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Beside Me Singing in the Wilderness

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Rodney wasn’t at all surprised to find that Sheppard made an amazing deer.  The whole gawkily graceful thing totally worked for Sheppard.  He looked just like Bambi’s father, only hotter.  Unfortunately, many of the other hinds shared Rodney’s opinion. 

Not being a soft scientist, Rodney had not previously given much thought to the mating habits of the large, deer-like species on PX5-921.  And for the first few weeks he’d been trapped in the body of one – a female body at that – he’d allowed said body to spend most of its time grazing while he tried to figure out how to get himself and Sheppard back into their own forms.  (Sheppard, typically, had spent most of the time finding out how fast his new body could run and how high it could jump.)  

Rodney’s first plan had been to go back to the settlement where the transformation had occurred and gain access, either by stealth or force, to the Ancient device that had achieved it.  Unfortunately, neither he nor Sheppard had any idea where the settlement was.  In the first few moments after the change, the instincts of their cervine bodies had taken over.  They’d smelled the humans surrounding them and run like hell.

By the time their own minds had taken control again, they had no idea where they were except that there were lots and lots of trees around.  When they’d attempted to approach a human settlement, one of the inhabitants had picked up a bow and aimed an arrow at them, which led to more running on their part.

Since Artie – or whatever his name was – since the moron who’d changed them had also ordered them to return in a year’s time, he presumably had some way of letting them know where to return to and how to get there without being shot.  In the meantime, unless Rodney could figure something else out, they were deer.

They’d fallen in with a herd of a few dozen hinds and fawns who seemed to accept Rodney and at least tolerate Sheppard.  The summer days had still been long then, and the thick underbrush allowed for plentiful grazing.  Rodney, however, had noticed that the noon sun was a bit lower in the sky each day and the daylight hours a bit shorter.  And although he was no botanist, he kicked through the thick layers of dead leaves in the woods and surmised that the coming winter would not be easy.

Then there were the predators.  Two of the fawns had been lost to animals something like – actually, for all useful purposes they were wild boar.  The larger hinds and Sheppard had had to defend the herd against wolves.  Rodney had hung back until the day a wolf made a run directly at Sheppard, at which point Rodney had discovered that his front hooves made fairly good weapons.  (But he admitted, at least to himself, that he still suffered from antler envy.  Sheppard had a particularly fine pair.)    

When temperatures began to drop at night and the leaves and grass began to change colour, other stags approached the herd, belling and strutting to catch the hinds’ attention.  They skirmished with each other, antlers clashing, when two of them wanted the same hind. 

The hinds had their own ideas.  Rodney had seen them elude would-be suitors by cutting through stands of bramble so thick that a stag’s antlers would be hopelessly tangled.  On the other hand, the unclaimed hinds seemed to have no hesitation about approaching stags who impressed them.

And that, in Rodney’s opinion, was where the trouble really started.

It wasn’t that, in human form, Rodney had any exclusive claim on Sheppard’s attentions.  Or any claim at all, to be honest, except in a friendly way.  It was just that over the years, Rodney had come to realize that it rarely boded well when alien priestesses and princesses demonstrated an interest in Sheppard.  It was perfectly reasonable to assume that the same applied to alien deer.  After all, in less than a year, he and Sheppard would (presumably) be returning to human form.  How would Sheppard’s “no man left behind” ethic apply to a dozen or so fawns with unusually floppy coats?  And, possibly, the ATA gene? 

Rodney could just imagine Sheppard insisting on bringing the fawns back to Atlantis.  Deer wandering the corridors, activating Ancient tech as they went.  Deer in the botany labs, eating the prize specimens...  Okay, it wouldn’t be entirely a bad thing.  But it would be enough of a bad thing that Rodney needed to keep it from happening. 

So Rodney was determined that Sheppard was going to have a harem of one.  To this end, he spent a great deal of time chasing the other hinds away.  It helped that Rodney was on the hefty side for a hind. 

Sheppard, for his part, was doing a nice job of keeping the other stags away from Rodney.  Normally he tended to hang back watching the antics of the other stags, projecting an air of cervine cool.  (Rodney hadn’t even known that deer could slouch, but Sheppard managed.)  But the moment another stag approached Rodney, there was Sheppard, belling and strutting and clashing antlers for all he was worth.

Sheppard was doing it to protect his scientist, of course.  Rodney knew that.  And he appreciated it, both professionally and as a friend.  But the shenanigans of the other stags and hinds had a point.  It was a point they were not shy of demonstrating, not even in front of the fawns.  And it was a point that Rodney’s current body found very, very interesting.

As a human, Rodney had been well aware – in a purely aesthetic sense – of Sheppard’s attractiveness.  As a deer, he found himself watching Sheppard’s antlers and the strong, thick muscles of Sheppard’s neck.  Sometimes, he’d notice Sheppard looking back at him.  Rodney’s body had specific responses to that look.

His human mind was reminded that until next summer, they had only each other to depend on.

***

“Major, your determination and loyalty are commendable, but you’ve been acting military commander of Atlantis for almost a year now.  At some point the IOA will insist that we begin to move towards more permanent arrangements – or they will make such arrangements for us.”

“There’s got to be something we’re overlooking, something more we can do,” insisted Lorne.

Woolsey sighed.  “Ms. Emmagen, if you would review the original situation for us?”  One more time.  He didn’t say it, but everyone at the table heard it.

“Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay, Ronon Dex and I undertook a first contact mission to PX5-921, called Cartref by its inhabitants.  The first people we met took us to a fairly large settlement approximately 6 km from the Gate, where we were presented to the leader of their hluith – their kinship group – an older man named Arith.  We expressed our interest in establishing a mutually beneficial trade relationship.  After further discussion Arith welcomed us in a formal ceremony as guests and friends, relationships for which the Cartrevians have great respect.”

“It was at this point that Dr. McKay asked for permission to visit another site some 15 km to our southeast in order to explore some unusual energy readings.  Dr. McKay had been aware of the readings since our arrival, but with the encouragement of Colonel Sheppard and myself, he had restrained himself from asking about them until after the discussion and the ceremony were concluded.”

“Sheppard told McKay that if he didn’t keep his mouth shut, Sheppard was going to order me to stun him and he’d miss the feast after the ceremony,” explained Ronon.  “And we could already smell the food they were cooking for the feast.”

“Ronon, we should perhaps focus on details that might be useful in discovering the Colonel’s and Dr. McKay’s whereabouts?” suggested Teyla. 

“Arith replied by asking Dr. McKay what he intended to do in the course of his visit.  On being assured that Dr. McKay wished only to determine what was causing the readings, Arith proposed that our team stay with him for the night and continue on to the farther site the next day with an armed escort provided by Arith.  We informed Atlantis of this plan and received approval for it.”

“The next morning we set out for our destination.  We arrived after walking for three hours.”

“Yeah, with McKay complaining the entire time and Sheppard reminding him over and over again that the side-trip was his idea.”

“Ronon,” began Teyla, but Zelenka interrupted.

“Ronon, I too miss Rodney and the Colonel greatly, but our expressions of grief over their continuing absence are not the main purpose of this meeting.  For that purpose, we should perhaps hold a separate meeting later on, yes?”

“Okay, yeah.”

Zelenka gave Teyla a nod.

“Dr. McKay was greatly excited by the ruins we discovered at the site, which he said were those of an Ancient laboratory.  He discovered and entered a subterranean chamber.  Apparently he then found various objects of unknown purpose lying about the chamber, which he placed in his pack to bring back to Atlantis for further study.”

“Teyla,” interrupted Lorne, “Were the Cartrevians present in the chamber while McKay was doing this?”

“No, they remained above ground with Ronon and myself.  Dr. McKay entered the chamber first, and then Colonel Sheppard followed him.”

“Went chasing after his geek?  No, never mind, I apologize.  Go on, please.”

Thank you, Major.  At the time that we left the site to return to Arith’s settlement, neither Ronon nor I knew what Dr. McKay had done.  We were about halfway back when we and our escort became aware of another party following and closing on us.  We were unable to outpace them.”  Because McKay couldn’t go any faster, was what she didn’t need to say. 

“They turned out to be a group about the same size as our own, dressed and armed similarly to our escort.  They immediately attacked us.  We fought back, with lives being lost on both sides.  After the man leading the other group was killed, his companions retreated, and we were able to reach the settlement.”

“On learning what had happened, Arith became extremely angry.  The site we had visited rested on territory claimed by both his hluith and another.  It was held sacred by both hluithau.  Arith had allowed our visit only because he had understood that Dr. McKay was not going to remove any objects from the site.  The group that attacked us had apparently noticed our presence and checked the site after we left.  They pursued us when they discovered what they viewed as the theft of sacred objects.”

“Because we had been recognized as guests and friends of Arith’s hluith, the escort he had given us was compelled to defend us.  Not only had some among them been killed, but also Arith recognized the description of the man leading our pursuers as a person of high rank in the other hluith.  His death would create further conflict between Arith’s people and their neighbours.”

“Arith demanded that Dr. McKay be handed over to their gods to be judged for his sacrilege.  At this point Colonel Sheppard stepped forward, claiming that he was responsible for Dr. McKay’s actions, both as Dr. McKay’s team leader and because he had been present in the chamber with Dr. McKay.  There was much... energetic discussion between Arith, the Colonel and Dr. McKay.  Dr. McKay moved towards Arith, away from the rest of the team, I think to emphasize a point he was making.  The Colonel went after him.  It was then that Arith signaled to his men to seize and disarm the two of them.  Arith announced that since they had committed the crime together, they should share in the judgement.”

Teyla hesitated before adding, “There were many of Arith’s warriors present.”

“I still say we should have tried...” growled Ronon.

“Ronon, you were there.  You heard Colonel Sheppard’s orders.”  Teyla turned back to the table at large.  “I attempted to learn more about the judgement procedure from Arith.  He would say only that it was in the hands of the gods but that he did not believe the gods would demand death.  At this point the Colonel ordered Ronon and me to return to the Gate and request help.”    

“We had two jumpers there ASAP,” put in Lorne.

“We returned to the settlement with assistance in less than two hours,” confirmed Teyla.  “Arith gave us the Colonel’s and Dr. McKay’s clothes and other equipment, but otherwise would say only that he did not know their whereabouts.”

“We questioned everyone and searched the entire settlement.  There was nothing.”  Lorne’s frustration was evident.

“No traces or signs at all,” added Ronon.   

“And in the months since then?” prompted Woolsey.

“We’ve made several follow-up trips, sir, but without discovering any further information.  According to Dr. Zelenka” – Zelenka acknowledged Lorne with a nod – “the planet has mineral deposits that would block the subcutaneous transmitters.”

Woolsey took a deep breath.  “Major Lorne, you’re the one who claimed that there’s got to be something more we can do.  But I can’t for the life of me imagine what it might be.  Unless you or Dr. Zelenka have further suggestions in this regard, then I’m afraid that it’s time for us to make some difficult decisions.”

***

John hadn’t expected that having the piglet nursing at his teat would feel anything like this.  It reminded him of the way he’d felt during, well, mating.  He wondered if human mothers felt like this when they nursed their infants.  He wondered if he’d ever have the opportunity – or the nerve – to ask Teyla.  Then it occurred to him that he could ask Rodney, who’d suckled their fawn last year.

Even by Pegasus galaxy standards, comparing nursing experiences with the father of his child had to count as pretty strange.

John wondered if Rodney missed the fawn.  He did, himself.  A bit, anyway.  Stags apparently didn’t have a lot of emotional investment in their offspring.  Although John’s human mind had wanted to care, felt that he ought to care, he’d also felt as if his attachment had been somewhat muted by the absence of a corresponding instinctive response from his body.  He supposed he’d cared more about the fawn than most stags would, but it was nothing like how he felt about the piglet he’d birthed a few days before.

He curled around the piglet more closely and nuzzled its striped coat.  Yeah, Rodney probably missed the fawn pretty badly.  John wished there was some way he could tell Rodney he understood.

John caught Rodney’s scent well before his mate poked his snout in at the edge of the farrowing nest John had built for the piglet’s birth.  Rodney had never tried to crawl into the nest.  John was pretty damn sure he didn’t want Rodney to try, but it was reassuring to know that Rodney was sticking close, which most boars wouldn’t.  And hey, Rodney was poking a dead bird into the nest!

The bird had black feathers and was about the size and shape of a crow.  John wasn’t sure how long it has been dead, but the cool temperatures of early spring had kept it in pretty good shape.  Part of his human mind was going, “Ewww!” and part of it was thinking that the gift was pretty sweet of Rodney.  His sow’s body was completely enthusiastic about receiving food.

John grunted affectionately at Rodney and settled in to eat crow.

He remembered seeing Rodney in his boar shape for the first time last summer.  The broad, solid body looked surprisingly Rodney-like.  The tiny eyes, the snout and the large, furry ears, not so much.  It was the tusks that really caught John’s attention, though.  John had lower tusks himself, but Rodney had upper and lower tusks, twice the size of John’s.  John couldn’t help thinking how useful Rodney’s tusks would be for eviscerating idiots.  They were kind of the dental equivalent of Rodney’s sarcastic tongue.

Hell, who’d have thought that he’d ever miss hearing Rodney’s sarcasm?  Between the year they’d spent as deer and the year they were now spending as wild swine, it had been a while since either of them had been able to speak in words at all.  John, never a great fan of words, had discovered that there were things he needed words to say.  He’d started keeping a list of things he was going to tell Rodney if and when they were human again, but had given up on it when it got too long.  He bet Rodney was still keeping a list, though.

Maybe that’s what he was supposed to be learning from all of this, that words had value.  And maybe Rodney was supposed to be learning how to do without words.  Then again maybe they were supposed to be learning that it was more important to take care of each other than to follow the rules. 

John had stuck by Rodney the winter before last, when Rodney was carrying their fawn.  The other stags had left the hinds to form all-male groups, but John had fought his body’s instinctive urge to follow them.  When the cold wind blew hardest, John had tried to shield Rodney with his larger body.  He’d tried to make sure Rodney got enough forage and to defend Rodney from predators, even after he’d lost his antlers.

Losing the antlers had been a bit of a shock.  He’d liked having them for defensive purposes.  And if he were being honest, he’d liked having them to flaunt.  Especially in front of Rodney, given that being trapped in bodies of opposite sexes was the one situation in which Rodney might actually notice that John was flaunting something in his direction. 

John was pretty sure that Rodney had noticed him moping after the antlers were gone.  At the time, he’d been kind of grateful that Rodney no longer had words to tease him with.  Now, a year later, he’d have cheerfully accepted the teasing just to hear Rodney’s human voice again.   

There had come a spring day when John’s forehead had itched incredibly.  He’d kept rubbing it against things until Rodney, by then heavily pregnant, had come over to nuzzle first at one side of John’s forehead, then at the other.  John had realized then that the shapes Rodney’s nose and tongue were defining were the buds of his new antlers.  By the time Rodney had birthed their fawn, John had had antlers again.

Of course, when they’d been turned into wild swine, John had lost his antlers.  And Rodney had gotten upper tusks.  This past winter, it had been John who had been pregnant, Rodney who’d ignored the departure of the other boars to stay with him.  It had been John who’d leaned into Rodney’s warm bulk when the winds blew hard.  And now John had birthed their piglet, and Rodney was bringing him food.

If taking care of each other was the lesson, then John felt that they’d demonstrated they’d learned it well.  But it was entirely possible that none of this had any point whatsoever.  Maybe the universe was just fucking with them.

***

It was on a summer evening, some weeks past the solstice, that Rodney again heard the inaudible siren song that had called them back to Arith the year before.  About time, too.  Rodney grunted around his mouthful of roots to get John’s attention.  (By the time their second child had been born, thinking of his mate as “Sheppard” had begun to seem ridiculous even to Rodney.)  John nodded to show he’d heard it too and went to collect the piglet, who’d taken to wandering farther afield since he’d been recently weaned.

The three of them set out, following the call.  Given the need to forage and rest, it was some days before they arrived at Arith’s settlement.  As had happened last year, they were expected – a large crowd had turned out to watch them arrive.  Arith waited with a boy of perhaps five or six years, slender, with huge dark eyes.  Rodney hadn’t been quite prepared for the twisting feeling in his heart.  He started to approach before he remembered that the child might be frightened of him in this form.  But Arith took hold of the boy’s shoulder and spoke to him quietly, then motioned Rodney to come closer, close enough that Rodney could sniff the boy’s legs and hands to be sure.  Yes.  This was the son he had birthed as a hind.

“We have called him Hithuun,” said Arith.  “I have cared for him as my own, until you should come again.”  Hithuun?  What the hell kind of name...  And then Rodney heard the sounds behind the words.  The Gate translator affected common nouns, but not proper ones.  “Hith” as a common noun translated as “deer.”

The boy laughed as Rodney’s snout tickled him and reached down shyly to stroke Rodney’s bristly head.  John came forward then, bringing the piglet with him, and the two brothers met for the first time.

It was all very touching, thought Rodney, but there were more serious matters to settle.  He’d had plenty of time to figure things out.  The first year had been his chance to experience the joys of childbirth in the wild, the second year had been John’s.  Now they’d finished paying their dues and should be ready for return to human form.  They could take Hithuun and their second son, return to Atlantis and...  Actually, they’d probably have to do a lot of explaining when they returned to Atlantis.  But they’d get through that, and there were some suites in the west tower that would do nicely as quarters for a family of four.

With this in mind, Rodney began herding John and the piglet towards the so-called “sacred circle” at the north edge of the settlement.  (And wouldn’t he like to know just what kind of device was buried in the ground underneath that spot.)  Arith and several others followed.  When they reached the circle, the humans stopped at its perimeter, while the three swine continued until they were standing in the centre.  Arith began to chant.

As before, a not-quite-noise began to build in Rodney’s mind, reminding him of flutes, of wind chimes, of keening.  It rose higher and sharper, impossible to ignore and finally demanding all of his attention, so that everything around him blurred.  And then it stopped.

Where the piglet had been stood a sturdy boy, younger than Hithuun, with thick reddish-blond curls.  He was staring at John.  He was – oh, shit – staring almost eye-to-eye with John, because John...

Rodney took a breath and looked down at his own body.  At his paws.  His thick, grey fur.  Sure enough, he and John were a pair.  Of wolves.

And apparently Rodney had flunked childbirth the first time, because he was female again.

***

John crouched down in the tall summer grass, staying carefully down wind of Rodney.  Wait for it... wait... now!  John launched himself into a magnificent leap and landed on top of Rodney, knocking him over.  The two of them wrestled back and forth while the cub circled them, yipping excitedly.  Finally Rodney surrendered and let John nuzzle his throat – at which point the cub charged in for a nip at John’s tail.  When John spun around to deal with his offspring, Rodney rolled to his feet and counter-attacked.

Later on, as the three of them curled up to sleep in their den, John thought that being a wolf was definitely his favourite animal experience so far.  He couldn’t imagine playing together this way as deer or swine.  And he hadn’t had to fight his body’s instincts to stay with Rodney and their cub after the mating season was done.  As far as John could tell, his lupine body wanted to stay with Rodney for the rest of their lives.

John could go for that.

There had been a bad moment at the beginning of their lupine existence when they’d run down a hind strayed from the herd.  John and Rodney had chased her together, biting at her flanks and belly until she weakened enough that John was able to wrestle her to the ground.  He’d found himself looking into her eyes for a moment, wondering if she was a hind he’d known as a stag.  Then he bit her throat and killed her.

He wondered if he’d need therapy for that when they got back to Atlantis.  He tried hard not to think about who’d been taking care of his city in the three years he and Rodney had been away.  If there were any way to shorten their stay on Cartref, Rodney would have found it.  Rodney hadn’t, therefore there was no way.  They were soldiers trapped in enemy territory.  Their primary responsibility was to survive.

Rodney accepted this fact less easily.  Last summer when they’d been transformed into wolves, Rodney had turned on Arith, growling and snapping in frustration.  Arith’s warriors had moved in to protect their leader, which in turn caused John to leap in between them and Rodney.  He’d held the men off as he pushed his mate backwards, towards the path leading away from the settlement.

Yeah, John missed Atlantis.  He missed Teyla and Ronon, wondered what they were doing, wondered how Torren was doing and if the little boy would meet his and Rodney’s sons some day.  John missed showers and clothes and cooked food, words and opposable thumbs.  And he missed flying the jumpers, missed it sharply.

How much Rodney must miss his work, how much Rodney must miss coffee – John didn’t even want to think about it.  But stupidity wasn’t going to get them home.

John uncurled enough to reach Rodney, to bury his nose in the fur at the back of Rodney’s neck, causing John’s mate to grumble in his sleep.  Then John nuzzled the cub sleeping between them.  Satisfied, John curled back up and fell asleep himself.   

***

When the call came a few weeks later, the three of them headed back to Arith’s settlement.  Arith was there waiting for them with Hithuun and their second son – Hikhduun, Arith called him – who’d grown almost as tall as his older brother.

John could smell Rodney’s nervousness as they urged their cub into the circle.  He shared it.  After three transformations, who knew what the circle would do to them next?  Maybe they’d be birds this time.  Maybe eagles like the ones John had seen circling over the woods.  It would be cool to be able to fly with his own wings.  They could raise an eaglet together.  And Rodney would damn well take his turn sitting on the nest, John would see to that.

When circle’s wild keening stopped, John looked down at their son and thought, oh, hell!  The poor kid had gotten his cowlicks.  Then he realized that he was looking down at the kid.  And then he looked at Rodney.  At Rodney, who...

“Your eyes are blue again,” John blurted.

But Rodney grinned, threw his arms around John and hugged him hard, held him tight, talking all the while.  “The first words you’ve said in three years and then you say something completely lame...” 

John hugged Rodney back, kept holding on until the excited chatter around them began to sink in.  At which point it dawned on him that he was holding his completely naked, completely male mate, uh, team-mate in a full-body clinch in the middle of a crowd of other people.  Including the three young sons they’d born together.

John pulled himself away and then had no idea what to do or say next.

Arith’s smile was understanding, even kind.  “We are pleased to see that the gods have released you, and later we will feast in your honour.  But for now, I think you will need time to bathe and rest.  We will care for your children in the meantime, and by your leave we will call your youngest son Bleithuun.”

Which was how John and Rodney came to find themselves left alone in a well-appointed chamber, wooden floor and wooden walls made bright with carpets and hangings.  One table held basins of steaming water and towels, another offered a selection of food and drink.  Clean shirts and trousers were spread out on the beds.  The two separate beds, although each was wide enough for two men.

Rodney was talking.  “...might as well call them Huey, Dewey and Louie.  And here I thought my parents screwed up with Meredith!  We’ll just have to make sure to give them decent middle names.”

And talking.  “...blown up the entire city by now.  Radek’s good, but he’s not me...”

And talking.  “Here, taste the stuff in this pitcher, make sure there’s no citrus.  Probably too much to expect that it’s got caffeine in it.  Ohmigod, it’s been three years, my Kona stash will be stale!”

“Rodney?  Nap time now.  We were up most of last night.”

“Well, yes, it was a full moon.  Do you think maybe someone will feel sorry for me and give me fresh coffee as a welcome-home present?”

“I think you’d better get your hands on your welcome-home presents before you start tearing your minions apart.  At least you don’t have tusks anymore.”

“Oh, very funny.  Oh!  Our IDCs will have expired.  We’d better gate through to the Alpha site instead of straight to Atlantis.  Should we carry the boys through the Gate, or do you think they’ll be okay if we just hold their hands?”

“I think we’re napping now.  See here?  Bed.  See over there?  Another bed.”

That brought Rodney to a full stop.  He frowned at one bed, then at the other bed, then at John.  “Oh.  All right.”  With which he stomped across the room and curled up on the other bed, back to John.

John wasn’t sure whether he was relieved that Rodney had accepted the division of beds or disappointed.  Mostly, he tried not to think about it as he lay down and stretched out.

First he tried counting puddlejumpers.  Then he tried counting puddlejumpers backwards by seven.  In Dari.  When puddlejumpers failed to work he tried fawns, then piglets, then wolf cubs.

“Rodney?”

“Napping now!”

“No, you’re not, you’re not snoring.”

“I don’t snore.”

“The hell you don’t.  You snore as a human, a hind, a boar and a wolf.”

Silence.  Then: “This feels weird.”

“I know, buddy.”  John rolled out of bed and padded across the room.  Just this one time more, he thought, and just to sleep.  “Shove over.”

He curled up along Rodney’s broad, warm back and tucked his face against Rodney’s shoulder.  Moments later, he slipped into sleep to the sound of Rodney snoring.

***

“Truly, your judgement and punishment were in the hands of the gods, not in mine,” explained Arith.

“In other words, you had no clue what you were playing around with!”

“Rodney, be nice.  We want to be allowed to go home, remember?”  Privately, John felt that Arith’s explanation – or lack thereof – was a lot less satisfying than last evening’s celebratory feast had been.

“When someone offends the gods, we place them in the circle to be judged and to hear the voice of the gods.”

“Kind of high and windy or maybe chiming?” John asked.

“Yes, that is it!  We believe that with this voice the gods counsel the wrong-doer not to sin again.”

“But the wrong-doer doesn’t actually change into anything?”

“The system boots up and tries to initiate but can’t complete the process,” Rodney muttered.

“There are stories of this happening.  They are... old stories.  Before my grandfather’s time.  I think maybe before his grandfather’s as well.” 

“Maybe in response to the Colonel’s ATA –  Wait a moment!” interjected Rodney sharply, “If you’ve never seen this happen, how’d you know that we should return in a year?”

“Thus it is told in the stories.  But that you were changed three times – there is only one story that tells of such a thing.”

“Yeah, well, nice to know we’re special,” drawled John.  “What did you tell our people when they came looking for us?”  Someone must have come.  Ronon and Teyla wouldn’t have abandoned them.  Lorne had to have sent at least one team.

“I told them the truth.  I told them I did not know your whereabouts,” Arith replied with dignity.  John heard Rodney’s sharp intake of breath, took hold of his arm to keep him quiet.

“That’s an interesting version of the truth.”

“If they had gone looking for you and managed to find you, they would have taken you away.  Then how would you have returned to the circle to be brought back to yourselves?  Dr. McKay’s actions showed me that your people do not honour our gods, perhaps do not believe they exist.  I did not know if I could make your friends understand that you must remain here.  I did what I thought necessary to protect you.”    

“You made that decision on our behalf without getting our input!” snapped Rodney.

“Rodney, it’s done.  Let’s get the kids and go home.  Arith, I’ve got just one more question.  Were we supposed to have learned anything from all this?  Aside from ‘respect the gods or else’?”

Arith’s gaze was steady.  “Our stories do not say, Colonel Sheppard.  If you have learned something, you are the one who knows what it is.”

***

“Colonel Lorne!  We’ve got a transmission from the Alpha site.  They’re saying...  Sir, they’re saying that Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay have just come through the Gate.  With... with three children, sir.”

***

Some things never change, thought John.  They’d arrived back at Atlantis after three years away and what was the first thing that happened to them?  They’d been whisked to the infirmary for complete physicals.

John himself was in good shape.  Rodney’s blood pressure and cholesterol were down.  The boys were healthy and appeared to have ages of seven, six and four.  Apparently when the circle transformed them, it had given them human ages corresponding to the developmental age of their species-at-birth.  Fortunately, the circle had not made the same adjustment for John and Rodney.  They had each aged three years, not fifteen or twenty.

The real fun started when Keller tried to fill out birth records for the children.

“Rodney, it’s not up to me!  If I enter male names in the field for ‘mother’, the forms will automatically reject!”

“That’s because you’re using forms based on outmoded American models!  Which is ridiculous, especially considering that my children are entitled to Canadian citizenship.”

“I’m using the forms I’ve got!”

“Okay, fine, for Hithuun and Bleithuun enter ‘Meredith R. McKay’ as the mother.  For Hikhduun... what happens if you just enter ‘J. P. Sheppard’?”

“If I enter both of you as parents on the same birth record, what happens is that the Colonel receives a dishonourable discharge, Rodney.”

“Why?  It wasn’t homosexual sex at the time we had it.”

John felt his face start to heat up.

“One of us was in heat, the other was in rut, we mated.  Sex doesn’t get much straighter than that!”

That was about all John could take.  “Dr. Keller, do you need to make out the forms right away?”

“No.  We’ve just missed the last databurst, the next one’s not for another week.  Would you and Dr. McKay like some time to discuss this further?”

“There’s nothing to discuss!”

“McKay, later.”

“What part of...”

Later.”  As in, later after John had a chance to damp down his response to Rodney’s vigourous insistence that what had happened between them was in no way, shape or form ‘gay.’   

 ***

There had been a time at which Rodney had worried that the children would lag behind in language skills development.  Now he was more interested in figuring how to get them just to be quiet for a while.  Even Hithuun had taken to chattering away.   

Their other parent was a different story.  It had been some days since John had said that he and Rodney were going to have a discussion ‘later’.  Apparently, ‘later’ hadn’t arrived on Planet Sheppard yet.  Well, too bad.  There were things they needed to discuss, and the birth records were only part of it. 

Since their return from Cartref, they’d been living in limbo.  Even their quarters were temporary – a suite of five rooms around a common area had been hastily cleared out for their use.  Theoretically, Rodney, John and each of the boys was supposed to have their own room.  In practice, the boys tended to end up sleeping with either Rodney or John.  But not both, since John had been quietly insistent on sleeping apart from Rodney.  Which meant... well, it was pretty obvious what it meant.  It meant that although John had been friendly and even affectionate towards Rodney, he wasn’t interested in anything more.

So apparently they were going to have to work out the details of being close friends with joint custody of their three children.  Oh, joy.  It was like negotiating a friendly separation, except without having had a relationship first.

***

“Where’re the kids?”

“Teyla and Kanaan are looking after them for us this evening so that we can have a discussion.  No!  Stop backing towards the door.  We told Jennifer five days ago we’d discuss the birth records, and you know as well as I do that’s not the only item on the table.  Let’s get this over with.  To start with, what are your plans?”

“I’ve been talking with Lorne.  You know they didn’t give him Atlantis right away?”

“Yes, I heard.”

“He was acting military commander for a year, but then they made him get in line and jump through hoops before finally promoting him and confirming his command.”

“Considering how they treated you, did you expect anything different?”

“Not really, I guess.  It’s just...  I don’t want to take command away from him after he’s been through all that.” 

“You’re lucky I know you so well.  I’m trying to get your input on what happens to us and our children, and instead you just told me what you want for Major...”

“Colonel.”

“...Colonel Lorne.”

“Look, Rodney...”

“How do you catch a unique rabbit, John?”

“Sorry?”

“You ‘neak up on it.  Okay, fine, we know what you want for Maj-, uh, Colonel Lorne.  What do you want for our children?”

John thought for a moment.  “I want them to be free to be children, not test subjects.  I want them to be raised by people who care about them.  I want them to grow up to be men who have the imagination to dream and the courage to act on their dreams.”

“Wow, that was poetic!  No, really, I’m not being sarcastic.  For once.  And I agree with you.  So... what do you want for me?”

“Now that you’ve already got your Kona stash replaced?”

“Hey, those gifts were freely given!  No, seriously, you need to answer my question.”

“Seriously?  I want...”  John’s gaze slid off Rodney, seemed to search the room for a safe place to park itself.  “I want you not to be bored.  And I think you would be, back on Earth.  Here, you’ve got three years’ catching up to do, but for you that’d just add to the fun.  On the other hand... Zelenka’s been chief of science for three years now.”

“And he’s doing a damn good job of it.  He and I have already talked about this.  Scientists are territorial, sure, but unlike the military, the boundaries of our territories aren’t pre-defined by rank.  We can negotiate.  If I don’t interfere with the way Radek runs things, he’ll let me work on pretty much anything I want.  He gets the title, but he also gets the paperwork and most of the middle-of-the-night radio calls.  Which works, seeing as how I’ve got a family now.”

“So you do want to stay in Atlantis.”  John was actually looking at Rodney again.

“I want to work in Atlantis.  I could live here.  Or I could live somewhere else in Pegasus – New Athos, maybe? – and commute by Gate, if that worked out better for the kids.  Frankly, I’m not keen on bringing the kids back to Earth.”

“Me neither.”

“So we agree that the planet we grew up on isn’t a good place to raise children.  What does that say about our own childhoods?  Never mind.  Final question, John.”

“What do I want for myself?”

“Hey, the rabbit’s not only unique, it’s intelligent!”

“Aw, Rodney, you’re just flattering me ‘cause you’re after my carrot.”

“That sounded... remarkably flirtatious.  Especially coming from a guy who’s insisted on sleeping in separate beds for the past five days...”

John ducked his head and rubbed the back of his neck.

“...but as a means of distracting me from the question at hand, it’s doomed to failure.  John.  What do you want for yourself?”

“I want...  To be a parent to my children, and do better than my own father did.  I want my team members, all of them, to remain part of my life somehow.  I want...”

After a moment, Rodney suggested softly, “To fly?”

“Yeah.  But... I think if I really had to, I could live without that.”

“I’m asking what you want, John, not what you’re willing to sacrifice.”

“Then I want to fly.  And I... want you.  And I’m not willing to sacrifice you.”

“You want me as a team member, as family.  And you want to raise our children together.”  Rodney kept his tone neutral.

John looked away.  “What do you want, McKay?  Let’s hear you put something on the table now.”  His voice had gone a bit raspy.

Rodney was quiet a while.  Finding words was one thing.  Finding the right words was something else.  “If deer could pout, you would have been pouting when you lost your antlers.”

“Having antlers was cool!”

“No, it was hot.”

“Oh.”

“Right.  ‘Oh.’”

“Then I want... to find out what it’s like when neither of us is in heat or rut.  When it’s just us.”

“Oh.  Oh!  Yes?  Really?  That’s.  Well.  Hey, stop laughing at me!”

“C’mon, Rodney, seeing you reduced to single-word sentences is funny!”

“Absolutely hilarious.  Okay, here’s what I want.  I want this separate beds bullshit to end yesterday.  Can we negotiate that?”

John’s smile was fond.  “Yeah, Rodney, I think we can.”

***

Woolsey took his time sorting through the pile of papers they’d handed him.

“I want to make sure I understand everyone’s intentions correctly.  I have here Colonel Sheppard’s resignation of his commission, with a letter of support from Colonel Lorne.”

“Yes, sir,” Lorne confirmed.

“I also have a request from Dr. Zelenka to hire both Dr. McKay and Colonel Sheppard effective immediately, with Colonel Sheppard’s job title to be ‘mathematician/Pegasus galaxy cultural consultant.’”

Zelenka nodded.  “As the leader of a first contact team, Colonel Sheppard has gained much valuable experience which would be a shame to lose.”

“I see.  I have paper copies of the birth records for Hithuun David, Hikhduun Andrew and Bleithuun James McKay-Sheppard, with a request from Dr. Keller that these records be processed as is appropriate for Canadian citizens, to wit, that the parents’ names be recorded exactly as they’ve been written in by hand.”

“I’ve also put in a request to get our own records system updated,” put in Keller, “We’re an international expedition and we ought to operate as such in all areas.”

“I have a requisition for new quarters for the McKay-Sheppard family...”

“It’s in the west tower, sir.  We need something with a full kitchen and at least two bathrooms,” explained Sheppard.

“And at least one bedroom large enough to hold a king-size bed,” put in McKay.

“Finally, I have revised wills from both Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay.  Is there anything else that you two wanted to add?”  Woolsey eyed Sheppard and McKay.

“Well, I’ve got a lawyer checking to see what we need to do to protect our right to exist as a family from the bigotry of your idiotic government.  And also to see if we can get the residency requirement waived and get John Canadian citizenship.  And we’re already recognized as common-law partners by the Canadian government, of course, but eventually we might want to get...”

McKay cut off sharply.  Only his glare at Sheppard revealed that he might have been kicked underneath the table.  But Sheppard ignored McKay and smiled at Woolsey instead, all apparent innocence.  “Sir, do you do weddings?”