By Kat Reitz and Perryvic

Things had gone so wrong so quickly that even now, nearly five months after that point of catastrophic disaster, he found himself shocked to wake and not find her there beside him. Not to smile and tease their way through the start of the day together, arguing about who was first in the bathroom and how much time did he really have to spend on his hair. He had loved her. He knew that. What else could this be, this terrible grief, but a bereavement that no one else could share? It made him stand apart from everyone even now when they should all be pulling together, being the team instead of disintegrating into isolated piece.

This world, this new outpost was just a place now, dark earth and bleak rock instead of sparkling ocean. The stench of brimstone from the geothermal vents, where soft yellow mineral flowers bloomed over the rocks leading to their refuge on a world they hadn't even bothered to name. It was place, not a home. Somewhere to stand while he tried to force himself to keep his head together and knowing he was slowly coming apart and no one around him seemed to notice or care.

He said he didn't want to talk about it. About her, his Thera and so... they didn't.

No one mentioned her and everyone watched him like he was crazy, like they'd expected all along that if anything happened to her they'd expected him to go that way, to be that way. A conspiracy of silence, like it was a sore wound no one wanted to touch or, as grief-bitter thoughts maintained, they just didn't care about a personal tragedy when they had all suffered so much. Most of them had someone, people who hadn't made it, and the common loss in the fact that they'd lost the city...

There had been a general memorial service on the bleak cliff outside the outpost, and he'd recovered enough to attend that and it had seemed empty and pointless. A memorial to Atlantis, a memorial to all of those who hadn't made it through the last of the Hive Ship attacks but the names were too many speak aloud. Atlantis had died and the wonder that had brought them here had its wings clipped and tossed them here to try and survive.

Thera. Thera with her sharp wit and mercurial moods who worried about him, but did not smother him. Who made him laugh when no others could; demanding and undemanding at the same time. Needing him, wanting him and bridging the gap in his life he had thought impossible for anyone to cross. Who was everything worth saving, worth living for...

And he hadn't saved her. At the end he hadn't saved her.

John was pretty sure that was why he was going crazy. Gone crazy maybe.

But he hadn't ever expected to love someone like that, in his whole life. Not head over heels like that, not something that good. He wasn't the kind of guy who ever had a love like that in his life, and apparently he wasn't the kind of guy to ever keep it. Maybe he shouldn't be surprised, but then he'd always expected to be the one dying young, not to be the one left behind. Selfish in a way, but he'd never believed he mattered enough to anyone to cause the sort of pain he was going through now.

That was why he was sitting at the edge of their base, looking out over the scrubby huddled trees, watching the hypnotic swaying of leaves in the biting wind. They took turns on watch, always, because one day the Wraith would come, and they'd fight and flee again, and right now sensors weren't working. Most things weren't working, least of all his mind. There was nothing to do for it, but keep trying to survive and be glad that the Wraith couldn't reach Earth.

There was nothing here for them; he seemed to understand that instinctively. The world was flat and meaningless. Everything had a peculiar sense of being unreal, so much so he'd wondered for a while if it was. But there was no waking up, no nothing. Not for him, and he had a restless feeling. He'd been useless at his job recently, not able to catch the someone pilfering their supplies. Not food like he would've thought would be the problem, but strange supplies, from the mundane to the seriously technical. But he nodded and said he was on it when Elizabeth brought it up at the meetings and when Rodney announced the thief had somehow got around his precautions again.

Rodney was acting strangely as well. John knew he wasn't good with saying everything that needed to be said and Rodney had issues with that as well, but he knew enough to know Rodney was watching him strangely.

He wished he knew why. It would have been easier if he'd known why, if he could remember why -- everyone knew why he was acting strangely, and John had always thought of Rodney as a friend. A friend he was letting down by not being able to do anything to help him. Rodney had withdrawn, had gotten angry and more frustrated with people than usual. But then, they were all pulled to their limits now with Atlantis gone.

Maybe it was his fault. He didn't seem to care enough to intervene, not to snap when Teyla asked if he wanted to talk about it, not to say he was fine when Carson told him he was worried about him.

He'd noticed things were very wrong with him when even Ronon started looking at him oddly. He couldn't break down in front of his team, so when memories of Thera were there, so bright and vivid he felt he could reach and touch her again, feel that dark brown fine hair over his finger tips, her scent and taste so vivid she was real to him again, he just walked away. Had to walk away.

Lately, it had been getting worse, not better. Memories were crossing the line to hallucinations and he couldn't just write them off as a momentary aberration. He kept seeing glimpses out of the corner of his eye and now, right now...he could feel her standing behind him. Like they used to do on the balcony of Atlantis, when the nights were warm and there was nothing but a moonlit sea and the two of them in silence watching the soft light play over the city gilding it in blues and silvers.

"John." Wrong voice, wrong intonation, wrong everything, and it broke the tempting spell, because it was McKay. "Colonel. We need to talk."

"I'm on watch," he said staring out to some indeterminate point into the sea of trees wishing for blue and silver. "Kinda busy here."

The interruption irritated him. Sometimes he wondered, hoped, if Thera had managed to somehow Ascend rather than die. It had happened before with Dr. Jackson on Earth. He'd died and come back. Everyone had pretty much lost count of most of those times. Was it such a stretch to believe Thera, who had known about Ascension all her life, lived with the idea, might've managed that rather than bleeding out pinned under debris, before Atlantis exploded? Ascension would explain the strange touches and feelings, images he'd been having. The feeling she hadn't gone, couldn't have gone. It was either that or believe he was being haunted.

Rodney sighed, and stepped closer. "Yes. Because the trees are going to attack us all."

"Stranger things have happen," John replied keeping his voice level with effort. "As you're obviously not leaving, what do you want, Rodney?" So it was sharp, not pleasant but he felt robbed of something Rodney had interrupted.

"I..." He cleared his throat, and his voice was quieter. "Look, I don't know what's going on with you. So if I've done something to piss you off this much, it, I tried to save the city, John, you can't blame me for that..."

"I don't blame you for that," John interrupted. No, he blamed himself for that. What use was the strongest ATA gene when he couldn't get Atlantis to protect itself? Couldn't get the engines to fire, couldn't get the shield to mend. But Rodney seemed to think everything was about him. "I don't want to talk about it."

He didn't want to talk about any of it, because he had a strong feeling if he did, they might actually see him lose it.

"It's been five months. You hardly look at me any more. At least have the spine to say it out loud, instead of forcing me to assume..."

John had no idea what the hell Rodney was talking about. Maybe he wasn't the only one shaking the marbles loose in his head. "Look, McKay... I just...need some time, okay? Things have been difficult."

But he had to know that. Why did he have to be some sort of superman when it came to dealing with things? Just because he'd dealt with other stuff well didn't mean he didn't have a breaking point.

"It's been difficult for all of us, and you're not solely responsible for everything. We're trying to hold together, but some of my science team wants to defect to the Genii. Earth isn't coming for us, and either you need to wake up and... I don't know. Never mind." He could hear the ground crunch under Rodney's boots when he shifted where he stood. Rodney looked the worse for wear, worse than he had since the city had fallen.

John looked away from him, the restlessness growing. He didn't want to 'wake up'. What if these moments of memory were all he had left? How long before they faded and he was left with nothing.

~You'll never forget me, will you, John?~

The words sounded real. Real enough to make him turn to find the source of the soft familiar voice. "Thera?"

Rodney's mouth tightened, and he leaned forwards, grabbing at John's shoulders. "Doesn't exist. What the hell, John -- what's going on in your head?"

He glared at Rodney, breaking the grip expertly, his anger boiling over. "I don't understand all of you. I lost her... she died and somehow I'm meant to just carry on as if nothing changed? I see her all the time... I never thought I could love someone like that, and I let her die on Atlantis! But all of you expect me to just carry on as if it wasn't like my life being ripped to pieces. Just... get out of my way, Rodney, or I'll make you."

~It's time to leave, John...I'm waiting for you.~

There, the image of her smile and blue eyes, so unlike most of the other Athosians. The feeling of a touch on his skin drawing away. So real. So warm. Ghosts were cold, so she couldn't be a ghost.

Rodney's mouth was twisted down sharply, and stepped backwards. "I never even *heard* of her, and if I'd known you were head over heels for this woman, I'd have..." He twisted away, hands balled into fists. "Never mind!"

"I have to go." Everything else seemed so distant and trivial. Rodney's hurt and anger was not even interesting to him. There was a faint part of his mind screaming at him that he didn't just walk away from one of his team like this. That he should be thinking about other things, his team, how they were going to survive, why he was doing this.

Another glimpse. Along the path to the Stargate, a familiar figure turning and looking over her shoulder at him.

Ascended or a ghost, right now he didn't care. She wasn't just in his head any more. He could see her, hear her, maybe touch her. He'd give anything to touch her again.

"Thera.... Do you see her?" He asked of Rodney. "There! Do you see her? Maybe... maybe she Ascended or something, maybe..."

"I don't see anything, Colonel." Rodney reached for him again, warier now. John could feel it. "I think you need to talk to Doctor Beckett..."

That didn't prove anything. He remembered Dr. Jackson being invisible to everyone except O'Neill. It didn't prove she was gone and he was insane. That was the problem with Pegasus. There was no definite line of insanity any more. "Why don't you get him for me?" John said.

~Are you coming, John? I don't want you to be late. I've got something wonderful to show you...

And if he had gone nuts, it was best he was as far away from everyone as possible.

"Fine. Just... stay here." Rodney hesitated, and then he took off jogging towards the interior of their encampment.

With Rodney gone, there was nothing to stop his compulsion to follow, and truthfully he didn't care. Perhaps this would be a happy ever after or an end to this feeling. Either would be good. Because after months of whispers in his head, dreams replaying a life lost to him now either would be a mercy.

He waited for him to get out of sight and then jogged along the path towards the Stargate. He didn't want to be left behind again, or leave anyone behind, no, not like the moment when everything had broken apart.

The end, when it came, was fast, ugly and not entirely unexpected. Enough time to have evacuated most people to the alpha site with them trying to hold the city against Hive ship after Hive ship. How they'd gotten the co-ordinates was anyone's guess; Asurians, Genii, Vasutrans, any of them. In the end it didn't matter because they had struck the Wraith hard enough to warrant a massed attack.

He'd taken the chair, new supplies of drones swarming from the city through the power of his thought as Atlantis rallied and hit back as hard as they could. Linked together deeper than he had ever gone before and finding weapons that might just help some if any of them worked and cursing that he had never tried this hard before. Rodney, god alone knew how, had pulled some sort of shield out of thin air. Arbitrary numbers, he said, but an extra seven minutes. Long enough... long enough to set the self-destruct and run. Long enough to stop him from doing anything ridiculous like dying, going down with the ship, all of that.

Rodney had done that for him, he guessed. Rodney had done that to give them all a chance, because if the city was going to fail, what good was a ZPM to anyone? Nothing, nothing at all, and they needed to destroy the city, break the gate back to Earth. Break the Wraith's hope of a new feeding ground and trust in Carson's prediction of an extinction level of Wraith numbers if they could pick them off.

He'd sent them to leave, the self-destruct prime waiting for his codes, determined to take down as many Hive ships as he could, Atlantis humming in his head, joining in the decimation of their enemies. He knew when it past the point there could be a miracle, where Atlantis was going to go down because there were too many and even though he had killed more Wraith than anyone else alive, it wasn't enough. Time to say goodbye to the best and only home he'd ever had.

In this case when Rodney had said seven minutes, he'd actually only meant two. Rodney was one of the last to go through, because he'd said that Elizabeth needed to be at the Alpha site. He walked backwards towards the gate, gesturing at John. "We need to

"I'm coming.... go! Go!" John yelled at him punching in his final codes "Right behind you..."

And he was... he was...Rodney went through the event horizon and he was close behind -- up to the point where he heard a crackle on his radio, an explosion making him wince and blurring his vision just for a moment.

"John... John..."

He knew immediately, with a terrifying certainty it was Thera. A clear image of Thera lying trapped close by when she should be safe at the Alpha site long since. He didn't even think, he turned and ran towards where she had to be.

"Thera? Thera you're supposed to be at the Alpha site. Evacuated. The city is about to self-destruct! Where are you?"

"I... I was on my way taking extra equipment from Rodney's lab, there were explosions at the labs..." Her voice sounded weak and he only had minutes to run and find her, take her with him and he was panicking that there wouldn't be enough time. He hoped it wasn't an arbitrary number, not this time.

He ran, ran towards the labs. Cracking light, fire and oh god, a splash of brown hair on the floor and half the ceiling of the lab over her. He didn't have to have Carson there to tell him. There would be no miracle. The miracle was she was conscious now, seeing him with blue eyes, smiling a brave smile that told him she knew she wasn't going anywhere.

"Thera, I've started the self-destruct...I'm not sure if I can..." He tried to lift the metal. Tried wishing for Ronon's strength, and not able to get it to move even a little.

"I'm dying, John... I just wanted to say goodbye..." Thera said softly, even as the bombardment thundered above him. "To say thank you... It was like I didn't know how to live until I met you..."

"No... no, Thera, I don't leave anyone behind. I'm... practically famous for it. Infamous even." John said stroking her forehead. But he looked down and he was kneeling in an impossibly growing pool of blood and it wouldn't stop growing, seeping out from underneath that pile of debris.

"I know, love..." Her words were barely a whisper. "I want you to go. You will always carry a part of me with you. I needed you to know I understand. I will go in peace."

"You don't have to go at all," John refused to believe that. "I can still do it. I can still get you out of here. Carson will... he can do..."

"I love you, John. I just... wanted you to remember me." Her voice was very faint then, fading as her eyes began to close.

And all he could do was touch her, hold her as she slipped away, promising her he would go, he would leave, he'd never forget her.

And in the end, he went stumbling to the Stargate, the wormhole still locked. The shields failed, the place full of electricity, explosions as he staggered towards it blindly. Maybe it was the smoke, but the Stargate seemed to be glowing strangely as he ran for the wormhole, the air thick with the crackle of ozone.

For a moment he was sure he hadn't made it. That he'd stayed beyond that final second because it didn't feel the same, crossing the final threshold. It felt strange, odd and there was an explosion as he ran through that hurled him through the air to the ground beyond.

But at that point, he stopped caring, and just closed his eyes.

"Carson! Carson, I need you to come here quick, it's the Colonel...."

The Colonel. Once upon a time, not that long ago, it had been Sheppard, or John, or oh fuck, harder, but that was a long lost pipe dream. Rodney hadn't ever thought that having Atlantis fall was the sort of thing that could break a man's mind. The unsure transmissions from earth that had come before then, the mentions of the advancing Ori, well, it explained to Rodney why help hadn't come for them. He tried not to think about that, if Earth's fate mirrored Atlantis' fate, and if destroying the gate had done Pegasus galaxy more of a favor than Earth.

"What is it, Rodney?" Carson replied, sounding weary. He looked and sounded that way a lot now. There weren't that many actual doctors who knew medicine left and there were more and more attacks, which meant more and more wounded. Even so, this was important.

"It's Sheppard. He's hallucinating, and I don't think it's the first time, but it is the first time he tried to convince me that I was seeing what he was seeing, too. That woman he goes on about." That woman who Rodney hadn't even known about, hadn't guessed existed because he spent evenings with John when he could and he wasn't going to be bitter. No.

"Oh, aye... the one who died. I don't think I ever met her, but grief can do strange things to a man, and John bottles things up," Carson said and he wanted to hit him for being so understanding. "But if he is hallucinating, maybe we should have him in for some downtime."

What was worse was that Carson didn't even seem surprised. "Where is he?"

"Out at the edge of the base." Rodney couldn't help but clench his jaw, because no one else seemed to find it strange that John had this wonderful love affair with a woman none of them had ever met personally. It was just a shame that Halling had died, because he'd kept track of the people they'd evacuated from different planets to the 'mainland'.

"All right, then, let's go and take a wee look at him," Carson said glancing at Rodney as he started to walk. "You still haven't spoken to him, have you?"

"About what?" The relationship that was apparently a sham, or breakfast, or the weather, or anything. John seemed to resent his very presence.

"About... your difficulties with each other," Carson said patiently and that tone drove him mad. "You seem incredibly angry with him, Rodney."

"I am. I don't think I've been angrier with someone in my whole life, and it's not my fault. It's his." His and his dick, and some girl that he was mourning in an unbelievably tragic fashion that he never would have thought John would go in for.

"Rodney, he's obviously lost someone very dear to him," Carson reminded him. "And we very nearly lost him as well, you have to remember that. I seem to remember you saying you were just glad to have him here alive."

Fuck it. Fuck it. They were never getting back to Earth and 'don't ask don't tell' didn't reach that far when the planet they came from was probably gone. "Because I was sleeping with him," Rodney finally snapped, starting to walk Carson back to where he'd left John. "And he swore up and down all of that stupid, stupid emotional shit that was clearly a fantastic lie, and everyone keeps telling me that he's lost someone dear to him, and I don't believe it!"

"You were..." Carson paused, looking at him. "My God, Rodney, why didn't you say anything? It makes more sense now. I didn't think you and he had actually... I mean, how long?"

"A year or so. Give or take a few weeks before it got serious, after I was on the hive ship..." Rodney shoved his hands in his pockets, and kept marching on. "Why didn't I say anything? Oh, I don't know, it had something to do with the fact that he was denying my existence and going on and on about some girl that I don't remember even existing."

He was mildly gratified to see Carson wince at that and he wanted to say, 'Yes, look, see, I'm not being unreasonable. This is wrong, wrong, wrong!' because he'd been wanting that for five months of hell, of being looked through, ignored.

"Maybe he feels... guilty?" Carson suggested tentatively. "You know John, he blames himself for pretty much everything."

"Fantastic. So, some woman that he was cheating on me with was actually the love of his life because it makes for a better guilt trip, and I should feel sorry for him for that? You're all lucky that I haven't beaten his head against a rock, because I don't think I can take much more of this, this was not why I..." Rodney trailed off as he looked towards where he'd left John. No sight of him. "Shit."

Carson looked around and tapped his radio. "Colonel Sheppard? It's Dr. Beckett, please respond."

Rodney could even hear the hiss and crackle of static over the rush of the wind. "Colonel Sheppard? John?"

No response. "This isn't like him," Carson muttered under his breath and looked back up at him. "Rodney, tell me exactly how he was behaving when you last saw him."

"He said he could see her, and asked if I could see her, too. He was agitated and now he's gone. I bet he's gated out somewhere and fuck, I need to find out where..." Rodney turned away then, started to run back to the middle of the base where they'd set up a solar panel set to run equipment that was hooked up to the DHD.

"Wait, Rodney!" Carson was jogging along behind him. "I'll tell Elizabeth and the others. We'll need Ronon's tracking skills!"

Right then, he didn't care about Ronon's tracking skills. He cared about the fact that John had a relationship with someone that he cared for so much he was having some sort of psychotic episode over her death and yet he had to have been having an affair -- call it what it was then -- with him at the same time. That made everything a lie. Every time he'd surprised him with some soft words in his ear, they'd been honey sweet lies and he'd lapped them up.

"You get them, I'll find out where he went!" And he was still looking for him. He was still looking for John after all he'd done, after lies like that, after things like that that felt like a knife in the gut, because hey, he'd always known that the hot guy never slept with someone like Rodney openly. It was probably just because she wouldn't let John fuck her up the ass. Or something. Rodney didn't know.

He wished he didn't care. But he'd fallen hard for John, so hard, and he'd dared to think maybe there was something more there than near death fucking. And he'd been wrong obviously and he should be sitting back letting John do something stupid, but he couldn't because it was John. John who had promised so many things and... fuck.

Everyone knew to move away when he entered their pitiful control room like that, looking for his makeshift datalogger. There it was. A dial-out. A dial-out to an address they didn't even know.

Where the hell was the web-cam footage?

"Rodney? What's going on?" Elizabeth came in. "Carson said there's something wrong with John?"

"He dialed out. We need to get a puddle jumper and go after him, he's hallucinating and we really just need to tie him down until get gets this out of his system, he's a risk to us all..." Dammit, he couldn't find it.

"Rodney said he was behaving strangely," Carson said, and thank god he was backing him up instead of making him sound like some middle-aged version of Carrie. "I do think we should try and find him. See what the problem is."

"There is a problem with Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla asked as she came in followed by Ronon.

"We'll find him," Ronon replied with irritating confidence and Rodney wanted to point out if they had been better friends, they would've noticed more. Wouldn't have lost him in the first place so that finding him was necessary.

"Has he done this before? I've noticed that he's not been his usual self, but I had no idea he was hallucinating, or ..." Elizabeth said concerned.

"Neither had I. I put it down to reactions to stress, to grief. It can do strange things to the mind." Carson said that familiar sound of guilt in his voice.

There it was. He called up the digital feed and replayed it.

There was John there, standing in front of the DHD. But he wasn't pressing the chevrons, he wasn't selecting them at random and just walking through. He *looked* at the DHD, and the gate code depressed itself before he started through the gate.

Depressed themselves. The gate dialed itself.

"Okay, now that is just plain odd," Carson said as they watched the tape again. "That's not some trick is it?"

"I have never known a gate to dial itself except in tales of the Ancients," Teyla said seriously looking over to Ronon, who nodded agreement.

"Then perhaps John isn't hallucinating. Maybe he's having some contact with an Ancient." Elizabeth commented as the tape replayed the same sequence again.

"That's a little more likely than him being haunted by the ghost of his dead girlfriend," Ronon said with his arms folded. "Either way, he's not in control."

"Aye, true enough," Carson nodded. "Let me get some medical supplies, and then we'll go after him. "

"I'm coming with you," Elizabeth said. "If it is an Ancient, then I'm the best qualified to deal with them."

And Rodney was the least qualified, but he was going with them anyway. Another Ascended Ancient -- well, that would explain why no one had known her, wouldn't it, and that was nothing Rodney could compete with, hippie bimbos, playing with people's minds... "Let's go. And by let's go, I mean, let's go *now*, towards the gate, in a hurry."

Carson nodded and ran off to fetch his supplies, Ronon and Teyla grabbed some extra weaponry from their laughable excuse for an armory, Elizabeth threw on a jacket.

In Atlantis, this might've taken longer but this base was so small, it was a matter of moments.

"You've got the gate address?" Elizabeth unnecessarily but he was too worried to even send back a half-hearted remark. "Let's go then."

Go to John's rescue when they already didn't have the resources to do much more than travel from place to place looking for traders. Rodney clenched his jaw, and nodded, because he knew he'd be piloting the puddle jumper.

This was a world he didn't know, where he could hear the sea before the moment he stepped through the event horizon. She was walking in front of him down to the too close shore where the sand glittered strangely under a sun that felt warm. There was the scent of flowers on the soft breeze, something a little like lavender with deep spicy undertones and unfamiliar insects and butterflies flicker over the heather like tussocks in the dunes and it was like a surreal dream.

Her feet left no footprints in the crystal sand, even as his rasped with every step and he realized he didn't care if she was Ascended, if she was a ghost, or he was just plain crazy, because he wanted this over. He wanted to stop feeling like this, being this way. Some part of him realized there was something wrong and that meant he was a danger one way or another. He didn't want that and he didn't want to feel this despair forever.

"Thera.... Thera where are we going?"

~This way. Follow me, John.~

Down to the shore, and it was beautiful. He hadn't seen an ocean like that in too long, wide and welcoming, swallowing the horizon on all sides. Impossible shades of turquoise blue fading to a clean azure in deeper water. Sea birds riding the wind lazily, dipping in over the crests of gentle waves.

It reminded him of what he had lost. Atlantis, her... his sanity. An alien sea, with crystal sands, the wind clear and fresh. A ghost walking on the water in front of him, reaching a hand out towards him. Wanting him, wanting something.

~Do you remember, John? Do you remember me? Do you remember when we talked and you promised anything?~

He watched her fade in and out with the breeze. "Yes."

He remembered. He remembered soft conversations in the night, comfortable with their bodies entwined promising his life and soul away. Her hand touched his face for a moment, smiling at him.

~Once we talked of children, John. How strong they would have to be, born to war and this time, this place.~

"You said... you didn't want to inflict that on a child of yours." John said aloud, the wind taking his words as the recollection stirred in his mind. She had said she hadn't been born to be a warrior, but when the Wraith came, it was a case of adapt or die.

~It is too late. My words were selfish, because we must survive the war. John...~

"Well, I guess we're working on it," John said conscious he was talking to himself as well as to a ghost figment. "Not that I care much. Can't even do my job. All I can think about is you, Thera." He looked around some more. "This is a nice place. Is this the point you tell me to follow you into the water and I drown? Because that's not really surviving the war, Thera."

He'd do it though. He knew he would because there was a pull in him that couldn't be denied. But it said something about him that even now that felt like giving up.

She turned at the edge of the water, and smiled at him, mouth a wide, gentle smile.

~This is where I ask you to kneel, John, and accept what you offered to me.~

"Okay..." He had no idea what the hell she was talking about, but he remembered thinking that about a lot of things before she died, listening instead to the *way* she said things. The excitement of discovery, the happiness of something falling into place in her head. He loved that.

He knelt at the waters edge, the waves, rushing to soak his knees warm as blood.


Oh god, couldn't he even go *mad* in peace? Just for once.

"John, we were worried for you." That was Teyla, good, steady Teyla, and he didn't turn around to guess that they were all probably there, and he was kneeling there, waiting for something. Waiting for, oh, god, a sharp pain in his gut.

"John?" Carson getting closer, probably saw him flinch, and he'd take him away from here and he just couldn't go. Not now. It was vital he stay where he was. Life and death. He pulled his gun and twisted.

"I'd really like all of you to stay back there," he said firmly. He had to press his other hand in over his stomach. "Until I'm done."

Not that he knew what he was doing, but he knew there'd be a signal, a sign, and the sharp pain in his gut was the sign that something was going on. Maybe she was killing him, or maybe that was what Ascending felt like. Pain and ripping apart from the inside out, and only those who were truly ready and prepared got through it without the agony because it was a death of sorts.

He kept finding Rodney's eyes. Looking up at him like he'd been in that position before and Rodney looked so hurt and angry John wasn't sure whether the next pain was real or just from the emotion in him. "I'm sorry," he said and he didn't know why he was apologizing.

"John, you're obviously in... pain..." Elizabeth said approaching him like she would a wild animal. "Let Carson look at you... please? Put the gun down."

Sooner or later, he wasn't going to be able to stop them.

"You can't move me from here," he warned them. "I've got to stay here." His hand wavered with the gun and he felt something warm against the other hand pressing to his stomach. He lifted it and looked at the red stain in amazement.

Bleeding. He hadn't been stabbed, and people didn't spontaneously bleed like that, did they? Not that he'd ever seen. Rodney started towards him despite the gun. "You shot yourself? What the, *why*?"

"No.. I...didn't...I wouldn't..." He dropped the gun, and the next pain had him bent over and there were hands on him then, a fog in his head clearing, but being replaced by fear. "Rodney?"

"Jesus, John. Carson, you need to see this, why's he bleeding? It's like it's hemorrhaging..." And Rodney's hands *were* on him, flattening him out, and that made the pain worse.

He could feel something moving, pushing from the inside, and that was terrifying in a very unexpected way. He couldn't even make sounds of pain as he lay half in the water half on the shore, gasping silently like a fish out of water.

"Let me see. Help me get this shirt off," Carson said firmly, his hands cool on suddenly fever hot skin. "Ronon, Teyla, hold him still."

No bending or curling up now with cool hands pressing him down, shoulders and legs and the sun eclipsed by Rodney leaning over to see.

And they stretched him tight in that flat position, so he could feel that pushing even worse, like it was tearing him from the inside out, pushing up and god, god, that hurt. Rodney was staring down at him with wide eyes, and then he was pushed back by Carson. "Son, Colonel? Look at me, I need you to tell me what you're feeling..."

"Something... something pushing out..." Words were hard to find in among periodic pain. He tensed again as another sharp hurt pushed up. Perhaps he was a living bomb, such as the Goa'uld made, activated by Stargates. Perhaps there was danger in this. He gritted his teeth a moment determined if he was, then it was only him who would die. "You need to get... away from me. Could be anything."

Seemed like it was an ending, no matter how it came.

"John?...Carson, can you see anything?" Elizabeth was asking and she sounded worried.

"Aye..." and the shock in his voice was enough to make him glance at his stomach. At the skin tenting outwards and a shape moving underneath like a clawing hand.

"It's a chest burster!" Rodney declared, voice tight with horror and that sentence would have been better if it *had* been sarcastic and not scared-sounding. It was. It was something moving and making him hurt and it was *inside* of him, pushing out.

"That... wasn't exactly helpful Rodney," Carson replied but he did back off a little and he could even remember when they'd all sat in Atlantis and watched those films together. Made jokes about how Wraith reproduced while they ate popcorn and told Ronon he was a dead ringer for Predator, which had made him give a rare laugh.

"Chest-burster?" Teyla asked sounding alarmed. Of course. It had been a guy thing. Maybe that was why he'd been sitting with Rodney and Thera hadn't been there.

He tried pushing Rodney back then, pushing them away because it was sharp and like a knife and oh god, something metal cutting outwards and things were feeling really bad. Really wrong now and god only knew what it was, but he still had an irrational urge to let it survive. Not to stop it, and he didn't want to keep it in because he was cutting apart from the inside out, skin tearing, and his voice screaming because god, god that hurt, graying out hurt, and a metal *noise* in the air.

He could hear Rodney shouting, Carson with an edge of panic in his "Bloody hell!" The thump and whine of Ronon's blaster gun and then angry voices stopping him firing again, saying it was too close, too much danger to him.

He opened his eyes a little and there was a glowing metal snowflake unfolding on his chest, glittering with a complexity of crystal circuits and a swirling hub of something liquid and moving at its heart.

No replicator had ever been so beautiful, a filigree of light, first the span of his hand and then unfolding delicate fins to become three-dimensional and with the warmth of the sun, it unfolded and divided into increasingly more complex shapes, the taint of his blood being absorbed and the sense of something leaving.

He knew they'd try and destroy it, but they didn't dare touch it now, not knowing what it was. He had moments to act.

With the little strength he had, he lifted the shimmering thing and hurled it into the sea, like Excalibur twisting in the light to vanish beneath the waves.

It all made sense the moment he saw it crawl out of John's stomach.

Not that it made sense, but he knew what it was, and he knew it like the back of his hand, knew it forwards and backwards and still had burned into his mind's eye that snowflake shape, five sides, that was on so many display screens in the city, the two dimensional map of a city that had spires that reached to the sky.

Somehow, John had carried part of the city with him. The nanites, and maybe nanites had been what had built the city in the first place, because the Asurians had done a fantastic job making it, hadn't they?

He'd stopped Ronon shooting it, watched as John, despite having the gaping hole in his stomach, threw it into the sea. And he realized for the first time the crystal sands and warm sea represented a place rich in all sorts of minerals, elements. Perfect conditions for nanite growth.

But John was bleeding and had gone terrifying limp and pale and he had no idea how all the other stuff fitted in but that didn't matter because having something like that growing inside of you probably entitled you to a bit of insanity.

Carson would understand it better, and right then, Carson needed to fix the hole, needed to... "Someone *help* him!" Rodney snapped, startling himself forwards to at least hold John's hand, hold him down, something.

"I need to... I'll have to do some of it here. I don't want to move him too much with an open wound if I can help it," Carson said reverting to efficiency. "Let's get him out of the water. Elizabeth... Teyla, put down your jacket so the sand doesn't go everywhere. Rodney, I'm going to need your help here." He was in his bag, fetching out iodine, alcohol, all of the emergency supplies. "Here, pour this over the wound," he said handing him a bottle even as he put his hands in surgical spirits, and then slipped on some gloves. "I need to reach inside in a moment, when Ronon's moved him."

"It's not a wound, it's his whole *insides*," Rodney muttered, but he did what he was told. He didn't want John to die, and god, if Carson could save him and they could all just survive to see what the nanites did, if they could see what that snowflake shape became, they could maybe all be safe again.

They moved John and then watched as Carson poked around in a way Rodney just didn't want to think about and made him feel sick but looked surprisingly happy about the results. "Not as bad as I thought. The cut inside is clean and ...a little like a caesarean truth be told. Worst bit is at the surface here, but that is not life threatening. I can stitch this here. I don't thing Colonel Sheppard will be waking up at the moment and I'd rather not take him back through the Stargate with an open wound if I can help it."

Rodney certainly hoped John wouldn't be waking up, and Carson did seem to know what he was doing. He hoped he did, because he wasn't hanging around with that sterile needle.

"What was that...thing?" Ronon asked as they watched Carson work, still holding John in a surprisingly careful way. "Didn't look like a replicator?"

"Nanites," Rodney clarified, looking out over to the water. He wished no one had ever taught Ronon anything about replicators, and since that no one had been him. "It was always a theory that nanites built the city itself, since we came across more than one perfect replica city."

"Wait a minute..." Elizabeth frowned. "Are you saying...what I think you're saying?"

"If you think he's saying John has just given birth to a city, then most likely yes," Carson said swabbing and then tying off knots hastily. "It is theoretically possibly Elizabeth. The Asurian nanites adapted to draw energy from your body. John was the last one out of Atlantis and he was meant to be right behind Rodney but didn't make it through until...well nearly that whole seven minutes."

"Until seconds before the self destruct activated," Rodney agreed, watching Carson and John more than the city seed that was floating on the waves like a tiny tiny toy boat. "I think it's possible that there were parts of the city that *were* nanite built. Something had to maintain the structural integrity of the city while the Atlanteans lived there, and I really have a feeling that they weren't into climbing into tiny spaces the way we were."

Laws of exponential growth would have the thing unfolding at an impossible rate after a certain point. If they gave it some of the junked equipment, who knew what it could do with it?

"If you think about it, it's not so far fetched; the entire programming for a human being is contained in a single cell," Carson said stitching carefully. "The Ancient were advanced enough to do that with their technology. We saw that with the Asurians."

"Do you think..." Elizabeth paused. "It occurs to me that the name Thera is also the name of an island on earth that is hotly debated as one of the possible sites of Atlantis. I thought it was just some evidence of a fascinating ancestral link between Pegasus and there you think...?"

Carson didn't pause but exhaled. "Well now. It might explain a few things. And we know how good nanites are at convincing hallucinations, and manipulation of the mind. Perhaps in a way we were right. He was grieving the loss of the city but it was made very personal to him."

Rodney shifted, and sat back on his heels. "Fantastic. How very metaphorical." He'd always hated elongated overdone metaphors in school, too. Neat little words, tying it up as an explanation with 'let's forget the last five months of hell' stuck as a pretty bow on top.

Carson looked up at him. "It is possible that Colonel Sheppard hasn't been in his right mind since that time, Rodney." He stitched and nodded to himself. "That's good enough for triage. If you could bring the puddlejumper here, Rodney, we can take him home. He does need a wee bit of blood at the least."

"We need to come back here," Rodney suggested as he got to his feet. He was trying not to look at the pale skin and blood soaked shirt. "We need to set up a watch, here on the shore."

"Why?" Elizabeth asked and really people were just incredibly slow sometimes. After all that talk, they still didn't seem to see what this meant.

Rodney stared for a few seconds, and then started, "Because the city is going to rebuild itself. Mineral sands, the minerals in the ocean -- Doctor Weir, the nanites are rebuilding the city from some pre-programmed point in time, or according to *some* program, and I'm hoping that the program involves three full ZedPMs."

"You are kidding me..." Elizabeth said staring at him and he was about to answer when Carson cleared his throat.

"Uh, I might've given the impression that it wasn't urgent to move John, but really that was just to keep you all calm," Carson interrupted. "We can talk about this back at the outpost. Rodney... puddlejumper?"

"Right, right." Rodney turned, and ran back for it, because *now* Carson meant business, and Jesus, maybe John could live. Maybe everything would work out.

He had to hope because there was precious little else he could do.

Waking up in the infirmary was something he should be used to and was to the extent that he recognized the feel of the sheets, the beeping of monitors before he opened his eyes. The fact he could hear that it was in a tent, with the wind gently flapping at the canvas, and people talking out there. And somehow he felt strange even above the dull aching pain in his stomach as if he was waking from some very intense all consuming dream.

There was something he should be remembering, something really important but it slid from his grasp just like dream-images..

There was the sound of typing beside him. There was the sound of typing, and every so often, a chair squeaked. So, he wasn't alone. It was maybe Carson, but there was that constant, insistent typing.

His mind supplied the immediate answer of Rodney and with that, things started to unravel in his head. There were memories of memories in his head and it was as if they were dissolving as the truth started to flood back, harsh and unforgiving.

He still remembered what Thera looked like, but now it seems so obvious that the blue of her eyes was Rodney's, the feel of her hair was Rodney's translated to another form, a ghost of Atlantis. The nights on the balcony, the mornings getting up...her figure dissolved away leaving him with the truth.

Oh...crap. How was he going to fix this? Why was Rodney even there after everything he'd done? Blanked him, shot him down just when they should've been together finding comfort in each other rather than him isolating himself in some enforced guilt ridden penance that he survived, haunted by a memory that had never existed.

He dismissed the idea of pretending to be asleep forever and opened his eyes, turning his head towards the noise. When a man couldn't run, he had to turn and face what was ahead of him.

Rodney's head was bowed down, and he was hunched over the keyboard like John had been used to seeing, typing away. Rodney had gone to some lengths that John remembered to press for solar power in their new 'base' on the idea that they might have to use the naquadah generators at any point in time as bombs. But it was still strange to see the cord running out of the tent and the open panel that Rodney had placed in a sunspot. Semi-portable laptops.

He watched him for a little, wondering how long he had been here. How long Rodney had been here. From the stiffness, some time at least. "Hey, Rodney."

The typing stopped, and Rodney sat up a little, before his eyes went a little wide. "Colonel. You're awake..."

"Yeah, just about." Colonel. Oh god, it had taken years to get to first names and he had undone all of that and what was more, he wasn't entirely sure he could take the blame for it. "How long've I been here?"

"Here?" Rodney hit a few more keys, a quick clatter, and then he closed his laptop. "About five days. Carson wanted to be notified when you were awake. I'll just..." Rodney gestured to the door, starting to stand up. He couldn't get away quick enough, avoiding his eyes, his touch. It was as if consciousness was all Rodney had been waiting for. Not to say hi, to berate him for getting hurt, for being a complete idiot. Was it so hard to understand?

"No!" John said reaching out with his hand to try and get hold of him and missing. "No, just... us for a moment. I... need to talk to you."

Those were the words Rodney had used on him. The irony was a bitch.

"I..." Rodney hesitated, clasping his laptop against his hip. He looked miserable and wary, the way he'd hung back when they'd first gotten to Atlantis and against after Doranda. Hurt. Afraid of being hurt. "It wasn't entirely you. We know that now, but..."

"But..." John exhaled. 'We' not 'I' and had it been worth waking up if it was to this? But maybe it was just that as far as Rodney was concerned. Five months was certainly long enough to fall out of a relationship. "Rodney, I've woken up and I've remembered. I've remembered how I was okay? And it wasn't... Damn..." He wanted to get up and hold onto him because words weren't working, nothing was working and he was trying really hard to explain everything. "It was you, Rodney. All of that...I thought it was about Thera, but it was my memories of you. I don't think it created that many new ones, just superimposed her on my existing memories. I didn't forget you...not like that..." And that still didn't seem to be getting things across

Rodney's mouth pulled down at the corners. "Thera was apparently the name of the island that Atlantis was supposed to have been. Apparently, it was the name of the self-initiated recovery script. The city is rebuilding itself on the planet you gated to."

"It is?" John raised his eyebrows but right then he didn't really care enough because he was preoccupied with the way he had somehow he'd screwed everything up. "Rodney...c'mon, I need to know what I can do to fix things. I didn't ask for that to happen. I just wanna..."

"I need time to think. I, it hasn't been *easy* since Atlantis fell, trying to get us into a semblance of functionality, to keep us powered and defensible, and the whole time, you were, you..." Rodney drummed his fingers against the lid of his laptop even as John supplied the epithets in his own head. A prick, a jerk, a bastard. "I need to get Carson. You did have a nanite city burst out of your chest."

"Stomach. And to be fair I wasn't really aware of what was going on. Thought I was seeing ghosts." He tried a smile but it faded when it found no answering response. "I know what I was like. I was a bastard, okay? Because I thought I'd lost you. That's the truth of it. It used what I would've felt if I'd lost you."

"And that's fine, but *I* need time to get past everything that happened, because I've spent the last five months with everyone telling me to leave you alone, you included, because you'd just lost some fantastic love of your life, and that *I* was being a bastard for bothering you. Look, I'll be back with Carson." Rodney left, stormed off, the cord of his laptop trailing after him.

"Well, that went well." There was a part of John that wanted to say, 'Hey wait a minute, I didn't exactly ask for the whole memory tampering and chest bursting thing. I didn't plan to make this a complete fuck up.' There wasn't anything he could actually do about it because Rodney had five months of pain and betrayal and he kept having these memories of the way Rodney *looked* at him, like he was torturing puppies in front of him. It wasn't so easy to put that sort of thing behind him and right then, he would've traded the new city just not to hurt him like this.

He couldn't undo it, though. He couldn't undo it and so he'd just have to... work at it, move forwards. Or something. When his gut hurt less and he thought there was a chance in hell he could actually get out of bed and start being a military commander again. Start being John Sheppard again. He had the weird, disturbing half-memory that Rodney had told him about people wanting to defect to other planets, and that was probably his fault.

And he now knew all those thefts had been him with his memory turned off or edited by Thera as she sent him in search of necessary substances. Drinking chemicals that should've killed him, swallowing metal for god's sake. There was a lot wrong here and just being here and alive wasn't fixing anything. Maybe he could get out of bed after all if he put his mind to it.

Didn't have anything to lose considering by the sounds of it he had lost pretty much everything. Because pregnant with a nanite city baby obviously didn't count as an excuse or even a good reason, not with Rodney.

He didn't know what to do, but he had to do something, had to...

"Easy, lad! Easy, you need to be lying down, your body's been through a lot of stress..."

"Yeah, well, it's been through worse," John said trying to get up again and discovering what ached lying down turned into stabbing agony, when he moved more than a couple of inches. "I need to talk to Rodney. Clear things up. That's more important than lying around here."

Okay, that did hurt. More than he expected, but he'd had worse. Wraith feedings, bugs in the neck, all of that. Rodney knew that and probably expected him to turn up somehow, penitent and apologetic. The problem was he didn't know what to say or do even if he managed to do that

"Rodney... needs a little time," Carson suggested softly. "We didn't know about, well, only I know about you and him. In a way, you were mourning the city."

"No... no, Carson I wasn't. It was him, okay? It took the memory of what we had and wrapped itself up in that. That's why it felt real." John replied and right now he didn't care who knew about his relationship with Rodney. Or lack of it. "How do I fix this? I need to fix this."

"You need to rest, first. Rodney will come around in his own time, John. It won't do you any good if you rupture your stitches and turn septic." Carson pushed him down gently on the bed. "He's been a little caught up in doing fly-overs of the city, and scanning it."

"How big can it be? It's only been five days," John said but lay back anyway, because stoicism aside, it hurt. "I mean, it came out of my stomach unless I'd started hallucinating and was as big as my hand."

"They were nanites, John," Carson repeated. "It's big enough to do a flyover of. You won't believe it when you see it."

"Guess not." He settled back against the pillows, restless and wanting not to feel so helpless about this. "When you gonna let me out of here? I'm starting to remember things that scare the hell out of me."

"And that's supposed to entice me to let you out?" Carson' shook his head slightly. "Another day. Give it another day, and then I might let you get up for short periods of time. Then you're restricted to light activities and *no* heavy lifting."

"So no carrying around cities in my stomach," John replied automatically. He was a good patient. He had enough practice. But the moment Carson's back was turned he was out of there. He'd let things go too wrong to pretend it was going to right itself on its own.

Now that Atlantis seemed to be rebuilding itself *outside* of John's stomach, Rodney had a lot of work to do. They hoped that that in the next few months, the city would be at an inhabitable state, and they could gate to it from the land. Perhaps even transplant the land gate *into* the city but for the moment, he studied the developments, tried to work out what the nanites were doing and where their program was from, and just why things were starting.

Because, here was the surprise, his theory on an identical copy was very obviously not quite right. There were a lot of similar things, but it was obvious from his flyovers there were things appearing that Atlantis Mark One had never possessed. They'd taken to dropping "food parcels" in the water near the city full of things that might be difficult to extract from mineral salts. It worked well enough that there were significant spurts of growth afterwards, so Rodney had organized some scavenging trips that had the notable upside of keeping him away from an increasingly mobile and determined John.

They needed hard metals, they needed rarer minerals, and they needed, most importantly of all, to leave naquadah by the partially formed docks. He'd decided unanimously to scrap the gate-hopping plan, to dismantle it for their own sanity, and they were in the process of sacrificing the space gates to Atlantis Mark II. That had produced the biggest changes of them all.

And it meant, he'd managed not to see John for oh... quite a long time. Which was good. Great, even, because he'd known where he stood before John opened his eyes and told him he was sorry. Like he was meant to let go of everything in one moment and that just wasn't him. So he held grudges; Sheppard deserved it and anyway he was *busy*.

And there was someone blocking his light.

"Busy here." He waved whoever it was off, half-twisting to look up, and oh. Sheppard.

"Yeah. I've been hearing," John replied and he still looked like he hadn't really recovered properly. Even now. "I kinda got the hint you didn't want to see me after the first half dozen times I tried." He smiled just a little but it seemed more tired than anything. "So it's okay. If that's... Look, Rodney, I'm not really good at this and I didn't want to sound like some romance novel. Can't we at least be friends?"

At least be friends. Jesus. It did sound like a sordid soap opera, just as cheap and false. "You're completely ruining my scientific frame of mind right now, Colonel. Do you think I'm good at this either? You seem to expect things to be right back to normal after I put up with five months of you *angry* at me, waxing poetic about a woman I hadn't ever met."

So what if it wasn't fair. Neither had the way John had treated him. He hadn't asked for that either, to have every hope crushed so incredibly thoroughly. Jock kicks Geek to the curb - was anyone really surprised?

"No, I didn't expect that, I just thought we could try and get back there," John replied and Rodney felt a little sting of satisfaction at the look on his face when he called him Colonel. "And I hadn't *met* her either. Just thought we ought to be clear about that."

"Yes, and I understand that. She was some amazing hallucination that you were in love with, and yes, I understand what nanites can do. If you or Carson or Elizabeth try to talk to me about the power of nanites, I'm going to beat someone to death with one of my framed degrees."

John smiled a little but there was little warmth in it. "Now that sounds familiar." He shifted slightly as if reassessing where he stood. "I need to go to the city, Rodney. I thought you might want to come and make sure I don't do something stupid."

"We're not even sure it's stable." Rodney looked up at him wishing John looked a little moresomething. Sorry maybe. "Or that there's anywhere to dock a puddlejumper."

"There is and its stable," John replied as if he knew that was true. He shrugged a little. "Carson let me go to the shore few days ago. She really, really wants to see me. And you. I don't really want to go on my own."

"Is it still *talking* to you?" Rodney asked, closing his laptop, since John didn't seem inclined to leave him alone. And as bait, that ploy was pretty transparent.

"Only when I'm there," John replied and straightened up seeming to come to rather the conclusion he wasn't getting anywhere. Yes Colonel, you can't just order the scientist to forgive you and it happens. He was working on looking unimpressed when John said in a soft voice. "I'm going. See you around, okay? Don't tell Carson or Elizabeth."

Wait, wait... that sounded a little too much like a goodbye. What the hell was that about?

It made Rodney stand up, made him start after John, because apparently the melodramatic bullshit never stopped as long as John Sheppard was alive. "Wait, wait -- see me around? Where are you going?"

"I just told you," John said not stopping walking away from him, dangling that obvious lure. "To the city. I figure from the last time maybe it wants something and the last time that happened..." He shrugged and continued walking as if he hadn't just reminded him of the fact it had ended up with him being mentally disturbed for five months and then a razor sharp nanite snowflake cutting through his insides like a buzz-saw. "You guys want the city up and running as soon as possible. So I gotta go."

"This is insane, Colonel." Rodney jogged a little, caught up with him resisting the urge to hit him around the head and call him an idiot. "What do you think you're doing? We need you *here*."

John looked at him like he was crazy when it was blatantly obvious he was the one with a screw loose. The man was mad and not fooling anyone - no one would go there if they thought that would happen. Ah. Well except John Sheppard. "Really? What it looks like is that we need a defensible base, not canvas. That's my job. You've been doing your job, now I'm doing mine. It's taken long enough for me to get back to that point."

"Fantastic. I must have missed the part of the job description of a military commander that requires him to act suicidal," Rodney muttered.

"After all these years you're only just working this out?" John said walking over to the puddlejumpers. He didn't say anything else, just opened one up and went inside and there was a really horrible feeling there that this was a different kind of not caring about himself. It looked like melodrama, John trying to get a rise from him but.... what if he was wrong? What if John wasn't bluffing, went to the city and ended up stripped molecule from molecule?

So he followed, and he kept after John just in case. "I'd hoped that your common sense had overruled that instruction. Look, you're *not* sacrificing yourself to the nanites, and I'm not letting you go alone."

"Great. I did ask if you wanted to come," John said as the jumper powered up. "I'm hoping it'll be a little bit more like a conversation rather than a sacrifice. But sometimes it's difficult to get out of those situations." They rose up smoothly, remote dialing the gate, bursting through onto the other side of the wormhole smoothly. "Anyone might think you cared, Rodney."

"I do. Have. And I'm pretty fed up with this melodramatic shit. 'Goodbye, Rodney, I'm off to my doom again'. 'My poor dead Thera! Woe, woe is me, get out of my way, geek'." Rodney settled into the co-pilot's chair.

John shrugged just a little as if the jab hadn't hurt, but looked at him and away in a way that made Rodney feel he had underestimated what was going on in his head. A tiny spark of shame flowered but he resolutely stuck with his hard expression even as John eventually broke the silence.

"I'm never going to be able to fix this am I?" he said finally as he swung over the vast city and then the jumper headed straight in towards a very small gap.

"I haven't seen much fixing. I saw you just... telling me to forgive you, and I'm hard up, but a man has to have a little pride. Did you expect to just apologize and oh, I'd just fall all over myself to get back to what I thought we had? I miss you. A lot." He was allowed to have pride. He *hated* the fact that everyone implicitly assumed he should be lucky to have John even interested in him. That he should just forgive and forget because he should be *grateful* that anyone like him even got a look from John.

What he hated most of all was that sometimes he really did think that.

"You haven't seen much fixing because you've been... busy." John replied. "And whenever I try and find you, you're somewhere else. All I've wanted to ask is what can I do? But I haven't been able to ask, so I'm guessing. You've been busy with the city so I'm doing what I can to give you that. Okay? I never expected you to just forgive me, even if it wasn't strictly my fault. I didn't have unprotected sex with Atlantis or anything, I didn't *ask* for it!"

And oh god, that really just sounded like John was trying to claim a date-rape with a city.

So Rodney just stared for a moment, when the city was growing large on the screen in front of them. "I just needed space, all right? I just needed time to think. I'm not good with relationships and most of them end up dissolving *that* way, so it was a lot like deja vu. Up to and including the complete denial of my existence and yeah, I know. Nanites."

"Right now, if you wanted things back like before, I wouldn't hide anything," John said and flew them right into the city and then down to a hanger entrance. "We could have it minuted at a meeting if you want. Or write it on the canteen chalkboard. "

And there they were, touched down in the city, in a bay with three complete jumpers and at least another two assembling.

"Okay, that is pretty cool."

Rodney leaned close to the window, staring for a moment. "I have no way of assuring that they won't decide to assemble something out of *us*."

"I'll ask really really nicely," John said by way of an answer and he seemed to be listening to something. "C'mon. I'm pretty sure she wants me to go to the control chair, and if she's issuing invitations, I don't think she wants to snack on us." He got up and went to the back of the jumper. "Coming?"

"Fine." Nervously, but. Rodney reached for one of the laptops that they kept inside of the jumpers -- again, it was easy to cover a jumper in panels and leech energy that way, honestly renewable until they ran out of materials and the patience to make panels.

He watched John step out into the city and it was like deja vu. Around him, light wherever he stepped, systems activating as he walked through to the corridors, the layout uncanny in its similarity. Like coming home.

John moved quickly, unhesitating now as he made his way to the command chair. He did pause though when he got there, waiting for him. "Wha'dya think? This is the right thing to do right?"

"I guess it is if the city that jumped out of your stomach says it is." Rodney preferred to shadow John, keeping close to him, because if the invisible builders decided to swarm them, it was all over.

"Okay then," John said and then sat in the chair and really that was pretty much how this had all started back in Antarctica. Just like that, it glowed blue and it was like someone switching on the power. What was even more interesting was the hologram of a young woman who projected in next to him. There was something faintly, and disturbingly familiar about her. Even more so when she apparently said, "Hello, Rodney," and smiled at him.

"And who are you?" Some new Ascended Ancient, and he'd really had it up to his neck with them.

"The city. I haven't decided on a name yet." She smiled like Sheppard did that was what was disturbing. "I thought we might do that between us. Considering we're practically related. I think the both of you might get a little anxious if I call you father, though. I've reached a stage where I really need to talk with all of you about what I develop next. I took blueprints and priorities from John's mind and his memories of you but they were limited by what access to information you had before."

The city. The city was standing in front of him, and he couldn't help but gawk at her, and then at John in the chair, lying there just watching. "You took blueprints from John's mind. You're... sentient. Were you sentient before?"

"No. Once, yes, but... when they left, they took the central Artificial Intelligence modules with them and that deactivated nanite repair. Much like a crude lobotomy. But the survival instinct of the city, those same programming routines that raised the city you called Atlantis from the ocean floor, recognized imminent complete destruction from the unusually deep connection with John during the final attack. His awareness triggered a survival protocol, the Thera subroutine. The city encoded his mind with the entire database and a nanite package using the Stargate. It then used what means it could to ensure that it would develop and be carried to a world suitable for rebuilding. However, building priorities were taken from John's mind."

John was looking at them both and tried a smile that looked more rattled than anything. "So there's a ferris wheel?"

"I'm hoping for a shield, ZedPMs and some really big guns. No clowns." Rodney watched the hologram speak, and realized that this was probably the woman John'd been yearning for and mourning. The city. "So this is Atlantis, but not. What can we do to make this easier?"

"There is a shield. There are ZPM's and some very large guns." She actually sounded amused as she confirmed those facts. "John's thoughts are telling me that I need to talk with you about options, and accessing materials. The original cities of those you call the Ancients were not designed for war. As a race, they were ill-prepared and adapted what they had. I am not the same as that. I am in effect the daughter of the old city and the mind and thoughts of John. "

"Now that is a scary thought," John said from the chair.

"Yes. We are lucky there is not a football pitch in the middle of the city," she replied again with a hint of John's mode of speaking in her voice. "With the right elements, we will be mobile, we will be more than a match for the Wraith, and even the Ori that John thinks of. There were many things in the database to use. Choosing them is another thing. For that, John trusts you implicitly."

"Well... implicitly sounds a bit strong..."

"Implicitly sounds about right. Just... tell me how we need to start." Ori. Rodney wasn't going to think too hard on them, but he was going to be quietly *scared* of them, and if they could repair the city well enough to fight that, then maybe... Maybe one day.

"Please assess priorities for construction. Mobile fighting units. Meta-drone deployment system, dual layered energy shields, self teleporting remote weapons.." The list went on until even John's eyes glazed over. "I will give detail specifics for your reference. I would also appreciate it if you find some harmony between you. No daughter likes to see her parents fight." She smiled again at that.

"If we name the city Yenta, Elizabeth will never forgive us," Rodney muttered, staring at the hologram for a moment before his brain started to spin into action. "All right. We need the dual layered shields and the meta-drone deployment systems the most, for a start. I'll need to look over the specs for everything else to prioritize. Have we left enough naquadah nearby? Are there any supplies you need..."

"I will provide you with a list, and gate addresses of known resources." She looked at them both. "Those who programmed the initial fail safes were wary of nanotechnology. The reprogramming of the nanite protocols can only be made by someone with the Ancient gene. These were modifications made after initial difficulties. The Avatar of the city -- myself -- will only be active as a personality when the command chair is in operation. I wish to be addressed by a name, though the city is happy to be Atlantis once more."

Rodney looked at John, and then prompted, "John? I think this honor should be yours."

"Are you kidding? I'm hopeless at this sort of thing," John said, but he did seem to be thinking. "You know, if I were Elizabeth, I'd have some cool precedent or something, but all I can think of is Mary." He shrugged just a little. "She is kinda our ultimate Hail Mary personified."

"Giving birth to a city qualifies for a football play analogy." Even if it was a stupid one. Rodney turned back to the avatar. "Mary. You seem like a Mary."

"I will answer to Mary. My personality will develop through interaction," Mary replied. "Rodney, I will download schematics for other equipment to your computer device. You can make the first decision. Atlantis is ready for habitation and has basic defensive capabilities. Please feel welcome to return with others. I would appreciate the interaction and experience less... anxiety if that is the word, regarding the safety of people John cares about"

"You know, you don't have to spill *everything* about me Mary," John replied.

"Yes, I do. Because you are tired and drained still and you say nothing. So I will disengage this function so you will rest." She was sounding more human by the minute. "I will speak to you tomorrow, Rodney."

"We'll be back with people and supplies." Rodney felt a little strange, standing there, watching her, and added, "Thank you." Because she seemed so much like the Asurians who'd wanted to be better, more human, more Ancient and had been denied that.

"You are welcome, Rodney," she replied and smiled before clicking off, blinking out just like that.

"Okay, I'll say it again, that was pretty cool," John said starting to get up unsteadily.

"Pretty cool? The city *talks* and has a personality and an intelligence and it's only 'pretty cool'?" Rodney reached a hand out to John, hauling him the rest of his way to his feet. "We need to get back to the Alpha site to dismantle camp."

John steadied himself, catching hold of Rodney's arm and then shoulder. One step closer and things could get very intimate and Rodney could tell John wanted to, but he stopped and held back, quirking an eyebrow at him in a question as whatever he was going to say faded from his lips.

"I'm sorry for trying to be as much of city-pregnancy induced asshole as you were." The words came out in a rush, and then Rodney closed the space between them because he wanted John, wanted things fixed and he could force it to be nearly fixed.

"We could blame it on hormones, "John replied moved forward a little. "And you're right, I deserved it. And... somehow, I don't think what other people think is going to be a problem. So as long as you don't throw me on the table in mission briefings, I can deal."

He was close and warm, and his hands were reaching to cup the back of his head and he kissed him, slow and soft to start with and then with a sudden blaze of urgency taking hold.

It had been too long, too stressful for Rodney to argue. He wanted that, slid his arms tightly around John, and it fit. It made sense, and things were full circle again. Out of Atlantis and back into it. They'd do better that time, Rodney decided. With their second chance. They wouldn't lose the city again.

Nor each other with any luck. Not if he had anything to say about it.