First seven parts can be found here.
Lorne's hand covers his at the end of the round, gently insinuating his fingers between Rodney's palm and the hilt of the gun. "One hundred percent, Dr. McKay," he says quietly. "Let me take that."
Slowly, Rodney lets go, rubbing absently at his bicep as he studies the dummy against the far wall. Ten rounds, ten different distances, obstacles and without. He hasn't missed today.
"Good job," Lorne says, and Rodney thinks of Sheppard, who'd grin while he unloaded the chamber, telling Rodney about rifles and AK-47s, the first time he held a gun and the time he practiced with the rocket launcher, asking curious questions about zats and what they knew of Wraith stunners.
When he pulls his eyes from the target, Lorne is looking at him. "Dr. McKay?"
Rodney frowns, holding his hand out. "Done with it?"
Lorne's head tilts in eerie mimicry of Sheppard, eyebrows drawn together in a silent question, the way Sheppard could ask without making a sound.
And like Sheppard, Rodney can't stop himself from answering. "Everything's fine."
"You've been down here every evening this week," Lorne says, but he flips the gun with easy familiarity, offering it hilt first.
"You have something better to do?" Putting it back in his holster, he turns to grab his jacket off a nearby chair.
"It wasn't your fault."
Stiffening, Rodney jerks on his jacket, but Lorne, like Sheppard, doesn't take the hint.
"There's no way you could have anticipated an attack." From the corner of his eye, Rodney sees Lorne's mouth turn down. "Cadman gave me a full report, and I'm telling you what I told her--we had no reason to suspect that there was anyone else interested in a deserted planet at the ass end of the galaxy." Lorne's eyes go distant. "I should have sent two teams with you. If there's any fault, it's mine."
Rodney takes a breath, thinking of John's small hands wrapped around the hilt of that gun, shaking away the image. "Tomorrow, same time?"
Lorne hesitates, then nods slowly. "Sure. I'll be here."
John's still sleeping when Rodney gets back to his quarters, passed out on the cot that matches the ones in Teyla's and Ronon's rooms. Since the last mission, John hasn't been out of their sight for a second, and if that means none of them sleep well when John sleeps badly, so be it. That's what coffee was invented for.
He's rolled up in his blankets like a small burrito, a tuft of dark hair the only part of him visible, not having moved since Rodney left. Glancing at the clock, Rodney thinks about his laptop and new simulations, but he goes straight to bed, taking just enough time to change into sweatpants and a clean t-shirt, aware that the scent of gun oil will follow him into sleep again tonight, like it does every night, reminding him of the shot he missed and won't ever miss again.
John shifts on his cot, and Rodney raises himself on an elbow, watching John push free of the sheets with one hand, languid and frantic at the same time. Rodney wonders what he's dreaming.
Sometimes, he remembers, and sometimes, he doesn't. John doesn't know that the night before, he'd relived the death of two scientists on a deserted planet; Rodney's blurred memories of sand and fear and the willingness to trade Gaul for Sheppard, even when he hadn't known that was what he wanted to do.
Rodney remembers waking up to John twisting, skin slick with cold sweat, mouth curved in a tight, bitter line as Rodney sat by the bed, stoking the damp dark hair, whispering meaningless reassurance until John sighed and stilled, cheek turning into Rodney's touch before falling into deep sleep, safe from dreams.
John settles with a sigh, though, and Rodney lies back, staring up at the ceiling, and listens to the steady breathing half a room away as John falls back into sleep.
He wakes to the sheet being pulled stealthily away, cool Atlantis air against night-warm skin, and he just barely finds it in him to wonder when a small body insinuates itself onto the bed beside him.
And since Katie hasn't spoken to him since he forgot her again-- "John?"
"Sorry," John says, sounding thick and exhausted. Rolling over, Rodney takes in John, still mummified in his own sheets, trying to pull the blanket back over him. "I just--" In the faint Atlantis light, the hazel eyes are ringed in purple, pupils blown wide and afraid, and even from here, Rodney can feel the trembling, see the sweat-slick skin of John's forehead and cheeks. "Sorry, I--"
"Don't be sorry," Rodney says roughly, because John doesn't take sympathy well and there's no point in making it worse. "Try not to hog the covers."
John relaxes, and Rodney pulls up the blanket around them, thinking irony so isn't his friend right now. "Okay." His voice is almost inaudible, even in the silence. "Thanks."
Rodney shifts over more, trying to give John some space. The beds on Atlantis are ridiculously narrow, though, and every movement just slides John closer until he's pressed against Rodney's side, and a hand comes out to anchor himself, wrapping in the hem of Rodney's t-shirt, face pressing into his shoulder with a tiny, sleepy sigh. After a few long seconds, John's a mostly comfortable ball of prepubescent boy, taking far too much space for someone not yet five feet tall and less than ninety pounds.
"Why don't I remember when I'm awake?" John whispers into the dark, the only place that he can probably ask that, here, and God, does Teyla deal with this? Does Ronon? Licking his lips, Rodney shuts his eyes for a second, imagining it's almost six months ago and turning down that priestess, going back to his team and going home. But no, he hadn't, and he'd come back to an eight year old going on thirty-something, fragile and stubborn and terribly, terribly vulnerable in a way Sheppard's never been before.
"What happened--" Rodney starts, then stops. They'd had the talk, and they'd had the questions, but how the hell did an eight year old comprehend being an adult once upon a time and now not? "I don't know."
John's breath is too fast and too sharp; keeping back tears or anger, Rodney's not sure, isn't sure he even wants to know. "I don't understand," John whispers, and Rodney finally pushes John over, rolling onto his side to look at him, the pale smudge of his face, staring up at the ceiling, wide-eyed and more alone than anyone Rodney has ever seen. "I--I don't want to. To know. I don't want to know any more."
Reaching out, Rodney rubs a thumb under John's eye, finger coming away wet. "John--"
"I kill people, I--the Wraith--" He shudders all over, teeth clenching together. "I don't like him, I don't want to *be him*--"
"I don't want that!"
Calm, stay calm, God, how does Teyla deal with this? Looking down at John, watching the way his mouth goes tight and thin, fingers picking at the edge of the blanket, he suddenly wonders if John does this with anyone else. "What does Teyla say?"
His eyes flicker away, and Rodney has his answer, weird and inexplicable though it may be. John goes to Teyla and Elizabeth for scraped knees and bruised chins, cuddling and warm laps, Ronon and Lorne for playtime and weapons and the things that made John Sheppard the Colonel, but he comes to Rodney for this, whatever this is.
And he wants to ask, why and how and what the hell, but John's a terrified kid and wouldn't know the answer anyway, even if Rodney could figure out a way to ask the question. When he touches John's hair, though, John turns into it, and Rodney reads everything in the way John's eyes flicker closed, sighing into the pillow and curling closer, soft and warm. This is safety, and comfort, and the place John trusts when he can't even trust his own mind.
God, it makes him want to pack John up somewhere safe, here, never let him out again to be bruised and scraped, hardened and cut to pieces and put back together again. He wants John to sleep like this, peaceful and quiet and the too-old lines to be erased, take away the memories that John can live without; a Wraith Queen, the death of a commanding officer by his own hand, the people he's watched die and break and betray him. The Pegasus galaxy and how it's rebuilt them all, the past before Antarctica that Rodney thinks John might trade anything to forget. Just keep him safe.
Christ, give him one night that belongs to him and not his past.
"You're extraordinary," Rodney whispers when John moves closer, hair brushing Rodney's chin, and he can almost see Teyla's disapproval and doesn't even care. "When you grow up, you're going to be amazing."
John twitches, just a little. "I--"
"Amazing," Rodney says firmly, breathing in the scent of clean child and night sweat, overriding the smells of gun oil and the metal of the armory levels down. "When you remember, I want you to remember that."
The fingers in his shirt twist tight for a moment, then loosen a little, and Rodney listens as John's breathing evens out, slow and deep as he falls into sleep, finally, quiet and heavy, and please God, please Atlantis, please whoever the fuck watches over children and idiots, no more dreams. Not tonight.
Carson gives him lollipops in proactive reward for the fact it's blood test day, and John sucks on his candy with resignation as a nurse gently takes blood, saliva, and hair samples, stroking his hair as he trembles through a skin scraping--that's new, but they're forty-eight hours from the end of the sixth month, and they want to be careful.
Handing him a cup, the nurse smiles sympathetically as John slides off the bed with a groan and trots off to the bathroom, rolling his eyes as the door shuts firmly behind him.
"How's he sleeping?" Carson asks quietly, and Rodney sighs, leaning into the bed.
"Badly." Though better last night--Rodney woke twice to John peacefully sleeping, rolled blanket around him like a tortilla. "He's getting--"
"All the worst of it," Carson says sympathetically, picking up his tablet. "Any specifics he remembered?" They keep track now, mapping the timeline of John's life through what he wakes from. Death here, war here, Wraith over there, some pleasant time as a POW, all things that his file touches but never quite explains, not the way John can with gritted teeth and red-rimmed eyes and invisible scars that his fingers trace absently on clean skin, like he's searching for the feel of them. Looking over Carson's shoulder, Rodney marks the timeline. Random, really, nothing in any kind of specific order and nothing, as far as he can remember, with any conceivable trigger. "You'd think just once, he'd have a good dream," Carson says wistfully.
"Yeah," Rodney says softly. Heightmeyer's looking at their data, but good luck getting John in with her for more than five minutes at a stretch. Rodney leaves it to Elizabeth to try. It's not like they don't know John, and that streak of contrary stubbornness hasn't lessened with his age.
"Done," John says, coming back out with the air of a martyr to adult stupidity, one eyebrow raised when he looks between them, eyes flickering from the tablet to fix on the bed studiously. Rodney watches for a second, then takes the tablet from Carson's unresisting hands, setting it on the bedside table. "I need to--see something," he says quickly, and Carson's mouth opens in a disastrous attempt to ask what the hell. "What, my back isn't important enough for you? Now come *on*--" And getting hold of Carson's elbow, he drags him to his office, slamming the door closed behind him.
"Rodney, what in the holy--"
"Trinity, Mary, whatever works for you," Rodney says, sitting at Carson's desk and pulling up the security cameras. "Now. Don't look out the door. Are you always this slow or is it just today?"
The blue eyes narrow, but he crosses over, looking down as Rodney drags up the security feeds, showing John leaning against the bed, playing with the pile of tongue depressors a nurse had left. Slowly, the hazel eyes come up, fixing on the tab, and Rodney knows John can see his name at the top.
"Rodney," Carson says repressively. "That's not fair to the lad. Setting temptation in his path--"
"It'd only be unfair if he actually took it." John stares at it for a few long seconds, taking a slow step toward the tablet, then stops short, inches away. For a moment, John doesn't move; Rodney can almost see the trembling uncertainty, and he catches himself, hands fisted on the edge of the desk, as John almost moves forward, *almost* takes it, then steps back with a quick shake of his head, turning his full attention to those tongue depressors like his life depends on it.
Rodney leans back. "Yeah. That's what I thought." John begins to stack them, getting his utility knife out and cutting notches beneath their gaze, jumping up on the bed to start something that looks complex and infinitely less interesting than a tablet with his medical records.
"Rodney," Carson says, and now he just sounds confused. "What did--"
"When the doctor left your file sitting out as a kid, what was the first thing you did when he left the room?"
Rodney feels Carson lean into the desk beside him. "Now Rodney--"
"You open it up, you check it out. That's what kids *do*. Who the hell cares if you can figure out what it says? It's yours, it's there, and it has your name on it. You want to know."
"He's still eight," Rodney says tightly. "And this is *John Sheppard*, the man who locked himself into two closets and one lab in our first week here just because he hates that there's something he doesn't know. You've met him, right? Flies puddlejumpers, helicopters, and nukes for fun? Explores *planets*? Because you seem to be under the impression we are raising a stupid child, and we aren't, we're raising one that just turned down the opportunity to shoplift your laptop."
Carson watches him steadily. "Something happened." It's not a question.
"I don't know." Running a hand through his hair, Rodney stands up. "I'm taking him to breakfast. Call me if the tests show anything new."
John shadows him most of the morning, unusually quiet, occupying himself with simulations in the corner of the lab, away from the view of the other staff. He refuse to go with Ronon for lunch, curling up with a pillow and a powerbar, laptop on his knees, and from the way Ronon watches him as he comes back to Rodney's desk, this isn't new.
"He won't go," Ronon says slowly, eyes flickering to the back of the lab again. Rodney follows his gaze, watching John frown at the screen, highlighting the shadows beneath his eyes, mouth a tight line. "He wouldn't go with Lorne in a jumper to the mainland yesterday, either."
That's new and disturbing. During jumper maintenance, John follows Lorne or Zelenka around constantly, watching with a combination of wonder and envy as they work the controls, running his hands over the panels to watch them light up. John's a junkie for flight, and the minijumper is the only thing keeping him from full withdrawal, memory or not. "Huh."
Leaning casually into the side of the desk, Ronon frowns into the distance. "Teyla says he won't practice his stickwork with her anymore. He's also asked to learn to meditate."
And right from disturbing to outright surreal.
Rodney locks his computer, turning to follow Ronon's gaze onto John again, still working equations through a power bar lunch, the curve of his mouth flattened and thin.
"Okay, and you haven't mentioned this before *why*? We have a communication problem," Rodney says, but then again, Rodney hasn't told anyone that John's gotten quieter, that his skateboard hasn't been touched in days, that the minijumper is still waiting for its test run of the new settings. "Okay, he's--what? Withdrawing from people?"
Ronon shrugs. "Not everyone."
Rodney nods slowly. "Right."
A few silent seconds pass, then Ronon shrugs. "Call me if he gets bored," but he doesn't sound hopeful, turning to walk out with a jarring edge to his step that makes Rodney wonder if this is the first time that John's avoided him.
A few meaningless seconds spent staring at his screen convinces Rodney that there's no way he's going to be able to concentrate with a four foot mystery in the corner. Closing the lid, he slides off the stool, coming to stand by John. He's being ignored, but that's never worked before, so why the hell John would think it would work now is beyond him. "John."
Reluctantly, John tilts his head back. "I'm working."
"You're eight. You should be committing speeding misdemeanors in the hallway with that skateboard of yours. You want to tell me what's up, or do we need to have another conference with Elizabeth?" Even Rodney can't quite hide his horror. God, Elizabeth. No. But he keeps his face set, because John's still a kid and he can bluff a kid.
John's fingers pause on the keys, and Rodney, craning his neck, notes that John's reading Rodney's first dissertation. John's idea of lunchtime reading. Christ.
"I don't want to," John says stubbornly. "And I'm trying to *read*--"
"Yes, principles of quantum mechanics, I can see how that could hold your attention. It's not even--" He stops, shaking his head. "Never mind, I read Ancient code on break. Get up."
"No. After lunch, Kavanagh said he'd show me how to--"
John's eyes narrow. "He says a strong chemistry background is essential--"
"To making pretty liquids in long glass containers. Now there's a life's work in a beaker. Get. Up. Now."
John leans back into the wall mulishly. "I want to finish."
"We need to test the minijumper," Rodney says desperately. There's a flicker of something in the hazel eyes before John's head goes down, eyes fixing on the laptop screen.
"Busy reading." Crouching, Rodney pulls the laptop from John's hands, closing the lid and setting it aside. "Busy working, busy reading, busy avoiding Ronon and the jumper. Tell me what the hell is going on with you."
For a second, John stares up at him, and Rodney's reminded of Max when Rodney had tried to feed him once during one of John's trips to the mainland. Huge eyed and afraid, and Rodney reaches out, but John dodges him fluidly, stumbling to his feet and going for the door, and even Rodney can't command the door to stop John in this mood; he's already out and running down the hall, leaving Rodney to stare blankly at the closed laptop, the doors, and the pillow.
This isn't going according to plan. It would probably help if he had one.
Thirty minutes later, Rodney and a lifesigns detector are out walking the piers. He doesn't think John's had time to figure out how to set himself invisible to interior sensors, but then, there's a first time for everything.
He finds John sitting on the edge of the fourth grounding station, back to the balcony, knees curled up to his chest.
"I remember this," John says flatly when Rodney comes into view. Coming to a stop, he can see John's eyes are glazed over, lips slightly parted. Raising a hand, John points. "There. That's where Kolya--"
"That was a long time ago."
"He dreams about it. I dream about it. It won't ever be that long ago." John draws a breath, and Rodney sees a little of the adult peer out. "Did--was everyone okay?"
"Yeah," Rodney says softly.
"Besides the ones he killed." John's voice flattens. "I--I had to see it."
Rodney sits down a few feet away, giving John his space. "You want to tell me about it?"
John shakes his head sharply. "You--remember. I wish I didn't." John's eyes narrow, flickering downward, and Rodney looks down to see John staring at the gun. "Why do I have to?"
And what the hell does he say to that? "John--"
"You said, it was a--temporary thing. That it was--that I'd grow back up and everything would be fine, and that I'd remember and everything would be okay, but it's *not*. I don't--I don't want this. I don't want him."
"You are him."
"I'm *not*." John's fists clench, knees going down, shifting, easier to make a break for it. "He--he killed people and didn't even really care and he--he let people die and he was angry all the time and all the things he did--" John's voice breaks abruptly, eyes squeezing shut. "I want to be someone else. I want to be something else."
"It's not that easy."
John's eyes open. "I said I'm *not*. I'm not going to be. I don't care why it happened. I'm not going back to that, Rodney. I'm *not*. No--no guns or sticks or fighting or stupid jumpers, no--no new ways to kill people, I don't want it. I don't *want it*." Hands clenched, John watches Rodney through tear wet eyes. "Don't tell me I have to."
Taking a deep breath, Rodney waits as John swipes a hand across his face angrily. "All right," he says softly. "Let's go inside and--"
John's eyes narrow. "I'm not going to--"
"I get it," Rodney says, standing up, forcing himself to be calm, eight years old, he reminds himself, eight years old, just stay calm, don't-- "You need to eat something and Kavanagh will be by soon, won't he?"
Slowly, John gets to his feet, suspicion written into every line of his body. "Yeah."
"Right." This isn't the way to handle it, he *knows* that, but Elizabeth's going to get it, that's all there is to it. "So what are you and Kavanagh working on?"
John follows him into the cool interior of Atlantis, as skittish as a colt, but at least he's coming along. That's really all he can ask. "The Daedalus hyperdrive," John says, voice rising in enthusiasm. "He's running simulations to see if we can reverse engineer Asgard technology, but he thinks that they're not giving us all they know yet, which is totally true, they're not. The math is all wrong, and he says if we can figure out where the gaps are, we could actually try and build one."
Rodney has a sudden, visceral memory of Sheppard falling asleep without closing his eyes during a department staff meeting. "Really."
"Really." He bounces ahead, skipping backward. "We could design our own ships," John says enthusiastically, "instead of being indebted to the Asgard. We could build ships that can go even *faster*, that create their own wormholes, so we wouldn't even need gates." John skips another few feet ahead, then pauses long enough for Rodney to catch up. "I'd better run up ahead, okay, so I don’t miss him? He said it'll take all afternoon to get a simulation running and I *promised*--"
"Yeah, go," Rodney says, surprised that his voice is so steady. "Grab a powerbar from my desk."
"Okay!" With a wave, John takes off, disappearing down a corridor in seconds, and Rodney decides that yes, now he can freak out. Now he can--
Rodney touches his comm. "Elizabeth? Are you busy?"
"No." Her voice sounds uncertain. "Teyla came by my office today. Did she talk to you--"
"Yeah, skip that, we have some bigger problems. I'll be there in five--" Rodney gazes down the loops of corridors and sighs. "Make that ten. Have Teyla and Ronon there. We need to talk."