Little Man Sheppard
Rating – K+
Disclaimer – SGA tis not mine, tisn't.
Synopsis – Kid-fic. Yes, I know, an ever-so-overdone plot device in many an opinion. I've come across many of them, but very few where it was only John who was turned into a child, and I wanted such a story, so wrote it.
Another day, another mission, another discovery of the kind that would have been better left completely avoided. It was funny in a cruelly ironic sort of way just how touchy and pointless so many Ancient-made devices were.
What the hell kind of scientific advancement could possibly come out of turning a normal, intelligent grown man into a rugrat? Next time Rodney came across an Ancient, he would slug them in the face, then ask them.
Rodney leaped into, then out of, the gate clutching the small, fragile cargo wrapped in a standard issue jacket to his chest. Said cargo was unconscious – more like napping – pale and limp with small fists curled against a thin chest. Rodney might have been wrong, Sheppard's current age could be five, even four. McKay wasn't sure. Crap, he tried to avoid children on a regular bases, so like he was going to waste precious escape time differentiating between the various ages. Whatever John's new age, Rodney had the impression he was pretty damn small for it. Probably one of those kids who'll hit a massive growth spurt in his teens. The only thing Sheppard about the little body was the dark hair cut short and the very slender build. McKay had always surmised John as being scrawny from the day he was born.
Rodney ignored all the shouting and demands to know what was going on. He headed straight up the stairs and into the hall, meeting the preordered medical team half way. The two nearly collided, but McKay didn't exactly noticed. His focus was on the bundle in his arms and setting that bundle on the gurney that had magically appeared out of nowhere.
"Rodney!" Carson breathlessly exclaimed. He pulled back the two halves of the jacket, revealing John's infantile face and bony little shoulders. Fingers shrunken but still as slender as always twitched in the throes of peaceful dreaming. Beckett didn't hesitate pulling away more of the jacket to look the curled, naked body over for injuries. His gloved hands felt carefully about the skull, down the back along the protruding backbone, over delicate ribs, then along the thin, loose limbs.
"There seems to be nothing physically wrong with him," Carson said. He looked up at Rodney. "What happened to him?"
Rodney had been hearing Carson's brogue, but the words didn't penetrate until the question. Rodney snapped his head up and flinched at Carson's sudden presence. "Huh, wha...? Wrong. What's wrong? What do you mean what's wrong! Isn't it obvious? Sheppard's been turned into a freakin' kid!"
Hell broke loose in an orderly fashion. Carson shouted orders while simultaneously demanding answers from Rodney. The gurney was hustled back down the hall into the infirmary where leads were attached to the chest and head, blood taken, and Sheppard's nudity finally hidden behind an over-sized scrub-shirt that was just going to fall off his shoulders.
"... we had no idea the entire room was one big super computer," Rodney babbled. "All I saw was a console and this circle that I assumed someone had to stand in to activate the stupid thing since it wouldn't activate when we touched it. Then there was this hum, a flash, Sheppard cried out, and the next thing I know a midget is curled up asleep in a pile of Sheppard's clothes."
Once the explanation was given, Rodney was shouldered from the main arena back to the front of the infirmary where he had to reiterate the entire story for a tense and impatient Weir. Rodney repeated the explanation faster than he had for Beckett. He was anxious to get back to that console, find the reverse button and fix everything. But his anxiety for Sheppard overrode his first anxiety and he stayed put. He satisfied the first anxiety by contacting Zelenka, filling him in and siccing him on the console instead – just until Rodney could join him later.
Thirty minutes and a lot of pacing later, Beckett finally bade them enter by pulling back the privacy curtain. Rodney, Weir, Ronon and Teyla surrounded the bed where Sheppard's midget body remained curled comfortably beneath a blanket. Wires trailed from leads attached to his chest and forehead, monitors beeping and taking steady readings.
"Well," Carson said, stuffing his hands into his pockets in a very professionally bewildered fashion, "He's perfectly healthy for a five-year old."
Five. Well, McKay had been close.
"His EKG patterns appear a bit skewed, but we won't know his exact mental state until he wakes up, and I can't say when that'll be."
"Hopefully it'll be when he's an adult again," Rodney muttered. "I'm going back to that temple, see if there isn't a way to reverse this." He started heading for the door. "Let me know if he wakes up!"
Ronon and Teyla followed, and they were accompanied by Lorne's team back through the gate. The temple was an island of white marble striated in gray floating solitary in an ocean of emerald green grass rippling in the wind. There were eight rooms, but only one with a console. He joined Zelenka, Lorne's team melding with McClain's milling about a safe distance from the copper ring flushed in the floor in the center of the room. The console was already safely gutted, PC tablets connected and readings being taken.
All of which was telling them squat. Zelenka tossed his hands up in frustration. "This console seems to have many purposes. Running this facility's power for one. And whatever that ring does for another. There are no explanations, only demands for appropriate input. I think whatever was done to Col. Sheppard was not meant to happen. There is either a glitch or the machine is so sensitive that anything is possible if the right commands are not given. The Ancient database may tell us more."
Rodney's radio crackled and he held up a finger, silencing the Czek.
"Dr. McKay," said the young marine on the other end. "Atlantis is on the line. They wanted me to tell you that the boy is awake."
Rodney tapped his com. "Tell them I'm on my way, McKay out." He unhooked his laptop and stuffed it into his bag. "Keep taking readings. I'll start sifting through the database."
Radek's eyebrows shot high up his forehead. "Really?"
Rodney paused long enough to give Zelenka a withering glare. "Yes, really. Now stop mocking me with shock and get to work." He slung his pack over his shoulder and hurried out with Teyla and Ronon hot on his heels.
They arrived back at Atlantis and the infirmary to be met at the entrance by a pale and shaky Carson. Rodney jerked to an abrupt halt, tossing his hands up. "Well?"
Beckett swallowed. "Well... the lad's got me buggered." He started moving, leading the way to John's bed. "Seems his brain was reverted along with his body, but not his memories. He knows who he is, where he is, even what his rank means and what his duties on Atlantis are, but... well, it's kind of hard to explain..."
Rodney pushed passed Carson when he saw Sheppard sitting up in bed, leaning back against a pile of pillows, his body shivering, his face wet with tears, but his features perfectly composed.
Carson sighed. "He's processing everything like a five-year-old and I don't think he's handling it well."
John looked up, his hazel eyes large and dark in that minuscule face, growing even bigger when they widened at Rodney's approach. The boy sucked in a hiccuping breath that made his small chest stutter. "Rodney?" he said, plaintive. "I'm different. I did something wrong. I'm sorry."
Rodney came to another abrupt halt, his heart constricting in his chest, a combination of panic, guilt, and pity making it hard to breathe. He honestly had absolutely no idea Sheppard standing in that circle would have done anything. Damn Ancients and their lack of instructions, but damn himself, too, for not bothering to consider actually looking for instructions. How many times had someone been flung into a wall, knocked unconscious, altered mentally, physically, emotionally by some random device that was too shiny and pretty not to activate. Raccoons and pack rats had better control than himself when it came to interesting trinkets.
Plus there was Rodney's complete inability in handling a distraught child.
Luckily, Teyla didn't suffer the same problem. She sat down next to John, scooting in close then pulling him up against her, wrapping one arm around his quaking shoulders while brushing his hair back. "You did nothing wrong, John. Is that not right, Dr. McKay?" She looked at him, lifting both eyebrows, encouraging him to respond by agreeing.
McKay felt like the proverbial deer in the headlights. "Uh... yeah. I mean, yes, it wasn't your fault. We think it was a glitch in the device, but we're not sure so... it may take us a while to figure this out, but we will. We'll have you back to normal in no time, I promise. Trust me on that."
Sheppard wiped the tear-tracks from his face and sniffed. "I do."
Rodney's heart constricted tighter. This was why he never liked kids. They were too honest, too open, unabashed in anything they had to say and way too damn trusting, and he really did not need that kind of pressure right now.
Rodney nodded his head hesitantly. "Right, good." He hooked his thumb over his shoulder as he backed toward the door. "I'm just going to get started on that right now, okay?"
Sheppard nodded again, all angelic smiles and large, hopeful, overly trusting eyes. Teyla pulled him in tighter. "I will keep him company while you do," she said.
It didn't last long. Zelenka had nothing new to report, and even a day's worth of searching had turned up squat in the database. Rodney didn't see Sheppard for the rest of the day, not even at lunch, until dinner rolled around. He had rushed to the mess and rushed back with a loaded tray to resume his search. The lab door slid open and, low and behold, there was Sheppard crouched on the floor with Teyla as he sketched stick-figures on a piece of paper with a pen. He was dressed in a child-sized shirt of home-spun white cloth and rustic brown pants cinched around his skinny waist by a leather belt. Both the cuffs of the shirt and pants were rolled up past his wrists and ankles, his feet bare, tiny toes curled.
Rodney looked from the boy to Teyla, lifting a finger away from his tray to point at the boy. "What's he doing here?"
Teyla rose fluidly and moved toward the door. "He insisted that he should be where you would be most able to find him should you discover something and needed him right away." She glanced back at John, then leaned in closer to Rodney, lowering her voice when she next spoke. "He was quiet and seemed uncomfortable most of the day. Dr. Beckett believes it is because you were gone. He believes that John would much prefer being near you since you are the one who can fix him. I agree with Dr. Beckett."
"Well the last I checked, Dr. Beckett wasn't a psychologist..."
"Dr. Heightmeyer also agrees."
And here he'd been disillusioned thinking Kate had always been on his side. Rodney rolled his eyes. "Well, they're wrong, and apparently have amnesia since they once knew of my aversion to children. I'm not good with kids, Teyla. This is a bad idea and I think you should take him with you."
Instead of doing just that, Teyla plastered on a kind smile and placed her hand on his shoulder. "You will do fine. I have spent all day with John and he has not given me any trouble. Give him a chance. It will go well." She then slipped past him, not allowing him the chance to argue otherwise.
Rodney sagged and sighed. "Face it, McKay, the galaxy is out to get you all because you up and destroyed a small chunk of it." He entered the rest of the way into the room, setting his tray next to his lap-top and settling onto his stool.
"Hi, Rodney," breathed a small, quiet voice. McKay swiveled around to Sheppard. The boy was upright on his knees, fidgeting with the pen in his hand. John smiled, his eyes lighting up in genuine happiness at seeing McKay. It wasn't quite a Sheppard-like grin. Almost, but a touch shy. John had never struck Rodney as having ever been shy. Quiet, definitely, but not shy.
"I, uh," Rodney stammered, "still haven't found anything."
"That's alright," John said, then hunched back over the paper to resume scribbling.
Shy and small. It was getting harder to associate Sheppard with the little pipsqueak huddled on the floor of McKay's lab. He'd always pictured Sheppard as a rambunctious brat, the kind that either asked too many questions or had no qualms about running up to strangers and delivering a good kick to their shins. It hadn't been a fair assumption in retrospect, but when Rodney thought of children he thought of the ones that cried at the drop of a hat and the ones whose only purpose in life was to make everyone around them miserable. He wondered if Sheppard's adult memories had altered the child-consciousness somehow, made it more mature beyond its years.
Rodney returned to his obsessive-like perusing, never taking his eyes from the screen even as he shoveled food into his mouth. When he reached out for the next food item only to encounter empty plates, he pushed the tray away. Time had no existence and he couldn't have cared less about its passage. He accomplished more when he ignored its presence, even if it did piss Carson off when ignoring led to three days straight of no sleep.
He heard the door whisper open behind him and ignored that as well.
"Uh... Dr. McKay?"
Rodney swiveled around to give Miko a heavy lidded look. She wasn't really paying attention to him but to something on the floor. Rodney looked down and his jolt of alarm set him sliding from his stool.
John was curled up asleep with his drawing clutched to his chest, and he was shivering.
Rodney's heart rocketed into his throat at the thought of hypothermia and possible pneumonia, and knowing his luck that would probably be the case. Again, him plus kids equaled very very bad idea. "Oh crap! Oh crap oh crap oh crap!" He dropped to his knees by the boy, placing his hand lightly on the sharp shoulder-blade and shaking the tiny body gently. "John, hey John. You need to wake up, kid."
John stirred, curling tighter, then opened heavy-lidded eyes, blinking blearily. "Mph. R'dny..."
"It's me. I know you kind of make your own bedtime, but I really think you need to go to bed right now."
John pushed himself up onto wobbly arms. "'Kay." Rodney pulled him to his feet by the armpits and escorted him from the lab, passing a bewildered Miko. John staggered, listing, continually veering so that Rodney had to steer him back the right way. After a while of this, a small hand slipped into Rodney's larger. Looking down at Sheppard, McKay doubted the kid even realized what he was doing. The boy might as well be sleep-walking and probably was.
It was a weird invasion of personal space and Rodney wasn't particularly enjoying the feel of a warm, clammy hand pressing into his. Neither did he try to let go. Sheppard would just start meandering the wrong way again. And since Rodney had a tendency to mentally wander, losing himself to his own thoughts, it wouldn't take much or long for Sheppard to get lost. Even with Sheppard's memories intact, snapping back to reality alone in one of the many identical Atlantis hallways still might spook the kid into ear-shattering squeals of panic.
Rodney looked down at the boy. He had to admit, Sheppard had been a cute kid. It was easy to admit what with John having yet to be a little pain in the ass.
They reached John's quarters, and Rodney pulled down the covers of the bed for John to crawl into, tucking him in afterwards. Rodney wasn't crazy enough to ever voluntarily baby-sit, but he felt that he wasn't doing too bad a job thus far. This particular part of it he was surprised to find rather enjoyable, seeing John slip back to sleep comfortable, warm, and perfectly peaceful. He stepped back admiring his handy work, staring at the small fingers curled around the blanket. Sheppard was so freakin' tiny. Rodney had to wonder if John had been born premature or had simply been tiny. Tiny and skinny, like a very active child. Maybe even a sick child, or the machine had done something, not so much revert as alternate. Too many possibilities.
What really boggled Rodney was the desire to stick around, watch John sleep and make sure he stayed asleep. It wasn't even that Rodney needed to stick around – John still remembered Atlantis, so would remember who slept where in case he needed them – yet he was finding it impossible to get his body to cooperate with his brain. Turn around, leave, back to lab, continue research. How hard was that? Very, since John could easily wake up, see he was alone and... cry? Wallow in terror? Get lost in Atlantis trying to find someone?
Rodney quietly snorted. He was being paranoid.
No, he was being protective. That's what this was. Tiny, skinny John looking innocent and completely helpless was provoking an onslaught of protective instincts. John was both his friend and a child, and they were combining forces to bring out some inner father/brother instinct that had remained relatively dormant until now.
Relatively being the operative word. Rodney had succumbed to protective instincts in the past, usually in the heat of battle when the chips were down and death was ready to slam its hand into some unprotected chest by proxy. What he was feeling now had nothing to do with any imminent death let alone danger. It was paranoia, but a fierce and unrelenting paranoia. A premature reaction to a lot of probabilities.
He supposed most would just call it him having a heart after all. It really was hard to turn away from that curled up bundle of vulnerability.
Besides, it wasn't like he had to do the research in the lab.
Rodney sprinted from Sheppard's room to the lab, then from the lab to Sheppard's room with laptop in hand. He settled down in Sheppard's desk chair and resumed sifting through mountain-loads of data, chipping at the peak using key-words and the like.
He wasn't even aware when his head slumped to his chest, wandering thoughts turning into incoherent dreams. Dreams of Sheppard stepping over the copper line marking the circle.
Just fire it up, McKay. Sheppard sounded annoyed, impatient, probably anxious to get home before dinner and not that Rodney blamed him. He hadn't realized how tired Sheppard looked. McKay assumed nightmares to be the culprit. Sheppard had been wraith chow only two weeks ago.
McKay flipped switches, pressed buttons, then cringed under the piercing assault of Sheppard's gutteral shrieking. He whipped around in time to see John crumple into a heap of dessicated skin shrunken tight around brittle bones.
Rodney snapped his head up with a snort, blinking blearily. He flinched in alarm at a pale face illuminated in the soft glow of the PC's screen saver. He let out a sharp, relieved breath recalling Sheppard's brand new state and that dead children were not said to haunt these halls. Relief recoiled at what John clutched in his tiny hands. McKay stiffened tight enough to snap his spine.
John clung tight to the butt of a Glock until his knuckles paled. "I had a dream," he said, dead-pan, tears flashing from his eyes tracing glittering paths down his face. "There were wraith, lots of wraith. They were everywhere, Rodney. I know it was just a dream. I didn't cry or yell or anything. Then, I remembered that... that... I'm s'pposed to get rid of them when they do come. I'm supposed to protect you." His next inhale hitched, released on a quiet sob. The boy swallowed, his bottom lip trembling, his tiny face screwing up as he fought against the tears and the terror because he was a big boy and big boys don't cry. "I need to keep you safe from the wraith."
It was getting harder to breathe. Rodney reached out with a trembling hand toward the 9-mil, only to have Sheppard pull the weapon back.
"I – I – I n-need this, to protect..." A small thumb slid down the handle toward the safety.
Rodney's hard slammed knocking the breath from him. Sweat slid from his hairline down his neck. "John?"
The safety clicked. The boy sniffled. "I need to protect... It's what I'm s'pposed to do."
"John?" Rodney squeaked. He cleared his throat carefully, trying not to move, not to spook the armed child who still recalled how to work a gun. Son of a bitch, this was messed up beyond description. "John, it's all right. We're safe. We're back home, in Atlantis. You don't need to protect anyone."
John shook his head. "The wraith'll come. They always do. I need to be ready." His finger felt its way toward the trigger.
Rodney's breath caught in his throat. He tried to speak but could only manage another squeak. "John," he finally managed. "John, uh..." It was really hard to think at the moment, and he'd already had the experience of working under pressure that happened to be a bunch of armed kids. This time it was different, because this time it was John, a gun, and a lot of confusion on John's part.
"We've set up watches and it's my watch," Rodney blurted. The idea hadn't even hit him, just the words. John blinked at Rodney as though waking up. Rodney's lips twitched in a panicked smile. "Yeah, We're keeping watch and it's my watch. You need to rest because you're not well, remember? So, uh, why don't you give me the gun, then I'll wake you when it's your turn, all right?"
John stared at him incomprehensibly for minutes that felt like hours. Rodney was just about ready to radio for help when John's finger moved from the trigger and his thumb switched the safety back on.
"Okay." He held the dormant weapon out to Rodney. McKay snatched it and tucked it out of reach into his waistband at his back. He melted in relief, nearly puddling on the floor.
"Good, very good." He patted John's shoulder. "Why don't you head back to bed. I'll keep an eye out for the wraith."
John nodded sleepily then shuffled back to the bed, climbing up onto the mattress and squirming back beneath the covers.
Rodney released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He didn't understand people. Children were a down-right unsolvable equation. But a five-year-old boy holding onto the memories of a fully grown adult and military officer to boot could not be healthy.
Actually, Rodney was pretty sure it was hell.
A visit with Heightmeyer was inevitable after Rodney had tattled about John's little adventure with the Glock. McKay left Sheppard in her care in order to return to the planet and help Zelenka speed things along. Except they couldn't. The supposed 'glitch' was buried deep, flitting about altering this program and that program like an interior decorator with ADHD. They couldn't pin the stupid thing long enough to determine whether it was one program in particular – one of the master programs - gone awry, or a virus.
Rodney wasn't able to stay long to find out. A call came from Atlantis for him to return. The moment he stepped out into the gateroom he was shuffled off to the infirmary where he found Ronon struggling with a hysterically screaming and squirming Sheppard.
"Lemme go! Lemme go! Rodnye's gonna die! I gotta keep him safe! Let me gooo!" He kicked, slapped, even gnashed his teeth in the general direction of Ronon's bare arm. Ronon had to do a little squirming of his own in order to avoid all the failing limbs, wide-open mouth, and accidentally crushing the fragile body. Teyla was next to Ronon trying to calm John, Kate on the other side doing the same, and Carson toward the back maintaining his presence in case needed while also making himself scarce. Everyone was frazzled, forcing calm but completely panicking.
Rodney hurried forward, shouting above the din. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! What the hell is going on! Shep... uh, John. I'm right here and I'm fine. What the crap's the problem?"
Either Ronon loosened up his precarious hold or John finally managed to wriggle free. The boy slipped from the Satedan's thick arms to throw himself at Rodney, latching onto a leg and wailing into the material of his pants.
"I'm sorry Rodney, I'm sorry! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry! They wouldn't let me go and I told them you need protecting and I'm s'pposed to do that but they didn't listen and... and... and... I have to protect you but they won't let me, I'm sorry!"
There was no actual thinking involved when Rodney crouched down and gathered John's shaking body into his arms, running his hand up and down the knobby, protruding little backbone. He shushed John, doing the whole comfort thing that, in truth, was terrifying him since he could just as easily accomplish the opposite. He had no idea what to say to make it all better, didn't even know if what he was doing now was helping. He looked to the others for guidance. What he got was a whole lot of uselessly reassuring smirks.
"You're doing fine, Rodney," Kate whispered.
Rodney was ready to argue the point when he finally realized that the noise had died down considerably, the wailing diminished to hiccuping sobs, the shaking to mild and periodic tremors.
"Now what?" Rodney whispered back.
"Assure him," Kate said. "Let him know everything's all right and that he isn't at fault."
Rodney nodded uneasily. "Yeah, yeah... I – I can do that. Uh, John, kiddo. It's good, it's all good. I already had protection. You didn't need to come. I was working with another team today. I do that, sometimes, if needed, you know that. I was safe."
John sniffled. "It's – m-my job."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "You're what, five? A five year old really should not be obsessing over serve and protect. Just think of it as being sick and grounded, and until you're better there's to be no going off world, shooting bad guys, or so much as flipping off the safety of a gun. You need to relax and enjoy the ride. You don't have to do anything, something of which you really need to get through your head."
Small fingers curled into the shoulder of Rodney's shirt. "What if... what if the wraith come?"
"Then the other soldiers will get them."
"B-but what if they die?"
"What if. Will you just relax? We're not in any danger, the wraith haven't popped their ugly heads in for weeks, and you're being paranoid, so stop it."
Another sniffle. "You're my friend. I have to protect you."
That statement hurt, like being kicked and told he was the most wonderful human being on any planet at the same time, and he honestly didn't know what to say to that. Not that it mattered. According to the evened out breaths puffing against Rodney's neck and the rise and fall of the small chest, John was asleep. McKay set him down on the nearest gurney and Teyla covered him up with a sheet.
"Crap," Rodney breathed, passing a hand over his suddenly aching face. The tension draining from his body was going to leave an ache in the morning. He looked at the others, feeling both shaken and pissed. "What the hell was that?"
"A five-year-old mind trying to process a fully grown adult's memories," Kate replied. She had a hard time explaining what she had come to learn because five year old John had had a hard time articulating everything. But she managed to wrap her diagnosis into a neat little package of John having his experiences erased rather than his memory. The memories, not counting the most recent, were more like vivid dreams to the boy. John knew they were real because, as he put it "they felt real" and since Kate had not argued otherwise, thus they were real (smart kid). He said the memories never came at once, just in and out, sometimes too fast, sometimes staying too long. Kate described it as his brain flipping channels until landing on something interesting.
In other words, there was no telling what memory would pop up next and how John would react to it. The dreams would be worse, aiding the recollection since there was no wrangling in the subconscious. The kid simply didn't have the means obtained over the years and lost to a stupid machine to handle the memories of a military officer who had seen a lot of bad crap in his lifetime. Given time, those memories would overwhelm him. Her diagnosis was to distract the hell out of the boy, either get him to focus on good memories or prevent him from any kind of direct thinking. It must have been a cold day in hell for the psychologist to suggest bombarding a child with TV and video-games.
Rodney was also asked (more like ordered when Weir was called in to join the discussion) to stay in the city and let Zelenka handle the repairs.
Rodney felt he'd been kicked without being told he was the most wonderful human being on any planet.
Physical exertion was good for both body and soul, or so said Teyla. Rodney sat on the bench of the gym, looking between his laptop connected via wireless to the Ancient database, and John going through the stick fighting motions with Teyla. Nothing fancy, just stick touching stick, Teyla forced to bend a little and John forced to stretch. For a lanky, uncoordinated toddler, the kid executed each move with perfect clarity, even the more complicated ones. Then Ronon dropped by for a little one on one time with the squirt, mostly holding his hands palm-out for tiny, pale fists to smack into.
They stuck around to watch as Ronon wiped the floor with a few marines. John was standing on the bench, hopping up and down as he shrieked pointers at the top of his miniature lungs.
"No, not like that! Yeah, yeah, like that! Lower, lower! you're not hitting him right, you gotta go lower!" He slammed his hands against his thighs and slouched. "Come ooooon!" he whined. "Loooweeer!" And he was right. Rodney was no expert but that one baby-faced marine kept plowing into Ronon's chest over and over, giving Ronon ample opportunity to grab the soldier for a deft flip over his shoulder.
There was ample amusement in the humiliation being suffered by the grunts that a kid knew how to fight better than them. Well, by gum, if only they knew, but the humiliation to John would be greater once back in his adult body.
All the excitement and frustration wore John down until Rodney was forced to carry the kid back to his bedroom. It was a short-lived nap time when John bolted upright with a gasp, searching frantically and asking where Ronon was.
"The wraith... the wraith are gonna... where's Ronon?" His eyes shimmered iridescent with tears ready to fall. Thankfully, being lunchtime, Rodney new exactly where Ronon was. He carried the boy to the mess where they found the Satedan already seated shoveling potato salad into his mouth. Rodney set John across from Ronon to get their trays. He returned to John smiling, swinging his legs back and forth as he chatted about what the marines had done wrong during the spar.
"They're, um... they're..."
"Impatient," Ronon provided.
"Yeah, and, um, think they're really cool when they're not..."
"Full of themselves."
"Yeah! They're not smart..."
"Don't think before reacting."
One of the mess hall grunts drifted by depositing an M&M cookie onto John's plate. The boy looked up with dewy eyes and a sickeningly adorable cherubic smile that put those creepy little Kewpie dolls to shame. "Thank you, ma'am."
John was completely shooting down all of McKay's expectations concerning kids, chalking it up less and less to the memories being the culprit. The boy was polite, said please and thank you, and did as he was told without the need to repeat. Military up bringing, had to be, or a really devoted mother hell-bent on raising a perfect little gentleman. McKay had had an aunt that obsessive when it came to her nieces and nephews since she couldn't have children of her own. Rodney had no doubts that him being her biggest failure the reason behind her disdain toward him.
Yep, a perfect little gentleman that Mrs. Sheppard would be proud of. Until he was over-stimulated.
The mess half staff, having been immediately smitten by the boy, kept approaching him with offerings of cookies, brownies, and other such snacks setting him up for a sugar-high from the tenth level of Hades. It made running diagnostics on the Jumpers rather 'entertaining.' John had been content enough with Ronon's safety not to become his shadow for the day. The moment the two stepped into the bay, John darted from jumper to jumper, squealing in delight, hugging each one and giving them names.
"Hi George!" He toddled over to Jumper two and pressed against the hull. "Hi Fred!" Jumper three. "Hi, um, Flash!" Jumper four "Hi Superman!" The use of cartoon characters was rather cute, and tolerable. It wasn't until the jumpers opened for John and the boy would vanish inside that Rodney felt ready to rip his hair out. John had managed to power jumper four up and almost lift off the ground during his game of 'escape the wraith'. He probably would have been up and out if Rodney hadn't thrown himself against the window, screaming at John to shut it down. John hadn't heard a word, he just didn't want Rodney left stranded, so open the bay door.
Rodney stumbled inside, blood roaring in his ears and pounding in his skull. "Are you crazy! You could have flown into a wall and crashed this thing! What the hell is wrong with you!"
John shrank even smaller into the pilot's seat, pulling his knees to his chest and hiding his hands behind them. "S-sorry."
Rodney would have preferred it if John had erupted into ear-splitting wails and a deluge of tears. The large, watery eyes dropping to the floor in fear and guilt, and the tremors vibrating through the little body, drilled an invisible fist into Rodney's gut. John was trying to be a big boy in his reaction and that didn't sit right. Kids were supposed to cry when they were upset, and especially when they were afraid, as much as McKay hated it.
Rodney sighed. "Ah, crap." Then crouched to be at eye level with John. "I wasn't mad. Well, I was. More scared than mad, actually. You could have gotten hurt."
"I know how to fly," John tentatively, and yet also stubbornly, replied.
Rodney placed his hand on John's knee and squeezed. "I know you do. But... but it's still dangerous. Remember what I said before about this being like you're sick? Well, that includes flying the jumpers. You're also a lot smaller than you used to be, which means you would have to stand on the seat to pilot and that's not safe. So you need to wait until your big enough to pilot again to actually pilot, okay? Can you do that?"
Sheppard looked even more dejected than when Rodney had yelled at him. "I can't fly?"
"Not yet." Rodney held up a finger. "But you will, I swear. This isn't going to be permanent. I promised you that, remember?"
John nodded, wiping his eyes free of the moisture still pooled in the bottom of his eyelids. Rodney nodded back. "Good." He gathered John into his arms and carried him from the jumper to set him down in the middle of the bay. He unhooked one of the many tablets being used to run diagnostics and thrust it into John's hands.
"Here. You do recall how to open Tetris or Minesweeper or Spider Solitaire, don't you?"
John tapped the screen and called up an older version of Mario Brothers Rodney could have sworn he ordered everyone to remove from the tablets. He shrugged all the same and ruffled John's mussed hair. "Good enough."
The diagnostics were completed by dinner. Rodney made sure to choose a back table where John would be more difficult to track by the lunch staff. Afterwards, Rodney took John back to his room, sat him on the bed, and gave him his laptop to watch one of Sheppard's small collection of movies. Rodney had never been happier for the existence of Back to the Future and the Best of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. McKay settle back into John's desk chair to slough through more database info using completely pointless key-words.
John fell asleep somewhere during Back to the Future Three. Rodney set his PC aside to move John's so he could tuck the boy in. Once again he was hit by that protective instinct that made it impossible to leave, and he decided that, maybe, he might as well bring in a cot or something. Either that or have John set up in his own room.
Rodney went back to his search, despising every minute of it. The silence of the room would have been absolute except for the gentle hum of the PC.
"Get it off meeeeee!"
Rodney started hard sending the chair rolling back until it hit the desk. He shoved the PC on the desk and bolted from the chair to the bed side. John was thrashing wildly under the covers, minuscule nails clawing at the soft skin of his neck. "Get it off me, get it off me, get it off me!"
"John!" Rodney grabbed both of John's arms and pinned them to the boy's chest. The small body arched, bucked, and twisted against McKay's hold.
"Get it ooooooffff!" John's chest deflated in a single shriek impossibly long for such small lungs.
Rodney, panicked half out of his wits, shook the boy hard. "John, wake up! It's a dream, just a dream! Come on, kid, you need to wake up! It's only a dream!"
John pitched forward planting his face into Rodney's shoulder and sobbing. "No it's nooot! It's not a dream, it's not! It's killing me, take it off, please, Rodney, take it off!"
Rodney pulled John to his chest, pressing his fingers into the boys carotid where the iratus bug wasn't. "You feel that? There's nothing there, John. It's gone, it's been gone. Yes, I know, it happened, but it's over now so there's nothing left to be afraid of. Oh, gosh, please tell me you also didn't dream of turning into a bug."
John wailed louder, right in Rodney's ear, making him cringe. "I'll take that as a yes."
It took a lot of reassurances to get John to calm down, but in the end the boy simply cried himself into a whimpering lethargy. Rodney was just as worn out as the kid and didn't even have the energy to pry John's death grip from his shirt. So he kicked off his boots and settled onto the bed with the child still in his arms. The boy sniffled, shuddered, and slipped back to sleep. Yet if Rodney so much as shifted to get a little more comfortable, tiny fingers would tighten.
McKay scowled. "Damn it." Then sighed resignedly. He could feel John's heart, still pounding, and the miniaturized ribcage's rapid pulsation. Rodney was pretty sure kids weren't supposed to cry themselves to sleep like this. He was definitely sure they shouldn't remain this panicked. It took a moment, too long in Rodney's opinion, for the boy's heart and breathing to finally settle back into normal rhythms. The unrelenting grip relented, and Rodney was free to turn over onto his left side so his right could get a little more circulation. John's bony knees and equally bony arms dug into his spine. He doubted a good-night's sleep was in the near future.
Please let this be over tomorrow, please, please please. He was begging no one and everyone in particular. Yes, this sucked in so many ways for himself, but he wasn't sure how much more John would be able to take, and that scared the hell out of him.
Rodney's prayer wasn't answered, not the next day or the day after or the day after that. The glitch was being a sneaky little bastard and Zelenka and his band of merry techs couldn't keep up with the stupid thing. McKay was chomping at the bit to go help, but John was still having protection issues, and Rodney refused to put the kid in any kind of danger by taking him through the gate.
John wasn't a hard kid to baby-sit. A few blank pages, some pens, and a tablet PC for when the drawing grew dull and Rodney could pretend the boy wasn't in the same room until lunch time. The memories worsened during naps and suddenly John's need to protect extended to Teyla, then Elizabeth. Ronon had already made the list. He needed to see them constantly, but seemed afraid to bug Rodney about it so would try to take off on his own. He always managed to find one of them, so Rodney finally, grudgingly, acquiesced to letting him take off whenever the need arose. Elizabeth and Teyla weren't happy about it. Ronon chalked it up to John being John and nothing was going to stop him anyways. Which was true. Rodney attempted to corral Sheppard by programing a very intricate lock on the door. It took John five minutes to by-pass it. It seemed Atlantis loved him even more as a kid than an adult.
The worst was the rest of the expedition that was blissfully unaware of the military commander's current state. Rumor had it that Col. Sheppard was missing in action, again, either taken by the Genii rebels or hiding from his "illegitimate child". The latter pissed Rodney off. Number one, they hadn't been in the Pegasus galaxy long enough for John to have a five-year-old kid. Number two, Kirk jokes aside, John was too damn loyal to ditch any child, so no way would he ditch his own child, let alone the mother of his child. Plus John had admitted, easily to end the stupid Kirk jokes already, that he had yet to really do anything that would end in him being a father. If he was going to be a dad, he wanted to be a dad the right way.
The expedition liked the quiet, polite little boy who said please, thank you, and had a smile that lit up the room. They slipped him cookies, candy, chocolate - anything sugar-packed from their own secret stashes. John took the sweets, stuck them into his pockets, stashed them in his dresser drawers, nibbled a few, but his heart never seemed in to stuffing it all into his face.
John wandered off during the night. Rodney had taken to sleeping next to John just long enough for the kid to fall asleep. He woke up to a cold spot on his back where a tiny, warm body should have been pressed and was drop-kicked fast into panic. He ran to Ronon to enlist him in tracking the kid down, and discovered said boy curled in an almost perfect ball against Ronon's broad chest. The Satedan had one massive hand lying gently across John's small side and the other arm he was letting the kid use as a pillow.
Rodney stood there long enough to gape, then snapped out of it in a fit of inspiration, darting to his room then darting back with a camera.
The next night Rodney found John whimpering in Teyla's arms as she rocked him while humming an Athosian song. "He dreamed of when Micheal took me," she explained. John eventually calmed down and slept. Teyla shifted to lift John in order to hand him back to Rodney.
McKay stepped back. "Could he stay with you tonight? Trust me when I say it would be better."
Teyla smiled, pulling the child back. "Of course."
The next day, Teyla brought John to breakfast. The boy was dragging some kind of stuffed animal like a shaggy teal bear with huge, pointed ears and little bat-wings instead of arms. Teyla said it was a Moncoya, a native animal of Athos. She used to keep one as a pet, then when it died Chaya had made a cloth representation to 'house the little beast's soul'. Teyla thought that John might like to have such a companion, even if it could not move or make sounds.
The next evening it was Elizabeth, like a mismatched order of events, each memory of the one being hurt or almost killed leading to another memory of someone else suffering the same. Like with Teyla, Elizabeth had John in her arms, rocking him as he muttered apologies for almost shooting her because Kolya was trying to drag her away. Unlike Teyla, Elizabeth had tears in her eyes, but then her scared-Sheppard moment had the add-on of guilt that didn't have any reason to exist.
Rodney's first experience with bathing a child was... interesting. Since it was Rodney's first experience, he couldn't say if it was because John was a unique child in a unique situation or just because it was his first experience.
It was a bunch of crap that the Ancient's only had eyes for showers. A room was discovered that had knocked the myth on its ass - a room devoted to a large, jacuzzi-sized tub complete with jet spray. It took a little fiddling to figure how to fill the thing in a way that wouldn't take the boy's flesh off. John stood off to one side, watching while nibbling on a fingernail.
"I think the water's too high," he said.
Rodney, sweeping one hand through the water to keep tabs on the temperature, narrowed his eyes. "It's fine."
"You're not supposed to have the water too high. I might drown."
Rodney looked over at the boy heavy-lidded. "And, what? Out of the recalling you've been doing you still managed to forget how to swim? Swimming's, like, your number two obsession next to flying. Okay, surfing is, but that still makes you a hell of a lot better swimmer than me."
John narrowed his eyes back. "Still dangerous."
Rodney huffed and flipped the small, silver lever that opened the plug. "There, happy?"
"No," John said. "Put soap in. I want bubbles."
"Demanding much? Sheesh. You'll have bubbles once the washing starts so just practice a little patience and wait."
"No. I want bubbles."
Rodney slumped against the wide rim of the tub, rolling his eyes. "Fine!" He exhibited his irritation by snatching up the black shampoo bottle and squeezing copious amounts of the blue, slimy liquid into the water. He let the tub empty until ten inches remained before flipping the plug switch and refilling the tub to get the soap to sud. "There, perfect level and enough bubbles to drown in. Happy?"
John nodded curtly. "Yes. Turn around."
"So I can take my clothes off, that's why. Turn around."
Rodney tossed his hands up in rising frustration but obliged to avoid further hassle. "Just for the record, this is kind of redundant seeing as how I'm going to see you naked once you're in the wa..." he glanced at the lumpy layer of foam floating on the tubs surface, "...ter." Yes, John was a very smart kid.
McKay didn't turn back round until he heard the lap and soft splash of water. He grabbed the wash-cloth reaching out to start scrubbing the baby-soft skin only to have in snatched from his large hand by Sheppard's tiny one.
"I can do it," he stubbornly stated with a hard glare and slight pout.
Rodney snatched it back. "You might miss something."
John grabbed again to start rubbing the cloth along his arm. "I'm not dumb, Rodney. I just think different. I still know how to wash myself."
Rodney acquiesced with a mutter and leaned with his arms crossed on the rim of the tub. "So, uh... what's it like being five again?"
Mounds of foam undulated when Sheppard shrugged. "I dunno. I don't really think about it."
"So what do you think about?"
Another shrug. "Stuff. Flying puddle jumpers, fighting wraith, spaceships."
Rodney twirled one hand in the air. "So... basic kids stuff. Okay, basic Sheppard stuff."
"Sometimes I think about if the new P-90s got invent-tory... invatory... inventoried," he frowned, "if they got that. Sometimes some of them don't work." John's hand paused halfway up his arm. "It's hard to think. I think of too much stuff, and it makes it hard to think of one thing. Gives me a headache."
Rodney rested his chin on his upturned fist, regarding the small, wet boy like a new piece of Ancient technology. Ga, it was hard to believe any of them had ever been that small, John especially. Right now, the kid would probably be considered a genius among those his current age. Rodney remembered what it was like to be five and, yes, thinking had been hard, even for him. The young brain was a sponge that sucked in everything and anything but at a rate conducive to processing it like picking up Legos one block at a time.
For John, it must have been like having the blocks poured into his tiny hands, some he grabbed, most he didn't. So of course he would have a headache. Rodney was getting a headache just thinking about it. No wonder the poor kid stayed so damn pale.
John scrubbed himself, washed his own hair, then had Rodney turn around so he could get out, dry off and dress himself. Yet as soon as he was done, he lifted up his arms for Rodney to carry him to bed.
John was more mature than a five year old had a right to be, than he should beToo blasted obedient to the point that, sometimes, Rodney thought he was just messing with him. He was also more screwed up in the head than any five-year-old boy should be, yet hid it well except when he dreamed and except during certain too quiet moments. Zelenka and the tech-squad had the glitch pinned down as a virus – a wraith virus activated when the console was activated, which explained a lot. They still hadn't figured out what the stupid console was for.
In order to maintain his sanity, Rodney snubbed the data base completely and occupied himself with his own projects. John remained out of his hair, the perfect seen and not heard child, except for the scratching of a pen, computerized music from some video game on the tablet, or quiet murmuring as he played with the stuffed Moncoya he had taken to calling 'Gizmo'. Rodney was rather surprised and proud at himself for the way he ignored all the noise. Until Sheppard started murmuring splat, splat, splat about sixty times. Rodney tried to tune it out. It wasn't curiosity that got him to turn around in the end, but a need to confirm a suspicion. John had drawn a circle, a ring, messy and imperfect and marked with funky symbols. The boy slapped his palm, over and over again, in the middle of that circle.
Splat, splat, splat. About the fiftieth splat, tears tracked down his flushed cheeks. On the sixtieth splat, he kept his hand on the paper, pressing until his arm shook, the tremor climbing up into the rest of his body.
Rodney's heart felt like it was trying to shrivel out of existence. He had no idea what to do, or even what he was doing when he moved from his stool to kneel on the floor next to John. He started off with a hand on the boy's back, rubbing gentle circles, then broke down and just gathered the kid to him, hugging him tight.
"Don't think about it," he whispered. "Just don't think about it. You did what you had to do, end of story." He reached out with one hand and crumpled the paper into his fist. "You had to do it, John."
John rotated between Teyla, Ronon, Elizabeth, and McKay at four hour intervals which seemed to do the trick in keeping the panic-attacks down. None of them could go off world, and could only head out of the city to the mainland if they took John and all four of them went along. It was a fairly obnoxious system that only McKay seemed to mind. Still, he did find it relaxing watching John play with the other children like a real five-year-old, and how Rodney always imagined five-year-old Sheppard was supposed to be.
The Athosian kids (thinking him some other-wordly refugee) liked playing wraith and Lanteans with him because "he knows how to play it right."
If only the kids knew. The irony was almost laughable when the urchins appointed John Sheppard to be John Sheppard. Again, because he does it right. He held the P-90 branches right, did all the stalking and hand-signals right, and came up with all the best plans that made the Lantean side winners each and every time. John was popular without even trying to be, and Rodney confessed to himself of being a little jealous. He'd had to put effort into his social life as a kid, the results usually making the efforts pointless.
John however, among these backwater kids in home-spun clothes and faces muddied from play, didn't seem too keen of the attention. Rodney wondered if it had anything to do with a particular planet that was like NeverNever Land meets Lord of the Flies, where the Lost Boys wielded arrows they were not afraid to unleash. When it was time to head home, the other kids whined, while John's little body sagged with secret relief.
Carson joined the ranks of the protected. John was with Elizabeth that night. She fetched Rodney from his own room about two in the morning, getting Teyla and Ronon to join the search. They headed to the infirmary with the intent of asking for Carson's help, only to find Carson on the floor dressed in a T-shirt and blue sweat pants with John in a fetal position on his lap, wide-eyed, whimpering, and shivering as Beckett rubbed along his hitching ribs. The doctor looked about ready to start bawling himself.
"He thought the wraith had me," he explained. He softly patted John's head. "Poor wee thing. No child should be suffering such experiences."
It took all of them to calm John down enough to get back to sleep, and Carson took him to his room for the rest of the night.
They distracted John with whatever they could, and Rodney swears everyone was enjoying it. It was both adorable and odd the abashed look on Ronon's face when he gave John a present wrapped in plain white computer paper. Sheppard tore into it with the true zeal befitting his current age, then let rip a peel of hight-pitched squealing, body shaking in unsuppressed ecstatic joy at the sight of little darts and jumpers carved from wood. The kid latched himself onto Ronon's leg screaming thank you over and over again before dropping to the floor to begin playing.
There was an almost irresistible cuteness to the boy when he was that damn happy, and both he and Ronon found it hard to look away as John played Lanteans and wraith.
Movie night happened every night, now. Everything PG and under and mostly animated or computer animated. They'd watched Finding Nemo three nights in a row until someone finally coughed up their secret copy of The Incredibles, thank freakin' goodness. Rodney couldn't get Dory's flakey little "just keep swimming" song out of his head.
There was always popcorn, cookies, a big bowl of M&Ms, pretzels and cheese-dip and, of course, milk and juice. It bothered Rodney – it bothered everyone - how little John ate each time around. In the beginning, he ate the needed amount to produce a stomach ache or two that Carson didn't approve of. Now Carson seemed to be lamenting the ailment as he was finding John's eating less and less satisfactory. Not the sweets, but actual meals. The boy didn't so much eat as pick and nibble, always with the complaint of his tummy hurting though Carson couldn't find a cause.
Oreo cookies and milk, however, were the kid's weakness. There was just no passing up dunking a chocolate and cream cookie into milk then letting the softened end melt in the mouth. There wasn't a movie night where the boy's face wasn't decorated in cookie-smears and a milk mustache.
There also wasn't a night he didn't fall asleep on someone's shoulder.
They watched the Last Unicorn, Elizabeth's personal favorite because she had loved the book. John, stuffed with cookies that also painted his hands and face in black chocolate and crumb-flecked cream, snuggled up between Rodney and Teyla. A dark-blue, kid-sized blanket woven by one of Teyla's friends just for John was pulled up to his neck. They were on the part of the movie where the unicorn is made human as the red bull looms dripping fire over her.
Rodney felt John shudder. "Can I go see Chaya?"
McKay physically jolted. For some reason, the question struck Rodney as being as equally as bad as if John had asked about sex. Good crap, the kid's innocent brain didn't need to be recalling that particular incident. He exchanged an uncomfortable look with both Teyla and Elizabeth. Ronon, not having been there, just looked confused.
"No," Rodney snapped, but curiosity and bitterness got the better of him. "Why do you want to go see her, anyways?"
He felt Sheppard's tiny shoulders shift in a shrug. "Dunno. Guess 'cause she was really nice. And I liked the sharing thing. It was really comfortable. Made me think of being hugged by my mom."
Rodney exchanged another look with the two women, this one bewildered. The only reason they knew of the sharing was because Sheppard had had no choice but to put it in the report. He hadn't been particularly happy about it, either. Rodney had cajoled for details, to which Sheppard responded by telling him to kiss off.
"Sharing?" Rodney said.
John nodded. "It's not like that dirty thing you keep calling it."
"Rodney," Teyla hissed. Elizabeth agreed with her by digging her elbow into his ribs.
"Yeah," John sleepily replied. "That thing. That's a stupid thing to call it. Makes it sound dirty. It was just talking is all, with pictures from our heads. It was all warm, like a blanket, and I felt really safe. It's kind of like... being really, really tired and going to sleep in your own bed. Chaya said I'm a good person, even though some of the things she saw from my head were scary. She still liked me, but I thought she wouldn't because of the stuff in my head."
A lump expanded in Rodney's throat. Crap, he'd never realized, never even considered... All the ribbing had been in part because getting a rise out of John was always good for the ego and a laugh, and part vindication for what he had honestly thought was 'glowy sex'. Of course, in his own defense, back then, everything Rodney had thought he'd known about John had been nothing more then snap assumptions based on outward actions and attitudes. He'd badgered John about the sharing, he'd never actually sat down once and asked, in all seriousness, what it had been like. As a scientist and as a friend, that was just plain inexcusable.
Damn the frowardness of children making him feel like a complete ass.
"So it definitely wasn't like the... other thing?"
John lifted his head away from McKay's shoulder, and the rueful twist of the kid's mouth and his look of mild discomfort was so John Sheppard it pricked Rodney with a little pain and a lot of regret, wishing for the adult version of the pipsqueak huddled next to him. Sheppard would have probably slapped him upside the head, and hell if Rodney didn't miss that as well. The colonel could give as good as he got like no one Rodney had ever met, since most of the people Rodney met just rolled their eyes and either ignored him or placated him like a spoiled child just to get him to shut up.
"No," John stated flatly, forcefully, just like adult John would have. He then burrowed deeper under the blanket and was asleep by the end of the movie.
Only two minutes after wiping cookie goo from the kid's face and tucking him into bed, John snapped upright, screaming, clawing at his chest. "Make it stop! It hurts, make it stop!"
Rodney managed to pull the boy's arms away, then rushed him to the infirmary when he started hyperventilating. John stayed there the rest of the night with an oxygen mask over his face. Rodney stayed with him, sleeping in the next bed.
Two weeks. It had been two weeks since John's change. The console still wasn't fixed and the bad news was that it was looking more and more like there was no salvaging the damn thing.
For a whole week and a half, the ramifications of the console's damage being irreparable had been completely ignored. Rodney swore they were being punished for it. Elizabeth called a meeting during Carson's turn to watch over John. There was no longer any putting off what they were going to do should what happened to John not be reversible.
The meeting was pointless, the vote unanimous within seconds. John stays. He stays, they take care of him, and if they have to...
If they have to, if it comes down to it which they know it will, they'll find a way to erase John's memories enough for him to start all over at the age of five. Rodney nearly lost his breakfast over that one, and by the slightly green pallor on everyone's faces, the feeling was mutual.
"I need to be there, Elizabeth," Rodney said. "I need to be there helping Radek fix that stupid console. We can't leave John like this, especially since the only other memory altering device we came across ended up frying Dr. Shilov's brain."
"What about John?" Elizabeth asked.
Rodney's shoulders sagged. "I guess... I take him along."
It was not a well-received idea, just a grudgingly accepted one.
John was the only one enthusiastic about it. Not as enthusiastic as Rodney would have expected, but the poor kid didn't look up to being excited. He was not sleeping well, eating well, and the stomach aches had reached the level of stomach cramps on occasion. And, yes, it was possible for someone so skinny to get even skinnier. Carson, as expected, wasn't pleased that the boy is going along, so volunteered to go along as well and keep an eye on him. Teyla and Ronon were a given.
They geared up, the whole team plus Carson and three marines. They went by puddle jumper in case they had to beat a hasty retreat or hide-out for a time. Teyla brought John dragging his little blue blanket and a brand-new, freshly stitched, sky-blue Moncoya since Sheppard didn't feel right about taking something of Teyla's, plus he liked blue. This toy he had also named Gizmo.
Rodney felt like they were heading to daycare to drop John off for the day. A marine piloted setting down right next to the temple. John, in the co-pilot's seat the whole time, swiveled back and forth, bouncing with excitement where as moments ago he was making sure everyone was geared up correctly and appropriately armed.
Zelenka met them outside the temple, updating Rodney as he led the way back inside. Marines were placed outside the copper circle like a wall to keep John from accidentally walking on it.
Rodney snatched the nearest tablet and began tracking the little bastard wraith virus down. He could see John out of the corner of his eye, crouched on the floor playing with the mini-wooden darts and jumpers with Ronon. The boy was lacking his usual gusto and Ronon seemed more into the game than him. About twenty minutes later, Rodney had made no progress and John was nestled in Teyla's lap, fast asleep.
He remained asleep the rest of the day. The virus stayed several steps ahead.
With a swiftly sinking heart, it started dawning on Rodney that he might not be able to fix this. Except he had to, because he had made a promise. He could fix this and he would.
A hand on his shoulder made him start. He snapped his head around and looked up into the concerned eyes of Beckett.
"I think it best to call it quits for tonight," Carson said. "I can barely get John to wake and he refuses to have anything to do with the MREs, and I'd really like to get something in his stomach."
Rodney opened his mouth to tell them to just go on ahead, only to snap it shut when he looked at John staring back at him. The gaze was heavy-lidded with the need for more sleep, but intent, penetrating, a pure Sheppard stare of the kind that said volumes without words.
I'm not leaving you behind, Rodney. Crap but that kid was sharp. Even at five he knew how to not put up with any bull. Rodney had no choice but to come.
The moment they were home they headed straight for the mess for a late dinner. The cooks warmed up some left-overs and whipped up chicken nuggets, fries, and mashed potatoes with boiled carrots for John – his favorite. This time it took gentle coaxing just to get the kid to nibble a few bites of each food. Carson, antsy the entire meal, finally broke, scooping John up and rushing him to the infirmary where he remained the rest of the night.
"He's suffering from depression," Carson said, just as wide eyed and gaping as the rest of them after he said it. "Kate just confirmed it. Bad sleep, poor eating and no desire to get up and about to name a few symptoms. Of course, John's chalking it up to being sick, poor lad."
Rodney felt like he'd been both kicked in the gut and punched in the face. "D-depression? How the hell does a five-year old get depres..." he stiffened since he knew good and well how John could get depressed.
It wasn't just the memories. John knew who he was, what he was supposed to be doing, that he wasn't who he was supposed to be. He had a duty to perform, but without the means and experience to do it. He was five years old with the weight of the world on his shoulders and Rodney was surprised the stress hadn't flattened the poor kid sooner.
"If it keeps up," Carson went on, "at the rate it's already going, it's going to seriously affect his health. Hell, it already is. I found the start of a bloody stomach ulcer. And his blood pressure... a boy his age shouldn't be suffering from high blood pressure! His immune system isn't what it should be so there's congestion building in his lungs." He leaned back against the gurney he was standing in front of, crossing one arm over his stomach to rest the other on so his hand could scrape over the stubble of his jaw. "I'm not saying this could kill him but it's still a possibility we can't not consider. If not failed health then failed psyche, and we don't have the resources to care for a mentally ill child., especially the needed medication."
Rodney's stomach twisted until he felt ready to puke. Death, mental illness – damned if they do and damned if they don't unless that stupid console could be fixed.
"Where is he?" Rodney asked.
Carson's answer was leading them to the back of the infirmary – the private sector – where Sheppard was lying on his back looking impossibly small and unnaturally fragile. He was asleep, but without the peace, his smooth face marred by stress lines, his brow and jaw twitching as he dreamed. They all stood around his bed, watching him, every broken heart manifest on every face. Even Ronon's. Rodney could see it in his tension, the way his jaw worked as he ground his teeth in impotent frustration.
"All right," Beckett said, thick-voiced, after a time. "I think we best leave him to rest."
Rodney raised his hand like some timid student. "Can... can I stay? Just for a minute. I... um... I'll be heading back to the planet and... and..." excuses refused to surface and it was making Rodney loathe his own brain. It didn't feel right asking for this. A little on the selfish side, as though he were the only one who gave a damn about John. If anything, he had no right to ask. It was his fault John was going through this. But a morbid, pessimistic little voice in the back of Rodney's skull wouldn't stop whispering that this might be the last time he ever saw John, sane or alive, which was a stupid yet persistent notion.
"All right," Carson said, straight-face but sympathetic. "Just a few minutes."
Everyone reluctantly departed leaving just Rodney. He moved to the head of the bed and took the small hand with its still-long, thin fingers into his own. That hand felt cold in his, frighteningly breakable as he rubbed the little fingers to warm them up. It never stopped amazing him that any of them had ever been this small, this delicate.
"Damn it, John," he hissed, pushing words through a throat that felt tight and unyielding. "Do not do this, do not freakin' do this to me. All right, I made a mistake, I admit it... been admitting it. I've sufficiently wallowed in my own guilt and learned a very valuable lesson about toying with crap I know nothing about. And, yes, it took turning you into a mentally unstable rugrat and not blowing up a piece of the galaxy to learn that so you don't have to say anything about it."
Rodney wrapped both his large hands around the tiny one that refused to warm. "I know you, Sheppard, and I know you're a fighter, so just keep doing that, all right? Whatever stupid bad memory that pops into your head, you shove it aside. Dig through them until you find the goods ones, or -or pretend they're just dreams. If you feel like you have to do something, protect someone, just remember that you're sick and don't have to, because you don't. Do something. Just for a little longer. I made you a promise and I'm going to keep it, I swear. I'll fix this Sheppard, I will fix this. I do my part, you do yours, that's how it's always been, right? So... you just keep fighting, and I'll keep working and – then – everything'll be all right, right? Hasn't been any other way yet."
Rodney fell silent in expectation of a response. The only problem was, this wasn't a movie and Sheppard was out cold thanks to exhaustion and medication. Rodney set the hand back on the bed, giving it a small pat before letting go. "I won't let you down, Sheppard." Then he left.
The virus refused to wield. It dodged, lunged, hid, and all out adapted to everything Rodney had to throw at it. They fought it with firewalls, anti-viruses, their own viruses and programs galore, but the little bastard kept on surviving, devouring programs and crapping them out into something else entirely. Whatever the console had been designed to do, it no longer did it.
"Rodney," Zelenka said, typing fast. "There's little of the original programming left, and the virus is picking up speed. This virus it's... it's like it was designed for the sole purpose of destruction, as though out of spite alone. The alterations have no purpose except to – what is word – muck up what this machine was meant to do. If it was meant to transport a life form, instead, it will turn that life-form inside. If was meant to heal..."
"It regressed a person's age," Rodney finished. Radek was right. The virus was nothing more than malicious glee in megabyte's clothing. Should all other computer viruses fail, send in the nuke just to piss the enemy off. It was practically juvenile.
And horribly effective.
The virus chewed up and spit out the last of the untouched programming, then shifted, soaking into the tablets trying to counter-act the stupid coding. Ones and zeros written in wraith flickered lime-green on the screen, munching away.
"Disconnect!" Rodney shrieked. Wires were pulled in a flash of guttering sparks. The console continued to glow but the tablets were killed, like a parting shot right as the upload was interrupted.
Rodney stared at the blank screen. He gripped the edges of the tablet until his knuckles paled, hoping to split the stupid thing in two.
With a snarl, he hurled it at the copper ring where it shattered in a shower of glittering black glass and miniature parts.
He'd broken his promise.
Rodney stood there, seething, hating the tablet, all tablets, the console, the temple, Ancients and Wraith. Above them all, as hard as he tried not to, he hated himself. He'd failed.
Rodney tipped back against the wall and slid down it to the floor.
He'd failed. He'd failed John.
He felt the slight weight of a hand on his shoulder, something to bat away, someone to scream at just to be screaming, except he lacked the will to do so.
"We need to get back," said Radek. "We need to tell everyone."
Rodney wanted to tell him to kiss off. All he managed was a numb nod.
John hadn't had the energy to pitch a fit over Rodney leaving without him, but he had whined quite a bit. Since it was apparent John wouldn't be able to sleep unless Rodney was close by, instead of suffering an uncomfortable infirmary bed, Rodney cajoled Carson into letting the boy sleep in his own room. His selling argument was that John would do better in the safety and privacy of his own quarters. So Rodney carried the tiny little bundle of skin and bones while Carson handled pushing the I.V.
"Ronon's trying to go back to the planet," Rodney said as he tucked John. "To take things out on the console."
"I don't blame him," Carson said.
"I say let him."
"What about Teyla and Elizabeth?"
Rodney smoothed the blankets out over John's body. "Elizabeth had to leave the room. She was already crying when she did. Teyla was quiet, and I mean really quiet. Kind of had this dazed look on her face. She's probably meditating. There's honestly no way John can stay on Atlantis?" He looked over at Carson. "I mean, come on. Sending him back to earth'll only screw him up more."
"So might keeping him here with all the memories involved." Carson exhaled a dejected breath. "I'm going to look into it, though, 'cause you're right. But I can make no promises. The bloody SGC'll push for him to be sent back."
"So they can stick him in some damn institution and forget all about him? I don't think so. And that's what they'll do. No one wants to be responsible for a kid with mental problems. He's better off with us. We'll say he died and hide him with the Athosians just until the coast is clear and questions aren't being asked. He can't go back Carson, that's all there is to it." Rodney looked back down at the boy. "He's still my friend, Carson. Our friend. He's still John in there."
Carson stepped closer, clapping Rodney on the back. "I know lad. We'll make it right for him, one way or another. I promise you that."
Rodney choked out a bitter laugh that nearly morphed into a sob. "Don't make promises, Carson. Crap, please don't make promises." He reached out with the intent to brush the dark hair back from the little scrunched forehead, except he didn't deserve even that much, so pulled his hand away.
There was no stopping Ronon from gating back to the planet, or so Rodney heard as he listened to the chatter on the com to pass the time. He was once again ensconced in Sheppard's desk chair, one tablet short, all focus on John in case he woke up in the middle of another nightmare. From the talk over the radio, it didn't sound like much effort was being made to stop Ronon. It was easier just to let the man vent in his own way rather than forcing him to do otherwise. Stopping a moving train was easier.
Rodney grinned and tapped his com. "Blast it out of existence, Ronon."
The com crackled. "Count on it, McKay."
Rodney tilted his head back and released a long, slow breath. He was exhausted, the kind of exhausted that, for some reason, wouldn't let him sleep. Instead he drifted, floating over a sea of his own recollections that did the impossible of making him both hurt and happy.
This is why parents get someone else to teach their kids how to drive.
Yeah, MALP on a stick!
Why does it smell like I'm at the beach?
So he just looks crazy.
McKay's chest tightened until he could barely breathe. He meant it when he'd told Carson that John was still his friend, size and age irrelevant. Rodney considered going back to Earth with the boy if it came down to it, be his guardian, give him a home, keep him safe and sane until the body fit the memories. Or Ronon could hide him in some came, or Teyla among her people. Whatever it took.
If it came down to that... when it came down to that.
Which would probably be tomorrow.
Rodney was flying the jumper perfectly, so had know idea what the problem was.
Sheppard was a back seat driver and a control freak and always would be, but like hell Rodney was giving up the controls.
They were almost there, what the hell was the man's problem?
Rodney snapped his head up with a snort and blinked blearily. He squinted at the lump sitting on the edge of the bed, then moaned, tilting his head back and rubbing his eyes. "John, it's too freakin' early..."
"Fine!" McKay rocked forward onto his feet. "I'm up, I'm up, what's the problem kiddo." He headed to the bed, then stumbled to a stop.
John grinned back at him: six foot, lean, scruffy adult John wrapped in his blanket to hide the fact that he was naked as betrayed by a bare, pale shoulder poking out of the top and bare, hairy legs out of the bottom. "Hi Rodney."
Rodney gaped and blinked.
"Guess what?" John said. "I got better."
Rodney continued to gape. "Wha..."
"Don't ask me how, I don't know yet."
"What did I just say?"
"But... wha... but..." Rodney managed, like some automaton, to stumble forward, reaching out until his hand touched the bare shoulder of solid muscle and bone – adult muscle and bone. He looked into John's stubbled face. "It's you."
John cocked an eyebrow. "Wasn't it always me?"
"I mean... you, you. Grown up you. It's you."
John inclined his head. "It's me."
"It's you. It's..." Rodney tapped his com hard enough to leave a bruise on his ear. "Carson, get your ass down to Sheppard's quarters now!"
The com crackled and a sleep-heavy voice replied. "Rodney, what's the bloody problem? Is it John? He's not vomiting blood is he because ulcers can lead to that..."
"Stop asking questions and come now!" He pulled the com out of his ear to prevent further questions, and stared at John. "You."
A smile broke out on Rodney's face, one that felt too big to fit. His breath stuttered, hiccuping on an airy, hysterical chuckle. "You," he pointed at John, wagging his finger under his friend's nose, "so owe me!"
John kept on smiling like the sleepy kid of only the other day. "Glad to be back, too, McKay."
Carson arrived and nearly tripped over himself at the sight of adult John instead of baby John. He fumbled with his equipment, barely getting his stethoscope to his ears. The blanket was tugged down to bunch around Sheppard's narrow waist. He was still thin; skin, bone and muscles instead of just skin and bone, but with a little more visibility of bone that worked with the pallor of his skin to maintain a ghost of fragility. A thick, adult spine pressed against the skin of his back. Sheppard was told to breathe in, adult ribs stretching the skin of his flanks. Carson checked John's adult throat and flashed his penlight into adult hazel eyes. Every visible square inch of him adult. Everything not seen Rodney would just safely assume was adult and didn't care to find out otherwise.
"How do you feel lad?" Carson asked
John blinked languidly. "Tired. My stomach kind of hurts."
Carson, smiling from ear to ear, nodded. "Aye, I imagine it would. Let's get some clothes on you and move you to the infirmary so I can run a few test and get that stomach ache dealt with. Are you hungry?"
Beckett patted John's shoulder. "Good enough."
John shuffling like a sleepy kid dressed in a sweat-shirt and black training pants down the hall sent Atlantis spiraling into a gentle tizzy. Word spread fast, bringing Ronon, Teyla, and Weir all still in their nightwear meeting them half-way to the infirmary. Ronon nearly crushed John into oblivion with a bear hug. Elizabeth was more gentle, and Teyla had to be pulled away from John's forehead after three long minutes of traditional Athosian greeting. It felt like hours before Carson finally managed to get John to the infirmary.
Tests were run. Sheppard's brain waves were still a little "wonky" according to Carson but righting themselves even as they spoke. Physically, John Sheppard was one hundred percent adult male.
The only thing Rodney could figure was that destroying the console had set things right, maybe breaking some continuous signal stretching across lightyears. Or, maybe, whatever was done had simply worn off. In all truth, and for the first time ever, Rodney didn't give a damn. John was fixed and that was all any of them could ask for.
Beckett had John hooked to a new I.V. of medication to help with the lingering ulcer. They stayed with him as he ate a breakfast of oatmeal and milk since it was gentle enough for John's ailing stomach. Sheppard recalled being a kid like it was a dream, which was pretty much how he remembered being five the first time around. They joked and laughed about it, the parts that were funny, anyways, like bath time and movie night and the wooed mess-hall staff, until Carson chased them off so John could rest. Supposedly, changing from a kid to an adult overnight wore a body out. Sheppard was asleep as soon as he eased back against the pillows.
Rodney waltzed casually into Sheppard's room where he found the pilot setting Gizmo on a shelf behind the little wooden ships. He was still dressed in the same sweat-shirt and pants, having just been released from the infirmary twenty minutes ago since there hadn't been a reason for him to stay long.
"You're not five anymore, colonel," Rodney said. "No more me dropping everything to come charging in at your beck and call."
John moved back to his bead and eased himself down on the edge. He grabbed the little blanket, folded it up, and set it at the foot. "Being the big boy that I am again," he smiled up at Rodney, "I think I can handle everything by myself."
"Good, because you kick in your sleep – hard."
John averted his gaze to anywhere but Rodney, clearing his throat uneasily. "Yeah, well... you definitely don't have to worry about that anymore."
Rodney clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels. It helped in his fight against the desire to go poke John in the shoulder, just to make sure, again, that what he was seeing was real and that he hadn't slipped into some kind of a delusion. "So... you called me down here for small talk or to lay down the law of what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas?"
Sheppard occupied himself with plucking at a loose thread on his blanket. "What happened happened, and I don't care what happened. I'm just glad someone was there."
Rodney stopped rocking. "You're not hitting any abandonment issues, are you? Of course we were there. Why wouldn't we be?"
John shook his head. "Just remembering what it was like to be five. You wouldn't believe how hard it was to keep myself from whining for mommy." He stopped plucking and just stared at his blanket, long and sagely. "Thank you, Rodney."
Rodney swallowed. "For what? What's there to thank me for? Turning you into a kid or failing to change you back? I should get Ronon in here seeing as how he's the one you need to thank." He started backing toward the door.
"You can't keep all promises, Rodney," John said. "Sometimes all that matters is the attempt."
Rodney paused. "I failed, Sheppard."
"You took care of me, Rodney." John looked up at McKay with that intent, penetrating stare of his. It wavered, flickering like a dying light. Between the flickers was the lingering, unwavering trust of a small boy in a big world who knew everything would be all right because his best buddy was there. "That's all that really matters. I don't care about the rest of it."
Rodney's throat tightened while something in his chest loosened, like he'd been hugged and told he was the most awesome human being in both galaxies. He hated moments like this; never knew what to say, how to react. He cleared his throat, working the lump trying to obstruct it lose.
"You still owe me," he finally said.
John grinned a very John Sheppard adult grin, stood, went to his dresser, and pulled a cellophane wrapped Hostess cupcake from the middle drawer, tossing it to McKay.
Rodney caught it, looked it over, and shrugged. "It's a start."
"I doubt it'll have an end, though. Lunch?"
They headed out together, Sheppard clasping Rodney's shoulder. "You'll make a good dad one day."
Rodney beamed. He couldn't help it. "You really think so?"
"Hell yeah. You'll do great."
"Why, thank you, Colonel."
"Although, I have to say, the thought of a litter of mini-McKay's is rather frightening."