Title
Aegis
Prompt
Big Bang 2007.   Atlantis is cut off from Earth.
Summary
The Ancients' genes didn't just confer the power to activate their technology. For ten percent of Earth's population, like John Sheppard, the ATA gene also gave them Gifts: special abilities that made them admired, envied, and feared.

Sheppard was a Charmer, one of the feared ones, whose particular Gift let him create faith whenever he needed to be trusted or believed. But Sheppard didn't trust himself not to destroy what he loved most. And somewhere along the line, amid the terror and chaos of the Expedition's first year in the Pegasus Galaxy, what Sheppard loved most had become Rodney McKay.

McKay didn't trust anyone. As soon as you started trusting people, you started counting on them, depending on them, and that was when you became vulnerable. And vulnerable things didn't survive. So just when, exactly, had he started trusting Sheppard?

And what was going to happen, now that he did?
Pairing
McKay/Sheppard
Rating
NC-17
Word Count
90748 words
Notes
We've used dialogue from the following Season One episodes: "Rising Part One"; "The Storm"; "The Eye"; "The Defiant One"; "Hot Zone"; "Sanctuary"; "The Gift"; "The Siege Part One"; "The Siege Part Two". There are spoilers for all of Season One, through "Runner" in Season Two.

Thanks to our awesome betas auburnnothenna, ardent_muses, and candymike! Special thanks to our science betas mecurtin, filenotch and cunning_maz , and to our medical betas Squeaky and Haggy.
Companion Artwork
  • Aegis Cover by brevisse
  • coverart by Yin Li
  • END by brevisse
  • Illustration of a scene from the 'comic-book Viking' village in Aegis by brevisse

AEGIS:
1a: A Shield
2a: Protection, Defense
2c: Controlling or conditioning influence

--Webster's Third New International Dictionary

But your heart was busy within
Building bomb shelters under your skin
That's the shape I found you in

--Girlyman, "The Shape I Found You In"


"General O'Neill!"

O'Neill had paused briefly on his way back to the elevator. He was staring with something like vaguely horrified curiosity at a stasis chamber, which had been moved from its original location to be propped up against the wall of the corridor. But he turned amicably enough when Elizabeth caught up to him.

"Dr. Weir," he said, giving her a nod that somehow managed to be both respectful and deeply sarcastic. "What can I do for you?"

"I need to talk to you," Elizabeth said.

"You can't have Daniel."

Elizabeth blinked. "About Sheppard."

"Oh." O'Neill's eyebrows rose. He gestured in the direction he was walking. "Can we walk and talk? He's waiting for me up top right now."

"I'd prefer this conversation to take place in private," Elizabeth said.

She didn't miss the minute sigh before he smiled and nodded. O'Neill gestured again, this time back the way he had come. "Lead on," he said, and it was all so effortlessly charming that it set her teeth on edge. Somehow the fact that all she could read from him was mild annoyance was reassuring, though Elizabeth had to admit to herself she would have no idea how O'Neill's emotions might be different if he were actively trying to use his Gift on her. For all she knew he already was. Maybe it was like a reflex, like Peter Grodin, who never knew what might trigger his visions at any given moment. Maybe Charmers couldn't help but make people want to trust them.

Elizabeth gave her head a slight shake as she walked, admonishing herself silently that no good would come of that kind of thinking, except to make herself paranoid. She led O'Neill back through the complex to the meeting room where they had been just an hour ago, listening to Dr. Jackson explain that he had found the address for Atlantis. She couldn't help wishing that Sheppard had the same ability as Jackson. Not only would a Cipher be a godsend where they were going, but she wouldn't be worried about a Cipher. Ciphers didn't make you constantly want to verify your own motivations just by being near them.

"Right," O'Neill said, projecting tired resignation as soon as they entered the room. He sat wearily in the closest chair. "No, I can't promise you that Sheppard is totally on board with the 'with great power comes great responsibility' thing."

Elizabeth gave O'Neill a tight little nod as she sat down herself, facing him. She clasped her hands together on the table. "His active ATA gene, and his natural ability with it, would be a tremendous asset to the expedition."

"But you don't know if you can trust him." O'Neill filled in her unspoken concern like someone who had said the same words more times than they could count. Elizabeth wasn't surprised to be picking up anger from him, though it was blunted and quiet, as if O'Neill was so used to this kind of scrutiny that he didn't have the energy to fight it anymore. He shrugged eloquently. "What do you want me to say? If you're already worried about him, it's not going to get better on the other side of the universe."

"I know," Elizabeth said. She pursed her lips, finding the right words. "I want to trust him." And maybe that was Sheppard's Gift, right there, twisting her emotions towards him. And wasn't that a horrible thought? "He seems...he seems like a good man." She adjusted her posture, made sure she was sitting straight, looking O'Neill right in the eye. "But he also used his Gift to influence his commanding officer into countermanding a direct order. And there's no guarantee he wouldn't do it again."

"No, there isn't," O'Neill said, with characteristic bluntness. "But since you've obviously read his file, you have to know that he wouldn't have been able to charm his CO into changing his mind if the man hadn't at least been amenable to sending a rescue. Charm doesn't work like that." He smiled, but it was bitter and strangely old. "Be nice if it did."

"I am aware of that, yes." Elizabeth nodded. "But that doesn't make what the Major did acceptable." She took a breath, wondering if O'Neill was actually going to be able to help her make the correct decision here. "How can I trust him to obey me if he doesn't agree with what I'm doing? How can I trust him not to charm me to change my mind, the way he did with his commanding officer?"

O'Neill's smile changed to something that really wasn't, and now Elizabeth could feel his irritation building. "Well," he said, with a flick upwards of his eyebrows that seemed to imply that this should be obvious, "either you make sure that he'll agree with what you're doing all the time...or you trust him not to charm you." He spread his hands, palms-down on the tabletop, a gesture that reminded Elizabeth of Dr. Jackson. His fingertips looked very white against his shooting gloves. "You probably also know that that incident was the first time he's ever used his ability without being specifically ordered."

Elizabeth's smile was rueful. "Or it was the first time he was caught."

O'Neill huffed out a breath, and Elizabeth didn't need her Gift to tell she'd surpassed the limits of his patience. "Look, Elizabeth," he said. "You don't have to take him to Atlantis--he didn't exactly seem all that hot on the whole ATA gene-stargate-aliens thing anyway. But you have to remember, he's out here in the ass-end of nowhere because he charmed someone to let him do the right thing. So he screwed a little with the mind of one colonel because he knows you don't leave anyone behind. I'm not sure that's so bad."

"You know circumstances don't always let you do the right thing," Elizabeth said. It was something she'd already learned, and she hated it, but the art of negotiation was about being able to stomach the compromises. "I need to be certain he knows that, too."

O'Neill smiled grimly. "Oh, he knows it," he said. "Trust me."

Elizabeth smiled faintly in return, thinking of how loaded those words were, how loaded those words always were, coming from a Charmer.

Trust me. Trust O'Neill; Trust Sheppard. Put her faith in men whose particular Gift let them create faith whenever they needed to be trusted, to be believed.

She'd done research on Charmers after she first met O'Neill at the SGC, so she knew that if the--well, victim seemed too harsh a word, but it was the most apt she could think of--wasn't at least minimally inclined to trust the Charmer, then their Gift wouldn't work, no matter how much energy they expended.

Don't worry, Rodney had told her, after he had finally let Sheppard out of the Ancient Chair, cynicism is their Kryptonite. They can't make you trust them if you don't want to.

Rodney, of course, had taken one look at the holographic starscape above Sheppard's head and instantly decided the Major had to be part of the expedition. And the fact that Sheppard was one of a handful of Charmers in the American military hadn't fazed Rodney in the least.

But of course, Rodney didn't trust anybody. A Charmer would be no threat to him whatsoever.

Elizabeth wasn't like that. She did trust. She wanted to. It was part of what made her a good negotiator. She came to the table believing that everyone wanted to make things work, and it was just a question of finding the path of least resistance. It made her flexible. With Sheppard it might make her vulnerable. And she couldn't afford that.

But Sheppard had an active ATA gene, and a facility with it that surpassed O'Neill's. And she really, really needed him.

The art of negotiation was about being able to stomach the compromises. It seemed her tenure as leader of the Atlantis expedition was going to be as well. This wasn't exactly the most auspicious start.

On the other hand, it was probably for the best that she got used to it now.

"Of course I trust you, Jack," Elizabeth said, making herself smile warmly. And if O'Neill heard the irony in her voice, he didn't mention it.


John came into his Gift during adolescence, which wasn't unusual. At first, nobody noticed, including himself. As a little kid, he'd been really cute, and had learned early on that a smile often got him what he wanted. But he didn't realize that the 'cute and flirty' routine shouldn't have worked anymore. He wasn't all that cute now--one look in the mirror showed him a skinny, gawky teenager, all knees and elbows with floppy, unruly hair, too-big nose, pimples, and braces, with a disgruntled scowl perpetually in place. He should have suffered through the typical adolescent let-down of not having 'cute' in his arsenal any longer.

Instead, he was fairly popular. He had lots of school friends--he had a damned entourage--despite being new in town and transferring into school his freshman year when his dad had been assigned to a new base.

His parents didn't notice anything strange. If John had lots of friends and hangers-on, well, John had always had the knack for fitting in and adapting to new situations really quickly, and he'd always made friends easily. And if he was tired and hungry all the time, well, then, weren't teenagers supposed to be hungry and tired all the time?

There was nobody to blame, really, the counselors all told him later, after the State Tester for Gifted Children had been to his school and identified him as a Charmer. It wasn't as if he'd charmed his teachers and school friends on purpose, the counselors said. It wasn't as if John would abuse his Gift now that he was aware of it, they told him in a tone of friendly warning. No harm done, they assured him.

No harm done.


USMC Colonel Marshall Sumner stepped out of the wormhole and breathed his first breath of the real, outdoor air of the Pegasus Galaxy. Unlike the recycled, conditioned atmosphere of the submerged city, this air smelled crisp, sharp, slightly cold--the familiar scents of autumn on a world he'd never set foot on before. This was why he loved his job, loved working for the SGC, hell, even loved the damned annoying gene that had allowed him to eagerly volunteer for this mission. He loved the whole 'one small step for man' thing.

Marshall breathed deeply again. He didn't smell any immediate danger, but he did smell...potential. He glanced around him, the night vision goggles assisting him to see the grassy field around the gate and the forest beyond it. Behind him, the rest of his men emerged from the wormhole. He signaled a standard recon configuration and his team fanned out in disciplined formation.

They hadn't gone far at all before they ran into trouble. Major Sheppard. Why was Marshall not surprised?

It looked like Sheppard had run into indigenes. Marshall moved into position to cover his man. "Is everything okay here, Sheppard?"

Sheppard shoved his night goggles up onto his forehead. "Yes, sir," he answered. "Just a couple of kids."

And an adult as well. Marshall tensed. The man didn't smell immediately dangerous, but from his experience with the SGC, Sumner knew some indigenes were incredibly sensitive about their children. Anything could happen. The man was pretty sizable, although he didn't appear to be armed.

He relaxed fractionally as the man introduced himself. People seldom introduced themselves just before trying to kill you.

"Halling," the tall man said to Sheppard, indicating himself. Of course he spoke to the Charmer first, instead of the obvious leader of the group. A lesser man would have felt some annoyance, but Marshall didn't mind if the Charmer acted as the front man. That was his job, after all. Marshall liked to hang back and assess. As long as Sheppard did his job and followed orders, Marshall was content.

"I don't know what that means," Sheppard answered the indigene, wrinkling his forehead. Looked like Sheppard wasn't the brightest crayon in the box, then.

"It's his name!" Marshall prodded him. Moron.

"Oh! Halling, it's nice to meet you," Sheppard smiled nervously at the indigene.

"Are you here to trade?" Halling asked.

Marshall nudged Sheppard. "Trade. Yes. We're t-traders," the Major stuttered. He was turning out to be the most useless damned Charmer Marshall had ever met.

He waited as the indigene--Halling--spoke to one of the kids, probably his son, then nodded for Sheppard to accept when the man invited them back to his camp to meet their leader.

Marshall turned to his men. "Parker, Smitty, you're on Gate duty. Dial Atlantis base and let the good Dr. Weir know we've made contact with the indigenous people." He signaled his other men into formation behind their Charmer Pied Piper and the kids who were now dogging Sheppard's heels, badgering him to let them try on his equipment.

They walked through the forest after their native guide without incident, though Marshall was pleased to note that his men stayed sharp and alert. Lt. Ford fell into step beside him. He liked Ford. The kid was level-headed under fire and had a sunny, even disposition. He was a bit young and wet-behind-the-ears yet, but time and experience would cure that.

The Lieutenant had something on his mind. The crackly, sharp scent he gave off was an odor Marshall had come to associate with someone holding in something they wanted to say or ask. He had a lot of experience with that particular smell. With a tilt of his head, he gave permission to speak.

"Sir, if you don't mind my asking," Ford said hesitantly. "I noticed you've got a problem with Major Sheppard. Is it because he's a Charmer?"

Marshall snorted. "My problem, Lieutenant, is with his record. I don't like anybody who doesn't follow the proper chain of command. And for a Charmer to use his power against a superior officer is inexcusable. He's lucky he's not in Leavenworth." Marshall breathed in the scent of Ford holding his tongue again. Good. He didn't want to hear a defense of Sheppard if the Major had already charmed Ford into his orbit. "He'll have to work to earn my respect and my trust, Lieutenant. Just like everybody else. Because of his record, he'll have to work twice as hard, but I'm willing to be fair and give him the opportunity."

"Yes, sir," Ford responded dutifully.

"He only gets one chance, though, Lieutenant. And I'd advise you to keep his record in mind before you let his charisma carry you away."

"Yes, sir," Ford repeated. He had more to say, Marshall could smell it, but he kept a lid on it. Marshall liked that about him. The Lieutenant had potential, if he learned to resist Sheppard's charisma and stayed out of the Charmer's shadow.

Speaking of which.... Marshall quickened his steps, leaving Ford behind and catching up to Sheppard. The boys at Sheppard's side looked at Marshall with big eyes and darted ahead to walk with Halling. Just as well.

"Major."

"Sir?" Sheppard glanced up at him quickly, then looked away. He smelled nervous. Good.

Marshall watched the Major's gloved hands tighten on his P-90 and just barely refrained from rolling his eyes in derision. The U.S. Armed Services had removed the requirement that any Gifted servicemen with what were deemed 'mental' Gifts wear gloves while in uniform at the beginning of the Clinton administration. Old war dogs like General O'Neill felt like they were out of uniform without the shooting gloves at least, and could be excused for clinging to tradition, but it was damned pretentious of young Turks like Sheppard to insist on wearing them. Probably thought it made him look "cool." Marshall gave in and rolled his eyes. Lord save him from "Top Gun" wannabees.

"Major, we need you to charm these people into helping us." Marshall looked ahead, to where the path opened up to a clearing, revealing a village of tents.

"Colonel, sir, I--"

Marshall held up a hand. "Don't tell me you 'don't use your abilities that way', Major. Your Gift is at the service of your country, at the service of this mission. You swore an oath to use your Gift in service, under appropriate orders. I know. I swore the same oath."

Beside him, Sheppard stumbled, missing a step, the peppery scent of surprise wafting from him. The Major hadn't known Marshall also had a Gift. On the one hand, good. There was a reason he didn't advertise his abilities. On the other hand, what the hell was the man thinking? The majority of the individuals on this god-damned expedition were chosen based not just on their expertise in their fields, but also on their possession of the ATA gene. Did Sheppard think the CO of the military contingent would be a fucking Mundane?

Marshall snorted. It wasn't as if his opinion of this fuzz-headed flyboy could get any lower. "Major, just so we're straight here. Charm these indigenes into helping us as best they can. That is an order. Do you understand?"

"Yes. Sir." Sheppard's voice was utterly level. The scent he was giving off was complex, though. The dusty smell of resentment was there, as was the rusty odor of anger, the old-paper smell of resignation, and the orange-citrus scent of annoyance. But the bright, sour reek of fear, that was unexpected. Marshall shot a sharp glance at Major Sheppard's expressionless profile.

He was just about to ask Sheppard a question--what, exactly he had no idea--when, ahead of them, Halling and the children reached the first tent. Halling lifted a flap and called inside.

A young, pretty woman with long reddish hair emerged from the tent and greeted them. "Enter."

A quiet word from Ford deployed the other men at the outside of the tent as the officers entered at the woman's invitation. Marshall followed Sheppard into the tent's smoky interior, wrinkling his nose at the strong odors of smoke, incense, and roasted meat that would blunt his abilities.

"These men wish to trade." Halling indicated them to the young woman. Marshall felt his eyebrow rise. This girl was their leader? He nudged Sheppard with his elbow, wanting him to get on with it.

"Ah, it's, uh," Sheppard stuttered, taking off his goggles, fixing his hair, and smiling at the indigenes. "It's nice to meet you."

That was charm? Marshall resisted rolling his eyes again.

"I am Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Tagan," said the woman, smiling demurely. Huh. Maybe it was only charming to women.

Abruptly, Marshall was tired of this rigmarole; they didn't have time for it. "Colonel Marshall Sumner, Major Sheppard, Lieutenant Ford," he introduced them crisply. "We have a very few, specific needs."

"We do not trade with strangers," the woman informed him, starch in her tone.

"Is that a fact?" Marshall arched an eyebrow at her, both annoyed by and admiring of her attitude.

For once, Sheppard stepped up to the plate without having to be pushed. "Well, then, we'll just, uh, we'll have to get to know each other." He smirked, though his scent of nervousness hadn't dissipated. "Me, um, I like, uh, Ferris Wheels and, uh, college football. Hey, and anything that goes more than two hundred miles an hour."

"Sir, that's not going to mean anything to them," Ford advised quietly.

Sheppard made a face. "Feel free to speak up. I'm just trying to break the ice."

"That's your job, Major," Marshall reminded him. "If you can't do it, or if these people can't help us, I'd rather not waste our time here."

Teyla Emmagan announced: "Each morning before dawn, our people drink a stout tea to brace us for the coming day. Will you join us?"

"I love a good cup of tea," replied Sheppard, stepping towards her and smiling. "Now there's another thing you know about me." He turned to Marshall and Ford and smiled pointedly. Marshall got the message and pasted a smile on his face. He suspected Ford's smile looked more genuine. "We're practically friends already!" Sheppard beamed at the woman.

Teyla escorted them to places at the table, her eyes fixed on Sheppard, an answering smile on her face. Over the smell of the tea, Marshall could just make out the scent of general goodwill that wafted from her, along with the mellow odor of interest and a hint of the sharper aroma of physical attraction--both of the latter more narrowly focused on the Major. Huh. Just like that, just that quickly, that inexplicably, the charm had worked. He felt a reluctant genuine smile crease his own face and he shook his head. Sheppard might come in useful after all.


Much later, in the bowels of an alien ship, surrounded by the scent of DeathDeathDeath with a pale-skinned, red-haired she-devil raping his mind and tearing the life out of his body, Marshall Sumner managed to catch the anguished glint of the Charmer's eye. He'd just have to trust that the flyboy could step up to the plate again when it counted, do what needed to be done, and come in useful at last. Marshall met that troubled gaze, saw the question in it, and gave the tiniest of nods. Permission. Absolution.

As the bullet tore through his heart, all he could smell was salvation.


There hadn't been any lemon in the chicken, which was comforting, because it meant that the people he would be depending on to keep him from falling into a hypoglycemic coma for the foreseeable future weren't total idiots. But Rodney still couldn't help wondering if there might have been something wrong with the champagne General O'Neill had sent through the gate--sulfites, maybe--because Rodney had only drunk his allotted thimbleful and he still managed to end up with a screaming headache.

It was bad enough, in fact, that he'd made his excuses to Elizabeth and Carson (Carson had suggested that the pain was a combination of exhaustion from pulling two all-nighters in a row before they left, and now working on a third--or was it a fourth?--and too much caffeine to compensate, but what did he know?) and begun the long, painful slog to his quarters by way of the infirmary, where some blonde sadist masquerading as a doctor had grudgingly given him a lousy couple of aspirin.

Rodney was certain the aspirin wasn't even going to touch his headache--because it was probably an aneurysm--but that didn't make it any less of a minor catastrophe when he opened the door to what was, absolutely, irrevocably and unquestionably his quarters, and startled so badly at seeing Major Sheppard sitting on Rodney's own unmade bed in the semi-darkness that his hand spasmed open and sent the painkillers bouncing gaily off down the corridor.

Sheppard had been leaning over with his feet on the floor and his head in his hands. The green liquid bubbling along the walls supplied the only light, and made long shadows of his body. He'd jerked up, obviously startled, when the door had opened.

Sheppard blinked at Rodney in apparent confusion, which did nothing for Rodney's rising ire at the loss of his useless placebos. "McKay?"

"Before you start the 'what are you doing here?'," Rodney shot back before Sheppard's mouth could even form a second word, "you're in my room, and those were, while doubtless completely ineffective, nonetheless two precious, precious painkillers for the mother of all headaches, which I currently have, that are now in some dusty corner, thanks to you. And, provided I can actually even find them, if you think I'm going to pick them up and swallow them now after they've been marinating in ten-thousand year-old space germs, you've got another think coming. And what the hell are you doing here, anyway?" He hadn't even seen Sheppard leave the gate room.

Sheppard just blinked at him again. "This is your room?"

Rodney rolled his eyes, which hurt, and huffed out a breath as he stalked into his quarters. The green light was making his headache worse, so he slapped the lights on. They weren't very bright either, with was either due to the limitations of the naquada generators or the bizarre aesthetics of the Ancients. Rodney figured it could go either way. "Yes. This is my room." He gestured vaguely to the left. "Your room is four doors down."

"Oh," Sheppard said. He smiled sheepishly. "They all look kind of the same."

He pulled himself to his feet, moving heavily, and Rodney suddenly realized that Sheppard looked as tired as Rodney felt. The rescue of the Marines and the Athosians from the Wraith Hive ship had been roughly a day ago--an Earth day, anyway--and it occurred to Rodney that Sheppard probably hadn't slept since then, any more than Rodney had.

"Are you okay?" Rodney asked suddenly, startling himself. "I mean," he said hastily, a flush of embarrassment creeping up his neck, "You look kind of...." He made a vague gesture in front of his face, trying to encompass the tiredness and the way Sheppard had been sitting and how he'd found him alone in the dark. "...bad."

"Thanks," Sheppard said, deadpan. Then he took a breath, looking down and rubbing the back of his neck. His next words were directed at the floor. "I killed my CO today," he said quietly. He shook his head. "Yesterday. Hell, I can't even remember anymore."

"You had to," Rodney said, unhesitant. He'd been at the briefing, heard what that woman, Teyla said, and Lieutenant Ford....

Sheppard looked up again. "I know," he said simply. "That doesn't make it better."

Rodney thought about that, then nodded. "Probably not," he said finally. Then, "I'm sorry," because it seemed like the only thing he could say.

Sheppard sighed. "I'm not cut out for this," he said.

Now it was Rodney who blinked. "What? Why not? Elizabeth--"

"I'm a Charmer, McKay!" Sheppard ground out the word, as if Rodney had somehow forgotten about his Gift. "I barely scraped my way to Major! If it wasn't for that damn gene I wouldn't even be here!"

"So what?" Rodney snapped back at him. "You think just because those narrow-minded, paranoid morons back on Earth piss themselves at the idea of working with,"--he raised his hands up near his head, wiggling his fingers exaggeratedly--"ooh, someone with scary mental powers, that it means you somehow can't do this?" He crossed his arms, glaring. "Well, I hate to tell you this, Major, but you're already doing it. You've been the military leader of Atlantis since you brought all those Athosians through the gate."

Sheppard stared at him, then shook his head again. "I had no choice about that. They--"

"Oh, right," Rodney said sarcastically, "because leadership means only doing what you want to do all the time. Honestly." Rodney rolled his eyes again, and yes, it was still painful. "Do you really think I'd be so sanguine about my personal safety and protection resting in your bizarrely gloved hands if I didn't think you could do this? Don't you think I'd be raising royal hell with Dr. Weir until she promoted Ford or, whatshisname, Stackhouse, or that angry guy--Bates--or somebody?" Rodney took a deep breath. His little tirade, while immensely satisfying, hadn't done anything to ease his headache. In fact it felt like it was getting worse. "Look, Sheppard," he said. "Maybe you weren't 'cut out' for this, but you're here now. And, and I think you're doing fine."

Sheppard smirked with no trace of humor. "My first mission out, I shot my CO and managed to wake up the worst menace in the galaxy. That's not 'doing fine'."

"Oh please," Rodney snarled. "You're a Precog, now? You knew that was going to happen? You saved over a hundred people, Sheppard! And if you hadn't killed that Wraith woman, Ford would have. That was bad luck, not lack of ability."

Sheppard looked away. "Maybe."

"Absolutely," Rodney said. He tilted his chin up, using the most imperious tone he could muster given his exhaustion and splitting head. "And don't bother denying it. We both know you're not that stupid."

Sheppard looked like he was considering that, then his mouth stretched in a tiny smile. "Thanks, McKay," he said.

"Oh. Uh, you're welcome," Rodney said, suddenly feeling uncharacteristically awkward. He hadn't thought he might actually make Sheppard feel better--he just couldn't stand the idea of the man berating himself out of stupidity.

"So, four doors down, huh?" Sheppard asked, and it was possible his smile had become a little awkward too, but Rodney had no idea why.

"What?" Rodney asked. "Oh! Yes, yes." He nodded a bit too enthusiastically. "That way." He pointed left again, helpfully.

"Right." Sheppard nodded. "Well, goodnight."

"Wait," Rodney said, putting his hand up. Sheppard took a step back, though Rodney wasn't anywhere near him. "You don't have to go."

He wasn't even sure why he'd said it, except that Sheppard looked so tired, like the handful of steps it would take him to get to his own quarters would do him in.

Sheppard's mouth tilted up a bit more. "You offering to sleep with me, McKay?"

"What?" Rodney squeaked. His heart was suddenly beating so fast it felt like it was going to explode. "Do you--I--what? No!" he finally managed, blurting it out in a torrent of bravado and humiliation. "No! Of course not! Why would you think that?"

It wasn't like Rodney hadn't thought about it. Though maybe not right from the beginning.

Not that Sheppard wasn't incredibly, incredibly hot, because he was. But he was no Colonel Samantha Carter, and when they'd first met the only important thing about him was his active ATA gene and his instinctive knack for using it. Not to mention that Rodney had been busy figuring out how to get the expedition to an entirely different galaxy at the time, so he'd registered Sheppard's beauty kind of like background noise, and hadn't dwelled on it. Mostly.

It wasn't until Sheppard had come back from Athos, dragging along a horde of refugees and insisting he take a team back to rescue more of them that he'd really entered Rodney's consciousness.

A long time ago, when he'd still worked for Area 51, Rodney had learned the hard way how important it was to never leave anyone behind. The fact that Sheppard knew it as well--the fact that Sheppard expected Elizabeth, expected everyone to know it--was what made Rodney really take notice of him.

That, and the math, of course. The math thing was really, really sexy.

So, yes, he'd thought about it. A little. But that was all, just thinking.

Sheppard's eyes went wide at the vehemence of Rodney's denial. "Jeeze, McKay," he said, "It was a joke. Christ." He shoved his hands in his pockets, his eyes flicking away.

"It's too late at night for jokes, especially stupid ones," Rodney said. The barb was almost automatic, but what he was thinking was, he doesn't know. He doesn't know. Thank God. The last thing Rodney needed was to let the newly-minted--and doubtless straight--Military Head of Atlantis know that the Science Head had a tiny (minute, really), less-than professional interest in him.

He wondered if he could blame it on Sheppard's charm Gift, if he had to, if Sheppard ever found out. It was a common enough misapprehension.

Sheppard sighed and yanked his gloved hand out of his pocket to run it roughly over his face. "You're right," he said. He smiled again, but now it was thin and forced-looking, though that might have just been the light. Rodney knew he was terrible at reading people. "It is too late." He started walking. "'Night, McKay," he said.

"Wait," Rodney said again. He still didn't know why, but he just knew he didn't want Sheppard to leave like this--not exhausted and with a false smile and after he'd been sitting alone in semi-darkness in a room that wasn't even his, thinking he wasn't good enough for the position he'd been thrust into. Rodney put his hand out and grabbed Sheppard's arm.

Sheppard flinched like Rodney had burned him, twisting his entire body as if desperate to escape.

"Sorry!" Rodney exclaimed, yanking his hand back. Had Sheppard been wounded? He'd seemed fine. "I'm sorry. I didn't--"

"It's okay," Sheppard said quickly. "I just...." He twitched another smile, one that looked even more false than before. "You just startled me." He shrugged. "'Guess I'm more tired than I thought."

"Right." Rodney nodded, swallowing. It felt like his heart was careening around inside his ribcage. He stepped away from Sheppard, leaving plenty of space between him and the doorway. "You should get some sleep, then."

"Great idea," Sheppard drawled. Loose, easy sarcasm, like nothing had just happened. "You really are a genius."

Rodney supposed he should have taken some kind of offence at that--maybe to all of it, Sheppard's easy pretence--but all he did was nod.

"Goodnight," he said quietly, and Sheppard gave him a single nod in return.

"Night, McKay," Sheppard said as he left. He didn't look back before the door closed behind him.


"Wow," Aiden said in unrestrained awe, as the salt shaker appeared next to Teyla's tray. "That is so cool."

Markham grinned, then he glanced at the fork on Aiden's tray, and less than a second later it had--blinked out was the only way Aiden could think of it, like a popping soap bubble--and appeared in the same instant on Teyla's tray.

Teyla arched her eyebrows at both of them, but Markham teleported the fork away before she could reach for it. It blinked back into existence on Aiden's tray as if it had never been anywhere else.

"Awesome," Aiden said, shaking his head in appreciative amazement. He touched the fork, almost not sure it'd be the same one, but the metal was still warm from him holding it. "That's gotta be the best Gift ever." He grinned at Markham's surprisingly shy smile. "What's the biggest thing you've teleported?"

"My brother's pickup," Markham said. He reached for his own fork, but just fiddled with it, not actually eating. He smirked. "It was stuck in a ditch, mud up to the axles. I got it back on the road. And then I passed out." His smile was distant and maybe even wistful, Aiden thought. "My dad asked the docs at the local clinic if they could 'cure' me."

Aiden winced. "That's harsh, man. I'm sorry."

Markham shrugged. "Happens a lot, right? My folks just didn't want me to...." He pursed his lips in thought. "Suffer for it, I think." He shrugged. "It's hard, not being like everyone else." Then he smiled again, and it looked more normally happy as he finally ate some of his MRE. "But even if they could get rid of it, I wouldn't want to, you know?" He grinned again.

Aiden nodded quickly in agreement. "Oh, yeah. You're lucky. I don't think anyone else's got a Gift like that."

"Actually, there are roughly fifty-four people on Earth with a Gift of some kind of teleportation. Give or take one in the Pegasus galaxy, of course." McKay sat down next to Aiden, setting his tray on the table with a heavy thump that rattled the plastic cup and plate. Zelenka had followed McKay, and he sat down on the other side of the table across from him.

McKay grinned smugly at Markham, who smiled back wanly, probably nervous that any second McKay was going to bite his head off. Aiden just looked away so he could roll his eyes.

"Dr. McKay," Teyla said, turning her head gracefully to smile at him, "I am curious. It seems that a great many of the people here from your world have these Gifts. Are they very common?"

"Ah, well, that's a very good question, Teyla," McKay said, surprisingly warmly, and Aiden resisted the urge to put his arms on the table and bury his head in them. He wondered if McKay was actually trying to flirt with Teyla, and that was why he was being so weirdly nice, or if it was just that she'd asked him something he really liked talking about. Aiden guessed it was the 'or'. He'd spent months hanging around the scientists in the Antarctic base, and he'd seen McKay try to flirt. It was painful.

"I'm not sure if you can understand these kind of numbers, but there are almost six billion people on Earth. That's possibly more than in this entire galaxy, if the Milky Way is anything to go on."

Aiden was pretty certain McKay wasn't actually trying to be condescending, but he was still glad when Teyla just nodded seriously. "It is difficult to imagine so many."

"Yes, yes, I'm sure it would be," McKay went on, and Aiden glared at him on Teyla's behalf, but McKay didn't notice it, since he was concentrating on taking a huge forkful of his MRE veggie burger. He chewed happily, still talking. "But the main thing is, about ten percent of these six billion people have Gifts. That's six-hundred million."

"A lot," Markham clarified helpfully, smiling at Teyla. "Like, a lot a lot."

Now McKay rolled his eyes. "Yes, thank you, Babbage," he said. "Yes," he added to Teyla, "it's a lot. A lot less than six billion, but more than most people can imagine."

"Except you," Aiden muttered.

"Except me." McKay nodded, as if Aiden wasn't being totally sarcastic.

"Except me as well," Zelenka put in mildly. He took a dubious forkful of his own veggie burger, sniffed it, and grimaced. But he put it in his mouth anyway.

McKay completely ignored him. "Let's put it this way," he said to Teyla. "There's about a hundred Athosians in Atlantis, right?"

"Somewhat over a hundred of us were able to escape the Wraith by coming here, yes," Teyla said, and she sounded so sad that Aiden wanted to hug her...or something. But he didn't think she'd appreciate it. Athosians didn't really hug, anyway, though their forehead-touching thing was cool. Even McKay noticed Teyla's expression, or at least it seemed like it, because for a second he looked sad and almost guilty, like he was thinking there was something he should've done.

"Right," McKay said, and he fumbled with his coffee cup before taking a huge swallow from it. "Well," he said, after he'd replaced the cup on his tray, "the same ratio would be if ten or eleven of them had special powers."

Teyla nodded again, thoughtfully. "I see," she said. "It seems a great number of your people have these 'Gifts', then."

"Yes." McKay nodded in confirmation. "Enough of them that there are several--hundreds or thousands, really--in every country, um, land, of my world, and generally the same Gift will show up many times in different populations, though each person will be able to use their Gift a little differently." He pointed at Markham with the hand holding his fork, a blob of sauce-covered burger on it. "The Sergeant, here--"

"Markham," Markham said, a little tiredly.

"Has the ability to teleport objects," McKay went on. "Like you saw. But he can't teleport anything organic more complex than simple bacteria. And he can't teleport anything he can't see, or teleport anything to any place he can't see."

Aiden blinked. Markham was blinking too.

"How did you know that?" Markham asked.

"Oh, please." McKay gestured with his fork again, scattering drops of sauce on the table. "I know the abilities of every Gifted member of the expedition."

"He is stalker," Zelenka said. He had started mashing his veggie burger, pushing pieces of it around on his plate as if he might find something he liked better hiding underneath. "He is stalker of Gifted people. He follows them around like a teenage girl, hiding in bushes and posting pictures on the internet. He will be stealing our underwear, next." He glared at McKay accusingly. "You said this was good."

McKay looked affronted. "It is good! And I'm not a stalker! I think it's relevant to know what Gifts might be available to an expedition potentially stranded on the other side of the universe. Which we happen to be, by the way!" He sniffed, scooping up more veggie burger and chewing it angrily.

Aiden noticed Sheppard almost through the food line, and waved at him, then stood when it was apparent that Sheppard couldn't easily see him, not caring how frantic he probably looked. He wished Markham could just teleport the guy over, though even if Markham could, moving your superior officer around without his permission probably wasn't a good idea. But Sheppard finally saw him, at least, and nodded to show he was going to come over.

Aiden didn't bother to hide his sigh of relief.

"You really know what every Gifted person here can do, sir?" Markham asked. He sounded awed.

Aiden manfully resisted the urge to bury his face in his arms again.

McKay gave Markham a superior little smile, like he was the only person in the galaxy capable of reading through files. "Want to know what some of your grunt buddies can do?"

"Now, now, McKay," Sheppard said. He had just arrived at the table, and Aiden couldn't shake the feeling the Major had saved him from some terrible fate. "I believe the polite term is 'jarhead'." He smiled broadly at the table in general as he sat down.

McKay looked up, startled at Sheppard's voice, then he smirked happily, as if Sheppard had given him a compliment, which Aiden thought was a little weird.

Markham's eyes widened, and he twitched, like he didn't know if he should jump to his feet and salute or not.

Luckily Sheppard noticed before the poor kid could freak out or anything. "At ease, Sergeant," Sheppard drawled. He leaned back in his chair, snagging his coffee cup on the way. "So," he said, smiling lazily at the table in general. "What exciting lunchtime gossip did I miss while I was waiting to be handed this fine example of American military cuisine?"

"McKay is stalker of Gifted people," Zelenka said. He poked at his meal a bit more, then pushed it away from him, sighing.

Sheppard's eyebrows shot up. "That so? Should I be worried about my underwear?"

"Oh for the love of--What is it with you people and underwear? I have absolutely no interest in your underwear!" McKay said, way too loud. He blushed and muttered something like 'stupid underwear fetishists', stabbing at his plate.

"Can Stackhouse do anything?" Markham asked. "It's just...y'know, I know him, and all," he stammered when Aiden looked at him curiously. "He's never said."

McKay's superior grin was back instantly, the blush fading. "Nope, sorry." He gestured at Aiden with another forkful of food. "He's as Mundane as the young lieutenant, here. No ATA gene whatsoever."

Aiden glowered at him. Only McKay could make not being Gifted sound like it was something embarrassing.

"Kind of like you," Sheppard said to McKay. He smiled, but his voice had a tiny bite to it, and Aiden shot him a grateful smile for getting his back. He didn't think too many other superior officers would have bothered.

"Not really," McKay said, not phased at all. "Since I do have the gene. It's just inactive for both Gift and Ancient technology activation." His mouth kind of crumpled for a second, and Aiden saw Sheppard's eyebrows arch a bit, watching that. But then McKay perked right back up, like he'd just thought of something fantastic. "But, since I've volunteered to be Carson's very first test subject for gene activation therapy, I'm going to have a Gift myself in just about...." He looked at his watch. "Oh, say twenty hours."

Somehow Aiden was sure McKay knew exactly how many hours it was going to be. And minutes. Probably seconds.

"I thought Conroy volunteered for that?" Markham asked. Aiden shrugged. He couldn't remember who Conroy was, though the name sounded vaguely familiar.

"Are these Gifts so very special, then, that you are so eager to have one of your own?" Teyla asked. She looked thoughtful. "Dr. Beckett asked that I see him today. Perhaps I should ask him also for this...therapy?"

"No point." McKay waved a hand, talking with his mouth full. "You don't have the gene either."

Teyla looked at him, obviously puzzled. "How do you know that?"

McKay blinked. "Well, it has to do with when your ancestors were taken to the Pegasus galaxy from Earth, versus when the Ancients went back to Earth and, um...."

"Mixed with the locals," Sheppard said smoothly. He smirked at McKay's discomfort. "None of your ancestors would have had children with Ancients," he explained. "So none of your people would have Ancient genes."

"Ah." Teyla nodded, smiling. "Thank you."

"Besides," Sheppard added, smiling at her. "You can sense the Wraith--that's already pretty cool."

Teyla's smile widened. "I am glad you think so, Major," she said.

"Didn't you already get checked out, Teyla?" Aiden asked her, curious. "I thought everyone who came back from the Hive ship had to go to the infirmary." For a little while he'd been worried he'd picked up some kind of Wraith germs from the creepy-as-hell ship they'd been on, or that Sheppard was going to shrivel up like Sumner had, because the Wraith chick had touched him. It had been a huge relief to know that Beckett's scans had all come back clean.

"Yes I did," Teyla said. "But Dr. Beckett said he...saw something with his Gift, when he examined me, which he wanted to speak to me about." She smiled again, though it looked a little nervous. "I do not know what it may be."

Wow. Maybe she was sick or something. That would be awful. "Want me to come with you?"

"Thank you, Aiden," Teyla said, "I would like that." And when she smiled at him this time he could totally feel his heart banging. She was just so beautiful and regal and fantastic. He really hoped nothing was wrong with her.

"To answer your question, Teyla," McKay cut in suddenly, and Aiden scowled. "Yes. Having a Gift is, well...." He smiled, and for once it just looked kind of sad, not smug or superior or anything. He shook his head. "It would be amazing." He made a gesture that kind of took in Markham, Sheppard and Zelenka all at once. "I mean, Markham can teleport objects, Zel, uh, Zelik here--"

"Zelenka," Zelenka and Sheppard said together.

"--Is a Techno-Empath."

"Please, McKay," Zelenka said with obvious exasperation. "I am not a 'techno-empath'! That is comic-book word. I have sixth sense when it comes to understanding machines. It is a kind of sight," he explained to Teyla. "Like Dr. Beckett's ability to see genetic structure." He turned back to McKay to glare at him. "I can not feel the emotions of machines!"

"You can feel out where circuits should go with your mind! McKay said. "Fine. Call it whatever ridiculous, inaccurate term you want," he huffed before Zelenka could reply, as if he was humoring someone who didn't have a clue what he was talking about. It sounded like maybe they'd had that argument a couple times already.

"Anyway," McKay went on, "and the Major can--"

"Kill you with my brain," Sheppard said. He was grinning at McKay, but Aiden thought there was something kind of predatory about it, like what he was really saying was, just try it, like McKay was threatening him.

"Charm people," McKay finished, looking at Sheppard with an expression that Aiden knew meant he was also wondering where the hell that had come from. His eyebrows began to crawl up his forehead. "Unless something really, really important was left out of your file, and you're not just quoting a television show to be rakishly annoying."

"Maybe I like being rakishly annoying," Sheppard said. His smile relaxed a little, though Aiden thought he still seemed tense, like he wasn't totally sure the threat was gone.

"Maybe it's your default setting," McKay shot back. He huffed out a breath, grabbing for his coffee cup and taking another long, long swallow. "Anyway," he said, putting the cup down before he gestured at one of Sheppard's hands with a sharp jut of his chin. "Do you think they'd have let Charmers get away with just wearing half-finger gloves if you all were really that dangerous?" He looked over at Teyla, like she was a student he was lecturing. "All that stuff Carson might have told you about them being able to make you kill yourself or whatnot is total crap, by the way. A Charmer can't make you do anything you're not inclined to do anyway." McKay chuckled, as if he'd just thought of something really funny. "If they were really worried about what Charmers could do, the Major would be in some kind of armor. Up to his eyeballs, probably. And I'm sure it'd be pretty difficult to fly a plane like that."

"I fly choppers," Sheppard said, but his smile looked real, finally.

"Oh, ha, ha," McKay said, rolling his eyes. "You're a scream, Major. Maybe you could grow a sense of humor along with your hair."

Sheppard actually grinned. "Flatterer," he drawled.

Aiden blinked in surprise when instead of the sour comment he'd expected, McKay just smiled at the Major before he took another drink of his coffee.

"Wait," Markham said, looking confused. Aiden had a feeling it was going to be a kind of regular look for the guy. "You don't need the gloves, sir?" he asked Sheppard. "I thought everyone in the military with mental Gifts had to wear them?"

"Oh yes, this is why I sleep so soundly at night--the incisive minds of the Marines standing between us and oblivion," McKay said. "You're absolutely right," he said to Markham, who had barely started grinning in pleased surprise before McKay continued with, "with the tiny caveat that you're talking about just the American military, not every single institution on Earth, and that the requirement was rescinded by President Clinton a little over nine years ago." He looked at Sheppard again, his forehead all bunched up. "And that's a good point, actually. What are you wearing the gloves for? Are your hands cold?"

Sheppard just kept smiling, but it had gone tight again. "You could say that."

"What?" McKay's face somehow managed to look both puzzled and irritated at the same time. "I could say what? That your hands are cold? Do you have some kind of circulation problem? Wouldn't they kick you out of the military for that?"

Sheppard slid his chair back and rose smoothly to his feet. "You got me, McKay," he said, with insincere seriousness. "Everyone hoped that Antarctica would cure me, but it didn't work. It's heartbreaking, but I just try to take it one day at a time." He smiled and nodded his goodbyes to everyone, and walked off like everything was fine, but Aiden wondered if he was the only one who noticed Sheppard had left his lunch half-eaten on his tray.

"What was that?" McKay asked no one in particular. "What was that all about? Does he really have circulation problems?" He looked at Aiden, as if Aiden would know.

"I believe the Major was being sarcastic," Teyla said. She was staring in the direction Sheppard had gone, looking a little concerned. "Perhaps he did not appreciate your comments."

"I wasn't 'commenting' on anything!" McKay protested loudly. "I asked him a simple question. It's not my problem if he didn't want to answer it."

Zelenka looked at McKay blandly. "You are so good with people," he said. "You must make friends wherever you go."

McKay glowered at Zelenka, then looked back at Teyla. He seemed kind of worried. "Do you think he didn't, uh, appreciate my comments?"

"I believe he does not wish anyone to speculate on his choice of clothing," Teyla said gently. "Among my people, such a thing is considered rude."

"Oh," McKay said. Now he looked unhappy. "It was a legitimate question!" he said defensively. Then he turned to Aiden, worried again. "He doesn't actually have any kind of problem, does he? I mean, he's all right, right?"

Aiden just rolled his eyes again. He figured McKay would be making him do that a lot. "They don't let you into the military with circulation problems, McKay." Well, Aiden didn't know that for sure, but it seemed reasonable.

"Oh," McKay said again, sounding relieved. "Well, of course not. I knew he had to be joking."

"Maybe he just thinks the gloves look cool?" Markham suggested. "I think some of the older brass still wear them because of that."

"Oh, absolutely," McKay said. "Because fashion would be the foremost thing on the mind of the military leader of the Atlantis expedition." He paused. "Then again, he obviously spends a lot of time on his hair."

"Maybe," Aiden said. It wasn't like he was going to worry about it.

But all the same, he couldn't help thinking of Major Sheppard leaving in the middle of his meal like that, like he'd rather go hungry than tell them anything.


John had always thought Artie Shah was almost too beautiful for a guy. (His name was really 'RT'--no initials, just the letters--but everybody at school called him 'Artie', and he didn't seem to mind.) He was tall and slim and elegant. His jet-black hair was silky, always shining, never greasy like John's was sometimes. His skin was smooth and clear and naturally a dark tan color, not pimply and pasty and starting to get really hairy like John's was. And his eyes were beautiful: big, brown, soulful eyes with really long lashes. John was always a little puzzled about why Artie liked him.

But Artie did like John and willingly hung out with him. The girls in class all swooned over Artie and his movie star looks, but he was kind of shy and really didn't talk to girls. At least that's how John defended Artie to Jim and Tony when they joked about Artie being a fag.

"Art's a regular guy, you assholes," John grumbled, shoving Jim's shoulder as they made their way over to football practice. "Sure he's smart, but he doesn't kiss up to the teachers, and he's good at sports."

Jim snorted. "Track isn't a real sport, Shep. Jeez, any pansy can run." Jim proceeded to flap his hands at the end of exaggeratedly limp wrists as he jogged ahead of them with mincing little steps. Tony whooped with laughter.

John shoved Tony too, hard enough that he tripped and fell over. "Hey, dickwad, he can run circles around you," he sneered.

Jim started to laugh along with Tony, both of them chanting, "Pansy, pansy, Artie's a little pansy!"

John flushed and scowled. He felt a twisting sensation in his belly as he started to get really angry. "Stop that! He's my friend, you jerks! Stop saying mean things about him!"

Jim and Tony both ducked their heads and held out their hands defensively, as if they'd practiced coordinating their moves.

"Hey, man, I didn't mean anything by it."

"Yeah, Shep, don't get all worked up about it, we'll lay off."

And they never mentioned Artie again.

John didn't do so well at football practice that day. For some reason, he was really tired.


"Major!" McKay said, sounding surprised, as if he hadn't actually expected to find John in his own office, or having anything to do. "I've been looking for you--oh, hey, is this your office?"

John glanced up at him from his laptop. He considered giving the too-easy sarcastic reply, then decided he would be the better man. "Something I can help you with, McKay?"

"Huh," McKay said, still looking around the small space. "Are you sure this wasn't really some kind of storage closet?" He gestured vaguely at the walls. "Don't you want a room with a window?"

There were crates next to the door and lined along the wall opposite John's 'desk', which was really one of the fold-out tables that had been brought along for the city's mess. John had no idea what Sumner would have used, but he figured they could spare one table for the military head of the expedition. The crates were full of field kits and tac vests for the Marines, all meant for gate missions, but there hadn't been time to find anywhere else to put them, and John hadn't gotten around to ordering anyone to go through them and start a proper inventory. Hell, he hadn't had time to even ask for volunteers for gate teams, let alone make sure they got assigned proper equipment. Between rescuing people and fending off space vampires, he hadn't even had time to consider who he'd want on his own team, though he was pretty sure he was going to ask Teyla.

John didn't even think that the fact he'd killed his CO and suddenly become the highest-ranking officer of the expedition had really sunk in yet. They'd barely arrived a day ago. Part of him was still certain he was going to wake up back in his quarters at McMurdo any second, with all of this nothing but a strange dream. A strange dream with definite nightmarish qualities.

"It was the closest place to the gate room with enough space for a table," John said, wondering why he was bothering to defend his choice. "Did you want something, McKay?" he asked pointedly. Not that he particularly minded the distraction, but he already knew that McKay could follow an entire map's worth of tangents unless he was reined in immediately.

"What?" McKay looked puzzled. "Oh! Yes. Yes I did." He moved further into the room, barely avoiding kicking one of the crates. He glanced down at it. "I hope you never have to get in or out of here in the dark," he said absently, but looked up before John could remind him that he apparently had a point. "I was, uh...." He looked down at his hands, suddenly seeming nervous. "Um...Teyla may have, ah, brought it to my attention that you didn't appreciate my comments about your gloves."

John blinked, then automatically looked at his own hands on the tabletop, resisting the urge to curl them into fists, as if that would somehow make them less noticeable. He made himself look back at McKay, but he had no idea what to say to him.

"So, I, ah, didn't mean to speculate about any physical defects you might have in front of your subordinates," McKay said. "And mine, come to think of it." He seemed a little more anxious now, if anything. Probably because John hadn't replied, he figured. "I just wanted to tell you that."

John raised his eyebrows. "'Physical defects'?"

"Well, you wear gloves all the time!" McKay burst out. "What was I meant to think?"

John left his eyebrows up. "That it wasn't any of your business?"

"I'm a scientist!" McKay exclaimed with vehemence, as if that was what was being called into question. "I can't--!" He abruptly paused, then shut his mouth, blowing out a breath loudly through his nose. "I can't stand not knowing something," he said simply, his face completely serious. "Sometimes...sometimes that makes me a little...."

"Obnoxious?" John filled in.

"Will you stop doing that?" McKay said, leaping from grave chagrin to his already-familiar bluster in the space of a word, and John found himself smiling. It was kind of fun to watch. "I was going to say...well, I wasn't going to say that."

John swiveled in his chair to better face McKay, lifting his hands and holding the palms out placatingly. "Take it easy, McKay." He grinned at him, the lazy one he knew used to drive his COs wild with rage. "Apology accepted."

"Really?" McKay blinked. "Oh, well, good." He gestured between John and himself. "Because, because, ah...."

"We're good," John said kindly, feeling indulgent in the face of McKay's obvious discomfort. He could guess that McKay wasn't used to apologizing for anything, and he couldn't help wondering why McKay had now. John hadn't even been all that bothered by McKay's ridiculous suggestion that he had circulation problems. He'd heard worse. He'd been far more worried that McKay would keep pushing it until he'd be forced to make up an excuse for the gloves or shut him down, neither of which had been something he'd wanted.

McKay was...an okay guy. He'd given John the jumpers and had been bizarrely nice to him that night he'd ended up in McKay's quarters by mistake. And McKay didn't even seem to care that John was a Charmer, which was the weirdest thing. John could hardly remember anyone treating him the way McKay did, once they found out about his Gift: as if he were normal. McKay acted as if he thought John was an idiot half the time, but he did that to everyone, even Dr. Weir. It was funny how being treated with the same general rudeness as everyone else should make John so happy, but it did.

John knew he was going to like working with McKay. No sense jeopardizing that relationship before it even got off the ground.

So he said, "Don't worry about it, McKay, we're good," and kept smiling at him, until he saw McKay relax and smile tentatively back in return. McKay seemed surprisingly shy sometimes, for all his arrogance. It was strange but interesting.

"Well, that's good," McKay said brusquely, snapping his features back into his normal impatience. "I'm glad we cleared that up." He nodded firmly, as if John had been the one who'd put his foot in it and not the other way around. He gestured behind himself at the door. "I'll just...you know, lab stuff." His smile was back, briefly lop-sided and still tentative. "I'll let you get back to--whatever it was you were doing."

"Hold up, McKay," John said. He leaned back in the horribly uncomfortable chair and stretched. He'd been making up duty rosters for the Marines all afternoon, and pretty much loathing every second of it. "Is it dinner time yet? I could use a break."

For a second McKay looked like he had no idea what John had just said, then he looked startled.

"Dinner?" he asked, like he'd never heard the word.

"Why, I'd love to, Dr. McKay," John drawled, and he couldn't help chuckling when McKay scowled at him.

McKay rolled his eyes, then glared at his watch. "I suppose I could eat," he said grudgingly, then turned and strode out of John's office, grumbling something about schedules, not waiting to see if John was going to follow him.

John followed him easily, still smiling.

Yeah, he was going to like working with McKay a lot.


"Sheppard," McKay said. He was practically bouncing with glee. "I want you to shoot me."

John blinked at him. "What?"

"No, seriously," McKay insisted. He still looked scarily happy. "I need you to help me test Carson's gene-activation therapy."

John's eyebrows rose. "Wait, wait--you mean it worked? You got a Gift now?" He grinned, surprised at himself at being so pleased for McKay, but then again the guy's obvious joy was infectious. "You invulnerable, or something?"

McKay snorted. "There is no such Gift as invulnerability outside of the comic books, Major," he said. "The term you're flailing wildly for is 'wound-resistant', which is incredibly rare, actually. Only three people on Earth are known to have it, as a matter of fact. And no, I'm not the fourth." His glee faded, though he seemed to pull most of it up again, albeit with effort. "Actually, I don't, um," he stalled, apparently uncertain or maybe even embarrassed, but rushed on before John could say anything. "I'm sure my Gift will show up in due time, of course. Carson said it would probably take longer to appear than the Ancient technology activation." He nodded firmly, like all he had to do was convince himself to make it true. "Carson said he could see...something that he was sure was a Gift, but he couldn't recognize it." And that brought some of the bounce back. "Which probably means that whatever I get will be unique and exceptionally useful."

John wondered privately how much of that was wishful thinking, but he knew better than to do anything but agree. Besides, he really didn't want to spoil McKay's happiness. "Oh, yeah," he said with mock-seriousness. "You're an exceptionally unique person, McKay."

McKay hadn't missed the implicit 'short-bus' in 'unique', if his mild glare was anything to go on. John just stared back innocently.

"Are you going to shoot me, or what?"

John crossed his arms. "Since you're apparently not 'wound resistant',"--he gave the term special emphasis, just to see McKay glare again--"I'm going to assume you haven't suddenly become suicidal here, and ask, 'why'?"

McKay rolled his eyes. "Do I have to explain everything? I need you to help me test out a personal force-shield."

John felt his eyes widening. "You've got a personal force-shield?" Man, he loved this city. "Cool."

McKay smirked. "Oh, yeah."


It had been cool, too. Very cool. After the successful shooting-in-the-leg test, John had wondered aloud if the shield would protect against impacts as well. McKay had been absolutely ecstatic at the question, and had readily agreed with John's casual suggestion to test it out using the balcony over the gate room. So they'd scared the hell out of Weir and Grodin, which had been fun.

A hell of a lot of fun. John couldn't remember the last time he'd actually enjoyed himself that much. Not since being exiled to McMurdo, for sure. Maybe not for a long time before that. It was like John couldn't help but share McKay's almost childlike delight in being able to make the Ancient technology work. John remembered how obvious it was that McKay desperately wanted a Gift, the depth of McKay's longing to have an active ATA gene. It had all been there in his face when he'd spoke to Teyla. It was possible, probably even likely, that McKay would never have a Gift. But playing with the shield, it had been easy to see McKay's new ability to use the Ancient technology like John or Beckett was going a long way towards slaking at least some of that yearning.

John had never wanted his Gift, and still wasn't sure he particularly cared about having the ATA gene--except in so far as it had gotten him here--but seeing McKay like this, happier than John had figured the man could even get, he thought that maybe, just maybe, he could understand how other people saw the Gifted. At least the ones who envied, rather than feared them.

And then about four minutes later it had gotten a lot less fun when it turned out that McKay couldn't turn the force shield off. And while that was more funny than worrying (though it had pissed John off when he'd found out it was because McKay was being a chickenshit), that night the energy-sucking black entity thing had shown up, and everything had pretty much gone to hell from that point on.

And now Rodney McKay was going to die.

"McKay!"

John had been waiting anxiously on the balcony above the gate room, where he'd run to after activating the M.A.L.P. carrying the naquadah generator. Like the others, he'd seen immediately that it wasn't working, that the entity was feeding off the gate and they couldn't stop it, and he'd figured they were screwed. He'd been desperately trying to work out what else they could do. Maybe get Sergeant Markham to teleport the M.A.L.P. through the gate? (No, that wouldn't work, since Markham couldn't see the M.A.L.P. through the cloud.) Or maybe Private Belayneh could create a wind strong enough to scatter the entity like fog? Or the scientist who could do the EM-pulse thing, would that help? He'd even briefly considered trying to use his own Gift on the entity, except God only knew if the damn thing could even register sound, let alone understand language.

And then, out of the corner of his eye, he'd seen McKay--chickenshit, whiny McKay--walking down the stairs to the gate room and right into the thick black cloud of the entity's body.

"McKay! Get back here, now!" John put his Gift into it, but either McKay didn't hear him or he was so intent on what he was doing that it'd made him immune to John's trying to charm him.

John watched as McKay's shield flickered a pathetic, sickly green, and then McKay was gone.

There was nothing in the gate room now but the thick, smoky black. Only the very top of the gate was visible. John watched, hands clutching convulsively around his P-90 as if there was something he could shoot. He stared at the entity until his eyes burned, trying to see some glimpse of McKay, some hint that he was alive.

McKay's shield generator was so small it looked like a broach. The entity would drain it in seconds, and then McKay would be immolated. John had seen the bodies of people who had died burning.

He felt sick. His lungs weren't working right. His heart was thudding cold agony in his chest as he waited for the screams.

And then, just like that, the cloud suddenly started to thin, flowing through the gate like a black river into clear water. John galloped down the stairs, sure he was racing towards a corpse.

The case with the naquadah generator was gone, and McKay was standing in front of the gate, swaying like his body was about to give out. For a dizzying second John was sure he could see smoke, the black-on-red char of burns. Even when his eyes caught up with his brain and he knew McKay was untouched, he was still absolutely certain the man was dead, that he was witnessing the last seconds of McKay's life.

"McKay!" It was instinctive, calling his name again. As useless as running to him, but John did it anyway. Weir and Grodin were right behind him, but he didn't even glance at them. All that mattered was McKay.

But he still hesitated before he reached for him--

--and stubbed his fingers against something crackling and unyielding, that flared up around his skin in electric bursts of gold.

John yanked his hands back, feeling the sting seep slowly out of his fingertips.

"McKay?" he said. He reached again, more carefully, and met the same resistance. Like when he had pushed McKay off a balcony, or when he had tried to reach the shield generator on his chest. Tiny starbursts of gold broke away from his hands as he gently turned McKay to face him.

McKay's eyes were wide in a face as gray as stone. He blinked at John as if he'd never seen him before. "I'm not dead." He said it like a revelation.

The Ancient shield generator on his chest was dark, as dead as McKay wasn't. John was surprised that it hadn't fallen off. Maybe it was being kept in place by the other shield.

The other shield. Gold like lightning shot away from John's hands, wrapped so carefully around McKay's upper arms. But not touching him. Not touching.

"Oh my God," John said. "Rodney?"

With a tiny exhale, McKay's eyes rolled back. The gold filaments disappeared just before he fell, solid and tangible and alive and real, into John's arms.


"All right, then," Carson said, slapping the Glucagon injector into Rodney's palm--maybe somewhat more forcefully than he might have, but he was rather past caring at this point--"you're going to need to know how to use one of these."

Rodney glanced at the injector and then gave Carson a look of bored contempt, very much like the looks Carson had been getting from him all morning. "I have an eipipen, Carson," he said flatly. "And I'm also hypoglycemic. I think I might know how to use this kind of injector."

Carson glared right back at him. "Unlike glucose pills," Carson said, ignoring Rodney's violent eyeroll, "Glucagon doesn't replace lost blood sugar, but rather forces the body to release stored glucose in the event of a hypoglycemic reaction. Which," he continued pointedly when he saw Rodney open his mouth, "you are that much more prone to, now that you are Gifted and therefore more liable to expend energy using your abilities. Gifted people have died of hypoglycemic shock before, Rodney," Carson added, nodding at the injector. "So take care of that--it could well save your life."

"Thank you, yes, because I was planning on being wildly careless with it," Rodney said, but he tucked it gently into the same pocket of his tac vest that carried his epipen.

"I'm serious, Rodney," Carson said. "We don't have an endless supply of those. Be careful with it." Though every Gifted had a large supply of the glucose pills, only those at special risk got the Glucagon injectors as well. Such as Dr. Weir and Dr. Corrigan, who couldn't turn their Gifts off, or Dr. Simmons, whose remote viewing ability exacted an enormous toll whenever she used it. Or like Dr. Zelenka, who because of his expertise ended up using his Gift almost constantly. Rodney was also a special case because he already had problems with hypoglycemia, though he hadn't yet used his Gift enough to indicate how much energy it required. But Carson had always preferred to be overcautious when dealing with other people's lives. "Do you want me to explain how to use it?"

"Carson," Rodney said, in a voice that might have sounded patient if he wasn't so obviously annoyed, "I've been researching the Gifted since I was a kid. I know about the exhaustion and the blood sugar and the, um, mental problems--possible mental problems," he amended quickly, though not without a small shudder. "And that I should probably eat more often now--"

"I never said that," Carson interjected.

"--if I want to make sure to avoid a hypoglycemic reaction, since my metabolism might have sped up, like Dr. Weir's," Rodney continued loftily. "The point is, I know this stuff, Carson. I know all of it already."

Carson sighed loudly, sagging a little. "Rodney," he said. "I'm just worried about you."

Rodney blinked, then scowled. "Why? What--am I too fragile for a gate team or something? Do you think I can't handle it? Look, just because I wasn't born Gifted like you--"

"Because you're my friend!" Carson exploded at him. "You bloody great git! You might've died only three days ago, and that was without even leaving the city! And we've only just met the Wraith, who knows what other terrible beasties are waiting out there? Do you think I want you to get hurt?" He gestured at Rodney's tac vest, meaning the Glucagon injector and extra glucose pills he'd just given him. "That's all I can do to help keep you safe, Rodney! Bloody hell, it's all I can do!"

He stood staring at Rodney, breathing hard and a little ashamed of his outburst. Rodney, for his part, blinked back at him.

"'Terrible beasties'?" he said.

Carson glared. "Rodney!"

"Okay, okay," Rodney said. He raised a hand. "You're right. I'm sorry." And he did actually look contrite. "I, ah, appreciate the concern, Carson. I really do. But I'll be fine. I'm serious," he added when Carson couldn't help but look askance at him. "I'm on a team with a kickass alien princess, an explosives expert, and the military leader of the expedition--I'll be as safe as humanly possible out here."

Carson could tell that Rodney didn't even really believe that himself, but he knew there was no point in arguing. He also knew how much Rodney had to want this, since he had talked of almost nothing else since the Major had invited him to be on his first-contact team. Well, complained was closer to the truth, but for Rodney that was akin to jubilation.

He was a little surprised to see Rodney and Sheppard already getting along like a house afire, but he supposed it was a good thing. Carson was sure that as a Charmer, Sheppard was going to have difficulty making friends, even in a small, closed community like Atlantis. Carson had to admit that the man still gave him the willies, wholly undeservedly though it might be. It was just that Carson had heard too many old wives' tales about Charmers whilst growing up to feel quite easy round him. He hoped his prejudice would go away in time.

"Very well," Carson said, sighing again. He smiled, straightening Rodney's vest for him, which Rodney bore with ill grace. "I'll let you go, then. But you come back if you have any questions or start feeling weak or sickly, mind--I'm not having you collapse because you overdo it."

"Come on, Carson, it's not like I'm going to war, or--" Rodney cut himself off, thinking. "Well, okay, never mind." He slid off the lab bench, where he'd been sitting though Carson's aborted lecture, kicking his legs like a sullen teen. "Look," he said, as conciliatory as he ever could be, "The team's not going out for a few days yet, so I've still got plenty of time to try out the shield stuff and make sure I know what I'm doing. And I promise I'll come to you if I have any problems, okay?"

"Be sure that you do," Carson said. With Rodney that was really all he could hope for, anyway.


When he thought about it later, Rodney was forced to admit he'd barely noticed him.

He did have a vague recollection of a young man sitting in the mess hall at some God-awful hour of the morning, when Rodney had staggered in for more coffee. He should have been sleeping, of course, just like nearly everyone else in Atlantis who wasn't on the graveyard shift. But Rodney had been so close to a breakthrough that he could taste it like the remnants of the last cup of coffee in his mouth, and he had been wholly unwilling to abandon the idea for sleep.

It had nothing to do with the fact that he'd almost died less than five days earlier, offering up his life on the altar of Stupidly-Heroic Martyrdom when he'd walked into that energy creature, or the--possibly even more terrifying--prospect that he'd somehow agreed to become part of Major John Sheppard's off-world team, which meant he would actually be seeking out further opportunities to kill himself on a cheerfully regular basis.

No, it had nothing to do with either of those reasons. He just didn't feel like sleeping tonight. He was figuring out very important things.

So, exhausted and preoccupied and, yes, maybe a little anxious, Rodney remembered his eyes flitting over someone, sitting by himself at a table under one of the windows. The black-on-gray uniform had marked him as one of the Marines, and Rodney had dismissed him instantly as someone inconsequential. In truth, Rodney doubted he would have even noticed him in the first place, except that he was the only other person in the cavernous room.

What Rodney remembered seeing, later--much later--was that the young man wasn't eating or drinking, but he had his elbows on the table with his arms up and clasped around his head.

He must be tired, Rodney had thought. It made perfect sense to him. He'd occasionally sat that way himself.

When the young man suddenly raised his head and whipped around to face him, Rodney had just assumed that he'd startled the guy.

"Sorry," Rodney had said absently. Then he'd poured himself some coffee and promptly forgot the man had even existed.

He'd really had no clue that the guy had followed him.

In fact, his first indication that there was even someone behind him came when he felt a pair of rough hands bunching in the back of his jacket. Before Rodney could even really register what was happening, he'd been slammed into the wall of the corridor. His right temple bounced off it with an astonishingly loud crack, and Rodney staggered, too dazed to fight back. He was smashed into the wall again before he could gather himself enough to throw up his shield.

The third hit dropped him to his knees, and Rodney would have tipped forward onto his face if someone hadn't grabbed him. Rodney's eyes were half-open and blind with the unconsciousness overtaking him, but he was vaguely aware of being hauled up, an uncomfortable pressure against his chest and a feeling of movement, being dragged.

"I'm sorry," someone whispered. "I'm really, really sorry."

Rodney wasn't able to reply.


He woke slowly and in a great deal of pain, with no idea where he was.

It seemed to take a fantastically long time to realize that he was lying on the floor of some room--it was hard and unpleasantly cold--but his head was being cradled against something relatively yielding and warm.

Rodney's head was killing him, and it felt like every single thought he tried to form set off an explosion in his brain, so it took him another small eternity to figure out that not only was his head resting in someone's lap, but that the lap belonged to the man who was looking down at him, his expression locked in some mess of relief, joy, fear, guilt, and concern. His face made Rodney think he should know him from somewhere, too, but remembering where was so far beyond Rodney at that point that they weren't even in the same galaxy.

"I'm real glad you're awake," the man said. "I was getting worried--you were out for a long time."

Rodney blinked at him. He tried to form a reply, but the words just tumbled painfully in his head and didn't seem to go anywhere he could actually use them.

"Hey," the man said. "Can you hear me?" He gently carded his fingers through Rodney's hair, and even that small touch caused a cascade of new pain to roil inside Rodney's skull. Rodney winced and hissed, but the man didn't pull his hand back.

He seemed to be about Ford's age, Rodney thought hazily. His face was so pale it looked like death, under a military cut sparse enough to barely bristle from his scalp. His eyes were a nondescript blue, bloodshot around the irises, but there was a wildness in them that Rodney remembered from his childhood, from all the people his mother had taught him never to stare at. The crazy ones.

Rodney made a small noise of fear and tried to move: roll over and push himself to his knees, then get to his feet and run, but the man held him down with appalling ease.

"Shh," he said, pressing on Rodney's shoulders through his struggles. "It's okay. It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you."

Rodney's incredulous grunt in response just got another look of concern.

"I know," the man said, sounding sincere. "I'm sorry, I really am. But I had to. You don't understand, I--" He broke off, and his eyes were suddenly shining liquid and blinking. "I can hear everything. Everyone. All the time. All these voices in my head, it's so loud...."

He took a breath and pressed the heel of one shaking hand to the socket of his eye, grinding in a way that looked like it had to hurt. "I can't sleep anymore, because of the dreams and the voices, and, and during the day it gets so bad sometimes that I can't even remember who I am, where everyone else stops." He gave a gulping, wet laugh and moved his hands to either side of Rodney's head, as if he was encircling something sacred.

"And then, then you came, and...your mind.... It's so, you have so many thoughts, all at once. It drowns everything else out. It's okay, if it's just you. It gets quiet. So, I had to take you here, so you could help me. I'm sorry I hit you so hard." Another sick little laugh. "For awhile there I wasn't sure you were even going to wake up."

Rodney growled.

"I'm sorry," the guy said again. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. "Maybe I can sleep now. I'm so tired...."

"I think you should let go of Dr. McKay, right now."

The words weren't even loud, but the young man's eyes flew open, and he scrambled away from Rodney so fast that Rodney's head was dropped out of his lap to smack hard against the floor.

Rodney's vision went black for an indeterminable amount of time, and when he could see again the guy who'd kidnapped him was curled in on himself in the opposite corner of the small room, with his arms wrapped around his head and his whole body trembling.

"Dr. McKay!" Teyla was saying. She was crouched next to him with her small, cool hand on the side of his head. She sounded surprisingly concerned. "Dr. McKay, can you hear me?"

He managed what he hoped was an affirmative grunt.

"How is he?" That was Sheppard. It took Rodney a dizzy, swimming moment of forcing his eyes to move enough to find him.

Sheppard had his back to Rodney, his entire being focused on the cringing young man in the corner. Sheppard's back was like iron, his gloved hands fisted so hard at his sides they were visibly trembling. Just watching them made Rodney's head hurt more, so he closed his eyes with a sigh.

"He has taken a severe blow to the head," Teyla told Sheppard, then turned her attention back to Rodney. "You must stay awake, Dr. McKay," Teyla said. "Dr. Beckett will be here shortly."

"Watch him," Sheppard said to some Marine or other who was also in the room. "If he so much as twitches towards McKay, shoot him." Rodney pulled his eyes open with an effort, slowly noticing that the room was half-full of people, including his team (Ford was standing by the wall, talking on his radio and looking grim) and at least three Marines. Part of Rodney was distantly pleased that he'd merited this kind of search and rescue effort.

Someone was tapping his cheek, annoyingly.

"Come on, McKay, open your eyes." Sheppard said.

The tapping got more insistent, and Rodney belatedly realized that everything had gone dark, so he must have closed his eyes again. This time when he'd forced them open he was looking up at the very, very angry face of Sheppard, though it was Teyla's hand tapping his cheek.

Sheppard was kneeling next to him, but his hands were still in fists, well back.

"Damn it, McKay," Sheppard was all but snarling at him. "Why the hell didn't you use your shield?"

Oh, that's right, Rodney thought dully. I can make shields. And he smiled, despite the pain and having been attacked by a psychopath and now being yelled at wholly unfairly by Sheppard. Because he could make shields, and that was really cool.

"He's pretty out of it," Sheppard said to Teyla, who nodded gravely at him. If anything, Sheppard sounded even angrier. Rodney watched groggily as Sheppard turned back to the young man, so that Rodney couldn't see his expression. "If he hurt him, I swear I'm gonna make Conroy take a walk off a balcony."

"Major!" Teyla sounded horrified.

Sheppard just turned his head so he could glare at her over his shoulder. "He could have killed him, Teyla!"

With an effort that made Rodney grimace, he reached out and gripped Sheppard's ankle. He could practically feel the flinch ripple through Sheppard's entire body, but Rodney didn't let go until he knew Sheppard was facing him.

"Not his fault," Rodney said. It was amazing how long it took to get the words out, and he was left nauseated and exhausted. "Telepath. No control. Needs help."

Sheppard looked at Rodney for a long moment, his expression unreadable, then looked back at Conroy. He hesitated, then walked over to him, kneeling down again as the Marine guarding him obediently moved aside.

Conroy was still shaking, his entire body clenched up in the corner as if against a blow or terrible pain. Rodney could just make out Conroy muttering, "shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up," to himself, over and over again.

Sheppard cleared his throat, then hesitated. "You must be tired," Sheppard said. His voice had gone quiet, though it was anything but gentle or soothing. "Why don't you get your head down for a few, Conroy? Go to sleep."

And Rodney watched, wide-eyed, as Conroy sagged, eyes shutting almost gratefully. He slid down the wall until he was lying awkwardly and loose-limbed on the floor. He still looked distressed, even in sleep, but at least it seemed like he was actually resting.

Sheppard stood slowly, shaking his head as if trying to throw off a sudden dizziness, and he took a deep breath as if he were tired. Whatever he'd just done had used up a fair amount of energy.

Everyone in the room was staring at him.

"What?" Sheppard snapped. "You've never seen anyone using their Gift before?" He sounded weary, and Rodney was sure it wasn't only the stress of what Sheppard had just done.

Rodney wanted to say something, snarl at all the idiots who were looking at Sheppard like he'd suddenly turned into some exotic animal, but he was too tired to think of the words. His eyes slipped shut again, and this time when he felt Teyla's fingertips on his cheek, he imagined they were Sheppard's, guiding him gently into the dark.


John stalked out of the infirmary and right to the nearest transporter, stabbing at the map display almost at random. All he was looking for was a place he could go that was far away from the infirmary and Conroy and Beckett and that fucking idiot McKay, before he did something he would regret forever, like when he'd gestured at the still-unconscious McKay, lying limp and scarily pale on the gurney, except for the flood of red running down his temple, and snarled 'fix him' at Beckett and almost--almost--shoved his Gift behind it, as if Beckett wouldn't try hard enough unless John made him.

Realizing what he'd been about to do was what had driven John out the door, and now he just wanted as far away as possible, so he wouldn't be tempted to go back, at least not until he'd cooled down. Beckett was one thing, but Conroy had been there as well, and every time John had looked at McKay's lax features he'd thought about what he'd said to Teyla. And how much he'd meant it.

He really wasn't used to feeling this way; he wasn't even sure he'd known he could feel this way, this kind of anger.

This kind of protectiveness. And he barely even knew McKay. That was fucking terrifying.

He'd turned left automatically when the transporter doors had opened, instinctively heading for the nearest balcony. It was another typically beautiful Atlantis day, with a gentle breeze coming in off the water, warm sun and a blue sky stretching forever in every direction, framing the spires of the city in light. John smacked his palms hard on the balcony railing, then pushed himself away and began to pace.

You get along, he thought almost frantically. You get along, and he's part of your team. It doesn't mean anything else. It doesn't have to mean anything else.

John took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax. Yeah. Yeah, that was all it was. McKay was part of his team, and he was always protective of the people he worked with. That was why he still...thought about Mitch and Dex, sometimes, and why he'd fucked his career by making his CO agree that it was a great idea to go rescue Holland. He would have felt the same way about Conroy if it had been Teyla who the Marine had screwed with, or Ford.

John took another breath, then a few more, feeling the tension and anger slowly seeping away from him. It was okay. He was okay. It was all right to feel this way. It was just him being protective. It wasn't dangerous. It didn't have to mean anything.

John stopped pacing, instead standing so he was looking out over the water again. He was calm enough that he thought he'd be able to go back and be civil to Beckett while he waited to find out about McKay, when the large doors slid open behind him. He turned to see Teyla come onto the balcony.

She inclined her head to him. "Dr. Corrigan was quite helpful in enabling me to find you," she said before he could ask.

John smirked a little. "I'm not sure if he's going to be the most useful guy on the expedition, or the most annoying."

"The most useful, I think," Teyla said seriously, though her gentle smile told him she understood the joke. "If it had not been for his Gift, it could well have been hours before we knew where Dr. McKay was."

"Yeah." John nodded, sighing. He looked ruefully at his hands, only the last digits of his fingers showing beyond the confines of the black shooting gloves. "Must be nice, having a Gift like that."

"From what I understand of it, trying to pinpoint an individual can be exhausting," Teyla said, coming to stand next to John. She was close enough for John to feel the warmth of her body, but not so close that he felt uncomfortable. He was sure she'd done that deliberately and was grateful for her thoughtfulness. "And he is constantly aware of everyone around him, like...." She paused, thinking. "Like 'an itch in his brain', he told me. I think that would be most uncomfortable. But yes, I think it would be good to have a Gift like that." She looked at John. "Though yours is formidable as well. What you did today was remarkable."

John shrugged. "Conroy wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders. It didn't take much work to...subdue him." The amount of energy he'd put into charming Conroy was probably overkill, in retrospect, but John wasn't going to feel bad about it. When he'd come into the room it'd looked like Conroy had been about to twist McKay's head off. The kid was lucky John hadn't just shot him.

"Perhaps," Teyla said. "But I have always thought that those not in their right minds are the most difficult to persuade."

"I guess. I wouldn't really know. I haven't had to deal with too many crazy people," John said. He wasn't sure if Teyla had just complimented him, or even what she was getting at, if anything. "But I'm sure that not sleeping for four days made him a bit more persuadable." John shook his head, feeling his jaw clench. Maybe he wasn't quite as relaxed as he'd thought. "I can't believe Beckett missed that. How the hell could he not know one of his guinea pigs was going nuts?"

"He told me he can see one's genetic structure," Teyla said, the mild rebuke clear in her voice. "But he can only know if a Gift is present, not how strong it might be. Dr. Beckett said that Cpl. Conroy's ability to hear thoughts had been intermittent and mild after the gene therapy. He promised Dr. Beckett that he would come to him if he had any trouble, but he didn't."

"Because he was going insane, obviously!" John said angrily. It was easy to cast blame in retrospect, though, and if he was doing that, he had to accept that it was his fault that Conroy had basically dropped off the radar and John hadn't even noticed one of the Marines--one of his Marines--was missing. It didn't help that Conroy was one of those completely unmemorable people who could disappear the second after you stopped talking to them, or that John had been so damn busy with suddenly being Atlantis' military leader, but those were just excuses. McKay would probably be fine right now if John had taken a couple minutes every so often to check a life signs detector or ask Corrigan, make sure everyone was where they were meant to be.

Instead it had taken Peter Grodin having a vision of McKay getting his head cracked open, before anyone even had a clue something was wrong.

John ran a hand over his face, feeling the comfortable smoothness of the glove. That had always helped calm him, make him feel more in control--whatever happened, no one could touch him; it meant safety. "What's going to happen to the guy, anyway?"

"A safe place will be found for him in a distant part of the city, where he will be far enough away from people so he can rest," Teyla said. "Dr. Beckett said there is someone who can go visit him, to help him learn to use his Gift properly, so that he can come back."

John nodded. "Heightmeyer," he said. It was a good solution. The only solution, really, since they had no way of getting Conroy back to Earth. "Thanks."

"You are welcome," Teyla said. She smiled briefly at him, before looking out at the water. Her expression became serious, maybe a little sad.

"How easy was I to persuade, Major?" She asked him. "When you came to Athos and used your Gift on me?"

John froze, then closed his eyes. His hands slowly tightened around the balcony railing to the point of pain. "You have to know that wasn't my choice, Teyla," he said. "You have to know I would never have done that to you. I didn't want--"

"I know, John," Teyla said gently, making an intimacy out of his name. Maybe that meant she could forgive him. "I know you wouldn't have done it if Colonel Sumner hadn't ordered you to." She was still looking out at the water. "But that does not change what you did."

"I know," John said roughly. "I know it doesn't." He had to swallow. The endless ocean was so much better than looking back at Teyla's face. "I understand if you want off the team."

Teyla looked at him again at that, and she smiled at him, as warm as the sky. "Major," she said. "If I did not trust you, I wouldn't have accepted your offer when you first made it." And she deliberately curved her hand around his wrist.

John didn't flinch, because she'd moved slowly, and he could see it, and she only had her hand against his jacket sleeve, not touching his skin. And because he knew what she was doing, what it meant.

"Thank you," he said, so softly he was sure the wind stole the words before Teyla could hear them.

But Teyla still nodded. "I do not enjoy being manipulated, Major," she said pointedly. "But I think the risk you took to save your people and mine from the Wraith truly shows what kind of man you are." She squeezed his wrist gently. "I am honored to fight at your side."

John had to swallow again. "Likewise," he rasped out, still not looking at her, and his voice was even rougher than before.

Teyla's smile widened.

"How did you know?" John asked her. The victims of a Charmer's Gift never knew what had happened to them. At least, that's what John had always known. Had thought he knew.

Teyla let go his wrist, patted it then pulled her hand back. "I did not," she said, and John glanced at her, surprised. "But when I saw what you did to Conroy, I realized what your Gift meant, and knew that that you must have used it on me." Her smile became rueful. "I do not normally accept strangers so easily. But it seemed...natural to do so."

"I'm sorry," John said.

"Do not be," Teyla said. "You were carrying out your orders." She quirked her eyebrows at him. "But do not do that again."

John shook his head solemnly. "No. Absolutely."

They stood silently together for a long moment, quiet and warm in the sun and wind.

"Why do you wear these gloves, Major?" Teyla asked him.

John flexed his fingers around the rail, thinking of all the answers he could give to that question.

"They're a reminder," he said at last. "And a warning."

Teyla looked at him, puzzled. "Why? What are you warning us against?"

Sheppard smiled grimly. "It's for me."


The thing was, John privately suspected Artie might actually be a little bit of a fag. He wasn't weird, or anything, and he acted perfectly normal in public. But when it was just the two of them, when Artie came over to study or hang out in John's room, or when John went over to Artie's house and they were by themselves because both Artie's mom and dad worked, Artie kind of touched him. On the hand, or the arm, usually. It wasn't a big deal, but it wasn't like John's other friends touched him--the joking wrestling or shoving or playful punches. It was quieter, more gentle. Purposeful. And Artie would be looking at him from under his lashes while he did it, like he was waiting for John to say something or do something.

And he kind of complimented John. A lot. "I think you're amazing," he'd breathe, staring into John's eyes, his own eyes shining with sincerity and adoration. It made John squirm a little.

More and more, he'd started to feel...well, nervous wasn't exactly the word, but it was the closest he could think of, around Artie. He'd start to talk, and Artie would slide those warm slim fingers over his wrist and look at him with those eyes.... And then John would stutter to a halt, blushing, forgetting what he'd been about to say.

One day, he wasn't sure why he did it, but he touched Artie back. He ran his hand up the smooth, flawless skin of Artie's arm, wrist to shoulder, then back down to his wrist again, and then to his hand. Their fingers kind of wrapped around each other, all by themselves. John held his breath, and he only realized when he looked up into his friend's face that Artie was holding his breath too.

John swallowed. "Artie, you know I really like you, don't you?"

Artie's smile was brilliant, all even, white teeth. "I really like you, too, John. You're so amazing. I'm so glad you're my friend."

John blushed. "Hey--"

He didn't get to finish, because that's when Artie leaned over and kissed him. It was kind of awkward, and their noses bumped, but it made John's stomach jump like crazy, and the little hairs on his arms stand up, and it made his penis really, really hard all of a sudden. That had only happened before when Miss Martinez, his Spanish teacher, wore that dress that showed off her cleavage, or Majorie Barefoot wore that tight sweater or those really tight jeans, or when he and Jim were looking at Jim's older brothers' porn magazines.

Artie pulled back a little, just a little, breathing hard. John could feel Artie's breath on the suddenly really sensitive skin of his own lower lip. He licked his lip, 'cause it felt really dry, and accidentally licked Artie's lip a bit as well. They both gasped. John's heart felt like it was going to pound out of his chest.

Slowly, John slid his hand back up Artie's arm, watching the goose bumps he left in his wake, listening to Artie's panting breaths, feeling those breaths against his open mouth. His hand crept up Artie's upper arm, around his shoulder, and curled around the back of his neck, fingers lightly at the side of the other boy's throat. For a moment, John left it there, feeling Artie's pulse beat under his fingertips. Then he gripped Artie's neck and pulled him closer, pulled Artie's mouth back to his own.

But now both their mouths were open, and the kissing got a lot more interesting. Also wet, and kind of messy, but still exciting.

Before he knew it, John found himself on the floor of Artie's bedroom, half-lying on top of Artie, kissing him pretty enthusiastically. He'd just pushed up Artie's tee-shirt to stroke the warm skin of his chest and belly, and Artie's fingers were toying deliciously with the waistband of John's jeans, sneaking underneath to pet John's lower back and tug on the waistband of his underwear, only to dart back out, making John moan and squirm and kiss Artie more breathlessly, when they heard the garage door opening as Mrs. Shah came back home.

They sprang apart, flushed and panicked. Artie flung himself belly-down on his bed, clutching his history book, and John scooted backwards on the floor until his back was against Artie's desk. He grabbed the pillow Artie tossed at him and spread it over his lap to disguise his erection, then quickly opened his biology textbook, just before Mrs. Shah opened the door to Artie's room to say hello.

John was pretty sure he was polite, for the few seconds he had to talk to Mrs. Shah, but he had no idea what he actually said. He was frantically willing his erection down. Mrs. Shah asked if he wanted to stay to dinner, and that finally did it.

"Oh, wow, gee, thanks, Mrs. Shah, but I have to get home. I didn't realize how late it was." John fumbled around, grabbing his book bag and stuffing in his notebook and textbooks, almost tripping on the pieces of Artie's erector set that littered the floor of the room. "Bye, Artie, see you tomorrow!" he called, not meeting Artie's eyes before he fled.


"Hey! Ow! That's not fair! You cheated!"

"Come on, McKay," Major Sheppard drawled. He stepped back, flourishing the bantos rods in the way he had learned from her, though Teyla could tell by his stance that he hadn't been practicing anything else. "It's not my fault if you weren't paying attention."

"Yes it is! I--ow!" Sheppard had swung in as McKay was answering, giving him two neat smacks with the rods, one on each arm. They were harder, Teyla thought, than strictly necessary. She could not fault McKay for his complaints, much as she agreed with Sheppard that such training was needed. "Will you stop doing that?"

Sheppard stepped back again. He crossed his arms, still holding the rods. "McKay," he said, and his voice was significantly less lazy now. "Your shield isn't going to do you any good if you can't use it in time to protect yourself. No hostile is going to stand around and ask if you're ready before they attack."

Teyla released her leg from the stretch Sheppard had taught her--bending it at the knee, holding the ankle. It was less efficient than the leg-stretches she had learned from her mother, but unlike those she could still watch what was going on.

McKay seemed to be behaving with purposeful obstinacy, trying harder to go against Sheppard's instructions than to follow them. Teyla had not known the scientist long, but she suspected McKay was hoping to frustrate Sheppard to the point of giving up. Perhaps it was because McKay found intense physical activity distasteful, but Teyla suspected it was rather that McKay feared embarrassing himself. She already knew he was not a man who could readily accept failings, in himself least of all.

Sheppard, by contrast, seemed intent on beating McKay into compliance. He had been angry from the time Peter Grodin had experienced his vision of McKay being attacked, and hadn't calmed down since, despite McKay's having been successfully healed from his injury. Teyla had understood that the wound had been serious--an 'open skull fracture' Dr. Beckett had called it, and the young man (she could not easily pronounce his name, but Sheppard had told her he was something called a JaegerKorps, and that his homeland was a place called Denmark) who had used his Gift to close the wound had so exhausted himself with the effort that he himself had required a brief infirmary stay.

Teyla could understand the anger very well. It was difficult to see a friend hurt. And it was true that, by his own admission, if McKay had been paying more attention he could have shielded himself. But nonetheless Teyla could not understand the persistence of Sheppard's anger, or why he was apparently intent on taking it out on McKay.

McKay had said 'fine', grudgingly, and Sheppard had started a new round of hits as Teyla was considering all this, striking blows seemingly randomly, taking time between so McKay wouldn't know when he was next going to strike. To Teyla's expert eye Sheppard's feints and pauses were easy to predict, but to McKay this was entirely new, and he failed to create a shield in time to protect himself more often than not. And each time McKay failed, Sheppard's next hit was that much harder.

"You're not concentrating!" Sheppard accused, darting forward to hit McKay's thigh. He was wearing one of his customary long-sleeved, high-necked shirts and his gloves, and Teyla could see how the warmth of his clothes was making him sweat from more than just exertion. McKay, dressed much more sensibly so that his arms were bare, was sweating as well, though Teyla thought it was more from nervousness than effort. "Damn it, McKay,"--another strike, this one on McKay's side, so hard that he gave a sharp grunt of pain--"Conroy almost killed you!" A feint, then a hard smack to McKay's forearm, because he had raised it to protect his face. Thankfully he was using his Gift again, and this blow merely created streamers of golden light where the rod touched the shield. "Can you goddamn pay attention?"

"Major!" Teyla shouted, pitching her voice to both chastise and warn. This was no longer training but punishment, and McKay did not deserve it.

At the same moment, McKay struck out. Teyla saw the arc of gold when McKay's palms hit Sheppard's chest, with enough force to send him reeling backwards. He lost balance and sat hard on the floor, Teyla's bantos rods clattering and skittering away from him.

"What the hell was that?" McKay shouted at him. His face was a mixture of confusion and anger. "What's your problem?"

Sheppard rubbed his chest, glaring up at McKay. "I'm trying to make a point, McKay! Your Gift is useless if you can't use it!"

"And, what? You think that bludgeoning me into submission is going to help with that?" McKay gestured sharply at his head. "I had a skull fracture, Major! I think I got the memo already!" He crossed his arms, glowering furiously. "Unlike you, I've had this Gift for nine days--nine days, Sheppard!--and two of them were spent in the infirmary. I think I'm allowed a little slack if I'm not a goddamn expert yet!"

Sheppard's eyes narrowed, and Teyla spoke quickly, before the tension between them could become still worse. "I will take over Dr. McKay's training," she said, walking until she was standing next to Sheppard. As she moved she grabbed the nearest of her rods from the floor. She looked at McKay. "With your permission, of course."

The look McKay gave her in return was quick, but she could still see something like both gratitude and regret in his eyes. "That would be fine," he said, though he was really speaking to Sheppard. His eyes held knives in them. "I'd be more than happy to train with you."

Teyla sincerely doubted that was so, since she knew if McKay had his preference there would be no training at all, but the words had their effect nonetheless--Sheppard's eyes widened fractionally with hurt, and perhaps shame, but his expression returned to simple anger so fast Teyla doubted McKay had seen any of it.

"That's a relief," Sheppard said. He rolled to his feet with quick, efficient grace, snatching up her second rod as he did so. He handed it to her with a cruel smile. "See if you can beat some sense into him. I'm going to take a shower." He scowled at McKay and then strode quickly from the exercise room.

McKay's shield faded with a tiny burst of gold. "Jesus Christ," he said. Teyla didn't know whose name he invoked, but that he was upset was obvious by the way he scrubbed his hand over his face. "What bug crawled up his ass and died? You'd think I was the damned Wraith."

"He was very upset to see you injured," Teyla said simply. "His anger comes from his fear for you, and shame that he was unable to prevent what happened."

McKay dropped his hand to look at her, startled. "What? He's ashamed about that? How could he have prevented what happened? He wasn't even there!"

"He feels responsible because Conroy is one of the men he commands, and he did not know he was a danger to you," Teyla explained.

McKay blinked. "Well, that's stupid," he said.

Teyla smiled. "Then you should tell him," she said. She stepped away from him, moving into a loose fighting stance. "But now you will learn how to protect yourself with your Gift."

McKay's eyes became large. "What? Now? No!" He tried to look merely irritated, but Teyla could easily see his concern in the way he rubbed his side. It was likely already bruising and causing him pain. "Sheppard almost beat me to death. I should probably go to the infirmary."

Teyla smiled more widely, making sure it was friendly and gentle. "I promise I will not hurt you, Dr. McKay, nor keep you very long. But the Major is correct--the sooner you are able to use your Gift instinctively, the safer you will be. And don't forget that you will be coming with us on our first mission the day after tomorrow, so all the better to practice as much as possible now."

"Fine. All right, fine," McKay grumbled. He moved into an awkward imitation of Teyla's ready position, hands out in unsure fists. "Okay, um, what do you want me to do?"

Teyla's smile became a grin. "Relax, Dr. McKay," she said. And they began.


John was woken from a deep sleep by someone making his door chime. Over and over and over again.

"'M'coming," he muttered groggily, running his hand through his hair. He'd gotten dressed again after taking a shower, in case he was needed, but he hadn't bothered putting socks on or drying his hair, and he grimaced at the thought of what it probably looked like, after--he checked his watch--two hours sleeping on it.

The chime was still sounding when John had pulled himself to his feet and crossed the room. "What?" he demanded as the door slid open, frowning to himself at how much he sounded like McKay.

And of course it was McKay on the other side of the doorframe, looking impossibly smug and grinning. Teyla was standing next to him.

McKay's grin faded only slightly when he took in John's appearance. "Oh, hey," he said. "Were you sleeping?"

"Yes," John said shortly. He looked at Teyla, mostly so he wouldn't have to look at McKay. He knew how unreasonable it was, but he was still pissed at him. "What do you want?"

"We found new ways to use my Gift!" McKay said gleefully, pushing past John into his quarters.

John blinked and looked at Teyla again. She just smiled.

"He was most eager to show you," she said, in a way that seemed to imply John should think that was cute or something. He glared at her. She just smiled more brightly and followed McKay into the room.

"Okay," McKay said, still grinning like an idiot. He pointed to Teyla. "Hit her."

John looked at him. "You have got to be kidding me."

McKay rolled his eyes. "Fine. Look." He reached out towards Teyla's face, obviously going to--very gently--tap her on the cheek.

His fingertip hit a barrier instead, a gold web springing up instantly around it.

John's eyes widened. "You have got to be kidding me!"

"Nope." McKay bounced on his toes. "The shield is transferable."

"Cool," John said seriously, meaning it, thinking of the implications. "How many people can you shield at once?"

McKay's face fell a little bit. "Just one at a time, unfortunately, but look!" He pointed at John's laptop, open on his desk. "It's not just people!" The gold flicker of a forming shield appeared around the laptop, and when John tried to touch it he was repelled, just like McKay had been with Teyla.

"Wow," John said.

McKay nodded eagerly. Apparently his earlier anger had been totally forgotten in the thrill of discovery, which was a nice plus. "I can shield entire rooms, too! Teyla and I discovered that in the gym."

Teyla gave a demure nod, though her smile was almost as big as McKay's. "I suggested we experiment, to determine the extent of Dr. McKay's Gift."

"Good idea," John said, watching the gold flicker on the walls and ceiling. "How big a shield can you make?"

He tried not to be jealous, but it was hard. His life would have been so different, if he'd had a Gift like this. This was useful, incredibly useful. McKay could save lives with this. No one would hate him for it.

There had been days when John would have given anything for a Gift like that: His life. His soul.

"Well, I'm not entirely certain," McKay said, sounding a tiny bit frustrated. "I know for sure I can't make domes, or anything. The shield has to follow a...frame, you could say. Like a body or object, not just air. And the larger it is, the more energy it takes, I can feel it."

That made John look sharply at McKay. "You all right?"

"I'll stop soon," McKay said, waving a hand negligently. Maybe he looked a little pale, but that could have just been the fact that he'd very recently spent nearly two days in the infirmary while Johansen healed his fractured skull. "It's fine."

"Okay," John said. "Don't overdo it."

"Yes, yes," McKay said with more eye-rolling. "Could we get back to the shield, please? The shield that is probably going to end up saving all our lives on a regular basis?"

And wow, didn't McKay sound self-satisfied about that. John shoved down another miserable flare of envy. It wasn't like McKay had chosen this Gift. And he wasn't gloating about it, or anything.

Okay, maybe he was. But it was just because the shield was so fucking cool. It had nothing to do with the fact that John's Gift sucked. John was sure of it. Almost.

"Of course, McKay," John said, knowing McKay wouldn't miss the sarcasm. "How silly of me to worry about your health."

"Well, yes," McKay said brusquely. And if he seemed just a tiny bit embarrassed, hey, nice to know he'd noticed John gave a shit about his teammates. "Making too big a shield--or trying to deflect too much energy, I expect--would probably kill me, yes."

"Good thing to avoid, then," John drawled to hide the sudden, fierce banging of his heart, remembering how McKay had looked after surviving the energy creature. He'd just make sure that didn't happen, that was all. No problem.

John studied McKay's face, searching for signs of exhaustion. He didn't think he was exaggerating the tight lines at the corners of McKay's eyes. "And on that note, maybe it's time to finish the demonstration, huh? I think we've seen enough to get the picture."

John smiled to take any sting out of his words, but the fact that McKay only muttered 'all right, fine. Spoilsport', and dropped the shield he'd thrown up inside John's quarters just proved to him that he was probably right. He didn't miss the slight drop of McKay's shoulders, either.

"So," John said cheerfully, "what say we go celebrate this new facet of your truly unique ability with dinner? I'm buying." He grinned.

"Oh yes," McKay said sarcastically, "how very generous of you." But there was a happy tilt to the corner of his mouth that made John's grin wider.

"This doesn't mean you were any less of an asshole earlier," McKay said conversationally as they waited for John to try to salvage his hair and pull on socks and boots. "But the extreme likelihood of my saving your life consistently from now on has made me feel magnanimous."

"You are truly a prince among men, McKay," John said indulgently. He wished he could let himself bump McKay's shoulder with his own, or pat him on the back. Anything normal. But he looked at his hands in his shooting gloves, and shoved his fists into his jacket pockets.

At least McKay didn't seem to notice, as John followed him and Teyla down the hallway, a careful step behind.


The first time Rodney came back to the infirmary, having thought things through and deciding that he was really, really fucking angry, Sheppard was sleeping. There was a tray sitting on a table placed carefully next to his infirmary cot, with a bowl of slowly congealing soup. Apparently, despite claiming he was 'starving', Sheppard hadn't stayed awake long enough to actually eat the food he had demanded someone get for him. Rodney thought that was a little sad.

Well, actually Rodney was feeling too angry to be sad. But still.

He was pissed enough to think about stealing Sheppard's apple juice, since the tiny, foil-capped plastic cup was just as untouched as the rest of the meal, and hospital food always made Rodney nostalgic. But as Rodney reached for it, Sheppard sighed and winced in his sleep, like he was dreaming about something unpleasant. The gauze on his neck was white as new paper in the bright overhead light.

Rodney froze. He'd come in expecting that Sheppard would still be awake, so he could force Sheppard to admit what he had done and yell at him, which would have been pleasant. But even in sleep Sheppard looked pinched and exhausted, and now Rodney didn't even breathe until Sheppard settled and went still again. Rodney pulled his hand back and stuck both his hands in his pockets. He glanced at the juice wistfully but didn't reach for it again.

Sheppard probably needed the sugar more anyway.

Rodney looked at Sheppard and thought about just leaving. In all honesty he wasn't sure why one of Carson's bloodthirsty minions hadn't removed him bodily from the infirmary already, since he was fairly certain visiting hours only coincided with the patient being conscious. But he seemed to be as incapable of movement as the soup steadily evaporating to gluey sludge in its plastic bowl, his eyes fixed on Sheppard's white bandage with a silently horrified fascination.

The man had died, would still be dead right this second, if it hadn't been for an apparent surplus of defibrillators and the Major's alarming willingness to toss himself headlong into oblivion. Rodney was certain he would have rather been drained to the last glucose molecule, hanging on to every single, precious second of life, than take the risk of having his heart stopped with no guarantee it was ever going to start again.

Rodney never thought he'd be grateful to someone for being so incautious, and really that just infuriated him, too. Though he wasn't sure if it was at the fact that Sheppard had nearly died permanently, or how terrifyingly happy Rodney was that Sheppard hadn't. Maybe both.

Just a few days ago, Rodney had joked about how often he would save Sheppard's life with his Gift. How terribly ironic that Sheppard almost died, and Rodney's Gift had been completely useless to protect him.

It looked like Sheppard had fallen asleep with both his hands on his stomach, but one had slipped when he moved, so that it was laying palm-up on the bed. Sheppard wasn't wearing his gloves. His hands looked strangely naked without them, and somehow longer, with all of his fingers showing instead of just the tips. His hands seemed narrower, too, across the back. Sheppard's visible palm looked very white and vulnerable, in the soft overhead light.

Rodney still couldn't understand why Sheppard insisted on having his hands covered, since the military no longer required it. But he was sure the Major had been royally pissed when he woke up from being dead and found out the gloves were gone.

Rodney smirked almost silently to himself, though there was only a bare thread of humor in it. Considering that Sheppard likely slept and showered in the damn things, the med staff had surely decided they were health-hazards. Sheppard's shooting gloves were probably being burned right that minute.

It didn't take much for the smile to fade. Rodney sighed, watching Sheppard sleep, the utter stillness of his body except for the soft in and out of his chest. He looked so terribly fragile.

Which was such an odd thing to be thinking, considering how formidable Sheppard had seemed to Rodney, even when he was lying paralyzed and in agony at the back of the jumper. Even when he had been so obviously sure he was dying. John had never given up his certainty that the jumper would get through the gate and that they would all make it back to Atlantis, even if he himself didn't return alive.

And that, of course, was why Rodney was still standing there, clasping his anger to him and definitely not thinking about Sheppard forever dead or his naked, vulnerable hands. Because Rodney was fairly certain that Sheppard had used his Gift on him, back in the jumper. Which meant that Sheppard's faith hadn't extended beyond Rodney as an instrument to Rodney as a man.

Rodney wanted to be wrong about that, he really did, but he wasn't wrong very often. And he thought, was almost sure, that he had felt...something, when Sheppard had all but ordered him to get a grip and save their lives. Like the words had been right inside his head, somehow, like a physical presence, leaving fingerprints on his mind.

He hadn't had the opportunity to react to it at the time, and then he'd been so.... Well, yes, grateful that Sheppard was all right, that it had only come flooding back much later. Then Rodney had gotten angry, and then he'd come back here.

The truth was--and maybe this was the worst part--that Rodney couldn't figure out what was more awful: the fact that Sheppard had charmed him, the fact that Sheppard had felt he'd had to charm him, or the fact that it had worked.

Cynicism is their kryptonite, he'd told Elizabeth, confidently, back in Antarctica. If you didn't trust them, Charmers couldn't make you do anything.

Except for Conroy, Rodney reminded himself, and grimaced. The kid Conroy had been out of his mind, but he'd still scrambled away from Rodney the instant Sheppard had told him to, and he'd fallen asleep like Sheppard had shut off his brain.

But Conroy was a Marine. Marines were used to taking orders. Hell, they didn't know what to do with themselves if they didn't have someone to say 'yes, sir' to. Even with the psychotic-from-mind-noise thing, Conroy had probably been so grateful to be told what to do that he would have done exactly what Sheppard wanted, Gift or no. So, actual trust wouldn't have been a factor with Conroy, the way it would have been with, say, civilian, smarter people. Like Rodney.

Pleased as Rodney was to have cleared that up for himself, it still left the question of when, exactly, had he started trusting Sheppard? Rodney didn't trust anyone. As soon as you started trusting people, you started counting on them, depending on them, and that was when you became vulnerable. And vulnerable things didn't survive. Rodney had learned that from long and bitter experience. Work with other people when you didn't have a choice, but keep them at a distance and expect them to let you down. He wasn't a genius for nothing.

But somewhere, around the time he asked the Major to shoot him in the name of science, if he were being honest, he'd fucked up. He'd stopped keeping his distance, maybe even started giving people the benefit of the doubt. It wasn't just Sheppard he'd been thinking of, after all, when he walked into the energy creature with only his nascent Gift to protect him.

It wasn't a...comfortable feeling. Rodney hated being vulnerable. That was making him angry, too.

Vulnerable. And he couldn't get the damned word out of his head. It kept drawing his eyes back to Sheppard's hands.

Maybe that was why Sheppard wore the shooting gloves all the time. Maybe that was the only reason he needed. But it was hard imagining Sheppard ever feeling like that.

Rodney sighed again, huffing it out in a gust of resignation. Coming back to the infirmary before morning had been nothing but a colossal waste of time.

But just before he left, Rodney glanced around the infirmary again, making sure they were still alone. He hesitated, but Sheppard was deeply asleep. He'd never notice.

Decided, Rodney gently stroked two fingers down the center of Sheppard's palm. Because it felt almost like something intimate and precious, being able to see Sheppard's hands, and Rodney had never been particularly good at resisting temptation.

Sheppard's fingers twitched slightly, but he didn't move other than that, and his gentle breathing didn't change. His skin was surprisingly smooth, and reassuringly warm.


"Look," McKay said angrily, pacing back and forth alongside John's bed. "I couldn't have done it any faster, okay? Zel, Zalek--the Czech guy--was helping me, using one of our jumpers to try to figure out which circuits did what. I'm not sure you were aware of that, since you seemed pretty out of it with the whole dying in agony thing. And I was depending on him, which is always a mistake--not depending on the Czech in particular, I mean, just people in general--and you probably don't know him, well, actually, you met him the other day at lunch, when they were serving the MRE veggie burger? With the fake barbecue sauce? So maybe you do remember that his Gift gives him a kind of, well, 'sixth sense' sounds so stupid but that's what he calls it, though it's really just another form of sight, which is also kind of stupid, come to think of it, but he's got this sixth sense with machines that means he knows, or he mostly knows, anyway, what any given device is meant to do and how the circuits connect, but he said that normally it's like one voice singing a melody where if he concentrates hard he can predict the tune, but the jumper has so many interconnected systems it was more like listening to a giant chorus with thousands of voices, which is why it took him so long to isolate the right control systems for me to work with to try and find the one circuit to retract the drive pod. So it totally wasn't my fault."

John looked at him, blinking slowly, turkey sandwich frozen halfway to his mouth. Beckett still hadn't given his gloves back, and he felt uncomfortable without them, kind of like he was sitting there naked. Even the food didn't feel right in his hand, when he could feel the bread touching his skin.

"What?" he asked.

"Oh, come on," McKay snapped. He gestured sharply in the general vicinity of John's body, as if that explained everything. "I know you're thinking it! That if I'd freaked out less and worked faster, you wouldn't have, have...." He faltered suddenly, as if unable or unwilling to say the word.

"Died?" John suggested mildly. He took a bite of the sandwich with a calm he didn't quite feel, then chewed it thoroughly and swallowed, still looking at McKay.

"Temporarily!" McKay corrected churlishly. John thought about pointing out to him that this weird little tirade probably wasn't what Beckett had meant by 'nothing too strenuous'. "I was going to say 'suggested Ford stop your heart', anyway," McKay said. "You weren't really dead."

John took another bite of his lunch. It had been slightly over three minutes, all told, that John's heart had been stopped. Ford had somehow thought John would think that was interesting. "I wasn't breathing."

"I know! I was there!" McKay all but shouted it, apparently angrier than ever, except that his expression clouded into something that could almost have been stricken, before it swung back to the more-familiar incipient rage.

John didn't know what to make of that, except that some part of his brain apparently sort of did. Because of the unexpected tumbling in his guts, like the sandwich had turned to bricks in his stomach.

We're not friends, he reminded himself desperately. We get along, but we don't have to be friends. It's okay. But he still put the sandwich back onto the plate, then crossed his arms over his chest, making sure to hide his bare, vulnerable hands. He hoped to hell he looked casual, because his heart was hammering so hard he was feeling a little sick.

"Since we've both established that I died--temporarily--yesterday," John said, privately impressed that his voice sounded as smooth and easy as ever, "maybe you could cut me some slack and let me know what the hell you're talking about."

McKay's eyes narrowed. He crossed his own arms and tilted his chin up, glaring fiercely. "Like you don't know what you did."

John sighed. He loosed one of his arms to run his hand through his hair, trying not to grimace at how dirty it felt. He hadn't had a chance to take a shower yet, and he wasn't even sure Beckett was planning on letting him out of bed any time soon. He put his hands on his lap, resisting the urge to slide them under the sheet. There was already the tray table across his bed to keep McKay away, and it wasn't like McKay was going to try to touch him.

"No, McKay," he said with as much patience as possible. "How about you fill me in here? Because I really, really don't."

McKay blinked, then scowled. "I have to say it?" he spat, but there was something very near to hurt laced through the anger. "Fine. You charmed me, back in the jumper. I felt it. Don't even try to deny it."

The sudden knot of fear snatched John's breath away. His hands clenched around fistfuls of his bed sheet, the rush of adrenaline sending them into minute, ragged tremors. Had he done that? Could he have? He'd been in so much pain and so weak and he didn't, couldn't remember....

Dear God, no. Not by accident. Not because he was just thinking--

"No," he said, voice sharp and loud like a gunshot, far more harsh than he'd intended. He was staring at McKay now, and whatever must have been on his face made McKay's eyes go wide. "I did nothing to you, McKay. You get that?" John was practically snarling it, but he didn't stop, didn't care. (He hadn't done that, he couldn't have done that.) "I did not fucking charm you."

McKay's mouth opened in automatic indignation, then it closed again, his anger seeming to dissipate while John watched. McKay only looked puzzled, now, and maybe wary. John didn't think he could blame him on the wary part.

"I didn't charm you," John said again, because he had to keep saying it out loud, had to hear it, make sure that McKay heard it.

"But," McKay said. "But, what you said...I was ranting, and, and I was so sure it was over, we were done, and you told me not to talk to you about being screwed, and not to give up, and, and then I didn't. I just...I was able to work. Because of you."

John allowed himself a deep breath, fairly certain McKay wouldn't notice how shaky it was. He kept from laughing, because he wasn't entirely sure it wouldn't sound like a sob. The relief flooding through him was so strong it was almost like pain. He did remember that, what he'd said, how he'd felt. The words had just been words. "That wasn't charm, McKay," John said. He was able to smile, though he was sure it was brittle and tight. "I'm glad you found me so motivating, but that was you, getting your head back in the game. That was you."

McKay just looked at him. "Oh," he said, quietly. "So I...that was.... Oh." He started smiling, humming a little. "Well," he said. "I knew that, of course. I've always been good under pressure."

"Right." John managed a smirk. He felt himself slowly relaxing, and he let his fists unclench. They were uncomfortably hot and his palms were damp where he'd been gripping the sheet. He risked grabbing the foil-capped cup of grape juice off his tray and began carefully prying the lid off, pleased that his hands were steady. He drank it all in a few gulping swallows, then wiped his lips with the side of his hand. It felt strange without the glove, skin on skin. When he glanced at McKay, the other man was studying him. "What?"

"Thank you," McKay said seriously. "For not, ah, putting the whammy on me. Up there."

John blinked again. "'Putting the whammy'?" He shook his head quickly, before McKay could start babbling out an explanation. "It doesn't matter." He sighed. "You don't have to thank me, McKay," he said wearily. "Contrary to popular belief about Charmers, I'm not waiting for any opportunity to manipulate people. The situation has to be pretty damn dire."

McKay looked startled at that. "What happened in the jumper wasn't dire enough for you?"

John shrugged. He just wanted this conversation over with. He hated talking about his Gift. "We all got out okay, even without my charming you." He made himself smile, though he figured it was brittle and maybe even a little angry.

McKay was nearly gaping at him. "Wait--you're saying that Conroy rated a whammy, but the jumper didn't? What kind of skewed sliding scale of dire situations do you use? Do you even know what 'dire' means?" John couldn't tell if McKay looked more astonished or horrified.

"I wasn't going to hurt you, Rodney!" John snapped at him, his voice loud enough that he was sure Beckett was going to come barreling out of his office any second. "You did just fine on your own, didn't you? Everyone did! And I was having the life sucked out of me--I didn't have the energy to spare to use my Gift, even if I'd wanted to! Ever think of that?"

Now it was McKay who blinked. His mouth had fallen all the way open. "Oh," he said again.

"Yeah," John said. He ground the heel of his hand against the orbit of one eye. Figured McKay would be able to give him a headache in under ten minutes. He sighed. "Trust me," he said, much more quietly. "If I ever have to use my Gift on you, I guarantee that it'll be because there's no other way."

McKay just looked at him a long moment. His eyes were very serious.

"I do trust you," he said. "That's the problem."

And he turned and left before John could ask him what that meant.


Unlike most Gifted people, USMC Sergeant Thomas Bates had developed his Gift at a very young age. Since he could first walk and talk, he'd always been able to tell when people were lying. There wasn't any special sign that told him--people didn't look, smell, or sound different, he didn't get a feeling in his head or gut, or a tingling in his extremities or anything showy like that--he could just always tell. He could be watching someone, or listening to them, or even be reading something that someone wrote. It didn't matter. Tom would just know.

It made him incredibly cynical, growing up, knowing that ninety-nine percent of people were liars. It didn't matter whether they were prevaricating, exaggerating, shading the truth, misspeaking, gilding the lily, or whatever self-serving story they used to disguise or excuse the plain, brutal fact. People lied, all the damned time. Even people he loved. Even people he was supposed to trust.

Tom had been very pleased to serve under Colonel Sumner, who'd been a man of very little bullshit. He was far less pleased to report to Major Sheppard, although he would be able to testify under oath that the Major had been telling the absolute truth when he relayed what had happened when he'd found Sumner in the Wraith Queen's clutches. Tom distrusted Charmers on principle. He hated just the idea that someone could theoretically be able to charm him into believing them, even when he knew they were lying.

As Major Sheppard was loudly and fiercely protesting the Athosian Teyla Emmagan's innocence, Tom let a hint of a smirk paint his features. Liar. Yeah, the Major was mostly sure that his alien sweetheart was innocent, but...there was a worm of doubt in his heart. Five times. Five out of nine missions compromised. The man wouldn't be human if he hadn't doubted her, even a little. But he still acted like he didn't.

Which was why Dr. Weir had put Tom Bates in charge of Atlantis Base security. Tom respected Dr. Weir, even though she was one of the worst liars on the whole base. But then, she was a diplomat, wasn't she? Lying was her business. At least her lies were purposeful tools that she used carefully, and with full intent. At least she knew she was lying, and didn't engage in a lot of the lying-to-herself that most people did. Maybe it was because she was an Empath, and constantly reading the emotions of the people around her. Tom bet she could spot a liar at thirty paces, too.

She certainly didn't lie to him much, and when she did, she'd immediately wince, probably reading his involuntary twinge of disgust. So they worked well together. It was why Tom didn't mind that she'd basically put him in the hotseat, and in a very difficult position with his new CO. Dr. Weir backed him up, even against Sheppard.

And she took his advice. About, for instance, things like interrogating the indigenes that Major Sheppard had tossed into their midst, uncaring that they were a security nightmare. Of course, Dr. Weir called them "interviews" instead of interrogations, but she meant the same thing. Although her desire to also "get to know their Athosian guests" was surprisingly genuine as well.

The interview/interrogations had been going fairly well, with Tom able to narrow down his list of suspects. Everyone lied during the interrogations, of course, but usually it was due to personal, inconsequential things. Dr. Weir was actually an asset when it came down to eliminating those folks.

Dr. Weir dropped her face onto folded arms on the tabletop and sighed deeply. "God, I'm starving!"

"And you have a headache, too, don't you ma'am?" Tom allowed himself to smirk gently as she peeked at him out from under her bangs. "It doesn't take a Telepath, Dr. Weir. Do you want me to call the infirmary and have someone bring over some painkillers and food for you?"

She shook her head, straightening up in her seat with a determined air. "I'm fine, Sergeant. I have glucose tablets with me, and I have some aspirin in my desk. I'll take some later." After a moment, she grimaced and looked him in the eye. "Right. Okay, how about I promise to take some aspirin later if the headache gets worse? I'm afraid of running out of medical supplies by going through them too quickly."

He nodded, grateful for the honesty. She quirked a smile at him and he stood and ushered in their next guest. She hadn't been lying about the glucose tablets--he watched in satisfaction as she broke a few out of her blister packet, then made a face as she swallowed them.

Of course, that next guest was Halling, and that's when the interviews started going to hell.


During Teyla's interview, Tom became suspicious (well, more suspicious). As well as being an alien, Teyla was a kind of diplomat as well, which meant that she was as accomplished a liar as Dr. Weir. But Tom picked up something else besides the usual diplomatic bullshit. It was subtle, though.

He said as much to Weir when Teyla left. She twisted her hands together. "I think I know what it's about, Sergeant. But I can't tell you."

"Dr. Weir, ma'am, if it concerns the security of this base...."

"I understand, Sergeant, but...." Weir shook her head apologetically. "All I can say is it's something Dr. Beckett discovered during his examinations of all the Athosians. With Teyla's permission, he informed me and Major Sheppard. But I would be breaking a confidence if I told you, and I keep too many confidences to start breaking them. If Major Sheppard feels it's important to Atlantis base security for you to know, then of course, he'll tell you." She steepled her hands together in front of her and stared at them.

Tom allowed his lip to curl in a hint of a sneer. "Begging your pardon, ma'am. But that's a load of.... Well, this isn't about breaking a confidence."

Weir balled her hands into fists and planted her chin on top of them. "You're absolutely right, Sergeant. This is about the fact that I don't want to keep undermining Major Sheppard's authority with you." She grimaced. "You know, sometimes I want to tell you that the complete impossibility of lying to you is refreshing."

"But that would be a lie." Tom leaned back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest.

Dr. Weir arched an eyebrow at him. "Only sometimes."

Tom grinned at her despite himself.


When all the rest of the Athosians departed for the mainland, the only outsider left was Teyla. Tom held his tongue when Major Sheppard and Dr. Weir planned another mission through the Stargate, but when the gate team came back hot, with Sheppard hit, his suspicions climbed through the roof. Then Weir took Sheppard's advice over Tom's and opened the Gate to Teyla's frantic call, and Tom's stomach clenched. Sure, Teyla wasn't lying about her and Ford being in trouble, and she wasn't lying about not being a tool of the Wraith--but the Wraith were telepathic and used mind control. How could anyone be certain that Teyla hadn't unwittingly compromised them?

Weir looked over at him worriedly after she gave the order, and he simply glared at her. She knew that he honestly believed she might just have opened up the base to Wraith attack. She looked away.

Luckily, Teyla didn't march in at the head of a column of Wraith soldiers, but that didn't change anything. Tom definitely didn't deserve the dressing down he got from Sheppard at the debriefing. He was only doing his job, dammit! He was keeping them safe. He wished the Major would stop letting his personal feelings get in the way of doing his own job. Failing that, he wished Weir would stop sitting on the fence, and either give Tom free rein or ask him to step down from the position she'd put him in. At least she hadn't lied and tried to pretend she'd been doing him any favors.


Tom didn't exactly like Dr. McKay, but he respected him. The man had brutal honesty down to an artform, although he constantly exaggerated his own abilities and practiced a little too much self-deception. However, you usually knew where you stood with McKay--Tom didn't even need his Gift to be able to tell if the man was lying or not. Usually, unlike most people, he wasn't.

His respect for McKay didn't mean Tom was above pressuring the man into checking out Teyla's possessions for transmitters or recording devices. McKay's anger and contempt were obvious, but he'd do it, and he'd do a thorough job of it. That's all Tom Bates asked: that people do their jobs.


Sometime later, Tom got his confirmation. He'd been right, dammit. Teyla had been the source of the leaks to the Wraith. That she'd done so apparently without having been compromised was certainly a mitigating factor, but Tom couldn't shake some lingering doubt.

After the mission, Tom had his hands full with the captured Wraith, so he put his concerns on the back burner. But they were still there. Teyla had lied during her interview. She was hiding something. But Tom could be patient. He would wait. And watch carefully.

Liars always gave themselves away eventually.


The next day John managed to avoid running into Artie all day, by getting to their mutual classes at the last minute before the bell and sitting across the room, by cutting study hall, and by the drastic expedient of visiting the guidance counselor during lunch.

At the end of the day, he had football practice, and he carefully didn't look over to the lonely figure on the track field. Not once.

After a week or so, Artie stopped trying to talk to him, and John stopped feeling like he was going to jump out of his skin. No one could tell. No one knew. Artie wouldn't say anything.

And the next month, when he joined Jim and Tony in the locker room, making fun of Dick Atkins, who was pretty faggy and prissy, he ignored the pang in his gut when Dick's face got red and his eyes got shiny and his lips trembled. Big sissy can't take it, he thought. And then he caught sight of Artie's face around the end of the far lockers. And the absolutely devastated look in the other boy's eyes. Oh, shit. John took a step in Artie's direction, but his friend fled.

That was the last time he saw Artie, before the funeral.


Teyla ran out of the jumper and skidded to a stop in the dirt next to Keras' head, kneeling so fast it looked like someone had sliced her legs off. She slammed the med kit down next to her and zipped it open.

"What do you need?" Teyla asked. Her eyes were on the open kit, ready to hand out whatever Aiden asked for. Sheppard and Aiden were crouched on either side of Keras. One of Sheppard's gloved hands was underneath Keras' head, keeping it out of the dirt. Keras was holding Sheppard's other hand so tightly that Sheppard's fingers were crushed together. It must have hurt like hell.

Sheppard was still wearing his shooting gloves, but even then he was making sure that not even his fingertips touched Keras anywhere--his hand under Keras' head was spread wide, and his other hand wasn't curved around Keras' either. Instead, the fingers were straight out, like a statue. It looked really weird, not that Aiden had much time to think about it.

Keras was shaking, making soft, almost sad keening noises that sounded like whispery, aborted screams. He was writhing in pain, and his eyes were wide and startled, like he still couldn't believe this had happened, or like he'd never imagined anything could hurt this much.

"Just relax, Keras," Sheppard said. "You're gonna be all right." Aiden wasn't even sure that Keras could hear him.

"He needs morphine," Aiden said to Teyla. He nodded towards the injectors in the med kit. "It's in there." If they didn't cut the pain soon, Keras was going to go into shock. Aiden could tell just by his face, already gray with pain and fear, and Keras was breathing way too fast, even considering he only had one lung that worked. If Keras went into shock he'd probably die. The jumper was right there, but they were too far from the gate to get him to Atlantis in time to keep Keras' body from shutting down. And even if they did, he'd probably die anyway from organ damage when his blood pressure crashed. It'd just take longer.

Aiden glanced behind him, to make sure that Keras' feet were still elevated on the pack that McKay had shoved beneath them. They were, but Aiden didn't think it was going to help.

Teyla slapped the morphine into Aiden's palm and Aiden quickly administered the shot.

"How soon does your medicine take effect?" Teyla asked, her elegant brows furrowing.

"Um. Really quick, usually." Aiden checked Keras' pulse again. Not good. The kid was still clenched up in pain. "Give me another one."

Teyla's eyes widened, but she wordlessly handed over the morphine. Aiden gave Keras another shot. Still nothing. Instead, it looked like Keras was getting worse, still making those horrible almost-screams and clenching Sheppard's hand until Aiden saw the Major's involuntary wince. "It's not working! Why isn't it working?"

"Because he's an alien!" McKay answered, as if Aiden had actually been asking him anything.

"What are you talking about?" Aiden shot back, worry making him angry. "It's morphine! It's got to work!" And what were they going to do if it didn't?

"No," Sheppard said, his voice tight, on the far edge of calm. "He's right--Keras isn't from Earth. Morphine might not work on him."

"Of course I'm right!" McKay snapped. "Unless you'd rather wait another few minutes until he drops dead, just to make sure?" He spread his arms in a rapid jerk, taking in all the kids and their bows and arrows. The weapons were lowered now, but the kids were still staring at Sheppard's team warily, anything but relaxed. "Because we're already such good friends...!"

"Shut it, McKay," Sheppard said, though Aiden figured his glare clamed McKay up better than his words did. McKay crossed his arms mulishly, but didn't speak, though he looked a lot like he still wanted to.

"So what are we supposed to do?" Aiden asked Sheppard. He looked back and forth desperately, from Keras' ashen face to Sheppard's grim one. "What are we supposed to do?"

"Here," Teyla said. She shoved a field dressing at him. "It will help, if we bind his wound."

Aiden nodded numbly, fingers automatically fumbling at the packaging. He didn't think it was going to help, but it was better than doing nothing and just watching Keras die.

Beside him, he heard Sheppard take a deep breath. "Okay, Keras," he said, "Listen to me. I need to talk to you, all right? Look at me, Keras. Can you do that?"

Aiden glanced over at Sheppard for a second, thinking it was a good thing that Sheppard was trying to distract Keras at least, since wrapping his wound was probably going to hurt like hell. Aiden was trying to pull the bandage out of the package without tearing the plastic covering or dropping the bandage on the ground. He wasn't sure how he could make a tight enough seal to keep the air from leaking out of the hole in Keras' chest. The arrow shaft was blocking most of it, but Aiden could still hear a thin, sickly whistling every time the kid breathed.

No, not a kid. He was twenty-five, same age as Aiden. But he looked scarily young, staring up at Aiden with his uncomprehending, terrified eyes.

"You're gonna be okay, Keras," Aiden said mechanically. He wanted to put his hand on Keras' shoulder or something, offer some kind of comfort, but he needed both his hands.

Aiden finally got the bandage out of the wrap and shoved it at Teyla, who grabbed it with quick, competent grace, saying nothing. Over her shoulder Aiden could see McKay, now pacing uselessly in front of the open hatch of the jumper, his face tense and worried. McKay kept looking at Keras as if he'd be able to solve this like a physics problem or something, if he just thought hard enough.

Aiden really wished McKay had arrived sooner--maybe he could've shielded Keras, stopped this from happening.

"Keras, look at me. That's it, that's right."

Aries and the other kids were behind McKay in a loose semi-circle, radiating tension like heat. Aries kept looking like he wanted to say or do something, but couldn't figure out what. The kid who had actually shot Keras was sitting cross-legged on the ground, slumped forward with his arms over his stomach, rocking back and forth in tiny, miserable jerks, quietly crying.

Aiden pressed the plastic bandage wrapper to Keras' chest, trying to get it to fold around the shaft of the arrow still sticking out of the wound. He knew he couldn't pull the arrow out, since it was keeping most of the air and blood in Keras' right lung.

"Hey, good. That's good. Okay, now, you're going to be just fine, Keras. I know it hurts, but the thing is, it feels a lot worse than it is. Really. The arrow's really not in all that deep."

Aiden spared another glance at Sheppard, wondering how Keras could possibly buy that. But Sheppard didn't look like he was lying. Sheppard was grinning down at Keras, relaxed and easy, like he had casual conversations with people bleeding in the dirt all the time. And Keras was looking up at him like Sheppard had become his entire universe.

It made Aiden feel weirdly like he was watching something private, like a shared moment between lovers. It made his face heat up, and he concentrated on sealing the plastic around the arrow shaft.

He's charming him, Aiden thought, suddenly realizing it, and he almost jerked away in reflexive fear, then purposely didn't look at Sheppard to see if the Major had noticed.

"Stupid," Aiden whispered viciously to himself. It wasn't like the Major was trying to charm him. And anyway, it was for something good. This was a good thing. And it wasn't like he'd never seen Sheppard use his Gift before, or anything, either. This wasn't new.

Aiden just...hadn't expected it. That was all. Not with all the kids around. But Aiden was totally cool with it. He was.

"That's right," Sheppard was saying, as if Keras had spoken to him. "I bet if you think about it, it doesn't even hurt all that much anymore." Sheppard smirked, like he'd just thought of something funny. "You've probably hurt yourself worse with those cloth-tipped arrows I saw the little kids practicing with back at the village."

Aiden didn't remember seeing anyone with practice arrows, and he wondered if Sheppard had made that up, too. But Keras made a sound that might've been a chuckle if you added air to it, and when Aiden, shocked, looked at him he saw Keras' lips curved in a tiny smile.

"Yeah, you know what I'm talking about, don't you? This is just a tiny little...pin-prick. Like, like a twig. It barely broke the skin."

"Twig...." Keras repeated, smiling back at Sheppard. The word was a panting whisper.

"I'm going to need your help lifting him up," Aiden said quietly to Teyla. She nodded silently in acknowledgement.

"Not just yet, guys," Sheppard said, in that same relaxed, friendly voice, like they had all the time in the world. Aiden blinked. He'd figured that Sheppard hadn't heard them. Sheppard still had his attention focused entirely on Keras. "I was just about to tell Keras that I bet that tiny twig-wound in his shoulder doesn't even hurt now."

And Keras relaxed, just like that, like someone had hit a switch.

"Whoa," Aiden said. He realized he was all but gaping at Sheppard, and he immediately switched his focus back to Keras, helping Teyla and Sheppard to gently lift his upper body off the ground, so Aiden could wind the bandage around his back. He tied a quick, awkward knot around the arrow shaft, hoping like hell the plastic wrapper would hold in place and prevent more air from seeping into Keras' chest when he inhaled.

Keras was loose-limbed and pliant, almost flopping against Sheppard and Teyla's hands as they laid him back down. "Doesn't hurt," Keras whispered. He looked almost drunk with relief, like the morphine had worked after all. His color was still really bad, but his breathing had evened out. It was still fast, compensating for the hurt lung, but it was better. He didn't sound like he was about to die anymore, and when Aiden checked Keras' pulse, it was slower and a little stronger. Exactly what they needed.

"Told you," Sheppard said hollowly, and Aiden looked over at him to see Sheppard push himself back until he was sitting on his butt in the dirt. Sheppard dropped his head and he was rubbing at his closed eyes with his fingers, as if he were fighting a bad headache or exhaustion.

Aiden shifted, about to help Teyla carry Keras into the jumper, but he hesitated. "Sir?" he asked, "are you okay?" He thought that maybe Sheppard would need help himself, that he'd used up so much energy convincing Keras he wasn't actually dying that he wouldn't be able to walk on his own or something. And Aiden kept telling himself fiercely and angrily that it didn't matter that Sheppard had just charmed somebody. Aiden was still his SO, just like always. Sheppard hadn't changed.

"I'm fine," Sheppard said, and he smiled when he looked up again. Aiden didn't miss the flicker of gratitude in his eyes, and he knew it wasn't just because Aiden had been worried for him, but because he had been willing to help a Charmer, and Aiden almost cringed at the hot press of shame.

So Aiden put his hand on Sheppard's shoulder, slowly, so he wouldn't spook him, and said, "that was really cool, sir," and tried hard to completely mean it.

"Thanks," Sheppard said, and the gratitude was still there. His voice sounded a little more normal now, but he stumbled getting to his feet. He didn't flinch when Aiden steadied him; neither of them did.

By then McKay was there too, and Aiden had to listen to his completely useless 'easy! easy!' and, 'you see he's got an arrow sticking out of him, right?' As he, Teyla and McKay carried Keras into the jumper, but he didn't miss how McKay's eyes kept darting to Sheppard and away, like Sheppard kept startling him, and Aiden couldn't help wondering if maybe McKay felt a little weird about Sheppard, too.

Except that once they had Keras laying as comfortably on the deck of the jumper as possible, McKay just pushed past Sheppard like he always had--like Sheppard was just anybody.

"Hey," Sheppard said, though he was too tired to put much annoyance into it, even though when he'd moved to avoid McKay he'd nearly lurched into a wall.

"Don't even think about it," McKay said, as if Sheppard had tried to stop him. He spoke without turning his head, sitting in the pilot's chair and gripping the yoke like he had to strangle it to death to get the ship to fly. "I know what you just did to yourself--I'm not going to fall to my fiery death because you pass out at the controls trying to prove how incredibly manly you are."

"I'm not the one with the questionable piloting skills, McKay," Sheppard said, but he dropped heavily into the co-pilot's seat anyway, which Aiden figured meant he was even more dead on his feet than he looked. Sheppard pointed out the view screen. "The gate's thataway. It's a straight line."

"Oh, ha, ha," McKay said sourly. "Like I'd trust your sense of direction on the ground." But as soon as they were ready to fly, McKay took the jumper up, and went right in the direction Sheppard had told him.

"You did...really well, Major," McKay said a little while later, into the jumper's silence. "I think it's fair to say Keras owes you his life."

Sheppard had been so still Aiden had thought he'd fallen asleep, but he saw Sheppard's shoulders twitch slightly in a shrug.

"Gift's gotta be good for something," Sheppard said.


John stalked the entire way to his quarters, cursing the Genii under his breath.

Fucking lying bastards. Fucking paranoid lying bastards who couldn't even be charmed because they were so God-damned suspicious. John might as well have been a 'Mundane', as McKay liked to put it, for all the good his lousy fucking Gift had done him.

And McKay, stupid, mother-fucking idiot McKay, who had probably ratcheted up Cowen's paranoia into outright psychosis when he had the bright idea of using his Gift to shield John right in front of Cowen's little gang and their big guns. Sure as hell they'd all seen the tell-tale flash of gold and figured something was up. Most likely they thought it was some nifty technology John's people had refused to share with them. It wouldn't surprise John one bit if the next time they met the Genii that was the first thing they demanded from them.

Of course, if any of them even suspected that McKay had generated the shield himself.... Well, things had already gone from precarious to hell in a handbasket as soon as Cowen had double-crossed them once they'd got out of the Hive ship. McKay's stunt just managed to ensure that things would end badly, whatever happened.

What the fuck had McKay been thinking, anyway? Didn't he think John was bright enough to have figured out a contingency plan?

John shoved out a breath through clenched teeth and smacked the door to his quarters open, unzipping his shirt as the door slid closed behind him. He really needed a shower.

He shed his clothes in a line as he crossed the room, boots right after the shirt. The last thing he took off was his gloves.

The water in the Atlantis showers was only slightly hotter than tepid, part of the energy rationing, but right now John didn't care. He washed his face and his hair quickly, almost roughly, the soap stinging his eyes, but then slowed down on his neck and shoulders, and arms.

It was always strange, the feel of his bare palms on his skin, the feel of his skin at all. John was used to layers of clothing, his gloves. It was almost like it wasn't his own hands, touching him.

John closed his eyes, concentrating on the alien feel of his hands, the strange immediacy of the warmth, without the gloves, the slight, rough rise of the calluses at the base of his fingers.

It was nothing, nothing at all, to pretend they were someone else's hands. Someone else....

Rodney's hands, the broad, strong palms skimming his chest, fingertips light as the water over his nipples. Circling, sliding down the center line between his ribs, slow, slow over his abdomen, and down....

He was already hard, and John hissed as his hand slipped over his cock, brushing the length to rub the head. His other hand cupped his balls, rolling them between fingers and thumb. He pressed his back against the wall, tilting his head so that the water ran cool over his flushed, burning face. He opened his mouth to pant, tasting water.

Imagined Rodney's mouth on his, the angry slant the same as when Cowan had betrayed them. Rodney's big, strong hands shoving John up against the wall of his quarters before he kissed him. Inflexible, the way Rodney always was. Demanding, nothing close to sweet.

John smiled before his mouth fell wider. He licked his lips, tasting their heat and the cool of the water, imagining the press and sweep of Rodney's tongue over his own. Rodney would be too angry to be gentle, and he'd bite and suck at John's lips until it nearly hurt, squeezing and stroking him fast, rough, like this, like this, like this--

John came in hard, stuttering gasps as his cock pulsed in his hand. His come felt scalding. He stood there breathing fast, still holding his spent cock as it softened, letting the water rinse everything away. He took a breath and pressed his hands to his face. The water was still pouring over him, feeling even colder now, and he shivered.

He was so fucking stupid.

He'd known, hadn't he? He'd known how he felt about Rodney all along.

John finished washing quickly and turned off the water, then stepped out into the cold of the bathroom and grabbed his towel. He dried his face, then looked at himself in the mirror. He narrowed his eyes so he wouldn't see the bleakness in them.

"You're not going to hurt him, John," he said to his reflection. "You are not going to fucking hurt him."

The longing was already there, like a small, persistent ache. The kind that could become overwhelming, if he wasn't careful.

John was always careful.

He shoved the feeling far down and ignored it. Eventually he'd be able to pretend it wasn't there at all. He was good at that. He'd had lots of practice.


John felt numb when he looked at Artie's face in the open casket. Even dead, he was still beautiful. John gripped his hands together behind his back, to keep from reaching out to touch Artie's cheek to feel if it was cold, and not warm and soft like he remembered it.

Mrs. Shah smothered him in a tearful hug, and a blank, shocked-looking Mr. Shah solemnly shook his hand. John tugged on the too-tight collar of his dress shirt in the stuffy warmth of the funeral parlor, and made awkward small talk with Artie's numerous relatives before leaving as fast as he could.

Later that night John climbed the tree in his backyard in the dark, and sat on the highest branch that would hold his weight. He stared up at the stars and cried and got all snotty like a stupid, whiney, baby. Like a little pansy.

Oh, God, I'm sorry, Artie. I'm sorry, so sorry. Sorrysorrysorrysorry....

That wasn't good enough, of course. Nothing would ever be good enough to bring Artie back.


"Sheppard. Hey, hey, Major. Wake up."

John turned his head towards the noise, sliding his eyelids up enough to get a blurry view of McKay's face. "What?" he snarled weakly. He hadn't actually been sleeping, it was just easier to be bored out of his aching skull with his eyes closed. But he didn't see the point in letting McKay know that.

"Talk to me!" McKay said miserably. "I'm so bored I think--" whatever he thought was cut off by a sudden fit of thick, wracking coughs that went on so long that John had levered himself laboriously upright, about to holler for Beckett as well as he could, when McKay finally relaxed.

McKay flopped back onto the pillows, sweating and obviously exhausted. "Ow," he said weakly, panting. "That really hurt." He'd flushed with the effort of emptying his lungs, but now the color was seeping out, replaced with an almost greenish-gray that made him look scarily like a corpse.

"You sound a little better," John said. He shrugged when McKay looked at him incredulously, then regretted it when it made his joints hurt that much worse. "You do!" John insisted, though it was difficult to feign indignant sincerity when nothing he said came out louder than a strained wheeze. "I'm sure you weren't coughing nearly as much five minutes ago."

He was too tired and in too much pain to even summon a grin in response to the weary glare McKay sent him.

"God," McKay sighed, looking back up at the ceiling. He was still breathing hard, and John was wondering if Beckett had done the right thing in removing McKay's canulla that morning. "I think even my eyelashes hurt. I haven't been this sick since I was a kid." He paused, considering. "No, actually, I don't think I've ever been this sick."

John didn't doubt it. McKay had been coughing hard enough to make his throat bleed for days, and he'd fainted (passed out, John reminded himself guiltily) from lack of oxygen. John just wished he had sufficient energy to tease him about it. "Me neither," he offered instead.

"Wow," McKay started, "that's--" but he began coughing again before he could get another word out. John watched in growing alarm as McKay wrapped his arms around his waist, nearly folded over his bent knees as his body shook. When the new attack subsided at last McKay spent a long moment with his arms on his drawn-up knees, his forehead resting on them, heaving in breath after breath.

"Want me to get Beckett?" John asked. He wanted to rub McKay's back so badly that he put his hands under the sheet, to keep himself from reaching for him.

McKay couldn't reply, but raised a hand in what John assumed was the negative.

"Later," he gasped out when he was able to talk again. "I can't stand him fussing. Besides, how would you get him? Can you even walk?"

John had to concede that no, he probably couldn't, at least not far enough to actually get to Beckett's office. Normally Beckett would have been there at their first twitch of discomfort anyway, but John figured the doctor was catching a couple hours sleep, considering he'd been the main person taking care of John's team.

Not that John could actually remember much of the return from MK3-116, aside from feeling like hell and wondering why the gate room was so hot. He had a vague recollection of Elizabeth asking him something that he couldn't understand, then suddenly realizing he was on his knees, about to become closely acquainted with the floor. And then three days later he'd woken up in the infirmary, feeling like death warmed over. And things for him had pretty much stalled out at that for nearly a week. And he'd been better off than McKay.

Apparently the native flea-like creatures that had been biting them had stomachs full of virulent bacteria, much like Earth fleas during the centuries when they'd spread the Plague from rats to humans. John and his team had gone from healthy to dangerously ill in less than four hours. John couldn't help thinking that they were damned lucky they'd been able to get back to the gate.

They were also damned lucky that the bacteria only spread through the bites, or that would probably have been the end of the expedition. Not that John had been trying very hard to think about that.

McKay pushed himself backwards to fall onto his pillows again. He wiped his sweating face with his palm, then grimaced and let his hand thump down on the mattress. "It's not fair," he said, too breathless to make it a proper whine. "Ford and Teyla are fine now. Why was I the one to get the most sick?"

"What am I?" John asked him, "chopped liver?"

McKay just blinked unhappily at him.

John sighed. It was strange bickering like this--both of them too weak to really be uncivil. "They're both younger than we are." John tried to keep from thinking exactly how much younger, since that was just depressing. "Beckett said it made a huge difference."

"Voodoo," McKay said, though he was so tired it had none of his usual disdain. He sighed too, a sickly little puff of air. "I wish I was younger."

"Yeah," John said. It felt like he'd been sick for most of his life: restless with discomfort, too miserable to sleep and in too much pain to concentrate on anything.

"This is hell," McKay said. "God, I'm dead and this is hell. Carson is actually Lucifer."

John grunted in tired agreement.

"Hey," McKay said a long moment later, long enough that John had closed his eyes again, "you can't sleep. You said you'd entertain me."

John cracked an eye open. "I said no such thing." But McKay looked so green and suffering that John forced both his eyes open and tried to think of something they could actually talk about, besides how sick they both were and how sick they were of it. "Who's got the coolest Gift in Atlantis?"

"You're meant to be entertaining me," McKay groused quietly, but he answered anyway, just like John knew he would. "That's easy--me."

John had to smile at that, because he'd been sure that was what McKay would say. "Who else?"

McKay huffed, like after the coolest Gift there weren't any even remotely important. "Radek. Then Peter, then Miko, then the sergeant who can teleport stuff, then Elizabeth, then you."

"Hey," John said, feeling a bit affronted. "Kusanagi's got a better Gift than me?"

"She knows when to bring me coffee," McKay said, like that made the superiority of her power obvious. "She gets me lunch before I even have to tell anyone. Actually," he said musingly, "I changed my mind--her Gift is better than Radek's."

"But I'm last," John said petulantly. He was surprised at himself to realize it was actually bothering him, as if McKay's opinion of his Gift meant he didn't like John much, either. "Weir's just a Receiving Empath--why is my power worse than hers?"

McKay puffed out another, very soft, snort. "Well, if you could actually charm the Wraith or even the Genii, I might revise my opinion. But until then, nope. Useless. At least Elizabeth can generally tell when someone is about to betray you."

John stared at him, then pointedly turned away and closed his eyes. "Screw you."

He didn't even try to suppress the wash of hurt, though he knew that it was childish and stupid, and that he'd probably be laughing instead if he didn't feel so fucking godawful. But it hurt, badly enough that he didn't even know what to do about it, except feel stupid and childish and miserable and wish he could fucking fall asleep already so he wouldn't have to deal with McKay for a few minutes.

But McKay, of course, could never, ever leave well enough alone.

"Major?"

John gritted his teeth.

"Major? Sheppard? Hey!"

There was suddenly a hard, unpleasant poke in John's back, and he stiffened before he remembered that he had a sheet and his scrub top protecting his skin.

"Wait," McKay went on, apparently oblivious to the fact that John was trying to ignore him, "wait--are you upset about that? That I didn't pick your Gift as the best in Atlantis?" McKay sounded so astonished that John had to fight down an unpleasant wave of humiliation. "I was kidding! What, you get a plague-infested fleabite and you can't take a joke anymore? And you were number seven! Seven out of sixty-one Gifted people on Atlantis!"

John rolled heavily onto his back, looking balefully at McKay. "Gee, thanks," he said. "So there're fifty-four people with Gifts you think are suckier than mine. I feel much better."

Actually, he did feel better, at least a little. But he was already embarrassed enough. There was no way in hell he would ever admit to that.

"Well, good," McKay sniffed, either missing the sarcasm or deciding to ignore it. "And your Gift is much better than O'Neill's, by the way, so I don't know what you're complaining about."

John raised his eyebrows, interested despite himself. "Yeah? How come?"

"Because his charm only works if he's face-to-face with the person he wants to use it on," McKay said. "You, on the other hand, are the only Charmer I've ever heard of on Earth--well, anywhere--who can use his Gift over an audio transmission, provided it's live." McKay smiled. "That's pretty cool, actually."

John allowed himself to feel mollified, at least grudgingly. "So, my Gift is better than Weir's, then, even if I can't charm the Wraith."

"--Or the Genii," McKay said pointedly.

"Or the Genii," John said. "But we don't know that for sure," he added. "We only met them the one time, and," he admitted, "I didn't try as hard as I could have."

McKay cocked his eyebrows. "You didn't? Why not?"

John shrugged, then winced when he remembered that oh, yeah, his body was mostly still killing him. "I didn't want to exhaust myself trying to get them to fall in love with us when we weren't in any real danger. Initially," he added quickly when he saw McKay scowl. "And I wanted to see if their nuclear strike idea would actually work."

"Huh," McKay said musingly. "I guess that makes sense."

John smiled, despite knowing it was crazy to be as pleased as he was by that small admission. "So, better than Dr. Weir?"

McKay rolled his eyes, but he smirked, which set off another coughing jag. John waited tensely until it finished, then waited longer while McKay got his breath back. "Yes, Sheppard," he croaked finally, "your Gift is much, much better than Elizabeth's."

"Cool," John said, to hide how concerned he was. He settled more comfortably on his back. "So, who's got the best Gift at the SGC?"

"And you say I'm the Gifted-person stalker," McKay grumbled. But of course he answered that, too. "Well, that would have to be Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell. He's an F-302 pilot. He's got wound-resistance. One of only three people in the world with that Gift."

"Really?" John ignored a sudden pang of jealousy, thinking of all the times he'd already been injured. He wondered if it made Mitchell more disease-resistant, too. "One of the three in the world, huh?"

"Yup." McKay gave a small nod. "The other one is some cop in Chicago, and the third is a woman in India. She's over one-hundred years old."

"Neat," John said, a little wistfully. Having wound-resistance would be fantastic. "So, who else? Jackson, right?"

McKay nodded again, and John could see by the gleam in his glassy eyes that he was beginning to enjoy this, hopefully taking his mind off how much everything hurt, which was exactly what John had been counting on. "Dr. Jackson is definitely the best known Cipher in North America. Colonel Carter's Gift is really neat, though--she can shoot bolts of kinetic force out of her hands. That's not so rare, but it's still unknown how the body produces the energy. Using her Gift really takes it out of her, though. She's almost died because of it more than once. Oh," McKay grinned. "Sergeant Siler is resistant to electricity. It's not the same as general wound-resistance, but it's close."

That explained some of the stories John had heard about Siler, then. "Anyone else at the SGC?"

McKay thought for a moment. "The best Healer in the US Military works at the SGC, which you'd kind of expect. She's apparently brought Jackson back from the dead once, though I don't know if that's just rumor or not. I do know that she once healed an injured soldier in the field from critical to walking wounded in less than three minutes. Jackson told me about it. He was helping her, and he said he'd never seen her heal so fast." McKay scowled. "We should have gotten her for the expedition, instead of the Great Dane who faints every time he has to heal something bigger than a paper cut."

"As I recall," John said archly, "the last time Johansen passed out was when he was repairing a big dent in your skull."

"Hey," McKay said, "I never said I was unhappy he was here, just that an expedition this important should have gotten the best Healer available, not just some random, marginally-able grunt medic." He looked at John. "Am I wrong?"

John raised his hands, more than a little disgruntled by how hard it was to do it. "Nope."

"Good," McKay said grumpily. "Because if Fraiser were here, maybe she could have healed us and we wouldn't be sick anymore."

"What's the weirdest Gift you know about?" John asked quickly, before McKay could start bitching in earnest. "And it doesn't just have to be here or at the SGC."

McKay thought a moment, then frowned. "There's a Mountie liaised with the Canadian Consulate in Chicago who has psychometry that works via taste. Which is also the most disgusting Gift I can think of."

"Ugh," John agreed, trying not to imagine it. He thought he might even rather have charm than that. "There was a girl in my high school who could repeat every song she ever heard verbatim, in the exact same voice as the original singer."

McKay looked at him. "Was that a Gift, though? Or just a weird talent?"

"It was a Gift," John affirmed. She'd been picked out the same day he was. Both of them had had pretty lousy years, after that. She'd been kicked off the jazz choir because the teacher had thought her Gift gave her an unfair advantage.

They hadn't even been friends, but she'd still cried to him about it. She'd insisted it was because he was the only one who'd understand, not because he'd accidentally charmed her, but John had never been sure.

"There was a boy in grade four who could control the hamster," McKay said. "I don't know if he could control other animals, but the hamster always did what he wanted it to."

John chuckled, happy to think about anything else. "Hamster possession. That's got to be the most useless Gift ever."

"Except for yours," McKay said immediately, but this time John just grinned when McKay laughed.

And when the laugh turned into yet another coughing fit, Beckett came out of his office to make sure McKay was all right, which meant John didn't have to keep worrying about him.

He did anyway.


In retrospect, Rodney knew he really should have figured it out sooner.

Sheppard made a strangled grunting sound as Calter (Caltrop? Cal-Tech? Not that Rodney cared) clotheslined him, and Rodney winced as Sheppard hit the dusty ground. Again. Ford actually made a small sound of dismay, but choked it off when Teyla shot him a warning glance, though Rodney could tell she wasn't any happier about this than the rest of them.

Calter stood back, his massive arms crossed over his massive chest, his teeth big and yellow as Scrabble tiles as he grinned down at Sheppard. "Are you sure you don't want the woman fighting me, Shepar? Because I doubt she could do any worse." Calter laughed at his own joke, and Rodney saw Teyla's eyes go to dark slits.

Sheppard slowly rolled onto his side, and then began the increasingly-laborious task of hauling himself to his feet. He didn't rub his throat, and the high collar of his black shirt hid the bruise that was doubtlessly forming, but Sheppard still stood hunched over for a minute, coughing, his hands on his knees. Rodney had a sudden jolt of miserable panic, thinking crushed trachea! before he was able to convince himself that Sheppard wouldn't be on his feet if that had actually happened. Though it looked like a close thing.

Not for the first, or even the hundredth, time, Rodney wished he hadn't promised not to use his Gift on Sheppard. You're our secret weapon, Rodney, Sheppard had said, so you need to keep your Gift close to the vest unless we need it, okay? And he had smiled, and said he would be fine, and he hadn't brought up Rodney's mistake with the Genii, and Rodney had grudgingly promised. So he wouldn't use his Gift, even though all he wanted to do in the whole galaxy was to throw up a shield around Sheppard--who finally seemed to be getting his wind back, thank God--and watch Cal-Tech the Hulk break his fist the next time he tried to punch Sheppard so hard in the stomach that the Major bent double, gagging.

Of course, Calter's sizable entourage, more than half of them women who looked like they could bench-press Ford on a bad day and who had all laughed at Calter's joke, would probably take exception to Sheppard suddenly becoming invulnerable. If the fine citizens of the Pegasus galaxy had taught them anything, it was that after millennia of living under the threat of the Wraith, they didn't take kindly to surprises.

"Teyla would kick your ass, Calten," Sheppard said as he turned around. He grinned back, as if this was really just the friendly sparring Calten (that was his name, apparently. Sheppard was much better at that kind of thing than Rodney was) had 'invited' Sheppard to partake in, instead of the horrible, one-sided stomp-fest it had turned out to be. "You're just lucky I'm the leader."

Calten started laughing at that like it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. Big, braying guffaws that had him leaning back with his large hands pressed to his stomach.

Sheppard just watched Calten laughing for a moment, his mouth curved up but his eyes cold. Then he lashed out with one leg and knocked both of Calten's feet out from under him. Calten's laugh turned into a yelp of surprise as he fell back and hit hard on the ground. He grunted at the impact, then looked up at Sheppard, who was grinning again, and just kept on laughing.

"Now that, my friend, was a move worthy of a leader!" Calten boomed between gales of laughter. "Finely done, Shepar!" He swung up an arm like a crane, hand open and obviously waiting for Sheppard to help pull him to his feet. "Come, my friend--a move such as that tells of a true warrior. I will indeed sponsor you to the council."

Rodney heard Teyla's almost-silent sigh of relief, which he was sure was as much for Sheppard's continued survival as for finally getting to talk to Calten's people, and had a moment to marvel at a culture that valued dirty fighting so much that that, and not coming from the fabled city of the Ancestors was what had given them the Pegasus version of street cred. And then he realized abruptly that the human monolith Calten was still lying on his back, arm still raised, and Sheppard hadn't reached to help him.

"You do not wish to aid me, Shepar?" Calten asked. His voice was deceptively mild.

Behind him, his entourage--all well-armed, and God, they really were big--shifted a bit. Hands dropped to sheathed knives, or were adjusted on the shafts of spears.

Ford began fingering his P-90 like he was deciding who to shoot at first.

Rodney fumbled for his sidearm, as discreetly as possible. He wondered if he should shield Sheppard immediately, or wait until the weapons actually came up. The gold flash would give it away, though he doubted Calten or his Merry Women would know what it meant, and sure as the glare on Calten's formerly amiable face, they were going to be aiming for Sheppard first.

"This is a really bad time to be petty, Sheppard!" Rodney murmured to himself. Ford glanced at him sharply, but didn't say anything.

"Sheppard-of-Atlantis does not touch unless it is for combat, Calten-of-the-Plains," Teyla said, stepping regally in front of Sheppard. She was smiling her warmest, most sincere smile, but her hands were wrapped tightly around her P-90 as well. "You can see by his clothing that he does not welcome contact. It is a...genetic defect, but one that does not alter his character." She turned her head just enough to fix her smile on Sheppard for an instant, and it became warm and slightly mocking, like one indulging a friend's eccentricities. When she turned back to Calten her smile had altered to apologetic, like a chameleon. "He means no offense."

Rodney blinked, a little stunned at Teyla's ability to lie. She had to have gotten the gene thing from Carson and all the talk about the ATA gene and Gifts, but he'd never imagined how she might use that knowledge. He seriously doubted that Calten knew what the hell she was talking about, but it sounded plausible and gave Sheppard an out for his sudden weirdness, and that was all that mattered.

"No, it's all right, Teyla," Sheppard said. He gave her a quick smile that was all smooth surety, but Sheppard glanced at Rodney as he stepped around Teyla, and Rodney saw the briefest flash of fear in his eyes before he schooled his features.

Calten had lowered his hand by then, propping himself up with both elbows as he regarded Sheppard with an expression of thoughtful malice. Sheppard just extended his own hand.

"Forgive me, Calten," he said seriously. "I would be more than happy to help you."

Calten stared at him for a long moment, then nodded once and grinned with all his scrabble-tile teeth and thrust up his hand. He grabbed Sheppard's wrist, so that Sheppard had to grab Calten's wrist in return. Rodney wondered if he'd done it on purpose.

Unlike Sheppard, Calten's arm was bare up to the shoulder; his planet was hot. And Sheppard hesitated, ever so slightly, before he closed his hand around Calten's thick wrist. The pads of his uncovered fingertips pressed against Calten's skin as Sheppard pulled Calten to his feet.

And finally, finally, Rodney got it. Teyla wasn't kidding.

It all made sense, suddenly. An awful, horrible sense: Sheppard's bad reaction to his touch in Rodney's quarters; his flinch when Rodney had grabbed his ankle after Conroy had concussed him. Hell, Sheppard had been so slow to put his hands on Teyla's shoulders, back at the 'Welcome to Atlantis' party, so slow to touch his forehead to hers. And then he'd pulled back almost instantly, like the gesture had hurt him. Rodney had just chalked it up to Sheppard being weirded out by the whole thing, at the time.

Calten's planet was hot, but Sheppard was the only one not wearing a t-shirt. Instead, he was in the same long-sleeved black shirt he always wore, unless he was wearing his jacket. The kind of black shirt with the high neck that Sheppard constantly had zippered right to the top. Rodney had occasionally teased him about that being the only shirt Sheppard had, and every time Sheppard had just smiled. It didn't seem so funny now.

And the gloves. Always the damn gloves. Rodney had never really believed that Sheppard was cold all the time. In truth, Markham's ridiculous suggestion that they were purely for show had seemed far more plausible. They had already become such an integral part of Sheppard's uniform--like the shirts--that Rodney had mostly stopped thinking about it.

He shouldn't have stopped thinking about it. He really shouldn't have. Because there was a reason for the gloves, and the shirts, and Sheppard's occasional strangeness after all. And Rodney should have noticed. Wasn't that what geniuses did, after all? Notice the things that escaped all the normal people's attention?

Sheppard didn't like to be touched. Couldn't stand it, apparently. Teyla already knew this, obviously. Ford probably did as well. Only Rodney--the self-proclaimed greatest mind of the expedition--hadn't had a clue.

He wasn't good with people, Rodney knew that. It was one of his few weaknesses. He missed social cues, rarely knew the right thing to say. Failed to notice the things that were clear to everyone else. Most of the time it didn't really bother him.

Now, though, he followed Ford and thought about Sheppard, leading the team but not being part of it. Straddling the arm of the couch during movie night, keeping his feet away from anyone else's, sitting with a little more space between the chairs during briefings. Never walking with them, really, always slightly ahead or behind. Rodney had seen all of it, of course. Now he knew what it meant.

He had expected to feel stupid, the rare but familiar shame of failing at something everyone else knew how to do. He had expected to feel irritated, even if it was unfair, that Teyla or Ford should have somehow known to tell him, but hadn't.

He didn't, though. He looked over Ford's shoulder, to the hard lines of Sheppard's back as the Major walked behind Teyla. Always such careful steps behind.

And all Rodney felt was sad.


One thing Rodney would say about Calten's people: aside from all being built like comic-book Vikings, they also threw pretty good parties, with plenty of citrus-free food that was surprisingly delicious. Their alcohol wasn't bad either. It reminded him of all the times he'd gotten wasted on Purple Jesus drinks back in high school. Whatever they'd made it with gave it the same kind of unnatural purple color, and it tasted like Kool-Aid with a kick to it. It was very easy to drink far too much of it, and Rodney was blearily certain he already had.

It wasn't doing his mood any good.

He kept trying not to look at Sheppard, who was on the other side of the fire. He was standing with Teyla (Ford had disappeared into one of the huts with a pretty, black-haired woman only about a foot taller than he was, Rodney doubted they'd see him until morning) and Calten and his group of giants and Amazons, a wooden mug like Rodney's in his hand. One of the Amazons said something and Sheppard laughed, rubbing his throat theatrically, and Rodney glowered, remembering how Sheppard had gotten the bruises he was pretending didn't hurt.

Calten did his booming-laugh-with-backwards-lean thing that Rodney could hear even several meters away, then slapped Sheppard's back hard enough to stagger him. Calten immediately pulled his hands back and held them up in a mollifying gesture that seemed to be universal, no doubt remembering that Sheppard didn't like to be touched.

Rodney looked away, fastening his eyes on the ground, grass shiny-wet and almost black with the darkness. He took another sip of his drink and tried not to think about the way Sheppard's hair and skin reflected the firelight.

Something popped as it burned and Rodney looked up again, eyes automatically drawn to the source of the noise.

Sheppard was staring at him, his face impassive, eyes too distant to read. Rodney was the first one to look away.

He'd seen how Sheppard was standing, on the edge of the little group, closer to Teyla but not really close to any of them, and suddenly Rodney was sick of the sickly sweetness of the alcohol, the heat of the fire that barely cut the unpleasant humidity of the overly-warm night, the too-loud laughter and the constant bragging that seemed to substitute here for any kind of conversation.

Rodney dumped the rest of his drink on the ground, hesitated a moment, then threw his mug into the fire. He'd seen other people doing it, so he figured it would be all right. The mugs burned surprisingly quickly, despite being wet, which was probably a sign of just how potent the alcohol was. There was a certain nihilistic satisfaction in watching the wood begin to blacken in the flames.

It wasn't until he started to walk that Rodney discovered just how drunk he actually was. He still felt lucid, but was weaving a little, his balance off, and he feared that he was going to have a bad hangover in the morning. Which would just be the capper to this whole rotten mission, he figured. At least right now he felt wobbly but otherwise fine. Physically fine.

Yet another of the ubiquitous, beautiful and freakishly tall young women was more than happy to show him to the hut that had been set aside for his team. It was certainly large enough for four people to move around comfortably, and he was looking forward to the size of the beds, but right now it just felt dark and lonely, even after the woman lit several candles.

Her smile was big and warm and inviting, as was her hand on his arm, and Rodney thought about taking her up on her unspoken offer for a minute or two, before the idea of probably having to cuddle--or, God, talk--afterwards become more than he could bear. So he just thanked her with as much politeness as he could muster and was only vaguely offended when she didn't act particularly disappointed at his rejection.

Rodney took off his boots and socks as soon as she left, then took off his tac vest and hung it off the back of the only chair in the room. He sat on the bed in the semi-darkness afforded by the candlelight and thought about sleeping. He wasn't exactly eager to bring on morning and the pain that would surely come with it, but he knew just sitting there was just going to make him more morose, and he didn't want to go back to the party and watch Sheppard grin and laugh and stand just far enough from everyone that they couldn't accidentally brush against him when they moved.

There was a brief knock on the door before it swung open, letting in a current of moist, heated air. Rodney looked up to see--of course--Sheppard come into the room. He closed the door behind him with the deliberate, exaggerated care of the extremely drunk, and Rodney wondered just how many more mugs of the Purple Jesus homebrew Sheppard had downed while Rodney was sitting there feeling sorry for himself.

"Hey, Rodney," Sheppard said. He smiled widely, but his eyes were still serious, reminding Rodney of his earlier glimpse of the man across the fire. "Why'd you leave, Buddy? The party's just getting good--there's dancing." His words only slurred slightly, but he swayed as he stood in front of the closed door, as if moving in time to inaudible music.

"I don't dance," Rodney said automatically, watching him, wondering if Sheppard was going to fall. It'd be easy enough to shield him if Sheppard went down, harder to get him onto a bed afterwards. Rodney was broader than Sheppard, but Sheppard was big enough, and Rodney wasn't interested in trying to lift him.

Not that Sheppard would want to be lifted, since that would involve touching. Maybe Rodney could just keep his shield up....

What Rodney didn't add was, And doesn't dancing involve physical contact? though of course he was thinking it.

"Oh," Sheppard said, and for a moment he looked strangely as if he were sorry to hear it, though that surely was just the alcohol. Rodney was certain Sheppard would be a maudlin drunk, the kind that all the women felt horribly sorry for and took home and tucked into bed and fell madly in love with.

"I don't dance either," Sheppard said suddenly. "I used to," he added, and his face fell at whatever memory that had apparently brought up. Rodney had only a second to wonder what that meant before Sheppard smiled again. "We can go and not-dance together."

"Aren't you worried someone might touch you?" Rodney asked, then winced when Sheppard went still. "I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I'm sorry. That was...that was bad." He rubbed one eye with his fingertips, feeling what might be the first tricklings of a headache seeping into his brain. He took a breath. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Sheppard crossed his arms, any semblance of the smile gone. He looked alarmingly sober all of a sudden, though he was still slurring when he spoke. "Because it wasn't any of your Goddamn business, McKay."

Rodney yanked his hand away from his eye to glare at Sheppard. "Of course it's my business! You're my team lead and the Military Head of the expedition! You don't think it might have behooved you a little to fill me in on your personality quirks?" He heaved himself to his feet, trying to ignore how the room moved with him when he did. Oh, yes, he was not going to be happy in a few hours. "What--were you just going to stoically put up with my pawing you until you collapsed from mental stress? Do you think I--Do you think I would have still invaded your personal space if I'd known? What the hell kind of person do you think I am?"

Rodney wasn't drunk enough to not realize that the line of thinking behind his angry speech might have slid a bit off-track, but he was drunk enough for it to suddenly hit him that he wasn't just sad for Sheppard about this, he was sad for himself.

He felt hurt, damn it. Sheppard should have trusted him.

"You barely touch me anyway, Rodney," Sheppard said. He sounded a little less angry.

Rodney ignored Sheppard's words in favor of the hurt that felt like it was settling in for a good long stay. "You should have told me," Rodney said. "You could have told me."

Sheppard hung his head and clasped his hand to the back of his neck. "I didn't want to," he said quietly. "It--it's not something I like to talk about."

Rodney snorted, crossing his arms. "What do you like to talk about? Besides football and shiny things that go 'zoom'?"

Sheppard looked up, expression sharp. "Shut up, Rodney! You don't know anything about me! You have no idea how hard this is!"

"I don't know anything about you because you won't tell me anything!" Rodney shouted at him. "Damn it, Sheppard! It doesn't have to be hard! It doesn't have to be anything you don't want it to be!"

"You don't know what I want this to be," Sheppard said, his voice low, and it occurred to Rodney that he might have lost the thread of what, exactly, they were fighting about, though it suddenly seemed to be something other than Sheppard's reluctance to share his touch issues.

Rodney just kept glowering, too furious and too drunk to really worry about it. "Then why don't you fill me in, Major?" he snapped. "How about you tell me what the fuck you want this to be?"

Sheppard just looked at him for a long, long moment, and Rodney was feeling smug about having gotten the last word about...whatever it was, when Sheppard dropped his arms and stalked towards him, still swaying a little, like they were on a ship.

"Put your shield up," Sheppard said.

Rodney blinked at him. "What?"

"I said," Sheppard grit out, "put your God-damned shield up, McKay!" He stopped right in front of Rodney, more than close enough to touch, but Rodney knew they wouldn't.

He let his contempt show on his face--hoping it hid the uneasiness--and threw up his shield, knowing Sheppard would see the flash of gold as his Gift turned on.

Rodney was half-expecting Sheppard to take a swing at him, and was a little concerned he'd break his hand.

But Sheppard didn't hit him. Instead, he raised his hands and slowly, deliberately, tugged his gloves off. He tucked them into his pocket, never moving his eyes from Rodney's.

And while Rodney watched, mouth falling soundlessly open, Sheppard reached out, almost tentatively towards Rodney's face, until his fingertips sparked tiny starbursts of gold.

Sheppard skimmed his fingertips over the shield in front of Rodney's face, then around Rodney's neck, to his shoulders, then down his arms.

Rodney followed Sheppard's hands with his eyes as Sheppard slowly ran his palms--his naked palms--across Rodney's belly, up to his chest, leaving electric trails of gold in their wake. Sheppard stopped his hands there, pressed against the shield.

"Oh God," Rodney breathed. He closed his eyes, imagining he could feel the warmth of Sheppard's hands.

"Open your eyes," Sheppard said. Rodney could hear him swallow. "Please."

Rodney opened his eyes. Sheppard was looking straight at him, and his eyes were burning.

"Sheppard," Rodney said hoarsely. He was so hard it hurt, and he wanted this. God, he wanted--"John."

Sheppard abruptly yanked his hands away and stepped back. With the added distance between them, Rodney could easily see that Sheppard was as turned on as he was. Rodney dropped his shield. "John," he said again, reached for him--

But Sheppard moved away before Rodney could touch. "I can't," he said. He shook his head almost violently. "I can't." He looked so sad, suddenly, that it took all of Rodney's self control not to reach for him again.

"I can't," Sheppard said again. "I wish--" He stopped, ran one of his hands through his hair. "God," he said quietly, thickly. "I wish."

"You can," Rodney said. He dared to lift his arms again, but Sheppard dodged back before Rodney could touch him. "Sheppard, John--I'm right here."

"I know," Sheppard said. He swallowed. "Goodnight, Rodney."

Rodney watched him turn, walk away. He called out to him again--"Sheppard!"--but Sheppard never looked back.

In the morning Rodney nursed his hangover and listened to Ford and Teyla's happy chattering all the way through breakfast and back to the jumper.

Sheppard didn't say a word to him, and Rodney told himself that was just fine.


A month after Artie's death, when John's Gift was discovered, the guidance counselor gave him the appropriate pamphlets. So You're Gifted.... and Using Your Gifts Wisely. Mr. Denning also advised him to do a little research in the library.

John checked out a bag full of books, brought them to his room, and read avidly about being a Charmer. He read over a particularly lurid "unauthorized" biography of Marilyn Monroe and her rumored torrid love affair with the famous Charmer President John F. Kennedy. The President's charm was so powerful, that without it, the starlet didn't feel life was worth living....

John shut that book and picked up a much duller-looking one on Gifts in Greek Myth, curling up in bed to read it and turning on the bedside lamp as the evening darkness gradually filled his room. Twenty minutes later he was reading about the myth of Polydora and the Charmer Protesilaus. Such was his charm, that he held his wife in Thrall with a single kiss. And forever after she drew her happiness only from the sound of his voice. And after his death did she pine for him, and crafted an image of him that she might enjoy congress with it. In his mercy, the god Hermes took pity on Polydora and allowed Protesilaus' shade to visit her one last time. But so deep was her despair when her husband returned to Hades and left her once again that she slew herself in order that she might join him in the afterlife.

John dropped the book from cold, nerveless fingers, staring unseeing at the far wall as the book thumped to the floor. My fault. It was me. I did it.

The cold crept up his hands, up his arms, and he remembered stroking the warm skin of Artie's arm. In Thrall with a single kiss. He pulled the blanket over his head and shivered, wondering if he could ever get warm.


John wasn't anywhere near so popular in school after his Gift was discovered. His teachers were incredibly strict with him, as if overcompensating for any possible charge of favoritism that might be leveled because of his Gift. His former friends acted self-conscious around him, giggling nervously, or staying at least a yard away, or purposely contradicting him or picking fights with him every time he opened his mouth. When John and his family moved again in the middle of his Junior year, it was more of a relief than anything. At the next school, John didn't bother to make friends.

His parents were his parents, but they'd always been a little distant, a little preoccupied with their own careers and lives, almost a little startled around him at times, as if surprised they even had a son. They had less idea of how to handle John's Gift than he did. When he finally graduated High School and left home for college, John could almost feel his parents' relief.

In college he joined ROTC and got a part time job and never came home for holidays. It was just as well.


Peter Grodin had all but begged her to join the evacuees who had gated off-world to wait out the storm. But when Elizabeth Weir asked him why, all Peter could tell her was that something bad was going to happen, and that she would be in a lot of danger, something above and beyond even the threat of the storm.

She could feel his conviction in every wave of anxiety rolling out of him, and in the depth of his fear. But he couldn't give her any details--all his vision had shown him was the dire force of the hurricane. Everything else he might have seen had been eclipsed by the magnitude of that threat, until all he was left with was a terrified certainty that something else was going to happen during the hurricane, something almost as bad.

Elizabeth had thanked him, but knew she was going to stay anyway. Of the three of them, Elizabeth, John and Rodney, only Rodney's skills were truly necessary to implement the plan to shield the city. But just like John, Elizabeth would never have left anyone else to face the danger instead of her. And, she didn't mind admitting to herself, she didn't want to leave Atlantis when she wasn't sure if she'd ever be able to return.

Ironically, because of Peter's warning, when she received the broadcast from the two Marines in the gate room saying that there'd been an attack on Manara, she'd assumed that was the other danger Peter meant. And it was actually a relief, because this was something they could deal with. This was almost easy.

It wasn't until they were nearly at the gate room, with the sudden feeling of nervous anticipation and satisfaction coming from the strangers up ahead, that Elizabeth even considered that it might be a trick.

And by then, of course, it was too late.


Elizabeth had thought initially that Kolya might be someone she could reason with, but after less than five minutes in his company she'd known breaking thorough his smug moral rectitude would be impossible.

Rodney put up a brave front through all of it, and Elizabeth admired his quick thinking in how he managed to apprise John of what was happening even after their radios were taken. She could feel how frightened he was--among the usual chaos of emotions that made Rodney in particular so hard to read--but that the fear was battling an equal measure of affronted rage. She found it strangely comforting, as if the fact Rodney could still be angry meant that the situation wasn't hopeless. She was also proud of him, she realized, for his refusal to be cowed. Elizabeth held onto that fiercely, even in the face of Kolya's calm threats, absurd though she knew it was.

At the least, it helped her ignore how Kolya implied that even if they gave him everything he wanted, he might still kill them. She could sense nothing from him to tell her if he would or not--she supposed his sense of superiority could lead him either way.

Part of Elizabeth was grateful when Sora and two other Genii led her away so she could show them where they kept their medical supplies. It was a relief to be away from Kolya, and everything she could feel from him. She just hoped Rodney would be safe.


Elizabeth had never guessed that Kolya would torture him. If she had, she would have refused to leave, for whatever good it would have done. She was astonished that Rodney hadn't tried to shield himself from the knife, and then she thought about what Kolya would do to find out how Rodney produced it. Keeping Rodney's Gift secret was worth a lacerated arm.

"What did they do to you?" She could already tell by Rodney's myriad of emotions (anger, fear, that specific sense of vulnerability she associated with pain, shock, a strange sort of awe, maybe at having been tortured, deep, deep shame) that he had revealed something he shouldn't have, but she had no time to ask what before Kolya thrust a radio at them and asked what it was for.

Rodney was also projecting an odd sense of...certainty, as if what had happened was somehow all right. Elizabeth didn't know where it came from, but she knew there was no way Rodney could tell her, not with Kolya right there, making demands to John on the radio.

But she trusted Rodney. She hoped he knew that, and that she didn't blame him for revealing anything when he'd obviously been hurt badly before he did. Part of his jacket sleeve was soaked with blood, and what little she could see of his wound through two layers of cloth was pulpy and gaping.

John told Kolya how he had hidden the C-4, and how he would only tell the Genii where it was once they'd let her and Rodney gate off-world. She realized John was using his charm Gift on Kolya when she suddenly felt a tiny tendril of trust, even warmth, snaking through Kolya's supercilious contempt. She could also feel a small flare of hope from Rodney, as if he knew what was going on, though she had no idea how he could tell John was using his Gift. Maybe it was in Kolya's expression.

She wasn't sure how much effort John was putting into charming Kolya, but she knew it had to be enormous to get any result at all with him, let alone the possibility of compliance.

And for a moment, Kolya almost caved. She could feel it happening, practically see his mouth opening to say yes....

And then instead Kolya casually said that Rodney had told him there was a plan in motion to save the city, and now he wanted John to deactivate the last grounding station. Rodney's shame was as dark and painful as a bruise, and Elizabeth wished she could offer any kind of consolation. But the last thing she wanted was to make Rodney look even more vulnerable than Kolya likely thought he was. The sneering disdain Kolya felt for Rodney disgusted her, but she hoped it meant he was underestimating him. That would be a fatal mistake.

Kolya had obviously underestimated John as well, because he was far more surprised than she was to hear John on the radio after he had gone to the grounding station. Rodney's relief when he heard John's voice was so thick Elizabeth felt like she could touch it, though he tensed up immediately again when John castigated Kolya for his attempt to ambush and kill him, and told him that the grounding station controls were damaged, and two of the Genii were dead.

Kolya didn't like that, and his rage was sharp and violent as lightning even before he pulled the gun out and pointed it at her.

"Say goodbye to Dr. Weir," Kolya said, and Elizabeth knew, by Kolya's frozen certainty and the hot pulse of his anger, that this wasn't a bluff; he was really going to do it. She guessed by John's tone, by how he was all but begging for her life, that he was trying to use his charm again, but it wouldn't work. Kolya wanted her dead.

And then Rodney stepped between her and the gun.

Elizabeth hadn't expected that, and for a second her shock almost eclipsed her sheer terror. She had thought that Rodney might shield her, yes, despite how dangerous it would be for Kolya to see it and wonder where it came from. But Rodney kept his secret and risked his life instead, and it felt a little bit like Elizabeth had never really met him before.

He was as terrified as she was, but he stood there and told Kolya some amazing lie about how she was vitally necessary to making the shield for the city work, and Kolya actually bought it, because he lowered the gun.

"You stood in front of a gun for me," she said to him, afterwards, and she hoped the words and her voice managed to convey what she really meant.

But all Rodney said was that she shouldn't thank him yet, and all she could feel from him was a new, tremulous relief, and the same deep, abiding shame.


In the end, she was staring at John's cold, determined eyes behind the barrel of his P-90, listening to him promise Kolya that he would shoot him if he didn't let her go, and Elizabeth knew John was using his charm again because she felt Kolya's emotions shift, his hand loosen slightly before he pulled her more tightly to him, as if suddenly remembering why he had her there at all.

She had faith in John's aim because she could feel how confident he was, like there was no question in his mind of his ability. That was reassuring, but she was still grateful when Rodney shielded her. There was a momentary flash of gold in front of her eyes, making her blink, and at the same moment Kolya cried out and let her go. She heard the bark of a single gunshot as she fell, and then she was free, on her hands and knees on the gate room floor.

John ran over to her as she pulled herself to her feet.

"Sorry about that," John said quickly, as if he'd done something wrong. He looked tired, she could see it in the tightness around his eyes, but all she could feel from him was a mixture of relief and tension, possibly a leftover of what they'd all just been through, but more likely because the hurricane was on them, they'd run out of time. "I had to, um...." He trailed off, making Elizabeth wonder what he'd seen in her face. His concern was warming. "You okay?"

"No," she said sincerely.

"You will be," he said quickly, decisive, and he turned and ran up the stairs to the safety of the control room, obviously expecting her to follow him. She did.


It didn't really hit her just how well Rodney had lied to the Genii until she realized that the confidence he was feeling had to be due to his complete certainty in the system he and Radek had designed to shield Atlantis. Which meant he hadn't appeared concerned about John on the previous attempt, because he'd known it wasn't going to work. He'd told her he couldn't bluff, out at the third grounding station. Now Elizabeth thought he might have been lying to her about that, to ensure her reactions to the supposedly failed shield would help convince Kolya to leave. She wondered if she would have figured any of this out sooner, without her own tension or the chaos of so many others' emotions vying for attention in her head.

Elizabeth was exhausted, starving, freezing cold, and sore. Her head was aching from the unremitting anxiety of the last several hours, along with having to deal with everything she was feeling from everyone else around her. She just wanted this all to be over, even if it meant they'd be dead in the next three minutes.

But still, she was so very, very glad when John told Rodney to wait two minutes in the hope that by then Teyla and Carson would be safe. Rodney only looked angry, but what he was feeling was a mess of stress and fear and hope and chagrin and anger and yet more shame--layers and layers of it--and she knew full well that Rodney wouldn't have considered sacrificing people he thought of as friends unless he'd honestly believed there wasn't another option. But he waited anyway, as if Rodney had been hoping someone would order him to, so he wouldn't have to take responsibility for the possible disaster that might come from doing what he really wanted.

And like a miracle, Teyla and Carson--and Sora--came in at the last possible second. Carson sat heavily in one of the console chairs, eyes nearly blank and his nose bloody, radiating nothing that her Gift could pick up other than dull shock.

When Rodney asked Carson, "Just in time to see how this ends, huh?" Elizabeth knew it was a kind of apology, though Carson would never know what it was for.

The shield finally going up was almost anticlimactic, if only because Rodney had been so obviously sure it would work. Even so, when he asked her if she'd doubted him, her answer was immediate and unthinking: "Yes, several times." Because it felt like she'd been scared for most of her life, and it had seemed impossible that one man could have done as much as Rodney somehow had to save them. But she regretted it immediately, when she felt how deeply she'd hurt Rodney by saying it.

She had just opened her mouth to apologize, pretend she'd been joking, when beside her John suddenly said, faintly, "oh, crap," and fell heavily to the floor.

"Sheppard!" Rodney cried, at the same instant Ford gasped and Teyla called, "Major!" And everyone moved at once.

"Oh my God," Elizabeth breathed, and went to John, thinking that she'd somehow missed that he'd been injured, that he might even be dead. But she could see that he was moving, albeit clumsily, even as she dropped to her knees beside him.

"Step back! Give him some room!" Carson shouted, and Elizabeth realized that she, Ford and Teyla were all kneeling around John's head, with Rodney standing awkwardly just behind her. The near-panic blast of concern from everyone felt like a hammer inside her skull. She tried to scramble back, and all but fell into Rodney.

"M'okay," John said weakly, sounding anything but. He looked gray as the floor, but his eyes were at least open and he was talking. He was trying to push himself upright as Carson lumbered over, except that his arms were trembling and his gloved hands couldn't get any traction. John fell back with a thump and a wince.

"Fuck," he whispered.

"Don't touch him!" Rodney warned when Elizabeth automatically reached for John, wanting to help. Rodney's worry was like someone shouting in her ear, and she yanked her hand back from John as if Rodney had shielded him.

"Here," Carson said. He kneeled awkwardly next to John's head, where Elizabeth had been, once she'd managed to get out of his way.

Carson fumbled in his jacket pocket, pulling out what she was sure were glucose tablets, and she thought vaguely about asking for some herself. Carson popped several out of their blister pack and dropped them carefully into John's hand. John fumbled them into his mouth, grimacing at the taste.

"What is that?" Elizabeth could hear Sora asking from somewhere else in the room, and Elizabeth might have been apprehensive about leaving her there if she hadn't been aware of the young woman's fear and resignation, and, surprisingly, her compassion. "What's wrong with him?"

"He's exhausted from running all over the city trying to keep your friends from killing us!" Rodney snapped at her, so loudly that Sora flinched. Elizabeth glanced at Rodney, wondering if she'd see the half-truth on his face, but all his attention was focused on John, his wide blue eyes almost childlike with the anxiety she could still feel from him, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Though of course since it was Rodney, there was also anger there, as if John had collapsed just to spite him, and guilt, as if Rodney could have somehow prevented it.

"You shouldn't have...have pushed so hard, Major," he said quietly, and Elizabeth knew Rodney meant that John shouldn't have put so much energy into his Gift that he had no reserves left, once the adrenaline was gone.

"I'm fine, really," John said, and his voice did sound a little stronger, now that he'd gotten some sugar into him. He was finally able to lever himself to a sitting position, though he looked like he might slump sideways any second. He looked up--at Rodney, interestingly enough--with what Elizabeth guessed he thought was a reassuring smile. "I'm just kind of tired."

Rodney snorted. "Right. Because everyone faints when they feel a bit peaked. Nice try, Major."

"I didn't faint, McKay," John growled, but he sounded too tired to put much heat into it. Strangely Elizabeth could feel a small ray of amusement from him, under the irritation and almost-overwhelming exhaustion.

Just being near him was making her tired herself. Well, more tired. Elizabeth moved a bit further away, pretending that would help. "Even if you didn't pass out, Major," she said to him, "you came close. You should probably be in the infirmary." She looked to Carson for confirmation as she spoke, and he nodded wearily in agreement.

"Yeah, well, much as I'd love to be in the infirmary myself, because,"--Rodney held up his arm, and Elizabeth realized she'd forgotten how badly Kolya had cut him--"oh, look! massive suppurating wound here, we're not going anywhere for at least twenty minutes. One step out into the corridor before all the electricity has finished being channeled to the shield, and, zap! Crispy critter central." Rodney looked at John, mouth pinched in worry, and Elizabeth could feel his misery. "Sorry."

John waved a hand weakly. "Don't worry about it. I'll just...stay right here. No problem."

"Oh for the love of--!" Rodney huffed. "You can at least sit in a chair, or something." He stuck out his hand with his usual imperiousness. "Here."

Elizabeth wasn't sure why she sensed a coil of uneasiness from him when he did it, but Rodney didn't move, just held his hand out as if he was more than prepared to wait for as long as John wanted him to.

John lifted his head slowly, until he was blinking up at Rodney. He looked at Rodney's hand, but he didn't take it.

"Rodney," Teyla said, and there was a slight warning in her voice, which Elizabeth didn't understand. Ford was looking on warily as well, and they felt as uneasy as Rodney did, perhaps even more so, as if they were waiting for something terrible to happen.

"It's okay, Sheppard," Rodney said gently.

John just kept looking at him, for a long moment, then nodded and wrapped his hand around Rodney's good arm, letting Rodney haul him to his feet. He staggered once he was up, and Rodney looped John's arm over his shoulder to steady him.

"Don't worry," Rodney said quickly when John stiffened. "We're just going over here, to the chairs. Less than a minute."

Elizabeth could see John steeling himself, and she could feel his distress, inexplicable as it was fearsome. But he just muttered, "Okay," and let Rodney support him to a chair.

When Ford rushed over to help Rodney settle John, John didn't protest, but Elizabeth could feel how deep his relief was when both men let go of him.

"Wait," John said, as Rodney was moving away. "What happened to your arm?"

"I should really take a look at that," Carson said. He was back in his own chair now too, looking as if he might keel over.

"Later," Rodney snapped at Carson. "Can you even see straight? Never mind." He turned back to John, but didn't meet his eyes. "Kolya did it. Well, his goons did, to be more precise, but it was Kolya's idea." His voice dropped, and Elizabeth could feel his shame again, pushing to the forefront, laced with anxiety. "That's, uh, that's why I told them about the city. The plans for Atlantis, I mean." He swallowed. "About the grounding stations."

John seemed to be examining Rodney's arm, though he didn't touch it the way Elizabeth had. "I hope I killed him," he said levelly.

Elizabeth sucked in a breath, chilled at how much he meant it.


John was stationed at Travis AFB with the 60th Air Mobility Wing in Fairfield, California. Giddy with his recent promotion to First Lieutenant, and, in a fit of euphoria and unfettered optimism, he agreed to go out on a blind date with his pal Skip Malloney's older sister.

"Mom's afraid that Babs is gonna end up being an old maid, Shep," Skip complained. Skip had been lucky enough to be assigned to a base just down the highway from the little town where he'd grown up: Suisun City. He moaned and bitched all the time about how he'd joined the Air Force to see the world and gotten stuck in the same town he'd always lived in, but John saw how secretly happy he was to be able to visit his folks practically any time he wanted.

John snorted. "Jeeze, Skip! Don't go marrying us--I haven't even met the woman!" John had met Skip's parents, and envied the other officer's closeness to his family. Once he'd left home, John's own parents had never seemed to want any contact beyond the obligatory holiday and birthday cards.

Skip rolled his eyes--they were shielded behind aviator shades, but John just knew he rolled them--and made an aborted gesture to punch John on the shoulder that he turned into a negligent arm wave. In the short time they'd been friends, Skip already knew that John didn't like to be touched. "Come on, you'll like her, man! She's really smart--and kind of weird, but I think you like weird."

"Hey, I get along with you okay, don't I?" John smirked.

Skip waggled his eyebrows. "That's what I mean! If you like me, you'll just love Babs."

"Okay, now I'm afraid," John mocked him. The thing was, he really did like Skip--maybe a bit too much, actually. He hoped the fabled Babs was like her brother.


In the dimness of the emergency lighting, Rodney leaned against the windows by the chemistry labs, slowly sipping a last cup of coffee and looking out into the darkness at the storm-tossed ocean. It was still raining. He shivered involuntarily at the flash of memory of standing out in the lashing rain at the grounding station with Elizabeth, and Kolya--the sheer terror and the misery of freezing, soaked to the skin. He took another sip of the coffee, hands cradled around the cup for warmth.

He'd gone through the all the labs and had personally sent everyone to their beds, or at least enforced rest away from the labs. They still had to go over their beloved city for damage caused by the great storm's depredations, and they all needed their strength.

Ironically, despite sending everyone else to bed, and despite his own exhaustion dragging at him, Rodney found sleep elusive. He glanced into his cup and snorted softly, knowing what Carson would say about his caffeine intake if the poor man wasn't resting himself, after being concussed and then healed in the aftermath of his own tangle with the Genii.

An abrupt sound almost made Rodney drop his coffee. He peered at the figure in the darkness, his heart racing. "It's me!" he announced, very conscious that the Marines on patrol were jumpy, and possibly trigger-happy, after recent events. "It's Dr. McKay. Don't shoot me! I've had a miserable day already, and that would definitely be the worst possible way to end it."

"I won't shoot you, McKay." Sheppard's laconic voice came clearly, as his figure seemed to coalesce out of the darkness.

Rodney slumped against the windows, hand to his chest. "Don't do that! You almost made me spill my coffee." He took a preventative slurp. Better in him than on the floor.

"Wouldn't want to do that," Sheppard said, with mock horror. "That would be a real tragedy."

"Definitely," Rodney agreed sincerely. "And we certainly have enough of those to go around."

Sheppard leaned on the windows too, facing Rodney, close enough to touch. He crossed his arms, and Rodney tried not to stare at John's fingertips, peeking like illicit promises from his shooting gloves. The low lighting accentuated the circles under John's eyes, the stubble along his jaw. "Speaking of which," Sheppard drawled, jutting a chin to indicate, "How's the arm?"

Rodney held it out and pulled his sleeve back so that Sheppard could inspect it. He was very careful not to get too close. "All healed. Won't be a scar. Bork Borkensen got to it in time."

"Anders Johansen," Sheppard corrected absently. "So, what are you doing up when all good little scientists should be snug in their beds?"

Rodney snorted. "Same as you, I suppose." He toasted Sheppard with his coffee cup and took another bracing sip. "Can't get my brain to shut off." He made a twirling motion with his hand to indicate his thoughts spinning in circles. He smiled tiredly at Sheppard, who looked down, dark lashes fanning over his cheeks, and gave him the ghost of a smile back. Rodney's heart beat a little faster.

Sometimes...sometimes Sheppard just looked.... Beautiful. Rodney shifted his weight, folded his own arms, and looked down into his mug to hide his expression.

He found no inspiration for what to say in the swirling wet darkness of the coffee. But then, caffeine had always been its own reward. He took the final sip left in the mug, tilting his head back and draining it.

He looked up, and was startled to see Sheppard staring at him. Staring at him, and his expression was hungry.

"Sheppard?" Rodney blinked, backed up a step. "What?"

"Shut up. Shut up a minute." Sheppard swallowed. "Rodney...God. Please...."

And in the next moment, Sheppard had lunged across the space between them and grasped Rodney's face between his hands.

Rodney's coffee cup went flying, the metal ringing and clanging as it bounced along the floor. Rodney hadn't even thought of shielding. He hoped Sheppard wasn't going to smack him or something, to teach him some sort of lesson.

But Sheppard's hands didn't move. His expression was tortured as he looked into Rodney's eyes. "Please," he said again, softly. "Please, let me. Let me do this--"

And then Sheppard--John--kissed him.

It was fast and almost clumsy, and open-mouthed, mostly because Rodney's own mouth was open from shock. Sheppard kissed him with desperation, as if it was the last thing he'd ever do, lapping at Rodney's mouth as if it was the best tasting thing ever, when Rodney knew full well that all he tasted of was stale coffee.

With that thought, Rodney got over his shock enough to begin to kiss John back, stroking his tongue over that enticing bottom lip, returning the kiss but trying to gentle it, slow it down, savor.

He had started to put his arms around John's waist, to hold him, when John broke away. John took two steps back, eyes huge and dark in his suddenly pale face, hands held out in front of him, as if he was trying to keep Rodney away.

"I'm sorry," he said. He licked his lips. "I'm sorry. That was stupid. I'm sorry. I won't--I can't do that again."

And John turned and ran. He literally ran away.

Rodney was left standing in a dimly-lit, empty hallway, rain drumming on the windows next to his face, coffee cup spinning ever-more-slowly at his feet. His hand went wonderingly to his tingling mouth, where he still felt the phantom press of John's lips, the ghostly sting of his teeth, tasted the sweetness of his tongue.

"What the hell just happened?" he whispered to himself. "What is wrong with him? Why does he keep doing that?"

The rain had no answers.


John was late. He'd decided to cut through town on Route Twelve rather than take the I-80, and the traffic on Pennsylvania Ave. and onto Travis Blvd. was unbelievable. Well, it was a Saturday, and he was headed to the Solano Mall, like everybody else in Fairfield. John told himself not to be nervous. It was just lunch with Skip's weird sister.

He finally made his way through the crowds at the mall to the area in front of Sears where they were supposed to meet, and spotted Barbara, sitting by a potted tree. He recognized her easily--for one, she had a big fabric rose pinned to the vest of her outfit like she'd promised to wear, and for another she had the same blindingly red hair and creamy, freckled skin as Skip.

She was also aggressively female, with a cupids-bow mouth, and bright green eyes. She was wearing a frilly-styled blouse and vest with a long, flouncy skirt, and heels high enough that it looked like she'd be tottering around on them. She couldn't have been less like Artie Shah and still been walking and breathing.

"Hey, are you Barbara?" John asked as he came to her side.

She looked up from the paperback she'd been reading, and pushed up her glasses. "Yeah, that's me. You've gotta be John." She stood up and stuffed the paperback in her shoulder bag. She tilted her head. "Skip's right, that hair is its own life-form. You sure it's regulation?"

John ran a gloved hand through his hair and grinned. He liked Skip because the guy had never seemed to care that John was a Charmer. The one time he'd made himself bring it up, Skip had waved it off: "Whatever, Dude. Just don't talk me into giving you my life savings and we're cool." John figured he might like Skip's sister, too. She looked and seemed just like Skip, in all the ways that were important.

"Sorry I'm late," John apologized.

"Yeah, traffic's a bitch around the mall on Saturdays." Barbara nodded. She shrugged a shoulder at him. "What do you think about lunch? Please tell me we're not eating at the food court."

John laughed. "Nah. I know this cool little place. You'll like it. Come on." He jerked his chin and she fell into step companionably beside him.

They chatted amiably on the way back to his car, and on the way to the restaurant, and soon John knew that Babs worked in the marketing department at the headquarters of Jelly Belly right there in Fairfield, and that she'd gone to the University of California at Davis.

"Oh, one of those candy-eating hippie types, I see." John nodded, mock-sagely.

Babs snorted and batted at him with the straps of her shoulder bag. "What about you, John Sheppard? What's your story?"

John parked the car in the restaurant lot and turned off the engine. "I'm a Charmer, Barbara," he said. "I don't know if Skip mentioned that. If that's a problem for you, I can drop you off back at the mall, or I'll still treat you to lunch and then drop you back off at the mall, and you can tell your mom you made an effort to date. No harm, no foul, y'know?" He never lifted his eyes from the steering wheel in front of him.

"Well," Babs said slowly. "Skip did mention that you were really weird, but now I begin to see just how much. Come on, Dude! We're cool as long as you don't try to charm me into bed--'cause I don't put out on a first date, for you or anybody else."

"I never! I wouldn't!" Startled and horrified, John turned a red face to protest to her, only to be met by her delighted laugh.

"Chill, John! You should see your face," Babs tapped his arm with the straps of her shoulder bag again. Suddenly, John realized that Skip must have told her something about him, because she'd never tried to touch him directly, only with her bag. Her face sobered. "Seriously, Dude. Do you actually think my little brother would set me up with somebody he thought would hurt me? Or who he thought was smarmy? And let me just say that you don't fit the used-car-salesman stereotype of a Charmer at all." She smiled sweetly at him.

"How about President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe?" John asked impulsively. "Everyone says he says he charmed her, and she killed herself when he rejected her."

"Hey! Don't impugn the reputation of our first Catholic president! And he was the first Gifted president, too, so you need to have a little pride there as well, Johnny-boy!" Babs folded her arms over her chest in mock outrage. "Besides, didn't a bunch of clairvoyants say she was murdered by the CIA? Come on, I'm starving!" And she got out of the car and headed right for the doors of the restaurant. John was left blinking at that, and then had to scramble out of the car so that he could catch up in time to open the doors for her.

Yeah, she was just like Skip, in all the ways that were important.


Over the next eight months they dated, John got to really, really like Babs Malloney. In many ways, she was as weird as Skip had warned him about (she believed that the Egyptian gods were aliens from outer space who had once visited Earth, for example), but she was also smart, funny, mocked and teased him mercilessly when he needed it, was a good listener when he needed that, and liked to skateboard and watch college football almost as much as he did. Plus, she always had a bag of jelly beans in her shoulder bag. Who wouldn't like a girlfriend like that?

It kind of shocked John to realize, one day, that he actually had a girlfriend. After Artie's death, he'd told himself he'd never get close to anyone ever again, because he couldn't risk harming anyone with his Gift. In sunny California, with a sunny-natured, freckle-faced girlfriend walking beside him, he realized how stupid that had been. How fucked-up he'd been as teenager, and how he could have let it ruin his life.

He was so glad that he was normal, that everything was okay.


"All right, all right, all right. Listen to me. Listen to me," Sheppard said. He was kneeling in front of Brendan Gall, ripping pieces of the cocoon off his face, his movements surprisingly gentle despite his obvious agitation. "You're still here. Can you move?" Rodney could tell by the cadence of his voice that Sheppard was charming him, just a little bit, directing Brendan's attention towards Sheppard and away from his terror and pain. Rodney wanted to tell Sheppard that was a stupid idea--Sheppard couldn't afford to waste his energy, not with a pissed-off Wraith freshly-fed and wandering around--except he saw the way that Gall relaxed slightly, and he was too grateful to Sheppard to say anything.

"Nothing below my shoulders," Brendan said. He was still gasping and sobbing, but he wasn't hysterical anymore. It was something.

"I'm sure the paralysis is just temporary," Rodney said. He had no idea if it really was or not, but there was no way in hell he was saying that. "You'll be all right in a few hours."

It didn't surprise Rodney much that Brendan completely ignored him. "I told--I told him where we left the Jumper. He took my remote," he said, in his small, sick voice.

That was bad. That was really, really bad. Rodney could see Sheppard's reaction to that, in the way he pulled his head back, like he didn't want to have heard it. It was pretty much what Rodney felt.

"He won't be able to fly it," Rodney said quickly, as much to assure himself as Brendan that Brendan hadn't just fucked them all. It's not his fault, Rodney reminded himself viciously. The Wraith was sucking the life out of him. What the hell would you have done? Rodney didn't even want to think about it, but he wasn't like Sheppard. He was fairly sure he would have told the Wraith anything.

"Do we know that for a fact?" Sheppard asked, looking at him.

Well, no, they didn't, but it was a reasonable assumption and Rodney said as much. "I'm sure the Wraith were the main reason the Ancient technology only works if the operator has the specific gene." It only made sense, after all--why prevent anyone from using the technology if that didn't include the Wraith?

Rodney was hoping that would mollify Sheppard, because he had a very bad feeling Sheppard was going to go after the Wraith. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to work.

"Either way," Sheppard said, "he's still going to have all of our weapons, food and water."

"Who cares?" Rodney snapped at him. Elizabeth would send another jumper for them when they failed to make the check-in. It wasn't like they were going to be stuck there. Rodney figured they could lose a few supplies, maybe even a jumper, if it came to that. None of it was worth risking their lives over. Sheppard's life over.

"What if he can use our subspace radio to signal his friends?" Sheppard asked, and fuck if it wasn't the one thing Rodney was hoping he wouldn't.

Please stay here, Rodney pleaded silently, almost wishing John could hear him, could know how much he meant it. Stay here. Stay with us. Stay with me.

"He might be able to do that," Rodney admitted. He didn't think the Wraith could, but then again, he hadn't thought there was anything left alive in the crashed ship in the first place, and look how well that had turned out.

He knew, even as the words were leaving his mouth, that it was the worst thing he could have said. There was no way Sheppard was going to stay in the Wraith ship, after he'd heard that.

"Not if I can get there first," Sheppard said, and he was moving as he spoke, getting to his feet and turning to go.

Rodney stepped in front of him. "He's got a head start!" he blurted, stupid with desperation. Stay here!

"I can be pretty fast," Sheppard responded immediately, as if 'pretty fast' meant he could outrun a Wraith.

"Elizabeth will send another jumper." Rodney tried to reason with him, knowing he was going to lose even before he opened his mouth. "We just need to wait longer--"

Sheppard's expression hardened. "Stay with him," he said, voice low and commanding and angry.

And Rodney knew, with absolute certainty, that Sheppard was trying to charm him. It was the intensity behind the words, almost like a physical force. He'd suspected it before, when Sheppard was dying on the jumper. But this, this time he knew.

"Don't waste your energy," Rodney snarled at Sheppard, truly angry now in a way he hadn't been even in the face of Sheppard's determination to race unthinkingly into danger. "You know that charm crap isn't going to work on me."

Behind them, Brendan begged Sheppard not to leave them, but Rodney knew it wouldn't matter. Sheppard wouldn't listen.

Sheppard blinked, and then had the grace to look chagrined for all of a second, before he went on as if he'd never tried to use his Gift at all. "He killed Abrams!" Sheppard exclaimed, as if Rodney had somehow managed to forget that, and all he'd needed was a reminder and he'd be more than happy to let John run off to die.

What the fuck are you playing at? "Well, I'm as sorry about that as you are!" Rodney shouted at him. Because he was, God, he was. "But just because we both made an error in judgment--"

"I don't have time to argue about this!" Sheppard shouted back, and Rodney knew he'd lost, there was no way he could convince Sheppard not to do this, there never had been. "Now set your radio to channel two, but don't use it 'til you hear from me," Sheppard said, glaring at Rodney the whole time, as if Rodney had been doing something terrible, by wanting Sheppard to survive.

Then he dodged around Rodney and ran down the corridor, out of the ship.

Rodney hollered after him (Major! Major!), even though he knew it wouldn't make any difference. And it didn't, Sheppard never looked back.


"I know you want to get out there and help him," Brendan said a long time later, after Rodney got to hear Sheppard--who had already said he 'took some fire' (because that was apparently easier to say than 'the Wraith shot me') and was quite possibly bleeding to death--almost blow himself up over the radio. "There's five other realities where you're already gone by now."

"What? Me go up against a Wraith? Are you kidding?" Rodney snapped back almost automatically. He didn't ask why the alternate versions of him had already left, since none of the reasons he could think of were ones he particularly wanted to have confirmed. "And stop wasting your energy." He blinked, thinking. "Unless there's an alternate reality where Sheppard's already killed the Wraith and you can tell me how he did it. That would be good."

"Let me look," Brendan said, and he closed his eyes before Rodney could tell him to wait, that it was only hypothetical. "Well, here's one where Sheppard does get blown up, I think," Brendan reported. His eyes were moving rapidly under his horribly wrinkled lids, as if in the midst of a particularly vivid dream. "At least, he never responds when you--the other Rodney I mean--tries to contact him. Maybe he's just unconscious."

"How is that helpful?" Rodney barked in stunned, horrified incredulity. He had an instant, hideous image of Sheppard, lying burned and shattered in the sand, the Wraith looming over him, then shoved it aside as hard as he could.

"Sorry," Brendan said faintly. "It was the first one I saw. It's getting harder to pinpoint them."

"Stop using your Gift!" Rodney shouted at him. "Sorry, sorry," he said quickly, much more quietly, when Brendan looked at him with startled, milky eyes. "You need to conserve your strength," Rodney explained needlessly. "For when the Major gets back with the jumper."

"I know you really want to go out there," Brendan said.

"Shut up!" Rodney snapped. Because he did, God, he did, but he couldn't. Not with Brendan lying there immobile and helpless and probably dying, with one lousy handgun he could barely even grip in his hand to protect himself.

"I'd say you've changed," Brendan continued, despite the fact that each word was obviously causing him effort, "but you've really always been like this. I just don't think you ever realized it." His eyes were still closed, still moving as he skipped from reality to reality.

"Will you stop?" Rodney demanded miserably. "You're killing yourself!"

"Did you know that there's a reality where Atlantis didn't rise when the shield failed?" Brendan asked conversationally, as if Rodney hadn't spoken. "I suffocate in that one," he added, and Rodney turned his face away, wincing. "I'm in one of the jumpers in the jumper bay, but there's no one who can fly it. You stay in the control room." Brendan took a few painful breaths. "First you try to open bulkhead doors that've closed all over the city, trapping people in the flooding sections. When that doesn't work, you try to open the hatch in the jumper bay, so we can get out." Rodney still wasn't looking at him, but he could hear the praise in Brendan's tired, breathy voice. "You could leave, but you don't. We hear you over the radio, trying to help us until you drown."

"I don't want to know this, Brendan!" Rodney shouted. "Why are you doing this?" he asked, pleading. "Stop doing it!"

"What does it matter?" Brendan asked, grinning weakly, though at least he opened his eyes. His chest was heaving, like he couldn't force enough air into his lungs. "You and I both know I'm not going to make it."

"Stop being so dramatic!" Rodney said. "You're getting stronger by the minute." It was a lie, of course. Rodney knew it was even as he said it. Brendan wasn't being dramatic; he was just telling the truth.

"I've never felt so weak," Brendan said.

"Then stop using your Gift!"

"I'm dying, Rodney," Brendan said quietly. "I can feel it."

"Stop it!" Rodney said again, uselessly.

Brendan took another few labored breaths. "There's no reality where I survive this, Rodney," he said gently.

"How do you even know that?" Rodney demanded. "Your Gift works concurrently!"

"Rodney...."

"Listen to me," Rodney growled, "All you need is a good meal, a pot of tea, and to stop looking at other realities. This is the only reality that counts, Brendan! It doesn't matter how many times I--an other Rodney aban...leaves, or, or how many other Brendan Galls are dying. You are the Brendan Gall here, and you are the one who's going to live, all right? Just--just stop using your damn Gift, and, and being so fucking morbid, and you'll be fine."

Brendan let out a wheezing laugh, but before he could respond Rodney heard something on his radio, another explosion. He turned away from Brendan and threw himself to his feet instantly, instinctively pulling his gun.

John, he thought. No, no. "Did you hear that?" he asked Brendan, voice small.

"No," Brendan said. But of course the Wraith had taken his radio.

Rodney fumbled his lifesigns detector out of his tactical vest, having a sudden, awful idea. Maybe what he'd heard hadn't come from his radio at all. "I thought I heard something," he said. "Maybe there's another one hibernating."

"No," Brendan said. "I haven't seen any others in any reality."

"Yet," Rodney said, but the lifesigns detector showed nothing. It didn't mean there wasn't another Wraith, but at least it would still be hibernating.

But maybe it had been Sheppard. Maybe he'd managed to blow himself up for real this time. "It's been too long. I think the Major could be in trouble," Rodney said.

"Rodney," Brendan panted. "Go. Just go. Save the day."

Rodney turned to look back at Brendan, stricken. It felt like he was being torn in half. "I can't leave you here."

"Rodney," Brendan said, insistent. "It doesn't matter." He smiled, and it was so pained and brave it broke Rodney's heart. "I'm dying, Rodney. Here. Every reality. I'm dying." His eyes slid shut again, began flickering back and forth. "Just go."

Rodney hesitated. "I'll leave you my glucose pills." He had to cough, because his voice was so faint.

Brendan grinned his thanks. His teeth were very white next to his ashen skin. "Don't waste them."

Rodney swallowed. "I--I'll be back as soon as I can," he said.

"I know." Brendan gave him a tiny nod, he kept his eyes closed. He was still smiling, like forgiveness. "Save the Major."

Rodney jogged out of the Wraith ship, then broke into a full run. He left Brendan behind, drifting through all his possible presents, dying eyes locked on his alternate fates.


Rodney ran like hell, hoping with every heavy, painful beat of his pounding heart that Sheppard and the Wraith would still be near the jumper, that Sheppard would still be alive. He wished he had something better than a single handgun, but the only other weapon was Brendan's, and Rodney would never have taken that from him, even if Brendan couldn't use it.

Rodney hadn't envied Samantha Carter in awhile, but now he wished more than anything he could shoot force bolts, too, even if it would nearly kill him the way it always nearly killed her. At least with a Gift like that he'd surely get the Wraith first.

Maybe he'd be able to shield Sheppard, though. That would be something. That would be good.

He arrived just in time to see the Wraith--tattered and massive and scarier than any other Wraith Rodney had seen, and he figured he'd already seen too many--raise his arm to backhand Sheppard (and had Sheppard just attacked the Wraith with a knife? Had he lost his mind?), and Rodney used his Gift to shield the Major without even thinking about it.

The Wraith's howl of shock and pain when his hand hit was incredibly gratifying. The fact that Sheppard was still standing, looking stunned but mostly fine was even better.

The Wraith, enraged, hit Sheppard again, and again, and again, screaming in mounting fury as his fists did nothing. Rodney took advantage of the Wraith's distraction to aim his gun.

He had a second or two to be pleased when all his bullets hit, and then the Wraith staggered around, bared all his shining shark teeth, and began plodding towards him.

"What do I do now?" Rodney called to Sheppard. He didn't want to shield himself in case the Wraith decided to go back for Sheppard, but all he had was the single handgun, which was feeling more and more pathetic the closer the Wraith got.

"Keep firing!" Sheppard hollered back. "Everything you've got!" And then Rodney stopped paying attention to him, so he could keep shooting the Wraith.

All of his bullets kept hitting, which was cool, but they didn't seem to do anything other than vaguely slow the Wraith down. He had a moment of panic when he ran out of bullets, until Sheppard yelled at him to reload. (Reload! Of course, reload! Great idea!) And still the Wraith kept coming.

Rodney heard Ford on his radio, but he was too busy shooting to pay attention. And then Rodney's bullets ran out.

"No more bullets!" Rodney yelled.

"Shield yourself!" Sheppard bellowed, and Rodney did as he was told, used to obeying Sheppard in the field by now. It wasn't like it was a bad idea anyway, considering the Wraith was still limping towards him, grinning in malevolent silver.

Rodney waited, still holding his useless, empty gun, scared out of his fucking mind, even though he knew intellectually that the Wraith couldn't actually touch him. He just hoped he could keep up the shield version of monkey-in-the-middle long enough for the reinforcements to arrive.

And then Sheppard apparently turned suicidal and ran straight at the Wraith.

"Don't shield me!" Sheppard yelled, and Rodney watched in shocked horror as Sheppard whipped the Wraith along his back with the butt of his handgun. The Wraith startled, then whirled around and swung at Sheppard, but Sheppard ducked and the Wraith missed.

But the Wraith didn't miss when he grabbed Sheppard by the throat. Rodney heard Sheppard's truncated cry as the Wraith lifted him, then held Sheppard up at arm's length. He shook him in both hands like a recalcitrant cat, snarling up the Major in rage. Sheppard had his hands around the Wraith's wrists, his dangling feet kicking at him ineffectually.

"No!" Rodney threw his Gift around Sheppard, and the Wraith dropped him with a hiss as the shield burst gold under his hands. Sheppard fell limply to the sand, his legs folding under him and scattering streamers of gold. He lay there on his back, unmoving. Rodney had no idea if he was even still alive.

The Wraith tried to kick Sheppard, but Rodney was still shielding him, so the only result was a flurry of gold streaks and the Wraith howling in pain. Then he growled and turned around again, grinning.

The Wraith lurched towards him, and Rodney's heart clenched in terror. He had no way to defend himself at all now, and he didn't dare leave Sheppard unshielded, not with the Wraith so close to him.

Suddenly, a cloud of the tiny light bugs swarmed around the Wraith, and he stopped to snatch them irritably out of the air. Rodney blinked in surprise, wondering what the hell was causing it, when he realized that the bugs were concentrating on something brown stuck to the Wraith's armor.

It looked like a Power bar.

Which meant that Sheppard had put it there on purpose, when he'd rushed at the Wraith in his useless attack. Which meant....

"Ford!" Rodney shouted into his radio. "Lock onto the bugs! I mean," he said, thinking frantically when Ford only responded with confusion, "the biggest lifesign! Lock onto the biggest lifesign and fire!"

"Negative," Ford said. "You're too close!"

"Just do it, Ford!" Rodney screamed at him. "Do it!"

"Major, run!" Rodney yelled, then he turned and ran himself, but not too far. He raced behind a nearby dune, but stayed standing so he could see overtop it, looking for Sheppard.

Sheppard was still on the ground, far too near to the Wraith. He rolled over ponderously as Rodney watched in horrified dismay, sending up rivulets of gold as the shield surrounding him touched the sand. Sheppard tried to gather his feet under him, but barely managed to stumble two steps before he collapsed back to the ground. And now Rodney could see the orange streak across the horizon as the drone rocketed in.

"Oh, God," Rodney whispered. His heart was beating so fast it felt like he couldn't breathe. The Wraith was snatching at insects, oblivious to his own destruction and the Major still within grabbing distance, with only Rodney's shield protecting him.

Sheppard was still on the sand, moving feebly, splashed with flashing gold.

Rodney gritted his teeth and screwed his eyes and his fists shut tight. He concentrated on his Gift as hard as he could, shielding John. He heard the drone hit, and the explosion.

And then the world vaporized, in noise and pain and light.


The noise was unbelievable. Sand exploded up into the air, followed almost instantly by fire. John Sheppard didn't feel a thing.

Now he just lay in the sand, gulping air and willing away the black spots clouding his vision. He was exhausted, and his throat hurt like hell. His arm where the Wraith's bullet had grazed him felt like it had been dipped in acid.

He blinked when the radio in his ear crackled. "Sir, this is Ford. The target is gone."

The target, John thought dazedly. He didn't remember ordering Ford to fire. "You got the Wraith?"

"That was a Wraith?" Ford sounded surprised. "Yes, sir," he said a moment later. Then, when John didn't answer him, "Sir, are you all right?"

"Getting there," John said. He pushed himself onto his knees, then when it didn't make him feel worse, levered himself onto his feet. That was mostly okay, too.

"I can see you moving now, sir," Ford said, and John thought he could hear a bit of awe in the Lieutenant's voice. "Were you right next to the explosion?"

"I guess I was," John said. He turned in a small, only slightly unsteady circle, getting his bearings. He was standing in a shallow crater, surrounded by what had to be charred bits of Wraith. Nothing had touched him.

John blinked down at his body. Aside from the damage he'd taken from the Wraith, he was completely unhurt. "Huh. I guess McKay shielded me."

"Major," Teyla said, breaking in suddenly. "Is Dr. McKay all right? We have heard nothing from him."

John's head shot up. "McKay!" he yelled, ignoring the pain it caused in his throat. He turned in another circle, trying to see him. Nothing, but he was probably behind a dune or a rock. He had to be all right--he'd been able to shield John, hadn't he? "McKay!"

No answer.

"Do you have his lifesign?" John demanded. Jesus, he thought. McKay couldn't be dead while he was standing here fucking chatting--

"He's due West from your position," Ford said quickly. "About six meters."

John had already found the footprints, and the dune they led to. He ran.

McKay had chosen a pretty damn small dune to hide behind, but at least it had done the trick of protecting him from the blast and flying chunks of Wraith. McKay was lying crumpled on his side, like he'd fallen forward into the dune, then slid down onto his side. He was facing the dune, covered with sand. It looked like he'd barely avoided suffocating.

"Rodney!" John dropped to his knees next to McKay's head. He hesitated fractionally, then grit his teeth and wiped McKay's face with the palm of one gloved hand, not letting his fingertips touch him, trying to clear as much sand from McKay's nose and mouth as he could. When his hand alone wasn't working well enough, John splashed water from his canteen into his palm, then gently wiped McKay's face again, doing his best to not get any mud into McKay's nostrils.

"Major." That was Teyla, sounding worried. "We will arrive in sixteen minutes. Is Dr. McKay all right?"

"No," John said tightly. McKay was unconscious, completely limp. He didn't react at all to what John was doing. "He's unconscious, and he's sweating, a lot." John closed his eyes, took a breath, then gently pressed his fingers to McKay's neck, looking for his pulse. "His pulse is really fast," he said. "I think he's in hypoglycemic shock."

"Major Sheppard, this is Johansen." And John thought thank God, as he heard the heavy Danish accent. "Can you tell me what happened?"

"He shielded me from the drone," John said. "I was right next to it when it hit."

He could practically hear the medic wincing in the silence.

"I think your assessment is correct, I'm afraid," Johansen said. "Is Dr. McKay responsive at all?"

"No," John said. He moved McKay carefully onto his back, then pulled his tac vest open. John rubbed his knuckles along McKay's sternum, probably twice as hard as he needed to. McKay didn't so much as twitch, despite the pain it had to cause him. "I just did a sternum rub--he didn't react to it."

"Okay." Johansen's voice had taken on the particular calmness that seemed to be specific to medical personnel in emergencies, regardless of where they were from. "Do you have his Glucagon injector?"

"Yeah, yeah," John said quickly. He began digging through McKay's vest pockets, grateful to have something he could do, furious at himself for not using it immediately; he'd been trained on how to deal with hypoglycemia in the field. His hands were shaking with adrenaline, but it wasn't too bad--he didn't spill anything out of McKay's vest pockets. "Come on, come on, come on." The pen wasn't where he expected it to be. McKay had organized his tac vest to some arcane sequence John couldn't even guess at, but it meant he had to go through four pockets, snatching out the contents and flinging them to the sand, before he finally found the Glucagon pen, nestled next to the epipen McKay carried around in case of allergic reactions.

John grabbed it in triumph, snapped off the top of the case with his teeth, then pushed up McKay's sleeve and plunged the Glucagon into his upper arm.

"Okay, I did it." He threw the empty injector away, then sat back on his heels, and pushed his fingers through his hair. John was panting, and his heart was hammering like he'd just run a marathon. Don't die. God, please, Rodney. Don't die. He checked McKay's pulse again, but it hadn't changed. "I'm moving him onto his side," John said. He rolled McKay gently back onto his left side, making sure his face was well clear of the sand. McKay was still sweating. His hair was wet with it, sticking to his head and muddy from the ground. His skin was cold.

"Good, very good," Johansen said. "You should see some improvement in about five minutes."

"I know." John tried very hard not to snarl at the medic. Five minutes. It might as well have been five fucking years. He glanced at his watch. It hadn't even been two minutes since Teyla had told him how long it would take the jumper to land.

He checked McKay's pulse again, no longer caring if he was touching his skin or not. It was too late to worry about it, anyway.

"His pulse isn't any slower," John said. If anything, it felt like it had sped up, but that might have been his imagination.

"Settle," Johansen said, an almost perfect imitation of Carson. "Give him a few minutes."

Two minutes after that, McKay started convulsing.

"No! No, no!" John reached for McKay automatically, then yanked his hands back. You weren't supposed to restrain someone if they had a seizure, it might hurt them.

"What? What is it? Major?" That was Teyla, speaking faster than Johansen could.

"Rodney's seizing!" John shouted. McKay was shaking violently. John had to shove himself backwards to avoid being hit in the stomach by one of his flailing arms.

"That's not good," Johansen said.

"Fucking right it's not good!" John yelled, lashing out at Johansen because there was no one else and he was terrified. He clenched his fists until his fingers ached, watching helplessly as McKay's brutal tremors went on and on and on. "I gave him the Glucagon--this shouldn't be happening!" He definitely remembered that much from his first-aid training. If someone was in hypoglycemic shock and they had a seizure, it meant they were getting worse, not better. And after seizure, came coma. And after coma, death.

Death. "Johansen," John said, with a brittleness that was maybe a breath away from screaming, "McKay's dying. Tell me what to do."

The second of silence on the other end of the radio sounded like the end of the world.

"Do you have another injector?" Johansen asked finally. His calm had disappeared.

"No," John ground out. "He was only issued one. I don't have any more."

"I was afraid of that," Johansen said quietly. "Is he still seizing?"

"Yes," John said through his teeth. He checked his watch again. "It's been over a minute."

"Okay," Johansen said, and it felt to John like he could hear the growing panic thumping like a train through the medic's head. "It should stop in another minute. Then put him on his side."

"Fine. Then what?" John barked. His eyes were fixed on McKay, watching him shake. It looked like it might be slowing down. Maybe. There was thick white foam sliding out of McKay's mouth, mixing with the sand.

"Then nothing," Johansen said. His voice was stricken, as helpless as John felt. "I'm sorry. There is nothing else you can do, not while he's unconscious. We'll be there in eleven minutes."

Eleven minutes. More than long enough for someone to die.

"What do you mean, 'nothing'?" John reached into his own tac vest pocket, finding his blister pack of glucose pills. He yanked it out and began snapping the pills out of the foil. "I've got sugar pills, I'll give him those." Maybe he could dissolve them in water, pour it into McKay's mouth....You weren't supposed to do that, if someone was unconscious, but there had to be a way, John had to do something--

"No, don't!" Johansen's shout was startling. "You'll choke him, Major! Don't give him anything!"

"Then what the fuck am I supposed to do, Johansen?" John yelled. "He won't stop shaking--what am I supposed to do?" He realized he was crushing the pills in his hand, then flung them away with a cry of impotent rage.

"Major!" Teyla was nearly yelling herself. "We are all worried about Dr. McKay! You must keep calm if you are to help him."

"I can't help him!" John screamed. He began gulping air, realizing he was on the verge of losing it. He clenched his jaw until his teeth felt like they were going to crack, making himself gather some shred of control.

McKay's thrashing, finally, stopped.

"The seizure's over," John said softly. He put his fingers to McKay's pulse again. His hand was trembling so badly now he had to force it to stay still. "His pulse is getting weaker." He could feel it, fading under his fingertips.

"Put him in the recovery position, Major," Johansen said, like John wasn't doing it already, shifting McKay onto his side again with as much care as he could.

John wet his hand another time from his canteen, then gently cleaned McKay's face as well as possible. McKay's skin was gray and very cold.

"We're nine minutes out," Ford said. Too long.

"Who's with you?" John asked him with a sudden, desperate idea. "Is Markham flying?"

"Yes, sir," Ford said. "He's going as fast--"

John cut him off. "Can he teleport something down, like a Glucose IV?" He knew the team on the jumper would have one.

There was a pause that felt like half a lifetime, then Markham's voice came over the radio, sounding guilty. "No, sir," he said. "I can't see you. And the distance is too far." John heard the crackle as the sergeant swallowed. "I'm sorry."

"Not your fault," John said thickly. He licked his lips, feeling the rough cracks in the skin. His fingers were still pressed to McKay's neck, monitoring the last seconds of his life.

Nine minutes. McKay looked like he was already dead, like it was just a matter of waiting for his heart to stop.

"Sheppard out," he said, and ripped the radio from his ear. He heard the faint sounds of someone's protest--maybe Ford--as he tossed it to the sand. His throat hurt too much to talk normally, anyway.

"Don't die," he grit out. He moved his hand until it was cupping McKay's neck. "You stupid motherfucker--don't you die."

McKay twitched under John's hand, and John had a tiny surge of mad, disbelieving hope, and then McKay fell into another seizure.

"Rodney!" John yanked his hand back. "No. God, please, no!" But it was useless. There was nothing he could do, except kneel helplessly in the dirt and watch McKay die.

John looked at his hands, fisted in their shooting gloves. The gloves he wore as a warning. Don't touch.

John lifted his right hand to his mouth so he could rip open the Velcro tab at the wrist, then used his teeth to tug the glove off. Once his right hand was free, he tore off the glove on his left hand.

The day was still hot, but John's hands felt suddenly freezing, without the gloves' protection. His fingers looked long and overly thin and useless in the harsh daylight.

McKay was still thrashing in the grips of the seizure. John hesitated, then darted out and grabbed McKay on either side of his head. John didn't try to stop McKay from moving, just kept contact as McKay shuddered.

"Stop, Rodney," John said, using his Gift, concentrating as hard as he could. "Relax." Please, he thought. God, please.

McKay's body tensed and shuddered and then...stopped shaking. Just like that.

John's eyes went wide, then he let lose a single huff of wild, wondering laughter. He blinked back a wave of dizziness. "Yes!" he breathed. He still had his hands on each side of McKay's head, looking down at his slack and ashen face.

"Okay," John said. He licked his lips again, drawing his will back up, focusing. He took a deep breath, then another, then another after that.

Then, "Live," he said, forcing his Gift into the word with every bit of strength he had.


JaegerKorps Sergeant Anders Johansen used to really like his Gift. And then he had volunteered to come to Atlantis.

It wasn't that he hadn't known about his limitations. The first time he'd fainted after using his Gift was when he was thirteen and he'd tried to heal his great-grandmother's broken hip, though in the end he'd managed it. For some reason, knitting bone was always especially difficult.

But it was one thing to know that using his Gift was slow and difficult and constantly exhausting. It was quite another to know someone might well die because he wasn't up to the task of saving them.

Anders had never thought of his Gift as useless, either, and then he'd heard Major Sheppard all but screaming over the radio, demanding that he tell him how to keep Dr. McKay from dying, and Anders had known that even if he'd been there, there was nothing his Gift could do. Even Janet Fraiser couldn't encourage someone to create glucose if there was none left in their body.

It was rare for someone Gifted to burn through every molecule of sugar in their body by using their power, but there were case studies. It had always been after an enormous, impossible effort. And the patient almost always died.

Anders was fairly certain that shielding someone at ground zero of an Ancient drone strike could be considered an enormous, impossible effort. In truth, Anders wasn't sure why McKay was even still alive. He shouldn't have lasted this long--not long enough for there to be any hope. Not long enough for Anders to be sweating with anxiety and swearing quietly in Danish, trying desperately to find a vein in McKay's arm that hadn't collapsed, so he could actually put in the God-damned glucose IV and save the man's life.

Fucking useless Gift. Janet Fraiser could probably have filled fourteen veins with enough blood to get the IV in by now. Anders didn't even dare try one--they had enough problems without him suddenly keeling over, too.

Doctors Gall and Abrams were dead. Major Sheppard had managed to tell them as much when Teyla had asked him. They'd both been drained by the same Wraith Markham had blown up with the jumper drone. At least it meant they didn't have to worry about another of the bastards showing up. At least.

Sheppard could hardly keep himself upright, though he seemed to be perking up a bit after swallowing the handful of glucose pills Anders had told Ford to shove at him. It was an improvement to how they'd found the Major, anyway: on his back next to McKay, breathing shallowly and barely conscious, his gloves lying forlornly nearby. Sheppard's throat was deep purple with bruising, and he was kneeling on the ground, leaning heavily on one of the Marines who had come with them--Smith, Anders thought, or some other really common English name--and the Major looked like he'd fall over if the other man even twitched.

He must have tried to charm the Wraith, and put too much energy into it. Stupid, but Anders was sure it had seemed like a good idea at the time.

He just wished that Dr. Grodin's vision had come sooner. Even ten minutes earlier, and they wouldn't be here, not like this. But Sheppard's jumper was already out of contact when Grodin had told Dr. Weir something terrible was going to happen.

At least Grodin hadn't seen McKay's death, but then apparently all his vision had shown him was a Wraith with both massive hands wrapped around Sheppard's throat. Anders glanced at Sheppard again. That certainly seemed to have come true.

"What're you doing?" Sheppard asked dully. His voice was strained, making Anders wish he'd had time to heal his throat, but Sheppard was also slurring his words, not a good sign, and when the Major tried to reach for McKay, he nearly ended up facedown in the dirt. Smith automatically caught him by his arm and straightened him again. Ford and Teyla were hovering anxiously nearby, and Anders heard them both suck in a breath, but Sheppard didn't react to the touch, any more than he had reacted to leaning on the other man in the first place. Anders wasn't entirely certain that Sheppard was truly aware of what was going on. His attention was completely focused on McKay.

"You need to rest, sir," Ford said, sounding scared and miserable. "Let us take you to the jumper so you can lie down, okay?"

"No," Sheppard said. Anders could see his tiny headshake out of the corner of his eye. "'M'staying. Rodney."

Anders gave an exclamation of triumph as he finally, finally, was able to slide the IV catheter into a vein in McKay's elbow. He made sure the glucose was flowing as fast as was safe, then reached up so he could hand the bag of liquid to Ford, who looked grateful to be able to do something. "Hold this up," he said, and Ford nodded almost frantically.

"Right." Anders let out a huge breath of relief and sat on his heels, wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. He should have taken the time to put on latex gloves before the jumper landed--Beckett would scold him--but he'd been so caught up in the emergency on the surface that he hadn't even thought about it. He gave a mental shrug. All the expedition members were free of disease, and if McKay got an infection, well, that was something Anders' Gift could deal with. Somewhat, anyway.

"We need to get the stretcher," Anders said. Both men would need it. The other Marine whose name was unpronounceable nodded and took off at a run. Anders checked McKay's pulse, though he really didn't expect it to have changed in less than a minute. At least it was still there.

"Will Dr. McKay recover, Sergeant?" Teyla asked him.

Anders sighed and looked at Teyla and considered lying, but then decided that wouldn't be fair to her. "I don't know," he said instead. He gave her a brief, thin smile. "He's stubborn, which I think is why he survived at all, but this kind of exhaustion--"

"No," Sheppard said, and something in his voice made Anders turn sharply to look at him. The Major's eyes were like shards of green stone. "He won't die." He took a breath, speaking obviously an effort. "Won't." Sheppard's expression settled into a glare, undiminished despite his exhaustion. "Fix him."

It was enough of a command that Anders blinked, then had to ignore the sudden unwelcome thought that Sheppard would have charmed him, if he'd been able.

Teyla saved him from answering. She knelt in front of Sheppard, deliberately putting her hands on his shoulders. Sheppard flinched a little but didn't try to pull away, probably because he couldn't move that much.

"You know Sergeant Johansen and Dr. Beckett will do everything in their power to restore him, Major," she said.

Sheppard looked at her, then nodded slightly and turned his head away.

The Marine returned with the stretcher, and Anders gratefully helped him and Teyla gently move McKay onto it. He made sure the IV was working fine, and then took McKay's pulse again. He'd check his glucose levels in the jumper, no point in doing it now.

"It's stronger," he said out loud, allowing himself to grin.

It was easy to pretend that the small, fragile sound Sheppard made when he heard that wasn't actually a sob, just the fatigue, or that it was just the fatigue when Sheppard dropped his head and put his hands over his eyes.

"Help me with him," he said to Teyla and the other Marine, kneeling to lift the stretcher. Teyla and he each took the handles at McKay's head, while the Marine took the feet by himself. Ford walked alongside them, holding the IV bag up so high Anders was a little worried he'd trip.

"We'll give him a minute," he said, loudly enough for Smith to hear, and he caught the man's nod before they'd passed him and the Major. Anders would have to send the stretcher back for Sheppard, anyway.

***

It took a long time for him to touch her, even in the most innocuous of ways. But after weeks of casual brushes-of-fingers and accidental bumps and jostling, and Babs staying exactly the same, John brought himself to actually hold her hand at the movies.

And Babs, bless her, didn't make a big deal of it, just held his hand back and used her other hand to feed him popcorn. Greatly daring, he let himself lick the tips of her fingers, just a tiny bit, with the tip of his tongue. She just giggled silently and squeezed his hand.

The night he first kissed her was the most awesome of his life. He was clumsy and unskilled and he almost came in his pants, he was so excited, but he was happy. And, if her shining eyes and blush were any indication, Babs was happy too. And, just like always, she didn't press him for more that he might be able to give.

She never pushed him for anything, or complained that he was a cold fish, or tearfully asked him "Is it me? Am I not attractive enough for you?" or demanded if he was a fag, like other girls he'd miserably tried to date (because he didn't want the other guys at the base to think he was weird, or anything). Babs seemed content with a slow--really slow--courtship, and letting things happen when John felt comfortable enough to let down his walls.

And so eventually, he did.


"You really need to go back to bed, Major," Beckett said a little less than gently. John heard him sigh. "Don't make me make it an order."

John smiled wanly, though he didn't look up. "I slept for the whole trip back," he said. "I feel like I've hit my quota for the next year."

"Be that as it may," Beckett said, "you've expended an enormous amount of energy recently and you still need rest." Beckett crossed his arms, looking surprisingly fierce. "Do I have to get Dr. Weir in here to back me up on this, Major?"

Whoa, threatening the big guns--Beckett was serious.

"Just five more minutes, okay?" John said. He did turn to look at Beckett then, to give him as bright and sincere a smile he could manage. "Then I'll go back to bed like a good boy. Promise." He was silently pleased that his neck hadn't hurt when he'd tilted his head up. Johansen had done a great job healing his throat and arm, though John didn't remember him doing it. He'd most likely been asleep at the time.

Probably just as well, since Johansen couldn't use his Gift if he was wearing gloves. John tried not to shiver at the idea of Johansen's naked hands on his skin.

I touched Rodney, though. The thought leapt into John's mind again, no less startling for all the times he'd gone over it. He'd touched Rodney without his gloves, and it had been all right. Rodney might even be alive now, because of John, because of what John did.

Beckett lips were pressed together in a thin, disapproving line, but he nodded. "Very well," he said. "Five minutes, but not one second more, Major, or I promise you I'll have you in restraints so fast it'll make your head swim." He turned away before John could reply, shaking his head and muttering to himself. He went to the foot of Rodney's bed, so he could read his chart.

John was sitting next to Rodney's head, his wrists set carefully on the bed rail, his fingers hanging down. Johansen hadn't returned his gloves yet, but John knew there was no point in asking for them back. Beckett refused to let John wear his gloves when he was a patient, even when he didn't have an IV. Beckett said it was in case they needed to put an IV in, and to avoid infection. John had finally stopped arguing, but he still hated it.

John's fingertips were almost close enough to touch Rodney's shoulder, almost. Rodney looked peaceful, under all the tubes and wires, but he was still horribly pale.

"Is that okay?" John asked, gesturing at Rodney with his chin. "Should his breathing be so shallow like that?"

Beckett looked back at him, and his eyes softened. "Aye," he said gently. "It's fine. Rodney's a tough lad. He's taken quite a hit, but he'll recover, provided he gets enough rest. As you should," he added pointedly.

John's relief let him smile genuinely back. "Five minutes," he said.

"Four," Beckett corrected immediately, before he went back to his office. John had no doubt that in exactly four minutes Beckett or one of his staff would be back to chase him into bed, and in truth John was still tired enough that he almost welcomed it.

Except that he wasn't sure he'd been able to go back to sleep, even though he'd seen Rodney. Even though Beckett had pretty much just promised him that Rodney would be fine, and Beckett wasn't the type to promise things that wouldn't happen.

Rodney had nearly died, not even twenty-four hours ago. John had almost lost him. And they'd barely touched.

John let his fingers dip a little lower, until he could drag the very tips back and forth across Rodney's shoulder. He couldn't feel Rodney's skin through the cloth of Rodney's hospital gown. Even so, John's heart sped up, so fast and loud he was sure Beckett could hear it, would come running.

They had kissed, once--he had kissed Rodney once. He knew Rodney wanted him.

He had touched Rodney, for real, down on the desert, and Rodney hadn't died.

"Maybe I can have this," John said, very softly. His breath stirred through Rodney's hair like a caress.

Rodney. God, Rodney.

John stood up. He tried to hold his breath, but his heart was beating so hard that he couldn't. He reached forward and gently, so gently, ran his fingertips down the side of Rodney's face. Rodney sighed in his sleep, like he knew, but he didn't awaken.

Then John went back to his bed, before Beckett came to remind him, and stared up at the ceiling in the semi-darkness for a long time.


The first time John made a tentative move towards making love, Barbara didn't protest, just sighed happily and snuggled closer, allowed him to get bolder. Got surprisingly bold, herself. John had to remind himself sternly that this was a liberated hippy girlfriend he had. The thought made him giggle and Babs took mock affront, tickling him in retaliation until he was shaking with laughter.

That was the first time he had sex, with anything other than his own right hand. In Babs' little apartment in town, on her messy double bed, laughing. It was incredibly clumsy and kind of awkward, and over too soon, and he was afraid that he'd hurt her until he saw she was smiling.

"We'll get better," she told him indulgently, patting his sweaty chest. "We'll practice." She frowned for a moment. "We need to get some condoms before we do that again, though, Johnny. That was--not safe." Her hand slid to her belly.

"Oh!" John said stupidly. "Oh, Jeez, you're right! I promise I don't have any diseases or anything. I've never--" He blushed.

Babs grinned. "Me neither, Johnny-o, or didn't you realize that? A twenty nine-year-old virgin in this day and age! Imagine!" She leaned onto his chest and stroked her hand through his hair. Dazedly, he caressed the soft, soft, pale skin of her back. "I never met anyone before I wanted to do that with," Babs confided, nuzzling into his neck. "You're special, John Sheppard--at least to me. You're amazing."

John felt fear lift the hairs on the back of his neck, but he ignored it.


Rodney yawned widely, rubbing an eye as he padded across the room to open the door.

It had been nearly a week since he'd come out of the coma he'd crashed into after shielding Sheppard from the jumper drone, two days since he'd been released from the infirmary to rest in his quarters, and he was only now beginning to feel normal. Carson said he was doing well--excellently, even, considering what he'd put his body through--but Rodney couldn't help wondering if the doctor was lying just to make him feel better.

Rodney slapped the pad by the door, and it slid open.

Sheppard was standing there, and there was something in his eyes that made Rodney's heart jump a bit, like a little jolt of adrenaline.

"Hey, Rodney," Sheppard said.

"Hi," Rodney said, blinking. He wordlessly stood aside when Sheppard moved, letting the other man into his quarters.

Sheppard walked maybe three steps beyond the doorframe and stopped, just looking at Rodney, not saying anything.

Rodney looked back. His heart was pounding now, so much adrenaline in his veins he didn't think he'd ever need to sleep again. He was thinking of hands held over his heart, his shield between them, a single kiss after a storm. Sheppard running.

Sheppard was always running.

"What?" he asked, and his voice was too tight, not even properly defensive. He couldn't protect himself like this. And here he was, standing in a t-shirt that said 'Entropy Happens' on it and boxers. He could feel the dreaded, hateful heat of a blush creeping up his neck.

Sheppard wouldn't stop looking at him.

Rodney's hands clenched into slow fists at his sides. He wanted to touch Sheppard badly, to kiss him. But Sheppard hated to be touched.

Sheppard didn't answer him. He just kept staring, as if Rodney were some wonderful or terrible object he'd never seen before, or something he had to memorize because it would be gone.

"Sheppard?" Rodney asked. He fought the urge to take a step back, or maybe move closer, he wasn't sure. "Major? Are you all right?"

This time Rodney didn't expect an answer, but he was still surprised when Sheppard stepped forward. They were so close now that it would be nothing to touch, absolutely nothing.

Rodney didn't move. He had a sudden certainty that if he did, if he did anything, whatever...moment this was would break like a dropped crystal and Sheppard would step back, turn and leave. Run away again.

Then Sheppard deliberately raised one of his hands, and while Rodney watched, his heart hammering, Sheppard slid it along the side of Rodney's face, until he was cupping the back of Rodney's skull, his fingers carded through Rodney's hair.

Sheppard was wearing his gloves--he was always wearing his gloves--but his hands were cold. Rodney could feel it distinctly against his skin: the cool touch of the leather and the icy fingertips.

He shivered, but it wasn't from that.

"I touched you, down on the planet," Sheppard said, his voice so sudden in the tense, aching silence that Rodney almost gasped. Sheppard's eyes were still on Rodney's face, dark and intent. "After you shielded me. I thought I'd never get to do it again."

Rodney swallowed. "Why?" His voice was an unappealing croak, but Sheppard didn't react.

"No," Sheppard said. "Don't talk." And he put his other hand on Rodney's shoulder, at the junction where it curved into his neck, and Rodney was shivering again when Sheppard leaned in and kissed him.

It was just as unpracticed as before, almost innocent, but this time Rodney was expecting it, and he responded as enthusiastically as he could, welcoming. He raised his own hands and cupped Sheppard's head in return, making a small, happy noise at the feel of Sheppard's hair along his fingers: thick and coarse and beautifully warm and John.

Sheppard went still when Rodney touched him, and Rodney reflexively tightened his grip, just a little, trying to keep Sheppard from pulling back and running away again.

But Sheppard didn't pull back. Instead he groaned and began kissing Rodney more urgently. His hands moved, tentatively at first, like he wasn't quite sure what to do with them, running along Rodney's back and up and down his arms. Rodney made what he hoped were encouraging noises, and Sheppard growled in return, getting bolder, pushing his palms down Rodney's back until they brushed the curve of his ass.

Rodney moaned in approval, and took it as an invitation to do the same things with his own hands. He caressed the back of Sheppard's neck, traced the arch of one pointed ear, and Sheppard sighed into his mouth. Rodney smiled back, feeling Sheppard's teeth, and then grabbed the collar of Sheppard's jacket, beginning to push it off Sheppard's shoulders.

Sheppard grunted in obvious disapproval, and gave his shoulders a shake, as if trying to throw Rodney's hands off.

Confused, Rodney tried to pull his head back, to ask why Sheppard wanted to keep his jacket, but Sheppard followed him when he moved, pressing firmly on Rodney's shoulders until he backed up. Rodney's knees hit the edge of his bed and he fell backwards onto it, Sheppard following.

It allowed Rodney a moment of freedom, and he disentangled himself, pushing further up on the bed.

"Wait," Rodney said, smiling because he didn't want Sheppard to worry, to think he didn't want this, when he had been wanting it more than anything. "Wait, wait--slow down, we don't have--"

"Shh," Sheppard said, crawling up his body. "Don't talk." He wasn't smiling. His lips glistened as he breathed harshly through them. He looked beautiful and sexy and completely turned on, and Rodney could feel the solid warmth of Sheppard's erection as he moved. But Sheppard was still fully clothed, and though his eyes were wholly black, Rodney could see as much fear as desire in them.

"John?" Rodney asked, suddenly concerned. He tried to move back again, but his head smacked painfully against the wall and he winced.

"Please," Sheppard said. "Don't talk." He was straddling Rodney now, his voice tight and heavy with need. He kissed Rodney again, and Rodney was sure it was at least partially to keep him silent.

It didn't stop him from kissing back, though, or the sounds that escaped his mouth, which he wouldn't have tried to control even if he'd cared to. God, he'd wanted this for so long--Sheppard in his bed, in his arms, the permission to touch.... It might go against his very nature, but he wasn't about to spoil it with words or questions. Not when it was so obvious that Sheppard wanted this at least as much.

Sheppard mouthed his way along Rodney's cheek until he reached his jaw, then licked and nibbled his inexpert way to Rodney's ear, swirling his tongue around the shell in a way Rodney assumed Sheppard thought was hot but was really kind of messy and ticklish, not that Rodney was anywhere near minding. Sheppard lifted his hips awkwardly, shuffling around so he could get his hands between them, and Rodney gratefully raised his own hips when he felt his boxers being pulled down.

He felt leather slipping along the side of his cock and gasped. "Gloves," he panted out, thinking that maybe Sheppard had forgotten them. "You--" but Sheppard made some negating noise and pulled back.

Rodney's eyes flew open. He was terrified that he'd said the wrong thing, or just finally spoken too often and Sheppard was leaving. But Sheppard was just fumbling frantically with the buttons on his trousers, opening them enough to shove them and his boxers down around his thighs.

God, Sheppard was still wearing his boots, Rodney realized, but he was too far gone to even try to care. Instead he reached out and gently gripped Sheppard's cock, and Sheppard's hiss and full-body shudder in response made Rodney's hips buck involuntarily.

Sheppard practically threw himself back on top of Rodney, and began kissing Rodney again, his hands on either side of Rodney's head, his mouth as frantic as his fingers had been.

Rodney grabbed Sheppard's ass and shoved up against his body, manhandling him into the right position so that their cocks rubbed against each other, tight between them. Sheppard sobbed into Rodney's mouth and thrust so hard and fast it almost hurt. Rodney wanted to tell him to slow down again, but he could barely move, and he didn't have the breath for it. Instead he just held on, rising to meet Sheppard's frenetic movement. Kissing and kissing and kissing him, stroking over his ass and his back, underneath his jacket and shirt, as much naked skin as Rodney could touch.

Sheppard pulled his mouth sharply away from Rodney's and pressed his face into the crook of Rodney's neck. Rodney could smell Sheppard's sweat, feel the blast of air along his skin as Sheppard made a keening sound, high in his throat, like pain. His fingers dug into Rodney's scalp, his hips jerking out of rhythm when he came. Rodney moaned at the hot slickness over his groin, and rubbed himself to completion against Sheppard, his come mixing with Sheppard's, staining both their bellies.

Sheppard collapsed on top of him, panting harshly. His hair was wet.

Rodney licked the edge of one sweaty ear, running his hands gently up and down Sheppard's back. It felt like a sauna under Sheppard's jacket.

"Next time, we really need to get naked," Rodney said, and Sheppard gave a short, huffing laugh that sounded so close to a genuine sob that Rodney was a little worried. "Sheppard?" He asked quietly, "you okay?"

There was a long silence, then, "yeah," Sheppard said, and slowly rolled off Rodney until he was lying on his side. Rodney squirmed until he was on his side too, facing Sheppard.

He touched the side of Sheppard's face, just because he could. Sheppard's eyes were closed, but he didn't seem relaxed. His arm was lying tensely over Rodney's side. The leather of the glove was damp.

Rodney bent his elbow and propped his head on his hand. With his other hand he began stroking gently through Sheppard's hair. "That was amazing," he said, which was only a tiny bit of a lie--he'd had better sex, but never with anyone he'd wanted to be with this much--but Sheppard's mouth barely twitched.

"You're amazing," Rodney said, and that wasn't a lie at all.

Sheppard's eyes flew open. He threw himself upright, then shoved himself away from Rodney so violently he slipped right off the bed and onto the floor. He rolled onto his knees, yanked his boxers and pants up and buttoned them with hectic, jerking speed, not looking at Rodney. Once his pants were fastened he practically threw himself to his feet.

Rodney was sitting up himself by then, bewildered and truly worried now, and when Sheppard looked up their eyes caught. Sheppard's face was white, his eyes bright with panic.

"I'm sorry," he said. He sounded like he barely had enough air to force the words out. "Oh, God, I'm sorry!" He turned and all but ran towards the door.

"What? John!" Rodney was scrambling off the bed as he spoke, but he knew Sheppard wouldn't stop, so he threw a shield up, across the doorframe, just as Sheppard swiped his hand over the sensor pad to open it.

Sheppard must have seen the momentary flash of gold, because he stopped before he hit the shield head-on.

He turned around, and the look on his face stopped Rodney dead. He had never seen that kind of terror on Sheppard's face, not ever. Not for anything.

"John?"

"Let me go!"

The barked order was so desperate that Rodney blinked and dropped the shield instantly. Sheppard whirled and fled.

It didn't even occur to Rodney until later, with Sheppard irretrievable, that the Major had probably used his charm on him, so Rodney would let him leave.


John went back to his quarters as quickly as he dared without worrying anyone he might pass in the corridor. He had barely gone inside before he ripped his jacket off and threw it viciously into a corner. He yanked off his t-shirt, swiped it over his belly then hurled it after his jacket. He guessed he still smelled of sweat and sex, but it didn't matter. Beckett would have to know, anyway.

He was freezing, drying sweat prickling like knives, but when he got to the dresser in his tiny closet he had to take a moment, forehead pressed to the cool metal, to shake, breathing through clenched teeth and swallowing hard to keep from weeping.

He'd made a mistake. He'd let himself get carried away and naively, stupidly, believed it would be all right. He'd believed it would be safe. But it wasn't safe. It could never be safe. And now McKay was going to pay for it.

John balled his gloved hands into fists. No. He couldn't let that happen. Not again. Not to McKay. McKay was too important to--to the Expedition. Like McKay himself was always saying, he was a valuable resource. It was John's duty to protect him. Most especially, from John himself.

He clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering as he grabbed the first shirt he could find and yanked it over his head, shoving his arms through the sleeves. It was one of the long-sleeved ones. Good. Maybe he wouldn't feel so cold, that way. And it would make sure no one touched him.

Beckett. He'd go to Beckett. Beckett could fix this. Maybe there was some kind of medicine he could prescribe. Something.

John left his quarters, then stood alone in the cool, brightly lit hallway. He shoved away from his door and moved rapidly toward the infirmary. He clipped his shoulder with the edge of the wall as he turned a corner too quickly, but he barely felt it. He might as well be back at McMurdo. John knew he'd never feel warm again.


"Beckett," Sheppard said, and it was the quality of his voice, like someone treading the fine edge of panic, that made Carson all but drop what he was doing and go to him.

It wasn't terribly late, but the infirmary was deserted for once--no one had come in with anything more serious than a sprained wrist, so there was nobody staying overnight. Carson had even left Anders off early, and he'd realized guiltily as the young man fairly fled, that it was the first time in as long as Carson could remember that the JaegerKorps Sergeant wasn't practically stumbling and gray with fatigue.

Carson hoped he wasn't going to have to call Anders back.

Sheppard was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, zipped to the neck, and his familiar shooting gloves, neither of which was particularly unusual. But his hair was damp, probably from sweat, since Carson could see beads of it on Sheppard's temples, though his face was almost startlingly pale. He was breathing fast, like he'd come to the infirmary at a dead run.

Sheppard was shivering, despite the heavy shirt, minute trembles wracking his whole body. It was as if Carson were watching the man calmly freezing to death.

"Good Lord, Major," Carson said, the words out of his mouth before he could censor them. "Lie down--I think you're in shock." Carson automatically reached for Sheppard's arm to steady him, but Sheppard flinched and jerked back.

"You shouldn't touch me," Sheppard said. His voice was low and ragged, nothing at all like normal. His eyes were huge.

Carson obediently pulled his hand away. "I really think you should lie down, Major," he said carefully. "Can you tell me what happened? Are you injured?"

Sheppard just shook his head numbly. "No," he said. "I'm fine. It's not for me." He was looking at Carson straight on as he spoke, and moved his arms behind his back in what Carson recognized as 'at ease'. Sheppard's face was almost expressionless, except for the quiet sheen of horror in his eyes. He took a few more too-fast breaths. "You need to get Rodney down here," he said. He shifted his gaze to somewhere over Carson's shoulder, like a private giving a report. "I used my Gift on him unintentionally. You have to help him."

Carson stared at Sheppard, feeling the unpleasant and all-too-familiar clench in his belly as his adrenal gland went into mass-production. He thought about back in Antarctica, when he and Sheppard had first met, how worried he'd been that the Major would use his Gift on him out of fury, charm him into harming himself. Rodney had scoffed at him about that. He had been adamant that Charmers were far less dangerous than most people believed.

It seemed like Rodney was wrong, after all.

Part of Carson wanted to grab Sheppard by the scruff of his neck and shake him until he confessed what he'd done to his friend, but even if that could somehow help the situation, there wasn't time for it. Sheppard's reaction alone made it frighteningly clear that Rodney was in danger.

"Why isn't he with you?" Carson asked, and he couldn't keep the accusation out of his voice, even as he tapped the earpiece of his radio.

Sheppard just shook his head minutely. "I couldn't," he said, voice weighted by guilt. "I'd make it worse."

Carson felt his eyes widen at Sheppard's admission. What the hell had he done to him? "Rodney, this is Carson. Come in."

Carson had been half-expecting to hear weeping or incoherent screaming on the other end of the radio. Or worse, nothing at all. His next move would have been to wake Corrigan, make the Anthropologist use his Gift to find out where Rodney was. He'd been expecting to be scrambling for his emergency medical equipment, poised to run to the scene of some irretrievable disaster.

Instead, he got a tense, irritated, "What?" in return from Rodney, sounding completely normal.

Carson might have felt relieved, if Sheppard hadn't been standing there looking like his world had just ended. Even if Rodney sounded the same, it didn't mean that something wasn't still wrong. "You need to come to the infirmary right away," Carson told him. He didn't say why because it was a public channel.

"Why?" Rodney snapped back at him. "You--" He broke off, and Carson could practically see his thoughts turning, changing direction. "Wait," Rodney said, and Carson could hear the sudden snap of complete focus in his voice. "Is Sheppard with you? Is he all right? I've been trying to call him, but I don't think he has his radio. He was acting--"

"The Major is fine," Carson said quickly. His eyes flickered to Sheppard as he lied. Sheppard was still standing at ease like he was in the middle of an official reprimand; his eyes fixed on some distant point Carson didn't want to think about. Sheppard was completely motionless, except for the overly rapid movement of his chest as he breathed. "But you're overdue for your checkup."

"No I'm not," Rodney answered, automatically indignant. "You gave me one.... Oh," he said suddenly, wary and alert. "Right. I'll be right there. McKay out."

Carson's connection went dead, and he let out a tiny breath of relief that Rodney didn't put up more of a fuss. Rodney wasn't always subtle enough to be able to know when to play along with other people's pretenses.

"All right," he said to Sheppard. "He's coming here."

"Thank you," Sheppard said. He didn't look at Carson as he spoke. "I'll go confine myself to quarters."

"You bloody well will not!" Carson barked at him before Sheppard could move. He grit his teeth--Sheppard was reacting as best he could to whatever he thought he'd done, desperately trying ameliorate an intolerable situation. It wasn't his fault he was currently embodying everything Carson had always loathed about the military. "What you're going to do is lie down now, or I'm going to call some burly medics in here to hold you down so I can sedate you, y'ken?"

Sheppard just gave him a tiny nod, then went obediently to the nearest infirmary bed. His subdued, guilty compliance made Carson want to wince.

Sheppard lay down and stared up at the ceiling, looking anything but relaxed. Carson quickly adjusted the bed so that his feet were elevated. He considered giving him a mild sedative anyway, just to calm him down. Sheppard was outwardly composed, but his eyes had a terrible wildness, like the tiniest pressure would blow him apart. And Carson didn't have to take his pulse to know his heart was beating much too fast, since it was echoed in the rapidity of his breathing. He was sure Sheppard wouldn't let him touch his wrist or neck as it was.

"Major," Carson said carefully. Sheppard's face was like white stone when he turned to look at him. "You'll have to tell me what happened, Son, so I know what to check for."

"I touched him," Sheppard said. He flexed his fingers against the mattress, as if in unconscious mimicry of his words. "It causes some kind of...emotional damage, I think." The words were said without any inflection, but Sheppard closed his eyes tight for a moment, clenched his jaw so hard that Carson could see the muscles twitch. "He's going to become suicidal."

Oh, Carson thought. Dear God.

Sheppard had slipped into delusion, then. It was disturbingly common among Gifted, especially those with mental abilities. So much so that Carson knew almost every Gifted person at the SGC had been treated for a mental disorder at least once. Daniel Jackson occasionally had breakdowns so severe he couldn't remember how to speak any language at all, and Lt. Colonel Cameron Mitchell had once suffered a manic episode where he was convinced he was completely invulnerable, rather than just especially physically resilient. General Jack O'Neill's psychiatric observations had described him as 'suspicious, distrustful and hostile'.

Among the Atlantis expedition members, Peter Grodin's visions had caused him to collapse twice from mental stress, both times because he couldn't prevent what he'd seen, and Sergeant Campbell took medication to help manage his compulsion to clean every surface before he touched it, which originated from his Gift of tactile psychometry.

Elizabeth Weir had confided to Carson that there were times when she couldn't tell where others' emotional lives ended and hers began. Carson knew she had been anorexic when she was younger, in a desperate attempt to control her body when she felt she had no control over her mind. Considering that the way her Gift worked meant she required at least a thousand extra calories a day to maintain basic health, Elizabeth's willingness to starve herself was a telling barometer of her anguish.

And Sergeant Thomas Bates' Gift had created distrust in him so fierce it constantly bordered on paranoia.

Stress made the likelihood of some sort of break much, much greater, of course. And God only knew Sheppard had been under more stress this past year than most. "Lad," Carson said gently. "You know that's not possible. Your Gift--"

"I know what I did, Carson!" Sheppard levered himself up to his elbows, his previously blank face alight with fury, and Carson stepped back in surprise and no small amount of fear. "Don't tell me it's not possible," Sheppard snarled, then he drew in a ragged breath and looked away. "I'm not crazy. I know what I did."

"How?" Carson asked, bewildered and concerned, and that much more certain that he was witnessing a burgeoning anxiety disorder--or maybe just the worsening of an existing one. Sheppard's aversion to touch had been frequently referenced in his file, but had never been considered severe enough to impair his functioning. That might have just changed. "I don't understand. What did you do to Rodney?"

Sheppard lay down again. "We had sex," he said flatly, and Carson blinked but said nothing. At least that partially explained Sheppard's appearance. "And I, my desire for him must have...triggered my Gift, somehow." It sounded entirely clinical, and Carson wondered how long Sheppard had thought it out, the exact phrasing to best describe the self-recriminations clawing around in his head. "He won't be able to, to survive without me. He'll kill himself."

Rodney rushed in before Carson could respond to that.

He looked only a little better than Sheppard did: unkempt, and like he'd yanked on his uniform over sleep clothes. But the bright combination of fear and anger was entirely him, as were the thought-quick movements and downward slash of his mouth.

Carson was so relieved he ignored the, "What the hell did you do to him?" that Rodney threw at him by way of greeting. That was perfect, normal Rodney, anyway, hiding his concern and compassion under misdirected rage.

"I'm fine," Sheppard said, though Carson knew Rodney had to see that Sheppard was anything but. "Carson will help you."

Rodney gaped at him. "Help me? With what? What are you talking about?" Rodney looked sharply at Carson. "Is he sick?"

"He's convinced he's used his Gift on you," Carson said. He put his hand on Rodney's shoulder, to guide him away from Sheppard's bed. "I'm going to run a few tests to make sure you're all right."

"He thinks he used his Gift on me?" Rodney looked at Carson, obviously confused, then again at Sheppard, reproachfully. "You did make me let you leave, didn't you? Damn it, John, what the hell is wrong with you?"

Sheppard shook his head, looking stricken. "I didn't," he said. "Not then. Before."

Rodney's eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed. "When? What are you talking about?" He turned back to Carson, almost pleadingly. "What's he talking about? He didn't even say anything!" He broke away from Carson's grip and went to Sheppard. He put his hand on Sheppard's forehead. Sheppard flinched violently and made a noise that reminded Carson sickeningly of a wounded animal. Rodney snatched his hand away.

When Rodney looked at Carson again his blue eyes were huge. "Does he have a fever? Carson, what's wrong with him? What happened?"

Carson took a breath, tried not to clench his hands. "That's what I'm trying to find out."

~~~

In the end, Carson had run every test he could think of that had to do with brain function, on both men, and had even used his sight to find out if something at the genetic level had somehow changed in either of them. He'd taken blood as well, against Rodney's vehement protests and despite Sheppard's obvious fear (though having his hands in latex gloves had helped), but he was sure that would test normal, too. Neither of them were sick, much as Rodney was probably hoping otherwise.

As far as every test and Carson's Gift showed, Rodney and Sheppard were still exactly the same as before.

He'd released Rodney back to his quarters, and Rodney had finally gone, though with reluctance. Carson knew he was worried about Sheppard, but Rodney was still recovering from his recent ordeal, and it wasn't too hard to convince him he needed more quiet and sleep.

Sheppard was still in the infirmary. He'd changed into scrubs and allowed Carson to give him a mild sedative--probably because he knew Carson wasn't letting him leave anyway--and he was asleep, breathing slowly, his heart finally in a normal rhythm.

Sheppard was also exhausted, no question. Carson was certain now that the Major hadn't been sleeping much since he'd been released from the infirmary, after he and Rodney had gotten back from that hellhole of a planet. Carson cursed himself for not noticing, but Sheppard was exceptionally good at acting like he was fine. Carson could only hope that Sheppard would be more rational after a full night of sleep.

Now Carson was sitting in his tiny office, reading over Sheppard's file and wondering what he was going to do.

The fact that Sheppard didn't like to be touched had been recorded from his first psychological evaluation when he'd been accepted into the Air Force. It had been attributed to, variously, excessive shyness, low self-esteem, an abusive childhood or an unwillingness to accept his charm Gift. And then it was ignored. There was a small note suggesting extra caution for medical procedures, and that was apparently the end of it. Sheppard's lengthy file had no record of his contact aversion causing difficulties, though at some point another assessment had almost causally mentioned that Sheppard 'didn't have many friends', though this wasn't considered anything to worry about, either. Nowhere had anyone written that Sheppard didn't touch because he was convinced he couldn't control his Gift if he did.

Carson sighed and ran his hand over his face. What had happened tonight might be something entirely new, or something that Sheppard had always believed, just hidden so well that no one had noticed it. In truth, Carson seriously doubted anyone in the military would have cared to notice, so long as Sheppard did nothing too untoward.

Carson wondered if Sheppard had ever mentioned this to Dr. Heightmeyer, since all the expedition members were required to see her regularly. Carson would definitely have to tell her what had happened.

Ultimately, Carson knew, the origin of this particular delusion was irrelevant. Maybe Sheppard had convinced himself out of misplaced guilt that he'd damaged Rodney, since Rodney had almost died shielding him. Maybe this was in response to the emotional turmoil of a new relationship, especially given the stress Sheppard was under at the same time. Maybe it was the stress alone, causing this. As with Elizabeth's anorexia, Sheppard was able to choose, at least subconsciously, not to touch, when he was incapable of choosing nearly anything else that happened to him. Maybe it was a manifestation of internalized homophobia. Certainly Sheppard was about the last person Carson would have suspected of being attracted to other men.

Carson bent his head and began rubbing his temples, trying to stave off the headache he could feel inexorably seeping into his skull. The biggest question was, of course, if Sheppard was going to get over this, or if it was the first sign of an internal apocalypse that would end up with him incapable of functioning--or far worse, becoming a danger to others or himself.

Sheppard would have to go to Kate Heightmeyer in the morning, no question. At least his team was still grounded until Rodney recovered completely, which gave Sheppard two or three days to get back to himself. And Carson could always convincingly bump it to four, if need be. Rodney could only benefit from the extra rest; Sheppard's whole team would.

Hopefully Kate would be able to clear Sheppard for duty, considering there was only Bates or Ford to replace him otherwise. And Carson was sure that having nothing to do would just make Sheppard's problem worse.

Besides, Sheppard had been wearing long sleeves and those bloody gloves since before he'd got to Atlantis. Whatever reason he had for doing so, no matter how insane, really made no difference. Even if Sheppard avoided everyone with greater vehemence from now on, as Carson sadly suspected he would, that wouldn't really change how Sheppard did his job, would it? It wasn't like his position required physical contact.

Sheppard would have to see Kate more often, of course, and Carson would have to keep an eye on him too. At least Carson was sure Rodney would come running to him now if the Major so much as breathed in a way Rodney didn't think was normal.

Ach, poor Rodney, Carson thought. If this had been a relationship, and not just sex, then it could only end badly. If Sheppard was convinced his touch was harmful, Carson was sure he wouldn't go near Rodney again. And Carson was sure that Rodney, for all his bluster and prickliness, fell in love unreservedly. His heart would be broken for a good long time.

Sheppard's too, and Carson realized he didn't even want to imagine that. What kind of life could there be for someone who thought he was too dangerous to love?

Carson closed Sheppard's file without adding anything to it. Breakdowns were so frequent among the Gifted that it would hardly be noted, let alone considered detrimental, but it still seemed unfair to make mention of a mental lapse that could well be gone by morning. And if it wasn't, well, Carson would deal with it officially when he had to, as would Kate, and Elizabeth. Right now they'd just keep closer watch on Sheppard. And they still had medication, if it came to that, but Carson dearly hoped it wouldn't.

He shut his computer down and stood up wearily, grimacing as muscles kept in the same position too long twinged in pain. He wanted to go to bed, but he wasn't going to leave the infirmary tonight.

Sheppard was still sleeping peacefully when Carson checked on him. His eyes were moving under the lids, though he didn't look agitated. Carson hoped whatever he was dreaming about was good. God knew the man deserved at least that.


He and Babs had been sleeping together only a couple of weeks when he got the news.

"I'm sorry, honey," John said helplessly. "I have to go, I've got orders." He looked down into Barbara's puffy, tear-streaked face, and tried to show how frustrated she was making him.

He liked her, he really did, but the new orders were so great--He was getting to cross-train on Army helicopters! He would've thought she'd be happy for him, for this chance to advance his career. Instead, Babs was blubbering because it meant he'd be transferring across the country.

"Come on, Barbara! I'll write, I promise. There's no way we'll lose touch." John stroked back the damp hair from her forehead. "Stop crying, please, honey."

She sniffed and scrubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands. He handed her a tissue, and she blew her nose.

"You promise to write?" she asked in a small voice that didn't sound like the usual Babs at all.

"Of course I will! Every week, okay? Promise," he said, crossing his heart. But he'd already decided it'd be okay if he didn't--Babs wouldn't mind. She never pushed him about anything.


John walked back to his quarters, feeling groggy and a little sick, which he figured came from Beckett's sedation the night before. Instead of feeling better for all the sleep, he felt strangely thick and slow, washed out. He just wanted to get to his room and shower before he had to face anyone. Beckett had kindly woken him up early enough so that John could get back into his uniform clothes and leave the infirmary before all but the earliest shift arrived. Carson had also told him that the official reason for John's staying overnight was exhaustion, nothing worse than that.

John was grateful. He knew Beckett figured John had been suffering a minor breakdown, and John appreciated Beckett keeping his privacy. The last thing he needed was for the rest of the expedition to think their Charmer CO had gone insane, even temporarily.

It had been easy enough, in the light of day, to play along with Beckett's assumptions, too. All John had needed to do was go big-eyed and startled and embarrassed and say, 'I said that? Really?', and Beckett had ended up chuckling and saying he'd been sure that a good night's sleep would set John to rights. The undisguised joy in his eyes at John's apparent 'recovery' had been both scary and humbling.

John still had to see Heightmeyer in an hour, and then once a day for the next two days at least, but John could do that. He'd learned a long time ago how to say what people wanted to hear, and Heightmeyer wasn't Gifted--she'd never know what he was really thinking.

But the most amazing thing, what he could barely believe and what was still making him feel like his insides were melting in relief, was that Rodney was okay. Somehow, despite what he'd done, he hadn't hurt Rodney after all.

It felt like John had dodged a bullet, gotten a reprieve he didn't deserve. Next to that, he could handle anything. He'd happily see Heightmeyer and lie to her every day for the rest of his life, as long as Rodney was okay.

Rodney, who John had to pretend he didn't want to...see anymore, or whatever it was they'd been doing. Fuck. Be with. Anything. John had no idea what he was even going to say to him.

Don't come near me. I'm too dangerous.

So it was probably inevitable that Rodney was waiting by his door, looking freshly-scrubbed and jittery and concerned and uncertain and John wanted him so badly he ached, so badly he had to ball his hands into fists and shove them into his pockets, so he wouldn't try to touch him.

He couldn't touch Rodney again.

"Hi," Rodney said. He gave John an anxious, lopsided smile as he held up one hand in greeting. "I went to the infirmary, before, but the nurse said you'd already left. You, ah, you going for breakfast?"

Rodney's attempt at casual was ridiculous. John walked past him, swiping resolutely at the panel for his door. "No," he said.

Rodney managed to squeeze his way inside before the door could shut him out, and John had to steel himself before he turned around in the still-dark room. His heart was beating so hard it hurt.

"Get out of my room, McKay," he said.

Rodney looked surprised, which was teetering on upset, then he rallied and smiled, like he understood what John had really meant. "Shower. Right. I haven't actually, ah, seen you naked yet. Sure." He gestured vaguely over his shoulder. "I'll just wait outside, then. Say, ten minutes?"

John kept his expression dead; he was good at that. "I'm not going to eat with you," he said. "I don't want you to wait for me."

"Oh," Rodney said, so obviously crestfallen that John had to look away so he wouldn't see it. "Well, I guess that...." He blinked, and John could see his spine straighten, his eyes go from hurt and wide to glaring as he got angry. "Wait, is this about your freakout from last night? Are you still worried you did some kind of sex-induced whammy thing on me?" He held out his arms, as if showing himself off. "Look, for the last time, I'm fine! I'm completely fine!" What's it going to take to get it through your astonishingly thick skull that you didn't do anything to me?"

"This time," John said. "I can't--I won't risk it happening again."

"Nothing's going to happen!" Rodney exploded, clapping his hands against his sides. "Jesus Christ, Sheppard, have you really lost friends to post-coital lassitude? I hate to tell you this, but not even you are that fantastic."

"I'm not kidding, Rodney," John ground out. "And I'm not talking about this. I'm not going to hurt you!"

"You're delusional," Rodney said in quiet astonishment. "Have you told Heightmeyer about this? Because--"

"Rodney, God damn it, leave me alone!" John scrubbed his hands over his face, inhaled the comforting scent of the leather covering his palms. "Please," he said more quietly. "Just go. Just get out."

But of course when he dropped his hands, Rodney was still there, looking defiant and angry with his arms crossed over his chest.

"No," he said. "Not until you start making sense. Charm doesn't work that way. It's not tactile, it's aural. It won't work if you can't hear it."

John shook his head. "Not for me."

"No," Rodney said again, insisting, and John maybe hated him just a little bit for that, for his certainty. John wanted so badly to believe him. "It's impossible. I'm sorry, but there's just no fucking way. Not even for you."

"On the desert planet," John said. He'd crossed his own arms as well; the room was freezing. "When you'd used your shield to protect me from the drone, and you were...you were dying." Even now it was hard to make himself remember, how Rodney had so unthinkingly done that. For him. And how awful it had been afterwards, John watching him die. "I touched you, when I used my Gift. It kept you alive."

John saw surprise flow across Rodney's face. "You used your Gift on me?" Rodney asked. "To keep me from dying? How--" Rodney shook his head, as if physically forcing himself back to their fight. "All that proves is that maybe touch augments your Gift, you idiot," Rodney said, exasperation clear in his voice. "If your Gift even made a difference." He glowered. "Not that I'm ungrateful, but forgive me if I have a bit of a problem with the likelihood of you having impartial judgment at the time. Here," Rodney said. He stepped forward, and again, until they were less than an arm's length apart. John forced himself not to back away. "I'll show you."

He reached out and touched John's face. His fingertips were like fire.

It felt like John's heart stopped. He reacted instinctively, trying to protect them both. He hit Rodney's chest, hard, with the heels of both hands.

The blow sent Rodney staggering backwards. He cried out in surprise, a small, truncated yelp, then tripped over his own tangled feet and sat heavily on the floor.

"Don't do that again," John hissed. He wanted to touch his face, rub his cheek like he'd been stung. Instead he realized that he had his hands up in fists, as if he was preparing for a brawl.

Rodney was still on the floor, rubbing his chest and staring at him. "You hit me!" He sounded more shocked than anything else. "You son of a bitch."

John lowered his hands. They were shaking. "I told you not to touch me," he said.

Rodney climbed to his feet, and John didn't help him. Rodney kept his eyes on John the whole time, his expression the same stunned disbelief, as if this was something even his enormous intellect could never have anticipated.

John put his hands behind his back.

"You hit me," Rodney said again. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"I'm sorry," John said.

Rodney just stared at him, still rubbing his chest, though John was sure it couldn't hurt anymore. "If you wanted to end it," he grit out, "you could have just said something. You didn't have to attack me."

In other, better circumstances John would have just rolled his eyes at the exaggeration, but there were never going to be better circumstances between them now.

"I'm sorry," John said again.

"You're sorry," Rodney repeated, sneering over the word. "You're always fucking sorry. Maybe if you say it enough it'll actually make a difference." He shook his head, a sharp, angry jerk, then turned and walked stiffly to John's door.

"You know what the worst part is?" he threw over his shoulder, "I can't tell if you're just a bastard, or if you're really insane."

He left before John could answer him.

John unzipped the neck of his shirt and pulled it over his head. He meant to throw it into the corner, but it got caught on the back of his desk chair. John walked over to the desk to pick up the shirt again, and then somehow ended up grabbing the chair instead, and throwing it across the room.

It hit the far wall with an impressive crash, then fell to the floor with a loud thunk and rattled as it rolled away. John stared at it until it stopped moving.

Then he went and sat on the bed, with his arms wrapped around his body and staring at nothing.

This is good, John thought. This is the way it has to be.

It was cold, but he was used to that. It felt like he'd been cold for a very long time.

***

Dr. Rodney McKay's face was very easy to read.

Since their first meeting, Teyla had wondered if that was one of the reasons he was so often abrasive and unpleasant to those around him. Perhaps he was aware of how quickly and clearly his face conveyed his emotions, and therefore had decided that it would be safer to appear merely angry, lest he otherwise reveal too much of himself. Certainly, she had soon realized that McKay had far greater depths to him than were evident if one didn't know him well, including far more kindness and gentleness than Teyla thought McKay himself knew. McKay had also a far greater capacity to be hurt than she would have expected, given his apparent arrogance. Which was possibly another reason he seemed to prefer to keep others at a distance.

Teyla had found it oddly appropriate that his Gift was to make shields, since he seemed to feel so deeply in need of self-protection.

She was thinking of this because of the look that had passed across McKay's face when Major Sheppard had entered the briefing room. Teyla happened to be sitting on the far side of the table from McKay, so she had a clearer view of his face than the door, and she did not fail to see how his eyes widened when he saw Sheppard, or how the surprise changed almost immediately to pain before McKay looked away and began pressing the keys to his computer, as if whatever was on the screen was of vital importance.

Lt. Ford and Dr. Weir looked equally surprised, though Weir schooled her features quickly. Ford, however, continued to nearly gape as Sheppard crossed the small space of the room and sat next to her. And Teyla was forced to admit she could not blame the Lieutenant.

Even after her conversation with Sheppard, when McKay had been injured by the suffering Telepath, Teyla still did not truly understand Sheppard's self-proclaimed need to cover most of his body, especially his hands. She had, however, come to accept it as just one of the idiosyncrasies of his nature, much as the excessive joy he took in an overly-complicated game of ball-trade, or the black band he wore on his wrist that seemed to serve no purpose other than adornment. She was now so used to seeing his fingertips, showing like pink shoots above the black edge of his gloves, that she was sure she would be shocked if she ever saw the whole of his hands.

She was shocked now, but that was because she could no longer see any part of Sheppard's hands at all.

The Major was wearing full gloves, encasing his hands entirely in featureless black. He was also wearing his jacket, which was not so unusual, except that this morning Teyla had found the city quite warm and could not imagine being comfortable in the expedition jacket Weir had given her. Everyone else in the room was wearing short-sleeved shirts.

Sheppard's shirt, however, was one that Teyla knew to be long-sleeved, with the fastening that allowed it to be closed high on the neck, which Sheppard had done. That type of shirt was habitual for the Major, Teyla knew, but wearing it under a jacket wasn't. The attempt to cover as much of himself as possible was so evident that for a moment Teyla wondered absurdly why he wasn't also wearing a veil.

Except, perhaps, it wasn't so absurd. Sheppard, unlike McKay, was a master of not showing what he was feeling. But even then, his expression was now so neutral he might as well have been wearing a veil, for all that one could see his face. Or a mask.

He had glanced at McKay as soon as he came into the room, but then just as quickly looked away.

"Feeling a bit chilly are we, Major?" McKay didn't look at Sheppard as he spoke. "Or is this another pathetic attempt to enhance your inpenetratable aura of enigmatic cool? Because you just look ridiculous." There was such acid in his tone that Teyla blinked in shock. She had heard similar words from McKay before, and often directed at Sheppard, but she had never heard him purposely try to wound with them, the way she could tell he was now. Weir had obviously heard the same intent, because she said McKay's name in admonishment, sounding as surprised as Teyla felt. Even Ford looked stunned, and then wary, as if he expected McKay to turn his vitriol on him at any moment.

"Just feeling a little cold, McKay," Sheppard answered easily, as if McKay had asked him a normal question. But Teyla did not fail to see the layer of darkness in his eyes, before they shifted back to showing nothing, and how he still would not look directly at the other man.

McKay snorted by way of answer. "I'll bet." The way he said it made Teyla certain there was some deeper meaning, and she wished she could ask.

"Are you all right, John?" Weir asked him, after glaring again at McKay, and Teyla knew her reason for the question. Sheppard could not have barricaded himself better if he, too, could create shields.

Now Teyla thought she understood why Sheppard had been avoiding her for days--and avoiding all others who knew him well, apparently. He had been hiding. Now he was hiding out in the open. Something was obviously, badly wrong.

But, "I'm fine," Sheppard said, and though his voice was as pleasantly casual as always, his smile was as empty as the rest of his face, and there was nothing near a smile in his eyes. "Like I said, my quarters were a little nippy this morning." He leaned into his chair, placing his arm casually over the back as if he were relaxed and content, as if he didn't realize or care how easily the others would know he was lying. "So," he said, "what's the scoop on PX1-417?"

Weir continued to regard Sheppard for a moment, but he merely stared back coolly, as if challenging her to ask him directly about his clothes, and shortly Dr. Weir looked to her own computer and began the briefing.


Later, Teyla was glad that her people had visited the planet designated PX1-417 before and found it harmless, because she could not remember one word of the briefing, not even what she herself had said. McKay and Sheppard had behaved almost normally, except that each word McKay said to Sheppard seemed to have been chosen to cut, and Sheppard didn't speak directly to McKay at all, except when he was forced to reply. Ford barely spoke, just looking uneasily between the two men, and Teyla could tell how much difficulty Weir was having controlling her anger. When she asked McKay to stay back at the end of the meeting, Teyla well understood why.

Ford fled immediately, which Teyla could also understand. Sheppard too left as quickly as possible, but Teyla ran a few steps and caught up to him.

"I need to speak with you," she said.

Sheppard barely glanced at her. "Can it wait?" he asked, and now his voice was clipped and tight. "I'm kind of busy."

"It can not," Teyla said, and she deliberately grabbed his forearm around his sleeve, prepared to drag him with her if she had to, regardless of who or how many might be watching.

Sheppard flinched, and jerked his arm as if to pull away.

"Teyla!"

"Major," she said evenly, looking up at him.

His face darkened with anger, and Teyla wasn't surprised at how glad she was to see it, to see anything on his face other than the terrible, false disinterest. She could see how his jaw clenched, but when she turned towards the nearest balcony he followed, and she relented and let go of his arm.

When they walked to the railing, he stood nearly a body-length away from her. Teyla didn't try to move closer, since it was evident how much he needed the distance.

"Tell me," she said evenly, looking at his profile, outlined in the sharp morning light. "These clothes you've chosen--what kind of warning is this?"

The sound he made was nothing like a laugh. "It's a little too late for that."

Teyla moved a step closer, then another, relieved that Sheppard didn't move away. "What happened, John?" She asked him.

He still wouldn't look at her, but she could see his gloved hands tighten on the balcony rail, and his throat move when he swallowed. "I made a mistake," he said quietly. There was no expression in his voice, but his eyes were suddenly, briefly liquid before they hardened. "I'm making sure I never make it again."

Teyla thought of McKay in the briefing room, the pain on his face and his viciousness. "Are you sure the mistake isn't what you're doing now?"

She stepped closer and slowly reached out her hand and placed it over Sheppard's. His gloves were smooth. She could feel the heat from his hand through them, and was strangely relieved by that. Sheppard didn't move, as if he were afraid the slightest twitch would be disastrous.

"You shouldn't do that," he said.

"I do not believe you would hurt me, John," she said. She squeezed his hand gently. The muscles felt like stone. "I don't believe you would hurt any of us. We're your friends--let us help you. Why are you dressed like this? What's wrong?"

Sheppard glanced at her, but not long enough for Teyla to tell his expression, though a muscle bunched in his jaw. He pulled his hand away.

"You don't know what you're talking about," he said. He scrubbed his face with his palm, then gripped the railing again, bowing his head. "I hate this fucking Gift," he said quietly.

"What happened, John?" Teyla asked again.

For a moment it almost looked like Sheppard would answer, then he shook his head, pushing himself away from the railing. "Leave it alone, Teyla," he said, though there was no heat in it. "Please, just leave me alone."

He turned, and Teyla watched him walk back into the city, his back as straight and stiff as if he were going to his execution.

***

The first time he saw Skip Mallone again, over a year later, the other man stalked right over and sucker-punched him in the face so hard that John fell to the ground.

"Ow!" he complained, holding a hand over the throbbing in his eye and cheek. "What the hell was that for?"

"For killing my sister, you piece of shit," Skip hissed, an expression of utter loathing on his face.

John blinked with his good eye. "What? What the hell are you talking about? I just read her last letter...." Oh, wow, it had been almost seven months, now. He'd just been so busy, he'd kind of lost track. His blood froze as he replayed what Skip had just said. "Wait! What's wrong with Babs?"

"She's fucking dead, you fucking asshole," Skip said bitterly. "I wish I'd never laid eyes on you! Why the hell did I ever introduce my own sister to a Goddamn, fucking Charmer in the first place? How did you do it? How did you do it, huh? How did you charm her? She thought you were going to get married! She kept waiting for you to ask, for you to send for her to join you. Her and that fucking brat you spawned in her belly! She kept saying that you took your time about everything else, and she kept waiting for one of your letters to have a ring inside it, and then she was going to tell you--"

Skip stopped, swallowing, his eyes going distant. "And then she lost the baby. And she was so sad. So sad, all the time. There was nothing we could do for her. We tried...." Skip's eyes snapped back to John's face. "And then you stopped writing, you fuck."

She'd been pregnant? They'd only had sex a handful of times before he'd gotten his transfer orders. "Skip. What happened? What did she do?" John felt the blood drain away from his face, and he felt dizzy, like he might pass out.

"What do you think? She killed herself. Mom says she just took the pills by mistake. I know better. She just gave up. My beautiful sister...." Skip wiped tears out of his reddened eyes and pointed a shaking hand at John.

"Don't ever fucking cross my path again, or I swear I'll find a way to kill you so they'll never find the body."

John nodded dumbly and watched from the ground while Skip stalked away. It was getting dark. John tilted his head up to look at the sky, and let the tears run into the hair at his temples. Eventually, he'd have to get up before he got mugged, and find some transportation back to the base. Right at that moment, though, his mind just wailed over and over, Sorry Babs, sorrysorrysorrysorry...so sorry....

But it was too late. Just like Artie. John's touch was poison.

I can't, John thought. I can't ever do that to anyone, ever again.


Elizabeth let out a breath and leaned forward so she could rub her temples with her elbows on her desk. She glanced at the time readout on her computer screen and pursed her lips in irritation.

John had two minutes before she'd consider him officially late and give him hell for it. It wasn't as if she didn't understand his reluctance--Elizabeth wasn't particularly looking forward to this meeting, either--but surely he had to understand that his not bothering to be on time was only exacerbating the problem?

Elizabeth let out another breath, this one far closer to a deep sigh. It didn't help that she'd been picking up residual shock and grief from everyone around her all morning. Not only was it contributing to the vicious tension headache she'd been fighting since the nanovirus plague began, but the foreign emotions were so omnipresent and so strong that they kept enhancing Elizabeth's own, to the point that she had found herself hastily smearing away tear-tracks more than once. She knew she couldn't afford to look overwhelmed or out of control--not ever, but especially not right after a crisis of this magnitude--and in the end she'd coped by essentially hiding in her office. At least it meant that there were fewer people near her, and therefore less external emotions to have to deal with.

She knew that John was approaching her office even before the door chimed, because what she was suddenly feeling could only belong to him.

Resignation, annoyance, a bit of guilt, maybe just for being late, maybe for what had forced this meeting in the first place. And underneath, there was the small pulse of sadness, winding through it all like the thread of a melody. It was stronger than it had been for awhile, which Elizabeth was sure came from the loss of five more expedition members, but she had felt it for weeks, inter-cut with minute flares of anger, until she had gotten so used to it being part of John that it seemed impossible he had ever been different.

She knew it had started at the same time John had begun to wear his jacket over his long-sleeved shirt, like a layer of armor, and had replaced his shooting gloves with gloves that covered his entire hand. And Elizabeth knew it had something to do with Rodney, because of how John's emotions always flared up when the other man was around. But Elizabeth had no idea what, exactly, had caused any of it, or what if anything she could do about it.

All she knew for certain was that Rodney was making John sad and angry. Rodney's reaction to John was more complex, but then everything about Rodney's emotions were always more complex. Elizabeth had never experienced someone so mercurial, who could experience so many, often contradictory, emotions at the same time. Having an argument with Rodney sometimes felt like being at the vortex of a hurricane.

Elizabeth took another breath, steeling herself for what she knew was going to be unpleasant, then glanced at the clock on her computer again. John had made it with less than one minute to spare. Elizabeth smirked at what was either John's luck or his temerity, then closed the computer and walked over to her door and opened it for him.

"Hi," John said as soon as the door opened. He had his normal, casual smile, but Elizabeth felt the new wash of anxiety from him as he spoke. She wondered if John had any idea how useless his pretenses were with her, and then decided that he most likely didn't, and she was just as glad for it. "I would've been here sooner," he explained, "but the doc insisted on checking me for radiation exposure." He shrugged, a picture of put-upon innocence, though Elizabeth had no doubt he had taken the longest route possible from the infirmary to the control room. The tiny burst of smugness certainly didn't indicate otherwise. "You know how Carson gets."

"I certainly do," Elizabeth said. She smiled at him, deciding to let him have the minute victory rather than call him on it, childish though it might be. But still. "Thank you for getting here as quickly as you could," she said, as she stepped back and gestured towards a chair, and she grinned inwardly at the brief touch of John's chagrin.

She watched him sit, leaning back in his chair with his ankle crossed over one leg and his gloved hands on the armrests. The gloves were black leather, good quality, shining slightly in the bright light coming through the glass walls of her office. Elizabeth wondered how hot they were, if they were as uncomfortable to wear all the time as they looked. She wondered if John knew how alien they made his hands appear, as if they were prosthetics instead of flesh and bone; as if they didn't actually belong to his body. She wondered if he'd care if he did.

"Are you okay?" Elizabeth asked when she had retaken her seat. She purposely kept her eyes on John's face, far away from his hands. She felt John's anxiety take forefront again, along with the resignation and a new hint of startlement, possibly because of her question. It made her sad to think he'd be surprised that she cared. The guilt, and sorrow, had slid into the distant background.

"Yeah, just a little nuke," John said easily, shrugging, but his relief--doubtless at having survived apparently intact--was obvious. "Nothing, really."

Elizabeth was relieved as well, but she only smiled. She knew John well enough to know that he'd only feel awkward at any overt concern. "The naqahdah generator plan was very clever," she told him. "Good work."

John smiled in reaction, and she could feel his smugness again, only slightly less irritating for being well-deserved. "Thank you," he said with mock formality. "Now, I'm going to bed." He stood to leave, and Elizabeth caught the twist of hope, and was sure it meant John was thinking she might not call him on his actions the way she knew he'd been dreading.

Well, he was wrong. "We need to discuss what happened earlier," she said flatly, no room for argument.

"Now?" John asked, though he turned around as he did. Elizabeth could feel his weariness as well as hear it in his voice, along with his trepidation.

She just looked at him. "That can never happen again." And she knew damn well he knew what she meant.

John looked back at her for a long moment, then came back to the chair and sat down again. "Look," he said, "I'm sorry about--"

Elizabeth interrupted him. "I understand your expertise in military matters," she said quickly, "and I agree that I should defer to that expertise in such situations."

"Thank you!" John said it in a way that made it obvious he only felt she was giving him due acknowledgement. His sense of surprise and vindication were equally clear.

"But," Elizabeth added immediately, "you are not the one who decides what is and what is not a military situation." The return of his chagrin was satisfying. "Now," she continued, "both General O'Neill and Colonel Sumner warned me that you don't respect the proper chain of command."

For a second he reacted like she'd slapped him--the same wide, wounded eyes and a sharp sense of shock and betrayal. The sudden rush of fear was unexpected, however, and almost inexplicable, until she remembered the black mark on his record, and what he'd gotten it for.

"Elizabeth," John said, voice earnest and tense, "I know that sometimes I see a situation a little different than, than other people might, but you've got to know I--"

"John." Elizabeth cut him off. His eyes were still too big, his expression rendered utterly defenseless by what he thought she believed. "I know you didn't use your Gift, John," she said. "Not on me, and not on Sgt. Bates. I would've felt it if his emotions towards you or me suddenly changed. And they didn't."

She saw him swallow, and pressed her hands to the table so she wouldn't sag under the onslaught of his almost overwhelming relief.

She made sure he was looking at her. "Given your record, your holding back like that over something you felt so strongly about means a great deal," she said seriously. "I want you to know that I appreciate it, knowing I can trust you."

His reaction to that was complicated: happiness, irritation, an unexpected trickle of anxiety, pride, and even a flicker of shame. Elizabeth could barely sort them out, let alone even guess at the meanings behind them all. But when he said "thank you," simple and heartfelt, she knew with absolute certainty that he meant it.

"But," she said again, and she could almost hear him groan. "That doesn't change the fact that you still endangered yourself and the lives of many others."

Now there was defensiveness, overlaid with anger. "Because I thought it was the best course of action to take," John said. "And, by the way, I saved your ass."

Elizabeth managed not to roll her eyes, wondering if he was missing the point on purpose, but he was still churning with so many different emotions that it was hard to tell. She settled for, "I know you did. But you have to trust me."

"I do!" Sheppard said vehemently. But what she felt from him said he didn't--not entirely, not enough. It was in the touch of uncertainty, that little bit of doubt.

And there, right there, was the irony. After all her concerns about having Major John Sheppard, the maverick Charmer with a bad reputation as part of her expedition, after her argument with General O'Neill and all her self-recrimination for her lack of faith, Elizabeth trusted John. But John wasn't sure he could trust her. He didn't really think she would make the right decisions.

It was unfair, and it infuriated her, and she had absolutely no idea what she could do to change it.

"Do you?" she asked him, but she already knew the answer.

He never got a chance to respond anyway, because right at that moment Rodney and Carson came in.

And the stab of longing, want, need, that roared out of John the moment he saw Rodney was so deep and so intense that Elizabeth gasped, felt like she couldn't breathe.

There was relief as well--that Rodney was alive, surely--and new, fiercer guilt, like something gnawing, and the sorrow: waves of it so strong it was like drowning, and Elizabeth looked at John and she couldn't believe that none of this, none of this, was showing on his face. But outwardly he was as calm and distant as the sky.

And Rodney....

Rodney's strongest emotion had been grief, which was more than understandable, but when he saw John it was replaced by a maelstrom of bone-deep pain and rejection and disappointment, interwoven with resignation, an incongruous bud of happiness, and a quiet hum of despair. Rodney was angry, too, like a constant growl of distant thunder.

And above it all, like a beacon in a storm, was a longing that mirrored John's, directed at him like a spotlight. It was so bright and strong she half-expected John to be haloed by it, or blinded.

She realized she'd been staring at John when Carson called her name for the third time, and she blinked herself back to the present, feeling small and strangely lost.

"I'm sorry," she said, dismayed at how rough her voice sounded. John was looking at her with his eyes narrowed, and it occurred to her that she might have been horribly transparent, showing on her own face everything he refused to. She forced herself to smile, knowing it had to be terribly fake, and turned to look at Carson's worried eyes. "I think I just...fazed out, for a minute there. It's been a long twenty-three hours."

"Going on twenty-four," Rodney said with his typical brusqueness, and Elizabeth made herself look at him, fearing what she'd see in his eyes. Rodney could never hide what he was feeling.

But he just looked tired, this time, tired and concerned about the nanovirus, and Elizabeth listened and nodded through his and Carson's tag-team confirmation that the virus hadn't been made by the Wraith.

Then she smiled and thanked everyone, and let John go, and if he made sure to follow well behind Carson and Rodney, well, it was nothing unusual--he always walked ahead or behind. She asked him to close the door behind him, and she waited until he did.

Then she grabbed a Power bar out of her desk and ate it ravenously. And then she leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling, and stayed that way for a long time.

The longing. God, she hadn't known. She hadn't known anything.

She'd known they were upset at each other--because of each other--of course. That had been more than obvious for weeks. But she hadn't known this. Not that...not that they were in love. Or had been. Maybe the longing was just residue, like the last bit of blood seeping from a wound. The crisis must have made their emotions stronger, brought them to the fore. Nothing was quite so good for personal clarity as thinking someone you cared about was going to die, and they'd both been in mortal danger.

She hadn't known, and she couldn't ask, because she wasn't meant to know. John and Rodney were very good at keeping secrets, better than Elizabeth would have ever thought. Without her Gift, she doubted she would have had any indication of what was going on between them.

"What do I do about this?" she whispered. "What do I do?"

There was no question of her betraying them to Stargate Command. Even if they were able to contact Earth, even if she'd wanted to confess what she now knew, Elizabeth had no proof of any kind of fraternization. Emotions didn't count, even if someone with a Gift found out about them. And John and Rodney's behavior on base and in the field had been no better or worse than it had ever been.

She was.... A little surprised, that it was the two of them. Maybe even a little disappointed, if she was being honest. She had entertained thoughts of both men, every so often. They were quite different, but in their own ways equally appealing. Not that she would have ever approached them.

She supposed it was moot, now.

But there was nothing she could do about this, because doing anything, offering sympathy, advice, a warning, would mean that she knew how they felt about each other, and that was a violation she would never admit.

They knew she couldn't turn her Gift off--they had to know that, it was in her file, it was no secret--but between knowing that and knowing what it meant was a gap so large she doubted even Rodney could fathom it.

She had been concerned about John trusting her. Telling them what she now knew would ensure that both John and Rodney would never trust her again.

So she couldn't do anything. She wasn't going to do anything. Not unless Rodney or John came to her and asked for help. And she knew they never would.

Eventually their tumultuous emotions would fade. They always did, it was just a matter of time.

She just hoped they wouldn't be destroyed by them first.

***

John sat on the balcony, leaning back on his hands and enjoying the view of the stars while Chaya finished her portion of the food from the picnic. He kept sneaking little peeks at her, watching her eat.

"Mm...." she murmured appreciatively around a mouthful of strawberry, "this is delicious, John."

"Well, enjoy it while you can because it's the last of what we have." He was barely paying attention to what he was saying. His entire focus was on her face, the delicate movements of her mouth and hands.

She was beautiful, and sweet, and so sensual it was breathtaking. And he wanted to want her so badly it was making him crazy, because she was safe. He couldn't hurt her, and she wanted him.

His charm didn't work on her. For whatever reason, Chaya was possibly the one person in the galaxy, maybe the entire universe, who wasn't affected by his Gift.

He'd tried, back on Proculus, to get her to be more receptive to the idea of taking in refugees. John wasn't always sure if he was actually charming people when he wasn't trying to, but after over twenty years of knowing he was Gifted, he at least knew when he was intentionally putting his Gift behind something he said. And he'd tried hard enough with Chaya that he'd weak and light-headed, and had ended up sleeping the entire time Chaya had gone to 'consult with Athar' or whatever to make up for it. And Chaya hadn't even twitched, hadn't changed anything in the timbre of her voice or the tilt of her smile.

Chaya was safe. She was beautiful and sweet and invulnerable to him. Maybe John could even bring himself to touch her.

She wasn't Rodney, but he couldn't have Rodney anymore. He never should have tried to in the first place.

"Then I am honored," Chaya said, and for a moment John couldn't even remember what they'd been talking about. When he realized she meant how he had given her the last of Atlantis' quality provisions, he said,

"When Rodney finds out, he's gonna kill me," because it was the first thing that came into his mind.

You'd deserve it, was the sharp, nasty thought that flared instantly afterwards, but he knew it had nothing to do with the food.

This wasn't a betrayal, John being here with Chaya. John and Rodney couldn't have a relationship--couldn't have anything. It wasn't John's fault if Rodney didn't understand that. John had made it very clear. How many times could he say he was sorry?

There was nothing between them to betray. John's mistake had been in pretending there ever could have been.

"Athar will save you," Chaya said. She smiled flirtatiously and swayed towards him, her lush, strawberry-wet mouth sliding open--

John jumped up, his heart hammering, and tried to lean nonchalantly on the balcony railing. "Oh! Oh, um, good."

Chaya was kind. She didn't question his abrupt nervousness, but indulged him with more of their meaningless conversation, until John felt comfortable enough to sit down next to her again.

He picked up the bottle of Athosian wine. "More?" he offered. He gave her his warmest smile, trying to imagine her lips against his, her tongue in his mouth. She'd probably taste of wine and strawberries, and her hair would smell like the flowers in her garden. Like summer, perfect.

Rodney's hair had smelled like his sweat and faintly of soap, and his mouth had tasted like old toothpaste when John had kissed him.

Chaya was holding out her glass and smiling at him. "Yes, please," she said, so very patient.

"We uh...traded for grapes," John said, forcing himself back to where he was, back to Chaya. "The Athosians--Teyla's people--they make this on the Mainland."

It hadn't been so difficult talking to her before, when he had been showing her the city and trying to convince her to let her planet be a safe haven for the galaxy's refugees. But now, here, with her beautiful, open face and bright expectation between them, all his words were failing him.

It had never been this difficult with Rodney, but that didn't matter. This was what he could have. He just had to stop acting like an idiot and make it work.

John was actually thankful when Chaya didn't respond to his inane small talk. Instead she squared her shoulders and looked him in the eye. "John," she said, gentle and kind, "John, I wasn't really truthful with you about something." She took a breath, obviously nervous, obviously steadying herself, and oddly, it made him feel calmer. "On Proculus, when told you I did not feel lonely.... Coming here, and being with you...it reminded me. Reminded me what it was like to not be alone."

She was looking at him, her eyes big and hopeful and dark, and he could have this, it would be so easy....

John jumped to his feet again and paced nervously, trying to quell the sudden churn of nausea in his belly.

You're not betraying anyone, John. You can touch her and you're not betraying anyone.

"What is it, John? Are you well?" Chaya's anxious voice brought him back to himself.

John spat out a weak laugh. "It's nothing, Chaya. Really. Well, I mean...uh, It's...it's just that this is the first time I've been in a romantic situation with a woman--from, from another planet, I mean--and it just strikes me as really, um--"

"Wrong?" asked Chaya tremulously.

"No, God, no!" John was sweating under his long-sleeved shirt and jacket. Maybe...maybe around Chaya, he could take off the jacket, even roll up his sleeves. God, he could take off his gloves, and the idea of that, of touching someone the way everyone else did, with nothing between them....

He laughed again, happy and nervous and guilty and terrified. "Just--I just...feel funny." He kept laughing, couldn't help it. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I just thought that I would--"

Chaya was kind. She was so kind. She looked at him and said softly, "You said it yourself, John. We're both human."

"Yes. Yes, we are." John managed to force the laugh down to something more like a smirk. "And I'm really glad you didn't say 'family', otherwise I'd have to leave."

"Don't," said Chaya, in a low, needy voice. "Don't leave, John."

He came to her as if pulled by magnets, and knelt down next to her. His eyes locked on her face, tilted up to his own like a flower to the sun.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said. And he put his hands on either side of her beautiful face, and he kissed her. He felt her touching his face in return, small points of fire on his skin, and freedom stretched out, wide and dizzying beneath him.

She tasted exactly like he thought she would, like wine and strawberries. And her hair smelled like a garden in summer, and it was beautiful and perfect, and nothing like what he wanted at all.


In the end, it was almost a relief when he found out that he'd been wrong, that he couldn't have this either, because Chaya was an acendend Ancient who'd been lying to them all along.

The fact that she'd come to Atlantis for him was an irony so bitter that John might have choked on it, if he hadn't already been so angry.

And he wasn't even sure who he was most angry at: Chaya, for lying, or Rodney, for catching her out and ruining everything.

And then, of course, Chaya had to leave. Her people were in trouble and she had to go help them. Chaya turned into light and flew through the stargate, back to Proculus.

John followed her. He'd told Elizabeth it was because it was the best way of finding out what was happening, but he knew she knew that was a lie.

He was also certain that Elizabeth knew he'd go with or without her blessing, that he'd disobey her again, even use his charm on her if he had to. But he didn't have to do any of those things. He had no idea what Elizabeth's own Gift told her, barely knew what he was feeling himself, but he saw something like understanding in her eyes when she backed down and allowed him to go.

~~~

"Don't worry, John," Chaya said. Her voice was sad and so very kind. "I won't touch you. Just close your eyes."

He hadn't been certain he'd wanted to do this 'sharing' thing she'd offered--she'd said it would let them know each other as well as anyone ever could, and that was too intimate, too close. There was so much about himself that he was sure she wouldn't want to know. There was so much he didn't want to tell her.

But she promised she wouldn't touch him, and he'd felt like he'd owed her this, so instead of refusing he'd just made a dumb joke and obediently closed his eyes anyway.

She didn't touch him, just like she'd said, but pretty soon he felt a...warmth. A golden glow suffusing him, like drowning in warm honey.

"Oh, wow," he said, wonderingly. "This is--This is cool."

Chaya Shared with him the significant moments of her life, both as a human and as an Ascended being. A lot of the Ascended stuff was literally impossible for John's human brain to comprehend, but he could feel the gist of it. He was awed and humbled by Chaya. What she shared with him was unfiltered, uncensored. He could feel her nobility and her stupidity, her greatest triumphs and utter failures. She stripped herself bare for him, naked from the soul out.

And after that, when he felt her turn her attention to him with a wordless question, he could do no less. He gave her all the triumphs and joys of his brief existence, and also the most crushing, horrible episodes of his life, including the horrors of Afghanistan, and even....

"John," she said quietly, her voice like a soft, insistent tap on his mind. "John, their deaths were not your fault."

John's eyes flew open, and he stepped away from her. The light that had surrounded them both dropped away.

"How can you say that?" he demanded, almost shouting. "They died. I didn't know I was charming them, but I must have--I had to have done it anyway. I didn't know I was charming anyone, but I did. I was charming people all over the place. I was a dumb, stupid kid who didn't know when he was hurting people." He took a breath, and his lungs hurt. "I killed them, Chaya. And I'm never--I won't hurt anyone else that way again."

Chaya pressed her hand to John's chest, slowly and gently, and John grit his teeth so he wouldn't knock it away. Her earnest eyes held his own, and she petted his chest the way one might soothe a skittish animal.

"What about your Dr. McKay?" Chaya asked innocently, softly. "I did not sense in him any immediate urges to end his own life."

John almost hit her, and only held back because of the absurdity of physically assaulting an Ascended being. If she had been an ordinary woman, he would have certainly struck her, and that made him sick to his stomach with self-loathing. He turned away, pushing her hand off his chest, and began stalking back to the jumper.

"You don't know anything," he growled, not bothering to speak over his shoulder, knowing she would hear. "Just keep the hell away from me."

"John!" She cried after him, plaintive and yearning. Hearing it made John feel like his heart was twisting in knots, but he didn't look back, and she didn't stop him, though he knew she could have, easily.

He left her standing in her perfect garden, and he didn't think of Rodney all the short way back.


When he got back from Dagan, Aiden made his way to the infirmary as soon as he found out what happened with the Wraith dart. He got to the area where Markham was supposed to be and saw Markham's buddy, Sgt. Stackhouse, sitting forlornly next to the other man's bed.

"Hey," Aiden said softly to Stackhouse. Markham looked like he was he was hooked up to every medical tube and monitor the Doc had in the house. His face was pale and still, with bruised circles under his eyes.

Stackhouse made to stand up and Aiden waved him back. Stackhouse nodded at him instead. "Hey, sir."

"I just got back." Aiden indicated Markham. "How's he doin'? Heard he tangled with a Wraith dart."

Stackhouse sighed. "Jamie's alive, sir. But teleporting the whole jumper, with him and me in it...it was too much for him. Doc Beckett said if it had just been the jumper, it wouldn't have been so bad. But he's not supposed to be able to teleport live things." Stackhouse sighed. "He saved our lives, sir."

"Is it like when Dr. McKay shielded the Major from that drone on the SuperWraith planet?" Aiden asked him. "McKay nearly didn't make it," he explained. It wasn't like he and McKay were buddies, really, but it still bugged him to think about it.

And he'd have figured a thing like that would have brought McKay and the Major closer as friends. Only, pretty soon after McKay got out of the infirmary, he and Sheppard had some kind of big falling-out, and the two of them had been strange and cold with each other ever since. Like this miserable mission to Dagan. Not only had they not gotten the stupid ZPM, not only had they run into Kolya, of all people, but he and Teyla'd had to run interference between McKay and Sheppard the whole time. They'd been stiff and formal with each other, but with this vibrating energy underneath, like any minute they were going to start yelling or something. Aiden was sure it was McKay's fault. The Major just didn't start fights with people. McKay did all the time, though.

"Well," Stackhouse said slowly, his eyes on Markham's slack face. "He was luckier than Dr. McKay, I guess. We got him to the infirmary right away, so Sgt. Johansen was able to heal him a little. It really drained him, though, and the docs told Johansen to rest before he tries to help Jamie again. So they've got him on life support in the meantime. Doc Beckett says he's not gonna die, but it'll take a long time for him to recover." Stackhouse sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.

"That sucks," Aiden said sympathetically, but he pulled up a smile. "But at least he's gonna be okay, right?"

Stackhouse smiled and nodded, though it didn't look like his heart was in it. "Yeah. At least the Doc says he'll be fine, eventually."

"That's good," Aiden said. An awkward silence settled. Jamie Markham didn't look like he was going to be fine.

"So," Stackhouse said a moment later, "how did your mission go?"

Aiden let out a breath and shook his head. He wished he had better news, since he was sure Stackhouse could use the distraction. "Don't ask."

"No ZPM?" Stackhouse looked resigned.

"Man, we had it in our hands, but--" Aiden shook his head again. "I should probably wait until after the debrief with Dr. Weir to tell you about it, though." They'd almost had the ZPM until Kolya had come to steal it from them, and then the Dagans had snatched it right back. The Major had tried to charm the Dagans into giving it up to them--Aiden could tell when that was happening now that he'd seen it before. But the Dagans had been resistant somehow. It had been kind of surprising that Sheppard hadn't been successful, actually, since Aiden had seen just how powerful his charm could be. But McKay had told him later about charm not working on religious fanatics, or anyone who was too deep into their own beliefs to be swayed from them. It was too bad. They could have really used the ZPM, now that the Wraith knew where they were.

Aiden sighed. He needed to get to the conference room for the debriefing. He clapped Stackhouse on the shoulder. "I gotta go, man. You keep an eye on Markham, and let me know when he's doin' better, okay? Say hello for me when he wakes up. Tell him I thought it was completely awesome that he teleported a whole puddle jumper."

Stackhouse summoned a smile. "Yes, sir. I'll tell him that."

Aiden walked away, the beeping of the monitors following him out of the infirmary.


"Dr. McKay," Peter Grodin said, trying not to wince as his own voice made his headache that much worse. "I need to speak with you."

Rodney didn't even glance up from the readout on his laptop screen. His entire attention was focused there as if his life depended on it. Peter tried to ignore the fact that it probably did, and not just Rodney's. "I'm a little busy, Peter," Rodney said testily. "So you may want to save your doubtless vital tidbit of information until, say, after the Wraith have eaten all of us." He hit a key, then almost instantly grimaced at whatever the results showed him. "Fuck."

Peter blinked--he couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Rodney swearing. "It's about the mission to repair the defense satellite," he said quickly. "You have to go instead of Radek."

That did get Rodney's attention. He blinked at his screen, then turned to look at Peter. "What?" Rodney asked, looking both irritated and confused. "Why? Wait," Rodney said, "you look like crap." His eyes widened. The blue of the irises was almost startling next to the inky stains beneath them. Peter wondered when he'd last slept. "Oh my God, you had a vision, didn't you? What is it? What happens?" He slid off the stool so he was standing in front of Peter, whatever simulation he was running apparently completely forgotten. "Does someone die?" Rodney's face paled as he obviously thought about it, until the dark smudges under his eyes looked almost purple, as if he had lost a fight. "Is Radek going to die?" Rodney asked. Then he gasped as another thought occurred to him. "Am I going to die? Am I meant to buy it out there?" His eyes narrowed, and he crossed his arms in panicky belligerence. "I'm not going to let myself get blown up by some Wraith Hive ship just because you saw it happening!"

"No!" Peter said quickly, then couldn't stop the grimace. He automatically rubbed his forehead, though it didn't much help. "No--that's not it, Rodney. You don't die. But if you don't go instead of Radek, Atlantis won't survive the attack."

Rodney blinked again. If anything, he paled even further. He swallowed, but his voice was still low and strained when he spoke. "What did you see, Peter?"

Peter took a breath. He'd been rehearsing this on the way here, the best way to explain without giving away too much. "It's Radek's Gift that's the problem," Peter said carefully. "He...while he's repairing the power supply, he finds another problem that...." Peter looked away for a moment, swallowing the way Rodney had. There was no point in telling Rodney about it. It wouldn't change anything. "He finds another problem that isn't important," he finished, making sure his voice stayed even. "But he won't stop trying to fix it, even...even when there's no hope. And because he won't stop concentrating on, on the unimportant thing, the satellite isn't ready when the Wraith arrive. None of the ships are destroyed."

Rodney nodded, looking a little numb. "Three Hive ships." He rubbed his hand over his face, then pulled it down to cover his mouth. He stared over Peter's shoulder for a moment, and Peter could practically see Rodney imagining it, was certain Rodney could envision the destruction of Atlantis down to the last charred beam.

"I don't understand," Rodney said, looking back at Peter. His expression was stricken, like a betrayed child. "Why would Radek waste so much time on something that wasn't important? He wouldn't do that. Not if the whole city was at stake." His forehead creased in confusion. "Can't you just tell him not to? I mean, I know his Gift makes him go off on what he calls 'choral tangents' all the time,"--Rodney's fingers made little air-quotes--"but I'm sure he can suck up his scientific curiosity enough to, you know, fix the satellite. As a matter of fact--"

"He won't stop!" Peter said loudly, as Rodney was reaching up to activate his radio. He had to close his eyes for a second at a double rush of pain. Only part of it was physical. He opened his eyes to see Rodney looking at him with wary surprise. Peter knew he wasn't known for his outbursts. "There is nothing you can say that will change what he will do," Peter said clearly. "If Radek goes, the city will die."

Rodney was still staring at him, his expression somewhere between confusion and anger. "What the hell is Radek's Gift going to tell him about the repair job that's so compelling he'll risk Atlantis because of it?" He took a step closer. "That doesn't make any sense, Peter! Why would I ignore something like that?"

"It's not important!" Peter shouted, ignoring the beating pain it caused. Rodney actually bobbed back from him. "Just...." Peter took another breath. "You don't have his Gift, so you won't see it. Not until later, when it...well, there won't be anything that can be done. And it doesn't matter," he insisted. "Please," he said, begging. "We're wasting time. You need to go instead of Radek, Rodney. It's the only way."

Rodney looked at him a long moment, then he crossed his arms again. "No."

Peter all but gaped at him. "What?"

"I said," Rodney enunciated slowly, as if Peter were dimwitted, 'no'." Not until you tell me what the hell's going on."

"We don't have time for this!" Peter burst out, gesturing violently, and whoops, that was rather the wrong thing to do, as the room blurred and wavered for nauseatingly long seconds.

"Peter!" Rodney had him under his arms, gripping so tightly that it hurt. "Damn it, why didn't you say something?" Rodney steadied him awkwardly against the lab table, until he was able to hook the stool with his foot and yank it towards them.

"Ta," Peter said wearily, climbing onto it with an effort.

"Here," Rodney said, yanking a blister packet out of his pocket. He pulled on one of Peter's hands, twisted it until it was palm-up, and unceremoniously popped four glucose tablets into his palm. He pushed them towards Peter's mouth, ignoring Peter's flinch. "Take them before you faint, you idiot."

Peter sighed and tipped his hand into his mouth, scrunching up his face involuntarily at the taste.

Rodney was watching him closely. "Better?"

Peter nodded, swallowing thickly around the cloying remnants of the pills in his mouth. "Sorry," he said.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, please apologize for collapsing from exhaustion." He snorted. "And they say Canadians are the scary polite people." He shook his head. "When's the last time you slept, anyway? Or ate anything? Never mind." He huffed in annoyance, grabbing Peter by his upper arm. "Come on, you're going to the infirmary."

Peter swung his head up, the realization, the sudden hope was like a stab in the chest. For a moment he couldn't breathe.

If he went to the infirmary, he wouldn't be able to go on the mission to the satellite. They'd leave without him.

Maybe he didn't have to die.

Peter hesitated. It felt like the glucose tablets had turned to pebbles in his stomach. "I...."

Rodney yanked on his arm, none too gently, and Peter had to grab the edge of the table to keep himself from tipping off the stool. He glared at Rodney, who completely ignored him. "This century, Grodin," Rodney said. "Unless you want to suffer the ignominy of riding out of here on a gurney."

Dear God, Peter wanted to live.

But if he didn't go, someone else would. Maybe nothing would happen to them, but how could he risk that? How could he even think about risking that?

"I have to go on the mission," Peter said.

Rodney looked at him like he'd gone mad. "Are you kidding me?"

"It's a fifteen-hour trip," Peter said quickly. "I can sleep in the jumper. I'll be fine. Rodney," he said, trying very hard not to think about the irony in that. He put as much weight into his voice as he could, trying to convey the importance, the absolute necessity. "I have to go. It must be me."

Rodney pulled his hand back, looking at Peter as if at an absolute loss. "Why? Why does it have to be you?" He gestured at him, obviously pointing out that he was still slumped precariously on a lab stool. "You look like something a Wraith threw up! What makes you so special that you can't stay here? I mean, yes, I chose you specifically, but you shouldn't let that make you all--"

"Because I don't want anyone to get--to get hurt in my place, Rodney!" Peter snapped wearily. He sighed, rubbing his forehead again. His head was still killing him, and all he wanted was to finally go to the damned jumper so he could kip out for a few hours before...before the inevitable.

"Well, why would anyone...." Rodney stopped, went still, and Peter could see the absolute second when he got it, the moment of realization dawning on his face, and Peter shut his eyes in resignation.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly.

"Shut up." Rodney grabbed him by the shoulders, his grip so fierce and unexpected that Peter's eyes flew open. He gave Peter a little shake that did nothing for the brutal pain in his head. "You son of a bitch, you were just going to let yourself die, weren't you? You self-centered, martyring bastard!" Rodney's jaw was thrust out and he was panting with what might have been rage, except that his eyes were suddenly wet. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" Rodney let go of him finally, shaking his head in furious disbelief. "Did I somehow indicate that only suicidal assholes should apply for the science division? Fuck, between you and Brendan--!"

Rodney cut himself off, and his face darkened. "You are going to tell me exactly what you saw in your vision, Grodin, or I swear I will leave you here and take Radek instead."

Peter glared at him, his heart pounding in a horrible morass of fear and guilt and hope. "You wouldn't risk Radek's life."

Rodney glared right back. "I'm trying not to risk anyone's life here! Don't you get it?" He closed his eyes momentarily, as if fighting off his own pain. His expression softened. "Please, Peter. Just tell me what you think is going to happen. Maybe, maybe there's a way I can fix it." Rodney put his hands on Peter's shoulders again, gently now, as if helping to keep him upright. "I don't want you to die, Peter," he said. "I really don't want you to die."

Peter looked at him, At Rodney's open face and his obvious misery and concern. This man is my friend, he thought, unbidden, and the realization was no less surprising for being true.

"All right," Peter said. And he told Rodney about how, when it was too late to go back for him but too early to give up, Radek's Gift would tell him that the airlock wouldn't pressurize or open remotely once the power had been rerouted to the weapon, trapping Peter in the satellite; how in his vision, Radek kept trying to solve both problems until the three Wraith Hive ships arrived and glided past, untouched.

Rodney listened, his eyes distant and horrified, as Peter described everything that was going to happen. Then he blinked and shook his head roughly, as if dragging himself forcefully back to the present.

"Wait a minute," he said. "Assuming I can fix the satellite even without Radek's Gift--and we will, because I can fix anything--You're telling me you want me to go instead of Radek just because I won't see the problem with the airlock until it's too late?"

Peter nodded. "Yes," he said softly. "There's no way you could notice the problem."

"But why does that mean you'll die? Won't all the Hive ships be destroyed?"

Ah. He'd forgotten to mention that. "No," Peter said. "I forced a second vision," he explained quickly when he saw the shock wash over Rodney's face. "I can do that, if I concentrate hard enough." Just like he could extend his visions themselves, with enough effort. The experience wasn't unlike twisting a corkscrew into his brain via his eye socket. He'd only done it twice before in his life--most recently just before the storm, not that it had helped--and hoped he would never have to again. "You reroute the power, but we only get one ship before the patch gives out. The other ships destroy the satellite."

"Fuck," Rodney said, with vehemence. "And you're still inside when it blows up." It wasn't a question.

"Yes," Peter said.

"Right," Rodney said thickly, nodding. He turned away, paced a few steps, then turned back again. "Would Radek do better?"

Peter smiled a little, no mirth at all in it. "I told you how Radek does."

"Right, right, right, you did. Damn." Rodney pulled his fingers through his hair. "Okay, so we're still screwed--deal with that later." He looked at Peter. "The problem is you stay on the satellite to help reroute the power internally, and then you can't get out because you'd have to do it manually, and there's no pressure in the airlock."

Peter was about to answer, but he'd barely opened his mouth when Rodney started laughing.

"Oh my God," Rodney exclaimed, still grinning wildly. "I'd say you were a moron that didn't deserve the Cracker Jack box your useless degree came out of, but you're exhausted and just had a vision, so I'll be nice. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to hold this over your head for the rest of your life...." Rodney's grin faltered. "Which may not be all that long, actually." He smiled again, a little wanly. "But it's not going to end on an Ancient defense satellite."

"What?" Peter's eyes widened, and his heart sped up until it was painful, like a jackhammer against his chest. "What do you mean? How--"

Rodney raised his hand, forestalling Peter's words. "Let's put it this way--I think there's room in the jumper for another spacesuit."

Peter gaped at him. And then he put his head in his hands and laughed until he was wiping tears away.

***

"I don't know if I can do this, Dr. Heightmeyer," Cpl. Albert Conroy said nervously, glancing at Sheppard out of the corner of his eye. Kate didn't need to have Albert's Gift to be able to tell Sheppard strongly disapproved of this experiment, and was only agreeing to it because of the possible intelligence they could gather on the Wraith--the Major had said as much. Ostensibly it was because of the danger to Teyla's mind from the Wraith, but Kate knew Albert could easily read Sheppard's personal distrust of him as well, assuredly because of Albert's attack on Dr. McKay. Sheppard's real feelings were obvious to her only because he'd told her about it, in one of their sessions. It was one of the few things he'd said that Kate was sure was true.

Sgt. Bates, standing nearby with a Wraith stunner gripped tightly in his arms, radiating distrust, was also easy to read even without telepathy. At least she wasn't lying about anything.

"I believe in you, Albert," Kate said softly to him, both to bolster his confidence, which he would be able to read, and because it was the truth, which he would also be able to read. Albert would do everything in his power to protect Teyla through her upcoming ordeal. It was why Kate had suggested him as a safety net.

Even though she wasn't Gifted herself, Kate Heightmeyer had based her entire professional career on working with Gifted individuals since her beloved older sister had died in a psychiatric facility, made insane from her unrelenting visions of possible futures, constantly drained by her Gift beyond her metabolism's ability to cope. Kate had found that she had enough insight and sympathy to be a truly good listener, but enough distance to be objective, and was creative and effective at finding solutions to her patient's problems--even better, at guiding her patients to find their own solutions.

But, despite a lifetime career of dealing with all the peculiar things a practice full of Gifted people could bring to the table, Kate's time in the Pegasus galaxy trumped everything she'd previously experienced. After all, she'd brought a caseload of Gifted patients with her, and then had to add in all the twists and permutations Pegasus introduced to their problems.

A few days ago, Major Sheppard had come to her, not to talk about his obvious issues with intimacy, as Kate had dared to hope, but to request that she see Teyla about the Athosian's difficulty sleeping without nightmares about the Wraith. She had acquiesced to the Major's request and gone to see Teyla. After some initial resistance, Teyla had confided to her what Dr. Beckett's Gift had seen when she had first come to Atlantis--that Wraith DNA was included in her genetic makeup.

Eventually, that had led to the bizarre situation they found themselves in now. The possibility that Teyla could communicate mind-to-mind with the Wraith was no stranger than all the other Gifts the people on Atlantis had, though a more uniquely Pegasus Galaxy Gift than most.

Kate focused on her patients. Teyla was outwardly calm and resolute, but she must be terribly frightened by what might await her, a nightmare of identifying with her people's most feared and hated enemy. She took Teyla's hand. "The hypnosis will be painless, Teyla. Dr. Beckett will inject you with a mild sedative to help you relax." Teyla nodded at her, and she nodded at Carson. Carson injected the sedative into the IV port. "Now you'll feel Cpl. Conroy join with your mind. Visualize it as holding hands. He's here to protect you, Teyla. Whatever happens, Cpl. Conroy will make sure you're safe." And he would. Albert was far stronger than he imagined.

There was no doubt he had read her thought. After all their months of training, the best Albert could do was lower the mental "volume" of other people's thoughts to an indistinguishable whisper in the back of his mind. He could never turn off his Gift completely, never truly rest without Carson's medication to let him sleep. Now Albert lifted his chin and stepped up to Teyla's bedside, pulling the IV stand with his glucose drip behind him.

Albert turned his gaze to Teyla. "Ms. Emmagan, ma'am, please call me Al. I'm here to protect you, like Dr. Heightmeyer says. I promised Major Sheppard that it'd be my life, or my sanity, before yours. Sgt. Bates is here as backup, in case anything goes wrong. He'll stun us both if he has to. All we have to do is concentrate on contacting the Wraith without them knowing about it, and finding out as much as we can."

Teyla took a deep breath. "I understand, Corp...Al." She smiled at him. "Please, call me Teyla." She looked over at Sheppard. "We will do our best, Major Sheppard."

"Just be careful," Sheppard's tone was clipped, tense.

"We will try," Teyla acknowledged. She sighed. "I am feeling quite relaxed. Dr. Beckett's sedative must be taking effect. Al, would you take my hand in reality, as well as mentally?"

His smile was shy, but genuine. "I'd be honored, Ms. Teyla." He glanced nervously at Sheppard, who glared at him, but Albert still stepped close and took Teyla's hand with his own. He took two deep breaths, then all expression left his face.

Teyla's eyes widened momentarily, then she seemed to settle. She met Kate's eyes. "We are ready, Dr. Heightmeyer." Albert's lips shaped the words a beat behind her, but he didn't voice them. His face remained blank, eyes focused on something in the far distance that only he could see.

Kate took out a penlight. "Remember, Teyla, we can wake you at any time using a very low-grade electrical current. It won't hurt at all. Just say "out" and we'll end it. If you can't speak, indicate you wish to pull out to Albert. Just think it and he'll know. He'll get you out, or tell us so that we can do so. Okay?"

Teyla squared her shoulders and nodded. Albert nodded as well, shallowly, as if he was a marionette with strings attached to Teyla.

"Alright. Just focus on this light." Kate focused the penlight into Teyla's eyes. "You said that the feeling that you get from the Wraith is a cold, dark feeling deep inside you. Look for that darkness. Now close your eyes and listen to it. Feel it. Go to it. Go to that place, Teyla." She watched Teyla's face, so serene looking with her eyes closed, tense suddenly. "What do you hear? Teyla? What are you hearing?"

"Voices," Teyla intoned dreamily, a frown wrinkling her forehead. "Many voices." Next to her, Albert's lips formed the same words, his forehead wrinkled in the same pattern, but he continued looking sightlessly off into the distance.

"Follow one, Teyla," Kate told her. "Only one. What do you hear? Do you see anything?"

"I am--I am on a ship. I see Wraith!" Teyla's hand gripped Albert's more tightly.

"Good, Teyla," Kate said soothingly. "That's just what we want. What are they doing?"

"There are other Wraith, and--And they do not notice me. I am walking through the ship. Past people cocooned for later feeding." Her voice was tense. "I pass them. I am in some sort of control room--Oh!"

Teyla gasped and opened her eyes, wide. She looked at everyone in the room, glaring fiercely. "You are all so pathetic!" she exclaimed, her voice unexpectedly deep.

"That's not Teyla!" Sheppard took a step forward, shaking off Bates' restraining hand with a violent gesture.

"Nothing can stop us. You are all going to die!" the thing with Teyla's face sneered. Kate stepped back, suddenly deeply afraid. It had all seemed theoretical until this moment, when it felt like she'd abruptly stepped into a horror movie.

"Conroy! Get Teyla out of there!" Sheppard yelled.

Albert, whose mouth had been voicelessly mouthing whatever Teyla had said until this point, suddenly threw his head back.

"We will...AH!" The deep voice that had taken over Teyla's vocal cords cracked, and Teyla's head snapped back, mirroring Albert's. Both their bodies were tense, necks arched back, mouths opened and teeth bared.

"Shall I administer the electrical current, then?" Carson asked anxiously, hand hovering over the button.

Kate raised her hand, noting absently that it was trembling. "Not yet. Wait. Just a minute. Albert can do this."

As if he heard her words, Albert sighed gustily. His head straightened, and he slumped against the side of Teyla's bed, loosening his grip on her hand.

Teyla mirrored him, exhaling profoundly, then sagging deeply into the bed, eyes closed, head lolling, limbs limp.

"Teyla!" Sheppard took another step forward.

Carson leaned in, glancing at Albert nervously, and checked Teyla's pulse and respiration, her pupil's responses. "She seems to be fine, Major. Heart rate's a bit on the quick side, but that's to be expected."

Kate went to Albert, taking his arm to support him. "Albert? Are you alright?"

"Yes'm," he slurred, leaning against her. "Tired, I guess."

"Sergeant Bates, please get me a chair for Albert," Kate said urgently, as Albert seemed to falter and lean more of his weight onto her.

Bates handed her a chair, and she maneuvered it under Albert in time for him to drop into it. "Carson?"

"I expect he needs a wee bit more glucose," Carson murmured, taking Albert's vitals. He took a quick blood glucose reading, nodded to himself and increased the dosage on Albert's IV line.

Teyla stirred. "What happened?"

"It looked like the Wraith took over your body," Bates said grimly.

Teyla took a deep breath and sat up. "Corporal Conroy--Albert--pushed the Wraith away from me. He...no one has ever resisted the Wraith's mind control before." She turned to Albert in the chair by her bed.

"Dr. Heightmeyer, is he well? Albert? Al?"

Albert took a deep breath as well and straightened in his seat, blinking his eyes at her. "I'm fine. I'm good, Ms. Teyla." He smiled. "A snack and a quick nap, and I'll be ready to do this again, whenever you are."

"What are you talking about?" Sheppard radiated anger. "Neither of you are doing this again. It's too dangerous! We didn't know the Wraith could take control."

"Major," Teyla argued. "I was close! I was so close. I saw a hologram--I think it was a map, maybe even a battle plan."

"We know their plan," Bates said scornfully. "They're coming to kill us all."

Teyla shook her head. "It is more than that, Sergeant. They want something from us."

"Yeah, to eat us," Sheppard drawled sarcastically.

Teyla shook her head. "No, no. More than that. They are...they are desperate."

Kate frowned. "What do you mean, Teyla?"

Teyla's forehead furrowed. "It is difficult to describe. Just before the Wraith seized my mind, I saw--They are desperate. They are confident in their dominance over us, mainly because there are so many of them, but they are too many to sustain for long. They have all awakened early and there is not enough food to go around. And there was something else. Something I was almost able to see...."

"What part of no don't you understand, Teyla? It's too dangerous. I'm not letting you do that again," Sheppard insisted harshly.

"John, I must try!" Teyla argued. "There was something important, I know it! Albert will protect me." She turned to him.

Albert nodded. "Yes! I swear, sir. The Wraith took me by surprise before. I'd been waiting for Ms. Teyla to tell me to get her out, only the Wraith.... Anyways, I know what it feels like, now. As soon as I feel the Wraith fixin' to get Ms. Teyla, I'll pull her right back. I swear, sir." Albert gulped under Sheppard's narrow-eyed stare.

"Albert can do it," Kate let her own confidence in Albert's ability warm her voice, fill it with certainty that Major Sheppard would hear. "If he says he can do it, Major, he can."

Sheppard cast a quick look at Bates.

"You already know what I think, sir," Bates said tightly. Albert blinked at him, glanced guiltily at Teyla, then stared down at his shoes. "They all believe they can do this, anyway. None of them are lying." Bates looked unhappy at having to admit it.

Sheppard grimaced, shook his head. "Okay. But, I want you both to take a nap and have something to eat before you try this again. I want you in tiptop condition, got it?"

"Yessir!" Albert nodded soberly. Kate patted his shoulder.

"Very well, John," said Teyla. "But only for a brief time. I know this information will be important."

Sheppard nodded to Carson. "Doc, take care of them, please. I'd like--"

The alarm for offworld Gate activation sounded, then a call over the intercom for Major Sheppard to come to the gateroom.

The Major left quickly, followed by Sgt. Bates.


Later, at a meeting called by Dr. Weir, Kate would find out about Lt. Ford's report of the Alpha Site being compromised by the Wraith, and give her opinion to Dr. Weir that, despite Sgt. Bates' opinion, Teyla could not have given away their plans to the Wraith. "Cpl. Conroy would have been able to read that, Dr. Weir," she said. "He would have warned us about it immediately. The fact that he did neither indicates to me that we haven't had a breach, other than the Wraith are now aware that we're attempting to spy on them."

"About that," Sheppard shifted uncomfortably. "Teyla is sure there's some important intel to discover. I've given her the go-ahead to try again."

Weir nodded slowly. "If you think that's best, Major. Sgt. Bates, I'd like you to be in charge of locating a new Alpha Site for us."

Bates straightened in his seat. "Begging your pardon, ma'am, but don't you think I should watch over the spying mission again? If you're going to allow Teyla to--"

"Anyone can stand guard with a stun gun, Sergeant," Weir interrupted. "But finding us a new Alpha site is a priority. I want you to work together with Lt. Ford on this project, but I want you in charge."

Bates raised an eyebrow at Sheppard. "Sir?"

Sheppard nodded reluctantly. "Ford's a good officer, but you're enough of a sonofa--" He cleared his throat. "You're more cautious, and that's important when we're finding an Alpha site. You'll each have a team, but it's your mission. You decide where the teams go, and you have the final approval over the site. Does that meet with your approval, Sergeant?" He barely waited for the sergeant's nod. "Get to it."

Bates bared his teeth in something that might have been a smile. Kate would have to start working with him more often--if they survived the Wraith attack, that was. "Yes, sir. Right away, sir."

"Very well," Weir said, standing up from the conference table. "Dr. Heightmeyer, Major Sheppard, you have my approval to give your intelligence gathering experiment another try."


The next attempt was easier, in a way. They knew what to expect. They had a chair for Cpl. Conroy to sit in, and had fed both Albert and Teyla shortly before they made their attempt.

"I see a Wraith," Teyla said softly, deep in her trance, Albert mouthing the same words a beat behind. "It approaches one of the cocooned humans. It is feeding!" She cried out, shaking violently, and Carson darted towards his equipment as if to rouse her immediately, but she relaxed, and straightened into a sit again. "Thank you, Albert," she said conversationally.

Kate smiled to herself. "Do you see any other Wraith? Maybe someone you can follow into a control room?"

Teyla's face smoothed out. "Yes. I follow. I can see a map. I hear them. They--They speak about the attack. They are excited about a new...." Her forehead wrinkled in concentration. "There is another Wraith. He is--"

Teyla's eyes flew open, and it was a stranger looking out. An alien. It bared Teyla's teeth. "You must learn fear of your rightful masters!" it said. "Soon I shall fee--!" Teyla screamed, her head snapping back.

Both Teyla and Albert slumped. Carson jumped to Teyla's side, taking her vitals.

"Is she okay, Doc?" Sheppard asked anxiously. "Teyla, what did you find out?"

Teyla roused slowly. "I am fine. Albert rescued me." She took a deep breath and straightened. "I saw their plans. I saw the route their ships are taking."

"Good!" Sheppard clapped his hands together, the gloves making it a muffled sound.

"There is more, Major Sheppard," said Teyla. "They do not just want Atlantis. They rejoice in the news of a rich, new feeding ground."

"Oh, God," Sheppard said, his voice filled with dismay. "Sumner. The female Wraith wasn't just feeding on him, she was interrogating him! They know about Earth!"

Teyla nodded. "That is why they are all waking up. That is why they are coming here. They know that Atlantis is the only way to get to Earth and a new galaxy to plunder."

"Lord have mercy," Carson said, paling. Kate's own stomach sank with dread at the news.

"Sir, there's another threat as well. A whole deal closer to home," Albert said grimly. He turned to Teyla. "Did you feel it, Ms. Teyla? At the end? The Wraith that tried to take your mind--it wasn't on that ship. It was here."

Kate looked around wildly, thoroughly spooked.

"Albert is correct, Major Sheppard," Teyla said urgently. "My nightmares have a source. I have been sensing Wraith for a reason. There is a Wraith in Atlantis."


Aiden watched the Wraith pace the holding cell. It looked angry, if anger was an emotion Wraiths even felt. He wrinkled his nose. The last time he'd smelled that funky musty smell the Wraith gave off was when the Wraith the Major had called Steve was in this same cell, and the time before that, it was on the Wraith ship where Colonel Sumner had died. Aiden hated that smell.

He looked over his shoulder as the door to the brig opened and Major Sheppard came in with Teyla and Conroy. "Sir," he greeted them. "Teyla, Corporal."

"At ease, men," Sheppard told the other Marines. "How's it going, Lieutenant?" asked the Major, his forehead furrowing as he watched the Wraith. Teyla and Conroy nodded at Aiden and the other Marines, but didn't say anything. They both just backed into the wall behind them, in the shadows.

"All quiet, sir," Aiden said somberly. The Wraith's capture had gone smoothly, once they got the bright idea to use the lifesigns detector, but McKay and his team had left to try to repair the Ancient defense satellite a few hours ago, and Aiden suspected the Major was worried about McKay. Whether you were on the outs or not, when your friends were in danger, you just worried. And there had been some nasty rumors going around that Dr. Grodin had experienced a vision about the trip to the satellite, and Grodin's visions were always bad. It had a lot of people more than a little jumpy.

"Has he said anything yet?" Sheppard interrupted Aiden's thoughts.

"Nothing much, sir. Not yet." Aiden answered truthfully. Growls didn't count.

Sheppard walked over to the bars and addressed the Wraith. "Hey, you! You got a name?" The Wraith sneered at him. "Okay, then, we'll call you...Bob!" Sheppard said, faux-cheerfully. "Listen, Bob, I hate to be an ungracious host here, but I'm gonna need to know what you've been up to all this time."

The Wraith showed his teeth again.

Sheppard relaxed his stance, and his face assumed a pleasant veneer. "Listen, Bob, I need to know what you've been doing, and I'm gonna need to know now. Why don't you just go ahead and tell me everything?"

Holy fuck. Aiden blinked. The Major was trying to charm the Wraith! Aiden looked at him nervously. Major Sheppard knew by now that he couldn't charm Wraith. No mental Gifts worked on the Wraith at all. Corrigan never knew where they were, either, and Dr. Weir couldn't feel their emotions. Doc Beckett had said something about how maybe the Wraith physiology was just too different for mental Gifts to work.

For a moment, the Wraith's face stilled, but then he shook his head and snarled at Sheppard. "Human, you play at thought control as if you were a Queen, but you are no Queen! Your pitiful attempts to bend my will are--!" The Wraith broke off into a wrenching scream, then slammed his body against the forcefield, hands curved so that his claws were prominent, showing all his teeth. "GET OUT! OUT OF MY MIND, YOU WRETCHED FODDER!"

Aiden had jumped back when the Wraith lunged, but the Major had stood his ground, his posture relaxed and laid-back. Then it was Teyla who was screaming.

The Major pulled out his pistol. "Conroy!" he barked. Teyla's scream cut off.

Major Sheppard signaled to Sgt. Peters, who cut off the forcefield. The Major pumped two rounds into the Wraith, point blank.

Aiden looked wildly over at Teyla, who was limp in Conroy's arms. "You okay, Teyla?" he asked, as breathless as if he'd been the one screaming.

"She'll be fine, sir," Conroy assured him. He sounded shaky and out of breath. "I'm gonna take Ms. Teyla to the infirmary, Major, if that's okay with you, sir."

"Do it," said Sheppard tersely. His eyes never left the Wraith. "Have Beckett check her out."

As Conroy helped Teyla walk out of the room, Sheppard locked gazes with the Wraith, who snarled at him again as he knelt on the ground, black blood seeping from the bullet holes in his torso.

"My wounds will heal, human," he taunted.

"Oh, yeah? I've wondered about that. Exactly how many bullets does it take to kill you guys?" Sheppard shot the Wraith two more times. Its body shook with the impact of each round. "You gotta understand, Bob, I have absolutely no problem with killing you." His voice was absolutely relaxed and conversational. He shot twice more, ejected the cartridge, and reloaded.

"Sir?" Aiden asked him nervously, visions of war crimes dancing goulishly through his head. He knew the Major had explained that the Wraith weren't exactly signatories to the Geneva Convention, but he also knew that war crimes were often labeled so after the fact.

"Sir?" Aiden tried again. "Major, I think maybe we've gone a bit too far."

"Nah, I don't think we've gone far enough," said Sheppard dismissively, firing three more shots into the Wraith, who collapsed to the floor of the cell. "Now do you think I'm still screwing around, Bob? Tell me. Tell me if you've sabotaged this base or not!" Sheppard's voice took on a deeper register, became intensely commanding, and Aiden found himself biting his own lips to keep from blurting out something, anything.

Old, whispered stories were suddenly haunting Aiden's thoughts: Black Ops Charmer interrogators, merciless men who could flay your mind open; the Charmer interrogators the Nazis had used in World War II, who forced confessions just so they could make their kill quotas. That's not the Major! Aiden thought desperately. He's not like that. But even with Steve, the Major hadn't gone to this dark place.

The Wraith writhed on the floor of the cell as Sheppard dispassionately shot it two more times. It howled and growled half-words, stuffing its hands in its mouth.

"Tell me, Bob." Sheppard's voice had dropped, becoming gentle, cajoling. "None of your Wraith buddies will know. Just tell me." The Major's voice pried at the most shameful secrets in Aiden's soul, and they fluttered just behind his clenched teeth. One of the other Marines behind him whimpered softly.

The Wraith gasped brokenly and dragged himself across the cell, away from Sheppard. He left trails of black blood on the ground. "Vermin!" he growled at them. "Those who feed upon you will know what you've done to me."

"I really don't think so, Bob," Sheppard said mildly, then shot the Wraith again. "TELL ME!" he commanded, the charm writhing beneath the words.

Aiden twitched. He should...he should do something. The problem was that his mind was absolutely blank at the moment and he had no idea what it was he should do. And right now he was just as afraid of Major Sheppard as he was of their Wraith prisoner, should it escape the cell.

The Wraith shook his head as if coming out of a dream. "I will tell you this, human. No matter where you flee, we will find you. And we will find Earth. And when we do, we will feast!"

"Oh, I doubt that, Bob," said Sheppard, just as mildly as before. He holstered his pistol and slowly stripped off the glove from his right hand. "Open the door, Sergeant," he said pleasantly. Peters leapt to obey, unlocking the cell with shaking hands.

Sheppard strolled into the cell as if he was just heading to the Officers' Club. He tucked the black glove into his belt and flexed his bare hand. The Wraith stared at the Major's hand the way all of them were doing: with a horrified fascination.

Aiden's mind was spinning like a rodent on a wheel. Sheppard never took off his gloves. Never. He didn't like to be touched. So why was he taking them off now?

"Well, if you're not gonna say anything, Bob, I really don't have the time or the manpower to waste guarding you. And it's not like we can meet your dietary requirements." Sheppard smiled in false apology. "So, if you won't talk to us, how about you just--die." The Major's bare hand stretched out towards the Wraith and Bob shrank away from him, pressed up against the opposite bars of the cell.

Suddenly the Wraith's body jerked, and jerked again as bullets struck it repeatedly. The Major turned and raised an eyebrow at Aiden, who lowered the P-90 he'd just used. The Wraith slid the rest of the way to the floor, dead in a puddle of its own blood.

"Sorry, sir," Aiden apologized hollowly, eyes wide and cold sweat slicking his body. "I couldn't...I couldn't watch you go there, sir."

To his profound relief, Sheppard glanced at the Wraith then shrugged and turned away, putting on his glove again as he left the cell. "No problem, Lieutenant. I think we got whatever we were going to get out of him already."

The Major went to the door of the brig and Aiden followed him, aware of the eyes of the other Marines darting nervously towards Sheppard and away. Aiden had to act like everything was cool, or the men would get more freaked out than they were already. "Clean up the mess, will you Sergeant?" he told Peters.

"Yessir." Peters snapped a salute, his eyes a little wild. Aiden nodded and returned the salute before stepping out of the brig, aware of the men's eyes on him--the only officer between them and their Charmer commander.

He found Sheppard in the hallway, crouching down and leaning heavily against the wall. He was next to Teyla, who was sitting on the floor and leaning against Conroy, who was in almost the same position as she was. Why hadn't they gone to the infirmary?

"Did you get anything, Teyla?" Sheppard was asking, and Aiden realized he was panting like he'd just finished a hard run.

"Yes, Major," Teyla answered him. "Your distraction was most effective. The Wraith never noticed me lurking in his mind once I left the room. Albert and I can make a most comprehensive report of their plans--at least as far as this particular Wraith knows them."

"Good job!" Sheppard's voice was warm, but he was pale and trembling. He began rubbing his temple absently as Aiden watched, as if his head hurt. There were beads of sweat on Sheppard's forehead.

Aiden fumbled in the pockets of his flak jacket, fingers clumsy with relief. It had all been a show. A distraction. Not real. Aiden was so relieved he thought he might just slide down the wall himself, join the rest of them on the floor. "Here you go, sir," Aiden handed Sheppard a packet of glucose tablets. Sheppard grimaced, but took them anyway, with a weak smile. He popped a few, swallowed them down, then handed the pack to Conory, who took them with a surprised blink and a nod of thanks.

"Let's get you to the infirmary for real this time, Teyla," Sheppard told Teyla. Aiden didn't like how weak he sounded. He wondered how much of an act it had been for Sheppard to walk so casually out of the room.

"I am fine, Major," Tyela protested automatically.

"Let's ask Beckett to check you over, just in case, okay?" Sheppard insisted.

"Yeah, Teyla, that's a good idea. Give the Doc a chance to check the Major out too," Aiden said quickly. He met Teyla's eye and raised an eyebrow, hoping she'd get the hint.

"Nah, I'm fine," Sheppard said dismissively, though he was wiping sweat out of his eyes, and Aiden could easily see how badly his hand was shaking. His eyes were heavy-lidded with obvious pain. "All I need's a few minutes to get my head down."

"Pardon me, sir," Conroy said. "But I'm kind of tuckered out from what we just did too. I don't know if I'll be much good getting Ms. Teyla to the infirmary by myself. If it's not too much trouble, sir...." Bless the guy, Conroy was playing along. Not that he really looked much better, actually. He was white as milk, with most of his grey t-shirt wet through from his own sweat. He and Teyla were leaning against each other like they would each slump to the floor otherwise.

"Yeah, okay, I'll help." Sheppard smiled tiredly, as if he knew they were pulling a fast one on him but was willing to go with it. He pulled himself carefully to his feet, and the rest of them held warily back, knowing better than to offer to help him. Aiden helped Conroy and Teyla get to their feet instead, and followed them as they made their shuffling way to the medical wing.

"Sir," he said softly to Sheppard, walking slowly and stiffly next to him. "Sir, you can't do something like that again. You'll scare the men." He already had.

"I'll keep that in mind, Lieutenant." Sheppard's tired voice was wry. "If any of us survive long enough."

Aiden swallowed hard and kept his mouth shut the rest of the way to the infirmary.


USMC Colonel Dillon Everett strode through the stargate into Atlantis like he owned the place. Well, he supposed he practically did--stamped and sealed from Lieutenant General O'Neill himself. Dil took great pleasure in handing his orders to assume command over to that pretty Dr. Weir. The look on her face! And on Major Sheppard's, the Charmer.

Cowards. Giving up Atlantis without a decent fight. He'd show them what properly led Marines could do. And after he and his men had whooped some Wraith ass, Dil had a bone to pick with that Charmer, too.

Dil Everett had known Marshall 'Swampy' Sumner since OCS. They'd served together a long time, and kept in touch when they weren't posted at the same base. Swampy had been there for Dil during the breakup of his marriage, and Dil had been the first person Swampy called when his own wife and son had died during childbirth, so many years ago. Swampy was the oldest friend, and the closest thing to a 'best' friend, that Dil had. And this smirking, pansy-assed Charmer bastard had killed him.

The report had read that it was a mercy killing, but in Dil's experience, reports lied or conveniently shaded the truth far too often. It was just too perfect that with Swampy out of the way, this lousy Charmer had been able to just take command. Dil had never trusted people with the mental Gifts, anyway, Charmers least of all. He was aware it was hypocritical of him, since he was Gifted himself--but his own Gift, telekinesis, was strictly physical, and suitably martial as well. Not sneaky and slimy like a Charmer's sleazy Gift. And yeah, Swampy's Gift had been labeled 'mental' too, but that had never mattered to him. Swampy's Gift always came off more like an advanced case of intuition. "This situation really stinks," Swampy would say ominously, and Dil always knew that it was more than Swamp's opinion, that something was really wrong. Or Swampy would pronounce someone as "smelling kind of oily", and Dil would know they were a Goddamn liar. But, dammit, if somebody or something smelled bad, Swamp would say it, not use his power to manipulate them, or dredge out all that person's secrets, or make them do something against their will.

And just in case Dil hadn't already taken him for a no-good sonofabitch, the damn Charmer had the gall to challenge Dil's authority in favor of backing the woman, Dr. Weir, skirting right on the edge of insubordination. Dil allowed himself to be maneuvered into explaining his plan to Weir, but he made sure the Charmer knew he was on thin ice. "Major, this is the last time I give you an order twice, y'hear?"

"Yessir," Sheppard said briskly, all business. Then he went off to recall the troops evacuated to the Alpha Site.

Dil set about setting up the defense of Atlantis, rescuing all their useless pansy assess. He wished he could've included the Athosian girl in his plans--she was really something--but he'd seen the report about the Wraith's ability to take over her mind, and she was just too much of a security risk. It was a shame, since he liked a girl who could kick ass, especially one as pretty as she was.

And then the setbacks began.

They survived by the skin of their teeth, but that had only been the first wave of Wraith darts. And there were two Hive ships still coming. Dil had to admit he was a hell of a lot less optimistic at the second tactical meeting than he had been at the first. He was beginning to think that he'd underestimated the Wraith.

"I know we've discussed this before, but the circumstances have just changed," McKay said. He rubbed the center of his forehead vigorously, as if he was trying to keep his brain working. Dil found himself suddenly feeling quite a bit of sympathy for the man, and no small amount of awe that he could keep going, under all this pressure and with no sleep. No small amount of awe for all the expedition members around him.

He was beginning to think that he'd underestimated them, too.

"We know from Antarctica that the Chair is not just a control mechanism for the drones, which we now no longer have," McKay continued. "It also tremendously amplifies the power of whatever Gifted person sits in it. My Gift is creating shields. If I use the chair, I might be able to shield the city--"

"No," Sheppard barked immediately, so loudly and forcefully that Dil blinked and stared at him. "I already told you, you're not doing that." The Charmer had been so controlled until this moment, Dil hadn't thought there was any genuine emotion in him. Apparently, he'd been wrong. "We also know," Sheppard continued more calmly, albeit through clenched teeth, "that the Chair drains anyone using their Gift faster than normal as well. You'd be dead inside an hour."

"It at least buys us an extra hour to think of something else to do!" Rodney shot back hotly.

"Oh, yeah? And who's going to think of it, with you dead, Rodney?" grit Sheppard, clenching his fists. "You're the one who's always bragging that he can pull miracles out of his genius ass! What happens when you're not around to do that?"

McKay sank down into one of the chairs in the control room, hands over his eyes, and Dil could practically feel his exhaustion, pushing against him like a wall. Dr. Weir abruptly stood up and paced a few feet away, to stand next to one of the consoles with her arms crossed. "Well, right now my genius ass is right out of miracles, Major. I've got nothing. Nothing at all." He scrubbed his hands over his face. "I'm too tired, I can't think. I can't think of anything else, okay?"

"Rodney," Sheppard said in a low voice, as he went to stand next to the other man. That was all, though. Any other decent human being would have gripped his friend's shoulder in a show of support, or patted his back or something. Sheppard just stood there, looking pained, those dumbass gloved hands hanging at his sides.

Apparently, it was enough anyway. McKay looked up over his shoulder at Sheppard and met his eyes. He nodded soberly, then suddenly blinked and turned back to Dil. "Did you bring a Healer with you?"

What that had to do with anything, Dil had no idea, but he answered the man anyway. "Yes, of course, we brought the best the SGC could spare."

"No, no. I mean a serious, world-class Healer!" Rodney was standing and snapping his fingers at him. "A Healer the caliber of Janet Fraiser!"

Dil grinned at the bombshell he was gonna land on them. "We got the good Dr. Fraiser herself! She'll be here when the Daedalus arrives. She couldn't come with the first wave. Had to arrange for childcare for her daughter."

"Great! That's great." Rodney was pacing back and forth. "But she might not get here in time to do us that much good. Do you have any decent Healers with you now? I'm thinking if I'm on a glucose IV drip, with a really good Healer standing by, I could shield the control tower at least, for a day, maybe two."

"Rodney, no! You can't!" Sheppard protested again, but this time it sounded more desperate than angry. Dil figured that maybe the two of them were better friends that he had thought.

"If you can think of anything else, Major, I'd love to hear it!" McKay snapped.

"I have an idea!" That was Zelenka--the wild-haired, little man who seemed to be Jiminy Cricket to McKay's Pinoccio. "Why shield, when we can attack? The losses from the weapons satellite slowed the Wraith down. If we manage to destroy another ship, perhaps they will slow down yet again. All we need is to purchase time, no?"

"Yeah!" Sheppard agreed, his expression fierce. "We target the Hive ships! We fly the puddle jumper in stealth mode right down their throats."

Dil frowned, to hide how stunned he was. "Are you volunteering for a suicide mission?" he asked.

"That is almost my idea, Major," Zelenka interrupted, speaking smoothly over McKay's sudden and surprisingly horrified, No! directed at Sheppard. "But I see no need for you to fly to your death, when we have a man with teleport Gift on Atlantis."

McKay looked at Zelenka like he'd just gone nuts. "You want Markham to teleport a puddle jumper?"

Zelenka rolled his eyes. "Not puddle jumper!" He looked at Sheppard, his almost comical face suddenly going as fierce as Sheppard's had before. "Nuclear weapons."

"Wait," Sheppard said, raising his hand. "Markham's still in the infirmary, isn't he? And doesn't he need to see where to teleport something to?" Sheppard frowned over the idea.

"Well, we do have a Healer who can get your man out of the infirmary," Dil offered. "He's not quite Dr. Fraiser's quality, but if your man is a Marine, he'll do half the work himself."

"Wait!" McKay exclaimed, snapping his fingers. "Teyla! Teyla and Conroy!" He practically yelled their names, waving his hands. "Teyla can look right into the Wraith ship through the Wraith's own eyes! And Conroy can do the same thing he did with Teyla before, and use his telepathy to let Markham 'see' through her eyes as well. It can work! Especially if we put Markham in the Chair, and amplify his teleporting Gift."

"Except you're all forgetting that we don't have any nuclear bombs left," Dr. Weir chimed in, indicating the sensor screens still fuzzy from the Wraith's detonation of the nuclear space-mines.

Sheppard exchanged a look with McKay. "I think I know where we can get another nuke," he said meaningfully.

Weir's eyebrows climbed up her forehead. "Major," she said, "I don't know how sympathetic the Genii'll be to our situation."

"The Genii?" Dil asked. Who the hell were the Genii?

He was completely ignored. "They want to test their weapon," Sheppard said, like this was somehow obvious. "Now's their chance."

"Let me pass!"

Dil cocked his head. "Was that your Athosian girl, Major?" he asked Sheppard.

Sheppard frowned. "She's not my anything, sir. But it is Teyla." They went over to the balcony to see the Athosian trying to get past the guards. Dil signaled to them to stand down.

Teyla looked up at them. "I need to talk to Dr. Weir!"

"Yes, Teyla?" Weir answered her, concerned. "What's the matter?"

"The Wraith!" said the girl. "The Wraith are in Atlantis!"

"Damn! They must have beamed in when they made those kamikaze runs, like that one did before," said Sheppard. "Teyla can sense them."

"We've got to have a little talk about you giving me all your intel, Major," Dil warned him. "I'll deal with cleaning up these Wraith. I'd like you and Dr. McKay to work on that bright idea y'all had. Ma'am," Dil nodded to Weir. "I can't think of anyone better suited to talking anyone out of anything than your sweet self. Are you willing to try to get that nuclear weapon for us?"

Weir nodded gravely, but the ghost of a smile quirked her lips. "With such a charming invitation, Colonel, how could I refuse?"

Dil smiled winningly at her. "Pull this off, and I'll buy you a drink." He turned to the others. "Get busy everybody!" He came down the stairs, as the group scattered. "Now Ms. Emmagan," he said to the Athosian. "Do you have any ideas for cleaning out this Wraith infestation we seem to have?"

The girl straightened and nodded, her expression regal. Dil could well believe she was a tribal leader. "Yes, Colonel. I do."

"Excellent." Dil nodded. "Let's get to it!"


Dil Everett signaled his men to halt while he acknowledged the call over his communicator. "Dr. Weir! Back already, are you?"

"Yes Colonel." She sounded triumphant, but exhausted. Of course, Dil knew that all the expedition members were beyond mere exhaustion at this point. "I've obtained two nuclear devices from the Genii."

Dil grinned. "Well, good for you! I do believe I owe you a drink, Dr. Weir."

Her answering smile came through even over the comm. "We're not out of the woods yet, Colonel. Dr. McKay says the devices will need some fine-tuning before we're going to be able to use them."

"I'm sure the good doctor will have them up and running in no time," Dil assured her, tuning out the grousing he could hear from McKay in the background. "Meanwhile, I'll be Wraith-hunting if you need me."

"Very good, Colonel. Dr. Grodin tells me that we can expect the second wave of Wraith darts within the next hour or two."

"We should have this infestation mopped up by then," Dil told her, with only a little more confidence than he actually felt. "We'll be ready for them, Doctor. And let's hope Major Sheppard manages to have his little surprise ready for them as well. Everett out."

"I sincerely hope so, Colonel," Weir answered him. "Weir out."

Dil signaled his men to fan out.

***

Radek Zelenka swore copiously as he dropped another set of pliers.

"I know, I know," Rodney commiserated, shoulders-deep in the casing of his own nuclear device. "The Genii must have put these things together with the 'Dr. Science' kits they got for their equivalent of Christmas."

Radek wiped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve and retrieved the pliers. "No, Rodney, it is not the Lego-constructed nuclear device that has me fumble-fingered. It is the drugs. Medication Dr. Beckett has given us so that we may work instead of sleep. It makes my hands shake, Gift harder to use. I am concerned I will make mistake."

"Ah sleep! Sleeeep, wonderful sleep," Rodney crooned. He sighed. "We get to sleep when this is over. Or when we're dead, whichever comes first. You're not allowed to make any mistakes in the meantime, Radek."

"I know that," Radek blinked hard to clear the blurriness from his vision. "I will not make any errors, Rodney," he promised.


The damned Wraith were right out of a particularly cheesy horror movie, thought Dil, as he emptied his clip into one. It jerked back with every bullet, but it kept on coming, relentlessly. Dil remembered vaguely reading in one of the reports that when a Wraith was so resilient to damage, it meant that the damned thing had fed recently. Damned right it had fed, on one of his men, Goddammit! If he'd had even one lousy minute to concentrate, he could hit it with his Gift, but it just kept coming. With a grimace, Dil pulled out his pistol and started shooting again.


"Are you up to this, Sergeant?" Sheppard asked. Markham still looked more than a little pale.

But, "That new Healer, Olivetti, fixed me up good as new, sir," Markham said staunchly. Sheppard narrowed his eyes a bit, noticing the worried look on the face of Markham's buddy Stackhouse. He sighed. They didn't have any choice.

"Okay, the Doc's going to set you up with an IV glucose drip to keep your blood sugar up," Sheppard told him. And thank God the SGC had thought to send more of those. "Conroy's just reported in that he's on his way, and Rodney will be here in a few minutes with the first of the nukes. Once I get hold of Teyla, we'll be ready."

"Aye, sir," acknowledged Markham.

"You," Sheppard told Stackhouse, "get to stand guard duty. Make sure no Wraith get to these guys while they're doing their thing. Got it?"

"Aye, aye, sir!" Stackhouse said smartly.

Sheppard grinned and shook his head. Marines. Gotta love 'em.

He touched his comm. "Teyla? Report. Teyla?"

Where was Teyla?


Teyla whirled and swung down hard with her bantos rod, striking the Wraith in the head again. And again. She backed away quickly when the Wraith roared and swung a clawed hand at her. She darted in again and knocked its hand aside as it reached for her, then backed away a few more steps. She had succeeded in luring it away from Colonel Everett, but she did not believe she would be able to defeat it with her bantos rods alone.

When she and her team had come across Colonel Everett's dead men, and the Wraith beginning to feed on Colonel Everett himself, she had known that she couldn't shoot it with the Earth-people's P-90s. Wounding a Wraith while it fed simply made it feed faster as it drained the strength to heal itself from the victim it fed upon. Instead, she knocked the Wraith away from Everett, with her 'sticks' as the Major called them, and proceeded to lure it away while the rest of her team rescued the Colonel.

Now would be a good time to employ the P-90, though. Her bantos rods gave her no hope of actually defeating the Wraith. She simply kept it at bay while she wracked her mind for what to do next.

Suddenly, she heard a 'whoosh' sound, and the Wraith moved abruptly away from her, as if shoved by invisible hands. The bark of more than one P-90 had the Wraith jerking in place as bullets riddled it. She aimed her own weapon and shot at it as well. It finally fell to the ground, but she shot it many more times, just to make certain.

Finally, Teyla looked over at her benefactors. Dalia, Halling's sister's eldest daughter, nodded and smiled at her shyly, brandishing her P-90. Cpl. Jeter grinned at her, and hiked his own P-90 in salute.

Ralke, Charin's niece's husband, and Sgt. Debusschere stood on each side of Colonel Everett, supporting him.

"Colonel, are you well?" Teyla asked him with concern.

"Thanks to you, pretty lady," he said, smiling. The Wraith had not done much damage, his face hardly showed any of the signs of ageing. "That was some impressive ass-whooping you did."

He straightened and gently shook off his supporters. "I'm just a mite tired from using my Gift."

"That,"--Teyla mimed a push with both hands--"Was you, Colonel?"

He nodded. "Not as impressive as what you can do with your bare hands, little lady, but not bad for an old Colonel, don't you think?" He shook his head. "That was a Wraith. Huh. Any of you fellas have something to eat?" His expression was genial, but his eyes were a little haunted.

That was when Teyla finally heard Major Sheppard's summons over the communications channel.

"Yes, Major. This is Teyla. Yes, certainly. I am on my way. I should be there in a few minutes."

Teyla turned to her team. "Major Sheppard has summoned me for my part in our attempt against the Wraith ships. You will please excuse me, Colonel. Ralke, Cpl. Jeter, Sgt. Debusschere, would you please stay with Colonel Everett? Dalia, kindly accompany me."

She had turned to leave, Dalia in her wake, when Colonel Everett spoke again. "Good luck, Teyla. By damn, I wish I had a dozen like you in my command."

"Stay away from the Wraith, Colonel," Teyla advised him with a somber nod, then she turned and ran down the corridor.


"Are you sure you can handle this, Conroy?" Sheppard asked him again. You couldn't tell by his voice or expression how much the Major still disliked and distrusted him, Al had to give him that. Even the tone of his thoughts was brisk and business-like, and someone with a less powerful Gift wouldn't have been able to read the Major's opinion of him underneath the focus on the mission.

Dr. Heightmeyer had said Al was one of the most powerful Telepaths she knew of, and Al could easily read that Sheppard would probably never trust him, because he'd hurt Dr. McKay.

It didn't matter. Al knew he should be focused on the task at hand. Defeating the Wraith was a lot more important than the fact that the Major might never forgive him. So Al nodded his response to Sheppard as firmly as he could.

He was glad Dr. Heightmeyer had joined them, though. She was a silent, supportive presence in the background, looking very out of place with a pistol strapped into a holster on her thigh. Wierdly, Dr. McKay also had confidence in him, even though he'd been the victim when Al had gone a little nuts. It would have been comforting to linger in McKay's thoughts, as it had been from the very beginning, but McKay was fiercely focused on the task at hand as well, and underneath that he was a jumble of thoughts and emotions, most of them colored with terror over their situation, and all of them soaked so completely with such deep weariness that it made Al feel sleepy just to dwell on them too long.

"We will be fine, Major," Teyla assured Sheppard. Her slim, strong hand gripped Al's firmly, her strong, disciplined mind sliding into a link with his own as easily as if they'd practiced this every day. Do not fret, Albert, Teyla's thoughts consoled him. I have every faith in your abilities, and your protection. You have already kept me safe from the Wraith many times. The only ones with anything to fear from this exercise are the Wraith. The grim, somewhat bloodthirsty overtones of that last thought were oddly comforting.

Al reached up for Sgt. Markham's hand. They were all seated, so they'd have less chance of falling and hurting themselves if they collapsed from exhaustion. They all had IV glucose drips too, to keep their blood sugar up when the time came. Markham was in the Control Chair, which McKay said would amplify his Gift, though it would also drain his energy more quickly. Al could read how tired Markham's still was just underneath his resolute surface thoughts, and the fear he was trying to hide, even from himself. Al caught the edge of Markham's thought, Goodbye, Danny, as the Sergeant glanced at Stackhouse, who was stationed at the doorway, but he turned down the 'volume' on it, so he couldn't distinguish anything else. All he had to know was that it was private. Al had spent a lot of time with Dr. Heightmeyer, training himself to recognize the tone of private thoughts and learning to automatically ignore them.

Markham reached down to clasp Al's hand in his own, with a nervous look that matched his nervous thoughts. "I can already read what you're thinking, Sergeant," Al told him with a teasing smile, to make the other man more comfortable. "Doc Heightmeyer taught me how to tune it down so that I don't really understand it, though. It's just like a kind of hum in the back of my head." Markham was smiling back, reassured, as their hands joined.

Except here, we'll be able to speak to each other, mind-to-mind, Al thought to Markham. Can you 'hear' me?

Uh-huh. This is weird, thought Jamie Markham.

Tell me about it! Al thought. He 'heard' Teyla and Jamie's amusement/sympathy.

Jamie, we've already been told how this will work, but lets go over it again and show you, okay? Al thought to him. Jamie nodded.

You can "hear" Ms. Teyla, right? Al asked.

Hi, Teyla.

Hello, Jamie.

Good, Al told them. Now, the plan is to have Ms. Teyla focus on one of the Hive ships that're coming, and use her link to the Wraith to find a good spot to plant the nuke. I see what Ms. Teyla sees and, through me, you'll be able to see it too. Hopefully well enough to teleport the nuke right into that ship. Are you good with that? Can you see what Ms. Teyla is seeing, Jamie?

It's weird. It's making me dizzy, Jamie complained.

Close your eyes, Sergeant. It will help, Teyla said.

I'm just going to be the connection, okay guys? I won't be paying no mind to what you're thinking unless you holler real loud, so remember to do that if you want me to pull y'all out or help you, okay? Al explained.

"Are they okay? They're awfully quiet," Dr. McKay whispered loudly.

Al blinked his eyes open, derailed from his train of thought. McKay's thoughts and worries were loud, clinking around like ice cubes in an empty glass.

"They're fine, Rodney," soothed Dr. Heightmeyer. "They're just going over what they're about to do so that they're prepared."

"Ah, okay. Just remember to warn me before the Sergeant teleports the nuclear device, Conroy," McKay pointed at him impatiently. "I have to arm it and start the countdown before he transports it, or else we're just giving the Wraith a nice present, not bombing them."

Al found himself grinning at McKay's quip. He nodded. The Doc was right, that was an important point. Did you hear that, Jamie? We have to warn Dr. McKay before you send the nuke over so that he can set the countdown, okay?

Yeah, got it. Jamie was impatient to start. He activated the control chair. Through him, both Al and Teyla could feel the feedback from the Ancient technology, the potential from Jamie's Gift gathering, ready to be used.

What a rush! Al wasn't sure which one of them thought that.

Let us begin, Teyla said simply. She began breathing to put herself into a state of hypnosis.

"We're starting, Major," Al warned Sheppard, before letting himself sink into his own trance-state.


"Okay, that's freaky," John mumbled to Rodney, and exchanged a little grin with him before they both remembered the complicated knot between them and froze up again. Keep your head in the game, John! he scolded himself.

"I am on the Wraith ship," Teyla said, eerily calm. "They are eager to reach Atlantis. Eager to seek their new feeding grounds." Seated next to her, Conroy mouthed the same words, a beat behind her, like her personal mime. It was still just as creepy as it'd been the first time John had seen it. The Healer, Sgt. Johansen, accompanied by several nurses, hovered behind them all.

"Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick!" breathed Marham suddenly. "I see them! I see them too! Are we looking through a Wraith's eyes, Teyla? Damn, that's fucked up." Conroy's mouth formed Marham's words as well.

"Quick, Sergeant, before they notice Teyla and try to take her over like they did the last time," John warned him. "See if you can get a bead on where to park the nuke."

"Yeah," Markham swallowed heavily. "Yeah, get it ready. I think I see a good spot."

A few moments later, Rodney stepped back to stand next to John. The nuke was emitting a low beeping sound, and a little red light was blinking on top of the casing. "It's ready to go anytime you are, Sergeant."

"Okay," Markham's voice sounded anxious. "Okay, NOW!"

The device blinked out of sight with a faint pop of displaced air, and Markham immediately gasped, then sagged in the Control Chair, which shut down and went dark.

Teyla's sudden scream was horrifying, the more so when it stopped, like a sound track abruptly cut off. She lolled in her chair as well, and began to slide out of it. Rodney dashed in and supported her body as it slid to the floor.

Next to her, Conroy had released both the hands he'd held and doubled over in his chair, holding his head and vomiting on the floor between his feet.

Heightmeyer crouched over him, rubbing his back. "Albert! Albert, are you all right? What happened?"

"Feedback." He gasped and coughed. "Oh, my head. God. Hurts."

"Get him something to wash his mouth out and something for the pain," John told one of the nurses, who was looking unsure as to what he should do. "Conroy, report. Did it work?"

"Yes. Sir," Conroy gasped. "Worked. Just. Stayed too long. Feedback. All Wraith dead at once. Screamed."

"Good job," Sheppard told him, vastly relieved. He turned to Rodney. "How is Teyla doing? How's Markham?"

"I think she just fainted," Rodney offered, subdued, as he held her in his arms. The nurse checking Teyla's vitals nodded. "She just got a shock to her system and passed out."

Sgt. Johansen had gone to Markham as soon as the chair had shut down. Now he looked up, sweating and fumbling to swallow some glucose tablets. Apparently he'd been healing the Sergeant. "We need to get him to the infirmary immediately," Johansen said. "Olivetti needs to heal him as well. I can't do more than this. He's just too weak."

"Do it. Let's go. Let's get these people taken care of," Sheppard ordered. He ran a hand through his hair, wishing he could dredge up enough energy to feel anything other than thankful it had worked.

He looked at Markham, his limp body being gently transferred to a gurney, and wondered how the hell they'd ever manage to do this again.


"Colonel, I hear you had a little run-in with the Wraith," Weir said, leaning forward in her seat. She, Grodin, Everett, and John were sitting in the conference room, waiting for Rodney, Beckett, and Heightmeyer to join them.

"Not exactly an experience I'm all that eager to repeat," Everett said, rubbing at the center of his chest, lumpy under his shirt with what must have been a bandage. A Wraith feeding scar. John studied him. Everett looked nothing like Sumner had, at the end. He didn't even look as bad as Brendan Gall had. If he'd never met Everett before, John wouldn't have been able to tell that anything had happened to him.

Abruptly Everett locked gazes with John. "Major, I wasn't gonna tell you this, but Marshall Sumner was a good friend of mine. We served together a lot of years. You know, when I first got here, I could not for the life of me figure how it was that you could go as far as you did and not save him. Worse, you admitted to firing the shot that killed him--"

"Sir," John interrupted, leaning forward. "There isn't a night that doesn't go by where that moment doesn't play in my head. By the time I'd reached Colonel Sumner--"

Everett slammed his hand down on the table, making John blink and shut up. "What I was gonna tell you, boy, is that I owe you an apology!"

"Sir?" John sat back in confusion.

Everett looked down at his hand, back to rubbing his chest. "Now that I've met the Wraith up close and personal, I believe I would have done the same thing as you did when you found Colonel Sumner. I saw what that thing did to my men. I believe you did what Swampy would have wanted." He gave John a small, sad smile. "Thank you."

John swallowed. "Thank you, sir." He gave Everett the best salute he could remember how to make, then gave in to the need to cover his eyes with his gloved hands for a moment.

Then Rodney came in the conference room, talking on his comm. "I don't care, Radek. Use whatever resources we have. What's the use of saving anything? Either the SGC will be able to resupply us eventually, or else we'll all be dead and we won't care anymore. I'm at the meeting, I've got to go." He slumped down in the seat next to Weir and looked around. "You haven't started yet, have you?"

"No, Rodney, we're waiting for Drs. Beckett and Heightmeyer," Weir told him, the faintest tinge of amusement at Rodney's antics in her voice.

"Oh, good. Wake me when it's time to start." Rodney carefully put down his laptop, folded his arms on top of the conference table, and pillowed his head in them. Five seconds later, they could all hear his soft snores.

Weir rubbed her fingers over her mouth, as if that could erase her reluctant smile. She raised her eyebrows in apology to Everett. "We're all very tired. We've been working long hours under incredible stress for weeks. But Dr. McKay...I honestly have no idea how long it's been since Rodney got any more sleep than that." She tilted her head in the direction of Rodney's slumped shoulders.

Everett nodded understandingly and leaned back in his own chair, rubbing slowly at his chest and looking off into the distance with a troubled gaze.

John tried to make notes or to think of something productive, but he kept sneaking glances at Rodney. He was incredibly tired himself. He fought dual impulses to either mimic Rodney and take a little nap, or to lean forward and stroke Rodney's hair.

Something made him look up at Weir and catch a too-knowing look in her eye. He flushed and looked away. He kept forgetting that she could feel everything he did. John pushed back his chair and went to the side-table and its basket of snacks. He picked up a couple of pieces of fruit and some Power bars, and went down the table, distributing them. Grodin nodded his thanks over the Athosian plums without looking up from his laptop. Weir didn't raise her eyes as she thanked him for the almost-grapes, and Everett raised his eyebrows over the bright blue Pegasus version of apples, but took one anyway. John carefully placed a Power bar on Rodney's computer, and went back to his seat, gnawing on his own Power bar.

Beckett and Heightmeyer finally showed up a few minutes later.

A discreet poke from Weir woke Rodney, who simply inhaled sharply and sat up, pulling his laptop open and tearing open his Power bar as if he took five minute naps every day. For all John knew of his work habits in the labs, he might.

"So, what's the news, Carson?" Weir asked, steepling her hands in front of her.

"I'm afraid it's bad news," Beckett said. "Lt. Olivetti was able to heal young Markham enough that I can be fairly sure that he'll make a full recovery, but he'll need several days' rest before he'll be able to attempt this again."

"We don't have that time, Doctor," Everett said grimly.

"Aye, I know," Beckett agreed unhappily. "But another bout of using that Chair will kill the lad." He raised his hand. "And, before you ask, he's already volunteered to make the sacrifice." Beckett sighed. "However, in my medical opinion, I don't believe he has the strength to do anything useful at the moment. He will certainly die, but it well may be for nothing. I doubt that, even with the Chair boosting him, he could teleport so much as a paperclip right now."

"That's it, then," said Weir, despair in her voice. "We'll have to evacuate and destroy the city after all."

"There's still the puddle jumpers," John said levelly. "And another nuke."

Weir's eyes widened, and Everett opened his mouth, but Rodney cut him off.

"How is Conroy?" Rodney asked, not looking up from his computer.

Beckett looked startled, as did Heightmeyer. They looked at each other.

"Everett's Healer took care of his migraine and exhaustion, and he's doing much better," said Heightmeyer carefully, looking at Rodney with curiosity.

"Aye," agreed Beckett. "A good meal and the lad will be right as rain. Teyla recovered nicely as well. I'd like her to rest a wee bit longer, but her Gift is not like ours. She should be fine."

"Good." Rodney nodded. He turned to Grodin. "Peter, how far away are the Wraith now? Did our attack slow them down?"

Grodin took a breath. "Well, as you know, our long-range sensors are still not working properly. However, the one shot we were able to get off with the defense satellite destroyed one of their Hive ships, and that set them back considerably. It's probably slowed down their advance a day or two. As far as Dr. Simpson has been able to see with her Gift, Markham's effort did indeed destroy another Hive ship, and apparently bought us more time." He looked apologetic. "I'm afraid not as much as a few days. A day, perhaps. Two at most."

Rodney rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Good. I think--I think that'll give us enough time. Zelenka and I have thought of a way that I can shield the city for at least a few days."

John shot to his feet before he realized he was going to. "Are you crazy? You can't do that! What part of the Chair is going to suck you dry don't you get? You can't possibly hold a shield over even a part of the city for more than a couple hours before it kills you! We already talked about this."

Rodney met his eyes and lifted his chin. "Leaving aside the absurdity of telling me I can't sacrifice myself when you're still hell-bent on blowing yourself up--"

"Rodney," John growled.

Rodney ignored him completely. "--I'm not going to sit in the Chair, Major. You will."

John felt like he'd been punched in the gut. He sat down abruptly. "What? What are you talking about? I can't shield anything."

"No," Rodney said pointedly. "But you can direct the Control Chair. The ATA gene doesn't just give us Gifts, in case you've forgotten--it activates the Ancient technology. And you, Major, have the most powerful expression of ancient technology activation here. If Conroy can link us, like he did Teyla and Markham, you should be able to direct my shield power."

"But what good does that do, Rodney?" Weir asked the question first. "The Chair will still drain either you or the Major, won't it? This way the worst-case scenario is that you both die. I don't see how that's an improvement."

Instead of answering her, Rodney tilted his head towards Heightmeyer. "Conroy doesn't actually need to be in physical contact to do that conduit trick, does he?"

Heightmeyer frowned, but answered him anyway. "No. No, he doesn't. It augments the visualization he uses to help him perform the activity, but he doesn't need to physically be in contact. It just comforts most people."

Rodney waved that away. "I'm not most people." He faced Weir. "Zelenka and I have been modifying the stasis chamber we found with the Old You," he told her.

"Why?" Weir asked simply, her forehead wrinkled.

"So that I can be inside while the Major uses my shield power," Rodney explained, like that should have been obvious. "Zelenka and I are hoping that the stasis field will slow my metabolism down enough so that I can last until the Daedalus gets here with the ZPM and we can engage Atlantis' own shields." Rodney sat back, looking triumphant and determined, as he often did when he revealed the brilliant solution to a problem, but expected objections from less brilliant minds.

John sat there and felt waves of cold washing through him, so bad that it was taking all his control not to shake. All the same, he made the objection that Rodney was so obviously expecting. "Even if this works...even if it works, McKay, you could still end up dead. Rodney, I could kill you."

Rodney met his eyes and nodded solemnly. "I guess I'll just have to trust you, Major." The expression in his eyes was utterly open, completely accepting. "My goal is not to die, of course, but either way, at least we'll have bought more time." He broke his gaze from John's and looked down at his hands. "The sacrifice is acceptable to me." He pulled his head up, "Besides," he added briskly, "we're out of other options--other sane and reasonable options," he said quickly when John opened his mouth. "I don't see that we have any other choice."

"You call killing yourself 'sane' and 'reasonable'?" John protested. The ice was in John's lungs now, a heavy weight that made it difficult to draw breath. He aborted Rodney's blurted argument with a wave of his hand. "Even if we shield the city, Rodney, that isn't going to make the Wraith go away. Why should they?" He clenched his hands into fists on the tabletop and looked at Everett. He was trying to make him understand, force him to see the impossibility of Rodney's plan, recognize that John was by far the more expendable one. Don't order me to kill him! "They'll just keep coming, and coming, and coming. Like they did with the Ancients. They've probably already called in their buddies right now."

Everett shook his head slowly. "I have my orders, Major. They are to hold this facility at all costs. And now you have your orders as well." He tilted his head towards Rodney. "Assist Dr. McKay in his plan."

No. John clenched his teeth. "I really think flying a jumper in is a better plan, sir."

"No, Major," Weir said. She glared at him, as if his insistence on the simpler, easier plan was a personal insult. Did she think he wanted to die, or something? But if it came to him or Rodney....

"I am not going to authorize any suicide missions when we have a viable option," Weir said flatly.

"McKay's plan is a suicide mission!"

"Even if his chances are slim to none, Major," Everett snapped, "that's a damn sight better than certain death--and I for one agree with Dr. Weir that we're not going to sacrifice any of our personnel needlessly. And that includes you." The Colonel's eyes narrowed. "What did I tell you about giving an order twice?"

John's heart was a frozen lump of ice, sluggishly pumping icewater through his veins. He looked at Rodney. Please, Rodney. Please don't make me kill you. Say something. Come up with another brilliant plan. Please.

Rodney never looked up.


Carson had insisted on a lot of medical prerequisites before putting the plan into action, of course, but Rodney had expected that. It didn't stop him from complaining about taking the purgatives, or about their inevitable result. It sure as hell wouldn't stop him from complaining about the catheter, either, when the time came, although he wouldn't have been happy soiling himself.

Seeing Sheppard go through the same routine should have comforted him--shared misery and all that--but it didn't, since all it did do was emphasize that Carson's people were expecting to have to perform medical intervention on both of them at some point, and Rodney definitely didn't need that kind of reminder, thank you very much. It also meant that they were each dressed in loose scrubs. Rodney supposed he was grateful it wasn't hospital gowns, leaving their bare asses out for everyone to ogle.

But the scrubs were bad enough, by the look on Sheppard's face. He was finally out of that damned long-sleeved shirt, but Rodney wasn't as happy at the sight as he'd expected to be. Sheppard looked...naked, and not in any good way. He flinched away from anyone who even looked like they might be getting too close, let alone trying to touch him, even for medically necessary purposes. They'd taken Sheppard's gloves, too, and he'd looked about ready to mutiny over that until Carson had cleverly suggested surgical gloves. Worst of all was Sheppard's eyes every time he looked at Rodney: raw misery and sorrow, there for anyone to see.

Rodney tried not to catch Sheppard's gaze, much.

In the Chair room, Rodney noticed Heightmeyer looking at Sheppard and blinking, as if seeing him in a new light. Rodney caught her eye and nodded coldly. Yes, you've been falling down on the job. It's been that bad and you never noticed, let alone did anything about it. As if she could read his thoughts too, Heightmeyer flushed and looked down. It wasn't fair to blame her, though, Rodney knew. At least not entirely. Sheppard was so, so good a hiding his problems, at acting as if there was nothing wrong even if there blatantly was. And the line between 'acceptable eccentricities' and 'needing psychological intervention' was notoriously fine amongst the Gifted. And it wasn't like Heightmeyer didn't have a looney-bin's population of Gifted individuals to look after already, all of them needing her help in some way or other. He himself had.... Well, best not to dwell on that.

Instead, he helped Radek run the final checks on the stasis machine they'd hauled into the Chair room. They'd gotten it to function when it was horizontal, instead of vertically as in its original configuration. Rodney had an inkling he'd want every shred of energy available to him--even the low level effort of standing up might be too much. They'd padded the bottom of it so that he'd be comfortable enough, not that he'd noticed much the few times they'd put him briefly into stasis to try it. You didn't really feel much going on outside your mind during stasis. Even the needs of your body faded to insignificance, its functions slowed to a crawl. The mind stayed active to a point, though. It was more like dreaming than anything else, but Rodney thought it would be enough, that he would have enough volition to activate the shield and let Sheppard take it over, then enough awareness to simply maintain it. It had to be enough.

A little cot and medical equipment had been set up for Conroy in the Chair room as well, and Conroy looked even more forgettably invisible than usual in the medical scrubs, standing around like he was trying to look steadfast and brave, when all he looked like was anxious and out of his depth. Conroy could probably have linked them up from a comfortable bed in the infirmary, and Rodney could have left the damned stasis chamber in the room where they'd found it, instead of going to the trouble to have the thing unhooked and carted in here, then hooked up again with what were probably the highest-tech extension cords in existence. But the psychological factor of having them all in proximity to each other would mean a lot. Rodney had learned not to discount the unquantifiable voodoo of medicine and psychology in his time here (although Carson and Heightmeyer would never get him to admit it), and they needed every advantage they could get.

It all had to be enough. Rodney just hoped it would.


They practiced linking up via Conroy a few times, first with Rodney out of the stasis machine, then with him in it. John was freaked out about the intimacy of it, although Conroy was as invisible as it was possible to be and still be breathing and in the same room. Rodney kept his surface thoughts brisk and business like, and John tried to do the same. It helped that they really needed to focus on the matter at hand, so he couldn't dwell on how strange it was to hear/see/think/experience someone else's thoughts.

They experimented to see if John could wield Rodney's Gift, first with Rodney outside the stasis chamber, then within it. John tried it on little things, very conscious that he didn't want to use up all of Rodney's energy on playing around. Despite the seriousness of the situation, it was still neat to have a Gift that was not his own--a Gift that was useful and downright cool.

But it wasn't very hard not to feel envious, considering Rodney's Gift was most likely going to kill him, with John along to help.

Rodney's Gift had already nearly killed him, expended to protect John himself back on the SuperWraith planet. It still made John's heart stammer to think about it, so he resolutely kept it out of his mind, kept the image of Rodney's body convulsing far from where Rodney or Conroy could pick up on it.

Finally, they had fiddled around and tested all they were going to be able to test.

One last time, Zelenka compulsively checked the Mark II naquada generator that was hooked up to the Chair and the stasis machine, using his Gift and simply laying his hands on each piece of equipment, feeling for any hint of problems. They had all agreed to wait until Elizabeth or Everett told them to put up the shield, to conserve their resources (Rodney! substituted John's mind) until the last moment.

Rodney shook Zelenka's hand firmly, hugged Beckett, and said a brief word of thanks to his medical support team. John took the hint and thanked his own medical team, then tried not to complain too much when they put in the IV lines and the catheter. He radioed Weir and Everett to report on their status. "Colonel, Dr. Weir, we're as ready as we're going to be. Whenever you give the word."

"Acknowledged, Major," said Everett. "Hang tight, son. They're coming. We'll let you know when."

"Good luck, Major. Good luck, Rodney," Weir added.

"Thank you, Elizabeth," said Rodney. "I've, ah, I've left a few final words, and a note for my sister, and for you and the science staff. They're in the documents folder in my area of the network, and also on the hard drive of my favorite laptop. Radek knows which one I mean." He gave a shaky smile. "It's been...it's been a privilege and an honor working with you. With all of you."

"Now, Rodney...." said Weir.

"You're not allowed to talk like that, Rodney," John ground out, glaring at him from across the room. "Tell them yourself when we finish getting rid of the Wraith."

Rodney scowled at him and turned away, settling into the stasis chamber.

"Good luck, gentlemen," said Everett.

"Thank you, sir," John answered him, and sat in the Chair.

"Major Sheppard, I'd like to initiate the connection between yourself and Dr. McKay before he goes into stasis," Conroy spoke up, startling John--he'd forgotten the guy was in the room. "It's easier for me that way."

John swallowed and nodded. "I'm ready, Conroy." He breathed deeply and did the self-hypnosis thing that Heightmeyer had taught him. Soon he felt Conroy's mind slide into his own, a cool, innocuous presence: the lettuce in a sandwich, the moss on a tree, the background hum of an air conditioner, the scent of grass growing.

He felt it when Rodney came into the connection. Rodney's mind was unmistakable, un-ignorable. It was the sun on a cloudless day, a fierce wind blowing on your bare skin, a symphony orchestra playing the 1812 Overture, a hot Indian curry burning its complex flavors on your tongue and opening your sinuses. It was Rodney McKay, in all his grandiloquent, genius, gorgeous glory.

Okay, is everyone good? John asked.

Everything looks all right, sir, Conroy responded.

I'm fine, let's get on with it, groused Rodney, and turned on the stasis device.

The burning, violently lively urgency of Rodney's mind was suddenly muted and slow--dark, thick, sweet molasses, the grand wheeling of stars in the sky, the constant percussive heartbeat of ocean waves crashing onto shore.

And love. Warm and passionate and demanding and gentle and for him--for him--for John, who kept running, and pushing him away. Love for John, who couldn't have it. Who didn't deserve it. Who wanted it so badly.

John reached for it with the pure, mindless need of a plant reaching for light. And for a moment he touched it, and it enveloped him and he was so happy--

John? Oh my God.

John's breath caught like someone had dropped a stone into his chest. He yanked himself back from Rodney so quickly that he saw Conroy flinch.

You're in love with me? Rodney's thoughts, slow like the spin of stars and touched with shock and wonder and a sluggish flare of anger, like a slow-motion flash of lightning. You asshole! How can you be in love with me?

I'm sorry, John sent back to him. He forced himself to uncoil, to let Rodney know how he felt, that it was true; he loved him. God, Rodney. I'm so sorry.

I don't understand you. Lava, tumbling down the slope of a volano. Why do you keep pushing me away, John? What happened? What the hell is wrong with you?

Rodney--

Suddenly, Conroy was diffidently requesting his attention. Major? It's Dr. Weir, sir.

"NOW, Major! Put up the shield now!" Came Weir's frantic voice. "The Hive ship is in orbit over the planet, and another wave of darts is headed towards Atlantis!"

Let's go, Rodney, John sent, knowing it carried an undercurrent of love/terror/despair/determination.

Fine, Rodney answered, and the undercurrent of terror was there as well, but it was firmly overlaid with confidence/hope/trust/anger/love. So much love. Go.

John activated the Control Chair, feeling the potential grow like a nova blooming behind his spine. And then he seized Rodney's shield like a net of glowing gold, and flung it around his city.


"Yes, Colonel. Rodney's shield is active now. I'm sure your men can deal with the Wraith darts that were trapped inside the shield. Of course, Colonel Everett. Thank you. I know that you'll deal with any Wraith that managed to beam into the city as well. I'll keep you apprised of any new circumstances from here. Yes, certainly. Good luck, Colonel. Weir out."

Elizabeth sighed, and let her head rest on her folded arms on her desk for a moment, just a moment. Colonel Everett was a brave man. When he'd been in the control room earlier, she could feel the waves of terror he tried to hide as he got ready to go out and eliminate the Wraith that had beamed into the city before Rodney and John had been able to shield it. Everyone in Atlantis had been walking around with low-level terror in their bellies for days--it made it that much harder for Elizabeth to control her own fear when she was constantly bombarded with everyone else's. But Everett had actually experienced a Wraith beginning to feed from him, and he had still gone out again to make sure the Wraith were contained himself, when he could have justifiably stayed in the command center and ordered subordinates to go in his stead. He knew, though, that they needed every able-bodied person to defend the city, and that Elizabeth could coordinate the defense as well as he could. She had read his trust and confidence in her, hard-won as that had been. A brave man.

Elizabeth lifted her head as someone came up to her office. Sgt. Campbell and Peter Grodin were only allowing certain people in, so she wouldn't be swamped with emotions all the time. Whoever this was would be important.

Elizabeth blinked the tired blurring out of her eyes to see Radek Zelenka, politely standing at the entrance of her office, waiting to be invited in.

"How is it going, Dr. Zelenka?" she asked him, smiling. She continued smiling through the rush of nervousness, admiration, and a brief flare of the attraction he felt towards her.

He squelched it quickly. Like Sergeant Bates, Radek was one of the few people who didn't fool themselves about the extent of Elizabeth's abilities. He was well aware that she would pick up his emotions--all his emotions, appropriate or not--all the time. That she couldn't shut it off.

It meant he was always a little shy around her, a little nervous, especially since he obviously admired her and found her attractive. His feelings of admiration and desire were always profound, he couldn't seem to help it, but they were always quickly suppressed, since he knew she could pick up on it. He was always a touch embarrassed by what he felt as well. But he never behaved inappropriately. He never let it interfere with their work.

A brave man as well, albeit in a different way, to know his heart was an open book before her and still work professionally with her, and not expect anything from her, or blame her, as she knew some people had done in the past and still did sometimes.

Elizabeth let her smile grow warm.

Radek smiled back at her, taking off his glasses and wiping off the smudged lenses with the hem of his shirt. He basked in the attention from her, but they really didn't have the time, so she toned down her smile a bit and raised her eyebrow in inquiry.

"Yes?" she prompted.

"Oh! Yes, I have come to report." He put his glasses back on and straightened them nervously. "Rodney's shield is functioning well so far. The stasis chamber seems to function as we had theorized it might, slowing down his metabolism enough that the effort is draining him more slowly as well. The intravenous nutrients Dr. Beckett insisted on also seem to be helping." Radek ran a hand through his hair. "Major Sheppard is being drained by the Chair more quickly than we had hoped, even though he is not using his Gift, merely directing Rodney's." At her look, he hastened to reassure her. "He is well, also. No need to worry yet." He frowned. "I might say differently by tomorrow."

Best not to dwell on that. "The rest of the city?" she asked.

Radek nodded. "I have damage control teams attending to the most critical systems destroyed by the Wraith weapons or their sabotage. However, I would suggest not trying to take a shower until this is over, one way or another."

Elizabeth chuckled weakly. "Much though I would like to, I don't have time to even contemplate a shower right now, much less indulge in one."

Concern for her rang like a bell from him. He picked up a few pieces of fruit from the basket on her side table. "Come, Dr. Weir. You deserve a short break. To eat, and rest your eyes." When she began to protest he shook his head firmly. "No. Come with me, please. I wish to show you something important."

Although she thought it was most likely a ploy to get her to take a break, Elizabeth got up anyway, took an Athosian plum from his hand--she was ravenous and hadn't even realized it--and followed him out to one of the balconies.


On the balcony, Elizabeth stood next to Radek and breathed deeply of the fresh air, then wished she hadn't. She smelled burning. Parts of her city were still on fire. The sky outside was the usual clear blue of Atlantis, but it was shot through with glints of pale gold, as if the sunlight were frozen, crystallized in mid-air. As she watched, a patch of sky overhead bloomed orange-gold, like a chrysanthemum.

"Oh my God! What's that? Is that, is that Rodney's shield?" Elizabeth asked, torn between wonder and horror.

She didn't need Radek to answer out loud, she could feel the confirmation as his emotions washed over her, awe and worry and a sympathetic wince of imagined pain. "Yes, that is Rodney shielding us all against the Wraith weapons." As he spoke, another violent flower bloomed, then another. Radek's pain and worry deepened. "It seems wrong, that it can look so beautiful, when each time it is like a blow against my friend's back."

"Yes it does," Elizabeth murmured in agreement, watching the flowers of fire bloom, red and gold against Rodney's shield, imagining each one taking a few more moments off of his life. The life he had put between herself and harm's way more than once. She remembered the energy creature, Kolya's malice, the tale of a drowned Atlantis from the older version of herself, Lt. Ford's story of Rodney shielding Major Sheppard from a drone weapon, Rodney's own words in the conference room yesterday. The sacrifice is acceptable to me. It was strange to realize how truly brave Rodney was as well. He didn't display any of the usual signs of courage--in fact he usually wore his fear right out in the open, where anyone could see and mock him for it--but he always did what needed to be done, no matter what it cost him personally, no matter how afraid he really was.

Another flower of the Wraith's anger, of Rodney's sacrifice, bloomed overhead.

With the stark evidence of Rodney's courage sparkling above her, around her, it felt exceptionally cowardly to feel as vulnerable as she did. Only one man's life and determination stood between her and utter annihilation.

Two men, because John Sheppard was spending his life for their sakes as surely as Rodney was. Elizabeth remembered the misery on John's face, the misery and fear emanating from him when Everett had ordered him to help Rodney carry out his plan, and remembered the sharp, wild look in his eye when he had volunteered--twice--to fly a jumper with a nuclear device on it right into a Hive ship. She was sure that John would much rather have sacrificed himself in a clean burst of fire than this slow chipping away at his life force, and his best friend's life force as well.

Next to her, she could tell that Radek was also feeling vulnerable beneath the onslaught of the Wraith's malice, yet he took a small, protective step closer to her, as if to come between her and any threat, should it get past Rodney's shield. Elizabeth's heart filled with an almost unbearable tenderness, in spite of everything that was happening around them, and she gave in to impulse and took Radek's hand in her own.

She felt his surprise, then the surge of warmth and fierce protectiveness as he took another step closer, and wound his fingers between her own in a strong grip.

They stood shoulder to shoulder and stared together in wonder and fear, at the blue and gold and painful red of Atlantis' shielded sky.

"I wish the Wraith would just go away," Elizabeth said, knowing she sounded like a child, knowing that Radek wouldn't think less of her for this. "If only we could just disappear, so that they could never find us."

A violent, electric emotion Elizabeth couldn't name ran through the man next to her, so she wasn't as surprised as she could have been when he swung her around and looked wildly into her face. "What? What did you just say?"

Elizabeth blinked. "I wished the Wraith would leave."

"No, no, the other!"

"I said...if only we could disappear...." Confusion wrinkled Elizabeth's brow.

"Yes! Yes! You are brilliant woman! Zlatíčko!" He leaned up and kissed her, quickly but soundly, on the mouth. Then he released her, his eyes enormous, his emotions roiling.

Elizabeth touched her tingling lips, a smile teasing at the corners of her mouth. "I take it you have an idea?"

Radek's answering smile was brilliant. "Yes! Yes, but first I must check. I must see if it is possible. It is too bad Rodney is unavailable to discuss this with, he can always see the flaws in my plans...." He had already begun to walk quickly away from her, muttering to himself.

Elizabeth's smile broadened. "Dr. Zelenka? You will keep me apprised and let me know what your idea actually is eventually, won't you?"

He turned around, flustered. "Of course, Dr. Weir. I will keep you updated, but first I must check--" Suddenly his hand went to his lips, and his eyes went comically wide behind his glasses. She felt his shock and embarrassment and childlike glee. "Oh!"

Elizabeth grinned, strode up to him purposefully, and kissed him, quickly but firmly, on the lips. "Go," she told him. "Figure out the details of my brilliant plan and get back to me."

Radek flashed her a look of pure adoration--she didn't need her Gift to feel it; it was written all over his face--turned, and dashed away, muttering to himself again and placing calls on his communicator.

Elizabeth walked slowly back to her office, eating the plum, firmly ignoring the flashes in the sky from the balcony behind her.


Aiden felt his body vibrate with the rail gun's massive kick as he shot the dart cleanly out of the sky. The satisfaction of a righteous kill warred with the keen awareness that the dart he'd just blown to smithereens had held the lives of the Marines who'd once manned the rail gun he'd blown it out of the sky with. Better to consider people dead once the Wraith beam got them. Nothing they could do to save them anyway.

Aiden knew that he'd rather be blown from the sky than to end up feeding some Wraith. Semper Fi, guys, he saluted his fallen comrades.

He searched the sky in the sector covered by his rail gun. No darts visible, no darts approaching. The sky sparkled strangely, like some fine golden threads were woven into it. It reminded him of McKay's shield. Aiden wondered if McKay had found a way to shield the city with his Gift. If so, Aiden knew what that meant--McKay was a dead man. No way could he keep up that sort of effort for very long. Aiden had seen what it had done to McKay to shield the Major from one drone. Semper Fi, Doc. Aiden mentally saluted McKay as he would have one of his own officers. No one could say you didn't have what it takes, man.

That was when the Wraith attacked. It grabbed Aiden by the back of his tac vest, yanked him off the seat of the rail gun, and swung him around, feeding hand poised to strike. After the first moment of shock, Aiden fought back. Apparently the Wraith had never learned judo, because Aiden flipped the big guy right over onto his back and filled him full of lead when he was down.

The first Wraith wasn't done twitching when the second drone grabbed Aiden from behind, monster-powerful hand around the back of his neck. Damn, those things were strong! And sneaky, too. Aiden would have sworn there weren't any other Wraith around. Judo wasn't much good this time, as the Wraith effortlessly held him out at arms length, his feet dangling off the ground, and shook him like a rag doll. Aiden felt his brains rattling around in his skull and had time for probably his last thought: Shit!

At first the lurching sensation just felt like the Wraith yanking him around some more, and then he and the Wraith went spinning over the balcony railing, and Aiden thought crazily, Why's the Wraith pulling me into the ocean?

"Shit!" he gasped, as another lurch yanked him from the Wraith's grasp. He dangled in mid-air, like a kitten held by the scruff of its neck, and watched the Wraith cartwheel down to the ocean far below. He craned his head around to see what had caught him, and was startled to see--nothing. Nothing at all. "SHIT!"

"Calm down, son," the voice came from above, and Aiden looked higher, back up on the balcony railing, where Colonel Everett was leaning, his hand outthrust as if he was grabbing at something. Me, Aiden realized with a sick feeling in his belly.

"Don't struggle, Marine!" Everett bellowed, and Aiden forced himself to go limp. The strain on Everett's face was evident as he made a gathering motion with his hands. Aiden felt himself getting yanked up slowly, inch by inch.

Finally, he was close enough to the balcony railing so that the other Marines with Everett could reach over and grab him, haul him up the rest of the way. Aiden was very glad to feel human hands on him rather than those invisible lines of force. He collapsed on the floor of the balcony, next to Everett, who was sitting on the floor with his back to the railing, pale and breathing hard.

"Thanks, Colonel," Aiden told him, grateful, giving a wobbly salute. "I thought I was done for. Here, sir." He offered Everett a Power bar from his tac vest. After going offworld with McKay so often, he'd learned to habitually stash a few extra Power bars in his gear. "You need something to eat, get your strength back."

Everett nodded and wordlessly tore into the Power bar, consuming it quickly. Aiden handed him another one without saying anything, watching the color slowly come back into his face. One of the other Marines gave the Colonel a canteen.

Finally, Everett got to his feet. Aiden still felt a little shaky, but he got up as well.

"Okay, men, let's get going," Everett ordered, straightening his uniform with little tugs. "The Wraith are infesting this place like damned cockroaches. Let's go stomp 'em out."

Aiden exchanged a grin with another Lieutenant as the Marine handed him a spare P-90, and he followed the group as they headed out, doubletime.


"Dr. Zelenka!" The technician monitoring Rodney's stasis chamber called him, panic in his voice. "Dr. Zelenka, something's wrong! Come quick!"

Radek's heart was beating fast even before he ran over to the stasis chamber, dodging the medical personnel crowded around it. A glimpse through the clear panel showed him Rodney's body spasming in a convulsion. "Do prdele!" He didn't have time to check the diagnostics, he simply knelt, laid his hands on the machine, and closed his eyes, employing his Gift.

"Dr. Zelenka!" called the technician monitoring the Chair. "There's a problem here too! It's serious, sir!" The medical personnel began to buzz around Colonel Sheppard as well--Radek could hear them, but he didn't dare distract himself by looking. He could only deal with one problem at a time, and Sheppard's problem was likely due to Rodney's anyway.

The malfunction was proving elusive. All the stasis chamber's systems seemed fine, except...except there was a power fluctuation! There! Radek's eyes popped open. "The Mark II generator!" He didn't even bother to stand up, dignity be damned, and crawled on hands and knees like a child over to the generator. It was failing! He remembered Rodney saying that it ran in a state of barely-contained overload.

From his cot, Conroy began uttering a low, keening wail, punctuated by harsh, hitching breaths, as if he was being repeatedly punched in the stomach.

Out of the corner of his eye, Radek glimpsed a flailing limb as Major Sheppard lay convulsing in the Chair. "Do prdele!" he snarled. "You!" he snapped his fingers, Rodney-style, at an engineer whose name didn't come immediately to mind. "Get over here! Bring me those tools!"

As the man scrambled over, Radek shut his eyes to concentrate. What to do, what to do....

An explosion rocked the building. Colonel Everett's frantic voice came barking over his comm., "What the blue devil is going on? Where's the damn shield?"

"Not now!" Radek answered him tersely, turning off his communicator. Now he more fully understood Rodney's snapping replies of "Working! Working!" when someone interrupted him in a crisis to ask for status reports. He couldn't afford the time or distractions right now. Not just his two friends' lives, but the lives of everyone in Atlantis were on the line. He needed to concentrate.

Radek set his hands on the casing of the generator, using his Gift to let the device itself tell him what was wrong.

His eyes snapped open. "YES!" Now he knew what to do! If only he could get it done in time....


The Wraith warrior snarled and flung Dalia's broken body aside as Teyla emptied the rounds of her P-90 into its body. Oh, how Halling would grieve! Dalia had been the last living member of his sister's family.

All too soon, Teyla's ammunition ran out, but the Wraith kept advancing, strong from having recently fed. Teyla dropped the P-90 and pulled out her bantos rods, backing up. The Wraith grinned evilly, sensing an easy victory. Teyla snarled back, and held herself ready for battle.


Elizabeth's heart plummeted when Wraith's beam weapons began striking the city--her beautiful city--and it began to burn and shatter. Damage reports started coming in a flood, as critical system after critical system was damaged or destroyed.

As she managed the influx of reports and panicked requests for information or assistance, she asked Dr. Grodin and Sgt. Campbell to begin preparing for evacuation and self-destruct, after all.

She barely noticed the tears streaming from her eyes. There was no time right now to acknowledge her grief. If the shield had failed, it could only mean that Rodney, and probably John as well, lay dead or dying.


"Bloody Hell!" Carson swore. "Crack it open! It's not doing anything to help him anyway," he told the technicians. They obeyed him and opened the stasis chamber so that he could get at Rodney's convulsing form. "Lt. Olivetti, man, can you--"

"Immediatamente, Dottore," Olivetti leaned in and applied healing to Rodney, enough to bring him out of convulsions at least. They had all agreed in the beginning to apply healing judiciously, so as not to exhaust the Healers right away, when a bigger effort might be called for later.

Rodney finally lay still, his face sickly grey and a line of drool running from his open mouth. He looked barely alive. His respiration and pulse were much too fast, his skin cool and clammy. His eyes ran back and forth beneath closed lids, as if he were dreaming.

"Ach, Rodney, lad," Carson whispered mournfully, as he and his team worked to stabilize his friend. Even if Rodney managed to survive this, he might be looking at brain or major organ damage. As he worked, Carson swore under his breath at the bloody Wraith and the bloody Pegasus galaxy, and at his own bloody self, for finding a way to activate Rodney's bloody Gift, which was going to bloody well kill him....


Tom Bates saw the Wraith advancing on Teyla and fired his P-90 before he even realized he was going to do it. It took a lot of rounds for the damned thing to go down--it must have fed recently. Tom tried not to think of who the Wraith might have fed on.

Teyla straightened and sighed, looking down at the dead Wraith. "Thank you, Sergeant Bates. I was out of ammunition, and I could not have held it off for long."

Yet, she'd been ready to face the thing with only those sticks she carried, and go down fighting. "You lost your group?" Tom asked her.

"Yes," she said simply, sadly.

Tom jerked his head in invitation. "Come on, we're doing a sweep of this sector."

"Very well." She nodded in agreement, collected her P-90, and accepted the extra rounds of ammunition he handed over before joining the group of Marines in the corridor.

"This is Teyla Emmagan," Tom introduced her. "She's on our side."

And he found that he wasn't lying at all when he said that.


"There, done!" Radek slapped the access panel down and restarted the Mark II. The ready lights glowed reassuringly, and it hummed gently. He placed his hands on it and inspected it with his Gift. Good, it was working well.

With a groan, Radek levered himself up onto his feet and made his way over to Beckett. An explosion rocked the building, and he grabbed the edge of the stasis chamber to stay on his feet.

Radek looked at Carson's face, deliberately not looking at McKay. He didn't want to see what his friend looked like while he was dying. Radek didn't fool himself by pretending that Rodney would survive this. "Carson, is he stabilized? The stasis chamber should be working again. If he is able, we can start it again at any time."

Carson nodded. "Not that it will do him much good, poor bugger. Just make sure this kills him more slowly." There were tears in his eyes.

Radek swallowed, and put a hand on the doctor's arm. "Carson, this is not for him, it is for us--to keep the shield active a little longer. Rodney always knew it would be for us."

Carson nodded again and wiped his eyes. "Aye. Go ahead and activate the bloody thing. He's as stable as he's going to get."

It was the work of only a few moments to activate the stasis chamber again. Radek munched absently on a Power bar one of the nurses had handed him. He watched across the room as the medical team around Conroy signaled a thumbs-up, then the medical team around Sheppard did so as well. He caught sight of Sheppard sitting up and looking blearily around, then sinking his head back to the headrest of the Chair, and leaning back, activating it. Even from across the room, the man had looked exhausted and spent. Radek's throat swelled and he had difficulty swallowing down the suddenly completely unpalatable lump of Power bar.

He snagged a sport's drink from one of the nurses and drank it all down dutifully. Then he activated his communicator. "Dr. Weir, this is Zelenka. The shield should be active once again. We had a minor glitch with the naquada generator."

"Oh thank God!" Weir's voice was gravelly with exhaustion. "How long have we got?"

"A day. Probably less," he admitted darkly. "McKay doesn't look good, and neither do the others."

"Understood." Her voice was very small.

He had no words of hope for her.


It had been more and more difficult to wield the shield for a while now. The battering of the Wraith's weapons was becomming harder and harder to bear--John could feel the loss of strength in his own body, but he felt it worse in Rodney's through the link. It was like holding a fire hose with the water pressure falling off. At first, the decline had been gradual, but in the last little while it had been failing in a series of uneven tugs, like somewhere, someone was shutting off a valve. He felt Conroy's pain, and through him, Rodney's, like a distant nightmare. He tried to contact Rodney though the link Conroy had created, cajoling, shouting, ordering Rodney to live. He tried to use his own Gift, but he was so tired that even with the added power of the Chair it did done nothing but leave him almost too weak to open his eyes.

And then John suddenly felt the pressure of Rodney's Gift fall away completely. He couldn't reach it anymore. The Chair's power failed him and the golden net of the shield grew smaller and smaller, until at last it crumbled to dust in his hands.

And suddenly, where Rodney had been, a warm, seeping comfort in the back of his mind, there was a blank. Nothing. Rodney was gone.

Rodney! John cried with his mind, with all the despairing terror of a toddler who has lost his parents. Rodney, Rodney!

Rodney didn't respond.

***

USMC Lance Corporal Albert Conroy had learned to make himself invisible as a child. Being quiet and unnoticed meant his mother didn't beat him up as much. It meant the other kids at school didn't pick on him as often, even though he was skinny and short for his age until he turned nineteen, and dressed in thrift-store clothes because his family was poor.

Once, one of his commanding officers in the Marines had told him he could have been a sergeant by now--should have, even, except that he 'was too damn inconspicuous'. Al had tried to be more assertive after that, speak up a little more, but a habit of a lifetime was hard to break, and he was so used to letting himself fade into the background that not doing it was both baffling and terrifying. He'd ended up resigning himself to an undistinguished career. He'd even convinced himself he was okay with that.

Al had never understood why he'd been picked for the Stargate Program--he was sure there was nothing special in his record--except that he had the ATA gene, even though it was inactive for both Gift and Ancient technology activation. He'd ended up helping to guard scientists at the Antarctic base, too consistently amazed to be bored by it, and then he'd been chosen for the Atlantis expedition. He'd often wondered if he had that same CO to thank for it, the one who had seen something in him when no one else had, Al included.

It was almost funny that pretty much the most real initiative Al had ever taken was when he'd brutally attacked and kidnapped Dr. McKay, but Al tried not to think about that much.

Now, though, he couldn't help feeling that his whole life had led up to this, that his awful, wonderful Gift had somehow come to him because only an expert at being unnoticed would be able to do what he could do.

He was a protector and an anchor, and a conduit. And he was very, very good at it. The best, Dr. Heightmeyer had told him. The best she'd ever seen.

Al had never been the best at anything. He'd been afraid to try. But he liked it.

Except that even being the best wasn't going to be enough, not here. McKay was dying, and there was nothing Al could do about it.

He could feel McKay's exhaustion like a rising tide, slow, because of the stasis chamber, but unstoppable. Dr. Beckett had put a nutrient and a glucose IV in the stasis chamber with him, but Al knew that wasn't enough. He could feel how it wasn't enough. McKay's body was still shutting down, his thoughts spiraling slower and slower, going grey, dark.

It hurt. The pain had been growing for hours--days?--until it was so bad now it felt like there had never been anything else, just agony, going on and on and on. Al was pretty sure he had managed to keep the worst of it from seeping through to Major Sheppard, though he knew Sheppard was feeling it anyway. Pain threaded through all three of their minds, dark red like drying blood.

It had already gotten so bad once that Albert had been sure he was going to die too, when the generator powering the Chair at stasis chamber had shut down. Without the stasis chamber's protection, McKay was suddenly so weak he'd gone into convulsions. Al had been so deep inside both Sheppard and McKay's minds that he hadn't noticed anything was wrong--hadn't even recognized the panicked thoughts of Dr. Zelenka and Dr. Beckett, though they were both in the room--until all of a sudden McKay was near death, his dimming mind dragging Sheppard and Al down with him. The pain was unbelievable.

Someone had brought McKay back that time, enough so that Al could pull both he and Sheppard far enough away that they were no longer in danger from McKay's mind, and he'd been aware of it when Zelenka had fixed the generator, and McKay had been given a stimulant and a new glucose IV, and they'd been able to keep shielding the city.

Al had lost track of time again, after that. Except for the pain coming back, rising like spikes being pushed one by one into each knot of his spine.

McKay's Gift was fading, falling away as he died.

Al could 'hear' Major Sheppard: coaxing, then shouting, ordering McKay to stay with them, to keep concentrating, stay alive. Al could feel it when Sheppard used his Gift, trying to charm McKay, convince him somehow not to give up and die.

It didn't work, except to leave Sheppard so weak that Al was gasping from it, feeling like there were stones in his lungs. And then the shield flickered, then again, then shrunk and crumbled and splintered into nothing. McKay's thoughts went silent. It was like the sun going out.

Al heard the distant explosions, the alarm in the minds of the medical and technical teams. Sheppard's screams of grief and fear and rage fell like bricks in Al's head, crashing down and breaking.

Al's eyes shot open in time to see the Major rocket upright in the control chair. The machine shut off instantly. Al could hear explosions all over the city now, the Wraith attacking in earnest.

"Rodney! Rodney!" Sheppard was still screaming in Al's head. He yanked his Gift back, muting it as much as he could until it was like the hissing of a violent rainstorm.

The medical team with McKay were swarming around him like frightened bees. Dr. Beckett was shouting something, and Lieutenant Olivetti had his hands on either side of McKay's head. Olivetti's Gift was like a warm hum, a ribbon of orange light, but Al couldn't sense anything from McKay at all. He wondered if the lieutenant could raise the dead. He didn't think so.

Sheppard was fighting feebily with two of the nurses in the team assigned to him, who were pressing him back to the chair. He was demanding, then begging, for them to let him go to McKay. He kept insisting that he could help, that he knew what to do. But he was so weak now he could barely talk, as ineffective as a baby against the women's determination. Al could feel it when Sheppard's thoughts faltered, then slivered into unconsciousness. One of the nurses started calling for help.

He felt like he was floating, his eyes slipped down to blurred slits, too tired now to block anyone's thoughts or even make sense of them. He felt like a tiny pebble in a raging current, overwhelmed and tumbling, sinking down and down and down.

He realized, distantly, that he couldn't remember who he was, but it didn't matter. He was just so tired--


Al thought he might have grayed out for a while, because the next thing he was aware of was that he could see clearly again, and he knew his own name. There were warm hands on his chest, and Al could feel Johansen's Gift as a pulse of quiet blue light, like the heart of a small flame.

He looked for Sheppard, and saw him lying on a gurney Al didn't remember anyone bringing in. His mind was like static with unquiet sleep. Olivetti was with Sheppard now, with his hands on either side of the Major's head. Olivetti's face was tight with concentration, his thoughts jumping like the line on a heart monitor as he pulled Sheppard back.

And there was a woman standing next to McKay's stasis chamber, wearing a green coverall with a patch that said Daedalus. She was very small, with dark brown hair, and she had one hand wrapped around McKay's, and another hand on his forehead. All the medical crew were standing aside, watching her, their minds thundering with anxiety and hope. Her Gift in Al's mind sounded like the roar of an avalanche, and it blazed like the white heart of a star.

He heard it when McKay gasped, but it was by the sudden rush of thoughts: tumbling slow with McKay's lack of consciousness, but like sharp, clear light, almost as bright as the Healer's Gift, that Al knew that Rodney McKay had come back, that he was alive.

The Healer--and this was Dr. Janet Fraiser, her name was like a prayer in everyone's mind--let out a soft sigh and fell gently backwards. A male nurse caught her and lifted her almost reverently into his arms.

Al fell asleep with Johansen's hands still warm and solid on his chest, healing him, and with Dr. McKay's life like comfort in his mind.


Radek smiled as the ZPM slid smoothly into its slot in the power console. He looked up and met Sgt. Bates' eye and gave him a thumbs up. Bates grinned at him--a startlingly pleasant expression on his usually grim face--and turned to exchange smiles with Teyla. Weren't they normally at odds, those too? Nevertheless, it was comforting to have them both guarding him against any stray Wraith that might be wandering around while he was installing the ZPM.

He turned to the control panel, checked the readouts, and patted the panel when the display showed optimal conditions. He input the command to initiate Atlantis' ZPM shield.

Radek activated his communicator. "Dr. Weir, Colonel Everett. Zelenka reporting."

"Yes, Radek?" Elizabeth's voice was eager.

"I have good news! Atlantis' own shield is activated." His smile died on his face. "If only Rodney could have lived to see this moment."

"Radek, I'm so glad to be able to tell you this," Elizabeth's voice was trembling. "The Daedalus brought Dr. Frasier, just as Colonel Everett promised us. She healed him, Radek. It's a miracle. Rodney's alive."

"Chvála bohu!" Radek muttered, before he had to sit down, right on the floor. Oh, Rodney. Oh, thank God.

"Doc? Doc, you okay?" Bates called, his voice sounding concerned.

"Yes. Yes, I am fine. Is good news. Dr. McKay lives." Radek got heavily to his feet.

"Thank the Ancestors!"

Radek readily agreed with Teyla's sentiment. He would thank whoever he had to, as often as he had to, to have Rodney back safe with them.

But now, now he had to get back to work if he was to implement Elizabeth's brilliant plan.


"There are no words to adequately convey how glad we are to see you, Colonel," Dil Everett told Caldwell, with complete sincerity.

Caldwell preened a bit, and Dil let him. The boy deserved to wear the hero's laurels for a little while at least, coming in the nick of time like that.

Caldwell turned to Weir and smiled charmingly at her. "I'm very impressed with you and your people, Dr. Weir. You've accomplished an almost impossible task with very limited resources."

Weir nodded at him crisply. "We're not done yet, Colonel Caldwell. There is still one Wraith ship in orbit above our heads. Until that's gone, Atlantis is not safe. And honestly, even if they leave in the next ten minutes, there's no guarantee that they won't come back with plenty of reinforcements. That's why Dr. Zelenka has come up with a plan to not only send them packing, but to keep them away."

Dil smiled privately to himself. He supposed Caldwell made a fine figure of a man, and maybe under other circumstances a lovely woman like Elizabeth Weir would have noticed that subtle bid for her attention. But Caldwell hadn't seen the way Weir looked at that scrawny little Czech scientist lately. Dil supposed there was no accounting for taste, and he had yet to figure out women. According to his ex-wife, he never would.

Zelenka stood up at the head of the conference table, and nervously ran a hand through his wild hair. "Gentlemen. Dr. Weir. Even if we drive them away today, the Wraith will come, and keep coming, in greater numbers, until they defeat us, as they defeated the Ancients before us. We know that they seek Atlantis as a gateway to a rich new feeding ground in the Milky Way galaxy. They want Earth."

"So, what are we supposed to do about it?" growled Caldwell, shifting in his chair.

Zelenka picked up a pointer and fiddled with it, then turned on a presentation screen behind him. "It was originally Dr. Weir's idea. We must make the Wraith leave of their own volition, because they will believe that Atlantis is no longer here for them to plunder."

"Just how are we going about making that happen, Dr. Zelenka?" Dil leaned forward, rubbing absently at the Wraith feeding scar. Dil already knew that, if he survived, he'd be heading home when this battle was over. He'd lost his stomach for the Pegasus galaxy and everything in it, even Atlantis, if it included the Wraith. He was done. He was going to put in for retirement, see if he could get in a little fishing before he got too old to enjoy it.

Zelenka perked up. "This is also Dr. Weir's idea. We will become invisible! You see, the puddlejumper's cloaking device...."


"Okay," Rodney said, standing in John's doorway ten days later. He looked anxious and determined, his chin thrusting out as if daring John to contradict whatever he was going to say. "I've been thinking a lot about this, and we have to talk."

John blinked at him. He'd been packing for the trip back to Earth, and he still had a black, long-sleeved shirt rolled in one gloved hand. He realized he'd begun squeezing it like he was trying to strangle something, but couldn't manage to make his hand relax.

He could feel his heart suddenly, like a weight. He knew exactly what it was Rodney wanted to talk about.

"Rodney," he said, voice tight. "I don't--"

"Shut up," Rodney said. "You don't get a say in this." He bulled his way into the room, forcing John to back up so their bodies wouldn't touch.

John kept moving backwards until he was standing in front of his bed. He dropped the t-shirt on it, next to his duffel bag, then crossed his arms. He yanked up his best glare like a weapon. "There's nothing to talk about, Rodney," he ground out. "I told you--it's over. We're done."

Rodney crossed his arms as well, glowering so fiercely John was almost surprised he didn't burst into flame. "Cut the bullshit, Major. I know how you feel about me, remember?"

John managed not to flinch. God, he'd hoped Rodney had forgotten that. "It doesn't matter," he gritted. "It doesn't change anything. I'm sorry," he added, more softly. He was more sorry than he could ever say. He turned his back to Rodney, grabbing the shirt and shoving it viciously into his bag. "I'm busy, Rodney," he said to the duffel.

He figured he had to have been expecting it on some level when Rodney grabbed his arm, because he didn't startle or try to pull away, though he resisted when Rodney yanked him around. But in the end he allowed Rodney do it, rather than let the situation devolve into a fight.

"Rodney!" He spat, voice deadly. He jerked his arm, and at least Rodney let it go.

But Rodney's eyes were blazing like a desert sky. "No," Rodney spat at him. "No, you do not get to do this again. I know how you feel about me, Sheppard!" he barked. "And I know that whatever this fucking game is, it's hurting you more than it's hurting me." Rodney shook his head. "I'm not letting you run away this time. Not anymore. You're going to tell me what the problem is, why the hell you won't let yourself touch anyone."

John looked at Rodney for a long moment. Rodney just stared defiantly back at him, but the hardness in his eyes relaxed, let go.

"It's okay, John," Rodney said.

John closed his eyes. He ran his palm over his face, feeling the smoothness of the leather, centering himself. Rodney waited.

John lowered his hand, took a breath. "I've killed people," he said. "With my Gift. I touched them, and...." He swallowed, resisting the urge to look away. "I touched them and they died."

He had expected Rodney to react with shock, maybe disgust or fear. But Rodney just frowned, like he was trying to understand. "Tell me what happened," he said.

John sat down on his bed, closing his hands into tight fists on his thighs. It was easier to talk looking down, watching the leather reflect the light. Easier than seeing Rodney's reaction in his too-expressive eyes.

"The first one was...his name was Artie," John said, speaking quietly. "We were fifteen. I think he...I think he was kind of in love with me." John licked his lips, gathering his thoughts. Saying it out loud felt worse than the sharing had been with Chaya--it felt like he was ripping his skin off. "One time, we started, I guess we were making out in his room. But we heard his mom coming, so we stopped. I was kind of freaked out, so I--I ran away." He'd expected Rodney to make some kind of noise at that, maybe a smirk or something to show his contempt, but Rodney was completely silent. "I wouldn't talk to Artie afterwards, because I didn't want to be called a fag, you know?" And here John stopped, the guilt freezing the words like ice in his chest. He shivered.

"What happened, John?" Rodney asked gently.

John nodded slowly, still looking at his clenched hands. It felt like forever before he could force the words out, but Rodney stood quietly, patient.

"I did something to him, when we kissed," John said at last. "I didn't know it. I didn't know I was Gifted until later, but I still charmed him, somehow. He...he couldn't take it, that I rejected him. He kept trying to talk to me, and when I wouldn't, he--he killed himself."

No one said anything for a long time after that. John opened his hands and clasped them together so hard that they started shaking.

He heard Rodney swallow, in the still of the room. "You implied there was more than one."

John gasped out something that wasn't anything like a laugh. "Yeah. I did it again." He shook his head violently. "God, I was so stupid, but I thought.... She was so cool about it, that I was a Charmer, and I thought it was okay. That I was. But, but I should never have touched her." He ducked his head, running his fingers through his hair, then clasping them tightly over the back of his neck. Babs. Oh, God, the baby.... "It was fine until I touched her."

"What did you do?" Rodney asked, relentless.

"Please, Rodney," John whispered. "Don't do this. Don't make me do this."

John heard the two steps that meant Rodney was right next to him. But Rodney didn't try to touch him. At least he didn't do that.

"What did you do?" Rodney said.

John's head shot up. "I killed her, okay? I fucking killed her! Just like Artie! I went away and I promised to write her but I didn't, and she was waiting and waiting for me and, and she was pregnant and I didn't know so I never wrote back and she died!" John sucked in air and blasted it out through his clenched teeth. His throat hurt. "I charmed her," he said softly. "Just like Artie. And when I didn't stay with her, she killed herself."

"So, you've had two lovers, and both of them committed suicide," Rodney said. For once John couldn't read his expression.

John nodded numbly. "That's why," he said simply.

"You're wrong, you know," Rodney said simply. "You didn't kill them. Didn't you ever think that they killed themselves because sometimes, that's what people do? Listen to me!" he added, because John had rocketed to his feet, his mouth open to argue, his heart squeezing in sudden, frozen rage. "I know what you think you did, and yes, it's possible that--that if you'd been there for them they wouldn't have...done anything. But your Gift doesn't work like that, John! No one's Gift ever has." Rodney spread his hands. "Chances are--chances are they would have killed themselves anyway. I'm sure it was horrible, but statistically--" He shook his head, eyes grave and sad. "It wasn't you."

"Two people, Rodney," John said, voice rough. The anger hadn't thawed yet, and it was good to let some of it out. "Two people dead. Because of me. Because I touched them, and then I rejected them. How can you tell me I'm wrong?"

"Because you're wrong!" Rodney burst out. "Sheppard, don't be an idiot, okay? If your theory held any validity whatsoever, I'd have drowned myself off the south pier by now. Look at me--I'm fine!" He spread his arms.

John's breath hitched. He turned his face away.

"John," Rodney said quietly. He reached out and barely touched the side of John's face with his fingertips. It burned, but John didn't move away. "John, you can't hurt me. I've got a shield, remember? And the best mind in two galaxies. I can take care of myself."

John looked at Rodney. He knew his eyes were wide, probably a little wild. He thought he might be shaking. "But, but I know what I did, Rodney," he said, insisting on it. It felt like he had to, like if he didn't, if he believed Rodney, something might break: the world; himself. Everything. "It's my fault."

"It wasn't, John," Rodney said, like it was the only possibility. "Would I risk my life if I really thought you could do something like that? Would I?" Rodney raised his eyebrows. "Would I be standing right here, trying to make you believe me?"

John swallowed. "I want to believe you," he said. It felt like something breaking, cracking inside him, opening.

"You can," Rodney said. "Here." He slid his hand along the side of John's face. John hissed in a breath, but he forced himself to stay still. "Think whatever you want," Rodney said seriously. "You can't hurt me. You won't hurt me."

John's chest was so tight he could barely speak. "I want you so much," he managed.

"You have me," Rodney said. "You've had me all along." And when his hand caressed its way down to John's neck, it was like electricity, like a shock of fire and power.

John couldn't help gasping.

And then Rodney's lips were against his, moving, touching, kissing. It was electricity and fire, soft, so soft. Warm.

Oh! John's eyes flew open. When had they closed? He felt both of Rodney's hands against his face.

"You won't hurt me, John," Rodney said, words like a promise, like love, and John wanted so badly to believe them, believe them the way Rodney did.

He must have made some sound, some response, because the lips were back. Warm, soft, the shocking moisture of the tip of a tongue. John felt a jolt run down his spine and was glad of Rodney's hands on him, keeping him balanced, holding him up.

He could feel the heat of Rodney's body all along the front of his own. They were only touching at the lips, and Rodney's hands on his neck, along his jaw. John couldn't help it, the yearning, his whole body yearning to get closer, to--oh God!--to touch. When Rodney's mouth opened, John's opened as well. When Rodney's tongue delicately licked just inside his bottom lip, John couldn't stop, couldn't stop the moan from pouring out of his throat. Couldn't stop his own tongue from touching, tasting. Couldn't stop his body from arching forward to make contact, his arms from winding themselves around Rodney's neck, his waist. Couldn't stop his hands from clutching handfuls of physics-geek t-shirt.

Warm, so warm. So hot. "So hot. God, you are so hot." Oh! That was Rodney's voice. John blinked, licked his lips, still tasting Rodney. Rodney's crooked lips were red and wet, his blue eyes glittering, bright with electric fire. John's brain was still trying to form a thought when Rodney rocked into him, rubbing his whole body against John's, pushing him against the bed, but holding him up, so John didn't fall. The hot brand of Rodney's erection slid against John's thigh and the crease of his groin.

John's mouth opened on another gasp, as he suddenly became aware of the weight of his own erection, straining against the cloth of his pants. And Rodney's lips, his mouth, were back for another kiss. Pushy, comforting, amazing Rodney.

Another jolt slashed through him as one of Rodney's hands stole under his shirt, caressed the bare skin of his waist. Those sounds he was making--John had a vague awareness that he should be embarrassed about them, but right now he didn't care. Right now he wanted, wanted....

"John, John, please. Let me--Let me, please." Rodney, unzipping the collar of his shirt. Panting, mumbling against the skin of John's throat, kissing and nipping, making John arch and groan. One of Rodney's hands had startlingly migrated past the loosened waistband of John's pants and was cupping and kneading his ass. When had that happened?

And now the other hand was...was...holding John's gloved right hand. Opening the snap at the wrist with clever, deft fingers. Tugging carefully, slowly peeling the glove.... Off.

Rodney held the inverted glove up for a moment, both their eyes locked on it. It looked like a snakeskin, recently vacated. Next to the black skin of the glove, the skin of John'a bare hand looked excessively pale, felt a bit damp.

John felt entirely naked, looking at it, even though he still had most of his clothes on. He shivered as goose bumps pebbled his skin.

John swallowed again around the lump in his throat. His lips were suddenly dry again, and he licked them reflexively. His heart was going so fast it almost hurt to breathe. "Rodney--"

Rodney dropped the glove like it meant absolutely nothing and cradled John's bare hand in his own. It felt more intimate than if Rodney had been holding his bare cock in his hand instead. John felt lightheaded, his pulse pounding in his throat and in the heavy weight of his erection. All the nerve endings in his hand sparked where they touched Rodney's skin.

"You won't hurt me, John," Rodney said, so low John had to concentrate to hear it above his pulse. "You can't hurt me."

"Rodney," John didn't recognize his own voice, it sounded like gravel, like sand. He let his head drop forward, his eyes sliding closed. "Rodney," he whispered. "Touch me. Please."

Rodney moaned and swayed against him again. He opened his eyes to watch Rodney bring John's hand up to his mouth and tenderly, gently, kiss the palm with his soft, warm lips. John whined a little and pressed against Rodney, pulling him closer.

Rodney slowly, deliberately, kissed and licked and nibbled his way across the uncharted territory of John's right hand, starting from the inside of the wrist and working his way up the palm, biting gently at the mound at the base of John's thumb, tiny licks up the lifeline. John bucked and moaned, held securely by Rodney's comforting bulk.

He should have felt trapped, should have wanted to run and escape, but he didn't. He felt simultaneously completely vulnerable and utterly safe.

"John," Rodney said softly, his voice a caress. He held John's gaze intently as he slid John's first two fingers into his mouth and suckled on them, his eyes finally gliding shut with a look of intense concentration as his warm, wet tongue explored.

John felt as though he'd been pulling gees then suddenly slammed into weightlessness. The sensation was all-consuming, a direct electrical connection from his fingers to his cock. Rodney pressed against him another time and swirled his tongue against John's fingers, ending with a flick, then a light nip at the sensitive pads, and abruptly it was too much. John's nerves lit up, sizzling with fire, and John panted harshly and clutched Rodney as he came.

Rodney held him through it as he shook, his big hands like anchors, and John put his forehead on Rodney's shoulder and shuddered against him until the aftershocks had passed and he was calm again, quiet.

"John," Rodney said softly, into his hair. He sounded a little surprised. "Are you okay?"

John just turned his head until he could press his lips against Rodney's throat, at the point it met his shoulder. He felt something in him that had been frozen nearly solid was coming alive again, and it was agony, like burning, a martyr's ecstatic immolation.

The pain said he was alive. Alive, alive.

"I will be," John said, and he smiled against Rodney's skin.

He wouldn't die from this. Neither of them would. Rodney would shield them both.


Epilogue

"Are you sure you don't want any sunscreen, Major?" Rodney asked, holding out the little oval container as they walked. Gold flickered over it as he waggled it back and forth. "You're skin's not used to sunlight yet--I don't want you to get cancer."

"No thank you, Rodney," John said, a little pointedly. He adjusted his sunglasses, staring happily up at the weirdly redish sky. "And it's Lieutenant Colonel." Rodney was sure he was trying to sound irritated, but he didn't miss the added spring in John's steps as he got to remind Rodney of his new rank yet again. Rodney smiled inwardly and pretended not to notice.

It was harder not to stare at John's biceps, but Rodney decided he could indulge himself a little, since they were alone. John had cleverly convinced Ford and Teyla to go off with the new guy, Major Loran or something, so that even though they were searching for the badass Wraith-killer--whomever he or she was--Rodney couldn't help feeling like it was almost a vacation, even with the particularly deadly sunshine.

"I could shield you, then," Rodney offered, because John's arms were scarily pale, attractive though they were. Just like the back of John's neck, which after being under a high collar for so long, looked like a strip of white paint trapped between John's dark hair and the black collar of his t-shirt. "My shield protects against UV-rays, too." He smiled smugly. "I tested it."

"What about you?" John said, sounding concerned, which would have been sweet if Rodney hadn't known by the tiny smirk that it was a filthy, filthy lie. "I don't want you to get cancer, either." And he tipped his sunglasses down so Rodney could see his eyes when he smiled at him.

"Nice try, Major," Rodney said, ignoring the 'Lieutenant Colonel!' that John interjected immediately. "But I also put on my SPF 100 sunscreen. The shield is just extra protection. Seriously," he said. "We've both been irradiated already, and there's only so much the human body can take, even with healing."

John stopped, sighed. "Fine, Rodney. I will put on your vile-smelling sunscreen."

"It's coconut!" Rodney protested, but he turned off his shield instantly and handed the sunscreen over. Their bare fingers touched when he placed it in John's palm, and Rodney heard John's breath catch.

"You're fine, John," Rodney said quietly. "You won't hurt me."

"I know," John said. All the same, his smile was a little strained, but Rodney ignored it. He knew it would likely take months, possibly years, before John truly stopped being wary of casual contact. It might never even happen.

But John was on a mission with Rodney, wearing a t-shirt and tac vest, instead of the long-sleeved, high-necked shirt and jacket. And he didn't wear his gloves anymore. And that alone was worth everything.

It made Rodney take John's free hand in his--slowly, because it still spooked John sometimes, if people touched him too fast--just to feel the smooth, sun-warm skin under his own, to be able to weave his fingers in between John's and use it to pull John closer, to kiss him on his lips that tasted a little of sweat and too-bright sunshine. And John kissed him back without any hesitation at all.

"You can put it on me, if you want," John said. He smiled, though it was shy. "I'll take my shirt off."

Rodney bit back a happy moan, leaning in to kiss John again. He was still amazed that John would trust him that much, even after all these weeks, more amazed that John trusted himself. Amazed, and incredibly grateful.

"It, ah, makes really good lube, too," Rodney blurted, when they pulled apart again.

John laughed. "Later."

Rodney sighed. "Fine. Take off your shirt."

John just laughed again, but dutifully handed the sunscreen back and started undoing his tac vest.

Naturally, as soon as John's t-shirt was tangled up over his head, the caveman snuck up out of nowhere and stunned them.

Of course in the end that turned out all right anyway.

The End