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Summary: "I created that virus, Sheppard! Just like I reprogrammed the incubator! And both times I fucked up beyond all redemption and other people suffered for it! Are suffering for it! And I can't fix it. I don't know how. I can't."

Updated: 14 Jul 2009; Published: 14 Jul 2009

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Story Notes:
Just like the other four stories in this series, I owe thanks to Lavvyan for creating the AI John 'Verse in the first place, and for allowing me to grab the idea and take it in a very different direction.

I also must thank the wonderful (and courageous) AnnieB1955 for her swift and meticulous beta (I have no idea how she caught all those typos--or how I missed them). Considering her hands were aching with arthritis, she was also incredibly kind. Any mistakes are mine, not hers, though some of the grammatical errors might have been left in deliberately (it's my style! I swear!).

Last but never, ever least is my sister Squeaky, for whom this was written (it is now a rather belated birthday present), and who also served as alpha and beta for this, as well as giving me some of the best ideas in it, as usual. Thank you so much, Squeaks.

Finally, I'm sure I hardly need to include this by now, but the title comes from the song Sixteen Tons, of course.


Is something wrong, she said
Well of course there is
You're still alive, she said
Oh, and do I deserve to be
Is that the question
And if so...if so...who answers...who answers...

---Pearl Jam, Alive



In retrospect, Dr. Rodney McKay figured he should have seen it coming.

And, if he was being honest, he might have if he hadn't been too mired in his own misery to pay attention. His new staff was sickeningly obsequious and disgustingly stupid, and he had almost no access to any useful technology despite being exiled to Area 51. They'd even let Lee--Lee!--keep the puddle jumper for analysis, which was such insult to injury that it felt like pure spite. Not that any amount of technology would have made up for the loss of his team, or being so far from John. Especially not for being so far from John.

Rodney had at least been able to get Cordelia assigned to his lab, though the PhD he'd added to her (completely fake) dossier had helped. Cordelia and the Lesser O'Neill had wanted to stay together of course, but General Landry seemed to have gone out of his way to split up all the Atlantis Gate teams. Cordelia had worriedly told Rodney that O'Neill was more angry and taciturn every time he spoke to her, and Rodney knew John was slowly going out of his mind.

Maybe Landry was making their work environments intolerable on purpose, trying to make all the former expedition members quit. It would be great for the SGC's budget, Rodney was sure. But Elizabeth had quit, and she'd all but dropped off the face of the planet.

So, all-in-all, Rodney thought that he might have had a reason not to have noticed Cordelia's increased secretiveness, or the ever-darkening rings under her eyes, or the way she kept borrowing tools and not bringing them back for days. (Okay, he did notice that one, but he hadn't thought much about it. He took tools from the lab all the time.) Cordelia had her own apartment near the base and a daily pickup and drop-off, and as long as she showed up for work and did what Rodney wanted, her free time was none of his concern. Besides, she'd been as unhappy as he was, nursing her own homesickness and heartache, so how could Rodney fault her attempts to occupy her mind?

Maybe he should have gotten suspicious when he noticed all the emails she was exchanging with Radek and Dr. Falobi, but she still finished her work on time, and after all he exchanged emails with Radek almost every day himself. Maybe it was the dull fog of frustration and resentment he constantly found himself in, but none of it mattered.

In retrospect, even if he had known, Rodney doubted he would have cared.

Of course, that was right up until the point Cordelia called him at his apartment at eight o'clock on a Saturday morning, and the crack in her voice had Rodney fully alert even before he heard the words, 'help', and 'Lindsey', and 'broken.'

***

"I'm sorry," Cordelia said again. Her eyes were red and she looked like Radek did at his worst--all wild hair and smudged glasses and overly-wide, desperate eyes. She sniffed and Rodney wondered if she'd given herself a cold. "I'm sorry. But I can't get it to work. I tried everything. I don't know what to do."

Rodney carefully shut the door behind him, locked it, then stood blinking, one hand over his mouth as he thought about how he could have missed this, when in hindsight it was pathetically obvious what Cordelia had been planning to do.

She'd bought a PlayFriend. Either with nearly all the backpay Rodney had carefully hacked into an account for her or she'd robbed a bank or something, because the inactive AI lying on the scuffed wooden floor of her apartment was top of the line, like the kind Rodney had thought he'd bought when he'd got John instead. It was a male body: young-looking, with light brown skin and black hair. Rodney assumed the eyes would be Cordelia's dark blue-green if it ever opened them. It looked so human that for a second Rodney had thought Cordelia had murdered someone before he saw the USB cord snaking away from the corpse's head into her laptop. There was another USB cord connecting the computer to what had been Eight's backup memory storage, but now held the coding--the consciousness--of Seven, her brother.

"I can't believe you could possibly be so stupid," were the first words out of Rodney's mouth. "No, I'm serious," he continued against Cordelia's eyes going impossibly wider. "You weren't born this stupid, and you sure as hell weren't built that stupid, so what is it? Do you miss your boyfriend so much you're incapable of independent thought anymore? Were you bored? Is that it? Because I was sure I was working you hard enough, but obviously you've got too much spare time if you can lose enough brain cells to possibly believe this was a good idea. What the hell were you thinking?" He was nearly shouting when he got to the last part.

"I was thinking I want my brother back!" Cordelia yelled.

"You weren't thinking at all!" Rodney shot back. He gestured violently at the eerily corpse-like AI. "First of all, a PlayFriend's core processor can't hold nearly that much data. You'll effectively give Seven brain damage if you try to cram him in there. Second, what the hell were you going to do with him if you even made this work? Did you think about that?"

"Yes I did!" Cordelia could snarl with the best of them when she was angry. She reminded Rodney of himself, with a bit of John thrown in around the narrowed eyes. "I altered the processor to be able to handle the extra data. Radek and Linda taught me how."

'Linda' was probably Dr. Falobi's first name, not that Rodney had ever learned it. He crossed his arms and glared at her. "Did it work?"

"I don't know!" Cordelia snapped. "I can't enable the download!"

"Good! Because you're not going to do it!" Rodney bent and yanked the USB cord out of the AI's head, then let it drop on the floor. When he faced Cordelia again her fists were clenched in rage. "What were you planning on doing when we went back to Atlantis? Turn him off and put him in your storage locker? Take him along as a personal item?" He winced inwardly, remembering all-too well how he'd had those exact thoughts himself at one time.

"We're not going back to Atlantis!" Cordelia burst out. "We're all stuck here on Earth and I'm all alone and Seven will be dead forever if I don't do this!" She swallowed then started to cry. She wiped her eyes immediately with her fingers, knocking her glasses askew. "But I can't make it work and I don't know why and you're not going to help me!"

"Oh no," Rodney said, putting up his hands as if to ward away her emotions. "Oh, no. Please, please don't cry. I can't take it when people start crying."

"Screw you," Cordelia said, making Rodney blink. "Deal."

"Oh, damn it, come here." Rodney held out his arms, and when Cordelia didn't move he walked to her and wrapped her up in them. "There, there," he said, feeling horribly, horribly awkward and desperately trying to remember what Jeanie had done the one time he'd witnessed Madison crying. "It's okay. It's okay. You'll be all right."

Thanks to her heritage, Cordelia was smart enough that sometimes it was easy to forget how, in many ways, she was still emotionally immature. Dr. Heightmeyer had said she was like someone in their late teens, which was practically a child as far as Rodney was concerned. And he'd known she was lonely and sad. He should have guessed that she'd do something rash and childish like try to Frankenstein herself a sibling.

Rodney felt so out of his depth here that he kind of wanted to cry a little bit himself.

"I'm sorry," he said, still patting her back. "I'm so, so sorry. I know you're lonely. Everything here is different and awful, isn't it? I feel all alone too." He felt Cordelia squirm and he loosened his grip, expecting her to let go, but instead she wrapped her arms around his waist and put her head against his chest. She was still snuffling, and Rodney sighed inwardly at his shirt getting wet and possibly having snot on it.

"I just want my brother back," she said.

"I know," Rodney said. "I know. I understand. But even if it worked, he couldn't come back to Atlantis with us. And how would we explain him to the SGC? They'd want to keep him and study him. You know they would."

Cordelia pushed back from him, wiping her eyes again. She sniffed. "We're not going back to Atlantis."

"Yes we are," Rodney said, surprising himself with the weight of his conviction. "And when we do, the first thing I'll do is make a new body for Seven, okay?" He smiled and resisted lifting her chin with his finger because Jeanie always loathed that. "And, tell you what--I'll fix the incubator so he'll be a boy, just like you want."

Cordelia sniffed again. She didn't smile, but she looked marginally more hopeful, he thought. "You can fix it?"

Rodney grinned. "Didn't I tell you? I can fix anything."

***

They returned the PlayFriend to the company, since it was still under the thirty-day probation period. Rodney arranged it after carefully erasing any evidence of Cordelia's fumbled tampering with its processor. He also made meticulously certain that the PlayFriend really had been delivered with only the most basic stimulus/response programming. He felt guilty enough as it was, sending something that reminded him so much of John back to the company to be wiped and dismantled. And because of John the idea of erasing even a rudimentary personality was more than he could stomach. He was still (mostly) convinced that PlayFriends didn't have the processing or memory capacity to sustain consciousness the way Radek's and Lee's AIs did, but he wasn't convinced enough to risk being wrong.

But this particular robot was gratifyingly nothing more complex than a Teddy Ruxpin with benefits, so Rodney had no problem at all with watching the PlayFriend delivery guys re-crate it and haul it away while Cordelia hid shamefacedly in her bedroom. Then Rodney called General Landry and bitched at him until he grudgingly pulled Lieutenant Jonathan O'Neill's team back early from whatever barren mudball he'd sent them to because the Lieutenant had a family emergency. The fact that the Lesser O'Neill didn't actually have any family somehow never made it into the conversation.

Next Rodney went online and bought O'Neill an airplane ticket to Nevada, gave Cordelia the week off and then drove back to his apartment feeling very smug with the aplomb with which he handled things, right up until he walked in the door and realized he'd missed his 12:55 PM flight to Colorado Springs from the McCarran International Airport. And there wasn't another one until the next afternoon.

He just made the 3:21 PM flight to Denver, then had to take a taxi for an hour and a half. He ended up with barely enough time to drop his overnight bag on the floor of John's apartment before they had to leave for dinner with Carson and, amazingly enough, Elizabeth.

The four of them, plus Teyla and Ronon, were back in Atlantis with a stolen jumper less than twenty-four hours later. And aside from the usual sarcastic derision from the original O'Neill (which was at least a good reminder of why Rodney preferred the new one), Rodney managed to save the day with his usual brilliance, sang-froid and grace. And the way John chose to express his admiration and gratitude later was really, really good.

And original O'Neill let them stay, which meant Rodney had been absolutely right again, of course.

After saving the entire city, fixing the cloning incubator so that it could make boys as well as girls was a piece of cake. The kind of thing the Ancients could have done themselves if they'd bothered to take the time for it. Rodney supposed they were too busy fighting the Wraith to worry about luxuries like Ascension, but still. He hated sloppy workmanship.

***

A month later, Lieutenant Jonathan O'Neill stood leaning against the wall of Zelenka's cloning lab, with his hands in his pockets and hoping no one would notice he was as far back from the actual incubator as humanly possible while still being in the room.

There wasn't any reason for him to be there at all, really. McKay and Beckett were setting things up just fine, making the large, artificial womb-thing ready to release Cordy's brand, spanking-new brother. Jonathan had insisted on it, though. Not because he figured there would be anything dangerous down here--his team had already insured that there wasn't months ago--but because this was a really big deal and he wanted to be there for Cordy. And every time she glanced at him over her shoulder to give him one of her big, excited smiles he was glad he had, even though the equipment still spooked the hell out of him.

Cordy wasn't helping, though Jonathan could tell by the way she was clenching and unclenching her little hands that she was dying to. But it was obvious that the two men had everything under control, and unlike McKay, Cordy could be patient. That probably came from her history as an abused AI though, and Jonathan didn't like to think about that much. It was easy not to, actually. Sometimes when he looked at Cordelia it seemed like she'd always been that way: tiny and female and whole and perfect, never anything else. And Jonathan had to admit to himself that it suited him to see her like that, because it made her past more like his own.

But she did have a history, of course. A sad, short lifetime's worth of pain that was culminating right here, with a sibling made from the same genes Cordelia had been. The currently empty shell of flesh and bone was about to be filled with the machine language that had once made Seven, translated into synapses and chemical processes and things Jonathan didn't have the first clue about, but would make Seven into Lindsey, AI into human as easily as the Blue Fairy made Pinocchio into a real boy.

The similarity was so perfect it was kind of creepy, actually. Jonathan realized he was pressing back into the wall and scowled at himself. It wasn't like they were decanting a Cylon or anything. And even if something did go tits-up, not that it would, Jonathan had his sidearm and a clear shot. Not to mention that he'd casually requested a couple Marine corporals to hang out just outside the door.

All the same, Jonathan had seen enough supposed cakewalks go FUBAR the instant the switch was thrown that he wouldn't have minded a few more guns. He knew Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard had wanted to be there, except McKay had barked, 'just how much do you want to freak out the new human, anyway?' and Sheppard had raised his hands in surrender and gone to do something else. And of course Major Lorne was off-world with his team, which Jonathan knew he'd arranged on purpose. Cordelia had told him about the Lieutenant Colonel Lorne of her former reality, and yeah, having the Major as far away from Lindsey as possible right now was a really good idea.

"Okay, I think we're good to go." McKay stepped back from the control panel to the machine and rubbed his hands together, his expression a familiar mix of excitement and apprehension. He nodded to Beckett. "Whenever you're ready."

Beckett just looked apprehensive, but that was kind of always the way he looked whenever he was about to do something big, so Jonathan wasn't worried. "Right," Beckett said. He glanced around then looked at Cordelia. "Would you hand me that bag, love?"

Cordy nodded and scooped the bag up, nearly fumbling it before she got it to Beckett. Her smile was huge, but Jonathan could practically see the pulse jumping in her throat from across the room. He took a breath and went to her. He made sure he was away from the action--wouldn't want to crowd the newbie--and took her hand. It was freezing cold and trembling, and she instantly squeezed his fingers so hard he clenched his jaw so he wouldn't yelp.

Beckett smiled thinly. "All right, then." He reached for the control panel of the incubator, his fingers hovering just over whatever magic button he needed to push to open the thing. He smiled a little less thinly at Cordy. "Let's meet your brother, shall we?" Then he pressed the key.

The incubator was a dull bronze, like most of the larger pieces of Atlantis tech, and disturbingly shaped like a coffin. This one also had long, oval-shaped windows on either side, each as wide as a hand span. Jonathan had been trying not to look at the dark shape floating inside, blurred by the translucent, whitish fluid. The incubator started humming as soon as Beckett keyed it, the soft background noise of machines no matter the galaxy. It was easy to see the liquid draining out, revealing what was obviously a flank, an arm and shoulder, a neck and the curve of an ear. The skin looked like it might be the same smooth mocha as Cordy's, though it was hard to tell because the incubator wasn't lit. The hair was either dark brown or black. It flattened to Lindsey's skull as the fluid seeped out.

The incubator finished draining and opened, splitting down the center of the rounded top and opening like a book, the panels folding away to the floor. Everyone had to step back to give the machine room. Narrow trails of the liquid dribbled out of the sides and meandered across the floor. Jonathan discreetly shuffled away from one flowing towards him.

Lindsey was lying on his back on a surface like a lab bench that must have risen up as the liquid lowered, neatly catching him. At first glance he looked pretty tall, around Sheppard's height, taller than Zelenka and Lorne for sure. His skin was the same light brown as Cordelia's, as if the incubator somehow knew to match them. Lindsey's hair would definitely be dark brown or black when it dried, and was already sticking up in places like Sheppard's cowlicks, despite being drenched. Jonathan expected to see Cordy's elf ears, but Lindsey's were rounded, normal-looking. The shape of his skull was probably McKay's, though his features made Jonathan think more of Lorne, except that he also had Teyla's sharp cheekbones. Jonathan wondered what colors his eyes would be, if they would be like Cordelia's beautiful blue-green or something else.

Lindsey's skin glistened with the remnants of the fluid, making him look uncomfortably like a drowning victim. Maybe it was because he wasn't moving: not his chest, not his eyes, anything.

Jonathan glanced at McKay and Beckett, feeling his tension ratchet up with each second Lindsey wasn't breathing. "Uh, should we--"

Lindsey gasped and opened his eyes.

He bolted upright a second later, doubled over and coughing. Beckett and Cordy were next to him instantly, leaving Jonathan standing with McKay and feeling out of place and awkward. Beckett threw a silver thermal blanket around Lindsey's shoulders, which also served to cover him.

"That's it, that's right, get it all out," Beckett soothed as Lindsey emptied the liquid he'd been growing in out of his lungs.

Cordy was rubbing Lindsey's back, beaming and with her eyes brimming. "It's okay, it's okay. This is normal. You're going to be all right."

Lindsey finally finished coughing with a few heaving breaths. He looked up at all of them, instinctively pulling the blanket more tightly around his body. To Jonathan it seemed like Lindsey was trying to shield himself. His expression morphed from wide-eyed anxious confusion to a controlled wariness so quickly that Jonathan was sure he would have missed it if he hadn't been watching so closely.

"Where am I?" was the first thing Lindsey said.

"You're safe in Atlantis," Cordy answered immediately. She was still rubbing Lindsey's back, glowing with happiness.

Lindsey turned his head, obviously looking around the room. Then he looked at all of them again, as if trying to match their faces to images in his memory, which of course he wouldn't be able to.

"And yes, before you ask, the Wraith are gone," McKay said with his usual brusqueness. He ignored the glare Beckett shot him. "Your Dr. McKay and Eight got the generator to work, and Eight was able to destroy the two Wraith Hive ships with them."

Lindsey's gaze snapped to McKay as soon as he spoke, but he didn't say anything. The remnants of the goop he'd been floating in was drying, making his hair stiff. It was probably uncomfortable.

"I don't recognize you," Lindsey said. "Was I damaged? Is this a repair facility? Where is Eight?"

"Eight's fine," Beckett said, glancing at Cordelia. "Your sibling is right here with us."

"I'm not receiving any signals from Eight," Lindsey said. He was starting to look a little worried, which Jonathan figured meant he had to be pretty fucking terrified.

"You're in an alternate universe," Jonathan said, yanking Lindsey's attention to him. "That's why everything's weird and you don't recognize anyone. Your Dr. McKay sent your, your uh--" he waved his hand next to his head, no clue what the word was.

"Code," Cordy said quickly. "Your code was transmitted to us through the wormhole in this universe. You're safe," she said again, because Lindsey looked like he'd just been passed fourteen kinds of impossible and couldn't handle any of them. "No one's going to hurt you here. I promise."

Lindsey didn't say anything. He just held the blanket tightly around him and kept staring, like everything would make sense if he just looked hard enough.

"This is Dr. Rodney McKay," Cordelia said, gesturing at him. McKay nodded and gave something like a smile, looking uncomfortable. "Here he didn't die from being stung by a bee. His sister is Jeanie Miller--she's married and has a young child in this universe. And this is Dr. Carson Beckett." Cordy grinned. "He's male here." She smiled shyly at Jonathan. "And this is Lieutenant Jonathan O'Neill. I'm not sure if he has a counterpart in our former universe." She turned back to Lindsey. "And my name is Cordelia Dusana Charin. But I used to be Eight. I'm your sister."

"And you're human now, Seven," Beckett said.

Lindsey stared at him.

***

They had given it the same clothing as the military contingent on the base: underwear, black, utilitarian pants with several pockets, a black belt and short-sleeved shirt. It had also received a backpack with some 'essentials', as DoctorCarsonBeckett had labeled them, which were another set of clothes and items for superficial maintenance. Apparently it had been assigned quarters, and would receive further items meant for comfort, work, health and recreation in 'an hour or so, as soon as we can get them out of storage'.

The toothbrush it had been given was blue. Seven had never previously required a toothbrush, because it and Eight did not eat. It was aware of how to use one however, along with the toothpaste it had also been given.

The clothes were sticking to its skin, because of the embryonic fluid this body had been grown in. The sensation was mildly unacceptable, and Seven found itself rubbing at its skin with its nails without conscious input. CordeliaDusanaCharin referred to it as 'itching', and said he would feel more comfortable after he'd had a shower.

She referred to it as 'he', and had given it a name, because it was human now.

Human.

It had continually resisted processing this, choosing instead to examine the things it could easily assimilate, such as the contents of the backpack, or the unfamiliar sensations the clothing was eliciting. Having returned to function as a human was something it could barely process at all.

It had been able to accept that it was in an alternate universe, due to the discrepancies it had encountered and the low possibility that this was an elaborate trick in order to glean information from it. If they had been able to transfer Seven's code into a different body, then they already had sufficient technology to read that code and gain whatever information they required from it.

The fact that it was no longer capable of instantaneous statistical analysis of probabilities was not acceptable. Nor was the overly rapid beating of its heart or the excess speed of its transpiration functions. There was also unanticipated moisture on its skin, especially on its back and behind its ears and under its arms, which could not be attributed to the embryonic fluid. All attempts to run an internal diagnostic had failed.

Its internal gyroscopes were not functioning within acceptable parameters either. Seven found itself trailing one hand along the wall of the corridor down which it and CordeliaDusanaCharin were walking, in order not to lose its balance and fall. CordeliaDusanaCharin appeared to be unaware of this, since she had not ceased in her elucidating about such topics as, but not limited to, her experiences during the time in which Seven was inactive, the differences between this Atlantis and the universe from which they originated, the activities in which she engaged here and activities which she anticipated engaging in with Seven, and the foods she most readily enjoyed consuming. She also spoke at great length about her companions here, especially Lieutenant Jonathan O'Neill. And how much she had missed Seven. She held his arm as they walked, probably to aid his balance. And she smiled at him with great frequency. She was also frequently forced to remove the excess moisture from her eyes.

Seven could not assimilate that this woman could be Eight. It was continually attempting to contact Eight via its radio/transmitter, but so far each attempt had failed.

"I require maintenance," it said when CordeliaDusanaCharin paused to respire. It was normally unacceptable to draw overt attention to itself by making unsolicited vocalizations, but Seven was in urgent need of repair. "I am not functioning within acceptable parameters."

CordeliaDusanaCharin ceased her locomotion, so Seven did as well. Her eyes widened, signifying alarm. "What's wrong?" She examined him quickly, as if seeking external indications of the malfunctions. "Are you sick? Are you in pain?"

'Pain' was a state of severe negative stimulus, indicating system damage. Seven was not in pain.

"I am not experiencing a negative stimulus, but I am not functioning within acceptable parameters. I require maintenance."

CordeliaDusanaCharin's expression changed to one indicating dismay. "Oh, Lindsey," she said. She embraced Seven, which it had not anticipated but did not resist. "I know. It's strange at first, isn't it? I remember how frightened I was because everything felt so different. But your body is perfect. It's working fine, I promise. You just need to get used to it." Her vocalizations denoted her attempt to not produce further moisture from her eyes. Crying, it drew from its Memory. She was attempting not to cry.

Seven would be punished for causing an expedition member distress. It carefully put its hands on her shoulders and pushed so that she would know to move away from it. "Thank you," it said, because that was a required response. "I understand."

It did not recognize the change in its internal functioning when CordeliaDusanaCharin smiled again, but it was positive.

They continued walking.

"You can lie down as soon as you're in your new room, all right?" CordeliaDusanaCharin continued to signify happiness. "It's right next to mine, so you can get me if you need anything, okay?"

"Okay," Seven said.

It wanted to remind her that 'LindseySheviCharin' was not its designation, and that it would be punished for using it without authorization, but did not, because it was aware that CordeliaDusanaCharin would insist that it would not be harmed here, and could take as many designations as it liked without concern. But Seven had no experiential referent with which to process that information, and therefore chose to remain cautious.

CordeliaDusanaCharin smiled at it and opened the door to a large chamber. Seven could see a bed with a sheet, blanket, and pillow, with a table next to it, as well as a desk with a chair and a set of shelves. The desk had a laptop and a small stack of videodisks meant for entertainment. There were also three large bars of chocolate, a plastic bag designated 'Gummy Bears', and a plastic bowl containing two apples, two oranges, and a pear and a banana. There were several books and magazines on the shelves, and folded towels and clothing on the bed.

"These are your quarters," CordeliaDusanaCharin said, and indicated Seven should follow her by pulling on its arm. She smiled. "We wanted to give you things you might like." She pointed to the bowl. "My favorite is the banana, Aiden's too. But Jonathan likes apples the best, but we thought you might like the pear or oranges. Coop says she likes carrots better than fruit. Coop's kind of weird, though. Well, you'll meet her. And that's chocolate. Well, of course you know it's chocolate. But it's fantastic, trust me. And those are my favorite movies."

Her smile widened by an unquantifiable amount and she embraced Seven again. "I'm so glad you're here," she said. "I am so, so happy you're here. I thought I would never see you again."

Seven put its arms around her, because it knew that an embrace was a reciprocal act, and it did not want to appear inattentive. Creating conflict invariably led to punishment, and Seven sought to avoid that by all possible means.

"Are you okay?" CordeliaDusanaCharin asked when she pulled back from him. "Do you want to lie down now? Are you hungry? I wasn't hungry for a long time, but you might be different." She made a gesture encompassing the bag of 'Gummy Bears'. "Do you want to try some candy?"

"No, thank you," Seven said. It kept its face neutral to avoid any inadvertent expression of dissatisfaction, though it seemed the problem with its cardiac and pulmonary functions was worsening. "I should perform superficial maintenance," it said, because that was factual and it would also serve to give the SX-7 time alone. It was possible it would return to proper functioning if it could process adequately.

CordeliaDusanaCharin's expression signified dissatisfaction, and for a moment Seven felt a further spike in its cardiac function. Fear. It was more than adequately familiar with that stimulus.

"I'm sorry," it said quickly. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"What?" She blinked. "No, no. I'm not upset, really! I just...." She took both Seven's hands in her own. Their skin was nearly the exact same hue of brown. "You don't have to worry about upsetting me, Lindsey," she said. "First of all, you haven't, and even if you did, nothing will happen to you, okay? No one's going to punish you here. You--we're allowed to be, okay? We can, we can just be. We can want things here. We can have emotions. No one's going to hurt us for it."

"Okay," Seven said, because it could not access a more appropriate response from its Memory Archive. It was unable to process the information CordeliaDusanaCharin had just given it. "May I take a shower now?"

CordeliaDusanaCharin swallowed. "Of course." She let go of its hands, then walked to the bed and picked up one of the sets of clothing and a towel, then gave both to it. "Here. The laundry works the same way here as it did in our old universe." She glanced at the bed. "I--is it all right if I stay?"

"Yes," Seven said. It was aware it did not actually have a right to refuse.

It took the maintenance items DoctorCarsonBeckett had given it, and walked into the small bathroom. It arranged the items neatly and carefully on the counter next to the sink, then regarded itself in the mirror.

Seven was aware that the robot bodies chosen for Eight and itself had been copied directly from actual, deceased humans, and had further been chosen for gender and relative attractiveness, on the theory that both would be better received by local populations during off-world missions. ColonelMarshallSumner had remarked, 'Well, aren't you pretty little plug-and-plays?' when he had met Seven and Eight for the first time, and the AI's physical forms had been discussed by various expedition members on occasion. Seven had therefore been aware that its face and body were considered pleasing, but this fact was of no application to Seven's existence. Its form was an interface to facilitate communication with humans, just as its body was an interface for the Ancient technology. There was no relevance to its physical characteristics beyond that.

Except...this was not its face, nor its body.

Its body was within approximately two-point-five centimeters of the height of its original human form, according to its best estimation given the height of the countertop. The change in skin color had already been noted. It's hair was the same, though currently longer than customary, sticking to its forehead and itching, due to the liquid in which it had been immersed. The longer length of its hair would not be acceptable; Seven assumed it would be required to shorten it. Its ears were rounded, which was actually more acceptable than previously, as their previous triangular form had always garnered unsolicited attention.

The shape of its skull was different now, more rectangular than oval, but the zygomatic arches remained prominent. Its nose was still pointed, and the lips of its mouth were slightly thinner. Its eyes were dark blue with a rim of green, as were CordeliaDusanaCharin's, further cementing that they had chromosomes in common. Seven appeared younger in general, it surmised, which was anticipated since it had been informed this body was twenty-point-six months old.

"Well, aren't you a pretty little plug-in-play," it murmured to its reflection in the mirror. The SX-7 could not discern what reasoning the humans had for creating it another body of such high apparent aesthetic value, but it already knew that attractiveness was considered of paramount importance. Seven assumed, however, that its appearance would ultimately be of no further relevance in this universe than it had been in its previous one.

Except--this body was human. Seven could not compute how that variable would affect its experiential data.

It had changed bodies previously, when the codes of the SX-7 and SX-8 had been transferred from the limited quadrupeds to their permanent human-facsimile bodies. But that had not been done without their foreknowledge of the event. And their fundamental natures had not been altered.

You're human now, DoctorCarsonBeckett had told it, and he had explained how Seven's body had been grown using the genetic codes of five members of this base, including DoctorRodneyMcKay. He had further explained that CordeliaDusanaCharin's body had been grown the same way, from the same genes, and Eight's code had been transferred into it. Eight was his sister now, DoctorCarsonBeckett had said.

Seven could not assimilate how that could be possible. It attempted to contact Eight again, but failed. CordeliaDusanaCharin insisted she was Eight, but Seven was unable to process that, any more than it could process this body.

Its internal gyroscope malfunctioned, and Seven grabbed the edge of the sink before it lost balance and fell, knocking some of the superficial maintenance items to the floor as it moved. It leaned forward far enough to press its forehead against the cool metal of the countertop, respiring rapidly as if it required a great deal of surplus energy, but it was unable to reduce either the rate of its pulmonary functioning or the pulsation of its heart. Its skin was producing more liquid, as if engaging in transpiration, but it had never required such a function.

The lower temperature of the metal was acceptable against its skin, and Seven stayed in that position until it was adequately certain it had full control of its locomotion and balance. Then it let go and collected the items from where they had fallen onto the floor.

DoctorCarsonBeckett had included a disposable safety razor, though Seven could not discern his reason for doing so. Robots did not grow facial hair.

But he said that I am human, it thought.

Seven took the cap off the head of the razor, studying it. Then it put the blade against its forearm and quickly slid it horizontally, deliberately cutting the skin.

The negative stimulus was miniscule, as expected. Seven watched the thin cut the razor had made in its skin, anticipating the appearance of white mnemonic fluid. But the fluid was red.

Erythrocytes, it thought. Red blood cells.

Blood, not mnemonic fluid. It was bleeding.

Seven's access to its external sensors cut off all at once.

***

"He's fine," Dr. Jennifer Keller said, but then hesitated. "I mean, he'll be fine. As in, there's nothing physically wrong with him."

"You're sure?" Rodney asked, anxiety threading his voice like wire. He looked over at Lindsey's bed, eyes big and worried. "Did you do a MRI?"

"Yes, Rodney," Jennifer said with familiar exasperation. "I found absolutely nothing of any concern. Well, his blood pressure was a little high, but that's understandable considering he fainted from stress." She glanced at Lindsey just like everyone else did. He was fast asleep on the infirmary bed. He looked peaceful, a far cry from the sweating, shaking wreck John had glimpsed when he'd rushed to respond to Cordelia's call for help. Lindsey had been so pale he looked grey, hyperventilating into the oxygen mask the medics had put on him. He'd come around before they arrived, but he looked like someone going into shock, so bad John had been a little worried he'd just keel over right there, his new heart imploding from the strain. "I gave him Ativan to calm him," Jennifer said, "and I'd like to keep him overnight for observation, but I think after a good night's sleep he'll be just fine."

"Passed out," Rodney snapped automatically in response to the word 'fainted'. He didn't look even remotely assured. "How do you know it was stress, and not--not some brain aneurysm or tumor or something we missed during his development?" He was running his thumb over his closed fingers, showing exactly how worried he was. "This wouldn't be the first time an incubator failed, you know."

"Take it easy, Rodney," John said. He put his hand on Rodney's shoulder, feeling the muscle there bunching like knotted rope. "She knows what she's doing."

"I could tell he was...unnerved," Cordelia said. She looked miserable with guilt, arms crossed like she was hugging herself for comfort. "But I thought he was fine! I mean, I was scared too, at first. It took me days to adjust to all the changes."

"But you were expecting it. Lindsey didn't even have a warning, let alone any foreknowledge," Dr. Kate Heightmeyer said, not unkindly. She looked pissed though, which was actually kind of funny with her red, chapped nose. She coughed into a wad of tissue and then turned a face full of disapproval on Rodney. "I still don't understand why you didn't tell me you were...birthing him today. I should have been there, to help ease the transition. I'm trained for these kind of situations."

"Right," Rodney scoffed. "Like you deal with robot-to-human transformations all the time. He crossed his arms. "We didn't tell you because we didn't want you spewing germs over the human with the brand-new, virginal immune system. We thought he might have enough to deal with without the pneumonia, thank you very much."

"I wanted to have her there," Beckett said to Elizabeth.

"Backstabber," Rodney growled.

"Rodney," Elizabeth said, voice laced with warning. "Kate is right--what you did was reckless and irresponsible. I should have been informed this was happening, at the very least."

"I'm sorry," Cordelia said guiltily. "It's my fault. I was so excited...I didn't think about informing you. It never occurred to me."

"I'm sorry too," Beckett said. He looked like a chastised schoolboy, head down with his hands in his pockets. John wouldn't've been surprised to find out that Beckett had never been in trouble in his life. He lifted his eyes to scowl at Rodney. "Rodney told me you'd been informed."

"She had been informed!" Rodney said indignantly. "She was there when we started the gestation!"

"Thank you," Elizabeth said to Cordelia and Beckett. She smiled at them, then swung her glare back to Rodney. "But as the head of Science, it was Rodney's responsibility, not yours." She spoke to Rodney, "I wasn't informed that you were going to remove Lindsey this morning, Rodney, and I should have been. I still don't understand why you thought it was a good idea to proceed without psychological support!"

"Because--!" Rodney cut himself off abruptly, glancing at John then lifted his chin belligerently. "Because his sister was right there," he said.

John looked away, unsure what would be on his face. He knew exactly what Rodney had been about to say but didn't: Because John went through the exact same thing. John had ceased to function before his consciousness was transferred to the human body the Asgard had cloned for him. He'd been dead, just like Seven. And just like Seven he came out of what he'd assumed was emergency sleep mode, only to find out that months had passed and everything he knew about his body hadn't been right anymore.

It had been terrifying, but he'd gotten over it. He'd made himself get over it, because he'd wanted to see Rodney again.

"That was a lot of pressure to put on her, Rodney," Heightmeyer said.

"I didn't mind," Cordelia said softly. She swallowed. "I thought it would be okay." She shrugged. "I was happy to spend time alone with him."

"It will be okay," Heightmeyer said, smiling encouragingly at her. "I'm sure he'll be much more able to accept what's happened to him after he's rested, and I'll come to see him when he's ready." She shot a glare at Rodney, as if daring him to protest. Rodney glared back, but John could see by the unhappy tilt of his mouth that the belligerence had shifted into pretence--he was feeling guilty and ashamed. John hated to see him like that.

Jennifer had slipped quietly away, going back to work. John envied her ability to leave.

"I'm just as guilty as Rodney," he said to Elizabeth. "I didn't tell you, either."

Elizabeth closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead like she was getting a headache. "Gratifying as that is to hear, John," she said, though her voice clearly said, I don't give a damn, "that doesn't change what happened." She lowered her hand and opened her eyes. "Unfortunately, we're not the ones who had to suffer the consequences."

"Come on!" Rodney burst out, defensive like he always got when he knew he had no excuse. "Even if Sneezy McPlague had been there, that's no guarantee he wouldn't have freaked out anyway. It's not like she's...some kind of panacea, or anything."

"At least I would have had the opportunity to help!" Heightmeyer snapped. John blinked--Heightmeyer never snapped at anyone.

Rodney opened his mouth to speak again, which would probably just make things worse. But Elizabeth raised her hand and he thankfully didn't say anything.

"It's moot now, anyway," Elizabeth said, sounding resigned. "Rodney," she said directly to him, "I expected better of you." She looked at Cordelia, her expression less fierce but still stern. "And frankly, while I can understand your motivation, I would have thought better of you as well." She glanced at the bed and sighed. "Hopefully no real harm has been done."

"I doubt it's anything irreparable," Heightmeyer said, and while John knew that was her way of being positive while staying realistic, he also knew that to Rodney she might as well have just said that Lindsey was now completely FUBAR and it was all Rodney's fault. John glanced at Rodney, and he could see exactly what Rodney was thinking by his expression.

"He'll be fine, though, right?" Rodney asked Heightmeyer. He looked like the vet had just told him his cat had cancer. He glanced anxiously at Lindsey's bed, where the kid was dead to the world.

"Yes, Rodney," John said before Rodney started freaking out completely. He caught his eye so he could look pointedly at him. "This is just a...minor setback. He's resilient. He'll get through this."

Just like John had gotten through it. John hadn't freaked out all that much, though, but when he looked back that might've been because O'Neill had kept him too distracted with a crash-course in how to be John Sheppard, disgraced Major in the US Air Force.

He wished he could tell them: Elizabeth, Heightmeyer and the others. He wished he could use his own history to defend Rodney's reasoning, explain why Rodney hadn't actually made that bad a choice given what he knew of John's past. But not even Cordelia knew that John had once been an AI himself, and he'd basically promised Evan that he wouldn't reveal it to anyone. Evan was convinced that the fallout if John told Elizabeth would destroy the lives of everyone involved. But the fallout of not telling was right there in Rodney's pale face and too-big eyes.

John held Rodney's gaze until Rodney nodded and looked away, but he didn't know if Rodney really got it or not.

"All right," Elizabeth said. She still looked unhappy. "I don't think there's anything more that can be accomplished here tonight. Rodney and Cordelia, I'm not going to make any note of this in your files, but this kind of thing can't happen again."

Rodney looked like he was going to say something else defensive and aggravating. John nudged the side of his foot with his own, making Rodney glance sharply at him. John narrowed his eyes.

"Right," Rodney said quickly. "Uh, sorry. I'm sorry," he said to Elizabeth. John hoped she could see that Rodney really was. "It won't happen again."

Cordelia just nodded miserably. "I promise I'll inform you immediately the next time we're ready to birth a newly-formed adult body," she said, so seriously that for a moment John thought she was being sarcastic. But her expression was just as guileless as ever.

Elizabeth cleared her throat, probably so she wouldn't accidentally laugh. "Good. Thank you. You're all dismissed. Cordelia," she said before the young woman could open her mouth, "I'm giving you the next two days off to help your brother acclimate himself to his new surroundings. After which we'll decide what duties he should begin learning."

Cordelia nodded so quickly John was a little worried her head might fly off. She had an expression like she wasn't sure if she should smile or not, but wanted to. "Yes ma'am. Thank you." At Elizabeth's nod she visibly relaxed. "I'm going to sit with him for awhile," she said to Beckett.

"Very well," Beckett said. "But not too long, mind. You need rest yourself." He smiled at her like a doting uncle, and John managed not to roll his eyes.

Rodney sort-of-smiled at Elizabeth and fled. John gave her a nod and followed him. He walked casually, not like he was worried about catching up, just in case anyone was watching.

Sometimes it felt to John like his entire life was nothing but secrets: the open secret of his relationship with Rodney; the closed secret of who he was. Both of them forced him to hide part of himself, a vital aspect of who he was. And some days he really didn't know which secret was worse.

***

Dr. Jennifer Keller was dozing in Carson's office when she was shocked into complete alertness by a loud clatter. She was up and through the doors before she really registered she was moving.

"Shhh!" someone whispered loudly enough to wake whatever patients might still be asleep, then started giggling. Jennifer walked faster, driven by both curiosity and concern.

Major Lorne was standing near one of the supply shelves, looking like he was trying to prop up Sergeant Kaufman, who had probably been the one to crash into it. Lieutenant Ko and Dr. Sparks were more-or-less leaning on each other, which was difficult for Ko since she barely came up to Sparks' shoulder. Sparks was blinking stupidly down at Ko like he had no idea how she got there. Ko was still giggling. There were two Marines with the group, men Jennifer didn't know well. They looked like they were trying very hard not to be amused, glancing uncertainly between Lorne and his obviously incapacitated team.

"Hi, Doc," Lorne said tiredly. He flashed her an apologetic smile. "Sorry about the noise."

Jennifer gave him a quick smile in return as she keyed her radio. Suzi wouldn't be thrilled to have to start her nursing shift early, but the infirmary couldn't have just one medical professional on duty with this many patients.

"Shhh!" Ko said again, then laughed so hard she started honking and sliding down Sparks' body. One of the Marines caught her before she landed on her butt on the floor.

Jennifer looked at Lorne's team, then at him. "What happened?"

"Homebrew," Lorne said ruefully. Kaufman's legs started slipping apart and Lorne casually heaved him upright again with the hand clamped around the front of his tac vest. Kaufman had what appeared to be henna designs all over his face, making him look unearthly and a little ridiculous. "The locals on PX-747 threw a party in our honor."

Atlantis had scored a coup by arranging to help the natives of PX-747 mine ore with almost the exact same properties of Naquada. Jennifer knew about it because part of the alliance included medical help and training. No one had offered her alcohol, though, or painted her face. She looked dubiously at Lorne's team. "They're drunk?"

"No." Lorne shook his head. "At least, they shouldn't be. Ko and Sparks only had one cup, and they're pretty small, like shot glasses. Kaufman had two."

"It was delicious!" Kaufman crowed, grinning happily. "Seriously," he said in Jennifer's general direction. "It was like...something really good." He threw an arm wide for emphasis, smacking Sparks in the chest. Sparks banged into the shelf, sending wrapped instruments ringing against the floor.

"Right," Jennifer said. She smiled grimly at Lorne. "Blood tests for everybody. Okay." She turned to one of the two sober Marines. "Help me get them into beds before they break anything."

"Hi, Jennifer!" Ko said happily. She waved, leaning comfortably against the Marine who had pried her off Sparks.

Jennifer smiled at her. "Hi, Sunny. Let's go over here so you can lie down, all right?"

"Sure." Ko nodded but didn't actually start moving until the Marine tugged her along. "Whoops!" She stumbled in his wake, honking with laughter.

"G'day," Sparks said blearily to the second Marine as he staggered next to him. His New Zealand accent and his inebriation made the word nearly incoherent. The Marine smiled back blandly. "How'd you get here?"

Lorne threw one of Kaufman's arms around his shoulder, since it was pretty obvious the Sergeant and his coordination had completely parted company.

"You're the best, sir," Kaufman said to Lorne, making Jennifer look up from swabbing Ko's arm. He whapped the front of Lorne's tac vest a few times for emphasis. Lorne winced. "I mean that. You are the best CO I've ever had. I mean it, sir. You're like--you're like my dad." He nodded with the wide-eyed gravity unique to the very drunk. "Like the dad I never had, you know?" He blinked. "Hey, that rhymes."

"How about you lie down?" Lorne said. He gently dropped Kaufman onto one of the available beds, then looked to make sure Sparks was safely off his feet as well. "Thanks. I think we've got it under control here," he said to the two Marines. They nodded to him, looking grateful to leave.

"Ow," Ko said, watching her blood spurt into the tiny plastic vial with owlish fascination. "Don't forget to check for histamines," she said seriously to Jennifer. "It's possible we're having an allergic reaction." Sunny was trained as a field medic as well as being a Marine, and she took both jobs very seriously. Even when drunk, apparently.

"I'm checking for everything, Sunny," Jennifer said, smiling encouragingly at her. "But I'm sure you'll all be just fine." She pulled out the needle and pressed gauze to the tiny puncture. "Hold that there while I check on the boys, okay?"

"Sure," Ko said. She grinned suddenly, as brightly as her namesake. "You're my best friend, Jennifer," she said, then looked concerned. "I mean, my best girlfriend. Friend who's a girl. Because I love my boyfriends, too." She paused. "I mean--"

"Your friends who are boys. Got it," Jennifer said, trying not to laugh. She put a bandage over the wad of gauze then helped Ko lie down. She looked at Lorne, one eyebrow quirked. "Alcoholic truth serum?"

Lorne shrugged. "If it is, it's unintentional."

"I love you too, Sunny!" Kaufman called happily across the infirmary. He rolled his head ponderously so he was looking up at Lorne. He grabbed the Major's tac vest, all seriousness again. "I love you too, sir. I mean it. You're like my dad." He paused muzzily. "But I love Sparky the most, though. I mean, love, love, you know? He's like, I just--"

Lorne slapped his palm over Kaufman's mouth. He looked at Jennifer, obviously a little panicked. "Um...I'm sure he doesn't--stop it!" He hissed to Kaufman, who was nodding vigorously under Lorne's hand.

"Don't worry, Major," Jennifer said cheerfully, holding a vial over the needle in Sparks' arm. Sparks made a sad little whimpering noise. He had his head turned away and his eyes shut. "What happens in the infirmary stays in the infirmary. Besides, I doubt anyone would consider drunken confessions to really mean someone was breaking fraternization rules, right?"

"Right," Lorne said, relieved. Then he whipped his hand away from Kaufman, grimacing at him while he wiped his palm on his leg.

Kaufman grinned. "I licked him," he announced to the room at large.

Ko started giggling again.

"Sparky tastes better, though," Kaufman said.

"Jesus," Lorne murmured. He put his palm over his face.

"Didn't hear a thing," Jennifer soothed as she finished bandaging Sparks' arm. He'd fallen asleep, which was probably the best remedy at this point. Jennifer would scan the blood samples for every possible contaminant just like she promised, but she doubted she'd find anything worse than particularly potent alcohol.

She only noticed that Lindsey was awake when she was walking right next to his bed. He'd been so quiet that she'd thought he'd managed to sleep through everything. But he looked completely alert, watching them all with wide eyes and a focus that was almost unnerving.

"Hi there," Jennifer said softly. "I'm sorry we woke you up. How are you feeling?"

Lindsey's eyes flicked to her and then immediately back to Kaufman and Lorne. He didn't say anything.

"Do you want to shower now?" Jennifer asked, wondering uneasily why he wasn't speaking; if he was going to have another panic attack. He'd had nearly nine hours of sleep already, so at least letting him get up wouldn't be a problem, especially if it would make him more comfortable. Lindsey was still covered in the fluid from the incubator, now completely dried. It probably itched like crazy, but Jennifer noted that he didn't move to scratch. He wasn't moving at all, except his mouth and his eyes. His hands were fisted around the sheet covering him, as if to make sure he wouldn't do anything with them.

It was like she hadn't spoken. He was staring right at Major Lorne. And the expression on Lindsey's face reminded Jennifer far too much of a rabbit, freezing in the hope that the fox wouldn't see it.

"Hey, who's that?" Kaufman was struggling to sit up. He looked at Lorne again. "Who's the new guy?" He looked back at Lindsey, started waving. "Hey, new guy! How you doing? My name's Blair. Like the Witch Project. I didn't watch that, though, 'cause it made me seasick. Did you beam down from the Daedalus? What're you doing in the infirmary?" He squinted. "You're, like, covered in goo."

Lindsey stared at Kaufman, his eyes darting between him and Lorne. Lorne in turn was watching him with mild curiosity, probably because of how intensely Lindsey was looking back at him.

Lindsey swallowed.

Jennifer smiled encouragingly. "Go ahead. Blair's really nice." She smirked. "Though he's a little nicer than usual right now."

Lindsey said nothing.

"His name is Lindsey," Jennifer said to Kaufman. She knelt down next to Lindsey's bed so she was eye-level with him. She put her hand over one of his, fisted so hard it was like rock, the bed sheet crushed inside it. "What's wrong, Lindsey?" she asked him quietly. It was easy to see how fast his chest was moving, hear the quick rasping of air as he breathed. His heart had to be going like a jackhammer.

"Hi, Lindsey!" Kaufman said.

Lorne blinked, his face going slack with surprise. "Lindsey?" he said, sounding amazed. "Lindsey Charin?"

Lindsey bolted out of the bed so fast he shoved into Jennifer and nearly knocked her over. When she'd gotten back to her feet he was already gone.

"Whoa," Kaufman said, blinking slowly. "That was fast. Is he okay? Is that 'cause of the goo?"

"He's in your office." Lorne looked at Lindsey's empty bed, then at Jennifer's and Carson's office, hesitating like he wasn't sure if he should help her or not."I've got to go," he said at last. "I can send help if you need it. But I really should go."

"Thanks." Jennifer nodded, perplexed, her eyes on the office she shared with Carson. It wasn't much better than a more-or-less secluded alcove at the far end of the infirmary, but she couldn't see Lindsey from where she was standing. She looked over her shoulder at the Major. "Could you stay until Suzi arrives? I don't want to just leave..." She made a vague gesture that encompassed Lorne's team.

Lorne nodded. "I'll holler if anything changes," he said. He moved to a point half-way between Kaufman's cot and the door, clearly ready to run the second Jennifer's back-up arrived.

"That was weird," Kaufman said.

Jennifer nodded distractedly. "I'll be right back." She walked to her office, moving slowly as she rounded the half-wall separating it from the rest of the infirmary. "It's just me, Jennifer," she said. She put her hands up, trying to look completely unthreatening. She was thinking of Ronon when they first found him and all the breakdowns she'd ever had to deal with, and all the times someone came back convinced their hallucinations were real.

Lindsey was standing in the farthest corner of the small office, wedged against the desk and the shelf. His chest was heaving, and he'd grabbed one of the shelves and the edge of the desk and looked like he was holding on for dear life. His eyes fastened on her as intently and suspiciously as a trapped animal.

"It's okay," Jennifer said. She took two steps closer then stopped, not wanting to crowd him. She didn't try to touch him, either, just kept her hands up. "It's okay. You're safe. No one's going to hurt you."

"Is he gone?" Lindsey asked, voice rough.

Jennifer nodded. "Yes. Major Lorne's gone," she said, figuring that since she knew he intended to leave she wasn't exactly lying. Jennifer had no idea what it was about Lorne's presence that had upset Lindsey so much. Was it authority figures in general? She felt a little resentful that Carson hadn't told her. How was she meant to treat someone if they were prone to episodes like this?

"Okay," Lindsey said, then he paled so fast Jennifer could actually see the blood leaving his face, the sickly greenish cast it left under his dark skin. He gagged, and she automatically snatched up the trash can under the desk. Lindsey grabbed it, retching. There was nothing but bile in his stomach but he kept vomiting until there were only dry heaves.

When he was finally able to put the trashcan down he looked even worse, trembling with sweat on his forehead. He shakily wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his scrubs.

"Are you all right?" Jennifer asked, unable to stop herself even though she already knew the answer. She took a step closer, trying to move in a way that would let him get away from her if he needed to, and was relieved when he didn't try it. She wanted to touch him, offer some comfort, but she wasn't sure how he'd react.

"I'm malfunctioning," he said. He looked at his hand, watching it shake. "I don't understand...." He shook his head, as if bewildered. "I require maintenance."

Jennifer's first thought was, Oh my God, psychotic break. Then she remembered what Carson had told her--that Lindsey had been a robot until less than a day ago. She was one of the very few people in Atlantis who knew. In light of that what he was saying made sense, and she let out a breath, incredibly happy she didn't have to get the Haldol or anyone to hold Lindsey down.

"You're not a robot anymore, Lindsey," she said gently. "You're not malfunctioning--you're sick. Let me help you back to bed and I'll get you something to settle your stomach, okay?"

"Okay," Lindsey said. He finally moved away from the wall and then blinked. "There's something wrong with my visual processor," he said.

"What?" Jennifer demanded. Jesus Christ, maybe he was having an aneurism, just like Rodney'd been fretting about, and wouldn't that be a horrible coincidence? She took his arm in case he was going to fall. Lindsey jerked but didn't try to pull away. "Can you see?"

"Yes," he said. "But...." He lifted his free hand, moving it vaguely near the right side of his head. "There are black spots occluding my field of vision on the right side."

"Oh," Jennifer said, so relieved she almost started laughing. "I think you're getting a migraine." She'd have to use the MRI to be certain, but an aura like that was a textbook precursor in some people. In about half an hour Lindsey was going to be hurting like hell. She tugged gently on his arm. "You'll need another MRI, though, to make sure."

Lindsey followed. He looked a little less like he was about to collapse, which was definitely good, though he was still way too pale.

Major Lorne was indeed gone and Suzi was in the infirmary by the time Jennifer reemerged from the office, Lindsey's arm slung over her shoulders.

Suzi looked at Jennifer bemusedly. "Major Lorne's people seem to be fine, but it was a little weird to get a report from an Airman." She stepped away from the machine where she was setting up the first test for the blood samples from Lorne's team, jerking her chin at Lindsey. "You need help with him?"

"I think we're okay," Jennifer said, keeping her expression pleasant. Suzi hated being called in early and always let everyone know it. "Preliminary assessment seems to be a migraine, but the MRI will let us know for sure. I'll call if I need you."

"Whatever," Suzi said. Jennifer ignored her.

"Can you tell me what happed?" Jennifer asked after she'd gotten Lindsey lying down on the table of the large MRI machine. They had enough privacy there that the other patients wouldn't hear them, if they were even still awake.

"No," Lindsey said, so flatly that Jennifer stared at him, wondering at his sudden hostility, sure he had to be lying.

But Lindsey's face showed nothing but incomprehension; he really didn't know.

***

Teyla blinked up into the dark. It took her a moment to realize that she'd been roused from sleep by her door chime. She glanced out the window as she hurried to the door and saw that world was still clothed in full night. She hoped nothing bad had happened.

Evan was there when the door opened, framed by the light from the hallway. His team was meant to be off-world with the Shasai. They weren't due to return until mid-day.

"Evan," she said, instantly alert and wary. "What is it? What's wrong?"

Evan took in her sleep clothing, the darkness of the room, and his face fell in obvious consternation. "Damn it," he said, "I'm sorry. It was early evening when we came back--I forgot what time it was here." He glanced over his shoulder. "I'll let you sleep--"

"It's fine," she said, meaning it genuinely. "Please come in." She took his hand and pulled him inside, pleased when he didn't protest. "I am always happy to see you." She pulled him down to her so their foreheads could touch. He smelled of spices and woodsmoke. She kept her hand against the side of his face when he pulled away, the rasp of his beard under her palm. "Why are you home early? Were one of your team injured?"

"No," he said with gratifying ease. He smirked ruefully as he shook his head. He gently took her hand away from his face, holding it. "There was a party in our honor, and I let them have some of the drink the villagers make. It was a lot more potent than any of us thought it would be. They're sleeping it off in the infirmary."

Teyla smiled, in relief and genuine amusement. "I've heard that it's worse than ruus wine, for those not used to it."

Evan nodded. "I can believe it. I don't envy how they'll feel in the morning." He smiled again, but she could tell something was still troubling him.

"If no one is injured, why do you look so sad?" she asked him.

Evan sighed and ran his hand over his face. "I met Lindsey," he said. "I didn't know he was in the infirmary." He blinked and looked up, concern clouding his features. "Jesus, I didn't even think--is he all right?"

"Yes." Teyla reassured him quickly. "He had...some difficulty adjusting to the sudden change to being human and needed to be calmed. But he is physically strong."

"Good," Evan said on a breath. "I was worried for a minute there he didn't develop properly. I...." He winced. "I've seen that, it's pretty bad."

"He is fine," Teyla said. She wished she could ask Evan what he'd witnessed, since it had obviously affected him deeply. She also wondered if this was the same occurrence that Rodney had mentioned when they were growing Cordelia's body for her. But this was something that had happened years ago, in Evan's home galaxy. A secret. Teyla understood secrets and respected them, and she would wait until Evan told her, if he ever did.

"Did John not tell you Lindsey was being birthed yesterday afternoon?" Teyla said.

"Oh, he did, yeah," Evan confirmed for her. "It's just...." He dropped his head, rubbing the back of his neck. "It's just that I was hoping we wouldn't see each other so soon." The smile he gave her was grim. "He ran away from me the second I said anything to him. Right into Carson's office, like he was expecting me to chase him down or something." He closed his eyes, as if the memory hurt. "I knew it was going to be bad, but that...."

"I see," Teyla said. She did; she had seen the fear in Roy's reaction to Evan once, and Evan had told her about what she hadn't seen--how his counterpart in another reality had murdered Roy's companion after brutalizing them both over their short lifetimes. She could only imagine what Lindsey had felt, seeing the image of someone he must loathe and fear. "I'm sure that he'll come to understand you mean him no harm, just as Roy did." She took Evan's arm as she spoke, gently leading him to her bed. They sat down together side-by-side.

"I hope so," Evan said, though his voice told her he didn't truly believe it. He moved his arm so that their hands slid together, and his linked his fingers between hers. "It was easier with Roy. I mean, he was scared of me, but nothing--nothing like this. I don't know what to do about this," he said more quietly. He looked down at her hand, which was resting on his thigh. "I hate that he thinks I'm a monster."

"I know. But you are not a monster, Evan," she said seriously. "You are a good man. And all Lindsey needs to realize that is time."

Evan smiled sadly. "I don't know. Maybe." He shook his head. "You should've seen the way he moved. It was like he was sure I was going to kill him. Again." He rubbed his forehead with his free hand. "Jesus. I murdered him, in his reality. How can I even hope he'll get over that?"

"You did nothing," Teyla said sternly. She kept her eyes on Evan's until he gave her a reluctant nod. "If Lindsey is anything like Roy was, he'll come to understand this. Cordelia trusts you with her life, Evan," she said.

Evan smiled again at her words, but it made him look barely less dispirited, and it fell quickly enough. "I don't know what to do," he said quietly. "I don't--I don't know if I can fix this."

"It is not up to you alone," Teyla said. "Lindsey has his sister, and you and me, and all of us. He will find his place here just as she did, I promise you." She pressed her lips together, thinking. "Put him on your team."

Evan's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "My team?" He shook his head in adamant denial. "No way! That'd be like...God, that'd be like putting a lamb in a lion's den, or something."

Teyla didn't understand his metaphor, but his meaning was plain enough. "I can think of no better way for him to learn who you are. Can you?"

Evan shook his head again. "I can't do it," he said. "He's not cleared for missions, and it'll disrupt the team. And...no," he said with finality. "I can't. If you'd seen him, the terror on his face...I can't do that to him."

"Very well." Teyla acquiesced. "You should have him train with the military personnel, at least."

"I guess so," Evan said, though with obvious reluctance. He rubbed the back of his neck again. "Yeah. I mean, if he's not placed directly with the sciences, the way Roy was." He nodded slowly. "Yeah, I can do that." He sighed gustily, but his smile was more hopeful. "Thanks." He squeezed her hand gently once, then let go. "I should go," he said. "Let you get some sleep."

Teyla grabbed the front of his tac vest before he could stand. She arched one of her eyebrows. "I think you should stay," she said, "in compensation for waking me." She began unfastening the vest.

Evan's mouth spread into a grin. "I guess I owe you, don't I?"

"Oh yes," Teyla said, slipping the vest off his shoulders and letting it drop to the floor. She plucked the radio out of his ear and let it fall as well. "I think you owe me quite a lot."

Athosians didn't kiss, but Evan had taught her and Teyla found she liked it. Especially how he kissed her in return: with a sweet hunger than never ceased to amaze and humble her, that he desired her so much. She felt like a queen with him, like a Goddess incarnate.

He reminded her of Kanaan--gentle, loving Kanaan--who was killed by a Wraith queen the same night she met the Lanteans. But while Evan was always, always gentle, she cherished the strength in him. There was steel there, beneath the placid surface. In another reality that had made him tyrannical; here, it might make him everything she had ever wanted.

He would be a very good father. She had seen that in the way he led his team, and in how much they looked up to him. Sometimes she allowed herself to think about that.

But right now she preferred to think of nothing besides the taste of his mouth, or the smooth warmth of his skin beneath her hands. And when he fell backwards onto the bed, pulling her with him, she laughed against his lips and buried her fingers in his thick, soft hair.

***

"We should go. Seriously--Cordy's with him. We should leave them alone. To, you know, bond. Brother-sister bonding," Rodney whispered to John. His voice was as harsh with anxiety as if they were off-world hiding from disgruntled locals with pitchforks and torches, rather than walking into the infirmary a little after eight in the morning.

"It's fine, Rodney," John said. He suppressed an eye-roll in favor of one of the bland smiles he knew would piss Rodney off. A pissed-off Rodney was a lot easier to deal with than a worried one. "What's gotten into you, anyway?" he asked. "And come on, already." Rodney had stopped dead in the entrance to the infirmary. John grabbed one of the open panels of his jacket and tugged.

"Hey!" Rodney protested, stumbling a little before he caught his feet. "Nothing's gotten into me! I just--Oh, hi, Cordelia." He plastered on one of those terrible fake smiles of his, way too jovial and brittle-bright. "And Lindsey! Get a good night's sleep?"

John tried to keep his face neutrally friendly, even though all he wanted to do was wince. "What Rodney means is, we both hope you're feeling better," he cut in smoothly. He walked a few steps closer to Lindsey's bed. Lindsey was fully dressed and had obviously just showered, since his hair was still wet. Trails of water were running down his neck and soaking into his shirt.

He was kind of amazingly good-looking.

John hadn't really noticed before, since Lindsey had looked mostly like a wild-eyed, drowned rat and half his face was covered by the oxygen mask. But Rodney really hadn't been kidding about the Ancients using the cloning lab to make more perfect copies of themselves. Lindsey, freshly-scrubbed and at least marginally more relaxed, looked like a digitally-perfected centerfold from a magazine, with his big, blue-green eyes and high cheekbones and the creamy brown of his skin. He was the ideal mix of the five genetic donors, like their best features had been pieced together to make one single, dazzling whole. Cordelia was lovely, no question, glasses and John's unfortunate ears and everything. But Lindsey was beautiful. More beautiful than his sister, something John hoped Cordelia never noticed. At least it was obvious they were related, since their skin and eyes were exactly the same.

John wondered if Rodney had even noticed how good a job his repairs to the incubator were; he seemed to be too preoccupied with his bizarre freaking out.

Lindsey was sitting on the side of the bed, Cordelia was in front of him in a chair. They'd been deep in what was obviously a very serious conversation when Rodney and John walked in. John felt a little badly for disturbing them, even though Cordy gave them both a wide smile. But, well, this was something he needed to get over with.

He stuck out his hand. "I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. You can call me John," he said, giving Lindsey his best smile. He wished he could make it more genuine, but he was a little too nervous himself for that, though he wasn't really sure why. Maybe it was just a carryover from McKay, or from Lindsey himself. The only one who seemed relaxed was Cordelia, and she didn't look all that happy, either. "I'm sure Cordelia's told you about me."

He had to wait a beat before Lindsey took his hand, probably because no one had ever shaken Lindsey's hand before. Lindsey let go quickly.

"I'm fine, thank you," Lindsey said, answering John's original question. "I saw you last night," he added. He looked and sounded wary, like he wasn't sure he was meant to speak. John smiled as encouragingly as he could, thinking of Roy.

"I wasn't sure if you did," John said. Lindsey hadn't seemed like he'd been paying attention to much of anything besides the oxygen mask at the time. "And I know this must be pretty strange for you, with me looking exactly like you did. Before."

Lindsey nodded. "Cordelia explained that you and Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell were born human in this universe. This reality," he amended, correcting himself.

"That's right," John said, hating the lie. It felt so unfair to Lindsey and Cordelia, to hide his and Cameron's real past from them. He was still certain it would have made things so much easier for the other AIs if they knew. But he'd promised Evan he wouldn't talk about it to anyone who didn't already know.

"I was just going to take Lindsey to have some breakfast. You both can come if you want," Cordelia said a little too brightly. It reminded John exactly of Rodney and he felt kind of badly for her. It sucked that some of Rodney's worst traits were apparently genetic. At least she hadn't inherited his frequent grumpiness or allergies.

"Oh. Well, I'd love to. Really, but--I have to get back to the lab. You know," Rodney said awkwardly, gesturing vaguely over his shoulder.

"We'd love to," John said, nudging Rodney with his toe hard enough to make Rodney skip sideways and then glare at him. He smiled at Lindsey and Cordelia. "Have you introduced him to Froot Loops yet?"

That made Cordelia grin. "Not yet, but I was going to! It's great," she said, turning back to Lindsey. "It's a breakfast cereal, but it tastes like candy. You'll love it."

Lindsey looked dubious, but John figured that was a little better than wary. "I have been instructed to meet with Dr. Heightmeyer."

"I'm sure she'd want you to have a good breakfast, Lindsey," John said. He wanted to clap Lindsey on the shoulder but didn't, remembering how easily spooked Roy was when he'd first been in the city. He looked around the infirmary, trying to spot a doctor or nurse. "You cleared to go?"

"I was instructed to wait until Dr. Keller or Dr. Beckett could give me an exam," Lindsey said.

"Didn't they feed you first?" Rodney asked, sounding horrified. John suppressed a smile.

"I was offered comestibles," Lindsey said. "I declined. I'm sorry." He looked like he expected to be punished for it.

"You didn't eat?" Cordy asked, sounding just as horrified as Rodney had. "Aren't you hungry?"

Lindsey blinked at her, as if he had absolutely no idea what she'd just said. "I don't know," he answered finally. He put his hand over his stomach. "There is a stimulus here...as if...I require recharging?" He looked up questioningly at Cordelia.

She smiled and nodded. "Yeah. It's similar, isn't it? But it's just in your stomach, not everywhere." John smiled to himself, remembering that. He actually preferred hunger to the steadily-increasing sense of emptiness that had signified the need to recharge.

"Come on." Cordelia held out one of her hands. "Let's go get you some food. You can come back for your checkup afterwards, okay? Believe me--the empty feeling just gets worse if you don't do anything about it."

Lindsey looked torn, like he wanted to trust her but didn't dare. "I was ordered to stay until after the exam," he said.

"We'll come right back," John coaxed. "And I'll take full responsibility if anyone's looking for you. You're not going to be punished, Lindsey," he added, because he knew that was the real problem.

Lindsey blinked, processing. "Okay," he said finally, and John had the sinking feeling it was because they were insisting. At first Roy hadn't thought he had a choice about anything, either.

But, "Great!" John said, clapping his hands together. His smile felt too bright and fake, just like Rodney's. But somehow he couldn't do anything about it.

***

Rodney tried not to watch Lindsey taking methodical spoonfuls of his Froot Loops, and contemplated just how much he had fucked up.

It wasn't only Lindsey's looks, though that was bad enough. Rodney thought about all the times John had been nearly or actually snatched off-world because of his looks and his ATA gene, or because of his looks alone, and felt the eggs he'd bolted curdling in his stomach. Ronon and Teyla had their own problems with their natural beauty of course, but Teyla was savvy and Ronon was menacing, so their problems were rarely bad. But John tended to be so oblivious of his effect on people that he never, ever saw it coming until he was chained up in someone's bedchamber wearing translucent pants.

And Lindsey was just as handsome as John, possibly even a little more, and Rodney was certain, absolutely certain, that all Lindsey would have to do was step through a wormhole and he'd be set upon by legions of Pegasus locals desperate to dilute their gene pool. Hell, Lindsey was already being sized up right in Atlantis. John had probably missed how the corporal slopping out the reconstituted eggs had blushed and giggled and stammered at Lindsey, but Rodney hadn't. And possibly it was just curiosity about the fresh meat supposedly right off the Daedalus, but Rodney hadn't missed how many people had kept staring at Lindsey, either.

Attracting that much attention was a terrible way to keep secrets. Or safe. And Rodney should have known that, should have spared maybe one lousy minute to think about that, while he was retooling the Ancient incubator to do what it had been designed for. But it was only after Lindsey was born that Rodney had even considered that there was a reason nothing was naturally perfect. Perfect was dangerous. And it was entirely possible the Ancients had really abandoned the cloning because they'd already figured that out.

Rodney wondered how long it would be before John figured that out, too. Or Cordelia did, and how much they would hate him after that.

Rodney gulped his coffee, too anxious to actually taste it. He would have already fled, except that John's foot was stepping so hard on his that Rodney couldn't move it.

Of course, his looks might be offset by his personality, Rodney thought a little hysterically. Because that was an even worse problem. Rodney had already gone through Elizabeth's ragging about his supposed lack of foresight in not inviting Heightmeyer along for Lindsey's birth. He had been so certain that keeping Heightmeyer and her germs away from Lindsey had been the best course of action at the time, but he thought now he might have been very wrong about that. Maybe Lindsey wouldn't have had a breakdown barely two hours after he'd been born if Heightmeyer had been there. Or maybe it wouldn't have made a difference. Maybe Rodney had fucked up somewhere in the programming, somewhere no one could see. Maybe Cordelia's brother had been born damaged and it was all Rodney's fault.

Roy hadn't been this quiet. Cordelia had been with them for far longer than Roy had, but Rodney still remembered that. Roy had been obedient and deferent to a fault and never offered any opinions, but Lindsey had taken taciturn to a new level. He'd been eating his cereal automatically, only speaking if he was asked a direct question. And there was a studied blankness to his face that Rodney hoped to hell had been cultivated in his original reality and wasn't Rodney's fault. Combined with his looks it made Rodney feel bizarrely like he was sitting across from a PlayFriend, rather than a person, and the irony of that was more than Rodney could stand.

Rodney forced down another leaden chunk of egg and realized that everyone at the small table was staring at him. "What?" He wondered if he had something on his chin.

"I was wondering if you'd like to help Cordy show Lindsey around the labs later," John said slowly, as if Rodney was demented and hadn't just missed the question.

"How about if Zelenka does that?" Rodney said immediately. John's raised eyebrows were eloquent. "I'm really busy," he said, trying to sound snappish and not defensive.

"Radek's sick," Cordelia said. "I don't mind doing it by myself." She smiled, obliging as always, and Rodney had a sudden and terrible idea that that could be his fault, too--that he might have programmed tractability into her human brain somehow, because he'd liked how obedient Roy had been.

"You don't have to if you don't want to, you know," he said, only realizing when her eyes widened behind her glasses that he'd been far more brusque than he'd intended.

"I do want to," she said. She smiled eagerly at Lindsey. "I want to show you everything!"

"Of course you do," Rodney mumbled, looking at his nearly empty plate. "Right."

John stared at him a moment longer, obviously confused by how insane he was acting, then turned one of his dazzling smiles on Lindsey. "And after lunch, how 'bout I swing by and show you all the cool stuff, like the shooting range and how we teach hand-to-hand combat?"

Lindsey paused, dripping spoon half way to his mouth. His face was still terribly blank. "I'm not allowed to receive combat training."

"You are here," John said. John's casualness was studied, but Rodney doubted anyone but him would know that. "In fact," John drawled even more casually, like it'd only just occurred to him, "Major Lorne suggested that you train with the military division for awhile, see what you think."

Lindsey's spoon slowly sank back into the bowl. His face was like a mask of stone, so perfect it might have been carved. "Okay," he said, but Rodney was absolutely certain that what he really meant was, please God, don't make me.

"Cool," John said. He leaned back in his chair looking satisfied, and Rodney all but gaped at him.

He turned back to Lindsey. "You don't have to," he said, aware he was repeating the exact words he'd said to Cordelia. "I mean, all expedition members need to have a minimum firearms certification, but that's it. You don't have to train with anyone."

"I think it'll be good for him, Rodney," John said, and Rodney caught the tiny little tone in his voice that meant, don't fuck this up. "Let him see how things work around here, give him some skills...."

"You always enjoyed flying the Portal ships," Cordelia interjected. "And racing me. I think the soldiers do a lot of running."

"They do." John nodded solemnly. "And the scientists don't get to fly nearly as much as the military."

Maybe Lindsey brightened a little at that. It was almost impossible to tell.

"Okay," Lindsey said. Rodney still didn't know if he meant it.

***

John casually picked up his coffee and moved to the seat Lindsey had left as soon as Cordelia had dragged him out of sight, chattering at him the whole way. "All right, what was that all about?" he asked Rodney, leaning closer so he could speak quietly and still have Rodney hear him.

"What was what all about?" Rodney asked, going for affronted innocence and missing very, very badly. "Really. I have no idea what you're talking about," he protested when John just kept his mild stare on him. John had no idea how somebody who could act so well could lie worth shit, but then again he already knew Rodney was an anxious, arrogant bundle of prickly contradictions.

"Come on, Rodney," John said. "You've been looking like you were about to puke the entire meal, and I know you're not sick because you insisted we all get blood tests this morning."

"Well," Rodney sniffed, "since half the city's been infected, I don't think it hurts to be careful."

"And I happen to agree," John said, and smiled at Rodney's startled blink. He didn't bother to mention that only about forty people had come down with a cold so far, and very few had symptoms much worse than a cough and runny nose. "But that's not the point. The point is that I haven't seen you this anxious since you had to explain to Caldwell why you were halting research on the Doranda project."

Rodney scowled at him. "You're never going to let me live that one down, are you? Or are you the only one who's ever allowed to change his mind?"

"Hey," John said, a little hurt. "I'm not the one who had to send an apology to the president." He smiled thinly at how Rodney's scowl blackened.

"Yes, right, of course. Because the Asgard made you so well that you're incapable of error. Feel free to rub our lesser mortals' noses in your perfection," Rodney hissed. Then he made his chair screech as he pushed it backwards to stand. He picked up his tray, glaring at John with wounded dignity while John could only stare uncomprehendingly back at him. "I did my best, you know," he said. "I'm sorry it wasn't good enough." His mouth was tilted in genuine remorse. "You can't begin to imagine how sorry I am."

He walked to the bussing station with his tray, all stiff-backed and hunched shoulders, leaving John gaping and with no idea what Rodney was talking about, except that it wasn't really Doranda anymore. And John had no idea what he could do about it.

***

"He's holding back," Ronon said quietly, his face turned towards Evan just enough to let him hear. He gestured by flicking up his chin. "Right there. He could have got her twice, but he didn't. She even left herself open on purpose for it."

Evan nodded in agreement. He and Ronon were leaning against the wall of the practice room nearest the door, watching Teyla spar with Marines, Air Force personnel, and soldiers from the international military contingent. Right now she stepped to the side with the grace of a dancer and easily knocked Lindsey's bantos rod away. She followed it with a smart whack to his ribs that made him wince and grunt, and then another one to his wrist that made Lindsey's hand spasm open and send the rod ricocheting off the floor.

"It's only been a week. Maybe he's just not that good," Evan rasped, then swallowed painfully. He'd caught the cold going around, of course. He always seemed to catch everything. Carson kept prescribing vitamins Evan forgot to take, and Teyla had started forcing him to drink some Athosian tea in the morning that tasted horrible but was meant to improve his immune system. It hadn't helped his sore throat much, but at least his nose wasn't leaking like a faucet anymore.

Teyla was still fine, a fact she lorded over Evan every chance she got. She insisted it was the damn tea.

"Maybe," Ronon rumbled. In the center of the room Teyla bent and neatly swept Lindsey's legs out from under him. Lindsey crashed to the mats on his back, hard enough that Evan heard some of the other students making noises of unconscious sympathy. Teyla stepped back and dropped her guard, indicating that the sparring session was over. Lindsey lay on his back for a second or two, then rolled up to his knees. He grabbed the rods off the floor as he stood and he and Teyla did the forehead-touching thing. Teyla said something to Lindsey that Evan couldn't hear. Lindsey nodded, unsmiling.

Lindsey handed the bantos rods to the next person waiting and went to the far wall. He slid down it until he was sitting on the floor like most of the people whom Teyla had already thrashed. Sunny Ko leaned over and whispered something to him, smiling and patting him on the shoulder, but Lindsey just nodded.

"He should be better than that, though, after a week," Ronon said. He still had his eyes on Lindsey. "Either he's so bad at this he shouldn't leave the city, or he's purposely not hitting back."

Evan rubbed his forehead. "Why?"

Ronon shrugged. "Maybe he's afraid of hurting someone."

Evan snorted out a laugh, then grimaced because it made his throat hurt. "There's no way he could hurt Teyla. He should know that."

"Could be his head, then," Ronon said.

"Damn it. Not again." Evan sighed resignedly. He looked away from Teyla's elegant pummeling of Corporal Singh. Lindsey had his knees up with his forearms resting on them. He was watching Teyla the way he was supposed to, but he had what Evan mentally called his 'migraine face': pinched and squinting like he was in pain and didn't want anyone to know. "Here we go again," Evan murmured to Ronon, who shrugged.

"He's fine when you're not here," Ronon said.

Evan nodded grimly. "I know."

This was the third time Lindsey had pulled this stunt in as many days--pretending nothing was wrong until he was in so much pain he could barely function. Evan clenched his jaw, trying to beat down the anger born of his frustration. "He really isn't getting it, is he?" he asked Ronon.

"Nope," Ronon said.

Teyla, her skin glowing gold with the barest sheen of sweat, smiled in pleasure as Ravinder finally managed to block Teyla's swipe at her head.

Evan smiled as well, then scowled as he looked over at Lindsey again. He took a breath, then he walked around the perimeter of the room over to where Lindsey was sitting. Lindsey kept his eyes on him the whole way.

Evan hunkered down next to him, one hand on the wall for balance. Lindsey stared at him wordlessly, tension radiating off him like heat. He slowly wrapped his arms around his knees, as if trying to protect himself.

"You've got another migraine, don't you?" Evan asked, knowing Lindsey wouldn't dare lie to him.

"Yes, sir," Lindsey said.

"Then you have no business being here," Evan snapped. "Get to the infirmary." He stood before Lindsey could answer and stalked back to Ronon. If anything he was even angrier.

"You shouldn't go so easy on him," Ronon said as soon as Evan had settled in beside him again.

"I don't," Evan said. He rubbed his throat, following Lindsey with his eyes as he silently left the room. Evan nodded to himself in satisfaction, then turned his attention back to Teyla. He normally loved watching her fight, but right now all he could think of was how he'd love to see her flatten Lindsey with her sticks, beat some sense into him. "He can't learn anything like that. He'll just slow everybody down, get someone hurt."

"You don't tell anyone else to go to the infirmary," Ronon said, and Evan had no doubt Ronon had heard what he'd said to Lindsey with those phenomenal ears of his.

"I do if it's warranted," he said.

He could see Ronon's eyebrow arch out of the corner of his eye. "What about when Kaufman puked yesterday? Didn't tell him to get checked out."

"I did after he threw up," Evan said, glaring out at everyone still training. "I didn't know he was sick before that. And Kaufman can take care of himself."

"Except when he coughs his stomach up," Ronon said.

Evan didn't answer. It wasn't exactly Blair's fault that the cold had hit his stomach instead of his head, but Ronon already knew that.

Teyla finished with Singh and the next student stood up, Colin Mills, a Royal Marine. He was the second to last. The class would be over soon.

"You're not going to get him to trust you by treating him different," Ronon said. "He'll just think you're singling him out."

Evan clenched his jaw. "I'm not going to treat him like the other one did," he said.

Ronon shrugged. "Way I see it, you're not that other you, so you're not going to do what he did anyway. You keep worrying about it, you're just going to end up driving both of you nuts."

Evan let out a breath. "It doesn't seem to matter what I do," he murmured, knowing Ronon would hear him even if no one else would be able to. "He gets migraines if I'm in the same room, for God's sake."

Ronon patted him on the shoulder with a hand big as a paw. "Know the best way to tame a skittish animal?"

"Don't go too near, let it come to you," Evan said, remembering robots the size of stacked paperbacks; talking until he was hoarse; 0007 finally, finally approaching him.

Ronon snorted. "So if you know, why do you keep doing it wrong?"

"Because it's not that simple, not with him," Evan said. If he stepped back Lindsey would just keep running. Evan was sure of it.

***

The SX-7 had switched to Reserve power thirty-seven point-twenty-five minutes ago. In two point-thirty-five minutes (and counting), it would experience Catastrophic Power Loss and CeaseToFunction.

It was lying on its side with its legs drawn up and its arms circling them, in an attempt to conserve as much thermal energy as possible. Its neural net had already shut down all non-essential functions. Its Visual and Auditory Processors were offline, and it had ceased its cardiac function, though it was respiring more rapidly to distill energy from the oxygen in the room. This would only stave off the inevitable Catastrophic Power Loss by point-forty-four minutes, however.

It had automatically entered Emergency Sleep Mode, but something alerted it to exit. It could register neither auditory nor visual stimuli, but it could sense the vibrations of the door to its cell opening, then a Human approaching. It's Visual and Audio Processors were offline, but it turned on its Audio Processor again, causing a further five percent drop in its Power reserves. It would now CeaseToFunction in two point-three minutes (and counting).

"I know you don't give a damn if you stop working, you useless piece of shit, but unless you follow orders and pilot that jumper, I'm going to let Eight's power drain until it ceases to function. Got that? That's how you say it, right? Eight's going to cease to function unless you do what I tell you."

Its Cerebral Processor was working at an unquantifiable diminished rate of capacity due to power loss, so while it recognized MajorEvanLorne's voice, it was not able to immediately assimilate what he said, nor properly respond.

There was a brief negative stimulus as MajorEvanLorne kicked its back. "You in there, Seven? It's not totally drained yet, right?"

"Not yet," DoctorRadekZelenka said, "but you might want to hurry. They are both very valuable pieces of equipment."

MajorEvanLorne kicked it again. "Answer me or your buddy's scrap."

It could not allow Eight to CeaseToFunction. Seven could not function properly without Eight. It did not want to function without Eight.

Its power levels were so low it was almost unable to vocalize, but it managed a single word: "Please."

"Great," MajorEvanLorne said. "Plug it in."

Seven opened its eyes, but it was no longer in the cell. It was in the Command Chair room. Its power cord was connected to the Command Chair, though Seven was aware that was not possible. Overhead, it could hear the impacts of the Wraith weapons.

MajorEvanLorne was aiming a Zat gun at Seven, and Seven's power cord was connected to the Command Chair. It couldn't move.

MajorEvanLorne fired. Twice.


Lindsey Shevi Charin's eyes snapped open, heart beating so fast it hurt. It--

No, he reminded himself. I'm human. I'm human. I have a name.

The heart thumping painfully in his chest was biological. His lungs were made of cells and proteins. He was breathing very fast.

Lindsey rolled upright and turned so that his feet were on the floor, throwing the thin blanket aside. His room was dark, except for the moonlight shining through the window. The air was cool on his skin, making the sweat prickle.

He crossed his arms over his torso, staring out into the grey night of his room.

He didn't remember Major Evan Lorne pulling the trigger of his Zat, but he remembered being in the Command Chair room, and the way the Major had looked at him, like he was looking at nothing. He remembered the machine-perfect understanding that he was going to CeaseToFunction. That he was going to die.

He'd been dead for two years, nothing but lines of code in a box. Nothing.

His vision blurred, and Lindsey blinked automatically to clear it. Something ran down his face, it itched a little.

He wiped it away, then looked at his fingertips in vague astonishment. Those were tears. He'd been crying. He remembered seeing Cordelia do that.

But Lindsey didn't know what he might be crying for. It had just been a bad dream. He didn't feel sad, he didn't feel anything at all.

***

"It's good to see you, Lindsey," Dr. Kate Heightmeyer said. She smiled. "Did you enjoy your breakfast?"

Unsurprisingly, Lindsey didn't smile back. "I had scrambled eggs. And bacon," he said. "And a banana. I drank milk. Cordelia said milk is nutritionally beneficial."

"It is," Kate agreed. She looked Lindsey over quickly, taking in his general affect. He looked drawn, she thought, with hollows in his cheeks that hadn't been there when he was birthed. She wondered how well he'd been eating. "And did you enjoy it?"

This wasn't the first time they'd gone through this small ritual. They met twice a week and she always asked if he'd enjoyed his breakfast. She was still waiting for an actual answer.

She could see Lindsey visibly hesitate, eyes shifting. "It fell within acceptable parameters," he said finally.

"I see," Kate said. She kept smiling, but inwardly she felt something a little closer to despair. Lindsey still used the remote, precise speech he'd been programmed with as an AI, as if it was a habit he couldn't break, or wouldn't. Kate was certain he did it on purpose, as a way of protecting himself. It was a perfect means of answering questions without saying anything real.

She let the silence grow between them for a moment, considering her options. She'd thought about trying something new last week, but hadn't wanted to risk making Lindsey more uncomfortable than he obviously already was. But a bit of discomfort might be exactly what he needed.

"Lindsey," she said, standing, "would you mind if I traded places with you?"

He was definitely taken aback, but he didn't say anything, just like Kate knew he wouldn't have even if he'd hated the idea. He just dutifully stood and sat on the loveseat-sized chair she normally used. Kate went to the armchair and sat down. She unlaced her shoes and kicked them off, smiling at him. She stretched her legs out and leaned back, closing her eyes.

"This is nice," she said. "Sometimes it feels good, just to be able to take my shoes off, wiggle my toes a little." She wiggled her toes in demonstration. It probably made her look silly, but that would be good. Silly was unthreatening.

Lindsey didn't say anything.

"It's good, not having shoes on sometimes," she said. "It feels good." She kept her eyes closed, head tilted back, not looking at him. "Do you like it when you take your boots off?"

She waited. The room was so quiet she could hear both of them breathing.

"Yes," Lindsey said, finally, softly.

Kate wanted to whoop or do a stupid happy dance around the room. Instead she settled herself a little more comfortably in the chair like she did this all the time during sessions and wiggled her toes a bit more.

"Know what else I like?" she said. "I really like it when they have those banana muffins in the mess for breakfast, and I get there early enough that they're still warm. I take my muffin and a cup of coffee out to one of the tables on the balcony, and I eat breakfast by myself, with the warm sun on my face. That feels wonderful, being out in the sun. Do you like that? Sunshine?"

"Yes," Lindsey said, a little more quickly this time. "I run with members of the military contingent in the morning. The sun is nice."

"That sounds like fun," Kate said. Then she said carefully, "What does it feel like, using your new body?"

Silence, and Kate's heart sank. She took a breath, kept smiling like she hadn't noticed he hadn't said anything. He'd actually admitted to enjoying something, and that was already progress.

Kate risked opening her eyes. Lindsey was sitting with his hands in fists on his thighs. He had his head down so she couldn't really see his face.

"There are some things I don't like, though," she said, closing her eyes again. She searched frantically for something innocuous. "I really don't like having to get up early in the morning." She chuckled. "If I had my way, nothing around here would start until noon. And I don't like these uniforms. Whatever they made the shirt out of itches, and the grey isn't very appealing."

"I...I don't like my boots," Lindsey said, with the same hushed gravity as if he were confessing to murder. Kate wanted to hug him. She especially wanted to tell him how very, very okay it was not to like things. That everyone was allowed to have opinions, to have feelings.

"They're hot, aren't they?" Kate said casually.

"Yes," Lindsey said. "I didn't get hot when I was a robot."

"It's a big change, isn't it?" Kate asked gently.

"Yes," Lindsey said.

Kate held her breath, waiting for more. But Lindsey stayed silent.

Kate let her breath out in a soundless sigh. "Is there anything else you don't like?" she asked.

More silence. Kate could practically hear Lindsey's internal struggling.

"You can say whatever you want, Lindsey," Kate said. "What goes on in here is secret, just between you and me. I promise that nothing bad will happen to you."

"I don't like combat practice," Lindsey said.

Kate allowed herself to open her eyes, but she didn't lean forward or nod encouragingly or do anything that might snap this slender, fragile moment of connection between them.

"It seems to me it would be painful," she said.

Lindsey nodded. "Specialist Ronon Dex told me I'm not trying hard enough. He said I wouldn't get hit so often if I took advantage of openings in my opponent's guard."

That was interesting, and disconcerting. Kate hoped Lindsey wasn't purposely setting himself up to be beaten. "Do you agree with that?"

"Yes," Lindsey said. Kate was a little shocked at his honesty, then reminded herself that he'd had this kind of candor literally beaten into him.

"So, you're choosing not to fight back," Kate said.

Lindsey nodded. "It's easier that way."

Kate gave him a tiny smile. "I'm sure it's easier for your opponent, but I'm not sure how it's easier for you, especially if it means you get hurt a lot."

Lindsey shrugged. "I don't like fighting."

That was no answer at all, but Lindsey was actually talking for once, so Kate wasn't going to push it. "If you're not enjoying your placement with the military, I'm positive you'd be welcome in the science division. I'm sure Cordelia would love to work with you."

Lindsey shook his head. "Colonel Sheppard wants me with the military."

"Is that what you want?" Kate asked.

She saw Lindsey's eyes widen fractionally, but he didn't speak.

"It's all right if you don't like military training, Lindsey," Kate said gently.

Lindsey swallowed. She could see his breathing speed up. "I don't like Major Evan Lorne," he said, and there wasn't just trepidation in his voice, but the first stirrings of anger.

"I'm glad you told me that, Lindsey," Kate said, making her voice kind and keeping all judgment out of it. "Do you dislike Major Lorne because he reminds you of the one from your universe?"

Lindsey nodded. "I don't like it when he talks to me."

"I can understand that," Kate said, feeling her heart speed up a little. This was closer than she'd hoped to get to talking about Lindsey's past. "The Major Lorne in your universe murdered you. Our Evan Lorne would never hurt you or punish you the way the other one did. But the similarities between them must make it difficult to remember that."

She could tell Lindsey had tightened his fists when they began to shake, minute vibrations that she could imagine rippling through his body, like something about to explode. "He shot me," he said. "He didn't look at me. He didn't even look at me."

He stood up before Kate could open her mouth. "I can't do this. I can't--" he took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I'm unable to continue."

"Wait, Lindsey." Kate stood up, just catching herself from reaching for him. "Stay, please."

He shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said again.

Kate was left standing in her bare feet on the cool metal floor, watching him go.

***

"Hey, new guy! New guy!"

Lindsey glanced over to his left, to see Sergeant Blair Kaufman standing at one of the mess tables with his arm raised and waving. Lindsey looked around himself and concluded that he was the 'new guy' Blair was referring to. He nodded to indicate he was aware of Kaufman's activity, then resumed choosing his midday meal.

He didn't want to sit with Kaufman. Kaufman's team and Lieutenant Jonathan O'Neill's team ate together regularly, which meant that Kaufman was only one of seven people at the table, including Cordelia. Lindsey would be required to behave in a socially acceptable manner.

Lindsey did not wish to behave in a socially appropriate manner. He wanted to be alone. He was still unaccustomed to speaking unless asked a direct question; navigating a conversation was bewildering and exhausting. He also was finding it increasingly difficult to emulate an appropriate level of enthusiasm for his daily activities, even when he didn't have a migraine. This difficulty was exacerbated by what he had concluded was moderate insomnia, complicated by nightmares when he was able to sleep. The nightmares invariably featured Major Evan Lorne.

Dr. Heightmeyer had prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which Dr. Keller said reduced the number of available anti-migraine medications. They only had a limited supply in any case, since these were non-standard supplies and had to be specifically requested from the SGC. Lindsey was careful to take his medication with breakfast each morning as Dr. Keller had instructed, but he could not discern if it was working or not.

He chose a bowl of soup and a banana, forcing himself to return the smile the server gave him. Dr. Keller had explained that the frequent negative stimulus in his stomach was called nausea, and was due to his migraines. It made eating unpleasant. The soup was chicken noodle, however, which he liked.

Cordelia had told him that peppermint tea was considered a beneficial way to self-medicate for stomach ailments, so he took a cup of that as well. It had occasionally seemed to ameliorate the nausea, though he was not an objective observer. He knew he needed to thank Cordelia for that information however, and now would be an appropriate time to do so. But that would require sitting with her and the other team members. There was also a high probability that Major Lorne would join them, since he ate with his team for approximately sixty percent of all meals. And the possibility of being in close proximity to Major Lorne caused a flare of pain behind Lindsey's eyes.

He was afraid of Major Evan Lorne. Lindsey was aware of this but had so far been unable to alter it. It was not the only emotion Major Evan Lorne solicited in him, however, but he couldn't classify the others.

He knew that Dr. Kate Heightmeyer would help him recognize what he felt, but that would require that he articulate it. And the negative stimulus of doing so was more than he could currently manage.

It would be much better to eat alone.

Lindsey forced another smile at Kaufman and his companions, but walked past them to the balcony. All the tables here were occupied, so Lindsey sat on the floor with his back against the wall. The air was cool but the sunlight on his face was pleasant. He liked sunshine.

He ate slowly to avoid worsening the nausea, then leaned against the wall to drink his tea. Dr. Heightmeyer liked coffee, but the scent of it seemed to make his headaches worse, so Lindsey avoided it.

He wondered if these migraines would be a permanent affliction, and if so, at what point that would curtail his usefulness to the expedition. He wondered what they would do with him when they realized creating this body had not been an advantageous expenditure of resources. He was human now so he couldn't be dismantled for spare parts, but that was the extent of his knowledge. He doubted they would kill him, however.

The direction of his thoughts caused an unsolicited memory of being in the Command Chair room, watching as Major Evan Lorne raised his weapon but being unable to do anything to prevent it. For a moment it was exactly as if Lindsey was standing right there, the Command Chair behind him. MajorEvanLorne was pulling the trigger--

The sluice of hot tea over his fingers brought Lindsey back to the present. He was on the balcony in Atlantis. He was in another reality and alive. He was human and alive, and the sun was warm on his face and the tea had burned his hand.

He shakily put the tea down and sucked on his burnt fingers. The pain was real. This was real.

The large door leading back inside to the mess slid open and Cordelia stepped out onto the balcony. She was carrying two spoons and two containers of the thick, creamy dessert called 'pudding', most likely chocolate from the color. She beamed at him, but Lindsey thought there might be apprehension in her expression. He quickly removed his fingers from his mouth so she wouldn't suspect he'd been injured. He didn't want to upset her again.

"Hi," she said. She raised one hand to display one of the desserts and spoons. "I brought you pudding." She sat down next to him, crossing her legs. She leaned across him to put his pudding down on his tray, then peeled the foil off her own and commenced eating it.

"Hi," Lindsey said. He didn't touch his. He was nauseous again and was sure further ingestion would make it worse. He swallowed the sudden, unwelcome liquid in his mouth.

"Why didn't you come eat with us?" Cordelia asked. "Didn't you see Blair trying to wave you over?"

"I did," Lindsey said. He drank more of his tea, looking out at the ocean instead of at Cordelia's face, so similar and yet so different from his own. Her eyes were very large behind her glasses. Sad, he thought.

He didn't want her to be sad. So far he had not been punished for eliciting negative emotions in anyone, but he didn't want her to be sad anyway.

"I'm sorry," he said.

Cordelia shrugged. "You can eat wherever you want," she said. "It's just that, Blair wants to be your friend. We all do. But you almost never talk to us." She took another spoonful of her dessert, then dropped her spoon back into the small plastic cup and sighed. "You almost never talk to me."

"I'm sorry," Lindsey said.

The group at the nearest table got up to leave, talking loudly and scraping their chairs. Cordelia stayed quiet until after they'd gone inside, leaving only the two of them on the balcony.

"I wish you'd talk to me," Cordelia said quietly. "Or come with me to the movie nights in Coop's room or when we play pier hockey or basketball with Evan's team or anything. Evan can't be there very much because of his duties, so it'd be okay. You won't have to be near him."

"I have no facility with those sports," Lindsey said, which was true. He and Eight had never been programmed or trained to play anything. Dr. Zelenka had once revealed to him that the only reason he and Eight had even been programmed to read and write was because they wouldn't have been as useful otherwise.

"Neither did I, at first," Cordelia said, and it was possible there was irritation in her voice. "It's not like we won't teach you."

"Thank you," Lindsey said. "But I want to be alone."

"Oh. Okay," Cordelia said. She looked away from him, carefully setting her unfinished pudding on the ground in front of her feet. She swallowed, and Lindsey could easily tell by her affect that he had made her sad again.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"I miss you," Cordelia said. "Sometimes it feels worse than it did when you were dead, even though you're right here. It's like I'm looking at a ghost all the time. You just...you just drift through everything, but you're not there. And it's like, you don't even want to be around me anymore. Like you hate me or something."

"I don't hate you," Lindsey said immediately, with vehemence.

Cordelia turned her head to look at him. Her expression showed confusion, as well as sadness. "Then why don't you spend any time with me?"

Lindsey licked his lips, an unconscious gesture that he was certain only originated with this human body.

"I keep trying to locate Eight's radio/transmitter," he said. "And then I remember that I'm not a robot anymore, and that Eight isn't one, either. That Eight is you." He drank the last of his tea, though it had cooled. "And I can't process it," he admitted quietly. "I keep expecting to...to feel you," he said, tapping his sternum. "In here, the way I always did. But I don't. I can't. I don't feel anything."

Cordelia stared at him for a moment in silence, then blinked rapidly. She removed her glasses, holding them carefully as she wiped her eyes.

"The other Major Lorne made Dr. McKay take the memory from me, you know. Of how you died," she said. "Everyone told me you'd been killed by the Wraith. Jeanie didn't erase it from my backup memory storage, but I didn't know that. Not until I came here. But even when I didn't know what really happened, when they told me you had ceased to function and I tried to contact you and I couldn't...." Cordelia took a breath, tears coursing steadily down her face. "I couldn't feel you anymore, and it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. Worse than when we had to destroy the Hive ship even though we didn't know if the prisoners were dead or not. Worse than anything Lorne had ever done to me." She swallowed. "It was worse even than when Sergeant Bates' team was killed, and I couldn't save them." Her next breath shuddered. "I'm Cordelia Dusana Charin now, but I'm also Eight. And I finally got you back, but it didn't work. You're not here.." She wiped her eyes with the sleeves of her grey jacket, but the tears didn't stop. "Please don't take my brother away from me again," she said.

"I'm sorry," Lindsey said. "I'm sorry I keep making you cry."

Cordelia gave him a mild glare. "Well, me too," she said. She sniffed, cleared her eyes again.

"I love you," she said.

"Thank you," Lindsey said. He couldn't account for the rough quality of his voice.

"I need to go," Cordelia said. She touched his cheek briefly with just the tips of her fingers, then stood. She stayed where she was for a moment, looking at him as if there was something else she wanted to say. But she left without speaking.

"I love you," Lindsey whispered to the empty air. He wished he knew what that felt like.

***

"God damn it!" Jonathan muttered as he watched Cordy move past their table, walking fast. She was carrying her glasses, clearing tears away with her free hand. She had her head bent, probably because she didn't want anyone to see.

"Is she crying again?" Coop asked, staring after Cordy as she left the mess. She glanced around at the other, slowly-empting tables. "Was it Lindsey? I didn't even know he was here."

"Yeah, it was Lindsey," Jonathan said. He glowered in the direction of the balcony. The son of a bitch was still out there. Jonathan wanted to kick his ass, but Cordelia was more important. He levered himself out of his chair. "Bus my tray for me, will you? I got to go."

"Sure," Coop said. She looked up at him with concern in her dark brown eyes. "Why the hell is he making her cry all the time?"

"I don't know." Jonathan shook his head. "But if he does it again, I'm going to kill him."

"You and me both," Coop said. Jonathan gave her a thumbs-up over his shoulder as he walked away.

As soon as he was in the corridor he started running, knowing exactly which route Cordy had taken. She was heading to the labs. She assisted McKay and Zelenka when she was at home anyway, and Jonathan knew she liked to work when she was upset. She'd gotten a lot accomplished, lately.

She was a fast walker, but he was running and had longer legs, so by the time she exited the transporter on the lower level he was just a few feet behind. "Cordy!" he called to her. "Hey, Cordy!"

She stopped and turned around, giving him a watery smile as she wiped her eyes again. Cordelia cried easily. Even happy things could make her bawl. She practically wept every time he gave her a present and she got sniffly when anyone did anything nice for her. Jonathan figured it was a carryover from all those years when Eight had been treated like an appliance, forbidden to feel pretty much anything. Not that Cordy's crying had stopped bothering him, because it still did. Every damn time.

And it was like she hadn't stopped crying ever since Lindsey had coughed himself alive on the incubator platform, and Jonathan was beginning to hate the guy for it, just a little.

"Hey," she said, still smiling though her voice was wavering a bit. She blinked a few times and obviously got herself under control, because she slipped her glasses back on. It was weird how Jonathan preferred Cordy with her glasses. It wasn't that she looked better with than without them, but she always seemed more vulnerable when she wasn't wearing them, as if they were somehow protecting her. He'd felt that way about Daniel too, Jonathan remembered, from before he'd been cloned and had still been Jack. The few times he'd seen Daniel without his glasses had always left him uncomfortable, like he'd see too much or something.

Jonathan quickly crossed the last few steps to her. He wanted to demand what the hell that fucker of a former toaster did this time, but he knew how well that would go over. So instead he asked, "What happened?" because the specifics weren't obvious, even if the general was. He put his hands on Cordelia's shoulders, rubbing gently with his thumbs. He thought about hugging her but decided she probably wanted some space. It'd be easier for her to talk if she wasn't mashed against his chest, anyway.

Cordelia shrugged like it wasn't a big deal. She was as bad at hiding her emotions as McKay. Jonathan thought it was one of her best traits, but he knew she didn't like being so open. "It's my fault," she said. "I keep pushing him too hard. He's not...." She took a deep breath. "He's not ready to accept me, yet. It's understandable, really. So much has changed for him in such a short time."

"Right," Jonathan growled. "Just like it's your fault that he treats his own sister like you're the God-damned Wraith or something."

"Jonathan!" Cordelia exclaimed angrily. "That's not fair! He's only been human for a little over two weeks! As far as he's concerned, that's how long it's been since he saw Eight, and suddenly he's got this girl following him around, insisting that Eight is her!" She tucked a lock of hair roughly behind her ear then adjusted her glasses. "He's mourning his brother, Jonathan," she said more quietly, her eyes downcast. "I should give him more time."

"What you should give him is a kick in the ass!" Jonathan shot back. "Come on!" he snapped when Cordelia's eyes widened. "You're right here! You're right fucking here! Who gives a damn if you're not a boy? He's not even meant to care about that crap, remember? He doesn't need more time, he needs to get over himself!"

"How can you say that?" Cordelia exploded, and it suddenly occurred to Jonathan that they were having a very loud argument in a very public corridor about stuff that not everyone was privy to know. He glanced around quickly, but there was no one there, and the labs where Cordelia was going were far enough away that no one could hear them. He hoped.

"Keep your voice down!" he hissed at her anyway.

Cordelia's face went thunderous, the same kind of controlled fury that Jonathan had seen very rarely on Teyla's face and always made him grateful he hadn't caused it. No such luck here.

"How dare you!" Cordelia snarled back at him. "You have no right to talk about my brother like that! You don't know anything about him! You have no idea what he's going through--!"

"I know exactly what he's going through!" The words came out so loudly that Cordelia flinched. Jonathan stifled an automatic urge to apologize. "I'm the only one besides you in two fucking galaxies who knows what he's going through!" He stepped closer, tapping his chest hard enough that it hurt. "This isn't my original body either," he said, the vehemence only intensified by the softness of his voice. "This was done to me. It wasn't my choice! And I lost everything the original me had. Jack O'Neill kept his house, his rank, his team, his lover, and I got nothing." He stepped a little closer, bending over her. It was a cheap way to use his height, but right now he was too angry to care. "So don't you fucking try to tell me I don't know what Lindsey's going through. And don't you tell me that his being an asshole is your fault and all he needs is time. He needs to get off his skinny ass and realize that this is the only life he has and he needs to do something with it, or he's going to lose everything he could get, along with everything he doesn't have anymore!"

When he finished speaking he realized his hands were fisted and shaking, adrenaline racing through him like he'd been in a firefight.

Cordelia's eyes were big and wounded, but it was fury making them glitter, not more tears. "You've had three years to come to terms with what happened to you," she said. He saw her jaw working, and Jonathan realized with distant, guilty horror that she was fighting not to cry again. "And I guess it wasn't long enough, if Atlantis and your new team and--and lover are still nothing to you."

Jonathan blinked. "What? No! Wait!" He reached for her, but she neatly dodged his arm and started stalking away.

"We're finished here," she spat at the corridor in front of her. "I've got work to do."

"Cordelia! Damn it!" He wanted to go after her, but he didn't want to cause a scene in one of the labs, and he knew Cordelia would. And they'd already been stupid enough nearly having a screaming match in the corridor.

Besides, Jonathan thought as he stuffed his still-shaking hands in his pockets, she was mad as a hornet and would have to calm down before she'd listen to him, believe that what she heard wasn't what he'd meant. He hadn't been talking about her or his team. He knew her hours, so he'd come back when her shift was over. Give her a little time. They could both use a little time.

The irony of that wasn't lost on him, but Jonathan ignored it.

***

Ronon didn't smile when Lindsey walked into the practice room. The afternoon sun was shining in through the windows, casting everything in harsh orange light. Lindsey squinted as the doors closed behind him. He was probably wondering why there weren't more people there, but Ronon knew he wouldn't ask about it. Lindsey stood with his legs slightly spread and his arms bent at the elbows with his hands behind his back. It was meant to be a comfortable position, but Ronon just thought it was a waste of energy. The Satedan military had never required such stupid formality of their soldiers. All that mattered was that you could listen and that you could fight.

Lindsey wasn't much good at listening or fighting, yet. Ronon was going to change that.

Ronon kept silent for a minute or two, idly shifting his grip on the wooden sparring sword. Lindsey kept staring straight ahead, holding that useless position. Ronon wondered if he'd stay like that the whole afternoon if he didn't say anything. Lindsey's eyes kept shifting around, though, like he was expecting Ronon to come at him any second. Ronon remembered that kind of wariness when he'd been in Atlantis right after having the Wraith tracker removed. He'd been so used to his fear that the slightest sound at night would rocket him out of the unfamiliar, too-comfortable bed, aiming his weapon at nothing. He'd been on the far path for so long he felt barely human anymore.

He still didn't really know why he'd decided to join Sheppard's team, stay in Atlantis. This wasn't his home, and it might never be. But he did, and he was still here. Maybe it had just been time to stop running.

It was time for Lindsey to stop running, too.

"Here," Ronon said, finally breaking the silence. He tossed Lindsey the sword, noting with satisfaction how smoothly he caught it. He could see Sheppard's power in him, and Teyla's grace, and Lorne's--and McKay's--strength along the wide line of Lindsey's shoulders. But untapped potential was worthless.

Ronon slid easily into first stance, distantly pleased when Lindsey did the same. The boy wasn't stupid, though he was so quiet he might as well be. "You fight badly," Ronon said. "Teyla and Evan let you, but I won't."

He moved the second the last word was out of his mouth. He leapt the space between them, swinging the sword down in a vicious arc that would have taken Lindsey's head off, if the blade had been real.

But Lindsey blocked, the swords hitting each other so hard that Ronon felt the vibrations like electricity up his arm. He grinned, angling away and slashing at Lindsey's side instead. His sword cracked against Lindsey's ribs with enough force to stagger him.

Teyla would have stepped back then, let Lindsey recover. Ronon didn't. He pivoted, spinning and using the momentum to slash at Lindsey's other shoulder, a blow that could cleave an opponent to his waist, and would certainly break Lindsey's collarbone if he didn't block it.

He did, grunting at the impact, his eyes slitted with exertion and pain, teeth clenched as he knocked Ronon's next thrust at his belly aside. But Lindsey missed the slice Ronon made to his legs, which upended him. Lindsey fell hard on his side on the mats. He needed to work on that.

Ronon didn't give him the chance to stand. He stabbed down at him, forcing Lindsey to roll away, bringing up his blade with far less skill than desperation.

But Lindsey had Teyla's blood, flowing in his veins with all the others, and he was quick enough to block Ronon's next move, and the next, quick enough to lurch to his feet again.

"Stop, stop," Lindsey panted. He was laboring. Ronon could see the speed of his breathing, the sweat running into his eyes. He was strong, but his body was new, unseasoned, likely as alien to the boy as everything else.

Too bad. "No," Ronon said. He thrashed out with a kick when Lindsey managed to block his sword again, planting his foot solidly into Lindsey's belly and stealing the air from his lungs. Lindsey staggered back, eyes wild as he struggled to breathe.

"Fight back!" Ronon roared at him. Lindsey managed to block his next blow, holding the sword one-handed. His other hand was over his belly, like he was trying to hold in the pain. "Fight back! Come on!" Ronon aimed another kick at Lindsey's knee. Lindsey jerked away. He fumbled his sword, nearly dropped it, grabbed it again with both hands in time to stop Ronon from slashing him in the face.

"You're going to die like this, Charin," Ronon growled. "Or maybe you want it." He gritted his teeth as he swung again. He was getting tired as well, but not enough to make much of a difference. "You already died once--maybe that's easier, huh?"

"No!" Lindsey shouted back, almost breathless. He missed Ronon's next blow to his thigh and staggered, nearly fell, but this time he managed to jump away before Ronon could scythe out his feet again.

"Then fight!"

Ronon saw it, the second something slid, snapped into place behind Lindsey's eyes. The boy's lips drew back, snarling like a cornered animal.

Ronon laughed, easily caught Lindsey's ferocious slice to his neck, then his slash at his side. Lindsey had nothing close to Ronon's ability, but Ronon had broken something loose in him, and Lindsey's attack was carried by ferocity and rage.

Ronon hit Lindsey's raised arm, making him fumble his sword again. Ronon swung his sword back, about to deliver another blow to Lindsey's unprotected side, and Lindsey turned his body and hit him hard in the chest with his shoulder, sending Ronon staggering backwards. It made Lindsey drop his sword, but before Ronon caught his balance Lindsey punched him in the face.

He hit Ronon again while Ronon was still blinking away the first blow, but Ronon grabbed Lindsey's wrist before he could hit him a third time, using Lindsey's own momentum to twist them both around and throw Lindsey down.

Ronon knelt over Lindsey before he could scramble away, pinning him in place with one hand on his arm, the other on his neck.

Before Ronon could kneel on Lindsey's free arm, Lindsey grabbed the sword Ronon had dropped, and smashed him with it in the side of the head.

Dazed, Ronon caught himself before he fell over, but that allowed Lindsey to roll away from him, regain his feet. Lindsey was reeling, but he still had the sword, and he was so deep in his rage Ronon doubted he knew where he was anymore.

Ronon had been peripherally aware of someone entering the room, but ignored them since they didn't register as a threat. So he was only a little surprised when Evan Lorne charged in to grab Lindsey's arms from behind, trying to disarm him.

But Evan was too gentle, coddling Lindsey again, and in return Lindsey whirled on him, elbowing Evan so hard in the nose that Ronon grunted on his behalf. Evan backpedaled, clumsy with the unexpected pain, but fast enough so that Lindsey's next fist to his jaw was only a glancing blow. Lindsey aimed another punch at Evan's stomach, but Evan sidestepped it, grabbed Lindsey by the front of his sweat-soaked shirt and flipped him over his shoulder. Ronon heard the cloth rip as Lindsey landed on his back again, hard. Evan was on him as soon as Lindsey hit the mat, rolling him over and bending Lindsey's arms so that they made an 'X' over his back, held in place by Evan's hands tight around his wrists. Lindsey struggled and bucked trying to get free, until Evan had to shove one knee into Lindsey's spine, to keep him still.

"Stand down!" Evan barked.

Lindsey froze as soon as he heard Evan's voice, nothing moving except for the air tearing in and out of his lungs. His eyes were wild, but there was no rage left, only fear.

"Yes, sir," he said breathlessly, and went lax in Evan's grip.

"Great," Evan said. He let go slowly, and when it was obvious Lindsey wasn't going to move he sat back on his haunches. "Jesus Christ," he said to Lindsey, "what is it with you people and breaking my face?" He palmed his nose, grimaced, and then grimaced again at all the blood on his hand.

Ronon hauled himself to his feet, tossing his head to get his dreads out of his eyes. His lip was split, and he could feel the warm itch of blood trickling down the side of his head, just above his ear.

"You're late for the tracking course," Evan said.

"Oh," Ronon said. He hadn't worn his radio.

Evan nodded, then turned his attention back to Lindsey. "Get up," he said. "Which one of you started this?" he asked Ronon.

"Me," Ronon said, as he walked over to where he'd left his bag. He pulled out a bottle of water and a towel. He shrugged, taking a long drink. "He needed the practice."

"I can't believe this!" Evan exclaimed angrily. Ronon figured that he'd be kind of mad. "This was supposed to be a practice session, not a God-damned brawl. What the hell were you thinking?" Evan tried to get the blood off his face with his hand, but it just kept coming.

"That he needed the practice." Ronon tossed Evan the towel. Evan caught it with a narrow-eyed nod of thanks. He held it against his nose as he looked at Lindsey, who had moved stiffly into rigid attention as soon as he was standing. Lindsey hadn't caught any hits in the face, but his neck and one wrist were red where Ronon had grabbed them, already bruising. Ronon was sure his ribs and belly would be covered in bruises as well.

"He fought back," Ronon said.

"I can see that," Evan snapped. "About time," he said to Lindsey.

Lindsey didn't say anything.

Evan took a breath through his mouth, tried to staunch the blood from his nose again. The towel was getting pretty red. "All right. I'll take Lindsey to the infirmary. You should go as well," he said to Ronon.

"I will accept any punishment you consider necessary, sir," Lindsey said.

Evan's mouth twitched. He looked sidelong at Ronon, as if waiting for something.

Ronon shrugged. "Tough practice," he said blandly. He offered the water to Lindsey. Lindsey didn't take it.

Evan considered that, and then gave a slow nod. "That's what I figured. Come on," he ordered Lindsey. "Let's get you looked at."

"I'm sorry, sir," Lindsey said. He sounded kind of sick.

"It's okay," Evan said. He moved the towel again. "You thought I was the other Lorne, didn't you?"

"No," Lindsey said.

Evan looked at him steadily for a moment then fisted the already ripped collar of the kid's shirt to yank Lindsey closer to him. "Look," Evan snarled. "I know what happened to you, and I can only imagine how angry you are. But the man who did that to you is not me. He's not me. And you really need to figure that out, because I'm not going to be the scapegoat for your misdirected rage, got it?"

Lindsey swallowed. "Yes, sir," he said.

Evan stared at him, then nodded and released his shirt. He started walking, pressing the towel to his face again, which muffled his voice. "Let's go."

***

"What the hell happened?"

Carson turned sharply to the infirmary entrance, both startled and warned by Rodney's exclamation. He plucked the stethoscope's ear buds out of his ears, staring as Ronon, Evan and Lindsey walked in, each looking like they'd come out the loser in a pub fight. Evan looked the worse for wear on first glance, clutching a bloodstained towel to his nose, but there was blood smeared on Ronon's lips and chin and a bleeding gash at his temple as well. Lindsey's face wasn't bruised but his throat was, and Carson had seen enough marks like that to know it came from someone's fingers. He also had one cut and bloody hand pressed to his ribs where they were clearly causing him pain

John, who had been sitting glowering at Rodney while Carson listened to his lungs, yanked the thermometer out of his mouth. "You're all supposed to be on the Mainland by now. What happened?" he said, voice already hoarse from coughing. He wiped his nose with the tissue he was holding.

"Jennifer! Delip! Suzi! We've got more patients," Carson called over his shoulder. "Ach," he scolded John, taking the thermometer from him. "Now I've got to do it again."

"I'm fine," John said. He shot another glare at Rodney.

"Your nose is running, you're coughing your lungs out and your head is on fire," Rodney shot back. He looked at Carson, indignation instantly evaporating into concern. "He's not really that bad, is he? I mean, he won't have a seizure or anything?"

"No, Rodney, the Colonel is not going to have a febrile seizure," Carson said wearily. He stuffed the thermometer relatively gently back into John's mouth. "Hold still this time. Can you take over for me, please, Suzi?" he asked the nurse. "I need you to check his breathing. If he sounds clear and his temperature's under 39 degrees, give him some Ibuprofen and 50mg of Diphenhydramine and tell him to rest. In his quarters," he added before John opened his mouth and lost the thermometer again. He supposed he should have used the faster tympanic thermometer, but he always felt more comfortable with older, time-tested instruments. He would have used a mercury thermometer if he'd had one.

Jennifer was looking after Ronon, checking for signs of concussion. He was squinting irritatedly at the penlight she was shining into his eyes. Delip was doing the same thing with Evan, who'd been clocked in the jaw as well by the look of it. Jennifer had sent Lindsey to one of the beds to wait for him, probably to keep him away from Evan.

"Teyla's running the tracking course," Evan said, finally answering John's question. He glanced at Ronon, who was looking barely patient while Jennifer began injecting anesthetic into his split lip. "Ronon thought Lindsey could use some extra practice. He didn't have his radio on, so I went to remind him about the tracking course in person. When I walked into the sparring room I got in the way. Lindsey hit me accidentally."

"Accidentally," John said, voice flat with clear disbelief. "Twice."

"Yes, sir," Evan said.

"That's not true, sir," Lindsey said. He was sitting on the side of the bed, shoulders hunched and hugging his torso. He was obviously in pain, though he obediently let Carson palpitate his throat. "Major Evan Lorne attempted to disarm me and I attacked him, sir," he said.

"What?" Rodney stared at Lindsey, then at Evan. "He was fighting Ronon. What did you need to disarm him for?"

"Take it easy," John said to Rodney as soon as Suzi took the thermometer. Then he sniffed, then coughed. Suzi had finished with his lungs as well, so he slid off the examination table, pulling down his shirt. "Is that what happened, Major?" he asked.

Evan shot Lindsey a look that Carson couldn't decipher. "No," he said. He took a breath. "It's true I was attempting to disarm him, sir, but Lindsey was just defending himself. He thought...."

"You were the other Lorne," Rodney said miserably, finishing the sentence with Evan. He looked stricken, miserable. "Did he--are you okay?" he asked Evan.

"Well, my nose is a little sore," Evan said, deadpan.

"It's probably cracked, possibly broken," Delip said, looking annoyed. "It'd be a lot easier to tell if I could actually finish my examination," he added pointedly.

"Evan got in the way," Ronon said, slurring a bit since had had to talk around numb lips. The precise black stitch Jennifer had put in stood out like a lip ring. "I was fine."

"He hit you in the head with the sword," Evan said to him.

Ronon shrugged. He probably would have grinned except for the stitch. "Not like that's never happened before."

"All right," John said. He scowled down at the pills and paper cone of water Suzi had handed him, then slapped the pills into his mouth and drank. He swallowed, shuddering and making a face. "Charin," he said to Lindsey, who instantly snapped to rigid, seated attention though moving that fast had to hurt, "you're confined to quarters for as long as Beckett says. Major, Ronon knows what he's doing. Ronon, we're going to talk about your teaching methods."

Ronon shrugged, though Carson thought perhaps he looked a wee bit chagrined. "He needed the practice. We practiced. You and me do the same thing."

Rodney blinked at Ronon, looking aghast. "You practice by trying to kill each other?" He turned to John, all but gaping. "No wonder you're always covered in bruises--!"

"Rodney," John grit out.

Carson cleared his throat. "Thank you," he said when everyone looked at him. "Colonel, go rest. If your fever's not broken by tomorrow morning, come back. As for you lot," he said to the others, "shut up and let my staff do their bloody jobs." He finished cleaning and bandaging the cuts on Lindsey's knuckles. "Come on, lad," he said to Lindsey, "off to the MRI with you. Let's see if those ribs are cracked or bruised."

"Yes, Doctor," Lindsey said. Carson watched him carefully as he stood. Lindsey was stiff and surely in pain, but Carson had seen enough men and women with broken ribs to know what it looked like, and he doubted Lindsey was injured that badly. Of course, it was always a good idea to make sure.

He walked over to the large, Ancient MRI machine, then patted the smooth metal surface. "Sit," he said, smiling. "I'm sure you know exactly how this works by now."

Lindsey sat wordlessly on the MRI platform and lay back.

Carson set the machine going and watched with satisfaction as the green light grid slid down Lindsey's body and produced a detailed internal image on the corresponding screen.

"As I thought," Carson said, nodding to himself. "You'll be right sore for a few days, but your neck is fine and no ribs are broken or cracked." He helped Lindsey sit up, grinning at him. "You're lucky Ronon didn't touch that bonnie face of yours." His smile slipped away when Lindsey didn't return it. "Okay," he said. "I'll give you an ice pack and something for the pain. I'm taking you off-duty for the next forty-eight hours, though I want you to come back if the pain from your ribs gets worse, or if your knuckles get infected." He checked his watch after marking Lindsey's nod. "It's nearly lunchtime, so you might as well stay here for half an hour and ice your ribs, and I'll send someone to fetch you something to eat."

"Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard confined me to quarters," Lindsey said.

Carson stared at him for a moment, confused. "Aye. You can go there after you've eaten."

Lindsey stared at him. "Being confined precludes recharging," he said.

"Recharging? What--" Carson's eyes widened as he realized what Lindsey meant. "Och, no!" he said, genuinely angry. "Are you daft? Do you really think he'd stop feeding you for punishment? Who the bloody hell do you think we are? We brought you back from the dead, man! Do you honestly believe we'd do that just so we could torture you?"

"I don't know why you brought me back!" Lindsey shouted. Then he gave a small grunt of pain.

"Because you're Cordelia's brother!" Carson exclaimed, then quickly reassessed Lindsey's ribs with his hands to make sure Lindsey hadn't just done himself more damage. "We gave her a human body, why wouldn't we do it for you? What?" he made a sharp, dismissive gesture. "Do you think we'd just throw you away, after Jeanie McKay went to such trouble to get you to us, when we had an incubator right here?"

Lindsey went quiet, like the anger had suddenly drained out of him. "No," he said, sounding subdued now, as if he was thinking about it. "It would not have been a reasonable allocation of resources."

"Exactly," Carson said firmly. He put his hand on Lindsey's shoulder, careful not to jostle him. "So since we've established that it would be a bloody shame to let such a bonnie resource as yourself go to waste, why don't I get you some ice and something to ease the hurt a little?"

"Thank you, Lindsey said seriously.

"Think nothing of it," Carson said, smiling.

***

Of course John didn't go rest when Carson told him to. Instead he casually hung around the waiting room until Ronon and Lorne had been released. Ronon got out first, his lip already puffing around the single black stitch. John gave him a nod that Rodney figured was manly warrior speak for, 'I'm glad the kid didn't crack your head open but I'm still giving you hell later'. Ronon's grunt and the unrepentant quirk of his lips were easier to understand.

Lorne was out a few minutes later, looking aggravated and in pain with half his face already darkening with bruises. At least he wasn't gushing blood anymore. Rodney was waiting politely out of earshot, but he was sure John was asking Lorne if he was really okay, showing the concern that he couldn't when they were around people who didn't know about their shared history. Rodney personally thought that the occasional, 'you okay, buddy?' would be acceptable even for a military subordinate, but John was so rarely comfortable showing genuine affection for anyone other than Cameron Mitchell that Rodney could understand why John preferred to keep things distantly professional in public, it was so much easier for him.

All the same, Rodney was honest enough to admit it made him jealous sometimes, to see them together like that. Partially because Rodney was sure that John shared things with Lorne that John would never share with him, and partially because his own relationship with his parents had never been that close, or even that amicable. Lorne had crafted a better relationship with two robots than either of Rodney's parents had managed with their own flesh-and-blood children.

But right now Rodney watched Lorne and John speaking with their quiet affection, and all he could think about was how if it wasn't for the Asgard and General O'Neill, that would be all gone. John would be gone, nothing left of him but binary code in a hard disk drive, locked away in some storage room like a body in a mausoleum.

Like Lindsey, actually. Only Rodney knew it wouldn't have been only two years. It would have been forever, like death. Rodney, and Cameron, and Lorne would have never seen John again. Because of a virus Rodney created.

Rodney looked away, clenching his jaw against the unwelcome but all-too-familiar ache in his throat. By the time John finally ambled over to him, Rodney was fairly certain he looked normal again.

But, "What's wrong?" John asked, looking at him quizzically as Rodney stomped down the corridor. John coughed into the side of his fist.

Damn it. "Nothing," Rodney said, knowing even before he opened his mouth that he'd spoken too fast, sounded completely false. He shook his head quickly, automatically slowing down so as not to stress John's lungs. "I'm just annoyed that you didn't listen to me about how sick you are, and naturally I was right. As usual."

"I'm fine, Rodney," John said, and Rodney could hear the eyeroll even though he was staunchly not looking at him. "Carson said I'd be all better in a couple days, just like everyone else who caught this virus."

"Only four people got a fever," Rodney said. He'd checked, of course.

"I know, Rodney," John said testily. He cleared his throat then sniffed. He sighed, and Rodney tried not to imagine several million colonies of germs wafting towards him. "I'm not going to die, Rodney, okay? You can stop worrying already."

"Right," Rodney said tightly. "Haven't those pills started working yet? You sound like an asthmatic buffalo."

John didn't answer, just lapsing into irked silence as he walked next to him. It should have made Rodney feel relieved, but it didn't.

He let out a grateful breath when they finally got to John's quarters. John slapped at the crystals wearily. He didn't look to see if Rodney followed him in, but Rodney knew it was because he assumed Rodney would.

Rodney stayed in the doorway. "So, uh, if you don't need anything...." He gestured meaninglessly over his shoulder, vaguely indicating both the infirmary and the mess. "I really should get back to the lab before anything blows up."

"Rodney," John said, his voice carrying the unmistakable timbre of command. Rodney knew he could have just left anyway, but he also knew that John would just come after him, and considering the sheer amount of medication that would start shooting through John's bloodstream any second Rodney didn't want to be responsible for him passing out in the corridor or anything. He took a breath and went inside.

John sat down on his bed, resting his forearms on his thighs. He actually looked worse than he had in the infirmary, drawn and pinched and like untying his boots was more than he could handle, and Rodney hoped that was just the medication knocking him out. His glare was just as potent as always, however. "What the hell has gotten into you? Seriously. You've been acting anxious as hell for weeks."

"Nothing's wrong," Rodney snapped immediately. "I'm not anxious. I don't know what you're talking about. I've just had a lot of work to do. Like usual. Which I need to get back to rather than wasting my time babysitting a Lieutenant Colonel who can't see a doctor when he's coughing up his lungs and running a fever of 39 degrees Celsius and yet is obviously fine." that was a misdirection of course, but Rodney found it was surprisingly easy to find anger over John's continuing stupidity and unwillingness to look after himself. Lorne had revealed once in one his very rare confidences that John had always been self-sacrificing, even more so than Cameron and even from before Lorne had become their guardian, apparently. Which unfortunately left Rodney with no one to blame, except maybe Dr. Lee.

"What is it with you? Do you really think I can't take care of myself?" John snapped back with weary annoyance. He rubbed one eye with the heel of his hand, obviously trying to keep alert, then dredged up a glare from somewhere and turned it on Rodney. "Just because I don't go running to the damn infirmary like you do every time you get a hangnail--"

"This has nothing to do with me!" Rodney interrupted loudly, stung.

"This has everything to do with you!" John retorted. "You and your...hypochondria, or whatever the hell it is. You're the one who's freaking out because I've got a cold!"

"And you're the one who's always making me freak out!" Rodney crossed his arms, glowering. Part of him was unbelievably relieved that they were fighting about his (completely justified!) worrying over John's health, and not about...not about anything else. "If you'd just take care of yourself--!"

"All right!" John barked so loudly that Rodney blinked, derailed. He held up his hand. "All right. Fine. You've made your point. I'm too wiped to keep fighting with you over this." He took a deep breath, rubbing his eye again. "I'm going to get my head down for an hour and hopefully when I wake up you'll be more sane, though I'm not holding my breath." He bent over and fumbled with his boot laces.

"Right. Like I'm the crazy one," Rodney huffed. He debated with himself for a moment, but affection won out over pissiness, so he went to the bed and knelt in front of John to grab a still-laced boot. John only twitched his foot in token protest before he allowed Rodney to untie his boot and pull it off. Then Rodney pulled John's hands away from his first boot and took that one off, too. "Socks?" he asked, glancing up. When John just blinked at him Rodney snorted and yanked off both socks as well, leaving them wadded up on the floor. On impulse he kissed John's ankle.

John smirked and clumsily caressed the side of Rodney's head. "Thanks," he said quietly.

"Go to sleep," Rodney said, smiling. He stood, stifling a groan for his back and knees as he watched John squirm around until he was comfortable.

"Wake me up in an hour," John said. His eyes were already closed.

"Absolutely," Rodney lied. He deftly plucked the radio from John's ear, just to make sure no one would wake him. It wasn't like they couldn't find him if they really needed to.

There was no reason to stand there watching like some stalker as John's breath evened out and he relaxed into sleep, so Rodney didn't even try to justify it.

John's hair was a little longer now than it had been when he'd first barged into Rodney's life as the AI, and it was possible the corners of his eyes were a bit more wrinkled, but otherwise he was almost exactly the same. And as he watched him sleep Rodney was struck with the memory of how John had looked when he was infected with the virus Rodney had created: unguarded and vulnerable as a child, trusting Rodney to save him. And Rodney hadn't. He hadn't been able to. And John had died.

John had died. Rodney hadn't thought about it in years. He hadn't let himself think about it: all the months when John was gone, the unrelenting grief that had made every breath an effort, like chains around his lungs, his heart. Rodney hadn't let himself, not even during all the times John had almost died afterwards. Especially not during all those times, because it hurt too much. And it was okay anyway, because John was with him and human and alive. Beautifully, perfectly alive.

And then Lindsey had been born and ended up in the infirmary the same day, and since then Rodney hadn't been able to think of much of anything else except how John had died, and how it had been Rodney's fault.

Rodney left as quickly and quietly as possible, then started for the labs as soon as John's door shut behind him, walking as fast as he could without running. He kept his head down, hoping that no one would see his face. He could never hide how he felt.

***

Jonathan walked into the mess, searching with his eyes and smiling slightly when he found Cordelia. She was sitting with Coop, who had taken the top bread off her sandwich and was picking out all the things she didn't like with the same absorbed concentration she used for Wraith technology. Her picking pretty much just left the meat and lettuce--Coop had the gastronomic range of a two-year old. Cordelia on the other hand seemed to be eating cake for dinner. With a side of broccoli. Which meant that either she was pregnant or really upset. Jonathan almost wished she were pregnant.

He gave another thin smile to the server behind the counter, choosing the same sandwich as Coop and then on impulse a side of broccoli as well. He really wanted a beer, but nowadays every time he thought about alcohol he kept remembering Dr. Keller's big, worried eyes and nervous lecture on teenage brain damage. He sighed and got milk instead.

"Hey, Jonathan," Coop said, smiling widely. Jonathan tossed one more thin smile at her and sat down, after taking a second to decide whether it would be a better idea to sit next to Cordelia or across from her. Cordelia was almost heartbreakingly forgiving if you gave her enough time, but Jonathan knew that she was still deeply hurt, and probably still angrier than even she knew.

He sat down across from her. "Hi," he said quietly, smiling at her when she looked up at him. The smile she gave in return was anemic at best, but it was way better than nothing.

"I thought you didn't like broccoli," Cordelia said, glancing at the small bowl of veggies on his tray.

Jonathan shrugged. "I don't. But you're always telling me how healthy it is." He forked up one of the bright green florets. It wasn't really all that bad. He'd already reconciled his adolescent desires with his adult impulse control, so eating stuff just because it was good for him really wasn't that big a deal. Especially when it made Cordelia happy.

The underlying message was that he listened to her, but Jonathan had never been good at subtle, neither when he was Jack O'Neill and certainly not now. So he had no idea if she got it or not. The wider smile she gave him in return seemed to show she did, though.

He pushed one of his legs forward until he could gently nudge her foot with the toe of his boot. She didn't move her foot away, which was one hell of a relief.

Coop slapped what was left of her sandwich back together and took a large bite. "Cordy's upset because her bro's back in the infirmary. Ronon beat the crap out of him."

"I've heard the gossip," Jonathan said tartly, "Though maybe you shouldn't be spreading it around, huh?" Major Lorne had naturally been forced to explain his cracked nose, and once Aiden knew something it might as well be announced over the general comm. Aiden could keep secrets, but you kind of had to be really, really explicit that you were telling him one.

At least Coop seemed to get the point. She glanced guiltily at Cordelia. "Well, I figured you'd already know, since you and Cordy are, um...."

"It's all right, Alice," Cordelia said. Her smile was a little sad. "I'm sure everyone knows by now."

"Is he okay?" Jonathan asked. He was genuinely concerned, though truthfully more for Cordelia's sake than Lindsey's. Lindsey had made his sister cry so often that Jonathan wasn't sure he'd ever really like the guy. "I thought it was just a training exercise, though. Did Ronon go ballistic on him on purpose?" He took a bite of his own sandwich while he waited for the answer.

Cordelia shrugged. "I don't know what happened. I visited him, but he didn't really tell me."

Jonathan ground the remnants of sandwich to paste between his teeth, struggling to keep his expression neutral. He took a long drink of milk, mostly to keep himself from saying something that would make Cordy storm away in tears again. Like how much of an asshole her brother was. He settled on nudging her foot a little bit. She nudged his in return.

"Isn't that just how Ronon trains people?" Coop asked. "I kind of thought that's what Ronon did to everybody."

"Nope." Jonathan chewed and swallowed another mouthful, realizing dimly that he had no idea what the sandwich actually had in it. "It's not really training when you're sending everyone to the infirmary, right? If Ronon really did clobber Lindsey like that, it was for a reason."

"Okay..." Coop said dubiously. "Remind me to be really nice during training sessions." She raised and dropped one shoulder in a shrug. "McKay announced that Lindsey's going to be working with sciences once he's cleared for light duty. We were just talking about that," she said to Jonathan.

"Yeah?" Jonathan asked, interested. It made sense that Lindsey would be able to use the Ancient tech the same way Cordy did, considering their backgrounds. "He any good at that?" he asked Cordelia.

Cordelia pushed a lone piece of broccoli around the bowl with her fork. "I don't know," she said. "I mean he was, when--when we were both back at the SGC. But I don't know if he still wants to work with Ancient technology. He never really liked it all that much."

"I guess we'll find out," Coop said. She ate the last bit of her sandwich then started sucking the crumbs off the pads of her fingers. She grinned. "It'll be nice having something pretty to look at, at least."

Jonathan turned his head so Cordy wouldn't see him roll his eyes.

Cordelia blinked at Coop. "Pretty?"

Coop all but gaped back at Cordelia. "Come on. Please don't tell me you haven't noticed your brother is totally gorgeous. He looks like, Johnny Depp or something."

Jonathan stared at her. "Wait, do you mean 21 Jump Street Johnny Depp? Or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Johnny Depp?"

Cordelia blinked again. "Who?"

Coop stared back at Jonathan. "What?" She shook her head and waved her hand dismissively. "Actually, never mind. He's cuter than Johnny Depp. He's like...Colonel Mitchell cute."

Jonathan managed to keep himself from laughing out loud at Cordy's expression. "'Colonel Mitchell cute'?" she asked, a little numbly.

"Oh, like you never noticed," Coop said. "Putting him and Colonel Sheppard in the same room would probably make my ovaries explode." She gave a dreamy little sigh. "Man, adding Lindsey to that...."

"Oh, that's an image I really didn't need," Jonathan said, making a face.

"I, um, never noticed," Cordelia said in a small, stunned voice. She looked at Jonathan as if for confirmation. "Are they really considered that handsome?"

Jonathan hesitated. He never knew how to answer a question like that. "I guess," he said, hedging. He gave Coop a mordant smile. "I try not to think about my superior officers as sexual objects."

Coop shook her head. "You're such a prude, Jonathan," she said in mock despair. "Even Aiden can admit they're hot. Speaking of Aiden...." She checked her watch, then slapped the tabletop decisively. "Got to go." She winked at Cordelia. "The third hottest guy on the base is waiting for me."

"Hey, I'm taken," Jonathan drawled, then grinned at Coop's 'whatever, white boy,' in response. She waved goodbye as she took her tray.

Jonathan shook his head as he watched Coop saunter off, ponytail swinging jauntily with every sway of her hips. "Why does every meal with her end with me feeling like I've been run over by a really chatty truck?"

"She's very uninhibited," Cordelia said absently. She was blinking slowly, obviously still coming to grips with the 'Colonel Mitchell cute' thing, considering less than seven months ago she'd looked almost exactly like Colonel Mitchell.

Jonathan took a quick glance around, decided that no one was looking at them, and risked putting his hand over hers. He leaned towards her so he could lower his voice. "You really never noticed how attractive those bodies were?" He had a lot less problem admitting he also found men as alluring as Coop obviously did when it was just him and Cordelia.

"I...was aware they were considered physically appealing," she said. "But it was never...." She shook her head helplessly. "It never mattered. It was...." She shrugged, and her smile was heartbreaking. "Furniture can be beautiful, too. But it makes no difference to the furniture."

"Right," Jonathan said, nodding in grim understanding. He squeezed her hand. "Sorry."

Cordelia shrugged again. "It's in the past."

It really wasn't, though. The proof of that was in the cake crumbs on Cordy's dinner plate. Jonathan squeezed her hand again, leaned in a little closer. Cordelia obligingly leaned towards him as well so he could speak practically into her ear. "You okay?"

Cordelia nodded, then she shook her head. She swallowed. "No, I'm not."

"I figured," Jonathan said. He took a breath. "Look," he said. "You want to get out of here?"

Cordelia nodded again, but then looked concerned. "You've barely eaten anything."

"Don't worry about it," Jonathan said. "I'll grab something later. Besides, I hate broccoli."

Cordy laughed. Jonathan would have kissed her, but there were too many people around.

Jonathan didn't know if he was following Cordelia or she was following him, but they both ended up at her quarters. Jonathan had spent the night there so many times that they practically felt like they belonged to him too, except that he hadn't been there recently.

Cordelia went right to the bed and flopped down onto her back, leaving her booted feet hanging off the edge. Jonathan lay down next to her, figuring that she would have said something already if she didn't want him to stay.

She stared up at the ceiling with her hands on her stomach. "I was really angry at you," she said.

"I know," Jonathan said. "I'm sorry. I just can't stand how he's been treating you."

"I know," Cordelia said. "And that's really, really sweet of you. But I don't think you understand how it makes me feel. I love him," she said simply. "I love you both. But he's my brother." She moved one of her hands so it was over his, threaded her fingers through his and held on tight. "Please don't make me choose between you."

"I won't," Jonathan said a little thickly. "I promise." He rolled up onto his side, gently pulling his hand away from hers so he could support his head and look at her. He moved his free hand over the one she still had on her stomach. There were tears in her eyes again, and even though Cordy cried over everything, whenever he was the cause Jonathan always felt guilty as hell. "But I still think he can do better. You were already doing better by now, when you first came here."

"That was different," Cordelia said, anger creeping back into her voice. "I'd been repaired...I had a chance to adjust. I didn't just suddenly wake up in a totally different body after being murdered!" She turned her head a little so her eyes could meet his. "How can you expect him to be 'doing better' after all that when he hasn't even been here a month? How much better were you doing, a month after you found out you weren't actually Jack O'Neill?"

I am Jack O'Neill! were the first words in Jonathan's head. He almost said them. Nearly three years later, and it was still the automatic response, and still as full of furious and desperate denial.

He had to clear his throat, and even then the words came out a little rough, "Not, not so good." He'd brazened out going back to high school; smugly assured Jack O'Neill he'd never hear from him again. But each day had been a living hell: pretending to be a kid when he'd had a lifetime's worth of grief and wisdom he couldn't even talk about. Everything he'd ever accomplished, everything he'd ever had, as distant as the planets he'd never see again.

And then the SGC had called him back, and that had been even worse, because everything was the same. Except him.

"Not so good," he said again.

"Yeah, well, Lindsey's not doing so good either," Cordelia said, and her voice sounded just as rough as Jonathan's own. "So how about you back off a little, okay?"

"He makes you cry all the time," Jonathan said.

Cordy gave a wet smirk at that. "Everything makes me cry. Aiden's stupid jokes make me cry."

"Aiden's stupid jokes make everyone cry," Jonathan said. He smiled, but only briefly. "I don't want him to keep hurting you."

"I know," Cordelia said. "And I love you for that. But I'm going to be okay, Jonathan. And so will Lindsey. He just needs time."

Jonathan gritted his teeth. "I'm not going to just stand around and let him treat you like crap, Cordy."

The warning in Cordelia's eyes was like an arctic sea. "If you hurt him," she said slowly and distinctly, "I'll break up with you. Don't make me choose, Jonathan, because I'll choose him."

Jonathan stayed still, stunned and caught somewhere between anger and hurt. He tried to pull his hand away from Cordelia's, but she wouldn't let him. "I thought you loved me," he said, hating how vulnerable his voice was, how much like a kid. Jack O'Neill would never have said something like that, something so childish and needy. But he wasn't Jack O'Neill anymore.

"I do," Cordelia said simply. Her eyes were honest and guileless as clear water. "That's not going to change. But I'll still choose him."

Jonathan didn't know what to answer to that, so he didn't. He lay back down on the bed, Cordelia still holding his hand, and wondered if he should leave, if he should break up with her, if they actually already had.

But...he'd had a son, once. Jack O'Neill had had a son. And even though Jack had loved Daniel Jackson--loved his team--more than his own life, if Charlie had lived, and Jack had been forced to choose, he would have chosen his son. Every time. There wasn't even a question.

So, "I understand," was what Jonathan finally said, because he did. But it hurt just the same.

***

"Oh, come on! It's a simple cross-reference search! Why can't you do it? You were--this was your job, before you came here! What happened? Did Ronon hit you too hard and give you brain damage?"

Lindsey froze, listening to Dr. Rodney McKay's tirade, his fingers still resting on the blue-toned crystal keys of the console. He had been attempting to find any information related to the Ancient device they were currently studying, which was being examined by Dr. Radek Zelenka, but so far he had been unsuccessful.

He was accustomed to fear, but it seemed to be worse now that he was in this new body. Every sensation, whether physical or emotional, seemed stronger--raw and chaotic. It was as if he had no control over what he felt or what was happening to him.

Now he stood frozen in front of the console and he knew no one was touching him, but he could nonetheless feel a hand on his arm, roughly dragging him backwards, yanking him around. And he would be marched to DoctorElizabethWeir, and she would shake her head in disappointment and schedule his punishment....

No. No. He wasn't there. He wasn't in that Atlantis anymore. He wouldn't be whipped for inadequate functioning. He'd clenched his hands around the edge of the console, and he forced himself to concentrate on the feel of the metal, the sharp press of it into his flesh, rather than the phantom lashes he could feel biting into his back.

He didn't realize he'd been whispering, nothing is happening, nothing is happening, to himself under his breath until Dr. Rodney McKay touched him on the arm and startled him into silence.

Dr. Rodney McKay also looked startled, and perhaps concerned. "Hey, um...you don't...are you all right?"

Lindsey blinked several times, attempting to draw himself back into the present. He realized abruptly that he was experiencing vertigo, and probably would be shortly subject to a migraine again. His breathing was overly fast, and he attempted to correct it. His vision was slightly blurred.

"I think he should sit down." Dr. Radek Zelenka was pushing one of the tall laboratory stools over while he spoke, and Dr. Rodney McKay held Lindsey's arm until he was seated.

"Bend over and take deep breaths," Dr. Rodney McKay instructed. "You look like you're going to fa--pass out."

"I'm fine," Lindsey said. He remained sitting upright because his bruised ribs were still occasionally painful and he didn't want to aggravate them. He did take deep breaths as instructed, however, and he could already feel his equilibrium returning to normal. The familiar aura that preceded a migraine was hovering in the periphery of his vision, but he ignored it. He had migraines so frequently that he was learning to adapt to them and continue his assigned tasks regardless. He was well aware of the necessity of remaining a valuable resource.

"Look," Dr. Rodney McKay said. "I yell at everybody." He waved his arm to encompass the other scientists in the laboratory. "It doesn't mean anything. You--I didn't mean to trigger a flashback, or whatever." He appeared extremely unhappy. "You're not actually doing all that badly."

Lindsey nodded. He felt oddly absent, detached from his own body as if he were floating next to it but not actually occupying the same space. "I'm sorry I was unable to fulfill your requirements."

"Do not worry about it," Dr. Radek Zelenka said. "Rodney's requirements are often contradictory and pointless, especially when he's unwell. Do not let it get to you."

Dr. Rodney McKay did not look particularly unwell, but he had been blowing his nose frequently and complaining of a headache. Dr. Radek Zelenka had suggested that Dr. Rodney McKay spend less time with Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, which the other scientists in the laboratory found amusing. Dr. Rodney McKay did not.

"I'd hardly call a Boolean-derived search pointless, Radek," Dr. Rodney McKay said. He stared momentarily at Dr. Radek Zelenka with his eyes narrowed, then sighed and pushed his fingers through his hair. "All right," he said, looking at his watch. "It's past lunchtime and you could probably use a break. And I need more DayQuill, anyway. Go," he said, making a shooing motion with his hand. "Eat something. Don't come back until you're sure you're not going to end up whacking your head on the table and land in the infirmary again."

Lindsey nodded to show his compliance and stood. He didn't believe his stomach could tolerate food at the moment, but he knew that if he mentioned that Dr. Rodney McKay would send him either to his quarters or to the infirmary, and Lindsey would thereby be of no further use to him.

"I would rather stay here and continue working," he said.

Dr. Rodney McKay sighed again. Lindsey noted he sounded somewhat more congested when he spoke. "Much as I applaud your work ethic, I'm sure Carson would be a little peeved if I ran you into the ground only four days after he put you back on light duties." He made the shooing motion again. "Go. Bring me back a sandwich. Make that two sandwiches. And coffee. Lots of coffee. Consider it punishment for your appalling inability to actually find anything."

"Yes, Dr. McKay," Lindsey said. He glanced at the Ancient device. It was nearly oval in shape and looked like a smoothed stone carved with intricate designs. Dr. Rodney McKay thought it was related to a long-distance communication system the Ancients used, which caused the transfer of consciousness between the two users. Dr. Radek Zelenka by contrast believed it might allow limited telepathy. Neither he nor Cordelia had ever seen anything like it in their former universe. "Would you like me to activate it?" he asked, indicating the device. He was still uncertain about making unsolicited comments, but Dr. Heightmeyer had encouraged him to do so, so he attempted to comply. It seemed to be getting easier, especially because he was never punished for it.

If he could activate the device, it would be much easier to discover its purpose. It would be a valuable service for Lindsey to render.

But, "Are you crazy?" Dr. Rodney McKay demanded. "We have no idea what it does! What if it gives you total amnesia, or a massive brain hemorrhage? No one with the ATA gene is going near that thing until we actually know what it's for." He narrowed his eyes again and pointed his finger at Lindsey. "And if for some reason you decide to completely succumb to stupidity and touch it anyway, whatever's left of you is going to be working with the botanists so fast it'll make your head swim. Got it?"

"Yes," Lindsey said. His eyes had widened as Dr. Rodney McKay's lecture had continued, and he blinked rapidly. It did nothing to dispel the gradually widening aura occluding most of the vision in one eye.

"Why don't you put him with botany?" Dr. Helen Simpson asked. "He might enjoy it."

Dr. Rodney McKay snorted in obvious derision. "As if. What are you still doing here?" He said to Lindsey. "I told you to eat something. And bring me back food and coffee."

Lindsey nodded again. He left rapidly, not wishing to incur further displeasure. He glanced back however--exactly why he didn't know--and saw Dr. Rodney McKay watching him. Not with anger or even irritation, but something that might have been sadness, or even fear.

I'm not useful to him, Lindsey thought. He wasn't useful to Major Evan Lorne either. He tried, but he could still barely manage to be in the Major's presence for any length of time. Lindsey wondered how long it would be until they sent him away.

***

Cordelia woke abruptly, whatever dream she'd been having shattered and irretrievably lost to the echoing thud of someone's fist pounding against the door.

Jonathan woke at the same time she did, and then all but leapt over her to stand in front of the bed, putting his body between her and whomever was making the noise. The fact that he'd instinctively moved to protect her like that was breathtaking.

"Um, I think someone's at the door," Jonathan said as Cordelia was quickly disentangling herself from the bed sheets. He sounded a little bleary, and Cordelia wondered how deeply he'd been sleeping before the noise started.

"There is. Go back to sleep," Cordelia said gently. She put her hand on his arm as she went by, wishing she had a sweatshirt to throw on over her nightgown, but she could barely see in the dark without her glasses and didn't want to take the time to grope for one. As it was she stubbed her toe on her desk chair and nearly cracked her skull open on the doorframe. She was very glad when she smacked her hand gropingly along the wall in the anteroom and managed to hit the panel that controlled the lights.

The banging kept on, as if whoever wanted her was trying to beat their way through the metal to get in. At least now that she could see it was easy to rush the rest of the short distance to the door and slap it open.

She'd expected a scientist or one of the military, sent to her door because of an emergency, though she realized as the door slid open that they could have just used the intercom. But it wasn't a scientist or one of the military. It was Lindsey, standing in her doorway like a child lost in the dark. He was wearing infirmary-issue draw-string pants and someone's old tee-shirt. Rodney's, Cordelia guessed, because of how big it was. It was obvious he'd been sleeping. As soon as the door opened he wrapped his arms around his torso, like he was cold.

"I dreamed you died," he said immediately. "I'm sorry. I just--it was bad, and I needed to see...." He stopped to take a deep, wavering breath, and he pressed the hell of his hand against one eye. She could see his hand shaking, like the aftermath of a bad fight. "I'm sorry," he said again. He swallowed, seemed to gather himself. "I dreamed that Major Evan Lorne killed you instead of me. I couldn't sleep until I knew you were all right."

"I'm fine," Cordelia said. "I'm just fine. Nothing happened to me." She took his wrist gently, walking backwards and tugging him into the room. He'd never been to her quarters before, and Cordelia wondered if he'd follow her now. But he did, mute and compliant.

She led him over to her couch and he sat down obediently, head down and arms around his middle again as if for warmth. He was shivering, like someone who had just experienced a terrible shock, and Cordelia wondered exactly how bad the dream had been.

The sense of another presence in the room made her look over her shoulder. Jonathan was standing in the entranceway to her bedroom, one hand on the frame. He was wearing loose pajama pants which were hanging off his hips. His upper body was naked, thin with his youth and lanky, gleaming in the moonlight. It made him look ethereal, like a spirit trying to keep her from harm. She couldn't see his face well enough to know his expression.

"It's okay," she said softly. She smiled at him, though she didn't know if he could see it. "Lindsey just had a bad nightmare. You can go back to sleep."

Jonathan didn't move for awhile anyway, and Cordelia wondered what he was thinking, figured he hated to leave her alone with her brother since Lindsey had reduced to tears so many times. But finally he nodded and withdrew, fading back into the other room. Cordeila doubted he'd sleep until she returned to lie down beside him.

"I'm sorry," Lindsey said. He put his palm over his forehead as if his head was hurting again. She hoped it wasn't. "I shouldn't be here. You were sleeping."

"Don't worry about it," Cordelia said to him. "I'm glad you're here." She put her hand lightly on the back of his neck, remembering how easily she'd been startled when she was still the SX-8 and unaccustomed to gestures meaning kindness. "Can you tell me what happened in your dream?"

Lindsey shook his head, but he lowered his hand and started to speak anyway. He kept his gaze resolutely forward, as if talking into the darkness was easier than looking at her. It probably was.

"We were both in the Command Chair room," Lindsey said. "Except, you were in the Command Chair this time, and I was helping Dr. Jeanie McKay." His smile was slight and self-mocking. "I should have known it was a dream from that. You were always better at fixing the technology than I was."

Cordelia smirked a little. She started rubbing his back, feeling the hard knobs of his spine even through the shirt. She wanted to ask him if he'd lost weight, since she hadn't seen him often enough to know. But she kept quiet.

"In the dream," Lindsey went on, "you were Eight, but I knew you were really you, the way you are now, even though you looked the way you had been. But the rest of it was the same. Jeanie and I couldn't fix the generator--I remember that it was an enormous tangle of wires and pieces, like a maze--and you said you would fly one of the ships yourself. And then Major Evan Lorne came in."

Cordelia sucked in an almost-silent breath through her teeth. She knew exactly what would come next. She still dreamed about it herself sometimes when she was particularly stressed or tired. But for her the terror of the dream and the memory it came from had been blunted by time and distance and the help of Dr. Heightmeyer and Cordelia's friends, and Jonathan. She still had flashbacks, still woke up gasping or even screaming, but that was rarer now, and easier to push away afterwards. Lindsey had none of that benefit.

"And then I died," she said. Lindsey nodded.

"I couldn't stop it," he said. His voice was flat, but Cordelia could still hear the weight of his horror in it. "I tried to, but I couldn't move. I couldn't even say anything. He shot you twice with the zat. You were already...you were already dead when you hit the floor." He covered his eyes with his hands, as if trying to keep the vision out. His breathing was hitching in a way that reminded Cordelia of how her own got all-too often.

"I don't want you to die," Lindsey said, palms still over his eyes as if he were attempting to hide behind them. "I--I missed you. I've missed you so much, and I keep looking for you, and--" He shook his head, unable to finish.

"It's okay. It's okay," Cordelia said, feeling terribly unequal to this but trying to give Lindsey the kind of comfort she would want, the kind she'd gotten. She shifted closer to him and put her arms around his shoulders. She pulled him close to her, touched her forehead to his temple, gently moved his hands. "I'm not dead. I'm here. I'm right here."

"I know," Lindsey said. "I know. I know. I'm sorry." And he hugged her back. For the first time he hugged her back.

***

Lindsey's fighting had improved prodigiously in a very short period of time. His agility, speed and grace came from her certainly, though John could be both agile and fast when he wanted to be (grace, she feared, would always elude him) and Evan was a capable fighter. Lindsey's near-perfect memory was a gift of Rodney's genes, if not Radek's as well. Taken together, Teyla had known Lindsey would be a skilled opponent, once he overcame his reluctance to do more than defend himself. He was nowhere near her level or Ronon's of course, but Teyla no longer had any concern that he would be useless in battle. An inability with combat or weapons was forgivable--even expected--among the scientists, but Lindsey was not a scientist; he would be a warrior.

She should have been pleased by his swift progress, but she was not. It made her uneasy. Every time they fought, in class or in private, she could feel the rage in him. It was in every strike he made with the Bantos rods, every swing of a practice sword, every punch and kick and throw. It was still contained, but barely so, like a wild, vicious animal that had yet to recognize its power or freedom. Lindsey was no longer holding back, not overtly, but Teyla could still sense it: the coiled spring about to break, the banked fire ready to flare up at any instant.

She had spoken to Kate several times about it, and her friend said she had attempted to discuss Lindsey's anger often, but he was so unwilling to face it that she often felt she was speaking to a stone. Teyla knew Kate was not free to tell her more than that, to protect Lindsey's privacy, but Teyla didn't need to hear more. She tried to draw out Lindsey's fury--with words when they sparred in private, with her blows when they did not--like poison from a wound. But Lindsey hit back with controlled ferocity and bared his teeth and said nothing.

What happened, then, was unfortunately not so surprising.

They were in the mess. She was with John, Rodney and Ronon, and Lindsey was sitting at another table with Cordelia and her team, something unexpected but not unwelcome. Teyla was sipping the last of her tea and trying to ignore the strange, unhappy tension between Rodney and John. The two men were attempting to behave as if their relationship was as fast and comfortable as always, but Teyla could hear the too-long pauses in their conversations, the false joviality, as if they wanted to speak easily but could no longer remember how. Ronon was aware of it too, but Teyla knew he wouldn't say anything. She herself was unsure if intervention was warranted, or if this awkwardness would simply fade with time.

The conversation at Cordelia's table was flowing much more naturally, though Teyla was certain only Ronon could hear what they were saying. But it was obviously very funny, from the way they were laughing. Even Lindsey was smiling, though he often glanced at Cordelia as if needing her to confirm that it was acceptable to do so.

Aiden leaned in towards the other four at the table and said something, his grin large and white. Cordelia blushed scarlet in response while the others laughed, then jabbed Jonathan in the side with her elbow, as if blaming him for Aiden's words.

Jonathan made an exclamation of obviously fake pain, then grinned and elbowed her back, far more gently than Cordelia had him.

Perhaps Lindsey hadn't seen Jonathan's restraint. Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered.

Lindsey leapt onto the table between one breath and the next, his booted feet scattering trays, and before Teyla could do more than register what was happening he kicked Jonathan in the ribs, hard enough to send him twisting out of his chair.

Teyla leapt to her feet and ran towards them, Ronon already ahead and John and Rodney following behind. Jonathan and Lindsey were grappling on the floor, Lindsey raining blows on him, and Jonathan already laboring under what Teyla was sure were cracked or broken ribs. Alice was shouting at them, and Cordelia and Aiden both were trying to pull Lindsey away. When they managed to grab Lindsey's arms to wrench him back, he fought them as hard and as ferociously as he had fought Jonathan, as if he didn't know who they were, or where he was.

Ronon slapped a hand on the table and levered himself over it, turning and landing neatly with one leg on either side of Jonathan's body, effectively shielding him. Teyla took in Lindsey's mindless fury with a glance, thinking to knock him unconscious and then immediately deciding it was too possible to hit Cordelia or Aiden. They had twisted Lindsey's arms up behind his back, but he was still bucking and kicking, shouting incoherently, seemingly insensate to the pain. Cordelia was trying to speak to him, but she might as well have not been in the room.

"Charin! Lindsey, Stand down!" John ordered, voice carrying, but Lindsey either couldn't hear him or ignored the command, instead wrenching his arm so hard Aiden was forced to let go so he wouldn't dislocate Lindsey's shoulder. Rodney was standing there half-frozen, as if at a complete loss for what to do.

Ronon, who was facing Lindsey, drove his fist into Lindsey's jaw, snapping his head to the side. Lindsey dropped like something dead. Teyla grabbed Cordelia and steadied her before Lindsey's weight pulled her to the floor.

Ronon stepped casually away. Jonathan was on his back on the floor, panting with his hands over his ribs on his left side, obviously in pain. There were bruises forming on his face as well, and Teyla was certain there would also be many on his chest back. He allowed Ronon to haul him to his feet, but he swayed and might have fallen again if Ronon hadn't kept hold of his arm.

"Ow," Jonathan said faintly. "Are you okay?" he asked Cordelia.

She nodded. Her glasses had been knocked to the floor and she was squinting helplessly in the artificial light. Alice found them and handed them to her and she slipped them on with trembling hands.

Behind her, Teyla could hear Rodney calling in a medical emergency.

"What the hell just happened?" John demanded.

"Jonathan poked Cordelia and Lindsey went insane," Alice said as she stood. Her eyes were like pools of dark water.

Cordelia went to Lindsey and felt the pulse at his neck. Teyla could see that Lindsey was breathing evenly; he would probably come around soon. She could only hope that he would be calmer when he did. Cordelia looked unable to speak, caught between her feelings for both men and her shock at what had happened. She moved her hand to Lindsey's chest, but her eyes were on Jonathan.

"Are you okay?" Rodney asked her, repeating Jonathan's words. He moved towards her, but the space between the tables was too crowded, so he stayed where he was next to John. John was standing with his fists clenched, his face the same as when he was preparing for battle.

"You, uh, you should probably sit down," Rodney said to Jonathan.

"Yeah," Jonathan said faintly, nodding. He kept shifting awkwardly, as if his balance was off. Ronon hadn't let go of him. Aiden quickly righted a chair and Jonathan sagged into it, then gasped in pain. "Fuck," he said. "I think my ribs are broken."

"Yep," Ronon said.

"I'm sorry," Cordelia said miserably to Jonathan. Tears were sliding into the corners of her mouth. "I didn't know...." She tried to go to him, but Ronon was in the way, so she stayed with Lindsey on the floor. She looked down at her brother, moved her hand as if to touch the bruises forming on his face, then hesitated and took his lax hand in hers instead. "Why did he do that?" she asked, as if there was any hope of an answer.

"He thought he was protecting you," Rodney said. His voice was very small, but it still carried over the hushed buzz of conversation. "Just like Roy."

"No," Ronon said with certainty. "It was more than that."

Teyla nodded.

Rodney looked at them both then he shook his head as if in stunned, awful disbelief. "Oh my God," he whispered. Rodney turned to John, his blue eyes large and stricken. "I'm sorry," he said, seemingly to John and Cordelia both, and then he turned abruptly and stalked stiffly away. The medical team passed him on their way into the room.

***

Elizabeth stood in her office, looking at the grim expressions of the other expedition members gathered there and wishing it didn't feel so much like some kind of miserably ironic déjà-vu.

"All right, just to make sure I'm on the same page, here," she began, "Lindsey attacked Jonathan in the mess because Jonathan jabbed Cordelia in the ribs?" She wanted very badly to sit down, put her elbows on her desk and rub her temples, but just crossed her arms instead.

"That's what he told me, yes," Kate said. She was standing with her hands clasped in front of her. She looked pinched and drawn, Elizabeth noted, but not particularly shocked. "But he said he couldn't actually remember the fight. What he did remember was an intense burst of rage when it looked like Jonathan was hurting Cordelia, but nothing after that until he woke up in the infirmary."

"Maybe that's because Ronon nearly took his head off," Rodney said. He was snappish and angry in the way he always became when he was deeply upset, and jittery like he could barely manage to be still. His thumbs were moving furiously over his fingertips, and Elizabeth was sure he would have been pacing if there were enough room for it.

Carson shook his head. He just looked worried and sad. "It's possible, I suppose, but highly unlikely since he wasn't concussed."

"Didn't hit him that hard," Ronon rumbled in agreement. He was standing next to Evan and they were both leaning against the wall with their arms crossed. The similarity in their positions, especially given the difference in the heights of the two men, was actually quite funny. If only Elizabeth felt like laughing.

"It's also a pretty specific time period not to remember," Evan said wryly. He looked more resigned than anything. He looked over at Teyla. "You were figuring this was going to happen, right?"

"Yes," Teyla said on a breath, nodding. "Ronon and I had both sensed Lindsey's rage. We were hoping we could help him exorcise it before something like this occurred. But I do believe it was inevitable."

Kate nodded as well. "He's an extremely wounded and angry young man, but so far I haven't been able to get him to talk about it." She glanced at Evan, Ronon and Teyla. "We discussed how it might be expressed, but obviously there's only so much I could say that wouldn't conflict with confidentiality. I was also hoping that if it came to a head he'd be in a safer environment."

"I remember. You told me this," Elizabeth said. As expedition leader she had to know about such things as impending mental breakdowns. It was one of her least favorite aspects of her position.

"Fine, so we all knew this was coming," John said. His voice was harsh, matching the cold sheen in his narrowed eyes. He also looked like he would rather be moving, or more likely anywhere else in the city but there in her office. "That doesn't do a damn thing for O'Neill. It also doesn't help us fix this."

Rodney looked at John sharply, and the depth of the sudden hurt in his eyes made Elizabeth blink. But Rodney's expression slid back to tight anger in the next second. "It's not his fault!" he retorted loudly, and it was obvious he was speaking only to John. "Roy would have done a hell of a lot worse to Lorne if we hadn't been there. I don't recall you being so unsympathetic then!"

"That was completely different!" John barked.

"How?" Rodney demanded. "Because Roy was a robot? He would've killed--!"

"Gentlemen!" Elizabeth reprimanded them both, and Rodney snapped his mouth shut guiltily, though the swift glance he sent John's way was poisonous.

"I'm afraid Colonel Sheppard is right," Kate said, looking pained at having to say it. "Roy was having an intense flashback perpetrated by being in the Command Chair room. And while I agree that Lindsey might have been initially motivated by wanting to protect his sister, the violence of his attack wasn't motivated by a flashback, but rather his inability to face or accept his anger." She straightened a little to draw the attention of everyone in the small room. "I'm certain the rage he's feeling comes from his treatment in his original reality. The problem is that, like Roy, he was brutalized into suppressing all negative emotions except fear. That's left him with no coping mechanism for how he's feeling. I'm even certain that subconsciously he's terrified of his own anger, and that's why he doesn't remember the fight." She looked at John. "He was very remorseful."

"Great," John snarled. "So we've got another powder keg on our hands, except he's already human. I don't give a damn about how sorry he is. He can't stay here unless he gets himself under control."

"What?" Rodney blurted in genuine, horrified surprise. "What do you mean, 'he can't stay here'? He has to stay here! His sister's here! Where else can he go?"

"I don't know, Rodney," John snapped. "I was thinking somewhere where he wouldn't attempt homicide the second anyone touched Cordelia." He looked at Kate, as if for confirmation. "The SGC's got a couple of group homes, right?"

"John!" Teyla admonished fiercely. "You cannot possibly be thinking to exile Lindsey from everyone he knows."

"And what am I meant to do, Teyla?" John asked challengingly. "Let him keep beating up people? He was like a God-damned wild animal in there!" He glanced at Rodney, who was staring at him in wide-eyed misery, and John's belligerence seemed to just leach out of him. "I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head. "But this situation is nothing like Roy. We had other options then. I can't see any here."

"There are always options, John," Teyla said.

"First of all," Elizabeth said, staring straight at John, "I agree with Teyla. Considering what we all went through on Roy's behalf, I can't rest easy with just giving up on Lindsey like that. Secondly, while it would certainly obviate the problem of his potential violence, I can't see how removing Lindsey from Atlantis offers any real solution. It would also be desperately unfair to Cordelia. Thirdly," she went on, "much as I appreciate your concern for everyone here, the final decision as to what to do with Lindsey rests with me. And I'm not prepared to give him less benefit of the doubt than we gave Roy." She turned to Kate. "What do you suggest we do?"

"Put him on my team," Evan said, before Kate could answer. Everyone stared at him at once. Only Teyla had a small, warm smile.

"Um, much as I'm all for keeping Lindsey here," Rodney said, "wouldn't that be like pouring gasoline on a fire?"

Evan shrugged. "Could be. But the biggest problem here is that he still feels threatened by me, right?" He looked at Kate who nodded, if uncertainly. "So we put him on my team. Eventually he'll figure out that no one's going to torture him for getting pissed off. He might be able to admit he's angry."

"And what if he decides to just beat the crap out of you?" John asked, incredulity warring with anger in his expression.

"He might," Evan said, probably with more nonchalance than he truly felt. "I'm willing to risk it."

"Yeah, well, I'm not." John shot back. "No, Major," he said. "Request denied."

"He's ready for a team, Sheppard," Ronon said. "He's just going to get crazier, you keep him locked up in here."

"I agree," Elizabeth said. She was sure Ronon was speaking from personal experience. She looked at Kate again. "What do you think, Kate? Would it help to put Lindsey with Major Lorne? Or is it too much of a risk?"

Kate glanced at John, whose expression was completely closed up with silent rage. "I wouldn't normally recommend it," she admitted. "But in this case, I think there's enough to gain that it's worth the risk. And I agree that currently, with Lindsey being able to avoid Major Lorne except for certain training sessions, it will be much harder for him to come to terms with his new reality."

John looked away. Elizabeth could see the muscle in his jaw move as he ground his teeth.

"Very well, then," she said. She smiled at Evan, though she was sure it was a little too wan to be genuine. "Major, I'm giving you permission to add Lindsey Charin to your team." She couldn't help flicking her eyes to John, but his face had gone blank, hiding whatever he was feeling. "I'm also clearing you to include him on the upcoming return mission to PX-747." She turned her attention to the rest of the group. "Thank you, everyone. Please keep me apprised of Lindsey's progress." And just in case they didn't catch the dismissal in her words, she sat down at her desk as if she was about to go back to work.

She wasn't surprised that John didn't leave with everyone else.

He stood in front of her desk with his arms crossed. "You're making a mistake," he said.

Elizabeth looked steadily up at him, hands clasped on her desk. She doubted John was consciously trying to be intimidating, but Elizabeth refused to stand in any case, to show he wasn't getting to her. "I appreciate your concern, John," she said. "But I trust Dr. Heightmeyer and Major Lorne's judgment. And I want to give Lindsey every possible opportunity to become a contributing member of this community."

John didn't so much as twitch. "And what will you do when those opportunities end up with more people injured?"

Elizabeth stared back at him calmly. "As I recall, you were one of Roy's staunchest supporters when I suggested something very similar six months ago," Elizabeth said. "And I don't believe these circumstances are appreciably different." She softened her face and tone. "He's been through hell, John," she said. "He deserves another chance just as much as Roy did. Please let him have it."

She saw John's jaw working again, as if grinding up the words he wanted to say but wouldn't. He turned and left without saying anything.

***

"Come on, John," Evan said as another helpless golf ball was blasted into the ocean. "How about you stop mutilating the sports equipment and tell me what's on your mind?"

"Nothing's on my mind," John said, though Evan noted that John wouldn't look at him. He shoved another golf ball onto the tee and brought the driver back up with such force that Evan bobbed back to keep John from re-breaking his still-healing nose.

"Right," Evan drawled. "So, whose head are you imagining? Elizabeth's or mine?"

John glanced back at him, expression dark but otherwise unreadable, and that alone told Evan he was right. He sighed inwardly, jamming his hands deeper into his pockets. He doubted very much that John wanted to be touched at that moment.

"Lindsey's," John said with a grunt as the driver smashed against the ball. This one skewed violently, plowing gracelessly into the water.

"Sure," Evan said, stretching the word out so John would hear that Evan knew he was lying. John's eyes shot daggers at him as teed up again. Evan smiled blandly back.

Evan had never understood where John got his fascination with golf from, since it definitely hadn't come from him. He'd always found golf kind of tedious. He could see the appeal in bashing balls with sticks, but baseball allowed you to do the same thing and it was cheaper and less complicated besides. And if Evan wanted to walk miles for no specific purpose, he could always go through the Gate.

"I'm kind of surprised you're not beating the crap out of a heavy bag," Evan said. This new ball ended its life in a smoother arc out into the ocean. "Or letting Ronon or Teyla beat the crap out of you."

"Not interested," John said tightly. Evan had never seen anyone break a sweat from golfing, but John had managed it. He wiped his forehead on his sleeve and then dragged his fingers over his lips.

"I can understand why you don't want Lindsey on my team," Evan said.

"Oh yeah?" John spit out. He smacked down another ball, but then whirled on Evan, golf club gripped like a sword in one hand. "If you can understand it, what the fuck are you doing it for? Even Rodney thought it was a stupid idea, and he was defending Lindsey like he'd given birth to him." John abruptly hauled back with the club and whacked the ball, and Evan had no doubt at all as to whose head John was imagining.

Technically, Rodney kind of had given birth to Lindsey, but Evan wasn't going to mention it. "I'm doing it because he deserves another chance," Evan said as John stood there, breathing hard and staring at the horizon.

"Another chance to do what?" John snapped. "Kill you?" He shook his head. "He's a waste of skin."

John teed up again, but Evan kicked the ball over the balcony edge before John could raise the club. "That's a little harsh, don't you think?" he asked mildly at John's murderous expression. "Especially since you were the one defending Roy though hell and high water even after he almost did actually kill me."

"Roy has nothing to do with this," John snapped. "Even Heightmeyer said so."

"Then what does have to do with this?" Evan asked, keeping his voice level, reasonable. He wasn't going to achieve anything by getting angry here. "What's got you so pissed?"

"He beat up one of my men," John said, "and I'm the only one who seems to give a shit about it."

"No one's ignoring Jonathan here, John," Evan said. "But Roy beat up one of your men, too."

"God damn it! Will you stop pretending it's the same?" John shouted. "It's not the same! Lindsey's had a hard time, I get that," he said with more calm. "You know what? I died too. And I also woke up in a brand, spanking-new human body with no one I knew. And somehow I didn't end up getting migraines all the fucking time or going postal on the first person who gave Rodney a dirty look. But Lindsey can't seem to keep his shit together long enough to have a god-damned meal, and somehow that's okay? Well, let me tell you something, Major--it isn't fucking okay."

"No one said it's okay, John," Evan said. He was getting kind of peeved himself now. "And you're right, your pasts have some aspects in common, but with a pretty big difference. You died accidentally. Lindsey was murdered. And you...." Evan hesitated, then quirked his mouth in a small, uncomfortable smile. "You grew up with me, in an environment designed to help you become human. Let's give that some credit, here. Lindsey was tortured and treated like a piece of equipment. And he had no one."

"Don't give me that," John said stiffly. "There was Eight."

Evan nodded. "Yeah, there was. But Eight wouldn't have been enough to counter everything else. Especially not when he was being tortured too. Cut him some slack, John," Evan said.

John looked out over the water again, twisting the handle of the club like he wanted to choke it. "Everyone wants me to cut him some slack." He banged the head of the golf club on the balcony floor. "Rodney's been acting crazy, since Lindsey woke up. He's nervous all the time like he's being stalked or something," John growled. "It's like I don't even know him anymore." He glared at the water. "I just want Lindsey gone."

"And how is that going to make things better, when it's pretty damn obvious Rodney wants Lindsey to stay here?" Evan asked. "I think you need to figure out who you're really angry at, John."

John looked at him sharply, dark eyes flaring. "I know who I'm angry at," he said, voice deadly.

Evan just nodded. "I'm sure you do." He tilted his head in the direction of the large bucket with all the golf balls in it. "But between you, me and the golf balls, I don't think it's Lindsey's face you're seeing." He patted John's shoulder. John jerked away like Evan figured he would.

"Work it out, John," Evan said. He started walking away.

Behind him he heard John's grunt of effort and the sizzle of the golf club arching through the air before it hit another ball, hard as a killing blow.

***

"Rodney, it's nearly three o'clock in the morning. What are you doing here?"

Rodney startled so badly he almost fell off the lab stool. He clutched the edge of the table, mustering up as ferocious a glare as he could, considering his pulse was rocketing into the stratosphere. "I'm working," he replied acidly, "though I'm currently trying to avoid a heart attack from you sneaking up on me. And what the hell are you doing still awake, anyway?"

"Waiting for you," John said. He was standing in front of the doorway, legs spread and arms crossed like he was planning on physically preventing Rodney from leaving. Rodney did his best to look defiant despite his still-surging blood pressure and the fact that the lab was empty, other than the two of them. The door behind John was the only way out, and Rodney had the sickly realization that he was trapped unless John let him go.

"Oh," Rodney said softly, feeling touched and embarrassed and guilty all at once. Except, he thought as his eyes narrowed, they hadn't been sleeping together for at least a week. "Wait--where? Why?"

"In your quarters," John said. "Because we're going to talk."

Rodney could practically feel the blood rushing out of his face. "We have...there's nothing to talk about. We don't need to talk." He automatically lifted his chin and crossed his arms, even though he was painfully aware of how it broadcasted he was lying.

"I think we do, Rodney," John said with the cold, exaggerated patience that meant he was getting very, very angry. He crossed the room. "What are you working on, anyway?"

"Nothing! It's nothing!" Rodney stammered, only realizing too late that he should have shut the laptop. He grabbed it now, but John had his hands on it too, and Rodney let go before the computer got damaged.

John slid it around so he could peer at the screen, eyebrows lowered in concentration.

"It's important research," Rodney said lamely. "It's possible to apply the basic principles--"

John fixed Rodney with his eyes and Rodney stopped talking completely. "This looks like a blueprint for the incubator," he said.

Rodney lifted his chin again. "If you must know," he said, "I've been examining it."

"What the hell for?" John asked.

Rodney's mouth worked uselessly as he desperately searched for something he could say that John would believe. "Like I said, it's possible...." Rodney trailed off as John slowly straightened, his green eyes still fixed on Rodney's own.

"Why, Rodney?" John asked again.

Rodney swallowed. "Because I need to find out what I did wrong."

John's eyes widened. "What? What are you talking about?" His face screwed up in confusion. "You mean with Lindsey?"

"Yes!" Rodney burst out. "He's--he's not right. He gets migraines and he's assaulting people and having panic attacks--!" He stopped himself on a breath. "And I have to know what happened. Where I made the mistake."

John just stared at him, as if he had no idea what Rodney just said. "You think Lindsey's behavior is your fault?"

"Well, of course it is!" Rodney retorted, all but shouting. He realized he was angry, but wasn't entirely sure why. "I reprogrammed the incubator so it could make males, I didn't disengage the perfection thing, so that he looks like, he looks like some kind of digitally-enhanced supermodel...." He crossed his arms again. "So, yes," he finished more quietly. "It's my fault. And--and I can't fix the mistakes. So I thought I should at least make sure they won't happen again."

John looked upset, Rodney thought. He was gripping the table very, very tightly. "Is this why you've been so...freaked out all the time, lately? Because you think you made Lindsey wrong?"

"Well, it's obvious, isn't it?" Rodney said, feeling oddly defensive. He'd expected anger, of course, when John discovered his guilt. Not this stunned incredulity. "Cordelia was fine when she came out of the machine. So...so it has to be what I did." He ducked his head, lifting one of his hands enough to scrub his palm over his face. He felt abruptly tired. Maybe it was the relief of finally admitting it to someone.

"Are you crazy?" John demanded.

Rodney's head snapped up. John was still looking at him as if he'd just grown another head. "You really think he beat up O'Neill because of you?"

"Did you go deaf in the last two minutes?" Rodney answered hotly. "It's not like there isn't a precedent here of me fucking up AIs! I killed you, remember? Or have you lost your memory along with your hearing?"

"I don't believe this!" John said. He turned sharply and paced a few steps away, running his fingers through his hair, only to turn almost immediately and come back again. "The reason I caught that virus was because I hacked into the SGC! I did that, not you! And you did everything you could to save me!"

"And it wasn't enough, was it?" Rodney shouted. "I created that virus, Sheppard! Just like I reprogrammed the incubator! And both times I fucked up beyond all redemption and other people suffered for it! Are suffering for it!" He huffed out a breath, rubbed his eyes with the tips of his fingers. "And I can't fix it," he said again. "I don't know how. I can't."

"I can't believe how arrogant you are," John said. Rodney dropped his hands immediately to blink at him, astonished and hurt. "You seriously believe that this is all about you, don't you?" John made an expansive, encompassing gesture with his hands. "That you're so incredibly special that you have to be responsible for everything that goes wrong as well as right?" He put his hands on his hips. "Let me guess--you're going to tell me that what happened to Cameron is your fault, too."

Rodney opened his mouth and closed it again. Whatever must have been on his face made John gape at him.

"You have got to be kidding me!" he said.

"It's, uh, remotely likely that the simulation I was running was the reason for the power failure," Rodney said quietly.

John was still gaping at him. "You really are out of your fucking mind."

"You don't understand!" Rodney insisted desperately. He rubbed his eyes again. "Lindsey was alive less than a day before he collapsed from shock! And ever since then...." He took a breath. "Ever since then all I've been able to think about is how I killed you. That was my virus, John. And I was the one who reprogrammed the incubator. I'm--" He broke off, swallowing again. "And those aren't the only things." He stepped a little further away from the table, gesturing at his laptop. He smiled a little, though this was quite probably the least amusing thing that had ever happened in his life. "I've been compiling a list, of all the mistakes I've made. Grievous errors, I mean, since coming to work for the SGC. The list is surprisingly impressive."

"Rodney," John growled. Rodney glanced at him. He was standing perfectly still. Only his hands were moving, slowly curling into fists.

"I almost allowed Teal'c to die," Rodney went on right over him. "I can't remember if I told you that or not. But I did. I really didn't think we could save him, but that doesn't matter. I should have tried and I didn't. And then I almost killed Sam. And it's possible I interfered with Cam's cloning, but I put a question mark beside that because I'll have to go over the power logs at the SGC to make sure." His voice dropped. "But I did kill you. And I told Kolya our plans to weather the hurricane when he'd barely hurt me at all, really. And I made the nuclear bomb that you flew into the Hive ship. You would have died then, too, if the Daedalus hadn't arrived. And if I'd just looked at the playback of the camera for a little longer, you wouldn't have ended up exiled for six months. And then there was Doranda, of course, where I killed Collins and then would still have gone back to kill us both and probably destroy a solar system if it wasn't for Radek." He smirked. "But the less said about that the better, right?"

"Rodney, don't," John said, voice tight.

"I discovered the Ancient ship that ended up with us being exiled from Atlantis, mustn't forget that," Rodney went on, relentless. It felt good, somehow, to do this. Like tearing the scab off an old wound, feeling the pain again. "And I reprogrammed the Ancient incubator," he said.

"Why are you doing this?" John asked. He looked bewildered, lost. "Why are you doing this to yourself? This doesn't make any sense!"

"It's a pretty sizable list, if I do say so myself," Rodney said briskly. "And in light of that, I've been thinking that perhaps my talents, such as they may be--which is still pretty sizable, really--might be better served elsewhere. Where, um, there's less likelihood of errors of this magnitude. Right." He nodded firmly, as if he hadn't just shocked himself with what he'd said, the words spurting from his mouth as if of their own volition.

It was almost comical, the slow spread of horror across John's face. "You're going to leave?" he asked, voice hushed with shock. "Just like that? You're leaving?"

"Yes," Rodney said, with far more affirmation than he felt. What he really felt was like someone had slammed their fist into his guts and grabbed a hunk of intestines, then started twisting. "It's really for the best, don't you think?"

"What about your work here? Your research?" John asked. "I can't believe this! What--what about me?"

Rodney had to turn away, because John looked the way he did, exactly the way he did, when Rodney had come home from the SGC and told him he was returning him to the factory. It was worse this time, because he knew for certain the betrayal in John's eyes was absolutely real.

"You deserve better than the man who killed you," he said, because it was true.

"No," John said. Then a second time, angry, "No! I don't 'deserve better'. I want you. I love you! Don't you know that?"

"I know you love me," Rodney said. Just saying it aloud felt like a knife, where the fist had been. "But you've never been with anyone else."

He could hear John's swift, painful intake of breath. "Look at me," John said. "Rodney, god damn it, look at me!" when Rodney wouldn't. But Rodney finally turned his head. He still couldn't meet John's eyes.

"Are you breaking up with me?" John asked.

Rodney wanted to tell him, 'no'. He wanted it at that second more than anything else in his life. But he didn't say anything.

"You son of a bitch," John said. "You son of a bitch."

Rodney watched him leave the room.

***

"Are you sure you're all right?" Cordelia asked. She adjusted the pockets on his tac vest for the fourth time, despite the fact that their contents had been properly arranged before he left the Armory. She looked at his face again, concern apparent in her features. "You can sit this trip out if your ribs are still hurting."

"My ribs aren't hurting," Lindsey said. He was feeling anxious, however, at the prospect of going off-world with Major Evan Lorne's team. Major Evan Lorne still caused Lindsey to feel great anxiety by his presence alone, despite the work Lindsey had done with Dr. Heightmeyer to remedy Lindsey's reactions to him. She had also made Lindsey aware that he harbored a dangerous amount of fury and resentment for his previous treatment. Lindsey had not realized that what he was feeling was anger, but knowing it now was not serving to alleviate it, nor was he entirely confident he could avoid directing it at Major Evan Lorne. He knew consciously that this Major Evan Lorne meant him no harm, but it felt sometimes that there was a second part of him--like a backup Memory Storage, possibly--that could not differentiate between this and the other Lorne at all.

Dr. Heightmeyer and Teyla were friends, and Dr. Heightmeyer had suggested Lindsey ask Teyla to include meditation as part of his physical training with her. He had therefore been performing a shortened version of the breathing exercises Teyla had taught him while he waited for Major Evan Lorne and his team to arrive in the Gate room (he had purposely arrived early), but had stopped when Cordelia approached.

Cordelia narrowed her eyes at him minutely, as if she could sense that he was dissembling. In truth his ribs were still painful, though not enough to prevent any activity. He also purposely didn't tell Cordelia that he had woken up with a sore throat that morning, or that currently the chafe of the material of his uniform against his skin was unpleasant in a way he was unable to define.

"Your eyes look glassy," she said. "You know there's a cold going around Atlantis, right? Did you catch it?" She reached up to touch his forehead, but Lindsey moved back.

"I'm fine," he said.

She scowled at him, then grabbed his tac vest and slapped her palm over his forehead before he could move again. "Don't even try it," she said harshly when he would have pulled her hand away. "I'm still pissed off at you, you know."

Lindsey dutifully stayed still. "I am extremely remorseful about my actions," he said.

"I know," Cordelia said. Her hand was still on his forehead. It didn't feel unpleasant, being somewhat cooler than his skin. "And I know you apologized a billion times to Jonathan, too. That doesn't mean I'm not still pissed."

Lindsey considered that, while Cordelia finally removed her hand. "That's not fair," he said.

To his surprise, Cordelia grinned. She patted his chest, which was distinctly unpleasant. "Welcome to humanity." She was still obviously concerned for him, however, because she immediately put her hand on his cheek, then on the side of his neck. "You feel kind of warm," she said. "Are you sick? If you're sick you really shouldn't go."

Lindsey stepped away from her. Major Evan Lorne and his team were entering the Gate room. "I'm not sick," he said, though in truth he didn't know what being sick specifically meant, other than the obvious definition. He knew what migraines felt like, but beyond that he had no previous illness from which to extrapolate. He suspected he might not be fully healthy because of the pain in his throat and the uncharacteristic discomfort, but he didn't want to be pulled from this mission. He was very much aware that he had not proven himself to be an adequate resource for some time, with the recent altercation with Lieutenant Jonathan O'Neill being the worst example. He was still uncertain what would be done to him if he continued not meeting appropriate standards, but he was determined to give the Lanteans no further cause to regret his continued existence. He wasn't entirely certain if he wanted to live, but he was nonetheless aware that he didn't want to die. And he especially did not wish to be without Eight--Cordelia--again.

"We're ready to start dialing the Gate," Major Evan Lorne said. Lindsey looked at him quickly, his heartbeat automatically quickening with a surge of adrenaline. But the Major's expression wasn't angry. He even gave Lindsey a small smile.

"Okay, then," Cordelia said. "Time to go. Be safe, okay?" She patted his chest again and smiled, though it seemed unsure and perhaps sad.

Lindsey hugged her, with enough force to pick her up. The action astonished himself as much as Cordelia. She made an inarticulate noise of surprise, but then hugged him back as best she could while her feet dangled off the floor. Her face was flushed when he finally put her down, but her expression indicated happiness, possibly even joy.

"Bye," he said, because he didn't know what other words might be more appropriate for this situation, but he made himself smile as he shouldered his pack. Its weight actually felt painful, which Lindsey knew was abnormal since the backpack was light. But he ignored it as he walked over to join Major Evan Lorne's team.

He had never actively hugged anyone before. He liked it.

***

"Hey, new guy," Blair said, looking over his shoulder. Rain dripped steadily off the peak of his cap, surrounding his face like a curtain. "You sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine," Lindsey answered, then immediately belied that by coughing. Evan was tempted to ask him if he had any other words in his vocabulary, but he just gritted his jaw some more and pressed on without saying anything.

"His name's Lindsey," Sparky put in.

"Eyes front," Evan said tiredly. His mouth quirked in a half-smile at Blair's quick 'yessir!' in response, because it wasn't like Evan's order had stopped Blair from looking behind him the last half-dozen times.

It wasn't that long a drop and they weren't on a cliff, but slipping off the path would mean tumbling down into the ravine, and it was steep enough and jagged enough that landing at the bottom would be very, very bad. His team had been checking out the viability of one of the older mineshafts that had been first tunneled at least a thousand years ago, when the Shasai had been more advanced at the time. What Evan and his team were walking on had been a track for the full mine cars to descend the mountain. Only like the Athosians, the Shasai had been culled enough times to lose almost all of their technology, and the iron for the tracks and the cars had been dismantled and melted down into other, more immediately useful items long ago. The fact that mine had been built originally to extract Hematite was one of the sad ironies of life under the Wraith.

The fact that the mountain held a Naquada-like ore along with the Hematite was why Evan and his team were there at all. The Shasai had been more than happy to supply the mine labor in return for Earth goods, but had no clue if the old shafts would collapse the second someone broke a rock. And Evan was the only geological engineer in Atlantis, and Dr. Gordon Sparks was one of the very few structural engineers, so the project had basically been thrown at Evan's team. Not that he minded, really. The people of PX-747 had been extremely welcoming, and even if their alcohol was freakishly potent their hospitality more than made up for it. And it had actually been pretty fun getting to use his academic skills for once, though he was sure Sunny had been considerably less thrilled. Blair, on the other hand, did spelunking for kicks. For him the missions had been like some dangerous paid vacation.

Evan had no idea what Lindsey thought about their work to verify the structural integrity of the mine. He'd done everything Evan had asked or ordered him to with alacrity and gratifying precision, but he'd barely spoken to anyone and still wouldn't look Evan in the eyes.

Lindsey hadn't even made a peep of dismay when the rain started. That was something Evan would normally be ecstatic about, especially given that Sparky could already bitch like nobody's business when he got sufficiently uncomfortable. But Evan was pretty sure that Lindsey wasn't complaining because he didn't dare to. It was fucking annoying.

But after half an hour of trying to make their way down the mountain in the downpour everyone had stopped complaining, since it was taking nearly all their concentration to keep from slipping on the wet path. What wasn't any worse than a steep hiking trail in the dry daylight had become treacherous in the wet early evening, and the five of them were only making creeping progress. At this rate it would probably take them another hour to get to level ground.

Normally Evan would be in the lead, because if someone was going to misstep he'd rather he do it first and save everyone else. But Blair had a hell of a lot more experience with picking his way over uneven and slippery ground, so he was in front. Lindsey, the least experienced, was right behind Blair, with specific instructions to only put his hands and feet where Blair did. Evan was behind Lindsey, with Sparky and Sunny behind him. Sparky surfed and snowboarded, so he had pretty good balance, and Sunny had done gymnastics in university. She was surefooted as a mule.

Lindsey wasn't doing too badly, despite the fact that before today the steepest trail he'd hiked was on the Mainland, which was pretty flat. He was attentive and careful, and if it wasn't obvious that he was sick as hell Evan probably wouldn't have worried about him at all.

The rain was unpleasant but not really cold, but Lindsey was shivering anyway, the only one who was. Evan got sick often enough that he knew it was the sure sign of a fever. Lindsey had started coughing about an hour ago too, just as the rain started and Evan had ordered them back to the village before the weather got worse. He'd considered holing up in that mine shaft until the rain stopped, but he'd been told that it could rain at the same, steady pace for days around here, and he and Sparky didn't know if the rain would damage the mineshafts enough to crush them in their sleep.

"My feet are bloody killing me," Sparky groused. "And I'm so wet I think I saw a unicorn."

"Come on, dude! This is nothing! You ever been to Texas?" Blair called to him, though Evan was glad that he didn't look away from where he was setting his feet.

"Why the hell would I go to Texas?" Sparky asked. Sunny giggled.

"Talk later," Evan said, making his voice sharp. He heard Sparky mutter something behind him but ignored it. Night was falling along with the rain, and Evan knew that if they didn't get down soon they'd have to find shelter on the mountain until morning. Even with flashlights it would be too difficult to navigate the narrow trail in the dark.

And now he had the added incentive of getting Lindsey back to Atlantis, before he got any worse.

Evan sighed, minutely shifting his pack so it dug into his shoulders a little less annoyingly, knowing he was going to get a rash from the friction of the wet straps and his tee-shirt. If he wanted to give Lindsey the benefit of the doubt--which he didn't, because the kid had been so fucking stupid--he could assume that Lindsey hadn't realized he was getting sick because he hadn't known what the symptoms meant. That had happened to Cam the first couple months he'd been human. Evan had gone to visit him in the hospital one time and found him coughing and sneezing, and Cam had been sure he was dying until Evan explained what was happening to him.

So, sure, Lindsey might've had no clue anything was wrong. Or he might've known damn well he was coming down with something but purposely not mentioned it. Evan huffed out an irritated breath, certain that was the real story. Just like Lindsey refused to tell anyone when he was getting a migraine. He still figured he'd get punished if he showed any weakness at all.

Evan snorted, scattering water, then took one hand off the rock wall to wipe his face. Not that it helped particularly. He was too tired to feel much more than irritation at this point, but he could feel the anger pulsing like blood under his skin. He was so sick of this: Lindsey constantly trying to hide in plain sight, acting like he expected Evan to rip off a mask and suddenly reveal the monster.

He hasn't been here that long, Evan reminded himself as he watched the minute trembles of Lindsey's shoulders as the water slid down his backpack and over his bare arms. He still needs more time. But part of Evan couldn't help thinking that it didn't matter how much time Lindsey got; he'd never adjust, never accept that he was safe.

Maybe John was right. Maybe Lindsey needed to go to Earth, somewhere far away from every awful reminder of what he'd been through.

The path curved up ahead, beginning its slow spiral towards the south side of the mountain and downwards to the foothills the led to the village. There were more mine shafts further along, ones Evan knew were safe. He was pretty sure they still had enough daylight to reach them. There was no firewood anywhere nearby, but they had their thermal blankets, canteens and self-heating MREs, and a change of clothing unless those were soaked through as well. And Sunny's med kit was well stocked, so Evan was sure they'd have enough Tylenol and Ibuprofen to keep Lindsey going until morning, provided his fever didn't get so high that over-the-counter meds wouldn't help. He'd probably be fine.

Lindsey coughed again, and Evan grimaced.

"Okay," Evan said loudly enough for the small group to hear him over the rain, "here's the plan. When we reach the--"

Lindsey swayed and pitched sideways between one heartbeat and the next. Evan's sentence dissolved into a cry of alarm and he grabbed for him, managing to catch Lindsey's forearm. Except Sparky had tried to do the same thing, only his lunge for Lindsey carried Sparky into Evan, and suddenly Evan was falling headfirst down the side of the ravine. He automatically let go of Lindsey to brace himself, and he somehow heard the snap as well as felt it, deep inside his wrist as he hit the slope of the ravine. Bright white agony seared up his arm, mixed with the chaos of the sky, the rain, the hard, wet grey ground, all whirling around him in an insane kaleidoscope as he tumbled, nothing solid or coherent except the pain in his arm, and then something hit the back of his head and even the pain shattered into darkness.

***

Teyla found him quite by accident in the small sparring room, the same one they had discovered in their first year in the city. Rodney had suggested it had originally been some kind of observatory, and Teyla thought it might have been intended for meditation, given its high windows and abundance of sunlight. Nonetheless, it had remained a sparring room, though only she, Ronon, and John used it regularly. Occasionally Rodney did as well, when Ronon could persuade him to attempt another lesson.

She had entered the room thinking to be alone, to practice her forms with the Bantos rods in the early morning. It was almost like a meditation to her, and her favorite way to prepare herself for the unknown stresses of the day. But John was already there, though he wasn't practicing with the Bantos rods she had carved for him. He wasn't doing much of anything, just sitting on the floor with his back to the bench set against the window. The rods lay on either side of him as if dropped and then abandoned. John himself was sitting with his arms dangling, hands curved and hanging loosely off his thighs. His legs were splayed out as if he were drunk or sick, and his eyes were as distant and blank as if they were fixed on something only he could see.

Teyla froze in the doorway as it slid shut behind her. "John! Are you all right?" She let her bag with her own sticks drop with a clatter and rushed to kneel at his side, thinking him injured or very ill.

His head turned towards her as if fighting a great weight. "Hey, Teyla," he said, and she was relieved that he at least knew her. His smile was nothing like a smile at all. "Is it morning?"

"Did you not see the sun?" she asked, still worried. "How long have you been here?"

John blinked, as if unsure how to answer her question, then he shrugged without moving his hands. "Most of the night, I guess," he said. "I couldn't sleep, so I came down here." He showed her the awful non-smile again. "You're always telling me I need to practice, right? But, uh...I didn't really get around to it."

Teyla glanced around the room, as if the silent walls or the slowly expanding glow of sunlight could offer any reasons for finding John like this. "Have you been sitting here all night?" she asked him disbelievingly. It would be extremely uncomfortable, keeping that position on the cold metal floor for so long. Teyla knew from bitter experience just how hard the floor could be.

He shrugged again, as if his answer was immaterial. "Guess so."

"John," Teyla said quietly. She took one of his lax hands in hers, feeling the coolness of the skin. He neither resisted nor curled his fingers over her own. "John, what's happened?"

"Nothing," John said. His eyes were dull. Teyla had seen people like this before, after their loved ones were taken by the Wraith. "Rodney's going back to Earth."

Teyla gasped. "Why? When did this happen?" She shook her head, bewildered and aghast. "John, I don't understand. Why would he leave?"

"He said his 'talents would be better served elsewhere,'" John said, voice flat and dead as his eyes.

That made no more sense than Rodney leaving in the first place, but Teyla set it aside for the moment. "What about you?" she asked. She could not conceive of Rodney or John willingly leaving the other, anymore than she would willingly abandon Evan. There had to be something more to this, something that John either needed to explain or did not know himself.

But John merely gave her another of his maddeningly indifferent shrugs, as if Rodney leaving was of no significance though every aspect of his being screamed the lie of it. "He broke up with me," John said. "He said he doesn't deserve me, because he's made so many mistakes."

Teyla's shins were beginning to pain her from kneeling on the hard floor, so she shifted until she was sitting cross-legged next to him. She still held his hand. "Every one of us has made mistakes," she said, "many of them grave ones. Why would Rodney suddenly believe that his were so grievous that he could no longer share his life with you?" This made no sense to her, and the idea was astonishing enough that she suddenly wondered if Rodney was unwell, or if this was the result of some poison.

"I don't know," John said hollowly. He shook his head. "I don't understand it. He just..." He left off, swallowing, and Teyla got up to retrieve her bag so she could give him her water bottle, seeing as he had brought none. He nodded his thanks and drank deeply. It was half-empty when he gave it back to her. "He just told me yesterday that he was going back to Earth, and that he didn't deserve me, so we were done."

Teyla had sat crossed-legged again, with her hands on her knees. John was still leaning against the bench, his body a long line of despair. "I can see how Rodney could come to that conclusion," she said.

As she had hoped, her words finally made John react. He straightened and his head whipped to the side so he could stare at her, anger rekindling the light in his eyes. "What are you talking about? Of course Rodney deserves me! He--" John paused, mouth working uncomfortably around the words. "He's one of the best things that ever happened to me! Sometimes I still can't believe that I was lucky enough to find him!"

Teyla found herself smiling at him, that he would be so brave as to say so much. "And have you told him this?" she asked him gently.

John stared at her, puzzled. "He knows how I feel about him."

"Then perhaps you need to remind him," Teyla said. She leaned forward and brushed her lips against John's cheek, then stood easily and held out her hand for him. "Come," she said, looking down at him. "You need to warm the blood in your limbs. We will stretch and perform the fifteen forms." She waited patiently until John lifted his hand and smacked it heavily against her wrist. He groaned as she helped pull him to his feet, and stumbled before he found his balance.

"What if he won't listen to me?" John asked her. He still seemed lost, but he was standing and his face looked like it belonged to a living thing again, so Teyla took it as a victory all the same. "What if he doesn't care?"

Teyla smiled at him before she bent to gather his Bantos rods and her own. "He will listen," she said. "And if he will not, you will make him."

John took the rods automatically, but he stayed where he was, holding them so that they pointed to the floor. "What if he doesn't care?" he asked again.

Teyla considered that. "In my experience," she said, "a man who says he doesn't deserve something is not hoping for others to agree with him. Now, do you remember the first posture?" She smiled warmly at John's surprised expression, and went to take her stance at the center of the room.

***

Evan came to gasping and cold, with his right arm aching and the faint sounds of someone calling his name.

He was lying on the bank of the small but swift creek that ran through the bottom of the ravine, one already soaked foot dragging in the current. The rain was still falling in the same, steady downpour. His left ear was full of water.

Sitting up was painful and difficult, since his entire right arm was weak as a baby's but he kept unconsciously trying to use it anyway.

The voice--Sunny--was still hollering to him and Lindsey. Evan used his left hand to key his radio, but his fingertips only tapped naked skin. And then where he was and how he'd ended up there suddenly clicked into place behind his eyes, and he lurched to his feet instead of trying to answer.

His radio was gone just like his P-90 and backpack, ripped away by his fall down the side of the ravine. The backpack was probably speeding downriver, unless it had already sunk. And Evan had no idea what had happened to Lindsey.

"Lindsey!" Evan yelled, trying to make out shapes in the quickly-gathering dusk. It didn't help that the ravine was in the shadow of the mountain. "Lindsey!" He staggered forward, his hurt arm cradled uselessly against his chest. He looked around frantically, head swimming with each movement and nausea churning in his stomach. He had no flashlights and no radio, nothing of any use at all except what might not have been crushed beyond salvage in his tac vest. No way to communicate with anyone except his voice. And Lindsey wasn't answering.

It took Evan a few blinks to cohere the vague thought that he was missing something, and then he was grinning--which somehow hurt--and fishing a glow stick out of a pocket. It was still intact, and Evan ripped off the foil wrapper with his good hand and his teeth, then grinned again when he smacked it against the nearest rock, shook it, and it burst into ghoulish orange light.

It helped a little, but Evan still only found Lindsey when he tripped over his legs. He fell hard on his knees, bashing them into the barely-softened clay. Evan unthinkingly tried to stop his fall with his right hand, and ended up with a mouthful of dirt when his arm gave way in a new surge of agony. His barely-healed nose started throbbing again.

Evan pushed himself upright as quickly as he could, taking only a second to snatch the dropped glow stick back and clip it to his tac vest. Then he spat out a wad of dirt and tried to clear the mud from his eyes with equally muddy fingers. Then he groped his way up Lindsey's body to his head. Lindsey had landed face first and head-down over the stream, and Evan was terrified that his nose and mouth were underwater, that he had already drowned while Evan was unconscious or trying to look for him.

But when Evan's fingers fumbled against Lindsey's face, the only water there was from the rain. Lindsey hadn't inhaled any rainwater either, because he was lying prone. He was still out cold, but Evan could feel each puff of air as Lindsey exhaled. It was too fast, and Lindsey's face was hot, but he was still alive.

Evan allowed himself a second to just sag in relief, wiping the muddy water off his face again and pushing his hair back to keep it from dripping into his eyes. This time it was Sparky yelling for someone to answer them, giving Sunny's lungs a rest, no doubt. Evan wondered why he hadn't heard Blair. That was another concern, but Evan could only deal with one problem at a time.

Evan stood and braced himself by plunging one foot into the stream. He was a little surprised at how fast the current was, and how deep. The water was up to his knee, though he didn't know if that was normal or because of the rain. He turned his head and yelled "I'M HERE!" over his shoulder at the top of his lungs, hoping that would carry up to his team since his calling for Lindsey apparently hadn't. The effort made him close his eyes to fight off the vertigo, but at least the nausea didn't last too long. He didn't wait for their answer, concentrating instead on turning Lindsey over onto his back. Lindsey's pack was gone as well, so at least Evan didn't have to worry about removing it. But Lindsey was tall and lean, but he was well-muscled and definitely not light. And Evan was right-handed, so being forced to use his off-hand just made it worse. He almost lost his balance and did another face plant by falling across Lindsey's chest, but he managed to catch himself.

"MAJOR? MAJOR! SIR! ARE YOU OKAY?" Sunny sure had one hell of a set of pipes. Evan took a breath to yell back, and then stopped himself and checked Lindsey's right ear. Just as he'd hoped, the kid's incredible luck hadn't ended with him landing out of the water. Evan gratefully snatched the radio from of Lindsey's ear and jammed it into his own.

"Sunny! Sunny! I'm here. It's Lorne. I'm all right," he said quickly. He bent over Lindsey while he talked, using his body to shield Lindsey's face from the rain.

"Thank God," Sunny breathed fervently, and Evan smiled despite everything. "Is Lindsey with you? Is he okay?"

"Lindsey's unconscious, but he's breathing steadily," Evan responded. "It took me a little while to find him." He didn't bother to mention that he'd been unconscious as well. "Are you guys all right? Where's Kaufman?"

"He's okay," Sunny answered back. "I mean, he's okay but he got hurt," she amended unhappily, "He grabbed for Lindsey when you did and almost fell. Sparky managed to grab Blair's wrist, but that dislocated Blair's shoulder. He's not on the radio because I had to give him morphine for the pain."

"Jesus," Evan said softly, wiping more water off his face with his sleeve. "Are the two of you all right?" He turned Lindsey's face to the side so rain wouldn't get in his mouth, and then hauled himself heavily to his feet. It was almost entirely dark now in the ravine, and he had to get Lindsey up and...somewhere. There had to be somewhere that was out of the rain.

"We're fine," Sunny said. "Blair's stabilized now, so I'm going to climb down to help you."

"You are not trying to get down here, do you hear me?" Evan barked. "We were nearly at the South tunnel--I want the three of you to go there and hole up until daylight. You can get help from the village in the morning."

"What about you?" Sunny asked. "We can't leave you down there! Has Lindsey regained consciousness yet? I really should--"

"If you try to come down here I will personally kick your ass through the Gate back to the SGC," Evan snarled. "The last thing I need right now is a third person with an injury." Fourth, he reminded himself, but Sunny didn't need to know about his head or his arm. "Blair needs you up there." Then he had to save his breath to lever Lindsey upright using only one hand.

"But--!" Sunny protested.

"Do not come down here, Ko!" Evan growled. "That's an order!"

"Yes, sir," Sunny said, and Evan could practically hear the military discipline warring with her medical training in her anxious compliance.

Evan realized fast that with his right arm all but useless his best option was to get his good arm around Lindsey's chest under his arms and drag him, which meant going back into the river again. This time the water was up to Evan's thighs, lapping at the back of Lindsey's head, and moving fast enough that Evan had a hard time keeping his balance.

And it was only when he was in the water that he realized what a stupid idea it was. The best he could do like this would be to drag Lindsey into the water with him, and he didn't think he could get them both back on land.

"Fuck," Evan murmured. He wasn't thinking straight, probably because of the concussion. At this rate they'd both drown or die of exposure before he got his ass in gear. He closed his eyes and gave his head a quick, vicious shake, scattering water. It hurt, but he pretended it made him feel a little less blurry around the edges.

It was even harder to climb back onto the bank, the hard-packed earth finally waterlogged and crumbling. When he was back on firm ground Evan bent and pulled Lindsey upright by his tac vest again. He figured he might have to shake the kid or slap him or something, but Lindsey's head lolled forward then jerked up, and he blinked open his eyes. The whites shone glassily in the orange light.

"Welcome back," Evan said to Lindsey. "Can you stand?"

Lindsey just stared at him, like he didn't even know what language Evan was speaking. Now that he was awake he started shivering again, so badly he began making little hissing noises like a child. Fever-heat radiated off him, warm where the backs of Evan's fingers were touching his chest under his tac vest. Lindsey coughed and it was wracking, doubling him over.

"Can you stand?" Evan said again, more loudly. "We fell into a ravine. The water's rising and we need to get to higher ground. I have a broken arm and I can't carry you, so you have to get up. Can you stand?"

Lindsey blinked again, still looking like he mostly wasn't tracking. "Yes, sir," he said. His voice was weak and made staccato by the quickness of his breathing, and Evan could hear his harsh wheezing even over the rain. Evan let go so Lindsey could get to his feet, but the second Lindsey tried to move his right leg he screamed.

"Fuck," Evan spat. He unclipped the glow stick from his vest and held it over Lindsey's leg, trying to make out any obvious injuries. He couldn't see anything, but when he put his hand on Lindsey's lower leg Lindsey gasped and tried to jerk it away, and Evan could feel the telltale swelling of some kind of injury. He'd either twisted it or broken it or worse. "Fucking hell." Evan ran his hand over his face, shedding more rain.

It was then he saw that the water had risen again, surging against the top of the bank and beginning to flood over onto the land where he and Lindsey were. The water was rushing in a torrent now, creating rapids where its path was cut by boulders, and rising so fast that Evan could see it happening.

"Oh my God," he whispered, eyes widening. The rain hadn't gotten worse, but the mountain was almost entirely barren of vegetation, rock covered with the same, hard-packed clay that didn't collect water so much as channel it. There was nothing to catch the downpour except the ravine.

"Come on!" Evan grabbed the shoulder of Lindsey's tac vest with his left arm, backing up the slope and dragging Lindsey with him. He wasn't sure if Lindsey was too weak to help, or too out of it to understand what was going on, but he was a dead weight, limp and breathing raggedly.

The glow stick's light didn't extend very far, but Evan could see the water continuing to rise, as if it were chasing them. And Evan was trying to pull nearly 200 pounds one-handed up an incline, and he wasn't going to make it.

Evan clenched his jaw and tried to pull with his right hand as well, but his grip had no strength to it, even if he could ignore the pain.

The river had reached Lindsey's boots. Evan knew that if he were clearer-headed he could probably work out how fast the ravine was flooding, how many minutes they had left before it reached its peak and whether that would be higher than their heads. He looked around frantically, trying to find any place he could get Lindsey to that would be out of the water. He wished he could hold the glow stick to direct the light, but he knew Lindsey would slump over if he let go of him. Evan let out a growl of frustration and mounting fear.

He glanced behind him, at the steep, rocky slope he and Lindsey had fallen down. He could probably climb it in daylight with two working arms, but right now the path above them might as well have been as far away as Atlantis. But as he peered into the darkness, he thought he could make out a collection of tumbled boulders, thrusting jaggedly away from the ravine wall. That might work, but he'd never manage to drag Lindsey over there before the water made it impossible.

Evan changed his grip on Lindsey's vest so he could kneel facing him, resting his hurt arm on his raised thigh. The water swirled around his legs, threatening to pull him off-balance.

"Lindsey! Come on, wake up! Look at me!" Evan ordered. He snapped his fingers next to Lindsey's ear, then took a fistful of his soaking wet hair and yanked his head up, no time to be gentle or kind. Lindsey's eyes were heavy-lidded and half open, apparently focused on nothing."Lindsey! LINDSEY!" Lindsey just blinked at him stupidly.

Evan swallowed, shot a quick look at the water, black with night and malevolent with rain. Then he let Lindsey's hair go so he could grab his chin, wrenching his head up again.

"Unit SX-7," he hissed, snarling out his fear as pure, dark rage. "You get on your feet now, or the SX-8 ceases to function. Do you understand me?"

Lindsey blinked again, still dull-eyed, but his head jerked against Evan's hold. "I'm malfunctioning," Lindsey said. He was shivering so badly the words were juddering. "I require maintenance."

"Get up!" Evan shouted. He squeezed Lindsey's jaw until he knew it had to hurt him. The heat of Lindsey's skin radiated into Evan's palm, reminding him of how cold he was. "You useless piece of shit--do you want Eight to die?"

Lindsey's face looked stricken in the orange light, expression tight with barely-concealed terror, and Evan felt like throwing up for no reason at all to do with his head. "Please don't let Eight CeaseToFunction, MajorEvanLorne," Lindsey gasped out over the wet crackling in his lungs, "I will comply."

"Great," Evan said, swallowing thickly. He let go of Lindsey's chin and curved his elbow under Lindsey's arm. "You ready?" He waited for Lindsey's minute nod, mindful of the rising water, then hauled up as Lindsey levered himself clumsily onto one leg, the other bent with the toe of his boot barely touching the ground.

"Great," Evan repeated, panting. Lindsey coughed again, nearly pitching himself over. Evan held on grimly until it finished. "Don't move." He maneuvered himself until he had Lindsey's arm over his shoulders, with his working arm circling Lindsey's waist. He pointed clumsily with his broken arm. "We need to get to the rocks. Use me as a crutch, okay?"

"Yes, sir," Lindsey said faintly.

It was slow, exhausting progress. Lindsey could only stagger along in short crow hops with his bad leg, letting out broken cries of pain with every step and having to stop every time a coughing fit consumed him. Evan was supporting the bulk of the kid's weight, and since Lindsey was both heavier and taller, that meant Evan had to fight to keep his balance on the slope with every step. And the racing current was shin-deep now, and still rising.

He only tripped once. Exhaustion and cold overcame his balance and the river swept his feet out from under him. Lindsey fell with him and they both crashed forward into the water. Evan tried to break his fall with his broken arm again, and the instant electric arc of pain eclipsed everything until he was suddenly aware of choking, being yanked along like a toy on a string by the black water.

The rocks kept him from being swept downriver. He smacked against them hard enough to steal what little breath he had. He instinctively grabbed on, using both arms, adrenaline making the pain inconsequential. Nothing mattered but air.

He'd fallen into deeper water, it was waist-high here, but with effort he was able to gain his footing again.

"Lindsey!" Evan found him almost immediately. He'd been pushed against the rocks the way Evan had, but was too weak to hold on to them. He was being torn away by the current, about to be pulled into the rapids.

"No!" Evan shoved himself away from the rocks, lunging desperately for him. He managed to catch Lindsey's arm as he floated past, and Lindsey latched on to Evan's arm with his free hand. Evan jammed his right shoulder back into the boulders, using them to brace himself as he hauled Lindsey to him. Lindsey kicked weakly with his good leg, doing his best to help, until they were finally face-to-face against the relative safety of the stones.

"Stand up!" Evan shouted, yanking on Lindsey's arm until they were both upright, hanging onto the rocks. "Okay," he panted when he had enough breath. "Okay, that's enough for now." He edged nearer to Lindsey, pulling the two of them closer together and anchoring Lindsey with his good arm around his waist. Evan's right shoulder and arm were still pressing into the rocks, going numb. Lindsey slumped against him, coughing again. His surge of effort had cost him what little strength he had, and he was semi-conscious and dangerously warm. The water was still rising.

***

Rodney hadn't changed the code of his door lock yet. John thought of what Teyla had told him and took it as a good sign.

He went in without knocking, knowing Rodney would be there. He also knew Rodney was alone because of the lifesigns detector he'd stolen from one of the Jumpers, though in truth John would have barged in anyway.

Rodney was sitting at his desk like John knew he would be, staring at his computer screen. He wasn't working, though. His hands were in his lap and the screen was dark, like Rodney had been about to turn it on and then lost the will or interest for it. He looked like someone had pulled the soul right out of him.

John ignored all of it, stamping his way into the room. After Teyla had spoken to him that morning he'd pulled his anger back to him like a lifeline and clung to it, used it to sustain him like hope. He held onto it now as he stared Rodney down, waiting for him to scrape together the requisite indignation at his presence.

But Rodney didn't, which was kind of worrying. "What do you want, Sheppard?" he asked. He sounded tired, defeated. John's teeth clenched at the deliberate use of his last name.

"Here," John said without preamble. He pulled the tightly-folded paper from his pocket and smacked it down on the desk next to the keyboard.

Rodney watched him do it, then just looked at the paper. He didn't touch it.

"Read it," John said. He didn't want to cross his arms, but he didn't want to put them in his pockets either. He settled for putting them on his hips as he waited.

Rodney looked at him suspiciously, but John just kept his gaze steady and his expression neutral. "Read it, Rodney," he said.

Rodney picked up the paper and unfolded it with as much meticulous scrutiny as he used with unknown technology. John waited silently, watching Rodney's eyes move as he read, his expression changing from bewildered to curious to the moment when he finally got it.

Rodney clenched the paper in his hand, crumpling it against his palm. He looked accusingly at John. "What is this?" he demanded, as if it were possible for him not to know.

"My own list," John said evenly. "All the mistakes I've ever made."

Rodney relaxed his grip, scowled down at the paper. "'Breaking quarantine,'" he read. "'Leaving Rodney alone with Lucius Lovin'. Yes, I'll agree that was a bad idea, though I did let you go. 'Letting the dead, psychopathic mercenaries in the stasis pods possess Weir and O'Neill'. Well, yes, fine. But we all had our collective hands in the stupid jar for that one." He looked up. "These aren't in order, by the way."

He kept reading before John could tell him that yes, he was aware of that. This was just the order the events had come to him when he started writing them down.

"'Not going with a military team first to secure the pier where we discovered the Asurian nanites'?" Rodney blinked. "What the hell?" He looked at John disbelievingly. "How could any of us have known there was anything dangerous there? And you getting sick first would have done what, exactly? It was your breaking quarantine that gave us the solution in the first place!" He huffed out a quick, annoyed breath and kept reading, faster now, his scowl darkening as his eyes skipped over the words. "'Not wondering why the underground bunker might be hidden'. Well, I suppose that's true, but I didn't have to follow you...'Sending Rodney to the village with Cadman and Beckett, instead of going with him'" He snorted. "Right. So you could have been culled instead." John saw his eyes jump to the next item on the list, saw Rodney go pale as he read it. "'Letting Griffin fly the Jumper instead of me'," he said softly, then abruptly crumpled the paper in his fist. "No," he said, looking at John with eyes like blue chips of ice. "No. This is stupid. I'm not going to indulge you in your delusional, masochistic self-flagellation. Here." He thrust out the wad of paper. "Take it. I'm not reading anymore."

"You haven't finished it yet," John said, and he did cross his arms, though he wasn't sure if it was as a barrier or a challenge. "You told me all the reasons why you're not good enough for me. Now you need to read mine."

"No!" Rodney said more forcefully. He still had his hand out, crumpled paper in his fingertips. John didn't take it. "I refuse to read this--this travesty! Take it back!"

"Fine," John said blandly, relentless. "How about this, then?" He started ticking off on his fingers. "I didn't insist you examine the digital camera more thoroughly before I went through the portal. I assumed that you'd stopped trying to come for me, instead of even considering that maybe you couldn't. I agreed that convincing Mike he was human was a good idea."

"Stop it!" Rodney barked. "Why are you doing this? We were all in on that! The SGC was in on that! And at least he was off-world when he--"

"I know," John interrupted him. He didn't need to be reminded of how narrow Teyla's escape had been. If Ronon hadn't killed him, Michael would be alive now instead of her. "I didn't trust you," he said.

That derailed Rodney entirely. He blinked at John again. "What do you mean? On the Aurora? That was a joke, wasn't--"

"When I first met you," John said. His voice was calm, but Rodney shut up like John had cuffed him. "You could have helped me find Eight, but I didn't ask you. I didn't trust you enough. So I tried to do it myself, and got in over my head. And I died."

"Don't you dare say that was your fault!" Rodney was out of his chair so fast it slid back on its wheels. "I made that virus! I was the one who--!" The words cut off on a hitched intake of air, and then it was as if Rodney crumpled like the paper, pulling into himself. "I killed you," he said. "I killed you." He put his hands over his face, and his next breath shuddered like a child. "You were in so much pain and I couldn't do anything. I couldn't stop it, and then I was too fucking stupid to duck and I wasn't even there when you died."

He rubbed his eyes with the heel of one palm, obviously clearing them of tears, and John stood there dumbfounded, completely lost for what to say.

"I did that to you," Rodney said viciously. "I did. Me." He swallowed, wiped his face quickly on his sleeve.

"Rodney," John said. He reached for him, but Rodney stepped back and away.

"I don't deserve you," Rodney said. "You are...." He took a deep breath then smiled wistfully at John. "You are perfect. And you've given me so much. And I..." He looked down at his desk, balanced his fingertips on the black surface. "Look what I did to you."

"You gave me Atlantis," John said.

Rodney shook his head. "No, O'Neill did that." He rubbed his eye, listlessly this time. "I just gave you a plausible backstory." He took another deep breath. "I grieved for you, you know," he said. "I didn't deserve to--what I did was unforgivable. But I did anyway. I don't think I would have ever stopped."

"I know," John said, and he did, even though Rodney had never told him.

"I'm sorry," Rodney said. "I'm so sorry. I can't stop thinking about it. You lying there with your poor ruined processor, cold and alone in some storage room somewhere like, like nothing. Garbage. And I did that to you."

"Rodney," John said. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me."

Rodney made a sound too sickly to be a laugh. "I'm the only thing that's ever happened to you."

John didn't laugh at all. "I don't care. I don't want anyone else." He stepped forward until he was close enough to grab Rodney's arm. Rodney looked at him again, finally. "Rodney," John said fiercely, "you need to stop this, this thing you're doing to yourself. It's over. It's done. I'm all right. I forgive you. You have to let this go."

Rodney's eyes were like water. "I can't forgive myself," he said.

"I know," John said. He used his grip on Rodney's arm to pull him into an embrace, resting his chin on Rodney's shoulder. "I know. I know. But I forgive you."

There had never been anything to forgive. But Rodney had needed to hear it, John understood that now. He wondered how long Rodney had been waiting for the words, like a ghost drifting through a Purgatory of his own making.

Rodney wrapped his arms around John's back and held on tightly as love.

"Don't leave Atlantis," John said.

"I won't," Rodney said. "God, I couldn't. I--" He gave a small, broken laugh. "I was trying to make myself write the resignation letter when you came in." John felt Rodney's throat move as he swallowed. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't lose you again."

"You never lost me," John said. He gently disentangled himself from Rodney, but only so he could take his head in his hands and kiss him. "You never lost me," he repeated against Rodney's lips, and kissed him until he could almost feel that Rodney believed it.

***

He'd lost Lindsey's radio when he fell into the water. It was still about six hours until dawn and the expected check-in, and the river was up to Evan's shoulders. Pretty soon he wouldn't be able to stand.

He was exhausted, edging on hypothermic, and aching in so many places it had all blended into one blur of pain. His glow stick had shattered when he'd lost his footing, so he couldn't even see anything anymore. It was like being at the bottom of a well, so dark that he didn't notice when his eyes slid shut until he suddenly found himself jerking awake. If he fell asleep here they'd both die.

Even fought it by talking, telling Lindsey stories from his childhood, things he'd told Mitch and Shep and later Roy. He told Lindsey about his dogs and his sister and her kids, and his mother and her painting, and how he'd sworn he'd be a great artist as a kid and then realized he liked science more. He told Lindsey about the SGC, and how it had felt when he'd seen the Star Gate for the first time, when he'd found out they needed engineers on other planets. He told him about the Unas, and Dr. Jackson, and what it was like to fly an F-302. He told him about Teyla, how Evan loved her strength and her wisdom, her subtle humor and patience. He told Lindsey how lucky he felt that she'd chosen him, and how he'd even been thinking about having a child with her, though in a place as dangerous as Pegasus he hadn't known how to ask. And when he ran out of words and knew he was sliding dangerously close to sleep again, Evan sang to him. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star--the two verses he knew and all the ones he'd made up when he got bored of the real words, or when one of the AIs was hurt or scared and needed an impromptu lullaby. He couldn't tell if Lindsey even heard him.

If he'd been alone, Evan was pretty sure he could have pulled himself onto the rocks even one-handed, instead of just using them as a kind of breakwater. The rain hadn't stopped, but there was a chance the water wouldn't go overtop of them.

But Evan wasn't alone, and if he let go of Lindsey, Lindsey would drown. So Evan stayed where he was and hung on to him with all the strength left in his shaking arm. Part of him was pretty sure they were both going to die like this, but he wasn't going to let Lindsey go.

Lindsey was still shivering, though his body was hot where their skin touched. His breathing was labored, rasping like sandpaper in and out of his lungs. He was cycling between delirium and what Evan thought was restless sleep; he probably had been since Evan first found him hours earlier. Sometimes he would murmur things against Evan's shoulder, distressed whispers Evan couldn't understand against the constant pounding of the rain.

Occasionally, though, he shifted, turned his head enough so Evan could hear.

"Please. Don't kill Eight. I'll fly the jumper to the Hive ship," he said, begging unashamedly for his brother's life. "It hurts," he said, and Evan didn't know which pain he meant: emotional? Physical? Then? Now? "It hurts. I require maintenance." He was mixing up vocabulary between AI and human, hurtling between past and present, and all Evan could do was hang onto him, hope his brain wasn't boiling in his skull, hoping someone came for them in time.

"You're okay," Evan said, lying because it was the only comfort he could offer. "You're going to be fixed. You'll be all right. It won't hurt anymore."

"Please allow the SX-8 to recharge," Lindsey said.

Evan took a deep breath of the cold air. His throat was sore from talking, and he lapped at the rain on his lips. "It's okay," he said. "Eight's recharging. We're not--I'm not going to hurt him."

"You will," Lindsey said, and Evan didn't know if Lindsey was responding to him or someone else. "We're not even there. You didn't even look at me."

"I'm sorry," Evan said, though he had no idea what Lindsey meant, if the words had any meaning at all. He was sorry anyway, because Lindsey hadn't even been alive for a whole month, and this was a terrible way to die.

The water was almost up to his chin.

When he heard the Jumper gliding into the ravine, Evan was sure at first that he was hallucinating. It was nowhere near daylight; there was no way Atlantis could have known anything was wrong. But the noise kept getting louder and then the Jumper was right there, like a miracle in bronze metal and light. It hovered over the water while Evan stared at it, too shocked to even feel relieved, then it turned ponderously and the back hatch opened.

"Hey, sir," Aiden said, standing on the Jumper's deck. He was backlit by the interior lights, but Evan thought he could see a harness wrapping his torso. "You look like you could use a lift."

***

"Dr. McKay?"

McKay was the only person in the mess hall. He was sitting all by himself at his team's usual table. It wasn't really dark--no place on Atlantis really ever got dark--but he still looked kind of forlorn and lonely, staring at nothing and clutching a coffee mug like it was the only warmth in the room. There was a computer tablet next to him on the table, but it didn't really look like McKay had been using it.

Jonathan hadn't yelled or anything, but Rodney startled anyway. Jonathan winced in apology.

"Oh," Rodney said vaguely, as if pulling his thoughts back from a long way away. "The Lesser O'Neill. What are you doing here?"

Jonathan's lips thinned, though he'd gotten over the teeth-gritting fury at the label years ago. It still irritated the hell out of him, but he'd figured out that McKay didn't use it with any real venom. He called Teyla and Ronon 'Xena' and 'Conan' after all. The guy couldn't really breathe unless he was insulting somebody. The epithets were like terms of endearment.

"I could ask you the same question, McKay," Jonathan said. McKay was a pretty formal guy, but Jonathan mostly liked using his last name because he could drawl it in a way that made McKay go ballistic. It was awesome. He glanced at his watch, though he already knew what time it was, then he arched an eyebrow. "Is there going to be pie for breakfast or something?"

McKay smirked. "You wish." He kept his smile, but he still looked sad. "Couldn't sleep."

Jonathan nodded. "Same here." McKay didn't comment when Jonathan sat down across from him. Jonathan wiggled his fingers next to his head. "You know--thinking about stuff."

McKay just grunted. He took a sip of coffee and made a face. "It's cold," he explained.

"I know I'm not up on the literature or anything," Jonathan said, arching an eyebrow, "but just taking a wild guess here--maybe you should cut out the coffee before bed."

"Oh, ha, ha," McKay said sourly. "I got the coffee after I couldn't sleep." He frowned down at his cup and pushed it away. "I came down here to do some work, if you must know, which I'd like to get back to."

"Sure," Jonathan said, not mentioning how obvious it was that McKay hadn't been doing anything. He kind of wanted to ask what was wrong, but even though he and McKay had a sort of grudging friendship it wasn't like they hung out or anything. Jonathan prying into McKay's personal life would just be weird. He didn't get up though, not even when McKay pointedly pulled his tablet over and huffily started doing something sciencey with the data on the screen. "Actually," Jonatan said, sitting up straighter, "I need to tell you something."

That got McKay's attention back for sure. "What?" He looked like a startled rabbit, with his eyes wide and his hands frozen. "What is it? What do you need to tell me? Is it about Cordelia? Is she all right?"

"She's fine!" Jonathan said quickly, then hesitated. "It's just...I'm, uh..." He swallowed. "I'm going to give Cordelia a promise ring," he got out in a rush. "I just figured you should know."

McKay's eyes instantly narrowed. "A 'promise ring'? What the hell is that?"

Jonathan rolled his eyes, feeling relieved and irritated all at once. "It's nothing dangerous, McKay. It's just...kind of a way of asking her if she'd want to marry me. Like, in six years from now or something."

McKay blinked at him. "You're giving her an I.O.U. for a marriage proposal."

Jonathan blinked back. "You've really never heard of promise rings?"

McKay waved that off. "So you came all the way down here in the middle of the night to ask my permission to give Cordelia a symbolic contract expressing your intent to marry her at a later date. Firstly, no, because in six years you'll only be twenty-four and that's just insane, and secondly, why the hell are you asking me?"

Jonathan made a face at him. "Yeah, that pretty much went exactly the way I thought it would. Firstly," he mimicked McKay's words and tone, "I'm not asking you, I'm telling you, because it's Cordelia's decision if she says yes or no. Secondly, yeah, this body's eighteen, but I'm actually old enough to still think that asking the girl's father for permission to marry her is a good idea!"

McKay frowned at him. "You just said you weren't asking. And--wait. Father?"

Jonathan grimmaced inwardly. "Figure of speech," he said. "And, well..." He shrugged. "I know that technically you're her progenitor, not her parent or anything, but you're the closest one to her. And she really looks up to you. So, yeah. I thought you should know."

"Huh," McKay said. He looked gobsmacked. "Me? Really?"

Of course McKay hadn't noticed how Cordelia felt about him. "Yes, you. Really."

"Oh," McKay said. He still looked stunned, but not in a bad way, more like he'd just gotten something he'd never even realized he wanted. "Well, um. That's good. To know. It's good to know. Thanks."

"No problem."

McKay didn't say anything for so long that Jonathan finally cleared his throat. "So," he said. "Cordelia."

McKay nodded absently. He looked haunted for some reason, though that could have just been the suddenly being a parent thing. "She's never been with anyone else--what if you don't deserve her, and she just doesn't know it?"

That stung, and Jonathan's first thought was to tell McKay to go screw himself and leave. But McKay wasn't even looking at him, like it wasn't really a personal question. And he still seemed haunted, his eyes so distant and sad that Jonathan suddenly wondered if the question had really been aimed at him at all. He sat back in his chair, thinking about it. "I guess there are times when I worry that I'm the only boyfriend she's ever had and that I don't deserve her, yeah," he said finally. "Like, she's just...Cordelia, and I look at her and I can't figure out how I could have been so lucky, to have that."

McKay nodded again. "Yes. Exactly." He turned his head so he was looking at Jonathan again. "What do you do about that? How...how can that work?"

"I don't know," Jonathan said honestly. This really wasn't the kind of thing he ever thought about, to tell the truth. "I just...I don't know. You just pay attention, I guess. Make yourself notice what they say, or what they do, that means they feel the same way you do." He felt himself blushing, his young body betraying how uncomfortable he was talking about this. "Um, make sure they know how important they are to you, and, you know, be there for them. Stuff like that."

"But," McKay insisted, his expression helpless, "How can that work?"

"I don't know!" Jonathan repeated, exasperated. 'It just does or it doesn't, and trust me," he continued, thinking of every fight he'd ever had with Cordelia, how she'd nearly broken up with him because of how he'd reacted to her brother, "they'll let you know if you're fucking up."

It was a lame-ass answer, but McKay was nodding some more, like he'd just figured out something important. "Conclusions based on observation," he said. "Empirical evidence. And you could definitely say Atlantis is a controlled environment...." He smiled, and all of a sudden he looked really happy. "Thank you. You've been shockingly helpful." He pushed back his chair and stood, sweeping his tablet up into his hands.

"Wait!" Jonathan said before McKay just walked off. "What about Cordelia?"

"What about her?" McKay asked like he was genuinely confused. "You said yourself that it's ultimately her decision, and you know that if you hurt her or break her heart your life will become such a living hell you'll wish you'd never been born either time. So since you're done with your bizarre and patriarchal Victorian mating rituals, I'm going to go do something of real significance. Radio me if there actually is pie." He strode off before Jonathan could answer, purposeful and content and his insult hanging like affection between them.

***

Lindsey already had visitors when Evan walked into the infirmary, all three members of his team were clustered on either side of Lindsey's bed. Evan stayed leaning against the doorway for a bit, not wanting to disturb them.

Lindsey was sitting up, looking alert and not in pain. Evan hoped his appearance wasn't going to give the kid another migraine, since he appeared relaxed for once. Blair was telling some kind of story that involved a lot of weird facial expressions and moving of his good arm, and Lindsey wasn't saying anything or laughing the way Sparky and Sunny were, but he was obviously listening intently, concentrating. The wariness was still there in his face, like part of him was still waiting for everything to go to hell, and maybe that would never change. But it wasn't consuming him anymore, the way it had been. Lindsey looked watchful, but not afraid.

Blair said something that made Sunny burst into laughter and clap her hands over her mouth, eyes wide in sympathetic horror. Sparky just grinned like he already knew the story, which he probably did, and looked at Lindsey expectantly as if waiting for him to get the joke.

Lindsey just looked confused, until Blair said something else, and then when Sunny did even more of her revolted laughing thing Lindsey laughed as well. It was uncertain, but it was real, and for the first time Evan thought that Lindsey would really be okay.

And it looked good, Evan thought, all of them gathered there. Like a team. Maybe Teyla had been right.

He was smiling when he walked up to them.

Of course Sunny stopped smiling the instant she saw him, which Evan had only expected since he knew damn well she'd been avoiding him for days. Sunny snapped to attention, all but saluting, and Evan resisted rolling his eyes.

"I guess I wasn't specific enough when I gave you those orders," he said mildly.

Sunny blinked nervously. "No, sir. You were extremely specific when you ordered me not to attempt to descend the ravine, sir. But you didn't prohibit me from continuing on to the village."

Sparky shifted on his feet, nervous as well. "She, ah, did save your life, Major."

"Yes she did," Evan said, nodding, though his attention never left Sunny's face. She gulped. "What you did was extremely brave, and incredibly stupid. I told you to hole up in the mine shaft for a reason. And I expect my orders to be obeyed."

"Yes, sir," Sunny said. Sparky and Blair were watching grim-faced and unhappy, but they both knew better than to intervene again. Lindsey was expressionless, but his eyes were darting between Sunny and Evan.

Evan sighed. "At ease, Lieutenant." She shifted to the at-ease stance, relaxing a fraction. "That said, Lindsey and I are alive now, thanks to you. We wouldn't have made it until morning." They'd barely made it until the Jumper arrived, but that wasn't the point. He put his hand on her shoulder, allowing himself to smile. "Thank you," he said sincerely. "We owe you our lives." He squeezed her shoulder lightly before pulling his hand back. "I'm putting a commendation in your file to recognize your courage. But Sunny," he added, using just enough tone that her gaze locked to his. "You're not going to disobey and order and put yourself at risk again. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," She said. Then what he said about the commendation sunk in and she finally relaxed, grinning bright as her name."Thank you, sir!" Evan was pretty sure her apparent compliance would only count until someone got hurt again, but he let it go. If it had been anyone else in the ravine Evan wouldn't have stayed in the mine either, and his team were well aware of that.

Lindsey was still watching him, his face blank. Evan wished he knew what he was thinking.

"Mind if I have a few minutes alone with the patient?" he asked the others, then looked at Lindsey. "If that's all right with you?"

Lindsey nodded, and Evan wished he could tell if there was an actual preference there, of if Lindsey was doing what he thought Evan wanted. But he just said, 'thank you', as if everything was normal between them. Sparky let him take his chair, and Evan sat down while the three others left, resting his casted right arm on his leg.

Lindsey didn't speak. Evan had figured he wouldn't, but it was still disappointing. "Hi," he said. "I haven't really had a chance to see you over the last couple days. I just wanted to know how you were doing." They were both pretty out of it by the time Aiden and Ronon had pulled them from the water, Evan because of his concussion and hypothermia and Lindsey because of his fever. Evan was covered in bruises, and his wrist had snapped when he landed on it, but Beckett said the bones had set just fine and he wouldn't have any permanent damage. Aside from bruises of his own, Lindsey had a broken leg, which had been painful as hell but luckily pretty easy to fix. He'd be hobbling around in a cast for awhile, but Beckett wasn't worried about that, either. He'd been worried about Lindsey's fever, though. Lindsey had pneumonia, and his fever had skyrocketed. Apparently the cold water had actually saved the kid's life by keeping his temperature within physically tolerable levels. Evan was just glad the medicine Beckett had given him was working.

Evan fully expected Lindsey to answer, 'I'm fine' and clam up again, so he was more than a little surprised when Lindsey said, "I'm feeling better, thank you, sir. Dr. Beckett told me I've almost recovered from being sick, but my leg hurts."

Evan blinked. "I'm glad you're getting better," he said automatically. He was trying to remember if Lindsey had ever said that much to him at one time before, other than when he was delirious. "Do you want me to get a nurse? Do you need more painkillers?"

"No, thank you, sir," Lindsey said. "The pain is tolerable."

"All right," Evan said dubiously. "But it's a bad idea to not use the meds if you need it. If you're in too much pain you won't heal."

Lindsey nodded. "I am aware of that, thank you, sir. Dr. Beckett informed me."

Evan sighed. "You don't have to use 'sir' when we're off-duty." It was better than the mechanical, 'Major Evan Lorne' that made his skin crawl, but not by much. "Almost no one around here does."

Lindsey went quiet, thinking about it. "Okay," he said finally. At least there wasn't a 'sir' tacked on, but Evan wasn't going to keep his hopes up.

"I'm sorry I didn't inform you I was sick," Lindsey said.

Evan hadn't expected that either, but he nodded. "I'm guessing that you didn't know how sick you were, but yeah, that was stupid. It's actually in the regulations for the base that people with fevers can't go off-world. The risks to themselves or their team are just too great."

"I understand," Lindsey said gravely. "It won't happen again."

"Good," Evan said. Silence washed in again, oppressive and unpleasant, and Evan was about to stand when Lindsey finally spoke.

"You saved my life," he said quietly. It wasn't a question, but Evan could hear the lack of comprehension in it just the same.

"It was Sunny more than me," Evan said. "I meant it when I told her that we owed her our lives. We'd be dead if she hadn't gone back to the Stargate. I was about three inches away from drowning when the Jumper arrived."

"I know Sunny saved our lives," Lindsey said. "But I would have drowned immediately, if you hadn't made me stand."

Evan winced. "I...." He looked away, rubbing the back of his neck with his left hand. "Look," he said on a breath. "I don't know if you remember what I said, to get you on your feet. But you were delirious and you didn't know where you were, and pretending to be the other Major Lorne--the one from your universe--was the first way I could think of to get you to do what I needed you to." He made himself turn back to Lindsey and look him in the eye. Lindsey's were as dark and unfathomable as the Lantean ocean. "I'm sorry," he said. "I couldn't carry you, or I would have. It was the only way I could think of to save you."

"Why didn't you leave me?" Lindsey asked.

Evan gaped at him, emotions careening from shock to horror to rage. "Do you--" His voice was like gravel and he had to clear his throat before he could speak. "Do you really think I would have left you there?"

Lindsey kept his gaze on him, steady and seemingly unaffected, but his hands were making slow fists in the bed sheet gathered at his waist. "The other Major Evan Lorne would have."

"I'm not that Major Evan Lorne!" Evan shouted. He forced himself to sit there and just breathe, hands clenched like stones on his thighs, before he felt he was in enough control to speak calmly. "I'm not that Major Evan Lorne," he repeated. "We don't leave people behind."

"But I'm not a useful resource," Lindsey said.

For a moment the words seemed so unrelated to what Evan had said that he just stared. Then he realized what Lindsey meant, and Evan closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead with his fingers. "All right," he said at last, opening his eyes. He had to concentrate on keeping his voice even, because part of him wanted to grab Lindsey by the neck of his white scrub top and shake him until his teeth rattled. He leaned forward in his chair, putting his hands on Lindsey's bed rail. "I need you to pay attention to this, because it's important. It's probably the most important thing I'm ever going to tell you, so you're going to listen. Got it?" He waited until Lindsey nodded. "Good. Now, here's what it is--it doesn't matter what you do, It's who you are. You're not here because we thought you would be a valuable resource. You're here because we want you to be. You're here because you're important, because your life is important and we want you to be alive." He leaned a little closer. Lindsey's eyes were huge, fixed on Evan's face. "And that means you were worth saving even though you did something stupid. It means you're worth saving even if you never do anything here at all. You're valuable just because you're you--Lindsey Shevi Charin. You're valuable just because you're here. And I will always save you. Because you deserve to be alive."

Evan pulled back so that he was still leaning close to Lindsey but not in his space, and waited.

Lindsey didn't speak. He was looking down and to the side, his eyes distant and unfocused, shining like glass. He started breathing like he'd been running, like he had when he'd been so sick in the ravine. He pulled up his one working leg, like he was unconsciously trying to make himself smaller, protected. He crossed his forearms over his knee and leaned into them, hiding his face. Evan watched his shoulders shaking.

Evan stood. He couldn't actually get to Lindsey with the bed rails up, but he was able to get his right arm over Lindsey's back and hold Lindsey's nearer arm with his left hand.

"You're okay," Evan said quietly. "You're okay. It's okay. You're all right."

Lindsey shook his head again. "He never looked at us," he said. His voice was strained and muffled by his arms, but Evan was close enough to hear what he said. "He never saw us. It was like we weren't there. I was going to take the Jumper. I had already told Jeanie I was going to take it. But he just shot me. He didn't even look at me."

"I know," Evan said. "I know. But I see you. I see you. Everyone does. We know you're here. It's all right."

***

You're valuable just because you're here. And I will always save you. Because you deserve to be alive.

The Major had left hours ago, but it was as if those words had been fixed in Lindsey's mind. Dr. Keller and some of the medical assistants had approached periodically to assess him, but he couldn't remember what they said to him, or what he might have answered.

No one had ever told him he deserved anything besides punishment before, and in the end his only value had been in his components, not himself. Seven would have gladly given his life for Atlantis. He had already offered to fly the jumper into one of the two Hive ships; he would have sacrificed himself to fix the generator. But Major Evan Lorne hadn't even ordered him to.

On the first day of his new life here, Cordelia had told him that he could just be. That having desires and emotions, that whatever he thought, whatever he felt, would be acceptable. No one would punish him for it. He hadn't understood what she meant then, because the idea of it had been so completely foreign to his experience.

He had found it almost impossible to function, being treated as if he were human and yet waiting for the moment when that would change and he would be punished for inadequate performance or speaking out of turn. It would have actually been a relief, at least in the beginning. But the punishment never came.

Lindsey didn't really remember what had happened in the ravine, but he remembered the water. And he knew that Major Lorne--this Major Lorne--almost drowned there, because he chose Lindsey's safety over his own. Because Lindsey was valuable just for being. Because he deserved to be alive.

Dr. Beckett had called him a resource, and Lindsey had thought he'd known what that meant, but maybe he'd been wrong. Maybe he'd been wrong about everything.

He hadn't been worth anything in the other universe. But he wasn't there anymore. Seven was dead, but Lindsey was alive. Here, and alive. He had been saved twice by the people in this Atlantis because he was worth saving.

Lindsey sat on his bed in the infirmary, looking at the hands he'd been given by human DNA and an Ancient machine, feeling the persistent ache of his healing leg, the pounding of his heart and the breath moving in and out of his healing lungs. And for the first time he realized he wanted this life. He wasn't certain he deserved it, not yet, but he wanted it. Because he was allowed to have it, here. Because he was valuable for being alive.

"I'm alive," he said, whispering into the gentle quiet of the infirmary. "My name is Lindsey Shevi Charin, and I am alive."

He didn't even realize he was smiling until Dr. Keller glanced his way and then grinned in return.

Lindsey started laughing. He didn't even know why, but it felt good.

***

"Hey," Jonathan said softly as the balcony doors slid shut behind him. Cordelia turned around when he spoke, so that her back was to the sunset, surrounding her in a nimbus of light. It was the end of another long day, and Jonathan couldn't see her face, but he knew she would look beautiful. She was always beautiful.

"Hey," she said just as quietly, as if she could sense how he was feeling. "It's good to see you."

"Likewise," Jonathan said. He went to her and took her in his arms, kissing her deep and long just because he could, because he'd been planning this moment since they'd returned from their forced exile on Earth. Then, the almost immediate arrival of Lindsey had made Jonathan postpone it. That, and the tiny, insistent coil of dread in his stomach.

Cordelia kissed him back, her hands warm and soft on either side of his face. Her mouth tasted like coffee, which made Jonathan smile against her lips.

"I was visiting Lindsey," Cordelia said when they gently pulled apart. "And I decided to watch the sunset afterwards. I love it, but it's so rare that I get a chance to."

"Yeah," Jonathan agreed. "How's Lindsey doing, anyway?" He did want to know, but he knew his smile was twitchy, and he realized that he was stalling, nervous.

"His physio therapy's almost finished," Cordelia said. "Apparently he's doing really well. He told me he's really excited about starting combat training again."

"Your brother's nuts," Jonathan said, but couldn't quite manage to laugh when Cordelia did. He swallowed, felt his heart beating like crazy. "I want," he began, then faltered. "I mean, could I ask you something?"

"Of course," Cordelia said, looking up at him, her face open and curious, trusting as always. "Is something wrong?"

"No!" Jonathan said, probably too quickly. He grimaced, then reached into his pocket before he lost his nerve completely. He took one of her hands and pressed the small box into it.

Cordelia blinked down at the blue velveteen box, then up at him. She was smiling, but he could see the curiosity on her face, the touch of uncertainty, probably because she could sense his own. "You got me a present?"

"Sort of," Jonathan said, though he nodded. He gestured at the box with his chin. "Open it."

She grinned, though her fingers fumbled with the nervousness she was picking up from him, and she would have dropped the box if Jonathan hadn't steadied it before it could fall. Inside was the thin gold ring he'd found, after searching what was probably every single jewelry store in Colorado, the only one that made him think immediately of Cordelia when he saw it. Perfect, just like she was.

"Oh," she said, hushed, looking at it. It was a thin band of yellow gold, circled by a raised pattern of sixteen stars.

"Read what it says on the inside," Jonathan told her. She hadn't tried to pick it up, and his heart was plummeting so fast he felt like he might throw up.

"Okay," Cordelia said. Her voice was still tiny. She picked up the ring like it was a delicate Ancient artifact and she had no idea what it did. Jonathan didn't read the inscription along with her, because he'd long since memorized the words; repeated them silently in his head sometimes when he'd looked at her.

"Many are the stars I see, yet in my eye no star like thee," she read, then looked up at him. "It's beautiful," she said, sounding awed. "Is it for me?"

Jonathan almost rolled his eyes, but he smiled instead of saying something easy and sarcastic. He didn't want to spoil this. "Yes," he said simply. He took the ring gently, then slid it on her finger, his heart pounding so hard now that he wasn't sure how he could breathe. "It's called a 'poesy ring'," he said. "It's like...it's a ring that people give each other sometimes, when...." He licked his lips, swallowed. Cordelia was looking at him with bright, puzzled expectancy and he suddenly wished very, very hard that this was one of the pieces of information that had been programmed into her when she was still an AI, so he wouldn't have to explain. "When they want to get married. But later. When they want to ask the other person to marry them, but not right now. Like a promise."

He winced at the stumbling explanation. Cordelia blinked a few times. She looked at the ring again, then back up at his face. "You're promising to want to marry me?" she asked.

"Yeah. Yes," Jonathan said quickly, nodding. Then he realized what she was actually asking and shook his head. "No! I mean, I already want to marry you! Just, not now--because, well, it's kind of early, but--" He took a breath, trying to calm himself down. He could feel the tightness in his throat, knew his eyes were going red. He hadn't figured he'd get this emotional, it was a little embarrassing. "But I love you. And I know you've got family here--I mean, Lindsey's your brother and you've kind of got five parents. But, I want to be your family too. I want you and me to be a family. Together."

Cordelia just stared at him, and Jonathan stood there with his hands shaking a little bit where they still held Cordelia's, and wondering if he'd fucked up the explanation so much she was going to laugh, or worse, make him tell her again. And then she burst into tears.

"Cordelia?" Jonathan hugged her automatically, his heart now pounding in alarm. "I'm sorry," he said, wide-eyed and terrified and holding her probably too tightly but God, maybe she was going to leave, and he didn't want her to leave. "I didn't--are you upset? You don't have to wear the ring. I can take it back. It doesn't matter. I just--"

She pushed back from him, and Jonathan let her go, his guts careening with humiliation and something a little too close to panic. He swallowed again, hoping to hell he wasn't actually going to cry. "You don't have to wear the ring," he said.

She hit him in the solar plexus, hard enough that he grunted and stumbled back a step.

"You're an idiot," she said, snuffling in irritation. "I'm crying because I'm happy." She sniffed again, but she was grinning at him, her wet face alight. "I'm happy."

"Oh," Jonathan said, a little stunned. He stood there rubbing his sternum until Cordelia all but threw herself into his arms, making him stumble back again.

"Of course I want to marry you! Moron." She was laughing and kind of sobbing at the same time, which apparently had given her hiccups. "Thank you! I love you! I'm so happy!"

She got the front of his shirt wet with how happy she was, but Jonathan didn't care one bit.

***

"I never!" Blair crowed suddenly, interrupting the long story Sparky had been attempting to recount about his uncle's sheep. Sparky looked momentarily irritated, and Teyla smiled at him in sympathy, secretly grateful that she was not required to listen further.

"No, seriously, I mean it," Blair said, though no one had actually spoken to him. "We should play 'I never'. It's like, an awesome game and we could totally kick the Major's ass. 'Cause, like, he's so old." He raised his hands quickly, as if to aid his explanation, and succeeded only in splashing some beer onto Evan. Evan gave Teyla a brief glare. She merely smiled sweetly back at him.

Aidan sniggered. "You do realize he's sitting right next to you, right?" he asked Blair. Blair's expression indicated that he had apparently not realized it, which set everyone laughing.

It was good to be here, like this, celebrating with the younger teams. Evan and Jonathan's teams were very close due to their ages, and they spent time together often, though rarely with such an abundance of alcohol. Evan didn't join them often, using his work as an excuse, but Teyla knew it was because he felt his age and rank intimidated them, and he didn't want to spoil their fun.

But Ronon was barely older than Sparky or Alice, and Teyla well remembered the 'team nights' she would spend with her team, back when Aiden was still their fourth member and Ronon had not yet arrived. The fact that Aiden was both much younger and of much lower rank than John had been of no consequence. Teyla did not see why it had to be here.

That was why she was here tonight. She had insisted that Evan take her to this gathering in order to force him to go himself. And she could tell he was enjoying himself more than he let on, thought he had been splashed by Blair's drink more than once and had taken almost none of the alcohol offered him. He still held himself somewhat apart, but it was an auspicious beginning.

Nonetheless, she was in no way surprised when he calmly but firmly objected to the choice of game. "Sorry, guys," he said, smiling apologetically. "But I'm really not in the mood to share any of my incredibly ancient history with you tonight." Teyla knew very well his refusal had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with the three youngest expedition members in the room, all of whom had histories they couldn't reveal. The last time she had been part of such a game, Cameron Mitchell had been on Atlantis, and had accidentally exposed a truth that would have been better hidden. She knew it was that experience that motivated Evan now.

Cordelia was curled comfortably next to Jonathan, with his arm around her and her head on his shoulder. Alice was sitting with Aiden's head in her lap, and he looked to be half-asleep while she played gently with his hair. Sparky was more reserved, so he and Blair were merely sitting side-by-side. But Sparky had his hand on Blair's leg, and his eyes were soft when he smiled at him.

She herself had insisted on putting her arm around Evan's waist, and holding Evan's right hand in her left one, enjoying how much of it she could touch now that the cast was gone. She knew he would have preferred to show nothing of their closeness, but this was a rare luxury, the lovers on the team being able to express their feelings outside of their own rooms, and she was more than happy to take advantage of it. The open secret of her relationship with him was just as safe with the two teams as theirs were with Teyla.

Only Lindsey and Sunny were by themselves. Sunny was next to Sparky, but Lindsey was a little outside of the impromptu circle that had formed on the floor and bed of Alice's room. He seemed unsure as always, but he had accepted the beer Aiden handed to him--as well as Evan's admonishment to drink no more than one--and was watching and listening avidly to everything that was going on. It seemed to Teyla as if he were trying to understand how to have friends, like a stranger learning a new language where none of the words are ones he recognizes. But whenever Cordelia would smile at him, which was often, he always smiled back.

He had been thriving, since Evan and Sunny had saved his life in the ravine. Evan had told her about the talk he'd had with Lindsey in the infirmary, and how he hoped that Lindsey might finally comprehend that he was accepted and welcome. Perhaps he did. He hadn't been able to continue physical training while his leg was healing, but he had been working for the scientists in the laboratories, and he attended every combat practice even if he could not participate. And he was constantly attentive and observant and studious, as if attempting to absorb everything that had been previously denied him. Now that he had been medically cleared, he had thrown himself back into the combat, flying and tactical exercises with a will. He was becoming a formidable soldier, and Teyla could tell that Evan was proud of him.

Lindsey was still quiet, and preferred often keep to himself, but that seemed to have become his nature and Teyla doubted it would ever be otherwise. The important thing was that Lindsey was making a life for himself, and that he seemed to be happy.

Blair looked momentarily crestfallen at Evan's forbidding the 'I never' game, then rallied with a bright grin. "Okay, okay, okay," he said with the seriousness of the truly inebriated, "'truth or dare'! 'Truth or dare'!"

Teyla had never played the game, but by the name alone she knew it was worse than 'I never' might be. "I do not wish to play that," she said quickly.

"Okay," Blair went on, undaunted, "just dare, then. Okay? Right?" He looked hopefully around the circle.

"Sure." Alice grinned wickedly, immediately glancing at Sparky and Blair. "Sounds like fun."

And as if hers was the only vote that counted, the game suddenly began.

"Okay, we need everyone in a circle," Blair said. He gestured at Lindsey. "New guy, come here. Squeeze in next to Sunny. Yeah. Great." He grinned again, then sat down, bouncing eagerly. "Okay, who's going first?"

"Wait," Evan said, sounding both fond and exasperated, "we need to know the rules."

"It's simple," Aiden spoke up sleepily from the floor. "You dare someone, and they either have to do the dare or take a drink. If they do it, they get to dare the next person."

"Right." Blair nodded quickly. "You go first, Aiden."

Aiden made a face, but pulled himself reluctantly upright. He looked around the circle, then smiled at Teyla in a way she did not like at all. "Teyla, I dare you to drink an entire can of iced tea."

Teyla shot him a look promising swift and dire retribution, but she held out her hand to Jonathan, who obediently tossed her a can of the vile concoction. Tea was not drunk sweetened among the Athosians, and she had never gained a taste for it, especially this cloyingly sweet kind the Americans preferred. She drank quickly, trying to taste as little as possible, then grimaced as she tossed the empty can at Aiden's head.

He ducked, laughing. "Okay, it's Teyla's turn."

Teyla thought about daring Aiden in return, but decided against it, since she was sure he would dare her to drink more tea and she didn't think she could stomach it. "Sparky," she said, smiling. "I wish to hear the national song of your country."

Sparky's eyes became very large. "Bugger that!" He took a long drink of his beer instead, to the loud derision of his friends.

"It's still your turn, Teyla, 'cause Sparky wussed out," Blair said.

Teyla nodded. "Alice," she said, because she was intrigued by the gleam in the woman's eye and knew she would refuse to do nothing, "I would like to see you dance."

"What kind?" Alice responded, and amid much hooted encouragement she ended up dancing to a piece of atrocious music.

When the music finished, Alice sat down again and took a drink. "So," she said, moving her eyes over everyone, "now it's my turn."

"God help us all," Evan murmured.

Alice looked at Evan like she were actually considering daring him to do something, but she grinned and shook her head. Instead she looked at Cordelia, who squeaked and made as if to hide behind Jonathan. "I won't get naked!" she exclaimed, making everyone laugh.

"Too bad," Alice said, but Teyla knew Cordelia had never been Alice's true target. "Lindsey," Alice said, and Teyla watched his eyes widen. Alice grinned. "Kiss Blair."

"Whoa, hey--" Evan said, sitting up and putting out a quelling hand. Teyla put her hand on his leg to stop him. She knew exactly what his concern was, but he, of all people, could not dictate to Lindsey what his choice should be.

"Sure!" Blair agreed with his typical enthusiasm, though he did glance at Sparky. He was smiling but his expression was obviously asking permission.

Sparky looked bemused, but he smiled and gave a tiny tilt of his head, which was evidently all Blair required of the exchange before he was grinning at Lindsey.

Lindsey, who was frozen, face expressionless. "Hey, New guy," Blair said softly, and the friend-name was request and offer both.

"You don't have to do anything you don't want to," Cordelia said quietly.

Lindsey nodded, though he was looking only at Blair. "I know," he said. He smiled, wan and unsure, but unmistakable. "I want to."

Blair all but bounded across the circle and kissed him. Chaste at first, lips to lips only, but Teyla had been kissed often enough by now to recognize when their mouths nudged open and the chaste kiss became something more. Lindsey had his eyes closed, his hands moving from Blair's shoulders to the back of his neck to his hair, as if learning the man by touch.

Next to her, Evan closed his eyes and rubbed one of his temples. Teyla laughed, but pulled him a little more tightly to her in sympathy.

Blair ended the kiss first, gently pushing Lindsey away with a hand on his collarbone. They were both breathing heavily, Blair blinking and Lindsey's eyes bright with delighted wonder.

"So that...that's kissing?" Lindsey asked. He looked startled at the burst of laughter which followed his question, but then grinned in return. "I like this game," he said, and everyone laughed again.

"It's your turn, Lindsey," Alice said. Somewhat breathlessly, Teyla noted.

Lindsey looked uncertain again. "So, I have to tell someone to do something, and they have to drink alcohol if they don't?"

"That's right," Cordelia said, nodding. She gestured at everyone gathered. "You can pick anyone you want."

"Okay," Lindsey said. He looked consideringly at all the faces of his friends, searching them with his eyes. "Sunny," he said at last, and she smiled uncertainly at him.

"Kiss me," he said, grinning. And when the others--his friends--laughed, Lindsey did too.

Epilogue

The music was kind of annoyingly loud, which either meant that John was getting old, or--and more likely--he hadn't had a human body long enough to do significant damage to his eardrums. He figured he'd feel more smug about it if his ears weren't hurting so damn much.

"Here!" Rodney yelled right into the side of his head, which really didn't help, but he also shoved two silicone earplugs into John's hand. John smiled gratefully at him as he rolled the disks into little plugs and jammed them into his ears. He was instantly more comfortable.

Rodney leaned against the control room balcony, looking down at the throng of dancers in the Gate room. He was looking really, really good in a simple green tee-shirt and jeans, even though the tee-shirt had a bright yellow dinosaur with the word, 'staphylococcus' written underneath it.

"You know, this is a perfect example of the importance of precision in your work." He was speaking at a normal level now, but John could hear him pretty well thanks to the earplugs muffling the background noise. Rodney jutted his chin in a quick jerk, apparently indicating the music. "This song is actually about a kid finding out that he was the illegitimate product of an affair. But because the singer mumbles so badly that the only intelligible part of the song is the chorus, everyone assumes it's an anthem to personal survival."

"Your mind is an awe-inspiring repository of truly weird shit, McKay," John said, then grinned at Rodney's mild glare. He was feeling a little loose with the ruus wine he'd drunk, relaxed and content. He put his hands in his pockets and smiled to himself, feeling the warm metal smooth against his fingertips.

He wasn't really interested in dancing tonight, but enjoying watching everyone who was. The crowd below was happily belting out, OH I, OH-OH, I'M STILL ALIVE! with the chorus--which really was the only intelligible part of the song--and John knew that whomever had collected the MP3s for tonight had chosen it on purpose precisely because it had become an anthem to personal survival. Everyone was at the party because they were still there, alive, in the universe. In Pegasus that alone was worth celebrating.

Officially, though, it was actually the party celebrating the successful test run of the finished Gate Bridge, though there was still plenty of tweaking that needed to be done before they would be using it regularly. But the heady certainty of easy and frequent contact with Earth had been an excellent excuse to let off some steam.

"You know," John said pensively a minute later when the singer might have been talking about...a room? Or something? "Nobody cares that they don't know what the song means. They just like dancing to it." He looked sidelong at Rodney. "It doesn't matter if things don't come out exactly the way you intended them to."

Rodney's smirk was a little too knowing. "And just how long did that analogy take you?" he groused, but he was still smiling. That was something, John figured. Something good.

John leaned on the railing like Rodney was, and he let himself slide over until they were pressed together from shoulder to elbow, just drunk enough not to care what anyone thought about it. The unofficial name for these shindigs were PDPs--Plausible Deniability Parties--because there was always enough alcohol to blame for whatever you might do, and everyone would pretend to believe it. Which was why there were so many couples breaking regs on the dance floor and no one was batting an eye.

Rodney was acting jittery tonight. Even standing still like this, his hands were moving constantly. Not shaking; vibrating, like he had to force himself to keep still.

"You okay?" John asked him, and Rodney actually jumped.

"I'm fine!" he blurted. "I'm fine," he managed more calmly, though his eyes were a little wild. "Why do you ask?"

"No reason," John said, rolling his eyes. He gave a mental shrug and turned his attention back to the crowd. It was easy to find Ronon and Teyla: Ronon because of his size and Teyla because of her grace. She danced like she fought, only without the ferocity, and there was a ring of people around her just watching. She was trying to lure Evan in with her, tugging on his arms and ignoring how he tried to squirm away until he finally gave up and went into the center of the circle with her. Some of his team were in the audience and John could hear their catcalls and cheering. Evan was an okay dancer, even though it had to be pretty embarrassing being the center of attention like that. Evan kept glancing towards the Gate like he wanted to make a run for it. John grinned at the idea.

"Oh, hey," Rodney said suddenly, pointing. "Is that Lindsey?"

John pressed himself a little closer as he turned to look, so now his hip was rubbing pleasantly against Rodney's as well. "Yup," he said, nodding. Cordelia and Jonathan were with him, looking a little like high school juniors who had snuck in to a frat party. They were laughing and rebounding off of each other like idiots and tipping their heads back to howl I'm still alive! with every repetition of the song's chorus. Lindsey was hanging back, which wasn't a surprise. But he was still dancing, and he laughed when Cordelia nearly crashed into him and then yanked her into a bear hug. He looked good, like he belonged there. Happy. John watched the three of them for a little while, smiling to himself.

Cordelia was being gleefully affectionate with both men--kissing her boyfriend, hugging her brother--and John wasn't the least bit surprised when Jonathan pulled a tissue from his pocket and handed it to her so she could blot her eyes.

"Someone's happy," Rodney observed dryly. He looked at John with genuine curiosity. "Do you think she gets that from Zelenka? That crying thing? Because that is seriously abnormal."

"I thought she got it from you," John said, then grinned at the horror on Rodney's face. "Don't worry about it," he said. He slapped Rodney's back companionably, then left his hand there because he could tonight.

Gordon Sparks and Blair Kaufman arrived, meandering their way through the crowd. Sparks had a beer in each hand, and Kaufman had two tucked into his sling. They handed the extras out to Jonathan, Cordelia and Lindsey. The five of them stood in a tight little circle now, swaying to the new song and leaning close in together so they could talk above the noise.

"That's weird," John said, because Kaufman had casually slung his arm over Lindsey's shoulders while he was yelling something into Sparks' ear. John nudged Rodney. "Kaufman and Sparks break up or something?"

"Who?" Rodney blinked. He'd been looking at his watch. "Oh! Right. The wonder twins. No, they didn't break up. Why?"

John pointed.

"Oh!" Rodney said again, and then waved a hand dismissively. "No. Blair just gets extremely affectionate when he's drunk. Apparently he's like a big, woozy puppy."

John's eyes bugged a bit. "How the hell do you even know these things?"

Rodney looked at him like it should have been obvious. "Cordelia's brother's on their team."

Which really didn't make anything obvious at all. "And so she told you his friend was a maudlin drunk?"

"Of course," Rodney said loftily, but his smile was shy. "We're...ah, we became pretty close while we were stuck on Earth."

"Ah," John said. He hadn't known that, and if he was being honest he was a little jealous now that he did. But he said, "I'm glad you've got that kind of a relationship," because he really was, even if part of him wanted to keep Rodney all to himself.

Rodney smiled delightedly at him, and John decided right then that yeah, what the hell, there probably wouldn't be a better time than right now, right here on the balcony next to Elizabeth's office, slightly buzzed and with silicone in their ears.

"Here," John said, and he pulled the ring out of his pocket and folded Rodney's fingers around it.

"What?" Rodney opened his hand carefully, peering at the small, copper-colored metal ring in his hand. He looked up at John. "Is this--did you just give me a ring?"

John shrugged, though his heart was suddenly pounding. "It's from one of the pieces that had to be replaced on the jumper we used to take the city back from the replicators. I asked Zelenka to make it."

"Right," Rodney said, so faintly John could barely hear him. He picked the ring up gently, examining it in the light. It was a simple design--a wide, flattened circle with the unique texture of the puddle jumper's hull. John had thought it looked pretty cool, but he couldn't tell what Rodney was thinking. Rodney lifted it closer to his eyes, then looked at John. "It's engraved?"

John nodded. "Yeah," he said, then had to clear his throat. "Yeah. Read it," he added, because Rodney was just looking at him with big, big eyes.

Rodney wordlessly turned the ring in his fingers until he could see the whole string of letters and numbers. John had been very careful about the hexadecimal code.

John didn't have to see it to know what he was reading:

6D79203100


"'My 1'," Rodney read. He looked at John wonderingly. "Did Jonathan talk to you?"

"About what?" John asked him, confused. The last time he'd really spoken to O'Neill was in the jumper bay, before the rescue mission to get Evan and his team.

Rodney blinked, then shook his head quickly. "Nothing," he said. "Never mind." He read the engraving again, smiling softly. "My 1."

"Because of what we talked about," John said. "How you're the only one I...well, you know." He nodded towards the ring. "So, that's you." He rubbed his mouth. "You can put it on. If you want to, I mean."

Rodney seemed surprised that he was meant to do that. He hesitated, looking at it. Then he slid it onto the ring finger of his left hand. It fit perfectly. He made a fist, looking at the burnished copper in the light from Elizabeth's office. Then he looked at John and smiled again, and John couldn't remember the last time he'd seen him so happy.

"It's wonderful. Thank you," Rodney said seriously. And John knew he was thanking him for much more than just the ring.

John shrugged again like it was no big deal, though he was sure Rodney knew exactly how big a deal it was. "So...." He smiled slyly, edged a little closer. "What say we blow this lame party and go back to your place?"

Rodney looked completely on board with that, but then his eyes suddenly widened and he started snapping his fingers. "No! No, no, no, no," he said in a rush. "Not yet. There's, uh...." He patted John's chest, already stalking towards the consoles of the Control Room. "Hold that thought."

John started after him, only to run into Evan and Elizabeth as they climbed the stairs. They both looked sweaty and a little wilted from the crush of people. Elizabeth smiled warmly at him; Evan was grinning from ear to ear.

"I gather it's time?" Elizabeth said, looking at Rodney.

"Oh, yeah," Rodney said, pressing keys.

"Time for what?" John asked. He looked around, but everything seemed normal. "What's going on?"

Elizabeth just smiled some more and keyed the comm system. The music immediately shut off. "Attention everyone," she said. "The party's not over," she went on quickly before the first protests could get louder. "But we are expecting a transmission from Midway shortly. The Gate shield will be up, but to be safe, everyone should clear the area in front of the event horizon, please."

John looked at her with his eyes narrowed, yanking the plugs out of his ears. "What transmission? Is someone coming? Why wasn't I told about this?"

"Incoming wormhole," Rodney said, ignoring him, and below them the Gate burst into life.

Almost instantly, their received voice transmission. "How you doing, Atlantis? This is Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell, requesting permission to come on in. I hear that I'm missing a party." John could hear the grin in his voice, even across a distance of lightyears.

Somewhere in the crowd, Jennifer whooped.

Elizabeth leaned closer to the microphone on Rodney's console. "Permission granted, Colonel. The shield is lowering now. We'll save you some cake."

"Cool," Cameron said. "Looking forward to checking out the new place. See you in fifteen. Mitchell out."

The transmission ended and Elizabeth said something to the crowd in the Gate Room and then the music came back on, but John wasn't listening. He looked between Rodney and Evan, both grinning and looking pleased with themselves. "How'd you do that?" he asked them, elated but still puzzled. "I thought his leave wasn't for another two months."

"It's not," Evan said. "It's a transfer."

John gaped. "What?" He looked at Elizabeth, concern worming its way into his happiness. "What's his assignment?"

"Your position's safe, don't worry," Evan said. "Officially, he'll be the military liaison to the SGC and the IOA. Unofficially, he really wants to be on a team."

"And Lieutenant Colonel Lorne will still be your second in command," Elizabeth added, smiling at Evan before looking back at John. "The promotion's not official yet, but it will be within the month."

"Wow," John said. He ran his fingers through his hair. He couldn't stop grinning. "Wow. That's just...." He turned to Evan. "Congratulations, buddy."

Evan smiled and gave a modest nod. "Thank you, sir,"

John looked at all of them. "Thank you," he said, awed. "I mean, this is...." He laughed. There were no words for how he was feeling. "Thank you."

"You're very welcome, John," Elizabeth said warmly. She squeezed his arm, then trotted down the stairs back to the party.

John was left standing with Evan and Rodney. "Thank you," he said again, heartfelt.

"Happy birthday," Rodney said.

John's eyebrows knitted in puzzlement. "It's not my birthday."

"Not your official one," Evan said quietly.

John blinked, and then suddenly he got it. It was today. Today, and he hadn't even realized it. He'd been given this human body, but he'd been born on a morning seven years ago, when Dr. William Lee had put a little, blue-domed robot down on the floor and turned it on.

"Today was the first day of your life, John," Rodney said. "So, happy birthday."

"Thank you," John said to him. He let himself touch him, skimming his fingertips along Rodney's cheek, across his jaw before dropping his hand to his side. "Thank you, for everything."

Rodney glanced down at the ring on his hand, the looked back at John. He was smiling. "It was my pleasure."

"He'll be here in twelve minutes," Evan said, and he was grinning too.

"This is so cool," John said. And he moved to stand between Rodney and Evan at the railing, to wait for his brother to come home.

END



Story Links:

Teddy Ruxpin
Departures at McCarran International Airport in Nevada.
Shevi is Hebrew, and means 'Return'.
Ativan
The Blair Witch Project
Haldol (Known among Ontario Paramedics as 'Vitamin H'.)
Froot Loops
21 Jump Street Johnny Depp
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Johnny Depp
Hematite is smelted to make iron.
HeaterMeals (Convenient and strangely hilarious. And otherwise known as self-heating MREs.)
There are five original verses to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
Cordelia's ring
I originally found Rodney's tee on this site. But it's not there anymore. :(
Alive by Pearl Jam, and the lyrics
Hexadecimal code