The Other Side of Grace

August 20, 2008 09:27am

Fandom: SGA

Characters: John, Rodney, team

Rating: PG-13

Warnings: Language, some whump, general spoilers for season five

Disclaimer: Not mine!

Summary: Family pictures hadn't been a big part of Rodney's one photo album. If this is what Rodney looks like stripped of years and armor, John understands why he holds so tightly to his defenses.

Author's Note: Yeah, I'm expecting total Jossage in about two days. But I love my baby Rodney fic anyway.

Librarychick_94 has recoded this and all snippets into a pofic at The Other Side of Grace (including snippets) [Podfic]

hr

Rodney says, "I'm sorry. It's the only way I can fix it before it gets too big," and turns.

John yells, something wordless and furious, slapping his hand against the tiny, translucent, center of the door. The door is freezing cold, just like the rest of this hellhole planet, and John pounds on it again, shouting into his radio, "McKay! It'll kill you!"

For a half second Rodney pauses, his head tilting down. John thinks Rodney might be shaking, or it might be the heat pouring out of the singularity warping the air around him. John can hear the ragged breath Rodney takes through his radio, the man's voice quaking, "It's a broken reality matrix. Killing me is, actually, one of the last things I'm worried about." He takes another step towards it.

John fires his P-90 on the door, but the metal doesn't even dent. He's breathing way too hard, like he's been running a marathon, not just watching Rodney decide to play the big, dumb, hero. John grits out, feeling sick, dizzy, helpless, "Rodney. Don't do this to me."

Rodney pulls the radio out of his ear without turning around, dropping it to the ground. John yells for Ronon and Teyla, wondering why they aren't here yet, wondering how he possibly got here first when he'd been getting the Jumper for their retreat. God. Why had he been stupid enough to leave Rodney alone with the damn thing?

The singularity that Rodney is walking towards is beautiful. Terrible. It's so bright that John can't look directly at it, light bent to colors that his mind can't quite process. And in its center, the light changes again, absolute nothingness that's blinding. It's constantly shifting shape, expanding, a weapon designed to destroy galaxies that they accidentally turned on. In the room, Rodney raises one arm, covering his eyes, and keeps moving towards it.

John yells for him, again, even knowing that Rodney can't hear him. Rodney's shape twists, deforms into something sharp and thin as a needle before snapping back again, while John pounds on the door with his fist, over and over again.

In front of the singularity, Rodney looks tiny. John's throat is tight and raw, but he yells again anyway when Rodney turns to look at him. The twisting tear in the fabric of reality blurs Rodney's edges, shines through him. It makes him look like he's glowing. He waves at John, shining like a beacon.

John forces out, from his aching throat, "No, no, no," and is only distantly aware that he can't seem to stop repeating it now. Not while he watches Rodney extend his arms out to the sides, fingers fanned out. Not while he watches Rodney tilt his face up to the ceiling. Not while he watches Rodney step back.

The singularity swallows Rodney up like he was never there, closes around him and takes him. John goes silent then, the air he needs to form words stolen from his lungs. Rodney is gone. Rodney went into that thing, that abomination that the Ancients had built. He's gone.

John sags heavily against the door, wondering if he's having a heart attack, because he can't breathe and there's all this pain. In the room, the singularity is still the bright, horrible thing it was, unchanged, expanding, eating up matter to satisfy a hunger that can never be filled. Like it ate Rodney. Oh, God.

John squeezes his eyes shut, his knees sagging down, pressing a hand over his heart.

And, probably, that's the only thing that saves his vision.

The light goes to some level John doesn't have words for, blinding snow sharp right through the bulkhead, searing against his eyelids. For one long moment John thinks the singularity has swallowed him as well. He finds that he doesn't even mind.

When the light fades, leaving afterimages burned against the back of John's eyelids, he is sitting on the floor beside the bulkhead. He shakes his head, rubbing at his face, his entire body aching. The sound hits then, a bang so loud John feels it in his bones, a rending crack that goes on and on and on and on until John can't think.

His ears continue ringing, even after it finally stops.

And then there is silence. There is just silence and stillness and no light but the electric lamps set up near the ceiling. John's whole body aches when he moves, needle sharp pain all along the edges of his nerves, and he hisses, pulling himself to his feet.

In the room, the singularity is gone. The walls are just plain gray. Some of the lights are blown out. There is no warped, twisting thing in the center, growing and expanding. There are just computers, dark and blank. And in the middle of the floor, a tiny, still, little form.

John's hand is not shaking when he thumbs his radio on and says, "You need to get down here, right now."

hr

By the time Ronon and Teyla finally arrive, what can't be more than thirty seconds later, but nonetheless feels like years, John has the access panel off beside the bulkhead. He still can't get the door to open. He's not helped by the fact this his fingers feel stiff and clumsy, that he can't quite breathe evenly, no matter how hard he tries.

Teyla takes one look at him and says, "John," her voice soft and gentle. Her hands around his are small and warm, and she squeezes his fingers, pulling him away from the door. John stares at her, still seeing spots, shaking his head, twisting his hands out of her hold.

He says, his voice raspy and rough, "Rodney went into it. He fell into it," wondering how many times he'll have to say it for the sting to wear off and fade.

Teyla pulls him down, pressing his sweaty forehead against hers, her strong fingers digging into his shoulders, "I know, John." And John squeezes his eyes shut, seeing Rodney spreading his arms out, seeing him stepping backwards, seeing the light swallow him up.

Ronon rumbles, "Watch out," and shoots the locking mechanism with his blaster. The bulkhead door makes a grinding sound, before sliding open in a series of stops and starts.

There's a rush of hot, humid, air from inside the room. John twists away from Teyla, staring at the warped metal around the room, the bowed out ceiling, the concave floor. In the center of the crater, still and tiny, is a little bundle wrapped up in Rodney's clothes.

John has the brief surety, quick and horrible, that it's just Rodney's skin, empty and shapeless. His stomach jerks, and he swallows down bile. Teyla says, "Ronon and I will check -"

"No." John doesn't mean to snap. He can't help it. He rubs a hand up over his face, and gets his ragged voice down closer to normal, "No, I'll do it." He owes Rodney that much at least. He drags his knuckles across his mouth again, and then makes his heavy legs carry him into the room.

There's a fine dust over everything in the room, gravel under it. John almost slips on it, but catches himself, his heart banging up against his ribs by the time he finally makes it down to the center of the crater. Rodney's jacket is covering most of...whatever is left of him, and John kneels beside it, clenching his jaw up tight, sucking in a deep breath, and reaching out for it.

The leather is still warm when he closes his fingers on the jacket. John rubs his thumb over it, curses himself a coward for stalling, and pulls it away.

And then he just stares.

hr

There's a child tangled up in Rodney's clothes. For a moment John doesn't know if the boy is alive or dead. He can't quite make himself reach out to look for a pulse. Then the boy makes a soft sound, rolling onto his side, curling up into a ball and sticking a thumb into his mouth.

John sits down, his ass catching him when his legs decide they can't deal with this. The boy is blond, all big curls falling around and into his face. He's pale, skinny, gangly limbs, and John can't hazard a guess on age besides young.

From the doorway, Teyla asks, "John?" sounding concerned and worried.

John just shakes his head, not even looking up. He tries to remember if he's ever seen a picture of Rodney as a child. Family pictures hadn't been a big part of Rodney's one photo album. If this is what Rodney looks like stripped of years and armor, John understands why he holds so tightly to his defenses.

The kid screams helpless fragility, and it makes John's fists clench up, though he doesn't know why.

There's a sound above him, the gravel shifting, and John looks up to find Teyla standing over him, her eyes wide and surprised, her expression pole-axed. John just stares up at her, and she kneels slowly, half reaching a hand towards the boy and then pulling it back. Her voice is very quiet, "This is...is this...?"

John shrugs, shaking his head, looking back down at the sleeping child, "I don't know." And that's a lie, because in his gut, down deep, he knows. This is Rodney. There's no one else for it to be.

Ronon slides his way down the crater, and joins them in staring. He says, "Oh," and crouches down, his head tilting to the side as he stares at the child. John bobs his head mutely, vaguely aware that this is where he's supposed to pick the kid up, where they're supposed to go back to Atlantis. He can't seem to move.

Ronon starts to reach out, his expression soft and contemplative, and pulls the curls out of the kid's face. He's still sucking his thumb, eyes shut. Teyla makes a soft sound, and John holds his breath, staring down into the face he can see Rodney in. Ronon rumbles, "Well, fuck."

John nods again, feeling spectacularly useless, and then the boy stirs, eyes fluttering open even as he jerks his hand away from his mouth. Within seconds the kid is sitting up, his eyes wide and panicked, and then he's standing, trying to scramble backwards, tripping over Rodney's pants and making a tight, frightened sound in his throat.

Teyla says, voice gentle, "Rodney, are you alright?" and the kid just stares at her, blue eyes huge and terrified. He's still dragging himself backwards, breathing fast and shallow, his gaze darting back and forth between them.

When the kid speaks, his voice is whisper thin, "Who are you? What's going on? Where..." he looks around the room, and John can see him shaking, "Where am I?" And then he focuses on Teyla, his face going paler, which John hadn't thought was even possible, swallowing noisily before he squeaks out, "I'm sorry, ma'am."

John stares, for just a second, but any amusement factor the bizarre reaction might have is completely ruined by the way the kid is panicking. John shifts a little sideways, staying low, trying to keep his voice light, "Do you remember us at all, Rodney?"

The kid shifts his attention over to John, hunched in on himself now, shaking so badly that it's starting to worry John a little bit. The kid's voice is high and sharp with fear, "Why do you keep calling me that? I don't -where's Jeannie? Did you hurt Jeannie? I have -it's almost time for her bottle, she'll be hungry and I have to give it to her," and the last words are a tiny wail, tears slipping out of the corners of the kids eyes, running down his dirty face.

John takes a deep breath, his gut twisting, fear and anger and something thicker than both of those lodging in his throat. He asks, "Meredith?" And the kid blinks up at him, breathing fast and shallow, skin going red from the tears and panic.

The kid's mouth wobbles, and he makes a hiccupping, sobbing, sound before managing, "Who are you?"

And John swallows heavily, ignoring the weight in his chest to say, "I'm John. I'm here to take you somewhere safe, okay?" He's never been very good at the whole reassuring people thing. Especially not kids. But Meredith goes still, some of the fear draining out of his expression.

Meredith doesn't move, staying curled up almost into a ball, but his voice is different, so nakedly hopeful that it makes John's chest ache, "You're John?" His expression is all yearning and fear and under all of that a kind of dull hope, just peeking in around the edges.

John nods, because it's getting Meredith to calm down, and he needs to get the kid calm and back to Atlantis, so they can fix this. He says, "Yeah, yeah I am," and Meredith makes that tiny, choked on, crying sound again, pushing to his feet.

Rodney's shirt swallows him, hanging off of one narrow shoulder, and falling down past his knees. It should be funny, but it's not. Not when Meredith takes tiny little steps up to John, reaching out after a long moment to grab the hand that John has offered out.

Meredith's hand is warm, soft, tiny, and dirty. The kid's expression is serious, so completely solemn that it surprises John. And then the kid is stepping closer, wrapping his skinny little arms around John's neck, squeezing hard before pulling back far enough to look John in the face, touching John's forehead, cheeks, chin, jaw, with his little hands.

Meredith says, eyes huge, voice sad and small, no more than a whisper, "I've been waiting for you a long time."

John stares at him, all the wide open trust and hope in the kid's expression. John's voice comes out hoarse, "I'm sorry, I'm here now." Meredith smiles at him, the expression already crooked, and wraps his arms around John's neck again, pressing his face against John's shoulder.

When John stands, wrapping an arm around Meredith's back and the other under him to support his weight, the kid doesn't complain or even twitch.

Ronon and Teyla are both staring at him, openly worried and concerned. John holds Meredith, opens his mouth to say something, and can't think of a damn thing. Eventually he just swallows, turns, and carries Meredith back to the Jumper.

John knows Teyla and Ronon are talking behind him, but he can't make out a damn thing they're saying over the noise in his head.

hr

The Jumper isn't far. John had parked it close, in anticipation of the end of the world that hadn't happened. Still, he thinks Meredith should probably be heavier than he feels. John blames the adrenaline, still dumping into his bloodstream, because his mind is still in panic mode, and he doesn't know how to knock himself out of it. He isn't even really sure he should.

One of his teammates has just been turned into a child. A child who, apparently, doesn't remember most of his life. If that doesn't warrant some panicking, John doesn't know what does. That Meredith is clinging to him, so blindly trusting, is just making the tense knot of fear and dread in John's chest even worse. He doesn't know what to do with this. With any of this.

John makes an attempt to hand Meredith off to Teyla and Ronon inside the Jumper, but the kid just clings to him tighter. John sighs, eyeing the pilot's chair skeptically. But the Ancients did love to build things far bigger than they needed to be, and he and Meredith fit in fine.

John keeps one arm around Meredith's skinny back, automatically waiting for a complaint about his unsafe driving, wincing when it doesn't come.

At least Meredith appears to have finally calmed down a little bit. His heart isn't pounding as hard, and his breathing is coming easier. John thinks the kid might even be asleep, and the bizarreness of a kid falling asleep on his shoulder is only exceeded by the bizarreness of that kid being Meredith Rodney McKay.

Teyla sits down in the shot-gun seat, and John spares her a quick look. Her expression is all tension and worry. John tries to make himself smile comfortingly and doesn't think he manages it very well. Still, she nods, smiling back, before reaching out to carefully touch one of Meredith's arms.

John can feel the kid flinch, a sharp, jerky movement that's immediately suppressed. It makes something in John's stomach go tight, and he rubs his hand up and down Meredith's back, with the vague idea that might be comforting.

Meredith raises his head off of John's shoulder, and his hair smells like fire and smoke. Meredith's voice is very flat when he says, "Yes, ma'am?" and the creepy politeness is freaking John out as much as anything else, because it's just not right.

It's freaking Teyla out, too, if the way her face scrunches up is anything to go by. Ronon chooses then to step up, leaning over Teyla's seat, and Meredith flinches back, sucking in a quick breath and huddling closer to John.

John says, automatically even as he shifts Meredith to the side, trying to get him to calm down again, "Hey, it's okay. These are your friends, okay? Just like me." And for a moment he thinks Meredith is going to start shaking again, but instead the kid nods jerkily, though he doesn't relax his death grip on John's neck or stop trying to curl himself up into a ball.

Teyla is smiling, leaning down, her voice soft and sweet, "He is right. My name is Teyla, and this is Ronon. We will not harm you." And Meredith makes a little skeptical sound that John doesn't think either Teyla or Ronon hear.

Ronon rumbles, "He's so small," and John can hear the question in the words, the nerves, the worry that the other man is trying to hide. Ronon's hand hasn't come off of his blaster since he saw Meredith, and even now he's constantly scanning the inside of the Jumper, like something might jump out of the wall and attack Meredith.

"I'm not small. You're just big," there's an edge of irritation to Meredith's voice, and John exhales shakily, pretty sure that what he's feeling is relief. Which is stupid, and he knows that. But knowing that, even terrified out of his mind, Meredith has Rodney's snappish defense mechanism makes John feel better.

Still, when Ronon grunts and reaches out, Meredith flinches back, holding his breath. John says, "Sh, hey, it's okay," and raises his eyebrows at Ronon. For a moment the man just stares, but then he shifts back, something dark in his expression as he scans the walls for a potential threat.

Teyla clears her throat when the silence stretches for a long moment, her smile a little brittle, "Everything is going to be alright, Meredith." And Meredith nods, burying his face against John's shoulder again, shaking just a little. John takes his hand off of the controls for just a moment, pressing a finger to his lips and shaking his head at Teyla.

He has no idea why she would be freaking Meredith out, but she obviously is. And John really isn't feeling emotionally equipped to deal with seeing the kid cry again.

Thankfully, that's when they make it close enough to dial the 'gate, and John hesitates for just a second when Atlantis asks for their status. And then he clears his throat, and grits out, "We've got a bit of a surprise." He looks down at the top of Meredith's head, and adds, "You should probably have a medical team meet us in the Jumper bay."

hr

Ronon and Teyla precede John out of the Jumper. John meets Keller coming up the rear hatch, her expression tense and worried, changing to mute shock when she sees him. For a long moment they just stare at each other, John trying not to panic, Keller opening and closing her mouth.

And then Woolsey is saying, "Is everything al -oh," The man stops at the mouth of the Jumper, his head cocked to the side, mouth open. John wonders if that's going to be everyone's response. He can't really blame them if it is. It's a perfectly legitimate reaction. "Is that -Doctor McKay?"

John nods, but says, "This is Meredith. He's -" and that's when John's words fail him. There are too many things that want to go there. He's too young. He's too small. He's trusting me for no good reason. He's shaking again.

John shoots Teyla a helpless look, and she nods, gently taking one of Woolsey's arms and turning him to the side, talking low and urgently to him. Ronon is moving in a tight circle, forming a defensive perimeter, his expression tense and worried. The other doctors just look confused.

And then Keller is asking, voice small and gentle, "Is he alright?"

John looks at her, then down at Meredith, so small and trembling just a little bit, one of his tiny hands fisted in John's shirt. John makes a hoarse sound, clears his throat, and finally manages, "I don't know," in little more than a whisper. He looks up at her, helplessly, "How do I know if he is?"

Keller's expression is so gentle that it's eerie. She says, stepping up to him, "It's okay, Colonel, everything is going to be okay," and John just nods. Of course it is. They'll bring Rodney back, and everything will be fine. And until then he'll watch out for Meredith. "I need to take him down to the infirmary, just to check on him, okay?" She's reaching out for Meredith, eyes warm and understanding.

John tightens his hold, hand coming up to curve around the back of Meredith's head. His voice doesn't sound quite like his own when he says, "I'm staying with him, he's -" and he can feel himself scowling, expression hardening when he stares at her.

For a half second Keller just gapes at him, and then she lowers her hands back to her sides, and smiles gently, "Of course. Come on," John follows her mutely down to the infirmary, Ronon a half step behind him, hand still on his blaster.

John can't concentrate on the exam. Not even when Meredith looks up as John sits him on one of the medical beds and just sighs. John watches the kid sag in on himself, his shoulders curling over when he pulls up one of Rodney's too big sleeves, offering his arm out to Keller with an exhausted look on his young face.

And it's not right, that kind of defeated look on someone so young. John glares at Keller, though he knows it's not her fault. He needs to glare at someone, and she's the most convenient target. He strokes Meredith's hair, and he knows Keller says something nice and comforting when she takes Meredith's blood, but John only seems to be aware of the way Meredith is shaking, the way he flinches every time Keller so much as looks his way.

It's Meredith's voice that finally snaps John out of his daze. The kid is still shaking, just a little bit, but his tone is stiffly polite. The contradiction there makes John's jaw go tight all over again. Meredith's saying, "I'm five years and seven months old. I turn six in April."

John looks down at him, and tries to wrap his mind around that knowledge. This was Rodney at five. It makes John's brain hurt.

Keller is making faces like it might be giving her a headache as well, smiling and noting something down on the thick chart in her arms. She asks, ducking her head, like she's trying to get Meredith to look at her, "Have you been to the doctor's office before?"

Meredith makes a soft scornful sound, and then stiffens up, shooting her a quick look before pressing his face up against John's side again. He says, voice muffled, "I'm sorry. I. Yes, ma'am. I've been to the hospital a lot." The stiff, formal, dictation is starting to get to John, more than anything else.

Keller meets John's eyes, worry and upset in her eyes. Her lips are pressed together tightly, and she gets her voice to a tone that's more of a coo than anything else when she speaks again, "Do you know what for?"

For a moment Meredith is still and silent, and then he nods his head, not looking up. John winces, wrapping an arm around Meredith's narrow shoulders. He hears himself say, without even thinking about it, "Look, can't we do this later? I don't think he feels good."

Keller shifts her weight from foot to foot, and cuts a conflicted look down to Meredith. She sounds pained, "I wish I could. But..." she pauses, frowning down at her charts, "Look, at this age -" this time she cuts herself off, blinking wide-eyed at Meredith and taking a deep breath, "I need to know what medication he remembers taking. Meredith? Do you know if you've been to the doctor for the seizures?"

John snaps, "What?" because Meredith's a five year old. Five year old kids don't have seizures. Keller shoots him a look, pitying and warning at the same time, and Meredith squirms around beside John. Meredith sighs heavily, pulling his knees up to his chest and hugging his legs.

Meredith's voice is flat and distant, like he's reciting something off of the back of his eyelids, "My last doctor's appointment was with Doctor Monniger, on October fourteenth." Meredith pauses, and then says, almost like a question, "In nineteen seventy-three."

Keller doesn't seem to pick up on the change of tone, flipping back through her charts and leaning against one of the other beds, chewing on the tip of a pen. But John does, and when Meredith looks up at him, blue eyes scared and questioning, John nods, just a little. Meredith's eyes go wide, and he swallows heavily.

And then Keller is smiling, tight around her eyes, "Okay. Don't worry, we're going to take really good care of you, okay?"

Meredith looks at her for a moment, then ducks his head, mumbling, "Yes, ma'am," and the face Keller makes is all confusion and worry. John sympathizes. Meredith sucks in a deep breath, looking up at John, his chin tilting in a gesture that apparently he'd carried through to adulthood, "Can you get Jeannie, too? She...I need to give her the bottle. She'll be hungry."

There are a lot of things in that admission that John doesn't want to have to think about just yet. He says, instead, choosing the words carefully, "Jeannie is somewhere else. But she's safe. People are taking care of her, okay?"

For a long moment Meredith just stares, like he's trying to read the truth of the statement in John's expression. And then he nods, shoulders sagging, exhaling shakily when he says, "Good. She's so small. It's important that she gets her bottle."

John bites his tongue against a curse, his voice coming out hoarse, "Yeah, I know," the agreement seems to please Meredith, because he squirms back up against John's side, warm and trusting and tiny. John swallows hard, squeezing his eyes shut.

Keller clears her throat, her voice very soft, "I need to run just a few more tests, okay?"

And Meredith sighs tiredly, offering his arms out again, "Yes, ma'am, thank you." John meets Keller's eyes over Meredith's head, relieved to see that she looks every bit as freaked out as he feels.

By the time it is over, Meredith is curled up against John's side, his knees pulled up, one of his hands fisted up by his shoulder, thumb tucked down inside his fist. John is sure that means something, but doesn't know what, glaring at everyone that moves around them, unsure what to do with all the worry and anger and hot fear in his chest.

Keller decides that there's nothing wrong with Meredith but exhaustion, and John sighs, because obviously there's a lot more than that wrong, but then he realizes that Meredith is already sleeping, and feels the fight just drain out of him.

Meredith doesn't stir when John lays him down on the bed. His expression is soft and open, his body warm and limp. John stands, staring down at him, for a long time, until Keller touches his arm and says, "Colonel? Would you like to hear the debriefing?"

Honestly, John really wouldn't, but he thinks he should. He looks over his shoulder when Keller leads him out of the infirmary. Meredith looks tiny in the middle of the infirmary bed, curled up on his side. John feels something sour in his stomach when he steps out of the room.

hr

Keller is saying, " -so, yes, as far as I can tell, he's as healthy as can be expected," and then sitting down awkwardly. John's trying to follow along with the meeting, and not managing very well. Meredith is hypoglycemic, and Keller's worried about his heart rate being so high, but he's not in any kind of critical danger.

For a moment no one says a word, and then John blurts, "You can change him back, right?"

There are stiff, nervous, glances exchanged around the room, and John clenches his hands up into fists. It's Woolsey that breaks the silence, his hands folded on the table in front of him when he says, "I'm sure we will. But you haven't even told us what changed him in the first place, Colonel."

And John wonders how the hell he's ever supposed to find words for what Rodney did, for the goddamn suicidal heroism that had gotten them to this point. Teyla saves him, pressing her fingertips just briefly against his thigh under the table, and saying, "The planet had been used as a developmental lab for Ancient weapons -" and John tunes out.

By the time the meeting is over, Zelenka is rushing off to get together a team of scientists to go back and try to figure out if there's any way to use the weapon to undo what Rodney's done to himself. Keller promises to do everything in her power to work out some kind of medical miracle, and John feels a hundred kinds of useless.

His feet carry him back down to the infirmary, because he feels oddly worried about leaving Meredith there by himself. Especially since John left while the kid was asleep. He doesn't want Meredith to wake up and think that he's been abandoned in the middle of a strange city, not after everything else he's had to deal with today.

Ronon is already there when John arrives.

John stands in the doorway, watching Ronon lean over the bed. The big man is frowning, expression drenched in worry as he straightens Meredith's pillow, gently moving his hair out of his face, pulling the blankets higher around Meredith's shoulders and tucking them in. Meredith looks tiny in the middle of the infirmary bed, which is a feat all on its own with how small the little cots are.

Ronon looks up, even though John hadn't made a sound, nodding in greeting. Ronon still has one hand on his blaster, and he seems to have acquired more weapons while John was away. John nods back, crossing to Meredith's bedside and staring down at his sleeping face.

Ronon rumbles, words as close to a whisper as Ronon gets, "He's so small." And John doesn't even mention that they've been over this already. His brain keeps getting hung up on that as well. Meredith is small, and that's not something John has ever associated with Rodney, with his broad shoulders and big mouth.

And then Ronon continues, voice a little sharper, "He didn't ask about his parents."

John looks up, meeting Ronon's cool, hard, gaze, and nodding. He'd been hung up on that as well. He reaches down, picking imaginary lint off of the sheets, and Ronon leans his back against the wall, scanning back and forth again and again through the infirmary.

John watches Meredith sleep. Ronon watches for any sign of a threat.

hr

Meredith sleeps for nearly two days. Keller assures John that's perfectly fine, that he'd been severely exhausted, and stressed out on top of that. She talks about Meredith like he's something breakable, like he's fragile. She talks like there's a consequence for everything, and it scares the hell out of John.

The team camps out in the infirmary the entire time Meredith is there. Ronon paces the perimeter near constantly, while Teyla stays further away, watching Meredith sleep with an edge of hurt. John understands that, too. If it had been him that Meredith flinched away from, he's not sure what he would have done.

Woolsey and Keller don't try to make them leave, and somewhere down below all the panic and worry and wishing that this would just get better, John appreciates that. He would have hated to have to beat the shit out of whomever they sent to try to move him.

With the I.V. in his arm, the heart monitor, all the wires, Meredith looks like he's being swallowed. John likes that not at all, and finds himself compulsively rearranging blankets and pillows, trying to shove the machines back.

John wants Meredith to wake up and go back to being Rodney. He has a horrible, sinking, feeling that won't happen. But he wants it anyway, so strongly that it surprises him.

Zelenka and his team of scientists settle in over on the other planet, running experiments and tearing through data. Miko brings John, Ronon, and Teyla updates every twelve hours. Mostly it boils down to them not knowing anything.

All the tests that Keller runs are similarly useless. No Ancient device magically turns up that can reverse it. And while John considers that the Wraith might be able to give Meredith the right body back, he's pretty sure they wouldn't be able to replace his mind.

Regardless of that, the thought of a Wraith feeding off of Meredith makes John physically ill. It's not a plan he's willing to ever consider going through with.

Meredith sleeps for nearly two days, and when he wakes up he makes a tiny whimpering sound, reaching for the I.V. port on his arm and blinking blearily. John flinches, yelling for Keller and reaching out to rest his hand on Meredith's shoulder.

Meredith looks up at him, gaze unfocused, like he's still at least a little bit asleep when he says, "You're still here," and smiles, big and innocent.

John smiles back, squeezing Meredith's thin shoulder as tightly as he dares. He says, "Of course I am," and Meredith just keeps smiling at him, expression so ridiculously grateful that it makes John uncomfortable. Luckily, then Keller is there, providing a welcome distraction with her presence.

John watches her unhook the I.V.s, watches Meredith shy away from her, watches the tension, and clears his throat. He asks, without meaning to, "So he can get out of here now, right?"

Keller turns to blink at him, scrunching her brows up and then stepping around the bed. She grabs one of John's arms, turning him away from Meredith's bed, her voice kept low and soft, "Are you offering to take care of him while he's like this?"

John shifts, looks over his shoulder, where Meredith is fidgeting with the medical tape over the back of his tiny hand. His voice comes out rough, "Yeah. Yeah, of course," because it just seems obvious. Rodney would never let him hear the end of it if John didn't take care of this version of him.

"Are you sure?" And when John whips his head back around to glare at her, Keller continues, raising her chin and crossing her arms, "You've seen how he is, Colonel. If you take him and then bring him back, I don't..." she trails off, wincing.

John frowns, "I'm not going to do that," and Keller just stares at him for a long moment before finally nodding.

hr

Teyla had brought by some Athosian clothing, once they realized that the expedition wasn't exactly equipped to handle five year olds. Meredith makes a face once he's dressed in it, then looks up at Teyla with wide eyes and rushes through, "Thank you very much," so quickly that he stumbles over the words.

Teyla kneels down in front of him, smiling when she says, "You are very welcome," and Meredith shifts closer against John's legs, his bony back pressing against John's knees. Hurt flashes across Teyla's expression again, but she covers it quickly.

John clears his throat to break the tension, reaching down to cup Meredith's head, curls baby soft against his palm, "Hey, are you hungry? The doctor said you probably would be." He tries smiling encouragingly down at Meredith, and after a moment the boy nods, reaching up to tuck his hand into John's, holding on.

Ronon and Teyla trail them.

The walk to the mess hall is one of the more surreal that John has had in awhile. Meredith gets stared at, even with his chin tucked down and his shoulders hunched in, by the time they finally get in line for their food. John glares at the people looking, and bends down, lifting Meredith and balancing him on a hip as he looks down at the food.

Meredith sucks in a sharp breath, and John looks across at him. Meredith looks faintly awed, staring down at the food, his eyes gone huge. His voice is faint and disbelieving, "There's so much of it," and John pushes down a frown, because it's just not helpful in this situation.

Instead he bounces Meredith a little higher, worried by how light he is, trying to keep his tone gentle when he says, "More for you to choose from, right? What do you like to eat?" because John thinks it might be too much to ask for Meredith to like the same things Rodney did.

For another long moment Meredith just stares, before turning to blink at John with wide eyes. And then he's wrapping his arms around John's neck again, hiding his face, his shoulders shaking, and John curses. He steps away from the food, nodding at Teyla and Ronon, and then tilting his head towards the door. It's not that far to his quarters, and Meredith probably doesn't want to be stared at through his meal, anyway.

John waves open the door to his quarters, stepping inside and feeling a brand new rush of panic. It's been days since he was in this room. It's a mess, he has a gun lying out on his desk, there's porn somewhere, and he has a nightmare flash to years ago, Nancy talking about child-proofing their house for the arrival of one of her nieces.

For a moment John just stands, frozen, sure that he's just endangered Meredith and not sure how exactly to fix it. And then Meredith is lifting his head off of John's shoulder, looking around the room and demanding, "Where are we?"

John swallows, setting Meredith down on his couch and moving as quickly as he can to his desk. He says absently, ejecting the magazine from the gun, "This is my room." There's still a bloody rag in the bathroom from a sparring accident with Ronon that probably deserved some stitches. John has no idea what to do with it, and shoves entire the trashcan into his towel closet, grabbing his razors and stuffing them on top of some shelving.

Meredith steps up to the doorway of the bathroom, then pushes around John's legs, pulling open the door to the shower and blinking at the tile mosaic. John wonders if he should hide the Windex as well. He has a vague idea that kids try to drink the stuff sometimes.

Before John can decide whether or not it's a hazard to Meredith health, the boy asks, "Where's, um, my room?"

John turns to look at him. Meredith has his arms crossed, chin tilted down, blue eyes turned up. John kneels, his right knee popping when he does. He ignores the brief flash of pain, smiling carefully when he says, "I was thinking maybe you'd stay here for awhile. With me."

Meredith stares at him hard, John can almost see the gears turning inside the kid's head. And then he nods, managing a smile of his own, and a decisive headshake, "Good. That's good," and he turns and wanders back out of the bathroom.

That's when the door chimes. John opens it to find Ronon and Teyla, loaded up with food. John raises his eyebrows, and Ronon says, shrugging one shoulder, "He should eat more," while setting the containers on John's desk.

When Meredith steps up behind John's legs, John startles. He looks down to find that Meredith has his arms wrapped around one of John's thighs, face hidden against the fabric of John's BDUs. Teyla says, softly, "We will leave you to your dinner for now. Goodnight, Meredith."

John is pretty sure Meredith mumbles something that might be a goodbye, but it's hard to tell since he doesn't look up. John shakes his head, and asks, "You hungry?"

hr

Turns out, Meredith is starving. He digs in happily to the spaghetti that Ronon had delivered, staring at John in disbelief when John asks if he needs it cut. After John manages to soothe him over that perceived slight, they manage to settle down on the couch.

John picks at his chicken, preoccupied with the relish Meredith takes in swirling his noodles around his fork. Meredith has his legs folded, the platter supported on his lap, and ends up with huge smears of tomato sauce in the corners of his mouth.

When Meredith shoves the plate away, not quite half-empty, John sets it on the desk with his own mostly uneaten meal and goes to get a wet rag. Meredith stares at him when John cleans off his face, and John wonders how much of this he's doing wrong. Kids are not his thing. Kids are nowhere close to his thing, they never have been.

And then Meredith asks, before John can second-guess himself too much, voice eerily calm, "What year is it?"

For a long moment John just stares, and then he sighs, kneeling in front of the couch, putting himself nearly on eyelevel with Meredith. The boy has his fingers tangled together, his mouth twisted down. John looks for the words to somehow make this make sense, and Meredith says, voice shaking, "You can tell me, it's okay."

John smiles, reaching up to tug on one of Meredith's curls, "It's not quite that simple."

Meredith's expression goes solemn and serious, "Time travel never is," and John shakes his head, feeling his smile slip a little more towards honest. Meredith is still too smart for his own good. It's oddly encouraging.

John takes a deep breath, sliding up onto the couch so he can sit beside Meredith. He's not sure how much he should lie here. For all that he's only five, Meredith is bright. John really doesn't want him to put things together on his own, to feel betrayed by them.

But he has no idea how to explain. Any of it. John finally leans his head against the back of the couch, and says, "First, I need to tell you a little bit about Rodney McKay."

hr

John's explanation ends up as a choppy mess, probably with more information than Meredith has a chance of understanding, if the way his expression goes kind of glazed is anything to go by. But once John starts he has no idea where to stop, and it just tumbles out.

Afterwards, Meredith stares down at his hands, and asks, voice tiny, "What if you can't get Rodney back?"

John winces, glad Meredith isn't looking up to see his face, and tries to ignore the stab of pain caused by even considering that Rodney might be gone for good. He braces himself, and tells the truth, "Then I'll take care of you."

For a long moment there's silence, and then Meredith looks up, his eyes bright and shiny, his mouth set and tense. He says, voice low and flat, "I hope he doesn't come back." And then he stands stiffly, marching across to John's bathroom and closing the door behind him.

John can hear the muffled crying, but can't quite make himself do anything about it. He can't even make himself blink, staring down at the space where Meredith had been. He has no idea how he's supposed to feel. His stomach seems to be settled on sick.

hr

John is just attempting to get a bed set up on the couch when the bathroom door finally opens. Meredith's face is red and blotchy, and John worries again that maybe he should have tried to get the kid out of the bathroom. He hadn't known what to say. He still doesn't.

Meredith stares at the ground when he pads across to John, pulling on John's shirt and then raising his arms expectantly. John lifts him automatically, even with the sour echo of the kid's earlier words playing through in his head.

Meredith says, to John's shoulder, "I didn't mean it. I -maybe he can come back and I can stay? With both of you?" But his eyes are flat and sad when he looks up, like not even he believes that stands a chance of happening.

John feels something in his stomach twist, tightening his hold on Meredith and making an attempt at keeping his own voice level, "I'd like that very much." And he's surprised to find that it's true. As much as this is freaking him out, he doesn't want to have to send Meredith back to wherever he was. Not if there was a possible alternative.

Meredith sniffles, his mouth quivering, "It'd be like a family," and his smile looks tight and ready to shatter any second.

John says, "Yeah, yeah, buddy, exactly," and bounces Meredith in the circle of his arms until the kid's breathing finally settles and he cries himself into an exhausted sleep. John lays Meredith down carefully, pulling the blankets up over his shoulders and tucking him in.

For a long time John sits beside the couch, watching Meredith sleep, his expression still twisted up and sad even in his dreams. John thinks that he's not doing a very good job with the whole caregiver routine. He wants Rodney back. He doesn't want Meredith sent back to wherever he was.

John's not really surprised at all when the sun rises through his windows while his thoughts are still a tangled mess.

hr

They try the mess hall again for breakfast.

Meredith's eyes are bloodshot, and he pokes at his eggs only absently. Teyla keeps shooting John worried looks, and he has no idea what to tell her, so he just shrugs. Ronon spends the entire meal glowering around the room, which is just as well, since everyone seems intent on staring at Meredith.

They somehow make it through the meal, and John is just draining the last of his coffee when one of the cooks makes a beeline for their table. John blinks, starts to greet the woman, and she ignores him completely to set a plate of wrapped up chocolate chip cookies in front of Meredith.

Meredith blinks down at the cookies, his expression all shock and surprise, and the woman leans down to whisper conspiratorially, "They're guaranteed to put the smile we all want to see on that face, sweetie."

Meredith turns red, ducking his head down, and the woman smiles softly, straightening and starting to turn, and Meredith blurts, "Thank you." It's the first thing John's heard him say since the crying jag the previous night.

The cook just smiles over her shoulder, and Meredith picks at the cellophane wrapping around his cookies without making any real attempt to get at them. John nudges him gently in the side, telling him, "I've never seen her give anyone food like that before."

Meredith blinks up at him, looking all kinds of unsure, before ducking his head down again and murmuring, "I'm not hungry." He pushes the cookies towards Ronon, and Teyla frowns at John. John makes a helpless face back, because he has absolutely no idea what to do.

hr

John isn't really sure that taking Meredith with him while he works is the best idea. But he doesn't want to leave the kid alone, and, as subdued as Meredith has gotten, he still clings to John almost constantly. Besides, Meredith is quiet, content to curl up in one of the chairs in John's office and entertain himself with a notebook and pen while John writes reports and juggles a ridiculous amount of paperwork.

In the senior staff meeting, Meredith sits in the chair beside John, staring at the people around the table through his bangs. John tries not to flinch every time Miko, still standing in for Zelenka, or Keller mention anything about the continued failure to get Rodney back.

John really expects Woolsey to say something about Meredith's presence, but instead the man crouches down and offers Meredith his hand after the meeting. The man smiles, and says, "It's wonderful to meet you," and Meredith stares at him for a long moment, all big surprised eyes and his fingers tightening in the material of John's pants for security and comfort.

Meredith might not actually manage anything in answer, but John says, "Thank you," and means it. Woolsey smiles at him, just a little stiff and formal, and Meredith holds John's hand when they leave the room, staring down at his feet when he walks.

By the time they've had lunch, eaten in John's office, because he isn't sure how much staring Meredith is equipped to handle in one day, the kid is drowsing. John takes off his jacket, draping it over Meredith when he falls asleep in the chair, thumb firmly in his mouth, all curled up.

John gets next to no work done the rest of the day, staring at Meredith, wondering what his life was like, what he has to look forward to going back to. He wonders what would happen if Rodney -when they get him back, because John has to believe they will -somehow went and got Meredith and brought him to the future.

John's pretty sure that would mess up the timeline. It might be worth it.

hr

That's how it goes. Members of the science staff start showing up at John's office at random intervals over the next few days. They like to remind him of when Meredith needs to eat. They also take the opportunity to raise holy hell over the entire set up when they find Meredith sleeping in the chair.

The next day there's a fold out bed set up along one wall. John is only a little bitter that it looks more comfortable than the bed in his quarters.

They also bring books. Lots of books. John is sure most of them must be way out of Meredith's range of comprehension, but he looks through them anyways. The tablet with the encyclopedia on he reads, curled up over it, expression intent as John works.

It eases some of the worry that John hadn't even been aware of, about how he was supposed to make sure Meredith learned everything he was supposed to. Atlantis has the best and brightest -if slightly unbalanced - living in her walls, and they're all eager to fill Meredith's brain up with all kinds of knowledge.

Simpson even brings by a brush, and combs the tangles out of Meredith's curls after a few days, forcing John to pay attention so he can do it himself next time. She mentions cutting them, and Meredith scowls up at her, saying very firmly, "No, thank you," and John just grins and shakes his head.

Someone leaves a pack of hair ties on his desk the next day, and John discovers that ponytails are awesome.

And, of course, the soldiers refuse to be outdone by their scientist counterparts.

Meredith acquires handheld video game systems and the games for them frighteningly fast. And every time John has to call one of his men into his office for any reason they tend to spend the entire time smiling at Meredith and attempting to interact with him.

Meredith remains viciously picky about who he likes and who freaks him out. Lorne brings chocolate the first time he comes, sitting down on the floor and commenting on the five thousand piece puzzle that Meredith's been putting together with an intensity that's a little intimidating.

Lorne's the first person that Meredith takes to as quickly as he'd taken to John. Hell, Lorne even gets the kid to have a conversation, and John hears a laugh and completely forgets what he'd called Lorne in for in the first place. John ends up staring at them, his coffee cup frozen halfway to his mouth, wondering how he messed things up enough to have Meredith not laugh for him.

When Lorne finally stands, still grinning happily down at Meredith, John dismisses him. He doesn't know what to say or what to think. He feels like an asshole and he doesn't even know why.

And as bad as that is, it's worse when Meredith doesn't like his visitors. Just Cadman's presence has Meredith behind the desk and crawling up into John's lap, hiding his face and clinging. The woman looks deeply uncomfortable, and hurt, and John doesn't know how to explain that sometimes that's just how Meredith is with people.

She leaves a little toy car behind. Meredith refuses to touch it, and John doesn't force the issue. He wants Rodney back.

hr

Three weeks after Rodney walked into the singularity and came out the other side as Meredith, Zelenka and his team return from the planet with what information they've managed to gather from the damaged station. John meets them in the 'gate room, holding Meredith, and Zelenka just shakes his head before smiling and walking over, asking, "This is the boy I have been hearing so much about?"

Meredith watches Zelenka with his head tilted to one side, and John pats his hip, nodding and introducing them. Zelenka sticks a hand out, beaming, and Meredith frowns at him for a long moment before slowly reaching out and shaking his hand.

And then Meredith twists around, extending his other arm as well. Zelenka makes a pleased sound, reaching out and taking him. John stands there, mouth hanging open, stomach doing terrible flipping things. Meredith is reaching up to pull on Radek's glasses, and Radek is saying, "Ah, heavier than you look. Is a good thing Major Lorne has been tormenting me in the gym, yes?"

Meredith smiles, pulling on the arms of the glasses, squinting through them, and then putting them back on Radek. He says, "I like Major Lorne," and then, "You talk differently than everyone else," soft and expectant, and Radek bounces Meredith a little higher on his hip.

John doesn't even hear the rest of the conversation. There's a buzz like white noise in the back of his head and he feels dizzy. Meredith has never gone to anyone else before. He barely touches other people. John's the one he hides behind, the one he clings to, the one that makes things okay.

John startles at a touch on his shoulder. He finds Radek looking up at him, expression concerned when the man speaks, "Colonel? Are you well?"

It takes a moment for John to shake his head. His smile twists wrong and makes his face ache, but he holds onto it anyway, "Peachy," and that's a lie in so many ways he can barely even keep track. Because they're back, and they haven't brought Rodney. Because Keller has no clue where to even begin trying to bring Rodney back. Because Meredith went to Radek.

Meredith says, "John?" reaching out for him, and John grabs the kid so quickly he almost embarrasses himself. He can't help it. Meredith is all that he has of Rodney right now. The boy wraps his arms around John's neck, and John holds him tighter. John's jaw is clenched up so tightly it hurts.

John doesn't even hear it when Radek leaves. He doesn't move until Ronon steps up behind him, reminding him that it is dinner time and they were supposed to meet Teyla in the mess hall nearly fifteen minutes ago.

hr

That night John has nightmares about watching Rodney die. They hit him one after another, not even giving him the chance to wake up before he's seeing the scenario play out again. When John finally jerks awake, shouting, he's covered in a cold sweat, his blankets kicked off of the bed, his eyes burning.

John sits up, rubbing his hands up over his face, ignoring the faint burn of bile in the back of his throat. He can feel his heart beating up against his ribs, swallowing down deep breathes of air. He slides his fingers up into his hair, clenching his hands to fists, pulling until it hurts.

"John? I brought you water," Meredith sounds afraid, unsure, and John makes himself look up. The kid is standing a few feet in front of him, hair messy from sleep, holding a glass of water in both hands. "You were screaming."

John winces, rubbing his hands down over his face again. He has to clear his throat before he can speak, "I didn't mean to wake you up," he reaches for the water and Meredith hands it over, not stepping closer, just watching with worried eyes and a tense expression.

The boy's voice is almost a whisper, "You miss him a lot," and that answers John's unspoken question about what he'd been screaming. He swallows around the sudden pressure in his throat, downing the water and then setting the cup carefully on his nightstand.

For a moment John considers lying, but it seems kind of pointless. He rubs the back of his neck, standing and pulling his blankets back onto his bed, "Yeah, yeah I do." The blankets are damp with his sweat and he makes a face, tossing them to the side instead. He doubts he'll be able to sleep again anyway.

"I'm so sorry." Meredith's voice is breaking, and John jerks around to look at him, worried. The kid has his hands up over his face, shoulders hitching, "I'm so sorry I took him away from you. You must hate me."

"No, oh, no, baby, hey," John doesn't remember getting on his knees, but he is, carefully gathering Meredith up. He's shaking, bad like he hasn't since the day they found him. John can hear his hitching breaths, the sobs that he's trying to swallow back. "I don't hate you at all. I miss Rodney, but I'd miss you if you were gone, too." And John's surprised to find that's the truth.

Meredith's voice is wavering and so hopeful that it stings, "Really?"

He's got his hands clenched in John's t-shirt, and John says, "Hey, yeah," without even thinking about it. Meredith hiccups against John's shoulder, tears dampening up the fabric of John's shirt and John really wishes he'd stop making the kid cry, because it kills him a little bit each time.

John shifts back, resting his back against the side of his mattress. Meredith settles in his lap, all skinny limbs and a bony back and John doesn't want to ever have to hand him off to anyone else ever again. The viciousness of the emotion is a surprise, and John knows that a lot of it is emotional bleed over from his friendship with Rodney.

But there's a distinction there, as well. John had protected Rodney, would have done anything to protect Rodney, but it had never been like this. Meredith pushes buttons that John didn't even know he had, that make him feel off balance and out of control.

He says, not even sure who he's talking to, because Meredith's cried himself to sleep again, "So you can't leave me." Losing both of them would kill him, John has no doubt.

hr

Zelenka and Keller both keep up their work to try to fix it, but John knows that the project is getting pushed to the side. They have more immediate things to worry about, a renewed Replicator threat, the Wraith getting uppity, a possible plague outbreak among some of their allies taking up most of Keller's time as she tries to come up with a cure.

People get used to Meredith, especially John. It's natural to comb the kid's hair before bed, to make sure he eats enough during the day, to take him to Keller for all the many and varied check-ups he needs. They play checkers in the evening, and John takes to teaching him chess, which Meredith picks up with a skill that doesn't surprise John at all.

Zelenka starts teaching Meredith Czech, insisting that this is the age when he should be learning other languages, and Meredith surprises them all by insisting that he already knows French and proceeding to demonstrate. John teaches him math, and he worries alternatively about algebra being too hard or too easy for Meredith. It turns to be out closer to the 'too easy' side of the spectrum.

Meredith still gets an insane amount of sweets from the mess hall staff. And most of the other people around the base. John's heard all about the whole village raising a kid thing, but he's pretty sure he'd never expected to see it be taken this literally.

He's relieved, more than he's comfortable admitting, that Meredith still only lets he and Radek hold him.

They've had Meredith nearly two months when the Apollo makes one of her scheduled stops. John doesn't even think about not bringing Meredith to the briefing, setting Meredith down in the transporter to pull his messy curls back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, then lifting him again. They're late, and Meredith's little legs don't manage very much speed.

By the time John slides into the room, everyone else is already sitting around the table. He nods his greetings, Radek making a face at Meredith that has the boy giggling softly. John sits down as Woolsey says, "Now that we're all here," and pretends he doesn't notice when the man smiles at Meredith.

John is just opening his mouth to go over what Lorne's team found on their mission to MPM-00M when Ellis cuts him off, "Is 'take your kid to work day' one the changes you've been implementing, Woolsey?"

In John's arms, Meredith goes stiff, and John turns his chair slowly towards the other Colonel. Ellis is leaning back in his chair, mouth pressed tight, arms crossed. John pastes on a smile, and Woolsey speaks before John can say something he'll probably regret, "Doctor McKay is one of my senior staff." John could give the man a hug.

Ellis snorts, "Do you change his diaper in here, too?"

Meredith very rarely snaps. It takes what he perceives as a direct attack, and John to be close by for support. Apparently now fits the criteria, because he's squirming around, his expression twisted up with hurt and irritation when he says, "Why, did someone forget to change yours?"

Ronon coughs into his hand, shoulders lifting. John bites his tongue, and Woolsey stares very hard down at his notes for a long moment. Ellis just stares before leaning abruptly forward, so quickly that Meredith jerks back against John. And John's always thought Ellis was an alright guy, but intimidating children is a low John can't quite wrap his mind around.

Ellis says, low and flat, relaxing back into his chair, "This is unacceptable." For a long moment John just stares at him, feeling something hot and angry building in his chest, and Ellis continues, "That you've allowed the military commander of this expedition to run around like a nursemaid this long is, frankly, baffling, and it stops -"

John stands slowly, but Ellis cuts himself off anyway. It might have something to do with the way Ronon is suddenly a lot closer, eyes hard and angry. Or the way Teyla is crossing her arms, eyebrows raised in challenge.

John says, the words coming from somewhere in his chest, "No. Taking care of him isn't interfering with my work in any way." Because like hell anyone is taking Meredith away from him. He's all John has left of Rodney. And the realization that he believes that, that he knows it to be true, hits John like a punch in the gut. He sucks in a breath, reaching out and bracing one hand on the desk.

Ellis pulls a face, "You may believe that -"

"I said no." John's aware his voice has gone almost to a growl. He can't help it.

For a long moment Ellis just stares at him, and then one side of the man's mouth curls up. It's not a friendly gesture, and John tightens his hold on Meredith, Meredith's grip around his neck going nearly to choking, "Don't you think the kid deserves to be with his family?"

"We are his family," the words seem loud in the small room, and John only realizes that's because he's shouting after the fact. He takes a deep breath, and a small step back from the table, aware that his face has gone hot, the beat of fury through his veins.

Ellis rises half out of his chair, mouth opening, and Woolsey talks over both of them, "Gentlemen, I believe we have more important matters to discuss at the moment?" And John shoots him a grateful look, because he's pretty sure beating the hell out of Ellis wouldn't have helped a damn thing.

Ronon spends the rest of the meeting standing behind Ellis' chair, glowering at the back of the man's head.

John holds Meredith tightly enough that he worries he might be squeezing too hard.

hr

John finds himself surrounded by a barrier of people everywhere he goes for the rest of the Apollo's stay. He doesn't ask how they know, just accepts it. It's good to know that he's not the only one attached to Meredith, even if the posse of Marine guards does get kind of embarrassing after the first few days.

John doesn't relax until the Apollo leaves port, heading back to Earth and leaving them alone. Meredith seems to pick up on his mood, which John admits would be hard to miss, and makes himself quiet and small. It's frightening how good at that he is. John doesn't like it, but has no idea how to make it better.

The night the Apollo finally leaves, John has twisting, warped dreams. He can't remember them when he wakes up. Just the nerves that had accompanied them, the vague sense that he was being hunted, that he'd lost something and had to find it. It leaves him discomforted, disoriented when he wakes up.

John pulls himself out of bed, in the midst of padding across to his bathroom when he freezes.

Meredith is still sleeping on his couch. Apparently the science staff hadn't realized, or John's sure they would have procured another bed from somewhere. Meredith hasn't complained, and there's plenty of room for him, so John hadn't worried.

He wonders if he should have. Obviously, he should have been worrying about something he missed.

Meredith is curled up tight, his eyes screwed shut, rocking himself back and forth and sucking on his thumb. He's got the blankets cocooned up around him, but that just makes him look smaller. John leans over the back of the couch, his stomach going tight with worry and dread.

John finds himself back by his bed, setting on the edge of the mattress with his head in his hands. He curses himself for a coward, but he doesn't know what to do. He hasn't known what to do since this started, and fuck, but he'd really thought he and Meredith were doing alright. Apparently he'd been wrong.

It takes more control than John likes to think about to make himself stand. More to drag his sorry ass back over to the couch. John sits down carefully, Meredith's eyes snapping open when John runs a hand back over his hair.

John makes himself smile, trying to keep his voice light when he says, "Hey, buddy, what's wrong?"

Meredith blinks, slow and sleepy, butting his head up against John's hand and yawning. He says, "Nothing. Nothing is wrong. Why would something be wrong?" and there's so much of Rodney visible in him then that for a second John can't breathe.

John swallows the lump in his throat, raising his eyebrows and stretching his arm across the back of the couch. "Looked like there was something wrong. Were you having a bad dream?" He tries to remember if he talked about nightmares with his parents, and then shoves the thought away. John has no desire to handle any situation with Meredith the way his parents handled things with him.

When Meredith sits up, he's rubbing at his eyes. He shifts over, crawling half into John's lap and curling up there, dragging his blankets behind him. His voice is soft and drowsy, "It was just my mother," and that's not even in the same neighborhood as comforting.

John feels a muscle in his jaw jump, watching Meredith settle in, hand coming up to his mouth and then tucking under his chin when he blinks up at John. John isn't sure exactly why Meredith tries to hide the habit. Especially because he does such a bad job of it. John doesn't know how to ask.

Instead, John smoothes Meredith's hair back, and asks, "Do you miss your family?" and feels like a heel when Meredith's expression crumbles. For a moment John is sure there will be tears, again, never mind the fact that he has no idea how to deal with them.

But then Meredith sucks in a deep breath, squeezing his eyes decisively shut, "I miss Jeannie. Can I see her someday? Is she -is she old now?"

John snorts softly, rubbing one of Meredith's curls between his thumb and forefinger. He shrugs, "Maybe to you. Am I old?"

Meredith grumbles something inarticulate, sinking back down into sleep. John feels drowsy himself, surprisingly. The warm weight of Meredith against his leg and the soft sound of Meredith's breath is making his eyelids feel heavy.

John leans his head against the back of the couch, closing his eyes just for a second to brace himself for trying to figure out how to slide out of Meredith's grip.

When he opens his eyes, his bedside alarm is going off and the sun is shining in through the windows. Meredith is still asleep, drooling on John's leg, snoring just a little. John smiles down at him, brain not really operating yet, and thinks maybe he's not doing so badly after all.

hr

Of course, that's before he's entrusted with two kids.

John has no idea what possessed Teyla to think of him when she decided she needed a babysitter, but he's pretty sure it was something evil. Still, there's no way he can say no to her when she shows up at his quarters, Torren cradled in her arms, Kanaan standing behind her shoulder with a baby bag and a huge smile.

Teyla says, "I would greatly appreciate it if you could watch him for a night," and Kanaan pretty much bounces in place. John opens his mouth, and closes it, because this is really far, far, too much information about Teyla's personal life for him to be comfortable with. And then Teyla holds Torren out, continuing, "John, please," and she looks a little desperate around the corners of her eyes.

John orders himself to man up, and smiles, reaching for Torren and saying, "Sure, I'll just -" he cuts himself off when Kanaan shoves the bag at him, and the pair take off down the hall like the flames of hell are dancing on their heels.

John looks down at Torren, sleeping, and says, "Hey there."

And then Meredith is tugging on John's pants leg, demanding, "Let me see, I want to see, is that a baby?" John grins.

hr

It takes Meredith approximately two minutes to completely remove John from any baby-care duties. John is fairly certain he hadn't been holding Torren improperly, but Meredith insists that John hadn't been supporting the baby's head correctly, and somehow it ends up with Meredith sitting against the arm of the couch, Torren cradled in his arms.

With all the blankets, Torren looks almost as big as Meredith. John goes through the bag Teyla left, keeping one eye on the kids, though Meredith seems perfectly content and capable of holding Torren and talking to him.

And then John stops, just listening.

Meredith talks in their day to day life, a fair amount. He asks tons of questions, of anyone that stands still long enough for him to catch. He talks easily to Radek and Lorne, as well as John. John hadn't been worried about him being too quiet.

But this is the first time he's heard Meredith just get on a tangent and go. John finds himself staring down at a bottle full of milk, and God, he prays that it's formula, because there's something slightly disturbing about thinking that he's holding milk that came out of Teyla's breast, his stomach twisting with memory and pain.

Meredith is saying, " -you'll love it here. I love it here. The ocean is so big -" smiling a little to himself, twisting his fingers in Torren's blankets, like he wants to be waving his hands around and is restraining himself.

It's Rodney, or at least one of those frighteningly obvious moments where John can clearly see exactly how Meredith will grow up to be Rodney. John sits his ass down on the ground, feeling a little dizzy, grief and loss swelling unexpectedly in his throat.

" -and when you're big enough I'll show you everything -"

John raises his arm, breathing against his sleeve, trying to push down the acidic burn in his throat. It takes him more tries that he likes to think about, his fingers gone thick and useless, to get his radio on. His voice comes out weird and tight when he says, "Ronon, I need you to come over to my quarters."

And Ronon, sturdy, dependable, faithful Ronon, doesn't ask any questions, just says, "On my way," and John nods at nothing in particular, staring at Meredith and Torren, and drowning in the sudden realization that Rodney isn't coming back.

When Ronon steps into his room, John is still sitting on the floor. The other man takes in the scene for just a moment, and whatever he sees on John's face must tell him everything he needs to know, because he says, "Meredith, can you watch Torren for a minute?"

Meredith doesn't even look up, just says, "Of course I can," with the surety that will be Rodney's, and John feels something close like a vice around his chest, squeezing the air out of him.

Ronon is saying, "Good," and then he's wrestling John to his feet, frog marching him out into the hallway. John opens his mouth to protest leaving the kids alone, but all that comes out is a tiny gasp. Ronon gets him turned, forces John to put his hands on the wall, and then wraps a big hand around the back of John's neck.

Ronon's voice is a low rumble, "Are you going to be sick?" John shakes his head, the best response he can muster presently. Rodney is gone. And if they haven't figured out how to bring him back by now, John knows what that means for their odds. Rodney is gone.

"Breathe, Sheppard, in and out," and John wants to snap that he knows, that this isn't helpful, except that it is. He squeezes his eyes shut, breathing down into his stomach, exhaling slowly, trying to get his arms and shoulders to relax.

John chokes out, "He's not coming back," because the sting of it won't fade, the horrible knowledge just there, loud and inescapable, no matter how much John wants to push it to the side and go back to pretending he didn't know.

Ronon says, his grip tightening on the back of John's neck for just a second, "No, he's not." And John tries to bite off the low, pained sound that escapes his chest, wondering if he's the last person to realize, the last person to accept. Ronon shakes him by the scruff of his neck, "But he left you something important to take care of."

John makes himself raise his head, blinking at Ronon, trying to fight down the nausea, the urge to deny this is happening. Ronon smiles, tight and grim and full of empathy, all at the same time, "He was waiting for you a long time. I don't know what happened to McKay in that thing, but he gave you what he could."

And John swallows heavily, nodding shakily. He says, "I should -" motioning for the door.

Ronon nods, patting him hard on the shoulder, "You should. I'll stick around for a while." And John tries to push down the swell of relief. When they go back in the room, Meredith has a bottle, frowning in concentration as he feeds Torren.

John smiles, surprised by how little he has to force it, sitting beside Meredith on the couch and saying, "You're awful good at that."

Meredith spares him a quick look, beaming with pride and pleasure at the compliment, saying, "I'm good at lots of things." And then, before John can assure him that's true, "He's a much messier eater than Jeannie," with a wrinkle of his nose.

John says, "Is that so?" and Meredith nods while Ronon sits down at John's desk.

Rodney is gone.

hr

Meredith finally starts relaxing around Teyla after that, at least when she has Torren with her. He's still hesitant about speaking to her, oddly formal, but he sits beside her on the couch in the common room, and John catches him cuddled up against her side once while she sings Torren to sleep.

There's a look of confused fascination, and beneath it yearning so powerful that it makes John ache, on Meredith's face, tilted up to stare at Teyla as she croons softly to her son. When Teyla shifts, wrapping one arm around Meredith's shoulders and pulling him a little closer, Meredith startles and then relaxes against her. John watches, feeling his mouth curl up when Meredith closes his eyes, resting his head against the side of Teyla's breast, one tiny hand fisted up in Torren's blankets.

In the end, Teyla puts both children to sleep, looking up at John and smiling when Meredith finally goes limp against her. John smiles back, grabbing one of the soft blankets the Athosian's provided the expedition with and tucking the bunch of them in.

And then he sits on the floor, stares at the ceiling, and determinedly thinks about nothing until Teyla starts singing again, soft and slow and rhythmic. Her voice sends John down into dreams, clumsy shifting things that he can't recall when he wakes.

hr

Acclimating Meredith to Ronon takes longer, but Ronon seems to have taken it on as a challenge. He brings Meredith chocolate almost to excess, and, when he catches Meredith staring at one of the beads in his hair, cuts it off and lets Meredith examine it.

Ronon forces John to get back into the gym, and John hadn't intended to neglect it, it had just gotten pushed to the side with Meredith's arrival, and John's inability to let the boy out of his sight. That turns out to not be a problem, because Ronon keeps Meredith occupied while John makes himself run on a treadmill, because running through the city just isn't feasible right now.

The stretches make Meredith roll his eyes, but he does as Ronon says anyway, mostly from intimidation, but John thinks at least a little from the hunger Meredith has to learn everything that anyone is willing to teach him. Ronon gets him doing side straddle hops, and by the end has Meredith going through one of the beginning forms of the Satedan martial art.

John grabs his water, his t-shirt clinging heavy to his skin as he watches Ronon smile and correct Meredith's dropping elbow.

Afterwards, when Ronon ruffles Meredith's hair and tells him he did well, Meredith straightens up, eyes bright and smile huge when he runs up to John to hug him. He's almost glowing with pleasure simply at being told he did a good job, and the happiness is contagious.

John mouths, "Thank you," over Meredith's shoulder to Ronon, who just nods, smiling, his eyes bright.

That doesn't stop the bottom of John's stomach from dropping out three weeks later. The gym has become a daily staple again, and he knows that Meredith is getting closer to Ronon, that there's trust growing there, that the activity is good for Meredith, who has an insane amount of energy that needs burnt off.

So when John looks up, hearing Meredith laugh loud and surprised, he's expecting to find Meredith bouncing in place, attempting to learn some new move. Instead, John finds himself tripping over his own feet, jumping off of the treadmill, banging his shin hard into a barbell and not even feeling the pain.

Ronon has Meredith up on his shoulders, Meredith tugging on some of his dreds, face flushed red with laughter. Ronon is grinning, one hand wrapped around Meredith's ankle, shaking him back and forth. John is to them in seconds, heart in his throat.

Somehow John's voice comes out as a yell anyway, "Put him down! Put him down! What were you thinking?"

John's already grabbing for Meredith, pulling, and Ronon lets him go. John has Meredith safely in his arms in seconds, wrapping one arm tight around Meredith and holding his other out towards Ronon. Ronon is looking at John, puzzled, head cocked to the side, one eyebrow arched up when he asks, "Sheppard?"

And John has a feeling, deep in his gut, that he's overreacting. But that's not slowing his heart rate, or unclenching the tight nauseous squeeze in his gut. He grits out, balling his hand up when he realizes his fingers are shaking, "What the fuck, Ronon? He could have fallen. What if you'd dropped him? The floors in here..."

The floors in the gym are hard, the Ancient equivalent of concrete. John swallows heavily, curling his hand up around the back of Meredith's head. Meredith is squirming around in his arms, trying to either ease the tightness of John's hold or escape altogether. John can't allow either right at the moment.

Ronon's expression changes, goes soft and sad. He says, "I wasn't going to drop him. It's just a game," like that's a perfectly good excuse for what he was doing.

John scowls, "It's dangerous. I thought I could trust you with him," and John doesn't mean for his voice to come out that accusatory. But there's this constant fear, in the back of his mind, that if he so much as lets Meredith out of his sight something horrible will happen to the kid. That the last little bit of Rodney he has will be gone. With Ronon around, he'd been able to relax, at least a little. Obviously that'd been a mistake.

Ronon sighs, leaning over just a little bit, his voice calm and even, "Sheppard. I'm not going to let anything happen to him." And John just shakes his head once, sharply, because it's all fine and good to say it. His heart rate still hasn't slowed down.

In his arms, Meredith squirms around again, pushing against John's throat with one hand and huffing, "It's okay. It was fun." And John laughs, low and thick, because of course it was fun. Meredith would probably think climbing trees or riding his bike without a helmet was fun too, and suddenly John really needs to sit down. The floor seems like as good a place as any.

Meredith makes a surprised sound, and John shushes him absently. Somehow, he'd managed not to think about it before. All the stupid kid things that are undoubtedly going to catch Meredith's attention at some point. God, he's probably going to want to drive someday. Want to go away to college. Probably far sooner than John's comfortable thinking about, for that one.

Ronon sits down beside them, and carefully pulls at John's arms, sliding Meredith out of John's grasp. Ronon's voice is soft, "Just let him breathe for a minute, kid, he'll be fine." And John bites the insides of his cheeks, wondering how the hell he's supposed to deal with this. With any of this.

And then Meredith is tugging on John's shirt, his expression tense, sad, worried, when he says, "I won't do it anymore. I promise. Just don't be sad, okay?" and John curses himself, because the last thing he's supposed to be doing is giving Meredith more issues.

He reaches out and messes up Meredith's hair, and makes himself say, though the words catch and tear at his throat, "I'm not sad. Just, I was a little confused, for a minute. It's fine. The -it's fine. If Ronon is careful,"

Meredith looks skeptical, mouth turned down, and five minutes ago he was laughing and happy. John's pretty sure he's screwed this all up. "Are you sure?"

John nods, turning his mouth up into a facsimile of a smile, "Yeah, go for it," and wonders if the cold knot of worry in his chest is ever going to go away, or if he's doomed to carry it around for the rest of his life.

Ronon says, firmly, "It's going to be fine," and John nods again. He wonders how hard it would be to follow them around with a giant pillow, just in case.

hr

Three months after they bring Meredith back, John finally runs out of excuses for getting out of missions. He knows damn well that Lorne's been covering for him, taking trips through the 'gate that should have went to John and his team, and someday he'll have to thank the other man for that. He also knows that Woolsey hasn't mentioned it, and he appreciates that as well, but they have to get back out there someday.

John leaves Meredith with Zelenka, kneeling in front of the kid for a long time, his hands on either side of Meredith's face, trying to memorize him. Just in case. It seems, suddenly, a lot harder to walk through into God knows what than it ever has before.

John says, when Meredith's expression starts breaking, his eyes going huge and worried, "Hey, I'll be right back. It's a standard mission. It's -you just keep Radek in line while I'm gone, okay? Hold down the fort," and he tries a smile that doesn't fit right on his face. He pats Meredith's shoulder, and then pats it again, and fears that he'll just get stuck there in a loop.

Radek's voice is gentle, "Colonel, we must go before the last of the small pizzas in the mess hall are taken," and John flashes him a grateful look, standing and turning with one last touch to Meredith's hair. He looks back before he walks down to the 'gate to find Meredith winding his fingers together, Radek gently turning the kid, steering him towards the hallway.

John almost misses Meredith's soft, barely audible, "Goodbye."

In front of the 'gate, Teyla touches John's arm, her voice soft when she starts, "John -"

He shakes his head, grabbing his sunglasses and sliding them on, checking his P-90 again and blowing out a hard breath. He says, "Let's do this thing," and steps forward into the blue. And if going through the 'gate with a scientist that isn't Rodney feels almost as wrong as leaving Meredith behind, well...he'll deal with that.

hr

John can't feel his legs. He tells Ronon, because Ronon is right there, his shoulder hard against John's head, his arm a crushing band around John's on-fire ribs. John is pretty sure he can feel things grinding around inside his chest. He wishes they were numb, too, and whispers it to Ronon like a secret.

Ronon grunts, but doesn't reply. John figures that's to be expected. He's fairly certain they're running. That would explain the jostling. He tilts his head back, staring up at the gray sky, and opens his mouth to try to catch the lazy snowflakes floating down above them. From somewhere to his left Teyla yells, "Go! We will hold them!" and John giggles, because he's pretty sure that even Teyla wouldn't be able to hold the big, burly, men that were after them. They're twice her size, at least.

The giggles turn to coughs, and the pain splinters through John's brain, a knife driving down through the top of his skull and shattering. John can taste blood on his lips, and he tries to spit, blinking against the gray creeping up through his vision, mumbling, "I'm sorry I yelled at you about Meredith. You have -you have to take care of him. For me. He's so small. He needs someone to take care of him."

Ronon's breathing is strained, which makes sense. John's pretty sure that Ronon's been carrying him for a long time. Since before John couldn't feel his legs. Since the chief's son had stepped up and drove a spear down into John's gut. That was a long time ago. Ronon growls, "Shut up, Sheppard."

John shakes his head, or tries to. It weighs more than it used to. He coughs, feeling his throat spasm, something wet and warm sliding down his cheek. "Radek'll -he'll help you. An' Lorne. He's a good guy. He's -Meredith likes him. But I trust you." John tries to remember if there's anything else he's supposed to say, anything else he needs to make sure Ronon understands.

And for just a second they stop, and Ronon is grabbing John's chin, so hard it hurts. His eyes are wild and hard, his voice bitten out, sharp, "You don't get to die, we're almost there," and John just nods, because Ronon is intimidating when he wants to be.

And then there's the sharp sound of the 'gate opening, and John realizes that his legs, the legs he can't feel, are leaning against the DHD. At least that explains why they stopped. He tries to tell Ronon something, not remembering the words, but it doesn't matter, because all that comes out of his mouth is blood.

Ronon curses, something loud that hits John's ears like a blow. The world tilts, Ronon's angry voice yelling, " -med team, I need a med team -" and the icy touch of the 'gate swallowing them up, spitting them out into Atlantis. John blinks up at the ceiling, listening to Ronon shout, " -have to go back, take care of him -" and for a moment the world behind his eyes goes dark.

And then there's screaming, someone yelling his name, panicked and afraid and that's Meredith's voice. John grunts, shaking himself, trying to make his legs work and then giving up. He manages to roll himself, gasping, feeling things slide out of his stomach, staring down for a moment, gorge rising, dark blood spilling around him.

The screaming is still there, loud and desperate and wild. John makes himself look up, blinks at Meredith, kicking and punching and screaming in Lorne's hold as the man carries him out of the 'gate room. Meredith's face is wet with tears, and he howls, something animal and terrified, and John gets his hands flat on the ground, trying to push himself up.

And then there are people all around John, twisting him back onto his back, tearing his uniform open, and pressing fingers up inside the gaping hole in his stomach. John gurgles on what was meant to be a scream, and unconsciousness rises up and swallows him. It's a relief.

hr

John wakes up slowly, drifting inside his head, re-acclimating to being able to feel his whole body. He wiggles his toes, hearing the joints crack and sighing a little with relief. He's warm and achy, even with the fuzz of morphine chasing itself around his brain. And his right arm is asleep.

It takes John a long time to work up the motivation to open his eyes, his eyelashes gummed together and sticky. His mouth is dry and tastes horrible, John frowns, managing to get his left arm up to wipe at the drool on his chin, dragging his knuckles over his eyes and trying to clear some of the slow, silent, weight behind his thoughts.

It doesn't really work, and he momentarily forgets about his right arm being asleep, until he tries to scratch at the itch on his stomach and doesn't manage it. For a moment John frowns up at the ceiling, and then he grunts, lifting his head and squinting down. And freezing.

Meredith is curled up against him, body twisted up into a little ball, wrapped around John's arm. His eyes are screwed shut, his thumb in his mouth, his face still red and blotchy. John tilts his head to the side, walking his left hand across his stomach to rub one of Meredith's curls between his thumb and forefinger.

Keller says, "Oh!" and then, "You're awake!" and John blinks up at her slowly, wondering when she showed up. She looks surprised, but happy, doing something to the machines he's hooked up to and pouring him a glass of water. John drinks slowly, giving his brain time to at least partially process the situation.

When the water is gone, he clears his throat, his voice rough, "What'd I miss?"

For a moment Keller frowns, biting her bottom lip, but then she sighs and speaks, "The rest of your team is fine. Doctor MacDowell was poisoned as well, but she's stable now." And John nods, because poison. Poison explains a lot.

Then Keller looks down, expression doing something too complicated for John's drug soaked brain to really understand when she smiles at Meredith. She says, voice soft and distracted, "He's been here since you came out of surgery. I probably shouldn't allow it. But." For a moment she hesitates, shifting her weight from foot to foot, "He gave himself a panic attack, you know? At first Major Lorne thought he was just crying."

John says, "Yeah," though he's not real sure what he's agreeing to. Meredith is still holding onto him, sleeping, though it doesn't look anywhere close to restful. John looks up at Keller, and tells her, since she's here, "I shouldn't have left him."

Keller blinks at him, and then smiles a little stiffly, her voice careful, "You've had a lot of medication, Colonel, I wouldn't -"

John shakes his head, leaning back against his pillow, because his eyes have gone heavy again. His tongue feels awkward in his mouth, not working quite the way he wants it to, "No. Shouldn't have. Rodney gave him to me to take care of. Not this." Not give him panic attacks. Not make him scream the way he had in the gate room.

John thinks he should probably do something about that, but he's asleep before he can.

hr

Meredith stays clingy the entire time John is in the infirmary. That's not exactly a surprise. Neither are the nightmares, the way Meredith whimpers softly before waking himself up, breath hitching sharply when he spreads both of his little hands out on John's stomach, over the new stitches, pressing down just hard enough to make John wince.

The wound had been opened right below his ribs, and he'd been lucky his diaphragm had been undamaged. He'd been lucky that the only organ to suffer major damage had been his appendix. He'd been lucky, and he'd still crashed twice in surgery, from the poison that the med-team almost hadn't been able to identify and counter.

John doesn't say a word when Meredith presses a little too hard on the stitches. It reminds him that he's alive. Apparently, it reminds Meredith too.

Lorne comes by, and apologizes stiffly, though John isn't quite sure for what. Zelenka is with him, and it's one of the few times that Meredith has absolutely refused to go to either of them, staying huddled against John's side with a stubborn set to his jaw and his arms crossed tightly.

The team hovers and lingers, even MacDowell, who, with her dark, short hair apparently doesn't push all of Meredith's buttons the way so many others have. Or, Meredith might just be too panicked to worry about it. John isn't sure. Mostly, John's just thankful that Ronon doesn't try to bring up the conversation they had in the forest.

The only time Meredith leaves John's side is when Keller comes in to give John a last check-up before release, and Teyla lures the boy away with Torren. Keller is just finishing an examination of the stitches, poking all over John's stomach and asking over and over if it hurts, when Woolsey cautiously pulls the curtain around John's bed back.

The man looks uncomfortable, his jacket zipped up to his neck when he says, "Colonel, Doctor. Should I come back later, or...?"

John gently bats Keller's hands away, pulling his scrub top back on to hide the ragged, ugly, line of the healing wound. He motions towards the chairs that his team left around his bed, running a hand back through his lank, dirty, hair and asking, "What can I do for you?"

Woolsey surprises John by not sitting. The man watches until Keller steps out of the curtained area and then clears his throat, "First, allow me to say how relieved we all are to see you up and about again," and John nods, slouching down, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He doesn't have to wait long. Woolsey takes a deep breath, squaring his shoulders up and offering John a stack of papers. John blinks, taking them, looking down, and sucking in a quick breath at the sharp flare of pain through his chest. For a half-second, he considers calling Keller.

Woolsey is saying, "I'm sorry. I stalled them for as long as I could. I assure you, this was done under my vehement protests."

John can't seem to make himself look up from the papers that say Rodney is dead. Killed in action. Months ago. Their mission reports are attached, and John flips through them numbly. He opens his mouth, but can't think of a damn thing to say, so he closes it again. It takes conscious effort for him to not just tear the papers to shreds.

Woolsey clears his throat, John can hear him shifting uncomfortably, "They've decided that Meredith can't stay here. He's been given a new identity." John looks up, feeling like someone just pulled the ground out from beneath him. Woolsey reaches forward, smiling stiffly, shuffling some of the papers aside and then gesturing down at the pile.

"He'll be going back to Earth on our weekly dial-in. I understand there's a sister that they're planning to check with for adoption purposes. And if not..." Woolsey shrugs, looking deeply discomforted by the entire situation. John can't seem to close his mouth. "I'm so sorry. If there was any other way to delay them, I would have."

John stares down at the papers, turns to look at the wall, down at the bed where Meredith had slept curled up against him. For a moment he can't breathe, his mind tripping along faster than he can keep up with it, and settling on exactly what he had known it would.

John feels oddly numb when he lifts his arms, grabbing the chain around his neck and yanking his dog-tags off. They're warm, soaked in his body heat, and he grips them hard, the edges of the metal biting into his palm before he shoves them towards Woolsey.

The man doesn't looks surprised, only tired, accepting them with a twist of his mouth. John's voice comes out as a rasp, "I'll have my official resignation on your desk by the end of the day."

And he waits. Because this is where Woolsey is supposed to remind him that this isn't how it works. That there's paperwork to go through, mountains of it, confidentiality agreements, enough signatures to put an end to a career. John waits.

Woolsey stares at John, eyes dark and solemn behind his glasses, and says, "I'll take care of it." And John just stares at him, before rubbing a hand up over his mouth, carefully sitting the papers to the side and standing, offering his hand to shake.

He says, "Thank you," squeezing Woolsey's hand, so grateful he half expects this to be a dream.

Woolsey smiles, stiffly, crossing his arms. John bends to gather his belongings and the man clears his throat again, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask your forgiveness for a breach of protocol and presumption on my part, but there are a few papers I need you to sign right here."

And he's reaching over, shuffling through the papers and putting a new stack on top. And for a long moment all John can do is stare. Woolsey continues, "I do have some connections back on Earth, and I do know how my employers think. It was only a matter of time until they pushed it to this. The last of the approvals went through last week. I, of course, didn't know if you'd want his name changed, so that field has been left blank and -"

Woolsey cuts himself off when John reaches out to grab his shoulder. John squeezes, looking for some stability, staring down at adoption papers, wondering how the hell Woolsey managed to pull the strings necessary to orchestrate this.

John grits out, "I need -" and then his throat goes too tight for words.

Woolsey says, "Yes, of course," anyway, bobbing his head and backing up. John listens to him walk away, gripping the railing on the side of the bed, one hand up over his mouth. He hasn't signed anything yet. He can still take his tags back, they're his to keep anyway, their removal no more than a symbolic gesture. He can still stay here.

But. That would mean he'd lose Rodney, once and for all.

John swallows, straightening his shoulders and clearing his throat. He's loved flying since he was a kid. He's loved Atlantis since he first set foot inside the city. He's loved this job more than any other he's ever had, the people, the discovery, the beauty of it.

Weighed against a child, not even six years old, John thinks this decision should probably be going the other way. But it's Meredith. Meredith who trusts him, who laughs delightedly at every new thing, who screamed when John came back hurt. Meredith, who Rodney left for him.

And there's not even a question in John's mind of what he'd choose every damn time. He gathers up the papers.

hr

John finds Meredith in Teyla's quarters. Kanaan answers the door, takes one look at John, and mutely steps out of the way. John had hoped that a shower and a clean change of clothes would have helped, but apparently he still looks rough. There's nothing to be done about it. Kanaan says, gently, "He's with Torren in the nursery," and John nods, patting the other man absently on the arm.

Teyla is meditating by the foot of the bed, and John doesn't disturb her, stepping around to the nursery. Meredith is sitting in the middle of the floor, holding Torren, who is gurgling and far more preoccupied with trying to pull Meredith's hair than the book Meredith is reading him.

For a long moment John just leans against the wall, watching them. Torren is smiling, drool all over his mouth, his dark eyes fixed on Meredith. His chubby little fingers press against Meredith's cheeks, closing on his hair and pulling, and Meredith just rolls his eyes while Torren laughs delightedly.

John says, "The Odyssey might be a little complicated for him, don't you think?"

Meredith blinks up at John and his whole expression shifts. A half second later Meredith is setting Torren gently on the ground, and throwing himself across the room, hitting John's legs and squeezing him hard. John finally manages to get him to relax enough to kneel down, hugging Meredith properly while the boy blurts, "I knew you'd be okay. I knew it."

John bites his tongue, patting Meredith's back, not trying to push him away. It wouldn't work very well anyway, not with the way Meredith is clinging to him. Across the room Torren makes a grunting sound, attempting to roll himself over, expression screwed up with the same concentration John's seen on his mother's face too many times to count.

It distracts him until Meredith leans back, patting at John's cheeks and forehead, his eyes somber when he says, "I'm glad you're better now. I was -" he drops his gaze, not elaborating, looking so sad for a moment.

John says, "Hey," reaching out and squeezing Meredith's arms, waiting until he looks up. And for just a second John's tongue feels thick and clumsy, stuck to the top of his mouth. He's sure he won't be able to say any of the things he needs to say.

He surprises himself, "Look. Meredith. I'm going back to Earth. To live there." John pauses to swallow, watching Meredith's eyes go huge, he takes a deep breath, "And I want you to come with me. Would you like to do that?"

For a long moment Meredith just stares, looking a little lost, a lot confused. Then he blinks, and drops his gaze to the ground, saying in a small voice, "Us? We'd be there together?"

John nods, squeezing Meredith's arms again, trying to get the boy to look at him. But Meredith is stubborn, and his gaze stays fixed firmly on the floor. "Yeah, buddy. Me and you. A nice place out in the country somewhere. What do you say?"

Meredith doesn't actually say anything, slumping forward and hugging John hard again instead. John rubs his back, and decides to take it as a yes. And that's when Torren huffs impatiently, and grabs onto Meredith's leg, tugging determinedly.

Meredith pulls away from John, looking down, blinking, and then his expression lights up, and he's shouting, "Misses Emmagan! He's crawling!" and John nearly gets trampled when Kanaan comes running into the room, his expression lit up with excitement.

hr

There's not a lot of time to pack, four days before the dial-in to put away five years worth of his life. Plenty of help shows up, people coming throughout the days, saying goodbye and looking wretched. Lorne even keeps Meredith occupied, looking nervous the entire time, when the team goes to Rodney's room.

John hasn't been there since the incident. It's stuffy and dusty inside, months since anyone has opened the door. He ends up sitting on Rodney's unmade bed, his head in his hands, while around him Ronon and Teyla work. Rodney didn't leave a lot behind, diplomas, a few awards for various things, pictures of his goddamn cat.

They box it all up anyway. John thinks he should probably let Jeannie look through it, but he doesn't want to. The boxes get sealed up tight, not labeled, because John has no idea what to tell them to write on them. There's a part of John that wants to destroy them, but he can't bring himself to. Someday Meredith might want the stuff. And John can't bring himself to part with it, painful as it is to keep around.

Their possessions they're sending back on the Daedalus, and there's a part of John that wishes that's what they were taking back as well. But the IOA had left no wiggle room in their instructions. It's the 'gate for them, and a goodbye sharp and final.

John spends the night before they leave sitting on the couch, Meredith curled up in his lap, sucking on his thumb and frowning in his sleep. John doesn't sleep at all, staring at the ceiling, and trying to say his goodbyes to the city that's been more of a home than any other place he's lived. There's really no way to do it, but John tries anyway.

hr

The entire population of the city appears to be crowded in the 'gate room when John walks down with Meredith holding his hand. They're all oddly quiet, expressions sad and tight, and Meredith presses a little closer to John's legs, clutching at the fabric of John's pants.

Teyla and Ronon are standing at the front of the crowd. Teyla pulls John's forehead down, holding the back of his neck for a long moment before hugging him, tight and hard. John presses his face against her hair, patting awkwardly at her back.

When she pulls back, she smiles at him, and then kneels. Meredith, while he's gotten more comfortable with her, still rarely touches her. Now he steps forward, wrapping his arms around her, and Teyla makes a soft sound, tilting her face down so her hair falls forward, holding him tight for a long moment.

Ronon slaps John on the back, and then grabs him, lifting him and shaking him around. John doesn't bother protesting, because it would do no good, and punches Ronon in the shoulder when the man sets him down again. Ronon grins, unrepentant, bending and lifting Meredith, and then going serious.

For a long moment the two of them just stare at each other, and then Ronon says, voice low and secret soft, "You'll be back," and John feels a chill up his spine at the words. But Meredith just nods, expression tense, eyes wide. When Ronon sets him down, he presses himself against John's legs.

John lifts his head then, meeting Woolsey's gaze where the man is standing on the balcony over the crowd. Woolsey nods, motioning to the 'gate techs, and a second later the 'gate is flaring to life. John reaches down, taking Meredith's hand again, walking slowly up the ramp.

For a moment he stares at the constantly shifting surface, trying to convince himself that this is the last time he's ever going to step through the event horizon. Meredith asks, his voice so quiet John barely hears it, "Does it hurt?"

John looks down at him, squeezes his hand and says, "Not at all. Are you ready?" And for a long moment Meredith just stares at the surface. Then he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, holds it, and steps through, pulling John along.

hr

On the other side, everything is gray and cool. There's no crowd waiting for them, just Sam Carter standing at the base of the ramp, smiling when she sees them. John nods hello, Meredith squeezing his hand tighter when Sam says, "You know, I didn't quite believe it."

John forces a grin, letting Meredith step behind his legs when they walk down the ramp. John says, "Colonel Carter, this is Meredith, Meredith, this is Sam Carter." Meredith stays hidden, and Sam gives John a confused look before kneeling down.

Meredith mumbles, "Hello, ma'am," and John winces, just a little, because he'd really thought they were past that. But then, Sam fits Meredith's problem area to a T. He supposes he really shouldn't be surprised. Even with Sam's eyes going wide, her expression sliding through an odd combination of confused, hurt, and sour.

She rises slowly back to her feet, taking a long moment to raise her gaze from Meredith. John just shakes his head when she looks at him askance, and though she purses her lips together she doesn't pursue it. She says, instead, motioning towards the door, "Come on, we're going to try to make this as painless as possible, okay?"

And John sighs, bending down to lift Meredith, because he remembers how many stairs are in this damn mountain.

hr

Sam asks, while John goes through form after form, "Where will you go?" She's watching Meredith, where he's slowing walking around the room, staring at the whiteboards and occasionally pausing to frown up at what he's reading.

John shrugs, signing his name for what feels like the thousandth time. Woolsey had done what he could to expedite the paperwork, but even so there's a shit load of it. John has a feeling that they've killed several dozen trees just so he can leave. He says, "I don't know yet. I -not the beach." Sam nods like she understands. John supposes that she does.

After a long moment she asks, even softer, "Is he okay?"

John looks up, watching Meredith staring up at one of the boards, his mouth moving absently as he reads the symbols. There's no way Meredith understands any of it, but he's trying anyway. John says, "Most of the time," because that's the truth.

Sam nods, humming in the back of her throat. Then she sighs, "You keep in touch, Sheppard," and when he immediately nods, "I don't mean just with the government. You know they're going to be tracking him, right? The CIA is already -"

John frowns, "They're not going to get their hands on him," and his voice most have come out sharper than he intended, because for a long moment Sam just stares at him. And then she nods, smiling softly.

John slides the last paper across the desk, tapping the pen against his fingers and then tossing it down. It rolls off the edge, but neither of them reach to pick it up. Finally Sam stands, offering John her hand to shake, leaning in close and whispering into his ear, "You should buy him a piano."

That makes next to no sense, and John tilts his head to the side, staring at her. She just shakes her head, smiling still, and clapping him on the shoulder. Meredith tugs on John's shirt, asking, "Are we leaving now?" And John nods, reaching down and taking his hand.

Five minutes later, walking across the parking lot in front of the mountain, it all seems strangely anticlimactic. John stares back at the gate, sliding into the rental car, momentarily unsure if he needs a car seat for Meredith or not.

He thinks that walking away from his whole life should hurt more than this.

hr

John gets them a hotel room in town for the foreseeable future, because he has no idea what they do now. They need to find somewhere to live, but John doesn't even know where to start looking for that. He has a vague idea that he should check out school systems, and, if he wants to have any chance of seeing Meredith past age twelve, the house should probably be close to MIT or Georgetown.

But for now, they have a hotel room. Meredith is fascinated with all the channels on the television, and they order room service while he turns on the news and watches it. Meredith stares hard at the screen, reports of war, murders, people doing horrible things to other people.

Somehow, it bothers John, though he can't remember ever really feeling one way or another about it before. It's just the way the world is, and there had come a point, years ago, when John had just accepted it for what it was.

But it's not what he wants Meredith to have to grow up with, and suddenly John wishes they'd never turned the television on, watching report after report about a teacher that molested dozens of his students in Ohio, a bombing in England that killed fifty people, a tsunami that had left thousands homeless on the other side of the globe.

John says, poking at the hamburger he'd ordered for dinner, his appetite gone, "I think they have cartoons on the other channels." And it's really not a surprise when Meredith just shakes his head, clicking the television off altogether and curling up in John's lap.

hr

John buys a laptop the next day, Meredith following him around the stores they go to with wide-eyed wonder. They get clothes as well, and John feels like someone punched him up under the ribs when Meredith asks for a pair of Superman pajamas.

John spends the rest of the evening looking through hundreds of houses, trying to figure out how one decides which house to buy. There's so much to do that he wishes he had a handbook, or, hell, even a checklist at this point.

Meredith's old family doctor is dead, which John counts as no great loss, but he has no idea how he's going to explain to a new physician that all Meredith's medical records are three decades old. And he's starting to think that home schooling would be the best way to make sure Meredith can learn at his level and because John is deeply, truly frightened by the idea of letting Meredith into the public system.

A job he isn't worrying about. There's an untouched inheritance just waiting for him in the event that he needs it, a trust fund that he's went his whole life ignoring. Coupled with the money he's saved over the years, they're set for as long as they need to be.

John's just rubbing the bridge of his nose, fighting off the headache that hours of staring at the computer has driven up through his temples, when Meredith crawls up beside him. His hair is still wet from his bath, and he's clearly fascinated by the laptop.

John expects Meredith to ask to look at it. He's not prepared for the boy to say, instead, "Can we see Jeannie now? She's here, right? On Earth?" And for a long moment John can only stare, one more thing he forgot suddenly demanding attention.

He wonders if anyone told Jeannie that Rodney was dead. With the program, with all the secrecy, they hadn't always been exactly prompt about informing relatives of deaths. And with Rodney's case being...complicated, John doesn't know if anyone got word to her. Or if they told her about Meredith.

Meredith pats at John's stomach, right over the stitches, his comfort spot, "We don't have to. If you don't want to. I just miss her."

John swallows, trying to think of any way this reunion would go well. But Jeannie deserves to know what happened to her brother. And Meredith should be able to see her, if that's what he wants. John can't see that he has any right to deny him that.

He clears his throat, "No, that's -we'll do that. We can -we'll do that."

Meredith stares at him, eyes big and worried, and John tries to make his mouth smile. He can't help the tight feeling of dread that's settled in his stomach. He closes the laptop, stretching to his feet and offering a hand out to Meredith, saying, "Hey, you still want to check out the pool downstairs?"

For a half-second Meredith still looks worried, but then he nods, grinning and bouncing off of the bed.

hr

The airport is huge and crowded, and John takes a page from Ronon's book and keeps Meredith on his shoulders the entire time they're there. Kids get lost in airports. Taken by monsters wearing human faces, or just wandering off on their own. It puts a tight knot in John's stomach that stays there until they board their plane.

Meredith startles when the plane's engines start, and John reaches out to smooth the kid's hair back. They're in first class, and the seats are so cushioned that the vibration is barely there, but Meredith still looks faintly green. When the seatbelt lights go off, he's in John's lap in a second, clinging on, and the stewardesses all smile at John and fuss over Meredith.

hr

When John parks the rental in front of the Miller house, Meredith unbuckles his seat belt and frowns. He has his head tilted to the side when he asks, "This is where Jeannie lives?" soft and distant, like he doesn't quite believe it.

John nods, throat gone too tight for words. For a long moment Meredith doesn't move, and then he takes a deep breath, frowns, and opens his door. John meets him at the front of the car, bending down to lift Meredith even though he'd intended to just let them walk up together. He feels better with Meredith's weight on his hip.

For a half second, standing in front of the door, John prays that the Millers aren't home. He catches himself, ashamed by the there and gone desire. Jeannie is Meredith's family. He should be able to see her. There's nothing wrong with that. John rings the doorbell, and prays that no one answers.

And, of course, the door swings open.

hr

For a moment no one says anything, Jeannie's wearing an apron, her hands covered in floor, her hair pulled back. She stares, frowning, and then she says, "John Sheppard? You're -what are you doing -" she cuts herself off, and John can almost feel her gaze shifting to Meredith.

Meredith, who has went completely and utterly still in John's arms. John startles, looking down at him, and swallowing down a curse. Meredith has gone white as a sheet, his eyes huge, mouth pressed down to nothing, breathing fast and shallow.

Jeannie says, "Oh my God," soft and disbelieving. "Meredith?" and she reaches out towards him, her expression dumbstruck and lost.

And John would be taking the opportunity to explain, but Meredith is making a tiny, gasping, terrified sound, and attempting to climb over John's shoulder. John curses, twisting, trying to catch Meredith's flailing arms and kicking legs, tightening his grip while Meredith moans, small and miserable, "No, no, no, no, no."

John says, "Hey! Hey, Meredith, stop, it's okay!" but the boy only shakes his head, changing tactics all at once, wrapping himself around John's neck and squeezing with everything he has. He's breathing way too fast, shoulders jerking, and John says, "It's okay, this is Jeannie, you wanted to see Jeannie, remember?"

Meredith doesn't say a word, trembling, making a tight hiccupping sound against the side of John's neck. Jeannie looks utterly lost, one hand braced on the side of her house, just staring at them without so much as blinking. John rubs Meredith's back, turning them just a little, trying to keep his voice level, "Baby, it's fine. Tell me what's wrong."

For a long moment he thinks Meredith won't answer, and then he shifts, whispering so softly John barely makes out the words, "That's not Jeannie." His voice is quaking, and John bounces him, still rubbing his back, waiting, "That's my mother. I want to leave, please, please, I want to leave."

John can't breathe. There's a flash of white hot anger through his skull, and he tightens his hold on Meredith, heading automatically towards the steps. His thoughts have all been blotted out, but it doesn't matter. He has to get out of here.

Jeannie calls, "Wait! Please wait a second! Tell me what happened to my brother, please!"

John hesitates at the car, setting Meredith down and opening the door. Meredith starts to climb in and then hesitates when John doesn't join him. John grips the top of the door, squeezing, because he wants to hit something so badly and there's nothing for him to beat. He says, voice flat, because that's better than the fury that he's sure Jeannie doesn't deserve, "It's a long story."

Jeanie hesitates halfway across the yard, her hands clenched together. She's still staring at Meredith, who's hiding behind John's legs, face hidden, eyes down. She swallows audibly, "Is that -that is him, though, isn't it?" There's a note of hope on the edge of the words, like she's praying John says no.

John sighs, shifting his aching jaw from side to side, his teeth grinding together again anyway, "Yeah. Yeah, he's just about six." Because John doesn't know how else to explain it.

"Oh, God," Jeannie looks for a moment like she might fall over, but then she takes a deep breath. "Oh, God. But they can change him back, right?" She looks up at John, finally, her eyes huge, "Tell me they can change him back."

John grimaces, ignoring the soft, half-crazed laugh she cuts off. He looks down again at Meredith, huddled behind him, shaking, and the white hot roar of anger rises in his ears again. John half turns, saying over his shoulder, "Look, I'll call you and explain. I have to take him away now."

And that's when Madison comes out the front door, her hair gathered in two blond puff-balls on either side of her head. She says, "Momma, what's going -" and then cuts herself off, hopping off of the porch and trying to see Meredith around John's legs.

She says, "Who's that?" and then she's there, ignoring John's protest, ducking past him and tugging on Meredith's shirt. They're just about the same size, and they look close enough to be siblings, same blue eyes, same blond curls, same expressive features.

For a moment the two kids just stare at each other, and then Madison smiles, tugging on Meredith's shirt again, "I'm Madison. Who are you? Do you want to see my room? I'm building a computer. Do you want to see it?"

Meredith hesitates, still pressed up against John's legs, and then he looks up, expression asking for direction. John looks back at Jeannie, looking close to having a breakdown on her front yard, and back down to the kids, where Madison is tugging expectantly on Meredith's wrist.

John says, "Go on," with a smile that he hopes looks encouraging, and Meredith hugs John's knee hard before cautiously following Madison across the yard. He detours wide around Jeannie, and then the two kids are in the house, and John can hear them pounding up the stairs from the car.

He stares at Jeannie, and she stares back, after a moment closing her mouth. She says, finally, "Would you like a cup of coffee?"

John laughs, not meaning to, shaking his head and closing the car door. He says, "Coffee'd be great," and she bobs her head absently, making for the house and not even looking over her shoulder to make sure he's following her.

hr

They don't say a word until the coffee is brewed, when Jeannie hands over a cup and takes a deep breath, saying, "I'll have to talk to Kaleb, but I'm sure we'll be able to take him." She looks exhausted and small suddenly, staring down at her own cup.

For a moment John just stares at her, hearing himself ask, "What?" while his chest goes icy cold. He sets the coffee down, gritting his teeth and squaring up his shoulders.

Jeannie blinks up at him, a little furrow of confusion in the middle of her forehead. "That's why you're here, right? Madison always wanted a sibling but after -well, we couldn't have anymore and -" John doesn't realize he's stepped towards her until she cuts herself off, her eyes going wide.

His voice comes out low and flat, colder than ice, "Meredith is my son." He has the paperwork that says so. And if that's not good enough for her, he'll find enough guns to make sure the point is clear. No one is taking Meredith away from him.

Jeannie gapes at him, shocked, closing her mouth with a click after a moment. She frowns, crossing her arms, responding to his threatening posture with an upward tilt of her chin, "Well, you'll excuse me for assuming that you showing up at my doorstep with a four year old version of my big brother was your way of ringing the doorbell and leaving the basket behind."

John scowls, "He's six," and for a moment she just stares, before shaking her head and throwing one hand up.

And then she deflates, rubbing a hand up over her face, "Why are we even arguing about this? If you want to raise him, be my guest." She takes a long drink of her coffee, the words soft and almost mocking and John feels his anger kick up a few degrees.

He forces himself to relax his fists, "I wasn't asking for your permission." Jeannie looks up, making a face at John's tone. He forces himself to take a step back, because she is right, at least about the argument being pointless. The last thing he wants to do is freak Meredith out further. He says, "Look, he's been asking to see you since...since this happened. Though, I think he was still expecting you to be in diapers."

Jeannie snorts, shrugging and looking down into her coffee. Silence falls over them and John wonders how hard it would be to sneak upstairs and make sure the kids are getting on alright. There's no screaming or arguing, or noise of any kind. It's sort of worrying John.

After a long time, Jeannie sighs, almost running a hand back through her hair and catching herself at the last minute. She says, "Look, I was in the middle of making dinner. Kaleb will be home in a few minutes. Why don't you and-and Meredith stay. It's the least we can do." And John opens his mouth to decline as she says, "And you can go check on the kids while I finish up here?" And he finds himself nodding instead.

Upstairs, Meredith and Madison are sitting around a gutted computer, their heads bent close together, talking in soft intent voices. John leans in the doorframe and watches them, and thinks that they can stay for dinner. It's good to see Meredith interacting with someone his own age.

John stays there even when he hears the downstairs door open, Kaleb calling a greeting that Madison ignores. He's still watching them when Jeannie calls them all down for dinner.

hr

Dinner is unpleasant. And John's aware that's probably a huge understatement.

Jeannie spends the meal staring at Meredith, her expression blank and contained in a way it hadn't been in the yard. Meredith stares at his food, pushing it around his plate and not really eating any of it, while Kaleb keeps shooting concerned looks at everyone. Madison appears to be the only one managing any kind of behavior even close to normal, but then, John doesn't really know her well enough to tell for sure.

John's in the middle of poking at one of the cucumbers in his salad when the girl makes a face, pulling something out of her bowl. Madison says, "Ew!" poking the browning piece of lettuce on the end of her fork with one finger, nose wrinkled up in distaste.

And John feels Meredith go still. He looks down, finds the boy staring at Madison, wide-eyed and frozen for a long moment. He watches Meredith squeeze his eyes shut. He watches Meredith swallow a deep breath. And when Meredith reaches out, knocking his glass of water over, it is completely and totally intentional. John startles, reaching out to right it, water and ice already going everywhere.

Kaleb shouts something, reaching for paper towels, and John twists to look down at Meredith. Who is staring straight ahead, hands clenched tight around the edge of the table, expression eerily blank. John feels himself go still, his voice low, "Meredith?"

Meredith doesn't blink, and across the table Madison stops trying to wipe up the water around her bowl. She'd been laughing a little, but stops abruptly, standing up in her chair and saying, "Hey, it's okay. It's just water. We'll get your more."

Meredith doesn't move a muscle until Jeannie shifts, and then he jerks his head down and to the side, body tensing up all over. And John curses, breathless, bending over the kid, stroking at his hair. He says, "It's okay, hey, look at me, c'mon," and for a moment he thinks Meredith won't.

When he does look up, his eyes are distant, he looks dazed, almost like he's sleepwalking. Meredith says, "I'm very bad," voice flat, toneless, and then he starts sobbing.

hr

It takes John nearly an hour to calm Meredith down, and even then, it's more the kid crying himself to sleep again than anything else. John finds himself pacing in front of the Miller's fireplace, Meredith finally going limp and heavy on his shoulder. He keeps rubbing Meredith's back, his head tilted down so that he can feel Meredith's hair against his cheek.

Every now and then there are faint noises from the kitchen, and John is aware that Kaleb carried Madison up the stairs at some point. He can't seem to make himself completely focus, reading too much into everything, hating all the conclusions he's drawing.

John reaches up, taking Meredith's hand where it's hanging down, curling his fingers around it and holding on. When he looks up, Jeannie is standing in the doorway, watching them, her expression tense and distant. She's twisting a dishtowel in her hands.

John just looks at her, because he doesn't know what to say. She breaks the silence after a long moment, swallowing heavily, her chin going up when she tells him, "My mother wasn't abusive." The words are flat, bitten out, and John feels a muscle in his jaw jump.

He drawls, tired and angry and pissed off at a woman that's probably dead, "Really."

Jeannie stiffens, wringing the dishtowel in her hands, "She never -she never raised a hand to him. You don't know what he's like. What he was like. He was always touching everything, taking things apart. And arguing with her. He never listened. Not like me. I listened. I was good. She had to do something."

John has to close his eyes for a long moment, breathing through the hot anger. It takes all he has to keep his voice even, "And what did she do, Jeannie?"

Jeannie drops the towel, crossing her arms tight, no, hugging herself, turning her head to the side and shifting her weight from foot to foot. John wonders what she's seeing, in the middle distance she's staring into, what's making her expression twist up like that.

Her voice is almost a whisper, the tone completely different than John's used to hearing from her, "He was so smart. And she had to discipline him. She had to. That's what parents do. They teach their children. That's what parents do." She bites her bottom lip, skin turning white around the pressure.

John swallows a deep breath, "Is that what you do to Madison?"

"No! I would never -" Jeannie's head snaps up, her face twisting up with anger and disgust, and then she catches herself, mouth thinning down to nothing. She squeezes her eyes shut, her cheeks and neck going red from whatever she's trying to keep inside.

John feels a wash of pity for her, because it's easy to imagine her at Meredith's age, at Madison's age. He says, gentler, "Have you talked to anyone about it?"

Jeannie shakes her head, almost violently, "I don't -there's nothing to talk about. It's fine. She didn't do anything -" Jeannie cuts herself off, staring at Meredith and then looking down at the floor. Her shoulders curl over, just a little bit.

And John says, "Okay, sure," because pushing her anymore wouldn't do either of them any good, if she's not capable of dealing with whatever her childhood was. He rubs Meredith's back again, clears his throat, "I think we're going to leave now."

Jeannie nods, and John walks to the door. She calls, when he pulls it open, "Wait! Are you, I mean, you know, you know him, he's so smart. Can you, I," she waves a hand, and then curls her fingers up into fists, standing in the middle of her living room, looking pale and sick. She finally manages, "He's not just some kid. He needs a lot of care."

John smiles, though it feels tight and out of sorts, "I know. He'll get it."

And Jeannie nods jerkily again, her eyes bright and wet. She opens her mouth, but then covers it with her hand, waving clumsily with her other hand. John pulls the door shut behind him, and crosses the dark yard to the rental.

Meredith sleeps all the way to the airport, through John arguing with the rep at the ticket counter, clear onto the plane. John figures that's probably for the best.

hr

Meredith shows no sign of wanting to discuss that dinner. John doesn't force the issue. Meredith will talk about it when he needs to, and if he needs some space and time first, then John can give him that. They have time. For now, he just wants Meredith to relax enough to smile again.

While he works on that, they look for houses. Small houses, big houses, little cottages, even a penthouse apartment or two, just for the hell of it. Their stuff stays in the storage facility the Daedalus beamed it to, and the hotel room gets really, really familiar.

John is starting to despair of ever finding a place that feels right when they finally go out to one of the further out properties. It's selling at auction, a rundown house at the end of a long, oak lined drive, surrounded by fields in various states of disrepair. There's a barn out behind the house, faded red and the house itself is faced with cut stone.

Meredith perks up when John parks the truck that he'd finally bought. He's out the door almost before John, staring up at the trees and the broken pane of glass in one of the upper windows of the house. John walks up behind him, resting his hands on Meredith's narrow shoulders, staring up at the house and property. He asks, when Meredith is silent for a long moment, "What do you think? She needs some work."

For a moment Meredith is quiet, and then he tilts his head back, blinking up at John. His expression is serious, "I like it," and then, after a split second, "Can we keep the old cars over there? I beat I can make them run," soft and excited, pointing at the rusted out corpses of the cars the weeds are attempting to swallow up.

John smiles, bending down enough to give him a quick hug. He says, "I think we can manage that."

hr

When John puts a bid in on the house, the realtor is more than happy to sell it to him then. And he tries to be annoyed about his name just getting him things, the way it always has, but right now he's more pleased with the fact that they have a house.

Sam Carter shows up with a U-Haul full of their stuff a few days later, the rest of SG-1 with her, and between them they manage to get everything unloaded in under an hour. Meredith spends most of his time wandering through the halls, counting steps, convinced that some of the walls are too thick, and that there's a hidden room somewhere on the second floor.

Afterwards, while the boxes are all sitting around and John is thinking about all the furniture he's going to need to buy, Sam bumps shoulders with him. John nods at her, offering her another lukewarm beer, which she accepts with a smile. She says, "Nice place. Daniel thinks there's some kind of ancient burial ground out back."

John blinks at her, and she grins, laughing at him. After a moment he shakes his head, blinking when Meredith shoots out the front door, calling over his shoulder, "I am not lying, come look!" and waving impatiently as he runs across to the old cars that John has, at least, managed to free from the weed tangle. A moment later Teal'c follows, and Meredith darts back to grab the man's arm, pulling him impatiently along.

John watches them, listening to Meredith happily babble about the engines and try to convince Teal'c to lift one of the chassis for him. Sam says, "He looks like he's adjusting well," soft and questioning and John nods again, watching Teal'c arch an eyebrow at Meredith's hand-waving directions.

And then Mitchell is clinking beers with Sam, leaning against the porch railing beside them. The man grins at John, "Didn't take you for the fatherhood type, Sheppard," the words softened by his smile and the tone of his voice.

John shrugs, drawls, "Well, you know," because he doesn't think there's a way to describe it. Sometimes things just happen. He's gotten good at rolling with the punches over the years. And this is just the way it had to be. He knows that much for sure.

Mitchell nods, swallowing, "He's a cute kid," the man wiggles his eyebrows at Sam over John's head, "Makes a man think about having some of his own."

Sam rolls her eyes, "It just reminds me of all the ones I already have," and John lets the friendly conversation wash over him, watching Meredith tug on Teal'c's wrist, the fireflies starting to come up as the sun sets, and thinks that maybe he can do this. Maybe he'll actually even be good at it.

hr

John's pulling up the rotting floor in the kitchen when he hears a car pull up outside. He looks up, Meredith is still curled up over the blueprints in the corner, chewing on a pencil and frowning in concentration. John pushes up, wiping at the sweat running down his face and saying, "Wait here," when he moves towards the door.

Outside the sun is just reaching its peak, beating down bright and hard on the SUV parked beside his truck. John shields his eyes with a hand, stepping out onto the porch and leaning a hip against the railing, wiping his dirty hands on his shirt and waiting.

Somehow, he's not expecting it to be Dave that steps out of the vehicle.

For a second John just stares. His brother is wearing a suit, sunglasses, smiling just a little stiffly when he spots John. John slouches, mind racing, and Dave walks up the crooked path to the house, nodding in greeting. John nods back, and for a long moment they just stare at each other.

Dave finally clears his throat, "You planning to invite me in?"

"What are you doing here?" John's never been good at pleasantries, not with his family. Not even when he knows he probably should be. Dave makes a face, rubbing a hand up the back of his neck, a gesture they both got from their father that makes John uncomfortable all over again.

His brother sighs, tucking his hands into the pockets of his slacks, "You know, you've never touched any of your accounts." John just stares, waiting, and Dave sighs again, "I half-thought someone had stolen the money when you bought this place. I figured I should check."

John frowns, shifting, "You couldn't call?"

"Would you have answered?" One side of Dave's mouth crooks up, and John shrugs one shoulder, staring down at the aged wood of the porch. He knocks his toe against one of the bowed up edges, and turns when he hears creaking footsteps behind him.

Meredith peeks around the doorframe, and then hurries across to John, grabbing his leg and blinking at Dave. For a long moment no one says a thing. And then John clears his throat, reaching down to rest one hand on Meredith's head, "This is my son, Meredith. Meredith, this is your uncle David."

And he doesn't realize what he's said until it's already out there. Meredith twists, blinking up at him, eyes huge. And then he smiles, the biggest smile John's ever seen from him, before burying his face against John's leg, squeezing hard.

In the yard, Dave's mouth has fallen open, and John, feeling oddly lighthearted suddenly, nods towards the house, "Come on, I'll get you a beer."

hr

Dave can't stay that long, has two beers, and exchanges stilted conversation with John. Things are better between them than they were, there's less of the animosity that's colored their interactions for so long. That doesn't mean that they have any real idea how to interact with each other.

It surprises the hell out of John when Meredith decides to take to Dave immediately, sitting beside him on the beat-up couch that they're using for now, spreading their plans for the house out and excitedly filling him in. Dave seems bemused, but listens intently, and John wonders if that's how he is with his own children.

Mostly, John is just grateful that Dave doesn't ask about where Meredith came from. He doesn't know if his brother just assumes that Meredith's his bastard child from some imagined one-night stand, or if Dave just doesn't want to think about it. Either way, it works for John.

When Dave gets up to leave, Meredith gives him a hug, and orders him to come back again, and Dave agrees with the same faintly confused expression he's worn since John introduced them. John walks his brother out to his vehicle, leaving Meredith inside to straighten up the blueprints.

Dave leans against the driver's side door, says, "So," and John nods. Then Dave clears his throat, patting awkwardly at John's shoulder and rushing through, "Well, you know we have the family picnic in July at Grandpapa's. You should bring him."

And John is still staring blankly forward, trying vainly to process that in some useful way, when Dave drives away.

hr

Later, when he and Meredith are eating the hotdogs that John cooked on the grill, Meredith shifts around uncomfortably. John waits, wondering what the question will be when it finally comes, contemplating getting a fire pit set up so they can roast some marshmallows.

Meredith blurts, finally, "Did you mean it?"

John swallows the last bite of his food, balling up his paper plate and looking down at Meredith, who is staring at his feet with great fascination. "Did I mean what?" He wraps an arm around Meredith's shoulders, because for all that it's ridiculously hot during the day, the nights are fairly chilly here.

Meredith shrugs, dragging his toes back and forth in the dirt. When he looks up, his jaw is set, all stubborn determination in the face of doing something that terrifies him, "That I'm your son. Did you mean it?" And he looks like everything hinges on the question.

John smiles, even though he feels a little sick all of a sudden. He says, "Yeah, yeah I did," and Meredith makes a tiny sound, throwing himself against John and squeezing him tight. John holds him, laughing in surprise, "Hey, hey, it's a good thing right?"

All Meredith does is nod, fast, over and over again against John's shoulder.

hr

They don't unpack much. There isn't a place for it, really, with the house all ripped apart. So, John is surprised when Meredith pads up to him in the living room, skinny arms wrapped around a picture frame that John doesn't recognize.

John straightens, his back aching from being bent over all day, water from the shower running down the back of his neck. He asks, "What've you got there, buddy?" and Meredith shrugs, crawling up onto the couch beside John and folding his legs up.

For a long moment Meredith doesn't say anything, and when he does speak his voice is very soft, "I was looking through some of the boxes. Because they weren't labeled. I didn't -I thought maybe they were in the wrong places."

John feels something in his stomach go tight, swallowing heavily. He says, "Oh," trying to keep his tone neutral, not sure what he's supposed to be going for here. Meredith isn't giving him any clues, staring down at the floor, running his fingers up and down the side of the picture frame.

And then Meredith takes a deep breath, setting the picture flat on his lap. John bites the inside of his cheeks hard, staring down at Rodney's beaming face, the other man hugging a ZPM and smiling like a loon up at the camera. Ford had taken it. A lifetime ago.

Meredith traces the side of Rodney's face, and then looks up at John, his expression questioning and needy. "I think -I think he must have been like my father. Kind of. Right? I think? What was he like?"

For a moment John doesn't think he's going to be able to answer. But apparently time or distance has dimmed the pain enough. He clears his throat, reaching out to tap the side of the picture and then withdrawing his hand. He says, "He was...he was very smart. And grumpy, most of the time. And good. He was a good man." John's throat goes tight on him, he clenches his jaw shut.

Meredith nods, still searching John's expression for something. His voice comes out as little more than a whisper, "Am I -am I like him? At all?" and he twists his hands together, blue eyes huge and innocent, cutting a look down at Rodney's picture every few seconds.

John squeezes his eyes shut, just for a second. His chest aches, his throat burns, but he manages anyway, "Yeah, baby, you really are. You're just like him." And Meredith reaches out, and takes John's hand.

::go to snippett —>::

::back to index::


Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional