’ll ever understand. She calls him ‘Johnny’, keeps him entertained and is happy to spend hours chasing him through the hallways. The fact that no one calls her on it is likely due more to the fact that they’re jealous of her freedom with him than the fact that she could probably beat them up.

“Thought I’d take John swimming off the North Peer,” Ronon continues, breaking into his (totally not jealous) thoughts and Rodney nods.

“Whatever, sure, have fun.”

Ronon rolls his eyes and stands up. He’s half way to the door when Rodney yells, “Just try not to drown him!”

McKay?”

Rodney taps his earpiece at the tentative sound of Cadman’s voice. “What?”

Eh…we might have a problem.”

“What did you do?”

I didn’t do anything! Johnny and I were playing hide and seek and…he’s hiding.”

“Hiding where?”

Well, if I knew that I wouldn’t be calling you, would I?”

“You lost him?”

No! I just…can’t find him. I thought maybe you could try to track him down? I think he’s been teleporting from place to place whenever I get warm.”

“You are the worst babysitter ever!” Rodney says, already moving to the door. “Ronon!”

Like it’s never happened to you!”

“Whatever,” he says and then proceeds to fill Ronon in on John’s status as MIA. With the search underway, Rodney heads to the labs, muttering to himself the whole way there. John might have over 200 babysitters ready to play with him, but he’s beginning to wonder if any of them are actually capable of getting through a single day without incident. Himself included.

 

* * *

 

When they finally isolate and lock off the ‘transporter beams’ John takes a full blown temper tantrum the next time Rodney places him in the bathtub and he can’t get out. He then goes into a snit that lasts a whole day and burns out what little patience Rodney actually has. Luckily (or unluckily in his estimation), the moment Rodney’s about to blow, John bursts into tears (prompting alarm more than anger), apologises and latches onto Rodney’s legs until the he says, ‘it’s okay, we’re good’ about a hundred times and the boy almost falls asleep, exhausted, on his feet.

The next morning, things are fine and Rodney chalks that one up in the win column (he keeps tally on a small hand held in his top drawer and is constantly alarmed by how few scratches there are in that particular column). He doesn’t think about it again and figures that’s the end of that and doesn’t bargain on anymore major issues.

The truth is that, transporter beams aside, Lorne’s actually given Rodney a heads up on quite a few things. It’s times like this that Rodney really wishes he’d actually been listening.

“John Sheppard, you get your naked little butt back here right now!”

“Ha! You has to catch me!”

“You’re gonna regret this when you’re big again! And I’m only going to say, ‘I told you so’! I’m telling you to get back here, right now, before the entire city sees y-” He cuts off with a growl when John’s little white bum disappears around the corner and straight into the mess hall. Its lunchtime, so by the time he’s reached the door, John’s doing tricks and dancing for a rather large and amused female crowd, whilst the horrified military contingent studiously does not watch the spectacle.

By the time Rodney’s crossed the room, Lorne’s already got the boy upside down, giggling and ready to hand over to Rodney.

“I warned ya, Doc,” he says with a smirk and Rodney ponders how easy it would be to just cut off all of the Major’s hot water.

“Yes, well, next time, be more insistent!”

 

* * *

 

To say that the personnel on Atlantis had been excessively excitable and amused by John’s current predicament wouldn’t be far from the truth, in fact in Rodney’s estimation it would be a gross understatement. So that it still hasn’t worn off to what he considers acceptable levels in the time following the event isn’t entirely a surprise to him, but it’s something he’s finally managed to ignore (if you fail to include the copious ranting and glaring he dishes out on a daily basis). So it’s safe to say that the impending arrival of the Daedalus is an event that he certainly isn’t looking forward to, because the chances are that the insurgent of new people will bring yet another bolster of energy to the already insufferable cooing and pandering that follows the three-year-old around.

So when Caldwell arrives, looking painfully horrified at the prospect of interacting with the kid-ified Colonel, it actually kind of makes Rodney’s day.

“It’s not like I’m asking you to take it with you,” Rodney says with a huff. He adds a glare for good measure and carefully masks his glee at the look on the man’s face. “Just show him around the ship, let him look at the alien in the engine room and have him back by supper time.”

“I…really don’t think that’s a good idea,” Caldwell says, eyeing the boy carefully. That John’s clasping his hands in front of him and swaying gently from side to side with a somewhat angelic look on his face doesn’t seem to be putting the man at ease, and Rodney wonders if the time they spent rehearsing said look was all in vain.

“Look, we need him out of the city for long enough to run tests on the transporters and I, for one, do not relish a week long game of find the tiny Colonel.”

“It would be a great help, Colonel Caldwell,” Elizabeth says with a smile, her hand hovering over John’s shoulder in an almost motherly fashion. Whatever she’s doing seems to batter through Caldwell’s defences and the man gives a resigned sigh and nods.

“Come on then, Sheppard.”

“John!” the boy cries, stamping his foot for effect, all faux innocence discarded.

Caldwell grimaces, says, “Okay, John,” and reaches for the boy’s hand, before he has them beamed aboard the Daedalus.

Rodney grins and then happily spends the rest of the day playing with fricking transporter beams (sometimes he really loves his life). He’s trying to visualise how much trouble John can get into on a spaceship and feels a little smug, because he doesn’t feel the slightest bit sorry for Caldwell.

 

* * *

 

“And then Lindsay thew a wench at his head!”

Rodney sprays his coffee right about the time he realises that John’s talking about a wrench and not a woman of questionable profession. And really, he knows that’s a hell of a less likely thing for the tiny scientist to have thrown at her pet Asgard (let alone where she’d have got one, but then this is Pegasus and Sheppard always was good at finding that kind of thing), but he’s been awake for going on thirty-five hours and he’s not quite up to speed.

“So you had fun, Johnny?” Lorne asks, holding up his hands in defence when the kid glares at him. So far Cadman’s the only one who’s got away with that nickname.

John eventually nods. “Linsday’s funny. She hitted he’ head and twipped ove’ and fell on some yucky stuff when she showed me the planes and she sang me to seep and den Steven showed me ‘Lantis fom ‘pace and-”

“Okay, you had fun, we get it!” Rodney yells, his head still throbbing from too much caffeine and not enough sleep. He’d bargained on having fun for a few hours, instead he ended up with three missing marines in supposedly flooded parts of the city and he’s pretty sure he actually broke physics at least once in the last twelve hours. What’s worse is that he’s not entirely convinced his day’s over yet.

When John bursts into tears he kind of wants to join in. Instead he curses and hates that he wants to kill himself for upsetting the kid, because these aren’t the messy crocodile tears that he’s got used to over the past few weeks, but the silent ‘you really upset me, you miserable excuse for a man’ kind of tears that he’s only ever felt sorry for inflicting once before. After Jeannie, he figures he should fix this now and not wait about five years.

“Come here,” he grumbles, picking John up and setting him on his lap. The boy curls into him and burrows his head into Rodney’s neck, his hands grabbing fistfuls of Rodney’s t-shirt. “I’m just tired,” he explains, not quite saying ‘sorry’.

He’s already feeling particularly wretched and doesn’t think things can get much worse. And then John mumbles, “Don’t send me ‘way ‘gain, Wodney.”

To hell with handing the boy over to Teyla; John’s not leaving his sight for at least the next three days. Possibly ever again. He figures that’ll give him enough time to get himself back together.

 

* * *

 

The room is small, out of the way and lined with what looks like pretty impenetrable materials. Rodney figures it for some kind of testing room, or at the very least a radiation room, or possibly just somewhere the Ancients worked with less than stable substances. There’s no real way to be sure as the records in the city database don’t mention it and the room was completely empty when they found it. Either way it’s perfect for working with the machine.

Rodney has the device set on a work table in the centre, hooked up to multiple laptops and surrounded by a force field he’d discovered in the settings on the control panel by the door. He knows now that it was Patel who broke the device’s control unit into a million pieces for ‘study’ and, whilst Elizabeth told him he can’t fire the man for it, he has a feeling there’s likely to be an extra scientist on the Daedalus when it leaves (Rodney’s not known for his niceties, but even he was impressed with the impact of the verbal lashing he bestowed on Patel). The control is unusable, so he’s not taking any chances with the device; he has the force field on pass lock that only he and Radek can access.

“I am sure that John could convince Atlantis to break the field if he chose to. Perhaps it would be best-”

“John’s not allowed in this room.”

“Yes,” Radek says, adjusting his glasses. “Well, John is also not allowed to start food fights in the mess, change passwords on lab’s computers, turn on Ancient machines, run naked through hallway, or take tantrum in the ‘gate room, but this does not make a difference.”

Rodney glares at him. “He won’t come into this room.”

“How did you convince him?” Radek asks, frowning.

“I informed him that we would fix the transporter beam when he got older and I’d take him on a Ferris Wheel next time we got back to Earth.”

“Ah, you bribe.”

“It was not a bribe,” Rodney protests. “It was a…deal. We made a bargain.” Radek nods, but it’s clear that he’s not buying it. “Just because I had to specify that we’d turn the beam back on his fifth birthday doesn’t mean he’s likely to remember!”

Radek just nods again.

“Okay, so the kid has memory like an elephant, but that’s two years away and I’ll have him fixed by then.” He studiously does not mention that he’s very likely to find himself on a Ferris Wheel when they end up back on Earth.

Radek smiles reassuringly. “Of course you will.” Rodney nods, feeling somewhat rejuvenated by the confidence and turns back to his laptop.

They work in relative silence for what seems like minutes, but is actually hours. The hallway outside is filled with the strange sounds of Atlantis’ lower levels, almost like the noises an old house makes in the dead of night. Rodney finds it strangely cathartic and is in his element, finally feeling as if the coding he’s working with might just be starting to mean something to him after all.

It’s at that point, of course, that everything goes to hell.

 

* * *

 

The alarm siren is still going strong when he reaches the right access door in the stairwell. All the transporters have mysteriously shut down and no one seems to be able to find the off switch for the noise that’s battering into his skull.

Rodney’s pretty sure he’s about to keel over by the time he reaches the end of the corridor and he notices three very important things all at once (he is a genius after all); one – the sound of the alarm stops just outside the room; two – there are four people standing inside said room doing absolutely nothing; and three – Colonel John Sheppard, USAF, will in fact be the death of him.

“John Sheppard you make that stop right now!” Rodney yells, entering the room at high speed.

His heart’s beating out of his chest and he’s frantically trying to figure out if the brain damage will make any difference if he just hauls John out of the control chair. The boy’s giggling and bouncing in the revolving seat as if he’s on a carnival ride and, if Atlantis weren’t currently headed for outer space, even Rodney might admit that it’s nice to see Sheppard so relaxed, even if he is three years old.

“I mean it, young man, stop it now!

“Wodney,” his voice is both gleeful and awed at the same time. “I can see evwything.”

In answer to John’s unspoken command the room fills with stars. There’s a gasp and Rodney’s not entirely sure it wasn’t him. He’s standing in outer space. He can reach out and touch the stars if he wants to. And he really wants to.

There’s something that most people don’t understand about Rodney McKay. They know he’s a genius, some even understand that maths and physics play in his mind in a symphony of numbers and equations, but if it was just about the numbers, was just about the pure physics, Rodney would have gone into pure research, or focussed solely on the theoretical. He would have chosen to immerse himself in the numbers and theories and left the physical exploring to others. He chose Astrophysics because he wanted to touch the stars.

He shakes his head and tunes back in to the yelling in his ear. Lorne has the military ready to act at a minutes notice, Radek is trying to disable the chair from the ‘gate room and Elizabeth is, well, freaking out to put it mildly (and, God, he knows he’s going to have to fight to keep John after this).

“John!” he yells, trying to fight his way through a solar system and the supernova to his left. He tries to focus, tries to think what way is up, down, left, right and just generally figure out where the hell the chair is before he gives in to the ache in his chest and just watches, just breathes it all in.

“John!” he tries again, swallowing when he puts his hand through the visible shockwave heading towards him.

“Wodney, dis is cool,” a small voice whispers and he spins slightly to his left and takes a deep breath before just walking through the supernova and right into the command chair.

“John, stop this.” His voice is rough and slightly hollow, because part of him doesn’t want the wonder around him to go away.

As if sensing this, John replies, “Okay,” and, rather than just making it all disappear, lets Rodney watch it fade slowly away.

It takes him a moment to realise that it’s all gone and the three scientists and the marine still standing in the room look slightly shell shocked. He feels that way himself.

Rodney!”

He jumps at Elizabeth’s voice, decides to ignore her a little longer, and turns back to John. The boy’s still rotating in the chair, his arms stretched to the max in order to reach both arm rests. He’s just barely reaching them, though, and Rodney’s pretty sure that Atlantis would give him control even if he wasn’t touching them at all.

“I need you to land the city, John,” he says, struggling against the contrasting urges to either let John play and see what he can get the city to do and just plain strangle John for scaring the hell out of him. There's also the fading ache in his chest that says he's not sure he wouldn’t rather let the boy bring back the stars.

“I’m sowy, Wodney…” John says meekly, looking up at him. His lower lip trembles and his eyes start to fill with tears, but Rodney can tell from the sounds around him, the change in the city’s motion, and the fact that Elizabeth is no longer shouting in his ear that the city is returning to the surface.

After what seems like forever, the chair blinks off and returns to a seated position. Rodney opens his mouth to yell, or scream, or…something, but John curls into a ball and bursts into tears and he finds he just doesn’t have the heart to make it worse.

 

* * *

 

“Did you get anything out of him?”

Rodney blinks and looks up at the doorway to see Lorne watching him. He shakes his head and gently disentangles himself from the sleeping child in his lap, settling John into the bed before crossing the room.

“Did Elizabeth send you?” he asks, ignoring the man’s question, and Lorne nods.

“Yeah, yeah, she did.” Lorne’s voice is tight enough that Rodney frowns, but the man won’t look him in the eyes. “I’ll watch him, Doc.”

“Yes. Yes, of course.”

It seems to take a long time to reach the ‘gate room and he feels the eyes of everyone he passes following him. He feels like he’s walking to his execution, because he can’t think of a single thing to say to Elizabeth.

“Rodney, come in.”

He shakes his head, realising he’s been standing in her doorway for a while now. Sticking his chin out, prepared for a fight, he walks up to her desk and doesn’t say a word. He can see from her face that she’s expecting a fight, is expecting him to bluster his way through this argument so that she can fire down every reason he can come up with. So he doesn’t.

“Please sit down.”

“I’d rather stand.”

She lets out a defeated breath and sits back in her chair. “Rodney, I’m sorry.”

“Are you?”

“Of course I am.”

“It’s Sheppard, Elizabeth. I won’t give up on him.”

“I’m not asking you to, Rodney, but we can’t go on like this. We simply do not have the capability to care for a child, let alone one who can take us into orbit.”

“He needs to be here, Elizabeth. We need to-”

“I’m sending him home tomorrow.”

“He is home!” Rodney yells, wondering why she can’t see that, wondering why he even has to explain it and suddenly he’s fuelled with more anger than he knew he possessed. “Atlantis is his home!”

“Atlantis is no place for a child, Rodney!”

“It’s Sheppard!” he yells, knowing that the entire ‘gate room is hanging on their every word and not actually giving a crap. Screw the IOA, screw the SGC and screw the entire damn galaxy, because Rodney will be damned before he hands over the only person in the whole universe who’s ever cared about him that wasn’t obliged to. He’s not giving up on Sheppard yet and he’s not letting the boy out of his sight until he’s whole again. Possibly not ever.

“Rodney-”

“No. If you send him away… If you send him away, you lose me, too. Because I won’t be coming back either.”

Rodney’s not sure who’s more shocked by his statement, but he knows he means it. They stand staring at each other in silence for a while, before he turns, hearing someone in the doorway. Lorne’s presence somehow makes things even tenser and Rodney can’t help but feel that he’s missed something, because the look Elizabeth and Lorne are sharing speaks of more than just his ultimatum.

“I guess I’ll go pack,” he says softly, clearing his throat. He’s at the door brushing past Lorne before he hears Elizabeth speaking.

“Wait. Just… wait. Okay.”

He turns and tries not to react to the look on Elizabeth’s face, because he has the feeling he’s missed a lot, but he’s too angry with her to ask. “Okay?”

Elizabeth nods. “Okay. But there have to be rules, Rodney. Things can’t continue like this.”

“Okay.” Rodney clears his throat. “I’ll just…” he looks at Lorne and frowns. “Where’s John?”

“He’s with Jennifer in the infirmary.”

“Right,” Rodney said, clearing his throat again. “I’ll just…go get him.”

He’s out the door before he remembers to ask who the hell Jennifer is.

 

* * *

 

This are left unbalanced for what fees like a disproportionate amount of time to Rodney. He can’t think of when he’s been so at odds with Elizabeth before and they’re both feeling the lack of Sheppard to take a side. He almost expects things to feel out of synch and tense for months, years even, long after they finally get the Colonel back. But things shift subtly and gently into a state of equilibrium and, if it wasn’t for the strange tension between Elizabeth and Major Lorne, Rodney’s sure things would feel pretty normal. Well, comparatively speaking.

 

* * *

 

“McKay?”

Rodney looks up and blinks at Ronon. He’s not sure how long he’s been sitting there, staring at his cooling coffee, but the light outside is dimming and he’s pretty sure there were actually other people in the room last time he checked.

“You okay?” Ronon slips into the seat opposite him, slouching down into it with a natural grace that Rodney’s always envied in the younger man. His brow is furrowed and Rodney tries to think back and remember if Ronon’s ever asked him that before. He knows that Ronon does, for some reason, consider him a friend, but they don’t really talk. That’s always more Teyla’s thing and, really, how the woman ever manages to get anything out of the three of them is still a mystery.

“I’m…no.”

Ronon smirks a little and shakes his head. “Weird, huh?”

“Weird doesn’t even come close.”

“Yeah, but this is Atlantis, things are always weird.” Ronon shrugs. “You’ll work it out.” Rodney nods, somehow needing to hear it often, just so he can believe it himself. He’s beginning to wonder if Ronon and Teyla are the only people who do believe he can fix it. “You speak to Elizabeth today?”

Rodney shakes his head. “No. Things are still…”

“Yeah, I think she and Lorne had another blow out.”

“Another?”

“Yeah. No one seems to know what happened.”

Rodney shifts, almost feeling guilty for not knowing anything. “Elizabeth wouldn’t talk to me about it.”

“Yeah,” Ronon says and they leave it at that.

Rodney’s never really been one for silence, but somehow he feels content to just sit for a while.

 

* * *

 

The truth is, sometimes Rodney thinks Atlantis might be laughing at him. It’s not that he can hear her, exactly, only that sometimes he thinks he can.

“What do you mean you lost him?”

“He was not there when I turn around?” Miko says, somehow making it sound like a question. “There was blue light. I think he teleported again.”

“I’m going to strangle that kid,” Rodney mutters, not even bothering to question that John’s somehow hacked through the security on the transporter. He heads to the nearest wall panel, pulling up the tracking program he installed and growling when he realises that John is near botany. No doubt stalking Doctor Parish, whom he had taken in instant liking to; he still thinks it’s funny to tell Rodney he wants to be a botanist when he grows up.

By the time Rodney reaches the lower level labs, he’s growing anxious, because things have been quiet since they had ‘the chat’, where Rodney explained that John had to behave and John said ‘no’ (repeatedly) and Rodney said ‘yes’ (repeatedly), until it degenerated into him telling John that gremlins would eat him if the boy didn’t do everything he said. He’s fairly sure that his talk was followed by Lorne and John having a fairly more effective discussion, but he doesn’t care that much, because it seems to have done the trick.

However, Rodney’s really not fooled. He’s also fairly sure that the strange chuckling sound in the background is coming from the walls.

“What did you do with it?” Rodney demands when Parish happens to walk out of the door in front of him.

They’re standing in a wide, open area that stretches up a few levels and looks out into the open sea and all the labs on this level are wide and spacious. Botany had claimed them the second they got there and, if it hadn’t been for the distance from everything even remotely useful, Rodney totally would have pulled rank. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t still a little bitter.

“I…what?”

Rodney huffs and rolls his eyes. “Where is-”

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

It takes Rodney about three seconds to locate the noise, about four seconds to realise that the object falling to the ground at rather an alarming rate is, in fact, the child he’s looking for and another two seconds for him to start panicking. By this point, however, the whole thing is moot, because the kid has already bounced onto his feet from the solid metal floor and is gleefully clapping his hands.

“Shoot me, Wodney!”

Rodney just stares at him for a moment, trying to dislodge his heart from his throat and remind himself how to breathe. It’s not until Parish thumps him on the back that he takes a deep, gasping breath.

John frowns. “Wodney? You okay?”

“Am I okay?” he says slowly.

“What’s wong?”

“Wh-what’s wrong? What’s wrong?”

John’s eyes widen. “Uh oh.” He shifts in his feet and tries to smile innocently. “Sowwy?”

“Sorry does not even come close to covering this one, John Sheppard.”

“I gots a shield.” He tries, almost placating, and points to the glowing green brooch on his t-shirt.

“You’re going to need it.”

 

* * *

 

“Rodney, do I want to know why John is currently cowering in my office?” Elizabeth’s voice filters through his comm.

Rodney taps his earpiece. “He listens to you.”

“I…okay. Do I want to know why he looks like he’s about to cry?”

“Until he can learn to not be stupid, I don’t care.”

“That…really doesn’t answer my question.” She sighs and he swears he can almost hear her thinking, but he’s too busy trying to convince himself that he really doesn’t care that John’s upset. He’s the one that almost had a heart attack.

“If he’s in your way, send him to Lorne.”

“He’s not in my way, I just…have work to do.”

There’s something in her voice that has him wondering, yet again, what it is that he’s missing, but she signs off before he can even think about whether or not he wants to ask her about it. They’re not really friends, as such, and since they argued over sending John home, all he’s seen is her closing herself off even more. He wonders if she even speaks to Teyla anymore.

Rodney works through the rest of the day, trying in vain to get rid of the image of John launching himself off a three story balcony. It’s not that, theoretically, he knows that John wasn’t going to get hurt with the shield on, it’s not even that he didn’t do a very similar thing himself a few years earlier, it’s that John is three years old, totally in Rodney’s care and making it really hard for Rodney to make sure he doesn’t get broken. That and the fact that the kid had not only refrained from telling Rodney he had found the device, but had decided to play ‘experiment with the ancient shield’ before Rodney had even managed to check that it worked properly.

“McKay, you got a few minutes?”

Rodney blinks, realising he hasn’t been interrupted in hours (a benefit of working in his quarters), and looks up to see Lorne standing in his doorway holding a sleeping John. He nods and watches as Lorne puts John down for the night, almost envying the ease with which the Major interacts with the boy.

There are a few moments of awkward silence as Lorne makes his way to the doorway and Rodney stands up, somehow needing to glance over to the other side of the room and make sure John hasn’t vanished in the three seconds since he was put to bed.

“So, hey, listen, Doc,” Lorne says, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand and clearing his throat. They’ve only ever had one conversation that started this way before and Rodney didn’t listen that time. Having now chased a naked three-year-old around the city one time to many, he’s willing to make the effort.

“What,” he barks (he might make the effort to listen, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be polite).

“You know how we were all relieved that John wasn’t asking about his parents?”

“Ye…” Rodney trails off, swallows and sits on the stool behind him. “He asked you?” He hopes that Lorne can’t read that what he’s really asking is ‘Why didn’t he ask me?’

“He did.” Lorne sighs and leans against Rodney’s desk. “He took it well, thinks his dad just went away again and took his mom with him this time. I figure his dad might be military, either way I guess he's not home much. I just thought you should know. Look, he didn’t say anything to you because he was worried you’d send him back to them.”

“What? Why would I do that?”

“He’s a kid, McKay,” Lorne says, as if that answers everything. Rodney wonders if it actually does and he’s just unable to translate.

“Okay, so…what did you tell him?”

Lorne smiles and heads to the door. “Told him he was stuck with you. You’ll have to tough it out now, McKay, I’ve never lied to my CO and I’m not about to start now.”

Rodney glares, but he can’t deny that he’s not exactly upset with the way the other man handled things. He’d likely have made a mess of it himself, so maybe it is better that John asked Lorne.

“Rodney.”

He taps his earpiece and holds back a sigh. “Yes?”

“I’d like to see you in my office.”

“Right now? I’m a little busy, Elizabeth.”

“Now, please, Rodney.”

The connection’s gone before he can argue any further and he tries to dislodge the feeling of dread that’s settling in his chest at her tone of voice. He looks up at Lorne who nods.

“I got ‘im,” the man says, coming further into the room and Rodney makes his way through the quieting hallways.

He wasn’t sure what he was expecting when he reached Elizabeth’s office, but somehow it’s much worse than he thought.

“SG1? Why? What do they want?” Rodney demands.

“They’re coming to use the Ancient database, Rodney. Be nice,” she warns.

He suddenly has a sinking, gaping hole where his heart was, because he has a bad feeling that this is going to end up with John being taken away from him, passed on to some foster family who know nothing of who the boy is or why the hell he’s the most important kid in the galaxy. He feels terror gripping him at the thought that they might actually try to sneak him out in the middle of the night, take him away where Rodney can’t find him and try to rear him up like the good little boy they want Sheppard to be; following orders and dotting and crossing all the right letters.

“I…no!”

“Rodney, this really isn’t up for discussion.”

 

* * *

SG1 arrive with less fanfare than Rodney might have thought. It doesn’t take Jackson long to get lost in the database and he’s happily followed by their newest alien team member. Teal’c takes to the gym with Ronon and, much to Rodney’s dismay, Mitchell barely manages to smile at John before they’re best buddies. He tries really hard not to notice, but it doesn’t work much. He thinks there has to be something wrong with the universe that he can be replaced with something as simple as a toy aeroplane and the words, ‘hey there, little buddy’.

He takes to the lab and holes himself up with the machine, working relentlessly, almost hoping that he can get the thing to work right now so that he can dislodge his best friend from Colonel Mitchell’s sticky paws. It doesn’t take Carter long to find him, ensconced in the lab with the machine. He’s grateful that she doesn’t speak, merely slips into the room and starts to make herself useful, poring over his notes, starting to make adjustments and logging her own thoughts.

He wonders how it is that he’s somehow getting on with her better than he ever has and all he can think of is that he doesn’t have Sheppard. If that’s the trade he has to make, he’d rather Carter hated his guts.

 

* * *

 

“You should take him to Earth,” Carter says, smiling as she watches Mitchell and John playing catch with the ball and mitt the man had brought from Earth.

“No. He belongs here.”

“Of course he does,” Sam says, looking at him curiously, as if wondering where the statement had come from. When he frowns at her, she sighs and places a hand briefly on his arm. “If you’re worried about the IOA or General Landry, don’t be. General O’Neill is dealing with them and if it makes you feel any better we’re all on your side. John belongs here. But Rodney, even kids need a vacation and, don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you could do with a break yourself.”

“I’ll think about it,” he says, pleased when she simply nods, because how can he explain that he’s not as confident as she is. He thinks that she sometimes forgets that no one at the SGC (including her) really likes him very much (Landry might never have sent him to an icy hell on the opposite side of the planet, but Rodney likes him a hell of a lot less than he ever did Hammond), because she seems so sure that John not coming back with him isn’t even an option. He only wishes he was so sure himself.

SG1 outstay their welcome by precisely 12 days (he started counting the moment they got there), but at least he’s managed to make a bit of headway on the device and even he’ll admit that Carter’s insights were useful. He’s feeling so cheerful about his progress, in fact, that he agrees on a visit to Earth in front of Elizabeth and not even his protests that he can’t be held to things he doesn’t remember agreeing to will get him out of this one.

 

* * *

 

Taking John 'home' (and Rodney really doesn't actually believe that Earth is truly home for any of the long term expedition members any more) seems, in essence, like it should be a fairly easy task. When he ignores the flutters of panic that are screaming 'Oh God, what if they try to keep him?' on repeat inside his head he can actually view it as more of a well needed break. He’s never previously believed in the phrase, not given what he deals with on a daily basis and how easily he's heard the term thrown about, but then he hadn’t previously had a hyperactive three-year-old to contend with on top of it all. So when Jeannie invites him home for Madison's birthday, he surprises them both by accepting.

John's been running around like mad since he heard about the visit, all excitement and chattering enthusiasm for a holiday, that it makes Rodney wonder if Sheppard had ever had one as a boy. He'd certainly never enjoyed his own childhood holidays (being dragged along to dull theatre performances and art galleries and, oh god, ballet), but he'd always believed he was in the minority, being one of the only two kids in the world who had to deal with Juliet McKay's love of all things dull and her unwavering belief that children should always defer to their parent's likes and dislikes. Sure, he'd initially been given free reign with his genius, but a visit from the government about letting a child build destructive weaponry, no matter whether the thing's active or not, tends to change a parent's perspective.

So Rodney lets the boy run around bugging everyone, with so much bounce in his movements that he's pretty sure most of the city end up sea sick just watching him, and silently thanks John for wearing himself out so much that he promptly falls asleep the second his head hits the pillow every night. He gladly uses the threat of cancelling said visit as a means of bribing the kid into doing things his way for about three weeks and, though Teyla glares at him for it, doesn't think John even minds that much. In fact, he's beginning to look forward to it himself.

Which is precisely why, he's sure, that the city waits until the day before they're scheduled to leave before it decides to break.

"No, no, no, no, no!"

"I do not know what you expect me to do!" Radek cries, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "This is very precise procedure and I cannot speed up just because you wish!"

"Stop being incompetent! I don't expect you to speed up, I expect you to delegate," Rodney growls, turning on Kusanagi who's just entered the room and looks a lot like she wishes she could run back out the door again. "You! You're supposedly the expert at this. You have small hands, you fix it. And you," he continues, swinging back to Radek. "The power fluctuations in the botany labs are not going to fix themselves."

Radek glares and grinds his teeth in a way that Rodney knows means 'I hate you for being such an asshole, but I hate you even more because you're right and I have nothing I can say to shut you up'. He actually really likes that he can do that to Zalenka, because, although he'll give himself a voluntary aneurism before he admits it, Radek's actually kind of a genius himself, so Rodney appreciates it all the more knowing that he's smarter than the man.

"Do you not have holiday to go away on," Radek says instead, stressing the word 'away'.

"Yes, and I'll enjoy it all the more knowing there'll be a city to come back to. Go. Fix."

Radek curses at him in Czech under his breath (really, like Rodney hadn't made sure to learn all those words about a week after they started working together) and storms out of the room. It baffles him that he finds he likes the man, but he rarely stops to think about it, because really all that's important is that Radek can do his own job and enough of Rodney's to make sure that the city won't sink whilst Rodney's on Earth for a few weeks.

They work through the night and into the next morning, fixing each small problem as it arises and trying to track them all back to the common source. Rodney's sure they have to have a common source, because even though the city is ancient as well as Ancient, it never falls apart in small fractures without a common starting place.

He's almost there, can almost see the scatter pattern of the problems tracing back to their cause-

"Wodney!"

He jumps and growls when the answer slips by him. He turns around but can't see the little bugger anywhere.

"What?" he asks aloud, hoping he can tempt the kid into the open so that he can strangle him for once more interrupting Rodney’s genius.

"Time to go, Wodney."

He frowns when the child doesn't materialise and taps his earpiece. "Did you steal someone's radio?" he asks, appalled when he realises that his hands are on his hips. He removes them immediately and considers a straight jacket to forestall any and all thoughts of a repeat performance.

"Nope. 'Lantis let me talk to you."

Rodney blinks as he realises that John's voice isn't coming through his earpiece, but is echoing through the room on loudspeaker. "You hacked into Atlantis' mainframe?" He's not sure if he's appalled or impressed. He's actually leaning towards the latter and if the kid did it all with his brain? The thought almost makes him drool, even as he starts running through the multitudes of tests and-

"Wodney! Time to go! You said we get to fwy on a plane!"

"Yes, because that is the sole purpose of this visit."

"Wodney! Now!"

He's about to answer when Elizabeth's voice cuts into his earpiece. "Rodney, I thought you turned off the transporter beam."

"What?" he asks, still distracted by thoughts of experimenting on John's link with the city. "I did."

"Really? Because I'd like you to explain that to the child that just appeared in the 'gate room with his luggage."

Elizabeth's almost-pleasant tone isn't fooling him. She's a bit pissed. Rodney, however, is wondering if Sheppard had always had a slutty relationship with Atlantis that he forgot to mention, because John's got the run of the place, it seems, and Rodney's not sure if he's more jealous that Atlantis never looked twice at him (the story of his life) or more filled with glee at the prospect of testing the boundaries of said relationship. He wonders if John can make Atlantis do anything. Without using the chair.

"Rodney?"

"I just need to-"

"Rodney, are you-"

"Wait!" Suddenly the answer is there and he turns back to his laptop, all thoughts of holidays and transporter beams flying out of his mind. "I've got it! Give me ten minutes."

 

* * *

 

An hour and a half later, Rodney's running back to his quarters to collect his suitcase, when he's cornered by...well, someone he feels he should probably know by name at this stage, but actually doesn't.

"John's in your rooms with Teyla. I don't think he's too happy with you," she says, a melodic tone to her voice and her eyebrows raised.

"I was busy!" he retorts indignantly.

"And we're all grateful, but the Colonel isn't feeling too gracious about it right now. I just thought you should know there might be a temper tantrum. Teyla brought him by the infirmary and Carson checked him out, so you're both good to go. Have a nice trip, Doctor McKay," she says with a smile and walks away. Naturally, that's when he places her as one of Carson's doctors, usually working night shifts in the infirmary. According to John, she’s dating Lorne. He still has no idea what her name is, though, and doesn't give it another thought.

By the time he's reached his room, he can already hear John's full blown histrionics and by the time the door opens to give him a visual, he's actually amazed by the volume the kid's capable of. The screaming is accompanied by stomping feet, clenched hands, frustrated and angry tears and Rodney's mesmerised by it all. He spies Teyla in the corner of the room looking horrified and like she'd prefer to stick her hands in her ears and curl up in a corner rather than deal with this. To his knowledge Athosian kids don't do tantrums with quite the same gusto as Earth kids.

The noise is starting to get on his nerves and John looks like he's far from ready to run out of steam. Rodney lets out a breath and enters the room, letting the door shut silently behind him. He parks himself in John's path, waits until the boy walks into his legs and falls over.

"John Sheppard, you stop that right now!"

The noise stops instantly and John peers up at him through wet lashes, his lower lip quivering. Rodney's horrified to discover that, once again, he's reminding himself of his mother.

"Thank you," Teyla says, throwing her arms around him and hugging him so tightly he's likely to bruise. She takes a step back and looks at him a little wildly. "Thank you," she reiterates. She eyes John warily. "I will say my goodbyes in the control tower," she finishes and hurries out of the room.

He thinks it's quite funny that Teyla, who can kick his ass in three seconds flat, is terrified of a screaming child. But he's not brave enough to say so or she might do just that.

He turns to look down at John again. "Stop crying," he continues, voice slightly softer than before, but still firm. "We'll leave when I'm ready."

"But I'm weady," John accuses with a hiccough. "I waited and you was late."

"Yes, because I was busy," Rodney huffs, turning to open his half-packed bag.

"You fixed 'Lantis?" John sniffs and, yuck, wipes his nose on his sleeve.

"Of course I did."

John nods. "She gots a cold."

"Yes, yes, she had a virus." Rodney continues to pack for another second before swinging around to look at the boy. "You knew that?" he asks, half amazed / half annoyed. "You knew what was wrong with her?"

John nods again. "I twied to tell you yes'day mo'ning, Wodney," he continues, his voice rolling over the words in a way that is just painfully Sheppard. "You wouldn't listen."

"I...well...you should have made me!"

"How was I 'posed to do dat?"

"I...try harder next time!"

John just rolls his eyes and Rodney turns back to his case. As much as he's happy to see snatches of Sheppard in the boy he tries to think of as (God help them all) Sheppard's son, it's still creepy as all hell.

“Wodney.”

“What?” he asks, absentmindedly, making sure that he has everything packed.

“Will Jeannie like me?”

Rodney rolls his eyes. “Don’t be stupid, of course she will.”

“Okay.”

Rodney moves into the bathroom, glancing around to make sure that he hasn’t left anything there either. When he turns to leave, he almost trips over John.

“Wodney.”

“What?” he barks.

“Can Atlantis come wif us?”

“What? No!”

“Why not? She can fly.”

“Yes, I’m well aware of that,” he says, narrowing his eyes to make it clear that John had better not try that again. He’s turned his attentions to the jumpers recently, but Rodney had pretty much had an apoplectic fit when they’d finally recovered him and his wayward jumper from the mainland and he hasn’t tried it again. Yet.

“So why can’t she come?”

“Because it’s too far away and we don’t have enough power.”

John opens his mouth to say something, but frowns and remains silent. Rodney almost wants to make him say whatever it was, but he doesn’t get the opportunity because John grabs his hand and says, “Come on, Wodney. Time to go!” and lets John drag him along.

 

* * *

 

SG1 meet them at the bottom of the ramp and Rodney’s not sure he cares for the gleeful reception John gives them. It lasts about five seconds, however, and finishes with John screaming and wriggling out of Mitchell’s arms when the Stargate shuts down.

“Wodney!” he screams, eyes filling with tears. Rodney’s just as baffled as the rest of the ‘gate room. He’s about to make a grab for the boy when John cries, "'s not wo'king!" his eyes wide with horror and then promptly runs into the door.

"Oh, wonderful,” he says with a sigh. “The three-year-old is trying to run the earth with his brain."

John whimpers and clutches at his head until Sam picks him up, shushing him in a way that Rodney knows he isn’t capable of. He’s kind of glad she’s there, really, because he’s too busy trying to deal with the realisation that John feels cut off from Atlantis. He wonders if this is just something he’s had to contend with now that he’s young and seems to have the run of Atlantis more than he ever did before, or if it’s always like this and he just never said.

When the doors slide open and General O’Neill enters, Rodney’s pretty sure he gets his answer. The man looks at John as if he knows exactly what the boy’s going through and plucks the child out of Carter’s arms. He says something that has John nodding and sniffing as he wipes his eyes and a moment later John’s giggling and saluting the General with a cheerful grin and if there’s a certain look in the man’s eyes, even Rodney pretends not to notice.

“Jack,” John says, his voice carrying through the room. “Has you flewd a jumper?”

Rodney charges forward before the man can answer, because he maybe, sort of, kind of left that one out of the report and the last thing he needs is John signing his own orders to stay on the planet. God forbid he ever mentions flying the city.

“We don’t have time for chit chat,” he says, not quite daring to pull John out of the General’s arms. There’s a smirk on the man’s face that tells him O’Neill’s not quite as stupid as he pretends to be and that John’s question has informed him of more than Rodney would like.

Somehow, despite all the stares and the cooing and the fact that John can’t quite get over the fact that he can’t control the world with his tiny little brain, they make it out of the mountain. He isn’t quite fast enough to make up an excuse when Mitchell offers them a ride to the airport, so it’s with some great reluctance that Rodney finds himself in the passenger seat of the man’s shiny new car.

“So, little man, you got plans for your holiday?” Mitchell drawls and John’s enthusiastic response makes Rodney hate the man even more. By the time John’s finished his list, Rodney’s pretty sure he’s going to be sorely disappointed, because they’d need to spend a few months on Earth to get through that list.

“So, you happy to be here?”

John shakes his head. "I don't like it"

"Don't like what, what's not to like?"

"I can't hear 'Lantis singing."

Cam winces. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll bet that’s not so good. But, hey, you got Rodney and you’re gonna meet his sister and her family, you’ll have a ball and before you know it you’ll be back home listening to that music.”

“Is it a football?” John asks and it takes both Cam and Rodney a minute to figure out what the hell the boy’s talking about. They both laugh, but there’s an unspoken agreement that they’ll forget they were ever on the same page.

 

* * *

 

When Jeannie Miller first met Sheppard, Rodney had felt an irrepressible surge of jealousy that she might steal his only friend. When he introduces her to the miniature version, Rodney’s no less jealous and even more suspicious, because his sister looks like she’s trying to figure out if she’d get away with stuffing John in her purse and keeping him in Canada with her. He wonders if maybe he can get a t-shirt with the words ‘property of Rodney McKay’ on them and whether or not he could get the kid to wear it. Although, knowing Jeannie, who never had much respect for his things anyway, it likely wouldn’t make any difference.

Rodney’s tired by the time they reach Jeannie’s home, tired and worn out and stretched to unbearable limits, because if it isn’t bad enough that he spent thirty minutes frantically searching the airport only to find John about to sign over his soul to a Scottish harpy, it’s worse that he knows John’s more upset than he’s letting on because he can’t hear his home.

It had taken Rodney longer than it really should have to realise that John’s channelling Atlantis in the way that grown-up Sheppard never could, or maybe just never did. He’s not sure why the sudden change, although he heard Kate and Elizabeth discussing the willingness of a child’s mind, and he’s not sure he really cares in the general sense. The thing Rodney cares about is that it’s suddenly so much harder to find John. Not to mention all the weird and wonderful devices that continue to appear from nowhere almost begging the child to play with them. It took a ten minute lecture that almost reduced the boy to tears before Rodney was able to get it through to him that he was worried for John’s safety. That, yeah, he could blow them all up if he hits the wrong thing! Earth, he supposes should be safer, should have less temptation and less danger lurking around every corner.

The one thing John Sheppard has taught him, however, is that he can in fact be wrong.

“Your house is a death trap!” he screeches, clutching at John and tilting his body slightly to keep the boy out of his sister’s grabby hands.

“For God’s sake, Mer, you’re over-reacting!”

“Over-reacting? He fell through a table!” He turns and sets John on the nearest surface, inspecting the crying child and trying to figure out where the blood is coming from. “We need to call 911, now!”

“Meredith, calm down!” Jeannie pushes past him and, with the years of experience caring for Madison has brought her, quickly finds the small gash on the edge of his hair line. She shushes the boy, cleaning his small wound carefully and Rodney watches, still frozen with fear, as the child calms by degrees until he’s sniffling and wrinkling up his nose at the Barbie plaster that his sister is attaching to his head.

“It’s only ‘cause I’m little. I wouldn’t cwy if I was big, I wouldn’t.”

Jeannie looks at him and nods, knowing just how true his words are. “I know you wouldn’t, little guy.” She brushes his hair back and smiles at him. “There, all done,” she says and turns to look at Rodney with more patience and understanding than he’s expecting, given that he’d been yelling at her only moments ago.

“I…thank you,” he mumbles, picking up John and only feeling his heartbeat settle when the boy snuffles and nuzzles his head into the corner of Rodney’s neck.

“Don’t worry about it. You should have see Kaleb when Madison fell off the jungle gym a few years ago. He almost fainted.”

“Well,” Rodney sniffs. “He’s an English teacher.”

Jeannie rolls her eyes. “Yes, Mer, that’s the reason.”

John spends the rest of the day feeling inordinately sorry for himself and Rodney’s still edgy enough to indulge him, making sure the boy’s comfy and happy and not letting himself think about the fact that it’s John Sheppard who’s making himself at home on Rodney’s lap. Because Sheppard is his best friend and that just brings a whole new level of weird that he’s so not touching.

Surprisingly, though, despite John’s need to stay close, it doesn’t take much for Kaleb to entice John and Madison out of the house with the promise of popcorn and a dark cinema and Rodney soon finds himself alone with his sister. Things between them have improved drastically and not just in the fact that they’re once again in the same country (same galaxy in fact), but it still takes them at least twenty minutes of edging around each other and not really saying much at all before they manage to fall into an almost companionable silence.

Jeannie breaks first, rolling her eyes and smirking. “Hey, hi, how are you?” she says softly and Rodney actually laughs.

“I…” He flounders, actually speechless for once and sighs, letting out more of an explanation with the sound than he could ever have thought.

“I’m so sorry, Mer,” she says, slipping her hand across the table and curling her fingers in between his and the mug he’s holding onto with a tight grip.

“I…I can’t fix it. I don’t know how.”

“Oh, Mer, of course you can.”

Rodney shakes his head. He doesn’t know how long the thought has plagued him, didn’t even suspect until he said the words that this is the reason for the clutching pain in his chest. More so than the thought of losing John, he’s been drowning in the thought that he’s already lost Sheppard. He can’t fix this, he can’t make it all okay and he’s left instead with the mere shadow of the man who finally allowed him to believe that he was worth anything. Rodney’s had people telling him how wonderful he is from an early age, people who didn’t particularly like him and even people who didn’t particularly want to admit that he was, but it wasn’t until Atlantis that he finally felt wanted because of who he was and he knows that John Sheppard is one person who makes him believe it.

“It’s broken. The machine is broken and I don’t even know where to start.”

Jeannie nods, doesn’t try to tell him he’s wrong, because she knows he won’t listen and that he very rarely is. This is one time he wants to be.

“Talk me through it,” she says instead.

So he does.

 

* * *

 

By the time John and Rodney are packed and ready to leave, Rodney’s managed to promise to return for Christmas, get John addicted to Sudoku puzzles and talk Madison into a double major in Mathematics and Physics when she grows up (he doubts she understands what she’s agreed to, but he doesn’t care much; he’s planted the seeds). But more importantly, he has a working plan of attack for the machine. He doesn’t think much of a lot of Jeannie’s ideas, but the truth is that he’s more grateful to his sister for simply refusing to let him give up.

They return to the SGC with no less fanfare than they had arrived and the seven hour stay there is barely manageable to Rodney. He manages to find himself a laptop (stolen from Samantha Carter’s lab) and tuck himself away in the corner of the gym, diverting his attention between his equations and watching John throw himself – literally – at Teal’c. He’s not sure what it is that the man is hoping to teach the boy, but he’s seen the kid with a slingshot and if John’s going to learn new ways of attacking those around him, Rodney wants a heads up.

 

* * *

 

Returning to Atlantis brings Rodney a new perspective on how people like Jack O’Neill manage after leaving the city to return to Earth. John greets Atlantis less like a long lost friend and more like a missing limb that’s finally been returned to him after weeks of phantom aches. He glories in the re-acquaintance and gives Rodney and the rest of the science staff multiple coronaries in his attempts to make sure the city is exactly as he left it. He tests out systems and tries out new and wonderful toys that have the science team salivating into their morning coffees until he’s finally satisfied that his city is in one piece.

When Rodney is likewise satisfied he attacks the labs with renewed fervour, tackling the list of suggestions and ideas scribbled on the back of scented pink, princess paper that alternate between Jeannie’s gentle curls and his hasty scrawl. The list diminishes quickly, ideas slipping through his fingers like grains of sand so insubstantial that Rodney finds himself trying out theories he’d kick his scientists back to Earth for. He tries idea after idea in no discernible order, because he’s desperate; desperate to take Sheppard home to Jeannie at Christmas and say, ‘look, you were right, I did it’, but the months slip by him and his good mood with it. Christmas comes and goes and comes again, until John’s had more trips to Earth under his little belt than Rodney had ever wanted and a horrible thing stuffed under his arm that Rodney’s had no more luck in destroying than he had in trying to get the kid to let go of it in the store.

There’s a choked silence in the ‘gate room when they return to Atlantis after an almost-perfect Christmas with his sister (almost, because he can’t quite forget the short-lived presence of his mother) and Rodney’s glad that John was able to bear this separation from the city better than any of the others. He didn’t say a word about it whilst they were gone and, if Rodney hadn’t been watching for it, he’s fairly sure he would have missed the little flickers in the wall panels as John re-introduced himself to his home.

With both his sister and Sam Carter’s unfailing faith once again buoying his mood, he feels a pressing need to return to his lab, return to the machine with a fresh eye and less desperation clouding his judgement. He’s returned from Earth with a renewed vigour and a focussed determination that he knows will have the science team running for cover whenever he approaches. Which, to be fair, isn’t exactly a new thing, but he’s so much more single-minded now and he knows that time is ticking down to the point where Elizabeth won’t accept it anymore and he has to find something new and tangible before then. He’s desperate to start right away, but he can’t ignore the curious stares and the choked laughter around him.

He glares at Chuck as he approaches, watching as Elizabeth sets John down after his exuberant greeting. John’s hugging Telya and Ronon in turn and Elizabeth’s biting her lip.

“What?” he demands, almost daring her to ask. She’s staring at the purple abomination John’s still clutching under his arm and he hates the kid all over again.

“Is that a…teletubby?” she finally asks, torn between amusement and horror and Rodney just breaks.

“I’ve tried everything, including incineration and he still manages to find it!” he cries, wild eyed.

“I do not understand,” Teyla says, frowning. “What is a teletubby?”

“A nasty creature hell bent on destroying the brain cells of young children,” Rodney states emphatically, disdain dripping from every word.

“And your world allows them to be revered as Gods?”

“What?”

“John carries that idol most reverently.”

Rodney moves to answer her, but finds himself too distracted by the twitch on Elizabeth’s mouth. “Oh, what?”

“I just…he picked the one with the handbag…”

Her statement causes the female ‘gate technician to snort, which makes Chuck start to titter quietly, until eventually the entire room is flooded with laugher. Rodney, feeling suddenly very protective of his friend who, in his four-year-old innocence, has no idea what he’s going to have to put up with when Rodney fixes him (and he does believe once more that he will fix this). He grabs John by the arm with the intention of leaving immediately and suddenly finds himself encompassed in a bright blue light. When he blinks, he sees they’re back in their quarters and he turns to look at John, who’s grinning with abandon.

“Transporter beam?” he asks and John nods. “Cool.”

 

* * *

 

“Wodney?”

“What?”

“Why does Ca’son sound funny? Cuz he doesn’t speak anothe’ langidge.”

Rodney frowns. “You mean another language?”

“No anothe’ langidge,” John demands, almost daring Rodney to correct him again. “Like Miko, o’ Wadek, o’ Wajesh. Cuz dey speaks diffent ones and dat’s why dey sound funny. But Ca’son doesn’t.”

“You mean another language,” Rodney corrects with a smirk, knowing he’s annoying the boy. “Because Carson’s from a strange little place where they eat blood and live in castles.”

“Weally?” John asks, wide eyed and Rodney nods, trying not to laugh.

John peppers him with questions for another hour and he delights in answering every question with so many stereotypes and streams of incorrect information that he knows will have his friend turning red with anger when it all gets back to him.

Rodney almost expects a visit from Carson the very minute John steps out of his sight, but it doesn’t happen for days and he’s almost forgotten about it by the time he’s tracking down John at bedtime later that week. It’s by default that he heads to the infirmary to find him, knowing that John often tracks down half the city to say goodnight and given that Cadman was injured off world, it’s a safe bet that he’s dragged Teyla there to see her.

Rodney enters the room to find the two women talking quietly and, although he’ll never admit it, he’s glad to see that Cadman isn’t injured too badly. He’s already subconsciously looking for John when he reaches the bed.

“Where’s John?” he demands.

“Hi McKay, I’m fine, thanks for asking. No, really, I’m fine,” Cadman says, ignoring his question. “I mean, I got shot, but everything’s good. How are you?”

Rodney rolls his eyes. “Yes, yes, we’re all glad you’re not dead,” he says, patting her on the leg. Which was actually a bad idea, as it turns out, because Cadman hisses in pain and he steps back, wide eyed.

“Laura was shot in the leg, Rodney,” Teyla says sternly, as she stands to check the woman’s injury. “John is in Carson’s office saying goodnight.”

“Right,” he says and leaves them alone before he can do any more damage.

He enters Carson’s office just in time to hear John asking something he’s been waiting on for days and grins widely when the Scot spots him.

“Ca’son, can I has a haggis fo’ a pet? Wodney says dey has fwee legs and they’s fuzzy.”

Carson splutters for a second and looks at Rodney, incredulous. “What’ve you been teaching the boy?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rodney says, all faux innocence.

Carson glares and turns back to John. “Listen, wee man, a haggis isn’t a pet, its food.”

“You eats dem?” John asks, his wide eyes filling with tears.

“Aw, that’s no what I meant.” He sits down at his desk and pulls John (and the damn purple toy) onto his lap as Rodney watches, amused. “A haggis isn’t a creature, John, it’s just the name of something some people eat.”

“And whey’s that come from?”

“From sheep.”

“You eats sheeps?”

“I…” Carson clears his throat. “It’s complicated. Maybe when you’re older, okay.”

“Okay. Does you live in a castle?”

“No, John, we had a farm,” he says, glaring at Rodney again.

“Wodney says you has a monste’ in a big lake and you dwess in a ski’t like a big gi’l.”

“Well, Rodney’s a big fat liar, John,” Carson grinds out as Rodney tries really hard not to laugh.

John doesn’t look convinced, but nods anyway and slips off his lap. “Okay. Is Jennife’ hee?”

“Aye, she’s in her office with Doctor Biro. Go say goodnight.”

John runs out the door, screeching like a banshee and Carson turns to glare at Rodney.

“What?” Rodney smirks.

“What did I ever do to you?”

“I have no idea what you mean.”

“Expect a very large needle the next time you end up in here,” the Scot says darkly and Rodney backs out of the office slowly, but it does little to dampen his amusement. Especially since he knows that Carson will have a harder time trying to convince John he’s wrong than Rodney ever did of convincing the boy that he was right.

 

* * *

 

Movie night had become a ritual early on in Atlantis, when they were still fighting with minimal power and the belief that they’d never make contact with Earth again. Their need for a night of relaxation hasn’t ebbed since then, even if their situation has altered.

The thing is, that Rodney knows that John remembers movie night. He knows because the boy has found his way there on more than one occasion without anyone having told him about it, much in the same way that they quickly discovered that he likes to spend time in his old quarters, even though no one has ever told him they’re his.

Rodney’s initial plan to somehow save Sheppard with his memories hasn’t exactly worked, but it hasn’t exactly failed either, because although John’s still a child and he doesn’t remember how that happened, it seems to help them all to continue to try and jog his memory. Rodney’s fairly sure he’s not the only one that finds a little comfort in the discovery that Sheppard might still be in there somewhere.

“What we watching?” John demands, snuggling up to Ronon and making himself comfortable in the man’s lap. “Pete’ Pan?” he continues, hopefully.

“No,” Rodney answers firmly.

“Why not?”

“Because the last time we watched that, you took a nose dive off the third floor,” he answers. “Excuse me if I don’t want a repeat performance.”

“I won’t fly, I pwomise!”

“John, may I request something?” Teyla asks, before they start to argue.

(It had been her idea that they start their own alternative movie night when it became apparent that John missed it and the marines would have no real desire to watch Disney movies on a weekly basis. That Elizabeth, Cadman, Carson, Lorne and his pretty doctor, as well as half the science team and Dr Parish start to turn up at Sheppard’s quarters as well is something that Rodney doesn’t even bother to question. John wants them there and Rodney isn’t about to argue. About that anyway.)

“Okay,” John replies and Teyla smiles.

“May I request Wall-E? We have yet to see it and I am assured that you will like it very much.”

“The one wif the wobot?” John asks and she nods. “Okay. I likes wobots. Wodney will you build me a wobot?”

“No,” Rodney says, turning to put the DVD in. “I’ll show you how to build your own.”

“Cool.”

“Yes, yes,” Rodney says and tries very hard not to quantify the strange feeling he has at the realisation that John wants to learn. From him.

He settles into the space reserved between Teyla and Lorne and glances briefly at John. Ten minutes and the kid will be asleep, but no one will point it out, because he knows the adults in the room enjoy the children’s movies just as much (if not more) than John himself.

“Hey Doc,” Lorne says, a moment into the opening credits.

“What?”

“Will you teach me how to build a robot?”

Rodney turns to retort with something scathing, but when he actually looks at Lorne he sees something that makes him stop. There’s an almost embarrassed look on the man’s face, something that tells Rodney he isn’t actually joking. So, instead of speaking, he simply nods.

Lorne grins, wide and pleased. “Cool.”

“Now be quiet.”

“Sure thing, Doc.”

 

* * *

 

“Wodney, I’s finished my maths, play wif me?”

Rodney sighs and tries really hard not to bite the boy’s head off. All his usual babysitters are on missions, or busy with their own work and Elizabeth is nowhere to be found. Usually, Rodney wouldn’t mind so much, but he’s been up for over thirty hours, has a half dozen reports to go through and at least three of his scientists work to go back over and he really doesn’t have time for a hyperactive four year old.

“I can’t. I have to finish this. Go…make yourself useful,” he says, waving his hand inanely and hoping the boy will take the hint and go find himself a quiet corner to hide in.

John frowns for a moment, then nods. “I go feed, Feddy,” he says decisively and Rodney glowers at the closing door as he leaves.

It’s not that Rodney dislikes John’s pet lizard, it’s that he hates it with a passion; he’d liked his eyebrows and it wasn’t as if he had hair to spare. Freddy is one of the main reasons why he never leaves John alone with Ronon when he can help it; the man seems to think that fire breathing pets and slingshots are perfectly good uses for a child’s time and Rodney wouldn’t mind, really, except he hates being the target of said pastimes.

It’s certainly nothing to do with the fact that John spends hours watching the thing when he could be spending time with Rodney.

 

* * *

 

The weeks pass quickly, turn into months, with such gentle speed that Rodney doesn’t even notice. He finds himself anticipating John’s moods, dealing with the young child’s growing needs with such little fanfare that when he realises it’s even happening he’s surprised himself. He gets used to John, gets used to his tempers and his brilliance, gets used to finding him in the infirmary, curled up under Carson’s desk, or tucked up with Keller in the spare bed whenever he’s working late, gets used to finding him curled up under his own arms on nights when John’s meant to stay with Teyla, and even begrudgingly accepts that the damn purple thing is now part of his life, but he really can’t find it in himself to be anything other than pleased that he’s really, truly cared for without expectation or abandon.

Things fall into a pattern that Rodney wonders at. His days are broken into sections of caring for John, spending time with his team when he can, caring for Atlantis and her people and finding the time to work on the machine. He sometimes thinks he does the latter more because it’s routine than due to any of the urgency that plagued him in the early days.

He misses Sheppard. Misses him more than he thought he could ever miss anyone. John’s warm where Sheppard was awkward, he’s carefree where the Colonel couldn’t afford to be. But John has intelligence and understanding without context and, as much as Rodney loves to teach him, loves to see the sparkle of discovery in the boy’s eyes, it’s not the same as the knowledge that Sheppard often knew the answer, but let him explain anyway.

Somehow the ache of losing Sheppard lessens through time, lessens almost as if Rodney’s finally come to accept that all he has left of his friend are the snatches of the man he can still see inside the child he’s come to care for and look after with more paternal feelings than he could have imagined himself capable of. It happens slowly, this sense of acceptance, so slowly that Rodney doesn’t have time to realise that it’s even happening. It comes in the second year, four months after John’s fifth birthday, and, in true Pegasus fashion, the realisation is followed by an even greater loss.

Somehow, it’s no real surprise that Rodney just breaks.

 

* * *

The air of the mainland has a sweet floral smell that Rodney’s never scented anywhere else and it sticks sickly in his throat. He’s spent almost two weeks in a mind-numbing daze, caring for a grieving child and wondering where the huge gaping hole in his chest had come from.

Rodney isn’t really sure when it was that he started to care with such reckless abandon, isn’t really sure that there was ever anyone other than Jeannie he’d ever wanted to care for before coming to Atlantis. It makes him angry, makes him so angry that he can barely breathe, can’t speak because the grief is too raw and he’s never understood before that it could feel like this. He lost Sheppard more than two years before, was given an impostor of a child to look after in his place, and now the universe continues to take from him.

He wants to blame Carson, does blame the stupid Scotsman for being noble and brave and caring and all the other things that Rodney had been so good at avoiding before coming to Atlantis. He blames Carson for being one of his best friends, blames the man for making him care, but mostly Rodney blames him for dying to save someone else when Rodney can’t seem to save anyone.

There’s a sound behind him and he knows without turning that the puddlejumper he saw overhead about ten minutes ago has landed some distance away and its occupants have finally reached him. Or rather, occupant, because he knows there’s only one person coming, knows, without turning, that it’s Lorne approaching.

For all that Sheppard and Teyla and Ronon are his family, for all that John is his home, it came to him with a startling clarity when he was standing over Carson’s coffin, that these last few years with John have somehow made Lorne the person who would seek him out. He doesn’t try to find a place to put the man, doesn’t try to understand what kind of relationship they have in Atlantis’ dysfunctional family, just accepts that Lorne’s here and that’s kind of the way he wants it. The man hasn’t replaced Sheppard, because Rodney would never let anyone take that space, but he realises that he has a friend and, maybe, more so than Teyla’s understanding and Ronon’s silence, he needs someone separate from his immediate family to really see him right now.

Lorne takes a seat next to him, enough space between them not to be imposing, and just settles down, doesn’t speak, doesn’t look at him with eyes that demand answers or outpourings of feelings that Rodney couldn’t hope to quantify even if asked. He just waits.

“I failed him,” Rodney finally says, his voice scratchy, throat raw. “I failed them both.”

“No, Doc, you didn’t. You didn’t fail either of them.” Lorne clears his throat and Rodney feels the weight of knowledge that he’s not the only one hurting. “Carson wouldn’t blame you. John doesn’t blame you. And neither will Sheppard.”

Rodney nods, full of gratitude even if he’s not sure he really believes it. He swallows the ball of grief rising in his throat, and glances at Evan, but he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t really think he can. The look in the man’s eye tells him that he gets his thanks across anyway, because Lorne has faith that he’ll fix this, as does Keller, and Rodney wonders if that’s part of what keeps them together, that understanding between them, that unfailing faith that it will all work out in the end.

They sit there for a long time, watching the sun sink slowly into the horizon and it’s twilight before they both stand, moving with no more than an unspoken agreement that it’s time.

 

* * *

 

The loss of Carson affects Atlantis in more ways that Rodney had initially realised. He sees in the way that Keller (and yes, he’s finally learned her name) is tentative in every decision, in the way that Ronon and John sometimes sit together in silence, and the way that Teyla slowly manages to draw Elizabeth once more into her confidence. They’re all feeling it and Rodney sometimes has to stop himself from screaming at them all about his own loss, because he knows that isn’t fair, even if he feels that Carson was his more than anyone’s.

Cadman takes to sitting in his lab more often than not when she’s in the City. She still spends time with John, still chases him and reads with him and makes his face light up and delights in the way she’s always had of coaxing a gentle smile out of the boy, but, often, he finds that she’s just there, even when John isn’t. Rodney doesn’t even mind that much, partly because, even though she and Carson weren’t still together in the end, he knows that she feels that loss more than most, but mostly, because he thinks that she understands how much he lost that day.

Rodney deals with it in much the same way he deals with everything; by losing himself in his work. He spends hours poring over information in the database and trying hard to make sense of the readings he’s getting from the now almost-fully-functional (even if they don’t know how to work it) machine. It’s not until he finds a teary-eyed John and a worried Keller standing over him in the lab one day that he realises just how much he’s started to ignore everything else, including himself.

 

* * *

 

“Ohayo gozaimasu, Miko!”

Rodney turns his head and sees John chattering away at Kusinagi’s desk in patchy phrases that he doesn’t understand. He feels an inexplicable surge of jealousy at the bond that’s risen between his scientist and his…well, what was once his best friend, because although it had been his idea, it had actually really been more of an off hand comment when he’d wanted nothing more than five minutes to himself in order to finish some equations. Instead, he’s found that he now has one less hour a day with John than he’d had before and in place of requests for extra algebra, he now finds John spouting incomprehensible phrases at him.

If Rodney’s honest with himself, he really doesn’t mind so much that John’s spending time with Miko. Doesn’t mind because he’s seen her look out for John, has seen her alone and speaking so little to those around her that to see her so carefree with the boy makes Rodney feel like a total heel for ever wanting to take John home at the end of each lesson. After losing Carson, Rodney had lost himself a little along the way, had worked furiously to try and make the loss seem like less, had tried so hard to forget that he’d made himself ill. He had seen Miko then, as well, looking over Rodney when he’d come back to work after those few days Keller had made him stay in the infirmary, had seen her slowly start to let others in. So, no, he really doesn’t mind so much. Even when he does.

“Wodney, dinne’ time!”

He blinks and realises that John’s now standing in front of him with a look in his eyes that’s getting more like Sheppard every day. He ignores the little clutch in his chest that’s followed by a pang when he remembers that he’s now lost his two best friends and shakes his head a little. It’s been three months since they lost Carson and he still can’t seem to make the loss go away.

“Wodney?”

“Yes. Right. Dinner time. Give me a minute.”

Wod-ney!”

“I said give me a minute.” His statement is followed by a huffing sigh that he’s got used to over the last year. John’s moody, expectant phase might have (sort of) ended, but the child still seems to be of the opinion that Rodney’s there only to do his bidding.

He’s a few minutes from finishing when a shadow casts over his desk and he looks up to see Kavanagh leaning over him and glaring. “Are you finished yet?” he asks with an irritating drawl. (Rodney never really thought he’d appreciate a drawl from anyone other than Sheppard, although even Mitchell’s amused drawl is music to his ears compared to Kavanagh’s haughtiness).

“No,” he says, pleased to note that John’s glaring up at the man. “You’ve made too many mistakes for even me to catch in the fifteen minutes since you gave it to me.”

“What-”

“I’m thinking of letting John fix it for his homework this evening.”

“Can I use a wed pen?” John asks hopefully as the scientist splutters and clenches his fist.

Rodney shakes his head. “We’d have to print it out. Resources aren’t-”

“Peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese?”

“McKay!” Kavanagh yells.

“Wodney! His name is Wodney,” John yells and stomps on Kavanagh’s foot.

McKay glares at the boy. “Oh how little you know, young man,” he says, completely ignoring the (literally) hopping mad scientist.

“I know wots.”

“Oh, so we’re going to maim the letter ‘l’ today, as well?”

“’Top being mean.”

“Are you doing this on purpose? You are, aren’t you? You’re trying to drive me insane!”

“Is it wo’king?” John asks glibly and Rodney glares at him, wondering exactly what the penalty would be if he just wrapped his hands around the scrawny little neck and squeezed.

“You really hate me, don’t you,” Rodney says with a glare, getting up and heading for the doorway. He really is hungry and John was right about it being time for food. The patter of tiny feet follows him at a trot as he marches to the mess.

“You’s stupid.”

“Oh, yes, thank you for that glowing statement. I’ll make sure to thank you for that when I win my Nobel. You hate me and I’m stupid, wonderful.”

“You is stupid, Wodney.” The boy catches up to him and tucks his hand into Rodney’s. “I don’t hate you, I wuv you.”

“I…” Rodney stops walking and looks down at the boy clutching onto his hand. John’s looking at him as if he’s just gone insane, but he can’t quite move. “I…you do?”

"Wod-ney," John rolls his eyes. "'Cou'se I do."

"Oh," Rodney replies, which is probably more than a bit stupid. Really he should say something more, should bluster that 'of course' and 'he knew that', but 'oh' pretty much covers it.

“Come on, Wodney! ‘s dinne’ time!”

“Yes. Food. Of course,” he says and wonders at the fact that three silly little words can change someone’s world.

 

* * *

 

With John’s unflagging trust in him and a new sense of purpose, Rodney’s world quickly becomes focussed only on the boy and the machine. He knows he’s beginning to see more sense in the research and endless hours he’s put in, but he can’t find it in himself to spend 24 hours a day working on it. He doesn’t try to explain why he starts taking full days off work to spend time with John, doesn’t even bother to explain himself to anyone, because no one’s asking. He wonders if his sense of ‘almost’ is somehow obvious to the whole city, because there’s an underlying sense of expectation around him. It’s a mixture of both hope and loss and if everyone has started treating John with more indulgence and care than they had when he was first brought back as a three-year-old with a penchant for mischief, then even Rodney’s not calling them on it.

 

* * *

 

The alarms go off about two seconds after Lorne’s barged into his room with a giggling John tossed haphazardly over one shoulder. Evan’s yelling at him before Rodney’s fully awake, but he catches the gist of it; the words ‘ships’, ‘hostile’ and ‘shields at minimum’ breaking through his tired daze quicker than the alarms could even hope to.

It takes him about ten seconds to throw on clothes (he’d almost left without them, but Lorne had thrown some at him before muttering something about taking John to Miko and mobilising the troops) and a further three seconds to grab his laptop and earpiece before he’s out the door and running towards the control tower. By the time he gets there, personnel are flooding in from all directions, but he pays them little mind, instead patching into the city's defences and trying to work out why the hell Atlantis has such little power left for the shields. He’s pulling up schematics and work schedules by the time Elizabeth arrives and demands an explanation.

“What do you mean, no shields?” she cries and he glares at her.

“I have no idea! Lorne said they were at minimal and I’m still waiting to find out why.” He taps his earpiece to call on Radek, knowing that Elizabeth won’t question him any further; they’d long ago stopped querying how those with the natural gene just know these things before their equipment ever does.

“I’m going to kill him!” Rodney yells suddenly, the screen on his laptop making him furious. “Kavanagh!” he barks and waits for the man to respond before letting out a stream of curses and strings of foul language that have the marines at the other side of the room looking at him, impressed.

“I didn’t turn it on!”

There’s something in the man’s voice that tells Rodney that Kavanagh might actually be telling the truth, but the fact is that his experiment is still the cause of their lack of power and, given that John had found a further nine errors in the man’s coding before bedtime the previous evening, there’s no telling what the hell might happen now that it’s running through Atlantis’ systems.

“You need to fix this!”

I’m trying! I’ve found some errors that can’t-”

“Only some?” Rodney barks as he hacks in to Kavanagh’s laptop and just takes over. There are reports coming in from all sides, but he ignores them, demands that Radek find him more power and lets Elizabeth and Lorne worry about the impeding doom of the alien spaceships outside.

"What do you mean there's no more power!" he cries as Radek’s voice penetrates.

"I do not know how else you want me to say it, Rodney! We have no more power! The shields will fail in four minutes, thirty nine seconds."

"We need more time than that!"

"We do not have more time!"

Rodney growls and somehow finds an extra ounce of speed to propel him through the coding faster. All systems other than life support aren’t functioning, the ships (now identified as Wraith cruisers) outside are firing with full force and he’s functioning on little sleep and no coffee. He’s seriously going to kill the stupid little fucker who caused this.

“Rodney,” Elizabeth says in that tone that always makes him want to shake her, because does she seriously think he’d let things get this close if he could actually do anything about it? He values himself alive, thank you very much, and now even more so, because he has a five-year-old kid to look out for and that kid is Sheppard. He’s doing the best he can.

“I…” He looks up at her and shakes his head. “I can’t…I don’t…”

“Rodney?”

“I’ve stopped the virus,” he says, knowing they’re all hearing him in the hush that’s suddenly taken over the room. “But…there’s no power left. We…we haven’t got any power.”

His words sink in just as he hears the sound of darts over head, hears the beeps of the proximity alarms. He only has enough time to wish he could say goodbye to John, to wish he could say sorry to whatever trace of Sheppard is buried in there, before the city suddenly swells with light.

 

* * *

 

"Oh my God!"

Rodney looks around in wonder, trying very hard to keep his wide eyes from so much as blinking because he’s seriously afraid this entire room is going to just disappear if he does. He glances down at the beautiful, wonderful thing he’s cradling in his arms and wonders how life could possible get any better.

"Nice, isn't it, Doc?"

"Ni-nice?" he splutters. "Nice? It's...it's..."

"Wonderful." Rodney glances at Radek, who picks up another ZPM, and smiles.

He turns around in a circle. “I…this is…incredible. But how does it all work?"

"Like dis."

Rodney turns to look at John and almost whimpers when consoles and screens suddenly appear out of nowhere. He rushes straight to the nearest one and taps on the display, suddenly needing to know everything about anything and needing to know it all right now. He’s already discovered the reason for their lack of power (a coding glitch that was inadvertently activated by routine maintenance – he’ll let Kavanagh stew a little longer) and is calling up more schematics than he knows what to do with. The room is full of wonder and excitement and a million possibilities that Rodney needs to discover, needs to dedicate all his time to, needs to play with and have fun with, whilst Sheppard-

He blinks. Sheppard. He glances around the room at the scientists gleefully tapping away and exclaiming at everything and anything and realises, with a deep, aching pain in his chest that he needs Sheppard for this. Not the boy who’s currently curled up in the control chair in the centre of the room, drooling on Evan’s chest, but Sheppard, the man who shares the adventure that Atlantis brought into their lives.

“I…”

“Rodney?”

He turns to face Radek, blinking at the concern on Radek’s face and, for the first time since Carson’s death, lets someone new in. “We need Sheppard.”

Radek lets out a breath, almost seeming to deflate slightly, but he offers a small smile and nods. “Yes. Yes, we do. We can help.”

“I…not with this. I need you to…” Rodney licks his lips, frowns as he tries to think it through. “I need you to run the labs.”

“Of course.”

“I want only you, Miko and Doctors Nair and Vickovic working in here until I…until…”

“Until Colonel Sheppard is back and you are free to do so.”

Rodney nods. “Yes. I…Elizabeth. I need to speak with Eliz-”

“It’s okay, Rodney.”

He turns around to find her standing behind him. There are tears in the corner of her eyes, but he can tell that she’s trying to ignore them, so he does the same.

“It’s okay,” she says again. “Figure it out and bring him back to us.”

She turns to head out of the room and Rodney waits a moment, looks at John, and then rushes after her. “Wait,” he calls out, as she turns the corner at the end of the corridor. “Elizabeth.”

By the time he’s finally caught up to her, he’s not sure what he even wanted to say, isn’t sure what he thought he possibly could say to her, but he knows there’s been a growing distance between them for a long time. He gets that people think he doesn’t notice these things, that he doesn’t care about them, but he’s seen how she’s distanced herself from everyone, but people are the one thing he doesn’t know how to fix.

“Rodney?” she asks and he sighs.

“What’s wrong?” he finally asks and she knows he’s asking about everything. He’s asking what it is about John as a child that turns her around so much, is asking what happened to put so much strain and tension on whatever friendship she might ever have had with Evan, he wants to know, because he’s lost one friend and is so close to finally getting another one back that he doesn’t want to lose out on anymore.

For a while she doesn’t say anything, just looks at him until he begins to wonder what the hell he’s supposed to do now. Finally she lets out a long breath and smiles at him. It surprises him so much that he realises he can’t remember the last time he saw her do that.

“I…thank you, Rodney,” she says softly, reaching out a hand to squeeze his arm.

“For what?”

“For asking.”

“You’re not going to answer me, are you?”

She shakes her head. “No,” she says. “At least, not now. But thank you for letting me know that I can.”

Rodney nods and clears his throat, shifting on his feet. He feels almost light headed and free, because he knows, he finally knows that it’s all going to be okay, even if he’s lost someone along the way.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” she asks, breaking the almost comfortable silence.

“Yes,” he says and then, swallowing more pride than he ever has in his life, asks, “Can you contact the SGC? I need to speak with Colonel Carter.”

 

* * *

 

“I still don’t see why you needed to bring the shrimp,” Rodney says with a glare.

Rodney.” Carter sighs and gives him a look and the girl next to her glares at him.

“I’m taller than you,” she responds and turns her attention back to the consol in front of her.

“And,” Sam continues when he starts to interject. “Cassie’s the one who gave you the idea to re-think your approach. She’s been helping me with the research you sent back for months now. And she’s-”

“-standing right here,” Cassie interjects with a glare.

Rodney grumbles, ignores her, and turns back to his computer. “Well, she’s kept Lorne out of my way, at least.”

Sam laughs and he happily ignores her, too. It’s been clear since she and Cassandra Fraser arrived in Atlantis that Rodney actually cares about the people around him. He doesn’t stop to think what that might look like to those who knew him before coming to Pegasus, doesn’t really want to or care, because there’s so much else he has to focus on.

They’re making more headway with the machine than he has in the last three years combined and, even if he knows that it’s his ideas and all the work he’s done in the preceding time making things easier now, he knows he’s likely to be a little resentful that he had to ask for help when it’s all over. At this moment, however, he can’t be anything other than grateful.

Having Samantha Carter in his life has been Rodney’s wish for so long that he can’t actually remember a time when he didn’t want her there. He doesn’t stop to think about when that need changed from unrequited lust to a need for her professional acceptance and possibly even her friendship, but regardless of the type of need, he never really expected that she’d be there voluntarily.

When he’d returned to Earth that second Christmas and spent time with his family, both women had looked over his research and provided him with some alternate perspectives and Carter had even offered her assistance in person. He’d believed, however briefly, that she’d meant it, but in the time since, began to think he’d imagined her sincerity. That she’d given him a full-watt smile that once would have left him weak-kneed and said, ‘of course’ she’d come when he had finally asked, had left him stunned. Even if she had brought Evan’s (sort of) daughter along for the ride, he has no doubt that her presence might just be the turning point.

“Rodney?”

“What? Sorry.” He blinks and looks up at her, startled when he sees an indulgent smile on her face and realises that they’re alone in the room.

“I think it’s time to call it a night.”

“No, you go. I…I think I almost have it.”

She smiles and nods. “We’re almost there, Rodney. I can see it.”

“You’ve been up for about forty hours,” Rodney says testily, “I’m surprised you can see anything at this point. You look like crap. Go get some sleep.”

She laughs and heads for the door. “You always know what to say to a woman, McKay.”

He finds himself smiling, even as he returns to his work. It doesn’t take him long to fall under the spell of numbers and theories and before he knows it, he’s racing through his calculations, fiddling with the wires and contours of the machine until he’s staring, dumbfounded and shaking, at the thing that’s caused him so much grief and loss and love and wonder over the last three years.

“It’s…but…” he expels a breath and blinks back tears as he slides to the floor.

He wants to scream and shout and…something at the inanimate object in front of him. Wants to explain it all, even if only to himself. But Rodney’s a mathematician to the core; physics, astronomy, everything in the universe boils down to the one universally constant language of numbers. He figures that there has to be some meaning, some mathematical equation that explains it all, some basic hidden reason that the machine first bubbles into action, fully complete and understood, three years to the day they were captured. He figures there has to be some explanation behind the fact that he’s thinking about how much he loves the child asleep in his room at what he’s pretty sure is the same moment three years after he had the realisation, when he was bound and gagged on a basement floor, that it was one of the worst night’s of his life.

He’d thought that having his best friend turned into a three-year-old was the worst thing that could ever happen. But he was wrong. He hadn’t bargained on how much harder it would be to face the day when he had to turn him back.

He jerks as he feels two small arms wrap around his neck. “John?” he asks, surprised. He turns awkwardly in John’s tight grasp, and tugs the boy around and into his lap. “What are you doing here?”

“Lantis sent me,” John replies, frowning and looking up at him. The look in the boy’s eyes makes his breath catch in his throat. “Why a’ you sad, Wodney?”

“I’m…I’m not. Not really. I just…it’s…”

“Lantis says you fixed it, but what did you fix?”

“I…” Rodney trails off, blinking back tears. He won’t cry, can’t let himself cry.

“Don’t be sad,” John says and, after a moment, smiles up at Rodney and hugs him.

“John, I…”

“It’s okay, Wodney. You can fix me now.”

Rodney swallows and nods. “Yes,” he says softly. “Yes, I can.”

John nods and settles into the tight embrace Rodney’s offering him. “Not ‘til mo’ning,” he says with a yawn. “We need to wait for Lizbet and Evan and Jen and Teyla and Wonon and evwyone. It’s bette’ that way.”

“Yes,” Rodney says and slumps forward into the embrace. “Yes, we’ll wait until morning.”

He takes a moment, letting himself just breathe in the smell of soap and sleep and little boy that surrounds him. He feels the same ache in his chest that has plagued him so often since he lost Carson, the same ache that took so long to dull when they first lost Sheppard. He’s going to get Sheppard back, he knows this now with a startling clarity that brings a fresh wave of pain. He’s going to get Sheppard back, but he’ll have to lose John to do so. And Rodney’s really not okay with that.

He takes a deep breath and, after deciding that he’s not going anywhere, shuffles back against a wall, careful not to jostle John too much. He rests his chin on top of the boy’s head and just sits, blinking back sleep and tears and more emotions than he knows what to do with.

The lights in the room dim and Rodney wonders if John’s awake enough to be doing it himself, or if it’s just Atlantis tucking them in for the night. He feels a sense of loneliness coming from the city herself, feels a brief moment of kinship with her that he’ll never be able to understand, or explain. They’re both losing him, they’re both about to lose the child they’d never really wanted, but had fallen for all the same.

He knows now that he’s crying, but cares too much to try to stop his tears. He has to say goodbye now, because tomorrow it’ll be too late. This is his moment. This is his time to say goodbye. Even if he really doesn’t want to.

John gives one last sigh and Rodney knows he’s about to succumb to sleep. Somehow, it’s important to speak, to tell John how much he means to him, but his voice is clogged and all he manages is a soft, ‘I’ll miss you’.

Rodney listens to John as he settles, breathes in his smell and holds him tight.

He doesn’t sleep.

 

* * *

 

The changeover happens with such ease that Rodney almost feels bitter. He’s spent the last three years trying to get the thing to work and now that it has he almost wants to re-programme it so that it’ll give out a fanfare or a burst of bright, coloured lighting; something to say that this moment, this moment is the one where everything changes.

Instead, they’re gifted with a short, high pitched whine, a tiny flash of white light and a naked John Sheppard blinking up at them from the floor of the lab. For a few moments, everyone just stands there in silence, just looking and taking in the fact that John’s gone and Sheppard’s sitting there in his place looking, come to think of it, increasingly more embarrassed by his nakedness. It’s almost enough to make Rodney laugh, given the number of times he’s chased a naked butt around the city these last few years, but he knows that whatever laughter he might let out will turn hysterical.

Keller blinks into action and suddenly Sheppard is covered up and bundled off to the infirmary with such speed that Rodney’s left standing in his lab startled, bereft and more than a little hurt. Someone clears their throat behind him and he turns slowly to see that Lorne, Teyla, Ronon, Sam and Cassie are still in the room.

He’s not sure what to say to them, isn’t sure what he’s meant to say or feel or think. Instead he just stands there, mind calm and blank.

“Thank you, Rodney,” Teyla says finally and he thinks he can see tears in her eyes. She steps forward and places one hand on his shoulder and the other at the back of his neck, gently pulling his head to rest against hers. “Thank you,” she whispers and, in an uncharacteristic move, tilts her head up to place a kiss on his forehead. “Thank you.”

Teyla has barely taken a step back when Rodney finds himself pulled into a tight embrace, as Ronon lifts him from the ground, muttering his thanks and then dropping him again with a laugh. He pounds Rodney on the back again and nods, smiling at him with a grin that Rodney’s only ever really seen aimed at Sheppard before. Sam and Cassie grin at him from the doorway and he slowly finds himself smiling back at them. He doesn’t realise who’s missing from their group until Lorne appears in front of him, laughing in a carefree manner that startles Rodney, and actually pulls him into a hug. The man steps back, pats him on the shoulder and nods.

“Nice work, Doc,” he says and, offering a sloppy (but somehow still proper) salute, turns and heads for the door. He slips his arm around Cassie and says something to Sam, who turns to Rodney and smiles, before they filter out of the room, leaving them alone.

“We are very proud of you, Rodney,” Teyla says a moment later.

“I just…I wanted him back. For you. For all of us.”

“We know.” Ronon nods.

They stand there in silence, waiting for Rodney to disengage the machine and then break the damn thing so well that no one will ever be able to fix it again.

As much as he wants to, Rodney doesn’t head towards the infirmary after. He wanders the hallways slowly, feeling safe and at home between Ronon and Teyla, and heads to his room. He stops outside the door for a moment, thinking about how it looks inside, filled with the daily mess John always left behind him, thinking of the bed that John was almost getting too big for and all the toys and clothes that would be tucked into strange spaces in the room.

“Rodney,” Teyla says, placing a hand on his arm.

“No, no, it’s okay. I’m okay.”

He nods to them both and enters the room, letting the door shut behind him. They know he needs to do this alone. Needs to say goodbye alone.

He works quickly, meticulously packing up everything until the room feels empty and unlived in. He feels kind of empty himself, as he sits on the bed, exhausted in every possible way. He’s about to get up and do…something when he spots it; a hint of purple underneath his bed covers and, before he can stop himself, has pulled out the now-one-eyed abomination. He looks at the boxes on the other side of the room, knows there’s plenty of space for it, but he can’t bring himself to throw it away.

 

* * *

 

When his short stay in the infirmary is over, Sheppard locks himself in his room and not even Rodney can bypass the controls to get in and see him. The Golden Child – and oh, that is so the wrong choice of words – is back and Atlantis is protecting him with all she can, but even Rodney has to admit that he doesn’t try too hard. Elizabeth demands he get in and he does all he can to override the doors. Almost. And if there’s a missing circuit hidden in his room somewhere, then that’s entirely a coincidence, because, really, this entire city has seen John in all his glory. Rodney thinks that deserves a few days of hiding out.

When a few days turn into a week and a half, however, even Rodney’s losing his patience. He’s spent three years of his life trying to fix his best friend and, in the process, he’s lost a child he hadn’t even known he wanted. He’s lost Carson and now he has Sheppard back he’ll be damned if he’s going to let the man shut him out.

Its early morning when he finally gives in and pulls the circuit from it’s hiding place (he feels almost guilty for slicing through the back of John’s stuffed toy to conceal it, but it had seemed appropriate) and heads to Sheppard’s quarters. It takes him all of two minutes to slip it back into place and start tapping away at his computer pad.

Just as the door opens, Elizabeth turns the corner, her face lighting up for that split second before Sheppard’s arm appears and Rodney is hauled into the room. The door slides shut behind him and Rodney blinks, stares at him for a moment. It’s been so long he almost feels as if he’s dreaming.

Suddenly registering the wide-eyed look and the gesturing, Rodney snaps out of it. “Oh!” he says and turns around, breaking the controls to the door before anyone else can get in.

Sheppard plucks Rodney’s communicator out of his ear and they back up to the window, so that they can justifiably claim they couldn’t hear what was being said to (shouted at) them from behind the closed door. They stand side by side and listen to Elizabeth’s muffled words, people joining her, and then banging on the door for what feels like a long time. Finally the people outside give up, but even without being able to hear Elizabeth’s parting words, they get the sentiment.

They stare at each other for a moment and Rodney opens his mouth, tries to speak, but nothing comes. When he tries again, he doesn’t get the chance to speak, because suddenly Sheppard’s hugging him, holding him so closely and so tightly that Rodney’s momentarily unable to breathe.

“Thank you,” he says softly, his breath brushing against Rodney’s cheek and Rodney nods.

“Okay…for what?”

“For being you and for treating me like me. Even if I didn’t know it.”

“I…” Rodney swallows. “You’re welcome,” he says and hugs back tightly.

They stand there for what seems like an age and yet feels like mere seconds when they finally pull apart. Rodney can’t help staring, can’t help taking in the lines of Sheppard’s face, the intelligence behind his gaze, the way his face moves when he breathes. His best friend.

“Three years,” Rodney says hoarsely and Sheppard nods. “I…”

“I know, buddy.”

“Do you? Because I don’t.”

“Yeah.” Sheppard takes a deep breath and shifts on his feet. He rubs a hand over the back of his neck and looks up with a self-deprecating smile. “Guess things are…weird now.”

Rodney moves his hand in a helpless gesture. “I…”

“Yeah.”

“Sheppard-”

“You can call me John, ya know.”

“No, no I really can’t,” Rodney says emphatically and he sees the moment Sheppard finally gets it.

“Yeah, okay, that’s a little weird.”

“A little?”

“Yeah, fine. But seriously, you’re going to keep calling me Sheppard?” He frowns for a minute, before grinning.

“What?”

“Would it be easier if you just did what you used to? When it first happened?”

“You want me to pretend you don’t exist?”

Sheppard rolls his eyes. “Pretend that was my son, that you were taking care of my son. That’s what Ev- what Lorne told you to do, wasn’t it?”

“You remember,” Rodney says and Sheppard nods, wincing a little.

“Everything.”

Suddenly Rodney can’t help but smile wickedly. “Everything?”

“I swear to God if you even think of using any of that against me-”

Rodney’s fairly sure the smirk on his face isn’t reassuring in the slightest, but that’s fine, because he doesn’t really mean it to be. Finally Sheppard laughs, a barking, stupid barn yard animal laugh that makes Rodney grin so hard he thinks he might just hurt himself.

“You know I’ve spent the last week thinking this place is too quiet,” he muses.

“You spent the last three years telling me to shut the hell up!”

“You were a noisy child!”

“You’re a noisy adult!”

“I see your maturity level is back to normal.”

“Hey, I’m mature. And smart,” Sheppard says, grinning.

“Which is precisely why you’re going to start pulling your weight in the lab,” Rodney retorts and settles himself on the desk chair as Sheppard falls back onto his bed and makes himself comfortable.

“No chance, McKay.” When Rodney just looks at him, knowingly, he groans.

“You just realised how much blackmail material I have, didn’t you?” Rodney asks smugly.

“I hate you,” he says, but Rodney can still hear the five-year-old voice telling him different, so he doesn’t pay any mind. “Fine. An hour a month.”

Rodney doesn’t even bother to argue, he knows he’ll get his way, just as he knows that Sheppard actually wants to spend some time using his brain. They fall into an easy banter, remembering all at once how to be friends with an ingrained instinct that needs no prompting. They talk for longer than they ever have, about everything and nothing at all and, slowly, the ache in Rodney’s chest begins to fade. He wonders if it’ll ever go away, wonders if he even wants it to, but most of all he wonders at the fact that he doesn’t feel so alone any more. He knows that he’ll never have that same bond he had with John with anyone else, but, deep down, he knows it doesn’t matter, because he’ll always remember. And he has Sheppard.

He thinks that maybe that’s enough.

 

* * *

 

When Sheppard refuses to leave his room the next morning, Rodney takes great pleasure in sending in Teyla and Ronon to guilt and drag him out in that order. He grins smugly as the team make their way to the mess, finally, gloriously whole again, and totally ignores the glares that his friend is sending his way.

“It will be all right, John,” Teyla says intercepting the look with a smile, but he doesn’t look convinced.

“You remember the last time I was in there, right?” Sheppard hisses and Ronon snorts.

“We’re trying to forget,” Rodney says, smirking.

Teyla smiles, but they can all tell she’s trying not to laugh. “I am sure everyone will be so glad that you have decided to wear clothing this time that no one will mention it.”

They enter the mess and, as suspected, everyone stops to stare. After a tense moment Sheppard clears his throat, jerks his hand at them all in a kind of pathetic wave and goes to collect his food. Rodney snorts and follows, noting that Sheppard looks pleased (and a little awkward) to find himself standing behind Keller and Lorne. Rodney notes that he sort of ignores Sam and Cassie, who’re standing by Evan, almost as if it’s hard enough dealing with the rest of them.

“Colonel,” Lorne says, looking a lot like he has no idea what to do with his hands and Rodney, knowing exactly how he feels, exchanges a look with the man.

“John, how are you feeling?” Keller says with a bright smile.

“I’m good,” he responds, unconvincingly, but smiles as she draws him into conversation. Rodney watches him relax by degrees, surrounded by his friends and buoyed by Teyla’s gentle calm and Jennifer’s bright enthusiasm.

They’re all preparing to take their seats when Cadman enters the room. She clocks Sheppard immediately and winks at Rodney before walking across the room.

“Lau- …Cadman,” John says, inclining his head.

“You back on duty yet?” she asks and, when Sheppard (looking a little confused at the abruptness of her question) shakes his head, ‘no’, she grins unrepentantly and pulls him into a hug that once again surprises the room into silence. “Glad to have you back, Johnny,” she whispers, so softly that Rodney barely hears her. A moment later, she pulls back and smirks at him. “Now that you’re you again, feel free to turn up to breakfast naked as often as you like.”

 

* * *

 

“Thought I might find you here.”

Rodney looks over his shoulder to see Lorne approaching him from the trees. He tries to smile a little, but it comes off as more of a grimace. Because the look is mirrored in Evan’s face, he doesn’t bother trying to cover up how he’s feeling. He’s not even sure he knows how he feels, only that he’s just as lost as he ever was.

When Lorne joins him, they sit in silence, staring out at the sea and watching as the sun slowly makes its way across the sky. Rodney doesn’t know how long they sit there, just watching, but he knows it doesn’t really matter. Just like when they lost Carson, he knows that Evan will wait until he’s ready.

“I feel like he’s dead. Like he’s just…gone. It wasn’t…it was supposed to make everything okay.”

“Yeah,” Evan says with a sigh. “Yeah, I know.”

“He wasn’t my son,” Rodney says, needs to hear himself say it, even if he doesn’t really believe it. Because, for the last few years, that’s exactly what John was to him. He may have started trying to think of the boy as Sheppard’s son, but, at some point, Rodney knows that John became his.

“Yeah, he was.” Evan clears his throat. “And sometimes, I let myself think he was mine, too.”

“No one else seems to feel it,” Rodney says softly, not even questioning that Lorne’s right.

“Because it wasn’t the same for them. We…You made him part of your life and you let me do the same. Teyla, Ronon, Elizabeth, even Jennifer…it wasn’t the same for them. They never let themselves forget who he really was.”

“I tried not to.”

“And I talked you out of it. I’m not sorry. You gave him something I don’t think he ever had; you let him be a kid.”

Rodney snorts. “He never grew up,” he says and Lorne chuckles.

“Yeah, I guess.” Evan frowns at him for a moment, then sighs. “Rodney,” he says, smiling a little when they both realise it’s the first time he’s ever used the name. “It’s okay to miss John.”

“He’s not gone, I just fixed him. I…” Sighing, Rodney looks out at the ocean again. “I just…I always have to lose something I need to get something I want.”

There’s a slight pause before Evan says, “Very poetic.”

Rodney glares at him, even if he does appreciate that the mood has just been lightened. “I hate you.”

Lorne chuckles. “Yeah, I know.”

They sit there a little longer before Rodney sighs and looks at his watch. He doesn’t really want to go back, isn’t really sure that he’s managed to solve anything, or that there was even anything to fix. He feels a little less lost now that he’s actually said it aloud, even if he does feel, somehow, that he’s betraying Sheppard by even thinking it.

“We should get back,” Evan says a moment later. “It was hard enough to talk the Colonel into letting me come instead of him.”

“Yeah, we should…yeah.”

“Hey, McKay,” Lorne says as they stand and head into the woods. “You think we could fix some laser beams onto my robot now that John’s Sheppard again?”

“You think he’s any less likely to kill himself now?”

“Yeah, good point.” Lorne sighs and looks at him hopefully. “Not even small ones?” When Rodney feels himself wavering, he smiles. “Sheppard mentioned something about robot wars …”

“He did?”

“Yeah, I think he just wants an excuse to play with his robot without everyone thinking he’s still three years old.”

“You play with yours,” Rodney points out and he smirks.

“Yeah, but mine doesn’t resemble a teletubby.”

Rodney can’t help but laugh. He knows that things aren’t okay, knows that he still has a child-sized ache in his chest, but he has Sheppard back and about three years worth of blackmail material.

Somehow, he thinks that everything might just be all right after all.

 

* * *

 

THE END