Todd and Helia were about to probe him using cherry Popsicles, only this time Angelina Jolie was there, too, wearing a nun's habit and twisting his ear.
John woke and slapped at the pinch against his ear, swearing he wouldn't let himself fall asleep with the radio headset on again. Though he felt grateful it had interrupted before that particular dream went any further. Things always got weird beyond that point. Jell-O wrestling was one thing, but the thing with the grits? That took disturbing to a whole new level.
The whisper of a panicked voice in his ear stopped his taking the headset off.
"Sheppard. Sheppard, are you there?"
John contemplated ignoring it. This was supposed to be one of those mandated days off. Woolsey had decided that forcing the entire city to shut down on a single day didn't work, and now there were rotations and schedules, which Lorne kept track of for him. The team had two days off according to the schedule, in the absence of a crisis.
John gave it six hours max.
Six hours in which he could sleep in if, one, he didn't have the probing dream again (and frankly the Popsicle probes didn't scare him half as bad as the idea of Angelina Jolie as a nun), and two, he didn't answer Rodney's radio call.
He weighed it again in his head: probe dream or Rodney?
Rodney won by a narrow margin.
A whisper again and that just wasn't like Rodney.
"Sheppard here, over," he replied.
"Oh, thank God. You've got to save me."
Was that an alarm sounding in the background?
John sat up with a jolt, going from drowsy to adrenaline-fueled in one breath. "Sitrep?" he demanded as he found pants and pulled them on over the boxers he wore with a t-shirt to sleep in.
"Just get over to my quarters right now."
He had his pants on and had moved to retrieving his boots when it occurred to him there hadn't been any alarms or citywide announcements. "What's going on, Rodney?" he asked. Boot number one wouldn't take his foot until he fished a balled up sock out of it.
"Colonel, I'm begging you. This is an emergency."
"Are we being invaded?"
Boot number two did not have a sock in it, which made him wonder where it had gone. The possibility it had disappeared into the alternate sock dimension without recourse to washing machine or dryer threatened his world view. John shook it off. A teammate was in trouble, and he never left a man behind (a few women, of course, what with having to come back to Atlantis after various mission-related hook-ups, and there was always his ex-wife, but that was why he always bought the extra large box of condoms).
He laced up boot number two during Rodney's telling hesitation.
"Is the city about to explode?"
"Are you dying?"
"I'm begging, Sheppard."
Someone screeched in the background, galvanizing John. He caught up his thigh holster and sidearm and headed for the door.
"I'm on my way."
He buckled the holster on in the transporter and registered the gray dim of pre-dawn through a window along the end of the corridor that took him to Rodney's quarters. (Why, again, had they started letting people pick where they wanted to live? Back in the day, the expedition had huddled on one floor of the control tower, and he'd have already been breaking Rodney's door down and never mind he'd moved four times since himself.)
Beretta in hand, he stealthily approached Rodney's door. No screams, screeches or appeals for mercy echoed through it. Still. Something had been in there with Rodney.
Barely audible, Rodney murmured, "Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhhh. No talking."
Well, that did it. Someone was in there, probably holding Rodney hostage to build a bomb or a time machine or a really good espresso maker. He'd worry about how security had been compromised – and chewing out Lorne and the Marines over that—later. Now he had to rescue Rodney.
John waved his hand over the door release sensor (biometric sensors that recognized command overrides without boring and time-consuming codes would never stop being cool) and went in fast and low, sweeping the room for threats.
Rodney squawked and flailed from the middle of the room, the white swaddled bundle of baby in his arms nearly hitting the floor before he recovered enough to catch it.
"Oh, my God, don't shoot!" Rodney yelled, and then either an air raid siren went off or Torren John woke up.
John nearly brained himself with his own pistol trying to slap his hands over his ears.
"Thanks a lot, Colonel. I'd finally got him to quit crying and go back to sleep two minutes ago," Rodney snarled at him. "Did you not hear me shhhhshing you!?"
He stalked over to John and plucked the Beretta from John's limp fingers while holding onto Torren with one arm. "You won't be needing this," Rodney declared. In some feat of legerdemain John had only seen from Teyla before, Rodney transferred Torren into John's arms before he had a chance to withdraw in an orderly fashion.
Torren shrieked louder, and John winced along with Rodney.
"Though you may find yourself wishing you could use it on yourself after a few more hours of that," Rodney added.
At least, John thought that's what he said. Torren was screaming with red-faced, spitty-lipped fury (he looked a lot like John's first commanding officer) that pretty much drowned out anything but yelling.
Looking around Rodney's room, John finally noticed the diaper bag, the baby sling, and the various other paraphernalia Kanaan usually had with him. Teyla never seemed to need any of it, leading John to the conclusion that she practiced the dark arts to make sure someone else always had to change her son. Rodney's hair stuck up in more directions than John's did, he had a suspicious stain on his t-shirt, a suspicious tremor in his fingers (John really wished he'd put down the Beretta) and a wild look in his bloodshot eyes.
"Rodney," he asked cautiously because on closer inspection, Rodney looked as ready to snap as a rabid crocodile with a bad case of PMS, "why do you have Teyla's baby?"
Rodney threw up his hands (and nearly shot the ceiling). After giving the Beretta a confused look, and then stuffing it in a drawer, he answered, "Because she and Kanaan showed up at my door four hours ago. They're off to New Athos for a," air quotes added, "Traditional Couples Bonding Ceremony."
"At two o'clock in the morning?" John asked, aghast. He'd known Teyla was an early riser, but that was just sick. Torren scowled and screamed, possibly reading John's mind and not liking it. John gave him a tentative bounce, hoping to distract Torren from his current, sure to be successful effort at deafening him. It didn't seem to help.
Rodney gave him a dark look. "I know." He shook himself. "But New Athos is five hours ahead of New Lantea. Not that I buy that ceremony crap. I saw Kanaan's expression. They're going to be going at it like weasels with Viagra—"
"TMI," John interrupted desperately. He didn't need mind pictures of Teyla and Kanaan doing the nasty joining the already bizarre things in his unconscious. They might show up in the probe dream. With the grits. He shuddered.
His ears were starting to ring. "Is he sick?" he asked Rodney.
Rodney cupped a hand to his ear. "What?"
"Is he sick?"
"No, he was fine until Teyla and Kanaan went through the stargate. I mean escaped." Rodney inflected the last word with a vindictive hiss that promised he would be inflicting vengeance someday.
"I checked for that."
John looked at him with admiration. "Should we take him to the infirmary?"
"Teyla left him with you," John pointed out sweetly.
"Well, she named him after you!"
"And her father!"
"Well, I don't see him here!"
Torren screeched so high John thought his ears would bleed. "Bottle?" he asked desperately.
"Well, it didn't work for me," Rodney said, but he went to his desk where the normal three laptops and various Ancient artifacts had been pushed aside to share with Torren's bottles and other stuff. John didn't know why there was a welding mask and a condom balloon there, too, and didn't want to.
John went on bouncing Torren and began telling him about Doug Flutie and football because he knew Rodney was already trying to brainwash him into preferring curling, which was a sick Canadian joke, not a sport, even if it was in the Winter Olympics, and if he didn't do his duty, Torren's first word might be bonspiel. The latest rule on pass interference, though, didn't seem to calm Torren down in the least.
Rodney busied himself heating the formula. He used his coffee maker. Since Rodney's coffee maker had been customized and was smarter than many politicians, John wasn't surprised to see it could warm milk.
"Can't you do that faster?" John asked desperately.
"Why don't you hang over my shoulder and count off the seconds," Rodney replied. "Oh, wait, how would that be any different than any other crisis?"
Of course, the formula was too hot. Rodney danced around the bed, clutching his wrist, and nearly falling over when the pile of dirty laundry proved to be hiding his boots and the PSP that had gone missing from the rec room two weeks back. As a hiding place, it worked very well since no one without a Hazmat suit would have voluntarily stirred up that mound of clothes. Xenobiology needed to be notified to come in and study the emerging ecosystem, though.
"Did you try to feed him boiling formula before?" John demanded. "No wonder he's screaming."
"He wasn't screaming until you woke him up," Rodney replied.
He wasn't actually screaming anymore, John realized. He looked down, and Torren blinked back at him, hiccuping and squirming until John unwrapped him enough, Torren could wave his arms around and incidentally latch onto John's nose. "I neeb dat do breed," John told him.
"You're doing it wrong," Rodney said with a smug smirk before handing over the bottle. "Cool enough now."
"Okay, let's see if this is what he wanted."
Torren latched onto the bottle and sucked down half of it.
"See?" John told Rodney. "You just have to know what you're doing." He hefted Torren higher and mimicked the back patting thing he'd seen Teyla do.
Torren hiccuped again, and John tensed, bracing for the air raid siren to start up again next to his ear.
Torren hiccuped again and then spit up more of his formula down the collar of John's t-shirt.
Torren quieted down after taking the second half of the bottle, and John handed him over long enough to head back to his quarters, shower, shave and get into uniform, before returning to entertain the kid with more talk of football while Rodney did his thing. The coffeemaker was put back to coffee-making use, and they both considered themselves triumphant over the forces of darkness (cough), that was, infancy. John congratulated himself again on not having kids with Nancy, during the entire time (what was it, five minutes?) they'd been married? The Beretta Rodney had confiscated went back into its thigh holster, and he felt ready to face the world and even a day of babysitting.
Taking Torren to breakfast in the mess hall resembled gearing up for a mission. There was the baby sling, the diaper bag, the bottle bag, his favorite blanket, his second favorite blanket, the dirty diaper bag (Athosians did not use disposable diapers, and John pitied whoever had laundry duty), his toys, his high chair, and other stuff John didn't even recognize. He thought maybe one was a portable playpen. By the time they were loaded and headed for the door to Rodney's quarters each of them had their arms full, and that didn't even include Rodney's bottle of imported maple syrup, which he never shared with anyone, but kept locked up between pancake mornings.
They were all the way to the transporter when Rodney's eyes widened, and he headed back.
"What?" John asked. "What did you forget this time?"
Rodney gave him a hunted look. "Torren."
John stopped in his tracks and cringed.
Rodney unlocked his quarters and came back balancing Torren in one arm and festooned with bags. He met John's gaze. "We will never speak of this."
Both of Ronon's eyebrows climbed into his dreadlocks and nested there when he spotted the two of them with Torren from the mess hall chow line. John nodded at him, since his hands were full of baby gear.
Torren had been around long enough that the first wave of ooohing and cooing over him had eased off, and they'd snagged the team's regular table without having to run a gantlet of hormone addled expedition members (and really the Marines were worse than the scientists). John and Rodney began immediately debating which one would hold Torren and which one would go and get their trays. Rodney didn't trust John to guard his maple syrup with sufficient diligence.
"McKay, I guard your life every day."
"This is 100% Canadian Dark Amber maple syrup, Colonel. I hardly trust you to be at the same table with it," Rodney replied.
"You think I'd steal your syrup?"
"I hardly think you're above it."
"You're the muffin thief at this table, McKay."
Ronon sat down his own tray, which was piled with pancakes surrounded by a moat of syrup and not-butter, sausage links, and fortifications of bacon strips. "Muffin thief," he said. "That what it sounds like?"
They both looked at him.
"You've been hanging out with the Marines too much," John and Rodney told him in chorus.
"Thistlethwaite calls his cock a coneycatcher," Ronon said while laying siege to his meal. The bacon line was breached and consumed with admirable success. The syrup moat had been absorbed by the porous foundations of the pancake edifice. Only the sausage line stood between the pancakes and utter destruction. They were doomed. "Hey, is that maple syrup?"
Rodney snatched the bottle close to his chest. "You can't have it."
Ronon shrugged and attacked the sausages. John imagined thin shrieks of sausage-link despair arising from the tray. He needed to get more sleep.
"I'll go get the food," he declared. He pointed to Ronon's devastated tray. "You want that?"
"Plus some of the yummy melons from Wexis if we've still got them, and some toast—white not whole wheat—
and eggs. The eggs are still fresh, right?"
John mimed writing up a ticket. "You want those scrambled or fried?"
Rodney looked hopeful. "You don't think you could get them poached, do you? Jennifer is as bad as Carson about my cholesterol."
Right, and having his eggs poached would completely negate the effects of the rest of Rodney's breakfast.
"No," John said. "The kitchen's run by Marines, remember?"
"Oh. Well. Scrambled then, but no powdered!"
John shared an amused look with Ronon, and then headed for the chow line. Ronon joined him for seconds.
"You know you have a towel on your shoulder?" Ronon asked.
John glanced at his shoulder, and sure enough, he still had the sploot towel draped over it. No wonder Rodney had eyed him and then snickered on the way out of the transporter.
"I'm a hoopy frood," he told Ronon as cover.
Ronon gave him the Pegasus-patented Earthlings Are Strange look.
He began loading up two trays, adding an extra gredel berry muffin to his, knowing Rodney would snatch it some time during their meal. He added a bowl of Wexis melons to his tray, too, and hoped the delegation scheduled to come to Atlantis today would result in the Wex changing their minds about discontinuing trade. Corrigan hadn't sounded too hopeful during the last briefing.
The Wex were a theocracy and not enamored of high technology. Plus there was the Genii propaganda still wafting about the galaxy that made Atlantis sound like a bunch of power-mad, military and scientific looters bent on stirring up trouble, stealing anything valuable left by the Ancients, and telling perfectly capable people their societies were all wrong, when they didn't actively wreck them.
Really they only did that every other week. The rest of the time they were too busy trying not blow themselves up.
Back to their table, and Torren had woken up and begun babbling. It sounded a lot like Zelenka when he got together with some truly fine Ancient tech that Rodney hadn't bogarted yet.
John set down the trays, and Rodney handed him Torren, which made him happy he'd picked out only things he could eat one-handed.
Rodney had just poured a precisely measured quantity of maple syrup on his pancakes when their radios both chirped.
"What is it this time?" Rodney demanded. "Oh, for—Fine, I'll be right up there."
With a look of grief and regret, Rodney pushed his perfectly prepared pancakes toward Ronon, who tucked into his third breakfast enthusiastically enough to remind John he never wanted to be marooned somewhere with him and no supplies. Ronon would go Donner Party on his ass within a day.
Rodney gestured to Torren's gear. "Colonel?"
John sighed. So much for his rest day. Of course, so much for Rodney's, too. A glance at his watch proved he'd have lost his six hour bet.
"Yeah, yeah. What's up?"
"The dialing mechanism is down," Rodney answered. "Again. The Wex delegation is in the control room, getting a tour—"
"Already noon on Wexis," Ronon said around a mouthful of pancake. John winced. He didn't need to know that much about the interior of Ronon's mouth. Ronon added, "Wha—it's good."
Rodney was rooting through the piles of Torren's gear and looking more and more horrified.
He looked up, and again, John was seeing more than he wanted to of the inside of Rodney's mouth, too.
"I forgot my laptop."
John shuddered. Rodney without a laptop was scarier than Rodney without coffee. "Where is it?"
"In my quarters—I need my toolkit, too."
"I'll go get it," John said. He was on his feet before he remembered Torren.
Rodney was finger-snapping and already heading for the door. "I'll get my laptop. You'd just get the wrong one. You go get my toolkit, Radek knows which one, and meet me in the control room. Five to one Chuck was eating crackers again. I swear if I find crumbs, I'm going to hang him by his heels from the nearest balcony and shake him until his fillings fall out..."
John looked helplessly at Torren, who yawned, finishing the trifecta of oral TMI.
Ronon shoveled in another mouthful of pancakes, snagged Rodney's maple syrup, and poured it on. "I've got him," he said.
"Thanks, buddy." John said, "Bring him up to the control later when Rodney's finished," and trotted out after Rodney, who was still talking, oblivious to having lost his audience.
Thank God for transporters. John took a quick trip down to the labs and met Zelenka, who shoved Rodney's toolkit into his hands while muttering obscenities into his radio, interspersed with, "Yes, Rodney. Yes, Rodney. No, Rodney, of course not, Rodney—"
"Three bags full, sir," John said under his breath as he went on his way.
Zelenka flipped him off, yelling after, "You have towel on your shoulder, Colonel!"
Zippedy-zap and he was back all the way across the city, and Rodney was saying, "It's about time."
John looked around, smiled and nodded to the contingent of Wex, Woolsey, Corrigan, and Lorne, and handed Rodney his toolkit. He didn't see Chuck.
"Did you dump Campbell off a balcony?" he asked, leaning over the top of the dialing console as Rodney dropped to his knees, then wiggled beneath it.
Rodney's voice echoed a little.
"And that is our Chief Military Officer," Woolsey said.
One of the Wex, probably the high priestess given the height of her pointy headdress, which looked a little like a pointy Pope hat and a lot like a Vegas showgirl's with the starched wings and the bright red feathers, gave John a sour look. He smiled back at her sunnily. Sure, Wexis had those cocoa bean substitutes, plus the melons, and he wanted cake as much as the next man, but if the trade deal fell through, they'd keep buying them at one of the galactic market worlds, and no one would get shot. John liked it when no one got shot or even shot at; he thought they should look into more missions like that.
"Heya," he said.
Well behind the Wex and Woolsey, Lorne pursed his lips.
"Colonel," Rodney demanded, even snapping his fingers as punctuation. "Toolkit. Quit ogling the alien priestess."
"I wasn't ogling," John protested.
He came around the console, opened the kit, and added, "Which tool?"
"Well, if you weren't, she was," Rodney replied. "Needle nose pliers. Three PhDs, two Masters, and I'm playing intergalactic repairman. This wouldn't happen if the SGC would just send us a few dustbusters."
"I think they think they're some kind of weapon and want to keep them all for themselves," John said. He found the pliers and handed them to Rodney.
He heard one of the Wex ask, "Your military commander helps repair things?"
Rodney cursed and tossed the pliers back out, nearly stabbing John in the thigh with them. "Colonel, make yourself useful. Get in here and hold this for me."
John gave the space a dubious look. "I've told you before, I like you, Rodney, but not in that way," he teased.
"Do you ever again want to use the stargate or a toilet without receiving an electrical shock?"
John got down on his knees, then onto his back and wiggled in beside Rodney. There really wasn't enough room, and he ended up on his side so Rodney could move. He obediently reached up and held a hinged access panel out of the way.
"He certainly appears flexible."
He hoped no one was taking pictures.
Rodney shoved a sharp elbow into his nose and crowed in triumph. "Got you!"
"Yeah, you sure did," John said when the pain eased enough, he could blink and speak through it. A wet trickle onto his upper lip made him curse.
"What? Never mind. Could you get out so I can move?"
Woolsey was singing the praises of stained glass and Ancient architecture, directing the delegation out onto the balcony to admire Atlantis. No one could see them.
John let the panel fall on Rodney's fingers. "Oh, sorry, did that hurt?" he asked as Rodney howled.
Rodney kicked him in the shin.
John kicked back.
Rodney reached for John's head.
"Touch the hair and die," John told him.
John squeezed himself out and got to his feet, ostentatiously ignoring Rodney as he made it out, too, while wiping at the blood from his nose.
"How'd you do that?" Rodney wondered.
"You did that!"
"I did not!"
"You did, too!"
"Gentlemen!" Woolsey roared.
They turned and faced him, and the Wex, and the rest of the control staff, and Marine security contingent. Even the potted plants in the corners looked disapproving. Oops.
"Is the dialing console working again?" Woolsey asked, obviously gritting his teeth.
Rodney straightened up and looked haughty. "Of course it is. Apparently Chuck is doing his nails at his station now, which is something else I never wanted to know about a fellow Canadian—"
"Oh, that would have been me, sir," Amelia, the other gate tech, said.
Apparently Rodney hadn't tipped Chuck over a balcony after all. That was good. The paperwork would have been a bitch.
Rodney gave her a scathing glance. "Normally, I would yell at you, but I'm just so relieved Chuck isn't wearing Fuchsia Fandango, I'm going to let it go this once."
John grabbed the sploot towel off his shoulder and dabbed at his nose. The blood wasn't too bad and seemed to be stopping. He ran a finger down his nose. It didn't feel broken.
Woolsey clapped his hands together and offered everyone a strained smile. "Excellent. Let's continue the tour, shall we?"
The delegation turned and followed him toward the transporters. Woolsey was saying, "We'll have to split up. There isn't room for all of us in a transporter at once, but it's quite fast, and Major Lorne will stay with the other group and follow. I assure you there is nothing to be afraid of. Why, we use this technology every day..."
The transporter door opened in front of them all, and Ronon, clutching Torren to his chest, stepped out.
A soft pattering sound, as of liquid dripping to the floor, accompanied him.
Rodney went stiff, sniffing at the air, and then glared at Ronon.
"My maple syrup?" he demanded.
With a long-suffering sigh, Ronon handed Torren to John, who took him automatically, settling him against his shoulder and watching wide-eyed as Ronon reached up and began ringing out his dreadlocks on the control room floor, splitter splat pat pat pat.
"Your maple syrup," Ronon replied.
John stared to ask, "How—"
Ronon gave him the Shut-Up-Right-Now-Rodney look that Teyla had perfected. John didn't get it often.
He shut up.
"I don't want to talk about it," Ronon said.
He walked away with all the dignity of a man with a head full of imported, 100% Dark Amber Canadian maple syrup could. The bits of pancake sticking to his dreadlocks here and there didn't help.
The Wex delegation parted silently for him.
"Perhaps we should wait until lunch shift to tour the mess hall," Woolsey suggested delicately.
"Botany?" Corrigan suggested.
"Very good," Woolsey said. "Greenhouses and flowers. Surely nothing can go amiss there."
"I don't know what you did, buddy," John told Torren, "but that is one unhappy Satedan."
Torren burped in agreement, sending a stream of something warm and vile down John's back.
Laptop in one hand, toolkit in the other, and John trailing behind with Torren, Rodney made a stab at getting something to eat for the second time. They stopped into John's quarters where he changed shirts and picked up another towel, one not spotted with blood and baby bile. They also took an extra ten minutes while John fixed his hair, just so, but Rodney bit back any comments since John's nose was still looking a little red from his elbow.
The mess hall had mostly emptied out and all of Torren's gear remained at the table they'd abandoned, along with a suspicious smear or two and an achingly empty syrup bottle.
Between breakfast and lunch, the kitchen kept a selection of preprepared food, sandwiches, muffins, and fruit out for whoever came in. Rodney was debating over the chicken salad sandwich, the tuna salad sandwich, or the egg salad sandwich—or as he called it, Free Food Poisoning for All—about the time Torren started fussing.
He already recognized the signs. This was Torren who wanted milk and mama and was fully prepared and capable of letting loose with a series of screams that could have been used to repel the Wraith.
John was doing the bouncy thing and looking panicky. "What we do?"
"Feed him," Rodney said.
"What do you mean what?"
"I mean, where's the formula and bottles? Did we leave them in your quarters?" John demanded.
Rodney abandoned any hope of eating and salmonella and rushed to the Everest-sized pile of baby gear, searching for the mini-cooler full of bottles Teyla had left for him. "Where is it, where is it, where is it?"
"Hurry it up, Rodney," John urged him.
Torren had begun snuffling, which meant they were on a sixty-second countdown.
"We're running out of time."
No cooler. Where was the cooler?
Torren pulled in a deep breath.
Rodney turned around in a circle, searching the mess hall. He knew they'd brought it with them. They'd brought everything but the kitchen sink... The Kitchen!
He ran for the kitchen.
"Rodney," John called out, desperation in his choked voice, "don't you leave me here. I'd never leave you behind."
"Yes, yes, I know," Rodney called, and he pushed into the kitchen, shoulder-blocked one of the Marine cooks out of the way, and made it to the refrigerators.
"What are you doing?" the cook demanded.
Rodney wrenched the refrigeration unit open and spotted the cooler. He latched onto it and realized in horror that all the formula was cold.
"Microwave, microwave, where's the micro—"
Torren's wail of hunger echoed into the kitchen.
"Sounds like somebody's a little hungry," the cook said, removing the bottle from Rodney's hands and setting to warming it. "Left it a little late, did you?"
The screeching grew louder, unaccountably reminding Rodney of a million horror movies, and John appeared in the doorway with Torren.
"McKay," he said.
"I—" Rodney waved his hand at the cook, the cooler, the bottle, and the refrigerator. "Bottle."
The cook expertly tested the formula against his wrist and handed it over. "Here you go, Colonel."
John offered Torren the nipple, and between one breath and the next, blessed silence arrived, interrupted only by the sounds of suction.
"Now get out of my kitchen," the cook ordered. "Ah. Sirs."
Rodney followed John back out to their table, pausing only to snag a tray, a muffin, a Jell-O, a pudding, two sandwiches, oh, chips, an apple, three bomwats (by the time you peeled off the furry skins and cut out the poisonous core there wasn't much to them, but they tasted like peach liquor and mint), a brown-spotted banana from the last Daedalus run, and a package of cookies.
"Fattening up for the winter?" John asked.
"Hypoglycemia is not a joke."
They sat, and Rodney reached for his first sandwich, peeling off the cellophane wrapper as Woolsey, Lorne, and Corrigan led the Wex delegation into the mess hall. "Joy, look who's here."
John cocked an eyebrow.
"Ah, Doctor. Colonel," Woolsey said.
"Heya," John replied. He sniffed.
Rodney shoved his sandwich in his mouth and waved his hand while chewing.
The Wex priestess nodded to the both. Her outfit had big sleeves, and she kept her arms folded, and her hands hidden inside. Rodney thought she might have fitted a small monkey and a belt sander in there, too. No doubt she wasn't allergic, but she certainly looked like she'd swallowed a lemon recently.
John cocked his head, and Rodney heard over his own radio:
"Colonel Sheppard to Level Eight. Colonel Sheppard to Level Eight, Grid Fourteen, Corridor M-8, please. Reported loose animal of unknown origin."
"Gotta go," John said.
"Good luck playing dog catcher," Rodney called after him.
He saw John start to flip him off, then fake a wave after catching Woolsey's gimlet gaze.
Rodney pushed the second half of his sandwich into his mouth hurriedly as John handed Torren and the bottle over before disappearing out the door.
"So, Teyla left you both babysitting?" Woolsey asked.
"And went off with Kanaan," Rodney confirmed. "Right now, she's likely frolicking with him or off at some retro-rural mud festival or whatever the other Athosians do when they pawn their babies off on the unsuspecting at Oh-Dark-Hundred in the morning."
"Teyla is the child's mother?" the Wex priestess inquired.
The priestess considered Rodney and Torren. "And these men?"
"Ah," Woolsey said, "they're—"
"McKay, get down here," Sheppard said on the radio. "We're going to have to track this thing with a lifesign detector."
"But, but, I've got Torren—"
"I don't think Teyla would want some alien animal flitting through Atlantis and maybe attacking him. Or, you know, shedding all over him."
"Way to make me feel secure, Colonel," Rodney told him. He hefted Torren higher and executed the Teyla-maneuver, depositing him in Woolsey's startled arms before any objections could be marshaled.
"Emergency," Rodney said. "He's just finishing the bottle, and he'll probably need to be changed. The diaper bag is right here. Got to go."
He sprinted for the doors before Woolsey could pull himself together, just catching the end of the Wex priestess's disapproving, "You, too?"
No idea what she meant by that and no time to worry, Rodney decided, detouring to his quarters to get a lifesign detector. Woolsey would have to deal with her and Torren.
The game was afoot, and a-hunting he would go.
Ronon, dreads dripping wet this time, nearly ran down Rodney as he stepped out of the transporter. Rodney hurried after him and joined the huddle of scientists and Marines in the corridor.
John was listening as three scientists (well, if you included biology, botany, and anthropology as science, which Rodney would argue were so not genuine science), Hobart, Curtis, and Inskip, nattered on about some animal attacking them. He didn't know the Marines. Since discovering they were rotated back to Earth every twelve months (if they even lasted that long without touching the wrong thing or suffering a nervous breakdown, he could hardly be bothered to remember who they were).
The Marines were looking up and down the corridor, clutching their P90s before them like pacifiers, watching for the animal. They looked a little white around the eyes to Rodney.
"Are you sure it's an animal?" John was asking, and he looked a little wild-eyed himself. "Didn't Curtis say...bug?"
"Not a bug, Colonel," Inskip, the anthropologist, (or was she the biologist? Rodney only felt sure she wasn't the botanist) said.
"It could be a bug," Curtis muttered. "It's alien."
"Bugs are always bad. Very, very bad."
"We all know about your phobia, Sheppard," Rodney said, making John jump in surprise. He ignored the dirty look he received.
"Anyone know what it is or how it got here?" John asked.
Both Marines and scientists shook their heads.
"Inskip saw it in the corridor," Hobart said.
"She screamed," added Curtis.
"So did you," she snapped back.
"It ran between my legs!"
"Well, it didn't attack you."
"It might have!"
"Well, that's why I screamed," Inskip declared, crossing her arms over her chest. Every man drew in a breath. Inskip had rather impressive cleavage, even in a high-necked, tight science department uniform shirt.
John sighed. Rodney heard it. It was his exasperated with scientists sigh.
"What does it look like?" John asked.
"Furry," Hobart said.
"Long," added Curtis.
"Low," Inskip contributed.
"Fast," they all agreed.
Rodney bent over the lifesign detector and grumbled. "Could any of you be a little more helpful and give me a weight estimate so I can recalibrate this thing to register it?"
"It had teeth," Hobart said.
"I'll just program the LSD to scan for teeth, shall I?"
The three scientists looked abashed.
"Just let me go after it," Ronon demanded. The Marines were all looking askance at his dripping-wet head. "We're wasting time."
Rodney looked up long enough to sneer. "Look, Samson Bumpo, you may have learned tracking when you were knee high to a grasshopper—"
"Who?" Ronon asked.
John made one of his goofy faces, sucking his lips in and blinking a lot. Rodney pointed at him. "What? What is that? You're trying not to laugh, aren't you?"
"You are! You just don't want Ronon to break anything the next time you spar. Coward!"
Rodney waved a hand in impatience. "Never mind. My point is that this is Atlantis, not another Planet of the Trees. In case you missed it, we have floors instead of dirt. There's no way for Ronon to track it."
A crash sounded from the nearest storage room; glass and metal hitting, it sounded like.
Ronon gave Rodney an amused look and loped toward the sound of chaos. Rodney rolled his eyes and fell in behind John, who followed with their two Marines in tow.
Rodney's sudden stop, accompanied by a sotto voce, "Oh crap," brought John to a halt.
"What is it?"
Rodney's eyes were wide and alarmed, and when they slid toward the Marines, shifty. He slithered between the men to John's side and leaned in close, cupping his hand between his mouth and John's ear. Rodney's hot, wet, coffee-smelling breath hit John's ear canal and made him shudder in disgust.
"That's where Zelenka keeps the booze," Rodney whispered. "And the still. You want them to know that?"
Another crash sounded, and they both flinched.
John stared at him, wide-eyed in horror. "You're kidding. Since when?"
Rodney made shushing noises, rolling his eyes toward the Marines who were watching the two of them.
Friedman was making notes into a PDA. "Betting pool, sir," he said unapologetically. "I get points for a witnessed account of Dr. McKay blowing in your ear."
"Should have had my camera phone with me," Wheeler complained.
"Don't you people have anything better to do than gossip about your superiors?" Rodney demanded.
Both Marines shrugged.
"Can we not provide any more material for them?" John begged. He'd like to keep his career. Most days. Then there were the days when Leavenworth sounded like a vacation.
Rodney just laughed at him scornfully.
"If we don't get in there, that thing's going to trash the rest of Zelenka's hooch," Ronon said.
"Shit," Friedman and Wheeler exclaimed in unison and started for the storage room door.
"Good going there, blabbermouth," Rodney snapped.
John shrugged and started after Ronon and the Marines. Rodney stuck by him.
"I thought Zelenka had the, you know, down on Level 8?" John said.
"He had to relocate when Woolsey got here. He kept getting lost and ending up using that corridor."
John palmed the sensor, and Ronon went through the door ahead of him.
The lights came up, and he caught a glimpse of something sinuous, orange and black and cream striped, and freaking fast. It leaped from a metal standing shelf that rocked and sent another bottle of azure blue alcohol (Smurf Piss 2005, not to be confused with the dark blue 2007 Bug Juice vintage or the crystal clear Headbangerboom of 2008—guaranteed to destroy a thousand brain cells with every snort, and responsible for one morning-after attempted suicide by toilet) tipping off to the floor, where it hit and broke with a splatter, and what John swore was a corrosive hiss.
The animal landed in the twisted coils and glass beakers of the still itself.
"Don't shoot!" Rodney, John, Hobart, Inskip, Curtis and both Marines all chorused to Ronon. "You'll hit the still!"
"Be very, very careful," Rodney added.
John blinked away the image of Rodney as Elmer Fudd, desperately afraid that in any one to one comparison, he'd end up as Daffy Duck rather than Bugs. He couldn't keep himself, though, from whispering, "We're hunting wabbits."
"Sir," Wheeler protested as Friedman choked.
"That's not a wabbit," Ronon said.
Their quarry wound its way around the still and watched them from very bright green eyes. It looked about four feet long from the twitchy tip of its pink nose to the long, prehensile tail. At least, John thought it was a tail. He couldn't spot any legs or feet through its lush belly fur, but he didn't think a snake could move the way it had.
Rodney started coughing.
"What is it?" John asked.
The other scientists crowded into the doorway, their eyes bright with curiosity, or in Hobart's case, alcoholic avariciousness. Zelenka didn't keep the still hidden just from Woolsey (previously Elizabeth and Carter) after all.
"Don't know. Could be poisonous. Looks a little like a grumbas. They bite. Remember?"
"It didn't even break skin that time," Inskip scoffed.
"Forty-six razor sharp teeth, eight of them incisors," Hobart justified.
"I'd bite too if Hobart tried to grab me," Wheeler said.
"Get your stunners out," John ordered, trying to take command of the situation. He'd swear the beast twitched its pointy little pink nose at him, and the way it swung from its tail was obviously a taunt. "We'll spook it out of the still, and then one of you stun it."
Ronon twirled his gun.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Just don't damage anything if you ever want to drink again," he said. "Or sit down on a toilet without getting an electrical shock."
Everyone stared at him.
"Don't look at me! Zelenka's really vindictive."
Their quarry chittered at them. John swore it was agreeing with Rodney.
Inskip sidled forward, then around to the back of the still as Friedman and Wheeler tried to take flanking positions.
"Everybody ready?" John asked.
"Born ready," Wheeler declared. "Sir."
"Stun," John reminded him.
Ronon gave him an annoyed look and thumbed the setting on his energy pistol to stun.
Inskip leaped into the air, threw her arms out wide, and gibbered, rushing forward. Rodney squeaked and threw himself at the ceiling, though he missed due to gravity. Curtis and Hobart scrambled to clear the doorway, while Friedman and Wheeler aimed their Wraith stunners at the not-grumbas.
"Wooba, wooba, wooba, YAAAAAH!" Inskip screeched, while waving her hands and dancing from leg to leg.
It was a frankly disturbing display, one that convinced John someone needed to check her psych evaluations, and if he'd been the not-grumbas, he'd have done more than chitter and stare. Beside him, Rodney whispered, "I told you everyone in soft science is crazy."
Inskip paused to glare at Rodney.
The not-grumbas twittered at her and dropped onto the floor. Inskip really shrieked and started to back up as it started toward her, long body humping up between its sets of legs. Three sets of legs that resulted in double humps like a camel. Inskip jumped and scrambled up onto a nearby console—making Rodney moan—as the not-grumbas approached her.
Ronon shot at it.
Right through the distillery.
Red energy sparked all over the equipment and something popped with a loud hiss of escaping vapor.
"Oh, crap," John muttered.
Ronon stared. He'd missed. "I never miss."
"Believe me, buddy, you just did—"
John would swear to his dying day that Rodney was the one who screamed like a girl, even if both of them tried to climb Ronon like a tree as the not-grumbas shot straight toward them and the door. Unfortunately, having two full-grown teammates climb you like a tree appeared to impair even Ronon's ability to shoot, accurately or otherwise.
"Get off me!"
"Shoot it! Shoot it!" John ordered Friedman and Wheeler. Why the hell hadn't he picked up a stunner from the armory himself?
One shot hit the floor; one shot hit the wall, and the not-grumbas scrambled out the door, making unhappy noises in conjunction with John, Rodney, the scientists, and Ronon.
"Don't lose sight of it!" Rodney shouted.
Wheeler and Friedman ran out the door after the not-grumbas.
John let go of Ronon, who glared at him, and gave Rodney a quick once over. "You okay?" he asked.
Rodney was looking at the still. "It's hissing."
"I was hoping that was the," John waved his hand toward the empty doorway, "not-grumbas."
"I think we should get out of here," Rodney said decisively.
"I'm going after it," Ronon declared.
"Yes, yes, whatever."
"Maybe a net?" Inskip suggested.
"Entomology has some," Curtis said, peeking around the doorway.
Hobart was already edging inside again. A bottle disappeared under his expedition jacket.
"Everybody out," Rodney ordered. "You," he snapped his fingers at Hobart, "cough it up."
"It's a great story for the mess hall, the way you and the Colonel—"
"McKay," John said.
"Oh, whatever," Rodney said. "Curtis, do you think the bug nets would be strong enough to hold that thing?"
"Only one way to find out," John commented as they left the storage room.
Up ahead, he saw the blue flickers of stunner fire. He winced as he saw one bolt impact the sensor control plate next to the transporter and reminded himself to use the stairs. Rodney was too busy watching the screen on his tablet to notice, or he could have just gone ahead and wrote up Friedman's and Wheeler's transfers back to Earth. Rodney never forgave a single scuff to the city.
"Frick and Frack better not break anything," Rodney said, proving he could see through the crown of his head, if not out the back.
"Friedman and Wheeler," John corrected before he thought. Damn. Now Rodney knew who they were. "Hey," he asked Rodney suddenly, hoping to distract him, "did you smell cheese in the mess hall?"
Rodney looked at him. "It's the mess hall. All I smelled was alien cabbage."
John frowned. He could have sworn he smelled cheese when Woolsey and the Wex came in. He hoped he wasn't finally stroking out. He'd heard hallucinatory smells were a symptom.
Armed with Entomology's largest, strongest collection nets, he and Rodney took off after Ronon and the two Marines, following Ronon's dot on the life sign detector.
They arrived just in time to see Friedman, Wheeler and Ronon plunge through the doorway into Lorne's office in hot pursuit.
A loud yell from Sgt. Bricklemeier followed, then some fine Marine cursing.
Rodney and John skidded through the door in time to see Bricklemeier dive to the floor as Friedman and Wheeler began firing, and the not-grumbas ping-ponged off the walls, filing cabinets, and desk, throwing up a cloud of requisition and personnel evaluation forms before it streaked back out right between Ronon's legs. One last stunner blast hit right in front of Ronon's boots.
With an angry glare, Ronon turned and chased after their prey. Friedman and Wheeler took off after him.
Bricklemeier began gathering up the papers.
"Tell me that isn't the paperwork I just spent a week catching up on?" John said in a flat monotone. The sheets still floating down certainly had his signature on them. Where it was legible through the claw marks.
"Sir," Bricklemeier replied, "I could tell you that. But I'd be lying."
"Lie to me."
"It wasn't your paperwork, sir." Bricklemeier eyed the orange stuff on his hand. His nose wrinkled in disgust.
A whiff reached John and he stepped back fast. "What the hell is that?"
Rodney began gagging and stumbled back into the hall, clamping his hands over his nose. "Poison gas, poison gas," he whimpered. "Someone get me some oxygen."
"Calm down, Rodney," John said, taking a step back himself. That was nasty. "I think our guys just scared the crap out of it."
Bricklemeier grimaced and wiped his hand on his BDUs.
John wondered if the SGC would accept the Pegasus equivalent of 'the dog ate my homework.' Yes, sir, alien animals shredded it, sir. Then he imagined Landry with a ruler, wrapping his knuckles, and choked. If he had to see someone in a nun's habit, then Angelina Jolie was infinitely preferable. Maybe he was still in his bed dreaming this whole day so far?
"Did you just pinch yourself?" Rodney demanded.
It wasn't worth trying to explain. If he did, Rodney would hustle him off to the nearest psychiatrist, even if that was in the next galaxy. "Yes."
"I always knew you had to be a masochist."
John glared at him. "I am not."
"Pinching," Rodney said with an air of having the final word in a argument.
"For what, the nearest priestess?"
"Your head, more like," John muttered.
"You should thank God for my head and the brain inside it."
"Yeah, well, thanks aren't what comes to mind most of the time."
Rodney consulted his life sign detector.
"It looks like they're heading for the greenhouses."
"Well, it can't take the transporters so let's try to ambush it," John suggested.
Rodney pointed at him. "Good idea."
The radio in John's ear chirped. "Woolsey here. Any progress? I've been keeping the delegation here in the mess hall quite a while now. And Torren needs to be changed."
John turned toward Rodney and drew his brows together as he answered, "We think we can corner it in the greenhouses. Sheppard out." He grabbed Rodney's arm. "You left Torren with Woolsey?"
"Care to let go now?"
"Sure." He lifted his hand away and used it to scrub the back of his neck instead, embarrassed. Torren loved Woolsey's classical music. His eyes went round, and his face took on a look of wonder. He particularly liked The Ride of the Valkyries, pounding his fists against whatever he could reach as the music crescendoed.
They piled into the transporter, wedging the giant butterfly nets next to them, and made for the greenhouse level.
Arriving, they found Friedman and Wheeler on the floor and Ronon on his ass, clutching his leg. Not-grumbas: 2½, Atlantis: 0.
"What happened?" John asked wearily.
"They stunned each other."
Of course they did. John covered his eyes. "And you?"
"My leg," Ronon reluctantly admitted.
"They stunned your leg."
Ronon grumbled something embarrassed.
"You're slowing down," Rodney declared. "Must be all those pancakes." He wasn't going to forget the syrup thing anytime soon. Of course, neither was Ronon. John was probably going to have sacrifice a six-pack and a bag of Doritos on the altar of keeping peace on the team.
"Rodney," John said, grabbing him and pulling him along into the greenhouse before Ronon could do something too permanent to him. Even dragging one leg, Ronon moved fast. "It's up to us now."
"Where is it?" Rodney whispered.
John looked around the greenhouse, which held flat after flat of something Pegasus native he'd never seen before. The flowers were tiny and pink, and so thick they completely covered the greenery part of the plant. They were about six inches high. He saw some wiggling and waving and guessed the not-grumbas must be under them.
The next few minutes proved that Entomology needed stronger nets.
John snuck toward the spot he thought hid the not-grumbas, butterfly net at the ready, Rodney just behind him as back up. He pointed at the spot and nodded, then held up three fingers.
Rodney looked wide-eyed and nervous and bobbed his head, Adam's apple working as he swallowed.
John mouthed, Three, two, one, and brought the net down over the plants where he thought the not-grumbas was hiding.
The not-grumbas yowled and jumped straight up, tearing through the net, and coming down in the midst of the pink flowers and sending a thick cloud of fluorescent yellow pollen into the air as it scrambled away.
"McKay, get it!" John yelled, wishing he'd picked up either Friedman or Wheeler's stunners.
Rodney ran after the not-grumbas, swatting at it and sending up more and more clouds of yellow pollen.
The air in the greenhouse filled with the scent of cheddar and Limburger.
John began sneezing as it settled all over him, and soon Rodney was, too, doubled over and helpless to follow the not-grumbas as it fled the greenhouse, running over the two unconscious Marines as it went, followed by a belated bolt of red energy from Ronon's pistol.
"Oh, God, that's awful," Rodney choked out after John grabbed his collar and dragged him outside.
"Which way did it go?" John demanded of Ronon. He had pollen, sparkly fairy-dust yellow pollen, all over him. He brushed futilely at his arms, just smearing it through the dark hairs and into his skin.
Ronon coughed and pointed.
"McKay, detector," John ordered.
Rodney clapped his hands over his nose and mouth, bent over, and shotgunned off another volley of double-barreled sneezes. His hair glinted with sparkles. It flew off him in powdery puffs as his back shook, and when he looked up, his eyes were red-rimmed and tearing, while his nose had gone Rudolph-red. He looked utterly miserable. "What?"
John picked up a stunner from Friedman's lax grip, handed it to Rodney, and then retrieved Wheeler's. He tapped his radio, opening a channel to the control room. "This is Sheppard. Send a medical team to pick up Corporals Friedman and Wheeler. They've both been stunned."
"Sir, where are they?"
"On their way, sir," Amelia said a moment later. "Dr. Keller wants to know if she should have security watch them?"
"No, they just stunned each other," John answered. He glanced at Ronon, who had propped himself against a wall but was still stomping his foot against the deck and obviously not mobile yet. "Stay here with Fric—
Friedman and Wheeler."
Ronon grumbled but stayed behind.
He started out in the direction Ronon had indicated.
Still hacking periodically, Rodney followed him. "It was bound to happen sometime," he said.
"What?" John asked.
Rodney laughed. "Two idiots stunning each other."
"Oh. I suppose." Ronon had stunned him often enough. When he'd been possessed by Thalan and when he'd been going buggy. Come to think of it, he hoped the whole pins-and-needles thing was driving the big guy crazy. He hated waking up from a stun.
John didn't really know where he was going, but why let that stop him? He used the same navigation method on other planets, and it always worked; he always stumbled onto the village of the damned, Ancient outpost, Wraith patrol, hidden underground bunker, mutant crystal nightmare entity, or kidnapping, drug addicted ex-teammate within five minutes, anyway. Ronon had the knack, too. It was possible they needed to work on that.
"Huh," Rodney said.
"You said huh?"
"Oh, did I?"
"So?" John drawled.
"Oh. Well, it looks like it may be heading for the mess hall."
"Maybe it's hungry. Maybe it likes alien cabbage."
"Nobody likes alien cabbage."
John couldn't really argue with that. Plus, not even Teyla escaped its effects, and being trapped in a jumper with Rodney and Ronon after the mess hall had served corned beast and cabbage that one time had been an experience that convinced him to cancel any mission scheduled for the day after St. Patrick's.
Rodney stomach rumbled.
John narrowed his eyes. "You wouldn't have another reason to head for the mess hall, would you, Rodney?"
"What? No, of course not. I resent the implication." Rodney stabbed his finger at the screen of his tablet. "That is our quarry. That is the mess hall. That is our quarry heading for the mess hall... Those dots are the Wex delegation still in the mess hall...."
John and he stared at each other.
They skidded into the mess hall in time to see the not-grumbas leap onto the table before Woolsey, who held Torren comfortably in one arm and a cup of coffee in the other. Without hesitation, John leveled the Wraith stunner, ignored the yell from Lorne, and Woolsey's widening eyes, and fired while he had an angle that would miss Torren and Woolsey. He didn't have time to ask why Delahaye from Xenobiology was there or worry about the Wex delegation's reaction. The damned thing was within easy reach of Torren.
The stun bolt hit the animal and dropped it. It flopped bonelessly over Woolsey's arm. Woolsey flailed and shouted as his coffee dumped straight into his lap.
"Rodney, get Torren," he said.
Rodney darted around him and retrieved their charge from Woolsey, who was dabbing a napkin at his crotch and whimpering.
"Why did you do that?" Delahaye demanded. He was checking the stunned animal, but looked up to glare at John.
So did the Wex priestess.
John didn't care.
"Is Torren okay?" he asked Rodney.
"Eb fibe," Rodney replied, causing John to double take. Torren had his fingers clamped onto Rodney's nose and was doing his baby-chortle of glee.
"Good job, Colonel," Delahaye snapped. "You just stunned Halling's surprise gift for Torren."
Perfect. John squeezed his eyes shut and recited Bernoulli's Law to himself. Of course it was a pet. He was going to strangle Halling. Or leave him locked up with Rodney for an hour.
"What!?" Rodney squawked. "You idiot, you moron, you inconceivably careless excuse for a scientist. There are quarantine rules. How did he even get it—whatever it is—inside the city? My God, does Teyla know about this? Of course not, Teyla isn't brain damaged. It could have space rabies. It could have tiny Iratus fleas. Oh, I know what Halling was thinking: it's cute, it's furry, everyone in Pegasus keeps them for pets, whatever. What in seven Wraith hells were you thinking, Delahaye!?"
John caught the critical gist and asked quietly, "You knew about it?"
Delahaye, who had been glaring back at Rodney, blanched. "Yes."
"And you let it get loose?"
"I went to feed it for Halling while he and the other Athosians were gone, and it got out."
"You didn't think to let someone know?"
"I thought I'd find it before anyone saw it," Delahaye answered sullenly.
"This will be noted in your next personnel evaluation, Dr. Delahaye," Woolsey said in a tight voice. He gave the stunned animal an odd look. "Now, perhaps you could remove it back to a more secure containment choice than wherever it came from?"
"Yes," Delahaye said and scooped up the animal.
"Say," John heard himself ask, "what is it, anyway? Ronon thought it looked like a grumbas."
"Oh no, no, it's not poisonous," Delahaye assured them as he petted the animal's head.
"It's a kaggle," the Wex priestess said. "You've never seen one?"
John shrugged and shook his head.
"A kaggle," Rodney muttered. "Of course."
Woolsey stood up. Coffee had soaked his pants and run down his legs. He plucked at the fabric and sighed. "Major Lorne, would you take over? I find I need to return to my quarters and change. Manama Wexis, if you would excuse me for a few moments?"
The priestess inclined her head. "Of course." A tiny hint of a smile turned up the corners of her lips as she surveyed Woolsey.
"Well," Rodney declared, "this has been ever so exciting. So exciting, I think even checking on the labs and seeing what idiocy my staff is indulging while I'm not there couldn't be any more traumatizing."
He stalked over to John and did it again, leaving Torren in John's arms before John could wave him off.
"And since the labs are no place for a baby, you can take care of Torren until I finish. It looks like he's just had his bottle," Rodney added with a wave toward the table where a dirty bottle sat next to Woolsey's empty coffee cup.
John looked down into Torren's dark eyes, hefted him a little higher, and started to protest, "Rodney, Teyla left him with you—"
Rodney was already halfway to the doors and moving fast.
Before John could chase after him, Torren grabbed the collar of his shirt and with a tremendous burp, emptied his stomach contents down John's collar.
Rodney looked one way, then the other, but only Zelenka was in the lab with him, bent over a laptop at the other end of the room. Then he checked for hidden cameras (you couldn't be too paranoid when it came to candy) before typing in the code to open the lock he'd designed to keep any thieves away from his chocolate stash. Once he had it open, he took a moment to inspect his hoard, the Snickers bars, the Three Musketeers (which he was never sharing with John again, watching as John nibbled all the chocolate off the outside before eating the sticky nougat interior had been a special form of torture), the Kit Kats, Reese's Pieces, Butterfingers, and other grocery checkout stand candies, then behind them, the good stuff, the Swiss and German and Belgian and in a separate corner the Venezuelan and Costa Rican chocolates.
"Stop fondling your candy, Rodney," Zelenka called out. "It's disturbing."
Rodney snatched out a Snickers and locked up the rest.
"You're just jealous."
"That is it, of course," Zelenka replied dryly.
The door to the lab slid open, but Rodney didn't bother looking up. His mouth was watering with anticipation, and he didn't care who was coming in, unless it was Simpson, who he meant to chew out for being late again. Just as soon as he'd had something to eat. He'd make her go get coffee, too.
Rodney had just torn open the wrapper and started the candy toward his mouth when it was intercepted. "Hey, hey, hey!" he exclaimed. "Gimme that back."
John, festooned with baby gear and clutching Torren to his chest, snatched the candy away and took a bite. Once he'd swallowed, he said, "You owe me for this." He did a sort of whole body shimmy that took in Torren and the diaper bags and the fact he was on his third shirt of the day. At least he'd got all the pollen out of his hair. Little puffs of it kept escaping the wrinkles in Rodney's clothes.
"Perhaps you could take this outside the labs?" Zelenka suggested, sending suspicious looks toward Torren and keeping a careful distance. Not even Torren's magical baby charm affected Zelenka, who claimed to get hives from children under five thanks to his sister's monsters. Until Torren, Rodney had always envied him coming up with that excuse first.
"At this rate, I'm going to fall into a hypoglycemic coma," Rodney griped. "And then where will you all be?"
"At your funeral," John suggested. He began off-loading baby bags. "Woolsey wants me to join the tour and give the Wex a ride in a jumper, so you've got to take Torren back now."
Everything came off but the towel he'd settled over his shoulder defensively. He just kept forgetting it. Rodney meant to mention it, but...
"But, but—" Rodney waved at the lab. "I have work. Important work."
"It's your day off."
"So I should be doing something I want to do."
John rolled his eyes. "So should I."
"You're about to do barrel rolls and see if you can make the Wex barf," Rodney told him. "Which is exactly what you want to do."
"This is true," John told him, handed over Torren, and trotted out the door.
"I hate you!" Rodney shouted after him, prompting Torren to start wailing. "I'm sorry, sorry, no more yelling, I promise," Rodney whispered frantically and started jiggling Torren up and down. He walked him around the lab. "Hey, look at all the bright shiny stuff and the lights, look at how they twinkle, no, no, don't touch that, don't—"
Rodney stared at the laptop screen along with Torren. The wailing faded away and Torren pointed a pudgy finger at one figure and giggled.
"Rodney?" Zelenka inquired from the other end of the room, naturally worried.
Rodney bit the inside of his lip, then asked, "Radek, whose laptop is this?"
On the screen, head shots of Woolsey, Kavanagh, Landry, and that newest IOA twit, Callahan...Carney...crap, he couldn't remember it, just that the fool that had called Teyla honey and tried to blow up Cheyenne Mountain (it wasn't the blowing up part that was so wrong, just that he'd intended to escape leaving everyone else behind to die, which Rodney understood now went beyond bad form) were pasted onto a cartoon of dancing swine. Coolidge! That was it. Rodney tried to snap his fingers and nearly fumbled Torren out of his arms.
Zelenka sidled over after Rodney began snickering.
"Oh, that's Hearst's," he confirmed after catching a glimpse.
Rodney frowned, trying to remember which one was Hearst.
"Penelope?" Zelenka offered.
"But she believes in String Theory," Rodney protested.
"And only eats kosher," Zelenka reminded him. "Neither are handicaps, Rodney."
Rodney sniffed then realized Torren had quieted. He grinned. No wonder Teyla had left Torren with him. He was a genius at early child care. So much better than John or Ronon. He started to explain this to Zelenka, but his radio chirped in his ear.
"Dr. McKay, this is Control."
He tapped his mike on. "Yes. Obviously. What do you want?"
"Transporter 30-M-9 has malfunctioned with Colonel Sheppard and half the Wex delegation in it. We've tracked the problem down to Level Eight, Grid Fourteen."
Rodney growled, remembering Frick and Frack spraying stunner fire all over and hitting a set of transporter controls. "They're dead," he muttered. He supposed he had to go make the repairs himself. After all, anyone else and Sheppard might be rematerialized with that awful Wex woman's headdress merged with his hair.
"I'm on my way. Lockdown the transporters for the entire city." He would have to take the stairs, but he wouldn't have chanced the transporters under the circumstances, anyway.
"I'll inform Director Woolsey—Err, Major Lorne."
"You do that. McKay out."
He tapped off the mike.
Zelenka made the tactical mistake of holding up his empty hands to fend off Rodney. Rodney shoved Torren into Radek's arms. "I'll be back before you know it."
"I am a quantum physicist, not a babysitter!" Zelenka shouted.
"You're almost as smart as me, you'll figure it out," Rodney assured him and headed off, snatching up his laptop and toolkit as he went, jauntily contemplating the misery he meant to inflict on Sheppard's Marines for this screw up. There would be lectures. Then some sort of indentured servitude as punishment. Of course, the real punishment would be meted out by himself, and would involve something much worse than a zap on the ass from a wired toilet seat. It would take time to refine his vengeance, but it would be devious, explosive, and a work of sheer genius, of course.
"Busy saving the colonel," he called back.
"I have to check the...you know!"
"Just don't give Torren any of it," Rodney advised him. "But don't forget to give him his bottle!"
Teyla wouldn't like it if she came back and Torren was sauced on Zelenka's homemade hooch.
Rodney hummed at first as he worked on the transporter's controls. Just as he'd suspected, the stunner energy had corrupted the crystals in the control panel. Normally, that would be an easy fix. He'd pull the corrupt crystals, replace them, and everything would work again.
Unfortunately, doing that would lose every pattern in the transport buffer. Rodney stopped humming about the time he realized what that meant. His mouth turned down, and he wondered if Sam Carter was laughing all the way from the Milky Way.
"Crap, crap, crap," he muttered, not paying attention to the radio mike he'd left on.
"Shut up. I'm working," he snapped.
Oh, this was not good, he realized, stopping to lean his forehead against the cool wall. He could smell the burnt ozone reek the stunners left in the air. This was Fate giving him the fickle finger.
Hadn't he made up for being an arrogant and uncaring ass? This was unfair. Of course, Pegasus never was fair. He pulled his hands away from the crystals in question and curled them in fists. The only way this could be worse would be if Ronon, Teyla, and Torren had been in the transporter with John.
While he wouldn't cry more than a crocodile tear over Woolsey or the Wex, Rodney had no intention of losing John.
He lost track of time as he hooked his laptop up to each crystal in turn and began the delicate job of recreating the intricate patterns that served as something between program code and circuits. He sucked in his breath at one point as he realized he was quite likely fixing a pattern that would translate as a human being when the transporters were back on line and rematerialized John and the others.
Ronon appeared with a Powerbar and a bottle of water that he handed over, then propped himself against a wall and grimly watched while Rodney wolfed down the food and checked his calculations on his laptop until his hands weren't shaking any longer.
Rodney nodded to him and went back to work, squinting and frowning over every shift he made in the alignments inside the latest crystal.
"Doc, the rest of the delegation is getting a little restless here," Lorne's voice interrupted his concentration. "Any idea how much longer this is going to take?"
"I frankly do not care about the Wex, and it will take as long as it takes. Approximately five minutes longer than it would have without your inane interruption," Rodney snarled. He stopped and breathed deep through his nose. "I'm working as fast as humanly possible."
"Just checking, Doc. Calm down. Thought you could fix anything."
"This isn't about fixing it," Rodney replied through gritted teeth. "I could have fixed it four hours ago. It's taking a little longer to do it without killing Sheppard and everyone else. So if you'll kindly shut the hell up, I'll get back to—!"
"McKay," Ronon rumbled at him.
Rodney tore the earpiece and mike off his head and threw it down the corridor. "No more interruptions. Shoot anyone who tries," he commanded.
"Okay," Ronon agreed.
The nice thing about Ronon was he would.
He aligned the last junction and watched the crystal light blue-white.
Rodney ran a test through his laptop. It looked good. His shoulders hurt from hunching as he worked, and he didn't know if the nausea in his stomach came from fear or hunger because he'd lost track of time after talking to Lorne.
"Okay," he said. "Okay, this should do it."
"Should?" Ronon asked.
Rodney jumped, having forgotten Ronon's presence.
"Will," he said. "It will work. I just have to—" He groped for his radio and didn't find it.
Ronon extended the broken headset in one hand; there was a sardonic tilt to his lips.
Rodney snapped his fingers. "Give me yours."
Rodney tapped it on and said, "This is McKay. Release the transporter lock, but don't attempt to use them yet. I'm about to re-materialize Colonel Sheppard."
"Done," Lorne replied.
One deep breath and Rodney pressed enter on his laptop, sending the command to the transporter system to reroute and re-materialize everyone in the buffer at the transporter where he'd been working.
The doors slid open and Sheppard stepped out, a frown pleating his forehead, followed by half the Wex delegation and Woolsey. "That felt a little...odd—Rodney?"
Rodney let his breath out with a gasp.
"Good to see you," Ronon said.
"Yeah, you, too," Sheppard replied. He looked around. "This isn't where we were going. Something happen?"
"You could say that," Rodney answered. He backed up to a wall and let himself slide down it to sit on the floor.
"You've been stuck in there all day," Ronon added.
Sheppard glanced at his watch, tapped it, and raised his eyebrows. "Didn't feel that long," was his only comment.
"Dr. McKay," Woolsey asked, "may I assume that it is safe to continue our tour and use the transporters, or should we perhaps stick to the stairs?"
Rodney flipped his hand at the transporter. "It's fixed."
"Ah, thank you."
Woolsey began shooing the rather reluctant Wex back towards the transporter. They kept balking.
Sheppard sat down next to Rodney. "I get the feeling it wasn't as easy as all that."
"Oh, fixing it was easy. Not killing you doing that was the hard part," Rodney said. "And I've, well, I'm inexplicably committed to, you know, maintaining that."
"That's good, Rodney," Sheppard said, and patted Rodney's knee. "I'm kind of fond of the whole not being dead thing, myself."
Rodney tipped his head back to rest against the wall and let himself smile.
"Anyone hungry?" Ronon asked.
Rodney's stomach grumbled.
"We'll take that as a yes," Sheppard said, and got to his feet, offering Rodney a hand up.
"Just let me close this panel up," Rodney told them.
The Wex were still balking. Woolsey looked ready to physically jam them into the transporter or start crying in a moment.
If there wasn't pie in the mess hall, then someone had better make one for him. This was supposed to have been his day off, after all. Maybe if he told the cooks that Torren liked pie...
He tapped Ronon's radio on and shifted it to the science department channel. "Zelenka—"
A flood of angry or possibly hysterical, Czech greeted him in return on the open channel, so that Sheppard, Woolsey, and anyone else listening heard it, ending in, "—I know where you are, McKay! I know where you live! Life and death repairs will not save you now!"
Since, sadly, Zelenka did, Rodney decided fleeing for his life wouldn't work.
He'd just finished detaching the leads from his laptop to the control panel when Zelenka came barreling down the corridor, Torren clutched in his arms and whooping happily in contrast to the expression on Zelenka's face.
Everyone took a step back, even the Wex already in the open transporter, which jammed them against the back wall.
"Cow stupid soldiers, cannot even hit walls, must hit controls, sticky hands, animals, idiots, McKay—you—you, explosions, all loose and must be fixed, but did you—you—you and him—" Here, Zelenka, who was soaked to the skin and reeked of alcohol and possibly fruit, shifted Torren in his grip, to point a shaking finger at John. "—couldn't be bothered to tell me of damage! No!" A spate of Czech followed, reaching hysterical proportions. Rodney hadn't seen Zelenka so incensed since he'd come back from Planet Kid Kill with his face painted and his hair in braids. His hand flailed back and forth. "Now is ka-boom!"
"Ooom!" Torren echoed with delight. He wiggled an arm free and patted Zelenka's cheek. A muscle there began to twitch.
"Calm down, Dr. Zelenka," Woolsey said soothingly. "Now, are you telling us something is about to explode?"
Something other than Zelenka himself, Rodney thought to himself. He had a terrible idea he knew what had gone ka-boom. Zelenka's still had always been delicate, and after being jostled and banged about by the kaggle and the Marines, not to mention having its whereabouts revealed to the soft sciences (who were all lushes and had probably rushed there in mass to drain it and every bottle they could find, even the 2009 Brainrot, and done who knew what more damage), it wasn't surprising if it had exploded again. It happened every six or seven months anyway.
And it had been hissing when he and John and the others had retreated out of the storage room.
Perhaps he should have mentioned that to Zelenka.
Zelenka blinked at Woolsey. "Pah!" he spat. "Has already happened."
"Pah, pah, pah!" Torren added.
Turning his back on Woolsey, Zelenka straightened, and after giving Rodney one more death glare, unloaded Torren into John's arms. "You will take him now." Or I will kill you with the power of my mind, his expression added.
John just sighed and accepted Torren, who reached up and clutched his ears and yanked. Zelenka squished away, still muttering to himself.
"Dr. McKay, do I want to know what that was about?" Woolsey inquired. "Dr. Zelenka smelled rather..." The words trailed away, and Woolsey pursed his lips.
"An experiment gone wrong, sir," Sheppard covered. "You know how cranky that gets the eggheads."
Rodney gave him an outraged look but chimed in, "Sterile alcohol, Director. Zelenka can be a hypochondriac. He probably drenched himself out of some worry he'd catch something from Torren."
Sheppard's choked, "Hypochondriac," didn't reach any ears but Rodney's.
"I see. Well, if I may use the transporter now?"
"Go ahead," Rodney said.
Woolsey stepped inside and touched the destination point for the control tower.
John hefted Torren higher, then got a panicked, even horrified look on his face. The smell hit Rodney a second later, as John held Torren away from him at arm's length and looked down at his shirt.
It looked like Zelenka hadn't bothered to change Torren since Rodney left him and the diaper had finally overloaded catastrophically, leaking all over John.
Rodney took this to mean that Fate also had it in for Sheppard, something he'd suspected since they arrived in Atlantis.
"McKay!" John growled, stalking toward Rodney with Torren still held as far away from him as possible. Torren kicked and giggled, apparently finding this great fun.
"Blame Zelenka!" Rodney cried desperately.
Ronon backed away from both of them.
"John, please. I've got to go calm Zelenka down before he overloads like a bad ZPM," Rodney pleaded.
John glared at him, then sighed. "Fine, but you so owe me."
"I do, I do, I owe you," Rodney agreed. "I'll even obey orders on our next mission, how's that?"
John snorted. "Don't promise the impossible."
Rodney opened his mouth to object then decided discretion was the better part of genius.
"Thanks," he said instead, and took off.
"Ronon—" he heard John say.
"I'm not holding him," Ronon replied.
"Fine, come down to the labs with me while I get a new diaper and then take the rest of Torren's stuff and bring it by my office while me and Torren go get cleaned up? I've got a ton of paperwork to redo."
"Paperwork?" Ronon asked.
"Thanks to our friend the kaggle," John answered.
Rodney snickered to himself.
John glared balefully at the stack of forms he'd be filling out for the next week. He hated paperwork anyway, but repeating it irked him deeply.
Lorne sat meekly (which was bizarre enough and left John wondering what his XO had done that was so bad he'd canned his normal, dry sarcasm) doing his work over at the second desk they'd moved into the office rather than have Lorne work out of the next office with Bricklemeier. Even Lorne couldn't endure Bricklemeier's neurotic filing fetish day in and day out and Lorne liked paperwork.
A city the size of Atlantis, and the two highest military officers were stuck together in a single office. Something was wrong with that. He knew the Marines were somehow behind it, plotting against them because they were both Air Force. If he didn't believe Halling was above such things, John would have suspected the whole kaggle incident of being something the jarheads had plotted, too.
Of course, they could have misled Halling...
The Marines definitely needed more sensitivity seminars, and he was going to force them all to sit in on it when McKay took on Friedman and Wheeler. They could clean up the puddle after McKay reduced the two of them to pants-wetting fear.
Speaking of pants-wetting...
He checked Torren, who was sleeping in his portable crib. Ronon had packed everything from the labs to John's office in one trip, and disappeared, mentioning the mess hall and sparring. John just hoped he hadn't meant to do the sparring in the mess hall. If Ronon started demanding best two out of three falls for pie, none of them would see another dessert in this lifetime.
He kept his radio tuned to the open channel and quickly realized Rodney had been right to send Torren with him. Not because of Zelenka, who had disappeared, possibly to distill the last of the alcohol out of his uniform, but because Woolsey and the Wex delegation showed up, wanting a tour of the labs.
If there was anything in the world Rodney hated as much as citrus, it was letting ignorant strangers into the sacred realms of his laboratories. His patter was lame and interspersed with, "Don't touch! Don't touch that either! No! Oh, God, three days of simulations, just gone..." Until finally, he screeched at everyone to put their hands in their pockets or he'd tie them behind their backs. Woolsey could be heard trying to calm him down, but John figured it would have looked bad to have the chief scientist crying harder than the baby.
Halfway through filling out the seventh requisition for the tiny, tiny, tiny screws holding the laptop cases together, Torren started fussing as he woke up. After hearing him go through the same routine that morning, John went on red alert. A bottle and formula were prepared with military efficiency and presented to Torren as he opened his mouth to scream.
He grabbed onto the bottle greedily, and John smirked at Lorne, who looked slightly impressed.
"Nice going, sir."
"Speak up. I'm still a little deaf on the right side from this morning," John replied.
Torren sucked down the entire bottle enthusiastically. John remembered the sploot towel this time and burped him expertly, feeling like he'd finally gotten the hang of the whole babysitting thing.
He set Torren down in his portable playpen and let him look around while finishing three more requisitions forms. Judicious peeking proved he was ahead of Lorne who had only finished two.
John patted himself on the back again, feeling virtuous and productive.
That lasted until Torren let out a little grunt. John looked up, checking on him. Torren had managed to sit up. John wondered if he'd done that before and if he should mention it to Teyla. He thought how cool it would be to be around when Torren started walking.
Though it wouldn't be quite so cool if he did it when Teyla and Kanaan weren't around. He decided that if that happened, he'd stay quiet so they'd get to see it as the first time themselves.
Torren gave out that little, "Ooph," again.
Lorne's nose wrinkled.
"Smells like it, sir."
"Guess it's time for a diaper change," John said.
Reluctantly, he rose from his desk and began putting together the necessary materials. Rodney had added a bag for dealing with hazardous waste that included gloves, goggles, a face mask, and Vick's Vapor Rub to the collection of gear Teyla had left. Apparently, he thought changing diapers needed the same level of precaution as dealing with a crime scene.
"Find the diaper bag, would you?" he told Lorne.
He set up on the floor since Torren had nearly rolled himself off John's bed earlier and he didn't need a heart attack again.
It was all a routine, he told himself. He tried to remember if Rodney had changed a single diaper through the entire day. He didn't think Rodney had. Bitterness was not an attractive trait, he reminded himself. "You trying to gas us, Torren?" he asked the baby.
Torren gurgled and kicked his feet. John reminded himself to lay a towel or something over him. He'd nearly got a shot in the eye last time. Torren was a straight shooter.
Lorne was still going through the various bags. He looked a little panicky. The smell was getting stronger in the closed office.
"I can't find them," he said in a tight voice, the way he'd inform John they were facing a hundred thousand Zulus and only had the ammo they'd carried on them. He brightened. "Maybe I could go get so—"
"I'll do that," John said, shamelessly abusing his superior rank. He got to his feet, pretending that that hadn't been his knees creaking, and headed for the door. "You just keep an eye on Torren until I get back."
The door cut Lorne off nicely so John patted the wall in thanks. It wasn't the Teyla-maneuver, but it was close.
He headed for the labs, whistling.
Woolsey was ushering the Wex out of the lab as John strolled in. They parted for him with smiles, and the priestess raised one painted on eyebrow (he didn't get that, why pluck them off only to paint them back on again, and didn't it hurt?) at him. Then again, maybe the painting thing was all about making all of the Wex look exactly alike, since they all had their faces painted exactly the same way. He thought he could read a little amusement under the priestess' mask of make-up though, which had to be a good sign for trade relations, right?
"Sir," he greeted Woolsey.
Woolsey looked as close to frazzled as he ever allowed himself to get. It was subtle, because Woolsey remained as buttoned up and proper as ever, but John was good at reading droopy mouths. Woolsey smoothed his hand over his head and then his jaw, highlighting that even at nineteen-hundred Atlantis time, he didn't have a bit of five o'clock shadow. John rubbed at his own bristly chin and wondered if Woolsey shaved every time he went to the head or something. Even with their six-hour time out in the transporter buffer while Rodney rescued them, he needed to shave again.
"Colonel," Woolsey acknowledged him. "What brings you down here?"
"Ronon forgot the diaper bag."
One of the Wex chuckled and the priestess, what was it Woolsey called her—Manama Wexis, right, because the Wex didn't share names with anyone outside their family groupings, only titles—let a smile slip. Maybe she liked babies after all, even if she hadn't asked—like everyone else—to hold Torren. Behind her, Corrigan gave John a discreet thumbs up.
"Where is Torren?" Woolsey asked.
"Left him with Lorne."
"I'll let you get on with your errand then," Woolsey said with a small smile. "I believe our visitors are ready to go home."
Manama Wexis sighed and said, "I have much to consider. The words we have been given do seem to be true, yet they do not encompass the truth."
"Well," John answered, wondering whether that was good or bad, and uncertain how to reply.
"Sheppard," Rodney exclaimed, startling him into jerking around to face into the lab, "what are you doing here?"
John dodged inside and spotted the brightly woven Athosian bag Teyla kept Torren's clean diapers in, and scooped it up. "Diaper ba—"
His radio screeched.
"Colonel Shep—help! Hel—whoa, no, not the pants—" The radio squealed in his ear, then the transmission went dead.
"Was that Lorne?" Rodney asked.
"Sounded like it," John said as he turned and ran past Woolsey and the Wex. Rodney sprinted at his heels, proving all those runs for the gate had paid off.
"Where is he?" Rodney demanded as they both threw themselves into a transporter.
"My office," John replied. "Lorne, reply. This is Colonel Sheppard. Major Lorne, reply. What is your status? Over."
Rodney stabbed his index finger against the destination they wanted and the transporter lit white. John barely noticed the instant of vertigo that followed anymore. He slapped the sensor that opened the doors and tore out, Rodney still at his heels.
Bricklemeier was standing in the doorway to the outer office, staring inside, his jaw slack.
"Report!" John ordered.
Bricklemeier gulped, and then giggled, which was fairly disturbing coming from a three hundred pound Marine with a buzzcut and a tattoo that said Semp delis with a wide red scar through the rest of the motto on a biceps that was wider than Keller's waist. He pointed.
Suppressing a shiver of fear at what could have so thoroughly broken a man like Bricklemeier's sanity so swiftly, John edged into the outer office and then peered into his own.
Despite being a genius with an overdeveloped sense of self-preservation, Rodney was right beside him.
They both stared for so long, Woolsey and the Wex delegation caught up to them and crowded in to look as well.
At first, John thought he'd somehow unknowingly set up his office in the Ancients' version of a torture chamber. A table had extruded from one wall along with multiple arms that had Lorne pinned down in place on it. Bits and pieces of Lorne's uniform clung to his wrists and neck and he still had his boots on, but everything else had been cut away.
Then Lorne kicked his legs, and Rodney choked, and John got it.
Two of the wall-arms finished wrapping Lorne's loins (a phrase John never wanted to think again) in what had to be the Ancients' version of a diaper.
It had never been meant to cover a grown man.
"What is this?" Manama Wexis asked from just behind John's shoulder, a lilt of suppressed laughter in her voice.
Lorne looked shame-faced.
Still down on the floor where John had set him in preparation to changing him, Torren pointed at Lorne and gurgled.
John pinched the bridge of his nose. He should go in and save Lorne. He knew it, but he really didn't want to end up in the same straits. Maybe he needed a little more intel on the situation first. Yeah, that was it.
"Major Lorne?" he made himself ask, knowing he was going to regret it.
"Sir," Lorne replied in a thin voice. His face and chest were stained tomato red with embarrassment.
"I don't actually want to know, but perhaps you could explain?"
"I was thinking that it was too bad that Atlantis didn't have automatic baby changing stations, sir," Lorne said. "Kind of hard. Torren's getting pretty stinky."
Torren crowed at his name and grabbed onto a piece of torn up BDU fluttering down by him.
John sniffed and silently agreed with Lorne about the smell.
"The next thing I knew...well, Atlantis does have automatic baby changing facilities," Lorne said. "Who knew?"
"Who knew, indeed," Woolsey murmured.
"Sir, do you think you could think it off?" Lorne appealed. "It's not obeying me."
"It must have registered his ATA gene," Rodney said. "That's why it ignored Torren, at a guess, and naturally the Ancients programmed their technology to not respond to commands from infants."
"Please, sir?" Lorne appealed and kicked his legs in obvious frustration.
John twitched. He'd still been stuck on the idea that Atlantis had thought Lorne was a baby, because if it could make that mistake, he didn't consider himself safe from being molested, too.
"Ewwww!" Rodney exclaimed, slapping a hand over his eyes.
"Don't do that again," John ordered, thinking Off, off, off, and Release! at the machinery in the room.
With what looked like reluctance, the wall-arms let go of Lorne and the table lowered him to the floor before disappearing back into the wall, too.
Woolsey shooed the Wex away, and John, keeping a wary eye on the walls himself, edged into his office and snatched up Torren before retreating.
"I need a new office," he said as he set about changing Torren, carefully not thinking about wanting Atlantis to do it for him, much less to him.
"You need a new XO, and I need a new brain," Rodney said. "I think I'm traumatized." He knelt next to John and opened the diaper bag, getting out the wipes, powder, and most importantly, the diapers.
"I know I am," Lorne called from inside the office. "Could someone fetch me a change of clothes?"
"Bricklemeier," John ordered.
"Yes, sir!" the Marine yelled from the corridor. They heard him start to laugh like a hyena as he went.
"Every Marine in the city is going to know before he makes it back," Lorne said sorrowfully.
"No one said this job would be easy," John told him, holding his breath as he opened Torren's diaper. Torren kicked and wiggled the whole time, complicating the fairly simple task. Athosian diapers didn't use pins, tape or Velcro. The ends of the fabric were drawn through and doublebacked between two carved rings instead. Nothing to stab or pinch the baby. He unthreaded them and paused, thinking out the next steps.
"On three," John said, "I'll lift and wipe, you dispose of the diaper."
"Why do I—"
"You want to do it the other way?"
"No, fine, let's just get this over with." Rodney sighed. "I suppose we're just lucky we don't have to do this for Lorne."
"I heard that!" Lorne called from where he was still hiding in the inner office.
Rodney arranged the wipes and diapers at the ready.
John met his gaze and held it while they both steeled themselves for the ordeal. "Ready?"
"Ready," Rodney said.
"Three, two, one." John lifted Torren's legs with one hand and snapped his fingers. "Wipe."
"Yes, doctor," Rodney said and handed him one.
Rodney handed him the powder.
John powdered Torren's butt. "Someday, we're going to torture you with stories about doing this to you," he told Torren seriously.
"We should get video," Rodney said.
"We should," John agreed.
He hid a smile at the thought of still being in Atlantis and hanging out with Rodney when Torren was grown up, and they were old and white-haired. Okay, just going distinguishably gray in his case. Also, there was old and there was old, and he and McKay were never going to be old old, like Wraith-fed-on old, not if he had anything to say about it.
Okay, he needed to stop thinking about this because Rodney was giving him a weird look, like maybe he had something on his face. "...I don't have anything on my face, do I?"
"No," Rodney answered. "Nothing except a crazy expression that makes me wish the new shrink wasn't so blazingly stupid."
John just sighed and found the rings so he could finish closing Torren's diaper. He picked up Torren when he finished and cuddled him close. At least this time Torren hadn't thrown up on him.
What the hell had he ever done to deserve this?
"Well, you know, you already needed to change your shirt, anyway," Rodney tried to console him between hoots of laughter.
One more cleanup and clean shirt later, John carried Torren into the control room, accompanied by Rodney, acting as Sherpa and carrying everything, including the diaper bag.
Woolsey and Corrigan were bidding farewell to the Wex.
"We hope, despite the...interruptions of your tour today, you'll consider opening negotiations with Atlantis," Woolsey said to Manama Wexis.
"We shall consider," Manama Wexis said. "We had been told the Lanteans were cold and childless invaders with no ties to any world, who worshipped technology and sought to steal the wealth of the Ancestors."
"Ah, well, that is obviously...a falsehood," Woolsey replied.
"Hmm." Manama Wexis nodded to John and Rodney. "But now I see that while you do dwell in the city of the Ancestors, you have also married in the manner of our people—"
What? John wondered.
"—I believe Teyla Emmagan of Athos must be quite extraordinary to have taken on six husbands—"
"What?" Rodney whispered.
"—from your people," Manama Wexis finished. "So I will tell the other members of our Council."
"Dial the gate, Sgt. Campbell," Woolsey said in a small, weak voice.
"Really, does she think we—with Teyla—and Woolsey?" Rodney squeaked. "Oh, no, no, I have been through some wacky alien rituals, but I never agreed to be married to Ze—"
John shifted Torren into one arm and clamped his hand over Rodney's mouth before his words could reach Manama Wexis and the rest of the Wex. "Cocoa beans," he hissed.
Rodney's eyes widened, and then he nodded obediently.
John had thought that would be enough to shut him up. He lifted his hand away and looked at the palm in disgust, before wiping it on his BDUs.
Chuck dialed the gate, and it whooshed open.
"We'll be in touch," Manama Wexis told Woolsey, and led her people through the wormhole.
It winked out behind them.
Corrigan bounced up the stairs from the gate room level to the control room and grinned at John and Rodney. "Magnificent! The Wex distrust high technology, but seeing we have extended families here totally changed their minds about us!" he exclaimed.
"She thinks we're married to Teyla?" John asked.
"Of course. I only realized after she mentioned it: the Wex don't allow anyone outside the marriage to handle their children until they're old enough to leave the household. Manama Wexis knows this isn't true on most other worlds, but she assumed from the way you acted that..."
John and Rodney both glared at him.
"We do not bicker like an old married couple," Rodney snapped.
"I'm not even sure I like McKay most days," John added.
"What?" Rodney whipped around and stared at him.
"Kidding, I'm kidding, buddy," John said.
"Anyway, I think we're assured of the Wex agreeing to trade up okke beans for a better price than buying them retail at the markets," Corrigan concluded. "I guess that rumor about AR-1 always screwing the pooch on diplomatic missions isn't right, after all."
He trotted away before John could defend their team.
"That's so not true," Rodney mumbled. "We don't always—there was that mission to, um, well, there's Tarope, well, no, okay, the thing with the spears probably rules them out, but there was, uh, Athos! The Athosians liked us."
John rubbed Torren's back.
"Sumner was in charge of that mission, and we got them chased off their planet," he pointed out.
The gate began to cycle with an incoming wormhole.
"Well," John said, "it's possible Teyla's people are crazy."
"Oh. Well." Rodney stroked his finger over Torren's cheek, careful not to wake him. He looked almost angelic asleep, a warm and heavy bundle of life in John's arms. "They're the good kind of crazy."
"Incoming wormhole," Chuck called out, like anyone could have missed the lights and the noise and the chevrons and the kawoosh. "Receiving Teyla's IDC."
"Lower the shield," Woolsey said.
A moment later, Teyla and Kanaan stepped back into Atlantis' gate room. Her gaze moved over their surroundings and landed on John and Rodney. Or rather on Torren.
She came straight up the stairs to them, smiling at her son, and then them. "Was he good?"
"Good?" Rodney exclaimed. "Are you insane? He—"
"He was perfect," John interrupted.
Kanaan reached for Torren, and John turned him over rather reluctantly. He'd gotten used to holding him throughout the day.
"He is a good baby," Teyla agreed.
Kanaan nodded, staring down at his son with a besotted expression.
"Thank you for taking him today, Rodney." Teyla pulled Rodney into an Athosian forehead touch.
"Hey," John objected. "He didn't do it alone."
"Thank you both, then," Kanaan said.
Teyla touched foreheads with John, too.
Torren woke up and began fussing.
John knew what that meant. He shared a look with Rodney, who recognized the signals, too. "Well, this was great, but we've both got work to do—"
"I thought today was a day off," Teyla said.
"Yes, yes, and now we have to make up for slacking off all day, don't we?" Rodney blurted out, backing away like the total coward he was.
"What Rodney said," John added. "Paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. Kaggle clean-up. And I think Ronon's gone off pancakes."
Teyla looked at them with bemused puzzlement, and they dodged into the nearest transporter.
"What?" she called to them.
Kanaan began bouncing Torren in his arms as the kid began revving up. He tucked Torren's head beneath his chin, and John winced.
Beside him, Rodney counted down.
Torren upchucked all over his father.
"Aaaahhhhhh," Kanaan yelled.
John hit a random destination and grinned, relieved it wasn't just him at last.
"Huh," Rodney commented as they exited the transporter. "I thought it might be the hair gel."
"Making him barf on you every time."
"And you didn't say anything."
"You're kidding. That's the funniest thing I'd seen in months."
"You're a sick, sick man, McKay."
John sighed and checked his watch. It had been a long time since McKay's radio call snapped him out of the probe dream. He shuddered, remembering the bright red Popsicles. But sleep, sleep sounded so good. If only he didn't dream...
"I need a drink," he said.
"Got any beer left?" Rodney asked.
"No." John sighed again. He should never have showed Ronon the mini-fridge. All the beer was gone. No beer, no rum. No Popsicles. Maybe he could persuade Rodney to share. Because Rodney owed him. Rodney so owed him. "You?" he asked.
"Zip," Rodney admitted mournfully.
John glanced at Rodney thoughtfully. Rodney frowned back at him, then his expression cleared.
"Think anything is left?" John wondered.
"Guess we need to find out."
They headed for the still room in amiable lock step with each other. There had to be something left. The universe wouldn't be so cruel that there wasn't, would it? John ignored the likely answer that it could and focused on the goal of stripping the lining from his throat with a couple of shots of Zelenka's best and finally relaxing.
A couple of drinks with Rodney, and then he'd head back to his own quarters and catch up on some sleep. Even if he did end up dreaming of Helia wearing nothing but a Brett Favre jersey and Todd with a wedge of cheddar on his head.
Rodney glanced at him and smirked.
"You've still got that towel on your shoulder."
John pulled it off and flicked it at Rodney, saying, "Well, you still smell like cheese."