"I'm being reassigned?" Woolsey stared at O'Neill, disbelieving hope in his voice.
"Well, you kept asking," O'Neill said reasonably. "And applying, and applying. Actually, you've got a whole filing cabinet of your applications somewhere -- aren't you gonna miss having the form-filling as a hobby?"
On any other day, Woolsey might have twitched in annoyance, but this news was too good to allow anything to spoil it. "But I'm being assigned to somewhere that isn't Atlantis?"
"Well, it's not like we need Atlantis any more. Or like it's a possibility any more, actually, now they crash-landed it onto the ocean," O'Neill commented. He flicked an envelope across the desk. "Here."
Eagerly, Woolsey opened it, and read it. Then, he reread it. It was a full two minutes before he seemed to find words. "This is for M7G-677."
"That's right," O'Neill nodded cheerfully. "Apparently we need a representative up there -- you know the kinda thing, set up trading agreements, make sure everyone likes each other."
Woolsey just kept staring at the page, as though looking might change the words on it. "Isn't that the planet where everyone's under twenty-four?"
"Is it?" O'Neill's forehead wrinkled for a moment, as though in honest puzzlement. "Well, well. Guess they must have thought you had the experience for it."
"But-" Woolsey swallowed, searching again for a response. "I never applied for this," he blurted finally, words coming in a wail, as though that made one iota of difference.
"Really?" O'Neill scratched his head. "Guess they must have head-hunted you." He smiled at the other man calmly. "Guess you must just have been that good."
"Anyone want a skateboard?" John held it up hopefully. "It doesn't fit in my case."
"As I remember, it didn't seem to fit in your case on the way here either," Carson commented, glancing up. "Never stopped you then."
It had taken some weeks for them to be allowed back onto Atlantis to gather their possessions -- enough time for them to heal up, and be allowed to escape from the gazes of proud and suddenly over-protective parents. Now it was a case of re-discovering where items had fallen during a bumpy crash landing, and packing them up to go home.
At least, home as far as any place they hadn't seen for eight years could be counted as home at all.
"Yeah, well," John sighed, setting the skateboard back down. "I can't see my father being too impressed if I bring a skateboard back with me. I'll be lucky enough to sneak by the comic-books."
Carson softened at his tone, setting a pile of clothing down on his bed. "You two not getting on?" he asked in a low voice.
"It's not -" John shrugged awkwardly, waving a hand. "I know he's proud of me and all, but he wants me to go to Harvard. I mean, do I look like a Harvard kid to you?"
"Not at all," Elizabeth chipped in, joining the conversation without waiting for invitation. "Your shirt's all wrinkled, and your hair's a mess."
John made a face at her, making a cursory attempt to drag his fingers through his hair.
"I thought David was going to Harvard," Rodney said with interest, moving to finger through John's books. "These are mine. Have you been folding the corners over? I hate it when you do that."
"Must've been Ronon," John lied cheerfully without hesitation, knowing it would go no further than that. "And David is. And he likes it there, and we're getting along better now but.. I'm not David. And Harvard sounds boring."
"At least you know where you're going," Rodney grimaced. "I'm not sure I'll ever be allowed out of my parents' sight again. They keep staring at me as though if I walk 'round a corner without them I'll drop down dead."
"How's Jeannie?" Elizabeth asked softly, and he flushed, ducking his head for a moment.
"She's -- the nightmares are better now," he said carefully. "It was just with Kolya -- I think she's glad to be home. She needed to be home." And it couldn't be unexpected really, that a ten year old who'd lived through the end of a world might end up with some bad dreams in the aftermath. It wasn't even unexpected that fifteen year olds who'd lived through the same experience should end up with nightmares -- but no-one seemed to really want to talk about that.
"At least you'll be glad to be heading back home, hey, Carson?" John said, quickly changing the subject away. "What with your million siblings and --" He peered a little more closely at Carson, slightly incredulous. "Are you sweating?"
Carson squirmed. "It's this jumper," he admitted, tugging at the neck. "And the t-shirt. And, uh, the vest."
John stared at him, trying not to laugh. "Your parents afraid you'll catch a cold?"
"I don't think they've realized this isn't Scotland," Carson agreed uncomfortably. "Mum keeps on going on about me catching my death -- I'm bloody boiling."
"Keep treating you like you're Jeannie's age?" Rodney said sympathetically. "Mine keep trying to send me to bed at ten o' clock." He scowled. "You save the world, and when you come back you get a bedtime."
"You will have quiet to sleep in at least now, Rodney," Radek offered, as though in consolation. "No one will be breathing at you any more."
"I know, but it's too quiet now," Rodney complained. "I keep waking up and thinking you've all been kidnapped in the night, and I'm the only one left, and oh, hey, the Wraith are coming. I'd gotten used to your weird noises."
"It's.. odd," Elizabeth admitted it quietly, carefully. "I mean, I wanted to go home to my parents, but now I'm home, it's --" she hesitated, searching for the words. "We don't know what to do with each other. And there doesn't seem to be enough to do, not really. I keep feeling as if I should be working, doing paperwork, stopping Rodney from blowing things up or something and.. we're not meant to do any of that. Because we're fifteen."
"My people want me to be a hero." Radek owned up to it awkwardly, slightly flushed. "And... I do not know how to be a hero. I do not feel hero-shaped."
"That's all right," Rodney reassured him, "tell them it was all my work mostly. They'll understand."
It earned a snort from Radek, but John was frowning thoughtfully. "You know, they're sending Teyla and the others back to her people now," he said, "once they're packed. And.. I don't even know where they're sending Ronon."
"It's not as though he has a home to go back to," Elizabeth agreed, looking faintly worried.
"He does have a home." John looked angry for a moment, shoving clothes into his case. "It's just that it's here."
"But no one's going to let us stay here," Carson said gently. "We're kids. We're meant to be at home. With our parents."
"Do you think we'll get to come back?" Elizabeth asked, glancing around, as though taking one last look at the place. Her lips twitched for a moment into a smile. "When we grow up?"
"If we pass the right exams." Rodney said it drily, sarcasm punctuating his words. "Get the right qualifications."
"You'd think saving the world would be enough qualification," John complained, then paused, hesitating. "Actually, why isn't it?"
"Because the people in charge don't think it is," Elizabeth said wearily. "You know that."
"But the people in charge aren't here on the city, right? Not right now." John's face was alight, considering this new possibility. "Did they put a new ZPM in?"
"Did the doors open when you came in?" Rodney asked. "Is the light on above you? Then they put a new ZPM in. The old one was dead."
"We will get into trouble," Radek warned, looking a little worried as John stepped back from his case.
"Yeah? We're the people flying a giant city-ship," John pointed out. "What are they gonna do, send us to bed early?"
"John.." Elizabeth started, warningly, looking at him.
"If you don't want to come, we can send you home," John offered. "Actually, once we're in the air we can send anyone who doesn't want to be there home. No reason the stargate shouldn't work for that." He grinned. "If we can talk 'em around, we could even use it to go home for flying visits. No reason not to now."
She hesitated, then shook her head, starting to laugh despite herself. "You'd all only end up getting shot on your own."
"But what are we going to do?" Carson asked, feeling himself get pulled in, feeling the temptation of staying in the city crying out to him. Family was family, but after eight years, it was hard to deny that this was home.
"Do? Not all of the Wraith-ships got caught up in our mirror-thing when we went through, did they?" John demanded eagerly. "So, we go back to the original plan -- the one they gave to Teyla, and all the other kids from other planets when they dragged them here. We do what we were always meant to do. We fight Wraith!"
"You say that the planet you destroyed was completely unpopulated." And things ended where they always seemed to end, in paperwork and an IOA meeting.
"So the kid, McKay, said." O'Neill fidgeted in his chair, impatient and ready to be out of the meeting a good half-hour ago. "They'd done the math, apparently. Billions to one chance that the universe could support life at all, let alone sentient life."
"The boy, Rodney McKay, is fifteen years old," his questioner reminded him, seeming unsatisfied with this answer. "It is to be expected that he is capable of making mistakes. Do you believe that the planet you destroyed was unpopulated?"
O'Neill hesitated. He remembered those last few minutes too clearly, the way a nightmare could linger with you for longer than it should. The moments of speeding towards the planet, seeing the Wraith-ships, and letting loose the last weapon he had, knowing that it was a mercy in this situation. The fiery hell that seemed to envelop that Earth, throwing his ship backwards.
Nothing could survive that, had it been living on the other side of the flame. Nothing at all.
Had he been able to glimpse, from space, in those last desperate moments, anything that might indicate human habitation? Would he want to remember if he had?
"Unpopulated," he said firmly, looking the other man in the eye. "No question of it."
Sometimes, you believed what you had to believe if you were ever to come away with your sanity intact.
Alarms blared once more, lights flashed red, screens filled with warnings, and O'Neill came into the gate-room at a run. A racket like that, he had learned from long experience, it was better not to wait around before investigating.
"What is it this time?" he demanded, uncaring of the meeting he had abruptly abandoned. "Not Wraith again, surely? Something like that, I want at least a year before we get another run up at it. Two apocalypses in a year is just greedy."
"Not Wraith," Jackson was already at the screen and, O'Neill noted with some relief, when he looked up, he seemed on the verge of laughter. "Your little monsters again."
"What?" O'Neill craned to see over his shoulder, and as Jackson began to reel off the long technical explanation which put into words what the screens already showed all too clearly, he found that he was laughing too, caught between humour and outrage.
Invisible and unchased, safely screened from Earth's radar screens, Atlantis rose from the ocean and vanished off into space.