Reader's DVD commentary for
Your Cowboy Days Are Over
by samdonne

They trade one of John's childhood memories and the last of the medical supplies for passage on a cargo ship, and land on Bajan in mid-winter. The memory is nothing exceptional: Rachel Sheppard doing the baseball mom thing on a Saturday afternoon in 1975, at Fort Bragg. She wears a bottle green shirt, the left wrist cuff stained with soda; she yells, "Show them what you're made of, Big J!" when John is up for bat in the fourth inning and Frank Sheppard has left the stands; even with the sun in his eyes, John hits a line drive that takes him to third base. Because little league is nothing anyone in this galaxy has ever heard of, the clip sells at a premium. Teyla holds his hand during the upload and hums an Athosian chant, but John's okay. He's got more where that came from. This starts out full of mystery. With the Little League memory stuck in the middle, grounding things. What you know: 'they' aren't in Atlantis. "They' are in extremis. 'They' include John and Teyla. What you don't know: everything. The mechanism of survival is in the first sentence - the memory trading, which turns out to be this series of constant, tiny Faustian bargains. Teyla's actions during the upload pretty much guarantee that John isn't okay - she's far more perceptive, even about the inside of his head, than he is himself.

That first month, they stay down-city in a cheap resthouse packed with other immigrants, deep in the bowels of Bajan minor where the suns only contribute a permanent kind of dawn. Their room is small and bare, but they keep it clean. The bed is little more than a mattress propped up on the floor, but big enough for the adults to share and for Ben to sleep in a knobby ball against John's back. New character, more mystery. These paragraphs are reminiscent of a lot of grimy urban tenement stories, hand to mouth, no room for the luxury of planning ahead. Strangely, they also remind me, strongly, of Farscape - the episode after Crichton's died, when Aeryn is grieving. It's the futuristic squalid anonymity of the setting, perhaps.

After a long day of menial jobs or no jobs at all, they huddle together, too tired to be bothered by the high-pitched squeals of the critters getting hacked in the kitchen next door. John's arm reaches behind him, curled around his son's slim waist, the child's face tucked between his shoulder blades. Teyla's hand cups John's elbow, fingers splayed over the efflorescence of Ellia's old feeding wound. Very intimate, but no hint that it's sexual. And the his son implies not Teyla's. This is also where I start wondering exactly when the story is set.

The long winter, the constant press of bodies, the economics of memory that leave John shaking: none of that can intrude upon this hard-won peace. Home is a roof over their heads, food that doesn't fight back, and a shield at last. The bargain, spelled out more clearly. And you have to be pretty desperate if the picture that was just painted is something you're happy about.

* *

The city makes it easy to fall into a routine.

In the morning Teyla stands on a bridge with other day laborers and accepts whatever job will bring home food enough for three. John cleans what needs to be cleaned, washes what needs to be washed, and looks after Ben. In the evenings they sit on the floor in a circle and eat, or, in Ben's case, pretend not to eat. Teyla shares some baffling discovery she made about their adoptive world. John attempts to coax Ben into showing off what he learned that day, and ends up running the commentary of their adventures for Teyla: teaching Ben to count; spelling out the really long words from the first chapter of War and Peace with an alphabet of dry noodles; throwing small black nuts to a bird in the park and ending up feeding the whole colony; sitting on the bed Indian-style, quiet, for a really long time. The run-down of the daily routine gives you a little breathing space. The revelation that John has his book is where I changed my assumptions from 'the city has been destroyed and everyone else is dead' to 'they had to leave the city and everyone else is either dead or fine.' John's life is too domestic for the rest of the expedition to be in a state between dead and fine.

At times Ben's lips move along with the retelling.

After dinner they bundle up and take a short stroll to the local market place and its colorful displays of leeches. They linger on the suspended bridges, because Ben likes to look down. John holds Ben's right hand, and only when Ben frowns does John know he's squeezing too tight. Or is there something wrong with John? Other than PTSD, which I usually figure is a given in most SGA stories.

Every twelve standard days, Teyla returns from work early to sit with Ben, and John walks down to their local immigration office to pay the safety tax. He sleeps badly the night before, and sits on the ledge outside their window, watching the itinerant merchants go by.

Choosing which memory to give up is a little harder each time, even if he doesn't remember what he's lost. John has rules: never give up anything big, anything bad, or anything useful. But what if this is it? The seemingly insignificant event that was the key to the whole edifice; the loss that will unravel him completely. Okay, that's a pretty terrifying concept.

Seated in a chair in the extraction room, John watches the digital monitor on the wall where flat, blurred images play out on a loop. The beginning of the process seems clean and clinical, modern.

"That's the one you've settled on," the technician says. "Are you sure?"

John nods, forcing his eyes open when the technician brings the leech up to his neck. The bite doesn't hurt more than the pinprick of a needle, and the stimulation of the neural pathways feels pretty good as it happens, like a shot of nicotine. When the pathways are destroyed, it doesn't feel like anything. And takes a little turn for the low tech.

Afterwards, the technician conducts a brief neurological check, asks if he wants to lie down, gives him a cup of blue Jell-O that tastes cloyingly sweet. Then, John is allowed to collect three updated ID keys from his case officer at a desk out front. Clarifying the transaction.

On the walk home there is always someone sprawled on a public bench who stares at a breach of sky with tell-tale, vacant eyes. These people need the sweetness of blue Jell-O more than he does, so John gives his cup away and eats at the counter of an ambulatory food cart, shredding pita-like bread into a sugary substance the consistency of yogurt. When the last crumb is gone, John sticks his key in the pay-slot, and a fleet of techno-organic bugs no larger than a fingernail swarm over his bowl, and lick the kitchenware clean to the last molecule. So everyone is doing this? Everyone in this weird ghetto?

Sometimes he staggers to a nearby alley and is sick immediately. After a session, John's body thrums like the aftermath of a college weekend of sex and the worst trip he's ever had all rolled into one, so it can be hard to keep the food down. A physical reaction, or an emotional one, or both? I guess I read it as both.

Back at the resthouse, John has to step over the bodies entwined in the hallway to get to the door. There's a lot of sex in the hallways, which makes sense in a horrible way - having experiences in order to sell the memories, so that whoever the consumers are can live through them, but with the danger/violence/physical consequences removed. Inside he finds Teyla talking quietly to Ben. The boy is huddled under the windowsill, knees drawn tight to his chest, rocking.

"I'm okay," John says, kneeling in front of Ben but not touching. It's never a good time for a hug, for either of them. "I'm back. It's all right. No one took me away."

John tries to be in bed before the shaking starts. He smiles in thanks when Teyla pulls off his boots and piles their blankets and her coat on top of his body. Before he falls asleep, he's aware of Ben's presence at his back, and of Ben's soft keening. Ben's such a quiet passive character up to this point, and now it seems there's something wrong with him, too. Still mysterious and half-drawn. Trauma? What the hell have they all gone through? And did Teyla not go through it as well, or is she just much better at holding her shit together? The touching thing, paired with the quiet, had me thinking severe autism.

* *

When the temperature rises above freezing, they hop on the central elevator and ride all the way up to the spaceport in Bajan major. Breath blooming and wilting on the laminated pane, Ben and John hold their faces to the glass of the cabin window, and watch the cities wilt and bloom around them. Sunlight has been sparse since they landed here, so they packed drinks and sandwiches in Teyla's satchel, having decided by silent consensus to make a bit of a trip of it. It's lovely and subtle, having John & Ben share the same actions.

The spaceport's main terminal sits on top of Bajan's tallest skyscraper, improbable perspectives opening up in all directions. The stargate stands to one side on a dais, unmanned but wearing an iris like a great eye patch. Finding a ledge by the busy loading docks they sit against the guardrail. They eat. Teyla and John pretend to look away while Ben takes apart his sandwich. Teyla recounts the story of a hunt that ended with the women trussing up the men like prey, and carrying them to the village on their shoulders and backs.

"They never tried that joke on us again," she says, aggrieved, the memory of offense fresh on her face. "Hiding in the bushes! Wearing the furs of Jacka beasts, faces painted with mud, like children barely higher than a man's knee! I do not care that we were hunting on the night of the Spirits' Ride. We could have shot them all. And we would have, had their smell not been so...distinguishable." Teyla scrunches up her nose at Ben, whose fists are locked in the lining of his father's coat, and something almost like a smile softens the serious face. "Certainly, Marrick could not blame Shena when her arrow found the perfect center of his...moving target."

John chuckles, insides warmed by the rare luxury of an intoxicant and Ben's foray into humor. Caught up in the reminiscing, he almost brings up that time Ronon got laid by his very own alien priestess. Teyla definitely got some from the two altar boys, but she looked at John like he was concussed when he tried to high-five her on the walk back to the jumper. Maybe not a story John should share in Ben's presence. Teyla is filling up the silence, and John self-edits out of taking part. It's a very strange sort of comradery set into a nuclear family structure.

When the tart sweets Teyla scrounged up for dessert are gone, they watch the setting of Bajan's blue sun over the skyline, the remnants of day cooling to a teal hue. From this perspective, down-city is blanketed in a haze of fog moving in from the sea, and as the primary star of the binary system disappears, the veil of smoke ignites like a pool of ethylene, blue as the purest flame. And this makes me think of Blade Runner.

The effect is transient, a handful of seconds at most, but Ben grips the rail and leans over, and John's whole body flows into the movement, curving around his son's frame like a shell, mouth open on a voiceless shout.

This fear is a sickness. It camps inside John's veins, patient and merciless as an army. He doesn't think that he'll ever learn how to handle it; it doesn't seem possible, now, when his cheek brushes against a head of sweet damp curls, when his clothes smell of child-skin and clean sweat, when his hands cup that thin ribcage and the flutter of life inside it. This is where John's motivations slotted into place for me. Teyla suddenly becomes out-group, despite the way she's acting as caretaker, because all of this fear and the way that John is making himself into both a physical and emotional shield for Ben makes her irrelevant.

Ben grows restless when the embrace goes on for too long, so John pushes the fear out in one breath, and pulls them both away from the edge. Ruthlessly ignoring his still-pounding heart, he points to the massive figurehead of a high-rise ahead, and asks, in a voice almost steady, "What should we call this one? Come on, Ben. Who does it look like?"

John doesn't have to trade glances with Teyla to know she'll play along.

"I'm thinking Brad Pitt. What do you say, Teyla? He's got a little something of Brad in the chin and mouth."

"The forehead," Teyla says, in all seriousness. "And this one," she adds authoritatively, pointing to the left, "looks like the pictures I have seen of your country's president. This must be why we feel at home here." Trust John to initiate a pop-culture based game when he is the only person playing who is likely to get any of the referents.

That rips a laugh out of John.

They keep the game going a while. Charlton Heston. Jennifer Aniston. Britney Spears. Squirming, Ben stretches an arm out to the nearest building, mouth open yet incapable of uttering anything but a frustrated whine. "That's right," John whispers against his son's hair, swallowing around the rock in his throat. "You got it, buddy." It's amazing that these last two sentences ramp up so much fear, desperation, and anguish - while still not revealing anything.

Later Ben is asleep inside John's coat, and John and Teyla lean into each other, legs dangling over the chasm. From this vantage point, they can almost make out the fractal shore of the cities' bedrock, glimpsed through the tight nest of skyscrapers carved into humanoid shapes, and the web of railroads, transport lanes, and bridges spun around the alien gathering. A last flare of daylight reflects off the contours of muscles and sinew, of necks stretched to the sky, of manes flowing onto collarbones, the severe figures tapering into monoliths of organic steel from the shoulders down. This is very cool, skyscrapers like huge pedestals holding massive portrait sculpture. The first time I read this, I was too busy trying to puzzle out what was going on to really appreciate the setting. It's nicely done world-building.

They talk of small things: buying a new coat for Ben, taking a weekend off outside the city. They end up trading inconsequential memories of old relationships: Teyla's boyfriends, who always got taken by the Wraith; and John's girlfriends, who always dumped him. This is the conversation that decided me that Teyla & John are platonic. Maybe because if they were in a sexual relationship, those memories would be weighty information.

Eventually the cold needles the back of their heads, and they leave their perch to clear up the leftovers of their picnic. John pries Ben from his neck and settles the boy in Teyla's embrace, wrapping his scarf around woman and child. And now Ben is clingy like a leech, which seems really normal. I think. For the random hazy age I was working out for him in my head, which was 4-8ish.

The stars are muted by the cities' glow, the second sun still visible but revolving distantly on another plane--barely felt, irrelevant. The moon rising over Bajan's artificial assembly is brighter, almost close enough to touch. A dark band bisects the disk neatly in the middle, not an accretion ring but a shipyard: thousands of derelict vessels ensnare Bajan's arid satellite. A higher level of technology than we've ever seen in Pegasus onscreen. This makes it easy to believe that this planet can have a shield and an iris on the gate and serve as a sanctuary.

After a moment's consideration, John kneels in a pool of darkness and pulls an object the size of a goose egg out of a pocket. Without ceremony he sets it on the ground, presses the crystal in its center, and watches the laser trail of the data burst shoot upwards, moving so fast that it is swallowed by the moon instantly.

Face tilted up, John remains on his knees, and imagines that he can follow the light a while.

Hey there, Rodney. This is your unscheduled check-in.

We've finally found a place. It's lacking in four-star accommodation, but I think we're here to stay. If you could see what I see right now, you'd have a litter of kittens.

Teyla's doing good, and your godson keeps me on my toes. He's fond of drawing inequalities and additions in indelible ink on his hands. I never told you I took remedial calculus in high school, did I? I didn't care all that much, until I learned what I needed to fly.

How're you doing, Rodney? You'd damn better be alive.

And all the guesses I'd been making? This is where I had to start over again. Ben's doing calculus? Rodney's alive but not with them and John can send a message? What?

In the sixth week John receives a visit from their case officer.

At the first knock his body snaps to alertness, and he drops Teyla's shirt in the sink. The peephole doesn't reveal much more than a short shadow standing in the corridor. John drilled the hole himself, but the door's skin-steel keeps trying to heal over it. Nice juxtaposition of high-tech and squalor, again.

Startled, Ben drops a cardboard box covered in existential quantifications, and stares at John in alarm, eyes wide and knowing. John snags him off the floor and tucks him in the door's blind spot, brushing dry lips across the boy's forehead to seal an old covenant. For the first time since they came back from the hive ship, John's glad that his son doesn't have the words to share what's going on inside. And, hive ship. It really does amaze me that the back-story can come out in such tiny pieces and still be so effective.

Ignoring the second knock, he collects the 9mm stashed under the mattress, and the clip hidden in a pair of folded socks. Even as he asks loudly for a moment of patience--covering the rattle of the clip sliding home--John is already assessing and discarding his options.

On Atlantis he had made up tactics, techniques, and procedures as he went along--after Kolya, both times; after the nanovirus; after the siege. Procedures for foothold situations, procedures for natural disasters, for hostage crises, for visits from alien priestesses, for contaminations of all kinds, for power failures, for his death, for Rodney's death, for Elizabeth's. He had spent most of his time on Earth running his scenarios through anyone who would listen. I like this idea of John, suddenly in command and double-checking his plans and ideas, knowing he isn't the best qualified, but determined to do the best job possible so that they can all survive.

Since they left Atlantis, he's been running his procedures by Teyla, and he thinks of her now. She's taken a full-time position as a security guard in a legal parlor, and her shift ends at sunset. If John has to run, he'll leave a sign in a park two bridges north, but there isn't much more he can do. If it comes to a choice between saving Ben and going back for Teyla, there is no choice. That's John's first priority and Teyla knows it.

Damn it, John. Get a fucking grip.

John cracks open the door.

"Honored Guest Sheppard! I'm glad to find you home."

"Case Officer Ekaterin." John's grip flexes around the sidearm in his pocket. The corridor is empty, except for the honor guard of couples rutting against the walls, and they could hide anything and be anyone. "Did I miss a session?" What's he so paranoid about? Who's after them?

"Oh, no! Of course not. I have good news! May I come in?"

Puzzled by the deference to privacy, John reminds himself that case officers are trained to handle the culturally challenged. "Mi casa es su casa," he says, taking a step back to let her through. A quick visual check confirms that she isn't hiding a weapon; there's something to be said for spandex overalls, aside from the obvious. CO Ekaterin is blond, short and curvy, a round face, healthy-pink and good-humored; young, very young, eighteen at the outmost, but on Bajan experience and competence are entirely unrelated to years. More contrast. It's keeping the confusion level high, when this chirpy cheerleader-type shows up in the middle of all the squalor. Particularly when John's gone all fight-or-flight, and she meets that with all this polite respect.

John shuts and bolts the door, shrugging as if to mock his own hang-ups. "This sex in the hallway thing -- it's still kind of new."

"Of course," says Ekaterin. "Is this Protected Guest Sheppard? What a joy to meet you at last! You're so pretty!"

She takes three quick steps toward Ben, who is pale as snow and plastered to the wall, trying his damnedest to meld with it.

"Don't do that," John grinds out, stepping between them. "Ben's shy. He's not used to strangers."

There's a hair's breath between their chests, but it fails to bother her. She looks up at John with a grin. "Of course," Ekaterin says, unruffled by Ben's distressed whimpers. "Acclimatizing is a lengthy process. Perhaps Protected Guest Sheppard should join one of our schools. The young guests learn to read and write in Bajanian. They memorize great works of arts from the whole galaxy, and take part in physical exercises that develop their motor skills and ensure the fitness of their bodies. Every seven days the young guests receive foods and musical recordings and toys in soft fabrics and bright colors sent especially by our Friends. They get to eat and play until they drop. Learning and experiencing is the work of a lifetime." She winks. "One must start as soon as possible!"

"I don't think that'd be the best option for Ben right now," John says, thinking, over my dead body. He ruffles Ben's hair without looking down, the boy holding onto his leg, panting softly like a wounded animal. "He's had some pretty unique experiences so far and I'd rather stick to home schooling. I'm sure you wouldn't want all that knowledge corrupted by cultural shock or psychological trauma."

That gives her pause. "You're right about that," she says. And, horrified: "What if he were to repress?" Wow. Ekaterin is so very wide-eyed.

"Exactly. When Ben reaches the age of consent, it'll be up to him, but in the meantime, I'll be the one taking it for the team."

"You're a distracting guest," Ekaterin chides. "But you remind me that I'm here to impart good news."

"I'm always suspicious of good news," John says.

"Really? Is that a common attitude among your people? A religious imperative, perhaps? You're so interesting! Which is why you've come to the attention of our Friends. You. Personally. Your vast and exotic life experience makes you a rare and treasured guest, Sheppard, and in that spirit our Friends would like to ease your stay here. They wouldn't want to lose you to -- " Ekaterin waves her hand to encompass the room, the din of the kitchens, the traffic, and the corridor. John leans back to avoid getting clocked in the chin. " -- disaffection with your surroundings. We would like to offer you and your Protected and Associated guests lodgings in the green belt outside the cities, as well as more credits per session, and full healthcare benefits. The Friends thing is creeping me out.

"Travel to Bajan minor from your new home would be the matter of a cycle by public Rail, but you would be supplied with your own transport anyway." Ekaterin lowers her voice exaggeratedly: "We used to have beamers for transport in and out of the cities, but too many Guests had flashbacks to Wraith cullings and freaked out, so we dismantled them." She clears her throat. "Which is neither here nor there. Of course, Associated Guest Emmagan would be free to pursue her activities, though your upgraded indemnity means she wouldn't have to work anymore. In other words: drinks all around!" She's bubbly, too. It makes it all even more twilight zoney.

John coughs. "That's quite a brochure."

"You're very lucky," Ekaterin says pointedly.

"That's me. I'm a lucky guy."

Question: "Is there something I can do to elicit your prompt response? Some ritual or formula I must pronounce?"

Prostrate, Ben hums out of the range of human ears, head bowed so low his forehead brushes the floor. His fingers are stained with ink and poke out of rolled up sleeves, slipping under the hem of John's pant leg and over his boot, tracing patterns of inequality on the skin of John's shin.

Answer: He's still the most beautiful thing his father's ever seen.

"Don't call me," John says, steering Case Officer Ekaterin none too gently out the door--righting her when she trips over one of the Olympic orgasming teams in the corridor. "When I'm ready to hear the catch, I'll call you." Very John Sheppard. Everything he says after she makes her pitch is a distancing non-response. But the way that this is told means you know he probably has no choice but to accept.

* *

The catch is a laundry list of memories Ekaterin wants John to contemplate giving up over the next sessions. It isn't binding, or an ultimatum: they badly want him to stay, and consent is an important cog in the mechanics of the whole system (the legal one, anyway).

It's a short list, and Ekaterin readily agrees to consider one of his own.

"They will demand even more personal things later if you say yes now, and they will seem almost reasonable," Teyla says, face drawn. "Plunge a Fresna in a pot and bring the water slowly to a boil, and it will not be aware of the danger. It will allow itself to be cooked alive."

"That's an intergalactic urban legend," John says. I love this line.

He can only afford to plan so far ahead before the stress breaks him down completely, and this gift horse has better teeth than most.

Ekaterin's list reads, in order: sexual practices (any configuration); activities that over-stimulate epinephrine production (other than sex); native foods (sweet); classic works of literature (not War and Peace).

His list reads: absolutely no Bajanian technology in the house; acrylic paint (magenta, emerald, gold, purple, aquamarine, to start with); and: a trip through the stargate, at his discretion.

If he has to use it, John figures he won't need more than one. Finding an escape hatch seems very in character.

* *

The house is built in two days. Its single story sits soberly in the hinterlands like a beached whale, at the foot of a wooded hill worn blunt by wind and rain. The façade is made of white weatherboards and the sides covered in grey shingles. The house creaks from roof to pickled pine flooring like a thing alive and talking, front lawn corralled by a white picket fence and green hedges that grow wild. The two bedrooms and the living room are furnished in mismatched wing chairs, Quaker style desks, beds, and coffee tables, coarse wool rugs and framed watercolors of lighthouses hung on the plain white walls.

On their first visit Ekaterin shows them inside the attic, points out closet space, bangs open the doors of cabinets, jumps on the beds to test the springs, like a realtor on steroids. When she opens a kitchen cupboard to show off the plain white kitchenware, one of the hinges gives out and the door hits her in the head.

"Oops," the officer says, grimacing. "That wasn't supposed to happen."

"It looks kind of like..." John trails off, standing on the porch. From there he can see the ocean and a flat sandy beach beyond a field of tall blue grass. The sea is rolling and crested with foam, rising up to a stubborn sky the color of fresh oysters. Each breath pulls the ocean spray into his lungs. Could there be a setting that contrasts more from where they've been living up to this point?

"A Captain house in Nantucket?" Ekaterin volunteers.

"Yeah," John agrees faintly, stunned.

"That's because it is. Our technicians extrapolated the design from a memory you were kind enough to share with us eighteen days ago." That's well-meaningly creepy.

John turns to Teyla. "My grandfather used to rent a house and take me on holiday in Nantucket," he says, as if that could mean anything to her. He doesn't remember this house. Did it belong to a neighbor? Did he stay there with his mother? It's inconceivable that he could have given up --

John bends over the balustrade and throws up. The physical panic response he has to this whole process, to the aftermath of the bargains he's made, underline what a huge, terrible thing it is.

He pleads a case of spontaneous stomach flu to quash Ekaterin's profuse apologies, and quiet Ben's anxious fussing.

* *

Bajan has two seasons: a protracted winter, and what could generously be called spring.

On the tail-end of the cold days, Teyla, Ben, and John acquaint themselves with the house and its surroundings. Ben won't sleep without John, so they take over the larger bed of the master bedroom, and Teyla relearns the privacy of her own space. Early in the morning the house gets so cold they can almost spot their own breath, so the boys go out on a log-gathering expedition that brings back more mud than wood, and come close to asphyxiation when they start a fire in the hearth. It quickly becomes apparent that Bajan's technicians gathered only a superficial understanding of structural design from John's memory: the flue doesn't actually lead anywhere, and most of the furniture hangs together by accident. It's like they're living in a dollhouse, which seems telling.

Armed with nails, hammer, and saw, John can often be found consolidating support beams and strengthening banisters, refurbishing settees and soldering the stove in the backyard under a rain-proof tarp while Ben paints their one set of garden chairs the red of ripe, bitter apples. Something is always breaking down and John is forever fixing and hammering, often without a clue as to what he's doing, and father and son are both delighted.

With the warmer days the countryside takes on more vibrant colors. When they feel brave enough, all three of them ride retro-engineered bicycles through the empty fields. Ekaterin informed John that a handful of other guests lived in the nearby hills, but they have yet to come across anybody. When sun and sky are blue on blue, they put on rubber boots and walk up the hill. It isn't very high, but this area of Bajan's bedrock is mostly flatland, and the vista opens for miles: behind them, the ocean, which covers most of the planet; ahead, a verdant plain seeded with industrial farms and blanketed by the fog; beyond, the uninhabited wilderness of Bajan's single continent, green and mountainous like New Zealand; and, standing in the middle of the plain like an ikebana arrangement, the cities of Bajan stretch their absurd figures out of the haze and spread their shield over the world. More wonderfully drawn setting.

It doesn't take long for John to think of the house as a home. It doesn't take him long to get used to the antics of a seven-year-old cycling naked around the garden at midnight, and to learn to drag himself out of a warm bed to chase the gleeful child back to bed. Finally a picture of Ben that's full-formed. I actually think the slow way it comes about is effective, it keeps things tense and means that John's strange ungrounded point of view is consistent. It doesn't take him long to learn to cook for Teyla; to remember to draw her a bath when she comes home eager to shed the smell of the cities; to live up to her trust when she asks him to cut her hair. In those first days John's heart is fuller than it has ever been, and it's almost easy to forget the sacrifices that make it possible. Still so domestic.

But some nights he lies in bed, thinking around in circles, and he can swear that he feels every single burned-out pathway in his brain. He wakes up from nightmares, deaf to anything but his own heartbeat, and can't remember his own name. He's woken up and not known Ben until Teyla turned on the lights and gathered them both to her. He's gotten so hot and sick and dizzy that he had to lock himself in the bathroom and listen to Ben cry on the other side of the door. Getting away from the city means that there's mental space to realize that things are getting worse.

These are the days when Teyla asks if it's worth it. John suspects that she already knows, but has taken it upon herself to fill the deepest gaps left by Ben's silences.

"There are way more good days than bad," he says, sitting by her side at the kitchen table, nursing a cup of tea.

"Do you believe that the procedure is...affecting you in this way?"

"What else could it be?"

"I see some grey in your hair," Teyla says. The amount you gain from a second reading in this story is astounding. I was sure this was a non-sequitur the first time I read it. I mean, it's Teyla, so I figured it was somehow insightful anyway. Also, I was thinking, John's 38 now, so 38 and 7 makes some grey in his hair perfectly reasonable.

John stands, deposits the cup in the sink, and says, "Thanks for the tea," on his way out.

She joins him on the porch later that day. She doesn't speak for a long time, reclining in her red garden chair. When the sun dips below the horizon, she says, "What do you dream about?"

John contemplates walking away again, but his legs feel like wet noodles. "Classic stuff," he says, smiling blandly. "Fast cars, exotic beaches..." He shudders. "Showing up naked for a meeting with Elizabeth."

"Perhaps opening your mind to strangers would not be as much of an ordeal if you would share it with a friend." Oh, Teyla. She's great here, and this scene anticipates the one we actually just saw in Sateda, the one where she tries to get John to talk about his feelings.

She says it with a lopsided grin he hasn't often seen, so he's compelled to return it. "You're good," John says, before looking to the shore. He doesn't want to get angry with her; she's not going anywhere, and neither is he. "I've been dreaming about my mother. About my father, too, but mostly her. Maybe the upload knocked something loose."

"Did you not think of her before, then?" Teyla asks curiously, leaning her forearms on her knees.

"No, not often," John says. "She died a few months before we left Earth for Atlantis. Before that, we talked, but it wasn't ever like it was when I was a kid." When they had driven his father crazy, swapping confidences in French over the dinner table, in love with the idea that they could hide anything from him. "She was disappointed when I joined the military. My father sure was, and he didn't try to hide it: I didn't have what it took, I was a slacker, I'd fuck things up and get people killed." Strangely, now that he had fucked up and killed people, it didn't hurt as much to think on a time when they couldn't talk to each other without yelling. They had gotten along so much better after Afghanistan. "But my mother did everything she could to stop me. Going behind my back, pulling strings. And when I did mess up, she wasn't there. Not that I wanted her to intercede, but I was injured and she just..." He shrugs. "She didn't call." Back-story! There are lots of stories that have John & his mother very close, but this also transfers the resentments that you often see between John & his father to John & his mother, which is a really nice twist.

John's Atlantis-issue tablet PC is loaded with Rodney's Dummies' Guide to the Pegasus Galaxy, Volumes 1 through 26, a hundred e-books and movies, and a calendar that keeps John thinking in Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; in January, February and March, rather than winter and almost-spring. Today is close enough to December, 25th that the porch is strung with garlands made from dried leaves, and wreaths of flowers and wild berries threaded with the shells they collected on the beach. On the banister, light and dark pebbles are lined up like a multi-ethnic ant colony. I find it completely believable that John, the guy with the football tape and popcorn, loves the ritual of holidays.

There are some days, John explained carefully to Ben, that you should always set aside to eat well and have fun. This is so like the earnest, half-assed way he tries to explain earth culture to Teyla and Ronon.

"My mother and father were both taken by the Wraith," Teyla says, shortly before dawn.

This time John's stumbled out of bed without disturbing Ben's sleep, but not without waking her. He made it all the way out to the tool shed before he fell to his knees, and she caught up with him as he expelled their Christmas dinner. She helped him to his feet and guided him back to the house, but he couldn't stand to be trapped by walls, not yet, so Teyla sat them down on the porch against the clapboards, wrapped them both in a quilt, and guided his head to her lap. The position must have been uncomfortable, but she held him a long time, rubbing his back until John didn't feel like he was having a stroke. By this point in the story, I've concluded that there's no way John & Ben could be surviving at all without Teyla. She's a rock. But also - re-reading - is John reacting hours or days after an upload session, or is it something else?

"My mother was taken first," Teyla says, carding through John's hair. Also, much love for John letting himself be comforted physically, pretty much through the whole story. "My father, three years before you came to Athos. Though our leaders are not chosen by blood, members of the same family have at times been called to lead, and that is how it was for us. My mother led, and my father was the keeper of our traditions, before Halling. They both understood that I might be asked to lead after their deaths, because of my gift, and though there is a great honor in that duty, in their hearts -- where they carried the true burden of their leadership -- they wished that I would not know it as well. I like this very practical secession system. Those Athosians know how to survive.

"My father feared the toll that the constant choices would take on me; that sacrificing one for the whole would break my spirit; that I would sacrifice myself instead. He was not questioning my character, John, but looking into his own with the eyes of a father. And my mother lamented publicly, in spite of her own example, that taking on the mantle of a leader would make it harder to have my own family; to marry from another tribe. I resented these thoughts, though I let go of the bitterness after they died. I understand them better now that I have watched you with Ben. For this I will never regret following you." This is interesting, expanding Teyla's background, as well as the socio-political stuff about Athos. But it's strange that she's referring to her responsibilities as a leader when she has left her people entirely. I think there's room for rationalization in canon, and that Teyla is still leading from Atlantis, making their tiny refugee nation a part of the Atlantean whole by essentially becoming a part of the command staff. But here she's not even in contact anymore. She's making a point about priorities, but the point relies on a set of information that we don't have yet. It works because we trust Teyla implicitly.

She doesn't say, so you shouldn't regret that I came, either, but he hears it over the blood pulsing in his temples, and finds that he hadn't needed her absolution.

"My mother was a leader too," he whispers against her thigh. "Brigadier General Rachel Sheppard, USAR, Retired. She taught military ethics at West Point, until her son was injured and her country was at war and she couldn't deal with it. She loaded a new clip in her sidearm and shot a bullet in her mouth." Clarifying why the tension is between John & his mother - unlike loads of other stories, here his mom is the general, not his dad. There are a lot of stories with John's mom as a suicide. I'm not sure where I stand on that trend, but it works here, particularly as more of the family history comes out.

They peel off sweatpants damp with mildew and take turns in the bathroom. When Teyla wraps her arms around him, John's whole body shudders, and he leans into her warmth like a man pulled from a frozen lake, grateful and astounded. I read this as completely desexualized contact, but I'd be interested to know how everyone else reads it.

Teyla guides them down to the bed, but as she takes the spot in the middle, Ben against her side, John mumbles, "no, no," and shifts them around until her back is to the wall.

"I'm good," John says. "I'm good." Hugely meaningful act that I didn't figure out the first time through, though it certainly caught my notice. Seems obvious in retrospect.

* *

This is Pegasus, where even the fine print comes with caveats, so, really, life on Bajan isn't such a bad deal.

Residency is conditional on the willingness to lose a few brain cells for the cheap thrills of an alien race on the brink of extinction, but the solar system, perched on the long arm of the galaxy, is months away from the main culling routes, and the gate is locked and the planet shielded. As far as John knows, Ekaterin's Friends have never demonstrated any desire to take the fight to the Wraith, and as long as they keep the immigration under control, the hives seem unwilling to commit the resources necessary to root them out.

Though Ekaterin took him on the Bajan Deluxe tour, John has never met one of the ubiquitous Friends. He's seen pictures of their neotonic bodies, he's heard stories, and he's come to think of them as the Asgards' backwater, inbred cousins: thicker in the shoulders, and, Hermiod notwithstanding, a little grumpier. I love it when I learn new words in fanfic. I do not have a small vocabulary, but it happens a lot. neotonic.

He doesn't know if the Greys built Bajan or moved in, or who the humanoid high-rises are supposed to represent, but he suspects that the figures were the Greys, before they cloned themselves out of reproductive organs, imagination, and a decent nervous system.

Working his way through the list Ekaterin gave him, John can't decide if the human-alien relations on Bajan count as adaptive symbiosis in a hostile world, or if the safety tax brings a whole new meaning to the words 'protection racket'. Sets out what the hell is going on, taking all the puzzle pieces and putting them into place. This is a good resting spot, this section - verifying things.

* *

Sexual practices (any configuration)

Recovering the experience of sex when a body is too distracted/exhausted/sick/numb/freaked out to be aroused is damn hard. When his mojo returns, he'll give them Mara. I want to know who Mara is now. Someone with whom the sex was good enough that the memory will be acceptable as trade goods, but who he isn't going to mind forgetting. Hmmm. Actually I can think of one or two people who would fit the bill, so now I'm thinking Mara wouldn't be interesting after all.

Native foods (sweet)

John has a lifetime of afternoons at the amusement park, ripe for the picking: popcorn and cotton candy, funnel cake and licorice, fried dough, dipped cones, candy apples, cherry floats, shaved ice, hot fudge, brownies, cinnamon rolls and fried Twinkies.

Because John's a nice guy, he throws in the heartburn.

Classic works of literature (not War and Peace)

Frank Sheppard was third generation California Irish, mother a middle school English teacher, father an assembler at the Ford factory. Rachel Levy Sheppard was the only daughter of French Jews who immigrated to Long Island before the War: her mother was a minor poetess, had hung out with Sartre in the Front Populaire, had taught philosophy at the Lycée Montaigne; her father was a watchmaker.

From his father, John got the complete Hemingway and a leather-bound edition of Huckleberry Finn. From his mother: Fitzgerald, Tournier, Beckett, Rosset, Molière, Epicure, Kafka, Schopenhauer. On a deserted island, John would take Camus and Huxley. I like the implication that desert-island-books and one-way-trip-to-another-universe books are different categories. Because they ought to be, seeing how one is books you'll read in solitude and the other isn't. But I digress. Again.

Ekaterin confides that the Greys don't care about the text as much as his reaction to it: the way the words shaped or unshaped him, the stories his people tell about themselves, the meanings they invent to justify the continuation of their race. The literature thing seems really inoffensive, until you get that explanation. How do you give away the memory of something that shaped you? And what does that mean to your personality afterwards?

John gives away Shakespeare. The one with Leonardo diCaprio.

Activities that over-stimulate epinephrine production (other than sex)

His second flight. Not his first flight; his first is a commercial flight with his mother, and he's too young and too goddamn scared to enjoy it.

The second time, he sits on his father's knees in the cockpit of a Blackhawk, and he feels the lift up in his stomach, that momentary tug-of-war with gravity before they pull free and rise in the spotless Florida sky, looping over Tallahassee.

He's still scared for a handful of seconds, reaching for the ground, but his father laughs and the horizon tilts sideways, and John whoops, throat too full for words. Frank Sheppard's large hands are wrapped over John's on the stick, his solid thighs bunched under John's as he adjusts the angle of attack with the pedals.

That night at dinner, it's Rachel Sheppard's turn to frown, left out of their connivance, their foreign language, and their private joy. He's so clever and biting with the food and literature requests, and puts off the one about sex, though I think we can assume he's being just as clever there. It makes the idea that he's even momentarily considering giving up the things he lists in this category just gutting.

Eleven days in a basement, Shahikot valley, Afghanistan. His captors are young and not all that smart; it's pure bad luck that they got to him before the PJs. They're brutal and loud, and John doesn't have a fucking clue what they say. They take his shoes and socks, and force him to stand on a bad knee with a noose around his throat, but only for the first day, because they get bored. Bored. That seems chillingly realistic.

His time is spent in the dark. He gets so cold that he stops shivering. When he doesn't doze in stops and starts, he watches the door through swollen eyes. He listens: to the chatter upstairs, to the mountain, to the local yodel of a cranked up radio.

On the evening of his escape, they bring him up without binding his hands: they want him to hold up a newspaper and make a video. When the camera is rolling, the youngest says something and the others guffaw. John doesn't get it, until a hand yanks on his hair and his mouth is forced open by the canon of an AK47.

He struggles, jabs, kicks, howls. The muzzle hits the back of his throat and he gags. In and out, in and out, the metal oily on his tongue. They're laughing like children on a merry-go-round.

When the camera's battery runs out, the kid holding the AK pulls back and screams at the other two. John doesn't remember making a move for the rifle, or later, lacing on his boots, scrambling outside, limping through the rocks, stumbling upon four Afghan militiamen who sell him back to the Americans like John's a runaway bride.

During the debrief, they tell him that the house has been found and the kids are all dead. In fact, everyone's dead: his crew, killed in the crash after the RPG hit; and the stranded special ops team he broke orders to retrieve in the storm. Jesus. No wonder he loved Antarctica.

What kind of stupid fuck is out shooting rockets in a storm?

"It's a tough war," his father says from the side of John's bed at Landstuhl. "They've got suits in DC going over the heads of officers on the ground, Specters aren't allowed to fly in daylight, soldiers pay for their own body armor, and the SEALs keep strutting around like goddamn prima donnas." Nope, no love lost between the Colonel and the SEALs. "Last month the MPs caught a guy at Bagram, dicking a little boy."

Three weeks after the hearing, John stands in his parents' house in Ojai. He is packing for McMurdo, having refused the offer of an early retirement. His father is there. Neither of them talk about the General.

"You did what you had to do," Frank Sheppard says. "You come back from war an asshole, but you don't have to stay that way."

The words are gruff--a kindness and a liberation, perhaps the most natural conclusion of their relationship as men too alike for their own good.

They make such appalling soldiers, Sheppards; all three of them.

Antarctica embraces him like a lover in a dream: the continent is slow, aphonic, and bright. John sleeps in his thermal wear and he's never cold; the horizon is open; he's got a no-music rule in his chopper. Eventually the mess chow stops tasting like cordite, and there are movie nights and the occasional fuck. It helps that his edges stand out so sharply against the ice.

His father writes him twice: great weather in Ojai; he's been asked to speak at SERE; the General's been brought out of retirement to lead a quiet investigation into accusations of misconduct at Camp Nama. Goddamn politicians, goddamn Joint Chiefs, goddamn SEALs. Second verse, same as the first. Rinse, repeat.

Flying back two months later for his mother's military funeral, it occurs to John that the videotape of a bunch of kids raping his mouth might have just made the rounds. Hey, how 'bout that fucked-up helpless guilt? There's enough for everyone, don't be shy.

Sleepless in Atlantis. First contact is a rush: a slim, manicured hand, sliding up his thigh. The aftermath is an uneven presence on the border of thought, below language but above intuition, a sense that Atlantis hasn't always liked them as much as they like her. John doesn't tell anyone because it sounds crazy, and Rodney's pretty good at not letting the city mess him around, even if he doesn't know it.

But when they're jumped by an energy creature that's been sleeping for ten thousand years, it's there. When they die screaming, infected by a nanovirus; when the shield is a little slow to rise; when a Wraith goes undetected in their midst; when a firewall breaks down or a ZPM kicks up a fuss, and every time Atlantis shivers under their touch, it's there: that reluctance, that grudging lust shading into resentment. The sense of an awesome sapience; a beast, primordial and alien and slumbering, awoken by a reckless, demanding, ignorant progeny--shoving into her their alien language, stealing her energy and scarring her walls. The city lights up for John because she can't help it, betrayed by the imperatives of her nature, debased in his presence, helpless but to crave his touch even as he brings fire and death down on her. Oh wow. I really do like the idea of the city as a presence of some sort, AI or otherwise, and this makes sense - she's asleep for ten thousand years, and when she wakes, she's filled with pretenders, interlopers, abominations.

John's the lowlife who got the prom queen falling-down drunk, banged her after the dance, and passed around the Rohypnol.

But here is the killer: if not for that understanding, John wouldn't feel kinship, and he wouldn't love her. Maybe Atlantis has seen too much war, and maybe she's kind of an asshole now, but so is John. Maybe she didn't want to leave the bottom of the ocean but couldn't help it, like John didn't want to leave Antarctica but couldn't help stepping through the gate. And maybe she didn't want to be responsible for all of these people, to have to make them her own. Neither did John. He gets that, damn it, he really gets it. I like that John sees himself and the city as equally victims, equally culpable.

Atlantis doesn't have to stay an asshole, either.

All of that is either big, bad, or useful.

Instead he gives them:

His first golf round ever. Abdul is Afghanistan's only professional golfer and owes his fussy gait to the Taliban who flogged the soles of his feet with a steel cable. John doesn't even play golf, but there's something about Abdul's weathered face, his irrepressible joy, his determination to reopen Kabul's golf club for business, that appeals to John's sense of the absurd. The green is brown and sandy; the only technique one needs is a good whack--especially at the first tee, hidden behind the carcass of a Russian tank. The fairways are studded with shrapnel, and John's stash of cigars and Chivas goes to bribing Jonesy's de-mining unit. When they give the all clear, Abdul borrows a dozen sheep from a cousin and sends them in. When that doesn't result in an impromptu mechoui, they meet for the first game.

At oh-five hundred, John and Abdul step onto the course, wearing helmets and body armor and grinning like loons. The sky is a piercing, royal blue, and Afghanistan is unbelievably beautiful. Some of John's guys--Mitch, Repro, Kalman, Rodrig and Dex--provide the cheering section. Sitting on beer coolers, they belt out the Star-Spangled Banner and the first measures of the Sououd-e-Melli, in horrifically mangled Pashto that could get them quartered. They yell "Fore!" when Abdul lifts his club, and "Fire in the hole!" when it's John's turn to swing. Only when John's at twelve over par and the entertainment attracts the local drug lord and the mujahideen, does someone remember to invite a medic. This is a great crazy Afghanistan story. And what a relief that this is what he's giving them, after hearing the other options.

* *

"You seem more relaxed," Teyla points out after that session, waiting for him in the kitchen with a snack of his favorite yogurt and bread, and a small jar of preserves that taste like boysenberries. "Have these last procedures not been so taxing?"

John holds up a notebook, unaccountably embarrassed. "I've been writing down the memories before I sit in the chair. Before it felt like that would just make it worse, you know, if I reminded myself of what wasn't there -- that I'd go crazy trying to put pictures and feelings to a Post It note," John says, shrugging. He still wakes up fighting some nights, but he knows how to deal with that. "I don't know if that's what proper therapy is supposed to be like, but I'm spending so much time looking at stuff and putting it in boxes and setting it aside -- Important, Not Important -- it's... I don't know what it is."

Teyla's smile is blinding. "It does not matter, I would guess, what it is that brings you peace. I am glad that you are feeling better."

Her pleasure on his behalf is infectious, and John leans over the tabletop, sharing a conspiratorial wink. "I had a thought," he says. Teyla looks dubious, and he laughs. "Come on, hey, listen: I thought I could ask Ekaterin for a playback interface, a neural headset and a couple of leeches, and I could upload some old games." He points at his forehead. "I have them memorized. You've no idea how many times I've wished I could watch Flutie throw that pass like it was the first time all over again. And I could introduce Ben to football and popcorn and beer. How cool would that be?"

He manages to project innocence through the dawn of horror on Teyla's face, through her confusion and her understanding, but not through her ire.

"John Sheppard," she growls, rising to her feet with murderous intent. "You have a horrible sense of humor! You are a terrible man! You are -- you are worse than Ronon." Hah. Like that's a surprise.

She beats on his shoulder as he doubles over, laughing. She doesn't stop until he yelps and whimpers, "Ow, ow, ow," and Ben, that night, ends up kissing his bruises.

* *

I should have asked for gouache, John finds himself thinking when Bajan settles more firmly into almost-spring.

The days have lengthened. If he is looking for Ben, John's likely to find the boy outside, chasing his spidery shadow, walking the field of tall blue grass that borders the property, or sunk in a mysterious contemplation that never fails to draw the breath faster out of John. On cloudless mornings Ben also likes to climb the mossy limbs of an ancient elm to the tree house John built out of the technicians' failed attempt at a rowboat; Ben'll stand in the door, a frozen sentinel, and look out to the sea. Afternoons are devoted to coating the picket fence in blues and greens, each stake painted neatly, the boards nailed across them delineated with geometric precision. It's gorgeous, the way John keeps stopping to marvel at Ben.

A slim brook of water runs down the hill, and when John steps out onto the porch to call Ben for dinner, it's a wet eight-year-old who drags his messy self to the bathroom, bashful as a drowned rat.

"It's acrylic paint," John explains, again, drawing from reserves of patience he hadn't known to be endless. This, clearly, is why they invented combat pay. "Or whatever the nice aliens call it. Cold water isn't going to help, however fun it is to jump feet-first in the stream. Once it's dried, you need the special soap," he shakes the bottle and makes a face, listening to himself, so fucking whipped, and says, "fine, fine," when Ben tugs on his sleeve.

Already drenched, John pulls off his shirt and pants, and steps in the half-filled tub. Ben knows the drill, and sits between his father's legs with his back to John. "That's it, buddy," John says, pouring a dollop of paint remover in his palm, "tilt your head back." He keeps the stream of comments going, massaging the soap into the boy's hair: "Close your eyes, hold still. I don't want to get you, and I don't want to get me. What's Teyla going to say if we show up at the restaurant looking like a pair of spaced raccoons?" Ben's narrow shoulders shake briefly with mirth. "Yeah, that's right. You she'll cluck over; me she'll beat up again."

Tonight they celebrate Teyla's promotion to head of security, so John shaves after the bath, and Ben stands next to him on a stool, combing his hair over and over, small face serious and looking to John for approval. He's come so far, grasping nuances he'd never have before, and John has to pull the blade away from his throat long enough to swallow. Oh, Ben.

Getting dressed is the usual test of strategy and cunning. Ben has rituals and will not be deterred, and though whatever internal logic remains consistent, the specifics vary randomly from day to day, leaving John at a loss to predict which pants will find favor, and which shirt will have to be put on and off three times, backwards and forwards, before Ben condescends to wear it. Left to his own devices, Ben would go out stark naked.

Taking advantage of the ten minutes required for Ben to properly mismatch his socks, John toasts two slices of thick brown bread, takes off the crust, and spreads one slice with a thin layer of the pasty yogurt, and the other with an equal layer of jam. After cutting each piece of toast in half, he sets the plate on the living room table, in full view of the bedroom's open door, and wanders off to hunt for a clean pair of camos in the laundry room. When he's located both pants and underwear, he hops on the dryer, plucks out the book tucked between the iron and the washing powder, and reads two more pages of War and Peace.

Ben likes to pretend that he doesn't need to eat. That his body, plainly and simply, does not require food. At the restaurant, he'll sit and stare reproachfully at his plate. To get Ben to eat, John must leave food lying around, hide it in the tree house, or wrap it in tinfoil and stuff it in Ben's coat pockets. It can't be meat, or anything that was ever remotely alive. Sometimes John will prepare something for himself and Teyla, but wander off, as if he's forgotten. He'll find the empty plates later, stacked in a closet or buried in the yard. I love this so much. I love that Ben does it, and I love that John isn't fighting it, or has given up fighting it.

The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power--the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns--should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.

We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand). The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us.

Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can now do or abstain from doing this or that action; but as soon as he has done it, that action performed at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.

John shuts the book, reminded that the General had hated Tolstoy. So I haven't got anything to say about Tolstoy, though I sort of wish I did. I have a feeling that knowing more about War and Peace might pay off here. There are certainly things being said about John, and how he got to this point. But: on the inclusion of the text, in the middle of this scene - I can certainly comment on that. It stretches out the moment, this quiet tranquil afternoon mood, preparing to go out and celebrate. And that's really effective.

In the living room the table is spotless, the plate of toast nowhere in sight. Ben sits cross-legged under the windowsill, dwarfed by his yellow raincoat. He stands and trots up to John, holding out a pair of rubber boots, no sign of the food except for the crumbs on his front that John's not allowed to notice. Ben is insanely cute here. Insanely.

"So who's driving the minnow?" John asks, struggling to pull the boots on wriggly blue and yellow feet. A small finger pokes his collarbone. "Me, huh? Our vaunted Sheppard cool goes up in smoke each time we're seen in that thing, you know that?" John's kind of insanely cute, too.

Their personal transport turned out to be a convertible tin can that looks like half of a dead fish. On a good day it floats a few feet above the ground. No way in hell would John call that flying.

Outside the dusk is thick with sodium and seaweed, wind blowing in from the deep and sifting through the tall grass with a sound like silk tearing. The skies sag over the shore, burdened by clouds lined with lead. John gets down to one knee on the hard boards of the porch, tugging on the strings of Ben's coat. "Com' ere, Ahab. I think we're about to drown." He ties the hood on with a double bow, because Ben is very particular about his knots. "Who the hell designs a permeable soft top for a floating convertible in the Pegasus galaxy? Couldn't they retro-engineer a T-Bird? No, really, I'm asking." John hopes for a snort--Ben often responds to his tone and his expression more than the actual words--but the shoulders under his hands stiffen, and Ben takes a small step back. "Hey, kiddo, what --" Following the boy's line of sight, John turns around.

There's a man standing at the gate. This set-up is straight out of scary movies. Archetypal, with the weather, and the way everything spins on a dime, from adorably domestic to the panic of every hero-in-hiding in cinematic history.

His hands are hidden in the pockets of a dark overcoat, the face obscured by a peaked cap and a full beard. The intruder is tall and hulking, but his shoulders are hunched in the manner of one accustomed to wrestling smaller opponents. He stands in the dim light at thirty yards, but John can feel the weight of his stare, and he nudges Ben closer to the unlocked door. "Son of a bitch," he swears under his breath. "Goddamn fucking son of a bitch." John knows who it is instantly. I kind of like how the reader doesn't get to know until later - it's like he's reacting on instinct, and we get to find out what he's reacting to only when he's ready to think things through in words. Not that his actions are exactly transparent the rest of the time.

"Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard," the man calls out, unmoving.

"No way," John breathes. "No fucking way." One hand feels for the sidearm concealed in his pea coat, while the other reaches back for Ben. "Go inside, buddy. Duck and cover, like we practiced, okay? Duck and cover." He steps backwards, feeling Ben's grip on his thigh, the boy trembling and inching his way back until the door is opened and closed.

"Colonel Sheppard," the man addresses him again, pulling his hands out slowly, raising them. "I'm not here to harm either you or yours."

John doesn't draw his weapon. If it comes to that, he'll kill him quickly, barehanded; he won't blow Kolya's head off in front of his son. "Genii are the freakin' roaches of the Pegasus galaxy," he mutters, angry at himself. He let his guard down. Forgot, for a moment, what was out there.

"I'm not armed," Kolya insists. "Can I come in and speak with you?"

"Let me think on that for a minute. Wait, no, I don't think so," John laughs from the front steps, assessing and calculating odds. Always keep them talking. "Where the hell did you come from? Took an evening stroll, saw the light, thought you'd be neighborly and stop by for a beer?"

"Yes," Kolya says. He points to a direction around the hill. "My house is over this way."

Any minute now, Ekaterin is going to jump over the hedge and yell: Smile, You're on Candid Camera! And then, he'll have to kill her.

"Go away," John says. "Or I'll shoot you where you stand."


"Last warning."

They understand each other; their kind of assholes always do. Kolya brings his hands down slowly; he is careful to keep them linked at the small of his back when he turns around and walks away.

* *

John needs the better part of an hour to coax Ben out of his hiding place under the bed, where he rolled himself up in a blanket, like a quilted tortoise. John waited ten interminable minutes on the porch after calling Teyla. He made himself wait and listen and scan the property for more intruders before going to Ben and drawing the boy out with the doll-soldiers that John keeps in a special box.

Teyla announces herself on the comm and comes in at a half-run, disheveled and holding her sidearm naked in her hand. She crouches by the settee where Ben is bundled in his father's coat, staring sightlessly at the dark hearth. John sits on the armrest, 9mm in reach on the coffee table but out of the boy's sight. It's like Ben is made of trauma.

"I inspected the perimeter for half a mile through the woods, and did not find signs of a presence," Teyla says, eyes trained on Ben's pale blank face. "I borrowed motion sensors from my office and set them up around the yard." She fixes narrowed eyes on John. "You are both unharmed?"

"He walked away when I enforced my property rights."


She stands and leans over him. Her fingers knot in the hair at the nape of his neck, sweet pressure guiding his forehead to hers.

"We may have to run," John says, breathing her breath. "But if you want to stay --" Oh, come on. That's so John, but how can he even ask?

"I would not have it," she cuts him off, though not as sharply as she could.

"We have a good life here."

"Yes, and we will fight for our right to it."

The motion alarm is more of a soft ring than a whine, but it gets John up and aiming at the door.

Teyla brushes a hand over his forearm. "I called Ekaterin," she says, and a brief glance through the curtains reveals the diminutive case officer walking quickly up to the porch.

"I have to talk to Ekaterin for a minute," John says, crouching in front of Ben. "I'm going to step outside, but no one is going to take me away, and no one is going to take you away. I won't allow it. Teyla won't allow it. Okay?" Ben doesn't even blink. "If you hear some yelling and a single shot," John says, throwing Teyla a look, "don't come running too fast." I wonder why this fear that John will be taken from Ben is so strong. I get it, going in the other direction, but I wonder if perhaps part of the reason Ben feels that way is a reflection of John's fear.

He stalks out the door, intercepts Ekaterin before she can knock, and drags her by the arm into the backyard, where the wind is holding back the rain.

"Honored Guest Sheppard!" she squeaks. "Associated Guest Emmagan told me you were attacked!"

John shoves her toward a garden chair. "Sit down," he bites out. Ekaterin sits. "What can you tell me about Acastus Kolya?"

She lights up, smiling. Ekaterin wins the special prize for the super-dense, here. "You've met Honored Guest Kolya? Excellent! I knew you would get along famously. He's interesting, too! Not as much as you, of course, but," she leers at him, "memory contributions from our local guests can become so tedious after a while: harvest, harvest, culling, harvest, trading, harvest, harvest. But you and Honored Guest Kolya! I advised that your house be built close to his own. I'm his case officer, too, you see?"

"What? No! I don't see. Me and The Little Fascist That Could are not going to 'get along famously' -- or any other way mortal enemies can get along. He's tried to kill me and some very good friends of mine too many times; pretty much killed my dog and pissed on my Bible, too, and are you crazy?"

"I don't think so," Ekaterin says, but she seems willing to discuss it. The way the question was hidden in a nest of cultural referents would make me willing to discuss it, too. Anthropologically speaking.

John resists the urge to pace, or pull out all of his hair. "How did he find out about me? When did he get here?"

"Honored Guest Kolya was with us for a full season before you came to Bajan. As for finding out about your presence, he often has business in the cities. Perhaps he spotted you or Guest Emmagan at the Rail station." She sobers. "It's not our policy to advertise the identity of our guests to each other." Yet she's been hoping they would connect. Ekaterin is just strange enough that you don't forget that she's coming from an alien outlook. It's very effective.

"Look, Ekaterin, this isn't going to end well."

"Why not? You have so much in common."

"Exactly! We have so much violence in common! He's gotta be armed, I'm definitely armed --"

"Oh, pish," Ekaterin says, waving her hand.


"What kind of hosts would we be if we let our guests come to harm? We take our responsibility toward your safety very seriously. And these weapons are such a hazard -- the contraptions some guests come up with!" She shakes her head. "All weapons are detected and neutralized by maintenance drones upon arrival or soon after."

John stares down at his 9mm, betrayed. He hefts the sidearm and considers testing Ekaterin's confidence in Bajanian technology by shooting her in the leg, but he aims into the woods before squeezing the trigger. Nothing happens. He tries again: nothing. He ejects the clip, shakes it, inspects the bullets: all accounted for. I get that John wouldn't have had a chance to test his gun before, that he's been preoccupied and panicked and ill, but it still seems a little strange. Unless he thought they didn't know about it, which seems like a lot of wishful thinking. And put that way, maybe it is believable - I think John Sheppard has vast resources of self-delusion.

Why can they neuter his gun, he wonders, but can't fix the leaks in the bathroom? These asides are the perfect leaveners in this story. They keep the tone of John's POV just where it needs to be.

"We know how attached some of our guests are to their weaponry," Ekaterin says, fondly. "This seems a more humane solution than confiscating them altogether. Most never even notice." She rises from the chair, slowly, as if John might turn around and bite her. "There, there," she says, patting his shoulder. "We have much experience in these matters. Do you need to talk to a counselor?" Bizarre.

"No," John says, lost.

"We strive to adapt to the special needs of our Favored Guests in all ways," she continues, as if he hadn't spoken. "Our Friends' basic requirements tend to be simple and specific: they can't eat, can't have sex, and can't die. They can't fuck each other," absurdly, the word shocks him coming from her, "and they can't kill each other, cannot fathom it in fact, which seems to have stunted their capacity for creative problem-solving considerably. These particular requirements make for a very skewed guest population. Therefore our main concerns have been security, and the prevention of sexually propagated diseases." This is interesting because it implies that the system isn't just about entertainment - that it fulfills a need, that the Friends need this input to keep their mental functions intact. Like otherwise they have evolved themselves into complete sensory deprivation.

"So you're telling me," John asks, for the sake of clarity, "that Bajan's Favored Guests are either old whores or old soldiers?" He rubs his hand over his eyes. "Gives a whole new meaning to make love, not war."

"Oh, no no no!" Ekaterin exclaims. She winds her arms around John's waist, and hugs him warmly. "There's no rule that says you can't do both."

* *

John contemplates seeking Kolya out: maybe a good old pounding followed by a pissing contest would result in a status quo that'd let him relax a little--though there is no guessing whether Ekaterin would intervene. He wonders at other security provisions, the kind of surveillance which guarantees the safety of the guests, and who does the policing. Whether they are all as polite and amenable as Ekaterin. He doesn't want to test it.

John has more pressing worries, because now it's Ben who can't make it through the night. The boy sleeps fitfully and wakes up wailing and panic-stricken, as frightened by his own shapeless screams as he is by the horrors in his head. Crying and choking on his own incomprehension, howling at the ceiling and the universe that couldn't even grant words for his terror, for his supplications and his brutal beginnings. There's nothing John can do but hang onto the thin body and grit his teeth against the impotence that could so easily be the end of him. But he can't let go, he's all Ben's got, no matter that it kills John to see Ben in so much pain; nothing has ever brought him closer to breaking than this child's suffering.

So they rock together, huddled in the middle of the bed, too far from daybreak for a hope of release, and John makes what few promises he can keep.

"I know, buddy," he whispers over Ben's frustrated growls, "you've got so much to say. But I hear you, I hear you, Ben, and tomorrow we'll walk to the top of the hill. I'll carry you on my shoulders," he stops, jaw locked, throat tight and raw; and Ben pants, eyes wide, "and you can shout to the sky and to the whole world. You can tell them. You let go of that barbaric yawp," John tries to laugh, but his lungs are filled with broken glass, "and everyone will know. We'll all be listening."

Teyla stands in the doorframe, her eyes hard and shining, a hand over her mouth like a shroud pulled over a stillborn scream. John stares at her, and he knows his whole face is begging.

They are enraged and undone, and it doesn't seem right that the universe could hold all of it.

"I love you, Ben. You're not alone. I love you so much. Breathe, Ben, please, breathe with me."

Fuck you, bitch, John will think, right then. Fuck you.

It isn't the grievance of a man toward a nameless deity. Brutal beginnings. And the villain of the piece.

* *

Early on Tuesday morning a hand grips his shoulder and shakes abruptly. John says, "Damn it, Rodney, I have last watch," and wakes up, and jerks to his feet.

The living room is desaturated by dawn, polished furnishings scattered like fish bones washed out on a beach. He fell asleep on the sofa, still dressed, the dregs of a cup of tea on the floor by his feet, an afghan tangled in his legs. He looks for Ben and his sidearm and finds neither. His body and brain feel like he's been tied down and beaten.

"John, are you awake?" Teyla's fingers dig between bone and muscle, jolting him. "I have looked everywhere. I cannot find Ben."

"What?" John processes the state of the living room with one look, trusting Teyla to have checked the integrity of all access points, then strides into the bedroom. "His raincoat's missing, and his boots. He could have gone out to the tree house?" he says, already moving.

"I have searched it. He is not there, nor is he in the backyard nor the field." Teyla meets his frown head on when he pins her with a look, angry that she let him sleep through it. "I found this on the kitchen table."

The strokes of the crayon on the sheet are angry and deep as a stab wound; Ben tried to spell what might have been John's name, but gave up, thwarted and desperate, the letters breaking on a cliff side, a mountain--a hill.

John swears, and briefly squeezes his eyes shut. "He's gone up there. I told him -- and he's gone by himself." Ben's so full of...something. Feeling, emotion, arcing need to express himself. Too big for his little body, his inability to speak, his inability to write anything other than math.

"It is raining heavily, and there is little light."

"He'll try to follow the stream. Damn it. How long since he's been gone?"

Teyla's eyebrows fold. "I could not say. I am sorry. The storm has washed the ground clean."

John is already moving, tying on his boots, pulling on gloves and his warmest raincoat; he packs a knapsack--water, first aid kit, flashlight, a small box of biscuits, a handful of magnesium flares--cursing the loss of his tac vest. He pins his Bajan-issue communicator to his collar, and sheathes his combat knife in his right boot; he can't see how the technicians could possibly have neutralized that. Teyla follows suit. "Comm Ekaterin," he says. "If she doesn't already know what's going on, explain. I'll follow the stream as far as I can; it's my best hope of tracking him. As soon as you're done, let me know what's Ekaterin's advice--she has resources we don't--then take the path cutting north through the woods. It's better to cover that one, too. And watch for landslides."

"We will find him," Teyla says, but John's already out the door, down the porch steps, across the front yard and through the gate.

On a clear day, dawn is pristine and liquid blue, the landscape gunmetal grey, as if Bajan were hoarding color and energy, powering low. Today the cloud cover sucks the light out of the ground and leaves only shadows. The rain falls in sheets, thicker and sharper as John pushes deeper into the woods. The meandering brook is already a torrent that surges over rocks and dugged-out roots.

"Ben!" he shouts, "Ben!"

John's eyes shift from the ground to the top of the hill he can only guess at through the liquid curtains drawn between the trees. He trips one, two, three times, and picks himself up, blinded by sweat and rain, grappling at trunks, at helpless saplings and slippery roots. He shouts for Ben again, but his voice is hoarse and the rain bruises the words and pounds them into the ground.


Raindrops shred tree bark into paper paste, peppering John with shrapnel.


A heavy hand grips John's raincoat between his shoulder blades, and he twists around, arm raised, teeth bared, prepared to swing.

"Colonel! Wait!" Kolya lets go and raises his hands. He gestures to the comm unit strapped to his wrist, and yells over the tumult: "Ekaterin called me!"

John's rage rolls out blood-red behind his eyes. "I don't have time for you, Kolya!"

"She sent me to help!" Kolya isn't wearing a cap and the rain pours in rivers down his beard. "My word of honor as a soldier and a Genii: I am here to help you find your son!"

It may be one of the toughest threat assessments he's ever made, but after a moment in which he considers snapping the man's neck, John sets his jaw and points to the top. "He's heading up there, he's wearing a yellow raincoat, I don't know what kind of lead he's got, and he can't call for help. His name is Ben." He doesn't wait for an acknowledgement, turning around and grabbing a low branch to pull himself forward. So much of where John is sits in this decision. I can sort of see him making an alliance with Kolya to save any of his people, if he thought it was necessary, but if it weren't Ben, it would have taken longer than a moment.

They don't talk. There isn't breath to spare, and once it looks like Kolya is going to keep to John's left wing, John can't be bothered to think about him. What's a leisurely trek in fair weather requires a single-minded focus close to abnegation. The grove is thinning, taking away handholds and footholds. John shouldn't stay in the torrent's bed, but he refuses to stray from Ben's most likely path.

Fighting the weight of too many sleepless nights, John can't react to Kolya's warning in time.

"Look out!"

His eyes shoot up from the ground and he sees the wall of debris surging ahead of sound: a flash, an instant photograph of mud and hillside boiling where a stream should be.

The flow takes him out above the knees and he spins three-quarters of a turn before going down. There isn't time to yell before the hill fills his mouth and eyes and ears; there is pain, sharp, in too many parts of his body, and disorientation like a short, brutal ride in a centrifuge. It can't be more than seconds before his arm is yanked, reclaiming him from the earth and dislocating his shoulder in a single move. He whites out and comes back to a pressing need for oxygen, water pouring on his face, strong arms wrapped around his ribcage, squeezing until he heaves. He vomits, coughs, vomits again, consciousness weaving around the knife shoved in his shoulder.

Something inside says, let go; and something else snarls, don't you fucking dare.

"Drink," someone says, pressing a water bottle to his lips.

A little water floods his mouth, cool and clean. He throws up again, huddled on his knees, tears flowing with the pain. A callused hand cups his forehead and keeps him from regurgitating forest debris into his own lap. When he's done, tilting sideways with a breath like a sob, another hand braces him by his belt.

Kolya is talking: "-- are you from the promontory? Colonel Sheppard requires immediate medical assistance. Can you triangulate my signal?"

No. John lets himself pitch forward, catching his weight on his good arm, jarred into a bitten scream.

"Have you located the boy? Hold, Teyla Emmagan -- Sheppard, keep still." Surely Kolya knows that the one sure way to make sure John does something is to tell him not to.

Clenching his eyes shut against the wire-tight constriction of his sternum and the burn that spreads down his collarbone, John gathers his body and heaves himself upright, functional arm flailing for a hold, legs shaky as a newborn colt's. The rain washed the mud from his face, but his hair is falling in his eyes and he blinks harshly, searching for a direction.

Kolya's shoulder materializes under his hand, and John lets the Genii shore him up. "You're injured, Sheppard. Ekaterin dispatched airborne reconnaissance crafts. They will locate the child."

"Kolya," John rasps; the agony of a scoured throat is exquisite. "Fuck off or help me."

He doesn't have the strength to hold his head up, but he could swear that Kolya smiles when he says, "Very well." This sounds right. Kolya respects strength, and determination in following a path. Even if he might not agree with the way that path is followed.

John staggers the rest of the way in a state short of full awareness, each step autonomic and relying on another for direction. Exhaustion, pain, the war drums of cold and rain seem muffled and distant, a story whispered in a stranger's voice against his ear.

They reach the hilltop, buffeted by lateral winds. John doesn't spare a glance for the cities in the plain or the aircraft darting toward them like a cadre of silver fruit flies. He tries to call for Ben, but can only dredge up a croak.

Gripping the sleeve of Kolya's long coat, John asks in a voice all but gone, "Call his name," and Kolya stares at him. "Ben," John says. "Call for him."

When at last the storm weakens, John's strength goes with it. Coughing harshly, he slides down a tree trunk, shoulder held tight to his torso by Kolya's hasty bindings. Kolya is stalking the breadth of the promontory, keeping to the edge of the copse; he searches the ground for tracks, shouting Ben's name over the wind.

John's vision is greying, but as he tips his head back, color flickers through the foliage.

"Hey," he murmurs, "funny little monkey." He lifts his arm and crooks a finger. "Come down," he mouths. "Come here."

Cautiously, shooting nervous looks at the daunting bulk of the Genii, Ben wriggles down the tree and crawls to his father. He is shivering but unhurt, washed clean by the rain.

"Did you tell them?" John whispers, rubbing their noses together. "Did they listen?"

Ben nods and coils on top of him.

"Yeah," John says, before he goes away, "me, too." Jesus.

* *

John comes to briefly as he's loaded on a gurney, Ekaterin hovering over him. "Oh, dear," she says, sounding genuinely upset, "that wasn't supposed to happen."

He drifts up close to the surface some indeterminate amount of time later, to a chest on fire and a familiar sensation of warmth along his spine. Before the bed is jostled and the feeling disappears, Teyla says softly, "No, Ben. Your father is very ill and needs all of his strength to recover. You must not disturb him." Small fingers, clumsy and warm, pat his brow and cheek. "Come, we will collect plants from the herb garden and make a tea that will ease our sore throats." John tries to open his eyes, to let Teyla know that it's okay, he doesn't mind, he wants Ben to stay, but the world slips through his fingers like a goldfish and swims away.

When he wakes up again, he's not really awake. He's back in the cell aboard the hive ship and the bitch is coming for him. He was so cold before, but he's burning up now, and comes out fighting. The inhuman hands of the drones close around arm and hip to hold him down. It hurts to buck up and twist and resist--the right side of his body feels wrong--but what's a little more pain in this hell? What can they possibly do to him now? Voices demand that he give up, but no way, it's the last thing he's got: making it as hard for them as possible, not letting them strap him to that table again without sharing some of his rage. But he hears sobbing, and he remembers Ben--remembers that, as long as the bastards are busy with him, they'll leave Ben alone. So he stops fighting, forces himself to go limp, and lets them take him away. So I'm really not good at anticipating plot twists or putting together the pieces of what's going on. After this paragraph, my thinking went every which way, trying to puzzle out the ways that Ben and John could have been on a Hive ship, tortured. And how that could work with where they are now. I started reading this at just before midnight, and it's things like this that meant I could not stop reading and go to sleep until I was finished.

For a while after that reality is a fuzzy patchwork of memories darting past, some indistinct, some much too vivid. He's led back to the world by a beam of light aimed at his right eyelid, a muffled, arrhythmic pounding that originates outside his head, and the mother of all needs to pee. He opens his eyes and flinches away from the play of sunlight across his face, setting off a chain reaction of dull aches everywhere. Swallowing back a groan, he takes stock of his surroundings: his bedroom, his bed, curtains billowing lazily across the open window. The breeze is warm, the mattress comfortable, and despite residual pains and the urging of his bladder, John takes a moment to appreciate that he is millions of light years away from the hive ship.

He's about to investigate his state of dress under the covers when the discomfort in his bladder swells and fades away. Unsettled, John ventures a hand toward the waistband of his drawstring pants, and encounters a solid obstruction the rough shape of a scarab, glued to his skin right above his groin. Having experienced the wonders of Bajanian medicine before, John orders himself sternly not to freak out. However that gizmo works, it beats a catheter Foley by virtue of not being shoved in his dick.

He manages to sit up and haul his legs over the side of the bed on the second try. Movement reveals another scarab at his throat, and one on his ribs, below his bandaged armpit. He doesn't try to rip them off, aware that he should be hurting a lot more than he is, weary enough of pain that he'll put up with the mid-level freak-out of alien med-tech.

The bedroom door is wide open on the hallway and the living room, but there's no one in sight. John debates calling out, but drags himself to his feet and shuffles to the bathroom instead.

He doesn't look that bad for a guy who got caught in a mudslide. Pale skin brings out the scruff of a week-old beard, his hair dried sideways, and a bruise is already turning purple-charcoal-black on his cheekbone, but he's better rested than he's felt in a while. He splashes water on his face and chest, and brushes his teeth. Spreading toothpaste one-handed requires every bit of ingenuity he can dredge up from survival school. He foregoes shaving entirely.

A slow tour of the house reveals a string of empty rooms and a handwritten note in the kitchen. John is drawn outside by the lure of the suns and the forceful hammering echoing through the walls. The front door hangs open on a sun-washed porch. The boards are almost too hot under his bare feet, not enough to scald but enough for the heat to spread up his calves, unlock his knees, and nestle at the base of his spine. Lovely, sensual description. It's the most beautiful day he's seen on Bajan: the grass so green it sparkles, field and ocean and sky preternaturally blue, colors more primordial than primary.

John digs his toes in the lawn and let's the earth remind him that he's safe. That everyone is safe.

"Good afternoon, Sheppard."

John turns and lifts his head slowly, bringing a hand up to support his shoulder. "What the hell are you doing up there?"

Kolya sits on the roof like a Viking with a passion for DIY That might be the best description ever. Awesome. It also brings home that John doesn't see Kolya as an immediate threat anymore, a hammer in one hand and a shingle in the other. It's a mystery to John how the support beams can possibly hold the weight.

"The storm blew off most of the roof cover above your largest room," Kolya says, adjusting the angle of a nail before giving it a firm whack. It goes straight through.

"Ekaterin's technicians couldn't handle the repairs?" Kolya stares down at him, until John's forced to concede, "Yeah. Right. Forget I said anything." It's nice to know the Bajanians aren't any more skilled at Genii home design than they are at building Captain houses. Though how hard can it be to dig an underground bunker? "Thanks," John says, after clearing his throat. "Not for the repairs, though, obviously, for that too. But for helping out during the storm. I owe you one. A big one."

Kolya nods. "Ekaterin said that you would wake up today. Teyla Emmagan took your son to the cities to buy food and other supplies. She seemed to believe that the child's presence would overwhelm you upon waking. She left a note on the kitchen table, assuring you that he is in good health and none the worse for his ordeal."

Which doesn't mean all that much. But it says a lot about what's been going on while he was out, that Teyla would leave him alone with the Genii.

"How long was I out?"

Another shingle. Another whack. "Four days. Your condition was serious, though not so that you couldn't be treated here, with a medical technician monitoring your progress remotely."

The air still carries the clean scent of violent summer rains, and John sits on the stoop's highest step, contemplating the horizon while Kolya works through the rest of the pile of shingles. Whack, whack, whack. The ladder propped against the house creaks ominously under the Genii's weight, but it holds. Kolya walks past John inside the house without comment, and returns with a glass of juice and a bottle of something brown.

They sit side by side, the step wide enough that John doesn't have to fold around the railing or lose another shoulder.

"You know that Cowen isn't in charge anymore, right?" John asks, looking straight ahead. "You've heard about Ladon's hostile takeover?"

"And about your, shall we say, unwitting sponsorship of the new regime?"

There's no way to tell whether Kolya's pissed or amused. "Why didn't you go back? Ladon's a smart guy, but he didn't strike me as being cut for planetary leadership."

"The months I have spent in exile have altered my perspective," Kolya says, "and my strategy, accordingly." Whoa. Okay. And this is where I go WHAT? Because suddenly it isn't at least seven or eight years in the future. It can still be counted in months.

"Yeah," John agrees. "It can do that."

After a moment of silence, Kolya says, "A son," and John cuts him a look. The man is shaking his head; the beard and the hair remind John of his father's old black Spaniel. "I have to say the resemblance between you is striking. I wasn't aware that you were a father, Colonel."

"That'd have changed anything?"


"Thought so," John says. "And quit calling me Colonel. I've resigned my commission."

Kolya frowns, saying, "I suspected, but I didn't want to make assumptions," which is almost comical. "You don't have to tell me, Sheppard."

John sets down his glass, tensing. "I don't."

"No," the Genii says, "though I'd imagine it has something to do with this."

Before John can flinch away, Kolya grabs the bottom of his tee-shirt and lifts the material all the way up, exposing the white feeding mark John knows lies between his shoulder blades. It's faded like an old scar, the size of a melted dime, almost invisible. Notwithstanding the lack of claw marks, no one in the galaxy would doubt its origin. An interested outsider is what's necessary to finally pull back the curtain. This is just amazing, and new parameters for Ben and what's going on are coming hard and fast.

John jumps off the porch, moving too fast for the scarabs to keep up. The burst of pain wrenches a cry, and he hunches over, clutching his shoulder.

Kolya is there to hold him up.

"Let go of me!"

John tries to protect his vulnerable side, but Kolya only tows him to a garden chair.

The Genii steps back, arms crossed. He leans against the railing while John recovers his breath, not looking away when John wipes involuntary tears off his face.

"If you touch him, you die slow," John rasps.

"I gave my word," Kolya says. "If I wanted to harm your son, I would have done it when I saw him feed on you."

"He doesn't feed on anyone else," John says, head hanging heavy, adrenaline fading out of his system. "And he takes almost nothing."

Hours, maybe days of his life. John would never have found a better use for that time.

"Emmagan stopped him from draining you." So every time Ben has been snugged up against John's back is recast, as well as the way he coiled around John on the hilltop, and when he climbed into the bed when John was recovering. But it stays so sweet, somehow. Nursing, sort of.

John bangs his fist on the armrest. "He's not Wraith! Not any more than Teyla or me..." John looks up. "Not much more than either of us." And since both Teyla and John have a shot of Wraith, or something like, in their genes, that really isn't saying much. Of course, Kolya doesn't know that.

Silence settles in the interstice between the words they both lack, and John looks west, to the border of the woods. The storm has wrecked surprisingly little devastation, save for a few snapped branches. If the mudslide reached the bottom of the hill, it didn't come near the house.

"It's a long story," John says. "You're not going to like any of it."

He doesn't know why it should matter that Kolya understands; maybe for the same reason that Teyla's acceptance counted above all others: this place is all Ben's got to call home, and your home shouldn't hate you.

"All the stories my mother ever told me were of the Wraith," Kolya answers dryly. "I never liked those much, either, but I learned to live with them."

John shrugs and bites his lip at the burn. "Fine. Try not to interrupt."

There's no good way to start, but he begins with Teyla, the gift and the Wraith experiments; Beckett and the idea of a retrovirus used as a biological weapon; Ellia and his own conversion. He speaks to the floor or the sky, but he's aware of Kolya moving from curious to startled to appalled.

Midway through, Kolya drags up a chair. He sits elbows on knees and hands clasped, gaze unwavering. When John explains Michael and the deal with the Wraith, Kolya squeezes his fists so tight he must be drawing blood. The muscles of neck and jaw bunch and twist, the grimace of a predator chewing on prey.

"Sheppard, you..." Kolya's wordless with apoplexy. See, this is the thing about Kolya - he's a smart guy, and he's been devoted to fighting the war against the Wraith his entire life. It's so right that the actions of the expedition make him crazy - the expedition is all bull-in-a-china-shop arrogance and it's horrifying.

"I know," John says, shoulders hunched and eyes tired. "Don't bother. I got smacked down in ways you'd never have thought of."

* *

Some of the decisions John made in the past year Kolya can appreciate uniquely for being an exile and a soldier; others, less, and for the same reasons. Different histories, different cultures, different militaries--the span of a galaxy between them. There's nothing to gain by sharing some of the realizations John's come to, the questions he's asked himself, given distance and a whole new perspective.

Case in point: if John tried to explain the Atlanteans' failures in terms of a lack of doctrine, or inexperience in asymmetric warfare, Kolya might very well stare blankly at the stupid Earthling before slugging him in the jaw. In Pegasus, no human's ever hoped to experience the symmetric kind. This is a really good point.

How could they fail to understand that?

Strategic considerations hadn't entered John's mind when he'd hitched a ride through the hive ship's hyperspace window. He'd been all tactics and objectives: sneak in; free Ronon and Rodney; give the Wraith the run-around while Rodney used his brand spankin' new expertise in Wraith software to develop a virus of his own; if all else failed, break out a canister of retrovirus so that any Wraith who reached the Milky Way did so human. Run like hell.

All else hadn't failed, except for that last part, and John'd yelled at them to go, had watched his teammates take off in a dart from his choice spot on the floor under a Wraith pile. He hadn't doubted for a second that they would come back for him; that they'd try. I can't decide if John really hadn't doubted, that he learned that they wouldn't give up from his experience in Epiphany, or if he's just trying to convince himself that he shouldn't doubt it. I suppose it doesn't matter.

"You've ever been interrogated by a Wraith queen?" he asks Kolya, who shakes his head no, but looks grimly intrigued. John rubs his hand over his face. "Turns out that repeated exposure doesn't help."

He wasn't used to thinking of the Wraith as individuals--as personalities-- but she had been smarter, less dogmatic, more patient that the others. Willing to treat him as something other than cattle, to not underestimate the human on his knees. Exposure to Michael had changed that hive.

She had been angry at the loss of Earth and the hyper-drive--of course she'd been pissed, and let the drones bat him around. But she'd asked straightforward questions, too. About command codes and gate addresses and the location of Earth; about troop numbers, the ZPM, the Daedalus, their allies, the ATA, the city's defenses. He'd almost leaned into the drones' fists, then, because he was the military leader of Atlantis, and he'd allowed the enemy access to his base. No one else was to blame. Yes. John's the hero, and compulsively rides to the rescue, but he's command staff as well. He's the last person who should be captured, and he knows it, he knew it when it was Sumner captured.

John sees that reflected in Kolya's pockmarked face.

"They kept it up for a couple of days. She held the threat of feeding back. At first I couldn't understand why. She seemed, I don't know, intrigued. Bothered by something."

He hadn't noticed it at first: the lack of sustained pressure on his mind. Michael had drifted in at one point, when John had been struggling to keep himself sharp. Remember, John had said, smirking blood-red: People are friends, not food.

"When she brought in her pet geek, I knew my holiday was about to go downhill," John says, and he remembers the smile that gave send in the clowns a whole new ring, stretching impossibly wide when the Wraith scientist had stripped John naked and strapped him in the scanner. John had named him Dick, because Mengele was too easy. The queen he called Mary Jane, until she became just bitch. She had leaned over the table, her shark's smile close to his mouth, her tongue surprisingly dainty and pink, slipping out, a horrific prelude to a kiss. "Your smell is...enticing," she'd purred, inhaling his fear. "A hive smell. A nest smell. Perhaps," she had licked a strip of skin from his jaw to his ear, mocking him, "you are family." Nest smell. Yes.

"She couldn't get into my mind and she wanted to know why," John says. "Dick's scans showed primordial Wraith genetic material embedded in mine. He thought that my ancestors had been subjected to illegal hybridization experiments, but somehow the trait that gives people like Teyla their 'gift' was bred out of my lineage, closing my mind off to the hive." He coughs, mouth dry. "The bitch wasn't much for that kind of speculation, so she jumped straight to human testing." I like this idea that the Iratus retrovirus has somehow innoculated John against mind control. It's a clever device.

John coughs again and lifts his glass, but it's empty. Kolya eyes him, takes the glass inside the house, and returns with two bottles of the brown stuff.

"Root beer with a kick," John comments after a swallow, nodding in appreciation. "Think the doctor would approve?"

"Go on, Sheppard," Kolya says. Without compassion or empathy or much of anything else. But he waits patiently for John to drain three-quarters of the bottle.

"She fed on me." He hadn't known that his throat could produce such a sound, or that his lungs could sustain it that long. "But she gave it all back." This feeding and replenishing thing is extra-creepy. It's similar to what happens in The touch of her hand.

And...time out. For a comment about the story thus far. It's about these constant, nibbled-to-death Faustian bargains, all in the service of Ben's safety and well-being. And up until this point, I thought it was John trading away pieces of his past. But suddenly that's turned on his head - the safety tax is still an awful, chilling thing, but what John has really been doing, the larger thing we haven't been privy to except in constant tiny hints, is trading away pieces of his future. Of his lifespan. It's intimately done, out of love, and so it isn't creepy at all, I think. But John, at this point, standing still in the present, with time being nipped away both behind and ahead of him, that just blows me away.

* *

Teyla and Ben return from the cities loaded with shopping bags, and trailed by Ekaterin. Ben's enthusiasm is visible from the gate as he bounces up the lawn, chin up, free of the tension that had strung out the small body before the storm. It will come again, nothing is ever that easy, but John's gotten pretty deliberate about enjoying the good times in between.

Kolya's mouth is still stretched in a grim line, prompting John to kick him in the shin. "I don't want you to look like that in front of him." He heaves himself out of the deck chair with a grunt. His ass is numb, he feel wrung like an old towel, and now his toes are bruised. "Cheer up. We'll finish this later."

Ben has clearly been wondering why his father's been lounging in bed all week. Impervious to Teyla's imprecations of caution and calm, he tows John to the couch, sits him down, and proceeds to unpack their shopping one item at a time.

"Paint, paint, paint, and oh, more paint!" John laughs. "We're running out of things to paint, you know. You'll have to get started on trees."

When the bags are empty and Kolya has, out of some karmic notion, been relegated to the kitchen to cook dinner under Teyla's supervision, Ben brings out his notebook, leaving John to scour his memory for inferences and entailments and partial derivatives symbols--which he is then required to draw (left-handed) but not, thank God, explain.

Before he's forced to admit to the voice in his head, which sounds a lot like Rodney, that he never cared one wit about tensor products, Ekaterin plops herself down on the couch, flashing her Inoffensive Mogwai smile, and appropriates his good arm. Mogwai! What a great way to show how John sees her. At this point, he even seems to trust Kolya more than Ekaterin.

"Hi," he says.

"Hi, Honored Guest Sheppard." I really like how she's sort of randomly started snuggling with him, but is still using full honorifics. Hilariously alien.

"Thanks for the bugs." He nudges the scarab glued to his carotid. "Much less conspicuous than the last one that bit me in the neck."

Ekaterin points at his groin. "You can take that one off."

"Er, thanks."

"But the others must stay on for two more days. If you require assistance --"

"Well. No." Like a true Bajanian resident, he hardly blushes anymore.


"Ekaterin, call me John, all right?"

"All right, John."

That never worked before. Huh.

John bends to ruffle his son's hair, and Ben looks up from the floor. "You keep working on those derivatives," John says gravely, hauling himself to his feet, "because you'll have to explain it all to your old Dad some day." Ben's eyes smile, if not his mouth, and that's enough.

Ekaterin badgers him into a coat before they step outside to watch the tail-end of sunset. When she lights an unfiltered cigarette, John raises an eyebrow. "I didn't know you guys had cigarettes. I didn't know you smoked."

She shrugs helplessly. "I didn't yesterday. I went out to a parlor for a drink, downloaded a smoker's leech, got addicted. Spent the day running around like a Wraith with both hands cut off, hunting for a pack." Ha! Great. John rolls his eyes, and it all comes out, a Bajanian logorrhea: "I'm so sorry, Honored -- John. Protected Guest Sheppard should never have been put in jeopardy without our knowing. Such a breach of contractual safety will never occur again if I have to guard this house myself, you have my word. And I'm so very ashamed that you were injured because of my decision to send Honored Guest Kolya to you. Why, if you had not been distracted by his unwanted presence --"

"Ekaterin, shut up."

She plasters herself to his side, radiating heat, alive on the memories of others. "Please, you're not angry? You won't leave us?" So is Ekaterin becoming more emotionally invested because she is consuming more memories? Because she was cheerfully efficient, before, and now she's all over John.

He couldn't leave if he wanted to. His skin is clammy, every cell clamoring for rest, and the cigarette smoke is making him nauseous. "Stop fretting. I'll report for tax duty tomorrow as scheduled."

"Absolutely not!" Ekaterin says. "You're exempt from sessions until your body can handle the stress of extraction, which I have on good authority won't be for another twenty days."

"Oh." He blinks, allowing himself to take that in. It sounds like...a paid vacation. Something for nothing, time for himself, safety with no strings attached. He's not quite sure what to do with that. "Thanks."

Dinner is a surreal experience: Teyla and Kolya make ruthless small talk about the care of herb gardens, Ben builds tensor products with his peas, and Ekaterin instructs John on the wonders of Bajanian catheters (she once traded leeches with a medical technician) while fondling his knee.

He dozes off mid-sentence, and leans on the women all the way to bed.

* *

John sleeps sixteen hours, which doesn't seem to shock anyone, and he gathers from Teyla that the infection in his lungs got pretty bad before it got better.

Breakfast is a cup of black tea in the backyard; another sunny day, still atypical but cooler than the last. Teyla says he isn't confined to the house, so they put together an overly ambitious picnic, lure Ben away from his kaleidoscopic trees with the siren song of multicolored seashells, and pile up in the minnow.

The shore is an hour's rambling walk from the house, a third of that in the transport. John is happy to let Teyla drive. He is aware, not for the first time, that he should miss flying more, that he hasn't tried to sweeten Ekaterin into making him a ship yet, but he doesn't know where that thought could take him and lets it wither in the sun. Ben is humming under his breath between a purr and a song, his back against John's side and his feet up on the backseat. John dozes, rocked gently by the ride and Teyla's sure hand, head resting on the folded soft-top.

The littoral is a wild and deserted stretch of dune, thick grey sand tamed into a narrow beach along the waterline, dotted here and there with outbursts of chaparral. Blackened lengths of driftwood are strewn across the shore, stuck deep into the sediment at the water's edge and reaching out to the sky like severed arms, the unwitting perches of a colony of weary seabirds. The ocean, buoyant and green, never fails to remind John of the Dead Sea, though he's caught some sweet breaks the days before a storm. Here the breeze is cooler and the light hazier, but they spread their blanket in the sweet spot of a dune and the sweaters come off.

"I hope you are feeling better," Teyla says after lunch, when Ben is engaged in a solemn staring contest with the local wild life, and John is letting the sand's magic work the kinks out his shoulder.

He doesn't open his eyes, but smiles. "You're not going to pull an Ekaterin on me, are you? I'm doing fine. In fact, I'm doing great. Ben and I are sleeping better and generally aren't as much of a sour bunch to be around. If a mud bath and a bad shoulder's what it takes, I can live with it."

"I do not know what pulling an Ekaterin means, but I will choose not to be insulted."

John sneaks her a look under his lashes. Teyla's smile is indulgent but distracted. "You've taken a lot of time off work, lately. It's been a problem?"

"Ekaterin has, I believe you would say, pulled some strings. As a result, my employer has been quite understanding."

John sits up too fast, groaning. "Tell me they haven't asked you to..." He points at his temple.

"No." Teyla sounds honestly taken aback. "I would not do such a thing without talking to you about it, first."

"Yeah, sorry." John waves his hand in a don't mind the crazy Earthling gesture, and he keeps still when she tugs at a lock of his hair, submitting to her no-nonsense tenderness. There's nothing sharp about Teyla, he knows that, despite her skill and her fierce love, nothing that can hurt him. He's humbled by her grace. Always has been. "Don't think I don't know how much I take you for granted," he says quietly, "or that I could ever forget what you've done for me and Ben; what you left behind."

Teyla's smile shades into something fond and definitive. "I will tell you a secret, John. I did not do it for you. I did it because it was the right thing to do and I could not have lived at peace with myself otherwise. So you see, I am also selfish."

"I don't think --" He stops, but Teyla's inquiring look incites him to continue. "I don't think we're meant to cut ourselves off from home like this. I've always --" He shakes his head. He spoke the thought half-formed and now it's gone; he's no longer sure what he meant to say: cutting himself off from Earth, or from Atlantis.

"Perhaps we are not meant to leave," Teyla agrees carefully. "But when we have gone, neither can we return."

That gives him a hard jolt, right under his ribs. "You wouldn't -- If Ben and I weren't in the picture, you wouldn't jump on the chance to go back?"

Teyla's hand on his face is cool and transient as rain. "I never had an opportunity" She stops, as if unsure of the word, like it's foreign somehow but she counts on John to translate and make up for the lack. "There was never time to think back on the decisions that were made; all energies went into survival and keeping ahead of the Wraith. When we met, I had to choose quickly what would be best for my people. I have struggled to understand all that was at stake and not lose myself as well." Like this is Teyla's first chance to really find out who she is. Like she's moved out from her parents' house for the first time. She withdraws from their closeness, taking her eyes away to watch Ben's silent conversation with the seabirds. "What we did to Michael...I do not believe that I appreciated what Dr. Beckett's treatment would do. I grasped it in my mind, but your science is still...not something I was raised to understand." She huffs angrily. "I do not seek to make excuses. I am trying to explain that since we left I have looked on past actions with new eyes -- in truth, since you disappeared with the hive ship. I do not think that I could take my new eyes to Atlantis and see what I see and be as I was." This is interesting - Teyla is painted as a person who cannot refrain from doing what she thinks is right, which rings true.

What do you mean? he had asked, before his world came crashing down.

They are Wraith, she had answered pointedly, looking right at John like her team leader was a little slow.

He chuckles, now, a whisper of a laugh aimed at himself. "I think your old eyes worked just fine."

* *

On Monday, Teyla goes back to work and John wakes up to a bowl of something foul shoved under his nose, swallowing back his plea for five more minutes, mom. The tax amnesty has moved him to a somatic lethargy he's not experienced since the summers of his childhood and the lazy Saturdays spent at his mother's knee after a hard week of playing and biking and baiting the SFs, when she had worked on her articles and her syllabi, reading her notes out loud. He's been dreaming about her again: nonsensical cameos mixed in with vague impressions of Elizabeth lecturing to a classroom of disappointed children; of Teer, who loved him all of her life and yet left him behind; of Teyla, who drags him down a flight of stairs, skipping two steps at a time--three, five, ten--until they're flying, the handrail their only tether. Dreams of strong women.

"They never told me you were moving in," John deadpans into his pillow.

"Get up, Sheppard."

"Sorry, I'm not that kind of a girl."

A meaty hand falls on his shoulder and John is up and shoving Kolya against the wall, a forearm pressed across the Genii's throat, before his eyes are even open.

Pottery shatters against the hardwood, sprinkling John's feet with drops of hot tea. His vision swims with white spots, but he grits his teeth, locks his knees, and hangs on until his blood pressure catches up to the morning calisthenics. "I owe you, but that doesn't mean you can take liberties." He leans forward though the angle is wrong; the other guy has the advantage of height. "Are we clear?"

Kolya's eyes burn darkly, but his expression is set. "We are clear, Sheppard." His chin digs into John's ulna with each word. When John pulls back, Kolya doesn't even pretend to massage his throat.

"Where's Ben?" John asks, unsettled that it wasn't his first question. Poor John. Afraid of not being afraid.

"In your tree house. Emmagan was with him until she had to leave for the Rail station. She sent me to get you out of bed."

"Honeymoon must be over," John mumbles, scratching his belly where the scarab left an itchy spot.

The air inside the house is cool on his bare chest. Crossing the hallway and the living room to throw a look out the window, John sees that the quixotic climate has struck again: the sky is milky white and the lawn drenched with dew. Heedless of his half-naked state, John steps out the side door and crosses the few yards to the elm, scaring a murder of black birds into flight. The cold goes down in his lungs like a tall glass of iced water.

"Hey, buddy, you're all right up there?" The rough opening of the tree house yawns a few hand-spans above his head, but John knows better than to violate the sanctuary by popping an eye in uninvited.

Ben appears, a thick woolen sweater thrown over his pajamas, hair standing every which way like a startled porcupine. Pre-pubescent Sheppard boys make my ovaries do funny things. Seriously.

"You're warm enough in there?" John asks, grinning. "You're sure you don't need your coat?" Ben shakes his head no emphatically. "I'm about to make myself some breakfast. Want a glass of hot milk?" More head-shaking. "Cookies?" Dark look. It was worth a try. "I should shut up and go away?" Ben nods firmly before retreating inside his lair. "Gotcha."

John slants a look over his shoulder, but no ex-Genii officer is standing in the door laughing his ass off at the ex-military commander of Atlantis.

Said ex-Genii officer is too busy picking china out of the floorboards. I kind of like Kolya. And I'm happy that he's in this story, like this, because it makes me feel like at least there's a reason I like him, and it's not due to some mysterious brain-fever.

"You know," John says, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the doorframe, "sooner or later you'll have to tell me what's going on with Ekaterin, and the reborn Christian neighborly act, and the whole not being out there stealing other people's hard-earned ZPMs."

Kolya looks up from his crouch, a rag in one hand and a dustpan in the other. "I will tell you, Sheppard."

"If you turn the other cheek, I'm going to lose it."

Confusion flickers across Kolya's face, but smoothes back into neutrality. The guy seems determined not to take anything the wrong way. "Your son is not really your son," he says. "He came from the Wraith."

John blanks, then breathes out. "Still going for the sucker-punch," he says, smiling thinly. "That's my man." He snatches an oversized black turtleneck off the foot of the bed (casualty of Ekaterin's adventures in knitting, but it's warm), and pulls it over his head, crouching to bring himself eye to eye with Kolya. "We're going to talk," John says quietly. "But I'm laying it out now: no one gets to tell me who is or is not my son. You get a free pass this time on account of the storm."

John stalks to the kitchen, pulling pans and preserves out of the cupboards. He's never learned to cook; his mother didn't know how, hated it, and once he joined the Air Force, he never had to worry about it. In the cities, the first non-essential item John splurged on was a cookbook. He still doesn't really enjoy the handling of food, he'll never be a natural or particularly good at it, but there's something easeful about an act so normal, so hands-on, so...necessary. There's both a creativity and a discipline to it, a skill for holding all the parts of a single picture in one's mind--kind of like flying.

Teyla says she enjoys watching him in the kitchen; she hinted, once, that it must be therapeutic. And of course, Teyla can't cook for beans.

"I apologize," Kolya rumbles behind John.

"Grab those roots and clean them, will ya?"

"What are we making?"

"Breakfast casserole." John sticks his head in the fridge, looking for clotted cream. "I got the recipe from Ekaterin. I'm feeling wild."

They work together side by side for a while, mincing, peeling, squashing, Kolya at the dinner table, John standing at the worktop, his back to the Genii.

"After the queen fed on me and restored me, the Wraith were beside themselves," John begins. "Something about me made it easier to take more for longer, made the feed more efficient and rewarding, and that something could be bred, could be passed on." John smiles grimly, peeling a small, local lemon. "You see, those guys, they weren't the type to put all their eggs in the same basket. So while the queen and Michael were after the location of Earth, the scientists had been trying to engineer food." It makes far more sense to me that the Hive would use Michael as a resource, as they do here, than that they would repudiate him. Sure they might look at him funny, but the queen threatening to kill him? I didn't get it.

The steady hits of Kolya's blade falter. "They were...making humans?"

"Yeah," John says, frowning. For all that his life turned into a Star Trek franchise after he stepped through the gate, he still forgets that it's just life to those who were born here; that despite their ancestral struggle against a militarily superior enemy, their lost civilizations, their occasional exposure to left-over Ancient technology, guys like Kolya have never heard of in vitro fertilization, or Dolly the sheep, or The X-Files; they've never had to wonder what makes a human human; they don't have the slightest idea of what's possible. "Babies created in test tubes," John says, "using the genetic material of humans they'd culled, selecting the most resistant breeds, incubating the embryos inside women they kept in cocoons." He blinks away that particular horror, refocusing on Ekaterin's instructions. "Rate of growth was the problem, though, because they'd woken up early, and that had fucked them up badly, and the prospect of starvation was literally driving them mad. They wanted a new food source now." That's a good way to explain a lot of the poorer decisions and infighting among the Wraith, actually.

John squints sideways at Ekaterin's proportions. Either his Bajanian is going down the drain, or he's cooking for an army. "So they did what we all do. What everyone does in the Pegasus galaxy: they turned to Ancient technology to save themselves."

"But they couldn't use --" Kolya starts. Then, "Ah," he corrects himself. "They had you."

John nods sharply. "They'd salvaged stasis pods from damaged Ancient vessels, and Dick had found a way to reverse the process -- accelerating metabolic functions, rather than slowing them. So the women would bring a child to term in a matter of days, instead of months."

"By the Ancestors," Kolya breathes out behind John, the knife falling silent.

"They succeeded through trial and error, trying to breed the exact characteristics they were looking for, tampering with the embryos in all sorts of ways," John says, staring down at the thin strips of raw meat marinating in spices and bitter fruit juice. "The first pregnant woman they shoved into a pod turned inside out instantly." So this idea was super-horrible in the last paragraph. Now it's both chilling and disgusting.

He remembers throwing up on Dick's stylish boots--can still smell the sourness of it. He remembers making himself watch the next woman, and the next, and the next; all the women who died before Dick managed to adjust the ratio of acceleration, cooling micro waves, and combustible energy to something a human body could handle. Even then the first surviving surrogates had birthed stillborn babies.

"Ben was the only viable prototype," John says, staring at the wall and thinking that the Wraith had been desperate, but mostly they had been excited by the possibilities--excited, like Rodney or Beckett or Zelenka got excited on the threshold of discovery. They'd seen the potential for a steady supply of high energy food, shorter hibernation periods and more flexibility to pursue territorial conquest; subjects that could control Ancient technology for them; studs that could be introduced among the wild herds to repopulate Pegasus and propagate the desirable genetic profile. "The woman who carried him to term didn't survive," John says. "I never knew her name, or where the ova came from."

He remembers Dick placing the day-old baby in the stasis pod. He remembers biting clean through his lip and turning away, both dreading that the experiment would fail and the baby would die, and hoping that it would.


Somewhere no leech can ever hope to reach, John keeps this perfect memory: of kneeling by the stasis chamber, helpless and awed and terrified, watching his nameless son grow from infant to child in a matter of days. Of being handed food and a blanket, because Dick had wanted John to talk to the child, and it hadn't occurred to him that John would have done it anyway, that he had already fallen in love. And when they had dragged John away before taking Ben out of the pod, he had fought them. When they had brought Ben to his cell, unresponsive and in pain, he had hated them with a rage that could have fueled a sun. When he'd asked, during the weeks of invasions and humiliations that followed, why Ben responded to John's voice but didn't talk, they had said: it wasn't bred to speak, and he had lost it. Truly lost it, and come at Dick with his bare hands. This made me tear up. Poor Ben. Poor John.

"Sheppard. Sheppard."

John snaps back to himself, wrist held down to the worktop by a callused hand, knuckles white around the carving blade he used to strip the meat away from bone.

"You weren't answering," Kolya says in a low burr, releasing his hold carefully. "I didn't want to startle you."

John nods, stomach roiling. Eyes keen and dark, Kolya retreats to his chair, picks up his knife, and resumes the expert chopping of a herb sprig.

"How did you escape?" Kolya asks when they are done, kitchen cleaned and casserole in the oven.

"We didn't," John says, hands red from the cold water of the sink. "Michael took us both out of the cell one day. He loaded us in a dart, gave me the coordinates of the closest stargate, and sent us on our way."

"They let you go." The disbelieving twist of Kolya's mouth is visible through the Charles Manson beard.

"Maybe they'd learned everything they were going to learn from us," John says, glancing out the window to check on the tree house. Still standing. "Maybe all that was left to do was to kill us." The Wraith had certainly milked him dry, but that's not anything Kolya needs to know. "I think it was her. The queen. Michael tried to stay away from me, from the experiments, like he was afraid if he came close he'd want to look, but I saw them together sometimes. She always watched him and she seemed...worried." She'd felt what Michael felt; the whole hive had felt it. "I think she did it for him. She knew what he'd planned but she let us go because it made Michael happy." Michael's potential as a fascinating character should be limitless.

This is where, if this had to be broken up into 'books' or 'parts', I think part one would end. Everything has been established, and while there are still plenty of loose ends (of the why are they on Bajan with Teyla sort), Ben has been explained and the timeframe has been clarified. There are some new questions introduced, but here we are, a third of the way into the story, book one complete. It's a nice payoff.

* *

As it turns out, John really was cooking for an army, and Kolya does not, in fact, live in an underground bunker. And the first line of what I'm thinking of as part two tells you pretty much what part two is about.

On Tuesday, John comes close to losing a finger when his comm chirps, "Sheppard, you've misplaced your son again," and he jumps, and the strap wrench looped around the faucet goes flying into the bathroom wall and takes his hand with it. He doesn't wait for an explanation; sucking on his scraped knuckles, he goes out to the backyard where Ben is, indeed, no longer building pyramids out of logs. "On my way," he sighs into his unit, and blinks when Kolya adds through toneless static, "Please bring the rest of the casserole."

Kolya lives a couple of miles outside of the perimeter John had mapped early on, in a densely forested area west of the house, in rolling hill country. A path leads from the copse outside John's property, through the woods to the clearing where Kolya made his home. The track is a recent development, but John never bothered to scold Ekaterin for it. It's also wide enough to accommodate the minnow.

Hauling the heavy pan in a rucksack, setting off on foot, John doesn't know whether to scowl or grin. Ben's a Sheppard, no doubt about it.

Kolya's cabin looks like any number of rustic constructions John's seen in Pegasus. It's reminiscent of the Genii's fake Amish accommodations, and John hasn't decided what to make of that. Patting the hood of the minnow, he waves at Ben, absorbed in coating the doorframe a lewd purple. "You and I are going to talk about borrowing the car without permission," John says, stepping on the porch. He squeezes Ben's shoulder, smirking. "But this -- this is a work of art. Keep up the good work. How about some yellow?" That Ben took the minnow is beyond excellent. I love how he's not dependent on John for any of his activities, that he entertains himself. It's how he manages to work as a character, even without dialog and on the fringe of scenes.

He walks in and is met by three unknown faces, one man and two women sat around a round table.

John comes to a stop, smiling tightly, mourning his life sign detector and his gun. "Hi, there. Wrong house?"

"What took you so long, Sheppard?" Kolya asks gruffly, stepping out of a nook at the back.

"Hello, John." Ekaterin follows on the heels of the Genii, and bounds over to John, claiming a hug. "Don't worry about a thing, I'll help Ben mix a good color for the windows." She pops out of the front door and is gone.

John nods amicably, studying the company. "Sorry about Picasso out there. I swear, it wasn't my idea," he says, when Kolya looks mulish. "You're going to introduce me?"

Oddly, Kolya appears to size him up, before coming to some decision. "Sit down, Sheppard." He steps forward to relieve John of the rucksack. "I'll warm this up."

Empty-handed, John resists the temptation to stand at parade rest. He pulls up a chair and sits, giving his elbows some room. "Hi. My name's John Sheppard. I used to be a peaceful explorer. What about you?"

Even seated, John can tell that the man is as tall as Ronon, though less bulky; the muscles of his bare arms are lean but precisely defined, a fighter used to the discipline of a martial art. His features are generic: tanned skin, hazel eyes, round chin; if not for the thin scar bisecting his nose and the tight grey shirt calling attention to his physique, he would be unmemorable. Though he sits in the middle chair, his body is turned perceptibly toward the tallest of the two women. She is as striking as her companion is easily dismissed: statuesque, black-skinned, regal in her bearing. Her eyes are blue, and remind John of the Abyssinian Jews he'd seen in Israel. The other woman stands out by contrast: thin, pale, and tall (John is beginning to think he's the shortest person in the room), black hair cut brutally short, black eyes, Roman nose, a surprisingly generous mouth in that serrated face, and a poise that screams career officer.

They've been assessing him while he's been assessing them, and John gets the feeling that he falls short of whatever their expectations might have been.

Either that, or he's exactly what they thought he would be.

Kolya returns carrying plates and silverware. "He looks unimpressive, but don't be fooled." "See, that's only funny if I'm willing to play the game," John says, rising, "but the days when I had to make nice with the fake-Amish, gun-totting maniacs are long gone."

"Stay," Kolya asks, shifting back to neutral again with more effort. Because there's leftover credit from the storm, John doesn't make him say please. "Orathai." The Abyssinian goddess stands gracefully. "Please bring out the cooker I left on the hotplate."

John is more interested in making it fast, than in making it easy. "They're all Favored Guests, aren't they? And since I don't need the mental picture of you hanging out with a harem of retired prostitutes, I'm going to assume they're soldiers."

"Theo and Nofert Ashanti were military. Orathai is a scientist, a weapons specialist."

"The Greys are turned on by mass killing, uh?" When Kolya's face tightens, John says, "Okay, that was out of line. So you're running an operation. You're --" he blinks, taking in the foursome, it's so obvious, "you're a gate team?"

"With the exception of Atlantis, can you think of a better base of operations than Bajan?" Orathai says, setting the cooker on the table. "Take into consideration the shield and the sheer wealth of raw intelligence being collected in the cities, every day."

John is still stuck on the idea of Kolya assembling a gate team. "So you -- what? You go through the gate looking for allies, Ancient tech, and intelligence on the Wraith?"


"And Ekaterin allows you to compromise Bajan's neutrality, why?" Neutral is a strange term for what Bajan is, but it sort of makes sense that it's the way John thinks of it.

"Because she understands the value of long term investments," Theo says, dishing out the reheated casserole.

Because they return with fresh memories of a battlefield. And that's creepy. I go back and forth all the time through this on what I think about Ekaterin. The frames of reference she seems to use for her behavior are (inferring here, sorry) so disjointed, making her sentimental and brutally practical by turns.

"So you're the Greys' free-range, organic choice for a healthy livin'," John drawls, filing that away. "Are we gonna get to the good part soon?"

"The good part?"

"We want you to join our operation," Kolya says and lifts a hand, palm out. "I don't expect you to go through the gate," he says, looking toward the door and Ben. "But you have the knowledge necessary to help us narrow our search grids and assess what we bring back. And you can operate Ancient technology. Ladon's gene treatment was not as effective as we'd hoped."

"You're still in contact with the Genii leadership."

"We pass on information when it's of use, but the energies of the Genii have turned to rebuilding after the change in leadership and the last cullings."

"Yeah?" John pushes back his steaming plate. "What about you? Invaded anybody's home lately, or am I really supposed to believe that exile's made you a gentler, softer kind of Genii?"

"Our only enemy is the Wraith," Kolya says, hands curling on the tabletop.

John smiles humorlessly. "Learned something, have we?"

Kolya knocks over his chair, rising to his feet, and John stands, swamped by an eagerness he hadn't known was there. It's startling in its intensity, surprisingly relevant, and he sets his feet apart, anger surging like acid. This he'd felt for a moment, standing on the front steps of Ford's childhood home, after so many had died and an extra ZPM might have made all the difference. He hasn't thought about it since, but his body hasn't forgotten. I like this, tat John can sort of trust Kolya, deal with him, but still not forgive him in any way on some level. The John Sheppard I see in canon is a pretty resentful, passive-aggressive guy. A good guy, but one who was in Antarctica for a reason, and who would have fucked up his career some other way if the black mark had never happened.

"You are not in a position to lecture me about lessons learned," Kolya barks.

"We fucked up," John says, "but we never turned on an ally. Each time we've dealt with you people, you stabbed us in the back. I have no reason to think this time is gonna be any different."

"You didn't want allies!" Kolya slams his fists down, livid. A glass rolls off the table and explodes like a fragmentation grenade. "You wanted forward bases and supply lines. You wanted subordinates. You wanted vassals." It's nice to see Kolya losing his patience, too. He hasn't had to take a huge amount of crap from John on Bajan, but it's been pretty impressive that he took any at all.

"Oh that's rich coming from --"

"What did you know of this galaxy and its people when you came here?" Kolya says. "You had technology and the control of Atlantis, and you threw yourself into a war you understood nothing about. You followed the lead of an Athosian, but what did you know of the value or the extent of her knowledge? Nothing."

"The Athosians earned our trust!" John says. "It's more than I can say for half the people we've met in this part of the universe." I think maybe it's less that the Athosians earned their trust, and more that John is an all-or-nothing kind of guy, and they were on his side during a crisis that reshaped his entire life.

"Who do you think you are?" Kolya roars, speaking right over him. "Do you think we've been waiting for you to tell us who and how to fight? Hundreds of generations have planned and struggled and sacrificed. They didn't sit around waiting to be saved by the great Atlanteans, who treat them like expendable children and have done nothing but hand out new weapons to the Wraith. We didn't wait on you."

"I'm out of here," John says, turning on his heels, glass crunching under his boots. "Enjoy the food."

"All we've ever asked for is a chance to fight for ourselves!" Kolya shouts from behind him. "Sheppard! You want to help the people of this galaxy, now is the time. You can give us a chance to protect our daughters and our sons. Let us fight, damn you! Sheppard!"

On the way home, John lets Ben drive the minnow, unaware of the purple prints smeared across the dashboard.

* *

Rachel Levy eloped on graduation day, fresh out of high school. The scandal electrified her parents' small community, and despite her tragic end, or perhaps because of it, Rachel remained a local celebrity: the little girl who joined the army reserves, had a baby, obtained her masters from North Carolina State, served on active duty in various intelligence capacities, and taught at West Point, before earning both PhD and promotion to one star (an unconventional life course for a Jewish girl from Long Island. To this day, John suspects that his grandmother the revolutionary poetess had been madly taken with the epic tale. He'd found some letters and personal papers in his mother's secretary after her death, and most of an anthology, handwritten by his grandmother, which must have been autobiographical.

John's never been big on poetry, but Suzanne Levy's pride and love, and her hatred of the military, came right through.).

John didn't bring any of his mother's personal effects on the expedition. No pictures or jewelry or anything he'd worry about losing. John's never had much use for mementos--always had a near photographic memory of all the places he's been, all the skies he's seen, anyway--and he likes to travel light. The military life means picking up and moving on and picking up again without looking back, and that always suited him.

If he'd bothered to take anything, though, it would have been his autographed edition (To my beautiful son, I love you, Mom) of Rachel Sheppard's first teaching manual. He's read the chapter on thought experiments many times, until its pages were darker and more brittle than the rest. I think it's impressive that Rachel Sheppard is such a strong character in this, years after her death. John's relationship with her is so enormous and important.

In one of the experiments, a madman holds a hundred little girls hostage in an unknown location, wired to blow. The madman carries the remote that can stop the timer. In his arms he holds another little girl and uses her as a human shield. Only you have been given a sniper rifle and can take him out, but to do so means killing the child. The clock is running out. What do you do?

Given time, most responders choose to shoot the madman and sacrifice one little girl to save a hundred; a simple cost-benefit analysis.

The second experiment throws in a twist. You are placed in the exact same situation, but with two additional caveats: first, if you kill anyone you will be sent to prison for a term of twenty years without parole, whatever the circumstances; second, you are the last decent shot on the planet. If you're sent to prison, there'll be no one around to save the next hundred little girls, and the next, and the next.

John has thought about the problem long and hard, and he always comes to the same conclusions: 1. If he were the madman, he'd rig a dead man's switch, rather than use a stupid timer. Yes. This is the problem with thinking about thought experiments too long. The stupid details start to drive you nuts. 2. All the experiments fall apart if one of the little girls is yours.

"Are you certain you would not rather run laps around the field?" Teyla asks, after taking him out at the knee for the third time in a row. "It is an activity that allows for your mind to wander. This is not." Teyla kicking John's ass never gets old.

The twin arcs of her sticks rend the air inches from his nose, as if her point needed further illustration.

"I have to work on that shoulder," John grunts, accepting a hand up. "It's still weak. Sparring helps."

Teyla's raised brow conveys politely that John's full of shit. "As you wish."

Their next exchange is even shorter and leaves him on his knees with a bruised ass. Securing his grip on the sticks, John doesn't get back into position but springs from the ground. Teyla has been watching him in that appraising way that can peel off skin, and he knows she's ready for his move, and he comes at her with more determination than grace. Leaning into her first parry, he evades the second, and swipes and strikes with leg and arm.

Teyla flows under his attack as if she were made of water. When she surges against him, she brings her whole body into the hit, lowering her center of gravity to the seat of her power--John feels it in the push of her hip against his thigh--crossing her sticks over his throat. Their momentum drives her staves into the earth.

Pinned to the ground like a hard-bodied insect on display, John stares skyward. The atmospheric cover is smooth as a wishbone. This is a really strange image. I can't figure out what it means, but I kind of like the impression I get of what it might mean. It stops me reading, though, which makes it a little problematic.

"We may continue until blood is spilled," Teyla says, hovering over him, "but it will not rid you of your anger."

"Let me up," he says.

Frowning, she pulls her weapons free of the soft ground, but remains standing across him. "You are being difficult."

"I don't mean to."

"What is it that bothers you?" she asks, head canted, studying him.

"He insulted you. Aren't you pissed?"

"You are being difficult." She crouches over him, effortlessly balanced on the balls of her feet. "I have no admiration for Acastus Kolya, but he merely pointed out that my knowledge is imperfect and limited. It is not an affront to my valor or my loyalty, but a statement of fact. From our experience, I would expect that many technological societies take great care to hide themselves from enemies and friends alike, especially from those they would perceive as more...primitive than themselves. We have seen as much with the Genii. Certainly Bajan does not advertise itself. It is a matter of survival." Teyla's so crazy smart.

John sits up, rubbing his neck. "You'd have taken him up on the offer."

"Perhaps," Teyla says. "I would have considered it. But I am not Ben's father." She lays her hand over his, cupping the soft swell of his skull; her warmth seeps deeper than bone or marrow. "Kolya is fighting the Wraith and you are not. That is why you are angry. But he is not Ben's father, either." And she cuts right to the heart of John's issue, too. He's acknowledged that he's given up flight for Ben, but not this.

"Fuck, Teyla." John gasps, almost laughing. "Next time, I'll take the blood spill."

* *

After dinner, when Ben is asleep on the couch, draped like a living blanket across John's back, John reaches for his comm unit. "Bring me everything you've got tomorrow," he says, and doesn't wait for Kolya to acknowledge him.

Nodding at Teyla's subdued, "Goodnight," John carries the boy to bed and drifts off to sleep, face buried in Ben's hair.

* *

The first couple of weeks, they fall into a pattern of uneasy briefings that masquerade as chance encounters in John's front yard, and longer strategic meetings that degenerate into competitive barbecues, It's like running a secret war out of suburbia. It reminds me oddly of My Blue Heaven. I have a feeling that if I were cooler, it would remind me of Goodfellas instead. Kolya watching the grill with a jaundiced eye over John's shoulder, Theo and Orathai taking turns criticizing the house and Earth's poor craftsmanship. Nofert is the quiet one, standing watchful but apart, hawkish profile cut against the fields. Ben likes to keep her in his sights while pretending that no one can see him pick at a kabob--seemingly mesmerized, either by her silence or her leather jumpsuits.

If John thought that he could stand on the margins--impart his advice but not get in too deep--it's a wishful notion, quickly disabused. He's not that man, lazy or no; he can't look at a piece of the whole and not make up his mind on the big picture, even when it's landed him into trouble, even when it's crippled him, and on Atlantis he'd fallen down on the job more than once--fuck, had he ever--trying to lead his team and then trying to lead, even after it turned out that going from 'no one left behind' to 'battle triage' wasn't like throwing a switch. There was a good reason O'Neill hadn't led SG-1 and the SGC at the same time, but John's never been any good at sharing and letting go. Yes. Perfect point about John.

Kolya's operation is half military know-how, half pant-seat flying, and half blind, angry stubbornness. It's hard to admit that John gets where Kolya's coming from, but he does. Before the arrival of the Daedalus, he'd spent a brittle year with no other rulebook than the epistemology of battle: what you have, what you need, what you've got to do.

What he had was a battalion of marines, a flock of gutsy scientists, a ragtag band of locals armed with sticks, a civilian leader that his CO would have relieved of command in a hurry if John hadn't killed him, and a temperamental Ancient city. More than two hundred people, clinging day and night to his optimism like Ben clings to John's back, draining him a little at a time. This is a terrific simile.

What he needed was everything he wasn't going to get, plus everything he thought he hadn't wanted: decent intelligence, reinforcements, supply lines, an XO older than his first car; an experienced CO who would know that combat overwrote body and mind with its own purpose.

But there they were, playing with kids on a trading mission one minute, negotiating with tribal warriors the next, developing their own weapons, courting allies who weren't raised on a steady diet of McDonald's and CNN and Shock & Awe and red-white-blue, who didn't know them from Adam and didn't care, fighting a guerilla war and coming home to a base that was never completely secure. So John had compensated by over-briefing his men, sharing all the intelligence he could afford to share, hoping to limit the damage of sustained uncertainty and isolation. He'd pulled in all the tricks he'd learned from the Israelis, knowing that food and rest and a chat with your CO were worth ten appointments with the shrink when a mission went south.

John was proud of his people, but glad to see Everett walk through the gate. God he was so fucking glad.

Until he'd returned to the SGC, and gone through the grueling marathon of debriefs, and put up with the looks and the Military Command for Dummies jokes behind his back, only to realize that neither the generals nor the big-wigs of the International Committee had the least fucking clue. They had vague ideas about securing Ancient technology and keeping the Wraith away from Earth and making allies, maybe helping out the human populations of Pegasus along the way, but no doctrine of engagement and no clear objectives. No plans for waging an unconventional war from a forward operating base, beyond an increased military presence and overextended supply runs.

The expedition had been given up for a loss and Earth was scrambling to care, and John had felt more abandoned the second year than the first, when contacts with Earth had been regular but it still felt like they were out there alone, trapped in the day-to-day business of surviving. It had been necessary to stop thinking then; to fall back on the mindset that had kept them alive this long. This makes a lot of sense – the second year is harder because they are doing all the things they did in the first year, but have to also spend time justifying their decisions to an off-site higher command that doesn't necessarily get it.

John expects Kolya to take his advice grudgingly, but every time the Genii asks for more. If Kolya sometimes stares at him like John's a bug he can't decide whether to crush or set on fire, well, that's just the way Kolya's face is put together. See, Kolya's seen so many different command structures, so many different ways of doing things, that there's no real reason for him to recognize that John's seen as a fuck-up, or to resent the way he gained command of the expedition (though resenting the way he gained control of Atlantis is another matter.) John & the expedition have done a lot of stupid crap since coming to Pegasus, but they've survived, and I think that Kolya is likely to respect that.

"What are your immediate objectives?" John asks that first day.

His burger's undercooked and he's not letting Kolya near the grill again: it figures that a Genii would like his meat raw.

"To acquire technology that can give us a tactical advantage," Kolya says. "A weapon more easily deployable than our nuclear bombs, or at least a reliable platform for them. To make contact with technologically advanced worlds and bring them into an alliance. To establish a communication network to coordinate future operations. To inflict significant casualties on the Wraith, even though it will lead to retaliation against our own people. Ultimately, to destroy them."

"Yeah," John says, because what else is there?

"I will not see victory in my lifetime."

Kolya doesn't mean it as a jab, but John feels it in his gut nonetheless. "What are your assets?" he asks, sidestepping the hit. John can't integrate that kind of attitude into himself, but it comes naturally to people who have always known the Wraith. This is the grounds for the arrogance that Kolya objects to - the members of the expedition cannot understand the kind of war that the Genii fight.

"A network of three dozen operatives, most of them refugees from our respective worlds, most of them on Bajan, most of them scientists or military," Theo states. "Many are involved in the illegal memory trade."

"The immigrant population originates from all over the galaxy," Orathai says. "We've been screening memory outputs for anything of relevance, such as technology. We're looking for hints of shielded worlds similar to Bajan, to use as alternative bases or prospect as allies, but their people would have less incentive to come here in the first place."

John's mind grasps for a thought half-formed, but it won't come, so he sets it on the backburner. "Do you have a ship?"

"I do." Nofert's voice is unexpected and hoarse, and not unpleasant. "It's designed for gate use, not interplanetary travel. It's docked at the port."

Her face softens with the first sign of emotion John's seen in her, and he smiles at her. He hasn't really missed flying, hasn't thought about it--maybe a self-defense mechanism, so he wouldn't go insane craving what he couldn't have--but it's all he can think about now, seeing the machine that makes an austere soldier come to life. Maybe she can be convinced to give him a tour. He itches to ask, but the fine lines around her mouth are already tightening, hollow eyes already dimming.

Some other time.

"Take a leaf out of the Wraith's book of economical warfare," John says, talking to Kolya, but still looking at Nofert. "Think about the damage you can inflict on the Wraith, but keep in mind the damage they can inflict on themselves. What do they fear the most? Starvation. It makes them reckless, irrational, more vulnerable than they've ever been."

John feels the weight of Kolya's stare, and his gaze flickers to meet it. The Genii is sucking meat juice off his fingers, licking it off his palm, eyes black as deep space and hooked into John.

Giving the Wraith a food source was about as smart as giving extra ammunition to your enemies in the hope that they'll only use it on each other. But waking up the Wraith could turn out to be this galaxy's fighting chance.

"Don't cling to Ancient technology like it's a holy Grail," John adds, pushing back his half-eaten burger. "Weapons can turn the tide of war. But if I learned anything on the hive ship, it's that riding on your enemy's failures will get you there faster."

* *

When the last days of spring drift off on a skein of white skies, Ben develops a new fixation, which involves stuffing a pillow under his sweater and waddling around the house, rubbing his mock-pregnant belly while smiling a thoughtful smile. To say that the role-playing rattles John would be understating it. Even Teyla is stumped. Hahahahahaha. Oh god I love Ben so much. I can see how it would creep John out a bit, though.

After escaping the hive ship, John and Ben had stood in the infirmary on Atlantis, dressed in rags stolen off desiccated corpses. Ben had been catatonic with fear, and John embattled and thin, because the bitch'd wanted him to know what it was like to starve. Elizabeth had looked from Ben to John to Carson, eyes shining like polished stones, and she'd said, "I think Kate should be here," in a tone that wasn't quite a question but dragged out just the same. And John had said, "No way in hell," even though his whole body was parched and his head pounded and it hurt to speak. Kate couldn't possibly have known anything about this, about Ben, whose mind owed nothing to the imperfect understandings of her science. Ben was John's, which left no room for blind trust or unintended consequences--and though Heightmeyer's brand of hubris couldn't blow up solar systems, John'd seen it blow up people.

He would settle for accidental wisdom, now, for any guidance on what to do or say. John's never thought himself cut out to be a father. Dying for someone is easy; living for them: a lot harder; he's learned that lesson over and over. But Ben blew away all his expectations. Fatherhood tapped unknown reserves of strength, magnified his fears, and up-ended everything John thought he knew about what he could or couldn't do. It forced him to ask a lot of questions he'd never needed answered; some he'd never even thought about.

It's been a lot like his first firefight--minus the mission specs, the backup, and the infrared vision that made his first kill seem as remote as a game.

John's about to throw himself at the mercy of what passes for a shrink on Bajan when Ben's preoccupation with swollen bellies abates as inexplicably as it appeared. It's just the two of them in bed again, no bundle of rags pressed against John's back, no wistful smiles or silent litanies. Ben sleeps long and uninterrupted nights. He shows up at meal times and accepts a glass of enriched milk with equanimity. He no longer seeds the backyard with kitchenware, though he still won't eat where the adults can see. John converts the south-east corner of the living room into a study--a small desk, a power source for his tablet PC courtesy of Ekaterin, charts, lists, print outs, reports and pictures brought back by Kolya's team (John considers initiating them to the joy of AARs), a detailed map of the hive ship he's been working on, on and off, and the pen holder Ben made for him out of mashed paper. On rainy days, Ben naps on the couch or works industriously at the coffee table, spying on John out of the corner of his eye, mimicking his father's movements and attitudes, and John tries not to laugh, because Ben's notebooks blossom into mathematics that are beginning to look like words. They make the most of the lingering warmth, moving their work outside when sunlight thrashes through the midst, spreading like an ink drop across the atmosphere. They brew several pots of tea, wear thick sweaters and sailor caps, and fingerless mittens so their hands don't cramp from the cold. John's fear for Ben has transformed quite a bit since the beginning of the story. They're more normal parent fears, about mental health and development. It's nice.

It is during that interval of domestic peace that John discovers an affinity for his impromptu desk job. Perhaps Ben's progress buoys him inordinately, but he finds himself looking forward to the morsels of information brought back by Kolya and his people in the cities. He anticipates the threads, goes to sleep with maps in his head; vectors, assets, needs assessments, mission specs, populations, niche capabilities. He wakes up with patterns and insane plans that he writes down anyway. It isn't unlike handling a cockpit workload and pulling a single picture out of dozens of control/display units; it isn't unlike piloting the jumper, or sitting in the control chair, connecting with the interface on too many levels to single them out. He never had that amount of raw intelligence to work with in Atlantis, never that independence, and never enough damn time.

About a week after Ben embraces his right to choose (Hahahaha, again.) , John sits up in bed, nearly knocking the kid to the floor, and Ben growls blearily and punches John in the arm before turning over back to sleep. Scrambling in the dark, John fumbles for his comm unit, trips over the bedcover, and stumbles out into the hall, keying in Ekaterin's code one-handed.

"John Sheppard," Ekaterin's tiny voice squeaks over the narrowband. "What the hell is wrong with you?" Then, much less belligerently: "I didn't mean to say that."

John is standing in the hallway in his boxers, in the middle of the night. Teyla's door is ajar, and a single, thunderous eyebrow is leveled at him. He shrugs helplessly. "'Morning, Ekaterin. I need some data from you." The way that suddenly John is pissing off everyone is a wonderful barometer signifying that he's better, back to himself again, not the traumatized shell he was at the start of the story.


"Ah ha!" John crows. "Now you're sorry for setting me up with Kolya!" Nonplussed silence spills from the unit and Teyla's bedroom. "Huh," John says, a little baffled himself. "That didn't come out right." Hee!

In the morning, he asks Kolya for as much data as can be collected in Bajan minor, and calls in a request to Orathai for assistance with the programming. They sleep twelve hours in four days, configuring software and coding the information as it comes. Orathai shoots him unfriendly looks when he offers her coffee or food, or volunteers his bedroom for a nap. (She bunks in a tent, with Theo, in the backyard.) Once data input is complete, they beam the final output to the cities over Bajan's satellite intranet, and Nofert returns with Kolya moments before dawn, a giant chart in each hand.

By then John is punch-drunk with exhaustion and watches groggily as Teyla and Nofert unroll the transparent prints and lay them on top of each other on the kitchen table. The first chart plots the planets of origin of Bajan's immigrant population: a constellation of tiny red dots huddled in frightened clumps. The second chart maps the galaxy's stargate network, using Bajan as the referent.

"Here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and there," John points, yawning. He circles eight stargate locations, all free of red clumps.

"The perspective is much better on the 3-Dee computer projection, but this gives you an idea," Orathai says. "We weighted Ekaterin's official data and the results of the quick and dirty survey of Bajan minor. We attributed higher indices of confidence to destinations with multiple data points. We then cross-referenced the unrepresented stargate destinations with the Ancient database provided by Sheppard, the more recent Bajanian database that Ekaterin let us access, and our qualitative knowledge of particular regions of space. These eight," she says, indicating the circled coordinates, "are our most likely clients. No Bajanian immigrant, legal or otherwise, has ever originated from these locations, as far as we can assert. Neither are they referenced in the databases. If we are lucky, they are, or were until recently, technological or sheltered worlds which have kept a low profile, rather than primitive or barren planets." Orathai waves an elegant hand over the maps. "The design is very crude. But we do need some way to prioritize. If we're right about even a single one..."

Kolya shoots John an unreadable look. "Hey," John says, knuckling his right eye, "I just work here. She did the math."

Teyla comes to him the next day. He felt the restlessness in her, and when she brings him a fresh cup of tea on the porch, he doesn't point out that she's already late for work. He bites his lip and tips his head in thanks.

"I have asked to join Commander Kolya's team," she says. "He has accepted." Yeah, I wasn't surprised by that. Working against the Wraith is where Teyla channels her role as leader of the Athosians. This is how she picks that responsibility up again.

"He'd have been an idiot not to," John says. "Do any of them look like diplomats to you? Scariest peaceful explorers I've ever seen."

"John, I would not want to --"

"Hey, hey," he says, seeking her hand. "You do what you have to do to be okay with yourself."

"They will never replace --"

"You don't know that," he chides her gently, knowing it better than most. In Antarctica he'd forgotten about everyone and everywhere but the ice sea. Later he'd fallen for Atlantis and its people as fast as anything, and Earth had become that other responsibility Elizabeth had to keep reminding him about. "When you met Rodney McKay, did you think right away: this guy's going to be family?"

"Perhaps not the first day," she says, lips twitching. "But not too long after."

"Yeah, okay," John says, with a chuckle. "You realize I'm gonna go completely grey, watching you step through that gate without me?"

"I am sure," she says, "that you will look quite fetching in spite of it." I really want Teyla to refer to John as "quite fetching" in canon, now. I think it would work, especially if it were followed by an eye-roll shared with Ronon behind John's back.

Two days later the team leaves on its first reconnaissance mission. John stands with Ben at the foot of the dais as the five team mates disappear beyond the event horizon, wearing mismatched uniforms, the strangest military unit anyone's ever seen.

When the wormhole winks out, Ekaterin steers them off the platform. "My dear boys," she says, "let me buy you a cup of tea," but a hundred worst-case scenarios vie for John's attention, and he's tempted to hold this ground. He's not the guy who stays behind. He wonders how Elizabeth ever figured out the right thing to do from so far away; he never knew that they'd stood so far apart. John's never learned any way to lead other than from the front. It's something that I hope they at least acknowledge on the show at some point.

Ben tugs on his arm, dragging John's mind away from the iron fist holding tight to his nerves. He picks up the boy, though Ben is too big to be comfortably carried. The child's warm weight keeps him anchored to the ground, the world, the cities. Nuzzling the head of soft dark hair, John wonders if this is fear: anticipation of a day, not too distant, when he could come to resent the small creature thrust upon him--no longer an anchor, but a fetter. John's never needed anyone more than he needed the sky before, he doesn't know what might happen, and he shies away from that thought, both captivated and repulsed by it.

In the windowless tea house, they sit under harsh neon light. Ekaterin does most of the talking, bursting with words, her small red face swelling with all the secrets she's so eager to share. Case officers don't discuss guests with other guests, she'd said, but she would spill it all if John asked. He should. He hasn't. He doesn't want to know how Kolya came to be on Bajan; why Theo and Orathai would rather spit on him than look at him; what happened to Nofert that carved the light out of her. He's not ready to make room for these people. He's got Ben, and Teyla; even Rodney, on the receiving end of John's infrequent check-ins. They are all the loyalties he can afford to split.

The restroom of the tea house is larger that John's house and furnished in red ottomans, a scatter of crooked wounds under the crisscross of the sodium lamps. Waiting for Ben to come out of the stall, John splashes cold water on his face. Water drips from his hair, clinging to the grey at his temples, blotted by his collar. White light bounces off the white walls and washes him out. He grips the edges of the sink.

Studying the poor bastard in the mirror, John resolves to go easy on him, because no one else will.

* *

The mission is a bust, but Teyla comes back without a scratch on her, which is all John really cares about.

"The Wraith had not come recently, but past cullings took so many elders that those who remained lost all records of their own history," Teyla says, voice tight with a millennia-old anger. "They lived off the land and believed giants had built the roads and the towns that the Wraith left in ruin. No one had come through the stargate in living memory, and they did not know its purpose. Their legends said that a ring once fell off the large gaseous planet that rose and set in their sky, and that it remained stuck into the earth."

The next mission isn't scheduled for another few days. The Favored Guests among them must report for tax duty, and they're not at their best around that time, however tame the side-effects have become with repeated uploads. Emotions run a little closer to the skin, tempers are more easily frayed. John avoids contact with Kolya's team after a session, and counts on them to return the favor. So he doesn't expect to find Nofert standing at attention in front of the immigration office when he walks out, holding his cup of blue Jell-O and yawning because Ben's growing pains kept him up all night.

"Problem?" he asks.

"I need your assistance down-city," she says, her words a mixture of blades and ground glass.

"It can't wait?"

"The merchandise is hot. We could lose it."

They get on an elevator at the Jennifer Aniston, and plunge into the coal-dark bowels of the city. John is hungry and thrumming, and more than a little loose--a familiar feeling from weekends of college sex and really good pot minus the soreness and the bed in shambles. He doesn't know exactly what piece of himself he just gave away, but the screen of his PDA reads: Keg night, freshman year. Don't worry yourself, John. It's nothing important.

They get off in the Red Light district, dodging prostitutes lined up on the suspended streets, illegal immigrants who bypassed the entry quotas by smuggling themselves onto cargo ships. Their memories are the bread and butter of black market parlors, their services solicited by guests looking to make up some fast memories--hooked to a mobile leech, getting serviced in an alley or a corridor, uploading as they come.

Nofert leads him to a parlor in the shadow of the Aniston. It's early in the day, but the salon is packed with clients. Nofert steps up to the automated doors under the portico and lifts her arms away from her body. John steps up beside her, breathing deep, stomach fighting some sort of confused battle with gravity. He hates the damn things.

A compartment opens in the floor, releasing a squad of techno-organic bugs. They climb over John's boots, under the hem of his pants and up his legs. They poke in and out of his boxers and under his shirt, careful not to tangle themselves in body hair. They zoom across his back and over his shoulders. They tread through his hair and around his throat, mandibles pocking at the scar there, searching his body and his clothes for weapons, broadcast devices, rip drives, and clandestine leeches. The whole operation takes under thirty seconds. The bugs retreat, swallowed by the floor, and the doors part for them. That has to tickle like crazy. I like the squalid cyberpunk feel of these touches, the alien technology.

The parlor is small but oddly stylish, the booths lined up against the walls of the narrow room. Hard-backed benches swathed in red vinyl face short round tables and a playback interface set in the wall. There are up to three users to a booth. Some wave down waiters, and some chat excitedly over the menu. Others, swaying with expectation, watch a technician pop a leech (blue) in the interface. And others, their eyes shut, wear a neural headset hooked into their temples, their cheekbones, their carotid artery and the back of their necks. They are slumped in their seats, limbs spread and languid, plugged into a leech (red). They breathe shallowly, adding their moans to the ambient cacophony, and touching themselves through their jumpsuits.

No one cares much about privacy. If John tried to explain privacy, the clients, most of them Bajanian Citizens like Ekaterin, wouldn't really understand what he means. He could say: privacy is a memory that isn't yet inside a leech. Privacy is a memory that doesn't want to be a leech. But there's no guarantee the users would get that, either.

A waitress walks up to John, so close her juvenile breasts brush against his coat, and the bitter spice of the local beer wafts from her lips to his nose. She reaches up to caress his cheek, fingertips catching briefly on his stubbled skin. It's harder today not to swat her hand aside. It's not just privacy - all of the Bajanians seem to be so touchy, like they have no understanding of personal boundaries - which also makes sense - if you're taking in memories, feeling like you are existing in another body, then you aren't really existing in your own, either.

"We're booked solid until ten oh seven," she says, matter-of-factly. "Want me to write you down for the next cycle?"

"We have business with Asher," Nofert says, submitting tautly to her own caress.

"Backroom," the girl says.

They step down the parlor, assaulted by sharp smells and the jarring sounds of speech reflecting off the walls with a metallic echo. There's no door, no screen at the end of the hallway leading to the backroom, no bodyguards or bugs or cameras barring the way, but they have to bend at the waist to get through. John always expects sofas, decadent carpeting and something like incense, men gathered around a game table drinking booze. He gets a ballroom, a texture like yellow linoleum on the floor, and a few unremarkable chairs stacked against the far wall, next to a fully-decked, state-of-the-art neural console. He takes it all in between one breath and the next: the lack of leeches on display, the direct light provided by a single spot in the center of the room, the three young girls standing in a circle below it, holding hands, dancing. Red heads, red jumpsuits, and urbane black boots.

"Ladies," he says, filling in for Nofert.

The girls keep dancing as they turn to face them. "Hello, we are Asher." That's so cool. And why not, considering the hazy line between self and other that the Bajanians have?

Three teenage girls claiming to be an underground kingpin--that's not the weirdest thing John's ever seen down-city. "Pleasure to meet you," he drawls. "I'm John Sheppard."

"Oh! We know!"

They smile brightly and converge upon him like a school of very pretty, very colorful, carnivorous fish.

"Before mama died," One says.

"She leeched most of her memories," Two says.

"Hoping we would take over the trade," Three says. It's like living forever, a crazy sort of ruling dynasty, if no one dies unexpectedly. Weird.

"We've heard a lot about you and your friends," One says.

"You took your sweet time," Two says. "We've been waiting for you to visit."

"You want to take a look at the new arrivals from the Melanis system," Three says, leaning against his arm. "So exotic!"

"New experiences," One says, "that's what users want. This stuff would be wasted on Bajan major."

"I'm afraid," Two says, eyes wide, bottom lip thoroughly bitten, "that there's nothing you could offer that would convince us to part with our treasure."

She curls her fingers around his hip.

"We're so sorry," One says. "We are. We understand that this information holds great value to you."

They fall silent and grin like mental patients.

Next to him, Nofert tips her head slightly, and John accepts his cue. "I'm sure we can make a trade that's agreeable to everyone," he says. "But you understand we need to evaluate the merchandise, first."

The grins stretch impossibly wide.

"A connoisseur," Two says coyly. "This way, Favored Guest, please."

They follow Asher through a back door, down an alley, over a bridge, in an elevator, across a cantilevered park and inside a condemned grocery store, the windows painted black.

("What are we going to look at?" John asks on the bridge, brushing against Nofert's acute shoulder.

"Our contact uploaded the segments herself and couldn't make sense of it," she says.

"The external feed was too corrupted?"

"She couldn't believe the content of the external feed.")

The extraction facility is set up in a rusting meat locker. When they walk in, a technician stops fiddling with the portable neural interface hooked on the wall. A middle-aged man sits in a plastic chair. He wears the vacant look of one who isn't going through his first upload of the day, and a leech pulses softly over his carotid artery. A frayed ottoman has been pushed up against the back wall, and a young girl sleeps across it, dress the color of daffodils, hair fanned out on the tattered velvet, a shocking curtain of gold spread across all this misery.

Asher move aside, allowing John to take a peek at the monitor. He's getting better at interpreting content from the visual echo relayed on the screen, but he's still thrown by the flatness and the blurriness that translate out of an experience as intense as an upload. The silence of it; the distance. Watching is nothing like remembering.

"What is that?" he asks no one in particular. "Is he -- inside a hive ship?"

"I'm just getting started on him," the technician says. "I called you for her."

"Her," John says.

"Her father brought her in for five extractions this morning. I stopped at three; I don't like to take too much in one session from the young ones."

John stares at the sleeping child. "No age of consent down-city, uh?"

The technician looks at him blankly.

Straddling a plastic chair backwards, John settles himself behind the girl's father. He watches the monitor for long minutes over man's shoulder, teasing a story out of vague flashes of dais and queens.

"People don't make up pleasant fictions about free will and their inalienable right to happiness out here, do they?" John says, conversationally. "I keep forgetting. It's the veneer of civilization up-city. It makes you forget where you are." He glances sidelong at the blank profile of the man: mouth slack, glassy eyes, a thin trail of drool curling over his chin. "You have a beautiful daughter. You're very lucky."

The man makes a sound in the back of his throat.

"I know, I know," John says. "Paternal pride, I get that. I'm sure I drive everyone crazy. I'd show you pictures, but I don't have any."

If he were to close his eyes right now, he wouldn't remember Ben's face, but the smell of little girls, more blood than daffodils.

"I met someone who looked a lot like your daughter, once, on another planet in another galaxy, far far away. You don't mind if I tell you about her, right? You look like you need some memories." He pats the man's arm gently. "We were flying rescue, going after two downed French pilots. Dead of night, middle of winter, tactical low-level navigation in uneven terrain, power lines unmarked and visibility worth jack-shit. Oh, yeah, we were on top of the world. Two Pave Lows -- that's two eight-crews -- and a Combat Talon for support.

"On our third sortie our tanker took some damage from enemy fire and they couldn't refuel the helos, so we had to land and wait while the crew of the tanker went to get some gas. We secured the location and after a while we tried to figure out how we could transfer fuel from one aircraft to the other, get enough juice to fly back to base in Brindisi, come back later for the other MH or mark it for destruction if we couldn't. We didn't want to hang around till dawn.

"Of course, that's when the shooting started."

The man twitches, taking the words in through the skin like bullets. It's unclear to me at first that the guy can actually hear John while he's uploading. I started this section thinking that John is talking the story out for his own benefit, but it's far more practical than that, and more sentimental, too.

"Until you've thrown yourself belly-down on a pile of rocks in hostile territory trying to spot a shooter with night vision goggles, while some guy yells in the radio, 'We're taking fire! I say again, we're taking fire!' and you want to yell back, 'I know that, you fucker, I know that!', and you really gotta pee, you haven't truly lived. It took us a good minute to realize that whoever it was, they weren't shooting at us. Mills Hills -- our CO, I kid you not, that was his name -- Hills picked five of us to recon the area and he left the rest to guard the helos.

"It's fifteen degrees and we're freezing our asses off, but we push forward over the hill. We follow the power lines, so we hear them before we see the village. Fifty houses, one street, one marketplace. It looks like every single villager has been herded out of their home. There are a few bodies already on the ground and even through the infrared, you can see the blood. There's crying and screaming and some of the women are on their knees, praying and wrapped like turtle shells around their squirming kids.

"We count seven men, regular Serbian Army by their uniform, and I feel Archie, one of my gunners, gather himself beside me, ready to charge down the hill like a one-man deadly circus. None of us want to wait for Base to advise.

"Suddenly, Hills signals the rest of us. He's spotted a child, a boy, sneaking out of the marketplace and running toward our position. But the kid doesn't make it far. He's taken down with a single shot, and the women keen like wolves. The Serbs cheer and start singing a partisan chant and they laugh. It's insane. Hills signals again, but I already know: the shot didn't come from the assholes in the marketplace. That means they're backed by a sniper, and we can't do anything, go anywhere, until we spot the fucking son of a bitch, or we'll get picked out like milk bottles at the county fair. Meanwhile one of the Serbs is throwing a rope over a tree branch, telling a joke and pointing to the children, and I hear Archie grind his teeth. We've all heard the stories; that the Serbs like to hang the children because they're so light they take hours to die. The war stories here are really well done. Full of horror, but with the distance of the past. Hard to read, and effective.

"Another kid runs. He falls, but Archie's there, Archie's good for it. The rifle comes up, he aims at the flash, shoots, and a shadow falls off a roof. Aim, shoot, aim, shoot. You don't fuck with Archie. In seconds the Serbs are down four men and the rest are pissing their pants, yelling and running for shelter inside the houses.

"We run down the hill and spread through the village. We take out their transport truck before they've had time to regroup. Hills yells at the Serbs to surrender and they do. They come out of the houses with their hands on their heads, yapping in some kind of English. We secure them face down in the snow. Archie kicks two of them in the head. Hills orders the one pararescue we've got to the marketplace, and calls for the other three medics on the radio. The rest of us start searching the houses, door to door.

"Archie finds her in a bedroom on the first floor, while I'm securing the rest of the house. I hear a yell and I'm up the stairs in a flash, calling for Archie, and the door's open and I see him first. Archie. His back's to the door and his rifle is trained on a Serbian soldier standing in the corner, by the window, with his pants around his knees.

"He's -- I don't know -- eighteen, maybe. Just a kid. He's crying and gesticulating, babbling in Serb, trying to point at his groin without bringing his hands down. There's blood on his dick, on his thighs, everywhere, and at first I think Archie's shot him in the balls, but I didn't hear a shot. The kid is waving and pointing, and I finally get that he's showing us his dick, that's it's circumcised, and the cut looks fresh even through the blood. When he sees me looking, he smiles through the snot and tears, and nods and gives me the thumbs up like he deserves some kind of medal. Like it's a club and now we're both in it."

John curls over the back of the chair, voice honed to a cold whisper, seeding pictures in the man's ear.

"I look to Archie, but he's not moving. So I look around him, and I see her. She's on the floor with her nightdress pulled up to her shoulders. Her mouth is open and her lips are moving, but she isn't making a sound. There's blood all over her, except in her hair. Her hair's clean and golden and clean. That's what I think when I see her. Her hair shines like a summer sun.

"I must have said something. Archie lowers his rifle, takes two steps, draws his sidearm, shoves it into the Serb's mouth and fires, splattering brains all over the window.

"He holsters the 9mm after a couple of tries -- he's having a hard time of it -- and he turns around and goes down to his knees at the little girl's feet. She's still alive, still trying to talk. I yell for a medic over the radio and Archie pulls all the pressure bandages out of his vest. They fly around like ticker tape. He shoves the bundle of them between her legs, and that's when I get it, when my brain hits play again. That's where all the blood's coming from.

"He screams at me: 'Shep, fuck, give me your bandages. I didn't pack enough. Fuck, Shep, look at this, oh fuck. I didn't pack enough.' He's sobbing so hard, his big hands fluttering over her, like he wants to keep her from bleeding out and he wants to apply pressure between her legs, but he doesn't dare touch her there. He doesn't want to hurt her more. He doesn't want to spoil her more. He doesn't want to be disrespectful. 'Oh, my baby,' he's crying. 'Oh, my beautiful, beautiful baby.'

"I give him all my supplies. But now she's dead."

John falls silent. The monitor is dark and the man's eyes are closed, his hands pale and trembling.

"See," John says, mouth drained dry of so many words. "This memory we're making now, you can have it. It's worth a lot, even up-city. Trade it for food, so you don't have to butcher your daughter's brain for it."

He stands, careful not to scrap the chair's feet against the tiles. The girl is still asleep. Nofert and Asher are conferring quietly, but he doesn't wait for the outcome of that conversation. Whatever the terms of the trade, he'll give it, but he has to get out, and he finds himself on the sidewalk--he doesn't know how--down-city where the suns don't reach.

* *

He doesn't remember the climb to the spaceport. Wind blades and chill sunlight cut into him and bring him back to himself on the ramp of a gate ship, hunched like a broken-winged bird nestled between the squat bodies of interstellar transports. Silent and stiff, Nofert guards his side, the galaxy's most reluctant nanny.

John looks down at his feet. The details of the ramp are too sharp, the world up close and personal in a way that numbs his face and tightens his body. He buzzes all over, a frenzy of calm under his skin. He thinks: I'm so angry. It's inconceivable that he has been this angry all this time and not known about it. It makes his blow-up in Afghanistan seem like petulance, his flat ire at the Genii seem like a schoolyard tantrum, his rage on the hive ship, remote and unreal, the bottom of a shallow well. This anger--this anger is not a thing, chronic and separate; it's written in his cells, his DNA; it isn't red or cold or black or hot or icy, it's ageless and unchanging, life-sustaining as a river. Now that he is aware of it, John can walk along its banks to Atlantis, to Antarctica, to Arlington, to Afghanistan and Somalia and Kosovo, through ROTC and college and all the bases he grew up in, perhaps as far back as the day he was born. It's the most startling revelation about this whole angry business: that he could always laugh and fuck and live with it; fight and kill and break and be fine. I don't know what to say here. I'm reduced to pointing at this entire paragraph and just saying, "This. This."

John navigates the eddies through the small black mouth of the ship, following Nofert's lead. The cabin is a little bigger than a jumper's; narrower, to accommodate the swing-wing configuration and fit through the gate, but longer, with a pointed nose like a Tomcat. It's an ugly little ship, though endearing in an ugly duckling sort of way, and more aerodynamic than a puddlejumper.

"What does circumcised mean?" Nofert asks, moving toward the cockpit and reaching for the pilot's console.

"It means that your foreskin has been surgically removed," John says. "For some people it's about hygiene, and for some it's about religion. He cut himself to show respect for the Muslim girls he was ordered to rape. That's what he wanted us to know." He joins Nofert forward, noting the possessive twitch of her fingers on the joystick. "Can we take off? Would they let us?"

She frowns. "Where do you want to go?"

"Space. Orbit. Can we go up for a spin?"

"All right," she agrees cautiously.

While John straps himself in the cramped second seat, Nofert asks ground control for a vector and passage through the shield. He watches her sidelong, the precise ballet of her hands on the flight dials, the confident lean of her body and the slight quickening of her breath, the thick white scars looped around her wrists. In profile, she looks like a blade, slim and grey.

The ship handles like a chopper: a slight dissymmetry on the lift and a sensitivity to the lightest touch. John relaxes into the bumps and dips of the undampened atmospheric take off, sinking into a quiet stretch of the river. He pulls in a long, deep breath and lets it out slowly, and takes another. When they park in geosynchronous orbit, he feels steady enough to get up and walk to a porthole, and not smash his fist into the bulkhead or keen like the women of that village.

"What did you learn from the memory output?" Nofert asks, finally.

"They're Wraith worshippers; the whole family. The girl was born on a hive ship. He was giving away the memory of her birth. What kind of father --" John clamps down on that thought, forcing himself to pay attention to the blue star setting on the blue planet below. The yellow twin is visible at a distance, shining its paltry light on the dark side of the world.

"Then this information is worth acquiring," Nofert says.

"Oh, yeah," John says. "We figure out where these people come from, who belongs to which hive, infiltrate them -- we could anticipate the next cullings." He leans his forehead against the cold glass, breathing evenly. "What do Asher want for the leeches?"

He feels her hesitation in the displacement of air in the cabin, and the imperceptible brush of her shoulder against his own. "This," Nofert says, curling a hand around his hip.

His heart thumps twice, hard, though he expected as much. "You or me?" That's actually sort of surprising. It's kind of a bargain – it doesn't come anywhere near the limits John's already imposed: not big, bad, or important.

"You," she says simply.

Her hand travels from his hip to the middle of his back. John grips one of the conduits running along the bulkhead. "You don't have to," he says roughly. "I can --"

"Shh," she says. It's the softest sound he's heard from her. "Are you certain?" she asks. "Sheppard," she says, when his breath escapes him jaggedly.

He swallows, bumping his forehead against the window. "I haven't -- since the hive ship." Since the bitch milked him herself, since she laid her hands on him and John ground his teeth and clenched his eyes shut--packed himself away tight and thought of clean ice and the depthless ocean. During the last days she kept him naked, like an animal, and if he'd stayed, he would have forgotten that he didn't deserve it. Okay, that's a whole new creepy layer of trauma.

Now he sinks along the bulkhead, cradling his head in his hands. His life since Ben has been a brutal seesaw of anger and fear and too-brief parentheses of peace, and he's been doing his goddamn best, but it never feels good enough--and he's terrified, for a moment, that his heart will no longer take it. Fighting again helps, fighting feels good, even if it's analyzing reports and hosting barbecues; but John never expected to have to fight this way.

When Nofert tucks herself against his side--her hand around his elbow the whole extent of their intimacy--he leans into her a little. Her body feels almost like his own, a shell of too-thin skin around jutting bones. There's nothing generous or even very feminine about her figure, but there is a kinship in her spareness and her silence that he appreciates more than curves or words. They sit on the floor long enough for his back and ass to go numb. Eventually, her fingers brush against the top of his ear, but he manages not to flinch.

"Come," she says, pulling him up, true grace in the tensile strength of her body.

A plank soldered to the bulkhead unfolds into a narrow cot. "Do you have..." John says, licking his lips, and when Nofert nods, he says, "Get it." She pulls a box from a shelf above the cot and takes off the lid. "Uh. This isn't for --" John says, blinking at a pair of iron restraints, "because, while that could be fun some time, now isn't so -- And I don't do submission well at all. Ask anyone," Duh. he says, thinking that in the past he's indulged some of his partners, out of curiosity or lust or even his own need, but it never ended well: restrain him and he fights, as autonomic as breathing. And even though he's learned to clamp down on it over the years, to stop breathing for as long as it takes, John suspects that if he ever felt truly trapped--no rescue, no way out--he would break his own bones, shred his own skin, gnaw off his limbs and throw himself against the walls of his cage until it killed him.

Some nights it's all he can dream about.

Nofert's mouth crooks up. "In case we have to take prisoners," she says. Setting the handcuffs aside, she pulls out a tube of clear gel and a leech the size of a pack of cards, its soft body grey under the exoskeleton. "Teyla might get better terms," she says. "We could wait."

Goddamn it, he's tempted. "And risk losing actionable intelligence," John points out, more to remind himself than her. He shakes his head no. "Asher won't budge. Favored Guest material will buy security for their organization for a long time." It's Bajan worst-kept secret--that the Citizens and the Greys won't crack down on the black market as long as the cream of the illegal crop finds its way to Bajan major.

Nofert warms the gel between her fingers before spreading it on his neck, which is more thoughtfulness than the technicians have ever shown him. She guides the bug to the feeding site, and squeezes John's fingers to distract him from the bite. The leech warms up against his skin all at once, swelling and twittering.

Dizzy, John leans his forehead against Nofert's. When her lips find his own a small sound escapes the back of his throat--the whimper of a startled animal that's been living somewhere shrunken and buried. He didn't expect her to go for his mouth first, to offer something so sweet and private so quickly; but what does he know of her customs? He certainly didn't expect her to pull back and give him a quick but fierce one-armed hug, and to reveal herself, without hesitation, unzipping the top of her jumpsuit to bare a braless chest: nipples the color of plums, small, pointed breasts, mother-of-pearl, like the hearts of seashells. She takes off her boots and her socks standing up; she has feet like a boy's, flat and bony, but her hips, when she peels off the leather, are rounder than he imagined.

The scars are what he expected. He's seen her wrists and her collarbone when she unzipped the jumpsuit on a hot day. John knows his scars tell their story: the cuts of restraints around his arms, neck and wrists and legs; the needle tracks; the shunt sites; the surgical incisions, neatly healed. There is a pattern to her own marks, to the electrical burns on the underside of her breasts, her belly, the soft flesh of her inner thighs; the cicatrices on her shoulders and collarbone, leftovers from careless surgeries; the discoloration of rope burns around wrists and elbows (he can't imagine how much it must have hurt, to be hung with her arms tied behind her, until her shoulders dislocated from the weight of her own body). That's a hell of a lot of torture, mapped out on Nofert's body.

John doesn't apologize for staring, but undresses himself, careful not to hook his shirt on the damn leech, until he stands naked before her, sharing his scars and the other imperfections of his body. Nofert is shivering lightly, goose bumps rising on the swell of her breasts and on her forearms, and it's the simplest act to reach out and hold her and be held, to be worn and exhausted here, because she is worn and exhausted, too, but not looking to him for strength. He buries his face in her short black hair, hiding his stinging eyes, scoured raw by so much warmth and so much softness--her thighs to his thighs, her ribs to his ribs, the flutter of her heart to his, her breasts poking his chest playfully.

She teases her way into his mouth with the tip of her tongue. It's crazy for this kiss to feel like the first, but it has been years, or close to that, and his memory is such a minefield that it almost qualifies. She is patient about the kiss, but not lazy, and it's not like John cares about technique, only the openness and the closeness of his mouth on hers, her breath in him, warming him all along his spine and filling him up. Something that was wrung and suffocating inside him takes a deep gulp of air and unfolds. "Please," he speaks into her mouth, helplessly. He hasn't thought this through. "After, can we -- Again. I can't lose --"

Nofert gets it somehow, and presses against the small of his back to bring him closer. "Yes, Sheppard. Yes. Again." She sinks back into the kiss, licking the inside of his mouth until John is hard and whimpering.

They end up on the cot, John on his back, Nofert half kneeling between his thighs. There's hardly enough room for one adult on the slab, and John's left leg hangs over the side. When he tries to bend it, Nofert's hand on the inside of his knee holds him open, keeps him exposed, forcing his hip at a cant just shy of pain. The muscles stretch and burn, adding to the ache in his cock and the tightness in his balls.

When Nofert licks a straight path to the vulnerable juncture of thigh and groin, John jerks up, arching off the cot and slamming back down. She steers clear of his cock, aiming for the soft swell of his belly, the strip of tender skin right below his belly-button, and she settles there, like she's moving in for a long winter, nibbling, lapping and sucking, until John feels like all of his erogenous zones have drifted several inches north, pulled in by her tide.

He's moaning quietly now, and she relents, leaning in for another leisurely kiss, open-eyed and sweet. John holds her face in his hands, sweeping in hungrily when she twists his nipples back and forth like dials. He's half drunk on her scent; dizzy, overflowing. The reality of her weight on him, the strength leashed in her body, humble him and keep him tethered.

When she ebbs away, he reaches for her, but his head falls back with a thud when she licks the head of his cock.

"Oh," he pants, biting his lip to keep from coming instantly. It's so good; so good.

A cold wet brush against his ass snaps him back from the edge, and he twitches up, rising on his elbows. Nofert lets go of his cock, blinking quizzically.

"What was -- Uh --" John says, eventually.

"You don't do this?" Nofert asks, a healthy color in her cheeks.

"Well, sometimes -- I just didn't expect --"

"I assumed human males everywhere had the same physiological characteristics. You don't have a pleasure center in there?"

John closes his mouth.

"I've never not --" she starts, then says, "but of course we don't have to --"

He finds himself about to explain that his previous lovers never rushed in there on the first date, that his own hand hasn't gotten him off in months, but he slumps back on the cot instead, laughing nervously. Why should they care about any of this? "No, no, it feels great. Please -- please, keep going."

Nofert doesn't have to do this for him, so short of a lot of pain and being tied down, he's happy to go with whatever works for her; happy not to fight or lead--God, it's so fucking good not to have to fight for or against anything.

Watching him closely, Nofert squirts more of the antiseptic gel on her fingers, clearly convinced that his extragalactic ass needs extra care. She takes him back into her mouth slowly, working in thorough strokes with the flat of her tongue, pulling back to tease his slit with the tip, as unhurried in this kiss as she was in mapping his mouth, and his hands flex helplessly around the sides of the cot. She sucks softly but relentlessly, drawing his whole body into the gravity well of her mouth until John wants to curl in on himself and hold her there and hold himself there forever, but a strong hand on his belly pushes him down, and the pressure of her knee against his thigh keeps him spread wide.

Her face is strangely serious when she pulls back, knuckles grazing his ass. John tries to hold her gaze, to show her that he is a-okay with this, but a short-nailed finger is already circling his hole, a feathered touch, and he goes cross-eyed. "Oh Jesus fucking --" he gasps, something in his gut expanding and making room. Panting, he steals a look at Nofert under his lashes: her expression has softened, amused and feral both. It gives him a jolt, and his hips rise off the cot unbidden. "Please," he breathes, frantic from that single touch, afraid he's going to start sobbing. His body was this parched and thin husk that had lived on battle rations since--damn it, so fucking long--and now, Nofert is looking at him with want and affection, tending him, filling him to bursting, and it hurts, like gorging after a fast. "Oh, fuck," he says, tears springing to his eyes, "I can't lose this; don't make me lose this." And because it's been so long, because this is John finally gaining himself back after his imprisonment on the hive ship, it does become not such a great bargain. It's big. It's also a really terrific, weird sex scene. But anyone reading this knows that already, so don't mind me.

But Nofert is there, shushing his mouth with her own. Her fingers smooth the hair off his forehead, her breasts are pressed against his arm as she kneels by the cot. That can't be comfortable, John thinks deliriously, until the finger stroking over his hole breaches him finally, finally, and he stops caring. He bucks into the invasion, the recycled air of the ship cold on his neglected cock, and he opens his mouth wide to let her tongue fuck him like her finger is fucking him, slowly and deeply. I might come from this, John thinks when she adds another slick finger and presses her thumb behind his balls, building pressure, making him writhe. The hand that isn't trapped between Nofert's stomach and the cot rises blindly to cup one of her scarred breasts--the perky, beautiful mound fits in his palm like the first pear of the year, a gift straight from the earth. John imagines what he'll do for Nofert after the leech comes off, and he feels himself leak in anticipation, the panicked fear of loss retreating, replaced by the fullness inside him.

Nofert seems determined to fuck him in every possible way, her tongue slipping out of his mouth only to be replaced by three of her fingers. She worries at his Adam's apple and his nipples on her journey down his torso, laving his navel like she is the one starving, before going down on him again, taking him deep as she hones in on her target in his ass. Her jab is like a lightning strike, and John thrusts against her presence everywhere on him and in him, and comes with a violence that knocks him back and rips him down the middle--pinned down by her mouth and fingers, forced to take his release; wave after wave after wave.

Nofert stays inside him, stroking gently while she licks him clean. She pulls out with a lot of care, and John moans in thanks, but not loudly. The hand that cupped her breast lies curled on his stomach, and she lifts it to her mouth, pressing a kiss in the center of his palm. That shakes him more than the rest.

"I'll see you again," she says, her mouth set in a pale line. She must be a rip-off-the-bandaid kind of person--of course, she is--because she doesn't let him bask in an afterglow he won't remember, but grabs the leech and pulls it free from his throat before he can protest and --

-- he curls on his side on a hard bench, and the world is a blur, and he aches terribly. He looks down at his belly, convinced that his guts are spilling out. A low whine is building at the back of his throat, but he can't remember how it began; he'd thought, after the hive ship, that he could never make that sound again. Jesus. The shift into horror as he loses he memory is jarring.

Someone cups the side of his face, tilting it up, and says, "Drink, Sheppard, slowly." He parts his lips at the press of a bottle, swallowing what tastes like undiluted raspberry syrup. When he turns away from it, the touch on his face hardens. "No, Sheppard, drink all of it."

Stomach roiling, he drinks, and blinks harshly until the presence resolves into Nofert, sitting naked on the floor of the ship. The cabin smells of sweat and come. Nofert's hair sticks to her forehead and her lips are swollen, and John can't feel his knees.

"We're done?" he croaks, desperate for a lie.

"We have an upload," Nofert says, eyes dark.

"Oh God," he says, shaking like a leaf. "This is so fucked up."

Nofert stands, stark and bony and looking older under the harsh lights of the ship. The glare carves shadows under her ribs, and throws her scars into painful relief. John isn't surprised by the marks or the pattern they make. He wonders if he got to kiss any them; if it made anything better.

A single sob escapes him, ripped straight from his lungs. He hides his face in his hands, struggling to pull himself together but not knowing where to start. "Are you okay?" he asks, sniffling. He sees, on top of a box, the leech pulsing red. He can't bear to ask her if it was good.

She doesn't respond with words, but bends over him. Her hands land on his hair, guiding his face to her belly, and that's a little too much skin to begin with. Resisting her pull, he makes himself sit up, and almost slides off the slab but hangs on, swiping a hand roughly across his eyes. That's when it hits him--he's naked as the day he was born, how did that escape him?--and he laughs; a vile, crazy sound. He doesn't resist when Nofert pushes him back down and spreads a blanket over him.

"I told you that you wouldn't lose this, and you won't," she says, touching his cheek. "Sleep for a little while. The cognitive dissonance won't be so acute if you rest."

He looks at her. "Really?"

"Yes," she says; and maybe his body remembers what his brain forgot, because John believes her.

* *

"Can you -- well, you really don't have to, but I just --" John says, much later.

He doesn't mean to ask about it, having worked out the details from the map of her body. But he gave away so much since coming to Bajan, that maybe it's natural to want to balance the scales; after all, there is one story Nofert will always have over him. And if yesterday he didn't have room for anyone new, well, it seems a little late to worry about it when they are entwined on the floor of her spaceship, lying in a puddle of their own clothes, and he is still inside her.

"I'm an idiot," John says, after a minute. "Forget I said anything."

"You didn't say anything," Nofert deadpans, but she does that thing with her inner muscles that leaves him panting.

"Hmpf," John says.

He is sore in places that haven't been sore in living memory, lying between her long legs, nose buried in the flesh of her neck, which smells of salt and sex, pleasantly acrid. Nofert supports most of his weight--he protested this arrangement at some point, but gave up when she locked his body to hers with a leg around his hip, and he got a real taste of her strength. (He's already indulged his inner fourteen-year-old with the fantasy of a Teyla-Nofert death match in his backyard: warrior women with sticks and a weird fascination for his ass. He's trying hard to feel bad about that.) Oh John. Oh John's inner 14-year old, thinking these things so the rest of us don't need to work for them.

Knotting her fingers in his hair, Nofert nudges his face closer to her throat, and John takes the hint, sucking her heartbeat into his mouth even as she lets go of his hair. His snort is muffled by her skin when her heels hook over his ankles, forcing his legs apart. Deft hands that never venture too far from his ass squeeze his cheeks and spread them, exposing his sensitized hole to the cool atmosphere of the cabin, and the fine muscles around his entrance flutter and contract, anticipating an end to the emptiness. She holds him open a while, until he can't help but picture what he must look like: splayed out, face down, buried up to his balls, greedily suckling on her neck. He's beginning to relax into the position when a blunt nail draws a precise ellipse over his hole, and he jumps, even though he expected it. She likes this; likes to handle him like an instrument, deprive him of leverage then trigger his minute shifts inside her, as if he had some kind of remote control in his ass.

John is beginning to think he does.

Chuckling, he nips her earlobe in mild retaliation, still wiped from his last effort at payback.

"It's always the quiet ones," he mumbles sneakily, swiftly punished (or rewarded) by the in-and-out squirm of a dry finger.

Nofert plays him for a while, meeting his helpless thrusts with nudges of her hips that send tiny electrical shocks straight to his cock and balls and turn his gut to liquid. He's fully hard again, and clenching around her fingers, torn between two pleasures and made desperately hungry for it. He moans loudly into her neck, so her words don't register immediately when she says, "I was arrested for treason and tortured." John tries to raise himself on his forearms and look into her face, but she frees up a hand to hold his head down, speaking quietly in his ear: "Our solar system had life on two worlds, and we were allies. We had ships and weapons to fight back the incursions of the Wraith. After they woke up and the hunting parties arrived in ever greater numbers, my government decided that the other world wasn't making the 'right' use of its resources. They invaded them to 'unite us against our common enemy.' Those of us in the military who opposed that action were accused of treason, secretly imprisoned, tortured for the names of other dissidents, and executed. The war devastated us. When the hive ships came, we were ripe for the picking."

Later, John dozes off again, and later, Nofert wakes him up, returned to the shell of her jumpsuit, all traces of their fucking erased. John is still naked. His stomach churns uncertainly when he looks at her, but she offers him a hand up, holds him and kisses him, and the leather of her second skin brushes everywhere against him. Hi John's abandonment issues! Glad to see you're never far away.

After struggling back into his clothes, he joins her in the cockpit. They are still in orbit, poised over Bajan. The lone continent is an intermittent speck of white on blue through the clouds.

"It snowed," John says, surprised.

Nofert lets him have the stick on the way down. Aw.

* *

Over the next few days, the sky dumps three and a half feet of snow, thick snowflakes the size of oranges that pile up in the yard, on the roof, and bury the path between John's and Kolya's houses. Ekaterin has to enlist the help of an army of technicians and a giant snow Hoover to dig them out. But there isn't time for snowball fights or sleigh races down the hill; there isn't even the luxury of a stolen hour with Nofert; a stolen minute.

Once they trade the ex-worshipper's leeches off Asher, John spends a week hooked to a neural headset, downloading and transcribing memories, breaking only for food and a few hours of sleep (shattered by visions of Wraith larders and hive queens), and to nurse Ben, who has come down with a nasty cold. Kolya's team is back to scouting the remaining seven gate addresses on their priority list, and Teyla isn't around much to share the load.

It pays, though, when they show up on his doorstep, cheeks and noses bright red from the cold.

"The third time is the charm," Teyla says precisely, beaming.

John sits them around the dining table, brews a big pot of tea, and defrosts a couple of fruit pies.

"The mainland of the planet is half the size of the mainland on Atlantis," Teyla says. "It looks to have been abandoned for many generations, but it once hosted a thriving community. We found records that the Ancestors had visited the planet before they left for Earth. I believe the population departed soon after, to seek ascension in a sanctuary like the one we found."

"And they left their technology behind?" John asks, brow raised.

"Much better," Orathai says, more animated in his presence than he's ever seen her. "We discovered an Ancient shield system, intact. Teyla tells me it's similar to the one you found on a planet inhabited by children. It hasn't been activated since that world was depopulated."

"Does that mean --"

"The ZPM is still half-charged. It could shield a hundred thousand; maybe more." Jackpot.

Everyone stays for dinner. Kolya makes a vegetable soup that he swears will be good for Ben, whose convalescence has been sluggish, and while Kolya dices and chops and orders John to the couch--in a weirdly paternalistic voice that freaks them both out--Teyla bakes Athosian bread. The smell wafting from the oven wakes John from a power-nap on Nofert's shoulder, just in time for dinner.

They eat slowly, hammering out a working strategy between compliments to the cooks.

First they have to scan the new world for passive sensors (John names the planet DF-22; their own Hail Mary), and erect some sort of shield on the gate. It's unlikely the Wraith even visit anymore if the place was uninhabited for thousands of years, but better safe than lunch.

They also need the scientists in the cities to start thinking about designing sustainable refugee camps.

John's watched the tape, including the footage of Nofert's reconnaissance from orbit, so he knows DF-22 is yet another pelagic planet, and that gets him thinking. Atlantis, Bajan, '22: three ocean planets, three shielded civilizations, three worlds more or less safe from the Wraith. Other data points click together: the drone who died from the fall into the ocean when Ford didn't; the Wraith who didn't search through the wreckage after the fake self-destruct--never even got close to the water; Carson's voice, distorted by agony and radio waves: Most likely a primitive defensive reflex to salt water.

There could be something there, a weakness to exploit, but that's R&D, and that means labs and a herd of scientists with nothing else to do. "We should pass this on to Atlantis," John says, thinking aloud, and when Kolya makes a face, he says, "Oh don't be a dick."

But Orathai looks evaluating. "Our bodies are made up of mostly salt and water, so I wouldn't hold my breath that this is a serious weakness for the Wraith; but anything that could threaten their ecological equilibrium should be explored," she says, and her tone makes John nostalgic for the virulent science briefings on Atlantis; he had drawn some weird kind of comfort from their rational faith. Finally John's got his equilibrium back, and it comes out. Missing the people of the expedition, in a general way.

"As far as species go, the Wraith are not particularly robust, and that makes them vulnerable to the slightest change -- such as a hibernation cycle cut short. They live long and are hard to kill, but their level of technological development has remained stagnant for generations (this makes sense, with the hibernation, and with no serious threat to their preeminence in the past ten-thousand years) , and unlike humans, they don't adapt their feeding habits to their environment: they eat us or nothing." Her slanted eyes are bright with conviction. "I've studied all the data Sheppard brought from Atlantis, and I don't believe, like their Dr. Beckett, that the original parasite assimilated human genetic material. That makes no sense. (Thank you! Finally someone says it. Because she's right. It makes no sense.) But there are examples in nature of creatures altering their food source to make it more suitable, such as viruses that rewrite their host's genetic coding.

"In a balanced ecosystem, the parasite could have lived for years off a single human, making them last and changing them slowly. It would explain the Wraith's remnant of a digestive system; their human childhood; how they could emerge so fast without the Ancestors noticing -- though it still doesn't explain how they came by their technology unheeded. Still, it's a much shorter leap." And this is a really good explanation to replace Beckett's, particularly since she notes the weaknesses in her theory rather than just saying that it's correct.

"So the Wraith didn't start as the bug Sheppard told us about, but as humans changed by the bug?" Kolya says.

Orathai nods decisively. "I'm not a biologist, but I would speculate that the bond between their natures -- insectoid and human -- is unstable on some fundamental level; the alterations weren't meant to take. They're an evolutionary accident. A mistake. It's likely they lack the basic compound that holds their cells together," she explains, and her voice rises. "They have to supplement that deficiency or die."

"We all agree that our best chance is to target their food supply," Theo contributes, soothingly. His hand finds Orathai's on the tabletop. "Diminish their numbers by playing on their territoriality; fan the flames of civil war. With this shielded world and the right intelligence, we have a real opportunity."

"How much did you learn from the worshippers' memories?" Kolya asks John.

"A lot," John says. If he never again has to feel himself getting off on watching a Wraith feed, it'll be too fucking soon. Yeah, I'd agree that that's pretty much the most fucked up Pegasus specific kink ever. "I know where they come from, and I know how to find out who runs with what hive. They wear tattoos that brand them as belonging to a particular queen; same mark she wears on her face." Under the table, his fists are already clenched, anticipating what comes next. "I set aside a couple of leeches for whoever we send in, so they can have some firsthand experience of what goes on. Getting them on the hive ship won't be a problem; getting them back is another story. That family got out because the Wraith started snacking on their own flunkies."

"I will go," Teyla says, her eyes steady on his. "I have been on hive ships; I know their habits. I may even find a way to spy on the Wraith's thoughts." Considering the trouble she's had with her mental link to the Wraith, I think Teyla is being bizarrely optimistic here.

Kolya must have signaled his people to get lost, because dinner wraps up quickly after that, and they're out the door. Teyla bangs pans and pots in the kitchen, a clear signal to John, but he doesn't feel up to the discussion they're supposed to have. Remorselessly, he abandons Kolya to the dirty dishes on the table, and goes to look in on Ben, picking up the covers that got kicked to the floor, checking the scarab that monitors Ben's temperature (no fever), brushing his lips to the smooth forehead anyway. Before he can consider waking the kid to get a little soup in him, he falls asleep across the foot of the bed.

A quiet rap-rap-rap rescues John from a heart-pounding dream of Ben trapped in a cocoon, of ripping at the threads with his bare hands, over and over until his fingers bleed. He stumbles to the door and cracks it open, feeling hot and muffle-headed. "Emmagan has gone to bed," Kolya says, holding up a bottle of something gold and thick.

"It's kinda ironic," John points out some time later, sitting on the floor next to Kolya and feeling no pain. "The bugs made humans into Wraith so they'd taste better. We made the Wraith into humans so other Wraith could eat them. A Wraith ate Ford by accident and made him into...whatever. And the bitch made Ben." He rests his head against the couch; the ceiling seems far away and the world rocks gently. "S'poetry," he says, raising his glass. "You know they invented poetry 'cause the universe is kinda fucked up. My grandmother, she was French and she wrote poetry, so I always knew how fucked we were even before that time I woke up with my very own exoskeleton, and -- hey, do you know the one about the madman and the one hundred little girls?"

It isn't easy to explain moral dilemmas and thought experiments and madmen to a Genii, but he gets it down. "So," John says, "do you shoot the little girl even if she's yours?"

He can't quite focus on Kolya; they're sitting too close, and John's sorta drunk.

"Of course, Sheppard," Kolya replies, in a tone that says, you're some special kind of moron, aren't you? "You kill her even if she's yours. You pull the trigger even if they're all yours. That's what being a leader is about. You do your duty, and then, if you're still standing, you exact revenge for you and yours." Again, the fundamental differences in the way Pegasus fighters and expedition members think.

John snorts. "'To be a good leader, you have to be a good subordinate,'" he quotes, drawling exaggeratedly. "That's what my Dad used to say. I'm neither, and neither was he." They'd both agreed that the General was the true leader of men in the family; the one who cared for her own people, but who cared for Duty and Right and the lives of strangers more. Boy, had they got that one wrong in the end. "We both made colonel anyway," John snickers in his drink. "How fucked up is that?"

They polish the rest of the bottle, and Kolya decides to demonstrate his Genii anti-Wraith kung fu moves on John, but John can't stop laughing and cracking jokes, so they take it outside, pulling on boots and coats and scarves clumsily, trading obnoxious orders to be fucking quiet, you're gonna wake up the warrior woman. Okay, Kolya drunk? Awesome.

Outside, the night is hushed and hollow, a fresh cover of snow stretching to the shore like sugar frosting. Blue and perfect, the ringed moon floats over the world and bathes them in an alien light.

"Go for my chest," Kolya says, and John does, grinning like a Wraith, and Kolya traps John's wrist against his breastbone at an excruciating angle, twists his arm, and throws him over his shoulder, and John goes sailing.

"Hey," John says before passing out, flat on his back in the moon-pressed snow. "Do you know the one about the clown and the two cannibals?"

* *

"You can kick my ass, but listen to me," John pleads with Teyla in the northern twilight of their kitchen. His wrist is encased in ice and hurts like a bitch, second only to the drill work in his temples, and he's still mostly drunk. "There're rules to this kind of job. Your first priority is your safety, anywhere, ever. The second is passing on the information to your handler. That's it. No stopping to rescue civilians all by yourself. I don't care if they're having babies for breakfast up there. You don't pull another Orin on me. You got that?" he insists, dragging her roughly against him with his good arm.

"John," Teyla says, with more compassion than he deserves, "I shall do what I believe is right, as always."

She leans her forehead hard on his, and John whispers, "No no," against her lips. Then, hoarsely: "Find me a goddamn leech; you're going to learn how to hotwire a dart."

She holds him long past dawn.

* *

John hadn't realized how much Teyla's presence set the rhythm of his days until her door hung open on an empty room and a neatly-made bed, and John couldn't stand it and had to shut the door. Soon the weeks merge into an indistinct blur, only broken by tax uploads, logistical briefings with Kolya, and what John refers to jokingly as Nofert's conjugal visits. He can't bring himself to desecrate Teyla's domain by using her bed, so they fuck on the living room floor when Ben is asleep (enforced silence is not a deterrent, as it turns out), or in the kitchen, where John can keep an eye on the backyard while Ben plays outside, bundled up like an astronaut. ("Fuck, Nofert, Ben's coming back--Jesus, you can't put that in there.") Rarely, John asks Ekaterin to baby-sit, and they take the ship into orbit where no one will hear John scream. He sleeps better for a few days afterwards, and doesn't think too hard about what any of it means, what Nofert wants from him, aside from the obvious.

The main thrust of the war, of the resistance, of the entire madcap operation--John doesn't know what to call it--is now firmly centered on making DF-22 a safe, habitable world. After Teyla left, Kolya came to some sort of personal decision and brought in the Genii to help build the gate shield designed by Orathai and some other scientists John has never met. It didn't take long to bring Ladon on board, and upon returning from that trip, Kolya informed John that the Genii's last contact with the Atlanteans was three months old, that the city had still been standing then--Ladon had met with Elizabeth, Rodney and Beckett--, and in John's heart an almost two-year old patch of black ice began to thaw. "They told Ladon you were missing in action," Kolya says, and even though M.I.A. sounds better than deserter, it hurt to hear it. He wonders what story the Athosians tell about Teyla; if Halling still speaks her name. The story of why they left Atlantis is doled out in scraps the same was the story of Ben was in the first part. It's not quite as mysterious, so it's not quite as beguiling, but it still works.

With Teyla gone and Orathai who can't be dragged away from '22 with a crowbar, Kolya's team is down to three, but they keep up the survey of prioritized addresses, in-between selecting operatives to infiltrate worshippers from other hives. Slim pickings must have the Wraith turning their appetite on their human pets with increased frequency, because Kolya's black market contacts turn up three more defectors in as many weeks.

John is almost tempted to join the team on a couple of missions. Maybe it's knowing Teyla is out there alone; maybe his dalliance with Nofert has rekindled more than his sex drive; or maybe all this proactive strategizing is getting to his head, because it's getting harder and harder to watch people come and go, and wave at them from the porch.

From the seventh planet, Kolya returns with an expression John's never seen on the craggy face, and a video recording that awakens a nest of eels in John's stomach: a vast expanse of rock and sand, clumps of tall grass and dunes like mountains, and, surging through the lunar desert, a grove of familiar spires. What expression? Hope?

"Oh yeah," John hears himself whisper. "Why didn't we think to look?" The view changes abruptly from a wide shot of the central tower to a close-up of the control room, visible only in the short range of the flashlights, but unmistakable; the consoles are still covered in flimsy protective sheets that shimmer in the beams.

John's fingers brush the playback screen. "Do you need me to initialize it?" he asks, unable not to.

But Kolya saves him from himself. "The ZPM is completely depleted. There are no other signs of habitation on the planet, but I have no idea how Wraith scouts could have failed to spot this. The city is all you can see from space."

"We found another Ancient city, once," John answers absently. "And I know the shield can be converted to a cloak. Maybe it's stood there since it was abandoned, invisible until the ZPM failed."

"Then with a charged ZPM..." Kolya breathes.

John wrenches his attention back from the display. "We don't have time to go ZPM-hunting all over the galaxy. Your team is stretched thin as it is, and we have no idea how much warning Teyla'll give us before we have to move. We need the one ZPM we've got to power the shield on '22." Kolya watches him intently until John raises an eyebrow and says, "What?"

"There is a ZPM we both know about, which is not protecting anyone."

John clears his throat. "Dagan." Yes. I'm surprised, in retrospect, that the expedition briefly considered stealing the ZPM from Childhood's End, but never really talked about going back to Dagan and taking that one by force. Or by sneakier means – switching out the Quindozum's ZPM with one of the depleted ones from the city. Ethically, it's far less troubling.

How often had he fantasized about retrieving that ZPM with heavy artillery? Every damn time Rodney and Zelenka had to squeeze more power out of thin air; every time John had to make a human shield out of twenty-year-old marines.

John takes a breath. "You have to wait," he tells Kolya. "Anything could go wrong during the retrieval, and the operation can't afford to lose you. We'll discuss it again; after the first move."

Kolya's dark eyes flicker over him, before the man's face twists into a sort of smile. "I've had worse commanding officers," Kolya says, shocking John into silence. "Now, about the corpses we need."

John opens his mouth, but he's still floored, so he writes down the gate address and the instructions, and draws the map on a napkin. Crikey. I'm sort of floored, too. Oh, Kolya.

This is where what I think of as part three starts. With the discovery of the new city, and Ben's rise back to importance in the narrative. The middle bit added characters, changed the setup, gave them new goals. The third brings everything together.

* *

The team is gone for several days. Trapped inside the house by Arctic winds, John spends that time alone with Ben, with little else to do but wonder if Teyla is still alive; if the plan will work or if they're all going to die. What touching that other Atlantis would feel like. It isn't the wondering that keeps him up nights, though, but Ben's latest bout of growing pains, which has the boy crying softly into his father's chest, and John hurting in sympathy, sick with helplessness.

On a particularly clear and cold morning, Ekaterin shows up with a special request from the Greys.

"Joy," she says, "Not sex related, please."

She looks him up and down, mouth pinched, like she knows very well he's been guest-starring on the black market.

"Whatever," John says, dragging her to the kitchen, away from the bedroom where Ben naps fitfully. He slaps a scarab on the worktop. "It isn't working," he snaps accusingly. Ekaterin doesn't deserve his anger, but John has never told her where Ben came from--not in so many words--and he's afraid he's going to have to.

"Is that so?" Ekaterin says darkly. She glares at the scarab, as if it personally insulted her. "I know a few technicians who aren't going to see the inside of a parlor anytime soon."

John swallows thickly. "About Ben --"

"Don't worry your pretty head," Ekaterin chides, raising herself on points like a ballerina, to stroke John's face and kiss his cheek. "If you'll let me, I'll collect another blood sample from Ben, and we'll have this thing recalibrated in no time. My people thrive on a challenge! He's such a beautiful boy, such a special boy. I mean -- can you believe those Wraith?" And here, finally, is where Ekaterin slots into place, and I fall in love with her too. The way she jerks the rug out from under John's fears! Excellent.

* *

The new scarab seems to do the trick. Ben spends the next day in bed, alternatively catching up on sleep, eating the soup John made from Kolya's recipe, and feeding on John; he takes a little more than usual, though there is no pain, just a slight discomfort like the prelude to a cold, and a vague tiredness for a while after.

Shortly before nightfall, John gets a call from Ekaterin, and he slips from under Ben's hand and out of bed. Outside his breath freezes before it leaves his mouth, but he sits on the porch steps, wrapped in his coat and two blankets, waiting. It's almost fully dark when Nofert appears at the gate and walks up to the house. Even in the warm glow of the porch light, she is hard and washed out. So it looked like Ekaterin was part of their cabal before, but she's so very odd that it was hard to assimilate the information. That she's the one to call to tell John that Nofert is on the way makes solidifies it, though.

John offers a hand, to guide her down to the stoop or lever himself up, whatever she needs, but Nofert doesn't take it. Sand and dust and other particles that John doesn't want to think about stick to her jumpsuit. Her hair is dirty and stands out on top, her eyes blank, fixed on a point in the middle of John's chest. Dropping the blankets, he stands carefully. When she flinches away, he says, "Okay." He opens the door, but doesn't usher her in, letting her cross the threshold in her own time, despite the cold that washes through the house. He leads her to Teyla's bathroom, not talking or touching, and lays out clean towels, a pair of his own sweats, and his black turtleneck on the bedspread.

She stays in the shower a long time.

John checks on Ben (out cold) and waits on the settee with the lights turned off, save for a lamp on his desk.

"You said the supply ship crashed during the Great War," Nofert says, taking a seat on the couch across from him, water rolling down her face. "I didn't expect the bodies to -- smell."

"They were preserved by the cocoons," John says quietly. "I can't imagine how many trips it took you to get them across the desert to the gate. I'm sorry." Oh crap. Yuck.

"It's done," she says, closing the subject.

But John can't stand it. She is holding herself so taut that he hurts for her. "What can I do?" he says; he makes to lean forward, but she tightens up, so he subsides. He has been where she is: when a question asked with kindness or a light touch is more than you can stand. Yet she came to him; whatever her reasons, she came to him. "Anything," he offers, hoping she'll take it. One of her fists is pressed against the sweet spot of her thigh, and John has a vivid memory of his face pressed against it while he lapped at her and drank leisurely from her, warm and safe and surrounded.

"I want to watch you," she says, straightforward with her desires even now.

"Okay." John's cheeks feel hot and his mouth is a little dry. He's never been much of an exhibitionist, but he makes new rules in this house all the time. He's raised a son here; he's slept weaponless in that bed; he's broken bread with an enemy at that very table.

"Okay," John says. "Tell me."

* *

He keeps himself quiet and on the edge longer than he believed his body could endure. He watches her watch him. She never made a move to touch herself, not even when she asked for the long silver toy she'd gifted him on their second orbital trip ("Because your culture is clearly lacking, Sheppard."), and told him to use it on himself.

Spread out on the settee, hard and flushed as he spears himself again and again on the little toy, John is almost afraid to let go, to feel anything more than this. He is awash in pleasure from the tip of his ears to his toes. The tension has been building for so long that his body feels stretched and sculpted just to accommodate it.

Breathing raggedly, he licks the sweat off his lip, cupping his balls and rubbing the lip of his cock, right under the head, squeezing and teasing and torturing himself into blindness. Nofert's gaze is on him, and in that expanse as black as space she promises a freedom like flying.

"You're beautiful," she says. Her voice is shredded, as if she had been screaming all along, and John believes that voice, believes that he is as Nofert sees him.

When he shatters she comes off the couch and holds him through the aftershocks, and though the rough wool of the sweater is like sandpaper on his skin, John twines himself with her. That's how Kolya finds them when he walks in moments before dawn, sending John scrambling off the ottoman. The Genii doesn't raise a brow when Nofert takes off her pants and hands them to John, though there might have been a smirk under the beard. Another strangely wonderful sex scene, full of tension, neatly released with humor at the end.

There is no trace of it in his voice when he says, "Emmagan's handler relayed the transmission an hour ago," and crosses the hallway to the kitchen, throwing over his shoulder: "Take a shower. We have three days."

* *

By galactic standards, Menara is downright plain: a population of less than two thousand settled in the vicinity of the stargate; a post-agricultural, pre-industrial society forced to reinvent the wheel every time the Wraith come knocking; an order of monks that won't abandon the sacred ruins the Ancestors left in their care, come Wraith or high water.

"We're lucky that it's the first stop on the hive's culling route," Theo says, fresh from reconnaissance. "It's the perfect training run, though Nofert's people have had some contact with the population in the past, so they're already inclined to trust us, and there aren't any natural obstructions to overcome; there're plenty of bridges and open roads between the villages and the stargate. We've passed word along that the Wraith are coming and that we have a safe world for them to move to. The first support team has already left '22 to oversee the evacuation. Orathai says the shield is fully operational. Our only problem is going to be the monks."

"We could stun them and carry them," Nofert says. "They can curse our names later."

"If one of them escapes and is taken by the Wraith, it'll compromise our entire operation," Kolya observes darkly. "We can't kill them for the same reason; we need them to cooperate."

"I have an idea about that," Theo says, turning unfriendly eyes on John.

"What?" John asks warily.

His body is still sore from the night's self-torment, and the ready room Ekaterin spared them in the spaceport's main terminal doesn't have halfway comfortable chairs.

"The temple shelters a device that supposedly lights up in the presence of an Ancestor. As far as I can tell from the songs--because the monks don't talk, they sing--it produces music when it's initialized," Theo says. "You see where I'm going, Sheppard?"

"You want me to play the pied piper," John says, ignoring Kolya's level gaze. "I get it, but I can't. We agreed that I wouldn't go through the gate, and nothing has changed."

"You selfish bastard!" Theo snaps, rising from his chair.

John forces himself not to react. He doesn't seek Nofert's support, because he knows he won't find it. "I know. I am. Ben doesn't have anyone else."

Theo's punch comes at him like an enraged bull. It knocks John to the cement floor, and he doesn't have time to roll and find his feet before Theo vaults over the coffee table, grabs the front of his coat and drags him for two or three feet, straddling him and striking him once, sharply, in the sternum. John's eyes water from the pain, but his gasp is cut off by Theo's savage hold on his throat.

"Your child! Always your child!" Theo roars, shaking John like a mad dog with a bone. "What about our children? It's our children who have been dying, not yours!" John's head smacks against the cement. He tries to jab at Theo's throat through the dizziness, but Theo bats his hand away like a gnat. "I could kill you," he growls, spitting against John's mouth. "Remember Olesia? You're wanted for high crimes there. You and Doctor Weir. Not that we've got courts or judges anymore. They all got taken by the Wraith after you left." John twists off the floor, but Theo shoves a knee into his ribcage. "Come on, Sheppard. Take it like a man. What's a few bruises when you've killed sixteen thousand people?" This is one of the great opportunities offered by fanfiction. Not just the game of what if, but the ability to follow up on events and to examine consequences. This is also another example of profound cultural difference between Pegasus societies and the members of the expedition. John (and, it's understood, the rest of the expedition) condemns the Olesians as collaborators. It's a bit strange that they do so decisively, considering that only the ruling class (or possibly only the oligarchs) knew that the bargain with the Wraith existed. The entire population pays for the crime. It's certainly possible that the treaty Olesia had with the Wraith was about to collapse anyway, with the sudden end of the hibernation cycle, but John may have hastened that. The cultural misunderstanding lies in the idea that although the Olesians may not have known they were sacrificing a select number of criminals and dissidents for the safety of the rest, they might have happily gone along with it - when faced with a similar decision, the Hoffans did so overwhelmingly, even knowing that there was no way to predict who would die. Perhaps that's just how you fight an asymmetric war that stretches on for millennia. By upsetting the balance on Olesia, John knocked back a technically advanced civilization - one that appeared to be centuries ahead of earth - which I think we can safely assume was using their breathing space to further the fight.

The world is rushing away. John is barely aware of Nofert standing stoically by the door, arms crossed, or of Kolya, who walks up to Theo and says, "Enough."

The constriction is removed with a last vicious squeeze, and John rolls onto his side, trying not to throw up, hacking violently.

"You're alive because the commander convinced us that you would do more good this way than dead," Theo says, crouching over John. "That's the only reason you're breathing at all. Now you're going to pick yourself up and say goodbye to your son. I'll do my best to bring you back to him in one piece. But I'll drag you to Menara on a leash if I have to."

One by one, they leave; Nofert is last, and she closes the door.

John remains curled on the floor, letting the sick rush of unexpected violence wash through him, until he is able to move without fear of losing it. Eventually, he makes it to his knees, wondering, with the clarity of shock, how did I go from so much pleasure last night to hurting so much now? How could he look at Nofert, shaped as she was by this place, and believe in freedom?

The door squeaks on its hinges and John hauls himself up--he's not going to take it lying down again--but it's Ekaterin, who gawps when she sees him and rushes forward. "John!" she exclaims. "I didn't think they would --" So Ekaterin knew this was brewing. She's playing an intricate game, here. One that goes unexplained until the very end.

He dodges the hand that reaches for his face. "I'm okay," he croaks. "Where's Ben?"

"He has the technicians in the control tower under the Sheppard charm, and they're letting him land cargo ships," Ekaterin says quickly, eyes bright. "How do you keep getting hurt on my watch?" Who else's watch is there? Is this just Ekaterin being weird, or is there something I'm missing here?

"I'm sorry," John says. "I have to go with them."

"Through the stargate?"

"I don't think we'll be gone long, but if I don't come back, and if Teyla --"

Ekaterin takes both his hands in hers. He bites hard on the inside of his cheek. "You are going to be fine, John Sheppard. But if anything should happen, you have my word that Ben will be taken care of. He'll be made a Citizen, I'll make sure of it."

"No tax?" John asks before his throat closes up.

"No tax," Ekaterin assures him, guiding him to a row of lockers. She presses her thumb to a biometric lock and the door swings open on a rack of high powered rifles. "Here, John," she says, handing him a weapon and half a dozen clips. "This one works."

* *

Ekaterin's magic scarabs can take the pain out of his throat and ribcage, but they can't make up for Ben's distress at John's bruised face or the desperation of their long hug goodbye. "It's gonna be okay," John murmurs against the sweet dark head. Ben's arms are knotted around his father's waist, and his eyes are closed, soft lashes fluttering against pale, vulnerable skin. The rush of love for this boy--his son--is almost unbearable. "You're the joy of my life," John says. "Don't forget it."

They take Nofert's ship through the gate. Sitting across from Theo and Kolya in the cabin, John gets acquainted with his weapon. On Menara the evacuation is underway and the clearing around the stargate is a vast sea of organized mayhem. Orathai stands in the middle of it like a conductor, her lithe figure regal as ever, attended by a group of her engineers and a honor guard of Genii soldiers, while she shouts orders in a radio. She looks John over, and turns to Theo with a faint smirk. "We've been waiting for you before sending through the next wave," she says. "We started with the outer villages. We're working our way in."

"You have aircraft?" John asks.

"Two, in addition to Nofert's," Orathai answers coldly, so he assumes the crafts were salvaged from Olesia. "Not big enough for transport, but they speed up the mapping of the settlements. The evacuation will be completed well ahead of the deadline, if you can do something about those monks."

"Where are they?" Orathai points over the throngs of bedraggled humanity to a ruin that might have once been an Ancient tool shed. "That's a temple?" John asks rhetorically. "Fine. Let's get this show on the road."

Nofert shifts her weapon forward. "I'll escort you," she says.

"Nah," John drawls, setting off through the crowd of women and men, children and animals and carts. "I might get performance anxiety." Oh, John's ironic distance.

Things get hairy for a while, because the monks won't let John near the device unless he sings. John belts out You Can't Get A Man With A Gun, until the monks beg him to stop (what's the origin of the John-can't-sing jokes? Because they're everywhere, and they're great. Just curious.) and they negotiate (more songs!) for John to sort-of-hum Come On Baby Let the Good Times Roll before ushering him inside (no one wants a stampede). The Ancient mushroom-shaped console lights up as soon as John steps on the dais, and one of the monk faints, but another shows John where to put his hands. The resulting harmonics throw the little guys into a frenzy of break-dancing, and after the whole order falls into a chorus line in John's honor, they agree to go through the gate.

"The musical mushroom comes with," John informs a dismayed Orathai.

The evacuation continues through the day, villagers emerging from the woods in tense but hopeful clumps. On Earth this kind of exodus would take twice as long and provoke three times the wailing, but this is Pegasus, where people are born ready to pick up their lives and go. By nightfall, they are down to a trickle of nomadic families that had to be pinned down with heat sensors and herded back by native guides. When a final sweep in low atmosphere confirms the absence of human life in a two hundred kilometer area around the gate, they shut down the connection to '22 and dial MX0-958, an ice planet charted by John's original team a lifetime ago.

They step out of the wormhole and into a morgue, rows upon rows of shriveled Wraith victims piled on top of each other against the walls of the ice cave.

"Everyone grabs a body," Kolya orders the twelve-man crew.

Back on Menara, they load the corpses on the ships and drop them in the woods and on the roads, where people would've been caught by drones rounding up stragglers. John leaves his burden well in evidence, in the middle of the clearing, in front of the gate by a small camp fire.

"It's been made according to your design," Orathai says, handing him a white-hot branding iron.

John accepts it silently and kneels by the corpse. It might have been a young woman, once; it's always hard to tell. "I'm sorry, sweetheart," he says, pushing back the heavy mass of white hair from the wrinkled face, "but it's for a good cause." Jaw set, he applies the iron to the corpse's cheek, and the papered skin smokes and hisses. This is a really good, albeit macabre, plan.

"We're done," Orathai says, putting the fire out with her boot. "Commander, we're ready to move out," she advises over the radio. "Are you --"

When the gate activates, John has enough time to drop the iron, jump to his feet, and yell, "Take cover!" into his radio before the first chevron is lit. Kolya's identical order booms through the clearing as, he, Orathai, John, Theo, a small Genii squad, and two engineers run flat out for the trees.

They make it to the woods just as the dart shoots through the event horizon, heading away from the gate and toward the settlements.

"Wraith scout!" one of the engineers shouts unnecessarily.

"Nofert," Theo barks into his headset, "you have incoming. Our ships can't take a dart," he says, turning to Kolya.

"We can't let it get away!" Orathai's face is a tight mask of frustration. "It'll all be for nothing!"

"We can't bring it down with our weapons," Kolya says. "We have to sacrifice one of the ships."

"Kamikaze?" John asks incredulously. "Hell, no. We're not there yet. Nofert!" he calls, activating his radio. I'm with John - they're at the very start of this plan, and they can't afford to sacrifice a person, much less a ship.

"Go ahead, Sheppard."

"Do you have a visual?"

"Not yet, but it's on my screen."

"I need you to force it on your tail. Can you do that?"

"Yes," she says.

There's no way to assess her level of confidence and there's no time.

"Then hook him up and maintain your lead. I need at least a three-count between you and the dart, but not much more. All right?"

"Where do you want it?"

"Bring it back to the gate, coming over the temple. Then thread the needle. Make it follow you through the gate."

"Sheppard, what --"

John signals Orathai into silence.

"Understood," Nofert says. "Ashanti, out."

Abandoning his cover, John quickly divests himself of vest and rifle; anything that could hamper him or slow him down. "Is the gate shield up on '22?"

"It should be," Orathai says, frowning. "But they were waiting for us, and we've never --"

"Can't risk it, okay." He hands his weapon to Kolya. "I want you to fire at it; keep it on course. We have to get the dart through that damn gate."

"We can't let it escape!" Theo interjects, but Kolya says, "You have it, Sheppard. Go." I like this confidence from Kolya, in John's plan. Of course, he knows from experience - John's plans are best in just this sort of desperate last-minute crisis.

"Order the other ships out of the way," John yells over his shoulder, already running.

He makes it to the DHD with seconds to spare, hearing the manic whine of the dart before he can see it, coming on the tail of Nofert's ugly duckling. The little ship moves like a bird of prey in low atmosphere, cutting through the top of the trees and over the temple.

Sliding to his knees in the grass, John punches the seven familiar symbols.

As Nofert shoots through the ring at full-throttle to increase her lead, Kolya and his men open fire from the tree line, right over the nose of the dart, just the distraction needed as John slams the control crystal of the DHD.

The event horizon whooshes outward and back, and the dart is through and gone.

Afterwards, Kolya walks up to John, who sits at the foot of the DHD, breathing heavily and cursing himself for getting so out of shape.

"Tell me you haven't missed this, Sheppard," Kolya laughs, a rifle in each hand.

John flips him off, then adds, "Fuck you," when he remembers who he's talking to. Finally! Finally John catches himself in a culturally meaningless act and corrects.

* *

For all of two seconds, John considers dialing Atlantis to explain (he can picture Rodney going diagnostic-crazy over the why-what-where of the shield impact), but he can't imagine what he would say. He makes a note to include an apology with his next check-in. Oh man. Okay, yes, that makes sense, that running the dart into the Atlantean shield was the solution, but it's still sort of a hilarious surprise.

They evacuate three more planets over the next eight days, despite crumbling bridges and landslides and survivalists holed up in anti-Wraith bunkers. On each emptied world they stage the aftermath of a massive culling, framing the bitch's hive for the territorial breach, leaving a trail of corpses disfigured by her mark. They work systematically along the culling route provided by Teyla, although they skip the Wraith's second stop: the population is spread too far out, the terrain too difficult, and given the rate of progression of the hive ship, they won't have enough time. So they send a couple of their people dressed as traders to spread the news that the Wraith are coming, and move on.

It would be crazy to treat the moves like a nine-to-five job, like a goddamn commute, but that's what John does. He's there at the beginning of an evacuation, smoothing things out with the locals and smiling at all the right times--how fucked up do they have to be that he's the best diplomat they've got? (Very fucked up? Wait, was that rhetorical?) --and he's there to carry the bodies, but their tiny ragtag army is picking up enough people along the way that he doesn't really have to be there, so he ignores Theo's disgusted looks and Kolya's innuendos, dials Bajan, sends his IDC, and goes home.

On the outbound Rail he sits with the farmhands who work in the valley. He wonders what they think about (kids, taxes, lovers, weather, a new dress) while he obsesses over Teyla--What if the hive took their anger out on the worshippers? Why the hell hasn't she come back? Walking from the station through the fields, he makes up duty rosters in his head. Soon, other spies will transmit other routes so they can frame other hives, and they aren't ready.

Ekaterin always knows when he is coming home. She waits for him on the porch with a cup of tea. They sit in the naked light of the kitchen, while she talks about her day with Ben at the office: how she took Ben to Their Friends' antechambers, where few humans are ever allowed; how she taught him all the secret handshakes. She claims the other case officers are purple with jealousy because her assigned guests are so pretty. She never asks about John's day, or mentions the tacit moratorium that keeps everyone else out of the house. After that day in the ready room, Ekaterin moved in, and she's been sleeping in Teyla's bed ever since. John thinks Teyla would be okay with it.

He is ferociously glad for it when Ben's thrashing wakes him up in the middle of the night. John came in late and fell asleep on top of the covers with his clothes on, a skin-hungry hand shoved under Ben's shirt over the boy's smooth belly, and he thinks blearily the damn scarab fell off; but he checks and it's there, set over Ben's sternum, and the discovery jolts him like an electrical discharge. Holding onto the pain-wracked body of his son, John shouts for Ekaterin through the wall, and as she comes running, red from sleep and disheveled, the naked dismay on her face unseats John's foundations as surely as Ben's moans. "Oh, no," she says, lifting a hand to her mouth, "this shouldn't be happening."

It seems an eternity and no time at all between Ekaterin's call and the irruption of an emergency medical team in the bedroom. When Ben slumps in his arms, John freezes--everything just stops--until Ekaterin tugs at him and shows him the new scarab stuck to Ben's throat, and says, "He's out. Let them work, John. Come on."

He doesn't allow Ekaterin to drag him further than the hallway, and he slides down the wall across from the open door, watching the technicians bent over the fragile form on the bed. I knew this was coming, John thinks through a distant fog. I must have known all along. An evolutionary accident, Orathai said. A mistake. Not meant to be. John had known even as he knelt by the stasis pod and watched his son grow; he'd known as he stood up to Elizabeth for the right to be with Ben; he'd known when he was given the home of his dreams; he'd known every day thereafter, and the sickness of it had never left him.

"He's the best thing I've ever done," John whispers, "and I didn't even make him. The Wraith gave him to me." He grabs Ekaterin's pant leg and pulls until she kneels on the floorboards. "I don't want him to feel pain. He doesn't deserve this. God, can you --"

"John," she says, petting him, "we don't know anything yet."

But John knows. He knows. That started me crying. Jesus, it's almost got me started crying again now.

* *

So much of human resilience is tangled up in denial, but knowing how fucked up things really are has always driven John to an excess of--if not hope, then the reverse of inertia. (From the Colonel he learned to confront reality; from the General he learned to bend it around him.) So it's hard, downright unnatural, to step back and hand over Ben to the remote arms of science, but that's what John does. He lets someone else carry Ben out of the house and gives someone else Ben's full medical history and allows someone else to fly Ben to Bajan major's medical center, where a gaggle of technicians put his son through a battery of tests while John alternatively paces the corridors, rams his fists through bathroom stalls, and drinks the cups of black tea Ekaterin keeps shoving between his bruised hands. Ben is gone most of the day--still unconscious, Ekaterin swears, not alone or scared--which means the technicians have zeroed in on the problem, but not the solution. It's quite possible that they aren't used to have to work so hard for answers on Bajan, where knowledge is often just a leech away, and memory gives the illusion of experience. This is the heart of the trouble with Bajan, as a society.

When John has exhausted himself from the sheer effort of waiting, Ekaterin tows him to a room with a couch. He can tell that she's been called away on some urgent business, but doesn't want to leave him alone, so he nudges her toward the door. "I'm going to catch up on sleep," he lies. "Go."

An hour later when the door swings open, he's still awake and staring unseeingly at the spaceport through the window. He turns around, but it isn't Ekaterin bearing tea, or a technician bearing more apologies. John's never seen Kolya look reticent before.

"How is your son?" Kolya asks gruffly, standing in the door.

"They haven't told me," John says.

If John didn't feel like screaming, Kolya's fidgety shuffle would be funny. "Our scouts returned last night. The hive ship has turned back."

John feels a burst of hope. "Teyla?"

"She hasn't made contact with her handler," Kolya says. "If the Wraith are driven as irrational by the territorial challenge as we've assumed, she may not want to attract attention and risk her one chance to escape."

"Or she's decided to stay until the hives engage each other. To make sure," John says tightly.

Kolya nods. "Nevertheless, the timing is fortunate for us. We've received details of a second culling route from another spy."

John cocks his head and says softly, "If you came to drag me out there, I will beat the shit out of you."

"I only meant to inform you," Kolya says, frowning. "Ladon sent us more men, and Theo will be taking over operational command while I retrieve the ZPM from the Brotherhood."

Shaking his head, John laughs, disbelieving. "What, can't wait to crown yourself king now that you've found an Atlantis of your own?" Now that John sees one threat, he sees everything as a threat. He's flailing.

"I could not take the city if I wanted to, Sheppard," Kolya retorts with more heat.

"So what's the plan?" John asks savagely. "Theo breaks my fingers until I turn things on for you? Or do you order Nofert to fuck me into initializing the city? Isn't that what you had in mind all along -- why you sent her to me? Hell, she's good, she could make me come all over the control room and you wouldn't even need me anymore!"

"The Ancestors may have left medical technology behind!" Kolya roars.

John recoils. He didn't think cruelty could surprise him anymore. "I -- I've got to hand it to you, Kolya. Blackmailing me with my son's life -- I didn't see that one coming." Come on, John.

Kolya's hands flex and curl, and John widens his stance, eager to give as good as he gets. But the Genii's face moves from anger to some indefinable emotion and his fists fall open at his sides. John is completely unable to register sympathy or support at this point, I think.

"I will return when you have rested," he says.

"Don't bother," John snarls, turning to the window.

The door falls quietly shut. John doesn't look back.

* *

"Just give it to me," he tells Ekaterin when she returns. "Even if you don't have any good news to balance the bad -- just give it."

He's going crazy, and he's almost palsied from the overdose of black tea; Ekaterin took hold of his hands to make him sit still as much as comfort him.

Gaze bright but unwavering, she squeezes his fingers to the point of pain before she says: "Ben is starving, John. There's enough Wraith in him to share aspects of their neurological deficiency, but not enough to give him the ability to supplement it by himself."

"But he feeds on me," John says. "What if he took more?"

"His feeding apparatus is atrophied. He can't take more, and he can't properly process what little he does take. If he could, you'd be dead."

"Then...what are we looking at?" John asks, steeling himself.

Ekaterin takes a soft breath. "It's a form of neurodegenerative disease that occurs only in the adult Wraith. But Ben isn't Wraith and the accelerated development he was subjected to also accelerated the degenerative process. His brain no longer produces the neurotransmitter which distinguishes senescent from active neural pathways and maintains the useful paths. As a result, it's...his brain is aging at an abnormal rate."

"Did he get it from me?" John asks, looking down at their joined hands. This shouldn't matter now, but he feels compelled to ask: "Is this happening because of the way the retrovirus changed me, or because the Wraith fucked with his DNA in vitro?" Trying to pin blame somewhere, even on himself. This is one of the strengths of this story - the situations are fantastical, but the human responses to those situations are right on the mark, real as can be.

"I don't know, John," Ekaterin answers kindly. "We would have to test you extensively to figure that out, and it wouldn't help Ben now."

John pulls his hands free from her grip, crossing his arms over his chest. "Can't you -- make a supplement? On Earth people take pills when their brain chemistry is out of whack. Damn it," he laughs painfully, "we managed to change a Wraith into a goddamn human! Fucking damn it," he says, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes.

After a brief silence, Ekaterin says, "I don't know how or why your people changed a Wraith into a human, but I can't see how such a creature wouldn't turn back or degenerate dramatically." Even disembodied, her voice resonates with pity. "As for synthesizing these particular neurotransmitters -- John, we've been trying for years and years. It makes sense that they would be trying to develop that - a non-sentient food source for the Wraith, a cure to hunger. You can't synthesize something that has a shelf life shorter than an eye blink; you can only harvest it out of people. And you can't artificially stimulate production when the production sites are gone." Gently, she peels his hands away and brushes her thumbs under his eyes. "You don't know how much I wish I could give everyone their happy ending. Find the means to save your son, and in doing so free this galaxy from the Wraith; free the Wraith from themselves. But we aren't free," she says, kissing the moisture away. "Our wills are bound by the limits of what is possible. I'm sorry."

Breathing harshly, John staggers off the couch and away from her enlightened compassion.

How long? he wonders, but can't make himself choke out the words.

"I need to use the gate," he says. "Not for Kolya's operation; just for me. I asked for one gate trip, back when you and I made our deal. Maybe Atlantis -- maybe Beckett will have an idea -- I'll go back and let them court-martial me, I don't care, I'll --"

They have a knack for fucking things up on Atlantis, that's why he'd taken Ben and gone. But they also have a knack for the impossible, and there's nothing John won't do now; there's never been anything he wouldn't do for Ben, and he's stopped being scared by it.

"John." Ekaterin's hold on his arms is terribly gentle. "Commander Kolya already came to me with this request. Before he left, he recorded a message for a Dr. Weir. We sent it along with Ben's medical data through the gate." Dear Kolya: I love you for doing that. Please drop by for cookies any time.

"You -- he -- what?" John says, stunned. "Did they respond?"

"Not yet," Ekaterin admits. "But you'll know the moment they do."

John's stomach churns. "They're going to check in with the Genii to make sure Kolya's legit; then they'll have a long staff meeting to decide whether we're worth --" He kills the bitterness before it smothers him. He made his choices when he left Atlantis. "When can I see Ben?"

"They're mapping his nervous system thoroughly to design the appropriate implant," Ekaterin says, "to manage his pain. But they'll have him in a private room before morning. You should sleep."

"I can't sleep," John snaps, then, "sorry, sorry. I need to get out of here. I'm sorry," he says, and slips out the door.

* *

He doesn't even make it down-city--to a dark alley where he can get down on his knees and lose it utterly--before bumping into a flock of cheerful Citizens on their way home from the parlors.

Their eyes are glazed; their smiles wide and absent; their laughter like iodine on a gut wound.

Cutting through a park to avoid the crowd of stale-faced youths, John disturbs a skein of nocturnal birds and almost doesn't see the body sprawled across the path before he stumbles over it; he skips for a couple of steps and catches himself on a bench to regain his balance.

He's not about to stop for someone who got whacked on leeches, but he can't help looking down.

The boy can't be more than sixteen, with dark hair, fine and curling at the nape like Ben's.

Feeling more than a little numb and far outside himself, John bends over the kid and turns him on his back. The eyes are wide open and fixed as marbles in a fox-like, pointed face--he looks very much like John had looked at that age. The boy's neck is bruised from multiple leech bites administered by an unpracticed hand: not wasted on too many leeches, then, but shorted out by the delayed trauma of repeated uploads.

John has no idea how long he kneels on the path, the boy cradled in his lap. He doesn't realize that he's been gone until he blinks back to himself, breathing shallowly, head hanging down over his knees. Mechanically, he searches the body for an ID key that would identify him as a legal resident, and finds the small square of plastic hanging like a dog tag around the kid's neck. The back of it reads: If found incapacitated, please return to your nearest immigration office!

It takes a moment for John to gather enough strength in his legs to haul the kid up in a fireman carry. None of the Citizens give him a second look as he staggers out of the park. It's a short hop to the Pitt and the immigration office. At the welcome counter, John tells one of administrative aides, "He wiped out," and shrugs his shoulder to shift the boy into a more manageable hold.

"Thank you for bringing him in, Favored Guest Sheppard!" the young aide says, smiling. He presses a blue button on the countertop, and two technicians appear with a gurney. "We'll have him back on his feet in no time! Is he a relation?"

"No," John says, relinquishing his burden and already turning to face the exit.

"I see you had a session scheduled this morning," the aide says. "But if you have other appointments, I'll be happy to reschedule it for you, Favored Guest Sheppard!" John halts in his tracks. "I -- Thanks for reminding me," he says, though the voice sounds nothing like his own.

What had Ekaterin told him, a lifetime ago? Joy. The Greys had asked for a memory of joy. It seems ludicrous that John could conjure such a memory now; could fill in the gap between knowing that he has felt joy before this moment, and the actual remembering of it. Yet he finds himself pushing through the double-doors leading to the extraction rooms, barely acknowledging the aide's enthusiastic: "Of course our technician will see you now!"

A little voice breathes that the Greys will try harder to cure Ben if John gives them what they want; but another, much louder part of him anticipates the bite of the leech, the numbness of extraction, the all-too-brief dissociation of shock.

Nothing big, nothing bad, nothing useful, John reminds himself when the technician fits the leads of the neural headset to his temples. The digital monitor comes to life, the images a garbled mess of surface thoughts. "Take your time!" the technician chirps, dropping on the floor and pulling a game console out of a pocket; and John breathes out, tries to relax, to settle on --

joy joy joy joy joy joy joy

-- but all he sees on the monitor is Ben.

Ben asleep on the couch, open-mouthed and snuggled trustingly into John's side; Ben in the backyard, digging a hole big enough to hide a saucepan, painting the dirt grass-green to hide his cache; standing on John's surf board, pretending to fly; an armful of naked eight-year-old barreling out of the bathroom, shrieking with glee when Teyla hauls him back over her shoulder; a cold afternoon, Ben in John's lap, inventing their own mathematics; the instant comfort of child-skin in the dead of night --

"Favored Guest Sheppard, are you all right?"

-- a warm touch between John's shoulder blades, their own umbilical cord, their own rules from the start; a death grip on his leg, in the infirmary on Atlantis, both of them against the world, an extension of each other; on the hive ship, scavenging colorful scraps of fabric from corpses and braiding them into dolls, making up stories about escape and freedom, teaching Ben about colors other than blue and black; kneeling by the stasis pod and --

there should be terror, revulsion, despair, but it's all gone, washed clean, John only remembers the wonder of

-- watching the child grow. If the Wraith didn't hold him back, he would wrap himself over the child to shield it from their slavering grins. He can almost understand them: his hands are starved for soft dark hair and smooth baby skin, but --

"Why did you let him -- Get that neural headset off of him! John! John! Can you hear me?"

-- he can only ease the child into the world with words, and God his throat hurts. What sane man would want to bring a child into this? And yet John does and he does and he does --

and that's how he'll always remember it.

"John, come back, please, come back," Ekaterin babbles in his hair. "You don't have to do this. I don't know why you're doing this. It's okay. Please, John --"

"I'm sorry," he croaks, needing to shove his hands over his ears, because some animal is agonizing loudly out there and the sounds of its death throes are making him sick. "I can't give you joy. All I can see is Ben, and I can't give you Ben."

"Shh," Ekaterin says, pulling him forward, "you don't have to give me anything," then John is breaking and shuddering against her, releasing great painful gasps that shatter his chest wide open, but everything else is quiet--the stupid animal is finally dead. Thank god for Ekaterin coming after him.

* *

In the morning, he brings Ben home.

"We'll do everything humanly possible," Ekaterin promised him, "but it's happening quickly. We should make him comfortable."

Bajan is still caught in the heart of its long winter, so John can't throw the windows open, but he draws back all the curtains and opens all the doors inside the house, bathing the rooms in thin grey light. He settles a slumbering Ben on the couch while he remakes the bed with clean sheets, then carries him to the bedroom. The technicians swore up and down that the new scarab would keep the pain and the worst of the sickness at bay. Ben might even feel up to moving around for a few days, before the tiredness becomes overwhelming. There could be seizures, they said, or an aggravation of the aphasia, even catatonia.

But more likely Ben would start sleeping more and more, and simply fade away.

(We can't tell you how long to hope for, they said, and John didn't ask what the hell hope had to do with any of it.)

After rousing long enough to drink a glass of warm milk sweetened with honey, Ben curls on his side in a mound of pillows, and watches his father through lids at half mast. "You have to rest, kiddo," John whispers, stretching out on the bed and stroking the hair off Ben's forehead, "you'll feel better soon. Want me to tell you a story?" Ben smiles and lifts his hand up clumsily to John's chest, fingers spread out like razor blades. "A Nightmare on Elm Street?" John asks, amused. "Which one?" Ben holds up two fingers. "Freddy's Revenge? Mm," John nods, "Good choice." Wonderful that the John Sheppard school of bedtime stories works for Ben. They are a tiny society all their own.

They fall asleep before Freddy massacres the evil coach in the shower room.

* *

On Bajan nobody ever knocks except Ekaterin, who makes a scrupulous point of it, so John expects her round pink face when he staggers, half-awake, to the front door. What he finds is the round pink face of Rodney McKay.

For a moment, John thinks he's still asleep or that his brain is playing a cruel trick on him, because he's dreamed about this: Rodney showing up on the porch, yammering a mile a minute, a flummoxed Carson Beckett in tow; there would be a jumper stuffed with medical equipment parked in the field, and they would turn the living room into a lab and work feverishly through the night and consult with Atlantis on the radio, and tomorrow or the day after there would be an innocent-looking syringe with a miracle inside it, and Beckett would say, "Aye, he'll feel under the weather for a few days, but he's a strong lad," and Ben would be cured.

All of that must be playing on John's face, because Rodney's expression goes through something complicated and strained, and he reaches for John's shoulder--though his hand doesn't connect--rushing to say: "No, no, I'm so sorry -- I didn't mean -- We haven't --" and John grips the door jamb more tightly. He's been putting all his hopes on this one last chance, and all they have to offer is comfort. But there's a lot to value in comfort.

After a beat of unbearable silence, John tries to smile, and says, "Thanks for coming, Rodney."

* *

"Is he asleep?" Rodney asks very quietly, standing in the living room. "Can I -- can I see him?"

"Yeah," John says, leading him to the open door of the bedroom. "Go on." He nudges Rodney forward. "You're not gonna wake him by looking at him."

"He's grown!" Rodney whispers in awe, like he just made a discovery that will forever alter the future of mankind, and John's throat constricts achingly.

"Take your time," he says, backing out of the room. "I'll make tea."

When Rodney joins him in the kitchen, John has laid out a full spread of cheese, toast, and four different kinds of jam, even though the mere sight of food makes him queasy. They end up in the living room so John can watch Ben across the hall, standing side-by-side against the back of the couch while the tea cools on a tray, untouched. John grasps for something to say that isn't, "So, Rodney, your brain hasn't killed you yet?"

"I, uh, received your subspace transmissions," Rodney says finally. "Thank you for -- It was good to know what was happening with you and Teyla and..." He trails off, waving helplessly.

"It didn't get you into trouble?"

"As if they could have decrypted the data burst, even if they had been able to intercept it," Rodney scoffs, then softens his voice, throwing a worried look at the bedroom. "I built the transmitter and the receiver myself. Well," he concedes, "it was retro-engineered from a Tollan design, and Zelenka helped after I swore him to secrecy, but I worked out how to conceal the signal within the galactic background radiation." Rodney's mouth quirks wryly. "Is that why you didn't mention cozying up to the guy who shoved a knife through my arm? Because you didn't think the transmissions were secure?"

John shrugs. "Mostly it sounded crazier each time I tried to sum it all up in a message. What did Kolya say?" It does sound a lot crazier without context.

"Nothing of any use. The girl who welcomed us at the gate told me all about your operation on the way here. In detail. After she hugged me to within an inch of my life. I've never met anyone who could talk this much and be this obnoxious about it, and I'm an astrophysicist!" I've said it before, and I'll say it again - Rodney McKay getting non-consensual hugs = comedy gold.

"Who else is here?"

"Ronon," Rodney says. "He's getting a tour of the city as we speak. We didn't...want to overwhelm you." Team. Oh I love the team.

"Oh," John says. "I didn't think Elizabeth or whoever took over my command would allow you to come considering I'm AWOL."

Rodney's expression darkens. "I have my own command codes," he replies cryptically. "And I threatened to go on strike. Since they can't keep the place running without me, Colonel Dieter -- that's your replacement, by the way -- had to shut up and deal with it. Besides, the DoD still owes me vacation time dating back to 1998."

"Colonel Dieter? What happened to Caldwell?"

"He's still in command of the Daedalus. I guess the SGC thought he'd been contaminated or something --" At John's baffled look, Rodney sighs: "Look, things changed after you left. Actually, it started while you were MIA, but when you came back from the hive ship, you had other things on your plate, so --" Rodney purses his lips. "Do you really want to hear about this now?"

John finds that, yes, he does; anything to fill up the silence of the house. "Yeah, but hold on," he says, pushing away from the couch and crossing over to Ben, who is moving restlessly under the covers. John lays his hand on his son's forehead and kisses his temple, testing for fever. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he strokes the soft dark hair until the boy settles back into a peaceful sleep.

In the front room, Rodney helped himself to a cup of tea. "You want me to warm that up?" John says, sounding almost normal.

"It's fine," Rodney says, then blurts: "Is he in a lot of pain?"

"No." John closes his eyes briefly. "They're...pretty good with that here."

"Beckett was impressed by the data they sent through the gate," Rodney admits. "That's probably why they let me come. I imagine Elizabeth will want to establish diplomatic relations. Eventually."

"Good luck to her," John says feelingly. Rodney is eyeing him out of the corner of his eye, so he asks, "What?"

"I don't know how much you remember about coming back to Atlantis with Ben," Rodney ventures, in a tone that might qualify as tentative.

"I remember enough," John says, surprised by how much bitterness remains. "I remember that we'd been tortured and starved and Beckett wanted to put us in separate quarantine areas."

"We watched Ben feed on you," Rodney points out, "right there, in the infirmary."

John springs away from the couch, raking his hair with both hands, suddenly livid. "I don't care if he had fangs and you all saw him suck out my blood. I don't care that I was gone for three months and came back with a seven-year-old child. I certainly didn't care about anything that came out of Heightmeyer's mouth. I didn't need protection from Ben. I told them he was mine. That should have been enough for them," John snarls. "It was enough for you."

"Yes, well," Rodney says, stuttering and laughing unsteadily, "you haven't met my relatives." Great answer.

Breathing deeply a few times, John paces across the room, stopping by the window and resting his forehead against the cold pane. The tree house is almost invisible under a hard crust of snow.

"That's not why I left," he says, startled to feel the sting of tears at the back of his throat.

"Then why did you?" Rodney asks, unaccountably quiet.

"I looked at us, Rodney," John says tiredly.

"Oh," Rodney says, then trails off.

"I've seen a fair bit of war, and I know what it does to people. Nice, ordinary, smart people. After a while, there's nowhere your mind won't go. Because when they're shooting at you and you're shit scared and exhausted beyond endurance and the sky is burning and there's no up or down, war is about the guy behind you and the guy in front of you; about your unit, your buddies, your own priorities, because they're all you've got to keep you sane in a place that's nothing like sane. And when you start thinking that way anything's possible. That's why we have a chain of command: because not everyone's going to snap at the same time, and we'll keep each other in line."

"That hasn't worked so well for us," Rodney mutters.

"No, it hasn't," John says. "Which isn't exactly a surprise. You and Elizabeth and Beckett, you weren't trained for this, and believe it or not, there's a good reason people train for it; and me," he laughs viciously, "hell, I was trained for something all right."

"Sheppard," Rodney begins combatively.

"Would you have given us the responsibility for a child? Honestly? Any child?"

"No," Rodney admits after a brief silence.

John had looked down at Ben paralyzed with fear in that infirmary, and all he could think was: what if Beckett got it into his head that Ben was the key to some new weapon against the Wraith? All he could hear in his head was Elizabeth, clear as day: I'm not ready to take any option off the table. He'd heard her say it often enough. And he didn't want to believe it was even possible, but there he stood, half-starved and barely able to stand, years of automatic threat assessment painting everyone in the room a deep red, and under it all burned the terrifying knowledge that he couldn't take them all.

"I trusted everyone there with my life, Rodney," John whispers, crouching under the window as exhaustion wins out. "I just didn't know how to trust a single one of them with my son's." Wow. And you can't really argue with his reasoning.

* *

It's a short time before sunset when Ben wakes up, groggy but in high spirits, and John helps him swallow a bowl of soup and a slice of buttered toast. Not long ago John would have given anything for Ben to eat without a fuss; now the acceptance is just another blow, a taunt from Ben's silent killer, but he suppresses the grief and helps a sated Ben shuffle to the couch.

It's hard to tell if Ben remembers Rodney, who stands by the hearth fidgeting and wringing his hands and looking flustered, until Ben makes a motion for his pen and paper, and John hands them over, keeping the notebook steady on the boy's lap. Ben draws laboriously for a couple of minutes, before gesturing for John to show Rodney the neat column of inequalities, constants, and divisions.

"You remember me," Rodney beams, then at John: "He remembers me! See how smart my godson is?" and John can smile, too, because he remembers the hours Rodney had spent in the isolation room, lecturing on the benefits of math skills for aphasic patients, painstakingly teaching Ben who'd sat rigidly in a corner the grammar of mathematics on a white board. "He's one of mine!" Rodney'd announced proudly after Ben drew his first equal sign. It was during those hours that, silently, with his back to the camera, John had begun to plan their breakout.

Emboldened, Rodney sits next to Ben, moving with excruciating care, while the boy observes his antics with curiosity and some amusement that quickly turns to alarm when Rodney springs right back up, snatching his coat off the back of a chair. "I almost forgot. I brought you a present!" He riffles through a couple of bulky pockets before producing a package wrapped in silver foil. "Ta da!" he proclaims, victorious. It makes sense that children find Rodney fascinating. He's all sound and movement and exaggeration, very entertaining, especially if you haven't got access to the sensory bombardment of television..

Ben's smile is blinding, and John doesn't care what's in the package; he wants to kiss Rodney right then and there. Ben manages to tear the foil off with some help, and his eyes go wide.

"We use them for simulations," Rodney explains, demonstrating how the engine pods of the miniature puddlejumper will expand and retract at the push of a button. "We built a few of them after your father had a bit of a...misadventure going through the gate."

"Hey," John protests, "I wasn't even piloting that time!" Ben giggles, opening the rear hatch, sticking his eye against the opening to look inside. "You remember that ship, don't you?" John says, shooting Rodney a look. "Did you find the jumper where we dumped it?" It had been tough to ditch their last tie to Atlantis, but the jumper was too recognizable, to the Wraith and everyone else.

"Yes," Rodney says. "I made up some cockamamie story about vetting that planet as a possible beta site, and that you were likely to head there."

John nods tightly, not eager to revisit those first few weeks adrift in Pegasus and living off of the land, never staying in one place for too long, before they heard of Bajan. "Who did they send after us?"

Rodney snorts. "Ronon volunteered and Elizabeth agreed, presumably because he was the only one who stood a chance of anticipating Teyla's moves. Caldwell objected, as you can imagine -- he wasn't born yesterday -- but Elizabeth overrode him. Ronon's spent most of the last year and a half on walkabout across paradise planets, reporting fake sightings and visiting ex-girlfriends." Awesome. I can totally believe that Weir would be taken in and Caldwell would never fall for it.

"Remind me to thank him," John says, because there's no point telling Rodney that Caldwell and Dieter would've had their own men out there, ordered to remove the security risk that was John.

"I know we handled the whole thing horribly when you came back," Rodney says, chin raised. "We spent weeks trying to locate the hive ship, and when the Wraith didn't show up again over Atlantis we really wondered. We had no idea what they could have done to you, and -- I'm sorry if it seemed like we treated you as an enemy. But, honestly, you weren't in your right mind. Who the hell would have been? So maybe...maybe things weren't quite as bad as you remember."

John chews on that while Ben sketches loops with the toy jumper. "Maybe," he says, not really believing it. It makes no difference now. "Then why did you -- Teyla knew what I was going to do. She showed up in the jumper bay with her mind made up. But you knew, too, and if anyone could've overridden my protocols and stopped us, it was you."

Instead Rodney had snuck into the bay after them, smiled tightly, handed over the transmitter and the Dummies' Guide to the Pegasus Galaxy, and made a truly terrible crack about John and a starring role in the Pegasus adaptation of Not Without My Son.

Rodney's eye roll is sort of comforting. "Would you believe it, but thanks to my amazing powers of observation I noticed a certain, shall we say, pig-headedness about you, and a truly ridiculous talent for getting out of statistically improbable situations. If you wanted to leave Atlantis, you would have found a way. They couldn't keep a detachment of marines on you forever. And if they'd tried to send you back to Earth like Caldwell suggested -- Well," Rodney says defiantly, "this way, you didn't just disappear on me."

They spend a rousing hour reenacting space battles on the living room carpet with the miniature jumper, a box of biscuit standing in for the Daedalus, paper-F-302s, and various sizes of tin cans for the Wraith fleet; Rodney provides the technical commentary and second-guesses John's maneuvers, and John contributes the sound effects over Rodney's complaints that you can't hear explosions in space unless the blast hits the hull.

Ben tires himself out before yet another hair-raising escape, but he falls asleep with a grin on his face.

"Why don't you get some sleep," Rodney murmurs, watching John tuck layers of thick blankets around Ben. "I'll stay here and keep watch."

"I'm fine," John says.

"Oh, that's right, I forgot," Rodney whispers angrily, throwing his arms up, "you're always fine. God forbid the Almighty Sheppard should ever need a little help from his friends."

That stings, even if it's Rodney and it should bounce right off. No one who's ever been in battle wanted to go through it alone; no one, not even John.

The lack of repartee must be getting to Rodney, who rushes to explain: "We haven't been under siege for months. It turns out that the city really is a yoyo, so the Wraith who come sniffing around find only ocean -- we're looking into the salt water intolerance, by the way. What I'm trying to say is that I'm not particularly short on sleep, and I'm sorry but you look like death." Rodney gestures at the king-sized bed and the small bundle lost in the middle of it. "Just get in there with Ben and shut your eyes. I'll be right here. You can trust me."

"I --" John doesn't even know why he's fighting. "Yeah. Okay."

He's too tired to do more than brush his teeth perfunctorily and take off his shoes, before gently moving Ben to the right side of the mattress and stretching out next to him. After taking a turn in the bathroom and turning off all but the bedside lamp, Rodney settles against the headboard, his thigh brushing against John's back. I like how Rodney being on watch in the house becomes a very physical thing, here. John's become habituated to a lot of physical contact since he went on the run, and I think he needs it.

"Rodney," John says, eyes closed.

"Yes," Rodney says, patting his shoulder awkwardly. "I know."

* *

"How long can you stay?" John asks Rodney in the morning.

"However long I damn well please," Rodney says airily, as if he hadn't just brought them breakfast in bed. "I've thought about what memory to contribute to your underage girlfriend's residency scheme. As it happens, I still have a few words of wisdom to impart on the subject of leadership." Oh, pity the poor Grey or Bajanian citizen who winds up with that leech.

Mid-morning, Ronon finds his way to the house, arms loaded with groceries. Ben looks the big guy up and down from his nest on the couch, but doesn't seem put off by Ronon's sheer presence.

"You look like shit, Sheppard," Ronon tells John over an early lunch of brown beer and Satedan meat casserole. Ronon cooking! I bet Ronon's a really good cook, actually.

Ronon's kitchen manner is frankly terrifying, even if he didn't pull all of the carving knives out of his hair.

"So I've been told," John says, smiling faintly. "Thanks for, you know, sucking at your job."

"Don't mention it," Ronon says, shrugging. "I don't like the new guy."

That draws a real smirk out of John. "I've been gone for almost two years. I don't think you can call him 'the new guy' anymore."

Ronon eyes him over a loaded fork. "He's new. He thinks our battles are like the battles he fought before. It's not personal for him; he doesn't understand the way things are." Because as bad as the expedition has been at understanding the way to fight in Pegasus, the SGC is still worse at it.

"We were audited!" Rodney interjects, mouth half full, clearly picking up a long-standing argument. "I've explained this a million times already!"

"Come on, buddy, I swear it tastes better than it looks," John says, coaxing Ben to eat a small spoonful of casserole. "Audited?"

"Yes. By the Pentagon and the International Committee. Consider that in the space of a few months we managed to turn our military commander into a bug, turn a Wraith into a human, get suckered by said Wraith into giving away the location of Earth and the means to get there, lose our military C.O., get him back, and lose him again. Do you have any idea what it costs to fly the Daedalus back and forth like that? A lot of tax-payer money! And that's not even getting into the thing with Kavanagh. Of course, we were audited." So they haven't actually been audited yet, but the visit from Woolsey at the beginning of season three came pretty close, even if it was almost exclusively an investigation of Weir's decisions. So nice anticipation of canon, here.

"'Thing with Kavanagh?'"

Ben took in Rodney's tirade bemusedly and stopped chewing, so John nudges the boy's jaw with the tip of a finger.

Ronon throws Rodney an unreadable look, which Rodney ignores with a huff. "Actually, it happened the first time you went missing. Kavanagh went around the SGC and Area 51 telling everyone who would listen and everyone who wouldn't that we'd lost it and were torturing our own out there, before they could slap a non-disclosure order on him. It's hard enough to convince smart, self-preserving scientists to make the trip to another galaxy without scaring future recruits before they've even been told about the, oh, life-sucking aliens." Funny, that.

"So what happened?"

"After the audit?" Rodney makes a twirling motion with his hand. "The scientists got slapped on the wrist and sent to their rooms without dessert, the military got a new C.O., the senior staff was recalled to the SGC for a tongue-lashing with all the trimmings, and we learned to put up with as much micro-managing as Earth can get away with a whole galaxy away. The only reason we kept our jobs at all is that the Pentagon and the Committee were trying to stick it to each other."

"Uh," is all John can think to say that's not, "At least you're still alive." HAH. Yes.

"You heard from Teyla yet?" Ronon asks, obviously bored with the topic.

This time it's Rodney who throws Ronon a look, though there's nothing unreadable about it. "No, I..." John scrubs his face with the hand that's not holding Ben's spoon. "I should -- I don't even know what Kolya's doing on Dagan. I should find out if there's a way, because Teyla should be here before --"

"Sheppard," Rodney starts.

"I should be doing something," John says, breathing a little faster.

"You are," Rodney says firmly. "You're doing your job, and you're the only one who can do it, right here."

"I'll go back to the city," Ronon says. "Ekaterin will take me to Kolya's men; I'll find out what's happening."

"I have my radio," Rodney says, pulling an ear set out of his front pocket. "You know Beckett; you know he's working around the clock. He's got all the data you sent plus all of your old medical records. He won't give up."

"Yeah," John says, but he avoids looking Rodney in the eye, pressing his forehead to Ben's hair and stroking the boy's back.

If they were on Earth, there would be friends, relatives, complete strangers coming up to him with casseroles and stories about nephews and cousins and sons of neighbors who had survived the exact same thing, so John shouldn't give up hope or believe the doctors because they didn't know how resilient people could be; how unpredictable.

But this isn't Earth, and there's never been anyone else like Ben.

* *

They don't mention Beckett again, even when a harried-looking technician comes around to collect new samples from John and Ben. Rodney drills the man to within an inch of his life, and John makes himself listen to the answers: no progress, no change. No medical miracle, but at least no pain. John measures relief in whole new increments these days.

When Ronon returns from wherever Ekaterin sent him, he looks at John oddly. "That's some operation you're running, Sheppard."

"It's not my operation," John says, which gets him a stranger look. John's powers of denial are astounding. Did he think Kolya was joking when he said that thing about John being in command? "Did you learn anything?"

"I have the coordinates for Teyla's handler," Ronon says, and John wonders who he had to beat up for that information; hopefully Theo. "I'm going now. I'll bring her back." He adds, as an afterthought: "Don't worry."

After Ronon departs, John settles Ben down for a nap, puts on his coat, and joins Rodney on the porch, clutching the baby monitor Rodney cobbled together from an old radio. "He's asleep again," John tells Rodney needlessly.

Rodney nods from the deck chair, a blanket pulled up to his chin. "How did you manage to look after Ben and go out with Kolya at the same time?" he asks curiously.

"I didn't," John says. "Go out with them, I mean. Not until we started moving people off planets." He frowns. "Good thing, I guess. I know life's cheaper in Pegasus, but someone's gotta stop these guys from going kamikaze each time a dart shows up."

"Can I get that in writing?" Rodney asks, staring at him.

"What?" His powers of denial are only matched by his powers of non-self-examination, here. Though I suppose he may just be out of the habit of arguing with Rodney about crap like that.

"Never mind."

After a long silence only broken up by Rodney's fiddling with the blanket, John considers asking for gossip, for Rodney to recite the table of elements, for Rodney to talk about anything before the white hush of the world and the baby monitor smother John completely, but Rodney says, staring over the open field: "It's really pretty out here. I never pictured you for the type to settle down in a quaint little house by the shore, but I didn't picture a lot of what's happened."

"I was an Army brat," John says, calmer already. "I had all kinds of homes growing up, on bases all over the world. Then I joined the Air Force and just...kept hopping around. I don't think I ever pictured anything for myself at all."

"So Atlantis was just another home?"

"No. Not just another home." John flashes Rodney a small grin, shrugging. "Just not the last one."

Rodney nods like he understands what John meant, and maybe he does. "You know, if there's anything I should be doing, if there's anything you need me to do, you have to tell me, because I suck at this."

"You really don't," John says, catching Rodney's eyes, then he drawls, "Actually, you could do something about the plumbing in the bathroom." I love their conversational interplay. There's a lot of intimacy in it, for a couple of guys who are generally pretty socially oblivious, and it's all push/pull.

* *

By the end of the week, Ben no longer has the strength to make the trip to the couch, or sit up at the table, though he's still awake and alert some portion of the day, and watches his father with a wise indulgence when John fusses over him. Don't lose it, John thinks, sitting in the tub with Ben in his lap, gently sponging the thin shoulders and the narrow back, don't you dare lose it in front of him, you asshole, you fucking bastard, don't you dare do this. Ben's head lolls softly against his chest, and small fingers reach out to touch John's hand.

At night John sleeps little and badly, startling himself out of formless dreams to check that Ben is still breathing. Ekaterin comes around every day bearing prepared meals, and John asks her to stop knocking, because he can't help hoping for news each time he finds her standing at the door; and the hope, so foreign, is killing him. That detail, the knocking, is such a knife-twist.

One morning the walls close in. There is nowhere to go but down to the bottom of the endless chasm that's opened in the middle of him, so John stands in the yard and lets the cold take him, hold him there and keep him still. Too soon Rodney hunts him down, pushing hot drinks into frozen hands and nagging like a Jewish mother, strong arms dragging John forcibly inside. "Take that," Rodney orders, handing him a pill and a glass of water. "It won't knock you out, but it'll help you sleep." The world is starting to shine around the edges, so John goes with it. Curling himself around Ben--this small wonder that he's made, this improbable creature that came out of hell and slipped with him inside his skin--John wills his mind to stillness.

When John wakes up Ben is blinking sleepily at him, nestled in a patch of sunlight. "Hey, funny little monkey," John says, making Ben smile; the boy's only ever known monkeys from John's stick figures. "I think the tree house needs a new coat of paint. What do you say?"

In the living room the armchairs are dragged in front of the large square window opened to the yard and the melting snow. Ben is swathed in blankets and propped up by half the pillows in the house.

"Two PhDs and this is what I get," Rodney complains, hauling containers of paint remover out of the tool shed. "Do I look like a handyman to you?"

"Shut up and strip," John says, rolling up his sleeves.

Once the wood planks have been scraped clean, John hands Rodney a wide brush and climbs through the window, tracking mud on the carpet. Ben dozed on and off through the adults' antics, but comes awake when his father drops in a chair. "Now's the best part," John says. "We get to boss Rodney around."

For the next hour Ben points at a homemade primer when Rodney aims his brush at the tree house's roof or door or window frames, and John calls out the colors, obnoxiously enough to provoke Rodney's theatrical huffs-and-puffs and his increasingly graphic insults, which have John covering Ben's ears. The Sheppard and McKay show! Fun for all ages! (sort of).

Ben wears himself out moments before new clouds gather and the sky splits open, but John keeps on shouting saturations and undertones, until Rodney wises up and stomps back inside the house, dripping purple rain.

"You are such an asshole," Rodney hisses low out of deference for Ben, "magenta clashes horribly with -- Sheppard?" He's across the room in a heartbeat, squeezing John's shoulder. "John?"

"What am I going to do?" John says, hiding his face in his hands. "God, Rodney, what am I going to do?"

* *

The following day, they organize a trip to the beach (Rodney rigs a heating unit for the minnow; they don't even leave the car).

The day after that, Ekaterin volunteers her own ship, a slick arrowhead that can cover the distance between John's house and Bajan in a few minutes, and they all go up, John at the stick, Ben strapped in the copilot's seat, eyes wide as saucers and struggling against the pull of unnatural sleep. They cruise over the farms and watch tiny transports zigzag over the fields, beaming away piles of grain as high as small hills. John takes the arrowhead through a couple of sedate loops, which have Ben murmuring in awe.

Rodney doesn't even remark on the lack of dampeners, too busy out-talking Ekaterin in the backseat ("So the upload destroys the original memory and the download destroys the leech...fascinating. I wonder whether each neural arrangement has a unique resonant frequency. As for your iris: come on, little girl, you call that a gate shield --"). The Rodney and Ekaterin show is probably pretty awesome, too.

On the way home from the airfield, Ben kisses his father on the cheek and falls asleep clutching his toy jumper.

In the morning, Ben refuses to wake up. Oof.

* *

Rachel Sheppard's last letter to her son read:

Baghdad, March, 24th 2004

Dear John,

I've been thinking about you all day. You are never far. Whatever you may think, 'out of mind, out of sight' isn't the Sheppard family motto.

This morning I escaped my handlers to visit with the marines of the 3/8. You can imagine the stir I caused in the barracks, a USAR brigadier general, a woman, mixing it up with the boys. How is it that I always forget how young they are?

A French television crew was there, six months into a year-long documentary on the unit. A lance corporal stood in front of the camera, smoking, talking freely about going out on patrols, about a care package he'd received, about returning home to his wife in Missouri. He worried that his tour would be extended again. He discussed the prospect of injury frankly and in short, intimate words. He didn't fear disability or the loss of a limb as much as returning home a man his wife couldn't love; a father his son couldn't be proud of.

"You hear about it all the time," he said. "Kids signing up to see some action, and coming back empty."

You would like it here, John. You've always loved places more easily than people. But I'm glad you aren't here, and I won't apologize for that.

You are the joy of my life, John. Never forget that. That got me all choked up for the General.

Love, Rachel Sheppard

* *


He hasn't closed the curtains. Ben deserves sunlight more than John deserves darkness. The innocuous scarabs have given way to feeding tubes that snake across the bedspread, and John's dragged a chair as close to the edge of the bed as he can, bending over the mattress, Ben's small hand in his, his fingers in Ben's hair. He talks as he did on the hive ship those first few weeks of Ben's life, stories full of color and adventure. Rodney shuffles in and out of the room with food and drink, stricken but brave, offering to take over, to let John sleep, go for a walk, go break something, but all John has is this economy of movement, this denial of time and space and causal chains.

Earlier John unbuttoned his shirt and pressed Ben's right palm to the middle of his chest. He counted to ten, then to twenty, but nothing happened. Nnnngh.

"John, I am here."

Slim arms, strong arms twine around his shoulders, and skin both firm and yielding presses against his cheek.

"Teyla," John breathes.

He is trapped, grateful, shaking. He doesn't resist her embrace--to fight her now would be to keep going until he had torn away all the layers of skin, shredded all the flesh, broken all the bones against the walls of his cage.

"I am here," Teyla says; an answer to the only prayer that means anything. "You are not alone." Trust Teyla to cut right to the core of it all, and to verbalize what John should be able to figure out on his own, but needs to hear.

* *

Ben passes away quietly, peacefully, two days later; if not for the soft wail of the monitor John might not have noticed until the body grew cold.

For a moment John stands in stark panic, willing the technician who rushed inside the room with the rest of his team to do something, to fix this, to bring his son back, but of course all the monitors read a blank. It's not really Ben's heart that gave way, or his lungs: it's his brain. Ekaterin has explained this with unremitting patience every time John asked.

There is nothing to bring back.

John stands by the bed for a long time. He doesn't know what's on his face, but no one reaches for him, and he is fleetingly grateful. Teyla says something which doesn't register, and that bothers him, because he's always been the guy who could keep his head through shock and injury and sudden change. He says something back ("It's all right. I'm okay.") just in case; it seems a safe enough bet. Rodney looks lost and heartbroken. Everyone files out of the room. Disconnected from the tubes and the monitors, Ben looks asleep, his skin flawless and pink; the illness took him so fast, he didn't have time to waste away. John almost reaches to touch Ben's mouth, Ben's chest, to make sure. This is death unlike any he's ever seen.

There's nothing at first. No thought articulate enough to be grasped, or too many to make sense. And then this: I'm still Ben's father. That sounds right; that makes sense. There are things John needs to do, things he can do for Ben, responsibilities that are his alone.

He needs to pack Ben's things away. The bedroom they shared is littered with Ben's toys, Ben's child-size pants and shirts and shoes mixed with John's, his paintings tacked to the walls, his notebooks in a messy pile on the nightstand, the toy jumper balanced precariously on top of it. John's going to need boxes; a lot of them. He fetches his black turtleneck from a drawer and spreads it over Ben. It was Ben's favorite, and the room is getting cold, though the sun is still shining abnormally bright for a Bajanian winter. He tries to straighten out in his mind how many boxes he's going to need. He'll want to pack up the whole house. He can't stay here. Of course not. That means Ben can't stay here, and he has to decide what to do with Ben.

John is really tired, suddenly, and sunlight spills warmly across the bed, so he lies down on top of the bedspread next to his son. He stretches a hand over Ben's blanket-covered stomach. He closes his eyes. He opens them again. His chest hurts dully, like it did after the bitch fed on him and gave it back, except this time she gave it back wrong and the pressure doesn't go away. That's what he always thought breathing hard vacuum would feel like: your body bursting with emptiness, swelling around a void. He tells himself that he should have been better prepared. He's had plenty of time to see it coming; the house should have been packed away and ready, then he wouldn't have anything to do but lie with Ben now. But he isn't ready. He told Teer that he might never be ready, which only goes to show that you should never say never. Teer, Chaya, his mother, they were ready, they were the smart ones--women always were--who'd known that life came down to breathing vacuum; who had said: screw that, we're doing it on my terms. I'm sorry, Mom, I'm sorry. It's pretty easy to use the terms 'ascension' and 'suicide' interchangeably.

He lies on the bed watching the sunlight climb from Ben's stomach to his shoulders. He is dimly aware of the loud whispers on the other side of the door before Rodney walks in.

"Hey," John says.

"Hey," Rodney says, rather lamely.

"You need something?" John asks, and Rodney looks, of all things, embarrassed.

"Well, no," Rodney says, fidgeting nervously, throwing a look at the sweater laid over Ben. "You've been alone in here a while, and Ekaterin..." Rodney takes a deep breath and steps up, touching John's shoulder. "You have to let them take care of Ben, now, okay? Come on, John." He pulls John up, and John is too tired to resist. "Let them look after him. He won't be alone. Teyla will stay with him."

John grips Rodney's wrist, remembering: "Don't let them bury him here, okay? We're not staying here."

"No, no," Rodney says, startled. "No one's going to -- we won't do anything without you."

"Okay," John says. "Good. I need to find some boxes."

"Boxes? No, don't worry about that." Rodney sounds miserable. "There'll be time for that later, after you've had some real rest."

"Yeah," John says, rubbing his forehead. "I wasn't prepared." John keeps jumping tracks through this whole scene. It's very effective, he's very disoriented.

"That's all right," Rodney assures him. "That's what we do best, right? Make it up as we go."

John doesn't know how it happens, but a moment later he's in Teyla's darkened bedroom with no memory of getting there, sitting at the foot of the bed, and Ronon is pulling off his shoes.

"Lie down, Sheppard," Ronon says.

"You're tucking me in?" John says, struck by the surreal notion of Ronon Dex putting him to bed.

"Do you want me to?"

"No, I'm fine."

He hitches his way up the mattress and curls in on himself, cold but too exhausted to pull back the covers, limbs heavy as lead.

The last thing John is aware of is Ronon, taking off his coat and spreading it like a blanket over him. The way the team is there for him is wonderful, here. Very quietly supporting.

* *

He wakes up sluggishly to a mouth full of cotton, and back muscles that are tight and aching, but he remembers Ben's death instantly, no merciful interval of confusion or denial between the dream and reality. He turns his face into the bedspread and breathes shallowly, his world narrowed to moist heat and darkness, feeling invisible, unmoored, until instinct, unhampered by grief or exhaustion, alerts him to another presence in the room.

Pushing back the heavy leather coat, John turns on his side to face Ronon, crouched in a corner by the door.

"How long did I sleep?"

"Four hours," Ronon says, not moving.

"You didn't have to stay."

Ronon shrugs.

"Is this how it's going to be?" John asks. "You're going to watch me every minute of every day?"

"You can do what you want, Sheppard," Ronon says.

"Good," John says, hauling himself up, "because I have to take a piss and you're not invited."

In the bathroom he empties his bladder, washes his hands, and drinks water from the tap. The mirror clamors that he urgently needs a shave, a haircut, a shower, and a change of clothes, but he can't even conceive of walking down the hallway to his bedroom to fetch his kit and a clean shirt, and have to face the empty bed.

Stepping out he finds underwear, pants, and a sweater folded on a chair. "McKay brought them," Ronon says. "There's tea in the kitchen."

John pulls his shirt over his head. He arches an eyebrow when Ronon stands there watching him, but continues to strip.

"Thank you for bringing Teyla back," he says, head down, undoing button and zipper.

"We tried to get here sooner," Ronon says, and John is surprised by the depth of regret behind the words.

"She got to say goodbye," John says quietly. "If Ben was aware at all, then he knew she was there." He takes off pants and boxers, and pulls off his socks. "Where's --" He clears his throat. "Where did they take him?"

"To the medical center," Ronon says. "Ekaterin said you could go when you wanted."

John nods and finishes dressing. He follows Ronon out of the bedroom, but stops in the corridor, struck by the unnatural stillness of the house.

"Where's everyone?"

"Outside. Come eat something."

"No. What's going on?"

"Kolya's here," Ronon says.

John steps down the hallway toward the front door, trailed by his self-appointed shadow. Bajan's primary sun is sinking below the horizon, stretching deceiving shadows across the world. There's no one on the porch, but voices are coming from around the corner of the house.

"-- blackmailed him into your little scheme. The man throws himself in front of nuclear weapons on a good day! What do you think is going to happen now? If you need tactical support, let me contact Atlantis, and leave Sheppard out of it!"

"I don't trust the Atlanteans. I trust Sheppard."

"And I'm sure that revelation would make his day, if -- oh, wait -- his son hadn't died a few hours ago!"

"Not so loud," John says, rounding the corner.

Rodney jerks comically at attention. "Sheppard, how much did you --" He throws a murderous look at Ronon over John's shoulder. "Some kind of sheepdog you are."

"It's fine, Rodney," John says softly, taking in the group assembled under the tree house. Kolya and Nofert stand tensely across from Rodney and Teyla, and Ekaterin sits in the door of the house, legs swinging back and forth. She lets herself drop to the ground, and she walks up to him, but doesn't claim a hug.

"John." She looks terribly young, lips pale and face scrubbed clean of all color. "John."

John shakes his head, but makes himself touch her shoulder briefly.

"Sheppard," Kolya says, eyes dark, "please accept --"

"Tell me what's going on," John cuts in. He avoids Nofert's gaze, looking to Teyla and Rodney for answers.

Teyla's eyes are red-rimmed and tired but evaluating, and Rodney glares at her, as if he could force her to remain silent by sheer force of will. But Teyla has never been one to protect John from harsh truths; not even now.

"Our strategy worked as we had hoped," she says, quelling Rodney with a look. "The two hives have entered into open conflict. I left the ship in the midst of the battle. It was a long engagement that drew in the totality of both fleets. I remained on a nearby planet until the outcome was known, and learned of it from the worshippers sent to scout that world for new supplies," she says the word sharply, the horrors she witnessed lurking under the mundanity of language. "Michael's hive was victorious, though it sustained significant damage in the initial attack." The strained lines around her mouth soften. "That is not all I learned."

"Tell me," John says, though he already knows. Of course he does. It's all on his mind too much right now for the connections to be anything but obvious.

"Teyla," Rodney objects, his mouth angled sharply downwards. "Please, don't --"

"It appears that the Wraith have stepped up their efforts to produce more humans," Teyla says.

"Oh that's -- Clones!" Rodney snaps, voice tight with anguish. "She's talking about clones. The Wraith have been cloning --" But he can't seem to get it out.

In twilight the cheery tree house has faded to gray, and the eye strains to glimpse the stubborn patches of snow huddled in the yard's corners. Five black birds stand in a row at the edge of the woods, like sentinels unmoving, and John feels their eyes on him.

"Ben," he says. "They cloned Ben." Ugh.

* *

In the end Kolya doesn't have to make the case for action. "We're going to need a couple of darts and a lot of explosives," John says, turning on his heels and walking back inside the house in darkness. Rodney catches up as John riffles through the papers on his desk, disturbing stacks of pictures and knocking Ben's handmade pen holder to the floor. He bends to pick it up and stores it safely away in a drawer.

"John," Rodney says, standing stiffly by the desk. "Do you realize what -- You can't think this is -- I mean, yes, of course, we have to stop them, but it doesn't have to be --"

"What do you think I should do instead?" He finds the pages of diagrams folded under his tablet PC. "Sit in this house until the kitchen knives start to look good? What the hell do you want me to do, Rodney?"

"I, no, we need -- we need you -- God, don't make me do this."

"Do what?"

"Talk you down from a ledge," Rodney says, white-faced and grim. "I won't know where to start, and I'll say all the wrong things, all the meaningless things, and it isn't like I could ever get you to do anything you didn't want to do, except for that one time when I destroyed a solar system, so, please, please, don't." I'm not sure what to think of this. If John just doesn't recognize that he is kind of doing that, or if Rodney is massively misinterpreting.

That slows John down a little. "I'd never make you do that," he says, meaning it. "Now look at this."

"Look at what?" Rodney asks unevenly, glancing at the rough sketches spread on the desk. "You mapped the hive ship?"

"As much as I could. You've been on board, too; you've worked on their systems, hacked their mainframe, learned their vulnerabilities. You can fill in some of the blanks."

"Well, yes, I can," Rodney says, flipping through the well-worn pages and reaching for a pencil. "But we don't even have to target neuralgic centers. If we can smuggle a team on board, all we need is a small nuke, or to overload a naquadah generator anywhere inside their shields."

John shakes his head. "No. If other Wraith come to investigate, or anyone escapes, it can't look like it came from us. It has to pass off as sabotage."

"I can help a little with that," Ekaterin contributes quietly, stepping into the living room ahead of Kolya and Nofert, Teyla and Ronon standing watchfully at the back.

"Yeah," John says softly, holding her gaze, "you can." This news is short circuiting John's grief, but it's also pushing him into attacking the parties actually responsible for Ben's death (and his existence, but that gets complicated. Ben's a bit like a child of rape - there's no need to be grateful to the rapist.)

* *

First contact is tentative, bittersweet as a childhood memory of schoolyards and scraped knees. This other Atlantis is a shy old girl, sad and immense and almost pitiful. It would have been kinder to let her sleep, to not wake her for this arranged marriage. But the whole neighborhood showed up to witness the union--Genii and Olesians and other hard-eyed, starry-eyed men and women on one side, the remnants of an Atlantean team on the other: bride on the left, groom on the right, an assembly of revelers and worshippers holding their collective breath on the floor of the control room.

Laying hands on the consoles, John feels like a traveling preacher seeding false hopes in the hearts of simple men, coaxing the appearance of life out of dead things. Stay down, he wants to tell the city, wishing she could share her own hard-earned wisdom. Play dead. Don't let them see you bleed. I love John's empathy for the city, and that it extends to this new city. And how that connects back to Rachel's letter, where she says "You've always loved places more easily than people."

But there is a new ZPM connected to the power matrix (Kolya didn't have to kill for it, he said: screwing Suneera did the trick) and the doors open and the lights come on. John doesn't hang around to watch Orathai and her scientists start crying over the technology of their Ancestors. Any minute now they will be shoving their fingers into Ancient toasters and Ancient vacuum cleaners, looking for the ultimate weapon, looking for a miracle, and that's too much déjà vu for John.

Standing cool and still as statues, Kolya and Nofert watch John from the bottom of the stairs, as if for his next trick John would part the sea of sand outside the city's walls and lead their flock to some promised land. But John isn't a leader, and he isn't a savior, and neither is the city or anything in it; they are both of them tired, broken creatures, but there's no point getting them to see it.

Ignoring Kolya and Nofert's black stares, John stalks past Teyla and Ronon, and around Rodney, who looks ready to renounce the lure of diagnostic consoles and new labs to follow him.

"Knock yourself out," John says, shaking his head sharply, and Rodney says, "Do you want me to..." but John looks away from Rodney's worried face, and whispers, "Please, Rodney, don't." He hasn't been above begging for a long time, though he's never been looked at like he was fragile before. "Find me when Ekaterin comes through," he adds quietly, and slips out of the control room unchallenged, if not unnoticed.

Their plan is hatched; there is nothing to do but wait.

* *

"Where will she find the Wraith darts?" Kolya'd asked John over the hive ship's blueprints, eyes narrowed in suspicion. "And why, in the name of the Ancestors, would you believe a Bajanian Citizen is qualified to pilot them?"

"There's a leech for every occasion," John had answered flatly, but Rodney had caught John's gaze and held it, because he understood; of course, Rodney did. Would have known within hours of setting foot on Bajan. He must have felt like screaming and pointing the whole time, yet he had kept silent; he had been there for Ben and John. And here when it seemed like all the mysteries were explained, a new one. It's been there all along, of course, but I never even thought about it. It's the sort of thing you generally just accept, reading sci-fi, I think. Caught up in the details of world-building.

* *

It's early morning on this nameless planet, in this nameless city, when John finds himself at the top of the east-most tower, feeling the strain of the jog up the stairs in his knees and his thighs.

He stands against the railing and watches the pale morning light creep beyond the skyline, over the rocks and the sand and the slim patches of tall, grey grass. The sky is indigo blue and uninterrupted, and he already knows that he could come to love this place and the people in it--the hard-eyed, starry-eyed men and women in the control room--though he entertains no thought of either staying or leaving. He wants to concentrate on the mission. What he has, what he needs, what he's got to do.

As the coolness of the desert night recedes, the heel of his hand comes to rest on the sidearm Ekaterin gave him before they left Bajan. John forgot about it; stopped missing the faithful weight of a weapon months ago. He pulls it out of the holster and balances it in the palm of his hand, and turns it this way and that. It's a perfect replica of his old standard-issue 9mm, but he forgot to put the safety on. It seems impossible. He was handed a weapon, and he didn't check it, didn't clean it, and forgot to put the safety on. On some level, John understands that this should scare him more than it does.

Sitting on the floor, he lays out the gun. He doesn't have a full kit, but he finds in the pockets of his Bajanian-issue tac vest: a clean cloth that he rips in two for cleaning and polishing, gun oil, solvent, a thin metal rod of unknown origin that can be used as a barrel rod. Kit laid out, he disassembles the firearm, first ejecting the magazine, working the action and locking it open, checking the chamber for bullets. Once he is certain that there's no ammunition left in the gun, he holds the recoil spring plug down and rotates the bushing to the left. More ritual.

He can hear Frank Sheppard as if the man were standing next to him: Keep your finger on the plug, Johnny. You don't want the spring to launch it across the room, or you'll have a hell of a time finding it.

His father taught John how to clean a gun when John was ten. His mother had offered comments over his father's shoulder, and his father had yelled at her for backseat driving. The memory makes John smile, though he isn't aware of it. This is the first time in the whole story that John and his mom & dad appear in an anecdote as a single group rather than as a pair squaring off against the third member. It makes me wonder if this John understands that a family can have space for more than two people.

After taking the recoil spring plug out and setting it aside, John shifts closer to the wall. The city is warm, stored-up heat soaking through his shirt along his shoulders and his back, through his camos along his thighs. He closes his eyes and lifts his face to the sun. He shouldn't get distracted in the middle of stripping his sidearm, but his neck muscles feel heavy and cold, and he shivers despite the heat. Maybe he's coming down with meningitis. He wonders if you can get it twice. He came down with viral meningitis when he was twelve. He doesn't remember much about it; it was years before he understood just how touch-and-go it had been. He remembers that, in a startling development, his parents had been stationed together that whole year, and there had been a lot of yelling.

(If it weren't for the U.S. Army, their marriage would never have lasted. Separate assignments, the occasional deployment, teaching posts, never staying in one place long enough for the novelty to wear off, for familiarity to breed contempt--military life had held them together effortlessly. They hadn't even bothered applying to the Married Couples Program. As they moved through the ranks, they'd become little more than place-holders to each other; a commonality that Rachel and Frank Sheppard could very well call love.

By the time he'd joined the Air Force, John had lived in twice as many bases as the average military brat. Taking to the sky he'd looked down at the people-specks on the ground, and seen place-holders, too.)

Startled, John opens his eyes.

He must be more tired than he thought. Maybe he should go back inside, pick a room, take a nap. But his sidearm lies disassembled on the floor, and he still has to clean it. Take out the slide stop. Take out the slide. Pull out the spring. Remove the bushing, push the link forward, remove the barrel out of the slide. His kit doesn't include a brass brush. Upon further investigation, his vest also yields a first aid kit which includes what look like condoms, possibly flavored, and a plastic tooth brush. John sets aside the condoms and keeps the brush. He's gotten pretty good at improvising since he left Earth, beyond anything SERE or Frank Sheppard could have taught him. From assuming command, to turning an alien city into a defensible military outpost. From converting space ships into submersibles, to raising a child in a prison cell. From making Christmas decorations out of pebbles, to finding the right words to scare away the Wraith under the bed.

From needing Ben more than he's ever needed anyone, to surviving Ben's death.

(John remembers a day when he stood on the dais of a stargate with Ekaterin, and wondered if Ben would become a burden.) Self-loathing for the moment that he allowed himself to think that things might work out. Oh John.

Hauling himself to the railing, John bends over and vomits long streams of bile.

When Ronon and Rodney find him, his sidearm is still gutted on the floor. "I'll take care of it," Ronon says, and Rodney says, "Ekaterin is here. We're ready," and John wonders what's on his face that makes them both look away.

* *

Look for the manual release of the airlock at ten o'clock, look for the manual release of the airlock at ten o'clock, look for the --

-- manual release of the airlock at ten o'clock, John thinks, and there is no perceptible transition between the moment he stands under the dart in the launch bay of the city, and the instant he rematerializes in the black of space.

There is a short burst of absolute, primeval panic. Of complete disorientation that almost has him shouting for Ekaterin inside the helmet of his pressure suit when he finds himself suspended in darkness, the only source of illumination the tiny light inside his visor.

He flails instinctively for a handhold, for air, for resistance, for a tether, except, of course, that his sluggish struggles against the buoyancy of weightlessness can't even be called flailing.

"Oh shit," John gasps, the words almost inaudible over the thunderous echo of his own breathing.

He shuts his eyes tight and counts to five before opening them again. Ahead of him is a vast infinity of darkness. Rolling his head slowly, he looks down toward his feet, and catches a glimpse of the star field.

Oh wow.

Now where the hell is that hive ship?

Reaching for his belt, John activates his mobility unit in small bursts until he's turned most of the way around, and realizes that: 1. He's floating an arms-length away from the hull, on the dark side of the orbiting hive ship. 2. The rest of his team must have a pretty awesome view of the planet below. 3. Ekaterin managed to beam him out right above the airlock despite the limitations of passive sensors. 4. Ten o'clock may mean something on a schematic, but it means jack shit when you can't tell up from down. Yep. You'd think that would have occurred to them.

Firing the miniature thrusters of the mobility unit, John comes close enough to the hull to grab a handhold. He can almost feel the skin-like ridges of the ship's exterior through his glove. The Bajanian pressure suit, crisscrossed with hair-thin coolant and heating conduits, is barely thicker than two wetsuits worn together. Rodney had driven even the good-natured Ekaterin insane, freaking out about EVA radiation exposure and oxygen autonomy and micrometeoroid impacts. I love Rodney best when he's freaking out with paranoia and pessimism on the behalf of the people he loves. But as he searches the contours of the airlock door for the manual release, John is only grateful for the maneuverability afforded by the suit.

When he locates the lever, John grabs the release mechanism and pulls, a thin rush of air escaping the seal as the airlock vents its atmosphere. Pulling open the hatch, John breathes hard, upper body unused to this kind of exertion, but he manages to swing himself inside, reseal the door, and hit the pressurization panel. Within moments, he is leaning against the inner hatch of the airlock, willing his legs to remember gravity.

Lifting an arm that feels strangely alien, John hits the transceiver on the side of his helmet, once. He gets four clicks in response. The others made it on board.

John retrieves his sidearm from the pouch strapped to his thigh, and exits the airlock. Inside the ship's dim corridors the closed environment of the helmet is all the more claustrophobic, ambient sounds muffled and filtered through the communicator. John feels like a ghost, separate, out of sync with the world in a way he didn't experience in the dark of outer space. Keeping his back to the bulkhead, he orders himself sternly to keep it together; this is no different than entering a combat situation wearing hazmat gear.

As he draws closer to the science quarter, John holds his sidearm with both hands and keeps an eye on the biometric sensor unit strapped to his forearm.

He knows this place well. Three junctions to the right and one up are the cells where they kept the surrogate mothers. Two junctions to the left is the cell where he was held, isolated from the rest of the cattle. Further down this very corridor is the lab where Dick conducted his experiments. Off the lab is a small chamber containing a single pod where John spent five days on his knees.

His primary objective lies deeper within this quadrant of the ship. Keeping to the maintenance corridors, John locates a ladder that leads one tier up. The section is deserted; after the battle with the rival hive, the command ship would have been patched up, then technical assets would have been sent out to repair the damage sustained by the carrier group. Ekaterin and the other Bajanian pilot are out there, two anonymous darts amid the swarm canvassing the wounded fleet. As long as no one trips an alarm or stumbles over a patrol, their stealth approach (no using detectable Ancient technology; bypassing the docking bay) should be successful.

The back up cooling system is located far off the main reactor core, in an undesignated section of the tier. Laying out the schematics of the ship's propulsion and decentralized back up systems during the pre-op briefing, Rodney had questioned whether the Wraith did have some experience with sabotage to explain these precautions. Ekaterin had said, "Not the Wraith," and Rodney had barely even opened his mouth before he got it. Kolya had almost spoken up then, but Rodney had cut him off, launching into a monologue on the comparative merits of explosives versus the more subtle, though potentially counter-measurable, overload of the cooling system's phase capacitors.

Explosives had won the vote by a landslide. Which Rodney would have known they would, before launching into his babble of distraction.

No one is guarding the alcove, and a visual inspection confirms that the webbed door isn't rigged. Once inside, it's easy work to pull the charges out of a second pouch, set the detonator, and hide them behind the membrane covering the cooling unit. Where doesn't matter. The blast will take out most of this section.

Task completed, John sends out a click over the comm and sets out for his secondary objective.

By the time he's down the ladder and back on the science tier, he's registered two more clicks. There's only one to go. He hasn't much time.

John finds the mainframe access node in a small disused lab, where Ekaterin told him to look. The station's commands are immediately familiar. Logging on as a root user, John calls up the directory, flicking through trees and running multiple searches on multiple terminals, until he's located the relevant file system. DOS!

When his radio channel crackles to life, John doesn't even pause.

"Sheppard!" Rodney's voice is distorted, too high by an octave. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Hi, Rodney," John says, inputting the equivalent of an ls -al |more command. "How is it going starboard?"

"As if I could tell left from right in here. As if I cared. What are you doing in the mainframe? Root user unclesam. Yes, yes, very funny. How did you hack -- Ekaterin snuck you a leech, didn't she?"

"So much for radio silence," John mutters, scrolling through the file lists.

"Teyla and Kolya have set their charges and I'm almost finished with the download. As soon as Ronon's done, I'm wiping out the mainframe and we're heading back to the airlock for retrieval. You don't have time to take a trip down memory lane, all right? I knew we shouldn't have left you alone."

"I have to see them," John says. There. He opens the file, scans the contents, memorizes the quadrant-section-alcove designation, and calls up the ship's schematics.

Ninety-three subjects in stasis.

"No, no, absolutely not!" Rodney squeaks in his ear. "What good is it going to do to see --"

"I have to, Rodney. Keep to the plan. Don't worry about me."

"I'm done, Sheppard," Ronon breaks in, overlapping Teyla's, "John, you should not --"

"Ronon, you get everyone out and you let your pilot set off the charges on schedule. Kolya, you make sure he does. Maintain radio silence. That's an order," John rattles off, running out of the lab. "I'll be right behind you."

"Understood, Sheppard."

"No, wait --"

John cuts off the rest of the chatter.

Mentally reviewing the quadrant's layout, he makes his way to a maintenance ladder, going down. As he edges closer to the ship's larder, his bio-unit lights up with multiple tell-tales, moments before his comm registers the wails rebounding off the walls. The sealed helmet should keep out the smell, but John's nose wrinkles at the stink of death and despair. When the sensors show a patrol gaining on his position, he slips inside a recess and hides behind its desiccated occupant, still trapped in its web.

In a few minutes none of this will matter. They'll have saved these people the only way they can.

John makes it to the designated storage area undetected and covered in human dust. The slim oxygen pack is weighing more heavily on his shoulders, and his fingers and his lips tingle. He must be running low on air.

Inside the chamber, the lighting is powered down, and the room feels cavernous, infinitely expanding upwards. A monitoring console stands in the middle of the floor. The stasis pods are set into the wall's black membrane and face each other in two half circles embraced by the curves of the outer hull.

The pods are lit from the inside, a dull yellow glow washing out the faces of their occupants. Up close their skin looks pale and sickly, but it could be a distortion of John's visor or the pod's cover. The hair is longer. John hadn't expected that; but of course there wouldn't have been anyone to cut the thick mop into a semblance of submission, over squirming and loud protest. John's put himself into a position here where he is just so very fucked.

Reaching out, John touches the transparent lid. He can't tell through the glove if the plastic is warmed by breath. The faces seem younger, rounder than in John's memory. They must not have been allowed to grow up at all; he can't be forgetting already.

John moves on to another pod; and another, and another; touching. It's right that he stay here until the end. That they not be alone.

"They're dying."

Whirling, John raises his weapon.

"I'm not armed," Michael says, spreading his hands out, "and I'm alone."

Hive mind, John thinks, slipping his free hand in his pouch. Even if he kills Michael, it's already too late.

Doesn't matter, though, now that his team is safe.

"I haven't alerted them," Michael says, reading John's mind. "I couldn't if I wanted to."

Now that Michael has stepped further into the chamber, allowing the doors to slide shut behind him, John can see that his eyes are sunken, his skin an unhealthy blue. "What happened to you?" John asks, honestly curious.

"A side-effect of your generous treatment," Michael says, the casual shrug at odds with the sarcasm. "I'm no longer joined with the hive, among other things that are killing me. Dr. Heightmeyer would be fascinated to learn that our scientists believe my ailment is psychosomatic." Does everyone hate Heightmeyer? I mean, not that anyone doesn't have a reason to. He cocks his head. "Is this really better? This individuality? This constant humiliation? Always cowering, always suppressing your own desires. Living in fear of being rejected by your own?"

John doesn't blink. "I'm not the guy you want for this conversation."

"Really?" Michael says, as if they were old friends, chatting over a beer. "I wish I'd had time to read more of your books while on Atlantis. It's been an...edifying experience, observing my people from the outside. Watching the extremes our instinct of self-preservation will drive us to. I come here often to think." Michael's expression shifts, and he stares at John with something like hunger. "I should have named you and kept you. I would have had someone to talk to. I'm glad to find you here." That's good - I should have named you and kept you. Turning his captivity around onto John, reinforcing the prey/top of the food chain positions.

"That's why you didn't need us anymore," John says. "When you let us go, they'd already cloned him."

Michael doesn't answer. Heels clicking on the floor, he takes a step toward the console, and John shifts to cover him, gun arm heavy and shaking.

"Did you come to free them?" Michael asks, indicating the pods. "Our scientists have been going through the batch one unit at a time, trying to bring a subject to full growth, but they keep dying. The suspended animation is all that keeps these bodies alive. They suspect a degenerative byproduct of the cloning process."

"Ben's dead too," John hears himself say.

"Ah. I see." Michael slips his hands inside his sleeves, bowing at John like a confessor. "Not free them, then." John twitches, and Michael smiles a little. "I wouldn't stop you."

"It wouldn't matter if you tried," John says. He hefts the grenade inside the pouch, rolling it in his palm, feeling around for the slim bar of C-4 he packed with it. "Is she here?"

Michael frowns. "Who?"

"Your queen. Is she on board?"

"Yes," Michael utters in one long hiss, "but you'll never get within a tier of her."

John doesn't reply.

"We're not so different," Michael says.

"I know," John says.

People--creatures--don't kill each other because they're different, but because they're alike; that's hardly news.

Michael looks down at the console, studying the controls. "Would you like to touch them? Well, as much as you can through your suit?"

Before John can think of an answer, Michael hits the release sequence. It's hard to remember sometimes, that as culturally alien as the humans in Pegasus are, Michael is even more so. His motivations and actions can be very human and absolutely alien at the same time.

"No!" John shouts.

He didn't want them conscious for this; didn't want to watch them die.

Dropping his gun arm, John moves toward the pods, but he can't settle in front of a single one as all the covers slide open sideways, leaving the small naked bodies exposed. John watches numbly and feels his mind fraying, waiting for them to crumble at his feet, to open their eyes accusingly, to gasp or whimper or scream.

But none of the bodies move.

The monitoring LED of each pod flicks soundlessly from orange to blue, there's a kind of soft, collective sigh, and then they're gone.

"Isn't this what you wanted?" Michael asks behind John's trembling back. He sounds wistful when he adds, "I wonder if this isn't our one true freedom: choosing the manner and the time; going against the drive of our species." More suicidal philosophy.

John stands surrounded by the rows of small dead white faces, and the words wash over him, fault lines opening all the way through him. He lifts his hand and touches a (hundred) round cheek through the glove, but can't tell if it feels as waxy as it looks. He cards his fingers through the thick dark curls, curves his palm around a shoulder bony as a bird wing, trails his fingertips down to the unmoving ribs, the translucent belly.

They look nothing like the memories of his dead, the dead children of his wars, who were never pristine and preserved but gutted by shrapnel or mowed down by bullets or mutilated by bombs, dragged in pieces across a road, skulls leaking fluid, or hanged and blue, their eyes popping out.

"John. May I call you John, or would you prefer sir?" Michael says, bitterness surging like bile, finally. Still at the anger stage of dying, John notes distractedly. The monologuing stage, too. "Do you know what else I've come to realize? We defeated your Ancients not because of our superior numbers, but because of their failure of imagination. They were stagnant, dogmatic and unwilling to fight when they could simply move on; they couldn't adapt their ways to our challenge. Now it's us who are incapable of change. This," Michael says, stepping up to John's side, sweeping his arm out to encompass the room, "this is our failure of imagination. We are rushing toward extinction. But we will not go quietly." Yeah. That makes sense, so much that it seems obvious. You cannot be/become immortal without losing your ability to survive.

"No one ever does," John agrees, and turns and brings up his sidearm, and lodges a bullet in Michael's right eye.

As the body folds a hollow explosion reverberates through the walls. The lights flicker and the chamber heaves, spilling small white bodies on the floor. Another boom, not so muffled, precedes a third, and the whole ship screeches in pain like an animal.

"Great timing," John mutters, dropping his weapon. Pulling the hand grenade and the C4 out of the pouch, he molds the clay around the body of the grenade hurriedly, and takes the pin off, firming his hold on the spoon.

When the doors slide open and disgorge a swarm of drones, John doesn't stop to ponder whether they were waiting outside all along. He lobs the cooked-off grenade over his shoulder, toward an empty stretch of bulkhead, and throws himself between two stasis pods, grabbing onto a power conduit.

The detonation punches through the hull like butter.

Explosive decompression is instantaneous and catastrophic, deafening despite the helmet's filter. John manages to hang on just long enough to see the drones being sucked out through a breach wide enough to fit a car. Through the rapidly fogging and venting atmosphere, it seems to John like the living membrane of the ship is trying to reach out across the hole, to mend the gaping wound. But none of that matters anymore, because the strain on his shoulders and fingers becomes unbearable, and John lets go, wheeling his arms instinctively as he is jerked across the chamber, out of the ship and into space, a single black speck in a flock of small white bodies.

John loses track of himself for a few seconds, consciousness weaving in and out. Almost immediately the emergency setting of his mobility unit kicks in to interrupt his tumble. Orienting himself by the position of the hive ship, John is surprised to see how fast he is receding from it--with no wind or sound or resistance to provide a sense of velocity.

He watches the collapse of the quadrant, not yet distant enough to see the whole thing. The hull is caving in where his charge took out a full section of the ship, vaporous atmosphere escaping in jets of steam. All around the structural damage, the hull-skin appears to have blackened, the shadow spreading like gangrene. By Rodney's estimate, critical reactor failure will occur within eight minutes of breaching containment once the coolant systems are compromised. Not long enough for the Wraith to do much of anything about it, but long enough for the other command ships to rush to their help, and hopefully get caught up in the explosion.

John drags in a deep breath, and coughs. He's not worried that the shock wave will rip him apart and return him to stardust, because the hypoxia will take him out first. This lethargy creeping up on him, it can't be all Air Force cool.

Blinking tiredly, John removes the disintegrating hive ship from view with a short burst. Above him space stretches immense and black, the stars distant and unmoving, and he spreads his arms and legs sluggishly, floating on a dead sea. He's cold but okay. It's kind of pretty here: so quiet and restful and beautiful.

So he drifts a while, counting stars and the occasional Wraith dart, and he wonders if the bitch escaped, and finds that he doesn't care as much as he thought he would, because a sudden burst of light illuminates the specks floating all around him, derailing all other thought. Firing his thrusters to the last of his fuel, John reaches out until he can almost touch one of them. Not quite, but it's enough. He can almost make out features, almost imagine warm skin instead of frozen flesh.

The universe's good at killing children, John understands in that moment. It's clearly what it does best.

As consciousness recedes and the regulatory system of his suit sucks his tear ducts dry, John's sorry that he won't be around to tell Kolya they got it wrong.

You don't kill the little girls even if they're all yours; you save all of them even if they're not.

And in a flash, John Sheppard's gone.

* *

"He's still breathing, Dr. McKay; he's starting to come to. There's no need to panic."

"Panic? You think this is panic? You haven't seen panic. He came this close to blowing up with the hive ship, and he was floating in space with the frozen bodies of -- oh God, please, can you get that -- it...him...Get that thing off of him!"

"How did it happen?" Rodney asks Ekaterin three days later, the words bursting out of him with all the vehemence of his earlier, unnatural restraint. Lowering his voice, he frowns suspiciously, checking left and right for eavesdroppers: "How did the Wraith get their hands on Bajanian technology?" And the last of the answers is presented.

They sit at the terrace of a tea house up-city, drinking black tea so strong it could strip off paint. The air is cool and crystal-clear, glancing off the contours of Bajan's organic skyline, the silhouettes familiar and almost welcoming against their blue backdrop. The primary star is pinned to its zenith, and Rodney's nose, sunburned, is already peeling.

Reclining in his chair, John breathes in the sweet smoke of Ekaterin's rolled-up cigarette. "It's got something to do with the cloning," he murmurs, wishing the heat would soak all the way to his bones, "doesn't it?"

Yesterday on the hill the sun had shone just as brightly, but John had been just as cold. They'd buried Ben on the promontory overlooking the cities, and when Ronon and Rodney had lowered the small coffin into the ground, John had bitten his lip and drawn blood to stop himself from asking, Are you sure? Did you check? How do you know that he's really gone?

After the ceremony (no words, tokens laid out by the mourners on the casket, the box of doll-soldiers from John), Teyla'd scattered the ashes of Ben's anonymous brother, accidentally swept up by Ekaterin's dart during John's retrieval, entrusting him to the wind.

They'd returned to the house, and John had found the rooms as he had left them: full of Ben. Consigned to the porch, he sat with Teyla and made space for her own grief, while the rest of his team, and Nofert and Ekaterin and Kolya, packed the last year of his life in boxes.

Sighing, Ekaterin puts out her cigarette on the bottom of her heel. "Cloning is a tricky process, you know, even for advanced civilizations. There's always going to be information loss, and in the long run, decay. It --"

"Oh. My. God!" Rodney bursts out, aghast. "The Greys tried to transplant their consciousness into a living being? A conscious, breathing --"

"Our Friends," Ekaterin interrupts, and her expression grows fond, as if she were discussing harmless if somewhat senile relatives. "They did consider," she begins, but deflates like a pierced balloon. "They came across a creature on a sparsely inhabited planet that was strong, long-lived, extremely resistant to damage, and cognitively under-developed as the result of an accidental mutation." And the reveal is actually pretty horrifying, but makes a lot of sense. Certainly more logical sense than the show usually makes, so bravo.

Rodney's expression is half-horror, half-sick fascination. "They forgot to factor in the hive mind."

Ekaterin nods, reluctantly. "The first live trial was deemed a success, it looked like the host consciousness had been properly suppressed, and more transfers were initiated. But the collective mind of the hive took over eventually, and..."

"Everything that the transplants knew, every single Wraith learned as well," Rodney says, wonderingly. "That explains so much." He holds up a finger to emphasize each point: "How their ascendancy could take the Ancients by surprise despite their Pegasus origin; why they're incapable of reprogramming their own ships, or devising new weapons against their own species, or managing human population levels properly. They don't have an original thought in their heads!" Rodney stares at Ekaterin. "You could give us blueprints of everything. We could -- we could devise countermeasures for their beams! We could --"

"I'm afraid that's not possible, Dr. McKay," Ekaterin says. "Our Friends have a long-standing pact of non-aggression with the Wraith, which is the guarantor of Bajan's protectorate status. It can't be compromised." So just as the Wraith can't make steps forward, neither can the Greys - so a technological stand-off, and it is the pact that makes it all work? Or I'm extrapolating too much.

"What? That's outrageous! You could save millions rather than thousands, but you won't --"

"Rodney, chill," John breaks in quietly, raising himself out of his slouch.

"Oh, come on, Sheppard. You of all people aren't going to defend the politics of non-intervention in the Pegasus Galaxy. I know I'm just a Canadian, U.N.-loving, gay-marrying, universal-health-care pinko commie to you, but I'm not that deluded. I work for the U.S. military!"

"And you're making a lot of assumptions," John says with more force. "You haven't been here, so trust me when I say that the Citizens of Bajan aren't doing nothing."

Ekaterin sits rigidly on the edge of her chair, her doll mouth curved unnaturally downwards; she looks pained and humiliated, like a younger sister forced to make excuses for her brother's keg-induced crudeness, and that hurts something in John that can't afford to be hurt any more. Touching the hand curled tight on the tabletop, he strokes over her knuckles until she releases the fist, and brushes his thumb, once, over the damp skin of her palm. Rodney watches them unhappily, opening his mouth to deliver what will certainly be a scalding remark about John's little brain overriding the big one, but John shuts him up with a fierce look.

"I'm twelfth generation Bajanian Citizen," Ekaterin says, blue eyes fixed intensely on John. "Our Friends took my people in when they didn't have to, protected them from the Wraith; not for the safety tax: just because they could. That's the basis of our trust. We love them," she says helplessly. "If over the generations they turned so far inwards in their quest for experience that it was left to us to oversee the safety and security of the people of Bajan, well, we've tried to make the most of it."

"I'm not going to ask how many Favored Guests you've encouraged to use Bajan as a base of operation," John says wryly. "How many you're arming up or sharing intelligence with, or how many refugees you've smuggled in over the years."

Including, possibly, him. Teyla had first heard of Bajan from a merchant on a busy commerce planet where they'd stayed for a while after leaving Atlantis. Who knew who that man had been?

Ekaterin shrugs, looking down into her lap. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about," she says, and hides her nose in her teacup. It's like the citizens are functioning symbiotically with the Greys, as their conscience.

* *

Walking the streets of Bajan major on their way to the spaceport, reminded of Ben at every turn (they fed birds in that park; they listened to a live band on that bridge; they bumped into a street preacher on that corner), John watches the crowds of Citizens, the stale-faced youths returning from the parlors, weaving and laughing--Bajan's unlikely Fifth Column. And it could be the loss that's written itself in his cells and divided him from his senses, but he feels a surge of affection for them, suddenly, finds them all absolutely good and brave, and he feels better about leaving Ben here, about not taking his son away from this place where he had been happy.

At the gate Rodney goes through the event horizon first, after thanking Ekaterin stiffly for the tea, and she smiles, arching an eyebrow at John.

"Denying knowledge to Rodney is kinda like...denying food to a starving Wraith," John says, a little helplessly. Yes. Even if Rodney understands why, he's going to have a hard time dealing with it.

"Is he going to bother you?" Ekaterin says, grabbing his arm protectively. "Because I know some people who can --"

"Don't worry," John soothes. "It's Rodney." And since that doesn't seem to pacify her, he adds: "I'm naturally immune."

Frowning doubtfully, she says, "What would you like me to do with the house?"

John looks away. "Were you going to tear it down?"

"No!" Ekaterin exclaims. "Never," and John breathes a sigh of relief.

He never cared about walls and bricks and plaster, but he never had a home made just for him, either. Again, John loving a place, even if he never wants to see it again.

"Next family that comes along, you offer it to them," he says, looking to the shore. "They'll get some good mileage out of the minnow, and someone should grow up in the tree house. Also, Rodney's fixed the plumbing."

"Okay," Ekaterin says, sniffling, "okay," and she seems shocked when John pulls her to him. Burrowing into his chest, she tries valiantly to hold back her tears. "What will you do now?" She be shocked. I think outside of sex scenes (where John seems to be the touch-ee more than the touch-er anyway) this is the third time in this entire story where John has touched a person other than Ben.

John's a little wobbly himself. "I don't know," he says. "See if Kolya will let me join a team, maybe; I don't know. There aren't many other things I'm good at." STILL. John still doesn't get it.

"That's not true," Ekaterin says, sounding disappointed. "Besides, Commander Kolya wants you to lead a lot more than a team. He's been grooming you, in his own way; you have to know it."

"He raised such a hell about Pegasus natives fighting their own wars, and now he's got his own Ancient city full of his own people. What does he want with me?"

"Maybe the commander believes you've gone native enough," Ekaterin points out shrewdly, before squeezing John's ribs to the point of pain. "You have a home here, okay?"

"Yeah," John says, his throat on the edge of closing shut.

"We learned so much from you, I learned so much from you," she says, and John wonders if some of his memories went to her, and not the Greys; strangely, that possibility doesn't anger him. "You have to visit often, you have to not forget us," she says.

"Never happen," John says.

Ben is always going to be here.

* *

When John comes through Rodney is still pissed at him, while at the same time trying to tiptoe around him, which John can't help but find blackly entertaining; at least dealing with Rodney gives him an excuse to avoid Nofert's solemn eyes that neither ask nor give anything away, and Kolya's blunt yet formal solicitations of John's opinion on anything from city exploration to projected population growth to the assignment of living quarters to next week's menu.

"I didn't even know they had the mess running," John tells Teyla and Ronon while opening the boxes stacked in his designated quarters, looking for pen and paper. He sets a stack of Ben's water paintings carefully aside. "Theo has some of these guys trained like marines."

"Good," Ronon says. "I'm hungry." When in doubt, Ronon + food is always good characterization.

"You have bested Kolya twice," Teyla explains, glaring at Ronon humorlessly. "To a warrior such as him, it makes you more than a worthy opponent, John."

"It makes you an asset," Ronon says, eyeing the boxes marked 'KITCHEN / KEEP AWAY FROM RONON' in Rodney's forceful script. "What's your problem, Sheppard? You don't even like taking orders."

John refrains from pointing out that he never liked giving them much, either, though he'd loved his job, and loved the military like family; you could fight with family and not talk for a year, they could call you a slacker and a fuck-up and tell you that you'd get people killed, but when the chips were down they'd still make a place for you in their ranks and their rituals.

Above all he had loved never having to play 'anywhere but here', because he was always somewhere.

"Do you not miss the pace of your old life?" Teyla had asked him curiously, well into their first year on Bajan. "I work in the cities and meet a great many people, but you must stay at home to care for Ben. Yet you rarely ask for an hour to yourself."

John had almost answered: "When you have a kid of your own, I think you'll understand," but it would have sounded condescending, and he didn't know that for a fact--it could have been different for everyone--so he'd shrugged and said, "My days are full, and I'm fine, so don't worry."

Sitting alone at his desk, trying to compose a letter to his father, John doesn't understand why, out of everything, what kills him the most now is the silence, when Ben had never even spoken a word. That's a lovely, perfect sentence. So sad.

He falls asleep mid-sentence, nose mashed against his forearm, and wakes up in darkness to a headful of space and stars and imploding hive ships, and innumerable Bens floating in the cold of vacuum, eyes open and arms reaching out for him. Jolted out of his chair, John remembers what he wanted to tell Kolya, and he runs out of the door, still mostly asleep. His brain catches up to his legs midway to the control room: it's the middle of the third watch; Kolya isn't going to be around; and epiphanies about war and little girls make a lot more sense when one is drunk or hypoxic.

Blinking away sleep, he allows his feet to take him the rest of the way, because it beats going to bed to stare at the ceiling and think about vacuum.

The skeleton crew watching over the consoles seem inordinately pleased to see him--for people John's never met and who are most likely Genii.

The reason becomes apparent when Rodney walks out of the briefing room, a laptop under one arm and a steaming cup in his hand.

"Ah, there you are," Rodney says, rocking on the balls of his feet. "You realized someone had to keep an eye on the philistines, too, uh? That woman -- the praying mantis who's supposedly a scientist? -- is a menace. She hasn't been here a week and already she's let her grubby little people shove their grubby little fingers in the environmentals, and would she take the advice of the foremost expert on Ancient technology who just happens to be, well, right here? No! She keeps looking down on me, and not just because she's taller. Did you notice this planet has two moons? I think it means double the PMS. I'm not a glass half-full kind of guy, but I suppose we got lucky. It could have had three moons, or four, or --" Yeah, I'd be damn happy to see John, too. And I love Rodney, so they must be ready to hit themselves in the heads with hammers.

"Right," John says, plucking the cup out of Rodney's hand, "that's enough of that."

"Hey! That's my private stash!"

"Beckett isn't around to sew your heart back together after it explodes, so no more coffee."

"Oh my God, I forgot how mean you were!" Rodney snaps. "I told Elizabeth it was her fault. You kept pushing her to see if she'd hold up, and sometimes she would and sometimes she wouldn't, and didn't she hear that inconsistent discipline was the most damaging to a child? -- Oh," Rodney says, going pale, "I didn't mean --" Oh Rodney. Of course you didn't mean that.

"Rodney," John says.

"Ah, well, hm." Rodney falters, coughs, and lifts his chin. "What's Praying Mantis's problem anyway?"

"We destroyed her whole civilization."

"Oh," Rodney says, at a loss again. He searches John's face, his eyebrows drawing together. "So -- you couldn't sleep?"

John grapples for a response, something about the moon and feeling like a natural woman, but it doesn't come. Hah. I love seeing John trying to be snarky. Pity he can't quite manage it right now. Also? Wow do I ever suddenly read this as pre-slash. Whoops.

"Do you need to, ah, talk about anything?"

"Thanks," John says, shaking his head no. "Why are you still up?"

"I'm always up late," Rodney says impatiently, before he concedes: "I have to call Elizabeth. It's a safe bet Ronon is going to stay, and I want to ask for a little more time to explore the city; maybe get her to send some real diagnostic equipment. Also, I kind of told her we were going to infiltrate and blow up a hive ship, and I," Rodney winces, "forgot to call her back."


"I know, I know! But I was with you, and then I was here, and it wasn't a priority, so it slipped my mind."

"So call her now," John says, bemused.

"Well, I would," Rodney bursts out, waving his arms without dropping the laptop. "But the brainiacs who run this place tell me I don't have the clearance to dial the stargate." He glares at the Genii soldier standing guard over the DHD. "I have a higher clearance than the President of the United States!"

"Somehow, I don't think that's going to sway her," John says, stepping across the gallery. "What's your name, soldier?"

The Genii comes to attention. "Gunnery Specialist Amira Lanat, sir!"

"At ease, Specialist Lanat." When she blinks at him quizzically, John explains: "It means you don't have to stand at attention for this conversation." She relaxes dubiously. "I don't want to disturb Commander Kolya. Does anyone else have the authority to grant Dr. McKay use of the stargate?"

"You do, sir," she says slowly, mindful of John's apparent brain damage. Dude. EVERYONE should be mindful of John's apparent brain damage. It takes a lot to get through to the guy.

"Right," John says.

Eventually, Rodney's laptop is plugged into all the right consoles and all the feeds are set up, and John orders Specialist Lanat to dial Atlantis. Rodney requisitions a couple of chairs and drags John down by his side, in front of the laptop's integrated web cam.

"Atlantis, this is Rodney McKay, please respond."

They don't have long to wait. Instantly, Elizabeth's face appears on the screen, mouth pursed, cheekbones sharp as flint stones. She glares at them ominously across light years.

There's grey in her hair, John notices, startled, and something that might be homesickness rises up in him, quickly lost to the entirety of his grief.

"Rodney Angus McKay! I hope for your sake that you have been in a coma for the last four days, and that you can produce a written note signed by a medical professional attesting to the prolonged unconsciousness that kept you from dialing the stargate while I paced the control room ranting like a madwoman, to the point that Carson called Kate. Have I, at any point during our acquaintance, given you the impression that I enjoyed wondering whether you and Ronon were dead?"

"Now that's not fair," Rodney stutters, looking like he was kicked in the head. "Why aren't you yelling at Ronon?"

"Because he's not here?"

"Well, that -- that's true, but, hey!" he exclaims, yanking John back into the frame. "Come here. You deserve way more yelling."

There is a moment when Elizabeth seems too stunned to speak, followed by a faint, "John? Oh my God, John," and John tries to smile, but his whole face is numb.

"John," Elizabeth says again, seemingly incapable of getting past his name, which is okay, because John can't get past the tears in her eyes or the break in her voice. Maybe Rodney was right; maybe things hadn't been as bad as he remembered them. Poor John. He was all fight-or-flight, he couldn't help it. "It's really good to see you," Elizabeth says, wiping at her face impatiently. "We've missed you. I'm -- Rodney told us that Ben had passed away. Beckett and his team did everything they could, but -- I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I know it can't make up for anything, but please accept the deepest condolences of everyone here for the loss of your son."

There is a moment when John feels that he'll have to get up and leave the control room or break apart in front of Elizabeth and Rodney and Gunnery Specialist Lanat. But he looks over the consoles and the open stargate, the faces of the Genii soldiers who surround him, their weapons pointed at the floor, and he brushes his fingers over the smooth skin of the city.

"Hey, Elizabeth." Waving his hand a little, John finds a smile out of somewhere. "Greetings from New Atlantis."


(if you actually got through this, and wish to comment on my commentary, please feel free to do so here.)