I have no defense against that.
Okay, so we have: one, two, three, four (by svmadelyn), five, and six (by svmadelyn). Bringing us to seven.
I'm kind of hoping we're on the home stretch here. Hmm.
"It's a field trip, Elizabeth." Slumping back in his chair, Rodney tries to remember how Sheppard always managed to make really outlandish ideas seem very normal and reasonable. He can--*almost*--pull off the slouch, with practice (and how funny is it that Elizabeth looks a little freaked out every time he does it?), but Sheppard's way of making stupid, stupid ideas sound reasonable and right--not so much.
Elizabeth's eyes flicker to Teyla and Ronon. "You've all discussed it?" Translate, did you get the rest of your team's permission?
Teyla nods. "The planet was explored by the team eight months ago for viable technology. While there was nothing of immediate interest at the time, it was flagged as a possible alpha site and does have the remains of several different civilizations, all of which utilized some higher level technology. It may be that with intensive study, we can discover something of interest." Teyla pauses, flickering a look at Rodney. "John was briefed and given the mission report to review. He seemed--excited."
"Hovercars," Rodney answers at Elizabeth's raised eyebrows. "John really, really wants a hovercar."
Elizabeth's mouth twitches. "That's our John. The question is, why do you want him along?"
Rodney shifts, then sighs. "He's bored."
The room is silent. Rodney sighs again.
"Bored. Bored in that way that leads to unauthorized city exploration, puddlejumper racing in the halls, and what appears to be the construction of a miniature prototype for a Ferris Wheel." Rodney pauses. "I've caught him with the schematics twice now, and I really don't want to know where he thinks he's going to build the full size version." And doesn't want to find out, because John's only eight, but Atlantis still thinks he's the answer to the second coming. And frankly, John's a good practical thinker. Given time, given materials, and given a lovelorn city, he'll get something built, and there's a better than average chance it'll work.
Elizabeth pales. "I--see."
Teyla nods. "He has shown signs of impatience with the current arrangement. He is in need of more stimulation than we can provide. There are few children available to harness his excess energy, and even with all three of us, he can be--energetic."
Elizabeth leans back in her chair to rub her temples. "You have to wonder what his parents did with him the first time around," she murmurs, and Rodney has to wonder too, because Christ, the three of them are just barely able to keep up, even with Elizabeth and half of Atlantis' assistance. "Okay. Now, bigger question--Rodney, again. Why do you want him along? And don't tell me it's because he's driving you crazy here. He can drive you just as crazy offworld."
Rodney rolls his eyes, straightening from the slouch. His back's beginning to hurt. How the hell does Sheppard *do* that for hours on end anyway? "What you seem to be forgetting is that John, unlike some people of lesser taste, actually likes me."
Elizabeth raises an eyebrow, and Rodney deflates.
"And maybe I don't want him to think I'm abandoning him." Rodney ignores the smiles. "It's safe, it's educational, and trust me, between five archeologists, four physicists, three chemists and some random botanists, John will have all the activity he can handle."
"And I kind of promised, if he'd give me the plans for the full sized Ferris Wheel, unless you want one showing up on the west pier."
"Right." Elizabeth's mouth twitches. She looks at her laptop, but more from form than anything else. "Well, I don't see any problems." Her mouth curves. "Lorne's sending a team with Cadman, and Carson's already sent his recommendation for a field medic to keep John's checkups. When do you want to leave?"
Rodney tries not to look too relieved. "Tomorrow morning."
"I'm taking John for a hunt on the mainland," Ronon offers, and all of them take a moment to think of Max, and shudder.
"He did promise not to adopt any more potential meals," Teyla says uncertainly, and Rodney wonders if she already dropped by the zoologists to see how many extra cages they have.
"Right," Elizabeth says with another grin. "If that's all?" She waits, but none of them really have anything to add. "Have fun."
John's already in the gateroom by the time Rodney stumbles in at the ungodly time of six o'clock, sitting on the lap of one of the gate techs, being shown how to open and close the gate shield with a fascinated expression. Rodney watches for a second, then glances over to see John's pack on the floor by the stairs. From somewhere they hunted up comfortable offworld gear suited for a eight year old, though the jacket slung over the top is a little large.
The other scientists are assembled on the main floor, Cadman doing a spot check for the ones unused to going off-world while the nervous-looking medic triple checks his pack and tries to keep an eye on John.
God knows what horror Carson has threatened him with if John comes back in less perfect condition than he left.
"All right, John," he says finally when John's small fingers start tracing out a familiar address that can only end in Chaya starting an intergalactic custody battle. "Up, get your pack."
John slides off, tossing a huge, winning smile at the enchanted tech before trotting to stairs, pulling on his coat and shouldering the small pack. He's practically bouncing on his toes, and Rodney crosses over, starting to unzip the bag.
"I checked it already, Rodney," Cadman calls from the floor. Rodney ignores her.
"I caught a bullbug last night!" John says enthusiastically. "Ronon taught me to field dress it. Why do they call it 'dress' when you are skinning--"
"Not now, John," Rodney says desperately, because there's a better than good chance the bullbug will make an appearance at dinner eventually. The Atlantean cooks make an excellent stew from it. "Water, rations, laptop…wait." Pushing the pack open, Rodney removes the sheathed knife, then turns John around. "Weapons?"
"Just a little one," John says, turning up liquid green eyes, like that works. "For emergencies."
"Rodney. Please? Just in case--"
"We're attacked by a pack of killer bullbugs?" Never mind. That's Ronon straight through. Sighing, Rodney tucks it back in, zipping the pack. "Start dialing sequence. I want to get there today."
John watches, riveted, as the tech dials the gate address, then watches the wormhole form, glassy liquid blue in a rush, bathing him in light. "Ready?"
John stumbles, nodding quickly, and Rodney watches John run down the stairs headlong, because every John Sheppard loves this, the missions, the exploration, being first to discover new worlds, new places, stepping foot on alien soil. The older one hid it better, but it was always there, naked in hazel eyes for anyone who cared to look. Pausing at the platform, John watches the rippling surface, then turns to look at Rodney, eyebrows drawn sharply together. "Come *on*."
Right. Settling his pack again and hiding his smile, Rodney waves at his team and goes down.
Somehow, John managed to retain his experience with setting up camp, correcting Cadman absently at her deliberate, curious mistakes, nailing down tent stakes, gathering wood, and basically being the smallest working Lieutenant Colonel in history. Leaving him to that, Rodney organizes the contingent of scientists and archeologists, splitting camp duties between them while Cadman and the Marines do perimeter sweeps and set up rotation for watch. John wanders around to see what everyone is doing and occasionally offers disturbingly practical advice.
All and all, Rodney thinks, pretty much like any mission with John Sheppard, and Rodney has a second of surprisingly intense nostalgia for Sheppard the adult, who would finish set-up and crouch by the fire, making terrible jokes and eat Teyla's cooking without complaint; Sheppard, who still looks up at unfamiliar night skies with barely hidden wonder.
John went with the archaeologists for the first survey of the buildings in question, coming back filthy and hyper from all the caffeine they sneaked to him out from under Rodney's watchful eye. Rodney sent John to the nearby river to clean up and gave the archaeologists the first two watches as punishment before grabbing a bag and going after John before he tried to befriend the local wildlife and start the first Atlantean zoo for former dinner entrees.
He arrives just as John finishes, taking the clean clothes and head tilting, staring at Rodney with a peculiar expression. Rodney frowns, following John's gaze, finding it locked on the gun that Rodney had strapped on in his quarters. "You're carrying a gun," John says brightly, reaching out with acquisitive fingers.
Rodney catches his wrist. "And you can't have it."
The small mouth curls down. "I just want to--"
"Shoot things. No. And I--well, I haven't been on any offworld missions in a while, so I usually leave it in my quarters" Another thing to miss, with the same sharp intensity.
"Oh." John pulls on a clean shirt, suspending further commentary for a few brief, blissful seconds. "So you always wear a gun offworld?"
"Yeah. It was a requirement." Rodney fondly remembers the nightmarish first time Sheppard showed him how to put it on--hideous embarrassment warring with hideous annoyance and even more hideous gratitude that Sheppard took the entire experience in stride, never once mentioning the fact that one, Rodney had gone red the second Sheppard had gone down on his knees, and two, Rodney's body's embarrassing and completely automatic reaction to the sight. Just those strong, competent hands, teaching him the complexities of buckles and holsters, the way survival could depend on nothing more than a few pounds of thin leather and metal.
"When can I have a gun?" John asks, way too interested for Rodney's peace of mind.
"When you grow up. Come on, dinner will be ready soon and I still need to take some readings before sundown."
John frowns but nods, picking up shoes and socks, dirty shirt over one shoulder. "Can you shoot?" John asks in interest, obviously remembering Rodney in the hall with Max. "Ronon can shoot."
Rodney files away a reminder for another discussion with Ronon regarding appropriate demonstrations. "Yes, I can shoot."
"Did Ronon teach you? He said he'd teach me."
And move that reminder right to the front. Maybe in the next transmission to Elizabeth tomorrow morning. Rodney glances down, watching for one of those strange looks, the ones that make John look too old and too young at the same time, the ones that are memory and not anything like it. "I--a friend taught me."
John looks up with wide eyes, clear and guileless as glass. "Was he good?"
Rodney can feel the ghost of a hand covering his, palm against his elbow, his shoulder, John's voice in his ear, low and steady, sure in a way that made Rodney believe, too. "He's the best I ever met."
John skips ahead, turning on his heel, so *young* that Rodney's throat tightens. The dark head tilts for a second, John Sheppard taking stock of his world and finding it interesting. Then he grins, just a happy kid on a field trip. "Race you. Last one back to camp has to give up their dessert!" John takes off at a dead run, unhindered by bare feet on rocky ground, and Rodney, blinking, tries to yell and then gives up, running after John before he gets too far ahead.
Yeah, definitely a typical mission with John Sheppard.
Luckily for all concerned, John sleeps like the dead, curled up in his sleeping bag on the other side of the tent, exhausted from a long day of hyper activity and playing tag with the soft sciences for an hour before their energy gave out and they declared defeat. A two mile run with the Marines burned out some of the bright, endless energy, eventually leading to John sacked out by the fire on Simpson's lap while she stroked his hair and possibly considered her biological clock a little too intensely for Rodney's peace of mind.
John and women, Rodney had thought charitably, before coaxing him to his feet, soft and warmly drowsy, tucking him safely into his sleeping bag for a night of hopefully dreamless sleep.
John is kept busy running errands most of the morning, frenetic energy and barely contained enthusiasm, making Rodney feel immensely old and pathetically exhausted in comparison. No one should be that cheerful in the morning without the aid of coffee.
He's quiet, too, and Rodney didn't expect that, sitting at Simpson's knee while she pulls information from the ancient mainframe piece by fragmented piece, listening to her running commentary of what she's doing, nine-tenths of which is totally over John's head, but he listens anyway, eyes wide. Occasionally, accompanied by Cadman or the protective presence of a Marine, he explores the ruined complex, small fingers running carefully over obsolete panels and along dusty walls. They still haven't found hovercars, but Rodney figures if they're here, John will sniff them out.
It's pretty much the nicest, most comfortable, and productive mission Rodney's been on in months, which is why he's not surprised at the gun pressing into the back of his neck, and the fact that, when he slowly turns from the mainframe interface, his entire staff is on their knees in front of an extremely well-armed group of strangers.
Briefly, Rodney thinks of John, up one level with Cadman, and hopes to God that they stay there.
The gun moves to Rodney's throat, resting in the hollow. "Find something interesting?" a guttural voice asks, and Rodney watches in resignation as their laptops are carefully explored, studied. "We had hoped your people would return," the man continues smugly. "Our--attempts to access this information have been unsuccessful."
Rodney opens his mouth to say something suicidally stupid--after all, Sheppard isn't here to do it, and someone has to pick up the slack--but the gun presses harder, constricting air.
"They say the ruins are haunted," the man says thoughtfully. "That the ghosts of the former inhabitants kill whoever dares to invade." From the corner of his eye, Rodney think she sees a flash of blonde hair. Get John out, he thinks desperately. Get him to the gate. "Perhaps--"
A sudden hiss ends with one of the men grabbing for his throat, blood gushing bright between tight fingers. The gun against Rodney's throat pulls back for a second, but that's the second Rodney needs, kneeing the man and pulling his own gun, fingers shaking. John, he thinks, seeing another man fall in a gush of blood, people suddenly in motion, more than he can count. Fumbling the gun up, Rodney feels an elbow in his throat and the world goes grey, strobing in and out as the gun falls from sudden nerveless fingers.
Oh God, John.
Kicking uselessly at the man holding him against the wall, Rodney forces himself to focus, seeing John small and staring by the body of one of the men. Behind him, the Marines and Cadman are trying to hold back another group from entering the room, and Rodney watches John reach down, eyes narrow and dark as he picks up a gun from the floor, lines it up, and fires, like the man who taught Rodney to shoot.
The hand on Rodney's throat loosens, and Rodney doesn't bother waiting, getting an arm down, pushing the stunned man off, taking a second to see the blood gushing from a wounded thigh before grabbing his gun just as the goon gets his, and it's all over in a shocked second, with Rodney and John still standing and the man--not.
Hands shaking, Rodney turns to see John, eyes wide and glassy as he stares at the dead man.
The gun is still dangling from one hand. "John?" Rodney says carefully, and John's fingers loosen, weapon hitting the floor with a clatter. Behind them, Rodney can hear Cadman and another Marine yelling, and somewhere distant, there are feet running, but nothing penetrates enough for Rodney to react, not when John takes one shaky step backward, then another. "John."
"I--did I--" John swallows hard, hands fisting at his side. "Who are they?"
The green eyes fix suddenly on Rodney's hand, and Rodney looks down to see he's still holding his gun. Jabbing it into the holster, he takes a step toward John, who backs up so fast he trips over a sprawled leg, going down on the dusty floor in a tangle of surprised limbs. "John--"
"Why did they--I don't--" John struggles back to his feet, like he didn't even notice what he fell over. Still backing away, he looks between Rodney and the body at his feet. "I don't understand. Why--"
"I don't understand!" John says, backing into the wall. The green eyes screw tightly closed, a hectic red flush vivid against pale skin. "Why? Why are they--why did he--"
"John, stop, listen--"
"I *shot* him!" John's eyes open, dark and bleak. "You--we *shot* him, and he's dead and--I just--
Watching John carefully, Rodney crosses the space between them as slowly as he dares--John can outrun him if he takes off now, and God alone knows where he'll go.
"Dr. McKay?" Cadman emerges from the door, blood slicking one side of her face from a cut on her temple, stopping short as she sees Rodney, following his gaze to John. Her eyes widen briefly.
"Are they gone?" Rodney snaps, watching John pressing into the wall like he wants to get inside it and never come out.
"Yes." Her voice is careful.
"Get everyone back to the camp and packed. When I get there, we're going through." He takes a slow step toward John, who flinches away, green eyes shutting tight, like closing his eyes really can still make all the monsters go away.
Cadman hesitates, obviously torn, but she nods shortly, going back out the door, gun still in hand.
"John," Rodney says, crossing the space between them. "Come on. We need to get home."
John's eyes open, blank and dark, pupil swallowing the iris. "I shot him."
"You saved me." A little desperately, Rodney thinks of Teyla, trained from childhood to survive, and Ronon, who probably was killing people before he got out of diapers. This part--the part that carries a gun and shoots without mercy, though never without regret--this part of John he doesn't know, never has, never tried to. Until this second, it hadn't seemed important, but this is what John is, what he was, what lives under his skin, even at eight years old. The man who picked up a gun and shot to kill, every time.
Three inches taller, it would have been a shot to the heart, over in the space between two breaths.
John stumbles away from the wall, and Rodney moves fast, catching him before he falls onto the hard, dusty concrete floor, bracing John's shaking body against his. Hands clenched, John closes his eyes again and goes boneless in Rodney's arms. He doesn't cry, and somehow, that makes it so much worse, every breath as sharp as a needle, cutting them both. Gathering John up carefully, Rodney stumbles to his feet, John's head tucked against his neck like he'd been with Elizabeth after that nightmare, but so different. They can't pass this off as a dream or an accident.
When he goes outside, Cadman is waiting, gun out. Rodney doesn't even bother pretending to be surprised. Nodding, he walks by her, feeling her fall into step just behind and to the side.
"They'll be ready," she says softly, shortly, putting a world of meaning and certainty into her voice. "You okay, McKay?"
John's hot, sweaty face clenches--Rodney can feel every twitch against his skin, and it hurts more than he ever could have imagined. This isn't what any child should have to learn. This isn't what John should have to learn again, like this. "Fine." His throat feels tight and thick, scratchy with something beyond physical injury, and his chest aches. John's heavy and hot in his arms, shoulders going tighter and more painful with every second that passes.
"Do you want me to take him?" Cadman says, close to his ear. Rodney pulls away, hefting John up a little higher; he can feel the rapid pound of John's heart against his chest, the uneven, choked breaths wet against his shoulder.
"No," he says, running a hand up John's stiff back. He can't imagine giving John to anyone else, for any reason, ever. "I got it."
Elizabeth sends back Lorne's team and enough Marines to start a small war to get their abandoned equipment. John's asleep--shock, Carson says sympathetically when administering the light sedative, and wee lad, and other terms that for the first time hurt. Rodney watches from inches away, John's small hand fisted in his shirt, tear streaked face crumpled even in sleep. There's blood on them both, not theirs, and when Rodney can be sure John won't wake up, he'll strip them both and burn their clothes, to hell with it being his last unstained shirt.
Elizabeth hovers beside them, watching John's every breath, like she's afraid he'll stop if she looks away. Rodney knows the feeling.
"He's remembering," Elizabeth says dully, and Rodney looks down to see her hand wrapped white-knuckled over the edge of the bed.
Rodney forces himself to nod. "The--" First shot was already fatal. John's never missed, not when he meant it. Femoral artery, slower than the heart, but it gets the job done. "He--it was so fast--" Breath catching, Rodney watches John's face slowly begin to smooth out.
Carson comes back in, checking John quickly, then looks at them. "Go get cleaned up," he says kindly, patting Rodney on the shoulder.
"When he wakes up--"
"I'll call," Carson assures him. "Ronon's going to sit with him while you're gone."
Rodney nods, making himself reach down, untangling surprisingly strong fingers, gently laying the small, sweaty fist on the bed as Carson pulls a thin blanket over John. Backing slowly from the bed, Rodney makes himself turn away, Ronon passing him to take up vigil on the chair beside the bed.
Elizabeth is quiet in the hallway, leading him as easily as he led John into an ambush, pressing him into a chair in her office, a cup of coffee materializing in front of him. He stares at it for a second, but he doesn't trust his hands, gripping his own thighs to stop the shaking.
"He's eight years old and he had to shoot someone," Rodney says bitterly, surprising himself. "What kind, of--" He stops himself, too close to the edges of pure rage, needing a target. He wants something to hurt. "He's *eight*. He stood there and he had to--"
"I said it was safe."
He can feel Elizabeth's sympathy and hates it. "You couldn't have anticipated an attack."
"If I'd just *shot* him first," and it's so sudden, what almost two years of field work hadn't taught him, the ability to slot enemy into casualty without thought. The Wraith hadn't done that, the Genii hadn't done it, but John, small and scared and aiming a gun, had made the transition. "If I'd just shot him, it wouldn't have happened."
"You don't know that," she says, except he *does*, if he'd shot first, thought later, John would never have had time to pick up that gun. Moved faster, knew more, Ronon and Teyla could have done it, before John had time to even come in the room, over before he had to see, had to remember how to kill because Rodney couldn't.
Son of a *bitch*. "I'm going to--" He motions to the door, toward his quarters, to the universe in general. Somewhere else, anywhere but here. He can smell the blood on his clothes, his skin, see the crumpled edge of his shirt that John clung to.
"Rodney," she says as he stumbles to his feet, feeling dizzy and vaguely lightheaded--when's the last time he ate anyway?--turning his head so he doesn't have to see her face. "It wasn't your fault. You can't--"
Rodney pushes out the door before she finishes the sentence.
John isn't awake when he goes back to the infirmary, but Teyla and Ronon are both present, glancing up to see him before their gazes pull back to John. And isn't that the way of them, he thinks, approaching the bed to watch the slow rise and fall of John's chest. Team leader or kid, the center of their attention, the man who led and protected them and the kid who loves and depends on them, both wrapped in the same skin.
"It is not your fault, Dr. McKay," Teyla says softly, looking up with understanding eyes.
"I should have--"
"No." Her hand covers his, gentle and callused. "He will be fine."
John snorts in his sleep, mouth curving in a slight, unexpected smile. Rodney feels something in his chest ease, just a little. "Probably dreaming of Chaya," he mutters, taking the third chair that Carson had cleverly thought to provide, looking over John's bed at Ronon and Teyla.
Teyla's mouth twitches while Ronon looks vaguely bewildered. "Chaya?"
"Later," Teyla murmurs, and they all settle down to wait, because this is what they do. Watching the monitors, watching Carson check him, wiping away the blood from yet another nosebleed ("It's stress, Rodney, not a brain tumor." "*Prove it*."), watching John breathe in and out while a nurse comes and goes, a vigil they've done too many time for each other, as familiar as eating.
"Was it a good shot?" Ronon asks suddenly, and Rodney, startled, jerks his hand from the edge of the bed. Teyla's knuckles make contact with Ronon's shoulder in a way that looks painful and Rodney knows from experience hurts like hell. "What?"
Teyla gives him a pointed look, which he ignores, watching Rodney with interest. Taking a breath, Rodney leans back, trying to relax. "Perfect."
Ronon nods, glancing at Teyla, who sighs, picking at the blanket around John's feet. "His--practice with the sticks has improved," she admits. "He does as well as many students twice his current age. And he--" she stops abruptly, eyes fixed on John's bare, dirty foot. "There are things I have not taught him--as he is now. That he can do."
Rodney watches John roll onto his side, curling one arm up beneath his head, small and weirdly fragile. "He remembers how to set up camp, security perimeters." How to shoot a gun. God fucking dammit. "He--it could be time."
They watch John in silence before Teyla finally says what they're all thinking. "We should speak to Dr. Weir. Perhaps it is time we--told him." Her voice rises on an uncertain note, almost asking them to contradict her, but watching John sleep, it's not like any of them can deny the self-evident.
"After he wakes up," Ronon says unexpectedly.
"Just--some of it," Rodney says, watching John's other foot kick free of the blanket. Teyla nods in agreement, and Rodney turns his attention to the monitors, watching the steady blips, clearing his mind of everything but the quiet of the room, and John, and the way they're going to fracture his world too soon. "Just a little."
He hopes it's a long time before John wakes up.